What inspired you to bring your work to Broadsided?
Poet Kent Leatham: I have admired and collected poetry broadsides ever since participating in the Printing and Publishing Arts program as an undergraduate at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, where I did my own letterpress typesetting and broadside creation at their Elliott Press studio. My very first published poem was a broadside displayed on county buses for a year around Seattle. I adore this form as one of the oldest literary-arts traditions, especially for its fusion of a meticulously crafted visual element with a welcoming and democratic commitment to free public access.
What drew you to create a visual response to this poem, in particular?
Artist Jennifer Van: Kent’s poem is very moving and evocative of different emotions, which was inspiring for me. When I read the poem, the sense of anguish I felt was important to emphasize in the work.
How did this poem come to be?
Poet Kent Leatham: As alluded in the text, I wrote this poem near the end of the first year of the COVID pandemic: a year of “suffering endured… by those / who have never felt so much before.” As the death-toll in the United States skyrocketed with tragically needless abandon, fueled by the recklessly violent and willfully vindictive ignorance of the Republican Party and its virulent enablers, I mourned daily for the lives lost… and then caught myself with horror “going through the motions” of mindlessly annihilating an entire ant colony that had invaded our kitchen and bathroom. What made my actions more ethically acceptable than the president’s? What gave me the right to see the deaths of what seemed like millions of ants as a statistic rather than a tragedy? How could I grant myself the cathartic and therapeutic sustenance of poetry while my species destroyed itself (and all those around us), yet deny cast-off crumbs of sugar and droplets of water to some of the most communally intelligent caretakers of the planet? Romeo and Juliet would not have died if they were ants: who was I to change that fate?
How did this image come to be?
Artist Jennifer Van: My work comes from a very personal space, but also a space that I believe others can relate to. As a society we experience highs and lows, and it is important to acknowledge that. When reading Kent’s poem it brought up how we are influenced by others’ opinions and how important it is to recognize how that affects us. That is what I was hoping to convey in the photograph.
What did you think an artist would pick up on from your poem? Does the artist’s response make you see the poem differently?
Poet Kent Leatham: I didn’t do too much hypothetical imagining of the artwork in advance, though I might have assumed something as literal as lines of ants… which makes the revelation of Jennifer’s gorgeous final product much more stunning in its decision to emphasize the transience of humanness and the blurriness of grief. I appreciate that Jennifer’s artwork projects a more “unified” vision by removing hard, divisive outlines and temporal boundaries, and reminding us that we all bleed/blend into one another as easily as we bleed/blend into ourselves, especially in times of collective sorrow.
What question would you like to ask your collaborator?
Poet Kent Leatham’s Question: Has the experience of being your own model in your artwork changed the way you view yourself beyond those formal frames, Jennifer? Do you see your body in your photos as representing a more personal and autobiographical image, or a more anonymous and universal one? I can barely imagine writing/reading my own poems without locating myself (my perspectives, experiences, struggles, etc.) in a fundamental way at their center, even while I try to allow them to expand toward some kind of wider comment on the “human condition” by the end. But they usually teach me more about myself than anything else, and I am changed accordingly in their wake. Has that been true for you with your art?
Artist Jennifer Van: Great question, Kent! You will notice that in many of my works I don’t typically include my face, and that is to provide the viewer a space to focus on the emotional and ephemerality of the depiction. For me, my artwork comes from a personal space. It sounds like your work comes from personal experiences, too, Kent! I have found that artwork which comes from a personal space tends to relate to more people outside of yourself. I think part of the human condition is a sense of isolation in the vastness of the world, but in truth you will find that we relate to one another more than you would think! Art is a wonderful way to learn more about yourself and that has definitely been true for me.
Artist Jennifer Van’s Question: I am glad you brought up personal experiences, Kent! I am curious, did you begin writing poetry at a young age? When did you find your voice as a poet? And how has poetry changed your life? For me, I was always taking photographs from a young age, but during my undergrad I bought my first “real” camera, and when I took that leap my art practice expanded tremendously.
Poet Kent Leatham: I absolutely agree with your previous response, Jennifer: there is no better way to resist isolation than by sharing our most “personal” selves with others, no matter how those forms and revelations might manifest themselves in our art. As for my own path as an author, yes, I started writing poetry and short fiction around second or third grade, and I’ve never stopped since! I’m less sure when I could say that I truly “found my voice” as a poet, however: certainly not until college at the earliest, and probably not until my MFA program with more confidence. But it’s taken an additional decade to finally identify (with any confidence) my primary themes as well as my voice: I knew how I wanted to sound long before I knew what I needed to say. I’m almost forty now, and think I’ve finally whittled my way down to the four most dominant topics in my work. So, in that sense, this can be my answer to your final question as well: poetry has changed my life by revealing me to myself far more fully than if I’d never attempted to write through my questions and anxieties and obsessions and dreams in the first place.
Did anything shift for you or come into new light as you began working on your visual response?
Artist Jennifer Van: I tried a couple of different drafts of artwork for this poem, but I felt that the human element was very important for this particular work. The line “suffering endured this year by those who have never felt so much before” rang through me as I thought about these last few years with the pandemic.
Have you ever written work that has been inspired by visual art?
Poet Kent Leatham: Yes, ekphrasis has always been part of my poetic toolkit. One of my earliest poems as an emerging professional author was a (barely) closeted response to an exquisitely erotic portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe (“Christopher Holly, 1980”), and one of my most recent extended sequences is a meditation on the queer-coded dinosaur-fantasy film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918) by stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien.
If this Broadsided collaboration were a type of weather, what would it be?
Poet Kent Leatham: It’s an anthropomorphic cliché, but I’d have to go with rain. Both to mirror mourning and also because rain was what drove the ants into our kitchen in the first place. Its “lines” running down windowpanes would simultaneously parallel the formal lines of ants and words as well as Jennifer’s blurring of form and focus.
Artist Jennifer Van: A dark and cloudy rainy day. One of those days where you are shut inside and are able to find the time to contemplate the world.
Do you have a favorite, generative prompt for artists or writers you’d like to share?
Poet Kent Leatham: Write a letter (in any form, creative or casual) to someone who cannot possibly receive or respond to it. Write to yourself as a child in the past. Write to your great-great-great-
Artist Jennifer Van: My best advice would be to generate art from personal experience. A place where you feel comfortable without any expectations from other people, a place that lets you breathe and be yourself.
Read any good books lately?
Poet Kent Leatham: Poetry: Muriel Leung’s Imagine Us, The Swarm (Nightboat Books, 2021); Logan Cure’s Welcome to Midland (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2021); Threa Almontaser’s The Wild Fox of Yemen (Graywolf Press, 2021); Marilyn Hacker and Karthika Naïr’s collaborative renga A Different Distance (Milkweed Editions, 2021). Prose: Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Owl Books, 2004) and Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (PublicAffairs, 2020).
Artist Jennifer Van: To be honest, I have had my nose in so many artist books lately. Artists whose work really speak to me lately include: Ann Hamilton, Mona Kuhn, Francesca Woodman, Jo Ann Callis, and many more.
Seen any good art lately?
Poet Kent Leatham: I don’t have the opportunity to stumble over much fresh visual public art in my daily life, but I avidly consume new comic books on a regular basis, and the artwork of visionaries like Fiona Staples (Saga) and Sana Takeda (Monstress), and even “just” the mind-bending colors of Tamra Bonvillain (Once and Future) are endlessly inventive and inspiring. I don’t differentiate legitimacy of value between gallery art and popular art or anything gatekeepery like that. Different art is made with different intentions, but it’s all equally valid and rich.
Artist Jennifer Van: I currently live in Los Angeles so I have been seeing a lot of wonderful art lately. This last year I saw “Objects of Desire: Photography and The Language of Advertising” at LACMA which was a great show. I also saw a show of Cindy Sherman’s work at Houser & Wirth which was really interesting to see the development of Sherman’s work over time. I was in New York last month and also saw some wonderful art! The Woman in Gold by Gustav Klimt was truly fantastic to see in person, it really is different from the textbooks! I also visited the ICP for the first time and saw their exhibition “Face to Face” with portraits by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe and Catherine Opie.