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“Backyard”

Posted on • Words by • Art by

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Collaborators’ Q&A

What surprises you about Melissa’s poem in conversation with your art?
Artist Amy Meissner: I’m less surprised than pleased that she sensed the barrenness of the work. The woman who originally made this crazy quilt never had children, never finished the quilt. The robin’s nest blew from the tree before the female had a chance to lay her eggs.

This poem was chosen in response to Amy Meissner’s artwork, “The Fragile Domestic”—can you talk about the experience of finding words that were in conversation with the image? What leapt out first from the art? A particular image? A mood? A line?
Poet Melissa Fite Johnson: First, I need to say how much I love this piece. If it were hanging in a museum, it’s what I’d spend an hour staring at. It’s so beautiful. The nest is my favorite element, but I didn’t notice it immediately. Once I did, I was struck by how right it seemed. Quilts feel like home to me—my husband and I were given a beautiful handmade one as a wedding gift, and of course they’re often family heirlooms—so incorporating a nest, another home, is fitting. And ultimately my poem is about the different ways people, especially women, create their family, their home.

Did the poet refract any element of the art that made you see the piece differently?
Artist Amy Meissner: I don’t think there could be a more perfect poem to accompany this work.

Paired with the art, do you think the poem does something different or has a different tone?
Poet Melissa Fite Johnson: Maybe it would be more interesting if my answer were yes. But I think what I found so inspiring about Amy’s work is that it gave me a small shiver of déjà vu. It felt like a visual representation of the themes I can’t stop writing (and reading) about lately. My favorite compliment I ever received about a poem of mine was that it made someone reflect on her own life, and that’s what this piece did for me.

Paired with the poem, do you think the art does something different or has a different tone?
Artist Amy Meissner: I think the poetry enhances the conceptual part I was striving for with the work itself, but also with the choice of title.

What surprised you about this collaborative piece?
Poet Melissa Fite Johnson: I’ve submitted poems to the Switcheroo for a few years now, but I never took it too hard when my poems weren’t selected—the ones that were always seemed a much better fit. This year, I allowed myself to acknowledge how disappointed I would be to see another poem paired with this artwork. So I guess it was a surprise just to be that invested in someone’s work.

Have you ever had a writer respond to your work before? What was the experience like?
Artist Amy Meissner: No—I’ve not had a writer respond to my work before. It was exciting! I felt like someone really heard me!

Have you ever written work that has been inspired by visual art? What was that experience like for you? Why were you inspired to do so?
Poet Melissa Fite Johnson: I enjoy writing ekphrastic poems, though it usually feels like an exercise to get out of my head—the opposite of what this particular experience was like.

How does literature fit into your creative life as a visual artist?
Artist Amy Meissner: I find that writing about my work—in my sketchbook, on my blog, with lists—is crucial for me to retrieve the moment buried beneath all the false starts and assumptions about what a work is really about. I often begin a piece, not knowing why I’m compelled to explore a particular direction, and it isn’t until I’ve written about it, or even around it, that it begins to form clarity.

Describe the collaboration in one word.
Poet Melissa Fite Johnson: Home
Artist Amy Meissner: Compelling

If the Broadsided collaboration were a piece of music, what would it be?
Poet Melissa Fite Johnson: Brandi Carlile’s “The Story.”
Artist Amy Meissner: A lullaby.

Read any good books lately?
Poet Melissa Fite Johnson: I’m currently reading Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, a book of essays by writers I admire (like Lionel Shriver and Pam Houston) who’ve chosen not to have children. My husband and I have also made that decision—a rarity in the Midwest—so it’s comforting to find stories by women and men who feel at peace with their lives as they are. As for poetry, I recently read Megan Merchant’s stunning chapbook Unspeakable Light all in one sitting because I couldn’t let go of it. Interestingly, it’s about motherhood. I’m fascinated right now—maybe it’s my age, I’m 35—by how many different approaches there are to making a happy life. I want to read and learn about as many human experiences as I can.
Artist Amy Meissner: I’m re-reading The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison. So good.

Seen any good art lately?
Poet Melissa Fite Johnson: My uncle, Neil B. Lang, is a gifted artist. For years, he lived on Block Island, RI, which is about as scenic as it gets, but he paints dilapidated barns as often as stone walls and the ocean. He’s who taught me to see the beauty in Kansas—the bleached stalks of wheat, the muted blue sky. I’m so grateful to him for that.
Artist Amy Meissner: Photographer, Brian Adams, has a beautiful installation at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, featuring images from his “I AM INUIT” project, in which he traveled throughout the Alaskan Arctic collecting stories and photographing Inuit life, culture and society.

Anything else?
Poet Melissa Fite Johnson: Just that I’m incredibly honored my poem was chosen.

Editors’ Note:

“The Fragile Domestic” seems a fitting title for these times. It inspired so many skilled and nuanced engagements by writers. Some, yes, about relationships. Some about fragility. But Amy Meissner’s exploding-yet-whole quilt piece resonated.

In the end, the dance between Melissa Fite Johnson’s poem, which evokes the bowl of that central nest but in such surprising ways, and Amy’s image surprised and thrilled us. We are honored to share it with you.

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