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“In the Company of Weeds”

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Collaborators’ Q&A

This poem was chosen in response to Ira Joel Haber’s art—can you talk about the experience of finding words that were in conversation with the image?
Poet Catherine Swanson: When I look at the colorful boldness of Ira Joel Haber’s pastel and the cluttered side-of-the-roadness of my poem, I can believe that opposites attract. “The Company of Weeds” began as a moment of fascination recorded in my journal. Because I’m an urbanite who doesn’t wander in the woods often enough, the images were laid out unsuccessfully a few times until I saw this visual, and then something clicked. The poem became what it was meant to be.

I wish I knew how that worked.

What surprises you about Catherine’s poem in conversation with your art?
Artist Ira Joel Haber: Well it’s certainly a nice honor to have a poet write a poem inspired by my art, so the whole thing more or less is a surprise. It goes to show how art can inspire.

What leapt out first from Ira’s art? A particular image? A mood? A line?
Poet Catherine Swanson: The foregrounded image grabbed me immediately, but even after submitting my poem, IÕm still drawn to such things as the blue tone on the lower right and the way the red spreads itself away from the main image. Hmm….I may have to write another poem.

What did you expect a writer to pick up on from your painting?
Artist Ira Joel Haber: Well I would assume the colors and forms might have inspired the writer, but the painting is so open to interpretation that I had no expectations about what the writer would “get”. The getting I guess was good, because the painting is rooted in nature and abstraction at the same time.

Paired with the art, do you think the poem does something different or has a different tone?
Poet Catherine Swanson: I love that my poem is part of this broadside. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the poem is now more than a report from the countryside.

Paired with the poem, do you think the art does something different or has a different tone?
Artist Ira Joel Haber: The words work well with the image. The poem is very personal I can see that and the art is still what I created. It hasn’t changed, I’m sure other poems that were submitted have different takes on the painting. Maybe some were more literal or abstract.

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 Catherine Swanson: I remember seeing a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh years ago. It was a distinct and visceral moment in which I felt I knew him. This experience prompted a poem but left so much more to be said. I also like working with photographs. They capture a split second of time in a way that is especially open to interpretation.

If your poem were an animal, what would it be?
Poet Catherine Swanson: The cat who comes around periodically o sun itself on your back porch.
Artist Ira Joel Haber: My art has bite, so maybe a tiger.

If the broadside collaboration were an animal, what would it be?
Poet Catherine Swanson: A butterfly drying its wings and waiting for the next really good breeze to take it to many destinations.
Artist Ira Joel Haber: I have no idea.

Read any good books lately?
Poet Catherine Swanson: Fire in the Soul: 100 Poems for Human Rights, ed. Dinyar Godrej (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications, 2009)

Powerful stuff. The trauma may overpower victims of conflict, but the human spirit is very resilient.
Artist Ira Joel Haber: I’m reading a biography of Vito Russo who was a film historian and gay activist.

Seen any good art lately?
Poet Catherine Swanson: I appreciate that my field research and contact with refugees leads me to people for whom art is in the design of everyday objects and the reverent enactment of custom and ritual.

Anything else?
Poet Catherine Swanson: All students should be given a Broadsided-type collaboration for at least 30 minutes of daydreaming after taking a standardized test….or maybe before.
Artist Ira Joel Haber: Well the tables were certainly turned on me. I’ve had poets write poems based on my art before, and it’s always interesting. It’s a very private thing between the poet and me, by way of my art. It’s a little embarrassing actually to have such a bright light shined on my art.

Editors’ Note

The Switcheroo is always a surprise for us as editors. First, we wait to see what piece of art the curator will choose. Then we wait to see what literary responses it will evoke. It’s out of our hands. We trust in the fates to converge the creative energy of all involved to do something… magical.

This year, Catherine Swanson’s poem did just that. Escaping traditional pastoral imagery to ground herself in a truck stop where “the highway rolls its noise on your footsteps,” she celebrates the vitality and fierce determination of the under-appreciated weeds. Without directly referencing Ira Joel Haber’s visual piece, she channels the bold patterning and insistent brightness of its yellow background, the prominence of its pod.

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