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“January Elegy”

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Collaborators’ Q&A

Did the visual artist refract any element of the poem that made you see the poem differently?
Poet Mary Jo Bang: The artist wonderfully created the picture behind the picture of the so-called “real” night, which is the picture I wanted the poem to create as well. He took the night view outside the window and replaced it with a distorted mirror image. The same way the mind, when it internalizes the environment, slants what it sees. This image does that perfectly. He created the depth of the dark and the mirror decay of the mind and married it to the paradoxical stillness of the circus knife-girl on her continuously spinning circle. And all of that against the restlessness of the speaker’s mind.

In what sense did the poem first present itself as a collaboration with a visual medium? Did it come to you first as image? As an idea? Music? Narrative?
Artist Ira Joel Haber: I guess I liked the winter imagery and since I was born in February I was also taken with that. I’m a winter person; I hate the summer, the humidity the heat.

What did you think an artist would pick up on from your poem?
Poet Mary Jo Bang: I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what an artist would take from the poem. In fact I rather adamantly tried not to imagine it. I wanted to be surprised. And I am surprised in the most pleasant way possible, especially by the use of color. By the drama of the colors against the deep black of the nether-sky. By the odd shapes the colors fall into. By how active the colors are. By how well they demonstrate the mind’s endless ticking as it tries to give voice to a chaotic interior landscape. I love the combination of restraint and chaos. Of form and formlessness.

Did anything surprise you about the collaboration?
Artist Ira Joel Haber: It really gave me lots of ideas; I use landscapes in most if not all my work, from my sculptures to my works on paper.

If this poem were a vehicle, what would it be?
Artist Ira Joel Haber: A snowmobile

If the broadside collaboration were a plant, what would it be?
Artist Ira Joel Haber: A dead plant or a bare tree.

Read any good books lately?
Poet Mary Jo Bang: I’m reading a book by Ulla Dydo called The Language That Rises, about Gertrude Stein’s writing. Dydo spent years studying the small notebooks Stein used to compose her work in (from 1923-1934) and shows how Stein weaves together the particulars of her existence with her concerns about language. The result in Stein’s work is an abstraction of the autobiographical, the geographical (Paris vs. the countryside), her relationship with Toklas (and with all the other many principals in her life), even the minutiae of daily life: food, flowers, a game of throw-the-ball with her dog, Basket. The book also reveals how simple matters such as the size of the notebook Stein is using often forces the completion of the work, or how the text and drawing on the front of the notebook (these are basically ruled notebooks French schoolchildren used) would sometimes initiate the subject or language of the piece. Dydo does this not to mine the work for the biographical but to enlarge the work in a way that shows how it includes aspects of the life while still insisting on the work’s essential mystery and its adamant investigation of aspects of language.
Artist Ira Joel Haber: The last three novels I’ve read had 9-11 as part of the narrative and in one case-Falling Man by Don Delillo-the book was about a couple coming to grips with what happened on that horrible day. The other two novels, Julia Glass’s The Whole World Over and Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies also were touched by 9-11. I usually love Paul Auster but I was bothered by the contrived simplistic narrative drive and the characters who just had wonderful things coming to them left or right. I didn’t care for The Whole World Over which I found very much a soap opera, and I don’t think I would ever read another one of her novels. Right now I’m reading a Lawrence Block mystery which are always fun and perfect for long subway rides.

Seen any good art exhibits lately?
Artist Ira Joel Haber: The last museum show was a marvelous retrospective of Louise Nevelson at The Jewish Museum. As a boy and then a young man and artist her work had a big effect on me.

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