This poem was chosen in response to Jennifer Bevill’s artwork, “Undersea”—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 Maureen Seaton: When I first approached Jennifer Bevill’s assemblage, I fully intended to write something new. I love responding to visual art and I was looking forward to the exercise and the experience. So I got ready—favorite pen, dog asleep beside me—and I sat with the image.
I found it ghostly, enigmatic, blue (my favorite), harboring unreadable text (another favorite), and altogether provocative. As I got ready to freewrite I was excited that I’d found a publisher that offered me the opportunity for ekphrasis and collaboration, two of my most enjoyable pastimes. Then I registered the title, “Undersea,” and, honestly, it seemed like my mind popped and/or froze for one illuminated second—either way, it leapt to a poem, “Rules for Cave Diving,” I’d written around the same time Jennifer made her piece.
I wish I could say exactly why it fit so perfectly for me. I think Jennifer’s title is brilliant. She was already holding a whole conversation with the viewer before I came along to put in my two cents. The depth of the image, the odd juxtapositions, the angle of her camera shot, that captive, possibly human figure. What a wild collage. My own poem felt new and newly alive to me. It was a rare moment, and I will never forget it.
What surprises you about Maureen’s poem in conversation with your art?
Artist Jennifer Bevill: Maureen’s poem takes my work to another place—caving—which I love but didn’t have in mind at all when I was creating the artwork. But then she circles back to the idea of birth with her last line “But that was long ago. Before you had lungs.” which was a concept I did have in mind initially. It’s interesting what she picked up on and what she adds.
Paired with the art, do you think the poem does something different or has a different tone?
Poet Maureen Seaton: My “Rules for Cave Diving” may be a bit darker than Jennifer’s piece, although I’m not sure about that. I obviously picked up on a dark tone in “Undersea.” Both pieces evoke an airless space for me, and one that at least implies the possibility of being trapped. I think my poem may actually take place inside the mesh in Jennifer’s piece, whereas, as the viewer of “Undersea,” I can remain outside the “cave,” looking in, if I prefer. So: different perspectives of a similar situation, perhaps?
Paired with the poem, do you think the art does something different or has a different tone?
Artist Jennifer Bevill: I think the tone of the poem enriches the art. It give it more depth, haha. But seriously, the caving images are like another overlay to me. When I created the image of the baby I did see it kind of sinking to the bottom of the ocean, underwater, not in a dying, negative way, but more like in a floating, dreamy way. Maureen gives the baby a reason to be down there.
Have you ever written work that has been inspired by visual art before? What was that experience like for you? Why were you inspired to do so?
Poet Maureen Seaton: Whether I write directly from the art piece or just stand in front of a painting or sculpture and take it in, my own work is deeply inspired by art. I love writing from visual art. And I love collaboration.
The most fun I ever had with the process was a trip to New Mexico with my friend, the poet Neil de la Flor, where we plunked ourselves in front of art on the streets and in the galleries of Albuquerque and Santa Fe and wrote back and forth, addressing the art, but keeping our individual lines secret (as in “Exquisite Corpse”). We wrote dozens of what we called “exquisite ekphrastic sonnets” this way, and when we got back to Miami we plunked ourselves down in front of the murals and graffiti of the Wynwood art district and did the same thing. (One of the best experiences of my life.)
I’ve taken my student poets to the Lowe Art Museum on campus to do the same thing, and to the Perez Art Museum Miami. Guaranteed: colorful, textured poems actively engaged in a dialogue with the art. What could be better than that?
Have you ever had a writer respond to your work before? What was the experience like?
Artist Jennifer Bevill: I haven’t. I’ve always been on the other side as the responder. I like both sides, but this experience is amazing. It’s like getting a gift.
If your collaboration were a song, what would it be?
Poet Maureen Seaton: “Mono No Aware,” by Hammock (and, If your poem were a song, what would it be? “Close to Home,” by Lyle Mays)
Artist Jennifer Bevill: “Just a Dream” Alternate Routes
Describe the collaboration in one word.
Poet Maureen Seaton: Exhilarating
Artist Jennifer Bevill: Layered
Read any good books lately?
Poet Maureen Seaton: I’m loving a whole lot of poets at the moment: Gregory Pardlo, Megan Volpert, the late Francisco X. Alarcón, the late Justin Chin, the late C. D. Wright, and this wonderful new series of chapbooks from The Lune (Boulder), with editor Joe Braun at the helm. And, because I’d never read it, Primo Levi’s Periodic Table. And, since I’m currently in Colorado on a break, Margaret Coel’s mystery novels.
Artist Jennifer Bevill: I was just in Nepal, and of course had a two day gastro-intestinal “episode.” During my recovery I pulled Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer off the shelf at the yoga retreat and I couldn’t put it down. It was amazing. I love reading about intense experiences of the sort I could never do myself. I’m an armchair mountaineer.
Seen any good art lately?
Poet Maureen Seaton: Last venture out was to the Denver Botanic Gardens to see Chihuly at night!
Artist Jennifer Bevill: I LOVE street art and I look for it wherever I go. I love the element of surprise, the humor, the accessibility. When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago I discovered Jim Bachor. He fills in potholes with mosaics of ice cream. I got an interactive map and was able to see a few of his pieces. I even showed some guys who worked at a car service the creamsicle in front of their base. They had never noticed it!
Two? Yes, two. Two literary responses to Jennifer Bevill’s “Undersea;” two broadside designs. Maureen Seaton’s “Rules for Cave Diving” and Sheila Kelly’s “Homeless.”
We got so many fascinating responses to this year’s Switcheroo—watery ones, caged ones, bookish ones. Poems and short prose that followed the image closely and work that drifted out from it. We wanted to pick just one, but we we couldn’t.
So this year, we give you two. We hope that you love the opportunity to consider what different work can be inspired by a single piece of visual art. Different subjects and emotional registers; different tones and engagements.