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“The State of Deseret”

Posted on • Words by • Art by

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Collaborators’ Q&A

What did you think an artist would pick up on from your poem?
Poet Jennifer Martelli: I thought the artist would pick up on the sharp elements that open the poem—the cacti, the snakes, etc., and obviously the bridge.

What inspires you in this poem?
Artist Caleb Brown: It’s a bright poem, it has sun, grit, and an evocative sense of place. I also get the feeling the protagonist crosses this desert or Deseret unscathed. I was drawn to her resolve in the face of all the bad advice and portents.

Did the visual artist refract any element of the poem that made you see the poem differently?
Poet Jennifer Martelli: I love the colors that Caleb chose—these deep red (but not pure red) tones, the oranges—it felt burnt, organic, baked and I loved that.

When you began this piece, was it color, shape, or some other aspect that you followed? Did that change?
Artist Caleb Brown: I think it was the aspect of PLACE that I followed. I headed into the West, the part of the country the narrator is told to avoid.

I started with the image of “spiny things” growing out of the desert, and knew I wanted to have an impenetrable mass of sharp points. I thought about an eroded sandstone bridge arcing above them, something delicate that could “break” (an echo of the final lines of the poem) with too much pressure. I also knew I would draw a woman on a journey, but the rope from the star came late—I went with the feeling of someone “dangling”, but I wanted the character to be in control, rather than dangling upside-down from her foot, as in the tarot card.

The illustration is a combination of three techniques: I drew the flag and set the type digitally, I roughed-out the rock-climbing girl in pencil and then inked her with a brush, and I collaged the thorny landscape with Color-Aid paper. I’ve never mixed it up that much for a Broadside!

What surprised you about this collaborative piece?
Poet Jennifer Martelli: The biggest surprise for me was the man climbing the bridge! Wow, what a twist—is he trying to scale the speaker’s heart? Is the speaker a woman? Is he the one in pain?
Artist Caleb Brown: After I committed to interpreting the flag of Deseret, I was worried that dividing the stanzas of the poem into the white stripes would ruin the rhythm of the language, or be illegible, but I think it’s okay. That qualifies as a pleasant surprise. And once I put the text in, I actually began to see a beautiful new line, descending from the canton of the flag, (the square in the upper left) implied by the alignment of the words.

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 Jennifer Martelli: I’ve only written two ekphrastic poems—one was a prompt and the other was born from being moved in a way that is still hard to explain. This was Kara Walker’s installment “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.” A frightening, heart-breaking piece, and what moved me was the dichotomy of these Americana silhouettes which shadowed horrific events. The installment (it was one huge white room in the MoMA) slowly emerged. Crazy scary and amazing.

How does literature fit into your creative life as a visual artist?
Artist Caleb Brown: I am the kind of person who waits for the scene pictured on the front of a novel to reveal itself on the page. That little suspense has always been a treat for me. I think books should come with a cover picture or a design, to help set a mood or tone for the experience, but more importantly, to position the book as literary AND visual art. Even if one is reading a math textbook, you will certainly be required to employ your visual imagination and memory. The cover says: “you will need your vision to comprehend this. Don’t turn off your “seeing” brain!” So literature is visual for me.

Many of my ideas come from things I read about, in the newspaper or in books. When I make comics, I intentionally make literature visual art (if I am lucky).

Describe the collaboration in one word.
Poet Jennifer Martelli: Polygamous—I think it is fantastic because we don’t know each other; we have no idea of our motivations. Does Caleb have 40 wives? Is he afraid of bridges? snakes? Is he from The State of Deseret (Utah)?
Artist Caleb Brown: The collaboration between the words and the picture was “easy”…I found so many written elements tied into interests of mine, which include the crazy orange geology of the Southwest and the design and history of flags. If you are a fellow vexillologist, you can find some absorbing stuff about the graphic history of the Sate of Deseret, to say nothing of the social/political angles, on Wikipedia. This encyclopedic and eye-opening site called “Historical flags of our ancestors” presented many tidbits that I was able to use, after slight morphing. And then, there’s this irresistible blog by a Utah booster who comes right out and declares “…Our flag sucks” before radically upgrading it.

The one word that leaps out to me in the poem is “spiny”. As the Broadsided artist, that word is chock full of useful contrasts. A spine is the very definition of an organic production, yet spines are so sharp and carry the promise of danger. They seem to be the opposite of the rounded shape we might pick out as “organic”. I saw spines everywhere in the poem, in the cacti, the snake fangs, the stars of the State of Deseret flag.

I’m getting stuck on this question now! Broadsided collaborations are not typically collaborative—in the sense that two people are “laboring” together on the same object at the same time. Sometimes I wonder what would result if poet and artist got together and made something new between them? A Broadsided retreat? What if the collaboration were a more iterative process that began with this first effort from both of us, but required further revision/rewriting?

If the Broadsided collaboration were a piece of music, what would it be?
Poet Jennifer Martelli: Something with a steel guitar? A song by June Carter Cash?
Artist Caleb Brown: One of the languid ambient pieces from Harold Budd’s “Dawn’s Early Light” or possibly “Wandering Kind” from Laura Veirs’ album “Saltbreakers”.

Read any good books lately?
Poet Jennifer Martelli: Swan Feast by Natalie Eilbert
Artist Caleb Brown: I love physical books more than almost anything, but don’t read them as much as I’d like. Fortunately (?) I have an epic daily driving commute, which creates lots of time for listening to books…Albeit very slowly!

The way I consume media in the car involves a long queue of many audiobooks and albums of music which I mix together in a way that randomizes all the tracks and preserves the the order of each individual book. Suffice to say, it can take years to read through my playlist.

By listening like this, I just finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and I am nearing the end of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I really enjoyed both, partially (mostly?) because the performers of the audiobooks are terrific. Their voices are intelligent and nuanced, and contain so many different convincing characters, (both male and female, with widely varying ages and accents) that I was instantly teleported back into the story after a break. Sometimes I became too immersed in the emotion of the novels and I had to turn them off.

The last year has been an intense one for me, and I know these books helped me cope. They were very entertaining, and kept me safe and in good company.

Seen any good art lately?
Poet Jennifer Martelli: Just recently The Peabody Essex had this amazing exhibit where 70 zebra finches landed on Fender guitars! The piece was called “From Hear to Ear” by French artist Celeste Boursier-Mougenot. The sounds in the room were low and electronic and mournful. They ate their seeds from Zildjan drum cymbals!
Artist Caleb Brown: My son Milo was recently in a student-adapted musical version of “The Iliad”, and just before Christmas, he and I went to the Williams College Museum of Art to take in an exhibit about the Trojan war. I now have a new appreciation for Greek “black-figure” ceramics, having seen the character my son played pictured on many vases!

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