What did you think an artist would pick up on from your poem?
Poet Camille Dungy: I probably assumed there would be some flame in the image. Possibly a girl. Perhaps a magnifying glass or a beetle.
What inspires you in this poem?
Artist Caleb Brown: The poem very quickly triggered memories of being an “untended” boy, burning words into logs with a magnifying glass pilfered from my classroom’s science area. I wanted to work on this one as soon as I read it because (selfishly) I just wanted to visit those memories again.
Also, the natural science of the piece attracted me, it was an excuse to hike into the local woods and do some drawing of real brush and trees, then to drive into the city with one of my sons and draw bugs in a museum. Those events—apart from the success or failure of the drawing—were magical. Thank you Broadsided! If I had taken a more abstract tack, it would have been harder to execute…But then, I typically go for things I can look at and depict rather than doing something graphic and tonal and entirely “from my imagination”. Maybe next time I will not indulge this habit. Good practice.
Did the visual artist refract any element of the poem that made you see the poem differently?
Poet Camille Dungy: The artist seemed to focus on the boy, and also the hillside. These didn’t make the poem seem different so much as they magnified different aspects than I would have expected.
When you began this piece, was it color, shape, or some other aspect that you followed? Did that change?
Artist Caleb Brown: Initially I planned to have an image of a “girl” be the focus, as a protagonist. But what kind of girl? A scornful girl or an innocent girl? A generic girl? For a while the artwork featured a pair of disembodied feminized eyes, but I could never get them to work.
Besides the objects I saw in the poem, I also wanted to engage with the unsettled words. There’s something playful about the “flames” of desire, the sparks struck from hard flint. I sensed that there was a suggestion of danger too, as though, if the fire caught, it could get out of control and burn for a long time. And there’s more punning and misdirection in the poem that I loved but didn’t show…The way the title bleeds into the poem itself, the fact that I keep reading “heart” as “heat”.
What surprised you about this collaborative piece?
Poet Camille Dungy: I love the way the hillside grows out of the boy’s back. It’s true that I think of us as children who grow out of the land, but this imagination has that reversed. The land grows out of the child. I love, too, the use of color. The orange and red that are reminiscent of colder fire, and how these colors are part of the body of the boy, part of the background as well. Anything could erupt at any moment.
Artist Caleb Brown: I always visualized the poem underneath the artwork, but having looked hard at the final layout, I realize it’s exactly right to position the poem first—the play of the words off the picture reinforces the physical elements of both, especially where the second stanza seems to point right at the “brush” on the hill. Possibly poke it, provoke it. The surprise is how both parts face each other, if each mass on the page were a face.
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 Camille Dungy: I write ekphrastic poetry fairly regularly. The poems “The little building in which I find the ancient cloister store-room of St. Severin, which is going to disappear” from Smith Blue and “Got” from What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison are two examples. There is something exciting and challenging (and also humbling and enlightening) about translating one person’s imagination into another language. You can’t simply describe what you see in the work of art. A good ekphrastic poem has to re-invent and re-imagine. I have to create a new experience of an artist’s experience of the world.
If you had to represent the Broadsided collaboration with one word, what would it be?
Poet Camille Dungy: Latency
Artist Caleb Brown: Parched
If the collaboration were a piece of music, what would it be?
Poet Camille Dungy: Something by Gyorgy Ligeti.
Artist Caleb Brown: I’m hearing sound effects or something environmental. What about crackly static or cicadas?
Read any good books lately?
Poet Camille Dungy: Moby Duck: the True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn. Also, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire by Brenda Hillman, and Island of Bones by Joy Castro.
Artist Caleb Brown: I just finished listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, which took more than a year (it’s a big book). It’s definitely for people who like shallow and broad, but it’s amusing and quirky and kept my interest. I especially liked the melancholy optimism of the last part, which is about what it means to be the only caretaker of the Earth when we (humans) have demonstrated that we’re very bad at taking care of things.
Seen any good art lately?
Poet Camille Dungy: I’m pretty intrigued by the work of two young(ish) mixed media artists, Krista Franklin and Joseph A. W. Quintela. Also the photographs of Thomas Sayers Ellis. All of these artists seem to fundamentally understand the power (and necessity) of true collaboration.
Artist Caleb Brown: My family recently went to the DeCordova museum in Lincoln, MA where we became mesmerized by “Humming” by Jaume Plensa. There’s so much going on in a very simple package, presented with no affect. It’s a simple sculpture of a woman’s head with closed eyes, but the distortions the artist employs makes viewing her disconcerting and becalming. It was easily our favorite, unanimous votes from the 40-somethings and 12-year olds alike.
Poet Camille Dungy: Only the world. We can talk about anything in the world.
Artist Caleb Brown: Ask me tomorrow!
Note: This broadside and interview are included in the anthology, Broadsided Press: Fifteen Years of Poetic/Artistic Collaboration, 2005-2020 (Provincetown Arts Press, 2022).