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Emily Abendroth, 2013 Pew Fellow. Photo by Colin Lenton.

Fellows Friday: Q&A with Emily Abendroth

Fellows Friday: Q&A with Emily Abendroth

Emily Abendroth, 2013 Pew Fellow. Photo by Colin Lenton.

As part of our “Fellows Friday” web feature, we focus on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges. This week, we speak to 2013 Pew Fellow and poet Emily Abendroth, whose book ]EXCLOSURES[ is newly available this month from Ahsahta Press. Of the book, writer and artist Chris Nagler says, “Sometimes there is a book you love so much you become frightened for the world. ]EXCLOSURES[ is that for me.”

What is your favorite title of an art work?

I’ve always loved the painter Paul Klee’s titles, and the way their presence as text impacts your orientation to his works. For instance, a beautifully intricate, multi-layered, and color-saturated image gets labeled rather firmly With the Egg, suddenly drawing your eye to a single yoke-endowed, ivory splash in the lower center of the image, which gains a different kind of buoyant gravity and hovering importance as a result.

On the other hand, a small, simple line drawing of two elongated, lumpy, and top-heavy androgynous figures—who in their leaning into one another seem to almost merge together—gets affixed with a description that is something far more than merely a “title” for what’s occurring before your eyes. Instead, appended is a mini-narrative that reads: “Occasionally I’d fool people some, / I’d put acid in their drinks, / I’d put poison in their food, / And make it hurt when they mate. / I founded an order with merrily dancing tears on its banner.” I love the joyful labor that necessarily happens as the viewer tries to put those two somewhat incongruous verbal and visual discourses in contact with one another.

How does residing in this region contribute to your artistic practice?

I’ve never considered myself to be a regional writer or to fit into the category of a “writer of place.” For lack of a better way to say it, I’m definitely more a “poet who lives in Philadelphia,” as opposed to a “Philadelphia poet.” [However,] the current dynamics of Pennsylvania politics profoundly shape my understanding of the obstacles that preclude our achievement of individual and collective health, well-being, self-determination, and, ultimately, emancipation (be it cognitive or physical in nature). This, in turn, informs my sense of what art has a mandate to attempt to, first, make legible and, then, to confront. I don’t by any stretch think this is art’s only mandate but, from my perspective, it is a primary one of them. Perhaps since I used the artist Paul Klee as an example to speak about titling, it makes sense to offer his comment that “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” I hope that my work sometimes achieves that.

How has your thinking about the business of your practice changed since you started working professionally?

Given that my primary artistic medium is poetry, I don’t work professionally, or at least not in the way that I think this question implies. That said, I do without question take my own artistic work and efforts seriously and I do situate them as a meaningful center of gravity, experimentation, and potential transformation in my existence. As time, in conjunction with my own writing practice, progresses I find myself working incrementally more slowly and more deeply. I accept that it will likely take me both a long time and a laborious, challenging journey to reach the more interesting and challenging thoughts/results in any given project. Such a process does not map well onto a standard capitalist model of either production or success.

What images or things keep you company in the space where you work?

Immediately surrounding and behind my desk, one will find the following four items plastered prominently before my eyes on the wall:

  1. A poem written by my father on the eve that I left home at the age of 18 and moved 3,000 miles away to the West Coast. When he gave it to me, he referenced it as the only poem he had ever written, although he has certainly produced work in other art forms throughout his life (currently primarily via photography). His poem reminds me of the conceptual power of poetic language as a site for making the difficult “speakable.”
  2. A thank-you letter from an incarcerated comrade (who has since been released, hooray!) that speaks to the relationship between knowledge and oppression, and optimistically posits that the first might serve as a critical alleviator to the latter. He writes: “Oppression is the root of all violence, and ignorance is the root of all oppression. So, to rid the world of violence, we simply have to rid the world of oppression. And to rid the world of oppression, we merely need to rid the world of ignorance, and ridding the world of ignorance begins with filling the world with knowledge.” I think neither he nor I are quite so utopic as to actually believe in that “merely” as the passage poses it, or even to believe that there aren’t some people/forces that know precisely the harm/oppression they’re causing and proceed according to plan. But some is never all, and his assertion reminds me how much mutual recognition, communication, and the carefully built skills of dwelling respectfully and lovingly in difference can be of consequence.
  3. A poem by Roque Dalton, which fellow writer/artist Chris Nagler and I spent an afternoon co-translating with a bunch of youth in El Salvador from Spanish to English to Spanish and back again, with every kind of experiment in between. It was a pretty joyful afternoon of language play. The poem (in English) reads: “I, like you / love love, life, the sweet smell / of things, the sky-blue / landscape of January days. / And my blood boils up / and I laugh through eyes / that have known the buds of tears. / I believe the world is beautiful / and that poetry, like bread is for everyone. / And that my veins don’t end in me / but in the unanimous blood / of those who struggle for life, / love, / little things, / landscape and bread / the poetry of everyone.”
  4. A strange, poorly Xeroxed, low-resolution image of a very young Jane Goodall in a full embrace with an adolescent gorilla in the forest. They are curled tightly into one another, the chimp’s head tucked against her breast, her chin on the chimp’s shoulder, the dividing line between the one’s hair and the other’s fur made blurry by the dull, gray-scale tones of the shoddy reproduction. My friend and colleague, the poet Matt Longabucco, occasionally uses this image for a writing exercise with his college students in which he asks them to generate an extended series of sentences, each beginning with two words: “Look at ____.” The goal of the exercise is not to extrapolate upon or to analyze the picture before them, but instead to attend to precisely what is there, to name and describe what they see before their eyes. I think about this exercise a lot. It’s a great tool for stilling the rush to conclusion or the impulses toward judgment and summary—a way to take stock of the field, to push yourself to meticulously observe what is before you, to operate from a position of not knowing, and to be surprised by what you’re newly able to encounter as a result.