Curating Slatterns: painting, poetry and the female gaze by Kathryn Maris

I: Portrait of a girl with a Frank O’Hara complex

I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. – Frank O’Hara

I never wanted to be a painter, but I did want to be Frank O’Hara. His curatorial job at The Museum of Modern Art and lunchtime walks, his lively antics with a gifted circle of friends and lovers, were described by Kenneth Koch in an undergraduate class I attended at Columbia University. Koch, who had been a close friend of O’Hara, was a funny, spirited, sceptical, impish and occasionally spiky professor. When I wrote a paper on my then-favourite poet, Richard Wilbur, my A- was accompanied by the comment, ‘I still don’t understand what Wilbur does that you think is so good’.

Koch presented such a vivid picture of his friend that when he described O’Hara’s untimely death, I cried. But I was also motivated to make a life that contained both poetry and visual art. Despite internships at Art & Auction magazine and the Manhattan branch of Christie’s, and despite publishing a few pieces of art writing and finagling a press pass so I could frequent otherwise costly museums, I couldn’t for the life of me get a job in the New York City art world. After several unsuccessful interviews, including at MOMA, I worked full-time as a secretary to a breast cancer specialist and, sometimes, as an artists’ model – the closest I got to working around art.

The next year I took a place on the Boston University Creative Writing Program, which offered a one-year MA in contrast with the more usual two-year programmes. This suited me: I was eager to return home to New York. Unfortunately, I did not graduate with my classmates because I was late handing in a paper for Geoffrey Hill’s famous module, Poets of the First World War. Though Hill had repeatedly warned that late papers would fail, these cautions served only to exacerbate my anxiety. I was twenty-three years old, with a newly detected arrhythmia, walking around Boston with a heart monitor, and my mental state was flagging. The possibility that I could have explained this to Professor Hill and worked out some arrangement didn’t occur to me; not only did I find him terrifying but I imagined that revealing my personal problems would be embarrassingly ‘American’. Moreover,

I carried the guilt of someone who believed herself to be privileged and did not like to ask for special favours.

Failing the creative writing MA was rare and invoked the wrath of the programme director, who lambasted me over the phone. I turned to Robert Pinsky, head of the poetry division. Like a gentle father, he diplomatically explained that in Geoffrey Hill I’d chosen the wrong professor to cross. Though Pinsky was overtaxed as the new US Poet Laureate, he ingeniously suggested a way that I could return to New York City but continue my studies: I could write a thesis, and he would be my supervisor from afar.

One of the first things I did when I returned to New York was to pay a visit to Kenneth Koch at his Columbia office to ask advice about my thesis. Our conversation, which I wrote down, went like this:

Koch: You’re writing on what?

KM: I’m writing about the influence of Abstract Expressionist painting on Frank O’Hara and Wallace Stevens.

Koch: That’s a terrible topic. First of all, you can never know for sure what influenced an artist. Second of all, trying to draw comparisons between art forms is almost impossible. When people talk about ‘music and poetry’ or ‘music and painting’ it often ends up just sounding bogus… It’s probably likely that Stevens had Picasso in mind when he wrote ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ but you can’t say much more than that. And certainly Frank was inspired by his friends who were painters, but it’s much more likely that he influenced them than the other way around. Although…

[Koch proceeds to cite a number of O’Hara poems which were direct responses to Abstract Expressionist paintings. He also remembers things O’Hara said in reaction to certain paintings, like the time he declared, ‘There is no more dying’ after looking at a de Kooning.]

And as for Stevens, you could go through his poems and find the colors. He uses color a lot.

[Koch pauses to take out his lunch, an assortment of fruits. He offers me half, but I decline.]

Koch: And Stevens would probably have appreciated the freedom of Abstract Expressionism. In fact, when I sent him a copy of my first book, he wrote back to say, ‘I like the sense of freedom in your work. You must celebrate that freedom more’. I never quite knew what he meant by ‘celebrate’. My wife (who was writing her thesis on Stevens at the time) said, ‘He probably means you should write more’.

[Koch seems more jovial after his lunch.]

Koch: I’ve changed my mind. Your topic is good. You can do a lot with it. Just don’t use the word ‘influence’.

I wrote the thesis, avoiding the word ‘influence’, and graduated.

II: Creator or Muse?

Sometimes I think about the male poets I revered when I was a very young woman, and wonder why my admiration for their female counterparts was a little cooler. Though Koch was half a century older than me, the adulation I felt for him and his joyful-witty-sardonic work edged into infatuation. I attended all the readings he gave from 1992 through 1995, even travelling from Boston once to hear his contribution to the launch of After Ovid, the anthology edited by James Lasdun and Michael Hofmann.

It’s not that women poets lacked ardent fans – I recall a reading by Sharon Olds and Derek Walcott in Boston where the book-signing queue for Olds stretched around the auditorium in contrast to a conspicuously short one for Walcott. And (white) women were not absent from American universities in the 1990s, with Jorie Graham at Iowa, Louise Glück at Williams, Deborah Digges at Tufts, Lucie Brock-Broido at the Columbia School of the Arts, Phillis Levin at the University of Maryland, Eavan Boland at Stanford, Cleopatra Mathis at Dartmouth, Sharon Olds at NYU, and many more elsewhere.

An uncomfortable explanation emerged about a decade later when I came across an essay by Kate Clanchy on her debut collection Slattern. In this piece, which appeared in Don’t Ask Me What I Mean: Poets in Their Own Words (eds. Clare Brown and Don Paterson, Picador 2003), Clanchy recalls a time before she became a writer when she was ‘struggling with the wish, not to write, but to be the object of someone else’s writing – to be a martyr, a victim, a muse, an object of desire’. She adds that she was ‘hopeless at this – muses are silent’.

The troubling possibility that my desire to be a poet had similarly been complicated by a desire to be desired became the catalyst for some poems of mine in which the poet and the muse are engaged in conflicts that take the form of domestic arguments. While these poems are predictably read as autobiographical narratives of home life, the struggle depicted was an internal one. It was also aesthetic: I was beginning to understand that one doesn’t have to write poems that will please anyone, nor does one have to prettify, or even illuminate, one’s ‘self’ in them.

As I write this essay, in March 2018, Twitter draws my attention to an interview with Sasha Dugdale in PN Review, in which Dugdale tells her interviewer:

A while ago I was devastated to learn that I wasn’t a man. It was while I was reading Keats’s letters. I was enjoying them so much, I kept imagining myself talking to Keats, and then something dropped from my eyes and I saw that it would not be possible to be Keats’s friend and chat to him about poetics. The best (the closest) relationship I could hope for was to be his, or any other poet’s, muse. I don’t want to be anyone’s muse because the muse is silent. For a long while it didn’t bother me, but it bothers me terribly now, not least because I am complicit, I carry within myself the negative photographic image of a muse, mother, daughter, lover, wife. I am easy to silence, I don’t put up resistance. So you could say that writing Catherine Blake was a form of redress, an acknowledgement of silence, a slow assumption of equality.

I expect this was a common paradox for women of my generation and older: we identified with a problematic role as we simultaneously rejected it. In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), Jacqueline Rose argues that Plath, via Hughes, accepted and used Robert Graves’s ideas of the mythological goddess figure. But linked to that very male myth, according to Rose, is ‘a grotesque fantasy of femininity as its underside and support’. Rose believes that the ‘cliché behind the myth – woman as inspiration, woman as drudge’ didn’t serve Plath well.

About thirteen years ago, I announced to a group of male poets at a gathering that I was tired of the male gaze in poems. They laughed at my petulance. One retorted, ‘We’d better put our sunglasses on, lads!’ In Kate Clanchy’s Slattern, published in 1996, the poet’s gaze often affixes on a male object: a married man; a cuckolded spouse; ‘these boys I teach’; a male flautist. I expect this approach was considered subversive at a time when the heterosexual male gaze appeared in many lauded UK poetry collections. Two years later, Ruth Padel published Rembrandt Would Have Loved You. In Don’t Ask Me What I Mean (the same book of essays that features Clanchy’s piece on Slattern), Padel explains some themes behind her own collection:

I gradually found I was writing love poems – a way of looking at a man which is modelled on but different from ways of looking at women in men’s poems… The focus, obviously, is on female emotional things, things you’d call issues. Like going on the pill, deciding not to have another child, being a parent, putting children above anything. There’s an implicit story-line and scenario with a moral question mark in it: a lot of the poems tangle with – or stalk through the shadowy undergrowth of – moral and political correctness, questions of feminism and sex.

Is there a female gaze that is the direct equivalent of a male gaze? Academics have debated this – are still debating it – with no clear answer. In Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger famously said, ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’. Perhaps that’s why many so-called ‘female gaze’ poems foreground the female speaker. Used to being looked at, the female poet inserts the female body into a sexually charged scene. This tactic, so common that it feels dishonest to single out particular poems as examples, is something I have observed but do not mean to criticize. As a possible alternative, I wrote a small sequence of poems that I call ‘Alpha[bet] Males’, which are experiments in placing the gaze instead on a fictionalized male gazer.

When the male poets laughed at my remark about male gaze poetry, I should have explained that such poems, when they are not self-aware, or ingenious, can have the affect of simultaneously excluding, including and deflating a female reader. I might also have pointed out that the motherhood poems that very likely bore these men to death are a closer equivalent to ‘male gaze poetry’ than they might appreciate, and that ‘motherhood poems’ are another type of ‘genre’ or ‘identity’ poem, an alternative to the genre of the ‘male gaze poem’ or the ‘lunch poem’ or the ‘ecological poem’ or the ‘found poem’. All poems are ‘identity’ poems. There are no universal poems, as no two human beings experience the world in the same way.

III: Slatterns, Provincetown and ‘The Art Monster’

If I had the wherewithal, I’d set up a UK version of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which offers a seven-month residency for emerging writers and artists on the tip of Cape Cod. The fellowship provides housing, studios and stipends to twenty early-career writers and artists, plus access to visiting writers and artists who included, when I was there, George Saunders, Grace Paley, Tom Sleigh, Phillis Levin, Claudia Rankine and others. I was fortunate to be invited twice, first in the 1990s and then in the early 2000s, when my daughter was a baby and my son was four. I am grateful for many things about that fellowship but only in retrospect do I feel especially grateful for the daily interaction with visual artists. I don’t know many visual artists in London, unless they’re also poets. The residency culture in the US (Yaddo, MacDowell, Ragdale, Ucross, The Fine Arts Work Center and other ‘colonies’) allows for an intermingling of writers of different genres, visual artists and composers that is enriching but which seems rarer in the UK, where we have tightly knit versions of a ‘poetry community’ that can sometimes resemble a large extended family – alternatively supportive and intrusive – and which, for better or for worse, is harder to achieve in a vast country such as the US.

Through residencies, I came across four of the six artists in Slatterns, the show I’m curating at APT Gallery with the help of the poet and curator Ella Frears. I met Ellen Gallagher first, in 1996. She was already a star in the New York City art world, and I’d spoken to her on the phone a year before, when I was writing my thesis for Robert Pinsky and working as a fact checker at The New York Observer. The other fact checker was an aspiring writer called Jenny Offill, who one day would become known for her novel Dept. of Speculation and for this quotation: ‘Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him’.

Ellen was matter of fact on the phone, a little brusque, I thought. But I came to understand that what I viewed as brusqueness was in fact an uncompromising commitment to her work and an unambiguously professional attitude. It would take me decades to shed the lessons of my traditional upbringing and allow myself to be more like Ellen, putting the work first, or at least giving it equal attention to other aspects of life, though I still sometimes feel I’ve committed a crime by doing so. When other women talk about delaying their writing careers because of motherhood, I feel like an art monster for having found ways, come hell or high water, to write my few books: dragging my children to an artists’ colony, uprooting them without their father on another subsequent occasion, and finding ways, once I did resettle in London, to absent myself when necessary so I could go into the underworld of my unprepossessing psyche and write my poems.

The next year, when we overlapped as Fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center, Ellen gave a talk on her work and its relationship to blackface ‘minstrelsy’ and the gaze. Her stylized faces of black women with blonde 1950s housewife wigs were at once comic, cartoonish, provocative and political. Some of those works appeared in her retrospective AxMe at the Tate Modern in 2013 alongside other works that had featured in numerous biennials and museums in the intervening years. The work she has provided for Slatterns is from a series of paintings called ‘Watery Ecstatic’ in which the heads of black women with medusa-like hair float among grassy underwater vegetation. When I see these heads, simultaneously feminine and aberrant, I have a verbal association: art monster.

In addition to Ellen Gallagher, the artists in Slatterns are Angela Dufresne, Vera Iliatova, Sunny Kim, Sarah Pickstone and Niamh Riordan. Most of these artists are interested in the female gaze; the figures of women or girls who appear in the works are sometimes idealized and sometimes projections. Another recurrent theme is displacement. Vera Iliatova was born in St Petersburg, but now lives in Brooklyn. Ellen Gallagher is an American who lives and works between Rotterdam and Brooklyn. Sunny Kim, born in Korea and raised in New York City, now lives in Seoul. I value this transnational quality even more since Brexit.

IV: The ekphrastic component: art begets art

As most readers of Poetry London will know, ekphrasis is writing – often poetry – that responds to a work of visual art. Like any other type of poetry, sometimes it works well, sometimes less well, depending on the practitioner, but also depending somewhat on luck: that the right synapses fire, that useful unconscious connections are made. Some of the best ekphrastic poems function not as translations of a work but as stand-alone entities. I had no idea until recently, for example, that Sylvia Plath’s ‘Conversations Among Ruins’, ‘The Disquieting Muses’ and ‘On the Decline of Oracles’ were ekphrastic poems. But in other instances, poets have attempted to mimic the stylized or two-dimensional quality of the canvas, and those poems can be successful too.

I believe, as I did as an undergraduate, that there can be powerful conversations between poetry and the visual arts, and that identifying the ways the two can overlap is not necessarily ‘bogus’ as Koch initially suggested, though I do agree with him that it requires caution. I also believe that the ways these intersections manifest themselves will be different now than they were for the Modernists or for O’Hara or Plath or even for poets five years ago.

Commissions can be beneficial for both well known and lesser known poets. I had this in mind when I chose seven poets to respond to the artists in Slatterns, though a combination of factors influenced my choices. For example, Sophie Collins and Rachael Allen have already demonstrated an interest in ekphrasis and the gaze: as co-editors of tender, they organized Worthless Objects (2015), a project associated with the ICA, where Collins was Associate Poet. A handful of women poets, myself included, were commissioned to write not about conventional art works, but about everyday objects as an experiment in subverting the male gaze. My invitation to include them was in the spirit of continuing that dialogue.

Geraldine Clarkson and Anita Pati are two poets whose work should be known better. Each has a strange, transformative imagination, which is ideal for converting a work of art into poetry. Anita’s poems also tend to probe displacement and alienation, so she seemed a good choice for the artist Sunny Kim, whose abrupt uprooting from Korea when she was an adolescent reverberates in much of her work. Last year Kim was shortlisted for the Korean Artist of the Year Award, the local eqivalent of the Turner Prize. Isobel Dixon, a transplanted South African whose work I admire for its flexibility and light touch, is an established poet who in my opinion is underappreciated. Her cross-media experiments such as The Debris Field, a project about the Titanic (with poets Simon Barraclough and Chris McCabe, film-maker Jack Wake-Walker and composer Oli Barrett) made her an intriguing candidate for ekphrasis.

I commissioned two poets for Ellen Gallagher, one based in the US, and one in London. Natasha Trethewey, former US Poet Laureate and a writer I have long admired, was suggested by Gallagher. Trethewey’s poem ‘Waterborne’ exclaims:

How can I see anything
but this: how trauma lives in the sea
of my body…

Karen McCarthy Woolf’s ‘Souls of the Sea’ is more directly ecological. The two poems are like transatlantic siblings, loose-limbed and winding on the page.

There were other poets I’d have liked to ask including Chloe Stopa-Hunt, whose short lyrics in White Hills (Clinic) often have an ekphrastic quality; Rachel Piercey, who has the resources and imagination to tackle any aesthetic challenge; and many others, both well known and less known. There are so many poets who have written ekphrastic poems – perhaps all poets have at one time or another – but space and resources were limited. There were also poets I approached who were unavailable, including Kate Clanchy, whose debut collection inspired the title of this exhibition. When I asked if she wanted credit for the borrowing, she said, ‘I am fairly sure that Charlotte Brontë owns the word ‘slattern’ (taped on Helen Burns’s head, don’t you know), so it’s out of copyright for all of us’.

To the extent this exhibition is dedicated to anyone except the artists themselves, it’s a tribute to the generation of young women coming up now who are changing the world and have no ambivalence about the muse question: they know the real power lies in creativity. It’s also a tribute to those women of my generation and older, who sometimes felt uncertain about their place, but advanced poetry in ways I’d like to think were helpful for subsequent generations. Finally it’s an unapologetic tribute to that older generation of men I studied with, whose gifted teaching, inspiring poems, and unimpeachably professional kindnesses are as responsible for this project as anything.

Kathryn Maris’s latest collection is The House with Only an Attic and a Basement (Penguin). Slatterns runs at the APT gallery, Deptford from June 1st to June 24th 2018.


Read ekphrastic poems by:
Rachael Allen
Isobel Dixon
Geraldine Clarkson
Natasha Trethewey
Anita Pati
Karen McCarthy Woolf
Sophie Collins