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2004 Writers' Forum
Janée J. Baugher

Janée J. Baugher holds a B.S. in Anatomy/Physiology and Chemistry from Boston University and an M.F.A. in Poetry from Eastern Washington University in Cheney. She has read at ArtsEdge and Bumbershoot, and her poems have appeared in Rattle, Ekphrasis, Art Access, Synapse, and elsewhere. During the academic year, she teaches Writing Poetry at the UW’s Experimental College and freelances as a book reviewer and editor. Her summers are spent in Michigan teaching Poetry and Fiction at Interlochen Center for the Arts. A dance based on her poem, "Ballet of the Woodpeckers," will be presented at the University of Cincinnati in May 2004. Janée’s first collection of ekphrastic poems, Coordinates of Yes, is available through interlibrary loan from EWU. The poems included in Volume 8 of the Jack Straw Writers Anthology have been excerpted from her second collection, Distinguishing Dusk from Dawn.
photo credit:
janée j. baugher
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
25:39 / 10.2MB
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 5, 2004, Janée and Belle discuss visual art, collaboration, character, genres, inspiration, writing in the day-to-day, and more.
JB

Guernica, 1937. This is inspired by the painting by Pablo Picasso.
[reading follows].
BR


Thank you. We're listening to Janée Baugher, and that was Guernica, 1937. Janée, I learned a new word this year: 'ekphrastic.' Do you know that word?
JB




I do know that word. It's a publication dedicated to creative writing inspired by visual art. Their spring edition just came out and I have a poem in there; I'm proud to be among the ranks, yes they do very good work.
BR









Well it's news to me now what you're just telling me that there's a publication, but I learned the word and I'm impressed that there is a specific word for such a thing. Poets are usually associated with a certain style or temperament, but not often I think with a very specific subject matter. There was a poet in California, the late Vicki Hern, and she wrote only about horses and dogs. But for the last four years you've written almost exclusively in response to painting and works of art, and… how has that emerged, how did that happen?
JB




























Well, four years ago I was in between two years in my MFA program at Eastern Washington University and I took the summer off to travel overseas and while I was in Europe I… found myself drawn to museums. On one particular occasion I found myself in Berlin, and I saw this little domestic piece, it was a woman and her two children, painted in the 1600's by Peter de Hooch. And, I was just so startled by it and… I just stood there in front of the painting and… there was such a force that kept me there in front of it. And, it had just been my impulse over the years of writing, to grab my journal and start writing and so I did, and I believe an hour or so passed and I had written pages and pages and pages and… I could scarcely see the pages because I was crying and… I'm sure I was quite a spectacle to see but, that's where it started for me, and I knew that I was onto a different body of work than what I had been working on in the past… and, so, I… have decided that this is what I need to do. I… perhaps could collaborate with others but I… choose to collaborate with visual artists because I think our inspiration invariably becomes our collaborator. Whether that be a brutal childhood, or… something pedestrian we see, in our travels… But I want to collaborate with visual artists, and so, that's what I'm choosing to do. Mainly I go to Europe and seek out the masters and write there, but I hope that there will be a turning point for me, and that I'm looking nationally and also on a local level, to find those visual artists with whom I might collaborate.
BR

Were you motivated by a desire to avoid making yourself the subject?
JB





Absolutely. Absolutely. I was trying to steer away from writing the self-indulgent poem, and, certainly I wrote a lot of those in my years, but, I find for me that poetry is not an expression of the self, but it is the means by which I can discover. So, looking outside myself perhaps I learn more about the inner workings.
BR







That's been a recurring theme in these interviews, actually… James Reed avoids using the pronoun "I," and several people have spoken of—Roberta Olsen works in collage, verbal collage, making poems out of found phrases, and in her interview several times she said, "I can't eradicate myself completely!" But I guess some of us are trying to do that. And, the "I" in my poems is always a construct, for the sake of the poem...
JB Absolutely.
BR

...You know, rather than thinking of the baggage of my whole self.
JB









I had this experience where I did a reading in Michigan last summer, and I read poems from my first collection Coordinates of Yes and this woman, this dance instructor came up to me and afterwards and she said, "oh, there was one line in one of your poems, and I could see you were so exposed." And I thought, "Oh, well that's interesting, I wonder which poem she's speaking of?" Because they were all inspired by visual art. And so certainly, you know I creep in there, but not intentionally.
BR


I was very impressed by your Guernica every time I've read it and hearing you read it, at how clearly it evokes the painting in the mind's eye.
JB Oh, thank you.
BR



Paintings are not illustrations. I wonder if you worry about asking them to tell a story or if in the translation to words… do you worry about losing the painterliness of the paintings?
JB


















Yes... you know there's always a struggle that writers have: Must I have an allegiance to the truth? What's happening in the painting? In my poem she really needs to be wearing a red dress but in the painting she's wearing a green dress and how do I reconcile that?' And it's hard to comment on. When I am startled or arrested by a painting it's for many reasons; either it's the colors, or the shapes, or sometimes the narratives, sometimes what's not in the painting, that… which is being concealed from the viewers I find terribly intriguing. Often times, I need a specific portal into the painting so I might read about the painter or about the model and, then for me, I can transcend or my writing can transcend, outside the image. And I can make my poem that I need to make, the poem that's right. Not necessarily the poem that I can understand or that can be coupled with the image-I'd like to think my poems can stand on their own. I'm just the writer, so it's hard for me to say.
BR



In the one's I've read… you treat a wide variety of kinds of paintings, but all that I've seen have treated representational paintings. Have you written about an abstraction ever?
JB


















Good question. Since beginning this journey of mine I have been interested in works that have an element of realism but I feel like it's a new day for me, I feel like I am branching out. I had this conversation in Paris with two boys that I met on the street, and they were excited because they knew that I was going to London and they implored me to visit the Tate Modern. And I sort of dismissed them, and told them I was not interested in modern art and they proceeded to have this conversation as I eavesdropped, just waxing poetic, how amazing these installations were, and after eavesdropping on this conversation I couldn't not go to the Tate Modern. Went to the Tate Modern and it absolutely changed my life-I wrote this one piece called Ballet of the Woodpeckers (and I should say that the titles of my poems are also the titles of the pieces), wrote this piece and, this installation is… mirrors on the gallery walls with mechanized woodpeckers attached to the mirrors, pecking, pecking...
BR Uh-huh—
JB











And… on its own, it would have meant nothing to me. I read about the artist and it turns out she was working on a sculpture, that had her… working very closely with fiberglass that she inhaled; she went mad; she committed herself, and while she was in this mental institution she wanted to convey to those of us not in mental institutions how it would be… And, so that was my entrance into the piece. And… I'm excited to say that that piece is being made into a ballet, through the University of Cincinnati Dance Department. It's happening at the end of May-so that'll be exciting to see how my words are translated to stage.
BR

Very exciting, yes. And you're going to go to the opening performance. Oh wonderful.
JB




True, true-and I actually have gotten in touch with the sculptor… her name is Rebecca Horn, she's out of Berlin and I have piqued her interest and I'm trying to cajole her to come out to good ol' Cincinnati Ohio to experience that with us.
BR

That's very exciting. Do you, Janée, draw or paint, or are you involved in the visual arts yourself?
JB




No not at all. No I've never taken an art appreciation class or anything-I just, have… a love for it. And I'd hate to bastardize that love by bringing an intellectual level to it. My mother is an artist, she's a painter, so, perhaps that's just in me.
BR







I'm, impressed, with… thinking about Roberta's found phrases and her making poems like collages and your writing about paintings… it seems not only that both of you have borrowed something from the visual arts, but that for both of you maybe creativity flows most in the act of finding, you know or discovering, you're thinking of yourself as making whereas… you can never run out of paintings to write about once that opens up.
JB Absolutely true.
BR





Are there days when you can't find a painting to write about? You say you search for them, do you have a sense that they're everywhere, to the extent that great art is everywhere, or can you write about… almost any painting? That is, how rare is it for you and the painting to reciprocate in this way?
JB




Well it's not rare at all. When I was on the road in 2000 I spent five weeks on the road and wrote a hundred poems. And of course that took me probably two years to make them into actual poems, they were embryo poems.
BR Mm hmm.
JB















And so what I do to insure that my well won't run dry, I bring the postcards back and I have my library stocked full of art books, which are no substitute. But every Thursday I'm there at the Art Walk, trying to talk to as many visual artists as I can in hopes that I can meet people locally so that I won't have to venture overseas to find this and to work with the masters. So, hopefully the inspiration will keep coming to me. I first started writing in high school. Of course we all write poems in high school and probably ten years out of high school I went to see my high school teacher do a reading and he said something that affected me very much and troubled me, he said something to the effect of, "well, if you've written as long as I've written, you know that you've run out of inspiration." And I thought… I never want to have that feeling, so…
BR











It certainly isn't my experience and I'm old enough to speak with authority on this subject. I mean, I run out of it in the afternoon but I find it again in the morning… It is funny, talking about found poems because, I mean, in some moods I can't find one anywhere, and in other moods, they're everywhere, it's just very strange. But, your approaches seem so varied that even though the focus is specific it hardly seems narrow. I mean, really there's an awful lot of different kinds of painting and attitudes for them and forms of poetry represented in your work. And then in addition to this you also edit and teach. So… how does that inform your writing?
JB
























I'm very fortunate in my life that I… have surrounded myself with words, so… I edit creative writing manuscripts, some of which are very difficult to get through and edit, but when I'm sitting in my living room with my dog and cat and I'm reading and making grammatical changes to this manuscript… what's better than that? Getting paid to read and to make edits. I also write book reviews and so to be paid to read books and to write it's just, there's just nothing like it. Teaching… it did not come easily. My father is a teacher so I rejected teaching for a long time. I was a scientist for many years, I was a pre-med major, and so I've just begun teaching a couple of years ago. I taught at Highline for a couple of years, now I teach "Writing Poetry" through the Experimental College at University of Washington and also I teach at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, I teach gifted high school students and, perhaps you've had a bad week and you hadn't gone to the page and yet Wednesday comes around and you have to prepare for class and you're searching for poems to share with the class, and you go to the class and they're all geared up to write and so while they're writing using one of your directives, you're writing too and it just, it just… can jump-start my week, so I'm so thankful.
BR








I wish I'd gotten this idea a little earlier: I think I was forty or something when I'd gotten it, but I think that… even with all the creative writing programs and everything, they don't give one a model of being a person of letters, instead of just a poet. That would include, you know, editing, teaching, responding to other people's work, and reviews. I mean that seems to be a reasonable way to approach it. And I certainly do, as you do, all those things, and I find sustenance in it.
JB Absolutely.
BR And it also involves you with a community of writers.
JB True.
BR


What's the social obligation of a poet, speaking of community? Specifically, what role do your poems have in our culture, how do you see that?
JB















Oh that's a tough question. I think Wallace Stevens would say that the poet has no social obligation whatsoever, but then Edward Hirsch says that every work of art needs a respondent to complete it. So, I suppose, as members of society, we do art a disservice by not having a dialog with works of art. I would hope that my poems are experiences for people, perhaps escapes, perhaps my poems will elicit some excitement for visual art, perhaps after reading my poetry someone will remember, "I had this love affair in college with Monet—where's my book?" and rekindle that love. I have a love affair with words and so, this is my art form, but I feel like art is an activity for the spirit and so… to enter into a dialog with artist and layperson is sort of to bridge that gap in celebration of the spirit,in celebration of the unknown.
BR


Would you like to read another one of your poems? I talked about their variety. I like that one about kindergarten.
JB Do you?
BR Mm hmm. Did you bring that?
JB

I did bring that… "The Nursery School, 1884"; inspired by the painting by Johann Sperl.
[reading follows]
BR

That's a wonderful last stanza. Isn't that what we're doing, who we are?
JB





True. I was reading through the applicants for the summer session at Interlochen Center for the Arts, and… one of the things they have them do is write an essay called "Why I write." So I was thinking about why I write… and I think I write so that I might find a way home.
BR

Well… say a little bit more than that. Where will home be? That'll be… wherever you are… it's a neat answer.
JB It reminds me of—may I read, this other poem?
BR Mm hmm.
JB



I think this must be the poem that the woman must be talking of when she said that I had revealed myself to her. It's called Everyday Life, inspired by a painting by Fillide Levasti Giorgi, 1954.
[reading follows]
BR Mm. Yes. I like 'em so much. Wanna read another?
JB

Sure. You talked about my writing to realistic paintings-here is a piece inspired by Pollock called, Alchemy, 1947.
[reading follows]
BR

Hmm. The listener can't see it, but that one is sort of poured on the page.
JB True.
BR



You mentioned that your mother was a painter. I don't know if she used oil paint or not, but my dad was a painter and one thing I do remember about it is it's a neat smell...
JB Absolutely
BR ...the mixture of smells in the studio is really nice.
JB







Well one of the things that I did to hopefully make myself a better writer to visual art was, I agreed to model for a friend of mine, so for, about a year, I spent, um -naked-in his loft in Georgetown, very cold and very stiff, and it was hard work but now we have this painting and now I have the experience from the model's perspective. So perhaps that also will inform my later works.
BR Well, again, thanks Janée it's been great talking to you.
JB Thank you, Belle.
BR

I look forward to hearing more of these when we give our reading.
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