As a writer who writes poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, I think it’s important to always maintain a firm grasp on genre and ethics. The challenge in writing this book was less one of keeping reality separate from imagination and more one of style. The ingredients that make a good poem often differ from those that make a good essay and from those that make a good novel. In early drafts, one of the trickiest things for me to do was to realize that the techniques and devices that make readable and compelling nonfiction are not always identical to the ones that make good fiction. I had to reframe my use of everything from diction and syntax to paragraphing and the presentation of information to the balance of scene and summary.
People who don’t read fiction often characterize it as frivolous and as some kind of escape from the world, which it isn’t inherently, nor does it need to be. I’ve learned as much about the world and the people in it—and their motivations—from fiction as I have from nonfiction. Fiction is often a much-needed step back that gives you the distance to see things more clearly; it’s very often better at explaining why events happened as opposed to just what happened. And if a reader believes that everything in non fiction or history is just objectively true, I don’t really know what to tell them, except that at least in fiction, the choice of what perspective and bias to tell a given story from—which is always a deliberate choice—is foregrounded and clear.
Legacy, 2014. 44" x 30". Colored Pencil on Stonehenge. Courtesy Packer Schopf Gallery
Kathleen Rooney on Lauren Levato Coyne’s Wolf Peach
Fittingly for the shift from the flowering of summer to the withering of autumn, on September 5, the Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago opened their fall season with a set of three simultaneous solo shows designed to address the issues of death. It included the cyanotypes of Teresa James, meditating on religion and faith, and the mixed media and painted gloves and dresses of Ellen Greene, concentrating on murder ballads. And perhaps most memorably, it included Wolf Peach, a collection of intricate yet spare drawings by Lauren Levato Coyne, lush in color and rich in deliberation on the intergenerational effects of poisons, both natural and unnatural, upon the mental and physical health of individuals and populations. Levato Coyne’s realistic and representational yet impossible and dream-like images invite the viewer to contemplate the visibility of visual art and the invisibility of toxins and their impacts on the body.
The show’s title itself, Wolf Peach—a translation of lycopersicum, the species name for the tomato plant—speaks to Levato Coyne’s concerns with hybrids and blending, as well as her ever-present elicitation of the tension of opposites. Each of the ten images, ranging in size from the 10 x 10-inch “Blistering Agent” (evoking the manmade weaponized chemical Agent Orange, originally believed to be a defoliant with no deleterious effects on humans) to the 44 x 30-inch “Legacy” (depicting a partly nude woman with green snakes in her abdomen instead of viscera) calls to mind the idea of the pharmakon—the drug that can be both a poison and a remedy, or a cause of illness that can also be its cure. If one considers the words Wolf Peach separately, one might think: a wolf is beautiful and wild, and can be the sign of a healthy ecosystem, but it might also tear you to shreds were you to encounter it in that ecosystem. And one might also think: a peach is a delicious and ostensibly healthy snack, but has a cyanide pit at its center and might be covered in pesticides that you can neither see nor taste. In fact, “lycopersicum” comes from the allegation in Central European folklore that witches and wizards used deadly nightshade to transform themselves into werewolves; when the tomato was introduced to Europe, its similar appearance to its close cousin nightshade caused it to be feared as a poison and given a name that alluded to its falsely magical properties—another instance of vision being an unreliable detector of toxicity.
Blistering Agent, 2014. 10" x 10". Colored Pencil on Bristol. Courtesy Packer Schopf Gallery
Levato Coyne builds tension not merely in the content of her images, which are as disturbing as they are pleasant to behold, but in their composition as well—each one insists on a vivid demarcation between space that is full and space that is unoccupied. Negative space offers the viewer an implicit invitation to fill it in—to imagine the rest of the suggested narrative, to try to see what can’t be seen. Levato Coyne’s work is emphatic in its use of negative space, surrounding each intense and delineated image with vacant whiteness, which makes the subjects and their beauty stand out starkly. But the unworked expanses’ potential seems as though it could just as easily be ominous as it could be optimistic—like a mountain lake that is lovely and clear, but whose clarity you later learn is owing to the fact that it’s been poisoned and is therefore unsuitable to life.
It can be hard, at times, to tell for sure what exactly the images are saying about poison: snakes—known, of course, for their venom—appear often, as do monarch butterflies, which develop and store a poison known as cardiac glycosides, derived from the milkweed leaves they eat as larva. But this ambiguity seems appropriate inasmuch as often we don’t realize that we are being poisoned, either because we are unwittingly doing it to ourselves, or having it done to us through our environment and its contents both natural and unnatural, and by toxins that are administered both by forces outside our control (corporations, pollution) and by our own hands (foods, drugs both legal and illegal). In the image “Headmistress,” for example, Levato Coyne depicts a female’s left hand, held out and open-palmed, truncated at the wrist at which a profusion of monarch wings sprout outward. Instead of a forearm, the butterfly appendages give way to a pair of crossed arrows whose blue bands suggest veins. Are the butterflies there to heal the wound or to feed off it? Or are they meant to be the pulse, particularly the abnormal pulse, often characterized as a “flutter”? Are the arrows poisoned, or are they IVs containing an antidote or remedy? Meanwhile, the title itself pushes the viewer to consider questions of autonomy and power: who poisons us and by what authority or permission?
Headmistress, 2014. 17" x 11". Colored Pencil on Bristol. Courtesy Packer Schopf Gallery
In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that sex, gender, and sexuality—categories that are normally seen as “coherent” and “natural”—are all culturally constructed through the repetition of stylized acts in time.
I have worn my mustache in public a total of eleven times since the first on October 31, 2012.
Great interview at Another Chicago Magazine. Was impressed by the parallels Cassandra and Kathleen were able to make with Poems While You Wait to things like marketing and internet poetry.
CG: I think that sort of feedback is what sustains a lot of the internet-centric literary community right now–capacity to comment/respond. A lot of writers depend on it. Do you think this sort of rapid response has notable downsides? I feel like the “ego-boost” of a successful piece has led a lot of the writers I adore into weird places.
KR: Great comparison. And yes, I think sometimes–both in person and online–“interactivity” becomes interruptivity, for better and for worse. Whether it’s ego, per se, or just a desire to please/make people happy or make people like “you”/your writing, that immediacy of response can become an obstruction like any other. And that obstruction can be “good” like the obstruction of writing a sonnet, or “bad” like pandering-bad.
There are on the night sky three mushrooms, which are the moon. As abruptly as sings the cuckoo from a clock, they rearrange themselves each month at midnight. There are in the garden some rare flowers which are little men at rest that wake up every morning. There is in my dark room a luminous shuttle that roves, then two … phosphorescent aerostats, they’re the reflections of a mirror. There is in my head a bee that talks.
–Translated by Elisa Gabbert & Kathleen Rooney via
Since the time of The Iliad and The Odyssey, a poet’s job, historically, has been to create myths. One could argue that in writing about celebrities, today’s poets participate in a number of traditions of mythmaking, of devotional poetry (think John Donne addressing a nonresponsive but fervently believed-in God), or simply poetry to a silent and unattainable beloved (think Dante to Beatrice, Petrarch to Laura).
Celebrities are separated from and elevated over us, but they also show us something essential about ourselves. They perform the same function as the ancient Greek gods, offering an outsized depiction of our own virtues and vices. Or, as Leigh Stein writes in “A Brief History of My Life Part VII,” “Truly the only things Lindsay Lohan and I / have in common are our preoccupations // with fame and weight loss, and yet I recognize / a kinship there, as if those two things mattered // more than anything.”
Effective poetry causes us to see something anew. The best poetry about celebrities can help us see their flatness with more dimensionality or can help us see some aspect of ourselves afresh.