I wanna hear a little revolution
~ from ‘Revolution’ by Emily XYZ
New York poet Emily XYZ has been a treasured part of the Queensland Poetry Festival in some form since 2006 and was the Poet-in Residence in 2010. Here she incorporates conceptual art, music composition and place in her contribution to the Letter.Box.Stamp.Collect. project.
When I first got in touch with you about doing the project, you said you were reminded of a favourite piece of music, Tout Par Compas. Could you explain the piece a little and the connection you made between the two?
“Tout Par Compas” was written by a French composer named Baude Cordier in the early 1400s. The piece is a canon, but he wrote in the form of a circle instead of the usual horizontal staff. I guess he wanted to graphically or artistically convey the circular quality of the music. He also wrote a heart-shaped piece — it may seem like a gimmick, but the Middle Ages were into this kind of aesthetic game. Actually, writers and musicians still do this, you saw it a lot in the 1960s, poems laid out on the page in such a way that the text itself makes a visual statement, which may or may not be related to the poem’s content or subject matter. It’s a way of adding an extra dimension, so that rather than being purely intellectual—just music or words—the work has a visual component as well. My friend the poet Edwin Torres likes to do this kind of thing.
The version of “Tout Par Compas” I know and love is on the Ensemble P.A.N (Project Ars Nova) CD, Ars Magis Subtiliter: Secular Music of the Chantilly Codex. That one is sung by a solo voice, but I think the piece is usually performed by three voices. I don’t know if it was originally written for one or multiple voices, but I love the way the melody moves, the interlocking, continuous quality of it.
So when you said you wanted to create a set of circular poems, I immediately thought of this great piece of music that has been one of my favorite songs for years.
In the end, your piece had a different approach — it is called sol lewitt, after the conceptual artist, and has the ghosts of his work in it. Could you talk us through the process of writing the poem?
It was just another of my personal associations with circles. I really don’t know anything about Sol Lewitt, but I happen to know a guy in Italy who owns a Sol Lewitt, and basically what the piece is, is a circle painted on the wall. But what he actually owns, what he bought, is the “permission” of Sol Lewitt to paint or have painted on the wall a circle of certain dimensions prescribed by Sol Lewitt. It’s like an authorization, a set of instructions, and a certificate of authenticity all in one—that’s the piece. And then I guess someone from Lewitt’s studio came and executed it, like painted the circle on the wall according to the instructions in the authorization! Which I love. Send a guy all the way to Italy just to paint an 18-inch white circle on a wall. And of course it doesn’t even have to be someone from Lewitt’s studio, except that probably collectors demanded that connection with the artist in order not to feel bamboozled. But really, any shmoe could have painted it. I love that the piece is not the artifact, but the instructions—the concept—thus, “conceptual art.” Once you have the idea, anybody can execute—it’s the idea that counts, and how the idea is presented—that’s the “art” part.
And there is something a little bamboozle-y about this, something of the con, where you kind of go, “Really? This is art?” But it is—if, like Sol Lewitt, you have the balls to come up with it and sell it! Very bold. I like that far edge of art right before it crosses over into bullshit. And so the circle in this case also kind of represents the con-artist thing, going round & round.
When I made it into a circular design, I instinctively went for concentric circles, perhaps drawing from my understanding of his Arcs, Circles and Grids work. The idea of art lending to art has a cyclical aspect to it and I can see that happening with your piece. How do you identify with this concept?
I would say “art LEADING to art,” because I think this is really what happens—artists tend to be inspired by art. Not necessarily by their contemporaries, who are usually competition on some level, and not always by their usual or dominant genre. But I think artistic people are fired by art, which of course takes many forms. I personally am mostly inspired by music, not other writing. I read very little poetry, but I listen to a lot of music and I identify with musicians. Sometimes I think I was born a musician, only without the musical ability! But you often see musicians who are very influenced by visual art, or who are themselves visual artists. The arts are kind of like a delta, a network of streams and rivers that all feed into each other. They are not separate entities, really.
It is fantastic to have you return to the Queensland Poetry Festival in artefact form. What have you been up to since you were the Arts Queensland Poet in Residence in 2010?
I moved around a bit right after I got back from Australia, but now I’m living quietly in upstate New York, north of Albany, at the eastern edge of the Adirondack mountains, in an old American town called Saratoga Springs. I just started a new job, working at a nearby college. I was looking for a green, cool, quiet place to live with not too many people. Rush hour around here actually last about an hour—that’s it! Low density and not too hot and it rains a lot. And the winters are long and cold. All of those things are very important to me. I don’t like too much sun, if it’s sunny more than 3 days in a row, I find it oppressive. And we have really good spring water in town, which is free. I go to the spring once a week or so and fill up water containers, talk to the other locals who are filling up water containers. As we go forward into an uncertain ecological future, fresh water is very important. The springs here have been in use since long before the time of European settlement—the Native Americans used to come here for the healing water. There’s a spring just a few minutes walk from my house where the Indians took a wounded British officer and revitalized him, and that was the first recorded time a white person saw the springs. That was in the 1740s. By the mid-1800s, this town was a well-known health resort. Now it’s mainly known for nonsense like horse racing and casino gambling. And there’s the tourists who come here just to drink. And it’s mildly republican, with its share of gun-violence apologists. But still it is a pretty town and a good place to live if you like things quiet, safe and relatively simple.
Artistically, this area is absolutely nowhere. But New York City is an inexpensive 2-and-a-half hour bus ride away, so you do have that! Myers [Bartlett] and I did a few readings in the city last year to celebrate our 20th year of working together. But mostly the last three years have been for me a time of finding a new place to live and getting stabilized and into a groove. I went through some very big, very emotional changes in 2009-10 and it’s taken a while to move through them, but things seem to finally be on a good track now.
Emily is author of The Emily XYZ Songbook: Poems for Two Voices.