by Patty Jameson
Alison Touster-Reed has achieved that to which every artist aspires—to inspire other artists to work, to write, to sculpt—to create a piece that tells a story, a mood, a moment; that is, to create out of a need to release what’s burrowed deep. Her convictions, her methods, her words—every facet of her self and how she approaches life and living it—are all based in creating, and in how those creations act as her muse.
Alison has published more poems in more journals than most of us have read, and she is also a successful sculpture artist with a broad portfolio of figurative clay sculptures, each one depicting its own emotion and its own personality. Her new book, Bodies: Poetry and Sculpture (Negative Capability Press), shares with us Alison’s stories and her figures—the bodies from which they came—blended into words and served to readers desperate for the truth and honesty that her poetry reveals.
Her admitted aspiration is to create, to flesh out an image into a poem or a sculpture, and the result is her succession as one of America’s great contemporary poets. Perhaps she wouldn’t expect such a distinction, nor would she expect that through her work—her convictions, her methods, her words—she would inspire other writers and artists. My interview with Alison Touster-Reed inspired me—to work, to write, to sculpt. She inspired me to tell my story, my moods, my moments. To release what’s burrowed deep.
You’re invited to eavesdrop on our conversation and to glean your own inspiration from Alison’s insightful comments. Don’t forget to look for her new book, Bodies—available this summer from Negative Capability Press.
Your sculptures are absolutely beautiful and exhibit great depth. Your poetry exhibits those same attributes. I am also a clay artist—and a poet—and I know how difficult it can be to bring both media to life. How do you, as a visual artist and as a poet, choose your subjects and what they have to say?
First of all, I would answer that my subjects choose me. Sometimes in my life I think I've got something like Yeats's automatic writing going on. For example, the family of the Gorsteins: I have never in my life had any experience with any such folks, not even close—no clues, no hints, nothing. They just popped out of a gooseflesh cloudburst and came into me, rather like a vapor. I have about 2,000 pictorial images of what I call "blind drawings.” What I do is close my eyes and put the pen to the paper and just make emotional marks, and then I look at the markings, turning them every which way, and "see" things in the designs—faces, animals, anger, despair, desperation, birds, etc., rather like what a child does when looking at cloud formations. Something like that happens when I’m working with clay. Sometimes I'll have wads of scrap clay and they'll look like faces or literary figures (often from Shakespeare), or birds with a particular beak expression or a body with something a bit off, say, like a Picasso eye, or something hidden within a smile, or one tiny extra line under the mouth that changes the ENTIRE face. These are NOT "found" pieces of art—that is, they're constructed in the most peculiar sense of the word, and imagined, but they do happen, as it were, in and of themselves. A bird that's just been glaze-fired, for example—I see it moving on the table.
That's an interesting way to approach it. I've done blind drawings myself—they are a lot like staring at clouds in the sky—you can see a lot if you look hard enough.
Do you know Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author? It’s a little like that. "Characters" already come to life IN the clay—the clay makes them, and I "see" them, as if they were emerging, like faces from a cloud, I guess.
Your response brings me to another question—and you answered it regarding your sculptures. With your poetry, do you just start free-writing and see where you end up—what the poem wants to be—or do you start with a specific plan of where the poem is going, how the story ends?
No, I NEVER FREE WRITE. Most of the time a poem begins with a concrete image, à la T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens. One thing I need to say: it's ALL the imagination. There's a book called Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process, by Lawrence Kubie. It's about how the ASSOCIATIVE dimension of art is the stuff out of which it's made—how neurosis distorts that in mental illness, and how the really richest mine of all man is the associative imagination. It's the way the imagination moves me, and from that, how I move the imagination and how that interplay plays out and how the TEXT is the most important thing—NOT the therapy of writing, for example. It's not a free for all or a confession of self. It's a honing of image in the language. It all goes back to form (sculpture) and language (poetry). Very often, a poem begins surreptitiously with two things that are completely unlike each other getting linked somehow.
You mentioned “honing the image” in the language. Something I noticed about your poetry is how each word seems to play with the other words surrounding it—in the same line and above and below—you've mastered the art of weaving words together to create a picture, to pull human experiences into the lines of your poems. What have you found are the most useful tools in selecting each word for your poems?
What a question! It's a demand that the word has to be uttered (written), I guess, not so much that I "choose" a particular word, but that it "walks" just ahead of me like a nuthatch on the grass and I HAVE to follow. Another thing: poetry NEVER works without its music, the music that’s in the language. Some years ago I was asked to read poetry to two- and three-year-olds, and I thought, what can I read that will TAKE them? I hit upon the very early years of Yeats’ writing, things like “The Fisherman,” “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “Song of the Old Mother,” etc. The group of children included a two-year-old with ADHD—severe—and I'd been warned about her. You know, Patty, for two solid hours I read the early poems of Yeats and not a single part of a body or eye stirred in the room. These kinds of experiences have taught me that it's in the MOVEMENT OF LANGUAGE, THE COLORINGS, THE HINTS, the ways the words speak to the ways of the other words—it's not statement or fact, though those are crucial too. It’s the music.
Another thing: art needs to give pleasure. I know that's an old traditional viewpoint, but I believe it. It's the image that is bound to be beautiful, and to give sensory pleasure to the reader, that is important.
I agree with you that art needs to give pleasure. I'm an English major with a studio art minor (ceramics), and both writing and sculpting, for me anyway, are a cathartic release. Sometimes I think clay has that power more than poetry does, I think because it's more physical.
Now, academics: I read that you were the first to receive a doctorate in creative writing from Vanderbilt University, and I believe one or both of your parents were on faculty at Vanderbilt. How did growing up under the umbrella of academics influence you to pursue a formal education as a writer? How has your education helped you in your career as a writer? (I ask this from the perspective of a student wondering if it's worth pursuing an MFA or beyond.) And back to visual art—did you have any formal education in ceramics/sculpture, or did you just fall into it?
I just fell into art at age seven. My first poem was called “Images” and it went like this: “Images are wonderful things. / Pictures of beautiful and ugly kings. / Pictures of bobbles with little brains, / And sometimes long and lovely trains.” That was the very first poem I ever wrote. I've been working in a variety of media (wood, wax, etc.) all my life. Both my parents were professors. My mother was professor of English, and my father was professor of biochemistry and started the Molecular Biology Department at Vanderbilt. I don't think it's possible to teach anyone how to write. The way you write is to read what the great folks have written and then sink! The courses that had the most influence on me as a student were not in English but in anthropology and philosophy. I will never forget the Semai tribe in Africa, who have no word or concept for war, and the Yanomamo tribe in South America who have no word or concept for peace. When I learned of these two tribes living in the same world, I was psychically changed.
I love that you mentioned anthropology. I took the course last semester, and I really wished I had taken it early on in college and maybe even focused my degree in that discipline, because like you said, you can't teach someone HOW to write—college just forces the writer to actually write. Learning about the past taught me so much about human nature and why we do what we do, probably more so than a psychology class ever taught me.
Have you read Middle Passage by Charles Johnson? A slave ship returns to Africa from New Orleans, and there's a metaphysical twist about that tribe. Their language reflected their nature – a bed was called a resting, a chair was called a sitting, etc. What you said about the Semai and the Yanomamo reminded me of that. It might not be completely relevant to our discussion of art and poetry, but it's certainly an example of how cultures and histories are what make us, and that expressing those things—through art of any medium—is such an important part of just existing.
Yes, you've got it. About my book Bodies: it's called that I think partly because I've always searched for God—to be embodied. Nevertheless, I get more and more utterly atheistic. It's a real sadness to me that I don't believe in things outside myself – or in myself for that matter, either. I question and have always questioned whether there's such a thing as reality, as for example, when you say the word murder, does that mean a murder has just been committed, or is this just a part of man's magical thinking? Anyway, poetry is a kind of magic and it's the imagination that ultimately gets man through the very worst things. Sometimes, too, it's physical touch – that of another human being, but when you don't have that, then it's got to be the imagination.
Quite a lot of your poetry—and sculpture—relies on plants and birds and other forms of the natural world. Do you draw your energy from the natural world from direct experience or from a purely imaginative relationship with nature, or both?
Purely in my mind. Actually, in some ways being in nature is traumatic to me. I've had experiences of great unreality that are often exacerbated by being outside in nature—in the sun, in the world. Birds are very important to my father and I do love plants, but for the most part, I'm a home-person.
When you start working—when sketching for either a sculpture or a poem—do you have a particular place that you work? A happy place—a writing desk, a studio? And, do you keep any “muses” nearby to help you along?
I am ALWAYS either on my bed on my stomach in front of the TV (usually on mute) or right next to the bed in my room where my sculpture table is. I do my glazing in the garage (by necessity). The only "muse" is the ritual of the television, having all the lights on, and being in a hoodie.
One of my worst habits as a writer is that I don't read enough—for me, it's a time and concentration issue. Do you get a chance to read when you're not working, and what kind of book might we find in your hands?
You may be very, very surprised by my answer. I have not read anything in years, not even the newspaper. I have got some idea that because of a trauma, I can't "read." The last book I read was about a decade ago. It was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, and I read it only because my daughter asked me to. Actually, I did get many, many phrases for my poems from that book. The way I write is to "collect" phrases and make lists of them. Then I get on the bed on my stomach, and just "put them together."
Yes, I'm surprised by your answer, but glad to know I'm not the only one!
You have been published in numerous journals and you're also credited as being a founding editor of the Cumberland Poetry Review, which published for more than twenty years. From your experiences in both sides of publishing, do you have any advice for writers seeking to submit for publication?
I rue the day when the literary world changed and when in order to be published, you have to "have a connection." It's mainly a matter of luck and knowing someone at the journal. I gave up long ago sending out material. It's true I've been published in over 100 magazines all over the world, but those publications came from about seven or so years of really sending out conscientiously. It was about six or seven years ago when I essentially "gave up" on trying to get published. Anyway, at least half of the places I never heard from—ever—and manuscripts of mine have been at presses for decades and have probably been trashed without any communication back to me. At first all this made me angry; then it just made me sad, and then I got to the point when I almost didn't care. I say "almost" because in a way I care too much and that has caused me too many problems.
One more thing: at Cumberland Poetry Review, we were probably the only editorial board that read everything by everyone (and all the editors read everything) and then after we made initial selections, we ALWAYS read the poems OUT LOUD in editorial meetings. You have to read poetry out loud.
For more information on Alison Touster-Reed, visit www.sculpturebyalison.com and explore her stirring world of poetry and sculpture.