Epiphanic Collaborations: A Conversation with Sandra Simonds and Summer J. Hart

Vocative Formulations by Summer J. Hart
Vocative Formulations by Summer J. Hart

Over the course of the COVID pandemic, I had the chance to meet poets in small virtual rooms. What began as an effort to get feedback on drafts turned into a ritual, a safe space carved into the week where we could discuss the unspeakable anxieties of parenting in the context of developing poems and reading the work of others. This generative space led to a collaborative chapbook, 11 Triptychs, which began as a correspondence between poet Sandra Simonds and interdisciplinary artist Summer J. Hart.

Sandra Simonds is the author of eight books of poetry: Triptychs (Wave Books, forthcoming 2022), Atopia (2019), Orlando (2018), Further Problems with Pleasure  (winner of the 2015 Akron Poetry Prize), Steal It Back (2015), The Sonnets (2014), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (2012), and Warsaw Bikini (2009). Her poems have been included in The Best American Poetry 2014 and 2015 and have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and others. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and is an associate professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia.

Summer J. Hart is an interdisciplinary artist from Maine, living in the Hudson Valley, New York. Her written and visual artworks are influenced by folklore, superstition, divination, and forgotten territories reclaimed by nature. She is the author of Boomhouse (The 3rd Thing Press, forthcoming 2023) and the micro chapbook, Augury of Ash (2020). Her poetry can be found in Waxwing, The Massachusetts Review, Northern New England Review, and elsewhere. Her mixed-media installations have been featured in galleries and shows including SPRING/BREAK, NYC; Pen + Brush, NYC; Gitana Rosa Gallery at Paterson Art Factory, Paterson, NJ; and LeMieux Galleries, New Orleans, LA. She is a member of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation.

Each copy of 11 Triptychs is hand-bound by its creators. The jacket was designed and hand screen printed by Summer in her Cold Spring, NY studio, and the interior was printed digitally by GSB Digital in NYC. It's a pleasure to meet this marvelous book in the flesh.

Alina Stefanescu: I want to begin where I am—on a porch surrounded by leaves changing colors, falling, altering the landscape in that surrealism we call seasons, as if the amazing can be normalized; and the bustle of a holiday named Thanksgiving, which feels innocuous on its face and yet hides so much horror and grim pilgriming. Where are you in relation to these habits and conventions? What does this season hold for you as persons, as poets, imagining a landscape?

Sandra Simonds: In North Florida there are seasons, but they are all eclipsed by the enormous fire and rain season of summer. The winter is our little slice of time that isn’t part of hurricane season. I’m most creative during the stormy summer, which feels very chaotic—I like the long stretches of time, the heat, the glittery sea and sense of possibility. Everything in the summer is just so big and operatic, almost Nietzschean in intensity, something I tried to capture in my book Orlando. I also like bodies, and I like that the summer is a time of undressing and nakedness. Maybe the summer is a metaphor for natural disasters, and the fall, where all of the holidays bunch up, is a metaphor for our cultural disasters.

Summer J. Hart: The joke is that the seasons of my childhood in Maine were mosquito and snow. I currently live in New York’s Hudson Valley, and I love the deciduous wildness of the river path I walk along most mornings with my dog. It’s lush, tangled, and has an appealing microclimate for overwintering and migratory birds. I heard a birder (binoculars fixed to where marsh meets tree) refer to the area as a “hotspot.” Like Sandra, I’m drawn to a good summer storm. But most of my writing conjures winter.

I tend to think of the seasons by the river in this sort of way: bluebirds and buntings (auspicious) / snapping turtles (nesting) / mulberries (the black ones taste like plums) / wineberries (pick and pick and pick) / blackberries (I don’t usually bother) / snapping turtles (hatchlings) / Great Blue Heron (fishing) / porcelain berries (strangling) / wasps’ nests on bare branches (abandoned) / weather (white on white on black, step in someone else’s tracks). So, where I begin is at the intersection of the last two. Sturdy gray paper against white sky. The old queen has died. A new queen sleeps under the bark.

Teller of Bones
Preorder 11 Triptychs

Alina Stefanescu: I love how these seasons contrast, and how your experiences of them differ. I feel like these images enter our words, or our sense of embodiment, and I'm curious about how this collaboration developed—how both of you came to the place where a book bloomed between you. Maybe I'm asking for a story of origin.

Summer J. Hart: ​​Last year, I was experimenting with ink-washes and placing objects on paper that repelled or absorbed water, like stones and salt. Sandra asked if I was interested in collaborating with her on a poetry / artist chapbook and sent me 11 of her triptych poems. When I read them, I felt like a gut-punch, all the shimmering heat, possibility, and devastation of her words. I was smitten. Whenever I’ve tried to “illustrate” something, I’ve completely frozen up. It brings out my worst art. But this project was different—it was already happening. The poems and drawings felt to me like two branches of the same river. I scanned the poems for lists of words, phrases, and visual impressions: columns of rock, fire, blood mixing with water, bodies entwined, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, and responded with a series of abstract drawings, moving the ink around paper with water and my breath. I ritualized the process by working in batches of threes. Some pieces are quickly recognizable as triptychs while others contain objects or creature-forms with threes as either the positive or negative space. Sandra picked 11 drawings, and over the course of several months, we paired poem to salt / salt to poem. These pairings don’t appear side by side in this collection, but are connected rather by title—each an appropriated line from one of Sandra’s poems.

Sandra Simonds: The 11 triptychs are from my forthcoming book Triptychs which will be published by Wave Books next year. I started this project in the summer of 2019 after reading a lot of A.R. Ammons because the short line form isn’t something I had worked with previously and it was something I wanted to work with. But I found the line itself to be inadequate to what I was trying to capture about experience—something about the passage of time, so I experimented with columns. I liked the way the columns spoke to scrolling (internet scrolling but also the older idea of a scroll or sacred text) and the ways that this form could puncture or perhaps play with simultaneity, language, and narrative.

The epigraph to my Wave book is from the painter Francis Bacon. He asks, “How are you going to trap reality without making an illustration of it?” This quote captures what I always want to achieve in terms of my art—the idea that the poem can be more real than the real. Is that possible? I think so. I think that may be why we go to poetry, to see and feel something deeper than our ordinary experience, and maybe that’s closer to something that doesn’t even have language, but here we are with the tools that we have.

I was also reading The Order of Time by the physicist Carlo Rovelli as well as a lot of work by Mark Fisher, so time became much stranger to me the more that I read. I was thinking about the ways that nostalgia, feeling, intellect, and the psychological formation of “reality” sort of interfere or reverberate against larger economic, social, and climate systems—the stock market, climate apocalypse, political landscape, but also these tiny things like looking down and noticing the way a snail moves or a roach or whatever small thing. This is all to say when the pandemic hit, one of the first things I noticed was the way in which time felt fundamentally different. Everything from watching the birds to teaching online was inflected with this change. I saw a bear for the first time in the Smokies when I went camping because there was no one around so the bears felt free to move differently. I suppose because the way time is constructed through labor, through our relationship to nature—it all seemed to radically change—which revealed how the construct of time to begin with is part of the social fabric which, of course, is temporary.

Anyway, that’s around the time Summer and I got in contact with each other. She started posting pictures of her artwork, and it just seemed like her style was a natural fit for this project because of the way that time and space are one thing and the way that triptychs work in the visual arts. When she sent me her ink and salt washes I was blown away because they felt very embodied and contained within them an elemental momentum—wind, sand, rain, but also the curetures, spirals and fluctuations of this ticking or propulsion that the columns also want to enact—something you see in the clouds moving from one space to another, so the way Summer works with movement feels very close to what I’m trying to do with my language in this project.

Alina Stefanescu: This "pairing of poem to salt / salt to poem" that Summer describes stuck in my head as I was reading Sandra's observations about space and time being a sort of terrain in these poems. In my mind, triptychs invoke a sort of supra-time, partly because I associate them with Eastern Orthodox iconography, where three icons are joined with hinges so that the two wing panels fold over the larger central one. There's a sort of trinitarian gesture to them, and there is also a visual dialogue between the panels—an unwritten relational dialogue that exists each time the triptych is opened. In these icon triptychs, proximity alters the icons themselves, or prevents them from being apprehended singly. This is freaky stuff, especially since many believers feel these icons serve as thresholds into a more complete time. Because freakiness and physics excite me, I wondered about your thoughts on the sacred triptych form, and how (or if) your work engages time at the level of freakier physics.

Summer J. Hart: Tape, ink, table salt, breath, destruction. Tape, ink, stones from the river, cast and placed, destruction (if removed too early). Tape, ink, kosher salt, stones from the garden, breath, resolution. One, two, three, tape, tape, tape, ink, ink, ink. Salt from the dog’s toes blown off the paper with a hair dryer? Destruction. I pull the tape off the edges, and they tear just a little. Two rivers with three white spaces, no tears. Wind tunnels, bodies, gravity. One drop of ink will bleed an ocean black. Salt to water are barnacles. Water to salt leaves crystalline legs. More ruins. Then, some good ones.

Me, in my duplex - hunger
Explore more of Summer J. Hart's artwork.

Sandra Simonds: I don’t think that collaboration can happen without the body, and I think there has to be (at least for me) some sort of erotic positionality between words and the images, words and words, blank space and words and images—something has to happen—energy, vibes, bodies, neurons flickering, touch—beyond thinking. So, you wouldn’t say sex is a dialogue because bodies say things, express things without talking. Maybe the relational works as a way to create intimacy. I sit by you. I don’t say anything, but we are together, and we fall into what happens between us. Three, whether made by history or math or ghosts, is magical.

Alina Stefanescu: "We fall into what happens between us"—I love how this creates a site, or how it transforms relationships into a site of creative response. Rumor has it that animals have a third eyelid which helps them hunt at night, and so the number, three, strikes me again at the level of the body. The physicality of the process you're describing, Summer—makes me think of how much we fear destruction, whether through aging, changing, even the word degradation connotes undesirable things. The pandemic was the backdrop for these compositions. Did it enter your creative processes? If so, how? If not, why? And what is your favorite color?

Summer J. Hart: Turquoise, carnelian, olive green. My artwork is pretty obsessive, controlled. I prefer refinement of technique and the meditative production of art to sketching, so I rarely sketch in the traditional sense. I might mull over a piece for months before starting it—problem-solving in dreams or while running.

This pandemic is a horror, and I recognize that my experience of it is one of privilege. My family and I were able to stay home, work and school remotely. My response to fear is to go faster. My husband calls it “sharking”—like, if I stop swimming I’ll just die, so I keep circling. During lockdown, art-making and life blurred. The processes became unpredictable, messy. The destruction of one thing became essential to the creation of another. I collected driftwood and Devil’s Heads from the river and bound them together with glue, thread, and scraps of cut paper. I started drawing with sticks dipped in ink, charcoal, oil, graphite, rocks, salt. I let houseplants grow up the walls and fed flour into a jar on the counter, cooing, “There you go, my hungry, hungry caterpillar.” My son and I planted the walkway with 24 lavender bushes. My husband and I got “homestead ripped” pulling roots and stones from the garden, digging beds and post holes. I painted the roots that we pulled and suspended them from the ceiling of my studio, named them my “Gallery of Incomplete Sentences,” then threw them on the fire and hung something else.

We were very fortunate to be able to spend time outside, alone-together with mountains, the river, and, before they died of Epizootic Hemorrhagic disease, a herd of neighborhood deer that crossed our lawn twice a day.

Alina Stefanescu: What words felt thematic or central somehow to the energy in these poems and art pieces? Why?

Sandra Simonds: Phenomenology. I quote Merleau-Ponty: “The body is our general medium for having a world,” but using this quote in relation to the pandemic while taking my daughter to Skate World (the roller skating rink here in Tallahassee), everyday life (making macarons, dipping my hand into swimming pool water, noticing a salt-eaten toy by the edge of the ocean, eros as it surfaces in our daily lives), motherhood, how to raise beings who think and feel deeply, how to think and feel deeply ourselves, how to listen to ghosts, our ancestors, how to hold despair (not to look away from it), but also how to live with despair and still create meaning–personal, political. And the often-overlooked experience of chance. I may meet you just by chance, we might be two poems set side by side by chance and this may turn into one poem. I don’t think we are open enough to the power and beauty of pure chance. We always ask why is this here and why is that here? Maybe why not?

Summer J. Hart: Estuary. Clavicle. Tidepool. Notch. But “bodies” resonates the most. I don’t think either of us really knew at the start of this collaboration what the outcome would be, only that the poems and drawings had magnetism.

Alina Stefanescu: Reading some of the pairings, for example at Conversation #45, the Scales Project and Couplet Poetry, the magnetism between the visual shape of the poems and Summer's art took my breath away. My understanding of the poetic line, itself, was changed by the interaction between the triptychs and the artwork, and so I wonder about bodies—the word, the site, the expectation?

Sandra Simonds: In October, I took a trip to Paris as a kind of pilgrimage to visit Paul Celan’s grave. It was also doubling as an opportunity to get away from Florida, away from my family and give myself some space to write. On the airplane, I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s book Autumn. In it he talks about the first photographs ever taken, how the exposure time was so long, any person, say, walking down the street, would not have been captured. The people were there, yet paradoxically, are not there. The first known photograph is of a man getting his shoes shined on the Boulevard du Temple in 1838 taken by Louis Daguerre. Suddenly, one day on this trip, I found myself walking on this street, perhaps in the very place this man was getting his shoes shined. When I think about bodies, I think about the sensual colliding with dead labor. I think about ghosts. I’m a believer in ghosts. I believe in telepathy. I think there may be aliens right here on earth. Paul Celan’s ghost talked to me at the cemetery. As I was sitting by his grave, a gray cat walked by. I put the cat in the poem I wrote on the airplane on the way back from Paris. I said that the cat had “the seagrass eyes of the underworld.” How are the poetry ghosts kept alive? Through new poetry, of course. The past and the present are always colliding in the body, sometimes violently. The poet is a bit of a messenger, right? I have doubts if my poems even come from me. They often come from elsewhere. If I were to visualize all of this strangeness, the paradoxes of time, past lives, ghosts, the natural world (which are part of the triptychs), they would look like Summer’s ink / salt drawings.

Oh, all of it spins

Summer J. Hart: When I was a kid, my neighbor Red had a garden which he patrolled with a shotgun and DDT. I spent my summers counting chemical dusted beans, picking potato bugs for quarters, and drowning slugs in beer. I remember one year he shot six crows out of the sky and strung them up on stakes as a warning to the other crows. Have you ever witnessed a crow funeral? When forty or fifty of them lift at once it changes the weather. Like a starling murmuration or a migrating school of alewives or oaks that drop their acorns all at once, this book was an occasion for many bodies to become one. I think about Red’s crows all the time and I am filled with unspeakable sadness and awe. What I didn’t know then is that he let my six-year-old sister hold the rifle. She aimed her little human body at the throat of the sky from the rectangular plot of the garden overlooking the river purging itself into the bay.

Alina Stefanescu: I want to thank you both for the encouragement to hold despair in curiosity, or to be receptive "to the power and beauty of pure chance." And for the ghosts and the crow funerals and the rituals which lead us into the shape of the poem, or the alternate forms in which a corpus can be haunted. The way in which this book collaborates with its own creation made me think of William Gass' warning in On Being Blue: "An author is responsible for everything that appears in his books." But what he means is that every failed image, every unmoving scene is the author's responsibility. Both of you use "language like a lover," to quote Gass again—"not the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs"—it's a wonder to read the words and the images.

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