Five poets discuss their recent and forthcoming collections, which pair verse and photography.
The second collection by Colin Channer, Console (FSG, July), is inspired by his Jamaican birthplace, his adopted New England home, and dub music, and is enhanced by black-and-white photographs.
In this book, I explored curiosities I’ve long had about the constructive and destructive possibilities of the soundscape art called dub. In this reggae-begotten genre, the instrument is the mixing board, so, Console. Cued in part by dub’s pastiche aesthetic, I allowed myself to play with ideas, forms, themes, tones, and geographies. In dub, the sketch, the glimpse, and the fragment are of gigantic value. Leaked-in sounds from outside are loved on for their possibility, which makes me think how dub studios are like those plastic cameras that produce what can be useful aberrations—vignetting, blurs—and how their usefulness relies on who’s making the art. As I was working, memory of some photos seen years earlier leaked in.
What holds this book together isn’t subject but sensibility—my voice, gaze, angle of approach, and engagement with what awes and shames me. The opening poem, the elegy “Spumante,” is seaweeded with many of the ideas that recur throughout the book: the ruminative lusciousness of walks and other journeys; the allegorical exile shared by forced-out humans and sea mammals; dub music and the camera as subjects; the collision of my Englishes; my adopted home of New England as a near-exhausted subject, and the challenge of recharging it with new aesthetic force.
The images in Console relate to this charge. “The Hurricane Suite” is a series of eight poems paired with archival images of Providence, Rhode Island’s capital, under floods. “Picturebook: Brockton” is a series of four poems speculating on contemporary portraits by a photographer living and working today. I’ve lived in New England for 14 years, eight of them in Providence, so my interests in these images are personal, visceral, tender, curious, and full of argument; but my response is fundamentally aesthetic.
The way text and image work in this book reminds me of a trip I made to Senegal, rendered in the poem “Shunting from Dakar to Casamance.” A raised question is: Which is more destructive, 400 hurricane seasons or European colonialism? Here is what I recognize in Console—a hurricane that battered my city in the 1950s begat some images, and these images begat some poems. From atmospheric tyranny, art has emerged, its own force.
National Book Award–winning poet Robin Coste Lewis considers migration and vintage photography in To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness (Knopf, out now), her second collection.
Except for the lines accompanying the very first five photographs of the book, which I wrote about 25 years ago, I did not write for nor toward the photographs. I never even thought about the photographs when I was writing these poems. Years later, after I’d thrown out countless pages of predictable false starts, where I assumed self-consciously one voice and then another—none of which were mine—I eventually surrendered to listening to the images. I willed myself into an aesthetic silence, so I could hear the pictures. What they wanted wasn’t narration at all. Once I finally understood this, which was actually quite recent, I wondered what would happen if I looked for a photograph that would best resonate with the emotional image made by words. For me, words are psychical pictorial images. A metaphor is a picture. That is how I experience language––visually, sensually alive.
Because of their colonial history, I wasn’t really interested in writing captions. Captions are interesting, because they are vehicles for information, but they have also been used, quite subtly, as tools for intellectual domination. I had felt firsthand, and too keenly, what it means to be turned into an object under a microscope, a thing that requires explanation. So, I didn’t want to join in that historical parade by writing text that said, now, “Here is my grandmother.” I wanted a different experience.
By withholding this biographical information and replacing the usual captions with poetry that repositioned the images not with American time, but with the history of the cell, say, or the creation of universe, I hoped the reader would grow increasingly aware of how deeply we’ve all been indoctrinated not to question, only to ingest whatever information we are being fed. The pairings were used to destabilize and force the reader to reconsider our puny ideas of time. Instead of being a passive observer, spoon-fed limited or inaccurate information, I wanted the text to ask the reader to sit up and participate in their own experience.
I hope the active relationship between text and image in the book refuses the reader any chance to rest in colonial habits of observation. And I hope, by trying to keep the reader alert to another less-colonial habit, I actually give them something worthy to replace such a habit.
Por Siempre (Haymarket, Apr.) highlights Southwestern Latinx communities through José Olivarez’s poetry and Antonio Salazar’s photography.
There’s something dynamic about the pairing of photos and poems, like a conversation. The poems tease something out of the photos and the photos tease something out of the poems.
I met Antonio Salazar the first time I visited Phoenix. He drove me around to different parts of the city and told me stories about his photographs and the people in them. After that, we started dreaming of what a collaborative project might look like. He sent me photos, and I would spend hours looking through them. They felt familiar and distant at the same time. From that space, I started experimenting with poems.
The poems in Por Siempre begin with the phrase “the poem wants” or “the poem doesn’t want.” This allows the poem itself to become a character, and it allowed me to write from a different voice. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t narrating what’s happening in Tony’s photos as those photos speak for themselves. Many begin with a detail from the photos and unravel from there.
Looking through the book makes me emotional. I’m most intrigued by the way the poems interrupt the process of looking. There is a dissonance, as the poems are not always placed next to the photos that inspired them. My hope for readers of Por Siempre is that the poems and images encourage them to go back and look again at the photos. To reread the poems. To wonder for themselves about where the poems and photos sing together and where they clash.
In Unshuttered (TriQuarterly, Feb.), Patricia Smith presents photographs of Black Americans taken in the 19th century that she’s collected over the course of two decades, alongside poems conjuring a variety of voices and experiences.
The visual is food for the poet. Photography and poetry provide two distinct ways to tell a story. I can tell you someone’s story—but that story changes once you see their eyes, or their hands clasped tightly in front of them. In words, you can begin to hear a voice. With word and picture, the blue in that voice hits your heart. With word and picture, you tap into a particular joy. With word and picture, you can see you in whoever you are seeing.
Unshuttered has gone through quite a few incarnations, all of them somehow centered on structure. I wanted to focus both on what the people in the pictures were saying—about revelation, regret, escape, injustice, and even the ordinary days that passed during their unparalleled moment in time—and what they, from their place in our yesterdays, were saying to us.
I lived with these photos for years and years. I talked out loud to them. I surrounded myself with them even when I was writing about a chalk outline in Ferguson, Mo., a silky Motown croon, a 14-year-old Black boy’s end in the Tallahatchie, so many things beyond their time. I trusted them until they trusted me. Not with their specific names, voices, and backgrounds, but with the texture of the time they lived in. My authority as an author was secondary to providing an unfettered landscape for story.
There’s a music embedded there. Every time you look at the picture and its accompanying poem, there are notes—threaded with gospel, field songs, and discordant notes plucked from homemade instruments—that begin to link them. Our past has a sound that we’ve practically forgotten. Every day, we’re fighting against forces determined to make our past disappear. In the pages of Unshuttered, I want it to blare, be a nuisance, rise to its rightful place.
British poet Hannah Sullivan’s new collection, Was It for This (FSG, out now), explores the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London, childhood, and motherhood, and features photos taken by her father and herself.
When I inherited my father’s photographs, which was partially what inspired me to write about childhood, I reflected on the fact that I had become a young adult in a sort of lull in photographic periodicity. My father, who was a keen amateur photographer, was taking photos every week and getting them developed a couple of times a month. I began to think about the media moment of these photographs, and also about the emergence of color photography as a distinctive style a decade earlier, as in Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. Ideally, the photographs in this book would have been color reproductions. Color photographs seem less melancholy, reprinted in a book, than black-and-white ones. But they have a peculiar nostalgia of their own, linked perhaps to their apparent verisimilitude, to being less stylized.
For the photographs that I took myself, I came to recognize how very different the role of poet is from the role of photographer. I could pass by the very same things I was trying to photograph and look at them, possibly with a malevolent eye as a poet, and no one would know. Even with a phone, people are much more sensitive to the camera being pointed on them. That made me appreciate more fully the freedom that I had as a poet to look around without others knowing.
I included photography because I was interested in adopting modes of perception that were not organic to me. Through this, I was able to bathe the everyday in more significance. It’s one of the things photography does well—and could help poetry to do well—to pay more attention to the mundane. But making use of someone else’s photos, taken decades earlier, and making your own as part of an aesthetic project seem to be totally separate practices. If you’re a writer first and foremost, the photos are subsidiary to the writing. In “Was It for This,” I begin by describing how I go around taking technically unsatisfactory photographs, mostly of buildings. But the text manages to get past this and learns to start looking at things with love and attention. The photographs were a means to a deeper apprehension.
Read more from our Poetry 2023 Feature:
Image Makers: New Poetry Books
These collections harness visual media to examine the past for clues as to what’s most urgent in the present.