I was first introduced to (and became enamored of) Lawrence Gregory’s poems in Steamboat Springs Colorado, where I heard him read Hutterite Strawberries (included in the book), a sensual recollection of an incident one summer in Montana. The newly released book was my first introduction to Birgit Gutsche’s award-winning art — her elemental imagery ranges from beautifully and elegantly stark to playful.
The publication might be classified as an illustrated poetry book but is perhaps better described as a moving juxtaposition of poems and images, a metaphorical dance of observations, a conversation of memories between lovers who have long known each other.
For me, Stretching Silver Through Blue Haze is a way of seeing, of observing, of remembering. Noticing is all that really mattered, Lawrence writes in the poem This November Day (included). His writing reveal an inner tension, a coupling of desire and regret, a landscape of longing.
I asked Lawrence and Birgit to tell me more about what inspired this book and how their collaborative process worked, as poet and photographer, as partners, as husband and wife.
I didn’t write a single poem to respond to or elaborate on a photo that Birgit had taken. But as I went through the process of choosing poems (and re-working most all of them to one degree or another) I sometimes flashed on one of her images. Indeed, the more I worked on the collection, the more I’d flash on her photos. This was partly to do the fact that Birgit and I were reviewing her portfolio a lot at this time as she worked on her website; submitted work to publications; applied for admission to galleries; etc. She was getting herself established in the Taos art scene at the same time I began the book project. So, there was a lot of that energy flowing in the household ethers.
So, that was part of it. But perhaps a more significant factor leading to the collaboration, is the fact that so many of the poems came out of experiences the two of us shared…experiences I noted in journals and that she recorded with her camera. I think it’s totally understandable that so many of her photos seem to “fit” with the poems. It may, indeed, be serendipity. But I’ve a hunch there’s more to it. We’re both expressing a certain soulful/visceral response to experiences we shared. Shared experience but processed individually.
I also need to mention many of the poems in this collection are a direct reflection of Birgit as my muse. Yeah, she’s definitely my muse. One of them, anyway.
At some point in the process I asked Birgit if she’d be willing to let me use some of her photos; she wholeheartedly agreed. I had some specific images in mind for certain poems; for others, I asked her to suggest a few possibilities . . .There were, of course, quite a few poems I did not want associated with a photograph. Also, there were a couple that I felt begged for an image that did not exist. So, I read those poems to Birgit and asked if she’d be willing to go out and make an image that fit. What she came back with was stunning.
What I think is fascinating about this book is the way it illustrates the fact that Birgit tends to think and communicate pictorially. She reveals her soul — dare I use that term in this day and age? — in her images. At the same time, her photographs invite the viewer to consider something deeply personal. I, on the other hand, am a verbal communicator — with a lot of silence thrown into the mix. We have a strong relationship but we definitely encounter communication difficulties at times. Sparks do fly! I find the whole thing, our life journey together — our travels, our marriage, this book — to be such a rewarding endeavor. Incredibly strenuous, too! It’s really rather miraculous, actually.
Lawrence, can you tell me more about your writing process?
Definitely solitary. Messy as hell. For me, a poem can take anywhere from a few hours to a few months. Actually, all the poems in the book took my entire life to write. If we are writing honestly, soulfully — there’s that word again — we must bring to the writing desk all of who we are . . . else, why even bother? And who we are is all we have met in life.
It’s remarkable how seldom I sit down with the idea that I am going to write a poem about a specific idea. In fact, I’m not sure that has ever happened. Instead, I’ll sometimes just start jotting down (seemingly) random thoughts, or let myself go into a stream of consciousness riff until something starts to take form. And then I’ll play with that for a while. Sometimes I’ll wake in the middle of the night hearing a (seemingly) random phrase or sentence — often it seems nonsensical — which I’ll scribble down in a small notebook I keep on the bedside table. And then at some point, I’ll sit down at my desk and “write to it.” Maybe the line ends up being the first line of the finished poem (rare). Often, I’m convinced it will be the last line (that, too, rarely turns out to be the case.). Usually, it ends up living somewhere in the middle. And then there are the occasions when the initial line, the words that sparked the flame, vaporize . . . but that’s okay because they served a crucial purpose as a prompt. One thing is certain, as cliche as it sounds, once I’m in that writing zone the poem does indeed take on a life of its own. And I’ve gotta say, sometimes I’m not at all comfortable with what is coming. It can be hard to lean into that discomfort, but it’s a necessary part of my process. It’s both an engagement with anxiety and a letting go of fear . . . fear on a couple of different levels.
I employ the structure of poetry because it helps in the distillation process. So much of my writing is about coming to terms with something: a complex event; an unsettled state of being; or asking a question for which I have no answer. It can be hard to get to the essence of thoughts, feelings, doubts. But, somehow I can get there — or at least get closer — by creating a boundary of sorts, a vessel to help contain the energy lest it dissipate or overwhelm. That’s the value of utilizing specific poetic forms, like a sonnet, a haiku, and so on. Strange as it may sound, that requisite discipline often helps me accept and even celebrate the uncertainty, insecurity and equivocal nature of everything.
The process can be maddening. Tapping out the rhythm. Counting beats, arranging stressed and unstressed syllables. Feeling the rhythm. Choosing one word over another can be an agonizing process. Do I use a comma here, or allow a line break to serve that purpose? Is that really what I mean? Listening. Listening. Listening. Lots of reading out loud too. That’s so incredibly important for my process: reading what I write out loud . . .
I keep a journal rather religiously . . . have done so for 30 years. A daily practice from which I occasionally mine a nugget or two. But usually those pages are used to clear out the dross; jettison a bunch of bullshit insecurity, righteous indignation, etc . . . the kind of stuff so many people post up on Facebook or spew forth in a Twitter-storm these days. I write all that stuff down in my journals . . . most of which I’ve burned.
Early in the process of writing a poem, I’m restless. I’ll take frequent breaks to go outside . . . cut wood; shovel snow; walk; tinker with one thing or another. Less frequently I’ll sit at my desk staring out the window for hours. I realize now, after years of doing this, that on those evenings when I say to Birgit in frustration that I didn’t get a single thing written, that I wasted the entire f^*k*^g day at my desk . . . those turn out to be necessary days to my process. Don’t ask me why. But I know it’s so. I do all the initial work with a number 2 pencil and yellow legal pad. Once I feel like I’m getting close — like the poem is getting close — I’ll sit down at my computer and “finish it.” At that stage, I’ll sometimes sit at my desk for hours and hours . . . I’m not so restless then. Eventually, I print off the finished draft and read it out loud again. And always I find the first printed version is not finished. But eventually, it’s finished. Abandoned, actually.
Birgit is always the first person to see a “finished” draft. To be specific, she hears it . . . I always read it to her. I can tell instantly what she thinks; how she feels about it. And from time to time she mentions something that doesn’t feel quite right. And it’s remarkable how often the thing she mentions is the thing I wasn’t quite comfortable with!
I next send the draft to my son. (Not always, but almost) You know he’s an incredibly talented artist, but he’s also a terrific writer…better than I am. He is wonderfully supportive, but he won’t hesitate to tell me what he thinks. Interestingly, he rarely offers suggestions about craft. Instead, he will not hesitate to call me out on the premise. He’s sometimes incredulous that I feel a certain way or that I have suggested something or other. But that’s fine with me. It’s healthy, in fact. Healthy for my work; healthy for the relationship he and I have.
Linda: Your writing and Birgit’s photography evoke a strong sense of place. How important is geography to your process?
Lawrence: PLACE is crucial, for me at least. For Birgit, not so much. (I think she’d be fine with me saying that.) I wither in an urban environment. I slip into a depressive funk the moment I arrive in the midst of traffic-choked “Anywhere USA” with all the fast food restaurants, big box franchises, sirens, billboards, etc. Nature and open space and silence are essential to my process, to my life. I love the fact that we live in a place without a Starbucks, Burger King, Petsmart, Best Buy, etc.
Linda: Birgit, can you tell me something of your artistic process? How much is “eye” and “soul” and how much is craft?
Birgit: Although I used (B & W) film in my very early years, I create digital photography now. The principles of film photography still support my technical approach. The symmetry and proportion of a subject or scene speaks to how an image is eventually composed. Why I might choose one subject over another is personal and often draws upon history, memories, and a sense of irony.
Explaining (my) creative process might be as challenging as describing the circular cycle of creative life and, thereby brings to light another question yet — would I be at all drawn to the same images if not for our specific relationship? Much of what I “see” informs our conversations and indeed the result of much of our conversation actually presents to me images in my environment. Arguably, some I would not otherwise have seen. Lawrence is one of the most well read academics I have known. He has added layers of moral, spiritual, political, economic and social texture to my own thought processes and hence, has affected what I see through a lens. Although there has rarely been a direct intention to facilitate or even imbue the other’s artistic medium, our ethers tend to both collide and intermingle.
Linda:Beautifully said Birgit, and worth pondering further: the effect of specific close relationships on our writing and our art. Which photographers do you credit as influences?
Birgit: Sam Abell was my first and most influential artist of photography. His life work of creating thought provoking images remains an inspiration today. Other, but by no means all, notable photographers and spanning a great many photographic statements are Cig Harvey, Fred Herzog, Vivian Maier, Dorothea Lange, Platon, Sebastiao Salgado.
Linda: To see more of Birgit’s work and for upcoming and past exhibits, please visit her website www.birgitgutsche.com
Lawrence’s first reading of Stretching Silver Through Blue Haze will be in Taos, New Mexico at the Historic Taos Inn (Friday May 26, 4:30-6:00 pm) where Birgit’s photography is on exhibit.