Poetry Shelf conversation: Sarah Scott on paintings and poetry

 

Leaven

Heapmeal. Piecemeal. Leafmeal. We all fall
into our chairs like collapsed parachutes. Each of us is known
to have been ground down. Each of us has wished
for a meal like this. Wholemeal. With some warmth
in the talk or in herself. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting
of the last supper, the person beside you sprouts
nasturtium-green, seems attached to a branch – Rameal.
On this very fertile ground, another person has found the sea
is internal – watermeal – and seems draped in an only slightly
tousled world. But you are inside the
flesh of a pomegranate. Bloodmeal. Ravishmeal. Each of us lean
into the foreground of the other – Limbmeal
by Limbmeal – to see the source of sun is a person.
So much ground, from which everything can rise.

Sarah Scott

Paula: I am captivated by your poetry. The three poems included here, with their attachments to particular paintings, mesmerise on so many levels. Are they part of a wider project? What prompted it?

Sarah: My background is in art history and curating and I’ve always drawn and painted. I thought it might be interesting to have those things cross-pollinate with my creative work in poetry, and now I would love to see this to grow into a larger project. Writing poetry about art feels like a rich vein to me; there’s an endless supply of material, and there is something that happens between the artist/artwork and writer/poem, like a double shot of creativity.

I woke up from a dream one night and wrote down the name Fiona Hall. She’s an Australian artist whose work I must have come across and it had lodged in my subconscious. I sought out her work and I love her experimental, beautiful depictions of the natural world. My poem Amazonical was prompted by looking at a still of the video Amazonical from her exhibition Force Field.

In Leaven I looked at Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco The Last Supper – it was Easter or almost, when I wrote it, so ideas around ascension just floated up into the poem. My poem House by the Railroad, which I talk more about below, responds to Edward Hopper’s haunting painting of the same name.

Amazonical

maybe we go for our usual walk
& the way you talk
draws out one kid-soft living example:

maybe the sky looks
                        like a giant waterlily
except heavier, its Victorian under-structure
Built for Dusk

maybe mountains of babies were placed on its leaves
in a crystal pavilion in the 1830’s
a shoot to show what else there could be

in the universe more powerful than
when you touch gingerly &

my mouth is another opening flower
bruised as the natural world

 

Sarah Scott

Paula: I think we need a new word to describe the bridge between poem and artwork. Not exactly translation, transcendence, conversation, road trip.

Sarah: Yes, that’s so true! There’s the potential to speak in a slightly different language and transcend your usual ways of thinking. Anne Carson writes somewhere about the desire to find ways to stand back from yourself, in order to get closer in, and I think the words ekphrasis (poetry about art) and ekstasis (to stand outside of oneself, as in awe) seem curiously close, like they are knit together somewhere deep in the language. Ekphrasis poetry also feels collaborative, like a conversation – sparks from the art overbrim into your own creative process, taking you in unexpected directions.

Paula: What draws you to a painting?

Sarah: If an image draws me down into something deeper, I run with it. Fiona Hall’s video Amazonical immediately threw a confetti of ideas over me. It’s surreal, slant and beautiful. In the video-still I base my poem on, the image of a giant waterlily is overlaid on a landscape, in dusky, bruised colours, making me think about the vulnerability and exhaustion of the natural world, which seems critical right now. I also love the title, and sometimes it’s the title (like with poetry) that draws me in.

Paula: I love how your poems are a sweet trinity of sound, image and surprise. What is important when you write a poem?

Sarah: Sound is so important to me. The more mysterious grooves of prayer and song rather than ordinary speech resonate for me, and I like to let language lead. I’ve also realised that I think through images – they open up vistas through which to talk about other things. The process of writing is like travelling through those doors, toward someplace you didn’t know you were going, but hopefully, you’re happy you did.

House by the Railroad
for Phyllis

If a house could be you, in your pale blue swimsuit.
If you’d mouthed this house like gum.
If the letterbox still flapped open, making the sound
of one afternoon on the ocean.
If the railroad tracks carried blood
back to the plains of your heart.
If this house could make light of its own dark.
If I scalloped some sky from a Botticelli.
If we washed all the small talk off.
If your weatherboards were touched soft
by grass. If I could return here
on a recommissioned train. If we were on the rust
-filled platform again, me helping you down
and down, into the open sea.

Sarah Scott

Paula: Does autobiography enter the mesh?

Sarah: I feel like this process allows me to go down the tracks of my own life and thought without realising. Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad for instance, felt strangely comforting to me, even though it is a painting that speaks of absence, and my poem became a love letter to my late grandmother who I was very close to.

Paula: Tell me about the Poetry Lightbox Series you curate in Te Whanganui-a-Tara.

Sarah: The lightbox project has given me the opportunity to showcase the work of other poets in a space usually reserved for visual art. People encounter the lightbox on their commute to work or walking up Cuba Street, and I like that these might be people that may not seek poetry out, but there it is, in such an unexpected place. It’s a joyful project to me – creating room for quiet and beauty in the busy urban environment, and I’m hugely grateful to the poets who have contributed their amazing work for it.

Paula: Do you read much poetry? Can you share a couple of books that have left a mark on you recently?

Sarah: I’m smitten by the work of American poet Mary Szybist, whose collection Incarnadine refracts and reflects on depictions of the Virgin Mary from different perspectives. Her imagery is startling, and I can’t recommend her work highly enough. A friend in the States put me onto the ‘pastoral surrealism’ of James Wright. Reading Wright’s collected poems, I’ve had to pause quite often just to take it in – it’s quietly ecstatic – an amazing and rare reading experience.

Sarah Scott’s poetry has appeared in LandfallTurbine |Kapohau and Fresh Ink. She currently curates the Poetry Lightbox Series in Te Whanganui-a-Tara where she lives with her partner and two sons. 

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