19 May 2012

Weaving & word play

This month's word would have to be 'weave'. As I began exploring the principals and elements of weaving for one of my recent projects, I noticed them winding their way through other aspects of my work. I just love how everything feeds off of each other; this is one of the joys of having lots of different projects going at once. The downside, of course, is that it takes longer to complete them. But, as I've noted before, I view time as an ingredient that can only enrich creative work.

Earlier in the year I had mentioned how much I was enjoying poemcrazy: freeing your life with words, a sort of field guide for approaching poetry written by Susan G. Wooldridge. Ideas inspired by her 'word tickets' and 'word pools' have been tumbling around my head for the past few months, and one outlet has been creating 'found' poems. I love the idea of collecting words and phrases and giving them new meaning, and the fact that this form of poetry selectively draws upon text that already exists in some form appeals to the editor in me. Some people gather words from their surroundings...signs, packaging, advertisements...while others turn to books for their material. There are a few 'rules' to the latter version: the words of the poem should retain the same order in which they originally appear, new words may not be added, and the author/source needs to be clearly credited.

Since I'm always trying looking for ways to mine the depths of one of my favorite subjects/most faithful muses—the city of FlorenceI started looking through the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books I've collected over the years. Though I had read that it's advisable to use fiction as the basis for found poetry, writers used language differently back then, and it wasn't hard to find plenty of material with potential.

What nostalgia, lingering among the pages that used to keep me company—making me yearn for Florencebefore I moved here. And I just love the tactile quality of the aged paper with deckled edges...how the old metal type imprinted not only the letters, but also their texture across the page. I decided to use original pages if I could find a book that had deteriorated to the point that taking it apart wouldn't feel too violent. One, an anthology of Florence-themed writings published in 1909, had several loose pages, so I dismantled the signatures (finding that it had actually been rebound some time during its century-long life). The book was full of excerpts by a number of past travelers, and I liked that there were several 'voices' to choose from.

When I found a page with words I wanted to work with, I would made a photocopy. As I went through it, making marks and notes with a pencil, certain words and phrases leaped out. Slowly they began linking to others, creating new imagery.

I determined that I would take the found poems a step further by interpreting them as visual pieces that somehow alluded to the original context, i.e. leaving the original passages still visible to some extent. In considering how to present the emerging poems, translucent papers seemed like a natural starting point. I began by cutting rectangles around the words I had chosen (shown in the image at the beginning of this entry), but there were a few difficulties in executing this method precisely enough for my liking.

At one point I tried to recreate the text on the computer, with the idea of printing out the words I had selected for the new poem on a sheet of vellum, then overlaying it upon the original book page. This allowed the full text to remain distinguishable while giving the chosen words the necessary emphasis. Unfortunately, recreating the exact spacing that had been produced with moveable type proved too complicated. I am always trying to cut down on the amount of time spent at the computer, so it didn't feel like the right direction to pursuea shame, because I think this approach would have satisfied me most from a visual standpoint.

By this time I had begun my experiments with weaving together papers/photos, which in turn led to the idea to weave strips of paper through the lines of text in such a way that the 'found' poems would be revealed. Below are some examples of the different weaving techniques I tried (notes on the process follow the photos).

1. I find this first one to be the most lively study, and think it could be really spectacular with a thoughtful selection of papers. Through as much of the text as possible, I wove the leftover edges from some paper I had watercolored for another project (in retrospect, not the most aesthetic thing I could have chosen!). I then used smaller bits and pieces to cover up the words that did not belong to the poem but were still visible. The attempts to accommodate the varying widths imparted a rather higgly-piggly effect, which I quite like, but it also confirmed that I did indeed prefer to be able to see the original text. (I plan to try this 'wild' weaving again in a different context.)

2. Addressing the issue of the varying widths that were necessary to cover all of the words that didn't belong to the poem led to experimenting with vertical strips that were roughly the same width of a line of text. But even with the fairly narrow strips, it was still tricky in places where the selected words didn't neatly line up with those in the lines above or below.

3. This led to weaving strips of vellum horizontally. This method gave complete control of the positioning of the strips in relationship to the words, though it entails considerably slicing up the page. In the example shown, I used white vellum for a portion toward the top of the page; for another section, I switched to a cream vellum that better matches the book's original creamy pages (not evident here since these tests were done on photocopies).

4. For ages I've been looking for a chance to use some colorful variegated cotton thread, so I decided to give that a try tooespecially since color features prominently in the passage I chose for my trial runs (and in the poem that was coming forth). If I end up choosing this route for the final piece I may try incorporating the colors found in the poem. Creamy-colored cotton that harmonizes with the original book page would also be a beautiful solution, and I will try it at some point as well. {In the meanwhile I have; it's shown below. I do like the effect very much.}

These experiments are far from over, and I realize the examples I've shown may be difficult to fully appreciate since they are merely small gestures on flimsy photocopy paper. I am already beginning to choose papers to mount the eventual pieces upon; considering that the pages I'm working with are Florence-inspired, the locally-marbled papers seem just right for setting them off. I'll share more as things come together.

It seems that so little that goes on in the studio actually gets mentioned here, but I hope to post about other weaving-influenced projects as there is time. I suppose, in some ways, work in the studio parallels the process of weaving itself. The warp must first be established; then, even once it's in place, not much seems to be happening. But as more of the weft is laced through the warp, the substancethe colors, the pattern, the texture—is slowly revealed.

Happy weekend!

{Click here to visit The Found Poetry Review's website.} 

{On the weaving theme, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years
(Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times) comes to mind. This book by
anthropologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber, explores the importance of weaving
through history; I love how she learned to weave as part of her research.}

{My latest letters for ALaW can be seen here.}

09 May 2012

Ninety-one years

Grandmothers seem to instinctively know just how their grandchildren like to be welcomed. Within minutes of our arrival to my paternal grandmother's house, without fail, a tin would be taken from the kitchen cupboard next to the stove and offered to hungry travelers (both young and not-so-young). A sweet, familiar scent wafted out when the lid came off, revealing dozens of little cookies decorated with pastel shades of frostingpink, green, yellowlayered between parchment paper. Composed mostly of butter and sugar, the sensible inclusion of pecans adds a dash of substance to these delightful indulgences.

Making poodons seemed like the perfect way to honor my grandmother's ninety-first birthday, so out came the recipe she had copied down in the cookbook she put together for me when I got married. Her brother-in-law is actually the one credited with finding the recipe, in a magazine; apparently he thought it amusing to emphatically call out "puh don" every time he put his thumb into the little balls of dough (which creates a space for the frosting). And that is how these 'Swedish Tea Cookies' came to be called 'poodons' by our family.

A fondness for sweets is not the only thing my grandmother encouraged; she has surely influenced my love of writing as well. For her, it all began in 1935, when she was fourteen:
I was about to enter high school in the fall. I was what is known today as a "teenager" (the phrase not yet invented), and I felt at loose ends. We in the States were coming through the end of the depression...with lack of jobs, scarce money, many hardships, sometimes not much food to eat. There really wasn't much for young people to do. We did have one radio for entertainment, but no car, no money for movies, or magazines or treats of any kind. Because I was an avid reader even the book supply at the small, local library no longer interested me as I felt I had read all they had to offer. I was just "hanging," looking for somethinganythingto do that would take away the empty feeling I had in my stomach.

A friend her mother worked with subscribed to a magazine that had a back page for young girls (written by children's author Rebecca Caudill), and it was through this that my grandmother came to have her first pen pal.
Besides words of wisdom for girls, and notes of interest, she was willing to pair up girls with each other so they could write to each other. It took a penny post card with your name, address, age and interests.

And so a new passion was born. My grandmother must have written hundreds of thousands of words to people all over the world (many of whom she and my Grandpa were able to meet over the years). One correspondence, with a woman from South Africa, spanned fifty-eight years, and continued for another decade with her daughter. My grandmother's letter-writing habit even drew the attention of the local newspaper, which recorded the fact that she had already collected a suitcase-worth of letters from South Africa during the first thirty-three years of their correspondence.

My grandmother is my first, longest-running and most loyal pen pal. I still remember trying to finish letters to her and my Grandpa in time to make the weekly 'pouch' that would carry letters back and forth between the US and Brazil (where my family lived for five years). For all my good intentions, I have never been the letter-writer she is, but my grandmother saved the letters my sister and I did write during those years and returned them to us when we were older...a precious gift that revives distant memories of our childhood. As email became more popular, my grandmother learned how to negotiate the cyber world as well, but her handwritten, typed or computer-printed letters continued to arrive in our mailbox more often than from anyone else.

At some point, my grandmother also began to record the stories that make up our family history, including many from her childhood (and even some that had been passed down from her mother's own mischievous days as a little girl). Her birthday seemed like the right occasion to pull out the yellow folder of stories that she sent me a few years ago.

So, with a dish of poodons beside me, I lost myself for a little while in times long pastin stories about a favorite apple tree that served as a 'playground and refuge' while she and her sisters were growing up...of playing 'school', which entailed flour-sack towels, their mother's beads and 'all the spare keys from around the house' as the three sisters tried to emulate the nuns who taught at their school (the beads stood in for rosaries and the keys produced the jangling that warned students of a nun's imminent arrival)...of her first peach canning session as a young wife, on a visit to the 'country' relatives...of fragrant yellow violets transplanted from her childhood garden to the home where she and my Grandpa lived until his death sixty years later.

These recollections evoke a sense of nostalgia reminiscent of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I also love (and still re-read regularly). Many things were simpler in the 'olden days'and others were much more difficultbut in reading the accounts of other young women, no matter the decade, there is a marked commonality that connects us to past generations. How lucky we are that my grandmother's yearning to write has led her to record so many moments from her long life.

My Grandma baked thousands of poodons over the decades, and I wish we could return the favor by sharing ours with her. They are a real treat for us since pecans are hard to come by in Florence. In fact, only a scant half-cup remained from our precious stash—exactly enough for one batch of cookies. I can't think of a better way we could have used them.

Below is the recipe for those of you who might like to give them a try.

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