The Academy of American Poets in partnership with the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City presents a free conversation series each fall exploring how different art forms engage with poetry. These conversations pair some of today’s most celebrated poets with accomplished artists from other disciplines. On October 25, 2017, the series featured Academy of American Poets Chancellor Terrance Hayes and American Academy Award in Art winner Ellen Gallagher. Read Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jennifer Benka’s introduction of the event.
Thank you Rosie and Housing Works, and all of you for joining us this evening. We’re grateful to have such a special venue for our Fall Conversation Series.
For those of you who might not be familiar with the Academy of American Poets, we are the nation’s largest membership-based poetry organization. We produce Poem-a-Day, National Poetry Month in April, Teach This Poem, and the website Poets.org, where you can find more information about all of our programs and publications, and join us as a member.
In our work to champion poets and poetry, one of the things we try to convey in our programs and publications is the fact that poetry exists in relationship to and in conversation with other art forms and disciplines. There is no poetry without music, no poetry without movement of the body, no poetry without painting.
Ruminate on runes and ask, which came first: text or image? What and how is “saying”?
Tonight we are fortunate to have two artists who work with text, manipulate imagery, invent metaphoric landscapes, and challenge the borders of the page and canvass. In both their bodies of work, there is a fluidity of form. Perhaps it is no secret that they are both writers and painters.
Academy Chancellor Terrance Hayes is the author of several collections of poetry including, How to Be Drawn, a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and which features his self-portrait on the cover…; Lighthead, which won the National Book Award for Poetry; and Hip Logic, which won the 2001 National Poetry Series.
How to Be Drawn includes a poem titled, “Wigphrastic,” which is an ekphrastic poem inspired by Ellen Gallagher’s work “DeLuxe” --- a large work comprised of a series of 60 framed images that hang in a grid. Each image comes from many decades old beauty-product advertisements in African American magazines.
About the work Ellen said, “The wig ladies are fugitives. Conscripts from another time and place, liberated from the 'race' magazines of the past…” But they are transformed “here on the pages that once held them captive.”
Transformation and liberation are themes in Hayes’s work, too.
His series of poems all titled “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin” dare, lambast, reveal, rev-el, and offer radical honesty. These are blood-letting poems that forge new models for truth-telling in the context of and in complete contradiction to the model of a lying president and defenders of white supremacists.
Innovation is core to Hayes’s work. His Golden Shovel form, an homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, is one of very few forms in modern and contemporary poetry to be taken up by others.
He has received many honors and awards, including a Whiting Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. And, in 2014, he was named a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania where he is a co-founder of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics.
Award-winning visual artist Ellen Gallagher studied writing at Oberlin College before attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In Boston, she was a part of the Dark Room Collective, a group of African American poets and artists who met regularly for salons and readings. Other members included Kevin Young, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, and Major Jackson.
Among other influences, Gallagher has cited Gertrude Stein. And in Gallagher’s paintings you see how a Stein-like repetition becomes a kind of vocabulary. Each frame is a stanza contributing to a larger image or poem. In Gallagher’s work this is often an examination of race and American culture uniquely visualized.
Judith Wilson writing in Callalo says of Gallagher’s work, it is “post-pop, post-painterly, and post-minimal, (she) operates in a space cleared by contemporary feminist, semiotic, black, and cultural studies discourses. Yet her art negotiates these busy intersections in a starkly independent fashion.”
From a distance, Gallagher’s work has a precision and minimalism that brings Agnes Martin to mind, as well as Howardena Pindell, with her texture and surprising materials. This is abstractionism with a point.
Gallagher’s work has been exhibited widely, including solo shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco; and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Among her many recognitions, she has received the American Academy Award in Art and a Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship.
Please welcome Terrance Hayes and Ellen Gallagher.