More on pieces, wholes.

After reading Martin’s post and thinking about the individual poem vs. the body of work, I attended a photography exhibition. It was a good example of this paradigm. As a collection, hung together collage-style in one large room of a gallery, I thought the photographs had some interest. Collectively, they created a mood, and one seemed tied to another in style and theme. But when a friend mentioned she was selecting one to keep, as a gift from the artist, I tried to consider the individual images apart from the collection, and each fell flat. Out of context, they looked amateurish, a little too dramatic. Does this mean one would need the entire collection, or at least a handful, on the living room wall?

Ideally, the power of each individual image would contribute to the power of the whole. In the analogous process of building a chapbook or book of poems, this can mean that each poem contributes to a narrative (I think of Addonizio’s Jimmy and Rita), or meditates on a theme (like Gluck’s Wild Iris.). The whole can also, of course, be less overt, like any number of good examples. In the best cases, the individual poems serve both on their own, and to hold up the structure of the book. And if the structure is strong, does it allow for some weakness in its members? Do the stronger poems carry weaker poems, do they average out?

It sounds obvious, but editing is vital to the process of building a book. Visual artists, especially photographers like the one with whom I happen to cohabitate, look at editing as a vigorous, intensive process, on equal footing with the creation and printing of the images. Because so many images are created, the selection of what goes into and what gets left out of a body of work requires a disciplined eye. I find it useful, as a poet, to examine that process, and even to picture my poems hung up in a big gallery, side by side. What kind of atmosphere would they create? Would they draw people into that room, and then keep them there?

by Renee Lorion

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