Peter Weltner and I first met in the early 1980s in San Francisco well before the dawn of the internet, drawn together by mutual friends and love of visual art and poetry. We communicated for a while but then distance and projects separated us. Two decades later, in the age of Google, Peter located me through my web site and our friendship resumed, blossoming into a series of collaborative projects beginning with a book of his poems and my photographs entitled The One-Winged Body, published by Marrowstone Press in 2011.
Technically speaking, these are not exactly collaborations, except for the agreement to do them. The four books we’ve done together are what I prefer to call a cross-pollination of creative expressions. Two of the books, The One-Winged Body and Water’s Eye are Peter’s poetic responses to the images. It is a processing I find most fascinating.
The following conversation touches on these responses.
Conversation with Peter Weltner
GG: I recall, Peter, sending you the first image that set loose the first poem from The One-Winged Body. I, of course, wasn’t expecting a poem back, but was delighted when it arrived, and then another and another, until the book essentially took flight. What intrigues me is how the mind of the poet is ignited by the image. What, for you, is the catalyst?
PW: I like the verb “ignited.” Perhaps any image, if interesting in some way, might evoke a poem. But it would remain on the surface, merely descriptive, say, or a kind of reportage if it went no deeper than that. But to be ignited by an image, you must feel it inside you. Let me change the figure. What I saw in your images of Christopher mirrored something, some things I should say, that I had seen already in the way memory sees, through past experiences and recollected emotions and recalled knowledge.
In this instance, the pictures were all erotic, but the presence of Eros in them was profound. That is, as desire can do, it touched myth, dreams, and ancient images that had long haunted me as well as intensities of feeling that I had with a lover years ago that have never left me, thank goodness. I don’t think I was imposing my experiences on the images. I was seeing and feeling them again through your photographs. Your pictures had seized them and they, those feelings and images in me, had become one with the pictures, as if they had entered them and taken on that specific representation. If that mirroring hadn’t happened, if the one had not been in some sense reflected in the other, then no poem would have been possible in the way I would have wanted. That is, it would have failed to be true to the desire that led to the image, that, better, was the image.
I think this is true about all images, by the way. Even landscapes must seem to reflect something deep inside you for the poem to be incited. All poetry, at least the sort of poetry I care about, is sensual. But this is not solely poetic subjectivity. Rather it is the rhyme the poet finds in the poem he writes and the image he is looking at. That’s what sets the passion smoldering. I am talking here mostly about poems written in response to an image that someone else, an artist or photographer, has made. But I think it may be true at other times as well. That is what a poetic image often is, isn’t it? A rhyming between it and the world?
GG: Yes, I believe it is. And the poet, the poem, seems essential in that alignment, keeping the listener connected. Many of your poems, especially in The One-Winged Body, imbue a narrative voice that flows from the ancient to the contemporary, from mythic storytelling to personal memory, such as the poem, ‘A Pool, A Lake,’ in which we encounter you and Robert in youth, and you, the poet, speaking to Christopher, the man in the photograph, and you, as storyteller, taking us beyond the reflection of Narcissus. And yet it all makes sense. Water and memory are timeless….and all in fourteen lines. Can you touch upon this navigation of time…or I should say, timelessness, in your poetry?
PW: ‘Timelessness’ is a big word, Galen. In Water’s Eye, it appears in an important line full of other bigs words. I took it out and put it back in again several times. It remains in the poem, of course, riskily. What I don’t mean by it is what a lot of modernists might have meant by it: the work of art as transcendent to time, like Yeats’ golden bird. My imagination is too historical for that. Or too earth bound. I’m not sure.
But I’m not answering your question. Let me briefly return to the image of the mirror. If you see yourself, in whatever way you might mean by ‘self,’ reflected in a myth or a story you’ve learned from history or found in a novel or seen in a photograph, the sensation that ensues, at least for me, feels as if it lives at once in several worlds. Then is now, now is then. Time, as Wagner wrote in Parsifal, has become space. Memory need not be just a looking back or nostalgia; it is a recovery of the past for the life of the present. I sense that recovery, it can be no more than an intimation, as timelessness, a stillness, the way form can be found in transience and change.
I know this is much too abstractly said. These are difficult notions to make clear. I would say that in your photograph, “Pan: Hania,” of Christopher in which a flashlight, I believe, is drawing light over him in an exposure that makes it look as if it is happening under water summoned in me a night with Robert after we had been swimming and were taking a shower. “Water man shadow dream.” All things flow and the man is real and the shadow is his reflection and the dream cannot be dreamt without memory. Yet those four nouns name one thing, one person, my Robert, your Christopher, one person for the moment of the poem who is also submerged in water, who in a way is water, as as I say, praising it and him, in that poem’s last sentence, “Best of all things is water,” stolen from Pindar. “All things flow,” as another and even more ancient Greek asserted: love does, men do, dreams do. Heraclitus also said, as famously, no man steps into the same river twice. And yet the river is there to step into. I suppose that is a kind of timelessness, perhaps, if that makes sense, though I think, as always, the poem or the photograph or the painting makes more sense of these matters, evokes them far better, than any abstractions or attempts to be clearer than the work of art already is.
By “now is then,” I don’t mean one moment turns into the other. (The phrase is another theft, by the way, from Bunting.) I mean they reflect one another, each can be seen in and through the other. That seems to me to be a sort of timelessness, not as an absolute transcendence of time but as a stillness within it. The ways to that stillness are many. But one of them is desire whether recalled, yearned for, or realized. In your photograph of Christopher, I recollected a moment with Robert and in that twinning emerged something at once very ancient and ever present inside me.
But to return more briefly to the poem you referred to, “ A Pool, a Lake.” In it, that same near obsession with reflections that I am brooding about in these poems is present again, of course, but even more explicitly in its doublings. People really did often think Robert and I were brothers, which pleased us both, incestuous brothers as we thought of ourselves. I suppose there is something slightly narcissistic in that, to see oneself in the image of some other, your body shining back at you. But it is also, after all, to find the self in the other, the other in the self, the differences as much as the similarities. Even for Narcissus, after all, the image in the pool is not who he is, not entirely so, at least. Perhaps this intermingling of self in selves is not so strange. It might be one of the meanings of love.
GG: In our most recent weaving together of word and image, Late Summer Storm in Early Winter, I had the delightful experience of connecting images to your poems. It was magnetic. For example, your beginning poem, ‘The Eternity of the Naïve Moment.’ After my first reading of the poem, the painting, ‘Pneuma Shift IV’ immediately surfaced….or rather the image of the painting came to mind. And fortunately I have it archived. This work on paper was painted in 1981, part of a series of abstract landscape paintings that came out of my listening to the poco-adagio section from the first movement of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony in C Minor. Certainly, for me, both stillness and yearning are deeply expressed in this movement; the paintings were born out of that expression of music. Now, over three decades later, the painting has found the poem and it seems there is a kind of ordainment about it all—the music, the painting, the poem; even its title–everything, as you referred to earlier, seems to reflect an original source. This poem, ‘The Eternity of the Naïve Moment,’ seems the perfect poem to begin Late Summer Storm in Early Winter.
I’m not suggesting there’s some kind of ‘New Age’ ordainment at play here, but I’m always fascinated with what feels like synchronous events; or perhaps we’re just experiencing the beauty of Walpole’s serendipity. Certainly as a visual artist, I’ve come to appreciate and often bow to the unexpected. As a writer and poet, do these elements find there way into the crafting of your work?
PW: Always. I think writing began and still perhaps begins for me in listening to music. I studied violin for a while and later oboe. I was lousy at both. But the lessons showed me how to listen much better. When I was a boy, starting very young at Salem Academy, later with some very gifted artists, like Gerald Coble, I studied painting seriously. I wasn’t good at it for a number of reasons, or at least not good enough, but it helped me see others’ work much better. I imitated endlessly in my own work. I had yet to see for myself. But that tactile engagement, making pictures, gave me insights, I hope, into visual imagery I might not have had otherwise. Poetry, in a way, is music and painting or sculpture combined, the aural and the visual realized in and through words. Synesthesia is the fancy word for it. But it is not quite what I mean. If I listen to music intently enough or look at a picture and I am seriously moved by it, the experience of it ignites the poem. I am not explaining anything away here. What happens is mostly a mystery to me since a walk on the beach at dawn, say, can affect me in the same way. I suspect, though, that nearly all of my most important experiences have been given me through whatever we mean when we say ‘art’, even the raptures of desire. But ‘art’ also includes, of course, narrative, story, plot and thereby myths and fables and private, or seemingly private things like fantasies and dreams.
I think much of life is serendipitous, or, to use a less happy phrase, a consequence of chance, a chance that sometimes feels so inevitable that we call it fated. Art, certainly a lot of poetry, shares that inevitability. I believe that is one of the things we mean by inspiration, Galen: to see and be seen at once, the dialogues we have and enact between ourselves and a constantly changing world. Within that, if we are lucky, we find the stillness that is form in art and perhaps in life, too. The first poem of the new book is partially about that. It speaks to ancient rites of exchange, in which then speaks in and through now, as your paintings speak in and through my poems, or my poems through your paintings and photographs, whether that dialogue began in my work or yours. That is what moves me so profoundly about it, because through it my work becomes so much more than it is or could be in itself alone.
GG: It was ‘chance’ that surely brought us together, though fortune, I think, is a better word, each of us beginning life at about the same time, in similar proximity, southern boys, as it were, who share this belief of becoming more than we are — what Lewis Hyde calls gift exchange — later in life meeting, and still later, confessing our beliefs in art and what it means, at least to us.
And we certainly find ourselves witness to this ‘constantly changing world.’ If there is a current ‘ism’ in visual art, I’m unaware of it. I don’t believe there’s anything other than what generally falls under ‘Post Modernism’ or perhaps ‘skepticism on the cusp of nihilism.’ As a writer, poet, and someone who well understands the culture of language, do you think the overwhelming speed and encroachment of communication technology (and the underlying reasons for it) are, for lack of a better word, polluting our ability to appreciate and benefit from our ‘human story’; in other words, our history and our myths and, I suppose, our connectedness to what has come before?
PW: My too quick answer would be “yes.” Technology of any sort cannot be a substitute or a surrogate for a walk in the woods or by the ocean. It cannot give you the direct experience of anything, the extraordinariness of a city, say, as you stroll on its sidewalks at night seriously experiencing and thinking about all that you see, the lights, the traffic, the crowds–all those things that delighted a poet like O’Hara or earlier in part created the poet Baudelaire was. We all have seen families gathered at a table for a meal, each lost in his or her technological device. I suspect most of what they say and hear is chatter. I don’t want to sound easily dismissive or superior. But what dismays me about technology and the ways in which it stands between people and the world is how it becomes a substitute for real experience and deep thought. It replaces memory and history. I believe that the technocratic way of seeing and being in the world destroys any sense of the sacred. That violence, because it is violent in its way, erases myth, too, of course, and any awareness of the holy. I am not talking about sectarian convictions, Galen. I am talking about what might happen to a person hiking deep into a forest late at night and becoming as much as possible aware of it, of where he is and therefore who he is in the world.
I am not a meditator. I find it boring. I was pleased to see in an op ed piece in The New York Times recently an article by a man who contended that there are many ways to mindfulness and the sort of intensity of awareness and attention meditation might provide. Walking, just simple walking, is one of them. But it requires, to cite D.H. Lawrence, the whole man wholly attentive. I don’t think any art, not any I care about anyway, is possible with serious attention to the world outside oneself and all its mysteries. That includes the past, personal, political, and social, of course, and the deep past, not factual but nonetheless real in its own way, of myths, legends, fairy tales, sagas, and so froth. Like memory, the past gives us ourselves, the selves in each self, the many who each of us is. Technology substitutes for that a language of an ever present now in which the language exists independent of any ground whatsoever. It destroys the possibility of what Heidegger might call the thinking of Being.
On the other hand, much of our work together, yours and mine, I mean, is dependent upon technology. Technology, properly and carefully used, has allowed for real communication to become more prolific as well. It is a useful tool. It does bridge worlds and does make some forms of communication possible that we did not have before. I suppose I would distinguish between technology as a tool, no better or worse than those who use it, who know when it is useful and when it is pernicious, and technology as a world view. It is the latter I am strongly opposed to.
One final point to bring this conversation not to a conclusion but to a sort of dangling end. All art is a form of mediation, too, of course. In our work together, your work reflects on mine, mine on yours. Each is seen, I hope, more profoundly when seen in and through the other. Furthermore, a poem or a photograph consists of words or images on a page. Art, all art, music perhaps most obviously of all, is a medium of revelation–among other things of the world itself. It points to things, often important things, outside itself. I don’t mean it does or should claim for itself the privileges of wisdom. But, I firmly believe and think this, as the philosopher claimed, it is the House of Being. Too many artists, including many poets, often grouped glibly together under the term “experimental” or “postmodern,” reject this. I think, in that rejection, their work has been in one way or another over conceptualized, over theorized, and thereby, either deliberately or accidentally, become “technological.” The tool has become not the means but a kind of end in itself. I mean that in denying that art offers any glimpses of transcendence, of any kind whatsoever, such work becomes, like everything else, just a thing. I reject that with all my mind and heart.
I’ll end this much too lengthy answer by saying that I am, self-confessedly, a romantic still. I don’t think the word designates merely a period in cultural history. I think it signifies an attitude to the world that understands it is more important than we are, that others are more important than I am, that art means more than I can ever know, even as I write a poem or look at a painting. Romanticism is not separate from either the tragic or the sublime or holy. It is a compassionate art, suffering and feeling with what is there, with all the manifestations of reality we can experience, and trying to bring it into expression. It begins and ends in real things. And reality, for me, always embodies, incarnates, begins and ends in mystery, the incalculable strangeness of the actual, ourselves, our pasts, and the world, the earth itself, we walk upon for a while.