Like every writer I know, when I read an essay or article for which I feel some elusive attraction to something in its content, I save and reread it over a period of time. Because the New York Times covers a broad array of topics in history, language, the arts, and science, I often find pieces there I save. I love the NYT obituaries from which I’ve learned oblique and rich perspectives on history. Actually, my first paid writing position was as a reporter one summer for the New Rochelle Standard Star, where I wrote obits and practiced mustering the courage to call people I feared questioning. It was there I overcame the reluctance about being intrusive and where I understood that the story of a life and its times can be told well in an obit.
I’m especially drawn to the lives of artists and their creative process. Over the past decade, I’ve become increasingly convinced that poets can learn patience by studying visual work. To test this theory, I began teaching in the galleries at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). I often lead viewers on a Slow Art tour in which we spend an hour looking at only two or three paintings or an installation. The art rewards by revealing itself over time. Particularly for a writer, such slow looking offers an alternative way of experiencing how an artist might encounter physical reality—what subjects an artist finds worthy of presentation and in which materials, colors, dimension, and scale. Artists teach writers there is more than one way to see.
I feed my curiosity about the choices artists make by seeing films and reading biographies and essays about them. In August 2016, in an article in the NYT, I read about the discovery of a portrait of Emma Dobigny underneath another Degas portrait by means of a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that targets an object with high-energy light. Something about that layering of the past behind the present, a persistent thread in my own work, captivated me. Roughly halfway through “Underpainting,” the poem pirouettes into the poet’s memory. Here, the poem explained to me why I was drawn to the original painting of Emma Dobigny under the later “Portrait of A Woman.” My pirouette was unplanned. Of course it was. As poets know, much of the work of poetry is to remain open to intuitive turns while they are exercising everything they know about poetry in every poem. A poem may finish up accomplished and admirable, but the pirouette is what makes writing poetry magical. (See “Click in the Bolt” for more on this subject.)
I find humbling these unpredictable, dancing moments of the mind when it moves beyond the analytical. These moments will come, but when they will come and for which poems they will come, remains a mystery. Losing myself in another artist’s work, most especially the work of a painter or sculptor, is a way to practice non-linear observation, train the mind to let down its guard, and bypass its habitual way of putting two and two together.
Jayne Benjulian is the author of Five Sextillion Atoms (Saddle Road Press 2016). Her poems and essays appear in numerous literary and performance journals, including Agni, Barrow Street, The Cortland Review, Women’s Review of Books, Mudlark, and Poetry Daily. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Prize.
Jayne served as Apple’s chief speechwriter; investigator for the public defender in King County, Washington; and director of new play development at Magic Theatre. She earned an MFA at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and lives in Massachusetts, where she edits the manuscripts of other writers and teaches the writing and performance of poetry.
Jayne Benjulian contributed to North American Review, Volume 304.2