the road, in the lake house, the pillows won’t
get any softer than they are now. I’d say that’s
about four Candles short of a Light.” (Curiosity XXXVI)
Ian F. Thomas (aside as intro): Through the bottom of a highball glass, Patrick and I became friends. Meeting weekly to laugh, drink and talk about our individual practices and to complain about life. While the outcomes of our individual works may manifest in different ways, I couldn’t help feeling a parallel to the self-deprecating nature and self-righteous hypocrisy that lie beneath our waxing veneers. Years have passed since those times but they are some of my most fond memories, two friends drunk and delusional thinking that they are the only two people in the world that know anything. How wrong we were.
IFT: As a writer who engages in collaborations with visual artists, how do you think of visualization as it pertains to poetry, and what connection(s) do you see that tie this type of pictorial description to the methodologies of visual artist?
Patrick Whitfill: When I’ve worked with visual artists, what I’ve noticed is how differently they approach a poem, because it isn’t about the tradition or the publishing world or anything else but the thing directly in front of them. That’s what they trust to work with. From there, the process of hearing and reacting to a single reader’s response, who has ideas and directions I couldn’t have guessed at, lets me take a new direction in the piece, or embellish an old one, or try something completely different. In terms of visualization, I want the image to come through in a poem, to come through and stick right in the front of your mind for a bit after reading it. Maybe for a long time after reading it. To me, that’s what I’ve collaborated with in the past: artists who want the image and to make it stick.
IFT: Patrick as I read your work I keep feeling as though guilt plays a role. Whether it is personal guilt or the sense that there is guilt placed upon you, there still seems to be an undertow of this feeling. Is this a cognitive decision on your part?
PW: Most of everything I do, up to and including poetry, is in response to guilt. I couldn’t tell you where this originated—maybe from growing up in predominantly Southern Baptist cultures, maybe not—but I’ve always approached my life as a series of potentially embarrassing mistakes that I’ve gotten away with. If I don’t write, I feel guilty. If I write poorly, I feel guilty. If I think I’m writing well, I feel guilty. It isn’t healthy, of course, but I suppose it keeps me from dipping into pride and self-aggrandizement, which I have an almost physical aversion towards. My poems approach this issue as best they can, try to unpack it, get to some root of the issue, but they never do. And they don’t get there because I can’t get there. But that’s what makes them fun, I guess, that constant searching for a conclusion that simply doesn’t exist. And, when it’s not guilt that I’m dealing with, it’s fear. Guilt and fear. Without those two little minions prodding me along, I wouldn’t get anything done.
IFT: I can unfortunately relate being deeply riddled with guilt, but anyway. You’re currently working on a massive poem. Could you speak to the size and importance of this work and to how an undertaking such as this one has been different them your previous works?
“I never have learned how to draw. I consider
this a desperate kind of failure, like walking
into the same wall for an entire afternoon,
wishing it would turn into a door by the sheer
force of my dumb will.” (Curiosity IX)
PW: My latest project happened in about a dozen different ways at once. Or it felt like that at the time. At its heart, the book, called Curiosity, is a long poem about not knowing where or what home is. That’s basically the center of it. And, in that, and maybe only that way, it resembles my older work. The central image of the book is the Mars Rover, the Curiosity, and I spent some time researching all of that business. By “researching,” I mean, I trolled the internet and read lots of unreliable information about Mars and space travel. Then I opened up my research some, read more reliable/textbooky stuff on physics and Mars and the history of space travel, the Voyager satellites, Carl Sagan. I wanted to write about the magnitude of the Mars Rover when I first started, this thing on another planet streaming video to us. I couldn’t get to it, though, that sense of awe, so I started writing about everything else that happened when I thought about space travel. From there, I just let my brain unravel on the page. So, the poem will go from some physics-speak—like a complete misreading of the Pauli Exclusion Principle—to a story about buying beer in Nazareth, TX as a teenager, to a consideration on the sound the word “popsicle” means when you say it too many times in a row. So, things get oddly personal for a book that’s supposed to be about science. But I don’t really understand science. And I don’t really understand myself. So, I combined both fascinations into one poem. Like an experiment.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS:
IAN F. THOMAS: is an installation artist living in Slippery Rock, PA and works at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA. He holds a BFA from Slippery Rock University and an MFA from Texas Tech University. Thomas received additional training at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia, and The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China. His work has been featured in the contemporary ceramics magazines Ceramics: Art and Perception and Ceramics Now. Recent exhibitions include Filtered Permeability at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, and Push Play at Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle. And Is co-founder of One Wall Gallery.
Patrick Whitfill: lives and works in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In 2008, Texas Tech gave him a PhD, and since then, he has served as a writer-in-residence with Hub-Bub in Spartanburg, taught as an instructor at a few colleges and universities, waited some tables, and sold some books at an independent bookstore. His poetry has been published in such places as The Kenyon Review Online, 32 Poems, Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets and in other online and print venues. Along with poet Eric Kocher, he is the co-creator of the New Southern Voices Reading Series. In the fall, he will join the faculty of Wofford College as a Visiting Assistant Professor.