I paint in the spirit of Peter Altenberg, Viennese poet (1859-1919), who wrote, “I never dreamed of being Shakespeare or Goethe, and I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror, the sort that a woman can carry in her purse; one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart.”
Painting frees me to enter the kingdom of not knowing what I’m doing, a place I’d once hoped to enter when I started writing; but when I started writing I already knew too much about writing, having learned the alphabet at age 6 and then cursive handwriting by age 7; by my late teens I was writing journalism and in my early 20s a poem or too; and by that time it was too late. Writing for years—ad copy, freelance journalism, poems—writing gradually convinced me that I knew what I was doing with writing, even when I was writing poems, a form of writing, if it can be called writing and it really can’t be, if it is it’s often to the detriment of the poem if, that is, what results is a poem at all***
I paint in the spirit of poetry, not to express what I know but to express what I don’t know. Not knowing how to paint I’m once again in the joyfully receptive position of the beginner, beginning over and over and not unhappy about it at all but energized, expectant, even grateful for the need my painting have to go back so many times to their beginnings. The sound of a piece of paper, on which something I’ve written that’s displeased me, knowing as much as I know about writing, being crumpled up and thrown away is very different from the sound of my paintbrush dipped in gesso painting over a canvas I’ve just ruined by the gestures I’ve made not knowing what I’m doing. Painting now as much or more than I write has also had curious, unintended effects on the way I think about making a poem, that I’ll go about it from now on in the spirit of painting.
Painting, I’m an abstract representationalist. It’s not so much that I can’t draw a representational figure or that I fear stealing from the most prominent art movement of my time—abstraction—it’s that I enjoy doing both but without the burden of knowing what I’m doing. As an abstract representationalist I want to see what I’m seeing clearly and then put that on a canvas with enough of the clarity disembodied, so that whoever else is seeing the painting sees not so much what I’ve seen but is seeing what only they can see.
The painting I’m painting now is titled “The Skyline of American Literature.” I know it will be a painting of three books, several of them recognizable as books, and there will be words in the painting. Whether the words will or will not constitute a language I don’t know, nor do I know what colors I’ll be using.
***I’m not talking here about craft, of being overly conscious of craft to the degree that consciousness of craft is inhibiting to the making of a poem; I’m talking about something else, something that can’t be talked about.