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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Remembering Malcolm

It must be spring. A butterfly flies close to my face. I can almost feel it's energy, it's breath.

The two old ladies who live in the corner house have yellow, pink, blue and white flowers coming up.

The young boy is washing his car. His music is blasting, as it should be, on this fine spring day. I like the baseline. The lyrics loop among nigger, nigger, nigger, bla bla bla, nigger nigger nigger, etc. I look straight ahead. Decide not to bother. I'm walking to the grocery store.

Old ladies and men are still wearing light jackets. Am I them? As I unbutton mine.

The noise of spring is hammers, saws, drills. The look is ladders propped on the sides of houses, and children whose job it is to walk the backyard with garbage bags and pooper scoopers. They are unhappy about this chore, having to police the yard, clean it of waste now that winter has gone away.

Snow has melted. Empty lots are filled with used pampers, empty pizza boxes, Budweiser and Pepsi cans, a child's hightop tennis shoe, tires and rotted wood.

I remember Malcolm X, and suddenly I am embarrassed. What if the young boy had belonged to me?

Thursday at the bus stop, a young man wearing a white jacket and cap sat on the bench beside me. He was stooped. When he walked away, I noticed the labored movements of his legs. Ah, a missed opportunity. I should have said hello.

Today in the grocery store, an old man with white hair tiptoes toward me. I'm standing at the line of grocery carts. The old man's hands are extended, as if his lengthened arms can somehow hurry his movements toward the stability of a shopping cart's steady handle. I remember the Thursday stooped young man. I will not miss another opportunity.

"Ēèpàà Baba!" I say to the heavens. To the old man tiptoeing I say, "Stay there. I'm bringing cart to you."

Hams are on sale. Lots of ham buying. At first I'm confused and then I get it. Must be Easter, that time for some of death and rejuvenation.

On the way home, I notice the young man is still washing his car.

"Looks good," I say.

"Thanks," he answers, but doesn't give me eye contact. Why should he?

I stop in front of him, engage him even more. "Are you using regular detergent?"

"No," he says pointing to a plastic container, "I use that yellow stuff."

"Well," I say, "the car looks great. Really hard keeping a black car clean, right?"

This time he looks up. Beautiful black eyes. Sweet face. Could have been one of my grandsons discarded and dismissed by some self-righteous grownup because of sagging jeans and music.

"Thanks," he says, wringing water and soap from his rag into the bucket. "I try."

"See you later," I say.
Malcolm Little
He waves and continues his work.

70 degrees today. Getting shopping done early. Easy food. Fruit. Sandwiches. Cereal, because the beads are laid on the table in the sewing room. The windows are open. Fresh air rejuvenation.

Remembering Malcolm, who said, "Don't be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn't do what you do, or think as you think, or as fast. There was a time when you didn't know what you know today."

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Permanent Crease In Our Right and Wrong

Some years ago, while curating a beadwork exhibition for the Society of Yoruba Bead Artists (Transformation, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 2009), I was introduced to the fiber art of Penny Mater. We reconnected on Facebook, and the following is the result of our conversation.

Quilters always have great stories about how quilts and quilting entered their lives. What was your introduction to quilting?

The best thing about Facebook is re-connecting and I am so delighted we did.  I was thrilled to be a part of Transformation. It was one of my all time favorite shows. 

Penny Mateer
My introduction to quilting was the handmade quilts on the beds at my grandparents’ house in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. My sister and I spent weekends there and every bed had a quilt. I fell in love with those quilts and wanted to learn how. As a child, I learned to sew and embroider, but the first quilt I made was a baby quilt for my then brother and sister-in-law. I didn’t really concentrate on quilting until I stopped working full-time. The real turning point occurred when I made a quilt of the city of Pittsburgh for my father. It was my first non-traditional quilt, and I wanted him to see it on display in a venue other than a quilt show, which typically runs a short time in a fire hall, and so I responded to a Call for Artists in the Post Gazette for the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh’s Annual Art Exhibition. I submitted the quilt. It was accepted, and won a prize. That exhibition was my introduction to the art world and it changed my way of thinking about quilts. That change of thinking ultimately led me to a completely different path. This is where I found my authentic self, my artist self.

Stand #8 Protest Series
Découpage was used by Marie Antoinette, Madame de Pompadour, and Lord Byron. A similar expression of gluing paper to surfaces can be found on the walls of slave cabins, in a dual meaning of function (for insulation) and beauty. Talk about technique, meaning and Sly Stone in Stand! #8 Protest Series.

I love fabric and I love finding and using commercial fabric in ways not intended by manufacturers. The use
of découpage was a logical extension for me when I started to integrate new materials in my work. Fabric can be manipulated around any surface because it is forgiving and retains a tactile quality. I’ve learned that if the fabric is not overly saturated with glue, it will retain its sheen and, then in effect, I can “quilt” anything. My change in materials began with repurposing isolation masks used in hospitals while thinking about how medical care is delivered. Those thoughts led me to consider the shift in our country’s political focus to more isolationist policies and I realized that I needed to show the masks on metaphorical representatives and introduced them as silent heads removed from people.

Each head is an all red Republican, or an all blue Democrat, red/blue Republican, blue/red Democrat or white independent symbolizing the full spectrum of representation from conservative to liberal. The heads stand on stars and stripes. The number I created of each is the proportional analysis of republican to democrats that sat in the house and senate at that time.

Stand is a reaction to my growing frustration with our political leaders, many of whom do not literally stand for what we elected them for, or who won’t stand for what has become demonized as the “liberal” agenda. Sly’s lyrics captured what I was thinking: Stand, you’ve been sitting much too long, there is a permanent crease in your right and wrong. His lyrics are true for all of us as. There is a pressing need to speak up about the ongoing shift in this country to fiscal accountability, with a position that purports all government is bad. The danger in this approach is too many are left behind or fall even further behind. But I think I was feeling more optimistic at the time I created this work because the song is optimistic. Not sure I would make that piece in the same way now. What a difference two years makes.

I love how you fuse traditional and contemporary techniques. Solitary Confinement is such an example – this stark image of the lonely woman told through traditional quilting and the manipulation of fabric and Angelina Fibers.

Solitary Cofinement
Thanks. That quilt was my first attempt at some type of narrative looking back. I made it the year my father died. That says something doesn’t it? Thinking about techniques and the use of Angelina Fibers, a quilter I know suggested I check them out. It turned out they were perfect for the feel I wanted. I am always on the hunt for new materials and techniques. The sky is the limit. One of the tremendous advantages of access to the Internet is the discovery of some great products. My latest is Craft Attitude, a new image transfer product.

What’s Going On, #7 Protest Series. I can hear Marvin through this quilt, and here again is a traditional quilt block, the dresden plate, and Americana fabric fused into message. Talk about this coming together of meaning, commercial and vintage fabric, digital print, and machine piecing, appliqué and quilting.

I am endlessly inspired by music and it is my love of music that moved me to begin the Protest Series. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? still resonates today.
What's Going On #7 Protest Series
I’m questioning how history repeats itself, or needs to be revisited. Protest music inspires people to think and to question assumptions.

This quilt is my response to the introduction of immigration policies in Arizona that gives police officers authority to stop or detain anyone thought to be an illegal immigrant, ask for documentation, and arrest without a warrant. In essence, this is sanctioned racial profiling. In response to this bill, I could not help but think of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty …give me your tired your poor… and how we fail to live up to those words in so many ways. As you point out, I chose the traditional Dresden Plate pattern because it is recognizable as a quilt pattern anyone might have in the home that was made by a beloved relative. 

What's Going On #7 Protest Series (detail)
I am captivated by the infinite ways to manipulate pattern with stars and stripes fabric and I am constantly on the look out for variations, old and new. I could only get so far with commercial fabric, and so I used digital printing to create the statue of liberty in a color and scale that would work with the design. Traffic signs are integrated in much of my work because they are recognizable by all, convey an immediate meaning and at the same time have graphic appeal. The quilting is done with a jagged overall pattern, stars and the inscription from the Statue of Liberty. I'm always striving for cohesive meaning. 

Security Blanket? #1, What's Black and White and Red all Over? is a departure from what we know as quilting. However, patchwork or crazy quilting can be seen as the foundation for collage. What was the inspiration for this piece?

Now I am thinking back to your reference to découpage and the use of newspaper. Interesting thought about
Security Blanket
the foundation for collage. That’s probably how I got there. No question that I have been influenced by my research in the history of quilts and the imagery I have seen of walls in slave cabins and, connecting with that. I have also been thinking about the practice of hanging tapestries in the Middle Ages to prevent cold and damp from entering into rooms. 

Security Blanket #1 is the beginning of my experimentation with 5”x 7” hand-cut newspaper collage. To create the collage the rules I set are no illustrations, all images are from the same day and advertising is fair game. I work intuitively so the meaning is not always apparent to me until after the composition is complete. I began this series because I am greatly concerned about the gradual shift from handheld newspapers to the digital delivery of news which diminishes the impact of photojournalism. Unlike reading the news on a computer screen, the act of holding a newspaper forces the reader to see an image even if just a glance. I learned about large format printing from an entry on the Surface Design Association’s Facebook page. The good news is for a very reasonable fee, you can have a photo enlarged to 50” x 60” (even 60” x 80”!) on fleece and get fascinating results. The bad news is it’s Walmart, and I feel like we are getting fleeced. So although there is a lot about the process you can’t control, I loved the results because now the news is larger than life and you can’t run from it.

In this piece I was thinking about right to work laws, what’s happening to our unions, are we throwing it all away, who is voting and isolation as a recurring theme. Ultimately I envision walls filled with these blankets compelling viewers to wrestle with often uncomfortable realities.

Follow Penny Here:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Language Can Frame You

Here’s me in grad school without a degree writing fiction I didn’t believe in and insecurity screaming you don’t belong

Another voice, the one that said you do belong because they sent the letter that told you to come, didn’t scream, it whispered.

I was confused. A fellow student understood my dilemma and suggested I take a poetry class. “I see poetics in your fiction,” she said, “poetry might clear things up for you.”

The other thing she did was give me A Van Jordon’s MACNOLIA, a collection of poems that tells the story
of a smart little girl who could spell better than everyone.

“MacNolia Cox Montiere, of 189 W. North St., died September 12 at St. Thomas Hospital. Born in Kenmore, she had been a lifetime resident of Akron. She was a member of Livingstone Baptist Church. She won the Beacon Journal Akron Spelling Bee in 1936. She is survived by husband, John…”
Obituary, Akron Beacon Journal, September 14, 1976 

The collection is a history lesson, and covers the environment of Akron (a stand-in for America), infidelity, death, love, journey as seen through train windows and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, sports, Josephine Baker, and the institutionalized battle against one little girl who could spell, “Against a wind that started blowing / Centuries before she was even born” (Covering the Spelling Bee).

Here is a writer fond of definitive meaning, none of this roughshod-the-word-means-this-now-because-of-popular-usage. Here is etymology, dictionaries and language responsible for head poems, thinking poems, and truth that gives chill bumps.

From in-cho-ate adj.:

Only begun or entered upon; incipient. As
when ribbons of light peer through inchoate air, before the
thought of loss or love come into focus, as when the first glance
of a stranger brushes over you, and, for that breath of time, you
wonder if time has double-crossed you 

In My One White Friend, Jordan places the age old disbelief in racism into the mouth of MacNolia's close friend. The poem is indicative of perfect places to move on, when discussion becomes a waste of time. MacNolia’s thinks:

An electric breath fills my chest.
For the first time
I notice how blonde her hair flows,
How blue her eyes, how thin her lips,
Which have just separated us forever.

I especially like how Jordan writes about women.  He must study women, our movements, our hands, how we love, our subtleties. He allows us to see ourselves through the timidity of men. He is a student of relationships.

From Wedding Night:

I don’t know if I
have the words to touch the back
of your knees, the small
of your back…brown lines in your
palms…what language can frame you?

In Dust, vague love is made obvious and attainable:

Lift the dust
off your eyes,
lift the velvet haze
off your dreams; wipe
the surface
clean; tear
the rag off you head, and
into your reflection
there’s nothing left to see.
A. Van Jordan

Elegy to My Son is gut wrenching, and as well, keepsake, that thing of finality.

December 15, 1969. We cannot wait / For your return home. Your father is changing / The oil in the car so you’ll have a way / To get around town. For once, we’ll share / A car, like we had to when we only had one. / Your coming home has already brought us closer.

If you are looking for something good to read, something that requires you to spend time with it, MACNOLIA is an historic and culturally sound collection. Even The Night Richard Pryor Met Mudbone makes an appearance:

And I grabbed a handful of the glow from the spotlights,
Rubbed it all over my body, right on stage, naked,
In front of everybody, and I smiled, and they smiled back,
As the light, growing brighter now from the rafters,

Turned to sunshine.

MACNOLIA received the 2004 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the 2004 Whiting Award.

Read more about A. Van Jordan

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sonnets, Tonk and Daggers -- Part Two

Every now and then some poetry comes along that gives me chill bumps. It is language after all, the texture, depth, “bad decisions” and “longwinded cocksure” –ness of it all.

This chill bumping poetry arrived by way of The Watering Hole, through Amoja MoMan Sumler, and Chauncey Beaty (Part One).

Listen to Ode to Dagger, by Amoja MoMan Sumler


She's dick-in-hand slick, deadly accurate
bra hidden stilettos, and fondled tits.
Her smile: folded steel, (tempered after it),
hard handles, and gripped grooves. Gaze: blade (and slit).

Edge faded to boy-in-hood precision.
Sharp. Born to do it, mistress of throw down
her bite tastes of blood and bad decisions.
Tricks splitting lips get shit flipped on death grounds.

Clowns learn late, fate ain't fucked up about you.
Battered frames will brandish hidden metal
that break flesh bonds quicker than it spews
forth an offering to Yah in ghettos.

Iron beat red, forged and fit for struggle
thrust deep as offense. Transgression humbler.

Before we tackle form, let’s start with meaning hidden inside language. On the first reading of Ode to Dagger, I chuckled, had fun with language, phrases like “Gaze: blade (and slit)” and “mistress of throw down,” where meaning is forthcoming and hidden at the same time.

I like that texture immediately presents itself, becomes something to puzzle out. The poem works allegorically and is instantly literal, familiar. The poem is a story, has a beginning, middle and end. So as this blade "looks" at you in the words "blade and slit," it also then stands in as the wielder, surely the most deadly of the daggers in the poem. Her eyes represent intoxication and death. We know, above all else, that this woman is lethal and competent.

The phrase “throw down” has so much information. Could be the fight. Could be the hot sex of the good throw down.

Yes, in this one place in particular, I pushed for her to be all things. The poem must bind us to concrete, to allow room for the ethereality of the cosmic to become spice. Mistress inserts again the strong language of sex but also, more importantly, feminine mastery. She is no mere acolyte. She is the mistress. She is the study of control and discipline: a honed blade. Throw down becomes sex, becomes defense, becomes the actualization of "being prepared."

I love that word, ethereality: light, airy, delicate, refined. What inspired this poem?

A conversation with a very dear colleague of mine (who is an expert in gender studies) challenged me as an artist to always imagine intersectionality as a concept realized. She is the blade. I wanted to write her. I
Amoja MoMan Sumler
wanted to write about a woman who owns her space. How might she go about? What are her sources of power? How would she move? What might she have seen? What was she willing to do? My hope: everything. Most of the poetry I write rejects the pushback of form, so that the overwhelming majority of my poetry follows tenets of the Imagist Manifesto's rejection of form and call to duty to present strong images. Beautiful, exacting, precise, restricting -- form is all of these things, and often resistant to the overt politics of our age. It is exceedingly difficult to be subversive in forms that exist primarily to celebrate a rhythm of language above all else.

When you say "rejects the pushback of form," does that mean you embrace form?

I embrace particular forms as a craftsperson would embrace a particular tool, while denoting that as a creator of culture, sometimes there is no "tool" or set of tools ever complete enough to accomplish every task. I reserve for myself the right to reject form (as the Imagist's did) if what is at stake is "the integrity of the poem" or "the respect for form." I will overwhelmingly err on the side of the poems integrity. 

Ode to Dagger destroys stereotypical assumptions about substance and form. Why did you choose sonnet to hold this poem?

I definitely think Imagists (and later the Modernists) were rejecting the forms of previous eras in so much as they felt them constraining. A poem takes the shape that its bearer is bold enough to craft. Or as Amy Lowell states: "We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea."

I do not only work in free verse, because it is certainly a shiny cage of it's own, but for me, it is much less resistant to the subversive. Free verse (in all of its forms) IS subversion. A failure to comply to the expectation of [conventional] form.  That said, there is a particular elegance to being subversive in a classic style. Poetry is subversion dancing in elegance. I want my voice and my work to always reflect this.

What poets, or writers in general do you listen to/read?

I am a big fan of the old school. Give me Modernists. Give me Melvin B. Tolson. Give me BAM poets. Of course Amiri, but I also have a lot of love for the new school. Is there anyone better than Nikki Finney alive right now? I love the spoken word poets stepping up to take their rightful place in the canon. Look at the vitality that poets like Patricia Smith are bringing to our genre. Something else I think that maybe doesn't get the respect it's due: each and every poet coming out of the Southern Fried Movement that are growing our genre, pushing forth language, teaching me more about poetry every day. I take it all in. Life is the filter that teaches me what will resonate, what will last.

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