Creative Correspondence on Text and Image

Rebecca Hart Olander and Elizabeth Paul met at Vermont College of Fine Arts where they participated in workshops on translation and ekphrasis together. They have collaborated on three projects, two resulting in manuscripts. How the Letters Invent Us is a correspondence in prose poems, excerpts of which appear in Duende and They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (Black Lawrence Press). Our Edges Away is a collection of original collages and poems. For a year, Rebecca and Elizabeth sent each other a collage each month and wrote a poem in response. Excerpts have appeared in petrichor, Les Femmes Folles, and The Indianapolis Review. Below is a correspondence between Rebecca and Elizabeth reflecting on their collaborative text-and-image work.


Dear Becky,

I’m excited to finally discuss the text and image work we’ve been doing. We began collaborating with a mission to play, and for me working with text and images is a playful thing. Creating images is very intuitive for me—I get absorbed in the activity, forgetting about myself and about time in a way I don’t when I’m writing. For me, writing is slower, more self-conscious, and deliberate. This may especially be true in revising stages. I revise when I create images too, but it’s not a separate phase with its own careful feeling. It’s going on all the time as I look and look again at an image as it evolves.

I also think of play as interactive, and when I’m writing with images I get to interact. When I wrote ekphrastic poems based on paintings by Matisse, I got to know his work so well that I felt like I had a collaborator. Certainly I would never have written the poems that resulted without his images. 

Ironically, another common feature of play is rules. When an image is the starting point for a piece of writing, I’m given some parameters. This puts wind in my sails right away. I don’t experience the stuckness or intimidation that can come with a blank page. I used to draw and paint over used canvasses for the same reason.

What about text-and-image work appeals to you or intrigues you?

--Liz


Dear Liz,

Well, making things with you appeals to me, since we’ve been at it for some years now. I love how we’ve kept embarking on new collaborations, and that each time we’ve finished one we are both excited to find a new way of doing so soon after. Because there has been an understanding that each collaborative project will manifest in a new mode, it’s allowed us to keep playing together while continually stretching ourselves, and each other. 

I, too, feel like collaborating is based in play, and I think a spark for all our projects was to return to something, to some attitude of exploration and reveling in making, that does tend to get lost as we grow up, as we get settled in our usual ways of making, and as we let ourselves be monitored by self-consciousness. With a partner, there is an audience, but it becomes freer even so. Maybe because each collaboration feels like an experiment?

I loved making each collage. It was meditative and also energizing. There’s a casting around, and then a settling in, and energy hums around it when it’s getting toward done. The world does fall away a bit. I, too, do not experience that often in writing, if at all. If I do, there can be that humming, but then it isn’t always clear when a poem is done, and I can fiddle endlessly with words. These images are done as artifacts and were sent away from me, to you. It’s also fun that, unlike the poems, the collages didn’t have to be the responses and could stand on their own, according to our whims, moods, materials, etc.

Having an “assignment” provided “permission” for making (needing to, as we had decided, send a new collage and a response poem by the end of each month). And visual art takes up space. I liked the process of clearing the kitchen table (where I made most of my images), getting out the glue stick and scissors (very childhood-conjuring), and pulling out my stash of paper scraps I’d been collecting. Anybody in my family walking through could see what I was doing without my needing to stop, or be private about it, as would be the case with writing. So, making these images fit fluidly into life and also put the pause button on it, too.

Your background is more rooted in the visual arts than mine. I wonder if it feels like returning to a lost self in the way it does to me, or did you never really set aside that part of you? 

- Becky

Dear Becky,

It surprises me that you also don’t often lose track of time when writing. I assumed that most writers do and that I’m a rare one not to. A lot of things people say about writers and writing don’t seem to fit me and my experience. I sometimes think this is because of my orientation toward the visual. And, yes, at times I’ve felt I’d set aside that part of myself—especially after dropping my art major in college—which sometimes made me feel sad or guilty. Other times, though, I feel like it’s not even possible to set something like that aside. I suppose it depends on how you look at it. At any rate, it’s been a delight to embrace visual art via writing, and I’m particularly taken with collage since our project. 

Collage once seemed like a bit of a cheater art to me in comparison to painting, drawing, and sculpting. Being able to use someone else’s images felt like a short cut and like something anyone could do. Aaah! That sentence and now too many thoughts at once—a thought collage.

Something anyone can do
With all due appreciation for greatness
What a shame that worthiness
Is so often exclusive

Something anyone can do
I love that anyone can collage
A truly fine art
Free art

A cheater art
It is not
Hand-eye coordination
Mastering the scissors!
The subtle lines!
The delicate edges!
Selection, juxtaposition, composition
A narrative space
Or not

A free art
Unpressured and abundance-based
Collection whimsy
Just because I like it
Just because

A few months into our collage exchange, I checked out a book on collage from the library. There are amazing collage artists with diverse inventive styles far out beyond the summer camp craft table (not to disparage that important table). But it’s Eduardo Galeano’s drawings in The Book of Embraces—uncanny combinations and animal-human hybrids—that I think of when I collage. Can text-and-image be process, regardless of product? 

You mentioned how our collages were free to stand alone. I was also very aware of this since our previous project was an ongoing correspondence. But I suspect the collages may be responses in ways we aren’t aware of yet. 

Could the magic of collage be how it makes obvious that art emerges from a context and that the way a text or image is seen and experienced is influenced by what’s around it? Do we see anything in isolation? Is anything created without a connection being made?

I was more aware of influences and connections with our poems. For example, my piece “a field of women” published in Les Femmes Folles was a response to your accompanying collage, but in hindsight it may be just as much a response to your preceding poem, “Hanging Sheets.” I had a vague memory of it when I sat down a month later to write, and the poem that resulted echoes your exploration of women’s experiences in “Hanging Sheets.” I dare say your poem made me see certain things in your collage.

I’m curious about “Hanging Sheets.” After reading your piece, I realized how my collage to which it responds is very much about false façades and their dissolution. Was this what made you think of the #MeToo movement, which I assume you’re referencing in your piece? Or was the woman hanging sheets and the idea of airing one’s laundry the touchstone for this piece? How did it come to be?

All anticipation,

--Liz


Dear Liz,

At the time you sent your collage made of, as you say, façades and dissolution, the #MeToo movement had just burst onto the forefront of the collective consciousness in America. It was right there in the ether at all times, especially for those dealing with or revisiting sexual trauma. An image of a woman hovering above a city at night, doing what was traditionally considered “women’s work” in hanging laundry to dry, well, it wasn’t much of a stretch. I personally felt at that juncture that it was time, or past time, to air my stories, to put them into my creative work in some way, both as release and as witness. I don’t usually try to write in a political vein, but I do try not to shy from that if visited by an idea. I like to think of writing as a place to be brave, and to speak truth to power. So, yes, I think the image of the woman was the first way in for that poem, and the fractured city came second. 

My process in figuring out how to respond to your collages in general was to roam around in them looking for that point of entry, and then to return to them after the first generative burst was written, looking for another way in. At that point the collaboration became not only between you and me, but also between me and me, in that I used what I’d already written as a thread to go back and connect to the image and keep stitching my own piece together in words. 

That gets back to your question about the “magic of collage.” This particular form of art has the aspect of its making still apparent in the finished product, so that it does call attention to process. That is pretty magical, because it shows off transformation, things being changed from one thing, or many things, to another. And our collaborations make explicit how a viewer sees it also, through our poems.  

You mentioned Eduardo Galeano and his drawings as being somewhat synonymous to collage for you. For me, I think of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, but on paper, of creating little nests for collections of things I think are interesting and would be even more so if placed in close proximity. And I love that summer camp craft table too, but even though I mentioned re-accessing a childhood feeling of making, I realize collage originated for me in adolescence, when I first began critiquing how society defines beauty and worth for women. So, it has a feminist root for me, and it also was a means of visual making that I could do since I wasn’t trained in painting or sculpture and also didn’t feel moved to make such things. I, too, was unsure if collage counted as legitimate art, and maybe because of this put it away for a long time. 

The first time I came back to collaging was in a “mother’s art night” series where I was given time, space, and materials to create in a variety of genres – we made collages, but also did things like using pastels and fashioning magic wands. The next time was during a writing retreat in Truro with my writing group, the common denominator being the time, space, and materials, as well as creating in community. 

I often use language in my collages because I see words as one of the materials at my disposal. That’s a difference between our work, I’ve noticed, since your collages don’t usually use words within the image, or at least, not in the same way that I do. Can you speak to that choice, and also to how your poems are more visual in nature? It seems that, more often than not, you combine the concept of collage into text whereas I combine the concept of text into collage. Even in your last volley you found a way to break the text away from its prose form and make it into something different—a poem!—on the “page.” I love that.

Till soon,

Becky


Dear Becky,

It’s Tuesday, and I’m in my office about to begin a day of conferences with students—a mere 18 of them. Conference day as collage? It will be one research proposal after another—a pastiche of how to program for ethical decisions in driverless cars, how to intervene in the Rohingyan genocide crisis, how to address depression of international students in the U.S., how to understand the animal-human relationship of Viking Berserkers. What happens when you lay one thing on another and another and another without any negative space in between? How will these conferences be different by virtue of the moment I’m stealing for this?

Collage is permission to jump around. Collage is permission to steal.

Now it’s Saturday, and I haven’t had a scrap of time in which to consider these questions above though they’ve been with me in the background. In hindsight, Tuesday was the hardest day in this conference week, and now I wonder if that was because it began with tearing myself away from this correspondence. All week my students explained the tearing in their lives: “I had to study for my tests/finish a project/help my brother/work three shifts, but now I should be able to get to this.” Many arrived breathless to my fourth floor office. A few arrived quite early and sat in the lounge outside my door. One woman had a collection of chill pill pins on her backpack. She’s always near tears.

As to your question about the lack of text in my collages, it was not a conscious choice. I began our project by harvesting images that I liked from magazines and books. This became my box of colors or vocabulary, to which I occasionally added. It was delightful and strange to spend an hour just leisurely looking for the sake of looking. I never decided I wouldn’t use text in my collages, but I was never drawn to text as image with one exception—the robin’s egg blue title of an issue of Better Homes & Gardens, which, according to fontmeme.com, is in a custom font that “features a stylish ampersand.” Indeed! That ampersand and some letters made it into the collage with two women on a yellow background. 

The backgrounds were always my starting points for the collages. I started with a color, and I wanted that color to be a pure and dimensionless context—a field—to paradoxically contain things. Not that I exactly knew that at the time. Pages suggest infinite planes and metaphysical spaces (the lines of the edges don’t stop just because the paper does). Text and image are equally idea, equally syntactical, equally visual there. From the beginning, I had the idea of making poems collage-like. So I wrote a poem that was inspired by your collage. Then I usually created a small found poem from something I read while doing research for the poem and arranged them on the page. So I harvested text for found poems the way I harvested images for collages. But instead of looking for anything that caught my fancy, I looked for something to share space with my poem. 

Thanks for sharing spaces with me,

--Liz


Dear Liz,

Oh, I love that you brought your work into this post. I, too, conference with students, and those long days, individual meeting after individual meeting, is like layering so many independent pieces onto the scape of a day. All the stories layered together in one frame create a possibility for resonance to happen between them. And our collages and poems placed into a collection make, in a way, one overarching collage. I think we’re describing metaphor, and the reason I love writing: that way things are juxtaposed and create energy by their nearness, by their difference being highlighted, and by their similarity being discovered. Collage makes metaphor explicit, rendering it visible. 

I like how using language as collage around your poems was an intentional choice for you, a way of exploding the expected yet also working within a tradition you had founded. The poems we both made once seemed inseparable from their collage triggers, but it was also interesting to separate them, as we did with the six visual pieces we published at The Indianapolis Review. For me, this was an exercise in flexibility and learning to be more expansive about the boundaries around creating. It allowed for a way to see the pictures as poems in their own right. I’m grateful for the way text became image and image became text as this project took place between and beyond us. 

I definitely noticed your use of background colors that differed from each other over the course of our exchange and really offset the images. I like how you call them fields. With my backgrounds, I usually used a primary image or completely covered the original field. They were more canvas than field to me; not a starting point, but a surface to be covered. I appreciated your strong colors and how they left space in which to roam around. 

And, even though I mentioned you rarely used text in your images, as I went back and looked again at our project, I noticed a few other instances when you did, such as the “Cocktail Attire” piece in IR, or the silver envelope piece that seems to have originated from a credit card offer. In these cases, the text you incorporated was found text on the field that was left there by choice, and in the example you gave from Better Homes & Gardens, you dissected the words down to their letter components. So, even though you included text, you and I utilized it differently – in my case, I used whole words or phrases to layer into the collage. Then again, your very last collage includes whole words, cut from their original context. And, toward the end of our exchange, a couple of mine let more background show, letting the original field remain in the picture more than usual, as in the collage that went up at petrichor. We could call this cross-pollination.

And this all leads me back to the fun of creating with a partner, getting to make things in response to pieces unlike our own so that our wheelhouses are expanded. 

So glad for our collaborations,

Becky


Liz Collage.jpg

Collage by Liz

Rebecca Collage.jpg

Collage by Rebecca