A LITERARY COMMUNITY POWERED BY VIDA: WOMEN IN LITERARY ARTS

Behaving Naturally: A Conversation With Playwright porschia l. baker and Poet Laura Solomon

In a lively exchange, that will leave you swirling, prompted by the quote from Patricia Hewitt— “The accusation that we’ve lost our soul resonates with a very modern concern about authenticity”— porschia and Laura’s metaphysical and philosophical take reveals the deep questions of and about the soul. What we are left with is an understanding of how art making is a part of a creative and universal energy that belongs to no one, is shared, and available for those willing to risk the self. HER KIND is honored to welcome porschia and Laura to the Conversation.

 

porschia: I’m not preoccupied with thinking about the idea of authenticity in my writing. As I write, I’m centered in my being, I respond, I’m calling for a response, I deconstruct and puzzle my comprehension of various aspects of life as I transform; I’m birth, and I feel my life force move me. I probably can continue to list the aspects of my writing that obsesses me. However, tomorrow my response may be different. What is most important is for me to use words to service what I believe. Audre Lorde speaks to this in one of her essays. As long as this is my fuel then I make no space for wondering about authenticity in my writing because “it” innately exists. What does soul mean to you, Laura?

 

Laura: Mmm . . . I think whatever definitions I might be holding for that word would have to be eased into. I guess there is a part of me that wants to argue that there is no soul, not because I think there is no soul but because I think there is no self, that the self is a construction, but constructed by whom? a self? other selves constructed by other selves ad inf.? I guess I think of the universe as one. I believe with my mind that it is one, and at times I experience it that way, though the majority of the time I experience it as if I were a completely separate entity from anything that is not my body, though sometimes yes even my body does not seem to be me. I do think my experience of having a self is an illusion made possible by a provisional form (my self or soul or body) which contains a little of the universe inside its space. Consciousness makes it seem as though there were another universe inside that form, which there is? I’m very interested in science, in particular what cosmology or quantum physics may reveal to us with regard to selves/souls, that the entire universe may just be one infinite expression. But I’m off-topic already or on it because the topic is so big.

What I want to say about writing is that I do think we can talk about greater or lesser authenticity in art just as we can talk about greater or lesser truths. We may never touch truth with a capital T but we certainly can distinguish between what is more or less of a lie. When I write, I know whether or not I have been more or less faithful to the poem (which is not about me, can’t be about me even it is). I know when I have written something to please someone else or to show off or to jerk off or have written from some other location that is not poetry itself. Authenticity is possible in a poem only when I shut up and listen to what words are trying to say among themselves. Meaning has to happen on its own, not because I impose it. When I am writing authentically, I am not a meaning-maker so much as a meaning-enabler. I hope I’m not being too vague, but I’m sure I must be.

Now coming back to the other hand of that first question, I do think the word soul can be very useful if we are also going to use the very useful word (if somewhat dubious concept) self to think about selves. So long as we’re talking about selves, why refuse the word soul which operates in a not dissimilar fashion? People need metaphysical language precisely because life is a metaphysical experience. It is not merely a physical experience, or rather it very well may be merely physical. In other words, there’s nothing “merely” about it. And meanwhile here we are alive in these bodies we believe to be our own but which will someday die and drift off into some other kind of matter. Something in us must mourn that eventual loss of self (even if it were always and only a dream), why not call that thing the soul? And maybe authenticity in writing revolves around the greater or lesser willingness to lose that illusion of self while simultaneously allowing a self to perform, giving chance a chance, giving the universe its due, making way for the poem to happen. . . .

 

porschia:  For me authenticity is a stagnant word similar to when a person calls themself a master artist, which has its psychic limitations in that the word “master” creates a mental block in artistic evolution. However, calling self a master is also driven by the balance that an ego can provide—if insecurity is part of the psychological stream of thought. At the same, I’m unsure I’d call my work authentic because my work is an unfurling of variations of work that equates to life in its entirety. Whether it comes from my spiritual practice, academic work, or dreamtime, for example, the inspiration for writing is continuous so it is not authentic to a particular cadence. Its pulse is many and expands the path as well as adds an extension to the path from which I learned. There is the booked definition, but its a word that does function too well. Soul or spirit on the other hand is in everything, wholly connects us, and reaches beyond our borderlands for the union of what is innately lived in our being. Or perhaps, experienced by our being. There is something lost as I write. Perhaps, it’s the illusion you mention. I know any fear or doubt that I once embraced is lost or rather transmuted in the process. The process is very liberating. Writing allows me to make space within space for other visions and itself gifts a place to analyze, grapple, build, and embrace.

 

Laura: I agree that focusing too much on the word authenticity or taking the word or concept too seriously could be paralyzing. Over thinking might indeed be the quickest route to inauthentic work, generally speaking, in all of the arts as well as in life. I have an actor friend whose teacher had defined acting as “behaving naturally under imaginary circumstances,” and to me writing a poem is a similar experience (when the work is authentic). A certain kind of interpretive intelligence may be fundamental but so are reflexes that function faster than that intelligence. I think most people recognize bad acting pretty immediately and would hardly be hesitant about criticizing a performance for its greater or lesser authenticity. Or a more extravagant analogy: imagine two people involved in a kiss. If one person is indifferent to the kiss or is trying too hard or is otherwise unconvinced of the act in which he or she is engaged, the inauthenticity of that kiss is apparent to the other party, at least if that other has any previous experience of authentic kissing. A reader similarly can feel what’s authentic and what’s not, if he or she has been ravished (so to speak) before, and the writer can feel it too while he or she is writing, again relatively speaking. You don’t have to debate it with yourself or consider the concept of authenticity in order to realize you’ve been betrayed, if you are the reader, or that you have betrayed the poem or yourself, etc., if you are the writer.

You know when you’ve fibbed a poem into existence, when it’s not a poem really, and maybe you don’t even think about it. Maybe you simply get a little angry or frustrated and delete or wad up what you’ve just written. I guess when I use the word authenticity I’m more or less referring to the greater or lesser presence of the author (and by that I don’t mean the author’s personality or expression of ego but his or her being) or, more precisely, the presence of his or her creative experience that the work contains, the work being a kind of artifact of that experience, real existence crammed inside it, or a lack thereof. I don’t think authenticity in this sense depends on the source of inspiration or even the means by which a poet arrives at a poem; what matters is the sort of release from fear or doubt you mentioned (as well as from one’s desires)—that experience of freedom from the self. And if that were the case, a beginner would be just as likely capable of producing authentic work as a master. Perhaps the beginner would even hold the advantage. Now I’m thinking though of the expression “fake it until you make it” and want to ask you what roles you think the fake or the false play in poetry or art making? Do you think there is such a thing as an authentic or an inauthentic fake?

 

porschia: My first thought is, that is a trick question. My second thought is the question itself is loaded. I recall reading an article about a person whose so-called master paintings were detailed replicas of scenes from video games. Or it was the other way around. Either way it wasn’t their art or the work personally channeled. And if the impetus was to receive fame, then it was well received. In art making, deception can be felt and even seen. What immediately comes to mind is when the “gleam of a culture” is witnessed, extracted, and utilized to create art inspired by “the gleam,” but the people who are the breath of that culture, its essence, are seen as culturally irrelevant. That’s serious thievery and . . . false play. It occurs all the time in music, writing, art in general, in our communion with one another. An example of false play in art is Picasso’s Cubism series in which his figures are exact replicas of African sculptures and masks. His series isn’t a new idea. He simply took images of masks, placed it in a different environment, changed its context, and called it something different. I slightly grapple with the question only because fake should not be given a place marker, but Fake Ones are paid monetarily very well for the ability to incite the populace.

In poetry, false play is a stagnant pool with its own infestation. I’ll engage work, by June Jordan, Cherríe Moraga, or Audre Lorde for example, and be inspired to respond and add onto their insight. In my response, somewhere is acknowledgement of their resource, but that’s part of my practice. I want to acknowledge who wrote before so that I can expand the discussion and thread additionally.

As I continue typing, my answer has become: the only role of false play or deception is its ability to inspire more artwork, but within its inspiration is a low humming possibility of transmutation. In using your words the “artifact of that experience,” I would ask how deeply does the artist desire their artifact of their creative process to resonate with their audience, their reader, those who are witnessing as they are being witnessed? What is their spirit speaking? What does the artist know, from his or her own experience, which is useful enough to inspire creation without having to fake it? What is the person willing to risk releasing? Is the artist willing to live to know an aspect of their highest self? Simply being willing to will yourself to make effort in life is creative. It’s a curious hybrid of desire, intuition, hunger, and letting go. My question is what do you risk giving up, when you write?

 

Laura: There is so much to respond to here. Firstly, forgive me, no intentions of trickery on my part. I don’t think I knew what I myself might have meant by “fake” or “false” in those questions, but I did want to know what you thought about those words, since at first glance they seem opposed to “authentic” and much of the time probably are. Still, I’m not sure that I understand what you found to be tricky or loaded and now I’m doubly curious. Leaving that aside but hoping you’ll come back to it, I appreciate the examples you bring up.

I don’t know if I would consider anyone’s sampling or thieving activities as inauthentic by virtue of repetition alone, at least not aesthetically speaking (there is an ethical question however), since repetition is not the same thing as replication. Two singers may sing the same song and bring to it entirely different meanings, both of which may be authentic. Ultimately, I would argue that authenticity has less to do with originality (which I think is another nebulous concept, where a work of art begins . . . perhaps any poem I happen to be writing today originated thousands of years ago in some other first manifestation of the mind . . . perhaps nothing I write is mine or perhaps it is no more mine than it is another’s . . . perhaps it belongs equally to someone who is not yet born) than immersion within the act of making and what transpires accordingly.

The sort of immersion I think that creates art or poetry necessarily involves personal risk, which brings me around to your question, what does one risk giving up? I would answer the self, the self I already know, an identity with which I am perhaps comfortable, thoughts I was content to think, illusions of control and/or invincibility. The risk is always utter change, potentially unwanted, hazardous change, hazardous to the self that is. You may write a poem and no longer be capable of being who you were before you wrote it.

Maybe it would be helpful to give an example of what I find to be false or inauthentic art. Returning to the visual arts, I find myself often infuriated, have left museums and galleries livid, by artists who hire others to carry out their work, not because others carried out their work (perhaps I learn that later) but because the work was vapid. At the same time, I am a huge fan of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films require the participation of hundreds of people. There is a tremendous amount of collaborative work I find to be brilliant. Perhaps that’s the issue I have with much of the work of Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol . . . other people were involved but collaboration never occurred. An idea is dictated and carried out, and the lack of discovery by the various makers, both by the originator of the idea (since he or she isn’t forced to be changed by the creation process) and by those who carry out the labor (since they are not able to alter the course of the work through their own interpretive faculties as the work might demand of them) is why in the end I’m left feeling cold and generally pissed off. When I look at art, or listen to music, or read a poem, what I want above all is to connect with other people. I want to experience another’s or others’ experience. You brought up audience earlier, and I find that oddly I cannot think of audience when writing or I will risk trying to please someone rather than “acting naturally under imaginary circumstances”. . . though maybe I sometimes write to a single individual, the person with whom I feel the most intimate in the moment, but it’s never a conscious decision. Do you consider your audience as you write, and who do you believe them to be? Is audience an abstraction for you or is it something tangible? If yes you do consider this audience as you write, how are you able to avoid self-consciousness?

 

porschia: In my process, whether it’s before or after I’ve completed work, part of my practice is to acknowledge those who have inspired me. I can’t be inspired and thereafter say the source of inspiration is irrelevant. It’s the person’s experiences and various levels of being, i.e., the conscious and subconscious, spiritual, physical, and emotional that make and enliven the work. It is their being, experiences, and solutions to those experiences that intrigue me because in some manner their breath encourages mine or rather adds fire to my fire. There’s definitely a difference between sampling and thievery. Some artists do steal in the sense that in their making they refuse to acknowledge precedent. Without that precedent their work may or may not exist in the particular framework in which we view it. Yet, their work would exist, but its’ outpour would potentially be different. Our experience is the sight we ride to arrive at insight. For an artist or person in general to say I arrived here, at this point in life, on their own is an ironic statement because every moment-in-passing changes. And changes us. (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.)

I do agree with you that if two singers sing the same song, they each may bring an entirely different meaning. However, in that statement is the basis of my point. Acknowledgement of the essence of the gleam . . . the reasoning is in the liner notes. I will myself here, at this point, because of various occurrences in life. Some artists’ work is not their own. Some creators are really clever in the moment, but of course the liner notes always meet some eyes. If not the liner notes, then its vocal fluctuations will traverse the boarders. Yes, I do speak to my community or audience with my work. Words are a tool of transformation for me so I’m speaking with a specific audience as well as a person or myself. It’s both subconscious and conscious. I churn the makings of my own roots, knowings, and experiences before I offer it. When I write, I analyze, question, comprehend, witness, and reflect. If that is a self-conscious affect, then the impetus is to make home. Transform it. My audience is tangible. However, I never write to entertainingly please people. That would be a waste of my being and occupy too much space in my body. I’m not willing to risk myself in this manner.

 

Laura: Your words . . . “their being, experiences, and solutions to those experiences” have sent me flying in two directions that seem to converge in the end. Firstly, the revelation within the ambiguity of these final lines from Ted Berrigan’s poem “Red Shift” come to mind:

I am only pronouns, & I am all of them, & I didn’t ask for this

You did

I came into your life to change it & it did so & now nothing

will ever change

That & that’s that.

Secondly, suddenly newly resonant to me is something my father told me a few days ago, that the most popular song of the twentieth century, with regard to the number of recordings by various artists, is “Stardust.” I haven’t verified this possible fact but if it’s true, isn’t it eerie that this song that belongs to so many begins with these lines:

Sometimes I wonder why I spend

The lonely nights dreaming of a song

The melody haunts my reverie

And I am once again with you . . .

In the context of our discussion, the way I interpret these lyrics today, the “dreaming of a song” (I hear implied here “into existence,” the creative act in other words) suggests to me rather that the song or the poem already was before it was, and that it was always as much yours as mine, its “melody haunts my reverie,” that at its very essence, the song or the poem is a momentary but actual dissolution of the one who conjures it into existence, a dissolution that results in an automatic reunification with our beloveds, with our communities, a communion among all possible yous and mes, a glimpse of the universe as is etymologically implied. So long as it is being dreamed, it is the song or the poem that is, rather than the lonely self and its concerns, though our mental solitude seems necessary for the song’s dream to take root. “Stardust” was composed by Hoagy Carmichael [in 1927 with lyrics added in 1929 by Mitchell Parish], but doesn’t it belong equally to Nat King Cole and Willie Nelson and countless anonymous others, those who have contributed to the song’s meaning even by the way they listened to it?

There have always been far too many unsung heroes of culture, and these are times of unprecedented plagiarism, it’s true. Let there be liner notes! But I can also see how acknowledgement of inspiration, attribution, the concept of authorship itself, all belong to that world of separate selves, selves that the song’s, the poem’s, or the work of art’s dream proves to be illusory, at least temporarily so. It seems likely that I both do and don’t have a self; that I both do and don’t exist. While my existing self certainly doesn’t like the idea of someone else thieving my poems, the poem is nevertheless always teaching me that nothing is mine, that there is no I, but only all, one universe, one song, “love’s refrain.”

I know we have to finish this conversation, but I also know it isn’t finished. Lately, I have been reading Mary Ruefle’s new book, Madness, Rack, and Honey, and on the first page she paraphrases Paul Valéry’s saying (which she informs us “is also attributed to Stéphane Mallarmé”) that “no poem is ever ended, that every poem is merely abandoned.” I feel that way about this conversation; it is so far from being over; rather it feels as though it is only beginning. Hopefully, others will take it from here. It’s been a sincere pleasure to think alongside you, porschia.

 

porschia: I’m moved by what you said about the song belonging to the writer, the plethora of singers, and those who have listened to it. Yes!! It reminds me of how vast reflections ripple from being to being. Similar to when we smile at one person and in turn that person smiles at another and so on. It’s variations of continued response, ripples as water. What occurs above, in the waves, can be seen but the worlds below the crash are always mysteriously making. This conversation has swirled me for days. I do agree that our conversation isn’t over. It’s an amalgam of discussions we’ve had before arriving here. When others read it, perhaps, it will scion more discussion, work of art, or simply supernova because it served its purpose. The universe(s) is a continuation of herself that transforms upon her transformations. For me to be fascinatingly captured by creation, writing, and journey—this discussion validates art’s vital necessity. The essence of this conversation is that it expands our community and my spirit. This expansion is part the pulse of my work. Even sitting here breathing as I type is another level of work. Thank you for this conversation, Laura. It has challenged me, gifted laughter, and allowed space for me to dilate.

 

porschia l. baker is an interdisciplinary artist writing an existence in her own vision. She’s an MFA-Interdisciplinary Arts candidate at Goddard College. Baker’s poetry is included in the book CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape. Currently, she is working on completing her full-length play.

Laura Solomon was born in 1976 in Birmingham, Alabama. Her books include Bivouac, Blue and Red Things, and The Hermit. Other publications include a chapbook, Letters by which Sisters Will Know Brothers and Haiku des Pierres / Haiku of Stones by Jacques Poullaoueq, a translation from the French with Sika Fakambi. Her poetry was recently included in the anthology Poets on Painters, has appeared in magazines across North America and Europe and has been translated into ten languages. Most recently she has lived in Paris, Philadelphia, and Verona, Italy.

 

Comments

  1. i enjoyed this. thanks for sharing this Portia.

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