The Memphis-based artist Karyna McGlynn is the author of two full-length books of poetry as well as three chapbooks. She writes poetry that's dizzying, off the wall inebriated while also being grounded in a desolate and sobering America. Like a vintage postcard of a nail salon. Like red lipstick smudged on a black and white photograph. Like the final scenes of Pleasantville. Along with writing lines full of alcoholics and desert fangs, backyard fiascos and haunted houses (read her most recent, Hothouse, right now), she also handcrafts collages. Her analog art features color-coated cyclones, a flurry often with a line or two of erasure poetry. The multimedia creations add an extra layer to the diverse artist, who is currently working on two books. I spoke with McGlynn, an assistant professor of creative writing, and we talked about words, images, and snake bites.
Your first collection was published a little over a decade ago. Can you speak on the past ten years? Do you still look at poetry in the same way?
I'm a much more generous reader of poetry now than I was then. I had a youthful tendency toward being dramatically dismissive, but now I'm ready to be wooed by anything. In terms of my own work, it would feel cool to say that I've become a completely different poet over the last ten years (most of which were spent in graduate school), but it would be dishonest. I use some different stylistic & structural elements now, but most of the same preoccupations are still in orbit: genderbending and drag, the noir soap opera of adolescence, time travel, fear, costume, confession, the gurlesque, female sexuality, film & ekphrasis.
Five releases in ten years. Does that mean we can expect another book in 2019?
I'm just finishing up a long-term project, a book-length poem called A Week of Kindness. It's based entirely on Max Ernst's surrealistic novel-in-collage Une Semaine De Bonté. I'm also about halfway done with a new book called 50 Things Kate Bush Taught Me About the Multiverse. Will either be out in 2019? Presses tend to have back-logs of books to publish, and production schedules can be long, but here's hoping the Wheel of Fortune (AND Publishing) turns so well in my favor.
Your literary pieces are full of snakes, scorpions, and other various dangerous animals. Have these creatures always held a fascination with you? Any snakebite stories in your past?
Oh, hell yes. I spent a good part of my childhood on ranches and camps in South Texas with two game warden uncles, so there were many unwelcome interactions with creepy-crawlies of all sorts. Despite my upbringing, I was not--as I say in a poem--"even good at Nature." These big, fat scorpions used to fall out of the rafters and land with an audible plop on my blanket. I would freak the fuck out, and everybody else would be like, "Oh my god, it's not even that big of a deal. You almost gave us a heart attack." And I would be like, "Am I the only one that sees that camping is the same as a horror movie??" I mean, I grew up shaking my boots out in the morning, and sometimes things crawled out. At any family gathering, it was fairly standard to hear that a beloved family dog had been bitten in the face by a rattlesnake, or that the cat had been disemboweled by coyotes, or her kittens had been carried off by owls (!) A few near misses (including one with a super-pissed surprise cottonmouth) but, luckily, I've never had to deal with a snakebite--which is good because I would probably die immediately, even if it was just a baby grass snake.
By the way, I don't think this phobia is cute. I may get irrational in their presence, but I wish no harm on reptiles, arachnids, arthropods, etc. and I objectively appreciate the beauty, power, awesome strangeness, and creativity of these creatures. This is why they're all over my poems: they're sincerely fearsome but also fiercely beautiful.
Flipping a bit over to collage art, what's your history with this medium?
I've only been cutting and assembling visual media on canvas for about six months, but I feel like the act of collage is something I've always been engaged with. Poetry and collage/assemblage are similar in that they're all about creating surprising yet inevitable juxtapositions--a multivalent sensory experience where revelation happens though recombination. The poetics of collage is at the heart of the modern & postmodern artistic traditions I've been steeped in: Frank O'Hara, Kurt Schwitters, Mina Loy, T.S. Eliot, Tristan Tzara, Donald Bathelme, Hannah Höch, Cy Twombly, Douglas Kearney, Joseph Cornell, John Ashbery, Gertrude Stein, and, of course, Max Ernst. I was privately frustrated for a long time over what I perceived as my "inability" to create visual art. (You can see this frustration through my preoccupation with ekphrastic writing and obsession with concrete and typographic poetry--especially in my first book, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl), but the first time I sat down to collage, I immediately fell into this flow state that I've only ever experienced in my poetry and dance. I was instantly addicted.
From what I've gathered, the collage art process is a very tedious, precise and slow-paced activity. Do you feel poetry is the same flow for you?
Well, first I have to disagree with your premise that collage is necessarily tedious and slow-paced. It's certainly time-consuming and precise (for example, I spend a lot of time cutting intricate shapes out of delicate paper in vintage books and magazines--and it's stressful because I only do analog collage, so if I accidentally cut a figure's arm off, or tear her in half while trying to get rid of a glue bubble, there's no "undo" button), but the process of creating a collage is actually fairly quick for me, and this is also true of my poems. Artists have totally different creative rhythms. I'm somebody who can be slow to gather materials, but once I start cooking, it's like bam bam bam. I get these big creative bursts that can last for months, and that's usually how I create my books. I'm in one of those bursts right now--I've been creating at least one poem and/or collage every day since last December. But, you know, I have "fallow" periods where I just listen and reflect. I can't sustain that level of output indefinitely.
What have you been practicing longer, collage art or poetry?
Poetry, by far. I've been writing/speaking and reading/hearing poetry my entire life, and I've been studying/teaching it for about half. By contrast, I'm a fetus when it comes to making visual art, so I'm flattered that you would even ask that question. If my collagist aesthetic feels well-developed, it's probably because it's a visual extension of my gurlesque poetic expression.
Outside of collage art and poetry, do you have any other hobbies/interests?
Certainly. I love dance. This shows up all over my poems. Growing up, I did ballet, jazz, and contemporary competitively. Then I turned into a vogueing club kid. Then I turned into one of those late 90s neo-swing kids. Then I did musical theater. Then I was a semi-pro ballroom dancer for a few years. Then I did choreography for children's theater. Then I discovered blues dancing, Balboa, slow lindy, and other vintage jazz dance styles that originated in Harlem ballrooms in the 1920, 30s, and 40s. These have been my dances of choice for years. There's not much of a scene for them in Memphis right now, plus you get to an age where "going dancing" is never a realistic proposition for a group of friends (even though it should be!) so I spend a lot of time dancing in my apartment. For example, "Bartier Cardi" has been playing the entire time I've been answering this question, and I've gotten up to dance twice. I'm also super into games: board games, video games, improv games, word games, arcade games, made-up-in-the-moment games, whatev. It's amazing how many game haters are out there. It's a shame how many people deny their innate playfulness. If I suggest a game and someone is immediately suspicious or hostile, I'm like, I don't even know what to do with you. What else? I obsessively study stand-up comedy and podcasting. I originally developed a Humor Writing course when I was teaching at Oberlin College, and it has become one of my very favorite classes to teach. I'm also working on an anthology of contemporary women's humor writing. Sometimes I make puppets.
What's the rest of the 2018 looking like for you?
I have a pretty packed teaching/advising schedule in the fall. I'm also co-directing the 2019 Southern Literary Arts Festival with Karen Golightly, so there will be a lot of organizational work on that front. But there's another question emerging this year: what to do about the collages. Unlike my poetry, which goes directly into the cloud, visual art takes up actual physical space. My partner and I have both been doing collage obsessively, so our apartment has reached a saturation point. They bring great joy and texture to our space, but they're starting to stack up. Ideally, we'd like to have a show and start selling some of them as a little side hustle.
Is that you on the cover of Hothouse?
[laughs] Everybody asks that! I've had disembodied legs on two of my covers now, but neither of the sets of legs were mine, unfortunately. The legs on the cover of Hothouse are actually those of the photographer, Frederic Gable. In addition to having stunning legs, Frederic is an insanely talented French photographer whose work is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, and Helmut Newton. Check out a profile on the Désenjambée series here.
For this ongoing author interview series, I'm asking for everyone to present a writing prompt. It can be one that you craft out of thin air, it can be one you created a while ago, or it can be one you adore from an outside source that was passed down to you.
SIX WAYS OF LOOKING AT AN IMAGE
Here are six ways of engaging in ekphrastic writing using a single image. As long as the image has at least one "character" or potential "speaker" in it, it can be anything: a painting in a gallery, a postcard, an image online, an ad from an old magazine, a book/album cover. This is one of those endlessly repeatable prompts I love. You should repeat these exercises with various images and in various orders for different (yet compelling) results. Pay attention to which exercises feel natural for you and which ones you resist. This should tell you something interesting about your artistic strengths and weaknesses.
1.) IMAGERY (descriptive writing): Describe what you see in this frozen moment in vivid detail. Let the “frame” of the artwork dissolve. Keep the focus on what you’re seeing--not on a description of you looking/reacting to what you’re seeing. This isn’t a selfie; keep the “camera” of the POV pointed away from you. Don’t judge what you’re seeing or speculate about what the story might be for now. Simply describe the image meticulously. Use metaphors as necessary. Make us see it.
2.) VOICE (dramatic monologue): Choose a person/character/object in your image (depending on your image, some of you will only have one option & others will have multiple options) and “speak” on paper in their voice. Don’t try to pre-plan or figure out the story—just start letting them “talk” via your ink/pencil lead, and see what they say! If you get stuck, imagine who they might be speaking to: humanity, the reader, a parent, a lover, a deity, a rival, a best friend? This is a monologue, so no one else gets to “talk” in this piece except your main character, but you can imply that someone else has spoken by having your speaker seemingly respond to them.
3.) STORY (flash fiction): now tell the brief story of what happened here. Your goal is to make it weird/surreal while still sounding matter of fact and grounded in active verbs and descriptive detail. In other words, give yourself complete creative freedom to invent details that the image “suggests” to you, but don’t signal to the reader that you think anything about what you’re writing is weird (i.e. no "and-then-I-woke up" endings).
4.) SOUND (l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e/sonic writing): forget narrative, forget grammar, forget traditional spelling and logic. Make a poem that SOUNDS the way this image LOOKS. You can use traditional sonic literary devices like alliteration, assonance, consonance, sibilance, repetition, refrain, rhyme, or slant rhyme. You can also concentrate on using words that are just fun to say, or have nice mouthfeel.
5.) SHAPE (concrete writing): Now I want you to consider space & shape as you write. How can you write like a visual artist? Think color, line, texture, frame, canvas, emphasis, typography, light, shadow, etc. Use your words to create a visual artifact. As in the sound poem, this one does not need to “make sense” in any literal way. Make a poem that LOOKS the way this image FEELS.
6.) SELF (confessional writing): Now, finally, YOU may speak though this artwork (as if you haven’t been doing so all along!). Use the image as a springboard to meditate on whatever personal stuff arises when you look at it. Just make it real and show the audience/reader your vulnerability. Be fearless & shameless. What are you mad about? What are you in love with? What do you regret? What do you worship? What do you fear? Let it all flow through the filter of your selected image. Let the piece take you wherever it wants to.
Do you have any advice for artists working on their craft?
Sure. Here are some reminders that have proved useful over the years, whether I'm making poetry or collage:
1.) Don't be boring. Are you boring yourself? If yes, you're definitely boring everyone else, so stop it. Get weird, get playful, shock yourself, delight yourself. Regardless of how realistic or fantastical your work is, your audience can sense bullshit. Endear yourself to them by finding ways to be honest, vulnerable, human.
2.) Start with an abundance: of words, images, materials, thoughts. Throw them all down on the table and see which combinations/juxtapositions start speaking to you, then work from there. So many of us start by pre-planning, outlining, and conceptualizing before we start to create. This often results in art that feels stale, over-determined, or heavy-handed. Allow yourself the luxury of figuring out what you want to say/do through the act of saying/doing it. You can sweep the detritus of your clunky entrances and exits in later revisions. As Katharine Hepburn once jokingly said, "Drive on. We'll sweep up the blood later!"
3.) Don't wait around to be "invited to the club." First of all, there is no club. The abundant rejection that comes with participating "professionally" in the literary/artistic world can start to feel like a conspiracy, but it isn't: almost all of it is the effort of overworked underpaid graduate students, interns, and patrons who do this work out of love. If a specific outlet isn't giving your work the love/audience it needs, don't fret. Start your own open mic/ lit mag/micro press/poetry slam. Create your own opportunities. Find your family.
Any final words / thoughts / shout-outs?
Shout-outs to the Resistance and to all the fearless journalists out there; to the Queens of RuPaul's Drag Race; to the Master Cruiser, Tim "Speed" Levitch; to my best friend, Adam Theriault (the most talented & prolific unpublished poet ever); to my household goddess, Kate Bush; to badass witches the world over and to my insanely awesome Memphis artist/writer posse: Caki Wilkinson, Alice Bolin, Dan Hornsby, Marcus Wicker, Emily Skaja, Ashley Roach-Freiman, Jonathan Owen-May, and Brent Nobles.
And props to you, Ben, for curating such a rad series. Thanks for chatting with me about art!