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Judging a book by its cover.

May 20, 2010 \pm\31 1:52 pm

Seamless Matter Ravi Shankar

Maybe a maze. Doodles. Quilting. Sol LeWitt perhaps? The cover of Ravi Shankar’s new chapbook, Seamless Matter: Thirty Stills, captured my eye as soon as I saw it. I promptly ordered a copy. When it arrived in the mail, I tore open the package and proceeded to feast my eyes. It’s one of those books you’d want to frame. But don’t. You can’t get at the poems inside if you do.

I could go into a whole long thing about my love of words married with images, how they enrich each other. Probably stems from the fact that my mother was, and my daughters are, artists, while I can’t draw worth a darn. While I’ve written my share of ekphrastic poetry, I also like to go the other way, finding an image to complement a poem. I was so taken with the choice of this particular LeWitt piece, that I wrote to Ravi and inquired if he would answer a few questions. He most graciously did.

I’m very interested in the conflation of visual art and poetry. As soon as I saw a picture of the cover with Sol LeWitt, I knew I had to order your book. I find his work to be both energizing and restful, especially this piece. How did this particular work come to be the cover art?

In 2003, we moved to Chester, CT, a small, quintessentially New England village on the banks of the Connecticut River. The town, I would come to find out, was home to a number of writers, artists and creative persons, including former Yale Younger Poetry winner George Bradley, 60 Minutes anchor Morley Safer, world famous bicycle maker Richard Sachs,  editor and writer Lary Bloom, and yes, Sol LeWitt. When we first moved to town, I was still in severe withdrawal mode from my time living in New York City and I decided the best way to overcome that malaise was to try to connect with some of the artistic community in town. So I wrote Sol a small note, introducing myself and my poems. Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, there was a message on our answering message from him, inviting me to his studio. I visited in the spring, his lawn glistening with sculptural installations, his studio full of works in progress and we shared some tea and spoke about our respective projects. I had just begun work on what I was terming neo-pastorals, these little poems of four tercets that looked into the world of natural and artificial phenomena and I felt a strong kinship to the pared down geometric and elemental work that Sol had been producing. He asked me to send him some poems, which I did, and he in turn sent me a water color which I still have at home. He also agreed to send us work for Drunken Boat, which we published in Issue#7: . They are photos of bowling ball painted white and lit from every possible combination. I saw Sol a few more times as my project progressed and he encouraged my process. I think very much of his statement that “artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” I felt these poems were taking as their starting point the phenomenological perception of reality but came to serve as an investigation into the act of perception itself, how we alter what we see and how each image resonates with our consciousness in such a way that it partakes of being. I wrote 60 of these poems all told and 30 of them appear in Seamless Matter. Sol LeWitt passed away in 2007 and when I finished the series the next year, I only thought it would be fitting to have something of his on the cover as we had discussed. Janet Passehl and the LeWitt estate were kind enough to allow me to choose something from his oeuvre that embodied what I intended with the poems, a shimmering into utterance that inhabits the boundary between abstraction and representation. As I feel like the natural world always does, escaping what utility or category we might try to pin to it.

The poems in this collection fit together like the stones in a well-made wall. Were they written with this collection in mind, or did the collection just take shape from poems already in existence? A combination of the two? And a similar question. “Thirty Stills” are very much just that. I found myself visualizing a photograph, painting, or drawing to go with each poem. Was that intentional, or a happy accident?

Actually I had never really worked serially before so when I began writing the first of these, somehow the form organically emerged – something less than a sonnet but more than a haiku, fleeting but not insubstantial. And because I was working in 3’s – tercets – I wanted to have a divisible number to that for the overall collection. So in the end, I actually wrote 60 of these poems, half of which appear in the chapbook. I felt that the poems attempted to still, or freeze, what is so pliable and dynamic in the world around us, so I had that connotation in mind when I named the book. But I also thought of photographs or images, certainly. These are my poets’ attempt to take snapshots of the quite ordinary yet utterly extraordinary world that pulsates and shifts around us and the technique, I found, was just as applicable to artificial phenomenon as natural phenomenon. So bulldozers, Mohegan Sun, stone walls are transmuted into these poems and I hoped to capture their essence, in a way a photograph could never do. There it’s all surface but poetry opens into cosmic depth and it was that materiality and pith that I was after. But all the poems actually do arise from a genuine encounter in the real world, so I had to have directly confronted the subjects of the poems in order to write the pastorals.

Unlike many books of poetry, I find that I cannot pick out any favorite poems from this set. I’ll be reading one and go “oh! I like this one!” but then I’ll turn the page and see the next one. Though, I do love Buzzards as the end poem, and especially the last line “What matters cannot remain.” Do you have any favorites? (I know, that’s a very unfair question, LOL).

That is unfair! Well I like the poem you mention also because of the valence of that last line and the multiple meanings of “matters” and “remains” but another one I’m particularly fond of is Oyster because of its marriage of science and culture, and the very existence of a creature that fluctuates between genders like someone turning the pages of a book. It made me think of us humans and the secret lives we lead on the basis of our gender assignments and how our identity is wrapped up in something that, underwater, is so fluid and sanguine.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about this book?

Just that my hope is that this old form, the pastoral, is given some new energy by Seamless Matter. The first pastorals were written by the Greek poet Theocritus in 3rd century BC and since then, especially in our modern era, the form has come to be seen as too romanticized, too gauzy and artificial, but I actually think that the form can be quite muscular and original. The encounter between humans and nature is mediated through our sense apparatus and in the gap between what and what is seen a world opens up where certain essences emanate and others are projected. That contested space between what is and what is seen is where this book hopes to reside, opening up the world around us like someone peeling an onion to reveal layer after translucent layer. And I also meant the book as a homage to poets I really love, from Pablo Neruda and his elemental odes, to the French poet Francis Ponge, to Aphra Behn and Wallace Stevens. I hope that in some small way it engages in dialogue with all of them as well as whoever picks up the book.

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