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Part 3: Schizo-Poetry: Fragments of the Mind

Q. Do you think emotions and different mental states have different colours?

SUSANNE – I indeed connect emotions and mental states with colours. Let me give you a few examples from the book. It reaches along the whole spectrum of colour – from a pure white (‘niveous’) over red (‘Flammeous’) and blues (‘Smalt’, ‘Glaucous’) to blackest black (‘Melanic’). In Flammeous, I address an urgency, a red alert. Glaucous, which is a blue-green-grey, is about the sea and a cleansing. Melanic is my darkest one in the collection, it is depression personified.

Since I am a painter, I do very much relate colour to emotion in my visual work. I am thinking of the saying of the ancient Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, “painting is mute poetry, and poetry is speaking painting”. For me, this ties together the two disciplines I am most comfortable in and in which I am able to explore colour as both material and concept. Also, Lessing said that while painting speaks to the sense of sight, poetry speaks to the imagination. Starting from a colour in this collection to me was like starting from a painting, a material and bringing it into the imaginative realm as a concept.

Susanne Wawra

Q. How do you feel your poems work together and did you see each other’s before completion?

SUSANNE – We agreed to read the poems to each other for a colour only when both renditions were finished. We were aiming for the purity of the two poems with the same title without them bleeding to each other. Within the whole concept of the book, we were open to influencing each other from what we had disclosed already. In the collection, my poem “Maroon” describes the process, the reading of our new poems to each other as the book developed.

It was an exciting method of working and surprising to see the individual poem pairs next to each other and be able to draw parallels. For example, Kevin’s ‘Melanic’ is about the same darkness as mine, but it comes from a different angle. Incidentally, our poems ‘Ibis’ have a similar set-up, the narrators find themselves outside a house, on a porch, in interaction with nature. So we have poems that are polar opposites and poems that achieved chance synchronicity. We feel we have achieved what we set out for with the concept of this book and are offering the reader sets of poems that are open to be compared, contrasted and connected.

Q. Which poets have influenced your writing and how?

KEVIN– For ‘Schizo-Poetry’ it’s hard to say. When I was writing this book with Susanne I never had any other poet in mind particularly. For my first book ‘Vibrations Of The Soul’ I had a definite rock I was chipping away at. A kind of a T. S. Eliot, Postmodern American Poetry, Poe, Wallace Stevens, Jacques Derrida type rock. But for ‘Schizo-Poetry’ it was more free, I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone as is my usual approach. However during ‘Schizo’ certain poets were never far from my mind, poets like Charles Bukowski, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, John Donne’s ‘Anatomy of the world’, Rimbaud, Henry Vaughan, Leonard Cohen, Hart Crane, Philip Larkin, Auden, Osip Mandelstam and Miroslav Holub among others.

But I must say, it wasn’t just poetry that influenced me, novelists like Marcel Proust and Dostoevsky, Jack Kerouac and George Bataille played a part. Also I think a key to my writing in “Schizo-Poetry” was my deep reading of Buddhism, Derrida and Heidegger. And I think a major influence on my poetry was my experiences with Psychotherapy.

I also feel an affinity with the shamanistic poets as for example my poem ‘Nil Hue’ was written in seconds with no editing, it just came out. I didn’t have much control, I just had to hang on for the ride. I’m now reminded of the Charles Bukowski quote, which goes something like “A good poem should come out like a good hot beer shit”. I guess he was saying a poem kind of festers inside you, feeds on you, till it’s strong and grown enough to make itself known. And when that day comes it declares an exodus and you don’t have much say in the matter, you kinda just get out of the way and it comes just like Bukowski says.

My poetry also owes a lot to music and songwriters from Steve Reich to Captain Beefheart to George Gershwin to Thelonious Monk and the word Jazz of Ken Nordine among many others.

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SUSANNE – With the plan for the book, I was reminded of my all-time heroine Else Lasker Schüler. A German Expressionist poet, the colour blue was a central theme in her work. Some critics interpret the meaning of blue in her work as a spiritual marker. My two blue poems resonate with that. She also illustrated a lot of her work herself. I have recently completed illustrations for a poetry book, 30 Days Dry by Chicago-based playwright and writer Eric Robert Shoemaker which will be out in October. I also have made an artist book of my three-letter-word poems with my own artwork.

Also, Stephen Dobyns’ imagination is inspirational, also his playfulness and wit. My “fun” poem in the book would be “Rubious”; “Dark White” is in a similar vein. Further, I always have Sylvia Plath in the back of my mind, it cannot be helped. Exploring her own mental turmoil in her work strikes a chord with me, I have numerous poems about my mental anguish, ‘Melanic’ being one of them. As for a contemporary, Ada Limón is very influenced by the visual arts, too. In terms of visual influences, I channelled a bit of Mark Rothko; his colour fields are so affecting.

Q. Paul Muldoon once said something along the lines of ‘lyrics need music and poems have their own music’, do you agree?

KEVIN– It’s an ancient debate as I’m sure you know. The earliest poetry is believed to have been recited or sung, employed as a way of remembering oral history. The earliest poems exists in the form of hymns like in the work of Sumerian priestess, Enheduanna. So you see at one time, music and poetry were kinda like two lovers, unified. But eventually in time they parted, and if you ask me, ever since there’s been a part of each of them that still somewhat secretly longs for the other, and this longing manifests itself in statements like Muldoon’s. I get a negative feeling from Muldoon’s statement. In the sense that he cites lyric as somehow in ‘need’, whereas poems ‘have their own’. In some ways it’s kind of a common statement from a poet, championing his own discipline over others but the root of the statement is a living narrative throughout history (the speaker is in some ways unimportant) and this narrative all began with the two lovers.
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Incidentally I compose music and have released my debut album entitled “Fredrick & The Golden Dawn’ with Eire Supply label. The album took eight years to write, some songs individually taking four or more years to complete. In the middle of writing this album, my first book ‘Vibrations Of The Soul’ was published. So I was straddling both disciplines simultaneously, and this debate came up for me time and time again however I never collapsed into statements like Muldoon’s. I’ve too much respect for the genuine gravity of each of the art forms and in my own way I feel that on some level, love never really dies and that for those ancient lovers, ‘poetry and music’ who have parted, I recall the words of Leonard Cohen, from his song “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye” when Cohen sings, “our steps will always rhyme”.

 

Thanks both so much for this. An article to come back to several times I think.

For further details look here: Kevin Nolan and Susanne Wawra

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Part 2: Schizo-Poetry: Fragments of the Mind

Q. How did you select the colours and weave their names into spelling out the sub-title and why did you choose such unusual names?

KEVIN– I guess as a writer you wanna somehow surprise your reader. First and foremost you wanna surprise yourself and these unusual names for colours gave me a kick when I found them many years before the conception of our book. I’m kind of a word hoarder, I keep my own personal dictionary of words that I love or that interest me and that’s where I found the unusual colour terms. When I discovered them first I was quite childishly excited, you know, a new word, for an old word, I was a bit giddy, I’m sure there’s some people out there who know what I mean, I think they call them ‘Lexophiles’. Incidentally there’s a theory that postulates that your intelligence is entirely based on your vocabulary, i.e. entirely based on your ability (when presented with any given element of reality) to name it. And possessing the name, pertains to a possession of an understanding.

I’m not sure if you go along with that but anyway these unusual names felt complete right for the piece. Spelling out the subtitle wasn’t too hard as we had so many colours to choose from. However we didn’t have all the colours for the subtitle so we had to make up a couple of our own. For example ‘Nil-Hue’ is a made up word, ‘Nil’ meaning ‘negation’ or ‘no’ or ‘not’ etc and hue meaning colour, so for us it means ‘no colour’ or ‘the negation of colour’. However most of the colours were researched and are real colours.

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Q. How much of your life has been spent walking with “the black dog” and how has this affected your work in your chosen art forms?

SUSANNE – I first started writing when hospitalised with depression several years ago. Having studied English at university, I was always interested in the analysis of poetry, but it never crossed my mind to write them myself. I was on the other side of poetry until I crossed that line. Suddenly I felt this urge to make a mark, both in writing and in art, as a way to show myself that I exist. The writing just broke out of me, it was a great catalyst for my inner turmoil. The same goes for my art, I was never brave enough to be the artist until I was broken down in pieces and had to reassemble myself and go back to the roots of my existence. Drawing and painting has helped me immensely to deal with the beast, the pain inside.

My aforementioned series “Antilife Manics” reflects on the struggling individual in contemporary society. The collages and paintings tell stories of anxiety, mental turmoil and suffering and can be understood as a comment on today’s pressures in society. As a whole, this body of work represents “Weltschmerz”, the realisation one’s own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness of the world.

Another project in a similar vein was “Face It”, where I created abstract portraits of mental health sufferers. In 2012, I spent 4 months in a mental health institution due to Major Depressive Disorder. The foundation for “Face It” started off with a self portrait, trying to express how torn apart I was, how I was falling into pieces, troubled and questioning my identity. The result was an abstract portrait. I was so inspired that within days I started to make portraits of the people I met in hospital. Everyone had their own story and their own suffering. The other patients agreed to get their portrait done because I told them they wouldn’t be recognizable. For me, it was a way for people to show their face yet remain anonymous. Hidden behind a web of lines and shapes I felt I could attempt to portray the pain, the troubles and the sense of crisis that was often written on the faces of my fellow patients at the hospital. Abstraction was the key to depicting the faces of patients in a psychiatric ward and to expressing their emotions whilst still granting their privacy. The emphasis on maintaining the anonymity of people suffering with mental health issues was to me a way of highlighting how social stigmatisation can divert people’s attention away from the real emotions we all feel. The desire for anonymity and the social pressure to appear ‘normal’ are natural impulses but fear of stigmatisation can exacerbate the situation to crippling levels and making these artworks was my way of tackling this issue.

black dogBlack Dog by Rachel Howard

KEVIN – I don’t know how long I’ve been walking the black dog except to say I really can’t really remember a time when it wasn’t around. It’s affected my work immensely. It appears to present itself as the chief process of my life and thus it becomes a part of every process of my life, my work as an artist is just one of these processes. Just one of the many features of one’s associations with the black dog is a heightened sensitivity. A little like if your ears were so sensitive that they could hear a pin drop three blocks away. Well, with the dog comes as I say this heightened sensitivity, so in turn you could (if you understand me) feel an emotional pin drop three blocks away.

Now this is an extremely painfully overwhelming state of mind to endure, however, when it comes to making art, this very unwelcome inner state turns into an extremely useful and in some ways accurate tool for forging a work of art, no matter what is your chosen medium. So in that sense it affects my work immensely.

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Part 1: Schizo-Poetry: Fragments of the Mind

Schzio-Poetry Susanne Wawra Kevin NolanFollowing on from the series of poems for World Suicide Prevention Day I’m pleased to have an extended interview this week from musician and poet Kevin Nolan and artist and poet Susanne Wawra. Nolan and Wawra, both based in Dublin collaborated on the 30 poem book, Schizo-Poetry: Fragments of Mind, recently published by Shine, an organisation that addresses and highlights mental illness.

Kevin and Susanne have put a great deal of work into this interview and it reads beautifully, so many. many thanks to them for this. Enjoy!

Q. How did this project come about; it’s such a unique idea?

SUSANNE – On a sunny summer’s day in 2013, we met in a little neighbourhood cafe and were just chatting away about our writing when we agreed it would be interesting to do a collaboration. There and then, within a few hours, we came up with the whole concept for the book. Starting from the book title, over the unusual colour names that would be the titles of the poems as well as spelling out “Fragments of Mind” as an acrostic, to the photomontage on the cover. Our approaches, insights and ideas just fell into place. Since we both always carry a notebook, none of the initial intentions were lost and eager to make it happen, we followed through. The unique idea was having two poems with the same title aside each other in the book, one by myself, one by Kevin. Two interpretations of the same colour, two different takes on the two pages in front of the reader.

Q. The title is startling – what made you choose it?

KEVIN – Thank you! I can’t remember if it was Susanne or myself, but the title just popped out (almost without thinking) during the coffee shop conversation she spoke about earlier. That day, Monday July 22nd 2013 of which the book is dedicated to, was one where two people on exactly the same page artistically just synthesized ideas in a very visceral free way and the ideas just flooded out of both of us. It was a really natural collaboration. The book schema was almost subconsciously created, so asking me why we choose the title is almost like asking me to decode the meaning of a dream, a pretty much impossible task. Oddly with the title it’s almost like the signifier came before the signified, if you follow me.

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However, literally ‘Schizo’ is the Greek word for ‘division’ or ‘split’. This pertains to the poem titles. Each individual title is split into two poems, two perspectives, one by Susanne and one by myself. So in that way the title seemed very fitting for us. We knew ‘Schizo’ was a very loaded word but for our book we wanted to go back to its original Greek meaning, thus detaching ourselves from the popular misconceptions of the time. I feel that act in itself was in effect an expression intended to challenge mental health prejudice, understanding in some way that popular misconceptions come and go but the true meaning of ‘Schizo’ will remain. Both Susanne and I have had mental health difficulties and so the title and our intention for it also has a very personal underlying meaning and message for us.

The subtitle, ‘Fragments Of Mind’ spilled out of Susanne almost like automatic writing. However, on another level it was a very meditated idea as it perfectly explains the structures in the book, such is the mystery of the creative act I guess. I’m a bit of an acrostic fanatic so I immediately began thinking of ways to achieve one for our book and so came the unusual colour names.

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Q. How important is colour in your work and life and are either of you synesthetes?

SUSANNE – As a visual artist, colour holds an important position in my making. I like to work with different materials, i.e. newspaper, magazines, fabric, all of which give me a starting point for my pieces. Since I have moved to beginning from a given background of the everyday instead of a blank canvas, the colour of the material is a factor and I enter into a relationship with it. Whether I am painting or sewing on my work, colour is always one of the choices to make. At points, I restrict myself to black washes and the colour shines through from the background. One example is my mixed media series “Antilife Manics” – this title is an anagram of the “Financial Times” – in which the salmon pink newspaper serves both as background and foreground text.

In terms of the poetry in this book, I visualised the individual colour and started writing from there. It gave me a great impetus and I freely associated from the specific colour. Our book opens with ‘flavescent’, meaning ‘becoming yellow’. From this, I immediately associated sitting in the sun with my eyes closed. So to write the poem, I put myself into that situation, I went out to sit in the sun with the sun shining through my eyelids. Further into the poem, the yellow then solidifies and becomes paint, building a bridge between the poet and the painter in me.

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KEVIN – No I don’t have synesthesia. Colour for this book was paramount. When myself and Susanne started writing, the only thing we had was colour.

So for each poem we both started at the same place and then from there we pursued our own perspectives on the same subject, the same colour. The colours we chose are rarely used so to many readers they are reading these unusual colour terms for the first time, echoing Pound’s famous advice ‘make it new’. I think for me colour is really the binding substance which holds the work intact. It’s the common ground and it’s one of the things that unifies myself and Susanne’s poems throughout. I think in some sense there is a synaesthetic feeling or spirit that can be derived from the work though. In the sense that we are constantly associating each colour with the various other human sensations. In a way colour was an expression of freedom, in that by using colours we weren’t attached to any object any place or time or dogma, any person or history or people or explicit emotion. By using colour, it was abstract enough for us to follow our own poetic intuition very freely, but at the same time colour is very familiar and universally discernible. As for the importance of colour in my life, well it’s never really occurred to me except to say that colour is a spectrum and I think absolutely everything in existence from thoughts and emotions to evolution, from time to death to swizzle sticks, everything somehow oscillates within a spectrum of some description.

Look out for Part 2 on Wednesday….