The poems in Out of Speech are an outgrowth of my fascination with the visual arts. Before I had ever written a poem, I sketched and painted. I was a full-time landscaper and part-time student then. When I tripped into a creative writing workshop by accident—I thought it was a literature course—and drafted my first few poems at age 25 or 26, I put down my paint brush and charcoal. Writing won over. However, I always seemed to go back to visual art in poems, sketching the art I admired with language. My first two collections, one a collection of collaborative poems written with Allen Jih and one I wrote on my own, contain a few ekphrastic poems, but I never felt truly happy with them because I was always looking at the paintings from a book or on a tiny computer screen. The colors were off. I couldn’t determine textural elements. I couldn’t change my perspective. Even if I knew the paintings’ dimensions, I could not imagine their true size and the spatial relationships of objects when I was restricted to seeing them at the size the book or website provided.
So when I conceived of a pure ekphrastic project, I knew I would need to draft all of the poems while witnessing the art live. I began writing grants, and I was fortunate to receive funding to visit art museums across the country. I went to The Guggenheim, The Frick, The Met, The Whitney, MOMA, The National Gallery, The Phillips, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Philadelphia Art Museum, The Barnes, The Houston Museum of Fine Art, The Menil, and museums in France and Spain. The last poem in the book takes place in Argentina and focuses on a street artist I met when I was in Buenos Aires before heading to Antarctica. We were both in a park and sitting on banyan tree roots. I had been drafting a poem about this artist, and I noticed he kept looking up at me as he sketched something. He walked over and showed me his sketch; it was a sketch of me. I showed him the draft of the poem I was writing about him, and we traded. It was a sublime experience. When I went back to the hotel, I wrote a poem about the experience, a poem about art and human connection.
The rest of the poems in Out of Speech are informed by paintings in museums and the culture of museums. Social and psychological theories started to make themselves manifest as I interacted with people inside and outside of the museums and as I studied content within the paintings. I embraced ideas such as “The Looking-Glass Self,” “Social Capital,” “Intergroup Reconciliation,” “False Consciousness,” “Cortical Arousal,” “Antipositivism,” and theoretical notions of how humans approach art by Benjamin, Bourdieu, and others and allowed these vehicles of understanding to help shape the ways I interpreted art and the actual human dramas that unfolded while I drafted. In my drafts, I stretched the canvases and frames to encompass whatever context surrounded them and whatever context affected me at that moment. Some poems remain grounded in the paintings. Other poems employ the paintings as a jumping-off point to gain greater insight elsewhere.
Technically, I was interested in experimenting with shorter lines than I usually construct. I wanted to test the lines’ integrity, their tensile strengths, when they snap abruptly with enjambment or bow to the next line. I wanted to experiment with line friction and viscosity and how a rhetorical moment or a phonetic burst could be affected by clipped and frayed syntax and by the visuals of line lengths and white spaces. I carried a few collections with me that I have always admired for their wrangling with lines and for their lyrical qualities. I also brought collections that were new to me on trips, some of which influenced my sensibility.
Here are a few of the collections that influenced the technical construction of the poems in Out of Speech:
Living in the Resurrection by Tony Crunk (1995, Yale University Press): Crunk’s poems informed how I approached shorter lines and line breaks. His poems contain imagistic, lyrical qualities while expressing larger narratives.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan (1995, Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Bogan is the master of negative spaces and shadow zones in lyrical poems.
The Lost Boys by Daniel Groves (2010, University of Georgia Press): This collection is a masterful display of formalism with unexpected turns and extraordinary language, wit, and rhetorical approaches.
The Complete English Poems by George Herbert (1991, Penguin Books): Herbert is the finest lyrical English poet. I have apprenticed myself to his poems for twenty-five years now. He is a master of the formal line, religious conceits, and layered language.
The Tulip-Flame by Chloe Honum (2014, Cleveland State University Poetry Center): Honum works incredibly well in tight spaces, building anxieties through enjambments and stanzas. She also finds surprising ways to arrange primary and secondary imagery in minimalist poems to subtly heighten pathos.
Circles Where the Head Should Be by Caki Wilkinson (2011, University of North Texas Press): Wilkinson integrates Latinate and Germanic language at the perfect times. Nothing is off limits in her wild yet deftly constructed formal poems.
Versed by Rae Armantrout (2009, Wesleyan University Press): Armantrout constructs short lines and terse sentences as well as anyone writing today.
Figure Studies by Claudia Emerson (2008, LSU Press): Emerson’s collection showed me the intense power of short couplets and couplets followed by single-line stanzas.
The Price of Light by Pimone Triplett (2005, Four Way Books): Triplett works so well in this collection with odd juxtapositions, syntactical delay, and time lapses.
Adam Vines is an assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and editor of Birmingham Poetry Review. He is also the author of The Coal Life and coauthor of Day Kink and According to Discretion.