INSIDE THE BOXES: A Micro-Interview with AARON SMITH
by Elaine Sexton
ELAINE SEXTON: Aaron, it turns out you are an image-maker in two genres: poetry and collage. I first noticed your collages on social media. Your visual vocabulary, as in your poetry, is neither shy nor delicate. Yet, in the midst of the brash and the obvious, a careful observer will find something compelling, something the drive-by viewer might miss. What drew you to collage making?
AARON SMITH: I’ve always loved collage. If I’m in a gallery, I’ll pass five paintings to get to the collage on the wall at the other end of the room. There’s something about re-configuring, re-purposing that intrigues me. And just like poetry, I love juxtaposition: seemingly disparate images or ideas, things that aren’t normally in conversation, but might be if we give them the chance. I’ve made a few traditional collages with paper and glue, trying techniques from how-to books, but I get a little overwhelmed by the search, trying to find the image that will work by flipping endlessly through magazines and books. Also, there are no do-overs: if I “blow it” with the image, I’ve lost it. (I have major respect for paper collage artists.) Using digital images gives me a lot of room to use an image again, manipulate it. If you scroll through my Instagram feed, you’ll see some images pop up a few times. When I went to Instagram, I knew I wanted to make my page interesting, something with a vision, not just pictures of food and friends. It took me a little while to figure out what I wanted it to look like. When I ran across this program that gives me nine squares to play with, I got intrigued. For me the process is like revising in poetry. What’s interesting? What’s weak? Sometimes I think it’s like working in a poetic form: all the parts have to fit, to be engaging and not feel forced. What will I sacrifice? I also love that I can just imagine what I want to go into the collage and then google it. I can follow my impulses and zero in on something that interests me a lot more quickly than if I were flipping through a magazine. I’m only as limited as my imagination. Sometimes I take photographs myself and incorporate them, but mostly I find images and see how I can blend them. I get quite obsessive with my poems, to the point that it can almost not be enjoyable. I won’t let myself do that with the collages. I make a lot of them. I revise them to a point, but then I move on. Some fail and that’s okay. Some of my graphic designer friends might say they all fail. Ha! But I like the crudeness of my form, the limitations of all that I don’t know how to do. I could teach myself more things, but I like not knowing how to do some things because it forces me to up my game with my ideas and think outside the box (while thinking inside the boxes). Sometimes, like in poems, I’m surprised when they turn out a certain way. I make them all on my phone, so I do see them as portable, a little hand-held gallery. I’ve had people ask me for prints, and I think in the new year I’m going to figure out how to do that (signed, limited edition, etc). I’ve made a couple chapbooks of images, but only for friends. Another way they dialogue with my poetry is that they aren’t poems, meaning I can make them with the purity of someone who doesn’t know much. Obviously, every time I write a new poem, I learn something, but I’ve been doing that awhile, so there’s a different standard there for me. With the collages, I’m not afraid to throw a lot of stuff out there and see what happens.
ES: This work, like many of the poems in your new collection, PRIMER, are studies in the homo-erotic, of masculine beauty. In your more classical compositions the artist John O’Reilly comes to mind. But your work overtly targets the forbidden, the powerless, drives a collision-course between the two, sometimes using faith-based iconography. Is there an organizing principle to the collages you have made thus far? the way a collection of poems might come together over time? Are the nine-patch squares, so like a quilt, forming some kind of primer, too?
AS: The nine-patch squares are really the driving force for me. Occasionally I will “deface” an image (like “UNSAVED / PENIS” which is in the portfolio), but I find myself returning to the squares. Maybe they feel like stanzas? They definitely impose a boundary I find frustrating and thrilling (a base coat, a primer, if you will). Also, Instagram has “community standards,” which I think means anyone can complain, and they will delete an image. I love the idea of seeing how provocative I can make an image while remaining inside the “standards.” The images are more about implication than explicitness. We “know” what’s happening behind the box, but we can’t see it. In my first book, Blue on Blue Ground, I have a stanza that says: “I’ve been thinking / how the erotic lives in / what we’re denied, the object / about to be exposed, on the verge / of coming undone.” I think that definitely applies to this project. I’ve only had one image removed from Instagram, but I had another version of it on my wall that wasn’t censored, so who knows? (For the longest time, I only had the images on Instagram, but then I heard horror stories of people losing entire galleries, so now they’re all backed up in case they would be wiped out.) Beyond the squares as a way to organize, my favorite collages that I’ve done involve religious iconography, something queer, and then something “else.” For awhile I was obsessed with vintage flowers, and then I moved to vintage ads. Recently, I’ve found myself looking for kitsch. Each collage, like each poem, brings its own set of demands, so I try to just pay attention to what makes me interested and keeps me working. I hadn’t seen John O’Reilly’s work until you pointed him out to me, and I love it. I’ve definitely been inspired by Joe Brainard and Jess. Joe Brainard just made and made. I love that. I’ve made between 600 and 700 collages, and my primary goals are to keep myself interested and to see what I can pull off.
ES: What role does nostalgia play in your images? For example the Superman collages, and the send up of a blow job, boys with gum balls.
AS: One day I was appreciating how beautiful a particular day was: sunny, early spring, etc., and it occurred to me that right then someone was suffering: that beauty was the backdrop for their suffering. I used to walk down the streets of NYC and wonder if someone was being held against their will behind a wall that hundreds of people passed daily. I’m fascinated by juxtaposing something nostalgic or innocent or wholesome or mundane, and then undercutting it with a hint of something extreme or sexy or queer. The boxes remind me that we like to keep things tidy and separate, walled away, but the images intersect beyond their boundaries, through the walls of their boxes, just like our experiences do. I hope the collages open themselves up to expose the stuff underneath which is something that interests me with poetry, too.
Aaron Smith is assistant professor of creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His books of poems include Primer, Appetite and Blue on Blue Ground, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. A recipient of a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, his work has been a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Lambda Literary Award and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award. His interactive mail art project Let’s Get Realwas part of The Green Gallery’s show, Reinvention: A Mail Art Project. He lives in Malden, MA. Artist website: http://upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36685. See all of Smith’s collages on Instagram: @litappetite