DOUBLE-CONSCIOUSNESS: A Micro-Interview with Rachel Eliza Griffths
by Elaine Sexton
ELAINE SEXTON: Among these photographs from your current exhibit, “American Stanzas,” (Poets House/NYC) is a self-portrait, an homage to the iconic painting, “The Two Fridas (1939)” by Frida Kahlo. This might be a good starting point to talk about the dual practice of scribe and photographer, suggested by the typewriter and camera in the photograph. The title of the exhibit suggests a blended, rather than a divided practice, image maker as stanza maker. Would you share something of how this gathering of images & ideas came about, almost all portraits of poets & writers and, briefly, something about your practice?
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS: The exhibit features different threads of visual and literary work over the course of a decade. It explores my questions and challenges where identity and representation, particularly of black bodies and black imagination, are in play with one another. I’m interested in how language often works for or against the nature, discovery, and ownership of identity. I’m disturbed by the physical silence of photographs and the bridge between the visual effect of an image and the songs, or soundtracks, of the mind. I’m a self-taught photographer. I’ve always been a reader, poet, and writer since I was a child. As a younger artist I kept those spaces separated because they seemed to dislike each other or disliked me forcing them to see each other and to ascribe privilege or judgment as to which one I was best at. Being older and working for years now across a pluralized space I can see, a bit more clearly now, the richness of their collisions and the liberation I experience by not trying to judge or limit myself.
Most of the portraits in “American Stanzas” were created as a result of my relationship to the Cave Canem collective, which is celebrating its 20th year anniversary. The more recent mixed media works and self-portraits are concerned with a greater, wider obsession of how and who defines America. For me, the synthesis between Black poetry and American identity with so much nuance. There are so many unexplored, inarticulate landscapes that are expanding our notions and authorship of American narratives.
Blending and blurring that map and those stories and histories allowed me to move through my own cartography of selves. Freeing that up helped me move towards a lyrical, imaginative space with the work that bridges inarticulate imagery with bold and searing language. It also allowed me to celebrate and work visually as a ‘close reader’ of so many — living and dead — Black poets. The conversation, which takes place through photography, paintings, collage, and even video, has been wild, and to use June Jordan’s phrase about Black poetry — ‘a difficult miracle’. Which is sometimes exactly how I feel when I look in the mirror. Which is also what this work is concerned with.
ES: In the prose poem, “Self, Traction,” from your recent collection, Lighting the Shadow, you write: “They pull the light out of her skin, pull the lilac out of her skull, pull the poems, wet & writhing, out of her, wringing the body in opposite directions until the line is perfectly straight.” These lines read like exceptionally moving process notes of a poem making a picture. Portraiture is a particular kind of art-making. Does this poem speak to a way of thinking when you are preparing a subject?
REG: This poem speaks to an aspect of the portraits I create of other poets and writers. Insomuch that I always read a piece of writing by the person I’m working with before he/she/they arrive at my studio. It’s about interiority, respect, and also — I’m shy! I mean there is an irony here because I’m looking for something in a person’s likeness or presence that lives in the way he/she/they embody and employ language. I’m also asking, in a certain way, to be trusted to see something inside that is ‘representative’ of who they are. It makes me nervous and it’s wonderful. And, they let me see or they don’t. Or even, they can’t show me or can’t help but show me what’s possible or what matters to them. I don’t ever push, force, provoke, or coddle in my sessions. We have ‘a conversation’ and I try to get them to understand that there is some element of reciprocity happening even though it might appear that I’m less vulnerable because I’m behind the camera. That isn’t true.
I was shaking the entire time I photographed Lucille Clifton. I’ve sometimes thrown up before or after a photo shoot because of my nerves. I probably care too much. One thing though that we share is a faith and devotion, however difficult, to words. And yet, during a photography session, we have different roles that actually mirror each other as Author and Reader. My page is my camera in that moment.
The presence of the camera itself — which has no soul or purpose unless we say so and gaze at one another through it is how we make a record of our witnessing one another. But the seeing has to happen in some way beyond the machine. And it’s different too — if I’m doing something more fine arts and am not working with a poet or writer than there are other sets of alphabets to consider.
But ultimately I try to speak around the camera the way I try to speak from the eye of the page. We’re always looking at each other. In any portrait of mine there’s always a double portrait…and yet my own ‘portrait’ is incidental in the process. Because it’s not about me at all except that it is, just a little bit. The poet and the photographer have to hold their instruments close to each other to be seen. This collaboration fascinates and terrifies me endlessly.
ES: Among the images in this portfolio, is there one image that has a story you’d like to share? how it came about? what your relationship to the subject was at the time?
REG: In the image “Portrait of Ancestors Looking Through the Veil As I Look Back” the figure on the right whose back faces us is the stunning poet, Rickey Laurentiis. We created this image in Oxford, Mississippi in 2014. I feel that Rickey and I are both offspring, in aesthetics, imaginations, and traditions, of the ‘gothic’ and that includes landscape. For example, the South. We created this image in July. The other figure is a local model I found through an online posting.
It was one of those Mississippi afternoons where everything just drips from the heat. Where we created this image wasn’t far from Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s crib. I wanted this image to be surreal, to feel haunted, to be like the surface of water under which spirits and bodies still wait for their names to be returned to them, sung, as they search and try to remember home. I wanted to trouble the notions and dimensions of double-consciousness. I was also thinking of Carrie Mae Weems’ title ‘From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried’. Because it’s the photographer claiming the agency, truth, and testament of her own power through her own gaze and narrative of black bodies.
And, literally in my photograph, there is a suggestion of an eye (“I”) gazing through time, history, and imagination only to find itself also being seen.
A few moments before we made this image I’d asked Rickey and the model to run back and forth as though they were being chased. The nightgowns were soaked with sweat. (And I know Rickey Laurentiis loves me because I don’t know if I could have run back and forth beautifully like that in the heat, trusting that we were creating something across dimensions). So after a few times of us doing this I suddenly interrupted them and said Stop and just hit the shutter. And so it feels and appears as though the air is still running past and through them.
It made me think about Black people, running towards – and sometimes away — from freedom. It made me see us all trying to exist in our humanity despite so many veils. Looking at this makes me ask myself who and what serves as my own spiritual and creative compasses and when, in some moments, I pull the veil over my own face or, lift it to reveal all of my faces.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist. Her most recent collection of poetry, Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books), was a finalist for the 2015 Balcones Poetry Prize and the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in Poetry. Griffiths’ visual and literary work has appeared widely, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, American Poetry Review, Lit Hub, Guernica, Calloloo, and many others. A Cave Canem and Kimbilio Fellow, Griffiths is the recipient of numerous fellowships including Yaddo, Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, Millay Colony, and others. Her video series, P.O.P. (Poets on Poetry), a series of intimate interviews that gathers nearly 100 contemporary poets in conversation, is featured at the Academy of American Poets. Currently, Griffiths’ photography and mixed media show, American Stanzas: 2006 – 2016, is featured at Poets House from October 28, 2016 thru February 25, 2017. Information for the exhibit can be found here: http://www.poetshouse.org/. She teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the Institute of American Indian Arts. Griffiths lives in Brooklyn, New York. For more information, please visit: www.rachelelizagriffiths.com.