“‘Poetry has a way of collapsing distance’: A Conversation with Maya Pindyck,” Curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Maya Pindyck is an interdisciplinary artist/poet, educator, and scholar. Her latest poetry collection, Emoticoncert, was published by Four Way Books in 2016. She is also the author of Friend Among Stones, winner of the Many Voices Project Award (New Rivers Press), and Locket, Master, selected for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. Her visual, sound, and text-based work has been recently exhibited at the Milton Art Bank (Milton, PA), the Lewis H. Latimer House Museum (Queens, NY), Gallery 263 (Cambridge, MA), Chashama Pop-Up Space (Queens, NY), and Printed Matter (New York, NY).

In 2005, she co-founded Project Voice, an abortion story archive. Her current research explores pedagogies of poetic inquiry, institutional constructions of whiteness, and memories that schools produce and carry. A doctoral candidate in the English Education program at Columbia University’s Teachers College, she teaches at Parsons School of Design and Long Island University. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Our Editor-in-Chief, Kristina Marie Darling, recently had a chance to ask Maya a few questions about her work.
Kristina Marie Darling: Your most recent collection of poems, Emoticoncert, uses the smallest details of place, and travel, as a point of entry to ambitious questions of history, identity, and community. We are brought in at close proximity, then given a stunning, sweeping areal view. Could you speak about the relationship between poetic voice, distance, and proximity? Are all poems exercises in distancing, an attempt to apprehend the subject by achieving the right angle of approach?

Maya Pindyck: Poetry has a way of collapsing distance, and it’s that collapse that I’m after—to make those questions of history, identity, and community feel tactile, textured, and relevant to any reader. Sometimes that involves examining different proximities and studying impacts and shifts of perspective. Part of what I think makes poetry possible is a decentering of self, and I find that taking up multiple, unfamiliar perspectives can mobilize that decentering.

Another way of answering that question might be to say that my poetry is rooted in the local. Specific places, events, and experiences that I hold in my body extend to those broader questions and connections. Following small things—scars, marks, scratches, textures, everyday languages—visible and invisible—helps me to arrive at ambitious questions in more open ways than I might from a different starting point.

KMD: Your poems often read as carefully orchestrated, beautifully imagined exercises in scale. While this question of scale, and the relationship it cultivates with the spectator, is often taken into account in the visual arts, it’s not as common of a consideration in poetry. With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about what your practice as a visual artist has opened up within your thinking about poetry. How does your work in other mediums shape the ways you inhabit the lyric?

MP: That’s a beautiful way of pointing to what poetry can do. Your wording— “inhabiting the lyric”—touches on what I think joins poetry and art: a losing of self, an intensity of feeling, and a fusion of maker and (subject) matter. I’ve never seen poetry and art as any different on a fundamental level. Both move the reader/viewer through nonverbal elements (spaces, silences, sensations). The only difference is that poetry enacts the nonverbal through a manipulation of words. In other words, a poem is a moving assemblage of ready-made objects (words) that belong to the public. I love working in that shared, affordable and portable everyday material. My experiences working in mixed media (as a visual art practice) have contributed to how I sense words as material for assembling, disrupting, making atmosphere, and shifting scale. And I try to inhabit the lyric in writing the same way I inhabit the lyric in a visual work—tuning into line, tone, space—to form a composition that, if it hits the mark, might move a reader/viewer to justice.

In a different way, my drawing practice has helped me to recognize the distinct immediacy of a hand-drawn line that never lies. You know it when the person who made a mark wasn’t connected to that mark—when the mark reads more as graphic than as lyric. Whenever I make a “bad” drawing, I want to crumple it up, throw it out, or cover it with gesso. It takes a lot of courage for me to keep those terrible drawings up on my studio wall. That drawing is coming from me. It’s a measure of how connected or disconnected I am at the moment my hand and paper work together. The drawing asks: Are you in touch with what you’re drawing with all your senses? Or are you drawing in such a way guided by sight, by image, by a preconceived notion of things—a kind of “sight divorced from every other sense,” as Mark Rothko put it?

Maybe I can cheat a little bit easier with found objects, like in writing and mixed media, but not really. The poems I love most—those poems that move me to be a better person, that connect me to the world—those are poems fully present, touching, and in touch with their subject/matter.

I would also say that my work in various mediums has made me fiercely anti-disciplinary. Poetry and art come from freely moving thoughts. They aren’t bounded by the knowledges, techniques, or methods of a single discipline—or even a cross over between several disciplines. In a wonderful interview with Krista Tippett, Naomi Shihab Nye describes thought as a wave: “You’re not battered by thought in a poem... you’re riding the wave of thought, you’re allowing thought to change and look.” I see that kind of thinking as a necessary freedom encouraged by poetry and art.

KMD: I admire the ways that your work not only challenges the boundaries between disciplines, but also, the ways you use poetry to open up conversations across the boundaries of form and medium. For example, you invited twenty visual artists to respond to Emoticoncert. What surprised you most in these exchanges?

MP: Oh so much surprised! I had no idea what each artist would make of the given poem. The only parameter I gave was size: 4×6 inches (though some artists ignored that rule). I picked a poem that made me think of that particular artist—something about her visual work, or presence, or humor—a loose and precise sense linked poem and person. That was all. Then I sent the artist that poem (sometimes two poems). The success of the exchange depended on surprise, and I’m still in awe of the way each response transformed the poem into another body entirely—a body that still held a trace of the poem and that made visible a new material relation between artist and poem. I saw the project generating an unexpected collectivity of material possibilities for what a poem can become.

KMD: Relatedly, what has poetry made possible for you as you inhabit other forms and mediums, such as drawing and installation?

MP: Poetry cultivates for me a finer attention to spaces and silences—line, tone, atmosphere—a way of working the non-linguistic through language. Poetry prompts me to rethink what language can do, and its sociopolitical implications in different contexts.

KMD: I find myself deeply moved by the ways you use both poetry and the visual arts to cultivate community. I’d love to hear more about your work as an educator. How does this cross-disciplinary, collaborative impulse manifest in your teaching? As you mentor other writers and artists?

MP: Some of the simplest, tried & true practices that I learned as a student of art—and writing—continue to work to cultivate community and to free up thought in the classrooms where I now teach: close observation of an object and trying to draw/write it with all the senses; blind contour drawings; combining disparate materials to make a new assemblage; erasing a found text to make poetry; disrupting cliché through metaphors; writing from and with an object; shifting scale; collaborating in groups to make a hybrid work of writing—like with exquisite corpse; generating cross alliances between student projects & asking them to locate common themes and tensions; peer review (learning to be careful and generous readers of each other’s work); reading widely across disciplines and genres; exploring different forms, tones, and pressures of line; playing broken telephone with each other’s work—translating a line of writing into an image that becomes a new line of writing and so forth. Ultimately, what matters to me as an educator and artist/poet is how the impulse to collaborate and move across (and against) disciplines activates unexpected connections and spurs care for the ongoing making of our interconnected world.

KMD: What are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?

MP: Besides finishing up my dissertation, which explores pedagogies of poetic inquiry through a process of returns to the four schools I attended in Boston and Tel Aviv as a K-12 student, I’m working on two parallel projects that bring non-linguistic marks and objects into what might get conventionally called poetry. One involves a process of performing actions (or verbs) onto Shakespeare’s sonnets. The other is a series of haptic interventions onto a poem I wrote in response to a racial microaggression that I witnessed in Tel Aviv. I’ve been experimenting with different combinations of text, objects, images, sounds, and contexts. I don’t know yet if these projects will take the form of literature or installation. Maybe both. I’m also currently writing poems that examine the bodily impacts and accumulations of quiet, ordinary violences in the United States and Israel.

A Folio of Poems by Maya Pindyck


Still Charles

What is shape? What you
confuse with memory: economy of flashes:

your father’s mole
in the center of his forehead,
his stack of clubs,
the way he barked Munye!
even when she changed her name to Mary.

No, not this piecemeal picture
of a man with corduroy pants
hanging off his broken frame
years later—Whose skin? A belt

can only hold so much fabric, c
an only fold so many times.

Temporary Headstone

So that what remained of her would not
come back to hurt him

he mourned alone at her temporary headstone:

No One’s Daughter.

Peacock bouquet.
Row of stones & shells to mark

the absent living—

Well, Spring

One of us chose to die
before the sun rose.

Ran to force a force of no
return. Return, A.

Remember how you loved to love
Moroccan lamb, fast hands, a kissing booth

made of paper—well,
Spring will miss your face.

Don’t you know it.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books, which include JE SUIS L’AUTRE: ESSAYS & INTERROGATIONS (C&R Press, 2017), DARK HORSE (C&R Press, forthcoming), and THE DISAPPOINTMENT ACTS (C&R Press, forthcoming). Within the past few years, her writing has been honored with three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, three residencies at the American Academy in Rome, and a Visiting Researcher Fellowship from the University of Washington’s Helen R. Whiteley Center. She is the recipient of grants from Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund, the Whiting Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Ora Lerman Trust, the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, and the Rockefeller Archive Center. A graduate of NYU’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and the PhD Program in Literature at SUNY-Buffalo, Kristina currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly.