I: Individual Collectivities
Karla Kelsey: In an interview conducted for the Boston Review you and Ann Lauterbach address the intermixture of past and present as it comes to the surface in language and visual art. The differentiation between history and immediacy is not so much effaced as shown to be different facets of the same object, as, for example, in Ann Lauterbach’s articulation that
“Paintings and sculptures are present in time and space and are the result of an artist’s engagement with another time and space; they are material, formal interpretations.”
This idea resonates with creative work, like yours, that draws on archival sources and insists that the world of artistic creation is a reality as significant as other life experiences. Your book In Captivity works with “The Unicorn Tapestries” housed in the Cloisters and Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise Bourgeois engages Bourgeois’ sculptures, paintings, and drawings. Poems I’ve read from Diamonds, forthcoming in 2021, are in conversation with famous figures from literature and culture. The titular poem begins: “Judith Butler, I am calling you/ here in the kitchen where I’m unloading the dishwasher/ performing my gender as I’m wont to do” and goes on to address Michel Foucault, incorporating Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude and Ophelia as well as Rihanna and other pop culture references along the way.
While these projects all draw on archival sources, you create a distinct range of textures and palettes for each project. I imagine for each project a mind-map that has a central constellation of objects (like “The Unicorn Tapestries”) that branch out to related objects and textures (animals in captivity, for example). As such, the works transcend their central figures but don’t range so far afield that they get lost or trail off. This focused expansiveness also allows you, like Louise Bourgeois, to take on typically “feminine” iconography (the unicorn, the dishwasher) in complex ways.
I’m very curious to hear your thoughts on over-saturated feminine imagery. What strategies allow an artist like Bourgeois—a poet like you—to re-energize the overly familiar?
Camille Guthrie: I love over-saturated imagery and write about many examples of it in poems in my forthcoming book, Diamonds—from Sylvia Plath’s prom dress to a painting of a Pict Woman from the 16th century to Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I love overlays (Lucy Lippard’s term from Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Pre-History); images or objects that are laden, and sometimes burdened, with significance; things that are overlapping, reintegrated, over-interpreted, misread, or encumbered with projection. When I read that the Smith College library holds Sylvia Plath’s prom dress in their archives, I lost my mind with excitement. A colleague of mine, the playwright Sherry Kramer, teaches a course called “The Magical Object,” and to me, that prom dress glowed with magic. It’s one of my dreams to visit it in the library; I don’t know why I haven’t done it yet. I wrote a poem called “Magical Object” about wishing I could wear the dress during my divorce, when I felt powerless. I think many poets who come to poetry through Plath at a young age think of her as a witchy, ambitious, and iconic figure. Her life and her poems became surfaces for projection and fantasy, adoration and criticism—palimpsests for our interpretations. My poem was another attempt to touch the hems of her image.
II: Collective Entries
Extended versions of these original questions can be found here.
The Call of the Object: Have you experienced a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response?
Camille Guthrie: A Pict Woman called to me from the internet. I came upon this miniature painting (c. 1585), A Young Daughter of the Picts on the The Public Domain Review (a digital archive of art, literature, and ideas that are no longer under copyright), which I love to read and lose hours doing so. As Karla wrote, her image revealed itself to me as “animated and willful”; in fact, she strolls in my mind as an animated character, and I hope someday that someone will animate her. The painting preoccupies me because of its misreading of history, its fantasy of colonialism, and its ornamentation of the female body. Yet to me, she resists these pressures, so I wrote a prose poem about her in her voice.
There is controversy about its painter, adding to the strange anachronism of this delightful Daughter, who resists exactitude. Possibly Jacques Le Moyne (1533-1588) painted it, an artist who accompanied the early expedition to the New World with Jean Ribault and René Laudonnière in 1564 by command of King Charles IX of France. As the group’s cartographer and illustrator, Le Moyne depicted the locals: the native Timucua people, and plants and animals, of northern Florida. During this failed venture to establish a colony, Le Moyne’s drawings were destroyed in an attack by the Spanish—who also wanted their own colony there—but his images somehow survived in engravings made for Theodor de Bry’s America. De Bry, whose books were based upon explorers’ first-hand observations, claims he bought Le Moyne’s paintings from his widow. Those images, their factuality highly suspect, remain significant because they are of the earliest European depictions of the New World. Later, after fleeing France, Le Moyne became known in England as a botanical artist, which may account for the Young Daughter’s floral tattoos.
Scholars question the authenticity and accuracy of the de Bry engravings, and some support the claim that British artist John White (c. 1540-c. 1593) was the painter of the miniature. In another wild story, White, a mapmaker and artist, accompanied Richard Grenville, the admiral sent to set up a British military colony on Roanoke Island, which was, of course, inhabited by the Carolina Algonquins. There, White sketched and painted watercolors of the Algonquin people and the landscape. In 1585, Grenville infamously killed the local Aquascogoc people when a silver drinking cup went missing from his stuff. Eventually, White became the Governor of the “Lost Colony” and grandfather to the first English child born in the Americas, Virginia Dare.
In all of this historical confusion and colonial violence, in all of this whitewashing, who is the Pict Daughter anyway? To the European fantasy of sexy, native women–globally available through time and space–this painting adds yet another layer: a mythologized version of a Pict woman. Early Britons, the Picts dwelled in modern-day Scotland during the Iron Age and Early Medieval periods. Picti means “painted or tattooed people,” as they were known in legends for painting themselves in battle. White’s engraving of a similar “savage” woman appeared in another Theodor de Bry publication, an illustrated version of Thomas Hariot’s “Briefe and True Report of The New Found Land of Virginia” (1590), yet that twin sister sports geometrical tattoos. Le Moyne’s version (if it’s his), exacerbates its unreliability by decorating her with botanicals recently introduced to Western Europe, according to Lisa Ford for the Yale Center for British Art, who writes, “The Pictish illustrations were intended to remind readers that early natives of the British Isles existed in a savage state similar to natives in the Americas.” With no True Report and faced with these erasures and projections, the Young Daughter strides out of her mystery and remains to me witty and captivating. Out of this infinity of copies and in the tradition of ekphrastic prosopopeia—in which the poet imagines the visual image’s speaker—I wanted to let her speak for herself.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work: What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive?
Camille Guthrie: Upon visiting the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, I saw a French sleigh shaped like a dragon (1720-1750) attributed to the court of Louis XV. A spectacular and clearly Orientalist object, I imagined, after the object remained in my mind, that the king’s mistress, Madame du Barry, might have used it to pay a visit to her rivals for his royal attention. While this precious object is not an overlooked one, it is a silent object that led me to research and held several surprises.
Madame du Barry, or Jeanne Bécu, the “illegitimate” daughter of a seamstress, worked her way up to the king’s court. She sold trinkets on the street at age 15; worked as a hairdresser’s and milliner’s assistant; labored as an elderly lady’s companion; until, with sensational success, she became the mistress to an upper-class pimp, becoming his star courtesan to the court’s aristocrats. King Louis XV acquired her as his mistress by having a minister arrange for her marriage to a Comte (the pimp’s brother) and, thus, faked her birth certificate. Now the Comtesse du Barry, she had to battle the snobbery of the court to survive in those treacherous political circles of many enemies. One famous rival was Marie Antoinette, the bride of the Dauphin, who refused to speak to her until pressured by a minister to please the King. At a ball in 1772, Marie Antoinette famously capitulated and blandly said to du Barry, “There are many people at Versailles today.” Du Barry’s story is a fascinating example of female rivalry for men, status, and power, which led me to think about how women use language to wound each other, when physical violence is not permitted, and how white women use the language “of the street” to insult each other, even when that discourse is not their own.
Among many exorbitant presents, including an outrageous diamond necklace, King Louis XV bought du Barry a child—Zamor (1762-1820), a boy of Bengali or Siddi origin, who was trafficked from Chittagong by British slave traders when he was eleven years old, and whom du Barry insisted was African and renamed Louis Benoit. She ordered him to bring her a cup of chocolate every morning. Disgusted by her extravagance, Zamor later joined the Jacobins and informed on her, leading to her eventual trial and beheading during the Reign of Terror—an incredible story I hope that someone will use to write a novel. I did not think I was in any way the right person to write his story. Nevertheless, I am very interested in writing about the discourse of female rivalry, and this sleigh led me to write a poem called “Drama Trap,” in which du Barry takes the sleigh to visit and put down her rivals.
Preservation and Access: If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create?
Camille Guthrie: Every day I make a list of things to do. It helps me organize the day for me and my children. Sometimes I keep them as a reminder of what our lives were like. I also love reading lists, especially of words. I have a poem, “Be More like Björk,” that I wrote including a list of archaic words I came across by chance on the internet: words, of course, are cherished things that get lost, change, and disappear. I would love an archive of lists, inspired by Sei Shōnagon (c.966-c.1025) who wrote The Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi). An archive of lists, especially of lists that people make in their daily lives, such as the lists in Commonplace books. List also means to desire. I suspect this archive exists, but I don’t know about it.
III: Exchange Question
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Given that the metaphor of an archive is so powerful in contemporary thinking, can you trace for yourself how you entered the zone of that metaphor, what influenced you in thinking about that metaphor; how you would define “archive” for yourself based on that metaphor; and how that definition figures in your work?
Camille Guthrie: As I haven’t used the word “archive” when thinking about my work, I can speak to how I research and respond to sources. My first experience using sources as a beginning to my own work occurred in my college thesis; I wrote into Nabokov’s Lolita, which I adored, in a version of the voice of the character Lolita, which I felt at the time had been misread by many readers. A slant way into my admiration and exploration of that widely-read and commented-upon text, as famous works always acquire an archive of conversation around them. Much later, in Articulated Lair, my poems for Louise Bourgeois were responses to her work and life—an imagined conversation in which I certainly described her work, yet what most compelled me more as a strategy was what poet and literary critic B.K. Fischer defines as a hallmark of feminist ekphrasis:
Less oppositional than aggregative, feminist ekphrasis comprises acts of description and interrogation, improvisation and analysis, homage and backtalk. It frequently draws on all three critical motives I’ve mentioned: it destabilizes gendered hierarchies of value, engages in collaboration and aesthetic exchange, and adumbrates rich alternatives to conventional binaries.
I love that she includes backtalk! Another new poem of mine takes a similar route–backtalking to Keats’s traditional biographers, who often disparage Fanny Brawne. In my poem, “My Boyfriend, John Keats,” I take on a voice of rivalry for Keats’s attention in order to examine how women compete for male attention and power; how girlfriends, wives, and daughters are overlooked in history; and how I found that I’ve been in more than one conversation with other women poets in which we stake claims to love Keats the most.
Camille Guthrie is the author of three books of poetry, including Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise Bourgeois (Subpress 2013). Her new book, Diamonds, comes out from BOA Editions in 2021. She is the Director of Undergraduate Writing Initiatives at Bennington College.