Elizabeth Spires’s books include The Wave Maker, Now the Green Blade Rises, and Worldling. She lives in Baltimore and teaches at Goucher College. In 2011–12 she was a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. Her poem “Mountains of the Heart” can be found here and appeared in the July/Aug 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
How did you come to encounter the artist’s book that serves as the reference for “Mountains of the Heart”?
Three years ago I was a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library in Manhattan. The NYPL’s rare book department has the best and most extensive collection of ehon (Japanese artists’ books) outside of Japan. Classic ehon were collaborations between artists, poets, papermakers, calligraphers, blockcutters, and printers. Unbelievably, I was allowed to page through these irreplaceable, fragile, beautiful books. I felt I was in tactile and visual contact with a world far removed from our own. One that I wanted to live in.
Kameda Bosai’s Mountains of the Heart is part of the NYPL collection. The spare, pared-down style of the pictures, the overall feeling of calm contemplation, and the story behind the making of the book (which I refer to in the poem) drew me in. A book drawn in one night! That appealed to me.
A modern facsimile of the book exists (Mountains of the Heart, Braziller, 2007) which meant I could go back and look at the pictures (see below) as I was working on the poem. That was a huge help.
Do you work often in the ekphrastic mode? What do you find to be its particular challenges or possibilities?
So many poets have written ekphrastic poems that it is easy to dismiss the many attempts to do so as simply dull, uninspired exercises, just another poem about a painting. Nevertheless, visual images have always been an inspiring, nourishing source for me. The best ekphrastic poems are not “about” the literal content of a painting, they are about how the painting reveals or mirrors some hidden aspect of the writer’s psyche, a conflict, obsession or problem being played out within the poet. Certain images (different for each poet) have the potential to resonate in the psyche like a tuning fork. Or at least that’s how it works for me.
Simply being in a museum often puts me in an entirely different state of mind where I feel more receptive to my surroundings. In the right circumstances, I sometimes enter a ‘flow’ state where my awareness enlarges and my focus intensifies.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
Looking over the poems I’ve written in the past 35 years, I’d say they’ve changed in terms of both content and attitude. Each decade has had its pressing concerns: love, marriage, travel to other countries, having a child, coming to terms with the death of my mother and several close friends, and, more recently, thinking about my own mortality. In the past ten years, I’ve grown more interested in Asian poetry and art, in its esthetic. All of these experiences and preoccupations, obviously, have made their way into poems.
In terms of attitude, I think my poems have moved from being more external—basically, observed dramatic or lyric enactments—to something more internal that is harder to define and describe. Possibly, it has to do with self and ego. The ego is hugely important in the first half of life—it’s what pushes us along, drives us to produce and achieve—but I think it has become less important as I have grown older. I’ve been exploring that change in some of my poems. Who or what is this changing entity I refer to as “I”? It’s a question that comes up in “Mountains of the Heart.”
What non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Dreams have always been a big influence. Place, especially new places, are a major influence. So is something as perfectly mundane as the weather, the season. Being near water, and walking (in the city or country), help to put me in a receptive state of mind. (A.R. Ammons’s famous talk “A Poem is a Walk” should be mandatory reading for all poets!) And a book that has been very influential for me is The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori. It doesn’t tell you how to write a poem but it describes how to create the conditions that can help you to be open and receptive to daily experience, the small moments we often rush past.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice that you’ve received or given?
The advice I used to give young poets starting out is to simply have faith and stick with it, day after day and draft after draft (even when the poem doesn’t appear to be going anywhere).
The advice I would offer now, and which for a long time I did not follow myself, is that if you are feeling blocked or blank, it is better to leave your desk and engage in some mindless, non-writing activity like . . . taking a walk. Beating your head against the wall just doesn’t get you anywhere.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m finishing a seventh collection of poems, titled A Memory of the Future, influenced, to some extent, by Zen art and texts. And I’m working on a children’s picture book about a woman lighthouse keeper.
Click on each image to see detail.