Juxtapositions at Hedgebrook

By Hedgebrook Guest

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Categories: Garden & Grounds, Women's Voices,

Because I’m a fine-arts photographer as well as a poet, I frequently get asked if my photography somehow illustrates my poems. Do the images and the words come from the same place? For years now, I have known my “photographic” and “poetic” minds to run parallel and close, related but different in a way I can’t quite articulate. My latest chapbook, “Abraham’s Voices,” was my first attempt at marrying the two impulses–but the kudos go to my wonderful editor, friend, and fellow Hedgebrook alumna Lana Ayers, who saw the way for some scant pages of poetry to become a chapbook with the addition of photographs. Still, people tell me how “poetic” my photographs are, and how strikingly visual most of my poetry. Surely there is some connection?

As a photographer who persists in shooting film (and old-fashioned medium-format film at that), I have been dragged to the digital age grudgingly. It was through the film-like images I could get with my smartphone that I came around to digital photography. I now carry my cell phone at all times, not as a communications device but as an ubiquitous camera. So I had it with me every second at Hedgebrook this past October. As I walked through the grounds I took pictures of the trees, the mosses, wheelbarrows by the outbuildings. I took photos of the beach at Double Bluff, the white fences and the changing colors of the neighboring farms’ deciduous trees. I have lived 5 miles away from Hedgebrook for almost 20 years, but that didn’t stop me from photographing everything anew.

In Cedar Cottage, I also read like a fiend. This time around, that’s what I needed time for: getting through tons of research material for my third full-length poetry book. I did not expect to write. But then, of course, the place started working its magic and out came four poems and one essay—my first, ever. I got giddy but knowing reactions that evening at the farmhouse table: my fellow writers had all, to a woman, crossed genres and written something utterly unexpected while in residence at Hedgebrook.

A few years back I discovered the work of photographer Abelardo Morell and his stunning “tent camera” photographs (check it out at www.abelardomorell.net, go to Photography, and choose Tent Camera). I have since taken hundreds of photographs of old walls, peeling paint, treebark, to the point of having an ever-growing library of images of textures—trying to replicate what Morell does so beautifully. The way I work with them is, after scanning the negatives into the computer, I “sandwich” a photograph with images of my textures, until it seems to work. There are also smartphone apps that work in the same way, allowing me to superimpose two or more phone photographs that result in a different image, hopefully more interesting than the sum of its parts.

Which is why I went around, non-signal phone in hand, taking close-ups of pale green moss, or the dark wet sand at Double Bluff, or pretty much anything in my path. It’s what I do. I never know what unexpected background will provide a surprising texture to a rather blah image, making it soar. Back in the big chair in Cedar Cottage, I’d review the images quickly after coming back from my daily walk, before diving back into research. But midway through my residency, I returned to the cottage one early afternoon thinking and rethinking this whole business of poems and photographs and could they fit together.

It was a modest epiphany, but one I will treasure. What if, I thought, I photographed the text of one of the poems I had just written and superimposed it to an image? I took the grubby handwritten paper to Cedar’s porch, because it was too dark inside by then. I took a plain photo of that first poem written a couple of days before, a poem about a hike during a recent trip to the Northwest of Spain. I still had most of the trip’s images on my cell phone; going through the ones I had taken on that hike, I found one that not only carried the memories of that day but that was visually uncluttered enough to possibly work as a background. I sandwiched the two together: voilà! My first…. what? Photopoem?

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I went back inside and got the piece of paper with the second poem I wrote, part of a series of poems about ancestral DNA. I had no obvious photographic match for this one. Reviewing some of the images taken earlier that day, there was one close-up of the yellowing bark of a tree by Deep Cedar Circle that seemed to somehow fit the text. I loved how the words and the textured image worked together, even if the actual words of the poem became harder to read. There was a different alchemy at work here, which I found oddly satisfying. My words and images had found their own way of coming together.

 

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That night I shared my new-fangled creations with my fellow writers and told them I’d be happy to find ways to create some with their own words, if anyone was interested. Josephine Ensign took me up on the offer the following day. She brought me one short poem beautifully written on thick watercolor paper. I photographed it on the porch, loving the light there. Then I had Josephine go through the images I had taken around Hedgebrook, to see if anything resonated for her. She found one of the images from the beach at Double Bluff and said “this one.” Josephine’s poem and my photo melded through the phone app; we both loved the result. Later, I kept “playing” with it, adding this and that layer. I just can’t help myself that way…. But Josephine was right: that first, simple juxtaposition of poem and photo was the one.

 

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Betsy Aoki became interested too. Betsy had come to Hedgebrook to work on a manuscript of poems spoken in the voice of Coder Girl, a software-writing, ass-kicking modern heroine who rightly belonged on her laptop screen. Could we create some sort of image with this? The following day I had Betsy bring her laptop out to the porch of Waterfall, her cottage. Plopped down by a small altar of twigs and seashells created by “generations” of Waterfall residents, Betsy’s poems on the laptop screen looked totally at home. Like I had done with Josephine’s, I later played with Betsy’s photopoem, until I found several versions I thought she’d like.

 

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I kept going on walks every day, and taking photographs at every chance. Denise Miller asked me for some images of the heart-shaped red leaves of a tree by the gardens, leaves she loved. Every evening at the farmhouse, I’d email my fellow residents any of the images of that day that I thought they’d want to take back home after our time at Hedgebrook came to an end. I think this last one is my favorite: the owl sign that states “Writers In Residence.” The original image I took was a veritable “blah” shot. It only came alive after it stumbled on what I think is the right texture.

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Will these photopoems have an enduring artistic value? Probably not. I love looking at my two because they remind me of the thrill of coming up with the idea, and they remind me of both Northwestern Spain and Hedgebrook. I love the textured image of the “Writers In Residence” sign, its slightly wacky feel. I hope Josephine’s and Betsy’s carry for them the electric charge of their time in residence, the feel of fire and Fall inside their cottages–small reminders of what it was like. Wild laughter at dinner and after, the crunch of dry leaves, the emotional high and low tides that any writer goes through given the gift of time for her art.

I guess it’s what happens when you juxtapose the notion of radical hospitality with hooting owls, or rain and writing, or women of words with matches and dry firewood. There is a new texture that comes into play, and the results can be stunning.

 

 

 

L_Healy_B&WLorraine Healy is a poet, writer, and photographer living on Whidbey Island, Washington. The winner of several national awards, including the Hackney Prize, she has been published extensively both in the U.S. and her native Argentina. Her poem “An Artifact of Light” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2004 soon after it appeared in her first chapbook, The Farthest South, published by New American Press in 2003.
Her first full-length manuscript, “ The Habit of Buenos Aires ”, has won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award and was published by Tebot Bach Press in 2010.
Introducing “Abraham’s Voices“, Lorraine’s newest chapbook. Learn more at: http://lorrainehealy.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

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