Martha Silano on art, corporations, religion and the American Dream in Reckless Lovely

Martha-SilanoSome poems in your collection Reckless Lovely use scientific language with great lyrical power. Could you explain the relationship between poetry and science and perhaps, more generally, art and science?
Poetry and science go together for me because I grew up in a home with a scientist father and a literature/language-loving mother. One parent, my dad, was very passionate about helping us observe crystals, or showing us how to turn potato peels and cantaloupe rinds into “black gold.” Meanwhile, the other parent, my mom, was taking us to the library, sharing her excitement about a book called Hailstones and Halibut Bones, making us fall in love with language. The first poems I wrote were haiku about grasshoppers, caterpillars, and the like—I was always curious about critters and their doings. When I began reading poetry in high school, I enjoyed those of Whitman and Dickinson—especially the ones with grass and birds and snakes in them. For me, the best way to explain the relationship between art and science is to use Leonardo da Vinci. as a model. Here’s a man who invented the helicopter, calculator, and solar panel, along with positing the theory of plate tectonics, but is best known for painting The Mona Lisa. My parents embodied both forces; they taught me through example that anyone could be both a scientist and an artist – all you had to do was be passionate about what you loved.

The title of your collection comes from your poem therein: “The Untied States of America.” Does this fact give this poem a special significance within the collection?
Yes. America breaks my heart because it’s founded on admirable ideals—life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness—and yet my rational brain tells me that more often than not, nepotism, not meritocracy, determines economic success. Am I shocking anybody when I say that you need to have money, family money, in order to make money? And yet, our beautiful rags-to-riches lie serves as a beacon of hope around the globe. Also, America’s in the sack with her posse of corporations; she is always more than ready to irreparably deplete and blemish herself to keep Boise Cascade and Monsanto satisfied. The only way this makes sense is if corporations are more powerful than countries. It is a sobering thought, but why else would a country plow up native prairie to plant a crop that is inedible unless it passes through the belly of a cow or is chemically concocted into high fructose corn syrup? It’s nuts. Either that, or it’s reckless. Unchecked greed is reckless: the draining of wetlands to build golf courses and five-star resorts. The lovely part is two-fold: what remains pristine (the place the scythe misses), and also, let’s face it, the five-star resort. The title is purposely oxymoronic, a paradoxical conundrum: “I am large; I contain multitudes,” says America, as does this book. Religion is reckless and lovely too. How many have died in the name of a savior or a crusade, and yet aren’t those hand-carved wooden altarpieces from the Middle Ages gorgeous? Finally, in the effort to heat the homes of many, to run their blenders and dishwashers, we have nuclear power. Reckless or lovely? Hard to say…bumblebee  close-up

A group of poems in the collection—to name a few—“How to Read an Italian Renaissance Painting,” “Ode to Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows,” and “Leonardo Da Vinci’s Gran Cavallo” speak beautifully about art. Could you talk about some of the difficulties and pleasures of writing about art?
Writing about art is easy. All you have to do is walk around a museum until a piece of art demands your full attention. Once you’ve given it, take notes. What do you see? How do you feel? What was the artist’s intention? Mainly, it’s about lowering expectations, sharing what the art is saying to you. Most importantly, I steer clear of what critics have said about the artist or his/her art, concerning myself only with accurately describing how I see or feel it. I usually conduct research—that’s my favorite part about writing about works of art—but it’s not required. The only difficulty for me right now is I have very little time to visit art museums, and art museums are the best places to view/write about art. Revising is also tough—deciding what needs to be described more clearly, what can fall away, where and if the logic of the poem went south—but it’s pretty much the same process as with any poem.

In your poems you use very precise language as well as airy, other-worldy, poetic language. Could you talk about the tension between these two uses of language?
Sometimes an image needs to be precise and exact; sometimes what you’re going for is more suggestive, less obvious, or you want what you have to say to come out more like a whisper. I remember early on one of my teachers, Henry Carlile, told us about his teacher, Elizabeth Bishop, how she used to admonish them: Don’t underestimate your reader’s intelligence! He’d end by saying “your reader is smart; let him or her connect the dots; you don’t have to do that for them.” Maybe that’s why I smudge out exactness in places –I’m not exactly sure. When it came to revising, I always paid close attention to what my teachers said, often following their advice.

In Reckless Lovely you write about the religion of the old world such as in the poem “Saint Catherine of Siena” and religion in America explored in “Easter Drama” and “God in Utah.” Could you talk about the American religious experience—where it is and where it is going?
Oh, that’s a tall order! I was raised Methodist by two lapsed Catholics. There was plenty of New Testament in the weekly sermons at church, but also quite a bit of Old Testament at home. I was trying to come to grips with the unanswerables in this book—where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we headed? But also, do any of the organized religions provide satisfactory answers? I happened to visit two areas of the country—Utah and Arkansas—where Mormonism and Christianity are a bit more pronounced than up here on the left coast. I meant to include poems about Krishna and Buddha, but they never fully materialized. I don’t know where religion is going in America. If I attempted to come up with an answer, it would come off as narrow-minded, judgmental, clue-less. There are others—historians, journalists, wise sages—who are more suited to answer this question. My religious knowledge is very limited, but it does not seem to keep me from poking around where I shouldn’t be poking. I guess that’s one of the jobs of the poet.

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Ode to Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows
from Reckless Lovely

Cult of the brow ascending like a condor,
of refusal to bow to the whimsy of busy tweezers.
From follicle to follicle, freedom unfurls.
Brow most buxom. Ferret brow.
Brow channeling Hieronymus Boschian shenanigans.
Brow championing Duchampian high jinx.
Brow side-skirting ye olde pot o wax.
Brow hobnobbing with Salvador Dali’s mustache.
Mink stole brow; brow I-stole-it-from-a-rodent.
Brow suggesting a profuse, gargantuan beard.
Circus-circuit brow.
Brow that never shook hands with laser.
Most inexplicable brow, most unpixelated.
Bad luck black kitten brow on the prowl.
Mercury in retrograde brow.
Brow undaunted by a John Deere tractor.
Brow the embodiment of national glory.
Brow the mystic mestiza, but brow also
weeping with dislodged fetus, with loss and forlornness.
Brow a come-hither furry viper.
Brow the little known Black Shag Slug.
Brow the unretractable bewhiskered tongue.
Brow the fleecy fluke, tufted cobra, downy leech.
Brow the dark secret of the fastidiously plucked,
that perpetual raised-brow surprise.
Brow surprising, but unsurprised.
Brow the prismatic lion in the wardrobe when you were expecting beige scarves.
Brow adding a bristly flourish to bright Tehuana dress.
Sing holy praises to the insistence of the brow.
Sit down and write a letter to the core beliefs of the brow.
Knit a sweater to the milagro-like votivity of the brow.
Conjure new words to praise the liftingness of brow.
Flamenco to the mural-worthiness of the brow.
Praise god for the untamability of the brow.
Brow most steadfast. Brow on endless loop,
brow most perennial, most acanthus.
Brow aching, yet soaring like an unruffled raven.
Unamputated brow.
Brown never renouncing its femininity.
Feminine brow donning its midnight suit.
Brow the corpse that proves the path to the next.
Brow never resting in peace.
Long live the flourish of the stalwart, seaward sooty gull in every self-portrait.
Long live the childlike exuberance of the feisty, the feral. Long live the monkeys
and parrots, perched beside the unwieldy, the emblematic.
Long live those wooly-bear wonders worthy of worship, like two black wings—
signature smudges left by the pig twirling on a spit.
todas las dias, todas las noches.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Martha Silano is the author of three previous collections including the winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize selected by Campbell McGrath, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (Saturnalia Books, 2010), Blue Positive (Steel the Books, 2006), and What the Truth Tastes Like (Nightshade, 1999). Her poems have appeared in over a dozen anthologies and The Best American Poetry 2009.

Jordan Rothschild hails from Philadelphia and is a graduate of Temple University. He is currently completing a M.A. degree in English. He enjoys exploring the rich cultural heritage of the City of Brotherly Love.

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