for Ana Mendieta.
the weight of your body
pressed against the earth is
nine point eight one meters per second squared.
one day in Mexico,
covered in daisies, you sink
slowly into the ground. when you rise,
there is a photograph, bent stalks
and fallen flowers. you leave
only your silhouette.
you move on, tracing art
one day in New York,
there is an open window.
this time, when you fall
you do not rise. your body
accelerates, breaks against
the street. there is a photograph,
a silhouette left in chalk.
you are ephemeral, after all.
I'm a writer, a teacher, a sometimes artist, constantly negotiating the difference between who I think I am and who I actually am. I currently live in New York but my heart belongs to the Great Lakes
“I began this poem a few years ago, at the 30th anniversary of her death, and I return to it every fall. There is something in the symmetry between Ana Mendieta’s work – her siluetas, her dialogue with the body and the landscape – and her death by falling that I can never get out of my head.”
Interview With The Poet
Cathexis Northwest Press:
Prior to reading this poem, I was unfamiliar with Mendieta's work. For sake of reference, would you care to elaborate who she is and also, why you, as a fellow artist, found yourself drawn to her?
Yeah! Ana Mendieta was a Cuban-American performance artist, working in the 70s and early 80s, whose work focused on the body - the shape of the body, representations of the body.
I was introduced to her work through her Siluetas series, which is a series of photographs of silhouettes of a female body in nature. Not the actual body, but an impression or the shape of it.
She died in 1985 when she fell (or was pushed) from a window at her Soho apartment.
Which seems like a terrible incident of dramatic irony! I've always found her work and her ideas compelling in a way that's hard to articulate - it's just something that resonates deeply with me.
It's about absence and presence and holding tension, which is something I try to do in my work as well.
The parallels work so well throughout your poem. It is a really fun, unexpected consequence of this press--being introduced to other pieces of art that exist outside the poem, and having to learn enough about them to decipher the work.
One of the things I thought was remarkable about this piece is how unbiased it is, how observational the poem is when it could have easily been a statement piece. It appears that Mendieta's death is still a point of strong contention and the focal point of many protests. I think it plays to great strengths in your poem that you did not try to inject an opinion about it from the speaker, and instead let the images of the incident resonate by themselves.
Right! Her death is absolutely still controversial. Her husband, who (maybe) pushed her or at least probably let her fall, gets a lot of recognition and she doesn't get much.
His 911 phone call is awkwardly emotionless…
It's very weird! But I think poetry is at its best when it has faith in the reader, instead of trying to impose an opinion. I definitely have an opinion, but I also want to give folks a chance to develop their own! That makes it a better experience for everyone, I think which maybe sounds super cheesy but if reading something inspires anyone to go and learn more, or do something new, I think that's awesome.
I agree. I'm not quite sure how we would have reacted to the poem if it was pushing a message. I think anyone familiar with the story already has an opinion, and knowing your stance before learning about Mendieta would have certainly biased my own conclusion. But now that I know the story, the poem becomes all the stronger. I think its so interesting how there has been this large artist-reaction to her death throughout these protests, and we really love the way that you have contributed to that output.
I appreciate that! Art is, or should be, about letting people form their own opinions. & I think that's one of the strengths of Mendieta's art, too - it was clearly very opinionated, but there was always room for individual interpretations. Her death, and everything around it, and the recognition given to Carl Andre in spite of it, is honestly something I can't get out of my mind. I think it's at the intersection of a lot of historical blind spots in the art world. Like I said in my note, I first wrote this poem three years ago and I come back to it every fall - changing it a little, revising, because her story continues to haunt me.
Do you feel like you will continue to do so now that it is publish? Is there a kind of catharsis in that, or will you return again next year?
I don't know! I hadn't actually thought about that. I'm sure I will re-read it and think about how I would change it (as one does), but I'm not sure if I would actually do anything more with the poem.
I think it would make a very interesting chapbook--like an extended mediation. The theme stays the same, but the reader could witness your changing attitudes and reflections throughout the years.
It might be! That's not a bad idea.
Let me know if you pursue it. I would love to read it!
I will! It kind of reminds me of Van Gogh's haystacks - the same thing for many years, a little different over time. it would be a cool project!
Can you walk us through your writing and editing process? Editing in particular is one of the most difficult parts for budding writers...
Editing is the worst!I do it because it makes the writing better, but I hate it. Writing happens when I have time for it, or when I have an image or an idea in my head that I want to express. I don't really have much of a process - it's mostly haphazard. Then I leave it alone for a few days or weeks or months and come back to it when I no longer feel a raw emotional attachment. I read my writing out loud, slowly, and try to figure out the awkward parts and change them.
It’s the "coming back" part that is hardest for me.
AL: It's not easy! one of the things that I am trying to do is write consistently, but that's a struggle. so on the days where I am supposed to write, but I'm not feeling it, I try to go back and look through old writing. I save all my poems in word docs by the months when I wrote them, which I think makes it easier to find older writing.I also have a few friends who write and we meet occasionally to share work, which really helps. It's good to hear someone else's take - they see things that I miss.
That’s great that you have a community. I know poets often feel very isolated with their work.
Yeah, that group of friends has been an incredible support. They're the reason I went from just having years of writing saved on my computer to actually trying to publish. Having that sense of community makes a huge difference.
The form of this poem is particularly striking- breaking it up into brief and brilliant stanzas/parts like you did gave it a flash-of-light, daydream quality. I'm wondering if the poem's form manifested in the editorial process, or it was organically written in like that.
It was originally written like that! I wanted to capture a series of moments, far apart from each other, but still deeply connected. when I started writing, the separate sections was the most natural way to convey that.
That sense of connectedness keeps me coming back to this poem. I must admit that on my first reading I was not sold on the first stanza. I knew we were going to publish it on the first read because of the following stanzas, but I just wasn't thrilled about that first line. But after multiple readings, the power of it has begun to grow on me. It has so many possible ways for being read, where I at first only saw the physics-fact. But it really sets up the momentum of the poem, the stark observational quality of it. It juxtaposes this feeling of generality--everyone falls at this rate, the weight of everyones body is like this--with this specific person--and then ties in so well with Mendieta's art and death. I now can't imagine this poem without it! When you wanted to capture these moments, did you know which ones specifically you wanted to call upon, or was that part of the yearly returning? Obviously her death seems like the natural place to end, as well as the emotional "meat" of a piece like this, but did you try other orders? Other moments?
The poem really began for me as the connection between these two kinds of moments - the work of creating the siluetas, of pressing your body into the ground as an act of creation, and the way that she died. So those two moments were always at the core of the poem. And for me, those moments were tied together by the body against the earth. the force of gravity.
After multiple read throughs, I continue to find that connection remarkably clever.
Thanks! That section took some work to figure out. It was difficult to find a way to make that connection without either making it too obvious or too obscure - hopefully I was able to find a balance!
That stanza really gives a voice to the speaker that I think would do a disservice to the other stanzas if it was missing.
Now for some practical advice for budding poets: Any tips for overcoming writers block?
Ahh! That is definitely something I struggle with. but as I get older (though I'm not that old yet!) I have definitely come to appreciate that "natural talent" can't hold a candle to actually practicing. That's true in every part of my life. Stories and poems don't have to burst onto the page fully developed - it can be a line, or an image. Trying to write a certain amount, at a certain time, has never worked for me. I psych myself out. Instead I try to just write something, a little bit, every day (or almost every day). and it really does get easier.Sometime it's in the morning, sometimes in the evening, sometimes on the train on my way to work. but even a little bit of writing makes the next bit less scary.
I think you make a great point about fear. It's not just overwhelming to write, but can be frightening. Its easy to psyche yourself out, or worry too much about the quality of a particular poem. But writing everyday helps alleviate that burden, that feeling that this piece has to be brilliant.
Exactly! It's helped me come to terms with the fact that not everything I write is going to be great. but the more I try, the better it gets. Some days are just bad days, and I don't have to get hung up on those when I remember that I'm going to write something else tomorrow.
Well unfortunately we are going to have to wrap this up. Is there anything at all you would like to talk about before we go?
No, I've definitely been able to talk about everything I had wanted to! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
Thank you so much for allowing us to be the home to your work, and for teaching us about Ana Mendieta!