I built you a room of a thousand daisies…
That’s not a quote from artist Anila Quayyam Agha, although it appropriately describes “Intersections,” her installation that was featured at Rice Gallery this fall. This line belongs to Saba Husain’s poem, “The Keeper,” and opened this fall’s Words & Art reading. “Intersections” hung in the center of the room, casting intricate shadows over the audience and Saba as she read. Her poem is a villanelle, lulling readers into its rhythm of repeated lines as they are also engulfed in Agha’s work, showered in “a cosmos of flower mazes,” sheltered in “a windowless palace where shadows tease.”
It’s understandable why Mary Wemple, founder and curator of the Words & Art reading series at Rice Gallery, chose to lead with this poem; the simultaneously soothing and restrictive imagery sets the stage for the myriad messages of “Intersections.” Thirteen poets read poems after her, and each had their own approach to Agha’s piece. The varied viewpoints that can spring from a singular piece of visual art is what Wemple prizes most about the series. “When we write about art, we bring our opinions, our perspectives and our history to our writing,” she said. “We expand our thinking beyond the gallery and connect the art to who we are.”
For poets and art lovers, who may or may not identify as both when they participate for the first time, Words & Art is a relatively safe space for expression; tennis with a net, Robert Frost might say. Writers’ block is hard to come by when your subject is literally casting a shadow over your face—not to mention one with such intriguing source material. Agha created “Intersections” after visiting the Alhambra mosque in Granada, Spain, both marveling at its beauty and reflecting on the exclusion of women from mosques in her native Pakistan. “Intersections,” a laser-cut wooden box suspended from the ceiling with a 600W bulb shining from inside, tells a story of beauty, confinement and ultimately, unity.
For audience members, Words & Art is a double dip into visual and verbal expression, and is a fun way to introduce non-poets to a reading, since the source material for all poems is in plain sight. For poets who have grown increasingly unenthusiastic about attending literary readings in the past years (I raise my hand here), the focus on inclusion, community and diversity among participants is incredibly refreshing. The juried poems didn’t all fit into what I call the creative-writing-industrial-machine, might not all be embraced in an MFA workshop, but some of them certainly would, and the variety made it the experience unique.
Wemple, a native Houstonian who holds degrees both in poetry and studio art, deliberately tailored the reading to its current format using her experience as a guide. Initially, she expected Words & Art to be a one-time affair. “I had been to a writing workshop at a gallery where we each chose a piece and wrote a poem in response to it,” she said. “All the poems were so imaginative, and I thought it would be a great idea to have a reading of works inspired by art.” While working for Rice University, she arranged to hold the first reading at Rice Gallery. “We had a great turnout at the reading,” Wemple recalled. “The director, Kimberly Davenport, was there, and afterwards she commented on how impressed she was by the caliber of the writing. Then she said to me, ‘Do this for every installation.’” Since 2010, Wemple has coordinated 14 juried readings at the Rice Gallery on the Rice University campus, each with a workshop beforehand to guide and inspire the writers.
The non-mandatory workshop is one aspect that makes the series so unique—and so well-attended. “In general, I notice that many writers can be intimidated to write about art at first,” Wemple explained. “They may not know where to begin or they may think they need to know more about art history to have an opinion on the art.” In the workshop, she guides writers to free-write their observations at first, noting the details most interesting to them. “I let them know they don’t have to start out with a grand metaphor or an elaborate story.” Participants often tell her that the most eye-opening part of the workshop is the group discussion that follows individual writing time: “It opens them up to new perspectives of other people, and helps their writing take new directions.”
Wemple actively seeks to include as many voices as possible, from experienced writers to beginners, to senior citizens to middle school students—the youngest reader to date has been in fifth grade. One reader even read via Skype on a computer screen. Furthermore, the second half of the reading is an open mic continuing the theme, where anyone can read poetry about the art, even if they’ve only just been inspired during the first half.
Words & Arts also emphasizes inclusion by providing a printed packet of every poem from the first half of the reading, an idea that Wemple had after a poet with a thick accent distributed the text of his poems at a reading she attended. “I want to make sure that everyone can understand the words, no matter the accent of the reader, the volume of their voice, or the acoustics of the gallery,” she said. “I also like to give a printed program to everyone because I want them to have a keepsake from the event, something they can read again and share.”
Another benefit of the handout is that the audience can appreciate the visual form that some of the poems take. The four quatrains of Randall Nolty’s “Turn for Our Daughters,” for example, are arranged in the shape of a cross, the verse acting as shadows of the blank box they create with their borders. Nolty has read three times at the series, inspired after accompanying his daughter to a workshop. “Turn for Our Daughters” responds to “Intersections” with simple, rhymed lines to form a steady incantation, interpreting Agha’s experience to a message for his own children.
My favorite poem of the evening, however, distanced itself from immediate connection to Agha’s “Intersections.” Vanessa Zimmer-Powell’s “Shadow Sonnet” examines shadows on the Rice campus—students beneath a tree, a homeless person lying on a bench—contemplating the “intersections formed by absence of light.” The sonnet’s turn reveals an image of who we assume is the poet’s mother, a woman breathing through a respirator, an image the poet carries with her as she moves away from the scene.
Perhaps this poem was my favorite because it illustrates not only how we interpret art, but how we use it as a tool for exploring our own lives, a nonpartisan gateway, a cultured background for our own flounderings. I wager that audience members of any artistic endeavor are looking for that same thing. Perhaps as they left the reading, a varied yet centered expression of community, awash in the art of perception, they could also feel the weight of her last line: “Each car spreads its gaunt halo of anger / or light.”
–Joelle Jameson is a writer living in Houston, Texas.