George Farrah and I became friends when we were freshman in college where we were both writing poetry. Eventually George got his MFA from Bard College, and I quit writing poetry while raising my children over a period of 10 years during which George and I lost contact. After we eventually reconnected, he became a wonderful mentor who encouraged me to go back to writing poetry. I have always been grateful to George for being such a kind critic of my work.
I am rereading George’s The Low Pouring Stars, and once again, I am swept away by his style of writing and that he can make loneliness and solitude so interesting. It is brilliant. Besides being an incredible poet, George paints oil abstracts that are also breathtaking in their beauty and composition.
Despite having known George for so many year and appreciating his poetry and art, we have never talked about the motivating and visionary development of his writing and art.
What motivated you to start writing poetry, and when did you begin?
How I began to write poetry—well, I guess it was reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s, “Coney Island of the Mind,” and Leonard Cohen’s, “Spice Box of the Earth,” in the fall of 1968 in my first semester of college; a friend had told me about them, and I thought– whatever is going on here– I HAVE to do this! Some kind of mystery grabbing you all over. It became the saving grace through the bleakness of my college education. In high school I was very bored, a bad student — and before that, growing up, I think the Velvet Underground song “Rock and Roll” really fits me well. It was hard to avoid that growing up near downtown Detroit in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So my passion for art started out from hearing Motown and the late ‘50s and early ‘60s rockers on my Dad’s radio — but secretly, catching only an hour or so, because he hated it. Ha! And for all of us of this era, there was Television. The first instant and corporately controlled but “free” collage medium in the world. Then there was Walt Disney and all the cartoon shows, “Rocky and Bull Winkle”– and on and on. I think all that loosened all our minds and sensibilities– of course it brainwashed us all to a certain extent (this has been written about ad infinitum). And I was an only child so I got a strong dose of it all by myself.
I read about sadness, longing, and a quiet reverence for being alive in your poems from The Low Pouring Stars. Is that a fair description of what you are trying to convey to the reader? Where do you want to take the reader with those poems? Does this collection represent a specific period in your life? Has your poetic style changed over the years?
Thank you, too, Mary for your comments about my new book and my painting. As to what I intend to convey to the reader: the book seemed to write itself with a kind of longing and searching and a kind of remembering (sometimes from fictional selves) of what is and is not quite me. I’m not entirely sure — and really that’s the way it ought to be for me, I think, not being really sure of what it means to me — or anyone else for that matter. It hopefully has more than one life or reality in it — maybe that’s just the nature of this kind of poetry. I can talk about what it means to me at this particular moment, but that might change later, of course. I like what Ashbery said about his writing,–“…my work is an open field of narrative possibilities” –
You also paint amazing abstract art. How do the paintings and poetry support each other? How do these creative practices flow together? Do they each contrast or conflict with the other medium?
And in my painting, that works in a very similar way for me. Uncertainty of meaning or narrative voice, is rather an openness of experiencing it, an evolving reading of it.
You ask how do my painting and poetry support each other? I don’t know what that means other than it feels great to alternate between doing the two. Often it’s like clearing your pallet after strong tasting food.
You use surprising images in your poetry that put the reader off balance, such as: “you walked & exchanged/the salt in the future,” and “earth worms /floating bears and/a clock brown field.” Do your images spring from your paintings?
My poetry orientation I would say is Black Mountain/New York School/Language writing. Anthologies like, From the Other Side of the Century, In the American Tree, and Poetry for the Millennium (all three) are important.
What poets have been your mentors? Why have/ or how have they influenced you in your poetry, either personally or stylistically? What visual artists have influenced you in either your poetry or painting?
My mentors have been many and teaching to my needs at the time. George Herbert, John Donne, Lord Byron, Shelly, Keats, Friedrich Holderine, Blake, Whitman, Rilke, Rimbaud, Elliot, Pound, Gertrude Stein, e.e.cummings, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen, Bob Kaufman, Philllip Lamantia, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Hannah Weiner, Anslem Hollo, Thomas Merton, John Ashbery, Merwin, Louis Zukofsky, Clark Coolidge, Edmond Jabes, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, Bernadette Mayer, Bruce Andrews, Michael Palmer, Ron Silliman, Ken Irby, Ann Carson, Robert Kelly.
In graduate school at Bard, I was fortunate to study with Robert Kelly, Lydia Davis, Ken Irby, and Leslie Scalapino — as well as the steady stream of visiting writers and artists of all disciplines flowing through there. All of these influenced my sensibilities and my work.
Since you work in two creative mediums, how do manage your time around that? Do you have any rituals or practices you do to get yourself started on a painting or a poetry project?
About my process both in painting and writing: I could substitute writing for painting here, in this interview, and it still works perfectly for me. You ask about how I mange two different mediums, but it’s that they both have their own continually changing rules and they both exist in their own mystery. When I get tired doing one, the other taps me on the shoulder. It is usually a welcome break. Painting to me is about how the material of paint combines with the world the spirit the soul, if you will, and becomes this third thing: the painting. I like what Anselm Kiefer says about “how the questions that arise between the paintings become the most interesting of all” – or something like that.
I write in the morning and paint in the afternoon—then one or the other in the evening again for a while. I enjoy the discipline this requires. I also love Philip Guston’s famous story: “I believe it was John Cage who once told me, ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio–the past , your friends, enemies, the art world and above all you own ideas– all are there. But as you continue painting [or writing] they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then if you’re lucky, even you leave.’ ” This seems to me like always a good thing to aspire to, in the practice of any art form.
Doing the art work at hand, every day, and being present in your everyday world, enjoying your family and friends and where all this comes from, seems more than enough to me to fill a life.
There are so many things in the world – in the cities – so much to see. Does art need to represent this variety and contribute to its proliferation? Can art be that free? The difficulties begin when you understand what it is that the soul will not permit the hand to make.
~ Philip Guston
The canvas( or poem) is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury and judge. Art without a trial disappears at a glance.
~ Philip Guston
George J. Farrah works and lives in Minneapolis. He moved to Minnesota from the suburbs of Detroit in the late '60s and to Minneapolis a decade ago. He is a founding member of the music group “Farmer Farmer”. He is the author of a full length book of poetry, “The Low Pouring Stars”, and a chapbook, “Insomniac Plum” both, Ravenna Press. He writes poems and makes paintings and sounds these days for his work. He feels mighty lucky to be able to do so.
Mary Kasimor has most recently been published in Big Bridge, Glasgow Review of Books, Nerve Lantern, Posit, 3 AM, Touch the Donkey, Yew Journal, and Otoliths. Her two latest books are The Landfill Dancers (BlazeVox Books 2014) and Saint Pink (Moria Books 2015). She also creates visual art. Photo by Ted Hall