Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Paul Muldoon and the Layers of Life and Art

Applique is the slow food of quilting, with its layers and layers of process.  Once you have chosen or created a design, this must be marked on your background fabric.  Then you need to create templates of butcher's paper for all the shapes--every petal or leaf or acorn.  Butcher's paper is ideal because the waxy side can be ironed right onto the fabric you have chosen, making the fabric stable enough so that you can mark around it, which is the next step. (A piece of sandpaper under the fabric further helps to stabilize it.  It's only one of the tools we find in hardware stores.  Silicone washers are perfect for creating berries--or anything round.)  If your design involves long stems, which many of mine do, you need to mark and cut miles and miles of fabric on the bias.  You applique these down first, because they often create the skeleton for your work; the flowers and leaves should flow out of the structure they create, though I'm having difficulty getting this to work in my current project.

So why do we do it?  Once you begin to choose fabric for the larger pieces, you remember why you are willing to go through this process.  Though most applique designs are representational (the exception is oak leaf and reel blocks)--people, animals, houses, every kind of plant imaginable--your fabric choices can jazz things up.  You can use a piece of wild chintz for a leaf or a "ditsy" (a small repeating motif on a plain ground) for the centre of a flower.  Texture, colour, pattern, and style are all parts of the brilliant quilting fabric created for a huge industry.  In 2010, 21 million American quilters contributed $3.58 billion to the economy:  the design of quilting fabric is a huge business, which in turn gives quilters an unimaginable variety of fabric to play with.  It's possible to stick to quiet calicoes for your leaves and flowers--but why would anyone want to do that?

Once the cacophony of Christmas was over, I settled down to work on applique borders for this country crossroads quilt.  As I did so, I listened to a seventy-five minute interview with poet Paul Muldoon.  I don't know whether it was Muldoon's insight into poetry or the fact that my fingers and eyes were being tested, but I felt something unwind in me.  The impression was almost physical, as if my brain had been turned more and more tightly by my work on Woolf's The Waves, and as if Muldoon's charming Irish voice and the work of my hands was loosening that painfully tightened screw.  Thinking about it later, I realized that I had spent an afternoon thinking about and living inside the creative process.

It's not just applique--which I would classify as a craft rather than an art, though some people do make art with it--that comes in these layers.  Let me give a very simple example.  I want to work on some poems that put humans in a Levinasian relationship with nature.  I'm thinking specifically of Levinas's idea about the "other," whose absolute difference from us can call forth our curiosity or even our need to transcend ourselves by understanding something that is beyond us.  We are prompted to imagine the other even while we know we will fall short.  The result is an ethical relationship--the same kind of ethical relationship we need to have with the natural world if we are going to change our ways significantly enough to keep the earth's temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.  Weather, coral reefs, the crops we grow or the flowers we buy, our dogs and cats, the birds that feed in our back yard, yesterday's sunset and today's moonrise--all those little things that contribute so much to my quality of life, need to be understood as "other."

So I was starting small, standing in my back yard on still winter days simply watching the juncos and chickadees, the sparrows and the nuthatches.  That, in my applique metaphor, is the background that I was slowly creating.  How do these birds behave and sound?  How do their flights and their behaviours differ from species to species?  My next step was to work on a draft that simply captured what I saw.  When I was done, it was pretty enough, but not a poem--just as the design of stems in applique can have a lovely rhythm but isn't the place to stop.

One of the things Muldoon said that was most useful to me was that poetry is the edge where our inner experiences and thoughts meet our outer experiences and perceptions.  So I needed to stare at my page of notes until I understood what was happening at that edge--which is, by the way, very Levinasian.  (Perhaps most poetry is.  Maybe that's why it's important:  there we meet something beautifully other that we are urged to understand all the while knowing that complete comprehension of a fine poem is beyond us.)  Staring at my notes is like tracing and cutting out templates, which is very tedious.  But I agree with Sherwood Anderson:  Inspiration is a matter of fastening the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.  When I'd paid my dues to the muses, they spoke--and I have no idea where their words came from:  "The birds cultivate you."  "Cultivate."  What a complex, interesting word that is.  In how many ways do they cultivate me?  In my applique metaphor, I had arrived at fabric choice.  The poem isn't done, but I've built up enough layers that I can begin to see where it might go.

So much art is like this.  I think of Michelangelo's cartoons or the British 19th century painter, A.J. Moore, who laid down his entire composition in shades of grey before adding the layer of colour.  I think of Picasso's sketches for Guernica and of his attempt to create a visual language that would convey his vision of the brutal Spanish Civil War.  I think of Virginia Woolf's drafts of Jacob's Room or The Waves, where she was pushing the resources of the novel so far into the future that her vision and design (to use an expression of Roger Fry, a fine friend and the subject of her biography) could only develop in tandem.  Only by realizing what she could do would she see what she wanted to do.  I think of Lawrence Hill, who has said he spent five years on The Illegal.  I can only imagine what he was doing during those five years, but I suspect that he was layering the political ugliness of racist governments over top of the compelling story of the runner Keita.  How many networks of brutality and racism and violence become systems that reinforce racist privilege?
What I do is called needle-turn applique.  After you have marked your shape on your fabric, you cut it out, giving  yourself about three-sixteenths of an inch beyond the marked line.  Then you baste it on and begin both the joy and the frustration.  With your very fine needle, you pick up the fabric right where you want to fold it, burning it under with your left thumb.  Your needle comes up a hair's breadth from the folded edge and then down into the background under the very edge of the shape, to come up again into your fabric just beyond the fold and less than an eighth of an inch away.  Your stitches should be invisible.  In fact, the ladies of Baltimore who made such exuberant and beautiful appliqued Baltimore Album Quilts, used nothing but grey silk thread because no one should be able to see their stitches anyway.

If you are working on a tight curve or a point, you can't turn your fabric ahead of your stitches the way you can with a straight section or a gentle curve.  You turn it maybe a sixteenth of an inch, take a stitch, and then turn it another sixteenth of an inch.  As I worked at the coronet at the top of the large, stylized pomegranate in the middle of the border above, Muldoon talked about his view of poetry as revelation. He is interested in how the poem will reveal itself to him, and then to the reader.  One imagines him sitting very quietly with a few words of a situation or an image and wondering what this will become--rather like needle-turn applique.  

But art is not craft, though things that I consider art have impeccable craftsmanship.  For Muldoon, the poem not only reveals itself to him, but it contains within it the seeds of its own realization, its own wholeness and significance.  He may be waiting quietly for revelation, but the poet and the poem must also be working towards an ideal.  Here is one of the differences between poetry and applique:  applique has no idea, no significance beyond that of its own pleasure and beauty.  We hold poems to a much higher standard.

At the same time, though, I think that people who continue to write beyond their first creative writing class or their first publication have a process that works for them--a process that can become a routine.  As I was appliqueing and listening to Paul Muldoon, I realize that applique not only helps my mind unfold, but speaks to me as a metaphor for the process, for adding this to that, finding the contrasts and the harmonies that begin to build up into something at the very least beautiful.  Writing poems takes the attentive patience of a seamstress negotiating a tight but luscious curve a tiny stitch at a time.  And poetry, like any craftsmanship,  doesn't care about time--only about getting as close to the ideal as you can.


  1. Beautiful work -- the stitching and the thinking...

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post. Your stitching together of applique and poetry is wonderful. I'm going to look up Paul Muldoon also. Your quilts are most beautiful, and such patience! I've begun reading Orhan Pamuk's "The Naive and Sentimental Novelist". He talks about how different people read and write novels (and poetry), and has me agreeing then disagreeing with him. You might find it of interest.