London-based American poet Jane Yeh is the revered author of two collections of verse. The subject matter of her work includes everything from ninjas to robots and television programmes, although it’s her poems based on famous paintings that we were most interested to investigate. Here, she talks about the synergy between painting and poetry, her interest in the depiction of female characters, and how history feeds her imagination.
In the American secondary school system you get to study a lot of subjects, not just two or three, the way people do for A-levels here. So, among other things, I took art class every year, even though I didn’t want to become an artist or go to art school. We were lucky to have a really dedicated teacher, Mr Silveira, who taught us about art history – that was my first introduction to the Western art canon. It’s funny, now that I think about it, because I started writing poetry at around the same time, but I didn’t write poems about art until many years later.
At uni I was able to study art history some more, especially painting and portraiture. I remember specifically learning about Manet’s Olympia and the scandal that surrounded its debut – the lurid, feverish descriptions of the painting that the critics of the day wrote are quite hilarious. There are also paintings that I’ve written poems about that I’ve never studied, like the John Singer Sargent one [The Daughters Of Edward D. Boit]. My poems are mostly based on looking at the paintings themselves, not academic study or research.
One of the reasons I’ve become interested in writing about paintings is as an alternative to autobiographical poetry. Most of the poetry that people read and write falls into the category of what’s called lyric poetry (this has nothing to do with the lyrics in songs, it’s just a literary term.) Lyric poetry basically consists of authors writing about their own feelings and thoughts; the subject matter is derived from their experiences and memories. Personally, I’m not really interested in lyric poetry, or in writing about myself, so I’m always looking for something else. I like writing about Old Master paintings, but I also write about ghosts and ninjas and witches and animals.
In poetry there’s a concept called ekphrasis (from the Ancient Greek), which is when a poem is describing another art form. It could be sculpture, photography, music, even dance, but most often it’s about a painting. I guess, like it or not, my poems are in this tradition. In a way, ekphrasis is an inversion of the idea that painting is superior to poetry, wherein the visual image supposedly represents reality more faithfully and instantaneously than language can (‘A picture is worth a thousand words’). I think the magic of both painting and poetry lie in how they manage to exceed the merely representational, to go beyond whatever they depict at the surface level.
In painting I’ve always been obsessed with brushstrokes, the way that what looks like abstract patches of colour up close becomes a totally convincing image of, say, highlights on a satin gown, when you step back from the canvas. In poetry, I’ve become more and more interested in depicting – or maybe suggesting – things without exactly saying them in words, or even in images. It’s kind of like what I’ve described about brushstrokes in a figurative painting, but using sentences and sentence fragments, in a weird way.
As soon as you have more than one person (or even a person and an animal) in a picture, you have a story. It could be about their relationship with each other or about their shared life. I’m also drawn to the theatricality and artificiality of the group portrait. It’s not a casual snapshot (although those are interesting too); it always looks like the cast of a play onstage, frozen in the proscenium frame.
The Sargent portrait, The Daughters Of Edward D. Boit, has haunted me for a long time; it’s his masterpiece. There’s something strangely compelling about a group of three or more sisters – it’s partly why people are so fascinated by the Mitfords, or before them the Wyndham sisters, whom Sargent painted. In the case of The Daughters of Edward D. Boit, we see four sisters, arranged separately around the pictorial space in an unnatural way, not grouped together in the middle like in a normal portrait. (Also contributing to the mysterious air are two enormous porcelain vases in the background, which are as tall as the girls standing next to them.) The fact that they’re all girls, not yet adult women, is what makes the picture especially striking; they look so serious and self-possessed, but at the same time they’re not yet fully formed as individuals – there are so many undetermined possibilities. I wasn’t thinking about these things consciously when I wrote the poem, however; I deliberately didn’t do any research on the painting until after I’d written it. Oddly enough, the girl in the poem who I say will remain unmarried, in reality never did marry; in fact, none of the sisters ever married.
I’m interested in both male and female characters, but I consider it important to be writing about women in particular, because they’re still, even in 2015, under-represented, or too often presented in narrow ways. Male authors overwhelmingly tell stories in which the main characters are men, which is why female characters (at least those who aren’t a straight man’s love interest) are thin on the ground – the Bechdel test [which determines whether a film features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man] still needs to be applied across most literary genres.
In terms of history, since the paintings I write about tend to be old, I do lean towards portraits of women. Women’s experiences and thoughts, even those of the elite who were able to commission portraits, have been largely erased or have gone unrecorded, so perhaps my versions could be said to give a few of them a voice, even in this limited and highly fictionalised way.
I have to admit that my versions of these figures are based far more on imagination than historical research. For instance, I have some knowledge of 17th-century art and cultural history, and I’ve read about Van Dyck because he’s one of my favourite painters, but I didn’t do any research into the siblings depicted in The Balbi Children – if I recall, the wall text for it just says that they were members of an aristocratic family in Genoa (the painting is in the National Gallery, London). When it comes to writing about paintings, I prefer to avoid the factual and let the image itself lead me in various directions. The way that a (figurative) painting can suggest so much going on beneath the surface, the way it exceeds its merely representational function, really speaks to my imagination.
With the Manet poem, the details shown in the painting turned out to be a rich resource that I could draw upon for imagery and ideas. All paintings are staged, but in Olympia it feels even more so – everything seems like part of a costume, or a prop in an artificial tableau. The main figure is Victorine Meurent, a model (and later artist) who famously appeared in other Manet paintings, so again the sense of dressing-up, of playing a part, is enhanced. The poem ends up focusing on the black maid, but the name of the model who portrayed her is unrecorded, which says a lot about race and Western culture.
There’s a form of poetry called the dramatic monologue: a first-person poem in which the author is writing in the voice of another character. It’s pretty much the opposite of autobiography. I’ve written a fair number of dramatic monologues in the past, but as you can see from the poems here, I’ve switched to writing mostly in the third person, like the narrator of a story. You could say that I want to tell a story in these poems, but I don’t want to insert myself into the scene.
Teaching creative writing has ended up contributing a lot to my writing practice, to my surprise. Having to analyse and break down how other people’s poems work, in order to explain them to students, has made me think much more about aspects like structure. Being a teacher also means keeping abreast of current and new poetry, which I’d probably do less if left entirely to my own devices. Overall I feel I’ve become more self-conscious when in the process of writing, more aware of possible effects and options (hopefully in a good way).
Right now I’m working on a few poems at once; one is about a TV programme, one is a list of answers to imaginary questions, one is a kind of sketch portrait of London. They’re all intended for my next collection of poems, which is due to be published in 2018. Unfortunately, I’m quite a slow writer, so it takes me a long time to put together a whole book.