Sometimes, the choices an artist makes – whether a painter, poet, musician or any other kind – are defined by what he/she leaves out, rather than what actually appears in the work. I guess that makes sense in relation to leaving out clichés, but it’s not necessarily an obvious point apart from that. Michele Vassal digs into the idea of negative space in her poem “The Artist Paints the Immaculate Conception”.
There’s also a kind of negative space as the poem progresses, with the mention of “yours” and “this man” – the reader is left to wonder. At first, I thought “yours” referred to a lover, but the poem later seemed to be addressed to a son. Maybe it was that first assumption of a lover that led me to think “this man” might not refer to the absence of Jesus (and hence religion), but rather to the absence of an actual father.
I suppose you could say that everyone uses absence to define themselves, to some degree. We imagine the people we have not become, as well as the people we have. We imagine what might have been, as if we could’ve let the other side of our brain decide our choices for us. And maybe it’s this, the “what ifs” of speculation we can all relate to, that draw us to the fantasy world that art offers.
The Artist Paints the Immaculate Conception
Drawing with the right side of the brain
teaches us to trace the empty space
around the object one wants to capture
its contours revealed by what is not.
When I painted The Annunciation in Bewley's
(the background of Harry Clarke stained glass
and the velvet seats' crimson lustre
made it very pre-Raphaelite)
I remembered little besides his white shoes
because I had thought them in bad taste,
and his eyes, because they were like yours.
But now that I know how to draw negative space
the invisible angle of his wrist
against your shoulder, the fictive space
between you and him nearly non-existent
I gouge our existence out of the void:
And I wonder if it could be, my son,
that this man's absence has defined us.
I am from the Ubaye Valley in the French Alps, a place of extraordinary beauty, half-way between Provence and Piedmont. I was blessed to be born to a completely dysfunctional family and thus to be reared, episodically, by my eccentric grand-aunt and her scholarly husband. Early on, my uncle introduced me to the writings of Saint Exupéry, Colette, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Later, I discovered Prévert, Apollinaire and Boris Vian.
Aged seventeen and a half (halves mattered then!) I came to Ireland and decided to stay, acquiring two children in the process. Somewhere along the way I started reading in English, choosing Irish writers such as Edna O’Brien, Flann O’Brien and Michael Hartnett to initiate me. I had never stopped scribbling “en français” but discovering Irish writers/poets fuelled a new passion in me and I eventually took up the pen, in English. In 1999, I won the Prize for a First Collection at Listowel Writers Week and since then my poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, both here and abroad. I have two collections both published by Salmon – Sandgames (2000) and A Taste for Hemlock (2011).
My poetry has also been adapted to music, most notably by legendary Skid Row guitarist Jimi Slevin and acclaimed singer/songwriter, my dear friend, the late Martin Egan.
I live near Bantry, with my husband, the piper/harper Brendan Ring. We are currently collaborating together on some new recordings.
In comparison to fiction and theatre, both poetry and art are ideal for highlighting details – would you agree or disagree? And why?
I totally agree and it is part of the attraction for me, to both Art and Poetry. A painting or a sculpture is very close to a poem, they are both limited spatially and those physical constrictions allow for a greater exploration of the subject matter. The artist/poet zooms in, enlarges a detail and paints it, all senses focused. It’s a wonderful process.
Mind you, on reflection, a play or a work of fiction can also allow this. Lorca said, El teatro es poesía que se sale del libro para hacerse humana, meaning, “Theatre is poetry which comes out of the book, to become human”. I have realised as I was writing this, that all forms of Art can be used to highlight details.
How significant do you think the process of leaving things out is when creating a work of art or creativity, whether it be a poem, a painting or something else?
Ah, the negative space! I first came across this concept in life drawing class, it was a complete revelation. To draw what is not there and by doing so creating what is there! It completely altered my vision of things. To me, what is left out – the empty space – the absence are essential and defining.
Poetry and Art, are, or at least should be, conversations, not monologues. The un-said, like the un-shown, is a way of letting the other in. In painting it can be used as a prop to lead the eye, in poetry, it can be a punctuation, a breath. Sometimes it is the very matrix of the piece.
Leaving things out creates a space, a void, a mystery. Sometimes it serves to highlight what is present. Space in life, is the opposite of imprisonment, it is freedom.
If empty was a colour, it would be white, which when juxtaposed to other colours, emphasizes them, or when added to them (white to red for example), radically transforms their very essence.
If you could compare your poetry (and that of any other poets you’d care to mention) to a certain artistic style, what style would it be?
I am not sure that I have a style as such. The constant element in many of my poems would seem to be colour and I have been told that I write in a way which is quite painterly. I guess that’s the result of a background in painting and a passion for colour.
I love Garcia Lorca’s work, his use of metaphors and symbolism, not to mention the sensuality of his writing, he is my biggest influence. I also admire Prévert’s well sculpted pieces - minimalist with a social conscience. I tend to write with a scalpel these days and spend more time editing than writing.
Currently I am reading a lot of wonderfully translated Turkish poetry (translator Neil Patrick Doherty ) and it is feeding my soul.
The ending of your poem strikes me as particularly ambiguous. Are such parting sentiments (ie. ambiguous or unclear ones) particularly appropriate to poetry? Can neat, clear endings work just as well?
Because English isn’t my mother tongue, I tend to try not to have opinions on what is appropriate or not, in poetry. To paraphrase Aristotle, the more I write, the more I read and the more I realise that I know very little. My approach is very instinctive. Sometimes I like a piece just because of the sounds that course it. Don’t forget what I hear in my head is not necessarily what the poet meant for me to hear. I have my own little set of poetic problems such as a confused accentuation, which can annihilate proper rhythm and meters.
But I digress. Neat, clear endings? Of course they work really well, especially in neat and clear situations – which this wasn’t J. This poem was one of the first I wrote in English, it was a letter of sorts. I meant it to be ambiguous.
Why do you write?
It has been a long love story. When I was a very young child, I wrote stories and made them into little books which I bound together with a red stitch. There was always magic in the act of writing – the smell of the purple ink, the whole ritual of changing nibs but even more powerful magic was found in words. I used to collect words. Still do, actually.
I write also because I have something to say, a story to tell, a time to remember. Sometimes I simply write because it helps.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
My mum’s advice to whatever life threw was “Sit down and have a glass of wine”. It’s sound advice in most circumstances. But seriously though – edit it again and again and again, let it rest and edit it some more, would be my advice.