Saturday, October 8, 2022

Q&A with Gale Batchelder, Susan Berger-Jones, and Judson Evans


Batchelder, Berger-Jones, and Evans



Gale Batchelder, Susan Berger-Jones, and Judson Evans are the authors of the new poetry collection Chalk Song. Batchelder's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tupelo Quarterly and This Rough Beast. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Berger-Jones is an architect and poet whose work has appeared in publications including No Exit. Evans's work, which focuses on haiku and haibun, has appeared in publications including Folio and Volt


Q: You write that Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams inspired your collaboration. Can you say more about that?


A: All three of us were part of a writer’s collective (over six years) led by John Yau in NYC where we focused on ekphrastic poetry, especially writing about visual art that resisted easy narrative or description.


The collective started a press called Off the Park Press. We invited writers to respond to work by Neo Rauch, Peter Saul, Nicole Eisenman. When that group disbanded, the three of us decided to continue writing together and looked for a focus. A move into writing about film seemed a logical turn.


Gale first saw Herzog’s film and realized its potential as a stimulus for the kind of writing we had been doing.


The film offers multiple voices and perspectives on the questions in an approach to understanding Paleolithic cave art, specifically wall paintings largely of animals at Chauvet Cave in southern France.


The film is not a traditional documentary, more of an essay film in which the author/filmmaker asks questions through his camera, interviews, and voice-over commentary. Herzog interviews not just scientists, anthropologists, paleontologists, but music historians, art historians, and even a perfumier who sniffs out the scent of caves in the landscape.


Likewise, Herzog disrupts the sense of an all-knowing auteur or single narrator by interjecting seemingly tangential episodes—a clip of Fred Astaire dancing with his shadow; a semi-fictionalized account of albino alligators proliferating at a nuclear facility a few miles from Chauvet Cave.


Mysteries are not solved; they are entered and explored. We felt there was enormous room for using poetry as a kind of emotional-imaginative spectrometer to explore the echoes, auras, and images Paleolithic humans left in these traces.


There was the challenge of using language to embody a world at the beginnings of art, consciousness, spirituality. We found ourselves up against primal questions about language, voice, marks, and tools/weapons.


As we each began to re-watch and study the film and do research, we encountered multiple themes—the nature of film as art and technology; the concept of shamanism; the idea of leaving a “mark” or signature of identity.


Very quickly the diversity of tones and discourses within the film exposed our own differences of style and vocabulary. The very nature of the film freed us from any obligation to narrate the events of the film or recreate scenes representationally.


Herzog has spoken of what he calls “ecstatic truth” – not the “truth” of accountants, but an artistic grasp that demands “fabrication and imagination and stylization” (from Herzog, “The Minnesota Declaration”).


Q: What was your collaboration process like?


A: First, there was an ongoing conversation—in person, over the phone (this was pre-COVID, of course). We did a bit of show & tell when any of us discovered something relevant, even if it might be oblique.


For example, we looked together at time-lapse reconstructions of Muybridge images of bird flight, and at otoliths (symbols carved on rock). We discovered writers who explored caves, such as Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge’s The Cave (1978); Clayton Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse (2003).


We had already learned how to “see” together before the Chalk Song project as part of our workshop experience.


We visited the Asian section at the M.F.A. in Boston to look at an exhibit of contemporary Chinese American artists responding to Scholar Stones; we went to the Fogg Museum at Harvard to see their collection of high-tech unreflective “black” pigments. We talked about oral culture and the origins of language.


We continued to visit and revisit the film. In the beginning Gale had suggested we use the “call and response” method for our collaboration. We loved this idea.


She was in a chorus and had always been interested in how poems written by individuals might become the voice parts of a chorus, like the individual instruments in a symphony – echoing, clashing, and harmonizing.


We agreed that as collaborators we did not have to seamlessly write as one voice but gave ourselves exercises to work on; for example, use certain lists of words, or phrases from each other’s poems. As a result, sometimes a phrase that originated in one person’s poem, but was edited out, survived in another person’s poem.


Along the way we fed each other perspectives. Early on we realized we would need to press outside the Paleolithic world into the 21st century and tried different ways to do this.


Gale kept bringing us back to the question/problem of what a “self,” a “person” is.


Judson had been teaching a class on Plato’s Cave. He also did some research about the origin of the word “persona” from Etruscan wall painting and had ideas about the shifts in subjectivity between hunter-gatherers and Neolithic hut or house-dwelling humans from a book called The Domestication of the Human Species.

He brought a very important idea to the collaborative -- that the cave wall might have been understood as a membrane between a “known” and an “unknown” world.


Susan was interested in early man’s relationship to the animal world: “An animal is like water in water.” (Georges Bataille, Prehistoric Art and Culture.)


It is important to say here that we never actually critiqued each other’s poems in a traditional way. Instead, we used the poems to explore new avenues into our research. We did do some collaborative writing experiments, based on surrealist technique like “Exquisite Corpse.”


We started doing readings of the material early. We read for friends at Susan’s place in Brooklyn -- where we heard the work for the first time and got a sense of how the work might resonate with an audience.


When we seemed to “get stuck” and did not know how to move forward, we decided to order the poems. That ordering process led to new creative possibilities.


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems would appear in the book?


A: There were many complicated discussions and models for how we would do this. Mythic and ritual structures seemed useful. We thought about different progressions based on biblical or Blake-ian or Gnostic concepts: Innocence/Fall/Organized Innocence.


Journey was an important theme—the sense of setting out, of being in flow on the landscape, of coming to or toward some destination. We certainly didn’t want to impose too hard and fast an order or force a progression that wasn’t organic.


At one point we discussed how we should work from both ends—from a “conceptual” angle, but also from a purely imagistic-linguistic angle (by tossing out to one another intriguing titles for sections— this is how we got “Voice Prints” and “Buried Constellation”).


We also re-read and interrogated the text looking for places of shift and transition. We recognized that many of the early poems had a sense of “earliness,” but other early poems had a sense of “lateness,” specifically “Microbiome,” which we recognized as having a sense of closure.


We thought about how consciousness seemed to evolve in the language, the permeability between self and world in the poems.


The last group of poems that we ordered found its way into the middle of the book: “Bow” (from the title of Judson’s poem). These were poems relating to scientific discoveries, to the facts of uncovering an archeological find. We put this section in the center of the book, to point to the relationship between “fact” and “art” (or finding answers vs opening questions).


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title comes from a line in one of Gale’s poems: “keep waiting for chalk song.” We all intuitively jumped on it without analysis. It was only bit by bit that we came to question and interrogate its suggestion.


The title harks back to the idea of lyric poetry as song – that the chalk images from Chauvet Cave are communicating their poetry to us and that we, as visitors in their space, are there to listen. We are inviting the reader to listen with us to the images as teachers.


The phrase also suggests the idea of quest – which was a large part of what the project was about – the quest for identity, for meaning, for finding a voice.


For Judson, “chalk song” spoke to the relationship between a Shaman and his apprentice and resonated with the theme of “song” and “voice” coming out of rock, wall, darkness . . . (“Mind in the Cave” and “Neanderthal Bromance” are two examples.)


For Gale, “chalk song” is an elemental song, a song half hummed, half-chanted during a process of toolmaking in which a group work a finely-honed and polished tool or weapon, hand to hand, each one knapping away layers and angles of stone, until the precise point is reached.


For Susan, “chalk song” was a door into exploring relationships between the senses. She had already been fascinated by how words create image/songs or touch/smells (synesthesia); and was asking herself if words have become more and more abstracted from experience over the eras.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: We are working on a project, that is called for now “Homo --?,” using our own variations on Latin names for Man (and Woman). We wanted to build on the Chalk Song project but not repeat it.


Gale wrote a poem earlier this year called “How to Become a Person.” This started us in the direction of investigating what it means to “be” human as well as the nature and state of “becoming.”


We are also interested in the ways the human has been named by scientists and philosophers. Take the term “homo sapiens sapiens,” for example. An anthropologist in Werner Herzog’s film strongly questions the appropriateness of this designation and substitutes “homo spiritualis.”


And – of course – other thinkers have come up with other names to highlight supposedly unique features of our species: Marx’s “homo laborans” or Johan Huizinga’s “homo ludens.”


The project addresses questions such as: Is there such a thing as progress? How is being human dependent on language? How does consciousness change as our language changes (both artistic and informational forms of language)?


We have developed a way to create prompts for ourselves, share readings, and develop conversations where we are open to sudden shifts, new directions, as we write our way into new territory.


There is so much thinking now about where consciousness happens (not just in the head) that considers a more open interactivity with world – how have humans adapted and maladapted to generate the creative and destructive forces we are facing.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The only thing we’d want to say is that collaboration is a wonderful process. It sets writers and artists up to be curious and to explore. Everything is possible.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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