Editor’s note: This year, I am featuring a different poet from the anthology each month. April’s featured contributor is Tanya Joyce. We discuss poetics, painting, Middle English, Tarot, and Tanya shares some of her beautiful poetry and visual art.
Q: Because you are both a painter and a poet, I would love to hear some of your thoughts on the relationship between the two arts. It’s been said that poetry is painting–do you agree with this? How are the two related for you in practice?
Poetry can be painting, especially with poets who described outdoor nature or natural settings. Shakespeare and the English Romantics come to mind. Painting can be poetry, especially in visual art that evokes elegance and flowing line, such as portraits by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres or John Singer Sargent. The chief difference between painting (or any other visual art) and poetry is that poetry — and all language — takes place in time. When a cat meows, the “me” precedes the “ow.” When we use words, even in Dada poetry, the sounds unveil themselves in a time sequence. Visual art is less time dependent. Even if a painter wants you to start looking at a painting in a certain way, you don’t need to do it. Viewers are freer to take in visual art as they wish.
I have no idea how poetry and painting are related in my work. I do them both, but not together. In three chapbooks, I put paintings and poetry together after they had each been completed, rather like redecorating a room with materials that have been in storage for a period of time. And I am in love with both disciplines. Perhaps that is what ties them together for me.
Q: You currently lead meetings of the Thursday Night Tarot in San Francisco. How did you become involved with this group, and what do the meetings look like?
In the late 1980s, San Francisco artist, poet, puppeteer Robert Leroy Smith was looking for volunteers to be part of a new meditation series that included guided visualization, runes, tarot, and other practices. Poet/painter Anna Ruth Kipping and I volunteered. Tarot, especially, appealed to us, probably because of the imagery. Anna Ruth’s son Doug Kipping said, “Well, if you liked that, you might like Jason Lotterhand’s weekly gatherings at Ft. Mason.” Jason started The Thursday Night Tarot in 1950, but it was new to us. We liked Jason’s informality. He was an extremely gifted metaphysical philosopher with an abundant sense of humor. He may well have been the first person, at least in the English-speaking world, to open metaphysics to all who cared to come — without charge, with no “grades,” no certificates, no “beginning, middle, and advanced.” You just come. And because tarot images are archetypes, they evoke something different each time we look at them, so that now, after 65 years, discussions continue to be dynamic.
Jason’s book, The Thursday Night Tarot, gives an accurate presentation of the relaxed format of our discussions, focusing on one card of the major arcana per week. Just out a couple of years ago is a second edition of the book, under its original working title, The Spoken Cabala. Both editions are edited by Jason’s long time colleague, Arisa Victor.
Q: Would you be wiling to share some of your experiences editing a collection of Tarot haikus? How did making that book develop your understanding of the arcana and poetics?
Musician Richard Jerome Bennett presented the idea of honoring our then hostess, Anna Ruth Kipping, by writing haiku for each card of the major arcana. Anna Ruth was a great haiku fan. Some people in the group liked to write and others did not. So, at the start, both haiku in traditional formats and haiku-inspired poems were welcome. We wrote at the end of an evening’s discussion, so something about the card of the day was in our minds. Twice, I remember, people said “Oh, I can’t write a thing!” My response was, “That’s fine. If something about this card comes to you later, you can add it then.” In both cases, the people who had said they couldn’t write started writing. Some barrier was overcome when they knew they did not have to show a result.
The editorial decision was simple. I included whatever people wrote with as little editing as possible. Authorship attribution included daily life names, names assumed for the occasion, and various shades of anonymous. I trusted the archetypal imagery of the cards to provide focus. I also trusted that the background I had in the tarot “Western Mystery System,” plus Medieval methods of meditative focus such as The Cloud of Unknowing, would allow order to reveal itself in a coherent volume. Poetics work for us most intensely when we do not feel confined to express ourselves as we “think we should.” This does not mean abandoning formal study. It means allowing formal study and intuitive discovery to join hands and stroll along together, just as the path in The Moon card runs between the domesticated dog and the wild wolf…
Q: I love medieval romances, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. How does working with Middle English influence your current writing? Would you discuss the relationship between text and illustrations in medieval manuscripts and how that reflects your own dual roles as painter and poet?
First, I must tell you that it was Sir Gawain’s pentacle that lead me to really explore tarot, one of two rare systems that treat the pentacle in depth. (The other is Chinese medicine.) Why, I wondered, is Gawain given the pentacle as an identifying image at a historical time (late fourteenth century) when people were being arrested and sometimes killed for displaying a pentacle in public? I still do not have all the answers I would like to that question, but in England, where metaphysical societies are often supported by strong, if quiet, tradition, clues abound.
Medieval poetic forms — alliteration in English and rhyme in French, for example — are used dynamically in Medieval poetry. They’re not applied with the idea that people long ago in some “golden age” used them. They are part of a sense of NOW. This always makes fascinating poetry, even when we don’t understand all the words. So my first answer to your question is that these powerful poetic forms are a carrot on a stick, held by the Muse as she sits on my back while I plod along the country lane of my own creations. That carrot — sweet, crunchy, and bright colored — draws me onward.
Medieval people did not have the kind of historical consciousness we take for granted. If a fourteenth century patron has commissioned a copy of works by the sixth century philosopher, Boethius, the illustrations will show fourteenth century dress and buildings. This method of work puts us in the middle of a poem. The action didn’t happen hundreds of years ago. It is happening right now. When text and illustration do not agree in detail, we tend to think, “Oh, that illustrator didn’t read the poem.” Not so. In the manuscript with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is a poem called The Pearl. In The Pearl, New Jerusalem is described as a glistening, translucent city. The illustration shows a half-timbered country castle. However, from the poem’s presentation of the two main characters, a reader knows just where the illustration belongs in the poem. It would be as though Geoffrey Chaucer met and joined the Canterbury Pilgrims at a B and B right near your house, and not long ago or far away.
When I was first studying Medieval literature, I did a lot of paintings with words written on them and poems with designs as part of the final presentation. Kenneth Patchen’s hand written poems with animals worked in among the letters were models for me. This approach was not well received in graduate school and, frankly, I was thrown out. One of my mentors (to whom I owe a lot in other areas) absolutely would not allow any visual elements in what I submitted to him — though he combined excellent photos and text in his own work. The head of the creative writing program I was enrolled in told me that visual images were a “crutch” and they had to be eliminated if I was going to write poetry. As he spoke, I noticed a picture of Chaucer on horseback in an ornate botanical border from the Ellesmere Canterbury Tales hanging on the wall behind him.
My work today is less directly related to the forms of Medieval books, but my sense of integration among art forms is more intense. For the past two or three years, I have been working with dance, poetry, and visual art together.
Q: What advice do you have for other artists?
Don’t stop doing what is in you to do no matter what. The things you need will come along, often from sources we do not expect. And it’s important — as much as possible — to continue with a warm heart toward society. Tibetan philosopher Chogyam Trungpa said, “When we talk about compassion, we talk in terms of being kind. But compassion is not so much being kind; it is being creative to wake a person up.” The role and function of the arts is to do exactly this. Make a big sign of Chogyam Trungpa’s observation and put it up on a wall where you can see it easily. Make a small version to keep with your tarot cards or in your wallet.
The following is an excerpt from Tanya’s book Tarot Haiku that will be featured in Arcana: the Tarot Poetry Anthology:
Verses for the Tarot
The High Priestess 2
Three points on the crown.
Three pomegranates dance.
Her blue dress turns into
Tail of a cobra, body of him and her,
Necklace of roses, red fur.
Guess who I am. In all poses
Sitting, standing, running, roaring,
Asleep, awake I am
Deep inside you.
Too in love to speak
Breath pulsing the midnight sky
She climbs the mountainside
To wrap herself in the folds
Of the Hermit’s cloak.
The Tower 16
The crown blows off
Clouds of misunderstanding.
What did you think
I meant? Stars, lights,
But only once
Falling, they have not yet
Decided to laugh.
The World 21
Wear a red band in my hair
A purple scarf to step
Out of the shower
And season my food with