Featured Poet: Tony Barnstone

Editor’s note: Each month, I’m featuring a different contributor from Arcana: the Tarot Poetry Anthology. For June, Tony Barnstone generously submitted an essay on his love of William Blake, collaborating with artist Alexandra Eldridge, and using the Tarot to inspire creativity. Without further ado, I turn the blog over to him.                    

Wheel of Fortune by Alexandra Eldridge

Wheel of Fortune by Alexandra Eldridge

My Tarot poems are part of a much larger project – a full Tarot deck – that I’ve been working on for about 15 years. The project involves writing a double sonnet for every card in the Major Arcana and a quatrain for every card in the Minor Arcana (each card suggests a different meaning, depending on whether it is played upright or reversed, and so the double sonnet includes one upright and one reversed “reading” of the card). The project is being marketed to trade presses now and is called The Creativity Tarot: Six Arts in a Box: Poetry, Fiction, Theater, Dance, 2D & 3D Art.

The deep origins of the project go back to my family of artists. My mother is a painter and my father is a poet, and the arts and literature have always been part of our family pleasures. One of my early birthday presents was a book of the art of William Blake – who deeply influenced me with his visionary, raw, and antiauthoritarian sensibility. When I went to college, in fact, I studied both writing and printmaking, and created a sequence of text and image monotypes modeled upon William Blake’s illuminated manuscripts.

When I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley I started out as a Blake scholar, though I switched to William Carlos Williams in the end because I felt I could learn more from his poetry’s sensibility. (Williams, by the way, started out wanting to be a painter and had very close connections to the whole international New York art scene in modernism. Many of his poems are “translations” of the sensibilities of futurism, cubism, precisionism and other modern art movements into poetry.) Many of my personal and academic interests come out of this background. I teach a class in the graphic novel and the graphic poem, for example, and Blake is a hero to graphic novelists such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, who often reference him in their work.

Thus it shouldn’t be a surprise that The Creativity Tarot is a collaboration with the artist Alexandra Eldridge (http://alexandraeldridge.com), who has a long connection to the work of William Blake – in fact back in the countercultural era, she and her ex-husband, Aethelred Eldridge, started a community, Golgonooza, based on the ideas of William Blake. Needless to say, the Ohio locals didn’t understand the Church of William Blake and the place was burned down, in what was probably arson.

Strength by Alexandra Eldridge

Strength by Alexandra Eldridge

Alexandra is doing the art for the cards, and I’m doing the accompanying poems as well as a handbook. The handbook is a guide to how to use the cards as a spur to creativity. It includes meditations on every card, creative catalysts to spark new poems, fiction, theater, dance, 2-D or 3-D art, guides to the daily draw and Tarot spreads, as well as shorter and longer courses in creativity. At the core of The Creativity Tarot is the insight that the teaching of creativity is based upon exercises that are in fact forms of divination. Consider that the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick plotted his Hugo Award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle in part through the use of the Chinese divination system, the I Ching. The Tarot can be used to bypass the rational mind and get in touch with the intuitive self.

My original idea was to write a book of poems as a deck of cards, with poems on one side and art on the back, with the idea that it would be a book with no set page order – that poems and art would emerge intuitively from the drawing process. Part of the inspiration comes from the great pulp novel Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, in which each chapter is titled after one of the figures in the Major Arcana, and part from the way that T.S. Eliot uses Tarot archetypes to prefigure the characters who would appear later in The Waste Land. The Waste Land’s structure is that of a shuffled deck of cards, after all. I was also interested in Julio Cortazar’s experimental novel Hopscotch, which had been designed to be read in multiple ways (hopscotching through the chapters and pages), as well as by the cubist influenced poems of e.e. cummings and Pierre Reverdy, which were designed to have multiple starting and endpoints so that they could be read in several ways simultaneously. Others texts I consulted included Italo Calvino’s book of Tarot short stories, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and Salvador Dali’s surreal Tarot deck. So, there are origins.

Clearly, The Creativity Tarot has developed into a much more complex project than it started out to be, but that is the thing about creativity: it is a journey, and the best journeys are those into the unknown. Walk out of your house and onto the road. Who knows if you are on the Hero’s Journey or the Fool’s Journey? There’s a great Wheel spinning in the sky and a voice on the radio singing, “Round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows.”

[Below is one of Tony’s double sonnets that will be featured in the anthology.]

The High Priestess   

The High Priestess by Alexandra Eldridge

The High Priestess by Alexandra Eldridge

Oh, razzle-dazzle, feeling frazzled days,
Before the coffee, still halfway in sleep,
T-Shirt, PJs, my hair in feathered tufts,
a sleepy owl, with eyes a yellow glaze.
The Bacchae and the dervishes in deep
trance may have felt their unshaved being was rough
and their distracted minds too dull a blade
to razor it until they danced like funky
nutjobs, but if I fall completely back
into wild dream what kind of self is made?
A wooden Buddha on the table? Junky
bleeding from the magic needle track?
No, wisdom is the world. When I’m not there,
I spread my wings and fall into the air.

The High Priestess (Reversed)               

Down here among the roots of thought with rough
strife you push through the caverns of your sleep,
past ghosting lights that are the unformed stuff
of being, going deeper than the deep
until you find the chamber of her dreaming,
its curtained door, push your way in to where
a thing reveals itself that seems like seeming
yet makes the waking mind dissolve to air:
a woman in a chair, head of an owl
below the curtained moon; before she flies,
claws wide, she raises up her feathered cowl
to fix your gaze with golden fierce eyes.
And when she opens up her wings and sails
at you the sudden knowledge makes you scream
—to no avail: the final parted veil
shows you the lethal border of your being.

You can read Tony’s bio–and the bios of other poets who will be in the anthology–on the Contributors Page.

To learn more about the artist, Alexandra Eldridge, you can visit her website.

And you can pre-order your copy of Arcana: the Tarot Poetry Anthology on the Minor Arcana Press website.