Words. Yeah? What About Them? AWP, BMA & Barbara Kruger at the Hirshhorn Museum

Words are everywhere for me lately.  That may sound like a big “no, duh ” since I’m a writer, but I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately.  Really thinking about them.  And not just in that way you do when a really common word suddenly sounds odd to you, like when the word “when” suddenly sounds like it shouldn’t mean anything, like it’s just a sound – when, when, when.  Which is what it is after all, but you know what I mean.  Or what it means.  Or maybe you don’t.

Maybe it’s because the annual Associated Writing Programs conference is just a tad over month away.  A couple years ago, when the annual AWP conference was in DC, I heard Luca DiPierro speak on a panel about teaching comics and graphic novels.  He said some words, a paraphrase of French writer, Michel Butor, along the lines of “Words are something we look at.  Images are also something we read.”  So taken was I by this idea that I integrated it into a unit on the role of writing in visual art for an art history through theme course I teach.  It wasn’t the looking at words part that struck me.  I already taught a whole unit on the idea that words are something we look at in art.  It was the images are something we read part.  I stress to my students that this doesn’t just mean we look for meaning in images.  It goes a bit deeper for DiPierro and a bit freakier for me.  It has to do with how DiPierro literally cuts each of his images out of painted paper, cuts them out as individual items without meaning in themselves, and then combines and recombines these items–as a writer does with words–until the meaning is created for him.  Blew my mind.  Okay, so not so hard to do that.  But it’s a rare art “concept” that sticks with me, that’s durable, especially with all the fuzzy, self-indulgent artist statements out there.

So, fast forward to this holiday season – I’m in the BMA gift shop, gathering ideas for a museum store shopping guide article I had in mind (never materialized), and I pick up Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist.  A book full of brilliant, if known, morsels of wisdom on how to go about being creative.  Love it.  Buy it.  End up buying it several more times for several friends who are writers.  And I look into this Austin Kleon guy, who turns out to be a poet and artist, whose main schtick is those cross-0ut-words-from-newsprint poems.  Clever, might try it one day.  And then I start to think about whether or not it’s fair to be so dismissive of this form, and I start thinking about it more.  About how my vocabulary in the English language is a limited set.  About how any writer already works with a limited set of words.  About how we choose from that set further limited on any given day by what we dreamed the night before, what we heard on NPR on the way to work, what we experienced in the coffee shop wait line.  And about how a sheet of newspaper on any given day is just another limited set of words to draw from.

At the very same time, back in DC again, the Hirshhorn is plastered with words, the whole bottom level, top, sides of it, floor.  Barbara Kruger has swathed–avec crew of many men–the entire surface area with a series of words.  Imperatives, questions, and pithy flat-out statements confront you in red, white, and black, several feet high. Any of them startling?  Not really.  Kruger, in this show she has called Belief + Doubt, pulls them from our common experience, chooses words for us from the swirling storm that surrounds us daily.  Lays them out for us.   Literally.  Lays them out to be walked on and read.  To force us to crane our necks, stand back, view from above.  To see these words and to read.  And read into them.  To think.  About words.

I leave you with these thoughts.  These words.  Think about them.  Play with them.  Recombine them.  Cross them out and make a poem from the remnants.  I think I might just go and do the same.

Heidi Vornbrock Roosa is a grad of the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing program.  Her fiction is available in The South Dakota Review, The Summerset Review, and in Shots (as Regina Harvey).

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2 Replies to “Words. Yeah? What About Them? AWP, BMA & Barbara Kruger at the Hirshhorn Museum”

  1. A recent discovery of a perhaps relevant quote by William Carlos Williams:“On Poems as Machines Made Out of Words –
    To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
    Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine, which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”

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