Dear Eileen Myles,
I’ve never really written a fan letter before but I’m so glad my first one is to you. Specifically, I guess it’s to an essay of yours – maybe, in truth, it’s to all of them – called ‘Painted Clear, Painted Black’. When I read that essay, I literally feel some kind of space opening up: I can breathe. Lines like: ‘I am always negotiating feeling and the day. Feeling lets me know when to duck and take space. How to edit.’ Lines like that make me want to make art or feel okay about making it, or make it clear to me why I do. Lines like that make me think of when I took my son to the sea for the first time and we sat in front of Derek Jarman’s house with my friends and fellow filmmakers, the two Bens and Basma, or when I placed my daughter’s bare feet on the ground in Hackney Downs and she felt the cold grass between her toes for the first time. There’s something about the rhythm of how you write: it’s so clear – it’s utter clearness. All the confusion, the fog – mine, that is – evaporates and, for a split second, I feel like I actually know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
You write: ‘I like an author who is aware of reception and the body. If I think of transparency it’s the text revealing the author, it’s the text responding to the political environment, it’s a distressed recording of the history of sexual violence on women, a map of mourning and a borrow from each thing I’m reading that has some impact on how writing stops and starts and what entirely it could do.’
‘Painted Clear, Painted Black’ is a rebuttal to the academic Marjorie Perloff’s criticism of your work but also of any kind of feeling in general that isn’t mediated by the language of the avant-garde. ‘Painted Clear, Painted Black’ is an amazing defence of the emotional, of the body, of lived experience versus the cold (white) rational and ordered abstraction of the (male) avant-garde. I feel I need it more now than ever.
In the two years following the birth of my daughter, Britain voted to leave the EU, Donald Trump got elected as US president, Grenfell Tower in London burnt to the ground, the #metoo movement happened and I suffered an acute bout of hormonally and politically induced anxiety. Getting emo became par for the course. When I met you, and partly in response, I was consciously trying to widen the predominantly male influences that had informed my films. I was consciously seeking out a community of voices that I could pass onto my daughter that would draw a picture for her of a more inclusive and diverse world but, also, of a world that valued feeling as much as it did fact. A world in which emotions weren’t suspect, in which feelings (read: being female) were not a problem.
At the time, I was reading a lot of poetry: yours, but also that of CAConrad, Audre Lorde, Alice Notley and Adrienne Rich. The poems functioned like an alternative news feed, a steadying force in an increasingly turbulent world. I wanted to write this letter to thank you: you gave me permission. If I can make even a single film that’s able to feel, in the way that your poems do, I’ll be done.
I want you to have the last word:
‘I think Marjorie’s naming of my own transparency has to do with sort of an easy reading of what I do and even missing that it’s multiple pronged not single so that I don’t clock you with my devices. I surround you and use them. My work has a chameleon quality in which it feels the room and changes. I write to hold the music of the room. If the poet wanders in her studio and that is the text then one can pause while the siren outside blares or even incorporate it into the poem. One of the most important things I know about poetry is that the words don’t need to be heard. They aren’t ever. Not all of them. And I think of that as an emotional truth. Poems are not made out of words. They’re made out of emotional absences, rips and tears. That’s the incomplete true fabric of the text.’
Beatrice Gibson is an artist based on London, UK. Her solo exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, London, runs from 18 January to 31 March. It will travel to Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, and Mercer Union, Toronto, Canada.
First published in Issue 200