When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest.
For poet and artist Jen Bervin, whose irreducible projects unstitch the seam between text and textile, Su Hui’s labyrinthine Xuanji Tu elicited an immediate sense of creative affinity. One of the earliest extant poems by a woman—also among the most complex and unsung—the Xuanji Tu takes the form of a 29 x 29 character grid, embroidered or woven in five colors in silk, written in classical Chinese in the fourth century. An intrepid research trip, spanning four continents and culminating in Silk Poems—a Bervin piece written nanoscale and imprinted on a silk film biosensor—led her to the Suzhou Silk Museum in 2013, where a facsimile of Su Hui’s poem caught her eye. Far more elaborate than the facsimile’s English caption, “Poem to Be Read in a Circular Turn,” would imply, the reversible Xuanji Tu can be read horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. A dizzying system of signifying vectors—the colors, for one, which map onto an ancient Chinese cosmological schema of planets, elements, cardinal directions, seasons, and numbers—gives rise to a multitude of interpretations: 7,958 discrete readings as of the last count, way back in the Ming dynasty.
Befitting the indeterminate nature of the poem, its origin story remains unresolved. The most oft-repeated version holds that Su Hui married a military general named Dou Tao tasked by the emperor with the defense of a region called Xianyang. She refused to accompany her husband to the frontier, rankled by his decision to keep a concubine, who escorted him instead. Racked with regret and anger, she composed, designed, and embroidered her reversible poem and sent it to him in hopes of winning him back. Which of the nearly eight thousand readings prevailed on him we can never be sure, only that in its totality the poem was compelling beyond measure: “He found it to be a wonder without equal.” An alternative telling of the story casts Dou Tao not as a philanderer but a prisoner of the emperor under threat of execution. As this version has it, Su Hui crafted the Xuanji Tu as an offering to the emperor to save her husband's hide. By all accounts, her reversible poem achieved its intended effect.
Bervin is currently back in Suzhou on a grant from the Asian Cultural Council, commissioning double-sided silk embroideries and the first ever comprehensive translation of the Xuanji Tu, engaging Chinese women in conversation about the poem, and documenting their experiences reading it. In collaboration with filmmaker Charlotte Lagarde, she plans “to develop this piece as a video installation with film and textile components, hoping to draw renewed attention to Su Hui’s poem.”
Like so much of her recent work, this project resists the conventions of the lineated reading process and provokes fresh imaginings of what it means to navigate a text. As part of an exhibition at MASS MoCA on view through March, the aforementioned Silk Poems was literally under the microscope, its serpentine form otherwise indecipherable to the naked eye. The Gorgeous Nothings (New Directions, 2013), a facsimile of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts for which Bervin is perhaps best known, insists that the variant marks of Dickinson’s famous envelope poems are part of their textual integrity, not blemishes or distractions subject to editorial buffing.
That volume was a finalist for the Poetry Foundation’s Pegasus Award for Criticism in 2014 and graced the Best Books of 2013 lists at the New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement. The author of nine books, with an adaptation of Silk Poems forthcoming this fall from Nightboat Books, Bervin is the recipient, among other honors, of a Rauschenberg Residency, a Creative Capital grant, and a MacDowell fellowship. Her work has been exhibited at the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Des Moines Art Center, The Power Plant in Toronto, and BRIC. Her work can be found here.
The 2017 Shanghai Literary Festival, for which Bervin was a panelist, occasioned this conversation in March about her research practice, the Xuanji Tu, artistic solidarity between Su Hui and Dickinson, and the continuum between traditional craft and cutting edge technology.
—Henry Ace Knight
At last night’s panel, you described how in the nascent stages of your project on Su Hui’s Xuanji Tu you’re using an approach borrowed from documentary film—that of “building a nest around the subject.” How is that process coming together so far?
That idea comes from my partner and collaborator, Charlotte Lagarde, who studied documentary film at Stanford and has made over twenty films since. One thing I love about working with people from other disciplines is that they approach similar things from a different philosophical framework. Charlotte and I have very complementary skill sets. One of mine is the ability to suspend doubt and to trust that the layers will accrue as you find your way to something meaningful. We’ve been reading up on the scholarship, and visited Su Hui’s birthplace in Shaanxi province to familiarize ourselves with sites she might have known in her time.
Every day a new layer is added to the Su Hui project. In order to commission a calligraphy version of the poem to embroider we have to know what script style Su Hui would have used. Obviously Su Hui would have written the poem many times before she embroidered it. One doesn’t just start embroidering such a poem. Calligraphy is a very high art form in China. The history of the script styles, especially in the fourth century, is a little difficult to parse, and perhaps made more complex by the issue of gender, because what women were doing wasn’t often what was written about at the time. I’ve read some wonderful articles on the art of embroidery in China.
We are very lucky to find a calligrapher skilled in that script style who is interested in doing it and not booked three years in advance. Confirming that we have the best version of the text is perhaps the hardest part. When you’re dealing with a fourth-century text that disappeared in the thirteenth century, the trouble of the missing original is ever present. That issue manifests not only in the different versions of the poem but also in the color schemes, which vary considerably. Thankfully there have been a lot of accounts and transcriptions, but they’re in black ink. The color scheme at this point is unfortunately somewhat conjectural, even though it’s integral to how the poem is read. For our purposes, debating the color scheme generates conversation, so that’s not necessarily a problem. Then, there is the issue of identifying historically probable hues of those colors for the embroidery process.
Those are the most immediate layers, but reading this poem is a process and it’s still in progress. The Ming dynasty advanced the number of readings the most—it was heavily studied in the Tang and the Ming in particular. The current count is just shy of eight thousand. If the rhyming words were tagged, someone who studies complex systems—even without knowing how to read the poem—could mathematically figure out new ways. To understand the poem, we also need to learn more about Chinese astronomy in the fourth century, which was quite developed and has considerable import in how the poem is read. The color substructure corresponds to the armillary sphere, a Chinese invention to chart the movement of the planets. The five colors also correspond to the planets, seasons, and elements. I love China. It’s so deeply layered. I delight in hearing “to understand that you have to understand something about . . . ”
As the layers continue to accumulate, do you hope to reach a critical mass where you can approach the project more systematically, or is the plan to follow the thread wherever it takes you?
Both. We’re here for two months on a research trip, due to a very generous grant from the Asian Cultural Council, the aim of which is to build local relationships on the research and production side, with silk historians, literary scholars, calligraphers, scholars, translators, embroiderers, and women readers. We want to shift the research and project into the Chinese sphere. Unfortunately I’ve been working with the limitations of what’s been translated into English, so part of what I hope to do here is to understand in a much deeper way what scholarship has been done in China on this poem. The framing of this project guarantees that I will always be looking to other people to learn.
I won’t ask you for an exhaustive catalog of every possible reading of the poem, but can you elaborate on a few of the approaches one might take to it?
For an English reader, when you hear that a poem is reversible and you look at an image of it, you imagine vertical readings moving up and down, horizontal ones moving back and forth, perhaps diagonal ones. But in fact, the way that you read within the colored regions is far more complex. For example, if you’re reading in one of the color perimeter areas—envision a square—you might start in the upper left-hand corner and bounce to the lower right-hand corner, then read one or two characters before moving back and forth in this sort of ricochet of reading. It’s like you’re weaving the diagonal, reading non-sequentially within an area of the poem in a way that’s systematic, which is something I wouldn’t have imagined. Other readings entail weaving back and forth on certain lines, reading right to left and then left to right. Some readings are divided symmetrically. For example, in a square, you might start at the left corner and the right corner and read a phrase of three characters in both areas. There are all sorts of internal patterns for reading that are non-sequential and reversible.
This is one thing that’s really wonderful about working in the film medium. In Xi’an, when we were filming Ava and Yuen Yuen reading the poem, you could actually see the process of puzzling through these complexities. Even if you don’t understand the poem that’s being read—even with no subtitles on the video—you can observe how complex the reading structures are and watch new readers of the poem respond to that process of exploration. The layers provided just by watching and listening to other people experiencing the puzzle allow a level of respect to accrue, even without any fluency.
If it’s the latter, between strangers or people familiar with one another?
I’m very open to surprise. My hope is that Charlotte and I will be able to film in a lot of different contexts, that the environments and readers differ greatly. I think it’s wonderful when two people are in conversation because there’s some collapse of the filming sphere that is very hard to circumvent with just one person on film. It can really become a conversation about the poem captured on film, rather than just a presentation of the poem for film. One of the goals of the project is to bring this poem into conversation, into the public eye, ear, mind, and consciousness. Right now that’s happening on a more intimate scale with these interactions in China, but eventually the work will be presented to a larger Chinese and international audience. We are lucky to be working with a brilliant Chinese producer, Violet Feng, who brings her creative vision to the work as well.
Can you speak to why such a remarkable poem has for so long been neglected by scholars and translators?
One of the responses I’ve encountered a number of times now from Chinese people: I’m ashamed I don’t know about this poem, it’s my heritage. I feel like a lack of attention to the poem is not reflective of people’s interests; it’s reflective of a lack of exposure to it. Why isn’t it taught? Certainly within the canon of great classical Chinese literature, it seems like it would belong. I admire very deeply how valued that canon of literature is in China—how it is really a birthright. The idea that at the age of three you can recite a poem by Li Bai is very different from the experience in the US of learning poems. I read very little poetry within the US educational system.
We’re certainly not spitting out lines of Dickinson in kindergarten.
I wish! Perhaps I had earlier encounters with rhymed verse but it’s different, philosophically. Other reasons I’ve encountered as to why Su Hui’s poem hasn’t been treated with appropriate seriousness and respect have to do with its form—you’d think that writing a poem that takes over a thousand years to read in almost eight thousand ways would land a poem solidly in the canon—but in China the form huiwen shi, or reversible poems, are considered in the realm of games. The best equivalent in English might be the palindrome, because when you hear a palindrome you think, Oh, that’s not serious, that’s a form of play.
I believe the greater reason is gendered—the form was one women pioneered. You see a lot of issues around authorship by women played out in the story of Su Hui, how certain versions of that story have been perpetuated and others have not. There I see strong parallels with Dickinson. Often biography or narratives of women writers are placed in the way of their work, as an obstruction to paying it proper attention, to treating it seriously, with respect. It becomes a way to encapsulate or dismiss the art in favor of the biography, a trap that’s unique, I think, to women, and one you see in all art forms, not just literature.
In an interview published in The Paris Review, Elena Ferrante, reflecting on her reasons for withholding her identity from the public eye, said, “There is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art. The individual person is, of course, necessary, but I’m not talking about the individual—I’m talking about a manufactured image.” This idea of a “collective intelligence” underlying all literary work seems consonant with your view of poetry as “a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten . . . a social space we share with others.”
I’ve always found that model of authorship so arrogant, this idea that we create alone. It’s patently untrue and disregards relationship. The emphasis on building things through relationship, I find, is very Chinese. The approach we are taking with Su Hui’s poem is to understand it through relationship, through specific readers, not necessarily expert ones, through Chinese perspectives, particularly those of women. The flip side of that question is in some ways a question of addressee. With both Dickinson and Su Hui, often the writer-reader relationship is one-to-one. I think in the West we value ideas of publication and fame, of books being numerous, above speaking intimately and directly to one person. We privilege that model for publication through all forms of hierarchy. That intimacy and, in some sense, urgency is present in both Dickinson and Su Hui’s work. When Dickinson sent the same poem to six different people over the course of four years, she changed it subtly each time, or prefaced it within the letter with a context that called for the poem. It was an infinitely flexible, intimate medium. With Su Hui, the poem had one explicit intended reader—her husband—and it was very effective. I would love to know more about Su Hui’s influences, who she was reading at that time. I read there is one instance of a reversible poem prior to this one inscribed on a mirror, also written by a woman, that I read about in Michèle Métail’s book, Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, which is just newly translated into English by Jody Gladding.
Su Hui’s poem is bound by the rigidity of a grid, while Dickinson’s envelope scraps are an unruly, dynamic verbal-graphic chaos, spilling beyond the conventions of the printed page. Last night you spoke of their artistic commonality. What unifies them in your mind?
I think what they have in common is that they are both formal innovators. Even though Su Hui’s structure is more formally rigid, fixed, they both have found a way within their poetic composition to create forms of infinite reading. With Dickinson, it’s the variants—the words preceded by crosses, corresponding to alternate words preceded by crosses within the structure of the poem. If you start to read Dickinson through the variant system and retain the variant ghosts in your readings, you experience what feels like an infinite system—you encounter the echoes of variance in a way that is thrilling in its complexity. It really changes some well-known poems, ones we think we know, in wild ways.
That sort of variance is baked into the Chinese language itself. You mentioned last night the daunting task of sifting through dozens of meanings for different characters found in the Xuanji Tu. What challenges has that posed for you thus far?
It has offered opportunities for tremendous humility! And an essential reminder of the value of literary translation and how high an art form that is. I think some of the best thinkers I know are translators—Susan Bernofsky, Karen Emmerich, to name a couple. It was wonderful—painful at first, but also a real gift—to realize that I couldn’t make enough inroads into Su Hui’s poem, despite my efforts to do so, that it was beyond the scope of poetic translation for me. After working on it for about a month, I realized I had been working from simplified characters, that the poem was written in classical, and I basically had to go back to the drawing board after hundreds of hours of work that were yielding shallow results. At that point, I knew I had reached an impasse but I wasn’t sure what the right approach would be. I was talking to different translators about it, particularly Karen Emmerich, who’s a good friend and a modern Greek translator, someone I have been in conversation with about the Dickinson works for a long time—there’s an excellent essay on Dickinson in her forthcoming book, Literary Translation and the Making of Originals—and she said to me, “well, with the Dickinson editorial issues, you didn’t solve the problem, you didn’t make a new edition, you just pointed to the problems in such a way that people were excited to think about it.” She was talking about my series The Dickinson Composites, which later led to publications like Gorgeous Nothings that did address some of the problems. But I think her point was very well taken: that as a poet and a visual artist, I can position myself in such a way as to draw attention to things that matter without necessarily resolving the issues inherent in them.
I think that complex translation problems—or complex editorial issues—are best addressed with a team of interdisciplinary thinkers, artists, scholars, translators, and material culture historians. That training from different perspectives yields different approaches to similar questions. When you have an intersection of all those approaches, you can only arrive at better answers.
Can you tell us about the conversations you’ve had with the classical Chinese translators you’re consulting with. Is a collaborative, full translation of the poem in the works?
Yes. It’s very exciting to imagine a collaborative translation of this poem, because there are so many possible ways of reading it and so many possible modes of interpretation. I admire collaborative translation for any form of poetry but it’s essential for this poem. There are two Chinese translators whom I’ve been in conversation with from the US who are very excited to work on it, Andrea Lingenfelter and Jennifer Feeley. My hope is to help support an international, all-women translation team. The gender shift is a response to dismissiveness I’ve encountered from male translators and scholars, which unfortunately fits into a larger cultural dismissal of the integrity of brilliant work by women that need not be replicated. I’ve found, and continue to find, people are very excited to dig into it.
Have people been dismissive of your relational work—the Dickinson quilts, the Shakespearian sonnets?
Oh, certainly, but others have had the opposite reaction—they’ve had such a huge response—much more than I imagined. I’m very shy, so I would rather work in private for ten years to present something that shifts the conversation dramatically. I’m thinking of my work on Dickinson, for example, which is really a lifetime commitment. For me, putting that work in its entirety into the realm of the audience was essential. It’s a way to start not at point B in the conversation but somewhere in the middle of the alphabet. And of course one does nothing alone—Marta Werner’s scholarship deserves immense credit there, as does Susan Howe’s.
With Nets, if you are so minded, you could be dismissive of the idea of the book—a palimpsest of Shakespeare’s sonnets—but when you actually read it, that’s harder to do; it becomes moving and strange. Nets is often framed in conversations around conceptual writing, which is one aspect of it, certainly, but there are many aspects of those poems that diverge from it. I strongly prefer having the complexity of the work there to create a conversation, rather than responding to a particular critique of doing work that is relational. I think it’s flawed that we don’t want to say that we came to be through others, with others, that we are a part of something greater than we are and want to acknowledge that, or perhaps critique that tradition.
At last night’s panel you spoke of a phase early in your creative life when you stopped making visual work entirely and immersed yourself in a sustained period of reading poetry. Who were you reading at the time?
The last work I made before I stopped was a video installation, which is one of the forms this piece will take—the other is a book. I feel like I’ve come full circle in this moment. Paul Celan, Gertrude Stein, and Hélène Cixous were the poets I was reading at the time, and those three writers brought me across a threshold into poetry. The analog, rhizomic process of finding new poets and poetry was a very different activity then, in 1996, pre-Internet for most people. I remember requesting a list of small literary magazines and their postal addresses. Now every small magazine has a website. I was living in Bisbee, Arizona, about five minutes from Mexico—really beautiful Sonoran high desert. I moved there because I could rent a house, work at the library, carry a studio and house rent with ease, and have ample time to read and make work. I used the Poetry Center library in Tucson, a robust research library for poetry, then and now. I read anything I could find, anything anyone recommended.
Did you have a sense at the time that you were moving towards an interdisciplinary body of work?
No, I was completely lost and felt like I had no center. Until that point, I was showing and exhibiting regularly. I was a part of something, and I walked away from it very consciously because I was uncomfortable with the work that I was making. Not necessarily the quality of the work itself, but how I felt after making it. It was something akin to disgust. I didn’t think the work was garbage, but I felt like I was making garbage. If it was something I didn’t want to live with after making it, it was hugely problematic to ask the world to live with it. So my desire to slow down and shift into another field entirely was a response to my frustration. I was unwilling to do anything else until I could address that in a way that felt more intentional.
What was the transition back into making work like?
I think there were two pieces that I made, roughly at the same time. One was a large perforated drawing, about five feet square, based on a geological survey map of the Bisbee area. You can imagine all of the topographical lines and what those might do. It was sewn, without thread, onto a substrate of paper scraps pieced together. It looks like a mountain landscape aerating a midwestern landscape. I was really happy with that piece. The first thing I was happy with. It took nine months to make, and I couldn’t believe how much my time scale had shifted. I had been working so fast up until that point.
Can you tell us about textile-based time and the meditative state of mind it leads to, which you spoke of last night? You recently completed a decade-long project building a large-scale, hand-sewn model of the Mississippi River in silver sequins.
An interrupted decade-long project . . . I was working on a lot of other projects during that time, but it was always there to return to. I crave that kind of meditative time in a project, in the studio, outside of technology—though I’m often listening to readings of books when I’m sewing. It’s a kind of time that I can slip into that feels slower and more expansive, more generous. It’s something I’ve been quite conscious of as my projects have changed in scope and tenor.
Silk Poems was almost all research and a tiny amount of fabrication, literally tiny—nano-scale—and the actual fabrication I couldn’t do myself. It had to be done in a cleanroom. Similar to other print technologies, it involved etching and pulling a print, as they say in printmaking, but instead of pulling the paper off the printing plate, pulling a silk film off a silicon wafer that’s been etched.
It’s been a goal of mine to bring Silk Poems back to places where I researched. I might be able to do that in Tbilisi, Georgia, soon. One aspect of doing that will be translating the poem back into the languages that shaped it. That will be trickier with Chinese, since there’s already a lot in the poem.
What is your relationship to technology? You’ve said that you do most of your textile work on “really old sewing machines that basically go straight forward.” Your interdisciplinary projects insist on the materiality of poetry in a digital world. But in other ways, technology liberates you from the constraints of the printed page, as with the digitization of Dickinson’s scraps allowing for a fuller appreciation of their complexity, and the use of cutting-edge silk biotechnology as a new medium in Silk Poems.
I see traditional craft on a continuum with cutting edge technology, not just in my work but also in the work that I follow. As a guest of the Block Museum of Art and the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University, I recently met the engineer Yonggang Huang, who, along with co-researcher John Rogers, is using the Japanese art of paper-cutting, kirigami, to help design silicon wireless transmitters. Imagine a 2D model popping up into a structure that looks like a tent with four or five layers of material in it—so elegant to begin with—but now imagine it tiny and attached to a premature infant in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The baby can be monitored medically, unencumbered by wires, while being held by the parents. That’s great work, in my opinion.
I toggle between the digital and the analog in most of my projects. The Dickinson Composites, for example, look like they’re embroidered, but they were digital composites before they were embroideries and books before they were digital composites. It’s really like pouring water between cups. The Desert looks like a hand-bound book, and is, but it was digitally printed and machine-sewn.
One thing that I would add to the conversation that I think is very important to address is the relationship between art and craft. In America we have a range of work that’s blending the two, but art and craft are valued very differently, and I think it’s essential to examine why that’s the case. I met recently with the artist Sonya Clark, head of the M.F.A. in craft program at Virginia Commonwealth University. She said, Well you know why it’s separated out—I’m paraphrasing, she said it much more eloquently—because to separate craft excludes most of the world, most of world history, and almost all women. Maybe just a week later I was visiting the Cantor Art Center at Stanford thinking, it’s true, if you look at the largest swath of time presented there, the work is ceramic, it’s bronze, it’s wood, it’s woven. Why do the things that were considered art for most of time fall out of what we consider art now? That loss is huge, and it divides the arts and the sciences in ways that are particularly counterproductive and, frankly, less interesting.
From the glimpse of Silk Poems offered in the Creative Capital video, it looks almost like an eye chart.
That’s funny, I hadn’t thought of that. The poem strand is modeled on what the silkworm “writes” using its filament in its cocoon, and the six-letter enjambed line is based on the six-letter repeat in the genome sequence of silk. So different scales are implicit in the form of the writing. The poem will be published by Nightboat Books in the fall of 2017 in lineated couplets—all caps, no spaces—sounds odd but it teaches you how to read it. The image of the poem strand will be present in the book in ways both subtle and explicit. There’s an animated section of it—a thumbnail of the poem writ tiny—that accrues on every recto. By the end of the poem, you’ll have the whole image of the poem strand, though for most of the time you spend reading you might dismiss it, because your thumb will cover it. It will feel like you’ve imprinted the book with your hand.
What was the genesis of that idea?
The tiny thumbnail? It comes from a book I admire very much—but also consider very problematic—called Words, by Bob Brown, a writer who was “practically a book himself,” a modernist polymath. He wrote cookbooks—10,000 Snacks, Let There Be Beer, and so on. In the tradition of artist-poet-writers, like Ronald Johnson, author of Radios, he invented a system of reading called “The Readies,” kind of a predecessor to Kindle, and asked major writers and artists to develop texts for it. You’ll find texts by Mina Loy, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein. Words has a super tiny poem in the lower corner of each page that artfully disappears. Even if you’re looking for them, you miss them. Part of it is the relationship of scale in the book— they live next to sonnets printed in a type size I find uncomfortably large. But the sleight of hand! Having a completely alternative poem on the page that you can visually miss was sort of thrilling to me. On a deeper level, I empathize with omission and the omitted. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t feel so great about the term erasure, because I’m trying to draw attention to loss, not create it.
For those of us who can’t make it to MASS MoCA to examine the silk film under the microscope, can you tell us something about the content of the poem itself?
It’s a love poem, written from the perspective of the silk worm (whose liquified cocoon serves as the substrate of the biosensor) to a person with a health condition pronounced enough as to require daily monitoring. Of course this is all hypothetical, subject to shifts in research, a speculative framework. There’s no implanted poem yet.
But to function as a biosensor, the silk must be imprinted with some kind of writing or text?
The first silk biosensor that I encountered was one hundred percent silk, made through a photolithography process and inscribed nano-scale. It’s the nano-patterning of the silk film, just a disruption of surface structure, that allows it to operate as an optical sensor.
That inscription originally came in the form of clip art, right?
I remember seeing images in a grid—phase patterns, a Victorian lady, the Tufts logo. I’ve since learned that any scientific research will have the imprimatur of the school where the research was done. It was just a prototype, but still, I was kind of deflated. The material, application, and context are all so rich and relevant . . . and that’s what’s there?
Early on in my life, I was aware of mortality. My father died when I was a kid, so for me, those imagined contexts are not just speculative. They’re very real. I have my own health conditions that need to be monitored with some care. It’s not just a space of fact—it’s also a space of worry and imagination, one where the power of the mind to believe certain things can affect the outcome of the biological processes. It can’t shape it entirely, but it does have an effect. I thought a sensor in that context could have more power and relevance and in some sense reverence for the material and for the person. I think the developments in silk are extraordinary and the scientists working on them are some of the most creative humanists I’ve ever met. Inserting myself in that process is a way to try to join a conversation I admire.
How did you worm your way into the conversation?
In the shyest possible way. In January 2011 I was teaching a workshop at Harvard that required moving back and forth between Cambridge and New York. I visited the Tufts lab for the first time on an exploratory trip with Amanda Schaefer, a wonderful science writer, without any sense of what it would mean five years later. It was an invitation from Amanda into research she had been exploring as a journalist. She had written a piece on new developments in silk for Slate and was so excited about it that she wanted to continue the work. That’s one of the medium-specific problems journalists face—the deadlines are hard and fast, even if your interest exceeds the topic.
What was that initial encounter with the silk researchers at Tufts like?
Fiorenzo Omenetto gave us a tour, an overview of research happening in the silk lab at the time. David Kaplan popped his head in at some point to say hello. In most research contexts, I can trust that I’ll be a reliable filter of what I’m learning. In that situation, almost everything was new to me. I think I’d just gotten my first iPhone, so I started filming and recording to keep apace with it. I didn’t really want to point the camera directly at anyone, I’m terribly shy, and it’s mostly footage of feet. But I’m so thankful that I turned it on because everything I was learning that day was new to me. Having a record to revisit over and over as I began to grasp different layers became essential.
Can you describe the moment at which imprinting poetry on silk film moved from the conceptual realm into reality?
It was really wonderful to go back to Tufts and fabricate the poem in the same lab that inspired it. The actual fabrication process took about five trials—it was technically extremely challenging. The developments in silk, particularly at Tufts, have been exponential. It’s such an exciting field to follow, with deeply creative, brilliant, humble people working collaboratively across international academic lines. The scientists I mentioned who are working on wireless sensors at Northwestern have collaborated with Fio and David at Tufts. So have the researchers I visited at Suzhou University in China.
What was the research process that manifested in Silk Poems?
I went as a pilgrim to many different places to learn, to Tufts, to silk museums, to sericulture farms, medical libraries, nanofabrication labs. It was important to me that the research for Silk Poems was international because the history of silk is international, a boomerang that’s spread through trade, religion, etc. I had to approach it through perspectives that I wouldn’t understand without going there in person. I believe very strongly that if you put yourself in new situations you’ll net more than you could within your comfort zone, though Dickinson is perfect evidence that you can explore your own comfort zone deeply, too. But then she read and corresponded prolifically. She was in transit.
So you visited textile archives, sericulture farms, and nanotechnology labs in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Where did you go in the Middle East?
I went to Istanbul, where I lived as a teenager. I was reunited with my Turkish family. I lived there when I was seventeen, straight out of Iowa, and spent a few months with the Ariburnu family learning Turkish. Some of my happiest times in my early life were there. We had a reunion with my host family that involved coming out. Tall order.
We did the research in stretches. In 2013, it was mostly domestic, then France, Japan, and China. In 2014, it was Italy, Tbilisi, and Istanbul. My regret is that I wasn’t able to go to India and Brazil, which are the two top producers of silk today. I couldn’t afford it. But I’m happy the project will visit India through a new collaboration with the founder and designer of Matta, Cristina Gitti. She’s working with block printers in India right now to create a limited edition of Silk Poems scrolls that can be worn as scarves.
When I was an artist-in-residence at the Rauschenberg Residency in Florida, I made large-scale prints of the poem on silk fabric—very thin, fluid. Scaled up so much, the letters are entirely legible. With the exception of some overlapping areas, you can read it with the naked eye. Because the silk threads got caught in the print spool pretty easily and spattered ink where it didn’t belong, there were a lot of misprints. So every misprint I would cut into bands of cloth—I have around twenty scrolls with a section of the poem—that I saved because I didn’t want them to go to waste. I gave those to Christina Gitti at Matta to work with. I don’t know what will come of it quite yet, but there will be an exhibition of that collaboration in the fall at their New York store, along with a book party for the Silk Poems book.
Can you describe your first encounter with Su Hui’s reversible poem, an offshoot of the research you conducted before writing Silk Poems?
As a creative researcher you’re always working blind, searching for things you cannot predict will be relevant until they are. I’m hugely indebted to the librarians and library curators who bring their wealth of knowledge and expertise to bear in research contexts and show me things that align with my vision as an artist and a writer.
It’s hard enough to articulate in your own language what you’re looking for, but to do that in another language, in another country, in another research context altogether, structured differently than the ones I have experience working in, was very hard, to say the least. I learned to look to the periphery. If I had a particular aim that didn’t seem achievable, I learned to refocus on what else might be attainable or of interest. That strategy was far more rewarding, and one that’s maybe more in line with poetry and its intentions, and with my creative philosophy. The photograph of the incredible loom that I showed last night was the exasperated result of a dead end in what I expected to be one of the best research contexts I would encounter in China, so you never know.
I first saw the facsimile of Su Hui’s fourth-century poem in the Suzhou Silk Museum. I’ve since learned that it was woven by another brilliant woman, the former director and founder of the museum, Qian Xiaoping. Gender is often confused in translation, so at first, I thought the translated gender of the fourth-century author was wrong, that the author was a man, but it was indeed a woman. I think the caption was “Poem to Be Read in a Circular Turn.” I wasn’t aware at the moment how many readings were possible, but I felt the power of the poem. It was, and is, indelible.