Thursday, October 2, 2014

10 Things to Consider When Conducting Creative Research and Hannah Maynard

Frieda Kahlo: a lucky artist time has not forgotten

What is creative research? This topic takes a little explaining. For my last two books Cloud Pharmacy and The Alchemist's Kitchen, I wrote poems based on the art work and the lives of two obscure women photographers: Myra Albert Wiggins and Hannah Maynard. This was a great surprise, at least to me. My experience with photography and historical sources was "elementary" to put it nicely.

Hannah Maynard, trick photograph, multiple exposure, c. 1893 Courtesy of the Royal British Columbian Museum 

As a poet who has been writing and publishing for something like 20 years (how did that happen?) I am rather tired of my own life --- even though it has been lived on three continents and in several professions --- I'm much more interested in the not me. And in this way, conducting creative research on women artists makes complete sense.

Five poems based on Maynard's photographs are in the recent issue of  Common-Place. There's also an accompanying essay on writing this sequence of poems. Common-Place is an on-line journal that describes itself this way:

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks--and listens--to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900.

Here are a few things I've learned along the way about conducting historical research for poems:

1. Women artists need us. There are many women artists that produced incredible bodies of work; yet today they are almost completely forgotten. Even more surprisingly, the work reads as radical even in 2014. Lenora Carrington, Baroness Elsa, and Hannah Maynard to name a few.

2. History and poetry share certain elements. Like poetry, history needs to be concise. It leaves out more than it says. For both the poet and the historian, questions are what compel us.

3. Learning about photography, or oil painting or sculpture, or old cars --- it all leads into new language. The language of photography deals with light and time. Sounds like poetry to me: shadows, reflection, aperture, lens. And so much more.

4. You can make things up. Yes, I know historians will squirm as I say this but as poets we go beyond dates and verifiable facts. Someone recently wrote to me and said she had lost a daughter in the last year. The Hannah Maynard poems spoke to her. This is the kind of truth that matters to me far more than a verifiable time line of events.

5. Best not to read too much before you start writing. See above. I'm happiest when I know just a few facts and can write into the open spaces. Mark Doty says ekphrastic poetry comes out of our own longings. The visual image is an anchor for our own interior lives.

6. Go slowly.  With each of my ekphrastic projects I took a few years before I could write the poems that made it into the books. Writing from historical images and documents is challenging.

7. Yes, you get to time travel. As a child I loved all books by Edward Eager and Edith Nesbit. Books that allowed you to walk through a garden or rub a small coin and be transported. Studying women artists has done this for me. I now feel that the late 19th century with the advent of train travel and the telegraph was similar to the times we live in.

8. Be open to different ways of writing. This was crucial for my work on Hannah Maynard. I needed a syntax and attitude different than what I had had available before this project.

9. Writing a sequence is different than writing a single poem. Forgive me for stating the obvious. This means that using epigraphs will help in bringing readers if you want to publish these poems individually. Remember the reader does not know all that resides inside your head.

10. Persona poems, ekphrastic poems, list poems: all of these forms and many others lend themselves to historical work. In other words, you get to recreate an entire world. And then enter it. 


  1. Wonderful, informative and creatively inspiring post. Thanks, Susan.

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  3. Thanks, Mary! Your good energy is much appreciated.