If I were an artist, how would I ‘illustrate’ my poems? With photographs? drawings? fantasy paintings in the style of Chagall?
After the meeting with Oliver, I wonder about this. To be honest, I worry about this. Not being a visually creative person, I can’t imagine how to do it.
Photography, I think, would be too literal. In the past, I’ve imagined how wonderful it might be to create a book combining photos and prose pieces about the simple pleasures of everyday life in my neighbourhood. But beside poems, I suspect that photos might be too factually detailed.
Perhaps whimsical paintings or drawings would work better? I think of images in the poems which an artist might pick out and work with – the phone, resting on its shelf like a pigeon, for instance.
But really, I’m bewildered. I just have to trust in Oliver’s imagination and skill. I have to be patient, and simply wait …
Three weeks later, though, I see just how brilliantly this kind of collaboration can work. I’m at the Matisse exhibition, Drawing Life, in Brisbane. It is the grayest of gray, drizzly days – even the ibises which usually walk on the tables at the outdoor café and snitch people’s lunches have taken shelter in the dense foliage beside the River. I’ve had to slop across wet pavers to get to GOMA, but inside the gallery, all of that is forgotten.
It’s a glorious exhibition. A virtuoso display of drawing. I love Matisse, and this is a tonic for the mind and spirit.
Even before I reach the room of illustrations for books, I’m excited. Then, suddenly, here is a whole series of etchings for Mallarmé’s poems. The head of a woman, drawn in one pure, arcing line – and around it, a tender explosion of voluptuous hair. A swan, sinuous and sinister … Along the gallery wall, here are these images created for a poetry book, but still celebrated as artworks in their own right, nearly seventy years later.
In another room, there is a wall of collages created for the Jazz series. Cut-up paper shapes, in scintillating colours: scenes of circus horses and dancers so lively they should kick off the page. It’s a style Oliver has already used for other projects, and although I don’t expect him to try it for Travelling, seeing these other collages by Matisse I’m thrilled, and optimistic that it is possible to make art which complements poems.
But in art and poetry, not much of great value is finished in a flash. Perhaps Picasso did whip off eye-popping sketches on tablecloths and napkins during Paris lunches (and perhaps Matisse did too?), but the artwork for Mallarmé’s book has an elegant, careful finish, as well as that illusion of the lines having fallen, perfectly, out of the air in an instant.
So I know I may need to wait a bit longer to see what art might be offered for my book.
I wait another month. After taking 12 years to finish the poems, I’m the last one to talk about pushing creativity. Still, I am getting a bit twitchy, waiting … !
At last, the first images arrive. Thanks to contemporary technology, there they are on my television. Photographed by a phone, emailed, downloaded and opened on my laptop, then transferred by a memory card to the TV screen for a slide show. They are beautiful – visions from the same world as my poems, but from Oliver’s fresh, individual perspective.
At our first meeting, I said that what I hoped for was not a series of ‘illustrations’ – literal responses to the content of the poems – but art which would complement the poetry.
And that is what Oliver has made. His drawings are like sketches from an artist’s notebook: they colour in the Paris which gave me my poems. They will be scattered through the book like colourful, visual pauses – pauses between the different groups of poems, as wall as pauses in someone else’s travels with wide-open eyes.
Coincidentally, without any prompting on my part – although perhaps the poems gave him clues? – Oliver has also put into his pictures so much that I love about Paris.
Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’, solid and sombre amongst surrounding trees – and just a glance away, nonchalantly appearing as the monuments inParisdo, the gleaming Dome at les Invalides.
The Orangerie, one of my favourite places in all the world, where people sit – and sit – gazing at Monet’s Waterlily paintings as if they never want to leave.
A patisserie – or perhaps a confiserie – with a display of undefinable delicacies – chocolates? pralines? fruit pâtes? – little marvels to look at as well as eat …
They could be glimpses anyone might bring home from their trip, but they’re personal, too. When the poems go to Lithuania, the image is of Martin and me, beside the Eternal Flame in Unity Square in Kaunas. And Oliver himself appears as well, high in a landscape as the book ends, on the point of returning to Australia.
The sketches are done simply, with coloured pencils. They have an openness and clarity, which really pleases me. I didn’t know what to expect – but yes, I think, these could really work.
The combination sounds very exciting. I can’t wait to see the finished product.