Roughly once a month, we pose questions to artists about their work and lives. We recently asked a group of artists, How much of the “self” is in your art?
At what remove do you keep yourself (as a participant/subject), your experiences and memories, and/or your closely-held beliefs from your art?
Part one of a two-part discussion.
Alissa Cardone, choreographer
My experiences, memories, and beliefs are who I am, and they are inseparable from my art. But whether I’m performing improvised dances with experimental music, choreographing for my students, collaborating on intermedia projects with Kinodance, or working with middle school kids (as I did for New London Calling), my job is always to figure out what the work needs, not what I need. For me, making work is about generating new worlds, worlds that are as real and as vivid as personal memory and experience only conjured through creative process. When I’m working on a piece, the question really isn’t what my beliefs and experiences are, but how do I funnel/mold/alter/spindle them into a given work. And where my personal experience may be limited, the world of ideas is limitless – the imagination is a powerful, extremely underutilized tool.
Samuel Beebe, composer
Composing a new work is like solving a dramatic puzzle; I often begin with an emotional outline and a collection of materials, resembling a fractured puzzle. The pieces are not in proper relation to each other, and there are always pieces missing that must be found or written anew. Perhaps the outline needs to be adjusted to fit the materials. Whatever the case, the method I use to solve the puzzle is a reflection of my “self,” along with the outcome.
Not long ago, I thought of collaboration as a forfeit of the self – to a writing partner, to a client or director; to the person holding the money. Now I see collaboration as the impetus for my most original work, because I am moved by the expectations and dedication of my collaborators to put my best work forward. If the primer of a job proves challenging, I look for ways to use my environment, my experiences and memories, to bring myself into the project emotionally.
The self lies in the decision-making process, in the conscious and subconscious values we use to shape our work. It’s what makes us unique, and thus makes the art we create unique.
Anna Ross, poet
Confessionalism as a concept has always made me uncomfortable, much as I admire many poets grouped under that literary banner. Still, the idea of art as mere confession felt too messy, too unmitigated, even too needy. I wanted poems that stood up for themselves and followed Eliot’s famous dictum that the “[wo]man that suffers” must stand apart from the “mind that creates.” We read Shakespeare for his words, not his life – this should be the ideal! Yet the longer I write, the more impossible, even impractical, this becomes. To be fair, I think what Eliot was really getting at is a question of accessibility; a reader shouldn’t be burdened with having to wade through personal biographical details and political leanings to get at the poem. But this leaves out the truth that we write about and in response to what moves us personally – how else can we be moved? At base, perhaps what I’m talking about here is trust; how can I ask a reader to engage with my poem if I don’t admit that I’m enough absorbed by it to have spent months, even years, writing it? This is a risk that all artists must take, I think – showing a part of ourselves as a means of reaching out to our audience for commonality or at least fellowship. Of course, art is not life, and I never want to bore or confuse with details that are so specific as to be irrelevant. This is where metaphor comes in as a crucial means of broadening the particular to the universal. When I write a poem set in the grocery store (“Self-Portrait with Catastrophe”), I don’t provide my actual shopping list but instead the images that embody the emotional experience of that shopping trip. But when I describe a “tornado in each lung” I do want a reader to feel the cataclysm – internal, external, personal, physical – that this suggests, and I want her to know that I feel it too, which is why I wrote it down.
Samuel Beebe is the 2014 recipient of the Boston Choral Ensemble Commission Competition. His work “Suite Urbano” for flute and piano will be premiered on May 17 by Brittney Balkcom at the University of North Texas. Visit his website for selections of his opera, theatre, film, and concert music.
Alissa Cardone is a choreographer, dancer, and collaborative artists who co-founded the interdisciplinary Kinodance. She will perform in the Radius Ensemble event Compass at Longy School of Music in Cambridge on Saturday May 3, as choreographer/dancer with flutist Sarah Brady in a piece composed by John Fonville.
Anna Ross is the author of If a Storm, winner of the Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry. She will read in the Poets with New Books Reading at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem (May 3, 2:45 PM). She currently has poetry in Tupelo Quarterly.