PRINT November 1984

The Vanquished

The Vanquished

A deeper sun
saying this mirth, this imperfect grappling
with underpinnings.
Toothless, smiling: a rind.
Or, organized never again to predict,
the most sequestered is
aroused, and so shown to be explicit
after all. Summoned from the inequalities
of daring, ourselves, exampling,
manage to find our way to the well
where unsafe foothills
and insurmountable calligraphies
rinse upward.

We search for apt signatures
where they aren’t, the names
bathed out of reach
as when invention immerses fact.
I mean the way she hurried to meet him
and was almost too late, as
I hurry and am too late
because here it is
falling across without benediction
or wanly imagined, as in these jars
lovely with dry things. After a while
the seasons, turning, twitch,
no longer sedated, nor expectant,
uneasily seeded.

Ann Lauterbach

IT ALL STARTED AT THE High School of Music and Art, here in New York, where I majored in painting. I wrote poetry, but painting gave me the most pleasure. Then when I went to college my painting dwindled away. because somehow I got it in my head that it was more interesting to be a poet. After college I went to Columbia on a fellowship and found that graduate school was based on fact-finding. I hated the male domination, the hero-worshipping of Lionel Trilling, the competition. the fact that reading and writing became a kind of drudgery. The whole experience was a disaster.

So after graduating I went to Ireland to write poetry. I did that and of course nearly starved. Then I moved to England and got a job at the publishing house Thames & Hudson where I subedited some books and felt constrained, felt that this job would take away from my writing. Luckily, I met someone who had been hired by a Milan publisher to edit a series in English on 20th-century art. They already had the plates from the Italian edition, but new texts had to be written. We were to find the writers. After that fell apart I got a job at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. I stayed on for seven years.

I was hired to run the publicity department and literature program simultaneously. Because I did the publicity for everything, I also wrote the “Eventsheet,” for which I had to describe each exhibition. The most important for me was “When Attitudes Become Form” [1969]. It was my first introduction to Conceptual art, and I was completely baffled. But despite my negative feelings I had to write a piece on it. So I interviewed Carl Andre, Mel Bochner, Barry Flanagan, and others who came over for the exhibition. As I became more and more involved with the exhibition, I began to realize the compatibility of the art and poetry worlds. It wasn’t until I returned to America that I discovered how it was all tied together in New York. Anyway, this confluence of separate places in my life was dramatized even more in 1972 when I invited John Ashbery to read at the Institute. As many artists as poets showed up to hear him. Of course, in England poets are more respected than they are here. There’s a better balance.

Finally, I came back to New York to stay in 1973, waited on tables at the Broome Street Bar, and started all over. I did a couple of reviews for the Soho Weekly News. If I had been a little more sure of myself, I would have tried to write more criticism. But I had been away so long; and my generation had already turned 30. As a poet, I felt more furtive here. While I was trying to get my feet on the ground I met Max Protetch at the Broome Street Bar, and we talked. After we talked a few more times, he called me up and asked me to be the director of his gallery, which I was from 1976 to ’78. After I left that job I began writing criticism again.When I first got back here, a friend of mine in England, Suzi Gablik, had introduced me to the editor of Art in America, Betsy Baker. I got in touch with her, and started publishing criticism again. But then because of money problems I went back to work for a gallery. Right now, I’m working at the Washburn Gallery on Greene Street. It may last forever, it may not.

I’m sure painting has affected my poems. The musicality of the language comes in almost as a secondary consideration. Until recently I have attempted to state the world through a strong visual configuration, to match the inner vision with an outer one. In this regard I’m an expressionistic poet. The paintings I did in high school were abstracted landscapes: and certainly my poems can be seen as that. I’ve always been interested in light as a signifier of time. Visual elements such as these are in my poems almost to a fault. In fact. I’d like to begin undoing the strong visual configurations so often present in my poems.

I’ve never been interested in description, in the fiction of verbally reproducing the visual. My poems have much more to do with finding an insight in the visual that will lead to an inner state. And that’s the kind of painting I respond to most—paintings that seem to come from some inner place, that are contemplative and sensual. I like work that grapples with metaphysics, which I suppose makes me dangerously literary in the way I look at things. But l love information in painting. Its abjectness is what sets up the dialogue. I’ve written poems out of an involvement with paintings by Robert Ryman, Tom Nozkowski, and Louisa Chase. I wrote “The Vanquished” against Bill Jensen’s painting of the same name, using "my response to the visual information in the painting to propel the poem’s inner narrative.

Criticism is focused: it involves ways of thinking that I don’t necessarily use in poetry. Poetry—my poems, anyway—tends to swirl around a subject for a long time before finding it. The subject emerges in the writing, while in critic ism you already have a subject. I can come to it quicker. Prose is capacious: and writing about art forces me to expand upon an experience. Poetry, however, works by contract ion. I think writing anything well helps other kinds of writing. I’m not sure how it does, but it does.

Ann Lauterbach, interviewed by John Yau.