by Ann B. Dobie
The artist for the 2016 Festival is Kelly Guidry, a sculptor known for his bold, colorful pieces. Invited to create a piece that suggests the power that stories and poems have for readers, he designed a figure that projects confidence and vitality. The body is made of carved cedar that has been shaped with chainsaw, grinders, and sanders, wood-burned and painted with oil paint. Its color palette was drawn from the colors of the state flag, with the whole mounted on a base metal framework. Asked how he arrived at the image that so compellingly suggests the soaring experience books can provide, Guidry says that he set out to tell the story of the Festival. He began by brainstorming a list of relevant images, concepts and phrases, then found among them the strongest symbols. In the end the figure became a modernized version of an angel, wings outspread, or perhaps the iconic “librarian.” Today the final piece is fondly referred to as “Libby.”
Libby carries attributes that are typical of Guidry’s artistry. He often works in metal, copper and wood. Explaining his preferences, Guidry says that he enjoys using the tools that manipulate these materials to produce “a sturdy product, with strong, clean connections.” Such materials are appropriate for the “modern primitive” style he pursues, the result of his attraction to the “raw honesty” and “direct depictions” of primitive cultures. His work carries some subtle suggestions of meaning as well through symbols that are sometimes created intentionally, sometimes unconsciously. In the case of Libby, he explains, “the ‘halo’ of interlocking cogs represents the turning gears of thought, and the keys of knowledge hang by her side.” Other images suggest “cherished old leather-bound books, crafted with every bit of care and attention to detail as the writings that they hold.”
The idea to etch a written text on the outstretched copper wings of the sculpture came as the figure began to take shape. Enter Darrell Bourque, the 2015 Louisiana Writer awardee and former Louisiana poet laureate, who says he was asked to create a prose poem that focused on the “transformative nature of books in culture, in civilization.” And whatever he wrote had to fit on Libby’s wings. The result is “Words, A Poem.”
Bourque was not new to taking a piece of art as his starting point, a practice that produces what is known as ekphrastic poetry. He often uses visual stimuli to feed his creativity. As he points out, “Responding to another work of art is a way of entering into a conversation with that artist we are looking at, having a larger-than-personal experience; it is often the only possible conversation about how art is always a collaboration of word and idea, experience and vision. It is, for me, an act of generosity and an act of gratitude.” An ekphrastic poem is also attractive, says Bourque, because it recognizes the mutability of the human condition by asking the reader to re-experience something that was stilled in an earlier time. It “re-shapes the original and asks us to re-think it, to re-purpose beauty, truth, history, experience.”
The prose poem, however, is not as frequently found in Bourque’s writings as are verse forms. The differences between the two, he points out, lie partly in the rhythmic elements. Whereas the rhythms of the verse form are found principally in the line, in the prose poem they are found in the sentences of the composition. Both forms, however, rely on imagery and other imaginative elements that contribute to making a poetic response to experience and history and observation.
In many ways the poem emblazoned on Libby’s wings fits easily into the body of Bourque’s work as it speaks of how we try to explain the human experience. It is an articulation of where we stand in relation to the world around us. As Bourque explains it, the poem is “a document of my experience as the personal becomes part of the larger human experience.”
— Ann B. Dobie
Ann Dobie will moderate a conversation with Darrell Bourque and Kelly Guidry at the Louisiana Book Festival on October 29, 2016 at 4 p.m., State Capitol, House Committee Room 5.
WORDS, A POEM
I want to hear Adam naming things, in his own tongue. I want to hear elephant and lion taking flight for the first time from his throat, or wherever in his body they came from. I want to hear that name Jacob heard in the language of angels, the Israel in the mind of someone who climbed down from heaven to put that name in Jacob’s head. I want to hear Nina Simone tell us in language of the heart, and in French too, how Eunice Waymon turns into Nina Simone. I want her to put her spell on us. I want to hear that creation story about crawfish and earth mound unlaced on the tongue of a Chitamacha elder. I want to hear Mississippi River in Muscogean. I want to hear how the Mediterranean became the center of the world from some old Greek, or Anatolian, or some Titan or Olympian. I want to hear the Gilgamesh story in a language I have never heard before. I want to know what slave is and how it shapes itself on the tongue of some griot in Senegal. I want to hear the words in thermals, how crows speak or cranes or loggerhead shrikes, words that open the locks of shackles, the word that holds us up and lets us go at the same time, words that pull us over thresholds in our own houses, words that hollow our bones. Paraclete or Jibrayil or Chagall or Nana inside Niki de Saint Phalle, or Giotto, or how Van Gogh told his angels to fly to Melrose to live with Clementine Hunter. My granddaughter Victoria takes the red-eye every night in her study to study how house and family can mean almost the same thing in Mandarin, to study lily and ancestor and how words close to something like angel in Mandarin might hide under other words and other signs, how language is a flight from one word to another, how sentences are made of those kinds of flying words, how stories are filled with the hum of bees telling us who we are, how to get to China, how to get to Malaysia, how to get to how we got here in the first place in the stories we keep finding inside the words set down inside us before we ever knew we could fly with them and in them.
March 4, 2016
For Center for the Book, Louisiana Book Festival, Jim Davis