Cutter Streeby on Exploring the Intersection of Visual Arts and Poetry [INTERVIEW]

Cutter Streeby holds an MFA from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Literature from King’s College, London. He has delivered many lectures on poetics, translation, and translation theory, including “Navigating Lèse- Majesté: Translating the Poetry of Zakariya Amataya” at universities across Thailand and Malaysia while teaching at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Publications, translations, and anthologies include The White Review, Anthology of South East Asian Poets (Vagabond Press), Chicago Quarterly Review, Chestnut Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cincinnati Review and World Literature Today among others. He successfully exited his first marketing startup in 2020.

Below are excerpts from the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast interview with Cutter Streeby (the full interview, including Cutter reading selections from Tension : Rupture (Tupelo Press), is available on the podcast.

Cutter Streeby on Exploring the Intersection of Visual Arts and Poetry Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast

James Morehead: The introduction to Tension : Rupture paints a fascinating portrait of how this unique intersection of art and poetry came to be; to provide context for listeners, share a few details about your book and working with artist Michael Haight.

Cutter Streeby: “Haight and I went to university together at UC Riverside and he was always an ultra creative person. There’s such great synergy when you’re passionate about something and find somebody who is passionate as well. You can do some really cool stuff if you stick with it long enough. This book, in some iteration or other, has been in process for probably over five years, but we really had time to sit down and get something together when the pandemic hit.”

James: What did you learn from the paintings created in response to your poetry, and how did those responses change or evolve the poems you wrote as the concept of the book expanded?

Cutter: “Originally, we started it as a traditional ekphrastic piece, except he was going to take my poems and paint responses to them. I sent him my whole collection, with about 90 unpublished poems in there, and he picked his own vein of stuff that he liked. He would do things in his own way and send the images back to me. I ended up liking his way better, so I started to change my poems to fit his paintings. It became like a reverb chamber where we would bounce ideas off each other and this synergy formed. This project started as an idea for an ekphrastic collection and morphed into this back-and-forth thing which was super fun to do.”

James: The prose poetry form you’ve employed for many of the poems, which in many cases blends text from other sources, is complex and (in a good way) challenging. What was your process for developing this form?

Cutter: “That form was my favorite part of this project. I wrote the poems to be a block of text because when you have all these line breaks and traditional forms of a sonnet, it comes with a lot of connotations. For example, the last word is really important in how it ties to the first word in the line break. I wanted each word to be weighted the same so that when somebody else came to that block, they could put their own connotations on it a lot easier. This poetry is hard to write, but I wrote it to be hard to write because I like hard poems. I wrote this book for me – this is how I like to read. I like poems where you can read it and you can get some piece of information from it, but then when you come back to it and change your inflection points and the way that you read the poem, it’s a whole different ball game.”

James: Distinct from other poems in this collection, the three “Detail” poems, and Detail: Heliotrope in particular, are more sparse, playing with empty space, including lines such as:

“[we]           a genre     of

                live light

                raise braille

    [our] names

                                 candled

               votive”

These poems made me think of the artist and the poet, both starting with a blank canvas or paper. How do your poems tend to emerge from that empty space?

Streeby: “This actually came up while we were writing the book because Haight wanted to display his visual images. As with “Details”, they are not like normal art historian books where you have a full image on one page and on the opposite page you have something zoomed in a little bit. He sent me examples of those and I wanted to do that with my poems. The poem Heliotrope is the darkest poem in the book. It’s about a toxic relationship with somebody that you’re involved with, but also that you have with yourself. I wrote the “Detail” piece with all that blank space as a subtraction poem. I took out all of the positive things that can happen on the other side. Once you get out of that toxicity and self-hatred and make it through that type of internal transformation, there’s still really beautiful stuff there which is on the opposite page. It’s just how you phrase and frame it.”

James: In several interviews I’ve asked about the role research can play in crafting a poem. In Ansia : Reach the endnotes include references to a Phenomenology of Perception, one of multiple poems with notes that invite the reader to dig deeper. What was your approach to researching and incorporating themes and ideas from other sources?

Cutter: “That’s my personal favorite poem in the book. It came from so many different sources, I have two master’s degrees, so I’ve been researching and lecturing forever. It was natural for me to fit those illusions and asides in there. I was writing for my own storyline and I wanted those Illusions to support that storyline. When I sat down to write, I wanted to see where this illusion took me. With the Phenomenology of Perception, I happened to be deeply into Heidegger at that time. This poem was written after I listened to 30 hours of Heidegger lectures from Hubert Dreyfus on YouTube. While I was doing my normal job, I had that on in the background and would take notes on a little yellow notepad. I went back to my notepad and tried to make use of anything I wrote down that sounded cool.” 

James: Many of your poems are strings of phrases, with single and double colons serving the purpose of line breaks and stanza breaks. White Elephant is just one example with lines such as:

“how many times have I been here : pink myrtle shedding leaves like hands : your hand on the test in the breast pocket of a blue scrub top : we have to talk : just stop : I can’t ::”

This approach reminded me of José Saramago’s Blindness, where there are few visual cues to guide the reader. I found your approach in Tension : Rupture fascinating, and like with Blindness required even more focus on each word and phrase. What led you to this form for so many of the poems in this collection? 

Cutter: “With the use of colons and things like that, I wanted to compress the form into a box and ensure each word had equal importance without any line breaks or associated forms. But, I also wanted to make sure I maintained my rhythm. Haight and I first met over music. He had a band in college and I played drums, so that type of musicality is why I love poetry. In these poems, I had to figure out a way to not smash them all together and still give meter in there. So, I used colons the same way you would use a music rest. One is weighted at a quarter note rest to the half and three is a full break. When I started using colons like that, It freed up my brain. When you start writing a poem and you get stuck in whatever phrase that you’re in, the poem just tends to run on. But I realized if I just did two colons, then I was free to switch perspectives or switch metaphors or switch rhythms. It’s the same thing with the italicized portions. The italicized portions came four poems in, and so I went back and revised my entire collection because it was amazing. The italicized portions allow me to have a different voice enter the poem. If I can break that by double colon layout for rhythm, it also allows my reader to understand this is another person speaking.”

James: The introduction to Tension : Rupture details how both you, and your collaborator, have battled addiction. The series of numbered paintings all share the title “Alcoholic Crepuscule”. You write about the interchange of paintings and poems, of “details”, as you expanded the book beyond ekphrasis. What did you learn about yourself through the creation of this book?

Cutter: “I learned that I don’t like to have a set layout. When I proposed the book to Haight, I was like, here’s some poems and you paint the pictures. He didn’t want to do it that way and offered another way to go about it, and that interplay between us is what I really liked. That collaborative, adaptive workflow is what I really liked about this project as it gives the project and creative process so much more freedom. I have more creative space when I’m in a collaborative mood as long as the person that I’m working with is as passionate as me about the project. Haight was a perfect example for this book. In college, we were both running around every night going to a party or just doing dumb kid stuff. Later though, Haight made the move to lecture in South Korea and he became a Buddhist. I lectured in Thailand for four years and also made a transition in terms of my headspace. We can both look back at what we came through and that’s why I have the “detail” poems that remove the negative aspects because that’s looking backwards for me. I’m not trying to change the past and the dumb things I did, but I can look back and realize what I learned and now I can make it beautiful for whatever I do next.”

James: What advice do you have for poets who are inspired by Tension : Rupture to work with an artist? What approach brings the most out of pairing visual with literary art?

Cutter: “This is where the marketing CEO in me kicks in, because I started these projects from my Instagram account. For one of the first poems that I did in 2016, Haight sent me a picture of some random artistic shot of moths or something. I decided I was going to treat that as a prompt. And that’s where this whole thing started.

“I then turned my whole social media into collaborations between visual artists. It doesn’t have to be this giant hard project that you set up for and plan for – it can be fun. If it’s not fun, try a different image. Poetry itself is completely textual, so we need visual representation in today’s age and on social media, to get publication contracts or whatever it is that we want as poets. If you can figure out a way to integrate your poetry with images, either you can be the visual artist or you can work with another person, it gives the outside world a way into your work on the page. Because Tension : Rupture is a chapbook with only 19 poems, but because it is a collaboration, the chapbook has the depth of a full collection. So develop relationships online with visual artists and start those collaborative conversations. You never know where it’s going to go, but it’s a lot of fun and gives you a new spin on your work.”

Cutter Streeby

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