Friday, March 11, 2011

Trauma Gender and Identity

Chair Style

Did that grab your attention? Probably moreso than if I had entitled this post “Truth and Beauty” and begun with a less provocative photograph, which I must admit was originally taken purely in a spirit of wit and whimsy, not sociopolitical or aesthetic agenda, and is used here to make a point about the loss of the former and the surfeit of the latter in today's art world.

I am not sorry, and in fact I feel quite grateful and fortunate to be able to say that there has actually been not much remarkable trauma in my life, aside from the usual grievous disappointments and losses that happen when you are a feeling thinking striving human being in close contact with other human beings who have as much power to make as break you. Gender and identity issues I have none. I was born a woman, and live and love as a woman, and have never suffered for being one except for the most basic and mild discomforts and inequities biology and society can inflict here in the 21st century in my mostly enlightened peaceful and prosperous part of the country. And my identity may be a work in progress, but one for which a strong foundation and general structure have been in place for a long time and any changes have been along the lines of surface detail and not a rebuilding from the ground up as result of utter devastation due to forces from without or within.

 Mask and Mirror

Truth and beauty, on the other hand, are very much lifelong influences and concerns of mine, which would seem to be a good place to be, unless of course you are an artist seeking a place in today’s art scene. It’s the same in the literary scene, and why I left it decades ago to write my poetry in isolation, even if it meant giving up any hope for recognition or reward. As artists we are always told to create from the heart, know who we are, do what we love, and the success will follow. Unless of course if what you lovingly create from who you are doesn’t fit the current trends of what is considered worthwhile, noteworthy and marketable art.

 You Are Not Alone

When I first started writing poetry, I did so with a vast background as a reader first, a writer second. This has nothing to do with formal education. I learned as much on my own, if not more, than I did in any classroom, and support both ways of acquiring knowledge. However it happened, I developed what I didn’t even yet dare call out loud my “craft” by absorbing countless examples from the pens of the past, as well as plying my own pen daily in journals, letters to friends and writing assignments in school. I approached every piece of writing, voluntary or required, as if it were a “study from life,” a careful, considered exercise in rendering what was before my eyes in a way that was systematic and calculated at first, and then somehow blossomed with a beauty and spontaneity all its own. This is what is called “finding your voice.”  I am of the old school way of thinking, that to find your voice, you have to first listen to and learn about everyone else’s voice, and then practice, practice, practice. There are no shortcuts. You have to master your craft in order to transcend it. And if you are lucky, you never do reach the point where there is no more to learn.

 One on One

In my twenties and thirties I wrote exclusively in form, not knowing that this traditional approach to poetry was meantime being reviled and rejected by writing programs nationwide. I especially liked sonnets and sestinas, and the more obscure and complex forms that required the kind of facility with rhyme, meter and word placement that could create a final product that involved almost mathematical precision in its formulation yet sounded as if it emerged with ease and couldn’t have been written in any other words. To me, that was far more challenging than writing freestyle. It was as if the muses were saying “here is a small box, here are the rules you must abide by to fill it, and yet you must still be utterly truthful, and utterly beautiful and natural in your expression. You must create a tiny perfect miniature, and it must look, feel and sound like the whole world on its first day looking at itself in a mirror.” I had such reverence for language and what it could do in the right hands, it seemed obvious to me that the way to get language to flow freely for you was to work it, with respect, discipline and passion, the way you train your body for an athletic event. The way a musician gets to know their instrument. You don’t just show up at the Olympics or Carnegie Hall with good intentions and a clever marketing strategy. You have to log hours of what may seem old fashioned, routine and repetitive work in order to even qualify for the Big Event during which you can finally let it all fly. You have to be flexible, open and humble, but in the end you had better know what you’re doing and be able to do it.


Then at age 40, I went to graduate school, where they treated my formalism like a bad habit or personal defect to be cured, removed, despised. I guess this ironically may qualify as my one instance of being unjustly persecuted and traumatized simply for who I am!  I presented a well-crafted, intelligent and heartfelt sonnet in a workshop, in which the poem discussed before mine consisted of what appeared to be random notes written on matchbooks, Post-its and cocktail napkins, provoking a lengthy discussion – and when my turn arrived all I received in response from my professor was the question “for God’s sake why are you writing in form??” My stunned reply, as I choked back tears, was “that’s just how it comes out!” And theirs, “well, stop it.” The rest of the group had nothing else to offer, as if the screen of my formalist approach blinded them utterly to what the poem actually contained. Only one of my fellow students confessed (nobly but sheepishly) to ever having written in form or admired those who did. I let the vocal majority convince me that I was being held back by deep unrecognized fear and not simply following an alternate personal style that suited and pleased me. They believed strongly that behind all these tidy little old fashioned songs of longing and despair was some big ugly contemporary truth that needed to be vomited out chaotically onto the page in all its raw power to be valid. They could not be bothered to look for my truth, right where it was, living and breathing within the timeless order of every line.

 You Caught Me

Two years into my graduate program, I was writing in free verse. I missed rhyme and meter and tried to hide them in the middle of lines when and where I could. I was like a recovering formalist addict, careful not to discuss openly my love of Shakespeare, sneaking a couplet here and there and hoping not to be discovered. I had to earn my “lapses” by writing whole poems without any of the complex wordplay and music I craved, and then ending with one beautiful flourish they let me get away with.  I may have stopped writing like Edna St. Vincent Millay, but I also never wrote one successful deconstructed poem about trauma, gender or identity issues. Don’t get me wrong, my time at this program was some of the happiest I’ve known, I left it stronger as a person and feeling more connected to other writers, and I would recommend it to anyone. But in my particular case, strictly in terms of my poetic output, it took me a long time to find my true voice again. Part of me understood that in any of the arts the learning process involves letting go of old techniques and beliefs and subject matter that may be limiting your potential and trying some new things to stretch some different muscles.  But I often wondered, what if this is what I do best, who I am, and letting go to embrace something I lack is the wrong thing to do when I should be perfecting what I’ve already got? I also wondered, if I am willing (read: compelled) to abandon my style and technique to learn yours for the sake of growth, why is it that none of you freestylers is willing or compelled to learn mine on the same terms? Especially when mine happened to be favored by the greatest poets of the past few centuries? 

 Go No Further

I will admit that there were benefits from my academic education. I have an advanced degree I will never use except to impress people who are impressed by such things. I have learned how to stand my ground in spite of someone looking me in the eye and telling me “no one will ever publish or read you if you write this way. Persist and you condemn yourself to obscurity.” And bear in mind the writing program I attended was one of the most open-minded and encouraging of individuality and going against trends at the time! Rest assured, in the years since graduating, obscurity has worked out a lot better for me than putting my name on what I consider to be lazy, unskilled writing, indistinguishable from everything else coming out of the majority of writing programs, in which the power of the work is based on manipulating the reader into thinking here is something raw and real and troubling going on, which they don’t quite understand and makes them feel a little weird, so it must be GOOD, right? And as long as university faculty continued to train their students in the same style as got them their own publications and jobs, and accepted no other new way, even if it was the old way returning from the past to be recognized, and these students went out into the world to keep perpetuating that process, the literary world was not and is not one I want to be part of.

Reflecting Back

In the arts, there are pioneers and guardians. We need the ones who leave behind the past to explore new territory; we also need the ones who secure the old outposts. But something strange has happened in the ways we educate our up and coming creative souls. The academy more and more is favoring a rejection of tradition outright, tradition sometimes meaning anything that happened more than 30 years ago, and pushing its students toward art and writing that are more based on the market they will be facing after graduation than a solid background in their craft, as if that were a waste of time, instead of an invaluable enrichment and basis for any direction they later take. Meantime anyone seeking a more traditional approach is limited to elite groups whose approach may include old techniques but can also exclude modern sensibilities. So who are today’s rebels?  It would seem there is no room for those who seek to innovate within tradition, stuck as they are between the true diehards who never let go of their rigid ideals, and the newcomers who are equally limited by their inability to look anywhere but forward.

   Eye of the Beholder

But arts always follow the cycle of experimental to classic, revolutionary to refined. Once you go too far, and art becomes a matter of who can most efficiently shock and disgust and virtually manipulate the work and the audience from day to day and trend to trend, when the attention-deficit-friendly approach of making immediate and easy effectiveness and marketability of content trump beauty and integrity of presentation is infecting all the arts, you can only come back again to the old values. For painting it’s the figure study from life, (which I was recently horrified to learn is nearly absent from art school training today!) for the poet, working with traditional rhyme and meter.  As I emerge from my private studies as a photographer into the public realities of working in this medium, I will likely rub up against the same conflict of values. Already there seems to be an encouraging sense of rebellion against technology in the resurgence of and return to the use of film. I would love to think this is a genuine respect for the potential of the medium and not just another trend everyone is eager to be identified with until the next one comes along.    

 Streak of Light in the Darkness

Though I cannot imagine the foundation and future of painting without renderings of the human form, as a photographer I don’t do many human portraits. If and when I do, it will be on my own terms and in my own style, most likely studies resembling those of the great black and white film photographers who through lighting and dramatic angles turned human form into landscape or architecture. This is how my eye works and what my heart desires when I put a camera in front of me, and what the masters who have taught me by example have done that most stirs my soul. I would rather spend my whole unsung life capturing on film or in writing one effect of light or shadow on a stone or in the heart, until it becomes the whole history of human feeling and thought, than follow trends and create on demand the kind of works that guarantee grants and solo shows at prestigious modern art museums.  If that is what it takes, those who work that way are welcome to it. It is not my way. And neither way needs to be wrong to make the other right. Unfortunately wallets and minds rarely open for more than one current accepted way at a time, and it takes a lot of time to change that.

Wait and Watch
For my part, I do not believe that knowledge of the works and a facility with the techniques of the masters indicates or encourages a lack of imagination or guts or relevance or the potential impact or value of the finished work or works to come. It does however now unfortunately ensure a challenge for anyone brave enough to follow this path in today’s art climate in any medium. I do believe, whatever the current trends are, there are other old school rebels out there who think and feel the same as I do, and eagerly await the next turning of the tide, or will turn the goddamn tide themselves. To them I say: stay strong, stay beautiful, stay true. 

This post is dedicated to Damon and the Boston Figurative Art Center. Aux barricades!


  1. Wonderful narration of your life and thoughts ...
    Have a good weekend.

  2. How exciting! A Two Tigers post. And as is usual I LOVED it. And so much of it was very, very close to what I feel and believe. A lot, though not by any means all, of free form verse strikes me as being similar to the conversations of children - who do their thinking aloud without analysing it or refining it in order to present it at its truest. And yes for me truth is beauty. Thank you.

  3. Thank you Wong! Always good to see you here, my friend. You have a good weekend too!

  4. EC - I'm glad you embrace these posts with such sympathy and enthusiasm! It really means a lot to me. What you say of free verse is true for me as well. Some of my favorite poems are free verse. I only dismiss that portion in which the writer has not done their best to craft the language and refine the meaning and thus deliver something in such a way that truth is beauty and vice versa! Thanks for your comment.

  5. Love the chair photo essay. I agree about form. I love iambic pentameter and well placed rhymes. This fellow blogger writes that way a lot. Maybe you've visited his blog. Click here for David King's blog

  6. Hi Kass - thanks for your comment, I truly appreciate your kindness and support. Special thanks for directing me to David's excellent blog, heretofore unknown to me! Go well.

  7. I should have recommended this blog to you before. Her writing, like yours, is honed down to elegant accuracy. Perhaps you would like to look at it sometime at

  8. Many thanks, EC - I am already a follower and a great fan of Sixth in Line! It is definitely not for the Attention Deficit set! Sometimes the comments she inspires are better written and more considered than some entire blogs out there! It makes me happy that you even include me and her in the same sentence. Perhaps other lovers of crisp thoughtful prose will check her out as well.

  9. Greetings Skizo! Thank you for you comment, my friend. Have a great weekend!

  10. Bravo! I like how entwine photos and words together.

  11. Oh dear, Two tigers. What a passionate post. I read it before dinner and now after dinner, I wonder what more I can add.

    I have no objections to form myself, but I have never been able to master it, try as I might. I gave up writing poetry as a consequence of inability with rhythm and rhyme and decided to stick to prose.

    I wish I could write as you describe, but I cannot. Maybe if we could master both forms, as I suspect you do, we will have the best of both worlds.

  12. Gabriella....I don't know how much more I could agree with you, except to say....we are, as we already know, cut from the same cloth. I am forwarding this to Johntimothy...who is made as we are and who struggles with the balance that is required as part of teaching in the art academy....embracing the new, but holding firmly to the traditions that can and must inform the present and the future. Excellent post...bravo, my friend!!

  13. Once again Gabriella I love listening to your words. No matter how they are "put". Thank you.

  14. TB - I'm so glad you like how the images and words work together! Have a great week!

  15. Elisabeth - it means a lot receiving compliments from you! As you've read by now, I love your prose! Be well.

  16. Patti - I'm so happy to be cut from the same cloth as you! I can think of none better. I hope Johntimothy enjoys this post as well and that you both have a great week!

  17. Luis, my friend, I am always happy to see your comments here and know you enjoy my words and works! Stay well.

  18. Hi G - sorry for the absences until now. I first of all loved that first photo and the other chair ones - they are brilliant and say so much so simply; yet so challenginglly (not a real word I suspect!). I also enjoyed the journey the post took and then had it all reinforced at dinner on Saturday by a highly successful artist friend who said that's the job of art schools or the like - to make you all the same and make you worried your visions, your world, your work isn't suitable somehow. I love your strength and resistance. There is something truly fine and clever about refining and getting everything to fit; not a word more or less. Really enjoyable - thanks!

  19. Gabriella this is really just wonderfull, the form of your foto and the considerations you made are so good my dear friend, I'm thinking about your words, thank you!!

  20. A very demanding post..


  21. Fiona, not to worry about absence - I myself have much catching up to do with posts today after a busy weekend! I'm glad you liked the photos - the first time I've done a staged shoot using "models" rather than just capture whatever comes my way. I think there will be more good results to come. I am sorry to learn that my bleak vision of the art world holds true - this is one of those instances when I'd LOVE to be wrong! Have a great week.

  22. Laura - many thanks, my dear friend, for your kind comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the photos and the words.

  23. Monika - I love when you visit me here! I hope this post was demanding in a GOOD way? Of course, I would rather be demanding, than be boring! Have a great week, my dear.

  24. Right, my dear!
    In a VERY GOOD WAY...
    And everything else but boring!


  25. Monika, thank you for clarifying! You know, sometimes to be a "demanding" woman is not seen as such a positive thing! But I knew you would understand. All the best to you.

  26. Dear Gabriella, I visited(through your photos) your new studio, what a space, may it inspire you!
    I longed for a good pizza(lots of olives please) and ....I read this post,you are right there are guardians and pioneers, I believe in a good base,skills you have to learn, studying the past,the old masters,their techniques,there is a wealth of knowledge and information there already.
    Then let it leads you to new ways, your own ways,but built on a good foundation, that's how it works for me.You can't make good work you think one expects you to make, you can only make good work when it comes from within,when you become one with it.
    Once again your post made me think and ask questions.
    The chair photos are intriguing,beautiful emotional.
    xx renilde

  27. Dear Gabriella,
    what a wonderful post again. The photo's are very clear and beautiful!!!
    I so can relate to you what you write about form. I feel the same way. In art it's the same i suppose.I was on artschool at the time figurative art was not done. Fortunately there were some professors who strenghten my way of expressing myself, so i didn't doubting my art, who i am, where i come from. Or doubting it that much more to say.
    There was a very talented guy in my class, who painted 'the old way'. Very strong and good paintings. He was very shy, so he didn't know how to defend the critics of too old fashioned, too figurative etc etc... He left school after 2 years of struggling. :-s And there was this goodlooking outgoing guy, who really had good ideas, but was too lazy sometimes. For example he took a chair, hung his leather jacket upon it, placed a stone under the chair and started to talk about the concept. And got away with it. Ofcourse it was a talent also, but what bothered me was the indifference of him, laughing that he got away with it so easy just because of his charms. On the net nowadays i see lots of great art, very good as a matter of fact, technically also very skilled, but what struck me is that most of it is the same. How good maybe, it's all the same. Look at exhibitions of students in their last year, all over the world. Then you see what's the norm nowadays. Someone wrote me a mail about how to change the colors in my paintings to make them more spicy. :-s Just like you, i go my own way, i couldn't create otherwise then with my heart and soul.

    Dear friend, your writings are so strong, yes demanding as Monika wrote, your words linger, keeps me thinking,i learn from it too. And i mostly feel the same way, smiling that you write so beautiful what i feel but cannot express. More people feel this way i can see reading the comments. That's your strenght and the beauty of your work; expressing life and feelings that touch heart and soul. :-)

    Oh yes and today i received a nice book of beautiful poems in the mail. I'll write about it soon.

    Kisses, beautiful one!

  28. Oh yes and i forgot to mention;
    i think your photographs are human portraits. The chairs, jacket, masks are so alive, such personalities. :-)

  29. Renilde - I am so happy you agree about needing a strong foundation - I can see it in your work, and yet what you do is so unique and original, so there is the living proof! It is ironic that the schools that discourage copying the masters and instead seeking new ways to avoid repetition end up producing young artists whose work all looks the same! I'm glad you enjoyed this post, my dear friend.

  30. Monica - When I wrote this post I was worried people would react badly and say what does she know? she is a writer, and has never been to art school, and knows nothing of the art world today! It is bittersweet to be hearing people who are working in the arts and have firsthand knowledge of the art school system tell me I am right about just how bad it is, how suffocating to the genuine individual talents out there, and encouraging to those who, as you say, are lazy and smug and "getting away with it." I am so happy you go your own way! Like I said to Renilde, in your work one can see the foundation of a respect for past centuries of art, but it is still entirely your own style and vision making everything new! Perhaps only the strongest souls can study the past and absorb and transform it? Leave it to the weak ones to follow trends and take the easy way out...

    Oh and thank you so much for the comment on my photos - again, I prefer the challenge of bringing objects to life than actually photographing live subjects! I sat many hours in the studio with those objects trying to "make friends" with them, and when the time came to shoot, they just fell into place like perfect professional models!

  31. Great post, great photos!!!! Love the personalities you put in the chair pictures!!
    Never settle Gabriella!

  32. Ha, Scott, I should have known you would approve of making use of chairs for an unusual artistic expression! And I have no intention of settling! I am a realist when it comes to the corrupt and dispiriting agenda of the art world, but I am still an idealist when it comes to believing that you can make your own way, against, around, or if need be straight up and over the heads of whatever the current trends may be! There are definitely enough people out there who still value good well-made and well-considered work, in all genres and media - it's up to us to keep doing what we do, so when we do find (or make!)our particular audience, it will be an honest and fulfilling connection for all concerned. All the best to you!

  33. Excellent post Gabriella. It is always a pleasure to read your posts and I just loved the photos.Great Work! Have a wonderful week:)

  34. Greetings Narayan! Hope all is well with you. I'm glad you liked the words and images I've offered. I am always glad to see your kind comments here!

  35. I am drawn to form, not as its slave--but when poetry loses its music it loses my attention. In fact all writing should make sense to the ear even before it makes any other kind of sense.

  36. Welcome, Murr! I have just been over at your blog and I would say that you know from good writing! Thanks for your comment here - I think I drew quite a few lovers of form out of the woodwork with this one. As you say - it's not just about an appeal to the mind or eye - the ear too must be engaged. After all, poetry (and history) were once exclusively oral traditions, and if it hadn't sounded good, no one would have remembered it! Maybe that's what's going on nowadays - no one wants to be saddled with anything even remotely memorable, so the flimsier the better. Use, dispose, move on. Have a great weekend, MB, and thanks for stopping by!