October 11, 2011
The National Portrait Gallery’s historian David C. Ward is a biographer of Charles Willson Peale and has written extensively about such figures as Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway. He has curated exhibitions on Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, as well as last year’s controversial “Hide/Seek. Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Over the past two decades, however, he has occasionally turned from history to verse and has recently published a small volume of poetry entitled, Internal Difference, from Carcanet Press. “Ward’s carefully plotted chapbook describes American social spaces, past and present, and the links between them,” writes critic David Kinloch in the June/July issue of PN Review. In one poem, the historian amusingly offers a poet’s take on the imagined inner world of Andy Warhol, an artist attempting to escape the confines of his own accelerating celebrity.
In 1987, aged fifty-nine Andy Warhol bored
and played out in the modern life he made
(after the first lunch with Jackie O/there is no other)
faked his own death—routine gallbladder procedure:
gone awry—slipped quietly from the hospital
back into his mother’s house, his Pittsburgh boyhood
home. Wig gone, black suit and fancy glasses trashed,
he donned the clothes and life of a nondescript ordinary
working man, took a bakery assistant’s job making crullers
and cakes, introduced himself as Stosh from somewhere
vaguely somewhere else, and joined the local bowling
league. He learned to polka at the Legion Hall, amiably
fending off the local widows, and grew quietly old alone.
He cooked for one and after dinner would sit and watch
as the neighborhood wound down from dusk to night.
He developed a real fondness for baseball:
it was so slow.
Ward is currently at work on an upcoming exhibition entitled “Poetic Likeness,” scheduled to open at the Portrait Gallery in November of 2012. We asked Ward to discuss his multiple muses—poetry and history.
I started writing poetry in my late 30s, just over 20 years ago. I think at that time I needed a creative outlet that was different from my professional work as an historian who works in a large institution. Also, around that time I was starting to do more as an historian so feeling more creative in that may have made me open to the odd idea of taking up poetry. The immediate trigger was the death of Robert Penn Warren. I had never read his poetry so to pay tribute, I bought his Collected Poems and went through it and something in the way he wrote about America and American subjects clicked with me. I can remember thinking, “hmm. . .I should try this.” I batted out a poem called “On A Recently Discovered Casualty of the Battle of Antietam”—it’s very “Warren-ish”!—and it was published and since it would look lame if I only ever had one published poem, I had to keep writing. I also was lucky enough early on to develop a connection with a very good poet, editor, publisher, Michael Schmidt in England who has been very supportive of my work. I am self-taught as a poet but Michael has been an excellent tutor. And friend.
Where do you find inspiration?
Let me turn this question around: now that I’ve demonstrated to myself that I can get individual poems on random topics published, I’m trying to write poems around themes or subjects so that I can have a group of at least loosely linked work that will add up to something. I do find it helpful to set myself a topic and just make myself write on it. For instance, this year I’ve started writing about my family history, re-imagining it in a way that derives somewhat from Robert Lowell. I have some political poems going as well as some on art and artists—I had been resisting writing about art because it’s too close to my work at the Portrait Gallery, but that seems kind of foolishly self-denying. In general, I think my poems have tried to explore the disjunction between ideals or dreams and the reality of life: how choices or accidents ramify in unintentional or unseen ways and you end up somewhere that you didn’t expect to be. The challenge is to do that in a clear- eyed way and not to devolve into self-pity.
How and when and where do you write?
It’s kind of hit or miss, which I suppose is a sign of the non-professional poet. I’d like to be more disciplined and set aside a fixed time, especially on the weekends, to write poetry. But I don’t keep to that resolution, maybe because I need poetry to be creative play instead of the routine of work. Either that or I’m lazy. So topics and poems tend to show up rather randomly at rather random times. For instance, I wrote two political poems when I woke up in the middle of the night, suddenly thinking of opening lines, and how I could make a poem work from those starting points. Obviously something was working in my subconscious and jelled into realization. That tends to be how things go, although not usually at 2:30 a.m. The problem is that relying on your subconscious suddenly popping out a starting point, let alone a whole poem, is kind of chancy and I can go for a long time without writing anything. Once I get a “hook,” I can write a poem pretty quickly. I am trying to make myself revise and re-write more.
Do you draw any parallels between your day job as an historian scholar and your poetry?
Well, I think they are self-reinforcing in the sense that both involve intellectual application through the creative use of language. I should say that I also write a fair amount of literary criticism (actually, I’m a better critic than poet) and that work helps to bridge the two disciplines as well. I have certainly improved as an historian from writing poetry (and criticism)—a better writer, and I think more questioning and imaginative. Without being too hard on myself, though, I think that being a historian limits my poetry: I’m aware that my writing tends to be observational or distanced from its subject, like a historian objectifies a problem. (For instance, “Camouflage Self-Portrait” came out of my exhibit Hide/Seek and thinking about how Andy Warhol just seemed to disappear as his passing was so undramatic, and I came up with the conceit that he faked his death precisely because he was tired of all the drama.) Some of that distancing, I’m sure, derives from my upbringing and personal temperament, but regardless, I can’t merge my poetic voice with the subject in the way that Emerson suggested was necessary for the poet. I find it nearly impossible to write poems about emotions themselves, although I can show how emotions are acted out in behavior.
In the poem, “Angle of Deflection,” you write of the “ironic voice” that “works well for scholars,” what then is the poet’s voice?
As I suggested earlier, I think my poetic voice is overly ironic! That I retain the “scholar’s voice” in writing verse in a way that shapes my poetry in ways that can become restrictive in all sorts of ways. “Angle” was as much about me as it was about my father who was also an historian. But what I’ve tried to do as I’ve moved along is to develop a self-awareness about the way that I write, so that I can take what I think is a weakness and turn it into a strength. I am always going to be an historian first and my temperament will always tend toward the detached and skeptical—ironic, in both senses of the word. But I think there are a lot of interesting things to find in voicing the gap between self and subject. At least I hope so.
April 28, 2011
Friday, April 29 Poets & Painters
Celebrate National Poetry Month! Use the paintings at the museum to inspire your poetry. View the paintings and read poetry aloud, followed by a discussion of the artwork. Free. 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM. American Art Gallery. Madeline Andre and Arcynta Ali-Childs blogged about poets in the Smithsonian collections.
Saturday, April 30 Meet Andrew Young
Civil rights leader Andrew Young will discuss his experience working with Martin Luther King Jr., and his own role in American history. Young will also sign copies of his book Walk in My Shoes: Conversations between a Civil Rights Legend and His Godson on the Journey. Free. 2 PM. National Portrait Gallery. Related exhibition: “The Struggle for Justice” National Portrait Gallery
Sunday, May 1 Restoring the Kabul Museum
Learn about the ongoing restoration of the Kabul Museum, as explored in Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. This internationally touring exhibition, though currently not on view at a Smithsonian museum in DC, presents more than 200 objects thought to have been destroyed or stolen from the museum before they were recovered in Afghanistan in 2004. Deborah Klimburg-Salter will give her presentation, “Twice Buried, Twice Found: Reinventing the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul.” Free. 2 PM Freer Gallery of Art
April is National Poetry Month, so to honor the words and songs of famous poets, the Wednesday List is all about poetry. Scattered across the Smithsonian museums, here are a few of the most influential and famous poets you already know, as well as a few newcomers whose work you may want to get familiar with. (Posted in chronological order by their birth, not by relative awesomeness)
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)
Most famous for leading the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, Emerson’s more notable works include Nature, Self-Reliance and The Poet. Emerson, who spent his career lecturing and writing, published 10 collections of poems and essays and corresponded with other famed poets such as Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Daniel Chester French sculpture of Emerson is located in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
2. Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809-October 7, 1849)
Best known for his poem “The Raven,” Poe’s poems were often about death and mourning— dark subjects and imagery— compared with the optimism of the early culture in America at that time. Although “The Raven” became a popular sensation after it was published in The Evening Mirror in 1845, Poe died a poor man. But diehard Poe fans don’t have to wait another year to visit his grave on the anniversary of his death. Instead, see a portrait of the man in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
3. Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819-March 26, 1892)
Often called the “father of freeverse,” Whitman is most famous for his book Leaves of Grass. Though many viewed his work as obscene and profane at the time, Whitman is regarded by many as “America’s poet” for his ability to write in a uniquely American character. His portrait by John White Alexander is located in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
4. Celia Thaxter (June 29, 1835 – August 25, 1894)
Born in Portsmouth, New Hampsire in 1835, Thaxter became the hostess of her father’s hotel, the Appledore House, where she entertained and welcomed famed poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Sarah Orne Jewett. Her first poem called “Landlocked” was published during a 10-year period where she lived away from her beloved islands and on the New Hampshire mainland. Her poems appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and she later became one of the country’s favorite authors. In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a painting by Childe Hassam depicting Thaxter in her garden is found on the East wing of the second floor.
5. Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906)
Dunbar was a poet who gained national recognition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with his poem “Ode to Ethiopia.” His parents escaped slavery in Kentucky and fled to Dayton, Ohio where Dunbar grew up the only African-American student at his high school. After publishing two books of his standard English and dialect poems, he combined them to form Lyrics of a Lowly Life and rose to international literary fame. The portrait of Dunbar by William McKnight Farrow is also located in the American Origins exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery.
6. E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894-September 3, 1961)
E.E. Cummings became famous for his poetry during the first half of the 20th century after working as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine. Though Cummings’ body of work includes about 2,900 poems and various forms of writing such as plays and novels, his drawings and paintings are seldom explored. Located in the Hirshhorn’s online collection, you can view many of these overlooked works.
7. Malangatana Ngwenya (1936-2011)
Malangatana Ngwenya is an artist best known for his brightly-colored murals and canvases. In his work, the Mozambiquen painter depicts powerful subjects like the trauma of armed conflict and revolution, as well as the small pleasures of daily life and the triumph of the human spirit. One such painting, Nude with flowers, 1962, on display at African Art, also reveals Ngwenya’s “hidden” talent as a poet. On the back of the painting, he has handwritten “Poema de Amor,” a love poem which is a little too racy to print in these parts.
8. Joane Cardinal-Schubert (1942-2009)
You may have to dig deep to find the poetry of multimedia Blackfoot (Blood) artist Joane Cardinal-Schubert, her poems encompassing but a part of her artistic repertoire, which included writing, curating, directing videos, painting and drawing. You can see some of Shubert’s work, which focuses largely on Native history, social injustice and environmental concerns at the American Indian Museum exhibition “Vantage Point.”
9. Nora Naranjo-Morse (b.1953)
While you’re at the American Indian Museum, make sure to check out the clay pottery of Santa Clara Pueblo artist Nora Naranjo-Morse, on display in the landscape area along the Maryland Avenue side of the museum. Born into a family of mostly women potters and visual artists, Morse focuses her work on the connection between pueblo people, their land and the clay they use to build on that land. Morse is also a sculptor, writer, film producer and poet, whose collection Mud Woman: Poems from the Clay combines poetry with photographs of her clay figures.
BONUS! 10. Phillis Wheatley
Born in Gambia, Senegal, Wheatley was enslaved as a child and grew up in Boston, where she learned to read and began writing poetry. In 1773, Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, becoming the first published black woman poet. The book also made Wheatley famous and her success led to her eventual emancipation. A bronze life-size bust of Phillis Wheatley, by celebrated artist Elizabeth Catlett, is part of the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, though not currently on display. Created in 1973, the bust marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Wheatley’s book and Catlett’s interest in the feminist movement of the 1970s.
–With additional reporting by Arcynta Ali Childs
April 25, 2011
Monday, April 25
Born to be Wild 3D features the conservation efforts of primatologist Birute Galdikas with orangutans in Borneo, along with that of Dame Daphne Sheldrick‘s work with elephants in Kenya. Both women live near the animals, rescuing them and returning them to live in the wild. Film is shown at 2:25, 4:25 and 6:25 daily. The Johnson IMAX Theater at the Natural History museum. Tickets are $9 adults, $8 seniors and $7.50 children ages 2 to 12. Toll free phone 866-868-7774 or online.
Tuesday, April 26 Star-Spangled Banner
Meet the seamstress who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner. Help her assemble a new flag and learn about its history. Free, repeats daily through Friday at 2 PM and 3:30 PM. Flag Hall, American History Museum.
Wednesday, April 27 DC Youth Creativity
Participate in a community forum on youth and creativity in Southeast D.C. The Junk Yard Band, Facilitating Leadership in Youth (FLY), Life Pieces to Masterpieces art center and Multi Media Training Institute will be representing their programs. Free. 7 PM. Anacostia Community Museum
Thursday, April 28 My Dog Tulip
Paul and Sandra Fierlinger will introduce their film, My Dog Tulip. The Fierlingers will discuss their films, show samples of their animation and talk about the future of animation. Free. 7 PM. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Friday, April 29 Poets & Painters
Does the art at the museum inspire you to write? View paintings and read poetry aloud, followed by a discussion of the artwork. Free. 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM. American Art Gallery
October 26, 2010
Last week at a media preview for “Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings,” the Sackler Gallery’s new exhibit, chief curator Massumeh Farhad pulled back the black gallery doors to allow a group of journalists into a dimly lit lair of ancient manuscripts and gleaming silver loosely reminiscent of Aladdin’s cave.
The exhibit is centered around the thousand-year-old, 50,000 verse Persian epic poem, Shahnama (pronounced shah-nah-MEYH), a blend of mythology and Persian history. While there are no talking parrots or diamonds in the rough, the text offers its own brand of fantasy that Farhad likens to Shakespeare and Grimms’ fairytales.
“It’s the most popular text in Iran. Nearly every household has a copy of the Quran and a copy of the Shahnama,” says Farhad.
The narrative traces the history of Iran through the 7th century Arab conquest, focusing on the exploits of 50 different Persian monarchs. The poet Abul-Qasim Firdawsi wrote the epic over a period of 30 years, during which time the ruling local dynasty, the Samanids, permitted cultural and artistic expression to flourish. But by the time the poet finally finished in the year 1010, the Samanids had been overthrown by a Turkic dynasty from Central Asia, the Ghaznavids, who cared little for the arts. Still hoping to be rewarded for his 30 years of literary labor, the poet petitioned Mahmud, the king, showing him his 50,000 verses. The king responded with an insulting reward that was but a pittance for his work. A despondent Firdawsi proceeded to drown his sorrows in beer at a local bath house.
The king lived to regret his decision. Ten years later, Mahmud reread the text and immediately sent a caravan of camels loaded with precious indigo to Firdawsi the poet as a peace offering, but it was too late. As the camels entered Firdawsi’s town, they ran right into a funeral procession. The poet was dead.
“For every king to rule, they had to have ‘farr’, the divine rule to kingship,” says Farhad. “The Shahnama deals with the moral consequences of becoming too proud and forgetting who you are.” Each Persian king who came after the infamous Mahmud commissioned his own copy of the text, which became an emblem of the divine right to rule.
Starting in the 1300s, these royal copies were illustrated with opaque watercolors, gold and black ink. The illustrations—so intricate as to warrant the use of a magnifying glass—make up the majority of the exhibit, which is also punctuated with a 16th century full manuscript of the epic and several silver and bronze vessels from the 6th and 7th centuries.
After an introductory hall, the exhibit is divided into two sections, one focusing on history and the other on myth. The former largely offers the story of Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror, who despite his imperialist spirit is nonetheless described in the Shahnama as a just ruler. The mythological section features morality tales of kings who lost touch with their roots and thus lost their divine rule, their farr. These are often populated with mythical beings; one folio on display depicts a Harry Potter-like hippogriff. (“J.K. Rowling must have seen a copy of the Shahnama,” insists Farhad.)
Despite the ancient objects in the exhibit that give the sense of having only just been unearthed, Farhad says the poem is still relevant today. “I think it’s because of the universal themes of truth and honesty that resonate, whether you’re Iranian or not.”
“Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings” will be on display at the Sackler Gallery through April 17, 2011.