BEAUTIFUL IN ITS SLOWNESS:
An Interview with Rachel Slotnick
by Millicent Borges Accardi
edited by Carlo Matos
Originally from Los Altos, California, author, muralist and hybrid artist Rachel Slotnick has work in the permanent display at the Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Recently, she has completed murals for the 35th, 39th, 46th, and 47th wards in the Windy City. Slotnick currently is full-time faculty at the City Colleges of Chicago and an adjunct at the Illinois Art Institute and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her literary publications include Mad Hatter’s Review, Thrice Fiction, and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. Slotnick was the winner of Rhino Poetry’s Founder’s Prize. Her debut book of poetry/art entitled, In Lieu of Flowers is available from Tortoise Books. To view the full scope of her work, both visual and literary, check out her webpage: rachelslotnick.com.
Millicent Borges Accardi: How did you decide to combine artwork and poetry? Which came first? I mean did you have the illustrations and write ekphrastic poems about the art or did you write the poems and select art to accompany the written words?
Rachel Slotnick: Everyone kept telling me that I was writing and painting in a way that inhabited the same space and when my publisher decided to link these two worlds, at first, I was ambivalent. It was not something I thought possible. I was always working in both realms, often reimagining stories as portraits, and vice versa. I knew I was tapping into the same world, though there was a different sort of energy depending upon my point of entry. No matter how tired I was or how much my head ached, painting always made me feel better. I walked away energized, enthused, even daresay, upbeat. But writing was much more morbid. After writing, I felt drained and would often collapse into bed. It took something from me whereas painting gave me something back. I think by performing both behaviors I achieved stasis.
It’s hard to say which came first, the poems or the art, because the relationship wasn’t as direct as that. I have a whole mailing rolodex of characters who recur in stories and poems, most of whom are directly gleaned from my memories, spiced up with a bit of drama and salted with magic. I don’t intend to “illustrate” my poems, or to write ekphrastic poetry, but I sort of can’t avoid it. For me, writing is like daydreaming. I can’t control the destination, but my mind follows eerily familiar paths through the woods.
MBA: How does being an artist mesh with being a writer?
RS: It’s difficult. I waste a lot of brain energy worrying that I’m spreading myself too thin. What if I spend all those hours writing instead of painting? But that is dangerous thinking because if I begin to count up my hours, I can start to question everything. It’s like sleeping and dreaming. For me, it was never an option. It’s a tapestry of brushstrokes by which I navigate a confusing and multi-dimensional world.
For me, poetry is a lot like love. It’s often over-romanticized; publications and readings are the Hallmark equivalent of Valentine’s day chocolates and long-stem roses. There are times I want to throw it all away and call it quits. My poetry nags me when I’m trying to relax or enjoy myself. It makes me think the worst about myself. But then, there are moments when I look at a painting, or I follow the twists and turns of a sentence through to a secluded fruition, and I feel something physical. It gives me a reason to persist. I’m not saying that when I write a poem the world around me blurs, or Louis Armstrong sings just for me, or anything so sentimental. My love for art isn’t movie love. It’s much slower than that. In fact, it’s beautiful in its slowness.
MBA: What made you decide to create a mixed genre hybrid?
RS: I actually didn’t set out to write this book! I was working on a nonfiction project about my grandparents during WWII, and sent a query to Tortoise Books. I’m still developing that project. It has evolved tremendously since then and continues to grow with a cast of characters encompassing Godzilla and Frankenstein as metaphors for the crises of an entire generation. But at the time, I only had an inkling of the idea for that project. What I sent to Tortoise was just a germ of the larger narrative and very incomplete. Jerry Brennan at Tortoise Books was the first person to suggest that there was cohesive narrative already existent in my poetry. He asked to see more. I knew my characters were connected, but I had never tried to map them out before. He challenged me to navigate the spider web of stories in which I was already ensnared.
MBA: Are your goals for art different than your goals for writing? Do you want to reach different audiences?
RS: I don’t know about a different audience, but one thing I have come to terms with is that I do have a want for readership. I used to think this was a bad thing. I used to think my art needed to be good enough or strong enough on its own. Look at Henry Darger or James Harold Jennings. These hermetic, reclusive artists made their work because they were in love with it not because there was a hope of being seen or fame or glory at the end of the line, but I found myself struggling to make work when I left school and didn’t have assignments. I had to revisit my process. I realized that graduate school offered me a built-in writing community of people who cared about my work. I took it for granted at the time, but that was absolutely a gift and not at all a reality of the real world. And I found myself time and again rearing up against a want for communication. Because as much as I love poetry that untangles denotations and connotations, and struggles to say anything at all, at the end of the day, writing is about communication. And in order to communicate, I need people to listen.
I think this is why I began to develop murals and public projects. There is something so therapeutic about writing words on a wall, especially memorial messages. If I have a gallery show, maybe 30 people will see it and most of them will be people who already know me. And that’s wonderful in its own way. But there’s something magical about communicating with strangers. I’m sending words out into the void of the city. My sentences linger beside blinking traffic lights and become a part of the evolving skyline. Once again, I identify my own self-worth through language and paint.
MBA: What societal rules about identity inform your poetry?
RS: I am definitely exploring identity. Feminism and Judaism are major themes in my work. One of my biggest struggles in my current project is how to write the horrific history of the atomic bomb when I wasn’t there. I didn’t live it. I never had to deal with the after-effects of the radiation. I can research it and read horrific accounts and look at pictures that feel like nightmares, but I can’t ever truly walk in those shoes. I hesitate to publish this book because I can’t ever really know for certain. But then I am reminded that to me, writing is about empathy. If I don’t try I’ll be much further from understanding what it means to live through such a tragedy than if I do. I suppose my writing is very much about that risk. And a large part of that novel encompasses domesticity. I cherish my grandmother’s letters and stories. I admire her strength. But I’m mad at her too. I’m angry with my grandparents for contributing to the massacre. I’m frustrated that they never spoke to me about it. But then, I can’t ever fully understand because I wasn’t there, so, by writing, I’m trying to be there.
MBA: Your poems have been called surreal—do they originate from dreams?
RS: Not usually. I definitely have kept dream logs on and off, and occasionally the writing about the musician finds its way into my dreams. But the writing I do upon waking doesn’t usually find its way into the poetry. Perhaps it’s a check point en route to a poem. It’s certainly a move in the right direction, so, ironically, no, my poems aren’t derived from my dreams, but my dreams are certainly derived from my poems! As I have continued to research my grandparents and WWII, I have found myself dreaming about my late grandparents almost every night. I’m getting to know them in a new way, as they were when they were young, and as I am now that I am getting old. That’s a very special thing, and it is a very special sort of magic that writing and dreaming exercise.
MBA: As writer Kathleen Rooney pointed out, In Lieu of Flowers features letters, like “private to-do lists of someone you don’t know, but would like very much to meet.” What made you select epistolary prose or lists as a medium to communicate?
RS: I think I knew back in graduate school that I was writing letters to my father. But somewhere along the way, I forgot that. They became something a little different, a little strange. Once the book came out, and people started saying they were letters, it was like a lightning bolt—I’m writing letters in bottles and throwing them out to sea, literally my father’s sea, and hoping someone reads them on the other end. Except, the intended recipients won’t ever receive them. So, they’re secrets, waiting in the deep.
There’s an artist I admire named Jason DeCaires Taylor who started a movement in underwater sculpture, casting whole lost cities underwater, where museum goers have to scuba dive to see them. Something about that intrigues me so. On the one hand, they’re secret. On the other hand, as the fish and coral move into the porous molds, as the algae plunges through them, they take on a life of their own. By burying them, Taylor sets them free. I suppose I’m looking to do the same thing, by writing letters without a destination.
MBA: How did you come up with the title? What was the inspiration?
RS: The title was actually derived from a sculpture project I did for the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation. They asked local artists to paint life-size horse sculptures in memory of specific police officers who had lost their lives in the line of duty. Then they put the horses on parade all over downtown Chicago. I painted two, one for Officer John C. Knight, and one for Detective Nicholas Connelly. As I completed the first one for Officer Knight, and penned his name on the saddle pad, I realized I was gelling flowers to the horse just like I do on my canvases because to me, flowers speak of memorial.
Keats said that lilies represent the return of the soul to innocence at death. I’m fascinated by the roles flowers play in our rituals—that we designate some flowers for funerals and others for weddings. And I think it’s very interesting that there’s some overlap. Some flowers have their roots in two worlds, and I relate to that as someone who is a little confused. Most of my work is about memorial, and I suppose I’m planting words like flowers to make peace with my memories.
MBA: What has poetry taught you about life?
RS: I had to pause at this question because it was just so enormous. I don’t know exactly what it has taught me about life, but I feel that I owe my life to poetry. It helps me cope. I teach creative writing and composition in a community college where I am responsible for helping students analyze resources and distinguish between facts and fiction, and the more I try to teach it, the more confused I become. I’m very wary of numbers, and I suppose that’s what my poor mathematician character suffers from so. He keeps trying to explain a world that makes no sense. Logic fails and poetry is the best means I know for making sense of the senseless.
MBA: Can you share a line or passage from a favorite poem and why it is memorable?
RS: Maya Angelou once said, “Love is a condition so powerful, it may be that which holds the stars in the firmament. It may be that which pushes and pulls the blood in the veins.”
This resonated with me so much that I used it in my wedding vows. I really mean what I said earlier, that poetry and love are related for me. For me, poetry is utterly, utterly personal. In this book, and my next book, those are my family members on the pages. This is my grandfather’s alphabet. The consonants are my father: a little harder, a little tougher. The vowels are me: a little softer, a little more easily manipulated by accents and tongues. And the blank spaces between us? Maybe that’s where the world is. Or maybe it’s just a bunch of empty space. Only time will tell.
But Maya Angelou invests in love. It’s not the gaseous galaxy that holds the stars in place. It’s not my own pumping heart that pushes blood through my veins. It’s a faith in love. But rather than a faith in an unknowable deity that I can’t buy into, I’m choosing to believe in the people around me.
MBA: Do you think there are subjects poets and artists should be addressing in the 21st century? What are they?
RS: “Should” is a tricky word. I’m not really one to say that anyone else “should” or “should not” write about anything. I think there are topics that need to be brought to light, but I don’t think that everyone needs to be writing about those topics either. Each writer needs to follow his or her own personal northern star. If we start assigning duties and ethics to literature, we start dangling on a dangerous tightrope of the role of words in society. I do think that as we plunge forward into an increasingly polarized political space, and a dramatically xenophobic society, it is our job to help translate empathy into stories that titillate. If we can make people want to read, if we can lure them in with the trappings of aesthetics and pathos, then we can surprise readers into empathizing with other human beings.
I also think as authors our job is to help people remember. We are record keepers. We write down the world. And we are a part of an amnesic society. How quickly we forget fifty, sixty years ago. I do feel that writers need to remember to look back as we look forward when we address the contemporary landscape. Everything we need to know is contained in our past. There are so many books and accounts waiting to be read and remembered. It is so easy to believe that everything we want to hope for is waiting for us in the future, on the snowy expanse of the next page. We tend to keep turning pages instead of flipping back to the beginning to see how it all started. And each time we revisit the beginning it reads a little bit differently because of what we now know.
Imagine what we will know tomorrow.
Millicent Borges Accardi is a Portuguese-American poet who lives in California. She has received literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Barbara Deming Foundation, and Formby Special Collections at Texas Tech University for research on the writer/activist Key Boyle. Her most recent full-length poetry collection is Only More So, (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), Injuring Eternity and Practical Love Poems (forthcoming) are with World Nouveau. She also has a chapbook, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, with Finishing Line Press. Read paulA neves’ review of Only More So on Cleaver: