Mary Akers: Hi, Carolyn. Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me, today. I know that in addition to your fine poetry you are a painter and sculptor, and I was hoping we could talk a little bit about art and creativity. First off, I’m wondering if you find that your poetry and artwork inform or overlap one another in exciting and/or inspiring ways? And could you talk briefly about the joys and frustrations of the overlap?
Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda: Because I frequently experiment, I find that this inclination informs both art forms. Just as I’ve been heavily influenced by the philosophical insights of Jackson Pollack and the abstract innovations of the Washington, D.C. painter, Sam Gilliam, I’ve been influenced by my former creative writing professors, Peter Klappert and Ai, whose dramatic monologues opened doors of exploration in my own poetry. Secondly, as an abstract colorist painter, I rely on colors to speak emotionally to viewers. As a writer, I interweave color into ekphrastic, or art-inspired poems, by carefully selecting words or syntactical arrangements that visually engage the reader. Another overlap that exists in my poetry and artwork emerged after studying Georgia O’Keeffe, who taught me to look closely at a subject to really see it. My paintings and poems zero in on a subject to offer my audience a close-up view. However, I seldom use my own artwork as an impetus for a poem. Nor does the overlap between the two arts ever frustrate me. I attribute this to the joy I derive from creating.
MA: My undergraduate degree is in fine arts, and I was a potter for ten years, so I’ve thought a lot about the function of art, the accessibility of art, and the conversation between artist and “consumer.” (And I use the word consumer, not in the commercial sense, but in the sense of “the person on the other end.”) I guess I’m trying to touch on the idea that art takes two. I feel this very strongly. The artist makes a thing (poem, sculpture, meal, song, whatever)–we could even call it an art widget–but at first it is simply the artist talking to him-or-herself until there is someone on the other side of that art, enjoying it, experiencing it, or even hating it. But in a sense art takes two brains to be fully realized–the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. I’ve rambled on, but would you like to comment on this? What is your perspective on the idea of conversation being inherent in the creation/realization of art?
CKF: I enthusiastically agree with you. Art does take two to be fully realized. For years I wrote for myself, largely using poetry as a therapeutic act of coping. I had a near-death experience as a teenager, surviving the harsh realities of a life-threatening illness by minutes. During the nine-month healing stage, I wrote frequently, often exploring the richness of the world and the gift of life I’d been given. Sadly, a few years later my mother, a close friend, and our family physician passed away, leaving me grief-stricken. My solitary jottings became a source of comfort. In graduate school my professors encouraged me to publish, thereby sharing my work with an outside audience. Receiving feedback from magazine editors, readers, and friends opened my eyes to “the conversation between the artist and consumer”—as you so aptly describe this exchange. We need to be open-minded and welcome a conversation with the viewers/readers of our work. After all, others’ perceptions might inform the next step we take as creative artists.
River Country by Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda
MA: Yes! A brilliant observation, and one I hadn’t considered: that sometimes the reactions of others help us take our work to the next level. In my experience, a piece of writing can mean very different things to different readers. Probably because each reader brings his-or-her own life experiences to the reading of the work. In a sense, the reader completes the work that the writer begins. Do you find that readers interpret your work in ways that surprise you? How do you feel about that?
CKF: I’m constantly surprised by the array of interpretations my poems evoke. I vividly recall an exchange with a student, which took place over twenty years ago in a high school Advanced Placement English class. As a guest poet, I was candidly asked by a student if the horse in one of my poems symbolized my adolescent desire for sex. I fumbled for a moment, and then told the inquisitive young man about my horseback riding experiences, which had inspired the poem. I honestly acknowledged that writers sometimes subconsciously add symbolic suggestions to their work. I explained that the critic, who exercises analytical thinking skills when interpreting a poem, brings an entirely different set of skills to the reading of a work than does the poet, who relies on creative thinking to hone a piece. We as writers have no control over a critic’s interpretation of our poems, since each reader’s background of experiences will affect his/her interpretation. How do I feel about this? I’ve learned to let go of a poem or book once it’s published. Because I revise exhaustively and subject each poem to harsh scrutiny, I’m hopeful that others’ interpretations won’t be too far afield from my intentions.
MA: I recently attended a wonderful lecture by Margaret Atwood (who is a poet, a fiction writer, an essayist, a cartoonist, an inventor, a knitter–clearly she loves to create) and one of the things she spoke about was the basic human need to be creative. She said that if we doubt that at all, we should think about the things that children explore and do naturally, on their own, as they grow. What do they do? They sing, draw pictures, make up stories, dance. And so we need to nurture the arts in our public schools because creativity is at the core of what makes us human. What are some of your earliest memories of being creative as a child? Have they stayed with you in later life?
CKF: First, let me say that Margaret Atwood is one of our most gifted writers and thinkers, whose range of creativity is astounding. I wholeheartedly agree with her contention that we need to nurture the arts in public schools. As a former English Specialist and Writing Resource teacher for a large public school system, I developed teacher workshops that would encourage creativity in elementary through high school. On the college level, I taught teachers how to read and write poetry in hopes that they, in turn, would offer similar lessons for their students. We must remember that all meaningful discoveries and inventions which impact the future direction of mankind come from creative thinkers. I often use Bill Gates as an example of one who altered the world with his creative gifts. Unfortunately, schools which primarily teach “test-taking skills” stifle many great minds.
My earliest memories of being creative as a child remain vivid. My mother—a brilliant woman—offered me countless opportunities to draw and write. Armed with crayons and paper, I wrote my first poem before entering elementary school. In addition to enrolling my sister and me in summer art classes, my parents took us on field trips. We visited art galleries, civil war sites, and historical museums. But we also invented our own playground, sculpting mounds of sand into mountains for our toy cars to scale. I was a tree-climber, who spent hours daydreaming in the arms of an old oak. Today’s kids seldom reap the benefits of exploring nature. Few can identify a Carolina wren’s call or distinguish a hickory from a loblolly. We need to limit the time young learners spend in front of a television or computer. We need to offer challenges which encourage our children to embrace creativity in an outdoor setting.
How have childhood acts of creativity stayed with me? Ten years ago when I retired, my husband and I moved to the country. I turned once again to the rural life to ignite my imagination. Since uprooting myself from the big city life of Washington, D.C., I’ve produced enough paintings to be featured in three solo art exhibits, as well as several group exhibits. I’ve completed three books, with another manuscript on the way. I’m grateful that my parents recognized the importance of fostering creativity in their children. For me, it’s the most natural way of thinking.
Dragon in Flight by Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda
MA: This next question is a bit of an aside, but I’ll ask it anyway. I’ve seen videos of elephants painting pictures in Thailand. Some of the paintings they produce are remarkably expressive and graceful. What do you make of this? Do you think it is an elephant simply performing a trick to please a trainer? Or a fellow sentient being enjoying the creative act?
CKF: Years ago while on an African safari, I learned a great deal from our guides about these large, intelligent mammals. What’s astonishing is how easily elephants grasp seemingly impossible concepts that other animals fail to master or learn as tricks. I feel certain that these gifted creatures are trainable, as evidenced by featured shows in circuses. Like you, I’ve marveled at the videos of elephants painting pictures. But then I’m one who believes in the human/ animal connection. If the bond is strong enough and if the reward—e.g., a treat—is ample, the animal will likely respond, as elephants do, by learning to paint. Is the elephant enjoying the creative act? I’ll leave it to the experts to answer that!
MA: And finally, since we are a recovery-themed journal, what role do you think recovery plays in the creative process? Many prisons, trauma counselors, psychotherapists, survivor’s groups, veterans organizations and the like employ art to help patients heal. Have you found yourself drawn to /images or themes that you later realized stemmed from something you needed to work through?
CKF: Absolutely. In fact, as a teacher, I’ve worked in nursing homes and homeless shelters to help patients heal. As noted earlier, I, too, benefited at an early age from using poetry as therapy. My book, Death Comes Riding, and my current manuscript-in-progress about the relationship between Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo both deal with the recovery theme. Often, I’m drawn to themes that stem from a problem I need to work through. One art has never been enough to help me cope. I’ve studied classical music, art, poetry, as well as dance. All of the arts quell my spirit by offering an outlet to meet my emotional needs. Without the arts, life would lose a vital dimension—one which nourishes the soul.
MA: I feel like I could talk with you about these subjects for hours. I know I need to find a place to end our discussion, but I’m really inspired by your wide creative study and especially your interest in Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (an interest I share). Clearly their lives have been an inspiration to many creative types over the years. Barbara Kingsolver’s recent novel The Lacuna comes to mind, as does the incredible 2002 film Frida by the director Julie Taymor and starring Salma Hayek, just to name two. Many of the people inspired by Frida are women artists themselves. I feel like she represents some aspect of ourselves that we often keep hidden. Anyway, sorry, that’s not my question. My question hearkens back to the idea of the artist as conversationalist, and it strikes me that Diego and Frida had very different styles of communicating. Diego clearly wanted a dialogue with the people. His massive murals were all about history and society and social justice. But Frida’s paintings were more private explorations of pain and loss and identity. Much of her creative work was a variation on the self-portrait, and yet that speaks to us so very deeply. Would you care to comment on this?
CKF: You’ve described my book perfectly! Diego and Frida were conversationalists. I became interested in the duo after visiting El Museo del Barrio in New York where I viewed a marvelous exhibit of both artists’ work. In 2006 I talked my husband, a Spanish-speaker, into traveling to Mexico City with me to see Diego’s immense murals on site. Prior to experiencing his art firsthand, I had thought that Frida’s work would speak to me more forcefully, but I was wrong. Diego’s interest in representing the struggles of the common people, as well as their working habits and joyful festivals tugged at my heartstrings. I returned home and spent hours researching his work, his life, and his relationship with Frida. I then turned my attention to her paintings, primarily focusing on the riveting self-portraits which reveal the inner workings of her mind. In 2010 my husband assisted me during a return trip to Mexico to see Diego’s frescoes in the Ministry of Education building. These works of art inspired eleven monologues. We also toured for a second time Frida’s Blue House in Coyoacan, where she lived most of her life. Appropriately, the epigraph which introduces Frida’s section of the book reveals her self-understanding: “I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” The majority of the poems in this section are two-voice poems that reveal the dual nature of a woman, fraught with pain over losing her ability to have children, as well as the destructive nature of her relationship with Diego. Writing this book has been one of my most challenging and intriguing experiences–an ambitious undertaking, but one which I feel was worth my effort.
MA: Well, after all you’ve revealed in our discussion, I’m sure your book will be wonderful. I can’t wait to read it. And thank you so much for participating, Carolyn. This has been an enjoyable and enlightening discussion.
There’s also an audio interview with Carolyn here.