KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 6: Fall 2016
Interview: 934 words

Seven Questions for Charles D. Tarlton

by Jack Cooper

1. Jack Cooper: How do you go about choosing a particular work of art to write about?

Charles D. Tarlton: I have always been one of those people who, once interested in something, can’t let go. I could be inspired by some random thing like visiting a museum or gallery, or reading something in an art magazine; things get stuck in my imagination and then I tend to devour them. It’s not until then that I choose. I worked for a time on Cy Twombly, and then Motherwell, and then Matisse and Picasso. More recently I wrote several ekphrastic poems about Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park Series (a chapbook manuscript was the result) and John Constable (ditto). My wife is a painter and we talk about art a lot; so I find myself pushed in many directions. I often say that I wish I had studied Art History instead of Political Philosophy.

2-4. JC: How many of the works have you actually seen in person, how many have you seen only in books or online—and does that make a difference?

CDT: I went to London twice recently—to see the Diebenkorn show in the Royal Academy, and, later, to see the Constables all over town. On the way I saw a ton of Turners. Modern painters, that is, the Abstract Expressionists and friends, are all over the place here in the U.S., and I have chased down a lot of them. Seeing the works makes a difference; you can experience the scale (Diebenkorn’s Ocean Parks are huge, for example) and see into the detail. When I lived in San Francisco, my daughter introduced me to her friend, a curator at SFMOMA, who had arranged a show based on the paintings that had hung in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment. We were invited to a special viewing on the final night, and I got the idea then for a little tanka-prose theater piece about Picasso versus Matisse. But, and this is probably inevitable, you often get the urge to write about a painting you have only seen in a book or catalogue, so you have to make do. Lots of the museums now have websites where you can close in on the details. I went after Klee that way, and Hofmann. There are many Hofmann paintings at Berkeley, but they aren’t always on view.

5-6. JC: What aspects of your education or experience drew you to the ekphrastic genre, and what do you like most about it?

CDT: My education probably had little to do with it. I was a professor of political theory with a graduate degree in politics. I had been an English major as an undergraduate and I started writing poetry in high school. Political Science promised more available jobs and then the demands of scholarly writing kept my poetizing to a minimum. When I retired, the poetry blew up to fill in the space.

The most influential experience regarding ekphrasis has been my wife, Ann Knickerbocker, who is an abstract painter. Painting is a constant topic of conversation with us and I first wrote little ekphrastic poems about her paintings (to compensate, I think, for not being able to paint myself).

Of course, the most pleasurable aspect of ekphrasis is that the art provides a stimulus and a boundary at the same time. The painting (or whatever) makes you want to encompass it, but you can’t write just anything at all. You are corralled by the physicality of the picture. By the same token, the aspect of painting that interests me most is not some idea of “content” or “subject,” but the process of painting itself and the myriad signs and residues it leaves behind.

7. JC: Finally, why have you chosen the tanka-prose hybrid as the mode of ekphrasis in these six poems?

CDT: Most of the poetry I had written before was some version of free verse. It followed along like conversation; the line structure was more or less arbitrary. I discovered tanka prose several years ago and loved it from the start. I have written several essays trying to figure out how and why it works, but mainly, I think, it gave me a form and with the form came discipline, and with discipline harder thought about what I was trying to say and how to say it.

The prose element was a particularly gratifying discovery. There is something clearer about prose (at least for me) and with prose all you are concerned with is getting your message clear and direct. You can hone your ideas in the prose and see where, logically or historically, it goes. And then you have a stimulus, some bearings, and a provocation.

For me, the little five-line lyrics of the tanka then force you into a different state of mind altogether. You catch a ricochet off the prose and you run with it. But not just wildly. I follow a pretty strict 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count [*] in the tanka, as a sort of nod to the Japanese tradition that tanka comes from, but mostly because, as with any set of poetic rules, you have to find a synthesis with the message. When you have to consider the many ways of saying something, you necessarily come to understand it better.

But, I do consider myself an American poet and the tanka prose I write is meant to find a place, not so much within the Japanese tradition but within my own. I am not very Zen; I prefer Wallace Stevens to Matsuo Bashō.



* Publisher’s Note:

As readers of KF-6 may have discovered, the tanka verses in Tarlton’s six experimental ekphrastic hybrids often bend that syllabic rule, by ranging from four to nine syllables per line. Which is entirely fine with us. We especially like these wonderful works—in part because we delight at how they push the envelope of more than one tradition. They are fine illustrations of co-editor Jack Cooper’s coinage, “ekphrastic elastic.”

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Charles Tarlton and the Changing Nature of Ekphrasis by artist Ann Knickerbocker, in Artist in an A-Frame (16 May 2016); includes the poet’s ekphrastic tanka prose “Ann Knickerbocker’s Dappled

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