I haven’t been back to my Alma mater, Dickinson College, since 1967. But this week I’ve had the privilege of sharing my transgender story, my experiences as an activist, and Shu-Ju’s and my artist’s book Water. With some trepidation I spoke on behalf of both of us for a talk and reading at Dickinson’s Waidner-Spahr Library.
The library purchased a copy of our book Water, a distinct honor for me as an alumna. I divided my time into three sections to help the audience understand the rich and complex layers of beauty and meaning in our book, and so that they could appreciate the work that went into it. Those parts are the actual, physical making of the book, the art Shu-Ju put into it, and my process for arriving at the poetry.
Our book is a collaboration between two very different artists, and the different elements play together to make each more than it would be on its own. The poem takes the reader through the seasons, and the changes in water as the rain and snow forms interplay. This lead to the design of the book made of hexagonal pages so that the connection of pages on different faces naturally created the circular form.
In addition, the words of the main poem on the front of the book are concrete and visceral, and the art highly suggestive of water in its forms of rain and snow. At Shu-Ju’s suggestion I also wrote a poem for the back which talks more directly about the interplay of opposites. This more abstract poem is mirrored by the more abstract art on the back.
Finally, the main poem evolved in two ways. The subject matter began as a story that was human centered and evolved to a poem about nature with humans very much in the foreground, to putting nature front and center and the life of humans implied. This evolution was sparked by my joy in collaborating with Shu-Ju and appreciation for many ancient Chinese art works where the natural elements loom large and the human figures, if any, are tiny. And many of Shu-Ju’s paintings have this quality as well.
The move from a poem with a beginning and ending, reminiscent of a human story with a beginning, middle and end, to the form of Water, grew out of my own rumination on the theme of water as I wrote various draft versions. I ended my talk with my usual dramatic reading of the two poems that make up Water Suite. Two of the audience members in particular remarked at how my way of reading the poetry changed the impact it had on them in a very positive way.