Laura Madeline Wiseman: In the current issue of Poets & Writers, Jan/Feb 2014, Elizabeth Kostova writes in “No Ideas but in Things: The Importance of First Objects” that, “Objects make the world real to us, and they make literature real to readers, even if the objects involved have never existed. Trying to describe an object — real or invented — is a terrific exercise for any writer, it brings us back to the ability of language to convey something concrete, which is just short of magic, when you think hard enough about it,” (48-49). Intimates and Fools is a look at the object of the bra through poetry, illustrations, and body art. Meditating and writing about the bra was a terrific experience for me, especially in reference to the play and magic of language that Kostova talks about here, but I’m curious about what that experience was like for you as the artist. How do objects inspire you to make your body prints and illustrations and specifically, how did the bra and your own experiences with them become the art in Intimates and Fools?
Sally Deskins: I think of bras as charming and nostalgic, perhaps because the coolest girl in 5th grade had the largest breasts and only started wearing a bra when the boys asked her “why don’t you wear an over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder?”. I think of being mesmerized by Madonna’s iconic cone bra and of reading Judy Blume’s Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret (1970) “We must — we must — we must increase our bust!” Of course I became more interested in the prettiness of bras throughout high school and college when I started dating and trying to figure out what sexy was, seeing all the ads, pouring over teen magazines and being a fashion major for a time… then it was an entirely different relationship when I had babies and was breastfeeding, then I started to hate them. Now I appreciate them in an almost sage, but also paradoxical perspective — perhaps after reading and interpreting your poem.
With your writing, I loved how you brought out these memorable images — like the tissues — I remember a girl being rumored to fill her bras with tissues, and that one day she pulled one out to sneeze in. Ha! I enjoyed thinking of the bras as the literal objects, but also abstractly playing with concepts sometimes outlandishly alongside other objects you brought into play with your writing — cups, piano, candies, pillows.
We can get so serious about the meaning of everything and what will come — there was that study last year about how wearing bras actually makes breasts sag more; who knows — but either way — what (or whom) are bras really for, if not for comfort? Are they merely a societal-dictated entrapping of women? Or are bras necessary forms of support for our female livelihood and thus a symbol of feminine strength themselves? Are they really simply objects that women (or men) adorn to seduce?… It all depends on perspective and use, doesn’t it? And so, I’m curious, how did you come to this object as subject?
LMW: In the article with which I opened, Kostova also writes that, writers “don’t outgrow the realm of childhood observation: in a way, we are stuck in a sense of the vividness of things” (49). Similarly and also on objects and the world of things, Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book (Princeton University Press, 2011) explores how writers make readers see or imagine the worlds they create in their books. Scarry explains that the imagined world compared to the real world is a matter of difference of intensity of vivacity and vitality. Words or the written art can approach the real world in ways other artistic endeavors cannot. For example, in her second chapter “On Solidity” she suggests things which by their nature are like the imagination (ghosts, mists, sheer drapes) can help us see and solidify what is not. For writers and for readers, she argues, “What is hard is successfully to imagine an object, any object, that does not look like a ghost” (24). The rest of Dreaming by the Book seeks to delineate what other objects the mind easily imagines and the strategies successful writers use to make things move in their writing.
As a writer, I am interested in objects that take on a life of their own, for like Kostova some objects even when they’re lost remain “firmly in my mind” (50) and for me, bras are an object that has taken up residence in my mind, or at least they certainly did when I was working on Intimates and Fools. If we take up Scarry’s argument, bras can be easy to imagine. Some are matronly, stiff, made heavy-duty with wires and hooks, but others are ghostlike “thin, dry, filmy, two-dimensional, and without solidity” (24) and to read about them encourages readers “to create an image whose own properties are second nature to the imagination” (24). I think of the catalogues I’ve received in the mail of filmy bathrobes, gauzy teddies, sheer wraps. Page after page of such full-color brochures offer shiny satin, lacy cups, mesh backs, small ribbons and bows. If that’s not enough to spin the bedroom lamplight and suggest weightlessness, many such intimates add rhinestones, sequins, and tiny sparkling beads. Whether or not I order anything, regardless if I stop at a store with a purchase in mind, the idea of bras moves so easily in the mind. Sally, set your paint aside for a moment, close your eyes, and imagine a bra — it’s soft lacy band, it’s satin sheen straps, it’s small ribbon between the cups, the mesh back. Imagine slipping your arms into the lazy looping straps. Now imagine taking it off and let it sway on the line. Now try to imagine a couch, a house, a crayon. It is certainly possible to see the house, the couch, the crayon, but the bra in all its thinness is imaginable. I wrote Intimates and Fools for which you’ve so artfully illustrated because I could intensely imagine them — bras as the vivid objects they are.
Some of the pages in Intimates and Fools contain new body prints you created for this book. Talk about your process of making body prints and what such a process offers to the artist (and viewer/reader) when considering the female form.
SD: I love the way you so sensually described imagining bras there — “soft lacy band, it’s satin sheen straps, it’s small ribbon between the cups, the mesh back. Imagine slipping your arms into the lazy looping straps. Now imagine taking it off and let it sway on the line…” even just the act of reading (and perhaps writing?) that emanates physicality. Likewise, I love how to try and embody physicality in my artwork and my process is a big part of this. If you’re familiar with Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” (1964), I was originally inspired by seeing the resulting “Blue” series in a gallery — the raw flesh a part of the process, literally flesh to paint to canvas, as the models painted themselves directed by Klein, and printed with direction on the canvas, various parts and angles of their bodies. The resulting monochromatic abstracted images are really beautiful, having a way with appreciating the female form but not in a mass cultural, sexualized, objectified or violated way. Klein’s process is another story; but my impetus was awoken and I had to try to do this — as artist, director and model. (I had before been working with the figure in my work with drawing and modeling.) So at once, the real feelings of the paint on my body is utterly physical and resounds as the sensations are stamped onto paper or canvas. Too it is a means of working out all of the noise of body image — what I should look like according to magazines, movies, the clothing ads, my mind. In these prints, my body looks beautiful in the various acrylic colors. As I mix and swirl the paint on my body parts, the image comes out skewed and conceptual, and beautiful in this state — various colors, shapes, sizes. It is perhaps sensual, perhaps an object in itself, but not decried or distanced, violent or Photoshopped to some advertiser’s view of perfection. It is stunning in its complexity, simplicity and in definition yet materiality, a peaceful yet spirited view of the female figure.
I understand this is not a new notion, and admire those female artists who use the female figure to counter prevailing representations. I recently read this piece on www.Salon.com: “6 Reasons Female Nudity Can Be Powerful” by Soraya Chemaly which echoes my sentimentality with the alternative use of the female figure in art and public sphere: “Female public nakedness as protest or social commentary is not new and is critical, expressive and censored speech… Nudity is also an enduring and essential part of the social critique of women artists. The works of Lorna Simpson, Judy Chicago, Ana Medieta, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovich, Hanna WIlke and so many others speak to identity, race, sex and class, using women’s naked bodies to do it. When newspapers, movie theaters, cable and TV news, online media and social media refuse to show female nudity as part of female-directed political protest or artistic statement they deny them equal freedom of expression. When they do this while proliferating grossly objectifying alternatives, they silence them doubly.” (Jan. 22, 2014)
So yes, all of this said, I hope that my physically produced body prints, along with your stirring and image-inducing writing arouse new perspectives on body and beauty. And so I am curious about your process; how did the poem start, where did you collect your images and quotes, (Mr. T, Julie Grahn), and how did you come up with using the term “fool”? What does the term mean to you and in this writing?
[Sally, here’s the edited version of your question I answered: And so I am curious about your process; where did you collect your quotes and how did you come up with using the term “fool”? What does the term mean to you and in this writing?
LMW: I think that when you’re doing research and writing and revising, there’s a certain kind of synergy that happens. The mind is thinking about a particular topic or object and suddenly everywhere you go you see it, that thing. Here then is my synergy of fool:
I may have been thinking about fools because I had read Z that spring, a novel told from the prospective of Zelda, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby. Z tells her story, a story that gives us the literary darling, but also describes her life as a dancer and as a writer. She published numerous stories under her husband’s name because his name was the name that financially supported them. I love those kinds of novels, those retellings of people’s stories, women’s lives and experiences, never fully told. I finished Z and decided to reread The Great Gatsby, having not read it since I was a teenager and when Daisy’s line came up, “That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,” I paused.
Or, I may have been thinking about fools because over the winter break, I’d written a chapbook review of a title from Hyacinth Girl Press. The chapbook’s final poem focused on Mr. T. In the chapbook, he’s a sort of hero, a good guy in a young woman’s life that happens to be full of a lot of bad guys. Upon reading the poem, I had a little jolt because I’d forgotten about Mr. T. and his classic line.
But yet, perhaps I was thinking about fools because I’d studied Judy Grahn’s poetry in my Ph.D. The anthology I edited Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence collected an excerpt of one of her poems and had just been released. I was organizing readings and participating in them. I read part of her poem in the local reading series Tuesday with Writers and she was going to be one of the readers for an event in San Francisco. I reread her work and came across that line, “I’m not a fool. I’m a survivor.” I thought, hmmm.
So by the time we were really working on Intimates and Fools seriously, my mind had been thinking about the word fool and all its various meanings and uses and it fit so well with the thinking about the bra in the poems, a nice counterpoint to return to as the reader moves through the more narrative aspects of the protagonist and whimsical hopes of the bras.