emmett johns | word & image

20 05 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 181 | May 19, 2009


The recent piece on Henry Denander (see archives, Poetry Dispatch #279) brings to mind my friend, Emmett Johns and his life upon the blank page.

I think it was the summer of 1995 that I first saw the sketchbooks / notebooks / journals he religiously keeps. For those who may know Emmett, “religious” is both the right and the wrong word. “Spiritual” is perhaps a little closer. With a deep bow to Zen, meditation, and the great good silence we seek. And for Emmett especially: How to show-&-tell, express all this, simply in a man’s life.

Many artists record what they see in sketchbooks—follow the line, pen or pencil. Emmett’s images sometimes break into words—what he’s seeing and thinking, inside. He is one of those. One of us–those of us who occasionally need to speak two languages simultaneously, word & image.

I remember gathering an armful of Emmett’s black sketchbooks / journals one fall, as he was preparing to leave Door County, for New Mexico. ( A man of two places, two minds.) I remember spending that whole winter going through his work, page after page, in search of a narrative, a greater story, a different book-of-sorts. The kind I like to see and read and write.

I remember the agony and the ecstasy of sifting through everything, looking for a form that would show and tell and in some way also ‘teach’—for readers who wanted to see and know and learn.

I remember finally settling on about 64 pages of drawings/writings from his sketchbooks—plus front and back cover illustrations. Plus inside the front and back covers. That’s how challenging and tempting it was. I couldn’t get enough of his work in a small chapbook—to suit me! And others, I was sure.

The book finally came together in a work called I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE PICTURE. Cross+Roads Press published it in 1996. Only the 6th chapbook to come off the press (presently at work on #32). Staple binding. Eight bucks. (A special signed and numbered edition of just a few more bucks where he did an original drawing in each book.) A total run of 500 copies. All of them—long gone.

I still love this book—cover to cover. Love looking into it. Always finding something new. Always finding the best of my good friend in these pages.

Here’s an introduction to Emmett for some of you: I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE PICTURE. A chapbook, revisited. We need to do this more often, revisit the stacks and shelves of small press publications we own. Honor their very existence. Honor ourselves–those who work for, have published in, or may be small press publishers. We’re a lot better than much of the mainstream out there, work a hell of a lot harder for little profit or exposure, with MUCH to show for our efforts. A whole history of underground literature in fact. Poetry Dispatch, Notes from the Underground, Basho’s Road—all these sites are filled with some astonishing work—by known and mostly unknown writers. With more to come.

Following the excerpts of Emmett’s work is a small poster about a workshop he will be teaching June 22, 23, 24 at the Peninsula Art School in Fish Creek. For details, contact: www.peninsulaartschool.com Those of you in the Midwest (or elsewhere)…I couldn’t recommend a better experience than working (just listening) to Emmett in a teaching atmosphere. You can contact him at: emmetjohnsatabqdotcom or www.emmettjohns.com. Norbert Blei

Artist Mike McCartney, artist Emmett Johns, writer Norb Blei...on an opening exhibit of Emmett's paintings.

norbert blei | six found-poems in the words and paintings of andrew wyeth

10 04 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 276 | April 9, 2009


Six Found-Poems in the Words and Paintings of Andrew Wyeth

We have all seen and discovered poems before we ever read them or found the words to write them ourselves. For as long as I remember I have ‘rescued’ (found?) poems in my surroundings.

Especially poems in the city: the writ of grit; words on walls; words scratched on homemade window signs; words twisted into colorful tubes lighting up the night skies, morphing into a mix of watercolor puddles at your feet in the glowing, wet streets; cryptic words and images chalked on concrete sidewalks by children, the truly legitimate artists of the world—ah, but for the moment.

For as long as I remember, I have communed with art and artists on every level. Brought things out-into-the-open within myself, outside myself. If ‘going-to-church’ had any meaning and effect upon me as a child, it was the glitter of gold and silver chalices; the sheen of sacred vestments, vigil candles flickering in ruby light; stained glass windows romancing the morning and evening light; the blue of the statuesque Blessed Virgin and blood-red robe of Christ, the Sacred Heart arm and hand outstretched to the multitudes; statues draped in purple during Lent. And the greatest graphic novel in the world which arrested a child’s wandering eyes when candles, chants, bells and incense lifted you toward being/not being there…that life everlasting medieval mural showing the way (for Mexican muralists and New York graffiti artists to come)…the journey, depicted along both walls of church, santuario, and cathedral: The Stations of the Cross. Lost and found. THIS way–>

Among my closest artist-friends in my lifetime, I have always seen ‘the writer’ (the poet), “the word” in the paint. Even when some never saw it, some refused to consider it. Or, in the case of my friend, Emmett Johns, we seemed mutually aware of what we held in hand, which I longed to capture (for his sake, my sake and others) in a book: I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE PICTURE, 1996, limited edition, 500 copies, Cross+Roads Press, #6. (Sold Out). The idea coming together after my seeing/reading stacks of his sketchbooks one winter, delighting in their richness of line, their sense of story, self-analysis, perception … everything down-on-paper as you see it, in the artists own words and images..

I experienced somewhat the same discovery recently going through books about Andrew Wyeth’s life and works. (See previous Poetry Dispatches –Wyeth & Peterson–at www.poetrydispatch.wordpress.com). I saw the simple poetry of Wyeth’s own words whenever he spoke about what he saw, felt. How it all came together in painting. His life as art. His art as life.– Norbert Blei

Toll Rope

Inside the church at Wylie’s Corner, Maine,
I liked going up in the belfry.
The dry quality of that church steeple,
the dried flowers,…and the sea anchor
wrapped in black crepe
from the seamen’s funerals…
totally New England.

Mill in Winter

I’m intrigued by the first moments
of a snowstorm. There’s danger in it.
You never know how it’s going to turn out.
I love the bleakness of winter and snow,
get a thrill out of the chill. God, I’ve frozen
my ass off painting snow scenes!
I’m taken by the bleakness—
not the melancholy feeling of snow.
My winter scenes…they’re not romantic.
They capture that marvelous, lonely bleakness—
the quiet, the chill reality of winter.


Look at the feeling of the lips,
the feeling of the sleeping eye,
the light that goes over the body.
Anyone who’s watched a female
form at night in that kind of light
knows that this has a strong female smell to it.
This picture—and most of the Helga pictures—
are too real for some people. You have to feel
deeply to do this kind of thing. You can’t
conjure it up, There’s a penetrating and throbbing
sexual feeling in all of the Helga pictures. I felt
the country, the house, Germany, and the dreamy,
moist, rich female smell—the whole thing.
Wholesome…fresh…really American.

Open House

…a house on a back road in Maine
where horses were rented out to ride.
I took the nurse who was taking care of me,
after I had my hip operation…she loved to ride.
..a foggy day…the house was gray, with all these
horses—one even stuck inside the house,
sticking his head out the window. The owner had a
daughter who kept horses, and he told me,
“She’s got a few boards missing in the attic.”

Love in the Afternoon

I was looking out the window in the Mill…
I go to that window and open it in the morning,
close it in the evening.
I wanted again that tawny feeling of winter
and grasses matted… I was taken by the feeling
of almost falling out of that window.
I didn’t want a frame around it.
I didn’t want a feeling of the inside of the room…
I wanted the feeling of pushing this windowpane out
and letting in the air and that you’re just there
for a second.










[SOURCES: ANDREW WYETH Autobiography, introduction by Thomas Hoving, Konecky & Konecky, 1995, $50. ANDREW WYETH, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Introduction by David McCord; Selection by Frederick A. Sweet]