Beautiful Books - Myrmurs: An Exploded Sestina

February 4, 2016

Shannon Maguire's newest collection of poetry,  Myrmurs: An Exploded Sestina (BookThug) combines medieval forms with contemporary politics. It also includes the paintings and illustrations of David Bateman, from the flurry of colour and activity that graces the book's cover to the ant figures that crawl about the interior. We're lucky to have an exclusive interview between Shannon and David for this edition of Beautiful Books, one that shows not only a deep respect for each other's work, but also what beauty can come of an artistic collaboration.

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Shannon Maguire: I was so excited when I saw the painting [used on the cover] in progress. And excited again when I saw the final book cover, which displays a detail about it. Tell me about the processes of the painting? 

David Bateman: Well, I got the canvas from a woman who is a ceramic artist, Mary McKenzie. Mary was the student of Linda Sormin who was at that time the head of Ceramics at Sheridan University, she’s now a professor at Alfred, in upstate New York—

SM: You mean the woman we ran into on the way to the Art Gallery of Ontario the other week?

DB: Yes. Linda Sormin. I know her from when I was teaching at Emily Carr. Mary McKenzie was Linda’s student. It’s funny, the canvas has a strong creative writing backstory: I had just started doing Creative Writing workshops for women ceramic artists, to help them to write their artists' statements, but some of these women took writing workshops with me privately to improve their own creative writing. So Mary, who is also a painter, had nine canvases and brought them to me in her daughter’s van and that one [that became the cover] was the first one that I started to do. I actually hated it I didn’t like it but then a poet, Shannon Maguire came to visit…

SM: You told me that the idea came out of our talks about my book and from reading an earlier manuscript version and that that the line in "Pleasure:"
asleep the airport was secured with green and purple brushstrokes & river appeared where bank tower once was (15)
suggested the colours and then I looked at the painting in progress and—

DB: Well see there. You remember more about it than I do.

SM: I guess you’d already started the painting before you’d read the manuscript?

DB: Maybe. But then when you saw it and—

SM: Loved it—

DB: I did more and Mary looked at it and helped me figure out how to make it work better. It was probably all happening at once.

SM: The other funny coincidence is that you showed me the line drawings for the interior of the book at the AGO back in April 2015. How do you describe our collaboration?

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DB: It was a very direct collaboration.  You gave me a very strong sense of what you wanted and I directly reference lines from your poems in the drawings. The ants that I did [as line drawings inside the book] are completely dependant on the shoes from that line [“Crowd (Ferromagnetic)” p. 40] about impractical shoes. All but one of the drawings was informed by that line.

SM: The prompt I gave was to do contemporary queer versions of medieval manuscript art — especially the quirky, and often bizzarely sexualized marginalia. 

DB: I just interpreted each particular line I chose from your book and was trying to give the quirky line drawings a somewhat cartoonish — but not entirely — queer aesthetic. The whole idea of the way I draw… the ant’s feet morph into these weird shapes sometimes they’re almost grotesque — aesthetic grotesque as beautiful in art as Milton’s Lycidas is a kind of grotesque — “pansy freaked with jet”: beautiful object from nature but the way Milton describes the colour that moves across the petals is beautiful-grotesque.

I guess I was also thinking of Aubrey Beardsley’s work [who illustrated Oscar Wilde’s Salome]. My background is in graphic design — and they didn’t use computers in that field in the 70s. We used mechanical pens and black ink and life drawing as part of the whole project. I did a design for a book cover of Moby Dick for a class. My designed included weeds growing up from the bottom of sea and just very stylized flowing curves of Art Nouveau or Paris Subway — elegant and rigid edge of frond — settling among them at bottom of sea was a stylized version of the whale. The instructor said: that’s not what Moby Dick is about, its about him going crazy and wreaking havoc. I said: That’s what Moby Dick did just before. The whale was demonized but in this story — the story you see in the new film version — you get a weird sympathy for him.

Even when I was twenty this was my approach. I was “don’t demonize the whale” in my work, but I don’t remember being conscious of doing that. So I could translate that into the ants in your book— the ants are always grotesque and surreal but also informed by playfulness, that very playful quality found in your poetry.  Not just the narrative playfulness with words like “fruit machine” and appropriating them back for queer writing — as horrific as that queer history was — but also the celebration of ants: so many legs, so many shoes! Camp! They’re still managing with all those legs and shoes. So queer people like Beardsley and [Edward] Gorey’s slightly cartoonish surreal black-and-white line drawing style has always appealed to me. That medieval marginalia quality came more organically but when you saw some of them you recognized it right away. The cover is more representative of the way that I paint but some paintings integrate the two. There is no integration between the style of painting and drawing they are very opposite. I had thought of suggesting something where we integrate the cover with both styles, but it would have given away too much to have an actual representation of the ant anywhere else but in these interior drawings.

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Thanks so much to Shannon, David, and Hazel from BookThug for contributing this interview! Check out Myrmurs here.


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