“There is comfort in this orderliness”: An Interview with LB Thompson and Ellen Wiener

Pine Hills Review recently published “Enter Legend,” an excerpt from Fibonacci Monstrosity by LB Thompson, paired with a detail from “Longhand Forest” by Ellen Wiener. The collaborative project sounded so interesting we though it would be a good idea to pass along some questions about it. Here are their answers.

Can you explain the appeal of the Fibonacci? I imagine, that in both poetry and in drawing, there is an appeal in knowing that nature has its own golden spiral, that it’s not something entirely human-made?

The appeal is precisely what you have imagined. People are comforted by order, and mathematics offers proof–I think it is significant that mathematicians use the word “proof”–of what seems to be an underlying natural matrix. The Fibonacci sequence is expressed in the arrangement of sunflower seeds on the bloom’s black face, and in the curve of a nautilus shell. We used the nautilus spiral to chart the poems across the forest by inserting camouflaged capped tubes containing the poems when this work was first exhibited at Art Sites Gallery in May of 2014. When we plotted the curves onto the forest, we thought “it works!”

There was almost a sense that it had been predetermined. This expression of natural order has lead people to try all kinds of Fibonacci experiments, including a method of forecasting the stock market.

I will add that while the sequence was named for Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci (c.1170–c. 1250), Fibonacci did not discover the sequence; rather, he introduced the system to the West. Indian mathematicians used the sequence as early as the 6th century, and it was a principle in Sanskrit prosody. Perhaps its roots in poetry tempted Inger Christianson (Danish poet, 1935-2009 translated by Susanna Nied) to write Alphabet. The New Directions edition opened my eyes to the poetic potential of the sequence, and I am indebted to her for that introduction.

Christensen’s sequence grows longer and longer as the alphabet progresses, but I found that after reaching the longest (89-line) poem, I wanted to reverse the sequence and go back toward the one-line utterance.

Is there a temptation cheat the Fibonacci, either word- or line-wise?

Working with any received form, there is a temptation, or a need to deviate from the grid the form provides. Considering, for example, Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle One Art, the lack of rigidity in her phrases and the subtle variations in the refrains prevent the form from entrapping the poet. Instead, the form enables the looping, emotionally desperate motions of her mind to latch onto a structure. Again, there is comfort in this orderliness.

I wrote the 19 poems in the sequence at a time when I was in emotional chaos and needed to reckon with it and understand it. The Fibonacci sequence became a skeleton on which I could drape this mess and try to make something of it.

When Ellen speaks about the role of the Fibonacci sequence in Longhand Forest, she speaks of feeling a necessity to make a thicket, and then the necessity of getting out of it. The forest wall can be “read” from left to right. The detail here in Pine Hills Review is from a moment toward the right end where there is a feeling of finding a clearing in the thicket, and the perspective in that detail is more distant. The poem “Enter Legend” comes from the opposite end of the sequence, but because at both the beginning and end the lyrics are short, there is a sense of resolution that is possible in the smaller numbers. The monstrosity begins with the voice of Virgil and ends with Dante calling Virgil’s name, crying out his goodbye in the Purgatorio. That point of view from the distant edges of Western poetry is one kind of perspective offered here, as is its opposite – the dense thicket of the forest drawing and the unresolved conflict in the longest poem Nocturne: Locked Bucks.

Perhaps the most famous use of the fibonacci sequence is in Dan Brown’s blockbuster mystery The Da Vinci Code. Are there any mysteries embedded in your Fibonacci Monstrosity?

Oh yes. There are a great many mysteries in both the poem sequence and in Longhand Forest. Some of the buried treasure is source material. Echoes from Dürer and Altdorfer as well as the brothers Grimm resound in Longhand Forest just as characters from literary history (Kafka, Dickinson, Yeats and more) speak their lines in the dramatic poem sequence. Enter Legend introduces the perspective of a character called Legend, whom I met reading Kafka’s story The Burrow. [“They {moles} are creatures of the inner earth; not even Legend can describe them.”]

Perhaps more literally, there are many objects in the forest, so that it seems one finds a previously unseen shovel or basket for example in the dense woods, and a lectern or conservatory in the wider view at the right edge.

Oh yeah: why do you both call it a “monstrosity”?

Take a look at a photograph of a star-nosed mole. It has to be one of the strangest, most alien looking creatures on earth. The New York Times ran an article in the Science section about this creature with the title: A Masterpiece of Nature? Yuck!

Also, the creatures in Fibonacci Monstrosity live in extremity. The star-nosed mole has the keenest sense of touch of any animal, though he is blind. The swan is alone, no longer paired, and so is in a state of extremity in swan terms. The Canadian red-sided garter snakes are the reptiles who live the farthest north, and have adapted grotesque behaviors to survive in that habitat. They are all monsters because they have adapted to survive in extremity, an underlying metaphor in the sequence.

Does exhibiting a 17-foot long drawing present any special challenges?

The original mixed media on paper work is 17 feet long because the longest wall in Ellen Wiener’s studio 17 feet. For the first exhibition of Longhand Forest, the drawing was scanned, printed at its original scale, and mounted on wood panels, and the poems were inserted in camouflaged capped tubes. [see images below] For the current exhibition Drawing Closer, at Vanderbilt, Ellen enlarged the scan of the original to 24 feet specifically for the wall in the Sarratt Gallery and Student Center, and printed it as a banner. The poems appear as a grid of posters on a perpendicular wall with details from the forest, just as they appear in the catalog Fibonacci Forest, which is available for purchase on our websites.

The Brooklyn Rail review of your project detects a sense of play between the two collaborators, a “wink and a nod” between artist and poet. I was wondering if you could talk about that?

We have now completed three large-scale collaborations, and with each project we often find that we happen to be reading the same book, or researching similar fascinations; then we explore those threads together and weave them into the work. We also make discoveries during our conversations or editorial dialogs, or when we are in each other’s studios. We are each exploring what we most want to explore personally, yet continue to find overlapping themes, emotional notes, and sources. A “me too!” feeling occurs organically and points the way, rather than moving through a pre-charted, shared journey.

Ellen Wiener (right) is a painter and printmaker whose latest work concentrates on literary sources and pictorial language. Recent exhibitions include work at PS1-MOMA, The National Academy, Lori Bookstein and Central Booking Galleries. She has held faculty appointments at Sarah Lawrence Writers Institute, Princeton University, SUNY Stony Brook.

LB Thompson studied poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA in Creative Writing from NYU. She has received awards for emerging writers from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Her chapbook, Tendered Notes: Poems of Love and Money, won the Center For Book Arts prize. Her poems and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner, and Stonecutter, as well as other literary magazines and websites. She teaches writing at The New School and at Suffolk County Community College.

“Drawing Closer,” a show exhibiting work from the Fibonacci Monstrosity, is at Vanderbilt University’s Sarrett Gallery September 1 to October 5, 2015.

This entry was posted in Interviews on September 19, 2015