Self Portrait With... (Writing Prompt)
canvas and mirror
by Evie Shockley
self-portrait with cats, with purple, with stacks
of half-read books adorning my desk, with coffee,
with mug, with yesterday's mug. self-portrait
with guilt, with fear, with thick-banded silver ring,
painted toes, and no make-up on my face. self-
portrait with twins, with giggles, with sister at
last, with epistrophy, with crepescule with nellie,
with my favorite things. self-portrait with hard
head, with soft light, with raised eyebrow. self-
portrait voo-doo, self-portrait hijinks, self-portrait
surprise. self-portrait with patience, with political
protest, with poetry, with papers to grade. self-
portrait as thaumaturgic lass, self-portrait as luna
larva, self-portrait as your mama. self-portrait
with self at sixteen. self-portrait with shit-kickers,
with hip-huggers, with crimson silk, with wild
mushroom risotto and a glass of malbec. self-
portrait with partial disclosure, self-portrait with
half-truths, self-portrait with demi-monde. self-
portrait with a night at the beach, with a view
overlooking the lake, with cancelled flight. self-
portrait with a real future, with a slight chance of
sours, with glasses, with cream, with fries, with
a way with words, with a propositional phrase.
Evie Shockley's 2012 book, The New Black, looks like a must-read. I came across her poem "canvas and mirror" back when I taught the occasional creative writing course and I used her poem as a writing prompt, with sometimes enthusiastic results, and sometimes I was met with a real reticence. I found both of these reactions equally interesting. For some reason, I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and thought I would share it here, and encourage you to use it as a prompt. I did myself in a poem titled "With" which can be found in my book Asking.
What I love is that the poem starts out in the right now with the objects the speaker has around her: it begins with a still life. But then it gets more personal, then political, then dives into the past, then back into the present, and maybe into a few daydreams. There's wordplay, rhythm, there's self-deprecation, there's the truth about half-truths and representation. There's how we see ourselves and how we want ourselves to be seen. There's hijinks. She paints a picture that reveals and obscures.
When I think about self-portraits I immediately think of Rembrandt and how he painted himself over and over. I think of Artemisia Gentileschi and her famous self-portrait. (I wrote about her, so long ago now, in my first book, All the God-Sized Fruit).
I think of all the poems Adam Zagajewski has written titled, "Self-Portrait." I recently read an article in The Kenyon Review that ties Charles Wright's words to Zagajewski's poems, in which the writer notes,
It’s hard for me to come to a poem like Adam Zagajewski’s “Self-Portrait” (included in the latest issue of The Kenyon Review) without thinking of those lines from Charles Wright’s poem “Roma II” (from The Other Side of the River, 1984): “The poem is a self-portrait / always, no matter what mask / You take off and put back on.”
I think about all the ways we choose to present ourselves online. I think sometimes that the still lifes say even more about us than a selfie would. I think about how we're becoming more silent around the personal, and I think about one of my contacts and her resolve to put the social back in social media. I think about how we used to post about our lunches and people made fun of that but now politics can take over our feeds until we feel paralyzed by it. I think the Shockley poem is so successful because her poem is capacious and gets at all the multiple registers we experience all the time.
But speaking of selfies, I find the phenomenon to be pretty interesting. There's an article in The Guardian from a few years back that traces them back to the daguerrotype and onward to Andy Warhol and then to Flickr in 2004:
Although photographic self-portraits have been around since 1839, when daguerreotype pioneer Robert Cornelius took a picture of himself outside his family's store in Philadelphia (whether he had the help of an assistant is not known), it was not until the invention of the compact digital camera that the selfie boomed in popularity. There was some experimentation with the selfie in the 1970s – most notably by Andy Warhol – when the Polaroid camera came of age and freed amateur photographers from the tyranny of the darkroom. But film was expensive and it wasn't until the advent of digital that photographs became truly instantaneous.
Even though this post has included photographs of still lifes on my kitchen table, I think it says something about who I am. I find it interesting to think about all the ways in which we construct our online identity, and how that coincides with the dreams we have for ourselves, not to mention our actual reality. What can be said, what do we feel we need to or must hide? These are questions that I think we're answering without always consciously thinking about when we post things online. We are also perhaps answering, what do you love? what do you want to be known or remembered for? In what ways are you vulnerable? What scares you? What do you believe in, hope for?
So. Let's begin: