Poetic Research Department

Jessica Jacobs
Statement of Poetic Research

Before a blue sky and distant, bluer mountain range, a stark, white pelvic bone crowded the frame: Pelvis with Distance by Georgia O'Keeffe. Though I'd mentally filed O'Keeffe's work as eroticized flowers ubiquitous as postcards, during a visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in October 2011, that seventy-year-old painting appeared more vital than any of its contemporary neighbors. It was as though I could see beyond the canvas, could imagine my way into the mindset from which the painting had arisen. Standing there, I wrote a poem that seemed to be in O'Keeffe's voice—the poem that would eventually become the title piece in my book-length sequence Pelvis with Distance.

Suspecting I had as meager an understanding of O'Keeffe's biography as I did an appreciation of her paintings, I sought out every book I could find by or about her, volumes of art theory and criticism, and works about her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and their contemporaries.

In my reading, I saw O'Keeffe either lionized or reductively labeled: first as an oversexed ingénue Eliza-Doolittle-d by Stieglitz; and, later, as a de-sexualized desert "wise woman"—an image she painstakingly curated as a corrective to the initial Freudian-fueled conceptions of her. But beyond this surface scrim was a woman born in 1887 to a poor family in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, who went on to win scholarships to leading U.S. art schools in Chicago and New York, then eschewed this classical training to forge her own artistic path. In the face of fierce nationalism and pervasive misogyny, she vocally opposed World War I and supported women's rights, engaged in an open marriage with a significantly older man (who was already married when she met him), then left him and her comfortable East Coast life behind to carve out a new one in New Mexico—all while becoming one of the most renowned and best paid artists of her day.

Wanting to understand O'Keeffe's surroundings firsthand, I visited New Mexico. I spent time with her letters at the O'Keeffe Museum Research Center in Santa Fe, visited her house in Abiquiu, and camped to the north in the malpais that gave rise to her "Black Place" series. Finally, I holed up for a month to write in a small, primitive cabin nestled into an Abiquiu canyon, five miles from the nearest inhabitant. No cell service, no Internet, no electricity—mine for the month of June: a propane stove, a crate of books, and a vast expanse of land and time.

From my research, I detailed an outline of the artistic and personal periods of her life I wanted to explore, each paired with a painting or photograph. Though I often combined these points, rearranged them, or wrote about something entirely unexpected, this novelistic, narrative-driven approach to poetry was incredibly generative.

Writing ekphrasistically pressed the questions of whether poems could stand independent of their images. How much, if any, should I describe? As my travels allowed me to contextualize the paintings within their landscapes, how much should I write beyond the edges of the canvas? I would begin drafts with relatively straightforward descriptions, and then, from those prosaic foundations, try to leap into lyric.

But using these external landscapes to reach suggested interior ones also raised questions of appropriation. Was it possible to be true to the O'Keeffe I had found in her letters and paintings? How could I imagine and write beyond myself? Each canyon day became a practice in secular kenosis—emptying myself to then fill myself so full of her words and images I could speak in a version of her voice. But, of course, I could not erase myself entirely. Within the vessel of her experiences, I stowed my own concerns, explicating them with a distance and perspective I often find difficult when writing autobiographically.

Unplanned, however, was when I found myself—alone, with no one to talk to but my dog and the small band of nocturnal rodents living in my roof—writing letters directly to O'Keeffe. Again and again, she made difficult choices in favor of her art: even when her work sold well, she expanded and changed the boundaries of her subject matter—abstractions, to urban settings, to flowers, to bones and the high desert, to aerial images, to a return to abstractions. She married Stieglitz and, though she missed him when they were apart, she felt more fully herself when in New Mexico and so built a life for herself there. My letters asked what inspired her to live like this, and what gave her the strength to see it through. These epistolary poems to O'Keeffe are the "To Find You" poems.

Further Reading

While writing these poems, Laurie Lisle's Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe (New York, 1987) was my bible. Complementary strands of autobiography can be found in the art/writing books O'Keeffe compiled as she looked back over her eight decades: Georgia O'Keeffe (reprint, New York, 1985) and Some Memories of Drawings (New York, 1976). Finally, to experience O'Keeffe's voice, unstilted by thoughts of posterity, her letters are invaluable: Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters edited by Jack Cowart, Juan Hamilton, and Sarah Greenough (Boston, 1987), Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O'Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer edited by Clive Giboire (New York, 1990) and, the most engrossing of the lot, My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933 edited by Sarah Greenough (New Haven, 2011).

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