The Colorado Poet, #25, Winter 2013-2014

Interview: Bill Tremblay

The Magician’s Hat

Bob King: Bill, your 2003 Shooting Script: Door of Fire, which won the Colorado Book Award in 2004, was about the Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera and his period. This year’s Magician’s Hat focuses on the muralist Siqueiros from the same historical period. How did you come to be fascinated by these men and/or this period? What was their attraction for you?

Bill Tremblay:  I visited Mexico twice in 1977-78, once with Philip Garrison who was a delightful guide, full of stories, some of them true, and once with Cynthia for a two-month stay which turned into an art tour of twelve cities. We sat in the gardens of the Blue House. I sketched the fountains, the lay-out, raised flower beds with Birds of Paradise, royal palms, the walls covered in bougainvillea. We also went to the Museo de Belles Artes where Siqueiros’ big mural, “The Torture of Cuauhtémoc,” stands with Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads.”

Rivera paints with a brush, Siqueiros with a blowtorch.

I jotted down a note: Rivera paints with a brush, Siqueiros with a blow-torch. Rivera was the more naturally graceful draftsman, but Siqueiros was powerful and passionate, and he painted with acrylics which give his figures—especially those clad in armor—an iridescence that imprinted itself on my senses. So I began to study his life and work. We visited his house in the Palanca section of Mexico City. But once I saw “Portrait of the Bourgeoisie” in the Electrician’s Union Building, I saw that he painted metaphors. That meant that—in the current parlance—he was saw the ironies in the life surrounding him and presented them as a “visual vehicle” carrying a “social tenor.”

One main irony was historical. The Mexican Revolution [1910-1920] that brought in the Party of Institutional Revolution (an oxymoron to my mind) and supposedly a more just and equal distribution of wealth was quickly being compromised by the very same aristocrats against whom the war had been fought. So Siqueiros painted a huge scene of burning temples of justice and gas-masked, helmeted men in the streets channeling this line of people stretching back to a distant horizon, all of whom step into a minting press—a kind of Midas machine—and are turned into gold coins.  The more I studied it the more I realized that none of the “soldiers” were forcing people into the machine. The more I studied it the more I realized that none of the “soldiers” were forcing people into the machine. People were willingly offering themselves up to be transformed into commodities.

Siqueiros’ art and life were intimately connected to his ironic perceptions about the disconnect between elections as supposed expressions of the people’s will and how their representatives were doing something else. The whole time I was writing Magician’s Hat my country was at war, an increasingly unpopular war. How did Siqueiros handle his realization that the Mexican government was not fulfilling its revolutionary promises to the people? How did his sensibilities, his perceptions, influence the style and content of his work? It occurred to me that he made murals that reveal a contradiction between what was promised and what was delivered. Simply put: the country in his eyes was not what its government claimed it to be.

And then I saw the billboard advertising his permanent collection, “The March of Humanity,” in the Polyforum; a picture of him wearing a crown of thorns made of bayonets. Someone apparently thought Siqueiros was a Christ-figure who battered himself bloody against the so-called “revolution” he had fought in, enlisting when he was 16 years old and by all accounts winning the admiration of his comrades-in-arms, so much so that though he was exposing their corruption they could only exile or imprison him, but they couldn’t have him killed. I’ve thought since Magician’s Hat was published that a good subtitle might me, “A Hero of the Revolution and What Befell Him.”

The more I read about Siqueiros and looked at his paintings, the more I wrote about him, the more it occurred to me that I wasn’t making a hero out of him.

He was hot-tempered and often impulsive. The more I read about him and looked at his paintings, the more I wrote about him, the more it occurred to me that I wasn’t making a hero out of him. I could see a character arc in him. He did something rash in attacking Leon Trotsky’s house. He did time in prison for that. But even before that in his crossing the Andes he had realized that the utopia he hoped for wasn’t going to happen, at least not in his lifetime. And so in “The March of Humanity” we see a vision of the future, the emergence of a new kind of person. One detail of the vast mural shows a man being born out of another man’s chest. So there’s all that swirling together in the poems that make up Magician’s Hat, plus his falling in love with and marrying Angelica Arenal. The artist, the fighter, the lover. It was an exciting challenge to find a verbal parallel to how his paintings worked. Once you have studied a big Siqueiros mural you see that there is a compositional grammar in the placement of figures.

BK: You called the former book a “shooting script” and you’ve put Magicians Hat on a CD as a “radio play” and I know you presented it as a live radio play at Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins. What’s the attraction or benefits for you of thinking about these other media at the same time as poetry?

BT: Just before I retired from teaching I started to follow an interest I’ve always had in film. I went to three or four seminars on writing screenplays because I’m fascinated with the form, the language of the camera. I saw immediately that narrative structure in film doesn’t work nearly as well as when the writer has gone beyond structure into the depths of characters and the depths of scenes. I’ve always been a story-teller, right from the beginning in Crying in the Cheap Seats. On my professional card, it says Bill Tremblay, Writer. It’s possible to regard the poems in Magician’s Hat as very like “flash fiction” only it has rhythms that matter.

Jonathan Holden’s book also had a big influence on me. One of the main insights of his book Style and Authenticity in Modern Poetry is that in an effort to “make it new” 20th Century poets had borrowed the forms of other arts. More recently it’s been called “ekphrastic” art. Wallace Stevens found many important parallels between poetry and painting, as did Frank O’Hara. Hart Crane used film in such poems as “Chaplinesque” and “To Brooklyn Bridge.” If I were going to attempt writing about Siqueiros’ inner drives and convictions, loves and losses, I thought to develop a narrative style that borrowed in its structure from film partly because Sergei Eisenstein once asked rhetorically in Notes of A Film Director, “What is afilm but an animated mural?”

I call it “concrete expressionism,” the style I’m inventing in the book, a form of lyrical narrative rather than the poem one sees most often today, a lyrical meditation. So there were convergences. As I think I’ve already indicated it changes the way figurative language operates, i.e. on a book-wide level rather than only in the phrasing of a line. I can use images in one poem that I use again later, only in an ironic and revelatory way. The second time it’s used it has context, resonance, in a way different from a brief lyric.

As for the radio play, that was completely after the fact of the book. A friend and former student came to me with an idea to revive the poetry and fiction readings at Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins, but there was a need to raise funding for it. So I came up with the idea of a radio play based on Magician’s Hat as a way of doing that. We could do a “reader’s theater” version of the book with sound effects and original music and slides of Siqueiros’ major works that were in the book. It worked. We sold tickets. The poetry and fiction series is alive and functioning. Meanwhile, I got to work with friends in a theater experience that had its technological side, i.e. we made a CD of the performance as a permanent record of our experiment. We worked with a program called SONAR and it was magical what our sound engineer could do with those sine-waves.

BK: Stylistically, what was your concept of the line in these poems? It seems as though your basic line, with some exceptions, is a 10 syllable, pentameter line. Also, did this subject matter cause a stylistic change in the poetry for you?

The line is an elastic form that can expand to encompass the demands of the “subject” as well as the “treatment.”

BT: The line is an elastic form that can expand to encompass the demands of the “subject” as well as the “treatment.” Blank verse is an appropriate choice of a line-form for  a book of poems with narrative and dramatic elements; it works in drama because it can be soliloquy or dialogue which can include narrative-descriptors and even, as in Henry IV, Part I, highly inventive invective! Its caesuras make it possible to express quick “turns” in sensibility as the poem proceeds in time. Internal as well as end-stopped rhymes are available. If you look at the title poem, “Magician’s Hat,” for example, you’ll see the opening stanza end like this:

Valets skittered over sidewalks dusted
          with evening frost
hauling luggage through white clouds of

I don’t do that much rhyming, but there are other examples. The main pulse is toward a certain verbal density capable of rendering atmospheric influences on perception and behavior. Density comes out of a sense of layered reality. For instance, my feeling is that Siqueiros came out of the Spanish Civil War where he served as an artillery officer with a degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. I show that in “Chapultepec Park” with its flashbacks. Cranes are being used to pound piles for the foundation of a 30-story office building. And the pounding is, like howitzers, very iambic. It’s a point of interest to me to see how much turbulence I can inject into a line before it breaks.

It’s a point of interest to me to see how much turbulence I can inject into a line before it breaks.

The same questions that apply in writing plays operate in Magician’s Hat. What is driving David Siqueiros? Is there a difference between what he wants and what he needs? Is he able to express his internal issues through his work in such a way that his “The March of Humanity” shows a much different world in a much different style than “Portrait of the Bourgeoisie”? My mature poetics have been a poetics of embodiment. Discursive impulses I can release through teaching, editing, writing reviews, or answering your questions. To answer your question directly: a line in Magician’s Hat is a “shot” in film; shot; shot; shot … and what is accreting is I hope the components of an insight that the reader infers for him- or herself.

BK:     In general, what can poetry add to history in your opinion?

BT: Poetry can add a lyricism to the narration of events which includes elements of ritual and myth, i.e. it can discover an answer to the question of what makes one event ordinary and another event legendary. I remember when I was a freshman we had to do an essay comparing Thucydides’ to Herodotus. Herodotus tried to deliver the inner workings of the Athenians and Spartans. But the bigger issue is whether the poetry offers some “ value added” to the recitation of facts or the description of people and places. For instance, in Shooting Script, the first poem, “The Blue House,” begins: 

Evening. Pan down a herringbone sky
the color of hammered copper, sunbeams through royal palm-fronds striking the
          indigo walls
Diego painted as a wedding present to
giving it a fountain for a mouth and a
          tongue of water          
so it could bear its blue witness.

I think the last two lines catapults the language such that it’s operating on a different plane. The blue house is a living thing. When the workmen hammer it to make it a fortress to protect Trotsky, “it moans.” The whole project is to animate, to make the still image move, to bring everything to life. Other poets whom I admire do other things for other reasons with their poems. But using the language of a cinematography gives me a way of working that helps me unite a stanza into a continuous flow.

Key moments in Siqueiros’ life—particularly given that I try to keep the events within the window of 1936 to 1940 with a couple of exceptions—are everywhere in the fabric of his life as artist, as lover, as a man beset by powerful others in the government who want him to come over to their side and become a propagandist for the status quo.

Another subtitle I could have used is: “The Three Temptations of David Siqueiros”

Another subtitle I could have used is: “The Three Temptations of David Siqueiros.” Three times during the book different men—President Lazaro Cardenas, Colonel Leandro Salazar, and Manuel Suarez y Suarez tell him that “as a hero of the revolution [he] could write his own ticket if only …” Siqueiros says to Salazar, “But that is precisely what I must not do, Leandro.” Perhaps the biggest irony was that Siqueiros did not understand Trotsky. If he had he might have found a lot to agree with. Instead, he led a paramilitary assault on Trotsky’s house in an attempt to stop Trotsky from interfering with Lazaro Cardenas’ internal policy-making.

BK: How long did it take you to write this book. And do you think you’re done with this subject matter?

BT:      In years, I worked on Magician’s Hat from 2005 until late 2012. It went through many drafts. One draft was called Fire With Fire, which seemed to me a fair indicator of what I thought Siqueiros brought to his art. I saw him as a Promethean figure, even more so than a Christ figure. The book was much longer. I was trying to do too much. I needed to find the “spine” of the story, his continuous experimentation with visual media. Also the legs it stood on: love and war. It took me a long time to shake the book down to something continuous so that the events could hang together.

I don’t know if I’m done with this subject matter. I might be “done” with Siqueiros, but what of what Siqueiros represents, the “engaged artist”? Is social surrealism the only way to be engaged? I’m reading an essay right now by a philosopher named Hans-Georg Gadamer called “The Relevance of the Beautiful: Art as Play, Symbol, and Festival,” in which he tries to find a new legitimacy for art after the “tragic speechlessness in the face of the unsayable.” What is that, “the unsayable”? Is it the possibility of nuclear annihilation? What has that possibility done to our minds? Has it made us wish for an apocalypse? What is the difference between apocalypse and holocaust? Gadamer seems to suggest that art and poetry is what we do in pursuit of these questions in an age without certitude, and it holds out the possibility that by renewing our sensorium we can find the concrete basis of desire and its fulfillment. Though I have been advocating for lyrical narrative, I have a manuscript of lyrical meditations I’m working on right now that tries to address these questions.

To view photos of Siqueiros’ paintings,:

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A poem can’t just be interesting. It has to have some passionate meaning somewhere in it. Or it has to create a passion.
--C. K. Williams