In 2014, I was in residence for a month at the University of Michigan, sponsored by their Institute for the Humanities. I painted a series of seven portraits of the poets on their faculty. I each portrait was made from life in three seven hour sittings. They were designed to be displayed as a group in a particular order.
I like making portraits from life because it guarantees something is at stake. For this project I wanted an intimate yet respectful distance between me and the subject. I wanted their faces to fill the frame in a very specific proportion. Sometimes while sketching I would jot down something said. A few quotes follow. “ I have the exile’s obsession with the place I left.” “The role of the poet in oppressive societies is vital. There is a moral obligation to poetry.” “Poor art has small intentions enacted on a grand scale.” “Do your work and stand back.”
Lorna Goodison is the current poet laureate of Jamaica. For many years she divided her time between Kingston and Ann Arbor. Our conversations during our sittings were about her childhood in Jamaica and her teaching interests, particularly her liking to teach poetry to members of the football team. Her most famous book is a memoir, From Harvey River: A memoir of My Mother and Her Island, and she is the author of twelve collections of poetry.
All the poets I painted were wonderful conversationalists but none more than Laurence Goldstein. His breadth of knowledge about literature and film and about his native Los Angeles were the bass for our talks. He loves Los Angles and once said to me, “I have the exile’s obsession with the place I left.” Larry taught at the University of Michigan his entire career and he was equally known for his 32 year tenure as the editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review, where he commissioned pieces from a who’s who of American letters. His own publications include the four books of poetry and two books about cinema and cinema and poetry. He retired from teaching in 2017.
Besides being a much recognized poet, Linda Gregerson is a professor of Renaissance literature and a very busy person. Therefore, she asked if I would paint her while she read, to which I happily consented. But when she came for the second sitting, at which time the canvas would get underway, she had changed her mind. I believe she had made a calculation. It was worth her time to devote herself fully to the task of being observed. She understood that I would get something more complete about her this way. I have always viewed my portraits as collaborations and I think Linda, without discussion, came to this same conclusion. Linda has received many honors related to her poetry. For instance, in 2015 her collected poems were published, something that only happens to a very distinguished writer. That same year The New Yorker magazine published an appreciation. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Keith Taylor describes himself as a nature poet and many of his poems describe experiences while out in the land, especially during summers at a zoology study center in the Upper Peninsula. But nature for him is anything observable. While we were painting he commented once about the way the back of the canvas quivered as I made painting marks. Many of his most memorable poems are set in his own home or back yard. Keith knows a lot about a surprising range of subjects and our conversations included, for instance, mortality, artists and musicians of Detroit, his mennonite heritage, writers who never won the Nobel Prize, and the work of his own colleagues. One of his colleagues referred to Keith as “the patron saint of Ann Arbor writers.”
Laura Kisischke was initially reluctant to participate because of time constraints and when I learned of her accomplishments I knew why. In the past twenty-five years she has published nine novels and ten books of poetry. Three of her novels have been made into feature films. Because Laura chose to grade papers while I painted, I improvised and sat on the floor in order to see enough of her face. One day she asked her son, then a freshman at the university, to come by to meet me. This was an honor. On the back of her most recent book, called The Infinitesimals, The Boston Review is quoted: “The future will not—should not—see us by one poet alone. But if there is any justice in that future, Kasischke is one of the poets it will choose.”
Tarfia Faizullah is the youngest member of the MFA poetry faculty and she clearly represents a newer generation. She was my most engaged subject, the one who instantly understood the collaborative nature of sitting and the one who showed both trust and vulnerability in speaking about her life and sincerity in asking about mine. Tarfia has already won numerous honors and awards for her work. Her second book of poems will be published in 2018. She is of Bangladeshi heritage.
Khaled Mattawa was not supposed to be available for this project. He was scheduled to be on sabbatical in his home country of Libya. Political circumstances, however, made it too dangerous to travel there and he was thus the last person I painted. Adding to the interesting circumstances, he had just been awarded a MacArthur fellowship. Even though he chose to be painted while reading a novel, we had plenty of time for conversation during the long lunch breaks when he insisted on taking me to his favorite falafel shop followed by his favorite expresso. Khaled came to the United States beginning in high school and much of our conversations were about his early impressions of America and our culture. Professionally, Khaled is widely recognized as the primary translator of Arabic poetry into English. He has published four books of his own work.