March 2, 2024

The Price of White Gold, In Conversation with the Poet Jessica Savitz

Poppy Samuels: Jessica, your book, Hunting is Painting is marvelous. No matter where I look, there’s tremendous song and ritual. The act of ritual seems important to your poems. Collecting, presenting, calling forth—why do I feel this strange pull into a sequenced rite of sorts?


I saw an amazing cave painting in France at Font de Gaume. One very affectionate reindeer licking another reindeer. So nice to think of the primitive artist and his or her systematic exploration of tenderness and aliveness by building essentially a home with images of the outside – that what is dearest for the domestic arrangement was and is our reckoning with the characters in the wilderness. (I am forever in love with The Poetics of Space, Poppy). So maybe my way of exploring the world is to create a little world – bringing the rocks and fern and sage indoors and living with the little wilderness inside. To certainly place these out-of-door items around the typewriter, arranging the leaves and rocks by size or textures or colors and considering the dissonances and harmonies and letting these considerations build up a little land of words. And then declaring that something has been built and that it should enjoy its own dirt and grass – like a protected prairie preserve, allowing the art-plot to become what it will, with its own seed and birds. And then – as in Jules Supervielle’s “Pot of Earth” – the supreme discovery becomes: “The earth set in your square pot / is the same earth I looked for / at the far end of my telescope” (Denise Levertov’s translation).

The domestic realm is supremely important to me and I think we can access spiritual delights through scrubbing a floor and making little delicate piles of jadeite. The little universe of art we make is for me indelibly tied to the little home-universe I make with my family. I also think it is interesting that all of the architecture in the world first was realized in the imagination, such that when we walk through cathedrals and cabins and brick houses we are essentially walking through the humankind’s consciousness. I enjoy meditating on the great emphasis of late on restoration and ecological responsibility which follows a hopeful shift in human consciousness – our imaginations are working to heal the earth. I like what this implies about a more sympathetic green architecture in our psyche, and the healing in our own consciousness.


 I read a lot of contemporary poetry, and no one writes like you, creating this “little land of words” enjoying “its own dirt and grass.” Martin Amis describes style as “not something grappled on to regular prose; it is intrinsic to perception.” My question then is about your sense-making in the world—namely, how do you go about making meaning from different experiences? Can you explain how it happens? Does it happen from a particular image you hold in your mind? Or, does it come from a melody in the air?


I remember reading a number of years ago about a tribe from ancient days who chose to live closer to an area with clay that they used for their art pieces (fertility figures, etc.) than to the fields in which they cultivated crops – that spiritual and artistic sustenance took precedence over feeding the body.

Our creative act is inherent in nature’s creative essence:

First we see the hills   In the painting
Then we see the painting   In the hills.

–Li Li-Weng

Did primitive peoples, in their temple-caves, in a sort of soft history, think of time passing in the evening light? I think our art is in us as our ancestors are in us. The ancestor mask if part of the apotropaic uniform recognized by the poets to protect us during our artful searching, as we search for the center in these old realms – the animal world, the primitive people, the first fire, the family tree – and our torchlight makes new designs. I like trying to get as close as I can to the roots of things – which I often encounter through visual data – the imagery humanity is heaping up – and in the feeling of natural spaces.


Someone told me you like George Oppen. Here are a few lines from his Daybooks that strike me as important to your own work: “Art can come only from a very dangerous thing to do. To search for the roots of one’s own existence and one’s own sensibility. And to try to body that forth, to cause it to appear in clarity.”


My bravest self views death and space as owning a kindly energy, decay and emptiness rendering more clearly the living figure – as with Karl Blau’s mockingbird or in “Before the Dawn” by Kikaku: “For presentation / I have added the darkness – / the plum blossoms.” Weirdly, nostalgias create new realities. If memory itself is an oil painting drying slowly, we can access and change the arrangements and color of these older regions.


Yes, memory as painting. Your book has delightful drawings between each section. Where did these come from? Obviously the visual arts are important to you. Who influences you?


The drawings as well as the cover image are the works of Allison Hawkins, a brilliant artist and also a terrifically kind and modest person – a dear friend I met in my college days. I admire her stunningly precise, novel and sympathetic investigations of the wilderness. It’s such a gift to admire someone so much as an artist and as a person, and fascinating to get to see how her work evolves over time.

We have a wonderful Alice DuBois painting in our entryway – In Bear Country – with wonderful branches and hiding kindly bears and a rainbow, chunky glitter, inky mushrooms – I like the way our own family mythology (for we have stories with our daughters of ponies and foxes) can get imagined all the time standing in front of such a magical painting.

My father introduced me recently to the photographs of Edward Burtynsky whose camera is a witness to violence as it creates new worlds, but also to the relief of the wilderness reworking blighted spaces – viney life in the mines. In the gorgeous works of Vivian Maier, life paints the shadow of the artist on the sunny beach and the feeling of Venetian blinds held up by those classical-looking pleated lengthy cloths. Photographs are so mysterious! I gaze hopefully at the soiled square of a photograph, the little window of a photograph, the life-painting of a photograph.

I love the works of Roxane Hopper (I also like witnessing her planting little plants) and those of Adam Ekberg. I treasure a supremely beautiful photograph my mother, Shery Baylor, took of light on the trunks of pine trees. And the wonderful black and white Firework Studies of Pierre Le Hors. And speaking of reworking color in black and white – one of my friends recently told me all those wonderful busts from antiquity, made bald-white through time, were once vividly painted – how strange to re-imagine the ancient world in this way!

Images flock into my mind and I put them down in words, but I am so enchanted by the skills of the visual artists.

If I imagine a scene – say bands of women and men on horses, trotting about an amphitheater, and like an avalanche through the roof the snow comes crashing and a figure falls from his horse, or say there is a group of western photographers from the early 1900s with their black and yellow bandanas tied about their necks smartly, or maybe I dream up a magical creature with pointy shoes chipping the rocks from the mud in the base of the waterfall – the cool thing is, as I describe these visual possibilities, they feel as if they already exist in a series of Jeff Wall photographs.

It’s also just plain fun to admire art and poetry and music in the company of friends. Letting the whole wheel of a Neil Young record turn in the candlelight and toasting the magnificence of the sound with your buddies. It’s also fun for best-friends to have doubles of the same print – if best-friends live states away, but each displays the same art poster in their apartments, you can think of the same image as a “portal”. This is how doubles of Charles Burchfield’s Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon and Alec Soth’s Charles – link Illinois to New York to Massachusetts in my life.


I really like this idea of the portal—the poem and its relation to a shared history. But why poetry? How does poetry nourish you?


I think poetry can be a spiritual art form and that making metaphor can heal us. It almost seems like poets inherit atmosphere and imagination straight from the ancients – and as we can walk around in ancient buildings, we inherit ideas and can walk around in them, like in Denise Levertov’s “Two Girls”. Art becomes the history we study. And the study of any art can get stuffy, but the primary thing is so gorgeous and so a part of all of us. The sacredness is in each of us:

“The individual’s life, spread through time, and different under different circumstances, is the original complete protocol. In this form it can barely be read, let alone statistically processed. Moreover, it is a protocol in its own unique language having a unique frame of reference. It is important to recognize at the outset that the phenomenology of an individual life is not scientific and only with some work can be processed into the mode of science. A human’s life I see as pre-scientific, although it may provide data for science as stones do to a geologist.” (“The Natural Depth in Man”, Wilson Van Dusen.)


Speaking of earth’s materials, your poems contain giant stretches of gold—the gold that comes from the “drapery of sunlight” and the idea that “these golden living leaves / are celebrated / everything made for them to be made upon….”  But the light is also “greened / it’s ruined / braided minerals on the cave walls….”


I guess lots of folks have talked about the balance of what’s going on in the wilderness, the little mushrooms puffing up on the fallen tree. But it never becomes tiresome to think about! There is something life-giving about all of the asymmetries of growing and passing things. My husband says “Irony is the distance from heaven to earth” and we both love the woods—you don’t really find irony there exactly, so I guess it’s a kind of heaven. As a mother, I feel the need more and more for that kind of heaven for my girls. I think they already know about it intuitively! They smile at the light and the water. They laugh at the sound of the winter geese.


That’s such a lovely vision: girls smiling at the light, at water. What are you working on right now? What are you thinking about in your work?


I think a lot about the mysterious origins of music and art (fascinating to look at the children’s imagery from around the world in Rhoda Kellogg’s research). I think being a new mother is shifting my consciousness and I look forward to the new art in the world that will find its way to me.

I spent an afternoon recently daydreaming about modernism on a chilly walk. I was thinking about the sort of cold patience in Marianne Moore’s lines. The generous restrictiveness, which feels both like a love affair and abstract geometry. It’s almost as wonderful as the way I feel loving is in Lauren Levin’s talk about shapes; like the tenderness in a stark black and white photograph I have – in cursive on the back it says “Jamaica high school 1941”. Such a mysterious, very feeling scene! Or like the feeling of “Twin Layers of Lightning” by the Go-Betweens.


Yes, Modernism suits a chilly walk. Can you talk more about Modernism?


There is a scary and holy elegance in Modernism that feels so passionate – like the embers breathing red within the form of a volcano and then falling into a very cold sea. Color might be an organizing principle in painting; or in music, melody might be an organizing principle – but the modernists, rather than singing with the spooky unified melody-line of Palestrina, located the harmonic arcs of a rainbow – they allowed for the harmonic metaphor to be the center. Isn’t harmony a kind of melody in its own right – doesn’t it own its own meaning? Isn’t the figure of the person in harmony with the earth? Everything concerns this.

Anyway, I love Marianne Moore’s “In the Days of Prismatic Color” – it’s so earthy and stern! “When there was no smoke and color was / fine” – when life itself was art – “not with the refinement / of early civilization art, but because of its originality.” These were the sophisticated angels of geometries of branches and grasses.

And “No Swan So Fine” is so incredible and so removed. Like a small miniature pen and ink drawing of a gentlemen’s grand duel. The swan as it “perches on the branching foam / of polished sculptured / flowers – at ease and tall. The King is dead.” The heat of the emotion and even hatred and even love has been reinterpreted and made fine. In Modernism, there is a deeper unity than “form,” or it’s a deeper form; it’s unity like a person. The form is the overall form and no-form of nature.


Who are your other poetry sisters?


I really love, first of all, Lauren Levin’s work. Levin’s poetry is a portrait of philsophizing about kindness, anger and fairness in a landscape; it’s a drawing that she constantly alters as she points to different possibilities as we move through it, like a instant-engineer – the considerations and evidence aren’t fixed but living and moving: “not points but more like building cloudheads.” I love the way her poems make up new sense material, in new settings with magical impact – “you can draw parakeets in the interest behind this page.” And all of these amazingly named characters, too, in that context – Lilian, Emily Grossman, Toby, Miss Kelly. And figures aren’t only figures but their names, and the outline of their names – I love the contours, the profiles that build with the characters – the names of the characters – an amazing heap of outlines. But the new sense of these outlines has so much feeling!!!! Which is something I have always loved about her poems – she talks about a circle and I just want to cry! Because there is something in that shape that has so much feeling, (“in a sadness by choice / that has blood in it”), and the precision of the “evidence” somehow has so much lushness all at once – “her face on top of all her experience”, the “aura of testing” – and the portraits, say of Irv Kerstein & Mrs. Forsyth, are painted by “the sun with its flesh”. Dear God! I like how the voice in the poems builds up these outlines but then also relinquishes control over what and who will persist – observing changing but hoping for the permanence of a character – “I love you because if you are in the future it means you have persisted.” And that people might persist in the rendering of them – the “muralist’s truth”.

I also think Louise Bogan is pretty amazing; and H.D.; Erica Fiedler’s magical realms; Catherine Theis’ anciently modern elegance and brilliance. And I think there is so much poetry in a book like Vigrinia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I read it once in a natural history museum in Iowa City – it’s eerie to read the Modernists in places like this – with stone stairs and living frozen postcard scenes of life past in the display cases! Isn’t this passage amazing:

“Well, I’ve had my fun; I’ve had it, he thought, looking up at the swinging baskets of pale geraniums. And it was smashed to atoms – his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought – making oneself up; making her up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more. But odd it was, and quite true; all this one could never share – it smashed to atoms.”

It’s so refined and primal all at once, the private life of the imagination put this way.

I get very excited continuously by Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Monument”. I love the poem “Persimmons” written by Linda Daniels, my mother, in the ’70s in California; my father had a typewritten version taped to his filing cabinet near his desk for years. I like locating the sister-poets also in places like 1960s paperbacks in the outer edges of the library as in Barry Stevens’ Person to Person, a book she wrote with Carol Rogers. Here is Barry Stevens from “The Curtain Raiser”:

“In the beginning, I was one person, knowing nothing but my own experience.  Then I was told things, and I became two people: the little girl who said how terrible it was that the boys had a fire going in the lot next door where they were roasting apples (which was what the women said)—and the little girl who, when the boys were called by their mothers to go to the store, ran out and tended the fire and the apples because she loved doing it.”


Of course we might find you in the outer-edges of the library! This last passage reads almost like a creation myth. We’ve talked a lot about poetry and serious stuff, but I’m always curious about the daily things that keep artists happy. What’s your favorite song right now? What’s your favorite lunch?


“Ways of Escape” by Great Lakes (with spooky-beautiful harmony by my best friend Suzanne). “Persian Love Song” by Holger Czukay. And always “Love in Mind” and “L.A.” by Neil Young. “California” by Brothers and Sisters.  All music by my father, Michael Daniels. “Blues Doggie” by Rachel Leber. “Quiet Heart” by the Go-Betweens (live on SNAP).  All of my Monir Vakili lp. 4 part harmony in a stone corridor overlooking spring in a courtyard.

Chalupas with sprouts, avocado, sour cream, salsa verde and a mango lassi (with the accompanying music: hymns, pop songs, distortion, love songs to God, birthday songs, songs made up while taking a walk through the forest or dunes or whistled in the lake. Music tinged with nostalgia. Music made up of protective forces).

Poppy, don’t you think it’s so nice sensing the friendship and casual hanging-out-ness of the music you love, like it’s summer and you’re carrying around “Rooming House on Venice Beach” in your heart and it’s like you are carrying your pals’ sneakers back from the shore because you can still feel the heat in them? Or maybe you’re traveling in an old BMW from the coast with your friends. Maybe Pete Seeger’s “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” comes on the tape deck (“When Love was Lord of All”). It’s so nice. And there’s such infinity in music. My husband and I have a song book called 7420 Guitar Chords and it makes me so happy – all those possibilities – so many chords and arrangements.


There’s a Laura Riding poem, called “Death as Death” and one of the lines goes, “…the prophetic eye closing upon difficulty, opens upon comparison…” Riding’s poem swirls around opposites: life and death, paradise and hell, ease and difficulty, seeing and unseeing. But it never really privileges one over the other, instead it seems to suggest that the present moment is completely its own; completely original in its force. Your poems work this way, too, especially “The Dying Arrangement as Living Being” which is a tour de force. Can you talk about aliveness in your work? Your poems are an arrow pointing to the fountain of youth, did you know that?


Poppy, I feel so jubilant hearing you say this! I think because I became a mother since Hunting is Painting came out, I feel so different now than from the person who wrote those poems in many ways. And I wonder what sort of energy I am putting out into the world and hope that my creative work comes to good, contributing to keeping the earth good and free and a good place for my children to grow and grow their own creative work upon. I love the story of Joseph Campbell and the guru in India he visited in the ’50s; after Campbell noted that everything is sacred and intertwined, the guru replied, “For you and me, we say Yea to it all.” I like to imagine “putting on the green gloves” when I pull out my writing notebook – growing and restoring good things, inventing a new harmony. Perhaps having children changes the focus of scale: the most domestic and intimate finally explodes outward into a world-view, that “a single dust mote is the revelation of reality” (Dogen). Above all, I am interested in helping to heal the earth and I am interested in the good that abides in every generation of people. Having children means the most to me, and I would like future creative work to be in homage to them. I feel closest to the beautiful domestic world, architecture, the natural world, creativity, and even the cosmos when I am with them.


Annie Duthil:


”I am in a house in a Japanese print

The sun is everywhere, for everything is transparent.”



More about Jessica Savitz:


1 Comment on The Price of White Gold, In Conversation with the Poet Jessica Savitz

  1. Oh my, such an excellent and life affirming read – so many of Savitz’ ideas about the art of poetry are really about the art of living – I’m reminded of Rilke’s remark, upon reading Rodin’s writing on art, that one could substitute “Sculpture” for “God.” And that’s how it is, here, and so much is just so quotable: “the overall form and no-form of nature”, “My bravest self views death and space as owning a kindly energy, decay and emptiness rendering more clearly the living figure”, not to mention her overwhelmingly (I near tears) sensitive reading of the poet Levin, whose poetry “is a portrait of philsophizing about kindness, anger and fairness in a landscape; it’s a drawing that she constantly alters as she points to different possibilities as we move through it, like a instant-engineer.”

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