Thursday, July 23, 2015

Sean Hill: Artist Statement

I’ve been in Anchorage for the last couple of days for the UAA Low Res MFA residency; I’m the guest poet. I’ve met some really cool people and had a blast. Last Friday was my last day with the folks at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. I had a great time there too. My co-teachers, Jeanne ClarkSarah Pape, and Don Rearden, were fantastic. I felt privileged to sit among the students and learn from them. The three of them kick-started some writing for me with the exercises they walked us through. We also had the good fortune of having Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, author of the poetry collection Steam Laundry, come in as guess teacher in the afternoon a couple of times last week. 

On Wednesday she talked to us about ars poeticas—poems about writing poetry, and on Friday she talked about genre blurring and form. And, as I remember it, on Friday she also brought up artist statements that are sometimes required for applications for grants and fellowships and those kinds of opportunities. That morning in an act of shameless self-promotion I’d shared with the class that my poem “The Sun in Bemidji, Minnesota” was that day’s Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day poem. The Poem-a-Day is distributed via e-mail, and it’s a free subscription. I like this series because the poets provide a note that accompanies the poem; it’s a resource I ask my students to subscribe to for that reason. I like that the reader gets sort of a glimpse at the poet’s process. I’d mentioned to the class that I liked the note that I’d written as much as I liked the poem. That somehow the two worked together for me. This came up again in the afternoon when Nicole mentioned the dreaded artist statement. 

I’ve heard other writers say that they don’t like to write artist statements. As a matter of fact, a few years ago I went to a panel at AWP about applying for grants and fellowships and such, and when the artist statement came up there was loud protest from the room—audience members wanted to know why they would have to write about their writing. They felt it was an unfair and unnatural thing to ask a writer to do that—to explain his or her work. I think the sentiment was that the work should stand for itself, that it shouldn’t need explanation or defense, and perhaps, that the writer’s impulse and process were either self-evident or irrelevant. At the time I’d already gone through the process of applying to such things a few times with some failure and some success, and I was there mostly because I knew the panelists, but I was wondering if I might pick up some tip like the rest of the audience. The panelists shared their experiences, and they were similar to mine. The application process isn’t mysterious, but it can be complicated. The tips were things you hear if you go to one of those informational sessions that granting organization often hold (I suggestion you attend one of these if you’re thinking about applying for a grant or fellowship or something like that). They suggested educating yourself about the grant or fellowship, making sure you’re a good fit for them and vice versa, getting started with the process early, writing down the questions that will arise out of the process, and contacting the organization to seek answers. All pretty straightforward stuff if you don’t go into the process (including writing an artist statement) thinking of it as adversarial. 

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine in Fairbanks was applying for a project grant through the Rasmuson Individual Awards Program, and, as I remember it, the artist statement caused my friend great consternation. Here’s what the actual application says, “E. Artist Statement Provide no more than a one page statement describing why you make your art, how you make your art, and what your art means to you. Keep your artist statement short and clear. Your statement is about you, so personalize it.” If you’ll notice it’s marked letter “e.” There are four other things including a budget that come before the artist statement. The artist statement comes right before the work sample identification form and the work sample. These are perhaps the most important part of one’s application, but one should attend to the application as a whole and make sure it’s the best it can be. By the way, I’ve added a link above to a post on artist statements recommended by the Rasmuson Foundation.

I think of the artist statement as an opportunity for me to ruminate on, bring into focus, and articulate for myself and others what I’ve done, what it is I’m up to. I don’t know if anyone will read the note that follows my poem (they shouldn’t have to, don’t have to), but I’m glad I had the opportunity to briefly talk about what it is I do. I think it slightly changed my relationship to the poem for the better. 

A visual artist friend in Bemidji recently shared with me the story of getting over her dread of writing artist statements. Another friend of hers said that artists are often working away, doing what they do without regard for those looking on—an artist’s work is elevated—up in the clouds, and the artist statement is the ladder that helps those who probably aren’t practitioners get closer to the work. I like that metaphor—building a ladder to the clouds. 

Sean Hill is the author of Dangerous Goods (Milkweed Editions, 2014) and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (UGA Press, 2008). His poems have appeared in CallalooHarvard ReviewPoetryTin Houseand numerous other journals and anthologies. He’s currently a visiting professor in the creative writing program at UA-Fairbanks. More information can be found at www.seanhillpoetry.com.

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