It’s always fascinating to find out what our Escape Into Life poets are doing. Wednesday I received this invitation by email and was permitted to share it with all of you, so check your calendar and your geography. Can you attend?
The Changing Light at Sandover, Reading and Discussion
With: Richard Fox, Barrie Cole, Jeff Abell & Robert McDonald
When: Saturday, September 15, 2012, from 7:00 p.m. until 11:45 p.m.
Where: 1922 W. Berenice Ave., Chicago
Please join poets Robert McDonald, Richard Fox, interdisciplinary artist Jeff Abell, and writer Barrie Cole for readings and discussion of Merrill’s book-length poem, The Changing Light at Sandover. Several actors and writers will be lending their voices to what we hope will be a rich and enjoyable evening. Bring something to drink or eat if you are able to, and please feel free to invite friends as well.
The Changing Light at Sandover is a 560-page poem by James Merrill (1926–1995). Sometimes described as a postmodern apocalyptic epic, the poem was published in three volumes from 1976 to 1980, and as one volume–with a new coda–by Simon & Schuster in 1982. We’ll be reading favorite selections from the book.
Already established in the 1970s as one the finest poets of his generation, Merrill made a surprising detour when he began incorporating occult messages into his work. With his partner David Jackson, Merrill spent more than 20 years transcribing supernatural communications during séances using a Ouija board.
We hope to see you there!
I wanted to know more about this, partly because EIL founding editor Chris Al-Aswad was interested in the automatic and dream-inspired writings of Carl Jung, and Richard Fox kindly answered my questions.
Kathleen Kirk: What attracted you to poet James Merrill? His work in general? This particular occult detour?
Richard Fox: I originally read A Scattering of Salts, James Merrill’s last collection of poems, which was published posthumously. I loved so many of them poems in this book, with their theme of innocence lost in the time of AIDS. I also admired his fascination with science and alchemy, an interest I share. Throughout the whole book—and this may be hindsight on my part—I felt as though Merrill was dealing with his own mortality. Perhaps it was even a conscious effort on his part, since he was living with AIDS at the time of his death in 1995. But the poems never seemed regretful; in fact, I found them forward-thinking at times. Still, the poems have an almost Proustian air about them.
So, after reading Salts—my first real foray into his work—I sought out The Changing Light at Sandover, written with his partner, David Jackson, although Jackson is not given author credit.
KK: Was Merrill influenced by Carl Jung, or William James, or Yeats? (Others I’ve heard associated with automatic writing, conversations with the dead, and so on…)
Richard Fox: If Merrill were to point out one of these three writers as influential to his work, he might say it would be William Butler Yeats. Both poets had an affinity for mysticism; both were open to communiqués from the spirit world as a source for their work. Both had also built personal mythologies within their poetry. [Yeats sidebar: his wife was a medium!]
KK: Do you ever compose in ways that access the supernatural–via Ouija board, automatic writing, dream transcription, etc.? Anything that would enlighten me (and EIL readers) in this!
Richard Fox: For a while I kept a dream journal, which was actually what I called a “sleep” journal. I started keeping it as the result of an assignment given in a poetry workshop I took several years ago with David Trinidad at Columbia College in Chicago. Those of us in the workshop were challenged to wake ourselves from sleep at the same time every night, and to record any impressions we had on waking. I kept this up—sporadically—for three or four months, writing down fragments of dreams, primarily. Later, I discovered that I could wake myself at various times, and, if I paid attention, there would be whole poems composed somewhere in between sleep and wakefulness. Most of the time, however, I could not get the words down fast enough, and I would forget them more quickly than I could record them! Some lines that were spared the dissolution of the waking sphere have ended up in poems here and there, but I’ve yet to be successful in taking dictation from the Great Beyond!
KK: Why do you think Merrill was drawn to this activity?
Richard Fox: Perhaps he saw his participation in this activity as a door to an unexplored part of his psyche, or perhaps he saw it as a writing method, or simply a source for new material. In any case, consulting a Ouija board is an activity which requires the involvement of at least one other person. After reading Familiar Spirits, Alison Lurie’s memoir of her friendship with Merrill and Jackson, I tend to agree with my friend, Robert McDonald, who says that their collaboration with the Ouija board became a way of keeping their personal relationship viable.
KK: Thanks, Richard, and, to our EIL readers, below you will find a link to Richard’s poetry feature here at Escape Into Life, along with a link to William Miller’s light-stunned photographs using the unconventional method of a broken camera! Tomorrow, look for poet Robert McDonald’s comments on James Merrill and Alison Lurie’s book about him, Familiar Spirits.