Schenectady author and journalist Jackie Craven is fascinated by the dichotomy of the real and the unreal. It comes through in her latest collection of poems, “Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters.”
Stitching evocative images and surreal scenes together, Craven’s collection explores aging, family history, and the difference between what one sees and what is.
Here, Craven discusses how the poetry collection came together and how writing it made her better understand her late mother.
Q: How did you get started writing?
A: My mother and sister were both painters, so I grew up in a family that had a creative bent. I do not have the painting talent, so at a certain point, I turned to words. What they do with color, I try to do with words.
Q: Tell me about the beginnings of “Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters.”
A: When I was growing up [‘The Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters’], which is now obscure and out of print, stirred a lot of interest in the art world. It was written in the 40s, but during the 50s it created a stir in the art world with the rise of new realists; painters who rebelled against the abstract styles and wanted to recreate the ultra-realism of the old masters from Europe. My mother, who had always painted abstracts and [impressionist works], became very intrigued by this. The book, written by Jacques Maroger, claimed that he had rediscovered formulas that the old masters used for paint mediums, the gel-like ingredient that was mixed with the oil paints to give it flexibility and luminosity. This book was filled with these recipes. They’re very toxic. They have lead and all kinds of very palpable smelling things. My mother was making these formulas on the stove, mixing them and using them in her artwork, trying [out] ultra-realism.
She only did that for a few years — realism really wasn’t her forte. But for a few years, there was this effort to make things appear real even though they’re not. She read the book, she quoted from the book and it became a theme for things beyond painting. The whole notion of the search to make things appear real even when they’re not and the whole question of what is real [and] what is illusion, that’s what I found fascinating.
After she died and I was going through her paintings, I began to see [different] things.
She used a lot of symbolism in her art and I started trying to analyze what these paintings meant. It became a journey to explore who she was as a person, to reexamine our relationship, which was often tense. That search led to the poems.
Q: Did you end up re-reading the book?
A: I did, I mean it’s not the kind of book you’re going to sit down and read cover to cover, it has recipes and it’s a scholarly text. But yeah, I did and I used quotes from the book as section headers in my poetry collection and I stole his title. Even though Jacques Maroger is not a character in the book, his ideas are like a backbone, a theme running through.
Q: One poem that really struck me was ‘My Grandmother Won’t Say Why She Jumped Off the Pier.’ Can you tell me about that one?
A: Well, first of all, I think people always assume that poetry is strictly autobiographical and that’s not always the case, any more than a novel is strictly autobiographical. But that said, it does have roots in things from personal history. That poem, like most of the poems, is partly inspired by an image in a painting, more so than anything that really happened. My grandmother had been a rather quiet, depressed soul. I often wondered how much she had been repressed, I mean [she] grew up in the 1920s and did all the things a woman is supposed to do, yet there was always something sad about her. So that poem explored those ideas.
Q: You mentioned it was [also] inspired by a painting?
A: It wasn’t any one painting, but a lot of [my mom’s] paintings are of people falling into swirling water, there’s several like that, of a woman with billowing hair getting caught in a whirlpool of water. I have to wonder what my mother was thinking when she painted those images. Why did she paint that? It’s a rather frightening image.
Q: Alcohol is [a part of] some of the poems. Any reason why?
A: First of all, I grew up in a boozy family in the 50s and early 60s so that was always a part of our life. Second of all, I see a connection between the balance between reality and illusion and deception and denial and in a way alcohol is a metaphor for what we do when we create images, things that aren’t quite true. Then there’s the whole idea of compulsion. I think Jacques Maroger had this compulsion to try to replicate reality, to try to replicate the lost formulas of the old masters as he called them. That kind of compulsion that can’t be resisted is part of that idea too.
Q: I’m also curious about the cover art.
A: That painting [was] hanging in the condo where my mother stayed in Florida. It’s a fairly old painting but I never really looked at it until I was down here alone and I was trying to clean things. It’s a very primitive painting, it doesn’t use much perspective, it’s flat, it’s not the realistic style that she experimented with earlier in her life. But I thought, ‘what in the world is that lobster all about? What is that chimpanzee about?’ And as I looked at it, it struck me that that monkey has my mother’s face. Then I started seeing that she was using that same monkey in a lot of her paintings. The monkey is holding a half-open banana and it’s weird. Then there’s this lobster that’s just laying there but nobody is opening it. The couple is sitting there and you can’t see their hands, their hands are missing or under the table somewhere. You’ve got the lobster that can’t be opened, the fruit that can’t be eaten, you’ve got the monkey trying to drink from an empty glass and I felt like she was trying to say something like ‘Just do it.’ And I felt like she was also saying ‘There’s another layer. All you have to do is peel, there is another layer. For some reason, we don’t but it’s there.’ I felt that her paintings were like that, that all these years I’ve just walked by them and they were very familiar but I walked by them and I never really looked at them closely.
Q: Since you’ve been studying her work more, do you feel like you know her better?
A: I know her better. I think when you’re a child you don’t really see your parents as fleshed out human beings with their own separate lives that have nothing to do with you. But when you’re an adult, you realize that they have this whole world that had nothing to do with [you as a] child. So I understand her better as an adult human being with a very complicated life and a very complicated psychology.
Q: Another thing I was curious about is sometimes the title of the poems [act as] the first line rather than just titles. How do you decide [when to do that]?
A: I don’t know the answer. It felt right to do that. I think if a title doesn’t come to mind for a poem, it’s better not to force it because then the title just becomes a label. I feel like the title should contribute some kinds of information that’s part of the poem, rather than just be an identifier.
Q: Citrus comes up pretty often, especially towards the end. Why citrus?
A: Well, I hadn’t thought about that. I think it’s a strong sensory image, it has a very strong aroma. [In] the poem where the mother is painting a portrait of a child and she’s painting it over a painting of navel oranges, the idea of [citrus] comes up because navel oranges – where you have one little orange growing out of another orange- [represent] transformation. Then, [it’s in] the poem “Southbound,” where you have this surreal train ride. Even though that’s the most bizarre poem in the collection, it’s probably the most autobiographical. I was with my stepfather, we really were taking that train ride, which we did every holiday. After my mother died, we would go alone on the train to Florida and he had a spell when he was having dementia issues and things got very surreal. Then, when he was dying the hospital, he’d think he was on that train. So when you have things turning very surreal like that, a strong sensory image like citrus is grounding. You have something that’s obviously dreamlike, but an image like that [orange] cuts through.
Q: What do you hope people either see or enjoy in the book?
A: I hadn’t thought about that because when I write, I’m really thinking about myself. I think writing [the poems] was about the joy of discovery, the joy of discovering that there [are] layers behind layers behind layers. I hope that some readers join me in that kind of discovery.
For more information on “Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters” visit jackiecraven.com.