In a world increasingly dependent on text messages, two-sentence emails, and other abbreviated missives, why do artists do what they do? Why slave over word choice or perfect lighting, or attempt to sculpt poetry from the confusion of everyday experience?
As she edited the new ebook anthology Back Talking on the Mountain of God, author and founder of indie publishing group Still Mountain Bookworks Deborah Prum decided to find out. “I asked each person [with work in the book] to give me one word as to why they write and two sentences to expand on that,” she said in a recent interview.
With answers like awe, beauty, and faith, a central theme became obvious. “Everybody is contending with issues of the spirit,” she said. “These are not necessarily about one religion or another, but about communing with God.”
Poet Elizabeth Bohlke, for example, said her writing “addresses God” in the same way the psalms of her childhood seemed to. “In the confusing sea of the Old Testament, [the Psalms] was guttural and desperate—a place to put longing, a way of working out why God allows pain.”
Similarly, poet Stephen Hitchcock described his work as a form of welcome, “writing existing on the threshold of prayer and correspondence.” Susan Cunningham, another contributor, imagined her poetry as a one-way conversation “to express my heartfelt, ongoing search for meaning in this life,” she said. Kaili van Waveren described writing as a compulsion driven by awe, “the sudden awareness that the voice of God resounds everywhere if we listen.”
Back Talking pairs the work of five poets, including Prum herself, with images by photographer Stuart Scott. He, too, described the impetus of faith in art, triggered by encroaching deafness in one ear and limited hearing in the other. The handicap, he said, “has prepared me to see the glory of the world around me, to capture portions of God’s beauty and to give back through my photography.”
Scott chose tangentially analogous photos to illustrate the three poems by each poet. Prum encouraged non-linear thinking throughout the process, believing that “when you bring together two unusual ideas, things get interesting,” she said. “When you get people in a room jamming together, you get something beautiful, a synthesis rather than a blurb.”
Prum’s ebook also includes audio recordings of each poet reading their work. “You think you know what the poet meant, but when you hear them reading you hear something different,” she said. She hopes the multisensory appeal of the iBook format encourages greater appreciation of the work. “A person that might have trouble decoding normal words on a page can have multiple ways to absorb information.”
Ultimately, Prum said, she likes to bring people together, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. “I feel that people have gifts, and frequently they labor in obscurity and their gifts are never bestowed on the world,” she said. On one hand, writers who work full time as therapists or homeless shelter directors do not market their work, and on the other, reluctant or disabled readers can be stymied by traditional publishing formats. Back Talking tackles both sides of the issue, creating a little more room for everyone to engage with art.
It’s also the final answer on why Prum herself creates. “What fuels the writing, regardless of how bleak the stories, is my belief that good can be found in the rubble of life,” she wrote. “That, for me, is redemption.”
The book and corresponding exhibit, Back Talking on the Mountain of God, launches at CitySpace on Friday, June 6th with an evening of readings and music.