Jul 292014

When I write, I always start with an idea. That may sound incredibly obvious. Doesn’t everyone start with an idea? I don’t think so; I didn’t always. There are ways to start a poem, for example, without an idea – you could start with a single word, like “scaffolding”. A word is not an idea. A color is not an idea, nor is an image. If you want to get a butterfly tattoo, that’s not an “idea” for a tattoo. An idea requires some complexity, some moving parts.

Some notes on the idea, what it is and what it isn’t:

You don’t have to agree with the idea; an idea may not even be a proposition that you can agree or disagree with, though it often is. An idea is something to think about. It should be interesting whether or not you agree with it or believe it.

If you’re going to write about an idea, you need to be able to put it into words – at least, I do, though I like the idea of writing a poem that looks like a patent application.

Can you make a poem entirely out of ideas? Yes, but it might be boring. Can you make a poem with no ideas? Yes, but it will definitely be boring.

The more ideas you have in your poetry, the more it approaches philosophy. “Philosophy” means “love of wisdom”, but I always think of it as wisdom through language (knowledge encoded in mathematics is not philosophy). Note that knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing; knowledge is quantifiable, cumulative, whereas wisdom is more of an approach, a filter.

I recently found this crib sheet I made in college for a neuroscience class. It is tightly packed with knowledge, not wisdom or ideas:


But isn’t it rather beautiful? Just looking at it, not reading it (if this knowledge is still in me, I no longer have access to any of it), I can almost experience it as an idea.


Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable, a collection of lyric essays (Black Ocean, 2013), and The French Exit, a poetry collection (Birds LLC, 2010). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

 Posted by on July 29, 2014
Jul 222014


I’m trying to remember what was going on at the time this photo was taken. I’d been back home to Omaha, in August. I’d finished my second film and screened it in July. There’s a picture of me on Facebook from around this time eating pizza with people in LA, which is a dead giveaway (not pizza but eating it in LA).

There’s a picture I took of a car in need of washing, parked on some LA street, whose window read, “I wish my girlfriend was this dirty.” I feel like someone waited a long time for that opportunity and went through more than one girlfriend before it could be seized.

Savannah was probably the first person to like that picture.

From the style of her hair I can tell that we’d just filmed a short together, playing brother and sister.

None of that probably matters but I inevitably get caught up in the forensic exercise of trying to determine what was so funny to us at the time. What were we laughing about back then?

Savannah always laughs at my jokes. They don’t have to be funny. They don’t have to be jokes. Every year she does a show called The Break Up Show and people gather around her and her fellow performers on stage and it’s like everybody drinks the Kool Aid of her laughter.

It’s a smart show but the laughter is pure silly. You don’t realize how badly you need it until you’re sitting there and you don’t want to stop. You’re like a dog with a bone hoarding laughter.

She was breaking up more than she wasn’t breaking up for a while and that gave her a lot of personal material. Now she’s been with a guy for long enough that the rest is all old history, but other people have their share of shitty so she gets a lot of solicitations for the show.

Oddly, we laugh less about her own shitty experiences now than we did at the time. We subverted things I guess and chose to laugh then, when we weren’t supposed to.

 Posted by on July 22, 2014
Jul 192014

parsonschair copy

There’s a chair in the far corner and a table he can sit at too. He arrives at maybe nine or ten o’clock – on an ideal day – with a strong cup of tea (“very dark”).

You walk through most of the studio to get to the chair and the table, past work and work in progress and the possibilities of the space and materials – boards and foil and hosiery, beads and ballet shoes. From the table and the chair you can look out at the studio and picture what things would look like there.

There’s a window by the chair. The cushion on the chair is beige. When I’d asked him to wear something colorful for photographs, he’d said, “Beige is a color.”

He’ll sit with his tea in the beige-cushioned chair reading. You can look out the window. He probably does. There are trees out there. A lot of green. He put a pink sheer up. Behind the pink sheer there’s a pink gel over one of the window panes. The building has four or five studio spaces and a gallery on the main floor. It used to be a medicine factory.

He went through an orange phase, and a blue phase. He’s into beige and pinks and peaches – flesh tones, right now. The art in the studio is in these colors and the shelves behind the table house various materials articulating the continuum.

Sometimes he dances, or does other things you’d be embarrassed to do in public. Maybe the embarrassment finds its way into the work.


I forget to ask him what other embarrassing things there are to do, but he does seem to be slightly embarrassed to be photographed. Maybe embarrassed isn’t the right word.

He teaches at the university and classes are basically out (for break?); aside from advising students, he has some time on his hands to get closer to embarrassment.


I ask him what he’s going to do with a ball of yarn that sits there on a shelf. He says he wants to coat it. I forget in what.

Just the day before he installed a patchwork wall of foil and silvered cardboard. On the way over I was listening to a song by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the installation makes me think of this and Billy Name. “Glitter on the wet streets / shimmer over everything.” It’s a good song to dance to. If you get in the right position and you face the corner you see bobbing dots of light. You can’t make yourself out in the foil wall but something of you flits across the surface.

I sit on the beige cushioned chair for a while and he sits at the table, answering questions about his family. I ask the questions not just because I’m curious but because I want to distract him from the anxiety of being photographed. Foolishly, I want to see him the way he is when no one is here.

He might forget about the camera but his eyebrow doesn’t. It arches up over his glasses like peeking over a fence, a little wary. I feel like I shouldn’t repeat what he says about his family because it has nothing to do with anything and could only encourage the eyebrow, but it’s probably safe to say his father was a minister in Arkansas, and then he wasn’t.


Around the corner from us there’s a box of wood. Looks like art to me. Hanging from the ceiling out in the space is an elastic something or other, i.e. an undergarment. It makes a hammock, from which oozes pearlized, faceted beads. Around the base of the single pole in the room, more beads.

Fabric that reminds me of Martha Graham pictures I’ve seen is stretched out on the opposite wall. A ballet shoe and a wooden rod support a cinched, bulging sac of beige fabric nearby.


He talks about an essay he read on the adorable. An artist he likes spent a lot of time at one point drawing an elephant, which was adorable. She’s never shown the elephant but he really wants to see it. I sit there wondering whether the elephant is pink. I’m thinking about it so hard that I forget who wrote the essay and who the artist was.

We talk about abbreviated reading patterns conditioned by the feed. I tell him how I once spent some time with a curator who didn’t believe the advent of various technologies had remapped or rewired the way people think. We had a weird conversation about it where I said they had and he implied that I wasn’t necessarily stupid for insisting so but might appear to be if I wasn’t careful. I’d been eating cookies the curator bought me during this heated conversation (my favorite kind – of cookie, not conversation) and I thought it was awfully nice of him to remember I like these cookies but not so very nice to make me feel dumb while eating them.

Relating this story to Joel, I tell him I said to the curator something about “the advent of things like the telephone and TV and the internet and the train”. Joel laughs, repeating the word train like a punchline. I wonder what I’ve said that seems so funny to him, and think how the only thing missing in this moment, besides the (hopefully pink) elephant, is a bag of cookies.


He has on a black athletic tank top and a brightly patterned shirt he wore for my pictures. I can’t seem to take a picture to save my life and am amazed at all the little things my camera does that I never knew about. I feel delighted and annoyed. The pictures refuse to focus. I do everything but shake my camera the way you do when something doesn’t work and you don’t know how to fix it, and I can feel his eyebrow laughing at me.

He’s had the studio for about a month. I ask him whether it’s changed how he feels about the place he lives. He says yes. He tends to feel more anxious when he gets home because he’s thinking about the work he will or wants to do back in the studio. We talk about the way a studio can be for artists. It’s virtually the only place you can be yourself and think like yourself in a certain way.


(Joel Parsons is a sculptor and writer living in Memphis, TN. He also puts together exhibitions at Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College, and Beige, a peripheral space for otherwise art and performance that he runs with his partner, Steven McMahon. All the images were taken in Joel’s studio.)

 Posted by on July 19, 2014
Jul 172014


[An ongoing collaboration with Lesley Young in which I choose one of her Instagram photos and imagine some part of a nonexistent film therein]

The actor is really big in Japan. In America, he’s merely tall.

The director saw him during a trip overseas. Alone in his hotel room, watching TV in a language he could neither speak nor make heads or tails of, he saw a commercial for Maxwell House.

Inexplicably, the actor was served fresh coffee at a stop light. A butler approached the car and handed it to him through the open window. They exchanged smiles and did what looked like a high five.

(Must have been a cultural thing?)

The problem of casting: the guy is tall. So very tall. Very few actors are this tall. He’s like a skyscraper and in the audition footage various teeniny people appear to be shouting up to his observation deck from the ground floor. The actor stooped to hear them, providing this unconscious courtesy as if apologizing for his height.

The director pulled him aside.

I chose you because you look like you. You are making yourself not look like you by this thing you’re doing. I’m sure the actors appreciate it but I can tell you the audience likes the Empire State building in large part because it is way up there and they are way down here and this discrepancy speaks to something in their soul or their gut or whatever.

Imagine the Empire State building as a four story walk-up.

The actor was like, Am I stooping??

He was most certainly stooping.

Yeah, see, you’re not a walk-up. You can hear God’s stomach grumbling up where you are.

So there was that, and once that was resolved, everything kicked into gear.

What they did was they changed the script. They changed the story. What the director realized was – who needs to see anyone else, when you’re looking at the Empire State building?

Investors needed to see someone else. Investors wanted tits, specifically. Who goes to see a movie about the Empire State building, they laughed (with their sharp shiny teeth showing).

(The director didn’t bring up Andy Warhol.)

The movie now involves voyeurism. So it is the director looking at the Empire State building, admiring its – what? – majesty? Beauty? Vertiginous solitude?

What’s vertiginous? said the investors, hiding their teeth.

The movie is about looking at the Empire State building and seeing everything it sees. The movie is about that architecture and the phenomena of distance.

The Empire State building is out on a boat for reasons which are never fully explained. A murder was committed on land, and the boat has been taken to as a hideout. It’s the boat and the Empire State building out in the middle of nowhere.

At first, the Empire State building is at peace on the boat. For once no one is clambering to get up to the observation deck.

But there are binoculars in a compartment under the steering wheel (does a boat have a glove compartment?) and when the Empire State building finds these he becomes obsessed with their telescopic potential.

The tag line of the poster: “It’s lonely at the top.”

So much going on over there on the coast. So many little dramas and intrigues. Sub plots ensue. A vacationing family of four are constantly arguing – it gets heated – and violence erupts.

What about the tits? the investors asked during pre-production. They needed assurance that tits would be viewed through the binoculars. Who plays the mother? How old is she? Is this a topless beach?

So it’s a topless beach. And all the arguing takes place au naturale. Concessions were made.

For the investor, it’s a movie about tits.

For the director, it’s a movie about beauty and heights which can’t and maybe shouldn’t be scaled.

[Image of Bennet Foster by Lesley Young, whose Instagram page inspired this ongoing collaboration. Follow her there: mississippihuckleberry or on Facebook. See also: Bennet Foster’s band Magic Kids, and his out of this world voice]

 Posted by on July 17, 2014
Jul 152014


The second or third day we were in Berlin, Miguel showed up at our airbnb wearing more Madame de Carven than a lesser man could get away with.

This and everything else he wore the week we were there smelled fantastic on him.

He seems to prefer vintage, an abundance of which he manages to track down back home in Lisbon, and all that old musk really radiates from his skin. He’d packed an assortment of travel atomizers, decanted from large bottles he’d found at flea markets and old shops for next to nothing.

I remember the following: Bleu de Chine, Ungaro, Chanel No. 5 (eau de cologne; very ambery animalic), and a fragrance perfumer Viktoria Minya custom blended for him when he visited her studio in Paris. This scent was a big beautiful stink of cedar, peach, isobutyl quinoline, cumin, and civet.

At one point, Barbara Herman, who was traveling with me, asked Miguel about a tricky situation he’s going through in Portugal. After he told her the whole complicated story she said that it would probably just take time to resolve.

“I don’t believe in time,” Miguel said, as if banishing the whole inconvenient concept to the Americas.

 Posted by on July 15, 2014
Jul 072014


James moved to New York a few years ago, and came back yesterday for a visit.

He didn’t know his host’s address so I followed him over. On the way, a couple of kids ignited a pretty large Roman Candle. There’s probably another name for it. The thing was about two feet tall, shaped and decorated like a rocket. They’d erected it on the sidewalk.

James got past it but as I approached the thing fell over and was shooting colored stars across the street. I still haven’t checked my car to see what kind of damage, if any, running a gauntlet of fireworks does to a paint job.

James slowed down – to wait for me, I thought. Later he said he was laughing too hard to drive.

I’m sad about various things lately so I was inclined to be sad about this visit with James. This stupid reminder that people move away. Even the fallen over rocket seemed sad.

A leftover package of sparklers on the porch where we sat seemed so sad I thought, I can’t keep sitting here pretending not to be sad. The sparkler didn’t last half as long as you’d expect it to, given the length, which was sad too. When even my T-shirt was making me sad, I thought it was probably time to leave.

A friend and I were talking recently about embarrassment – how you’re not supposed to feel it, and if you do feel it you shouldn’t acknowledge that you do. You’re not supposed to admit that you get embarrassed. It’s like saying you’re weak – or anyway not as strong as you’re encouraged to believe everyone else must be. I’m going to take a guess that, if all this is true, you can be sad as long as you have a good reason for it, otherwise you should be embarrassed.

There’s no good reason. I mean, I do have reasons. I can’t make up my mind, if I have to account for it. I think maybe I’m experiencing what my friend the painter Melissa Dunn called “a dark night of the soul”. She put it in quotes like that. I read the sentence over and over thinking, Wow, quotation marks.

The sparkler in the photo was the second one James ignited. It lasted a little longer than the first. He took his time because the other one burned his hand.

 Posted by on July 7, 2014
Jul 072014



Through my work in marketing at a children’s hospital, I met a woman whose young daughters can only see each other through a glass pane while one undergoes a bone marrow transplant in the isolation unit. The 6-year-old, who is well, and the 8-year-old, who isn’t, meet often—but not often enough—to do their little girl talk via walkie talkie in a circular area of the unit that’s called the fishbowl.

When I heard, I cried.

I thought back to the last year of my father’s life when I contracted mono by drinking Coca-Cola after my boyfriend’s sister. I was 16 years old. My father’s immunity was low from cancer treatment, and because I was sick, I couldn’t be near him. We led our separate lives on opposite sides of our old ranch house.

There was one day when I saw him for a moment, bald and frail, and he asked me how I was feeling. My throat had gotten infected, and I told him, at length, that I felt terrible.

He snapped at me. “I can’t stand to hear you whine when I’m the one who’s sick,” he said, or something to that effect.

I felt ashamed and burst into angry tears. “I’m sorry you have cancer,” I said, “but it’s not fair that I can’t complain about normal things.”

How stupid and selfish of me! But my dad was moved.

“You’re right,” he said. “Cancer isn’t normal. You should be able to complain about normal things. I’m so sorry.”

Did he take the risk of hugging me? After all these years, I can’t remember.

In one way or another, I am always writing about cancer. Feeling it, then backing up from it. Letting cancer break my heart, then wondering exactly why it does. If I can figure out the mechanics of my own grief, then I can recreate it and make someone feel the same as me. If I’m doing it for fundraising, it could do some good.


At work, we talk about the need to “take a moment,” to walk away from the group and be by ourselves when we hear something sad about a family we’ve come to love. It’s a strange job we have, marketing on some of the saddest moments of a family’s life. The only thing that makes it better is knowing we make a difference by raising money to find a cure for a stupid, horrible disease.

In his book The Look of Distance, Walter Slatoff urges us to approach fictional characters as creatures of flesh and blood with human motivations. People we could know and love. Writers sometimes see their characters as set pieces and kill them off or place them in the most desperate situations. Consequentially, these paper people seem devoid of motivation, their actions make no sense, we can no more care about them than we would a coffee table.

Believe in your characters, and you’ll be careful where you put them and what you ask them to do. You’ll still harm them, but when it happens, you’ll feel terrible. Your characters are real now, at least to you.

Slatoff’s urging has stayed with me now for many years and influences how I approach not only my fiction writing, but also my work in writing about the real people at the hospital dealing with incredible challenges.

So when I heard about the two sisters communicating by walkie talkie through a glass pane, and I thought about Dad, and I needed to “take a moment” to cry, I also had to compartmentalize the stories and give it direction for my work.

I thought, “If I’m crying, maybe other people will be moved. I could have a picture taken and post it to our hospital’s Facebook page.”

When the contact sheets of the two sisters came back from the studio, the images told a story that was beautiful and devastating in equal measure. But there was something else I noticed. In some of the shots, the camera flash had picked up what had been invisible at the time of the shoot—multiple handprints on the glass from earlier visitors. All trying to will their way through the glass, all hoping for healing.

(Crayon and marker illustration by the author of her childhood home, March 2014)


Betsy Taylor works for a children’s charity in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in The Republic of Letters, Evening Street Review, Memphis Magazine online, Apparatus, and the Crab Orchard Review. She received her MFA from Southern Illinois University. She lives with her husband and son in Minneapolis, and hails from Memphis, Tennessee.

 Posted by on July 7, 2014
Jul 012014


Ryan and I met maybe seven or eight years ago now, basically by chance. There was a randomness to it. He just kind of walked in.

I noticed he worked at the TV station; I was about to buy a camera to shoot my first film, the film that became The Way I See Things, and I figured he might have something to say about the wisdom – or stupidity – of my strategy.

It seems inconceivable to me now that I intended to shoot that film myself. I was sick of waiting around, and didn’t really know much of anybody that could help me. Ryan’s entrance was a grand one in the larger scheme of things. He’d just quit the TV station, freeing him to work with me.

It’s hard for me to imagine thinking about a film without thinking about the way Ryan and I work and think together. This is five or six films we’ve made now, and various other related projects. He’s been the director of photography on all of these, as well as a producing partner in some capacity. Most of the imagery I’ve looked at on a film set has been framed by Ryan, so it’s really been a way of looking together.

Even when I film things by myself these days, Ryan is usually there with me, in my head. The difference is we aren’t arguing. When we work together, we do a lot of arguing. Maybe not a lot, but enough. As friends there’s not much conflict; as collaborators, it gets tricky. You see it together but you have different ideas about what you’re looking at, or should be looking at. As friends you can look at whatever you want to. You don’t have to justify your gaze.

I enjoy working by myself now more than I would have admitted several years ago. Maybe it’s just that I know more and feel a confidence I didn’t have then. It’s good to get away from that battle of wills over what you’re choosing to look at together. But I always look forward to getting back with Ryan. We both pretend things have changed since the last time, that we’re “past” all that. But I think all that, whatever it is, comes with the alchemy.

This is Ryan the other day at lunch. In another shot, he’d looked out the window. “That’s the first thing they teach you in photography,” he smirked. “Look out the window.”

I assumed he was making fun of me and I got defensive, then he got defensive, because he’d been making fun of his own pose, then I said I’m not being defensive you’re being too sensitive, then he was annoyed that I called him sensitive, and we argued for a few more minutes, then we ate lunch and talked about other stuff.

 Posted by on July 1, 2014
Jul 012014


Galbanum is a beautiful word that refers to a beautiful fragrance material. It’s a G-word that plays an important role in my life. The odor is typically described as green. Green is another important G-word. Green is unusual because it describes both odor and color.

The painting above is a study for a fragrance. Odors produce a color vibration in my mind, so odors and colors are strongly associated for me. If you’re someone who “sees” scent, it’s strange to say that odor and color are separate categories of experience when both are vibrational events along a continuum of experience. At some point we call one seeing and the other smelling, just like at some point, we stop saying green and start saying blue. My work is about exploring this space between color, visual form, odor and olfactive form and about the ways that these relationships extend the space of Painting and the space of Perfume.

This painting was a study for a scent that includes osmanthus absolute, an extract of the osmanthus flower that smells like rich apricot jam and honey. It’s gorgeous stuff, but it’s an extract of the flower and not the flower itself so while it’s jammy, it’s also a bit dense and lacks space—it’s two-dimensional. A perfume would need to open up the space of the extract in some way. The painting explores the color space of osmanthus and considers some contrasts to open up that space. Alone, the pink in this painting lacks sparkle and the green rectangle is too vivid. Combined, they transform one another. You can experience this by doing what painters do: block the green rectangle in your line of sight with your thumb, looking at the image with and without it to consider the effect.

When I walk into the studio, I start by listening to the vibrations of color and scent and then testing points of connection. I look to the colors in my mind, but I’m also inspired by fashion and textiles. The rusty red in this painting is an earth pigment. Its masstone (how it looks when applied thickly) is drab and brown, but its undertone (how it looks in thin washes) is luminous and orange. The undertone has the soft glow that I see when I smell osmanthus. But that glow is only one facet of the odor, which to me also has moody, mauve-pink shadings. Earth reds like the one in this painting were sometimes paired in 19th-century French textile designs with mauve-pinks and yellow-greens. This inspired me to explore some greens, but the green I ultimately chose is very bright and “post-modern.” The green pointed me towards using galbanum and other green notes in my perfume formula.

Actually, I lied. Galbanum isn’t so beautiful, at least not at first. Smelled straight, the essential oil is harsh and unpleasant, like acrid, chopped spinach. When I first smelled the stuff I could only imagine using it in a citrus scent where I needed a sharp, astringent, green note. But galbanum has a secret identity that reveals itself in floral accords. Smell carefully and behind the spinach you’ll notice something unexpected: lushness, richness, plush velvet, moss, wax, powder.

Perfumers love materials that straddle different odor families. Iris is famously both woody and floral, osmanthus is floral and fruity, ionones are fruity and woody—to name just a few. Like chameleons, these materials change with their context. Galbanum is also a chameleon. Skillfully dosed, the harsh aspects behave a little like an aldehyde to “shear out” heavy floral notes. But perfume accords are all about relationship, so while the galbanum modifies the florals, the florals also modify the galbanum, softening it and foregrounding the powdery waxiness. The result is a velvety shimmer that is opulent, sophisticated and green.

When you begin to study art, you quickly learn that color words are too broad to describe the variety of colors in the world. Green doesn’t point to a single color, but to an array of thousands of visual experiences that we call green, some so different that it’s astonishing we could give them the same name. You might love one yellow-green (say, chartreuse) but hate another (…avocado).  But here too, it’s all about relationship: when the avocado gets paired with deep maroon, it’s suddenly a thing of beauty and you want it around all the time. What happened to the avocado you hated? You know it hasn’t changed and yet your experience of it is profoundly different. The avocado that you now love can’t be separated from the maroon; it’s only when the two are together that your pleasure-center gets activated. From that perspective, it’s strange to say that the two colors are separate. There’s a kind of magic at work here.

There’s an approach to abstract painting that considers painting as something discrete and separate from the world.  But there’s another (and I think, richer) way to approach art. Paintings and perfumes don’t exist in an idealized vacuum, they exist in the world, in real rooms and in real places. They are in relationship with other paintings and with other perfumes, with institutions, with people, with stories about their making and their makers.  It’s nearly impossible to view a Van Gogh without thinking about his life and struggles, or to separate Coco Chanel’s liberating designs from the revolutionary olfactive shape of No. 5. This particular painting is in relationship with a perfume and the perfume is in relationship with the painting. Each stands on its own, but the space where they meet is wide open.

(painting by Bruno Fazzolari)


Bruno Fazzolari is a painter and perfumer. In 2010, he began presenting fragrances with his paintings in gallery exhibitions. Until this year, the scents were available only in exclusive gallery settings during the limited run of the exhibitions for which they were created. The perfumes are now available on-line from his website along with images of his work.

 Posted by on July 1, 2014