By Julie Stewart
Sheila Lanham is best known to Mérida residents as founder and director of the U.S. Poets in Mexico organization. U.S. Poets in Mexico promotes literary cultural awareness and exchange between Mexico and the United States through workshops and other programs that bring together contemporary poets from the two countries. The latest workshop was held 5-12 January in Mérida.
For the past several years, U.S. Poets in Mexico has invited an American poet and a Mexican poet to share a two-week residency in a Mexican colonial city to translate each other’s work. Forrest Gander, from Providence, Rhode Island, and Alfonso D’Aquino, from Morelos, Mexico, participated in the first residency that took place in Coatepec and Xalapa, Veracruz. Gander’s translations of D’Aquino’s poems Fungus Skull Eye Wing, Selected Poems of Alfonso D’Aquino will be released by Copper Canyon Press in 2013. A documentary film about their experience working side by side is currently being edited and will be released in 2013.
The side of Sheila that is perhaps lesser known is her talent as a painter, for which she has been included in several group exhibitions, and her immersion in New York City’s bohemian art scene in the 1970s.
Q: Let’s start with the most topical issue, the fourth annual U.S. Poets in Mexico festival has just concluded in Mérida. The festival has been held three of the last four years in Mérida; why did you choose Mérida as the venue for this gathering?
A: The first time I visited Mérida, I felt warmth in my heart. It is hard to describe other than to say that, magically, I simply felt like I belonged here, like it was home. I originally considered Playa del Carmen as a location for the first event, but decided that Mérida had a much stronger cultural history and local literary scene. Plus, Mérida is a safer city than most and had so much to offer in the form of local culture and the infrastructure to support the exploration of surrounding cultural attractions. The city’s free cultural events every night of the week were a testament to the local government’s commitment to the arts, and that was attractive as well.
Q: Will the workshops continue to be in Mérida or do you plan to move them to other locations?
A: I always planned to travel with the event. Originally, I planned to have two events per year – the idea was to have the first one in Mérida and the second in different colonial cities throughout Mexico – but this proved economically impossible. In 2014, the poetry week will most likely take place in Oaxaca. I will certainly return to Mérida again in the future with the event, and most likely will sponsor poetry residencies in Mérida. I also have an eye on Valladolid.
Q: Many excellent poets have attended the festival over the years; is there one that stands out for you or that you were especially pleased to have present at the event?
A: So many poets have been a pleasure to host in Mexico. During our 2011 event in Tulum, Jerome Rothenberg gave a remarkable performance of an American Indian chant/song. The venue (Cobanas Copal) was a thatched-roofed, screen-walled structure in a section of jungle within the beach-hut compound. That was a magical moment. At that same event, Diane Wakoski, one of my favorite poets since the early 70s, also read. That event was so tribal and intimate. Most of us were staying in huts with no electricity and we would walk along a sandy path by flashlight every night to listen to spoken words in this humble, natural structure in the jungle. Nights were spent with poets talking and reminiscing under the huge palapa roof of the restaurant. I long to create a similar magical event like this in the future. In the mountains of Veracruz or Chiapas perhaps…
Q: You are not alone in using the word “magical” to describe the workshop; participants have called it that as well.
A: Luckily, USPiM has had plenty of satisfied participants. The “magic” generally occurs around the third day of each event, when everyone begins to feel more comfortable in Mexico and starts to explore the environment on their own.
Q. Where does the funding for U.S. Poets in Mexico come from and who are the main donors?
A: Currently, USPiM is funded by participant fees and my personal contributions. I make a substantial contribution to each event, which is normal for a small business. Once USPiM becomes more established and experienced with its events in Mexico, I will seek funding more vigorously.
Q: In the 1970s, when you were quite young, you lived with artist Larry Rivers in New York City. Rivers is considered by many to be the “godfather of pop art” and one of America’s most important post-war artists. How did this relationship affect you; did it change the course of your life in any way?
A: I moved from Baltimore to New York City in 1974 and met Larry within a month. It was a bizarre union: the daughter of West Virginia mountaineers who hadn’t even attended college yet hooking up with one of New York’s leading artists – a bohemian, intellectual who ran in a very sophisticated and highly educated social circle. Larry encouraged my writing and later my painting. His enthusiasm for creativity was inspiring. Anyone who said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea for a painting or poem, etc.” would get a response like, “That’s great! Do it!” That was a special quality in Larry. He was thrilled and supportive when he learned that I wrote poetry (primitive as it was). He introduced me to the work of his friends, Frank O’Hara Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, as well as the Russian classics, French poets and the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. I read and read – I had a lot of catching up to do.
But, Larry’s friends with whom we socialized were mostly artists. I would find myself at a dinner table with Elaine de Kooning on my left, Lee Krasner on my right and Louise Nevelson across from me – and I wouldn’t know who they were or anything about them. I made it my mission to research dinner guests afterwards. That type of scenario repeated itself frequently. Life became Art. Add to that Larry’s dynamic personality, and I soon found myself thinking about art more than poetry. Larry taught me to look at art and ‘see’. For example, he would point out a small painterly passage [section] on a dress painted by Diego Velasquez and say “ isn’t that amazing?” Yes, it was beautiful! Thanks to Larry, I began taking art courses at college.
Q: Do any Larry Rivers paintings include images of you? Which ones?
A: Larry made several drawings of me, a print, a couple of poems and included my image in a few paintings that can be found in books about his work. My portrait is included in two paintings that are in the permanent collection of The Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
Q: Your own paintings are vibrant and uplifting. Which painters inspired you? What in general inspires you to paint?
A: Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keefe and Marsden Hartley. I am inspired by early modernist painters who explored abstraction. They connected to nature through natural forms, transcended traditional composition and achieved a kind of spiritual lyricism. More generally, I am inspired by nature and the concept of our changing environment.
Q: Are you still actively painting? Have you exhibited lately? (ever in Mérida?)
A: Yes, I have been painting a lot lately. I spent 18 years (1993 to 2011) raising my son, during which time I put my studio work on hold and wrote poetry instead because it required less physical commitment and space. In 2011, with my son off to college, I suddenly felt a strong need to paint. I picked up where I had left off, painted through the past a little and am still evolving. I am not the most ambitious painter. While being mindful and interested in contemporary art, I don’t have any inclination to ‘be on the scene’. Guess I’ve sort of landed in the quirky and reclusive artist pool, à la Albert York.
Q: This is what you wrote about your landscape paintings in 2011: My paintings have always approached landscape painting through poetic metaphor. The work has aspired to a particular quality of space and light in the context of a composite sense of place through use of multiple horizons and spatial divisions. Pretend I just landed from Mars (or I’m a Neanderthal), can you reword this for me in layman’s terms?
A: Hahaha. Well, that explanation seems simple enough to me. My works focus on a personal eco-symbolism, including structured landscape elements and modified natural forms. I encourage a free association of natural forms, as illusory landscape space reveals other forms – figurative, anthropomorphic and multiple horizons. At first glance, I want the viewer to experience harmonious color, form and structure. Upon closer observation, within multiple areas of spatial depth, a re-structuring of landscape space and natural forms is revealed. Is that any better?
Q: If the world were cruel and limited you to choosing between being an artist or a poet, which would you be?
A: I would choose artist, because art is a more tactile expression of poetry and I enjoy that physical interaction.
Q: What is your favourite first line of a poem?
A: Oh, too many favourites. I do like this line from Frank O’Hara’s poem, “In Memory of My Feelings (to Grace Hartigan)”: My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
Q: You have lived large amounts of time in Baltimore and New York City; can you describe the poetry scene in each of those two very different cities?
A: When I first started writing in Baltimore in the early 1970s the poetry scene was thriving, with Andrei Codrescu (from Transylvania) and Anselm Hollo (from Helsinki) holding court. If anything possibly distinguished these cities, it would be that in the East Village during the 70s there was a closer knit poetic community. If you ran into another poet on the street, you would likely be included in a poem they wrote that day and perhaps hear it read later that night. The point of reference was personal and close.
Q: When did you first come to Mexico?
A: 1978. I was tired of travelling solely for Larry’s exhibitions and suggested we take a ‘real vacation’. I selected Acapulco as our destination – neither of us had ever been to Mexico before – and it turned out that a friend of Larry’s owned a home in Zihuatanejo, just north of Alcapulco. Playa la Ropa beach on Zihuatanejo Bay was the most exotic and beautiful place I had ever visited: perfect sunsets, mild waves, the bay water was warm, fine sand, palm trees, fresh seafood and not many tourists. It was heavenly. Larry ended up building a studio there and over the years he invited many artist and poet friends to visit Zihuatanejo. It seems that experience sparked my delight in visiting Mexico with a group of creative people.
Q: According to Maya prophecies on or around 21 December 2012, a 5,125-year cycle came to an end and we are transitioning into a new era. This is believed to become a golden age of consciousness, reconciliation, peace and opportunity. Has this Maya prophecy affected or inspired you, or those around you, in any way?
A: It seems that I have felt the Maya ‘prophecy of peace’ since I began visiting the Yucatan. Every day is peaceful and full of life in the Yucatan. If there is more consciousness, reconciliation, peace and opportunity to come, bring it on!
Q: In pictures you are often wearing a hat: is this a signature item in your wardrobe? Describe the hat you wore when you come to Mérida this year?
A: Haha, you are quite observant. I’ve been wearing and collecting hats since the early 70s when I scavenged through thrift stores in Baltimore for vintage hats and clothing. A new hat makes me feel happy. I brought an old standby from Italy.