ONCE, READING was a like a superpower, or a radioactive element. It could be shared to empower, or weaponized to control. The powers that be kept literacy under lock and key, out of fear that literate masses could interpret what they read in new and threatening ways.
Then history took a turn, and, for better or worse, printed texts were readily available in various languages. Now anyone is free to pick up a book, read a poem or half a poem, and draw a conclusion. This is either beautiful or tragic. Lexicon Polaroid, the indie mixed-media magazine from local poet Michael Harper, embraces that duality.
Harper selects poems for Lexicon Polaroid from a wide range of poets (although many are young Portland favorites), and he presents them alongside artists' interpretations of the poems. The poets don't know the artists, and the artists don't know the poets. Until publication, they don't even learn each other's names.
"Each artist, reader, or watcher differs in how they experience any art, and that's the point," explains Harper. "Language is mutable. Poetry is fluid. A poem may inspire you, and do nothing for me. It may do everything for me, and make you want to translate it into something else."
For the third issue, Harper reached out to video artists to "illustrate" the poems. The videos range from soundless illustrative images to woozy VHS nightmares, cute or unsettling animation to abstracted, noisy color fields. In one of the most jarring pairings, Caleb Walter Reed's poem "sandwich, seventeen days"—more or less an ekphrasis on moldy food—is accompanied by artist Stephen Hutchison's rattling blasts of color that may be extreme close-ups on mold or grow-your-own crystals.
"So far, most writers have really enjoyed seeing what comes from their work being blindly interpreted by artists they don't know," says Harper. "It can be a pretty brutal critique, and sort of a bright, public workshop."
MERCURY: This project started in Orange County. What brought you to Portland? Has Portland been more or less receptive to Lexicon Polaroid?
MICHAEL HARPER: I came to Portland five years ago for reasons similar to many people's reasons for moving here. There was art and coffee and poetry and people on bikes and people making eye contact and conversation on street corners. All of the romantic things you see in a city that isn't the one you come from. Essentially, the things I came to Portland for revolve around connection, which Lexicon Polaroid is largely about. Portland is as receptive to LP as any town is; some people love the concept and some people don't.
Are the poets always satisfied with the art that was inspired by their poems? Have you ever had a poet try to pull out after seeing the artwork?
So far, most writers have really enjoyed seeing what comes from their work being blindly interpreted by artists they don't know. It can be a pretty brutal critique, and sort of a bright, public workshop. The poets don't see the illustrations or videos until the issue is published, so they don't have the chance to try to pull their work.
In the first issue, a poet refused to have his poem illustrated, [because of] frustration from working with artists in the past. Another poet completely hated what the illustration of his poem looked like in the end, which caused a big row between him and the artist. We'll see what comes of many of the poets and filmmakers meeting and talking about Issue #3 come Thursday.
Is this illustration, translation, or inspiration?
The answer to this question will vary from artist to artist. I believe LP facilitates all three in varying degrees, and we see that with the end result. Each artist, reader, or watcher differs in how they experience any art, and that's the point. Language is mutable. Poetry is fluid. A poem may inspire you, and do nothing for me. It may do everything for me, and make you want to translate it into something else. It may break your heart, and it may break my heart, and it may break every single heart it meets.
Can you give us any hints about the format of the fourth issue?
The forthcoming issue is why I decided to revive Lexicon Polaroid, and I can't leave out the inspiration of Lucy [Lee] Yim. I was watching her show from last year, Light Noise, seeing each dance as a poem, and I wanted to make that happen in reverse (that is, turn poetry into dance). So, my hint is "dance." The next issue will be in the form of dance.