The Back Room

Two glass jars to the left, in front of white paper that reads "Petal / wind a petal."

The Poetry I Felt Was Walking: Brett Goodroad and Laura Moriarty in Conversation

Brett Goodroad
Laura Moriarty
The artist Brett Goodroad and the writer Laura Moriarty met a little more than a decade ago — at a Norma Cole reading at Hosfelt Gallery, with Jay DeFeo works on paper on the wall, as it turns out, a true San Francisco evening. TBR asked the friends to talk about their respective artistic practices, which range across disciplines. We offered a few prompts. What are you working on, thinking, and wondering about now? What’s been interesting and influencing you of late? And (how) have the places you’ve lived shaped how you think about and make art? Their written exchange, lightly edited, took place in February of this year. -clr

Brett Goodroad: How do you find objects? Lately I’ve been thinking of Virginia Woolf’s poet, who I love, in To the Lighthouse. Her narrator described him lying in grass and catching lines like a cat. I recall the language in the book conjuring a yellow mustache. Was this a drug?

Laura Moriarty: Finding, as you seem already to know, was, for me, the beginning of this new practice. I am a natural finder. When I lived in North Beach I was constantly finding fortunes, playing cards, and money. Recently I found a hundred-dollar bill a few blocks away. My art activity started with collecting what I thought of as bits off the street on increasingly long walks during the pandemic (which continues, as do the walks), though I rarely pick things up anymore. Often there were pieces of metal but during the pandemic all manner of stuff was left outside. For a while, the collection covered my tables and desks. Then I began to focus on sea glass from a local beach along with stained and broken glass. I assembled the work that became rapt glass — the name of an installation that appeared in Right Window and of the poem in relation to the work which I made into a flyer available outside the storefront. The construction and the poem were both assemblages, offered with a sort of simultaneity that wasn’t exactly simultaneous.

Looking back through To the Lighthouse, I find a yellow beard and slippers, as well as the moustache of the poet Carmichael, whose facial hair is said to be yellowed by opium use. It makes me think of the Yellow Book, a fin de siècle journal whose hue suggested the yellow of the lurid French novels of the time. It brings me also to the yellow of the goldfinches in the silver birch outside my window right now. Woolf’s sympathy is clearly more for the painter Lily Briscoe than for this hapless old poet with whom it is difficult for me to identify. But her yellows, purples, dark blues, and greens resonate with my color obsessions, especially for yellow, which I recently found myself saying was the main reason I started doing visual work.

Laura Moriarty, Untitled (2022), watercolor on paper

BG: Is place ulterior? I’m not sure I can use that word; I’m looking for a way to describe how place arrives. Arrival? I go into landscape to study, but scenes aren’t places. I find a scene that is worth spending time with and I have success or I don’t. 

Landscape is a place to forget abstraction. 

Scenes feel like places that annoy economy. You can’t contain them. They could be as stunning as limpid in some green. Yellow. You have to choose. The weather or Lou, my pug mix, can make that choice, too. I think this imperative is like pigeons, sometimes. What does a pigeon mean to a situationist? Turn left.

I was talking to [writer and Cushion Works curator] Jordan Stein about Montana yesterday. My early works felt like they were responding to their isolation. I think we feel place as what is happening to us? I mean I really don’t care where I’m from or I don’t think I care until I start wondering why something is the way it is.

I think your poems about volcanoes are thinking of calderas and using precipice to leak or link? Is that action involved in place? Precipices or boundaries feel baroque to me.

Your book of poems, Who That Divines, articulates divining. If divining, is “where” so important? 

LM: I like your use of the word “ulterior,” which makes me think of motives. I feel like all my motives for this practice are ulterior and not necessarily consistent or known by me. I began my writing practice while at Sac State, inspired by artist and historian John Fitz Gibbon in relation to the Davis/Sacramento art nexus in the ’70s. The artists from there, including Joan Brown, whose new show at SFMOMA I love, informed my writing, as they now inform both my writing and my art making. I was lucky to study with Carlos Villa, whose recent show at the Asian Art Museum was revelatory.

I began with the assembling — and then drawing, which I can’t seem to get enough of. There is no plan with regard to the practice other than to do it. Drawing and assembling functioned as research (not unlike my volcano trips) for my recently completed manuscript Which Walks and is continuing to work in that way for a new project which remains unnamed but has to do with trance and chance. This project seems to have to do, again, with divining, as in Who That Divines, a book much less connected to place, as you accurately point out.

My last book was called Personal Volcano and I went all over the western US and beyond (to Iceland and to Italy) to experience volcanoes. Being in (and reading about) these places would generate language in various ways. Some of the resulting text would become the writing, most not. These days, like everyone else, I take constant phone shots. Some of these are eventually drawn or otherwise made. They tend to be of places and objects. The incidental, daily quality of recording the neighborhood with drawing or other media is a value for me. 

Brett Goodroad, Untitled (2023), ink on paper

BG: Interesting about Fitz Gibbon. Reminds me of our early conversations; you introduced me to Semina Culture (in L.A.) and the rococo in the Bay: naked fetes, green hills, rainbows (I’m thinking of a particular photograph. I know you know the artist. I’ve forgotten). That rainbow image was Kevin Killian’s Pettibon project, too [in which the poet photographed his contemporaries with a Raymond Pettibon painting of genitalia positioned over their crotches]. You know, he drove out to our apartment near Ocean Beach and I lay in a steel tub. He brought some decorative felt vines. We tried me in the dirt but ants were everywhere. He said I reminded him of Blake and the Stettheimer sisters.

I have a book of prose blocks coming out this year, maybe. Me and an editor will pair them with monotypes. 

Norma Cole’s translation of Daive’s White Decimal was very inspiring. It was their atmosphere, I think. I loved the space my mind made of them. Some worked on you like great minimal painting. Or they could be exotic too… I don't know. I'm hoping some of my language carries like Daive.

LM: Interesting that you mention the rococo as lately I am obsessed with the baroque, the drama and folds of it (as Deleuze has it). And then of course there’s our mutual love for Watteau.

As a possible next question from me to you, I wonder if you can speak to the work I recently saw at your Cushion Works show (last year now) or possibly newer work. I really enjoy the depth and complexity of the color, handling of paint, and suggestion of entities in it (I hesitate to say figures). Now that I have my own practice, I find it even more compelling and mysterious than I did when I first saw it.

BG: I just walked to my drying shed. I’ve some ceramic tile I’ve begun sealing using my hand. My nitrile glove was textured and gesso dried like comb channels. I went north and south with them. The texture is a weave. The tiles are fragile so I have to be careful not to knock into them when moving the fabric works. The shed isn’t that big.

The canvases are so regular I think they become a problem too big to solve. The recent work wants a beginning as a mark. When I started using silk I wondered what would change or how I’d feel. Loving a fabric works to help you feel better and that feeling really is about grounding me more than supporting paint. 

As for the marks in this work, I saw many that were doing new things. But I can’t indulge them. When paintings are in this stage anything goes. It is one of the more stressful moments because everything is at risk. And maybe everything should be at risk, but I don’t do everything with anything. I’ve spent years protecting areas. I’ve also made great mounds out of them. When they go that far it’s just embarrassing.

In another conversation with Jordan today I heard myself say I’m always looking off a cliff. Or, now writing to you, it’s the 90 dropping from Silver City toward Arizona and CA in monsoon.

Laura Moriarty, Untitled (2023), pastel on paper

LM: I’m fascinated by your response to my question about your new work in relation to the older work. Your writing about it seems very close-up, intimate, physical and yet metaphorical or maybe I should say metaphysical. It feels like a thinking with the body or with the whole self. It is quite useful to me as a beginner because of how it emphasizes materials and immediacy as opposed to intentionality or some sort of plan about the result (though I realize you might have those). It’s like an instant and useful course on approach. 

It makes me think of a print Diane Ward recently made and sent to me and my partner Nick as an Xmas card. In one look, it seemed to teach me more about block printing than I’d been able to learn in weeks of doing it. You starting with what I experience as a contingent and changing sense of the mark is redolent of possibility.

The “place” here becomes the action, the activity of making. It leads me to an awareness of how much I notice and enjoy the physicality of making visual work. The physical involves the climate, the location of working, and the possibilities those offer or deny. 

That any particular mark or set of them works or doesn’t is recognizable with thought of course but the thought, especially in the moment of doing, seems to be part of my body and psyche with my head being the last to know. 

Of course, that can be true of writing as well. I’ve learned to write and trust the work and see what I want to continue and what isn’t going to let me move forward. The whole good/bad thing goes out the window, with what works to make the next mark or word being the new value.

I’m such an intensely verbal person that for me this new making is a constant and pleasurable change in practice which, at the same time, is the same practice by other means. 

BG: Your line “thinking with the body” has been with me. It’s clear now what you mean but, for years, I was kind of blind to it. 

Carol Greene [of Greene Naftali gallery] said artists are embodying ideas more now. She said it when I was giving my walkthrough in the gallery. Do you know Paul Chan’s Breathers? He had asthma as a child. When I was young my asthma was so bad peanut butter would set it off. A nebulizer had to accompany me everywhere. So Paul’s work has an immediacy. I feel his breathless stage play. On evenings I couldn’t breathe I made shadow puppets on my wall. 

The Bay Area figurative movement and [David] Park’s goopy magic eyes are what brought me to San Francisco and the San Francisco Art institute. I didn’t even look up who the current faculty were. I just had an idea about what paint may mean to someone teaching in the Bay and for that someone to change me. So maybe by that initial change of place I was hoping for a place to do something better.

When I studied with Charles Boone he taught Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. I remember walking and recording a poem I wrote for an assignment. When I handed him the six pages of unpunctuated language he said he’d wished they were punctuated. But the poetry I felt was walking and I — at that point, and maybe still — didn’t have proper grammar. 

A Tonalist was the first book I read of your poems. I emailed you and we became friends, like Norma and me.

I remember your home and how sweet it was. I remember feeling intimidated, too. Your work can feel so intellectually tender and vibrant. It’s what I love in Norma’s work, too. You both have this rigor that feels like the most sustainable and beautiful art… and you guys were so open and kind with me from the start. To this day you both are part of the larger register I own to grow the work. Except I hesitate, I disagree with both of you in there…  sometimes we are arguing…

We walked the bulb in Albany then, right? One of the first places we walked. As we’d always be walking. You introduced me to all those fantastic sculptures... and that hidden library.

We both like examining our practices, if we can, at a distance, right? Does that make sense? I am thinking of your installation in Right Window and the 0 in your title. I love how the title lives with the installation. Would love to know your thoughts on 0.

Brett Goodroad, Untitled (2015), charcoal, sumi ink, casein, acrylic and oil on canvas

LM: The title of that installation and of the poem was rapt glass, a gesture to the action of wrapping all that wire around all that glass (as well as the panes of the Right Window). Because there is no “O,” in that title, I presume you are referring to that letter in A Tonalist. However, “A,” not “O,” is the operative letter in that word, phrase, title, movement, or whatever it is or was. As you know, tonalism in art was a sort of dark alternative to the light of impressionism and was less popular and successful as a movement. That darkness attracted me to it, along with my love for the work of Xavier Martinez. All of these names and concepts appear in my novel Ultravioleta and in a newer unpublished novel called The Feralist, feralism being a rival movement which (somewhat hilariously) triumphs over atonalism.

Of course, atonalism is also a way to describe work by composers like Schoenberg who, however, disliked the word and rejected it as a description of his work. The bastard quality and incipient darkness of the phrase and concept drew me ever deeper into it, though I find my book of the same name begins “Light changes the sentence.” It goes on “Tea leaves piled like seaweed in a cup in a mind pink on the inside and like the sea dark” — so we find the darkness soon enough.

The cover of A Tonalist is a collage by Norma Cole, her first art work after her stroke, given to me back then. That collage very much informed the writing of the book, its observations and questions including “What are we doing now?” What we are doing might be A Tonalist and might not. [One of many definitions of “A Tonalist” from the book:  “Some people write lyric poetry because they just want to and think it’s great. Some write it though they think it impossible. The latter are A Tonalists.”] It is entirely up to the maker to decide. The book takes the form of repeatedly posing and answering that question. It also refers to the singular A Tonalist, perhaps myself or yourself, and the discordant darkness that might inspire the work.

I like the idea of using all or many forms, per your mention of Gesamtkunstwerk. Though I admire consistency, I tend to want to change and am always setting out on what seems to me to be a new path (though it might look the same to others). That might relate to my incessant walking over the same routes — which, however, change every day.

This brings me to a question for you since your Death of Cythera (with its intriguing title) is the cover of my book Who That Divines. I was pleased that we shared an interest in Watteau, whose work is suggested by the painting and its title. His work and life were formative for me back in the day. Is Watteau still of any interest or is there other art from the past that informs your current practice?

BG: I thought maybe I was mistaken. I wonder where that 0 came from. I love how you speak about your tonalist. To me, I don’t go dark really but more earthy. The tones become more soily and gritty.

Watteau’s clothes ask me to push the work harder.

I play early music now and there are so many portraits of lute players to look at and I can’t look at many of them for very long. Watteau’s baroque guitar players are amazing. I think he must’ve played. It is historically part of the life of painters to play. I love thinking about that. It is a kind of congregating, I guess. I certainly feel myself with them as lovingly as I can. Charles Mouton and Dufault have a whole world. 

I don’t understand atonalism, I think. Often when met with unfamiliar musical ideas I’ll appropriate art. A bit like a rubato that slows to surround intricate sections. It’s one education pulling the other through: “This, I reason, is a performance!” I’ve been known to do the same with poetry.

I wonder if it matters. Maybe it’s about being close and trying to understand what moves you.  

LM: I like the way that what I’ve shortened to the idea of “darkness” you’ve transformed into “earthy… soily and gritty,” which in a way I could see as similar and yet different. Your sense seems more experiential and specific.

Your question of how to use our more educated practice to inform the one that is less so is intriguing and central to me these days. In my writing, I often try to surprise myself out of received ideas and ways of working I’ve developed over the years. I change techniques, read people who I previously haven’t liked as much, and find new impetus in my appreciation of their modes and sensibilities.

In the visual work, I enjoy attempting to make what I have so long admired and previously found the doing of to be a mysterious closed system. It’s an effort not to copy (though occasionally I just do that). Finding one’s own way of working is central to both practices. It’s exciting to me to have the experience of starting something at seventy as I previously did with writing in my twenties. As difficult as it is to be older (don’t get me started on aches and pains) it was actually much harder to be in my twenties. I’ve learned to offer myself the support and care I used to seek from others. I appreciate getting it from others, such as my lovely friends and family, but try to rely on myself for the main support.

In starting this visual practice, I’ve accumulated many (more) art books, gone to a lot of museums and galleries, poured over online sites — all of which have been useful but also sometimes frustrating. Learning how to learn from what you see, hear, and read seems like a lifelong endeavor.

At the same time, I’ve found that starting a practice in an entirely new medium is satisfying for the freedom that exists in being a beginner and, in the best sense of the word, an amateur, a lover of the art, doing it for that reason. But, of course, you want to like it and that becomes the challenge. Other people liking it I have found to be a pleasure when it happens. But, as I’ve learned with writing, people are various and inconsistent in what they admire. I like to make my own decisions about what I think is good or done. Often that involves stepping aside and letting the work go out (once it’s spent some time being scrutinized by me in private).

I think that by doing another art we have both, in a sense, become the figures in the work we’ve admired. Along with others (as this seems to be happening a lot these days) we’ve crossed into the picture, page, or score, to find a less familiar, less surefooted, but more unexpected set of results.

And then music. I always feel less knowledgeable about music than I’d like to be. Despite having a musician father and a musician husband, I never seem to know enough. I admire those who can commit to learning and actually playing, but for me that ship has sailed. I find myself to be happily in the realm of passionate audience, more passionate as time goes on. My love now is for jazz, that having changed somewhat from a former commitment to what I thought of as new music, as contemporary classical used to be called. Now, the two areas often seem to overlap. I do hear work that I sometimes feel is parallel to what I write and draw, but I don’t get to experience making it, as you do, which must be really nice.

As a current aside, I should say that I have injured myself with an ill-conceived reaching move. It happened a while ago but got crazy worse yesterday on my walk, with me having to return abruptly, needing to remain very still. I’m worried I’ve broken a rib. It’s hard to lie down. At least, I can still type.

Laura Moriarty, from Monad/Map series (2023), pastel on paper

BG: That’s terrible. I’m sorry. Mystery things are annoying. I hope you get some answers. I’ll keep checking. My body is a trucker’s body again. But I am winning right now. I mean as far as pain goes. The pain is in abatement. When I was complaining about truck runs I remember you saying it was gonna suck somewhere else too. And I stand so much now… and the instrument... my god, I’m sure Nick could attest, is an ongoing project in understanding how to not hurt yourself.

You said it felt a closed world to you and I lol’d.

I love how you talk of groundless opportunity. I wrote a poem about a sculpture that felt so real it bloopered a teenager into falling to their death. It was in Athens. It was a long way down. They were on a rail. I imagined an orgasm just before hitting the ground. 

Laura Moriarty, from Monad/Map series (2023), pastel on paper and glass

LM: Good news. Rib not broken.

Your description of your poem and the imagined orgasmic death of the person makes me think of Rimbaud, whose work I’ve been reading again. These days I am drawn to chance, trance, games, and puzzles in a way that brings up Rimbaud and his many devotees, among them my late husband Jerry Estrin. Jerry was drawn to Rimbaud’s visionary advice for the poet/visionary about a “long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences.” It is a dangerous way to live and work. At times, I feel less attracted to this advice, which I think of as Dionysian, and, at other times, I become more Apollonian. I’ll admit to being a sucker for categories, especially old ones.  The pandemic seems to have brought out the more measured approach to writing for me. But these days, not so much. I’m interested to find where I go with this current sense of psychic risk.

My feeling of being in control with writing seems much like yours with painting. As I work, I am knowing of the possibilities and how to get the most out of them. But, again, I tend to want to destabilize and undermine that knowledge — very much for the sheer fuck of it, if I might say that.

With the visual work I feel like a kid in a candy shop with so many options available. That makes up for not exactly knowing what I’m doing. And then I enjoy being able to look at the products of this work. Looking and thinking seem very different from reading and thinking, though connected of course. My long fascination with consciousness makes me imagine that new neural pathways are being created — possibly to replace the ones that used to form the memories of what just happened that we older ones tend to lose track of.

I like the title of your new book the image is a space to think. I look forward to reading it. Space of all kinds has always been one of my obsessions. If Clark Coolidge hadn’t already named one of his excellent books Space I would use it as a title. My Which Walks should be out from Nightboat probably at the end of next year or so. I’ve enjoyed that “which” can be an adjective or a pronoun, as well as a synonym for the troublesome old woman I hope always to remain.

It’s great, by the way, that you’ve been able to stop driving that truck and survive on art income. It’s a parallel to my being able to retire. With my current slight injury, I’m annoyed not to be able to walk as much as I like to but, at the same time, delighted to have more time to work. I think that is a thing we have in common — the tendency to work and to want to work endlessly, no matter what. 

Brett Goodroad, Untitled (2023), ink on paper

BG: When I was driving truck in 2012-13, I listened to Durant’s history of philosophy on my route through the southwest. I remember telling Steven Seidenberg about this and he didn’t have many encouraging things to say about Will. I asked myself what made him kind of go down a gear when thinking of me listening to Will. There is something in what isn’t encouraged that delineates? I didn’t know what to do with it. Steven welcomed my enthusiasm for Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. You introduced me to Pessoa. And this, before any of his recent fame! I read most of his recent bio. Did you know his heteronyms grew from an early enthusiasm making radio drama?

Can we talk about your library? Because I swear when the word “quintessence” landed a cracker was in my hand. We used to sit at your dinner table outside your kitchen. You’d have some gluten-free crackers and cheese out. I remember spacing out, looking past you at your books. We never spoke about Rimbaud I think. I have all these memories of books I wanted to campaign to win from you. I always wanted one of them. How to get you to give me another? I have a snakeskin [Alan] Halsey btw. You want it back? 

Is it (whatever “it” is) about what is not known, too? I just read that Lydia Davis abandons books for no reason. I do, too. To her it’s about technique, watching form like a video. Now the video’s played, what’s next? My reading, I don’t know, all my poets. I don’t go to them that often. They just shatter. I’m always left by them.

Intriguing of you to separate mind. Language kinda leaks around mine but it isn’t always poems. I’ve kept two bookcases of language. I really don’t know that many painters. I may know more of whatever synthesis I’ve made of all this. It’s funny, I’ve been playing instruments long enough that I giggle and call any singing music language music. It’s a playful and indulgent thing to suggest really: to demarcate like that. Early music, those early lutes, accompanied singing — and so much music was written wanting that voice instead of the abstract one I’ll often make of... most anything.

Laura Moriarty, Amenity Puppet (2023), pastel on paper

LM: Your origin story of writing is not entirely unlike mine of making art. I know you’ve long been an enthusiastic reader, as I have been a viewer of visual work, including yours, which has often informed my writing. And, with the encouragement of some of the same friends, we learned by doing, which I think is really the only way or at least the main way one learns. 

It’s cosmic that you mention Coleridge as, in relation to a new writing project, I’ve just been reading a book about his sense of the difference between imagination and fancy. I expected to come down on the fancy side and have. And I’m reading a brilliant poem about Pessoa, “Condoned to Disappear,” by Will Alexander in his new, amazing book Divine Blue Light. 

I read Henry James’s Washington Square in junior high at about the age of the main character and have been a Jamesian ever since, though lately I am drawn more to William than Henry. William’s idea of opening the “doors of perception” seems to bring us back to Rimbaud. My renewed thinking about him has led me down the symbolist rabbit hole of both text and images. Outdated aesthetics have always been an interest.

Our current conversation has taken place against a backdrop of incessant “research” consisting of a wildly wide reading and note-taking of the kind I often do before and as I’m writing. The visual practice has continued an interest in maps, diagrams, puppets, and of work I think of as snapshots of daily life.

Yesterday was the first day I found myself working in my garage studio in the pouring rain. It’s necessary to keep the garage door open to the back yard as I work in there. I find I can do visual things late into the afternoon, whereas I usually only write in the morning.

As a result of it coming up in our conversation, I have gone back to my old novel The Feralist (begun as a collaboration with Standard Schaefer a decade ago). I found myself building a version of the novel’s spiritual machine, called the Amenity, with things I had lying around in the studio. The characters in the novel communicate thought the Amenity, which is like an impossibly analog computer that, of course, becomes sentient. The book is an epistolary science fiction endlessly in rewrite but which I think (as I always do) might be completed this year. I have been drawing and assembling in relation to it and have begun to feel, with this new practice, as though I’m living sections of the novel. 

Somehow relatedly, I think that your piece

Wind               a petal

is the perfect poem for February in California and perhaps also for Arizona. I will send a few pics of the drawings, including one from a series I seem to be doing of things smeared on the street by the recent endless rain. They might relate.

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