I never expected to witness an evening combining British artists Aubrey Beardsley and Thomas Girtin, goth-rocker Marilyn Manson, Ugly Betty, six contemporary American poets, Stonehenge, improvisational bassist Roberto Miranda, William Blake, and the exhumed body of a Pre-Raphaelite model. Yet all were part of an evening of poetry, music, and art—Dark Blushing—that occurred recently at the Getty Center.
I’m a curator in the Department of Drawings at the Getty, and had put together an exhibition called Luminous Paper: British Watercolors and Drawings (closing October 23). The department is building that part of the collection, and the exhibition features a number of newly acquired works. As part of the exhibition proposal, we suggested related programming. I innocently proposed a poetry reading, thinking of a happy evening listening to Wordsworth, or some such.
But my colleagues Laurel Kishi and Sarah McCarthy, who organize our music and theater programs, had other ideas. They had heard of the Write Now Poetry Society, which every year organizes the Drums Inside Your Chest event of poetry (and more), and they suggested that we think about a collaboration.
We met with Write Now founders, actress/poet Amber Tamblyn and poet Mindy Nettifee, and looked at some of the works that would be in the exhibition. Amber and Mindy talked of an event where contemporary poets would be inspired by the works and their stories, with some musical accompaniment for texture, and a few celebrity readings for good measure (Marilyn Manson’s name was mentioned, but I didn’t see it happening).
It all sounded fantastic, but I had no idea how they would pull it off. In fact, I still have no idea how they pulled it off.
Beyond sending images of the drawings, and further information, I did very little. Amber and Mindy coordinated with Laurel and Sarah, chose poets to work with, matched the six poets with six watercolors and drawings from the exhibition, and arranged everything.
I hadn’t seen or heard any of the poems until they were performed on Saturday, September 10. Little worries conspired in the back of my mind. Would the evening be boring? Would there be an inordinate amount of swearing? Would the poems be bad, or unfunny? Would Marilyn Manson do something crazy? Would the entire audience be his followers, a sea of eyeliner and bright lipstick? Would one of the poets espouse a lunatic theory about “their” watercolor, and then call on me to explain it? Reservations were made available (free of charge) several weeks ahead for the Getty Center’s 450-seat auditorium and were gone within two days. The countdown began.
The evening was truly magical. The audience—an extraordinarily diverse one—was totally engaged; for the whole evening you could have heard a pin drop. Amber and Mindy hosted the event with humor and poise. And the poems were amazing! (See for yourself in the video above, which presents four of them). Sitting there, I couldn’t believe that these talented people had taken so much time and effort to really study and think about the watercolors and drawings in the exhibition.
I knew these works intimately, or so I thought, and I was fascinated and surprised by the approaches taken. I was also impressed by the delivery of the poems, with each poet truly performing their words with drama and passion. The music provided more than texture, with Roberto Miranda’s elegiac bass and Timmy Straw’s beautiful keyboard compositions underscoring the strength and impact of the poems and readings. Marilyn Manson behaved himself, and read William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell with gravitas, while America Ferrera (of Ugly Betty fame) read Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Insomnia” beautifully.
It was an evening I’ll never forget. How could “my” small exhibition of British watercolors and drawings give birth to an event so extraordinary and so creative? I would have loved Thomas Girtin, Samuel Palmer, William Blake, and the others to have been there.
Dark Blushing: The Poems
Stonehenge at Twilight
Written and performed by Brendan Constantine
After William Turner of Oxford, Stonehenge at Twilight, about 1840
In Which Lummis Makes Several Attempts to Scale the Castle and Apprehend the Cathedral
Written and performed by Suzanne Lummis
After Thomas Girtin, Durham Cathedral and Castle, about 1800
Proverbs of Hell
Written by William Blake, read by Marilyn Manson
Satan Exulting over Eve
Written and performed by Jeffrey McDaniel
After William Blake, Satan Exulting Over Eve, 1795
Written and performed by Rachel McKibbens
After Samuel Palmer, Sir Guyon Tempted by Phaedria, 1849
Written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, read by America Ferrera
Crave of You
Written and performed by Patricia Smith
After Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal Resting, Holding a Parasol, about 1852–55
What She Saw, Lifting the Curtain
Written and performed by Ilya Kaminsky
After Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, The Dream, 1896