Theresa Whitehill

Interview with Theresa Whitehill

September 19, 2023
Veronica Martinez

I had the incredible privilege of interviewing Theresa Whitehill, California poet, letterpress artist and designer of Cascadian Zen. Whitehill will be hosting a talk with Robert Bringhurst on Bioregional Typography at the 7th Cascadia Poetry Festival on October 6-8. Pre-registration for the talk is required. The film adaptation of Whitehill’s book with artist Felicia Rice On Heavy Lifting will also be shown at the festival. Register now to join us for an amazing weekend full of poetry and community!

 

Interview

 

Q: I read that you were involved in the production of poetry readings and events throughout your career. How did you get involved in poetry event planning? How does being a part of the production differ from being a featured poet? Do you have a memory/moment from an event that you remember fondly?

Theresa: Over the years I’ve received a considerable amount of praise for my work in producing poetry readings as if it was all altruistic, but I’m always quick to explain that my motivation is entirely selfish: Early on, I found that when reading to an engaged audience I could often quickly and incisively and instinctively edit the work on the fly. My poetry is often composed orally, when walking or when handwriting it and then rereading it out loud, or in some of the editing processes, but it was when I “baptized” a poem by reading it in public for the first time that it would often cohere in a completely different way. This led to my support of open readings and eventually helping produce those readings. I’ve lived in five different places in Mendocino County and in nearly all of them I held regular readings on the solstices—winter and summer—in which I would call together the local poetry community. I also produced more public types of readings at public spaces, something that goes back to the early 1980s in my time at Mills College and San Francisco, which continued when I moved to Mendocino County in 1984.

Q: How does being a graphic designer impact your work as a poet, and how does being a poet impact your work as a graphic designer?

Theresa: When my husband, artist Paulo Ferreira, and I co-founded Colored Horse Studios in 1993, we did so with a feeling that, as artists, we had something different to contribute to commercial graphic design. And that turned out to be true. Now in the thirtieth year of my commercial design business, I see that the rigors of graphic design helped to provide structure, which had a positive impact on the rigors of editing poetry. Understanding when to have a light touch and maintain the energy of a raw draft, a raw visual idea, and when something needs a bit more wholesale work up to and including tearing apart the original and extracting its juice in a completely different form. In turn, as a practicing poet and letterpress artist, recognizing the kernel of intensity that informs a work of art has been helpful in creating commercial designs, making sure that no matter what compromises a design project goes through in the process of collaborating with a client, they retain that core kernel of intensity without which a design lacks verve and also lacks that essential compelling aspect that makes for a successful design. The graphic design business has also been my financial support, my patron, putting me in situations and experiences I would not otherwise have been able to afford if I needed to make my entire living as a poet. Having financial means allows me to travel and expand my life experience, and travel has been one of my muses—nothing more enchanting to me than to park myself in a lodging in Lisbon and write most of the morning for a week or two at a time, then go out and browse the streets in the afternoon and laugh and love and eat and meet people and see some of the art of the world firsthand.

Q: I read on your website that you have lived in Portugal, Spain and Greece. What led you to living in those countries? In what ways would you say that living outside of the U.S. and experiencing different cultures impacted your work?

Theresa: Travel has had a huge impact on my creative work. My impulse to visit each place has been varied. Greece was originally a stopping off place on the way to Africa, but turned out to be the end destination of that particular trip because there was a war in the Sudan and it was not possible to make our way overland from Egypt to Dar es Salaam. My partner and I settled for the island of Chios, where we became caretakers of a Fifteenth Century monastery that had been converted into a summer guest house (but this was winter), tending to goats and sheep, milking the goats, making cheese, buying our daily bread from the delivery truck that would come by with fresh, fragrant, warm loaves.

Spain came first though, and was based on my study of the Spanish language and the poets of the Second World War in high school and college. Of all poetry, I would say that Federico Garcia Lorca had the biggest impact on my life and the first impact. Traveling to his home country, visiting Granada where he grew up in the outskirts, and then experiencing for the first time the profound respect that the Spanish society has for poetry—all of these were revelations to me. In Greece I remember walking by a hardware store in which they were displaying a new edition of the poet Konstantinos Cavafy. It was a purely affectionate and exuberant show of how important poetry is to the daily life of people (“we’re so proud of him, look what our boy has done!”). This made a huge impression on me, because in my home culture of suburban Marin County where I grew up in northern California there was no such profound respect evident. It was considered “cute” to have a calling to be a poet. I had lived a childhood and young adulthood of constant condescension toward and dismissal of the most important part of my being, which reinforced the despairing sense that poetry was somehow by its nature irrelevant. Well, it’s not.

What I also saw and experienced was that along with the profound respect that these Mediterranean countries showed their poets came a profound responsibility. I never had anyone in California look to me so intently to listen to and draw out of me the essence of a poem I was delivering as I have experienced in Europe. This happened in Lisbon, Portugal, on my first trip there with my husband Paulo in 1993. He had taken me out to hear fado music one night, and after circling a few likely places, he wasn’t finding any of the familiar clubs he remembered. Just when we had decided to simply go to a disco, he saw a woman dressed all in black with a flounced skirt and an elaborate long shawl decorated with small floral designs in vivid reds and yellows. She was walking purposefully along the sidewalk heading intently somewhere. He quickly parked and said, “we’re going to follow that woman.”

Sure enough, further down the block she ducked quickly into a doorway and vanished. We went up to the doorway and were greeted by a tall young Portuguese in a formal suit. “Yes?” he asked us. Paulo explained that we would like to go in. “Please, if you will, just a moment,” he said. He called on an intercom and spoke rapidly for a minute and then stood aside, smiled, and gestured that we were to enter.

We went down a flight of stairs to a basement restaurant where there was only one other couple dining. Many empty tables. The fadistas and their musicians were enjoying themselves at a large table. Once we were settled and had drinks—I remember we had ginginia, the bitter cherry liqueur—they got up and sang a set. The night before, they’d had a whole busload of people and had made their money for the month, so they were just doing this for their own pleasure. I was stunned and in awe, and at a break told Paulo I would like to recite a poem for them. He went over to their table and explained that his esposa was una poeta and that she would like to recite for them. Wonderful, they said, but wait just a few minutes. Our wives are coming. Once their wives arrived and they arranged their dinner with the kitchen, they nodded toward us. When I stood up the two guitar players, with their guitarra and the viola, also stood up to accompany me, standing deferentially behind me as I spoke my words. I never had anyone listen to me so intently. It was both rousing and invigorating and also terrifying. I had an instant sense that they were drinking me and that what I was conveying was essential nutrition for them, essential words, thoughts, rhythms. It was itself existence.

I went back to California on each of these trips transformed in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Q: Can you tell me more about your culinary poetry events with Shannon Hughes in the early 2000’s? In what ways were you able to infuse culinary arts with literary arts? 

Theresa: Shannon Hughes is a chef who had opened the restaurant Pangea in Point Arena on the south Mendocino coast in the 1990s. In 2000, after meeting me… I used to go to movies next door and then my husband and I would come sit at her bar for dinner afterward and I would write on napkins… One night I had left her a poem written at her bar about the evening, the movie—which was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which had left me in a state of ecstasy that combined with her magical food, was a flush of spontaneous life. After that, she got hold of me and told me she wanted to commission a poem or series of poems for me and that she would create a dish to go with each poem. She had it all envisioned.

We filled her restaurant with reservations. I stood and recited each poem, after which the dish that went with that poem would be served. These were amuse bouche, little “mouth amusements,” micro portions of appetizers, main courses, dessert. Knowing that she had experience with food from many different cultures and her apprenticeship with her Lebanese grandmother, I deliberately set each poem in a different country. It was, apparently, a raving success. People fell all over themselves in the amazement that we could spend an evening doing this (including one young couple who stumbled into the event on their honeymoon, who must have been startled and amazed and gone away thinking we did this all the time; I always like to think that they went back to their bed and breakfast by the water and made a beautiful baby that night). Her food is a form of witchcraft, a magical nourishment which unbends and heals and encourages the work of the soul. That was The Heart’s Invention, set in late winter, the season and the poems informing the menu.

In 2003, I was doing some work for Stags’ Leap Winery. After hearing about The Heart’s Invention they asked if we were willing to reprise that dinner with a different menu and another poetry commission and so we did it again. This time the theme was Saudades, the Portuguese sense of longing and fate. It was high summer. We stayed at the property in the hills on the southeast part of the Napa Valley for days while I wrote and she foraged for wild herbs and studied their kitchen gardens in order to compose the menu from the land. I remember finding a quote from the Koran that inspired the first poem and then I was off, and wrote a five-course collection of poetry. This was performed, the food and the poetry, on a sultry evening on the porch of the manor house, with an invited group of guests, each course paired to the poem and to a different Stags’ Leap wine.

We have ideas for further culinary poetry events, with the idea of rounding out the seasons and the mid-seasons, and have a manuscript of ideas for winter (Ayuba, which means “wonder” in Arabic).

Q: Can you dive a bit into the process of turning Heavy Lifting into a film experience? In what ways did this experience of turning a book into an interactive film impact your perspectives as a graphic designer, poet and letterpress printer?

Theresa: The film, On Heavy Lifting, was initially the idea of Felicia Rice, with whom I collaborated for over four years on the project. I had an idea that some of the poems should be read chorally, by multiple voices. We had a recording session with Felicia’s son, Will Rice, a musician and music producer from Oakland. Five readers. Will then layered multiple voices over each primary voice for each poem, so that the reading of a poem has a core voice with echoes from other voices coming in on top or just to the side of the words. He composed music and wove everything together to create what would be the score of the film.

As Felicia worked with a Mendocino high school intern to capture footage of images from the book projected on the walls of her studio, into which she introduced a dancer, Kyra Starkweather, from a local dance troupe, and then worked with a Santa Cruz university film student to edit the art film, I was alternately out of my depth and entranced and resistant and finally, won over by Felicia’s vision.

I was amazed to see her tackle a medium with which she did not have a lot of experience, learning as she went along each skill she needed to have, or bringing in the right person, the right talent. And then loosely directing, allowing each artist and crafts person the room to make it their own but keeping her vision in focus. The result is an experimental film that conveys so much more of the poetry and the project by incorporating sound, visuals, motion, poet, dancer. I have always envied filmmakers their access to more of the sensual range of the human perception.
Now I don’t have to envy them any longer.

Q: Did being a poet laureate impact your relationship with poetry and with your community? If so, how? 

Theresa: I have noticed that each Poet Laureate here in Ukiah has undergone a similar transformation in taking on the role and carrying it for four or more years. First of all, there is the recognition of achievement, the validation that being nominated for and named Poet Laureate brings, albeit in a small semi-rural community. I remember my Master’s swimming companions being suitably impressed—“we have a poet laureate swimming with us!”

As the Poet Laureate matures in her or his role over the course of years, I’ve seen a confidence come, an ability to trust one’s instincts, skills, editorial sense, performance experience, with the result that, by the end of each term, the laureate has a chance to become what they’ve always been, but more so. The recognition and the work elevate their poetics and also gives them work of consequence to do. This is important. They are fulfilling a responsibility to bring poetry to their community. I think that people, humans, social animals, can find a feeling of fulfillment in honoring responsibilities related to their true métier, their true calling. Suddenly they are aligned both within themselves and without, the public face, the ego formally disciplined by the poet soul.

Poetry is a time-honored oral tradition that has a component in print. It is the older, archaic oral tradition that is fed by this program of community laurates all over the US, from cities to counties to state level, up to the US Poet Laureate position, the “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.”

1 Comment

  1. Andreya Marks

    It is with a delighted and sad heart that I read the beauty of your words and the depth of your feelings. Having lived on Cameron Road, somewhat of a neighbor to you, I wish I were still there. My poetry would soar in Mendocino county. But alas, the greater world swollen me up; now living in Germany.
    I am curious what has become of your daughter, Theresa? She was exceptional like you.

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