Another Good Use of Ink During Poetry Month

I was still slathering a very itchy new tattoo on my forearm with lotion--a tattoo I'd been lucky enough to get from Serena Lander in Suzanne Sbarge's art studio--when I lucked onto The Tattooed Poets Project. I’d been googling Brendan Constantine, visiting writer at Loyola Marymount University, who will be coming to Albuquerque in August to read at Church of Beethoven (and elsewhere), when I found April 19, 2010, the day Brendan’s tattoos (excerpted above and pictured to right) were featured for the online inked poets' archive.

From there I found the whole project, almost sixty poets documented so far over the last two years. In an unusually innovative and undoubtedly not 501c3-funded effort, every day in April The Tattooed Poets Project features a photo of a tattoo on a poet, commentary by the poet about the tattoo, including both shop talk and any literary significance, plus bio, and then links to a poem. Even New Mexico’s own Joy Harjo with her amazing hand tattoos (pictured below) is featured along with the likes of Kim Addonizio, Jill Alexander Essbaum, and Eileen Myles.

And despite clarity of my decision to get my latest tattoo and a sense that I made a solid choice for myself, when I started reading the archive, I heaved a sigh. I was still in the throes of processing the new addition and remembering how a friend said she didn’t sleep for two weeks after getting her forearm tattooed. Not always, but sometimes, a tattoo is a huge and symbolic decision, and to read what poets had to say about making that decision was not only at times resonant with my own intentions but also just flat out fascinating. And so many women I respect, including the aforementioned Joy Harjo, who was my beloved professor at UNM, were revealing and speaking about their ink.

Consequently, I read all the commentary and perused the tattoo images for every single female poet on the web archive in one sitting. And then got into the guys’ tattoos. And then I popped off a thank you (and later a submission) to Bill Cohen, the person who decided to draw out the link between ink on the body and ink on the page for a month each year.

And then I decided I wanted to interview him.

So from cruising altitude on his flight from New York to Hawaii, where among other things he'd do his usual "inkspotting," Bill Cohen, who started the Tattooed Poets Projects was kind enough to answer some of my questions for him.

When asked whether poets approach getting a tattoo in a different way than non-poets, Bill wrote, “I would imagine so. I think that poets regard art a little more seriously than, say, an eighteen year-old popping into the local shop to get their first tattoo. Even more so when the poet in question is more of a spoken word performer and reads more regularly than, say, a tenured professor who does the occasional reading.”

Poets are naturally symbolic creatures. And we’re trying to make something that lasts. As Bill puts it, “There is something universally appealing about the eternal nature of good literature.”

Consequently, it makes some sense when the impulse towards symbolism spills off the page into daily life and onto flesh. Bill writes, “By getting a tattoo, one makes that piece of fleshy art eternal to the individual. It will not last forever, but it will last forever for that person. Excepting laser removal, of course...”

At which point I asked four questions, “Do you write poetry? Read poetry? Go to poetry readings? And how about your own body ink?” Bill had these four answers, “Not enough. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.”

And then he added, “I do read poetry, mostly contemporary writers, although I do have a soft spot for Wallace Stevens and Bukowski (his pre-posthumous period). I dig Charles Simic and Paul Muldoon. And I do go to poetry readings when I am able. Now that my kids are older, I will likely be able to go more often. Readings with multiple writers, like the Best American Poetry launch events, and tribute events are wonderful. One of my favorite readings was at St. Mark's Poetry Project at a reading of Berrigan's Sonnets.”

When asked why he started this project, he told me that he saw Jill Alexander Essbaum's poetic feet tattoos on the Best American Poetry blog and it stuck with him. Now that I’ve seen her metrical “feet” on The Tattooed Poets Project, they stick with me also. The idea blossomed from there.

He told me plans to continue the project next year for National Poetry Month 2011, but “wonders whether a year from now, there will be enough material to fill thirty days.” I don’t. I have no doubt he’ll get plenty of submissions. I could probably come up with thirty tattooed poets in Albuquerque alone. I’d start by pointing Bill Cohen towards Carlos Contreras and Tracey Dahl and the list goes on...

Here are his links:
Billy’s Blog (poetry)
The Tattooed Poets Project (Index)

For further research, one of Bill Cohen’s inspirations was the literary tattoos website at Contrariwise

PHOTO CREDITS: All images are from The Tattooed Poets Project archive by Bill Cohen. Photo of Brendan Constantine taken by Shawn Burkley. Image of Joy Harjo off her website with permission to use to Bill Cohen.

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Comment by lisa gill on April 26, 2010 at 1:33am
And I can't forget Amanda Kooser, ABQpoet/songwriter/singer/edithgrove--one of her tattoos is one of my alltime favorites... stunning. Also I need to set up one more gig for Brendan Constantine and Peggy Dobreer of LA for August so if anyone wants to help or be involved in that, be in touch...
Comment by Suzanne Sbarge on April 26, 2010 at 10:39pm
I enjoyed the Tattooed Poets Project. Would love to see some coverage of tattoos on artists! There is so much interesting tattoo work these days, but the articles in local papers seem to focus on stereotypical stuff. I love Jasmine Cuffee's tattoo that says in Swahili - something about love, god and revolution.
Comment by lisa gill on April 27, 2010 at 12:34pm
Thanks Suzanne, I'll have to do a NM follow-up... I'm very interested also in seeing the juxtaposition of artist's work and their tattoos, maybe a gallery would want to do that... Hopefully more soon,
Comment by Suzanne Sbarge on April 27, 2010 at 12:43pm
That's a great idea. We don't have a slot where that would fit for 516 right now, but it seems like a good idea to pitch to a smaller gallery...
Comment by lisa gill on April 27, 2010 at 12:46pm
I have a couple ideas---if any work, I'll be in touch for you to show also!!!
Comment by Flozilla on April 28, 2010 at 4:45pm
heya! Nice post. I too was lucky to get some Serena tattoo love in Suzanne's art studio...excellent work!


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