The Gift of Collage

Collage is just a whole lot of fun…the way I remember finger-painting in elementary school. A few days ago, I  took a drawing that didn’t really work as a drawing and starting adding bits of coloured paper to it. It was just a small sketch, but when I added the various bits of paper, the little sketch became something else, something joyful. While I haven’t used collage to help me with my own writing, I work with a small group of writers whenever I go to Ontario, and one of them used collage to help her as she was writing a poem. (I’ll show her wonderful collage in my next post.) There is something freeing about collage: we can be messy, we can mix things that don’t match, and we don’t have to worry about the thing that is created.

The poet Alice Notley talks about making collages in an eight or nine-month period when she was too exhausted to write. She wanted to do something other than writing, and she came up with collage. She put the finished pieces all around her on the walls of the room where she worked, and I like to think that it gave her joy to look at them. One day, she tried making a collage on a discarded fan, and realized that it was a wonderful object on which to work. As she points out, a fan has the “mechanical characteristic of opening and closing…it curves, it has spokes.” She discovered with that first fan that the images in her collage were like “constellations rising over the earth.” Her fan collages can take a long time to make (as long as several years), during which time she keeps adding layers to change the surface of the fan. Each one may be in response to a life event, she explains, or it may be the form of a long poem that she doesn’t want to examine closely. For this, she needs the indirection of collage to work out what she is doing. (Quotations from Alice Notley can be found in the article – “My Fans” – on the Poetry Foundation website, which offers images of some of her fans as well.)

Collage, with its disparate materials, and its haphazard formulation, is a lot like the act of writing: putting one thing alongside another to see how they correspond. When we need a break from words having to mean something, a collage will give us, in effect, a multi-dimensional language. It’s a way of thinking without using words, and for me, it is a momentary and happy release. Of course, I love words and what they do, but I also love this flowering space, this open sky with its constellations.

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