Star Black: The Photographer As Poet

Patsy Southgate | January 16, 1997

A double-barreled, twin-gifted, cross-creative artist is as unique as a talking horse or, for that matter, a bimaculate Dalmatian.

Yes, Michelangelo was a poet as well as an artist, and Blake the reverse. But such dual talents are rare, and often rarefied. (As the devoted Mrs. Blake put it, "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company; he is always in Paradise.")

Star Black (named for her mother's first love, who died in World War II) is a photographer and poet who lives in Sag Harbor and New York City, and one of the few contemporary artists with parallel visual and verbal avocations. There was Zero Mostel, the actor and painter, but he has died; not many others come to mind.

Word-Dazzling

There seemed, at first, to be nothing rarefied about Ms. Black. On a recent rainy day she greeted a visitor with a hearty handshake and a mug of coffee, a fire blazing on her cozy hearth.

A practitioner in one of the helping professions, one might have guessed: the warm welcome and the booming laugh.

A perusal of two recent volumes of her verse, "Waterworn" and "Double Time," points down another path, however. Here is a poet of irrepressible intellect and dazzling vocabulary, a passionate woman head-over-heels in love with words and wordplay, and not one to quail at the verbal challenges of the loftiest poetic forms.

Diabolical Doubles

"Waterworn," for example, consists of 91 unrhymed and often slangy sonnets, neither Petrarchan nor Shakespearean but "Americanese," she said with a smile.

And as if the sonnet weren't a sufficiently demanding convention, "Double Time" takes a bravura leap into the double sestina - "the Mount McKinley of poetic forms," the critic Herbert Leibowitz called it - 63 pages of them.

A sestina (who knew?) comprises six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy, each stanza repeating the end words of the first-stanza lines, but in a different order. The envoy uses the six words again, three in the middle of its lines and three at the end.

Got it?

Not content to tackle this diabolical 17th-century conceit in its original form, Ms. Black has raised the hurdles not only by doubling the number of lines in each stanza, but also by imposing a fixed pentagonal shape on them, an added stricture all her own.

Flying Stanzas

"The form is enjoying a current vogue," Ms. Black said. "Poetry editors are throwing up their hands and crying, 'Oh no! Not another double sestina!' But nobody else has shaped stanzas."

Is this trend toward the embellishment of an already elaborate form tipping poetry over into pedantry, a reader may well ask? And if so, is it "the sort of pedantry up with which [we] will not put," as Churchill famously remarked?

A glance at Ms. Black's work, the nifty flight and bounce of it, will reassure the diffident reader, but only partially. He or she must also agree to go along for the emotional rollercoaster ride.

"Tsunami And So On"

Here are the opening lines of "Tsunami And So On," an hommage to the prize-bedecked John Ashbery, her poetry teacher at Brooklyn College and a continuing mentor. (A tsunami is a huge wave caused by an undersea volcanic eruption, an allusion to Mr. Ashbery's long poem "A Wave.")

Gee willikers, John, here we are in the strumbled dawn
making voices, you the melodious mentor at sea, craned and
careened toward snowcaps, dangerously indefinite and assured,
guaranteed to spot whirlpooled birds and swoop them out of the blue
implosion before the final peep is heard, before foot-falls of a scowling
god liquefy their downy flutterings, and I, derivative as a lonely cloud,
unstrung from desire indefinitely, tuckered out, silent, shy. . . .

Experimental Vigor

"Yes, 'strumbled' is a coinage," Ms. Black said. "I had the option of using an obscure word like 'scrumpled' to describe the dawn, but my editor, Rosanne Wasserman, the publisher of Groundwater Press, said, 'No, keep strumbled, it's you!' So suddenly I had this newfound confidence to go with it, and I did."

This permission to trust what comes out of left field exemplifies the poet David Lehman's theory, published in The Boston Globe, that "an up-to-speed idiom can freshen up a traditional formal structure."

"The experimental methods of composition pioneered by the New York poets have not lost their freshness and vigor," he wrote, "and their conception of what a poem might be and do seems as liberated for poets now as when [Frank] O'Hara wrote the first of his 'I do this I do that' poems."

Professional Photographer

Ms. Black is also a professional photographer whose illustrations for Sharon De Lano and David Rieff's "Texas Boots" (Viking/Penguin) won a National Book Award nomination for photography in 1982.

Her photographs have appeared on the covers of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, News week, and American Poetry Review, and in Alice Gordon and Vincent Virga's coffee-table book "Summer."

A former staff photographer with United Press International, she now earns her living as a freelancer. Through the years her work has also appeared in New York magazine, Vanity Fair, Avenue, and other publications, as well as in The Times - usually spreads about parties, benefits, and galas.

Her photos have also been used in publications issued by the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim and Whitney Museums.

Art Of The Streets

Recently, to dispel a lingering depression, she branched out, taking one camera and one lens - no lights - on walks through the streets of various American cities. Her compelling views of street art - graffiti, posters pasted over posters, sticker art, murals, theater ads, all the city's ephemeral communications - are gathered into two collections: "City Collage" and "Downtown Doors."

The eldest of six children, Ms. Black is an Army brat who was born on a naval base in Coronado, Calif. Her father, a career officer, moved his family first to Paris, where she attended kindergarten, then to Washington, D.C., and Hawaii, where she "ran wild on the beautiful beaches, swimming, surfing, and water-skiing with my boyfriend Hoagy."

Her mother wrote interviews for newspapers, and her grandmother was an English teacher. The house was full of books, and poetry became her daily bread.

About-Face

After graduating with a B.A. in English from Wellesley College, Ms. Black, who had traveled extensively in Asia, got a job teaching English in Thailand.

A love affair with a photographer led to a collaboration on a "Guide to Bali," he doing the pictures and she the text. It was followed by guides to Singapore and Malaysia.

She fell in love with a writer next, and in a career about-face and with her new knowledge of cameras became the photographer for "Indonesia: A Voyage Through the Archipelago," and "A Day in the Life of Hawaii."

"Writing was my love, but photography turned out to be my job," Ms. Black said. "It's a lot easier, and the deadline is built in to the event: When it's over, you're done, while the writer struggles on and on."

Ashbery's Workshop

She missed writing, however. After she moved to New York in the early '80s, friendships with the poets Daniel Halpern and Mr. Lehman, and the critic Marjorie Perloff, rekindled her desire to pursue what Wallace Stevens called "the gaudiness of poetry."

But it was especially the National Book Award-winner Paul Monette, her friend and advocate of 30 years, now dead of AIDS, who encouraged her to bite the bullet and apply to Mr. Ashbery's workshop.

"I studied with John for four years," Ms. Black said, "galvanized by this introduction to the New York School and New York art. He didn't say much; he was just there."

"I basked in his magnetic field, and in doing the weird assignments he said you didn't have to do unless you wanted to: Look at de Chirico, write like Raymond Rousseau, translate from a language you don't understand, write an amateurish poem, write an adult poem in a childish mode, look at Max Ernst."

Writers' Grants

She went on to study briefly with Joseph Brodsky, and with Derek Walcott, Galway Kinnell, Alfred Korn, and other poets until, she said, she "had to cut loose." She applied for and won the first of many fellowships, this one to the Ragdale Foundation in Chicago.

"I felt challenged to write on my own, and to write in forms: in pantoums and sonnets and sestinas. At first it felt like following a knitting pattern, but then I suddenly caught on. I got it! I released this whole barrage of language with lines that ended correctly, like weaving a blanket with words."

Since then, Ms. Black has alternated working in New York with stays at writers' colonies and workshops around the country. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Boulevard, among other magazines.

The World Works

"[Black's] . . . ironic self-consciousness never deserts her, and a breathless sense of romantic possibility charges her lines," Mr. Lehman wrote.

"Poems . . . radically envisioned - where the world is turned around, made wildly clear, and made to work," said the poet Lawrence Joseph.

Of late she has been trying to merge her visual and verbal sensibilities in surreal collages that superimpose faded photographs of architectural relics and snippets of sentences and bodily features - smiles, wedding-ringed fingers - on old maps and dictionary pages.

"This is like the playpen all over again, but it gives me great visual pleasure," she said. "Who knows if it will survive? I just keep going and let it teach me."

She gave one of her broad smiles and booming laughs. "I got up on New Year's Day and went straight to it. I got a big kick and it made me happy. What more can you ask?"