Featured Portfolio: “American Patriot” as a Dialogue between Poetry and Photography about the Nature of Patriotism, an Interview
Pittsburgh-based photographer Charlee Brodsky spent this last election year taking photographs of American flags in Pittsburgh and in working-class towns across western Pennsylvania in order to understand the evolving history of working people of those communities.
Her resulting prints tap into a broad conversation among, between, and across generations of American artists–from impressionists like Childe Hassam and Guy Wiggins to Pop Art provocateurs like Jasper Johns. But unlike these artists, Brodsky decided to engage in another type of conversation as well—a more direct and intimate one about the nature of patriotism itself, so she enlisted the poet Jim Daniels to take a look at some of her work and to write poems based on those flag photographs. We are proud to premiere in Scoundrel Time the result of their collaboration: an on-going work-in-progress called American Patriot. We premiere this work as part of an on-going segment entitled “Portfolio,” where the work of poets we admire will be showcased in a longer sequence of poems. Jim Daniels and Charlee Brodsky are the inaugural Portfolio artists appearing in this debut issue of Scoundrel Time.
The American Patriot portfolio, along with poems by other poets in this issue that interrogate what it means to be patriotic, comes just as president Trump has begun to ask citizens to stop thinking about what it means, in fact, to be a “patriot.” In the days to come, we anticipate a renewed public discussion about patriotism, which is part of the reason we have featured these two artists in the first place. On the one hand, from our nation’s inception, patriotism has long been aligned with the exercise of free thought, of reason, of dissent, and of the adoption of a skeptical attitude towards the powerful: “It is the first responsibility of every citizen,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “to question authority.” “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth,” wrote Albert Einstein. “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt, “is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
On the other hand, we have Trump’s proclamation, on January 24th of this year, declaring his inauguration a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.” From this, we hear the call to citizens of the United States to adopt the very “morally treasonable” stance that Roosevelt warned us about—an unquestioning conviction about the meaning of “patriotism” that is diametrically opposed to the notion of patriotism expressed by one of our founding fathers, by one of our greatest immigrant scientists, and by Roosevelt himself, that champion of the environment and staunch opponent of the corporate consolidation of power.
Trump’s call to “patriotic devotion” should be disturbing on many fronts to all American citizens on either side of the political spectrum, not for the least of which reason is how that self-same proclamation, and Trump’s unlikely—but now fully-realized—ascension to power, conflates Trump’s inauguration with a call for blind devotion to an abstract idea, of which the president is the primary figurehead. The subtext could not be clearer, the dog-whistle, the cri du coeur to Trump’s supporters could not be more plain, and the warning shot to those who would criticize Trump or his administration could not feel more menacing, like a tracer round whistling by one’s ear: “Patriotism” of the blind, unquestioning, uncritical, “devotional,” America: Love it or Leave It variety will likely become the blunt instrument used to stifle dissent.
Against this backdrop, then, we present here a conversation between two artists, a visual artist and a poet, about the work we have published of theirs in Scoundrel Time—a suite of photographs and a sequence of poems written in the unmistakably clear, demotic, exploratory voice of an individual poet, unencumbered by linguistic blinders of what one “should” or “shouldn’t” ask about anything, even the American flag. “The flag is a vessel of complicated American values,” writes Daniels, whose poems deploy humor as a subversive tool to break the vice-grip that a symbol as ubiquitous as the American flag can have upon us. With that, please enjoy our inaugural interview series—“Six Questions. . .”—which will regularly feature a conversation by poets and artists discussing the work as it appears in these pages.
Scoundrel Time: In this sequence of poems, and in other sequences like Blue Jesus, for instance, you’ve taken something that “we already know”—the American flag, and Jesus—and you’ve challenged that sense of familiarity. Tell us about how each of you approached that project, via poetry, on the one hand, and photography on the other. I’m guessing that the photograph of the flag came first. So Jim is responding to each photograph, correct? What’s the point, then, behind finding “Eros” in the American flag, in the poem “Flag Erotic?” In terms of poetry and in terms of photography.
Charlee Brodsky: I’ve always been attracted to the American flag in our landscape, but I be-came particularly attracted to the flag during this election year. Because the country seemed so divided to me, the flag took on more complexity as a symbol. Most Americans are patriots—we can agree on that. But what we can’t agree on is what that means. I asked Jim to work with me on this project because we share interests in the rust belt. We’ve worked gracefully together before, but most of all, I wanted his voice with these images because he creates stories of real people and places that feel so true. His words complete my work. Yes, the photographs came first.
Jim Daniels: You’re right—the photos came first. I like the connection you made to the poems in Blue Jesus. In those poems, I was trying to use color to make the questioning of faith in God a bit more concrete. In the flag poems, I’m trying to use the imagery in the photos to make the questioning of faith in country a little more concrete.
The flag is, obviously, a symbol of our country, and in this current political climate, questioning that symbol can be viewed as being unpatriotic. Focusing on the flag, I’m trying take apart its symbolism as a way of questioning the assumptions behind it and what it represents, and what our values are—we all see what we want in the flag, and that’s how it should be. To try and regulate or control how we view the flag seems undemocratic to me. To find Eros in the flag is a way of bringing something else to the table when we’re talking about being human, just like when it comes to religion—Eros is messy and unregulated and often undiscussed or unacknowledged when it is part of our humanity. The flag is a piece of cloth.
ST: In “Reception,” we have a meditation on the way people put flags on their car antennas. You call their appearance the “dark magic/of conflicting signals” on the one hand, and “a Rorschach test/for our complex hearts.” What’s poetry’s role in addressing what so often seems to be a stalemate of conflicting signals in American political discourse? And, for Charlee, how do you see your role as the photographer in this collaboration of interrogated symbols and signals?
J.D: I don’t think we can break the stalemate, but I like to believe we can temporarily break the pattern of shouting at each other and not listening—what passes for discourse that devolves in-to basic meanness and a general lack of compassion. Poetry should always be making things more complicated, never oversimplifying—oversimplification results in prejudice and dismissal of others. I want to remind myself, and anyone else who happens to read my poems, that we’re all in this together. As I write this, I know how idealistic and naïve that sounds, but I feel like I have to try and nurture what naivety I have left to keep from fading into permanent despair.
Right after the election, I went to a protest march with my friend Frank, who brought a little American flag with him—his point was, I think, that we shouldn’t concede the flag and patriot-ism to the right. That we own the flag, too, and can define what it means for ourselves. Frank couldn’t stay for the whole march—it started at 9:00 p.m., a little late for us old-timers, so he handed me the flag when he left, and I felt a little strange myself carrying it alone as the march continued. I had to resist the urge to try and explain myself to everyone because of the symbolic weight the flag always seems to carry. That’s one of the great things about Charlee’s photos—you see the flag in its context and I think it’s pretty clear based on the different contexts that though the flag is always the same, it gets shaped by its surroundings.
C.B: I love my role “as the photographer in this collaboration of interrogated symbols and signals.” I put the first stake in the ground. Early in this work I made a decision to focus on neighborhoods that have been called “blue collar” or “working class” rather than showing the flag in posh environs. Western Pennsylvania, where most of these photographs were made, has a noble history of working people—steel and iron workers, of course, come to mind. As the working and middle class dwindles in our technological age, I went back to towns that I photographed when I first moved to Pittsburgh decades ago—old brick buildings, muted colors, genuine people are still very much here. In one small town a man questioned me about what I was doing and he was mean. He took down my license plate and said you don’t know who’s a terrorist. Another man, witnessing this interaction, said it’s a sad day when you’re questioned like that.
ST: Talk about the problem of scale that seems to be addressed in the poem “Size Matters.” How does scale become problematic for us humans? How do poetry and photography address this?
J.D: Some seem to have a “the bigger the better” mentality when it comes to flags—“My flag is bigger than yours.” Is somebody with a smaller flag less patriotic? Does five small flags equal one big flag? For me, that’s how scale becomes problematic.
One of the things about our collaboration that I find interesting is the issue of scale in terms of the interaction of image and text. On the pages of a book or magazine, the poems and photos are of a similar scale. When you put the work on the walls of an art gallery, I think we tend to expect the image to be larger than the text. In either case, I think our attention is drawn more toward the image over the text. I make that assumption when I write—that I’m responding to an image the reader will be able to see rather than being forced to create those images, like in a typical poem. We talk about creating a third thing out of the first two things—the image and the text combining to create something else.
C.B: If we look at many of the photograph/poem combinations—yes, we see scale changes with the flag but we also see quantity differences. I find it amusing that often one flag isn’t enough. A yard my have a “poppa,” “mamma,” and many “baby flags.” Is someone more patri-otic if they have 10 flags on their lawn than if they have none? We are using our “stuff” to define and tag us. Those with the same “stuff” may form a brother/sisterhood—but unfortunately this may also create dissonance if one doesn’t conform.
S.T: Talk about the process of meditating on what might be thought of, in some cases, as abstract photographs. Not in all cases. Sometimes the compositions seem to hint at narratives, or lines of argument. Can you tell us about a moment of discovery in your process of writing these poems, a moment that surprised you?
J.D: I feel like I’m a detective of some kind who is investigating these photos for hints of what is going on beneath the surface. The way Charlee frames the photos is always interesting to me—as an artist, she is trying to capture something, to shape it like a poet shapes words. Then as a poet, I can zoom in on whatever I want from the photo that’s already been shaped artistically. In other words, Charlee’s already applied a little duende to the piece—already shooting off sparks, energy—so sometimes all I have to do is blow on those sparks to create a poem rather than beginning by rubbing two sticks together. Sometimes I feel like on some level I’m revers-ing what I usually try to do in a poem; instead of making the abstract concrete, I’m trying to make the concrete abstract.
Every poem has its moments of discovery, I think. Or, at least every successful poem. Sometimes, I just can’t find a way inside the photo—Charlee always has many more photos that I simply (even if I admire the photo) can’t write about. For me, there are two kind of surprises; first, the surprise of retrieving a memory, of something in the photo reminding me of some-thing important that I’d forgot. For example, in “Size Matters,” I was surprised by the memory trigger provided by the small flag in the picture back to sitting down with both my children when they were quite young and coloring flags for imaginary countries—the whole idea of scale came into play—our small flags, our small parades, as opposed to the grandiose. The other kind of surprise comes from within the photo itself—seeing some detail that I may have overlooked originally and making a connection to something else within the photo. Connecting unlikely dots, I suppose, like in “Flag Neurotic,” where there are all these flags dominating the center of the photo, but right beside them is a weed whacker—and seeing the connection between the neatness created by weed whackers and the neatness of new flags—just the idea of no loose ends and how someone who whacks weeds might also fly flags.
S.T: Charlee, in some sense you’re doing what Jim is doing with his poems–you’re re-framing something that we may have stopped actually seeing. Talk about how the flag, in some ways, is the secondary subject of these photographs.
C.B: I enjoy most that which is common. I like the everyday. It’s my challenge to see some-thing, pull it out of the ordinary, and represent it as a picture. In a shooting session, I make a few hundred photographs. Most of time, all of them are bad. I consider it a successful shoot if I like one photograph. But then, that photo has to go through some hoops. I need to work on it in Photoshop and print it—if it’s to have life as a print rather than remain on screen. Then I need to live with it. I put it in a pile of prints. In a few days, I look at the photo with the others and I make a decision about whether it belongs. Yes, the flag is secondary to the photograph. It has to be a good photograph first. But, obviously, in this series, the flag makes me point the camera.
S.T: And sometimes, there’s no secondary subject. Sometimes a flag is just a flag. Is that right—your focus re-materializes the object, brings us back to the material components? On the other hand, you seem also to remind us that these are objects of mass production. Does that sound right? If so, what’s the purpose of doing that? What’s the visual artist’s role in each of these areas of focus?
J.D: A fair amount of what I’m doing in the act of responding to photos and trying to create poems is subconscious. I’m riffing on the photos, which feels very freeing—I think my work with Charlee in general has been very freeing, creating a more spontaneous and surprising voice than in some of my other poems, so sometimes when I’m asked about purpose, it’s hard to respond in a definitive way. I know that on one level, I’m trying to strip the flag of its symbolic sanctity, and one way to do that is indeed to bring us back to the material components. And the issue of mass production—and size—and condition—all come into play—the flag is a commercial commodity and also something people—particularly politicians—hide behind. How many speeches by how many politicians end, “God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America”? Isn’t there a certain level of presumption in that statement when you think about it? Arrogance, even? I feel bullied at every sporting event when I have to stand for the national anthem, take my hat off, and look at the flag—or risk getting my ass kicked. Is that how we define being a patriot? As a poet, I always question rather than accept things on faith. Particularly when it comes to politics, where a flag is never just a flag….
C.B: Gosh, and here I was thinking it’s just a flag. Just kidding!