By Kelsey Block
The Unauthorized Audubon, a collection of poetry and prints by Poetry Center Director Anita Skeen and Anthropology Professor Laura DeLind, was recently published by the MSU Press. The RCAH Center for Poetry hosted a reading on February 19 to celebrate the occasion, in which the creators read and signed their book.
The project began after a class DeLind and Skeen co-taught had ended. The course focused on communication across media and how two different media can inform each other. The artists noted that poetry and visual art often deal with many of the same things – point of view, pattern, lines, mass and positive and negative space.
The friends confessed that they both were sad to see the class end. To commemorate their work together, DeLind stuck a print she had created under the windshield wiper of Skeen’s car as a surprise. Skeen said she noticed the print from a distance later that day as she left the RCAH.
“I came out at the end of a very bad day,” Skeen said. “I could see my car in the distance, parked illegally, and I could see this card in the distance, and I thought, ‘oh crap – a parking ticket.’ And as I got closer, I realized it was too big, and thought maybe a student had left something under my windshield wiper. And then, when I got closer, I could see that it probably wasn’t because it hadn’t been ripped out of a notebook. And I opened it up and here was this print with two feathers, and underneath it was written, ‘guess who?’”
In order to thank DeLind for the print, Skeen wrote a poem and invented the imaginary birds from which the feathers came: the “polka dotted dairy pigeon” and the “riverswift.”
After that, it became a kind of correspondence. Skeen wrote a poem for each new print DeLind created.
“It was sort of fun to recognize that you could do something and get someone to respond to it so completely,” DeLind said. “This was totally play. There was no pressure, there were no deadlines. We just did this. And the magic of it was my prints are two-dimensional, flat. And I’d give them to Anita and I’d get them back and these birds that I thought I had invented, that I had created, I found that in fact they had names that I hadn’t known about, they had histories that I hadn’t known about, they had songs that I didn’t know about, they had habitats I wasn’t aware of. They had personalities.”
The pair worked (or played) without forethought until the MSU Museum did an exhibit about the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. One of Skeen and DeLind’s friends at the Museum suggested that the collaboration become a part of the exhibit. There, the MSU Press saw the collection and considered publishing it.
“All the writing I’ve done in the years, all the books I’ve done, nothing has happened like this” Skeen said. “Ideas for books had sort of come out of places I didn’t know they’d come out of, but nothing like this where it just fell into place and we didn’t have to work at it.”
The creators titled their book after the works of John James Audubon, a 20th century naturalist illustrator who drew meticulous representations of birds in danger of extinction.
“Instead of documenting things that were going extinct we were creating new critters that never were before,” DeLind said. “They were imaginary, they didn’t have fine, fine detail, they allowed for all kinds of interpretation and imagination.”
As for the reason she created birds, DeLind said they were an excuse.
“For me they’re an excuse to play with natural shapes and patterns and composition. Birds come in infinite variety and have great body shapes. And the idea of flying is pretty spectacular … There’s no end to what I can do with birds,” she said.
The book combines DeLind’s block prints with Skeen’s poetry. DeLind said she usually works with linocuts, which involves cutting designs into blocks of linoleum.
“It’s like any relief print. What you cut away does not accept ink, what you don’t cut away stands in relief. It’s like a stamp,” DeLind said. “[Linocuts] have a certain democratic nature to them, they aren’t expensive, you don’t need special techniques or training, it’s quick, it’s bold, it’s honest.”
While she is primarily a poet, Skeen also has experience with other types of writing, including short fiction.
“I am in my heart of hearts a poet, and I really love language,” Skeen said. “One of the things I really loved about this book project was that I got to name the birds, and that was just such a gift. Poets are always naming things, but we’re usually naming emotions and we’re naming experience and we’re naming how it feels. But I got to name these imaginary birds and that was the best naming I’ve ever done.
“I looked at some of the birds for a long, long time, because I had to figure out what was at the core of them,” Skeen said. “I had to know things about these birds. I had to know where they lived and where they flew, and then once I figured out some things about them I could figure out what they might be likely to do. But I had to look at them a long time. I would set the print up on my desk or carry it around in my calendar so every time I opened it I’d see the bird. And I had to figure out how to get that bird out of there. They were flapping around and making a lot of noise.”
DeLind and Skeen are hoping to do a calendar next.
Click here to purchase the book from the MSU Press.
Click here to learn more about Skeen’s work.
Click here to learn more about DeLind’s work.
Click here to see a collaboration between Skeen and fellow RCAH Professor Guillermo Delgado