Interview with featured artist and visual poet, Clairette Durand-Gasselin

Interview: Claire Durand-Gasselin (Mad Gleam Press) & Stephanie Spoto (Old Capitol Books)

Spoto: Maybe we can look at some of your books of art.

Durand-Gasselin: Sure, I have my sketch books, and my accordion books. But in terms of presentable things there isn’t much.

Spoto: What are these books that I’m looking at? What are they as book?

Durand-Gasselin: They are like journals, basically. Visual journals. Instead of writing in a journal, I’ll just take these as a visual journal. Drawing is also a way to write, as writing is a way to draw. It’s always about that. I always feel like a pull towards one or the other and it’s very difficult for me to choose, or to say that I’m going to dedicate my time to this or to that. So, it’s always in the middle. When I chose what to study after high school, I went towards the visual part and became a designer and visual artist, because it seemed like the most creative thing to do. Also, in France, you don’t really study to write, you just do. So I was really in images and art for so long. And since I’ve been in the US, for 7 years now, I’ve been working on writing more and really rediscovered this part of myself, so from now on I thought that I would mix them up.

Spoto:  Is that what you mean by the term visual poetry?

Durand-Gasselin: So I guess I like the term ‘visual poetry’ because it’s like visual arts, but with poetry. I have the feeling that it embodies a lot of things, for example asemic writing, which looks like writing but isn’t writing. It’s a form of art. For me that’s visual poetry. Or concrete poetry is visual poetry. Word art is visual poetry. Book art is visual poetry.

Spoto: So visual poetry is an umbrella poetry, and concrete poetry would fall under it. But this isn’t necessarily concrete poetry, is it? Do you take inspiration from concrete poetry?

Durand-Gasselin: I have a feeling that everything in that realm inspires me. For example, using a typewriter is another kind of journaling I do. Some of the poems I write then look like concrete poetry because it’s really about the way it looks like on the page, and the action of writing. But it’s also simply poetry, so I’m not sure if it’s really concrete poetry.

Spoto: I think concrete poetry is when the form or the physical shape of the poem is meant to reflect some kind of meaning or experience.

Durand-Gasselin: Yes, like writing a poem in a certain shape like calligrams, which might be considered concrete poetry. But for me it’s like words that are used visually. Or art that is used to make something that looks like language, that really tells a visual story. And it’s interesting because to me a certain painting is going to seem like a poem, when another doesn’t. I don’t know why.

Spoto: Some things feel linguistic and some feel more abstract. Or can words also feel abstract?

Durand-Gasselin: It’s more like there is the essence of what is poetic, it’s going to be present in a poem that has words, or an image that is poetic because it has another dimension. It’s hard to express exactly what it is. It is the essence of what is poetic. So, for example these two paintings [The Wounded Man by Gustave Courbet and The Absinthe Drinker by Edgar Degas] tell poems. But this one [The Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet] doesn’t. It’s a fucking masterpiece, I love this painting so much, but I feel like it doesn’t become a poem.

Spoto: I wonder what makes something like The Wounded Man feel poetic but not the Origin of the World.

Durand-Gasselin: It feels like there’s something about the story, about a certain contrast too. You can tell a story in The Wounded Man, The Origin of The World is more metaphysical, timeless.

Spoto: Maybe there’s something about the narrative of the Wounded Man that makes it seem poetic.

Durand-Gasselin: I guess the Origin of the World, you don’t want to explain it, you just want to take it what it is, you wanna feel what it means. But The Wounded Man, I want to know what the backstory is, what words are crossing his mind. I would also like the backstory of that painting too [The Absinthe Drinker].

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A collection of art prints in the home of Clairette Durand-Gasselin

Spoto: Should we light that joint?

Durand-Gasselin: Yes, here it is.

Spoto: So, I’m looking at your work here. You have French and English here.

Durand-Gasselin: It’s mostly in French.

Spoto: Yeah, so sometimes you have French and sometimes you have English.

Durand-Gasselin: I don’t think that I have a lot of English in this. The words you are reading as English are actually written in French, like “silence”. I would like to show this, but if people can’t understand, then I don’t know.

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A page from Durand-Gasselin’s daily poetry diary

Spoto: What about these English phrases among the French? Was that a conscious choice? Or is like when you’re writing you’re thinking in French, and then if an English phrase comes in then it’s more like that?

Durand-Gasselin: I feel like there are things that I want to express in English, because the words feel better in English. They convey something different.

Spoto: Is it certain subjects? Or the words themselves?

Durand-Gasselin: I think certain words, but maybe subjects. With French it feels more intimate. But English is more like when I want to say something that is towards other. French people might understand most of what I write in English if they aren’t experts. When I write in French, I go much further with the writing and play with the form. It might be weird even for some French people, but it feels very intimate—it’s my own approach with the language.

Spoto: Did you write poetry before you moved to New York in Paris?

Durand-Gasselin: When I was a kid, I wrote a lot of poems and songs. But I didn’t play any instrument ever. I always sang. My favorite thing was to write songs. Also, poetic prose, and little stories started but never finished. But it’s not like here, in France you don’t go to school to become a writer. You’re either a writer or you’re not.

Spoto: It feels more like an innate genius rather than a skill that you can develop?

Durand-Gasselin: So, it’s not really a career plan. And also, since I was always interested in art, I became interested in the visual things, but I always missed the linguistic part so much.

Spoto: So, then you moved to New York though and started to hang out with poets.

Durand-Gasselin: Yeah, and the first poet I hung with was Thibault Daelman. We were together in the same Masters Degree program, and even before we went to New York together he was doing art together with writing. He was a writer, but was studying art, so he was incorporating his writing into his visual art. And I thought “wow, I can do that!” I can actually be an artist and write and play with both. He’s extremely talented, so it encouraged me to go back into the writing with my art. I had this story that I’d been working on for awhile so I worked on it together with my book arts. I ended up asking Brian Sheffield, the poet, for feedback.

Spoto: So, you go to New York, you met Thibault and Brian Sheffield. And you started Mad Gleam Press. What kind of poetry were you drawn to when you were putting together your magazines?

Durand-Gasselin: When we started the press we were working with Margaux Talleux. We were both book artists, so we were more on the visual part of things, and Brian and Craig Kite (co-founder) were on the poetry side of things. At that time I was not writing much, though I would start writing again soon. We were two French women artists with two American men poets, and the idea was to make a dialogue with that dynamic by curating things that we liked. That was the real embodiment of the mix of language and visuals. The magazine really feels like that. The books that we published also were with the idea that the artistic direction of the books was going to be pushed towards this dialogue between visual and literary arts. So this is why Thomas Fucaloro’s book is paired with illustrations from Julie Bentsen. That’s why Harriet Halsey’s book has images that I did. And the last one, Erika Schreiner’s book, is a flipbook, showing some of her video art. It’s very nice to be able to publish artists who work in multiple mediums, because it embodies what we want to promote. We really liked the idea of making it an interesting object.

Spoto: So, you left New York and came to Monterey. And you’ve been a little on the DL.

Durand-Gasselin: What is DL?

Spoto: On the down low. You haven’t really been publishing or promoting Mad Gleam Press, and now you have your first show as part of the poetry festival. Obviously, I really wanted to have you there because having an artist there that has poetry as such a central part of their art seems like the perfect combination of things for the poetry festival. I know you’re still putting your ideas together, but is there something inspiring you or something that you’re working on with it?

Durand-Gasselin: I always have this imagery of things on shelves. This is an image I have in my poems, and I always do installations on bookshelves. Every time I move into a space, I feel the need to set up little scenes like these. It’s a mix of stuff I find and stuff I make. It’s always growing all over my studio space, and I can’t really contain it. Once a week I think, ok I’m going to clean it. But then I find something on the ground, and it makes the things around it feel different. So, the art becomes something organic. I’ve been thinking a lot about that and trying to conceptualize it. I think it’s interesting because it feels like a way to collect things. When you collect things, you’re not really creating, but only channeling. You are just highlighting it as a form of creation. It’s ready made. The intellectual aspects of all this is still very blurry, but the poetic part is there.

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The artistic collections of Clairette Durand-Gasselin – here in the form of an altar

Spoto: Do you think it turns the collection of experience itself into a kind of art? Does each object when they are in their new space, do they feel no longer like individual objects but like a collective part of a work of art? Or do you sometimes pick up an individual object and have the individual memory?

Durand-Gasselin: I don’t really have memories of specific moments. If I remember finding something at a specific moment usually that thing is going to become just a souvenir that is just going to be on the shelf as it is. It is just associated with that memory, and stands on its own. It’s not material for art then, it’s just a part of life. This is very interesting because I kinda would like to work on that—the separation of art and life. Maybe that will be the next step… For now, every day when I go on a walk, I am just grabbing things that catch my attention and putting them in my pocket. I have a million little things, sticks, plastic bits, etc.  Sometimes, after a while, they don’t feel like they work so I discard them. But I keep most.

Going on walks to gather little things and typing a poem everyday makes me think a lot about the idea of routine. I have been thinking about that a lot in relation to the desire to control everything that I feel on Social Media, with all the morning routine stuff you see around. Beside that, I also like to recognize the spiritual aspect of a routine, how it enlightens the mundane. I like to create a routine that is oriented towards a poetic and artistic life, and not a routine that is just here to enhance my productivity. Because, fuck productivity.

Spoto: How do you feel hearing your shelves described as little altars?

Durand-Gasselin: It’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently because they feel like altars to me. I have the feeling that it’s a way to worship what every little piece evokes to me. They’re going to mean something different in the larger ensemble of things. I don’t know to what spirituality it is, but there’s definitely something sacred in it.

Claire Durand-Gasselin is a visual artist and poet, born in France, and living in the US since 2014. After 5 years in NYC, she’s currently residing on the beautiful Central Coast of California. On the side of her art and poetry, she designs books for indie presses and authors. She’s also an occasional French teacher, and the Artistic Director of Mad Gleam Press, a bilingual collective of writers and artists based in Monterey CA, New-York, and Paris.

Stephanie Spoto is a bookseller at Old Capitol Books.