Local poet inspired by ‘Ozark Crows’ to release new book

Carolyn Guinzio / Courtesy photo

Tiny wonders happen every day in the trees around town, in the grass, in the pools and streams, and in the dirt.

They can be like miracles to witness for those who see them. Most of us, however, pass right by them without a second look. That is why we need poets like Fayetteville’s Carolyn Guinzio.

Open Mouth Reading Series Presents Carolyn Guinzio

What: An author talk and film screening event featuring poet/photographer Carolyn Guinzio
When: Thursday, March 29 at 7 PM – 10 PM
Where: Stage 18
More info: Facebook event

Guinzio is set to release her fifth collection of poems, titled Ozark Crows, and due out on paperback on May 1 of this year.

The book, as Carolyn tells it, was inspired by a real-life encounter she had with two crows conversing in a tree not far from the Hudson River in New York while she was in graduate school. That encounter forever changed the way she looked at the fascinating animals, and she’s had no shortage of experience with them since she moved to Arkansas in 2002.

Guinzio is also a photographer, and like her poetry, her photos often captures similar tiny moments from nature near her home outside Fayetteville. A dragonfly in a fountain. Lily pads floating in the sky. The faintest sliver of a silver moon.

Her new book combines elements of her poetry, graphic design, and photography in an interesting way that produces some really profound results (here’s a preview from Superstition review that also includes a recorded reading by Guinzio).

Due to the layered, multi-dimensional nature of her work, instead of conducting a more traditional poetry reading, Guinzio has created a series of short films to help showcase the new poems. Later this month, she will debut the new films and give a brief talk about the book at an Open Mouth Readings event set for Thursday, March 29 in Fayetteville.

Doors open at 7 p.m., and the talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. The event is free to attend and open to the public.

As an undergrad, I took a few classes with Guinzio’s husband, poet and UA professor Davis McCombs, and had the opportunity to meet her a few times over the years. We got in touch with her recently to talk about the new book, the reading, and her fascination with the crows of the Ozarks, and she was nice enough to answer some questions for us.

What have you been listening to lately?
My on-repeat addiction of the week is the song Tilted by Christine and the Queens.

You’ve been in Fayetteville for a while now after growing up in the Chicago area. What is your impression of Arkansas after living here for 15 years or so? Has it changed at all since you first moved here?
I fell instantly in love with the natural beauty here. It has changed so much in those 15 years. For one thing, this is where our children have grown up. As connected as they may feel to the places their parents are from, (Chicago and Kentucky) Fayetteville is their hometown, and their strong sense of integration increases my own attachment. It’s been exciting to see the cultural resources grow over the years, and I love all of it: TheatreSquared, SONA, Crystal Bridges and on and on. When we went to see RENT, we were marveling at the fact that, though we live in a rural area outside the city limits, a fabulous night out like that was 15 minutes from our house, and we felt grateful.

Crows are really fascinating animals. In this video, you talk about an encounter you had with two crows conversing years ago that might have started the wheels turning in your mind for your new book, “Ozark Crows.” Can you tell us a bit about that encounter, and how it led to a whole book worth of material.

I went to graduate school at Bard College, in the Hudson Valley. One very quiet morning, I heard the strangest sound— two crows were sitting side by side so closely they looked conjoined. Their talking sounded dove-like, but also like purring, murmuring, and like the sound people make when something smells good. There was such feeling emanating from that branch. They didn’t know I was there, I think, or I wouldn’t been allowed to see and hear them. That was an initial, powerful encounter that has always stayed with me, but it is a local family that provided enough material for a book. Years ago, we put out part of a stale cake, and then old cornbread, in a certain spot in the yard, and not only did the crows make off with it in record time, I found a beautiful piece of glass in the very spot. Maybe it was a way to find the place again, maybe it was a gift: either way, it was remarkable and thrilling.

Each generation has a distinct way of being with each other— sometimes the family is loud and close, sometimes they seem to go their separate ways quickly. The group that was here when I needed photographs for the book and footage for the film really seemed to love each other a lot— the entire family would sit as close to each other as they could — (I wanted to say “as humanly possible!”) — and talk in sweet, quiet tones. Sometimes they didn’t bother to move even if I was standing right under them. In making the book, I spent a lot of time outside with the crows, watching them and thinking about them. More and more ideas kept happening until I realized I had a whole book’s worth of pieces.

It’s interesting the way you combine elements of graphic design, photography, and other mediums like audio recording and video to create layers for your work. What can you tell us about that process?

It’s going to sound corny, but the original piece came as a sort of dream or vision. I saw two crows on a page, with text connecting them like a string. Even the text was there. It said: “if you could drag the things of childhood forward through your life.” That sentence has meaning for me, but it doesn’t sound like me. That’s always what I thought it means to be an artist of any kind: you keep doing what you did when you were five! I kept that piece, intact as I first “saw” it, in the book. It stands out in that it’s the only title that isn’t only two words. It seemed apt in the sense that the whole project required a leap of faith and willing myself not to think too hard about how it might be crazy. I think the phrase applies to the crows because it seems to me that they like the world.

The text took on more and more complex shapes as my ideas and abilities evolved. I wanted “The overheard” to look like an ear, for instance; “The murder,” a gallows, “The balance,” a scale, and so on. There’s one piece where half the crows are reflected in water— I photographed both the tree and and the reflected tree.

I took the photos mostly on cloudy days. That way, I could create a high-contrast image around which to build the text. Those photos look almost like illustrations. Some of them, however, were obviously taken in the sunshine, and in those the features and wings are more visible.

The files for each piece are many-layered and complicated— in most, each line of text is its own photo layer— and this made the creation of the book painstaking and difficult. I feel so grateful to Spuyten-Duyvil for taking on the project, and for executing it with such patience and skill.

The other elements— sound, video— came about as a way to talk about or present a project that doesn’t lend itself well to straight reading. I made a screen video of my process for the Superstition Review podcast you mentioned above, and in the film I also used screen video that shows the pieces being moved around in a Photoshop file.

I loved the idea of these living, breathing, screaming, flying crows being pressed into a page like wildflowers— only without being sacrificed to the cause. Sometimes in my deepest outdoor reveries I imagined they knew their part in this was to stand still long enough to let me get my footage. Very often, when I approached, every crow but one would dash off. Whatever quality the one that stayed possesses— courage? curiousity? — made the whole thing possible.

I’ve become a fan of your photography just by following you on Facebook over the years, and I excited to see some will be included in the new book. First of all, tell us a little bit about how you got into photography, what you shoot with, and what kinds of things inspire you to pull out your camera?

Thank you for the kind words! I’m lucky to live where I do, and I do love documenting some of the beauty that surrounds us. Digital photography has opened up the field to the masses, and I’m grateful the technology exists. I think the fever really came on after a painted bunting showed up in the yard. It was a grab-the-camera moment, and after that, it became a habit anytime something interesting happened. Then I went search of interesting things. I especially love macro-photography. The examination of very small things and moments is ceaselessly fascinating to me. I have a Canon camera with a good macro lens, and the Arkansas Ozark Mountains sponsor nearly every photo I take.

We know you have a reading and film screening coming up at Stage 18. Tell us about the film and some of the things you have planned for the event.

I don’t give readings very often, but I love having an event in Fayetteville when a new book is released (Ozark Crows is my fifth). The exquisite Nightbird Books has hosted all the others. I like trying something beyond reading, like showing a poetry film or slides, or in the case of the last book which had layered text, a more performative reading (The luminous Erika Wilhite read the layered texts along with me).

This time, the vital and invaluable Open Mouth Reading Series is hosting a launch event, and I had to give some thought as to how to present the work. I love Stage 18, and I know they have a perfect space for showing video. My idea for the film came together that way. I can’t really read the poems, so I thought I would show them— as micro movies. I picked twenty of the poems and made films ranging in length from 10 to 90 seconds. The whole film is about 12 minutes. I wanted to layer the still crows on the page with moving footage of the same crows, so they would be in effect flying across the page. Some of the poems are “chanted,” some are sung, some are just sound and text— but all the sounds, even those of wind and weather, are made by voices, either human or crow. I leaned heavily on my family for help, and three of the poems are read by people close to me in spirit but geographically distant.

For the final micro-film, “The funeral,” I wanted to convey a sense of geographic connectedness, of community— After all, we gather at funerals and take comfort from each other. I asked people I knew from various aspects of my life here if they would speak a certain line for the film. It was a strange request— and there was no wrong answer— but many of them, including you and your beautiful family, sent audio files to my phone, and I used all of them in the final film. The micro movies inch closer and closer to this final movement, and the voices can be heard echoing in the movies that occur near the end. Receiving those voice files and layering them into the film was one of the most wonderful creative tasks I’ve ever experienced, and when I listen to and watch the result, which includes gorgeous drone footage taken by my son Warren McCombs, I feel (there’s that word again) grateful.

The March 29 event will include a brief talk and, at about 7:45, the screening of the film. And the book will be available!

Author Talk: Carolyn Guinzio

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