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New From A Kansas City Art Institute Professor: Poetry For When Truth Is No Longer True

Logan Action
Artist Hugh Merrill has just released his second poetry collection, 'Dog Alley.'

When Hugh Merrill was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, he says a lot of things were simply true. Grandparents and parents were heroes, as was the United States. As he aged, those particular true things stopped being true.

"There was a very well-established truth about who we were, how we got here, what we did, how we saved the world in WWII, and all was good," he says.

For decades, Merrill only engaged with the world visually. An artist who has taught at the Kansas City Art Institute since 1976, he's exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Harvard Art Museums among others, and has lectured on printmaking at 75 schools worldwide.

But he's also a poet, whose new collection "Dog Alley" tackles the jarring retooling of truth through similarly jarring words paired with non-illustrative art.

The work reflects harder truths he discovered as he grew older. His politically prominent family, for example, helped shape Jim Crow laws in Alabama. And during the two decades he spent working with homeless inner-city kids during his now-dormant Chameleon project, it seemed he'd been mistaken in feeling that his family and country were heroes.

"The poetry purposefully comes from a nonlogical place," Merrill says of the work in "Dog Alley," his second collection. "In that sense, it's very post-modern and it doesn't believe in some ultimate truth that I'm laying down, but is a series of stories, of thoughts, of being in the present, of articulations of what is in my head at the moment."

"Dog Alley" consists of 16 poems interspersed with bits and pieces of geometric and organic forms from his "Substance & Inertia" series. He describes the collection as "disjointed poetic stories with disjointed architectural forms." In other words, "they're coming apart."

The drawings come from thousands of other similar drawings that he’s made. This gives them their own solid history, even though nothing in the drawings themselves is solid.

"What that would mean metaphorically, in a larger sense, is that all truths are nothing but illusions, and they are constantly breaking down," he says.

The poem "on doing the wash" begins:

she worked full time as a secretary
the trembling of the river
musically lifting a branch from the shoreline
my lover came in to hover over me

The facing page shows one of the "Substance & Inertia" drawings cut-out and reoriented by Jeanette Powers, his friend and editor at Stubborn Mule Press. Merrill gave her full editorial control of the graphics and poems.

Credit Stubborn Mule Press
'on doing the wash' is a poem in Hugh Merrill's new collection, 'Dog Alley.'

"All through the book, to me, there are these figures that rise through," Powers says. "To me, that image is that washerwoman doing the wash. I found her inside his paintings and I pulled her out and I placed her next to the poem."

"Dog Alley" includes her cut-up versions of the art as well as the pieces in their entirety.

Powers says Merrill's work on "Dog Alley" helped him to crack open thoughts he'd carried with him about those "etched in stone" truths that turned out not to be true. The poetry reopened, she says, "all of that architecture of wounds from the death of the heroes of his childhood: John F. Kennedy, Bay of Pigs, his parents. He found out later that his grandfather was responsible for the legal lynching of a black man."

A straight narrative isn't obvious in the poetry, or the art, that jumps through time and space from jazz-age Kansas City to a speaker using an iPhone in Mexico. It's the meeting of Merrill's "verbal mind" and "visual mind," Powers says, that creates tension in the collection.

"You have to investigate, you have to dig, you have to apply yourself to it," she says.

Merrill wrote poetry early in his life, but was discouraged from doing so by no less an authority than the beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

The two were friends when Merrill was in his 20s. One day, Merrill decided to show Ginsberg several poems in his sketch book.

"I said, 'Here's a poem I've written,' and he went…" Merrill looks down for just a moment, demonstrating the cursory way Ginsberg read his work. Then he looks back up and says, "Paint."

"What he was really telling me, and it made sense for the time period, was printmakers didn't paint, they made prints. You focused down and you drained yourself into the work and got everything you could out of yourself. So, it was like: Don’t write, paint."

All these years later, that's one more truth that's not true.

"Dog Alley" book release party and reading, 6-8 p.m. Thursday, March 14 at Kansas City Artist Coalition, 201 Wyandotte Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64105.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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