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Size and Shape: Bagwell's Poetry Assemblages

by Nick Holt

Size and Shape: Bagwell's Poetry Assemblages

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Picture by Amy Bagwell

April 1, 2013

Amy Bagwell is hard at work in the art studio she shares with four other artists, located in the Dialect Design offices in NoDa. She takes a hand drill to a white-painted, black-haired doll which is lying on a worktable covered with various mark making, cutting, scraping, and sculpting tools. It’s an unusual set of tools for a poet. There are also bits and pieces of machines, books, glass, and other objects acquired at thrift shops and hardware stores. Bagwell looks down at the doll, which is resisting the drilling effort. “I need my ice pick,” she says.

The doll is part of “Until We Smashed the Last Glass,” one of the new assemblages in her show The Factories Don’t Install Emotion Tapes (the title inspired by a heart-broken utterance about a robot romance on The Jetsons) that will appear in CPCC’s Ross Gallery from April 3 - June 14. An opening reception will be held on Wednesday, April 17th at 6pm, with a performance from local jazz duo Ghost Trees. Bagwell, who earned an MFA in poetry from Queens University, came to poetry as a form that satisfied her eagerness to “reveal everything” and “to distill things further and further” after struggling with fiction, which she ultimately decided was “too big a room.” Poems, she discovered, were “the right size and shape for my brain,” possessing a formal efficiency and directness she compares to movie previews.

However, she found poetry readings—the standard venue for sharing verse—to be troubling. There was an inherent double threat for the audience: hearing a beautiful poem, and never hearing it again, or being force-fed something awful. Not wishing to be party to either misfortune, Bagwell started placing her verses in frames and hanging them on the wall.

Watching people move from poem to poem, stopping to read those they liked or moving on from those they didn’t, Bagwell was moved by the “democratic” quality of the method. She knew she’d hit upon something, but also knew that the poems “needed more than just a frame. There was more work to be done.”

Around her in the studio are the hybrid sculpture-poems descended from those first simple typed-and-framed pieces: a dismantled corporate instructional manual, pinned between fiber glass panels; a wind-up music box, with a wire tornado instead of a ballerina; and a wooden box with an inset magnifying glass sitting on a display case, like a monocular machine man observing the scene.

Photo by Taryn Rubin“I write the poem, then I figure out where it goes,” she says. “The poem is an object, the environment is an object, too,” both equally important components of a final unified piece “that has its own indivisible integrity.”

Bagwell’s poems are the opposite of the ironic evasion that saturates our verbal culture. They’re radically sincere transmissions that are demanding and rewarding, looking you right in the eye—some, incorporating mirrors, literally so.

“I’m all about getting poetry to the people,” Bagwell says, observing that poetry is a form with popular origins that has become associated with privilege and exclusivity, a transformation she compares with jazz’s cultural arc.

In addition to her own work, Bagwell has taught literature and composition at CPCC since 2010, a job she says “makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world. I get so much invigoration from my students.” She also serves as the literary arts board co-chair for Sensoria.

This year’s Sensoria festival – which runs from April 12-20 – features an impressive literary line-up: Acclaimed poet Li-Young Lee (“his poetry so precise and strong and gorgeous and surprising,” says Bagwell); Katja Esson's documentary Poetry of Resilience, showcasing Lee and five other poets who have written about experiences with political violence; a discussion between Lee and Esson about the film; and readings by best-selling North Carolina novelist and poet Ron Rash, this year's Irene Blair Honeycutt Distinguished Lecturer.

Additionally, Bagwell is directing the “Wall Poems of Charlotte” project, which will permanently display poems by North Carolina writers on prominent surfaces uptown, an effort inspired by the Poetry in Motion Project in New York City. The first wall will feature the late A.R. Ammons’ poem “Salute” in a design by CPCC graphic design student Jennifer Raudales. It will be painted on the outside of Dandelion Market on Fifth Street between Tryon and Church, thanks to the pub's co-owner Kevin Devin. The piece will be the first of what Bagwell and her collaborators, including Charlotte's Women-Centered Art, intend to be a walking-tour’s worth of monumental verse.

“There are so many blank walls downtown, so many beautiful walls downtown,” Bagwell says. “I don’t want to force feed anyone poetry, but I think that anyone should be able to access it.”

The ice pick finally does the trick, and Bagwell strings some wire through the doll’s punctured hand and suspends it from a wooden box on the wall. Now it hangs like a tiny Harold Lloyd below an illuminated pane of glass on which adhesive numbers, a translucent tiger, and other elements blend with lines of verse appropriate to the doll’s precarious hold:

You and I
were an accident
I couldn’t stop…

Bagwell likes the way the doll is swinging. “It might need some touching up,” she says, “but it’s done.”


The Factories Don’t Install Emotion Tapes will run in CPCC’s Ross Gallery I from April 3 - June 14. The opening reception is on Wednesday, April 17th at 6pm, with a performance by Ghost Trees


This piece is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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Tags: Amy Bagwell, Poetry, Poem, assemblages, charlotte, CPCC, The Factories Don’t Install Emotion Tapes

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