This summer I published a poem about Lee Miller in Narrative. Miller isn’t exactly obscure – people interesting in photography, war journalism, or surrealism are probably at least somewhat familiar with her life and work. But she isn’t a household name either – I didn’t know anything about her until I read Francine Prose’s collection of biographic essays about women – many artists in their own right – who have served as “muses.” I’ve been working on a group of poems, short fiction and short essays on other artists I’m interested in for a variety of reasons – people like Jay DeFeo and Isa Genzken and Maria Lassnig and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Again, none of these people are unknown, but they all have fascinating, not-common knowledge stories that having fascinating things to say about obsession, passion, bodies, sex, death, and all the other good stuff. I’ve worried, though, about how to talk about wanting to do this – it sounds a little old-fashioned: ah, those second wavers with their projects of “rediscovery”! Haven’t we found them all by now? Not by a longshot, as it turns out.
This was on my mind recently when I read this great piece by my friend Joanna Scutts about the usually disappointning results and diminishing returns of the seemingly inexhastable genre of novels about writer’s wives, and how they tend to smooth over the uncomfortable details literary biographers deal with. Being in love with a difficult man – who can’t relate, these books seem to tell us. In wanting to bring women’s stories “from the shadows,” are we most interested if the shadow takes the form of a great man? Are we more comfortable with stores of talent squelched and repressed than those who worked through these paradoxes?