A debut collection of playfully irreverent ekphrastic poems inspired by the author’s engagement with art, architecture and music
Action in the Orchards explores ekphrastic poetry and its possibilities through experiences and encounters, with art and architecture, with friends and lovers, with our own pasts and futures, how they intersect with language, and how language acts as a filter through which our relations to experiences are communicated. Fred Schmalz follows the energy of those exchanges, in hopes of witnessing new opportunities for language. Formally experimental and musical, the poems coalesce through a kaleidoscopic mix of speech fragments, elision, mistranslation, collage, appropriated language, dream transcription, and wordplay.
Action in the Orchards asks what it means to be an artist. And the answer itself is in action: the action of attentiveness to the art that most engages us. The action of experiencing art not as a critic but as a maker. Through observation, through intimacy, and through embodiment, Fred Schmalz shapes a poetics of engagement, a poetics that rejects solipsism and isolationism, a poetics that seeks to “trap the sky in its present state”, a poetics of documentation and absorption, where care and cognizance are transformed by the pulsing rhythm of how pain enters, of how language makes life out of loss.
What makes this book so affecting are its layers. Fred Schmalz has drawn a world in cross-section and to scale, so that we, as readers, can see (and feel) how experience is created. It isn’t necessary to distinguish between elegy and ode here. Rather, feeling and thought are cast clearly enough to reveal their common bedrock: wonder. This wonder is often ekphrastic. Almost as often it rises out of common events in everyday life, the infra-ordinary. And it persists. Action in the Orchards courses through the natural history of metaphoric language, through the details of human emotion, and through time. The poet’s steady attention to perception and to sound and to rhythm becomes a way of recording the history of mind and body, and then he engraves these “little stars of the impossible” so that the transient is brought closer to permanence. This book is extraordinary.
The orchards are plural; the action is thought. Museums are orchards; perception is action. Books are orchards; the action is memory. In the orchards of meeting friends for lunch, or biking in the rain, or moving from the Midwest to Europe and back again, the action is that of the language-body always just a little lost to awareness—even as awareness pierces vividly. “Terminal” rhymes with “luminous,” and a slapstick silence plays in the gaps between places, objects, gestures, tonalities: “the same and not the same // each time permanent strange.”
Given the wealth of conversations and subjects poetry has been exploring a bit more lately, [the] answer might appear rather obvious, and yet, the question of what a poem can do specifically is one that is as old as writing itself. If, as Auden wrote, poetry makes nothing happen, perhaps the answer is entirely in emphasis: poetry makes nothing happen.
Interview with rob mclennan
I see the potential of poetry in the societal interactions of the people who write. Poets exist in society as political beings — we vote and write and engage with our language in the context of civic discourse. The decision to become a poet, which is a self-designation, is itself a form of protest. It doesn’t fit capitalism, so it rattles the system.
Humans are social animals and language is central to that sociability. As poets, we acknowledge that and relate to each other by speaking up, by writing out loud. We share our identities, our concerns, and our understandings. We push each other to recognize our features and our faults, our privileges and biases.
Poetry about art generally presumes a distinction between the poet and the art object: the poet describing, with painfully poignancy, an artwork that has a frame, hangs in a museum, probably engages with classical myth (Think of W.H. Auden in the Musée des Beaux Arts). Schmalz opens a vertiginous alternative. The poet and the artwork are collaborators. They constitute each other. The distinction between them is pliable, subject to sudden reversals.
The strength of Schmalz works lays in his willingness to conceal or reveal the source material. This frees the poems from the sources while not always detaching them from a tether to meaning. He approaches ekphrasis with nimbleness that serves the work and the reader well.
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Fred Schmalz on “Studio Museum,” In Their Own Words
Excerpt featured on Entropy!
Fred Schmalz is an artist and poet whose current writing focuses on textual response to encounters with music, visual art, and performance. He is the author of Action in the …