I was incredibly lucky to get the chance to ask Allison Funk about her book The Visible Woman, some of which revolves around Funk’s experience of living in French-American artist Louise Bourgeois’s house in New York and exploring the archives stored there. We also talked about her past (and vast) experiences using art and history in her poetry.
KS Keeney: The title and central image of this book is the Visible Woman anatomy doll from your childhood. How did that lead you into Louise Bourgeois and the rest of the artists featured here?
Allison Funk: There was some resonance between this model of a woman’s body and the frequency in Bourgeois’s work of the female body. She so often created works that were fragments of a woman’s body, not the whole of it, which made me think of the parts of this visible woman plastic model kit, where you get all these separate parts and you have to assemble the skeleton and put the heart where it goes. So I was thinking of the pieces, in a way, and so often Bourgeois will do parts of bodies that almost become emblematic of the ways that, as poets, we think of that symbolic, emblematic taking on.
Also, once I started really delving into Bourgeois’s work and seeing the way that she named her pieces, the Visible Woman was joined by the House Woman, and was joined by the Good Mother. It almost felt like I was taking on the language that she used, and because I am a writer, that, as much as the works themselves, led me to sort of contemplate the work. I kept going back to the Good Mother, and then she’d write about the Bad Mother and the work sort of got peopled.
There’s no other artist that I’ve looked at who was doing that the way Louise Bourgeois was. I think that her work can be disturbing. It can force us into thinking “Oh, I don’t want to see myself as looking like that,” or “that’s ugly almost.” I mean, some of her work might be seen as ugly– these are not beautiful images of women or anyone, and although there are some beautiful pieces, more than anything else, there’s this sort of grappling so viscerally with emotion.
That doesn’t directly take me back to the Voman, which is just an educational toy, but once I was looking at Bourgeois, I then began to think about the visible woman. My parents gave me this kit. I was 10 or so, I was just a girl, and this was to think about, to learn something about who I would become, who I would begin to look like.
KK: I’m curious how you put this book together, with all the disparate art and artists. You also move through different adaptations of yourself as a speaker and I wonder what led you to this organization?
AF: I think I set in the first poem “Against Vanishing” something about the project of the book, which is trying to summon this vanishing female figure, and from there, I have some poems about childhood, either indirect or directly about my experience. In part, because the visible woman takes me back to when I was quite young, so the first several poems, in fact, virtually all the poems up til “Cells” in the first section seem to really circle around childhood, and, even in “Cells,” I’m taken back to how I began.
There’s also Clemente Susini’s anatomical Venus, which are very strange 18th century models that are dissectable. So that seemed in keeping with my dissectable or assemblable, visible woman. Largely I think it’s a younger self in the first section and also an exploration of this anatomical imagery. The second section, a lot of the poems deal with mothers, so moving from childhood or the early explorations of femaleness, into the second section, which starts out with the Good Mother and the art of Louise Bourgeois and the chimera, this incredibly strange phenomenon of how a woman can actually carry cells from the fetus. When she is pregnant, they implant themselves into her body in such a way that sometimes they’re with her for the rest of her life, so that was another poem exploring that in Daguerreotypes. People had to stay still a long time because the shutter speed was so long in early Daguerreotypes that women had to hold their children, sort of keep them from moving when they were taking pictures of their children. Very often the woman would try to disguise herself by literally putting a blanket over her head or being part out of the picture, and these are really bizarre. It’s that researcher part of me, that when I discover some kind of phenomenon that resonates with what I’m interested in any way, but it’s bizarre and sort of weird, I explore it.
The last section I intentionally wrote every single poem as a self portrait poem. That was going to be a section in which I really wanted to confront myself, to say what do I look like or where do I find myself? I’m not looking at myself, but looking elsewhere.
I have to say, it wasn’t until probably I had most of the poems done that I came up with that organization. I didn’t plan this, but when I discovered that it would work, I made the last poem in the book “Late Sketch” and I’m moving out into the galaxies as if I’m looking through my telescope again, the way I was in the first poem. I really didn’t write that poem to bookend, but in the first poem, the telescope I’ve become looking at the variable star I set my sights on. I return effectively to looking through a telescope or imagining, seeing way out into the star-studded galaxy and beyond. “Late Sketch” really came out of my absolute love for a work that was in the museum of modern art which was almost the whole room was filled with these giant panels that were hard to describe. This is one of the last works that Bourgeois did and she called it “To Infinity,” and they’re images of men, women, children, all looking as if they are somehow moving in water or space. It was so powerful for me, as they’re all somehow seemingly linked by something that resembles umbilical cords, and there are so many of these panels that you’re in a room surrounded by these prints.
KK: What do these bodies, and so many of them female, within the book mean to you?
AF: I mean, I think there is a kind of irony that I’m looking up close at bodies and flesh when really I’m trying to get at something that’s not visible. Something that’s more ephemeral, spirit-like. But somehow the medium of the body is my way of grounding myself in an exploration that’s never going to be answered by putting an anatomical plastic woman together.
It certainly has been historically true for women that, like the way those Victorian women would cover themselves and put their children forward, we oftentimes will disappear into the roles that we take on either willingly or imposed from without. It can go way past being a mother; that’s just one of the ways that women very often are at risk of disappearing, of putting themselves last. But there’s so many other settings in which women are either caretakers or they’re taught not to present themselves as forcefully working or valuing themselves. I think it’s the thing that is maybe closest to my heart. When I was teaching, you know, so many of my students were suffering or struggling with self image or worth or came from settings in which their lives hadn’t been sufficiently valued or taken care of. So it’s a huge thing for me that a person’s potential and sense of wellbeing, of being deserving, is so important.
The body has cultural implications, so I can speak from where I am. I acted upon this as a teacher, that sometimes we really need to find ourselves reflected elsewhere before we can use our own experience, whether it has to do with race or ethnicity or gender, to sort of authorize us. I, early on, discovered Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, Louise Glick, others –Plath and Sexton were two of the really earliest women that got some attention, in part because of the sort of melodrama of their lives, but clearly that’s changed. The richness of finding something that I could relate to in female writers, and then female artists, all of those had to do with some connection that assisted me not only in valuing those writers and those artists, but also perhaps valuing myself.
KK: Especially in this strange time, what’s occupying you now?
AF: I am just beginning to think of new poems. My husband died in February, just a couple of weeks before everything shut down, so that grieving process has been done largely in isolation except for my two sons and my two dogs. I have no idea what to even say about that, let alone write about it. But I think I’m just beginning to inch toward expressing that loss, but it’s very much in the beginnings. At this point, I have no visual artists who I’m intending to follow or discover, but it could happen. I think I’m going to procrastinate writing for a while, so what I have been doing during COVID is a lot of walking. There’s a place called the Watershed Nature Preserve that is in my town and I have, the last six or seven months, just been walking around the lake there and taking pictures and observing wildlife, but mainly flowers and growing things, going through several seasons. I’m really intrigued with the whole notion of watershed and watershed moments. I went to the Rocky mountains in September with a friend, really got out and walked trails there, saw the continental divide, that watershed for the first time. So whatever it is, it’s going to be more outside, which is very freeing.
I have not finished a single poem since the winter, but I’m beginning to feel this sort of inkling of something. It’s crazy because I have never had this much time. I’ve never had the amount of quiet and isolation. I used to have to leave my house, go to residencies, and sometimes I just kick myself and say, “Oh my God, time is running out, take advantage.” Isn’t it a funny thing, the ways poets, more than maybe any other artists, we write an isolation, we need quiet, but this is a lot. But the heart, it’s a slow thing, and it’ll happen again. I don’t need to rush. I don’t want to rush.
is the author of five previous books of poems, including Wonder Rooms, from Free Verse Editions of Parlor Press. She is also the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, the Society of Midland Authors Poetry Prize, and former Professor Emerita at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. The Visible Woman is available now from Parlor Press. Find more about her and her work at allisonfunk.com/
is a poet currently working on her MFA at George Mason, where she also serves as phoebe’s webmaster and So to Speak’s art editor. She also holds an MA in Film Studies from Ohio University. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in deComp, The Quaker, and Roanoke Review, among others. You can find her on Instagram @keeneykate.