Emma August Welter, “Words and Their Use”
When I showed this haiku to a friend, he immediately commented that it had erotic, if not romantic, overtones. This wasn’t at all what I had in mind, however, as I was creating it; many of the lines in the piece are from a chapter entitled “Using ‘Lay’ and ‘Lie’ Correctly,” and it’s based on my long-distance relationship with a “young man” in Sweden and the difficulty of maintaining any sort of effective communication via Skype. Skype’s an undeniable boon to countless relationships, but paradoxically, its unpredictable connectivity often thwarts conversations and mangles words. “The bed” here is meant quite literally, as that’s been where my side of our conversations has frequently been held, whereas “the grass” to me is a reminder of both days we’ve spent together — in the same place, on the same grass, at the same time — and that the far-away space he currently inhabits seems more alive and vivid to me than my own, simply by dint of him being there.
In an early conversation between the aforementioned Swedish “young man” and I, he mentioned that he wanted to live as fluidly as possible: to be always moving and constantly able to adapt himself to new situations. I was struck by this sentiment, and it remained with me; over a year later, this haiku more or less spontaneously created itself. Although another friend of mine remarked that it had sexual overtones, that wasn’t my intention. Some people just get in your bloodstream and stay there.
Artist: Emma August Welter (Minneapolis, MN)
Title: Words and Their Use (2012-13)
Medium/technique(s): Collage: textbook, glue, watercolor paper
Number of pages: 47 cards
Dimensions: Each card is 3″ x 4″
Near the end of last summer, at an estate sale in rural Wisconsin, I bought a stained, fraying language schoolbook for a quarter because I liked the illustrations. After clipping a few of them to use in letters to friends I’d met during my five years living in the UK, I decided to incorporate snippets of the book’s endearingly outdated text to send as well. Cutting out five- and seven-syllable phrases from Words and Their Use soon became my favorite pastime; I arranged the strips of text in two columns on a table, pieced them together to create haiku, and mounted them on pieces of a spare sheet of my mother’s watercolor paper.
However corny and clichéd as it may sound, my haiku quickly took on a life of their own. Much to my surprise, some were decidedly and overwhelmingly erotic, while others contained a depth or humor that was often piercingly apparent to me only after I’d completed them. As I continued, I began to create pieces with distinct memories, situations, or people in mind. I realized I couldn’t send these to my friends; not only were they extremely personal, but I also wanted all of the haiku to remain together. Despite the variety of their subject matter, I was struck by the themes connecting the pieces.
Above all, due largely in part to the original book’s emphasis on proper speaking techniques and commonly confused terms, it seemed that one concept seemed to emerge frequently: the beguiling, maddening, contradictory nature of words to kindle, reinforce and, subsequently, to erode human relationships. In conjunction with, but in opposition to, this motif, reoccurring references to the outdoors, plants, and bodies of water — often replacing words as the primary and safest ways for people to interact, conveying ideas or sentiments that can’t be explained aloud — offer glimpses of growth. Although Words and their Use, in its original form, was intended as a guide for young children, its reordered (and disordered) iteration is very much a series of brief chapters for adults. It wouldn’t be amiss for me to note here that after returning from five years abroad, many of my own relationships were in the process of renegotiation.
My familiarity with traditional forms of haiku is embarrassingly slight, yet when I find three pieces of text that fit together, it feels unmistakably right. I’m fascinated by the way the middle seven-syllable sections function as a sort of hinge mechanism between the first and third lines, connecting two narrative fragments that are often quite disparate. Furthermore, having shown my Words and their Use project to some of my friends, I’m astounded by the ways in which each piece can be generally relatable while retaining, for me, an almost visceral sense of immediacy.
Perhaps this stems from my educational background; with degrees in English literature and material and visual culture as well as a deeply vested academic interest in, and firsthand experience of, synesthesia, it’s probably inevitable I’d begin a project at once so open-ended and concrete, both universal and personal. Words and Their Use is by no means finished; there are still many more pages to peruse. However, I’m already planning my second textbook-haiku project, based on a schoolbook called Distant Doorways, which will hopefully explore ideas of travel and foreignness.