Poetry in a Painting Studio: Yardmeter Editions

An interview with Farrah Field, Jared White and Shelton Walsmith

How long has Yardmeter Editions been going on?

Shelton Walsmith: In April, Yardmeter Editions will be 2 years old.

Farrah Field: We try to have events once a month, but sometimes we just do it when we can. We try to keep it pretty stress free.

Jared White: Yardmeter started up as an event series in Shelton’s beautiful and cozy Gowanus studio. Shelton, poet Mathias Svalina, and a third friend, Jon Pack, started it up. Farrah was actually featured as a reader in the first event, in which Mathias read poems as well and Jon hung his photographs on the large blank dry wall in Shelton’s space.

What is your favorite thing about curating the series?

Farrah Field: Our series is generally designed to be multi-media events and I really like getting to know the artists, musicians, film makers, writers, etc. who attend and who have presented. Although Yardmeter Editions is a series, I really like it that we treat each happening as its own event.

Shelton Walsmith: And it’s an opportunity to shine light on talented artists who may or may not have other venues for their work. Everywhere, but I think especially in New York, the climate of competition is such that artists have to hit the streets and beat the bushes in search for opportunities to showcase their talent and further their careers. Having done this myself for many years, and always wishing for invitations rather than rejections, curating satisfies a larger ambition: to be a part of the New York art world by creating it on a grass roots level.

Jared White: We love being able to gather people who are doing very different kinds of work, especially in different mediums. New York is so balkanized in terms of art scenes that it is fun to bring people together who might not otherwise meet in conversation. Some of our most exciting events (though hard to plan!) have been one-off evenings in which presenters were able to collaborate beforehand – an artist responding to poets and vice versa – and we look forward to doing more of these sort of unique high-concept events in the future. The full name of the series, Yardmeter Editions, suggests our desire to play with the limits of the transitory event versus the artifact, and we’ve talked about various ways to explore this aspect further.

In particular, I think something that Farrah and I particularly enjoy (though I also find it very stressful) is exploring various ways to do introductions. We’ve tried reading whole poems by presenters, doing complicated flowcharts about the presenters’ work, recording our introductions beforehand and playing them as audio files, and performing live interviews.

Tell me about any other people who work on the series.

Shelton Walsmith: In the past Yardmeter consisted of poet Mathias Svalina and photographer Jon Pack. I think back on the people who have performed as being collaborators, for instance, filmmaker Cat Tyc has shown her work but, like Jon, remained as a technical advisor. I also feel the regular members of the audience have collaborated with us somehow, perhaps in their abiding presence but more importantly in their shared memory of events. That said the consistent force behind Yardmeter Editions is the three of us.

Farrah and Jared are writers with an enormous openness and capacity for ideas and experience. As individuals they are assured enough in their own work to concentrate attention on the writers within their immediate sphere but also to reach out and connect with the work of others outside the comfort zone. As a couple they make an irresistible stand-up act. Kind of good cop bad cop without the bad cop…Our partnership began with Farrah’s initial involvement as a performer at Yardmeter. Since then the three of us have evolved into a good shared vision. It’s exciting working with them because while they are very rooted and plugged into poetry culture they also view change/growth/development as essential to a functioning event series.

Jared White: Farrah and I are poets and so our knowledge and social network tends to lead toward other writers, whereas Shelton as a painter knows a lot of artists that he wants to invite to Yardmeter; still, Farrah and I have invited visual artists and Shelton has invited writers so there is definitely no hard and fast rule about this.

After Cat Tyc, a video artist and writer, showed her short film, “Umbrella,” for Yardmeter last spring, we invited her to help out with future events and she’s been a terrific asset in facilitating the use of a projector to show short films. Jon Pack has also been an invaluable part of Yardmeter; beyond being of the hosts, he showed work from his photography project exploring derelict Olympic stadiums in the first Yardmeter and has done amazing work at many of our events taking photographs to document these transitory occasions for posterity (and Facebook).

Farrah Field: I really like it when Shelton, Jared, and I get together to plan events. We have all kinds of ideas—we like generating ways to break away from the typical reading format. (Think about it: a reading in total darkness. It can happen!) So planning events that have artwork that speaks to what poets and musicians are doing, well, it takes quite a bit of planning.

What are the best and worst things about the venue?

Jared White: Shelton’s studio is located right on top of one of the one-hundred-year-old toxic spills that pepper the Gowanus valley. It’s such a terrible situation environmentally and an enormous worry; it seems to me to be a very positive development that these sites have finally been given superfund status so eventually they will be cleaned up. In the meantime, the superfunding of the area may stave off development and allow it to retain its gritty, arty texture amidst the surrounding neighborhoods of brownstone Brooklyn. It is wonderful to walk up Douglass St and feel like you are coming upon a secret. Shelton’s studio is very friendly and it is always such a wonderful feeling simply to be in his space. (Not to mention the unforgettable Brooklyn skyline visible from the roof.) The only downside we have found so far is that the space gets very hot in the summertime when filled up with people, but we’ve addressed this issue simply by just taking a break. We’ve talked about perhaps taking Yardmeter outdoors to a nearby park or rooftop and hopefully we may get this going next summer.

Farrah Field: I love how homey Shelton’s studio is, a space where people can present and perform without having to worry about background bar noise and that sort of thing.

Shelton Walsmith: Because the venue is my painting studio, I could go on at great length about its problems. Before anything it is my work space and a sanctuary to follow my vocation. I work there 5-6 days a week. Having a monthly event series can be very taxing when you proliferate large objects which have to be shuffled safely around on a monthly basis. New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to paint. Gone are the days when an artist could find an otherwise unused cold water flat and make art for $100 a month because it’s ugly old Brooklyn. Now Brooklyn is a destination instead of a last resort. My studio is very expensive to maintain and at times, especially when we started Yardmeter I was at risk of losing it for lack of resources. However, this financial focus was one of the reasons I began approaching writers in 2008 to join forces and stage events there. The full weight of the financial meltdown was dawning and every conversation I had with artists was all gloom and doom. It was real but it was tiring and discouraging that people ordinarily obsessed with art and culture were now obsessing on “the end of art as a means to make money.” Since my space is largish (aside from a load bearing column in the center of the room which is another stone in my shoe) it is a fairly open and can handle an audience. I saw an opportunity to punch a small hole in the presiding despair with a bohemian venture that had nothing to do with money.

Despite all that, it’s a room full of possibility. Constant rearrangement (while a pain) is completely doable. There is a place to step outside and still be in touch with what’s going on inside. It’s old and has architectural details that speak to this older New York idea.

What is your favorite Yardmeter memory over the last couple of years?

Shelton Walsmith: Our most recent Yardmeter was number 13. So many magic things have happened I hesitate to isolate individual memories. The musician Snowblink sent chills down the foundation of the building. The antlers attached to her guitar created a daemon which still lives in the room. Recently playwright Kristen Kosmas did something unforgettable with clarinetist Chris Speed. Cellist James David Jacobs conducted a rousing chorus of about 40 of us singing, “You haven’t been eating scalloped potatoes for 3 days, like I have!” in row-row-row your boat-like sections. Mathias Svalina imprinted us with a pulpit style delivery which leaps to mind as the high bar established for future Yardmeters. Oh hell, all of it. I am always so pleased to be there more as an awed witness than a proud host.

Farrah Field: One of my favorite events was when painter Bari DeJaynes collaborated with three poets prior to the event. He mailed small pieces to each of the readers and on the night of the event, they each read something they wrote in response to the work Bari sent. In turn, Bari made new pieces that responded to all of the poets’ work. I loved that!

Jared White: I love how every event always offers some spontaneous energy and excitement – for instance:

— a live lottery to determine which Yardmeter audience member could go home with a piece by the New Zealand-based sculptor Kristin D’Agostino in a globe-circling artistic exchange.

— Paige Ackerson-Kiely sitting down on the steps to the fire escape during a mesmerizing reading of her poems

— Much-missed ex-New Yorkers Mathias Svalina and Julia Cohen offering readings from Denver on an abstract collaborative video piece at the event for Trickhouse

–Leah Souffrant performing a poem for two voices by reading live over a ghostly tape recording of herself

–the audience trying on necklaces designed by the poet Paige Taggart while she did a reading of her work from memory

–impromptu folk dancing to Central European gypsy/klezmer by Jeff Perlman and Patrick Farrell of Romashka

I’m always just so honored and happy to be able to invite some of our favorite writers, artists, musicians and other creative folks to come spend time with us and show us what they are working on – especially those who are coming in from beyond New York City and who we wouldn’t get to see otherwise.

photographs by: Jon Pack

** The next Yardmeter Editions will be held on Friday, December 17 at 7pm. **

Ken L. Walker