JUNE 19, 2015
MICHAEL WHITE’S MEMOIR, Travels in Vermeer, is on its surface a relatively simple story: adrift after a difficult divorce, White distracts himself by traveling through Europe and the United States, looking at the work of the 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, famous for his quietly charged, enigmatic interiors. In fact, the book is deceptive, a sort of literary nesting doll: a travel book that is really an art book; an art book that is really about love, death, drinking, and other kinds of grief. Publishers Weekly describes it as “a powerful and affecting memoir that reminds us how art can be salvation,” and Kirkus calls it “an enchanting book about the transformative power of art.”
The picture gets even more intriguing when you learn that White has also recently published Vermeer in Hell, a collection of poems preoccupied with the artist’s serene and mysterious interiors as well as the horrors of modern history, including the Holocaust and the firebombing of Dresden. The two books inform and complicate each other across both genre and time.
White is the author of three previous books of poetry: The Island, Palma Cathedral, and Re-Entry. His work has won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Prize, the Vassar Miller Prize, and the Colorado Prize for Poetry. His poetry and prose have appeared in The Paris Review, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, and The Best American Poetry anthology, among other venues.
ROBERT ANTHONY SIEGEL: Travels in Vermeer is a beautiful book. How did you come to write it?
MICHAEL WHITE: Thank you. I was going through a bad divorce. A tremendous depression hit me and I needed medication, which worked well, but after a while I began to feel as though my mind was swathed in cotton. I began to wonder about the costs of feeling nothing at all. In that state of mind, one afternoon I felt a sudden impulse to take a trip. I bought a ticket and was on a plane the next day for Amsterdam. Then, as if it were some sort of psychedelic dream, I found myself riding those long cigar boats around the canals, as if it were all some sort of psychedelic dream. On the second day, on my way to look at the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum, I noticed the four Vermeers that were kept in an adjoining room. I could feel it in my skin while I was still 30 or 40 feet from the paintings. There was something in my emotional chemistry that made me see them with extraordinary intensity.
I left the museum and sat outside on a park bench and opened a book I’d just bought that included a list of the cities where Vermeers are located. I recognized immediately that this could be an itinerary, that I could go see most of the paintings in a year …
Every time I returned from a trip, I processed the experience by trying to turn my notes from the galleries into poems. Then, after I’d written a couple of poems, I started typing like mad, recounting the entire trip, including seemingly random encounters I’d had while walking around the cities I visited. It wasn’t until I had a whole manuscript that I realized the book wanted to become a memoir. It isn’t really about Vermeer’s work, but about love through the lens of Vermeer.
As a poet, how did it feel to write a book of prose? What was the process like?
My editor at Persea Books, Karen Braziller, pushed me to find the narrative. She wanted it to be much more direct and linear. She wrote me emails every day, many emails, often late at night. She’d say, “What’s going on between these trips? What’s going on in your love life?” I would instinctively write passages in response to every question she asked, and then she’d try to find a place for them in the manuscript.
I think about the segment late in the book about the death of your first wife: powerfully emotional, very direct.
Most of Vermeer’s female figures are pensive and inward looking. They often seem emblematic to me of a dream itself, of the mind itself. But in three or four of them, the girl turns to face us, most famously in Girl with a Pearl Earring. We stare into those paintings as if into the eyes of a lover, with what for me is often a wordless and bottomless desire. How often do we experience such intimacy in a lifetime? After looking at those paintings, I couldn’t not write about Jackie’s death.
How did Vermeer help you through your divorce from your second wife? And through the terrible depression that followed?
If you’re going through trauma, your romantic self, the part of you that wants to love, becomes like a suppressed memory you can’t access anymore. But Vermeer’s paintings are custom designed to allow that former self to come back: for you to have those same feelings you had when you were 16 — or at your wedding when you said your vows. It’s okay to be that same person again when you’re standing in front of a Vermeer; it’s safe, there’s no risk. I was frequently beside myself in a flood of memory, even while I was trying to absorb an image of incomparable otherness and beauty.
Your reverence for Vermeer and his art is one of the luminous elements in the book.
Vermeer was in some sense the least original of painters. He worked within the conventions of the day without much, if any, invention. So, if stylistic innovation is part of what defines a great artist, then Vermeer wasn’t great. And yet his approach to each painting was invested with a special intensity. Each brushstroke seems charged with a lifetime of reverence — as if everything in the composition, and by extension everything in our lives, had never been truly seen before he looked at it. In these paintings, there is ferocious devotion, a reckless abandonment of self to the art.
Do you feel like he’s influenced you as a poet?
I suppose if I were to take anything from Vermeer it would have to do with patience. He painted as if he had all the time in the world, as if awareness of time or expense never entered his mind. He’s famous for the copious quantities of lapis lazuli he used — more than any other painter — not only to achieve his signature blue but to help clarify other pigments where the blue itself cannot be seen.
You’re in the unusual position of having another book out simultaneously, a collection of poems called Vermeer in Hell. What’s the relationship between the two books?
They’re the same project, really. If it had been my choice, the memoir would still have poems embedded in it, almost as haibun contain moments of crystalized verse. The two books became eventually separated as the narrative began emerging in the memoir. I then found the poetry collection becoming more of a meditation on the value of art, especially after I traveled to Dresden to see one last work, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. After spending a few hours before this jewel-like painting, the first of his solitary females, I walked out into the courtyard of the Zwinger to realize that I was standing right at the aim point for the British bombers as they banked in over the Elbe, which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up a little. I worked that experience into a long poem called “Vermeer in Hell,” in which the Vermeer and the bombing attack coexist. It struck me as a pretty accurate if bipolar vision of the modern world.
Yes — I was struck by how Vermeer in Hell contrasts the serenity of Vermeer’s art with the horrors of history. Is art an escape from history? A challenge to history?
In the painting The Milkmaid, she’s dressed in a heavy tunic because it’s winter. When I stared at it a few years ago in the Rijksmuseum, I could almost feel the cold outside the room … something about the brittle white light … and then I noticed a broken pane of glass in the window, and could almost feel the north wind pouring through. … In that instant, I became very interested in what was outside the picture. The next day, I traveled to Delft, and there I could actually see what was outside the walls of Vermeer’s former studio. I walked the streets, almost unchanged from Vermeer’s day, and a window through time opened. In the months afterward, I read everything I could find about the Dutch Golden Age — its booming economy and culture. There was also plague, and economic collapse, and great war after great war … it was a time of crisis and hardship that ultimately claimed Vermeer’s life. Vermeer’s serene visions were transformed for me all over again once I saw them as a deliberate response to what the poet Wallace Stevens termed “the pressure of reality.” Soon after that, I started addressing historical context in some of the poems.
I was fascinated by your use of the diarist Victor Klemperer as a figure in the title poem, “Vermeer in Hell.” He becomes a sort of everyman who survives the firebombing of Dresden through sheer grace.
He’s a good writer and a trustworthy witness of the catastrophe. He didn’t just survive. He kept his mind, and refused to sacrifice his humanity during the reign of the Nazis — even throughout the bombing, while walking through the belly of hell, when the streets were melting beneath an actual pillar of flames that sucked everything into it. I needed him in the poem because I needed a way into the subject, I needed a focus. Klemperer’s harrowing walk through the heart of what had been Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945, and his matter-of-fact written account, was everything I could have asked for. He became my Virgil.
Memoir has become a really central part of the literary landscape over the last couple of decades. Sometimes I think of it as a symptom of our confessional culture and shifting ideas of privacy, but other times I remember that it goes back to St. Augustine. Do you see the genre as a strength of contemporary literary culture — or a weakness? And where do you fit in?
As a poet, I’ve aspired more and more to fully inhabit the skin of the moment. But I really didn’t think very much about genre when I was writing the book. I just typed. It was all genres and no genre as I wrote it. Editing was more painful, because we were looking for the story, and Karen Braziller kept asking me to go back into my life to supply specific material — “find me something about X, give me more of that” — and sometimes I had to tell her, “I don’t have any more of that.” That’s where memoir gets frustrating. If a story is essential to the book, and if the personal material doesn’t have the right ingredients, then you can run short of options. But whether memoir is a strength or weakness of our times. … I’m not sure, because I’m still not completely sure I distinguish Travels in Vermeer from my poetry. For instance, I worked on the rhythms of sentences much as I work on prosody in a poem, for pleasure and depth of feeling. I still read passages of the work to myself for the music. As for shifting ideas of privacy … I’m not certain they really have shifted that much. We’ve always been interested in the truth of a writer’s life, which is why Keats’s letters and Van Gogh’s letters have long been dear to our hearts. We’ve always loved Twain’s Life on the Mississippi almost as much as Huck Finn. One thing I have learned from writing a memoir, and from enjoying it so much, is that perhaps I should have never settled into a single genre when I was young. Perhaps the writer I was supposed to be has yet to emerge.
What is the place of poetry in the contemporary world? Is it a protest? A vote for the past and older ways of seeing and knowing life?
I confess I don’t have a great deal to say about that. I mean, I’m interested in teaching poetry and giving my life to the art, and I believe it has relevance far beyond the commercial. … But those who worry about their place in the contemporary world should probably not be poets — perhaps not artists of any sort. Being a poet is simply an acknowledgement that music matters. It is not a protest or a vote. I don’t feel it’s my mission to save poetry any more than it was Vermeer’s mission to save painting. He never tried to be a prolific or popular painter. He certainly wasn’t thinking about his relevance or his place in society when working in his studio. Neither did he consider his art a vote for the past: it simply was his work, painting by painting, and he painted only what called to him, and exactly as he wished, and then left its reception largely to chance. He seems to have been almost completely unconscious of self, a bodiless eye in the presence of mystery. The great artists are like that. They are egoless, as Keats observed.
Are you still writing about art?
The poems I’ve been writing this year are almost an antidote to the art-driven writing in these last two books. The new poems are gritty. They confront my alcoholic past — one tells the story of my last binge, which wound up with me lying in a blackout in the middle of a frozen street. Maybe writing the memoir has made me more fearless as a writer, willing to interrogate every part of my life, trying to do it in a more naked way. … That’s my hope, anyway. Right now, I’m writing a poem about going through DTs in a lockdown treatment ward of a mental hospital. That was 31 years ago, and I probably had to wait 31 years to see beyond the shame. What I understand now is that those moments of despair were also gifts, my defining moments.