Woman with Book
Terry Ehret sets the still lives of Picasso’s portraits free
By Gretchen Giles
“I had heard of it because people had talked about getting a Nimrod, and it sounded like something painful,” laughs Terry Ehret. Sitting relaxed on the couch of her Petaluma home, this poet and SRJC English instructor is discussing her work and the October surprise of winning the literary magazine Nimrod‘s Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry, one of the most prestigious awards in the aerie of the written word.
Initially urged by a writing friend to submit her efforts to the journal, Ehret–who has published two volumes of poems, Suspensions and Lost Body–gathered up a sheath of poems entitled The Thought She Might: Picasso Portraits and sent them out “with a wing and a prayer.” Ehret found out a week late that she had made it to the final round of competition, her youngest daughter having misplaced the mail behind the fish tank. And the night before she received final notification that the title and the $1,000 award were hers, her eldest daughter dreamt that she had won.
Now Ehret hopes that her daughter will dream of an NEA grant.
Motherhood and feminism equally inform Ehret’s work. Through the demands of her three daughters and her many part-time positions–in addition to her responsibilities at the JC, she teaches at San Francisco State and is an active member of the California Poets in the Schools program–Ehret has learned how to write in snatches, up on the couch late into the evening, hidden away in the early morning hours in her study, or scribbling away longhand in the car on family camping trips.
“I have to say that I’ve nurtured in myself the ability to incorporate distraction into my work,” Ehret says, smiling, “whereas before I used to filter it out. I used to get frustrated and angry–which is unfair to my children. It means letting go some of the ego control, of this-is-what-I-am, but it’s probably a more honest reflection of what my life is like. In the long run, I’m happier to have let that distraction in than trying to shut it out. “
As a writer whose immersion in the emerging feminist criticism of the early ’80s helped shape her as an academic, Ehret is inextricably entwined in the experience of the female. Accordingly, when she began to tackle Picasso’s cubist images, prompted by a portrait of a woman reading that hangs in her study, her work centered around his portraits of women.
“I have a real love affair with Picasso as an artist,” Ehret says, “and I like to do in language what he did visually on the canvas. So I was really trying to steal his thunder; I was trying to get his energy and his dismantling and reassembling of the world. I wanted to see what he was seeing when I entered these paintings. At the same time, I wanted to hear what these women had to say, because I don’t know how much opportunity they had to speak to Picasso in a way that he could hear them. I wanted to hear how they would talk about how it feels to be reassembled by someone as powerful in terms of his vision and his influence as Picasso. I was getting the women to speak to me at the same time as I was trying to get as close as I could to Picasso’s visual technique in the language.”
While Ehret may admire the late artist’s technique, his personality leaves her less enthused. “I admire him so much, but–God, he was terrible!” she laughs. “He was also extraordinary. What I think is terrifying is that since ‘the artist as hero’ idea has existed–from the Renaissance on–male artists have gotten away with being really shitty people. For a woman to disregard her children, to emotionally abuse her spouse for the sake of her art . . . she would be labeled a monster. I mean, look at what’s happened to Anne Sexton, she’s been torn apart.
“Art is not to be excused, it’s just not,” Ehret states emphatically. “At the same time, there is such a vulnerablitiy that I see when I really spend time with [Picasso’s] work. The artist himself comes across as very vulnerable, and I’m interested when I can come across that transparency and there is so much tenderness and revulsion there.
“That’s what gets me, that’s what draws me back again and again, because I want to get to that point where I can sense how he could feel both things about his subject, and how it is for that subject to be regarded with both tenderness and revulsion.
“And yes,” she smiles, “there are women who have been equally unpleasant human beings, but in the long run, I’d rather be a decent human being and be happy with my art.”
Terry Ehret will give a slide show and poetry reading froÏm her The Thought She Might series on April 15 at noon. Santa Rosa Junior College, Newman Auditorium, 1501 Mendocino Ave. Free. 527-4372.
From the Feb. 15-21, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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