Geof Huth, US




An Interview with Ed Baker


At the Border of Silver and Tacky

Monday, November 10, 2008


Last Friday, I spent five hours with the famous Ed Baker. I assume, at least, there are other Ed Bakers and that they are not as famous as he is. These Eds Baker may not be poets or artists or madmen of Silver Spring, Maryland. Our Ed, the Ed, lives on the road that serves as the border between Silver Spring and Takoma Park, and he is happy to be on his side of the street. Anyway, the sun gracefully hits his front porch as it settles down for the night at this time of year.

It becomes clear immediately that his home is not a standard American household suffused with sameness. From his back deck, I look down at a small shed that Ed built to serve as a writing studio, outside of which runs a long workbench upon which he creates his sculptures—some of wood, some of stone, many multimedia. Upon his lawn are littered a few of his outdoor sculptures, and a clothesline full of clothes runs across the backyard, though he removed the clothes from it when we left, part way through our conversation, to pick up Nancy. Art, in the world of Ed Baker, is everywhere, and I spent hours looking at his art and poetry, both of which fill his house.

His studio is a sturdy little building, heavy on the little, but there’s scant evidence that it ended up being the writer’s retreat he wanted it to be. Upon entering it, I thought it more of a garden shed, but it also seems to support the creation of his art. Ed is one of those poets who, like me, gave up the craft at some point in time and then returned with better than renewed vigor. (I think also of Mark Young and George Oppen when such poets spring to mind.) After twenty or so years out of circulation, having finished his masters degree at Johns Hopkins (where he thesis was a book of visualized poems entitled Okeanos Rhoos), Ed returned to poetry and began making poetry and art with a ferocious intensity. Some days, Ed sends me three things he’s made that day.

When Ed picked me up from my hotel (which was maybe a mile from his house), I had no idea of the extent of his artwork. He tends to send me haiga, drawings accompanied by a haiku, which gave me no sense of the three-dimensional pieces that predominate around his house. Even the back wall of his house has a sculpture upon it, “Motherboard,” which incorporates a tactile representation of Ed’s way out into the world (through the Internet) and his constant focus on the goddess.

In some places in his home, the paintings are so numerous that they cover almost the entirety of the walls, from floor to ceiling. When I asked Ed what medium he used for the paintings, he was amused by my terminology. His medium is any cut-price mis-mixed paints for sale at his local hardware store. He makes do with what he can find, as a man retired from the life of daily work for someone else. Each day now, Ed works for himself, creating work that is often—to use his term—erotic. His son Micah said that he prefers his father’s “boobless paintings,” but they are difficult to find. I pointed out a nice boobless painting of two hills just after this comment from Micah, only to have Ed tell me he couldn’t paint the boobs right on that one. At one point, Ed warned me—why would I need such a warning?—that when I turn fifty—say, in eighteen months—my penis will immediately go limp and I’ll lose my sex drive. I asked Ed why, if that were true, he spent so much of his time creating erotic art, so much time entranced by the image of the woman as earth, creation, lover, mother, other?

I could not capture the beauty of Ed’s art well enough with my camera. It was rough-hewn or –painted, but was brimming with imagination, in terms of meaning, forms, shapes, the manipulations of the materials—even though almost every piece of art was a woman. Ed filled the day with stories of women he’d known: his wife, his girlfriend, beautiful women, married women, women everywhere in his life. He went quickly through his stories and quickly through his art, rummaging through boxes to find a manuscript to show me, to discuss how he created a visualized poetry without the example of others to follow. And, sometimes, he would stop to tell me that I was rushing him, that he didn’t have enough time. Of course, we never have enough time, but I noted to Ed that I was not rushing him, that I was waiting for him to show me what he had, and when he did I read it, I drank it in. At one point, after he had told me much about his life, he asked me, “Aren’t we supposed to talk about you?” I answered, No, saying that I was there to listen to him, to learn about him. That I am, that I was, an observer. Let life wash over me, so I might remember it, so I might memorialize it.

As we all do, in our own ways, Ed works with found materials, with pieces of wood in intriguing shapes, with rocks, with pieces of material culture left behind as if trash. So I find in his living room, almost devoid of furniture because it is a gallery space, a bend of wood like a ship, strung with string (like an instrument), held aloft on a narrow platform, beside a stone head of a goddess. He calls it “Temptress: Goddess of Stone and the Hunt.” It balanced itself before me, graceful of curve, the design of a man whose eye tells him how to go, a man never taught a day how to draw, or how to make art, yet he makes it. Like all of us unlettered who write poetry.

Early on in our conversation, Ed said something I had to write down: “Everything comes out of silence and goes back into silence.” The two nothingnesses: the time before life, the time after death. And we live between them, so, as we do, we try to make something of that time, we try to make. And that is what Ed does. He makes. When we brought Nancy into our midst and Ed took her around to show her his world, she was impressed with his art as well, and with his nature, this man who fed us dinner, who boiled a pot of water for tea for me, who plied me with books and with stories of poets he’s known, who said he had to teach me everything whenever I admitted not knowing of a poet he’d mentioned—well, this is who Nancy says is her favorite person now. As well she might, since Ed is a man for women, even as he takes a forked stick, a true furca, a stick from which he has carved a perfect apple breast, just one, and carved a vulvagina out of the upraised crotch of the stick, explaining that there is a goddess he has heard of who raises her vagina up to the sky.

Much of the experience in Ed’s house concerned, without Ed realizing it, my evaluating his vernacular archivy, how every human has an urge, somewhere, to keep a record of a life, though their processes of saving, of trying to preserve, might fall short, might be a bit disorganized, might mix the highly acidic with the less so, might store shelves’ worth of original artworks on paper in vinyl binders. And somewhere within these archives were poems that I read, most of them short, most of them influenced, in one way or another, by Asian writing, including this opening poem of the unpublished Hexapoems, based on the I Ching:

1. T’ai / Peace

it is not your sex
that i eat :

it is the pears

;not much smaller
than your breasts

and the yellow flowers

There is a poem that I find simple, affecting, effective, romantic, imaginative, perfect—the last line almost a surprise, our discovering there was a better way for the poem to end.

Even Ed’s front porch was a gallery, one that included a sculptural haiga mounted on plywood. These are the materials of the simplified earth, things discarded to be remade. And they filled with sun during our descent into twilight. At one point, Ed told me to put a cup of water for tea in the microwave for one minute and thirteen seconds, because he had discovered that that was the perfect amount of time for a cup of tea. I asked Micah, “Now, how much time would he have had to’ve spent to determine that that was the perfect amount of time.” Micah, a young man, and quiet, maybe a little embarrassed by his father’s ways (something my kids share with him) but brimming with a quiet love for his father, laughed. These are the pieces we are made of: words and eyes and love and sound and, finally, silence towards sunset.

In his backyard, there grew a fig bush, tiny branches out of a stump where a thick little trunk of a fig one once grew. The leaves were beautiful, and I yearned for the figs of its branches. Ed, ever the poet, noted that he had cut down the little tree because huge figs would drop from it, more than he could eat, and rats ("huge rats") would engorge themselves on the soft sweet fruit.

Besides the gallery of Ed’s living room, we also spent a good deal of time at his bookcases, which were filled with poetry, but also all other manner of other books. Ed told a story about a woman he met, decades ago, on a train right from Luxembourg to Rome, an Indian woman who is now a famous singer in her land. She appeared to be a stately woman, on her CD, and Ed played us her songs, turning it off after maybe a quarter of an hour, complaining about Indian music. He replaced the CD with the music of an American, but one of the greatest shakuhachi players. Not knowing what the shakuhachi was, I had to have Ed explain to me that it was a bamboo flute, as he told me a story of sending the man haiga of his only to have the man respond that he had hurt himself and could no longer play the shakuhachi, so he was glad to discover, through Ed, a new way to create. After a few more minutes, Ed turned off the shakuhachi music, explaining that Japanese music can drive a person crazy after a while. So it is how Ed was, vacillating between love and impatience, a little turbine of energy, barely able to contain himself, working with word and image and word-and-image.

Ed works with saw and pen, with brush and wood, with whatever he needs. And when he signed books for me, he made a production out of it: drawing pictures, signing his name, and pressing his Asian chop with its thick red ink to the page. At one point, I found two copies of a book of poetry by another poet on his shelf and offered to buy one of them from him. He refused, saying I could find a copy of the book elsewhere. I explained I was just trying to help get a duplicate off his hands, but he explained that he read books by holding two copies side by side, as if they were slightly different images for the two windows of the stereopticon. Always gracious, always pseudo-gruff, Ed remained an enigma to me. I never quite figured out everything about him, but I had a great time. What is it about the visual poets, the poets, the creators that attracts me to them? They are all totally different and all the same. It is in making that we are made.

Nancy had a hard time getting a good picture of Ed and me together. I like most of them, but my expression seems strange in almost all of them, even the one above. Let’s say that Ed’s putting bunny ears behind my head didn’t increase our chances of getting a good picture—but it ended up making for the best one. Ed and I had a good time together, and he was constantly trying to find places for me to send my poetry. He kept trying to give me things when all I needed was stories about him, a man who taught college only for a short while, then went into manual labor, the making of things, a man who became a single father early in his marriage, when his children were still small, and who raised Micah and Evie to be the children he was proud of. Two of the artworks on his walls, prominently displayed, are framed college diplomas for these two children of his.

It is difficult to get Ed to stay still, stock or otherwise, for any amount of time. He was always moving through the house, always searching for something, on a shelf, in a box, on the Internet, handing me a manuscript to read, showing me a newspaper clipping. But when I captured him still, and staring, his blue eyes out at me, I could see in them a depth, a man driven, by the horror of silence, to make, to create, to simply be, a man haunted by the life he’s had, that great void of productivity in the middle of it, a man of action and words and life, amazingly full.

When we die, what we finally leave behind are records of ourselves, not quite ourselves but as close to ourselves as we can muster. Inside Ed’s unassuming house are all the little evidences of him, in his archives, in his books, in his artworks—all his little creations, great and small. As I pored over his archives, the careful early manuscripts, the various versions of his poems, including one book so large I really needed two arms, not just hands, to read it, I told him to take care of these records, I suggested that he might want to contact the University of Maryland’s archives and special collections, since it collects the papers of writers from Maryland, and Ed is a man of Maryland, born there, educated there, living nearly his whole live there, and destined to end it there. When he brought out this box of early archives of his, I was entranced by it, by the promise of records, by the secrets they hold, by the way they reveal us and keep us alive. Without records, none of us will have ever lived.

I thank Ed for the time he gave us in his home, for the insights he allowed me into his life and his art, for the promise he holds, the achievement he has met, the fame he crawls towards like a man running a marathon one leg at a time.

Geof Huth

Photographs by Geof Huth









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