Interview with Cheryl and Janet Snell: pairing images with poems

Today’s interview is with writer Cheryl Snell and her artist sister, Janet Snell.  I first encountered their work on the website Scribd where the magic of their pairing hit me.  It’s not that Janet’s paintings need words, or that Cheryl’s poems need images -- but somehow together, they’re a gift.




First, here’s some background on Cheryl and Janet: Cheryl's books include poetry and two novels. She has been widely published online and in print, and has had work included in a Sundress Best of the Net and other anthologies. She is a three time Pushcart Prize nominee, and in addition to her traditionally published titles, she collaborates with her sister on art and word projects for their Scattered Light Library.
Janet is a graduate of MICA and has shown her work in venues such as The Drawing Center in NYC,  Massillon Museum in Ohio, and Strathmore Hall in DC. She is the author of FLYTRAP, a winner in the Cleveland University Poetry Center's competition, and paints portraits on commission.

SARETT: There aren’t that many sisters working together in the way that they you do (maybe there aren’t any?)  How does the sibling part of your partnership fit into the artistic part?  Do you fight?
CHERYL: Just with our brothers! Seriously, Janet and I have great respect for each other, and although we have a similar worldview, we’re interested in the points at which we diverge. Differing opinions are an opportunity to build something better, but I have to admit that the sister who feels most passionately about a particular point wins the other over.
JANET: I think in images and she puts a story to everything, so there’s room for conflict. If her take on a painting is not what I meant to get across, we “discuss” it until our compromises create a point-of-view that’s unexpected and interesting, and work from there. Or else we trash it, and find the art and the poem their own separate places.


SARETT:  Who makes the decisions about which images work best for which poems?  I’d imagine it’s hard to pick!  (And have you ever had second thoughts after you went to publication?)
CHERYL: Most of the poems are made to order. Janet will show me photos of her latest batch of work, and after we discuss meaning, mood, and inspiration, I will make a poem to complement a picture that speaks to me. I try to  incorporate Janet’s imagery into my own to achieve the effect of a musical duet, with each voice responding and supporting the other. Her work is quite autobiographical, so I usually know what she’s “talking” about, but my words do not necessarily narrate her picture. I try instead to extend its meaning, so the connections are looser, more elastic.
As for second thoughts after publication--I have them all the time.  Sometimes I’m lucky enough to have a good editor re-pair the works before publication. This happened with the linocuts in one of my poetry collections, and I thought the editor added an interesting dimension with her choices. This is not always the case --  don’t get me started!
JANET: When I have second thoughts it’s mostly because the editor cut off the art at some odd angle, or it got distorted somehow. As to which goes with what, Cheryl has a better feel for that, what with narrative arc and all. When I work, it’s either all paintings or all drawings, and each series has its own flavor. I might be exploring different aspects of mood, for instance, and so the words Cheryl puts to one piece might work as well or better with another in that series. So we reshuffle, contrast and compare. It’s funny, but our process doesn’t work as well in reverse. If I try to make a picture from Cheryl’s poem, it’s hard, even though I riff on her themes often enough.  Our Mom likes to say we’re on the same wavelength.


SARETT:  You have a few wonderful videos that play with the flow and appearance of words.  In one of them, Intricate Things in Their Fringed Peripheries, words float words as well as over images. Who makes those kinds of decisions and how?    (And is it Cheryl who plays the piano on the background in some of those?)
CHERYL: The videos were my baby. After a colleague made a video using one of my poems from PRISONER’S DILEMMA and coupled it with Janet’s art, I thought I’d try my hand. Perhaps it would add another layer of interest to the mix, I thought. I didn’t know if splitting the focus would dilute the poem or lessen the impact of the images, so I was happily surprised when I submitted a few of them and they were published. I’m very glad to know you liked them, Carla. And yes, that was me on the piano in these videos -- mostly to avoid copyright infringement.


SARETT:  Do you have a favorite project or piece that you feels best displays your collaboration, or are they all favorite children?
CHERYL: I usually like our most recent work best, but I’m especially fond of PRISONER’S DILEMMA. It was the first book we shared equally. Janet had done the cover art for my first book and her art was sprinkled throughout my subsequent books, but PRISONER’S DILEMMA was a true collaboration, fifty-fifty. It all hung together, concept and thematic structure. Each art reinforced the other.
The book had a long and checkered route to publication. The manuscript won the chapbook competition sponsored by Lopside Press, which subsequently folded. I bought an ISBN number and republished it with our own micro-press. The book served as the catalyst for Scattered Light Library. We still bring out some of our collaborative projects under that name. PRISONER”S DILEMMA spent a moment or two on one of the Amazon bestseller lists and garnered some wonderful detailed reviews from people I respect. It is still on the site, minus all but one of those reviews. That capricious Amazon!
JANET:I remember not hardly recognizing those drawings by the time they came out. I’d moved on and it was like visiting another country. I always like my new work best, too, but I continue to like my favorite poems by Cheryl in hindsight, no matter how old they get.


SARETT:  I recently bought a copy of Du Maurier’s Classics of the Macabre, and each story is wonderfully illustrated.  Do you feel readers are missing out with all of the rather barebones digital formatting?
CHERYL: It’s important to make work available in the formats readers want. My two novels and my little book of short stories are available in both print and Kindle, and I leave it to the readers to make their own mental illustrations.
JANET: More pictures for everyone! You’re talking to someone who used to illustrate her homework in grade school.



SARETT:  I’ve seen your work described as “haunting” and it’s definitely about real things, things that matter to people.  Who are your heroes and heroines in that vein?   
CHERYL:  John Ashberry, Mark Strand, Louise Bogan and Louise Gluck, to name a few poets associated with “the new American surrealism.” Lots of things influence a sensibility, but eventually a unique voice speaks up.As for haunting, one critic observed in a rather Freud-like way that our true subject is the conflation of the mortal and immortal, given that the natural state is the immortal, and that the detour into life is a circular whirlpool. I rather like that, although I don’t necessarily agree.
JANET: My heroes are German Expressionist artists like Munch and Schiele, and writers like Genet and Rimbaud. I like Sexton and Plath and many of the confessional poets. Jimi Hendrix taught me a few things about space and I get a lot of my best ideas from rock music. Classical, not so much, although I love it.


SARETT:  Many literary magazines seem to be gated communities for writers and artists. (Even their names sound obscure.)  Is there a way we can break out or is that simply our Brave New World?
CHERYL: There are some pretty impenetrable cliques out there. You have to find your audience. One audience may look down their nose at another, but there are plenty to go around. Aren’t there several thousand literary  magazines on the web alone?
One thing I’ve been surprised by lately is the insistence in some quarters on likeable characters and a one- size- fits-all appeal. Impossible, uninteresting, and an unworthy goal, it seems to me.  Maybe it’s psuedo-intellectualism’s revenge?
JANET: You think writers have it tough--until I can get into a New York gallery, I’ll be considered “emerging.” This does not make me feel young!


SARETT Tell us about other projects that you’re working on.
CHERYL: I have a new collection of poems coming out in the fall. It’s called LIVE THROUGH THIS and deals with my ongoing battle with cancer.  One of Janet’s abstract paintings will grace the cover.
JANET: I have a few exhibitions scheduled for the coming months. And I’m choosing the work for our final volume of the Scattered Light Series. It will be a best-of sort of thing and I hope a fitting wrap-up.
CHERYL and JANET: One last thing, we’d like to thank you for having us on your blog. Your support and encouragement mean alot to both of us.




Learn more about the Snell sister’s work at their blog  Scattered Light


Janet's website
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