An Interview with John Marx: Balance, Beauty, and Burning Man

Colton Alstatt

études: The Poetry of Dreams & Other Fragments (160 pages; ORO Editions) collects a career’s worth of works from artist, poet, and architect John Marx. Marx, whose accolades include the American Prize for Architecture, and a position as lead artist on Burning Man 2019’s “Andromeda Reimagined,” gathers in études select watercolors, ambitious space-based poetry, and contextual essays in eight sections, including Moments in Time, Apertures, Absent Nature, and others. Marx recently spoke to ZYZZYVA via email about his book.

ZYZZYVA: The poetics of études are compelling. The poems within play with open space, linework, and non-invasive markings to texture and guide the flow of reading. In their verbal substance, the pregnant subtlety of some poems remind me of Master Basho’s enigmatic haikus. What were some influences on the spatial, serene nature of your writing?

JOHN MARX: There are two parts to this. 

First is my background in the visual arts, specifically architecture and photography. Within these there is a quest for a spareness and economy of form, alongside an emphasis on compositional clarity and dynamic flow. The internal spacing and cadence of the poems is based on a spatial sense that comes from architecture—the desire to have a graphic balance, which also informs the reader how the poem might be read aloud. Each poem is expressly meant to be read out loud.

In many ways I have been searching for the words to describe the stillness of a grainy black and white photograph, to describe moments in time where you can feel this stillness. I write to describe visual experiences whether real or in the form of daydreams; in this sense the work tries to be both of a place, but universal as well. Each setting is a frame for describing non-sentimental optimism / peacefulness as an artistic statement of advocacy. 

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Second, I was deeply influenced in my youth by the writings of Alan Watts, the Tao Te Ching, Zen koans, and that group of French existentialists you could imagine reading in North Beach. These writers combined rigor with an austerity that balanced emotional experiences with intellectual ones, that moved you out of your ordinary flow of a day. There are sometimes ironic twists that reveal both the beauty and the absurdity of the human condition. At the same time, I have retained a Midwestern sense of open space and earnestness. There in the vastness of the long horizon, so little happens that the smallest things take on great meaning. You learn to embrace a quietness that comes from living on the land. This is balanced by moving, after college, to San Francisco, a densely urban and intensely vibrant city. The push-pull of this dynamic is fertile ground for poetry.

Z: You wrote that a guiding principle for this work was “balance,” and that is evident in the pairing of pieces. On any set of pages, the watercolor on the right side discourses with the poem or watercolor on the left, either contrasting or complementing its ideas. But these pairings were not originally planned: oftentimes there is a forty-year difference between when the work on the left and right sides were created. When assembling études, did it surprise you how your body of work interacted with itself this way?

JM: Yes, it was a bit of an emotional journey to see, in curating the work, how the tone and intention of the work, both visually and verbally, has remained consistent. This led me to realize that, while I have certainly evolved as a human being over time, the fundamental humanity that I try to share through my work extends across different media, and that the core values remain over a long span of time. I worked with fellow artists Linda Connor and Lonnie Graham to explore the pairings, both from a visual as well as a conceptual standpoint. The greater challenge was in trying to broadly organize the work based on narrative rather than chronology. (Timeline is a more common way.) After studying the work for a while patterns started to emerge, which then appeared to follow a somewhat linear logic, only for me to discover that the flow of the work was philosophically circular. I ended up with eight sections, each a provocation in its own right.

Z: The poems collected in études are accessible but ambiguous, containing pithy, open-to-interpretation lines. Étude 3 and Étude 33 stand out to me, but I would like to ask about a section in “Playa Dawn”: “surrealistic objects: / people, / chaos, / and beauty / appear out of nowhere.” I think the suggestion of people as surrealistic objects is fascinating given how études understands the human experience. Would you briefly touch on this idea?

A: This poem, which may be obvious to some, is about Burning Man. It took me three years of participating before I could reflect on the experience. It has been suggested that I play with the boundaries of language in unusual ways—this is in part intentional, but also part of an intensely intuitive process, which offers a richness of ambiguity in a search for emotional narrative. There are aspects of being out on a dusty playa that certainly blur the boundaries of what is art, what it means to be human…sometimes the human is the art in that desert setting. There is a flow of intensity in what can be a weeklong experience; it is a continuous flow that after a time becomes surreal in itself. This poem tries to express that mysterious place between words and existence. And don’t get me started on “chaos and beauty.”

Z: études lingers a while on the pleasures of ordinary life, such as the dew at sunrise or the approach of night. To close, I would like to ask: when did you last smile and why?

JM: If I can change the question a little bit, rather than the last smile I would like to describe my two most memorable smiles in the last few months. 

The first was an external smile. In January I started to more publicly explore my Third Gender nature. My daughter tells me she has never seen me smile so intensely as when I am expressing my feminine side.

The second involves the experience described in my poem “A Perfect Moment,” which is loosely based on Spalding Grey’s play “Swimming to Cambodia,” which I saw live in San Francisco. These moments are difficult to describe and come on their own schedule. In March my mother passed away unexpectedly and without cause. This, combined with COVID, left me in a state of disarray, trying to make sense out of the randomness of life and the loss of my mother.

It was

            just

            in the color of the water,

                        in the reflection of a cloud,

                                    on a bay so still

                        you could move it with your breath ….

that there, in that moment,

            Perfect Moment …

            I felt the wholeness of the earth

            and forgot

                        that there was any difference between myself

                        and all things …

                                    every-thing, including my mother. 

This internal smile is still with me every day.

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