Author: Kelli Anne Noftle

Kelli Anne Noftle is the winner of the 2010 Omnidawn Poetry Prize for her first collection of poetry, I Was There For Your Somniloquy. She is the singer/songwriter for her band Miniature Soap, and released her debut album, I Don't Like You, in 2011.

Jenny & Sophie: The Text Became Art, Inside Turned Out

Jenny & Sophie: The Text Became Art, Inside Turned Out

As my month as resident-reviewer here comes to a close, I want to look at something different. I want to return to two artists whose relationships with words have affected my own approach to poem-making: Jenny Holzer and Sophie Calle.

Kelli Anne Noftle holding one of Jenny Holzer's Inflammatory Essays

True story: eight years ago I met the artist Jenny Holzer in a large format Polaroid studio in Manhattan. She’d invited my friend to pose for photographs that would be sold in an auction. The year before, I took him to UC San Diego’s campus to see Holzer’s Green Table—a large granite picnic table inscribed with her texts. He fell in love with her work and wrote to her agent, requesting that Holzer commission a tattoo for him. YOUR MODERN FACE SCANS THE SURPRISE ENDING is the text he chose to have permanently inked across his ribs. In the New York Polaroid studio, Holzer was quick and deliberate, instructing Jesse where to stand and guiding the photographer on how to frame each shot. The ending of this story is a dream come true: I was in a room with my favorite living artist, a woman I’ve idolized for years, watching her document her own art. So, it was no surprise that my modern face stared up at hers blankly. I was unable to articulate a single coherent sentence in her presence.

Holzer is a conceptual artist who uses subversive, passionate, politically-charged, disturbing text and displays it via a variety of media, including marquees, billboards, LED displays, marble, wood, and Xenon projections. She is perhaps best known for her Truisms, an alphabetical list of contradictory phrases that sound like cliches or common myths, but were actually penned by Holzer herself. In an essay by David Joselit, he refers to these one-liners (PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT; MONEY CREATES TASTE; RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY) as “conceptual readymades.” Besides the Duchampian use of text, what I love about Holzer’s language is how the voice can be both individual and collective, dislocating facts and ideas that seem to come from a variety of sources. It is somehow alienated and depersonalized, yet remains authoritative. In Inflammatory Essays (pictured above), Holzer employs many different I’s and You’s, but the speaker is always undetermined. When I was a study abroad student in Italy, I remember a black and bronze plaque hanging just above the drinking fountain in an art museum. It read:

from Jenny Holzer's LIVING series

Joselit explains that Holzer’s “model of authorship” is based on outside ideals or concepts that become internalized, and then “turned inside out to make art.” These are essentially “internal monologues as public speech.”

Jenny Holzer's CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS from Phaidon

Where Holzer creates public speech with an authorial voice that is collective, French artist Sophie Calle externalizes the internal, revealing intensely personal experiences with text and image in public spaces. The bits of information build a narrative that at first glance could be scraps from Calle’s diary, but the story is told with an emotional distance in an overall expository, detached tone.

Sophie Calle

I saw Calle’s Douleur Exquise (Exquisite Pain) exhibit over a decade ago at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It is a story of heartbreak documented through photographs and text, beginning with this description:

In 1984 the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs awarded me a grant for a three-month scholarship to Japan. I left on October 25, unsuspecting that this date would mark the beginning of a 92 day countdown to the end of a love affair. Nothing extraordinary—but to me, at the time, the unhappiest moment in my life…

Calle counts down the “Days to Unhappiness” with photographs, plane tickets, memorabilia, diary entries, and scraps of remembered conversations up to the moment she was abandoned by her lover—she waited for him in a hotel in New Delhi, but instead of meeting her, he called to say he’d fallen in love with someone else. The photograph of the red telephone, the one she spoke to him on, is the final image that flags a movement from grief to recovery, dividing the artwork (and book) into two sections. It is in the second section (“After Unhappiness”) where we witness an evolution take place inside the artist:

…whenever people asked me about the trip, I chose to skip the Far East bit and tell them about my suffering instead. In return I started asking both friends and chance encounters: “When did you suffer most?” I decided to continue such exchanges until I had gotten over my pain by comparing it with other people’s, or had worn out my own story through sheer repetition.


Calle repeats her breakup story ninety-nine times on one page beneath the photo of the red phone and places it beside the story of a stranger’s most painful memory on the other page. With each entry, the details of her obsessive retelling begin to diminish. The text literally fades until the ninety-ninth page is blank, nothing but black paper below the photo of the red phone on the white hotel bed. Through the repetition and juxtaposition of her own grieving with the pain of others, she allows herself to heal.

Sophie Calle's EXQUISITE PAIN (interior)

These artists are creating works of art. But they are also poetry, too. Both Holzer and Calle play in a region where the two pursuits overlap, where text becomes art, where inside is literally turned outside for us to see, to read, and to experience.

“Anything Becomes a Part of Where It Is if You Take It and Put It There”: William Stobb, Michael Heizer, and Articulated Absences

“Anything Becomes a Part of Where It Is if You Take It and Put It There”: William Stobb, Michael Heizer, and Articulated Absences

                                                                                                   The only way out: create
objects that float.                                                The size of a spirit remembered in land.

                                                                        It wasn’t big enough. I kept working.

Michael Heizer's LEVITATED MASS at the LACMA

Today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a four hundred and fifty six foot trench cuts across the north lawn. Directly over the deepest portion of the granite channel, a three hundred and forty ton boulder rests on two shelves bolted to the inside of the trench, allowing visitors to walk beneath the massive rock. Levitated Mass is artist Michael Heizer’s most recent earthworks sculpture—an idea conceived decades ago and attempted once before, but the boulder was so heavy that it caused the lifting crane to snap.

Recently I visited the site to traverse the channel and take photos of the megalith. Standing just below the rock, the surrounding landscape disappears from view. For a moment, it’s only me and a few other visitors, the boulder, and a vast blue sky. The feeling is initially awe—have I ever stared at the underbelly of a displaced monolith situated in a city of millions? I experience both ecstatic emptiness and the logical impossibility that this monumental boulder is somehow buoyed overhead. Or, in Heizer’s words via the poetry of William Stobb, it’s “Physical truth in isolation / of material from source…Size is real.”

In some of the poems from his recent collection Absentia, Stobb excavates, compiles, erases, and levitates Heizer’s words:

                            As my ideas developed I defied gravity. Without trying.
Obviously pointed at the future, all it is is


These poems were built by removing language from interviews conducted with Heizer and then relocating them within a new context. The work seems accreted rather than composed. Lines are sometimes bulky and dense; the weight of the text pushes across the page to form striations in the white space:

forms of evidence interest me—beautiful gravel, broken processional.

            Visualize the voids combining—if you can, then you understand.

Complete the cycle—tame something wild            a rough wild rock might
fall at the base of a cliff.                                          Articulate that.

Heizer is perhaps best known for Double Negative, an earthwork comprised of two trenches fifty feet deep and one thousand and five hundred feet long, cut along both sides of a natural canyon at the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Double Negative asks viewers to contemplate art outside museum walls where the act of creation is subtraction, an erasure. This sculpture is essentially the displacement of two hundred and forty thousand tons of rock, considered as both the act of removal and the negative space left inside the existing canyon and man-made rifts. “Anything physical becomes a statement / about absence.”

Michael Heizer's DOUBLE NEGATIVE

Stobb’s use of Heizer’s “negative vocabulary” also plays a part in the tradition of erasure poetry—mining a text to reveal another narrative, creating space for new interpretations that question the ownership or authority of the original text. Within these particular poems, Stobb seems to be reaching to “feel that something has transcended,” an out-of-body experience, erasure of self.

A similar “vanishing act” occurs in other poems in the collection such as “Holiday,” “Up Kingston,” and “Absentia,” where entire poems are contained within quotation marks. These quoted poems aren’t lifted from Heizer’s language, but are instead run-on monologues, like dreams retold from memory. Here Stobb continues to negate the “I,” making it unclear who the speaker is and who is being spoken to. Heizer: “There is nothing there, but it is still a sculpture.” By erasing, we always leave something behind.

Performance artist, musician, and sculptor Laurie Anderson says: “Emptiness to me is expansive. And I don’t have to be there. I can’t exist in it.” Stobb knows this emptiness, a vastness internalized. He is a poet of the desert. Just as Heizer’s work not only references the western landscape, but is made up of and by that landscape, Stobb takes the “inundated or eroded, extended or developed” language and repositions it into lyric. The relocation of a three hundred and forty ton boulder. Size is real.

                Just lay out flat and wait.
Some dormant electrical pattern mistriggers,
circles inward like birds.           Light-blind
and immersive as in the channel.

I won’t want to forget this and then I won’t
be able to.

Michael Heizer's LEVITATED MASS and William Stobb's ABSENTIA

William Stobb:: Absentia:: Penguin Books

I Wish I Had a River (Any River Will Do): Maggie Nelson and the Color of Hurt

I Wish I Had a River (Any River Will Do): Maggie Nelson and the Color of Hurt

I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any “blueness.” Above all, I want to stop missing you.

Maggie Nelson's BLUETS reviewed by Kelli Anne Noftle

He searched the backseat of my car, grabbed Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. What’s your favorite song, he wanted to know. “Case of You”—was that cliché? I couldn’t help it. I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints. “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” he said. (I hadn’t asked.) You think you’re immune, go look at your eyes, they’re full of moon.

His eyes are blue. When we were together, I called them “cornflower” after the small blue flower also known as “bluebottle” and “bachelor’s button.” Had I read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets then, I would have known that although delicate cornflowers (les bluets) grow in the French countryside, in a dream they could easily be “shaggy, wild, strong. They might not signify romance…sent by no one in celebration of nothing.” Had I read Nelson’s beautiful collection—a lyrical essay of her historical, philosophical, and intimate investigation of the color blue—perhaps I would have described the color of his eyes in terms of light or the absence of light: “something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.”

Bluets is a list of two hundred and forty prose fragments: accumulated scraps of information (theories and meditations on the color blue by great writers, artists, and thinkers) and memories that amass to assemble a picture, but not necessarily a whole. Similar to the artist Joseph Cornell, Nelson “builds a bower” of borrowed text and personal details with “fragments of blue dense.” In this way, Nelson is also “a gatherer, not an owner” of these blues, and like a Cornell box, each component is placed purposefully and methodically, condensed to a diorama where all the pieces point to each other, but cannot be summarized.

Joseph Cornell Blue Sand Box

Inside the blues of this carefully constructed box, an interrupted narrative is articulated through the pain of losing a lover and witnessing a friend suffer the physical trauma of paralysis following a serious accident. If blue becomes “a single hurt color” in “an arrangement in a system to pointing” (Stein), then Nelson’s Bluets is a collection of fragments participating in a composition where each one is dependent upon and related to the other. Both despair and hope are viewed through a blue filter or washed in a blue “rinse.”

I have always believed in making lists, as if I could tidy the grief in my heart by numbering it. After he was gone, I built my own bower of quotes, news scraps, and poetry verses. I keep it as an email draft, one I will never send—a virtual collection that can be abandoned forever, deleted in a single click. Nelson knows the painfulness of forgetting how much you loved someone and speculates that perhaps it can be prevented by accepting “the fundamental impermanence of all things.” She writes: “This acceptance bewilders me: sometimes it seems an act of will; at others, of surrender. Often I feel myself rocking between them (seasickness).”

Kelli Anne Noftle reads Maggie Nelson's BLUETS at the Pacific Ocean

Someone once told me that the ocean is a forgetful body of water, but I think it is the river that leaves its memory behind. Nelson’s blue fragments “have been shuffled around countless times—now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as one river.” Today when I listen to Joni’s Blue album, I skip to this one:

When do we stop collecting the blue? How much is enough? I’ll admit, his eyes were never a cornflower hue; a more accurate comparison would be sky. “The blue of the sky depends on the darkness of the empty space behind it.” Over time, each bit of “blue dense” dissolves and fades, and sometimes “gives way to darkness.” Then, almost miraculously, “without warning, darkness grows up into a cone of light.”

Maggie Nelson:: Bluets:: Wave Books

Kissing Georg Trakl: How I Found Christian Hawkey in a Shopping Bag

Kelli Anne Noftle with a photograph of Georg Trakl

Kissing Georg Trakl: How I Found Christian Hawkey in a Shopping Bag

I barely recognize you. I don’t recognize you. Your face seems to be powdered, as if you were an actor dressing for a part, or an actor undressing after playing a part. 

And that part in your hair is breathtaking. Majestic. 

One could lose oneself in that part.

Two years ago, my boyfriend fell in love with a woman who gave me a shopping bag of Ugly Duckling Presse books. This was just before everything between us unraveled. I sensed their mutual feelings, but I took the books (who would refuse Ugly Duckling?), and spent late evenings with the handbound beauties, touching the pages, staring at the letterpress fonts. I was alone in his house, in a quiet bedroom, too depressed to concentrate on reading, but I found Ventrakl in the bottom of the bag, the unassuming minimal design of a white cover, waiting for me.

Kelli Anne Noftle with Christian Hawkey's VENTRAKL in a bag

“This book is a ghost containing a ghost,” Christian Hawkey writes in his preface to Ventrakl, a collaboration between himself and the dead poet Georg Trakl, in which he utilizes various modes of translation to generate poetry and prose: black and white photographs (“I am seeing his image as a word—I am seeing words in his image”), online translation engines, a version of homophonic translation (“homographonic drafts”), and interviews with Trakl. The resulting collection occupies a liminal space, “between our languages, texts, and names, as well as between our (ghostly) bodies.” When Hawkey converses with Trakl (he admits this was initially quite difficult because he didn’t read or speak German), their two voices alternate, interrupt, invert, wander and disappear into a third voice, the “between-voice,” pointing to and away from itself simultaneously as we follow a mind’s trajectory:

can you read the space between the flesh that covers the teeth, you mean the lips, no the spacebetween them, which a mouth inhabits, delimits, circles, a non-space, a void perhaps, don’t be pretentious, what then, picture someone speaking, now erase the face, the lips in motion, and leave the space between them

Paradoxically, the non-space (“between-voice”) takes shape. It is formed by and inside the boundary of the mouth, spoken:

the moment a shape, oval, hair falling around the light, the waves of light, lowers itself into our field of vision, odd, territorial phrase, the space of our own face, a between space, what about the tongue, what about it

After the face is erased, who continues speaking? The lack of distinction, a blurring of voices and identities (we are one and we are no one), compelled me to keep reading. Hawkey is obsessed with this non-space, the “immaterial made material,” or a “hole” he defines as: “the suspicion that one’s face is being erased in the act of kissing.” 

Months before our breakup, before discovering Ventrakl in a shopping bag, I wrote this song: “How To Kiss A Ghost.” Poets are excellent at seeing into the future. (Or I suppose we know the future is already here.) The lyrics are: “I’ve learned a lot about how to kiss a ghost. You rest your lips on his and watch him as he floats.”

“The between-voice is a ghost, a host.” Hawkey reminds us we’re no longer standing at the center of the text or image, but meeting in the periphery (in his case, conversing with a poet who died in 1914). We lean into the mouth of the poem, even as it floats away from us, dance between states of being, nod toward the center, and inhabit the margins. It is in this space (or non-space) where translations breathe. Gertrude Stein: “act as if there is no use in a centre.” We become host to a multiplicity of voices, the ones speaking from every direction all at once. Authorship moves between the singular and communal. It is a séance called poem-making.

Is this who I am speaking with? 

Don’t be so literal. You’ll never get anywhere.

Isn’t it exactly the opposite? 

Then why ask the question.

The question of what?

Of who is speaking.

Who is writing then?

Who is. 

Who is.

The week before I moved out of my ex’s house, I went to bed every night with Ventrakl. I cried into the binding. I said my favorite lines out loud, knowing they had already changed, uttered by my own mouth—that I was reanimating a ghost materialized in this collection. I looked at Trakl’s portrait. Once, I think I kissed it.

Kelli Anne Noftle's copy of Christian Hawkey's VENTRAKL

Christian Hawkey:: Ventrakl:: Ugly Duckling Presse

On Adam

Adam is adam is Adam is

I dated you both at the same time:

Adam the taxonomist
Adam the expelled

I dated you both at the same time in order to know the difference

I slept in your beds
and ate your cereal in the middle of the night

one of you was sleeping
one of you walked
into your sleep

Adam the signified
Adam the significant

I remember the night adam pounded
on my door and adam
was in his car half a mile from my house

Adam with the full beard
Adam with the tinted glasses

I panicked

Do you want to write? Do you want to

fold a thing up to be another thing
getting anything to be inside anything

I wore your jackets around your houses

Adam wool blazer
Adam faded blue hoodie

It was significant
It was a reference to

the hole in the doughnut the apple in the dumpling

Adam mechanic
Adam pallbearer

I held your names before your bodies as long as I could

Adam the quiet
Adam the quisling

I held your names out, in front of your bodies,
and made you dance toward them


dancing like any
thing wanting
its shape back

Adam the objective
Adam the continuous

I dated you both at the same time
to form a whole idea
from parts
the picture

Adam of desire
Adam of black Fridays

I wanted to write:

remember a piano bench under the weight of two human bodies
a tree branch under the nest of a swallow

to gain perception
see Adam,

I had a life outside the garden

I wrote apples are oranges
I knew

how many adams
does it take
to empty the trash
unclog the drain

Adam I remember adam

pointing to your
self which is exactly
the same
as pointing to anything at all
I suppose

I wanted to write

the love of naming
is lost on


the love of making
in a system is which
will you take to bed

which noun
makes you happier

Note: Italicized lines are from Gertrude Stein’s “Portraits and Repetition,” published in Lectures in America.

Nomenclature & Take a Photograph of Us Here


All the other names for you—flatworm, cucumber, anemone, bootlace.

Found this animal recently hugging the north island rock. I have been searching for weeks with no results—

Hydroid, peanut, sea pen. Enter gorgonians, whips, branched creatures, starfish. I want to start there, drawing a boundary around the missing portion of your body. As a reminder.

You are curious about the dorid of circlet gills, but they are merely tentacles, for feeding—

Because you have another name I hold the rod to the sand, marking. This is your body, these are your parts. This is your scope. These are the tiny pools you belong to, your ancestors, your double sex.

Neptune’s Reef. There are two in what could be mating or feeding. If yes, what kind?

Like the objects in the corner of our eyes. You bristle, hook, shed. Break shell. Because the water washes out the shape, because I trace a map of your trajectory. Following the branch against loam, scraping out the letters to spell a word for you.

The white part feels like muscle. The grey and black root feels like a stick.

We see the shore is nothing but a line our eyes make, searching for a name where water ends and sand begins. I know don’t know what to call you. Spanish Dancer, Pajama Slug, Three Striped Phyllidia. All the underwater guides know nothing of you.

Each animal is a colony. Each stick-like feature is an anchor.

It occurs to me that I am counting each vessel. I’ve been counting since the daffodils, saffron. The thousands represent millions.

I have not seen anything like this.

Listing, crossing out, circling, listing again.

Can you give me some idea?

Dividing. Unspooling.

You have to start over. From the lake.

The tide, filling.

But, then. There is no lake.

All the other names for you:
Cowrie, Keyhole. Bluebottle. Fissure.


Take a Photograph of Us Here

Because public libraries aren’t public.

Because one dog eats another’s carcass.

Because light from a scene passes through a single point.

Because when color expands, it seems closer.

Because Avenida Revolución and empty bottles.

Because The Tropic of Cancer divides.

Because a man pays attention to proportion.

Because the mutt in the alley, beside its intestines.

Because this: a curled corner, stained sepia.

Because it’s never enough of anything.

Because I ask him to hold still.

Because he laughs at our reflection in the building.

Because green and white, covered in red

Can produce yellow, orange, or brown because

Theory became dogma because

During the 18th Century, Isaac Newton experimented with prisms because

Mixing anything with zinc oxide will not change the hue because

It would be incorrect to assume the world is “tinted” because

Jars and jars and jars of it because

Extreme red and purple lie close to crimson because

The ocean cannot contain everything because

Light cannot diffuse my answer.

What We Make & What We’re Making: The First Coat & What We’re Making: Replication

What We Make

I started using white. I put it in every picture until all my apples looked like sallow onions. They say that white won’t enhance anything, just thins the intensity. Like boiling the salt out of water. Or scrambling an egg. You don’t like the runny part, do you? He would ask me, spreading his hands over my plate so that I couldn’t see the mess he wanted. No, you can have it. I always gave him my breakfast.

Someone told me you can fall into bad habits if you use white consistently. It’s an analgesic. When you want to lighten the sky, you dab the zinc into your blue. When you want to push a little pathway across the thicket, you blot ivory into your Payne’s Grey. It saves time. That’s why I started dumping all my pigments into a bucket of white. It was mostly just to save time. He liked to waste his—ordering the wrong dish or trying on pants he didn’t intend to buy. After he left, I had a lot of time. I kept storing it up because I wasn’t sure when I would run out of it again.

What We’re Making: The First Coat

I’ve heard true love will convince you, the way varnish makes a painting more believable. You dip your brush in clear liquid and coat the canvas until you’re staring at a work of art. It takes several layers to absorb a color’s brilliance. Of course, varnish protects from oxidation, which is why people find themselves with the same patina every year. I’ve personally never used the gloss. It hardens my brushes and I’m dissuaded by the results. Once, our teacher watched me paint a model sitting in front of a mirror. She said it was peculiar to dull the light with gobs of green and grey. The model settled into the chair like a stain. She stared at her reflection as if she’d found it in a dirty bottle—the kind that washes up on the beach with a letter twisted inside. People who fall in love don’t paint with mud. Where is your passion? Our teacher always asked. You give up and start to make a mess or realize the mess is whatever you’ve been making.

What We’re Making: Replication

No one believed I could do it. I wasn’t even sure myself. The trick is beginning from the outside and working your way toward the middle. The paint thickens as you approach the center, where the real trouble happens. When I was a kid I hated fireworks. Every July I hid under my bed with our cat and stuffed toilet paper in my ears. I became very sensitive to color and light, drawing portraits of my mother at the kitchen sink after she’d taken off all her makeup. Skin is impossible to paint because it’s translucent; there are too many layers. Everyone said I would do something great with the portraits, but all I could think of was how to draw fire. I wanted the canvas to burst open, burning their faces. Last night I colored my bedroom walls grey. When you mute one thing, you can see another more clearly. My mother eventually stopped wearing makeup. Sometimes her eyes were muddy. Sometimes they swelled like red coals under an ash heap, the paint so hot, I’d forget where to put it.