The Poet’s Tarot | Annette Spaulding-Convy & Kelli Russell-Agodon
|Queen of Mentors – Poets’ Tarot
– first of all tell me about the Two Sylvias Press – what or who is
We each had eReaders and one night on a ferry ride home from a poetry reading, we were talking about how there weren’t any eBook anthologies of women poets and how we wished there were more poetry collections available for Nook and Kindle. We continued to talk about how this concerned us and by the end of the ferry ride, we had decided to create an eBook anthology of contemporary women’s poetry ourselves—this is how Fire On Her Tongue: An eBook Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry was born. Creating Fire On Her Tongue led us to cofounding our own press, Two Sylvias Press, as we realized we’d like to do more creative projects and that we had ideas for books we’d like to see in the world.
Since that evening on the ferry, we’ve turned the Fire On Her Tongue anthology into a corresponding print book as well as published a book of poetry writing prompts (The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice), three eBooks of poetry, one print book of poetry, and one eBook memoir. We publish in both print and/or eBook works we’d like to read ourselves. We want useful, creative, innovative books and more art in the world. We believe in the “passion” project, following our instincts, and doing what we love; this is how the tarot deck came to be.
Me: Amen to having more art in the world! So, tell me about your Tarot background?
KRA: I was introduced tarot cards about fifteen years ago by a good friend and was instantly intrigued by them. I have several decks of tarot cards which I use when I need guidance or inspiration in my life. One of the first decks I remember being introduced to was the Renaissance Tarot Deck. In creating The Poet Tarot, Annette and I wanted the artwork on the cards to have a vintage, retro, Victorian, and almost Steampunk feel.
For The Poet Tarot, I did all the graphic design as overall, I am probably less knowledgeable in the history, tradition, and specific meanings of the cards, but I have always been interested in the art of each deck. Now, I keep The Poet Tarot on my desk to reach for as I write.
ASC: I was first introduced to Tarot when I was in college. A good friend of mine had the Aquarian Tarot deck and she not only read the cards for me, but also taught me several layouts as well as both traditional and esoteric meanings for the cards. What most impressed me was her intuitive sense when she gave a reading. She consulted her various books, but sometimes she would depart from the card’s meaning and she would share her own interpretation, which in the end, was often fairly accurate in terms of the querent’s life or situation.
I have always owned several decks of cards—Tarot based on fairytales, mythology, and of course, the traditional Rider-Waite deck. I’ve occasionally given readings for other people, but mostly I have used the cards as a private psychological and spiritual tool to give me creative insight. I don’t at all consider myself adept with the Tarot, but have always been fascinated by its archetypal symbols.
Me: Why have you created a Tarot based on poets?
KRA: I have always appreciated the opportunity to slip poets and poetry into our lives in unique ways, and for me, the Poet Tarot was a way to do that. I feel the cards offer beauty and art into the world, but are also something that encourages others with their own creative projects. I like that along with being a larger art project itself, The Poet Tarot also helps inspire and support other writers and artists with their own work.
ASC: The Poet Tarot really came seemingly from a dream and a few creative visualisation exercises. I simply awoke one morning and thought—wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a tarot deck made up completely of poets. As I thought more about it, suddenly the suit cards became symbols of the creative process—the way a creative idea (poem, story, painting, song, etc…) moves from inspiration to realisation to revision to completion. As Kelli and I talked about the idea, we began to see the deck as a potential tool for artists and we were excited about showcasing some of our favourite deceased poets. Kelli took on the visual art and graphic design aspect of the cards while I worked on the guidebook and further hammered out the cards’ meanings. We wanted the deck to align with the traditional tarot, but with some differences, so it wouldn’t be just another Tarot “knock off.”
Me: Tell me about the deck – I know that it was a successful Kickstarter project, but I need the details!!
ASC: The deck follows the major arcana with 22 poets representing the traditional cards. We chose poets to represent each card based on the poet’s personality, life, and the thematic elements of his/her poetry. Edna St. Vincent Millay is a great representation of the Wheel of Fortune (X) because of the almost cyclical nature of her artistic career. She began with much immediate success (a Pulitzer Prize) and due to both her own personal issues and certain circumstances, within ten years she was barely writing and on the fringe of the poetry world. E. E. Cummings makes a wonderful Fool (0), not so much because of his personal life, but because of his poetic experimentations (simple subjects, use of lowercase, lack of punctuation), which led to many critics brutally ridiculing him. But, Cummings is now considered one of the most innovative poets of the twentieth century. We had fun matching poets with the traditional major arcana cards and we were careful to include some historic individuals as well as many twentieth century writers. It was also important to us to have an equal number of women and men represented.
In terms of the minor arcana, the traditional suits were changed to symbolise the various stages of the creative process—Cups turned to Muses (inspiration), Wands became Quills (creation), Swords morphed to Mentors (revision), and Pentacles/Coins changed to Letterpresses (completion). For instance, the Seven of Quills is concerned with how a writer or artist deals with competition. It’s no surprise that we end up competing against fellow writers and artists when it comes to chapbook prizes or gallery space. This card explores how we handle competition in a healthy way without it impacting our creative wellbeing. As in a traditional Tarot deck, our major arcana is more in-depth and philosophical, while our minor arcana deals much more with the nitty-gritty and practicalities of the creative life.
We are thrilled that our Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the production of The Poet Tarot has been so successful. We nearly received twice the amount of our original goal and our supporters have been so generous in terms of Tweeting and Facebooking about the project. Although Kickstarter is over, The Poet Tarot is available for sale on our Two Sylvias Press website: www.twosylviaspress.com
Me: Tell me about your Court Card structure – there are fewer Courts than in most other decks, am I right?
ASC: For the court cards, we decided to simply have a Queen and a King reign over each suit. We carefully chose two poets (one woman and one man) who best embody a given stage of the creative process. Perhaps if we do a future revision of the deck, we might include the Page and Knight, but for now, we’re happy with our powerhouse Kings and Queens! Two of my favourite pairings are the King and Queen of Letterpresses (the traditional Pentacles suit)—Walt Whitman and Queen Elizabeth I. Queen Elizabeth I was highly educated and wrote verse, and of course, was an amazing patron of the arts. Always inventive and resourceful, Walt Whitman, ended up printing Leaves of Grass himself at the local print shop when no one else would publish it. He also started his own solo newspaper and took on every production role from reporter to printer to delivery man. They are both powerful examples of the “completion” stage of the creative process.
Me: The meme here on Tarot Thrones usually focuses on artists talking specifically about their Page of Swords, but you don’t have one! Instead we are talking about your Queen of Mentors – Gertrude Stein. Tell me all about this card! Why did you select her to represent this Queen? What does she represent in a reading?
ASC: Certainly most people are familiar with the great Gertrude Stein (a rose is a rose is a rose) and if you ever had to study some of her poetry, well, you might have become a little frustrated! I chucked her book of poems out of my dorm window in college and then had to retrieve her from a puddle of rainwater.
Gertrude Stein is the perfect woman to represent the Queen of Mentors (which is traditionally Swords). In The Poet Tarot, the Mentors suit deals with all aspects of revision in the creative process. Few of us ever get a poem or painting completely right in its initial form, but we usually rethink, reevaluate, and make changes before we feel it is a complete and true representation of our initial idea. Sometimes we revise in isolation, but many times as artists we are part of a creative community, and so we often seek feedback on our writing or art piece. We must then decide whether to use that critique to change our work or we may choose to dismiss the feedback. And sometimes we are in the position of critiquing someone else’s art or writing, and therefore, we have an obligation to evaluate carefully with honesty and objectivity.
Following the first World War, Gertrude Stein’s famous house in Paris was a haven for experimental and groundbreaking visual artists and writers. She generously critiqued their work and she was trusted because she had a keen eye and an amazing amount of insight and objectivity. She helped launch the careers of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as Picasso and Matisse. If you draw the Queen of Mentors in a reading, you are being encouraged to work on your skills as an insightful critic—putting away emotionalism and sentimentality in favor of logic and objectivity. Stein could be overly harsh, so there is a warning about delivering feedback by balancing creative support with honest assessment. This card also encourages you to seek out exciting groups of artistic individuals, to maybe host a Gertrude Stein style “salon” in your home or studio, where artists bring their artwork and discuss it, where writers bring their poems and stories and read them aloud. The Queen of Mentors encourages you to be generous and thoughtful as you help fellow artists realize their full potential.
Me: I’m not familiar with all the poets on your cards, do Tarotists need to know about the poets in order to use the deck?
KRA: No, you don’t need to be familiar with the poets to use the deck at all. Annette did an incredible job writing the guidebook to create a description for each card that introduces you to a bit of the background of each poet before moving on to explain the card’s meaning. I created the cards based on what they represented and the background of the poet. For example, I included a “bell jar” on Sylvia Plath’s card, as that was the title of one of her books; however the image still enhances the card and can be something to meditate on if you choose.
I also think that not knowing a poet can offer you more in a reading as you come to the card with “Beginner’s Mind”—that place where you are open, curious, and ready to learn. I guess my hope is that people who aren’t poets or writers and who use the deck may find a poet mentor or a new poem that will inspire them, or maybe they will connect with a poet they hadn’t even known existed before they bought the deck. I think more art and poetry in everyone’s lives only makes the world a better place.
Me: I’m very curious about the creative process for Tarot artists – how do you both work? Does one come up with the concept and the other executes it?
KRA: In our case, while Annette initially came up with the concept, we both participated in creation of the deck and guidebook. I have always been interested and played around in graphic design. Annette has a much stronger understanding of the individual cards, meanings, and history.
We each worked separately, but also together. We created a list of poets, then determined which poet would best represent each traditional card. For example, Emily Dickinson as the Hermit was a quick and easy choice; choosing Anne Sexton as the Empress was a little harder. Once we had all the poets chosen, Annette sent me a list with what each card meant, including the suit cards.
As a poet, I see the world in metaphor, so converting my interpretation of each card’s meaning to a visual image was actually not too difficult and I found that I enjoyed the process. These cards were a delight to create and I loved having the opportunity to “bring these poets back to life” with each image I created. It fulfilled me as both an artist and a poet.