BLUE HILL — Connections, formed decades ago, came full circle this year in a collaboration between Brooksville poet and printer Beatrix Gates and Blue Hill printmaker Tim Seabrook. Seven of Gates’ poems found new form in a series of etchings by Seabrook and tinted by painter Leslie Cummins.
In “Close Apart,” Blue Hill documentary filmmaker Matt Shaw explored the artists’ collaboration over two years. The commissioned film opened the 2021 Word Literary Arts Festival last month in Blue Hill.
As printers, Gates and Seabrook go way back.
“I met Tim when I brought my printing press to Penobscot,” Gates said. “If you’re a letter press printer and you meet another one, you’re bonded for life.”
This was in the 1970s, a time when women just didn’t run letter presses, she recalled. But Gates had started Granite Press to publish poetry, especially poems that might not find a home with larger publishers.
Their collaboration speaks to what Gates said is crucial for poets — to make the kinds of connections that feed their creative energy and widen their audience, too. And she knew that this was an unusual project and saw it as a gift, she said.
The series took two years to complete and features seven poems, one from each of Gates’ books of poems spanning the early 1970s through 2020.
Gates said Seabrook’s approach showed respect for the poems’ original composition, which Seabrook adhered to in the etchings. And knowing the couple for 45 years, “I could trust them,” she said in “Close Apart,” the film. “There would be no sentimentality about the images, no overkill.”
Seabrook worked in his studio and in the Fab Lab at the University of Maine in Orono to create the copper plates for each etching. And he sent each to Gates for review.
“The poems were filled with imagery — textured and layered,” Seabrook said in “Close Apart.” “There’s conflict.”
The same is true of Seabrook’s prints: his layers and textures combine with Cummins’ colors and Gates’ words to create tension and harmony, often at the same time.
While Seabrook and Cummins have worked together for decades — the couple formerly owned and operated Five Star Orchard in Brooklin — Seabrook had never collaborated with a writer before or mixed words and images in his prints.
He started with seven pieces of blank paper on the wall. “We’d read one of the poems, I start putting a couple of lines down. I keep rolling around in those things, Seabrook explained in “Close Apart.” “One doesn’t get done at once. They’re made to fit into place with integrity and value, just like the poem.”
When it came time for Cummins to add the watercolor tints, she and Gates discussed each etching, deciding on no color at all for “The Verge.”
“Each color had to speak,” Cummins said in the film, adding in a later email, “The colors and the way they go down were in service to [Seabrook’s] original design.” So while she first leaned toward intense colors, she moved to Seabrook’s idea of “quiet colors that could deepen into flame,” in the poem “native tongue,” which begins:
fire, the clinging: proudly.
you dress in torn air
and bring violence from the ground.
yr sister of ash weaves
loose holes in the sky
In “Your grief my grief,” the only color is the yellow of half an archway in one bottom corner. “Leslie chose the color of awareness, golden yellow,” Gates said. “It makes it pop.”
Gates viewed the plates three times as Seabrook created them, but said she trusted him as an artist. “I feel Tim made a space the poem can exist in, and the poem is speaking in the space with the etching.”
“All three of us truly collaborated and pretty much enjoyed every minute of it,” Cummins said.
The etchings are on display at Backlight Grafika gallery at 207 Union St., Blue Hill, and can also be viewed online at BacklightGrafika.com, as can the Matt Shaw film “Close Apart.” But Cummins was quick to push for a live viewing of the print series.
“Viewing an original print is reality, with extra clarity, tonal scale, texture and intention,” Cummins said. “In a reproduction, you can’t catch the ingenious methods of [the] printer laying down real ropes on the copper plate to make the lines of the balloon in the poem/print, ‘The Balloonist.’ Or the depth of the etching bite on some of the prints, bringing drama to the black ink. A drama never to be seen in a reproduction.”
“Tim and I make these prints expressly to give back the beauty of hand-made,” she added. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. or by appointment. Visitors are requested to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and wear masks.
For Gates, this type of collaboration was new creative territory.
A teacher, translator, librettist and writer of creative nonfiction, Gates published “native tongue” in 1973, the year she graduated college. She’d found early encouragement from her middle school English teacher, and from her high school secretary, Jean Valentine, who went on to win a National Book Award for poetry and remained a lifelong friend.
Those earlier years, Gates would thumb through standard poetry anthologies and rarely find female poets inside. So, she went to Cambridge bookstores and learned who was writing poetry and publishing now. “I educated myself,” she said. “I didn’t even know I was doing it.”
In her work, “images occur ahead, and I learn to write towards them. And I don’t mind not knowing what it’s about,” she said. “Jean [Valentine] taught me to be patient and live with mystery. The poem is there, you go and find it. You can go out on a limb, just don’t saw it off.”
It’s clear that at age 72, Gates’ passion has not slowed. She recently wrapped up a writing workshop for Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance and then headed to Cambridge to research her work-in-progress.
“People have to have ways of speaking truth and poetry is one of them,” she said. And her advice for aspiring poets, or artists in general, is “You have to have a presence, and you do that by being a participant in the community.”