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WHEN TWO ARTS INTERACT: Poet W.D. Snodgrass, artist DeLoss McGraw

December 17, 1987



IT was a collaboration that began with a fan letter: a note from an unknown artist to a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. DeLoss McGraw, a budding watercolorist and art teacher, wrote to W.D. Snodgrass, a ranking member of the Confessional School of Poetry, asking permission to use the poet's name in a series of paintings inspired by Mr. Snodgrass's award-winning collection, ``Heart's Needle.'' From those two initial watercolors in 1981 - ``W.D. Snodgrass, You Sentimental Fool'' and ``Silly Man, Come Out of the Storm'' - grew an exceptionally fertile, and largely unprecedented, artistic collaboration. The resulting series of paintings and poems, entitled ``Who Killed Cock Robin?,'' proved to be some of the more significant work each artist has produced.

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For Mr. McGraw, the paintings were among his first to become commercially successful. For Snodgrass, the poems are among the most lyrical he has written, and represent a fresh burst of creativity 25 years after his initial success.

Although the two artists live at opposite ends of the country - Snodgrass in Delaware and McGraw in southern California - and have met infrequently, they continue to collaborate. The Cock Robin poems are included in Snodgrass's most recent anthology, ``Selected Poems, 1957-1987.'' And next spring, the University of Delaware will issue the first volume of poems and paintings, ``Who Killed Cock Robin?''

Oklahoma-born McGraw still speaks with a native drawl reinforced by a California casualness. He wears a rakish bow tie, sneakers, and no socks, and talks in animated bursts. Snodgrass, who continues to teach at the University of Delaware, is a classic 'eminence grise. Tall and silver-haired, he sports a flowing, Karl Marx-ish beard and a sotto voce demeanor. Both men showed great humor and deference - and a slight tendency to disagree - during the following interview. The discussion took place with Hilary DeVries in Philadelphia, after a reading by Snodgrass of his poems, in ``The Death of Cock Robin?,'' at the Giannetta Gallery.

This is the first time you two had ``performed'' together, isn't it?

McGraw: I had not heard you read your works until last night.

Snodgrass: Oh, that can't be true!

McGraw: I had only heard a tape. It was very interesting to hear you comment on the paintings. Sometimes you could not be farther from the truth, other times you were right on target.

De [Snodgrass], your poems have undergone a major stylistic and thematic change since collaborating with Del. What was it that first attracted you to his paintings, other than the fact that they were about your poems?

Snodgrass: I hadn't written light things, in a way virtuoso things, since the beginning of my career. I had finished a big cycle of poems on the Nazis called ``The Fuehrer Bunker'' and I thought I would leave it and go on. ... But it also has to do with Del's paintings and their quality of playfulness. Del, I think, wants to keep a quality of improvisation in his work all the time, a sort of tossed-offness. Usually, I might be working on a poem for 10, 12, 20 years, and most of it is very carefully planned and plotted ahead of time.

Del, what first attracted you to De's poetry?

McGraw: I had read De's work in college and responded to it. Later, when I was going through a divorce and I was looking around for someone I could identify with, I picked up ``Heart's Needle'' again, which is about him losing his child during a divorce, and that was it. I had read enough of his work so that I saw the two sides: I saw a darkness and a lighter side.

I had never seen De's work as dark as everyone said. I gave a talk about De and a man came up to me and said, ``How do you two get along? He's so dark.'' And I said I'd never seen him as dark. He's got a great sense of irony; he will laugh at himself. He talks about darkness, but the only way he can look at it for a lifetime is with humor.