Wendy Vardaman & Greer DuBois

We began writing the larger poem of which “Bill Matthews” is a part at the end of a semester in Florence, having spent several months traveling and studying fresco cycles throughout Italy. In some ways, the poem is also a collaboration between ourselves, the poets, and the artists who produced the frescos at the Arena Chapel; fresco is itself a collaboration among many artists—masters and apprentices, sometimes over decades and among more than one master.

We each brought individual artistic interests to the work: Greer wanted to challenge ideas about poets as individualistic loners. Wendy wanted to create a form that would somehow capture and imitate the way that individual paintings in a fresco cycle stand on their own as narratives, but connect with the other paintings to create a larger story, sometimes playing off pieces painted above, below, or across from each other. We call the individual, syllabic stanza units used throughout the poem giottos after the painter who inspired them. These units fit together architecturally, one beginning with the same two syllables that end its predecessor. Although we chose to put the giottos together in the round, any number of alternative spaces, or chapels, could be created this way.

About one year after we finished our first  chapel or O, we began to search for another direction to take the poems in. Wendy had been writing descriptive O’s in the meantime, and had produced a set of about 100, each connected with a specific painting from the Arena chapel. After reading her O’s, Greer wanted to create something to complement them—something that would function both as an organizational structure and provide a narrative and character background through which to view the O’s. What makes Giotto’s Arena Chapel so beautiful is not only the perfection of its individual panels, but its sequence, in which characters and symbols recur along the walls; any visitor to Italy appreciates this experience immensely, in contrast to art museums like the Vatican or the Uffizi, in which individual panels are preserved isolated, out of context from their original churches, and on a white wall, letting us appreciate their aesthetics but little of their original narrative quality. Wendy and Greer then agreed to create characters—in this case, Bill Matthews—supposed visitors to the chapel, who would interpret the paintings in the light of their own stories. In writing this particular poem set—we might call it a “cycle” though it also corresponds to the smaller chapels within larger churches found throughout Italy—Greer used both new giottos or stanzas which she wrote along with some written by Wendy. Wendy then revised the arrangement of the cycle in order to create a piece that in its totality circles forward and loops back to its beginning with a first stanza that repeats the previous O’s last stanza. Although this formal device is not inevitable, it resonates architecturally with the syllabic regularity and the repetition of the two-syllable entry/exit points within the individual giottos.

Although the form pushes us toward telegraphic statements at the micro level, we’re please with the narrative possibilities we’ve discovered in using these small pieces to build a larger whole—much as fresco artists would have found this lamb or that face fitting into a grander story. We also enjoy the ability the project gives us to produce individual as well as collaborative work and to negotiate back and forth between the two.


View "Bill Matthews" as a PDF for a closer look.



Greer DuBois is a student of writing and theater. Her poems have been published in qarrtsiluni and on the Madison Metro Buses. Wendy Vardaman lives in Madison, Wisconsin  and is the author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press, 2009). She works for The Young Shakespeare Players, a children’s theater company, co-edits Verse Wisconsin, and does not own a car.  Together they are working on the manuscript, Arena Chapel, inspired by Giotto’s chapel of that name in Padua, Italy.