The Collaged Brain

Image Essay by Camille Martin

Poetry, Art, Music


Collage showing film noir 


Collage showing a bird sitting on an egg with a woman in it
Collage showing a girl riding a lamb into a wave with the moon overhead


Word collage which reads Hurry home these stories, back to imaginable curtain degree while this huge extra eye instantly centrifuges open chiller kitchen


Collage of a fish looking through a portal
Collage of a star fish floating through a much of images


Collage of a snake on a map


Some of these collages have previously appeared in other publications: "Harvest" is on the cover of Sonnets by Camille Martin (Shearsman Books, 2010); "Hurry Home" and "We Mega" were published on the website Spidertangle; "Openings" was published on the cover of an issue of Rampike magazine; and "Apple Picking" was published in Cella magazine.


Poetry, Art, Music—and the Gift of Synesthesia

First, I was a musician—a classical pianist—diligently practicing from the age of six until well into adulthood. Then, increasingly afflicted with stage fright, I turned to poetry in my thirties to satisfy my need to create. Years later, I began to make collages in earnest.

Whether I’m writing poetry, gluing collages, or composing music, I can't imagine creating in one discipline in isolation from the others. Rhythm, color, timbre, metaphor, and polyphony are all schmoozing inside my head, each informing and enriching the others. And the conversation among the three reminds me of the synesthesia that I experienced as a child.

Synesthesia is the involuntary blending of two senses, as when smells trigger the feeling of geometrical shapes. You might sense, for instance, the presence of smooth marble columns when smelling mint. You cannot become a synesthete (though LSD can temporarily do the trick). Your brain just hands you the associated sensations on a platter.

When I was a child, I experienced colors while hearing musical tones: D was yellow, G was bluish-purple. I think there must be a subterranean (that is, subconscious) passageway in the brain that causes two senses to blend. The neurological basis for synesthesia is still debated, but, somehow, my music neurons were chatting with my color neurons.

Considering that upward of 90 percent of cognitive processes are subconscious, it’s fair to say I didn’t entirely choose to make music, poetry, or collages. In effect, they chose me.

While the overlaps between these three disciplines may not be synesthetic, technically speaking, something in my brain probably “allows” the language, visual, and music areas to communicate. Everyone experiences this cognitive communication in some way, as in the creation of metaphors (a “sour” violin note, for example).

I first noticed such connections when I started writing poetry—I felt poetry as music, hearing the musical effects of its rhythms and timbres. And I’ve set several of my poems to music for soprano with piano accompaniment.

There’s also a kinship between my poetry and collage. My first collages were “ransom note” poems, such as "Hurry Home" in this image essay or "We Mega."

From magazines, I cut out hundreds of words, which gradually began to cluster into phrases and sentences. At first, the collages were just a different way of writing poetry. Increasingly, however, images crept in and took over.

The collages share with my poetry a similar process of juxtaposition. In art, as in poetry, I ask questions: What narrative or allegory arises in this collage when a snake flies through the air carrying a staircase? What ripples of meaning flow from the poetic juxtaposition of mockingbirds and the history of human evolution? “Collage” is a term applied to both poetry (as in Gertrude Stein) and art (as in Juan Gris). I think it’s no accident that the collaging process for me applies to both disciplines—my involuntary brain insists.

Since the time of the Enlightenment, Western philosophers and scientists have been lowering humankind’s pedestal, reducing our status as favored beings at the center of the cosmos to that of animals on a tiny speck in the vastness of space. More recently, contemporary cognitive scientists have demoted the brain’s status as a rational, conscious control center. The little homunculus that receives and directs perceptions—the cognitive CEO, if you will—is a cherished illusion.

The idea that conscious thoughts are only the tip of the cognitive iceberg is humbling. Ultimately, why anyone experiences crossover from one sense or discipline to another is much more of a mystery than my brain has yet allowed me to imagine.


Camille Martin, a Toronto poet, published her fourth book of poetry this year: Looms (Shearsman Books, 2012). Selections from this work appeared in Talking Writing in 2010 as "Camille Martin: Three from 'Looms.'"

Camille is also the author of Sonnets (Shearsman Books, 2010) and Codes of Public Sleep (Book Thug, 2007). Her work has been widely and internationally published in journals and translated into Spanish and German.

She discusses synesthesia in "Collage: An Interview with Camille Martin" (Angel House Press) and connects it to hypnagogia on her blog Rogue Embryo in "Hypnagogic Dreams: John Franklin’s Fig Newton on a Piano Stool."

You can view more of her collages on Camille Martin's website.



As I read your post and reminded of the term synesthesia which I really try to spell it correctly here, I'd say you're an artist by birth. I salute you.

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