Sunday, August 20, 2006

Conscious Craft or Dictation?

Here's a dichotomy in approaching the arts as an artist: I've seen it stated as the question, Do you write from quick inspiration, in the heat of the moment; or is it a more conscious, craft-based, labor-intensive process? Of course, this can also be rephrased as: Do you write from the heart, or from the head? Without wanting to get too far into analyzing the stereotypes behind the distinction, I think there is merit in considering these questions.

So, herewith, some thoughts:

First off, I think phrasing the question this way forces it into an either/or dichotomy, when the truth is both/and. (How we ask the question can shape the outcome, obviously.) I don't think these ways of writing are of necessity in opposition, but are rather in complementarity. One needs both inspiration and craft; one cannot fulfill one's potential as a writer without both.

Craft is a road many uninspired writers take, however, without ever realizing that, if they have no inner vision, if they have nothing to say, they are not really saying anything. In some cases, you end up with beautifully constructed, superbly executed poems that say nothing, contribute nothing, and do not add any value to anyone's lives. Craft without content is hollow.

Craft exists to serve inspiration. It is in the service of the art of writing. Craft is necessary, in order for one's inner vision to be expressed at its full potential; but by itself, craft is nothing. Craft is tools, and there are many good tools, but if you have nothing with which to use the tools on, they will lie stagnant and rusty.

The final thing you must rememebr about craft is this: craft is all that anyone can teach. We can teach good grammar, we can teach syntax and form, symmetry, narrative, good construction, and all the rest. But we cannot teach inspiration. Inspiration comes from within the creative person, in whatever medium they work in. "Inspiration is sometimes confused with "talent." Talent is an apparent knack, perhaps an innate gift, that makes working in one creative medium relatively effortless for the gifted person. (This is not limited to the traditional arts, of course; there are talents and gifts for cooking, driving, and other "mundane" skills.)

I heard a quote once from an acting teacher, although I don't know the exact source: "Craft is what you fall back on when you're not feeling inspired."

One of the interesting differences between craft and talent is the apparent effort involved in applying each. Conscious craft can be an effort; it takes work. But the talent, or gift, or receptivity involved in listening to the inner voice that almost dictates the creative work—that often appears to be effortless, natural, automatic. This is not to say that there is no effort; rather, there is less apparent effort. The effort may have been occuring on a pre-conscious, pre-verbal, or subconscious level. What we call dictation, in this context, may be not instanteous creation but rather the result of a long, invisible gestation process that only emerges into the conscious mind at the last stage. It can be as if, after a long period of gestation in the pre-conscious mind, something suddenly hits the mental "Print" command at the back of the mind, and out it spews. Who's to say that there wasn't a lot of revision alread going on, back there? It was just not visible to the conscious process—at least, not in the same way that consciously-applied craft is visible.

For me, personally, writing begins as a process of letting whatever wants to arise, arise. My job on the first writing pass, is to simply get myself out of the way, and let it come through. (The parallel description in Zen studies refers to getting the ego or mind out of the way, so that the true self can come forward.) I have actually "taken dictation" once or twice, when writing a poem or a piece of music, during which process I quite consciously knew what was going on while it was happening, but managed to transcribe what was coming forward without getting in the way of the process. I view my discipline, in all the arts I practice, as exactly this: being prepared, being ready for whatever happens, and also maintaining the constant the willingness to drop everything else I'm doing and listen to and transcribe whatever comes forward, whenever it wants to. It is a warrior's discipline, to keep the blade cleaned and sharpened, but to not draw it out of the scabbard until it is actually to be used. Readiness is all.

For me, the conscious craft comes in when I revise. I might prune, trim, compress, condense, and so forth—typical revision processes—but you'd be surprised how many finished poems or mine are first or second drafts, with only minor changes.

I think the labor-intensive method of writing is equally valid, and I know a few poets who approach their writing as a daily discipline, sitting down to it for a set number of hours a day. I think this is a different means to the same end, but neither a better one nor a less-inspired one, ultimately. It's workmanlike, rather than meditative. It doesn't work as a method for me—I am by some standards a very undisciplined, intuitive poet—but it works for others, and I honor that. On the other hand, I am a fairly disciplined musician, and can be a disciplined visual artist, if necessary.

When I talk about taking dictation here, I am not thinking of André Breton's idea of "pure psychic automatism," the automatic writing practiced by the Surrealist. When someone sits down to practice automatic writing, one is still sitting down with a conscious intention to do something, even if one is open to whatever results. Rather, I would go further, into the Zen arena of "no conscious intention whatsoever."

This is pretty much the way I write poetry most of the time. Thinking about what I intend to write is reserved for essays and creative non-fiction. This may also be why I go through periods of writing a lot of poems, then writing maybe one a month for several months. It goes in waves. I choose to not try to tame this process, or force it into harness, because the process works just fine, for me—based on the results, others seem to like what I produce well enough, so I don't feel like fixin' what ain't broke.

I do have some advice for those who would choose to pursue the path of listening to what arises from within, which may or may not be helpful: get out of your head, as often as possible. Stop trying so hard to write. Take a walk, and don't think about writing anything (which is meta-thinking, already removed from the moment, the finger pointing at the moon rather than the moon itself). Write purely somatically. Pay attention to what your senses tell you, and respond to your bodily sensations, and don't try to layer meaning, intention, purpose, or sense into it. Simply report. Better yet, don't even write about it. Just experience it. Any time that you set out with intention to write a poem, you will derail this process. The poem comes in response to the experience, if it comes at all. As long you have a goal of writing a poem, you won't be able to write as you say you want to write. Give it up! Give up wanting to do it.

The problem with many poets I see who want to write this way, but don't as yet, is that they spend too much time in their heads, and get into endless mental loops. "Lose your mind and come to your senses" is actually good advice, in this context. When you no longer care about writing the poem, the door opens to actually writing the poem. The paradox of letting go: everything you desire will come to you just as soon as you no longer need it to.

if you start with this process, but then step in consciously and start editing what's arising, or intervene consciously during the process, then you're going to go astray. Just spew it out, when it's coming. Editing it comes later.

Furthermore, attachment to "getting it right" when it first comes out is an attachment that will lead you towards self-consciousness. Losing the "I" in the process is the way to get around all that. Intervening in the process is the mark of wanting to control the outcome, control the process, be directing it, be in charge of it, be self-conscious about it, be In Control. When you don't care about the outcome—if you are perfectly willing to write utter irredeemable crap (which is a risk some poets cannot face)—that's when you are likely to achieve what you want, and not before. Caring too much about what comes out kills what comes out.

Sometimes, to master the process (as opposed to controlling it), you have to watch yourself, and be a language cop. You may have to change the way you describe your creative process, in order to both describe it more accurately, but also to avoid the pitfalls of expectations. The first pitfall of expectations is the assumption that you know how things will turn out; the second pitfall is assuming you can control the outcome. Both are false assumptions. Give them up!

How does one go about exercising this process, to learn to hear the inner voices, and even take creative dictation?

Most importantly, one learns to quiet the mind. That monkey mind that is always chattering, and dwelling on anything but the present moment: that stream of thoughts that spin and circle without resolution. This is the mind of distraction. I studied many spiritual practices and became a better poet as a result. I found I got a lot from meditation, martial arts (Ki Aikido and Tai Chi, both soft-style arts), and Zen about quieting the mind. I find the "mind of Zen" and the "mind of poetry" to strongly overlap, in my experience, and writing in haiku and haibun forms help me with that, as well. The whole point of this is that it is a practice: you do get better at it over time. It's a discipline that is cumulative, even if only one drop at a time.

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How To Make It Never Happened

Poet Steve Parker asks:

I've got this image building to do with archaeology. I saw a documentary a while back about the excavation of a neolithic site in Southern England. The workers there reassembled thousands of shards of knapped flint back into whole flints, and found holes within them: axe-head shaped holes, obviously. I love the idea that fragments from a site or a moment can be reassembled, and that a hole can be found within, a man shaped hole, perhaps, or a hole in the shape of an emotion, if only those fragments are assembled correctly. Is that what poetry is? The reassembly of a few puzzling fragments to reveal the shape of those holes, and what may have dwelt therein? This story can go anywhere, of course: I enter a room and see various things strewn across the floor. The moment has gone, but what will I find if I reassemble those things? What shape will the hole be at the centre of the assemblage?

We can look to archaelogy for answers to this, but we can also look to physics:

The present moment is the only thing that is constricted to a single possibility, one per universe. In either direction around the single moment, forewards and backwards in time, light-cones of probability spread outwards, expressing possibilities both real and non-real; we glow with particles decaying from probable quantum states into solid fact. Each second, we leave a person-shaped hole in the fabric of spacetime, around which light spits and sparks, a light-cone of choices opening up before us, even if we are apparentally unmoving.

Even if you do nothing, and are a still point of detached non-action in the universe, you have to keep choosing, continuously, to exist or not. This applies to animal choice as well as conscious choice, and when we are possessed by forces from our shadow that make us do things we do not want to do.

Each ray of light a possible outcome, a choice about to be made, that collapses from potential into actual only when we choose. Echoes of choice remain, in the lights that follow us, as memory, as regret, as knowledge of other universes opened up when we made other choices than the ones we now remember having made. The past is as malleable as the future. We can remember it together. We can go back and make it never happened. (The apparently odd syntax is deliberate.) The past only appears fixed because we imagine our presence has left a hole in it, a hole shaped exactly like the choice we made to get we are now, shaped exactly like memory. So, sparking, we interact, kindling little fires; we merge and separate, and leave trails of light in the spark-chamber, like the accelerated particles we are: particles of the mind of God. We see forwards by the light of our own being, the headlights of our choices emerging from our core and illuminating the roads ahead. This road curves and sparks, too, as it converges and diverges from other roads, each road the trail of a life.

Retroactive myth is ritual that clears the emotional bonds that keep us locked in the past; those bonds that keep us believing that we cannot change the past, even though we can always change how we re-experience the past, and interpret it; we can let go of the emotion and just retain the data, for example. This is redaction of the past, or creative mythology, the latter a phrase of Joseph Campbell's, the former a concept from archetypal healing. Campbell made the point several times that not only are we always living in mythic time, we can't get away from it. The moon landings were mythic; so were the losses of lives during the two space shuttle explosions. Movement in time is the same as movement in space, since according to relativity spacetime is one; there are no divisions. So, a staircase to the past leaves a hole in the air, and a man walks backward to the explosion that gave him birth, one second at a time, from the event that threw him forward.

The problem is with our perception: we are culturally educated to perceive time as unidirectional and non-redactable once past; both of these are culturally-bound suppositions, myths if you will, that dictate how we tend to perceive things, yet are not deterministic, and do not hold true on the quantum subatomic level. The rules are different, there in the edges of the universe: the edges, because anything smaller than a certain size—the grain of the universe—can be said to not be in the universe. Down in the quantum foam, there are innumerable wormholes between here and there, foaming up and falling away. Perceiving this, even in translation, gives insight into the past, into action and consequence, and into how the observer's choices do affect reality at some level. We can choose to see what we choose to see. The making of myths is telling the story of ourselves to ourselves.

Why can't the potshards pull themselves back together into the pot? In some version of the universe, it already has. It's not miracle or magic, if it's possible in some quantum state. Although, of course, it is sublimely magical just to be alive. Even if there are holes left in our selves—our memories, our hearts, our souls—that are unhealed, there are salves for the wounds, and bridges around them. The broken ancestral pots still breathe. The universe is porous.

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Lost Maples State Park, Texas

Swarms of patterned sulfur: black orange-eyed petals, immolated on sun-heated high-speed windshield and grille. Blue-black flickers on purple thistle by ponds green and deep in rust-stained white-cliff limestone. Rivers carved incessantly from old seabeds, risen exposed high into calving sun. Caves blink in darkening light, open mouths astonished, exclamatory. Teeth hung from edges of riverine stalactite-stone, vine, aerial moss, soil sinking down, root-bound, rippled, conclave of gathered bindings. Scatter of summer-snow on black stone under spreading maples, tiny leaves bunched in pallid exuberance.

wing and field of wings,
bright black echo of sunhide—
cloud of butterflies

Huge sycamore fans, smooth green-barked tall stands: arboreal greeting of shy acquaintance. Clustered waves, small hands of antique isolated sugar maples from a time before time. No need to seek a horizon: it moves underfoot, bounds up trails and strenuous spectacles, dives naked into greening forest pools, where small mysteries and tall deer-antlered gods watch laughing bathers, sun-turned and intimate, tell secrets to the wind and light and echoing cave-cliffs.

geisha flutters fan,
red thread of summer desire—
dead maple branch

Words these dolomites know as well as any ear-filled tree. Insect hum and cicada shriek in dappled forest naves, white boulders and green lichen interwoven. An antlered prayer, forest-whisper, a disappearing wind-tremor. A thrumming wing, stirring the breeze under these trees, could summon anything, any god, any gate into return. What must be renewed but these amber rivulets, these cyan pools, these blond ledges.

butterflies, dark blue,
flung into cyan skies—
portals of heaven

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Showing vs. Telling: A constant tension

I was scanning Ron Silliman's blog recently, as I sometimes do, and he has a review of a movie by Bhutanese monk and filmmaker Khyentse Norbu, Travellers and Magicians. There's a comment that Silliman makes, down the page, that I think is pertinent to each and every poet, at one time or another:

Balancing the two narrative lines [of the film under review] is difficult enough, but the real challenge for Khyentse Norbu is how to create a film that is deeply & openly spiritual without, by that fact alone, becoming preachy. It’s a distinction that Rachel Blau DuPlessis makes in the title essay of her new book, Blue Studios, between poems that tell you what to think (or that model it, “thinking hard for all of us”) & poems that are themselves demonstrations of thinking as an active, ongoing, indeterminate process (DuPlessis herself is a great example of the latter, as are, say, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian & Barrett Watten).

The key phrase that I want to riff on here is this, I think: the distinction [between poems that tell you what to think (or that model it . . .) & poems that are themselves demonstrations of thinking as an active, ongoing, indeterminate process. Poems that think for you, and poems that model what thinking is actually like (by demonstration), and thus encourage you to think for yourself. Poems that hand you conclusions on a sliver platter, and poems that encourage you to make your own conclusions, as a reader. Poems that preach at you, and poems that pull you in by resonating with your own experience.

Nor is such resonance limited to purely mundane details, moments from daily life that readers might be expected to share with the poet. If we assume that, then all we have left is confessional poetry. All we can write about is our cats, our children, and our sex lives. (Thank you, Robert Lowell and the other so-called confessional poets, for opening wide this door, that eventually leads us to collections of egregious pseudo-poems such as Hal Sirowitz' "My Therapist Said.")

If resonance goes beyond the mundane, which I think it does, it can also include poems that embody deep spiritual, philosophical, and even religious truths (as opposed to truisms), such as what might be the key phrase of dialogue in Khyentse Norbu's film: "the Buddha says hope causes suffering." The film demonstrates this truth not by baldly stating it as a truism, but by demonstrating it again and again through narrative action, fable, and thoughtful character moments. One of my all-time favorite films, which achieves a high level of non-narrative, non-dialogic resonance, is Ron Fricke's "Baraka." (Fricke was also the cinematographer for Godfrey Reggio's trilogy of films beginning with "Koyaanisqatsi.")

If film can do this, so can poetry. Perhaps we can develop a style of what we might call cinematic poetry, which presents imagery without (surface) explanation, in sequential presentation out of which meaning arises organically. This is in fact something I've been wroking at for some years now, with occasionally successful individual poems, although my attempts often get dismissed a priori as experimental or avant-garde: superficial dismissals usually based on misreadings. (Of course, lots of poets make that same claim, including poets working in poetic movements and -isms that I disdain. So, let's be clear on the distinction between superficial opinion and critique based on close reading.)

This gets at the very root of a common problem with many contemporary poems, in that they tell you what's going on, rather than showing you. The distinction is often expressed, in criticism, as abstract/philosophical vs. concrete/imagistic. The problem is that telling the reader what's going on is perilously close to telling the reader what to think, and what to conclude (the chief reason why most political poetry is preachy rather than engaging).

Without making any value judgments about which route is superior as a style of "pure" poetry, if there is such a thing, which I doubt, I will nevertheless make a personal (philosophical? moral? ethical?) judgment about which is more fun for me to read, and about which I strive to write: namely, the showing rather than the telling poem. I prefer poetry that engages not only the mind but also the body: the gut emotions, the somatic sense of kinesthetic prioperception, poems that pull the reader inside the experience of the poem (rather than simply describing that experience to you, or telling you what it was). Poems that are experiential rather than reportorial.  Poems of the manifest world, rather than poems that exist only in the mind, or only on the page. Poems that can be simply a presentation of images and events, out of which meaning arises on its own, without pedantic aide. Poetry that depicts, even interprets, the world, without over-explaining it.

If it seems as though I keep returning to this topic (embodiment rather than disembodiment) in various essays it's because I think it's so very very important, and because it's no very very inevident in much of contemporary poetry. I see very little showing, and a lot more raw telling, in contemporary poetry, especially in poetry that attempts to divorce thought from soma. I think it's a problem on the level of getting fish to see that they're breathing water: overlooked because inherent; unseen because, duh, taken for normal.

I admit to being drawn to haiku and its related forms in part because the classical Japanese tradition emphasizes concreteness and imagery over overt philosophical statement: letting the meaning arise from the images and the described moment, rather than telling the reader what the meaning is, explicitly and directly. There is a certain obliqueness and indirectness to this approach, relative to much other poetic literature, that I appreciate: even while the poem itself is direct, concrete, and physical, it contains layers and depths of resonant meaning. In haiku much of that is generated by allusion rather than metaphor, which is possible within a shared literary tradition, if most readers have read the same sets of classic texts—the advantage of a shared tradition.

It's possible, I believe, although I'm not always sure what it would look like, to have a poetry of embodiment out of which also arises engagement, empathy, and shared experience, and even spritual and philosophical truth (again, demonstrated by example, rather than simply restating a truism). I suspect this was the original appeal of much Zen-inspired Beat poetry, no matter how quickly the original impulse devolved into mannerism and imitated trope (which is very much how I view many post-Beat poets of lesser gifts, not excluding McClure). Of that group, I tend to view Gary Snyder as having had the longest string of successful examples of embodied philosophy in his poems. I confess to a possible bias, here, as my own concerns and experience and interests are closer to Snyder's than to many others of that group. (Though, as a gay poet/artist myself, I have always found fellow-feeling in much of Ginsberg's explicitly homoerotic poems, even though much of them are of overall lesser purely artistic merit than his more broadly-ranging poems.)

Cinema is narrative and non-narrative, of course, sometimes simultaneously. I think poetry can be, too. So, it's nice to encounter artistic products, be they film or poem, that seem to move in this direction, of embodied philosophy, enacted truth, demonstrated-by-example thinking, rather than telling and preaching and pedantry. Such examples of what is possible, along these lines, are always appreciated.


I think great artworks have a lot more in common with other great artworks, even across superficially disparate genres, than they do with, say, lesser artworks in their same genre. A great narrative poem leaves the reader feeling hungry for more, just as does a great narrative film.

I do think we're verging, here, on that terrain where words fail, and other, non-verbal artforms, really do have an advantage over pure poetry. I'd hardly call dance more abstract than poetry, because dance is kinesthetic, whereas poetry can be all in the mind. I'm using the word "abstract" to refer to disembodiment, I realize, but that's intentional, because that usage of "abstract" arises from the history of Western philosophy, religious thought, including theology, and, therfore, its parallel usage in Western art criticism. If that wasn't explicit before, let it be so now.

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