Sunday, December 31, 2006

Meditations On Listening

Sonny Sharrock & Nicky Skopelitis: Faith Moves (CMP)
Material: Hallucination Engine (Axiom)
Bill Laswell: Hear No Evil (Virgin)
John Coltrane (with Eric Dolphy): Africa/Brass (Impulse)
John Coltrane (with Pharoah Sanders): Meditations (Impulse) and Ascension (Impulse)
Hedningarna: Hippjokk and Tra (NorthSound)
Robert Fripp & David Sylvian: The First Day (Virgin)
Jan Garbarek: Legend of the Seven Dreams and Dis

Sometimes I think about what people hear, when listening to music like this. Some of this list is ecstatic music, a lot of it pretty out on the fringe (to some ways of thinking), and some of it is soulful. Or all of the above. I know what I hear: music that excites me, that gets both my blood and mind going full-throttle. It's loud, it's aggerssive, it's jazz, it's fusion, it's progressive, it's rock, it's unclassifiable, it's music. It's harmonically advanced, modal, and sometimes atonal and jagged-edged.

When we listen: Do we listen primarily to technique? Do we listen first for guts and soul and inspiration? How does how we listen affect our experience and our expectations. Some of it is mindset. Some approach music very cerebrally (headspace), and when listening to prog rock (for example) are counting changing meters, etc., as though music were a mathematical system first and foremost. Some others approach music from a more holistic heartspace, which is a different way of listening, not a better one. And some listen from a space that integrates intellect with heart; this is, in my opinion, the best, most complete way to listen. All of the above. Both/and.

Aural experience is immersive. Listening (unless one is hearing impaired) is a multi-dimensional binaural experience. You don't just hear music; you bathe in its vibrations, which strike your entire corporeal existence, your body, not just your ears. You listen with your lungs and your body, not just your ears. Sound is a medium were bathed in, enveloped in, surrounded by. We are in an atmosphere that is constantly in motion, in vibration, and some of those vibrations we perceive as sound.

The list of albums above, for me, approaches a "top ten desert island" list of listening. This reveals something about my tastes in listening, of course, but it also says something about my approach to music. Left off of this too-brief list, of course, are Gamelan and Bach and Debussy and Reich and Eno and shakuhachi honkyoku and many others that I listen to constantly. Looking at my iTunes playlists, all these are there, and more. I think Sting writes perfect little pop tunes better than most. Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn and Lynn Miles and Carol Noonan I revere as poets as well as largely-unsung guitar stylists. There are a lot of Bill Laswell projects on my lists, and John Cage, and The Art of Noise. There is at least as much avant-garde classical on my list as there is progressive rock or free jazz.

This marks me, perhaps, as a pathfinder rather than a hearthkeeper. I am drawn to experimentation, music that takes risks to achieve the possibility of ekstasis. I don't seek to preserve a tradition against dissolution, to turn it into frozen stone and stick it in a museum; as much as I respect many traditions, and have studed several, I tend to seek out New Traditions hybrids. I tend to see cultural change rather than cultural loss, evolution rather than dissolution. My tendency is progressive rather than regressive (which is a key reason I find Wynton Marsalis' regressive ideas and attitudes about jazz problematic and even dangerous at times).

So, when I listen to Hedningarna's Tra or Hippjokk, I hear the threads of traditional and new music that tie together into a new genre and new kind of music. I hear the traditional instruments of Sweden/Finnish folk music being used in new ways, in a punk-rock type setting at times. Hippjokk also features Wimme, a traditional Sami (Laplander) joik singer—joikking is shamanic singing that both describes and evokes the spirits of the living world—and things like Swedish keyed fiddles and hurdy-gurdys run through effects processors and distortion boxes.

I know someone who listens to Hedningarna primarily for the traditional aspects of the music—not the whole melange, but the older bits. Another friend that I have gone to see Hedningarna live with thinks of them as a trad-techno dance band and pogos all through the show. Wimme, on his own CDs and in live concerts, sings joik backed up by a small techno band that includes programmed drumbeats, synthesizer, and bass clarinet.

When even some jazz musicians listen to Coltrane's Ascension—I have had arguments over this with other jazz musicians—they hear cacophany, a lack of order, total chaos, an orchestra tuning up. I hear a Southern Baptist tent revival meeting combined with Indian raga melodies. I hear heterophony (simultaneous variation on a theme) rather than Western classical counterpoint (which is what those who argue against Coltrane, are arguing for), akin to the heterophony common to African and Indonesian traditional musics. I hear a higher level of order emerging from the apparent chaos, exactly as in nonlinear dynamic turbulent flows described by fractals and chaos theory, with higher-order stable states, transitional turbulence, and 2:1 stable energy flows.

I know that some musicians I know, when listening to The First Day focus on the technical chops of the players. I usually find myself focusing on the music they create. Things like meter, key signature, pattern, loop, motors, are all important parts of that mix; but I don't tend focus on them cerebrally, but viscerally. Years of martial arts training and percussion studies (especially "ethnic" percussion such as gamelan and frame drums) have gotten me to the point where I can tap out a meter by listening to it without having to actually count it out. 5/4, 7/4, and all the various 12/4 cycles are so familiar that I don't even think about them.

A humorous moment: A friend of mine is convinced that "You can't dance to 5/4!" I disputed him, and without telling him what I was doing, put on a track by October Project, and told him to dance to it. He found it effortless to dance to, even pleasurable—until I pointed it out that it was in 5/4. Then he seized up and got all flustered. My point is that it's all in your mind.

I think often that the ideas that we have about our ideas limit us. If you think that something is going to be hard to do, it probably will be. If you assume it to be effortless, and relax, it can in fact become effortless. What we believe about what we perceive affects what we perceive. As Richard Bach wrote in Illusions: Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours.

Our ideas about reality create limits. It is not that the Universe is chaotic by nature, it is rather that we cannot perceive all scales of order that emerge from chaos. (Fractal geometry is the first Western philosophical conception
that allows for this.) J.B. Haldane said once, The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine. The more open your being is to new possibilities, new patterns, the more likely you are to be able to perceive them, and bring them to the ears and minds of others.

This is what Coltrane's search was all about, and it was ultimately a spiritual search: a spiritual evolution expressed through a musical evolution. The music was his voice. It is no wonder, therefore, that he eventually had to "break out" of standard jazz forms, harmonic stereotypes, tonal melody, and musical structures. His later recordings such as Ascension and Meditations push this far beyond the explorations of even his own earlier music, such as A Love Supreme and Africa/Brass.

Bach was writing in essentially a dead, archaic style of music that had already been passed over by most of his contemporaries. He was considered to be very old-fashioned during his lifetime. But he had the duende—that elusive "dark sound" talked about in Spanish gypsy poetry and flamenco music. The soul of flamenco is duende: not the flash dances, but the deep song (cante jondo) wrung from the depths of the soul. Astor Piazzolla also had the duende. In my opinion, Steve Reich sometimes has the duende, but Philip Glass does not, or only rarely. Sonny Sharrock definitely had the duende, and so does Hedningarna. Their album Tra (Wood) is awesome. David Sylvian occasionally summons the duende, but he keeps short-circuiting it because of ego.

Two different translations of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca's seminal essay on the duende can be found online here and here.

So, my list of albums is not only a list of musical progressives, or of musical ecstatics, it is also a list of "deep song," music with spiritual, emotional, and visceral, gutsy depths; not only mental depths, deep song contains both the eros/ekstasis of life and the risk of death. I don't find much progressive rock such as Dream Theater very interesting, frankly, because I often feel like the music is all cerebral counting-games. By contrast, I feel that most of Robert Fripp's projects, from King Crimson to his solo soundscapes and ambient work with Biran Eno, show spiritual depths as well as mental depths. This is why I go on and on sometimes about musicality over technical chops: if it doesn't move me in my guts, if it doesn't grip me spiritually, if it doesn't make my blood beat, it just can't sustain my interest very long. I don't find and have never found Rush to be interesting; I do find Primus to be interesting. Henryk Gorecki has the duende; so does Gyorgy Ligeti (which is one reason Stanley Kubrick kept using Ligeti's music in his films).

So, how we think about things really does color how we perceive things. As Haldane implied, if we can't conceive of something, it doesn't exist in our perception. Perhaps someone else will discover it, and bring it into our perceptual reality—I think Coltrane and Cage are both loved and derided for doing exactly that.

Sometimes, all it takes is a small change in mental perspective to realize that all we needed to do to fix a situation is a very small, almost meaningless shift. In cognitive psychology, this is sometimes called reframing.

I will never be the most technically adept of Stick players. I find rather that I tend to have an approach to Stick, and music in general, that is resonant with the ideas I've expressed above. I tend to emphasize musicality and depth rather than flash. In situations where I have taught Stick, photography, music composition, poetry writing, and Photoshop, I like to pull forward the gifts that make each student unique—their unique constellation of talents, if you will—and get them to see their individuality and personal style. Perhaps this is more like coaching than music theory class: the trick is get the student to see their own strengths, then undershore their self-confidence till they can stand on their own. The last thing I would ever want to be is a guru with a bunch of disciples; I much prefer to kick fledgling eagles out of the nest so they learn to fly on their own. As for Stick playing itself, I think I can hold my own musically; there are technical tricks others can do way better than I, and I think I can play well enough to express what I hear in my heart. I'm always getting better, though, which is just the gift of experience and practice. The day you think you know it all, is the day you're dead.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Intrigue of Poem Titles

In browsing through lists of poem titles, in anthologies, in collections, in journals, and in some of the online critique forums, I see a lot of bland and boring titles: poem titles that all too often seem to be clichés in themselves, or generic, or that telegraph what the poem is about (already telling rather than showing), that are summations of the poem as if the moral of the story were given before the fable itself.

There are a lot of complaints about the mediocre quality of published poetry these days. I think many of those complaints are justified, although I also note that few of the complainers have any pragmatic suggestions towards effectively remedying the situation. Nevertheless, the complaint about quality can be extended to include mediocre poem titles. Even otherwise great poems can have mediocre titles, or generic titles.

(Note: I am, perhaps arbitrarily, excluding from this discussion those poems labelled "Untitled," even though I could make a strong argument that an untitled poem (excluding those anonymous fragments and epics from the ancient past) is more often (in modern times) the sign of an uninspired poet than it is of a poem so strong that it needs no title. Many poems in certain forms, on the other hand, are conventionally not titled, such as haiku and sonnets; and so I will exclude that practice from this discussion, as well.)

Why not make a poem's title as exciting, as intriguing, as self-contained, as vibrant, as the poem is itself? Why settle for less? Why settle for something generic? Why settle for something bland? Frankly, to settle for something less seems lazy, or worse, a cop-out. What, you worked so hard on the poem itself, that your poor brain cells are fried and you can't come up with anything else? That's a feeble excuse. The solution is to come back later, when you're fresh again, and find a good title. Finding a good title is part of the process of writing the poem; it's more than just the stamp you put on the envelope, it's an integral part of the letter. Treat it is as part of the writing process, and don't treat it as an afterthought—as apparently so many writers do. Furthermore, laziness in one area of the writing life is probably indicative of a more general laziness: laziness in coming up with a good, fresh title is purely laziness in writing; and if you're going to be lazy about writing your titles, you're probably going to be lazy about writing your poems, too. Hence the decline in quality, overall.

Now, let's talk about writing more eye-catching titles.

With the exception of poems you read because you already know and like the poet's other work, in which case the title is part of the overall experience of reading a new poem by a familar author, here's the truth about titles:

The title is almost always the first thing any reader sees about the poem. The title is what catches our attention. The title is what pulls the reader into the poem. The title is what inrigues us enough to want to read the poem. To put it in terms as absolutely crass, mercenary, and cynical as I am able: A good title is good advertising. This is typically true for any poem by a poet who you haven't read before. (Again, in the case of reading a poem by an author whose name you already recognize, it's the name that brings you in as much as the title.)

I've written eariler here about how poem titles can change meaning after the poem is read; about layered, resonant meanings in both poem and its title; and about titles that emerge organically from within the poem.

So, the title needs to entice while at the same time reflecting on the poem's contents. A good title needs to be a pleasure to read, even before you've gotten to the poem. Maybe a good title is one that pulls you into the poem but doesn't telegraph the meaning, or tell you too much about the poem. Maybe there needs to be in a good title a little mystery, a little surprise, a view of the poem's subject from a slightly oblique angle.

I like titles that are a little mysterious, a little oblique. I like titles whose meaning has changed after you've read the poem. I'm not advocating puzzle-play or word-play, and I despise playing mind-games with the reader simply to prove one's mental superiority (this is the last refuge of the insecure). But I think a title that gains resonance after the poem has been read through is a good thing.

I also like titles whose meaning you can't figure out till after you're read the poem: titles that themselves seem to be a miniature poem. I can recall some intriguing titles that seemed themselves to be ahiku-like, intense focused and concentrated, and then, when re-read after reading the poem, suddenly made sense on new, even deeper levels. This is one way in which a poem achieves musicality: rhythm, repetition, resonance, harmonic counterpoint. A good title can make or break a poem's musicality.

Sometimes coming up with a good, unique, compelling title, can be the hardest part of the whole project. I grant that. But again, I think it's necessary to do the real work of writing: which includes doing the real work of writing a good title for your poem.

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Faith & Anti-Faith: Noble Enemies

When I was working as a typesetter in the mid-1980s in Madison, WI, I was the regular typesetter for the monthly newsletter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, headquartered in Madison. The monthly newsletter was mostly news articles, originals and reprints, the occasional opinion or op-ed piece, and legal updates on the cases the Foundation was undertaking via their legal defense fund: many cases about the constitutional separation of church and state, many of which overlapped with ACLU cases of a similar nature. Typesetting the monthly newsletter was always a treat for me, and often made me laugh out loud.

The FFRF was co-founded and is still co-led by Dan Barker, and the core group is the Barker extended family. It is a non-profit dedicated to freethinking, agnostic, and atheist principles and activism. The name of the foundation states their purpose rather clearly.

Now, let me just be clear about my position here: Although I am not a politcal animal, and rarely engage in political debate, I am often intrigued by the psychology behind religion. I support the basic concepts behind a lot of the FFRF's legal cases, as I strongly support the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. I think the religious right in the USA, nowadays, is quite out of control, aided and abetted by the current trend of neo-conservatism (which is a serious misnomer—but I digress), and I support the FFRF's stated goal to prevent the USA from becoming a de facto theocracy.

Also, just to be clear: I am not an atheist, I am not an agnostic, and I am not a practicing member of any established, institutionalized religion. While I agree with the basic concepts behind the FFRF, I don't agree with all of their means and tactics.

Here's why:

Dan Barker, along with others in his family, had been a born-again hellfire and brimstone preacher prior to his embracing atheism. Apparentally it was a quasi-religious anti-religious conversion experience for him. I find that deeply ironic. What was most interesting and fun for me about reading through the FFRF newsletter was that the rhetoric was still very apocalyptic—but now the cause was atheism rather than born-again Christianity. The Cause was still the Cause, only the subject itself had changed. It was like looking at a mirror-image of a religious fundamentalist.

Frankly, it seemed to me that the only difference between Dan Barker the tent revival born-again fundamentalist preacher, and Dan Barker the crusading atheist, was the subject matter. The man had apparently exchanged one belief-structure for another, but his personality and rhetorical style had altered not a whit.

So, if Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung were right about religion being the opiate of the masses, how is this not a clearcut case of one opiate being substituted for another? How is this not a clear case of one addiction being subsituted for another. In a very parallel dynamic, most twelve-step groups substitute an addiction to a quasi-religious system for an addiction to a chemical substance; no matter what language they use, most twwelve-step groups are based on religious belief-systems. Barker now spends 100 percent of his time fighting for atheist causes. But the rhetoric still has exactly the same tone, the same sense that "anyone who believes differently than me is an idiot." The Cause is still the Cause.

The problem with most atheist rhetoric, which is pointed out clearly by the example of the FFRF, is that it is "noble friend" or "best enemies" rhetoric: it actually reinforces the arguments of those with blind faith, because it attempts to make a negative proof based on the same beliefs and ideas as those of its opponents. Most atheistic rhetoric is denial rhetoric, attempting only to contradict and disprove its opposing rhetoric. It doesn't engage, typically, even with the agnostic idea that there might be some mysteries we don't and can't understand. At heart, most hardcore atheists are dismissive of agnosticism, even as they ally themselves with agnostics for political purposes.

Personally, I have never seen much psychological difference between atheists and fundamentalists. The mindsets are often nearly identical. Both seem to me to be identically emotionally and mentally committed to their positions. At their worst, they both maintain rigid stances with zero flexibility, and no one really convinces anybody of anything, because everyone is too busy shouting out their own positions at deafening volume. Truly civil discourse and dialogue are pretty much nonexistent.

Madelyn Murray O'Hair, the original crusading atheist, whom I met when she once visited my elementary school in Ann Arbor, struck me as being an authentic fanatic; she had given up everything for her cause, and devoted her total existence to that cause. Her work was an irrational pursuit of an extreme form of rationalism. The Cause was was the Cause. The delicious irony of this logical contradiction struck me even at age 9 or 10.

Eric Hoffer made the point brilliantly in his short, essential book The True Believer, that one may be a fanatic regardless of what one purports to believe, that fanatics of all faiths and causes have remarkably similar psychological and emotional states of being. Hoffer defines a “true believer” as “the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause.” The cause is irrelevant: it could be anything. What matters is that the strongly-held belief-system be held up as the answer to all of life's problems, with the corollary that those who disagree with you are wrong, and need to be convinced of the rightness of your beliefs over all others.

But this is still a binary polarity: two sides of a coin; two polarized positions that appear to be in contradiction, but in fact whose underlying assumptions about the true nature of reality are deeply shared. Noble enemies are those enemies whose resistance is fuel for clarifying one's own position. Best enemies are those antagonists that you can't do without; fighting them helps you keep your edge; without them, you flail around with no true purpose or goal in life.

In the ongoing argument between true believers and scientific atheists who view all religious ideas as delusions, it strikes me that much of the scientific-atheistic rhetoric is the rhetoric of fanaticism and the noble friend.

Matthew Fox, among others who include such notable scientists as Rupert Sheldrake, describes "scientific rationalism" as a quasi-religious belief system that has many of the functional earmarks of a religion, including: received dogma that may not be questioned; an aura of reverential Mystery around the pursuit of knowledge (which in this case means lab-coated researchers rather than frocked theologians); the worship of saints, many of whom were theoreticians and technologists (Darwin, Einstein, Edison, etc.); the de facto attitude that its own internal belief-system is right while everyone else is wrong; and so forth. What we are left with is an irrational pursuit of rationalism—another "noble friend" rhetorical trope that I find highly ironic.

The biggest mistake that scientific rationalism makes is to place itself in the position of being the One True Faith—which seems exactly parallel to what happens when a born-again Christian becomes a born-again atheist and continues to fulminate his views as the Only Truth—and it is in these circumstances that atheism itself seems most similar to a religious creed itself. Functionally, in terms of psychology, atheism is a religion.

It often seems to me, in these continuous arguments between polarized camps, that the only people who still keep open minds any more, who give third or fourth options, who think in genuinely different directions, who are willing to wait and see, and who are comfortable with uncertainty and mystery, are agnostics and mystics.

Agnostics are unsure of the answers, and unwilling to be placed into fixed belief-systems full of received dogma and imposed doctrine. Agnostics tend to want to look at the evidence, and decide for themselves. As Graham Chapman once said at the conclusion of one of my favorite Monty Python skits, "I've always said there isn't anything an agnostic can't do if he really isn't sure if he believes in anything or not." As the line from Richard Marx' song The Prayer goes, "Isn't faith believing that all powers can't be seen?" So, agnostics are seekers, but not true believers. They are willing to believe, but not willing to believe blindly. I've met a number of declared agnostics who are skeptical seekers, who respect the faiths of others while at the same time are uncomfortable with proselytization and missionary zeal, and who generally prefer to find personal answers rather than institutionalized ones.

Mystics are those who seek out, and experience, direct contact with spiritual realities that transcend yet infuse everyday life. Mystics, like agnostics, want to look at the evidence of their experiences, and decide for themselves. Mystics tend to explode all dogmas, and their belief systems tend to be based primarily on their personal experience, and very much not on received wisdom. This is why most mystics are routinely condemned as heretics in most of the world's organized religions. Mystics are chimera, not sheep. They take strange, unknown shapes, and report back visions of the divine as they experienced them, sans interpretation. Mystics are spiritual reporters, and spiritual technologists. They might seem otherworldly, but in fact they tend to be deeply pragmatic.

Mysticism tends to envelop and overarch binary-polarized arguments about faith and anti-faith. Mysticism is not "either/or" but instead is "both/and." Mystics are comfortable with paradox—the very paradoxes of opposition that drive the atheists against the religious. A paradox, rather than being resolved, can be maintained in dynamic tension: the same sort of dynamic tensions that the universe seems to be built on, for example, whether light is wave or particle or both.

As Hoffer says, the need to believe in something can supercede the rational assessment of what the belief is. It can make us be irrational about rationality. Rationality needs to be reasonable, rather than extreme. That seems so obvious, yet it is so rarely encountered.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Infinite Gratitudes 2006

For all those events, people, and experiences in this life and all others, that have helped me to grow and change and evolve, I give gratitude. Where I am is what I am.

For all of you, your infinite variety, your innate and beautiful diversity, and all that you have taught me, whether joyous or saddening, I give infinite gratitude.

For everything you have ever given me, will give me, or have never and never will give me, I return infinite gratitude. There is no loss, no absence, and nothing missing. Nothing is ever lost.

For everything that challenges me to grow, release, clear, and Just Get Over It, I give endless thanks. For those moments that offer me endless opportunities to clear and release judgments, hatred, and close-mindedness, I give deep and infinite gratitude. For those reflections in the mirrors of xenophobia and self-delusion, I return peace and light. For those victimologies and woundologies projected outwards onto the mirror of the world, I reflect only clear light. The moon reflecting in still water.

For everything that bleeds, infinite peace.

For everyone whose heart has not yet fully opened, because of fear, misunderstanding, hate, or desperation, infinite layers of white light. For every closed mind and closed heart I have ever encountered, infinite layers of the highest form in the Universe of the bright blue light of compassionate lovingkindess.

For every soul whose sacred contracts have not yet been fulfilled, infinite time and infinite patience. From this life, to the next. We journey together. For every kindred soul, born again and again, till we get it right, thanks for playing the Game. You are all expert players, and you all, always, win in the end. We go forward together. For every player of the Game, there are no wrong choices, and we all return to Union, in the end. Not one soul shall be lost. For every bond of karma not yet formed and for every bond already released, infinite learning, infinite grace, infinite love. The Buddha and the Cosmic Christ are not-two.

For every aid and comfort, infinite gratitude. For every act of tough love, infinite gratitude. For every moment of utter goofy hilarity—that laughter which brings us into the Universe of Essences—infinite gratitude. For every mutual shedding of tears, whether from suffering or from laughter, infinite gratitude.

For every pointless moment of ecstasy or despair, infinite gratitude. For every curse and vow and damning, infinite compassion. For every unnecessary lover, infinite transcendence. For every senseless act of beauty, infinite gratitude. For every meaningless suffering caused by lack, infinite abundance. For every random act of kindness, infinite awareness of the larger pattern. For every absurd and illicit and senseless desire, infinite fulfillment. We create our own realities, and so does everyone else.

For every word and world of blessing and hope, infinite gratitude. For every word and world of hurt, infinite gratitude. For every bridge between words and worlds, infinite gratitude. The Way is Light, and Love, and Truth, even when the Way is Dark, and Pain, and Obscure. Guidance comes from inside and from outside, there is no separation. The natural world is the supernatural world.

May we all receive blessings of perfect protection, grace and ease, and Light for the highest good for all concerned!

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Dreams of Poems

I'm in Chicago for an evening and morning. After the annual recording-studio party, sleeping on the floor, wrapped in warm blankets:

Most of my dreams last night were about poetry: I am sitting in a public place, an educational park, filled with various activities, when a tall handsome man wearing a business suit (in my dream it is actor Tony Todd) comes in and wants to know about poetry; eventually, I come down off my perch and tell him I can teach him, after most everyone else there sort of stumbles or says nothing; most of what I do is correcting his cerebral ideas, when he thinks he’s understood what poetry is; at one point there’s a poster on the wall of three haiku, which he takes down to look at, copy into his notebook, and analyze, and I go over and say, No, that isn’t poetry: poetry is when something you read recreates a poetic experience inside you; you’re still thinking that poetry is all of the mind; you haven’t been moved yet, you haven’t been possessed or captured by a poem. He looks at me, sincerely wanting to learn, but going about it the wrong way; this pattern repeats several times, until sometime later, he finally stumbles across a poem that gets to him, and his stands there silent, unable to speak.

The dreamscape moves on, as dreams do, but all my dreams over the night are still all about poetry, in one way or another. In the dream, there were several poems, some of mine, some others just there, including those haiku on that poster; I can’t remember any of the poems upon waking, sorry; most were nothing special. In later sequences, there are poetry readings in front of an audience; memorized poems performed; there are discussions around poetry, between poets. My mind churns this morning with lots of poetry, little fragments given in dreams, none of them adding up to a genuine poem. What have I memorized, that I would be able to recite? A few of my own shorter poems; a few other poems; a few classics. In the dream, I do recite, stumbling a little, my poem after elegies.

Maybe I'm an exception, but I get creative inspiration from dreams on a regular basis. Lucid dreams are normal for me. So are dreams in which I can jump into the sky, as though able to control gravity's effects on me. So are flying dreams. So are visionary dreams that are like direct communications from the unconscious; in the Jungian sense, archetypal and numinous. I mine my dreams, as my subconscious talks to me using them as a conduit: hailing frequencies open, captain.

People tell me they never remember their dreams. I find that amazing; I can't imagine living like that. Sleep research has proved, over the years, that everybody dreams, even if not everyone remembers them upon waking. You can learn to improve your memories of your dreams: you have to fix them in your mind, immediately upon waking, and transfer them from short-term memory to durable memory.

There's a very simple way to remember dreams: keep a dream journal right by the bed, to immediately write down upon awaking whatever you had in the dream. Anyone can do this, with practice. I've been writing down my dreams for over 25 years, and gotten a lot of poems out of them, as well as other things. The trick is to do it before you do anything else to start your day, before you settle into your waking-up routine; else the full cognitive me-ego-forebrain-usual-monkey-mind kicks in for the day, and the dreams evaporate. With regular practice, anyone can develop the ability to retain more from your dreams than the "experts" say you should be able to. In fact, one can retain whole segments and materials of things that arise in dreams: whole stories, whole poems, pieces of music, visual dreamscapes.

Here's an image I captured from a dream some time ago, after having an intense dream of traveling along a country highway, a long road journey under a blue evening sky, with several moons in the sky, in different phases. In the dream, the sky opened like a ragged window onto different times and places, many views of the same moon at different times, or perhaps different moons from different worlds. Immediately upon waking, I booted up Photoshop and assembled this:

In my dreams, at various times, I've been given: full solo cello sonatas; full poem texts; haiku; visions; prescient dreams (never anything unmundane, just little moments); piano pieces; ideas for artworks; the complete outline of an SF novel that I still hope to actually write someday (it's been sketched and sections written); about once or twice a year, I wake out of vivid dreams with a fully-formed essay in my head, and I quickly must write it down (some of these are the Spiral Dance essays). The hardest dreams to get down have been the musical compositions, although my ear and memory for music are otherwise excellent.

I can hear someone protesting now: Surely you don't think all things in dreams are valuable, since it's just the nightly clearing of the mental junkbox!

Well, now. While it's certainly true that some dreams are recycling the day's events, to clear out the psychological clutter, to dismiss all dreams as such is the height of the intellect's arrogance.

I think everything in a dream is as valuable as everything in so-called waking life. I dismiss none of it. It's all valuable, and it's all useless. It depends on what you do with it, doesn't it?

The theory that dreams are the nightly clearing of the junkbox is only partly true; it's a convenient excuse for the rational, waking mind to maintain its belief that it's all there is to the mind, that everything is just in the mind, while the truth is that we are all much bigger and wilder than we know, or in some cases desire to know. Dreams are a whole lot more than the nightly recycling of the day's inputs. They're also the unconscious talking to us. There are many things that arise in dreams that have no apparent connection to daily events, waking events, and so forth. When those dreams arise, they can be liminal and numinous; I think these occasional dreams are even more valuable (or valueless) than the ordinary, trash dream. They're also the shadow (in the Jungian sense) rising to speak. They're also the archetypes, the gods, the powers that be—pick a label—talking to us directly. They're also ourselves conversing with ourselves, higher self with lower self, subpersonality with subpersonality. Anyone who thinks that dreams are only clearing the junkbox is missing a whole world of experience and self-revelation.

Clutter and trash? Surely. Beauty and revelation? Absolutely. Terror and horror and lust? Definitely?

There is a rich shamanic literature about dreaming. In many ways it's much wiser on the topic than the rational-scientific literature, which seems to want to kill all mystery, everywhere, whenever encountered. Not always the best approach. (Jung noted that experimental psychology per se will never tell us anything meaningful about the psyche.)

I recall the many dream poems in poet/editor Jerome Rothenberg's big anthologies of aboriginal literatures, Shaking the Pumpkin and Technicians of the Sacred. There's a lot of good inspiration in these seminal anthologies, which I first read while i was in music school; what I was reading in those days was also influencing the music I was writing then.

I've been re-reading Robert Bly's long essay-with-poems, Leaping Poetry, in which Bly describes his idea of leaping poetry a few different ways. One of these is leaps of association. Another is when a poem leaps from the conscious mind, into the unconscious mind, then leaps back. This is one useful way to think about some of the dream-poems, or dreaming about poems: as leaps between the dreaming self and the waking self.

In this context I think also of Ron Silliman's delineation of most modern and postmodern poetry falling into two camps, which he labels "School of Quietude" and "post-avant." SoQ is basically, as near as I can tell, the post-Wordsworthian stream of the personal lyric poem: never too overwrought, "emotion recollected in tranquility" and all that, always a little bit formal. "Post-avant" is the post-avant-garde, into which Silliman groups most post-Modern experimental poetry, including his own primary camp of Language Poetry. I think he's correct about the SoQ tending to be more conservative, and the post-avant tending to be more wild and experimental. I disagree however that the post-avant is inherently more progressive, and I find much post-avant poetry to be very shallow: playful, even interesting, but doesn't stick to the ribs.

Bly's category of leaping poetry is a third stream, and needs to be acknowledged as such: the tradition(s) of dream-poetry, shaman-poetry, dream-psyche-anima-symbolic poetry, as presented in Bly's anthology News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, as well as the two Rothenberg anthologies previously mentioned. Bly's leaping poetry, and the other poets who practice this sort of thing, are a third stream in contemporary poetry, and an often overlooked and ignored stream. I feel that many of the South American poets, notably Neruda and Paz, fall into this camp, as do the Spanish Surrealists, and Machado, Lorca, et al.

This is the stream of the dreaming poets, of the poets whose poems come from dreams, or deal with dreams, or who use dreams as spiritual technology, as have shamans and visionaries throughout the ages.

I place my own poetry in this stream, if it is necessary to categorize my poetry. I do not feel at home in either Silliman's School of Quietude or his post-avant categories, both of which I feel are over-inhabited with overly-rational poets whose discourse ignores vast realms of psyche and symbol. I feel much more akin to the shamanic poets I read in Rothenberg's anthologies, and Bly's Leaping Poetry, in the creative writings of analytical psychology, and in the Buddhist, Taoist, and animist poets of East and Southeast Asia.

The final word belongs to a poet pondering about dreams: Maybe poetry isn't an attempt to make sense of our dreams. Maybe it's an attempt to make dreams of our senses.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Winter Diptych

And so you crave something deeper,
richer: salmon, fresh pulled from the sea,
flopping on the slick deck in hard grey light,
the mountains of the islands around you
crested white and fog-wrapped, rising
sudden and close out of the black waves,
the shocked fish blood-red and gasping.

And something more real: to be held,
just for a minute, in falling snow, wrapped
and scarved against the inevitable;
something an old man says in the lamplight,
about endings, and the loss of things.
Brown wool beckons the coughing-cloth.

And something richer, deeper: blue lanterns
of lighthouse cedars, bent beneath hard wind
and horizontal snowfall, till the ice infects
your eyes, and you lose your arms and feet,
but for phantom tingles, memories of limbs
lost like gray cedar logs the tide threw up
onto the beaches, scaled, worn, drummed.

And the rising, the craving, the urge under
hollow cave-trees large enough to hostel
beasts, sought rain-shelter and dripping:
and so you let it fall away, from the last,
to you, your stray hand, cold lips pursed;
and sink; and stand, to get up, walk home,

content to be solitary: and embraced.

Descending lines of violins repeat phrases,
chords, and gestures akin to whirling snow;
a bell rings across an empty white field.

Remember that old summery strawberry patch,
now just a hump under banks of drift and slop,
a lost basket torn shelter for huddled mice.

Even the crows are silent as the trees satchel
and pack storms around their eaves; out of closed
lacquer beaks, not even a trill of recognition.

Cold steel-blue ramparts of rising mist make
fog-angels in the blank field beside the road;
till wind shakes loose a plopping full tree branch.

A lone flute echoes from cedar caves,
the hollowed hills, brisk whips of moss,
following vanished tracks towards silence.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 9: Mental Illness & Poetry

First, let me be clear that, while I am sympathetic to the subject of people with mental illnesses writing poetry as an effective form of therapy, I am not sympathetic to bad poetry, no matter who wrote it, or why.

Second, I am unsympathetic in the extreme to the stereotype of the "mad artist," the unbalanced creative individual, the crazy poet, and the entire constellation of related stereotypes. While there are sound and true archetypes underlying some aspects of these stereotypes, the stereotypes themselves are offensive to artists who do suffer from mental illness: because stereotypes are easily-repeated signs and masks that prevent us from seeing the truth of a person's experience. Stereotypes are cheap and easy categorizations that substitute for genuine engagement.

Third, there remains a great deal of taboo and stereotype surrounding the subject of mental illness. It is perhaps something we prefer to discuss by stereotyping it, because that makes it safe, and Other: I could never be like that crazy person over there! In fact, however, it is often a matter of degree. What we judge as insane is often just an extreme version of a state of mind with which we ourselves may have had personal experience. The taboo is around admitting that we are not so very different from the "insane" Other, so we don't want to talk about it, for fear of being contaminated, and sucked down into madness ourselves. Taboo is about purity and danger, ultimately. We fear that, in fact, we are vulnerable to contamination by the madness of others.

Arnold Mindell has done extensive work, in his process-oriented psychology, with clients who would be labeled insane, ignored by most traditional therapies, and rejected by the group in general. In his book City Shadows, Mindell describes how process-oriented therapy does not see people as a priori sick, but as individuals experiencing those extreme states with which all of us are familiar, to some degree. City shadows are, in the Jungian sense, the shadows of large groups: the repressed and unrealized unconscious of the group, rather than just the individual. Some "mentally ill" people openly live and act out these city shadows, usually unconsciously, for the sake of the group: they take on the group's dark side, and act it out. Then, the group rejects the person, and projects their fears and anxieties onto them.

So, having laid some ground rules on our position about what mental illness is and is not, the question comes forward:  Can one write poetry about mental illness without it falling into the trap of therapy-poetry or journal-poetry or confessional lyric?

I think that, yes, it is extremely difficult to write from personal suffering without it becoming a confessional lyric or therapy-poem or journal-poem. I think is difficult to achieve such a poetry, and yes, rather difficult to discuss, because of the minefields of personal, emotional involvement with the issue. (I don't think political correctness helps us here; I think PC mostly reinforces the taboo about discussing it.) I've been personally attacked, once or twice, for daring to address the issue, so I wade into the discussion with intense interest and not a little wariness.

I think there's a real and important use of writing (poetry, etc.) as a tool for personal growth and personal healing. I write that way a lot of the time. I think a great deal of therapeutic benefit can be gained from all forms of artistic self-expression. Sometimes a good venting or ranting, in a poem, essay, story, or piece of music, is very healthy.

But I also think there's an important distinction between journal-writing and finished poetry.

There needs to be a distance, no matter what that distance consists of, between event and evocation. Perhaps the distance consists of artfulness; perhaps it consists of memory, as Wordworth suggested. While one might always wish to honor the healing-process behind the (therapeutic) writing, how might one also point out, as a critical poet, that the poem produced might, well, be a failed poem? Therein lies the minefield. This is one of those areas where poets are often unable to accept criticisms of their poems, because they are too close to the writing; justifiably, perhaps, they care too much. But that does tend to shoot down any possibility of critiquing the poem, as a poem, separate from any personal therapeutic aspects.

The act of writing a personal therapy poem, for myself, can be very satisfying, and can be a bit of writing I come back to later to see if I have changed since I last went to that place. I do re-read back in my old journals, albeit not very often; occasionally you do discover something that could be re-made into a poem; an old dream; a passing moment, observed. But I also recognize, as a critical poet looking back over his own work, that a lot of what I wrote in the heat of anger, despair, and depression, just isn't very good as poetry, so I tend to not inflict it on anyone. I neither present it nor publish it, at least not without considerable revision. It can stay in the journal, where it began and where it belongs.

I am also aware that there is a distinction, I believe a very important one, between what we label as "mental illness" and what might be in truth personal, spiritual crisis. Essential reading here is Stan and Cristina Grof's pioneering work on how spiritual emergence can become spiritual emergency.

I myself have experienced spiritual emergency and the dark night of the soul, at various times in my life, and have been acquainted with numerous participants in the systematized support of the former. I have written about my experiences in numerous poems and journals; but I tend to write poetry archetypally and obliquely, because I dislike the tawdry melodrama of most confessional lyric poetry. I would rather not wallow in it, even though I realize that I have just outed myself about it; rather than collapse into it and be consumed, I prefer to seek to use it as fuel for art-making. This is one way to find that necessary distance; I'm sure there are others.

I am well aware that there is overlap between clinical depression and the dark night, that they are very easy to confuse and misinterpret from an outside vantage, and that they do sometimes appear together. Andrew Solomon has written extensively about depression and acedia, the "noonday demon."

Are either depression or the dark night the "cause" of the other's "symptoms"? That's very tricky ground to negotiate; most therapy systems I've encountered, however, don't even ask the question. Except for some of the transpersonal psychologists, and some rare Jungian artist-therapists such as Janet O. Dallett, questions of spiritual emergence in the context of mental illness are usually overlooked in favor of cheaper and quicker forms of therapy, such as antidepressant medications. The difficulty I have here is when the tools of medical psychopharmacology are used to (mis)treat those individuals who are suffering spiritual crises, rather than medical crises. While it may be very hard at times to discern between the two, I think that discernment is essential for the patient achieving wholeness and integration; Mindell and others would likely agree.

In terms of poetry and mental illness, I wonder at times if, as Wilfred Owen said a century ago, the poetry is in the pity. I don't believe Owen meant any sort of easy, sentimental connotation to his use of the word "pity." I believe he meant compassion: pity in its deeper, more spiritual sense.

So, can a valid poetry appear from within mental illness? Certainly.

Has it, though? I think that remains an open question.

As I have stated before, as a poet I feel that the poetry of the "self" needs to be gotten away from, after having had its day in the spotlight since the early Romantics minted the ideal of "self-expression." We have had a great deal of confessional lyric, and we have gone so far with it, that some of it has fallen into mere solipsism: the "you can't feel my pain" school of browbeating poetry, for one. Not to mention hordes of teenage women imitating Sylvia Plath, and the distaff hordes of teenage men imitating Artur Rimbaud.

At this stage of the poetry game, I believe that writing from the self-expression/confessional stance does much harm to the fabric of community, in the ethical, psychological, social, and even political realms. One reason I choose to write as much as I do in haiku, haibun, and their related forms, is that these forms traditionally lend themselves to transcending and effacing the "self," the personality-ego. There are simply too many poems being written nowadays that are too wrapped up in the self.

I would welcome a poetry that discusses, and represents and depicts, mental illness as well as some of the prose texts mentioned above are able to do. So far, though, most such poetry still tends to be therapy-poetry, and journal-poetry. I would welcome something genuinely authentic and healing, on an archetypal and universal level, rather than on a merely personal, ego-aware level. I'm still waiting.

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The Poetic Curmudgeon Takes On the Poetic Radical

I always enjoy reading poet’s essays and reviews; it’s a habit of mine, and I find it sheds light on the creative process as a whole, as well as individually. Frank O’Hara’s reviews of artists and poets of the New York School; Edwin Denby’s dance criticism read side-by-side with his form-expanding sonnets; Conrad Aiken’s voluminous reviews, which he resisted shaping into an overarching critical theory but which is full of accurate assessments nonetheless; Rilke’s letters and long essays on Rodin, Cezanne, alongside his Requiem for Paula Modersohn-Becker; Sam Hamill’s essays tracking the ghost of Basho; Wendell Berry’s cultural criticisms. Something draws me to the essay form, as written by poets, both for their use of language in prose, but also for the changed perspective, their manifestos and commentaries on their own work, and that of their circles. Sometimes you have to deal with what is called in novels an unreliable narrator, who may or may not be telling the whole truth. An essay is, literally, an attempt to get at the truth, so it’s interesting to witness both sincere truth-telling and the occasional artful dodge.

I’m reading Hayden Carruth’s long essay on Paul Goodman, from his Selected Essays & Reviews (Copper Canyon Press, 1996), and it is full of gems. The born and bred Yankee backwoodsman, the man who lived poor for the sake of words, for most of his life, takes on the New York Jewish radical intellectual, the self-described “Jeffersonian anarchist,” who moved up to northern New England, the farthest he could get from New York without really leaving it, the Yankee Jew. Both poets are worth reading in their own rights, and both are somewhat outside the mainstream of Modern and post-modern poetry. Both question authority by their very existence, as much as in their art.

I have been reading Goodman’s poetry, more than his essays and polemics, for many years. He has a double tendency, in his poetry, to embrace eros even as he lauds agape. Agape love is for his adored wife, the earth mother, and his children. Eros is for all the men and boys he had sex with on his lecture journeys, teaching travels, and just around town. He usually described himself as a bisexual, but once or twice he adopted the label of homosexual; married, with children, but still homosexual. Well, for his generation and for some generations after, not excluding the present one, it was just what you did. I know several contemporary divorced gay men with children, so one could hardly judge Goodman for that.

In his poems Goodman is often explicit and personal. Carruth, in his long essay titled Paul Goodman and the Grand Community, makes the point that the man, conflicted and contradictory as he was, is still all of a piece. His social engagement and his sexual escapades are not divorced from one another; instead, they reflect back and forth his single set of values: Beauty means more than ideology.

Carruth quotes Goodman as saying:

A poem is one inseparable irregular conglomeration, chanted. The word order is likely to be twisted. The names are particularistic and anomalous. New metaphors are invented. There is use of echoic meaning and expressive natural signs. There is strong use of tone and rhythm, sometimes even meter. The syntax is manipulated more than is common, sometimes “incorrectly,” to give it more meaning. The exposition of the sentence follows the speaker’s exploration of the subject rather than a uniform rule. All of this is for the purpose of saying a feelingful concrete situation, rather than making discursive remarks about it.

I find this a felicitous general definition of poetry. I have often described poetry as being heightened speech, ordinary language made exalted; Goodman’s definition is perhaps more accurate yet. In re-reading this quote, I find myself wondering if Goodman was more kin to my own mind than I had ever realized. I am sympathetic to Goodman’s concerns and frustrations (possibly more than I am to Carruth’s), and find some of his complexities and contradictions to be familiar. Goodman described himself as a Man-of-letters: more than an intellectual, more than political, more than a simple writer, conservative in the sense of conservationist. He was liberal in his interests and education, but concerned with eternal values and community.

Carruth says this about Goodman’s poetry:

The thing is that Goodman reached backward to go forward. He was a heretic, outcast in his era, like all his heroes of old. Better than anyone else he understood the poet’s need to exist consciously in the continuum. Granted, Eliot and Pound in their own ways had said the same thing and to a certain extent had shared similar tastes; but their views of contemporary literary society were elitist and the politics disreputable. (Not that Goodman was free from elitism, the elitism of one, which he called—and so do I—independence.) Nor was Goodman a mannerist, not in the slightest degree, which is what one cannot say of Pound or Eliot or many others in the earlier part of the century. Goodman’s archaism of diction and syntax came naturally, came from the whole sound of the great writing of the whole past, from folk tales and legend, from hymns; from everywhere; and it was combined inextricably with the jargon and street talk of his own time. Goodman in fact levied upon every linguistic force at his command, shamelessly raiding both the elegance of gentility and the argot of hipsters. He made it all his own.

Both Goodman and Carruth are Yankee philosophers: they are concerned with the philosophies and ideas indigenous to America, and to continental Europe. Goodman has a deep kinship with Kafka; Carruth has a deep feeling for the existentialists. Both are hard-headed pragmatists and simultaneously idealists. They hold ideals without becoming ideologues.

But both Goodman and Carruth are therefore philosophers in the Western tradition, and I find myself occasionally getting irritated with them, in the same way I get irritated with many Western philosophers who so often seem to miss the obvious. But then, I grew up in the East, for all my formative years. I was always more convinced by the detailed cybernetics of Buddhist psychology than ever I was by Freud, whose tendency was to reduce complexities to oversimplifications, but whose writing was so fluid and compelling that he glazed right over the gaps in his logic.

What I dislike about Sartre was that he was an ideologue: ideas came before experience for him, and so he could make political missteps that Camus, who had a strong moral center based on experience, could never have made. In this Goodman is more like Camus, but it’s not clear to me that he ever confronted Camus’ ideas as directly as he did Sartre’s.

For Goodman, experience comes before ideas, and love conquers all. Love is the ultimate driving force, eros and agape, and they infuse all of Goodman’s works. Goodman was driven by eros—he called it libido; he never moved past Freudian terminology—in its function as life-force and inspiration, not merely in its sexual connotation.

I picked up Selected Essays & Reviews to engage with Hayden Carruth, and instead, I have re-engaged with Paul Goodman, via Carruth’s assessment of man and work. (Another good reason to read poet’s essays on their peers and influences.)

I’ve been engaging more and more with Carruth, since a couple of years ago when I picked up a CD of him reading from his late, shorter poems. This is a CD released by Copper Canyon Press, almost in homage, although the reader is Hayden himself. (Another excellent CD in the series is by Olga Broumas, reading from her own and Elytis’ work: luminous, stunning performances. I’ve seen Broumas read poetry live, and she does it far better than most, acting the words as a performance should. This CD is the next-best thing; I recommend it highly.) I have listened to Carruth’s gravelly, curmudgeonly voice read as I drove along the coastal highway in southern Oregon, through small towns and rural landscapes, and by the Pacific shore in all its wet fury: and his voice was in an appropriate context, even though his locale and topic are New England.

I have previously read some of Carruth’s jazz reviews, which veer towards a critical stance, even though he always preferred to call himself a reviewer, rather than a critic. Just as I have read much of Philip Larkin’s jazz reviewing. As a jazz musician myself, a participant-observer to use the anthropological term, I am engaged with poet’s thoughts on jazz, even when I disagree with their assessments, which I often do, especially Larkin’s. The traditionalists express often strongly negative opinions on free jazz, third-stream jazz, and late Coltrane, of which assessments I almost always believe the opposite. Nonetheless, Carruth’s jazz writings are stimulating reading: literary, but the literary venture of a devoted fan. In reading Carruth, and even Larkin, one wonders sometimes if non-poets have ever written this well about music. It’s addictive reading, even when, again, I disagree with many of the conclusions.

I feel a growing affection for Carruth, now that I’m in my middle dotage. Perhaps he is, like May Sarton, one of those writers whom one simply cannot appreciate till one has a certain number of years of hard experience under one’s own belt. (Or, in my case, expanding one’s belt.) His voice is curmudgeonly, but clear and honest. He remains a plain speaker, if an intelligent, thoughtful, blunt one.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Does the Audience Matter? 3 (In the Extremes)

Several stories encountered this past week have led me to think about the artist's relation to the audience again.

On cable TV, there was on one of those home-design channels, a special about "extreme Xmas decorations" that featured people who went all out in there annual festival of excess. There was a segment on a young man in Palm Springs, CA, who has built over a hundred robot Xmas sculptures, including some made from recycled TVs. He had over a million lights in his hand-made toyland backlot, complete with Xmas rides and holiday-themed walk-throughs.

I am reminded of how people who have a passion for dance, for music, art, or poetry, by most ordinary standards lack common sense. Why would a young girl want to become a prima ballerina pursue a ballet career, knowing full well she will have to retire at an early age after a successful dance career that can cripple and cause lifelong chronic pain in feet, joints, and torso? Why would anyone subject themselves to that? (The easy answer to a complex motivation: because they have to, because it's like breathing, they have to do it, or die.)

So, what is it about obsession in the arts? Does it require monomania, or obsession, a very tight focus on an artistic project, in order to succeed at it? Does this mean that artists who manage to not become overly obsessed about their art—who manage, for example, to have a family life, a social life, to be engaged in relationship with the world—cannot succeed as famous artists?

Not at all. Keep in mind that the cultural stereotypes about the "mad artist" filter for stories about eccentrics, people who lack social skills and graces. We tend to hear about artists who live on the edge, who live extreme lives, doing extreme things—because such stories sell more newspapers, and get better TV ratings. Such stories are "sexy." The reason we hear so many such stories, which have the (unintended?) consequence of reinforcing the stereotypes, is because everone loves a good story with memorable characters. Extremism is good press.

By the criterion of having an obsessive occupation with your art, every troglodyte computer gamer/programmer would be a successful artist; the truth is, most of them are not. Therefore, obsession is not what makes the art great and memorable. Obsession may be what gets the social-misfit artist noticed, and ambition, perseverance, and determination in the face of all obstacles may be allows them to rise above the pack and succeed, financially—but the same is true of architects and businessman. What obsession does do, like the man in the desert with the giant homemade Santa robot, is get you your Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Remember too that Warhol, in his sly way, was satirizing his own fame, in which he had become "famous just for being famous," when he stated this (famous!) formulation. Soundbytes get repeated, because they're shorter and easier to remember than detailed, thoughtful analyses.

Obsession may be a genuine driving force in creativity: the fuse that allows us to do as much as we do. There is a positive side to necessity in creativity—the dancer who has to dance, or die—in that, if we keep it in balance with the rest of our lives, we can become terrifically productive as artists. Most artists have more ideas than they can ever execute: ignoring everything else in life but your art-making can at least relieve the personal pressure one feels to create, create, create. As an artist I have two favorite four-letter words: D-O-N-E and N-E-X-T. I know I'm not alone in this. There are indeed days in which I have to write a poem, or make a piece of music, or i feel I'm going to explode from within. I know that's common for other artists, too. What may look like obsession from teh outside, too, might be determination to follow one's bliss, follow one's muse, pay attention to the inner daimon, and do what one has to do. Like many other artists, when I'm on a role, I sometimes skip meals. You go as long as you can, while the iron's hot; you can collapse, afterwards. Rilke's "great giving," during which he finished the Duino Elegies and wrote all of the Sonnets to Orpheus, was like that. There is a discipline to this, as well, in the willingness to give up everything else, in order to focus on the iron, while it's hot. It's not a discipline approved of by society, which never seems to understand the necessity of art, but typically views it as a decorative luxury; but for all that, it is no less a discipline.

Where is the audience in all this? Present, but not accounted for. Of course, the robot reindeer sculptures are meant to be appreciated, to be viewed, even laughed over. The artist seemed to know how silly his project was, even as he kept doing it. To him, it was a project that mattered, and they may be all the justification any artist needs. But the audience is an unknown: you don't know who will show up to the viewing, or the recital or reading. You have to faith that there will be audience for what you create, but you don't stop creating simply because you haven't found your audience yet. Numerous cases of artists who became appreciated only after their deaths reinforce that point, even as they also reinforce the stereotype of the artist unappreciated in his or her own lifetime, like the prophet who is never listened to in his home village.

So, monomania may just be a necessary shedding of everything unnecessary, that distracts us from the process of making art. Obsession, even when it looks more like possession, can be the necessary focus we need to block out everything irrelevant to the process, in order to more clearly here the inner voices of inspiration.

Do I think the robot reindeer in the Palm Springs desert are great fine art? No. But they sure are interesting—and fun.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Photography Is An Artform, Just Get Over It

You ever get tired of people looking down their noses at photography as an art form? Yeah, me too.

It can take a good photographer as much time to create a finished photo as it does a plein aire painter to capture a scene. The changing light is the same, no matter what you capture it with. The trick is not in the speed of camera technology, which deceptively diminishes the apparent artistry by making it seem as though anyone can take a good photo, anytime. If this were so, all your vacation snapshots would be gallery quality; clearly they're not. The technology behind photography makes it seem easy when it is not. Photography is a populist media that the camera and film companies long ago realized they could market to Average Janes and Ordinary Joes as memento-generation devices: photographs as memories. Look, ma, we were at the Grand Canyon! But most photos as memento mori are technically bad, poorly composed, quick grabshots, with no artistry whatsoever. That's okay: they're not intended to be artistic.

Nonetheless, many galleries and art critics (those sniffers after the pissoirs of art-makers) still view photography as a non-artform, because it is so apparently easy to do. This is a tragic mistake, because it overlooks the demanding technical knowledge needed to make a good photo, rather than a snapshot. It overlooks the time it can take to set up the gear, frame the image into a good composition, then wait for the light to be just so—which can be hours, or instants, before the film is exposed. But even a photo that is seen and captured in an instant requires years of practice and discipline: a good photographer can spend years just looking at things, always watching the light, before snapping a great photo.

Photography is the discipline of seeing with the open eye. It can take years to make single great photo.

Yet we still have painters, collectors, gallery owners, and critics, who look down their noses at photography as a lesser artform. The attitude towards video and multimedia is even worse. Paradoxically, of course, opera, stage drama, and cinema are all accepted multimedia artforms, with their own conventions, critical literature, and followings. But most followers of these apparently cannot make the leap to see fractal art, computer art, or Photoshop art as legitimate.

I find it amusing when a bad painter looks down his nose at a good photographer, because "painting is an artform and photography isn't," yet clearly the photographer's work is much better than the painter's.

This negative attitude towards photography also overlooks the artistry of printing, mounting, and framing—you'd think at least the galleries would understand the technical demands of printing, mounting, and framing, even if they don't understand anything else about the process.

It's too bad. Such a limited, conservative view has of course always dominated arts patronage, and perhaps always will. The innovators will always be misunderstood.

But here's the real truth: genuine artists make art with whatever is at hand. They are opportunists and JOATS (Jacks, or Jills, Of All trades). They don't get hung up on the tools or the media. Strand a genuine artist in Death Valley, and she'll draw in the packed earth, or arrange stones, to make her art. Put a genuine artist into a kindergarten classroom with crayons and chalk, and they'll cover the walls and blackboards with images in erasable media that no-one will want to erase. A genuine artist will use whatever they find lying at hand to make art. A genuine artist is not limited by concept or habit, but will discover art in whatever they encounter. They make art because they must, it's as necessary to them as breathing, and they cannot be stopped or tamed. Artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Keith Haring, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Alexander Calder, John Cage, and Audrey Flack all prove this point.

With the new wave of technology, we are seeing new artforms arise. Anyone can now make a film, with image, music, sound, and moving text, on their home computer. Of course a lot of it will be crap—a lot of painting has always been crap, too. Nothing new there. A genuine artist will use these new tools, as well. The only thing avant-garde about "new media" artists is the same thing that has always characterized the avant-garde: an openness of attitude and approach, a willingness to explore new territory with new tools, and open mind, and open eyes and hands. Watch out for a coming revolution in the forms and medias of art, it's already happening, and no one in the arts establishment is paying attention. They'll catch on, eventually, of course, but they're always slow and late. Meanwhile, the channels of distribution have put the tools into the hands of genuine artists who no-one has yet heard of, who are about to make the new art that will be the mainstream of the future.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 8: Art or Botany?

An interesting comment from John Cage, from an interview on the occasion of his 70th birthday:

Stephen Montague: Do you have any regrets, anything you might have done differently as you review your seventy years?

John Cage: You mean, how would I re-create the past? Well, I said long ago that if I were to live my life over again, I would be a botanist rather than an artist. At that time the botanist Alexander Smith asked me why. And I said: "To avoid the jealousies that plague the arts. Because people think of art so often as self-expression." I don't, but so many people do. "And therefore, if their work is not receiving what they consider proper attention, they then feel unhappy about it and get offended." One of my teachers, Adolf Weiss, got very angry at me simply because I became famous. He was sure I was, in some way, being dishonest, because he had been honest all his life and he'd never become famous. So he was sure I was doing something wrong and evil. But when I said to Alexander Smith that I would like to change my life by being a botanist, he said that showed how little I knew about botany. Then later in the conversation I mentioned some other botanist, and he said: "Don't mention his name in my house!" So I think that all human activities are characterized in their unhappy forms by selfishness.

I look around at all the ego-driven spats in literary circles, the endless sniping attacks on one another's persons, and I often think: The rest of the world's problems must not be so severe, if so many people can devote so much drama to affairs that will matter so little, in the long run. Of course, ego is always about the short-run, the instant gratification, the childish desire. It wants what it wants, right now, no waiting.

So people do think of the arts as self-expression. I agree with Cage on this point. I don't, but so many people do. Hence, these ongoing Notes Towards an Egoless Poetry. I'm not even invested in winning that argument. I'm just exploring the possibliities that art is, in fact, not at all about self-expression, but something else, entirely. The exercise is to figure out what that something else might be.

The idea that the avant-garde is all about self-expression is a problem. Too many young artists think that's what you're supposed to do. The problem is, eventually you get to a point where a common tradition erodes and dies away, and every artist is expressing their own self, but no one is talking to anyone else. There is no community.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Montague: You said in a lecture: "The past must be invented, the future must be revised. Doing both makes what the present is. Discovery never stops." Is the avant-garde dead?

Cage: People ask what the avant-garde is and whether it's finished. It isn't. There will always be one. The avant-garde is flexibility of mind. And it follows like day, the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without the avant-garde nothing would get invented. If your head is in the clouds, keep your feet on the ground. If your feet are on the ground, keep your head in the clouds.

Removing the self from the artistic equation means losing the ego's idea of what the self is, which always makes the ego afraid. But poetry and music both arise from silence. Silence is an active state of presence, not a passive nothingness. Silence is also the spaces between the words.

An egoless poetry is free from personal likes and dislikes. If the wheel of suffering must stop, activity, which is life, must stop. Or, rather, activity of the judgmental mind must stop. This allows things to be just what they are, without judgment, free from likes and dislikes.

Montague: Most composers like some of their own works better than others or at least feel some are more important than others. Which piece or pieces of yours would you consider the most important?

Cage: Well the most important piece is my silent piece, 4'33".

Montague: That's very interesting. Why?

Cage: Because you don't need it in order to hear it.

Montague: Just a minute, let me think about that a moment.

Cage: You have it all the time. And it can change your mind, making it open to things outside it. It is continually changing. It's never the same twice. In fact, and Thoreau knew this, and it's been known traditionally in India, it is the statement that music is continuous. In India they say: "Music is continuous, it is we who turn away." So whenever you feel in need of a little music, all you have to do is to pay close attention to the sounds around you. I always think of my silent piece before I write the next piece.

A performance, and another.

I don't remember the first time I ever performed 4'33". I must have been in my mid-teens. I know I first encountered the piece through a special tutorial study of electronic and experimental music that I was doing in 7th Grade; I had a very progressive music teacher, actually I was lucky to have several of them, when I was in public schools in Ann Arbor. The piece opened my ears, as it is meant to do, and changed my mind, as it can, and I frequently "perform" it to this day, just as Cage suggests in the interview above.

In recent years, I have performed versions of 4'33" numerous times, on location, in my travels throughout the USA, and recorded those versions onto my laptop. Several of them have been posted to my ongoing Road Journal podcast, which is archived here.

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Music I Still Dream Of

My artistic roots lie more in music than in any other art or medium. I am very tied to sonic experience: I am unable to "tune out" annoying sounds by ignoring them, the way most folk claim they can. I'm very aware of environmental sounds, and I like lots of silence. The mindless TV chatter on all day in the next room will drive me to violence, eventually. I don't know if my hypersensitivity makes we unusual, or just more than usually aware of my surroundings (it seems to me lots of people tune out to everything, not just their musical environments, but to their whole lives). My musical roots lie in the avant-garde and the experimental. I still get a charge out of hearing something unique that I haven't encountered before.

I was browsing over at Mode Records earlier, after feeling like looking up one of my compositional mentors, George Cacioppo. George was a man I knew from my music school days in Ann Arbor, MI. I knew who he was before I ever met him: one of the founders of the ONCE Group, one of the composers whose work bridged the gap between composers interested in traditional form and melody, and composers interested purely in sound. He was interested in small, quiet sounds, and his works are often mysterious, have unusual sonic palettes, and feature poetic, even mystical titles. A piece I remember being very profoundly compelled by is Moves Upon Silence, for two amplified cymbals and small chamber orchestra.

George's day gig was over at the University of Michigan radio station, WUOM-FM, where he was an engineer, producer, programmer, and host of a weekly half-hour new music program. George occasionally taught composition students, and I got to know him when he took over the composition students' seminar for a semester at the School of Music, where I majored in composition. We became friends, and I got to know him pretty well, even after class was over. He had a real joy of throwing ideas up in the air for discussion, the more bizarre the better; he would toss something out, then sit back and watch the fireworks with a twinkle in his eye and an almost-but-not-quite-repressed grin. He had a truly wicked sense of humor.

Some time later, I performed in a concert retrospective of George's music at Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor; I was part of a mass performance of his seminal piece Cassiopeia, led by William Albright, my advisor and another mentor, with musicians scattered throughout the hall. I mostly played vibraphone for that event. A tape piece of mine, elegy for George, was played at the memorial service and concert held in his honor, after his sudden death in 1984. Other composers on the bill included Gordon Mumma, Donald Scavarda and Robert Ashley. I recall having a long conversation with Gordon Mumma in the lobby, a talk ranging across experimental music and ethnomusicology alike, which were shared interests.

When I heard George had died, I was in the production studios of WCBN-FM in Ann Arbor, the campus student station. Don't look down your nose at "campus student station." WCBN was efectively a county-wide community station airing music no one else did, and was very highly regarded. I was a volunteer programmer and producer for several programs, ranging from extended sonic pieces composed for radio, to new music and world-music shows aired every Sunday. It was in April of 1984, and I was working on recording some solo piano pieces on the old beatup upright in the recording studios. A friend and fellow programmer was acting as engineer on that occasion. We were both shocked and saddened at the news. I recorded a piano track, then ran the tape (yes, we actually used reel to reel tape in those days), backwards, and recorded voice and flute tracks using long tape-echo delays and reverbs. The resulting piece was elegy for George. I found out later that George had been re-reading T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets at the time of his death—at the exact same time I had also been re-reading the same poems. They were his favorite poems; they were, and are, my favorite Eliot poems. The synchronicity has always given me a chill. I had the Quartets in mind when I recorded my elegy, as well; someday I will get around to that string quartet inspired by them, that I've been meaning to get around to for 15 or 20 years.

Much of George Cacioppo's music is very quiet, very sparse, and moves slowly in a world of whispers and gentle sounds. Events happen with long spaces in between them, giving each sound time to be itself. George talked more than once about respecting sound and silence: as though each sound needed to be fully heard, fully explored—fully honored—before we could move on to the next sound.

Between this influence, and the influence of John Cage on my work in the form of indeterminacy, I often find myself listening in the way that George taught us to listen: to the tiniest thing as though our lives depended on it. He taught me to pay attention to the smallest aspects of sound, even as he also used indeterminate aspects in his music notation for pieces such as Cassiopeia, which has small determined note-clusters connected by lines and curves. One proceeds from node to node along the lines, staying connected at all times. There is in the score also dense section of drawing that has no obvious notes—George called it the "brain" in the score, mostly because it looked like one—but is a dense web of lines that the performer may follow more freely. George, as much as Cage, taught me to make my musical scores look visually beautiful, as well. (My mother once took a page of one of my scores, framed it, and mounted it on the wall near the piano in my parents' home, where it stayed for some years.) Playing Cassiopeia, always very quietly, taught mme lessons about connection and contemplation. It was a most meditative music, and was one of the foundations of my own composition and performance practice, which to this day I view as spiritual, meditative, disciplines practice.

It's been a day for thinking about music. I recently completed a dark-ambient piece for a new CD I'm working on, a "spacemusic" CD, based on one of my favorite pieces of music from all time and space, John Dowland's part-song Flow, My Tears. It's a piece I've sung and played for years, the showpiece of Dowland's mournful, Elizabethan blues music. Roots in the blues in the 16 th century. I've arranged the piece for male chorus, and it's been performed a couple of times. Here's this new version, titled Lachrimae Pavan.

In the years since graduating from the School of Music, I've been down several rocky roads—abandoning Western music in favor of Javanese gamelan for some time, making a living as a graphic artist and typographer, then not, returning to music renewed, learning to improvise, developing my skills as a performer on Chapman Stick, and much more—but music remains my root artform and medium. (Poetry is a distant third, after visual art. I happen to be good at all of these artistic mediums, though, so even if I rate poetry as third on my list of practicing artforms, others think highly enough of what I write to want to publish it on occasion, for which I am always very most grateful.)

The major difference between Now (making my living as a creative professional, covering a wide spectrum of different skills) and Then (being a music student and serious composer of new music) is that, Now, I rarely notate scores anymore: instead, I record them. They are still notated, on occasion, but more like graphic notations than traditional scores. I think in terms of layers, shapes, gestures, forms, not in terms of harmony, counterpoint, and melody; the only Western element of music I still regularly employ is melody. I record a lot of what I do directly onto one or another of my computers, both of which are set up as creative stations for studio music recording, art creation and editing, photography, web design, and typography. (I have a Windows tower that is the main studio computer, and Mac laptop that travels with me wherever I go; most of my Black Dragon podcast has been recorded and mastered on the laptop.) I also use software to create new pieces purely on the computer; computer-music techniques that I regularly employ range from cut-and-paste to granular synthesis, with a full range of processing.

For the past several years, I have become more and more involved in playing Stick in groups that emphasize purely improvised music. We call it improv, we call it spontaneous music, we call it music improvised in all styles. Various groups and bands I've been in play to accompany poetry performance, to accompany silent film, at art gallery openings (I once sat and generated sound in a room full of pop art at the Weisman Gallery in Minneapolis; it was a great experience to be playing improv soundscape in a room full of Warhols, Rauschenbergs, and others), at festivals and art fairs, sound showcases, and avant-garde music reviews. Most of the music I perform in public, Now, is spontaneous music, then: unrehearsed, unplanned, unprogrammed, yet coherent. With the right group of players, who listen well to each other, it sounds composed: the paradox, of course, is that improvisation is spontaneous composition.

I've learned many lessons over the years, playing/composing in these situations. So, here is an idiosyncratic list of tips and tricks for playing live music in public settings, a list of practices that works for me, although they might not work for anyone else (or they might):

Don't try to do too much, too soon. There's always a next time.

Ignore every input that doesn't serve the music. If I have to tune out the crowd, and just pay attention to what I'm doing, that's okay. The crowd will (probably) still be there when I'm done. If I go on a journey, they'll come along for the ride.

State of mind matters.

Distractions are not really there. You don't even have to acknowledge them.

There's a spiritual and emotional aspect to live playing that they don't teach you in music school. It's possible to turn even a cover band gig at a noisy biker bar into a kind of prayer. (Prayer is nothing else than connection.)

Meditation helps, before, during, and after.

Eat after the gig, not before, unless it's at least an hour and a half before. Same rules as for swimming. A full belly slows down the brain.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention.

If your mind wanders, bring it back without anger or judgment. Hey, I lost my focus for a moment. Oops. So, what's next.

Forget about perfection. Nothing is ever perfect, ever, not in this world. Striving for near-perfection is the best we can do—the path is the goal—but we'll eventually fail at even that, so just accept it and get over it. No matter what you do, something will always go wrong. Every gig has a technical problem of some sort or another. The secret to a calm mind is to find them before they find you.

Use nervousness and stage fright, if you experience them, as tools to keep your edge: harness whatever you're feeling, and direct it into your playing. Your mood might be affected by the room's mood, but as long as you're onstage, you have the ability to make the room's mood follow your mood, too. Keeping your edge means balancing on the edge of the knife: falling into neither despair nor complacency.

Emotion = energy + motion. Emotion is energy in motion. Don't stop for anything. Turn on a dime. Keep moving.

Turn your mistakes into riffs. "Play a mistake three times, it becomes an idea." (Thanks to Miles Davis.)

Follow where the music wants to lead. Ride the horse, but let it have its head on the riskier parts of the trail.

Forget everything technique you've ever learned, and go for Feel. Forget what you Know, or think you know, and just get into the flow.

The music knows more than you do. Your fingers know more than you do, too.

Don't pretend to know what you're going to do next: you might have an intention, but it's only an intention. Change plans to suite the moment. Never be afraid to throw everything away. Never be afraid to be naked and empty. Don't hide behind your technique. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable, and open to surprise.

Audience noise is part of the music.

"Remember those quiet evenings." —from the Oblique Strategies

The rules of swordsmanship are the same as the rules of musicianship. If you think about it too hard, you tie yourself in knots, you lose.

One of my Ki Aikido teachers said, "When you approach the practice mat, after you bow, say to yourself: This is my mat. I own this mat." I do the same thing, when I go onstage, as when I approach the mat. The stage is the mat, and the mat is life. The bow is also important.

The two best things I ever did for myself as a performing musician were to study drumming, and to study martial arts. Studying drumming got my time into shape. Studying martial arts got my attitude into shape.

Whatever tool works to keep you focused and centered, that's a good tool to use.

Looking back on the several directions my musical life has taken, since I first wrote and performed new music, back in Ann Arbor, I wonder, I do wonder: perhaps these are rules for living, not just for performing.

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