Thursday, March 29, 2007

What Is Lost

Chance for respite. The sign of the wild tom turkey spreading his fan in the sunset light of the greening backyard. chance for long talk into the years. Grim dreams of history, too grim, like black lung, or heartburn. Homestead in the stream hills.

The news is always bad. Spots on the liver, the right adrenal. Having to take pills that make you sick, to make you well. Small chance of success. Another spot near the spine, still there, still eroding bone.

A skeleton, wind-carved, grit-polished, with a nick out of it where living tissue ate into itself, devouring its own essence. Ablation of the memory of function.

Everything we say we hate, we become, unless we love it instead. So hard to love it, though. Living it, enduring it, is killing me. Give up everything of my own, and no promise I'll ever get it back. Some illusion of reward, at the end of all this hardship? It's never been given before, I don't believe in it, or in punishment. Just endurance.

Like the rocks endure: geologic; uplifting, and eroding, one faster than the other, trading places; carved into gorgon shapes in the Badlands my soul cries out, seeing its own shape. I seek out the desert because it's what I feel. A place to be home: desolate, unforgiving, familiar.

Hold space for the infinite. Only chance of respite. Small chance, no chance. I endure. Not liking it very much. Just enduring. Hold space. Just hold.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Road Trip Wrapup

That's a misleading phrase, though, since nothing is ever really wrapped up, tied up in a nice neat little bow, and finished with no loose ends dangling. Rather, events, dreams, memories, photographs: they all linger on, and resonate down the line, for months and years to come.

I've been telling people, since I got back, that things are changed: something permanent, in me, has changed, as a result of this month-long road trip, that I have now been back from, for another month. I can't make a list, as some changes I'm not able to articulate; other changes, more mundane, are scarce worth mentioning. I've of course written about them elsewhere, mostly for my own sake. (Because writers write; and I am a writer, even if I think of myself as a musician and artist first.)

I do my best thinking during those long drives, and when I stop to take photos and just look at the land and listen to the wind. The long drives integrate things that would not otherwise mesh: insight, opportunity, the proper unfolding of the Universe. Those long drives, and the people you meet, and the moments you experience, each exactly what they were supposed to be, with exactly the right timing, if only we'd pay close attention, are enough to turn you Taoist. It all seems inevitable, in memory. It couldn't have gone a different way, because that would have made another Universe, not this one I'm writing about, now.

The many-worlds theorem in some versions of quantum physics: each choice, each turn, or at least each strongest turn and choice that affects a macrocosm, branches off a new Universe, a new limb on the Tree of Life. With imagination, and vision, we can see those other branches of the Tree—and see when they cast a shadow on our own world. And we can see where we might have gone: what might have happened.

It will take me months to sort through and get to know the many thousands of photos I took on this road trip. The trip had several purposes, several reasons for making it, and taking photos was one of the prime movers. Eventually, I'll make art, and art-films, out of the images gathered from the journey. Some will get printed, perhaps gallery-hung, perhaps just gifted.

My favorite days? Those days spent in the lonely places: the empty places, the silent (except for the sounds of wave and wind and bird) places, the places where you can be alone for a long time before meeting another, encountering that other self that is your mirror, this moment; the places where nothing happens, everything is still, and the world seems to catch and hold its breath, if just for a moment. Those eternal silences, eternal moments that can fit into a nanosecond, in between louder times. An afternoon of this blissful silence serves to heal a month of overstimulation and an equal time of pointless worries. You come to center, and extend: and everything stops, and you are still, needing nothing, needing to do nothing: just being.

I could be talking about driving as meditation, photography as Zen. I suppose I am.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007



out of the madness I go
folding myself into the dream and the run
mind empty
heart clear ice
under a diamond full moon

it’s a strong song
folding out long and full
tracks going across flat ice
into forever
snowdust sparkles
lodges in the eye-corners
of the singer
whose voice rings out driving the storms

the run folds into the dream
and the dream folds back into the run
and they both fold into song
and into life: here I am


out of the madness I come
shaping myself out of the ice
a cold star running in sunlit water
shaping myself into song with a song

I am the dog of the wind
running at the heels of the mind
into forever
running into all out of time
out of the madness I race
running into the sky, the frozen light
I have broken the ice
broken through into cold salt water to drink

I am naked in the snow the long night
I am clothed in fur in the whirling sea
I am running: my body warms the night
my skin glows: the aurora, the white bear

running into the song
running into my life

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snow days, mouth of spring

Finding it hard to care about
how sparks ring in the alley,
the ashes in the centrifuge, or
what sweat coats the moon.
Cold enough to dress too warmly,
warm enough to deceive, then
the damp gets in and you cough all month.
Find me a cure for good timing. Anyway,
it’s all always coming to an end.
Finding what folds out of the newspaper
unreal: a cache of short-lived lies.
We are silver, not trampled sod.
Lancets cross the stream, lifting their skirts.
Stags burst from the earth, snort steam,
and paw at our preconceptions. The old gods
rise up and demand their taxes.
An end to winter’s road.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 5: What to do, what to do

When some poet, who you barely know, presents you with a sheaf of poems, the product of their sweat and tears, and you quickly come to realize that they are in, shall we say, a very different place in their evolution as a poet: what do you do? How do you respond? Are you a rude and dismissive cur, or a pillowing and supportive nurturer? A true mentor, I say, is neither of those: but a true mentor must first establish a relationship with a student, before one is able to totally and honestly speak one's mind. Before then, anything you have to say is going to be misunderstood. It's not a question of crushing the fragile and delicate egos of fledgling poets; it's a case of presenting your arguments in such a way as to make them actually heard and understood.

The first thing I do is thank them for the gift of their poems. That's just basic human courtesy. It costs me nothing to be courteous, even if I later come to realize I don't like a single line of the poems themselves.

The second thing I try to do is gauge their sincerity, and respond to that, if not to the poems. If they're very very young in their writing, I try to encourage them without at the same time lying about how bad I think their poems are. Or rather, how young in developing their skills and talents they are. I'm sure I wrote poems just as bad, early on in my own career as a poet; so I try to empathize from that viewpoint, and remember what it was like. I try not to crush any fragile eggshells: handle with care. Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.

I also try to gauge how thick their skin is. Plenty of younger poets are thin-skinned, beacuse they have developed as yet no confidence in their ability, their poetic voice, or their subject matter. Their egos are of the fragile kind, rather than the self-actualizing kind. You'd be surprised how often, in the arts, arrogance and haughtiness are defense mechanisms designed to suppress deep insecurities. (Or maybe you wouldn't be surprised.)

If, on the other hand, they continue to push me for my opinion, my responses are going to become incrementally more honest, and my ability to empathize incrementally less present. It's like escalating conflict between superpower nations: don't push too hard, early on, or you won't like the response. Rather, the response you get will be one you might not be prepared for. A cornered predator will bear its fangs in warning; if you continue to push after seeing a glint of fang, you lose the right to complain that your head was handed to you on a platter. Never forget: all actions ahve consequences; so, think before you act.

Most younger poets are artistically derivative, imitative, and gullible to the winds of fashion. And you know what? That's okay—except for being gullible to the winds of fashion, which should just be ignored, at all times, anyway. We all started by imitating the writers we admired: that's a valid form of apprenticeship. Imitating the Masters is a valid form of learning the skill and craft of art. Artists do it, poets ought to as well. Just don't have high expectations for your apprentice works being seen as any more than etudes or copies: studies from life; learning-pieces; juvenilia. Keep your expectations of your own skill and talent low, at this point in the poetry game. You're building towards self-affiormation and self-confidence—towards mastery. But you won't get there overnight, or in a year; you won't even get there in an MFA poetry program. Don't rush your education, and remain skeptical if the world tries to shower you with plaudits and laurels too soon. (I won my first writing award when I was 16. Big deal; I'm a much better writer, now, than I could ever have imagined, then.) With rare exceptions, most poets have nothing to say, and no ability to say it, before they're 30 or 40 years old. Just because the exceptions are well-known, even famous, in the history of art, makes them no less the exceptions that they are. The way art history and literary history are taught, is to present a historicized litany of innovation: a litany of geniuses who contributed to the evolutionary process that culminates in, of course, us. Literary and art history are taught largely as justifications, even creation myths, for who we are now. Art history is used to justify fashion—which is why fashion should always be ignored: because it is always time-bound, time-limited, and anti-transcendant.

If young poets who hand me their sheaves of poems are arrogant, convinced that every word they write is the fresly new-minted word of god, and I sense that their arrogance is genuine and not a mask for insecurity, I will take them down a peg. They might go off in a huff, but it doesn't serve their writing to be told they are brilliant when they're not. This is when blunt honesty can be a tool for their growth. One of the names for Mahakala, the Wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is Destroyer of Illusions.

This is doubly true for poets who have poured their soul into their poetry, but who have never read much other poetry, and think that they are the very first to write with any kind of profundity about the perennial topics: death; love; sex; mystery; food; joy; sorrow; emotional upheaval; yearning; and all the rest. Such poets invariably think that they invented angst. The best thing to do with them is steer them towards anthologies with the suggestion that they read a lot more poetry than they have, and keep writing, and maybe come back later. With luck, they'll shake out the sentimental stereotypes from their palette, and find something a little more authentically themselves. Someday, they might find a mature, personal voice. It's a hope I wouldn't deny to anyone, even if I myself have strong doubts. Nothing would make me happier, in most cases, to be proved wrong; because for me to be proved wrong, in these cases, would mean that the poet in question actually get a clue, and grew up.

Sometimes I think that the Cult of Originality, along with the Cult of the Solitary Genius—which, again, is how the history of the arts is usually taught—is responsible for a great deal more harm than good. Far better for younger artists to pass through an apprenticeship, working with a mentoring master, being openly imitative as they learn, and not expected to be the next true genius before they've even finished their second book. I think it does more harm than good to put youthfulness on a pedestal, in the arts (except maybe as a model for sculpture, preferably nude), because expectations that are too high, too quickly, can crush a spirit, and even worse, crush their talent.

With other poets, who are not beginners, but still in a different place (than you) in their evolution as poets, I try to determine what their intentions are. If they are talented, experienced amateurs with lots of enthusiasm, which can be infectious, I encourage them but don't give them a lot of honest, hard-hitting critique. I just point out what I like about their work, and encourage them to keep developing what's best in their work. Give them a beer, and an afternoon of camaderie, than walk on, with no expectations.

There are also plenty of dedicated poets out there, who are not bad, but with whom I share no common ground. Their means, they styles of poetry, and even their goals, are not in my universe. Of course, the reverse is also true. Which is why I don't too bent out of shape when many poets, in the same place in their writing lives as me, so totally do not get what I'm trying to do with my own poetry. It's a big playing field, and we don't have to be in competition. I choose not to make poetry into a competition, and I don't spend my time on any poet who wants to shape it into one, with me as their designated rival. Waste of energy.

If all this sounds rather, well, nice, pleasant, and even-handed, even mature, don't be deceived. I'm not that nice. What I am, however, is compassionate. It's hard for me to get judgmental of someone when I can understand how they got to where they got, even if I wish they'd get the hell out of there, for their own good if not for mine. Sometimes silence and a polite nod is the best response. I've been on the other end of this, as a young bashful poet handing a sweaty sheaf of poems to an older poet who I admired greatly. In my case, though, I am clear that I just wanted to give something back, as a gift freely given, not that I expected to be swooned over, or "discovered" like some young actor waiting tables in West Hollywood. (And don't get me going about WeHo: it's still a ghetto, even if it's an upscale, fashionable, expensive ghetto.) It would be nice if they enjoyed the gift, but I don't expect them to shower me with praise for it, either.

But there's one other category of sincere, well-meaning, possibly well-practiced poet, that I run into far too often, who can leave me speechless, unable to either praise or damn. When the poet handing me a sheaf of poems is one of those spiritual new-age brotherhood and sisterhood All Is One and I Love Everybody poets, whether or not they are fledgling or experienced (even published) poets, I honestly don't know what to do with them. They make me wince. I don't want to crush their spirit, even as I hate their art. How can I be honest in this situation? I might even agree with the thoughts expressed in their poetry, with the spiritual truth(s) presented in their poems—but the poem's quality as a work of creative writing is so abysmally bad that it makes me cringe. What I really want to say to such poets is: I like your message, but the form you chose to present it in is thoughtless, hackneyed, clichéd, and horrid. But I love the idea. I just wish you'd found a less clichéd way to present it. Who wants to be a Poetry Support Caregiver? Not I. That way leads inevitably to the death of genuine inspiration, and kills poetry by turning it into inoffensive greeting-card verse, designed to only ever uplift, and never challenge the reader by confronting him or her with the Other.

Genuine poetry can be quite dark, in that it reflects life, which is no New Age fantasy of all Light and no Dark. Genuine poetry can be brutally honest. At some point, you have to question the honesty of poetry that is only uplifting, only celebratory, only ever nice, polite, and good. Such poetry is dishonest because it would suppress the Shadow, which only means the Shadow will pop up somewhere else, and possibly somewhere else much more dangerous and alarming. Better to face the dark night honestly, embrace it, pass through it, and write on.

The deepest, most rich, spiritual poetry comes, I think, from those mystic poets who have been through the dark night of the soul. Who have been crushed by life, and got up again, and walked on. Who tell us their stories not in contrived Victorian rhymes, but in simple, honest, true-speaking sentences. The most devastating way to tell a dark story is with simple, plain, straightforward sentences: to underplay the role, rather than chew the scenery with overacting.

So, here's the truth of my response, when confronted with such very sincere, well-meaning, and horrible poetry: I usually smile, and keep my wincing inside, thank them for the poems, and say nothing. I might wish them well, and sincerely mean it, and hope to never read one of their poems again. Perhaps my response is a cop-out. Yet I can't give them an honest opinion about the merits of their poetic skillcraft, or lack thereof, unless and until they ask me. It's rude to be blunt and discouraging about their writing, when what the poet is really doing, in handing me their sheaf of poems, is looking for human contact, not literary criticism. Such is the nature of tact.

For all I know, their bad poems are their most effective form of genuine personal self-therapy, a process which is ongoing, and dismissing the poem would kill the poet. Critiquing the poem, in this case would constitute a category error: they're not really looking for literary criticism, but human contact. A touch of a hand, in the darkness of the night.

If my response, in these circumstances, is to be considered dishonest, so be it. That's as honest as I can be, without intending to cause offense. Again, I think it's perfectly possible to be bluntly honest without being offensive. Few critics, even the best critics, seem to have learned that truth.

Rudeness is something that many (especially younger) people equate with honesty; but the truth is, it's perfectly possible to be honest without being rude, or crude. Some people call it tact.

I call it forbearance to annihilate. I am perfectly capable to using all my considerable powers to annihilate anyone who really deserves it. Today, just for today, I choose to forebear. Just for today, I choose not to kill your terrible horrible bad poetry, raze the ground with fire, and salt the earth where you once stood. Just for today.

It takes special circumstances to be able to give, and receive, totally honest critique: everyone has to be on a level playing field, and everyone has to leave their egos at the door. Everyone needs to remember that the critique is of the poem, and not of the person. Don't take it personally, because it's not about you, it's about your writing. This is as true for praise as it is for criticism: take both, when they are given, as impersonally as possible.

Most of the time, totally honest critique is a complete waste of effort, anyway. Why? Because most often those who most need to hear criticism are the least able to do so, wrapped up as they are in their protective bubbles of fantasy and ego-inflation: they are imprevous to genuine, heartfelft critique. It just won't sink in. It will just bounce off their bubble. So, don't go out of your way to give them the benefit of your opinions, as you're just wasting your own time and energy in doing so.

In particularly obnoxious cases, as with the aforementioned genuinely arrogant poets, I simply point out that their egos are bigger than their talent, and that they really should look in a mirror before they go projecting their inner illusions out onto the world. In other words, my most heavy-handed lambasting is reserved for those hard cases who need to be taken down a peg or two, because their over-estimation of their own talents has caused them to become arrogantly rude themselves.

In almost all other cases, though, I find that forebearance to annihilate is a useful working rule of thumb.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Hard Work Is Not a Guarantee of Quality

It's one of the biggest, dumbest lies out there. It's in the so-called Protestant work ethic, which just says, if you keep working hard, you'll get everything you want. (And if you don't get it, you didn't work hard enough, or there's something wrong with you.) It's a lie that perpetuates a culture of workaholics who have lost the ability to play like children: openly, and without a goal beyond the mere sustenance of play. And you can't enter the Kingdom, if you can't get into the mind of a little child. So, don't be so Hardcore Adult. It's an illusion.

So. With regards to making art, writing poems, doing music: where does that leave us? It leaves us as needing to restore ourselves to play, as Johan Huizinga reminds us in his masterpiece of philosophy, Homo Ludens.

And it also brings us to the brink of realizing that far too many poets take themselves, and their poetry, way too seriously.

While it might be true that many poets work very hard on the craft and effects in their poems—on what they bring to the poem, what they get out of it, how much they practice the craft of poetry—when you read the actual end result, sometimes you have to wonder: Was it all worth it? If you worked that hard on a poem, why does the poem still suck?

Hard work is not a guarantee of success, or of quality.

This is true in engineering as well as in poetry. Ask any engineer who works in failure analysis about the joys of forensic engineering. As Henry Petroski titles his classic book on failure analysis, To Engineer Is Human. Hard work can often lead to unintended consequences, failure, and destruction—even when you do everything right.

There is a point of elegance in design that experienced engineers (and designers) will sometimes tell you about, where things just seem to fall into place, effortlessly, and all the loose ends tie themselves together. It's remarkable when it happens, and it doesn't happen on every project. Some projects you fight with every nut and bolt, just trying to get it to work; others, all the rivets just snap in place as if they had been destined to be there since the beginning of the Universe. This is the point of synergy, and hard work won't always get you there, as there are numerous other factors involved.

Conversely, no amount of striving can fix a bad design. The "kludge factor" in engineering is the layering of adjustments and repairs over the framework of an unsound design, in order to get it to work. Unfortunately, this is the way a lot of software is also developed: layers of kludge added onto an clumsy existing framework.

For many years, Microsoft's Windows operating system was exactly this sort of kludge programming; in the last couple of versions, they've re-written the code from the ground up, as they should have done from the beginning, and now Windows is actually a halfway-decent operating system. The problem is, they let the kludge factor go on too long, before returning to sources and starting over; that is what led, in part, to the very iffy reputation Windows has had for reliability and security in computing circles, which they are still struggling to get past.

I could work for hours on a poem, but if I can't get it to synergize, it just lies there lifelessly. Then, someone coming along who reads it, who sees only the poem at hand, and not the effort I put it, might dismiss it as a bad poem, even a lazy poem. And they might be correct.

So, what do you do with a poem that you have sweated blood over, that just isn't coming together, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you keep working at it? Do you abandon it, and start over, with a new poem? Do you try again, re-writing it from the beginning, trying to nail the topic or experience once and for all? What do you do when you realize you've hit a wall of diminishing returns on a poem? Do you keep striving at it, keep rewriting, keep spending hours on it? If you can't get it by take 4, what makes you think you'll get it by take 47?

Continuing to spend a lot of effort on revision is indeed a very workmanlike, craftsman's way of operating; and it's an honorable approach to craft. But is the poem worth it?

Poems are not bridges, poems are very slight things: no lives depend upon their performance. The world will not end if you abandon your strenuous efforts, and try your hand at a different poem. As the saying goes, A poem is never finished, just abandoned. There is no shame in abandoning a poem.

What one has to look at, in oneself, is the level of obsession one is bringing to one's craft. The argument can be made, and has often been made, that an obsessive willingness to work hard until one gets it right, is the force that created our modern technical culture. There's some truth in that, as far as it goes—which is not very far. All hail the glorious work ethic, which teaches us to be obsessive, even in the face of diminishing returns! The problem with obsession is that it is so rarely directed at constructive projects, in constructive ways.

Again, poems are not bridges. Poems are intangible, if not quite as intangible as music. Abandoning a bridge's construction before it is completed is a real problem, that's going to affect a lot of peoples' lives. Abandoning a poem, especially if it's just not working, might affect the poet, but not too many others. A bridge, half-built, serves no-one. A poem, half-finished, harms no-one.

I often abandon poems that just aren't working. Sometimes I set them aside, and come back to them years later, and see exactly how to re-set the framework, and then it all works, and what I sweated over years ago is completed in mere minutes. (Sometimes things have to percolate a lot longer in the unconscious than the impatient ego would like them to.) Sometimes I immediately try writing a fresh poem, in a totally different style, with a totally different approach, to capture the same moment/experience from a different angle or perspective; and sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. My notebooks are littered with false starts before a completed poem emerges. Sometimes I simply recognize that I am not able to write about something, right now, just this moment, and set aside the attempt until it seems ready, later on. Sometimes, after percolating in the unconscious for awhile, it emerges fully-formed, in one draft.

What I don't do is obsess about a poem. I have more important things in life to obsess about, than poems. I even have bigger things in the rest of my creative life to obsess about, like music and photography, than about poems.

Of course, none of what I say here may apply to anyone but myself. But maybe it will.

The question to ask yourself is: are you working too hard to kludge a poem, when there's no hope it will ever work right? In other words: are you obsessing too much about the wrong things, instead of the things were obsessing about them is actually helpful, and useful?

Shift the frame, and sometimes the picture falls into place.

Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. —Rumi

The question may be asked: What do you do if everything works in a poem, except that one crucial part? If you can't get it right, if you can't omit it because of its importance, if you don't want to change what else is in the poem, if you're certain that it's the best approach towards that point, what do you do? And how do you know what new angle to see the poem from? Are there any rules?

No, no "rules." Rules aren't the way this poetry game works. The poem is its own world, its own law. You have to follow the poem's laws, not try to impose your own.

Ezra Pound's rewriting process for a famous short, haiku-like Imagist poem, In a Station at the Metro, serves a good example:

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a 'metro' train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying, and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that—a 'pattern,' or hardly a pattern, if by 'pattern' you mean something with a 'repeat' in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colour, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.

That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realized quite vividly that if I were like a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, or even if I were a painter, or if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting, of 'non-representative' painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour. . . . The 'one image poem' is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we called work 'of second intensity.' Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokka-like sentence. I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward a subjective.

—Ezra Pound, quoted in A Guide to Ezra Pound's Personae (1926). K. K. Ruthven (1969).

Look how much Pound threw away, how many versions he abandoned, before the final version came to him, at its own time, in its right shape and form. For this poem, Pound followed where the poem wanted to go. He even waited for it.

Sometimes you just have to follow the image, and go where it wants to go, and don't try to force the pen to where you think it wants to go. I guess the point is: if you try to force the poem into a shape or meaning, it may resist you, if it isn't meant to take that shape or meaning. You can over-think it to death; in fact, for many poets, who get hung up some linguistic or craft aspect of poetry, that's fairly common. It's easy to get lost in the words themselves, like the trees instead of the forest, and forget that the words are the tools being used to describe an experience, an image, a revelation, a silly moment, or all of the above.

The "crucial" part may in fact not be that crucial. Or you may be forcing a didactic meaning, and the poem wants to be more ambiguous, which is why the crucial part isn't coming into order. Sometimes what happens is something that with think is crucial isn't. Sometimes in fact we're trying to force two poems together, and make them cohere when the don't. The thing to do at those times, is let the fragments separate, and look at them individually, and see if they want to be two separate poems.

There comes a point when you have to abandon your ideas, your needs, and your craft, and trust the poem to go where it wants to go. The trick is to back off from your own ideas of what to do with the poem, and let the poem whisper to you its own ideas of what it wants to do. You might be surprised, but if you trust the poem, you might be able to follow it to an even better conclusion than you imagined.

What I'm doing here (and it's going to piss off some people) is suggesting that we, as the poets, don't always have a lock on our intentions for a poem. If we don't listen to our intuitions as much as our rationales, and if we don't learn to trust the process, as Pound trusted his own process and intuitions about his Metro poem, we cannot get it right. It will elude us.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

A Lost Book

arch, Mendocino, CA

pulse, haven, wave, wind
silver, crest, tungsten highlights, afterbirth
weatherchange, higherheight, flash, instigate
look, a turningpoint, a weathervane, a watcher
never this shouldershadow, this wasting, this wane

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Glimpses from the Road 3

my unquiet ghost at a nice resort hotel, Florence, OR

dunes near the ocean, OR

still pond with cedars, OR

the road at speed, northern CA

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

What Never Fails to Trigger Your Emotions?

Music. All styles, all kinds, all genres, anytime, anywhere, anycontext. It's why I'm a musician, first, before every other artform I work in.

Now, note that I didn't stipulate what kinds of emotions music never fails to trigger. The fact that music gets directly to my emotions is not the same as saying that all music triggers the same emotions. All music triggers my emotions. Not all music triggers the same emotions. Some music makes me feel deeply, passionately moved, other music brings me tranquility and peace, still other music I find so annoying that it makes me want to throw the radio out the window to smash on the sidewalk. Some music is just so bad that it pisses you off. That is still an emotion, though, ennit?

The worst response that anyone can have to a given artwork is sheer indifference. Hate is not the opposite of love, because while hate is a negative attachment, it is still an attachment: the shadow side of love. No, the opposite of love is indifference: not giving a damn, not feeling a damn thing. A total lack of connection, an absence of empathy, even of sympathy: that is the worst response any artist can receive about their work.

And there are kinds of emotion, too, that don't fit into standard Romantic or Expressionistic modes. This are no less genuine, and they can be evoked by great art, but they are much more difficult to describe. For example:

There's a particular emotional state of being that I experience regularly, that I can only describe as existential acceptance. It's common to warriors, spiritual warriors, followers of bushido, martial artists, and certain philosophers. Albert Camus raises it in me, and so does Akira Kurosawa. It is a state of acceptance of the inevitability of death, and the simultaneous awareness of the absolute preciousness of life. When you know you're going to die, you can do anything. I get this emotion from haiku at their best, but I also feel it everytime I read Camus' collection of novella-length stories, Exile and the Kingdom. I get it from films such as Seven Samurai, and more recently, The Last Samurai, a film I was skeptical about before I saw it but which rather impressed me. Maybe the only name for this emotion is aware mortality: that which is evoked by the acceptance of one's own death, and the simultaneous valuing of life. It is a very bushido emotion, and a very haiku emotion. It is also transpersonal, a kind of emotion that is larger than the self. Your own mortality in the context of the larger, also mortal world. It's a hard emotion to label, as it's so complex and subtle. You know you're going to die, and you keep on going, anyway.

One of the most powerful evocations of this emotional state in movies and theatre are those moments when there is too much emotion in a characters' heart for him or her to be able to say anything. Often, these moments are silent moments of connection, with only music, and no dialogue. Nothing protrays it better than music.

This is not simple stoicism, by the way. Stoicism is a cruder cousin from the rough side of town, with no refinement. This is far more refined, although I'm still finding it difficult to put into words.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Erotica vs. Pornography

The old ironic joke goes: The difference between pornography and erotica is the lighting. As far as that goes, it's true. The question lies in trying to draw distinctions between the two: where do you draw the line? There are subjective elements to making judgments about erotica and porn, but to say that the entire enterprise is subjective goes too far, especially in regard to the creative arts. I think it's certain that judgmentalism about pornography is usually subjective, relative, and culturally-bound. It's less certain that erotica is always porn: because after all eros is after all the life-force itself, and without eroticism there would be no sexuality, no perpetuation of the species, no prostitution, sacred or otherwise, and no millenia of art. Animals rut, and so do many humans; but humans also make art about it all.

I've been having this or similar discussions with other poets and artists lately, because I write homerotic texts, and make homoerotic photos and artwork. I can tell you my personal working definition of where the line lies between eroticism and porn, but that's just mine, nothing definitive.

(Can music be homoerotic? That's the question posed by two compilations of older recordings recently released on CRI, titled Gay American Composers, Vols. I and II. They are excellent compilations, by the way, and have returned to print some of my old favorite vinyl recordings from CRI's back catalogue; CRI is a label devoted entirely to new music, a genuine rarity in the music biz. Composers included on the two CDs include: Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Samuel Barber, Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Ben Weber, John Cage, Alwin Nikolais, Robert Helps, Lee Hoiby, Lou Harrison, Chester Biscardi, Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici, Robert Maggio, Conrad Cummings, William Hibbard, Jerry Hunt. The question of homoeroticism in music is implicit more than explicit, yet several of the composers echo my ideas in their artist's statements: these are composers who happen to be gay, rather than "gay composers." On the other hand, if every gay artist, composer, and writer in America suddenly decided to stop working for a week, all at once, there would be a vast echoing silence. Broadway would shut down, so would several TV networks, concert halls, and magazines—and not just the obvious ones. Think about it.)

The problem with commonplace definitions of eroticism and pornography is that they are socially-driven, not artistically. All such socially-driven definitions will remain vague and equivocal in a pluralistic society, wherever diversity is present and not legislated against, and thus rarely be of any real use. The old legal standard of I don't know what pornography is, but I know it when I see it can only carry us so far. In the face of conformist pressure, there is always a tendency to take one's desires underground, into the shadows; which may not serve them in the most healthy way.

I tend to look at eros and pornography through the eyes of an artist. As a photographer, I could say that there is some truth to the joke about lighting, and that would be true. As a writer, I don't find reading pron to be very interesting—it can even be unintentionally hilarious, when it's really badly written. Nothing makes pornography wilt like derisive laughter. On the other hand, eros maintains space for the laughter of joy and pllay. It's easy to define porn as demeaning, as objectifying, as sterile. Yet the Venus de Milo is universal, an objectified vision of the goddess of love (at least that is the meaning accrued to this statue whose origins remain veiled); and other art that includes sexuality, that is considered great art, can demean its subjects, or objectify them, or be emotionally sterile. Perhaps the main difference between erotica and porn is in how you use them, or the amount of emotional connection you feel to the person(s) being represente in the art itself.

As a creative artist:

• I am unable to define anything as pornographic that brings more compassion (love, eros) into the world.

• I am unable to condemn any artwork that brings more lust into the world, if that lust is uplifting (putz aside) rather than exploitative or coercive.

• I am unable to define as pornography anything that heals or enhances relations between persons, or between persons and the world; as opposed to anything that increases alienation or emotional distance from the other.

• I am able to define as pornography that which inspires a misdirection of love/compassion, in the forms of greed, avarice, or pride, or the desire to possess, use, manipulate, and coerce.

As you might deduce, my definitions are contextual and relational, and refer to how the art is used rather than what it contains. Intention matters more than content per se.

As such, these defintions can apply to more than art, and its products. They can apply to science, religion, politics, and everyday life. Is your job erotic (does it enhance your life and compassion) or is it pornographic (does it reduce, demean, or stifle the growth of your personhood)?

The problem of definition lies directly in the lack of clarity between the many uses in English of the word "love." Eros, itself a Greek root word, is also about life-force, the power under life; it does not refer only to sexuality, or sensuality, as is commonly assumed. The Greeks had multiple words for "love," in its different manifestations, including some with unavoidable overlap: eros, agape, storge, philokalia, and more. These words are discussed in theology regularly, but poetry rarely; that theological arguments often underlie attacks on pornography should come as no surprise. In theology, the Greek roots are often defined as sexual love (eros), family love (storge), brotherly or companionship love (philokalia), and spiritual or altruistic love (agape). I think you can safely bet which ones are emphasized as the best forms of love in most Abrahmaic theological writings.

But there are other Greek words applicable to this topic: pragma (pragmatic, expedient love), ludus (playful love, and also joyous love), mania (in which the lover is possessed by being in love, unstable, highly emotional—what in Western culture is taken as romantic love, courtly love, obsessive love).

Ludus applies to erotic art, perhaps, while mania might more often apply to pornography: the desire to possess the love-object, or the sexual experience. Ludus is child-like, open to experimentation, and exploratory; I know of people involved in the bondage/discipline/sado-masochism scene who I would call ludus lovers, because their attitudes are entirely open and pleasure-seeking and, well, joyous. (It ain't my scene, personally, but I have friends who are deeply into it, and we've talked about it regularly.) Frankly, mania is given far too much ink in our culture already, because it umbrellas everything from adolescently-impassioned love-letters to stalker movies. This is the legacy of The Art of Courtly Love, and how the assumptions in that model of romantic love continue to play out in our times. (cf. Gail and Snell Putney, The Adjusted American: Normal neuoroses in the individual and society, 1964)

The confusion around mania, as opposed to eros, may lie at the very root of this question of the difference between eroticism and pornography.

The thing to remember about Eros is that it refers to more than sexual love: it is eros that drives us in life. When someone turns to business entrepeneurship, and derives emotional sustenance and fulfillment from it, that person is responding to an erotic urge—although some of those same theologians would call it a misplaced erotic urge, because it is not being used to fuel agape. (This point is highly contestable: in most Western theologies agape is priveleged over all other forms of love, because it brings us closer to God—which is based on the assumption that we are separated from God—whereas the panentheistic mystical tradition, which is a parallel stream in Christianity, says that there is no separation, everything is in God, and everything is God. So, eros is agape, and agape can be expressed via eros. Virtually all of the Christian mystics, as well as mystics from other religious traditions, say this. Then again, most mainstream theologians are bean-counters rather than genuine mystics.) Eros can be responsible for passionate activity in any arena, when we love what we are doing, when we are inspired and completely dedicated to the task at hand. Writing poetry (making music)—the creative act—is itself an erotic activity. For myself, I feel some of my nature/visionary poems are erotically charged, even though they have nothing at all to do with sex or sexuality. Yet they are charged with eros, with passion, with com-passion. Through our voices, we give birth to the words that make the world.

Mania, by contrast, is obsessive and possessive. It cannot let go, and does not want to let go, of the love-object. And I use the word "love-object" deliberately, because mania is always a projection: some image from our own undeveloped self projected onto the "perfect love," "perfect mate," and/or "perfect date" or "perfect romantic partner." Something we think is lacking in ourselves, a lack in us that can only be soothed by possessing the other person or object. Sexuality as a form of empowerment—but never self-empowerment, because mania is always a projection, thus, the maniac is always looking outside themselves to aquire their self-esteem. "My life can only be complete if I acquire the perfecet mate, the perfect kids, the perfect house, the perfect car." Rather than looking within to accomplish the sacred marriage or opposites within one's own self, the maniac looks to others, looks outward, and never looks within.

The maniac is indeed looking outward, but he sees only himself, in that he sees only what he projects, rather than what is actually there. So, in that sense, the maniac is looking inward, because it's all about self-gratification. Different partners every night amounts to masturbation-with-help. All that the sex maniac sees is reflections of his own desire: a world of mirrors.

But the maniac is not looking inward in any genuine way, because this outward projection and mirroring is the only way in which the maniac know himself. Genuine self-contemplation, self-reflection, and self-knowledge are precluded, because to this person all knowledge (and self-worth, and even self-love) come from outside himself, even if all he can see outside himself is the mirrors. The genuine inward journey begins by discarding what we think we know of the world, and giving up those masks and mirrors and projections we place onto the world. Genuine self-knowledge begins with removing those outer masks, and seeing what's actually there. At which point, the person realizes that they are not who they thought they were, and must go inside themselves to see what's really in there, rather than what they assumed was there. It is often a painful and difficult odyssey, because it begins with discovering we are not who we thought we are, and it will reveal to our inner eye every wound we have taken in life—but also every wound we have inflicted on others during our lifetime.

Mania is truly eros defiled, or misdirected love and compassion. Mania leads to power over others, while eros leads to power with. As the saying goes, which would you choose: The love of power, or the power of love?

I can define as pornographic anything that seeks power-over, that enhances the love of power, that projects completion of the sacred marriage onto anything outside the self. Pornography replicates the self via projection. Pornography truly does not see the Other, but only the projected self.

I can define as erotic anything that seeks power-with, that is an appreciation of beauty, that does not seek to own the other but to unite with them as equals, and/or to help them become more fully and beautifully who they already are. Eroticism enhances the self via engagement.

Mania is what drives pornography. Eros is what drives eroticism.

So, it seems to me that part of the confusion around erotica vs. pornography lies in the dearth of useful language with which to talk about it. The I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it test is not, in the end, either useful or pragmatic, since it invites relativism over concensus, and opinion over discourse.

A further distinction between eros and pornography lies in the arena of assumptions about spirit and flesh. An erotic viewpoint tends to view spirit and flesh as one. A pornographic viewpoint tends to view spirit and flesh as separate, and even in battle with one another; this is the legacy of the body-hating, Christian theological, dichotomous worldview templated onto Western culture by Augustine and Paul, although it has its roots in older Platonic Greek thought, and reached its ultimate formulation in Cartesian dualism. Ultimately, in this worldview, since spirit and flesh are not one, flesh is just another form of matter to be exploited. There is no holiness, no sacredness in pornography. The great irony in this is that Christianity was meant to be a religion of inclusive love, not one of hatred, separation, and dualism. But by making spirit holy and flesh unholy, Christian theologians created the very conditions that spawned the pornographic industry so many of them object to.

Matthew Fox says it clearly, I think:

I wonder how many Christians have been invited to meditate on the fact that the word carnal is at the heart of their primary doctrine of Incarnation. Our culture, having been poisoned by negative attitudes toward flesh, is ill at ease with the notion. Indeed, a religious faith that claims to believe that "the word was made flesh" actually denigrates flesh and has turned "flesh" over to the pornographic industries rather than sanctifying it and including it in our spiritual practice. It is time for the ambivalence towards flesh to cease. Either flesh is sacred or it is not. Either the divine is present, incarnated (which literally means "made flesh"), or it is not. If it is not, it is time that worship and education became enfleshed, incarnated, in order to provide a proper home (eikos) for the Divine, which is clearly biased in favor of flesh, having, after all, made it. Our very language is biased agains the flesh: Webster's Dictionary says that the antonym or opposite of carnal is spiritual or intellectual. Here we are, two thousand years after the Incarnation of Jesus, and our language still doesn't get it: that flesh and spirit are one. . . .

The textual revolution that marked the modern era, which began with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, has not been kind to the flesh. Text is not fleshy, but context is. Flesh's brilliance is not easily illuminated on the printed page. Flesh is too colorful for that, too tactile, too full of breath, too soft and yielding to the touch. During the modern era flesh became denigrated in whole new ways—its glory is not of a mathematical and quantitative kind. Flesh is qualitative. Body counts soared during the modern era. Flesh became expendable: human flesh in human wars but also animal flesh and bird flesh and what flesh and fish flesh and soil flesh and forest flesh.

As the modern era's preoccupation with text yields to a postmodern concern for context, perhaps flesh can score a comeback. Perhaps humans can learn to love their flesh anew—and with it the flesh of others on whom we are so dependent and interdependent.
—Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Lessons for transforming evil in soul and society, p. 57 ff.

When the body is denigrated and demeaned, so is sexuality and eroticism, and that is what opens the door to pornography. Ironically, without a culturally-proscribed hatred of the flesh, there would be no pornography. Pornography is highly dependent on religion, even when it is explicitly blasphemous.

But eros celebrates. Eros embodies, and sanctifies, and makes holy. Thus, erotic art is celebratory, and erotic poetry is a poetry of praise.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Water is a Religion

the Pacific Ocean at southern Redwoods beach, CA

In 1993, on All Hallow's Eve, when they still allowed camping here, I camped here overnight with a friend. We pitched the tent in the sea-wind, and built a bonfire in cement ring made for that purpose. We took photos of each other crouched by the fire, naked, Paleolithic, lit by the turbulent flames. We huddled together in the tend for warmth, and made love that night. The full moon rose in the east, climbing over the low hills and illuminating the tent as bright as day. In the morning, we played with the surf in the warm sunlight. I found a flat, round black stone, smoothly polished, on the beach, and carried it in my pocket for a decade afterwards.

On this visit, over 13 years later, I found another polished stone to keep in my pocket, black-green with a single vein of white running through it.

low-tide-exposed boulder, Fort Bragg, CA

arched rock, Myers Creek, south of Humbug Mountain State Park, OR

stream, Humbug Mountain, OR

Water is a religion.

We want to feel it on our skin:
soft rain, waterfalls, rivers,
the encircling ocean.
On skin it slides smooth;
clothing makes walls
between our lives
and our selves.

We want to rise cascading
from the waters,
dripping with scattered sun-diamonds;
to stay in the waterfall
till we lose ourselves
in its mind-releasing roar;
to merge with the salten sea,
blood calling to our blood,
calling us back to the mother.

We want to immerse ourselves
full fathom into the river’s pools,
red-striped fish brushing our calves,
rising draped by green willows,
the air drying our bodies with cool time;
sun warms us, the waters refresh us,
the earth and air our wine-bright loves.

Lakes for the spirit,
Oceans for the mind,
Desert springs for dusty feet,
Deep rivers for the soul.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Glimpses from the Road 2

ice fog, Washington

Lolo Pass, Idaho

moonrise, Lolo Pass, Idaho

morning clouds, Montana

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I Wanna Be Experimental! (and write prose-poems)

Here's an issue that sticks out: the contextual assumptions brought to the table, when you read a piece of writing, whether you intend to critique it, or review it, or just read it for pleasure, vary with the apparent form of the writing. In other words, people bring expectations to what they read.

Yes, this is another tactic of mine towards regarding prose-poems.

One entire issue of critical reading that goes oft unspoken, even though other aspects have been talked to death, is the hidden assumptions one brings to a piece, depending on the context one finds it in. Those contextual assumptions are exactly why critiquing prose-poems has often produced such unsatisfying results.

Thus, the rules of critique would be different for a prose-poem, than for a "standard" poem.

In Neruda's Book of Questions, every poem is a numbered quatrain, and every poem is nothing but questions. No answers are ever given. The book contains more question marks in poetry than any other, including Medieval riddle books, such as the Exeter Riddle Book.

To state it yet differently, when people begin to read something labeled Prose, they bring a certain set of expectations to it. If they begin to read something labeled Poetry, they bring an overlapping yet completely different set of expectations to the reading experience. One job of experimental poetry is to explode assumptions, clichés, and expectations. Indeed, by definition an experiment is a foray into the unknown, in which the explorer essays or attempts to discover structure where it had not been known before. Uncharted territories, left blank on all the maps.

The prose-poem can demolish all those expectations. Indeed, that was its historical mission: to explode the rules of convention.

The essay is a form of creative non-fiction that can veer into poetic prose without warning, where suddenly something didactic and venal becomes exalted, vivid, personal, and sets off depth-charges in the self. An "essay" is literally an attempt. I think of E.B. White's oft-anthologized personal essay Once More to the Lake, which begins in nostalgic reminiscence and continues through several other moods to arrive, in its last sentence, at an implosion of the sudden awareness of one's own limitations, one's own mortality—and suddenly everything else that has gone before falls away, and what sticks in your memory is that last vivid bomb of a paragraph.

It's not uncommon to read critical assessments of prose-poems that completely miss the point. If the critical reader is biased towards prose, they tend to assume the prose-poem is a short-short story, or flash fiction, or some related prose genre; they tend to want to see narrative form, linear structure, and grammatical correctness. (Correct prose grammar, that is.) If the critical reader runs across a label saying "this is Poetry," they bring a different set of rules to their assessment, including but not limited to: looking for internal rhythm, musicality, even meter and rhyme, imagery, and a "poetic" style. This can also mean that "correct prose grammar" is not expected, and more unusual syntactical structures, including but not limited to what Ron Silliman called "the new sentence" are permitted, even encouraged.

Lately, most of what I've been writing have been prose-poems, or haibun, or more experimental journal-writing forms. Some of these pieces are narrative, most are not; some begin with the illusion of a narrative voice, but quickly move in other directions. They look like prose on the page, because there are long sections with no enjambed line-breaks, and no obvious metrical form reinforced by the visual regularity of even-length metrical lines. (One wonders how often an average reader would recognize a metrical poem without the obvious visual cue of metrically-enjambed line-breaks.) But the voices of these writings are not prose, and especially not "purist" prose, but poetry. Indeed, one useful method for writing prose-poems is to set about writing in your usual poetic voice, but keep extending the length of the lines till they wrap around; eventually, the urge to always break the line, to enjamb out of habit or structural form, fades away, and one is free to write "long lines" that look like paragraphs. Whitman went far in this direction, and his self-conscious pupil Ginsberg did as well.

I find it nearly impossible to get useful critique of my prose-poems. Half the time the response from those habitually more formalist poets is to try to shoehorn the piece into a known form that they are more comfortable with, such as a sonnet, or longer elegiac form. It's as though there were filters over their eyes, which allow them only to see things that fit into their preconceptions, and prevent them from seeing what is actually there. Readers coming from the prose direction are often no better, with comments along the lines of: What the hell kind of PROSE is this? Oh wait, it's a prose-poem? Well, why didn't you post it over in one of the POETRY forums, rather than this PROSE forum? For instance, I once ventured to ask where to post prose-poems for critique, and was advised to post them in the prose section, where they were either ignored, or completely misunderstood, as exemplified above; the exercise was a waste of time, and I got no useful critique whatsoever from that experience. I'm better off on my own. And face it, a lot of experienced poets, whose thoughtful critique would truly benefit the writer of prose-poems, rarely venture into a designated prose arena. So, it's no wonder that prose-poems, when posted in prose forums, tend to sink like stones.

Experience makes me doubt that anyone not already familiar and comfortable with the prose-poem as a formal entity, no matter how they conceptualize it, will be unable to give any sort of useful feedback to the author. Some will veer away from the very attempt, shyly trying to evade the topic because they feel incompetent to venture an opinion. The fact that such folk don't suffer from the conceptual filters of preconception would in fact make them ideal candidates for giving thoughtful and useful critique—but the cultural hegemony of The Expert has held sway for so long, now, that even enthusiastic amateurs often doubt their own experience, simply because they have not been granted the sanctioned aura of The Expert. As if a little piece of parchment with fraktur lettering or Italianate cursive calligraphy on it was a more important credential than having read and written gobs of poems. If you want good, honest critique, far better to go to the dedicated amateurs, than the Poetry Professionals.

Therefore, if one were to seek out a haven for the prose-poem, far better to seek out a designated "experimental writing" forum than a designated prose forum, or even a dedicated poetry forum. Far fewer expectations are brought to the table, one imagines. As I said earlier, contextual assumptions are exactly why critiquing prose-poems has often produced such unsatisfying results. At least in an experimental writing forum, the mindset that is present, the expectation that is present, is to have no expectations, to be open to possibilities and examples of form, syntax, style, and structure you maybe never thought of before. This is mindset that one can learn, and perhaps ought to: be open to whatever you experience, without expectations or filters. The practice begins with noticing the judgments born of context, and continues by shedding those judgments with the awareness that you would do better to see what's really there, rather than what you think is there.

So, despite being relegated to the tainted and sneered-at ghetto of being an "experimental writer," with a smaller, more nebulous audience being accepted as a necessary fact of life, there is perhaps much more freedom to be found in an arena where fewer contextual expectations are brought to the experience of reading, and one can be a "writer" instead of a "prose writer" or "poetry writer." Dropping expectations is what "experimentation" is all about, after all.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Calligraphic Haiga

A haiga is a form related to haiku. Traditionally, this was artwork coupled with a haiku or waka done in brush calligraphy: the poem and image being complimentary, and making up a combined artwork: an illuminated or illustrated poem. In more modern times, there has been a modernization of the form that couples English-language haiku with photography.

Every so often, I feel the urge to pick up one of my brush calligraphy pens and spontanesouly write short poems, maybe or maybe not haiku, with drawings, illuminations, and illustrations. For example:

I acknowledge an influence here, as well, from Paul Reps, whose picture-poems, which I first encountered in his book Zen Telegrams, are spontaneous expressions of the Zen spirit. Reps, who was one of the first influential students of Zen from the West, and was also a translator and commentator (for example, the famous Zen teaching pictures, the Ten Oxherding Pictures), tossed off a large number of his picture-poems, which were often later collected into small books of rare beauty and startlingly clear expressiveness, even as his topic was often the removal of the self from the picture. I first encountered Reps' work in my teens, in the early 1970s, and I do think they contributed towards me eventually doing these brush pieces.

This practice of calligraphic haiga is a recent one, for me, faciliated by my use of imported japanese brush-pens, and a renewed interest in calligraphy in general. Western-style lettering calligraphy is an artform I practiced some time ago, but as it feeds into that aspect of my personality that leads to perfectionism, it got to be too dangerous to pursue. As a recovering perfectionist, I do my best not to awaken that particular obsessive tendency, if at all possible. Haiga are looser, and in the Reps manner, more spontaneous, than Western-style calligraphy, and delightfully easy to get into. As for Japanese sumi-e style painting and calligraphy, much of the preparation is spent in meditative practice: the ritual laying out of implements, which helps focus and calm the mind, and prepare one for the directed action of spontaneous artmaking-with-attention.

Everything one does, no matter what, is an artistic practice, as long as one is paying close, focused attention, and doing it with conscious intention. Everything is a meditation. Everything is a creative practice. I do my best to get into this mindset as continuously as I can during the day, and I make a special point of doing it while cooking a meal. In other words, Paying Attention turns anything and everything into a contemplative artistic creative process. That includes driving the car, eating, walking, traditional artistic practices such as painting, taking photographs and music; it also includes mowing the lawn, raking leaves, and making love.

So, I approach brush calligraphy painting from that same mindset.

Making these haiga pieces this way is something I have evolved towards, over several years. I have been inspired in part by other poets I have encountered recently who have put forth haiga, mostly with photos. Although I've been doing these brush paintings again for the past year, after not doing them for a very long time, I don't think I would have begun doing them again but for those encounters with other haiga, for which I remain grateful.

The other reason I started doing these brush calligraphy pieces again was because i found the right brush-pens again, after not having any for several years. More on that below.

I originally did Japanese-style brush calligraphy when studying Ki Aikido, an advanced Japanese martial art, starting in 1988 or so. We would every so often spend entire practice sessions doing calligraphy, or various forms of breathing meditation; next session, when we went back to practicing the actual martial arts, we all had improved.

(Ki Aikido is an art that intentionally and consciously teaches mind-body coordination, and uses several teaching means to develop it. Actually, every martial art teaches mind-body unity, but most of them achieve that after maybe a million practice punches or kicks or whatever; in other words, they teach it indirectly, and never talk about it. Ki Aikido starts teaching it openly, in the very first session of every beginner's class.)

I had already been a trained calligrapher and music copyist in the Western manner: italic scripts, fine pens, texts copied out as illuminated manuscripts, etc. Taking up the brush was not a big step, for me, but a natural progression. I was a journeyman music copyist in music school, and after; I copied orchestral parts for several new orchestral pieces, and at least one off-Broadway musical. Back in the days before music softwares like Finale and Sibelius, all orchestral parts were hand-copied. I studied with a master copyist while still a composition student, and got quite good at it; one or two pages of my own musical scores have even been framed as fine art. (Which is silly but true.)

When I was a young man, I used to think that I couldn't draw and I couldn't paint. I believed I had no skill at it. It was all cartoony and horrible, and I was very judgmental of my own work. I couldn't draw realistically to save my life; I still can't, really, at least not up to those photorealistic art-school standards most people think of as "realistic drawing." I've never been through art school "drawing boot camp," and I don't care to. (I went through music theory/history boot camp, and that was enough of that.) You know how it can be in families, when siblings are assigned roles to play by the group, usually quite unconsciously: my sister was the designated visual artist, and I was the designated musician. In fact, we're both capable of both, and both good at several creative media. But that was one reason I focused on photography and music for so many years, among the other arts I practice.

In the past few years, I finally got over all that, and after several years away from calligraphy and drawing, I have taken them up again. Everything I learned in the intervening years is obviously present now, and I notice that I have much greater mastery of the brush than I ever did before. (Just as in Aikido, indirect practice still improved our ability to do the techniques more effectively.) Using the left hand as well as the right hand has been part of this, too.

I spend probably half my day on indirect practice; for example, whenever I'm driving, I practice what I learned in Aikido about mind-body unity, and feeling the car's movements as in my own body; for another example, whenever I am tapping on a table-top, I am practicing musical skills with mind-body unity. This mindset has come to permeate everything I do. I am a person of just ordinary strengths; but I have been trained to use my strengths to their most efficient peak, using mind-body coordination. It comes in pretty handy at times.

One key element to every brush session that comes from the formal methods of Japanese caaligraphy is to treat every action as a meditation: begin by sitting quietly and calmly, and become still: yes, this is a meditative practice. I sometimes sit quietly for a full two or three minutes, eyes closed about halfway, or with soft focus, not looking at anything really, before I ever pick up the brush. I learned to do this it this way because I studied it in the Japanese manner. In Japanese calligraphy, one first becomes centered and grounded, and only then picks up the brush or pen. Next, it is traditional to practice doing a few enso, which are circles made in one stroke:

Traditionally, the circle is left open, rather than closed, to let the spirit breathe in and out. If one is truly calm, centered, and grounded, it is possible to brush an almost-perfect circle. (Conventional wisdom says that it is impossible for a human to draw a perfect circle. This is disproven by generations of Japanese calligraphers. There are plenty of sumi-e paintings that quietly, with no fanfare, prove otherwise.) Traditionally, the enso stroke is begun in the lower left, and circles clockwise to completion; I often begin in the upper left quadrant, though.

The tools one needs are simple, and nowadays readily easy to acquire: good paper, ink, and a sumi-e style brush. The basic materials can be be found at almost every college art-department supply store.

For these pieces, I used various-size brush pens, which are fine nylon-bristle brushes fed by ink cartridges, like a good cartrige pen you might find at Colorado Pens (which I dare not enter, lest I be overcome by one of my few addictions in life: pen lust!). These Japanese brush-pens, by the way, I have only ever found at Japanese stationery stores in cities large enough to have a good enough population to warrant them; and one or two extremely complete artist's supply stores. I look for them in every art store I go into, and while most good art supply stores will have basic sumi-e supplies, they typically have traditional brushes and inks, rather than the brush-pens I like.

I prefer these brush-pens currently for one very simple reason: spontaneity. In traditional calligraphy, and sumi-e painting, there is set-up time involved. What I typically do lately is always have a brush-pen and a journal-book in my backpack, on hand. I have several artists' sketchbooks lying around, of varying sizes. Any time, anywhere, whenever I am so moved, I can pull out one of these pens and notebooks, and make a piece. My artist sister also makes hand-made blank books using excellent paper; I often keep one of these books to hand.

The occasions in which one is called to take up the brush are various and numerous: After walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, one warm winter afternoon, I sat on the bench by the labyrinth and filled several pages of one of my sister's handmade blank books. (Obviously, walking meditation also gets one calm and centered.) I was at a weekend retreat for men artists in the woods north of Chicago last fall, and while everyone else was doing a guided writing practice, I felt moved to take up my brush-pen and the haiga I presented here were some of the result: combined words and images. I later showed them to the rest of the group, and received a lot of encouragement to continue this as an artform for myself. I have been at the Pacific Ocean shore, in both Oregon and California, and after clambering around the cliffs and beaches, hunting dreamstones and making site-specific landscape-art sculptures, I've taken up the pen and done on-site brush haiku with pictures.

So, this is an artistic medium, a meditation practice, a contemplative method of observing the world, and much more—all at once.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Does the Audience Matter? 4

In the ongoing discussion about the place of the audience in the writer's mind, I think of Odysseas Elytis, who once said, Every poet needs an audience of three, and since every poet has two good friends, the search is always for that perfect third reader. I find that to be a realistic, balanced expectation to keep in one's heart, as a poet and writer. And also a hopeful thought. If all I need to find is that perfect, third reader, I am doing well. I already have invididual poems that have found those readers: the ones who understood, perfectly, what I was attempting, and why. Such moments of connection are almost ecstatic, and they keep us going when all else is bitter.

Along these same lines, poet George Seferis said, in his Paris Review interview (Issue 50, Fall 1970):

And then I should ask, perhaps, if this situation of not having a very large audience has something good in it, too. I mean, that it educates you in a certain way: not to consider that great audiences are the most important reward on this earth. I consider that even if I have three people who read me, I mean really read me, it is enough. That reminds me of a conversation I had once upon a time during the only glimpse I ever had of Henri Michaux. It was when he had a stopover in Athens, coming from Egypt, I think. He came ashore while his ship was in Pireaus, just in order to have a look at the Acropolis. And he told me on that occasion: "You know, my dear, a man who has only one reader is not a writer. A man who has two readers is not a writer, either. But a man who has three readers"—and he pronounced "three readers" as though they were three million—"that man is really a writer."

it's not that fame and popularity are inherently bad. It's that the pursuit of fame and popularity are a pernicious form of attachment that can only lead to personal sorrow. High expectations for fame and the plaudits of posterity are not fulfilling to me as a writer. In fact, attachment to fame can kill the creative process entirely, because it becomes too easy to pander, to fall into pleasing the expectations of the lowest common denominator among the audience, and to change what one writes based on an opinion poll or other ratings game. That's how politicians know what to say and do, and that's bad enough: writers who use opinion polls to direct their writing, well, what is that but commercial marketing? I'm not saying marketing is never creative, because creativity can appear in everyday form in every occupation—it's how you do things that marks them as creative, not what you're doing—but it's bad enough that the publishers of best-sellers have formulae about plot, character, and style that they know sells books. I'm sorry, there's just no better way to say it: Market-driven writing is a sin against the muse.

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(for George Seferis)

the immortal Odysseus, still wandering,
caught sleepwalking between the whirlpools of bars
and the clashing rocks of the red-light district:
this eternal homefinder, drunk again,
if he ever woke from his vagrant dissolution,
so hard to meet his sun-borne eyes.

up, old man: bounce home off the alley walls.
sleep is the key, and dreams of Ithaka.

Photos from Highway 1, California, near Big Sur

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