Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Professional Critics

It is encouraging to read a well-respected critic such as Terry Teachout writing that, when he teaches students about criticism, he always tells them these three things:

Always treat artists with respect. Most of them know how to do something you can't do.

Don't be afraid to be wrong.

Don't be afraid to be enthusiastic!

I think this is wise advice. While I think all three points merit discussion, I want to focus on the first point for a minute: Always treat artists with respect. Most of them know how to do something you can't do. This bears constant repetition, because in the personal and professional politics of critiquing and literary criticism it is often overlooked. I appreciate Mr. Teachout's humble presentation of the role of the critic, in his reminder to always treat artists with respect. The simple truth is that most artists (not all) do how to do something others don't: namely, create art. Artist make art: critics write about what the artists make. When those roles get confused, it can be a problem. When the critics start thinking they have the right to tell the artists what to do, it can be very serious problem. Critics have the right to tell the artists what they think of their work, but not to dictate to the artists what to do, or how to do it. Artists, for their part, have every right to listen to or ignore the critics. It's wise for all involved to remember these roles clearly.

Yet there is another aspect in which this advice is flatly wrong, or at least, far more nuanced: namely, when the professional critic is also an artist. (Ah yes, the many things we do to support our art.) This can be a difficult balance to negotiate, if one is reviewing work in one's own field. Sometimes one thinks the principle motive behind a pan, in the case of certain critics, is artistic jealousy, or some subconscious belief that they could have done a better job, if they'd been given the chance.

I do write reviews, and occasional critical essays.

This Dragoncave is for my more finished essay-form pieces, and the occasional poem. Over at my main website, the Road Journal is more like zuihitsu, or "following the brush," in random composition format, and is about whatever I'm thinking about. I write about things over there that I rarely mention here. The two journals have different roles, different purposes, and I prefer to keep them separate. I talk about dreams over there; I talk about poems about dreams over here. Perhaps that's an artificial distinction, but I started the Dragoncave as a way to compile my more finished essays: compile, revise, focus, tune, re-compile again. It gives me a place to look for patterns, themes, recurring obsessions. This means I might spiral around a topic for awhile, before locking it down. That in turn means the reader might encounter a little repetition, but hopefully will view this as I do: looking at a theme from multiple directions, like different facets on the same jewel.

Many of my concert and CD reviews have been published in various print and online media over the years, although I've rarely been paid for them. So, I can pretend to be a professional critic, in that I'm published, and even had a minor following for awhile; but in truth I remain an interested amateur, not a paid critic.

Nonetheless, some level or form of objectivity is achievable. After all, an artist is trained (hopefully) in aesthetic appreciation, and may be well able (if articulate) to report to non-artists why a work is worth paying attention to, or conversely why it should be avoided. It is possible to do all that, and leave one's personal prejudices out of the mix. It is possible, but it might be difficult for many, and almost impossible for a minority of artist-critics who are unable to set aside their competitiveness with their artistic peers.

I think the negotiation comes around how honest one is with oneself, when writing a review, about one's own agenda. One thing the best reviewers seem to share (I think of Conrad Aiken, Edwin Denby, and one or two others) is an ability to be honest in their assessments while at the same time setting aside their personal agendas; or, if unable to set them aside, then openly disclosing them, so the reader knows where she stands.

But humility in criticism is a valuable thing, and is highly underrated. So to hear a distinguished critic, such as Mr. teachout, promoting it, is a welcome zephyr of fresh air.

Labels: ,

Monday, June 25, 2007


As I sit in my library, surrounded on almost three walls by books on shelves—the almost third wall being the corner where the freestanding fireplace is, and the fourth being the wall with my recording studio gear under the windows overlooking the backyard—I think about reducing things down to their simplest aspects. We live in a world that's almost too overwhelming, too overstimulating. I say "almost" because much of the time we cope with it, or think we do. But simplicity is a thing we yearn for so much, so often, as antidote to the rush of daily commitments that we think we need to have, or must have, that we forget to just stop. Just. Stop. And that's the simplest thing of all. It's not complicated, it's not even hard—unless you have developed so much momentum around the "should"s and "have to!"s of life that you've forgotten how inessential most of them are.

I will gradually, over the course of the next few months, keep whittling away at this library, and paring it down to essentials. I'll sell off some of the books I don't think I'll ever read again, or can replace if I ever need to. Some books never go away, after all. What I'll keep will bne the irreplaceable and the beautiful and unusual. I'll be doing the same to the whole house. This is my parents' house that I'm living in for now, and that I will be living in for several more months, as we gradually clear it out and get it ready for eventual sale. And then I'll find someplace else to live, as lightly as possible, and travel, and move on.

French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry defined perfection as that which is achieved "not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be taken away." These words eloquently embody the call to simplicity in photography and art—and in life and faith, as well.

Photography, unlike most other arts, involves at its essence the stripping away of the superfluous. While the painter begins with a blank canvas, to which paint is added, the photographer starts with everything—an infinitely crowded canvas, as it were—and progressively removes various elements. To the photographer, every great scene to be photographed already exists somewhere in the world; the challenge lies in deciding where to point the camera and then eliminating from the field of view everything that does not contribute to the desired result.
—Micah Marty, Photographer's Introduction to When True SImplicity Is Gained: Finding spiritual clarity in a complex world, by Martin Marty and Micah Marty

Saint-Exupéry's idea of perfection is elegant and simple, and resonates with me as a poet and artist. Marty's description of the nature of photography also resonates well with me. In both photography and poetry, I feel called to simplicity. As a poet I most drawn to small elegant forms such as haiku, which are both simple and, on a deeper layer, resonant and complex.

Perfection is stripping away, not adding to. Not reductionism, which is reducing things to nothing by way of analysis, but to that point where "nothing more can be taken away." The master sculptor, when asked how he can create such beauty from a block of marble, said, I just take away everything that's not the statue. He sees the finished piece inside the block, and removes the rest. The photographer crops and frames the image so that nothing that's not the photo is inside the frame. It's a focusing-inward, a cleansing.

In life and art, then, taking away the inessential is the road to simplicity, and perfection.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, June 24, 2007


lilies rise and bloom
as though untouched by summer
storm rains

spill of white gladiola chrysanthemum daisy lily turning towards light white spray of white flowers white the color of death with two roses in the midst of white cascade one red rose for him one yellow rose for her together twinned falling beside the resting place under wood under hot sky under eyeburning sky bright enough to darken then two stands of flowers beside feet yellow fall of lilies with one red rose beside head red fall of many strands with one yellow rose pressed together pressed inward up to sun to memory to recitation of the catalysts of joy what’s left is gold silver red yellow spilling cascade frozen water ice the color of dying frozen hands in calm caress repose prayer silence

hands to eyes marked with tight-lipped fire red
hands to sleep in sun combust to ashes gray yellow white

Labels: , , ,


A quote from an interview with Margaret Atwood:

Foreignness is all around. Only in the heart of the heart of the country, namely the heart of the United States, can you avoid such a thing. In the center of an empire, you can think of your experience as universal. Outside the empire, or on the fringes of the empire, you cannot.

This speaks to me because of my own biographical history, namely, spending the earliest years of my childhood in a foreign land, a foreign culture, and then returning to my "homeland" in my youth. As a result, I've never felt the same sense of "hometown place" that many do; conversely, I'm comfortable when traveling, and can feel at home almost anywhere.

I wrote a paper in grad school coining the concept of insider/outsider status; the paper discussed an example based on fieldwork in an ethnic musical setting, was well-received, and presented at a couple of different academic conferences. Of course I realized, even then, that it was really an oblique attempt at spiritual autobiography. The truth is, I often still feel like a foreigner in my homeland; especially politically, when I often have to shake my head, unable to understand what seems to me to be utter madness. In truth, there's a long list of realms of life in which I remain someone who straddles the borders, one foot in one world, the other foot in another: constantly on the fence, walking between worlds, aware of both home and Other. It's been an interesting process, learning to balance all that, in my life.

How does foreignness affect us as poets? How does insider/outsider status? How about when we write from a viewpoint "alien" to our basic one?

I think about raiding my past. I've been finding family photos in my cleaning and organizing of my parents' house, and thinking about who that boy and young man was, in those old photos: what he was thinking about. (Ignoring the fact that the photo I found of myself at 16, wearing very tight white shorts—it was 1975—and a yellow tank top, makes me remember how continuously I was thinking, as young men do at that age, about sex, sex, sex.) One of my ongoing projects right now is to scan alll of our re-discovered family photos, both to preserve them digitally, but also to distribute copies on CD to family members; fortunately, many of the old photos are labeled on their backs. I have a picture of my Dad in short pants on the sunlit porch of his childhood home in Lansing, MI. I have photos of my school friends, and myself, playing, in short pants. You think about time, and its passing. Perhaps it puts you into an elegiac mood, but it also makes you think in a very hard-headed way about legacy, time, change, growth, and death. What dies? Individual biographies die, but species biography might continue, if all goes well. I am thinking in multiple scales, multiple frames. What's foreign to me is a lack of such inner contemplation; what's foreign is the unexamined life.

I'm also thinking of raiding my storage boxes with all those old grad school papers in them, maybe revising them, and posting them on my website; maybe as PDFs rather than HTML pages. In the forefront of my mind at the moment is the insider/outsider paper I mentioned above. Technical conversion challenges (about getting those old papers digitized) aside, it's interesting to look back at what I used to think, and see where I've evolved, and where I still basically think the same things. My own insider/outsider status (bisexual, born on an astrological cusp, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, two-spirited, etc.) is on the table.

When I was in my 30s, I had a friend (wife of an acquaintance) who was born and raised in Africa of English ancestry, and had married an American and was living in Madison, WI. She introduced me to the concept of the Global Nomad: people who are stateless, sometimes by choice, more often by habit because of rootless upbringing, who share some common characteristics; one of them being the ability to be comfortable when traveling. "Culture shock" is something many global nomads don't feel very often—except perhaps when confronted by something from within their theoretical home-culture that shocks them because of its provinciality. We are accustomed to change, and tend to be adaptable, and open to new experiences; we tend to be unfazed by the Unknown and the Exotic.

I think also of Bruce Chatwin, in some ways the embodied archetype of the global nomad: a bisexual man who married but never stopped sleeping with men, whenever he traveled, which was most of the year; he wanted both the respectability of a rooted British citizenship and the openness of being able to go wherever intrigued him, and whenever. He used his consdierable charm to cajole people into supprting him. He was a gifted writer, whose talent never reached its full power when he wrote novels (in my opinion); while it was his ambition to be a famous travel-novelist, in fact his most compelling, gripping writing (in my opinion) is in his journals, his travel notes, his random jottings about nomadics. Every Global Nomad needs to carry a copy of Chatwin's The Songlines on their travels. It's a book I carry with me whenever I take one of my long road trips. It contains not only wisdom, but comfort.

Am I foreign from my own birthplace? Alienation isn't the right word for what I feel; foreignness seems so much more accurate. It's not that I feel alienated from my home-country; it's that I tend to view it through the lens of a visitor, a tourist, or an anthroplogist doing ethnographic fieldwork: somewhat remotely, from the emotional distance an interested and engaged foreign visitor might feel. I feel very engaged with my home-place, but I do not feel as if I am from there, or that I necessarily belong there. I can't label this alienation so much as a lack of those essential connections to place that I hear in the spaces between the words, whenever I listen to people who have been born and bred in a particular place, talk about their homes with all the love and affectionate griping that only those who have lived all their lives close to their birthplace can feel. Those strings to one's "hometown" elude me still.

But that's that insider/outsider interface, isn't it? That what from the inside seems natural is out of place in a shifted context. It's not that foreignness is defining you in the eyes of the locals, or some other Others, but rather that they're defining anyone (not just me, not just you) not of their local, familiar, well-known Tribe, to be an Other, a foreigner. In other words: it's not personal, it's general. Anyone who is foreign would get a similar response, one presumes.

The degree of isolationism and insularity practiced by the tribe has some play here, as to the matter of degree of foreignness one feels: for example, being dropped in a small isolated village where you speak little of the language is a rather different experience than being dropped in the middle of a cosmopolitan metroplex, for example, Amsterdam. (I choose Amsterdam over Paris or London or New York or Tokyo because in my experience Amsterdam is more cosmopolitan, more laissez-faire, than any other European city I've visited.)

There are moments when you get caught on this cusp, without expecting to. Growing up as I did in a relic of the British Empire, I comprehend a lot of the slang and cultural stuff about Britain and the Commonwealth that a lot of my USA friends don't. It doesn't feel foreign to me. So, I occasionally get stuck on the horns of the dilemma of being able to track a Brit joke or phrase, then realizing that no one around me got it, and then feeling like I have to "translate." (Translation is of course about more then simply words: it's about worldviews, body language, cultural tropes, and expectations.)

What makes something local is that there's an expectation, or an assumption, about its nature that isn't shared universally among all other human beings in all other cultures. Many more of these expectations are local, rather than general, than most people believe, or want to believe. My nomadic experience leads me to believe that people who travel tend to shed more of their tribal assumptions about the nature of reality than those who don't; in other words, there's truth behind the cliché that "travel broadens."

A side-bar topic that often comes up, parallel to this one, is something worth mentioning here, then letting drop: the charge that every seasoned traveler tends to run into, when they point out something from their experience of foreginness, of "cultural relativism." I'm going to address that briefly, then let it drop, and not pick it up again; call it a pre-emptive mini-rant, if you will: it's worth addressing, but I'm not going to give it any more attention than it deserves, which is a minimum. So, before anyone gets caught up in yammering about "cultural relativism," it's wise to remember that cries of "cultural relativism!" aren't about the genuine encounter with the Other, they're typically about resistance to a genuine encounter with the Other, and resistance to change: they are typically based on xenophobia, to be blunt.

I reject simplistic formulations about foreignness and foreign cultures on the basis that they are simplistic. Simplistic formulations are almost always wrong, period. For example: Most anti-"cultural relativism" rhetoric in my experience comes from the same mindset that tends to be anti-PC not because PC can be silly in its extremes, which it certainly can, but because for whatever reason some folks just don't want to have to deal with those genuine issues of fairness that underlay the origins of PC. It's very easy to be dismissive, to make broad sweeping generalizations about the goofy extremes of PC rhetoric, of which indeed there are numerous examples, but such broad sweeping generalizations tend to overlook the complexities of the motives that lay behind the ideas of equal fairness that later morphed into PC. In other words, such simplistic formulations tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

15th-century maps, with the misconceptions about what was actually there—California was an island paradise akin to El Dorado on some maps; and instead of Polynesia there's a big blank space labeled "Here Be Dragons"—such simplistic assumptions about foreignness are laughable even when offensive, coming as they do from folks whose ideas of foreignness are on the level of saying that the French put too many pickles on their hamburgers in the McDonald's joint in downtown Paris.

Labels: , , ,

Conscious Craft or Dictation? 3

The question is asked:

When you set out to write a poem, do you have an idea of how it will end? Or do you start down a new path to see where it takes you?

It comes to mind that this is the perennial issue addressed by Robert Frost in one of his most famous poems, The Road Not Taken. The opening stanza raises the issue:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

My own answer to the question would be: Stay with the uncertainty. It will be most rewarding in the long run, if perhaps more uncomfortable in the short run.

I had the experience recently, while driving home after grocery shopping, and idly thinking about poetry, when a whole image sprung into my mind's eye, laid holographically across my vision like a heads-up-display in a stealth helicopter, of a complete new poetic form. It felt as if it was "given." I knew I had to write in this form immediately, and did so as soon as I got home and put away the groceries. (We'll see where it goes. It's not the first form I've "invented.") I had no idea what I was going to write about, or what the words inside the form were going to be: but I could see it there. I even knew which typeface it should be set in, eventually (Baskerville, or Zusanna Licko's modern version of Baskerville with all the extra ligatures, Mrs. Eaves.)

So, in this instance, I very much knew exactly what I wanted to do, where the poem would go in terms of form, and how it would look like when finished. My job was to fit my writing into the new form, which I did. The topic ended up being something I hadn't expected, though, but which evolved. That came out the way it usually comes out: start writing, follow the images and tones where they want to go, and see where you end up: "follow the brush." I've learned to not force a poem, ever, to do what I think it wants to do, versus what it wants to do. If a topic veers off, I follow it, and go where it leads.

I like to leave the door open, in all my art, for uncertainty, indeterminacy, evolutionary or organic growth, and chance.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I have no idea where I'm going to end up. Starting down a new path to see where it takes me is much more typical of my writing practice in general. I almost always don't even know what form the poem is going to take, until it tells me—i.e. becomes clear during the writing process itself. I've invented a couple of other forms by doing just that: following the brush to see where it leads, then later knowing I had invented a form only when other poems seemed to want to shape themselves into that same form. A nice pattern and style evolved into a habit which evolved into a form. (The fractal form of the Books evolved in a similar way.)

Most of the time I have no clue what's going to happen, and I've learned to let it happen without trying to guide or interfere in the process. I usually just let it go wherever it wants. It can feel like dictation at times. My job most of the time is to be ready and willing to listen, and follow. In fact, most of the time, I don't even set down to write a poem. Fairly often, I think I'm sitting down to read my email, or write an essay, or update my Road Journal, and a poem starts whispering in the back of my mind, wanting to get out. I've learned to let that happen, too.

It's all in the Whispering. (Ask your cats about the Whispering. They'll deny everything, of course.)

Conversely, most poems that I feel the need to write—for example, if I'm thinking about something important, and I feel the need to sit down and write about it, to express myself, or whatever—well, most of the time, those writings suck. Mostly, they're useless, and get put in the "Do Not Share" folder. Sometimes I'll pull them out, save a few nice fragments, trash the rest, and see what the good bits want to have happen. But the truth is, for me: writing for "self expression," as in the contemporary confessional lyric, or out of some ego-need to express myself, almost always yields bad writing. Therapy-poems, journal poems, pedantic lecturing, whatever, it sucks. I don't willingly inflict that crap on the rest of the world. (Whole pages in past journals are nothing but venting and yelling, and I don't care to share that stuff, either.)

This writing process is actually not as passive a process as it sounds, in this description. It requires a high level of engagement and discipline, to be ready, and to be receptive. (Go ahead, try to still your mind enough to listen, right now! Not as easy as it seems, is it?) I have found that 20-plus years of regular meditation, dream-journaling, and general writing practice (without necessarily having poetry in mind), have contributed to making the process easier, and especially in making it much easier for me to quiet my own mind so that I can hear that inner whispering.

As Frost concludes in his poem:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

As I said: Stay with the uncertainty. Leave the door open. Let the Mysteries be the mysteries.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Shopping for a New Creative Process 2

Breaking out of the ruts. Changing patterns. Feeling stale, uninspired, static, stuck.

I confess to sympathy about feeling stale creatively, as I do occasionally feel that way. But then, if I'm not feeling poetic, I turn to music, or artwork; and when I'm feeling stuck in music, I turn to poetry. I know from experience that I write the most number of poems at those times when I'm feeling musically unsatisfied. If I'm deep into the music, I hardly write any poems at all. I use Joni Mitchell's idea of crop rotation: do more than one art form, and when one isn't working, switch to another.

As to what to read in these fallow periods (and they are fallow periods, rather than blocks), I avoid reading poetry. I will read science fiction, mysteries, other fiction (but rarely do I read no-brainer bestsellers, for the same reasons I don't eat fast food: healthy nutrition), or a lot of nonfiction. I read about science a lot, or pick up a book on fractals to learn the math behind the art images. That sort of thing.

In other words, to quote Monty Python: And now for something completely different. It works.

But the question might then be asked: But do you never lose the desire to create? Not so much changes in the direction of output, but the switch being turned on or off?

Yes, I've lost the desire to create—but only once or twice in my life, and it was when life was so hard and dark at those extreme times that I actually felt suicidally depressed. (If that's what you're going through, please do go see someone about it.)

Now, normally, I'm not actively suicidal, ever. I've had days where I don't care if I live or die, but it's passive not active. I've also had extreme times where I put my survival in the hands of the Powers That Be—and I'm still here. (So, They must still want me to be here.) I've had some very dark times in my past, and I found myself unable to create during some of those times. But even during the dark night, I have usually still been able to write, or make art, or record music.

Being creative was actually one of my principle ways out of that dark night. I wrote a lot in my journal, most of which is unreadable and not for public consumption. The shamanic music and artwork I do grew out of those experiences (some of which have been written about as visionary poems), and the healing work that I do for others also grows out of having Been There, Done That, myself.

In the past several years, even on my darkest days, I still usually feel creative, because I've learned to convert those times to energy for creativity. (Which is what Tantra is about: it's not just about sex, as most people think, it's about the conversion of whatever energies you're currently dealing with, as they arise, into fuel for awakening.) I then use that energy for making things. Sometimes what I make sucks, sometimes it's great, sometimes it's blah. (Further evidence that the quality of the art we make is not directly correlated to the state of being we were in when we made it.) But I am making something, rather than stewing in my own juices. The process of making is more important than the product. For my own well-being, I have learned to get up and just do something, anything, whatever it is, no matter how boring it is, whether I feel like doing it or not. Cleaning house during those periods is actually very productive, and I do feel better afterwards, because I can see the results of my doing right there in front of me.

Sometimes I think writing is too intangible an artform for us to feel like we've ever actually accomplished or finished something: so I recommend yardwork, or sculpture, or taking a walk long enough to feel tired when done. Something tangible as a result. If you want to feel tangible as a writer, don't do it at the computer, but use a journal book and a pen, and count the pages you've filled after you spewed out everything you were feeling. Do your poems as calligraphy; turn your lines into artwork.

There is a dis-ease of the spirit that was well-known by the Medieval monastics, called acedia. It literally means, dryness of the soul. (It is also means depression, and its Medieval nickname was the noonday demon: the demon that attacks in the light of day, drying us up and making us feel helpless.) Acedia is treatable, by meditation, by doing other things rather than focusing on whatever is making you feel blah, and even by prayer. But sometimes you just have to endure the dry spell, and come out the other side. There is always a reason for acedia, even if we don't know what it is. (Sometimes we never get to know it is.) Maybe you were just pushing yourself too hard, and you needed to stop and do nothing for awhile.

Doing nothing is not a sin. Who says we have to write all the time? That's a heavy load to put on ourselves, for so intangible a product. So, if you're in a fallow period, and you feel stuck, yes, you can change your routines to shakes yourself up an get unstuck. You can also choose to stay with the dryness, and endure it, and see what lessons it has to teach you. You might be a different writer when you emerge from the other side.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Joys of Young Adult Fiction

This is a "genre" usually overlooked or outright dismissed by most pervayers of "mainstream fiction." That's too bad, because like all the genre ghettoes, it contains some great writing by some great writers.

I'm not talking about fiction written by adults this is about young adults—most of J.D. Salinger's books, or William Golding's Lord of the Flies—some of which only serve to reinforce adults' misconceptions about childhood. (Although how adults can seem to forget being children is something I've never fully comprehended.) I'm talking about fiction written for young adults, with young adult readers in mind.

In fact, this is a vast publishing genre, covering a lot of ground, ranging from the Harry Potter novels to books about teenagers discovering their own sexualities, such as M.E. Kerr's Hello, I Lied. There is, by the way, a strong and growing sub-genre of young adult novels for LGBT teens. A lot of YA fiction gets published every year, and it crosses genres from humor to science fiction to mystery-thriller to romantic-angst: the same topics as purely mainstream adult fiction. It's just that the viewpoint characters are often themselves teenagers.

My last job in Madison, WI, before I left to move to the Twin Cities, and eventually to become a semi-nomad out West, was for a company that took paperback books and rebound them in indestructible hardcovers, to resell them to educational institutions such as school libraries, prison libraries, and the like. The most fun part of the job for me was my re-encounter with many novels and illustrated picture books from my youth. I rediscovered many classics I had read long ago, and loved, and not read since. And I discovered even more new works of great merit.

Young adult fiction at its best discusses those issues of concern to growing young adults, to be sure: Who am I? What do I believe? How do I want to spend my life? But it also gives more than that. A sermon can give you rules for living, if that's all you want. What fiction can give you, rather, is rehearsals and trial-runs for a fully-lived life.

I rediscovered Roald Dahl, for example, and Susan Cooper's modern-dary Arthurian series (which was listed for more than one Newbery Medal), and Will Hobbs, Michael Dorris, Patricia Maclachlan, Scott O'Dell, and numerous others. (The children's book authors are worth a whole other list, and essay. Don't get me going about Maurice Sendak, for one.)

One writer I particularly enjoyed reading more of was Gary Paulsen, who along with Jim Harrison (poet, novelist, essayist, one of my favorite writers of all time) is arguably the legitimate heir of Hemingway. Not in terms of style or subject matter, necessarily. What all three writers share in common is that they are northern Midwesterners. There is a pragmatic sensibility, a willingness to wade in to do what needs to be done, that Hemingway, before his decline into self-parody, exemplified. Paulsen spent many years in Minnesota, up by the border, and ran the Iditarod twice. Harrison, like Hemingway, is from northern Michigan. I'm from Michigan, too. I can spot "Michigan writers." When I encounter a Michigan writer, I can usually tell; the same for most Midwestern writers. It's something you can tell when you look at the basics assumptions the writers make about the shape of the world, the nature of living, and the meaning of death.

This isn't about that spectre of dismissal many writers from either coast use to turn up their noses, so-called "regionalism." (As Jim Harrison once opined, "Certain critics can't cross the Mississippi.") It's about, rather, a shared attitude towards the life, a toughened endurance, a refusal to disengage when things get frightening or challenging. It seems to me that Midwestern writers share those same attitudes of bringing the circle of life into their writing by practicing what they preach, not just writing about it, but actually doing it. Dakota prairie poet Linda Hasselstrom is another of these.

And like many of these Midwestern writers, I too have moved West.

Gary Paulsen has written in some of his novels about places I know, and have been to, and lived nearby. He also writes about one thing many young adult readers are hungrier for than most parents realize: a personal spiritual adventure into self-discovery, which can be undertaken through physical hardship, but also through determination. Many of his most popular YA novels fall into this realm, including the perennial favorite Hatchet, possibly his best-known novel. My personal favorite, though, is Dogsong, about a young Inuit boy who sets out on a journey across the Alaskan interior with only his sled dogs. On the way, his journey becomes mythic, even shamanic, as ancient time folds into present time, and the boy discovers who he really is. The Island is one of Paulsen's most successful novels, because it brings together the nameless spirituality developed by the direct confrontation with the struggle to survive found in Canyons and Hatchet with fully-rounded, well-developed characterizations. The people in The Island are not predictable types; they surprise you with both their actions and their insights.

This is a kind of writing that is not as present in YA fiction as it might be: the journey within, to discover the self. At its best, perhaps all great YZ fiction is bildungsroman, wherein the characters find out more about themselves than they ever imagined they could.

Another writer I discovered who I really appreciated discovering was Graham Salisbury, whose novels of childhood set in mid-century Hawai'i are luminous, dramatic, and stand out from the pack. Blue Skin of the Sea, actually a collection of inter-connected short stories, is a great place to dip in.

If you want to write YA fiction, I'll give you a clue: Don't write down to teenagers. They have very finely-tuned bullshit detectors, and are very good at picking up even the faintest hint of a patronizing attitude. Instead, focus on the second word of "young adult" and treat them as adults; maybe inexperienced because young, but not stupid, and not incapable of imagination. Maybe you'll write using plain words instead of fancy words, but don't write stupid, and don't be condescending.

Here's another clue: Kids and teens who read, who like to read, to love to read, tend to read at higher levels than their nominal grade levels. When I was still a teenager, I read Ulysses for the first time. I never read at my grade level's expectations, I always at a much higher grade level. I have found, through experience, that kids who love to read almost always read at a higher level than adults think they do. They might even conceal it, in an attempt to fit in, and be unnoticed. (Once they trust you, and discover that you share their love of reading, though, all bets are off.) These are the kids you need to write for: this is your audience.

The third clue I have to give relates back to what I mentioned above in Gary Paulsen's novels: There is room in this genre of writing for the story of self-discovery. Indeed, it's a major trope within YA fiction in general. It may seem obvious, but it's worth repeating: your audience is just beginning to discover themselves, who they are, their values, their limits, their endurance. As a writer, you can help them out. You can set out tales that maybe none of your readers will actually physically experience (how many city-born actually could survive in the wild?), but they will still learn from, and re-read, and re-experience.

Vivid writing brings you inside itself, so that what you read becomes like a cinema in your mind, and you feel it in your own body, no matter what the topic, no matter who your audience is. There are so many ways that YA fiction tends to be vivid and visceral, that mainstream "adult" fiction could learn from, to refresh and renew itself, and break out of the stale self-reflexive navel-gazing that most "literary" fiction seems to have fallen into, in the past generation. "Literary" fiction has a great deal to learn from all genres of "genre" fiction, not least of which is the best of young adult fiction.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 11, 2007

Notes towards an egoless poetry 11: Kenosis

Up front, I just want to be clear that I neither endorse nor rebel against any kind of organized religion. I tend naturally towards Taoism at times, and Zen Buddhism, and panentheism. I am an eclectic practicing mystic, with strong elements in my idiosyncratic and highly personal spiritual practice that come from shamanism, Zen Buddhism, Native American rituals, and the Medieval Christian mystics. The cosmology around which my spirituality is based owes much to Meister Eckhart, to Rumi, to the Navajo creation cycle, to Jim Marion, to Caroline Myss, to MSIA, and to others. Yet I belong to no organized religious groups. I’ve occasionally said that I prefer disorganized religions; which is a mildly humorous, mildly blasphemous formulation I like.

My sources here are primarily those that I have found who articulate things I already knew, but wasn’t clear that I knew, and that I hadn’t yet put into words or formal concepts. My Zen is more of an attitude than a strict practice; I like Dogen’s comment that you don’t need a meditation pillow to practice Zen, your ass will do just fine. I tend to steer clear of words like “God” because they have a tremendous amount of baggage accrued to them. I don’t go to church mostly because I don’t like church politics. I invent new terminologies for the sacred and the divine on a regular basis, which is a visionary poet’s right and pleasure. Lately, because I’ve been on the front lines of caring for my ailing parents, I have felt drawn more powerfully towards the Buddhist aspects of my practice.

As a lifelong mystic, I have most often focused on the common ground and identical concepts that arise independently in so many of the world’s religions. (I find it no coincidence that all of the world’s mystics, in all the world’s cultures, in every era, have all said very similar things.) I find it horrifying that so many conflicts have been fought about small disagreements around religious beliefs and practices. That we as a species are so willing and able to kill each other over sectarian differences saddens me beyond my ability to express in words.

Having said all this by way of preface, it’s time to return to poetry. I prefaced my remarks this way by way leading up to revealing that I read a lot of theology. I get a lot out of reading theology, even when it’s as parochial and self-referential as Western Christian theology can sometimes be.

(I read much more than Christian theology, however. In the original Greek, theos refers to all things divine, and can refer to the thousand little local gods, the greater demiurges, and hierarchy or pantheon of deities one choose to list, and the silent Godhead behind them all, for which they are all masks. It can also refer to the representatives of god, or the gods, which are the Powers That Be or many different functions and names. Theos can refer to Shiva, Vishnu, Mahakala, and Quan Yin just as readily as it can to the God of the three Abrahamic religions.)

So, in my recent readings in theology, I came across the idea of kenosis, introduced to me by a very remarkable short book: Kenosis: Emptying self and the path of Christian Service, by Kevin M. Cronin, a Franciscan priest. (Published in 1992 by Continuum, New York, a publisher whose books I frequently find of great interest and utility.) Fr. Cronin first defines kenosis in his book’s introduction as a resolute divesting of the person of every claim of self-interest so as to be ready to live the Gospel of Christ in every aspect of living, freed from the dictates of personal preference.

I find I prefer Fr. Cronin’s very Franciscan descriptions of kenosis as a process and a way of life over the dry, academic doctrinal definitions found in, for instance, the Catholic Encyclopedia or other dry technical discussions that seem involved more in the letter of doctrine than in its spirit. The traditional doctrinal definitions refer often to Paul’s epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament, specifically the remark: Jesus made himself nothing or emptied himself. The verb is ekenosen, which means “to empty,” that is, to empty the self. One pours out one’s existence on the ground, and gives up everything, only to be fulfilled.

(The section of Paul’s epistle in which this word appears is sometimes referred to as The Kenosis Hymn, or Prayer. An interesting discussion of kenosis from this perspective is The Poured-Out Life.)

Fr. Cronin describes how to put the principle into action. His book is partly memoir, partly meditation: his theology is grounded in practice and encounter, rather than in philosophy, for which we may all be grateful. As I have recently spent a great deal of time in hospitals, in Alzheimer’s care facilities, and with hospice patients, what Fr. Cronin describes as a process of emptying the self to be of service to others to have a great deal of resonance in my current daily life. I serve best when I get out of my own way, and live in the moment, and deal with what’s right in front of; I serve much less well when I dwell on what-ifs and might-bes and nebulous plans for a future that will never arrive except in the usual way, one minute at a time.

Although the concept and word kenosis are borrowed from Catholic theology, let us no set aside any sectarian doctrinal undercurrents and keep our attention here on how kenosis applies to poetry. If you like, set aside the God-language of doctrinal theology and substitute your own words for That which is greater than yourself. You can call it God, Goddess, Higher Self, Higher Power, the Powers That Be, Spirit, or any of a million other masks of god that are known by many other names. The point here is to recognize the archetypal universality of the human encounter with the transpersonal, whether we frame it as the Divine, or as some force that arises within the unknown parts of our own minds (and knowing that these might be the same thing).

Perhaps I am merely repeating myself, or circling around to approach the same island from a different direction. Syncretism and synchronicity are no strangers here, though, but regular visitors who drop around for tea and cookies.

Kenosis is the removal of the self so as to be open for the movement of Spirit to come in. This could be a description of the process of inspiration, of a Greek philosopher describing how the artist is “taken by the Muse.” It speaks directly to removing the “I” of the poet from the poetry.

Kenosis leads to egolessness. We’ve already discussed in this series how the ego tends to fight against being given up, as the ego can only perceive that as its own death; we’ve also discussed poetry’s relation, if any, to mental illness. Kenosis may be a more specific practice, rather than a new one, for achieving an egoless poetry.

Kenosis is a humbling, an emptying, a letting-go. It is transforming. As Fr. Cronin puts it: It’s the secret nature continually reveals every spring after winter; in rainbows after the rain; in butterflies after cocoons. . . . New life after dying to self. In the Peace prayer: “It is in dying that we are born!” (This could be a Buddhist as well as a Christian saying.)

Kenosis in poetry means emptying the mind so that the poem can come in. It means emptying the self to leave room from Something Else to come in; maybe that something else is the poem, or maybe it’s inspiration. Maybe it’s psychological, maybe it’s spiritual. I’m sure it doesn’t matter how you formulate it, as long as it is happening.

There’s a technique I’ve learned over the years for removing memories that are difficult, painful, disgusting, horrifying, but removing them without suppressing them or stuffing them into the shadow, to re-emerge elsewhere as a neurosis. The technique is to visualize a void, like a whole torn in the middle of a book page, a void where the fear or disgust used to be. But the important thing is to hold the void as long as you can, and let the hole be empty: don’t let it fill up; don’t let what was there before flow back in; and don’t try to fill it the way many people will try to fill in a silence in a conversation merely because they are uncomfortable with silence. Let the void be empty, for as long as you can sustain. You’ll find, then, as your mind turns inevitably to other things, that what once bothered you is gone, yet something new has come into you, perhaps from a completely unnoticed direction, and what has come in is often a gift of grace.

Emptying the self in poetry means emptying yourself of plans, intentions, expectations, detailed outlines, thought-forms, desires, structures and forms. The void will get refilled all by itself; you don’t have to do a thing. And your record of the experience is what becomes the poem. Emptying yourself of forms doesn’t mean you’ll stop writing sonnets, but it does mean you’ll look at the sonnet form in a new way: with the scales of expectation and habit removed from your eyes, you will see what’s actually there, rather than what you thought was there. (And that is the goal of all meditation practices, including zazen and monastic contemplative prayer alike: removal of the scales from the eyes.) Maintaining the void in yourself, emptying the self, means letting go of old habits of thought that may not serve you anymore. It means seeing what’s really there, without the filters and thought-forms we usually look through. Buddhist and Christian and Sufi and Taoist teachers alike have all yelled, Wake up! You’ve been asleep you entire life! So wake up!

Kenosis is letting go of what you thought you knew, and waking up to what really is. It leaves a place in you for grace to come in. And sometimes grace looks like a poem.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Shopping for a New Creative Process?

Feeling stuck? In a rut? Stale? Don't enjoy your creative process anymore? Has your process become a routine?

Routine processes are good for starting the process of creativity, kind of like sparkplugs. But once the engine has started, you can abandon routine, and go with whatever flow you're in at the moment. Sometimes that can be quite "sideways." What I mean is: unpredictable. In other words, experience has taught me that it's better (for me) to go with wherever the process seems to want to go, rather than try to control it. "Control" is an illusion, anyway; many things we think we can control, we really can't. So sometimes it's better to not try to control those things, but to listen to them, and follow their lead.

For many poets, writing is largely a mental process. They get accustomed to a routine. They think that poetry is like engineering: if you follow the correct "rules of assembly," everything will work out fine. The problem with that is when a routine becomes a rut.

My experience is that breaking routines is exactly the way to break habits that get us stuck. It can be smart to go looking for another process, but I doubt anyone can sell you one that will work for you—pieces of a process, probably, sure, but not an entire new routine.

Are you forcing yourself to write, even when you don't want to? Maybe that's what is making it seem stale. In writing, I use what we might call the discipline of readiness: being ready at any time for a poem to come, but not forcing one to come, just waiting for it. The discipline is in the readiness, not in the actual writing practice. As a writer I'm very undisciplined, very unroutined, very unpredictable. I can write a flood of poems and essays for several days or weeks, then nothing for months. The "dry spells" or "fallow periods" don't bother me, because I've learned that, for me at least, forcing a poem is absolutely guaranteed to make a bad or mediocre poem; by contrast, letting a poem come to me, I like most of what I write. Again, the discipline, for me, is in the readiness: being ready, and patient, while waiting.

Sometimes we just sit down and play with the materials, with no intention of "making something." Just play: mess around with the elements, like pieces of a collage that we put together into a whole but can totally re-arrange many times before we finally glue them down and finish the piece. Sometimes, the end of of the collage-making process is when you realize, simply, sitting back and looking at it, "Okay, this is done." You don't even know how you got there; you just did.

In other words, the play/compose process is the same for any of the arts: music, graphics, writing. It is an organic process. In poetry, you can play with language, throwing a lot of drafts away, the same way you might for a graphics project. Play has to risk error, risk being run. One of the big stumbling blocks to the creative process is the fear of doing it wrong. That can be a burden, that quest for perfection. How can one ever expect to get a poem perfect the first time out the gate? Why can't both processes be openly and deliberately organic? Why not let it grow at the speed it wants to grow, and not push it?

One possible routine-breaking tactic is what some writers have called free writing: just spewing: journal-writing, spewing, whatever. It's called by many names. Natalie Goldberg's books on writing, such as Wild Mind, are full of good examples of how to go about doing this practice. It's a terrific practice for getting unstuck. The trick is to sit down without having a topic in mind, and also to not care about what you're spewing out. You can always sort through it later. But the real value of free writing is that it's a warm-up: it loosens up the writerly muscles, like an athlete doing isometric exercises before a workout. Free writing prepares the body-mind for writing; but what is produced during free-writing shouldn't be considered writing itself. Some writers do it in a separate notebook, and don't afterwards go back through what they've spewed. Don't get attached to outcomes; just do it to do it.

I can tell you right now that many good poems are "accidents," because they were not planned. There was no outline, no plan, no intention beyond that of simplly writing, and what came out was beyond what the mind knew was there, beforehand. After all, that's what "inspiration" means: the breath entering the body, and the body producing something new. The breath is necessary to life: inspiration is necessary to living. If poetry really were only an engineering problem, it would be something any educated ape could do, and do well.

If you have fear about trying to write again after not having done it for awhile—that "I'll never be able to write if I were to try it again someday" fear—well, so what? who cares if you never wrote again? Obviously, if you do care, there may be a reason to care; but it may not be the obvious reason. It may be a self-esteem reason, rather than a literary reason. Writers write for a lot of reasons: only some of those reasons have to do with the audience, or applause, or awareness, or commercial fame. Some writers even write to know what they're thinking about, because they don't articulate their thoughts to themselves before they sit down to write; writing clarifies the mind. Other writers write because it's a compulsion (which isn't a negative word in this context): they write because they must. They write because they need to do it, like breathing, to live.

Nobody ever writes great stuff all the time. I won't tell you how many notebooks of crap I have, that no one will ever see. My journal is my journal, and my artwork is my artwork. Sometimes artwork comes out of the journal, but hardly from every page. Some art ideas began in the journal, but the journal contains no finished pieces. But what the journal does allow me to do is just write, for no reason, just to vent, or spew, or try something out. If it seems interesting, I might pull it out and expand on it later, or revise. It might become something, but the mere act of writing out garbage can get the ball rolling, even if the actual garbage isn't recycleable. And that breaks the routine.

Labels: ,

Friday, June 08, 2007

Walking in Beauty

Following is a short personal essay I wrote in early 2004, a few months before I pulled up stakes in the Midwest and moved to Taos, New Mexico. It was a risk, a leap into the unknown. I had a Scamp trailer that I towed out there with my pickup truck, and I lived in that camper-trailer till December 2004, when the mountain winter cold drove me to move to California. I did move to California, but the trailer didn't make it: not far from Taos, it broke loose of the truck, snapped the safety chains, and went over a cliff in the Rio Grande valley. I survived, the truck survived, no one got hurt, and while I lost some belongings, I survived. I had dreams and post-traumatic stress about the event for a couple of years, afterwards.

But this is what I thinking about in early 2004. I had been living in a dead-end situation, a no-win situation, and I needed to shake up my life. So I followed my heart, and hit the road, and went West. So, this is where my thinking started about it all. It was the beginning of my own nomadism, which I resume whenever I can, and which still calls to me, as often as it ever has.

I've been reading all morning again about hozhoni—the Navajo word for harmony, implying balance between all elements of life, and being in a balanced relationship with them all. (Some part of me has always felt a perfect fit between me and Navajo cosmology and sacred ideas; I find myself practicing them without knowing their origin, sometimes. It just seems natural to diagnose a client who needs healing by looking for where they are out of balance with themselves and nature. I was ten when I first encountered Navajo ideas, and my response was "this makes sense" from the get-go.)

Here's a thought I just had today: Because of who I am and what I do, I need to heal the disharmony between me and the corporate world—that, ironically, was the worst I'd ever experienced at [a certain Twin Cities new age book publishing company], a supposedly "enlightened" publisher of spiritual materials; well, they do publish some very good things, but the collective Shadow rules the office itself—that was part of why I left that world and haven't been gainfully or traditionally employed by it in 2.5 or more years. I need to heal that. I don't at this time know what that looks like, or how to do it; I have a sense that this will become clear later this year, but I need to go live in New Mexico for awhile first, even if I don't end up finding much work there. I frankly am weary of living in big cities with lots of people (constant shielding takes effort), and part of me longs for the silence of simple country life, at desert or seashore. I also know that running away from something—from anything—is not going towards hozhoni, but away from it. You have to face your shadows, and meet them, and integrate them into who you are. You have to find that balance; otherwise your shadow rules you. Jungian and Navajo ideas get along well, at least for me.

I make no claims towards being, or having the right to be, a traditional medicine man, or shaman, in any traditional culture but my own. And yet I share a lot of that worldview, and in retrospect always have. It just makes sense to me.

Remember, too, the Navajo believe that the healer must walk in beauty as an example and role model for others to also see how to walk in beauty. You show others how to be in harmony by doing your own best to be in harmony; this isn't very big or showy, or dramatic, and it won't win you any fame or prizes, and it's all the more real for not being big and dramatic. And there's another reason: you walk in beauty just to do it, for yourself. To heal yourself, to be at peace with your own world. It's altruistic and it's selfish; other-centered and self-centered. (Both/and rather than either/or.)

To live in harmony with the world requires conscious intention, and attention to detail. Living consciously, rather than being ruled by your unconscious shadow, takes self-awareness, and noticing what happens when you don't pay attention. My anger and frustration brings me out of harmony, yet it also can be the catalyst for positive change. Change is chaotic, disruptive, scary and to many people "dangerous." Living without knowing what's going to happen next—living in the present moment—and dealing with it in the moment, is also a way of harmony. You learn to be poised and to react appropriately to any situation, without a lot of drama about it. But chaos isn't fundamentally wrong or bad or evil—it's just change. It's just turbulence between stable states. Sometimes the tribal traditionals don't see that change is flexibility and adaptability, rather than something to be feared and fought against. Conservatism is fear of change. Yet there is room to accommodate the traditionals' thinking into the changing world, too; it is a commonplace that Navajo healers very often correctly diagnose medical conditions in their patients, and some healers do send them to the Western man's medicine hospital if that is what they need. (Gall-bladder surgery, or a broken leg, for instance.) But curing alcoholism is something that requires a change in the person themself, a return to harmony and beauty, a change in the way the person looks at themself in relation to the world. Alcohol makes people do a lot of things they wouldn't otherwise do; it is soul sickness at least as much as it is a physical one. Again, a case of finding balance and harmony. Sometimes what actions the medicine men prescribe seems surprising to us, but it's because we aren't aware where we are out of harmony. The Navajo Sings or Ways are specific curing rituals, with specific rules to be followed during the curing ceremony that will restore harmony within the patient, and heal them. This doesn't contradict Western medicine; as the great Lakota shaman Frank Fools Crow once said, I can heal you, although I might not be able to cure you. He was making a distinction between healing and curing to describe how a person can restore harmony to their life, find balance and beauty again, and still have to go through the experience of dying of cancer. This distinction has always made sense to me, and in itself is a way of looking at things that restores harmony. (All shaman do this; Fools Crow was brother to the Navajo Singers in this respect.)

As Michael Moorcock put it, in the cosmology that underlies many of his fantasy novels in the Eternal Champion cycle, "good" and evil" is far less useful as way of thinking about life than is Law and Chaos. Too much Law, too much order, and things get stagnant, unbending, brittle, totalitarian. (Our current political climate is spawned by fear of change; conservatism is always brittle, which is why it seeks to repress life in order to control it. Fascism is ultimately anti-life, and even more brittle; that's why it tends to break itself on the winds of change, eventually.) Too much Chaos, and things get too random an capricious, our senses can't track much less understand, and the ground goes out from under our feet, leaving a Void. The real harmony (and this is an area where Taoism and Navajo ideas overlap) is in finding that balance between these forces. The Balance is the Tao, and is one kind of hozhoni.

The boundary zone between Law and Chaos is most beautifully and evocatively described by fractals. Fractals exhibit fractional dimension, self-similarity on many scales, and infinite complexity bounded within a finite space. Fractals are not necessarily themselves chaotic, but they do describe the boundary-edge between chaotic states and stable states. These areas of complexity describe how chaos and stability interfinger, send out little tendrils of exploration into each others' territories, and generally mix without truly mixing. This is an incredibly Taoist idea; the seeds of light are in the darkness, and the seeds of darkness are in the light. (An overly orderly society begins to spawn its own chaotic destruction, if it becomes too rigid; a chaotic society will exhibit pockets of orderliness, as members of the society group together in common purpose. This has nothing to do with political ideology; it's a natural phenomenon.)

The fractal geometry of nature has one more huge lesson for us in the realm of seeking harmony; when we see how shapes and patterns of river estuaries and tree-branches and the branching pathways in the alveoli in the lungs are all the same basic patterns, and how they are all self-similar at differently-sized scales, we realize how interconnected everything is, and how it all relates together, and how essential it is for it all to be in harmony and balance in order to function. The Universe is revealed to us as a living, breathing organism, with the same patterns and shapes of forces operating on all different levels. The way clusters of galaxies thread themselves across the skies looks exactly like the patterns fallen maples leaves make under a tree in autumn. This is what it means to walk in beauty; to see harmony and connections in all things.

When the world falls out of balance, the job of the healer is to restore harmony. Walking in beauty, the way of harmony, the way of peace, means that sometimes the healer has to move one way or another off-center, to bring himself and the world back to balance and center; that's why we act crazy sometimes. That's why some of the most difficult clients in a healer's seem so unbalanced; they're the bellwethers for social and cultural unbalance, the shadows the city embodies because the culture wishes to repress them; they act out the culture's schizophrenic contradictions within their individual lives, and sometimes they can be cured not by being given a pill but by being listened to and understood, and brought back into harmony. You can't live in crazy times all the time, or you lose your center; eventually, you have to find some tranquil times to balance them. This, too, is healing.

So, I think that I must go to New Mexico ..... it doesn't mean I won't be back in Chicago, or Wisconsin, or somewhere, or who knows where else, even San Francisco, with an actual real employment kind of job. Eventually. But I need to spend some time in the Four Corners area, which I have been drawn to my whole life. Maybe I need to heal myself before I can go on to the next thing and heal whatever's next. This is all training and initiation and life-college.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The New New Sentence Revisited

Kitchen Etudes

Ask not for whom the dishwasher hums: it hums for thee. Three eggs thrown down the garbage disposal. Fresh baked cookies, no yolks, just white white whites. Meringue of soup like quantum foam at the mouth of the edge of perception. All rise. Time to go. Between a rock salt and a hardened space. Courage to fill the brine to brim. Shrimp thawing in the sink, cocktail sauce on the condiment shelf life of chocolate chip cookies. Sustain oh sustain this pour for all the time it takes a hand to tip a full bag of sugar and pour it into the moth-proof air-tight sealed-lip jar on the white counter beside the blond cabinet panel door under the lip of the track lighting switched on and burning to keep away the dark. And overfill overflow spill spill splash onto the carpeted floor. And stop.


The Time Traveler's Wife

Some critics have bashed it, and some general readers have also bashed it because it contains "fantastic" premises, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. In fact, I've read it twice now. Is it the greatest novel ever written? Is it Moby Dick? No; but then, it's not trying to be.

Then again, I think a lot of critics of contemporary novels are full of crap, because they promote what they think the novel should be, rather than what it is. Their agendas are often highfalutin and are really veiled Critical Theories Seeking High Art, and they forget that a novel can be just a damn good entertainment, a satisfying read without needing to be anything more than that. If some Art Critic disagrees with me on this point, I invite them merely to not read the novel in question.

Niffenegger's is essentially an SF novel written from a mainstream literary viewpoint, or a mainstream novel with SF elements—and some critics just can't get over their prejudices about "genre" fiction such as mystery and SF. (Aside: no one who actually reads science fiction calls it "sci-fi;" insiders call it SF.) What those critics who dismiss "genre" fiction miss is a great deal of stellar, exciting, memorable, and brilliant writing that goes on in the literary "genres." Most mainstream fiction critics almost universally ignore genre writing.

I liked the Niffenegger novel because the characters were visceral and compelling: ordinary people trying to cope with the incredible difficulties posed by the novel's extraordinary basic premise, and discovering their strengths and their ability to love and laugh, while coping. I couldn't put it down. I also liked the premise itself, which is a unique take on time travel quite original within the history of time-travel stories in SF. The lead character has a biological mutation that periodically "resets" his biological clock and jumps him to locations and times that emotionally important in his life, not truly random jumps but rather strange attractors circling around key points in his life's story. None of his trips are voluntary; some are comical, some deadly serious. The writing is expansive enough to admit both horror and joy, and while some critics would say that the novel's tone is not consistent enough throughout, I think that that is one of the novel's virtues, as it thereby captures more of the range of human experience and emotion. The medical details are believeable enough—I say that knowing something about biology and medicine—and by the end of the novel we realize that his story is only the first among a wave of people who are becoming unstuck in time. The societal implications of a group of people who are travel unwillingly through time, without warning, are touched on in the book's epilogue, just enough to create some fascinating questions, but not enough to make the epilogue too unwieldy. Is this some next evolutionary stage the entire species will eventually have to deal with? What do the facts of being un-rooted in linear time imply about questions of epistemology and social change? I'm reminded to some extent of Alfred Bester's classic novel about what would happen to society if everyone was able to teleport, The Stars My Destination. Both novels also contain elements of mystery fiction, puzzles to be solved, some of which become survival issues for the lead characters.

I also find it intriguing that Niffenegger's female protagonist (the novel is alternately told in first person from both lead characters' viewpoints) is a paper artist, as is Niffenegger. That lends her descriptions of artworks, and museums, and galleries, and libraries, in the novel a certain versimilitude that is convincing to the mind's eye.

There are a few scenes that are padded for length, and could have been trimmed, or been stories told "offstage." But when you look at this novel through the lens of character rather than plot, you realize that it is at root a character-driven novel: the actions come out of the complexities of the lead characters' personalities, rather than being arbitrary plot twists or pre-planned structures with timed payoffs like most TV and movie scripts. Generating the patience to go with the flow, in this novel, and looking at it through the lens of character—it is in fact structured to be read as personal narratives or memoirs—provides a much more rewarding read. Leave at the door your assumptions about what a novel like this "should" be, and settle in for an interesting experience.

As for "genre" fiction writing that dares to step over the line into mainstream fiction—and vice versa—the critical rush to judgment smacks of the worst sins of social class stratifications of eras past: How dare these peons step over the lines we've drawn around them to keep them in their place?! Think about it: class structures in literature are usually about anything and everything except the quality of writing. Literary class is about what class structures are always about: social status, rather than individual merit. I thought Niffenegger's novel was at least as well written as anything on the best-seller list, and better than most. But because Niffenegger dares to break the boundaries of genre, she gets attacked. The literary class system is still in place. Niffenegger is hardly the first such case, nor is her story likely to be the last.

Let's look at literary class through the lens of a more "Literary" example: the Nobel Prize for Literature, given for both prose and poetry. I've read many of the Nobel Prize-winning fiction novels, and some are good, some are not. Looking over a list of Nobel laureates in literature, I realize I've read at least a few works by around two-thirds of the names on the list, and bits and pieces of many more, with some being among my favorite writers anyway, regardless of Nobel distinction (Beckett, Neruda, Paz, Elytis, Seferis, Camus, Lagerkvist, Gide, Kawabata, Kipling, etc.) I've probably read more of the poets than the prose writers, overall.

But the important thing one must always remember about the Nobel awards in literature is that they are given as much on political grounds as on grounds of artistic merit or pure writing quality. Some novelists who won Nobels won them completely for political reasons, and the other candidates who were "competing" nominees at that time were just as good or better writers. Octavio Paz deserved his Nobel, no question. But Toni Morrison? Joseph Brodsky? I doubt it very much. Jorge Luis Borges never won a Nobel, and if ever anyone should have won, because of their international influence on literary matters, it was Borges. Hemingway and Faulkner won Nobels, but Stein and Joyce didn't? Uh-huh. Okay. Seems a little odd. But okay.

Another list one might attempt would be those of "genre" novels published in the last decade or so, which stick out in my mind as being at least as good as any mainstream novels of the same period—or better—and which I have re-read, because I thoroughly enjoyed them. In fact, that's a fairly long list. I'll give just a few highlights:

Samuel R. Delany, Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand
Dana Stabenow, Midnight Come Again
Patricia A. McKillip, The Tower at Stony Wood
Robert B. Parker, Looking for Rachel Wallace
Robert Silverberg, Sailing to Byzantium (novellas)
Kate Wilhelm, Death Qualified: A mystery of chaos
Kate Wilhelm, A Flush of Shadows (novellas)

Several of these are as genre-bending as The Time Traveler's Wife, in that they don't stay in their genre cupboards but stretch the literary-categorical boundaries. (Wilhelm, Silverberg, and Delany in particular.) Also, I'm very fond of novella-length stories; I think that's an ideal length for much literature, enough room to tell a story completely but not so large that things seems padded. Most best-sellers are highly padded. Very few are exactly the length they should be.

Labels: ,

More about George Mackay Brown

It should not be obligatory for poets to celebrate, as best they can, only the greyness of contemporary life. Some of the poems in this book are swatches cut from here and there in the one weave of time. —GMB, in his Introduction to Winterfold, 1976

With this comment, GMB announces his ongoing project of writing about Orkney history, the history of Vikings and Earls, tinkers and wandering bards, both ancient and contemporary. Many of his writings are set in the past. Winterfold contains poems told in the voices of long-dead voyagers to the islands, and there is also a sequence about Earl Rognvald, who led a group of Norse crusaders in 1151. In his magnificent novel, Magnus, GMB tells the story of the life and death of the Earl Magnus, who later became St. Magnus of Kirkwall, in Orkney. GMB often moves back and forth in time, with the result that many of his poems become timeless, transcending local concerns to express something universal, endless, and eternal. Part of his appeal to me is this mythic, archetypal character in his writing.

For example, from The Sea: Four Elegies in Winterfold, GMB provides this magnificent sense of the passages at the end of life. This poem has been a favorite of mine for 30 years, and it deals with the passage of death better than almost any other contemporary poetry:

The Door of Water

Think of death, how it has many doors.
A child enters the Dove Door
And leaves a small wonderment behind him.
For soldiers and airmen there is the Door of Fire.
Most of us, with inadequate heart or lung or artery,
Disappear through the simple Door of the Skull.
There is the Door of the Sheaf: the granary is beyond.
The very old enter, stooping,
Harvesters under a load of tranquil sorrows.
For islanders, the Door of Water.
Beyond a lintel carved with beautiful names
The sea yields to the bone, at last, a meaning.

Seamus Heaney once wrote the following about GMB, which I think is very true, and speaks of the elements that combine together to make him an ancient/modern poet: . . . he transforms everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney. His sense of the world an his way with words are powerfully at one with each other. His vision has something of the skaldic poet's consciousness of inevitable ordeal, something of the haiku master's susceptability to the delicate and momentary, and since the beginning of his career he has added uniquely and steadfastly to the riches of poetry in English.

The skald and the haiku master meeting on common ground: I find these elements in my own poetic choices, marked by my Norse and Irish ancestry coupled with my affinity for Asian poetic values, having spent the earliest part of my childhood in Asia. So GMB appeals to me because he encompasses not only deep time but also space across cultures. His poetry is both geologic and aware of the world's events; the suffering and sorrows of life, and the fact that we who suffer can still stop and stare, enraptured by a sky full of clouds, a sea full of life leaping onto the sharp black boulders of the near shore, a simple flower in an empty field.

Here is another small poem of mine, also given to the memory of George Mackay Brown:

Rose Runes

Inside that rose window
so carefully assembled in the east wall:
a labyrinth of light.

At high morning,
see it etched on the cathedral floor,
a road of blue, red, gold, a flowering field.

At midnight, the rose-trail flickers
with light from a thousand candles, the church
a kindling tinderbox for All Souls’.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 04, 2007

his falling

from choir's party
to this long sleep, this weeping—
red rose turned to white

one day whole, the next he falls into slack lethargy. no desire to eat, to move, to get out of bed. we give him a bath, and after his long nap, he's so weak, he soils the bed. last week he walked with me a mile through architectural wonders and long green lawns. tonight I drive him to the ER and leave him hours later as they take him to the room he'll probably die in. a liter of fluid drained through a catheter from the flexing sack around his heart. now his lungs fill with mermaid tears: salt waters of sleep. no resurfacing, no matter how they scan or attack his failing. it's all coming apart; I am too. I clench myself against fears that erode resolve into ambiguity. what can I do but hold his hands, large surgeon's hands, now bony and spotted, and wait. it's day to day, now. everything's microscoped into each moment's crisis, need, resolution. so few days ago, we made plans for another long road trip, a cross-country voyage, dad telling stories, son driving and recording it all. he had been so interested in living; so healthy; so ready to believe in redemption, in the will to overcome.

my father's long leaving, suddenly confronted
after his twilight had been so recently brightened

Labels: , ,