Saturday, September 29, 2007

Collected Poems

I think it's worthwhile to obtain and read these compendium volumes of a poet's work, to get a sense of the poet's overall arc and career, their recurring themes and sources, their evolutions and digressions, their artistic successes and failures. It's worthwhile even if your final act, upon reading, was an unconvinced shrug of sublime rejection.

A trend that I've found very irritating of late among poet-critics who should know better is a tendency to be dismissive without actually having read the poetry. I don't think you can do that. It's beyond unwise: it's arrogant and wrong-headed.

Elsewhere recently, some young writer had the gall to say that he doesn't actually need to look at modernist non-representational paintings to be able to dismiss them, they're obviously about nothing. (Ignoring for the moment the truth that non-representational painting styles are indeed about nothing, in the sense that they do not and were not intended to contain content, narrative, or representation. If you expect them to, you're completely missing the point.) I can hear the outraged howling if a painter were to claim that she didn't need to actually read the writer to know he wasn't any good. That kind of dismissive criticism is facile and superficial, and puerile, no matter where it's applied, precisely because it hasn't actually engaged with the artwork it's dismissing. You cannot subsitute an air of superior of supposedly-objective judgment for actual scholarship, and get away with it. Your lack of actual research will eventually trip you up, when someone catches you in your ignorance. The honest child who isn't taken in by illusion will someday point out the emperor's nakedness.

By contrast, if I present an opinion on a poet's work, it's because I've actually taken the time to read their work. That is only right and proper, and is a requirement for honest scholarship (as opposed to opinion-mongering). And that is part of the attraction of Collected Poems anthologies: they allow you to browse in, and also do deep reading, and re-reading. They allow you develop an opinion directly from the source data, as it were, rather than from received wisdom. This is true no matter what literary-critical school or filter you are using as your baseline.

Received wisdom is almost always wrong, precisely because it overrules personal reflection and direct engagement. The issue isn't that you have chosen to believe a mistaken authority, or even a correct authority, but that you have not done your homework for yourself. Laziness in research is unforgiveable, and leads to bad opinions based on insufficient data. Questioning received wisdom (questioning authority) is precisely the method by which new discoveries are made.

So, I have on my shelf Collected Poems even by poets whose work I am neither particularly fond of nor impressed by, as well as by those poets I cherish. I read them all, and I re-read even the ones that are not my favorites, to see if I might have missed something the first or second time. Sometimes, I work my way into something redemptive, in those poems that previously have not convinced, or embodied an experience. Sometimes, on the other hand, my original opinion is confirmed. But I take the time to read them before opening my yap. That seems only fair.

There is also something satisfying, in a single-volume Collected Poems, about having as much as one can carry bound up in one volume. Efficient portability in one's reading materials cannot be underrated, whether one takes them to the academy to study, or reads them on the train, or carries them amongst one's camping gear to read on those tented nights after long hikes or drives, before sleep that is always satisfying merely because it's outdoors, under the night sky, away from the overstimulating inanities of TV, radio, and other manifestations of blaring Pop Cult. (We put the Cult in Culture!) Whenever I pack for a camping trip, or a long road trip, I toss a few books into my bag; these almost always include Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior and some Rilke.

On my shelves are Collected Poems (and Selected Poems too) of T.S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Stanley Kunitz, Sidney Lanier, May Sarton, Wlat Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, Edwin Denby, Muriel Rukeyser, William Carlos Williams, Jim Harrison, Octavio Paz, Adrienne Rich, and many others. Some favorite poets I don't have Collecteds for, for in some cases they don't exist, or I haven't purchased them yet; meanwhile, they do have excellent Selecteds: George Mackay Brown, Rumi, Neruda, and others.

The study, and the assessments, continue.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Stranger Than You

Rilke once wrote an essay on dolls that disturbed many readers at the time, and still has the power to do so today. He wrote, in part:

[I]in a world in which Destiny, and even God himself, have become famous above all because they answer us with silence. At a time when everything was intent on giving us a quick and reassuring answer, the doll was the first to inflict on us that tremendous silence (larger than life) which was later to come to us repeatedly out of space, whenever we approached the frontiers of our existence at any point. It was facing the doll, as it stared at us, that we experienced for the first time that emptiness of feeling, that heart-pause, in which we should perish.

Dolls are disturbing.

One of the things I loved about living in the San Francisco area was that, for the first time in my life, I did not feel like a complete misfit. It was liberating: every time you feel weird or alien or strange, all you have to do is take a walk in Berkeley or on Market St. in San Francisco. No matter how strange you feel you are, there is always someone stranger than you.

Now it's nice to see such strangenesses elsewhere, too. I was in Chicago last weekend, and discovered a display of doll heads stuck on the tomato plants in the alley garden, as though impaled on stakes in front of a castle, in some Medieval threat display. My friend, who I usually stay with when in Chicago, felt it was great that someone other than him was participating in creating the aura of weirdness that usually lurks in our mutual zone. Usually we're the ones creating all the weird displays; it's nice to have outside help, for once.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Artistic Veering

I veer and skate between many nodes of attraction. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. I don't believe it's anything special. Nor do I believe that any artist, myself included, is required to work in only one artform or medium. I work in a lot of different media, and I move between them at need. Not always at will, mind you, but rather as opportunity presents itself.

The worst part of the creative life is finding enough free time in which to get everything done that I want to work on. As disgustingly prolific and productive as I am, the list of projects To Be Done is always large and looming. I'll never have enough time to get them all done. Organizational and management tasks are often set aside in order to work on a project. Piles of work buildd up, then eventually I have to spend a day doing nothing but sorting and file-management.

I like being asked to work, to present or do a piece. It helps me focus. I like commissions and requests; they get me going, and help me build momentum on a given project, and finish it. Commissions also give me an excuse to budget the time in which to work. Otherwise, the daily requirements of running a household, doing errands, meeting people, can completely eat up the day, and keep me from getting anything creative done. Every day that I don't get something creative done feels like a distraction or a waste. I am never spending enough effort on the business aspects of art-making; I'm probably a better businessperson than I think I am, yet I often feel like it's harder to connect my artwork with its audience than it was to make it.

After too long a gap, I was at the recording studio in Chicago this past week, and got a lot of music and DVD work done. This time out in the studio I mostly played keyboards, various new softsynths (software synthesizers). Softsynths are getting so powerful these days we barely use the old hardware synths at all. We recorded and finished a new ambient piece the first night. The afternoon of the second day, we reviewed solo piano tracks that I had recorded a year ago, choosing which to work on this week, and which would sound good with which video project. We picked a ten-minute piano improv to work on, and I tracked three more keyboard (softsynth) layers. That evening, we mixed both tracks, and were done by midnight, with over twenty minutes of finished new music. There's also a third piece, a shorter piano piece I improvised last year, which only needs equalization and mixing, and it's done.

This music, which is designed in part to accompany my video and photographic work, is not rock & roll. It doesn't propel, it doesn't drive, it's not loud and exciting and energizing. It's very cool, instead of hot. It moves slowly, it goes places, but it takes a long time to get there. It doesn't pound an idea into your head with hammers, in fact it lets you discover the journey for yourself. You can ignore if you want to. One option on the DVDs is to play them silently, as Ambient TV, or a slowly-changing art gallery within the frame of your widescreen monitor. It's ambient music. Apparently anti-dramatic, it still contains narrative and reflection, but without romantic bombast or overt pulse.

Ambient music, the way I play it, never moves slowly enough. Constantly we say to ourselves during mixing, It's still moving too fast, it's still too dense, take out more. I return again and again to St.-Exupery's comment that Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. we use the Better Button a lot, which means we keep deleting things we had previously added in, to find the right balance of breath and pause, of gesture and silence. (Your Delete key on your standard keyboard is your Better Button, because taking things out usually makes it better.)

I thought, too, when I was tracking the keyboard synth parts, that in neither of these new pieces is there a strong tonal center. It's not "tonal" music. It doesn't contain strong cadences, it doesn't have tension-and-release in the same way tonal music sets up with its constant II-V-I chord pattern. This ambient music is modal, or multi-tonal. It spends a lot of time avoiding the tonal center, only touching on it lightly before moving away. This gives the music a sensation of floating, of hovering, without landing except gently. The implied tonal center is touched on lightly, then a great deal of time is spent avoiding it. The chords I chose to use are thick, often enharmonic clusters within the scale. You can think of them as moving 9th chords, or suspended 6ths and 4ths. The overall effect is of slowly-moving clouds that imply a center but are too full and thick to be blatant about it. I love music that is thick and sensuous like this. Harmonically lush, melodically simple.

Somewhere in all this is grace, and gracefulness. I'm back in Wisconsin now, and spent most of the day quietly. I chased the deer away from the flowerbed once. I'm watching the afternoon shadows made by the woods play on the lawn as I write. I've done some cleaning and organizing. I will listen again to what I recorded these past few days, but later. Now I'm veering off in another direction, to do something else for the rest of the afternoon.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Everybody Falling

Six years after the fact (six being an uncomfortable anniversary number that's hard for many to feel solidly connected to), the images that still stay with me most viscerally—I had gotten home from the north shore of Lake Superior the night before, and turned on the TV that morning in time to catch the second plane hitting the second tower on live broadcast—is of the dots of people falling from the towers: those who had chosen to jump, to free-fall through the air, rather than be burned alive, or crushed when the towers came down, as they inevitably would. (Anyone with a modicum of physics and chemistry knowledge could have told you that jet fuel is an incendiary accelerant that would make an arsonist drool; I knew the towers were going to come down, because of the jet fuel accelerant, even while the shocked TV commentators were saying they wouldn't.)

The people who leapt clear of the buildings, to free-fall through the open air and die when they hit the ground: I've thought more than once that they made a choice. I wonder if some of them jumped out of panic; but I also wonder if some others knew that they were going to die, and decided to choose their own deaths rather than let someone else choose for them. Choose the manner and the means: jump, or burn. That took tremendous self-knowledge and courage, and I believe that at least some of those who jumped were capable of making such a choice. It was a day of astounding courage.

When I dream of that day, the elongated dots falling diagonally across the geometrically rigid faces of the buildings are the images I remember most poignantly.

Then, not much more than a year later, the Columbia space shuttle fireballed on reentry, due to an apparent heat-shield failure. I thought again of people falling from the sky, and of death by fire. I wrote this piece as a memorial for STS 107, the Columbia, but I realize now that it is pertinent today, as well, on this awkward anniversary. It's a lament, and a celebration, for everyone who has fallen, and for those who continue to fall.

Everybody Falling

Everybody falling
falling down

falling from the blue
falling too

sinking down
into the sea
into the ground

strange luck

Everybody falling
falling too

fall too far
fall too fast

sink into the sun
arms spread out
sink into the past

strange footprint

Everybody falling
rising up

rise again
rising into the blue

everybody falling, falling
rising too


(Saint Paul, MN, 2003)

(The musical setting can be listened to by clicking on the poem's title, or here.)

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Notes & Quotes at Semi-Random

Clearing off all my desks, both virtual and actual, and cleaning out some of the clutter. Notes towards things I've been meaning to write about, as yet unwritten; proving once again (to myself) that nothing I ever plan to write about ever gets anywhere, or is any good (with one or two exceptions), while all the things that emerge spontaneously, following my anti-writerly practice of the mind of readiness, are often lucid, cogent, and timely. So, some random scraps of elucidation.

Philip Larkin on poetic clarity, and on not being a "difficult" or "abstruse" poet:

I think that a poem should be understood at first reading line by line, but I don’t think it should be exhausted at that first reading. I hope that what I write gives the reader something when they read it first, enough in fact to make them read it again and so on ad infinitum.

The average man simply spends his leisure as a dog spends it. His recreations are all puerile, and the time supposed to benefit him really only stupefies him.

—H.L. Mencken, Minority Report

This makes me think of the usefulness of doing nothing, which is in fact the opposite of being bored. People avoid boredom by filling all the gaps in their time with rapid activity, in the same way that people who are afraid of silences, especially in conversation, chatter incessantly without really saying anything. Their signal-to-noise ratio is very high, in that mostly what they fill the gaps with is noise, not signal. In fact, signal arises from silence, or that place that surrounds silence with active listening.

from Henry David Thoreau's Journal, 12 May 1857:

How rarely I meet with a man who can be free, even in thought! We live according to rule. Some men are bedridden; all world-ridden. I take my neighbor, an intellectual man, out into the woods and invite him to take a new and absolute view of things, to empty clean out his thoughts all institutions of men and start again; but he can’t do it, he sticks to his traditions and his crochets. He thinks that governments, colleges, newspapers, etc., are from everlasting to everlasting.

Jean Cocteau on the new in art:

We are worried when we cannot make comparisons. Our whole system of pleasure is based on comparisons. If we are satisfied with our own work, it is probable that it bears some resemblance to other works with which we are preoccupied. But if we produce something really new, as this novelty is not based on any definite recollection, it leaves us as it were, with one leg in the air, alone in the world. We are as much disconcerted and disappointed by it as the reader will be.

We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar.

Rilke wrote in The Notebooks of Malte Laurits Brigge, his fictionalized almost-autobiography, that poetry is experience, not emotion:

Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn't pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else—); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with some many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars,—and it still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of live, each one different from alll the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not enough yet to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them. (trans. by Stephen Mitchell)

Here's a bit of a psychological insight about why so many teenage angst-ridden journal-poets write about the Inner Darkness Of My Soul: it’s because they just discovered it, and it scares them, and also attracts them.

The problem they have, when they write these mostly bad adolescent poems about what they have just discovered, is that they haven't followed Rilke's advice in Malte, and gathered enough experiences yet in order to be able to let the true poem arise. They write too soon, and think they were the first to have so written, and that they were the first to have discovered their own inner darknesses. And they are astonished when they go out to read poetry of great depth and richness that was written before they were born: they discover, in their reading, that they have found nothing new at all, but something very old, and very familiar to any poet who has been through the dark night. Furthermore, it is nothing to be feared, but embraced and brought into oneself, and made new, that way, in those inner rooms, in which the real poetry will later reveal itself.

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Which leads me to think of John Masefield's poem Sea Fever:

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

A very intimate sense of the expressiveness of outward things, which ponders, listens, penetrates, where the earlier, less developed consciousness passed lightly by, is an important element in the general temper of our modern poetry.

—Walter Pater

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Poets Need to Get Back to Basics

I've been reading a lot of poetry criticism lately that is basically backbiting, kvetching, mean and venal. It's time to get past all the infighting, the rivalries, the petty bickering about what and what isn't "Poetry," or good poetry, or even art. All the sourness sours on us, in time. Not to mention that certain targets for ire come in and out of fashion; this week the critics hate Kerouac, next week they'll dismiss someone else. The whole poetic field is demoralized, and complains incessantly about how the audience has abandoned poetry, real poetry, in favor of something less worthy and less "pure." There is a real despair, not just about the lack of a real audience, but about the whole mission and purpose and function of poetry: no-one seems to know why we do it anymore. There is a flailing for a lost center, several traditions that were thrown away without regret but now are missed, and there is a real yearning for some new tradition to adhere to—but no-one can adhere to any of the current offerings because they are suspicious of the motivations behind such projects.

There's a real truth to the comment I've heard more than once with regard to literary criticism: Perhaps the reason poets argue so much is precisely because there's so little at stake.

Enough. It's time to grow some lungs, folks.

It's time to return to poetry's first, best function, which is not criticism, but praise. Enough with the nay-saying, it's time to return to yay-saying. Tell me what turns you on about literature; you've certainly wasted enough ink telling us what turns you off. Try this, if you dare: for just one week, say nothing negative—see if you can manage that. It will more of a challenge for some poets than others, because thinking negative has become a habit for those poets, just like any other pattern of thinking that you practice too often.

Poetry is praise. Poetry is not denigration. Poetry builds up, it doesn't tear down. That's what satire does, and while satire can cloak itself in poetic means and techniques, it can never teach you to praise what you love. Poetry makes things new, even old things that seem to have died. Poetry needs a live breath in it, a living breath with which to in-spire it: inspiration means to breathe in. All the latest -isms and schools and manners in poetry have built-in sell-by dates, and so none of them last very long: they have expiration dates, but no inspiration. Poetry is not a competition, not even for the legacy of funding or grants; poetry needs to be confocal, and cohabit with everything else that is life-giving instead of life-denying. Poetry needs to remember its shamanic and magical and mythopoetic origins; poetry needs to remember that it used to be the language of sacred communication. No matter what you believe in, believe in something, or your poetry and your soul will become stale and stagnant.

Poetry is praise. No modern poet says this better than Rilke:

Praising is what matters! He was summoned for that,
and came to us like the ore from a stone's
silence. His mortal heart presses out
a deathless, inexhaustible wine.

Whenever he feels the god's paradigm grip
his throat, the voice does not die in his mouth.
All becomes vineyard, all becomes grape,
opened on the hills of his sensuous South.

Neither decay in the sepulchre of kings
nor any shadow that has falllen form the gods
can ever detract from his glorious praising.

For he is a herald who is with us always,
holding far into the doors of the dead,
a bowl with ripe fruit worthy of praise.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus, I, 7

And even in the shadows, praise. There is room in praising for the soul's dark night, for kenosis, for the emptying, the sinking and cooling into the void and the abyss. There is room for darkness, for the Shadow, because within the darkness is the seed of the light, just as within the light is the seed of darkness. At the heart of each lies the other, about to be manifest.

Only in the realm of Praising should Lament
walk, the naiad of the wept-for fountain,
watching over the stream of our complaint,
that it be clear upon the very stone

that bears the arch of triumph and the alltar—
Look: around her shoulders dawns the bright
sense that she may be the youngest sister
among the deities hidden in our heart.

Joy knows, and Longing has accepted,—
only Lament still learns; upon her beads,
night after night, she counts the ancient curse.

Yet awkward as she is, she suddenly
lifts a constellation of our voice,
glittering, into the pure nocturnal sky.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus, I, 8

And poetry needs passion. Poetry needs passion instead being cerebral. Poetry needs the caring heart, now, more than it needs another school of intellectual constructivism. Poetry requires passion, as much as it requires breath.

This is what Rumi says about passion (translated by Andrew Harvey), and it is a poem you should print out and put up on your refrigerator, where you can read it every day:

Passion burns down every branch of exhaustion.
Passion is the supreme alchemical elixir, and renews all things.
No-one can grow exhausted when passion is born,
so don't sigh heavily, your brows bleak with boredom and cynicism and despair—
look for passion! passion! passion! passion!

Futile solutions deceive the force of passion.
They are banded to extort money through lies.
Marshy and stagnant water is no cure for thirst.
No matter how limpid and delicious it might look,
it will only stop and prevent you from looking for fresh rivers
that could feed and make flourish a hundred gardens,
just as each piece of false gold prevents you
from recognizing real gold and where to find it.

False gold will only cut your feet and bind your wings,
saying "I will remove your difficulties"
when in fact it is only dregs and defeat in the robes of victory.
So run, my friends, run fast and furious from all false solutions.
Let divine passion triumph, and rebirth you in yourself.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Glimpses and Haiku from Michigan 2

Upper Falls, Tahquamenon Falls State Park

green sentinels lift
arms and hair into the blue—
light sparkling ferns

Lower Falls, Tahquamenon Falls State Park

twisted witch-tree roots
bind the sand into glassed soil—
till the wind moves on

Lake Superior, beach east of Marquette

through the window
oak leaves drip with rain—
lakeside morning

Lake Michigan, at Duck Lake

chatting with the girl
who takes money at the store—
driving northward ho

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Monday, September 03, 2007

The Blue Guitar, and Other Adventures in Tuning

On the way down to Chicago in mid-July, where I was in the recording studio for a couple of nights, I stopped in at the local Goodwill retail store. Sometimes the powers that be hint really loudly about what you're supposed to do next in life. There was a Washburn Lyon acoustic guitar "kit" there, the kind sold as a beginning instrument at Target stores; it was in mint condition, complete with soft case, strap, the usual extras; plus an instructional DVD. The list price is around $129.00 at Target; they're not bad starter guitars, actually. Goodwill was asking $79.00 for it. I wandered around awhile, thought about it, went back and looked at it some more. Then the store manager came up to me and asked if I was interested. I said yes, but not at that price. So she knocked off another 20 bucks from their asking price, and I walked out of Goodwill with a brand new acoustic guitar for around $60.

This is the second acoustic guitar that has been presented to me this summer; the first time was a similar purchase at the same Goodwill store, of a cheap guitar with all the trimmings. That previous time, in June, it was a bright blue guitar, a smaller instrument, not much more than a toy really, for around $40. It's the lesser of the two instruments; the Washburn is really a better guitar overall. But the blue guitar is fun, and something I can take camping without caring what happens to it. When I was camping in northern Minnesota in August, in fact, I recorded some short sketches sitting in my tent. Sort of in the John Fahey or Leo Kottke tradition of quirky short tunes with odd titles: Sketches of Squirrel Highway, and Squirrel Highway Blues.

So, I now own two acoustic guitars, both purchased at ridiculously cheap prices at a thrift store. Like I said, sometimes the powers that be hint really loudly about what you're supposed to do next. I guess I'm supposed to teach myself acoustic guitar now; it being one of the few stringed instruments I've never learned to play. (I have a mountain dulcimer and a zither, among other things.) And it's not the first time Goodwill's been musically good to me; a few years ago, I got a set of pro-quality orchestral bells at a Goodwill for $45, if I recall.

Being the subversive musical experimentalist that I am, at root, I fully expect to resist any sort of normal or conventional guitar approaches during my learning curve. The first thing, of course, is I'll probably tune it in a "non-standard" tuning; likely in straight fourths. Maybe some weird John Rebourn-style open tuning, who knows. In fact, it is common in acoustic folk guitar circles to use "non-standard" and open tunings. Open tunings allow some chords to feature open strings, which add resonance and body to the chord.

I've never played guitar in my life; in fact, I've resisted it for years. At various times in my life, having been stepped all over by egotistical guitarist front-men in various bands, I developed a prejudice against rock guitar players. I've been proud to play in a couple of bands that were openly labelled "Guitar(ist)-Free Zones." So, while I may have occasionally been anti-guitar(ist) in the past, I guess I'm stuck now. I don't plan to be just another guitarist, or pursue any kind of copycat game. Why do something that everyone else has already done? Far better to go off in a new direction.

Acoustic guitar promises to be a useful addition to my tonal palette to have available for future recordings. I don't expect to practice enough to ever become more than an amateur and idiosyncratic guitarist. It's just good to expand the range of one's musical capabilities, whenever possible. Learning new instruments is always pleasurable.

I've always liked classical guitar and folk guitar more than any other kind. Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, John Williams, Michael Lorimer, have always been favorite performers. I'm a folkie from way back, and I'm classically trained, plus I studied lute-songs for awhile; I am a serious John Dowland fan. I'm familiar with a lot of the alternative tunings. Michael Lorimer once showed a seminar that I attended his Baroque guitar with interchangeable fretboards in various just intonations, including well-temperament and mean-tone temperament.

Meanwhile, though, to continue the story of the new guitar. When I got to studio in Chicago, not having even opened the box yet, I pulled it out at last and it sounded great but all the strings were detuned. They ship them that way to avoid problems with string tension damaging the neck during transport. It was beyond slack key guitar tuning, and into Slacker Key Guitar. It was oddly appealling, because the tuning was so aleatoric. My studio mates declared it perfect. So, I've made some recordings with it already, they're on my podcast. A little bit Derek Bailey, a little bit Cap'n Beefheart, and a little bit avant-garde. For example: Paint Fume Blues, Slacker Key Guitar No. 3, and Pelvis Has Left the Building.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

But Futility is not the End

Because it's worth doing, even if no-one cares.

A famous dictum about art-making, which I have used myself on those occasions I have been a teacher, runs: If you don't to do it, don't. If you can quit it at any time, don't. It's too hard, too all-encompassing, too painful, to do it for any other reason than that you simply cannot not do it. If you need to make art because you can't live if you don't, then make art. If making art is more important to you than breathing, then make art. No other reason is important enough.

So of course one continues, despite doubt, despair, desolation, and destruction. One continues, for no other reason than that there is no choice: make art, or die. Actually, I can't imagine it any other way. It is as important to me as breathing. I have always made art, music, poems, essays; I've never stopped. I made art when I was working as a full-time graphic designer, when I was agrad student, when I was unemployed, when my income was steady. I have made art when life was excruciatingly painful and sorrowful, and I've made art when life was joyous and enriching. I have never not made some kind of art. I can't imagine it being any other way.

But if you can be talked out of making art, then stop right now. Don't do it. It's too hard, otherwise. There is no reward, other than the process and the product itself.

Futility arises when one feels like there's no point to what one is doing. Yet one continues to do it. As Samuel Beckett wrote: I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on. You keep on going on because there's not stopping. That's the only reason you need. Even when you approach the light-limits of the visible universe, you go on. If you were trapped in a prison, you'd draw on the walls with your bleeding fingernails. If you were lost on a desert island, you'd make arrangements of stones in the sand, land-art sculptures that the tide would erode away daily. If you were well-to-do and living a comfortable life surrounded by those you loved, you'd still make art.

It doesn't matter what else is going on. You have to make art.

So, I continue to write. Now that so many of the hurried necessities of the part few months have abated, in the wake of my father's final illness and funeral, I actually have time to think about what I want to do next. The first time in almost two years I am not completely overwhelmed by the need to give care to others. (Can I re-learn to give care to myself? Stay tuned.) it doesn't matter in the least that I recorded almost no new music during that time, or that I'm not writing much poetry right now. They will cycle around again. And I have been taking thousands of new photographs; now I have time to begin sorting through them, and working with them; working them into new art-pieces. Now I have time to devote to daily art-making again; time I intend to use well, even if I produce nothing of any merit; or nothing at all.

You do it just to do it. No other reason. Even the futility of doing it for no reason, and no audience, doesn't stop you from doing it. You do it just to do it. And keep going.

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