Monday, March 31, 2008

Meaning and Abstraction

Terry Eagleton wrote in a review of a new book about T.S. Eliot:

Eliot's poetry is not a question of meaning in the first place. The meaning of a poem for Eliot was a fairly trifling matter. It was, he once remarked, like the piece of meat which the burglar throws to the guard dog to keep him occupied. In true symbolist fashion, Eliot was interested in what a poem did, not in what it said—in the resonance of the signifier, the echoes of its archetypes, the ghostly associations haunting its grains and textures, the stealthy, subliminal workings of its unconscious. Meaning was for the birds, or perhaps for the petit bourgeoisie. Eliot was a primitivist as well as a sophisticate, a writer who made guerrilla raids on the collective unconscious. For all his intellectualism, he was averse to rationality. Meaning in his poetry is like the mysterious figure who walks beside you in The Waste Land, vanishing when you look at it straight.

This points at Eliot's real debt to the French Symbolist poets, such as Mallarmé, which is something that doesn't get mentioned by too many of the high priest's acolytes; one presumes many such would rather portray Eliot as emerging like Athena, virginal from Zeus' brow. The messiness of the man's life, his occasional critical reversals, and the difficulties around some of his opinions get minimized. Eliot was a complex character, a neo-elitist who proclaimed that the function of his many reviews and essays was to educate and elevate the unwashed masses towards a better understanding and appreciation of High Art. But he also enjoyed gutter-level humor, a good joke, and loved Marx Bros. movies.

Eliot himself did not always help matters: he could be quite deliberately obscure about his own work, even contradictory. He was consistent, however, and to me this again smacks of the Symbolists, that his keynote poem The Waste Land, hailed for its disjunctive collage method which was one of the new techniques of Modernism, wasn't about anything but being a poem: The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. (Tradition and the Individual Talent, from 1920) Eliot responded to critics who thought The Waste Land was about the Lost Generation, the disillusioned post-WW I generation which felt the world was coming apart at its seems, he stated, I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention. Yet the disjunctions in the poem have been pointed to again and again as the utter essence of Modernism, as a reflection of the disjunctions and fragmentation of modern life, as a representation of what it's like to live in such a confusing and shredded world. The poem has also been said to reflect the early Modern generation's nostalgia for a world in which things made more sense, could be more clearly understood, social roles were known, and in which we were the masters of technology, rather than the other way round.

The Waste Land was not hailed as a masterpiece by every critic at the time, despite what present-day Eliot acolytes would have us believe. Conrad Aiken, in my opinion one of the greatest reviewers of all time, commented in his review: What we feel is that Mr. Eliot has not wholly annealed the allusive material, has left it unabsorbed. Aiken did believe that the poem succeeded by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan; by virtue of its ambiguities, not of its explanations. (New Republic, February 7, 1923)

And thus we see in The Waste Land, in which its method as well as its style has been oft imitated, one of the origins of an important Modernist trend that has reached its full flowering and become quite problematic in these post-Modern days: puzzle-poems, hidden meanings, and obscurity merely for the sake of being obscure.

I'm not saying that Eliot intended his poetry to be an obscure puzzle, but since so much ink has been spent on "decoding" his meanings, and since so many folks still worship him as the greatest Modernist, that creates an influence beyond any of Eliot's poems or intentions. It has become a trope, and some contemporary poets do nothing but create puzzles to be decoded.

Oddly, many of these same critics (and poets) who laud Eliot's "meaningless" poem also condemn his later poetry, such as The Four Quartets, as weaker poetry, somehow. Personally, The Four Quartets are my favorite work of Eliot's, the poems of his which I re-read most often, and which have the deepest meaning for me. (Ah, but meaning itself is the problem for these acolytes, ennit?) I make no claim to be an Eliot scholar (although I'm not ignorant of the scholarship). Yet the Quartets (and their overt structural connections to music composition) have occasionally been interpreted as a late-life return to some kind of spirituality or faith, as though that were a failing, a mark of senility or regression. Ignoring of course that Eliot was always a religious, and that his poetry was never anti-religious.

One suspects sometimes that the reason the Quartets are dismissed by some of the dry-stick academics is mostly because they view Eliot's late-life expression of something other than dry-stick conventionality as a personal betrayal of Eliot's own self-admitted dry-stickness. Their own acedia, so resonant within The Waste Land, cannot move past itself. But I think Eliot himself did move beyond Modernist acedia, eventually, and The Four Quartets are evidence of that.

A personal note about The Four Quartets:

When I was still in music school in my early 20s, I was in the recording studio at WCBN-FM making a tape piece when I heard the news that one of my closest mentors in music composition, George Cacioppo, had just died. The last thing he had been re-reading that week was Four Quartets—the book was next to his hospital bed—which I had also been re-reading earlier that week. I found the synchronicities meaningful. I felt quite close to Eliot that week, and the possibility, taken on intuition rather than scholarship, that he himself had found some measure of solace in his Four Quartets, after all the years of arid acedia brought on in the wake of The Waste Land. I'm sure some schlar would be quick to shoot that all down, but I trust my intuition.

And after all, one aspect of poetry is that it can evoke precisely such transpersonal experiences. Which is what makes it an artform rather than merely engineering.

The tape piece I had been making that night evolved into an elegy for my late mentor, and was one of many presented at a memorial concert in his honor, later that month. Here it is: elegy for George.

A bit more now on Aiken:

As a reviewer and poet himself, it was always hard to pull the wool over Aiken's eyes, I believe. He also saw D.H. Lawrence's strengths and weaknesses pretty clearly, for example. Aiken had a good sense of human psychology. HIs criticisms of Eliot were prescient in that they were echoed by later scholars, and in some of Stephen Spender's criticisms.

Aiken's own poetry is unjustly neglected these days, with only a Selected Poems currently in print and regularly available—perhaps because his poetry is musical-lyrical, openly so, which is unfashionable in these days when intellect and abstraction are paramount—but also perhaps because Aiken's poetry is also deeply psychological poetry, and makes people uncomfortable. He was perhaps overly influenced by Freud—but among the Moderns, who wasn't? His magnificent Collected Short Stories would be legacy enough, had he not also written plays, novels, and memoirs, in addition to poetry. A lot of Aiken's stories are deeply insightful. I've always been puzzled why people give Raymond Carver so much credit for developing psychological character studies in the short story form, when Aiken had already done so. At least a few of Aiken's stories were made into short films, and I believe that the film made of Silent Snow, Secret Snow, one of Aiken's best-known short stories, aired as an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone or Night Gallery TV series, I don't remember which.

My understanding was that Aiken and Eliot knew each other, and were friends. I don't find Aiken's accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses in Eliot's poetry to diminish Eliot's place in the canon; that place is secure. What re-reading Aiken's criticism brings out, though, is that sense of what's wrong with a lot of the Eliot scholarship since, which by contrast lacks Aiken's insight into the poetry.

So it is interesting that the post-Modern children of Eliot, currently in the ascendant, laud the abstraction, disjunction, and collage effects in Eliot's most influential poetry. Probably the reason Aiken's poetry is at nadir is the same reason why the Four Quartets are dismissed by the acolytes: too much music, too much continuity, too much meaning in the poems. The poems that actually mean something, that aren't just playing with words, that aren't abstract to the point of obscurantism, are currently unfashionable. (Of course, fashions change, and this too no doubt will pass.)

For my own part, I don't find abstraction to be inherently bad in poetry just as I don't find meaning in poetry to be inherently good. Those are moral judgments, not poetic ones. These don't really have anything to do with the poem, but with what one prefers to discover in any poem—i.e. these are personal preferences. If you believe that poetry either must mean something, or should not, those are both moral positions that have nothing to do with poetry: because poetry as an artform has always been abstract and figurative. The truth is, as Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, a poem can never be completely abstract because it is made of ordinary words, which are the signifiers and carriers of meaning. A poem can never be completely abstract because it is made of language. But neither does a poem need to mean the same thing to every reader, as if it were an engineering diagram to be read, or a puzzle to be solved.

Poetry, because of its compactness and its exaltation, is always at its best when it contains many layers of meaning and abstraction, so that one is constantly finding new things in the poem every time one re-reads it. If you can read it just once, know exactly what it says, and throw it away never having to re-read it, then how is it different from a prose essay? Argument is for essay—evocation is for poetry. A poem elicits a meaning in the reader—not necessarily the same meaning as it had to the author, even—because it invites it, it evokes it, it calls it forward. Not because it imposes one fixed meaning, one fixed interpretation, on the reader. That is what "communication" means, and far too many poets nowadays think that that is all that poetry is: communication. If you want to communicate, use the phone. That is what prose does very well, and is supposed to do: communicate. Of course, a great deal of poetry nowadays really is prose, just broken up into odd lines on the page. One finds very little music at times. (As Aiken once wrote, music in poetry means much more than meter and rhyme.) That the average reader, including many under-experienced poets, might confuse prose and poetry nowadays is thus perfectly understandable. But that explains—it does not excuse.

I think it unwise to get stuck in some false polarity between meaning and abstraction, although many poet-critics do indeed seem to cling to that polarization. I think a poem is a rather more holistic enterprise, intended to be read, intended to connect to the reader and evoke in them some experience, some sensation, some presence. A poem ought to be an experience in itself—even a more abstract experience, say, than an adventure movie—rather than be about an experience. And even poems such as The Waste Land which do not immediately parse themselves clearly to one's intellectual comprehension or rational understanding, can still pack a gut-punch. Meaning and abstraction can and do coexist in poetry. A poem doesn't always have to be immediately and instantly understood to get under your skin, and become a memorable experience. Something slips through, and disturbs your universe—the experience of being disturbed by art is a poetic experience. Sometimes understanding does come, but it might come much later.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Visionary Poetry 14: Primary Technology

Eugene Peterson, a Christian theologian, has an interesting point to make about spirituality in poetry. He says, with regard to the Psalms: At the center of the whole enterprise of being human, prayers are the primary technology. Prayers are tools that God uses to work his will in our bodies and souls. Prayers are tools that we use to collaborate in his work with us.

Does this not also describe poetry? Especially that poetry that takes us out of ourselves, that takes us towards transcendence, that which we have sometimes called visionary poetry?

The Psalms, like several other books of the Christian Bible (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, etc.), are considered wisdom literature. These books of the Bible are different from many of the other Biblical books. They are non-narrative, for the most part; or, their narratives frame essential discussions about the nature of God, and the relationships between humans and the Divine. They are books that describe rather than proscribe; unlike many of the Prophetic books of the Bible, which are stories in which a prophet appears to set the straying people back on course, the wisdom books contain more lists of questions than of law-giving. The wisdom books are full of complaint, and in many cases those complaints are not answered, directly or indirectly. The wisdom books are in many ways the most profound, most mystical books of the entire collection of gathered literatures that was compiled into what we know as the Bible. (Never confuse mysticism with the miraculous; there may be overlap, but miracles are time-bound into narrative, while mystical experience is always timeless.)

(Just to be clear about my own position here: although I have studied Christian theology extensively, I have not considered myself a Christian for a very long time. Furthermore, in my normal discourse I tend to avoid using the word "God" because it carries a great deal of baggage, and most people discuss "God" as though the person they were talking to meant the same thing by "God" as they did themselves, which in my experience is rarely true. I am unable to avoid using the word "God" here, though, because this is a discussion of spiritual and religious poetry; it's a necessary aspect of the discussion.)

The Wisdom Books are my favorite books of the Bible because in them the human voice is clearest and most honest, most plain. These are books that present the existential paradoxes of living without cloaking them in received wisdom or doctrine: in truth, the wisdom books ask a lot of very profound questions that they do not always answer. In them, you can hear human voices assert their personal and universal responses to life, love, and the divine—voices that seem very contemporary to us still, because they are timeless and their subjects are universal to the human experience—but what you don't hear very often is self-righteousness or overt judgmentalism. Even the Psalms attributed to King David—a complex, conflicted character in the Bible if ever there was one—are full of paradox and contradiction, which the author leaves in suspension, as a question: Why do you heap praise upon me yet steal away those I love? The wisdom literature is full of such complexities and paradoxes. These books bring into high relief the understanding of many mystics who have said that the Divine exists at the point of every paradox. That irreconcilable and difficult moment suspended without resolution between seeming opposites: that's where God lives, and is most closely available to us.

Poetry, if it is to be visionary, needs to be like the wisdom literature: It needs to be honest, it needs to be undogmatic and exploratory, it must be as heartfelt and simultaneously artful as possible. It must also express and contain paradox and complexity. Dogmatism and doctrine tend by contrast to be overly simplistic and sentimental. The wisdom books of the Bible take a hard look at life, and are not always soothing or pleasant. The paradox is often left unresolved—which is as it should be.

Peterson said: At the center of the whole enterprise of being human, prayers are the primary technology. Prayers are a primary technology. But prayers are also a kind of poetry. Genuine prayer fits many of the rules of poetry: concision, depth, intensity, layered complexity and resonant experience are all built in.

Perhaps this only applies to visionary poetry, but it seems to me that when a poem is praise (as Rilke says all poetry must be), then such praise is a kind of prayer.

When Pablo Neruda writes his Elementary Odes to ordinary things, or in the Ode to Broken Things, he exalts the everyday by making it special, illumined, sacred. Neruda's erotic poems are very prayerful in tone, as well as playful; they remind one of The Song of Songs in the wisdom literature.

There is also the tradition of songs to the Dark Lord, Krishna, by the 16th century mystical poet, Mirabai (or Meera). These are bhakti (devotional) poems, in which the God is praised both for his mercy and for the derangement he brings upon the poet. (As Rilke wrote in one of the Duino Elegies: Beauty is the beginning of terror.) He is a dark god, not only a happy god. Mirabai occasionally sounds like the author of the Psalms, in her simultaneous encapsulation of ecstasy and strife.

And then there's Rumi. At present the best-known Sufi poet to the West, although not the only one of greatness. Much has been discovered and written about Rumi for many years now, in the West. There are numerous translations and academic studies; numerous anthologies, and several translators. (The best translations into English are the separate works of Coleman Barks and Andrew Harvey.) So there's very little I need to add, except to continue to recommend that one read him. There is also in Rumi that seed of paradox, of contradiction, of the explosion of expectations into something genuinely original, truly poetic. I find, whenever I read Rumi, that I feel like taking up the pen, and responding with a poem or two of my own. That itself is a poetic response, and a prayer.

It's hard sometimes to separate out poetry from sacred literature, since so much sacred literature has been expressed as poetry. I think it's important to be very clear, however, that a lot of religious poetry is not at all spiritual: because it is rote, it is dogmatic, it is easy, and it offers answers to questions that were never asked. Far too much religious poetry is the poetry of witness. It is a statement of creed. All of which tends to bad art, because thoughtless, rote, and automatic. Recitation of dogma or creed is not creative; it is imitative.

The primary technology of prayer can be expressed poetically, as poetry, or in the form of poetry. Scripture is often poetic, because the language of metaphor and analogy gets closer to the heart than does analytical philosophical discourse. Poetry is the technology of faith, of knowing. Poetry is a primary (verbal) technology of recording vision. Poetry, like prayer, like shamanism, is spiritual technology. It needs to be recognized as such, and not locked up in the conceptual box of being only language. Language is the tool of prayer and of poetry alike.

Soul receives from soul that knowledge, therefore not by book
nor from tongue.
If knowledge of mysteries come after emptiness of mind, that is
illumination of heart.


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Friday, March 28, 2008

Notes towards an egoless poetry 13: Something Other

Crystallizing in me as I sit in early morning sunlight, for once having risen with the sun, and looking out the large windows over a vista frosted with yesterday's brief, wet, late-winter snow, is an awareness of the limitations of all human self-definition. There is something else, something larger, in the Universe, then the things we care about as humans. When I get mired in my own small concerns, which can seem large at the time, I step back to realize they're very small. That red fox who has denned across the river will go on living, if I moved away today. The tallest trees here, all between 75 and 100 years old, have risen and fallen with no need of human stewardship.

This perspective keeps us sane, keeps us in balance, keeps us aware that all those things of the topical and political moment that get so much energy and attention are really very small things. Not much more than the drops of snow falling off the frosted tree branches outsides.

There is something Other in the world, something important to recognize.

All too often our ideas of stewardship and rightness cling to the walls of our conceptual prisons, and never venture beyond. The beginnings of the environmentalism movement, some few decades ago, were the first general awareness in Western culture that we do not live alone on this planet, and that we are responsible for its care. Having been around the globe a couple of times in childhood and youth, I carry memories of places most people in my root culture have never seen except virtually, and have no feel for. I always like to go to a place to get a feel for it myself. The environmental movement was and is in part an aesthetic movement: it seeks to preserve that which we find beautiful that is Other than ourselves. This Other is not fashion, or fashionable; it does not depend on its for its creation, only for its continued preservation; it does not care if we come or go, except as we interfere with it.

This natural Other is entirely uncaring about us. It doesn't even know if we live or die. Hawks will continue to nest there, as will ground squirrels, long after we pass on. There is an eternity there that has nothing to do with us.

And so I am drawn into a deeper understanding of what those few poets who don't think humans were the most important subject to write about, or the most important subject to think about, have represented in their poetry: something Other than human. This has always been a minority stance in poetry, which, as a human artform, tends to be as recursive and self-regarding as any other artform. Confessional poetry, and its ongoing dominance in mainstream poetry with the rise of the confessional lyric, was perhaps an inevitable culmination of the tendency towards self-regard that the species carries along; perhaps unflinching self-regard is the inevitable curse of self-awareness, of sentience itself. Poetry that is about something Other than the human has never been dominant in literature, and probably never will be. We mostly like to write about ourselves. Yet it is a necessary thread: a reminder of that Other that is larger than all of us combined. In poetry, this can be expressed in religious language, of course, but it is wise to be clear that an homage to an intellectually-conceived divine is both unnecessary and irrelevant; the Other we discuss here requires from us neither worship nor submission, but only coexistence. It is indifferent to us, for the most part.

This Other is nature itself. The world beyond. The Universe of the astrophysicists, and the geological actuality of the planet we ride on. We ourselves are not separate from nature, although we have tried very hard to believe that we have been separated from nature, in order to justify our childish ideas of dominion and conquest. We prefer to rule rather than coexist. One might delve into the infantile aspects worldview that underlies such will to dominate and control. Suffice to say that, as a species, we have not yet grown up into adult wisdom, but remain in our turbulent adolescence, reverting at whim to childish self-inflations. Nothing is more egocentric than a baby.

There has been growing in me, this past year in which many parts of my old life have died or otherwise fallen away, an awareness of the scale of the world, of its vastness, and its vast indifference to me and mine. Rather than arouse fear in me—fear of annihilation—this inspires relief, even a kind of solace. An awareness that nothing of the everyday matters; it could all fall apart tomorrow, and the world would still go on. I take solace in the world's indifference. I spend my mornings, before engaging in the everyday necessities, with the trees and the river here, and the animals and birds and fungi that populate them. We interact, we coexist, we live together; none of them care about what I must get done today. So why must I?

So I return to poets like Robinson Jeffers, with his poetic philosophy of Inhumanism, which expresses something very similar to this indifference of the Other to us. I return to poets of naturalism, poets of observation, who report without prejudice what they see. Trained observers of the world as it is, who interact with the Other without trying ipose their will onto it.

Jeffers famously, or infamously, wrote in his Preface to The Double Axe about his poetic attitude of Inhumanism. This attitude, as well as the book, was roundly attacked and condemned during his lifetime, but in recent years has been reconsidered; his ideas are currently undergoing reassessment, and there is fruit there for the new trees we are trying to plant here.

Jeffers wrote of his book's long title poem in that same Preface: Its burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty. There is so much here that speaks directly to what I keep finding myself trying to do, as a poet, that my breath catches, and I can only point towards Jeffers' own words as signposts for my own: the rejection of human solipsism . . . the recognition of the transhuman magnificence . . . a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man. . . . Poems that speak through the poet not with a human voice, but the collective voice of a colony of fire ants; poems that are the wet walls of the Oregon coastal mountains speaking to a fox passing through; poems that have no human voice at all, and can barely fit into words.

Loren Eiseley, paleontologist, literary science writer, poet and naturalist, and one of my favorite writers, had many pithy things to say about our place in the grand scheme of things. About our fundamental need to part of nature, he wrote: Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war. About our desire to separate ourselves from nature, which is really the desire to be special and superior, Eiseley wrote: From the solitude of the wood, [Man] has passed to the more dreadful solitude of the heart. And: If it should turn out that we have mishandled our own lives as several civilizations before us have done, it seems a pity that we should involve the violet and the tree frog in our departure. It takes a geologic sense of time, as Eiseley had, to remind ourselves that even species have limited lifetimes; we might act as if we will be here forever; but most mammalian species have had lifetimes measured in mere millions of years. Our species, like others, is in fact, very fragile, and not enduring. In the far future, will we still be here? Eiseley believed, as I do, that Life may exist in yonder dark, but it will not wear the shape of man.

Yet Eiseley was also aware of both the artist's transformative role in society, here and now, and the price that often must be paid: It is frequently the tragedy of the great artist, as it is of the great scientist, that he frightens the ordinary man. Visionary scientist Freeman Dyson titled one of his books, Disturbing the Universe, to express a very similar thought.

British poet Basil Bunting once said in an interview: There is a possibility of a kind of reverence for the whole of creation which I feel we all ought to have in our bones, a kind of pantheism. If the word `God’ is to have any use it must include everything. The only way to know anything is to consider yourself a student of histology, finding out as much as carefully controlled common sense can find out about the world. In so doing, you will be contributing to the histology of God. At another time, he wrote: Praise the green earth. Chance has appointed her home, workshop, larder, middenpit. Her lousy skin scabbed here and there by cities provides us with name and nation. This is harsh, as harsh as the old rock exposed along the peaks of old island's backbones; but it is the perspective of the Other to be indifferent, which only seems harsh when you yourself are the target of such indifference. As many theologians and other poets echo Bunting: If the word `God’ is to have any use it must include everything. Everything. If you exclude the Other, there is no God in your excluding; no Godhead, no act of divine definition. It's an all or nothing proposition.

John Alec Baker published in 1967 a book called The Peregrine, which is a record of close observation of the falcon in its natural setting. There is almost no authorial self in the book, although the style of language is strong and occasionally dazzling. Baker begins the book with this paragraph: East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark–spired forest, but when I move toward them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me toward them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.

This early mention of the author's homestead is almost the only mention of humanity in the book, which moves gradually away from the human, to become fully enmeshed in the lives of the non-human. (I think Jeffers would have liked this progression throughout the course of Baker's book.) The reader feels completely drawn into the world of the falcon, and outside of myself. Baker followed the peregrines near his home for almost a decade, gradually feeling more and more like them. This is how Baker describes learning to track the peregrine: Approach him across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. This is the pure poetry of that something Other than ourselves. Another moment from The Peregrine that beholds the world's dramatic beauty: A falcon peregrine, sable on a white shield of sky, circled over from the sea. She slowed, and drifted aimlessly, as though the air above the land was thick and heavy. She dropped. The beaches flared and roared with salvoes of white wings. The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds. The falcon rose and fell, like a black billhook in splinters of white wood.

Poets are these who do not define themselves by their place in society, or their success in the marketplace of societal self-regard. Contemplatives are these without an investment in the usual dominance of self-regard. Solace-takers in the eternal present.

A poetry of the non-human, the inhuman, the something Other that is the rest of existence, in which we play only a part, and of which we are neither the masters nor of whose fate are we the sole determining force.

Outside, the snow melts away under early spring sunlight, leaving the lawn half-white, half-green. A hawk flies along the river. Red male cardinals pipe in the trees.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Let's Consider the Critical Heresy

Namely: Does criticism ever truly matter?

No, really, think about it for a minute, before that knee-jerk response about critical thinking that says, why, of course it matters, in fact it's essential.

I think it's wise at times to consider the viewpoints of your adversaries before you dismiss them. There might be a kernel of truth in there, that can be mined for new thoughts and perspective. So, forthwith:

Does criticism really have any impact? Can you really learn anything from criticism that's worthwhile, beyond the simple narrative of review, that tells you what a book is about? Isn't most literary criticism really just someone claiming to be smarter than you saying he's right and you're wrong?

Let's consider the possibility that all criticism really is purely a matter of subjective taste. That nothing objective can ever be said about any work of art. That it's all personal likes and dislikes. That it is solipsistic. That communication really doesn't matter, that it really is all about personal pleasure, and nothing more.

Let's further consider that even those who cloak themselves in critical objectivity are actually only capable of attaining relative objectivity. That in all things, matters of taste eventually prevail.

No, really, think about it for a minute. There is a truth in there, after all: That no one is ever completely objective, all of the time. That everyone has moments where they let personal taste take over.

The trick is learning to separate one's taste from one's critical assessments. That can be easy, or hard, depending on context and expertise. In my experience, it's harder than many critics think, and easier than many artists think.

The main litmus test I know for if it works or not is when emotional investment colors the results. (This is as true for doctors as for critics.) The more emotionless you are in your assessment, the more logical/rational, the more likely you are to approach objectivity. I very carefully say approach objectivity rather than be objective. Think about it.

Striving for objectivity, even if it's doomed to be always be a receding goal, is worthwhile. But how you do it can also matter.

A quick assessment can be a rush to judgment clouded by a lack of information, which can settle into a fixed opinion. I see this fairly often in criticism that is dismissive without really having spent any time on the material it dismisses. Granted, it's not often worth your time to wallow in something that's obviously bad, or obviously great. The real issue here is time spent on art that's on that borderline between good and mediocre, so-so and great. That edge can move, and anyone who thinks it's fixed, and not contextual, is mistaken—and likely to rush to judgment. It might often be wiser to give something you're unsure about a little more time; maybe you'll change your mind, or not, but at least you'll have a more considered opinion. Not to mention firmer ground to stand on.

In my experience, critics often tend to be superficial about their assessments, and often don't give a piece much time or thought before rushing onto the next artwork. I suppose if you're a review-writer on a deadline, that's understandable; but if you're not, what's your excuse? Haste makes for snap judgments, which tend to be colored by one's own prejudices more often than not.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, academic critics—who tend to be as much philosophers as appreciators—have a tendency to over-think, over-indulge themselves in rhetorical excess, and take perhaps too time. All too often in academia, art criticism has become a sub-discipline of sociology rather than art history. There is sometimes an overt political axe to grind, but far more often the sociological attitudes are unspoken and lie in the unstated assumptions, or worldview, upon which the art criticism is built. There is often an unstated "should" in such criticism, that implies that anyone who disagrees with the critic should be smart enough to change their mind and agree. Academics can be smug in their certainties, it's true.

On another front, the issue of not having all the relevant data to hand is the critic's fault, not the author's. I find it amusing when an author points out where a critic is wrong, and can prove it. But of course, critics rarely apologize, even when they change their minds. (Only the most gracious and wise give any time at all to this.)

The truth most artists confront, as they mature and grow, is that most critics are still criticizing the work the artists made last time out, always seeing the new work through the lens of the old. There are almost always comparisons. But comparisons are easy, and often easy to oversimplify, when artists take new and unexpected directions. And the artist can rightly reply: comparisons aren't always true, real, or even helpful. If an artist continues to grow and change, as both artist and person—and artists do, being human—then it's not the artist's fault, necessarily, if the critics (and public) can't keep up. It seems unreasonable to ask artists to spend all their time educating their audience rather than continuing to make new art. Some education time is always necessary, especially when an artist does go in a new direction.

Novelty of course can also be used as a veil of deception, an excuse for being lazy or tired or just not up to snuff. There are artists who cloak themselves in deliberate obscurity as a means of trying to make themselves seem smarter than you. But this isn't about that, and that kind of veil of obscurity is usually pretty easy to see through, because artists who use obfuscation as a cloak tend to betray themselves with a smug arrogance they just can't help letting slip through: the urge to gloat is irresistible. Rather, this is about when novelty is genuine, and the critic just can't keep up.

Okay, ready to get back to orthodoxy? All right, then.

Really, the only real test of quality is the test of time. Any critical assessment made in the moment may be wrong, in the long run. And the only test of objectivity is its lack of an axe to grind, its lack of emotional overtones. That helps one understand how one can like a piece of art and still know it's not very good; and vice versa.

So, we can arrive at something true amongst the chaff, no matter what other factors are in play: That patience and a wait-and-see attitude serve criticism much better than is usually believed. Patience in all things—and the willingness to be wrong.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Ideology of Critique 4: Ambiguity

I've been noticing lately how often formalism and the rejection of ambiguity are tied together in poetry criticism. I've gotten into numerous discussions and/or arguments with neo-formalist poets in recent months, poets who have gone so far as to say that what I write should not even be labeled "poetry"—arguments that often reduce to being moral arguments against uncertainty, indeterminacy, ambiguity, and chaos. These are essentially order-vs.-chaos arguments.

I like Michael Moorcock's formulation of the eternal struggle as being about finding a Balance between Law and Chaos, rather than good and evil. I think it is a more useful paradigm, and a larger, more encompassing one, that resists collapsing into simplistic binary reductionism, because a dynamic, living Balance requires elements of both Law and Chaos to be in play, in varying degrees at various times, in order to sustain life. Too much Law, and cultures become stifled in rules and lose all creativity. Too much Chaos, and cultures becomes anarchic in unhealthy ways, creative but directionless, unable to endure or maintain or sustain themselves. Law provides infrastructure, and Chaos provides creative rebelliousness. Both are needed, in dynamic balance. (There is something essentially Taoist about this worldview, which I find appealing, even though it's philosophical origins lie in Western post-Christianity.)

Ambiguity is only inherently evil (bad, wrong, chaotic) if your personal worldview demands order above all other needs. One sometimes detects in neo-formalist poetic criticism the whiff of an unreconstructed Freudian anal-retentive desire for totalitarian control of effect, meaning, and interpretation: as if poetry can only have one meaning. But ambiguity can have other origins than evil intent. There is of course in much bad writing the de facto ambiguity to be found in sloppiness of execution, and poor proofreading. But this form of muddled obscurity is rather different than the ambiguities brought on by subtle and multi-layered thinking.

And life itself is ambiguous at best. (Beware those who are too certain of themselves!) If art is to truly reflect life—rather than be a moral sermon against its weaknesses, or a polemic on what life should be—than art must also share some of life's qualities, such as ambiguity, uncertainty, a lack of clarity and determinacy, and so forth. Art reflects life as much as it inspires it.

One thinks of Virginia Woolf's famous comment against the artificial orderliness of narrative fiction: Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Woolf was dead on target here: life is not at all orderly. Writing about it as though it were is perhaps comforting, but it is also illusory, and a lie.

Because their literary-critical stance was a moral one at root, the neo-formalists I have argued with on those prior occasions immediately leapt to the unfounded conclusion that I, like other free-verse or non-formalist poets, am not interested in artificially imposing order onto chaos, that I must therefore be a champion of Chaos, a demon of anarchy, and a troublemaking nihilist at heart.

Not at all: I have always been a champion of seeking and finding the dynamic, living Balance.

The inability to frame a moral argument as anything but an Us-vs.-The argument is genuinely dangerous because it presupposes that only one camp (guess which) can be right, while all others are wrong. This is a form of fundamentalism, of fanaticism, that can tolerate no disagreement, because acknowledging the possibility of the equal coexistence of disagreements itself opens the door to ambiguity and error. How can you know you're right, if there is any doubt?

Poetry criticism that is moral criticism focuses solely on content, on interpreted meaning, and assumes that a poem has one fixed meaning and intent. There is no possibility that a poem, in this schema, is not prose, not an essay, not an argument, not a piece of clockwork reasoning set into motion to be resolved as a puzzle or an artifact. This sort of literary criticism is myopic in the extreme.

It remains true, and always will, that a great poem resists being paraphrased, and resists being reduced to a simple narrative argument. It is another litmus test of quality, perhaps, that new meanings can continue to be found in the poem, and that one can go ever deeper without ever feeling one has plumbed the ultimate depths. This is not ambiguity or clarity at issue, therefore: it is richness, and resonance, and a lifetime of memory folded into a small, densely-worded space: in other words, a true poem.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

The Endless Edit

The question is asked:

Say you write a poem, and are pretty pleased with it. Perhaps you tinker with it for a while, adding this, deleting that, till you're satisfied, or you leave it sit and go on to other things. Some time passes, maybe two or three months, and you come back to the poem; you still like it but see something else you think would be a small improvement and you make another change, and maybe a few weeks later another. And so it goes on for a year or more. Is there a time to stop this endless tinkering?

My first response to this oft-heard question is to quote Paul Valery: A poem is never finished, only abandoned. Perhaps you know the poem is done when you can make no more changes to it—or have become uninterested in doing so. Perhaps the poem is done when it has sat there untouched for a long enough time to have gathered a little dust. You pick it up, dust it off, can't see anything more you want to do with it. It's done.

But there are other factors involved. And there are reasonable limits to the revision process.

One important factor in deciding to stop tinkering with a poem is time—that is, your own movement through time. If you rediscover a poem you wrote years ago, you could revise it again. But over the years, you have changed: you are no longer the same person you were back then, and (hopefully) your writing has improved and changed, as well. This presents you with a choice between tinkering with the poem to bring it into your own present-time style; or to abandon the poem, leave it unchanged, and if the topic still intrigues you, write a new poem in your current voice or style.

When I read a poet's collected works, and their style and writing quality have not changed, it sets off alarm bells: there's something wrong. People are supposed to change over time, acquiring experience, knowledge, and (hopefully) wisdom. If their art remains entirely static, there must be something wrong; one has to wonder if they have been static, too.

Another reasonable limit to the amount of tinkering you want to do is that you might never stop. It might become obsessive, with nothing ever being declared done or finished, and new editions constantly being published of the same poems. I guess that, most of the time, I'd rather see a poet keep writing new poems, even if they're on the same (obsessive?) topics, then constantly rewriting the same material. Novelty and freshness can be a virtue.

The main thing I'd caution against in tinkering is the temptation to overdo it. There is a reasonable limit to how much tinkering you should let yourself do; it will vary from poet to poet, but you need to watch out for crossing that obsessive/compulsive line. Part of learning to become a better writer lies in training the awareness of when to stop: this is good enough, it's not going to get any better, so just stop revising it. At the point, the determination becomes: do I release this poem into the world or not, rather than, do I continue to revise it or not.

I've seen lots of decent second or third drafts of poems get killed by over-revision. All the life and breath goes out of the poems, even as they become so polished that in some circles they'd be lauded as examples of technical perfection and mastery.

If the poem's subject matter is very compelling to you as the writer, you might make several attempts at the poem, till you get closer to where the poem wants to be. I have several poems where I was dissatisfied with the first attempt, but rather than beating my head against the wall trying to stubbornly revise something that was fighting back, I put aside those second (or fifth) revisions and set out to write the poem all over again. I started from scratch each time, with the same triggering image or memory or vision or event in mind, setting out on a completely fresh attempt.

Sometimes it's best not to fight too hard, but to let it go and start over.

Again, just to be clear, this is not revision: it's a whole new poem that starts from the same vision. The abandoned earlier versions are not drafts, not actually revisions, but separate poems; as separate poems, they succeed or fail on their own merits, rather than as drafts of something unfinished.

You could, after you produce a version that satisfies you, go back to the previous attempts and pull out and use a remarkable turn of phrase, or line, or image, that seems to have some life in it, still, and incorporate it into the new poem. But don't overdo that, either; too much old stuff shoe-horned into the new poem will turn the poem into a contraption, which is yet one more way to kill the life and breath in it.

There are lots of times when continuing to face a problem head-on only makes things worse, and sometimes one needs to approach things from an oblique angle, from the side. We might think of it as the aesthetic geometry of triangulation: finding a new angle of attack, when the old angle just isn't producing results.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008


In cleaning out the basement, digging through boxes and caches of old papers and magazines and books, I've been stumbling across mostly trash, but also the occasional treasure. I came across a small stash of science fiction magazines from the mid-1980s through the early 90s, their pages still crisp from being carefully stored, and couldn't resist re-reading a few bits and pieces. I subscribed to more magazines back then than I do now, mostly because the past few years have been about travel and nomadism and minimizing the physical Stuff in my life—the very reason to be clearing out the basement at this time.

In the March 1991 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Asimov's monthly Editorial was part one of a two-parter about suspense in literature. He began by describing about how a critic had made some very disparaging remarks about Asimov's writing in some journal or other, prompting an episode on the writer's part of throwing the magazine across the room into the trash bin. But then, being an honest man, Asimov found he had to sit down and think about it. Maybe the critic was mad, but if he wasn't, Asimov found himself looking at his own writing to see if there was any truth in the accusations.

Such episodes, irritating as they can be, can also be the seeds that produce pearls. The introspection that follows such an irritation may produce a better writer.

The passage in Asimov's editorial that caught my eye, and that is relevant to what I want to discuss here—my own seed-pearl—was a small paragraph in the middle. Asimov explores the issue of how suspense is used in several levels of writing, by citing several fictions ranging from cheesy pulp comic-strips to better literature that one always wants to re-read even when one knows how the story's going to come out. And then:

Now I come to my own writing, but I can only discuss it if you who are reading it understand that I never did anything of what I am about to describe purposely. It all got done, every bit of it, instinctively, and I can only now understand it after the fact.

This caught my attention as if church bells had begun ringing in the house overhead. It gets at the root of what the writing process is for some writers: instinct, intuition, trust. I include myself in this group. This has always been a difficult process to explain—it actively defies analysis—without collapsing into defensiveness or justification. Asimov's use of the word "instinctively" in this context crystallizes all kinds of thoughts for me about my own writing process, and the creative process in general. It provides a foundation for explanation rather than excuse.

What Asimov says about instinct feels exactly correct to me. During the process of writing itself, I usually have no idea what I'm doing, and I usually only figure it out later. It can be a short while, or a very long time, before I can "understand it after the fact." You don't always know what's there, you don't always know how you did it, till much later.

Understanding in art can become a critical shibboleth, some idea of ultimate meaning that places too much emphasis on total clarity, as though creativity were a wiring diagram that when properly assembled would produce a predictable and reproducible result. There is something fascistic about the demand for total clarity of meaning in creativity, some whiff of totalizing Control that the insecure psychoblast seeks to impose on the chaotic and unpredictable world, as though forcing creativity into the conscious channels of the known would somehow make life safer and more secure.

But such imposition is doomed. Complete understanding is almost always an illusion.

There are poems (including some that I have written myself) that I remain unable to fully understand. There is no one logical and final interpretation or meaning to such a poem; instead, there is a deep well of revealed mystery each time it is read, or re-read. I find something new in it every time I re-read it. It is inexhaustible.

It has been my observation that writers who work instinctively often lack any idea of what they're doing till they're done. They can analyze after-the-fact, to be sure, but they tend not to do so beforehand. Sometimes they even lack writing routines or regimens; their writing process can be apparently chaotic, messy, illogical, nonlinear, disorganized. Sometimes they don't even practice writing as a daily exercise, sitting down for two hours or more to write as though playing scales on the piano; or if they do have a daily regimen, they recognize going in that much of what comes out will be irredeemable bilge.

I have also observed that some more experienced writers who work instinctively have come to understand their own process well enough that they no longer try to force it to happen, but have learned to trust the process and go with the flow. To outward appearances this can seem undisciplined and disorganized to the outside observer, but there is a deep inner practice at work. The disciplined aspect of the process appears in the realm of being prepared for the lightning to strike; waiting with mindfulness and attentiveness; going about life as though nothing unusual were happening but with the inner ear constantly tuned to catch the smallest hint of a whisper.

Sometimes nothing appears to happen for a long time. But then it takes you over, and when it comes over you, it can be as sudden and devastating as a natural disaster. It's as if the mind takes fire, on those occasions when one has the need to write, and whatever it is that drives the writing takes control. The need comes to the foreground, eclipsing all other needs. You drop everything else going on to get the poem done, or the story out, or the essay sketched, before it evaporates. It's as if someone tapped you on the shoulder and when you turned to look they slapped you on the forehead with a sheaf of papyrus made of light and told you to transcribe it. It's as if someone hit the Print button on a virtual word-processor in the back of your mind, and now whatever it is ready to come forward and be printed out.

The process of writing instinctively has always been suspect to those other writers whose natural tendencies lie in orderly workmanship, in clean regimens, in pre-planned outlines and consciously-directed logical progress through the process. There is often a sotto voce accusation, from the intentional and orderly writer towards the chaotic and instinctive writer, that it is somehow cheating, somehow not doing it right, somehow not real writing.

The baffling dilemma to the orderly mind is how both kinds of writing process are able to produce good work, since both demonstrably do.

This dilemma may be a permanent one. It goes beyond the usual dichotomies and polarities that art historians and philosophers present—Apollo vs. Dionysus, left-brain vs. right-brain, logical vs. chaotic, disciplined vs. undisciplined. (I readily admit to being an undisciplined writer with no regular routine, and that I don't care much to develop one.) The dilemma seems to go further down to the roots of worldview and mindset, into the realms of belief and comprehension: The disciplined mind seems always unable to comprehend how the undisciplined mind can produce gems amidst the apparent chaos. The rhetorical-critical cliché about chance and luck (if a million monkeys typed randomly for a million years, would they produce the works of Shakespeare?) is a sop to the illusion of understanding, and provides no real answer. It's an excuse, not an explanation.

One returns to the truth that some instinctive writers seem to embody, that one must trust one's own process, and go with the flow, and neither cling to the fruits of the process, nor try to over-control or micro-manage the process itself. At present I can only frame that negatively, a prescription of what to avoid. Yet, I have heard numerous personal anecdotes from artists that, when they have attempted to dictate to their process, to over-determine it, they have succeeded only in getting stuck.

The dilemma also seems rooted in the assumption that an artist must suffer not only in life, but during the creative process itself. That it's not real writing unless it is paid for with blood, sweat, tears, and angst. This has become so deeply rooted in our creative culture that even artists do not question it; it has become an archetype, the Starving Artist, or the Suffering Artist, or the Mad Artist, that is often unconsciously embraced without question. It is an archetype, like all such, that can be developed and overcome—but how many artists actually achieve that?

As far as I know, Isaac Asimov was a writer who could sit down any time, and type out a story. His extremely prolific career output is testimony to the ease with which he usually was able to write. We're not talking about sweating blood onto the typewriter here. Was Asimov's prolific fluidity coupled to the fact that he was an instinctive writer, rather than one who carefully pre-planned every effect? There may be no definitive answer to that question, yet I think it's likely. The fact is, based on his own reports in his essays, editorials and letters that he has left behind for us, Asimov often didn't know what he was doing till it was done, but he never let that stop him from doing it. He trusted his creative process, he trusted himself as a writer, and he trusted his readers to be able to go on that journey with him.

This level of trust in the creative process can serve as a role model to us all.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Teaching Myself to Draw 3

I was up at a lakeside retreat center on Green Lake, in Wisconsin, a couple of weekends ago, for two nights and days of music rehearsals and activities. In between the rehearsal duties and the social activities surrounding them, I had opportunity to make two or three more colored pencil drawings in my little sketchbook. The most successful, complete drawing, to my mind, was this one I made that was inspired by the recent lunar eclipse:

This was made from memory and observations I made while watching and photographing the eclipse itself, several days prior to making the drawing. (I'm interested in working now with images from memory and observation as well as from imagination and exploration.) I worked a lot with layers of color, in subtle shadings with thin layers of burnish, to get the tones in the moon itself. There's purple and green in the darker areas, although you might not realize it at first glance.

The night sky (the drawing's field, or background) was done with a technique I've been using since I began teaching myself to draw. It's a technique I feel a real affinity for, and I sense that it could carry my interest a long way before it loses its excitement. This technique uses a ruler-edge to constrain the pencil strokes to being all-parallel, all-linear, and/or to run up against a hard edge and no further. I have been experimenting with saturated graphic images in solid shapes, too, and filling them in with parallel strokes. Sometimes you use different pressure to get different thickness or saturation. Softer edges are really made with different pressures but the same stroke. Here's another drawing I made that same weekend that explores this:

My favorite part of this drawing (a brown saguaro skeleton at sunset, a more realistic image than you might think, if you've ever been to the Sonoran Desert) is that I made the cactus overlap the sun, and that I used two different angles for the strokes. This appeals to my sense of graphic design and strong composition.

These experiments with strict line-direction in pencil drawing, often using a ruler to constrain the straightness of the stroke, lead me back to the Graphic Pen filter tool in Adobe Photoshop. It's a filter that allows you to determine stroke length, darkness vs. lightness density, and stroke direction. By changing the filter's parameters you can get several different kinds of sketch effects. This can be useful for doing a pre-sketch as well as for making a final piece. You can see what an image might look like when using constrained uni-directional strokes.

For example, I made a photo of sunrise over the frozen white tundra of Green Lake itself, with the long shadows of trees in the foreground. The heavy winter snows this year have frequently presented landscapes that were purely black-and-white, all natural color desaturated and subdued; I have made several photos this winter that might as well be calligraphy or drawings. The sunrise through the trees was an image I wanted to draw as soon as I saw it: the stark black lines and angles, the white snow field, sun-flare beyond the trees all had me visualizing a completed drawing. I made some photos, therefore, that were meant to be references for drawing and sketching. Here's one, with the graphic pen filter tool used to sketch out the basic idea:

One of the advantages of Photoshop is its flexibility: there are usually several paths towards any given artistic goal. There are several paths for converting photos into drawings, for example. Often, this allows the artist to emerge, because your way of achieving a result might be unique. Photoshop is a flexible enough tool that many worlds of results are possible, and that means there's room for individual artistic exploration. Photoshop, therefore, is a drawing and painting tool like my colored pencils. It just operates entirely in the digital realm. (Until you print your result, that is.) I taught myself to make several kinds of drawing looks in Photoshop long before I began this colored pencil experiment.

For example, here's a sepia pen-and-ink look that I wrote a custom Photoshop filter to create. It's an effect that works particularly well with skin-tones and water and stone textures. This is one of my own favorite images using this technique:

After the retreat weekend, on the drive home from Green Lake, I took some time to stop and make photographs at Devil's Lake State Park, one of my favorite and most-often-visited places in Wisconsin. The air was thick with winter fog and the sky was as white as the snow.

I trudged through the heavy snow up to the base of East Bluff, where I have often climbed both trails and off-trail boulder-fields. The trails were too icy to climb very far, the rocks slick and snow-covered, so I mostly wandered at the edge of the bluff, and into the trees there. I made a photo of a lone pine tree against the white sky above a field of boulders the size of houses. Here's that image with the graphic pen effect in use—another image I want to sketch later on with pencils:

Now that I have begun learning to actually physically draw with colored pencils, rather than create a drawing from a photo in Photoshop using effects, I find that I appreciate all the more the time it takes to make a drawing; the tactile nature of the process, the touch-contact with the paper, the pencil, the ink-filled brush; the slower process that allows one time to sit back and look it over, to think about what to do next, to notice that this corner needs something more. I like how the drawing process slows you down and brings an image in the mind's eye into gradual focus. I also still like the speed of photography, and I have always practiced a slower-moving style of photography than many, in which I look at what I want to photograph for a long time before I make the image. Anything that slows you down makes the artistic process more contemplative. You might be looking at the outside world, but you are also looking within, and listening to both those silences and the inner voices that whisper inside them.

Photoshop has served me very well artistically and professionally for many years. It initially freed me up to be able to make some kinds of images I saw in my mind's eye that I had not the skills to paint or draw. Now that I'm learning to draw, I realize again that the tools you acquire do not supplant each other, they complement each other. They fill in the gaps. There are things I am learning to do with pencils that create satisfying textures that the digital domain cannot. Perhaps these tools of different realms will merge into a piece made in Photoshop that I then draw over with colored pencils. I am interested in, but not yet ready to attempt, a merging of these tools, to see how they can work together in collaboration and mutual support.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Living in the Camper, Arroyo Hondo, NM

Small trailer barely towed here over mountain passes that made the truck chuff down to a bare crawl. Was going to camp in Taos Canyon, but there was no room for it, no place. Here, on the mesa under remnant volcanic cinder cones, west of everything known, some hundred yards behind the nearest cabin, electricity on a long thin wire, and a place for the truck to park. My life reduced to 13 by 7 rounded feet, a mere step off the ground, creaky floor, a door that has to be jimmied into secure position each bedtime, mouseholes, migrating tarantulas, coyotes yipping on the mesa nearby when I get out to pee in the middle of the night and look at the stars, a pair of nesting bluebirds, a pair of nesting ravens, three nights with a great horned owl on a post right above me, wrens tick-tacking on the trailer roof every dawn, me still curled in my nest of wool blankets beneath their scurries.

living with skin off—
camp under the volcano
so near to the birds

I drive the ten or so miles into Taos many afternoons, where there's an internet cafe, where over the months I will become a regular and get to know all the employees and other regulars. Nothing to do in life but sit there and write for hours a day. I get the occasional freelance. I give some money away, I learn to eat only organically-grown food. I volunteer at the Taos farmer's market, and am paid in piles of fresh vegetables. At one point, I have to move my entire website to a new home, an architectural fiction that revises its own dreams of stardom. My phone only works some of the time. The weeks tick by with intensifying slowness. There are nights when I'm so alone.

how far to go
for the sound of human words!
these silent evenings

Still, the world closes down to a rough and static microcosm: nowhere to go, nothing to do, despite all efforts. All alone here, no real friends to speak of, the old life abandoned far behind. So the walls of endurance reduce themselves to these fiberglass camper curves. The fabric art my sister made for my journey, hung near the door: "the arrow of desire." A daily routine of bread and cheese. Soupy chicken and rice broth on alternate dusks. I eat clean food, and feel my strength return. Yet everything foul rises up in me. What caused this rage, this violent frustration? Hates long gone, wounds brought near. There's nothing here but silence and moving stars, and time to set the broken bones of a life gone stagnant and derailed. Now, the pressure-cooker begins to boil, and you blast and bleat and bluff against the silence, learning how to die with grace, to be reborn with something kenning commitment. The rocks witness and absorb your inner deserts; the sky takes up the story, when you've shouted your tears into the blankets; the mesquite, low-stooped and carnivorous, scratch and scrape you raw when you hug them for comfort, embracing you while unsealing scabs to the healthy air and light.

cleaning house, I spit
my poisons on rough ground,
learn to live again

It gets darker before it gets better. I write things I'd never say to anyone, ancient vitriol and volcanic railings flung into the sun. One day, I find my apples have rotted in their cupboard. I stand outside, having had enough, and put all my violence into each rotting fruit before I fling it away, as far across the mesa as I can throw. They shatter and splinter on the rocks far away, and my fears and angers are absorbed into the sage and cedar, cleansed, while striped Western ground squirrels devour the dessicated remnants of a tree's fruit borne far away, brought here, and shattered near their burrows.

how silent it is
after the storm has passed—
no grass-blade sways, still

One early morning, snow on the shell, at first sounding like wren's feet: but there is no chatter or bird-shout. All that cold day, cocooned in blankets, writing, hands cold, drinking endless cups of tea brewed on the miniature range. Ice on the floorboards. If I drive down the precipitous mountain, will I be able to get back home tonight? The snow fades after noon, leaving behind presentiments of wintermind.

wintering over
birds, voles and coyotes as my
only companions

I am trapped. Nothing moves. The frost breathes, the trees vent evaporites into a sky so low, here, you reach up and grab cloud. No more mountaintops, just lines of ice along their flanks. Tracks of ravens in the snow outside. The rough dismantling of a dormant life, awakening. I have to leave, I can't survive the cold in the camper, even with a borrowed electric heater. Indifferent mountains watching, we scurry to build our nests.

enough of shelter!
I take up my knapsack for
the refuge of the roads

We get the trailer down the cliff road, somehow, and I depart for California, abandoning mountain winters, fully-loaded and my head full of roads, thinking I will winter over by the sea, then return in mountain summer. Suddenly, the trailer hitch bounces free, the camper's safety chains rend and clear, there's a colossal bang as the trailer read-ends the truck, then, as i watch in the rear-view mirror, my home sails into the air above the Rio Grande canyon, a home aloft, and comes crashing to a halt below, wedged in by a big boulder, crushed, husked, splintered, torn, trashed, cracked open, a walnut shell split by the fingers of an indifferent god.

what need do I have
of shards scattered in my wake?
silent mountains breathe

It could have been so much worse. It could have veered the other direction, into traffic, and shelled itself around an oncoming family SUV. I salvage some of what I have lived with, these many months; blankets, tools, small unbroken things. But the camper itself is ruined, and the last of my money goes to tow it up the cliff and onto a nearby field. I take the license plate with me, and leave the rest. My autumnal home, now crushed and desolate. The gods had given me a place to live, now taken away again. I travel light, I no longer need it, the turtle has shed its shell.

over a year now
since the fall that shed my goals—
still, trembling in dreams

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Calligraphic Haiga 2

Two more picture-poems from older notebooks, rediscovered last week as I was sorting through papers. Notebooks brushed into with black-ink brush-pens, quick thoughts and poems, quick drawings made spontaneously, following the mind that is following the brush.

I am in the process of moving house, and going through box after box of old papers and magazines, things I set aside "to be sorted later." Later is now, and I want to lighten my load as much as possible at this point. I found these two haiga in a journal/sketchbook I occasionally wrote in last year, in the middle of sleepless nights; those nights when you wake up in the middle of the night, and can't get back to sleep, in which art-making becomes a form of restful and calming meditation. (I wrote earlier about this here.)

There are short poems in this rediscovered notebook as well—fragments, haiku, just thoughts in the dark hours between midnight and dawn—also brushed rather than penned.

in the window
blue-silver light spills on snow—
moon of popping trees

A poem I could have written this past month of heavy snows, bitterly cold nights, days not much warmer, when icicles hung low from the eaves, and thin branches of the woods by the house, branches sometimes encased in ice to make crystal wands, would break off and fall into the snow, leaving calligraphic marks in their wake.

after sex, after sleep,
leave me a kiss as you leave
my bed for your own

so I know you
still love me

A tanka in winter, and as so many tanka are, about love that is impermanent.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Flowers & Swords

This photo, of Japanese swords and bright flowers together in a red frosted-glass vase, has been one of my more popular yet also controversial images. It has created its own history, independent of the moment it took me to make the arrangement and photograph.

I was operating a sales booth at a visionary-art show at a well-known new-age center in Minneapolis in 2004, and I had a large print of this photo on a display stand at my booth. It's an image I had taken in the studio about a year beforehand. I didn't sell a single thing at that show, which was my typical experience for doing art fairs and other shows the entire time I lived in Minnesota. My art just doesn't fit with Minnesota, I guess; too visionary, too strange. When I moved to New Mexico and later California, after living and not thriving in Minnesota for several years, it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds—perhaps literally, but certainly symbolically. I had been personally invited to show my work at this particular show, and gone out of my way to prepare for it; so it was a disappointment to not sell anything. I did do some smalls trades with a couple of fellow artists at day's end, art for art, each of us bartering our wares to the other.

The responses that this image raised at that art fair—the last fair I ever participated in, in Minnesota, come to think of it—were emblematic.

There were during the afternoon two women who kept coming back to look at the photo. Both of them talked to me about their responses.

One woman was a warrior-type, clearly an experienced martial artist who knew how to deal with swords; she was also a drummer in drumming circles, and we had a lot in common. She was intrigued by the photo, and almost bought the print. I didn't mind when she didn't, however, as I had enjoyed the conversation.

The other woman roamed around the room several times, and kept coming back to stare at the photo of the swords and the flowers together. Finally, when I asked her what she thought of it, probably the fourth time she'd been by to look at it, she said, "It really scares me, yet I find it compelling." She was afraid of it, but couldn't take her eyes off of it. I asked why. She said because it was a powerful image that combined both the potential for violence and the present beauty of the moment.

For me, this was profound and valuable feedback, and I said so. I love getting this kind of honest response, even if it's a response not ultimately supportive or positive. That the artwork has gotten under someone's skin, and made them uncomfortable, in my opinion, means the artwork has succeeded—succeeded just as much as if it had been praised or lauded or generated some kind of ecstasy in the viewer. Art is disturbing, and supposed to disturb. Art isn't soothing, safe, or easily digested. Art should make you ask more questions than you have answers for.

This photo of swords and flowers, for me, was about bushido, and the samurai's Zen-flavored awareness of the terrible beauty of life: it's awesome beauty, and it's inevitable ending. There is an awareness of the intense beauty of existence that one feels at the edge of losing life. It's an existential, sudden intense awareness that life is amazingly beautiful and meaningful. As the saying comes down to us from the Native American elders who once were warriors: It is a good day to die. Another similar saying that comes from the samurai goes, When you know you are going to die, you can accomplish anything. One can do the impossible.

All these associations flashed through my mind in the moment it took to originally make the photo, which was in fact a fortuitous accident, as such things often are. A great deal of my artwork arrives like a lightning stroke, like the strobe of a lightbox in a photography studio, and it might be years till I figure it out. If I ever do.

What was interesting to me about the responses these two women gave me at that no-sales art-event was that both of them, in different ways, embodied the ambivalence of approach/avoidance. The first woman was mostly compelled to approach, mostly fearless, still a little hesitant. She seemed clear that she wanted the art, but didn't know how to fit it into her daily life; she acknowledged her inner warrior nature, but didn't know how to display such knowledge in her home, her office, her daily life. Her hesitance was in the area of figuring how to best integrate such art into her regular routines. The second woman was in some ways a classic repressed housewife type, with mousey dark hair and a sallow complexion, whose life was more likely ruled by fear than by sensuality; yet she was drawn again and again, as if desperately seeking out her own inner warrior. I sensed something very strong and unbreakable inside her, even though the face she presented to the world was a shy, fearful, timid, even fragile one. It is always amazing to get those quick glimpses of something behind the eyes, that is indestructible.

This was a lesson for me in some of the ways that art can be transformative; in different ways for different people, to be sure, but speaking to our darker hearts, our inner selves—speaking directly, bypassing the logical coping mind, the conscious ego-interface that drives us from home to work and gets us through the navigable wastelands of the everyday. Art that bypasses the conscious, chattering monkey-mind contains a charge of numinous energy, a dark aura of power. It can raise atavistic fears, as it raises the hairs on the back of your neck; our species was once a prey species, and we still remember those runs for safety. It can also raise the shadows of predation, those darker selves that enabled us to survive, even if we repress them now for the sake of getting along with others in civilized company. Civilization can be a veneer, but it can also be a choice to not-kill, just for today, to not-hunt, just now, just right now.

My own art and music have often been called transformative, archetypal, mythopoetic, shamanic, etc. It's a label that took me a long time to embrace. I'm not into the soothing, almost saccharine visions of much new-age artwork; I spend a lot of time bringing the shadow into the light, and that shows up in the art. You can almost always spot an artist who has been through the dark night of the senses, the dark night of the soul. There's an intangible mark on their artwork, a presence, something mysterious lingering like an aura of light or dark. You want to see what's on the back of the painting. You want to know more, and more, and you never reach the back wall of the cave.

Flowers and swords: the yin and yang of life and death.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

The Ideology of Critique 3: Quality Sucks

Something gets overlooked in the continual quest for Quality in Art—ignoring for the moment the fact that such a Quest For Quality can unbalance the seeker, which was the whole narrative of Robert Pirsig's Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—the quest that seeks to improve art, and the artist, by having them always push themselves harder towards perfection and never allows them to create at a standard lesser than their own previous peak achievements.

This is what gets overlooked:

Every artist and writer and musician and poet creates minor work.

This is inevitable. It is going to happen. Just deal with it and move on. Not even Genius Artists created continuous series of masterworks with no lesser works in between. Every great artists creates bad art, even outright crap, at least some of the time. Every great artist, even if their crap is still better than anyone else's, creates lesser art.

The ideology of critique that demands continual perfection, however, refuses to acknowledge the inevitability of minor work; or at least refuses to discuss it, and would rather ignore it. This ideology prefers to focus only on achievement, and constantly risks collapsing into bitter cynicism when it's high standards are (inevitably?) failed to be lived up to. In criticism, this can be a real joy-killer; it can create a continuously bitter and cynical tone, and deprive even the critic of the ability to appreciate what is good even if it's not great. (Of course, there are tactful and non-tactful means alike in which to express one's critical cynicism. Bitterness, if it's the only critical mode available, leads inexorably towards genuine nihilism.) The problem, however, lies not with the artists who are doing work that is somehow "beneath them," the problem lies with with the critical ideology that would deny the value of imperfection.

Let's call it imperfectionism, if it must have an -ism attached to it, and regard it as the antidote to the creeping perfectionism that drives the ideological/critical economy of Quality. Imperfectionism might save your artistic soul, if you use it to let go of your obsessively compulsive drive towards perfectionism in both your own art and in the art of others that you critique. Imperfectionism is not an excuse to slack off, or be lazy; it is, however, an acknowledgment of a simple fact of life:

No artist ever creates at top form one hundred percent of the time. Beyond the mere problem of superhuman exertion leading to burnout; beyond the statistical inevitability of variable quality in all things created; beyond the existential truth that everyone has bad days and weaker moments—beyond all that lies the problem that no human being can embody the living archetype of Quality (or Perfection) every moment of their lives without being destroyed.

The ideology of critique that demands a writer only ever write at their top form, all the time, places an impossible burden on the writer that inevitably causes anxiety and, by its own Newtonian reaction, causes failure. There is no slack built into this expectation. The tension to always produce brilliance can only be destructive, in the end. The ideology of critique that refuses to let a writer produce minor work has, probably unconsciously, bought into the archetype of the Hero-Writer.

For example: Perhaps the reason Norman Mailer failed to live up to his early promise—the reason so many of his later books were so poor overall—was that his demand on himself to always be A Genius—a demand driven by his own ego and ambition as much as by his reviewers—burned him out, and kept him from the brass ring. Perhaps he could have peaked higher than he did, as a writer, if he'd allowed himself the guilty pleasure of writing the occasional cheap potboiler or pulp science fiction adventure, under a pseudonym if necessary. (The Hero-Writer archetype is as much about image as it is about accomplishment.) Perhaps the guilty pleasure of writing honest crap would have freed him up to climb higher than he actually did, despite his ego and ambition. It might have refreshed him, renewed his powers of creation, and been a necessary vacation from which he might have returned invigorated and newly inspired. Alas, he never let himself do any of that. He never let himself embody the Mediocre Writer archetype, even as an anodyne to his ambitions to be the Genius Writer.

There is an underlying assumption behind the critical ideology of Quality: that once you have climbed to a certain peak, you can never create below the level of that peak again. (Or rather, should not be allowed to, as if it were somehow bad for you.) This puts a lot of pressure on you to live up to your own best past work. It puts pressure on you to never allow yourself to slack off. Now that you're Great, you must always be Great. This is a road-map that can drive one directly towards paralysis and the existential dread of genuine artist's block. It can cripple the creative flow. Perfectionism can be the biggest obstacle of all to be overcome.

Perhaps one way to tell who was a true Genius rather than a failed genius is to note which mind let itself be deliberately sloppy and haphazard from time to time. The difference between Albert Einstein and Norman Mailer was that Einstein openly allowed himself to be sloppy—except where it mattered most. Einstein knew the value of refreshing the mind that can come from wallowing in occasional bouts of imperfectionism. He didn't care if his shoes were tied, when his mind was soaring into another Ideal thought-experiment. He allowed some of his self to be messy, so the important parts could be organized. Perhaps true Quality can only be found in the midst of imperfection—the robes a little tattered in the back, the vehicle needing occasional repairs and fine-tuning. Life knocks us off our rockers every so often. That's a useful reminder, after we've picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off, that everything we do has necessary limits. One of those limits might be our own Heroism, our own Quality—at least at that moment we fell of our rocker.

Every artist and writer and musician creates minor work.

Here's another way to look at minor work, minor art, lesser writing—even your own:

Minor art is not a sin. Lesser art is a not failure.

It is not a weakening of resolve. It is not a betrayal or either the artist's goal, or the audience's demands.

Look at it as taking a breather between larger, more ambitious projects. Look at minor work as slacking off, vacation work, temporal études, practice pieces, sketches and interim projects in between projects of larger scope, ambition, and greatness of Quality. Don't be so hard on yourself for not living up to your own expectations, every single day of your life. No one can do that. You're not Superman. (Hopefully you're not Pirsig's Phaedrus, either.)

The truth is: Every artist makes lesser art, from time to time. How you deal with that truth is what matters.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Questions Around Publishing

Increased controversy about what is and what isn't "publishing" online is a fact of life to any contemporary poet, writer, artist, illustrator whose creative work appears online. But it has become a minefield full of controversy. I don't have any definitive answers, and I am not a legal expert, although I do have some opinions—it's just interesting to think about the questions. The questions circle around several interrelated issues:

Does posting my own poem on my own website, or blog, constitute a publication of the sort one lists in the Acknowledgments page when one puts together a collection or anthology? If being published online carries the same weight as a print publication, why do print publications sneer at web-based poetry journals? Why do somme poetry journals reject any poem that has ever appeared in any forum online, including poetry workshop boards and personal blogs? Does a poem being workshopped on a board constitute actual publication, since the poem may never appear there in its final, finished version? Does a poem appearing in an edited online literary journal carry more weight in terms of publishing than a poem appearing on your own blog or website? Is it a more "real" and solid publication? Is a poem appearing in print, in print journal, more solid and real than a poem appearing in an online journal? Is the poet required to treat their poems the same way when assembling a collection (say, a chapbook) for poems when the editors of the various journals the poems first appeared in treat the poems very differently? Why should the poet regard these different publishing media as identical when clearly the publishing industry does not? Which is more "serious"—online or print? Why should the poet make any distinction between the two, when a journal rejects a poem for being on a blog? Is the only relevant issue the journal's (or editor's) desire to have the right of first publication? Are the editor's rights more important than the poets? Who decides what's real and what's not?

It has become increasingly common, it seems, for some literary journals to regard poems that have appeared anywhere, in any medium, as previously-published. (As if rights of first publication were so much more important than the actual quality of the poem itself.) This includes online poetry workshops, poetry forum boards, and other similar venues that most writers would consider pre-publication, or non-publication. If I make xeroxes of a poem to hand out at my writing group, does that mean I've published the poem, and it should be rejected as already-published? If not, then why is that any different than an online poetry group where poems are posted for critique on a message board? Is it simply a matter of scale? i.e. more people can see it online than would ever see it in my real-space poetry group? Is it simply a matter of control of the material's presentation?

Furthermore, since some search-engines also cache older copies of webpages, even if the webpages and/or websites have been taken down and/or deleted at the source, such poems could still be out there, to be found, if an editor does a search to see if the poem has appeared anywhere else before. (Plagiarism is a common rationale for doing such searches; but in fact that seems in some cases to be more rationale rather than reason.)

is print more existentially solid than the internet?

Many journals fairly demand rights of first publication because they are primarily interested in presenting new work, new original work, new original work that has never been seen or published anywhere else before—after which the rights to the poem revert to the poet. After which, presumably, the poet could post the poem on their webpage or blog with no difficulty. So why do some journals seem to have a problem with later re-postings?

The desire to be first to publish a new poem (or poet) is driven by the gatekeeping instinct, and by the long-standing post-Romantic, Modernist ideal that all art should be original all the time. But it is also driven by the desire to be the person who discovered the next great writer. Fame can make or break your journal, or gallery, or scene. Everyone wants to be famous, it seems—except those few artists who genuinely make art for its own sake, often working most of their careers "off the radar." The gatekeepers need the artists more than the artists need the gatekeepers—especially now, when the New Media technologies allow artists to more and more directly contact their audience without any need to pass their art through the hands of distributors, gatekeepers, and taste-makers. Criticism as an artform may still be relevant for making judgments about the quality of a work of art—but be honest, who really cares? Mostly the critics.

Isn't some of this desire on the parts of the gatekeepers just a scramble to retain control of access? Access to art, to novelty, to the headrush of new experience? Isn't it true that journals are threatened by "direct sales" the same way the recording industry has been feeling threatened by the artists' new-found ability to sell directly to their fans, via direct payment channels online? When you cut out the middlemen, they get desperate about losing their piece of the economic pie.

Part of the answer to all these dilemmas is that mavens of older technology often resist the ideas behind new technologies. The gatekeepers of artistic distribution cannot keep up with the means of distribution, when new technologies are being developed and implemented all the time. It's not that they resist what the new tech is or does, they resist what it means. What does online publication mean? Should it be taken as seriously, when assembling an Acknowledgments page, as a print publication? Does it carry the same weight? And if it does not, why not? And if it does not, then why the concern about "prior publication" online?

Many publishers, editors, reviewers, and even artists seem to view self-publishing as somehow lesser. All chapbooks one assembles and prints oneself are dismissed as vanity publications, and all online publications are indeed seen as lightweight compared to the established print journals. The truth is, this has nothing to do with artistic merit, or quality. Some great artists of the past resorted to self-publishing in order to keep pure the boundaries of their artistic vision—William Blake or Kenneth Patchen, for example—and other poets resorted to self-publishing merely to get the work out to those they wanted to read their poems—Cavafy did this, with his small folios of poems annually printed and given to his small circle of readers. Still others have resorted to self-publishing because all the mainstream venues rejected or ignored them—the list of writers here is a very long one, and includes poets we now consider geniuses but who were ignored in their days. Persistence pays off, and so does self-marketing.

There were echoes of this trend in the early days of the xeroxed 'zines—when lots of samizdat publications were produced and distributed directly, via xerox and mimeo, bypassing the publishing mainstream entirely—that are very similar to what is happening now, especially online. Perhaps the mainstream print journals are feeling bypassed again. They would like to be the gatekeepers again.

What is that but an effort to control the means of delivery? Or, rather, dissemination and distribution? Declaring that when I, who know what I'm doing when it comes to self-publishing because I'm a designer, typographer, and otherwise master of the technical skills of publishing . It is lesser because it didn't pass through the hands of an editor or publisher.

The bottom line to all of this is that it remains unresolved. As happens during the transitional phase of any new technology, the theory and the legal ramifications lag far behind the ingenuity of usage and practice. The artists are pretty much always ahead of the business, it seems.

How do you declare that an ephemeral performance piece, or a sculpture made of icicles that melt once they are struck by sunlight, is a copyrighted work of art? What is actually copyrighted? In most cases, it seems to be the idea, the concept, the intention, rather than the execution. One solution is to rely on the existing copyright law of other media: a recording of a performance can be copyrighted, even though the performance itself is ephemeral. A photograph of the melting icicle sculpture can be copyrighted—it is a known type of art-object after all—even after the sculpture itself is gone. The artist who works in ephemeral media constantly in confronted with this dilemma. How do you copyright an idea or concept, when the laws are designed to protect the copyright of objects? The only sure way is to make an object from the idea. But for some kinds of art, that is anathema to the art itself. So, you can end up in a vicious circle of documentation and rejection.

As we can see, these dilemmas are all interlinked, and occasionally go in circles, or spirals. You pull on one thread here, some phantom limb twitches over there. The arguments get circular and recursive very quickly. In my opinion, they also quickly become tautologies that reduce down to: We want to keep doing it the way we've always done it. Good luck with that. The changing face of contemporary technology is a wave that one needs to learn to surf, in order not to drown.

I think the best thing to do is to keep making art. So what if an editor rejects a poem of mine that I posted on my blog as having been previously published? I'll just write another one. Are there so few poems in each of us, that their numbers are so limited that each becomes a commodity so precious that it must be defended and fenced in and protected from artistic predation? Am I limited to only being able to write a dozen great poems in my entire lifetime? Some artists seem to think that's how it works, but I think that's absurd. Productivity has never been an issue for me; I am disturbingly prolific, in several media. The problem I have is connecting to the audience that wants my work. So, I'll use any venue to connect with them, including online venues such as journals, websites, and my own blog(s). The point is to make that link with the reader (or viewer). If anyone complains about my submitting a poem to them that has previously appeared on my own website, or on a poetry board for critique somewhere, I have two answers for them: I can always write them a new poem; and, there are lots more places to submit. If they don't want it, fine. It's a big ocean, full of fish. Swim on, poet, swim on.

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