Monday, June 16, 2008

Shifting Gears

It's perhaps because I have only a limited time in which to play and record on my mother's piano, before it is shipped away; or perhaps it's because I've just started teaching music, teaching piano, again, after a long hiatus. Perhaps it's because the recent verbal warfare about poetry online, so fierce and vicious, has driven the last nail into the coffin of my disaffection with the poetry critique workshop environment—a disaffection that had been growing for months prior, as I was increasingly feeling that I could not get the critique I wanted, or needed. Perhaps it's that, at some point, one simply tires of the endless taxonomy—the minute subdivisions among categorical genres, the bias of procedure over content, the procession of manifestoed -ism after -ism—and one wants to simply write, and not have to join either a camp, or sacrifice one's time in arguing over labels. Perhaps it's that what I have been writing, which is as new to me as it is to you, has mostly been focused on the major life-changing events I have passed through in the past two years, and has produced major changes in my art; so that I am feeling my way much of the time, without a roadmap, without desire for one; and that I have grown weary of justifying myself to those critical forces that are alternately Apollonian-formalist, or simply clueless. Perhaps it's because one reaches a point where the workshop environment, with its tendencies towards conformity and placing social cohesion before artistic growth, becomes an impediment rather than an aid to one's artistic development; at some point, you need to go off on your own, rightly or wrongly, and explore the possibility that you have more of a clue about what you're trying to do with writing than does anybody else. (Not that you'd never do a workshop ever again; but right now, it's not helpful.)

Still, I find myself producing very little poetry, at the moment, and much more music. I find myself uninterested in engaging anymore with the politics of -isms that poetry has become, and the personal politics of who gets to call themselves a poet, and who doesn't. A lot of those arguments are so fierce and violent because there's literally nothing at stake. Poets care a lot more than they ought about the arguments, probably because it's safe to do so; in the current world political climate, fraught with actual danger and warfare, an argument over poetry is a safe sublimation for more general anxieties. The writing that has been coming out, most of it prose-poem, has been largely focused on elements of the life-reassessment, and reassessment of personal biography, that I'm told are integral to the grief process. I'm content to let whatever writing I produce follow its own nose, and not try to force it into either agenda or practice. I'm content to explore those darker caves at the back of the mind, where the ancestral dragons rumble and sing, and put up a few candlelit paintings, when I am so moved.

I've always been aware that creativity is a force, like water through a firehose, with many outlets. Where you direct it doesn't matter, as it will spray out regardless. The real battle with the firehose is to keep the flow clear of obstructions. For myself, if for no one else, there are two scales of operation upon which this works. On the micro scale, I am able to redirect the firehose pretty much wherever I wish, as I turn my attention from project to project without serious interruption. On the macro scale, though, there is a cycle of attention that operates on a deeper level than my conscious intentions. On this larger scale, I have been aware for some years that, for example, when I am musically active, musically busy and satisfied with what I'm doing, very little poetry comes out. The need is simply diminished; the urge is lessened. I may simply be in a period where the larger attention is shifted away from one art, onto the other. (I like what few poems or prose-poems I'm producing at the moment: I like them because I am being surprised by them. None are planned, and all of them move in unpredictable directions.)

I've never believed that one must, as an artist, choose only one artform in which to work. I have always felt that one is able to do more than one, and at high levels. One might still dabble in other artforms, but the mythology that artists are only capable of mastering one artform has never been convincing. I'm sure for some artists that might be true: but it might also be true that it is these mono-artists who most promote the idea that no artist can ever be great who works in more than one artform. It's hard to believe in something you've never experienced, and cannot imagine. (Although that's a short definition of the essence of faith.) For myself, I in turn do not believe in the mono-artist, as that has not been my experience, either.

The fact is, there have been several great artists who were multi-channel artists. I take most of these as my role models: these mavericks, these shruggers at the small-minded who went their own way and didn't listen to the nay-sayers. A partial list of my mentors, my role-models in this realm, all of them polymaths and multi-artists, must include: Leonardo da Vinci; Benjamin Franklin; John Cage; Georgia O'Keeffe; Gordon Parks; Henri Matisse; May Sarton; C.G. Jung; and some few others, each of whom I also note were pioneers and explorers, often ahead of their times artistically and philosophically. The list evolves periodically. I was a young teenager when I first codified this list, which I used at that time to proactively argue against those among my teachers and peers who would have me choose between the many artforms I was interested in, and practice only one of them. The argument has always been, "You can only get good at one artform, because you have to devote all your time and attention to it, in order to get good." My experience has always contradicted this argument, and my confidence in my own firehose of creative force has always affirmed me. I was no more than 13 or 14 when I first discovered Gordon Parks, and used him as an example that disproved the mono-artist myth. His name was the first one that list; the rest were added later, as I discovered them.

My own firehose of creative force is moving away from poetry, again, still, for now. It will no doubt return. I have experienced dry spells and fallow periods, before, in every artform I practice. The well has never run completely dry; even in dry spells, I still make art, although it might be sparser in arrival. I have learned that fallow periods are necessary to the artistic process: a necessary pause, perhaps. One always returns, eventually, to continue what one has begun.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I agree totally. I have a half-started novel sitting in a binder in my room at the moment and I'm writing poetry and blogs because that's where my head is. I've written music, I've painted, I've written poems, plays, short stories, novels and songs. Some of these I am better at than some of the others. I think the main criterion is that I feel satisfied after I've completed that work, whatever form it takes. And, mostly I do.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Satisfaction shouldn't be underrated. There's the satisfaction of knowing you did the best you could, regardless of whatever happens next. And there's the satisfaction of a job well done. I find myself getting more satisfaction from within than I used to, and not needing praise from the outside nearly as much.

I never claimed to be brilliant at anything I do. At some of the things I do, though, I'm at least pretty good.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Frank Wilson said...

I find, Art, that the poetry comes and goes and that I have to get used to that. Wrote half a dozen decent ones just after I retired (wrote only two in the entire preceding year). Since then, two lines that seem to be going nowhere - and no sense of the numinous. When I finish anything, I get the feeling that that's it, I'll never do anything worthwhile again. I guess some day mo more poems will come. Guess I'll have to face that when and if it happens. I suspect your poetic field is just lying fallow for a while.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Frank—

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad to hear you HAVE been writing poems, even if there are gaps in the writing. I understand what you mean about feeling like this is the end, it'll never happen again. I guess I have faith in the fallow periods, that they change. One thing I have learned in the past couple of years is that, even when I have a bad day, I have come to learn that tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow may not be better, or worse, but it will be different.

If there were no numinous, liminal experiences of discovery in writing, in music, in making art—then I wouldn't bother doing any of those things. The numinous is very real to me. It lies at the root of everything I do, and I can say with literal truth that I have written poems that were nothing more than records of visionary experiences.

Thanks again!

11:31 PM  
Blogger hope said...

DISCLAIMER: I write, but I am not a poet, nor do I judge those who do such stuff. :)

You know, sometimes writing for the sheer joy of it is more important than anyone's opinion, especially if all they care to do is dissect your work. I like following the words as they jump from my brain to page. I like being carried away on a journey with no specific destination. My words can surprise even me. For me, there are days the act of writing is satisfying enough. Guess I've never been one to throw words on the page and invite someone else to haughtily hack them to death. I never did fit in any of those category boxes. :)

Then again I'm just one of those souls who writes for the fun of it. If you do the same, then no one will ever be able to place us in a box...even with duct tape. ;)

5:25 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Hope, thanks for the comments. (Hi Hope, high hopes? Sorry.) ;)

Writing for the sheer joy of it, or the necessity of it, without an audience in mind when writing, is pretty much how I function. The audience comes later, if it comes at all. I know what you mean by surprise, and I like it when that happens.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Kaz Maslanka said...

Hi Art,
What a wonderful heartfelt post. I have enjoyed most everything I read of yours. I wish I was in the same city as you, for I think I would really enjoy sitting in a coffee shop and chatting over a cup of java with you.

2:35 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Suits me.

Although, rather than java, for me it would be:

Tea, Earl Grey, hot.

9:54 AM  

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