Saturday, November 29, 2008
Text As Art
Friday, November 28, 2008
A List of Mentors
As if lists of quantifiable attributes have ever touched the qualitative aspects of one's life.
In the same way that I never make New Year's resolutions, I never make these sort of Top Ten lists. It's usually best to just ignore such lists; they tell us more about their makers than they do about their contents. Few things show how arbitrary aspects of personal taste affect critical bias more readily than lists: because a critic's top ten lists is really their favorites' list, based on whatever criteria they use in their critical thinking. Few things are more subjective.
I do make lists, but they're gatherings together of things in which I find commonalities, and from which I have learned. I make lists to remind myself of lessons learned; of things I've enjoyed; of things gathered together to contemplate, or gathered to answer a question that has been posed. (None of this has anything to do with the mundane list of Things To Do I always have on my kitchen counter; the list of errands, chores, and shopping that I need to get done. That's the most useful daily Top Ten list in anyone's life.)
Rather than make an annual New Year's resolution—which are always grandiose, ambitious, and destined to induce more self-hatred than they release—I write an annual list of Gratitudes. I started writing my gratitudes some years ago, and it soon became an annual tradition. I usually give it the entire period between Thanksgiving and New Year's to think about and write. Sometimes this writing can be seriously challenging; very often one must start small, with a very small gratitude, and work one's way towards something significant and meaningful. One might need to start with, I'm grateful that I'm not homeless (I've been homeless a couple of times in my life) and work towards I'm grateful for the obstacles and suffering that helped me grow as a person. It's much easier to remember the losses, the pains, the wounds, than it is to remember what one learned from each; but that is where gratitude begins.
Gratitude is easy when life is abundant, a feast spread out on the table before you. Gratitude is much harder to find when life is difficult, and there is no feast. But that's when it really counts.
The reason I do gratitudes as a practice is rooted in a saying from Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer you ever said was Thank You, that would suffice. There is more sincerity in this than in any grandiose and detailed prayer for wither intercession, or any prayer for Things. And let's be honest: most often, we all pray for Things, for rewards, for asking for life's scouring sandpapers to pass us by.
One gratitude that I have felt most of my life—I first became self-aware of it in my early teens—is towards those people in my life, personally known or otherwise, who have served as mentors. I have had specific mentors who taught me life-lessons beyond the specific teachings of the moment—my first piano teacher; my eleventh-grade creative writing teacher in high school; William Albright, who was my advisor and mentor as a composer all through my college undergraduate years; and others.
There is also a group of mentors, symbolic as role-models, most of whom I never met personally, who gave me validation, self-acceptance, courage, and fortitude, by the examples of their lives and works. This group of mentors are all people I learned a specific lesson from, and who I was able to point to as examples whenever I was tasked to defend this specific life-lesson.
All my life people have told me to focus on just one art-form, because artists are supposedly only able to do one artform, one medium, with any depth, and must supposedly abandon all the rest. All my life people have been telling me that I should pick just one medium of creativity, focus only on that one, become expert at it. That I should get good at doing just one thing.
"Should" is a word of coercion, always. When used towards you, note how it always stands in for "This is what I think you must do." It is a word used to impose one's own will and ideals on others.
"Expert" is a word loaded with assumption and presumption. I've discussed before, in a lesson from Zen and other spiritual traditions, that expertise is often characterized by mental rigidity, fixed opinion, and know-it-all-ness. Beginner's mind is by contrast fluid, open, and flexible. Experts are limited in what they can know because everything they encounter is filtered through the screen of what they already know all too well.
"Getting good at doing just one thing" is an unquestioned assumption of a culture that has become so complex that specialization is assumed to be necessary, while general knowledge is considered both risky (in terms of building into a financially-stable career) and diffuse (as in, scattered). This is how we beat our of children their native curiosity, their natural exuberance, their enthusiasm for everything new that they encounter: by telling them that they can't do it all. We tell them, in fact, that they probably can't do even one thing very well, but they have to try anyway. "Can't" is a word we use too often, and too well. This is anti-teaching, and it infuriates me whenever I encounter it directed towards children.
Each of these mentors dismantled, ignored, and demolished such limitations. Each of them practiced more than one artform, and practiced them well. Each mentor served as an example of how beginner's mind roves from medium to medium, and by fully engaging in the moment with that medium, created diverse yet unified bodies of artwork, thought, and invention. Their examples of engaged awareness remind us of what it means to be fully human, fully alive.
Each of these mentors demonstrate that there is one great creative force which can come through many channels, separately or together, and operates without ceasing in every aspect of life. Their lives were works of art as much as were the products of their art-making practices.
The first mentor on this list was Gordon Parks, who had already achieved recognition as a photographer, author, music composer, and filmmaker by the time I discovered him, when I was around 11 years old. He was the first artist I was able to point to as a role model for doing good work in more than one medium, when the adults around me were trying to convince me to focus on doing just one thing well. I was able to use Gordon Parks as an example of someone who worked well in several artistic media. It didn't shut up those adults in my life who were more concerned about my eventual career than my soul, but it did give me an inner fortitude that helped me talk back to the criticism, and to point to Gordon Parks as an example of where their guidance was utterly wrong.
Over the years, I've compiled this list of role-models and mentors again and again, yet it always remains incomplete. I keep adding to the list, when I discover a new name that inspires. These people are my heroes, my inspiration, and my guides. I am reminded by their examples that "can't" is a word none of them believed in.
Let this list resound as a reminder that I am not alone in doing what I do, creatively, and neither are you. This is my list; I encourage everyone to write down their own. I encourage every artist to regularly make their own list of mentors, add to it, reassess it, think about those names on their lists. It is a good strong practice for finding the strength to go on against all odds.
In no particular order, therefore:
John Cage: composer, performance artist, inventor, philosopher, essayist, poet, visual artist
Leonardo da Vinci: artist, designer, engineer, natural philosopher, scientist, essayist
Benjamin Franklin: inventor, natural philosopher, scientist, writer, bon vivant, political wise man, humorist
May Sarton: poet, essayist, author of poetic journals, spiritual gardener
Gordon Parks: photographer, artist, composer, author, filmmaker
Ansel Adams: photographer, environmentalist, author, inventor
Derek Jarman: painter, essayist, playwright, filmmaker, designer, gardener
Loren Eiseley: naturalist, scientist, poet, essayist, writer of sublime memoir
Frederick Franck: artist, essayist, drawing teacher, spiritual seeker, translator, sculptor, calligrapher
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Notes towards an egoless poetry 14: Nondual Awareness
It's a truth and an experience that keeps getting re-discovered, re-invented, stumbled over, found. So many mystics and artists have said so many similar things that it's hard sometimes not to view art-making as a mystical Way, if only because the various observations by various participants seem to locate a unified core of shared revelation. Perhaps art is a Way; although comments like that tend to raise the ironic eyebrow of defensive distancing, in these latter, cynical, all-too-self-conscious days.
What's essential, though, in the essential root of the word "essence," is that nonduality is a human birthright. If it were a fluke, it wouldn't keep turning up. It would have been discovered and discarded. Instead, nondual awareness keeps getting mentioned, obliquely or directly, in writings and sayings of all human beings, in every era, in every land. It keeps re-appearing, as a fresh insight, a brand new awareness, that is also one of the oldest knowledges in the human toolkit. We all seem to be tapped into it. That is, if we don't run away from it, in fear of losing our little self inside a greater Self. That is a risk.
The little self, which is another name for the personality-ego, that grasping thing that likes to drive the vehicle of the self and isn't good at reading maps, the little self often fears its own dissolution. Even though its dissolution is into something greater, like a block of salt into the ocean, which does not change its essence but expands it, reveals it, complicates and transcends it.
Transpersonal psychologists discuss experiences of oceanic awareness, what Abraham Maslow called peak experiences, in which the little self seems to fall away, and the awareness expands to a cosmic level, being able to feel every grain of sand on a beach and the galaxy whirling at the same time. Oceanic experiences, it has been established by this branch of psychology, are not pathological: they are experiences of non-ordinary consciousness, but they are not aberrations. They are available to all; the only difference between how you or I might have such an experience is a matter of scale, or a matter of what triggers the experience. Different triggers, different levels of immersion. But we all have those quiet moments, in which everything becomes still, and that which is deepest within us seems to take a moment to contemplate itself, and its place in the Universe from which it is not separate, but part of the driving engine of life.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
—William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
"Innocence" had a special meaning for Blake. It meant "openness" rather than naiveté, joy in experience rather repression of the senses (or the sensual). "Experience" meant expert's mind, which thinks it knows everything and has become jaundiced and cynical and hardened into fixed beliefs, while "innocence" meant beginner's mind, in which every experience is a new one, a fresh one. "Innocence" in Blake, especially in the long poem Auguries of Innocence, constructed in aphoristic quatrains, means nondual awareness. Hell, for Blake, as for many mystics, is a trap and a place one experiences in life, not in an afterlife: a place of fixed belief, rigid opinion, and stultifying mental walls that are closed to fresh light, fresh air. Heaven is also right here, right now, and Heaven is nondual.
Most ordinary consciousness, in which our awareness usually inhabits the little self, the personality-ego, is dualistic. Dualistic in structure and nature. The little self is always telling itself that it is unique, different, separate, valuable: an individual. But often an individual alienated from the rest of Self. This is subject-object consciousness, in which we are separate from what we view.
The glaring contrast between seeing and looking-at the world around us is immense; it is fateful. Everything in our society seems to conspire against our inborn human gift of seeing. We have become addicted to merely looking-at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking-at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, spectroscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see. The less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.
—Frederick Franck, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing
Subject-subject consciousness is, rather, seeing that we are not-two. That in fact we are One. The spear in my brother's heart is the spear in my own heart: we are One. Empathy is the root of compassion for the Other. When we feel that we are both wounded in the heart, we can find common ground with the Other, with the Enemy, with the unknown and incomprehensible. This can take work, and be a risk.
If you want to preserve your little self in the encounter with the world, you might rephrase this as: Getting to know the Other as though it were oneself, a part of oneself, a close companion whose patterns one can at least come to recognize even if one resists identifying with them.
There may some value in preserving a corner of the little self, even as the rest dissolves. The fear of losing the self, and dissolving into something greater, however, should not become a fear of intimacy itself. Alienation is a meagre substitute for intimacy.
Rilke described love and marriage as two solitudes meeting. He wrote in a letter: I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other. The fourth of the Letters to a Young Poet is the one particlularly about solitude.
Rilke believed in preserving the self in its encounter with life. Perhaps that ability to observe, standing (as E.M. Forster described the poet Cavafy) at a slight angle to the universe, is the mark of a poet, an artist. One who is able to both participate fully, by immersion in the flow of the moment, and to reflect on that moment by re-creating it for others to also share in the re-created experience. Keeping a little bit of distance, Rilke argues when he says that we must protect each other's solitude, can make one a better artist, because one remains a more-dispassionate observer of the flow of life in which one is otherwise immersed.
Now we come to where many non-artists do not understand the artistic process. First, they see it as separate from themselves, as something they can't participate in. Second, they view art-making as an act of will, or desire, something consciously intended and intentional. Many adults who think this have simply forgotten how to play. Third, non-artists often misunderstand that art is not an activity, that one can set aside like a pair of scissors, but an immersive way of life, of being. They don't see that art-making is not something you can necessarily pick up and put down, like a hobby craft, but that it can be as necessary to the artist as breathing. The necessity of making is how art can become a Way: by becoming an immersive, continuous, even spiritual practice. Sometimes music is more important that food.
Frederick Franck thought the word "creativity" had become debased by being overused as a mere activity rather than a way of being—arts & crafts as a hobby rather than art as a practice—in the arena of dualistic, little-self consciousness. The last thing that art is, according to Franck, is mere self-expression. He stated this explicitly in a long interview near the end of his life:
Creativity is a pretentious word. Creativity, like so many other words, has been de-valued — 'I am more creative than thou.' 'My aunt is so creative.' 'My mother is an artist too!' There are a few words that immediately make my hair stand on end. The little hair that I have left. I do what I am doing because I can't do otherwise. If that results in books or drawings or sculptures, it is because I simply follow my nature. I can’t help it. If you want to call it creative, OK, but that is meaningless. I simply am a compulsive image-maker. I have to draw, paint whatever. Do I call myself an “artist”? No. I leave that up to the beholder. Artist is to me an honorific. “Ah, Rodin, what an artist! Rembrandt? An arch-artist!” But to be an “artist” is not to smear paint on a canvas, trace lines on a paper, have exhibitions, gain an honorable mention, sell. It is something quite different from being an “artist”. The only authentic artist is the artist-within.
Most non-artists view art-making as profoundly egoistic: they have bought into the post-Romantic myth of the lonely Hero-Artist. They think that art-making is primarily a function of consciousness, of intellect, of the little self. Subject, therefore, to rational control, an act of conscious will. But in the words of writer/teacher Julia Cameron: Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite: getting something down. Many artists and writers have said very similar things.
Inspiration may be a form of superconsciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness—I wouldn't know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness. —Aaron Copland
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. —Thomas Merton
I am here to wonder. —Goethe
The greatest formal talent is worthless if it does not serve a creativity which is capable of shaping a cosmos.
The greatness of an artist lies in the building of an inner world, and in the ability to reconcile this inner world with the outer. —Albert Einstein
Whatever I want to express in its truest meaning must emerge from within me and pass through an inner form. It cannot come from outside to the inside but must emerge from within. —Meister Eckhart
Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist. —Rene Magritte
Such artists and thinkers express, in these quotes, nondual awareness. They know that they have to wade in, elbows deep, then turn the art-making process over to Something else. There are lots of names for that Something. One of the best is the Self, the big self as opposed to the little self; another good name is the deep self, collective unconscious.
Ironic self-consciousness is inherently dualistic. One might say, inherently competitive. Ironic distancing is at root a defense mechanism against participation. To participate fully is to risk, and many little selves fear this risk. To preserve the little self, it needs to be kept aloof, cut off, distances, overlooking the field of play but not wading into it. Its end-product is intellectual and analytical dryness, a sort of creative acedia. Wordsworth's dictum that Poetry is emotion reflected in tranquility has become, in the Modernist context, all tranquility and no emotion.
One reason I find so much mainstream fiction that is so highly praised (by whom, one must always consider) to be so unreadable is because so much of it is blandly divorced from emotion. It makes you think, but it doesn't make you feel, feel an experience in your own body; and when it is intended to make you feel, the scaffolding of emotional manipulation is often obvious and plainly exposed; most novels in most popular media book clubs, such as Oprah's, never rise above this level. Analytical psychology in the lead character's internal monologue does not pull me in; nor does literary gloss. I find Bret Easton Ellis and Philip Roth equally superficial; both preserve the little self in all its labyrinthine knots; neither approach nondual awareness. (Both could stand to read less Freud and more Laing, for that matter.) Perhaps neither writer believes that nondual awareness exists; it's certainly the case that most post-Freudian-influenced literature is so mired in psychological explanation and biographical motivation that it leaves no room for contemplation, or the mysterious. E.M. Forster always had room for the mysterious in his novels and stories; most best-selling novels nowadays are puzzle-box novels, wherein a "satisfying" read always seems to mean a clear-cut ending with all the loose ends tied up neatly. As though every novel were a mystery to be solved by the last line. (This neatness of concept, this lack of dangling threads, was exactly what Virginia Woolf rebelled against in her stream-of-consciousness writing, so the trend is nothing new.) Nondual awareness is available in mainstream American literature, but usually only in small does; one of its literary masters, although I explode several literary myths to say so, was Ernest Hemingway, who more than once opined that what he left out of his stories was what mattered most; some of his stories such as "Big Two-Hearted River" are masterful evocations of nondual awareness that pull the reader into the experience rather than merely describing it. Talking about nondual awareness can be a defense mechanism because it keeps us from having to actively experience it: Roth and Ellis and novelists of their ilk only ever talk about it, they don't recreate an experience of it in the reader. American literature is dominated by this distancing and little-self ego-inflation; one of its most marked practitioners was Norman Mailer, who worked far too hard to present himself as the Hero-Author; many Big City New England celebrity-authors have fallen into similar traps, and these are mostly what we get as "mainstream fiction" nowadays. In a very different but parallel way, the "new journalism" as authored by Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, for all their stylistic innovations and contributions to literature as a whole, is also about little-self ego-inflation. When authors and news-readers and reporters become celebrities in their own rite, this is symptomatic of a culture gone hog-wild for little-self ego-inflation. Very little journalism remains unimpressed by the emperor's new clothes. Is it any wonder the readers have become as cynical and ironically distanced as the reporters, neither of whom trust the other any longer?
After trudging through this competitive and egoistic literary arena, William Blake once again provides a breath of fresh air:
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
—William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
Blake reminds us that our condition is circumscribed by our pre-judgments. We are born to sweet delight when we are open to what innocence opens unto us; we exist in hell and misery if we let the world dictate to us who we are.
In my opinion the most pernicious belief that non-artists carry about art-making is one already mentioned: that it requires nothing more than an act of will; that it is a mostly mental exercise, rather than a full-body process; that it is something you can just stop, when there bills to pay, because it's really nothing more than a frivolous hobby that can be set aside when there are More Important Things To Do.
But an artist can never stop. Sometimes drawing is more important than food. Food can be put off till later, when you must get the image down before it evaporates. If you can set it aside, and one must not judge those who do for they may have good reasons for doing so, then you risk turning your art-making into a hobby alone. Frederick Franck called himself an image-maker rather than an artist, but in every way he knew and experienced, and was able to communicate in his writings. this need that artists experience to make art. it's as necessary as breathing.
Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment. —Claude Monet
People don't realize what they have when they own a picture by me. Each picture is a phial with my blood. That is what has gone into it. —Pablo Picasso
Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. —Rumi
To return to an earlier point, we must remember that nondual awareness is our human birthright. This means that it is not meant to be marked off as a special experience available only to a select few. There are levels and degrees of nondual awareness. Not everyone is going to have big Red-Sea-parting visions; the vision of unity with one's dead parents that one feels when one cooks anew a favorite family meal is also a kind of nondual awareness. There are many small things that remind us of our Oneness. Simple empathy can be a good place to start one's practice, as that can lead to general compassion. There is no need to feel dualistically separated from nondual awareness as though it were special. It's very ordinary, and blessedly so. It doesn't have to be big visions that lead to mystical experiences that lead to great poetry or sublime art. It can be as simple, and as sincere, as a family gathering in a beloved setting, wherein everyone present feels that they share a common desire to be together.
Nondual awareness does not strip away our differences, our unique and individual humanness. To the contrary. What nondual awareness does do, is make all our differences valuable and worth supporting. It makes our diversity into something worth exploring, anticipating, enjoying, and celebrating. How dull indeed it would be if we were all alike. We are alike in that we're all unique. But nondual awareness shows us that while we are individual, we are One. I can celebrate your differences from me, and appreciate them with joy; and vice versa.
What I seek in poetry, in art in general, perhaps, is less ego and more nondual awareness. One wearies of self-expressive displays of the little self advertising its separateness: one tires of art that is "self-expression" and nothing more. Maybe that's good therapy, but it doesn't mean it's art. Analytical psychology has infiltrated artistic criticism to the point where everything is suspect; only irony is critically acceptable; only hidden agendas are considered authentic. Where in this is there room for sincerity? There's something wrong with an art-making culture that has become so self-conscious, in the painful way that adolescents are self-conscious, that it cannot even acknowledge sincerity without labeling it as kitsch, or worse; the literary world has become far too similar to high school. If all art is is kitsch or self-expression, where is there room for the transcendent? for the sublime? for those little experiences of nondual awareness that wake us up to a world bigger than ourselves?
That world is not outside ourselves, it is within us. Great art helps remind us it's still there. And it remains available. It never went away; it stayed at home; we're the ones who went out for a walk.
At the entrance to the meditation hall, where one leaves one's footwear before entering the hall, there is a plain little sign with a very aware message: Leave your ego with your shoes.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
John Cage: Silence, Sound, Remix
John Cage / Wim Mertens: So that each person is in charge of himself from Ubuweb.
Collections & Re-Collections Re: & Not-Re: John Cage by Arthur Durkee (2006 remix version).
This is a piece I first composed for radiobroadcast in the 1990s, when I was at WORT-FM Madison, WI. It was a birthday broadcast for Cage, which became an annual performance broadcast tradition, on or around his birth date in September. The piece uses Cage's techniques of chance operations to play back and mix multiple prepared and live sources that are all performances, recorded or live, of John Cage's compositions. This remix, which is a mix of three previous versions, heavily relies upon Cage's own voice, reading in studio and before a live audience. As his arthritis grew worse, later in life, Cage began to use writing and reading as his main means of performances, as it became too painful or difficult to play musical instruments or operate electronic devices. So he came to treat the lecture as a form of musical composition, in its own right. My piece is both a celebration of and homage to Cage, his ideas, and his audible work.
(If you listen closely, you'll hear some Marshall McLuhan in this mix. Cage and McLuhan mutually influenced one another.)
Quotes from Uncle Albert
if what is seen and experienced is portrayed in the language of logic, then it is science. If it is communicated through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind but are recognized intuitively, then it is art.
I feel myself so much a part of everything living that I am not the least concerned with the beginning or ending of the concrete existence of any one person in this eternal flow.
Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others, for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected. My inner and outer life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.
The true value of a human is determined primarily by how he has attained liberation from the self.
The betterment of human conditions the world over is not strictly dependent on scientific knowledge but on the fulfillment of human traditions and ideals.
Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.
I believe that a simple and unassuming life is good for everybody, both physically and mentally.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Vibrations of the Invisible
—Arthur Tress, in The Dream Collector
I am going through back pages of my travel journal, and finding passages like this in my own handwriting. I agree with Tress, that if the photographer is very sensitive, he or she can see more than what's there to the eye. I once concluded a poem, titled last words, with the lines:
like a path among trees
your turning affected you more
than any god or planet,
as though you breathed
only the air you could see
with flesh eyes.
There are lots of things we life we can't see, which we take on faith until we take them for granted. When was the last time you thought about what you were breathing? (Assuming you're not subject to an illness such asthma which keeps you aware of your breathing at all times.) I get accused of being good at pointing out the obvious at times; but it seems to me that most people ignore the obvious, and the occasional reminder is no bad thing.
The Illuminated Man, by Duane Michals
This photo is one of the first I'd encountered by Duane Michals, back when I first saw it, many years ago, and it remains one of my favorites from his body of work. I have carried it around as a postcard, tacked on a bookshelf or bulletin board or refrigerator, where I could see it, ever since. Actually, I've worn out a couple of copies of the postcard, and had to replace them. I can explain this photo technically, now that I'm a photographer, but what remains powerful about the image is that the man seems to be turning into light. Light is exploding out of him from within. He is catching on pure white fire. He catches light, and becomes light.
This is the sort of thing Tress means, and which both Tress and Michals have recorded in their photos, about how someone who remains sensitive to their surroundings can see things others do not. John Minahan wrote, in 1972, in his Introduction to The Dream Collector:
A number of critics have suggested that the obvious success of Tress' dream photographs must be due in large measure to an extraordinary rapport with children, and this is quite true. Watching him work, you're aware of an elusive "chemistry" going on, extremely difficult to define. Of course, part of it is due to his casual appearance and mannerisms, but this is merely a surface psychology that photographers have used for many years. It goes much deeper than that. I think the key to Tress' unusual harmony with children is that he is "childlike" himself, in the true sense of the word. That is, his imagination is still essentially unsophisticated—and therefore genuinely creative. Like children, he hasn't yet lost the capacity to wonder, to see the invisible, to dream in the daytime. He hasn't yet drawn an indelible line between illusion and reality. I believe children intuitively sense this about him.
Child-like rather than childish. That seems important to understand. It's not an infantile and needy response to life, but a playful one, that leaves open the doors to possibility.
There is an openness to spiritual masters that is similarly child-like, in its spontaneity and sensitivity. I think of the story of an important official who sought out a famous Zen monk in Medieval Japan, and was stunned to discover that, rather than sitting meditating in his hermitage, the monk was playing hide-and-seek with the village children. Similarly, Tress' method was to record the children telling him their dreams into a tape recorder, then play them back to the kids to hear, after which they reenacted the dream together for the camera.
This openness to wonder, to the invisible, is something artists and spiritual masters and children all have in common. It might be wise for those among us who have become so hardcore adult that we can no longer play, to regain some of this, this creative play. I know far too many writers and artists who have become paralyzed because they no longer allow themselves to take risks, in order to avoid making presumed mistakes. They have become perhaps too sophisticated. (One sees this attitude a lot more in Big City writers than anywhere else.) They get very stuck, and their faces literally age from all the worry lines, because they don't let themselves risk failure, an d they're afraid of appearing foolish.
But here's another lesson from children: if you fail, you do it again till you get it right. That's how toddlers learn to walk: by falling down a lot. That's also how older kids learn other new skills: by practice, and by play. I often think that the real problem with a lot of contemporary poetry is that it's become too hardcore adult, takes itself way too seriously, and has a lot of its sense of play. Play is also exploration, pathfinding and waymaking new trails into the invisible lands, invisible not because they don't exist but because they haven't been seen before.
Children let their failures go. They don't cling to them, unless and until some adult beats a sense of personal failure into them. Children recover quickly from mistakes: it's all learning. It's adults who beat themselves up forever for a mistake they made a subjective eternity ago. It's adults who can't let go.
Adults are driven by the invisible, the intangible, even those who claim to be total pragmatists and materialists. Because, you see, pragmatism is an idea, a concept. The illuminated man burns away all ideologies by converting them to light. Materialism, too, is a concept, an ideology: no more substantial than the invisible air you're breathing right now. Less, actually. Air is more essential than ideology. Ask anyone who's suffocating if they give a damn, in that moment, about anything but their next breath: if they had breath to answer, they would no doubt say, No.
Minahan's comment that Tress' imagination is still essentially unsophisticated—and therefore genuinely creative is striking. He adds: Like children, he hasn't yet lost the capacity to wonder, to see the invisible, to dream in the daytime. The word unsophisticated here strikes me as the opposite of pejorative, which is the way unsophisticated is mostly used in contemporary criticism: as a dismissal rather than a charm. (Again, one finds this more often perhaps among Big City writer/critics.) The Shakers and Amish and Mennonites use the word plain, as in plain appearance, as a word of approval. There remain lessons to be learned from voluntary plainness, from chosen poverty of means that reveals richness of spirit. Children, as Tress reveals, and as children all know, don't need a lot of materials at hand to enhance their play: A cardboard box becomes a castle; an apple tree becomes a rocket ship to the stars; a sidewalk becomes a runway for airplanes to take off and land on. Children often dream of flying, Tress reports, and often they dream of flying away from home or school, into the wide blue unknown.
One can hear the hardcore adults all complaining at this point: But that's not real, there's nothing there—it's illusion, it's make-believe. Well, yes, it is. That's precisely the point. Creativity depends upon imagination, upon play, upon seeing the invisible, upon being unsophisticated, upon being open to wonder, upon wondering itself, upon What if? games, upon dreaming in the daytime.
It's often been said that writing is a solitary practice. But writers need playgroups, too; and they need to learn to play well with others, to share their toys (rather than form critical cliques, one suggests), and to remain open to seeing the invisible.
it is the invisible, after all, that motivates us far more than does anything visible.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Today, November 21, would have been my mother's 85th birthday, had she not passed on last January.
It is also René Magritte's 110th birthday, and the separate birthdays of two of my closest friends.
Mom loved yellow roses, so I went and bought a few to bring home and have with me all day, to remind me of her. I have kept them by my writing desk most of the day, in my peripheral vision.
In the morning's bright cold sunlight, I set them on the kitchen counter, where the play of light and shadow, and the refraction of light through the rose petals and the glass of the vase made beautiful patterns on the counter's white surface.
Ritual is important. We use rituals to mark milestones and changes in our lives, to celebrate initiations and rites of passage, to solemnly and joyfully remind ourselves that we have changed, that everything has changed, and that we can move forward, never go back. We use rituals that are received from our ancestors. But I often think that the best, most effective rituals are the ones we make on the spur of the moment, that we create, or invent.
I hereby commit myself to an invented ritual of a year and a day, in which I will have flowers around on the birthdays and deathdays of both of my parents. After that prescribed time, I will do as I am moved to do. Perhaps I will repeat the flowers on their important days indefinitely; perhaps a period of prescribed ritual do its job, and settle what needs to be settled, so that it can be let go, and we all move on.
Today, at least, these cheerful flowers brightened my day, and my mood, and gave me reason to celebrate, to remember all that was good and loving and fun and brilliant about my mother.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Out of decades of making photographs, and thousands of images made, I can number less than a dozen efforts on my part at making this kind of photography. (I exempt from this photographs of my land art sculptures, because these are photos of sculptures, not staged set-pieces. Documents and new pieces of art in their own right: the sculptures were not made just to be photographed.) I prefer to work with discovery and exploration. I work almost entirely with found settings, found scenes, and if I direct a model to move within a setting, it is mostly to accentuate a posture or position the model has already found for themselves. It is more collaborative, I feel, than purely directorial.
Directorial photography is nonetheless a style of photography I greatly enjoy, in the hands of its masterful artisans, but one I have never felt moved to undertake seriously in my own work. I prefer to work spontaneously, in the moment, on location, and almost never stage models or events to accomplish a pre-visualized image. Certainly I validate that staged photography is a valid approach, just as is the photography of being-in-the-moment, which I practice much more often. (I also exempt still-life photography from this discussion, as creating an interesting arrangement of found objects to light and photograph, or draw and paint, is not the same thing as arranging a narrative tableau involving live models on a set or location.)
Some of the photographers who practice directed photography are Duane Michals (certainly one of my favorite photographers), Arthur Tress (whose photographs brought on this essay), Cindy Sherman, Bernard Faucon, Leslie Krims, Ralph Eugene Meatyard (another personal favorite, for different reasons than Michals), Richard Kirstel, Lucas Samaras, Clarence John Laughlin, Eikoh Hosoe, and others. I view George Platt Lynes and his circle in this light, too, although some do not.
Let's look at what directed photography actually is, as a practice and a means. Here's an excerpt from A.D. Coleman's Introduction to Arthur Tress' book The Theater of the Mind (1976):
All photographs are fictions, to a far greater extent than we are yet able or willing to acknowledge. Yet most of them still pretend to a high degree of verisimilitude and transparency, to the impersonal neutrality of windows on the world.
It is in the directorial mode of photography more than any other that the fictional nature of the photographic image is not only recognized and explored but openly declared as an active premise, a hermeneutical stance. This mode might most simply be defined as the deliberate staging of events for the express purpose of making photographs thereof—as distinguished from addressing oneself through the camera to an ongoing, uncontrolled external "reality."
Though you wouldn't know it from studying any of the available histories of the medium, the directorial mode of photography has a long, diverse, and honorable tradition. Yet for reasons which appear to have more to do with photo-historical politics than with scholarship and logic, certain uses (and users) of the directorial mode have been accepted as legitimate while others have been rejected out of hand. The basis for these usually arbitrary judgments generally boils down to the conservative taste patterns of the medium's heretofore dominant historians.
Thus it has been considered aesthetically permissible for the late Paul Strand to "cast" his book on an Italian village, Un Paese, by having the townspeople lined up and selecting from them those he considered most picturesque—but unacceptable for Edward Curtis to persuade American Indians to reenact rituals and events out of their past; valid for Edward Weston to arrange vegetables and nudes in static, pre-conceived configurations in his studio—but not for William Mortensen to use his studio as the setting for those mini-dramas which were the basis of his stylized, Symbolist allegories.
I'm sure some photojournalists would argue with Coleman about the fictional nature of photography: their purpose is to report, to present what happened, as nearly as possible, and to capture the moment. But there is still artfulness involved—and artfulness is artifice—after all, the photographer still chooses where and when to make the photo. There is no absolute objective eye watching all; it remains an artful choice, as to what to cover, and what not to. Editing is part of photojournalism, just as it past of reporting. Leaving out the details that are irrelevant to the story, or otherwise unimportant, is accepted without much thought as being just part of the process. So I think Coleman makes some valid points here, that are hard to just dismiss.
Also, as the post-modernist self-aware ironic consciousness has filtered more and more into the arts since Coleman wrote these comments, authorial mastery and transparency has become more suspect in general. There is almost always a question, now, as to whether the photograph can be trusted to be real, or not. Far too many photographic critics nowadays question everything, even family vacation snapshots, to decode them for hidden meanings, often as a criticism of the social status quo. (A priori political or ideological motivations, in other words, that color the critical results.)
Artifice is the root of artificial, and artifice is the craft of making art. Artists are artisans.
One of Coleman's best points is about the problematic distinctions that some historians have made between styles of photography, promoting one style as more valid than another. (It's hard not to see this as a swipe at Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, still the most influential and respected historians of the early American photographic movements and persons.) The point that styles of photography that are presumed to be purely representational nonetheless contain artifice is precisely the point that Edward Weston and Ansel Adams made numerous times, with their various comments that the finished print is not intended to reproduce nature, but rather the photographer's emotional response to what he or she sees. This point was repeated numerous times in their writings, as one of the reasons that photography must be considered to be an art, not just a technical craft. This is also why many people still feel black and white photography to be more inherently artistic than color photography: because it is more artificial. More fictional.
Coleman fails, though, in apparently criticizing Weston in opposition to other photographers, because Coleman misinterprets Weston's creative process. Weston didn't really stage events. While he did arrange vegetables on a table, when he was out photographing with models, he wrote in the Daybooks that his procedure was to let the models move as they wished, and asked them to freeze when he saw a composition or posture he liked. This points out the difference between discovery and pre-arranged tableau. Coleman is misunderstanding what Weston meant when he used terms such as pre-visualization: Weston was not planning the photograph before he ever took it, he was seeing in his mind's eye what the finished print would look like, as he snapped the camera's shutter.
Arthur Tress' series photography work involves the thought-out, frequently pre-arranged tableau; even locations were scouted in preparation, for some of his series. The photo-historic objection against Mortensen had more to do with his painterly use of the photographic medium (as did F. Holland Day and Edward Steichen) to illustrate subjects the same way they were treated in salon painting: this style of soft-focus illustrative photography was exactly what Group f-64, including Weston and Adams, were rebelling against.
The objections against directorial photography, historic and modern, often carry a moral flavor, rather than a purely aesthetic one. A lot of the criticism does come from disciples of the Group f-64 "photography is fine art" school; but it also comes from photojournalists, some of whom are purists about not manipulating the image, even to the point of including technical flaws such as blur and bad exposure.
Of course none of this escapes Coleman's first point about the very artificiality of the medium itself: it's all fiction, even if it strives not to be. Is there any such thing, really, as non-fiction, in any of the arts? If you take this viewpoint to its limits, non-fiction can't exist because all arts, including reportage, are engaged in by humans, who filter information through their own perceptions. There can be no objectivity, ever, in this viewpoint.
This has been taken up in the post-modern critical climate to negate any possibility of critical objectivity: everything is relative, everything is subject to personal taste, everything is subjective, and everything is affected by the local cultural context in which it was produced. This is valid in terms of reclaiming local origins for all art-making and cultural creativity—local as opposed to imperial, and thus a way of re-empowering the formerly or still oppressed—but there is a tendency in this critical trope to discard any notion of the human urge towards universality: to also find those ways in which we are alike, rather than different. Commonalities abound, even between peoples who have language or culture in common: we all live, we all die, we all have emotions to one degree or another, and many of those emotions are sparked by the same stimuli in life—love, sex, envy, hurt, wounds, joy, ecstasy, spiritual experience, what have you. We share some things simply because we are the same species.
The unfortunate result of the post-modern subjective relativistic stance is that we are not supposed to agree that we might agree on some things. We are not supposed to be able to see ourselves in the Other, because we are all too different, too alien to one another. This is obviously absurd. There are those of us who revel in our mutual diversity without ever losing sight of our shared commonalities. Two mothers who have both lost sons, on opposite sides of a war, can come together in their mutual loss and begin the peace process.
Coleman's second paragraph above is the best working definition of directorial photography that I have found. It is fitting that it's to be found in a book of Arthur Tress' photographs. Tress is a master of this style.
My favorite book of Tress' is The Dream Collector, in which the photographer helps the children whose portraits he is taking reenact their dreams and nightmares, using settings, props, and acting to replicate their dreams, visions, and fantasies. The resulting photographs are both humorous and disturbing, beautiful and terrifying, sublime and outrageous. The dream-logic that arises from the archetypes of the deepest parts of the mind has, since the Surrealists and before, been fodder for shock, surprise, awe, and funny juxtapositions in art, for a long time.
Some of the dreams that Tress helps the children reenact are disturbing for adults to see, and Tress has taken heat for this. Adults all too often sentimentalize children, having forgotten or repressed their own childhoods, and want kids to be passively innocent dolls, with no dark sides, no terrors, and no nightmares. We censor scary stories that kids love: but kids know better than adults that it's all pretend, delicious instead of abusive. Tress retains a certain amount of his own childlike wonder in all his photography, which is perhaps why these photos work so well. Clearly they are collaborative. The directorial element in The Dream Collector is perhaps more that of a produce than a director: someone who facilitates the work, rather than dictating it. Tress is, after all, recreating the dreams that the children told him about, who then reenact their dreams for the photograph.
Tress' Theater of the Mind contains a classic photograph that I have never been able to forget. It's one of those iconic images that goes so deep, it seems amazing that no-one thought of it before. This photograph is titled "Bride and Groom." The setting is a bombed-out church nave. A man stands in the wreckage, posed. On his right side, he wears a formal black groom's suit, including tophat and tails, and his hand is raised as though swearing an oath. But on his left side, he is wearing a bride's white dress, and holding out the skirt with his left hand. In one person is united the male and female, bride and groom.
This is nothing if not the sacred wedding, the marriage of opposites in one person, that C.G. Jung wrote about in his late books such as Psychology and Alchemy. The union of opposites. The merging of genders. I do not know if Tress had all of this in mind beforehand, but it is all there in the photo.
The setting appears to the ruins of civilization. There is something symbolic about that: after the fall of everything, then the man the woman shall be one. This is echoed in the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic gospel found among the papyruses discovered last century at Nag Hammadi:
Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom of heaven].
All this from one staged photograph.
That shows the power of how a photo can become something iconic, memorable, and archetypal. It is more than just an illustration of an idea. It cuts through the rational linear mind directly to the understanding, in the same way that a painting can bypass the intellect and go directly to the heart's meaning.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
A Pause for Reflection
La plus ça change, la plus meme chose. Because what the vitriol of hatred and envy in that recycling argument about the online poetry workshop world reveals, again, is the ego-centered weakness of compassion, the self-centered deficit of empathy, the overall lack of community in a corner of the world that pretends to be communal. When you need to count on community, on fellow-feeling, can you, really? When you need succor, will it genuinely be there? When you need a mentor, will you be lucky enough to find the one you need? Who will help you grow up, as writer, and as person? If you are unable to grow up as an artist, I hope you can at least grow up as a person; it's the more important, more necessary venue, after all.
A lot of life revolves around the truth that no-one will do it for you—or can. A lot of growing up revolves around living with the truth that you're pretty much on your own. When you get to a certain point in your artistic (and personal) maturation, you come knees-to-asphalt with the realization that most folks can't really help you anymore. Your mistakes are your own, as are your joys and triumphs. This is when you must start trusting your inner compass, if you haven't already. Trust and faith are often the same thing: but whatever you have faith in, outside yourself, trust is something you can't place in a lot of external realities. (And as Vladimir Nabokov once quipped, "reality" is a word that should always appear in quotes.) Faith in something undefinable that is greater than yourself does not excuse you from the burden of still having to do the hard work. You're on your own, regardless.
Yet the awareness that one is personally responsible for one's actions is the parent of fellow-feeling. If indeed we are all solitary, still we have that as a place to start finding common ground.
I am also thinking, prompted by another conversation elsewhere, about the long shanks of the future, my own future as well as others like me. There are huge number of us older gay men who, if we are not already aging and ailing, shall be soon, and who have no partners, no families, no circle of friends who will care for us. Will we all fall through the cracks? Those cracks made wider by the col equations of the unempathic political savage selfishness of the past two decades? Those cracks in the social fabric that have become crevasses, which we must somehow still bridge across. Whose hands will be there for you, to help you across, when you most need them?
I was the dutiful son: I gave up my own life and career, a few years ago, and moved back home to live with and care for my aging and ailing parents. (This was not without its rewards, in other ways.) I have no-one in my life, at present, who could do the same for me. I am not alone in this dilemma. I feel for my fellows who lack even the meagre safety net I have (which is in some ways another reward for being my parents' live-in caregiver). I don't know how to help my fellows; even as every habit of caregiving in me, well-practiced in recent years, surges forward with the desire to help, I must balance my own needs against how much I can actually do for anyone. Does it serve those with no safety net to give them all of mine, leaving me as helpless as they once were? Will they return the favor? Will someone else pay it forward, if not back?
if you have supportive familial, communal, or partnership/relationships resources for your later life, consider yourself very fortunate. Don't take them for granted, and don't abuse your privilege. For those of us who do not have such resources, and have no current prospects of acquiring them, the future remains unclear. Just getting through each day seems like enough, for the moment.
Of course this can make one feel rather lonely, of a cold clear morning. It's the price you pay, though, for evolving away from the tribe, and becoming an individual. But don't stop there, at individuality: most people in our culture, which praises individualism as some ultimate goal, get stalled when they finally break away from their birth-tribes. They stall, and never get any further. Some of them spend the rest of their lives baffled as to the lack of some entitled reward for simply being good.
Becoming an individual is only one step in the process, though. We're all meant to go on, to the symbolic level. This is where empathy and fellow-feeling return to us, and really count. This is where we learn that we must care for each other, because in fact we're not separate. The spear in my brother's heart is the spear in my own: we are One. The paradox of living the symbolic life is that you know how much every little thing you do leaves ripples in the ocean in which we all swim. You're less and less tempted to intervene, unless absolutely necessary, while at the same time your gifts of compassion and empathy become ever more acute. You know ever more personally how impersonal life is, and simultaneously you know how necessary it is to create the ties that bind us all into One.
Go out and make those ties. Work hard at it. If you want to be cynically and economically self-centered about your own aging and ailing years, view the work of compassion as an investment in your own future. Ideally, your motivations will be sweet rather than sour: out of love, pleasure, genuine desire to meet the Other on the threshold. But even egoists deserve succor.
Find some other ways to be self-sufficient, too, and make plans for your own long-term needs. Self-sufficiency, in matters of shelter and economics, is something one needs to have. Self-sufficiency is not something you should give up, if and when you do partner up with others, either: solitudes meeting (as Rilke described love relationships), who choose to be together, cannot give up their solitudes. They must rather refine them.
And all the gods bless you if you're already self-sufficient. Be so kind as to temper your boastings about it with the same sort of compassion you'd ask from others when you do need aide.
If there's one life-lesson that's been thoroughly underlined by the recent difficult years in my own life, it's not to expect much help from other people. Oh, I can always be relied on to provide a shoulder for others to cry on; but there isn't a lot of reciprocation. The best of friends will be there, when they can, as much as they can; but that still might not be enough to meet your needs, in the moment, or across the years. If such support manifests, excellent: but don't expect it. In the meantime, don't stop giving out love, because that's how it comes back to you, in the end.
We now return you to your regularly-scheduled small cares of the moment.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Archetype of the Garden
The Garden is an archetype, it's tied to the archetype of Paradise, lost or not. It turns up in artwork, myth, legend, and story from every culture; that's one way you can tell it's an archetype, from its ubiquity. From a depth psychology viewpoint, the entire environmental movement is perhaps motivated by the Garden archetype, and our desire to return to it, to create it. To re-create it. Gardens flourish in community patches, even on big city rooftops, in public parks, and surrounding private homes.
I have never really understood why an emerald grassy lawn should be considered more beautiful than a garden ramble. A manicured lawn is of course a symbol of the suburban control and domination of nature. And the Garden is always a little wild, a little chaotic, a little overgrown.
I have my own garden now, since I have my own home. I own my home, now. It's a small home, but I was able to pay for it out of my inheritance from mr parents' estates, and have no mortgage. The opportunity to live here arrived suddenly, and inexplicably, as if by magic. Everything fell together synchronistically and quickly. When I first toured what would be come my home, I had that feeling of rightness that real estate agents and homeowners talk about, when you just know you're in the right place, that you're supposed to be here. It was a novel feeling for me; this is the first home I've ever owned. It's small, but it's mine. A place to be, for awhile.
I have lived in or visited the tropic regions of this planet for significant periods of my lifetime. I grew up in India, about 14 degrees north of the Equator. I spent a year in Java, Indonesia, about 6 degrees south of the Equator. (The terms above and below the Equator show a historic Northern bias, which one might note even while using them.) Last summer I was in southernmost Florida. The smells of these places are thick, fertile, fetid, and memory-inducing. Smell-memory of tropical plants gives me childhood flashbacks. I could come to love parts of Florida, the state parks especially, even though this recent trip was a difficult, challenging, and occasionally horrible visit. The problem with Florida, as with so many garden paradises, is human overpopulation. We just don't seem to know how to find a balance, or when to quit.
We live on a Garden planet. A fertile planet. A giving world. Beautiful to the senses and nourishing to the spirit and body, a Garden was our first home. Our biggest problem is that there are too many of us, and we haven't yet learned not to shit where we sleep. Our short-term greed leaves long-term scars. Our greed gets us into trouble that we might not be able to repair. Gaea is good at repairing herself, give enough time; but we don't live at the time-scale anymore, as individuals, tribes, nations, or as a species. Gaea can absorb a great deal of our waste: but not an infinite amount. She is still but one small blue planet among a vast host.
Have we lost the Garden? No angel with a flaming sword could guard those gates nearly as well does our own remorse and guilt. In truth, we exile ourselves from the Garden; no one else is to blame. We made choices that led us to leave the Garden, and go exploring. These were necessary choices, because they led us towards growing up, becoming responsible adults, rather than remaining sequestered and secluded, infantile innocents. But still we want to return. We want to return not as innocents, any longer; but for solace, and perhaps for deeper knowledge of what we once knew, and left behind.
We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
—Joni MItchell, Woodstock
The Garden is where we find the Tree of Life, with bees buzzing around its roots, transmitting teachings to the flowers from the soil. The Garden is where the Earth Spirit lives, emerging from below to shape the soil. The breath of Dragons between the hills.
In a dry river bed in a Japanese garden, filled with smooth black stones, small moss fronds make their home. Elsewhere, a thin-bladed maple darkens its leaves in shyness towards dusk.
Shade of the dates in an oasis surrounded by tall sand-dunes: shade that provides cool shelter, the water of life.
Fetid lushness of the mangrove swamp, patiently making land where none was before; then the birds move into their new apartments, and the gators.
On a high mesa in the cold light, a stand of sages moves slowly towards the cliff-edge, clinging, clinging. When they flower, bee-lust, intoxication.
The Garden is too big, in itself and as a topic. I can barely touch on it. I can only offer scattershot images, knowing that each one will find a home, deep down, move in and sit there, humming. (The bees, again.) I have to pull back and look under my own feet; I can't take in the titanic world.
My own small garden, in patches that surround my own small home on all sides, is settling in for the winter. On the north wall, the barest wall, the riverstones under the drainspout—I added a new layer—sit round and mostly smooth and content, waiting for their annual ice-rind. On the west, the wall with the big windows I sit beside when I write, the rosebushes and crocus are mulched. On the south, the side bed banked with flat limestone slabs is ablaze with red leaves on the row of shrubs. In two places, spring bulbs lie waiting.
On the east side, by the front door, the largest flowerbeds lie ready. Planted with spring bulbs, beginning to move before the frost slows them to dormancy, white rootlets are emerging. They're not awake, yet, just stirring before their deeper sleep, under their blanket of cedar chips.
I worked hardest in this part of the Garden, this year, removing some of what was stagnant, waiting till spring to better organize what remains. I removed three slow juniper shrubs that were growing sideways instead of tall, that had become hard and slow and stupid. A hundred flowers will bloom in their place, come spring. I planted mostly perennials, that need little service, and will return in glory each year. They will be in a mix of formal rows and wild tangles. A Garden should always remain half-wild, a little uneven and chaotic, and never be too manicured, too organized. Some parts should always be left to go nuts, frolic in mad reverie, explode in all directions. You can weed and control and organize all the other zones; but always leave one spot imperfect and natural. It's the spirit line, coming back into the weave, in which Gaea's breath moves through. Sun and wind, storm and calm, all are powers greater than ours, to which we must bow.
And I've made a small rock garden. A trail of stones crosses the flower bed, a dry river. Another dry river crosses to the base of the crabapple tree, now leafless but still heavy with late autumn berries the birds haven't discovered yet. I've hung small candle lanterns from the boughs. A circle of stones stands in a cleared circle beneath the tree. This is the start of a more permanent land art sculpture, something I intend to endure, while all other such sculptures, things I feel called to assemble on my travels, are ephemera, only the photos remain. The circle of stones is made with rounded, eroded rocks I found digging in the small garden on the house's west side. Some are green with algae or moss.
A circle of standing stones, menhirs, a henge, something new reflecting something ancient. We have always built stone circles, since long before recorded time. Inukshuk mark the paths across tundra. Stupas in the HImalayas at the high passes. Stonehenge, Brodgar, and the others. I am not done with making the rock garden part of my new home's garden; more will be done come spring. Like the Garden, the stones will rest over winter, dormant, sleeping, perhaps restless in sleep, eager to begin again. Come spring, I have to weed out some thickets of inherited shrubs and flowers; a chore I did not get to this year. A Garden can take many years to emerge, not to create but to manifest: the plants and rocks tell you where they want to be placed, if you listen hard enough. But listening to rocks is slow, and while plants think faster and louder than rocks, you still have to slow down, calm your own heartbeat and bloodflow, to hear them. You must become osmotic, rising sap slow day's climb towards sunsky raincloud heaven. The Garden is always moving towards Heaven. Patiently reaching for the light.
an endless row of new roots—
come spring, bleeding hearts
scattered day light false dim hollow bluesilver rind of early winter in
spatter rain on chimney tin chill echo wind in pipe mind crest towards release
buried under lantern tree and soil cold heart broken beat of hibernation
dim city of soil frozen now frozen long enough to sleep awaken sleep again
still timeheart in bright return still cloudlight weeks of dim desperate sage
in time this rain falling fades to earth running under rock granite mica mirrors
lamped in time in waterfall in river running up cataclysmic to ancient ocean
scattered now light fade to dim still cloud light fade to still timeheart in bright return
bluegold cloudedge briefly clearing above shaved fields
in frigid dusk ice etching into skin brokenhanded bare and stilling
Friday, November 14, 2008
still waters, reflecting sky
glimpsed out of corner of eye, driving by at speed
reminding me of dreams
When you keep a dream journal for long enough, you being to notice patterns, and see symbols not only as signs but messages. I've recorded my dreams for over 25 years; not daily, but almost. There are periods when the dreams are just churning the daytime stuff. But I have recorded several significant dreams, over time. Enough to be able to recognize the imagery, when it recurs, in repetition or variation.
still waters, reflecting sky
a blue ribbon of water, reflecting blue sky
cut into red rock, red brick, a patio, a mountain plateau, a redrock mesa
sometimes a cloudless sky, sometimes small white puff clouds
that you see in summer over the great plains, or often in the southwest during monsoon
blue ribbon of water and light incised into red earth surface
clear light of day, cool silver of night
a still circular pool of water
deep in the heart of a dense forest black at midnight
the moon reflecting in the waters of the pool
even on moonless nights
sometimes a single rivulet of spring or stream
emptying cold clear water into the pool
whose surface ripples only slightly
calm clear light of mind
clear mind, clear light
a lightning stroke clapping through
to wake up the broken air
When dream-symbols recur, it's a message from your own depths (and is there a difference between your own depths and divine guidance? there seems not to be) to wake up and pay attention.
I've had the water-stone-sky dream several times in my life, with variations, every time a major upwelling of dark water is about to arise from the deep wells of the unconscious, and into the light of day. Energy and inspiration upwell from the unconscious, our richest source, like mineral-rich cold water rising from the bottom of the ocean to the surface, causing a plankton bloom that then attracts fish, and larger fish, and finally fishermen. We are fishers of our own deep selves. We need to navigate our surface waters to find those upwellings that will feed us, and our lives.
The moon-pool began as a meditation visualization, a symbol of a personal sacred space to go to when seeking tranquility, solace, calmness of mind. It has also appeared in dream, and in vision. An image arising out of the abyss, containing the abyss, and the miracle of a moon always reflecting in the water, even on moonless, starless, cola-black nights. When there is nothing in the heavens but dark cloud and dense shadow, when the woods become so thick and dense that they are impenetrable, still the moon's reflections glows calmly in the waters. Sometimes the waters are as mirror-still and black as obsidian glass; sometimes the image of the moon ripples slightly, as though the moon were reflecting in rippled water, even if the water itself is not moving.
Sometimes I make these dreams into artworks. I have said before how Photoshop allows me to show my visions and dreams to other people, so they can see them too. I've made dreams into poems, into artwork. Once or twice, very rarely, music has been in my dream, that I have been to recreate upon awakening. Once or twice, poems were recited in my dreams, that I could then transcribe into my journal.
Moon Vision, from Spiral Dance
These are the gifts of the deep waters in the sea-caves in the dark wells at the bottom of the mind. They are fish that are always good to catch; like the Salmon of Knowledge in Celtic lore, good to find, good to eat, and the gifts they bring are beyond price.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Traveling across the back of the high pine crested coastal range. Out of the rain and fog into brief stabs of sun under the tall forest. Lonely two lane road. I've driven so long I don't want to be driving again today; I'm tired, my body aches from sitting but working; but there's no other option. To see the ocean one last time before heading inland, back into the mountains, towards the prairies and home, you have to go out and come back.
bright sky, high winds,
brown pelicans over the waves—
gloom only inside
earth backbone spine
cresting and to brush against wave—
broken ribs, breathing
in driftwood, wet with promise—
windows on a world
Japanese Garden, Portland
Japanese Garden, Portland, OR
A monk asked, "What is the depth of the deep?"
The master said, "What depth of the deep should I talk about, the seven of seven or the eight of eight?"
—from The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, trans. by James Green
A monk asked, "What about it when I'm not chasing after various things?"
The master said, "Obviously, it is just like this."
The monk said, "Isn't this the fact of my own nature?"
The master said, "Chasing, chasing."
—from The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu
(This Garden has figured prominently in my own DVD on Japanese Gardens, from Liquid Crystal Gallery.)
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The Poetry and Pity of War
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.'
'None,' said that other, 'save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that he too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .'
All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the truest poets must be truthful.
Florida Road Trip
Monday, November 10, 2008
The art of the still life. A posed studio portrait of a natural object. Edward Weston's abstract forms from nature: bell peppers, sea-wrack, driftwood.
History of art is the history of the painted still-life, its changes and elements. Food always a topic. Nothing so essential as food. Picture-perfect. Fresh food. history of fresh produce from village markets. Local farmer's market, organic produce, home-grown, fresh-picked, vibrant with life, delicious.
Double pleasure: after the photographs, the stir-fry.
butterflies everywhere butterfly gold flower blue black band of wing shadow sun greenlight orchid scent purity of water flowing slough cedar foot and mangrove
green lake mirror in gold sun set windless birch bosque
spring treefrog peeper on bamboo
green heron wing cup curl into shadow over koi pond ocean shore river night
whisper trees whisper long sigh in afternoon sun breeze over all and air over all settling branches in high crown bent over bowing to sky earth every earth one
flank cedar on dolomite spear up to sun as in Greece where cedar soar on white dolomite cliff this place like the other merging one becoming same place same time same light Greek light dolomite crown of swaying spear branch and feather
slow sludge stagnant pond algae choke solid mat algae grown together wings of flies
sentinel sagebrush on mountain south slope bright sun alkaline soil hard pan pack think crust sage brush in wind tumbling
and butterflies everywhere luna green moth butterfly eye of heaven eye of earth eye wing sun antenna questing nectar sungold honey nectar sweet fragrance juniper sage cedar sweetgrass earth loam earth ascending earth one green one green man gold sun blue heaven and all rise merge to one green karst of mind
Saturday, November 08, 2008
The Boy, the Flower, and the Typewriter
In my basement I have a small collection of vintage and antique typewriters. About half of them are portables, complete with travel cases; some of the cases are leather, others are wood boxes, still others with plastic travel cases. I have an old Underwood; a couple or Royals; portable Remingtons and Smith-Coronas.
I don't collect a lot of things—vintage typewriters, lapel pins from national and state parks I've visited, books—although I do admit some things mass more than others. I'm not a collector the way some collectors are; and I'm a recovering packrat, finally cured of that tendency by the many months it took to go through the crap in my parents' house after they passed on; so I don't really care to gather too many chattels into my possession. I'm also not a "serious collector" in that these old typewriters have often stumbled my way, without having to seek them out. I don't spend a lot of time or money on the things I do collect. My Underwood, which weighs a ton, was the only one I went out of my way to acquire; but I still paid less than twenty dollars for it.
My tastes are also rather monastic, when it comes to decorative objects. I like examples of functional, elegant design; an exquisite, simple Michael Graves teakettle is far more attractive to me than any Victorian silver tea service. I am drawn more towards simplicity and Minimalism, in architecture, than I am to the Baroque and over-decorated. Visual clutter leads to mental clutter, to being distracted and scattered. I keep my house clean, and put things away when I'm done with them, including dishes, because I'm more vulnerable than ever to being derailed from my purpose, thanks to the life-changing events of recent years, which I'm still recovering from. A clean house is one way of coping with a lack of focus elsewhere.
In going back over my design and illustration work, because I'm starting over, I have been digging through new and old artwork alike. I found this image, originally made in 2003, I think, and have pulled it out again to use in my self-marketing.
This image is iconic, for me, and speaks to lots of the reasons I get pleasure from art-making, graphic design, illustration, and photography.
I made a Photoshop collage of a male nude, photographed in the studio, and a flower, also shot in the studio, under careful lighting. I printed the finished Photoshop collage, then inserted it into one of my antique typewriters, rolling it like a page of typescript around the typewriter's platen, as though the typewriter were producing the art.
To me, this symbolizes a convergence of old and new; the old printing technology meeting the newest; the digital meeting the analog; the natural and organic meeting the mechanical; the chaotic (nude and flower) meeting the orderly (mechanical precision of engineering, in technology). The finished artwork, for me, symbolizes how the digital emerges from the old, too: the digital image scrolling up from the keyboard; I thought about this very often, in my earlier days of doing graphics and typesetting work on computers. The technologies are recursive, curving back around to support each other in new and surprising ways.
I enjoy the fact that all the different technologies, old and new together, go to produce a single finished artwork. Old and new tech are not in conflict; the one doesn't replace the other, rather it provides a new palette of artistic choices. I often go back and use older tech in my music and art-making. I've recorded flute improvisations, a bamboo or cane flute being one of the oldest musical technologies on the planet, directly onto my laptop.
I've used my typewriters in more than one photo shoot. I have some other images like the one shown here, which are similarly iconic. I also have a set of close-ups I've been thinking of marketing as a CD of royalty-free images for other designers to buy and use.
I've also used my typewriters for the design purpose which I originally intended: to illustrate my catalog of original typefaces. I run White Dragon Type Foundry, a mostly amateur business, in which I give most of my work away. I design typefaces. I design them for fun, and because I'm fascinated by the history of letterforms. But I've also designed typefaces professionally, and occasionally lucratively. My font pages contain a wide range of my type design work, and several examples of the often-whimsical artwork I've made using my old typewriters.
I've been too busy moving and sorting through other belongings—and traveling—these past few months, to really do much more with my typewriters. But I might still add to the collection, if the write instrument comes along. Most of my typewriters still work, too; I've thought off and on about doing some type design based on their built-in forms. I could type out a phrase, digitize it, and go to work. (The old and new merging together again, as in the piece I talked about above.)
I did actually do this, once already, sort of, with my typeface Smith&Wesson Corona. I took this same typewriter and photographed it, with a sheet rolled onto the platen, as above, with sheet this time being the typeface's own sample-sheet. A fun bit of recursive illustration.
And I might set up all the vintage typewriters to be photographed again. I do find that re-doing the same subject, years later, gives one a different perspective on it. I don't like to repeat myself, artistically or personally. But revisiting old friends is not the same thing at all.
I have too diverse a body of work to be able to properly market it all. And one of the perverse things about design is that almost everybody says they appreciate diversity and sideways thinking and versatility, when in fact that's not true. Most clients and managers understand branding—the single logo, image, or idea that captures it all in a nutshell—but most of the don't understand that designers can be chameleons, and change as needed.
How do I market myself to people who want to understand my design career and abilities from a 30-second summation? It's impossible. I almost always have to redact myself, or my image, to suit them; because my full portfolio is so diverse and large, I can only show bits of it, a single body of work at a time. Frankly, what exhausts me about the application process is this redaction; I find it wearying to have to go back into any closets, even briefly, that I have spent so much time and effort getting out of, be they professional, spiritual, sexual, or philosophical. I'm at the point where I'm just going to present what I think is my best work, right now, if only at the moment, and detach from the outcome. No-one cares who you are, for the sake of knowing who you are; the design world is perverse in its focus on superficial branding without having an interest in what lies beneath. But I can say in return, now, that I don't care what they think of me, either. If my work doesn't match your needs, if we're going to butt heads all through the process, then working with you won't be much fun for me, anyway. I'd rather have fun, working, than be paid millions to be miserable. (Who needs millions when thousands will suffice?)
Most marketing and advertising minds get stuck in one mode, or follow one pattern, because, firstly, they don't have time to do a lot of research outside their zone, as their world is very fast-paced; and, secondly, they are driven by the need for security, which is really the need for predictability, which is driven in turn by the economic needs of the dominant consumer culture. This can really skew their priorities, and have a dampening effect on fresh thinking and creative solutions. It is a mindset that resists taking risks, and tends to repeat itself stylistically, even when risk-taking has a proven track record of success. Designers often end up playing nursemaid to the client's, and/or manager's, anxieties, rather than being actively creative. And never doubt that design is a creative profession: a creative pursuit of practical outcomes. The best designers I've known, or studied, have all been a little unusual as people. Some have been eccentric, but they've earned it. In every case, their ideas have come from surprising and fresh places.
I am not the best at selling myself. I know that. I actively resent, at times, the necessity of selling myself. My work is good work, and I believe it should stand on its own merits. If it had a famous name attached to it, some of it would win awards. But I am not a Famous Designer, or even a Famous Artist. So, even though I don't like to sell my brand, I know I have to. It takes effort I'd rather expend elsewhere, which is why I can come to resent the process. I genuinely believe that the quality of the work should sell itself; I genuinely believe that ego has to be set aside in the service of good design. You can pay a great designer well, but they do risk losing their way if they start to get an inflated ego about their work.
I have been reading a marvelous business-story anti-business book, these past few days, which tells the tale of a business that never should have succeeded, and wasn't meant to, but in fact has succeeded on a grand scale. It's an exceptional case, but it has lessons for my own growing DVD business, Liquid Crystal Gallery, for thinking outside the usual paradigms, and for starting my career up again. It's a funny book, too, not a Serious Management Book. I highly recommend this book as an antidote for the usual inside-the-box thinking about business. The book I am referring to is: Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good: The madcap business adventure by the truly oddest couple, by Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner. The book tells the story of the Newman's Own food product business; which by the way is a food product line I support weekly. My own dietary and medical requirements have pushed me to eat organic and gluten-free, and Newman's Own has been a big help. Plus, it's just damn good-tasting foodstuff.
I keep this book not on my design shelves, where I keep a few other business books in among the design and typography reference books. I keep it in the kitchen, on the cookbook shelves, next to its companion volume: Newman's Own Cookbook (compiled by Ursula Hotchner and Nell Newman, with A.E. Hotchner contributing some history notes). The two books sit there and cheer me up every time I look at them. (I've also given away a few copies of the Cookbook.)
Here are some of the big lessons one can learn from Newman's Own, and which I find applicable to my own starting-over situation, now and probably for a long time:
Newman's Own started with a creative product that they wanted to share, rather than with an attempt to go out and make money. Quality really does matter. They never compromised the quality of their product, they found ways to accommodate it.
They filled a hole in the market, and over time they transformed their market, and created a new philosophy for business. They asked a lot of questions of people they knew. They made a few mistakes, but almost all of those were ones wherein they took somebody's idea about the way things are supposed to be done, rather than trusting their own gut instincts; and they recovered from those mistakes, quickly, by again trusting their guts. If this isn't a vote for trusting your intuition in life, what is?
One thing that I am taking very much to heart from the Newman's Own experience, for myself, is that traditional and time-honored strategies for production and marketing of your product may in fact by totally wrong for your product. All the successful business gurus may have no good advice for you, because their advice matches a paradigm very different from yours.
There are, for example, other ways to publicize a product than expensive advertising. Be creative, use networking, make friends everywhere, be engaged rather than aloof. Your love and belief in your product matters. Your love of the process of getting the product out there matters. (I struggle with this aspect more than any other, as I've mentioned.) If you build it, they will come.
The quality of the product matters more than the name on the label. This is why Newman's Own succeeded while Frank Sinatra's attempt to compete with his own spaghetti sauce failed utterly. This is why a relative unknown can succeed, because the product is good, and they care about it. This gives me hope.
So, here's my attitude:
I will continue to market myself as a designer, illustrator, typographer, graphic artist, etc., because I have years of experience in those fields, and they're not hard to drop back into. If I get the occasional design or graphics gig, terrific. If people wonder what the hell I'm doing in small-town Wisconsin rather than the Big City, I have a story to tell them, about why I moved here year a few years ago, to care for my aging parents. They'll understand that I'm starting over again; or they won't. I can't control that, so I can't afford to waste time worrying about it.
I will do my best to stay with the positive attitudes about quality and caring that Newman's Own has demonstrated. I will do my best to be positive about what I have to give, rather than ambitious about what I personally want. Even though I've been burned out on live-in caregiving, and I occasionally wonder when it will ever be my turn to be cared for, I know deep down that giving back to the world is what makes the world a finer place; no matter how you give, or give back, or where, or when. I pay things forward when I can't pay them back. And I'll forgive myself for being unable to retain this attitude, on my worst days; because I know I can restore it, come better days.
I will do my best to enjoy the process of marketing myself. I have to say, spending all day yesterday on making those little portfolios, and on designing a sell-sheet, was mostly fun, and in the end I had a tangible product to put out. I will continue to do my best to enjoy the process. That is the area, as I've mentioned, that I have identified a known weakness. Knowing about it, though, means that you can compensate for it; that you can watch out for its effects, and do your best to overcome them.
So reading Shameless Exploitation has been inspiring. It's right there on my shelf in the kitchen, ready to be picked up again, whenever I need a kick in the pants.