Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Death is the Road to Awe

I watched Darren Aronofsky's film The Fountain this afternoon, as a storm rolled in, the winds blew around the house, and the temperature dropped forty degrees from where it had been this morning. From fog to ice in less than twelve hours.

There are quotes from Mayan mythology in the film, which moves across time in three interconnected stories. The film itself works for me because it is poetic and suggestive rather than simplistic and overly explained. Mystery remains. Some things are left open to interpretation. I get out of it a story about confronting death and immortality in various ways: the tree of life; the survival of the soul after death; the survival of the physical body. The film gives meaning via its images—there are so many compositions that echo across all three time periods of the film, in the arrangement of lighting, staircases, shapes, and movement along long corridors—and while the film has a narrative, as cinema seemingly must, the narrative is presented to us non-linearly, breaking across time. You can assemble an idea of memory and imagination by film's end for yourself, but it is not necessary to do so.

The film also discusses life and death across many scales—fractal philosophy?—from the death of the self, to the death of the beloved, to the death of stars. All lead to rebirth, resurrection, and completion: the supernovae of the ekstasis of union and transcendance. But it takes time to accept that death leads to life—that death is the road to awe—and the lead character lives a long, long life fighting against it, till in the end he accepts death, only to be reborn. The film uses repetition, recurrence, and circularity in dialogue and imagery alike to sound echoes across all the film's timeframes, to link them all together, and also to successfully create emotional resonance.

Gold is a color used throughout the film, to symbolize material wealth, and lust of wealth and power. But it is also the color of the alchemical transformation that surrounds the lifegiving of the tree of life, and also the forging of the elements withint the hearts of stars, especially the gold of the nebula that surrounds the dying star at the film's end, which goes nova, creating more new elements in its final moments, and seeding the galaxy with them. The elements that make up our bodies were seeded by exploding suns: we are all made of starstuff, we are all light. The film also goes from dark to light, as the lead character evolves from fear to rejection to acceptance. The final illumination is resplendent.

Most science fiction movie making has devolved into apocalyptic ray guns and martial arts, leaving The Fountain to stand almost alone, in recent SF filmmaking, as a film of ideas, dreams, and philosophy. We need more of these films: ray guns and fight scenes are the stuff of video games, in the end they leave us no wiser and no more richer in ourselves. They are prurient and topical and leave behind them only short-lived thrills. The best science fiction has always been about ideas rather than action: it is a literature of ideas, of speculation, and of action, yes, but action driven by ideas and conceptions rather than simplistic melodrama. We need more ideas in film, and in literature, and less action-movie plotting.

I come to this in the midst of many of my own contemplations about death, dying, life beyond death, and the eternal recurrence. So much resonates. I have my own deaths to talk about; and to rehearse; and to overcome. We go on.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Family Histories

Boxes of photos. Scrapbooks full of memorabilia, some of it incomprehensible to the living, the importance of a piece known only to the dead. My mother's mother liked to collect into scrapbooks clippings that interested. In the old India trunks in the basement, I've found a scrapbook or two about Abraham Lincoln, one of her passions. Elsewhere in the house, I have her bronze Lincoln bookends, which I currently use on top of one of my shelves. Another recent find is a scrapbook of famous opera performers. Were these images and portraits clipped from magazines such as Opera News, the enthusiast's magazine that my father subscribed to until he died, and which still arrives on the doorstep? or were they clipped from newspapers of the time. many of the faces and names in the opera scrapbook are iconic, but unknown to anyone alive today who is not also an opera history buff. My father enjoyed reading history and biography. He listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast from New York City almost every Saturday of his life, after we returned from India. I have many memories of opera filling the house all Saturday afternoon, winter or summer. Was this scrapbook made by my grandmother for him, when we were away across the ocean? or does it predate out mission travels? It is in nearly mint condition. What causes us to make scrapbooks? I have another book of photos from Muskegon that was given to us by a cousin. There are a few photos of my mother and her sister on the beach at Muskegon, the summer waters of Lake Michigan in the background. There are many more people in this book that I do not know, nor did my father when we looked at it together. This scrapbook is disintegrating before my eyes. Turning the pages, fragments of black backing paper come loose, and fall away. I will photograph anew the pages of this scrapbook, even those pages that speak to me out of the mystery of unknown faces, unknown places, and relationships that are only imaginable, not reportable. I will continue to dig into our trunks in the basement, now that my parents have both passed away, and continue to uncover family histories, only some of which are labelled or described or named. There are always aspects of history that are lost with the stories and memories that made them, which we never had a chance to recover before they were gone. I tried to capture some. I recorded my father's voice, talking about the past. I have written down stories I remember being told around the dinner table. I will continue to record what I know. I am working out my own, new identity, as the past leaves us, and the future beckons me towards a new life, my own life, my life separate from my parents' lives, now that I have become a midlife orphan, now that the trunks are mine to sort through, now that nothing can be done but settle affairs and start over again.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

winter midwinter midlife life (a multimedia haibun)

Cold light over snow. Through bare trees, through tall windows, the neighbor's Christmas tree a constellation of white stars, a conical firmanent, a universe of light-cones. The camera fits onto the tripod as though eager to be hinged and loaded. Boots climb over ankles hungrily. The long wool coat, the hat and scarf, the finger-gloves: every instinct is to be outside, in the enveloping night. 'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the fields, not a creature was stirring, except chickadees and mad photographers.

full moon rising
over bright-lit Christmas homes—
silence of solstice

A frozen land, a cold world, a small island of humanity; their winter festival, a time of fasting and of feasting; the traditional meal, two seed-cakes, like small tan potato pancakes, each with three ovoid seeds cooked in, placed equidistantly around the center; the young man leader offers them to me, a traveler, on a beautiful black ceramic plate. I start awake from my nap as logs crack in the fireplace.

vivid blue pencils
limn night-blue tree branches—
emergent moon

That night, that day, the Sacred Heart, long my burden of compassion and passion, once lodged in my breast those long months in the desert, those nights by the waters, awakened in me all unwilling, all unprepared and unexpected, covered with thorns, blood-red and scourged. The Sacred Heart came clearly to my mind’s eye, that afternoon, that evening, complete with thorns and wounds and blessing. Do I need to still be bleeding? I made the thorns go away three times, but they kept coming back. So I turned them into green, living ivy. And then the wounds closed and scarred over, and the bleeding ceased. The result was a green-man Sacred Heart, with green aqua light everywhere, quiesecent, calm, at rest. I left it as a closed wound in my chest, no longer an open one, blue, green, like growing plants, the color of water reflecting twilight through cedars.

under fresh snow
white flowers bloom anyway—
the days passing

even the Buddha once asked,
what is a natural death?

This is an experiment in pulling more avenues of bandwidth into poetry. Short of making an actual video, this was an experiment to pull in all the aspects of audio/video while still working within the constraints of the static medium that is HTML. (It's often worthwhile to work within limits to see what you can do, given those limits.)

Elsewhere, I have been experimenting with moving lines of text, recited poetry, sound design, and music combined into DVD and HD videos that use both my still photography and videography into overall combined media. I like multi-channel, multi-window presentation. I can track multiple windows of content, and I like the effects on the self that have multiple centers of focus in a video presentation can do for the viewer/reader. (Hence my appreciation for "experimental" filmmakers such as Peter Greenaway, in such films as The Pillow Book.)

I have long had a vision of performing my music and poetry live in a meditative chapel-like space while behind and around the musicians both still and moving imagery was projected larger than life—like stained glass windows—with never less than two images up at any one time. An illumination space. Certainly using my Spiral Dance series as some of hte projected images.

This exploded or expanded haibun, if you will, uses the limits imposed by hypertext links as a strength instead of a weakness, I hope. The links create new windows, rather than making you go back and forth between. So you get a supplemental and parallel media window opening without losing, hopefully, the thread of the poem. Of course, one can also read it as just a poem, too, and ignore the links.

So far, I like the results. However, per usual I have also already received brickbats from more purist poets who either don't get what it's intended to do, or reject it out of hand, or simply don't know what to do with it. "That other stuff distracts me from the poem, and therefore takes away from the poem rather than adding to it!" That sort of comment.

I have never been a purist. I've never even been a purist about artforms. I've always been a huge fan of Laurie Anderson and her individual style(s) of performance art, which incorporated several channels of presentation—music, spoken word, physical movement, film, ambient micing techniques, stage lighting effects, recorded playback accompanying live performance, etc.—into an overall artistic, aesthetic experience. Seeing her perform live has always been inspirational; at the same time, her videos and other cross-media experiments have also always given me ideas, and opened up new possibilities.


The most curtly dismissive comment by a purist poet received so far has been: I'm unconvinced that good writing needs auditory support. Well of course good writing doesn't need "auditory support," but if it's good writing then it doesn't matter if the audio is there or not, or the visuals. So if they are, so what?

One wonders if this is one of those same poets who claim that Bob Dylan is a great poet, period, rather than a great singer-songwriter. Poets tends to divorce the words from the music in most cases; and wrongly so. A great well-crafted song uses both words and music, and synergizes into an indivisible whole. You can't really separate them out.

One can only marvel at such tunnel vision. Of course, most of these opinionated poets have never heard of Derek Jarman's last film, Blue, either.

Ultimately, this criticism misses the point entirely, which is: It's not a poem, it's a multi-channel multimedia poem, or text-sound poetry, multi-sensory artwork, or hypertext. The whole point is to expand, or explode, the notion that poetry must only ever be just words. To explode the notion of what a poem is. To play outside the boxes of form and genre and medium, and to demolish the expectations of stereotype.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Anger Road

Sign that stands in for unnamable whirl of inspirited clutch;
sign that names nothing, being itself an unmade word;
sign that is no apt replacement of word for body;
sign that calls itself emotion, feeling, rage, anger, angry, on that day we were sore afraid—
as though by naming it could be contained—
say instead how the pith of the day was sour; how every touch of finger to world leaves a trail of wound;
say instead how this constant shimmer and shelter in flickering breast is blue flame behind bone; how the slam of open palm on table, or the punch of fist into leather padding, is a lash back at what whips and flails;
say instead how the morning won’t come soon enough, you lie awake all night, stare at the ceiling till your ears fill up;
say what sign is an evasion of: canopy of mourning and dismemberment;
say instead how the hand lashes in fury, fists itself into clenched restraint, sheathed, arm rigid with derision.

Perhaps some ghosts have followed you after all, from the camps of the dead;
perhaps the ghosts of long-dead warriors, from another age, another land, are with them;
perhaps this haunting is mere remembrance, a wayside cemeteried battlefield;
perhaps they rose from where they lay, spread-eagled, quartered, scalped, to follow a breeze;
perhaps some chant the enemy way, the ghost exorcism ritual, the ghost dance returning, the leavening of the moon’s daughter, she who walks between worlds and underworld, who holds key and dagger, whip and torch, who lashes the heads of enemies to her belt, she who walks in silence among dead and living;
perhaps the ritual slaughter of the innocents keeps them sated;
perhaps some chant freed of wraiths and shadows, take on the sun’s son, his solar insistence on light and leavening as the only way;
perhaps these thinning walls must be skinned and shuttered with nails and flesh;
perhaps sand’s whirling mandala, a door into something else, heals as it cuts, releases the dark sun;
perhaps this day is a dance of ghosts.

Come back again,
return, renew,
free the land from these pale killers,
their engines that make blood dance
that make our skins into drums.

Come back again,
return, and fade, to whole us,
even as we walk home stepping
through time, through echoing years,
sand in wind, in sleet, in rain.

Come back again,
return, sky-buried, sky-burned,
sun-kissed, moon-eaten—
these nameless signs for an unnamed violence,
held tight to breast, and banishing.

Some readers took this as an anti-war poem, earlier. I wasn't thinking of it as an anti-war poem when I wrote it, though, in late January 2006; I was thinking of it as a ghost exorcism.

I wrote it in a hotel in Bozeman, Montana, after a long day's drive. I had spent most of the morning at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. There's an army cemetery there, as well as markers and guides about the history of Custer's last battlefield; finally there's the Indian peace memorial, for me the most beautiful place of all, at the Monument. (They symbolically and literally "buried the hatchet" there some years ago.) It's a sad, a sombre, but overall a peaceful place. Yet I found myself angry all day, driving along; an anger out of nowhere, for no reason. So, I wrote it out of my system that night when I was at rest in my hotel room, after eating and taking a shower.

The poem is also a rejection of the cipher, the sign, the intermediating symbol that presumes to speak in our stead, and diminishes us. A rejection of anything that stands in for experience, rather than conveying or embodying it, in the poem.

It ends with a chant from the spontaneous ghost exorcism I felt myself involved with that day, at the Little Bighorn, and the echoes of the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee still ringing in the air after a long century and more of blood.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Slowing Down

We were watching my DVD of the 1980 TV mini-series filmed in Japan, Shogun, based on the James Clavell novel, and starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune. This was a long TV mini-series in terms of air-time; one of the original mini-series, and one of the longest. I remember how it gripped the nation, people spending a week in suspence about what happened next. It also spawned a new genre, the mini-series itself, leading to other memorable watching events such as Noble House (based on another Clavell novel) and the original version of The Bourne Identity (also starring Chamberlain, the king of the mini-series actors).

Shogun is very long. There is a lot of cultural detail in the epic that would be edited out these days. If it were broadcast now, it would probably only be half as long. Scenes in this long film are themselves often long and detailed, but nonetheless they are carefully edited. Editing during the quiet moments of the narrative lingers on the characters' facial reactions, giving the audience time to keep pace with their emotions. Editing during the moments of battle is faster, without losing detail, and echoes the pace of the action. It's rare to find film editing this careful or slow-paced these days; only one or two recent films come to mind. Everything has to be edited faster, choppier, more frenetically; it keeps us moving briskly along.

This mirrors modern life, of course, which seems to continually accelerate without ever taking time out. When was the last time you got out of your car to watch a sunset, smell the wind, feel the air cool around you? When was the last time you sat and did nothing—with the TV and radio turned off—in silence?

Anything that slows you down is a good thing.

That may seem impossible to believe, or to achieve, but consider this: Life is as much about how you get where you're going as it is about adding to the list of things you've achieved and places you've gone. Life is not a tally sheet of projects to be checked off, unless it is also a narrative of how you got them done. When and how much don't matter as much as how, itself.

Watching a slower-paced, slower-edited, longer and more detailed TV series like Shogun was a reminder of the changes that have happened in the interim. Hour-long TV dramas used to be about 48 minutes long, the rest taken up by commercials; now they're about 42 minutes long, so more commercials can be packed in. So when you watch a program that is commercial-free, suddenly it seems to be longer, and time move differently. I'm not making any judgments here, just pointing out changes. Switching from the DVD to the broadcast TV to catch the weather news was a jolt: a change in pacing that just pointed out how frenetic TV has become. How much louder it has to shout to get your attention. After all, you're reading this instead of watching TV—or perhaps you're doing both, multi-tasking.

Commercial TV is designed to speed you up, to convince you to try to pack more things into your day. (One could begin by questioning what those things are, or why they're so important to pack into your day.)

There was a counter-culture saying that ran around for some years: Kill Your Television! I never took that literally, but as a metaphor for non-attachment along the lines of the Zen slogan: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! Meaning: Don't get attached to forms or goals, and don't make your mentors into gods, just follow the road. These days I take Kill your television to mean not literally destroying your televsion—although you could unplug it—but to detach from its addictive qualities. Sometimes you want it, so you can watch a DVD, or the weather channel.

Or you could just turn it off awhile, and have a conversation. Or sit in silence.

Outside on the lawn deer are grazing peacefully, unconcerned.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Winter Solstice Music

Two pieces for solo piano improv, recorded 23 December 2007 in Chicago, IL.

Solstice 1

Solstice 2

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 5

To continue with the idea that "you have to learn the rules before you can break the rules."

There are points where I agree with that philosophy, and points where I think it fails miserably. It is all too often used as a bludgeon to promote conformity and Apollonian orderliness against the shock and horror of unconformity and Dionysian chaos. Craft (orthography, grammar, syntax, etc.) is, or should be, a neutral tool, one tool among many; one of the key elements of poetry, but not the single most important element. Craft is all too often used, in these anti-innovation arguments, as a bludgeon to dismiss every innovation, every time, by refusing to address the fact that many poets who do know the rules do choose to experiment, rather than stay within the tradition. Using craft as such a bludgeon is a disservice to craft, too, because it sets up a false dichotomy in which the very important need for craft in poetry gets either angelized or demonized. Still, most of the time when one hears "you've got to know the rules..." it never goes any further, nor does it more than rarely address how the rules can be positively broken, or, in a better word, internalized and transcended. The phrase itself has become a cliché, a shorthand soundbyte that stands in for, and is often intended to suppress, actual thinking about craft's proper place.

It has been argued that there can be no experimentation without a base to stand on. This presumes that one must start with the basics.

That's true enough, as far as it goes. Yes, the basics are essential. But the belief that that's all you need, and no more—a belief many formalists seem to carry—is wrongheaded. Another viewpoint is that the basics are literally just that: the basics. (Just because you've learned to boil water doesn't mean you're a chef.)

As an analogy, one might consider people who learn how to swim. The choice then becomes what do they do next. Do they stay in the pool's safer areas, the shallow ends, the prescribed swimming lanes? Do they continue to do laps, using (the received wisdom of) known strokes? Or do they perhaps try out the diving board in the deep end, stand on the edge of it, bounce a few times, then jump in? Do they learn to SCUBA dive in the pool, exploring those deeper waters where longer breaths are needed to dive down and return safely? Or do they keep swimming laps in the three-foot waters, and never explore the 12-foot waters?

Of course it's just an analogy. But I really think it's all about what you do next, after you have absorbed and internalized the basics. Of course everyone needs the basics. But they're "the basics," and called that for a reason. Staying with just the basics (form, craft, orthography, whatever the heck we want to call them/it), and never learning to dive, means in some way never going beyond the basics.

At some point, you have to wonder what role simple fear plays in all this.

There may a poetic analogy to Outsider Art here, as well.

The term has been used to describe untrained artists (i.e. non-academy-trained artists). Also: folk art; non-mainstream art; "raw" art as opposed to "cooked" art; asylum art; art made by untrained children or adults. Insane asylum art is essential to the history of outsider art, actually: Originally art by psychotic individuals who existed almost completely outside culture and society was gathered together in the exhibition the Collection de l'Art Brut, which gave the label to the Art Brut movement. Similarly, the CoBrA art movement was art inspired by asylum patients and children's or primitive art. Also, "naive" art, which is another label for art by "untrained" artists. "Untrained" in this context means they didn't go to art school, or the Academy, or study painting with a famous painter; it almost always implies that the artist is self-trained, an autodidact.

There are instances of the poet who was an outsider to official (academy or court) culture making brilliant poetry. William Blake may be a good example. In other cases, it's hard to know what the poet studied, and what they didn't; so it becomes hard to know where to draw the line of how much craft they actually had before they began their mature work. Whitman and Dickinson come to mind, in that instance, as autodidacts working more or less in isolation from the poetic mainstream of their time.

In some ways most outsider art is autodidactic: self-taught. One way to become a good writer is to write, write, write, read a lot, read more, read, read, read, write, write, make lots of mistakes, learn from them, and continue to write. A process of self-educaiton in what works and what doesn't. This is a parallel, and occasionally opposing, path to the formal, academic study-of-the-rules path.

John Keats is sometimes held up as an example of the "unprecedented genius" who had no formal schooling in English poetry or poetics; but the "naive genius" argument contains the flaw of assuming that Keats sprang forth fully formed, whereas he very much didread and write a lot of poetry, in his short life. He absorbed very quickly, he learned fast, but he did educate himself, it didn't come out of nowhere. There is evidence for this in his letters, on the occasions he talks about what he is reading that excites him mightily.

Sometimes innovations come from people on the autodidact path precisely because they learned idiosyncratically, and didn't have the existing thought-forms of rule-structure pounded into them by a formal education in poetics.

I believe that's what happened to me, with regard to poetry. Having been through music school as a composition major, I can say that they pounded so much music theory into us that it took me almost ten years before I wrote notated music again. I had to un-learn all the music-theory rules, before I could hear the voices of musical inspiration again. I was clogged and constipated by over-training. Honestly, I can still do Western music theory in my sleep; and I almost never use it anymore. I can read a book about music that contains a lot of theory and technical description, and understand it. But I don't write music using that theory training at all, and haven't for a very long time. If ever.

As I have said before, I never studied poetic craft to the extent that many other poets have. I was never an English major, or poetry major, or MFA grad student in creative writing; although of course I studied basic English in school. (Till I placed out of the college requirement.) I haven't read all the poetry manuals, the books that tell us the rules of grammar, form, meter, and how to write poetry; I've dipped into a few, but not the really technical ones. I've certainly written long hermeneutic papers, in college and grad school. One of the best grad school classes I had was bootcamp-level training in how to use a library. But I never did, and never have, "studied the poetic craft" the way many other poets have; nor have I "learned the basics" in the way that is being promoted by the formalist argument. While I don't disagree with the basic point, my own experience leads me to question the validity of the argument at its very root. Because in my own experience I have no sense that I "learned the craft first in order to break it later." I started out by breaking it. Which is sort of an Outsider Art position, perhaps.

Some poets have tried to get around this biographical fact by attempting to fold my case into the "you must have internalized all the craft already" argument; and maybe that is true. But if so, I sure don't remember when. I certainly can't give you the correct terminology for grammar, or for a lot of poetic craft. I've picked up a smattering over the years, but nothing systematized. The smattering was acquired via encounter, discussion, and browsing, rather than by systematized education.

You can call that a strength or a flaw, depending on your attitude and expectations. The truth is, though, that I write in a lot of styles, with a lot of techniques, and I carry few fixed opinions about what is "right" and what is "wrong" in poetry.

What I care about is finding the right container for the poem, finding the exact, most suitable structure for the content—whatever that happens to be. Sometimes that means I use conventional syntax and typography, and sometimes it doesn't. You can disagree with me on any or all of this, but you can't dismiss my poetry exclusively on the grounds that I sometimes do not use conventional orthography or typography. The E.E. Cummings example is perhaps relevant. (Like Cummings, I came to poetry after being heavily involved in other artforms, both visual, as he was, being a painter, and musical, as he was, as a jazz fan and occasional reviewer.)

Another attempt to explain away outsider art is to allow that some of it is good, but that most of it is not; that the exceptions prove the rule. But exceptions don't really prove the rules, they only bring them into higher relief by providing contrast. All exceptions really do is point out that the rules—and this is the Gödelian theorem, bascially—are inherently incomplete, cannot account for all circumstances, and inevitably have holes in them. No axiomatic rule-set can be entirely self-contained and not be self-contradictory at times, in certain contexts.

(As a sidebar, let me clarify a point: I feel it is acceptable to use my own career in poetry, such as it is, as an example because I am certain that I am not the only such example. I come from humility rather than hubris. In no way do I feel I'm unique or exceptional. The very opposite, in fact: my feeling is that if I am this way, then there must be many others, too. And they must not be overlooked or dismissed.)

Now, let's get back to morality and fear.

In the swimming/SCUBA analogy I used earlier, I was not talking about natural progressions, but about choice, and fear, and what you do next. Learning to dive is a natural progression for me, but I don't expect it to be a natural progression for everyone else. Forcing someone else to learn to dive is not my business, nor my intent. What I object to is someone telling me that my learning to dive is an un-natural progression, and inherently bad and wrong.

Let's get to the bottom line here, at last: the objections to experimentation in poetry are moral objections, not objections about poetry per se. They are about values. The difference that needs to be made clear at this point is between moralizing values, moralistic values, and moral values. This discussion is ultimately about what you (or I, or some unnamed Other) thinks is good poetry, bad poetry, or just plain uninteresting poetry. That initial objection to my recent poem was, in my view, a moral(izing) objection to the style of poetry in which I wrote that poem, which the attacker presumably felt was in opposition to his own favored style of writing poetry. At least that's how it came across in the initial posting.

You do have the right to hate my poetry—or hate my argument, for that matter. But you don't have the right to declare my poetry as bad and wrong, on whatever grounds (orthography, as I said before, was not really what the objection was about) without leaving yourself open to the same counter-charge. If you cannot accept that simple equivalency, in all fairness, then it's patently obvious that you're not willing to play on a level playing field. And that is neither fair nor good criticism.

Double standards are the last refuge of the self-excusing elitist.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 4

Another aspect of "experimental" poetry that seems to get the formalists' blood boiling is non-linearity: non-linear narrative, non-linear presentation, non-linear progression.

I am interested in Albert Einstein's comment that: The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once. In fact, everything is always happening at once, and we sort it, cognitively and neurologically, into stories. We make stories up from the world. (The world is made of stories, not atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser) We turn our lives into narrative, and call it creation myth, call it memoir, call it autobiography, call it factual. But it's still invented, made up from whole cloth, a literary creation. All traditions were once invented traditions.

The argument is often presented that "one must learn the rules in order to break them." In poetry, what this often means is that you are expected to become a master at form and meter, before you undertake any other, more experimental styles of writing. I'll set aside for the moment the recurrent problem in education that the more structure you impose on the student's mindset, the harder it is for them to see outside the box, later on. There is often a process of unlearning, after an intense formal education, in order for an artist to get back to where their own voices had originally led them, to where they can hear their own intuitions and inner guidance again. Many never make it back to inspiration, after being immersed in form. School is very good at teaching technique, and lousy at supporting vision.

Here is the danger of the "learn the rules first" attitude: if in fact you do learn by heart all the rules, you risk never again being able to think outside the conceptual frame encompassed by those rules.

And if you never go on from there, or always stay there, and believe you should always stay there? Believe that poetry belongs there, and should never stray from there? What do we call that?

We can call it (neo-)formalism. We can call it limit. We can call it the box.

We can call it boring. We can also call it masterful execution of traditional methods. There are indeed poets who spend their entire careers in one place; mining the same vein, perfecting their art within the small scope of their interests and abilities.

Of course it's perfectly valid to stay there, do that. Not everyone is suited for thinking outside the box.

I'm going to get into the "you've got to learn the rules to break the rules" cliché more, later on.

There is an anti-[anti-innovation] argument that can be made on purely psychospiritual artistic grounds: that innovation is necessary if only because it resists the downward pull of the tide of entropy.

If you want to stay in the same place in an entropic universe, you still have to move forward; merely treading water and staying in the same place is actually a downward regression. (One thinks of ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls, who haven't made a real contribution in decades, and their poetic equivalents.)

This isn't an argument promoting innovation for its own sake. It's physics: If you even want to stay in the same place, or appear to, you still have to make something new from what you are doing, even if you don't want to actively accelerate forward. Stasis is stagnation, and stagnation is death. Holding position is ultimately retrograde. The Universe will expand onwards, with or without you. If you don't move forward, the world will leave you behind, one way or another.

So, one counter to the argument against orthographic innovation (that it gets in way of clarity of reading) is the argument that staying in the same place, artistically, is tantamount to creative stagnation (that always doing the same thing is deadening and boring). Even avowedly conservative poets are still writing new poetry, not old poetry (unless they're simply rehashing the past, which is arguably not the same thing as writing poetry at all). Even avowedly conservative thinkers, focused as they are on the past, must be aware on some level that they are living in the present, not the past. (Unless of course they are genuinely driven by pure ideology. The ivy tower is divorced from reality no matter what political stance it might take, if it refuses to see what's actually going on, but prefers to only look at ideas.) Even a poet who rejects all forms of innovation must at some point realize that if they're not moving forward even slowly enough to hold position, they're actually moving backwards. Of course, maybe they want to do that.

The arguments against innovation and experiment, and the arguments for them, will no doubt continue forever, and no doubt remain unresolved. I think that is probably a good thing.

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Unexpected Gifts

The poem can take even the writer to unexpected places. The place between beginner's mind and surprise: always available to discovery, the way children continuously re-discover the existing world. Each time you see a sunset, do you say, I've seen a million sunsets before; or do you say, I've never this sunset before? Each time is new. There are no repeats, only attractors.

One early morning in August 2003, I was at Gathering at Zuni Mountain Sanctuary in western New Mexico. I woke up at dawn, the sun warming my tent through the east-facing tent door. It was going to be another hot, sunny day in the high desert of the Checkerboard region near Ramah, New Mexico. It wasn't hot yet, though, but the sunlight felt good on my skin. I got out of the tent, put on my boots but no other clothing, and took a walk in the morning light.

I was camped under some pinon pine near the edge of the Sanctuary camping area, near the entrance road. I decided to walk out the road to the front gate and back. It felt a little daring to take a morning walk nude. No one was around, though. I enjoyed feeling the warm sunlight on my skin.

Out by the front gate, the neighbor's horses had wandered onto the land again; they got out of their corral sometimes, and wandered over to our grazing. The stallion was being very protective of his mare, but I stood and leaned on the fence, and we communed for awhile, anyway.

As I walked, I thought about one of the other campers, who had taken a similar naked walk out to the front gate on a previous morning. We saw all of the same things, yet nothing we saw was the same. No repeats, just attractors. His telling me about his early morning walk inspired me to take mine.

The annual Southwest monsoon had started earlier that week, and even though this particular morning was clear and bright, every evening spectacular cloud formations covered the sky, sometimes giving us some rain. The desert plants were in prolific bloom, making a carpet of bright color across the desert and surrounding mesas.

The skies in New Mexico are among the most beautiful in the United States: a never-ending show, never repeating, always changing. Some of the most vivid sunsets I have ever seen have been out there near Ramah, or up at Taos.

Each time you see a sunset, do you say, I've seen a million sunsets before; or do you say, I've never this sunset before?

Unexpected Gifts

to shard and shatter, the wind cries: resolve.
to archway, soaring cloud, bright calm wave: a lintel.
every arm unarmored. mandible of shell in sand.
surficial exclamation of afterbirth: killdeer. killdeer.
sage and sacrifice: bright shimmer. tornadic, silver: spent.

silver god man abrupt in surf, transparent, skyborne.
gestured arms open to sun scathe. turquoise eyelet.
black gaze of benediction and regret: scale, armor, hide.
wavering apparition of the dream-blessings of seals:
limpid, mercurial. to fold arms and float. dispersed to shower.

nautilus chambers of the hearts of river-bathed sea-otters.
silent black eye watching: headflick, dive, return. hawk cries.
stand on olivine shore, become oceanic. merge with one rock.
sentinels of pelicans: shearing what must be shored.
rust rock and stain concretion eye. this shore: watching.

nothing of you left here but steps into a sand-locked archway:
wave-eaten trail: terminal tear: where you stepped
between light and flicker. nothing left but a hole in the air.
beach, shore, arch: now empty. nothing left but waveslosh and gullcry.
to that shy silent sky, slow moving: to give yourself: away.

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Moralizing vs. Experimentation 3

Let's look at the moral argument against "experimental" poetry from still another angle:

The "does this poem have a right to exist?" argument contra experimental poetry rehashes familiar arguments contra "difficult" poetry. The problem with the position contra difficulty in poetry is that it usually reduces to the complaint that "you made me work too hard to understand you!" The arguments against difficult poetry are invalidated by the examples of great poems that are indeed "difficult"—especially in the context of their original publication—at least some of the time, for some readers. Never for all, it might be added. The hypothetical reading audience is never as homogenous as a critic's reductive rhetorical stance pretends it to be. One reason poetry itself is so diverse is because of the lack of homogeneity in readership and among writers. That's actually healthy. If we were to all write the same, conform to all the same standards, rules, and attitudes and opinions, what a dull and boring world it would be—and it would be a world in which new ideas were never formed. It would be a static world, not a dynamic. In your arguments contra experimentation, I doubt anyone would really advocate that level of stasis. Or perhaps they would.

The tricky thing about nostalgic conservatism is that it is always based upon an illusion and a projection: the past was never that rosy, the streets were never paved in gold, except in the contemporary imaginative projection onto the past, and the reason the past always seems happier is that, in a progressive/entropic worldview, it can always be assumed to be simpler, less complicated, easier to navigate. The truth is, that's always an illusion. The present moment, which becomes the past, is always tricky to navigate, a harsh muddle, and kills you in the end.

Arguments contra non-standard syntax, non-standard arrangement, and non-standard grammar are never really about orthography, they're really about non-standard typography.

It's hard not to see such arguments as a rehash of the standard (conservative) neo-formalist argument that "correct grammar and syntax must be used at all times," even in poetry. That's nothing more than a straw-man set up to be easily knocked down. Since poetry isn't prose, non-prose syntax and grammar are not only allowable, but according to some definitions of poetry—for example, "poetry is heightened language, focused and condensed"—in fact poetry should use non-prose syntax, grammar, and arrangement. Poetry is not prose: get over it.

Not that there isn't merit to some aspects of the neo-formalist position, when their arguments are applied to formal, metric verse. But applying those same arguments across the board to all poetry, including vers libre and free verse, or prose-poetry, is problematic in the extreme. It's like applying the rules of badminton to chess: an error in fundamental assumptions about the rules in play.

The moral argument contra my unusually-structured poem, that set this all off, completely misses the point that the poem never attempted to conform to formal, metrical, syntactical standards. That was never in my mind. In fact, the poem depicts olne kind of stream-of-consciousness moving in a free-flow manner.

It is necessary to remember that there is a very important distinction between orthography and typography. They're not the same thing, and conflating them isn't helpful. Orthography means "correct language usage," while typography refers to the presentation of text on the page (or screen). Speaking as a typographer and graphic designer, the presentation of text on the page (or screen), whether transparent or opaque, is a completely separate discussion from any discussion of what the poem means. Orthographers talk about grammar, syntax, and punctuation; typographers talk about legibility. To confuse the two confuses content and meaning with the letterforms used to depict meaning and content.

In that sense, the use of run-on stream-of-consciousness text in the poem is the correct depiction of meaning and content; no orthographic "rules" were broken. The text in that poem was legible and clear, as well.

Unless the real objection to the poem is that it was difficult to read—which is yet another discussion entirely. The argument about whether or not poetry has to be easy to understand, or can be difficult and require some work and thought, is an argument that has nothing to do with either orthography or typography. Don't confuse them.

You can object to my typography and poetic syntax all you want to, but my orthography remains intact. Orthography also refers to more than merely correct punctuation. But again, this seems like another re-hash of a neo-formalist argument against matters of style rather than matters of mere punctuation. The argument chooses to ignore, or outright discard, most of the experiments and innovations in writing that have appeared in the past 150 years in English literature; both Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain said some pithy things about it.

It's hard not to see the argument as really having nothing to do with the actual poem, and everything to do with (the neo-conservative counter-attack against) experimentation, in whatever form the latter takes. Which is of course a perfectly valid argument to make; except of course there are perfectly valid arguments that have been made from other and opposing viewpoints, as well.

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Moralizing vs. Experimentation 2

The next question that came up in the attack on my new poetry was along the lines of: How could I ever expect this sort of poem to be published anywhere in the established print media? i.e. it was doubted that the poem would get anywhere in any edited literary journal.

Well, the first error in that criticism is the assumption that I care to be published in such poetry venues—which tend to be inherently conservative, regardless. The second error was in thinking I would be so stupid as to bother submitting to any venue I already knew would reject the poem; anyone could recognize what a time-waste that would be.

So, pay attention now: the criticism about publishing is quite correct.

The poem under question (which may be found here, titled Kenosis) will very likely never get published in the establish(ment)ed poetry journals such as Poetry, Paris Review, Antioch Review, National Poetry Review, Ploughshares, or Prairie Schooner. (Ignoring for the moment the inherent editorial conservatism of most of these journals; and the implied conservatism of the viewpoint that assumes they're even the best place to publish poems.) I never expected it would. Nor did I ever intend to submit it to them. The assumption that I would even bother to try submitting to those venues is amusing; I'm far more cynical about the poetry publishing mainstream than you could imagine—because I've worked in it, as a typographer, designer, and jack-of-all-publishing skills. I am far more likely to submit an "experimental" poem like to a smaller, less well known journal—one that is fundamentally more open-minded to the unusual and non-mainstream, even to the orthographically unusual. At the same time, since the poem has "meaning" and "content," it's also unlikely to be accepted at any of the "postmodern poetics" journals—but I wasn't planning to submit it there, either.

The third assumption underlying the criticism was that I aspire for this poem to be published—which is not at all certain. But that is not at all why I wrote the poem.

Considering how many times I've stated my personal truth, that I never write for publication, or for a journal (unless directly commissioned), or even with publication in mind, I confess to being frustrated at having to repeat myself yet again:

When I write, I'm not thinking about the "destined future" of what I write—frankly, to me that seems incredibly calculating, and rather arrogant—when I write all I am doing is writing.

It happens in the moment, and it is about the process of creativity in-the-moment. The artistic product that results, be a it a poem or artwork or piece of music, is an entirely different matter. Similarly, revision and editing are entirely different processes from writing, and are processes that I only think about later, not when actually writing. Submitting a poem for publishing is a process taking what I've already written, and trying to find it a good home—not about forcing what I write to match what has already been published, even in the "prestigious" poetry journals. If I do have a philosophical bias with regard ot poetics, that's it in a nutshell.

As to the poem's "future," if it even has one, and assuming I give a damn, the criticism made several unwarranted assumptions not only about poetry in general but about why I write poetry, and what its purpose is in my life—again, one can only surmise that the objection was a moral one, beacuse it consisted of some other poet projecting their own values onto my poem.

If you think about it, that evaluative projection in its essence can be summarized as asking: "why didn't you write this poem more formally"? which can be reduced to: "why didn't you write this poem they way I would have?" or perhaps "why didn't you write this poem in a way like other poems that I like to read, and understand?" To address the last point, which does come at it from a slightly different angle, I might once again quote Jean Cocteau:

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

In other words, "making it easier for the reader" doesn't really have anything to do with the style or orthography of a poem. A complaint about legibility, comprehension, or readability may be a valid complaint, but it will fail the instant one tries to use it as an apparently-objective mask pasted over a personal prejudice.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Moralizing vs. Experimentation

I recently published (posted) a poem that was radical in several ways, not least of which was that it was in a style and "voice" new to me. I myself was surprised by it. Having been through a series of life-changing experiences lately, a lot of the poetry I am writing now is unlike any I've ever done before; it's brand new territory, even to me. I don't claim it's any good, but it is where I am going these days, and I've never seen the like. (I'm sure there must be precursors, although exactly who and what I do not know at the moment.) It is exploratory poetry, unusual, experimental in form and style, often hard to tell where the line (if there is one) between prose and poetry falls, and occasionally uses very non-standard syntax, grammar, and form.

I posted the poem, and it was almost immediately viciously attacked. Not for any issues of content, but primarily because it was in a style and form of writing that was objected to because it didn't fit certain modes of writing familiar to all, that the attacker questioned because it "hard to read."

The objection was essentially a moral one—I will venture that any time anyone uses the word "should" in critical writing about literature, they are essentially moralizing. The objection was, why would I choose to use long unpunctuated lines when standard punctuation and syntax could be used? and why would I "make it hard on the reader" by doing so? Why make the reader "work harder than they need to"? Why not rewrite the poem in a more conventional style, with more conventional punctuation, line-breaks, and grammar? In other words I should completely re-write the poem in a more "acceptable" style; in fact, why didn't I do so to being with.

The objection was raised that sticking to normative orthographic conventions makes it easier on the reader, and the poem is difficult enough as it is. I find this particular objection doubly laughable. I think I can safely say I've internalized the rules of grammar, syntax, and orthography rather well by now—having been at various times in my career a professional proofreader, typographer, book and magazine designer, and almost every other job in the print-publishing industry since the invention of desktop publishing, and before. (In fact, I started with lead type, graduated to film, and got in on DTP before it even went public, nationally.) So, when I choose to break "the rules," you can generally assume it's intentional, and thought out.

The objection was then raised that such an orthographically-challenging poem (the objection was misunderstanding the fundamental difference between orthography and typography) would never get published in any of the mainstream, well-known poetry venues, either the print journals, or the larger online journals. To which my reply was: Why would I want to? Fame and fortune all hardly the poet's lot, no matter where they publish. Doesn't it, rather, make more sense to write what you want to write, then go looking for a good home for the poem? The decision to write to please others, or to tailor what one writes in order to match up with what has previously been published in a particular venue has always seemed to me to be rank pandering, and exactly the wrong reason to write—in poetry; in essay, or in commissioned occasional pieces, matters are different, of course.

What I am is someone who writes what they write, not because of any ideological or intellectual driving force (no manifesto required), not because it's something that I planned or set out to write with the intention of using an experimental style to really piss off the reader, but simply because when I write it sometimes comes out that way. I write to discover as much as to express. Of course, I've long since given up caring that many poets never believe me when I say things like what I am about to say; I gather that it's so far outside their own experience that they can't imagine it. But here's the truth: I never plan a poem. I never plan a poem with an intention to say something. I never set out with an outline or argument clear in mind, or jotted down in notes. I never build a poem like an engineering project—which is one reason I rarely use established forms, but tend to invent anew with each poem. I don't write poems from the head alone. What I do is listen to those inner voices, where creativity emerges, inside, and pay attention to what comes forward. Not everything I write in a poem is a conscious choice. I don't set out to "control" every aspect of the poem, nor would I want to. You don't have to believe me.

Frankly, if I seem to over-state the case for adventure, unconformity, and experimentation in poetry, it's usually an attempt to balance out a huge dearth of all those things in the poetry I am reading, almost everywhere. Most poetry is conformist, even when it doesn't want to be. Most poetry is overly planned out in advance.

I write to discover, and sometimes that means surprising myself, too. Cocteau once said a very wise thing about this: We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar. His point was that, regardless of any ideology or preference we might hold, or what we might believe about our own work, this is simply a psychological truth. Something really new can be as disconcerting to the writer as it might be to any hypothetical reader.

I am not particularly enamored of the avant-garde for its own sake. I do not seek to write to deliberately challenge the reader. I despise puzzle-box poetry, that must be "solved" as if it were a math problem. I have no use for poetry that seems to be obscure just for the sake of being obscure. My intention is not to offend, challenge, or deny the reader access to the poem. If that happens, however, I am not likely to do anything about it: you can't please all of the people all of the time, not even if you write lame pandering doggerel.

I reject ideology driving poetry. Period.

Ideology of any kind, conservative or progressive, avant-garde or reactionary, tame or "experimental."

I am in fact. if you've been paying attention, very critical of much contemporary avant-garde "postmodern poetics," such as Language Poetry—I find most of that, along with the poetry of John Ashbery and Jorie Graham and their ilk, to be vapid and superficial. (I've been working on a long critical essay about LangPo for awhile now; more on that later.) It's like mediocre Chinese takeout: tasty, but you're hungry again in an hour. I am the last person to be taken in by newness for newness' sake—neither am I taken in by form for form's sake, or tradition for tradition's sake, or radicalness for radicalness' sake. They all have their place, and their value. The problem is when any such position ossifies into an ideology or philosophical vice.

It is fair to say, however, that I am generally an aesthetically forward-looking artist, who usually prefers to look at the future rather than the past; on the other hand, since the past has a huge influence on what will become the future, I also read a lot of history, art history, and the history of ideas. I particularly enjoy reading the history of technology, and the history of the arts.

What I am enamored of is quality writing, in whatever genre, style, or content that I find. Period. What I am not is a cheerleader for any given ideology, methodology, practice, or style. All kinds and styles of poetry have merit, and all of them also suck. Great poetry can be found everywhere, and so can bad. Period. That the bad always outnumbers the good is so obvious it hardly needs to be re-stated.

Returning to experimentation, orthography, and so forth, perhaps using a more standard orthography would disrupt the run-on flow of the poem in question, which is one way to represent stream-of-consciousness. Perhaps a century or so of experimentation in non-standard orthography in order to more accurately represent, in typeset text, different states of consciousness was all a mistake, and should all be thrown away? Or perhaps those new developments in orthography should be embraced as possible tools for writing

I'm not saying that all things written in non-standard orthography are good—but then, most sonnets suck, too.

Tools are tools. For this poem in question, this radical style seemed best—truthfully, it just came out that way, and I chose not to change that aspect of its style during revision. Since I strongly believe that the form and style of a text should support, present, enhance, and create a transparent container for the text, I chose this form and style to match the content, in this piece. I make no claims that this was a great poem; it probably will never see the light of day outside of a small circle. But I also made no claims that I desired this poem to be seen outside that circle.

Personally, I don't find it laborious to read unpunctuated text. Then again, I have practice and experience in reading such texts, since I've read a great deal of the avant-garde literature of the past century or so. I also read a lot of other poetry, too. I also write poems in a lot of other styles, too.

As for the pressures of making the reader work a little harder (or just a little harder than he or she might want to, at the moment), I have no problem with "difficult" poetry. Most poets don't, it seems to me—except when they complain about poems in styles they find radically incomprehensible.

Which again seems to be a moral objection rather than a technical or thematic one. I agree that bad orthography can be an impediment to the comprehension of a poem. But what I call "bad" orthography usually refers to a lack of proofreading, bad font choice, or thoughtless layout. (Exemplified by virtually the entirety www.MySpace.com, which has singlehandedly set back visual and type design a good thirty years.) Or, perhaps, I am not challenged by "difficult" orthography to the level that some are, because I have read a great deal more non-mainstream writing than most formalist or mainstream poets do. Or perhaps because I've done a lot of typesetting, and can read most texts even upside-down. The result of long practice, in other words.

But let's get to the moralizing:

it is difficult to disbelieve that the objections that were raised to my provocative, radical poem were raised about the poem's very existence. The attack carried an overt, perhaps unforgivable, tone of righteousness. It did come, after all, from a neo-formalist. Surprised? No, I wasn't either, really.

You have the right to say my poetry sucks. You might even have the right to say that any poem sucks simply because it's hard to read. But you don't have the right to assume that your personal orthographic values are inherently "good," which was the implication, even if they are time-tested and traditional. Being in a large group of people who share the same opinions doesn't guarantee that those opinions are correct, or even useful; that's simply arguing for conformism at its mindless lowest common denominator. I shouldn't even have to mention how mob rule usually ends in tragedy.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

a death in winter

under fresh snow
white flowers bloom anyway—
the days passing

even the Buddha once asked,
what is a natural death?

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Gratitudes 2007

The last several months have contained a real struggle to find anything for which to be grateful. There have been many times when I couldn't find anything to be grateful for, not even one small thing. There have been many times when I have felt picked upon by all the gods, targeted for unrelenting, merciless cruelty; victimized, mired in the muck of life, wounded and unable to heal; even prevented or obstructed from healing, at times, by dramatic outside events, dragged back down into the bucket by the other crabs every time I approached the bucket's lip. There have been many times when I felt as if I was going to break under the weight of events and emotions; and times I felt like I did in fact break, at least for awhile.

It's easy to be grateful at a feast, with tables full of food and conviviality; it can be much harder to find your gratitudes when the table is cold and empty in an empty, dark room. But that's when gratitude really counts. That's when a genuine gratitude, even over something very small, makes all the difference in the world. (If you start small, even if it's very small, maybe you can eventually emerge from the narrow side-canyons into the open air. Maybe if you start small, you can expand.)

With that in mind, here's the mere pittance I can find in my pockets, today.

Thank you for the Undo function in text-editing software, which can salvage many of the operator's more stupid moments. Thank you also for the auto-save function, which has salvaged more than one unexpected crash from oblivion.

Thank you for the Better Button, the Delete key, which when used judiciously and properly, always makes things better. Less is indeed more. Throwing paint at the wall, then scraping off the unnecessary bits, to reveal the finished, Better artwork.

Thank you for the silence I can find in solitude, even when it's lonely rather than contemplative. Thank you for taking away the worst of the inane chatter of the everyday news, before it can get its hooks in and churn you over again, and replacing all that with silence.

Thank you for the generosity of people I know, and those I don't, to each other, to myself, to total strangers. A lot of people have stepped up to the comfort plate on the darkest days of the past year. I haven't always let them in (self-pity can be habit-forming), yet they've kept knocking. There is unspeakable grace in the refusal to turn away from suffering.

There have been times I've been able to be genuinely grateful for the lessons learned from hardship and adversity. There have been times when I could say Thank You for the obstacles, or Thank You for the challenges and hardships and problems, because of the lessons learned from overcoming them, or simply enduring through them. I can't find any of that today, yet I remain grateful for the small bronze statue of Ganesha I found in the cupboard this year while cleaning out my parents' house. Ganesha, god of the crossroads and of travelers, the Remover of Obstacles. Thank you for the obstacles that have been removed, even the ones I didn't know about, because there could have been so many more than there actually were.

Thank you for those mornings, after the worst days under the celestial bludgeon, when after a day when I felt targeted and attacked and almost destroyed, the next morning I awoke into ecstasy. When the world hummed with energy, and everything was right and true.

Thank you for my deepening inability to put any of this into words. (And thank you for the snickering paradox of verbosity in the wake of this inability.)

Thank you for the tears that arise from being filled to overflowing with unnameable joys. Thank you for the weeping from relief and release, this morning, after weeping from sorrow and frustration and fear. Two days in a row of weeping, yet rising up from very different wells.

Even when I am at my darkest, I cannot but look out at the world and see how much beauty it manifests, and that too sometimes breaks me down, brings me to my knees, breaks me open. Breaks me open, as though I had been locked up inside a steel cabinet of my own making. Thank you for the breakings open. Even when I can't take it any more, I can still take it. ("I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on.")

Thank you for this compulsive unending need you've given me to see that manifest beauty and attempt to capture the moment into a photograph, into music, into words—so that I can share it with others, that they can also get joy from those moments. I suppose it's hubris to want everyone to be able to see what I have seen; but paradoxically it's an irresistable desire to share those moments of beauty that seems to arise from transcendence rather than pride. Thank you for the knowledge that I can never actually succeed at trying to convey this to others, and that in the end it will kill me in the attempt, and that it's worth it regardless. Thank you for teaching me that art-making is about giving it all away again. Thank you for teaching me that art-making is last and least about "self-expression." It's Make Art Or Die. It's as necessary as breathing.

Thank you also for those times I've left the camera in the car, and just let the world fill me up, without needing to do anything about it. Like those times along the Oregon coastline, near sunset, in that stand of wind-mangled trees overlooking the pure white strand below. Or those times hiking the bluffs above Devil's Lake in Wisconsin, when I stopped to stand arms outstretched on the highest rocks in the burning light, and let the wind fill me, airing out the entire house of myself, blowing out the dust and dirt in even the tiniest corners.

Thank you for bringing me to my knees to teach me that joy is a substratum that underlies everything else, and never goes away, even if I can't find it today. Even if it is completely shadowed, in the moment, by the darkest times in life. And thank you for the reminder that dark shadows can only exist because there is a bright light source shining nearby. Somewhere.

Thank you for those times of relentless and terrible beauty, in the midst of everything miserable and piteous. Like this morning, with its light snowfall freshening the surface of the heavy snowfall from earlier this week; for the fourth morning in a row, the world is completely black-and-white, except for the cardinals dashing between trees; the sky is luminously overcast, a solid sheet of featureless white; for the fourth morning in a row, the snow on the ground and the cloudy sky are exactly the same shade of white, making everything in between stand out like an etching on an opaque sheet of paper. Thank you for the photos I have been able to take during the height of this series of snowstorms, which are among the best winter photographs I have ever taken; so many of them look like drawings, the world itself teaching me more about graphic design and composition.

Thank you for these reminders of why I do this, what purpose it all has, and that it's okay to strip away the chaff from my life, even if it hurts in the midst of the process of stripping-away. The healing knife of the surgeon, that cuts you open to heal.

Thank you for breaking me, all those times, so that next time I meet someone also broken, I can better identify with their suffering, and just sit and listen to them, rather than do what we all usually do, which is to try to "fix" things that cannot be fixed, and often don't need to be. It has been an education in empathy.

Thank you for getting me from there to here, even when here seems smaller and more constricted than there.

Thank you for the chant that came to me, driving on, after the trailer went over the cliff in New Mexico: I forgive and bless every inch of this road. I forgive and bless every inch of this road. I forgive and bless every inch of this road. . . .

Thank you for the road itself, and I guess thank you after all for the bumps in the road, and the washouts, and the potholes, but most especially thank you for the horizon beyond the road, the open sky ahead, those hills just coming into view: something to keep my eyes on, something to anitcipate, something to look forward to seeing, that I have never seen before, instead of looking at these potholes in the here and now. ("The road goes ever on and on. . . .")

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