Sunday, March 29, 2009

Visionary Artwork 2

Journal Pages

Notes working towards a visionary artwork that can be described, articulated, but not contained. Notes jotted down at white heat, to be expanded later, because you really need to run out the door right now but don't want to lose the thought. Notes that might be presented later as notebook verbatim, perhaps as a poetic journal. (A genre that strongly appeals to me, which I practice by default if not always by conscious intent, with my Road Journal.) Also an artistic journal. A photographer's daybooks; an artist's pages. A logbook of transformations.

Calligraphy of the Body

Many pieces of visionary artwork began from photographs of Mystery: often a little blurry, motion-blur or depth of field, as photographs of Mystery ought to be. Motion blur or camera shake seem appropriate places to start, as Spirit is always in motion, always moving, breathing, dancing. Many names for the Divine are verbs, not nouns: Living is dancing. Or Spirit That Moves In All Things. Or The Breath of God moved across the waters. Or the loom of time is Indra's breath.

It's good to start with something a little mysterious in itself. Something that doesn't give you a quick thumbnail answer or narrative. Something that stops you long enough to be contemplated. It's good when it's a little inexplicable, a little hard to capture. (And harder to capture in words than in images.) Catch it by one wing, but don't try to hold it, don't try to pin it down.

water birds 2

Lines from a poem merged into artwork. I don't remember now if the lines came first, or the image was there, and inspired the lines.

the night goes walking like a bird,
bobbing its head around every flame,
filling the spaces in between with dark, shiny feathers

A single image, a little spare when just words. Add some evocative context: imagery, blur, expressive typography, and something greater than the sum of its parts just might emerge.

One weakness I feel most writers have is that they don't think about presentation: the way things look on the page, the proper use of spacing and placement, the best choice of typeface. In other words, design elements. I've been a graphic designer, a book designer, a layout artist, a printer, and I've designed original typefaces. That puts me in very small minority of writers, most of whom in my experience are conscious of none of these disciplines. I know of few poets who are even aware of design, and fewer among those who have set their hand to it.

There are few poetry presses, even, who have done much with book design or illustration; those that have, such as Copper Canyon Press, stand out from the pack. In their early years, they were a small-budget press in which the publisher often handset the type for a book; I have several of Copper Canyon's old first editions, and they are sensual experiences in themselves. Paper, ink, and typeface choices all made carefully, as complementary aspects of the process of publishing. There was a fondness for Deepdene type in those early editions; it's a strong, classic typeface, very good for poetry setting, not well known now or often used currently. This is the sort of thing poets ought to think about, and rarely do. Ugly presentation does your words no good service.

I've done a lot of commissioned cover artwork and illustration for books, magazines, and music albums, and interestingly a lot of that commissioned work falls into the category of visionary artwork. Some have been pieces that were requested by the artist because they had seen an existing piece of visionary art, which they wanted a version of for their publication; this CD cover was one of those instances. (We're getting into nuts & bolts of the business here, and demystifying the artistic process, I know, but bear with me.) When you're an aspiring visionary artist, you might still need to be a working commercial artist, and this project paid a month's rent at the time. Sometimes I also get to do the typography: I often try to convince the client to let me do the typography, as part of the art itself, as this opens doors into a greater potential to be able to integrate art, concept, and type. Just as in a vision-poem piece, the words become part of the artwork itself.


Follow the blur. Spirit moves too fast for the naked eye to follow. The golden statue at the center of the ring of light, seemingly motionless, is flickering: not moving, or moving so fast, and returning, and moving, that it's too fast to catch, except by the flicker, the blur. The gold streak across the redblue eye of sunset.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Photography As Memory 4

I've been sorting through photographs from the past two years, looking for the best images, to work with, to print, for my fine art photography. Several bodies of work emerge. There's a series from summer 2007, of the people at a beach on Lake Michigan, jumping into the Temperance River above Lake Superior, on the streets of Chicago in July. There's another body of work that is hundreds of last photos of my parents' old house, now sold; not far away from me, still, but I have a record of those last two summers of glorious flowers in Dad's gardens around the house. And there are my own fine art landscape photos; a body of work that is reaching new levels of quality in execution; somme of the best work I've ever done of The Western Lands.

I found myself getting very emotional at times, as I stumbled by accident across the photos of both of my parent's funerals; and more, the photos I took of them on their deathbeds. Then there were the family portraits of all of us with Mom at the Alzheimer's home, her birdlike gaze looking a little confused by willing to be merry nonetheless. As she progressed further into the condition, she became at times happier than I'd known her in many years, smiling more, laughing more, even as words failed. The sorrow of Alzheimer's, the worst suffering, is laid on those who watch the fading, less so on those who fade. These photographs bring up memories that are still too close, still too painful, too intimate, to want to spend much time on. They drain my will to go on with the day.

And then there are photos of family objects, some I've kept, some my sister has kept, some we've passed on to relatives. I've taken lots of photos of objects passed on, to remember them by: for the family history. Even if I no longer physically possess, this is proof of memory.

This is my parents' commemorative wedding plate. I remember hanging on the family room wall in our first home in Ann Arbor. The plate was a gift from our Muskegon relatives. The decorations are in the Norwegian style of wood-painting called rosemaling. I remember also practiced this a little bit when we were younger; I found her old paints and guidebooks when we were cleaning out the house. I don't know who painted this wooden plate; it might have been my grandparents. Or they may have had a family friend make it. My mother's family was 100 pure Norwegian, and her father, who was a master carpenter and builder, had been born in Norway, north of the Arctic Circle. My sister has the plate now. My parents celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary in 2001, and we threw a huge party for them, with lots of food from all the nations important to our family, and with many friends as afternoon guests.

My father's ties. After he died, we divided up his hundreds of neckties. Dad loved ties; he loved wearing them, and making statements with them. It was his kind of sly humor to wear a funny Xmas tie to church, and see if anyone noticed. He had lots of novelty ties, and lots of very loud, attention-getting ties, as well as classic colors and patterns. He also loved paisley. I'm not so into paisley, to be honest, but I kept several of the loudest ties, to wear in memory of Dad, and to carry on his sly "shock value" jokes with his ties. My brother-in-law and I each chose numerous ties to keep—I have some of the funny novelty ties, such as the one with a reproduction of Grant Wood's American Gothic on it—and my sister picked several more ties to make into quilting projects. I family friend made Xmas stockings for us out of some of the ties, and some fabric from Mom's clothing; a living memento turned into new art. That appealed to all of us. I took some photos of the ties as we had them all laid out on the couch to pick through. We kept laughing as we sorted through them, both with funny memories of Dad wearing a tie on some occasion, but also at the sheer number of them. We found more of them in the cedar closet in the basement, too. There may have been 400 ties, in all, or more. I've kept probably 60. We gave many of them away to friends, and then in the end to charities as donations.

I had forgotten that this photo was ever taken. It's of me sitting on the blue couch in the living room, Mom's piano behind me, playing bass unplugged. I was probably doing finger exercises to keep myself limber for an upcoming jazz gig. It's my 5-string Steinberger bass guitar, one of my favorite instruments. The year was probably between 1990 and 1997, when I was living in Madison, WI, 50 miles up the interstate from my parents' home. I was in several bands in Madison during the years I lived there. This photo is probably from a Xmas visit, when I came down for the holidays. I still have both of the blue couches, and the white chairs like the one seen behind me in the photo. I still the bass guitar, too, of course.

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Summer & Winter

A study in contrasts: photographs taken at the same locations, approximately six months apart. Same locations, different seasons. High summer, deep winter. One shirtless weather, the other wool capote weather.

Devil's Lake, WI

One of my personal sacred places. Grandfather boulder near the foot of the Balanced Rock trail. A free-standing quartzite boulder, deep purple-red in color, about the size of a large truck.

Japanese garden, Janesville Rotary Gardens, WI

lotus sleeps under
the pond's black and crusted ice—
dreaming of rebirth

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Things Acquired Along the Way

I had a banner week at the Goodwill retail thrift stores in the region this past week. In two visits I found a whole stack of books of interest. When I was moving, last year, I divested myself of lots of books, knowing that I needed to weed out. I got rid of a lot of things that I didn't need to keep around anymore, that I wasn't going to re-read. But there are always new things a-coming down the pike, new adventures and bits of knowledge as yet unknown and untrammeled.

Sometimes I find a few things on a thrift store visit, sometimes nothing. It's always a treasure hunt, but not always one that brings in something substantial. This week I got lucky though, and hit real paydirt. Forthwith:

Lillian Feder. Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry. (1971) This heavy tome looks at how ancient Greek and Roman myths function in Modern English and American poetry, in the poetry of Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Pound and their followers. It looks to be dense going, but it interests me because I have been reading articles lately that ask a relevant question: The High Modernist poets were so well-read, so allusive in their poetry to ancient myth, so allusive also to their vast knowledge of literature, that they included so much in their poetry, that one must wonder if they went too far. Is one reason that Modern poetry started the trend of poets writing for each other instead of a general audience, which has led to a powerful contemporary disconnect between artist and audience, because they were so insular in their allusions that the audience couldn't keep up with their references? In the case of Pound's Cantos, I've often thought so: those are such twisted and processed references in the Cantos that it's no wonder that one of Pound's influences on later poets was the movement towards the disconnection between sound and sense. I look forward to reading through this from the direction of myth studies, too, in the sense that myths are the stories a culture tells itself about itself; and myths are always living stories in a culture, even though they will change as the culture changes.

James Dickey. Poems 1957-1967. Essentially a Selected & New Poems, this collects his best known early work with a few new poems; including probably his best work, the poems in Buckdancer's Choice. Why would I pick up a poem collection by a poet I don't particularly like? And I don't like Dickey, for the most part; occasionally a brilliant novelist, started out with some excellent poetry, which got worse with time. When Dickey's imagination is engaged, his writing rises from the bestial to the angelic, and transforms the mundane into something archetypal, if not always pretty; but when his imagination seems perfunctory, Dickey's poetry is morbid, flat, and his characters and events are stereotyped. Death is everywhere; it's a major theme throughout the first few poetry books; the poet's voice often speaks of how the dead are more real than the living. It seems to me, and some critics confirm this impression, that as Dickey proceeded, his poems became focused on power and brutality. Almost sadistic at times, jingoistic at others. So why would I want this book in my collection? Because I collect Collected Poems, even of poets I don't like very much; it's for my library, so I have it available if I need to read it or look something up. Call it a reference book purchase. And for a buck at a thrift store, no problem.

Peter Matthiessen. The Snow Leopard. (1978) Actually, I have more than one copy of this excellent book. I've read it several times, over the years; not too long ago, I found a hardcover first edition at another thrift store, and was giddy. This is a spare copy to give away. I do that: buy extra copies of certain favorite books, to give away, to inspire a friend, for the wisdom offered, and the lessons to be learned. I've given away at least 4 or 5 copies of this classic already. Good to have a backup.

P.W. Atkins. Periodic Kingdom: A journey into the land of the chemical elements. (1995) A book on taxonomy and classification, also a bit on the history of the discovery of the chemical elements—which is a fascinating detective adventure in the history of science. I like history of science books, and books on the history of technology; I'm fascinated by the interactions between technology, culture, and how we conceive of reality.

Vincent Mosco. The Digital Sublime: Myth, power, and cyberspace. (2004) Speaking of how we conceive of reality, this speculates on the transformations of culture currently underway in our times. Myths are, again, the stories that lift us out of the mundane and into the sublime, the archetypal. (Sounds like poetry!) There's a bit of history in here, about cyberspace and the Dot.Com collapse, but what interests me is the premise "that if we take what we know about cyberspace and situate it within what we know about culture—specifically the central post-Cold War myths of the end of history, geography, and politics—we will add to our knowledge of the digital world." So there's some history of technology to be studied here, even as it is happening: the creation and change of the myths we live by, even as they are forming and dissolving.

Alistair Cooke. Six Men. (1995) This is just pure pleasure. Cooke's prose is always erudite, clear, full of connections and insights, and no more so than here in these short portraits of sex famous figures that Cooke personally knew, interviewed, or was friends with. My favorite essay is the one on Humphrey Bogart; Cooke met Bogart and his wife Bacall when they were all traveling on the Adlai Stevenson campaign train, and became close friends. This portrait begins with several sublime paragraphs on what's it like to be a reporter assigned to the campaign trail, that is a brilliant set-piece in its own right. Delightful reading, the world in these pages.

William Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury. This is the second Norton Critical Edition, ed. by David Minter. (1994) I've never been a big Faulkner fan. Maybe there's something to the regionalist argument, after all; I'm a Great Lakes native, not a Southerner, or a New Englander, and it's true that I feel more of a connection to Hemingway than I ever did to Faulkner, or F. Scott Fitzgerald (or, at least, the writings that emerged from his milieu). But Norton Critical Editions are always valuable, and can get you involved in understanding and appreciating a work you might otherwise not get into. I always like the critical essays and responses in these editions. Now I look forward to giving this novel another try, with a little help from some (virtual) friends.

Hugh Kenner. The Elsewhere Community. (1998) The theme of this book, actually the scripts for five radio lectures, is travel, its value to the imaginations of Modernist writers, and the excitement it added to their texts. Kenner is no doubt one the foremost critics of Modernist literature, and it shows. He writes of his own visits to Samuel Beckett and William Carlos Williams; he writes of literary meetings such as Eliot's visit to Pound; and he writes of cyberspace, with its new visitation possibilities free of physical limitations, with a created parallel geography. A wonderful series of integrative talks from a very learned voice. I'm also interested in this book because of its connection to my ongoing interest in nomadics, books about travel and being on the road, literary and otherwise.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Visionary Artwork

I've said before how Adobe Photoshop, the software application for visual art and photo editing, when I first started using it, which was around version 1.5, was a tool that freed me up to make the kind of art that I could see in my mind's eye but had not the technical skills with brush or pencil to create by hand. I've said before how Photoshop became for me, as a visual artist, what literacy is for the illiterate: a tool to help me express things that I never could before. I've also made the analogy, perhaps unwisely but sincerely, that before Photoshop I felt handicapped as a visual artist, one who couldn't draw or paint worth a damn, but now was suddenly freed. At last I could make the art in my head, the things I've seen, the visions I've had, and put them out so that other people could see them, too. Photoshop completed a void in my toolbox, and gave me wings.

Fractal Trees

I've always had visions: numinous and liminal experiences; moments of transcendence, filled with Light; moments at times and places where you could see through the veil into another world. Early in my career, I attempted to paint some visions; but the results were mostly symbolic, iconic, not literal illustrations. I've written poems about the visions; I've been open about saying that some of the vision-poems are really just transcriptions, journal-entries of events outside the ordinary. I've frequently been misunderstood, or disbelieved, as often as I've talked about it.

music taking flight

I've always had an inner soundscape that was in my awareness. Jazz composer/trumpeter Lester Bowie once said (paraphrased) that he had a continuous 24-hour inner soundtrack; all he had to do, to make music, was dip in and bring it out into the audible world for awhile, for others to hear. But it was always playing in his head. In Balinese folklore about their gamelan music, there is the belief that music always is going on, as the music of the spheres, on some other plane of existence; all playing gamelan music does is bring that continuous sound into human audible range for awhile. My own experience of music is exactly like that. I always have music playing in my head somewhere, which can be dipped into at any time. It can be annoying, when the song playing is an irritating viral distraction; in which case, I play some other music to replace it with. When I'm improvising, just as Lester Bowie, says, I listen to the inner soundtrack, and pull something out of that to play around with. Few people realize, in parallel to how much of my vision-poetry is recorded experience, how many musical recordings I've released are deep-improvised first takes. There is a small group of improvising musicians who I admire and emulate, who do this sort of thing very, very well: Lester Bowie, of course; David Darling; John Coltrane; Charlie Haden; among others.

Music of the Spheres, from Spiral Dance
(Second Place Award (tie), Juried Religious Art Show, St. Paul, MN, 2004)

So I'm really talking about art, music, and poetry as recordings of continuous inner continuous, which you produce, as an artist, in order to, first, share the experience with others, and second, get it out of your own system. There is a valid element of art-making that is therapeutic for the artist, a venting and purging of inner systems, of getting it out of the body—although not all products of venting and purging should be considered art.


Photoshop allows me to do this with visual art, in ways very parallel to the poetry- and music-making practices I've just described. In truth, an important reason I don't make strong distinctions between artforms, and why I practice crop rotation among them, is because, for me, the process of dipping into the stream of creative force that is always there, always available, feels the same to me no matter what artform I'm working in. In truth, the process of art-making is almost exactly the same, no matter what artform I'm working in. That's why it's easy to pick up another artform when one is lying fallow. That's why I don't believe in writer's block anymore. That's also why I tend to perceive as multi-sensory rather than mono-sensory; multimedia is more evocative of the immersion into life as it is lived, than single-sensory artworks. Not to mention the parallel channels, triggered simultaneously, of synaesthesia.

Angel 2

The process of making visionary art in Photoshop is often improvisatory. I might start with a photo, or scan, or group of images. I might start with a drawing or piece of calligraphy, scan it in, and see what it feels like it wants to be merged with. A lot of visionary art-making is about finding correlations and correspondences, about blending. When I out in the world making photographs, I am not only looking at the world in order to find and make solitary, unitary, complete-in-themselves photographic images. I am also looking for elements that will later be combined with other images to make collages and visionary art. You multitask when you're out making photographs, just as you multitask when browsing magazines at the library, or surfing the internet: you find wonderful things that catch your attention as you pass by them, while your original purpose was to discover something else. Sometimes the most interesting things are found while on the way to looking up other things. So, I will shoot elements as well as finished images. Photoshop allows one to make seamless merges of multiple images; to create new realities out of multiple single frames.

Gateway: Departure

More than once, my visionary Photoshop art has been used for magazine illustration, book cover illustration, and album cover art. I enjoy the occasional commission. I also like the challenge of creating a visionary art piece that illustrates a concept creatively. I don't make a strong distinction between "fine art" and "commercial art," as that boundary has been repeatedly crossed in both directions, with regards to my visionary art.

Raccoon Spirit

One of my most beloved and powerful influences as a visionary artist is photographer Jerry Uelsmann, who began making darkroom photographic visionary collages in the 1960s and 1970s. His work was done by combining multiple negatives into single large prints on the photographic enlarger. I am in awe of Uelsmann's painstaking care and attention to detail in his work. What I can do in Photoshop he has done with photographic negatives. If this were just a technical trick, it would still be of note; but in fact, Uelsmann's art is sublime, liminal, and beautiful in deep ways, his images arising from the collective unconscious, from dreams and visions, to be seen in the light of day. There are connections in his pieces to those same realms of dream and mystery that have been mined by photographers Duane Michals and Arthur Tress. But Uelsmann is even more pre-verbal, more purely visual, operating in mysterious realms not where words fail us, but where words have not yet even arisen.


Another beloved and powerful influence on my visionary art is painter Alex Grey. He discusses his history and goals in his book The Mission of Art, which is also a mission statement. Grey speaks directly to artists like myself, who aspire to do something beyond "personal expression," when he writes: It is your responsibility to find the ways your visions can positively influence individuals and your culture. . . . The mere process of fixing imagery onto surfaces or forms does not ensure spiritual development. It is the intention and awareness from which artists create that determine whether their work will serve mammon, ego or spirit. Intention and awareness are core elements, even core values, for visionary art.


What I get from these influences is not direct imitation of their styles or concepts, although it's hard to avoid following in Uelsmann's explicit footsteps, but rather: permission. Permission and validation to explore where my inner eye goes in my artwork. Affirmation that I am not alone in either the visionary art that I want to make, or in my reasons for making it. Affirmation and validation that this is not a personal project, a dead-end bit of solipsism, but rather is linked to a global art movement that is much bigger than myself. Permission to be hopeful, honest, and uncynical in my art-making, contrary to the fashions and trends of the irony-entrenched and cynical artistic mainstream of the day. Validation that doing what I want to do, as a visual artist, is worth doing.

crow dance

When I start to do a Photoshop piece of visionary art, I often don't know where I'm going. I could discuss the technical steps for visionary art-making in Photoshop; and perhaps I will, later. Improvisation is part of the process, but so is exploration. It's deep play. Far too many artists get hung up on the notion that "intention" equals "control," when in fact the intention with which visionary art is made is to give up control to some aspect of Self or Mystery that is greater than the ego or mammon, but rather serves Spirit. "Channel" has become a discredited, unfashionable word; but how then are we to describe this feeling of stepping aside so that Something greater than the known little-self can step in and direct? How to put into words this sense of not-being-in-charge of the process, but excited as anyone to see how it all comes out? A lot of artists feel they must dominate, control, or tame this flowing part of themselves: put it subject to will and mastery, require it to turn itself on and off like a light-switch at their command. This will-driven paradigm for making art doesn't work for me; it doesn't describe at all the process that I feel a part of. The Taoist sages have much better ways of describing the artistic process: Water is of all things most yielding, yet it can wear down the hardest places to nothing. . . .

paths, prints

Now that I am taking up brush and pencil, as if for the first time, and teaching myself to draw, I find myself combining that art into the digital art-making process as well. A photograph of a drawing can become an element in a larger visionary piece. Japanese brush calligraphy and enso have already worked themselves into new pieces. The process of convergence of all the various artforms I work in, converging towards unity, is continuous and ongoing. No doubt carrying synthesis, synergy and synaesthesia to as-yet-unarticulated realms of being. I don't expect the journey to end anytime soon. This is the process of making new maps of still-uncharted territory, of going up the mountain to see what's there, of the discovery of what is not yet manifest.


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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wish You Were Here?

images from Florida, July 2008

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

water & light

Whitefish Bay, Lake Superior, MI

placid cold water
reflect dim northern light:
autumn Whitefish shores

Whitefish Bay, Lake Superior, MI

Lake Michigan, Manistique, MI

Restless in early spring, nothing yet emerged from flower beds or under the juniper. Tepid warmth not enough for lounging in the afternoon, still too cool for travel. Monks stay in their cells, cool dew musking the air from walls carved into living rock. Melte makes the trickle a water cascade down cliffs each spring, then dessicates by autumn's late heat. The time of cicadas a long way off, still. The time for woolen robes still too close. Cabins fevered by agitated dreams, short nights full of tossed blankets and rumpled sheets.

Lake Michigan, near Cedar River, MI

We want to go, go, get out, go, power over the next hill, see the next rise looming before being crested, walking faster in the cool morning, calves cramped each dusk, till the rhythm takes over, the rhythm of running, of speech before the empty quarters, the sky widening till it covers everything, till it corners us by rain-washed groves and grottoes. Too soon to go, we want to go, go, go now, leave now, leave everything behind, just to go, the religion of pilgrimage and journey-bread, set out in haste, return in sated sorrow. Too soon to want to go, go, still want to go, leave now, go, and return again only late in the year, in the first real snowfall's embrace.

Lake Superior, Upper Peninsula, MI

taunted by warm winds
of mid-March, the mendicant
longs for summer's road

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Winter's Lingering Silences


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Canyon Notes

towards a typology of light

    red river run
    up valley's green morning—
    canyon wren song

time bottles in cones
of light coruscating down
sandstone walls at dawn

    green light in blue
    valleys hanging high above—
    Yosemite dawn

column reach into sunlight
unnamed shades a million rusts
unexplained blue of sky
impossible silver-green of
canyonlight reflecting on the river's riffles
in shaded pools, canyon walls
blasting gold light down to reflect
on the water's silver

black masks of low overhanging cottonwood boughs
cut-outs against blue silver light
impossible aspen alight with soul's fire

speculation of wrens in branchends of fir
convocation of stars sounding black sleep
intervals of silencing run of whitewater over stone
intrusive air in slot canyon molded solid burn
gold to orange to rust to red to tan to brown to darkened

edge of cloud slice this mountainheart open to reveal canyon
a sliver of light intrudes into belly of stone
outreached peninsula turtle back of stripped sandstone

    brightsun the green river
    valley waves of stone and flow—
    Utah late summer skyblast


tenement rain

shadows fall on the railing
light streams water
reflecting greengold on black iron
eyes in the windows, two dark, turning
windowpane sheen

ice glass waterlight fall into plane of fire
fall of light across glass
fire of fire fires praise


Monday, March 16, 2009

The Ideology of Critique 5: Categorical Division

Continuing along the path of my increasing lack of interest in attempts to categorically separate "poetry" and "prose," I find myself writing out small pieces of "creative writing" the way they seem to want to come out. Sometimes lineated and enjambed, sometimes not. Sometimes going back and forth. Following the breath, following the brush, following the pen, or those quiet inner voices. This blurring of boundaries is nothing new. Haibun is a form I've worked in long enough that it feels natural now, a way of breathing the work rather than imposing my intentions on it; haibun practice was one root of this lack of division. (For those not yet clued in, haibun is a Japanese poetic form in which densely-poetic prose sections alternate with haiku; prose and poetry are mixed; it's sometimes very similar to Western poetry's prose-poems, but is in fact an older form.)

I've gone back this past month to handwriting thoughts in journal books, those same blank-paged books I use for sketching, drawing, journaling when I have no typewritten access to tools, doing little calligraphic haiga, or enso. It's all one book with many kinds of art and writing in it, sharing space, going back and forth. If you were to open any volume of the handwritten journal I've kept for the last almost-thirty years, you'd see similar blurs. Most of my poetry used to start in the journals, first drafts at least, and only later be transcribed into the computer. I went back to handwriting partly because my laptop's hard-drive died a month ago, and the restoration has been difficult, leaving me with the almost-certain loss of a month's worth of work. (Don't lecture me about backing your data up: I've given the lecture enough times, I know it's every trope and judgment. The problem is, sometimes you begin to trust too much.) So handwriting has paradoxically come to seem more permanent than print, of late.

Perhaps you can see why the boundaries between prose and poetry blur, when other boundaries, such as those between writing and art, also blur. My journal has always moved between many artforms with no need to separate them. The truth is, I'm not interested in keeping things separated; I suppose I never was, really, but I tried to have maintain clear divisions for many years, mostly because other artists seemed to think one is supposed to. I bought into the ideology of categorical division, knowing no better; as a young artist very few of my teachers broke away from the party line. Now I think it's all illusion, those divisions all a waste of time. They might exist, or they might not; the point is not to waste a lot of time on them, but to get back to writing. Do the work, sort it out later. Or don't bother.

Academic scholasticism, at its philosophically reductionist worst, tends to get itself tied into knots over how many angels can dance on the head of pin. Is this really a poem? Is this prose poetic prose or no-style prose. Academic poetry and criticism tend to get similarly lost in the details, and lose oversight. Does it matter how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? and what kind of pin? Nail the world to the coffin of ideas; it won't matter to the world.

So what do I call this writing, this new writing I seem to find myself doing. Which again is changing, going in directions I never imagined or predicted. I do not feel at all in control of this. I feel like it's a struggle just to get the words to stop dancing long enough to find an image that lingers. Trying to get a poem down, lately, feels like trying to nail mist to wood: killing living butterflies by pinning them, in flight, to the page. They keep trying to get away. Getting to the end of a line is taking a lot longer than it used to, as I have to chase and follow, and nothing falls easily to the paper.

Does it need a name, an -ism? Aren't we always, in the grand tradition of the avant-garde, supposed to publish A Manifesto? Aren't we supposed to announce what we're doing? Tell the whole world we've invented the newest, shiniest toaster? Aren't we supposed to pretend we know what we're doing, as if it was all planned, and we weren't stumbling around by accident and chance and the luck, making it up as we go? As if we had a big overall plan?

No. Manifestoes only make sense when they're descriptive of what people are already doing, rather than what they intend to do. Most art made by fiat, by plan, by theoretical intention, is dry as dust at best, and excruciatingly horrid at worst. Art that is too well planned tends to fail as art. It might be a good etude, an interesting example of manifesto art, or political art, or otherwise "meaningful" art. But as art, on the merits of art, it often can't stand on its own two feet. This is not exactly a news flash, of course. Too many artistic "movements," too many -isms, suffer from manifestoitis. This has only gotten worse as a professional poetry class has ensconced itself in academia, and come to dominate the discourse. There are progressive voices within this chorus, but they are largely outshouted by those who find that once they have power over other's minds, they like it and want to keep it, and tend to become conservative in both opinion and relationship. Don't be fooled: even most of the current self-proclaimed post-avant-garde (All Avant Garde All The Time! Just Find Us a Straw-Man To Rebel Against!) are intellectually conservative, no matter what their art looks like. You won't see a lot of fresh innovation coming from those directions; although you will see a lot of retreaded ideas from previous avant-garde -isms.

Call these newest poem-like substances that fall out of my notebooks something, not as an -ism, but just as a convenient folder label in which to container them. Call them, for no better reason than that I need a folder to gather things in, Field Notes. Field Notes is a good name for something open-ended, provisional, notational, and, as far as it can be, effable. Random bits of conversation, artwork, and observation falling out from the between the loose pages of an explorer's notebook. Call them scattered leaflets and trash strewn in wake of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery (two hundred years ago in time, right now in spirit). Corpses falling off the back of the corpse-wagon. Leaves in the wind.

I'm discovering that I don't know when one of these pieces is done. It doesn't end on its own. It just stops. I'm not a poet who believes you can force an ending; it has to emerge out of the material, it can't be contrived. When you paste an ending on a bit of stream-of-consciousness writing, the paint colors never match, you can always tell it's an add-on. The parallels between neo-formalism in poetry and neo-conservatism in politics are obvious: both would like to stuff certain cats back into certain bags. But everyone knows how impossible it is to herd cats. Literary criticism that seeks to restore some essentialist value-set, or return to some set of values once held and know evolved beyond, is reactionary. There's nothing wrong with being conservative in one's opinions; but if you proclaim your New Dogma from the highest hills and don't convince anyone of your rightness, don't complain about it. Reserve judgment.

I'm stumbling around here trying to articulate three things about whatever it is I'm writing right now: I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know if it's any good. Trying to figure out if it's any good is a lot less important than continuing to do it.

So I'm going to just keep making the stuff. After that, we'll see. I will continue to contemplate it: to contemplate the act of Making, as well as what has been made, or is being made; and not only by my own small self.

And I'm not going to label it for you. You can do that for yourself. If you think it's poetry, or a prose-poem, or a bit of poetic prose, or something else, bully for you.

I've given up all notions of participation in the various literary-critical forums I once participated in: they have, without exception, proven themselves to be more about the personalities than about the writing. Life's too short to want to wade into other peoples' various kinds of drama. I left those communities because they were never more than virtual, or pseudo. I read around, I scan a lot of material, trying to find some critic with generally new and revealing ideas about literature, and I find a lot of parrots. I find a lot of very well-read, very articulate conservatives whose tastes in fiction, for example, are locked into linear narrative, into polished grammatical prose, and who post lists of Great Books that they love—meaning, that they think everyone else should love them, too, or at least they should read them.

"Should" is a very coercive word. It's a word that says "I know better than you, so you had better listen to my advice." It's an arrogant word. It's a word that claims authority. It's not that authority is bad, it's that claims to it must remain provisional lest they inflate themselves into absurdity.

But there's nothing you can say to impermeable arrogance, the variety that knows best, and knows best for you. Some critics try to demure, saying, well, this is only my taste, my opinion, judge for yourself. But that's usually disingenuous; there remains a whiff of sulfurous judgment in the air. You know they still think you ought to agree with them.

I have met folk who genuinely didn't want to impose their views on others. They do exist. They are often genuinely humble people—not falsely humble, and not humiliated. They tend to be self-contained while being open to experience. They keep their centers even as they are open to acting in the world. They state their truth, but they don't impose: they say what they mean to say, and let go of the outcome. Which was always up to others, anyway. They are truthful speakers.

There are a very few critics who fit this mold. Some of them are wise as well as educated and smart. They often don't stand out from the pack, and become famous. That's because there isn't an axe to grind, an ideology to be imposed, or a set of moral values driving their critical opinions. They are open to whatever they see. They report back from the frontiers of truth.

And I've noticed that for the most part they don't try to set fences around art, or break it up into categories, or create false critical divisions merely for the sake of egoistic rhetorical posturing. "Is it a poem?" becomes a less important question than "Is it a good bit of writing?" If they can do it, so can the rest of us. So Mote It Be.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sky Windows

rip down the sky tear
strip shred the setting of
night dominion fall to
frozen lake sheet ice

lightning sky rip to pulldown mirror
inset scrape elbows wet holding head low
to brunt and berm
will     terrain     err

as windows move along the edge of the sky
your arms in air and fade of cloud
to float in mind in outer mind make mainsail
soar across night's deeper sea


Friday, March 13, 2009

India In Me

a Spiral Dance essay

There's no doubt that spending my earliest childhood in southern India was a life-shaping experience. All my earliest memories are of India, the land, the smells, the warm tropical nights, the monsoon. Each time I've returned to the tropics as an adult, these earliest childhood impressions surge up again. When I lived and studied in Java, Indonesia, on a Fulbright grant to study gamelan music as a composer, I had many flashbacks and memories come up. It's fascinating how much memory is tied to smells. The smell of rotting fruit under a tree by the side of the house. The smell of enormous, sensual, sexual tropical flowers in all their glory, and the scents being carried more powerfully when the air is heavy with humidity. Whenever I visit a tropical room in a conservatory here in the Upper Midwest, that rooting-vegetation smell, sometimes like old bananas, sometimes like eucalyptus mixed with fig and freshly-turned humus, takes me back. My friends might turn up their noses, but to me it's a scent of home.

When my family returned to the USA, when I was almost seven years old, returning to the Upper Midwest, to the Great Lakes state, Michigan, where I was born if not familiar to me in any memory yet, it was a shock to the system. I was beyond disoriented. It spun me into a shock so profound that I felt both numb and frozen. For one thing, it was cold here all the time, even in late summer. My body still prefers langorous tropical warmth to winter's bitter cold, and luxuriates whenever I can have a sauna or spend sunbathe shirtless or nude on beach sand or granite boulders on a hot late-summer afternoon. I spent my remaining childhood and young adult years, living in Ann Arbor, on the northeast edge of town, going wild each summer, riding my bicycle everywhere, wearing as little clothing as one could get away with, almost always shirtless, tanning each year by summer's end to penny-brown. We're a family of redheads, but I was a strawberry-blond thanks to my mother's Norski side of the family, and I could tan while my sister never could, but just burned. I gloried in the summer heat. People who don't live here often don't realize that, while the Upper Midwest can get terrifyingly cold in midwinter, it can also get very hot in summer. In northernmost Minnesota, some years there can be a 140 degree temperature swing between that week every July or August when the thermometer climbs to the triple digits, and every January when it can sink to 40 below. I've always felt most alive in the heat, most comfortable in my skin. My bad knees stop clicking when I climb stairs. The sweat rolls down your ribs and thighs like baptism.

When we returned to the USA, it was a return to a country, a land I didn't remember. My parents told me we were going "home," but it was to a home of which I had neither memory nor knowledge. A place I felt no connection to. I often still feel like a visitor rather than a native. In fact I've spent more of my life overseas than the average American, much more. That shapes both perspective and attitude.

How do you separate out what's innate and what's environmental? Was I already a shy boy when I was first thrust into the American public school system, finding it hard to make friends, wanting only to be liked but too self-conscious to be self-confident and secure? Or did I become shy because I felt so alien? Nature or nurture? What makes you that way? I know that I was already socialized to converse with adults by that age, as I had no nearby friends my own age in India; we saw each other only rarely. I remember that I was always more comfortable talking to adults than to my age-mates, a feeling that endured into my twenties. Was I already an introvert? Probably. Making friends was doubly hard because I was dropped suddenly into this alien and unknown context, and had to figure out how to adapt on my own. What I loved about school was learning new things on a daily basis; I was a knowledge sponge, absorbing everything as fast as I could. What I hated about school was the people I had to interact with, many of whom I couldn't figure out how to trust.

Imagine, if you will: You're approaching seven years old. You've never in your life seen a television set before, much less watched TV. You've never heard pop songs on commercial radio before. Your parents are both musical, your mother professionally trained in classical music, your father a gifted amateur who's an opera buff; so you've heard mostly classical music and opera on the antique wind-up Victrola record player, usually during and after dinner. Pop music? What's that? You've also been to both Hindu and Muslim weddings, and heard the music associated with those. Otherwise, it was the wheezy pump organ in the church, or the occasional piano. You have nothing in common with your so-called peers in your age category. Not even your language, since you grew up in a relic of the British Empire, surrounded mostly by Canadians and Brits and Indians; you vocabulary is Anglo-Indian, and you drink tea. Soft drinks were a marvel, a world of nose-tickling fizz never before explored. You played tennis on the neighborhood courts in India, when the family was in the hill country, but you've never seen a baseball or basketball before. You love to swim, and love to be in water, but you're otherwise not much interested in sports. It's not that you're not athletic, but that there isn't much common ground. How can you take seriously a game like football where the ball doesn't even bounce properly? Boxing still seems too vulgar to call sport. You're pretty good at volleyball, though. Still. What do you do? How do you cope? Who do you make friends with? Who can you talk to who can understand you, really? Shared experience in relationship is the root of empathy. How do you learn to empathize with aliens who have no idea what you're talking about? Add to all this the teachers quickly singling you out as being one of the brightest kids in their classrooms. No wonder you got beat up and bullied for so many years. Being the teacher's pet was only part of it. School was a glorious trauma for years. The bullying didn't really cease until high school, when for reasons unknown the captains of the high school football team decided that they liked me and suddenly I was under their full protection. I even got invited to the popular crowd's parties a few times, for the first time ever.

Just to be clear, earlier in life this became a spiritual wound, something that forced me to go deeper inside and explore my own experience and inner landscape to find touchstones, when none were provided in the outer world. It was a deep wound, and long an inarticulate one. I still don't really believe that most of my friends can really understand this aspect of myself, so I don't talk about it often. It was a wound. It's not so much of a wound anymore, though. A great deal of it has been healed. And that healing came via self-understanding, by that soulful spelunking that was also necessary refuge. There's always more to discover, of course. Only a fool thinks he knows himself completely. Just to be clear, it's a wound that no longer dominates, that marked me but which I learned from, and which I learned to overcome. There's a scar there, not a seeping sore. I do still sometimes get stuck in acceptance: in wanting to be loved, even in situations in which that desire is foolish. I catch myself at it far sooner than I used to, and do it differently now, after catching myself; that is most of what I can say.

So I've never really felt like a born and bred American. I've always felt a little alien and disconnected to the social structures of the USA. Some of them I like and have grown to align myself with. Others I can only approach as if they were alien microbes viewed under a microscope. I often feel like an immigrant rather than a native. Often I feel a lot of empathy for immigrants, for refugees, for displaced persons, many of whom have survived far harsher circumstances than you or I could ever comprehend. I feel like an outsider in my own land; as I once formulated it for an academic paper on ethnomusicology, an insider/outsider, one with a foot in either perspective, always walking that borderline without ever feeling completely in either camp.

The land of North America itself, though, I immediately connected to. The land itself is what keeps me here, connected and rooted to its beauty and power. The land keeps me alive, and nourishes me in ways other powers rarely do. The land of the Great Lakes region speaks to me as if indeed it were my home. Those times I can best listen, I feel at home here. Just as the mountains of Wyoming and the Southwest also speak of a certain kind of home to me; as does the Pacific Ocean, whenever I am near it. The Pacific and the Indian Ocean are not separate, and I can stand on the shores of California and feel my way across the long water to those beaches near Madras, and north, where I played as a child. I have photos of myself surfing in quiet shallow waters on the east coast of the Indian peninsula; had we stayed near an ocean, rather than the Great Lakes, when I was a child, I might have continued surfing. When the tsunami struck Madras in 2004, it was doubly wrenching for my family because that was our part of India, the part we knew well; some of those beaches were ones we had explored.

And I carry India in me still. My experience of India, which is not a native Indian's, but that of a long-term visitor. Still, children arrive with no preconceptions. They have to be taught their prejudices. Hatred is not innate, no matter what else is, even fear. So children can feel at home even where they know they're not, and where their parents are clear foreigners. How much can a child go native? I don't know; but I suspect more than most adults imagine.

I have an affinity for the Hindu gods of southern India. I feel at times closer to Shiva or Ganesh than I do to any of the Christian saints or symbols. I'd have to call myself a post-Christian: raised in a Protestant faith, a rather intellectual one to be honest, but not attached to either the institution or how it shapes the liturgy. I feel closer to the bhakti poets with their songs to the Lord of the Meeting Waters than I do to gospel music; while I view "contemporary Christian" pop/rock as a chasm of contradictions. (A heavy metal handbanger song about Jesus as your personal savior? It makes one's head spin.) I'm more drawn to individualistic spiritual explorers than to mass worship of any kind; more drawn to monks and mystics than mega-churches. I carry an image of Ganesh in my truck, in his role as Lord of the Crossroads and Remover of Obstacles. The truck feels naked without Ganesha's soothing presence on board. I have a personal altar in my living room, which has both Russian icons of the Sacred Heart, meditating Buddhas, and a large statue of Shiva Nataraj, the Lord of the Dance.

What's the thread that ties all this together? I'm being too revealing in even mentioning any of this, but I've come to believe that it's part of India in me: an eclecticism and open-armed approach to faith that is experiential rather than dogmatic. If you consult the historians and anthropologists you come away with the impression that India is a muddle of thousands of local gods, each expressing something larger behind their local face-masks. Hinduism is decentralized and both regional and local. There is no One Abiding Creed, one set of ultimate truths that everyone can agree to. It's a collection of accumulated local faiths that grew and merged, and overlapped somewhat while still remaining local and personal, both small and large at the same time. Some theologians would no doubt argue with this impression, but in practice it holds a great deal of truth. Different versions of the same gods, arising in infinitely varied manifestations, scatter the landscape.

In the continental USA, I feel many local gods in many places. Some places have a strong spirit to them. A mountain seems to look back at you, when you contemplate it. The bluffs above a glacial lake seem charged with electricity. Viewing the sunset from a natural stone bench above the ocean, trying to catch the green flash, is charged with portent and meaning. How is this different than the Japanese Shinto sense of the kami, the gods and spirits that inhabit specific sacred locations? How is this different from the Native American sense of gods in the landscape, a common thread to several tribal nations no matter what else they might differ on?

This feeling, this universal human instinct to perceive and protect what is sacred in one's own backyard, is a thread that runs through every faith, even the big organized institutional religions; the local spirits might be frowned upon, or they might be acknowledged by being re-labeled as saints or angels. The action of spirit is always personal and local, specific and universal simultaneously. God is a verb. In "religions" which are more sets of gathered myths and traditions than anything formalized and dogmatic and centrally-controlled, this awareness is simply more overt and obvious. It's at the surface of faith, rather than concealed behind a mask of conformity. The individualism of Native American spiritual traditions has become rather well-known; choice and vision are closer to the surface of social awareness. This kind of spiritual practice, local and personal, is why I often joke that I prefer dis-organized religions to those well-organized. Many of the re-invented, or re-discovered, neo-pagan faiths such as Wicca show this style as well. Although one does note that many Catholics converted to Wicca still tend to prefer high-church organized, formal and dramatized rituals over spontaneous kitchen-witch private magick. Perhaps it's all what one grows up with, that sets those preferences. If you're a kitchen-witch in spiritual preference, are you also one in the kitchen, and in your creative work? You see how all this might tie together, more products of personality and early experience than we often care to realize?

Is my worldview more inclined to see the local spirits this way, because of my childhood in India? It seems possible. I do believe it's true that my experience opened up in me the awareness of its possibility. And travel does broaden one's perspective, a cliché that is true at its core. Most people I've met who've traveled extensively do have a different perspective on life than those who never leave their local gods behind. I don't claim to have been specially enlightened by my travels—and yet, there is a difference. Perhaps it's an simple as having more images under one's belt with which to make synergies and comparisons.

And India was where I had my first visionary experiences. I can remember several numinous and liminal experiences that starting ringing through my life as a child. I was probably five when they started to happen; but perhaps they had always happened, and I wasn't sentient enough, as young children are not, till age five to be able to remember them now. I sometimes tell people now that I was five when I first started seeing angels, because it gives them a word whose context and frame of reference they can comprehend; but in fact I don't think of it as seeing angels, or seeing dead people, or whatever, but of having encounters with the local spirits and local gods.

"Vision" is a misleading word because a visionary experience is full-sensory, somatic, spine-tingling, often incredibly sensual, and involves your whole body, your whole spirit, your whole being. It's not an intellectual "Aha!" nor some safely-distanced sight-experience like watching a movie on a big screen twenty feet away from your nose. You're inside it, not looking at it from a safe distance. Rilke wrote Every angel is terrifying and he was absolutely accurate; he also wrote Beauty is but the beginning of terror, and this too is also accurate; although it is often misunderstood as fear of personal (ego) annihilation, although in fact what one most fears is one's inability to share one's experience with others without being completely misunderstood. There's a reason many mystics can't talk about what they've experienced: this is one arena in which words fail utterly. Poets' biases about the power of language aside, even the old Celtic bards knew that there were things they had no adequate word-horde to convey. After beating your head against the stubborn wall of incomprehension for awhile, some decide to stop; and they simply go silent. Not me, though, in my willful and arrogant desire to share; I can't seem to shut up, struggle as I constantly do with the inadequacy of saying anything at all. Why? Because I've seen the look in the eyes of the silent ones, that look haunted with light rather than shadow, that you'd miss unless you've shared the numinous experience of being immolated by the Light. Someone needs to talk about it, for those who can't or won't.

I was trained early in science. I tend to take an experimental and experiential approach to spiritual belief. I base what I know on what I've experienced. I don't accept a lot of received wisdom, and what I do accept I test first against my own cosmology and experience. It's a mystic's way, a shaman's way, a practical way. A way in which spiritual technology lives side by side with Mystery, in which Mystery is accepted rather than denied or attacked. Any faith that gives you all the answers, or tries to, should be looked upon with distrust. Everything is always provisional, and Mystery will always envelop the rest of life.

I was a boy in India when I first started having visions. My first connections to the natural world; hearing the rocks thinking; seeing presences that no one else could see. In India, the world started to open up around in me in ways beyond understanding, expanding and enveloping my small life in something very large and powerful.

I remember one afternoon, when I was supposed to be napping in my room, I snuck out of the house and went over to the laundry area—cement basins and tubs and wash areas, where the servants for all the houses in the compound washed clothes and linens. It was a hot, humid Indian afternoon in the dry season. I snuck into the tubs, there was still a little water dampening the stones, and I took off all my clothes, just to feel the heat of the day on my skin. It was sensual, hot in the air, the stone cooler under my backside. I was blasted with light. I gradually felt overcome with and enveloped by bright white Light. Time seemed to stop. All the sounds around me seemed to recede into the far distance. The Light became everything. I felt tingles of energy all through my body, and I felt everything on my skin, the air, the sunlight, the cool damp stone under me. And in the growing silence, which seemed to last a very long time, I felt something like a smile standing behind the Light. It lingered a long time, then everything faded away back to normal. I sat there flushed, feeling very tired and still. Eventually I put my clothes back on and snuck back into the house, went back and laid on my bed and eventually had a genuine nap. Very little clock time had passed. This happened when I was about five years old.

I remember walking down an aisle of stone statues carved from huge blocks of living rock, a sacred aisle behind the temple of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, in southern India. Many of the statues were carved from boulders and cliffs already there. Life-size statues of elephants strolled down the aisle, in between miniature temples, palm trees, and more. It was dusk. I ran ahead of my parents and our Indian guide, ran down the aisle to tis end then turned to look back and waved. For a moment the light seemed dark and dense, and I couldn't see or hear anyone else; as if they had all gone down another path, and I seemed to be alone. In the purple light of dusk, just after sunset, the elephants seemed to come to life, and walk forward. The carvings were so life-like already, this wasn't much of a leap. Nonetheless they seemed to stride towards me. Then I blinked and the vision was gone, my parents were there again in the aisle, several yards away, and sounds returned, and the light of dusk returned to blue rather than purple. I was probably about 6 years old when this happened.

In India, as a boy, I began having visions. They followed me, and stayed with me. I soon began to realize I was experiencing things other people weren't. They weren't dangerous, and no harm was ever done. It was always full-sensory, often sensual, somatic, kinesthetic, smells, tastes, and hearing—never just sight. Things altered to something else, then returned to normative. There were other events. The common thread that has run through them all, throughout my life, is the experience of overpowering, actinic Light. And silence, in some form or another.

When my family came back to the US, all of this came with me. I was put in public school, and I learned how to learn, always teaching myself more than the classroom alone intended. I learned to discover and research on my own. If something interested me, I pursued it as far as I could. In middle school, I began to read about comparative religion, looking to understand the visions, to find some context for them. To try to understand what was happening, who I might be. That course of study eventually lead me towards panentheism, towards the earth-based spiritualities and faiths, towards shamanism, towards affirmation rather than rationalization. And I begin to think, now, that this is India in me: a cluster of local gods, both immanent and transcendent, both particular and universal, local yet omnipresent. Principles rather than persons. Presences and powers and principalities, very much engaged and alive and active, not distant and removed. No wind-up universes set in motion by some absconded clockmaker. In India, I remember seeing temple festivals and ceremonies in which people were fully engaged, fully participant. Neither abstract nor discorporate, but somatic, direct, personal, touching. Moving, as Spirit moves in all things.

Mysticism has been defined as direct experience of the Divine, without mediation or the frames of received dogma. Mysticism has been described as the core experience of all great religions; the institutional structures are what are local and specific and culturally-bound, while the experience itself is a universal human birthright. Its tropes and patterns and concepts appear everywhere, over and over again. Did India make me a mystic, or would I have had visions at that young age no matter where I was? Nature or nurture? What I do believe is that my childhood in India opened that door to awareness earlier in my life than might have happened elsewhere. It provided a context and framework that intellectual Protestant faiths do not. It may have made me more open, more aware, more available to that Light. In India, a Light breaking through was likely to happen anywhere, anytime. The very land is infused with millennia of sacred action, sacred music and dance, temple worship. The air and ground are so alive.

So, nature or nurture? I'm not sure it matters. Still I carry India in me, an open and inviting door. I carry those many local gods around in me, as Masks of God, presences felt and familiar. The memories last beyond time and place, and connect as one this land I live on with that land I once lived on. I see the same forces everywhere I go, the same patterns and powers. What is universal is very particular, and what is very specific to this place partakes of what empowers that other place. It's the oneness that is made up of the many. The many emanations that arise from the One.

(Previous Spiral Dance essays can be found here.)

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Inventing Dinner

I'm the type of kitchen-witch cook that rarely plans out a huge and complex meal to make and serve. I do love cooking for friends, hosting dinner parties, creating a convivial atmosphere for talk and laughter. I like a good glass of wine with dinner, and my tastes in wine incline towards two regions: Tuscany in Italy, especially the Orvieto special district; and the Paso Robles district in central California, which to my taste produces much more interesting wines than Napa Valley, the most well-known wine region in California.

I do like to cook the occasional elaborate, complex meal, following a complicated recipe, as a complete dining experience. Sometimes hosting a dinner party is an excuse to make a more elaborate meal, just for fun; the occasion is an excuse to celebrate life in all its sensual aspects. I make a Thanksgiving turkey, compleat with all the trimmings and home-made mashed potatoes and drippings gravy, that folks tell me is pretty sublime. But a lot of the time I like to invent dinner on the spot.

Invention. I look to see what ingredients I've got lying about, I look in the fridge to see what's there, what might be left over from some previous meal preparation. I check out what I might have lying about that I haven't used up since my last trip to the grocery store. I make up a dinner with whatever lies at hand, rather than needing to pre-plan a meal then go out and shop for it before coming home to make it. Sometimes the simple plain food experience is the most rewarding and enriching.

Tonight, just before sunset, I started dinner by grilling some asparagus shoots in lemon pepper and butter. I also added a bit of paprika. While the asparagus was cooking, I diced some potatoes and stir-fried them in olive oil until they crisped up golden, even black in spots. Then I added chopped green onions. When the potatoes had mostly browned, I added some diced chicken breast strips, and stir-fried them all together in the same pan, adding a dash of lemon pepper and sweet black pepper, till everything was cooked evenly through. Add a glass of Campogrande Orvieto Classico (a light white wine from that favorite region of mine), and dinner was perfect. I sat down in the last light of the day to eat with gusto, enjoying every moment, smell, and bite.

When you write a poem, or an essay, this is a good way to start out: Look around you and see what's available to write about. Don't have a pre-planned idea or theme, a pre-existing supposition about what you want to write about, or some Grand Theme to add your voice to. Just look around and notice what's there in front of you. Start from there, and let the poem expand outwards from observation. A lot of good haiku start in observation, in noticing what the world around one has to offer, and lift off from the specific to the universal.

Cooking is alchemy. It's chemistry: the ingredients are changed by being heated, and some chemical transformations happen. Cooking is a kind of earth magic, that both raises the spirits and grounds the soul in the earthiness of everyday like, of daily pleasure and the joy of self-sufficiency.

Poetry is alchemy of the self. The magical aspect is the that writer can be chemically transformed by the process of writing; and at poetry's best, that transfers to the reader, who shares the writer's experience while inhabiting the poem. Poet is not necessarily self-expression, because poetry is not only the ego talking to itself about its daily life. Poetry can be the transcription of the process of personal transformation. It can be that which takes us out of the self entirely, or connects us to our larger, usually concealed Self. You might yourself ending with a poem that has been transformed from being a combination of different ingredients into being a new synergistic unity. The dinner is more than the combination of the ingredients, it's their blending, their transformation, their effect upon each other as each releases it essence into the overall matrix.

A lot of writers tend to choose sides about their writing, and choose to believe that great writing is more cooked than raw. Cooked, in the sense that culture is more habitual, more developed, with societal rules and tendencies more or less codified into accepted channels of conduct. Raw in the sense that anything goes, there are no preconceived notions of how one might evade detection from other predators, and alertness is one's best defense. In writing, the cooked approach to working implies lots of revision and rewrite, a struggle to get things just so, perfectly framed, said, and embalmed. Rawness in writing evokes spontaneity, passion, even those passions we don't often admit to, and possibly an environment of orgiastic play and innuendo. Raw and cooked aren't mutually exclusive, and each style or viewpoint can be balanced in mutual support, when the ships' commander calls you on the carpet to report, justify, or partake of a possibly illicit liaison.

In writing as in cooking, in poetry as in wine selection, I use what's in front of me, what I can discover, and what my gut intuition tells me to follow. The spirit of haiku writing is to observe and respond, encapsulated as art, poetry, or haibun.

In writing as a kitchen-witch cook, planning tends to be set aside in favor of spontaneity, strict formalism tends to be abandoned in favor of emergent form, and one uses what is lying at hand. Classical allusions and literary allusions, tropes, and quotes were one problem with the first generation of Modern poets: they read a great deal of literature, and they referred to it often; classical allusions and symbols in their poems could sometimes overwhelm their other insights. One reason the early Modernist poets were often confusing to their readers is because the poets were so very well-read, and assumed their readers were even when they weren't, and couldn't make their allusions natural and smooth. No wonder the readers couldn't keep up with them, leading eventually to our current state of many insular poetic islands talking only to themselves, rarely to each other, and almost not at all to the general reader. Or in some cases, talking apparently clearly to the general reader, but with a tone of condescension that at times seems like the poet is slumming rather than being authentic.

The natural voice, the rhythm and tone of speech, the poet's plain personal voice. These have analogies in cooking as well, with the current very important return to simple plain foods gathered fresh and cooked simply and well. I'm thinking of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, founded by Alice Waters, a showcase of good simple food bought locally, organic and fresh, prepared well, and served fresh. I'm also thinking of the Slow Food movement and its emphasis on creating community and sustaining the environment.

What are today's Poetryworld equivalents of Slow Food and the Alice Waters style of plain and simple, fresh and good? Perhaps this isn't a good analogy, between poetry and eating, because it's hard to find direct comparisons, examples that make the direct connection. But perhaps the problem is that Poetryworld lacks what the cooking world has, or rather has rediscovered: a set of values that involve pleasure and sensual living, simplicity and taste.

Perhaps Poetryworld's dominating Literary Establishment is over-cooked, and lacks freshness. It seems to me that few poetries can be more overcooked than Language Poetry and its cousins; such poetries disassociate from the soma, and emphasize cerebral pleasure and meaninglessness. They are the opposite of plain and simple living, and that is perhaps why they are so disconnected from having an audience of general readers rather than poets who are professional peers. Yet there are poets of the earth, who write plain and simple, and who share the Slow Food values. Gary Snyder calls them Paleolithic values, and points out their environmental sustainability. Wendell Berry discusses living on the land in partnership rather than in domination, and the contrasts between effective husbandry and rampant exploitation. But this isn't merely a "Nature Poetry" phenomenon, I don't think. I see some kind of grass-roots changes, mostly still nameless and undefined, beginning to emerge from behind the edifice of postmodern poetry's dispersing mist of relativism, solipsism and narcissistic self-regard.

Lately I feel like there's some kind of poetry emerging that might use all the crafty tools of post-Modern avant-garde poetry, but do so with the intent to connect with the land that sustains us, rather than continue to float above it. I can't put a name to it, and I don't think it's a formalized movement, school or -ism. It may be nothing more than a rebellious dissatisfaction with the dead-end corners that poetry has painted itself into over the past half-century or so. It may be that some poets have simply started to go off in search of something more satisfying and belly-filling than what we're told to like by the whirlwind of literary fashion, and the vaporous poetries that now dominate the scene. Certainly an aspect of this is conservative, in the sense that it's a reversion to being connected to soil and ground and basement of being; but it's not, I think, reactionary. It feels indifferent to rather than forcefully rejecting what poetry has become. It's an old-fashioned brand of conservatism, akin to a farm family's husbandry of their acres; it is neither the neo-conservativism of the poetic neo-formalists, nor the pandering of the plain-speech, prosaic small-scale observations of the reactionary simplistic poets who who reject more complex poetics purely on the grounds that they make the average reader think too hard. Both the pandering populist poets and the avant-gardists (all avant-garde, all the time) are dead ends. My sense is that this emergent poetry, still largely unnoticed and undefined, is searching for alternatives that are neither reactionary dead-ends nor attached to the values of alienation and heroism broadcasted ever since the Romantics became the Moderns. Neither of those stances are satisfying any more. I'm stumbling around trying to articulate a sense of something that hasn't declared itself yet in anything like manifesto, but which is quietly percolating along its own paths and trails, charting a new way through the brush.

What comes after postmodernism in poetry? I doubt it's a simplistic return to older styles of poetry, or a reversion to neo-conservative neo-formalist reactionary back-stepping. I doubt very much that the old patterns and forms really can be revitalized in any meaningful way; a great deal of neo-formalism is after all just a clinging to familiar well-known brands of pattern-spinning. But something is coming, and perhaps has already started to bloom, all unnoticed. Something more raw, more spontaneous, more connected to the earth, the body, the tongue, and the scents and sights of life. Perhaps it's poetry we can learn to savor again, poetry that has body and sensual taste in it, that reconnects us to those parts of our selves and our experience that all these fashionable head-poetries have disparaged for so long. Perhaps it's a poetry we can keep on tongue, with aftertastes of a full-bodied vintage that complements the lingering tickle of paprika on the edge of the tongue.

I don't really know. Desire and invention are the tools of new creation, it seems to me. The actions of will and dominating control that a highly-planned recipe-based meal require take a lot of effort and planning. Perhaps a kitchen-witch, slow-food poetry need only resort a renewed and vigorous involvement with observation, spontaneity, and somatic, sensual engagement.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How Did You End Up Here?

The tendency to make lists is an attempt to impose order on chaos. I was reading Jim Harrison's memoir of being a lifelong writer, Off to the Side, in which he makes many memorable and pithy comments, but few lists. Last night I read the section about his early career as an academic, to which he was entirely unsuited. As almost an aside he commented how writing memoir is a way of imposing narrative order on chaos; that in fact life is very accidental, even good luck and bad luck are accidental. As we go through life, flailing about to find some security which we never fully achieve, everything seems incredibly chaotic. The only narrative order we can create comes later on, in retrospect or hindsight. The steps in life you took to get where you are today may seem incredibly clear, even fated, when you look back on them from today. But the illusion of narrative comes from having walked the roads, in the order in which you walked them, to get where you are now, on this road, today. It's very much an illusion. There was no prior determinant, in most cases, no guiding hand apparent beforehand, so that twenty years ago you could have predicted where you are now. Many people I know have expressed amazement, later in life, that things went the way they did: I never imagined I'd end up here! Any self-aware writer should know better than to believe life is anything more than a chaotic mass of accidents, synchronicities, and miniature set-pieces.

Nonetheless, one can examine the set-pieces and events that did happen. Memory, for the most part, is reliable when dealing with one's emotional and intellectual histories, and while most memoirs could never completely stand the interrogation of the rules of evidence of our legal system, there's truth even in the lies we tell ourselves. Often fantasy and fiction can tell more of the truth than the pure facts ever could.

So while it's interesting to me to read other writers' lists of influences—those books and/or writers who turned them on when they were young, who excited them and inspired them to try writing, too—it's a sort of list-making that I prefer to regard as entertainment rather than essential. If there is a necessary aspect to making a list of one's own influences, it is powered by the Socratic dictum to Know Thyself!, which I heartily approve of. Self-reflection and self-knowledge are important to anyone, perhaps especially to artists and writers. We mine our lives for our material, including our pasts. It is essential to know who you are, and how you got to be that way. Without that essential knowledge, change and growth are never choices but have all the appearance of outside forces of nature.

Carl Jung wrote: When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate. The truth of that is doubly important to the artist. Paradoxically, the illusion of narrative that is made of accidents and synchronicities is also determined for us by our own inner selves; what seems to be our fate to fail at one thing only to succeed at another. Jung also wrote: The more one sees of human fate and the more one examines its secret springs of action, the more one is impressed by the strength of unconscious motives and by the limitations of free choice. We call the unconscious nothing, and yet it is a reality in potentia. The thought we shall think, the deed we shall do, even fate we shall lament tomorrow, all lie unconscious in us today. The work we do on ourselves, the work we do as artists, cannot be compartmentalized. This doesn't mean that all art-making is therapy (even when it is in fact therapeutic), but rather that all that we do is one work, one body of work. Making a life for oneself is a work of art, haphazard and hapless as it might often seem. Which is stronger, our intentions and willfulness for we want, or our deeper selves that actually have more a clue about what's going on? Jung comments: Consciousness succumbs all too easily to unconscious influences, and these are often truer and wiser than our conscious thinking. Also, it frequently happens that unconscious motives overrule our conscious decisions, especially in matters of vital importance. Indeed, the fate of the individual is largely dependent on unconscious factors. Becoming conscious, learning to live consciously, becoming aware of one's own driving forces, mastering impulses, innate tendencies—that's the road to actual will, genuine choices made out of awareness rather than by accident. One last, very relevant, comment from Jung: The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purpose through him... it is sometimes so heavy a burden that he is fated to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being. It is a fundamental error to try to subject our own fate at call costs to our will. Our will is a function regulated by reflection; hence it is dependent on the quality of that reflection. The right way to wholeness is made up of fateful detours and wrong turnings.

So, how did we end up here, anyway? What got us here, to be the artists we currently are? There's an exercise I've seen around lately in which poets try to list the books and/or authors that inspired them to become poets. It's an interesting exercise, in that it provides an opportunity for looking within. It's wise to keep in mind, however, that such lists are historical fictions—as we said before, narratives imposed upon lives which are always chaotic. It's also wise to remember that such lists might change; if you do the practice of making your lists of influences every ten years, it might change. The one exercise among all these lists—and the urge to make compile lists seems to be an innate function of ordering and categorizing one's life—that seems least likely to change every ten years is the list of books that got you going, that first turned you on. Just keep in mind that you might not like some of those books anymore, now; and that that's okay.

The best way to teach yourself how to write poetry remains, and always will, the act of reading lots of poetry. Read, read, read, absorb, read, write a little, read some more, read, read, maybe write a little, but never stop reading, reading, reading. Your best teachers are those mentors who you may never come to know personally but whose writings have awoken in you a physical response, a shortness of breath, a pounding heart, an emotional surge, a spine tingling hair raising response. Your best mentors are those other writers who have gone before you who somehow seem to speak directly, across any distance of time or place, to your innermost self. What is universally human is what connects us all to each other; the arts are one way we connect and speak to each other, across all barriers.

I sometimes think poets whose success comes too young—and by "success" we might simply mean getting published at all rather than some level of financial support—get stuck more easily. The temptation becomes to repeat oneself in order to repeat one's successes. If you look at many of the winners of the Yale Younger Poet award, many never evolved or grew in their art past a certain point. While it is good to encourage younger artists with recognition, there's also an inherent shadow of failure implicit in artists who get too much recognition too quickly. One lesson many of these never seem to learn, that early success does not teach, is how to pick oneself up again after an inevitable failure. No artist ever creates at the top of their game 100 percent of the time; every career has slack points and failures. Early success can lead to early failure, and artists who have had little life-experience as yet can be fragile. They fall apart. They get stuck. The shadow side of early success is that it can lead to a short career: more like a shooting star than the moon's constant glow.

Far better, perhaps, for an artist to be "discovered" later in life. Most "overnight successes" that extend into a durable artistic career happen to artists who have already spent years, even decades, doing their art, doing their work. For one thing, they've learned how to survive failures, they don't success seriously as a goal in itself (although it's certainly worthy of being enjoyed!), and they're more detached, more steady in their gaze at the whirlwind of fame and fortune. If success suddenly vanished, many would shrug and keep on doing what they did all along, making their art. The whirlwind of fashion is no safe ground upon which to stand.

Where am I going with this ramble? How did I end up here? This meditation on list-making as memoir was triggered by seeing a lot of lists going around lately, specifically, poets making up lists of those books that inspired them to try writing their own poetry. Again, it's an interesting exercise, and I intend to get to it.

And I want to be clear that the list of books that inspired me to write poetry, the list of favorite books, and the list of life-changing books I've read, are not the same list. There is overlap, but each is a unique list. Each list provides a slightly different set of insights into one's own wellsprings and sources.

Each list is also provisional, always to be revised. The vagaries of memory, like the vagaries of memoir, as such that one almost always remembers something later, when doing the dishes for example, that one should have added to the list. One must revise. One remonstrates oneself with a slap to the forehead, virtual or actual, and a cry of How could I have possibly forgotten that book! So the process of making such lists is both open-ended and an occasional source of low comedy.

The provisional nature of such lists should also make it clear that these lists are personal and idiosyncratic. They are not lists of recommended reading, they are lists that mattered to you or me, but not necessarily to anyone else. People usually tell you what they think you should do, rather than what they've done. Lists are often used as proscriptions, as advice, rather than as maps for territory already discovered. Or, This is what worked for me; I'll share it with you, because it might work for you, too; but I don't assume it will. Find out for yourself. That's the attitude I prefer.

People will tell you where they've gone
They'll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know

—Joni Mitchell, Amelia

I'm stalling. It's hard to compile a list of books that inspired to try to write poetry. Some of those books are still favorites, of course, but others are harder to remember because they've fallen to the wayside, have not been re-read in years. One moves on. Here's that fictional narrative again: I'm trying to reconstruct that time in life, when those fires were lit. But in the fog of memory it can seem as though those fires were always lit, always burning, and just looking for an outlet. It's hard to find precise moments to label as beginning-points for things that seem eternal, even predestined—fated, in hindsight—and might even go back before this one lifetime into something much older than one's personal self or recollections.

In the case of one book in particular, I can definitely say that the book gave me permission to bank my fires in the direction I wanted to go; it gave me permission to write the kind of poetry I wanted to write, in the kind of style and voice that seemed most natural to me at the time. It gave me permission to write the way I wanted to write, rather than have to follow someone else's idea of poetry "should" look like. In later years, I wrote a letter to the poet about her book, telling her all this, and received a very nice note of appreciation in response. The book in question is Jean Valentine's Ordinary Things. It remains a touchstone for me, as a poet; a rooted placed to return to, if I feel I have strayed too far out, and lost my way.

One last detour before I force myself to reluctantly execute my actual list. It's important to say that poets should read a lot more than just poetry. It's always been interesting to me that many physicists of high stature have often been interested in literature and the arts, while the reverse has not often been true. Far too many writers think they can get away with reading only within their own domain. They don't read outside the kind of writing that themselves want to do. Well, poets definitely ought to read lots of poetry; but they ought to read a lot more than just poetry. A lot of bad poetry is obviously insular and blinkered in its sources. And a lot of bad poetry also comes out of not really having lived life to the hilt. If you look at the resumés of most poets these days, you don't see the long lists of part-time jobs used to see; nowadays you mostly see their academic credentials, especially their MFAs in poetry. I still think the best writers are those who've lived enough real life to have something to say—all the poetic craft in the world means nothing if you don't really have anything to say.

So on my list of books that inspired me to try to write poetry you'll find books that aren't poetry. You'll find books that aren't even considered literature by the Literary Mainstream. But they each and every one lit or banked those fires. They got me going, and inspired me to try my hand, to get busy, to jump off the cliff and see if I could fly. It's important to remember that poetic writing can occur in prose, in essay, in fiction, in ways that can inspire a poetic response, as a poem. Categories like "prose" and "poetry" often seem to break down, in my mind, when the writing is at white heat, ecstatic, exalted, no matter what literary form it takes.

Here then, in no particular order, is my idiosyncratic and probably atypical list of circa twenty books that inspired me to try to write poems myself:

Jean Valentine: Ordinary Things

John Cage: Silence and A Year from Monday

Oxford Anthology of English Poetry, ed. by Howard Foster Lowry and Willard Thorp (1935 edition)
Either my parents had had this book for awhile, or I bought it used as a boy. I don't remember which. There is an inscription on the flyleaf that shows the book was once owned by a family friend, who was also a well-known Ann Arbor businessman with an eponymous store, John Leidy. So I don't know anymore how the book came to me, and I can't remember a time when it wasn't on my shelves.

Allen Ginsberg: Mind Breaths and Howl
Apparently I'm unique in that Howl wasn't actually the first Ginsberg I read, or the first poem of his that really excited me. When a book is so famous that everyone claims to have read it even when they haven't, I get a little wary. I often wait till later, despite scores of recommendations, till when the pressure's off and I can read it with an open mind and no prior expectations. This is also probably why I didn't get into Whitman and Dickinson very passionately until much later; although I read them, and knew who they were, they didn't directly inspire me to write poems at that time. Indirectly they did of course, via Ginsberg, who also indirectly gave me a William Blake influence.

Conrad Aiken: The Jig of Forslin

Ursula K. LeGuin: Wild Angels (Capra Chapbook Series edition, 1975)

George Mackay Brown: Fishermen With Ploughs
Truly, I discovered GMB through musical settings of his poems by his close friend and frequent collaborator, Peter Maxwell Davies. My first introduction to GMB was in hearing Davies' piece for mezzosoprano and guitar, Dark Angels, which just knocked my socks off.

Federico Garcia Lorca: Gypsy Ballads and Poet In New York
Again, a musical introduction. I first encountered Lorca's words via their settings in pieces by George Crumb such as Ancient Voices of Children. It was an immediate sense of magic in the world that I was compelled to seek out and learn. More than once in my latter teens, when I was already a composer mostly interested in avant-garde contemporary music, did I discover a poet through a musical setting.

Jerome Rothenberg, editor and commentator of two seminal anthologies of world poetry: Shaking the Pumpkin and Technicians of the Sacred

Miguel Serrano: The Ultimate Flower and The Serpent of Paradise: The story of an Indian pilgrimage

Nikos Kazantzakis: Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises

Carl Jung: Mandala Symbolilsm and Answer to Job

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Book of Images and New Poems (1907, 1908)
Actually it was my encounters with individual poems, and with the Letters to a Young Poet that inspired me. I heard a vast cathedral of silence and natural light open up inside me when I read Evening or The Panther or Archaic Torso of Apollo. The individual poems, anthologized here and there, were what inspired me, and also led me to go much deeper into studying Rilke. The one book that probably had the most responsibility for setting this off was Robert Bly's Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Yang Wan-Li (trans. by Jonathon Chaves): Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow
This Song-Dynasty poet was so important to me, his voice so distinctive and as I felt then personally speaking directly to my own life, that I read this book several times in a row, when I first got it in the late 1970s.

A. K. Ramanujan, trans.: Speaking of Siva
This is an anthology of free-verse lyrics by four major saint-poets of the 10th century bhakti protest movement in south India, the place I grew up. The lyrics were considered radical because they broke away from traditional poetic forms while at the same time philosophically rejecting tradition and ritual. The poets of this movement concentrated on the subject rather than the object of worship, writing passionately and personally of their relationship to Shiva, which was direct and unmediated. These are poems of mystical union with the divine beloved, and bhakti was a word that means direct worship and direct contact with the Divine. The implication is a personal relationship rather than one mediated by the priestly caste with their formal rituals and ossified traditions. Very radical poems in their context. To me they symbolized breaking free of formalism and tradition, and like Jean Valentine's book, mentioned above, gave me permission to write informally and directly.

You may have noticed that a few of these books have a strong Indian connection; I was in my late teens and early twenties trying to reconcile my Indian childhood with my American young adulthood, and working towards integrating those very different aspects of my experience and my self. This is what led me to discover Miguel Serrano, mentioned above, and later, Octavio Paz.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, trans. by Ivan Morris

C.A. Patrides, ed.: The English Poems of George Herbert
Again, a poet of direct, sometimes violent, personal confrontation with the mystical and the Divine. I related much more to Herbert's violence and restlessness than to most of the other so-called Metaphysical Poets, who (except for Donne) all seemed rather too cerebral and dispassionate for my taste.

Are you seeing a trend yet? I certainly am: I was trying to understand my own visionary experiences, figure out who I was and how to deal with them. Poetry was for me a better road towards understanding than any scripture from any established religious tradition. This also led me to discover Rumi at this time—but I was not inspired by Rumi to write poetry by any of the translations I could find at that time; that came later, when Coleman Barks began publishing his luminous versions of Rumi.

Samuel R. Delany: Babel-17
A brilliant science fiction novel about language, poetry, love/sex, telepathy and consciousness. That's a bad synopsis of a novel too complex to easily describe. The main character was a poet, lover, and adventurer, who I came to identify with. Delany's prose has always inspired me towards poetry. It stands as a landmark example of "poetic prose."

Robert Bly, ed. News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness
A poetry anthology as seminal to me as Rothenberg's, and another early encounter with Rilke, Lorca, Rexroth, Jeffers, and Neruda, among others, who I later sought out and studied more deeply.

Lucien Stryk, Takashi Ikemoto, Taigan Takayama, eds. and trans.: The Crane's Bill: Zen poems of China and Japan

Sheila Moon: Knee Deep in Thunder
A young adult novel, the first in a trilogy, based on Navajo cosmology. I found it in the grade school library when I was ten or eleven, and it knocked my socks off. It's partially what got me interested in Navajo myth, language, and cosmology. Moon was a Jungian analyst and poet, who wrote both scholarly studies and personal essays as well as poems.

Dorothy Berkley Phillips, Elizabeth Boyden Howes, Lucille M. Nixon, eds.: The Choice Is Always Ours: An anthology on the religious way.
I first read this anthology when I was 16, at the same time I was reading Huston Smith's classic The Religions of Man. What makes this anthology unique and accessible is that's about one-third poetry. It was another early encounter with Rilke, as well as my first encounter with Meister Eckhart, almost my first encounter with Jung, Thomas Merton, and Paul Tillich. It's a book you dip into rather than read linearly; you can let it fall open to almost any page and find some kind of insight or solace. Much of the prose by the more mystical writers is again very poetic prose.

That's enough for now. No doubt I could list more, if I spent more time looking back in memory or over my bookshelves. I'll let this stand as testament, though. What I learn from doing it, at the moment, is that some themes in one's life and one's writing seem to have always been there, coming into fruition and deepening with time, more reading, and more experience—but they sustain themselves throughout one's life as long echoes and durable interests. Some early interests and fascinations—a lot of this was autodidactic reading, too, not directly prescribed by school studies—are in fact life-long interests. Some themes seem bone-deep and eternal.

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