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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Blogger Dave King said...

Fascinating post. You have completely carried me along with your analogies and similes. I now understand why I enjoy a glass of wine when reading a new or an especially favoured poem.

It also throws some light on why the poetry establishment so readily splits into opposing camps. You gave me smiles as well as similes. Thanks.

5:39 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


I couldn't hope for a better response! Thanks very much. I'm glad the similes and metaphors worked. I do see the same dynamics in operation in those different spheres, and this was an attempt to knit it all together, show the similarities. I'm glad it worked for you.

I often struggle with this sort of synthesis. I perceive the same patterns in play in different areas of life, and it seems obvious to me that the patterns, motivations and underlying assumptions are all very similar, if not identical. But it's hard to get it into words, and even harder to get people to see how they're more alike than not.

Thanks again.

10:04 AM  

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