Friday, January 30, 2009

Contemporary Poets' Typical Missteps

I hesitate to say "mistakes" because that's a bit harsh, although there is some truth to it. A lot of missteps that poets typically make are habitual, and some of those are based on myths and misunderstandings about what poetry is and how it is made. These are habits one can generally attribute to ignorance, or even literary superstition or mythology, if you will, rather than stubbornness or maliciousness.

Some of what I say here I've said before. I might be repeating myself, but what I imagine myself doing is restating, perhaps clarifying. At some point I want to compile these lessons learned from experience into one larger tome, eliminate most of the repetitions, and organize these thoughts a bit more formally. Till then, I'll just muddle through.

These are problems I keep seeing poets get stuck in, even mature and experienced poets. Because I've given some of these comments as active critiques, no doubt some wag will reject them as personal bias. Actually they're steps towards a more objective understanding and criticism of contemporary poetry in general. These are missteps I see contemporary poets make all the time; and not just beginners. Many of these thoughts are rooted in one very simple truth that always seems to need restatement:

Poetry is not prose.

I've written previously about the purpose, if any, of poetry; and about how the objection to some experimental poetry on the part of formalist poets is essentially a moral objection rather than a purely technical or aesthetic one.

With these points in mind, here, then, is a small re-summation of practical, pragmatic and solution-oriented comments about typical missteps many poets continue to make:

1. Much poetry is over-written. It's common for poets to write "up a level" in terms of formal syntax and grammar; they tend to use filler words for effect or to fill out a form, words that add no meaning or music. Many poets feel they must somehow separate out the language of their poems from everyday language—they're not wrong in fact—but how they separate out the language of poetry matters a great deal. Nobody today talks like they did when the King james Bible was made; if they do, they generally seem mannered and stilted; yet far too many poets still think that such ritualized style is what "poetic language" must be.

This is particularly risky when poets write in fixed, inherited historical forms, in formal meter. It actually takes a lot to master formal verse; one of the most common missteps in formal verse is to cling to obvious effects such as using end-rhymes and fixed meters that create sing-songy effects. If you look at great sonnets, you'll see more slant-rhymes and off-rhymes than you imagined; but that's what makes it work. A master of the sonnet can be very oblique about the form without destroying it; a master uses a form's strengths without getting caught in its traps.

One useful general definition of poetry is that it is exalted or heightened speech, and it carries more power than the everyday word. Many poets take that to mean that they must write in an exalted style; this leads to a lot of imitation Victorian poetry, warmed-over Tennyson and Swinburne. But great poetry has often been written using very plain speech, and colloquial speech. What exalts these poems is not the style per se, the style of the language used, but the synergy of the poem's language and music and subject. The combination of all these factors.

A lot of poems can be improved with only minor tightening, a little compression and concision, some judicious removal of flab and unnecessary verbiage. Overwriting is one of those things that's very easy to fix in revision.

2. One harmful effect of overwriting is distancing, creating an artificial and unnecessary gap between the poet's experience of the poem, and the reader's. While the writer may have a clear feeling or experience in his or her mind, conveying that experience so that the reader feels it in their own soma is another matter.

A poet who has developed great facility with words must be careful not to take their skill and turn it into a shield against the world. Facile writing can be witty to the point of being dominantly intellectual and neglecting other modes. The poet might feel the experience that led to the poem, but overwriting can get between the poet's experience, and reader's. The reader might not be able to feel what the poet did—in the body, somatically, in their own person and with their own experience. It might not be a recreation.

William Wordsworth's dictum about poetry was that it is "emotion recollected in tranquility." At his most philosophical, Wordsworth's poetic dictum was effective for his own poetry; as in The Prelude. But where this dictum fails is that it has little chance of evoking in the reader's own body and self the experience of the poem. It's all filtered through the mind and the intellect, rather than the heart. This tends to promote a style of writing that is detached, academic, even pedantic—in short, one step removed from reality. The poem can become pedantic, a lecture. This is the truth that lies behind that hoary advice in poetry critique: Show, don't tell. Poetry that is too much of the head, too pedantic does not evoke in us a feeling or an experience (show) but rather it tells us what to feel (tell). A poem that tells you what to feel or think is removed from the soma, from the self. It has little chance of moving you. It is commentary rather than bone-deep knowing. This style of writing makes a poem less immediate to the reader, not more.

Another trap that Wordsworthian style tends to land us in is passive constructions, passive verb forms, passive and detached: this further removes us from feeling and action, cushioning us from feeling rather than involving us.

Jack Kerouac's dictum of free-flowing spontaneous first thought spilling out unedited onto the page is the opposite of Wordsworth's. It's not the better style, it's just a different technique. Another technique for direct poetic expression is haiku, which aesthetically is best when spontaneous and momentary. My question is, therefore, which is the best style to use as a container for the poem to carry an experience? Which style works better?

For me, poems don't succeed when the container doesn't match the contents. A lot of formal poetry is dry and bland precisely because it ends up on the Wordsworthian end of the poetic spectrum: too thought-out, too formal, too passive, too removed from direct experience. A lot of formal poems are single ideas shoehorned into fixed forms; they're usually padded, therefore, and often imprecise. This affects the poem's tone of voice, sometimes for the better, but not always.

Does the form support the subject matter, or take away from it? There is probably a way to preserve formal structure yet also make the poem visceral and vivid, less talkative. One option is to retain the form and compress some of the language.

3. Ambiguity in poetry is neither bad nor a sign of weakness. Not having all the answers is no failure; it's just human. One of the traps many poets fall into is trying to explain and justify every decision, every choice, every nuance. Life itself is messy, uncertain, ambiguous; poetry can reflect that, and not be only the imposition of order onto chaos.

Far too many poets quickly become defensive when questioned about their poems. Far too few are open about admitting they didn't always know what they were doing, when writing. But not knowing what we're doing, all the time, is why poetry remains an art, rather than a science. Poetry is not engineering.

This issue is related to overwriting in poetry, and may sometimes be one cause of overwriting. What we're getting at here is the temptation to believe that you can control the outcome: that you can control how people interpret and respond to your poem.

I once knew a poet who believed that his poem failed if the reader did not receive precisely the meaning he intended them to receive, as though his poems were telepathic transmissions; he had no tolerance for alternative meanings or for ambiguity; he was an impossible person to chat with, in the long run, as he became increasingly obsessive-compulsive about determining his meanings in his poems. He had succumbed to the ideology that Poetry is communication, and only communication. He had no ability to see that nuance and mystery also belong in poetry. His poetry became dull and predictable and pedantic, because he tried to force ever more clarity and certainty into his poems. (The key word here is "force," since clarity as a general principle in poetry is no bad thing.) He seemed unable to understand that poetry is, and should be, more than merely communication. If poetry were only about communication, reading the phone book would a normative aesthetic experience. His poems eventually came to have the appearance of prose essays, broken into arbitrary lines.

The truth is, once your poem is released out there into the world, it's on its own, beyond your control: people will come up with interpretations and find meanings in your poem you never imagined or anticipated. Some people will even wildly misread your poem, even as some others understand you completely.

Don't view this as a bad thing. What you need to understand is that all readings of your poem may be more or less valid, not just the reading(s) you prefer. Don't demand conformity—you will only become a fascist—and don't get trapped into justifying or over-explaining either the poem, or your motivations in writing it. Don't whine about being misunderstood.

Either learn to live with being misunderstood—which is in fact a deep and profound Mystery that can teach one much about living—or learn to write better and with more clarity so that your arrows do not go so far astray, but better hit the target you're aiming at. The importance of craft to poetry is that it is what helps you improve your aim. In its best applications, your poetic craft supports your poem and sharpens both your vision and your execution.

Don't overthink your poem and don't overprotect your personal interpretation of your poem. Don't try to force the reader to receive your meaning, and only your meaning. Allow for other readers to find things that are indeed in there, that you didn't know about till they were pointed out to you. Accept that this will happen, no matter what you try to do to prevent it. Learn to live with mystery, and become comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty. In this, poetry is just like life.

Trying to overcontrol an outcome shows a lack of trust in both the reader and in your poem—and the reader will pick up on that, sooner or later, and probably be offended. Poets (and others) who demand clarity and order beyond a reasonable point are heading for neuroses.

4. You are not required to use full prose grammar and syntax in your poems, if you don't want to, or if the poem doesn't need you to. A lot of poets use full grammar and syntax rules out of habit rather than out of necessity.

Are you using formal grammar in your poem because it is essential to the internal logic of the poem? Are you using formal speech in your poem because that's how the character's voice, or poetic voice, in your poem must speak? Does your poetic voice necessitate your style of speech?

Or are you using formal grammar in your poem merely out of habit, because that's how you were taught to write prose?

This is one arena in which education can sometimes be at fault. Sometimes one has to go through a process of unlearning the rules, after one has received a strong indoctrination in them. Some artists are better at this than others.

The main point here is that, in the long haul, almost nothing you learned in school is essential to your artistic life. This is because the only thing they can teach you in school is craft. They cannot teach inspiration, they cannot teach you or give you purpose. You have to discover those for yourself. What school can give you is the tools that will help you better express or realize your inspiration. School is actually rather good at imparting craft; the misstep that many poets make is in thinking that school can impart anything more than that.

The only things that an MFA in poetry workshop program can give are: time to read and write; exposure, via reading, to a lot of poetry you might not have discovered on your own; and lessons in the craft of poetry. For some poets that may be enough. For many others, though, it has led to a situation where craft is viewed as the essential, even dominant, element of poetry-making. Oh, look, you can write a technically-perfect sonnet, that must make you a good poet, yes? Not really, no.

Mastering the craft is useless if you have nothing to say. One criticism of the MFA workshop system is that it produces lots of (unemployed) poets who write interchangeable small lyrics about small topics. There is truth in that accusation. The mistake lies in the false idea that the MFA workshop system ever had the potential to do anything more than that. If you didn't go in with a vision, with a fire in your heart, don't expect to come out with one. Maybe you will; but it's a gamble, not a certainty.

5. Do not rely on habits. Do rely on freshness of mind, your own mind, if not necessarily on freshness of expression.

Identify your habits, then consciously choose whether or not you want to change them. Good habits lead to discipline, the good fruits of practice. Bad habits are what get you stuck.

6. Not every poem you write is great, or even very good. Accept the fact the we all write lots of études, practice-pieces, or studies. Accept the fact that we all write more bad poems than good, and that we'll have to throw away a fair number of poems till we get it right. Even acknowledged great poets occasionally wrote mediocre or just plain awful poets. If you look into the juvenilia of even your favorite poet, you'll probably discover some early poem that leaves you underwhelmed.

There is a bit of beginner's luck with some poets, who have a small body of work when they're starting out that is very good; but even good instincts must eventually be honed via practice, or one ends up repeating oneself, and never growing as either a poet or a person. (Of course, many poets who are lauded too young in their careers get stuck in just this trap.)

This is about practice, and there is no shame in it. It's about practicing a technique, an art, a tool, and/or a style until you get it right. It can take years to get there; it can take a lifetime.

One of the most common mistakes poets still young in their art make is to leap to the conclusion, now that they're written some poems, that they're a good poet. It can take years to learn how to dance, how to play music, how to design a building; yet people who have written one chapbook's worth of poems already call themselves poets. The idea of apprenticeship and learning-by-doing has fallen away from literature—and not usually to literature's benefit. In some ways, calling oneself a poet, because one has written a few poems, is too easy, too facile.

I still hesitate to call myself a poet, years down this road. I think I may have written one or two great poems, a few good ones, and more than a few bad. But I don't really know; my expertise remains provisional, and my attitude remains that of a beginner. It is not for me to judge. Time is the only true judge of enduring quality; time will tell.

There will always be prodigies, rare geniuses who absorb and grasp the tropes and styles amazingly fast, whose talent in their art(s) is unmistakable from a young age. Chances are you're not one of them. But that doesn't mean you can't write a great poem, someday. The issue here is impatience: you'll just have to work harder, and take longer to get to the summit of your art. That in itself is a journey worth undertaking, when the journey itself is the goal.

7. Consistency matters: maintain your poem's internal logic. A poem's internal logic matters a great deal in terms of connecting with the reader, and bringing the reader into the poem. Respect your poem's internal logic: you are creating a world in the poem, and the world must obey its own rules, even if those rules are nothing like the everyday world's. The internal world of the poem, that the reader is brought into, has its own laws, and they can be arbitrary laws, but they need to be logically consistent or the poem will lose power and weaken. Many poems start out strong, then break their rules established early in the poem, and taper off to a soft, unsatisfying ending. Have a good reason for whatever the poem does; if you want to involve the reader, don't just leave this to fate.

Pick the right kind of style for your poem, and stick with it throughout the poem. Be consistent in how you apply that style. Don't be sloppy about your technique. If you write a poem in formal, punctuated, grammatical metrical verse, don't drop the punctuation for no good reason. If you poem is a poem of questions, end with a question, not a statement or a clunky answer. Don't break your style, mid-poem, unless you do it for a specific, artistic reason. Be consistent, and respect your poem enough to stay true to its vision. And don't for god's sake start a poem out with rhyme and meter then abandon those partway through for no good reason.

Don't privilege either free verse or formal metric poetry. Don't privilege any form over another. You may find that you have a knack for particular forms and styles, which can be developed through practice. (I have almost no feel for sonnets, but I do have a knack for haiku.) Realize that every kind of poetry that exists serves as a template for you to keep in your toolbag, and use when you need it. Sometimes the most important decision you'll make, when writing or revising your poem, is to find the appropriate container, the right vessel of style, in which to put your poem's topic or subject matter. Nor does this exclude poetic -isms such as aleatoric techniques and some of the more extreme techniques of the experimental avant-garde; these too are styles you can use as you see fit, if the poem requires them. None are privileged over any other—except perhaps in the minds of poetic ideologues who are politically committed to one poetic -ism or another; such people are boors, and should generally be avoided or ignored.

All of these suggestions can be ignored (they're not rules, so they can't be "broken") if you have a specific reason for doing so. If you change style mid-poem, there must a psychological purpose for doing so, or some other purpose, perhaps a transformation in the poem's actors, which can be enhanced by transforming the poem's style in parallel. The language and style of the poem can reflect the psychology of the actors in the poem (including your own, for example in a first-person lyric), and enhance the reader's experience of the poem by bringing them along.

i can make a case that, when handled properly, changing styles mid-poem can be a higher level of internal logic and consistency. Just as in chaos theory—where turbulence is a chaotic state that happens when the energy of the system is transitioning to a higher level of stability; and where there are higher types of order that emerge from within apparent chaos—moving between styles mid-poem can have a purpose. This is something you might even try. But again, the way to achieve good results if you attempt it is to do it with intention and care.

Basically, don't be haphazard, don't be sloppy. Care enough about your art to practice it well, with thoughtfulness and care. Respect yourself, and your poem. Don't take anything for granted. Have a good aesthetic or artistic reason for doing what you do; think about it, in the coolness of revision if not in the white heat of writing. And don't, by being sloppy, let the poem remain in conflict with itself, confused and unfocused: nothing saps a poem's energy more quickly than a lack of internally consistent logic, whatever that logic is.

8. The workshop has become a way of life. Most poets write for other poets as their first readers, whether they're seeking critique or just an audience. I'm not convinced this is a good thing. It tends to make poetry ever more insular, ever more isolated, ever more irrelevant, ever more "academic" in the pejorative sense. Since poetry has become a specialized artform, you may be stuck with getting more responses from poets than non-poets; it's just the way of the world, for now.

I do not suggest one pander to one's mythos of "the common man," or any such nonsense. I don't support in any way the idea that poetry must be "written down" to find an audience, or that it has be dumbed down or simplified. I think the idea of writing for the lowest common denominator is inherently flawed, not because writing down is the problem, though it is, but because writing for anybody but yourself is the problem. The audience comes second. You, the poet, are your first audience. Write for yourself: be true to your own voice first and foremost. The rest will follow.

And don't give in to the automatic, habitual response to share all of your writing with your poetry critique group, with your workshop, with your friends. There are great things that poets can learn from the workshop process; but there are also limits to what one can learn in that environment. Accept that there are limits.

Keep an occasional poem private, to yourself. Look at it in secret. Apply to it everything you've learned from giving and receiving critiques in your workshop setting; but do it on your own, with no one looking over your shoulder, except perhaps your muse. Do the rewrites in private till you are satisfied. Then set the poem aside as finished, never having taken it through the workshop process. Do this at least for a minimum of one out of ten poems.

This is practice in developing your inner compass, your internal sense of what works and what doesn't. This is about trusting yourself, and having faith in your own poetic vision. It is necessary, at some point, to strike off on your own, and stop taking so much advice about poetry from other poets. At some point, you must wean yourself from your addiction to workshops—which can be an addiction to praise, an addiction to abuse—giving or receiving—or some complicated blend of all of these.

9. There are limits to poetry. There are things your words are inadequate to say. I can visualize in my mind images that I cannot put adequately into words; that's one reason I make visual art, as well as music. An experience that lasts for an eternal moment, a deep insight you have that takes only a second to know, can take you page after inadequate page to get down, and still be lacking something in the telling.

Any poet who claims that poetry is the "highest" or "greatest" artform is revealing their utter bias towards what they know how to do, and nothing more. Most such poets have no clue about how to operate in other mediums. The first poet that ever made this argument to me, for example, is comically tone-deaf towards music. If poetry were indeed the "highest" artform, there would be no instrumental music—which can on occasion be more sublime and powerful than even the greatest poem.

Knowing your limits, however, can be the first step towards transcending them. It is perfectly possible to make a poem that transcends its own limits, and takes on its own life—this is one marker of great art, in any medium. Great poems have done this, and have become sublime.

Don't expect to get there quickly, except by chance or luck. But the effort itself is a kind of journey towards mastery, and a worthwhile one. Know your limits, and the limits of your art; then work to overcome them. That's what all artists strive to do.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009


by John Cage.

Because the world's too loud right now. It's time to stop and listen. And that's what it's all about.

I have nothing to say and I am saying it, and that is poetry. —John Cage

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Martin Amis on avoiding the cliché

Cliché is herd thinking, herd writing. —Martin Amis

That gets at one of the core reasons why clichés ought to be avoided. Clichés are tribal. They're stand-ins and ciphers for actual feeling, actual experience. They're catch-phrases or pat answers. Some are more annoying than others.

Not that all of writing consists of avoiding clichés; or that one needs to think about clichés when writing. That's only likely to create problems, since you are drawn to whatever it is you're avoiding thinking about. But when a cliché does come up, it's easier to spot if you look at it in context. One definition of a cliché, of course, is that it's a stock phrase or image that one has already encountered numerous times in literature, and poetry. It's a too-familiar phrase, especially in context.

Clichés are thoughtless. They don't take any work. You can drop them in and avoid doing the hard work of actual description. They are a way of avoiding the real work of writing. When a sign or a symbol or a cipher comes too readily to hand, too easily slots in as a descriptor, it's probably a cliché. When one is too lazy to evoke in the reader an experience or mood, clichés abound, because the reader is supposed to know what to feel when they see a given cliché. It's worked before, ennit? The problem is, yes, it's worked before, but that was many times ago. The lazy writer manipulates. The writer who actually puts a little effort into writing finds ways to evoke that are not blatant manipulation.

Not that all of writing is about being original or fresh. Sometimes you want to evoke a stale and musty mood by using stale and musty language. But you can do that and still subvert the clichés that go along with stale and musty moods and scenes.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Abstract Realism in Photography 2

Abstract forms of water, snow, driftwood, ice, stone, sand, and dry grass.

creek gully, Warren Dunes, MI

B&W photography lends itself to abstract realism—the emphasis on pure form, pure shape, contrast, line and contour—so strongly that one can look at composition, at form and not realize that this is real life. Nature is very abstract in its purist forms, which are brought out more strongly by winter. The dormant time when plants are quiescent, mimicking death, looking innately B&W rather than the colors of life.

Natural geometry is fractal and can be broken down into self-similar shapes and forms. The two most common forms in natural geometry are curved lines and triangles; there are no purely straight lines in nature, and no purely perfect circles. Rough edges abound. Nature is uneven, chaotic, with boundaries that change dimension when you examine them in greater or lesser detail.

The image is about its forms as much as its ostensible content. One sees the shapes almost before one sees what the shapes are, or represent. In the print, whether emphasizing high contrast or subtle mid-tones, the print's "performance" (to borrow Ansel Adams' term) is the end-process that began when the image was framed in the viewfinder and the shutter snapped.

The image is a process of choice, selection, artifice and expression. The fine art photographer is not pretending to reproduce nature exactly as seen, but rather to express something emotional, even spiritual, through a representation of nature that is neither faithful nor absolutely accurate.

in this image, I raised the contrast, making the darks more dramatic. The photos were taken in the last half-hour before sunset, on a cloudy cold day, near Lake Michigan. The overall natural daylight tones were soft grays. I wanted to show how black and cold the water in the stream felt to the touch, so I darkened the overall contrast. In the process, the water turned mirror-like against the sky, where it wasn't black as octopus ink. The whites of the snow and ice also became stronger, brighter, more whitened. The photo expresses the mood of the moment, without totally accurately reflecting the tones and values that the naked eye saw, in that light.

The abstraction of the image, in B&W, is also emphasized by the higher contrast. It turns it into lines and shapes and forms. One can ignore the natural detail and look at only the graphic intensity of line and shape, as though one had thrown ink on the page.

Winter photography might as well be B&W anyway, there are so few spots of color to begin with. The stark tones of winter, the bleak sky and dark water, are only exaggerated here, not invented. Still, that makes, for some photographers, this into an expressive fine art photo, rather than a mere snapshot, rather than a mere recording.

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Dunes in Winter

images from Warren Dunes State Park, MI

cold hills crawling
with frozen sand underfoot—
winter winds on dunes

ice rind on creek
cutting its way through dunes:
this floating world

bleak skies reflect
in the open creek bleed—
winter cloudlight

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Clouds & Lake Michigan

images from southern Michigan & Lake Michigan south of Benton Harbor

winter skies slash
groves of standing pines—
sword-edged clouds

rows of aspen and oaks
stand guard on afternoon sun—
winter sentinels

Lake Michigan cliffs
in last light winter sunset—
foreboding dead calm

sunpost rose
a westerly stained-glass pane
cold candles at dusk

green glass of inland sea
marking time before the cliff
takes the bare trees down

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Market Colors

winter colors
on the long vine of cold—
frost and bitten

roots of summer
laid into soil dark with ice—
dew on parsnips

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Whole of the Bay

Leaf and kettle wait.
The jewel of the grove,
growing slim and tall,
harvests at last a silver flower.

Sunrays lance between cedars
in adamantine glimmers of mist.
The boughs scrape the light
into peals of gullcry and wavepound.

On the edge of the granite cliffs
a sea-shaped juniper leaps.
Sky clings to seamist and rock,
a harbinger of tide and time.

What stands on the shore,
nests of the harbor, the hawk, the grace
of dive through air and light,
to scrape from the wind, at last, a life, a life.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ann Arbor Memories

Being back in Michigan over the holidays meant I must stop in Ann Arbor, my old home town, if I have a home town. I feel more attached to Ann Arbor as a hometown, now, then I used to, for many years. I've traveled so much since then. I did live there for almost 20 years, though, from age 6 till after college. I went to public schools in A2, and I also got my Bachelor's in Music from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

This list of sister cities is posted at the highway offramp from Hwy. 23, coming onto Plymouth Road. This was my part of town, which used to be the northeasternmost corner of the city. The only one of Ann Arbor's sister cities that I've been to is Tübingen, in Germany. That's another story entirely.

3006 Lexington Drive. My parents built this house, we were the first people who lived there. We moved in in late summer 1967, and they moved out in late summer 1978. I was in Europe when the family moved from A2 to Bloomington, IN; there was a plane ticket waiting for me when I got off the plane from Europe, and I immediately flew down to Indianapolis from Detroit.

I have a lot of memories from this house. Many firsts in this lifetime. Many early experiences from childhood and adolescence. When we bought the house, this was the extreme edge of town. The subdivision is called Orchard Hills, and there was nothing past it at the time. Behind the house were wheatfields, rows of trees, and other fields, as far as the eye could see. Gradually, over time, condos were built in from the other end of the field, moving towards us. I used to go out in summer and play in the empty houses while they were being built. I used to get on my bike and ride out into the countryside, long rides that could last all summer afternoon. I spent many summers shirtless, getting tanned brown as a penny, riding all over the countryside.

Now the house is cornered in. It's not the edge of town anymore, in fact it's quite a ways inside. New houses and rowhouses stretch from here past the highway crossroads, growing past the corner of town out towards Detroit.

This was an intersection in my old neighborhood, about a mile away from our house. I went by here on the way into town, and also to shop at the grocery store, and later towards college. After the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s, this sign was stolen many times, probably by high school and college kids, as a prank, or as a memento. The cabdrivers in Ann Arbor used to call this corner "Watergate" as radio shorthand.

The School of Music, on North Campus, part of the University of Michigan. When I was in college here, the two cubes to the left were designed but not yet built. In the first cube was the Recital Hall, where many of my compositions at the time were premiered. This is still a lovely building, one of my favorites in Ann Arbor. To the right outside the frame of this image there is a reflecting pond overlooking the northern wing of the building. The windows on the north wing are designed to look like a piano keyboard; the effect is most pronounced when strolling on the other side of the pond in the evening.

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Always carrying a camera with you, always having a camera at hand, means being ready to photograph whatever you see that catches your attention. You are able to capture what captivates you. You are always looking, always seeing, and having a camera at hand means you are able to catch the light as it passes. Photography is often about making the ephemeral, always-changing light into a more permanent record.

Digital cameras speed this up. You don't have to wait, and there is no set-up relative to old film cameras. The down side of that is that you can make many photographs and get nothing worth keeping. The up side is that you can afford to be spontaneous, and keep trying. You might make many images to get the one you want, in the end; but there is no film cost, either purchase or processing or printing. Film still has many advantages, especially in large-format photography. It's still not possible to duplicate the subtleties of large-format transparency film using any other medium.

But all photography is artificial. It is an imperfect replication of what the eye sees. The eye can see in much darker circumstances than most films, most cameras. Low-light photography has its own rules and challenges. At the same time, certain films, and most digital cameras, see further into the infrared and the ultraviolet than the average human eye can register. What the photo does that the eye does not is stop time, or emulate time; but freeze it, or slow it down, take an image out of the flow and contemplate it.

Still life images seem to demand color. What catches my eye is the arrangement, the angle of light and shadow, the bright illumination of sunlight, or the even light of bright cloudy light. It's about looking at details. About seeing the world inside a small container. The still life is a vessel in miniature. Still-lifes are usually close-ups, with most of the world cropped out of the frame. They zoom in, they look closely, they focus on detail. Arrangement of objects can become an art in itself. Composition and arrangement make all the difference between bland and energized.

Still life seems, therefore, to demand color rather than black & white photography. Some subject matters, backgrounds included or excluded, require color. Demand color. B&W emphasizes form, tone, and contrast. It emphasizes shapes and abstract forms. A great B&W photo might be of a mountain but it's also an abstraction. This is explicitly acknowledged by great B&W photographers: their art is artifice, one step removed from documentation. They seek to express through their art, not just document.

But color can express as well. It is a different kind of expression. Not all photographers can work in both color and B&W; not all can make the conceptual leaps, or go back and forth. They are in truth different realms, different ways of thinking about light, form, and shape.

I strive to do both. I have been working in color for decades, since my first maturity as a photographer. Now I am working again in B&W, which I actually did a fair bit of as a child, as a teenager. There will be more of these still-live photos coming down the road. I find this a congenial way to experiment. Painters have been using the still-life for centuries as etudes, as studies, as ways of learning techniques and processes; and sometimes in the process, although not always, making great art. The potential is there.

There will be more.

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Writing in Time & Design

Another required stop in Ann Arbor is Hollander's, in the Kerrytown mall building, next to the farmer's market and only a couple of blocks from Zingerman's. Hollander's specializes in decorative papers, bookbinding supplies, and workshops.

A huge store full of handmade and designer papers, art books and supplies. They teach printing and book-making in the basement classrooms; this is Hollander's School of Book & Paper Arts, with year-round workshops. They have a whole shelf devoted to books on how to make paper, how to make books, binding, etc. A treasure trove for any artist interested in book arts, printing, typography, and their related arts. They even have a small section on brush painting, sumi-e, and calligraphy. It's a dangerous place for someone who loves books, who loves making as well as reading books, and/or who is a paper junkie. I never leave without making a purchase.

This visit, I treated myself to Keith A. Smith's Text in the Book Format, all about the experience of type on the page. Smith, who is a book artist and publisher of how-to books on book arts and typography, talks about the experience of reading, pacing, and space. He writes:

The book format is movement. Rhythms of syllables and moving pictures of implied imagery flowing within text is akin to music and cinema. Events depicted in writing unfold through time in space, alongside the physical act of turning pages.

Awareness of space of the page and composing the pages as well as the text revolutionizes writing styles because it is a departure from the concept of seamless writing of a running manuscript. The writer can take into consideration demands and opportunities of the multiple page format via the computer.

Pacing of the book is the synchronization or syncopation of the content with turning pages. The format can reinforce and even speak aside from the text. Writing specifically in the book format, as opposed to a running manuscript, brings to the reader a book experience.

I don't think writers think about time as flowing very often, which seems short-sighted to me. Reading is a process of reading-in-time, just as music is sounds-in-time, and cinema is images-and-sounds-in-time. Poets in particular, I think, get too caught up with the words themselves, and what they mean or don't mean, and forget all about the medium in which their words are presented: print, type, paper, screen. Poets tend to view words as static, and their poems as objects—more like paintings than cinema. Even the current wave of "visual poets" mostly produce static art rather than moving art. (Vispo is being proclaimed as something brand new and exotic, especially by some of the Language Poets and other mavens of the perpetual avant-garde; but little of it seems particularly new to anyone who's been involved with graphic design, or the history of design and typography, except in that the new computing technologies have made the production of such work ever easier.)

I have been experimenting for some years now with text moving on the screen, poetry moving on the screen as one layer of imagery among others, and of music combined with text and image to make multi-media cinema. This is still a new process for most poets. Most writers focus on the contents alone and ignore the presentation. This is, I believe, true even for concrete poets or visual poets, who still don't think of the entire book as an experience, but only their individual page(s) in the book.

Some of this is the self-centeredness of turf. The writer's goal is often anti-design and anti-presentation, whether they view meaning as central, or whether their purpose is a postmodern questioning of meaning itself. There has always been an uneasy tension between writers and book designers, with writers wanting their text to be paramount, and designers wanting not only to respect that but to enhance the book experience for the reader. Some typography is transparent, some more opaque. Regardless, writers tend to cling to the primacy of their text over all other concerns. The words over everything else.

There's a certain conservative taint to this impulse, even coming from the avant-garde. I've seen more than one poet approve of a published book that was much uglier than it needed to be, in terms of type choice, layout, paper, binding and design, because the poet could only see that the words were legible on the page. They didn't care about anything else. Sometimes poets become so overjoyed that their precious words have actually made it to print that they completely forget about anything else, just as the reader's pleasure, or lack thereof, in the presentation. I have certainly seen enough badly-designed poetry chapbooks that kill the poetry inside by making it a slog to read rather than a joy; that certainly doesn't help the poet's reputation, or make any reader (other than a poet) want to re-read their ugly chapbook.

The amount of bad design, making for an ugly and difficult reading experience, far outweighs the amount of good design. Online, the capabilities of user options in many public meetinghouses and forums such as MySpace and Facebook have set back good design by decades: just because you can include every dingleberry in the universe on your website, doesn't mean you should. online poetry boards tend to be very ugly. A few online literary journals do appreciate the value of good typography, illustration and design; but they remain in the minority.

Just because you can make your own chapbook on your computer, using desktop publishing software and tools, doesn't mean that suddenly you're a good designer, or know anything about legible typography. Just because you can, doesn't mean you know what you're doing.

Keith Smith's series of books are a tonic, and a solution to these problems and issues. I do recommend them. Next time I'm in Ann Arbor, I'll definitely be back at Hollander's, and I'll no doubt be looking at more of Smith's books there.

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Zingerman's Deli

I was in Ann Arbor, MI, my old home town, around the turn of the year, a few weeks ago, and I did what one must do every time one visits Ann Arbor: I stopped in at Zingerman's Deli. Here's a photo:

Well, okay, that's actually a photo that I've heavily worked over in Photoshop to make it look like a watercolor painting. I'm always exploring new techniques in Photoshop to make pure photos look more like paintings or drawings. This is a new watercolor emulation process I'm trying out. (Click on the image itself for a larger version.) I've developed one or two original filters and processes in Photoshop that are good for pen-and-ink looks; this watercolor look is still a work in progress, in terms of dialing in the settings.

One thing that must be remembered is that every image needs individual tweaking. Even a standardized look is never identical from image to image, but has been slightly customized in each case to maximize the look for that particular image, with its individual color balance, lighting, and contrast.

In some cases, I've printed Photoshop images out, worked them over with paints or colored pencils or technical pens, then brought them back into the digital realm for finishing touches. It's interesting to work back and forth in both analog and digital media, and find a good blend of the two. It makes for some interesting effects. I'll be experimenting more with this anon.

Of course, if you want to just go visit Zingerman's directly, which I highly advise everyone should do, you can start by visiting the Zingerman's website.

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Hopes for Spring

The tailor made a brace of bones.
In it he placed a child's toy.

A lark rose from the briar, alive with bright voice.
The wind left its mark on the vine.

Over the hill clouds made brief statues.
Small crosses of shadow plowed the grass.

Among the trees, a few in bud, brightness.
Snowdrop and early crocus, wedded.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

what endures

time in stone
time encircled by stone
time resting

here's a list of everything that doesn't die too quickly too soon
too slow too darkly faded here's a list of everything that lives
on or doesn't live but leaves a trace behind a trace of lightcone
decision bouncing forward enscribed on etched spacetime here's
a list of everything that lives longer than me you us all of us and
never comes to grief sorrow suffering pain those clichéd endurance
furnace forge tests checklists of pillaged burning memories
here's a list of everything that you can carry with you when you go

outside those trees are waking the light bowing dawn
so here's a list of just what you always wanted

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Geyser Basin, Yellowstone, WY

Color abstractions. The earth making colors "not found in nature," surprising to be so vivid under the high-altitude sun. Now the earth quivers, tremors, shakes. Abstract forms dissolve, reconverge, make new lines in the sand. And melt.

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Yellowstone, WY

ghost buffalo roam
the early dawn meadow,
frost underhoof

Old Faithful

mud volcanoes

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Abstract Realism in Photography

Photography tends to be regarded as purely realistic, but if you crop objects in ways that are unusual, you can create abstract effects. I am reminded of this when I look at some of Andrew Wyeth's watercolors, which are sometimes so graphic and even calligraphic that the realism is combined with abstraction; people think of Wyeth as a realist painter, but there's a lot of abstraction in there. (Just as most critics who accused Wyeth of sentimentality had no clue as the real nature of those lives and places he chose to paint, and how hard-edged and unsentimental they really were.)

In photography, you can focus in on design elements to make an abstraction. This is cropping, or editing, composing carefully to create a non-specific, even non-realistic effect. Patterns exist everywhere, in nature and in man-made objects and structures. Modernist architecture, with its glass-and-steel forms, is a goldmine of layered reflections, geometric angles, and abstracted forms meeting in angles of refraction and reflection that are studies in pure geometry with no humanist content.

The pure line of trees in winter, black on white, can be graphic content with no narrative, no illustrative interpretation, nothing but calligraphy. We give meaning to what we see by putting our projections into it. A line of trees can convey a mood, but it's abstract realism. Fractal math shows us how much symmetry there is in nature, while at the same time conveying higher levels of order that subsume chaos. But meaning doesn't require an answer, if it is self-contained and self-confident. A line of trees become pure line.

Realism in photography is itself an illusion. What we think is accurate recording of image as fact is, rather, open to interpretation and dissolution into something less solid with meaning. The ambiguous line is a real line. Abstraction arises out of observation of natural forms; a truth seen in painting after painting by Georgia O'Keeffe.

So let's not delude ourselves into believing either that photography is a purely naturalistic medium, or that photography only represents objective views. Photography is both realistic and capable of high levels of abstraction, even without manipulation or extended techniques. Sometimes just composing the image in the viewfinder is a discovery process about form and line, rather than a portrait of something claimed to be real.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

All the Michigan Boys

When I was at Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West, where the six-toed cats roam free, aloof to the tourists' antics, where the palm trees shade the garden while the sun beats on the pool, where his old portable typewriter sits in honor on the writing table in the room above the poolhouse, I stood on the second-floor veranda and phoned my sister, who was another tropical child, to brag about where I was standing. Green shutters on every window, and the veranda painted green.

the Hemingway House, Key West

In the gift store, which is in the lower-level rooms of the poolhouse, there is a sign that says:

Mission Statement

Our job is to destroy the myths concerning Ernest Hemingway, because truth is more interesting than fiction.

Unless it's fiction by Ernest Hemingway.

Can't argue with that. I applauded the sign to the store manager, who was running the cash register—I indulged myself in purchasing a nice hardcover edition of The Old Man and the Sea and a few small curios—and she immediately approved of me. We got to talking for quite awhile, as other tourists circulated around us. When I told her I was a Michigan boy and had been to many of the places in the northern Lower Peninsula that were key to Hemingway's work, we became instant friends. She said she didn't get many Michigan boys coming into the shop, and she approves of all of them. That made my day. Who am I to argue?

In the past week I found at a used bookstore Hemingway's Complete Poems, which the editor admitted hadn't been complete in two editions, as more papers continued to come to light and be donated to the Hemingway Room at the Kennedy Library. New editions might occur for a century, who knows.

I also found the reprint of Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin, his daily prose-poems to the suicidal Russian poet, who wrote his last poem in blood then hung himself. Harrison was writing at a dark time in his own life, with a new daughter present, all of them living on a farm in northern Michigan, none of them doing all that well at the time.

Hemingway could not be called much of a poet. Most of his verses were occasional pieces, some of them sarcastic replies to critics or pastiches mocking even his friends among the writers of his time. Harrison is a better poet, occasionally even a great poet. Reading him I want to write, myself. The poets that have meant the most to me have always caused that cascade of words to fall out of me, after reading their words—Rilke, Rumi, Jim Harrison, Jean Valentine, a few others, call that up in me. Call it inspiration, for lack of a more precise connection.

Hemingway wrote some prose-poems included in the Complete Poems that are like letters wherein he changes tone from prose to something more poetic, breaks lines, and dives into that pool of heightened speech. As always, he could be as precise in what he leaves out as in what he leaves in. Some are short narratives that are broken into lines, and structured more like poems; dark folk ballads, as so many folk songs are, about death and blood. The tone in some of these poems is far more bitter than in his polished prose, leading one to view them as more tossed-off, more spontaneous, more personal pieces in general. People think Hemingway always wrote short sentences. That's wrong He wrote some very long sentences that have many clauses in them and don't use much punctuation to separate the clauses. Some of the poems are like that and some are downright terse. You could read the poems aloud with a pause at the end of each line and it would be like bullets shooting into a soft hillside, thump after thump adding up till the roots fall out and the humus gives way and falls. Hemingway was not a great poet, at all, but there are glimmers here, and there are also indications of the rest of his work. Sketches for stories first tried as poems, for example.

Lake Michigan

Harrison's prose-poems in Letters to Yesenin have all the blood and guts of farming in them, you can smell the soil, the rot, the green smell of broken weeds being tilled, the smell of an old fence-post in the rain. People don't think about smell that much, how essential smells are both to evoking memory, and to the pleasures of food and sex. Sometimes it's hard to tell in these letters if they're prose-poems or poems in very long lines with sentences breaking across the lines. It might not matter. Harrison circles around his subjects in self-therapy, watching his moods and playing with expectations and stereotypes—we can't show weakness, it's unmanly—that I recognize well from my Michigan childhood. Granted I grew up in Ann Arbor instead of Petoskey, and I had easy access to Zingerman's Deli, which Harrison approves of and stops at each time he drives through, as do I. I was just in Ann Arbor earlier this month, and stopped at Zingerman's. I also made some other traditional shopping stops, and drove by my old home there in a neighborhood now both older and more inhabited than I remember. Harrison is one of those writers whose books I do seek out, poetry and novellas and novels alike. Like Robert Silverberg and a few others, Harrison's natural fictional form, which he excels at, is the novella length work. The novella is a largely neglected form in fiction circles, mostly because neither magazines nor book publishers think much of it, wrongly it turns out, as the novella is one of the most natural lengths for any fiction. A lot of published novels are just padded novellas anyway. Harrison excels at the novella, and several of his books are novella trilogies published in single volumes. Harrison, unlike Hemingway, is a legitimate poet. Some of his Zen-influenced poetry is among the best Zen-influenced poetry to come out of North America. When you combine that with his observations of nature, gleaned from a majority of time spent living and in direct contact with natural settings and processes, and combine both of those with his poetic style, which reminds one sometimes of Hemingway, you get the occasional masterpiece. And Harrison's food writing is among the funniest and most inspirational of the past half-century.

Lake Michigan

I can sense in both Hemingway and Harrison a tone of voice that I recognize as native to northern Michigan. It's an awareness of life, a direct knowledge of death as a natural part of life, something that comes from living more rural than urban, more aware of the weather and the seasons than those city-dwellers who even condition their air to simulate maximum unchangeable comfort zones. That coddle and weaken us, perhaps, when faced with real humidity, real heat, real cold, real suffering, the death of farm animals, that aunt who froze to death because her heating oil ran out during the January blizzard all those years ago.

Growing up in Michigan, growing up next to and between any of the Great Lakes is different than growing up in the rest of the Midwest. There are no water shortages; swimming is part of every childhood summer, and sailing almost as much. I summered many years in Muskegon, very near the Lake; we were there many winters, too, around the holiday season. My mother was from Muskegon, and her parents lived there till they died. Growing up in the Great Lakes, and especially in Michigan, whose boundaries are defined as being two notable peninsulas surrounded by the Great Lakes, water is your world. Lots of lake-effect snow in winter; lots of heavy lake-effect thunderstorms in late summer. Not tornado alley, but the alley next one over. Weather is news, more than other news. Growing up in Michigan, your lives, and your writings, always carry a tinge of the Lakes perspective, the Lakes attitude. There is always something in your writings that is less urban than universal. Even though Ann Arbor looked to the east coast for much of its culture, its still got a no-nonsense attitude that east-coasters find unexpectedly grounded and centered, while Plains state natives find it more blunt and honest than they are sometimes prepared for. You can say one thing about both Hemingway and Harrison, they have an honesty and bluntness about life that can't be ignored or suppressed. Hemingway came first, and perhaps set the tone for all of us who followed after him, in life as well as in literature. It's a big shadow to find oneself standing in. I no longer deny that connection to Hemingway, because we were both Michigan born and raised.

Lake Michigan boys

Ernest first, then Jim, then me, all the Michigan boys. I've summered at Walloon Lake. I've camped beside the Big Two-Hearted River. I've camped in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, summered at Torch Lake near Petoskey. I've camped in the Upper Peninsula, and further north, on the shores of Lake Superior, up in Minnesota's two extreme north counties that make up the Iron Range and the Arrowhead. I know the lands that gave rise to the other Michigan boys. I feel a connection, and a debt. You can take the boys out of Michigan, but don't take it out on the Michigan boys.

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