Sunday, August 30, 2009

Piano Etudes

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was in music school in Ann Arbor, I wrote a series of piano études. These were occasional pieces, some more technical than tuneful, and were as much about writing for piano as they were meant for playing. I wrote them to keep my hand in. Call them compositional études as well as performance études. It's an eclectic set, no common thread, and was rather fun to do.

In going through my old files and notebooks and journals, looking for other old scores, I've come across a few of these early études. I'm going to post a few of them here, from time to time, as cleaned-up scans. I've enjoyed re-discovering some of my older scores, actually. They bring back memories. But more importantly, the best of them still retain some purely musical interest. (If I may be so bold as to say that.)

Here is an étude inspired directly by my own experiences of learning and performing the Chopin Preludes. (I can still play some of the easier ones.) It's an homage, but it's also a broken mirror, a fractured and fragmented refraction of the original. After all, a great deal of solo piano music has been written since Chopin was active. His music remains among the most important for piano, not only historically, in terms of his contributions and innovations in composed music, but also because his writing for piano is idiomatic. That is, it's music that is native to the instrument, and still sounds best on the instrument; it can't be easily transfered to other instruments, and it sounds best when played on piano. Chopin, throughout his career, wrote some of the most consistently idiomatic music for piano. It was his genius, and his legacy.

So, my homage to Chopin, a little bit strange, a little bit sad, a little bit avant-garde.

Option-Click or Right-Click on the image for a downloadable full-size PDF of the music, suitable for printing and/or playing.

I'll post more old piano pieces, no doubt including more of these études. Feel free to download and play them. The only thing I require, in this spirit of "giving away" my music, is that if someone does download and perform or record one of my pieces, they must send me an MP3 and a concert announcement, for my records.

(©AP Durkee. All Rights Reserved.)

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Turning Away from Words

I feel myself turning away from words, just now. I feel a strain when I try to write an essay or a poem every day. The strain is partly about expectations, and also about how often words have failed me lately. That I cannot articulate my world via words, just now. Even trying to articulate this, choosing my words with a bard's precision, I feel them fall far short of what I mean, or hope to express.

I find myself, this part month, turning more towards music, more than I have in a long time. Perhaps I have reached the end of words, of what words can do for me. Perhaps I’ve been silently making photos for long enough now, with no need for words around the images. Perhaps I’m returning to the music because I’m finally healing from the emotional trauma of the past few years. Or all of the above. I’ve been turning to poetry too much; it’s become a stale habit; it’s starting to run out on me; I don’t have much use for it right now; and I have even less use for the blogosphere or the online poetry world: I don’t want to talk to any of those people, right now. Let them continue with the same arguments and opinions as usual, while I go off and make music. It was a year ago and more that I first turned my back on that world, and left those places behind, while continuing to write poems. Now, I don’t care at the moment if I never write poems again. I have no doubt that I will. I just don’t care if I do, for now.

I know how this opens me to accusations of not being a “real writer,” because writing is not my nervous tic response, the main or habitual channel of expression, for me, when all the world falls apart and there’s nothing left. When the world falls apart, and everything you try to say turns to ashes, that could be acedia—but it could also be a limitation of your chosen medium of expression. Well, I never claimed to be a “real writer”—quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve said many times how writing is a creative channel that’s easy for me, easy to do, easy to fall into; but how it’s not my main channel. I partly don’t trust words because of their apparent ease: too glib, too surface, too easy to gloss over a feeling, turn it into a shallow sign rather than a resonant symbol. Writing can be too easy, and therefore divert and distract me from those deeper places, rather than spelunk them.

I know a few poets and writers who forcefully reject the notion that some things can’t be said in words—they view such comments as heresy. Setting aside any notions of their psychological dependence on their chosen means of expression, there is the simple fact of experience which we have all had, overcome with emotions such as grief, shock, profound joy, overwhelming love: there are some moments when nothing can be said. Wordsworth said to write about it later, when you’re too full of feeling in the moment: but that’s a writer’s tic, and even writers need embrace other modes of life. These are also the same poets and writers, by the way, who claim that “poetry is the highest artform, because it’s the most abstract.” That’s patently absurd, on the simple logic that if you’re going for abstract, there are things far more abstract than words precisely because they’re wordless; for example, instrumental music; for example; dance. Again, it’s a bias peculiar to writers to want to frame all of the ten thousand things into words. The bias of the medium is the bias of those who practice it; no more than that.

I find myself not running away from words so much as feeling stale. I want to turn, positively, towards music for awhile. Not in rejection, not running away, no matter what it sounds like here—further evidence that words fail me lately—but running towards something that feels more able to articulate what I need to express, just now.

I want to re-engage with composing music, and bring that back to the foreground, to be my main focus for the near future. Yesterday morning I started notating a new piece for chorus and instruments. I’ll work on it again this morning. Yesterday I also worked to clean up my old Dowland arrangement, and get it ready to send out to someone. I have ideas for recording Stick music that don’t need to be notated, just recorded, redacted, mixed down. If I only work on m making new music a few hours a day, in the morning, at night, in those usual slots, the morning meditation slot, the late-night slot, if I do that every day for awhile, a lot of music will come out of it.

   Flow, My Tears

Poetry is stale right now. Words are stale. I have been feeling like I’ve been pushing at doing words for a month or so: pushing because it’s become expected of me. Not that I have an audience for any of my creative work, albeit there exist one or two interlocutors of merit. No one cares what I make, amid the welter of empowered creatives generated by the new technologies (questions aside about the superficiality of expression relative to the sheer glut); and I don’t expect anyone to care. But I’ve been feeling that old feeling again of doing something because others like me to do it, want me to do it; of doing it to please others. I don’t want to make poems or music or art to please others. That’s the wrong reason entirely to do it. It’s never a good enough reason, to satisfy my own needs. So I’ve felt I’ve pushed a few times this past month, pushed at the words too hard. And they’ve predictably resisted being pushed—just as I would do. There is no blame; merely an awareness of limits.

So many times this past month I’ve chosen not to write in my journal, because it was too painful, too hard, and I did not want to commit the hard things I was feeling to any permanent record. Doing so would have made them too real, and given them too much honor, too much permanence; it would also have made me go through it all, again, rehash it and dive right back into it, just after having come out the other side. I’ve written down some of the lessons, some of the insights, some of the truths learned. Those are what I want to remember. And the rest remains fresh in memory, for now, should an occasion come along where they need to be shared. But I don’t know that I want to write about these things; or need to. The word “should” is a coercive word, and I’ve been feeling too much lately that I “should write everything down.” I choose not to, just now.

Words can help heal, but they can also betray but not allowing one to move past a hurt and towards healing. Some kinds of healing happen best silently. Or via other media.

This isn’t about suppressing feelings, or being tight-lipped and stoic. You’ve read too much pop psychology if you think that. This is about learning where words fail utterly in their ability to describe certain states of being. I’ve felt betrayed by words that can’t get at what I’m feeling: things better expressed by other means. It’s also going deeper, and some of those deeper places are silent and wordless. Words float on the surface, lily pads on a pond. Underneath them lie places not easily revealed.

Emerging from those watery shadows I hear wordless melodies begin to curl, and rise.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Watercolor Moon

In the past month, I have spent a great deal of time camping and traveling in the northern woods, both in northern Minnesota and northern Michigan. I calculate that nights spent in a tent under pine groves total to almost two weeks, with gaps in the middle.

So when a friend was visiting with her child the other day, and we sat down to paint together, I found myself doing a motif naturally, without even thinking about it, of the full moon passing behind tall white pines. This is something I spent time observing early in the month, on the night of the full moon. It was silent that night, and there were layers of thin, almost misty clouds, whitening the sky, blurring the moon's edges.

I have little control in watercolor, as a medium, and no pretensions towards talent or skill. A definite amateur. I love the effects one can achieve with watercolor: transparent layers built up; soft or hard edges depending on how saturated the brush and paper are; careful blends that create the illusion of depth.

I began this small painting, while simultaneously engaged with my friend's child, with an enso, as I often do, letting the open circle become whatever it wants to become. As with brush calligraphy, we follow the brush where it wants to go, and only begin directing it once the image has started to reveal itself.

This little watercolor is more iconic, more symbolic, not remotely photo-realistic. It symbolizes more than it depicts. While being able to draw accurately is a good skill for a visual artist to have, sometimes—for example, when painting with children—it's refreshing to let all that go, and just paint like a kid again yourself. Not trying to be realistic, not trying to be accurate, just painting from feeling and touch.

I think of these small paintings as sketches, incomplete, unfinished, imperfect—and not trying to be completely, finished, or perfect. A lot of artists make quick on-site sketches, which are later worked into paintings. You strike while the image that you see, or the image in your mind, is fresh, hot, ripe, and burning bright. You can always rework a piece later, or turn it into something larger and more finished.

There are all kinds of sketchbooks. I keep many kinds: journals, brush-calligraphy notebooks, poetry notebooks, musical sketch books. Most of my finished notated music compositions begin in spiral-bound sheet music notebooks. I like the 12-stave sheet music books, letter-size or larger. You feel like you have more room to stretch out. I've filled several such books over the years with sketches of compositions that in some cases became final pieces that were performed, and in other cases remain unfinished sketches. Like poems, etudes are sometimes abandoned rather than formally finished.

Working with a difficult medium like watercolor, over which I have almost no control, is challenging. I like drybrush techniques, where the brush is filled with pigment but not much water. It approaches the feel of working, for me, with good colored pencils; although with watercolor you can be even more translucent in applying color to the paper.

This is only a sketch. Had this been an actual painting, well, for one thing I would have spent more than half an hour on it. Still, it remains rewarding and exciting to me to keep stretching my artistic wings, keep trying my hand new things, new media, keep being a beginner rather than an expert. I learned a few things from making this painting in company with a child; while he was mixing new colors, which he had never done before, and I showed him how to do, I was experimenting with layering translucent washes. I learned a little a few brush techniques from this sketch, a little more about using a very dry brush. I also used some of the colors my companion had blended, as single traces and touches, here and there, to give a shadow or an edge some vibrancy. We all learn by doing.

An artist never retires, never stops exploring or discovering, till the day they die. I think of Matisse near the end of his life, when he could no longer paint due to illness, turning to making paper cutouts: some of his most lucid, most vibrant work.

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Lake Superior

images of Lake Superior, from Duluth, MN, early August, 2009

still waters reflect
storm clouds passing over east—
turbulent mirror

mind of cloud and grass—
still passing over, the wind
moves both sky and mind

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Cemetery, Derry, NH

Every New England village with its cemetery a monument to time. Literally so, often enough. Beautiful places where the dead gather, and are gathered.

Quiet places, even if near the village center. Time moving differently here. Deeper time, if still human time.

The lichen grows along the stone. The moss fills the feet of the tombs. Heather and flowering moss scatter on the lawn, fertile, reminding that life goes on, always, even if all we can see is death.

There is no death. There is only a change of state.
—R. Buckminster Fuller

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Transformative Moment

All those whose lives are spent searching for truth are well aware that the glimpses they catch of it are necessarily fleeting, glittering for an instant only to make way for new and still more dazzling insights. The scholar's work, in marked contrast to that of the artist, is inevitably provisional. He knows this and rejoices in it, for the rapid obsolescence of his books is the very proof of the progress of scholarship.
—Henri Pirenne

I was recently asked what the earliest transformative moment in my life was, that I could remember. Being gifted, or cursed, with an excellent memory, it's hard to choose among moments, when in one's early life everything is momentous, a portentous first. What isn't transformative when one is still young? There have been many moments of transformation for me this lifetime. The genuinely transformative, as opposed to the just really cool, all changed the course of my life.

I mean that more subtly than you might think: sometimes the observable outer course of events changed not a whit, but how you feel on the inside, how you interpret successive events and how you feel about them later, these are utterly changed. One aspect of learning from experience is that one perceives and evaluates experience itself differently. What changes is what we think about events and persons. We constantly re-interpret, endlessly re-evaluate. Everything is conditional, and open to re-evaluation.

The genuinely life-changing experience is not always obvious, dramatic, or easily spotted. Sometimes things take a while to percolate, and you realize what happened only afterwards. The awareness of permanent change, in the moment of its event, is a rare luxury.

Nonetheless there are vivid memories from my childhood that have left permanent marks. I can review these memories still, perhaps colored or papered over by later experience and interpretation, but still very sharp and vivid in my recollection. I can look at several of these early memories, now, and see which have endured as transformative, because I can create a narrative, now, of what followed. Life is made of stories, after all.

There is one very vivid memory I retain from early like, whose actions and events have colored almost everything that followed. I didn't know that till much later, but from that moment flowed many attitudes, approaches, beliefs, and cascading series of similar experiences.

I was eight or nine years old.

There was a nature center, a pond and some woods, some marshland and prairie, with many birds and garter snakes and turtles and other small wildlife, that was adjacent to and associated with the elementary school I was attending, Thurston Elementary School in Ann Arbor, MI. The pond and woods and nature center are still there. Just past them, adjoining the main road through the subdivision where my family lived, which at that time was the extreme northeastern corner of Ann Arbor, was the community pool for the local subdivision at which I spent many days each summer of my youth. These places are tangled together in memory, as well as adjacent in space. I sometimes still have dreams set in these places, in our old house there on Lexington Drive, or in the public schools I attended.

In the nature center there was a small island in the middle, with a small peninsula that goes out towards it without ever touching it. Within the peninsula is a marsh wetlands area. The peninsula, I recall, was made artificially, and was basically a banked trail that veers towards the island then away again. Trees line the trail, mostly on the pond side, leaving the marsh side more open to the sky. I spent a lot of time in the nature center, year-round; some of my earliest memories of encounters with wildlife and birds happened there. I remember one winter morning I was running across the ice covering the pond, when I fell through at a thin patch, got soaked, and spent most of that school day sitting on the classroom radiator, drying out. I remember skating on a public rink cleared off snow and sticks on the pond's surface every winter; I was never a good ice skater, though.

This one afternoon that I remember, it was in early or mid-summer, probably not too long after our last day of school. I was wandering through the nature center with a schoolmate and his older brother. Or maybe we were all classmates, and they'd begun their growth-spurts towards tallness. Always a late bloomer, it seems, my own growth spurt wouldn't happen till years later. Anyway, three boys wandering as friends.

That afternoon, the three of us were walking through the nature center near the pond, no doubt talking about the subjects that boys that age find compellingly important. We walked out on the bank near the island, in no hurry, looking for snakes or turtles or birds to watch. In a tree at the edge of the bank, no more than three feet above my head as I stood right under the tree, there was a male redwing blackbird, a mature bird by the three colors of shoulder stripes, singing with all his might.

Redwings are glossy black birds, with the males over the course of their first years of maturity adding a brilliant colored patch to each shoulder, red, orange, and yellow. They are not just beautiful blackbirds, they are songbirds. Redwings have several different sounds they regularly make. The male in spring emits a loud three-part song, two syllables followed by a long twittering call; it's a territorial warning song, telling other males this is my turf, go find your own. In the Great Lakes and northern regions of North America, the redwing is a migratory bird, absent in winter, coming up north for its summer breeding season. For me, the first sign of spring has always been not the return of the robin, but the return of the redwings: that's when you know spring is finally here.

I stood there, directly under the singing blackbird on the branch above me, and lost myself in the singing. Everything else seemed to get farther away. Only the bird on the branch, singing, was there, in front of me. My friends seemed to be farther and farther away. They may have kept walking while I paused, but I don't think so; I think they were only a step or two away. My vision seemed to focus only on the bird on the branch. I remember his head turning as he sang, looking at us first from one eye, then the other. His bouncing on the branch made it sway, shaking the leaves. I was falling deeper and deeper into the bird's song, and his black eye.

Then, with no warning, I was seeing out of the blackbird's eye: I saw three tall forms before it on the path beside the tree, one shorter than the other two. The bird was singing, and staring at us, and I was seeing from the bird's eyes. The bird was thinking about challenging these interlopers with its song. There was no sense of an "I" present; although there was a sense of some kind of self. Some sense of self-awareness, but not a conscious one; perhaps this is what the Buddhists mean by sentience. I remember that the bird was filled with a kind of all-encompassing hunger, a desire to find food. This complete and utter need to be filled, and the unquestioned demand that need be fulfilled. This must be what it's like, to be a newborn baby, or an animal, to be so utterly and unthinkingly filled with need, with hunger, with every cell in one's being speaking the same thought, the same need. A complete and total, single purpose, single need to be fulfilled. It was overwhelming, utterly and totally enveloping.

I might have stayed there a long time, lost in the bird's mind, but one of my friends spoke me name a few times, then touched my shoulder or my arm. That broke the trance. I was back in my own body, feeling disoriented. I blinked a few times, swayed where I stood, shook my head a little. Then I was back. My friends were concerned. I don't remember if I told them what had happened: I had already, by this age, learned to not tell people the things I experienced. It seemed to upset most people, if I spoke of it. We walked on, while the bird stayed on the branch, still singing loudly. My friends were talking on as before, and I remember we hung out on the school playground next to the nature center for awhile. I remember standing next to the swings while one of my friends pushed himself rhythmically back and forth. I remember being very quiet, not speaking much. I couldn't get the experience out of my head; it stayed with me.

So now you know: one of my personal gods continually takes the shape, every summer, of a redwing blackbird. Redwing blackbirds are forever significant and special to my awareness. They catch my attention every time I see them, and I always stop to watch and listen awhile.

Years later, as part of the Sutras, that series of poems that are records of visions and dreams and beliefs, I wrote clumsily about redwings, hiding what I really knew behind words in a poem, afraid to come right out and say it. But the thread of this transformative moment has left a permanent mark, expressed many times in my writings, where the image of a redwing blackbird will take on a symbolic resonance. And ravens and crows also turn up, as cousin clans with their own meanings and iconography both personal and universally archetypal.

This is how a moment transforms: it rings through you, for the rest of your life. You always go back to the memory of it, no matter how many years pass. The transformation lies in the permanent track or groove into which both memory and symbols slot easily, like the phonograph needle falling easily into the well-worn grooves of an LP record listened to many times. (Sometimes one must settle for simile when metaphor is too strong, too personal.)

A transformative moment conceals itself in everything you do, later. It shows up, again and again, made into its own archetype: a category of personal god-image.

Redwings (The Way of the Animal Powers)

calmly black, call by the roadside:
three-colored elder glides on stiff pinions,
circles me, cocking a dark eye, and lights
on stiff deadwood down the embankment.
the light is fading; I have stopped here before,
to breathe the sunset changes,
to hear the birds gather.
something moves in me, now,
breaking out from my heart.

these sentinel, sergeant birds,
keepers of the gates of change,
silent instructors
who call only to each other,
eyes black, still, silent,

when will my own changing eyes
turn dark, my shoulders sprout colors,
my arms grow strong black feathers
instead of pale hair? I want to be
blinded by the air, and air’s lightness;
I want to spin in the road’s dark blur,
stiff wind splitting the grasses,
wildflowers swirling like late snow.

black wings gather for the evening concert:
those do not sleep, who guard the secrets.
unlikely gift: I hear something like words:
I am spinning, my heart aflame. the wind
burns colder, I cannot walk away;
doors open in the air.
sheets of light, shadows flying.

I slowly, slowly, start to learn
the dark thoughts of guardian birds,
red, orange, yellow:
badges of life, hard words to the ground,
seed fragrances of night.

and a new soul, flying.
find me in fields at sunset;
don’t bring any baggage,
there’s no place to leave it,
and no way to carry it with you
through those gates:
the passages are wide enough
for your elbows only,
and your dark, three-colored shoulders.

(Poem originally written in 1995; revised slightly in 2009.)

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Returning from Elsewhere: Theories

Well-known and influential literary critic and professor Hugh Kenner wrote in 1998 a small themed book of reminiscence and theory combined. Titled The Elsewhere Community, it discusses the mode of learning new ideas that involves travel. It also contains memories of his encounters with many of the literary Moderns, many of whom created displaced, expatriate communities elsewhere. The book is in five parts, which are talks originally meant for radiobroadcast. So a little necessary repetition occurs between sections, so each can stand on its own.

In talking about the Grand Tour, a common practice a century ago of visiting the central cultural sites of Europe, Kenner defines, if only indirectly, what he means by an Elsewhere Community:

"All humans, by their nature," said Aristotle, "desire to know." A special and unparalleled way to know is to go where you're never been. And the key to this quest for knowledge is "elsewhere." In going there, you join what, in these lectures, we will be calling an "Elsewhere Community." It's a concept that is impossible to define strictly. It can name where you dream of going—where bluebirds fly, perhaps. Or it can describe the people you've met somewhere, memories of whom have helped to change you. Or it's an awareness of your own growth and change, arising from the places you've been: Rome's Sistine Chapel, perhaps, or the Zen Gardens of Kyoto, or the green oasis of Manhattan's Central Park.

Going someplace I've never been always makes me feel alive, alert, aware, and undulled. Even on a long day of driving, if I'm on a highway I've never seen before, surrounded by lands, lakes, mountains, fields I've never seen before, I feel particularly alive. It is my goal, in the next few years, to visit all of the US National Parks, and every state in the Union. At some point I want to drive along the Canadian passage to Alaska. I love the north country, and I don't want to just fly over it to get a notch in my belt for visiting Denali, and making photographs there. Photography is the goal, but in a way it's also the excuse. Just going, being able to go, being able to travel, is equally important.

I like to travel slowly, if possible, to take several days to get where I'm going. I enjoy seeing the land along the way. If I could drive to Hawai'i, I would; next best would be to take a boat there. But I'll probably end up flying there, renting a car, and taking off. Who needs hotels when you have fields of pineapple to explore?

Where I differ from Kenner, and from his generation's assumptions that the Grand Tour was to those places that shaped our history and culture, is that my own Grand Tour is about places more than people, geology more than landmarks, geography more than culture. Kenner's artistic generation was drawn, as children of immigrants, to Europe. The Grand Tour was essentially a cultural tour, a tour of the great cities, artists, museums, and history of Europe. Kenner's own form of the Grand Tour, which he describes in his book, was to visit those literary greats of the generation of Moderns that he could encounter who were still alive. He traveled to Europe to see Eliot and others; he traveled in the US to see Pound, Williams, and others. From his encounters with the Moderns he noticed that so many of them had been ex-patriates, displaced, travelers, living overseas; and from this observation was one of the roots of his idea of Elsewhere Communities.

By contrast, I am drawn to tour the National Parks. I want to be there, to feel that wind, that air, that light, that silence, for myself. I am further drawn to visit many state parks around the Union; for state parks often are equally beautiful to the National Parks, but they are relatively unknown. You can almost always find a campsite at a state park, and there are often state parks so near to National Parks that they share their geography and beauty.

For years I've envisioned myself traveling in a small van which I would have converted to sleep in, and have in it a small workspace corner, a small kitchenette. It would allow me to travel and camp at places that are sometimes too hard to set up a tent in, or unsafe to do so because of weather or local wildlife. (Like the time I pulled into an Everglades campground only to read several signs warning about cougar.) I could travel at a slower pace than I do even now, stopping whenever I was tired, or wanting to work. It would be the Zen of Travel: travel when you're alert, sleep when you're tired.

One of the great Chinese poets, one of my favorites, wrote in one his poems the state of being that an aware traveler takes on: Heaven my blanket, earth my pillow. Yang's approach to poetry changed, when he began to travel, from a focus on the poetry of the past, to that inspired by what he saw right in front of him:

Mountain thoughts, river feelings—never betray them.
Rain forms, sky patterns are always beautiful.
"Closing the door and searching for verses" is not the way of poetry.
It is only when you travel that poems will come naturally.

(trans. by Jonathon Chaves)

Yang says, It is only when you travel that poems will come naturally, and this echoes my own attitude, based on my experience. It is a classical Chinese and Japanese poetic attitude, seen in the great Chinese poets, in Basho, and in one who was self-admittedly inspired more by the Moderns' discovery of Asian literature than by their own experiments, Gary Snyder. That's a capsule summation of a central thread of my own literary lineage. I do some of my best thinking when driving on a long roadtrip. I do some of my best writing, my best photographic work, when traveling. It is from encountering the land directly that the poem arises. When I come home and start to work with the materials I've gathered on my most recent travels, I am still Elsewhere even though I am Home. I see my photos, as I sort through them, and they bring up bodily sensations—memory is an experience, not an idea—which give me more poems, art-making, and music. It's a paradox of inspiration and memory and making.

When I think about the van I want to eventually travel in—face it, I'm not 25 anymore, and setting up a tent under some conditions is really hard work—I also think of William Least Heat Moon's travelogues, beginning with Blue Highways, in which he traveled and lived just such a converted van. I also think of the station wagon that Ansel Adams traveled in on many of his journeys, which he sometimes slept in, sometimes traveled with others in, and on the roof of which he had built a platform for his camera. Stories abound of Adams pulling over, quickly setting up, and making a photograph.

I have to say, here, that I had the idea of traveling in a converted van for myself; but I am pleased that other artists have had the same idea. It's a natural idea, seen in many cultures across many times. The word "caravan," from which "van" is derived, is itself a very old word.

In my own instance, rather than a rooftop platform such as Adams used, I would build a small corner behind the driver's seat, with a computer and flat-panel screen built in on shockproof mounts, where I could download and archive the day's digital photos, and begin to work with them, at night, camped, after a day's travel.

I realize that there would have to be a bookshelf in the van, as well, secured somehow against the books scattering onto the bed at every sharp turn in the road, because as I sit here writing, I realize that I am pulling books off the shelves and scattering them on my desk to make these references. I would have to carry at least a few texts with me, there's no way around it. Some for inspiration, some for pleasure—a lazy day when you don't want to go anywhere, just loaf and read all afternoon, is bound to occur on any given trip—some for knowledge.

Hugh Kenner says, a bit later on:

Within The Odyssey we find the story of a second journey. A supernatural being named Circe—a female magician—tells Odysseus that the only way to get around the Sea God and get back home is by traveling to the Far Shore where dwell the Dead. Once there, he must consult the ghost of a sage named Tiresias. And so Odysseus undertakes a journey after knowledge, fueled by his desire to get home. The knowledge he acquires turns out to be his means of finally getting home. For to travel is always, in some sense, to learn. What we don't know yet, is to be found Elsewhere.

I want to continue with that idea: people traveling after what they do not know. Such a pursuit is a way of seeking entrance to the Elsewhere Community.

So we set out after knowledge, to see places and people we've never encountered before. Joni Mitchell once wrote in a song from her "road album," Hejira:

People don't tell you where they've been
They'll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself
You never really know.

Hejira (the word denotes a journey to escape danger or oppression) is an album of music that lives among others in my truck as a permanent fixture, as a central part of my road music listening collection. It's an album I listen to mostly on the road, because it perfectly captures the feeling of long-distance traveling, its dislocations and its joys. In another song, Mitchell writes:

I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows
Of my wanderlust.

One point of traveling with a few creature comforts, like in my theoretical caravan, is to minimize the effects that "strange pillows" have on one. Sometimes you want the pillows to be exotic and strange and unknown. Sometimes you want to carry your own pillows with you, and sleep in your tent, even when the parcel of ground you're on changes every night. And even my own pillows can seem strange, at times, when I've been traveling for a long time.

In a final turn of strangeness, when we have danced so hard that we slip sideways into other times and spaces, we come to the most recent, most technological form of the Elsewhere Community: the Internet. Kenner discusses the Internet near the end of his book, describing how it has the potential (not yet fully realized) of becoming a truly global communication tool. It creates virtual relationships that collapse geography, bringing people who share affinities into apparent close proximity and dialogue, disregarding the separations of actual distance. In this, Kenner follows the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, who was one of his first mentors. (McLuhan was traveling with Kenner when they first met Ezra Pound; it was this first meeting with Pound that shaped a great deal of Kenner's future interests and career, and Kenner cites Pound as another of his great mentors. Mentoring writers was, after all, one of Pound's great contributions to modern literature.)

Because the Internet collapses space, traveling to learn is less necessary. Your library desk becomes your office or home desk, where The Library of Babel is available now, mostly, at your fingertips. The Final Encyclopedia or Universal Encyclopedia is starting to manifest itself. It is a scholar's paradise. Both data and interpretation are available directly from sources that in previous times would have been either unknown or unavailable. One can go out and do research, and make relationships, in ways both simpler and more complex than ever before.

The Internet is made by its users. There are portal-tenders and gate-keepers, but the content of the Internet is ultimately made by, contributed to by, invented by, its users. Kenner describes the Internet as not being owned by anyone yet; other writers have also described it as a free zone of thought, a temporary autonomous zone, and the last (or next) wild frontier of free thought and free speech. Its attraction to me lies in those realms, in fact: democratizing connection and removing the gatekeepers of discourse allows me, as well as you, to go out there and say what you need to say, for better or ill.

So I don't need to travel as much as I did, to get knowledge. I can stay at home and find many things out. Still, I do travel to learn, and I travel to go see places I haven't seen before, because I want to let those experiences have an impact on me, and change me. I use the Internet a lot for my pre-roadtrip research: to find out about places I want to visit, to find out about places along the way where I might want to stop, to discover information I might need to know traveling. And there are always surprises on the road, nonetheless. The Internet contains only an illusion of approximate total content; in fact, a great many experiences in life cannot be virtual, and never will be. It's easy to get caught up in the "new is inherently good" cycle, that dream of progressive technological utopia that is a principal legacy of Modernism, without ever conceding either consequences or alternative channels of learning. The Internet is still the new toy on the block, still very shiny, still very narrow-band in what it can actually give us.

The chief danger of virtual community is that it might only be pseudo-community, an apparent community that can fly apart from its own energies at any time. Sometimes we think we know people better than we do, online; virtual reality gives us a sensation of intimacy, especially intellectual intimacy, which can be illusory. (Hence the high drama of betrayal and argument cycling constantly throughout the literary blogosphere.) Relationships can be built across vast geographical distance, yet one perceives is still a representation, a persona, an avatar. It's not a matter of who you trust, or what you believe is real. It's rather a reminder that in some ways, all of experience is maya, illusion, virtual or otherwise, and it is necessary to sort through all kinds of noise to get at the signal.

If the Internet is not a huge Elsewhere Community, it is at least a collection of many Elsewheres. Some merge and overlap, many do not. But discovering which is which is another kind of learning journey, another kind of roadtrip for the mind to discover and gain knowledge from. And be changed by, even as the land and what we build upon it change, albeit at different rates.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Returning from Elsewhere: Dislocation

Having spent much of the last month living from a tent—sleeping in a tent, waking when the sun hits the tent, going to bed when tired, traveling long distances by driving, all across the northernmost parts of the Midwestern parts of the US, the northern regions of the States of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—I'm having serious difficulty with re-entry. I feel dislocated, like I'm not really here. Here I am, back home, after some serious driving, feeling like I'm camping in my own house: like it's not real, just a bigger tent; like I don't really live here or own the building; like it could fall away from my life at any time, be folded up and put aside. For awhile, after almost every roadtrip, I feel like I'm just camping out here, with no real sense of ownership, or mutual contractual possession. Eventually I can sleep in my own bed again, but for awhile I sometimes find it easier to sleep on my camping air mattress, on the floor, cocooned in my usual nest of blankets that I sleep in when camping out. Things fail or refuse to work properly, when I first get home, that I used to depend on. You can be scared by how enraged that makes you.

Time is part of my dislocation. I wake with the dawn, even as I usually do when sleeping in a tent. It's that one is not ruled by the clock, so much, but that the clock becomes irrelevant. Where's the sun in the sky? Is it warm enough to emerge now from my cocoon of blankets? How much sunlight do I need for today's chores and/or planned activities? How much daylight is left? These questions are more relevant. But so are the questions raised by the spiritual reading I tend to do in the morning, and even take with me to read in the tent, first thing in the morning, over a cup of tea brewed on the propane-powered portable Coleman stove. That first cup of tea makes a huge difference.

So it is with a recently published book by Zen master and teacher Dainin Katagiri, Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the way of being in time. A book compiled from transcripts of dharma talks, like many similar Zen-talk books, this one is themed around the questions of time, organized around the central truths of Zen philosophy. Katagiri-Roshi says, for example:

Sometimes we think doubt is not good, but doubt is important. It's not so important that we should become crazy from it, but if you are questioning, that's fine. We need to question. Even though you don't get answers to your questions, all you have to do is just swim. Questioning is always going on in real time; it is always returning to zero. So, little by little, questioning becomes questionlessness. That's why Dogen says to swim on the surface of the ocean with your foot touching the bottom of the ocean. This is just swimming. We have to swim in the big scale of the world. Then questioning is also right in the middle of time, and very naturally questions disappear. Why do they disappear? What makes them disappear? Time, truth, buddha-nature, makes them disappear. Time gives us questions; time gives us answers to our questions.
—Dainin Katagiri, from Each Moment Is the Universe

Space is part of my dislocation as well. I've been a peripatetic wanderer much of my life, semi-nomadic even when rooted. This comes, perhaps, from traveling so much as a young boy that I don't have a real feeling of Home Town, the way most people seem to have: when your childhood is literally split across the planet's antipodes, and you don't have a sense of growing up surrounded by one familiar set of surroundings, people, and culture, sometimes the only sense of Home you can generate is about where you are right now. The nomad's Home is wherever his tent is set up for the season: you carry Home within you, and constantly re-plant it. This I do know.

Thus I had a most peculiar sensation, yesterday, driving across Michigan's Upper Peninsula—a rare sensation for me, even a phantom one—that this land, this place was Home. That I could, eventually, move there, settle there, feel at home there. I can't explain why Michigan, as a larger place, would start to feel like home to me, now, after years away, and even though no one specific place in Michigan is Home, just that sense of being up North in Michigan. Perhaps it's because my parents' ashes are now buried in Muskegon, in northern Michigan soil. In one day's driving, up and down the Leelanau Peninsula, then over to the UP and down, I crossed the 45th Parallel three times: that mid-way line between planetary equator and pole. Each crossing seemed significant. My thoughts wandered. But nonetheless Michigan around the 45th started to feel as familiar as I imagine a Home Town must feel to those who, unlike myself, have had one in which they grew up: the land, the light, even the smells, are familiar, comfortable, known. I felt perfectly at ease, at rest—able to come to rest—comfortable and calm on the roads and trails, wandering along under even a bleak rain-filled sky.

There is little nostalgia for place in me (except for sacred places I have encountered and significantly remembered), and very little sentimentality about childhood. It's not that I lack feeling, in fact I feel rather too much from childhood still, it's that it isn't sentiment, which is always unearned emotion, it's a sense of place. I am connected to the North American land—geology, lake, formations, and textures—in ways I can feel deep under my feet but that words cannot contain. Right here, under my feet, I can feel the distant hot throat of the Earth's mantle, and every layer of new and old rock between my feet and the unimaginable antinomic alloyed core. The crust of our planet, from a certain point of view, which many geologists learn to see from, is as chaotic, messy, fragile, and changeable as today's news. It's all a matter of time-scale, of viewpoint. The earth feels permanent to us, who move quickly across it, but it all changes, has changed, and will change again.

In a life of dislocation, how many things can you learn to trust, and to continue to trust? Only those few things that remain universal, despite your travels, that have never let you down. I trust the stars, even when they change overhead as I travel. I trust the earth under my feet, its sense of solidity and geologic history, which I have a strong feel for, in that strange way that geologists become slightly odd about time, flipping back and forth as they must between considering deep time and making sure to steer the car down the road rather than into an outcrop.

So I'm reluctant to dive right back into the fray, to re-engage, to take up the sword of cutting remarks made to display wit's weaponry in arguments about absolutely nothing. The world expects you to dive right back in as soon as you get back, no hesitation, no pauses, no time to re-adjust, and I find myself rebelling, even angrily ignoring those demands. So much gets put back into its proper perspective when one travels and returns: The news is not newsworthy, but a filler of silences and a slurry of time you could spend in the garden; the news would have one believe that the apocalypse is always happening, right now, and we'd all better care that the world is coming to an end. But the world is always coming to an end, and always has been. The things people seem to care about most matter the least; you know you're supposed to also care, yourself, but you find yourself unable. What I linger on is what I've encountered at the end of a bad day of departure: a six-point buck standing by the roadside, waiting to cross, its gaze meeting mine fleetingly; a mature bald eagle in a branch of a tree ten feet above the road, talons and beak digging into its prey, in its majestic self-confidence unafraid of the road beneath it, and who might pass fleetingly by. If they're not dead, they live there still.

The endless arguments and debates one encounters wherever one turns are about nothing, and matter nil. I pay my bills, I read in the morning, I ignore the news. (Every genuinely important piece of news gets through to you, anyway, when a friend calls to tell you, or you get an email, or it's everywhere on TV interrupting everything.) There are events and pseudo-events, and the news mainly reports the pseudo-events of minute changes in the political climate or the lives and deaths of the celebrities whose lives one is supposed to live through vicariously. As though we peasants had no lives of our own. I see in my absence one of the morning glory plants has exploded with new leaves, and is beginning to attach itself to the stone wall next to it, training itself horizontally along the slates. Is that not news that matters?

I let my beard and hair grow a bit shaggy while traveling this past month, and I see some white-haired, wizened poet's face in the mirror this morning who I don't recognize. He looks more like an experienced, now-deceased 60-year-old gay poet I've renowned, James Broughton, than he does like the 20-year-old uncertain young man I often still feel like, inside, unsure of what he wants to do when he grows up. Am I finally grown up? Humans have a unique ability, it seems, due to the gift of consciousness, to time-travel between younger and older selves. We play like children at any age. We fool ourselves into fixed opinion, thinking it to be wisdom, far younger than we ought; then we spend our adulthoods stripping away those youthful certainties, not replacing them with new certainties, but with deeper questions. If we can learn to live the questions, time-travel between older and younger selves becomes all that smoother. Time gives us questions; time gives us answers to our questions.

My slogan this epoch, invented jokingly with friends while camping earlier this month, probably something I'll design a t-shirt around at some later date, was:


It's not just a choice.
It's a lifestyle.

I remain disoriented by what I'm told I need to care about, which I mostly find myself unable to care about. I cannot claim, like a monk, to never watch TV; but I do claim to strictly limit that diet, and to do my best to avoid its junk-food components. I cannot claim, like a wizened poet, to have an experienced overview of what really matters in life; I can only claim, at this point, that there are few things that really matter, after all. One of those is love. I do my best to remember to say I love you to those people I do love, at the ends of regular conversations, just in case it's the last thing we ever say to each other. Freshly back home, when the little technologies and means of daily life fail, I am scared of how angry it can make me. Can't the Things in life just work right, for once, just for once, without falling apart or failing? Just once? We know we live in an entropic universe, which is the modern Western scientific equivalent of the myth of the Fall. Myths, if you recall, are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Entropy is the new face of evil.

One of the stresses of travel is change: travel is a real breaker of routines. Those patterns of habitation and possession one builds and collapses into when living in one place for a long time all get thrown out the door when you hit the road. You have to remember to take enough of your routines with you that your health and well-being remain guarded and cared for. Some days you even have to remember that you get tired, simply tired. Travel is tiring. But so is returning home. Which routines do I want to pick up again? Which as necessities, and which are optional? You find yourself asking these questions anew, and perhaps making changes. When I come home again, I can briefly see it as a strange place, just another hotel room, with an objective eye that reveals what might be improved, might be altered. I make decisions about what I want to do next with the place. Some of these are organizational, but others are aesthetic. It's a brand new home, each time you return to it. Maybe that's why I only get around to fixing some of those failing technologies when I'm fresh home from a roadtrip: they irritate me more, or newly enough to do something about them.

So where am I supposed to feel at Home? I still feel like I'm camping out here, back "home." It's all very familiar, yet it's also rather alien. I can't seem to summon much interest in anything, especially in diving right back into the fray. Maybe the old myth, found in more than one nomadic culture over the millenia, is true after all: If you travel too fast, or too long, it may take a few days before the soul can catch up with the body. And so I must wait awhile, before taking up those burdens of life again. It takes a few days to really arrive. If I ever really do.

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Sometimes It Needs Only a Word, Some Things to Take Into Account

Restless, just back home today from another sojourn, this time a musical one with words inadequate to convey it, a road trip for music's sake, unable to sleep tonight, probably, knowing my own habits and tendencies, knowing I'll probably end up curled up on the couch rather than in bed, worn out finally by tiredness, still, too tired to sleep, mind still spinning from two long days of driving home after the music seminar, turning at last to those small books, some taken with me on the travels, to be read in the tent in the morning, or over breakfast, or just to keep in the breast pocket, a talisman, others pulled at random from the shelves once home, restless, late at night, pulled down to read on the couch even as the mind whirls and the eyes begin to fail.

And everything begins to converge. To find some kind of connected meaning, or meanings, gathered together as though intentional, as though planned, as though guided by a hand unseen in any light the eye can see, that inner light of the true human. And it all ties together, and somehow connects. Perhaps it's only that it's late at night and I'm writing this as a way of avoiding going to bed. But perhaps there are indeed connected threads of meaning here.

Man is nourished by the invisible. Man is nourished by that which is beyond the personal. He dies from preferring their opposites.
—Jacques Lusseyran, from Against the Pollution of the I

The great Lusseyran, made blind in an accident at age eight, an organizer of the French Underground during the Nazi Occupation of France, a survivor of Buchenwald, who went on to obtain advanced degrees, and teach many. Lusseyran, who admitted to no limits, and who wrote and spoke often about the inner light that being blinded had allowed him to see. The inner light that both gave him hope, and heart, and the poetry of living, and which was also useful as an absolutely accurate lie detector during the Resistance in Paris. Lussyeran, whose legacy in English translation is only two or three books, but among the most luminous of the 20th Century, as luminous as Pacem In Terris, as Thomas Merton, as others, who all echo through each other's thoughts.

Discovering recently one more unknown Thomas Merton book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, written in 1962 but published only in 2004. A book censored and stopped by the Abbot-General of his Trappist order, who told Merton to stop writing about peace and war. But the book was printed in mimeo, and distributed by hand, only a few hundred copies, but some made it into the right hands, and the book probably influenced the Second Vatican Council in 1962 through 1965, and probably influenced John the XXIII's encyclical Pacem In Terris, which profoundly influenced Frederick Franck, and gave him a name for his home in upstate New York, which became a place for his iconic artworks and buildings and work in stone and steel, which I visited in May earlier this year and which moved me so deeply, as I anticipated, that I can still barely speak of it, or what I experienced. Sometimes you reach the end of words, sometimes it needs only a word, and there are some things to take into account.

On my travels this past month I took with me a small volume titled The Pocket Thomas Merton, which, along with Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior, has been one of those breast-pocket talismans as I went through the day. Both Merton and Basho rode along with me, these past two days, nestled among the detritus of travel on the passenger seat of my truck, as I drove home.

The real violence exerted by propaganda is this: by means of apparent truth and apparent reason, it induces us to surrender our freedom and self-possession. It pre-determines us to certain conclusions, and does so in such a way that we imagine that we are fully free in reaching them by our own thought. Propaganda makes up our minds for us but in such a way that it leaves us the sense of pride and satisfaction of men who have made up their own minds. And, in the last analysis, propaganda achieves this effect because we want it to.

This is one of the few real pleasures in life left to modern man: this illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, someone else is doing his thinking for him. And this someone else is not a personal authority, the great mind of a genial thinker, it is the mass-mind, the general "they," the anonymous whole. One is left, therefore, not only with the sense that one has thought things out for himself, but that he has also reached the correct answer without difficulty—the answer which is shown to be correct because it is the answer of everybody. Since it is at once my answer and the answer of everybody, how should I resist it?

—Thomas Merton, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Merton would be pleased that his writings still mean so much to the current world. His would be equally dismayed that his words were still so relevant to our social conditions that have in some cases changed not at all, in other instances have worsened. He would be appalled at how necessary we find his writings now more than ever. He would be both horrified by and resigned to our contemporary tyrannies we inflict upon ourselves and each other.

When I read Jacques Lusseyran, or another survivor of a WW II concentration camp, Viktor Frankl, I read words written by minds that were made truly free by the circumstances of confronting the end of existence very often, very personally. I encounter minds truly free, in every way, from the conventions of social politeness. Minds truly free because they have actually thought things through for themselves, by themselves, and not settled on everyone else's answer. Merton was another freed mind, freed by early encounters with death and dislocation, a mind who had to write in order to know what he himself thought, and who created meaning as he went along. Frankl wrote often about how we create meaning out of the search for meaning itself.

Here's a truth that few will tell you: Our much-honored legal system doesn't prevent anyone from doing anything. That it does is a lie. We are all free to do anything we want to do, at any time. It's a matter of choice. All the legal system does is remind us that their are consequences to our actions, some more than others. The laws of conduct that we impose upon ourselves are a set of expectations about social interaction and relationship, encoded in the language of both civil rights and of authoritarianism alike.

Sometimes all it takes is a word to remind you that you are truly free, that you have always been free, that you will always be free. And that every choice has meaning, even if only the meaning we choose to give to that choice. And that every action has consequences, that nothing happens in a disconnected vacuum. Our modern, and post-modern, sense of alienation is as much as cultural ideology invented by our times as all those ideologies from previous eras in our culture that we, in our post-modern hipness and irony, mock. In fact, contemporary hipness and irony, especially in literature and the arts, is as stale an ideology as anything it itself condemns. Once, it was meant to break us out of complacency: now it has become a newer complacency. It only takes one idealist at a time to remind us how far off-course we have let ourselves stray. Such voices are rarely without controversy.

This is what prophets do: warn, remind, cajole, threaten us with the truth. Prophets don't prevent anyone from doing anything. But they do remind us that there are consequences to what we do, what we choose to do, consciously or otherwise. We are free to act, to create meaning. But we had better know what the price will be.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

What I Like About David Hockney

He's always exploring. He doesn't settle into one style and repeat himself endlessly. He plays. Not everything that results is good, or good art, but it's always interesting. His interests keep expanding. His style as an artist keeps changing. As a viewer of his art, he keeps me guessing, and makes me think.

He sometimes leaves part of a drawing or painting unfinished. He allows an outline of a figure or shape to remain an outline. He's not attached to absolute realism. Thus, his paintings and drawings evoke emotion and memory because they become iconic, presenting just enough detail to relate to a specific personal experience, and leaving out the details that would force the art into being purely biographical rather than universal.

His homoerotic drawings, etchings, and paintings. I like the way he paints the male nude, but often only suggests rather than explcitily renders. There are subtleties and reflections in this way of suggesting a nuide's form. His nudes can be highly charged, highly erotic, but they stay this side of the line of explicit pornography. They are about the people inhabiting the flesh, not just about the flesh. This might be the result of using friends as models, rather than strangers. You can see similar looking for the person inside the flesh in the art of other artists who use friends as models.

The way he frames a painting, it's often like a snapshot from a camera, rather casual, even apparently accidental. I like the way things are often not formallly framed, but go out past the edges. Going outside the frame gives a composition energy, as though the story continues beyond the edge of the picture, or the end of the book. It is the conventions of closed narrative that habituate us to tidy endings, neat resolutions, and definite ends to stories. Hockney de-habituates us from our expectations of formal compositions and tidy endings by giving us untidy snapshots and voyeuristically casual compositions. It's almost as if the composition didn't matter: yet one can be certain that Hockney was very thoughtful and careful about it, and worked towards that effect.

Probably his most famous paintings are his swimming pool paintings. But they're only one style and one period from his larger body of work. They're iconic in part because of their subject matter, and how he treats that subject, but they're not his most original work.

Cubism shows up most strongly in his photo collages. He has frequently stated that Cubism was an important and powerful influence on his art. Yet I think his most Cubistic innovations lie in his assembled photo collages. These are often Polaroid pieces, many individual shots taken of a scene from multiple viewpoints, then arranged evocatively. This is a technique for collage in photography that I have used myself, and I admit to a Hockney influence here, among others. I find Cubist-inspired photography to be very fertile precisely because it allows me to step outside of narrative and tell about some person or place from simultaneous multiple viewpoints outside normal time. You're able to see everything all at once: when you re-arrange spatial perception you inevitably re-arrange your awareness of time as well, because they are inextricably linked.

I like many of his drawings for their graphic sense: design, layout, overall scale and arrangement. As a painter he isn't afraid of white space. White space seems to terrify most people, including artists and graphic designers. In commercial publication, white space comes as a premium: each inch of paper that can contain info or advertising usually does, as that's how you make a profit from your publication, by packing it in. There can be an artistry to dense-packing, but one of the key differences between commercial art and fine art is their intentions. Hockney sometimes plays with this tension, as does Robert Rauschenberg, by toying with the tension between dense-packing and an evocation of openness. One reason some of Hockney's California paintings are so popular, including the swimming pool paintings, is that they evoke the archetype of the open spaces of the West, which is linked to our mythologies of open spaces, the open road, endless travel, and the psychology of openness that underlies all this which is based on the heroic individuality of free choice. One thing I like about camping out in the wild areas of the West is the silence: unfortunately, just as white space comes at a premium in visual design, so too has our aural space become increasingly constantly filled with noise: silence too comes at a premium. I think most people are afraid of silence; of emptiness; of the void; of white space; and do everything they can to fill it in rather than just let it be. Hockney's iconic California paintings evoke a high-class (lifestyles of the rich and famous) aesthetic experience because they are both visually quiet and seem to be silent. There's a silence and tranquility present, even in the double portraits wherein there is depicted tensions in the relationships between the people being portrayed, and between the subjects and the objects that surround them in the painting. Hockney seems at times quite playful in his depiction of an artificial stillness that we all know is a fiction.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Returning from Elsewhere: Narratives

Well. I'm back.

From eight days camping in the Northwoods. Off the grid. Off the map, even. From dipping into Lake Superior's mists and shoals. From No Place Between. Northernmost Minnesota, above the Lake, in the Arrowhead counties that have few paved roads once you leave the shoreside highways and towns behind. Where they call the region The Top Of The Map. Where you're as close to Canada as you can get without treading waterlines, where you're closer in mood and art to the Arctic than to life in the cities.

Back from all that happens when you go: those rapid intense changes to the self that happen when you're focused in and there's no outwards distractions to keep you from mortal spelunking. From being dislocated at least once into a shards of what you once believed, given permission to fall apart on the lawn and take several days to stitch yourself back together, a kind of reconfiguration that honors the old pattern of self without duplicating it, or its mistakes. From the annual hard work of camping with others that takes its toll on your strength and energy: having fun at such a high intensity is as tiring as having a meltdown, because living life at such high intensity for more than a week is always exhausting, and requires time to process. From sleeping in utter dark and silence, with a loon calling occasionally from the neighboring lake. From getting out of the tent in the middle of the night for a moment, to witness the Milky Way covering half the sky, foreground veiled by the tall silhouettes of cedars and white pine. From starlight bright enough to see to be able to walk the trail. From the long glare of a close meteor, so bright it leaves a long tail behind it, so close the fireball at its head is green-white with the light from distressed burning ions. From where a bachelor wolf came into the cabin clearing the other day, a little bit lost and curious. From dipping naked into the Temperance River, and Hare Lake, and showering outdoors under water hand-pumped cold from the well and heated in 55 gallon oil drums over a small fire to run down the hill through hoses and valves and emerge as liquid ecstasy.

And I'm not back.

Part of me always wants to linger, after returning from a week's camping, or a roadtrip, or a photo travel expedition, or just going to visit someone Elsewhere. I'm always reluctant to dive back into the virtual world of Connexion, be it online, via phone, or even just to let the neighbors notice you're back. Of course they will, anyway, when on a steambath morning in August you're unloading the truck, shirtless, and piling clothes and blankets for laundry, washing the road dust off the windows, and opening the tent to air and dry it out. The tent lies on the lawn on its back like a satellite dish or an upturned beetle kicking the air, helpless and cleaned out. It's a downtown market morning but do you really want to do the work of getting dressed and going out.

You want to linger in the silence that you slept in, comfortably, for the past week. You get no better sleep than sleeping outdoors in a tent, in utter silence and darkness. Sometimes very strong dreams emerge from it. Time has shifted; nothing ever seems quite as urgent as it did before leaving. Reluctance to re-engage with the high speed traffic of email and Connexion from everywhere via cyberspace, that feather-light non-touch that means nothing to the body. Even reading books in the morning, the usual morning practice, shifts away from deep thought towards deeper thoughts in fiction or poetry, those truths that can tell deeper human truths because they cloak them as lies.

You want to take a few more days to return, to gear up to speed slowly and gently, not grinding your gears, not pushing or being pushed faster than inner quiet requires. To spend at least a day doing nothing but laundry and silent integration before you take up all those other conversations that Connexion requires.

And eventually get back into the pace of everyday life. But maybe slowed down a little. Maybe a little more thoughtful than before. Maybe with a slight sideways look at what people take for granted, don't think about much, a look with a little suspicion that it doesn't have to be that way, that it could maybe be better, or at least different. A little detachment brought back from No Place Between, to protect you from the vice of egoism, the sin of pointless drama, the sadomasochism of everyday life. A bit of perspective, no judgment on it, a bit of detachment, learned from Elsewhere, and those gods that walk there, reminding you that whatever you think you need to live, there's Something More than this.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Acedia & Writer's Block

I am struggling a great deal with acedia. I have a great deal more to write about the topic, to think about, to work on, although I'm not sure I'll share all of it. I'm not going to define my terms at the moment; either I will explicitly do so, later, or I'll let definitions accrue by example, so that they remain organic rather than intellectual. It's too easy to compartmentalize definitions in this intellectual age: to label them is to quickly dismiss and disregard them. We might call it moving on and not dwelling on a topic, but we might also call it by its other true names, avoidance and denial.

Acedia is a very unpopular topic in modern life. It is a word known mostly to religious, rather than to the general public. I have only ever found three or four books that openly discuss acedia by that name, or by its more poetic name, used by the Desert Fathers in the early centuries of the Christian era: the noonday demon. We can be as poetic as we like about acedia: those how have experienced it will recognize it immediately, no matter how metaphoric or obscure I wax. In discussing acedia, my intent to is undertake (again, periodic) self-examination, a true looking-inward as poets of the self must do. Those who have never experienced acedia will all too readily dismiss it as neurotic self-denial, or chronic depression, or narcissistic asceticism. Even monastics, who should know better, have mis-diagnosed acedia in these ways.

What I've learned, without being able to create a narrative of cause-and-effect, is that acedia appears often in those who've undergone the dark night of the senses, and the dark night of the soul. Does it come over one before, during, or after those deeper forms of spiritual shadow crisis? From my own memory, which is usually a good memory, I can't truly decide. I can date when I passed through the dark night; and I can date again, from looking in my journals, when I sank into the dark night again, later. One is apparently prone to periodic relapse, if one has gone through that door. But now, I am on the verge of questioning whether these relapses have not in fact been bouts of acedia, which in the spiritual literature (lectio divina: my morning practice involves reading in the world's spiritual literature, among other practices) is recognized as an aftermath of the dark night. Little tremblors after the big earthquake. Aftershocks that can take years to unwind.

Acedia is not depression or despair, it's more than ennui or a lack of fulfillment in life. It arises in ways that contrast strongly with all of those; and it has other, usually spiritual, treatments. Whether or not one maintains any kind of faith in, or connection to, a spiritual community, acedia is something that can arise in any spiritually-inclined person, at any time, for no apparent reason. In the monastic literature, it is considered a vice: not to judge or condemn it, but to acknowledge it as a temptation that can powerfully distract one from one's own true path. In those lay monastics such as myself, who continually catch ourselves reveling in spiritual ambition and spiritual materialism, acedia can be a blessing as well as a vice. I had a terrifically horrible day yesterday, feeling punched down by life under a bloody full moon, feeling victimized and lame; yet the horrible, familiar, deadly, dangerous, beloved anger that I luxuriated in all day long had, by morning's light after a long night of uncomforting and disturbed sleep, revealed itself to be another bout of acedia. This morning I can recognize yesterday's helpless anger and despair as part of a cycle, not a fatal end in itself. I am sure that I am hard on my friends at those times when I can see no way out, no future possibility of happiness or joy, no exit to the hell I find myself in. I can only endure; and at the darkest hours of those dark cycles, I endure not because I can see any light at the end of the tunnel, or any reason to go on living, but because I'm a stubborn bastard who out of sheer perversity won't give in. At my irreducible core there's a stubbornness and determination that has so far kept me alive, no matter how close to despair's suicidal cliffs I have skirted. That irreducible core, which sometimes presents itself to me as a fierceness and loyalty to life beyond anything I can ever put into words, contains a strength that I identify with the Warrior archetype, which so often chooses the harder path because it is the right path, the right thing to do.

And yet, the gods tend to provide one with what one needs in life, even if one doesn't know one needed it.

So it is that just a few days ago I came across a copy of Kathleen Norris' book Acedia & Me: A marriage, monks, and a writer's life. Norris is a writer who has a knack for synthesizing very old wisdom with a very modern sensibility. Her books are firmly set in the present day, and when she talks about herself, it's usually to point out how old wisdom is still very applicable to modern life. (Unlike writers for whom confession equates with narcissism, Norris never strikes me as presenting an inflated ego.) Most of her books deal in one way or another with ancient monastic wisdom and experience, as transmitted to us via the historic writings of Christian, Buddhist, and other masters. I like Norris' tendency to pull a lot of disparate materials together to show how in fact they're all talking about aspects of the same thing. I recognize this essay style as similar to my own.

So it is that, after a bad day and night fighting the noonday demon, sipping my usual morning glass of orange juice and deciding what aspect of my start-the-day practice to do, I sat on the porch and began to read Acedia & Me. Within a few pages of reading, I encountered this passage:

Disgust with life often has to do with the life one has chosen, and when the bad thought of acedia attacks one's very identity, it causes great pain. The Benedictine monk Gabriel Bunge has noted that doubts about the validity of one's vocation may start small, and only slowly creep into the consciousness. But "with the passage of time [they] erode one's inner certainty, like constant dripping on a stone." This may correspond to what psychiatry observes as the cumulative effect of episodes of severe depression, and its effects—the numbing of the soul, and an increased inability to conceive of ever being happy again, let alone stable—are no doubt similar.

Writers often doubt their vocation and find themselves in droughts that, unlike the normal rhythms of arid seasons and more productive ones, can cause unnatural silences. Joan Acocella observes that "writer's block" is a modern phenomenon, the result of a change in perceptions of artistic inspiration. "Before," she states, "writers regarded what they did as a rational, purposeful activity which they controlled. By contrast, the early Romantics came to see poetry as something externally, and magically, conferred," and were convinced that they would produce their best work in their early years. Wordsworth spoke of poets in their youth, who "begin in gladness," but "thereof come in the end despondency and madness." Later, Acocella points out, the French Symbolists became known for not writing at all.

Another poet, Coleridge, sounds as if he may have been suffering from both acedia and despair when he lamented in a notebook from 1804: "Yesterday was my Birth Day. . . . So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. O Sorrow and Shame . . . I have done nothing!" For young writers the pressure of having to make a living can diminish their ability to concentrate on the work that matters most to them, while older writers fear that they have used up their material and have little left to offer. Writers are also blocked by alcoholism, but Acocella reports that therapists who work with them are finding that many are drinking less and exercising more. It is good to know that I am not alone in this regard. . . .

Acocella finds that some practitioners are baffled by their writer patients' attitudes towards therapy. One expressed disappointment that his patients so rarely wanted to discuss their art. They had sought practical help with a range of mundane issues, including "noisy children [and] obtuse reviewers. And, once [the doctor] helped them deal with these matters, they quit treatment." The therapists was surprised by what I suspect many artists would take for granted, that they "didn't care what underlay their creative functions. They just wanted to get back to it, as long as it lasted." This seems reasonable to me, and thoroughly sane. To Edmund Bergler, the twentieth-century analyst who coined the term "writer's block," and once remarked that he had "never seen a 'normal' writer," I can honestly reply: That's all right. I am not certain I have ever seen a "normal" psychiatrist.

—Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, pp. 148–150

My inner certainties have been eroded, or just taken away, more than once in this lifetime. I've had episodes of severe depression; but not, I think, chronic depression. I actually find it really annoying when friends, doctors, and others suggest that I undertake a drug treatment for chronic depression: it's annoying because it misses the mark about what's really going, and also because it is something other people want you do because it would make them feel more comfortable around you. So what if I don't always cope ideally or perfectly with life, paying the bills, and other mundane, ordinary tasks: who does, really? It's never a good idea to collapse into perfectionism when the spirit is involved. On the one hand one encounters the whirlpool of medication to support social conformity (reputable insider psychiatric studies have indicated that patients are diagnosed with depression at least 25 percent more often than necessary, and dosed with medication for chronic depression at the same rates), and on the other hand the clashing rocks of perfectionism and the expectations one carries about one's own behavior and idealized social and romantic interactions. Medicated social conformity reduces to peer pressure to adhere to an arbitrary set of behavioral norms; perfectionism about idealized images of what people are supposed to be like reduces to internalized self-hatred and bullying. So while I affirm that I've experienced severe depression several times in life, sometimes from being directly targeted by bullies and other forces, every fibre of my intuition continues to raise neon flashing warning signs whenever someone suggests a long-term drug-related cure for an essentially spiritual condition. Monastics have long recognized that both physical and spiritual illnesses will arise within a cloistered community; discernment must be used for treating each appropriately. Look, if you break an ankle, there's no-one better at treating it than an emergency-room doctor or nurse. But if your heart has been broken, there may be other, better treatments than what allopathic medicine can provide. Medicine is very good at applying physical, mechanical solutions to mechanical, physical problems; yet it remains not so very good at holistic approaches to healing.

The issue here is that what we consider "normal" (or normative) is almost universally illusory and defined more by the exceptions than the norm. As a writer who manifests and engages with several non-normative aspects of self, biography, spiritual practice, and sexuality, who has often been defined as an outsider by others even while desiring nothing more than to be accepted, I can testify that it is the distance between our expectations of what we consider to be normative, and who we actually are, that trips us up every time.

After the continuous run of profound, life-changing, spiritual, familial and social crises that I've been dealing with for the past four years, I do not find it mysterious that I continue to have to battle with acedia, or that I continue to have flashbacks to the dark night experience. But what I am not, is numbed-out, drugged into dispassion (I don't even self-medicate with alcohol the way so many writers do), or incapable of ecstasy. I do have long periods where I feel incapable of ever being happy again—but then, happiness is not my goal. I view happiness as a byproduct of life, not a civil right. And I do experience profound joys. I do continue to struggle with high-amplitude waves of ups and downs, good days and bad days, that roller-coaster of emotion and rational response. Some days all I want is to feel is a steady, even keel, or to float at the surface of the waters, rather than sink beneath them. I'm not at all concerned with "the pursuit of happiness," that most pernicious myth built into our culture at its founding—as though happiness, whatever that is, were a godsgiven civil right to which everyone is entitled at birth. The ideology of entitlement is a dangerous set of expectations that lead directly to disappointment, dismay, and even despair. How many people think they're depressed simply because their lives didn't work out they expected them to? It's an uncertain universe, and it's unwise to trap oneself into expectations of guarantees and certainties. People need to learn to ride the wavs of change rather than condemn them as, well, depressing.

It's fascinating to think of writer's block as a modern phenomenon—there is so much truth in that. Writer's block can be so rooted in expectation, in stereotype, that many writers simply aren't self-aware about. Artistic inspiration can be a problem when inspiration goes away; but the problem for the writer might simply be that they perceive a temporary condition (a fallow period, an arid season between seasons of life-giving) as permanent (i.e. the Muses have abandoned one). This is a confusion of expectations, not of sources. I find I don't experience writer's block, because the world itself is so full of inspiration that even on those days approaching my darkest I seem able to write a haiku about something I've observed, or experienced.

At the risk of being labeled a post-Romantic, I typically side in this debate about writer's block with those who extoll the sources of inspiration, rather than with those writers who view writing, in the pre-Romantic manner, as a dominantly rational, purposeful activity. It's all very well to view writing as a rational activity when one writes within a fixed tradition with known and solid rules that define what is poetry and what is prose. But while that could work for poets 300 years ago, today we must somehow come to grips with what has happened since, both historically and literarily. Some view the current lack of a determinative literary-cultural mainstream as chaotic and too frightening (these tend to evolve into formalist poets), while others view the loss of guideposts as liberating (these tend to write among the avant-garde). Both viewpoints have validity, but neither is complete in itself—just as pure inspiration is incomplete without knowledge of the writer's craft, just as rational, purposeful writing that emphasizes the mechanics of craft is incomplete if it has nothing to say, to have been written for or about. Being possessed by the Muses can end in narcissism and confessionalism, but writing without inspiration can end directly in the aridness of acedia at its worst. No wonder poetry and literature are experiencing an existential crisis nowadays of major proportions: no-one seems to be aware of why they're feeling hollow and unfulfilled. Yet treatments for writer's block will remain ineffective as long as writers continue to confuse acedia with depression.

The point here—the treatment for writer's block, if you will—is to change your expectations, to reframe your "writer's block" as a necessary fallow period, and thereby to stop making it worse by obsessing about it. Just let it go. And also let go of any worries that your ability to write won't return, eventually. Nothing prevents inspiration from returning like dwelling on one's ideas of what it should look like, based on what it used to look like.

Metaphorically, artistic creativity has always for me been a watery, fluid experience. As the Tao Te Ching says, referring to water, What is of all things most yielding, can overcome that which is most hard. The term "dryness" used in association with acedia is for me a literal dryness, like the dry, arid season between harvesting and new planting in agricultural cycles. I don't suffer from writer's block, in part, because I view fallow periods as impermanent as everything else. The Buddhist viewpoint is that everything is impermanent, which means that all things change. It also implies that dryness is also impermanent. Acedia is not forever.

This morning, I paused in reading Acedia & Me to reflect poetically on my state of mind yesterday. I wrote two short haiku-like poems in my journal, and a near-monastic laundry-list of points detailing where I was guilty in my expectations of spiritual ambition, materialism, and pride. The virtue of pride is self-awareness, as opposed to blind hubris. Of these writings this morning, here's the short poem I think might be worth keeping; I won't bore you with the rest.

the master sits
silent on the lakeside dock—
the only moving thing is
his fly-whisk

Below is a short list of books that deal directly or indirectly with acedia. These are books every afflicted writer can get benefit from reading. None of them are writer's guides, none of them address the tools of the trade, none of them are books of comfort and support-group platitudes. Rather the opposite. What all of these books have in common is an unflinching, necessary exploration of the questions that arise from the encounter with the darker aspects of the self—I won't say creative self, both because the experience is universal, but also because much of this literature assumes that we are all creative selves, one way or another—based on experience, literature, and introspection.

Michael Novak, The Experience of Nothingness. (1970)

Novak interestingly devotes an entire chapter to an experience of nothingness written about by William James in his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Andrew Solomon: The Noonday Demon: An atlas of depression. (2001)

Kathleen Norris: Acedia & Me: A marriage, monks, and a writer's life. (2008)

Matthew Fox: Original Blessing, particularly the section of the book on the Via Negativa. (1983)

Robert Jingen Gunn: Journeys into Emptiness: Dogen, Merton, Jung and the quest for transformation. (2000)

Very few other books, excepting the traditional monastic literature, are available that address, or even mention, acedia. There are some other spiritual book collections that discuss dryness, sloth, and other aspects of acedia. But this is still new territory. I suspect more writers than every before will come to recognize their own experience of acedia in this still-largely-unknown literature.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Responsories 2

Are there certain categories or types of images that readily evoke an ekphrastic response—a poem written in response to the image in question—while other images are so "finished" or "self-contained" that they not only don't "need" an ekphrastic response, they don't evoke one? I'm pretty sure that's an unanswerable question, because individual poet's responses vary widely, and context probably matters a great deal; yet it might be worth examining briefly.

I've written about ekphrastic poetry before, as Responsories. I've also written about how this can catch up the viewer and involve them in the harmonics of human experience.

This meditation was inspired by several responses in the past year to an image of mine, taken while on a road trip through Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The road named South Boundary Road in the Porcupine Mountains winds through hills and valleys and glades, and dead-ends at Lake Superior, at the M-107 state highway. Keep going forward and you'll get your tires wet in the lake itself. So there's a sign placed there, which seemed both thoughtful and whimsical to me, and which I made a photo of in fall of 2007:

This image has now inspired responses from two poets that I know of. Jim Murdoch wrote a poem in response, titled "T-Junction," then wrote a long essay on Responsorial Poetry. Now Glenn Ingersoll has also written a "poem" in response to my photo. I'm tickled that an image of mine has captured the imagination of other creatives to this extent: it's one of the best responses any artist could ever ask for, for one's own art to inspire art-making by other artists. It's these responses to art, which are the root causes of ekphrastic poetry, that we want to discuss further here.

I turned left at the sign, by the way, and continued up the ridge that parallels the Lake Superior shore, arriving at a scenic overlook above Lake of the Clouds, one of the most beautiful attractions in the Porcupines. I was on a fall color photo road trip through the Upper Peninsula, and this was one of the more spectacular stops:

(Click on any of the images for larger versions.)

I included the road sign image as part of a sequence of images interlaced with haiku and haibun in a poem titled water & light. When I write a poem sequence, whether it's a series of haiku, or haibun, or other kind of poem, in response to a sequence of images, I find myself interlacing them, so that the two sequences intertwine, winding around each other, and commenting on each other. It's a back-and-forth pattern of responses. Ekphrastic poetry is usually taken to mean one poem in response to one image, one painting or one photo. I find I usually prefer to do sequences.

When I sort through photos from location shoots and studio sessions and road trips, a poem will often appear in my mind, in response to the image. Not every image evokes a poem; most in fact do not. Most poems that get written during this process are short, haiku-like poems; or actual haiku, or haibun. There are some exceptions, such as the long sequence of poems titled Basin & Range, which was written both from photos and from memories, and later adapted as one element of an original short film of the same name.

This is not an innovation, it's actually rather traditional: it was not uncommon, in classical Japanese literature, for travel diaries written in haibun style to be published in illustrated editions. I like to think of my photo sequences when interlaced with poems as being a modern heir to that ancient tradition. It could also be considered as falling within the tradition of haiga, or haiku poems with painted illustrations. I am also currently working on other short films that incorporate my photography, music, and poetry into multisensory media.

The question arises: Why came first, the image, or the poem? Is it truly ekphrasis if the poem inspired the image, rather than the other way around?

In some cases, for example those illustrated editions of Japanese travel diaries, the poem definitely came first. There is a long tradition in most of the world's literate cultures of publishing new editions of favorite poems or stories with newly-commissioned illustrations. New illustrated editions of selected poems by favorite poets continue to be made.

For example, there are several illustrated children's book editions available featuring one of Robert Frost's most famous poems, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." A couple of winters ago, I drove out with my camera into a powerful afternoon blizzard in late December, taking numerous photos, some few of which I then used to make my own illustrated version of Frost's poem. (Another children's book someday? Perhaps.)

There are many images that evoke music in me, as a response, rather than poetry. When I look at photos of the Grand Tetons that I made in September, 2008, what I hear in myself is a great silence, full of wind and light, and then, somewhere off in the distance, a kind of music. A melody appears, perhaps, or a sequence of sounds that are musical without necessarily being tonal. I remember how loud and quiet it was when I made these photos: it was windy and cold, at times during that day, and it had rained all morning before the clouds parted dramatically, just as I arrived at the Tetons. I was in a state of continuous ecstasy, of ongoing exultation, for hours that day, as I drove around in the Tetons, stopping to make photos, but also stopping once or twice just to listen to the mountain silence.

When I sorted through these photos, all I was able to write up were prose travel-diary-like memories and impressions. Now, I can look again at these photos (some of which I have printed and framed to mount on my own walls, as favorites of mine from within my own body of work), and I see myself sitting down at the piano keyboard to respond. This is musical photography, as well as poetic photography.

I am encouraged in continuing my artistic practice in this direction, once again, by the spirit of Ansel Adams, who I felt to be hovering nearby as I made these photos in the Tetons, and who was himself also a musician and a writer. Sometimes an experience is so deep that you respond to it in more than one medium, more than one mode. There is a harmonic of shared human experience between what Adams saw in the Tetons, and what I saw, many years later; there is no doubt a harmonic of human experience between what we both felt, there. Adams wrote repeatedly that his photographs were felt experiences that he interpreted, like a musical performance, during the process of printing, to hopefully inspire the viewer of the images to also have a felt experience.

The musical analogy is a very deep one, in photography; and goes beyond the superficial issue of photographic content.

For example, this is one of my favorite portraits that I've made of a musician in the act of playing music:

Emmett Chapman, Los Angeles, January 2005

The portrait is of Emmett Chapman, inventor of the Chapman Stick Touchboard, one of the principal musical instruments that I play. The portrait is of Emmett's hands on the Stick fretboard. When I made this portrait, I was thinking about how Emmett had invented his two-handed tapping technique for playing guitar in the 1960s, then developed the Stick as a musical instrument to support his innovative playing technique. Emmett continues to be one of the most original thinkers I've ever spent time conversing with. (He also invented an offset modal theory for music theory and performance.)

Here's a more jazz-impressionistic portrait of Emmett playing Stick:

The blur is evocative of the spirit of the music in the moment—it is a response to the music while making the photograph. While many photographers continue to view blur as nothing more than a technical flaw in any photo, sports and music photographers have long used blur as an impressionistic technique.

For me, these photographs evoke sound, music, light. They are responses to the moment the photo was made, to be sure, but even in memory they carry some of the spirit of the moment. If I've successfully captured my felt experience in the photo in such a way that other viewers also have some sort of felt experience when viewing the photo later, I'll be very pleased indeed.

To return to ekphrastic poetry, and to the unanswerable question asked at the outset, I still have no answers. My experience is that some photos are indeed so self-contained, monadic, and experiential in themselves, that for me they evoke no artistic response beyond making and/or viewing the photo. But for other poets, they obviously do. Maybe the road sign photo will continue to inspire more new poems; one might even suggest an exercise along those lines. Pick a photo and respond to it. Make art-making into a dialogue. Open up the conversation to cross over between media often thought to be separate and unequal. And reverse the process, too: make a photo based on a favorite poem.

The possibilities for ekphrastic dialogue—for dialogue it is, this responsiveness—seem open-ended and vast.

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