Essays, poetry, art, photography, music, & interconnected creative & design work by a semi-nomadic polymath multi-media artist in the Western and Midwestern USA, searching for perfect moments.
Friday, November 27, 2009
A Rose Ritual, a Year and a Day
Last weekend was the anniversary of my mother's birthday. Just over a year ago, I undertook a ritual of remembrance, for a year and a day, for my parents. I bought some yellow roses for my mother's birthday, then red roses for my father's. I also bought roses on the anniversaries of their deaths. I've spent a year and a day on this private, personal, invented ritual, not knowing where it would lead. After each group of roses dried out, I added them to a glass bowl kept on my mantlepiece, next to the tall vases of dried roses from my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary, and a rose each I had kept from their funeral bouquets.
Now I've completed the year and a day, and feel complete with the ritual. I don't need to extend it, or repeat it. It has served its purposes. I may celebrate my parents' lives by remembering them on their anniversaries, and it no longer needs to be in this ritual form. I now release all forms and contents of these rituals. It is accomplished.
To complete the ritual, I did something a little different, to both end the cycle, and to open it out into infinite future time. Trusting my intuition, I went to the florist on the day they were having a sale, and so I purchased a full dozen roses, now opening broadly in two vases on my table. Today is the first sunny day we've had in a week, so the rose blooms have been subdued in the gray daylight. Today, they're exploding with color and scent, already beginning to fade a little. For these dozen roses, I bought even numbers of yellow, red, and white roses. I will eventually dry them, and add them to the bowl on my mantle above the fireplace.
And I also bought myself a more enduring plant: something to sustain the life-brining aspects of having living things in one's home. I'd been thinking that my home needed some indoor greenery, as well as the garden surrounding. My home especially needed a living plant to nurture me through the cold white months of winter. So I brought home a christmas cactus, already in bloom. My parents used to have a christmas cactus in their home, which I had to give to a friend during the moving-out process, as I was too overwhelmed at that time to deal with houseplants on top of everything else. That cactus had bloomed on Christmas Day at least three times in my memory, over the dozen and more years it resided in my parents' living room. This is the first indoor plant I've bought for my new home. It's low-maintenance, which is just what I need, and brings green and color into my rooms. I look forward to spending time together, and sharing our breath.
To complete the ritual of a year and a day, which I have been writing about as it proceeded, here is the complete series in chronological order:
Last week at rehearsal, we had with us for the first time the flutist and percussionist to play through my new piece, Weavers of Light. It was a predictable jumble, as everyone was fumbling and sight-reading. Hearing it with the instrumental parts added to the choral parts, especially in the last section of the piece, gave me the feeling that it's all finally starting to come together, and the actual performance might be acceptable. The choral parts are getting rehearsed enough, now, that they're starting to smooth out, and are mostly choppy at the various section transition points. The flute and bells parted, added to the piano part, were very choppy and tentative this part rehearsal, however, hopefully they'll come along.
I learned many years ago that an excruciating dress rehearsal can lead to an exquisite performance. Having a bad dress rehearsal focuses the attention: it puts the fear of Whoever into the performers, and they Pay Attention much better during the performance itself. So I actually like it when a dress rehearsal is painful, bad, and sucks. We have dress rehearsal coming up soon, then the performances themselves the weekend after next.
Just to be clear: You should never try to make dress rehearsal. You always do the best you can, at every rehearsal. If it's going to be a bad or a good rehearsal, your job is to show up, do your very best, give it your full attention, and keep going. It's just that if dress rehearsal does happen to suck, you go with it, suffering in the surface, smiling secretly within.
Dress rehearsals are high-pressure moments. The remaining flaws and flubs and uncertainties about the performance tend to be exposed to the harsh light of reality. Since it's last full rehearsal before performance, it tends to raise the tension level, and if a mistake is made, people really do their best to not repeat that same mistake in performance. It's a last chance to screw up, to get all the mistakes out of your system before going onstage in front of the audience. It sharpens one's attention, and clarifies every remaining flaw in the weave.
When you turn in a piece of music to the group to be performed, it's no longer entirely yours. I have been consulted all through rehearsals about fine points, tempi, and other musical matters—it's very handy having the composer at hand to ask question of him—but in the end, I'm not conducting the piece, it's not my job to interpret it this time out, as I'm going to be only voice within the chorus. So, you have to give up some control, or desire for control. You have to trust that the outcome is going to be in good hands. You have to surrender to the inevitable, and have faith that everyone will do their best.
My piece has been placed in the middle of the program, where it will be part of the flow. I'm glad it's not programmed first on the menu—never a good place to put a premiere, as it's over too soon. You want to build up some excitement and anticipation in the audience before delivering the payoff. It's not at the end of the concert, when our voices and our bodies will be starting to get tired. At beginnings and ends you want to program show-stoppers, which sometimes means placing the pieces there that will make the audience laugh, or be raised to a climax of ecstasy. Bring them out of their seats, at the last, if you can.
My piece doesn't end on a showstopper moment, it ends by returning to silence; so it's good to place it in the midst of the flow, and have it be followed by a piece with similar rising and falling in its energies. People will remember it better that way, one hopes.
Intense, vivid dreams last night. Dreams with family, memories, in familiar places and also in places never seen before. A large house in summer time, my family there; cousins and aunts coming to visit, after some funerals before the dreamtime; did you meet that one relative before? yes, at my grandmother’s funeral some years ago; a house like a version of my old house in Ann Arbor, but larger, distorted, harder to get around in; yet my room was like my old room; talking with my Dad at the breakfast table, before everyone arrives, then going back up to my room to change from my casual non-dress into real clothes, as the family members pull up in front of the house, in a giant red convertible; my one favorite cousin has come to look much like her mother, but softer, more open, and she is driving the convertible. So, dreams of family and friends, dreams of gathering together for a social occasion, to eat a meal.
Dreamwhale surfacing, Pinole, CA, 2005
Today’s Thanksgiving Day. I had plans, but they’ve all fallen through, and I’ll probably be spending the holiday alone. I’ve been too sick, too poor, to do anything different. I’m not really up for a long drive or other travel plans, anyway. Just as well, probably, to stay home and rest, have a quiet day.
So. All my plans for Thanksgiving fell through, and whatever other plans might have developed, too, as no one called me back. I'm too sick to travel without exhausting myself, yet everyone seems to expect that I'm the one who always has to do that work of travel, in order for us to get together. So I've been alone all day. I have been having a mostly quiet day, listening to some music, and reading and writing, although once the sun goes down here, all too early, I plan to do some baking, and make myself a small exotic feast. Why not? I love cooking, and I love eating, and tant pis if none of my friends could be bothered about getting together this year.
Late last night, before going to bed, I got to watch it snow for the first time here this fall: wet heavy snow that whitened everything, but was gone by the time I arose again in the late morning. It’s windy, cold, and blustery out there today. I may stay in all day, or I may go out and do a little stonework in the garden. I’ll see how I feel in the next few hours.
I just got back in from working a little in the cold, wet garden. I did some stonework gardening, finally, that I've wanted to do for about a week. It felt good to get my hands into the dirt. Always very healing to connect to the earthmagic. Now I'm sipping Prince of Wales tea on the porch, and warming up my bones again.
Now the light is fading. It’s getting dark, and I’ll turn on the houselights soon.
I made a large double spiral at the northwest garden corner of the house, where I haven’t been able to get anything to grow yet. There are those wild bushes there, and groundcover, but that patch has been bare. Maybe I’ll try to plant some lavender there, in between the spiral arms, come spring.
Spiral in sand, San Gregorio Beach, CA, 2005
I also spontaneously did more stonework in the bedded garden on the east side of the house. The usual feeling of being called to make a land art sculpture, which happens at certain sacred places when I’m traveling. The spirit or energy of a place calls to me. After I made the large double spiral that I’d envisioned making since last week, I had more stones in my pail, so I followed my feelings, and went over to the east side of the house. I’ve been putting different kinds of groundcover in there, to merge between the bushes. It’s very bad soil, but certain kinds of groundcover, such as periwinkle, will thrive and spread there anyway. I also transplanted some chives in there this past spring, and they’ve done well. I made a little stone path from house to wall, near the water faucet, and two stand alone spirals. It felt good to work in the earth today.
If you can’t garden with plants, this late in the year, you can still garden with stones and earth.
Turtle Creek tributary upstream, WI, 2009
I was thinking about land art sculptures, the past few days. I need to go down to the river later, down to Turtle Creek, maybe tomorrow, in the afternoon. I can make art along the river banks there. I can gather some wood for carving later, fallen debris or whatever. I’ll dry it over the winter in the garage, as I am drying the wood from the tree branches that fell down in the windstorm a couple of months ago. I had been thinking that I couldn’t make any land art around here, and I realize now that I can. I just have to go down to the river path and do some exploring, walking, and making down in there.
As the sky darkened, I lit candles in several rooms, and turned on only a few of the electric lights, just the minimal.
I baked white chocolate scones while I was making a reduced glaze from the juice of two fresh-squeezed oranges. It takes about two hours to simmer the orange juice down to a thick, gooey glaze.
Then I pan-roasted long strips of breast-meat chicken in olive oil and lemon pepper and spices. When the chicken was cooked through I laid it on a bed of fresh baby spinach over rice. I glazed the chicken strips with the reduced orange sauce, and ate the meal with a couple of glasses of wine.
And that was my feast for the day. I made it for myself, and ate it myself, and felt good about it all. I actually have a bit of that eaten-too-much overstuffed feeling you're supposed to get on Thanksgiving Day. So that feels good. I might have a pie of apple pie with vanilla ice cream before going to bed, later on. Meanwhile, I'm sitting wrapped in blankets with another cup of tea.
And that was my solitary feast. Shared here, now, and thus made less solitary, and more convivial.
I've noticed—and it's been pointed out before by others—that a great deal of youthful writing is in grand sweeping general statements, while more mature writers tend to be more specific, personal, precise.
Last night, looking through old notebooks for something else, I found an old red three-ring binder of most of my oldest typed poems. I wrote these mostly sitting cross-legged on my bed in my mid- and late teens, the typewriter propped up on its case as a kind of desk; typing on the bed was quieter than on my desk, where the typewriter keystrokes tended to resonate through the wooden legs of the desk and into my room's wooden floorboards. I liked writing in privacy, so typing on the bed was quieter, perhaps more intimate.
Skimming through those oldest poems, most of which are crap, I saw so many generalities, so many grand sweeping statements. Perhaps younger writers put down these grand sweeping thoughts because they're incontrovertible—who could argue with them?—and young writers are insecure, still barely finding their way. As a young writer, I spouted off grand statements about life, the universe, and everything, trying to find myself within them. I was trying to find, or make, my own own identity, by working from the universal to the specific, from the philosophical to the story of my own life. So, most of these very early poems, many of which are fragments of unformed free-verse that might as well have been journal entries except they're broken into lines on the page, tell me nothing about myself, about what I was thinking at the time.
Except by inference, deduction, and their ability to help me remember what I was thinking and feeling around the time I wrote them. I am looking back into my own teens, right now, to reconstruct the unformed identity of who I was then, in the same way that these very early poems are unformed.
(My parents gave my sister and I identical Smith-Corona manual typewriters for Christmas one year, and I used that typewriter—my first typewriter—as my main writing and composing tool for well over a decade, all through high school and college. I took class notes by hand, in a tiny but accurate printed script, and all my papers were typed up on this typewriter. I can see where the ribbon needed replacing in the three-ring binder of old poems, where the poems began to be a little light on ink, then the next page is darker.)
It seems to me that a writer more mature in their craft tends to work from the opposite direction: from the personal to the universal. More mature poets don't start with grand sweeping philosophical statements, although they might end up there.
One of the virtues of mature poetry is that is brings the reader into the world the poet is making. Juvenile poetry tends to be so self-centered that the reader isn't brought in. The old writer's aphorism of "Show, don't tell," applies directly to the observation that younger poets often tell us what they're thinking, or tell us what to think, but they lack the craft to pull the reader into the experience for themselves.
A sweeping general statement might tell us what to think, or what the writer thinks, but the progression of moving from the personal to the universal invites to think for ourselves, while giving us the poet's embodied experience as a guide.
There may be an arc to a poet's career, as well: that, late in a poet's career, he or she might revert to sweeping generalities. This is not always the case, as some older poets continue to refine and extend their insights, become ever more supple and limpid in their great age. Yet some elder poets do seem to run out of steam, become exhausted, and revert to the grand philosophical statements typical of younger poets. Or they might have lost their way, due to failing health, failing clarity of mind, or the troubles of life, which can be exhausting and drown both inspiration and the ability to respond with one's full attention and craft.
Walt Whitman, even in his early editions of Leaves of Grass, written when the poet was in his 30s, was full of descriptions of experience, of lists of places and the kinds of people found there, which give weight to his underlying, philosophical arguments. Yet his late editions of his book contain many revisions, probably born of an increasing if forgivable reticence in response to a lifetime of artistic rejection, which make the poems less specific, more general. And some of his last poems are the grand sweeping philosophical statements of a young writer. Some remind me only too well of my own fumbling unformed poems in that red three-ring binder. What saves Whitman's poems in, for example, the Second Annex of the "death-bed" edition of 1891-1892, is that he has years of writing craft to use when writing his vague philosophical comments. For example,
A vague mist hanging 'round half the pages: (Sometimes how strange and clear to the soul, That all these solid things are indeed but apparitions, concepts, non-realities.)
I recently found the last published book of Robinson Jeffers' poems, The Beginning & the End, and other poems. (A posthumous collection, although some of the poems had been organized and collected by Jeffers over the preceding decade.) Although this collection contains a few poems written at his full strength, such as the famous poem "Passenger Pigeons," much of this last book is afterthoughts and aphorisms. I am again reminded of how similar these essentially prose statements about grand sweeping philosophies, broken almost arbitrarily into lines on the page, are to the grand sweeping statements typical of youthful poets. These late poems remind me of juvenilia. For example, this bit of late-life spleen:
For fifty thousand years man has been dreaming of powers Unnatural to him: to fly like the eagles—this groundling! —to breathe under the seas, to voyage to the moon, To launch like the sky-god intolerable thunder-bolts: now he has got them. How little he looks, how desperately scared and excited, like a poisonous insect, and no God pities him.
Despite Jeffers' distinctive voice still coming through, his strong, granitic way of phrasing things, this is a general philosophical statement, barely hung on the frame of the natural world—that observation of natural rhythms and forces which was his natural poetic environment when he was at his best. Like Whitman, his many years of honed craft prevent these late poems from being actual juvenilia, yet there are many similarities in intent, if not exactly in execution.
To go back to my own juvenilia, I am astounded to notice that I numbered the typed pages in this binder, up to page 205 or so. Most pages contain more than one poem, or fragment of a poem. Most of it is crap, of course, but I can say that I was at least being diligent as a young writer, trying to learn my craft by doing, and doing more, and more. I was if nothing else very prolific in my process of learning to write poems. A few of the parody-poems, at least, are witty enough to make me smile; which I can do because I had entirely forgotten them, and so could approach them today as if written by someone else.
There are many crossings-out and revisions in the binder, a few hand-written replacement pages, some entire poems stroked out and rejected. I've never had a talent for rhymed meter, which is very evident here; one or two whimsical poems or parodies have some wit to their rhymes, but little else. I think I've thoroughly proved that I am unable to write an adequate sonnet.
I freely admit that I was a child of late 20th C. Modernist poetics, which tended to view rhymed meter as quaint—although I was an Ogden Nash fan as a boy, and my father had a lifelong passion for limericks—while more "serious" poetry was of the Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound lineage. So some of the best of these juvenile poems—and one or two of them have survived into my more mature work, albeit rewritten—are free verse, organic forms, open-ended structures. I can see, in the few adequate-if-not-great poems in here, the seeds of a later style and approach. There are a few very strange turns and metaphors, not quite surrealist but easily magic-realist, that would develop into something more, later on.
I can see the lineage of my own development here, if nothing else, and what I see is that my current way of looking at the world, my unique use of language to convey experience, was already in place. I may have acquired more craft in the intervening years, to better support and shape a poem's voice, yet I can already see, in these very early poems, some topics and worldviews that I continue to hold. I guess I always did. What made me a better writer, over time, was learning the skills and tools of poetic craft, but the visions were already there, already in place, already liminal with light from other worlds.
I'm extremely irritated right now. I was just chastised, on a free and open forum discussing spiritual issues, by someone for not giving away for free my knowledge and experience, in the form of my original writing about my own life. The chastisement arose because I signed my writing, and used the copyright symbol and dated it.
It was implied that only charlatans earn their income from selling their teachings. (Even though I posted this on a forum, for free, with no expectation of anyone even reading it.) It was implied that only a "controlling teacher" would use the copyright symbol. It was implied that I was a bad person for not simply giving away, for no recognition, no cost, no signature, all my hard-earned writing, knowledge and experience. It was presumed that my use of the copyright notice, after posting my own writing, somehow meant that I was trying to force people to believe what I had to say, that I was a running-dog capitalist, and that nothing I said could possibly be of any merit because obviously I was preaching my word from on high!
This is utter bullshit.
And this is what Harlan Ellison has to say about that, which I completely and utterly agree with. (I've posted this before, but apparently even some writers need to be reminded of it.)
Harlan Ellison is exactly right: Why do people assume that writers don't need to be paid? or even given credit, in the form of a proper citation after a quote, for their work?
I'll tell you what I think: Since these implications about my being bad and wrong happened on a forum about spirituality, and since many people involved in searching for an alternative to establishment religions are incredibly dysfunctional about their expectations in terms of their training and search for knowledge, I can make educated guesses about the thinking behind the person who tried to chastise me for daring to sign and copyright my own work.
This person had previously made a comment, later reversed, that there are no real shaman anymore in the world, only charlatans and wannabes. The assumption being that, for example, anyone who pays some expedition leader to take them to have a shamanic experience in the wilds of some tribal culture;s homeland is throwing their money away to charlatans and con-men. Although this person later reversed their opinion that there are no real shaman left in the world, after called on it by a couple of others, myself included, it's clear that he operates under the usual assumption that money can only taint spiritual seeking. That money is inherently evil, and spirituality is inherently good only if kept free of the capitalistic sins of the flesh. Therefore, all books on spirituality which the author got paid to write, and collected royalties upon, are tainted by definition, and therefore all such authors are charlatans. It's perfectly true that some are—but not all, and not for those reasons.
It was further assumed that I was speaking from a position of a teacher who wanted to control the knowledge I was dispensing, merely because I used the copyright symbol. Since I wasn't dispensing knowledge, but only telling my own story, this assumption is ludicrous. The actual pieces of my writing in question are some fragments towards an autobiography, written a few years ago, which are entirely about my own experiences, that tell no one what to think or believe, and are in no way a set of organized teachings or doctrines, and require no one to believe in what I wrote. In fact, the tone of the essay is searching, diffident, hesitant, and vulnerable: a writing in which I felt quite nakedly self-revealing in my honesty about my own life-experiences. To be labeled a "controlling teacher," because I included the copyright symbol when I cut and pasted this writing from my website onto the forum in question, is extremely offensive. I only cut and paste it, rather than linking to it from that forum, because I was encouraged to do so on the grounds that the forum's owner preferred it that way, as he knew that many folks would not exercise themselves to follow links, and it was better to have the contents at hand, for discussion. Had I linked, I doubt I would have been chastised for using the copyright symbol on my own website. (Or on this blog, for that matter.)
At the same time, the person who chastised me (not the forum owner, but a moderator) has repeatedly copied and pasted copyrighted material onto this forum, with no attributions, and no credit given. Even when he openly admits its not his writings, but someone else's, we are not told who that source was.
His rationale is that all spiritual teachings are free and open to all, and should not be controlled. Nowhere does he seem to understand I actually agree with him about spiritual teachings being free and open, and that in fact all that is copyrighted is my words, my own story, my version of the teachings, and my written experience, knowledge, and individual content. Of course no one can control and cage a teaching—the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao, everyone knows that already—but my particular translation of the Tao, in my words, is an artistic product that I can take enough credit for to expect to be attributed, and/or compensated.
Again, this is typical of the dysfunction of many contemporary seekers after the truth: it's all free and open, and no one has to pay for anything. That commonly arises from a quite valid rejection of the hypocrisies of many organized religions, which are forever demanding tithes while offering no spiritual sustenance; and it is the lack of spiritual certainty that drives many seekers away from the organized religions they were raised in, to go off and seek something else, something better. We indeed live in a time of the rule of the Pharisees. So it is quite common for many seekers to automatically equate any form of tithing as a rip-off, and furthermore to equate any whiff of named service as automatically coming from a minion of Control. The irony of course is that it was the founders of many of the world's organized religions who equated the accumulation of wealth as being a sin, forever missing the point that it is the attachment to accumulating wealth, not wealth itself, that sours the milk. We take the exhortation to poverty of spirit too literally, and require it to be poverty of flesh, to be saintly. It's amusing how many followers of the new age take this very Christian assumption about the inherent evil of money with them wherever they spiritually travel.
So let me clarify this for you right now: when you offer a white scarf to the Dalai Lama when visiting him, when you offer tobacco to a Lakota elder before a sweatlodge that elder is leading for your healing, you are giving symbolic payment—an exchange of energy—for their accumulated years (or centuries) or wisdom and experience. You are honoring their practice, their accumulated wisdom and knowledge: you honor their knowledge, wisdom, and experience by giving them a symbolic or literal offering. To not so honor one's mentors is to show extreme ingratitude for their teachings, which means that you don't really value them, and probably won't learn anything from them. You wouldn't expect a lawyer to give you the benefit of their years of wisdom and experience for free, so why would you expect that of a spiritual elder? Both may have spent their entire lives in their training and practice, and you went to them precisely because they have done so.
So frak the idea of giving it all away.
Don't ask me to give it away. Don't require me to give it away. If I give it away, it's because I choose to do so.
The choice is mine. How dare you try to take that choice away from me? How dare you try to coerce me into your value and belief system by criticizing mine?
And I won't give away everything I have, or know, for free. For one thing, that dishonors the process of learning I went through to acquire whatever wisdom I might have attained. (Little enough, some days.) Some of it was earned the hard way, through experience. Some of that will not be given away, because I paid a high price to earn it; and giving it away cheapens it.
There's a principle of energy exchange discussed in Reiki training, which I have to come to believe is absolutely necessary to honor, and practice, for the sake of the Reiki work itself at a fundamental level: You cannot and must not give it away, because when someone gets it for free, they don't value it in any way, and they won't get any benefit from it. If you do a Reiki session for someone, and all they can give you is one dollar as a payment, it is essential that they give you that one dollar. Because if they give nothing up, they can easily dismiss what has happened to them, and will not value it, or their own healing process, and so they will not be healed. If you do not honor the healing you have received, and the training lineage of the healer, how can you expect to be healed?
It took me some years to understand this. I used to give it away. I don't anymore. I have lived poor for many years, and many of my friends who wanted a Reiki session from me had no more funds than I. In some cases, we bartered a payment; in others, they were also Reiki practitioners, and we traded Reiki sessions. Other than with other certified Reiki Masters and trainers, I won't do that anymore. It feels like dishonoring my teachers to just give it away; it feels like dishonoring Reiki itself. Let's be absolutely clear about this: If I do a Reiki treatment for you, you must pay me. Period. It can be a tiny amount, and you must still pay me, otherwise there is no energy exchange, and no healing will happen. Paradoxically, the charge for healing is to make sure that the client takes it seriously, rather than goes merrily on their way as though nothing had happened; which they are likely to do if there is no energy exchange.
As a freelance artist, designer, writer, and illustrator, I have sometimes seen the work I did for clients rejected, because they did not like the finished results. (The issue of their unwillingness to work with me, to change it towards what they wanted, is a separate issue; and in several instances, it's because they never told me what they really wanted in the first place, and I was forced to guess, and therefore guessed wrong.) In more than one instance, I had to point out to them, that they are free to throw away everything I did for them, but what they are paying me for was the time and effort I put into their project. They were paying me to work for them, period. They were paying me for the hours I put in on their project, and the skills I spent many years learning—skills they didn't have themselves, because they did not have my training and experience. Which is why they hired me in the first place.
Lots of clients don't understand this very important point: You are not paying for results, you are paying for your freelancer's effort. They are probably as highly trained and skilled as you, and they may have put many hours into the work they did for you. You must pay them for the work they did for you. Period. What you do with that work afterwards is irrelevant, to them, and it should be to you as well.
Paying someone for the work they do for you amounts to expressing gratitude to them in the form of an energy exchange. Many ungrateful managers don't realize how much more their workers would give to them if they expressed simple gratitude, much less respected the worker enough as a person to try to make a fair energy exchange with them.
This is one of the spiritual laws of the Universe: Gratitude is essential. Giving thanks is not something you do once a year, but something you do every moment of every day. Giving thanks comes back to you in so many ways that manifest as many forms of abundance. This was the very simple lesson offered to Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol: Give thanks, or die. Gratitude is what sustains life.
Love is not what makes the world go around, self-esteem is. Without self-esteem there can be no genuine love. And without gratitude, there grows in no heart any genuine self-esteem. It's really very simple: saying Thank you can save a life. It's saved mine, on more than one occasion.
When you hire someone for their knowledge and skill and experience, don't assume they'll give it away for free. Don't ask them to give it away. Don't require them to give it away. Don't make assumptions about their ability or inability to give it away for free. Let them choose, and be grateful for whatever they give you, even if it's not useful to you. Do you respect them only if you can use them? What does that say about your own ethics?
Many writers are nice people, and will give you much more than you asked for, essentially giving you something for nothing, if they like you, and if they like working on your project. But if they give you that extra lagniappe, let it be on their offer, and let it be their choice. Don't assume it, and don't demand it, and don't require it of them. "Mandatory overtime" is an oxymoron.
And for the gods' sakes do not insist that they cannot use the copyright symbol to mark their work, where it's appropriate to do so. Especially if it's one hundred percent their work, and they're sharing it with you. And for the gods' sake give credit where credit is due. Even if you can't pay them for it, don't tell them they can't copyright it.
This is an issue of ethics, honor, respect, and wisdom. Don't pretend it's about anything else. And if you don't think it's about all these things, then you yourself need to ask yourself about your own ethics, honor, ability to show respect, and whether or not you've earned any wisdom, so far, in your own sad, miserable existence. Your actions will give the truth or the lie to all of that.
Every so often, here at this latitude in the Upper Midwest, usually in autumn, circumstances converge to create an unusually spectacular sunset. It usually happens in October or November, after a clear, unseasonally warm day, with a clear sky at sunset, sometimes after a rain has scrubbed the air.
For about an hour before actual sunset, the world is turned to liquid gold. The sunlight is pure golden in color—a rare metallic gold, different from the soft amber of summer sunsets, different from the red-pink of winter—and every water-like surface, lake or river or puddle or glass-sided building, takes on a sheen of liquid gold. The light is completely horizontal, and very strong, almost unfiltered by air or cloud or mist. It's a particular strength of illumination coupled with angle-of-light and intensity of color.
I've seen this liquid-gold sunset a few times in my life, when I happened to be out walking or riding at just the right time. It doesn't happen every year; the conditions have to be just so, and they don't converge every autumn to make this happen. So, it's rare. You have to be in the right place at the right time, the atmospheric conditions timed just so.
I'm always aware of the quality of light. My photography is really about light, more than anything else. When this sunset happened here last week, I dropped everything I was doing—out on errands, dropping off library books—and chased the light. I got only a few good photos, as this light is very hard to capture, it's quality of living warmth, its almost velvet texture on the skin. It passes quickly, peaking for less than half an hour.
Twenty-five years ago I was out walking in Ann Arbor, just west of downtown, after a rain, and this same kind of sunset happened. I remember standing at the top of a hill, looking down the still-wet road towards the sun, and the road was literally paved with gold for a few minutes. It stopped me in my tracks, and I ended up standing there watching till the light had completely faded to indigo.
I've seen this kind of liquid gold sunset only a few times in my life; as I said, they're not that common. They seem to happen at this latitude, not much further north or south. I've tried writing about it. The poem below is a revised version of the poem originally written in Ann Arbor, all those years ago; it's not my best poem, there are some problems with it I don't know how to fix. Not being a perpetual tinkerer, I usually abandon a poem and try again fresh, if I can't get it right after a few revisions. So this poem is abandoned; I might try again later, on another day. The poem was brought back to mind—and I had to go hunting for it in my archives—because of seeing the liquid gold sunset once again.
the marriage of gold and light
like a banner of gold rising behind a curtain of clouds, lifted into the air like the rolling of thunder; like a phoenix spreading newborn wings, to catch the sun and dry the waters of birth; like the turning of a butterfly’s wing, wet with dew in the twilight dawn; like a procession of clouds, silently gliding, distant, obscure: a newborn power within you stirs, stretches bloodbright wings, yearns for the sky. you watch it unfurl. something unnamed, the ghost of an eagle, some part of you, distant and dark, rises up; you would shape it, catch it and lift it into the light, shivering, newborn. a sigh like an owl ghosting from tree to tree; a wolf pauses in the midst of a field of golden wheat, stops and tosses his muzzle at the sky, seeking a scent from some other place, lifts and paws at the sky, and turns to look into your eyes. gold becomes light, and reflections pass in his eye, gold upon gold. you hold yourself in your hand, shivering, and gently return gold from gold. you are who you are; a wolf could teach you that, or an owl.
A few weeks ago I realized that I needed to be making three-dimensional art. Teaching myself to draw this past year or so, to draw with colored pencils mostly, has been very rewarding. It's been filled with lessons about seeing/drawing, and also with just looking to see what's there. Some of these lessons transfer very well to photography, of course; and also to video. But this is all two-dimensional work. I've realized I need to do something more tactile, more purely physical.
I haven't felt moved to make a landscape art sculpture more than once or twice in a few months; those mostly happen in response to the energy of a specific place and time, and so tend to be very site-specific. They are also usually ephemeral, only the photograph making them endure after the materials themselves have washed away. It's not a disciplined daily practice, but a responsive, spontaneous one. Although I have a small garden around my house here, it's not conducive to making lots of land art; there's not enough space for me to do much, although I have made a few small stone arrangements, in a few spots around the house. Stone magic is earth magic is representational and healing for the place I choose to live for now. Were I living in a designated monastery, I would do the same. It's as if I am living monastically, at times; so I place sacred circles and spirals on the ground around my house. In the spring the flowers emerge through their forms.
Something more abstract in form, yet also more grounded in touch. In touching materials, in kinesthetic appreciation as well as construction. The needs of making are as much the body's desire as the mind's. I sometimes get this from playing piano. Sometimes I get this feeling from running my fingers along statutes in museums, cold bronze and chill marble figures and shapes. There are beautiful Chinese jade carvings, and Indian stone statues, in the Minneapolis art museum that I have always wanted to touch, although it's forbidden. If you can't touch great art of the past, you need to make and touch your own, therefore.
So I bought myself a Dremel rotary tool, and have been sketching on small pieces of wood. Learning to use the tools, the carving of wood, the logistics and smell of it. Wood supple under the tools, taking on the mind's rough shapes, polished until left unfinished. Working with wood means listening to the wood: its imperfections and individual turns of grain and knot. Something abstract will eventually emerge, a natural form that doesn't go against the wood's own desire, but enhances it.
I think of Henry Moore's sculptures. Their rounded, circling forms. There many lacunae, windows to see through, holes into another world, another way of seeing. I've grown up thinking Henry Moore sculptures were naturalistic and lovely. They were considered radical when he first made them; but that was an era of sculptural realism, which he was among the first to completely break away from.
In my travels, I've seen many Moores on-site, where they live, where the activity of the world swirls around them, not quite touching them. Toronto, Ontario. Columbus, Indiana. The world looks different when you peer through a visionary sculpture, to see it. What part of the screen of the world cannot be seen through the holes in a sculpture?
I think of Constantin Brancusi's pure, moving forms. Bird in Space has always been a favorite sculpture series to go look at, and walk around, view from all sides, and feel its surging energy, remarkably capturing blurred movement in solid material. Brancusi himself once remarked, There are those idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things. That's exactly what his sculptures do, I feel, and what draws me to them. There's an essential movement to his work—a reminder that even what we think is solid matter is always vibrating with light and energy, on deep levels beyond the visible. Brancusi at his most pure brings the invisible into the visible, and that is completely realistic and naturalistic. Those who think his work abstract see only the surfaces of things.
I think of Isamu Noguchi, who had a knack for making the stone and wood materials of his sculptures retain their natural textures and forms, yet become more than they were. As if he could see within a slab of granite and draw forth the Urtext, the Archetype of Granite itself. I've never seen a Noguchi piece that doesn't move me, spiritually, aesthetically, emotionally. Often there is a calmness to his finished pieces that quiets my mind and heart; a silence surrounding each polished work which radiates out into the space around it. The subtle nuances of the material, once again the invisible made visible, bring one into close contemplation of the solid materials of the world we live in.
I'm barely beginning, feeling my way into the wood. I'll stay with wood as a material for some time. Stone, perhaps glass, might follow, but later. The tools of carving must first be made into natural extensions of my hands and heart; which means taking time to absorb their tendencies and needs. I'm in no hurry. I have no real ambition, other than to find something in working with wood that addresses, perhaps looks through, a lacunae in myself. It's an ambition to work with the materials, to learn them more closely. My grandfather was a master carpenter, after all, and taught me the basic of carpentry as a boy; I have now his tools and one or two of his old carpentry reference books. So there's a lineage. It's also an ambition to find a way to heal something else in myself, something that is as yet evanescent and vaporous; something I wish to make more solid and real, by bringing it into visibility; something I can't name, that feels connected to the earth, to the ancient past, something pre-verbal, pre-intellectual, old and powerful. Something of the earth magic, made manifest. I'm just setting out on this quest; nothing remotely like Art has yet been made. But I'm in no hurry. It will take time for me to feel my way into the wood, and that required time, those attendant lessons in patient seeing and observant touch, will slow me down enough to have actual effect on the pace of my life. I can feel it, even though I can't feel it, yet.
I discovered this printed piece on the General Wolf Rules for Life, 25 years or more ago. I don't remember where I found it; it was a flyer, or an advertisement, or an article reprint. I was so captivated by it, it made so much sense to me, it was so right and true in an almost totemic sense, that I cut it out and saved it. I remember that at one point I made my own artwork around it: a flyer with clipart illustrations and this text; I may still have a copy of that somewhere, although it's probably 15 years or so ago that I made it.
Last week I was going through my box of old journals, looking for something else—looking for my poem journal from my teens, wherein I wrote my first hidden, furtive homoerotic poems, when I was 16 or 17 years old—and I found the Wolf Rules again, tucked inside the endpapers of one of my old journals.
I have thought about these Wolf Rules over the years. I look back on my life, and I realize that the Wolf Rules express my core values better than any formalized doctrine from any institutional religious tradition I've ever known. They resonate with those decentralized, informal, nature-centered religious traditions that I have been attracted to, at various times, from Native American paths to Taoism to Wicca to post-Christian creation-centered spiritual traditions. The lineage is Paleolithic. I hold very old values, not new ones. Not pre-human values, but values grounded in the earth, in living on the earth as part of the earth, not separate from it. These take us all the way back to our unitary consciousness, to the epoch of the bicameral mind, to the sacred heart of the shamans doing their healings by firelight, starlight, and moonlight.
The Christian doctrine of the "Fall" into "original sin" paradoxically raises many humans in their own esteem as placed above the Earth, separate from it, not part of it. It is this separation that many eco-centered poets—the bards of the earth herself—have rejected, from Robinson Jeffers to Gary Snyder, among others. Jeffers reminded us that our place in existence is not at its pinnacle, but among its creatures; Snyder reminds us that Paleolithic values of interdependence and husbandry are not radical, but ancient. If poetry is a way, which it is, then poets such as these are its way-keepers.
These Wolf Rules for Life make more sense to me, even now, than many other formulations. There is a no-bullshit logic to them about what really matters. (The rest is mind-drama.) I realize that in my own way I've been living by them. I rove often, I cavil in moonlight, I attend to the bones, I make love, and I howl when I need to, sometimes from loneliness, other times from joy. Howling is a connection, a way of communicating. What is singing in a chorus but enacting the howl? What is writing but the howl? Tuning my ears has always come natural and easy—both in terms of literally tuning my ears, as a musician whose sense of pitch and timbre have always been precise and accurate, and also as someone who listens. I have always been hypersensitive to my sonic environment, aware of every sound, aware of their signal-to-noise ratio.
Attending to the bones means remembering my history, remembering where I've been. It also means knowing what lies where. Where my caches and special places are. I rove between my personal sacred places every time I get in the truck and do a roadtrip. My caches of bones are scattered far and wide, and I attend to them each time I travel, as well as when I'm at home.
Rendering loyalty is so fundamental to my worldview I rarely talk about it. it's just assumed. If you're my true friend, my have my loyalty, and I'll do anything for you that's within my power to do. I remember once, in a sweat lodge, when all the people in that dark and hot womb were invited to speak out loud the qualities we wanted to invite into the lodge, I remember speaking out with a voice much bolder than usual, "Come, fierceness and loyalty!" That outcry rippled around the lodge, with something more than usual force, it felt to me. I knew I was speaking a profound truth from a profound, ancient place within myself. A totemic place, a Wolf place.
Loving the children is something I've always done, even though I have no children of my own. I like kids, and kids seem to like me. Even kids shy around strangers often come up to greet me, at dinner parties and gatherings of family. Kids have pretty good radar about who they can trust, who genuinely cares for them. I remember a time when a friend's child came up and sat in my lap as I was working on the computer; just quietly sat there, asking nothing, just being present. I continued to work, and he just sat and watched for awhile, then eventually wandered off. I felt fiercely protective in that moment; a feeling I don't often get to feel often for specific people, but which I generally feel about the clan-circle of people who I care about, who are my adopted families, who are my close friends. And I feel protective of those my circle cares about, including the children.
Eating. Well, I'll come out of the closet, finally, as a foodie. I love food. I love all kinds of food. I love cooking, and I love eating. I have dietary restrictions now, because of my health, and I have known foods that I'm allergic to, or that trigger bowel irritations I'd rather avoid. I've been enjoying reading through roving chef Anthony Bourdain's books, and quite enjoying them. I know that I can't eat half of the foods that he loves to eat, because of my health issues; but what we have in common is a lust for life, a lust for good food, and a love of great cooking, no matter where we find, no matter who does it. I have memories of great meals at roadside foodstands in central Java, where I was the only foreigner eating amongst the neighborhood locals: saté-skewered grilled meats and tubes of sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf doused with ketchap sauce. My own neighborhood in central Surakarta was renowned for its many foodstalls, and I knew several of them intimately, or at least had tried everything on their menus. I love to cook, and I've become a pretty good chef. I have no pretensions to being a chef, and I have not the technique of a culinary institute graduate. But I love to cook, and that's what it's all about.
The Wolf Rule it's taken me the longest time to learn was to rest. It goes against the grain of my natural impatience, which is driven by the anxiety I've always felt that time is running out, and there's so much more I want to accomplish before my time is up. A sense of mortality I've always had, from a very young age. Perhaps it came from seeing dead bodies when I was a boy in India—those images of bodies being burned on the ghats at the side of the sacred river; those beggarfolk in the street who finally let go and pass over—perhaps it came from seeing my own grandparents pass over in my teens. It doesn't really matter. I've always been impatient. I deal with it all the time. And I've learned a great deal of patience, especially in certain arenas, and it's taken me a long time to learn it. I remember the "Weird Al" Yankovic ant-mellow parody song, "I'll Be Mellow When I'm Dead." That could have been my theme song, at one point in my life. I still appreciate passion, the lust for life. Sometimes I've only learned to rest only because my physical body forced me to stop, and rest, and take care of myself: take a pause. In recent years, though, I've learned the value of rest. Of sitting in the morning sunlight, sipping my orange juice, not thinking about anything in particular, meditating, whatever. The virtue of doing nothing. Rest is recharging, revitalizing, refreshing. What a wolf knows that we could all stand to know is how to rest, in the moment: to take any opportunity for rest, and inhabit it fully, before getting back to roving. Just stop. My chronic illness has one symptom, a debilitating fatigue, which I've had to learn to manage, and the Wolf Rules have been invaluable for this. When you're tired, sit down and rest. When you get going again, you'll have more of your strength back than if you'd kept pushing yourself so hard that eventually you splatter yourself against a wall of exhaustion—and then you'll be forced to rest, whether or not you wanted to. I'm learning to just take lots of little rests—lie down, pant, pause for awhile—before getting back up to rove on.
So the Wolf Rules have served me very well in life, and continue to serve. I realize that these little values, these ways of looking at the world, are core to my attitude. I might forget them for awhile, but they're my touchstones. I always knew and believed them, even before I encountered this formulation, on that old flyer or ad or whatever it was. I felt so charged, so alive, when I first read the Wolf Rules—such a feeling of innate recognition—that it seems obvious in retrospect that what happened was my recognition of an elegant formulation of something I already knew to be the way of life, deep down in my bones. There's a very Zen aspect to the Wolf Rules: a wolf can teach you many lessons about living in the Now, in the present moment, and not getting caught up in worry and mind-drama. Of living completely immersed in the experiences of the moment; of full commitment to whatever one is doing at the moment, and living it fully. Then being able to let go of the past, and shift immediately to the next thing that needs your attention. No clinging, no hating what's gone, just the Now.
The wolf eats the monkey-mind. Zen Master Coyote Roshi smiles slightly, leading the dojo in zazen, a few bright canary feathers still caught in his mustache.
I attend to the bones by looking again at the Wolf Rules, and finding them still an accurate summation of my core values, what I know in my bones to be true and real. All the rest is mind-drama, which can be healed and undone simply by returning to being in the Now, to living by the General Wolf Rules for Life.
the witch oak hung over riverbend and grass verge white sky full of geese
stands of trees lining uphill across the stream march along archback hillcrest and hollow can't see the geese but the sky sounds with their calls from three directions flying over before storm and after echoing from granite faces of these old rocks cropped up ashore a lone emergent haystack in a sea of prairie and woodland stripped down by turtles creek rolled halfway up hill and falling down the leafcovered boulder takes its rest by the stream crows rivet the sky's bed with mockery then pull air under their throats as a boy-thrown stone thocks against naked tree bole to rattle down into mulch moss lichen and brownleaf the silent rockcut above the creek no voice of its own reflects dogs barking overhill at geese
moving towards winter the witch tree's arms conduct a chorus of wind cloud and spitting rain
What is a first draft? I'm not sure it's what writers often think it is. I am sure, on the other hand, that the conventional wisdom about first drafts is often misleading.
The question was once asked, by a poet on one of those online poetry workshop boards: Do any of us present first drafts here? and why? and even how, with the miracle of the machines almost doing the work for us?
It's hard not to feel that this is the sort of question which only writers care about. It's just as hard not to smell an elitism behind many anti-first-draft opinions that, frankly, is not particularly warranted. Some of the questions that follow on this one's heels can get into ridiculous hair-splitting minutiae.
For example: Is it a first draft if it's typed directly into the post-it dialog box on one of those forums? or is it the transcription of an improvised performance? Is it a first draft if you write directly to your computer screen, rather than in longhand in your notebook, journal, or other paper paged location? If you write it out first in your journal in longhand, then type it into the computer, is it still a first draft? How little editing, when you type out a draft, is required for it to be considered a virginal first draft rather than already slightly revised?
When I'm out hiking and camping, or off on a photography road trip, I write stuff down in journals by hand. I've been known to pull over and write a poem on the back of a gas station receipt, it being time for the poem to be written and there being no other paper handy. It's too much effort on the road, usually, to boot up the laptop, and when I'm really out in the wilderness, miles from electrical power, the laptop stays in the truck anyway; notebooks are lighter and more portable. Yet I also compose "at the keyboard" sitting at my writing desk, overlooking the outdoors, at any time of day or night. I often write spontaneously to the laptop screen, if I happen to be there already, and a poem comes forward, ready to be written. Lately, I find myself often writing short poems in short forms when sorting through photographs to edit and finalize the best among them; the poem is a spontaneous response to the image. Writing outdoors "on the hoof" then typing into the computer later can be a revision-process stage, yes. One often "cleans up" the rawness of the notebook, to make it more artful.
I find no appreciable difference in what I write, between handwritten and typed modes, so I dispute that my behavior is predicated by the machine. I don't dispute that for some writers the technology matters a great deal; I know a few writers who write only in longhand, feeling that they more connected to their writing process when doing so; and yet it's irrelevant for me. In terms of the poems that I write in a notebook and those I type into the keyboard, there's no change of style or tone or content. No appreciable differences. I can tell you which ones were originally written where, because I preserve my notebooks and I date my files on my computer; but I doubt anyone else would be able to separate which was which, without my guidance.
But then, I'm very familiar with many kinds of publishing and writing technology, practice calligraphy, do book design and typography, etc. To me, these are all equivalent media in which to transcribe, preserve, and convey the words that come into my conscious mind, regardless of whether I'm writing them, typing them, or drawing them with a calligraphy brush. No appreciable difference. I like certain technologies for certain things (typing is way faster than the brush, so when I am thinking through an essay, I can type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts), but I don't find that the machine affects what I write, especially in poetry. No doubt typing allows me to be more verbose in talking about the process, though.
Then do first draft poems naturally have a more inspired or spontaneous feel rather than a crafted one, which may be an attractive quality?
I think that's possible, but it's not universally the case. I can think of writers whose revisions maintain a feeling of energy and spontaneity, and I can think of poets whose first drafts are quite wooden. Nonetheless, it is an interesting point which gets overlooked in the very common emphasis on craft and revision. In our contemporary literary culture, which often seems to exalt craft over every other aspect of writing, where do we leave space for the muse anymore? do we still write with the muse, but then bury it under multiple revisions?
Some writers have tried to convince us that no good writing can come from first drafts. I think of writers who constantly revise their works, sometimes even after initial publication. Some of these preach that all good writing is rewriting. Certainly that is true—for those writers.
The idea that first drafts are never any good—an idea editors also seem to believe—is an idea I dispute, with demonstrable proof. Sometimes first drafts are quite good. Sometimes a poem is pretty much complete on first writing. Perhaps some lengthy internal working on the poem has already happened, at the back of the mind, down in the part of the mind we're usually unconscious of, before the pen ever touches the paper. There have been times when I feel like a poem has been entirely written on this deep pre-conscious, even pre-verbal level. Then something hits the PRINT button in the back of my mind, and out the poem comes, pretty much complete. I might need to make a minor change or two, just a word or a bit of punctuation. But nothing more.
This happens to me a lot when writing poems, to be honest. Granted, I'm not one of those high-output, poem-a-day, disciplined-writing-time poets; my discipline lies in being ready and waiting for whenever that PRINT button gets pushed. Readiness is all. My discipline is to be ready, at any moment; it is not to force my art by writing a prescribed number of hours per day. If such daily writing practice is helpful to others, by all means, proceed. Just be clear that in making art, one size does not fit all. No single creative process is universally useful to all creative artists.
Maybe there is no such thing as a first draft, anymore, because of the technological changes affecting writing, printing, editing, etc. Yet it would be quite wrong to claim that all first drafts presented to online poetry forums, or for that matter classroom writing groups, are a waste of time, or an insult to the readers, merely because they're first drafts. Since it's demonstrably true that many later drafts are equally as bad as any first draft, that argument doesn't hold an ounce of water. Unless of course it's just sour grapes.
Just to be clear, I am not opposed to revising one's pieces. I just want to be clear that revision is a process that must come later, after the work of writing. I do not edit as I write; I go back later and do that during revision. I find that editing during writing kills the flow, and brings me right out of "writer's mind."
I have nothing against revision. I practice the art of revisions regularly. Yet when a poem comes out more or less already complete, I oppose revision because it's possible to improve an artwork into oblivion. Revision needs to be appropriate. Sometimes you need to leave well enough alone. Ask any experienced film editor about the times they're seen a director cut a great film into a piece of crap; it happens regularly. There's an old saying that it takes two people to create a masterpiece: one to paint the masterpiece, and the other to hit the first over the head when it's done.
For example, after the 1862 edition of his Leaves of Grass, Whitman's many revisions tended to weaken rather than enhance the poems, to take away their power rather than add to it. Although many readers and critics have long taken for granted that Whitman's "deathbed edition" of his poems should be adhered to, following the poet's last instructions, in fact many other readers and critics have come to prefer earlier editions. For myself, in my opinion the best and most powerful edition of Leaves of Grass was the 1860 edition: it is the most daring, the most vigorous, the most original and lively of all Whitman's editions. Whitman's powers were at his peak at that time, and the few poems he wrote after that which deserve to be regarded as equally great, are mostly connected to Whitman's experiences of the Civil War, and his laments for the death of President Lincoln. The "farewell" poems that Whitman wrote in his last decade are mostly rather pedantic.
This essay is not a first draft. It's a rewrite of some thoughts I've had before, scattered in vasrious marginalia here and there, pulled here together more coherently to make a point. And yet I have written essays that are essentially first drafts—any essay or poem of mine that was written at white heat tends to be a first draft that doesn't need much editing or revision later. That PRINT button again, I guess. For example, the Spiral Dance essays tend to be written at white heat, and emerge mostly fully-formed.
Is it revision, or a new draft, if I discover a typographic or punctuation error, and go back to fix it? Does a new draft need to be substantially different than the previous draft, not merely a matter of changing a few words, fixing a few errors? Where do you draw that line?
For myself, I think fixing typos and making small changes that do not substantially change the content, meaning, form, or structure of a piece, doesn't really count as a separate draft. A new draft is a completely thorough writing-through, that makes noticeable and trackable changes to the text. If you reduce or expand the length by several paragraphs, I can accept that as a new draft. But if in transcribing a longhand poem to the computer the only changes you make are punctuation, typos, and small word-choices, I'm not sure one can claim that to be an entirely new draft. Mere copyediting is not genuine rewriting.
So I do think it's possible to pull off a first draft and have it be pretty good, or good, or sometimes better than good. It does happen. All writers who are skeptical of this process need do is accept that it can happen, that it does happen—on occasion—not that it must happen every time.
I go through phases where I read one book cover to cover till I'm done with it. I might stay up late to get it done. I might re-read it immediately, or make notes on it as I go along. I rarely read merely to write a review. I read for pleasure, to learn, I read from curiosity, and to broaden my horizons. When I am focused on one book, I become completely absorbed in it, give it all my attention, and sometimes lose track of everything else. I can stand there in a sunlit room and forget to make lunch, till I finish a chapter, my foot goes asleep, or some other physical sensation gets my attention.
Most of the time, however, I am reading several books at once. I may be partway through up to ten books at a time. Some I am reading for my usual morning meditation/contemplation period, my practice for starting my day. Some I am reading for diversion. There are bad days, and really bad days, in which I go seek out something to read purely for the pleasure of distraction; these are often times I re-read a favorite SF or mystery novel, or another in a series of novels I've been reading. Some I read because they caught my attention that day, and pulled me in. Some I read because I am researching an idea, sometimes to write about it, sometimes just to absorb it and let it settle inside me for awhile. Sometimes I am feeding my writing, or my visual art, or my music. Sometimes I read the essays on poetry by poets because it leads me towards my own thinking about poetry. Sometimes I read biographies of a favorite artist, to find out what we have in common. Sometimes I read a book on science, or math, or history, often out of curiosity, but also when I need to be diverted by fully engaging my mind, to give me a respite from my own problems and drama.
There are an infinite number of reasons to read a book. One of the best ways to learn how to write is to read, read, read: eclectically, universally, omnivorously, thoroughly. I am blessed with a knack—untrained, something I've just always been able to do—for reading a book quickly, and being able to remember most of what I've read. I have a knack for remembering many different threads from different sources, and be able to pull them together into a one weave: to make new associations, to synthesize connections and echoes and resonances, to spot similar thoughts by different people in different times and places. It's the omnivorous reading that does it, and it's the attitude of generalist scholar rather than a specialist expert. I'd rather be an independent scholar than a specialist who knows everything about a very small topic. When I read an essayist, I like their tastes in topic and tone to be as eclectic as my own interests; so my favorite essayists tend to write with a wide range and an open portfolio.
I find a lot of interesting books by visiting the thrift stores and used book stores in my county, and the two neighboring counties. I prefer to buy books by certain authors new: an artist supporting another artist, which seems only fair. Other works, which I might not be able to afford brand new, I will get used; especially large-format art books. And the thrift stores often throw up driftwood on the beaches of their shelves, like flotsam after a storm. Sometimes the storm is an estate sale, in which many chattels are donated by the family of someone who just died. Sometimes you find a wave of books all on the same topic, obviously coming from the same person's library, which they have divested perhaps because they're retiring, or moving away. Lightening their load, purging their home of what is no longer useful to them. I've done the same, of course. I recognize the patterns.
This past week, in the various thrift stores and used book stores in my usual orbit, I have found quite a few little treasures. I buy books not only because of their contents, but also if they are special, beautiful editions. I do find first editions are thrift stores, from time to time. As a book designer, artist, and typographer myself, I appreciate a beautiful first edition. But I'm not a bookseller, not a speculator in resale value, not an investor in a book's tangible worth. There are beautiful editions of books that I don't much want to own; in which case, I look them over, enjoy the beauty of their craftsmanship, and do not take them home.
Among the books found recently have been—and this list should give a clue about the eclectic nature of the thrift store quest:
Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first in her Brother Cadfael series, which I have come to enjoy reading as much for their historical accuracy as for the pleasure of the company of their principal characters. I've read perhaps 6 of the 20 Brother Cadfael books. I also thoroughly enjoyed the TV versions of these books, which Peters approved and supported.
Robert Frost, The Complete Poems, in the 1949 edition. I have Frost's Collected Poems published posthumously, which is of course more complete, if not a lot thicker. This is a edition with good typography and design. It's a snapshot of what Frost thought was important in his later life, even though he published more poems after this book was given us; and some poems in here were later revised. (For example, one of my favorite Frost poems, "Choose Something Like a Star," is here "Take Something Like a Star," and gathered at the end, loose with other poems in an Afterword.)
Studs Terkel, Working. I've been reading Studs' last book with great pleasure, his book on death and dying and the afterlife and what people believe, titled Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on death, rebirth, and hunger for a faith. Studs was one of our greatest reporter/interviewers, and his books are essential reading. Even though Working is now decades old, it remains timeless and relevant, because its themes are what we do all day, every day, to make our way in the world. Such wisdom will always be relevant.
Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential. Okay, this guy irritates some people I know, foodies and non-foodies alike. But I rather like his irreverent, even abrasive attitude. What saves Bourdain is that he defends and praises what most needs defending and praising in the world of eating, restaurants, food service, and chefs: the pleasure of a sensual life lived to the hilt, life embraced and enjoyed, life with passion and gusto. His books, and for that matter his TV shows, are not just about food, not just about why food is important and wonderful. At root they are about what makes a life worth living. Sure, he often takes risks and fails. But unlike many, he can admit when he was wrong, he can change his mind, and he has become a force for positive pleasure in life. What's wrong with that?
Federico Garcia Lorca, A Season in Granada: Uncollected poems and prose. This is a book of material I'd never seen before by one of my favorite poets. I freely admit that Lorca has mesmerized and influenced me as a poet and thinker for many, many years. Via George Crumb's ethereal, visceral compositions of the 1960s and 70s, in which Crumb frequently used Lorca texts as sources, for example in Ancient Voices of Children, Lorca has also influenced my music. I have sought the duende in all my art-making, in all the art that excites and grabs me, because of Lorca's influence. Federico has inspired more thano ne of my own poems, such as this Ode. I intend to read this book slowly, savor it, absorb it slowly, and enjoy every sensual and surprising image the poet brings to bear with his usual force and passion. I'm barely into it, and the book has already given me this poem, form the Suite titled Summer Hours:
Knife grinder. (Three o'clock.) The soul of Pan on the lips of the knife-grinder.
What dusty sadness!
He evokes a green pool, and something in the branches.
He carries St. Catherine's wheel.
What sadness! —translated by Christopher Maurer
I recently read how Gary Snyder thought his strongest influences on his poetry come from his studies of Asian poetic traditions, mostly China and Japan. If you add India to this, he could have been speaking of my poems as well. As much as I feel influenced and inspired by Lorca, Whitman, Dickinson, and others, including Snyder of course, I too feel a strong connection to Asian literature. Especially Japanese classical literature. So it was with pleasure that I recently found copies of Natsume Soseki's poetic novel The Three Cornered World, and the old Japanese literary classic by Kamo-no-Chomei, the Hojoki. I could spend a long time writing about each one of these books, and the pleasures they bring; I'll save that for individual meditations on each, later, and for now just say that I am filled with joy at being able to finally sit down and read, and re-read, these great books at my leisure.
Colin Dexter, The Remorseful Day. This is the last Inspector Morse novel in Dexter's series. It's quite a fine ending to a fine detective series, all the characterizations and eccentricities of its protagonists quite intact. We follow Morse and his subordinate, Sergeant Lewis, on their last case together. It's like hanging out with old friends, one last time—aware of one's own mortality as well as those of friends, coworkers, and fictional companions. If Jerzy Kozinski was correct in his aphorism, that Novels are a rehearsal for life, then this novel also lets us rehearse the deaths of those we love, who would do anything to protect, and who we will deeply miss once they are inevitably gone.
Michael Field and Martin Golubitsky, Symmetry in Chaos: A search for patterns in mathematics, art and nature. A beautiful large-format book about chaos math, fractals, and symmetries. Even if you know nothing of the maths involved, you can still glory in the beautiful kaleidoscopic images they generate. This is a book full of mandalas, as rich and symbolic in their own way as any collection of Tibetan Buddhist or Celtic mandala artworks. As might be expected, the authors do reference the pattern tiles and space-filling engravings of M.C. Escher, but they also include some of the most recent theories and maths involved in chaos theory. This is one of those rare books that proves how artistic aesthetics and conceptual elegance in science are neither divorced nor in conflict, but in fact are the same thing. I'm quite enjoying working through it slowly.
Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A secret life. This biography of the artist by a friend, who had access to family stories, historical sources, and interviews that few others have enjoyed, promises to be remarkable. I haven't begun to read it carefully yet, I've just skimmed it so far. This past year, I've been to the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, one of the two key Wyeth locations, and I've been reading and thinking about Wyeth's art quite a bit. I've come to many of my own conclusions about Wyeth, who I believe was widely misunderstood. In fact, his paintings are often very dark and bleak at heart, which is very Modern, and not at all antiquated. In fact, Wyeth's realistic style, and the demanding egg tempura medium he worked in, are built on a powerful abstract sense of composition. He often plays with angle of perspective in unexpected ways, and the drama in many of his best known works comes from their very powerful underlying proportional graphic design and almost abstract form. I think it's more accurate to call Wyeth an abstract-realist painter, in which his graphic sense supports the apparently realistic subjects of each painting in ways often overlooked. Wyeth spoke more than once about how these aspects of his technique are used to enhance a painting's emotional content. It will be interesting to read through this book, and discover if my sense of Wyeth is shared by the author; or where my intuitions are deepened, or contradicted. I look forward to continuing an ongoing voyage of discovery.
Recently, a question was asked. It was about improving as a musician, specifically as a frame drummer and performer. It was a question framed as a question about what techniques should one use to improve, to teach oneself better facility on one's instrument, and it included a list of technical skills to choose from. The question was framed as: What are three or more fundamental skills that will become the building blocks for good [performance skills] in the future? What three things should the student nail first? Most responses to the question focused on the list of technical skills that had been asked about. So did my initial response.
But then I got to thinking about the question. I was reminded of my old friend Jack Grassel, guitarist, master teacher, and writer of practice books. His key practice technique book contains not one chord chart or musical exercise. It's called Power Practicing, and the topics it covers include: motivation; efficient practice; ear training; technique improvement; listening to music constructively; physical and mental fitness. I recommend this book to my own students, when I have students. It is foundational. It has certainly influenced my own practicing and playing of music.
So, I responded again to the initial question about fundamental skills, about building blocks. I responded as follows:
You know, you've gotten a lot of technical answers to your question, my own previous answer included, because it was phrased as a technical question.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say what some technically-oriented musicians consider to be heresy, but which I know to be simple truth: technical practice is well and good, but it's not the answer that's going to help you teach yourself to be a better musician.
The technical answers you've gotten are all useful in that they will help you avoid some common errors most beginners have, and hopefully help you monitor your own progress.
But the thing that's really going to help you more than anything else hasn't been mentioned so far, at least not explicitly: attitude. (Jack Grassel calls this mental fitness, and rightly so.)
Determination, perseverance, patience when you hit a plateau and feel like you're making no progress, going ahead and continuing to practice and play even when you feel bad that day. It's like John Wayne once said, Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway. You have to get on the horse, and stay on the horse, and get back on the horse when you fall off. Attitude will carry you far, and keep you on the horse, even if all your fingers were broken.
You show up. You show up every day. Even if you get nothing done, even if life sucks and you don't feel like practicing, and your hands are broken and your feet hurt and you've got the flu, you show up.
Because showing up means: this is your life. There are no rehearsals.
Listening was mentioned already, in response to your question. Listening is really, really important, for all musicians. Listening to others, to recordings, playing along with recordings, watching videos, etc. Those are all good technical tools that will help you improve as a musician.
But real listening is done with the heart and the body, not with the mind, not with just the head. You will improve as a player by practicing silent meditaiton for a short period every morning, or before every practice session, no matter how little you practice your actual musical technique. Don't take my word for it; it's well known in pedagogic and and meditation circles that silent practice can be just as effective as actual practice. It's also known to be true in the martial arts.
I drive on long roadtrips a lot; when I'm listening to music in the car, I drum on the steering wheel a lot; it's a nice handy circular surface that feels a bit like the edge of a frame drum. I finger-drum on tabletops when I'm sitting in an office waiting for someone, or on the side of my chair. It doesn't have to be obvious, and you don't need to make a big deal out of it. Most people never notice what you're doing unless you make a big deal out of it. My fingers are tapping in rhythm to what's on the stereo in restaurants. Or my foot is tapping.
You want to know how to improve your sense of time and rhythm? Never stop tapping your toe to music, never stop drumming your fingers wherever you are, never stop nodding your head on the bus. You don't have to make a big deal out of it, you just do it.
And stop caring what others think about what you're doing. Being self-conscious about it is the fastest way to kill your learning momentum.
Real listening is a mental stance, a mindset, a worldview, an attitude. It is at root the art of Paying Attention, which can only be achieved by constantly practicing Paying Attention. Your approach to practice is going to make a huge difference during practice, no matter how you practice, no matter what you practice.
Show up, it's your life, right here, right now. Pay Attention, Pay Attention, Pay Attention.
You can focus on your time, your tone, your proper posture, your breath, your finger skills, etc., and none of it will matter at all if you are tense during practice, or if your mind is going in circles around the hamster wheel of overthinking and overstimulation and distraction. People spend years never improving because they can't get out of their own way, calm their mind, free themselves from distractions, and just be the music, be with the music, be in the music, be part of the music. Music isn't something you learn the way you learn chemistry, it's an ocean you immerse yourself in. The calmer and more relaxed you are during practice and performance, the better you will feel, and the better it will go. And the benefits of your practice will happen faster and more noticably.
I'm serious about meditation, which is nothing more than sitting in silence and clearing the mind. Notice your thoughts, let them go, notice and release, just keep letting go; eventually they quiet down a lot. That's when you can really listen. There are so many meditation traditions that I encourage you to pick the one that you feel comfortable with, that works for you. Pick one, and stick to it for long enough to see if it suits you.
I start every single day with a bit of time set aside for silent meditation, spiritual reading, perhaps some writing, usually a few minutes of Reiki. It makes a huge difference for the quality of my day. It makes a huge difference for the quality of my music, my writing, all my creative work. I'm disgustingly productive, I never have "writer's block," and I do something creative literally every day. Even if my day is full of crazy bad insanity, moments out of Franz Kafka novels or Samuel Beckett plays, I still make something every day. You show up, you Pay Attention, and you make something. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece, or even a finished piece; it will be something. It doesn't matter if it's crap, it's still something made that day, because you showed up. Eventually you will do better tomorrow.
If you approach your practice with your heart open and your soul engaged, your hands will follow.
So no matter what you do during your practice sessions, or suring your performances, how you do it is going to make all the difference.
I've written before how I like it when a poem's form emerges organically from within the poem itself, revealing itself as you go along. It can be a continuous process of formal revelation, not knowing what form you have just discovered till you're halfway through the poem. I enjoy it when a poem tells me what it wants. I enjoy the surprise of not knowing where I'm going I might set out to write a poem, and have it turn into an essay, or a prose-poem. I might set out to write a haiku and it becomes a haibun, or an invented post-haibun-like form. I might set out to write a contemplative essay, and it becomes a prose-poem, or a Spiral Dance essay. I never know when starting out where I will end up, and I like it that way. Writing is exploring; writing is discovery.
There are some poems whose forms are so organic to the poem itself that you never use that form again. Other forms that you discover become fascinating enough that you end up working with the form several times, to see what it can contain, how it can re-structure verbal thought into compressed-image poetry. You fool with grammar and syntax, sometimes letting them go entirely, if the form demands it; sometimes relaxing grammar or punctuation, to create a run-on flowing stream-of-consciousness effect during playback, is what leads to the union of form and content. I always tend to feel as if a poem succeeds best when the sense of the poem is containered appropriately, the form matching the subject as one.
Frank Lloyd said of architecture and design: Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union. That is just as true of poetic form and function; and perhaps of music as well.
A few months ago I wrote that I was going to turn away from words for awhile; turn away from writing a daily essay, feeling that in writing daily as I had been for several months prior that I had been pushing myself too hard, and spraining my metaphoric mental ankles. I did that. In the interim, I completed a long piece of notated music, worked on several visual art and photographic projects, and wrote a few haiku anyway. (I always seem to be able to make an occasional haiku, even when nothing else is happening. In the mid-1990s, I went through a long period, a turbulent period in my life and health, in which I wrote nothing but haiku for almost two years.) I still feel like I don't want to push at writing, just let it happen when it chooses to happen. I still feel that pushing at writing, for me at least, is too coercive of whatever river of inspiration I swim in, and I choose not to push at it for fear of permanently damming it. More precisely, it is an article of my faith that that river will always be there, no matter how it is expressed through various creative media; so I choose to never force it, or pretend to control it, or try to direct it to my egoistic willfulness. I prefer to stay in the process of the flow rather than try to turn it into an overly-planned irrigation system.
So with all of that still being true, I found myself this morning making a new poem, responding to a recent photograph of mine, in a new form: the old Buddha. The image is made from a photograph of a Buddha candleholder on my altar, that I often light during meditation. I love the way the light shines up on the Buddha's face, as though coming from within.
Here's a few notes on the process of discovering the form as I went along. Or inventing it, if you prefer. I don't feel much like an inventor, at these moments, though.
I feel like the poem's form reveals itself as the writing progresses, making itself known to me. I feel like an explorer, an adventurer mapping new lands—like the Spaniards discovering the "New World," which had of course already been there, but which for many years was mysterious and terra incognita to them. I feel like a mountain-climber summiting an unknown peak. None of these analogies get it quite right; suffice to say that I feel, in the making of the poem, that I'm uncovering something that already existed. There is no sense of my own ego-self inventing, like an engineer or scientist, no sense of my intellect engaged with problem-solving, no sense of being a designer inventing a design. My will is engaged, because your will has to be engaged or you'll never finish anything, but my will is not steering the process, just sending power to the wheels. Will keeps you going, it gives you thrust, but it doesn't tell you where to go. Words fail me in these attempts to describe the making; I am only able to make these imprecise analogies.
Perhaps it was my thinking long and deeply about haiku and its related forms these past few days. And I found myself writing a short-form poem in several stanzas while contemplating the image of the old Buddha. I can remember when each insight happened, although I can still only say that it feels like discovering what's already there: a process not of formation but of revelation. I find out what's happening as it happens.
The word-count of the form revealed itself to me by the end of the second stanza: two lines of two words or any length or syllable count, followed by a third line of four words. There are no intentional end-rhymes or metric stresses anywhere in this form. It's based solely on word-count and stanza.
Halfway through the third stanza, by which time I had allowed myself to also use compound words (compoundwords, if you will) to expand the poem's images, i.e. to be able to get it all in within the form's constraints, I realized that I was going to make a final stanza in which the four words of the first two lines of the final stanza would repeat the last words of each preceding stanza. (Does that make this a post-sestina form?) This would necessitate writing four stanzas with end-words that would open the fifth and final stanza of the form, which would again be a stanza of the same form as the others.
So, we could map (I use this word deliberately) this form as follows:
xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx AAA
xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx BBB
xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx CCC
xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx DDD
AAA BBB CCC DDD xxx xxx xxx xxx
I like forms like these that can be thought of as fractal: containing these types of self-similar recursions. I also like how the last line remains open, non-recursive; I like it when a poem "lifts off" at its end, taking off into space, or lifting up, staying open-ended.
Poems that have too-solid endings risk being moralistic and overly conclusive, of having pat endings that thud down rather than rise up. I always find it interesting when a poem's last line lifts off, or leaps, rather than ends with a too-solid period. Of course not every poem needs to do this, and many great poems do not. The lesson here is to be aware of the last line's energy: does it rise, does it sink too fast and too far, does it stay on an even keel? Each of these types of energetic ending are appropriate to different kinds of poems: again, form follows function.
Now that I've over-analyzed this new poem's form, will I ever write another poem in this form? Who knows. At the moment, I think not. I worry sometimes that in analyzing the process of making a poem, too soon after its making, one tends to get into those very mind-games that kill the creative process. It's all too easy to start analysing and theorizing all-too-soon, and write from your theories (ideologies) rather than from the union of head, hand, and heart. I risk that here, in my attempt to describe the process of how an invented form can reveal itself during the writing process itself.
But I don't worry too much. I have faith in that deep river of inspiration, that it will always be there, to be dipped into whenever necessary; that even if I cannot follow through or finish my current projects, the river will always give me more, new ones to explore, reveal, and make. If this one thuds, perhaps another will catch light, and lift off.