Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aubade with Coffee and Grapefruit

Aubade with Coffee and Grapefruit

You drank coffee, I drank tea,
a sure sign it could never work out.

Still, there was that one morning, both of us
dressed in white terrycloth robes, stolen from
some hotel or other, when we sat together
in the morning sunlight: we felt like longtime lovers,
if only for an hour.

The times without talking are often the best.

You said to me, let's just sit here quietly,
content with that. That morning, in our robes,
we sat and read our books side by side.
I watched you eat half a grapefruit, sprinkled
with sugar, spoon going in under each sectioned
spoke of tart pith, making it spurt.
I thought how forgiveness works exactly that way.
You smiled and ate each spoonful with your tongue out,
an erotic tease, pretending not to watch me watching you.
Forgiveness is like that, too, in the moment,
ignoring all that's gone before.

White table, white chairs, white plates, white robes.
Coffee and tea dark in white cups like machine oil.
Your lips, your pink tongue. I stirred in my sugar.
Always a little too much. I like sweet things.

Did we let those silences stand too long, spreading out
across the map of what's expected, poisoning that groundwater?
Those things we never unburied, radon and bacterial
in the grounds of our being. Still, in the white table,
the white morning, a bit of contented stillness
that lingers still.



far thunder rumbles
patter of rain on wet grass,
and the lone cricket

going off flashlight dark

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Making a Concert Poster 2

I was asked again to make a poster for an upcoming concert, this time for a concert featuring winter solstice, Hanukkah, and Christmas music. Unlike the previous poster made for the same organization, this time out I reverted to my photo-illustration style. The photo-illustration style, as opposed to drawing or painting, is my trademark in illustration and design; it's not the only style I use, but it's one I'm known for.

I chose one of my favorite portrait-oriented (vertically oriented) photographs of the winter snowscape of my small Wisconsin town, and built a poster around it. Here's the image in its B&W version, although for the poster I chose to use the color version, so I could use the blue of the sky as a poster element:

This image is from a series of winter photos made in March 2008 after a heavy snowfall. I often take walks during and after snowstorms, or go out driving in a blizzard, in order to get some of my best winter photos. Thus I once made an illustrated version of Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

One reason I chose this snowscape photo is because of the large snow-covered bushes in the right foreground: I knew I would need a large open area for type, for the concert information, and the snowy bushes would provide space for that. Note that in the finished poster I screened out the detail in the bushes in order to increase the contrast between the type and the background. Legibility requires contrast, so this was necessary.

For this poster, since one of the concert's themes is Hanukkah, which is a festival of Light, I wanted to use candle imagery, as in a menorah, to symbolize the miracle of the temple lamps in Jerusalem. I searched through my photo archives and chose an image I'd made a few years ago, of taper candles on the dining room table, reflecting on the glass of the window at night:

For me this image symbolizes the light in the darkness. I chose it for its suggestion of the menorah candles, but also because it is not literally a photo of a menorah.

I usually like to evoke poetic associations in my illustration work, when possible, and not be too literal. Sometimes the oblique or slightly off-center representation of an idea is far more poetic, and thus far more poetically evocative.

It took a very long time for the client organization to come up with an overall name for the theme of the concert. They finally settled on "Winter Glow," which I am satisfied with because again it's poetically descriptive without being too literal. The struggle about naming the concert was because it had gotten stranded on the deserted island of literalness.

Part of a graphic designer's job is to choose the most appropriate typeface. This is actually a critically important task. All too often designers make choices wherein the typeface overpowers the text, and such choices are often made so that the designer can show off their prowess. It's an ego-choice, rather than in being in service to the text. I believe that graphic designers need to balance humility with their desire to express themselves creatively; not necessarily humility towards the client, but humility in the face of the project itself. It's about making the designed object do its work as well as it can; self-expression comes second.

In the case of this poster, since I was trying to illustrate the idea of "Winter Glow" via a type design that could almost stand as a separate logo, I allowed myself to err on the side of directly illustrating the concept via the type. In effect, I wanted a typeface or typefaces that would showcase the text while also evoking its setting.

There's a well-known typeface called SnowCaps, which consists of block sans-serif type with snow draped on it. This is one of those familiar seasonal typefaces you see pulled out every winter season to be used on posters, TV programs, and so forth. It's become fairly recognizable even to non-designers.

As whimsical as SnowCaps is, though, it didn't entirely satisfy my logo/illustration needs. I ended up using it only for the initial caps for the "Winter Glow" logo/illustration.

For the body text of the logo/illustration, I discovered a marvelous illustrative font called Kingthings Christmas, available via download from Kingthings, the Internet home of UK artist and illustrator Kevin King. I recommend several of his display fonts to your attention, many of which have fascinating elements and details. The aspect of Kingthings Christmas as a typeface that I particularly enjoy is that the lowercase letters appear to be half-buried in snowbanks, with snowflakes falling all around them. Because it contains such rich detail, this is a display typeface best used at large sizes.

So the "Winter Glow" type logo was ultimately made up of a combination of two typefaces. I like the result enormously.

To put the finishing touches on the logo, I used Photoshop's Chrome filter to make reflective outlines that highlight and punch out the edges of the characters. This is layered together with two other colored versions of the logo type.

Throw in the PHMC logo, and the text giving concert dates, times, and ticket info, et voila, a finished poster:

(Click on image to see larger version.)

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Poem That Changed America

Reading this morning in the book collection The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" fifty years later, edited by Jason Shinder, I encounter again and again justified anger at the poetry Establishment, much less the other, political kind. Again and again the mandarin poets, no matter what poetic style they claim to write in, try to take over PoetryWorld. This can get absurd at times: the post-avant and Language poets can no longer claim to be perpetual outsiders rebelling against the institutions of poetry when they have become the award-winning academic-teaching poets themselves, effectively making themselves into the new mandarins. All avant-garde, all the time is a pose, not a lifestyle.

The mandarins of bygone eras were no less dismissive of what they could not understand than at any other time in history. As Jean Cocteau wisely reminded us, We tend to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar.

In The Poem That Changed America, Rick Moody writes of how "Howl" was a natural reflection of his punk-era roots, how it tied directly into punk ethos of his times—once he discovered the poem, which had been written before he was born. Almost in passing, just giving the context of why poetry didn't attract him at first, Moody includes a diatribe against mandarin poetry that fluidly sums up exactly why so many people these days still hate poetry:

What I hated about poetry was Robert Frost. I hated having to memorize all that Frost in high school, and as far as I was concerned, Frost and his perfect rhythms and his nature scenes had nothing to say to me. Fuck Robert Frost. Fuck stopping in woods on a snowy evening. I hated Robert Frost. I hated bucolic imagery. I hated the reverence for nature, because what was nature anyhow but subdivisions in the suburbs and malls and nuclear power plants and petrochemical everything. On my own, I couldn't really afford to go anywhere untouched by man's pestilence. Fuck nature imagery. Fuck the sober and self-serious accounts of autumn leaves drifting lazily in a creek. I hated counting syllables in a line, because I knew from rock and roll that you could fit in twice that many if you needed to. Fuck meter. And there was no real reason to rhyme either. There'd been a resistance to rhyming in lots of the records I liked in those days. There wasn't much rhyming in Remain In Light by the Talking Heads, and there weren't too many rhymes on Rocket to Russia, or Heroes by David Bowie, which even employed the cut-up technique that Burroughs favored. Gang of Four rarely bothered with rhyming. Fuck rhyming, fuck meter, fuck nature imagery, fuck Robert Frost, fuck poetry. And fuck classical allusions, too. I didn't give a shit if I read another classical allusion in my life. It never impressed me when Ariadne or Poseidon or Cerberus appeared in a poem.
—Rick Moody, "On the Granite Steps of the Madhouse with Shaven Heads"

The bottom line here is relevance. A big part of punk's Do-It-Yourself ethos, and its rebellion, was because it saw the end of the world coming and nothing mandarin or formal or established in those Reagan-Thatcher years seemed relevant, personally or politically. It's interesting how these cultural forces recycle: "Howl" was a cry against Moloch in the 1950s, twenty years later punk was an echoing cry against the deadness of the even more powerful forces of Moloch, and right now, right here, the cries are cycling again.

For myself, innately having more of a punk attitude than a hippie attitude towards life, even though I missed both at the time they were popular moments or "movements," I find myself equating the current mandarins and establishments of PoetryWorld with Moloch, as part and parcel of Moloch: the neo-formalist poets and the post-avant poets (not excluding their postmodern fiction counterparts in flarf and flash fiction) seem equally mandarin, equally mannerist, equally irrelevant to actual poetry. I actually happen to like a lot of Robert Frost's later, very dark poetry, but I certainly understand how being forced to memorize his bucolic early poems in a city high school far from Frost's Vermont woods could sour a person on the whole prospect of Poetry. We still teach poetry really badly in our schools, smothering enthusiasm for poetry under analytical dispassion of poetry. This might never actually get fixed, though, not because poetry is hard to teach but because the way we teach in our schools has a lot of inertia behind it. I saw the best teachers of my generation destroyed by uncaring bureaucracy, stuttering hysterical smallminded. . . . You get the idea.

Relevance. Again, punk rock happened because it was a need for folks to hear themselves, in their own voices, saying things relevant to how the were actually living, rather than the ideals given in public discourse that were discordant with the actuality. Hopelessness will often lead to rebellion. Rebellions furthermore are not fashionably ironic; any literary "rebellion" that founds itself on cool ironic distance is mannerist rather than actual. So "Howl" continues to be relevant, as well as misunderstood. The mandarins of culture still dismiss it when they don't outright ignore it, rather missing the point.

And the mandarins not only invented postmodernism, they still control it. If I rebel against postmodernism, which I often do, it's because I'm rebelling against the mandarin deadness of form over content, of language over sense, of disjunction and fragmentation over natural continuity, of mannerism over invention. Even if I use the tools of poetry that I use which are superficially allied with postmodernism—unusual syntax, non-normative punctuation or grammar, non-formalist enjambment, the prose-poem—I still mean to say something, and I still intend to get inside the heads of who or what I'm writing about, even if I'm writing from within the viewpoint of a colony of fire ants. The tools are used, in my case, to be the container: and the container is transparent to, and in alliance with, what it contains. "Howl" is a way of using language that seems natural and crazy, yet is very carefully, even elegantly structured; Marjorie Perloff writes convincingly of this thesis in her essay in The Poem That Changed America. The tools of language in "Howl" are in the service of its vatic, prophetic, voice-in-the-wilderness, jeremaic, resistant purposeful "message." This is prophetic, protesting poetry in the lineage of William Blake, Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, and that whole tradition within poetry that the mandarins usually either dismiss or ignore.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's essay in The Poem That Changed America is poetic, angry, thoughtful, rebellious, and pointed. As a poet Laureate, Pinsky was highly effective, bringing the enthusiasm of the average reader back into reading poetry aloud, finding ways to use democratizing technologies to get around the gatekeeping critical opinions of the poetry mandarins and just get people excited again. Pinsky's responses to "Howl" are set out in contrast to the worst excesses of contemporary poetry, and Pinsky is scathing in his assessment. And I agree with every comment Pinsky makes, here excerpted in short:

The world's least postmodern poem. Pain, rage, terror, panic heartfelt and body-felt with protective irony or afterthought or sneaking reservations. . . .

A poem profoundly the opposite of the current, early twenty-first-century fashion for the oblique. Majestic in its crazed vulnerability, able to be funny while it is absolutely earnest. . . .

What poem could be more contrary to the current modes of language doubting itself? Rereading now the work of art that inspired me its freshness, directness, and ebullience when I was a teenager, I marvel more than ever at how dire it is, how wholeheartedly tormented, meaning every word, with no implied quotation marks. A howl: that is, utterly the opposite of doubt about the efficacy of language. The sex, for example, is not "camp" or coy, it too is unironic, tormented, and ecstatic and actual. . . .

There's nothing superior or disengaged—in am important way, even, nothing alienated—about the relation to our country, imagined as a fellow patient, sick in mind and body. . . .

I think that back then I welcomed the poem partly as a counter-force to the literary fashion of that day, the nearly religious emphasis on "metaphor" and "image" and "objective correlative," Eliot's phrase associated with his notion that the apparent subject of the poem is a like a piece of meat the poet-burglar uses to distract the watchdog conscious intelligence of the reader. Ginsberg seemed to break down the partitions of that formula. . . .

If "Howl" were published for the first time tomorrow, it would be sensational and challenging: a critique maybe not only of a world where Moloch now claims Jesus as his best friend but also implicitly of our postmodern cool.

—Robert Pinsky, "No Picnic"

This description of "Howl" that Pinsky encapsulates is precisely the sort of poetry that it's time for, again. Another cycle of culture has come around again, and it's time for another vatic rebellion. William Blake would recognize the problems we face right now. Raw, relevant, crazed in its vulnerability, not hiding behind the safety-net of ironic emotional distance—a poetry we need more than over, but from which most contemporary poets shy away. They're probably afraid of their own inner shadows, perhaps having taken too much to heart the ridiculous prescription of poetry teachers such as Yvor Winters that "Emotion in any situation must be as far as possible eliminated." That latter opinion, once again proving how badly we teach poetry in our schools, deserves a guffaw, or a howl of derisive laughter.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Walt Whitman Langorous in Summer

(Excerpts from Walt Whitman, The Complete Prose (1892), from The Walt Whitman Archive.)

Langorous, lounging, sensual, relaxed Walt Whitman, by the pond, by the stream, the lake, in summer's high heat, in July and August relaxing. In so many ways an influence on me, not just as a writer, but in terms of attitude, of approach to life, of worldview, of desire. So desirous, so tempting, to emulate Walt, and find a quiet, private glade or meadow near the local grasslands and stands of trees by the river, and lie in summer splendor, and do nothing.


The fervent heat, but so much more endurable in this pure air—the white and pink pond-blossoms, with great heart-shaped leaves; the glassy waters of the creek, the banks, with dense bushery, and the picturesque beeches and shade and turf; the tremulous, reedy call of some bird from recesses, breaking the warm, indolent, half-voluptuous silence; an occasional wasp, hornet, honey-bee or bumble (they hover near my hands or face, yet annoy me not, nor I them, as they appear to examine, find nothing, and away they go)—the vast space of the sky overhead so clear, and the buzzard up there sailing his slow whirl in majestic spirals and discs; just over the surface of the pond, two large slate-color'd dragon-flies, with wings of lace, circling and darting and occasionally balancing themselves quite still, their wings quivering all the time, (are they not showing off for my amusement?)—the pond itself, with the sword-shaped calamus; the water snakes—occasionally a flitting blackbird, with red dabs on his shoulders, as he darts slantingly by—the sounds that bring out the solitude, warmth, light and shade—the quawk of some pond duck—(the crickets and grasshoppers are mute in the noon heat, but I hear the song of the first cicadas;)—then at some distance the rattle and whirr of a reaping machine as the horses draw it on a rapid walk through a rye field on the opposite side of the creek—(what was the yellow or light-brown bird, large as a young hen, with short neck and long-stretch'd legs I just saw, in flapping and awkward flight over there through the trees?)—the prevailing delicate, yet palpable, spicy, grassy, clovery perfume to my nostrils; and over all, encircling all, to my sight and soul, the free space of the sky, transparent and blue—and hovering there in the west, a mass of white-gray fleecy clouds the sailors call "shoals of mackerel"—the sky, with silver swirls like locks of toss'd hair, spreading, expanding—a vast voiceless, formless simulacrum—yet may-be the most real reality and formulator of everything—who knows?

Yesterday driving in the country between our local small towns, corn high on either side of the two-lane, making a tunnel under the clear blue sky, five or six turkey vultures flew up from beside the road where they were feeding on the remains of a dead skunk. Later that afternoon, saw and smelled another dead skunk near the road. A day for the smelly Tantric reminders of death.


Sunday, Aug. 27.— Another day quite free from mark'd prostration and pain. It seems indeed as if peace and nutriment from heaven subtly filter into me as I slowly hobble down these country lanes and across fields, in the good air—as I sit here in solitude with Nature—open, voiceless, mystic, far removed, yet palpable, eloquent Nature. I merge myself in the scene, in the perfect day. Hovering over the clear brook-water, I am sooth'd by its soft gurgle in one place, and the hoarser murmurs of its three-foot fall in another. Come, ye disconsolate, in whom any latent eligibility is left—come get the sure virtues of creek-shore, and wood and field. Two months (July and August, '77,) have I absorb'd them, and they begin to make a new man of me. Every day, seclusion—every day at least two or three hours of freedom, bathing, no talk, no bonds, no dress, no books, no manners.

Shall I tell you, reader, to what I attribute my already much-restored health? That I have been almost two years, off and on, without drugs and medicines, and daily in the open air. Last summer I found a particularly secluded little dell off one side by my creek, originally a large dug-out marl-pit, now abandon'd, fill'd with bushes, trees, grass, a group of willows, a straggling bank, and a spring of delicious water running right through the middle of it, with two or three little cascades. Here I retreated every hot day, and follow it up this summer. Here I realize the meaning of that old fellow who said he was seldom less alone than when alone. Never before did I get so close to Nature; never before did she come so close to me. By old habit, I pencill'd down from to time to time, almost automatically, moods, sights, hours, tints and outlines, on the spot. Let me specially record the satisfaction of this current forenoon, so serene and primitive, so conventionally exceptional, natural.

An hour or so after breakfast I wended my way down to the recesses of the aforesaid dell, which I and certain thrushes, cat-birds, &c., had all to ourselves. A light south-west wind was blowing through the tree-tops. It was just the place and time for my Adamic air-bath and flesh-brushing from head to foot. So hanging clothes on a rail nearby, keeping old broadbrim straw on head and easy shoes on feet, havn't I had a good time the last two hours! First with the stiff-elastic bristles rasping arms, breast, sides, till they turn'd scarlet—then partially bathing in the clear waters of the running brook—taking everything very leisurely, with many rests and pauses—stepping about barefooted every few minutes now and then in some neighboring black ooze, for unctuous mud-bath to my feet—a brief second and third rinsing in the crystal running waters—rubbing with the fragrant towel—slow negligent promenades on the turf up and down in the sun, varied with occasional rests, and further frictions of the bristle-brush—sometimes carrying my portable chair with me from place to place, as my range is quite extensive here, nearly a hundred rods, feeling quite secure from intrusion, (and that indeed I am not at all nervous about, if it accidentally happens.)

As I walk'd slowly over the grass, the sun shone out enough to show the shadow moving with me. Somehow I seem'd to get identity with each and every thing around me, in its condition. Nature was naked, and I was also. It was too lazy, soothing, and joyous-equable to speculate about. Yet I might have thought somehow in this vein: Perhaps the inner never lost rapport we hold with earth, light, air, trees, &c., is not to be realized through eyes and mind only, but through the whole corporeal body, which I will not have blinded or bandaged any more than the eyes. Sweet, sane, still Nakedness in Nature!—ah if poor, sick, prurient humanity in cities might really know you once more! Is not nakedness then indecent? No, not inherently. It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability, that is indecent. There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent. Perhaps indeed he or she to whom the free exhilarating extasy of nakedness in Nature has never been eligible (and how many thousands there are!) has not really known what purity is—nor what faith or art or health really is. (Probably the whole curriculum of first-class philosophy, beauty, heroism, form, illustrated by the old Hellenic race—the highest height and deepest depth known to civilization in those departments—came from their natural and religious idea of Nakedness.)

Many such hours, from time to time, the last two summers—I attribute my partial rehabilitation largely to them. Some good people may think it a feeble or half-crack'd way of spending one's time and thinking. May-be it is.

Summer's heat clothes the naked skin with humid sweat on those hottest afternoons when nothing seems to move, and the loudest sound in the world is the thrumming cicadas building and crying and fading from all of the surrounding trees. A sound so loud it echoes of the Void, of silence, drowning out all other sounds, all other thoughts, making a silence in me that silence falls into and is obliviated. There is no solitude under the pear tree when the cicadas throb endlessly. Come dusk, the breeze at last turns cool, wicking the sweat off your forehead and shoulders where it had lingered dripping all afternoon. You sit and watch the light turn to blue, to purple, pink, and golden-amber, and at last fade out, through shades of grey, into another kind of oblivion, that of the night. Loud bullfrogs down by the stream, and crickets throughout the lawn replace the cicadas as night-voices. What sweeter music there is none.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010


antler bone found in the grass
speaks of lost deer rituals, their religion of seasons
and blood

dance of hoof and antler, horn and fur ruff
circle of apple trees full of bees
and the tender undying evergreens

horn-handed deer staff a dance ritual for young bucks
while old men sit blanket-wrapped watching
sweat-braced flanks they used to know

we rub our bodies with suet and red clay
we dance the deer in spring and autumn
becoming those bones found in the grass

edges of the field at dusk still full of bees
where deer stop to stare, then walk on
suddenly doubled with ghosts of the ancestors

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mendocino: Driftwood Abstractions

images from the Navarro River mouth, Mendocino County, CA, February 2010

from a gallery sculpture garden, Mendocino County, CA

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Left Out In the Rain

Let out in the rain one more time. Two meanings come to mind: left out in the rain, abandoned, to rust and decay into nothing; and, left out in the rain to be watered, to be allowed to fill up with nature's waters, then spill over the brim.


Feeling aesthetically isolated, even alienated, is nothing new. "Alien" in the sense of Other, not literally an alien. Have always felt I've lived on that thin edge of insider/outsider, one foot in both worlds most of the time. I've been wondering lately about fitting in, aesthetically, artistically, and if it's really worth it. The usual doubts of practice, when Art is a Way. I've been wondering, underneath that, about the still unsolved lifelong dilemma I've had about receiving moderate to high critical acclaim as an artist yet being unable to turn that into any form of recognized success. Not that recognized forms of success are necessarily to be desired or sought out. Depending how you define success, of course. Still, it would be nice if people respected you a little for what you do best. And maybe paid you what it was worth.

A depressed economy, which tends to accentuate whatever forms of artistic or commercial narcissism are normally in play, is also a factor. I live for now in what is still one of the more economically depressed parts of the country. When the GM assembly plant in this county closed, it took a lot with it; a lot of people, and a lot of peripheral businesses. Most of that hasn't rebounded. The farms seem healthy, and the corn this summer is high and green. But people tend to view art as a luxury when they're worried about the rent; rightly or wrongly, even against all arguments about the social, personal and spiritual necessity of the arts, the bottom line is that poor people don't buy art. If they're aesthetically oriented, they instead make it for themselves. Folk art is genuine art, long before the big cities galleries ever "discovered" it. Folk music is whatever music people feel like making, at home, on the porch, in the living room, in the kitchen, wherever. It doesn't require a musical education to make good music. Musically I'm over-educated for my social environment, but when something needs to be explained about how a piece of music works, there's no one better.

What is the gateway? How can it open in both directions?

There is an element of chance. Lots of good artists miss their chances because they don't get noticed by anyone within the commercial arts machine—whether we label that the gallery scene, corporate patronage, o building up a group of regular private collectors. How do you define success? What do you define success as being?

I don't trust even my own feelings of envy, of sour grapes, when directed at the apparently successful careers of other artists. For me it's not a competition; although I know at least one artist who seems to find it necessary to be competitive with me, but I chalk that up to the usual artistic insecurities that we all are prey to. Maybe there's a reason I find myself in the land of artistic rejection. Even when you carefully tailor your submissions to a venue that you think is an ideal match, between the venue and your art, there's no guarantee. I have no doubt that some choices are political, and others matters of personal taste. Whoever wins a chapbook poetry contest, for example, is only slightly set aside from the pack of other applicants, many of whose submissions may have been of equal merit.

When one gets constantly rejected, though, a few choices seem to loom more prominently: 1. give up, go off and do your own thing, stop trying for even slight recognition, just ignore the whole rat-race; 2. keep applying, keep getting rejected, build up a tolerance for rejection, and learn to be comfortable with uncertainty; 3. work to become an insider, so that you have a better chance of being remembered against the background of all the other outsiders. The latter option seems to me to be too political, too manipulative; but maybe I am too honest, too diffident, too unassertive for my own good.

Obviously marketing is a factor. It's well-known that artistic success is not always determined by intrinsic quality but by who has the best marketing plan. I'm not a great self-marketer; I'm probably too diffident, too modest, too deferential. I tend to be a soft sell rather than a hard sell. It's not that I can't do a hard sell, but it does make me feel exhausted and demeaned. I'm no good in retail sales, that's well-established. I don't push hard enough, as I don't like being pushed.

That's the real truth, and maybe it's why I don't win the prize often: I hate being pushed, so I tend not to be pushy. And perhaps you do have to be pushy, competitive, and self-assertive. It's entirely possible that I've missed the boat on that one.

With no false modesty, many things I do artistically I do pretty well. I make some good art. I remember Kerouac once asked, before he became well-known, "Why can't they see that I'm good?" That's artistic self-confidence, although it can be eroded away by constant rejection; and Kerouac ended up being eroded down till it more or less destroyed him in the end. If you're good, and a sensitive soul—and being a sensitive soul was partly why Kerouac was good as a writer—the rat-race can be doubly hard on you.

Let us ruminate on two other factors: fear of failure; and, fear of success. When an artist has both of these in play, it can be paralyzing. Sometimes, perhaps it is better to go be a monk in the hills, and ignore the usual fray. Go do what you do, and find some other living while doing it.

Fear of failure is less crippling than fear of success. Failure after all is probable, even expected. Most artists fail, depending on how you define failure. It's an uphill struggle against all odds. There are few rewards along the way. Fear of failure makes some artists manic, and they drive themselves ever harder. That's how mediocre artists sometimes succeed when better artists don't: Work ethic. Obsessive self-marketing. Thomas Kinkade is not an artistic genius, just a painter with a gimmick supported by a major cottage industry; he succeeds financially even though most of his art is crap. It's not hard to be a better artist than Kinkade, but it's hard to put together and sustain the cottage industry.

Lots of artists self-sabotage rather than deal with the halo of demands that surround (financial) success. Fame, fortune, the fickleness of the audience, the tides of aesthetic fashion which can be more pernicious than anything else if you choose to be swayed by them. Sometimes success is just too much work, and the art itself suffers due to lack of attention. Lots of artists make dumb mistakes, or hesitate in just the wrong way, right at the cusp of becoming known. What are the rewards, after all? It can seem to be a burden rather than a reward.

Having an agent who helps you secure your next book contract might be more a marker of success than the number of fans who come see you at your opening, or on your book-signing and -reading tour. Forward momentum.


I'm all wet. I'm just musing over the same questions every artist muses on, from time to time.

Most of this was brought forward to contemplate by encounters with an artist friend who seems to now view me as competition. Does that mean I'm getting better as an artist, for him to now feel insecure around me? It doesn't mean I'm getting more visible. He relishes telling me the dollar figure of his last major sale. He has a circle of existing collectors that don't mind paying all that. He's established, and has been selling his art for many years. And he's good, there's no doubt of that. I suppose it's that artistically he's moving into territory that I, artistically, have already colonized, and am good at. Hard not to make comparisons.

For my own part, I encouraged, and had some suggestions. His technical learning curve for new media is much steeper than mine for learning to draw; and I made at least one good drawing last week, which is turning a corner into his territory. But I can be encouraging because I don't feel competitive. Maybe that's my lack, here: I'm not competitive enough. Perhaps it's foolish of me, and I've always thought the work would be discovered on its own merit.

I don't feel in competition with my artist friend; or with any other artist, for that matter. I like collaboration, perhaps because I've played chamber music and jazz for decades, and like the mutual support of collaboration that arises in those media. My competitive artist friend has been drawing for decades, and is very good at it. I own none of his work although there have been a few pieces I would love to have owned. Though some of our mutual friends do own his work. (I wonder if that's happened because of some previously existing silent layer of competitive awareness? A subconscious steering clear? Not on my part. I never had the cash to afford one of his drawings, although he's outright gifted some of our mutual friends a drawing.)

I love learning how to draw. I've enjoyed the process of teaching myself to draw. I find most of the how-to pencil drawing books to be of limited use, because they mostly emphasize photorealistic drawing; reproduction of lighting effects, of subject matter, of content, as realistically as possible. While I understand that, in the how-to manuals, this is in the service of learning technique, I have no interest whatsoever in drawing technically photorealistically. I'm already a good photographer: if I want to make an image that seems photorealistic, I'll make a photo. What I want to draw is more purely about graphic arrangement, about interpretation, about mood captured in a subject, if you will about expression. I'm interested in what I've called abstract realism: forms and shapes and patterns that are purely graphic albeit only one step removed from the natural world.

I admit I can be artistically impatient.

I want to finish a drawing and move on. I want to do the next thing. I saw a documentary this year about an artist who obsessively recreated a celebrity image in minute detail in pencil and charcoal, spending a dozen years on one drawing. The end result was technically amazing, but emotionally sterile. Why reproduce a photo on the pixel level like this? Why not just present the photo? Twelve years? If I can't get a drawing close to what I want to do, in my sketchbook, in a couple of hours at most, I stop.

I resist obsession. I know that falling over that edge into obsessing about detail is dangerous and unrewarding territory, and I steer clear of that edge whenever I approach it. This isn't self-sabotage, it's self-rescue. I understand how artists can obsess on their work; I know that temptation. But that's exactly what it is: a temptation towards (technical) perfectionism that serves neither the art nor the artist. Perfectionism is for me no less than a vice, a dangerous terrain, a door that tempts madness.

As a recovering perfectionist, I prefer my art to have flaws in the way nature always has flaws. Clouds are not spheres. Trees never grow identically on all sides. The natural world is uneven, varied, and rather than the ideal conception of a rock or tree we only encounter actual rocks and trees that do not match the Platonic ideal. Platonic ideals are not useful to us as artists. One reason I so enjoy exploring fractal mathematics is that it can closely model the natural world as it is. Fractals are not Platonic ideals; they are non-Platonic, and non-Euclidean, and therefore more realistic.

So if I can't capture a moment, an object, a scene, a graphic image, in an imperfect drawing made relatively quickly, then I will resist endlessly reworking the drawing in an obsessive spiral of diminishing perfectionist returns. I will abandon the imperfect drawing as more realistic than apparent photorealism ever could be. The important thing in drawing is what details to leave out. You can never get it all in, so what matters is the telling detail. Similarly, I will abandon a poem that doesn't quite work, rather than obsessively revise it. A dozen years spent on one poem? That's insane.

Some artistic critics argue that this level of obsessive application to detail is what makes for great art—but that's usually a critical tautology, because the only examples of great art made by obsessive attention to detail are those presented to argue the point. In other words, presented after the fact of their existence. All this proves is that for this artist, the method of obsession produced great art. But one cannot generalize the art made by a few insane obsessives to claim that all great art is made by obsessives. Some great art is made by slapdash quick-working anti-obsessives.

But there's a paradox in play: the paradox of seeming spontaneity while extensive rehearsal has gone on behind the scenes. Kerouac is often cited for his method of "spontaneous composition," which did produce good results in his novels (I am re-reading The Dharma Bums right now, which I put near the top of the heap). But Kerouac was also a notorious sketch artist, who practiced his craft in daily journals, in letter-writing, in other forms of writing all along, so that when he sat down to write a novel his gears were already oiled and his mind was already full of sharp, descriptive detail. He prepared hard before he got to work. He practiced daily, and he had a daily practice.

I learned about mental practice when studying martial arts. Mental practice can make a huge difference. It has been studied and shown to be true, at least in Ki Aikido, that mental practice—reviewing the arts in one's mind, meditating quietly when one can, practicing ki awareness and sensitivity for example when driving—all make for better skills when one is back on the mat. Maybe you only get on the mat once a week. But you can practice the Ki Aikido principals daily, continuously, and when you get back on the mat in the dojo, your skill with the arts is as though you were on the mat more than that once per week. Don't take my word for it; there's a lot of anecdotal literature about this practice effect.

Mental practice applies to music, too. You run things over in your head, maybe drum along to music on the steering wheel as you're driving along, and when you next sit down with your instrument, your time is better, and so is your self-confidence.

I don't pick up the pencils and draw every day. I don't make photos every day; although I do almost every day. When I'm not "working" I make snapshots of people, and of flowers in my garden. Photographic sketches. What I do do every day is a daily practice of visualization: looking at things as though I were to photograph them, or draw them. The mental practice of composing against the edges of the imaginary frame. A daily awareness of the changing of the light. It's all about light, and how it changes. I often sit on my porch at dusk and watch the sky change colors towards evening, towards night. Some days I might mentally sketch, but don't do anything literally. I find it useful to build up that urge in some kind of internal reservoir until it tips over and floods out of its own accord, under its own pathways of energetic pressure release. Let it build up, store it away, till just the right moment. Then when it comes flooding out, it can be at its most powerful.

So that when you pick up the pencil or the camera again, you may have been left out in the rain again, but you're not as rusty as others might expect you to have become.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

End of Days

End of Days

A hard day that begins well but ends badly has its own kind of alchemy.
The alchemy of an effortless morning soured by rage come sunset,
the broken toe launched against the screen, shouting
that scares off the usual pack of robins scrounging under the pear tree.
Round up the usual assumptions. Here's an annunciation,
if you must make a habit of them: bitter breaks
of rue, islands erupting, the end of the world. Not with
a bang but a margarita. Extra salt on the rim to indicate
the absence of an ocean of tears. Nothing on the moon now but litter.
Did you expect any better? Perhaps naively, we did. It's easier by far
to assume the worst of every encounter rather than supervise
what might have been the alchemy of redemption. Easier to be bad.
Easier to be hard-armed and eyed, in iron certainty to believe the worst
because the worst is easier to believe. Which is why ugliness is considered
more realistic than short-veined beauty, especially if it's a little
rusty around the edges. Rust running from the rivets. No such thing as perfect.
Far lovelier are things a little off, that don't quite fit,
that proudly reveal their asymmetrical irregularities.
The Japanese even have a word for beautiful unevenness.
I'm sorry now for kicking the screen out, no matter
how accidentally; sorry for yelling over its fall, and the busted toe
that bled and ached all night. A normal irrationality to yell
back at fickle gods with their tittering ho-hos and eff-yous.
The thousand little gods of Venice, encased in blown glass, covered with
green sea-wrack and saltpeter, make their homes in the junkyards
at the bottom of every canal. I don't know anymore how to
heal myself, heal this wasting tide. Nothing works on land. Collapsing
into a nap after putting the groceries away, a beached whale
on the sands of the couch, tired enough that you actually do
sleep a little. Just long enough. There's still daylight
although you'd be content to miss a day. In the aquarium
fish pee the water they just drank. The couched beach
seems safer, truer somehow, only slightly maybe, yet fresh and bright.
But that's because I just woke from a dream of talking dolphins.
We have no idea how much they laugh at us or how rude the bastards are.
Who pushed me back ashore? Who carried the stormswept ragged fisher boy
back to land after everyone else had drowned? Probably the dolphin playing bus
was lonely, wanted a lover, wanted to feel smooth skin on skin.
They're almost certainly smarter. Globular Japanese net floats
green glass pitted by wave action, wash onto the beach nearby.
Witch balls. Catch in them all these dangerous imaginings and
break them, dispersing the darker vintage and setting you loose.
If not free exactly then at least untied enough to pull
your own leg out of the trap. You don't have to gnaw it off
this time anyway, to limp away. Till next time it might heal.
Lopsided, scarred, walking funny, just barely limping along in truth,
I don't have the wit to escape the day. Maybe those whales
will bring us better dreamtimes tomorrow, emerging out of the beds
and shallows where they pulse, dreaming one hemisphere
at a time.

Another in this ongoing series of poems. I seem to be writing something every two or three days, at most, sometimes with longer gaps. Not every day, because I think it needs to build up some internal pressure, before the steam turns some obscure inner valve and the printer gets triggered in the back of the mind. I still don't know if these poems are any good. I don't need to know, of course. That will get sorted out later on, when, assuming survival, I look back over this period with a more objective gimlet eye and weed the grain from the chaff. That always has to come later. You never can tell, in the moment. Well, usually, anyway.

The creative process is not necessarily under your control. I don't believe in the Muse, that embodied temptress, but I do believe in inspiration, which is sometimes a response to a moment, an experience, a vision of something or other. I don't believe in poetry that is all mental. Poems written entirely from the head usually fail. Poetry is not a grammarian's thought-experiment. It's a quality found. There's sometimes more poetry in Hubble space telescope images than in several volumes of published poetry journals. The Universe is an amazing, beautiful, inspirational place.

Even when you felt like crap.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Logbook about some New Poems

I wrote an introduction to the current series of new poems, when I first started writing them in summer 2010, in which I included some material I'd written in my journal originally. I had sent one or two poems out to friends, and they wanted to know the background. After all, I had been writing for some time by then how I had turned my back on the last online poetry communities I had been engaged with, and hadn't written a poem (except the perennial haiku) for many months.

When I wrote this introduction, I was down and heading further down. It was a bad time, medically, emotionally, and psychologically. Now, some weeks later, thanks to having started an IV drug treatment program, which has its own stresses and charms, I'm physically better overall, if not exactly cured or emotionally over it. I dodged a few bullets this summer, and I'm still not settled in mind and heart about how close to dying I actually was. It was something like a close approach to an unkempt, unmanaged airport, coming in with one engine on fire and the other stalled, your instruments are failing and you can barely see through the rain. And yet somehow you land more or less safely.

People get very weird ideas about chronic illness and recovery, and how you’re supposed to behave when seriously ill, and recently I've lost friendships over this. Maybe they experienced burnout; I'd been very ill for a long time, and it takes its toll on everyone. Some friends have just disappeared. Perhaps they fear contagion of some sort, the contagion of depression if nothing else, and don't want to hear about it. A few others no doubt prefer not to hear about anyone's problems but their own; there is always a narcissistic component to creating personal drama, as it's often a plea for attention, a call for recognition, a demand to be noticed. I don't pretend to be guiltless. On the other hand, I mostly keep my dramas to myself, quite rightly believing that no one really cares. Or rather, no one cares but those in my inner circle of family and friends who would care no matter what, no matter when, or why. Those are the people one loves, who love you in return. Those are who one relies on, lifelong, no matter what, and those are who one would do anything to help in return. We make our family circles by choice as often as by genealogy.

What follows is an edited, excerpted version of scraps of journal entries, emails, and answers to questions, gathered into a hopefully coherent if non-linear narrative, with the worst redundancies removed. Let this be a summary, then, if not a complete tale, of the inception of the current series of new poems. Actually, that’s still not quite accurate. Since what inspires writing is not always directly connected to mundane events, or literal, or immediately traceable, say rather that this serves as background to when and, perhaps but only perhaps, how the gates of dream reopened. Or let this stand as notes on the current state of the creative process.

Early July.

Introduction to the New Series of Poems

I've felt the worst I've felt in a long time, post-colonoscopy last week, and post blood-transfusion-number-two two days before that. Anaesthesia knocked the stuffing out of me, and I am only now feeling even halfway not-crappy. I see the GI doctor in a week so we can talk about my options for ending the distraction of my chronic illness, and getting my life back. He's recommending a course of IV drug therapy (Remicade), which they also use for other inflammatory autoimmune syndromes like rheumatoid arthritis. I don't know yet know what a toll it's going to take on me, but I've already given up most of my summer plans on the probability that I'm probably going to feel worse before I feel better.

There, I've already broken one personal rule, which is to discuss any of that. I'll break the same rule again briefly to say that I believe I have every right to focus on my own needs first right now, and tell everybody to go focus on theirs, without my assistance, thank you very much. I'm too tired and sick to have anything left over after dealing with my own crises at the moment. Keep it in perspective, folks. Life-threatening medical issues trump personal emotional drama any day of the week.

Nonetheless all through this current medical crisis I've been making art, writing poems (surprise! I haven't been writing anything for literally months), and yesterday I woke up from vivid dreams with ideas for two pieces of choral and piano music in my mind, which I immediately sketched out before breakfast.

A few days before the second blood transfusion (and there will be more), I started writing in my journal a series of elegies, aubades, and other longer forms of poems and prose-poems. It's become a series of Elegies, with some Aubades and other poems breaking up the sequence. I never did think in straight lines. The blank pages in my journal are filling up fast with these poems; and there have been a few drawings made, too. I feel the pressure to make art as much as I am physically able, right now.

For no other reason than that it's what I'm supposed to be doing, and I refuse to give into being a total invalid any longer. I figured out, sometime in the hospital last week, something that really makes a difference to me right now:

I am not making art to distract myself from the chronic illness.

The illness itself is the distraction.

Everything I am doing right now is about getting my life back, so I am no longer constantly dragged down by this pissant frakking illness.

And there's no point waiting.

Some folks have been advising me to take it easy and stop making the art, poems, music, etc., till I feel well. They really don't get it. It is not about saving my strength, or marshalling my energy; that’s invalid thinking.

You cannot wait for some possible day when you might feel better; you cannot wait for anything. Anything in life that's worth doing is worth doing right now, and not putting off. Life is too short as it is, to put off the things that really matter. The medical crisis I'm dealing with right now is the distraction: it matters that I deal with it, but it doesn't own me, and I will not let it control my life. Do not let your illness become your identity: I do not identify as an ill person, but as a person who at the moment is ill.

Some days being sick and tired all the time just pisses me off. I have to watch that, because anger can tire you out badly, too, if you overdo it. But frustration-inspired anger can also be used as fuel to keep oneself focused past the frustration, the annoyance, the pain, anxiety, and worry about the future. Folks who haven't had a chronic illness, or been around other folk who did, often don't understand this. Probably on some level it's a spiritual law: "This isn't a waiting room, this is your life." Right here, right now, no waiting, keep it real.

As for anyone else, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

There now, I've broken another taboo. I've spoken plainly enough to no doubt offend some former friend. I've told people I have no remaining tolerance for anyone's time-wasting personal drama. So be it. Life's too short.

Anyway, I've been writing these poems.

I don't know if they're any good, as yet. Some of them are going to need more work, later, when I feel like it. Many seem formless, still fragmentary, just feints towards something new; many don’t even have titles. Some seem to be more like prose-poems, even if broken into long lines. I am typically writing them in my handwritten journal, and only later typing them into the computer.

One or two of these new poems, though, came out of the pen rather at white heat, and seem pretty good. (As often seems to happen when I write at white heat.) Some poems have revealed their titles immediately, and even if they are Elegies they carry other names. One of the Aubades is overtly erotic in a good way, I think. I have no idea where this series will lead me, and no one is more surprised than me to be writing poems again, after a long hiatus and a longer disgruntlement with PoetryWorld in general. The worst dramas and flame-wars and bad attitudes I've ever seen online, without exception, have all been on the online poetry workshop boards and blogs. Steering clear of those is all about not wasting my limited strength on things that don't matter.

What sometimes happens is that you get ignited by an encounter with other art. You become susceptible, when you are open, to all of life that streams by. You respond.

Whenever I read Rumi, for example, I feel the urge to write a couple of short poems in response, and I usually do. Whenever I read Rilke, the same thing happens—which was probably where the first of these Elegies came from. I was reading about translating Rilke, in William H. Gass, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the problems of translation. There on the page was a comparison of several translations of the opening lines of the Duino Elegies. Those poems are ones I have often returned to, finding more in them each time.

And I was reading in one of the great prose-poems of the past 50 years, Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin. Originally written back in the 70s when Harrison was in a particularly bad place in life, he began writing daily Letters to the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who committed suicide in 1925 after writing his last poem in his own blood. What a gesture for a poet! I may sometimes feel like writing has drawn blood, but I've never gone that far. What commitment. Anyway, Harrison's Letters are really incredible; fortunately they were republished recently, and are still in print.

My own new poem, “Letter to _____,” is not an imitation, and it is a response. A response to the past week, to how I've been feeling, and to the Letters. I don't know who my own Letter is addressed to, so I've left that blank for now. Titles can always change later.

Also, I’ve been reading a book of poems by a poet new to me, Oliver de la Paz, Furious Lullaby, about which I eventually wrote a review-essay. There is a fire in this poetry, a supple erotic life-force undertone throughout. The poetry in this book is alive. Many of the poems come at life from surprising and original directions, cracking open the usual ways of looking at things and giving them new life. There are several startling Aubades in this collection, which have reminded me of the genre of the aubade as a poetic form, and has frankly inspired me to write more explicitly and erotically again. I have written morning-poems and morning-after poems before, in some instances inspired by Cavafy, without explicitly labeling them as such.

I am overtly aware at the moment that, during the process of this long illness, that there have been times when the erotic for me functions in its, purest, most fundamental sense: eros as life-force. The force that underlies all life, that powers life and living. Mitochondrial eros, if you will. I have not been feeling personally very interested in my own erotic life, which is a function of not having enough energy for anything, so the erotic for me lately has been an affirmation that I am still alive, a validation that I am still here, a reminder that at its deepest level eros is life.

From my journal, late June.

Last night, feeling the need to Make something, feeling that pressure that you’re about to burst, that you have to get something out and down and done; and tired of the toxic glare of the computer screen; I lit some candles on the porch and sat down to write in my handwritten journal. What came out was two Elegies, or the beginning of a series of short elegies, so far no more than two pages in the book; and half of a third elegy so far this morning. I still feel that pressure.

I rarely set out to write like this. The influence of Rilke is perhaps too obvious on these poems. I have to acknowledge it, even though I don’t want to: I want no comparisons, and I want my voice to be in these elegies, no one else’s.

The entire Kestrel chapbook was written as a response to Rilke; of the 24 poems in there, maybe one or two are any good. The ones with the strongest vision, the strongest images. The rest of them are playing with words. Just etudes.

These new elegies probably no more than etudes either. Most often, when I set out to write a set of poems, consciously knowing what I’m doing, they go astray. I’m not a strategic or deliberate, planning writer. The best things I’ve ever written have emerged at white heat, fierce and fast, and with no stopping them. It’s too easy for my ego and its expectations to lead astray anything I consciously set out to write. I respond better than I propose. Trying to force a poem to conclusion always makes for bad poetry; at least that’s how it’s always worked for me.

I don’t know if this creative urge will peter out, leaving these unfinished. Maybe to be picked up again later, maybe to be abandoned. I don’t know if they’re any good.

So I’ll keep my inner ears open, and the journal book with me, and pay attention. If something happens, it does. Otherwise, I have to go back to waiting. We’ll see how this unfolds.

From my journal, early July.

I’ve tried, in between everything else, to write some more on the Elegies. But my heart and mind aren’t in it, today, and I’m writing consciously rather than at white heat, and I feel like it’s all going to come to nothing. Didactic, pedantic, polished but dead. I’m not giving up, but I think for now I need to stop. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. I felt this way writing Kestrel, and most of those poems turned out fairly bland and dull. I just don’t write well when I think about it too much.

I like the ideas coming forward now. But maybe I need to just let them percolate, and come out later. Never try to force a writing practice, never try to force a project. This is why I don’t do what so many head-oriented poets do, which is to sit down and write two or more hours a day; for me all that produces is prosaic, bland work, nothing special, nothing extraordinary. It’s not my own voice when I do that, at best it’s some other writer’s voice I end up imitating. I usually don’t like the results. Some readers I might share such poems with do like them—but I have to wonder at that. I am used to my poems being rejected rather than embraced, I suppose.

Have to trust my instincts on this. Have to stay loose, and let it go.

I really want to focus on music and photography at the moment, anyway. These Elegies just appeared for no good reason. After a long dry spell. Kestrel came at the end a long dry spell, too; and was followed by another short dry spell. If this current moment just repeats that pattern, so be it. We do the best we can, and we abandon what we don’t think is our best work. Meanwhile, plenty of photographs and music to work through.

From my journal, early July.

Now I’ve written two Aubades as well as four Elegies. I’ve written something every other day or so, with gaps and pauses, but coming back to them after a day or two of rest in between. I still don’t know where these are coming from, and I don’t know why just now.

No, I do know why now: because the circumstances of my precarious life right now make me want to make something, anything, to create, to bring new life into the world at the edge of my fear of dying. It’s a way to remember I’m still alive, for now. It’s eros rising, the life-force speaking up and saying, no, not yet, I’m not done yet. Here’s more life I throw out upon the stones, see what it is and where it lands. I bleed life, I bleed poems, I bleed music. I need to be filled up with this life-force, to sustain myself. So that’s why.

Are these poems any good? I still don’t know, and I’ve decided that I don’t care. That’s not what I need to concentrate on, at the moment. I need to think about letting it happen, encouraging the flow without getting in its way. The Aubades seems to come smoothly, without feeling forced. One of them has in it the ghost of Lorca. I’ve been reading his Collected Poems again, of course, along with some other poets. I find myself drawn to the ecstatic poets of praise and life, right now, and backing away from the bland and pedantic and intellectual. There is no comparison. What life-force is keeping me going is drawn from the poems of life-force, of the erotic movements of scorpions and owls and trees. Everything alive is making love to the world, and sparkling with energy.

I have no clue if these poems will sustain, or continue, or stop, whenever they stop. I’m not going to try to edit them till later. Just go with the flow, for now. That’s always best.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Back from Up North, and Wishing I Was Still There

Just back from a week's travels up on Minnesota's North Shore. Spent a lot of time at the Lake Superior shore, and in the woods and by the rivers and lakes in Superior National Forest. I'm having difficulty with re-entry to snivellization: nothing matters. I can't bring myself to care about the pile of mail, bills, and junk to be recycled. I'm avoiding the answering machine, and even the phone itself. Even my quiet small town here in southern Wisconsin seems too loud, too bright at night, too teeming with people, after being Up North. After a week of driving on dirt roads where you maybe see one other car per ten minutes, driving back down was enraging and exhausting; the vast majority of cars that tried to kill me on the highway yesterday had Illinois plates, no doubt Chicago people driving home after their weekends of Escaping To Wisconsin. I'm struggling to keep my mood what it was after a few days in the northern woods, calm, collected, refreshed, reinvigorated. The mail and the answering machine can both wait another day or two before I give them my attention. I've needed a nature break, a vacation from illness-caused cabin fever, and a change of venue, for a very long time. Forgive me for wanting to linger, in soul and mind, Up North a bit longer.

Nothing is more freeing and more healing to my soul than wilderness.

On the other hand, since I spent two days in the Twin Cities on either end of my northern vacation, I did some serious book shopping, and have come home with quite the treasure trove. I found several very beautiful books, notably Ben Shahn’s hand-written, illustrated edition of Ecclesiastes. The illustrations are sublime. Interest in Ben Shahn needs to be revived; his illustrated books are particularly fine; I also have a copy of his book illustrating Rilke.

I also found a lovely Folio edition of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a Duane Michals retrospective photography volume, a 1930s edition of Leaves of Grass, and some very valuable, to me, books of and about poetry. One of these is a hardcover first edition of a festschrift to Kenneth Rexroth.

And a new Thomas Merton book: When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on nature, edited by Kathleen Deignan, with illustrations by John Giuliani. I keep finding new Merton books, this past year. I think there must be a new wave of discovery and interest in publishing and reading his work. Some new writings are also being published, that have not been seen before. One of the new Merton books in my collection is an edition of his calligraphic brush drawings and monoprints, which I pleasantly find to be synchronistically parallel to my own recent directions in drawing and brush work, haiga and calligraphy.

When the Trees Say Nothing is excerpts from Merton's Journals, letters, and published writings, all on the themes of nature, the natural world, and solitude within natural settings. A lot of the excerpts are highly poetic. Here’s one that seems particularly relevant to my own feelings at the moment:

In this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. I am not alien. The trees I know, the night I know, the rain I know. I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am a part, and the world goes on with me in it, for I am not alien to it.

Sublime, and perfectly pertinent. I sleep so much better in that wooded silence than I do anywhere else.

A few more quotes now from this marvelous little book, which I am moved to copy out here:

Why do I live alone? I don’t know. . . . In some mysterious way I am condemned to it. . . . I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realization that just being there is enough, and to add something else is to mess it all up. It would be so much more wonderful to be all tied up in someone. . . and I know inexorably that this is not for me. it is a kind of life from which I am absolutely excluded. I can’t desire it. I can only desire this absurd business of trees that say nothing, or birds that sing, or a field in which nothing ever happens (except perhaps that a fox comes and plays, or a deer passes by). This is crazy. It is lamentable. I am flawed, I am nuts. I can’t help it. Here I am, now, . . . happy as a coot. The whole business of saying I am flawed is a lie. I am happy. I cannot explain it. . . . This is what the woods mean to me. I am free, free, a wild being, and that is all I ever can really be. I am dedicated to it, addicted to it, sworn to it, and sold to it. It is the freedom in me that loves you. . . .

More and more I feel like a monk without a monastery. There are places that I travel to and spend time in that are de facto hermitages: a cabin Up North; the high campground at Great Basin National Park; the east bluff at Devil's Lake; and others. There are places of power all over the land, some of which call you to them, some of which you discover as though at random during your travels. Each place of power has its own beauty, its own effect on my soul, some energizing, some others healing, a very few that awaken the darker aspects of self and turn them towards serving the light.

Eight crows wheel in the sky. An interesting evolution of shadows on the bare hillside beneath them. Sometimes to the crows fly low and their dance mingles with the dance of their own shadows on the almost perpendicular olive wall of the mountain pasture. Below, the sighs of the ocean.

My friend Alex is followed by crows wherever he goes; they constantly talk to him, as though they've adopted him into their clan. With me, I am followed by ravens. There were solitaries and raven bonded pairs every day that I drove the unpaved roads Up North last week. They often flew up from where they'd been investigating something in the road, taking big slow beats of air with giant wings, to perch on a tamarack or white pine by the roadside and eye me as I drove past. Sometimes I think it's always the same raven that I keep meeting, as it feels like resuming a conversation already going on, rather than starting new ones.

For my part my name is that sky, those fence-posts, and those cedar trees. I shall not even reflect on who I am and shall not say my identity is nobody’s business because that implies a truculence I don’t intend. It has no meaning.

Now my whole life is this—to keep unencumbered. The wind owns the fields where I walk and I own nothing and am owned by nothing and I shall never even be forgotten because no one will ever discover me. This is to me a source of immense confidence.

To keep unencumbered. To be confident because there is nothing to lose. These values speak to me as though they were the touchstones of the new life I must now lead.

A vagrant, a destitute wanderer with dusty feet, finds his way down a new road. A homeless God, lost in the night, without identification, without even a number, a frail expendable exile lies down in desolation under the sweet stars of the world and entrusts Himself to sleep.

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Gone Camping

Gone camping for a week. Play amongst yourselves.


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Aubade with Oranges and the Ghost of a Poet

Aubade with Oranges and the Ghost of a Poet

There are fourteen owls strung along the fence
wire, Federico. Their heads to turn to look
into each other’s eyes, then yours, Federico.

There are pale-skinned farmer boys splashing naked
in the bend of the river where it pools deep as night,
Federico. There are pale boys laughing in the water.

There are ice rings around the bold summer moon
where it spins, Federico. Above the white-skinned
birch it whirls, shedding coins about the small-fruited trees.

There are old scars upon the olive skin of the sleeping
boy, Federico. His lover sits nude beside him,
Federico, and watches his breath, like oranges, like moths.

In the morning, Federico, this will all be lost.
He will be gone from my blankets, leaving but a trace
of his scented oranges. I will breathe in those blankets,

Federico, I will spare them from the laundry’s correctives.
I will rescue his breath, his lingering image impressed
into the mattress. And with my stained hands, Federico,


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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Arrangement with Black Crabs, a Bucket, and Butterflies

Arrangement with Black Crabs, a Bucket, and Butterflies

Come daybreak, after climbing out of the bucket of black crabs
that is depression, where every time you try the walls
the other crabs pull you back in, you realize how close
to that edge you were. The thought stops you.
Sometimes life is an untreatable sucking chest wound.
The black crabs stare blank and silent even when depression's
situational. Your dreams are intense, vivid, instantly gone
past remembering. It stops you. It's no wonder
the pollyanna positive thinkers give you no traction.
The walls of the bucket are slick, and easy to slide
back down.
            One afternoon in Key West, the best part of the day
was spent at the Butterfly Conservatory, an aerated
airlocked ornate greenhouse full of exorbitant plants, birds and butterflies.
My attention was on photographing the beautiful bugs
but I was half-distracted by two younger men, tall thin
Scandi brothers barely clothed in the humid sun.
They kept unselfconsciously posing, langourous as tropical flowers,
as they peered at the butterflies and blooms in postures designed
to activate and irritate my nether instincts. My photographic catch
that day was two-thirds bright-winged flying stellar insects,
and one-third shoulders and bare thighs. A feast of color and form
for any camera.
            Two summers later,
driving along Turtle Creek Road, a sky of cloudless sulphur butterflies
rose fitfully from the explosion of blossoming ditch lilies
and queen anne's lace wild along the roadbed. A few yellow
winged bugs hit my windshield and bounced off, leaving
no trace.
            It's these tracks of memories, winding through
thickets in the arid desert of the heart, that keep
you going. They stop you. They stir your nether regions which is often
all that makes you want to stay alive. At the verge of falling back in
they give you enough push to chin yourself up and out
of the bucket. It's still dark beyond, but at least
you can perch on the rim a spell, wait for enough light
to be able to climb down and scurry away, claws and camera
alike clicking. In that deep blue hour before sunrise,
the only sound for the moment is that clicking, and your feet
ticking the loose beach cobble of the strand, in the still near-dark
vanishing ahead.

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Langour and Luxury

Ocatvio Paz wrote in his important book-length essay, In Light of India, on some essential differences between Western poetry and classical Sanskrit poetry, which is the living foundation of Indian poetry. In Western poetry, lyricism is often accompanied by melancholy. Paz writes:

In Indian poetry, on the other hand, there is a feeling that is rare in ours: luxuriousness, that moment in which the body, without losing its composure, seems to waver, enveloped by extreme pleasure, and falls into a delicious swoon. The poem becomes a naked body adorned with jewels, lying conquered. Luxuriousness is an effluvium that glows and vanishes. It is also an agent of metamorphosis: the male body, weakened by an excess of pleasure, twists into that of a woman; in turn, the female body, goaded by desire, leaps on top like a tiger. The transposition adds ambiguity to the erotic battle: Krishna seems at times like a maiden, and the graceful Parvati, in a flash of the eyes, turns into the terrifying Durga. . . . This is the great difference from Western eroticism, which since the end of the eighteenth century has been largely concerned with infraction and violence. Bataille emphasizes that eroticism is essentially transgression: Hindu art proves him wrong. It is not a legal code but a fan: unfolding, refolding, unfolding again, displaying the whole range of pleasures. An art and a poetry that have never known sadism.

Eroticism in Indian art—eros itself, if you will—is often depicted as languorous, as opposed to conquering. Sexuality is not a war between the sexes, but a blurring of their boundaries. Role-reversals are not uncommon: the woman must ride on top, and be dominant. The rigid gender and sexual roles that have become reified by custom and religious dictates in the West are not present in this poetry. Neither is the Western division of soul and body, the alienation of the flesh, the exaltation of the spirit at the expense of denigrating the physical form. Even Indian food is luxurious, a complex blending of scents and tastes that overwhelm and envelope the senses and the soul alike. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that for me Indian food is comfort food, bringing back memories of my early childhood in Andhra Pradesh. (Comfort food has become even more available now that one can find in the USA restaurants that include or even specialize in South Indian cuisine.)

Yet even within the Western poetic tradition there are eddies and streams of langour and luxury. I find them especially in the poets who write in the Spanish-speaking tradition, both in Europe and in Central and South America. I find these characteristics in Federico Garcia Lorca, in Pablo Neruda, in Antonio Machado, in Xavier Villaruttia, and others in this lineage.

I have maintained for some time that the full flowering of Surrealism was not amongst the French and Italian poets who founded that school, but in Latin America. French Surrealism remained a post-Freudian intellectual game; even as it valued the irrationality of dreams and the unconscious, it valued them primarily as sources of imagery that were mined for use by the conscious craft of the waking poet. There are some marvelous games invented by the Surrealists, but they remained games. And there is little luxury in the artistic results. More paranoia than langour, to be honest. The French Surrealists might have wanted to visit the jungle of dreams, but they didn't trust the jungle to provide for them, and so they never fully relaxed into its embrace. And later Western poetic -isms, in their polished intellectual rigor, have often dismissed langour and luxury as soft and not to be taken seriously as Art. The triumph of the rational insists that the sensual be demonized.

Octavio Paz himself is exemplary of the full flowering of what Surrealism could have become, and did become when it was employed by Latin American poets. In Paz as in the others mentioned above, the tools of Surrealism became fully embodied, fully alive. And this is because, unlike the French Surrealists but like the classical Sanskrit poets, the Spanish-speaking poets involved the physical body and its erotic possibilities in their poetry.

In his many essays on poetry and its history and sources, Paz returns again and again to the eroticism of the physical world, of nature, of the body, and the world as the body. Paz of course was strongly influenced by his many years spent living in India; the small selected poetry volume that speaks to this directly is A Tale of Two Gardens, one garden being Paz' native Mexico, the other India. Paz' poetry, for example Sunstone, is deeply luxurious while simultaneously rigorously formal and profoundly philosophical.

For myself, I often seek a more luxurious, sensual, langourous poetry. I seek a poetry of the body, an embodied erotic poetry, a poetry that evokes the senses as much as the mind. I've long stated that poetry written only from the head ultimately fails, and I stand by that. The soma needs to be part of the experience of reading and re-creating a poem in the reader's own self. It can't be always just dry, dessicated, puzzle-box, intellectual language-based heartless mental games, it needs to be full-body, full mind-body experience. The best poetry sings.

So it is always a pleasure to discover a book of poetry new to me that is also able to evoke a powerful somatic response in the reader. In this case, it's both pleasure and inspiration. Sometimes the world does give you what you've been desiring.

Furious Lullaby by Oliver de la Paz.
(Southern Illinois University Press, 2007)

I was in the bookstore, browsing, when I came across Furious Lullaby. I had never seen this book before. I picked it up and scanned it, then put it back. After awhile, I came back to it, drawn by some unnamed instinct, and picked it up again, and began to read. I was soon completely absorbed. I bought the book, and took it home, and have now read through it several times.

I had never heard of the poet, Oliver de la Paz, and still know almost nothing about him. I am interested not so much in the poet's biography but rather in these poems that emerged from his life and heart.

And these poems are immensely satisfying to read. They are fierce, intelligent, often surprising, coming from oblique angles at otherwise familiar topics, deeply felt, occasionally funny, and altogether stunning. I haven't been turned on by a new book of poems like this in a long time. (Let's face it, most of what gets published these days is dull, dry, overly thought-out, self-conscious to a fault if not outright narcissistic, and lyrically bland.) De la Paz' poetic antecedents are Lorca, William Blake, perhaps Neruda or Paz or Machado. The poems remind of the suppleness of the Spanish-speaking tradition, both in terms of the surreal juxtapositions of images and objects, and in terms of the erotic language. There is a luxurious use of language here, a frequent display of pyrotechnic technique, but not for its own sake, rather in the service of what is being given in the poem. I feel no words are in excess, nothing needs to be trimmed away, it's all quite precise even in those moments of extremity or ecstasy.

The lyric poem is lately a small thing focused on small moments, small events, personal reflections, too much of smoke and mirrors. All too many MFA workshops teach poets to think small. In this book, to the contrary, de la Paz finds (as did Blake) whole universes in the grains of desert sand that scorpions clatter across. His poems often open outwards, taking in wide vistas, before returning in the end to where they began. Zoom out, zoom back in.

There are several Aubades in Furious Lullaby, for example, Aubade with a Thistle Bush Holding Six Songs, which has as its opening lines:

A man told me that he had wasted his life. I did not know him.
We were on a train moving from one trespass to the next,
the fields in the windows shifting utterly into daybreak.

He told me about the guitar he bought with a little cash
saved at odd jobs, how he could not play but kept the thing
as a symbol for failure.

An aubade, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is 1. a song or poem greeting the dawn; 2. a morning love song, or a song or poem of lovers parting at dawn; 3. morning music. (The latter being the opposite of a nocturne, an evening or night music.) The tradition of aubade in poetry is something one finds more often in the Romance languages than in the Anglo-Saxon rationalistic tongues. Some mornings one lingers, in langourous pleasure, in memory, before arising. Each of the several aubades in contains aspects of morning, of music, of lovers parting. Sometimes it's implied that lovers will rejoin come nightfall, but not always. Aubades can be both praise and farewell, and both tones are struck here.

Many of de la Paz' titles in Furious Lullaby are themselves intriguing enough to mention:

Aubade with Doves, a Television, and Fire

My Dearest Apostasy

What the Scapula Said

Epitaph for the Musculature of the Neck

The art of finding a great title for a poem is one that perhaps de la Paz might consciously work at, but these seem so effortless, so natural and un-mannerist, so fresh they take the breath away. Poems with "My Dearest" and "Aubade" in their titles outnumber the rest here; which itself lends a certain tone to the collection. As though an wordly cavalier, a learned aristocratic lover, was writing florid farewell and hello letters to the body, to lovers, to the Devil, to himself. There is wit, regret, langour, and sharp observation of the familiar here, all made sensual by the sparkle of a turn of phrase. I discussed Sanskrit poetry earlier, and there are connections here to that tradition as well, both sensually and philosophically.

I am taken back to my own childhood in tropical India, for example, by Aubade with Scorpions and Monsoon:

Little sleeper, I mentioned the scorpions
were thoughtless in the rain, as they swarm down

the length of the green skins to the flood, eel-like
with furious tails. Earlier, the sky

had turned a mustard color proving that August
and its rains would soon bathe the desert, making

the whole thing become a dark scar. Water caused
the scorpions to shelter against the cacti

spikes. . . .

Rather than quote the whole poem, I want to give just enough of a taste to inspire the reader to go seek out the rest.

I could go on and on, droning away with insufficient, inarticulate praise, and suffice to say Furious Lullaby rewards each reading.

The highest praise I can give a poet or book of poems is that reading the poems inspires me to write. When I re-read Rilke's Duino Elegies, I want to write. When I read Coleman Barks' luminous versions of Rumi, I want to write. When I re-read Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin, or Jean Valentine's Ordinary Things, or Sam Hamill's lucid translations of the Japanese haiku masters, or Octavio Paz, Federico Garcia Lorca, or Odysseas Elytis, I want to write. I don't write in imitation, but in response. Reading such poetry evokes a creative response; I discover that I have something to say back. I am triggered not by every poem, or every poet, but by those who speak most directly to my experience, and to my peculiar mindset or way of thinking about the world. Poems that speak to the whole self, to the soma as well as the mind, are often the most reliable triggers.

I find myself writing an aubade or two, in the current series of poems that have been coming to me this summer, after a long period of writing nothing much; and I have de la Paz to thank for kick-starting me. I also, in this new series of poems, have Jim Harrison to thank, for likewise kick-starting me as I re-read Letters to Yesenin, which are some of the most brilliant and gutsy prose-poems of the last fifty years. Both of these books were there in late June, when chronic illness was dragging me down, depressing me, and gradually wasting me away towards that edge of a precipice that's hard to climb back from. It was reading these two books of poems that opened that door in me that had been closed for many months, and new poems began to spill over the jamb. Now I find myself feeling better, surprised by a new treatment regimen that promises to turn around the downward spiral, not surprised so much by a cautious optimism that doesn't quite dare to assume the best since the worst has so often been the pattern these past few years. And as I feel better, surprised by it, I am equally surprised by the fierce will to make poems, make art, make music, that is rekindled in me. As though making poems were a pure reminder that I'm still here, still alive. And so I go on.

Furious Lullaby made me want to write, in response, and as I say, that's the highest praise I can give a book of poems.

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Aubade of the Fireflies, with Lilies

Aubade of the Fireflies, with Lilies

I need to lie here, in the sun, its light waking
my body by warming the quilts. I need to
linger here, awhile, letting the grass dictate.
Your skin last night was soft as moss,
your scent of feral oregano. The tallest red lilies
are almost done blooming; nothing like you.
New pink callas emerge at dusk, waiting till midday
to blush their fullest. I lie in the sun, waiting.

Fireflies made the pear tree shimmer with bottled light.
Staircases of green anemones. Your hair waving
in the evening breeze as though undersea.
An absolute geometry undescribed in any esoteric scroll.
Rhizomatous, matted, fragrant with pine pollen. How tangled
we become with each other, at night, limbs and hair
made one in the soup of our sweat. I am
thoroughly basted in you, you marinated in me.
Not much to do now but roast ourselves into one flesh.

Tonight I'll make a grass pillow for your rest. I'll catch
a lantern full of green-flashing luminaria,
firefly lamps to light your table. And I'll release
each light-kissed remnant before night fails.

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