Friday, October 29, 2010

Monster Jam

I've been focused on making music lately. I've got the new piano, which I've been enjoying playing late at night before going to bed.

And this past week I played two gigs in Madison, the Monster Jam sponsored by the Madison Music Collective. This is the concert I recently wrote about making a poster for, to advertise and promote the event.

Four musicians improvised music as a live soundtrack to the 1922 silent film Nosferatu. The film is a classic of German Expressionism, full of memorable imagery, the plot loosely based on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. We performed to the restored cut, which has all the original film colorations, few intertitles, and was made from the best-preserved prints to be found.

It is always a pleasure to improvise with a group of such talented musicians, all of whom listen well, respond to the scenario, and can turn on a dime. I received a comment from another musician friend in the audience that at times she forgot she was listening to live music, because it was so well integrated with the visuals. I also received a comment from an elderly lady with a slight German accent, who had come to see the film primarily, but she went out of her way to come up afterwards and tell us how much she liked the music, too.

I recorded both concerts, just to preserve what we had improvised. I thought I'd share an excerpt, here from the ending section of the film, as an example of what can be done with live improvisation to provide the soundtrack for silent film. Granted this excerpt has a cinematic scenario, but I find that the music can also stand pretty much on its own.

music for Nosferatu    


Geoff Brady, vibraphone and processed vibes, Theremin, percussion
Art Durkee, Chapman Stick
Kia Karlin, accordion, french horn, percussion
JoAnne Pow!ers, saxophones, flute, sound effects

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Poems for Samhain

barrow-god, bower-god

barrow-god, bower-god
mice rubbing in the night

fear-child, fallow-child
that lingers, whispering, in flames

make the stones rustle
leafshadows quiver in no wind

whisper at the end of the hall
dreams of dead things, below-ground

eat the dark heart, your own
barrow-god, bower-god, born again

moon burning

seeds in the darkness growing white moon silver egg sky.
white wolf raising voice bat shrieks night flying.
all whisper here. where blood roars. who would hunt
would kill. moonlight circling in tree bare knives.
branches beat up the clouds kill them whip them defend.
not whole not half. all the dead hours. moon spinning.
magnesium light. watching me I walk under her gaze
her single white eye. see me run. the night burns. I burn.

Two older poems, from the 80s or 90s.

Two from the set of what I used to call "October poems," which were not only mostly written in October, but partake of the autumnal light, the ceremonies of the changing of the year, the ceremonies of remembrance of the dead. A certain mood this time of year, that lingers for awhile after All Hallow's, taking a few days to fade.

Two poems written from liminal states, reflecting liminal experience. The experience of the threshold, the numinous stepping over into other worlds. Worlds: expressed as states of being, as states of consciousness, of the shape-changing of the self and of consciousness.

In poetry of liminal being, I often find myself using non-normative syntax, non-standard grammar. An attempt at depicting the direct perception of the consciousness behind the poem. A way of making the poem reflect the experience. I have a number of poems that are simple transcriptions of liminal experiences, using the appropriate syntax to recreate the experience. I have other poems that seem almost without verbs, like a sequence of cinematic images where in time-binding is generated purely by the sequencing itself.

Is this "experimental" poetry? It seems to me that the definition of "experimental" in poetry usually means non-normative, non-formal, non-standard. It is a term co-opted by most avant-garde movements and -isms to try to describe themselves as different from the mainstream.

But the other meaning of "experimental," the meaning specifically connected to scientific research, is the meaning that I find more applicable: writing as attempting an experiment.

An experiment in consciousness. An experiment in style, in form expressing function directly. An experiment in making the form and style of the writing match the consciousness of what lay behind the writing. What prompted it, what triggered it.

Mostly whenever I discuss this, I receive a ringing silence. It seems no-one else wants to talk about it. To me, it seems the most essential element of poetry, that one that really needs to be talked about. It is not a mode of writing that is foreign to poetry, but in fact lies at its foundation, its origins, and its purpose. Granted, it's far easier to talk about the mechanics of craft and feel certain of one's own mind. I am exploring—experimenting with—realms of uncertainty that make some poets squirm. Even those poets who proclaim that "meaning" is dead, and are anti-linguistic or pro-language while being anti-sense, would rather not talk about consciousness, liminality, and form expressing function.

Similarly, many discussants bend over backwards to find literary-critical ways to make liminality go away. They bring up the so-called "pathetic fallacy," one of the worst dead-ends in critical theory. They bring up their doubts that empathy and unity are even possible, much less desirable. They find ways to dismiss it all. It requires a stern denial to avoid admitting that magic might, just might, be real. And that even ordinary people can have liminal experiences. (Maslow called them peak experiences.) Attempts to deny or make liminal experience go away, though, indicates nothing so much as many readers' desire to have a nice, neat, orderly, non-chaotic, perfectly comprehensible universe within which to exist.

The problem is: The denials ring false. We experimenters in consciousness, and in writing about consciousness, continue our experiments. Many experiments quite rightly fail. But not all. So there is after all something there, deny it how they may.

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Restless Spirits

It's that time of year again. That time of year when the ghost stories and the ghoulie images and the badly clichéd horror movies are all dragged out, dusted off, and given an airing. I found a few vintage "ghost" images by doing a simple Web search:

These classic photos are heavily influenced by the Spiritualist craze of a century or so ago. THe ghosts are painted in, or multiply exposed. One image contains Spiritualist symbols hovering in the air around the person's head, no doubt meant to be seen as floating in his aura. During that time, lots of mediums held seances to contact the dead, the Ouija board became popular, and it all became rather a parlor game. Some mediums were exposed as hoaxes; Harry Houdini made a particular crusade of debunking Spiritualism. The Ouija board does work, certainly—but it doesn't contact any spirits you really want to talk to. More parlor games. Cheap thrills. A little spooky titillation. An evening night's fun scaring each other.

Randolph Stow, an Australian writer, set his novel The Girl Green as Elderflower in Suffolk, where he lived towards the end of his life. It's one of the most memorable novels I've ever read, along with another of his, Visitants. A lot of The Girl Green as Elderflower is based on Suffolk folklore, including the local Green Man nature spirits, and one contacted via Ouija board who appears to have evolved from ghost to genius loci. In this novel, the Ouija board is believable, and benign; it's operated by a rather fey child, who seems half-spirit herself at times. Anyway, it's an excellent, even thrilling novel, which I recommend.

Otherwise, I hate Ouija boards. They're nothing anyone wants to fool about with.

The Spiritualism of seances, mediums, and contacting the dead, even though it was a popular craze a century ago, never developed into anything substantial. It's associated somewhat with some of the founders of The Theosophical Society, many of whom were influenced by the Eastern mysticism just being discovered in the West at that time, and some of whom were active explorers and documenters of psychic and supernatural phenomena.

The Day of the Dead, Hallowe'en, All Hallow's Eve, All Saints' Eve, has an older history. It's the old Celtic pagan festival of summer's end, called Samhain. In Mexico, it's the Day of the Dead, when people go to the cemeteries to commune with the ancestral dead. Whole hosts of cultures have similar celebrations. The Japanese festival of honoring the ancestral dead, the O-Bon festival, ostensibly Shinto-Buddhist, is in fact much older, and predates the arrival of Buddhism in Japan. Other cultures all have their days of the dead, when the living connect with the dead. Many cultures feature rituals of cleaning and decorating the ancestral gravesites, be they cemeteries or caves.

This time of year, it is said, the Veil between the worlds grows thin, making it easier to contact the dead. And making it easier to walk between worlds, especially on Samhain night, when the Doors open between worlds. So modern neo-pagans will often scry during Samhain rituals, to divine their near future, to finish whatever unfinished business with the dead is left to be handled. It's a rich time.

Ray Bradbury wrote a short illustrated novel titled The Halloween Tree, a version of which was made into an animated TV movie special, first aired in 1993. The story takes a small group of children traveling through time to discover the real meaning and historical roots of Hallowe'en, and where some of the customs of the night originated. It's a genuinely scary and thrilling story, even for adults. I recommend the book and TV special alike to your attention; actually, I recommend Bradbury's entire opus as some of the best writing of the 20th C. Two Bradbury novels which made a huge impact on me, and which I still re-read occasionally are Dandelion WIne and his genuinely creepy fantasy thriller Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Last Hallowe'en, handing out candy to the many neighborhood kids from my front door, I received what I took to be a great compliment. A group of older teenage girls came up to me, all smiles, and told me that I had the spookiest house in the neighborhood. that made my day. Although I've been ill a lot, and am tired, and have been struggling to do errands this month, I intend to have the spookiest house in the neighborhood again this year.

Of course, one of my secrets to achieving that honor was that I hid a small sound system in the bushes in front of the house, next to the walkway, where no one could see it, but from where emerged lots of spooky sounds that I'd edited together. I mixed for this playback event a custom full-length CD of horror sound effects, spooky classical music tone-poems such as Mussourgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," and other material. It was lots of fun making that edit, actually.

Having led off with some silly vintage photos, I'll end with two more serious ones, which for me evoke the mood and spirit of this time of the year's turning round.


the Witch Tree

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Multnomah Falls, OR

Images from Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, OR, February 2010

Okay, now we've seen the postcard shot, and gotten it out of the way. Now let's look at the front edge, with the veil behind, which I think is much more interesting.

Now look off to the right, where because of the recent heavy rains there's a multi-stepped stream coming down another side of the canyon wall. What's usually a trickle has become a rivulet, and fascinating to watch.

I'm always looking off to the side like this, looking for the oblique approach, the sideways view, the little corner no one else seems to notice. (Which is exactly how I feel about Latourell Falls, just a short drive away, which most of the tourists never seem to visit.) A grotto, full of spirits, moss-covered boulders and treestumps becoming sacred altars in the wet green light.

Seriously, though, Multnomah Falls really are spectacularly beautiful. They are the best-known, most-developed, most-visited falls of the Scenic Area. They are visible from the interstate, if you just turn your head as you drive by.

You can walk the trails and view the falls from many angles. You can get close, or stand back and take in the magnificent scale of the upper and lower falls, the pool, the river falling down eventually to the Columbia and off to the Pacific Ocean. You can climb up a steep trail to the clifftop and look down on the entire world of the vast Gorge.

And afterwards, you can sit down a great meal at the visitor center's hotel and lodge. If you pick your seat properly, you can even see the top of the falls. I've eaten at the restaurant, sitting right next to a giant roaring stone fireplace, warming my cold bones after hiking wet trails to waterfalls all day making photos, and it was one of the more satisfying meals of recent memory.

And then stand back, on the walk out, and take it all in one last time, hear the roar of the falling water. Take a deep breath, the air thick with mist, and the nearby smell of the greater river with its hint of sea-smell, and be renewed.

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The New Piano 2: Notes

Still getting used to it being mine,
the living room no longer silent,
a grace of notes when keys are dusted,
a tilt of low chords walking by in evening.

A nascent habit, this past week,
of playing before I go to bed,
just sitting down for twenty minutes
and making sounds to soothe.

The pleasure of being able to play
not only late at night, but anytime,
the freedom now to musically immerse
in the clear pool of keys and tone.

Satie's "Gymnopedies" were first,
almost by necessity; then other pieces
I used to play in recital, from youth
through college when I changed minors.

Some Joplin, a little Debussy for
old time's sake—he was my cornerstone
for several years—and then some harder,
more challenging music, some Hovhaness.

Late night music fills the room, fills me,
gives me inner music in my ears to fall
asleep to, to quiet my insomniac mind,
music's other blessing in my life, its heart.

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Visionary Artwork 5

Going back through some older archives, looking at some early visionary Photoshop work, I pulled out a few pieces to make fresh prints of. It's good to look back on the work you did some years ago, to reflect on the process and how it's changed. And how you have changed.

It's interesting to look back over some of this old work, at the moment, as I proceed forward into a new phase of productivity, in art-making and music composition.

Prince of Air (c. 2000)

A piece made for a proposed Tarot deck, actually more of a Jungian archetype deck. A friend modeled for me at the lake, and I assembled this from several sequential poses and images. The feeling I had, as I played with the images, was of that of a man leaping into the air and flying. It was definitely a leap, not just floating up. So I represented the upward take-off as sequential and layered images, with wings on the sides. The side panels are Art Nouveau angels from a decorative clip art book.

This version of the piece, printed and framed at 8 inches square, has been shown in a number of group exhibitions in the Midwest. It was this square version that I stumbled across when browsing through my old archives that made me think to think make a new print edition.

This version was the one that I actually made for the proposed deck of cards. I still work on this deck from time to time, although I still haven't found a publisher for it. There are some 48 or so finished images, with several more still in progress, and a dozen or so images I made that I've decided not to include.


A self-portrait taken in Surakarta, Central Java, c. 1985. This was taken in the living room of the house I rented. I was dressed in traditional Javanese court garb, and playing a Balinese bamboo flute called a suling gambuh, suling meaning flute, gambuh being an ensemble composed of pairs of these long low-pitched suling played using circular breathing technique.

I don't do a lot of self-portraits, but occasionally as an artist, you need to. Just to see where you're at, to locate yourself in your work. A form of artistic self-assessment, if you will. At this moment, I was studying traditional Javanese court gamelan in Surakarta, on a Fulbright grant. I was studying as a composer rather than as an ethnomusicologist at the time, although of course those interests converged at times.

Gambuh Sunset

In the early 90s, I combined this self-portrait with an image of a winter sunset taken overlooking Lake Mendota in Madison, WI. The pink, orange and red sunlight reflected on the ice of the frozen lake, haloed the trees, and spread across the sky. When I combined the layers I did some dodging and burning, and some masking of parts of each image, so that the elements I wanted to have appear were clarified. For example, I created an oval vignette around myself playing the suling, so that face and hands and flute would not be lost in the trees of the sunset image.

One thing I like about this image is that it combines two climate zones and locations that have been important in my life. It combines the tropical heat of equatorial Indonesia with the frozen sub-arctic tundra of the northern Midwest, my birth home. Some 45 degrees of latitude and nearly 180 degrees of longitude separate the two locales in which the separate images were made. To combine these images like this represents my life's history in microcosm. So this piece is symbolic, for me, of how big parts of my life have merged.

Chamber Music CD cover (1995)

In 1995 I produced and released a CD of some of my composed chamber music. The album had five pieces on it, which I had digitized from the original performance recordings, all originally recorded on stereo reel-to-reel tape.

To make the cover art I re-versioned the Gambuh Sunset piece. A lot of graphic design is re-versioning, when it is based on pieces that were originally stand-alone art pieces. I used two different typefaces for the Chamber Music titling, heavily modifying each word in Photoshop.

Using this self-portrait piece for the CD cover was actually to fulfill a request from a friend, who believed that people would want to knew who the artist was. I'm not big on author's photos on book covers, or composer's portraits on album covers, as I like to think the work can speak for itself. In this case I acceded to the request because I knew I could do something a little different with it, play with the image and type, make it new.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

You Don't Need to Be Crazy

I am reading with great pleasure many of The Paris Review Interviews, which are now all available online. I enjoy reading what writers have to say about writing. I am always reading lots of writer's books of essays on writing; sometimes I like these books more than their fiction or poetry. There is a great deal of wisdom to be found in the Paris Review interviews, about the creative process, about how different writers approach and accomplish their work. One of intriguing facets of this long series of writer's interviews is how revealing, even surprising they can be, at their best. You find out things you never imagined. You might find something you can relate to, yourself, in your own creative process, that you share with some well-known writer.

Reading the interview with former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, for example, I find a lot of her attitude towards The Literary Game parallel to my own. She is sometimes labeled an outsider, but really she is an iconoclast: she has gone her own way, and doesn't subscribe to either conventional wisdom about writing, or academic writerly stereotypes.

For example, this exchange:


How much time do you spend away from your desk as opposed to sitting at it, working?

I spend vastly more time away from my desk. I’ve spent maybe one hundredth of my time writing. It seems like many people think that if you drive yourself crazy, then you can write. I’m absolutely not interested in that. It made sense to me to be as whole and well as I could be, and as happy. I wanted to see what a fortunate life would produce. What writing would come out of a mind that didn’t try to torment itself? What did I have to know? What did I have to do rather than what can I torment and bend myself into doing? What was the fruit on that tree? I’ve had a terrifically fortunate life. Which is not to say I’m talking nothing but sunshine. A certain kind of perhaps rather unwholesome-looking distortion or lopsidedness is necessary to the writer’s mind, but I never wanted to add to the grief of being human, the burden of it, or have my work do that. I never wanted to make things harder for people, or to make them feel more weighed down or guilty.

Why do you avoid the hot emotions that are often associated with confessional poetry?

If you put ice on your skin, your skin turns pink. Your body sends blood there. If you think about that in terms of writing, cool writing draws us, draws our heat.


I've objected again and again to the stereotypes of the Poor Starving Artist, the Mad Artist, the idea that to make art you have to be crazy, or under duress, or somehow suffering. While it's true that suffering can produce art, it is not true that suffering is necessary. I see what Ryan says here as validation of my belief that you can be relatively happy and still write well. Driving yourself crazy, or into lonely alcoholism or suicide, is not necessary.

I also agree with her point about Confessional Poetry. Of the several strands that dominate contemporary poetry today, the post-confessional lyric poem is one of the stronger. Some of this comes out of the workshop poetry culture, where people are told to write about what they know—as though they were reporters—to write small lyric poems about small episodes in their own lives.

I like what Ryan says here about drawing heat to the poem. It also makes me think of T.S. Eliot's idea that it's okay to be oblique in a poem, but not obscure. Ryan's poems are often cool to the touch, as she says; and they often contain inner rhymes and ironic humor. She is definitely a "cool" poet compared to many. But Ryan is rarely obscure, if often oblique; she might not write directly about her life experience, but you get a sense from each poem that you know what's going on, at least on some level. That this is real, that it's more than just an imaginary emotion described in disembodied words. Good poems open up to having several levels, many layers. With Ryan, you often get the concrete, almost scientifically factual surface, but there are things moving behind that, emotions peeking out from behind the rocks in the garden.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Productivity, Creativity, Fear

I was talking late at night with one of my musician friends in Chicago, after a late night video mixing and editing session, in the recording studio. We were editing the music video for a track by Bad Wiring called "Black Frog Soup." While the rest of the gang was working on a section of the video, I made some photos around the studio of what I called, after the idea came together, The Dead Band. The guitar shots ended up in the video.

We were talking as dawn was approaching, while closing down the studio for the night, after everyone else had gone home to bed. Talking personally. Most of that is no one's business. Talking also about the fears and worries that living the artist's life brings us. Always unsure if we'd ever break even or thrive financially. Always dependent on the fickleness of the market for our talents. Our health, our livelihoods. Our families, our relationships. It's not the most stable life, financially.

But what we kept coming back to again and again, the truth that makes it all worthwhile is that, no matter what, no matter how scared you get about life, about people, and everything else, we still make music. No matter what. It's part of life, it's part of what keeps us sane, it's what keeps us going, keeps giving us reasons to put up with everything else, keeps making it all worthwhile. And it is worthwhile.

We agreed that in fact as artists and musicians we're ridiculously, fantastically productive. We never stop. I had spontaneously made photos earlier that night, that we used. (Yes, a good single malt Scotch was involved, at some point. It was that kind of video project.) No matter what else is going wrong, we keep making art. I've got art coming out of my arse. We all do.

Productivity is not our problem.

Our biggest problem, as always, is doing what we do and getting paid for doing it. Finding the audience. Finding the people who want what we do. Finding the clients. Funding the ongoing work.

Productivity is not a problem. We're always productive. None of us, in our circle of artist and musician friends, ever have writer's block. We just don't experience that. There's always some kind of art to be made. And if one project gets stuck, there are always more to work on. You just shift gears, or do some crop rotation.

Creativity is not our problem. As a group, and as individuals, we're always coming up with lots of ideas, some no one else has ever thought of before.

So what's the problem?

Well, there isn't one, not really. Except making a life worth living, which is everyone's problem. Nonetheless, talking about productivity, and the need to just keep going even when the chips are down—this was a mutual pep talk, to be honest—got me thinking about what does stop people in their tracks.

Almost every time, it's fear. Fear, and nothing else.

There's a masterful book about artmaking, written by artists David Bayles and Ted Orland, titled Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Every creative ought to own this book, and reread it every few years. The advice therein does help one stay on track.

Here's a few relevant quotes from the book:

The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.

To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process.

Those who would make art might begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them: most who began, quit. To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles. Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue - or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.

What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears continue; those who don’t, quit.

Art is made by ordinary people. Creatures having only virtues can hardly be imagined making art. It's difficult to picture the Virgin Mary painting landscapes. Or Batman throwing pots. The flawless creature wouldn't need to make art.

What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece.

So being an artist means: Keep making art. Keep on going. Keep producing.

So what we were talking about, in the studio, late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed, was survival, continuance, productivity. My friend turned reminded me that we are both very productive, always have been, and will continue to be so. I've been thinking about that.

Last night I got home after jamming for a couple of hours with another musician, one who I'd just met. It was good, but because of my chronic illness I got home very tired. When I run out of energy, I hit that wall hard, and I just have to stop. So I spent the rest of the evening just relaxing.

And before I went to bed, I went over to my new piano for awhile, and played Erik Satie's "Premiére Gymnopédie" from memory. A favorite piece I've played many times over the years. I stumbled a few times. I need to get out the score and refresh my memory.

Yet I sat there at the piano, marveling: I have a piano! I can sit down and play, or compose, any time I want to, even the middle of the night.

Tonight, a thunderstorm has swept through, soaking the land. A few dramatic claps of thunder and flashes of lightning. It looks like it will rain all night. The sound of the rain on the porch roof, on the chimney cap, is soothing. It's from my childhood in the tropics, I suppose: I always find rain on the roof soothing. It's a favorite sound to fall asleep too. I've even been known to sleep on the porch on rainy nights, just to listen to it.

So tonight I will before bedtime sit down to play some more. Some quiet lullabies, some music to soothe the savage breast.

No fear. No end to creativity. Endlessly productive. Just keep going. Everything else can fall apart. And probably will. And for now I have a piano, I have music, I have to make, I have another several months of photos to sort through, and we all keep going forward.

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Wisdom from Stephen King

I've often opined that Stephen King is capable of writing The Great American Novel, if he could just let go of the trappings of what he writes that sells. Each of his novels starts out with descriptions and actions taking place in Small Town America, and they are incredibly convincing and well-done. King has a good ear for dialogue, for the way people naturally talk and act in relationship. Then the disruption of normality happens, things turn bizarre, and the rest of each book is about what ordinary people do in response to extraordinary circumstances. He does this well; not all of his novels are great, but those that are stand out as among the best of the genre. Yet if King were to focus on his writing on small-town life, he could indeed write The Great American Novel. In some ways, Stand By Me does indeed approach that.

The thing is, King is a writer who likes to write. He defends popular fiction not only because it needs defending but because he likes it. His tastes are quite eclectic and open-ended. Which I would argue they ought to be, for any writer, who writes anywhere in any style about anything.

Last year I read through King's book On Writing and was very impressed. He revealed a great deal about his own life in that book, which is part book-about-writing and part memoir. I read a lot of books that writers write about writing—except for "How To" manuals which are all alike after you've read five of them—and I have a small library on creativity, books-on-books, and collections of essays written by writers about writing. King's On Writing is actually one of the most memorable, most lively, and most engaging of the lot. I recommend it.

In browsing through vast online archive of The Paris Review interviews, I was reading through King's interview when the following exchange caught my attention. I think there's a lot of wisdom revealed in this exchange, and King puts his finger precisely on both the literary establishment's tendency to dismiss "genre" fiction and why that's problematic. This resonates directly with what I've said before about genre writing, about writers like raymond Chandler who I'd put up there with the best writers of the 20th C., and about the problematic attitude that the literary gatekeepers take towards everything they disapprove of.

When you accepted the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, you gave a speech defending popular fiction, and you listed a number of authors who you felt were underappreciated by the literary establishment. Then Shirley Hazzard, that year’s award winner in fiction, got on stage and dismissed your argument pretty flatly.

What Shirley Hazzard said was, I don’t think we need a reading list from you. If I had a chance to say anything in rebuttal, I would have said, With all due respect, we do. I think that Shirley, in a way, has proven my point. The keepers of the idea of serious literature have a short list of authors who are going to be allowed inside, and too often that list is drawn from people who know people, who go to certain schools, who come up through certain channels of literature. And that’s a very bad idea—it’s constraining for the growth of literature. This is a critical time for American letters because it’s under attack from so many other media: TV, movies, the Internet, and all the different ways we have of getting nonprint input to feed the imagination. Books, that old way of transmitting stories, are under attack. So when someone like Shirley Hazzard says, I don’t need a reading list, the door slams shut on writers like George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane. And when that happens, when those people are left out in the cold, you are losing a whole area of imagination. Those people—and I’m not talking about James Patterson, we understand that—are doing important work.

So I’d say, yes, Shirley Hazzard does need a reading list. And the other thing Shirley Hazzard needs is for someone to say to her, Get busy. You have a short life span. You need to stop this crap about sitting there and talking about what we do, and actually do it. Because God gave you some talent, but he also gave you a certain number of years.

And one other thing. When you shut the door to serious popular fiction, you shut another door on people who are considered serious novelists. You say to them, You write popular, accessible fiction at your peril. So there aren’t many writers who would take the chance that Philip Roth did when he wrote The Plot Against America. It was a risk for him to write that book because it’s an accessible novel that can be read as entertainment. It is involving on a narrative level. That’s a different book from Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire—which, by the way, is a damn good book. But it’s not the same thing at all.

Is there really much of a difference, then, between serious popular fiction and literary fiction?

The real breaking point comes when you ask whether a book engages you on an emotional level. And once those levers start to get pushed, many of the serious critics start to shake their heads and say, No. To me, it all goes back to this idea held by a lot of people who analyze literature for a living, who say, If we let the rabble in, then they’ll see that anybody can do this, that it’s accessible to anyone. And then what are we doing here?

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Friday, October 22, 2010

The Dead Band

Them Ol' Dead Blues

Just in time for Halloween, The Dead Band are back in the recording studio, rolling out their bone-clacking blues hits.

Featuring "Fingers" Gibson on guitar.

"Fast Eddie" Fenderbender on keys.

Freddy "Bones" Kroger on drums and bangs.

"Slim" Whitebread on mixboard and recording stuff.

Produced by Martin "T-Bone" Tenbones. (Assisted by Scott "Gas Mask" Wills.)

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Valley Wall

the valley walls, scoured hard
climateric rain and ice dam breaking
single-day flood that made this canyon

rough rock subsumed in moss
millennia after natural like nothing happened
and someone just painted us green

sea-tides come so far as to touch
feet of silken waterfalls, a shore of
an older, different ocean, unremembered

Images from Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, OR, February 2010

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Sorting

Those who once were kind to you
now avoid you and give you no succor
when most you need it:
these are not my friends.

Those who once claimed to care for you
and, when you needed that shoulder
that you so often offered, disappeared:
these are not my friends.

Those who once claimed you as part
of their foundation stone and tribe
who now ignore you when you're dying:
these are not my friends.

Those who once were grateful when
you entered the rooms of hospitality
who now do not turn their heads to greet:
these are not my friends.

Do those who know you now become
the places armed with refuge
and sit across the silent table:
make these your friends.

Those who answer on the first ring
at three in the morning of a winter night
when winds howl outside and in:
make these your friends.

Those who do not judge or condemn
you for who you are or what you've done
much less what you have survived:
make these your friends.

Those who empty out their beds
when cold rain nights bring you
to the doorstep forlorn and still:
make these your friends.

And, lastly, those who know you in and out
who do not care if you have failed or lost
who do not mind when you can't cope
who help you cope those nights you can't
who find a room in heart and hearth
when other shelters come to naught:
these are your friends.

Grateful be to true friends.
So mote it be.

Looking through old photographs and memories tonight, looking at the recent past, the shit I've been through this past year, having been sick unto death for a year now, almost dying from it, not yet well, not well for a long time to come, worried about what will happen next, not willing to trust, faith is an alien presence because I don't trust it, surrender I can do because surrender means unknowing, and not knowing, and I don't know any of it.

Thinking through the list of people who I once counted as friends, and watching that list diminish to near null, partly by attrition, partly by people leaving because of their own lives, their own crises they must deal with, all everybody ever lives through is their own drama, and wondering when it will ever be my turn. I'm always putting out and taking care of them. Where are they when I need it in return?

And the two or three friends who I can call at 3am, when the darkest part of the night steps up, I can't sleep for being unable to stop worrying or thinking or just fidgeting, and everything seems like just another night of endurance with no end ever in sight, those two or three I can call still do answer. Somehow. I try not to call too often. I also try to call when I'm feeling good, not just when I need a shoulder.

Going down and down, auguring in, for so long, it's impossible to believe anymore that that could ever turn around. Even the tiniest setback brings out the worst of fears, the worst of worry. Hard to find much gratitude for what you have, when you're certain it's all going to be lost.

Try letting go, try emptying out, tonglen, breath in and down, settle, move the one-point hara to the center of the earth, ground, come to center and extent. Every trick and formulation you know, and none of it works anymore well enough to end the evidence of ending. What do you expect?

Today I just gave up. I can't figure it out. I'm not in control. Very much I have no idea what's next, which person I care about is going to suffer or die next, it probably won't be me, I seem to be wyrded to outlive everyone I've ever loved, and end up sick and alone.

So what? Who cares? No one, really. Don't tell anyone. Keep it to yourself. No one really gives a shit, and even if they could they disappear on you because they feel helpless to do anything to help you.

So you end up staring at the inky waters again, in the middle of the night, near freezing, the moon shattered on restless wavelets as you look down. If you say you've never been here before, feet toeing the abyss, you lie.

You lie. You lie and lie. You pretend all's well that isn't. All's well that won't end well. Who cares why. Who cares if it's the curse of karma, you must have been a motherfucking asshole in a previous life to have to up with so much of the opposite of peace and success this time around. What frakking sacred contract did you sign to make up this sordid narrative? You lie and never tell anyone the inside of this truth. It's too much honesty. They'll all flee. They'll all want to believe the lie that it's okay.

The exit of the ice. Your father's gun in the dresser drawer. The longing for it to stop. Just stop. The alien cousin of the isolated boy who lonely wept into his pillow because they killed his lover and his friend. Now watch him die. On the doorstep in front of you. Now watch him die. Dragging the body of the boy out of the lake right in front of you at the end of the afternoon, silent except for the yelling of the lifeguards and the wheeling gulls. His little sister standing looking like her world just ended. Now watch him die. Old man just stopping breathing, in the hospital bed in the living room after a week home after a month in the hospital, just stopped breathing, you hear the silence on the other end of the baby monitor next to your bedroll downstairs, you were sleeping underneath him on the floor, an hour ago coming out of the background there was the sound of buffeting wings around you, a joyous boy in a sunny place yelling at you how wonderful it all is and how he understands everything now, go upstairs and sit at his bedside for an hour in the middle of the night till the funeral people finally come, and you get back to your bedroll in the blue hour of predawn, the blue hour which is that eternal moment when the world pauses in its breath, and the night birds stop singing and there is silence for a long moment before the morning chorus of other birds starts up their greeting to the dawn.

And you can't run away anymore. You can't run away from it anymore. It just explodes again and again in front of you, continuous, impoverishing, the angel stepping into the air from a hole in the light a continuous explosion of silent white fire. It just explodes in you again and again. Till you just want it to stop. And you find yourself by the ink dark water again, in the middle of the night. When no one will answer the phone when you call, when you need them most. When you need them most, they're never there. And no one cares. And if they say they do care if you ask them then you can't believe them because they weren't spontaneous with it, you had to prompt them to it, and if you had to prompt them to it you can never be sure if they really mean it or they're just doing it out of guilt because they think they should. Should, the most habitual and heartless word in the world, should.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

The New Piano Music

I have always been more of a composer than performer. I was able, during my pianist career, which began at age 6 and lasted into college, to perform competently. But my emphasis was never on Playing The Classics, or being a Great Performer.

When I was in music school, there was often a gap between the performance majors and the composers. Many of the composers were also gifted performers, on a wide range of instruments. But the performance majors didn't compose—except for exercises in theory classes, which were usually about writing in the style of tonal music from the 18th or 19th centuries. I wrote my own share of learning-pieces in theory classes, including faux-Bach, faux-Mozart, faux-Debussy, faux-Stravinsky pieces. Those are all études, meant to learn something from doing, but not in themselves to be considered as actual music. Musical, but not music. Some of this is a matter of intent, of course.

But the main gap between the composers and the performance majors was a simple emphasis. It can be defined, crudely, as the difference between creation and re-creation.

Performance majors I knew, many of them gifted and remarkable talents, did not usually consider themselves as creative. I disagree. I reframe that to say that their creative efforts went into interpreting the masters, into re-creating existing compositions. Most performance majors when I went to music school were not improvisers: jazz classes were not part of the curriculum at that time. Some few performers were improvisers, but it was because they loved to play jazz, and picked up gigs outside of school. This has changed now, as there are many music school that include jazz and even rock in their curricula. It's not just classical music anymore in music school.

Performing, or re-creating a composer's intent in the printed score, is not a matter simply of playing the notes. Performance requires interpretation. Matters of tempo, phrasing, pauses, subtle variations in feeling—these are all aspects of interpretation. If performing music were only a matter of mechanical re-creation, then anybody could do it and it would always sound good. But there's a reason Artur Rubinstein was beloved for his Chopin interpretations: they carried the heart and soul of the music, not just the notes.

So I view interpretation as a species of creativity. It's not obvious, and it's not overt, and many classical performers would quibble with me. Nonetheless, since I view creativity as an infinite resource in all aspects of life, I find it here as well.

I have mixed feelings about recorded music.

One or two great composers of the twentieth century opined that recorded music was lifeless next to going to a concert. John Cage told a story in which he was at a concert of Beethoven symphonies. A little boy sitting in front of him objected to his parents, "But that's not the way it's supposed to go! It's not like on the record!" This is amusing, but it also speaks to idea that recorded music conditions our ears with expectations that are often not met in live performance. We get used to a certain glossy perfection. Glenn Gould, the perfectionist pianist, used the recording studio to create perfected performances of Bach that even he could not perform live. Recordings of John Cage pieces fix in place a single performance of music that is meant to be ever-changing, never performed exactly the same way twice, and open to chance.

Nonetheless I treasure my collection of recordings of Cage's music.

I am in fact a highly experienced and qualified recording engineer. I know my way around the tools of the recording studio. I did a lot of tape music during and after college. I know how to splice using a razorblade (and believe you me, digital editing is a major improvement on the old tools). I have actually used reel to reel tape to master recordings of my tape pieces and performed compositions. (Most of these I have already transferred to digital media, or am in the process of transferring.) I still work occasionally in a recording studio, and I have a computer-based recording studio in my spare room at home.

We always work with the best tools we have available. When better tools are developed, musicians on the leading edge always migrate towards using them.

And yet there is nothing like a live performance.

In a live performance, you often hear the musicians breathing—and breath is an essential element of interpretation. When you hear a string quartet breathing as one right before and after a difficult ensemble passage, you are given audible evidence of the kind of unitary empathy that chamber music creates alike in performers and audience. Breath is life. Breath is timing. Breath is what connects us all. The masters of meditation speak of the breath in the same way that the masters of music performance do: it is what gives us life, and the discipline of mastering the breath is what gives us the ability to go beyond our own limits.

Musicians who are dominantly performers are specialists. They train as hard as doctors or lawyers, often for many more hours, many more years. They often have the physical tone of trained athletes, as well, as playing a musical instrument is a somatic experience, not a purely aural or mental one. I know brass players (french horn, trumpet, etc.) who could probably do push-ups with their lips.

When I was a boy, I had severe respiratory illnesses many times; I even ended up with bronchitis in the hospital at age 11, in an oxygen tent, sleeping sitting up so I wouldn't drown in my own pneumonia. Singing in choirs and learning to play flutes, over the next dozen or so years, were what gave me my breath back. I still am prone to respiratory illness, I get them more easily than most; but I have a discipline of breathing that helps me get through, now, thanks to music. Meditating for many years also helped.

A trained musical performer is a highly skilled person. They have to be able to do several things at the same time. They must coordinate physical exertions and muscle memory with hearing, cognition, and reading and memorizing specialized notation.

I sing in a men's chorus right now in which I am one of the most highly trained musicians; some of the men don't even read music notation well, but learn by ear and by listening to their compatriots. The result is a good choral group with a good choral sound. We all come from different skill levels in music. I occasionally forget this, and get a blank stare when I start talking theory.

The problem is that these highly-trained, incredibly talented, strongly motivated people often can't earn a living doing what they love doing best: playing music. We live in a culture that devalues all things artistic, because they are not obviously profit-motivated or economically-oriented. But music is a gift we couldn't live without. A healthy musical culture is one mark of the health of a civilization.

We do live right now in an artistically decadent, mannerist culture. We live in a culture where there is a severe disconnect between popular forms of entertainment, and forms of making fine art that have become insular and mannerist. Your average listener doesn't care about new music—except that commercial pop music is driven by novelty, by the cult of personality and celebrity, and by the profit motive. It's a contradiction: most listeners refuse to listen to music by living composers—unless they're pop music songwriters.

"New music" is something most listeners avoid.

That's too bad.

There are some neo-romantic composers out there writing new music that is very conventional, very unsurprising, very easy on the ears, not hard to follow, full of good hummable tunes and melodies, and full of memorable moments. Some of these composers are popular Broadway composers, with strings of successful hit shows and hit songs. Let's face it, though: Broadway as an industry is highly romantic. It caters, sometimes panders, to the common denominator. It borrows a lot from literature. It can be tremendous fun. But it's not very challenging. Broadway musicals rarely ask you to change your life. If they inspire you to do so, it's because you yourself have found a resonance point between you and the Broadway musical.

Of course music can change your life.

But any music can change your life. The danger lies in thinking that some kinds of music cannot, simply because you are not immediately attracted to them, or they don't speak to you. Yet music that is too challenging is no longer entertainment. What provokes, provokes life.

But entertainment isn't about life: it's about simulations of life. Rob Breszny's band World Entertainment War formulates this as the slogan: Performance is life. Entertainment is death. Entertainment is a passive re-creation of sentimental nostalgia for the genuinely-lived life. Because entertainment is passive, exercise-less and inactive, it doesn't feed the mind and body, it deadens them. The land of the entertained couch potato is the realm of the already-dead.

Commercial pop is not new music: it's recycled, dead music. It may be marketed as fresh and new, but compare to last year's novelties, and you see it's just more of the same. Nothing has really changed. The essence of mannerist entertainment is that it contains no new ideas, only the deadly repetition of old ones. What appears to be innovation is only variation of what has gone before. A new "reality TV" show is like every other one already in existence; content doesn't matter, only format and presentation. Nothing is more unreal than "reality TV."

Mannerist entertainment such as commercial pop music, because it is driven by market economics rather than by any creative force of innovation, keeps recycling the same tropes. They are presented as fresh each news cycle, but with rare exceptions they are simply remixes of what has already been known to sell well. Commercial pop music as a business is inherently conservative. It has no real desire to nurture innovation or exploration, because it's main goal is to sell the music. Experimentation always risks being unpopular and not selling. What music industry corporation would truly want to risk that? The recording companies that do push the envelope artistically are in the minority.

New music can push against conservative recycling and mannerism. You have to let it, though. You have to be open enough to its possibilities, even to its baffling complexities which may seem obscure and incomprehensible at first. New music often requires you to stick with it, to get to eventual rewards. There is always a risk that the time you invest in educating yourself about new music might not pay off. So if you're content with what you already know you like, why bother seeking out the new? Most listeners don't.

My own new music has been called dissonant and difficult. It's actually not that dissonant; it's just that it's not regressive neo-romantic ear-candy with easy predictable chords and pretty melodies. I do like to use more complex and interesting musical ideas in my new music, because when I write I'm also writing for myself. Yet I am capable of writing to commission in the style the client wants. And a large part of my new music is accessible even to new listeners, even though it is based on modal and non-Western styles. I can "write pretty." I just don't all the time.

My music is not atonal, as I don't write serial compositions. I actually have no use for classic serial twelve-tone technique, which I regard as an artistic dead-end. As such, it is quite parallel to contemporary mannerist poetry that is all about manipulating the materials in a context free of meaning. If all notes have equal value, if all words have equal value, then none do. The lowest common denominator of pre-packaged pop music and the extremes of ivory-tower academic classical music have this in common: they're both about nothing. They may be sensational, but the triumph of mannerism is the triumph of style over substance.

It ceaselessly amazes me how poorly this is understood: style can never replace substance, where there is none.

Style in a vacuum is a dead-end. Style exists to reveal substance, it cannot stand on its own. As fond as I am of sweet desserts, you can't live on them. Pre-packaged, over-produced, synthetically-performed pop music is all style; it has no heart. You can make it into the soundtrack of your life, if you choose, but what kind of life is that? A default life. A life lived vicariously. The cult of celebrity and the packaging of popular entertainment are closely linked in form and in practice: both are entertainment, neither are about you living your own life. You end up living someone else's life, never your own. Or you live your life For another, rather than for yourself.

Advertising is all lies.

It creates needs that don't exist. American advertising, compared to European advertising, is heavily fear-mongering. Fear of germs, fear of bad breath, fear of disease and mortality, fear of not being cool, fear of not fitting in at your workplace—these are all the tools of advertising. And they are also the tools of political campaigns, which are actually marketing campaigns. Campaign ads are often designed to make you afraid to vote for the other guy. And campaign ads lie as often as do commercial product ads.

Whatever you think you know about new music, whatever brief encounter you might have had with a piece of new music that soured your taste for all new music, whatever belief you have that composers don't care about their audiences: you're wrong.

The problem is, composers like other artists are always fighting an uphill battle. Against ignorance, against willful miseducation, against the idea that high culture and low pop culture can never meet and have nothing to say to each other. There has always been a strain of virulent anti-intellectualism in American culture, especially in political discourse, and when it comes near the arts it tends to be proud of its ignorance and lack of understanding. Why else would politicians attack something they don't really understand? Of course, politics too is entertainment, more style than substance. Mark Twain said that a century ago, and nothing has substantially changed.

in new music, there are two urges a composer must balance: The urge to write whatever they want, whatever they hear inside that they want to make happen, the urge to explore a direction in the music as far as can take them; and, the urge to have an audience, the desire to be heard, the desire to have musical ensembles actually perform your music.

It's one thing for write only for yourself, or your own band, or to do solo work in a recording studio, where you play all the parts and the music is all your own. It's another thing to be commissioned to write a large scale new work for an orchestra or other performing ensemble. You have to balance those urges.

Mostly I write whatever the hell I want. BUt here's the paradox: Almost all of my composed chamber music, in which I wrote whatever the hell I wanted to write, were commissions. They were for the most part commissions by performers who wanted me to write for them. In most cases, they had heard my other new music, liked what they heard, and asked me to write a piece for them.

I got all the way through music school, writing several new pieces a year, and only two of those were not commissions. (I don't count the études and other little throwaway pieces, many of which were exercises rather than finished works.) I occasionally stumbled. one or two pieces I wish I could rewrite now, and one I have in fact revised. But every piece I composed at that time in my life got performed, sometimes more than once. I have recorded performances of most of them.

Now I find myself with a piano again, wanting to compose again, wanting to sit down and notate again. I'm submitting my existing compositions to contests to by chosen for commissions for new works. (An occasionally dismaying process.) I'm writing new piano music, and choral music. I want to write more.

Here's the hinge of the balance: I write new music because I want to, because I can, because I must. It is as essential to me as breathing. It's great when other people like it, too. And it's okay when they don't.

If you don't like new music, you don't know what you're missing. And if you give it a try and still don't like it, you can always go back to that other stuff.

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The New Piano

Although I gave up my mother's grand piano two years ago, for various good reasons, including the fact that my condo was just too small for it, I have been greatly missing having a piano. So starting this past summer I've been looking for an upright piano that I could afford, and that would fit well into my space. Two weeks ago I found one.

I have a piano!

It's a Hallet, Davis & Co. spinet, probably manufactured 50 to 70 years ago. The person I bought it from said it had been her mother's piano, and had been in the family for a long time. She had inherited it, and her daughter had taken lessons for awhile. But for the past few years it had been sitting unused. She wanted it go to a good home. When I went over there to look it over, play it, and check it out, I was impressed. The piano had obviously been well cared for many years, although it has been sleeping for the past few years. It probably hasn't been tuned in ten years. All things considered, though, the felts were in good shape, the harp looked fine, and gave a good loud sound. And although it was out of tune, it wasn't so badly out of tune as to be painful.

In a few days, the piano tuner will be here to look it over, tune it, and make recommendations. I suspect it will need a few minor repairs. I had the piano moved by professionals, and although they took good care, any time you move a piano, it will go more out of tune, and it has. I suspect the inside surfaces will need cleaning and some love and attention. Usually you only have to tune a piano once or twice a year, but I suspect I'll have to tune it at least three times in the first year of owning it. I suspect that it will have to be tuned at least twice in the space of a couple of months before it holds the tuning well; that too is typical of a piano after it's been moved, and as it adjusts to the temperature and humidity of its new home. It takes time to settle in.

I don't care. I'm very happy to have a piano. I found and purchased and moved this piano well within my planned budget, and the piano tuning will still be within budget. It took me several months of hunting to find a suitable piano. Getting this piano was like one of those moments when everything lines up and what is supposed to happen suddenly does. It was sudden and effortless, almost shockingly quick. After several unsuccessful adventures, this all happened immediately, within days, no problem, no mess, no fuss. Like it was meant to happen. And now I have a piano!

Even though it's not tuned yet, I can't resist sitting down and playing some. I've run through chords and scales, and played a few memorized pieces from the past. And I've sat down and improvised a few times. Just to get a feel for it. Even though it's not tuned yet, I can't resist posting a short improv piece recorded late one night. Sort of a triumphal fanfare expressing my happiness at having a piano. I have a piano! Yes, it's out of tune; yes, its' probably unlistenable crap, and I make no pretensions that this is even musical, it's just an étude, a little whim to express what I was feeling. (Sorry about the breathing sounds; I've a cold, and the mic picks up everything in the room.)

New Piano Etude    

Okay, let's face it: it's crap. It's not even musical. And it's out of tune. But I can't help it. I have a piano!

And just for fun, since we can, we'll run that same track through some processors, derange it a little, and subject it to granular synthesis algorithms. Who knows: maybe it will make it sound even better!

New Piano Etude GS    

Or not.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

George Mackay Brown: The Poet's Year

The Poet's Year

He can make his mouth shine—
Drops from a gray nail of ice

His silences
Are like the first cold root stirrings

His verse a trumpet in March
To widen the sun circles

Children come in a dance to his images:
Daffodil, lamb, lark

He wears the lyric coat
Cut from blue bales of sea and sky

He has knowledge of furrows
Beyond the ploughmen

Can thrift sing, can herring?
He tongues their pink and silver silences

Sweeter than beeplunder, oozing,
The fairground fiddle

He knows the horncall, near sunset
For Hesper and Orion

He goes by stubble fields
Tongue rich with shadows

He graves names of the dead
Deeper than kirkyard stones

What now, midwinter bellmouth?
Christus natus est

—George Mackay Brown, from Travellers

Happy birthday once again to one of my favorite poets, George Mackay Brown. This poem from 1986 was published posthumously in 2001, in Travellers (London: John Murray).

I love this poem for its haiku-like structure, its brief stanzas that give one or two essential images per stanza. It follows a format that Mackay Brown often used, what he called a calendar poem: one stanza per month, based on observations of the land, the people, the changing of the seasons, the important festivals that mark the turning wheel of the year. Some calendar poems follow individual persons through the year, others are more general, like this one. Some of his calendar poems are among his longest poems, with many sections marked by calendar time.

Here's another poem, from 1985, which speaks to me at this time of year: harvest, the Day of the Dead, the rounding cycle of seasons, the time of year when the walls between the worlds thin and we are close to the passage of time, of our own mortality. This poem also speaks of Orkney, the islands where the poet was rooted, born, lived, died, and is well remembered.

The Friend

Stone, tree, star, fish, animal, man,
All gathered
Within one circle of light and fire.
And think in Orkney
Of the old friendship of stone and man,
How they honoured and served each other.
The fire on the hearth, blue tremblings
Of water in well and wall-niche,
The stone bed,
The stones that children enchant on the shore
To ship or castle,
Querns that ground corn,
The Book of the Dead—
Stone pages, celebrations in the kirkyard.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Journal Poems

My handwritten journal, where most of my poems begin, especially when I'm on the road, camping, or otherwise out in the wild and away from electricity and its amenities, is a 8x12 unlined artist's sketchbook. I've used lined journals in the past, since I've kept a journal for going on 30 years now, but for the past few years, I've liked these large-format unlined artist's books because they allow me to draw, do calligraphy, write, or mix it all together. I do drawings as well as journal entries and poems in this journal when I'm on the road. I also do drawings and writing at home, too. Not too long ago, for example, I spent a morning at a local coffeeshop, did a couple of drawings, and worked on a poem.

Just for fun, and total self-indulgence, here are two photos of my journal, showing the two-page first draft of a recent poem from the current series, that unnaming that takes us.

I note, looking at this first draft, how the title and the poem's center actually came last, almost as an afterthought. That's not unusual, actually. Sometimes you just have to start writing, not knowing where you're going, and not knowing where you're going to end up.

As I've said before, the title often comes last. I don't always know what the poem is "about," or what it's going to mean, when I start out. I follow the brush. I set out along a path unknown. I trust my intuition.

Sometimes I start with a simple image. Actually, I often start with an image. Poems often begin with images that come into my mind, like dreams, or like visions. I go on from there. Poems, especially haiku, also often begin with things seen during the day: a unique view, a certain slant of light illuminating the otherwise familiar, the shape of the land in the wild places far from anywhere.

Contrary to popular opinion, creativity is not a scarce resource.

It's infinitely available to all of us, all the time. The only that ever stops us is ourselves. Lots of folks don't think they can be creative, possibly because someone told them they were incapable of making art back in their childhoods, and just as often because their ideas about being An Artist are popular hokum that seems alien to their everyday lives. That's a misconception. We live in a universe full of creations new and unknown waiting to be discovered every day. We live in a place of infinite discovery. It's a mistake to believe that it only matters if it's human-oriented, or made by humans, or human-centric. I cultivate the garden around my house in part because it provides me with endlessly changing visual inspiration. All I have to do is go out and see, and things start to flow.

Writing a poem, just start with something. Don't pre-plan too often, or too much. Poems don't need outlines or footnotes; some poets do work that way, but it's not necessary, it's only one way to make a poem. Believe no poet who tells you that there is only one way to make poems: what they mean is that's the only way that they can conceive of making poems.

Just start with something. Look around you. Find an image to start from. Then go from there. You might throw away the first half of what you write, as just warm-ups, but at least it got you started.

It's self-indulgent of course to show a couple of poem pages from my own journal. I use them as an example, however, of the writing process I'm describing herein. This is a poem that I just started. I started with an image. By the end of the first stanza I knew what the form would be: five-line stanzas in a moderate-length, flexible line. Although, when the title came as an afterthought, I also realized that the title would change the form, and so I modified the poem's form at the last moment, as well. I added two single lines framing the five-line stanzas of the rest of the poem; each of the lines complete a line before; the first line completes the title as though it were a line in the poem. This was all afterthought. Yet now it seems inevitable. That's what happens when you follow the brush: form reveals itself during the writing. What you have to do is pay attention, and trust where the brush is leading you.

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Abstract Realism in Photography 5: Lake Superior Shore

Photos from the north shore of Lake Superior, at Grand Marais, and at Temperance River State Park, Minnesota, August 2010. These are found photos, things seen when walking along the rock-strewn shore.

The north shore is a mix of glacial erratics and polished stones from when this was a very active volcanic area. There are few sandy beaches, although many of the rivers have small sandbars at their mouths; the beaches are mostly rocks ranging in size from gritty pebbles to fist-sized wave-polished rocks. Some of the stones were weathered to rounded and gouged forms by the glaciers, but on the beaches there is also wave-polishing happening; after all, as a very large inland sea, Lake Superior is large enough to have tides. Many north shore beaches display an incredible mix of color and shape.

The north shore of Superior along the Minnesota coastline, where you see it as a mostly straight line on the map, with terminus at Duluth, was once an active fault, uplifting the Sawtooth Mountains above the lakebed, and volcanoes everywhere. There's a lot of basalt, rhyolite, porphyry, and related rocks. The red and brown colors of many of the stones are from high iron content.

Driftwood, wave-weathered, cedar sticks and curls of aspen bark, litter the beach shingle. Abstract spirals made of natural materials. Most of the patterns and forms we find in art are also to be found in the natural world. The mind of making is the same.

Boulders and cliffs go right to the water's edge at the mouth of the Temperance River, which was named that by the early explorers because it is the only rivermouth on the Minnesota north shore that has no sandbar. The river flows past high cliffs, making cascades of waterfalls in stages down to the deep pools that open past the rocky beach right into the Lake.

On big rock outcrops at the water's edge, there are lots of intrusions into the basalt matrix: ribbons of white quartz, red rhyolite, black obsidian in spots. The red lines passing through the dark grey stone are like inset rivers, compete with pebbles making boulders in their beds.

I sat at one outcrop for an hour on a warm cloudy afternoon, and made a drawing of the red line passing through the grey, like a river.

Red Line (Temperance River State Park, MN, August 2010)

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Uncertainty & Parataxis

My online acquaintance Elizabeth, from Oz, has run afoul of the expectations of readers. Namely, that she writes sometimes a kind of memoir that veers from purely factual and autobiographical to the imaginative and speculative, and does so without warning. Her offense to some readers seems to have been not that she interpolated "fact" and "fiction"—a creative nonfiction technique, after all, as familiar as the New Journalism written by Tom Wolfe and others since the 1970s—but that she did not give prior warning as to what she was doing.

I haven't got a lot of sympathy for such complaints. Anyone who reads anything other than ostensibly purely factual reporting should be aware that fact and non-fact interpolate often in writing, and that this is as old as Homer's Odyssey, which after all is a mythic retelling of probably historical incidents. (And the book to read on the subject of Homer remains Alfred Lord's The Singer of Tales, which definitively argued that epic storytelling both ancient and modern is a blend of historical elements framed and connected with literary-fictional devices.)

I read and write a lot of creative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction. I guess what I mean is that I'm not a purist. "Fact" and "fiction" are not pure categories, nor are they completely isolatable. (For that matter, neither are "poetry" and "prose.") All writing is in some way creative writing, is artifice, is invented.

With some fiction writers you come to expect an unreliable narrator, or other levels of not deception but trust: trusting to wherever you're being led, even if it turns fantastical at the hinge of the story. That's one of the pleasures of reading Borges: you never quite know what's going on. It's a delightful puzzle, and you cannot assume that any source the author cites is a real book—although the surprise is that it might be. You know with Borges, though, that where you're being led is worth the reward.

I've had arguments with some "straight fiction" writers who don't like Borges because they don't always know what's going on. I even know one writer-critic who thinks Borges is a "bad" short story writer, but that's because the writer-critic in question has completely missed the point. He has attempted to apply the laws of ordinary "realistic" fiction (think Raymond Carver, John Updike, etc.) to Borges, where Borges is meta-fiction, not "fiction" at all. It's like saying that apples are crabapples: a category error.

So I look at the complaint this way: Some readers need to have absolute logical, rational knowledge of what's going on. They need a clear, linear narrative in which everything is clear or explained. A must follow B in linear, logical narrative. Effect must follow cause. Most literature does indeed progress this way, and does typically follow these rules. (Borges rarely does.)

I can and do appreciate this attitude towards linear narrative, and cause and effect, in a mystery novel, but I also like to be led by the writer into surprises and the pleasure of not knowing where I'm going. There is no suspense where there is no mystery, no uncertainty. As has been said before, the pleasure of reading Raymond Chandler is because of his writing's mood, his characters, and his descriptions: Chandler was always rather weak on strictly linear plot. Right now I'm reading a series of SF novels by British writer Peter F. Hamilton set in his Commonwealth universe (from Pandora's Star through the Dreaming Void trilogy) and the writing is so pyrotechnically inventive and vivid that I have no clue where he's going next, but I certainly am enjoying the ride.

Life doesn't have simple beginnings, middles, and endings. Life is full of mystery. Life is chaotic—as those of us who have suffered chronic illness, personal calamity, and family deaths and sufferings in recent months all know on a very visceral level. One thing very clear to me right now, after having been very ill all this past summer, is my own mortality.

Virginia Woolf will always be one of the writers that I return to, time and again, in novels such as To the Lighthouse because she understands this. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. —Virginia Woolf

Woolf's biggest influence on me as a writer has been that I want to represent consciousness in my writing. I want to record the way the attention, the mind, the awareness, all operate. Diffuse or focused, consciousness is at the center of writing, and writing becomes too blatantly artifice if it tries too hard to fix consciousness within the borders of logical and linear statement. If I can see the scaffolding too clearly, and predict every plot twist and turn, then much of the pleasure is gone from the reading.

The pleasure of a great mystery novel is that you can't foresee the ending, can't predict the plot twists. The underlying logic of mystery novels is that crime is a disruption of the natural order, and in discovering and punishing the criminal, Order is restored to the universe—or at least to civilization. But this is hardly realistic. Such endings, with all the loose threads neatly tied together, are rare in real life. Disruptions are not always healed, or in the miracle of life's mystery, are healed in completely unpredicted ways.

I sometimes think that the demand for clarity and order in our reading is because people are trying to construct a universe in which they can feel safe and secure, an orderly universe in which they know the rules, and which doesn't surprise them. I find that dull, personally, but I understand the psychology behind it. As in a mystery novel, we want Order to be restored to our lives, and we want to know all the reasons why, and have a good ending. The alternatives are just too scary.

Still, I prefer writing that reflects life, that gives me an experience of life, that re-creates in me the reader an experience of living, even if it's chaotic and unpredictable. Not always knowing what's going on, or which narrator to believe, doesn't bother me. I am able to follow on, and maybe even figure it out.

Sometimes we just have to trust that the reader is smart enough to figure it out fro themselves, and doesn't need footnotes. Clarity in expression is usually a positive attribute in writing, but what we're writing about doesn't necessarily have to be clear.

I am reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist principle of learning to become comfortable with uncertainty. In this universe, the only certainty is change: everything will change, everything will decay and die, and we have no certainty about how or where or when. The usual, habitual response is to fight back by creating certainty wherever we can. Fear of uncertainty lies at the root of many social and political promises and over-reactions. The question for the individual remains, how much uncertainty can we bear in our lives? For some, no doubt they can bear more in their personal lives than they can in their intellectual and ideological lives; which is often just a matter of necessity. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty, in the long run, means letting go of clinging to certainty wherever we find it, in our lives, in our work, in our relationships. It also means to let go of expectations, and just deal with what's really there, right in front of us. It means to start where you are, and not just where you are comfortable.

I think the bottom line is that people only complain when their expectations aren't being met. Or when they think they've been deceived. Literary history is full of such moments.

But in the end, what survives is the writing.

In discussing these complaints, or reader's failures of expectation, with Elizabeth, she made the comment:

The writer Gail Jones, another not so well known Australian, talks about 'parataxis', the way two seemingly disparate pieces of information can be placed together, one after the other, and the human mind, with its tendency to make links will find connections, however obscure.

I suspect the same thing occurs when we combine the so called factual with the fictional - new links become possible. But it's not to everyone's taste as you say for example with Borges's work.

Parataxis is, in some ways, the very root of all my more "experimental" poetry, which I've sometimes described as cinematic in style: a sequence of images placed side by side, often without verbs—often in fact without any kind of normative syntax or grammar—which like a filmstrip or film collage might create meaning in the mind of the reader. For example, my poem "a shaman's critique of pure poetry." Or many of the Book of Silence poem sequences, in a form I invented. Some of the poetic forms I have invented are strongly influenced by haiku, but haiku itself can be considered a poetic form that uses paratactic juxtaposition of imagery to create meaning, wherein the reader is required to fill in the remaining gaps from their own life-experience. Poems I occasionally write in a post-haibun form I invented are further examples of this.

Simply because we put things side by side, meaning is created, because our minds tend to find patterns and meanings even when they're not intended. In many ways or very cognition is based on pattern-making and pattern-finding. I rely on this in my poetry a great deal. Sometimes a poem, or even an essay, proceeds by using parataxis to create connections, which after all is how consciousness often operates. As both Borges and Woolf would embrace and emulate in some of their writings.

I know that I am an associative thinker, with an associative memory, often creating linkages unforeseen, and my art often reflects or recreates my consciousness. What might be unusual in my style of thinking/consciousness, that is, what makes me an artist rather than an accountant, is precisely that I think in gestalts, in puns, always making connections, always seeing things from multiple angles. Is that so extraordinary? I've been told that it is, but I think that's because our culture tells us it is, and our educational style is designed to make us think in logical, linear, rational order. (Not to mention that education in our culture is dominated by visual teaching, as opposed to kinesthetic or aural.) I don't think this style of thinking is exceptional, I think rather that it is typical of many artists. Putting things together in new ways, in ways no one had thought of or presented before, is one practical definition of art-making: revealing the world in new ways, often in ways that upset the familiar. In other words, art that changes consciousness while reflecting it.

Parataxis doesn't guarantee meanings and connections will be made, nor does it guarantee the familiar (dare one say, clichéd) connections will be made via what is juxtaposed. Sometimes uncertainty is everywhere. The question the reader must ask herself or himself at that point is, how much uncertainty are they comfortable living with? (The answer can be quite revealing of one's personal psychology. In Tibetan Buddhist practice, finding a point of mental resistance is a clue towards where one needs to work next, in one's practice of moving towards greater awakening awareness.)

Strictly speaking, according to various dictionaries, parataxis is the juxtaposition of phrases, words, or sentences placed side by side without the use of a conjunction. The word's origin is from the ancient Greek: to arrange side by side, with the connotation of arranging the troops for battle order. I appreciate the creative possibilities of this connotation of arrangement in battle order, since it often seems that writing anything "experimental" automatically makes one a target. Line up the words and the troops, and fire all torpedoes. I don't really mind when some reader objects that one of my more "experimental" poems has blown their mind; I don't view that as a negative. If something I have made blows your mind, or changes your consciousness some other way, I am pleased; it's one indicator, in my personal artistic lexicon, of the success of any given work of art, to succeed in changing how one perceives the world, even if only for a moment.

How do we create meaning where there is none? Sometimes simply by putting things side by side, and letting the viewer sort them out. That can be enough to change everything.

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citrine, rose quartz, stone, wood

Experiments in close-up macrophotography, with hard-angled sunlight and natural materials.

Translucent, transparent, opaque, reflective, non-reflective, different refractive indices. Shapes, crystal points, crystals polished to rounded forms, shadows in light. Abstract realism in photography.

Dappled shadows on the wood table from the trees outside, moving in the breeze, making ever-changing shadows. A moment's hesitation and the light has changed.

Natural forms reflected in art made with natural materials. Repeating forms in nature and in art.

The world glows with the light of the word made solid.

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