Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cold Fires

towns like little self-contained wastelands
surrounded by vast geologies, volcanic plains
and fog-bound snowfields

cold fires, no one left at home
fences and barns crumbled from neglect
the world's ending passed through
spat, and marched on to kill the next hearths

now no one lives here, or can
those able left long ago
following the work
as the plows broke themselves
on this fertile, rocky, mafic, pitiless earth

snows pile up inside unglazed windows
a broken cradle, a threadbare one-eyed doll
and the rags of a grey shawl
batter themselves apart in the wind's harp

till even the horses are bare bones
skulls and antlers nailed over gateposts
over range roads that fade into the desert
in last warning

And that's what I was thinking, as I drove through several of these little Idaho towns along Hwy. 20/26, looking cold and abandoned, in bleak afternoon light: I could never live here. Why would anyone want to live in such places anymore? I mean, I love small towns, and I love living in rural areas; but these looked so dead and forlorn, so alienated from the rest of creation, that they sickened the spirit. I even stopped for gas at one small town, and there was no one at the station; it was all automated, the "Open" neon sign was lit in the building window, but there hadn't been anyone there for ages, the other windows were all painted over and everything was locked up. Is this the way the world ends, in cold, and snow, and silence? If so, Fimbulwinter has come to rural Idaho. And so I drove on, and on, till I reached easternmost Oregon, and the feeling that the people here are still alive.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Poetry in Jackson

Town Square at night, Jackson, WY, January 2011

There is a good used book store here in Jackson, Wyoming. Every time I visit this store, which I do only once a year or so, which means every time that I am in town, I come away with some great books, often ones I've been thinking about or looking for. I have no idea if there's a poetry or arts scene in Jackson, as my interest here is primarily geological, and also a bit of personal history. (This is, after all, where I spent my summer after high school, studying geology, as my first college course: geology taught in the field, here in the mountains of Wyoming and the surrounding region.) I also have no idea of the scene because my presence in Jackson is rarely more than transitory.

On this visit, I am here for several days—as a sort of vacation I am treating myself to, and also to spend much of my time making photographs and video in the mountains (revisiting some of those same exact places I first visited as a geology student). I spent most of today in Grand Teton National Park, doing my visual artwork. But I also spent part of the day lounging about, doing nothing, existing on genuine djam vakasi, or vacation time. Which is a lot like djam karet, or rubber time: take off the watch, just mark your day by the sun's position in the sky, and forget about everything else. On American Indian reservations, they call it going on Indian time.

So, as part of my vacation time today, for reasons only of personal interest and pleasure, I wandered again into this good used book store here in Jackson, and once again was rewarded: I picked up three excellent volumes of poetry.

First, a sidebar: I have admitted to not writing much poetry lately, and not feeling like it, much. The truth is: I am saving my poetry-writing chops, if you will, for a set of lyrics for a musical project I am deeply engaged in just now, and for the next few months. Writing a song lyric is an exercise in "less is more," but also in making every syllable count, as you have maybe four or eight lines in which to tell an entire story. You have to be precise and detailed. It takes a lot of effort. Because of this project I am engaged with now, I can feel my poetry skills and abilities kicking in, but they are focused on these song lyrics to the exclusion of other writing. I'm not even journalling much at the moment. (Summation: I'm on a roadtrip. I'm in Jackson for several days. The altitude sickness is kicking my ass, because of my pre-existing other illnesses; so I've been feeling symptoms of anemia and tiredness that are illusory relapses, caused by the lack of oxygen at higher elevations. I'm drinking enough water to drown Kansas. I'm having to take it easy, again because of the altitude, and my exercise regimen is taking a hit, although I'm making up for it by hiking out in the cold, which takes a lot of effort. In short, I'm in heaven. I'm exactly where I want to be, at this exact moment.) But the song lyrics are starting to flow—which is interesting, because the "feel" of writing lyrics I know will be set to music is so similar to the "feel" of writing a poem, yet also very different, because the skills are also similar yet different.

Songwriting requires a kind of restraint that more discursive, "pure" poetry rarely attempts—of course that's one reason song lyrics often cannot stand on their own, on the printed page, as poems. The mistake most poets make, in their bias towards words over all other media, is in thinking that song lyrics are poems, and can be judged by the same standards. Wrong! Lyrics are meant to synergize with the music, not stand on their own: lyrics are never meant to be "pure" poetry. A great lyric in a great song works because of the total package, not just because the lyrics are genius—even when they are. This bias that poets have about words shows itself most clearly when they focus on the lyrics and ignore the power of the music. Music in a song isn't just ornamentation or decoration for the brilliant words; it's half, or more, of the power of the piece.

Most "pure" poets make lousy songwriters (although one or two songwriters really are good poets—and no, Dylan and Cohen are not of this number, despite their cults): they become so enamored with using every trick of their craft, so in love are they with poetry itself, with the magic and beauty of words, that the song lyrics they produce tend to be over-written, overly discursive, and far too self-consciously "poetic." I say most poets, here, even though many professional songwriters also have this failing: it's always a temptation to show off how great you are at writing poetic lines, at making the words beautiful, and forgetting that focused compression in song lyrics is critical. Poets who mostly write sonnets make lousy lyric-writers, in general; while haiku-writers tend to already know the virtues of compression and precision, of evoking a momentary emotion using economy of means. Perhaps many songwriters would benefit from formal study of haiku, from time to time.

And to be honest, I just haven't much felt like writing poems this past year. I've written a few good poems, I hope, after a long hiatus broken by a brush with serious illness; but the past year was mostly devoted to music, photography, and other artistic pursuits. Of course several poet friends have already expressed to me their disquiet at this turn of events—which is flattering, in a way—yet I can't help but feel that this once again shows a bias that many poets have towards their own artform over all others. It's a kind of tunnel vision. Will the world come to an end if I never contribute another poem? Hardly; although some comments have seemed to imply that it might—again, that's flattering—yet that doesn't take into account my basic practice of artistic crop rotation.

I suppose I just have to accept that some friends will never understand that I genuinely do not care if I ever write another poem. I probably will: but I genuinely don't care. I'm a heretic again, I suppose, in not caring about the same things others seem to care about, and in not viewing Poetry as either essential to my well-being or as my own primary artform. But if I were to force myself to try to write a poem, just now, it would be only to please others, not because I felt the urge and need in myself—and experience has proven the product of such misguided efforts to always have been a waste of time.

Anyway, today, on my vacation time, I picked up three books of poetry. Or rather, two books of poems, and one about poetry.

The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, ed. by Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow. Rexroth has been much on my radar this past year, both for his poetry and his writing about poetry. Certainly he was one of the biggest influences on 20th C. poetry, both through the people he taught and influenced directly, and through his own work as poet and cheerleader for poetry. He was, after all, one of the first West Coast poets to look all the way to Asia for his sources, a neo-classicist who looked to Tu Fu and Li Po and the japanese poets, not only to Milton and Shakespeare. (His similarities to and greater differences from Ezra Pound largely revolve around this point.) My appreciation for Rexorth has been deepening the more I look into his work, and having this Complete Poems is going to be useful indeed.

Conrad Aiken: A Letter from Li Po & Other Poems. This is a hardcover of the 1955 first publication, possibly a first printed edition—although I can't be sure, as in those days it wasn't always publishing practice to label first editions as such; it depended on the publisher. Aiken, that most musical of poets, that poet most dedicated to the musical line, the sound and cadence of poetry, here is in his most reflective mode, in the long title poem. Another Asian influence on American poetry.

I recently read a poet's opinion that what makes American poetry uniquely American, as opposed to its early cultural enslavement to and imitation of European models, is when it creates a balance between the East and the West; something Rexroth, Aiken, Gary Snyder, and many poets of the San Francisco Renaissance were the first to accomplish; all of which came into fruition mid-20th C. (Granted, this doesn't account for Whitman and Dickinson; but it could be argued that they were precursors who were not ignorant of Asian influence, either, as it came through Emerson and Thoreau.) Poets like myself, who continue to balance East and West—in my case literally, being an American who grew up in Asia—are the next generation or two after Rexroth; which accounts in part for my interest in his work just now, as if I felt called to fill in the lineages in my own poetic genealogy.

Aiken was a poet I became enthralled by in my teens, precisely because his program was overtly musical, deliberately syncretic and sensual. Years later, I also discovered Aiken's Collected Criticism, which remains in my opinion a role model of elegant and insightful reviewing. This edition of A Letter from Li Po, whether or not it's an actual first printing of the first published edition, is satisfying to own, to fill out more of my Aiken collection; and the book, as a book, is beautifully typeset and designed.

The third book found today was Toward a New Poetry, by Diane Wakowski, one of the series of "Poets On Poetry" collections from University of Michigan Press.

Wakowski, writing thirty years ago about poets, poetry criticism, the poetry workshop situation, and everything both wrong and right with all of them, could have been writing yesterday. It's remarkable how little has changed. The same issues are still in the air—perhaps more urgently, as the condition of poetry publishing 30 years ago has both shrunk and exploded. Publishing itself has fundamentally changed. Wakowski's criticism, which she clearly states is that not of a critic but of a poet, contains many thoughtful insights.

Reading Wakowski here, noticing how little seems to have changed in poetry and literature, is dismaying. I guess poets just won't grow up. Oh, individual poets do—Rexroth and Aiken are both examples of individual poets who operated as independent-minded adults in the poetry world—but as a tribe, there appears to be a gravitational pull towards remaining infantile, self-involved, and disconnected from the rest of the world. Wakowski, in these essays, keeps trying to cajole her readers, which she knows are her peers, since most people who read poetry are poets, into a wider sense of appreciation of poetry (why can't I like very different poetry from very different poets?), into a style of criticism that is inclusive rather than dismissive and hostile, into, in a word, growing up and acting like adults. That so little has changed in thirty years is not Wakowski's failing, but rather an indication of severe cultural inertia. Clearly Wakowski cares passionately about the poetry world, and wants it to thrive. At the same time, she is clear-eyed about both its triumphs and its flaws.

Wakowski, whose poetry I admit I have never really liked all that much, has for me in this volume a much clearer voice. Reading these essays, collected columns, interviews, and lectures, I feel I have a much clearer understanding of her ideas, and her approach to poetry. I admit that reading these essays and other articles has given me new respect for her. Perhaps I will be able to go back to her poems, now, and appreciate them more.

This is a problem parallel to one I have had with many of the poets published by Black Sparrow Press, who published and still publish many of Wakowski's books of poems. There are many famed stalwarts of Black Sparrow Press who I have tried, more than once, to get into, yet in the end have always felt repelled. I've always had this problem with Black Sparrow poets; so perhaps it is my idiosyncratic problem. Or it may be an issue of the publisher's editorial preferences. Yet it seems to me that the majority of poets published by Black Sparrow have often been of that self-absorbed, urban-centric, narrow-focused West Coast big city variety that admits of no interest in anything other than the human drama. Many volumes are devoted to the dramas of human interaction among people who live in the big cities; the rest of the universe doesn't seem to exist. There's an insular circularity to many of these poets' concerns, which orbit around personal trials and interpersonal angers that I can't seem to care about. This type of poetry is opposite to the West Coast poetry of Rexorth, Robinson Jeffers, William Everson, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan—all of whom sought and found something transpersonal, transhuman and mythic in poetry. Of course I am making sweeping generalizations here, and there will be exceptions; yet this is an issue about Black Sparrow I have tried to address numerous times, without success.

I have a fondness for the "Poets on Poetry" series, as it collects criticism and essays about poetry as written by poets, which I think is often more interesting, and less fundamentally wrongheaded, than criticism of poetry written by non-poets. What poets have to say about their own work is fascinating, even if you end up disagreeing. Partly that's because reading what poets have to say gives one insight into the creative process, both theirs and your own.

Of course, in reading this collection of Wakowski's essays, one notes that, then as now, most readers of poetry are poets and/or teachers of poetry. That hasn't changed. (The whining about it has increased, though.) Wakowski openly embraces this situation as something positive, which is in contrast to most opinions on the topic. She is not afraid of being insular about a special interest which only a few care passionately about. She points out that, during her nomadic years of teaching workshops and being a poet-in-residence at many different colleges, wherever she went she encountered a small but dedicated community to talk to, who cared deeply about the same things she cares about. Wakowski's sense of poetry community is a positive one; she quite consciously presents it as an alternative to cynical views about competition and fragmentation. As often as I have myself felt a total lack of community in the poetry world, I applaud Wakowski for presenting this positive alternative. Maybe it could still happen; maybe it could still be so.

And the "Poets on Poetry" series is published at the University of Michigan, my alma mater, so that's an extra dose of interest on my part. I didn't know when I lived in Ann Arbor that it was such a hotbed of literary work, thought, and publishing.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Badlands in Winter

(Images from Badlands National Park, SD, January 2001)

stark beauty of nothing
moving except far-off deer—
spare trees in storm

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

South Dakota Whiteout

near Worthington, MN

blowing snow, South Dakota

wind turbines in blowing snow, spinning slowly

sheets of blowing snow crossing the interstate at right angles, South Dakota

The end of the day turns into a hellride, as an hour before sundown, the sun itself lost behind gray clouds and gray blowing snow, the road becomes covered with glare ice, sheet ice, black ice. You have to slow down or spin out, as many have done, emergency vehicles with blue and red spinners on top hovering near. It's made worse by the drivers too stupid to slow down, including big rig trucks who tailgate you, flashing their brights. Some days you can't help but fantasize vengeful justice for such dangerous folly.

Then I made it to a hotel in Mitchell, SD, had dinner, and retreated for the night. Cold, snow, wind, night. And so ends the first day of the current roadtrip.

Postscript, the following morning:

I'm not expecting to do much poetry on this roadtrip. Although the surprise visitation of the muse is always welcome, of course. As I've commented recently, I'm more focused on music than poems lately, and for good reason. I'm going to be saving my poetry chops for writing song lyrics, for now, as part of an upcoming project which I'll save discussion for another time. Meanwhile, I need to pack the truck and hit the road already.

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Retiring the Jacket

This is the jacket I have worn on every roadtrip for the past several years. I first started making these roadtrips, during which I would travel around the country making photographs and videos and music, circa 2003. I take one or two trips a year still; usually one extended trip, one shorter trip, and a few quickies when I can, in between.

I first started collecting lapel pins during a roadtrip circa 2005. I started to visit, and often camp at, National Parks, state parks in various states, and other scenic wonders. I don't collect many kinds of things, but I now make it a habit to acquire a lapel pin from every significant place I visit that offers one, usually in their gift store or ranger station. So I have a large collection of pins from National Parks, state parks, historical sites, and other travel locales.

I've made it a habit of pinning the ones I care about most on my jacket, as a sort of visual narrative of places I've been and things I've seen. Some are kitschy, others are profound. This is by no means my full collection, which includes probably six times as many pins as seen here. It's just the highlights. The rest of my lapel pin collection is on my dresser, at home, in boxes set aside to contain them.

A selection of favorites:

A Frank Lloyd Wright pin from Taliesin in Wisconsin. A melted watch from the Dali Museum in Florida. Lost Maples State Park in the Texas hill country. Great Basin National Monument in Nevada. The Hwy 51 pin, which commemorates "the loneliest highway in the world," the stretch of Hwy. 51 that runs across Nevada from Utah to Reno, and along which there are stretches where there no towns, no services, no nothing, for hundreds of miles at a time. I earned that pin; I've driven that stretch of Hwy. 51 two and a half times. A pin representing the cave formations of Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. A couple of favorite state parks in the Redwoods regions of northern California, places I've camped in all conditions, places of sublime beauty. The ART! pin my sister gave me, to humorously remind me both of my name and my calling as an artist.

Some of my favorite pins to collect are those that reproduce benchmark medallions placed at significant sites throughout the country by the United States Geological Survey. These are circular pins that exactly reproduce the benchmarks, many of which I have stood next to, where they are cemented to the ground by the USGS on sites of particular scientific and scenic interest, such as Devil's Tower, Wyoming.

I am retiring this jacket, now, because it has become threadbare, worn, and frayed. It served me well, keeping me warm in both mountain winds and ocean breezes, and has begun to wear out. I bought a new jacket to replace it, a month ago, before the start of the next roadtrip. I haven't transferred any of my favorite pins off the old jacket to the new, as yet; and I might not at all. I might just retire this jacket, which is full of memories, to the closet, and start over with the new jacket. Let the world begin anew, let each roadtrip begin from zero, and let the new jacket acquire its own stories and images and lapel pins as I continue to travel in years to come.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Papier-Mache Art 5: Reflections

I was thinking recently, in a moment of reflective clarity, that the only thing that ever dissatisfied me about photography was that the typical end-result was a two-dimensional print. While that can be a window onto worlds, it also feels, sometimes, like a limitation. One reason that making art-objects out of laser-prints on paper of my photographs is that it brings the photo as an object, not just as an image, into the three-dimensional realm.

I have moving in this artistic direction for awhile: away from the static and two-dimensional (framed and mounted) art piece, to the multi-dimensional. I've made multimedia art that combines moving images (video), still images (photo), text (my own poems, usually), and music (again, my own music), sometimes with spoken (readings of the texts on the screen, in series or in parallel), in various combinations. I have now been making woodcarving sculptures, both from worked wood, and from driftwood already shaped by nature and needing only recontextualization by the artist. And recently I have been working extensively with papier-maché, both in pure forms, and in these "illuminated" objects made from paper on which my own art is already printed, or on which I might draw or paint on later. And I've been experimenting with multi-format pieces which would combine photos, drawings, carvings, and possibly sculptural objects in new ways, like multiple takes on the same subject, presented as groupings rather than individual pieces. I've also done a few purely photographic pieces that consisted of up to 24 individual images organized and display as a group.

I find all of these multi-dimensional arts interesting. I feel this is where my art is eventually all going to go. I sometimes feel as if an individual piece of art, even a poem, is nothing more than an element of a larger piece; sometimes I feel this way more about pieces that get made that I have no idea what to do with, or where they might fit. Sometimes the exploration process can take some time, till every element falls into place.

I am also interested in making dance/movement or performance art part of the mix. I've done performance art projects and pieces in the past, to some acclaim. I find myself moving back in that direction. I also am interested again in revealing the process, having it happen live before the audience rather than all off-stage. In a way, I view gallery openings, those obligatory meet-and-greets for the opening of a show at a gallery or museum, as opportunities for theatre, for music, for performance, for combining live music with the displayed art, and other similar possibilities. I've performed several shows where I played live music to accompany dance and/or dance plus other media such as film and lighting effects. I'd like to do more of that again. (I also really enjoy playing live music to accompany silent film, and I'd like to do more of that again soon.)

I also find it interesting to project photos onto three-dimensional forms—a kind of painting with light—including the human form. I can think of at least three photographers who have used projected slides to "paint" the nude human form with another image, then photograph the result. This is an avenue of presentation and image that I would like to experiment with in future. I've had some ideas, but haven't yet had any occasion to try them out.

A lot of this is ultimately about "breaking out of the box." Or rather, ignoring that some people think there is a box. There's a box? I don't think so.

Some of this is also about combining together the many disparate creative arts I have pursued before, and still pursue, the list of which of has been added to in recent years. To music and photography, add drawing, calligraphy, video. To poetry add hand-made books as art objects. To performance, add ceremonial gardening.

In resistance to the idea that this all must somehow be managed, organized, stated definitively, I prefer to leave it open-ended, improvisatory, indeterminate, even chaotic. It's not that there is no order or plan to my pursuits, nor is that there is no order or form to the art(s) I pursue; rather, it's that I'm leaving the door open to mysteries and unknowns that feed my art, that fertilize and grow my process as an artist.

Meanwhile, here are two black bowls made this past week.

I love the dark color and solid shape of these. I am becoming very fond of the results given by some of the bowls I am using as molds. The mold can make a huge difference on the impact of the finished piece. I used black cardstock-weight poster paper acquired at, believe it or not, the stationary department of an ordinary department store. They had some interesting cardstock papers for sale, of several colors, including black. I thought it might make an interesting bowl, or other form, as I think these two bowls successfully demonstrate.

I tried to align the paper strips in the mold in dynamic ways, here, to create some energy in the shape. The torn uneven edges hopefully contribute to that. Such bowls are meant to be sculptural, not just sit there. I want them to have some dynamism and energy; the way you lay down the torn paper strips can add or subtract to this effect.

One thing you need to be aware when working with colored cardstock or construction paper, or other similar dyed papers. Specifically, the colors can bleed. By the time I was done with making these two bowls, the glue-water papier-maché medium was quite dark-colored. If you are working with other kinds of paper during the same session, therefore, it's best to those projects first, and do the dyed-paper projects last. Otherwise, you might get some unintended coloration of your other project. That might be interesting, along the lines of marbled paper, but only if you intended those results.

Grand Marais Gift Bowl

This art bowl continues my ongoing project of using laser-prints on plain paper (sometimes heavier coated stock) of my own photographs as material. This bowl uses several photos of Grand Marais, MN, and one of a rack of violins on the wall of a violin repair emporium in Minneapolis.

This bowl is specifically made as a gift for two friends who are getting married in Minnesota. All of these photographs used here were made in the presence of these two friends, on various visits together to the Lake Superior North Shore, making the gift of a hand-made art bowl for their wedding as personal an art object as I can present. The only photo not from Grand Marais, the violins, also has personal meaning to my friends, and is included for that reason.

This bowl also continues my interest in making my photography more dimensional, less bound by the two-dimensional frame; as discussed above. I took a series of related photographs, cut them into strips and recombined them as a collage as the matrix of this bowl.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Maps of Doubt

Doubting everything, especially myself, doubting what
I once knew to be certain, doubting what I cannot yet conceive
as newly manifest, taking down the photos I just put up,
doubting their arrangement, their purpose, their altitude,
and all. Doubting how I got here, this land of permanent insecurity.
Doubting how to get away again, take a vacation in persimmon.
Do you wait for the next two-seater aircraft, or just start walking?
I need new maps. Again, it's not the first lost voyage where all
the maps got mangled. Sometimes they age prematurely, dissolving
into greasy dust the minute you cross the jungle's threshold. Other trips
I've seen maps self-immolate, strange symbols setting their own pyre.
Still other sets of maps, bound in dusty tomes, have simply refused
to open anymore, glue along the edges, certainty ossified to sand.
And there were maps that went transparent in daylight, could only
be read at dusk or dawn. Others folded themselves into origami
cranes, took wing, flapping off like paper airplanes in a furnace.
I keep having to start over, all over again, and again, over: is this
the third episode or the sixth? I lost count somewhere back treading
on the dreams of roads. The roads stay in the same places, although
the places they go through keep interchanging. One week this highway,
black ribboned and dashed with white, passes through deserted country,
the next it's a way station on the lip of suburban landfills. No wonder
the maps keep dissolving, rewriting, they can't retrace routes fast enough
to keep up with changing lands around fixed roads. All the labels
are in pencil, provisional, ready to be erased the hour you read them.
Bridges move upstream and down, you find the road leads
suddenly to thin air mid-traverse. I need new maps, not new roads.
The back alley swordsman happens to be practicing his kata today
under my kitchen window. Yesterday it was silent deer who wouldn't
answer my questions. How am I supposed to be gentle with life when life
isn't gentle with me? If I told you, deer, what had been happening,
if it were a script for a made-for-TV movie, no one would believe it.
Maps are supposed to symbolize the real world, not replace it.
Charts made of representation. A map of the world would be the world.
Sometimes maps reproduce, quietly, in the dark glovebox. A fresh take
on the state highways appears between two grimed elders. No account
for it. There was a map, once, where all the roads had been written in blood.
There were parchment bookmarks glued to the endpapers, layers translucent
and dried, dead skin of the lover, ink of bile and dried secretions.
Deep creases where it had been folded too hard, too often.
Green indicia scribed in dried liver paté. Red markers for waysides
visited too often. Blue blood for highways that kept being repaved. Eventually,
we had to burn this map, it had marked too many habits between us.
Sparks rose from the bonfire, and the flames turned aquamarine.
Once I built a railroad, brother, can you spare a rime?
Things unwrite themselves, taking back their names. Convenience isn't enough
for keepsakes. If you don't use it for six months, it's got to go. The same
for maps and lovers. Candy skulls left in tree boughs for the local gods.
You pull up behind a Cadillac on some wet road somewhere
and the license plate is a smug commentary of ownership.
Whose road is it anyway? Whose maps? The self-satisfied bastards
never have any doubt of their own importance. Or they won't admit it.
I doubt myself all the more when everyone else seems certain. Who knows?
Maybe they're right, and I'm just lost. One map here, pitched crimson
for anger, keeps me true, keeps my tires on the blacktop, mostly.
Not all advice is worth the price you pay in conforming to someone
else's maps. Who draws these things, anyway? A map of the terrain
is always a record of a private agenda, what to put in, what to leave out.
Things unsaid, during the unnaming, unravel when revealed.
A map too clear in its conclusions invites suspicion, evokes my doubt.
Maybe I've set up camp too well here, a permanent bivouac in the land
of missed opportunities, of indeterminacy. The tents billow in the winds
of change. One day the cookfire pit lies across the great divide, another
it's too close to the lake edge. We stay still as the ground moves underneath.
I'm losing my direction. I fall back into doubt. It's almost a friend, by now,
this doubt. It's more sure to turn up at camp, marching out of the night's
dark middle, settling down, a little uncertain of its welcome, on a stump.
It tips its hat back from its face, that face you can never be quite sure of,
and begs a taste of whatever's on the spit. Some weird hank of roast.
The guides couldn't identify the beast when we shot it, lost as we are
in this bush. Useless, every one of them. How can I be sure of you?
Here where there are no more maps.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shadows on the Wall

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Re-Enchantment of Art 4: Some Possible Directions

Sayings gathered at random, or in apparent sequence, that spark the mind and imagination, towards that place where image and word become one. You could alternate these thoughts with photographs, and perhaps I shall. You could interweave things in such a way that they would catch light, take fire, and awaken.

The true man sees what the eye sees, and does not add to it something that is not there. He bears what he must bear, and does not detect imaginary undertones or overtones. He understands things in their obvious interpretation and is not busy with hidden meanings and mysteries. His course is therefore a straight line. Yet he can change his direction whenever circumstances suggest it.
—Thomas Merton

The man of Zen sees what is there, not what he thinks is there. The man of Tao sees the currents under what is seen, sees what is true underneath the apparent surface of things, the illusion of Maya.

We know, don't we, everybody else's religion, mythology, and philosophy and metaphysics backwards and forwards, so what need would we have for one of our own if we had one, but we don't, do we?
—John Cage

Cage is correct when he points out that one very valid reason that people go looking elsewhere for spiritual or psychological fulfillment is because those things are lacking at home. We have lost our own myths. Our own major church institutions have ceased to serve their laeity and become rigid, authoritarian power-mongers. Some people do try to replace what has been lost with myths from other cultures. Some people, even some spiritual leaders, say you shouldn't do that. They say that you must learn your own root culture thoroughly, before you can understand any others.

I disagree. But then, I am a child of more than one culture, so I have found both rootlessness and home in more than one place. There was the culture I was born into, and the very different one that I grew up in, for those first formative years, those earliest childhood memories.

Tonight I am strongly homesick for India. I want to smell the spices in the markets, I want to hear the music, especially the singing voices. I am feeling homesick for a place I haven't been in a long time, but which has never really left my soul. I am an immigrant to my own birth culture, to which I feel far less connected to and rooted in tonight.

So even a spiritual leader telling me that I shouldn't feel homesick for India, when I live in the USA now, makes no sense to me. Do all the Indian immigrants here in the US, or in the UK, reject their homelands? Certainly not. Why should I?

What they don't understand is that you can be rooted in more than one place. There is nothing wrong in love. You can love more than one home, more than one family, more than one lover, more than one thing essential to your life. You don't have to choose between the spices of India and the love of a person here on Turtle Island. Although that second kind of love may not be for me; and in my homesickness there is also grief for what I will never have. Ganesha, Lord of Crossroads and Remover of Obstacles, bring me home tonight.

Are not some experiences so powerful and so profound (I am not speaking of the merely compulsive) that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variations and change, each time bringing us closer to our own most particular (and thus most universal) reality? We go, as Yeats said, from exhaustion to exhaustion. To begin from the depths and come out—that is difficult; for few know where the depths are and can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid.
—Theodore Roethke

Fear stops us, usually, from becoming those things we most love, most want to become. Some experiences are so powerful that there are no words. Words fail us. Sometimes the heart becomes so full, flowing over with deep bright emotion, that nothing can be said. At those moments there is only silent praise, blessing lit by a sacred light from within. There is an evening of moonlight in your hair, with a lover's cup filled with white wine, and nothing to say.

Thunder is no longer the voice of an angry god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree is the life principle of a man, no snake the embodiment of wisdom, no mountain cave the home of a great demon. No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear.
—Carl Jung

There is a profound loss of the sacred in our contemporary culture. A loss of the very sense of the sacred. This is not news: many have commented on this, for some time now. I make no new insights here. But it bears repeating. Especially when I can sense a way through art, through poetry, that leads towards the revelation of what is both immanent and transcendent of this moment. Probably the reason I can't convey the reality of this, to anyone who refuses it, is because words fail precisely at the threshold of revelation. The door into starlight is made of ivory, carved with beautiful names in runes you can only read once you pass the threshold.

Cannot art be a force for re-enchantment, a way back to the garden, a door into some myth necessary as breathing? Cannot making, as poets and dances are makers, be what ties us to the land as well as the spirit?

As the carver holds the unworked ivory lightly in his hand, turning it this way and that, he whispers, "Who are you? Who hides there?" And then: "Ah, Seal!" He rarely sets out to carve, say, a seal, but picks up the ivory examines it to find its hidden form, and if that is not not immediately apparent, carves aimlessly until he sees it, humming or chanting as he works. Then he brings it out: seal, hidden, emerges. It was always there: he did not create it. He released it: he helped it to step forth.
—Edmund Carpenter

I feel this way about every piece of driftwood I pick up, turn over in my hands, and know that someday I will find something in it to carve. Every piece of wood drying on the workbench contains some form to be revealed. I just have to wait. The woods tells you what to make of it.

Surprisingly, and in contradiction to conventional literary wisdom about intention, so do words tell you what to make them into. Tonight a meditation, some other night, a poem. Conscious intention, the will to power, to have power over the tools, power over the direction the words go in—none of that comes into play, here, nor does it matter.

The poem was always there: I, this "I" that thinks so highly of its own will, did not create it. At most I released the poem from the word-horde, helped it to emerge. The music steps forth best when I hold its hand but don't tell it what to do.

In other words, while retaining our private experiences, we can attempt to incarnate myth, putting on its ill-fitting skin to perceive the relativity of our problems, their connection to the "roots," and the relativity of the "roots" in the light of today's experience.s.
—Jerzy Grotowski

I go to an isolated place, a crevasse or cave or mountaintop. I take a small stone rub it on top of a larger stone. I am rubbing the stone. After days of rubbing the stone in a sunwise direction, a spirit emerges. It comes out of the rock and faces the rising sun and asks what I want. I then die in the most horrible torments, body ripped to shreds, skeleton scattered across the landscape. But then I am gathered together again, later in the day, my body reassembled out of new bread, and I am whole again by dawn.
—anonymous shamanic narrative of initiation

Let there be fog      And let there be phantoms,
Weird marvels      to baffle your hunters.

—from Njal's Saga

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Notes towards an egoless poetry 16: Cinematic and Poetic

When I write a poem like Yellow Sand, White Wind or this untitled poem or the way of leaves or antler or Slow gods moving between trees, gathering or even a shaman's critique of pure poetry, what I'm writing is a sequence of images. There may be a "voice" in the poem, but it's not my own voice, it's a character. (In any given poem, it's almost always a character.) More interestingly, there is no narrative, no story, apart from the sequence of images. These poems take the cliché dictum of "show, don't tell" to an extreme. They show but don't tell you what to think about what is being shown.

I get complaints about this from other poets, other writers. One complaint is that there's no ideating personality, no human presence, to hang onto, in the poem. But that's the point: this is the opposite of ego-personality poetry. It also questions, by its very nature, the supremacy in contemporary poetry of the "I" poem, the confessional lyric, the much-vilified workshop poem about the enclosed circle of one's own personal life. I always find it remarkable when poets complain about certain kinds of poetry on basically moral grounds, simply because something about the poem questions their assumptions about the nature of poetry. Where in this moralizing is there room for pluralism?

When I write this sort of poem I'm interested in reflecting life, in evoking an experience of consciousness, rather than describing or commenting on it, or telling what I think about it. Poems that tell me what the person in the poem is thinking, detached from the physical, wear thin on me very quickly. A lot of first-person poetry is distressingly narcissistic. A lot more poetry is cerebrally detached, keeping a safe distance from the guts of life. Far safer to talk about an experience rather than recreate it, and not stir the emotional waters too strongly. So we get a lot of tepid, undemanding, chatty poetry. Most of which reads like prose anyway.

The answer to this, by the way, lies not in the even-more-cerebral, even-more-detached extremes of language-based poetry. That's an artistically mannerist answer, an exaggeration of existing trends rather than a replacement of them with something genuinely different. Such poetry is even more Apollonian. The real answer lies in the restoration of balance between Apollo and Dionysus, wherein passionate language can evoke passion, not just talk about evoking it.

The poems I am discussing here are what I have called cinematic poems, the images sequentially making up a quasi-narrative. When filmmakers show sequential images that seem to be related, that are connected because they're set side by side, but with no usual dialogue or narration, people call those films "poetic." When a poem does the same thing with images set side by side, I have no better term than to call such a poem "cinematic."

Cinema such as non-verbal, non-narrative films like Ron Fricke's Baraka, Godfrey Reggio's Powaaqatsi, and Derek jarman's Blue—these films are often called "poetic."

Poems such as the ones I'm discussing here are also sequences of non-linear images, not linked together by traditional narrative, storytelling, or prose constructions of grammar. Images are linked together, rather, by parataxis, by being placed side-by-side. A sequence of images builds in the mind, and due to the persistence of vision, the persistence of memory, becomes connected.

Cinema operates via the principle of persistence of vision: images flicker at the rate of 24 or 30 frames per second, and because of the retinal and neurological phenomenon called the persistence of vision, the viewing experience seems continuous, not quantized.

A poem made of images can potentially operate the same way, based on the cognitive phenomenon of the persistence of memory. Short-term memory overlaps with itself in the small scale of immediate duration. Even if we don't store what we just read permanently in our long-term memory, while we are reading, what we just read hovers for a moment while we move on, creating the illusion of continuity. Or so it seems under normal conditions.

When reading the poem, let the images evoke whatever they evoke, and make up your own inner movie from it. I suppose that someone who's been to the same places on the planet imaged in the poem might find it more evocative than other readers, because of the shared experience. But there's no place in a poem like this for didactic generalities, for description rather than imaging, for telling the reader what's going on. I actually would prefer to be all show and no tell, in this kind of poem. There may be moments of standard syntax, standard grammar, but they are not normative. Shared experience might be good for reading the poem, certainly, but even if a poem is "too local to be universal" somebody's going to read it and get it.

And I'm fine with that happening, or not, as it does. I don't feel the need to control which reader "gets it" and which doesn't. Nor do I feel a need to make sure that all readers "get it." You can never do that anyway.

Many writers, many poets, really seem to believe that I care a great deal more than I actually do about what my poems mean, or that I want to direct the reader's experience somehow down pre-determined channels. The assumption here is that the poet's intention, my intention, is paramount, and that there is only one correct interpretation of the poem, namely, mine, the poet's. I don't feel that way at all. I really don't want to do any of those things. (Call it a differing poetic ethic.)

This attitude leaves out mystery entirely. Once the poem is set loose in the world, I have no control over how it's received, how it's interpreted, and I don't really want any control over that. In a cinematic poem, I want the reader to find whatever they find, and if it's all a bit mysterious, well, then so is life. I could say what I did see when I was making the poem, and in some cases I could link photographs to parts of the poem. BUt that would only be my own experience. Maybe your experience when reading a cinematic poem will have overlap with mine, and maybe it will be different. I am completely comfortable with that.

I am interested in sharing experience in the poem, not in pacifying it. I have no desire to impose order upon chaos—which it seems a lot of writers want to do, perhaps unconsciously, when they write. They construct narratives in part to construct, or discover, an order to life, which is essentially non-linear, I get a lot of negative remarks about this kind of poem from fellow writers, precisely because it's not ordered or non-mysterious enough for them. They want to find the key to the puzzle-box, but there isn't one.

John Cage once said, late in life, and I find this to be a real touchstone for this mode of my writing:

I want people to be mystified by what's happening. The reality of our life is mystery.

Cage made a lot of his creative work with the intent to evoke that mystery, to just let unpredictable things happen, to give up control, and also to provoke the audience, not soothe or reassure them. The Zen goal is to wake up, not be put to sleep. Not to be soothed, but to be challenged. A poetry that merely entertains is deadening, not enlivening. Art needs to be more than that.


Film director and historian Peter Bogdanovich, auteur of one or two of my all-time favorite films, has recently posted on the topic of cinema and poetry on his blog. He cites Jean Renoir as probably the most poetic of all film directors, Few directors have addressed cinematic poetry directly, but Bogdanovich defines it this way:

What distinguishes the real film poets is their use of the camera to convey meanings and reverberations beyond the geography of place or the needs of the narrative. Camera placement, and therefore the composition, the lens choices, the lighting of the image, the camera’s movement, the particular juxtaposition of images, are all in the grammar for conveying hidden aspects of the tale or people—-exposing a part of the theme, or the true meaning beyond simply the plot—-endorsing, subverting, enriching the more obvious qualities of setting or performance. This is why the finest filmmakers are generally always remembered for certain of their unique and personal images. Among the other poets, D.W. Griffith comes to mind, and F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Robert Flaherty, and Orson Welles.

These are some of the same elements that also define poetry in photography, of course: composition, angle, lens, lighting. What makes cinema poetic, I might add to Mr. Bogdanovich's thought, is timing: camera movement, certainly, but also frame rate, exposure, and other artifacts of filming than can moved in time and space. I urge you to read the rest of Mr. Bogdanovich's entry, in which he discusses further why he thinks Renoir is a cinematic poet. It's fine reading. Also, just on general principles, it's usually worth reading Mr. Bogdanovich, as he is a fine film historian.

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Yellow Sand, White Wind

End of the long road. Some friends they were.
An owl on the edge of a window, screech and gone.
Flies on the half-dried blood, the circle of red blood
and the eagle feather. The eagle feather and the long road.
The stronghold in walled hills, box canyon rivulets. Red deer
at dusk, on the low tables by the roadside, eyes aglint.
A tree leafless in freezing fog, rind of white ice at sunfall.
You can wait a lifetime to have a vision.
Then in the road winding through the tables, through purple
mounds shot with dusty gold, round folded hills. Then you're
there. Coyote pack growling among sand castles.
Wire fences and wind-chimes, neither can cage the wind.
White river tears down what the cliffs rose to flag.
Run through the haystacks, pattern of sand road dirt farm
and prairie grass. Mapped from angels high, bright land.
And the long river, a curve turned among hard edges.
Blue of after-dusk circle of clouds low on plains horizon,
low echo of far-off thunder. Stopped at the crossroads,
waiting for a sign, which way to go. Although the road beyond
goes on and on and on, charcoal ribbon under heat-haze.
Back in that saddle, friends with wind-dogs and deer-runs.
Jump-start a one-eyed pickup, wind in broken windows.
Blue as sky, blue as rust, scaling off in dust contrail.
The sand under boot yellow as dried paint, except for the circle
of half-dried blood, the eagle feather, striped, fluttering.
Hillsides where there's always a wind. Still fireglow on deadwood.
Yellow smoke, in your eye, the wind turning around the compass.
You're always downwind, always getting seared. Fire on skin
the paint of ash charcoal ember falling. Family ties as radiant dim
as sundown. You can wait all your life to have a vision,
never seeing beyond your dreams into larger echoes.
A long train to the west, rumble and whistle and clatter.
Running the riverbank, dancers merging into circled stone stacks.
Gifts of the long blue dusk, haze of sight lost in clabbered shadow.
Click of yellow gravel underfoot. Far off, thunder's heart.
Not long before dawn, a dream of deer. In the morning you find
an antler at your doorstep.

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Friday, January 07, 2011

Lux Aeterna

Tonight I'm writing a short a capella choral piece, for male voices (TTBB), as a sort of warm-up exercise for larger-scale composing I will be doing later this year. An unlimbering of the creative muscles, musically, if you will. Nothing too fancy or complicated, just a simple, lush setting of a favorite text. I'm about half way through the piece right now, taking a short break to step back and journal about the process; the writing is going smoothly tonight, and I may actually finish the piece in the next day or two.

I'm setting the Latin text Lux aeterna, from the Requiem Mass. Here's the Latin text, followed by an English translation. (My rendition from the Latin, based on a blend of other translations.) A text that begins and ends with eternal light:

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine,
cum sanctis tuis in aeternum,
quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Eternal light shine on them, Lord,
with your saints in eternity,
for you are merciful.
Grant them eternal rest, Lord,
and perpetual light shine on them.

Why would I, a non-Catholic, a post-Christian, be setting this text? Because the Latin texts remain beautiful, after all these centuries. My knowledge of Latin is mostly Medieval Latin, or church Latin; not ancient Roman Latin, but the Latin used by the church in Rome in later centuries. And I like what this text says, from the Requiem: eternal light, eternal rest. My own spirituality is all about the Light, its presence in my life, its recurrence and return. I can imagine no more potent an image for the Divine than eternal Light.

I'm writing a short homophonic setting of this text, not more than a few minutes long. I find myself, as I compose, repeating each phrase a total of two times before going on to the next phrase. I find myself writing it at the piano, sounding out each chord sequence before writing it down.

I find that I can only sit and compose for an hour or so at a time, at most. I may be full of ideas, but my ears get tired. I pause for awhile, then come back to the piano, with new music in my inner ears. Also, and this is very interesting, I experience an almost electric overload after an hour or so—as though I am brimful with current running through me, and I must step back, get grounded, relaxed, and recentered, before I may continue. So I step back form the writing, then come back to it later; write for awhile, then must pause, and come back again later.

Describing this process makes it sound problematic, but it's nothing of the sort; if anything, it feels like I am filling up to the brim with electricity, with joy, with passion. It's a very good feeling. Yet to keep the music focused, and not run off in all directions or become unbalanced, I must stop, rest, recenter, regroup, and begin again. It's like taking a break from making love. You come back to it with love. I am balancing abandon and focus, inspiration and contemplation; I've said before that art-making needs to be a balance and blend of Dionysus and Apollo, and this process seems to bear me out.

My musical language herein is typically modal, rather than tonal. Looking at what is emerging, I'm seeing all that counterpoint training back in music school, with internal voice-leading and contrary motion, coming into play. All of what I learned about 18th C. harmony, although this piece sounds very 20th C. There are a lot of chords that just hang there, lush and resonant, without typical, clichéd resolutions. Sometimes the resolution comes several bars later. You can't really say what key it's in till the very end, and even then it's a harmonically open cluster, not a triad. I find the usual tropes of tonal music—virtually all pop songs are based on the tonal ballad form, no matter what they do to veer away from that template—to be heavy-handed, unsubtle, more like the marching of an army than the sighing of a willow branch. I want to write music that's outside that box, and for most of my career, I have. Not that I haven't written a pop song or two, or jazz chart, but rarely anything you'd recognize as a Nashville or Tin Pan Alley song. I've often been invited to join songwriting composers' groups—the pop song equivalent of writers' critique groups—but nothing I write really fits into that paradigm.

Just as in writing a poem, or when elements converge into a visual artwork, I hear phrases and lines of musical setting in my mind. I sit down to play them out at the piano, and then write them down. In playing what I'm hearing in my head—I'm one of those musicians who always has a permanent soundtrack in his head, which when I'm composing is supplanted by what I'm composing—I sometimes find other chord choices, or surprise myself at the piano. Sometimes a phrase wants to go off in an unpredicted direction, and I let it—following the brush, just like when writing a poem. I don't try to force the music, I just listen to it. It's not a process of deliberate, conscious control, everything martialed and mastered by the intellectual part of the mind; it can feel more like listening to an inner voice, singing, and notating what you're hearing. I know what I would like to do, mostly, but I don't feel in charge of where the music is going. I listen, and I follow.

I've always been able to dip into that inner permanent soundtrack, and pull out a melody, a phrase, a line of song. Since it's always there, it's always available. But when I'm writing music, I usually need silence, no other musical or sonic distractions going on. I'm listening, so you need to create an environment in which you are able to hear clearly what you're trying to listen to.

People often seem surprised that I don't have the TV or stereo blaring sounds out into the house all the time. As though there was something wrong or abnormal about that. Well, it seems to me that many people are afraid of silence—afraid of what might rise up in them should they not be constantly stuffing it down with input, with distractions, with pop songs or TV dramas. It seems many are afraid of those voices that rise up within, given a chance, given some silence; they do their best to suppress them, or outright deny them. Many famous songwriters I could name write almost entirely from their left brains, avoiding anything mysterious or unpredictable—and it shows: their music is often depthless.

Since this choral piece is a warm-up piece, stretching my creative muscles for a much larger composition I will be undertaking throughout this next year, I am writing quickly. I plan to gift this piece as soon as it is done, perhaps even this week, to Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, if they want it, for their next Christmas concert. If they choose not to do it, I'll pass it on to other venues.

Update, one day later:

I finished composing the piece late tonight. The second to last segment was the hardest to bring into focus. I actually got the ending first. I knew exactly the way I wanted to end the piece, and I wrote that down first. Then I had to go back to get to the ending from the middle, and that was the segment that made me work harder. It's also the part that uses more linear counterpoint, with different lines weaving together, rather than the homophonic nature of the rest of the piece.

The finished score is short, only three and a half pages, and I estimate the piece's duration in performance to be around four minutes. So, not a big piece. But just perfect for what I wanted to do with this. Something short, simple, elegant, and meaningful.

Tomorrow I'll make a cleaned-up fair copy, as the finished score, then make a couple of photocopies of that, and start passing it around.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Papier-Mache Art 4: Some Experimental Variations

This current set of papier-maché art pieces was frankly experimental. I tried out a few ideas I'd been thinking about, with mixed results. But it leads me to think in new directions, and even the "failures" from this session have given me fertile ideas for future art-pieces.

A papier-maché bowl made from full, untorn sheets of Japanese origami paper. I used most of an origami packet for this bowl, about 7 or 8 sheets total, all decorated in traditional Japanese blue-and-white textile patterns, from the sort of cheap cotton clothing worn by peasant field workers and fisherfolk.

I decided to see what would happen if I did a bowl out of whole sheets of thin decorated paper. I happen to have a lot of origami paper on hand, which I mostly like because of the way such papers are illustrated and decorated. I get design inspiration from some of these patterns. I do a little origami, but I'm not very practiced at it, and not very good.

Visually I like this bowl very much. Because it's whole sheets, rather than torn or cut strips, there are folds and ripples in the fabric of the bowl. It's a little thick, a little unwieldy. So the shape is a little amorphous, a little weird. It was an interesting experiment, though. I think I might try another origami bowl later, but with the sheets cut into strips. You can still create a field of visual pattern like on the origami paper, but without the folding and rippling effect in the paper itself.

A second bowl made during this experimental session consists of torn strips from laser-printed illustration resumés I printed some years ago. I had made this illustrated resumé as a marketing piece for my design and illustration work; it consisted of a collage of several of my Photoshop art pieces, along with name and address. To make this bowl, I tore up several of these sheets, discarding the address texts, and layered the torn sections inside and out. I tore along a straight-edge, creating a deckled paper edge kind of look, but making clean edges that preserve the images. So this uses the images on that old resumé piece to make a bowl. Since I chose visionary art for that piece, the images on the bowl remain remarkably coherent in affect. The look and feel is coherent. So I think this bowl is successful as an art piece, even though it's 100 percent recycled older art.

And now for something completely different:

For this, I used a brownie baking pan I got at the dollar store. I've found several plastic bowls and serving trays and pans that will serve me as papier-maché form molds at the dollar store. I'll be experimenting with more of those soon.

Meanwhile, in this cake pan I had the idea of making a paper matrix that might serve as a deckled frame for other art. I think this idea has real possibilities, for mounting photographs within shadow-box style paper frames, for example.

I used two images I had made some time ago in Photoshop, orphans of the Spiral Dance series of visionary art, that probably won't make it into the final version of the series. But these two work well side by side, and make up a more unified piece. So this paper-matrix framed two-image piece is a new piece of art in its own right; I'm thinking of a title for it, and I'll probably actual sign and title it later on.

This experiment is only partially successful, structurally. As it dried, it warped, and was no longer flat. But I solved that with foamcore backing. I have some foamcore, bought at an art supply store, that has adhesive on one side; the idea being to mount art permanently on the foamcore, after which it could then be framed or matted or whatever. I mounted this piece on a sheet of the adhesive foamcore, which flattened it out and also raised the edges more into a box shape, more like a frame with depth to it. And with the foamcore backing giving it structural solidity, it now looks more like the unified piece I had intended; and it will possible to mount it on the wall, now, as a finished piece.

The reason the paper warped here, I believe, is that I used too light a weight of paper. A heavier, more bonded paper, like a medium-weight watercolor paper, might be less likely to warp upon drying. This paper was also too light when soaked in the papier-maché glue medium; it actually tore a couple of times when I was laying it down in the mold. So I'll use a heavier paper next time, to see what happens. White cardstock might actually make a good matrix medium for this kind of papier-maché frame.

Another thought, about the art to be put inside the frame. I am thinking I could mount a pure photo directly in the center of this kind of frame. But I could also do collage. Both by tearing and reassembling a single image into a collage, but also by making several adjoining images separately, and putting them together in collage form. David hockney has done this with Polaroids and other photos, in very interesting ways, that I have found inspirational. I actually thoght of doing this kind of photo-collage in this papier-maché frame first, but I decided for this initial experiment to just use whole images, albeit with torn edges, just to see how they would look.

I don't think this experiment was a total success; although I was able to "repair" it using adhesive foamcore, as a I said above. I've learned a couple of things already from the attempt, however, and will try to take it to a more finished level on my next attempt.

Meanwhile, we keep experimenting, and seeing what happens. I'm still learning the materials, too, after all.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A Few Memorable Books

In the spirit of self-assessment and annual overview one nearly drowns in this time of year, I have put together a very casual, incomplete, and idiosyncratic list of books that I've read over the past year, which I enjoyed, which linger in memory, and which in one or two cases I have already re-read. This won't be another list of best books.

(A small disclaimer: People who know me already know that I am a very fast reader, and retain most of what I read. It's my secret superpower, if you will, and I exercised it a lot this past year, when illness forced me to spend more time in a chair than I was able to spend out hiking or camping or traveling. It's not an exaggeration to say that this year, I estimate I read some tens of thousands of pages with no special effort. I'm not even sure I can discuss everything I read here, without droning on and on for far too long. So this will be incomplete.)

I can give little higher praise to a book than that it lingers in memory and is worth re-reading. My shortlist of favorite books of all time would consist of those I've re-read numerous times, always re-enjoying them, in many cases always finding something new in them. The complete works of Raymond Chandler fall into this category; I re-read Chandler every few years.

This year I re-read large amounts of Virginia Woolf, including the short stories surrounding Mrs. Dalloway, some of the essays, and one of my two favorites of her novels, To the Lighthouse. The part of this novel that is so resonant for me is its close look at the lives of artists, the choices artists must make, the price they pay sometimes for being an artist instead of a "respectable member of society." This is my own dilemma, and it speaks to me in this novel directly, as I'm sure it has for many other artists.

This past year I also re-read Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land, in the complete, uncut edition. When Heinlein originally wrote this novel, the publishers insisted he cut it by about a third, for length, and probably also a bit for content. After the author died, his wife rediscovered the original uncut manuscript, and it was published in uncut form for the first time. The general consensus between Mrs. Heinlein, the publishers, many readers, and myself, is that the uncut version is a much, much better novel. It reads like a charm, smoothly and effortlessly, and the added details and scenes make the experience a much richer, much more immersive reading experience. I had originally read this a few years ago, when it first came out, but my copy of the novel was lost in a move, along with some other books I've missed. I finally found another copy of the uncut Stranger this past autumn, and enjoyed reading it all over again.

During the summer, I also re-read large portions of Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings. Not the entire saga this time, I just skipped around and read some favorite sections. This time through, I focused mostly on the chapters featuring the non-Hobbit characters, mostly Aragorn and Gandalf.

My science fiction "discovery" for the past year—an author new to me, who I hadn't read before, although he's had quite a career so far—was UK author Peter F. Hamilton. I am thoroughly engrossed in his Void Trilogy, having devoured The Dreaming Void and The Temporal Void, and eagerly awaiting my chance to read the concluding book in the trilogy. I also went back and read the Commonwealth duology that came before the Void Trilogy, of which the Void books are set later on in the same universe. These two novels are Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. The latter novel was particularly thrilling, building to a climax of both action and concept that really soars. Hamilton is writing modern space operas, full of imaginative technology, culture, and characters that move with varying degrees of success through their milieu. I like science fiction sagas in which the concepts are mindblowing, which really make you think, and in which even the human characters can seem quite alien at times—such fiction makes you think, it stretches your thinking outside the usual boxes, and at its best it creates in you that "sense of wonder" which is hallmark of great fiction of all eras, be it speculative fiction or otherwise. Hamilton's Commonwealth series of novels, which I mention here, succeed on all those fronts.

There seems to be a contemporary revival of cosmically-vast and wide-ranging space opera going on right now, coming especially from the UK. Alastair Reynolds is another author, like Hamilton, who has been writing really amazing stories. One aspect I find fascinating about this current wave of space operas is that the scientific speculation contained in the novels is cutting-edge, exploring the implications of current theoretical physics, nanotechnology, biological discoveries, and so forth, to create a sense of wonder I haven't experienced in SF on this expanding cosmic scale for quite a few years. I like this trend because these novels think big, as in cosmically big. Since I trained as a geologist, I got used to thinking, as geologists do, in two kinds of time: everyday time, and deep time, or geologic time, in which the mind must take in literally millions of years. When I read a contemporary SF novel that makes me think in deep time, across thousand or more years of human cultural and technological evolution, it's quite a treat.

William Gibson: Spook Country. Gibson doesn't write trilogies, but he does tend to write books in groups of threes, each novel individual but set in the same basic conceptual universe, and often with secondary characters appearing in the related group of novels. Spook Country is the second in the current group of three; the first was Pattern Recognition, which I read in the previous year, and which I thought was Gibson's most compelling and absorbing novel since his Neuromancer. The third book in the current set of three is Zero History, which I look forward to reading soon. Like Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition rewrote all the rules. This current set of three novels are all linked by being set in the very near future, exploring artistic trends on the bleeding edge of artistic technology, and examining the world as it has come to be since 9/11 when the Twin Towers were brought down. Many of the characters in this set of novels were directly, personally affected by 9/11. Gibson isn't writing SF of the distant future, he is turning his extrapolator's eye on the present, and showing us ourselves in a clarifying mirror. Pattern Recognition, in one or two of its climatic scenes, actually made me put the book down and weep a little. I cared that much, I was that deeply affected. Spook Country didn't affect me quite as deeply, but its thinking about culture and cutting-edge art was, if anything, more resonant, more lingering. Some of the ideas about art in this novel are so far ahead of the groove that they fall into Björk or Bill Laswell territory—two musicians who are always ten years ahead of everybody else. It makes for fascinating speculation about where technology and art meet and converge, and how new media generates new art, in a feedback loop of mutual discovery.

Jim Harrison: Letters to Yesenin. This is one of the great book-length poems of the latter half of the 20th C. I originally first read these poems in an earlier collection of the poet's work, Selected & New Poems, 1961-1981/ More accurately, I read through the Letters back then, but not that carefully, and they didn't leave that strong an impression on me. In 2007, Copper Canyon Press republished Letters to Yesenin as a separate paperback again, along with the newer poems "Postscript" and "Return to Yesenin." This is the edition I acquired and read twice this year. The second time, I sat down and read it all the way through. I have already written about how this book has inspired and influenced my own series of poems begun this past summer. I love the language and tone of these poems, which are basically prose-poems. They wander, they include a great deal of the everyday. They're not exactly lyric poems, they're not really elegies. If you read the entire book at one sitting, it reads almost like a mid-length narrative poem, with page after page accumulating to add depth to story and feeling alike. These poems were written at a time in Harrison's life that was hardscrabble, living poor on a dirt farm in northern Michigan, during which depression and suicide were never far away. This context is part of the poems' resonance, and it's also why they speak to me, in my own extremis this year, brought on by illness-caused nearness to dying. This edition of Harrison's Letters is also a clean, elegant book design, making for a whole experience of reading that comes highly recommended by me.

Sofia Cheviakoff, editor and co-author: Minimalism: Minimalist (2008). This is a thick overview of the minimalist style in fashion, design, architecture, and interior design, including a history of the style, and also some of its related history in fine art. If I had my life to do over again, if I were 20 years old right now, I would seriously consider studying architecture. I love design, and I love architecture. I would apply to Taliesen, the school of Prairie architecture founded by Frank Lloyd Wright; which is one of my favorite styles. But minimalism as a style also speaks to me very strongly. Ando Tadao is another favorite architect. I also love the work of Santiago Calatreva. I have visited Marfa, TX, the small town that became a center of minimalist art under the direction of sculptor Donald Judd. I would like to visit there again, and spend more time in silence with the art. This book, which is an overview, is also a bit of a manifesto, in that it explains a lot of the ideas behind minimalism. It took me a long time to read, as I savored it, and only took in a few pages at a time. Each section is dominated by photos with captions, with the occasional commentary by the people involved. It's quite thorough, and quite international, and quite compelling.

Two books new to me from Federico Garcia Lorca, one of my favorite poets. One is a newer translation of Poet in New York, by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman (2008). This is a luminous new translation of these incredible poems, en face with the Spanish originals. There is also an illuminating Introduction and Notes. This is probably the third or fourth different translation of Poet In New York that I own. It is a set of poems that moves me deeply every time I read it, because of the intensity and emotion. These were also the poems in which Lorca first began to be open about his homosexuality in his poetry; the "Ode to Walt Whitman" is one of the great poems of the 20th C., and I have read it many times, and responded to it, as a poet, in a poem or two of my own. My best response is often to write a poem, rather than a book review.

The second Lorca book is A Season in Granada: Uncollected poems and prose, trans. and ed. by Christopher Maurer, who is one of Lorca's most important translators. Many of these were poems and other texts I'd never seen before, so you might imagine my excitement. (This year I also acquired Maurer's Collected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, in the revised bilingual edition which also contains these poems.) This was an exciting couple of new reads, and almost-re-reads, that I am still going back to savor. Lorca means a great deal to me, on several levels.

Oliver de la Paz: Furious Lullaby (2007). I discovered this book of poems by accident, picked it up and enjoyed skimming it in the store, and found it to be one of the most exciting poetry discoveries I've made lately. I've written a review of this book of poems, so I won't repeat that here. But this book also inspired me to write several aubades this summer, as part of the new series of poems. So it influenced me, and inspired me, and re-reading it I still find amazing and powerful turns of phrase on almost every page. Truly de la Paz writes with his language on fire, writing eros in the complete sense of life-force and passion and engagement.

At this point I find myself wanting to include everything I read in the past year, somewhat obsessively prowling my shelves to remember. And then stopping myself, knowing full well I'm going to leave most things out. The best I can do is sample a few memorable reads here, that I would recommend to other readers. So you have to be selective. I mean, why do we read anyway? Not just for pleasure? Not just for edification. Not just for the purposes of engaging with the literary world. (The latter reason least of all, to be honest.) Not just because we're interested in everything, and have the long habit of reading everything in sight. All of these are true. I choose not to sort between them for which might be most important, or least. So I'll just dip in and sample some more.

Two books by and about the late, great Kenneth Rexroth, poet, translator, poetic champion, host of salons and readings, one of the reasons there ever was a San Francisco Renaissance in poetry. I found two different books at, believe it or not, thrift stores, the past summer, one by Rexroth, one a festschrift. The latter is The Ark 14: For Rexroth (1980) a book-periodical edited by Geoffery Gardner, a hefty 400-page hardcover. The first half is writings "On Rexroth," consisting of critical essays, discussions, memoirs, assessments; the second half of the book is "For Rexroth," mostly poems dedicated to and/or inspired by the poet. In the center is a small chapbook of a Rexroth poem accompanied by Morris Graves illustrations. It's quite a diverse anthology, with familiar and less familiar names comingling. I found this to be a valuable and useful read, opening some doors to aspects of Rexroth's poetry I hadn't encountered before; it deepened my appreciation both of his own achievements, and the impact he has had on 20th C. poetry in general. Rare and out of print, good luck finding yourself a copy; I got lucky, myself, in stumbling across this one.

The book by Rexroth is his book-length overview and essay, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971). This is mostly a history, and a useful one, putting into sequence who influenced who, what little magazines were important to poetry in each period, and creating a narrative of 20th C. that any general reader would find helpful. Rexroth was ever the cheerleader for poetry, and there are many names he recommends that one goes and reads here, some of whom I intend to seek out since they were new to me. When Rexroth pauses to make a commentary or an assessment of a poet, or movement, or period, I find his writing extremely convincing. Most of the time I was pleasantly surprised to find myself agreeing with his assessments, as in many cases they were what I already thought for myself but hadn't yet articulated. He points out exactly what's right and what's problematic with the strain of inherited Surrealism in American poetry. Rexroth's assessment of Yvor Winters, to pick only one example, struck me as dead on target, both as poet and as teacher, and clarified many things in my own mind about Winters, whose poetry I have often liked but whose opinions on poetry, and poetry teaching, have often struck as incredibly, astoundingly wrongheaded. This was a very useful overview for me; again, though, it's long out of print, and you might have to go find it in a university library to read it for yourself.

Speaking of poetry teaching, I also read this past year the third, posthumous collection of writings about poetry and teaching from William Stafford: Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further views on the writer's vocation (1998). The book itself is a hodgepodge, mostly uncollected and previously unpublished articles, lectures, interviews, and poetry, all associated with writing as a craft and a way of life. Long associated with the Iowa Poetry Workshop, with writing workshops in general, and also known as a poetic heir of Theodore Roethke, Stafford is still controversial in some quarters, although almost always respected and admired. What I like about Stafford is his quiet insistence that the best reason to write is because you want to, rather than to impress the masses or achieve some kind of award-winning standard. There is a lot to criticize about poetry workshops and the poems that come out of them, and I among others have been critical, but Stafford manages to make it all seem effortless and inviting. He also addresses the role of critique and criticism (they're not the same thing at all) in teaching writing, and I think argues well for the supremacy of writing as a way of discovering the self, finding out what sort of person is writing the poem, rather than the emphasis (often presented in workshops and MFAs) on craft that teaches you how to write to get published. Stafford is actually critical of many habits of teaching in poetry workshops. I found this book quite refreshing.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: American Vertigo: Traveling America in the footsteps of Tocqueville (2006). Explicitly calling on the spirit of de Tocqueville as his guide, Lévy herein tours around the USA, meeting people, making interviews and observations. He particularly examines American patriotism, religiosity, and the return of ideology in its relationship to "the tyranny of the majority." I found this a fascinating read, as it's an outsider's viewpoint, but also a lover's viewpoint. The comparisons between American and European culture are very interesting. One recurring theme examined here is Neoconservatism and its political and social fallout, about which Lévy can be scathing in his questions. A very revealing look at ourselves, and a very valid heir to de Tocqueville's original study of American democracy. I know some people who will hate this book, which is a good recommendation in itself.

Brenda Wineapple: White Heat: The friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2008). This was very informative and interesting. I learned a bit about Emily, and her family and close friends, but I really learned a great deal about Wentworth Higginson, who was not only Emily's friend but her first editor and publisher. Some of her current fame must be given credit directly to his efforts to publish, and publicize, her poems. Even though he quite admittedly didn't really understand them, or her. (I wish contemporary poetry editors had such faith in the work, even beyond their own understanding; a lot more non-boring poetry might have a chance at seeing the light of day.) The history here is fascinating, but one of the best aspects of this book is how personal it gets; the excerpts from the correspondence are luminous and fascinating. There is a lot in here. I will probably re-read this book in the near future, and respond to it all over again.

I've been hearing a groundswell of reappraisal about poet Jack Spicer in the past year or two. This is partly because a major Collected Poems was published in 2009. It's also because of renewed discussions about how Spicer's being gay affected his art. Spicer is highly regarded as part of the San Francisco poetry renaissance in the 1950s and 60s, and he spent most of his life in the SF region. The book I found at a used book store, and paid a bit dearly for, is an old Collected, not the new one: The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Black Sparrow Press, 1975), edited and with a long essay by Robin Blaser. This is long out of print; you might know Black Sparrow as the publisher of several West Coast poets, some of them not highly regarded by the critical elite but all of them quite popular (ranging from Wanda Coleman to Charles Bukowski and Diane Wakowski among others) among readers. Blaser was Spicer's friend and executor, whom Spicer gave his manuscripts to even before his death; I like this book in part because it is well-edited by Blaser, and because Blaser's own essay and commentaries are superb. I still can't account for Spicer, or why he is so often claimed as a poetic ancestor nowadays; in part this is because he is so revered by contemporary schools of poetry for whom I have little interest or respect (LangPo, the post-avant, et a;.). So I was challenged by Spicer's poetry; and Blaser's commentary helped me a great deal. But I don't think I read this book successfully. I will probably have to read it again, awhile later, to get more out of it. I want to understand why Spicer is so important to so many people; and I'm not there yet.

By contrast, the last book I'm going to mention here (I can hear the sighs of relief) is about a poet and a poem to whom I have always felt connected, personally and politically. The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" fifty years later (2006), edited by Jason Shinder, who was an assistant to the poet. Of course we're talking about Allen Ginsberg and his poem "Howl." I have argued elsewhere that "Howl" along with Jack Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness novel On the Road were the two mid-century works of writing that both reflected and galvanized the zeitgeist. Fiftieth anniversaries of both works have been prevalent in the past decade. (Although my favorite Kerouac novel is The Dharma Bums, which I think might be a better book.) This book is a festschrift, a long meditation by many writers on why the poem is so important, and why it was important to them. Even Ginsberg's memories are included here, but the most interesting essays are those that tell us why the poem changed the writer's life. If you want to get a sense of how poetry can blow your mind, and excite you, and change your life, this collection is a good place to start. Poetry here is not a cerebral, safe, unoffensive thing: many contributors to this collection talk about the Dionysian aspects of poetry. There's history here, about the poem, the poet, but also about poetry in general. I very much enjoyed reading this book, and have written about it earlier. I mention it again here because I think it's so worthwhile a book to read, and quite a bit of fun.

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Monday, January 03, 2011

A New Year Every Day

On January 1, ostensibly New Year's Day, I didn't watch football on the TV, I didn't go out to any parties, I didn't celebrate with a tulip of champagne, I didn't do much of anything. I almost forgot about it, to be honest.

I didn't go out of the house, honestly, because I was freezing. On December 31st here, we'd had two days of warm thaw, it was well above freezing, and so I spent an hour in my garden planting iris, tulip, and lily bulbs for next spring. (I still have some more to plant; in some designated garden spots the ground was still frozen.) The following day, New Year's Day, it was well below freezing and windy again. No snow on the ground anymore because of the thaw, but bitter cold. I bundled in layers but was still cold all day.

After nightfall, I spent some time making art. I made some photographs of candles and the shadows they cast on my Indian bronze sculptures; rather mythic stuff. And I made some more papier-maché art bowls, including one out of origami paper. These are still drying in the sunlight this morning.

I made myself a nice dinner. I watched some of the Doctor Who and the NCIS marathons on TV, while I ate, instead of all the annual celebrations and sports events, which have come to seem hollow to me, the loudest being all the more bread-and-circuses. And I read and wrote in my journals. I did some file organization while half-watching TV, some sorting and filing. I did some chores around the house, including a couple of minor plumbing fixes, although there are more of those to do still.

I celebrate the new year and the turning of the Yearwheel at another time, on All Hallow's, which is an older, more traditionally agrarian New Year's celebration. So we're already two months into the new year as far as I'm concerned.

I don't do New Year's resolutions, and here's why:

1. Every day is a new day, the start of a new year. Every day is another chance to do your life differently. You don't have to save it up for one special day along with everybody else. Start right now. If you’re truly going to make a change in your life, why wait? Start any day, not only on a sanctioned day of ritual new beginnings.

2. Resolutions are a set-up for recycled self-hatred, because everybody always makes impossible resolutions that they can’t live up to—usually for lack of self-discipline—and when they inevitably fail, they have one more opportunity to beat themselves up. Resolutions are a trap. They’re actually rather masochistic, at their extreme edges. They become set-ups for failure and reprobation and self-hatred. Most people set themselves up to fail by choosing resolutions they know they won't be able to meet. Expectations are high, accomplishments are low. So it's another excuse to beat yourself up for failing, for being less than perfect, for demolishing your self-esteem.

Feel free, if you want to. But that's not for me.

I don't think it helps to save up changes you want to make for special days.

I know lots of people love ritual, and love to ritualize their celebrations and changes in their life—for example, bar mitzvahs, big wedding celebrations, graduations, etc.—and ritual is very important both socially and individually. We all make up little rituals to mark changes in our lives, and that's healthy. In fact, we don't really celebrate rites of passage enough in our culture, like the passage from childhood into adulthood; so rituals are usually a good thing.

But why save up personal changes, or rites or passage, to be made on a designated day of ritual new beginnings when you can start with them right now, today, right here? You don't have to wait till Sunday to pray, after all, so why should you have to wait till January 1 and the arbitrary calendar date change, in order to decide to lose those extra 20 pounds, or quit smoking, or whatever? Those can start any day. All it takes is a little self-discipline.

Calendars are arbitrary. New Year's Day has not always been celebrated on January 1, not even in European cultures, much less in other cultures such as ancient China or Japan. If you look at the history of Western civilization, specifically European historical timekeeping, and the various calendars that were in contention till standardization was imposed (historically quite late), you'll overcome the assumption that "there is only one official start to a new year," which is a false and ahistorical assumption. Just because January 1 is the agreed-upon date now and for the past few centuries, don't assume it's always been so. It hasn't. And that's the point: New Year's Day could be celebrated pn any day. It's arbitrary. Every tradition that we take for granted now as an eternal tradition—well, there are no eternal traditions, because everything was invented, at one time or another. Every tradition was made up, once.

So every day could be the New Year. So we might as well act as if it is. And start every day as a new day, a new year. A new chance.

Why should New Year's Day be something special? Unless it's New Year's Day every single day, and every day is special, setting aside one arbitrary day as special just means the rest aren't. Which I don't believe for a moment. Every day is a special day. Every new day is the start of a new year. Every day is a chance to get it right, to do it over, to make those changes, to finish something that you've been avoiding finishing.

So today is New Year's Day, too. And so is tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow. And June 23rd. And April 14th. And October 3rd. They all seem pretty special days to me.

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