Wednesday, March 30, 2011

From The Poetic Margins

Out here on the poetry margins, where no one's opinion really matters or is reported on, sometimes we get a little frustrated with abject self-regard, narcissism, and stupid recycling of opinion in the core mainstream of PoetryWorld. That may be where the action is, but it's also where a lot of pointless drama is. What keeps it cycling that people care too much, personally, about it. There is a point at which the arguments between camps about issues are laughable. The reason, of course, that the drama can get so vicious is precisely because there's very little at stake. Out here on the margins, where sometimes survival much less career is not a certainty, the arguments seem doubly disconnected from real life.

People in the center usually dismiss the margins as uninteresting, forgetting that people moving from the margins to the center are always what drive the machinery on. Go ahead and move to New York City if you will, but growing up in Cleveland can't be ignored: it leaves its mark. Go ahead and move into the center of activity in Los Angeles, but that childhood spent on the windswept open prairies is still going to color your attitudes.

People born and raised in the center of the whirlwind of culture are often the most provincial of all. The classic icon of self-regard was a drawing on the cover of The New Yorker magazine some decades ago that gave most of the page to a detailed drawing of downtown Manhattan. Then there was a broad strip labeled the Hudson River, some empty space with not much in it, and finally, a dot on the far horizon, a bump labeled Los Angeles. Most New Yorkers still think about the rest of the country this way. Of course, most urban dwellers at The Center Of Culture think this way about themselves. Parisiennes have an almost identical attitude about Paris vs. the rest of Europe. So do Londoners.

Perhaps some of this attitude is well-deserved, having been earned over the years by events and cultural migrations.

But it's also really fucking narcissistic, as well as annoying to the rest of those who live elsewhere, by choice or necessity.

That doesn't mean there are no good poets in the urban mainstream core Center Of Everything. It does mean they need to get out more, in some cases. I've interacted with a number of New York City poets, or ex-NYC poets, over the years, and I've run into provincial attitudes more often than not. Sometimes it's expressed as genuine provincialism; sometimes it manifests as the attitude that they're always right about all things cultural, and everyone else is wrong. But then, big city people almost always have that sort of attitude about the rest of the country. Being just another dumb hick has its advantages: when no one takes you or your poetry seriously, you're pretty much free to do whatever you want, on your own terms. without comment or complaint. There's a freedom in that which is sometimes lost by the center mainstream, where people sometimes feel constrained in certain ways because of their constraining social contracts.

Of course, nothing I'm saying here matters one whit. No one cares. No one's listening. I'm just rambling. it doesn't mean anything. Yippee!

I've been reading a lot about brilliant artistic rebels this past week or so. Time and again, the pattern always repeating itself, it's the creative outsider who comes in and revitalized a moribund artistic scene. The center tends to turn to stone after some time, until the outsider comes along with a fresh stick of dynamite and a critique about where to place it.

Is it cultural inertia that ossifies the salon, or is it that once the tribe establishes itself it must become conservative? There is no permanent revolution, because a revolution requires two different attitudes in order to become a new nation: first you must be radical and rebellious, to overthrow the existing powers that be; but once the overthrow is accomplished, calmness and pragmatism must take hold, and voices more able to conserve what has been won must take over. The people who have the radical pulse to overthrow the current regime are almost never able to consolidate themselves afterwards; they almost always call for a permanent revolution, even when there is nothing else to win. Even after they have become the artistic establishment, they still write manifesto after manifesto proclaiming their continuous revolution. After awhile, it becomes a self-parody.

The renewal of art almost never comes from within the establishment, from the core mainstream, from the halls of aesthetic and critical power. Why don't literary critics ever acknowledge this? That renewal always comes from the margins, from maverick outsiders with no investment in the sociopolitical status-oriented games played at the centers of power. Renewal comes from the disruption caused by outsiders ignoring what they ought to be doing, or from open rebellion.

There is always a period of rejection, then the former rebel outsider usually gets assigned a rewritten narrative. The history of art, the narrative of music history, is usually portrayed as a sequence of innovators making independent artistic developments, or evolutions of content and technique. Which is true enough on the surface. But once the former rebel outsider is now considered part of the flow of history, the narrative edges get rubbed off. we almost never hear how hated, feared, and rejected such innovators almost always were during their lifetimes. The narrative of art history is a sad sequence of failed lives who became acknowledged only after their deaths. Many never achieved anything like financial, artistic or personal sense during their lifetimes. Perhaps there is some necessity to keep working, stay hungry (aesthetically if not literally), keep pushing. Examples abound of artists who did achieve huge success late in life ceasing to innovate.

But that is all part of the constructed art-historical narrative, which is often a myth-making narrative full unquestioned assumptions and stereotypes. It's a narrative that rarely accounts for the genuine outsider. Many outsider rebel artists would prostitute their art quite readily, if the offer was made. No one wants to starve. Only artistic poseurs more attracted by the stereotyped myths of Being An Artiste than to making their living doing what they love reject all offers of payment that might taint the "purity" of their art. A few genuine artists have also made this rejection, of course; but if you look at why, there is usually some better reason than artistic purity. Often it was just a clash of wills and personalities, the wrong people at the wrong time. The real situation with the rebel outsider is not that they won't sell out, but that usually no one asks them to. The process is called patronage, wherein someone commissions you to make art, or buys the art you've already made. Of course, while patronage can still operate in music and painting, it doesn't exist in poetry. Even the core urban mainstream has to admit that patronage in PoetryWorld consists of getting a job, like teaching creative writing, that allows you to sustain your own writing. Occasions wherein a poetry chapbook has been commissioned are vanishingly rare. Even the big names have to beg to be heard, in the usual run of business.

Sometimes it's an okay motivation to say to yourself, "I can do better than that." You read a poem by a Known Poet, a Published Poet, even a Big-Name Poet, and you think to yourself after reading their poem, "I can do better than that." And you set out to write something better than what you just read. And sometimes you do. And you submit it somewhere, who cares where, there are a million small journals to choose from these days, maybe some place with a longer-term reputation than others, and maybe your poem gets published. And you can sit back and look at it, and say to yourself, "I bloody did that. And it was better than that other poem I read." This is all valid motivation. It won't sustain you all the time, and it can't be your main motivation because in the long run making art is not a competitive sport, not for the full length of a writing lifetime, but it's a good motivation nonetheless, every so often, in the right moment.

Another good motivation you run into, out here on the margins, is the DIY mentality. These days in literary terms than can look like self-publishing. Print-on-demand. Whatever you want to call it. The old assumption by the core mainstream, that self-publishing was only ever vanity publishing that produced bad work, has had to be abandoned. In the current digital age of e-publishing, all bets are off. Some great new work is being self-published. The big publishing houses at the center of the industry are no longer the gatekeepers of what gets into print and what doesn't, nor are they any longer the gatekeepers of taste. Some of them are quite upset about this loss of power, of course. Too bad, lie sucks, you go on.

In the music industry, little DIY self-productions have been around much longer. Ever since the invention of the cassette, and now with all the digital media available, musicians have been recording and self-publishing, completely bypassing the Big Record Companies (who have been quite upset about their loss of power and profits for some time now), and building a fan base and sales on their own. I recall one punk rocker who went by several different band names in Cleveland, but put them all under the umbrella of his cassette-based recording and self-publishing company F.Y.I.D.I.M Records. That stands for, "Fuck You, I'll Do It Myself." Which has to be one of the greatest names for a record label ever invented. And this punker lived by his word, and lived by his work. Not bad for someone on the margins.

So, in the end, out here on the margins, where no one really cares what you do, what you write, or what you have to say, there's a certain freedom to what you want, since you don't have to please anyone but yourself. The critics and reviewers generally ignore you anyway, assuming they ever encounter your work. It's beneath them. Writing about you doesn't advance their own careers as reviewers and critics. There's no bitterness in that assessment, it's just a statement of fact. So, out here on the margins, we'll just keep doing what we want to do, writing for ourselves, and maybe in part for that small circle of genuine readers who might follow us from time to time, and ignoring the bigger picture. We exist in that empty space in the drawing, the blank zone between Manhattan and LA, and be just fine. We're the dot on the map, the dot sometimes labeled "regional writing," or "outsider art," that the mainstream ignores, mostly, except for those few curated dips into our topsoil that allow the big city critics to write precious, condescending critiques of our quaint novelties. Again, just a statement of fact. Nonetheless, we'll endure, we'll persevere, and when called on, we'll be the necessary font of renewal, and produce our prairie winners with their winning eyes on the land and the sky. And when the party's over, we'll still be here, enduring even as the winds of literary fashion have swept all the current insiders away, like chaff in the wind.

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Icons of Fragility

bloodred the lampposts
lining autumn Taos streets,
skinned moon rising

long avenue of brick desert adobe tan red as far as the gutter flow
paper luminaria cold night of festival hot cider at every door
red line of cactus flower needle and blood inflow along vein tanked
in every corner gas station in Utah some kind of crimson trash heap
drawn the eye into mesa-strewn late rain veil sunset impermanent dour
tailight streak ginger treasure trail down street to spring of living
bloodwine red right returns across refraction of industry veining skyline
nightfire blood of sky dawn tremble with skyfire along line of bleak horizon

moving from the inset to the ember frame
a maize of envy and daisy of swift delight

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Papier-Mache Art Bowls 7: Experiments

Last week, restless and not ready for bed, I prepared some materials and made a new batch of papier-maché art bowls. Most of these were experiments with new or different kinds of paper, and they did not all succeed. I made five new pieces from several different kinds of paper. Some of them were fresh experiments working with paper types I had only tried once or twice before, with mixed results.

The five bowls shown here were all made in an evening. I tried to use a little more glue in the glue-water mix for the papier-maché matrix, which I think was a good choice. However, some of these papers were problematic when gotten wet in the medium. More on that below.

Blue & Gold Bowl

This is my favorite piece from this session. It was the most successful art bowl of the evening, I feel. I used up some remaining decorative Black Ink papers I had used to make a couple of other art bowls before (like the green bowl here). The crinkled gold-foil paper as well as the blue and purple hand-made fibrous papers were all part of the Black Ink allotment. I need to order more of this exquisite, stunning paper, as it works well for these kinds of more purely artistic projects. I mostly cut these papers into small squares and triangles. The gold paper was especially lovely as a contrast on this otherwise- dark-colored bowl. It really pops.

I really like this blue and gold bowl. I've put it on my mantlepiece next to some other successful previous pieces.

This golden bowl, seen here from above and below, is the next-most-successful piece of the evening. It uses more of the decorative Black Ink paper, this time in the gold, yellow, earth-tan, and clay-grey ranges of color. Some of these lighter-color papers show the fibers and patterns clearly of the materials they're made from, including small leaves. I used the crinkled gold foil paper on the inside and outside of this bowl, to increase its brightness, and I think that worked well. Imagine a quartz crystal in this bowl, lit by the sun, brightening a room with its reflections and refractions.

Golden Bowl

The interior texture is a little more organic, a little more interesting. The ragged edges of these sorts of hand-made bowls intrigues me, in terms of design and pattern. From this oblique angle one can also see more clearly the layering of sheets of paper, with colors and patterns showing through in translucent areas. I like the gradations of colors in this bowl, topped off by the reflective gold.

This decorative paper, like the mulberry paper discussed below, is thin and very easy to both crumple and tear when wet. I barely dipped these papers into the papier-maché matrix, just enough to get them wet enough to stick together. The quick dip works better with some paper types than others. Also, because of the paper's thinness, each of these bowls made from these decorative papers uses multiple layers of paper to reinforce the bowl's structural strength. Each is at least three layers of paper thick. This was a slight problem during drying, causing some differential pulling of one sheet on another, and I had to press or smooth down some wrinkles while the bowl was still half-wet. But once dry, these bowls are very light yet surprisingly firm to the touch. Bowls made from this paper, using three or four layers total, hold together surprisingly well, when they've finished drying. While still wet, though, they are very soft, and if you try to take them out of the molds too soon, they can get mushy, lose shape, or just have pieces fall off. So, don't try to get them out of the molds too early; patience is necessary.

Blue in Gold

Since the glass and plastic bowls I have been using as molds are slightly different in size, I thought to try some gradations as well. This is how the Blue Bowl looks when nestled inside the Golden Bowl. I think it's a striking effect. I might try to make a set of bowls later that are designed to nest inside each other, each revealing something striking when pulled off the pile.

This larger, deep-dish bowl is made entirely from natural mulberry paper, dyed in neutral earth tones.

Mulberry Bowl, red aspect

I designed this bowl, in my head, before laying it out in the mold, to show these asymmetrical, opposing colors within a symmetrical form, so that depending what angle you look at the bowl from, it looks completely different.

Mulberry Bowl, blue-green angle

The mulberry paper dries up firm and strong when you use several layers of paper, although as with the decorative papers above, if you take it out of the mold too soon it will collapse into mush. The mulberry paper when wet is incredibly soft and fragile, almost like tissue paper. It tears easily, and crumples easily. I ended piling up several layers of different-colored sheets, most of them translucent when dry, so that background colors do show through and affect the bowl's surface colors. (This is more noticeable in natural light than in the artificial light used for these documentation photos.) I like the translucent effect, which allows you to modulate and shift the colors slightly, depending on how you layer the sheets.

I'd call this bowl a qualified success. It's an interesting shape, and I like the color patterns that resulted, but it remains somewhat fragile, if firm, when dried, and the darker colors are almost too subtle except when viewed in direct sunlight. Still, I think this was a good experiment. I learned a lot about the limitations of this kind of paper; mostly, that when using it, when must layer it, or provide a stronger paper matrix in between the inner and out shells, to provide structural strength.

Origami Bowl, falling apart

This origami-paper was the failure of the evening. Live and learn. Origami paper is thin yet stiff, to promote crisp folding. When wetted in the papier-maché matrix, it behaved a lot like the mulberry paper, like tissue paper, easily torn and crumpled, so like the mulberry paper, I barely got it wet, just dipping it in quickly. This turned out to be a mistake. The origami paper is actually rather fibrous, so it did not cling together nearly as well as the other kinds of paper used during this session; in fact, since I was using both very small whole sheets and cut squares from larger sheets, which were of different textures, and some of which have heavy-ink printing on them, before the bowl was even dry, it started falling apart. I didn't get enough glue in the matrix, and I didn't get the sheets bonded with matrix enough to hold them together. As you can see in the photo here, several sheets just plain fell off. (Perhaps once everything was dried enough, I might have tried gluing the bowl back together, just with white glue; but that feels like cheating.) In the background are some unused sheet, and my previous attempt to make an origami-paper bowl, which was likewise only a partial success.

I might try another origami-paper project later, but I think I will try next a flat-plain mold, and use the paper as top layer over some firmer paper as support layer. More like a framed artwork piece, rather than a bowl. That would allow one to do a more graphic, purely design-oriented piece in two dimensions, albeit with textures and layers of paper that could be used to give some relief-sculpted effects.

Stone Circle Nest Bowl II

This final bowl from this session is a re-creation of the first Stone Circle Nest Bowl I had been requested to make as a donation for a fundraiser. It's a bit larger than the original, and a bit more consciously formed. I should have known that, following Buddhist aesthetics, "first thought, best thought" would apply towards recreating this photo-illustration type art bowl. I think this bowl looks fine, but it just doesn't excite me as much as the first version did; some of that, no doubt, is that first discoveries always quicken the interest more for the artist. Really, there's nothing wrong here; the finished piece just feels a little less spontaneous. I'd say this art bowl is a partial success, maybe not perfectly as I had envisioned it, but really not bad at all.

The angular shapes here are good, though, and the original concept—wherein the bowl's exterior gives no hint of the "reveal" of the nested circle stone within the interior—still works fine as a discovery moment.

I ended putting some rounded stones in the bowl, taken from a California beach on the Pacific Ocean from my last roadtrip. I think i will keep stones in this bowl most of the time, perhaps changing the arrangement of stones periodically. That also makes the reveal of the stone in the illustration itself more dramatic, when you pull the real stones out of the bowl.

So, overall for this papier-maché session, a few more experiments in different kinds of paper, shapes, materials, and concepts. Partial successes in most cases, with one failure, and one very beautiful result which I'm very pleased with.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011


Backs of the hands. Long line along right wrist,
where the sharp edge of a door caught, tearing.
Line of unknown origin making a T above the first line,
a ragged T, like a knife wound. Pool of an L
on the middle digit. Older scar, from hitting a locker door
in high school. Naked at that moment, exuberant,
talking to other boys, flinging hands about to make a point,
point of the metal locker catching and scraping.
Point of a blood transfusion needle entry, pointless mounding
of wound and dimple of scab becoming scar. Already bleeding
all of that away into wind and water. Itch of tracks on inner
elbows. Itch at night, before rest. Other scars to come.
Breast and belly, long lines and broken wounds.
Something of a knee problem. Crackle and pop of cartilage
grinding into bone, chips embedded in the connectors.
So it goes. Accumulation of memories gonging in marked skin.
Back of the hand a map of places where scars were acquired.
More scars on the hand than anywhere else. Still more to come.
There will be blood, and sinew, and fatty tissue, to be torn through.
There will be road lines across the lower belly.
A photo sent of a friend, naked in a field, walking stick in hand,
intense eyes eyeing the camera, aging, fit, hiking, a little fur
on the body, a little flushed with walking, a little dewed with sweat.
It's a beautiful portrait, face and eyes lively, lived-in, sensual, exuberant.
And the long scar across his torso, from clavicle to base of sternum.
A forgotten operation, mostly ignored in an outdoors life.
How many teenage boys have open-heart surgery and live another
30 years in perfect health, that near brush, long line of old incision
the only memory left of trauma? A repeat event would be more mortal.
We all survive things we can't embrace, can't imagine.
All you can do is persevere, not knowing when or how.
The naked scar on the naked hiker inspires: you can live on,
live through this, make it into an old scarred memory
that gives an excuse to tell a story that makes friends squirm.
What pleasure in telling such stories: the one that almost got me,
but did not. Endure. Keep going forward. Persevere, even if it's pointless.
Forward momentum is a motivation often ignored, simple willful inertia.
The stubbornness of survival. Its rich application for a promotion,
rising on that thin white rope, kundalini climbing, up the tree towards god.
Sometimes we cannot imagine the scar on the other side: how to get there
is a void, uncertain and persistent, a hole in ahead-memory, a blank
white sheet of rose-paper. Pull sinew out of its nut-hatch, its fibrous
anomaly. Recognition that the scar on the other side of survival
is a meadow we can't imagine surveying. Not yet.
The condition of a belly scar is a mark you've made it past.
The gates are guarded by converted demons who've changed their ways.
God of thunder, god of light. Some scars fade out, given enough time.
Stitches turn to the thinnest of lines, blooms in the crisis of flesh.
Can't always see through to the other size. Never used to be needle-shy.
A time in a hospital, they'll send you home when you can walk again.
Healer healed. Park that portable IV by the pissoir. Might as well
drain it directly. It's the morphine makes you into a worse poet.
Looped on limericks and asinine alliterations. Standing before
the mirror, naked, looking over every inch of skin, mapping a catalogue
of near-misses, almost-dieds, close encounters, slow seepages.
Slow breath, a little shuddery, as you realize just how close you came,
that time or another. Something dark behind the eyes, rarely seen,
rarely let out of its cage. Last battened weather-beaten door of privacy.
The worst scars are never visible to anyone on the other side.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Night Trees

the burning sky
reddens treebark and branch—
city of nights

restless night walk
with camera and tripod,
passerby exclaims:

"Is that a camera?"
a favorite time for photos

My mood personally apocalyptic. The end of my rope coming on like a derailed train, sparks flying off the rails. Wander out for solace, for distraction, to make night photos as a way of making art, to get out of the house where I've been stewing too long in my own juices—but the sky too is full of the end of the world. Sodium vapor streetlights make the world seem yellow-orange, the clouds reflect red. Older mercury vapor lights made things green and blue. The tree-edges move in the breeze, blurring. My hands deep in my pockets, stiff with cold. Frost on the bridge rails. Thrum of tries against the cold road. Water flowing under cold black and at flood stage. The mind clear, for the moment, of everything not related to making images. The confocal nature of redemption. Circles of light under the streelights, against the traffic's tide. Murderous flash of light, sky streaked with unmarked helicopters eggbeatering by in a hurry. Time to walk home on cold feet, to go in, light the fireplace, try to sleep.

Restless, unable to sleep, a few nights ago I grabbed a camera and tripod and walked the quarter-mile down to the bridge over Turtle Creek. I took several time exposures, working for a long time in B&W, with the winds blurring the tree-edges and clouds on longer exposures. Then I switched to color near the end, using my flashlight and laser to paint the trees and path while making more photos.

This is a kind of night photography work which I first began to do almost 20 years ago. I've become expert enough in its techniques to have taught a class in night photography a few times. A tripod is required, and weights if it's a windy night. Your camera needs to have Manual settings capability, so you can control the exposure time and the aperture. Automatic cameras or settings are incapable of this kind of photography, with their ignorant insistence on using flash and short exposures: you'll get a lot of empty black frames.

The aperture, of f-stop, is the setting for how open the lens is to let light in: the higher the f-stop number, the smaller the opening, or aperture, and the smaller amount of light that gets in. This also controls, however, the sharpness of the image, and the depth of field. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field; with a very small aperture, virtually everything in foreground, middle- and background will be in sharp focus.

Exposure times are inversely proportional to aperture size: If you have your camera stopped down to a high f-stop, or smaller aperture—effectively letting in less light—you will need a longer exposure time. As a general rule of thumb, the exposure time usually doubles for every f-stop you click down.

I almost always prefer to do night photography on an ASA rating, or film speed, of 100 ASA. This keeps the film (or in this case, digital CCD) from getting too grainy. Higher film speeds allow you to capture more light faster, being by definition more sensitive to light; but they also get grainer, or in the case of digital cameras, noisier. Most digital cameras will allow you to shoot up to ASA 1600, but you'll see a lot of pixel noise in your image. So to get a smooth image without grain or noise, you need to use the lowest ASA speed you can, even though that will mean very long exposures at night under some conditions.

For example, in astrophotography, or photography of the night sky, such as the Milky Way, exposures longer than an hour are not uncommon. I have experience working with exposures up to about 30 minutes long. For night photography, with the f-stop set at f32, it's not uncommon for you to have to do a two-minute exposure at ASA 100.

It was cold out at night. I bundled up in my heavy fleece coat, and still got chilled by standing next to the tripod while the camera counted through 4- and 8-second exposures. It was cold enough that the camera started to flash its low-battery alert warning; batteries, when they're too cold, lose power, suddenly dropping to zero. Once or twice I took the camera off the tripod to warm it against my chest, under my jacket, before remounting it and continuing to make photos. A common winter problem when outdoors making photos.

This was an 8-second exposure, with the foreground tree splashed with the light emitted from my handheld flashlight laser. That's what makes the red streaks on the branches.

With longer exposure, a handheld flashlight, or flashgun, or a laser, as here, can be used to illuminate part of a composition, for special effect.

This is two separate exposures layered in Photoshop. One of them used a handheld flashlight to splash light on the tops of the trees in the background, while the other exposure used the laser to splash lines on the foreground tree.

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Black & White Mood

In a bleak, black and white mood all day. Finally pulled myself together, threw on clothes and coat and went out for awhile. Went to the dollar store and found a book on Joni Mitchell, her early career, which I look forward to reading.

Then I went for a drive north of town. Sometimes when life is upsetting the best thing I can do is grab the cameras and get out, go for a walk, go for a drive. it takes me out of myself, quiets the mind, focuses the attention, calms the spirit. I focus on what I'm looking at, looking/seeing for a long time before releasing the trigger. I let go out what's been bothering me, and the only thing that fills me mind is what I'm looking at. It can approach the no-mind focused attention of meditation. It has saved me more than once, just to get out, lose myself in the making, put everything else on hold for awhile.

I mostly shot B&W all afternoon, but when the sun went behind these rims of cloud, turning amber-gold, I had to shoot it in color.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Paul Monette: Outside Poetry

Following up on the writing of Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, Paul Monette published in 1994, not long before his own death from AIDS, a final volume of poetry: West of Yesterday, East of Summer: new and Selected Poems (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994). I want to reprint here his story of the writing of Love Alone, which has come to be considered one of the great moments in literature regarding the AIDS epidemic, because it has insight into the poetry establishment and being a poetry outsider. I relate to this story on the level of sympathy for suffering, but also a poet who feels himself to be more of an outsider than establishment poet; experience certainly gives that view credence.

The story begins when Paul's life-partner, Roger Horwtiz, was dying from AIDS. Paul had been feeling unable to write, so bound up was he with the emotions and suffering around caring for Rog. He had long ago turned from writing poems to writing novels and non-fiction, which is still his best-known work. As Rog was dying, Paul read him the new poem. This is from the Introduction to Monette's New and Selected Poems:

I ripped through my recitation with unpunctuated force and when I got to the end there was silence. I thought maybe he'd fallen asleep.

Then he spoke with a soft astonishment. "Sweetheart, that's terrific. How can you say you'll never write again?"

But that's exactly what I'd say, lying in his arms late at night, sobbing as if my heart would break. "I can't do it without you," I'd say. "Yes, you can," came the soothing reply. "And besides, I'm still here."

But then five weeks later he wasn't anymore, and I figured I'd died too. His doctor's admonition the night he died—"You have to write about him, Paul"—was just so much empty advice. Then, it must have been two weeks later, I was standing watch at the grave in Forest Lawn, as I did every day while dusk fell. Next morning I had to leave for Boston to visit my parents, who hadn't seen me in a year and a half, dreading every minute of the further separation from Roger.

And I suddenly realized that if the plane went down tomorrow, there would be no record anywhere of what we'd suffered and how love got us through. So I sat in the grass in the failing light and opened my journal and scribbled about twenty-five lines—the poem called "Here"—and that night I propped it on my desk, labeled "To Whom It May Concern."

The next day on the plane to Boston I pulled out the journal again, and wrote the whole of "No Goodbyes," in a torrent of unfiltered feeling. And that is how they were all written from then on, at least the first ten, entirely WITHOUT THINKING. An endless catalogue of the lost, nothing too minor to heave onto the pyre of my dead days. I don't doubt that some shaping imagination was at work, even so, but it stayed resolutely unconscious, completely on its own. I had no sense that anyone else would want them, but I hadn't counted on the luck of its crossing the desk of [editor] Michael Denneny, who was ready to go to contract with half the poems in place.

So Love Alone is at least half journal poems. This breaks every one of the usual rules: usually there's no way that good poems can come out of raw journal-writing. We see thousands of new poems every year that are jsut journal-entries, from teenage angst poets who have just discovered Artur Rimbaud (usually boys) or Sylvia Plath (usually girls) to poets just finishing their MFAs in creative writing who haven't enough life-experience as yet to write about anything other than how their cat just died and their girlfriend dumped them. Usually journal-poems suck, because the people who proffer them haven't enough life-experience yet to be able to have anything to say.

But Monette's journal-poems are sublime. Why do they work? Why don't they suck? One truthful answer is that Monette is by this time in life an experienced writer, with published books of poetry and award-winning novels under this belt. He is both an experienced writer and he has something to say. He dumps his raw feelings onto the page, but being a writer, he dumps his feelings through his art, coherently, clearly, and with all his writer's craft online. There was indeed a "shaping imagination" somewhere at work in the mix, even as Monette was writing the elegies at white heat. I feel connected to that experience: in some ways, Monette is describing exactly how I have been feeling when writing the Letters series poems.

Monette continues:

the volume [Love Alone] appear in March of 1988, and when the first copy appeared by overnight express, I sat at my desk sobbing and saying over and over, "Rog, we did it." Whatever intrinsic merit the elegies had, I'd accomplished what I set out to do, leaving a record of our love and times. It was in the nature of an unexpected bonus that os many people responded enthusiastically to the work—not put off or bewildered as we feared by the run-on frenzy of the style, the banishing of punctuation. Moreover, I even got my wish as I had stated in the Preface: That the readership proved to be drawn from the ranks of the AIDS-afflicted and the grief-haunted, and not from that plucky little band of the general poetry reader.

But that wasn't nearly as odd as the reaction of the general poetry WRITER. For old times' sake, I sent out eight or ten copies to my [poet] colleagues from a decade ago, most of whose work I'd loyally kept up with—despite its being the opposite of mine. So perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised by the responses. Two poets wrote back nearly identical letters, in which they dismissed "Love Alone" as "not being poetry at all, really. Too raw and too unfiltered, and of course riddled with clichés." But clearly an important "document," all the same.

"It's clearly more like performance art, isn't it? Have you thought of showing it to Eric Bogosian?"

And my favorite: "Thank you for the book, with that wonderful picture of you and Roger on the cover. I'll cherish it. The text, I'm afraid, is not my thing."

This is the point at which I want to talk about insider and outsider poetry. What we have here is an example of something raw and rather original being rejected by the poetry mandarins. Who's to say what's poetry and what's not? Who's got the right to define and own what poetry is or is not?

I've run into this myself on occasion; I have had a poetry mandarin actually say to my face that something I wrote was not a poem. It was nothing he recognized as a poem. I challenged him on his pronouncement, though, and got him to finally admit that he could make no objection to the content or style of the poem, his objections were purely moral ones based on his rejection of the experimental form i was using.

If something cannot be poetry because it's too raw and unfiltered—even though Monette's shaping imagination was at work on some level in the poems, not neglecting or ignoring the craft of an experience writer—then nothing I've ever written can be called poetry. No experiments can be called poems. By this (conservative, formalist, stick in the mud) standard of definition, Tennyson is poetry but Ginsberg is not, Eliot is poetry but Corso is not. And that's patently absurd.

As Monette adds in his Introduction to the New and Selected Poems:

I can only imagine what the silver-tongued response will be to the body of "New Poems." Too political by a mile, unbearably strident, nothing reflected on, no FORM. Well, at least they've got all that right. Raw being just how AIDS has left me, flayed of layers of skin I didn't know I had—flayed to the bone—I was screaming as much as composing when I sat to write. Pain was pain, not wisdom, and the idea of waxing metaphorical and philosophical about such horrors seemed at best presumptuous, at worst insulting. So if I have succeeded in convincing the mainstream run of poets—with their Guggenheims and their tenure tracks, with their surefooted march to "Selected" [Poems], "Collected," "Complete"—that I mean to stay an outsider, lobbing my poems like pipe bombs, so be it.

I relate so well to all of this. I relate to the rawness, as I go through my own chronic illness. I relate to the aspects of rejection and affirmation alike. This paragraph amounts to an outsider's manifesto. Monette's rejection of philosophical abstraction in his poetry is one I largely agree with; I have been saying for years that poems written solely from the head ultimately fail, because they only mimic the complete range of human experience, which must embrace suffering as well as ecstasy.

I write poems that have no FORM all the time, that record pain as pain, rather than the idea of pain one step removed. I write things that I'm sure the tenure-track poets would not recognize as poetry, but when shared non-professional poets get plaudits. I write poem-like substances, rather than poems, perhaps. And if so, I am content with that.

Although he is gone, Paul Monette feels to me like a brother. As far as the poetry world goes, I'm content to be an outsider, just as he was.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

18 Elegies

I was organizing my bookshelves, house, bedroom, basement, and closets over the weekend. I am moving things around, and finding more logical places to put things. In the next or so I am going to get rid of the twin bed in my bedroom, which I find it hard to sleep on, and replace it with a queen size futon on one of those folding frames you can configure either as a bed or a couch. I need to do this before the summer, before surgery. I am cleaning out my life and house beforehand, as much as possible. (Also making a Will, etc.) When I lived in California, I slept on a couch-futon in my room, and slept well. So I'm going to try that again. I need room to sprawl, and I sleep better on a hard surface than on a soft bed. In fact, I sleep better on an air mattress on the floor than I do in the current bed.

So I was moving some books around during part of this reorganization process, and I was reminded that there is another precursor and inspiration for the ongoing Letters-form poem series. I had first read and absorbed this book of poems some years ago, and it was not in the forefront of my mind when I began the current poem series last year. But I can see the similarities, now, the possibility of a subconscious influence. And I welcome that, I don't reject it, because it seems both natural and fitting. The parallels seem powerfully resonant to me, at this moment.

Paul Monette: Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988) First edition hardcover.

Paul Monette's Elegies for his lover, Roger Horwitz, lost to AIDS, are searing. They burn with white heat, bright fire. They are overwhelmed with grief, longing, anger, pain, intensity, beauty. They are one of the best poem-cycles depicting the grief of an entire generation of men lost to AIDS. Grief for the lost, survivor's guilt and pain for those who go on living.

Pulling this book off my shelf, I sat down and re-read the entire book as though it were a single work. It reads very well that way; as does Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin, another book of elegies in a similar form and style. Although each poet has a unique voice. Monette's style is a similar sort of moderate-length line broken regularly as though is were a prose-poem broken into lines. What propels Monette's line is where the lines end on words that almost compel you to read on; this adds up to the breathless rush.

In the book's Preface, Monette has this to say about the form of these poems:

When I began to write about AiDS during Roger's illness, I wanted a form that would move with breathless speed, so I could scream if I wanted and rattle on and empty my Uzi into the sky.

He settled on a form with no punctuation, which also adds to the propulsion. There are no stanza breaks or commas, each poem is a block of flowing text that rushes on until it ends. "Here," the first poem in the series, demonstrates this form:


everything extraneous has burned away
this is how burning fells in the fall
of the final year not like leaves in a blue
October but as if the skin were a paper lantern
full of trapped moths beating their fixed wings
and yet I can lie on this hill just above you
a foot beside where I will lie myself
soon soon and for all the wrack and blubber
feel still how we were warriors when the
merest morning sun in the garden was a
kingdom after Room 1010 war is not all
death it turns out war is what little
thing you hold in to refugeed and far from home
oh sweetie will you please forgive me this
that every time I opened a box of anything
Glad Bags One-A-Days KINGSIZE was
the worst I'd think will you still be here
when the box is empty Rog Rog who will
play boy with me now that I bucket with tears
through it all when I'd cling beside you sobbing
you'd shrug it off with the quietest I'm still
I have your watch in the top drawer
which I don't dare wear yet help me please
the boxes grocery home day after day
the junk that keeps men spotless but it doesn't
matter now how long they last or I
the day has taken you with it and all
there is now is burning dark the only green
is up by the grass and this little thing
of telling the hill I'm here on I'm here

I love where he breaks the line in places that almost forces you to go to the next line. This is not where most poets would break, as it is not always a natural pause for breath. Lots of boring poetry has predictable line-breaks, where you'd expect a thought to be broken, or a pause for breath to be inserted. These Elegies break all those "rules."

I've used this technique in some of my own poems. It's a thrilling technique. I feel this breathless rushing, this forward momentum, this propulsion in my own Letters poems, although more like Harrison's form I use sentences and punctuation. There are sentence fragments, but they're punctuated. My own form is more like a prose-poem with line-breaks, but I can still break the line in non-standard ways, that generates momentum.

Another poem from Love Alone can be read here: No Goodbyes.

The photo on the cover of the book has a special meaning. It is a photo of Paul and Rog together in Italy, and is the centerpiece of the last Elegy in the book, "Brother of the Mount of Olives." This is my favorite poem of the series, because it ends the book on a note of loving memory rather than rage. It heals, or starts to heal, all the turbulence that has come before. The poem begins with the discovery of the photo:

Brother of the Mount of Olives

combing the attic for anything extra
missed or missing evidence of us I sift
your oldest letters on onionskin soft-
cover Gallimard novels from graduate school
brown at the edges like pound cake and turn up
an undeveloped film race it to SUNSET
PLAZA ONE-HOUR wait out the hour wacko
as a spy smuggling a chip that might decode
World War III then sit on the curb pouring over
prints of Christmas '83 till I hit paydirt
three shots of the hermit abbey on the moors
southeast of Siena our final crisscross
of the Tuscan hills before the sack of Rome
unplanned it was just that we couldn't bear
to leave the region quite the Green Guide barely
gave it a nod minor Renaissance pile
but the real thing monks in Benedictine white
pressing olives and gliding about in hooded
silence Benedict having commanded shh
along with gaunt motto ora et labora
pray work but our particular brother John
couldn't stop chattering not fromm the moment
he met us grinning at the cloister door
seventy years olive-cheeked bald and guileless . . .

It's a sublime moment, ending when the brother from the monastery takes the portraits of the two lovers with Paul's camera. And then Paul rediscovers the photos after Rog has died, and this poem emerges. This is the genuine spirit of elegy.

Re-reading this book of Elegies reminds how powerful it is, how moving, and how much I loved it when I first encountered it. It was such a scream that it knocked me over. It's a book about life, really, not about death. Dying, pain, fury, regret, grief, all of which I can relate to—but these emotions are of the living. The dead are tranquil, mostly.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

How Can You Write A Poem When You're Dying?

(More from The Anemia Diaries:)

March 21, 2011

There was a poetry anthology published a decade ago, titled How Can You Write A Poem When You're Dying of AIDS? (London: Cassell, 1993. Ed. by John Harold) The anthology collected poems written by people who were, in fact, dying of AIDS, responding to ads the editor placed in the UK LGBT press. Not that the question asked in the title is rhetorical; rather, that the contents of the book answer the question. Indeed, how can you not write such a poem?

The anthology takes its title from a poem by James Sykes, an impassioned rant that starts out in metered, rhymed verse, then in the third stanza explodes into free verse of varying line lengths. It's quite striking to see a poem begin formally, then blow that up in rage: a clear example of form following function, of a poem's form reflecting and repeating its contents. It's a poem that takes things very personally. Sykes' inarticulate rage grows throughout the poem, through various stanzas of responses to the title question: the medical details, the inability to talk about a lover already gone, a rage-filled appropriate response to the absurd question "how do you feel about dying?" The poem ends by asking the title question one last time, with a final reply, paradoxical and personal as it is; I can't . . . can you

I'm taking things very personally at the moment. I have now had a chronic illness of major proportions (ulcerative colitis, with anemia, irritable bowel syndrome, and other complications) for several years, in active phase and in relapse for going on two years now of continuous treatments, medications, blood transfusions, debilitating exhaustion, IV drug therapy, and more, with all the fallout one gets from all that. Fallout equally physical, mental, spiritual, and psychological; indeed, the whole person is a synergistic system encompassing all those modes, and others. The past few months, it seemed as if the IV drug treatments were working, and I was finally making some progress, feeling better, getting stronger; only to discover this past week that that has been an illusion, and I've only been dying more slowly. From the existential philosophy viewpoint, of course, we are all dying slowly, all the time, and we will converge on that end-point of the void between, each unavoidably in our own good time. Most people spend most of their time avoiding thinking about that, or distracting themselves away from that fatal truth.

This past week, it was discovered after yet another blood test that I am still dangerously anemic, only it took months to get there instead of weeks. So I had another blood transfusion, followed by a CT scan, to figure out what's going on. My hemoglobin and red blood cell count did go up, but not much, not as much as I would have thought. Still, there's been no apparent bleeding for almost two months, so if the blood is draining away, where's it going? There's no obvious sign, no reason why I should be anemic. They also drew more blood for more tests, the third time in a row within two days, leaving me by week's end with band-aids covering multiple needle-points. I'm getting tired of so many needles. My veins are getting stiff and scarred again. I've got all kinds of track-marks everywhere on my arms, like a junkie.

I'm looking out on the robins hopping around in my beloved back yard pear tree, which was almost destroyed last fall by a wind storm. What was a huge full covering canopy has been reduced to three smaller trunks and a few branches. But the branches and twigs that are left are beginning to bud out with new leaves. The March weather is temporarily warm now, accelerating the greening. Daffodil shoots are beginning to emerge from the ground, and the crocus in the sunny corners are already up and blooming. So are some of the striped exotic tulips I've planted beside them. The crocus bloom first, the daffodils second, followed by the rest of my garden. Spring is returning. Of course, March is the most difficult month, here: we're bound to have at least one more snowstorm, or at least a week of very cold temperatures, before winter withdraws completely. March is the hardest month to endure because it yo-yos around between spring and winter, tempting you to relax, then slamming you down again.

I feel like my entire life these past few years has been like the month of March, because my illness operates on exactly the same yo-yo temptation principle. I've learned not to trust feeling better, because it inevitably gets slammed back down. I don't know what to trust, what to believe, what to do. I am completely at sea about to think or believe. Who do you turn to for answers, for solace, when every new piece of news adds to the confusion rather than the clarity?

This leaves me feeling furious, frustrated, annoyed, continuously enraged at a subsurface level, short-tempered, and impatient with the complacent stupidities of those surrounding me who are in denial of their own eventual mortality (which is just about everyone). I find myself not knowing what to think or feel, how to act, what to do next, completely unable to decide if anything I have been doing or ought to be doing in future is worth it. I've tried everything; it doesn't matter what I do. I can "think positive" and the slam-down is the same as when I was depressed. I can do everything right, and it all still falls apart. I follow the advice of my doctors and other supporters, and it doesn't make any difference. Every setback ruins my attitude, because each setback reinforces the truth that I'm not getting better, or stronger, or healthier. This most recent setback, this past week, has set me completely adrift. I don't know where to turn, or where to go, or how to proceed. I feel completely lost? How can I write a poem when I feel like I'm dying? I readily admit that I am not coping well with setbacks of any kind, right now.

There's a ground-level, biological urge to survive. For life to find a way, somehow. To go on living, no matter what, no matter how bad it gets. A stubborn clinging to life even in the face of inevitable loss. Like my wounded pear tree behind the back porch, damaged last autumn, almost destroyed, yet this spring putting out new buds. The tree says, I will grow back, I will survive, no matter what. There's a similar animal tenacity in us, the root-level urge in our very DNA to keep going, no matter what knocks us down. The coyote will gnaw its leg off to get out of the bear-trap that caught it. The eagle with the broken wing will still try to fly away to safety. When natural disasters happen on a large scale in populated areas, people gather together, the survivors immediately begin caring for each other, rebuilding shelters, looking for food and water.

We all want to live.

I talked over my frustrations with a friend during the medical test days last week. He said to me that he thought the anger I was feeling—I was too numb to feel anything else anymore: I'm bored with weeping, self-pity is boring, thinking positive is boring, all the usual emotional cycles I've been through so many times that I'm sick of all of them—was an expression of that same tenacity to want to keep going, to keep living, no matter what. My friend is probably right. I still feel that anger, today, sustaining me, keeping me sharp and hot.

But there are quality of life issues involved. I am simply not having any fun right now. The chronic nature of this illness, its continuous gravitational tug every day, its daily grind and demand for attention, have all worn me down to the point where I have nothing left to give. I take no joy in life. I take a little pleasure, in food, in sex, in reading, but it's an hour stolen from a day and, often enough, a sleepless night. Insomnia has become a real problem, as I'm too tired to discipline my racing worries, powerless to push them away, so I often lay awake at night, taking a long time to get to sleep.

In the midst of all this I suddenly find myself writing poems again. It's purgative. It's a formalized, restrained means of expressing the incoherent screaming and yelling and jumping up and down and punching my fist through the wall that I really want to be doing. it's a pressure-valve letting off the steam.

I don't know what to do, what to believe, what to think. The only thing I can do is keep moving forward: without hope, since hope leads to desperation; without expectations, since expectations lead to anger and depression when they're never met; without any idea if this bad time of life will ever end. I don't really believe, right now, that this illness will ever end—every time I think it's getting better, instead it gets worse—or that I will survive the proposed radical surgery described as a cure, at the end of June. I don't really believe the surgery's going to be the end of this, it's all been going too long. I can't really see any light at the end of the tunnel, because the tunnel has kept getting longer and longer as time has gone by. I don't really imagine I'll come out of this, even if I'm finally cured, with any money left to my name: I still can't work, I'm depleting my savings, since I have only minimal insurance the surgery is probably going to bankrupt me and leave me homeless and destitute. There are no guarantees. Even if after the recovery from the surgery I am able to work again, there's no guarantee that my depressed part of the country will have any work I can do before my money runs out and I have to sell everything anyway.

That's the emotional reality; that's what keeps me awake at night. It doesn't matter if it isn't logical or rational. This is the emotional reality. I'm scared to death. The surgery terrifies me; even if it goes well, it is life-altering, and things will never be the same afterwards. I'm told they will be better, but all I know for certain is that they'll be different. The alternatives to surgery are undeniably, eventually fatal. It's a question of how fast you go, and how miserably. The aftermath of the surgery could leave me still unable to earn an income, destitute and homeless. I am really, truly freaked out by all this. This is the emotional and psychological reality I have been living with for a very long time now. This is Big Stuff. I have a right to be freaked out, to be scared, to be terrified.

I tried to put all of this emotional reality "on hold" while I dealt with losing weight for the surgery, regaining my strength in preparation, and also writing music—but then this most recent setback happened, and it's all back, weighing on my mind. I try to put it back on hold again, and it's a struggle. No part of me really believes this long-duration ongoing hell will ever come to an end. Not until my death, that is. Maybe I'll die on the operating table. Maybe I won't. But at the moment, I really don't care. That's the level of "quality of life" I'm dealing with right now.

So I find myself having zero patience for the whining of people who are addicted to their personal dramas but don't really have anything to complain about. I have empathy for people who find themselves in dire straits genuinely worse than mine. I have no sympathy for complainers who just complain to complain, but there's nothing really wrong with their lives.

The only means I have to cope with any of this is to make art. So I find myself, surprising myself in the doing, writing more poems when I didn't expect any. I continue to work with papier-maché, just to have something to do at night when I can't sleep. I am trying to focus on the music writing, but honestly I'm too angry just now, and need to vent. Writing poems can be palliative, even though they''re not a cure. Writing poems, journalling about my situation, talking to friends about my troubles: all necessary and useful venting.

I look at the origin of the current form and style of poem I'm writing, what I've come to call the Letters form, after the initial poem in the series. I cannot help but think this poem-form is directly connected to my chronic illness. Inspired in part by Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin, a masterful book of poems written in a dark period of the poet's life, written in a form that inspired this one. Re-reading Harrison's Letters last summer, at a point in my illness before the current treatments began, where I almost bled to death, where I had a near-death experience I still haven't been to fully integrate, I guess triggered these new poems. My own Letters-form poems are connected to the process of this illness. They are a response to it, I suppose. Without trying to be too glibly simplistic about it, I guess these poems are a result of my illness. They certainly help with the emotional reality. The poems are, as I said above, a very restrained form of the incoherent, panic-laced screaming and shouting I feel inside. I am not a fan of raw process in art: I appreciate a little aesthetic distance. But again, don't read too much into that: it's not a statements about poetics, or how I believe art "ought to be made." I carry no beliefs of any kind about how art "ought" to be made, other than those I've acquired through personal experience. I have not critical axe to grind about art-making, only that art will always need to be made. We all want to live. Making art is what keeps me alive, right now. That, and forward momentum.

Who am I writing these Letters to? I left the name-plate blank on purpose. At first I just didn't want to say. I didn't want to be derivative. In truth, I don't have a specific person in mind, living or dead. I could answer glibly by saying, if the letter feels like it's addressed to you, feel free to write your name in. I could answer more thoughtfully, saying that I don't know who the Letters are addressed to, it's a mystery even to me. This in response to a plausible questioner wanting to uncover yet another biographic authorial mystery (the usual fallacy of thinking we can know about the art by interrogating the artist's life): Who are you writing these Letters to? The truth is, there's no big mystery to it, only a little one. I really don't know. I am content not to know, content not to have specific person, place or thing in mind. That the poems are connected to my personal process is evident; some of the poems even sample bits of what's going on right now, bits of dreams, bits of significant moments in my medical trajectory, bits of emotional reality.

The only thing I can do, short of gnawing my leg off to get out of this trap—remarkably, that's just what the upcoming surgery feels like—is keep going forward. no destination in mind. No sense of an ending, either the when of an ending, or the how. Going forward with no hope, no expectations, no anticipation of an ending. Going forward like driftwood on a river, not knowing what's around the next bend.

And I'll keep making art. Keep making poems. I never expected these new ones to appear. I thought I was done with them. I guess this is a multiple relapse: a medical setback, a poetic relapse. I'm not overly interested in the why of that process: I merely notice that it keeps happening. If I don't survive this, and I cannot say if I will or won't, if nothing else, I've left a pile of art for my survivors to sort through. At the moment, I find it hard to give a damn about anything else.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tenacity of the Whirlwind

When the week breaks into exhausted corners that take days
to overcome, when at the end of it you're not sure any
of the flurry of actions was worth it, when you're left more confused
than ever, knowing nothing, feeling nothing, wrung out,
what's left? I didn't drive up to town today, as I was already
exhausted and it thunderstormed all morning, noon, and night.
Why tire yourself out even more with that kind of rough driving?
Things seemed to be going so well. Progress was being made.
I had a line on an escape hatch. Then the inevitable setback.
When you've had so many setbacks that you've become wary
of anything that seems like progress, because it all gets shot down
the moment you arrive near acceptance, when the rug's been pulled
out so many times that you can''t trust the floorboards,
what's left? I made a large meal and ate it, feeling bloated
afterwards. Probably shouldn't have had that second helping.
But what does it matter, when it's all going to crash down
and fail, nothing solved, nothing ended? There isn't anything
left to feel. It's all been wiped out.
The milky barium beverage they make you drink before
the CT scan, to give your guts contrast, the x-ray dye they stick
in your veins during the scan, arms sore after, and a migraine.
Enough to dilute the next blood test results. So who knows
what to believe? I hover on the edge of wanting an end,
due in part to the lab's incompetent stutter, the repetitive
markers that mark nothing, that add up to data sunk in tar.
What a wasting day. Leaves me too wiped out to do anything
but limp home, feet up, and try uncomfortably to nap.
I stare for awhile at dim photos on the wall, dim
in the dark, then nap fitfully in the big chair. At least with
the latest blood transfusion I'm not kept up all night, itching.
Other than that, still wondering if it made any difference.
Can't meditate. Tried my ass on the cushion, but the mind
raced off into cascading doom scenarios, a dog chasing its tail.
A bird dog would be good comfort, just now. We could walk off
and find a thicket to hide in, a tree stand where we'd be
invisible to the scanners and pokers and prodders.
Come find me, needleman and spinning x-ray pinwheels.
Of course my blood probably glows in the dark by now.
All they'd need to do was shine a light, and I'd light up,
a phosphorescent algae bloom washed up near shore.
Waves are lapping the stems of the old walls of the arch
at Pescadero. Lapping in the cold night dark, their crests
glowing with lambent red tide. The Pigeon Point light casts its beam
up coast a couple of times a minute. Under the redwoods
in a canyon just inland, total silence, except for this singed moon.
Wish I was there, ass on cushion, and my eye is getting most.
So what's left? I don''t believe in easy resolutions or quick fixes,
anymore. It's all going to be a dangled crab, bait on the end
of a pier where seagulls poke eyes and claws to shards.
Crab for dinner, when you're the dinner, needs more butter.
I can't meditate, or even visualize that moon pool calm,
I'm so dangerously angry. it's anger that I have left,
nothing else. That sustaining anger that is the animal self
refusing to die, the tenacity to hold on even when all other
aspects of this bruised self would just as soon let go.
I can't unbind this tenacity, so I keep on living, no matter
how pointless, insufferable. There must be a book
I haven't found somewhere that could make sense of it.
Missed connections, unappetizing snacks on a bus seat
arrowing across Arizona in failing air conditioning.
That stench. The smell it what gets to you first and last.
No point in hoping, they all get dotted and dashed.
The power of positive thinking, that awful guilty burden
they stick on you to blame you for your failings, remote reward,
relentlessly pursued, never fulfilled. You can't think your way
out of this. it doesn't get solved by thinking. Poems are not cures.
Tenacious anger of the predatory snarl, wounded jackal
backed into a corner, refusing to just lie down and be ended.
All I have left. No other rudder or keel.
No direction to go but forward, no steering, no compass,
no visibility, the river's roar fogged up, except of course the worst.
No sense of journey's end. Pretty sure that howling downstream
is the next rapids and falls. Boat's pretty banged
up by now. All you can do is float with the eddies and whirls.
Not even going to try to avoid banging the rocks. Only thing to trust
is the water's suck and surge around their borders.
The clearest water is in the fastest part of the stream.
Don't bother to care what's next. It's sure to be more
or less a disaster. You can't talk yourself into sleeping or solutions.
They come, they go. Here's a roadside thicket to rest in.
There's only one way to go, forward. The insidious urge to keep on
no matter what gives blank refuge. I can't seem to stop, myself,
or stop this long wildness ride.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random 3

10. Don't give in to the tendency to describe your own work as the end-product of an evolutionary process.

There is often a tendency in critical essays that describe artistic progression or aesthetic development to arrive, in the end, at the -isms and schools the author likes, approves of, and, often enough, is a member of. You see this supremely self-serving tendency in academic overviews of poetry written by professional poets with an agenda to promote. It's always tempting to justify one's own poetry by placing one's artistic ancestors into a linear narrative.

But the study of how people write history has shown us that such narratives are always constructed, like linear narrative fiction. Usually such histories are at least partly subjective, since they are narratives meant to prove a point. History is rarely only about telling a story; there is usually an underlying ideology one can identify by looking at what is presented and what is left out. (A good example of how to perceive this inner agenda can be found in John Gallaher's dissection of a Tony Hoagland essay on poetic history.) The point is that self-serving histories cannot be called objective, since they do have an agenda which is not purely to tell a history.

The paradigmatic example of this egotistical progression is those old anthropological diagrams that showed how apes gradually evolved into man. These were accompaniments to densely written tomes describing the evolution of human cultures from primitive hunting and gathering societies to, naturally, the pinnacle of Western civilization. That Western anthropologists would proclaim Western civilization to be the pinnacle of human cultural evolution comes as no surprise, since most such tomes were written during the period of Western colonization of imperial rule over the more "primitive" parts of the globe. Western culture did develop a technical civilization unlike any other, through our ambitious mastery of fire: gunpowder, industrial mechanization, steam, electricity.

It's truly ironic when poets write essays about poetry that echo this pattern of placing oneself and one's poetic peers at the pinnacle of artistic evolution. Most post-avant poetry manifestos do this, in many cases directly echoing the early Modernist poetry manifestos of a century ago.

Poetry is fractured and diverse at this point in history. It seems like every poetic movement and -ism has to justify itself with a manifesto. You have to present your theory before you can present your art. Then and only then can you justify a poetry that no one cares about, that is totally obscurantist, and that only your fellow members of your -ism will read or care about, or respond to.

Placing yourself at the pinnacle of some artistic evolution is a way of constructing a narrative that justifies your art's existence in the face of existential insecurity. If on some level you're anxious about the worth and value of your art (and your self)—and what artist isn't occasionally anxious about their art?—this is a great way of giving yourself a narrative of worth. It's actually rather elitist in spirit.

11. You can't call yourself avant-garde if you're not actually doing anything new or different.

The irony is that post-avant, postmodernist poetry is not an ongoing avant-garde, it is artistic Mannerism. The contemporary post-avant refers constantly to the avant-garde of a century ago to legitimize its perpetual rebellion, even when those rebelling have already become the professional poetry establishment. "All avant-garde all the time" is the motto. The Mexican poet-critic Octavio Paz, Nobel laureate and renowned poet, had this to say about avant-gardism:

Many have commented on the disappearance of a true avant-garde and its replacement by avant-gardism. . . . I see this as a prolongation of experimentation usually leading further on from collage and montage into ever-increasing fragmentation and eventually into a degenerative disease which, adapting an already common usage, I call "disjunctivitis." The argument, used by some producers who, correctly locating the seats of available power in the academy, have ensconced themselves therein every bit as much as the establishment "mainstream," to the effect that the disruption of the common linguistic coin is part of a war against "late-capitalist" discourse is singularly inept. I do not see oppressed workers of any kind devouring the products of avant-gardism. The death-of-the-author thematics, as commonly adapted, are another inanity: when society does its very best to homogenize us, what is wrong with a strong, knowledgeable, and responsible ego crying in the darkening wilderness?

As Paz points out, lots of post-avant poets claim to be rebelling against a poetic establishment which doesn't really exist. Lots of straw-men as set up to be knocked over, but they're set as myths that don't actually reflect the true nature of things. There isn't anything to actually rebel against, so a narrative of rebellion has to be constructed, usually via manifesto, laying out a narrative of oppression that justifies generating one's own avant-garde.

As I have said before, postmodernism is really Late High Modernism. It's not really anything new; it's at best something that comes after. If it were really new, postmodernism wouldn't need to include "Modernism" in its very name. So it is a reactive -ism, not a genuinely new alternative. It is in fact the decadent, mannerist end-point of the Modernist ideal that began in the arts a century ago.

There was a genuine avant-garde a century ago, creating new kinds of poetry, aesthetic theory, and artistic expression which actually were rebelling against 50 or 100 years of enforced artistic stagnation. Post-avant poets nowadays insist on their innovative status, but in fact they're still rebelling against the phantoms of fixed forms that were first rebelled against by the genuine avant-garde of a century ago.

it's hilarious nowadays to hear post-avant manifestos use Marxist and Freudian ideologies to justify their reasoning, since Marx and Freud have long since passed into the history of ideas as no longer descriptive of life as we actually live it and know it nowadays. Marxist theory in the arts is doubly hilarious because, as Paz says, there is no proletariat supporting the post-avant's artistic uprising. Power to the people? The "people" are mostly ignoring you, or yawning.

Which of course is the root of anxiety that one's art might in truth be irrelevant. Which leads to the fictive histories mentioned above, which generates manifestos to justify one's avant-gardism, and which also leads to the formation (via those manifestos) of cliques and elites within poetic -isms.

An absurd aspect of poetic avant-gardism is its conformity. A lot of post-avant manifestos praise individualism and uniqueness as elements of their forever-rebellion, but in fact a lot of the members of any given -ism tend to all sound alike. They experiment in the same ways on the same materials. You get a lot of variations on a theme, rather than a genuinely new theme.

In order to make a poem sound hip, for example, a lot of pop culture references get included to make the poem sound contemporary and relevant. This often ends up sounding like name-dropping and product-placement. Frank O'Hara could pull this method off, but many of his followers cannot. Conformity is symptomatic of followers and disciples trying to imitate a master's style, and not being able to grasp the master's intent from the inside. This is largely because their hearts aren't in it, only their minds: there is no original impulse driving the content, only an imitation of form and means. They end up imitating the surface elements of the style, without grasping the original impulse that generated the style.

This is surprisingly true of many contemporary haiku poets, who imitate the japanese haiku masters without really feeling the poetic impulse from the inside. It is particularly noticeable among imitators of Buson, rather than Basho.

12. There is a genuinely new art happening, but it doesn't appear on the radar very often.

Or maybe it's a really old art, with an old set of values, trying to re be restored and re-integrated with what we've learned from the new art.

Usually genuinely new art, and new approaches to art-making, happens under the radar for a long time before anyone notices them. People quietly experiment, play with their materials, and discover something new. Sometimes it happens when familiar things are put together in a new way, generating a new viewpoint or way of thinking about them.

A century ago in literature, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein (and a few others) took the familiar forms of linear-narrative fiction and found new ways of forming them. Some of those forms were non-linear, others were means to go deeper into narrative, or to explore psychological realism without much actual plot happening. This was both a completely new way of thinking about narrative, and a new way of expressing time.

That these new ways of performing narrative remain controversial, and still somewhat below the radar, says not much about the value of experimental literature per se, but it does say a great deal about the context and environment in which these experiments are undertaken.

It doesn't really matter that Joyce, Woolf, and Stein didn't overturn the novel, or forever change the ways in which fiction is written and read. In truth, most readers still like to read a straightforward linear narrative: story narrative is still king. (What this says about general mob psychology can be described on the symbolic, archetypal level by acknowledging that the rate of cultural change is usually only as rapid as its slowest members can sustain. The tribe is inherently conservative, as it carries a lot of inertia.) It doesn't really matter if literary experiments didn't become the new mainstream: experiments are not always meant to replace anything. They were experiments, a word that implies questing, researching, exploring, and trying new solutions, and doesn't exclude the possibility of failure. Call this Modernist avant-garde the experimental science of literature in the early 20th Century.

What Octavio Paz calls "disjunctivitis" in poetry began with the Symbolists, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, their peers and their forebears. When free verse and the prose-poem were first introduced, they were below the poetry mainstream's radar, and stayed there for some time. Then came the simultaneous discovery, acrimony, and plaudits. From these roots we ended up post-avant language-based poetry that disconnects the words on the page from all referent to the real world, or to the inner universe of consciousness.

I see hints, now and then, of the return of several things to poetry, which remain under the radar partly because they would be dismissed out of hand by the new post-avant mandarins of literary fashion, who are themselves become the new establishment. Elements of this eternal return include:

• deep psychology, by which I mean an archetypal psychology, Jung rather than Freud, which is a transpersonal and affirming psychology, rather than the current fashion for dysfunctional psychology manifest as confessional poetry (which is always confessions about the bad stuff in life, you might have noticed), or as acedia poetry that is disassociative from the soma, and from other aspects of psychology.

• a renewed emphasis on words as transparent carriers of meaning, rather than being ends in themselves. The experiment of Language Poetry, still dominant in critical circles, is beginning to fade in practice, if not yet in theory.

• poetry that is in the lineage of Rilke's Thing-poetry; of Lorca's duende and mining of the strata of existence that also generates Surrealism; and of Robert Bly's formulation of "leaping poetry," which he describes as poetry that "leaps" from the conscious, cerebral, intellectual mind suddenly into the subconscious, archetypal, shamanic, mythic mind, and thereby gains power and resonance.

With this last point, I am perhaps committing the sin of placing myself at the end of an evolutionary chain, since this lineage of poetry—Rilke, Lorca, et al.—is one I feel I belong to, if only as a distant descendant with no real claim to any substantive inheritance. It is the type of poetry happening with some poets, again mostly below the radar, that I feel kinship with. This cluster includes several of the West Coast poets such Jeffers, Snyder, Everson, and others such as Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, jane Hirshfield, et al. And other poets who I've run across, whose books carry a definite mythopoetic charge, most of whom are relatively unknown, and are definitely under-recognized in the professional poetry world of MFA programs and academic criticism. (If anyone's interested, I'll compile a list from within my personal poetry library at some point, when I have a significant chunk of time.)

Nonetheless, I feel this revival of the archaic, the archetypal, the "primitive," is creating a genuine revival of soul in some contemporary poets' work. I can connect this to several similar upwellings of the old powers that are seeking to integrate with the new, to create something that will live and endure. At root, this poetry seeks to re-enliven contemporary poetry, and cure it of its overwhelming acedia.

The keyword here is integration.

There are parallel developments happening in philosophy, in which some younger thinkers are trying to restore to philosophy its interest in ethics and soul, as well as in pure reason. At the end of the Medieval period, in the Western history of ideas, at the beginning of Renaissance and continuing into the 17th C. Enlightenment period, myth and superstition gave way to reason, the scientific method of experimental observation, and ultimately to the logical-positivist, materialist worldview. This led to the development and triumph of a technological, instrumentality-based civilization. But now, three hundred years later, there is a desire to re-enchant the world that science and philosophical reasoning have disenchanted, have divorced from body and soul. There is concern that technology divorced from ethics produces catastrophe, manifest as environmental degradation, overpopulation pressure, and even nuclear holocaust. There are now philosophers and scientists seeking to restore soul to reason, and to integrate them into a synergistic, greater whole. And there are scientists trying to do the same, from the opposite direction.

In poetry, a parallel revival and integration of the mythic, epic, bardic/skaldic, and prophetic/vatic modes of poetry is beginning to emerge—more properly, has been emerging for some time, but has largely been dismissed by the mandarins of postmodernist mannerism—to stand alongside the currently dominant poetic modes of the personal (post-confessional, narcissistic) lyric, the language-oriented word-play-based "clever" poem, the didactic/philosophical poem, and the prevalent "workshop" poem (usually some small observational slice-of-life irrelevant to anyone but the poet and her friends).

So there is hope for the future of poetry. Really, there never was any doubt. It's a basic law of art and psychology alike that whatever is discarded or repressed will eventually return from the shadows in a new form.

Previous entries in this series:

Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random

Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random 2

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Light on the Ocean

images from northern California, Pacific Ocean, February 2011

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Mendocino Sunsets 2

images from Mendocino Cty., CA, February 2011

Two consecutive sunset evenings, one from the end of the peninsula that hosts the town of Mendocino itself, the other from the end of a small parkland peninsula in Ft. Bragg. Clear skies with clouds at Mendocino, for at Ft. Bragg the following evening.

Both evenings, after the sun had set, I put the tripod on the camera and made some time exposures of the waves. Between a second and four seconds long, these time exposures make the whitecap waves blue into sheets of foam or misty fog.

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