Saturday, April 30, 2011

Process of Writing 6: Organization

Rambling notes on the process, again:

Tonight I've begun a process of compilation. It's time. I am copying the lyrics, both sketches and more finished sets, from the pocket notebook(s) that I always carry with me, to write things down in no matter where or when they come to me, into a larger spiral-bound notebook. Time to make a book of all the lyrics. Get everything pertinent to the same song onto the same page, where it can all be taken in at a glance. Easier to work with, easier to shape into something coherent when you can see it all at once.

(From reading the large retrospective biography book on Susan Seddon Boulet, one of the great shamanic and fantasy artists of recent years, and personally very influential to me, I was also inspired tonight to make a couple of pencil sketches for later colored-pencil drawings. The theme in my mind is Thunderbird, the bird filled with sky and lightning.)

Gathering the materials from two or three notebooks and sketchbooks into one makes it easier to see the overall project, and count up what I've already got so far. I already have partial or complete lyrics for about a half-dozen songs, with a full 14 or so conceptualized, with sketches even if that's all there is. Some of the pieces come into better focus just by gathering everything together. Others I am revising as I copy them, changing a word here or there, to make a better lyric, a better poem, a more singable phrase. Slight revisions with each fresh copy.

Remember, song lyrics don't follow the same guidelines as "pure" poetry; less is more, usually, and keeping it simple usually makes for a better lyric. The music is the matrix, the web, what ties it all together, and makes it soar. Lyrics are meant to synergize with the music, not be great poetry on their own. (If they are, it's usually a rare occasion.) One thing I do strongly feel about lyrics, though, is that content dictates—just as in poetry.

I'm not really counting minutes of music yet; that won't' become clear till later, anyway. There's no penalty for writing more than the commission is expected to be (30 minutes of new music), and they'll probably do it all in our premiere concert, even though only 30 minutes of music will be performed at GALA in Denver in 2012. A larger piece is no bad thing, for other performances, and other concerts, and if other groups also want to perform the piece later.

I've realized I want to write a song about bullying, about being bullied, and about standing up to it and fighting back. I'm not sure such a song is completely relevant to the overall project, but I'm going to include it, since I feel the need to. We'll see if it gets used, or becomes a stand-alone piece. It wouldn't hurt to have a stand-alone piece, regardless.

I spent some in Adobe Illustrator making score papers for the commission today. Generating staff in various combinations: chorus and piano; chorus and piano and soloist; etc. I will no doubt come up with other iterations later on, such as duo plus chorus and piano; solo or duo and piano with no chorus. Whatever combinations the larger work needs.

These score papers are generated so that I can start doing final pencil scores. Finishing the music in pencil. There will be time later on to engrave the score in music software like Finale. I'm having difficulty purchasing a copy of Finale for my own use, for this commission project. And even if I could have bought it by now, I know there would be a learning curve for me to master the software. So there's no point in waiting to get the software, in order to start writing. I'm going to do final score pencil masters as I go, and assume that either I'll get the Finale software later, or find some other way to engrave the score when it's all done.

It's always fun to play in Illustrator. It's some of my favorite software. It's what I usually design logos in, for both vector-art and type-based logos. You have a degree of fine control in Illustrator available almost nowhere else. (Except of course in comparable vector-based software.) Drawing music notation score paper in Illustrator is relatively easy. I remember back in music, we had to do such technical rendering by hand, using the same tools architectural draughtsman used.

It was good to learn how to do it that way, though, as the concepts are permanently engraved in my mind, and thus doing it in a software environment is even easier. That's been true for my entire graphic design career, really: learning it the old handmade way has made the software always easier to use, because you know the origins, the roots, the beginnings of design. I'm of the last generation to have learned all these tools and techniques by hand, before computer software became the dominant means and method of doing the same tasks. I love my software, it makes it easy and clean and often simpler to execute a design idea. But having the hand-made foundations has made everything conceptually richer, in my opinion.

I took the finished score papers over to the copy shop and xeroxed off several sheets apiece. Now, I can begin actually notating finished pieces. That's what I plan to devote most of my creative attention to, this coming week. Get as much down as I can, as soon as I can, so that when I have my operation at the end of June, I'll be ahead of schedule—and I have every reason to believe that the operation is going my brain out and make me unable to work for at least a couple of weeks, maybe longer. So I'm pushing myself extra-hard right now, beforehand, in anticipation of needing a few weeks of brain-dead downtime. (Who knows? Maybe it won't be a problem. But let's not assume that it won't be, and get caught short. As the Boy Scout said to the other Boy Scout, "Be prepared!")

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Photography Don'ts

From an old vintage drugstore photo packet, found on the Web, some classic advice to the amateur shooter.

Ah, the old days of slow film speeds!

Yet some of my most interesting photos have been hand-held time exposures.

Taos, 2004

NIght Ride Home

Minneapolis, 2004

Of course, I also do a lot of time exposures on the tripod, too.

Ghost Walk (Chicago, 2004)

Ursa Major, Joshua Tree, CA, 2005


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Struggling with Form

Struggling with form, with how poems break out of you and take shape, sometimes beyond your reckoning.

I've said all this before. Sometimes it bears repeating again, just to keep it in mind. And, perhaps, with each contemplation you circle around a little bit closer to the truth, and state matters a bit more clearly. Perhaps in the end approaching something like a creed.

It's unfashionable in this overly rational, left-brain literary day and age to be a writer who goes on intuition and instinct. I take a lot of flak for that. Those who want to tell us how to write seem to want us to be always mentally prepared, intellectually alert: as though knowing exactly what you intend to do, even having an outline, makes for better writing. That sort of pre-planning may be very helpful when writing a murder mystery or an essay, writing in which narrative plot or the sequence of ideas matters, but it can by contrast stifle spontaneity. Lots of prose writers, when they first attempt a poem, make the mistake of thinking that prose rules apply to poetry, where they do not.

For me writing a poem is entirely about spontaneity. A poem comes when it comes. Sometimes I can feel the urge, feel it coming, before it arrives. Sometimes I sit down to wander through my journal, and the next thing I know a poem has written itself, almost entirely without intention or conscious anticipation.

It's also about receptivity: I keep my antennae tuned, as it were, to the poetry wavelength and bandwidth, like keeping your radio astronomy dish pointed at a specific location in the sky, waiting to hear what comes down the aether and into the wires. The discipline of writing that I follow is not to write every day, or try to; it is, rather, to simply be ready. When a poem floats by, you have to be ready to catch it.

I don't write a poem a day, I wait till I feel like a poem wants to be written. I don't go looking out in the forest for poems, I wait for them to knock at my kitchen door. I don't go seeking poems out. I don't set out to Write A Poem. Sometimes what I find myself writing in the morning doesn't turn into a poem, but into something else. I find myself caring less and less about those definitional boundaries between "prose" and "poetry," and cross back and forth over that line without any regard for it.

Maybe that's a passive, feminine, anima-based way of being a poet, but it seems to me that the animus-based, masculine, active ways of being a writer often result in carefully-structured, taut, body-built Poems For Engineers. Poetic culture has become dominated in this age of celebrity cults and marketing by extraverts, and one thing that has always been true is that extraverts rarely understand their introverted cousins. Even though writing can be a very inward activity, often done in silence and solitude, not only introverts are writers, and publicity is itself a very extraverted activity in a culture dominated by extraverted attitudes. Historically, poetic culture has always been tied to listening, to the muses, to right-brain forms of consciousness: until the Modern era, which became dominated (perhaps in reactionary overthrow against late Victorian Romanticism) by left-brain, conscious direction.

Even the Surrealists, who delved into the unconscious for inspiration, took what they'd harvested inwardly and shoehorned it into left-brain modes of writing, the forms and styles already in existence: they were still active and decisive, rather than passive and free-flowing, in the Taoist sense; and unlike the Dada artists, they were still invested in creating artistic respectability. The Surrealists may have wanted to mine the ore found in the right-brain chaos, but they still wanted to refine that ore into the polished chromium gleam of dominator-culture showpieces in brightly-lit galleries. They took what the unconscious gave them, and used it: not on its own terms, but still under their conscious direction. (Magritte as ever was the exception, and he openly stated that he thought of himself an explorer of consciousness, not as a Surrealist painter.)

I usually don't know what form a poem is going to take until after I've started writing. Usually by the third or fourth line, the poem has revealed its form. I rarely set out to write within a specific form, dictating form before content emerges. If you want to adjust form later, during revision, that's a separate yet equal concern.

Form is often revealed in the writing of the poem, then. It doesn't pre-exist. I've invented a few new forms, over time, which began as something stumbled into, or revealed, but which I then might use again, if I liked the structure it gave. Most of these invented forms aren't like things you see in free verse lyric poetry, which of course is a free zone for inventing new forms, or avoiding form. I do agree with those poets who theorize about form emerging organically from the poem's content, about how content dictates form. I feel that way, most of the time, myself.

The only forms I regularly write in that aren't either spontaneous or invented are those I've fondly adopted from Asian cultures: haiku and its related forms from Japan; the Chinese and Indian classical forms. Mostly haiku and haibun.

I think if you worry too much about form, you end up meaningless. This is not about meaning in your writing, poetic meaning, meaning in your poems: it's existential. It's meaning-of-life. It's whether or not your life is pointless and meaningless, or if (following Albert Camus, following Viktor Frankl) you are able to generate some meaning you can hold on to, that gives you a reason to endure the rest of it. Form is inherently meta-meaning: some poets (mostly neo-formalists, but not exclusively) cling to form as if to a life-raft, something to hold onto lest they drown beneath the sea-cliffs of chaos. The over-emphasis on form, and on craft, often seems to be driven by fear of chaos, of formless free-floating anxiety about the absence of a keel and rudder with which to steer through life, be it moral, ethical, religious, philosophical. Whatever mode of structure that gives form to a life, to remove fear of the Void, that is what is clung to.

Another way, not a better way, just an opposite way, is the embrace of the Void—out of which meaning can also be wrestled, but not by imposing a pre-existing structure out of fear. Rather, by finding in oneself the code of what one believes to be right livelihood, right interaction, right work, right action. There can be a thin line between Buddhist psychology and existentialist philosophy, when apparently divergent paths arrive near similar endpoints. When one stands on the lip of the Void, looking in, sometimes one discerns a Smile on the face of the Void: an awareness that there is something living in there, something maybe worth living for, where it seems there is Nothing. The vision of the Void comes in pairs: first the despair, then the acceptance. First the horror, then the realization that one can still go on living: even if one must create one's own meaning in life, or discover it. We seek meaning, even if that meaning is nihilistic or based on other kinds of rejection, rebellion, reaction. The angels who rebelled against Heaven are the same archetype as any teenager rebelling against parental authority. When an angel grows up, it realizes that maybe, the parental was the friend after all, and they discover themselves to have evolved into their own parents. Form can be similarly self-generating.

There appears to be some function in the Universe that generates emergent order. Systems formerly inchoate become complex enough that they generate emergent patterns of governance. I don't know if a divine impulse is necessary to propel evolution, since self-organizing systems seem to be the way all life coheres. You and I are not singular organisms, we are vast collections of trillions of self-organizing cells; and living cells themselves have been anciently colonized by symbiotes and parasites, each performing a function within the generator. Discrete organelles, the mitochondria that power us were once invaders, then symbiotes, now integral sub-systems.

Poetry can be similarly self-organizing and generative. It does not have to be willed: as though the will alone was all that's needed for creativity. Thinking the will and intellect alone are all we need to generate poetry is what got us into this postmodernist mess to being with; and you cannot think your way to a solution of a systemic problem by using the same kind of thinking that got you into the problem to being with. Organic form emerging from the writing itself is like a biological self-organizing system—if not exactly the same, the analogy is still useful.

That self-organizing systems can emerge from primordial unorganized soup affirms the mathematics of chaos theory, in which it can be shown that order does emerge from apparent chaos, and that meta-levels of order are present even in fully turbulent, chaotic systems. There is nothing truly random in nature: what we perceive as chaos we simply haven't understood as ordered, as yet. This lack of randomness in the Universe is a great mystery. Many seek to interpret it as a divine impulse, a primum mobile, an original creator's impulse. I've always found it ironic that both religious texts and many poets hail the source of all the Universe as beginning with a single Word. It amuses me that many poets, especially those who believe in the primacy of words over all other artistic media, are sublimely unconscious that their laudation of the Word is a primary religious instinct. The left-brain rational form-worshipping poets are essentially worshipping at the altar of the First Word.

But there are other metaphors of creation, equally self-generative. The First Light of the First Day, an explosion of Light as the big bang. The First Sound, which is not a word per se but a Voice, singing. I wrote an aphoristic poem, years ago, following a visionary experience, that remains, for me, a summation of the nature of the divine:

For God is
an infinite voice


in a place
filled with


One of those insights and intuitions that just comes to you, in the same way that poems do, and maybe from the same well or river. After all, making art is bound up with Creation: we even call it "creativity." That's no small word, in any context, although we often take it for granted, rather than contemplate its truly puissant nature. It would be catastrophic to go around on a daily basis surrounded by perceptions of the true nature of the Universe, those fields and flows of energies and particles, the lack of solidity of matter, the truth that everything is in vibration, expressed as frequency and amplitude, which is what a singing voice is: pitch expressed as frequency and amplitude within a carrier medium. We are immersed in a breathable atmosphere, the outer skin of our planet's systems: air, which transmits sound, fluidly and sensually.

So poetic form, to follow this existential conceit to its conclusion, is a religious, biological, mineral, energetic necessity. You cannot actually separate form from content—except arbitrarily and intellectually, both of which in the end are illusory. Thus, to let the poem invent itself as it proceeds, to let it determine its own emergent, organic form, is a form of worship. Perhaps closest to the root of awe, the Taoist flowing acceptance of the energies behind appearances makes the most sense as the structure of a Way of Poetry, a religious practice of poem-making, a Way of enlightenment not distinct from Zen or the Tao as a path towards completion, fulfillment, and transmigration. We all evolve from chaos into order—but the order is self-organizing, not willfully imposed from without by a structured ideology we'd rather believe when we can't deal with what we actually perceive.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Process of Writing 5: Bumps and Drives

Notes at semi-random:

Finding myself having difficulty working at the moment. I got another part of a song for the new commission, lyrics if not full melody, this past weekend. I was driving down from the Twin Cities after a short visit, and got three verses of a song about living in the Midwest.

I might need to get out of here for awhile. It's become a pattern that I get my songs for the new commission most easily when I'm driving. Not listening to anything, just thinking about it, and the ideas come. If driving is what I need to do to be able to write, I'm going to make situations in which I can drive and write, even if I don't have anywhere in particular to be going towards.

I'm having medical issues that are getting in the way. I had minor surgery a couple of weeks ago, a cystoscopy to remove bladder stones, and I'm being slow to recover. Everything is taking longer to revert to normal; which is not a surprise, as my chronic illness constantly depletes my strength and immune system. I'm in a lot of pain this week, which is not really from the surgery, but is caused the cold damp weather making my joints ache, and my old injured shoulder and knee touchy and sore. That happens.

We're getting a lot of rain right now—the flowers in my garden are beginning to explode into their full beauty, and I enjoy checking them over every day. I'm not suited to a cold damp climate, so I'll never live in Scotland or the Pacific Northwest. Visit to see the beauty, but living there for a long time would destroy me. I'm a tropical boy. I should probably settle in a warmer dryer climate, eventually. Maybe go back to New Mexico someday. I'm rambling here, just thinking out loud. Don't take it seriously.

The medical issue is that I have to see the doctor about figuring out what painkillers work for me now. It's become very clear that morphine derivatives will no longer work for me. Even if they dull the pain, they give me severe nausea to the point of vomiting—which is highly counterproductive in the context of recovering from abdominal surgery of any kind. We need to work out what painkillers will work for me, and not cause me sever side-effects. I've always been very sensitive to medication, almost never needing the full dose usually given to most folks. And in some cases I've become allergic to specific pain medications. So what's left? I might be looking at a long process of painful recovery with little pain relief. That clouds the mind. It's hard to focus on writing music when you're in so much pain that you can't think clearly. It's distracting, to be say the least.

I've also discovered another issue that is interfering with the music writing: I am currently rehearsing for another choral concert, as well as writing new music, and the concert music that I am memorizing is interfering with the writing. This is completely unexpected. I'll work it out, although I don't know how just yet. I know from experience that I am memorizing songs for a concert when they start playing continuously in my mind: that's exactly how they sink in and get memorized. The problem is, that is beginning to interfere with writing new music. It's like being in a mall elevator and unable to escape the Muzak being played. It can drown out everything else. Even when it's good music, it can be overpowering. Such is the life of a VKA. Meanwhile, the music being memorized is playing in my head, and I can't easily "hear" the inner music out of which I am to be composing the new commission. I hope I can sort this out soon. It's worrying. On the other hand, being the worrying type, I suppose I'm making more of it than is really necessary. I'll work it out.

Writing while driving. I seem to write well when behind the wheel. Ideas come forward, and even if I need to pull over to write them down, they keep coming. If I have the strength, what I should do this next month is hit the road for three or four days. Drive off to Michigan, spend a couple of nights in a hotel. Drive around. Keep the notebooks open on the seat next to me. Have lunch in a state park somewhere, and write down the day's musical or lyrical catch. That process seems to work. I knew that I was a nomadic person, but I didn't realize that writing was such a nomadic process, even for me. I suppose if I were living a century ago, I'd be on horse-back or camel-back, heading nowhere in particular, writing as I rode.

Meantime, my studio computer has been repaired and seems to be working brilliantly at the moment. No more unexplained weird behaviors, so far. It's been a full year since I got anything of any significance done in the studio, since every time I booted up I spent most of my time fighting the computer instead of being productive. This week I am recovering music projects that had been lost (meaning inaccessible) on old hard drives for awhile. There was one old drive that had most of my current recorded music and DVD projects on it; the drive had gone south; now I am slowly copying off most of the old projects onto a new drive, now that the computer is working. Because the old drive is so messed up, it's taking days to copy project folders over, one at a time; a process that should have taken only hours. All I care about is the data, though; when I've recovered the data, the old drive can be a doorstop for all I care. It will be good to have recovered all these old music recording projects, and be able at last to finish them.

This will definitely give me something to do while I'm recovering from the major surgery still to come this summer. I'm not nearly finished with this medical saga: yet creative work is often the only thing that keeps me going. That gives me a reason to endure, to persevere, to keep going. Quality of life is low, except for whatever creative work I can keep doing even while feeling like crap.

It can be frustrating. It can also be annoying. So what do you do? You just have to keep going. Endure. Persevere. Even if there doesn't ever seem to be an end to it, you just keep going. No other purpose, really. I once read an interview with a famous film director from Canada, who was asked what was the meaning of life; he replied: "Do the next thing." That's good enough, for me, for now.

Later: Another note about writing in general, articulated for me by a fresh experience:

In my current situation, with my current level of available energy, there are only two priorities in my life—everything else is either on a secondary level, or on hold—my immanent medical situation, involving surgery and recovery, and hopefully regaining the health and strength that I've lost in recent years; and writing this new music commission. Nothing else really matters. Well, some things matter, but they can take care of themselves, for the most part, without my attention or energy. I pay the bills I need to pay, I deal with the daily preparations for medical stuff, and I work daily on the music. Nothing else is as important. My closest friends know this, as we've talked about it together; and they understand if I don't have the time or energy to be very social right now.

Nonetheless, I tried an experiment. I went back to one of those online poetry critique boards that I used to participate in, a place I hadn't visited in literally three years. (Which in Internet time is like a lifetime or two.) I said hello to the old friends still there, and to a couple of new participants I don't know at all. I did the usual thing, post several critiques of other poems before posting one of my own.

Then I posted one of my newer poems, one from the Letters series, and all hell broke loose. It got called a not-poem: something I'm actually used to. It got taken to task for its style, its structure, its contents, and I got taken to task for calling people on their prejudices. That is, for insisting on honest dislike over covert or veiled dismissal: feel free to hate this poem, but don't rip it to shreds for the wrong reasons. It was an interesting reminder of the past. Of why I left such forums some time ago.

Most of the criticisms reduce to the essential: This isn't what I think poetry is. This isn't what I do. Why can't you write more like I do? With only a couple of exceptions, that was the gist. No attempt to meet the poem on its own terms. No attempt to meet the poet about what the poem was trying to do. Have people become so insular, so incestuous, that they cannot see past their own habits? Cannot see where the lines are dissolving, and the strict categorizations don't work anymore?

I grant that I was dismissive of their dismissiveness, which I perceived as supercilious and completely beside the point. Is this not a venue to critique the writing for the sake of improving it? I grant that I took things personally for awhile—with every right to do so, I believe, when no comment was made about the poem but I was called names before there was even any discussion of why the poem might be the way it was.

But then, I saw some very similar attacks being made towards the prose-poems being presented by one of the other long-term poets on that site: the person who I most wanted to interact with again, whose writings are so memorable and powerful, to me, that I will seek them out. Whose writings have been turning me on, artistically, for years. Yes, we have some things in common in our writing: chief among them a growing lack of interest in the definitional walls between "prose" and "poetry," and a desire to explore how to move between modes (say, journalistic and lyrical) within a single piece of writing. I don't take the attacks on my current writing so personally, after all, because I see that some of the aesthetic prejudices on display are universal: directed towards all rule-breakers equally. Not just me, in other words.

Then there was one person who made the comment, which I thought was almost telepathic in its perceptiveness and insight: Admire the in-between-ness. Can't nail down a style. There's a certain level a poet reaches where the workshop becomes superfluous, you're there, but man I appreciate your voice and prescence here. After everything else, that really made my day. That really gets at the root of it. Not only can I also not nail down a style for these newer poems, I don't want to. I think it's irrelevant. (And I can, if necessary, cite my poetic precedents for this direction in writing. it's not completely alien, nor is it entirely new.)

As for reaching a certain level where workshopping poems becomes superfluous, I don't claim to have reached that level. Yet I don't find the workshop environment particularly useful anymore, still. I'm still not getting any useful critique—which was one reason I vacated the premises, those years ago. (That, and the interpersonal bullshit.)

So I seem to be still following my inner compass for now. It's not that I reject critique—although I do feel it acceptable to reject "critiques" that aren't based on meeting the poem on its own terms, but are de facto attacks on the poetic aesthetic itself. I would love to find a small group of mutually honest poets who would do just that: meet each poem on its own terms. I had that once; but that group has long since imploded. The bottom line is, if you're not getting useful critique from your workshop, what incentive is there to participate? (As I implied above, things that waste your time are not priority one. Not when you're dealing simultaneously with a commission and an illness.)

I'm not arrogant enough to believe that all workshops are superfluous for me. However, the proof is in what you get out of it. If the workshop is not directly assisting you in improving your writing, ignoring all other factors, you're wasting your time. I'm not arrogant enough to believe that my time is more valuable than anyone else's—yet I am self-confident enough in my own creative work to believe that my time and work are as valuable as anyone else's.

No doubt some will call any honest self-assessment of one's own creative abilities arrogant, if that assessment is not pathologically self-effacing—because "arrogant" is a word people use to shame others into cooperation. It's the same as with "should"— a word designed to coerce others into doing what you think they ought to do, act how you think they ought to act. What I do have at this time in my life, if I am indeed "arrogant," is a very clear sense of my own priorities. Pleasing others just to please them is no longer priority one—and, thanks to the lessons I have learned from this chronic illness, never will be again.

How does any of this affect my commission writing?

First, as I said above, there are only two high-priority things in life for me, for the foreseeable future: Working on the new music commission, and dealing with my health issues. Period.

Second, I take this fresh experience with workshops as a reminder to—well, not exactly keep my distance, but—invest very little time therein. A certain level of detachment. A certain distance. Checking in, and participating, certainly, but not that often, and only to the limit of my interest. Keep it minimal. Don't spend much energy on it. It will probably be there, still, a year from now, when both the current commission and the current medical crisis will have theoretically been resolved.

And that's more than enough to deal with. I am content to do just that.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

A Poster for Poetry Month 2

(Click on images for larger versions.)

A version of the poster I designed for National Poetry Month, used as an element of another design idea. Not the first image I've rolled through one of my vintage typewriters, but this one definitely fits into the poetry/words/type/art theme of the original poster.

This is an idea I've explored before, in which the image emerging from the typewriter is one impossible to have done so: an anachronism, a technological impossibility, yet evoking both the history and the development of printing technology. The contrast and overlap are poetically evocative, for me.

This close-up, tightly-cropped version is my favorite version here, I think. I like the image emerging from the machine, as though it had been typed up. The dominant element is the Poetry Month poster, though, not the typewriter. The balance and composition of elements is important in any poster design, and I think this has a better balance than the overall view.

Questions were raised in comments on my original presentation of this poster design, from Eshuneutics (who is always worth reading), that are relevant to the poster design and concept on several levels:

. . . Would anyone notice it [the poster] is gay? Now, isn't that the eternal question again: What is gay art/poetry? This intrigues me more and more (because as you wrote in a post, the gay image [in] mid-America is not the same as on the coasts, in other words, we don't belong to the stereotype). If the wordle had SEX, QUEER and the image was a male couple, hey, it would be obvious. Yes, obvious to the gay stereotyping mass. To me, there is an ambience to the poster that says something. . . .

These are really interesting questions. They don't really have answers, at least not definitive answers. Some answers can be found, personally and locally, but these questions will remain open-ended for most writers and artists. I want to return to the question of ambience, or sensibility, later. But first, let's deal with the obvious.

Yes, I could have made the poster more obvious, more openly and overtly homoerotic (gay, LGBT, homosexual, etc.) by including more obvious elements such as gay-tagged words in the Wordle clouds, or a photo of two men embracing (which I do have, from past photo shoots), or two women, or other obvious signs and symbols. (Bang a cymbal to make the symbol more obvious.) It's not hard to make LGBT content explicit: all you have to do is depict same-sex couples together.

Although, let's be realistically honest about same-sex couples nowadays, and avoid one older set of stereotypes: in other words, let's use psychologically-positive and openly-loving images of gay couples. Depictions of gay lovers as innately self-hating and self-destructive, bitchy, unstable, and promiscuous are themselves stereotypes.

There can be purpose to using the stereotypes. With some people it is necessary to make it obvious. With some others, maybe less necessary, but perhaps polite. My intent was indeed to make a poster mining the oft-overlooked wing of poetry that is openly, even proudly, LGBT.

But what makes a poem gay? Subject matter? Sexual content? Explicit statements in the body of the poem, along the lines of those explicit signs already mentioned? The fact that a love poem written to a man by another man might logically be considered gay in intent and subject? (Not overlooking the truth that a poem written from a persona or character viewpoint isn't necessarily portraying the author's character or viewpoint, even in a so-called confessional lyric.)

While I have been explicitly homoerotic, even sexual, in some poems and art, I also find myself wanting to be subtle and indirect about as often: an oblique approach to the subject matter, that evokes rather than bludgeons the audience. Perhaps this is Midwestern reserve; at times it probably is. In other instances, it may be because I am less interested in reportage and more interested in metaphor and parataxis. No-one writes the same poem in the same way all the time, or ought to.

It can also be a desire, in my case as an artist and writer, to depict love and desire, rather than simple fucking. To present eros as itself, in its aspect as life-force, the power under all life, that moves us to unite as two solitudes meeting, on an energetic/psychological/spiritual as well as physical level. I am more interested in eros and Tantra, in my own art, than I am in producing work that others might view as purely pornographic. I am interested in transcendence—which does not exclude the physical, the raunchy, and the explicit, but rather embraces it—since the essential practice of Tantra is to take the power of the raw, base emotions and convert them into fuel for attaining enlightenment.

There are ways to subvert artistic stereotypes, just as there are ways to subvert clichés in poetry, by turning them on their edges. One tactic is to overdo the stereotype to the point of absurdity or irony. (An overused tactic of postmodernism, one I don't like very much.) Another is to make substitutions that are near to the stereotype, without exactly repeating it; the audience will perceive a conceptual echo of the stereotype, but be thrown off because it's not an exact replay.

I find myself, in a poster design such as this one, as well as in art and poems from time to time, preferring the oblique approach. I want to evoke, not bludgeon. I don't want to fall into stereotype, precisely because I want to give a fresh take on Poetry Month, from a different direction. There is also a connection between Wordle word clouds and both traditional concrete poetry and contemporary VisPo (visual poetry), although the latter has (like much post-avant-garde poetry of the present moment) more theory than practice supporting it.

It is possible to evoke LGBT literary and artistic history, I also believe, by using the old, pre-Stonewall, pre-Gay Liberation tactic of the "coded text." It was common, in much LGBT art and literature prior to the modern LGBT rights movement(s), to hide or "code" the queer content by using tropes familiar to subcultural insiders that outsiders would not know about, and therefore completely miss. Signs and symbols, turns or phrase, images, coded words: these were all used to evoke "the love that dared not speak its name" to those already "in the know" while excluding those ignorant of the code.

For this poster, using coded texts seemed an appropriate way to give the poster a gay sensibility without being stereotypical or blatant. In this case that meant using some of my own poems that are homoerotic without being sexually explicit as source texts for Wordle. It also meant using a male nude from a previous photo shoot, although the nudity is mostly hidden by the text itself. For one version of the poster it also meant using pink as the dominant color, which is a color associated with gay rights via the historical pink triangle used by the Nazis in World War II concentration camps for homosexuals, and reclaimed since as a positive gay rights emblem. Although personally I prefer the blue version of the poster, on purely aesthetic grounds, an art director might use the pink version precisely because of what it evokes. Again, how direct do we want to be?

To return at last to the question of ambiance or sensibility, the question arises again and again regarding if one is able to locate or identify a "gay sensibility" in artwork and poetry. Is there indeed a gay sensibility produced in his art by an artist who happens to be gay, even if the content of the artwork is not overtly (blatantly, stereotypically) gay, sexual, or homoerotic?

Although I do have an opinion here, at the moment I want to point out that discovering a gay sensibility in an artist's work is often a sub rosa attempt to identify the artist's biography with their artwork (the authorial fallacy), under the assumption that any gay artist must produce gay art even if they don't overtly want to. This assumption is itself a sub rosa (perhaps unconscious) attempt to categorize an artist's work based on their "innate" character or sexuality—which is itself a subtle form of homophobia. (Even liberated gay artists sometimes find subtle forms of internalized homophobia in themselves and their work; it can be a major opus to root it out.)

Homophobia? Indeed. You almost never see straight (non-LGBT) artists' sensibilities discussed in this same way, as though their sexuality was the dominant and deterministic factor in their artistic sensibility. The fact that it matters at all if there is or is not a "gay sensibility" can be taken as covert homophobia, and in practice it often is just that. For many straight critics discussing LGBT art, discovering a gay sensibility can be a road towards critical dismissal, a way of saying that this art doesn't matter to normal people. Indeed, for many mainstream critics this is a common and typical road towards critical dismissal of any and all "genre" art, from LGBT content to science fiction—and thus are enforced the critical and psychological standards of normative social and sexual expression. Normative critiques against non-normative stereotypes can be a direct, if subtle, forum for reinforcing what is considered normative: dismissing the margins keeps the center in power.

Discovering a gay sensibility in art, however, can also be taken as an attempt by gay artists to reclaim a formerly negative label as a positive emblem, in exactly the same way that the pink triangle was reclaimed. But to be taken this way, it seems important to know that the reclaiming is being done by other gay artists, rather than non-LGBT critics. This brings us back, full circle, to the insider's coded text. The distinction between insider and outsider, regarding discovering a gay sensibility in art by a gay artist, therefore, may be as simple as knowing whether the motivation behind the discovery is homophobia or reclaiming.

My own opinion is that there is indeed some kind of gay sensibility in art—the word "ambiance" is apt—although pinning it down can be elusive. It must vary from artist to artist, so it may be more useful to discuss gay sensibilities (plural). Different aspects appear at different time, in different ways. The subtle line between overt and coded. Can I tell you exactly what gay sensibility is? No; and I doubt anyone else can, either. In my own art, I can say that I do think that because I am a gay man who makes art, some aspect of my own sensibility, which is that of a gay man, gets into all my art, whether or not that art is openly, blatantly gay in content or not. It can be very subtle.

I do believe that one fundamental aspect of my own sensibility, which is a gay sensibility, and which might be shared by other gay artists, is empathy: the ability to walk a mile in the Other's shoes. To use imagination to create unity between disparate people. The use empathy to feel the suffering and joy of others. To be very aware, having grown up as an often-attacked Other within my own culture, of how the Other thinks and feels. Sympathetic thinking is after all one road to genuine empathy. if you can understand how someone Other has felt like a victim or a victor, you can walk a mile in their shoes. And thus all of my poetry, all of my art, I believe, contains the certain use of imagination and empathy to make those connections. I build a lot of bridges. Parataxis and collage are useful artistic tools that I use all the time.

All this discussion from a simple throwaway poster design made on a whim, for an annual designated national month about poetry that no-one except poets really cares about or will pay attention to!

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Poster for Poetry Month

Every April in the USA is National Poetry Month. Nobody really cares about this, or even notices it, except poets, academics, and English teachers. There is usually a flurry of commemorations, both analytic and creative. it's not uncommon to see poetry workshops challenge their participants to write a poem a day for the duration of Poetry Month. Some public consciousness of poetry is indeed raised during the annual festivities, but then it sinks back below the public consciousness once the month is over. After all, April contains other, more urgent annual events, such as the day every year by which one must file one's income tax return. Poets struggle hard during April to raise the public consciousness of poetry, and the discourse around poetry. Overeager poetry literary-critical cheerleading spouted by poets during the month ranges from bland analysis to hysterical hand-wringing about the state of poetry nowadays. It must be said, one feels, that it's only because poetry is suffering public indifference and disinterest, most of the time, that it needs an annual bout of boosterism.

I am not big on boosterism. However, just for fun, last night I made a couple of flyers or posters, incorporating word-clouds made using Wordle, that are celebrations and/or announcements regarding National Poetry Month. These were design ideas that were sparked by running across various celebratory boosts in the literary world. I thought about all the earnestness, and decided one needs to also encounter some playfulness.

I find myself getting into trouble, again, for not obeying the rules that many poets impose on their own practice, and would like me to follow as well. I find myself once again indifferent to the definitional boundaries between poem, prose-poem, and poetic prose. I frequently pass across those boundaries, within a single piece, without taking any notice. This offends poets who wish to keep the definitions and boundaries intact and pure.

One of the reasons I like Wordle is that it makes words into visual art. There are rhythms within the visual forms that Wordle creates from your poem, essay, or random journal entry. This takes poems into a realm in which a poem's meaning can get decentered, while at the same time creating something like an illustrated poem, a haiga, an illuminated manuscript. The words lose context and syntax, although how they become juxtaposed can create fresh linkages between words. I appreciate how a word-cloud can then become part of a larger collaged image, adding layers of experiential communication to to a ohoto or illustration. Words and image can sometimes synergize into a greater whole.

In other words: Design and illustration wherein word-clouds are just another visual element, although naturally some linguistic meaning will accrue.

So, just for fun, I made a couple of versions of a poster or flyer for National Poetry Month, using my photography and poems.

Let's start with the poetry element. Here are three word-clouds based on my poem Needles.

Wordle's sorting algorithm for creating word-clouds from texts sorts frequency against size. Thus, the more often a word appears in a text, the larger it is in the cloud. Position is randomized, disconnecting meanings.

Here's a couple more word-clouds, made from my poem Letter to ____.

And here's a word-cloud made from my poem Walt Whitman's Summer Wander Across North America.

These examples give, I hope, an idea of the range that Wordle has within its operational parameters.

That last Whitman-based word-cloud ends up in the poster I designed:

(Click on image for larger view.)

And here is a different version of the poster, in which the most obvious design change is the background color.

(Click on image for larger view.)

I'm also thinking of re-photographing these poetry posters in conjunction with one of my antique typewriters, to add another layer of writerly and design interest.

My own spin on a poster for National Poetry Month was to take a marginalized poetic subculture rarely represented during the annual celebration, and foreground it. A poetic subculture, I might add, that I care deeply about personally, but which the poetic mainstream rarely has time for. I'm referring to openly gay and lesbian poetry.

So I chose a photograph of mine, with a nude model at the Pacific Ocean. The word-clouds are made from two or three of my own poems with homoerotic themes, including the Whitman poem mentioned above.

I wonder if anyone would notice, if I didn't point it out.

They'd certainly see Whitman's name in there—but then, Whitman is considered a universal poet nowadays; a lot of Whitman criticism outright ignores the homoerotic aspects of the sexualities presented in his poetry. Unless one deliberately foregrounds the "Calamus" poems from the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, plenty of scholarly critics and poets are happy to overlook Whitman's open homoeroticism. The usual argument goes: "After all, we're trying to raise the public consciousness of poetry, here, so we don't want to muddy the waters by emphasizing controversial subject matter!" Exclusion of such "controversial" subject matter is merely the most subtly pernicious form of censorship by the poetry mainstream. Whatever makes them squirm is to be avoided—which is paradoxical, since the deliberate obscurity, disjunction, and obliqueness that is currently fashionable in much contemporary poetry is exactly what makes many general (no-poetry-specialist) readers squirm.

I might revisit this poster design concept later, perhaps, using the "Calamus" poems as my source texts. That could make for an interesting take on this poster concept, particularly if I also include in the collage a portrait or two of Whitman, and more of my own homoerotic photography. Maybe later.

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Papier-Mache Art Bowls 8: Further Experiments

A mixed bag produced this past week, with some mixed feelings. Not every piece came out as well as I'd hoped.

This time out, I tried using a little more glue in the papier-maché matrix of white glue and water. I am still trying to find the exact right proportions of glue and water—and frankly doing it by feel and eye rather than measuring cups—and I think I may have erred on the side of too much glue this time out. I'll show the results of this possible error, below.

I made this group of decorative papier-maché bowls early enough in the afternoon, on a warm day, that I was able to put them in the sunlight to dry for part of the afternoon. Drying them in the sunlight made for good results with the black paper bowls, but the other bowls still needed to dry out overnight.

Black Bowl and Vase

These two black bowls, or rather bowl and vase combination group, came out fine. They are a reproduction in heavy black torn paper of the bowl and vase I had made earlier out of a similar weight of torn purple paper. (I have since gifted the original purple bowl and vase to a friend.) I am now contemplating doing a series of bowl and vase combos, like these, in a rainbow of colors, as a set. It could be an interesting large set, with possibilities for arrangement and display in various groupings.

I think the particular success of these combos is the vase, which, if you put some small stones in the base, is very stable and doesn't tip over. I imagine one could put small stones in the accompanying bowl as well, and put dried flowers or some similar decorative touch in both, and use them as a designer centerpiece. The unique aspect of such a decorative set, of course, is that you made the containers, as well as the arrangement. There are several possibilities here yet to be explored.

For another new group of decorative papier-maché bowls, what I experimented with was making an original illustrated paper to use. I have been experimenting already with making bowls illustrated with my paper prints of my own photographs—for example, the Stone Circle Nest Bowl—but I've been using existing prints from my back catalogue. This time out, I wanted to try creating a paper specifically intended for making into a papier-maché project.

Crocus flowers, Beloit, March 2011

This photograph of blooming crocus is my personal favorite photo, and possibly best photo, this year so far from my garden. Since spring was in the air, I decided to use this image as the basis and inspiration for a larger, designed art bowl.

So I took the crocus photo and ran it through Photoshop, creating a distressed-paper look that I intended to appear, when finished, like hand-made paper incorporating the flowers into its texture. It's an illusion made entirely in Photoshop, of course, but it looks like some of the handmade papers one can find at fine paper stores such as Hollander's, that mecca of book design and decorative papers in Ann Arbor, and that was my intent. Here is the result of this paper-imaging experiment:

I then laser-printed several sheets of this designed paper, and used it to make the larger bowl I had envisioned. I had enough left over to also make a smaller, square bowl.

Crocus Paper Bowls

Both bowls use the Crocus Paper on the exterior, leaving the interior plain. I envision these bowls being used as containers for cut flowers, later this spring, as part of a decorative table display.

Crocus Paper Bowl II

This is the smaller of the two Crocus bowls, and perhaps the more successful. The problem I mentioned with the glue earlier is visible here, on the bottom of the bowl. There was so much glue in the matrix, that the two Crocus Bowls took a long time to dry, and when I pulled them from the mold, each was mottled on the bottom. Imprints from the plastic wrap I use to line to molds were clear in the base, making for a roughened texture I hadn't anticipated. That isn't so visible here, in this photo, but one can still feel the wrinkled texture. What is visible here is the shiny, almost plastic-coated appearance of the base of the bowl, after the bowl had completely dried. It actually looks okay on this smaller of the two bowls. It might also make the bowls slightly more waterproof.

Crocus Paper Bowl I

The larger bowl, approximately nine inches in diameter, had similar issues with extended drying time, wrinkled texture caused by the glue, and shiny appearance. In addition, the plastic wrap tore the paper in a couple spots when I removed the bowl from the mold, leaving a couple of visible imperfections. Maybe it's just my perfectionism striking a muted tone against my expectations, but I was a little disappointed with the end result here. It looks better in the photo than it does in the hand, to be honest. it doesn't look bad, it just wasn't quite as good as I had envisioned.

As a technical point, you can see from the group photo above that I lined the inside of the larger Crocus Bowl with black paper. This is the same heavy black paper that I used for the bowl and vase combo above. Inside this larger bowl, I made a spiral of small black triangles that spin out from the center and halfway up the wall. This was done mostly for structural support, to give the bowl some extra heft. As a structural element it's quite successful; as a design element, less so. The spiral itself looks pretty good, reminding one of organic plant forms, but the black paper darkens the bowl's appearance from the outside, because the printed Crocus Paper is not completely opaque. Fortunately, the black interior will be mostly unseen when the bowl is filled with objects, for example cut flowers. I think that next time I try this structural support idea inside a bowl I will use either more complementary-colored paper, or pure white watercolor paper. That will give a lot of strength without color-shifting the bowl's appearance.

So, these were experiments with, in my opinion, mixed results. In some ways, the purely black bowl and vase are the most satisfying pieces this time out, because of their simple purity of color and design. The Crocus Paper bowls were an experiment in making an illustrated image bowl, with more mixed results. I've learned from the process, though, and will probably try to make better objects later using this same Crocus Paper. What I think works here is the original design and illustration, the concept of custom-making an image intended to be made into papier-maché. The execution was not as good as I had envisioned, however, and I'll do better next time, having learned from my errors.

I readily admit that this is the artist's expectations in play, here, and others may find these "imperfect" objects to be beautiful and pleasing just as they are. When you're experimenting, you have to expect a few "mistakes" and "failures" to occur, as an artist. Then you learn from the process, get better at what you're doing, and experiment anew. No artist ever gets it right every time—and the audience almost never gets to see the mistakes made during the creative process, or the process of learning to work with new materials. I'm being pretty open about my feelings about my art, here, as a way of both recording my learning process, for myself, and as a way of passing on what I've discovered along the way. Thus, I'm documenting the process as much as the results.

As a lagniappe, I am offering for download, for free, the original full-resolution print-size JPG version of this Crocus Paper here. (Just use your usual browser download procedure to download the JPG file to your desktop.) You can use this as a stock image for a poster or other piece, or for your own papier-maché projects, or even as your computer screen backdrop. Please, if you do use this Crocus Paper image for a project you've designed and/or illustrated, send me a JPG of your work, just for my own pleasure. I always enjoy seeing what people come up with. Thank you.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Nausea and Fossilization

Afternoons of anger, and something unnamed, bordering on
self-pity. A few days ago under anaesthesia, etherized on the table,
for the removal of three large calculi, accretional soma-made stones,
from the bladder. They go up the dick with a tube, a camera and a laser,
suck out the small ones, break up the big one and suck that out too.
The proper word is aspirate. As though breathing in, breathing out,
ice fragments up a straw. The urologist saying it all went very well,
nonetheless, you pee blood for a few days, then the painkiller
specific to the urinary tract makes you pee orange for a few more days.
Back home, outpatient surgery although you spent most of the day
wearing a backless smock and a wristband with name and allergies listed,
the worst headache in years, probably from drug and anaesthesia
interactions, mind fogged by the general painkillers, antibiotics,
and loopy with logorrhea. Called a friend to tell him all went well,
entertained him for an hour with being wacky from the drugs.
Days later, still feel like crap. Hurts less. No more narcotics, those make
you nauseous at the best of times. The stress of the day stacked up
against the ongoing chronic illness making that worse, making the recovery
that much slower. Lose another week to this, when all instinct is to
resist and work to get better. Brain foggy, body restless, too tired
to actually do anything, tried working in the garden, fruitless, frustrated
and ready for nothing. So it goes.
Now the storm outside reflects the storm that was within, that passed out
with the expelling of stones, moving out of the flesh into air,
hard wind rain and tornadoes down south feeling just what you felt
a couple of days ago, acting out on the grand scale. If only psychology
was so refractive. Traces of bones in the ground. Deer ate the tops off
the newly sprouted tulips. Stigma of snow against wind-riven spruce.
How long does it take to get your life back? Seems longer every day,
every time you look at it. Endless regression of endpoint, Zeno's receding
goal. Now its going to take even longer to recover, to get your life back.
This surgery only a foretaste of what's to come. Some part wishes you'd
been able to keep the removed bladderstones in a lucite tube, little stones
made in your body, like concretions and geodes. Your bladder a flexing geode.
Chances are, there will be other stones. Never going to be able to drink
enough water to prevent it. So they'll monitor. Every so often another scan
just to check where you're geologically active. Kidneys or elsewhere,
your own body a sedimentary shore where laminae are being laid down.
If you bend and fold in the right directions, the yoga of orogeny,
the laminae will soundlessly crack and be spat out, burning only somewhat.
Like a lost tooth kept in a jar. Little handmade boxes, filled with tiny models
of what could be called art. Puzzle-boxes to open and marvel over. Small traps
for the eyes of the unwilling. Cemented self-stones set inside like lotus jewels
of enlightenment. Or at least a box for forgetting.
A crystal growing inside the skin. Flesh becoming stone, calcifying,
limestone, dolomite, pillars of salt, we all turn into salt plumes
when the sun raids. Becoming stone inside. Legs ache from this running on.
When the calcification encounters epidermis you being to marbleize, statued,
someday rediscovered as cave-bacon within your own earth,
your permanent shelter underhill.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Process of Writing 4: Lightning

A few days ago, rather than drive home through a fierce thunderstorm after chorus rehearsal in Madison, I went with some of the guys to a local all-night restaurant for awhile. One example of a restaurant chain I often frequent, but don't feel like giving free advertising to by naming it here, it's one I know I can reliably find gluten-free food at. The night was windy, the moon was high in the sky, and off to the east and south a bank of restless clouds was continuously and relentlessly lit from within by lightning flashes. I would have to drive into that, if I left right away. So I spent a good hour or hour and a half at the restaurant with the guys. We ate, we chatted, we laughed, we told jokes, we told stories. It was a good night.

By the end of our gathering, only three of us left after the others had gone, we evolved a discussion about what it's like to live as a gay man in the Upper Midwest, and other aspects of personal story that lie at the root of the new music commission I am undertaking for the chorus. It was a very good discussion, and some real insights and terrific anecdotes came forward. Meanwhile, throughout our talk, the restaurant's music system was playing 50s and 60s novelty and nostalgia pop songs; songs I hadn't heard in a long time, but which seemed apt for our walks down memory lane. Those songs lingered in the back of my mind throughout our conversation.

When I finally left to drive home, I was tired but content with the day. I had indeed given the storm enough time to pass by, and didn't have to drive through it. The drive home was smooth and relatively easy.

About halfway home, driving down the interstate through the dark, a melody came into my head. Just a simple solo voice line, something mostly positive in feel, with a little bit of poignance to it, but an upbeat tune. I sang it to myself enough times to memorize it, building a longer line, making some chords around it. Ideas for chorus and piano parts to accompany the solo line. Then some words started to appear. A phrase or two, based on one of the life-stories we had been talking about at the restaurant. Just a few words at first, but by the time I got home, I had three short verses of lyric.

I was one
gay son
in our family
Mother disowned me

Then my brother
made two
gay sons
in our family
Mother did not know
what to do. . . .

I prefer subtle rather than blatant rhymes, and I like internal rhymes. Nothing chimes more clumsily on the ear than obvious and predictable end-rhymes, especially when the line is as short as it often needs to be for a good song lyric. Easy end-rhymes make things way too sing-songy, way too easy to make inappropriately ironic. So slant-rhymes, off-rhymes, and internal rhymes are going to appear a lot in the lyrics for the commission—many segments based on the stories I have gathered, as this was—but not more than a few telling end-rhymes. Where you place a rhyme can create dramatic tension, and can itself be a musical effect, like a canon or leitmotif. I also like to use structural rhyme, forms and melodies that recur in separate stanzas without being too blatant. This song has a few rhymes across each stanza, which the listener will take in and interpret as unifying structural points, even if they're not really conscious of the technique of it.

Poetic craft is meant to serve the poetry, not serve itself. Craft is meant to be invisible, or appear easy. It's too tempting to pull out all your poetic chops and over-write song lyrics; just as it can be equally tempting to pull out all one's musical tricks and over-write the music. Most poets who come to songwriting overwrite their lyrics at first, trying to show off every crafty trick they know how to do. Simpler is usually better, though, in song lyrics.

The rest of the drive home, I was singing or humming words and music to this new song in my head, sometimes out loud. When I got home, I went into the house, and immediately sat down and notated in score what had come to me on the drive home. When I was done, I had a complete song sketched out, whose theme and elements were based on some of the stories that the guys had told me earlier, about their own lives. I've written down the essential parts now, enough to shape the overall form of the song, and need only to fill in the bones of the accompaniment. The words and the music came together, this time. A phenomenon I've heard about, from singer-songwriters, but haven't often experienced myself. I added a little bit more tonight, while just sitting and thinking it over.

So, lightning strikes, and you get a full piece out of it. That was a good night's effort.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Rumours of Spring

Our first really warm spring day here, the bulbs emerging and exploding into color. First the crocus, which already started a week ago and are almost done by now. Then the daffodils and tulips and lilies coming up in the front garden. The back porch garden, which gets the most light, the tulips already going.

In the morning, still foggy, the tulips not yet open. By afternoon, when the sun burned off the fog, these exotics were already fully open, fully colored, spread wide.

I have a lot of standard, familiar, red chalice-shaped tulips. But my favorites are these exotics. Tulips that are different from the norm. I have some fringed varieties, also, that will open soon. I like the varieties, and I like the unusual flowers. My garden as ever is planned to be a riot of color, with blooms opening and blasting out their colors from now until autumn. Always something in bloom, always something giving out color and life.

And then, of course, there are the lawn sculptures in the stores they're trying to sell you to make your garden even more "beautiful." Nothing I would ever buy, or ever put out. I love the natural beauty of my garden, these hilariously kitsch items would do nothing to "improve" it. But they're fun to look at in the store.

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Saturday, April 09, 2011

Aubade of the Unfiled Receipts

Every time I walk by the desk where I address my financial duties,
on the way to or from the tall shelf of poetry just beyond, a small
cascade of loose receipts glides off the stack of papers to-be-filed
and falls like big snow to the carpet. A miniature avalanche, a dataslide.
Knocked loose by the breeze of passage, unnoticed while we're nosing out
more interesting reading. The receipts fall slowly, fat flakes rustling
across dried kindling, whisper of paper sliding across itself,
silent in its last resolution on the white rug like a field of late-winter white.

Vacuum abhors a paper avalanche. Have to pick things up by hand,
throw them back on the pile in no order. The file cabinet, gray industrial
enameled steel squatting beside the desk seems lonely. I open its maw so little.
File cabinets appreciate the desire to make order out of chaos. Embody it.
My desks, one in every room, each purposed to unique tasks,
seem to attract disorder, mess, dust, entropy. File cabinets are anentropic.
By organizing these piles of old bills, we slow down the heat death
of the universe. Paper is organized tree pulp, strands of fibrous cellulose
absorbing the ephemeral inks of everything that seems to matter.
Paper trails of relationship, marked with signs that remember who owes what
to who, although rarely why. Actuarial tracks in an open field of flat snow,
white sand, unmarked cotton mats, blind in the hard noon.

I can tell you who you loved by auditing your receipts. Here's one for
dinner and a movie, another for a lapel pin from a state park, one for a visit
to a thrift store marked purely as an "item." You and I were once an item.
Now you're leaving me again. Here, I can track our progress by those visits
across state lines, as though we were parolees who needed receipts for travel.
The condition of a desk reflects the mind of the user, they say. In which case I must
be a mess falling over piles of snow. It's true my heart gets cluttered. But I mostly
don't use this desk; it's just a holding-plane for things I need to put away.
I'd rather take the chequebook to the kitchen counter to write those unpaid bills.
I usually sit at the porch table to fill out applications. Where on hot days, naked
in summer, we served each other breakfast. That long indigo evening,
getting quietly drunk on home-made margaritas, the salt on your skin
sweeter than the salt on my glass, when we played with plastic demons,
silly and sillier. I have the receipts

for the key limes we bought to make a pie, tarter than tart, golden, delicious.
Real key lime pie is dirty yellow, even gold, like sunsets over the Keys.
Only the tourists eat that green crap. I have the receipts
of the shopping spree in town where we came home with bags of books
on psychology, history, sex, and poems. I kept finding books
for you to buy, that you had wanted anyway. You glared at my every archaeology.
I have the receipts for that visit to the Japanese garden high over the valley.
When we got lost in silence under whisper trees, the chaotic world gone distant.
Organization brings an ending. Filing away a kind of killing. I put it off,
not wanting it to end. As long as I don't file you away, I keep us both alive.

I never throw anything away. I have the receipts, somewhere, deep in the pile,
maybe in a box in the basement, for those key lime truffles you served
on your naked flesh for me to devour. A blend of spices and flavors unlike
what most restaurants can imagine. What is it about food and sex, anyway?
I keep all my receipts, against the day I might be audited.
Will they ask me why I saved them, or just how much? I have the receipts
from your bus to the airport, which I picked from your pocket as we hugged
farewell. I save everything of yours. I have all these receipts.

Maybe someday I'll make a bonfire, and burn up every trace of our lives.
Fall of snow leaves off the desk as I pass by.
Remnants I don't try to pick up anymore, a drift of white waves.
Paper trails as memory. More visible than photos.
All that's left of us, when we've said our end togethers.
The file cabinet steels itself against doubt. What I leave unfiled
for now, can be left unfinalized, pretend we're still alive,
an unfiled item holding hands in the last light on the porch
till it's too dark to read these final marks.

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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Pescadero, CA

Images from Pescadero State Beach, California, February 2011

A sunny, windy day at the ocean, at one of my favorite places by the ocean, that I never fail to stop at if I'm in the region. I've had many powerful experiences here at Pescadero: finding my first dreamstone; camping in the redwoods a mile inland after watching the sunset here; the archway under the cliffs at various times of the year, filled with smooth brown sand, or whipped open to a channel of jagged multicolor rocks covered with green sea-grass, tidepools surrounding the carved channel; making photographs in all kinds of weather; making love once in the sun on the rocks, naked when no one was around. A place that has given me visions, some of my better photographs, poems and more poems, landscape art sculpture, and more often than not, the peace of a quieted heart.

wave patterns on skin of stone
crescent moon wave finger lovers touch
the secret gull's secret home

net of waves weaver's loom of tide against sunrise calling along
explicit coastline roofbeams and rough driftwood walls become stone
ephemera coral white intrusive in blackveined seafloor fragment rock
whitewind wavecrash laugh high in bright air falling at foot of blackcliff
oceanbed wind memory here where orogeny and omega align see what
destined crumble there is to descend devour crash and endless erode away
rock in sand becoming sand over rock becoming sand in wave over rock
till every tide push and pull pools underhill underground making a new

rough angle of shore solid against infinite moving shore
berm of peninsula raised in arroyo salute to sea salt sun

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Process of Writing 3

There's a famous story in the history of science, of the chemist who was trying to work out the chemical structure of benzene (an organic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon [PAH] now used in a lot of modern technologies). Benzene had been discovered as a byproduct of oil refining, and they were trying to figure out its chemical form.

One night, this chemist went to bed, thinking about the problem. During the night, he had a dream of a snake chasing and eating its own tail. This is the classic Ouroborous symbol from alchemy, an image of a snake or dragon eating its own tail, constantly creating itself. It's a complex symbol, and is found in more than one mythology.

In the morning, when the chemist woke up, he realized that the central part of the benzene molecule was a carbon ring. This carbon ring, which is a hexagonal ring in which the carbon atoms form a circle with points for other atoms to attach at every other carbon atom, is the central molecular structure of all PAHs, and is why they're aromatic, work well as industrial enzymes in organic chemistry, and so forth. (Also why they're very toxic.)

So the chemist had a dream that solved his creative chemistry problem.

Last night, lying half-asleep sometime near dawn, after going back to bed after having gotten up to use the bathroom, I lay there and the first two pages of the final form of the new music commission became clear in my mind. Clear in every detail, all four chorus parts and the basic form of the piano entrance and accompaniment. I knew exactly how the piece was going to start out; and part of this I knew would recur as the opening of the final movement of the new music, harking back to the opening as an echo and return. (Another dragon or snake closing in one its tail, perhaps.)

So from a near-dream state, I have the piece's opening finished. I'm writing it down on score paper today, although it remains very clear in my mind.

This isn't the first time I've dreamt a poem, or piece of music, or visual image, and woken up with it vivid in my mind, waiting only to be transcribed and written down. I once had a dream of a powerful solo performance on cello; in the morning, I was able to get down the basic notes of the main melody, if nothing else. It left an impression that lingered a long time, though.

I'm sure I'll have more dreams that are completions of musical questions. Not the first, not the last.

Update, a day or so later:

I wrote down what I saw in the dream, and the sketches of piano accompaniment patterns and ideas. More ideas keep coming, now. Another moment of laying half-awake, half-asleep, gave me another module of music that could follow the initial opening of the piece. Other ideas keep coming.

At the same time, during the waking hours of the past few days, even while writing these ideas down on staff paper, I've been coping with some frustrating medical issues—a quest for clarity and certainty and answers where they may be none, or none that I like. I found myself in the waiting room at the doctor's office, music sketchbook in hand, writing music down. At least it's better than sitting there just stewing and brooding. It's funny how things get all tangled together. I feel like another poem might be coming on, soon, too. One surge of creativity in one arena often is echoed by another surge in another arena.

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Monday, April 04, 2011

Process of Writing 2: Myths of Practice

This morning I found myself writing, while thinking-is-linking about the process of writing:

Process of writing is more than putting notes down, putting words down. There's a lot of thinking-about-it time. Non-writers never seem to understand this. You turn things over a long time at the back of your mind before you ever write them down. Lots of folks think it's easier than it really is. It's actually pretty hard. You can knead that mental dough for days before anything happens. People have this weird mythical idea that creativity is an act of conscious will. But anyone who's ever stared at the blank page knows that the only place sheer will ever matters is in the daily discipline of willing oneself to go on writing.

Of course, people also have this weird mythical idea that you can fix all of your problems merely by thinking them through; in fact, there are a lot of problems in life that can't be solved by thinking about them. Creativity is not a "problem." In fact it's ridiculous to think of it as a problem to be solved, although people do just that, maybe because they've gotten too used to writing to prompts or in response to examples provided by an instructor. But writing is not a math problem, not a "problem" to be "solved" or a broken object to be "fixed." I see a lot writers act like car mechanics, approaching each assignment in that fix-it attitude. I suppose that's why a lot of self-help literature treats the enigmas of life as mechanical problems with mechanical solutions. I suppose that's also why a lot of people try to "fix" psychological problems by taking a pill. It's a pervasive cultural attitude.

This was an insight about writing prompts that I hadn't articulated to myself before. It snuck up on me quietly, while I was thinking about something else. I want to expand on it a bit more, now.

I've never been entirely convinced of the worth or utility of writing to prompts; my own writing practice doesn't really need, or want, that kind of exercise. You see writing prompts a lot on workshop boards and writing-tip blogs, mostly those geared towards relative beginners. The idea is to challenge the writer's mind, get it in gear, make a response happen. For relative beginners, it can be a kick-start, and a way of developing and honing the ability to tell a story, to put experience into words.

It's a good exercise for some, as it can give them something to write about, which they might otherwise not think to do. Some writing prompts are more interesting than others. Some do spark the occasional bit of inspired poetry, if they catch your mind on fire.

I've tried writing to prompts, when pressured to do so by friends on the online poetry boards I used to spend some time on. And once or twice I've even participated in one of those "write a poem a day for a month" challenges. I mostly did so when encouraged by a poet-moderator-mentor who specifically invited me to participate. I almost never made it through the whole month, by the way. I skated by, sometimes, by coming up with at most a optical haiku. Which was fine, as far it went.

What usually results from writing to prompt, in my observation, is a five-finger exercise: in terms of piano literature, a Czerny etude rather than a Chopin Prelude. The technical skill may be there, and one or two good ideas, and the craft is well-exercised. But the end result is a sketch, a warm-up piece, a practice exercise. Rarely does a real poem emerge from writing to prompts. Such prompted poem may be good exercise, they might limber up the fingers, but they aren't in themselves musical. What would you rather listen to, a pianist practicing scales for an hour, or playing Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit"? I've read published books of "poem a day" poems, even by famous poets, which were dull yet self-congratulatory: look, I made it through the process.

The concern I have about poets writing to prompts is that it's addictive. It can so very easily become habitual rather than necessary. Some writers write to prompt, or some other tip idea, so often, sometimes just "to get the juices flowing," that they get into the bad habit of thinking that this is how writing is so supposed to be all the time. It promotes the idea about writing poetry that it is a conscious, craft-oriented, linear, left-brain practice. That writing a poem is like making a puzzle, then solving it. (Which typifies a great deal of bland workshop poetry that gets published these days.)

Writing a poem a day, for a week or a month, usually results in mid-level poems, not great ones. In an experienced poet's hands, you might not get crap, but you rarely get anything worth keeping, either. The reason you get mid-level poems is because you feel forced by necessity or agreement to write even when you feel dry, stale, and uninspired. Oh gods, I have to write a poem this morning, but I have nothing I want to write about; so I end up writing a poem about having nothing to write about; or I search frantically for some topical idea or kitchen sink moment. You write just to be able to say you have written a poem a day, not because you really wanted to.

The problem is, when you do feel the need to write about something, it can come out bland and stale, because you've been exercising too much. Any great athlete knows that you have to take a day off from practice, every so often, in order to achieve your peak performance. If you force yourself to write even when you feel dull, and what comes out is as dull as you feel, how can you expect yourself to write to a higher level when you've worn a groove in the carpet writing mid-level blandness? It becomes habitual.

A writer too in love with words can lose sight of the truth that words are cargo-carriers, not cargo themselves. A writer who gets too used to writing exercise, of whatever kind, can lose sight of the truth that five-finger exercises are not really musical. Etudes are not really musical compositions: they're pieces designed to improve performance dexterity so that when one plays a real piece of music one has the technical skill to do so. But dexterity exercises are not meant to be art, and rarely are. A writer who gets too used to writing to prompt can lose sight of that.

WRiting to prompt is a skill other than writing to inspiration.

Maybe I'm going on about this too long, but it's Really Important.

It's an aspect of a problem often discussed in writer's circles but rarely addressed: namely, that writing is not a math problem, nor is it problem-solving, nor is it simply the engineering of grammar and syntax. The only thing they can teach you in creative writing classes (seminars, workshops, tip websites, MFA programs)) is craft. They might be very good at teaching you your craft, but the one they can't teach a poet is inspiration, and having something to write about. The reason a lot of workshop poetry is bland is because it's written by young people whose whole lives have been spent in school: they haven't enough life-experience, yet, to really have anything to write about. Maybe in ten years after getting their MFA, they'll find a subject matter that their craft can serve. Many don't ever get to that point. (They do get published, though.)

Here's a writing exercise that many writers will be unable to do, or afraid to try:

For the next fifteen minutes, quietly observe the world around without describing it in words, even in your mind. For fifteen minutes, notice the sky, the sunlight, the way things look around wherever you are, and do not put it into words. Silence the inner narrative. Calm the continuous inner journalistic note-taking. Just be silent, inside as well as outside.

My observation is that most writers can't do this, even if they try. The practice of translating experience into words has become so habitual for these people, that it has become a crutch, a prop for their very sense of being.

On the other hand, I've observed that when a writer can succeed at this practice exercise, can be really non-word-focused for a period of time, when they come back to assembling words, their poems often contain a freshness, a depth, an appreciation for language that is no longer stale and habitual, but refreshed. Like taking a rest day, a vacation from one's habitual practices and patterns, to return to work later fully rested, relaxed, and refreshed.

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Process of Writing

Short notes and random observations about writing a new music commission:

Still early in the process. No guarantee any given sketch will make it all the way into the finished piece. Some I already know are the seeds of final pieces. Others just tossed out at random, as they come up. One or two sketches I'm pretty sure are orphans at the moment, one or two others I'm pretty sure will grow into final flowers. it's still too early to start being picky about them. Just write and write and write, and sort it out later.

Writing away from the piano is better than writing at the piano. If you write at the piano, you tend to fall into habits based on your playing skills and habitual kinesthetic patterns. If you're a great player, you tend to write complicated music that no one else can play, just because you can, and this turns into showy music that often lacks heart; if your piano skills are only adequate, you tend to repeat what patterns you already know. When you write away from the piano, it breaks these habits, and you're more likely to write down what you hear in your head, rather than whatever patterns your fingers usually fall into.

I don't regard my own pianistic skills as virtuosic. I regard them as adequate to the task. I can sight read okay, and I can play through many things okay. But I'm not going to give a recital of virtuosic showpieces any day soon. Probably never, in fact, as I don't value virtuousity for its own sake. Give me musicality over flash anytime. I'm not an accompanist, and I'm not trying to impress anybody.

(The Taoist wheel of cycling of light and dark. Only two things that are first-tier priority in my life right now: Writing this piece of music (light), and my unresolved medical problems (dark). Everything else is second-tier priority, at best. Wheeling together like white and black carp in the moonpool of living time, each chasing the other's tale in endless cycling.)

Filling up three sketchbooks at the moment. One small pocketbook in my shirt pocket for those moments an idea comes while I'm out doing errands, or driving into town. This notebook already more than half-full, lots of ideas coming up while driving out West on the roadtrip at the year's beginning. Five-stave music score sketched in by hand on some pages. Another two sketchbooks of music paper, filling up with both words and music.

One or two pieces written at the piano anyway. One I'm fairly certain will work. It has the piano part, the chords and patterns, pretty well down. Now I just have to find the right words and vocal lines to fit with it. Not force them to fit, but follow the idea as organically naturally as possible.

Hard to write these projects at home. Twice now have gone down to a coffeeshop by the river downtown, just to get out of the house, away from the easy daily distractions, find a place to focus. Have a cup of hot chocolate, sit and write for an hour or so. Just getting out of the routine is makes things more likely to happen.

Contemplating taking a short roadtrip away from home, just for a couple of days, so I can write. Maybe drive up to Escanaba, where I know a pretty nice hotel, check in for a couple of nights, write in the cozy room, or find a café overlooking Lake Michigan. It's still winter up there, though, still new snow on the ground from the storms now passing through here as thunderstorms that further north are still winter storms.

Still trying to acquire the Finale notation software which I'll need to put the music into before all is said and done. One of the two software notation packages that dominate the field now. It's practically expected that you engrave your own performance-ready scores nowadays. I was always a good music copyist, even worked at it professionally just after college. Did orchestra parts for a couple of Broadway-bound shows. When the show was put on in Ann Arbor, the friend of mine who played the male lead in the show really stood out; later on, I've seen his name in the actor's credits of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing a Ferengi. Which made me smile.

Process of writing is more than putting notes down, putting words down. There's a lot of thinking-about-it time. Non-writers never seem to understand this. You turn things over a long time at the back of your mind before you ever write them down. Lots of folks think it's easier than it really is. It's actually pretty hard. You can knead that mental dough for days before anything happens. People have this weird mythical idea that creativity is an act of conscious will. But anyone who's ever stared at the blank page knows that the only place sheer will ever matters is in the daily discipline of willing oneself to go on writing.

Of course, people also have this weird mythical idea that you can fix all of your problems merely by thinking them through; in fact, there are a lot of problems in life that can't be solved by thinking about them. Creativity is not a "problem." In fact it's ridiculous to think of it as a problem to be solved, although people do just that, maybe because they've gotten too used to writing to prompts or in response to examples provided by an instructor. But writing is not a math problem, not a "problem" to be "solved" or a broken object to be "fixed." I see a lot writers act like car mechanics, approaching each assignment in that fix-it attitude. I suppose that's why a lot of self-help literature treats the enigmas of life as mechanical problems with mechanical solutions. I suppose that's also why a lot of people try to "fix" psychological problems by taking a pill. It's a pervasive cultural attitude.

Next task I need to do, on a purely organizational/management level, is sit down, organize all the sketches, start sorting ideas about the same piece onto the same page. That will probably mean copying things out onto fresh sheets, just so everything connected to one piece is in the same place. Things are a little scattered throughout the various notebooks at the moment. Well, that's fine—you write things down when and where they materialize, on whatever is handy. At least I was smart enough on this project to designate notebooks, rather than random loose sheets, when I set out in the beginning.

I'm still sorting through the stories given to via writings and interviews from the men of the chorus. Looking for patterns and commonalities. Even though it's late to still be gathering stories via interviews, there are a few guys who haven't responded to my invitations till now, so I'm gathering material. A few of the earlier interviews have given me some incredibly good material to draw on. One man from the chorus spoke to me passionately about how, when he sings we feels fully alive. All his problems go away. "When I sing, I feel free." That is going to go into the new music, and I even know where: it's going to be the core of the finale, the last movement, which I want to be about triumph, affirmation, freedom, validation. I want to end the piece on a ringing note of overcoming and triumph. "When we sing, we are free." I can't imagine a better ending, right now.

I'm also sorting through how much of this new music is "mine" versus "theirs." The commission is intended to be based on the stories of the members of the chorus, on what it's like to live as a gay man in the Midwest, what it's like to grow up "different" in the Midwest, how we're different in our Midwest culture from the urban-dominated gay cultures of either coast. Those differences do exist, but they're hard to graph out on paper. They're not math problems, subject to being diagrammed in symbols or formulas. The rural/urban dichotomies are only part of it. At the same time, this is my piece of music that I'm writing. I've been commissioned to write it, because they hired me tow rite it, and I'm the author of the text as well as the composer of the music. All those stories are going to be filtered through my own sensibilities, into my own lyrics—not as though I was channelling the lives of others, but as though responding to them. I'm writing this piece, even though it draws on them. That's a balancing act I'm finding to be mostly like juggling: sometimes easy, occasionally requiring a great deal of attention. The lyrics will no doubt contain quotes from individual members' stories—a memorable line, an evocative description or metaphor—but it's not a collage. It still has to come through as a more-or-less unified score.

So I must take the input I'm given, digest it, and re-express it through my own means and style and sensibility. I wasn't hired to be a secretary, I was hired for my creativity, and because I write in a diversity of musical styles. I was hired because of that diversity, not because all my pieces sound alike. My own intention for the commission was always to write both light and dark, life-affirming and anti-entropy, but also including the shadows in our lives, not denying them. I found out after I'd been hired that that was the artistic director wants, too. I want to do a diverse, complicated, multi-movement piece. And I can, and will. The writing is already starting to show different voices, different tracks, different moods and tones and styles. I'm pleased with that. It feels like I'm on track, although it's still early in the process, and much editing will no doubt still happen.

When you write for yourself, when you write for you own joy, you don't have to please anyone but yourself. When you write on commission, you have others to please, too. You're expected to meet or exceed your goals. I'm trying to do both. My personal ambition is to "satisfy the customer" by writing the best piece of choral music I've ever written. The only way I know to do that, though, is to focus on making each small part the best it can be, and together they'll add up, I believe, to a greater whole. You can't overfocus on the grand scale, you need to just do your best each moment, and let them accumulate. Forward momentum, as ever.

Writing on commission, I find I have less ego about it. It's a lesson learned from being a graphic artist all those years: You can't attach your ideas about Great Art to every project. You have to be able to suspend your own taste, sometimes. When a client asks you to make a change, you do it. You don't take it personally, you don't try to talk them out of it—except on those rare occasions when they sabotaging their own best interests, and even then, you have to at most suggest—you just do it. So at some point in this new music writing process, I expect to sit down with the chorus' key artistic staff and make some changes. Polish up or fix a couple of spots. Discuss the order of pieces, maybe do some re-arranging. Improve the overall piece. And to be honest, I look forward to that. If suggestions improve the work, I'm all for them. I doubt it will be much, to be honest.

I'm still looking for an overall title. Well, that will come. I have a basic idea and outline of the overall structure, the flow of musical movements and moods, the basic shape of the overall piece. I know on what note (as it were) I wish to conclude. I have a pretty good idea about how to open the piece. I have some ideas about musical-thematic echoes, a little phrase or melody recurring later on in a new context that gives it new resonance, new meaning. Bits and pieces of several songs within the overall piece are known. One or two songs are approaching some form of cohesion, if not completion. I need to go back over all the interviews and notes and writing submissions from the members of the chorus, pick out more gems to polish, see what fits where.

Forward momentum.

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