Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman

Time to celebrate the Good Grey Gay Poet.

Calamus 4 from the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass:

THESE I singing in spring collect for lovers,
(For who but I should understand lovers and all their sorrow and joy?
And who but I should be the poet of comrades?)
Collecting I traverse the garden the world, but soon I pass the gates,
Now along the pond-side, now wading in a little, fearing not the wet,
Now by the post-and-rail fences where the old stones thrown there,
   pick'd from the fields, have accumulated,
(Wild-flowers and vines and weeds come up through the stones and
    partly cover them, beyond these I pass,)
Far, far in the forest, or sauntering later in summer, before I
    think where I go,
Solitary, smelling the earthy smell, stopping now and then in the silence,
Alone I had thought, yet soon a troop gathers around me,
Some walk by my side and some behind, and some embrace my arms
    or neck,
They the spirits of dear friends dead or alive, thicker they come, a
    great crowd, and I in the middle,
Collecting, dispensing, singing, there I wander with them,
Plucking something for tokens, tossing toward whoever is near me,
Here, lilac, with a branch of pine,
Here, out of my pocket, some moss which I pull'd off a live-oak in
    Florida as it hung trailing down,
Here, some pinks and laurel leaves, and a handful of sage,
And here what I now draw from the water, wading in the pondside,
(O here I last saw him that tenderly loves me, and returns again
    never to separate from me,
And this, O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades, this
    calamus-root shall,
Interchange it youths with each other! let none render it back!)
And twigs of maple and a bunch of wild orange and chestnut,
And stems of currants and plum-blows, and the aromatic cedar,
These I compass'd around by a thick cloud of spirits,
Wandering, point to or touch as I pass, or throw them loosely
    from me,
Indicating to each one what he shall have, giving something to each;
But what I drew from the water by the pond-side, that I reserve,
I will give of it, but only to them that love as I myself am capable
    of loving.

You might want to dig into The Walt Whitman Archive, where you can find complete texts and scans of every edition of Leaves of Grass, plus a lot of other materials such as photographs, critical texts, and so forth. This is one of the best online archives, that which is devoted to a single poet, of its type that I have run across.

There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.
—Walt Whitman

The Swimming Hole, Thomas Eakins

Calamus 12 from the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass:

AGES and ages, returning at intervals,
Undestroyed, wandering immortal,
Lusty, phallic, with the potent original loins, perfectly sweet,
I, chanter of Adamic songs,
Through the new garden, the West, the great cities, calling,
Deliriate, thus prelude what is generated, offering
    these, offering myself,
Bathing myself, bathing my songs in sex,
Offspring of my loins.

Don't most men who write write without knowing life? Write all over the surface of the earth, never dig a foot into the ground—everlastingly write.
—Walt Whitman

Monday, May 30, 2011

Process of Writing 11: the Push

This past week I went up to visit my close friend and fellow artist Alex in the Twin Cities for four days. He is moving to New Mexico, and this was my last chance to see him in person, hang out, go out to dinner, lie on the couch together, before he leaves. It was a good visit, albeit intense and a bit of a rush. I helped him haul a load to give to the thrift store, and a few other errands.

I was tired when I got home, as it's a six hour drive, and so I spent a couple of days recovering and resting. Today it's gloriously, summery hot, with bright sunlight. I've been out in the garden pulling weeds and trimming back some overgrowth. My tulips are done; there were intensely beautiful this year. The lilies are about to start, and other things are also starting to flower, and will flower all summer long. I've designed the garden so there is color from spring through autumn. I was tired and dizzy earlier today, but then I realized I hadn't eaten yet and I also have been taking an antihistamine that might contribute to the dizziness. So I got some gardening done, and made a good dinner, and went to the store and got more of the other brand of antihistamine that I use.

I noticed that where I planted a patch of wildflowers last year, some have already returned. You have to be careful not to pull wildflowers thinking they're just weeds. So you have to wait an extra week, sometimes, to be sure. Which I waited till this week to weed the garden. Today I noticed that I have a beautiful columbine flower blooming in the wildflower patch, and the alyssum "carpet of snow" flowers are already coming up and starting to bloom. The lilies are huge and ready to bud soon: everywhere I had one or two lilies last year, they've split, and I now have four or five. It's going to be a glorious, colorful summer in the garden. I've already made several good flower photos from my garden this year, and I anticipate a very good summer for making new images.

When I was in the Twin Cities, then home afterwards, resting, I got almost no writing done. I did a lot of thinking about the new music commission, but the only real writing I got done was in the truck, while driving. As usual, being on the road loosens things up. I finished off the lyrics for two songs that had been waiting to be finished. I also got clear ideas on a couple of other songs, and made some notes, which I'll get back to later.


Since yesterday, though, I have been working hard on one song, which finally came into focus this week, and it's almost done. All I have to do is fill in the gaps in the piano and choral parts, the overall shape and frame is already there. It's an angry piece. It's the dark side of being born and raised in the Heartlands, where the shadow side of the tribal message is to stay in the closet, "conform to the norm," and engage in repression and self-censorship.

I am pushing hard to get as much of this commission done as I can in the next two weeks. I have a long list of things I need to get done before the surgery, which is now only a month away. Getting a lot of the music done is my main goal, secondary only to the goal of getting ready for the medical journey I'm about to go through. I feel a bit scattered, with a long list of Things To Do. If I get a little bit done every day, though, I'll somehow muddle through.

Somebody asked me recently how I write, and in thinking about it, I clarified the point that I don't write in a linear fashion. For example, for this commission, I don't write the first song start to finish, then the second song, etc. I write wherever I feel like writing. It's typical to work on up to three songs at the same time, for this commission project. It's typical to switch back and forth, and write all day on the one that most catches my interest that day. I will write a section first that might come near the end of a piece. Then other sections.

The process of finishing a piece in final score sometimes means copying it over one last time, and stitching all the pieces together into a coherent whole. Nobody ever seems to see the seams. Some part of me knows all the pieces, has an overview, even if I mostly focus on the sections at first. Usually the piece in the end is coherent and unified, as it should be.

Breaking it up keeps me fresh. I might jump around between three pieces, writing parts of all of them in one session. It's only when I'm really one a role, and a single piece has developed its own momentum that I find myself giving it all my attention. What catches my interest on any given day is what I work on. The rest will be there waiting when I get back to it.

I find this way of working congenial in part because it minimizes blocks, or moment of getting stuck. if you're stuck and don't know what to do about one section, go off an work on another part of the piece. Many times, the "problem" solves itself, and I suddenly see (it feels like being gifted) how the problem section is supposed to work, how it fits together, and I go back to it to finish.

Some artists find this method of working chaotic and unsystematic. It's not truly unsystematic, it's just a different species of system: nonlinear rather than linear. Some writers of fiction work this way, too.

The only artform is which I do seem to start at the beginning and work through to the end is poetry. But the poem itself might be nonlinear, jumping around as the lamp of consciousness and awareness jumps around. I do write poems from the first line through to the last line, most of the time. The nature of the word-based artform of making a poem seems to call for that. But the mind within the poem, the lamp of consciousness, may be quite nonlinear. I do get criticisms about doing this from the left-brain poets, those who think that writing is an act of will rather than of listening. But such criticisms mean less and less to me every year, as time goes by, and experience shows that my way of creative writing actually produces good results.

More than one linear-minded poet has told me that they cannot understand or approve of the way I write poems, but they cannot find any fault with the resulting poems. (A sideways compliment if ever there was one: that we can't find anything to complain about, even though we believe we should have found something. Such criticisms are to laughed away into the wastebasket they deserve.)

The bottom line in your own creative process is really very simple: If it works for you, if it produces the results you want, or better than those, there's nothing wrong with your method, no matter how eccentric it appears to others. The creative mind is often an unconventional and rule-breaking mind. More precisely, a rule-ignoring mind. It's not about "thinking outside the box," it's more like not even noticing that there was a box. "There's a box?" The most creative people I've met in my life have all been of this type: "There's a box?" it's good example to keep in mind on those occasions where you start to second-guess yourself, or doubt your own creative process. If you trust nothing else, trust your creative process.

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A Rose for Memorial Day

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why I Don't Worry About Posting Poems

1. I can always make more.

The idea that poems, even good poems, are a scarce resource is absurd. As long as you can keep making new art, some of it will be good, and some of it will be worth sharing. The idea that creativity is a scarce and treasured resource appeals to the mentality of some who would jealousy guard everything they own to keep entropy from taking it all away. But that's lack-thinking, not abundance-thinking. It's the mindset of the finite, closed game, in which someone must win and someone else must lose, versus the open-ended mindset of the infinite game, which stays in play forever.

Mostly I wait for poems to happen. (Right now, not many poems are happening, as all those currents seem to be flowing into the well of lyrics needed for the new music commission I am writing.) But I have been known, when inspired, to write to a prompt, or to write specifically for submission within the parameters given by a poetry journal, or other periodical. And I've had some success with that approach. (Although I am tempted to place "success" in quotes purely because what poetry-critical culture views as success is what I almost never think about, especially in the act of writing.)

2. The idea that posting a poem on one's website (or other online venue like this) means that the poem can't be published elsewhere is ridiculous.

Those poetry journals that view posting poems on one's own website, or even on a poetry workshop/critique forum means the poem has been "previously published" and therefore ought to be rejected, is based on the idea that only originality is good and true and must be pursued. Of course, ever since the beginning of the Romantic period in Western art (the early 1800s, circa the lifetime of Goethe), and especially during the Mondernist avant-garde of a century ago, the archetype of Originality, as well as of the Hero-Artist, has been lauded and praised and raised on a pedestal of its own making.

While I am not interested in recombinant or sampler literature—sampler-based music is only as good as its drum samples (kudos to Clyde Stubblefield, the single most sampled and under-credited funk/jazz drummer ever), and sample-based literature such as flarf and Oulipo is only as good as what it is sampling—I think there's a balance to be found between "pure" originality (there is no such thing) and overtly sampling art. Postmodernism is all about the reaction against Romantic and Modernist originality: postmodernism is fundamentally recombinant, with all possible elements viewed as being picked from a level playing field, whether they were formally fine art, outsider art, or popular culture ephemera. Postmodernism views "originality" in quotations itself, viewing all historical influences and root-sources as equally recombinant. While postmodernism's critique of colonial imperialism and hegemonic cultural norms has a great deal of merit to it, the formation of a brave new world wherein everything is reduced to same lowest common denominator of indeterminate artistic merit is not the answer.

And as for original rights in publishing: What, you've never heard of poems being republished in anthologies? Why is it so hard to generalize from that towards publishing a "previously published" poem purely because it's good, and because you, as the editor, want to publish it? The idea that one's journal's prestige is based mostly on publishing original work really limits your options. it's a valid route, if you want to take it, but it's not the only route available.

3. Because I can always write more, part two: Even when I don't want to write a poem, sometimes I do.

The idea that I am consciously in control of what comes out of my creative impulse is based on the false assumption that art is made by the will, from the mind alone, or by a finely-tuned antenna locked on the frequency of the subconscious universe—all of which are subject to the will of the personality-ego. Actually, none of these suppositions are true; although, in our left-brain dominated, personality-egocentric culture, we like to pretend they are. It seems to give us comfort, this idea that we are in control of our own artistic destinies.

All of these suppositions are premises underlying the plaudits given to the Hero-Artist. But the other kinds of artists, including those who seem to channel directly from the back-brain, are the exception that gives the lie to the myth. You can't pretend that Hero-Artists are the most important kind of artists, when the background is filled with other kinds of artists radiating on other wavelengths.

The Hero-Artist is best represented, in fact, by the consciously-willed art-making depicted in Soviet and fascist sculpture and illustration: art made under the dictatorship of the will of the proletariat. Beyond the obvious point that this way of art-making leads to a lot of bad political art, what it implies is that all of life is subject to the will alone, the will in action, the will dominating all other aspects of consciousness and action in the world. This is the dictatorship of the conscious-mind ego, and it is invariably a fragile dictatorship, unable to withstand much contradiction or criticism. Membership in ideology is enforced by brutality: the bullies knocking everyone else down on the playing field of life and art.

Poetry editors who believe, even unconsciously, in this worldview, have a hard time comprehending that poems often come to me when I don't want them to, when I'd rather be doing something. Yet the discipline of being a poet is to be ready at all times for a poem to happen, and to catch it in your net when it rises to the surface. Usually I have to drop everything to get it down before it evaporates. Ideas often come to me just as I'm falling asleep, and I must write them down quickly, to review them in the morning. Answers to problems I'm having with a piece of music, or a set of lyrics, often come this way. Your conscious mind is actually starting to shut down, and get out of the way. And that's often exactly when your clearest, best ideas appear. So much for will.

4. Really, who reads your poems anyway?

Seriously. I do not experience enough hubris to genuinely believe that many folks read any of my poems, or care to. It's a big universe out there. It's no surprise that nobody cares. Don't take it personally.

The only time posting a poem has even been an issue was when some anal-retentive editor did a browser search to confirm the poem had never ever appeared anywhere before. Seriously, if they're going to be that anal-retentive, that hard to please, do you really want to work with them? Well, it's a choice. But it's worth asking yourself what you intend to get out of it.

It's rare that someone new will stumble across a poem, and make a comment on it. It's rare for folks to care that much about it. It's even more rare for them to want to follow up.

5. Nonetheless, sometimes someone stumbles across one of your poems online and wants to (re)publish it.

That's a very nice moment of flattery, that someone noticed you and liked what they saw, and asked you for it. And sometimes for more. I get asked for some of my photography and visual art from time to time. I usually say yes. (Usually. Many requests repeat the mistake of thinking I should be flattered when they ask for something for free. If you really want to engage my interest, offer payment other than free "exposure.") When that happens, it makes you feel like all this art-making is actually worth it. That you're not alone and shouting into an alien universe with nary an echo returning. That somehow, you've managed to connect with at least one other person.

And that's the real birth of your audience. Odysseas Elytis, the Nobel-prize winning modern Greek poet, once opined, and I think this is true: Every poet needs an audience of three, and since every poet has two good friends, the search is always for that perfect third reader.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Papier-Mache Art Bowls 9: Paper Weights

Alongside the Scrabble Bowl I made two other more purely artistic bowls, exploring the possibilities inherent in different weights of paper.

The first bowl was made from heavyweight cardstock paper. I have found through experiment that this weight of paper, although it can be difficult to work with, produces sturdy, heavy finished pieces that hold their shape well. Cardstock paper is heavier weight, heavy than construction paper, heavier even than most greeting cards. It's between normal weight paper and cardboard in thickness and durability. When working this weight of paper for papier-maché, you might have to soak the strips of paper longer in the glue-water matrix, or the paper will remain very stiff. I have found that soaking it a bit longer than usual makes it very workable, and has the side effect of absorbing enough of the matrix that pieces stick together readily even when still wet.

This dark green bowl is part of an ongoing series of darker colored bowls that have accents of gold or yellow on them. In this case, I used shapes cut from a yellow mulberry paper sheet (the same as used below). This ties this green bowl into the same series as the blue and gold bowls made earlier; which are two of my own favorite art bowls.

This dark green paper is among the rainbow of colors available at some of the craft stores in their paper and scrapbooking departments. I plan, now, to make a series of these bowls out of a rainbow of colors: each bowl having a similar shape and size, but with the colors changing to make a rainbow. I plan to display this set as a grouping, at some point.

(bases of dark green cardstock, and indigo mulberry bowls)

Next, I made another bowl out of natural mulberry paper, some of the stock I have left over from previous projects. This dyed mulberry paper is fibrous and tough, but very thin. To make a papier-maché bowl with this paper, you have to use several layers, to obtain enough thickness to give the bowl enough structural strength. So I used two sheets each of indigo and purple, with one sheet of yellow mulberry accent, to make this bowl. When dried, the bowl is pretty strong, but it's very fragile when still wet, so you might want to leave it drying in the mold a bit longer than usual.

Paper this light can be very hard to work when wet, as it tears easily; on the other hand, because this mulberry paper has such large fibers, that helps hold it together. It's best to use several layers of paper, because of its lightness, although you might choose to experiment with lightness and fragility as integral to the finished piece. I'm still playing with this concept myself.

Playing with the light weight nature of this paper, I let spikes and spines dangle over the lip of the mold, pointing downwards, and let them dry that way. This gives the bowl, I think, a ragged yet whimsical outline. It's the first time I've let edges dangle down, and I like the result. There's something almost like a harlequin belled hat look to the edges of this bowl. The spikes dried as curves rather than creases, which gives the bowl a distinctively organic appearance, as though it were a plant growing out of its own constraints.

The yellow mulberry paper stock took on a much darker appearance here, in this bowl, because the dyed colors can bleed with this lightweight mulberry paper. The indigo and purple colors soaked into the yellow, darkening it. I like the result, actually, although I was hoping for more contrast, a brighter shock of yellow against the darker colors. I might try making a brighter yellow swatch another time, to up the contrast, by using several layers of yellow: letting the dye bleed into the lower layers but not the upper ones.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Scrabble Bowl

I was at the local dollar store (one of those discount stores which specialize in overstock, remainders, etc., all priced at a dollar) and I saw a book of puzzles based on the board game Scrabble. Scrabble is one of my favorite games, a word game, a crossword puzzle game. The most cutthroat game of Scrabble that I ever played was a three-way game played when I was studying gamelan in Java, Indonesia; one afternoon we played, allowing words from the languages we all had in common, English, Dutch, Indonesian, and Javanese; I lost, badly, but it was a real exciting game.

I had the idea to pay a bit of artistic homage to Scrabble, so I picked up a couple of the puzzle books and brought them home, to make a papier-maché art bowl.

Each page of the book has a Scrabble board image with some words filled in, and clues to finish the puzzle.

Now, I normally highly revere the published book. I would never cut one up or tear it apart. Such feelings have had nearly the force of a taboo in my life, before. I have thought about participating in a "hurt book" library art-book show such as that which has been sponsored in past by the San Francisco Public Library. Hurt books are books that have been damaged by accident, or through the malice or idiocy of some borrower, and when reacquired by the library are often damaged beyond repair, no longer able to be circulated. In hurt book art shows I have seen, the library has given damaged or nearly destroyed books to artists, who have then sculpted them, altered them, made them into beautiful art pieces. Some art pieces show as much reverence for the physical fact of a published book as I often feel; others are more whimsical, others abstract.

To make this Scrabble bowl, I cut up an entire thrift-store Scrabble puzzle book and used the game-board pages to make the bowl. Since I normally revere the printed book, even one as cheap and throw-away as this one, it took me a few moments to talk myself into cutting it up. Call it practice for getting past a personal taboo: if a destroyed book were in fact given to me in future, I could more easily make it into sculpture. The idea of book-sculpture appeals to me, and if such an opportunity appeared, I would make use of it. Eventually, we always make art out of things we love.

This papier-maché bowl made from the thrift-store Scrabble puzzle book had some challenges. The paper is as thin as newsprint, although it is white instead of unbleached newsprint. I had to use the entire book to make enough thickness of layers to make the bowl sturdy enough when dried. There are 4 or 5 layers of paper throughout this bowl, from edge to base. The paper tore easily when wet, so I had to be careful at times when laying out the sheets in the mold. Some tore anyway. But I got into making patterns with the layout, and I like the result, which is both chaotic and regular in image and form. I could have used more glue in the glue-water matrix for making the bowl, as some of the outer layers of the bowl's base were loose when I removed the bowl from the mold, while it was still slightly wet. I was able to tack them down, though, with more matrix, and they re-attached themselves fairly well as the bowl dried.

When I find an old Scrabble game at a thrift store, if it only costs a dollar or two, I pick it up. I like to use the wooden letter tiles from the game to make poems and other little phrases that I lay out, then take photos, the way some people play with magnetic letters to make poems on their refrigerators. For example:

So I pulled out one set of letter tiles from one of my surplus Scrabble games and filled up the bowl. I might add another set to the bowl, eventually.

It will be fun to have this Scrabble bowl full of tiles sitting around on hand, so I can put together a poem or phrase anytime I feel like it, in future. And the bowl itself could become quite the conversation piece, if placed out where guests might notice it, say, in the living room. Anybody who likes Scrabble or word-games might enjoy playing around with this bowl and its contents.

At the thrift store there were also puzzle books of Sudoku and similar word and number games. A Sudoko bowl might also be interesting to make in papier-maché, as an experiment. Who knows, this might be the start of a series.

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Poet and Priest

It would be a realization of that which as yet we glimpse from afar, if a priest were also to be a poet, if a poet were allowed to be a priest, if the life of a priest and that of a poet were to intermingle and be woven one into another. . . .

It is time that we asked: what has become of the times when great theologians also wrote hymns? When they could write like Ignatius of Antioch, compose poems like Methodius of Olympus, be carried in hymnody like Adam of St. Victor, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas? What has become of those times? Has theology become more perfect because theologians have become prosaic?

—Karl Rahner, "Priest and Poet," essay from his collection Theological Investigations

There's a long tradition—bardic, skaldic, shamanic—of the priest being a poet, of the poet being a priest. It's tied directly to the ancient Paleolithic conception of spirituality as animist, nature-connected, mystical: the world is divine, and the Divine is the world. Not "in the world," but "is the world." The ancient figures of the Green Man, of the Great God Pan, of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn: all masculine images of the fecund and fertile cycles of the living world, which dies every autumn in the harvest, and is reborn every spring with the return of the Greening. A truly agrarian cycle. Lived in miniatures in the house gardens we keep in our window-boxes in our apartment windows overlooking the streets of our cities that we imagine are somehow divorced from nature. "Pan" means "everything," after all, which by implication means all of nature itself, all of the cosmos, all of the Universe.

We live in a very left-brain, rationalistic, materialistic, Apollonian culture. The solar god Apollo symbolizes light and consciousness, reason and commerce and rationality. The agrarian, fecund, earthy god Dionysus welcomes spontaneity and irrationality, the wildly creative and the sensual, somatic, sexual body. The sun god is in the sky, detached and rational, giving light to the world but removed from it. The earthy god is the Earth itself, its cycles of seasons, climate, violent and benign weather alike, tethered by gut-level emotion, feeling, and (right-brain) intuition to the physical and dark: the darkness of shadows, soil, and the grave. No wonder the priests of Apollo fear the revels of Dionysus: the celebrations of life that no do not ignore the reality of death, of the limitations of life, of the body. The detached mind prefers to believe it's immortal and unchanging, and events rational religions with philosophical theology to explain and affirm its immortality. Theology, however, is talking about God, rather than being a direct experience of God. When theology becomes too rational, too prosaic, the direct experience of God, which is often a disruptive experience, is given to the poets, the artists, the mystics, and the drunken (unmanageable) ecstatics who follow Dionysus.

Apollo fears Dionysus—but both are necessary, two halves of a whole that must be integrated, to become fully human. Organized, institutional religion prefers Apollo—a god who manages, and can be managed—while spirituality, individual, anarchic, based on experience rather than theory, prefers Dionysus.

We manage our art: we turn it into entertainment, thereby denature its potency, and then pat ourselves on the backs for being meaningless, for making poetry that has no impact on the world, that is in fact completely divorced from the world. But entertainment is death, precisely to the extent that it is not life-affirming. So much of popular music presented to us as entertainment is narcissistically anthropocentric to the point of nihilism. Where is its social consciousness? Where is its connection to the function of prophecy? of being the words of the priest?

I don't really believe in "American Idol." First of all, you would never find Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan on "American Idol." They would never have won.
—k.d. lang

Poet-priest k.d. lang once again speaking the truth no-one else has bothered to mention. And she's absolutely right. She articulates my own feelings, which I'd never put so clearly into words: why I don't watch "American Idol," and never have. The model of the music business that "American Idol" portrays is bitterly accurate in its fickleness, harshness, and supportive moments alike—both good and bad. There's a lot of that in real life, off course, but when you take bards and turn them into entertainers and then do your best to make a profit off them, it brings out the shadow something fierce. Many of the more independent-minded bards get out, or fight through on their own terms, and refuse to be broken. (Which is the theme of Tom Petty's song "I Won't Back Down.")

Can you imagine a recorded music industry if it was run not by non-creative business managers (who can be correctly perceived as parasites living off the creative gifts of others) but by poet-priests?

In fact, I can: it's what happened in the 1970s, when practically anyone who could put out a self-produced vinyl LP of their own, idiosyncratic music; and it is what is happening right now, when composers and songwriters can connect directly with their listeners via Internet downloads and direct album sales that do not pass through the gatekeepers and managers of the music industry. (Something which greatly upsets the managers, who fear losing their parasitical profits.) The managers are also no longer the gatekeepers of taste, deciding what gets released to the public and what does not. When artists can sell directly to their public, without going through the middle-managers, it's direct democracy in action: one person, one vote. (Which is theme of the song by Johnny Clegg & Savuka, "One (Hu)'Man, One Vote.")

So, what's wrong with self-publishing a chapbook of your own poems? Nothing. The big publishers would like us to believe that unless they retain their status as gatekeepers of taste, a lot of bad poetry will get published. The truth is, though, that a lot of bad poetry was published even when they were the de facto gatekeepers. Their track record on publishing quality is random at best, fouled at worst.

There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. They may wait awhile..perhaps a generation or two..dropping off by degrees. A superior breed shall take their place....the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women. Through the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things. They shall find their inspiration in real objects today, symptoms of the past and future....They shall not deign to defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul. They shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth.
—Walt Whitman, "Preface" to Leaves of Grass (1855 edition)

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Blood Is the Life

(More from the Anemia Diaries. Other entries here.)

May 19, 2011


Just back home from the hospital outpatient ward after another blood transfusion, another two units of red cells via IV. That makes five blood transfusions in the space of a year. Probably will be one or two more before the upcoming surgery, which is now only weeks away. I have to go back to the hospital in four hours so the lab can draw blood for a post-transfusion hemoglobin count, to see to what level the transfusion raises my count. I've been anemic so long, I'm afraid my body's partially adapted.

Every time I go through this, it wipes me out. It wipes out the whole day. It's a shock to the system. It's invasive, even to be honest a little traumatizing, even if it's good for you in the long run. I feel icky. I've got all these foreign cells in my body now. There are always risks with an IV donation. I am not allowed to give blood because of the dengue fevre I contracted and survived when I was in Java, Indonesia, in 1986; as with malaria, those factors stay in your blood forever after, and they can't be filtered out.

I did Reiki energy work on the donor blood bags before the blood hit my veins. It went in cold, from the refrigeration they use to keep the bags fresh. The veins in my wrist on the IV side were noticeably chilled, compared to my other wrist. All those foreign cells in my body. I'm doing more Reiki on myself now. Assimilation, subsumption, absorption: making the foreign blood mine. I feel like a vampire who drank too much, got too high on the rush. Kinda woozy, both good and icky at the same time. How do other vampires do this? I guess they get used to it. I may feel like a vampire, charged up with new fire in my veins, but I also feel disequilibrated.

I've known for some time that I carry a Vampire archetype: everyone carries twelve sacred contracts, or archetypes, and I know what most of mine are, including the Vampire. At those bad times in my life, when I've lived off the generosity (life-force) of others, and doing so all unconsciously, it has been something that kept me alive, if not always ethical. These blood transfusions that literally keep my body alive, this past year: I never thought an archetype could be so literal. Symbolically, though,

Beyond the sexual level, we sometimes form psychic attachments to others because we desire their energy, a desire that manifests through a need for approval, a need to have the "other" take care of our survival, and a fear of being abandoned. What has been defined as a co-dependent relationship could easily fall under the Vampire template. You may find it hard to identify yourself as a Vampire, yet it is essential to review this archetype personally. Patterns of behavior such as chronic complaining, over-dependency, holding on to a relationship emotionally or psychically long after it has ended, and chronic power struggles are all indicators of Vampire patterns. Holding onto someone on the psychic level is as real as holding on to them on the physical.

So, both symbolically and literally, medically, clinically, for me, now, the blood is the life.

I have a short mini-concert with Perfect Harmony this evening, too. Only a short drive away, fortunately. There's another concert I could be part of in Milwaukee two days from now, but I'm not going to go: four hours of driving just to perform for ten or fifteen minutes. Maybe if I was still in my twenties and perfectly healthy, I'd consider it. But not now, not after having been in hospital again, not that much tiring driving for so little performance time. I need to rest for a few days, now.

Funny taste in the mouth from IV saline push, and the other meds they shoot into you, Benadryl for allergic reactions, a diuretic so you excrete the excess plasma. Is this too much information yet? Funny tastes linger in your mouth whenever you go through an IV transfusion like this. Every drug has its own taste, and the blood has a taste, too.

My (GP) doctor decided to tranfuse me since I've been feeling run down and out of sorts, the past few weeks. My last blood count was right on the threshold, in terms of the numbers where he starts wanting to give me a transfusion, and if I'd been feeling good, we would have just tested again in two weeks. That's where we've been for a couple of months, since the last transfusion, but the past few weeks I've been feeling run down again. Although there has been no noticeable bleeding caused by the chronic illness, and my hemoglobin count in fact had risen slightly over the last two weeks. (The first time that's been true in a year.) But I just haven't been feeling good.

Two of the more annoying side effects of anemia, at least for me, are insomnia, and itchiness. I have itched in places I did not think it was possible to itch. Not just on the surface, either, but inside the flesh. And the itch moves around, springing up sharply just as you're about to nod off to sleep. So you lose sleep just from the itch, and the anemia also has its own tendency to mess up your sleep schedule. It doesn't help that this has been a bad spring for my allergies, too. Not to mention how depleted my immune system has been, between the illness and the various treatments. So when they transfuse you, they shoot you full of diuretic and you pee all day. Although I get a reduced dose of the diuretic drug because I already flush out a lot of water due to the chronic illness. Not having a fully operational colon means you lose a lot of water. I'll be at risk for kidney stones from here on out, unless I drink an extra gallon or so a day and keep peeing all the time. Just have to keep flushing it through. Too much information yet?

It only took the nurse two tries to get the IV into the vein on the back of my hand, this time. The really good nurses get it in one, and painlessly. The nurse today was not that good. Took her two tries, and the first one really, really hurt. So new puncture marks on the backs of both hands.

They also scheduled me for an ungodly early hour this morning, so not enough sleep beforehand. As if it wasn't stressful enough, just going in to hospital. I did nod off in the chair briefly, but mostly I sat in discomfort and read. Took along writing and drawing materials, but brain too foggy to write, or even think too hard. Must. Wake. Up. Brain. Brain. Hurts. Fire good. . . .

I'm so exceptionally tired of all this. I really am tired of being sick, and tired, for so long. We'll see if this latest blood influx perks me up at all. Probably at least the itching will go away, tonight. I hope. After the concert tonight, sleepytime beddy bye night night. Oh hell, nap now, even.

And I still feel icky. Food first, then maybe a nap. Then afternoon blood draw for testing, then concert clothes and driving to the concert. I think I'll request that I be allowed to sit down afterwards.



Concert went well. It was an LGBT garden party put on for several of the Madison and Wisconsin LGBT organizations, out in the farm country west of Edgerton, WI. A really beautiful spread owned by a gay man. Gathering was a fundraiser, but also informational, a bit of networking. The Chorus was some time ago asked to perform as part of the event. We did two short sets of music derived from our upcoming concert featuring the music of Freddie Mercury and Queen. There were only eight of us from the Chorus there, which is only about a third of us. But as an octet we actually sounded great. Several people said nice things afterwards.

It was a beautiful setting, really pretty, big green lawns divided by hedgerows and stands of trees, with interesting buildings. The lilacs were in full bloom, and the sun had come out after what had been a cloudy day. I drove back home through the farm fields as the sun was going down, and stopped to make several photographs, as the light was perfect, and the setting was bucolic. Farm spreads, clouds, cows among the trees, beautiful falling-down barns.

I left my hospital ID bands on from this morning, partly because I needed to leave them on for when I went back to the lab for the afternoon blood-draw—but also so I could show the guys how I'd spent my morning. So, how was your day? I used it as an excuse to sit down when I felt too tired to want to stand anymore.

Showing off the hospital bands was kind of perverse fun, actually. I have a twisted, dark sense of humor at the best of times, but lately, with, shall we say, nothing left to lose, I've been playing with my own existential situation, finding the humor in the absurdity of it all, whenever possible. When life is like this, you laugh or you cry. Hospital humor is very dark humor. Actually, since my father was a doctor, I've been around hospital humor my whole life. The only thing that has changed recently is that I've stopped editing my sense of humor in public.

To be completely honest, when I showed up for the concert, and the guys asked my how my life was going, I showed off the hospital bands from the morning hospital business, and told them the absolute truth: I've had a long day, I'm tired and surly, let's have fun and get this over with. But it did go well. Naturally, the food tent provided for the garden party had nothing I could eat. But that was expected; these sorts of fundraiser shindigs almost never cater to gluten-free diets, or even vegetarians, for instance. I was too tired to want to cook my own meal this evening, so I got some quality takeout on the way home and ate when I arrived.

The blood transfusion I think did give me a little more energy. We'll see how the next few days go. I feel less icky now, after food, nap, concert, more food, getting out of formal concert clothes, and now just lounging about at my leisure.

I'm going to take the rest of the night off. Maybe watch a funny movie.

I feel like getting on the studio computer and making some music. I've started a new spacemusic album. i've been making loop-based drum and ambient tracks, which I'll layer over with bass and Stick live tracks later. It's going okay so far. It's got my attention, as does writing out the new music commission.

Doing something creative every day makes me feel better about the day. Even a stressful day like today is not a total waste, if you have something artistically productive to show for it. Making art is the best revenge. Not only does it keep you going, not only does it provide you some hours in which you're positively distracted away from your medical issues, at day's end you have some art and/or music to show for it. It keeps me sane. I carry a couple of art-related archetypes, after all, and they also need to be nurtured.

This story is nowhere near over. There's a lot more going to happen in coming weeks and months. So I guess I'll see how it all goes.


As sometimes happens, your humor gets you through the day, dark and gallows humor though it be. Then, just when you're starting to unwind, at the end of the day, in a kind of delayed reaction, the invasive trauma, the shock to the system, comes swarming back to you, maybe when you're watching an emotional scene in a dumb movie, or even dumber TV show, and suddenly, "for no reason," you burst into tears. Just crying a little. The scene that triggers it can be a very positive moment, a moment of lovingkindness, even. The only consistent trigger is that the emotion is deeper than words. The content of the emotion is less significant than the intensity of the trigger.

I've learned to just let it rain. If you need to weep for 30 seconds, or 2 minutes, then just go ahead and weep. There's no loss of dignity in weeping, and no loss of mythical manliness in needing a good cry.

That is heresy to the macho-bred, of course, or the stoic, emotionally-repressed post-Viking culture of my mother's people. Or the English, who have always impressed me as being among the most sentimental people of all, despite their practice of keeping a stiff upper lip. (Maybe that's one reason the English upper crust always used to vacation in the southern Mediterranean, like Italy: one some subconscious level they knew they were more alike than not.) But the Irish, my father's people, knew the value of a good wail, a good drunk, a good keening.

Sometimes I think that I am keening, as old women were hired to do at wakes and funerals, because it triggers something even deeper inside, that must come out. Something very large, and usually speechless. A beast without a name, perhaps, that lives on in the interior, whose occasional appearance makes the hair stand on end in numinous recognition: we are, after all, possessed of deep feelings, and in our deepest natures remain half-angel, half-beast.

But this quick cry at day's end is how I shed some of the trauma of going through all these medical moments. It can be a daily trauma, some days more so than others. As good as the doctors are, as good as the procedures are for you, in the long run, as healing as they are, they can still feel traumatic and invasive. And you must shed those feelings as you go, alongside the more physical toxins also passing through you along the way.

If you've never received a blood transfusion, you might not be able to fully imagine how very emotional it is. Someone gave this blood, this blood that today is saving my life. Someone made that gift. As alien as it feels going in, and even if it feels weird for some time after, the sheer grace of that is an incredible gift.

It's not something you can ever give back, or ever repay. You can only pay it forward, hopefully passing on the life, the healing, the grace, to someone else, down the road.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fun with Photoshop Type Effects

Among other projects, I'm working on new video projects for Liquid Crystal Gallery, our collaborative DVD and streaming original video and music project. (Now that my studio computer is working again, I'm back in gear with these and similar projects. I also have plans to make a new spacemusic CD.)

What I've decided to do for the titling of each new short film is make artistic titles, involving animated type and artistic usage of type. To that end, I've been playing around in Photoshop with some interesting typographic effects. I thought I'd present a short how-to here.

First up, let's play around with making a photo-based header for the Dragoncave. The techniques used here are very simple and straightforward, as long as you are using a version of Photoshop later than 4.0, so that you can use layers.

First up, open a new file and set the type. "Dragoncave" here is set in ITC Eras Ultra, a bold titling face that comes from a large family of interrelated faces. Ultra is the heaviest weight. For this type of project you'll want to use bold type, so that embedded artwork shows through clearly.

Next, duplicate your type layer and rasterize the duped layer (i.e. convert the font to pixels on the new layer). Use the selection tool to select the type of your rasterized font layer; the rest of the layer will be transparent.

First, however, scale your type to the size you need for the finished piece (or larger) before rasterizing it. I always work at a large file size, at print resolution (300dpi) or better. This gives you a more leeway with which to work. I often make my files larger than the final piece, so that I can scale down at completion. When you scale artwork down from your master file, you avoid the jagged edges and dithering caused when you have to scale a file up. So it's always wise to work at a larger size, then reduce at the end.

Next, go to your layer where you've pasted your photograph that you are going to put inside the letters of "Dragoncave." Select that layer in the Layers palette, while leaving the rasterized type selected; it will show dotted outlines of a selection still active.

On the artwork layer, click on the Layer Mask icon on the Layers Palette. This immediately converts your selection into a mask for the active layer containing your artwork. You'll see that your artwork now shows through the type outlines as artwork. But depending on whether your mask was set to default black, or white, you might fins instead, that the type outlines are see-through rather than containing the image. To correct this, simply reverse the layer mask's color with the Invert command.

That makes the basic art-filled type outline image. Now we'll make the drop shadow effects. (Current versions of Photoshop have automated Drop Shadow filters and effects and styles, which you can do in one step if you wish. I like to make my own effects manually, sometimes, which gives me a lot of precision control. Sometimes the automated settings in scripts don't do exactly what you want.)

So, duplicate your original type layer again, and rasterize the new layer. Offset the rasterized type on this new layer with the Move tool. Move this layer underneath the artwork layer. This makes your offeset drop shadow. You can color your drop shadow black, or white, or any other color, using the Color palette. I made mine black.

Next, I made another offset drop shadow layer, but this time I made this type layer white. Then I applied the Chrome filter to make silvered and chromed insets. I adjusted the position on the two drop shadows, one chromed, one black, to create the final effect of a three-dimensional type look, as shown here.

One of the new short films I am working on is based on video and stills from one of my favorite places in North America, Latourell Falls in Oregon. I am making a more experimental film, using multiframe compositions, mixing multiple shots of the same scene in different frames. So I wanted to include one of the waterfall images in the titling art. This is one of the ideas I am playing with. It's not in final form yet, however it does show off the type-art technique.

Another variation, this time using a B&W image of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. I plan to do a couple of short films around this theme, one of them a B&W fine-art video, very much in the footsteps of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. The other short film will be based around images of several mountain ranges in winter. Again, this example is not a finished piece, just a work in progress. Nonetheless it shows off the possibilities available with this type-art technique.

Composition of the art within the type outlines is important, as well. When you art creating your layer mask to create the art within the type outlines, try moving your selection around to make the best use of the composition of the photographic image. Composition within the "box" the type outlines is what makes or breaks this effectiveness of this type-art technique.

Here's a tip: Since I do my video editing in Sony Vegas, the best tool I know of for this kind of job, I save the type art projects as unflattened PSD files. This preserves the "empty" or transparent pixels of the art, so they remain transparent when you import them into the video mixing project. If you flatten the image, all the background pixels default to the color you have selected as your background color, and are no longer transparent. Keeping the background transparent allows one to superimpose the type art over another layer in the final video mix.

The last step, when I have the final type-art made and imported into the video project later, will be to animate the type-art within the video frame for the title sequence. I will probably do a zoom or pan effect on this type-art piece, rather than statically fade it in and out again. I like moving type. It makes a title or caption a lot more dynamic and interesting to the viewing eye. That's a matter of taste, though, so feel free to follow your own instincts.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Process of Writing 10: Over the Thresholds

Taking a day off makes a difference. For the past two afternoons, I've been sitting on the porch notating final pencil master scores: pulling things together from the lyric note book and the music sketchbook, making them into a finished song. I'm on page seven of this particular song, with about a page or so to go. That's pretty productive, even by my own standards.

The new music commission is modular in structure. This is in part to give options for different lengths of performance of the same work. The modular design allows things to be moved around, or left out, at the discretion of the conductor of the Chorus, depending on the occasion, or on an individual performance's requirements and needs. I planned this modular structure from the very beginning. Frankly, it also makes it easier to work on writing the lyrics and music, because I can skip around and work on any section that attracts my attention, today, rather than feel forced to write within a linear, narrative form. And I can add things later, too, if need be.

There are two large sections within the overall piece, called "Stories," which are the meat of the stories I've gathered from members of the Chorus, via interview, submitted writings, poems, stories, etc. The "Stories" are modular. They're separated from each other by 4 or 8 bats of piano interlude: a simple C-major promenade melody, which is changed and varied each time, reflecting the mood of either what has gone before, or what is to immediately follow. So the piano interludes are connected to specific songs within each of the two large "Stories" groupings, but each song itself is modular, and can be moved around within the "Stories" groupings, if necessary.

So I am not even close to thinking about a final order yet for each of the "Stories" songs, and not setting any of the segues between modules into stone. It's more important, at the moment, and for the purposes of meeting my writing deadlines, to just write each song out in final score, then assemble the modules later. We will be determining the final order of pieces, naturally, after they are all written. I know what I want to begin and end the suite of pieces with, for this commission, and I already have the opening bars of each (the end echoes the beginning: as T.S. Eliot wrote in his sublime Four Quartets, "In my end is my beginning. . . ."). But the middle elements of the overall work are subject to revision and re-arrangement, and will be for some time yet.

"Deadlines" is a nasty word, when you think about it. Especially when you're writing to meet a contractual date, and at the same time fighting a life-threatening chronic illness. It's a bit of ironic humor the Universe likes to throw at you, to notice such things. I have multiple deadlines I'm working towards, at the moment: some of them creative, some of them physical and operational.

I guess my mind is sharper this week than it's been lately, as I seem to be finding more and more absurd and surreal word-play connections like that. Maybe the lingering effects of the anaesthesia from the minor surgery I underwent five weeks ago have finally worn away. Who knows? I'll take whatever mental edge I can get.

It's true, though: I do feel sharper these past few days. One of the side-effects of this chronic illness is anemia, because, ulcerative colitis is an inflammation of the lining of the colon (an autoimmune disease, for lack of a better classification, in which the body attacks itself, as with rheumatoid arthritis), which leads to bleeding ulcers in the colon. I know where the worst area for bleeding is, in my own case, thanks to colonoscopy results: the sigmoid colon. (Cue Olivia Newton-John sings, "Clinical! I wanna get clinical!") My doctor has given the clinic's lab a standing order to draw blood any time I want to go in, and do a hemoglobin count. I just got more results today. I'm still anemic, still on the threshold of needing another blood transfusion, although my count has gone up .4 points since the last blood test ten days ago.

To be honest, I would be fine with receiving another transfusion right now, as I've been feeling anemia symptoms for the past week: general tiredness, itching in places you can't imagine, which sometimes keeps you up late at night, and some other things. I've been feeling run-down and less than good, so I'm ready to fill up the tank, change the oil, get new wiper blades, the usual. Frankly, I'm tired of feeling like crap, of feeling run down and beat to a pulp all the time—which has become not an occasional, but an existential, condition. Let's make a change.

Getting another blood transfusion now would put me over the threshold into feeling better, one hopes, maybe with an even clearer mind. The brain likes blood, for nutrition, and all those little neurotransmitters. Getting another blood transfusion is always a risk: every medical procedure is a risk. And it's an invasive one. I know my blood type, but I like the fact that before each transfusion, they run a fresh blood panel and type-and-cross-match, just to be safe, just to prevent immune reactions, or allergic responses. Caution is never amiss, in these bloodsport games we play.

The other threshold I feel I've stepped over, right now, is the creative one. Namely, I've started in on the final pencil score. That is, the final writing of parts of the new music commission, committed to score paper in final form, albeit in pencil, in case I need to still make corrections as I go. At some point, I will acquire the notational software to engrave the score digitally, which allows for even easier editing and changing—but later.

It can take a lot of effort to build up the creative momentum to start writing final score, rather than keep writing sketches. There is a commitment required to go to final score—although you can still make revisions, still make changes—that makes the whole project more solid, more real, more ready to proceed. It's a big change of direction, of intent. Now, we're going to make this real, make it manifest, make it go off into the world on its own.

I was reading last night in Arthur Laurents' autobiography, Original Story by, where he describes the collaborative process of writing a Broadway musical (or "lyric theater" as the collaborators chose to call West Side Story). It takes months, even years, and a long process of revision during rehearsal, in order to complete a musical, rehearse it, and put it in stage. One of the fastest writing periods (prior to rehearsal) that Laurents describes took only four months—but much longer is typical.

I've now been writing hard on this commission for male chorus and piano (and maybe one or two other instruments, for some songs) for about four months, in fact, and I'm starting in on final pencil scores of some of the pieces. So I guess I'm not behind schedule, after all. I do feel an urgency to get as much done and onto score paper as I can, before the upcoming surgery. Because, between the recovery from the surgery, and the painkillers, and the lingering effects of anaesthesia, it's likely that I'll need a few weeks before I can get back to work on the music.

In the next day or so, I expect to be able to finish this one song from the "Stories" grouping, and begin work on another one or two. Once you cross that threshold, the flow is there—at least for awhile. Once you've set up the project and the process, you can get into a working routine, a pattern of working, that sustains your momentum for as long as your energy holds out. So far, so good.

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More Poems Without Categories

What appeals to me right now about most spiritual literature—sacred poetry, scripture, personal essays by religious and ex-religious, sacred mythologies and philosophies; which is the sort of reading I tend to do in that first hour of the day, when I'm still waking up, meditating, slowly starting my day so that it can go forward on an even keel—is the qualities of serenity and solace it brings. I need both. I am preparing for major life-changing surgery—on one level, just one more life-changing event among a long sequence of events over the past few years—and time is ticking down towards the scheduled date, after which everything is going to be different, physically different, with consequences and maybe, if hope is not too toxic a zone to enter, cures. Whatever happens, life will be different: for awhile, and perhaps permanently. There will be a recovery period, and another surgery, and another after that. Removal, reconstruction, completion.

I can conceptualize this several ways, as my mind seems to want to work metaphorically around the topic, at the moment, rather than clinically. I can think of it as the three-part structure Japanese Noh drama, joh-ha-kyu, with the long slow introduction in no-time, the building of the narrative force to a revelation of the pivotal character, and the rushing towards the denouement, the stylized dance of the central, almost divine character, accompanied by the small orchestra of percussion, voices, and flutes.

Knives flashing in the light, while I sleep. This god who lives among the pine trees, dancing with his fan covering most of his face. Just a watchful bright eye. The threads that bind us together, that suture the world into place. Flesh and stone, the rising mist over a pond, the way exposed guts steam in an air-conditioned slaughterhouse. My calves still ache from the last dance. There is just enough fog over the mind to drive my canoe sideways. The blood is the life, and the wine is the color of blood inside the veins before it oxidizes in the revealed air.

What keeps me going, some of these mornings, as I get ever closer to that day when everything will change, is the certain knowledge that none of it matters: I'm just one small leaf drifting on a pond, in the grand scheme, and the Universe is too large to care. There's solace in being small

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.


Keep it in perspective: don't let your mind be clouded by unnecessary things. Fear and worry fall into that category, although I have the habit of both. I inherited my mother's ability to brood over a cherished worry, and I do it well. One reason I've taken up gardening is to, literally, put those worries and fears into the ground: it really works, after an hour of my pushing my hands into the dirt, of planting, of weeding, of tending, I come back inside dirtier and more at peace. Gardening as spiritual exercise: a known connection amongst monastic communities for many centuries.

We are the driving ones.
Ah, but the step of time:
think of it as a dream
in what forever remains.

All that is hurrying
soon will be over with;
only what lasts can bring
us to the truth.

Young men, don't put your trust
into the trials of flight,
into the hot and quick.

All things already rest:
darkness and morning light,
flower and book.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

There are savagely judgmental postmodern poets who like to tell stories of the personal failings of great poets; there is glee in the telling. But are you behaving any better than the dead ones who didn't do so well? Whose dealings with the real world, with the so-called real world, were stuttering and problematic. At some point you have to realize that being a professional, whether poet or artist or philosopher, is not always the best option. We only turn professional as poets because our fingers are too manicured to stand in the flood and throw another sandbag on the levee. It's always about holding back the tide, when you turn professional, about mastering the forces of nature, about the triumph of engineering over chaos. To engineer is human, and so is failure. We learn a lot from what goes wrong. Even if that bridge is burned, we learn to build the next one better. If there had always been a happy ending, if Orpheus hadn't failed by turning on the last stair, his foot already half into the daylight, if he hadn't lost Eurydice in that turning, her shade falling back into the shadows—well, what would we have left to learn? What would we write about? The gift is in the failure. The gift of this long-term illness is how it has pared my life down to what really matters. You try to live a good life, and still, everything goes wrong. You do everything right, and follow all the right advice, and still you have to go forward knowing that none of might matter, in the end, that it could still fall apart at any second. There's some solace in knowing how fragile your plans are, some serenity. Still, something, as yet unnamed, comes into the gap, every time. Mind the gap: that last stair-step is the critical one.

Moon and clouds are the same;
mountain and valley are different.
All are blessed; all are blessed.
Is this one? Is this two?


When we separate the world into different parts, it's only conceptual. When we argue over different categories of poetry, over kind and type and style and worth, it's all in the mind. It's even less real than before. Does that make it a higher art form, because of its very abstraction, as some poets claim? In truth, it makes it lesser. Everyone likes their boxes. Ballet dancers conclude, after some consideration, that ballet is the highest artform. This would be a newsflash if it hadn't been reported, by ever artist for their own artform, a million times already. We like to think of ourselves as drawn towards the good and the beautiful. So we tend to think that what we like best, is the best, the most good, the most beautiful. That kind of conceptual engineering, though, builds walls around your boxes, rather than bridges to other game-tables. You are the spinning ball that locks itself inside a compartment of the roulette wheel and refuses to come out, not till the world stops spinning. But we live on a planet that never ceases its spinning. Add to that whirl of orbits, the sun's longer whirl around its own central star-pool. and you can see the truth of it: it's all vibration, all spinning, and nothing ever stops. What I like best is that there isn't anything to like best: it's all good. Is this one, or two? Your preference is as conceptual as your artistic abstractions: the result of prejudice and personal taste. It's not equally the same, but it's all blessed all the same. Every category, every box, equally blessed, when seen from on high.

When the mind is at peace,
the world too is at peace.
Nothing real, nothing absent.
Not holding on to reality,
not getting stuck in the void,
you are neither holy nor wise, just
an ordinary fellow who has completed his work.

—Layman P'ang

My mind is not noisy with desires, Lord,
and my heart has satisfied its longing.
I do not care about religion
or anything that is not you.
I have soothed and quieted my soul,
like a child at its mother's breast.
My soul is as peaceful as a child
sleeping in its mother's arms.

—Psalm 131

(Poems excerpted from The Enlightened Heart: An anthology of sacred poetry, ed. by Stephen Mitchell.)

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Poem Without a Category

Browsing the thrift store bookshelves today, found a few treasures, old and new.

The real find of the day was Arthur Laurents' autobiography Original Story By, since Laurents has only just now died at age 93. I came home and immediately sat down to read, finishing about a third of the book in one afternoon. Very smart, very crisp, and completely open about his own life as a gay man, triumphs and mistakes included. It's fascinating to read about his Broadway and film work, the many people he knew and worked with. I suppose on some level this is gossip, but it doesn't read that way; it reads as memoir and revelatory memoir at that. One gets a real feel for what it was like to live as an artist in the closet during the McCarthy years, for example, which Laurents always refers to as the Witch Hunt years. He spends a lot of time on the psychology of informers, and the suffering caused, concluding, I think quite rightly, that someone who can betray their friends by informing on them will ultimately commit other betrayals, because they are at core incredibly focused on themselves first and foremost. One of the most interesting parts of Original Story By, to me, is the chapter on the genesis and first stagings of West Side Story, a story I've read before from Sondheim's and Bernstein's viewpoints. To hear it again from Laurents' viewpoint is fascinating, interwoven as it is with several other threads.

Also acquired were some backup or loaner copies of some other books: ones I often loan or give away. It's always good to have spares of those, and at thrift store prices they're easy to acquire. One of these was a pristine paperback copy of Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An atlas of depression, one of the best books I've ever read about depression; the book is truly encyclopedic, even including some good background information on related spiritual conditions such as acedia and the dark night, and how they can look like depression but aren't, really.

And I found another pristine copy of The Enlightened Heart: An anthology of sacred poetry, ed. by Stephen Mitchell, which is a good anthology for eclectic students of the poetry of spirituality and vision. I opened the book at random, and this is the poem that I read first, which today has rather deep resonance for me—especially after my recent comments about categories, boundaries, critical boxes, and the avoidance of same:

Poem Without a Category

Trailing my stick I go down to the garden edge,
call to a monk to go out the pine gate.
A cup of tea with my mother,
looking at each other, enjoying our tea together.
In the deep lanes, few people in sight;
the dog barks when anyone comes or goes.
Fall floods have washed away the planks of the bridge;
shouldering our sandals, we wade through the narrow stream.
By the roadside, a small pavilion
where there used to be a little hill:
it helps out our hermit mood;
country poems pile one sheet on another.
I dabble in the flow, delighted by the shallowness of the stream,
gaze at the flagging, admiring how firm the stones are.
The point in life is to know what's enough—
why envy those otherworld immortals?
With the happiness held in one inch-square heart
you can fill the whole space between heaven and earth.

—Gensei (trans. Burton Raffel)

Written in classical Chinese form by a Japanese Buddhist monk, a loose wander of the mind through the day, avoiding all categories typical for the classification of poems. The poem's own restlessness is part of the avoidance. Not a nature poem, not a Zen poem, not an urban bustle poem. A poem of simple observation of an afternoon's wander.

But then the shock of those last four lines:

The point in life is to know what's enough—
why envy those otherworld immortals?
With the happiness held in one inch-square heart
you can fill the whole space between heaven and earth.

Fill infinite space with even the smallest happiness held in the smallest heart's vessel. I feel that way a lot, lately. I feel both very small and insignificant, and yet the whole Universe cannot contain what I am feeling. Certainly words cannot. Sometimes what is being contained is serenity: unexpected, quiet, it comes upon me at the least likely moment.

Another Japanese Buddhist poet, from the same anthology, the same period, writes simply:

Die while you're alive
and be absolutely dead.
Then do whatever you want:
it's all good.


That's the heart of Zen for me at the moment: dying while you're alive, right now, no waiting. Then, you're completely free, and everything is everything. Mountains become mountains again, after having been illusions for awhile, and sudden;y whether or not you ever climb to their summits is a matter of no importance. If you do, that's good. If not, that's also good.

The Enlightened Heart is a diverse tapestry of spiritual wisdom in poetic form—certainly heretical to the contemporary poetry yen for "words for words' sake"—ranging from the Upanishads and Lao Tze to Emily Dickinson and Rilke. The anthology ends with Robinson Jeffers' poem "The Treasure," with its long lines summing up many truths in a few poetic phrases:

. . . That silence is the thing, this noise a found word for it;
    interjection, a jump of the breath at that silence. . . .

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 7: The Right Sandbox

Dissolving boundaries: pour acid on those categorical lines that separate the arts one from another.

The purists hate that.

I recently went back and visited a couple of online poetry workshop message boards that I had once been an active partner in. It was, shall we say, a learning experience. I had mainly felt drawn back for two reasons: 1. I was feeling somewhat isolated and cut off, by recent events in my personal life, and poetically, artistically; and 2. I had for some months thought to reconnect with one or two people in particular whose poetry I had always liked, and have always enjoyed chatting with. I always valued their critiques of my poems, and it always seemed mutual.

What I experienced upon this trial return visit was that a few people who had previously been friends had changed (as I have), and to say they were hostile and scornful of the recent poems I chose to post, to test the waters, would be a serious understatement. One or two couldn't even bother to address the poem, calling it unreadable, and calling the poet names. (Which is a clear ad hominem attack, which is against the stated Terms Of Service of virtually every poetry board there ever was.) I said to one person, who has clearly become a troll in the intervening time: If you actually want to comment on the poem, not the poet, I'll listen; otherwise, feel free to not read anything of mine, and I'll stay away from you, too.

The scorn I encountered was, however, a familiar scorn, one I've experienced often, but now it came from unexpected directions, some from people who used to know me better than that. Well, the board as it exists today is their turf, after all. I've gone away, and come back, while they stayed. It's their sandbox (I use that word precisely, as an indicator of emotional immaturity); I'm no different than just another interloper.

Some of these poets have apparently become more insular than is good for them, and have built up patterns of discourse and expectations that have soured the waters. So, having commented on a few poems, and having been scorned for my own recent poems, I'm going away again. The hostility was what was shocking. Granted, as I said, it's their sandbox. But it's become quite the closed and self-sustained world, it seems.

This is evidence of a species of insularity, of clique formation, that seems to be the end-product of many online poetry boards. (The one person I wanted to get back in touch with may be someone I can reconnect via private email. We'll see.) Boards do go through natural lifetimes; some die after a few years, and live on in an archived, sessile state. On other boards, I have seen many people leave in waves when a voice or a clique start to dominate all the discourse, rudely, intolerant of dissent, and the board owners and/or administrators do nothing about it.

In an ironic twist of fate, a couple of years ago, a well-known online poet wrote a long essay about these very issues regarding the online poetry workshop community—which generated a lot of healthy debate, for awhile, or so it seemed—only to himself, a year or two later, morph into the very kind of paranoid and insular poetry board administrator that he himself had complained about in his essay. He became guilty of enacting the very same sort of entropic autocratic bizarre behavior he had written about. It was a stunning reversal, as though he became possessed by his own shadow.

We become what we fear, always, unless we master our fears and overcome them. It seems many people don't even realize that they need to look in a mirror, when they complain about what they don't like in the behavior of others. We always project out onto the world what we dislike in our own selves, and the world obligingly mirrors it back at us; what we attack "out there" is usually just a reflection of what we don't like to admit is "in here" as well. We all contain the darknesses we despise in others: what makes the difference is knowing and acknowledging one's own inner shadows, so that one notices when they kick into operation. That's how you can prevent yourself from being possessed by the forces within your unconscious: by going in there, willingly, by choice, to work with what you have found.

Meanwhile, learning experience absorbed. Although it got me thinking.

Thinking, specifically, about the kinds of creative work I have been moving towards for several years, all of which exist outside the usual boxed definitions and closed categories that many artists put around their art-making. (Closed and locked boxes are dear to closed minds.) To call the multi-pathed I've been pursuing "multimedia" isn't really accurate, as that assumes the boundaries between media are still present in one's consciousness, when in fact one is looking for a whole new lack of boundary, or an ignorance about fixed category. Rather than "multimedia" it might be more accurate to say "recombinant," or even "rhizomatic variform." Or, better yet, abandon all categorical labels and just make the stuff. I am more and more inclined towards not defining what I do as anything other than "creative." More and more I just call what I write "writing," and don't try to categorize one piece as a "pure" poem, another as "pure" prose. Let the bean-counting purists decide if any of it meets their definitional criteria. Meanwhile, I'll just keep exploring. What I've been doing is a process of unlearning rules and categories that are fixed in many writers' minds. You enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is said, by taking on the clear and uncluttered mind of a child; it is similarly said that the Tao is effortless and undefined, and that enlightenment consists of cleaning out the cobwebs.

I've tried posting poems-with-images, or maybe images-with-poems, before on poetry workshops forums, and been near-universally criticized for it. The purists of poetry are so word-centric that if you can't do it with just words, they won't even allow that it's a poem. (Sometimes not even then, if you offend their formal sensibilities.) They demand the discipline of using only words to convey experience, the only tools with which to make art. The worst of the word-centric poetry purists don't even allow for the possibility of enjoying visual art for its own sake, on its own terms: if they can't describe it in words, it's not real to them. Such are the purists one occasionally encounters.

Gods forbid you should try to present a prose-poem in a purist forum, then.

The purists willfully ignore the long history of paintings-with-words common to Asian practice in genres such as haiga. Maybe I'm being too harsh: amidst the hate there were always one or two poets who could see what I was trying to do, who were open to the possibilities of combining word and image. Only a few, though.

I'm not interested in making "visual poetry," or any of the other naive forms of visual art that (non-artist) poets have been trying to make in contemporary postmodernist circles. (Some of the earliest examples of typographic play, such as Apollonaire's calligrammes, remain among the most sublime, and more interesting than their contemporary heirs.) I say they're naive because in most cases the poets making the new VisPo have all the (digital) tools of the visual artist but none of the sensibility: the results are the results of experimental play, of the category of art-making that I call "gee whiz! look what I can do with my new toys!" A necessary category, and a necessary phase of development and tool-exploration for any artist. But what I don't see, as yet, from the VisPo poets are any examples that move beyond technical play and into something as artistically resonant and emotionally engaging as a Paleolithic cave painting or the old Zen poets with their painting-poems. It remains mostly intellectual play, mostly word-centric even when the words are manipulated in visual space, or used as purely visual elements (as in some Wordle word-clouds).

Of course, dealing with only words, dealing with only intellect, is emotionally risk-free. There's no danger of either too much self-revelation or too much self-analysis. All the mess and muck of life is kept comfortably at an arm's length, at a virtual distance. One doesn't have to wade into the "mire and blood" of genuine engagement.

There are a few poets on these old poetry workshop boards I revisited who are very interested in the various forms of avant-garde word-work currently fashionable, from theory-driven language-centric poetries to flarf to Oulipo to other ("post-avant") syntactical strategies that privilege the word as an object in itself, with or without interpretative meaning(s). Many of these writers make the usual mistake of defining as good that which they like and approve of—and failing utterly to be tolerant of other styles. Well, maybe their attention spans are stressed by the necessities of life, and they don't have time for anything else. Like I said, it's their pond to play in.

The harshest comments I received were very much about telling other poets what to write, based on what they write themselves, and like to read. The usual mistake of defining as good what you do yourself. In other words, a total and unconscious lack of tolerance for pluralism.

I am interested in a kind of poetry I have called, for lack of a better term, "cinematic." Its closest analog in cinema is the non-verbal film: a genre including Ron Fricke's films Chronos and Baraka, as well as probably the most famous film in the genre, Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi. The kind of poetry I am referring to as cinematic is, like some non-verbal films, constructed out of a sequence of images. There is no interpreting narrative, no voice telling us what to think or feel, or what a character in the poem (film) is thinking or feeling. We are given pure description, and must interpret the emotion for ourselves. Some moments are evanescent, crepuscular; others are gut-punches. The sequence of images in a cinematic poem can be built up in the reader's mind into a narrative, or a film played on the mind's eye. There may indeed be a story, a meaning to be revealed: but it's shown, shown very directly, not talked about, not described.

Maybe in some ways this kind of poetry is the ultimate extreme of the hoary poetry workshop adage, "Show, don't tell." On one level, I guess that's exactly what I've been trying to do: push the poetic technique of showing, not telling, as far as it will go. But I look back and realize I was writing these kinds of visually-oriented poems long before I ever participated in any writing workshops of any kind. It's something I got interested early on, being a very visual person at root. For me, the words were the carriers of the visual imagery, not anything valued in their own right into a reified existence of their own.

And that's probably the biggest heresy on my part that pisses off the most word-centric poets: that I dare to say that words have no value in their own right, except as carriers of content: a rare, for me, anti-McLuhan sentiment, in which I state that the medium (words) itself does not carry any message (massage) itself. (We need to remember that the original quote was "The Medium is the Massage," not the message; although McLuhan himself was okay with the usual misquote, and played with the resultant ideas in his usual thoughtful, multimedia manner.) That I dare to say that words are symbols and signs, with no intrinsic meaning or reality in themselves. Of course, I speak from the truth of my experience as a musician and visionary, in which non-verbal encounters with life have often proved to be more rich and resonant than those encapsulated in words. One of the reasons I am drawn to poets like Robinson Jeffers is because his use of rich and powerful language isn't pointing only towards language itself, but outwards towards a larger, often nameless Universe. (Ursula K. LeGuin's short story "She Unnames Them" is similar terrain.)

In a film such as Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, even though it is a narrative film containing spoken dialogue, the film's coherence is provided by recurring visual images, themes and colors, which overlap and recur in each of the film's three time-periods. The recurring visual linkages are what tie everything together; cross-fades between some of the key images emphasize these connections. The dialogue seems often of secondary importance compared to the visuals; and there are long sequences that are almost entirely wordless. When you put a small piece of critical dialogue in such a context, in which it's the only words spoken in a long visual sequence, the words take on extra power, extra meaning. They resonate more, they ring out as more important. The good use of words, as the historical bards knew, is to place them where they activate the most power. The Fountain is a remarkable film for these and other reasons. It pushes us towards something non-verbal in cinema, as well as non-linear.

So it is natural that I am drawn, like everyone else, to art that expresses my won worldview, my thinking. I find art to be exciting, to be stimulating in part because it reflects and expresses my own interests, desires, and explorations. I fall short of calling it "good art," just because it's art I like, unless it meets several criteria of craft and engagement that all good art is generally expected to meet. I refuse to make the same attack on others that others have made on me: I don't claim any moral high ground, I simply find such arguments wasteful of my daily energy budget. This whole experience has been a taste case in arguing for pluralism and against intolerance.

Maybe it's just a matter of finding the right sandbox to play in. Heavens know there are plenty of wrong ones.

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to take you
but here

open onto sea
or sky or some other
world without
needles or nails

open from desert
from ocean
into blue endless
scour and bliss

open anywhere
the tunneling dream
breaks through into
well holed world

take me far
from here take me
far away from all
that tears at my life

give me roads
to contemplate
roads endless curved
without guideposts

doorways and gates
filled with arrival
emptied of departure
leaving behind everything

wind from another
world blown cool
into today's hot anvil
of desire for roaming

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Process of Writing 9: A Day Off

After two days of hot, humid weather, including major thunderstorms ripping through the area, the first big t-storms of the season, today it's cloudy, cool, bleak, wearying, oppressive. I've just been out in the garden, making more photos, and also some HD video, trying to catch the last of the spring blooms, especially the daffodils and tulips. Other flowers are just starting to bloom, and the hosta are still emerging from the mulch. The lilac bush is covered with purple buds that haven't opened yet: one of my favorite scents of later spring and early summer.

The wind and rain and thunder are shaking down the spring flowers. The pear tree is shedding snow across its skirts. The neighbor's crabapple tree has shed most of its profuse clutch of white blossoms in last night's wind and rain, and now several square yards of lawn and garden are covered with bright white petals, making it look as though there is snow upon the ground. A whole field of flowers and grass emerging from petal-snow, making a confusion of seasons, and some beautiful images.

More storms are coming, it's been promised. I try to capture what flowers I can, in the cameras, before they are all gone.

The world seems shaky right now. Cyberspace is acting stupid and unreliable today. The weather is unstable, neither warm enough nor cool enough to be comfortable, and with a restless breeze that is the foretaste of more storms yet to arrive. It reminds you how fragile everything is, from cyberspace itself, which has always been a friable medium, to physical and social infrastructure, to life itself. I can’t get ignore how fragile life seems right now. Everything can always spin apart. Everything is delicate and ephemeral, to be savored for the moment, for it will soon be gone. These flowers that have been glorious all this past month will soon be gone. They are already ragged around the edges; although there are new buds still to open. The day will soon be gone. Everything could fall apart, and that’s it.

I feel like nothing would be better for me, this moment, than to be in the desert. In the heat and sunlight. D.H. Lawrence wrote that New Mexico forever changd him, once he got past the surface of things. I have to agree. My time living in New Mexico forever changd me, too. And I keep wanting to regain what I first found in the Southwest, and in Wyoming: A kind of openness, of liberation, of carelessness, that I can’t forget. It has become part of living day to day, for me, now. I surround myself with reminders, like my own photographs, but really I want to be there. I think I’ll spend some time today going through photos from recent roadtrips out West, both hot and cold days, to remind myself of what really matters. It’s certain that little that I can see that “needs to be done” right here, right now, really matters.

So I'm taking a day off. A rest day. A vacation day, from everything.

I’ve taken a mental break from the writing of the new music. I needed a day away from it. Ao when I went down to Chicago earlier this week, for a night in the studio working on video and other music projects, I did not take the new music notebooks with me; I left them here, on the worktable. It is one good reminder that a day or so in Chicago gives me: working on other music, other creative projects, reminding myself that the world hasn’t really narrowed down to only one project, one medical situation. I have other things I need to make, even if they’re not all highest priority right now. They need doing, and I need to do them. A mental break. Today I want to work on photography. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get back to writing the music. Tonight, who knows, I might do some more papier-maché: a friend of mine who is moving gave me a thick roll of hand-made art papers. I want to see what's in there, and it might inspire me to make some new papier-maché pieces. I have been thinking about doing a much larger art bowl, with many layers, using fine art papers over a stronger matrix. So, who knows. The day is nowhere near over.


I've spent a couple of hours filming HD video in the garden. The second session was as rain was falling gently, wetting the leaves and the flowers on the trees. The pruneria tree in my front yard is so thick with pink flowers overhanging the garden's flower beds that it looks like a giant pastel explosion. The raindrops slick the branches in close-up images, reminding me of Japanese paintings of cherry blossoms. The light is cool and steady, making all the colors vivid and bright.

I've spent the evening watching inspirational moments on TV.

Tavis Smiley interviewing Bill Moyers, about Moyers' new book of selected interviews: "This is no longer a society that honors the evidence, that honors the facts." —Moyers, who has made a career of speaking truth to power.

I watched a political commentator speaking the truth that no one wants to admit to: that to call oneself a Christian while living a hate-mongering, hypocritical life means that you're not really a Christian, because you're not walking even your own talk. That's what's wrong with the evangelical political right wing: they don't even listen to the teachings in the book that they hold up when they're shouting out hatred against gays. You're not a follower of Jesus if you don't live by the words he spoke, you're just a fan.

And I watched the finale episode of the series Smallville, in which the young man who is Clark Kent at last grows into the man we call super. It was actually inspirational; but what made we most appreciative was when, in the last minutes of the show, when the mantle was finally assumed, the musical score started quoting, first in bits and pieces, then in a full quote, the famous "Superman" them from the movies, written by John Williams. What a perfect way to connect those versions of the story all together.

Soundtrack music has the power to make such connections, both by association and quotation, but also by creating emotional resonance. The "Superman" theme by Williams is a genuinely inspiring melody: it makes you look up in the sky, it lifts up your heart, it excites your expectations of being both entertained and inspired, and it is on top of that an eminently hummable tune.

This makes me think of my own songwriting at the moment. If I can do half as well, even one-quarter as well, in a song I am writing for this new music commission, in uplifting emotions and inspiring people to both feel better about their lives and to go out humming a tune, I will be a very happy composer indeed.

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