Sunday, June 26, 2011

In the Garden

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Change and Not-Change

How can you be expected to cheerfully
face the hangman? See you on the other side,
when we all shall be changed, changed in an instant.
Changed utterly. I'll still be the same, but I'll be other,
changed, not-same, not-changed. Life passes through
you like a runaway steam train derailing on the wooden
trestle over a deep mountain valley, boxcars spilling wood
into sky as it plummets, coals kicking out from the open
engine fire door, and when it hits, remember it's not the fall
that kicks you, it's the abrupt collision at fall's end,
sidecars boxcars and passenger cars split into flying kindling
scattered up and down a snow-covered hillside.
Deer will wander through, and beasts hungrier.

Fogged in an anaesthetic trance, animals seem to wander
through your guts, leaving indifferent hoofprints
where they will. Seamed and sutured sandstone hills
cut through by rivers of mud blood and mud, knives of birch
soft banking against red-ferned canyon walls.
Mind the gap. Avoid surprises. Walk the narrow jagged line.
Between tendon and torch there's a wide gap of pain.
Honor the honorable dead, without voice, with no charism.
The animals are marking their terrain, where deer lie down
in trampled grass on the short mesa, where wolves mark
their territory with scent. We mark our bodies with blue paint,
war lines and geographic indicators, inner maps and outlines,
the way the knife is to be traced, the way the trace is to be cut.
On the other side there's a dream of fighting amongst
sharp-toothed hills, the valleys of aggression and redemption.
I have a silver cord that was promised to guide me out of
the labyrinth. If only I can hold onto it.

Be irritating. Squeak that wheel. Sometimes you need to squeak,
or roar, to be heard. They keep trying to give you things you
don't want, out of habit or policy. Some days you're quiet with pain,
but squeak anyway. Squeak on. Make them grease the rusty wheel
as well as the gathering mouse. Gather memories of days
like fuel for an invisible fire.

Is this that bardo? That state between lives, when invisible memories
spin tangible whorls onto your fingers? Thread the needle
with a dizzy hitch. A certain loss of equilibrium between the falcon
and the fangs. Kraken surround. What can be made of blood bricks.

Here's the limit line. The crossroads, place of crossing over river
into nest. Before the mast, the knife, after the long voyage and fall.
We go up. What comes after unpredicts from itself a wager
on behalf of long ribbon rides and pastures. Wander over
the long hill and glen, and there's at last a sea-breeze. How thin
this indication of eternity. It's a short ride to the piers, and crabs
under will catch. We shall be changed in an instant. Changed utterly.
Nothing ever the same again. What's done is dead.
And then the wander. Wherefore the disputed lake, dry and alkaline,
fought over valiantly though no one really wants to live here.
Put the salt in the bucket. We go up. Wander over. And down.
Where sea-changes are dissolving, slowly, into long cool suns.


Poem form evolving again. More broken up, spilt in two, sliced across its guts, and stitched along a line where nothing more can be taken away. I've only written a couple of poems in this series since winter. A poem not very often. Which doesn't matter, I merely observe. Two poems in a shorter, more broken mode; same series, but with changes, in a different style. Both more coherent and less tight; both more broken and more continuous. Paradoxes aplenty, as ever with this writing. Nothing much to add, a few mysteries left to parse.

I speak for those with no voice. I realize, late, with growing humility, that I speak for those who have grown the identical thing but have no artistic voice to express what they think and feel. Prophecy is not prediction, it's being to articulate what can't be said. I make no claims to want a role I find myself forced into. It seems like everywhere I turn lately I've been reading interviews and hearing stories from people who have been through what I'm going through. The dragged-down multitudes. Maybe that's my only purpose here. I thought I was making art about this medical process for my own sake, as both memorialization and catharsis; but maybe it's not just for me anymore. Maybe it's for one or two others who, having been through it too, will understand, and find some small human connection therein. I'm going to keep doing it mainly for myself, though. The rest is some beautiful kind of lagniappe.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Writing Prompts

Writing prompts are ideas that are meant to kick-start a writing exercise. For example: "Think about what you had for lunch three days ago. Write about that, or about the place where you ate." Prompts are jumping-off points. They serve to get the writing mind going, to start the creative process. They're very useful for writers who are stalled, if not stuck, who don't know what they want to do next. They're useful as exercises for beginners.

I have a mixed relationship with writing prompts. Occasionally they are very stimulating, and interesting to me. It can depend on the mood.

Writing prompts also can be problems to be solved. That can keep it a bit too intellectual, a bit too detached. Your writing response to a prompt, which is really just a thought-form, a word-image, can stay safely at the level of the five-finger exercise, the étude, the study.

I have decided that, overall, I don't like writing prompts. There are two reasons. First is that they are someone else's idea of what to write about. That rarely works well for me. Not that I'm opposed to suggestions, rather that if your mind is already going in one direction, it can be completely derailed by an abrupt change of direction, and thus it can actually defeat the purpose by blocking the creative impulse.

I'd rather go wandering and see what catches my attention, what in the world generates a response. When I do like a writing prompt, it's because it generated a response, as if on a wander. I do this in particular with what I call camera walks, which are wanders with camera in hand, which cane be a meditation in itself.

The second reason is that I find most writing prompts insipid and unchallenging. They're just not very exciting. They don't activate my creative impulse, usually. That's not meant to sound arrogant, although it probably does. The truth is, I've been at this writing and making art game for some years now, and at some point you stop wanting to repeat all the beginning-level creative exercises, which is what most such offerings are.

Of course, there's no real reason to get irritated by writing prompts, and there's nothing wrong with beginning-level writing tools. In fact, they're essential. And no one is forcing me to use them.

What actually irritates me is the seemingly permanent assumption that we as writers never grow past needing such tools. When you're at certain stages in your creative process, having the tools on hand to kick-start your creativity is excellent, necessary, wonderful, essential. But at some point you must become a self-starter. At least to a minimum extent. You can't rely on external kick-starts forever. If you can['t switch over to kick-starting your own self internally, then what have you ever learned? How can you expect to continue to grow as a writer and go on?

There's a certain lowest-common-denominator aspect to this. While it's true that there are always new beginning writers who need the tools, there is a silent assumption, often enough, that we never outgrow such tools. And that's a false assumption. If you assume you're never going to grow up, then of course you never will. If you cannot conceive of something, you're unlikely ever to fulfill it.

So while I acknowledge that writing prompts as a craft tool have a definite and useful place in one's writing life, I also acknowledge their limitations. There comes a point in a writer's progress where you have to fly alone, or not fly at all.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

An Invocation for Healing

This Photoshop montage superimposes a clutch of marigolds with my own most recent EKG.

(Click on image for larger version.)

Marigold is an ancient healing herb as well as a common garden plant. Marigold is good for the blood. It's good for cuts and bruises, and can be used as an antiseptic. It can soothe bee stings. It's good for skin conditions of various kinds.

Marigold is good for wound healing. I will invoke the essence of marigold to heal the surgical wounds I am about to receive. I will ask to be infused with the essence of marigold to protect myself against infection, to reduce inflammation, and stop bleeding.

Marigold will help me heal faster, and more effectively.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, June 20, 2011

Process of Writing 15: Progress and Touchstones

Writing can be like physical exercise: once you start, you get some momentum, and you want to keep going because of the results you achieve. Once you get the mental muscles going, they like to stay in motion.

I achieved fifteen more pages of new music in final pencil score for the commission this past week, turned them in, received approval, and am moving on now. Next week I have major surgery, which is going to be life-changing, I can only hope for the good, the best, the renewal and rebirth that has been promised, in the long run, although it's going to be worse before it gets better, and it's going to be a long process, and today it frightens me because it feels more like a death than a rebirth. Throughout that medical journey, I must keep writing music, making art, writing an occasional poem or essay, making photographs in my garden. I've learned that writing, creating, making, whatever overall label we want to give it, is one of the best ways to use the excess energy generated by the anxieties (Tantric practices and Ki Aikido, the martial, are both concerned with the redirection of energy from corrosive or destructive forces into positive, creative, and healing purposes.) Fear and anxiety and worry raise a lot of energy, and rather than letting them dominant my mind, I've been taking what I can of them and turning them into the power to clean house, get chores and errands done, and write music.

This last week before the surgery, I know that I can probably write another ten pages of score, at least. Last week, I finished off two pieces, and started three more; one of the new ones, freshly started, presented itself to me fully formed in mind, and writing out the first five pages took barely an hour. I had to break off in order to drive up to Madison to perform a concert, and also to turn in the music for approval. But in that beginning, the rest of the piece was made clear, and will not take long to complete; I need only sit down to write it out, I don't have to think it through from scratch.

I'm writing lots of song lyrics for songs in this overall project, and that seems to use the same muscles (following the exercise analogy) as writing a "pure" poem. So I have not been writing many poems lately, although one or two pops out occasionally. I am sometimes surprised when it happens. Last night a poem was hovering at the edge of my vision, and when I sat down to write something else, the poem just happened, surprising me, and pleasing me. Of course it's part of the Letters series, titled Counting Down and it relates to my life situation right now, an artistic bit of reportage, if you will, although as usual a poem is not a literal press release or journalistic report. A lot of the Letters poems track my medical narrative, and its ups and downs, expeditions and encounters.

Those poem-writing muscles are being used for lyrics, mostly, but like with exercise once the muscles are in tone they produce more than you thought they could, and carry you further. (I hope I'm not stretching the analogy to the breaking point.) It's about momentum: a body in motion tends to stay in motion. So last night a poem wanted to be written, and I had to get it down before I went to bed. Call it creative spillover from a cistern or well that keeps refilling itself.

Lyrics are not "pure" poems because they're meant to be set to music. A lot of songwriters allow slack into their lyrics, therefore, knowing the hook in the melody that exercises (again) the emotions directly can cover any clichés or flaws in the words. The synergy of the words-and-music is what makes the song.

But my models for songwriting, my touchstones, the writers that I turn to as guides for doing what I am doing, who I continue to learn from—none of these writers allowed those slack poetic clichés into their song lyrics. The result is words-and-music taken to a high level, that I aspire to, that probably I won't achieve because most don't. Yet the aspiration can carry you further than you expected; sometimes you find yourself writing at white heat, as though your creative system had jumped up a quantum energy level, and you spill out creative work all over the place. I'm finding this happening to me a lot lately, as I convert that anxiety energy into creative energy.

The other probable element of cause in this scenario is that I have stripped away almost everything from my daily life, for now, that is a distraction. I am focused on two things in life this past week, this coming week, this past month, this coming month or three: my surgery and recovery, and my creative work. Everything else is on the back burner. Nothing else matters. Not one damn thing. I can't deal with other aspects of life till the surgery and recovery are over, so I choose not to give them any time. (Worry about what happens after the recovery, sometime next year, tops that list.) There's nothing I can do about those things right now, anyway. The only thing that I must do during my recovery is continue to write music for the new commission. You can get a lot done when your consciousness is focused down to having to do only one or two things, when there are fewer distractions.

My touchstones for writing lyrics are writers whose work I have come to know well, through constant exposure and repeated listening. Yet I don't think there's a direct influence on what I am writing now, in terms of content or style. What I've learned from them is the attitude, the approach, a way of working that makes deep sense to me, to my process. I'm not interested in imitating their artistic products, but in following in their footsteps in terms of artistic process. Fortunately, I've been writing poetry for a long time, I already have my own voice, and so the lyrics I am writing are coming out in my voice, so far, and not as imitations of my touchstones. When you are a beginning artist, one good way to learn your craft and technique is to imitate the masters; at some point, the beginner moves from imitation to integration, having absorbed the listens, and begins to find their own voice. I found my writing voice some years ago, and though there are always echoes of one's absorbed lessons, what is uniquely your own voice is a synergy and synthesis of all that you are, all your experience, all that you have studied and absorbed, and it becomes a unique and new synthesis. If we aspire and achieve the heights, it is because we have stood on the shoulders of giants.

There is a long Things To Do list for this week, before the surgery. The last few days will be especially intense, including taking some medications and doing other things in preparation. And it will be, for me, horribly early in the day when all this happens. Then I'll have the drive, and the checking in, and everything else. The last hour before surgery begins, when you lie there being hovered over, answering questions, asking questions, getting more drugs put into you, starting the IV and everything else. That will be the time when I most need to practice my meditation and breathing exercises. And when I need to let go and trust. After all, I've hired the best surgical team available for this procedure for myself. It's hard not to take it personally, and worry about it, when it's your own body, but I do know that I am in very good hands medically.

Letting go and trusting. I do that every day when I make art, or write something. The way I work creatively is to let go of my intentions and trust that something good will emerge. Some days I may feel like doing one thing rather than another, and I go with that feeling.

I feel strongly about fallow periods and creative crop rotation. They are an essential and natural part of the creative process, the writing life. I also feel strongly that the writing comes first, editing, judging, and revising come later. My first duty as an artist is just to get out the way, get myself out of the way, so that whatever it is can come through. Sometimes I surprise myself.

I hadn't written a poem in many weeks. I've been focused on song lyrics. But then, suddenly there's a new poem. Surprise! And the form revealed itself, as usual, in the writing.

Sometimes just free writing, like what some teachers call loose writing or morning pages, where you just spew, can loosen things up. it doesn't matter if it's any good. It doesn't matter if we have anything to SAY. The point is just to write, and that seems to get the rest of it going.

I never worry if I never write another poem. Crop rotation. I'll always be making something, art or music or words, whatever, and I have utter faith in that. I also know that there are times when it feels stale, and then I go off and do something different. Papier-maché is a great way, for me, to go off and do something different, because it's simple and easy, and it just sort of seems to happen, things come together during the process.

The truth is, I have more art coming out of me, on a daily basis, than I know what to do with. My biggest challenge, to be blunt, is marketing what I've already made. I make something literally every day. Some days it's a few photos in the garden. Other days it's music, or writing. But literally every day something ends up being made. So I never worry about fallow periods, or running out, or whatever. It's like scratching an itch that needs to be scratched every day.

So the music writing will continue, as soon as my mind is clear again, clear of the anaesthesia, the follow-ups to the surgery, the pain meds, whatever. It could be days or a few weeks. There's no predicting which. I just have to accept that whatever happens is whatever happens.

There is a great similarity between going with the flow in art-making, and going with the flow in life in general. This is one of the things that ties art to life, this similarity. They are really the same thing, of course, since making a life for oneself is just as much a creative act as making art.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Counting Down

Counting down, counting lines of crows on power lines
hung suspended under skies hazed with oncoming distant
storm, counting hawks perched in trees watching for field mice,
counting days till the day of the deadline, counting toes
and fingers, counting hairs on your belly, counting every breath
during long evenings meditating on hot days as the sun fades
into cloud haze and evening breezes turn down the atmospheric
thermostat, counting friends in rows of billboard stances
each hovering above the long road in line as though they could
say something to fix everything, counting seconds till you fall
asleep, counting slats in the frame of the new bed before you
drop heavy cotton futon mattress on solid and firm of surface,
counting the season's first fireflies pulsing in outer dusk,
counting to keep from thinking about what you don't want to
think about, counting obsession as surfeit and surcease, counting
down, counting down to the day and hour when everything is done.

You spend long sessions of placing your hands on your belly,
still unviolated, to feel what your skin is like now, to give nurture
or something like, in the same way young mothers hold their bellies
before birthing, before the new life begins, born in blood and shouting,
born in passion and sweat, pain and exaltation, holding your belly
as though about to give birth, as though the new self will be birthed
through the soon incision from groin to above navel where they will
take out the organ that has kept you from living a full life for years
or longer, looking back on undiagnosed episode sixteen years gone,
counting backwards, counting till the jaw aches from its clench,
till the calves and knees are sore in weather change that passes through
and goes out burning into new kinds of cold.

Those few days of early summer when the gods of late high summer
visited, when the air was thick with fragrant humid greening, air
temperatures hotter than the blood, in which merely walking exertion
was enough to shed a liter of sweat, in which on successive burning
afternoons you found a trail in the woods above a freshet and thicket,
where you were able to shed your clothes and walk naked in the heat,
catch every slight stir of air on your skin, antennae of hair responsive
to amplitude and direction and hiss of long conversations between trees.

There is not accounting of what cannot be counted, the long slow dark,
the drugged dreaming in which vast beasts move just behind the eyes,
the veil, the dark between worlds, where forgetting makes new home,
new journey, new sand in an old desert, no accounting of what silent dream
cannot be said, that words do not exist to describe, in a dream without words
where nothing is said but movement connection absence silence.

When the cold comes down it drops as a curtain over the woods,
over the long sea road, and you get back into your life like putting on
clothes, like resuming a patrol in which long staggering eggs shell into
white sands, a long knife counting, an unaccustomed coup, tall slivers
of old wood beaten by sun into varnished desperation.

Some new remnant of a memory ahead of the parting of skin, of flesh
into new lips, a new jaw, a steaming contrail of steam from viscera
exposed to the cold operating theatre air, a puff of inner wind, not the soul
escaping, which is trapped under tubes and long silver cords connecting
wrist to tube, heart to palpating screen, sleeve to sensitive trace of risen
blood escaping from the smiling wound, from the guts cut upon to breathe.

When you dream an anaesthesia dream it's full of sharp men fighting
each other beneath the peaks and slopes of spear edges mountain peaks
bundled with snow and salvage, of wrecked cedar cabin beams, roofs
stove in to let the bad air out after the old one died there.

There is a long counting of pulse and rhythm in flesh, a long scythe
of dots moving on a screen, counting each heartblood pulse, each breath,
each stimulated lost dream.

Then the core of you, the lost core, is counted on a chain of microscopes,
a long tube conveyor made of seamed cord and shiny rubbery tissue.

And when the blank stare achieves its zero-point, all eyes turn to white.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, June 16, 2011


June 16th is Bloomsday, the day (in 1904) in which the novel Ulysses by james Joyce takes place, all in one day, in Dublin. Ulysses, the iconic Modern novel (along with a few others, such as Virginia Woolf's The Waves) that changed modern literature for all time, by presenting the interior monologue stream-of-consciousness of its main character(s).

STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

-- Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

-- Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak. . . .

So much has been written about Ulysses, from scholarly analyses and "decryptions" to popular fandom praise, and so much modern novelistic literature has swarmed from this novel's artistic wake, that it seems pointless to add to the fray. The novel is quoted and referenced often, in modern art and literature, cited and parodied and paid homage to. All I really can add to the many voices already chiming in on Bloomsday is my own appreciation, my personal experience with reading Joyce, with reading Ulysses and the rest.

I first read Ulysses when I was 17 years old, starting it in the autumn, and finishing it after I had turned 18 that following winter. It did take me several months to read. The novel blew my socks off. I read it, modeled as it is on Homer's Odyssey, each section written in a completely different literary style, with deep pleasure, and with no real difficulty. It all makes sense within its own internal logic.

One of my favorite chapters is the "Sirens" chapter, constructed as a musical symphony in words. It begins with an overture that compresses the action into short poetic lines, followed by the full symphony, complete with musical themes and variations. The overture begins:

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing Imperthnthn thnthnthn.

Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.

Horrid! And gold flushed more.

A husky fifenote blew.

Blew. Blue bloom is on the.

Goldpinnacled hair.

A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.

Trilling, trilling: Idolores.

Peep! Who's in the... peepofgold?

Tink cried to bronze in pity.

And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.

Decoy. Soft word. But look: the bright stars fade. Notes chirruping

O rose! Castile. The morn is breaking.

Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.

Coin rang. Clock clacked. . . .

Our modern-day hero, Leopold Bloom, navigates a long day and night, past many dangers and through many trials, to arrive home at last, to be greeted by his Molly. The last section of the novel, told in Molly's voice, is a tour de force of stream-of-consciousness writing, in some ways setting the standard.

The novel ends with what I still feel is one of the great erotic monologues in all of literature:

. . . and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Reading Ulysses began my fascination with Joyce. At one point I had probably 30 books about Joyce in my library, as well as editions of all his writings. I gave up some of the scholarly works at one point, but have retained the editions of the novels and other writings, and some of the better books about Joyce.

James Joyce

I've read all of the rest of Joyce's published writings at least once. I still believe that the story "The Dead," from Dubliners, is one of the greatest short stories of all time. (The film made from it, director John Huston's final work, is faithful to the story and quite beautiful in its own right.)

I seem to be one of those rare people who has actually read Finnegan's Wake. I read it in my 20s, sometimes after reading Ulysses, and joyce's poems, plays, and other fictions. In fact, I've read the Wake somewhere between one and three times; I'll leave that assessment fractionally vague. I figured out for myself that one way to read the Wake that makes sense of it, is to read it out loud in a thick Irish accent. A lot of the word-plays and altered language that seem so strange at first suddenly begins to make sense, when you read it that way. It's not something you read in one sitting; each section that you get through needs time to sink in and integrate; it is a Dreamtime novel, after all, with dream logic and psychological reality blended in.

Ulysses is still a lot more popular, and better known, than the Wake, as most people find it easier going. Joyce's avant-garde literary experiments did get more complex with each major work. A lot of readers stop at Ulysses where they can still make sense of most things.

But Joyce's works have permeated the culture. Everyone has heard jokes or parodies, or puns on Joyce's titles. Entire musical works, on both small and large scales, have been written from Joyce's texts. (John Cage has used Joyce texts for songs and other kinds of performances, and has used the Wake several times as part of a "writing through" sequence.) The Joycean novels still inspire, they still reflect modern life and attitudes, and I would argue they are still vital and relevant to contemporary literature, and life. Ulysses and annual celebrations of Bloomsday remain popular, vibrant, and joyous. The world was changed by Joyce, the world's consciousness, not just its literary tropes and fashions. Thus, these annual remembrances of Bloomsday, these annual rites of celebration.

Happy Bloomsdday! May your wanderings always bring you, at last, home.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blood Warhols

More Warhol-style collages made in Photoshop, from photos made during my most recent blood transfusion.

Blood Warhol 1

Blood Warhol 2

Blood Warhol 3

The blood is the life.

Hands into hearts filled with blood.

Three collages made in Photoshop from photos taken during my most recent blood transfusion, in the hospital outpatient ward, a needle in the back of my hand, not always pleasant, sometimes painful, but worth remembering.

When you sit down to make art out of your life experience, sometimes it's worth it to make art you don't like to look at. I get a lot of flak for making this kind of art, and even more flak for writing poetry about it. (Particularly from poets, when those poems challenge them in ways they don't like to be challenged, formally, or in terms of content, or with ways of writing poems alien to their own. Poets, probably because they're so insecure in the market-driven world, are often very intolerant of difference. Gays and lesbians, too, can be intolerant of difference, and sometimes for the same reason: we can be very uncertain of our place in the world.)

But that is the essence of Tantric practice: facing directly those things you don't like to look at, whether they are fears, toxic patterns, death, life, love, sex, hate, or other sometimes corrosive emotions and situations. It's a list of things we'd all rather avoid, most of us, and the list is as long as your personal list of phobias and neuroses. At the root of most or all of these lies fear.

The point is to embrace those things you'd rather flee from, use that power they generate in you when you face them, and redirect it towards your own greatest good. Betterment. Enlightenment. Whatever you want to call it.

Most people run from their fears. The Tantric practice is to run towards them.

In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, a monk was sometimes sent to practice graveyard meditation, which is the practice of going to the burial yards, and meditating all night long while sitting on a fresh corpse. If that doesn't push your buttons, bring out every feeling of fear and revulsion you've ever felt, then you're not human. It's supposed to push your buttons. That's the point: When your buttons are pushed, then you're engaged with your whole being with the moment.

And that's only one short step away from what enlightenment really is, which is not what most people think it is. It's not nirvana, it's not some magical blissful cessation of all upset, chaos, or drama. It's not the end of strife. What it is, is living in the present moment, without emotional or mental baggage, with a sense of being one with everything, and being able to sense the connections. The Lakota say "All My Relations" at the end of their prayers, invoking and connecting to all of Creation. The Navajo finish many sacred songs with the phrase "It is finished in beauty," which is one translation of the word "hozho," which means "balance" and "peace" as well. See the pattern yet? At the culmination of the corpse meditation, after you have contemplated your own death and the ephemeral and groundless nature of your own emotions, there arrives a peacefulness and tranquility and detachment wherein you realize what matters in life and what doesn't, what's worth paying attention to, and what's not worth getting upset about. Which is most things. Most personal dramas get put into perspective when you're meditating all night while sitting on a corpse.

Which is why I keep coming back to the photos I have taken of my own medical procedures, of the blood transfusions in particular. Remembering what the needle feels like in the back of your hand while looking at the photo: that is a Tantric practice. It's like meditating while sitting on your own corpse, on the temporary nature of your own incarnation, on the limitations and short duration of their lives.

The Universe will go on a very long time after we're all dead. That puts your drama into perspective.

I might not survive another day, another week, another year. The medical treatments I still have to undergo, not the least of them a life-changing surgery, could be the death of me. Each blood transfusion could kill me as well as save me: it is always a risk. Even if a small risk, because the medical technicians are really good at what they do, it's still a risk.

I've never thought of myself as particularly brave or heroic or as anything special, and I've always run towards the fears instead of away from them. I learned very early in life that that's what you have to do. I've never felt there was a choice, even when I didn't really want to do it. There are just some things you have to do, and you can't avoid doing them.

I learned that by growing up a gay boy in a hostile culture: we all learn to navigate dangerous waters very early, we learn to be observers of life and people, almost the same way an anthropologist in the field observes the people in the culture she is studying, we learn to hold back our personal truths from public scrutiny, and public discourse. We learn early that we have to cope with doing things we'd rather not do. I learned a lot of life-lessons from being bullied for many years in school. One of them was to always turn towards the lion's roar, rather than to try to run away from it. If you try to run away, you get eaten.

I don't want to get eaten. I'm the spiritual predator, the Black Dragon, not the sheep, the spiritual prey. I'm the Warrior who can be killed but never defeated. And I'm the Vampire, the dark archetype that even at the last fights to his utmost to survive. I'm in love with the world, and with life, and I'm not ready to let go of it. Not yet. I won't be here forever, so every moment is all the more precious. The preciousness of life is in direct proportion to our awareness of its short, ephemeral nature. This, too, you learn from sitting on the corpse all night: That what cannot less is therefore all the more rich.

So I run towards the fears. Nothing in life terrifies me more, right now, then the surgery and recovery and life-changing things about to happen to me. The outcome may very well be a real improvement to my life. But I'm not there yet. Today, that hasn't happened yet, and there's no guarantees. There is no "reward" for good behavior, for doing everything right, for thinking the right thoughts, for following good advice, for right livelihood. You cannot think your way out of these problems. Sometimes you can only endure.

If I must face this fear, I will. It doesn't seem like there's a choice. Avoidance and denial are not valid choices. Running away only postpones the inevitable. My aunt who avoided and denied illness and death her entire life was not in the end able to avoid either, and her last illness killed her. Nobody here gets out alive. When you fight back against the bullies, they stop. Well, first they escalate, but once they figure out you're not easy prey anymore, they go in search of easier prey than you—that's because bullies are fundamentally lazy, stupid, and ignorant: they are ruled by their own fears, and they always run away from the corpse. Facing up to it is the last thing they want to do. So when you run towards your fears, the bullies scatter. Another thing I learned early in life.

So I make art, and poems, out of this illness, out of these fears. And the fears scatter. At least for awhile. For tonight is good enough. And if you don't want to stare at this corpse, don't: no one is forcing you to look. You can make your own choices, and they don't have to be mine.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Photoshop Collages

Or are they montages. Or assemblages. The definitions are a bit vague, and there's a lot of overlap. Actually, not to worry. I just play around and make the things. Let someone else do the due diligence about clarifying the art-historical definitions. At the moment I can't be bothered.

Some recent work, then. Some new pieces. Some experiments in Photoshop in combining elements into a new work. Some experiments in photography and and typography, and overlap between. Some type effects made in Photoshop, still an underutilized design tool. The design tools are only as good as the designer's conceptions, after all; it's the user that drives.

All of these made from photos taken within the past month, on a few evenings when I wanted to make something, but was too tired to do much more than sit in the comfy chair with the laptop. The process of creativity often begins with looking at what you have, then starting to play around with it. Ideas and concepts might emerge from the play, leading you towards a particular artistic outcome, but the process of play is at least as important as the product, to the artist. I play around like this a lot, but not all the products get finished, or are exceptionally interesting, or even good art. You have to be willing to fail.

(Click on images for larger versions.)

Spring Flowers 2011

Including a haiku spawned by the artwork, written in response to the flower essences, and included in the work:

spring awakening
at the well of pollen
divine light of bees

Bushmills Warhol

Could also be titled "The monkey approaches the blowtorch." A spontaneous bit of photography Alex and I did with our cameras at a St. Paul pub near his apartment on my last visit there, before he moved down to New Mexico. We had been running errands all day, and stopped in for a meal, and also a drink with the meal. We got into playing with the close up and macro features of our cameras, using props on the table, and, well, our monkey selves.

So this is sort of a self-portrait, Warholized, but not really, since Alex took the shot. Or did he? I can't remember.

Roads 2011, no. 1

Photos taken while driving. Here displayed side by side, in order, as a triptych. The hour was blue, twilight after sunset, driving home from far away. I love how headlights make streaks of light on longer exposures.

Roads 2011, no. 2

A layered composite of the same frames previously shown side by side. Various masking and combining techniques used in Photoshop to get this. Using Layers in Photoshop is a basic technique for collage, or whatever we want to call it.

What really caught my eye here were two elements: the overpass bridge, the way it both defines and breaks up the skyline at dusk; and the reflections of blurred lights on the hood of my own vehicle. My eye keeps going to those elements, more than to others. The overall effect is pleasing, though. It will interesting to try something like this as a video, again with long time exposed frames.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Process of Writing 14: Deadlines

I intend to take a quiet day today, and rest a bit, write a bit, not push too hard. I've pushed hard to meet deadlines for several days, and now I need to rest.

The previous few days I had been working continuously to notate as many pages of score as possible, to fulfill the mid-commission deadline point of having 15 minutes of music written and turned in. I've been pushing hard at that deadline, as this month I also am getting ready for surgery at the end of the month; after which, I don't expect to be able to do much for a little while.

A few days ago a major storm swept through with heavy winds, heavy rains, even some large hail, and knocked out the power to my small town for three hours beginning around sunset. The weather had been gloriously warm and summery for several preceding the storm; then with the cold front sweeping through with the storm, it was 40 degrees colder for days afterwards. The trauma to my flesh was severe: I relish the tropical heat, as it's the only time my body feels completely comfortable and at rest. The cold brings out the aches in bones and joints, and reminds me of old injuries, which always ache in the cold damp. When the power went out that night, fortunately I always keep a lot of candles around. So I read for awhile, by flashlight, then I got back to writing music. I sat in the total dark on the porch, surrounded by candles, and wrote music for a couple of hours, till the power was restored.

During the outage I reflected on how dependent we are on electronic technologies and the power grid. Not only for our necessities, but for many of our distractions and entertainments. I look around at people texting all the time on their cellphones and wonder if they remember how it was before such tools were ubiquitous. It was refreshing to spend an evening "off the grid," which is something I always enjoy when I go camping out in the wilderness, far from power and its conveniences. It's surreal when this happens at home. The entire neighborhood was dark, black as perdition except when a flash of lightning seared the sky like a hot flashbulb, casting a flat hard light across the land. I thought about my elderly neighbors huddled under blankets in their beds against the encroaching dark and storm. I realized I was probably the only person on my block who wasn't feeling apocalyptic fears about the end of everything. A power outage brings that specter close, for a few hours. What would you do if the power went away, and everything we take for granted came to an end? Would you be able to survive? Could you find food, and cook it? Fortunately, since I go camping a lot, I have a lot of gear in the garage; so had it come to it, I could have taken out the propane-powered stove and made dinner in the dark. It's strange to discover that I have even minimal survival skills, from time spent in the wilderness, that many people no longer have. I could have made it for at least a few days. Of highest concern would have been cooking up the food in the fridge before it spoiled.

Then the power came back on; you could almost feel the sigh of collective relief spreading from all the surrounding houses.

The following two days were a big push to write even more. I developed some momentum, and picked up speed on writing and finishing the finale movement for the commission. I still don't have a final title for it, although on the pencil score I temporarily called it "When We Sing." We goal was to turn in pencil score, and engrave the music in notation software later. I might do a little revision when I engrave the score, the way I sometimes revise a poem originally written in my handwritten journal (often when out camping) when typing it into the computer. Life has been scattered and dramatic enough lately that I realized recently I had fallen behind on that task, and there are still poems and other writings in my journal that I haven't typed into the laptop as yet. I'll catch up someday, I suppose. I'm please with the music I wrote over the past few days. The finale movement lacks only its last few pages, then I'm done with that movement, except for possible revisions later. This is first finished draft, not final draft, that I am working on now. There are no doubt going to be revisions and improvements. The writing has been rushed, but sometimes I write at my best when under deadline pressure.

Yesterday was a Chorus concert at a retreat center in the countryside by a lake, an hour or so northeast of Madison. I drove up to Madison, and carpooled with other members of the Chorus the rest of the way. The concert went well, but by the time I got home I was completely exhausted. There is a smaller, informal concert the Chorus is giving this afternoon up in Madison, but I've already begged off. I don't want to push myself past exhaustion, and loose the whole week to it. I need to build up my strength for the upcoming surgery, not wear myself down. So I had to choose which was the more important concert to participate in this weekend, and while I chose the one harder to get to, it was also the more important one. Today I need to take it easy, after all this pushing and stress of the past few days.

Yesterday, as much fun as it was, and even though the concert was very well-received, was an overstimulating day. Driving back down from Madison, I didn't even listen to music in the truck, my ears were so tired. I get overstimulated when surrounded by so many chattering extraverts and loud ambient situations, that go on for too long. The quietest background noise, the music playing on a restaurant stereo that would normally seem soothing, a quiet conversation overhead across a room—all of these become overwhelming, painfully too loud. When I got home, I didn't even rest for awhile, I was so wiped out I went right to bed. I'm still feeling tired and overstimulated this morning, but at least it's sunny and warmer again. Maybe warm enough to open up the windows again. So maybe later I'll be able to go for a walk in nature, alongside the river, under the whispering trees. And that will be a refreshment.

Why do I often seem to do my best writing under deadline pressure? It's not that I enjoy the stress of the pressure. It's more that my conscious mind seems to be forced out of the way of the creative mind, which is given freer rein. Things come bubbling out that later I sometimes marvel at, wondering where they came from. The conscious mind is sometimes most clueless, dumbest part of the mind, of the whole system of mind. (Which is why privileging it over the other parts of the mind, as philosophers and academics often do, is often problematic. It's not a reliable witness even for its own narrative.)

Who knows, maybe in the fog of painkillers and anaesthesia, I might actually come up with some creative ideas? Maybe the conscious mind will be so fogged that the other will happen. So I intend to keep a notebook at hand, just in case. The largest obstacles to creativity will no doubt be physical: pain, and exhaustion. After the relatively minor surgery a month or so ago, I came home and slept for days. That's a good thing, as in sleep you recover, heal, and recharge. The trauma to your flesh and spirit is lessened by going into the Dreamtime.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Process of Writing 13: Personal Histories

I completed the Heartlands/dark song, "The Voices In My Head," a couple of days ago. During the last few pages of writing the music down, it all fell together, the ending suddenly became clear and easy to write down. I struggled intensely with the writing of that piece for over a week. I know it affected my mood all week. It was a stressful act of writing, to go into those dark places where the voices tell you only negative things about yourself. I predict some of the listeners (and performers!) of this song from the commission will find it disturbing yet good, in that it brings up a dark and difficult topic that many of us can relate to, and only some of us have fully overcome. It definitely stirred up the muck for me. I was glad to put the last touches on the final page of score, and begin to start thinking about what to write next.

I realized right about the time that I finished writing "Voices" that two other truths had also been present for awhile. First, it was stressful writing this piece, in the context of what I am going through right now, preparing for upcoming surgery and all that entails, and added to my overall high stress level all last week. As I said, it was a relief to finish it, and be able to turn towards more energetically-positive sections of the commission.

Second, this was the perfect time to write this piece, in the context of building up to the surgery. It was purgative, it was cathartic. It was a good way to use that constant anxiety that I have been feeling, pre-operation. Better to write a dark piece now, when the overall mood has been dark. I'm doing my best to think positively about the surgery itself, and the recovery, and yet I know only too well that it's going to be stressful all the way up to the day itself. So on some level, not bothering to tell myself clearly what was going on till later, I chose to use that, to use it for this writing. I've also written one or two essays in the past month that have been similarly purgative, similarly satisfying to complete. Also, I don't expect to be clear-headed or focused after the surgery, for some time. During the recovery, that first healing, that is a good time to focus on writing more positive music. Get the dark stuff out now, leave room for the lighter stuff when it supports my own healing.

The very next day after completing "The Voices In My Head," I began working on the Finale, which I am tentatively calling "We Sing For Our Lives." It's a little ambiguous, but overall it's a positive summation of the entire cycle of songs, that I hope will lift off and transcend everything that has gone before. I am working on how to include something transcendent enough to tie the music into the cosmic music of the spheres. The them here is universal overcoming. We sing because it makes us feel alive. When we sing we forget all our suffering, all the crap we put up with during the rest of our days. When we sing, we are alive, we are connected to something greater than ourselves, we become linked to the eternal song of the cosmos.

Here I am thinking in part of the music made from radio astronomy data by Dr. Fiorella Terenzi and her CD of Music from the Galaxies. I am also thinking of similar projects that have taken magnetic data and solar wind data and made them into sound. I wonder if I can incorporate this into my own commission? I have to think about it. Logistically, it would be difficult. I am also thinking of perhaps incorporating some ideas from my own celestial piano music that I have been working on for a couple of years.

I got most of the lyrics for the Finale down yesterday. (Sitting in the doctor's office, with time to kill while waiting for my appointment.) Enough to get me started, and hopefully writing far into the piece today. I already knew what the Finale was going to be about, and I already knew that it would begin by repeating the a capella choral weave from the very beginning of the opening movement. But I hadn't really gotten more than a hint of lyrics. Now I have most of those, which came clear to me yesterday. I need to add a bit more to the lyrics, and incorporate a couple of ideas that I have been wanting to include all along. So today I will begin by revising the lyrics, writing through them again, making some changes and additions, tightening up a bit, then start in on the music score.

Meanwhile, a few days ago, I re-discovered some documentation photos I'd made of an erotic poetry journal I began keeping when I was fifteen years old, and was inspired to write down some thoughts about it in retrospect. This morning what intrigues me about this early personal sexual writing was that I chose to write it mostly as poetry. One or two poems that I completed later on began in that journal, at that age. I'm looking back on my personal history from my teenage years from a new perspective.

In recent months, I have been resisting calling myself a writer. Too much baggage around that word. Too many expectations and myths and beliefs, many of them tribal-level beliefs that do not serve me as an individual or as an artist. Yet, looking back over this early writing, I am forced to admit that I must in part own being a writer. We can define a writer as one who responds to life by writing about it. I must own that I have some portion of that instinct—not a full, exclusive portion of it, as "real" writers do, whose first and only artistic instinct is to write. That I turn to making music, making art, before I turn to writing, as my primary artistic responses to life, makes me not a "real" writer in most "real" writers' eyes: those who are exclusively and only writers, in other words, whose only instinct is to respond to life by writing about it. I get a lot a flak about that, from these "real" writers. Some of whom have wanted me to give up all the other arts and join their camp—and were mortally offended when I rejected that offer. But looking back on this old journal, I concede that I must, in part, be a writer, because at that time I did turn to poetry for getting those inchoate, teenage, no doubt clichéd feelings out of me and into my art. On the other hand, as I have said before, I don't write any poems when I am musically busy and satisfied; I write the vast bulk of my poetry when for one reason or another I don't the opportunity for music at the moment. I write a lot of poems when I'm traveling or camping, when there isn't a piano available, or I don't have my Stick along on a roadtrip.

Perhaps this is the timely occasion to include my own stories in the new music commission. I've been focused on the rich material for stories and lyrics given to me by members of the chorus, who gave of their writings and time to this music commission, in emails, poems, and interviews. I've been incorporating these into the lyrics, but so far I haven't talked about my own personal history very much in that context. But writing the music is bringing up a lot of my own memories about being a teenager in Ann Arbor, regarding my sexuality and my impressions of the sexual culture there, at that time.

I have intended all along to include some of my own perspective and stories in the music, somewhere, didn't know where. Can't really avoid that, since I'm writing the piece, and since I'm more than a journalist recording the stories told by others, and have my own to tell. The writing is certainly stirring up memories, so now I'm just going to let them come forward as they will. Writing them down, as I have done regarding my youthful erotic journal, seems like part of this music commission process—not separate from it, even if it ends up being only a sidebar.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, June 06, 2011

There are poems (Another failed taxonomy)

There's the poem you think about first. The poem you set out to write to make clear, maybe first to yourself, that something is worth recording in a poem. Some idea, some memory, some institutional process.

There's the poem you write in response to something. An idea drifting through the consciousness, or an essay you read one morning while sipping your wake-up beverage, be it caffeinated or juiced. Instead of responding to an essay with an essay, you respond with a poem.

There's the poem that doesn't care what you're doing, it comes into your head and demands to be written down Right Now. Drop everything and get to it. Keep that pen and notebook handy at all times, whether you're driving or ironing shirt collars. You have to be willing to interrupt yourself. What's more important, the task or the poem? Which you pick will tell you who you are.

There's the poem that comes when you are relaxing, letting go, relaxing mind and body, softening your gaze. The poem that comes just as you are falling off to sleep. The poem that comes to you in the shower. And you have to interrupt yourself to get the idea down. Then go back to sleep, or go rinse off.

There's the poem you write to answer an imaginary question. Why, for example, is the neighbor mowing his lawn first thing Monday morning? Couldn't it have waited till later in the day. The answer to the story of why becomes the story in the poem. And why so many heart attacks also happen first thing Monday morning? Maybe it's because a lot of answer don't come on Monday mornings. You might have an urgent question, but it takes them awhile to return your call.

There's the methodical poem, written an one sitting, fully-formed in mind and capsuled into the blank white container of the page. There are times using fixed forms opens this door, giving you a blueprint to fill in, making it easier to be methodical. Lots of poem-a-day poems are written methodically, as practice for something inspired. Craft is what gets you through those days when you're not inspired. It fills in the gaps. Gives you something to do.

There's the undisciplined poem. No methodology can guarantee inspiration. So you wait for inspiration, practicing patience. Be willing to do nothing for days on end. By patient. Craft serves to hone inspiration into its best self, when it comes. Craft serves the discipline of waiting by keeping your instruments sharp. You're lucky to get a few of these poems a year, but they are in fact more common than the methodical poets believe. The main thing is, you don't pretend your daily practice poems are worth anything much.

There's the didactic poem, the sermon poem, the philosophical poem, ideas tricked up in pretty robes that make the medicine easier to swallow. The sermon's message goes down better with a spoonful of sugar. The philosophical observation with a twist of wry. Philosophers usually take their ideas too seriously, and end up too dry, too sour. If Nietzsche had written his polemics as poems, as he sometimes did, or as satire, as he sometimes did, he might have been less dire. Those very polite and overly reasonable English thinkers could use some zaniness of Zen.

There's the irrational poem, which shakes up your usual orderly morning and takes your spleen for a walk. The poem that makes no sense, either during its writing, or later on. What can we hang our left brains on, this morning? All the coathooks have melted like pats of vinyl butter in the heat. You plunge in and swim around in the blood-colored rain. Sudden left turns are appreciated.

There's the faux-irrational poem. The one that looks like a dream but still adds up to narrative complete with moral at the end of the story. The poem that tries to harness those foam-snorting water-horses that pull Neptune's chariot with bands of iron, iron which rusts when drowned in the ocean. The problem with Surrealism is that mostly they try to put the irrational sources of inspiration under the rational control of the waking mind, as if telling oneself what to dream was a test to be taken and gotten good marks on. If you edit your Dreaming to be suitable for the waking world, it tends to rebel. Fish wander through the most unhallucinatory of boardrooms. If you're going to really let the poems be irrational, take your finger off the scales, and stop trying to tip them towards "useful" rather than "whatever." You end up with poems that talk about the irrational while themselves remaining unthreateningly rational, coherent, and logical. Descriptions rather than immersion. Most poets are actually afraid of their own Dreaming. They don't entirely trust the archetypes they find at the bottom of their own minds.

There's the poem of Apollo, and there's the poem of Dionysus. Somewhere in between we find Athena. It doesn't have to be war on the chessboard. It could be a tango instead. The Jabberwocky finds itself in love with the moon, the wine, a fragrant breeze of tea leaves.

There's the poem of fragments, which reflects and represents the fragmentary nature of consciousness. Things don't always stitch together into nice narratives, even though the universe is made up of stories. The end of the story lies in raveled tatters. Some revisionists like to put in grammar where none was intended. Resist the urge to build a factory on that vacant stare.

There's the poem of quick and unrevisioned capture. The poem of the moment, the quick observation jotted around, first thought best thought. Poems that fall off the back of an overburdened farmer's cart every time it hits a bump in the gravel road. Rarely revised, usually abandoned. Sown into the wind to fall and fertilize wherever, avoiding proper cultivation. Leaves strewn in the wake of the crazy poet-monk who can't be bothered to collect them, who wanders on.

There's the poem of reticence and understatement, never telling you exactly what's going on. Some kind of horrible life-changing tragedy referred to in five plain words before moving on. Wait. Stop. What was that? How am I supposed to feel about it, if anything? The poem that leaves you on the corner, wondering which way to cross.

There's the puzzle-poem, that expects to solved, that dares you to intellectualize a detective's trail of clues. But what of poetic ambiguity, when the riddle has two answers? The poem that cloaks an easy question in an obscure enigma, beneath as baroque as possible a locking mechanism. Some poems make you forge their keys from scratch.

There's the poem of exquisite geometry, as conceptually brilliant as a gem set in the sun. Every turn is a vector, a geodesic, that takes you into the mysterious heart of mathematical perfect wisdom.

There's the poem that tastes of some aspect of the divine hidden behind a thinning veil or mask of revelation. In the wake of such surprise, a little bit of threshold god-awakening in your own blood sends shivers. You might dangerously wake into power. What just passed through here? A wind-riffle in the grass where something invisible walks, invoking panic. These are perhaps the most dangerous poems of all, the most mysterious. Your hair stands on end. Even poets try hard to suppress their panic in the face this Unknown, and revert to little poems that try to do too little, deliberately avoiding the uncontrollable.

Labels: ,

Friday, June 03, 2011

Process of Writing 12: Stirring Up the Muck

Nearly done with one self-contained longer song. This is one of the planned pair of songs about the light and dark aspects of growing up in the Midwest heartlands. The light song is about community and continuity, the support of a tight-knit family and circle of friends, the traditions that can keep you going, that can support you in your struggles against the rest of the world, no matter what they take. The dark song is about oppression, about the tribal requirement for conformity and suppression of individuality, about hiding your true nature both to avoid getting hurt but also out of internalized self-hatred. The two songs mirror each other, and will echo each other with some shared musical material.

I've been working on the dark song. It's been rough going, because of the feelings it stirs up.

I've taken to calling this Heartlands/dark song, which is for full chorus and piano, "The Voices In My Head." It's a transcription of those voices of internalized self-censorship (the most pernicious variety there is), of internalized homophobia and sissyphobia, about all those fears that can keep you in the closet. (It's not a song about bullying; I plan an entirely separate song on that topic. A song that might be rather brutal for me to write, given my childhood history of being bullied, but perhaps also cathartic.)

The musical style of this song is what we could call dark, jagged jazzy pop. Swung rhythms, choppy lines, finger snapping on the back beat. Hip and cool, with some atonal clashing notes thrown in at critical moments. One thing you learn from studying both Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein is the use of polychords to highlight moments of intense emotion. Throw in a stabbed discordant note outside the song's modal gamut and it can create a stab of fear or danger in the audience's hearts.

This sort of darkly emotional song lyric demanded to be written in fixed meter and rhyme. I found myself varying where the end-rhymes fall from verse to verse and chorus to chorus, which are also in different meters, but nonetheless using rhyme to bite down hard on building tension through repetition and echo. I also find myself using internal rhymes and slant-rhymes at the ends of lines to make the patterns clear but not always predictable. End-rhymes that are too predictable veer towards sing-songy cliché. The variations in the patterns serve to give a sense that we come at the song's topic from several different directions, implying a multitude of dysfunctional inner voices, that inner chorus, giving out negative self-talk. This is reinforced by giving the melody and verse to a different section of the chorus each time. Here's the first verse and refrain:

You got to fit in
Don't ever stand out
Don't think for yourself
Don't stand up and shout

Being different's a sin
It won't get you friends
You know what that means
It's a means to an end

R: Don't laugh
   Don't cry
   Too much
   You know why

Five verses total. The final one is a remix of the previous four, lines pulled and repeated from what has already been heard, sung by full chorus with a certain angry edge to the performance.

Form follows function: the idea is to make the musical setting be the perfect container for the lyrics, to reinforce and heighten the metric patterns that are the tensioning core of the song's emotional matrix. Okay, in simpler words, that means that the style of the music needs to match the mood and tone of the lyrical content. Form is dictated by the lyric, in a song like this.

I find myself irritable and impatient today. It's partly because the weather has reverted to cold and dreary after a few glorious days of sunshine and warmth. Today was not a very good day. I did get some work done. This song is almost finished. When I felt stuck on moving forward with the music, I went back a few pages and filled in sections of the piano part and choral fills, to "paint in" the sketched outlines. So it's moving forward. But I could only work on it a little bit today. I kept needing to take breaks.

I slept in late, and the dreary weather made me want to go back to bed as soon as I got up. The temptation of the cocoon of blankets already warmed by body heat, versus the chilly house with chilly floors cold on the bare feet first thing in the morning. Enough to make anyone want to go back and curl up warm again. I had intense dreams again, too, and for awhile had difficulty sorting what was dream and what was waking. The cold damp brings back that interminable winter cough as well.

There's no doubt in my mind that working on this song is partly what's making me feel irritable and impatient today. Working on this dark material, which is a story I know only too well, is bringing up memories and feelings from my own life. Stirring up the muck from the bottom of the pond.

The next song I work on will have an entirely different mood, which will be a break for the composer. When you're writing songs that stir up some darker memories, you need to take a break and write something lighter in between.

At some point, I intend to journal, in these notes about this writing process, about what i regard as my creative touchstones for the songs I am writing for this new music commission. I have had to repeatedly go back and recharge myself with the music and idea touchstones that have inspired me for this piece, particularly in terms of style. I will get around to that when I have a chance. There are four or five important touchstones worth talking about, but they deserve a longer, more in-depth look than I give them at this moment.

These touchstones serve me by helping me keep myself focused on the style, technique and musical tone of the work at hand, and they also stand in rebellion against the other musics I am dealing with right now: those ongoing medical and musical factors that have occasionally been interfering with this current writing. Today, for example, was definitely an uphill battle against interference and annoying invasions in my mind. I mostly get impatient and annoyed as a direct symptom of feeling frustrated. Naturally, these feelings all go away when the writing is going more smoothly.

yet sometimes you just have to square up against the resistance and just push through. Keep walking into that hurricane, that emotional headwind blowing hard off the turbulent, seething sea of darker memories and emotional shadows. Just keep pushing through till you get past the worst of it, and out the other side. It's no wonder working on this darker song has made me feel tired, though. When you stop to consider it, it makes sense that you'd feel wiped out after doing this kind of process work.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, June 02, 2011

first morning without

spruce fitful
in long wind weaves
tip torn loose
spattered on window
an excess of robins

northern skies bleak
restless and lonely
at the same time
cardinals pair red on green

where are you
not to be found here
jealousy of highways
ribbons and long drinks
spooling out to the west

I'm tired of the usual
urbane loneliness
that mask we wear to
pretend we're alright

cool restless shade
this morning shut the doors
and windows against chills
shivering anyway I don't
want to get dressed without

you in the tree, in the porch
shadowed garden, in venetian
lines with no torso to shade
your absent touch, your distance

Labels: ,