Thursday, July 28, 2011


At first there's nothing you can do but endure.
It takes all your energy to like it, what's been done to you.
Nothing happens quickly. It's all slow, immersed in distance,
a blur of waiting, half-bored, for anything to happen.
A lot of full stops. Nothing flows except those fluids
you'd rather not think about. That damn nasal tube
with its transparent flex full of your inner flux being sucked away.
Disgusting. A charming portrait of soul reduced to nothingness.
And the button to cancel pain by that catheter stuck into your spine.
Makes it all numb. Mind unable to reboot, just floating along.
But the allergies to some of the pain meds means you don't
even get to have fun. Just the floating world, suffering alongside.

It's just as well we can't remember pain, after awhile. It's good it fades.
Otherwise we'd be in dread of it always floating back. We'd lock ourselves
into repetitious nightmares of avoidance, inflexible fears. Memory has
beneficent safety, an anodyne, ways of forgetting what it's not best
to retain. Rehearse what I want to recall, let go of the rest.
The garden's half-wild this summer, since I can't stoop to weed.
No kneeling. No bending over. No lifting things heavier than a water glass.
Getting stronger, but those staples in my gut made a zipper stitch
in my side if I bend over too soon, too far, too often. A long
afternoon's summer dog-day nap will suffice. I may miss all summer,
either napping or restlessly pacing the cage walls. The dog analogy's
a good one, a mutt in pain will pace in patterns I catch myself
emulating. It's the animal self that's in control now. Given so much attention
to the mortal flesh, its echoes of complaint, I've been forgetting
to sit and meditate. The zafu's gotten lonely for my sore ass.

I can't drink much wine yet, so the Chinese poets will have to
get high and chant poems on the moon-viewing porch
without my febrile contributions. The pain pills get in the way.
An ascetic's puritanical paradox: pills to prevent pain
as well prevent some pleasures. Things I'm told I cannot do.
I'm being good, and following all the rules, for once. No pain,
no brain, no rain. It's been so long, so long without unraveling,
I can't remember what it feels like to have a pain-free day.

My sliced open gut still complains, when I sit or lie on my side.
Things inside me still bitch about being jostled around,
cut loose, reattached, stapled up and told to wait, wait, wait.
Legitimate complaints, when I bend or flex the wrong way,
too fast. Some nights' sleep lost over being unable
to find the right configuration of limbs and guts along the futon.
Like some vigilant watchtower, a visceral reminder of limits.

Pain is a postal address along a long road towards new life.
You stop in to visit, never lingering. What burns you stirs you.
Guts and glory distant cousins who don't talk anymore.
Somewhere there's a fence line across an open desert,
a pointless boundary marker, nothing visible from the air.
The hardening zipper under where the staples came out,
firm to the probing finger, even though the skin looks new,
somewhat shiny, not very red anymore, just a pale ember.

And there are dismembered nights. Lying in the chair, restless, unable
to sleep, between the sore guts and the sore ass. No meditation
pillow can conquer a sore ass. At least not so soon after.
Can't toss and turn without hurting, can't lie still without pain,
can't find a comfortable place to lie, no place between.
Play that music loud, Mr. Composer, loud enough to drown out
the inner voices bitching about this and that. Drown in sound,
lose mind to music. Something like a switch that music can trip
when nothing else can. It pisses me off.

Last nights with family and friends in the house, then long nights
alone. I don't get tired as fast as I did, weeks ago, still don't
feel ready to be on my own. It's all too much. I could barely stand
to gather and take out the trash. Too much. Overwhelm is a
country where big things can't be made smaller by simply doing.
Maybe I should get a dog. I'm more comfortable with cats, though.
A simple presence in the house, even an aloof one. Not all purring
is a comfort. Some sound bellwether a breaking.

Nothing to be done but spill your guts. All over the page.
Nothing left but the recordings. Switch them off. They repeat
too often. And often. Boredom is the inability to escape the city
of hell. Dis is the place. You thrash, as much as you safely are able.
And turn over in your sleep. Maybe there will be dreams.
It's so hard to remember, lately.

Some Notes:

This poem, unlike most, has taken a long time to write. Most poems happen quickly, for me, then there might be a resting period, before I look it over again, polish it up, makes necessary changes. But the initial writing is usually one extended moment, one connected period of time, the time it takes to write it down. With this poem, though, I started it almost two weeks ago, and kept abandoning it, then coming back to it. I could not let go of it.

The subject wanted to be written about. I don't care if this poem is just a diary-poem; most things I'm writing at the moment, post-surgery, fall into what I am loosely calling The Surgery Diaries: reflections, responses, notes, journal thoughts, all about the process of surgery, and recovery, and the good and bad days that pile up together like so many stacks of rustling leaves.

I don't feel that it's very coherent, for a poem—on the other hand, between the surgery, the pain meds, the lingering traces of anaesthesia, and general post-surgery tiredness, I haven't been very coherent myself. Some days I feel very blurry indeed. Maybe this poem is a truer representation of my current state of scattered mind then something more polished and precise would be. Maybe it's therefore more true.

It's always a challenge to depict state-of-consciousness in a poem, rather than merely describe it, or just talk about it. Depiction is harder, because you have to convey the experience being depicted, so that the reader feels like they're inside the experience, not divorced or distanced from it. Not all readers are comfortable with that. Some poets seem to write cerebrally precisely as a way of distancing themselves from their emotions. To the contrary, I prefer immersion. I prefer to depict. I prefer to recreate an experience, a state of mind, a vision, in the reader's mind. "Show, don't tell." I'm almost always on the side of "showing." Like Julian of Norwich, whose Showings are her account of what was shown to her in her many mystical experiences.

Just as I prefer passionate Dionysian immersion to cool intellectual distancing. William Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet, once defined poetry as "Emotion recollected in tranquility." Wordsworth was all for the primacy of craft over the passion of the moment, at least in theory; in practice, his finely-crafted poems are in fact very moving. Nevertheless, I find again and again that I disagree with his famous pronouncement. Not that I object to craft—but the proper place of craft is in service of the emotion. The cerebral poets err on the side of tranquility rather than viscerality. They prefer the cool laying-out of description over the heated immersion of evocation.

But poetry, like prayer, like hymns, like worship, began as evocation, as sounds and words spoken and sung to evoke the gods, to evoke an experience. I listen to certain pieces of music to evoke a mood. A shamanic journey can be triggered by music, and you ride the drumming there and back again. Jan Garbarek's music has always had that power, for me: something i can ride, there and back again. It can be cathartic.

Poetry is nowadays given too little credit for being cathartic. It is given too much credit for being a cerebral game, and not enough use for healing. Catharsis. Ekstasis. Eros. The Hmong peoples say, in their pantheistic shamanic religious tradition, "The spirit enters you, and you fall down." The ancient Greeks talked about "a god entered him, and he began to prophesy;" poetry for them was literally a divine art. Music has that power, for me. So does a poem, at least some poems, including some that I have written; albeit some of these same poems I feel I only took dictation on, or I was merely the receiver tuned into the akashic broadcast.

This poem, written in fits and stutters, may not in fact do what I want it to do. Time will tell, as always. It may not make it all the way to ekstasis, albeit the writing of it has been at least somewhat cathartic, else I shouldn't have kept returning to it. Time will tell if can stand up to other poems in its series, or genre, or subject matter. Writing a "perfect" poem wasn't my concern, here, and out of my blurred consciousness perfection was not likely anyway, unless the daimon entered me, and I fell down. (Which has happened with other poems in this series.)

Lest I damn the poem further with faint praise, lest I depict my own incoherence here as well as in the poem, I will finish by saying, this is what I have to do, some nights, in order to find the peace it takes be able to fall asleep. For the past month, since my surgery, family and friends have stayed with me, helping me, caring for me, assisting me during the post-surgery recovery, making food, cleaning, helping me with all those necessary and delightfully ordinary tasks one cannot do while one is still recovering. I will never take any of this for granted again: Being able to bend over, to pick up something that weighs more than ten pounds, to walk around the block, to have the stamina to cook all day then clean up the kitchen. My gratitude to my family and friends is deep and sincere.

And tonight begins the first night when I am truly on my own again. Do I fell ready to handle things on my own? Not hardly. Just having to take out the trash tonight was so overwhelming that I needed to sit in my chair, listening to evocative shamanic music, before I could get up and complete the task. I am deliberately, in this writing, in the poem, in the dark shamanic music I've been editing in my music software concurrently, trying to tire myself out enough that my tired yet anxious mind will shut down, drown itself out, and let me fall asleep. Which is one more reason I was able to finish this poem tonight: just to be able to feel like I got one godsbedamned creative thing done tonight, on a day that otherwise felt blurred, anxious, and harsh. Just one bloody little piece of creative work done, tonight, even if in the long run it's not my best work. Perfection is not the accomplishment here; completion is.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Three Dawn Storm Haiku

storm-cavern of squall
line running down the deer:
dawn crack of thunder

sun rises, sky darkens,
new night renews the streetlights:
firefly-flash lightning

pull, pulse, yank, fall:
leap and stumble from my chair,
sudden sudden thunderclap

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Three Summer Haiku

like a sunlit cone
tip of tallest spruce branch:
perching goldfinch

morning clouds fade
into enduring haze—
storm horizon

tufts of ivory
paused amidst hosta fronds:
jackrabbit ears

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Benjamin Britten: An Appreciation

There was a period in my life as a composition student when I studied the music of Benjamin Britten intensively, not least because of his eclectic approach to composition. He himself was open to influence from many sources, including ancient musics from his own English tradition, and also including musics he encountered in his travels around the world as a composer and conductor.

As some few examples of his wide-ranging and eclectic style: Britten wrote a powerful setting of "The ugly Duckling" for boy soprano and piano; he wrote a chamber opera for liturgical performance, "Curlew River," based on the Japanese Noh drama "Sumidagawa," he wrote his important operas, of course, the best of them based on literary masterpieces of the 19th C.; and the sublime "War Requiem," which incorporates poems by Wilfred Owen, is a masterpiece of 20th C. artistry in response to the pity of war.

And I was attracted to Britten because, like me, he was a gay composer. His life-long partner, tenor Peter Pears, was often the important voice in many of his greatest works, including the "War Requiem" and the operas. Pears was both lover and muse to Britten, and many works were written specifically for him to premiere.

I have performed on more than one occasion his famous Yuletide work "A Ceremony of Carols," for chorus and harp. I first performed that work in high school, and several times since. It was one of a few works I encountered at the end of high school and beginning of college that led me towards an in-depth study of Medieval music; especially medieval English carols, which I made a special study of while in music school. I cheerfully thank Britten for being one of the composers who pointed me towards Medieval music, therefore, which has been very important to my musical life, and remains so to this day.

I'm certain Britten has influenced me directly, at least on some subconscious level, as a composer. There are a few 20th C. composers—Britten, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, etc.—whose works I have performed and studied, who all had the gift of writing amazing, memorable melodies. I know that's been an influence on me.

As a composer, I often focus more on melody, and interwoven contrapuntal and heterophonic melodies, than I do on harmony or tonality. Melody, whether it's song or instrumental, is the core of the music i write. In analyzing my own musical habits, several years ago, I realized that melody is at the heart of everything I do as a composer; sometimes it's tangled up, sometimes it's quite dissonant, but it remains central to what I hear and what I write.

I have a permanent soundtrack in the back of my mind, which is always playing something, or making up something. Melody is at the core of what I hear with my inner voice, that permanent soundtrack, which I dip into, which I listen to, when I am writing music. I recognize certain patterns that evoke a particular feeling or nuance for me, that are melodic, sometimes based within a complex chord, sometimes very simple.

I can recognize some aspects of the musical context around the melodies I write—the modal forms, the complex chords, the occasionally dissonant backdrops—as having been influenced by Britten, as well as by Messiaen, Harrison, Takemitsu, and some others. The patterns and structures are not imitative, not obvious in any way, beyond the "flavor" or "feel" of the music. I do tend to write modally rather than tonally, as most of these influences on me also did.

Here then are three quotes from Benjamin Britten, the great 20th C. British composer:

There should be no such profession as criticism. Musicologists, of course, are quite different, and this is a sadly neglected profession in this country—but there should definitely be no regular critics. To go through life living off other people's work clearly has too degrading an effect.
—Benjamin Britten, essay "Variations on a Critical Theme"

I like here the distinction he makes between musicology, which is the study and appreciation of music, and criticism. Musicology, which I minored in, in music school, is the study of music, its history and forms, its aesthetic and artistic response to life, and so forth. In graduate school, I majored in ethnomusicology, which is the anthropological, ethnographic, and fieldwork-based study of the music cultures of foreign cultures from all around the world. (Ethno also includes the study of our own music culture, but from an anthropological and social perspective.) Music criticism is best done as narrative reporting, a description of a concert or other performance. Music criticism at its worst is ideological, prescriptive, and tends to dictate aesthetics rather than respond as an enthusiastic reviewer.

Or, as Duke Ellington said, in a similar context: Critics have their purposes, and they're supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what they really did.

Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.
—Benjamin Britten, (speech) On Receiving the First Aspen Award

Britten is speaking here of the necessity for active listening, as opposed to passive entertainment. I agree strongly with this. The listener needs to be not only intellectually, but viscerally engaged with music. Music is not an intellectual art, it engages the feelings directly—and it can do so without even engaging the verbal, rational mind, but can bypass it entirely.

I have had occasion to argue with poets who had the opinion the poetry was the greatest (most rarified, highest) artform, because language is so abstract; but music is even more abstract, not even requiring language (symbolic or otherwise) to be able to create a powerfully moving aesthetic experience.

Britten, like other composers I have admired, was a composer who knew the power of words-and-music, how the two together can synergize into something greater than just each part alone. His choral and solo vocal writing is sublime, some of the most pleasing to sing as a performer, and even at its most complex it retains a sense of being rooted in primal human song, the communal activity of singing together, in a way that makes us into one voice. We achieve unity through song, through making art together. And this is an aspect of English choral music that is well-known, in its applications of social cohesiveness, and also of singing together in church, making us all spiritually one through the medium of unitary song.

All of us—the public, critics, and composers themselves—spend far too much time worrying about whether a work is a shattering masterpiece. Let us not be so self-conscious. Maybe in thirty years' time very few works that are well known today will still be played, but does that matter so much? Surely out of the works that are written some good will come, even if it is not now; and these will lead on to people who are better than ourselves.
—Benjamin Britten, interviewed by Edmund Tracey (Sadler's Wells Magazine, Autumn 1966)

This speaks directly to me as an artist and composer. Indeed, "Let us not be so self-conscious." That actually inhibits creativity, that kind of self-consciousness about always needing to create an original masterpiece. I can think of at least two composers I knew in music school who crippled themselves creatively by being too perfectionistic, too concerned about originality, too worried about the end result—to the point where they basically stopped writing music. This kind of perfectionism in art can thus be crippling to the artist.

Britten's attitude, by contrast, is more relaxed. He was a working composer all his life–and in some ways his attitudes towards his work were craftsmanlike, very artisanal. Not that he didn't always give his best, as a good craftsman ought; rather, he did his best work, then moved on to the next project. There were no endless rewrites and reworkings, the sort of compulsive editing that can take an actual masterpiece and destroy it. To make a masterpiece, you have to be able at some point to just stop, and declare the work done. There may well still be imperfections, things you would fix, or do differently. But the attitude Britten had, which could serve as a good role-model for any artist, was to look forward to fixing his mistakes in the next work. He did revise his work, but not neurotically. Often it takes a new occasion, some time after the original work's conception, that gives one the chance to fix things; and also the time to gain a clearer perspective on what might need to be fixed, and what can stand already as good enough.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, Ernest Hemingway

It's Ernest Hemingway's birthday today. It's probably time, this evening, to hoist a glass in his honor. Myself and all the Michigan boys.

I prefer Hemingway's short stories to his novels. I think his best writing is in the shorter fiction, the stories and novellas. Maybe some of the journalism and essays. My favorite set of stories is the NIck Adams Stories, because many of the best of them are set in northern Michigan, a place I know well, and have many of my own resonances with.

Sources of writing are in the land, in experience, in the people who interpret their lives for others. A few years ago I visited Hemingway's Key West home, which is now a museum, preserving much of the writer's life and memorabilia. But what they emphasize there is that it's all about the stories: everything that matters is in what he wrote, much more so than in who he was.

So that's what I'll do here, in appreciation. I'll quote the opening section of one Hemingway's best short stories. It's a story set in northern Michigan, featuring his recurring semi-autobiographical fictional hero, Nick Adams. Here's the opening part of "Big Two-Hearted River":

The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.

Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river. The river was there. It swirled against the log spires of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions again by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first. Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.

Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling. He turned and looked down the stream. It stretched away, pebbly-bottomed with shallows and big boulders and a deep pool as it curved away around the foot of a bluff.

Nick walked back up the ties to where his pack lay in the cinders beside the railway track. He was happy. He adjusted the pack harness around the bundle, pulling straps tight, slung the pack on his back got his arms through the shoulder straps and took some of the pull off his shoulders by leaning his forehead against the wide band of the tump-line. Still, it was too heavy. It was much too heavy. He had his leather rod-case in his hand and leaning forward to keep the weight of the pack high on his shoulders he walked along the road that paralleled the railway track, leaving the burned town behind in the heat, and he turned off around a hill with a high, fire-scarred hill on either side onto a road that went back into the country. He walked along the road feeling the ache from the pull of the heavy pack. The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.

You can read the complete story "Big Two-Hearted River" online here.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In the Garden

sullen summer heat
days of droning cicadas—
flowers exploding

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Poems Published Previously, or Not

I have spent a fair bit of time doing computer file management, these past weeks, as I am mostly housebound while I recover from surgery. It's a good opportunity to do some organizing.

I have compiled a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet of all (I think) the poems I've published in print and online journals since 2001. The number of poems published, including several individual haiku, is over 50. And that's from not even trying very hard to get published. I found the number a little surprising, as I don't send out many poems to many journals very often. I have done some submissions in cyclic spurts of activity, when it interested me and I could sustain the work involved. But then I go through long periods where keeping up with the follow-ups is more than I can cope with. Well, maybe that will change, now that I will have back the energy previously stolen from me by my now-removed chronic illness.

And I've just had a couple more short poems published. This time I was asked if the poems could be reprinted, from where they had previously appeared, on this blog. It's always nice to be asked.

The concept of publishing and reprinting interests me in the wake of being asked for a couple of poems. What interests me, just now, is the assumptions behind the definitions of "publishing" and "reprinting." Essentially, these two poems were ones I posted on this blog; they were found by an editor, who asked me if they could be published in an online poetry anthology: essentially, if they could be reprinted. (Of course I said yes: it's a lovely online journal, the editor is an utterly charming individual, and my little poems will be keeping company with poems by other writers who I greatly respect.)

I've written considerably more than 50 poems since 2001. I've written, not counting haiku, at least 50 poems annually each year since 2001. I don't count or track or catalog the poems I've written beyond gathering them into an annual Microsoft Word file. Some years yield more finished poems than others; some poems are parts of extended series that might take years to compile, while others are stand-alone solitons. I don't spend a lot of time cataloging my work, as that is an effort I'm not very interested in; besides, I've always been ridiculously prolific, as a writer, visual artist, and musician. I stopped counting finished pieces years ago. Even in my youth, I thought it pretentious and egotistical to apply Opus numbers to my musical compositions; so why would I want to do something similar for my poems?

I haven't been writing many poems this past year—but then, I've been focused on writing lyrics for the new music commission, so that takes up that slack. If you count original lyrics for the new music as individual poems, add another dozen or so to this year's totals. And while I am writing lyrics, which is an entirely different kettle of fish than writing "pure" poetry, I do attempt to make these lyrics as poetic as possible, as much like good poems as I am able. They will be sung by chorus, or soloists and chorus, but that doesn't mean I will slack off from my desire to write the best words I am able, to function as part of the synergistic whole that is the words-and-music of a good song.

I do submit poems from time to time. It tends to be a cyclic activity: something I give a lot of attention to, when some journal or request for submissions ignites my interest, followed by cycles of disinterest.

There are a few poetry contests and journals I am thinking of submitting my work to at this time. I've sent off a couple of query letters this week. (Another advantage of being stuck at home post-surgery: I have time to write inquiries.) Some of these submissions are pretty straightforward. But one or two potential submissions have stumbled over the shibboleth of asking for poems that have never been published before, anywhere, at any time.

I still find it odd that a contemporary poetry journal would insist on this exceptionalism—an exceptionalism that masquerades as a request for originality. There is so much rhetoric flying about, in the postmodern Poetry World, about how originality doesn't matter any more, how "new" works can be made by recombining existing or found texts, and so forth. In other words, we live in a culture that has come to accept artistic sampling. (The ethics of sampling, versus pure originality, are rarely addressed, however.) So when an editor asks for something new, the assumptions behind the definitions of "new" and "original" become problematic.

I find it odd that a poetry journal editor would consider a poem I wrote and posted on my blog, or website, as "previously published." Not that anyone actually reads anything I post online—but the idea that posting a poem on this blog makes it unpublishable elsewhere seems rather parochial, especially in this current climate of artistic recombinant sapling.

Is the world so small that we need fight so fiercely against the corruption of unoriginality?

I know it might somewhat unfair to frame the issue this way. I know that one legitimate reason to ask for previously unpublished work is that it's easier for editors to deal with previously-unseen poems than to have to go through the permissions and copyright issues that can crop up. It just takes less effort to promote new work, in some cases, than it does to secure reprint rights and privileges.

But the assumptions behind the definitions of "new" and "original" and "previously unpublished" are not perhaps so clear-cut that they can be simply ignored. When I write and post a poem on this blog, few people will ever see it. If an editor would publish it elsewhere, chances are there would almost no overlap in audience. Logically, there doesn't seem to be any conflict. So why the bother about what poems are or are not "previously published"? It sometimes seems a bit extreme, this requirement to always be original and unique.

On the other hand, poems, even poems written by me, are not in short supply. There are always more. I cna always write a new poem, if I am inspired, to submit to a journal, on a topic that ignites my muses. So I don't need to spend any angst on the "previously published" issue. I can just write something new.

The question is, however: Should I be required to?

Robert Archambeau has an insight or two regarding poetry's popularity that I feel is correlated to this idea that poetry needs to be not-already-published in order to be published. (Stating it that way seems like a tautology; but that only points out how absurd this situation can become.) Mr. Archambeau concludes an interesting discussion of the generation of Russian poets that included Andrei Voznesensky, poets who were able to fill sports stadiums for their poetry readings, with the following comments:

. . . I think about this when I hear people say, of one or another contemporary American poet, "he deserves more readers," or "she deserves an audience." I think about it, too, when I hear suggestions about how to get more people interested in poetry (by adding music to readings, by putting little placards with stanzas on them in the subway, etc.) These are supply-side solutions to a demand-side problem. They try to make something available, in hopes that this availability will create demand.

The problem is, the demand for poetry, previously unpublished or otherwise, from the general reading public, is at a record low. Many poets seem to get quite upset about this contemporary state of affairs. The lack of a broad poetry-reading public is taken as cause for despair, and often as a "problem" to be "fixed." Which is where Mr. Archambeau's analogy from (Reagan-era voodoo) economics comes into play.

I like the analogy regarding supply-side economics. It gets at the very root, perhaps, of why attempts to enlarge poetry's readership seem doomed to fail. (I also find it interesting that supply-side economics doesn't work any better in the financial market than it does in poetry, yet the supply-side approach is steadily maintained by ideologues with agendas.) Perhaps the "previously unpublished" attitude of editors who reject poems published so obscurely that there would be no overlap in readerships is a supply-side attitude. The problem is that increasing poetry's readership is a demand-side problem, as Mr. Archambeau says, and there is no possible supply-side solution. When an editor rejects a poem published on one's own website as "previously published," they are buying into the supply-side ideology. Well, they may not know that, or frame the issue that way; some might be offended to have their requirements expressed in these terms. (One notices that it is very often possible to offend an editor's pride by questioning their publishing criteria. Perhaps this is yet one more example of how economic insecurity dominates arts publishing, how lack of an audience breeds poor self-esteem, which in turn breeds brittle egos.)

The issue is, as always: Does poetry matter? Or, if it does not matter, why not?

I am not convinced that it matters whether or not poetry matters. I am convinced, on the other hand, that making poems is wroth doing, whether or not the demand is there. I don't make poems to become popular, famous, or wealthy. I make poems because sometimes a poem is the best way to convey an experience, idea, or multiplex situation to another person. (Sometimes music or visual art are better ways to convey the same.) I make poems because that's often the best way, on a given day, for me to make art. Art is meant to connect with its audience: at its best, art connects with us on many levels, changes the way we see the world, and gives us an opportunity to open and expand our consciousness beyond its usual worn-in grooves.

Art is inherently not a supply-side commodity. Mostly, no one cares whether or not I make art. I care more than anyone else that I make art. (And I do make for more than one reason. Some days, recovering from chronic illness, surgery, or the dark night of the soul, it's the best way to cope with and overcome my immediate circumstances. Making art has more than once literally kept me alive and sane.) Supply-side thinking imagines that it is a problem to be solved that no one cares more than I do about me making art. Supply-side solutions are built on the assumption that an audience should care about the art I make. Further, that there ought to be an audience in the first place.

But there's no inherent requirement that my art have any audience. There's no natural law saying that people are supposed to care at all. That they should care about art, even a little bit. Arguments that use the word "should" invariably reduce to the opinion that you are supposed to care about my art as much as I do.

Well, I don't feel that way. I don't demand that an audience should care at all about my poems. It is very nice to be asked for a poem by an editor; and I usually say yes to such requests. It is very nice to hear that some artistic product that I made has been loved by someone—it's even more thrilling when I get feedback from someone that something artistic I produced made a difference in someone's life. I always appreciate hearing those stories—because I know I have a blind spot about how anything I do matters to anyone else in the world. My blind spot is that I usually I assume that nothing I do matters to anyone but me. That's neither angst nor loneliness, merely a recognition that I am only one small fish in a very large pond.

So, anyway, the next time I encounter a journal that requires "previously unpublished" work, I will make the choice, in that moment, of whether or not I want to spend the energy on submitting my work, or whether I will simply move on to other pastures. I do not despise any editor who requires that what I submit has never seen the light of day before—yet I still can't help but find that attitude a bit parochial, in this day and age. Publishing, self-publishing, print or online, has never been easier. It just seems like a waste of energy to require such purity tests regarding publishing, when so many no longer bother. It's a very big ocean, and it's full of fish. Requiring each little fish to come up with something never said before, ever, at any time, anywhere, just seems a bit severe.

So it's not that I would automatically refuse to submit to a journal that required work that is "previously unpublished." In truth, it's that my choice would be how much effort I wanted to expend to satisfy those requirements. I might choose to spend the effort needed to satisfy the requirement. Or I might not.

It's just too bad when an editorial requirement consistently closes doors that might deliciously be opened.

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Process of Writing 16: Resuming & Silence

Three weeks after surgery, I began writing again. I didn't expect to be able to work on the new music commission for at least a month after surgery. So, like my recovery and healing itself, I seem to be exceeding expectations. I sat with my sister in a restaurant yesterday afternoon—just to get out of the house, having had somme cabin fever—and some lyrics came to me for the Opening piece.

The Opening is hard to write. Sometimes it's best to leave an opening number till last. You need to grab their attention with the first music and words. The piece needs to start out with a bang, as it were. Sometimes the opening doesn't come into focus till the rest of the work is finished.

It depends on the piece, though. When I write a multi-movement work such as this new music commission, what I said above is true. When I write a solo piano, though, often the reverse is true: I have a solid opening, and don't know where the rest of it is going till I get there. Arrival is an ending, and sometimes you don't know you're at the end until you've arrived there.

Poetry is the same way. I usually start with an image or phrase, something that comes to me and/or grabs my attention. I begin to write freely, just following the brush. Eventually the poem's form reveals itself. Eventually an ending is arrived at.

Yesterday, sitting in the quiet restaurant, words started to come for the opening piece. I still have only a few, and will need to polish them. I had had the first section of the work down, an a capella introduction followed by a piano interlude with vocalise. The piano part quotes the folksong "The Water Is Wide" as an anchor for the rivers and lakes of the Heartlands to appear in the piece. An opening number wants to make a statement, and this opening wants to evoke the dawn of a new day over the Great Lakes country; but it also wants to talk about the major themes of the overall piece.

Three weeks away from the writing changes my perspective a little. I find my perspective has shifted, in part because surgery and post-surgery are life-changing events: even in a few short weeks, my outlook on life seems radically different than what it was. This is likely to reflect itself in the music. I may pare some previous ideas down to their essence: trim all the fat, cut off the tailings that lead to no useful paths. I may walk down a path I had planned to walk down already, but seeing it with new eyes.

After all, I've come through a near-death and rebirth. Everything seems different now. Everything seems new. At the same time, I've been through death and rebirth before. So in a way I'm used to noticing the changes that happen when part of you dies and the rest goes on, reinvigorated. So it's a mix of familiar sensation and brand new perspective.

The day before going in for surgery, I completed one of the pieces that I call illuminations: not strictly about the central topic of the overall work (living and growing up gay in the Midwestern heartlands), but about the setting, the context, the overall sense of geographic place. There are going to be two illuminations, maybe three, in the overall work. These pieces are about the Heartlands in the Midwest themselves. They're about where we live, and why we live there. They are meant to give a frame in which the rest of the commission rests; to illuminate the back-story behind the more personal stories. The story of the land itself.

This illumination will appear second in sequence, and is a longer piece. It's about the silences that sometimes spontaneously happen, at quiet moments, when everything drops away, and the world takes on a quiet strength. It's during these silence that one feels the aliveness in the land and sky, the sense of Presence that can be felt anywhere in the world one pays attention to finding it. This has often been for me, a near-mystical experience, sometimes shared with others, often felt in solitude. I have done my best to write about it and evoke it.

“Silences Here”

the world steps back
into a kind of distance
in the silence
hawk flies
from storm to tree
all the world’s
an open sky
and every stillness gathers
into one.

Some nights
when snow is thick
around the weathered hilltops
and deep valleys
then we
from sun to sea
fill the world
with starlit trees
till winter candles gather
into one.

Some days
in early summer
lilacs fill the evening air
with their sweetness
we sit
our sunset yard
till it’s dusk
too dark to see
fireflies rise and gather
into one.

[repeat first verse a capella, with extra measures for silences, at half-tempo]

The first verse of this song lyric wrote itself, more or less. I was thinking about the theme of this illumination piece, and remembering many moments at dusk during my youth in the Midwest. The words came from there.

There was one evening when my family was visiting friends who had a cabin at Lake George in Michigan, an hour's drive or more from our home in Ann Arbor. One long summer day we visited, I had been sailing all afternoon on the lake, on a catamaran under full sail, tacking back and forth across the blue water. In the evening, after supper, we all stood or sat around on the porch. The sky was full of that soft light that happens in summer, just after the sun has gone down, a sort of soft blue glow. The lilac bush next to the porch was in full flower, intoxicating the dusk air with its perfume. I stood there, feeling deeply at peace. Fireflies began to emerge as the light failed. I have no memory of what the conversation was about, just that we talked and laughed quietly, in convivial pleasure, as the light slowly failed, the lilacs filled the air, and the fireflies started to leave their glowing trails in the still air.

Something very quiet and peaceful grew inside me, as the moments wore on till full dark. I felt filled with a quiet, sustained, silent joy, which somehow seemed infinitely large even though it was contained within my slightly sunburned skin. Some silent opening happened inside me, filling me up, even as I continued the light talk and watched the fireflies, and took in the lilac smells. It was a time I felt completely at peace, filled with some joy or something like joy, a moment to be savored and remembered for a lifetime.

I put as much of that evening as I was able into the third verse of this song.

That kind of peaceful silence is what I have tried to evoke here, in this song. That sort of moment. Many of us who live in the Midwest have experienced just such moments, of a summer evening.

The other two verses followed quickly on the heels of the first one, once it was done. I kept to the same irregular syllabic count per line (mostly), creating a de facto poetic form. A few lines of the music came with the words, and I jotted those down in my sketchbook. Then when I was finishing this piece, the day before surgery, I was able to pull that all together, the sketches and memories and feelings, and free-compose the rest of the music onto the page. It came together rapidly, with relative ease, making for a very satisfying creative afternoon.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Affirming Previous Changes

(from The Surgery Diaries)

In talking about changes going on with my body, with my self, through this extended surgery and recovery cyclic process, I find myself impatient at times. I'm on that threshold where I feel better, sometimes very well, but it's at least partly an illusion. I'm not really ready to do the things I almost feel ready to do. There is a common wisdom in athletic injuries (in sports medicine) that when your previously ankle feels like it's fully healed, you still have several weeks to go. Because something newly-healed is still brittle, still weaker than it was. It might feel all right, but it still needs more time.

And that's exactly where I am right now. I need more time. I still need to take it easy. Impatience can be a whip.

My surgical incision is healing well, but it was a deep cut, a deep interior wound, and so I am still restricted in how I can strain the incision. I am not allowed to bend over too much, or to lift too much weight. I can feel the inner wound when I lie on my side in bed, in just a slightly bad position: shooting lines of sensation, not quite pain but not quite neutral, travel from my belly through to the root of my groin. One side is easier to lie on than the other. After awhile, the discomfort becomes too much, and I have to shift. I'm trying to not take any more pain pills, except at absolute worst need, but I've been glad one or two recent nights that I still had some left. Sometimes falling asleep is really difficult, because of the body's discomfort.

People tell me they're impressed with my positive attitude, but I don't feel very positive very often on the inside: I feel necessity, perhaps desire, most definitely determination. Some days this is mostly grim determination; and not at all some clichéd sports-biography inspirational-movie overcoming-obstacles-and-setbacks sort of guff. My attitude only seems positive sometimes. I can and do make grim jokes, gross jokes, at times, to help stay sane: the well-known black humor or gallows humor that existential hospital humor. I can make jokes about things that I find too disgusting to contemplate, those mornings when I'm tired from not sleeping well.

Some days it's really challenging to find any sense of humor at all. Even grim hospital humor.

Some mornings I would give almost anything for all this to be over and done with already. It's really hard to endure.

And I must give the negative feelings their due; it's important to get them out of your system, so they don't fester or linger or become toxic. But when you do get them out of your system, indeed they don't get stuck and toxic, they don't fester, and that's all to the good.

What I find myself increasingly impatient with, perhaps to the point of offending some folks, is those milestones I've already reached, when I bump into someone who has not.

First let me say that I do know that I'm not the most patient person in the world. Impatience has always been a vice, for me. I use the word "vice" deliberately, because it can become like an addiction, a psychology-altering habit: skewing your perception of reality in ways not dissimilar from those addicted to gambling or similar "vices."

I try to be polite, when the impatience is up, but I admit a few times I've snapped. And needed to apologize. Being my mother's son, I also sometimes have a bad habit of apologizing too often, even for things I don't need to apologize for; so I have to watch out for that, too. I know that both of these tendencies—impatience, and the compulsion to over-apologize—are rooted in my birth tribe's expectations of perfect behavior. I know that both of these tendencies are part of being a recovering perfectionist. I know I mostly slip into them when I'm vulnerable, tired out emotionally and/or physically, and my resistance is down. Mostly they're manageable, and sometimes they're not.

I think you can say "Sorry" too often. But I don't think you can ever say "Thank you" often enough.

Saying "Thank you" serves us well, on so many levels, from the social to the medical to the spiritual. I'm grateful to be alive. I'm grateful to have the energy, this otherwise blah morning, to be able to write down my whining complaints. I'm grateful to have come through this first surgery alive and relatively intact. I'm grateful to still be here. Period.

On a fundamental, daily, ordinary as well as extraordinary level, I feel that saying "Thank you" is the core of anything I might call spiritual. One of my favorite sayings (on the level of a slogan for contemplation or meditation) is a saying from the great Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer you ever said was "Thank You," that would suffice. I believe that on every level, and I have done my best to practice that. (Which is why every year I write Gratitudes instead of New Year's Resolutions.)

As I write, my surgery was happening exactly three weeks ago this hour. The doctors and nurses, and everyone else, keep saying to me that I doing very well, that I'm ahead of the curve. For example, the surgical staples came out a week ago, which is considered a week early, for most cases. I've been healing more rapidly then expected. I have to take their word for all this, because it's all new to me. This is my body, not some theoretical story, and there are times when I listen and absorb what they're saying to me about how well I'm doing, but I don't feel it. I still feel like crap. This is my body, and it's a new experience, and I have nothing in my past experience to compare it to. I do listen to the tales of other patients that I am told, and some of those are comforting, even affirming. They remind me that there is still healing to be done, and miles to go before I sleep. They also validate that the goal of being able to go back to a regular life is possible, and going to happen, sooner or later. This period I'm in right now, which breeds impatience, is turbulent in part because I want to be there already, and I'm not.

To return to the point, finally, I find myself impatient with those same things I have already let go of, that others have not, when I encounter them. Some milestones are ones you need to learn more than once, till they sink in. Others are not.

What I want to do is affirm that some of the changes I had already made, before surgery, before the current changes in my life, I would do all over again. They were the right choices.

The choice to strike off on my own artistically, and not give much time to workshop situations anymore, where many of the same beginner-level lessons continuously cycle and recycle, and where the personal drama can often sink any interest in the arts.

The realization, which became a conscious choice, that making art is the best way to cope with whatever it is that is bothering me. Whether that is medical, personal, or psychological, making art is the best way I know to stay with it, and stay sane,

The decision to cease second-guessing the creative process. I can't direct it or guide it, and I choose not to. I follow the intuition and imagination wherever they want to go. I make art by listening to those inner intuitive voices, not by pre-planning an engineering scaffold.

The dietary changes I made some time ago, including the decision to go gluten free, that have affected my health positively, and supported my health through the worst of recent times. Some of these dietary needs might no longer be necessary, now that I no longer have an ailing colon; but some will be permanent changes.

The list could go on, but that's enough to make the point. I'm still searching, still exploring, still figuring what my body is like, now, still looking for the "new normal," whatever it turns out to be.

My impatient may indeed be a vice. I try not to let it dominate my discourse, but I do confess that when I am suffering, sometimes the impatience leaks into my discourse as a sharp-edged tone that suffers fools poorly. I suppose I've offended some folks lately. I make no apologies, though, whenever it becomes clear that their choice to take offense had nothing really to do with me, and everything to do with their own neuroses.

And that's another change: To not spend any of my energy accommodating the neuroses of others. It's not my problem if your life sucks. It's also not my fault. I have more than enough to deal with, just managing my own life, for now. I have no time for personal drama generated by people who have the luxury of wasting their time and energy on such things. I have enough real drama, of late, in my own life, that I have neither need nor desire to take on any more, be it yours or mine. It's nice that you have the spare life-force to burn, it's great that you have the luxury of burning your life-force in personal drama; I don't. And even if I did have the energy to burn, what I have learned from chronic illness, major surgery, and recovery, is that I would never choose to waste my life-force, ever again, on that kind of meaningless waste of time and energy. Life is too short to spend it on such inconsequential matters.

I make no judgments when I say that. I am speaking purely tactically and logistically, with no blaming or shaming involved. This is the big lesson from when you are forced to confront your own mortality: Life is precious. Life is short. Life is limited. Don't waste a moment of your life on anything that doesn't really matter.

I've given up blaming, and I've given up victimology; I've given up both of these in favor of a radical acceptance. First and always, to move forward, you have to simply accept things as being the way they are. You can't do anything to change them if you live in denial that anything might need changing. Acceptance precedes action. Just as self-esteem is the fundamental power of selfhood, far more important any other; because self-esteem is what makes all the rest possible. including genuine love. Toxic love, you will observe, always goes hand in hand with poor self-esteem; genuine love always is comfortable in its own skin, and need not possess the other, nor control.

Peace. Be still. Thank you.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011


I look at my body and realize: Everything is new. Major changes have been made. This gives me a chance to continue to make major changes.

Like losing weight. They need me to do that before the next surgery can happen, regardless. But I want to do it. And post-surgery my appetite is greatly reduced. I'm being physically active, a little more every day or so. Last night we walked around the block in the evening, the first time for me in a month, and stood in the street and watched the usual Saturday fireworks over the minor league baseball stadium a mile away.

I've been through some bad days this past week, with a lot of problems with the ostomy bags not working. But last night I got some good sleep, and had vivd dreams. I was in Chicago, trying to get across the river to meet someone downtown; but it was sort of a steampunk setting, a mix of older and newer technology, and the buses and the bridge over the river were old and new. I was taken across the bridge in a high, swinging gondola, frightened at the speed and the height of the passage. But the previous two nights I hadn't had any dreams at all. I didn't get to REM sleep, because of all the ostomy drama, and the stress of it. Today I feel tired but better. I need to mostly rest again all morning, then we'll see if I have the strength to take a walk this afternoon. It's going to be dangerously hot out all day, according to the weather forecast, so we might go over to the air-conditioned mall and I'll walk around there.

Given a forced major change—major, high-risk surgery, in which my entire colon was removed—why not use it as an opportunity to make other changes. The truth is: My body is different now. I'm still recovering from the surgery, not knowing fully just how different it is. There are probably going to be other changes that I haven't figured out yet. I emerged from surgery on a very restricted diet. Now I've been given permission to gradually return to a more normal diet. I am adding in one new thing a day, to see how my body (and ostomy output) respond to it now. Some things will be as before, some probably will not. You have to slowly explore, slowly determine.

Who is this new self, this new body, this new you? It's still too soon to say.

Changes there have been, and changes there will be. "This too shall pass." The only constant in life is in ephemeral, always-changing nature. So that song remains the same, even if we add new harmonies to it.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Zen Calligraphy and Healing

The last several days have been very difficult. The at-home nurses tell me, out of their extensive experience, that there is a trial-and-error period for new ileostomy patients like myself, while the stoma is still healing, changing size and shape, that involves finding the right appliances to use for the long term. Well, it has indeed been a trial full of many errors. In the past several days, the ostomy bags have come loose many times, leaked many times, needed to be replaced often, and I've lost sleep over it. This morning I really hit the exhaustion wall. I was so exhausted I couldn't even cry out my frustration anymore. Now, tonight, having rested all day long, I do feel better, and I'm hoping that I can get better sleep tonight, better than the past three days.

A few days into this trial, I pulled out the brushes and ink and brush pens, and sat down at my table on the porch to make some enso, to try and center and settle my mind. You can always tell how grounded and centered you are by drawing enso. Enso are circle cosmograms, that represent the circle of all things.

If you are grounded and centered, you will be able to draw a nearly perfect circle with a single stroke of the ink-filled brush. If your mind is not at ease, not empty, not in the state of no-mind, your enso circles will be imperfect, not circles, maybe not even round. I pulled out a stack of my good calligraphy cardstock paper, and made several enso. I started out poorly, and then gradually slowed down, took some breaths, and did some better enso. A kind of brush meditation.

Then it occurred to me that I also needed to do slogan practice. Slogan practice, used in both Japanese Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, is meditation on wisdom sayings. Slogans can be almost stereotypical, but contemplation of them can take you very deep, past the words, past the thought, into the being. So I took some of the enso that I had just made, changed brushes, and began filling them in with slogans and other sayings, and even a few drawings.

I realized that I needed to make art. But not just art to make art. When this healing process has setbacks like the drama I've been having around the ostomy bags failing for so many days and nights—setbacks that really frustrate, and more than once brought me to helpless tears—I thought I might take some of these enso and slogans and make them into a poster for myself.

I will put one or two of them up on the walls, where I can see them often, to remind me to find my center and return to my ground of being, when I fall off. Zen sayings as art posters to remind myself to return to center. To calm the mind. To let go of the suffering and just be in the moment.

Sometimes the frustration edges over into despair, and you feel like these trials will never be over. The nurses and doctors tell me they will, but not all of me believes that yet. I'm in the middle of this mess, it's my body, no one else's, and this has been really hard. My artist friend Alex, who has his own experience with bodily trials, reminds me that me feelings in this difficult time are legitimate and well-earned. He helped me today by validating what I was feeling, rather than trying to "fix" it.

So I will put up a couple of the most resonant of this Zen calligraphy enso drawings on my walls, where they will remind me to slow down, be patient, and go with the flow. Get through the process, don't fight it. Wisdom I very much need to hear right now.

I also remind myself that life will go on, even if right now it's not of very good quality. I will endure. I will not fade away. I will somehow make it through. How, and when, at this moment I cannot envision. All I really want right now is to catch up on the rest and recuperation that has eluded me these past few days.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What's Your Favorite Novel?

I was having a discussion the other evening about what were out favorite novels. The truth is, I'm not sure I could pick just one. I'm not even sure it's a valid question.

One criterion for choosing one's favorite novel is: How many times have you re-read it? For example, every two or three years I get the urge to re-read Raymond Chandler; I think The Long Goodbye is a great novel, and I often re-read that one.

A contrasting criterion, however, is to choose a novel one reads, thinks very highly of, enjoyed the style and content and would recommend that others read, but one doesn't feel the need to re-read it often, if at all. For example, when I pick up Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, which I think is a great novel, I usually only re-read a favorite section or two, not the entire work, cover to cover. I thoroughly enjoyed James Joyce's Ulysses, but I don't feel the urge to re-read it very often.

How is one to choose a favorite novel, therefore? I'm not sure I can.

I could provide a long list of many novels I've enjoyed reading over the years. That list would contain as much science fiction as it would mainstream literary fiction (which is itself a genre, even though critics claim it is the non-genre by which they define, and usually dismiss, other forms of "genre fiction"). The list would also contain books by a select group of mystery writers, from whom it would be hard to pick one best novel out of the overall oeuvre; for example, Raymond Chandler (again), Tony Hillerman, Dana Stabenow, Dashiell Hammett. The Maltese Falcon is a great novel, very well-written, that I re-read less often than Chandler.

I could compile a long list, therefore, but it would be impossible to pick one novel out as my favorite novel. There are too many favorites, almost all of equal regard. I don't think I could pick just one. And it would be a very long list, as I'm an avid lifelong reader, with an unschooled knack for reading relatively fast and retaining most of what I read. (I can still remember the smell of the paper, and the breeze coming in my bedroom window, and the color of the sky, from one day the summer I was thirteen and read my first Isaac Asimov novel.)

The urge to compile lists of "Best Novels" is an urge that is mostly useless. It's a fun game, but it's also a subjective one. Hardly any two readers, or literary critics, would agree on all choices.

I'm not even sure I could pick one favorite writer, and his or her works, as my favorite. Different writers give me different pleasures.

For example, I thoroughly enjoy reading Arthur C. Clarke novels such The Songs of Distant Earth for his dry wit, his scientific imagination coupled with a cool humor regarding human foibles. I enjoy reading Isaac Asimov because of his characters and ideas; he has been called an intellectual writer, but he has a knack for making the reader care about those ideas his characters are tied up with, in novels such as The Gods Themselves or stories like "Nightfall." Kate Wilhelm has summoned in me an atavistic terror, a fear for my survival, because she gets me so involved in her well-depicted characters and the threatening situations they find themselves in; I can still feel the gut-impact of her novella "The Gorgon Field" just by thinking about it. Thomas Merton activates in this reader a living, active contemplation of world, self, and spirit; I think about my place in the world, my purpose, even as Merton describes (or photographs) what has moved him to feel that same way. I periodically re-read Ernest Hemingway's "The Nick Adams Stories" because these compiled stores and fragments are some of his best, most compelling writing; I've often thought that Hemingway shined brightest in story rather than novel form; and the Nick Adams stories are semi-auotbiographical, many of them in northern Michigan, my home state as well as Hemingway's, and thus the stories carry a special resonance for me, right down to my experiences summering in the some of the very same locales. (I've also visited Hemingway's home in Key West, and have a feeling for his work set in those locales, as well.)

In providing examples, I'm already making a list. My reading tastes are all over the map. I go for good writing, I don't care what "genre" it falls into.

One of the typical arguments I have with mainstream iiterary critics is their stubborn insistence on dismissing "genre fiction" when in fact much of writing in genre fiction is as good or better than one finds in mainstream literary fiction (again, a literary genre even if it claims not to be)—which these days is often bland, tepid, self-involved, and contains a lot of characters it's hard to have any empathy with. One of the reasons I find certain famous living authors over-rated is that they haven't managed to make me give a damn about their characters, stories, or quality of writing. A good story, well-written, is what makes for a great novel; mere style alone cannot sustain interest very long. Nor can the writer's fame alone make me want to read their new novel, if I found their previous novels uninteresting. People tell me I'm supposed to like and revere Philip Roth and John Ashbery; try as I might, I never have been able to.

One sometimes comes to the conclusion that the mainstream literary fiction (genre) one is "supposed" to adore is all about self-involved, angst-ridden New England urban dwellers; none of that speaks to my life or interests, dwelling as I do in Midwestern heartlands that most New Englanders neither comprehend nor want to. (I still laugh when a friend in New Hampshire was astonished by the fact that, out here in the Middle West, one can drive all day long and still only cross one state border.) Those of us who live in the "flyover" zone, who often live in smaller towns, or more rurally, than the literary denizens of either urban coast, often seem to live in another universe entirely. Even those who live in our large Midwestern metropolises, such as Chicago, Detroit, or Denver, have a different attitude towards life than those in Los Angeles or the New England megaplex. For one thing, the sky is simply much bigger out here. Under that big sky, it's easier to contemplate the horizon. One sometimes wonders if the reason New York City is so self-involved is because there can only see themselves reflected in their shiny glass-and-steel buildings, and can't see enough sky.

This may also be an aspect of my long list of favorite novels, many of which are weighted heavily towards novels that broaden the mind, that stretch outwards into the sky, that have a sense of wonder that is expansive rather than narcissistic and claustrophobic. Many novels on my list of favorites are novels that opened my mind in new directions, that gave me insight into cultures I never encountered or understood before, that explored ideas and relationships beyond those merely human-centered and social. This accounts for the large number of novels of speculative fiction on my list. It also may account for what attracts me to certain writers, while there are others to whose works I am unable to connect at all. E.F. Forster famously prefaced his great novel Howard's End with two words: "Only connect." And not only is that the theme of his novel, it's a good rule for living: only connect. Those people, real or fictional, with whom we are able to connect, all give us something for living. And connecting needn't be limited only to people like ourselves. Another reason I feel little connection with much mainstream literary fiction these days is that it has become very parochial; frankly, in my experience, writers from New York City are a lot more tunnel-visioned and parochial than writers from rural South Dakota (Linda Hasslestrom) or Michigan (Jim Harrison, a genuinely cosmopolitan writer) or California (a long list indeed).

Some writers we read for their content, their subject matter. I enjoy reading John Muir's diaries of his solo treks in the Sierras. Robinson Jeffers appeals to me as much for his creation-centered observational poems as for his writing style presented as an alternative to hermetic (obscurantist) Modernism. Both Hemingway and Harrison appeal to me because we're all Michigan boys at heart, although their appeal spreads out in many other directions, as well.

So I can't tell you what my favorite novel is. I don't know myself. There are too many available choices, potential possibilities, a long list of favorites. I could compile a list, but perhaps I already have, at least in part, simply by giving examples here as I meandered across the terrain of this topic. I might someday try to make a list. Yet list-making itself is something of which I am skeptical, veering as it does so close to canon-making. Such lists ought to be appreciative, not prescriptive: unlike most critics with an axe to grind or an ideological agenda to pursue, I don't insist that every other reader like the same novels that I do, even for the same reasons. A list of favorites would be only my idiosyncratic list, even if others agreed with me on many choices.

"Only connect." We do our best. But I think it remains better to connect out of love and common humanity, as Forster intimates in his novel, rather than out of an aggressive will to impose our social standards upon each other. So make your own connections, and make your own list of favorite novels. If we connect, thereby, that's all to the good.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lily Mandalas

mandala of life
flower unfolding lightning
force of existence


These have been popular. I have already made two sets of prints of them, and sold one set, to a close friend, who finds them meaningful. I may expand on this series, we'll see. Meanwhile, as ever with my photos and digital artwork, I do make and sell prints on demand. These are 8x8 prints, just FYI.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Papier-Mache Art Bowls 11: Paper, Pencils, Fractals, Talismans

After drying the latest batch in the sun, and looking it over, I think this group is of mixed success. One or two experimental ideas produced lovely results, and one or two were acceptable if not first-rate. Not every experiment succeeds, after all: but the definition of an experiment, in both science and art, is that you learn as much from the failures as from the successes.

This particular experiment was of mixed quality. The idea was simple: I had recently purchased some beautiful hand-made marbled art paper at Wet Paint in St. Paul, a terrific art supply store that I visit every time I'm in the Twin Cities. When I lived in St. Paul, this was my primary source for all my art supplies. I purchased several sheets of beautiful hand-made papers, with the intention of using them for papier-maché projects, but perhaps also for hand-made books. Some of the sheets are sewable with thread, which sparks some interesting ideas combining multi-media, paper, and fiber art.

I made extensive photos of each of the sheets of art paper before filing them away, to be used for art projects.

I took a few of these art-paper photos and layered them in Photoshop, to make a more complex paper. I then printed that out as laser prints, and used the prints to make this bowl.

It's very pretty, visually, as it reflects the source material. The only thing lacking, I feel, is the texture of the hand-made papers. This is laser-printed photographs, which in many cases is terrific material for a papier-maché piece with a specific theme. I feel that some of my art bowls made from my prints have been like illustrations, in three-dimensional form rather than in book form. But this is pictures of paper, used as paper. So it's a bit "virtual," a bit removed from the original. As I said, visually it looks great; but tactilely it is a bit disappointing. Still, it might be a nice bowl to keep some other art supplies in, on my art desk.

So, an interesting experiment that almost works. What might work with this kind of collaged print paper in future is to use it as a background behind other papier-maché layered projects. For example, a tableau or vignette background framing photographs or illustrations; like a framed matte.

This is my favorite piece from this session of making papier-maché. I really enjoy its whimsy and color. It looks good from any angle, and is bright and colorful in the sunlight.

The process of making this bowl began with an experiment with colored pencils. I made random areas of color on a fibrous, dense paper that I knew would tear easily, and be good for papier-maché. I filled the sheet with colored pencil shapes, mostly rough triangles, then tore the sheet into other random shapes with no regard for where the colors were placed. In other words, the patches of color were themselves broken up by being torn up without regard to their forms. Then I assembled the bowl in another random order with no regard for color placements. What results is a pleasing riot of randomized color shapes, all hand-sketched using pencils. So for me this bowl feels more organic, more like an actual drawing, more "purely artistic."

This art bowl a bit of an homage to Henri Matisse, whose late-in-life works made with colored paper and scissors I admire greatly. Matisse is one of my artistic heroes precisely because he never stopped exploring and experimenting; he rarely repeated something once he had mastered it, and continually looked to new materials for inspiration. Towards the end of his life, when illness confined him to a wheelchair, and he was unable to paint, he had an assistant cover sheets of paper with solid washes of gouache, then cut out shapes with scissors and assembled them to make art. His illustrated book Jazz is a masterpiece made in this manner. Both whimsical and grand, humorous and serious, Jazz set a high standard for hand-made art books to follow. (The complete book is available in scale reproduction as a book, from publisher George Braziller.)

The colored pencils used here are mostly water-proof, although some colors did run a little when they were still wet. I daubed up the excess with a paper towel, as I usually do, and when the bowl dried everything looked smooth and solid again. It's a denser paper, absorbent like water-color paper, thicker and rougher of texture. This bowl actually dried faster than any of the others, in the sunlight. I am very pleased with how the color shapes came out; I'll probably try this technique again later. I might also try it with water-soluble colored pencils, which when wetted in the papier-maché matrix might run and blur into interesting solid colors.

This is a relatively large bowl made using paper prints of Photoshop pieces I had made a few years ago.

I have in the past designed gift-wrapping and other papers, patterns that could also be used for fabrics or wallpapers, based on fractal art generated from the Mandelbrot Set. I designed and collaged these forms in Photoshop, and printed sheets of paper via laser and inkjet printers. I have actually used these papers myself to wrap presents for family and friends.

This bowl was envisioned to use a colorful fractal pattern on the exterior, and a related fractal pattern on the interior, but in grayscale and B&W. The contrast between the almost painfully colorful exterior, and the serene, staid interior is intentional.

Fractals fascinate me, both for their elegant mathematical simplicity, and the beautiful, complex visual graphics that can be generated from those elegant mathematical formulae. I am certainly not the first artist to be fascinated by fractals—I have a special section on my bookshelves just for books on fractals and chaos theory, many of which are gorgeously illustrated—yet the infinite possibilities inherent in fractal-generated visual art make it possible for every artist to do something very different with the same materials.

My intent here was to make an illustrated art bowl using some of my fractal wrapping paper. I made a fairly large bowl, thinking it would interesting to use it as a container for other fractal-based art I might make later on. For now, it's just loud and fun to look at.

Marigold Shamanic Healing Bowl

This bowl I made purely for myself, and was the reason I began this current session of making papier-maché. Prior to going in for surgery, I had made a piece of visual art for myself, to use an invocation for healing. I combined a photo I had made of a field of marigolds with the image of my most recent EKG. I made a print of this piece and took it with me during surgery, to place in my hospital room where I could look at it every day and remind myself to heal, to get better, and to overcome.

The day I made this current group of papier-maché pieces was the first day since I had returned home from the hospital that I had felt run down, tired, and upset, out-of-sorts, and just plain icky. I was feeling a lot of emotions from the surgery and the hospital stay, and my body was likewise complaining of the traumas it had been put through.

As I have said many times before, sometimes the best thing to do, on such dismal days, is make art. When I make art, as I've also said before, I forget about everything else, and think only about what I'm doing. So even though I felt fairly lousy that morning, I made these papier-maché pieces. This Healing Bowl, made entirely for myself, was the only art I intentionally set out to make that morning. I am pleased with the results on several levels. The bowl was made to be another reminder to continue my healing journey, evoking once again the many healing properties of marigolds, and it sits now on the table in my bedroom.

Marigolds were also a favorite flower from my childhood in India. They grow prolifically there, and are used in many rituals, from weddings to temple offerings, from funerals to bouquets offered to the person you love. Their fragrance is wonderful, they are edible, and they are used in many healing potions and as a cooking herb. I love marigolds in every shape and variety, and I grow them now in my own garden.

This bowl uses my marigold/EKG image on its exterior, for color and to evoke a restoration of perfect health. The interior of the bowl uses several repeated copies of a drawing I made of the Horned God last autumn, which I scanned into the computer, then manipulated in Photoshop.

For my recovery from this traumatic, high-risk major surgery, for my journey through to new health, for the next surgery and recovery that I must still endure—for all that and more, I will invoke every Power that I can think of, summon all the help I can get, and rely on my family and friends for their support, both practically and in terms of prayers, good thoughts, wishes for well-being, or anything else that is offered. I am going through a major life-changing experience here, and I'll take all the help I can get, in whatever form it's offered! And I am and will remain eternally grateful for all of it. Beyond the gratitude, also, is a new life, which remains still a Mystery to me for now, but which I do know will be worth going through all the pain and suffering I have been going through now, including the surgery and recovery. It's all worth it in the end.

I put all of these thoughts into this Healing Bowl as I made it, channelling my intentions and hopes and prayers into my art-making. A ritual of art-making, an intention for the art that is made. Therefore, I don't really care if someone thinks this bowl is not as aesthetically beautiful as some other art I've made before. That's not the point. The purpose here is to focus my thoughts on my own healing, to remind myself that this process is going to take some time, and to be patient with that—and I can be patient, knowing that everyone I love is thinking of me, and wishing me well.

And art is one way to help me stay focused on that, and one way to make it manifest.

So Mote It Be!

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Papier-Mache Art Bowls 10: Solar Drying

The day I had been home from the hospital for exactly one week was the first day I felt really down and out since coming home. I was emotional, felt fragile, felt under the weather and icky. It only lasted a day, and I've felt better since. The nurses and doctors all keep saying I'm doing really well, actually amazingly well this soon after surgery. I have nothing to compare my experience to, so in one way I just take their word for it and am grateful for the good progress, and in another way I feel reborn, brand new, like everything is being done for the first time, all over again. I'm learning about my body's new equilibrium, which is not settled into yet—the "new normal" if you will, that I have not arrived at yet. So everything is still al earning curve, still experimental.

Feeling down and out, though, that day, I made some new experimental papier-maché art bowls. I tried out some ideas that I had been thinking about for awhile, but hadn't had time to do, what with preparing for surgery and everything else that had been stressing me out. Once again, while making art I thought about nothing else. Every other concern went away—which is one good reason to keep making art throughout this recovery and healing process. The other, more fundamental reason to keep making art, of course, is that it is my best response to life, be it good or bad or neutral or just blah.

Since I made my papier-maché projects in the late morning, and it was another hot sunny summer day, I set the bowls out in the sunlight on the porch to dry them via solar heating. This sped up the drying process rapidly. The bowls took half the usual time to dry, and once they had firmed up enough to come out of their molds, they finished drying very quickly. Often I've made papier-maché at night, and left it out overnight to dry. This was faster and easier, actually, and convenient because the weather was cooperative. Obviously, solar drying is going to go better on sunny rather than cloudy days.

Solar drying this time was a two-stage process. First, set out the bowls in their molds to dry in the sun. Later on, typically only two or three hours later, I was able to remove the bowls from their molds, carefully, and continue drying them on paper bowls set out in the afternoon sunlight.

After taking them out of the molds, they dried quickly enough that I was able to turn them upside down, when firm, to finish drying. Everything was dried and firmed up long before sunset, so I could enjoy looking over the completed project in the late afternoon light, and again the following morning.

So when convenient I can recommend solar drying as a safe, accelerated drying technique for papier-maché. You will need to have a sunny location, preferably on an indoor floor or porch. You need clear sunny weather. And you need to be sure that the pieces are protected from any wind gusts, so that they don't blow over, or become damaged while still drying by being knocked around by wind, or similar environmental factors.

One or two of the bowls did slightly distort during the last stage of drying. I supposed I could have left them in the molds till they were completely dry, and avoided that. But the distortions were very small, and not displeasing. So even if I was a little impatient in experimenting with this drying technique, and perhaps took the bowls out of the molds a little sooner than usual, I think the end results were well justified by the process.

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Friday, July 08, 2011

Light A Candle

Two drawings from the 1970s, in other words from my teens. Experiments with pen on paper. Lots of dark cross-hatching technique. The aesthetic of chiarascuro.

I found these again in a box of old paintings and drawings from my teens and twenties, the 1970s and 80s. Mostly bad stuff, but interesting to look back on, technically, and thematically. Both of these are early representations of life-long themes in my art: the candle in the darkness; the cave lit from within. The latter a visionary moment that dates back to much earlier in my life than I thought; the vision of the candle in the cave was something I wrote about later, in a longer poem. I had forgotten that there was an artistic precursor.

I had a pretty bad day today. Lots of emotion emerging from the trauma around the recent surgery. it was major, high-risk surgery, after all, so some feelings are bound to percolate up, sooner or later.

So this is to light a candle against that outer darkness. A little remembrance, a little solace.

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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Templated Design

A lot of publishers, online self-publishing services, and POD (print on demand) services, will offer you design templates for your to-be-published book.

This is particularly likely if your book is to be part of a publisher's series, and you and they want to maintain a consistent look-and-feel throughout the series. So some choices, such as type and basic layout, may already be made for you. This is even more likely to be offered for cover designs with a book series.

Templated designs are also what you will most likely encounter when working with a POD publisher. You probably will have an option to do your own original design, if you choose, but a range of templates will most likely be where you start.

There's nothing wrong with templated design, or using an existing template if it appeals to you. But it's best to avoid just using the template as offered. At the very least, you should personalize your book cover, modify the template, make it look enough different that it looks like something new and original. After all, you are publishing your new and original writings, so having a book cover that looks like a million others rather defeats that purpose.

Series titles do need to look similar enough to each other to be recognized as a series. But what carries the look-and-feel across the series may be the master logo, the titling font, cover art placement and size, and the series title, especially if the series title includes a logo design. Other than that, the cover photo and background color, and some other elements, can be quite different. The series is linked by some key elements staying the same from cover to cover, while others vary.

Within any templated design, expect to be given only a range of choices. For a series, that's no problem. But if you want your book to stand out from the crowd, to be more attractive to and noticed by the reader, you might do well to think outside the proffered box, and either design something that is not based on a template, or hire a designer or design consultant such as myself to help you make those decisions. Really, the most important element of a template is paper size: what is your book's actually printed size going to be? With modern printing technologies, POD or otherwise, that's a blank slate that can be filled many different ways. So don't just settle for what's provided you, do something with it, make it yours. (Of course, as I've discussed before, there are writers for whom the primacy of the word is so powerful that it blinds them to all other aspects of the reading experience, including design. In which case, if all you want is a handheld container for your words, use the template as is. Just don't expect to get noticed by many readers.)

The big publishing houses to whom a writer just hands a manuscript and has no say in the design, the big publishers who maintain their own in-house design staffs and marketing teams—those publishers still exist, but their in-house one-stop paradigm is no longer the dominant paradigm, and is now only one of a wide range of options.

As a writer who is self-publishing, you will have to make at least some design decisions. Get used to it, as it's unavoidable. The more design decisions you keep you hand in, the more of a feeling of controlling your own destiny you will have. Some will dive in and view that as a creative challenge. For others design choices are too terrifying to contemplate; but you must. Yes, all this is a distraction from the actual writing: but every business-level decisions regarding your book that you must make is in the service of the writing, and is intended to support your wallet, so that you can get back to the writing as soon as possible. As a writer who is self-publishing, you must consider yourself to be a cottage industry. You can go so far as to make t-shirts to promote your book; online POD printing is not limited to books, but can include everything from fabric printing to coffee mugs to CDs. It's all available to you. Your only limits as those within your own imagination. (Okay, and stamina. This can take a lot of work to get it all done.)

Since no one else is going to take charge for you, I encourage you do yourself a favor and take charge for yourself. You might be forced to do this anyway, so I encourage you to embrace it as a writer, and do it. Use it an opportunity to learn some new skills and ideas, and as an opportunity for self-empowerment. Treat it as a positive experience, and good luck.

It's a big pond with many fish in it, and some of those fish will insist on viewing you competitively. That can't be avoided, but it also doesn't have to be confronted. Personally, I like big ponds, because I'm not an inherently competitive person; I've always felt that the pond is big enough for all of us, in all our infinite diversity. On the other hand, I'm not a doormat, and don't let people walk all over me. The point here is that you can make your own corner of the publishing world, be happy and do well, and not worry about the other guys.

On the inside of the book, most publishers will offer only a limited range of typefaces for body copy, usually choosing a "house font" that they prefer most body copy to be set in. This can be a matter of taste. You may be asked to make these decisions; with templated design, you more than likely will.

Different publishers will choose different house fonts, to the point where an experienced designer can pick up a book by a certain publisher and know which typographic specifications are probably going to be used. This is part of how a publisher establishes an identity, the look-and-feel across all the books within a specific imprint.

One approach in typography emphasizes transparency, in which the design and type choices are meant to serve and clarify the text. There are other movements with typography theory, but this basic principle of readability is the one you are most likely to encounter with publishers who use templated design. This approach is exemplified by Beatrice Warde in her famous essay on typography The Crystal Goblet:

Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favourite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in colour. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.

The basic idea here is that design needs to be "transparent" to content, and not draw attention to itself. The caveat is that bland design draws attention to itself as badly as does gaudy design. The proper vessel for the content is something balanced and appropriate. It can also be elegant and clear without drawing attention to itself, and away from the text.

If, for example, your book is a prose text about history or a murder mystery, one of the classic serif typefaces such as Palatino, Weiss, or Garamond will make your words look classic, orderly, and somewhat elegant. If your book is a how-to manual for computing, an elegant sans-serif font such as Optima might be a better choice, especially if your text is heavily illustrated with examples and samples. The famous serif monospace typewriter emulation font Courier looks just like a 1960s typewritten document, which is ugly for any usage but that one. Helvetica is a great typeface that is overused, misunderstood, and often poorly applied, so I'd recommend avoiding Helvetica except when you really know what you're doing and want that sleek clean Modernist look.

Another significant pole of typographic design is the opposite of what Beatrice Warde advises: when the text becomes its own illustration by pushing past the pure words on the page towards decorative, even "illegible" design. The schools of punk and/or grunge typography are examples; a lot of CD cover designs use "illegible" fonts as art-elements to set a tone of punk attitude, for example. David Carson's innovative design for music and skateboarding magazines such as Ray Gun exemplify this approach. It completely turns Warde's principles of 'invisible design" on their heads. Design like this draws attention to itself, and becomes itself part of the reading experience.

I like both these poles of design. I use what's appropriate for either. I use what I think enhances or illuminates the text, that amplifies the mood or tone or idea in the words. I set no limits on taste or what is acceptable in design, because in every case it's still in the service of the text, of the reading experience.

My idea of typographic "transparency" is therefore that the type should be treated just as illustrations are treated: in ways that enhance the meaning and tone of the text, and augment the experience for the reader. A punk type on a cover design about drug culture, skaters, and rebellious teenagers would be entirely appropriate; the same typeface would be entirely inappropriate for the cover of a jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel. Kerouac, maybe. William S. Burroughs, definitely. Herman Melville, not so much. Use your personal taste, make appropriate choices, and this will carry you a long way towards giving a good experience to your readers.

Once again, when you POD publish, or self-publish through other sorts of online media, the bottom line is that visual appeal of your book, the fact of its appearance will serve you well. You might have to spend some time figuring out what you really want. You might spend some time playing with the provided templates, till you achieve a good look for your book. It will be time well spent, and your readers will thank you for providing them with a more sensual reading experience than merely blank words on a dull page.

Never underestimate the power of the non-textual aspects of publishing. They can make or break a reading experience.

Don't just use what is given you in the templated design box. Think outside that box. See what you can do, given what options you have. You might have more flexibility than at first you conceived. All of this will serve you in the long run, even if it seems overwhelming at first, and improve your book's chances of being loved by giving your readers as pleasurable an experience as possible.

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