Monday, August 29, 2011

Improvised Music Outdoors

I just got back home from a gig playing improvised music for a silent film. We were playing outdoors, at the pavilion at James Madison Park in Madions, WI. This is a park where you can watch the sunset over Picnic Point across Lake Mendota, and the water is always reflecting the mood of the sky in beautiful patterns.

I used to live near here, about two blocks from James Madison Park. This was my first apartment when I first moved to Madison in 1986. I would come down to the Park all year long, at all times of day and night. Coming down to watch the sunset was practically a neighborhood ritual. My best friend and I, who lived across the street from me for those same years, would go down to the water on hot humid summer midnights and skinny-dip off the rowing docks to cool off.

I love the way the light on Lake Mendota shimmers and moves from the vantage of this Park. It was one of the reasons I kept coming back down to the water, especially at sunset. In my back catalog of older photographs, I can identify this location as important to my development as a photographer. I have numerous photos that are abstracts of the colored light ripples on the water, with no other imagery; pure pattern, pure abstraction. I can recognize this in retrospect as a formative experience, a piece of self-training, for later photographic work.

The silent movie we improvised to, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), is a classic German Expressionist film. One of its interesting aspects is the set design and backgrounds, which are all distorted, non-rectilinear, and psychologically complex. It's interesting to realize the influence of Freudian thinking on this film, which is about murder, mesmerism, somnambulism, and other then-horrifying glimpses into the shadows of the unconscious mind.

I'm very happy with what we played. This was my first gig playing Stick since the recent surgery, and I wasn't sure about my endurance, my ability to haul gear around, and how the Stick would work with my ostomy bag in place. In fact, there was no problem. I had help hauling gear, setting up and tearing down, and the Stick's belthook and shoulder-strap configuration avoided the ostomy bag entirely. I did tape the bag to my skin so it would be out of my way for the gig, and I did have to watch out for cables. I just brought a couple of processors for effects, not my big rack. So it was minimal gear anyway. I played bass guitar for one scene, but most of the film was on Stick.

Four or five people came up to me afterwards to complement our group on the composed music for the silent film. They were astonished to be told that it was all spontaneously improvised. Most thought it had been pre-composed, rehearsed, and planned. In fact, there were no rehearsals, we just show up and play. With the right people, though, people who have played together before, and are good at listening, it's not difficult. This is in fact my favorite way to make music: just play. With the right people, it works.

This group of players tonight was the same that improvised music for Nosferatu last Hallowwen in Madison. (I'd also had fun making a poster for that gig.)

Much of the music tonight was in the groove, rhythmic, almost like aleatoric rock & roll, often quite hard-edged and psychologically intense. Which was great, because that really suited the mood of the film. Some of the audience comments I heard later said that they felt the music was perfectly matched to the music, perfectly applied, and therefore it must have been composed. That was why some of those commentors were surprised when they found out how we actually did it.

I felt part of a rhythm section again, me playing bass lines mostly on Stick, some on bass, with Geoff Brady playing really brilliant drum grooves. Playing like this makes me play better. It was a very satisfying gig. I was tired by the time I got home, and I needed to rest for a couple of days afterwards, but I got through it, and it felt good.

I managed to tape the performance with my little digital voice recorder. Actually I used two DVRs, and will at some point mix them together to maximize the recording quality and balance. Meanwhile here are a couple of short excerpts from two different chapters of the movie, from one of the DVR recordings.

Performance excerpts:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, excerpt 1    

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, excerpt 2    

Geoff Brady, drums, percussion, theremin
Arthur Durkee, Chapman Stick, bass guitar
Kia Karlen, french horn, percussion, small toy instruments
JoAnne Pow!ers, saxophones, flute, cornet

Location: Live at James Madison Park shelter, Madison, WI, August 28, 2011

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Grief, a long spell, a turn of stoning wheels

The rage pulls itself out of the nexus and blows fierce
for awhile, till the triggers disappear in trailing foam.
The least little thing. A complex welter of emotions borne
out of some ferry ride up the hillside. I can barely fit into words.
Call it grief, label it post-surgery depression, make a teak box
for the feelings to live in. Call it PTSD, a newer label for old
shell-shock. Call it dying and being reborn. This new body
still doesn't behave in expected ways. Surprise daily going sideways.
It doesn't have an operator's manual, it often refuses to obey.
I'd take a peasant's bright sword to it, if I could find one.
The peasants are the real winners, in the long run. Only thing
that matters is the harvest. Everything else is distraction, witness.
You can't reform a tradition you yourself put to the fire. Killed,
it might come back unuttered, but more likely it will be a spring
in an arid zone, a little round pool of brackish flow surrounded
by a brief oasis of reed and reel.

I went down to the river, sustained by pain. By sorrow. Some words
from a folk song I only half-recall. The tune is there, but the words
themselves are jumbled, scrabbled, hard talus on alluvial
plains of past sings. This morning I ache, everywhere. Can't seem
to put it off. Stabs turn up in places you never knew were there
till they gave you notice and started marching. A logjam breaking.
After weeks of furious stutter and shingle the river's flow returns.
Where were you, lost among the bramble and thicket? Welcome,
return of some semblance of waking. Meanwhile don't bend down
too quickly or you'll feel your guts complain anew. It's almost a day
full of irony and complaint.

Whatever voices you hear. Breaks in the narrative of life.
Millstones, ghost grain, the whiff of ink on lost finger.
That kick that turns you around. Kick of gears wearing down,
eroding teeth gone dull and barely fitting. No, not mine. Those
are fake already. Words barded through canines I owe a porcelain
sculptor, the man who returned my smile. I'd lost it under pressure.
Here's a place where sorrow can't enter. It's a small room, panelled in
white windows. Time to take my aching back out of here, go walk,
go do anything. This meditation pillow is breaking my ass open.
There's no comfort here anymore. A little oblique sanctuary
becomes what we imagined, back when we had the brains
to vision anything. Those dogs long gone. Now I'm picked
over for fish guts, entrails hung steaming over a chair-back.
an orrery of inner stars some oracle might read that final day
when they fail to stuff me back in.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Two Stags Near the Shaman's Cave

Restless tonight, wanting to do something, made a colored pencil drawing from a dream and vision I keep having. Stags in my vision, antlers found on the lawn, deer passing through, the Horned One silent behind the midnight trees.

Wrote music all day, finished half of a secret waltz. It stormed all morning, so I didn't get a chance to take a long walk today. So, restless tonight. Didn't burn off enough energy. It's midnight, but I'll take a walk before bedtime anyway. Cicadas thrumming in the trees.

Something like a personal cave painting, from the walls of the cave of sleep, the plain of dreams. Cave where the shaman goes to paint the walls with sacred animals for the Hunt, to evoke their capture, to praise them, to record their lives and deaths, to thank them for their bounty.

Final state of the drawing. Colored pencils. Not striving for realism, but for archetype. This could be just a sketch, something I needed to make tonight, something that might become some more real painting at another time. Much more ink and pencils and paint to expend on this, later.

Two Stags Near the Shaman's Cave

I still feel a sense of urgency, there's a lot to do, and I'm fighting uphill to get it done. Mind full of visions and dreams, but not coping too well with the ordinary. Need to pay those bills tomorrow, should have done it yesterday.

And, naturally, walking at midnight, I encounter deer, running across the road, and into the trees by the river.

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Fancy Peppers

fresh produce from the local farmer's market

morning stroll swarms
with onion pepper radish smells—
farmer's market

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Shamanic Art of Writing

I just spent an hour reading (re-reading) a novel so compelling that it pulled me entirely inside its own world building, so that I lost track of my own world, and my own self. This is what I call immersive reading. You become an active participant in the story, not merely a detached observer. When I emerged from the book after an hour of reading, I felt like I had lived an entire lifetime, and yet it was still the same bright morning. I found myself blinking in the light as though I had just woken from a very long night of dreaming.

For awhile, that other world seemed more real than this one, which also happens after particularly lucid and involving dreams. A week should have gone by in the world, while I was absent, but it was still Sunday, only Sunday, leaving me all the rest of future time to inhabit, even though I had just spent a lifetime in another universe. It is a strange sensation of two kinds of time overlapping, a lifetime's experience lived, and yet it wasn't yet tomorrow, as if time in the outer world had flowed much more slowly, had barely advanced. As if you have already lived a full lifetime, yet still have a full lifetime left to live.

(At least this is what happens for me. I've heard from some writers that they can never lose their sense of self when reading, never get wholly immersed in the worldbuilding of what they're reading, never turn off their inner editor and observer, never lose that part of their mind that sits in judgment, that edits, that comments on the writing as they go along. I struggle not to pity that lack of loss of self, because judging others is not a good game, yet I can't help feel sad for some writer who can't allow herself to fall into a book headfirst and inhabit that world, and that world alone, for the duration of the reading.)

Emerging from the other world, as if from a long dream, that sense of doubled time lasts for awhile. You only slowly begin to return to inhabit so-called normative time. Which is consensus time, really. Even so, one of the mysteries of consciousness is that time does change its rate of flow, both subjectively in terms of how we inhabit our lives, and objectively in terms of Einsteinian relativity. Most people think time is steady and constant—but it's not. Time is lumpy and uneven. It clumps. It takes longer to go around some objects in its flow than it does others. Space warps time; a heavy gravity field slows time down relative to its flow elsewhere.

And delightfully, when you lose your sense of self, in reading or in meditation, you lose your sense of time, and inhabit only the present Now. Physicists and experienced meditators agree about this: time is never as fixed as we think it is. Consciousness itself is time-binding; the ability to bind time into linear flow is in fact one definition of consciousness. And as Einstein said, The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once. So it's no wonder that time goes away when the sense of self goes away, too. Consciousness is time, in this sense. Self-conscious self-awareness can become hell if we bind ourselves too tightly to time.

Sources tumble onto my table next to my writing desk, sometimes it seems of their own volition. Or I have been slowly gathering them, finding books and articles here and there over a period of time, not really consciously, till of a sudden a pattern emerges. When a pattern reveals itself, or takes shape, or suddenly becomes obvious, I am sometimes tempted to berate myself for not noticing the obvious earlier. But I've learned not to do that; instead, I remind myself that we all are much broader and deeper in mind than we usually realize, or admit to, and once again, the smarter, deeper, silent, unknown, more-tuned-in part of myself has been working behind the scenes until it was ready to dump realization on my doorstep once again, and bring me to my knees. I used to get annoyed, and resist. These days, even if I get annoyed, which is mostly annoyance at the timing, I accept affairs more readily, and just roll with it. That kind of acceptance comes with practice, with experience, with repetition. You learn to understand your own process, and accept its working habits. You learn to give up trying to mold your process into some idea of what you think it should be—"should" is a very coercive concept—and just let it unfold in its own time and manner.

And that's how I most often operate, creatively. I've learned that forcing the process never yields a good outcome: it either ends in a stubborn block, or I produce crap I wouldn't want to share with anyone, anyway. So my job is usually just to be prepared for whenever the process happens.

On the other hand, I've learned that I can coax and cajole, invite and hope. I can encourage that larger, smarter self that's responsible for most of my best work to come forward. I can invite in the wild things. i can leave the door open, and let the wolves wander through. I can open wide the windows inside my own soul, and let the wind and the silence move through, and blow away the accumulating dust.

All I have to work with are metaphors (wolves, windows) and analogies. This is too big and too mysterious a theme to write about definitively, or fully. I keep circling back to it, as part of my own process. I can only dip in and out, and hope each time I contemplate it to learn a little more, go a little deeper.

So here are few small aspects, in unreal order:

1. Because writing creates new worlds to inhabit, because it is worldbuilding, and travel between worlds, it is shamanic. Or at least it has the potential to be. Writing can activate its shamanic potential through content, style, and context of presentation. Traveling between your ordinary world and another one, invented or real, is what a shaman (or wizard) does. This isn't escapism, though; more on that later.

2. Sometimes we write to understand, rather than to describe or explain. Sometimes we don't what we think or fell until we write it out. The process of writing is the process of revelation, of becoming. The creative process is a process of self-discovery, but since we are all One, self-discovery also means discovery for others. The shamanic artist makes art in part to share the fruits of the journey of discovery. Traditionally, the shaman took a journey to the other worlds for the sake of healing the person, or the community: the knowledge brought back for healing was meant to be shared publicly, not kept privately. (Of course there are always confidences and secrets whose privacy one maintains.) If writing is shamanic, then it have that effect on readers.

3. The artist is a shaman in the sense that he or she goes into the other worlds via imagination, intuition, vision, and brings back the archetypal gold of new truth, new beauty. Shamans are divers of the deep waters of the self, who dare to explore the hidden and invisible world of the psyche. What knowledge and wisdom is brought back aids in coping with what is. Thus writing is not escapism, it is completion and conjoining. Context matters.

4. Art, in whatever medium, when it is shamanic in nature and function, can be identified by its liminality and numinosity. Its effects on the reader (viewer, audience, etc.) can be traced by the event of personal transformation, no matter how large or small, either in the moment of art, or later on after contemplation. Art can change lives. One way that we recognize great art is that it does indeed have that kind of effect on people. Shamanic art also disturbs. It can be uncomfortable to confront.

5. In order for writing to become shamanic, the shadow, the darkness, the wolf at the door, must be allowed to enter. You have to let the outside night in. You have to give control over to the unconscious, to the inner forces, to that larger, smarter self. You have to let go of the ego-personality's need to be in charge, in control, to consciously direct art-making. You have to allow for unpredictability and chaos. You have to be willing to tell the hard truthful stories, the difficult ones that most people turn away from because the content disturbs them. You also have to be willing to tell the stories that transcend experience, that are almost impossible to fit into words, short of the exultant poetry of ecstatic praise. Don't stint. And don't censor yourself. Be a prophet. Be a voice crying in the wilderness.

6. Shamanic writing is about process, about change, about reorganizing the kernel of the word into a new, hopefully shape. The contents of the story matter less than that the story is told. The story must be told. The process of telling is essential to your own process of internal change. Don't censor yourself: write whatever it is that you must write.

7. If you assume there is only one reason to write, you kill a million universes in which other reasons are even more essential. Writing can be therapeutic, but the end-product of writing, the written poem or essay, etc., is not itself therapy, it is only the record of therapy, or the product of art therapy. No matter how attached to it you become, because writing it was therapeutic, don't assume it's good art. Making art can be cathartic, to both the maker and the viewer, but art is not inherently a catharsis. Don't confuse the process with the product or the purpose.

8. The archetypal stories are the oldest stories, and have been with us the longest. The narratives of shamanism, or myth, of deep psychological roleplay, all recycle the same stories. So don't fret about originality. If anything, if we write a numinous, evocative story it will evoke the oldest resonances in the psyche, and trigger the archetypes. That feeling you get when the small hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That feeling of standing on the threshold of a brave new world, about to take a first step into the unknown. So don't worry if your story isn't the most modern, the most ironically postmodern, the most original: let the old resonances in, let the oldest echoes ring through. That's how you get at the journey to the other worlds, by remembering you've already been there.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Folk Music: Against the Hit Parade

Pete Seeger wrote the following in 1956. It was true then, and it's still true today. Possibly even more true now than it was then, because the technology by which music is made, distributed, shared, and listened to has kept evolving, and changing at a rapid rate. The record companies have now lost their bootheel-n-the-throat control of music production and distribution, which is the good side of the current technological miracle; the bad side is of course that those same record companies, in their flailing about to try to maintain their dissolving monopoly, have become vicious about trying to keep that monopoly, while at the same time producing an endless stream of newly-hatched, overly-produced, hype-marketed, vapid, cheap and tawdry, hollow, talentless pop stars (is Lady Gaga, the latest incarnation of Madonna and/or Marilyn Manson, a postmodern commentary on this trend or herself part of it, or both?)—most of whom have been influenced by Pete Seeger without probably ever hearing his name. Seeger's influence on folk and pop music remains incredibly strong, and his opinions, even his older ones, are still worth listening to:

I am against the Hit Parade because I am against anything that would make a sheep out of a human being. The world is too big, and its people too varied, to try and make one hit parade suit us all. True, the gods of mass production may proclaim that it is much cheaper, much more efficient, to produce everyone's music at one place and at one time. But which would you rather hear—cheap music or good music? (And by good you might mean anything from Calypso to blues to Bach.)

Not only every country, but every region and town, every national group, every age group, every industry, even every school or summer camp should have its own hit parade, refusing to follow slavishly the dictates of Hollywood and New York.

Fortunately, at the same time that TV has concentrated the entertainment business as never before, LPs [and now CDs and MP3s] have enabled hundreds of minority idioms to receive hearings. The so-called Hit Parade is, today, simply the most popular songs of the fourteen-to-eighteen age group, and is supported by them and a few saloon goers who help feed the jukeboxes. There have been many songs which have attained Number One on the Hit Parade, yet 75 percent of the population have never heard of them.

Another way to think about this is a parallel slogan from artist/shaman/astrologer/writer Rob Brezsny, who says: Performance is life. Entertainment is death. Entertainment, which is what the music industry tries to reduce music to, both to sanitize it and make it harmless and control it, and also to try to own it financially, is passive; entertainment is you not making your own art, but only taking in the art made for you by others. Produced for you by artists and musicians and writers who the arts industry has laughingly begun to call "content providers." As if the purpose of making art was only to sell it, to provide content to be sold. Thus goes the final decadent stages of the commercialization of creativity under what another contemporary radical philosopher has called Too-Late Capitalism.

Entertainment is ultimately deadening because it is passive. You are expected to be a passive consumer sucking at the teat of a centralized delivery system. (That's the paradigm that the five big worldwide music industry conglomerates are so desperately trying to hold onto.) Performance, by contrast, is enlivening because you do it yourself. You pull out the banjo, or the piano, or you go to choir rehearsal, and you make acoustic live music with other mostly-untrained people who are making music for their lives, their souls, and their health. (Which of course is one definition of "folk music" that Pete Seeger would agree with.) Performance is active, it's do-it-yourself, it's wild and anarchic and often very rough around the edges: folk music, in a word, which is music made by regular folk. Entertainment is very slick and over-produced, and slides down the gullet like teflon-coated candy. Performance, on the other hand, is often full of little rough edges and errors, those details that make it come alive. Put another way, performance exists where people who make music (or art) understand: Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good. Slick, perfectly-recorded, perfectly-packaged entertainment is deadening. Rough-edged folk music makes your heart beat as well as your feet.

Think about it. This is all tied into what Pete Seeger was talking about 50 years ago now.

(Hat tip to Swanee, who sent me a copy of Pete Seeger's The Incompleat Folksinger, ed. by Jo Metcalf Schwartz.)

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Friday, August 19, 2011


Ballad by Salvatore Martirano.
David Barick, bass-baritone

Video editing and compositing, effects, etc. by AD.

David Barick is my excellent brother-in-law, a professional musician, former singer with the Nederlaans Kammerkoor.

No, that isn't a picture of David. Just some incredibly disturbed-looking singer found on the Internet. All the X-Files acid green elements were added by me.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

the tall tear trees

(Click on image for larger version.)

cold mind, wintermind
cloudloom and iron dark
the tall tear trees naked
broken, cry by the roadside

as all the darks of heaven

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Process of Writing 19: Folk Music

I own at present one Bruce Springsteen album: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a CD of old, old folk songs recorded in honor of the great Pete Seeger. This is a great, great album, which I highly recommend. If you're a rocker or a pop music junkie who knows nothing about folk and its rich traditions, this is a good introduction.

I make no bones about it: I think Bruce has written some immortal songs, and I'm not among the ranks of slavish fans. Honestly, that's because I tend to not be among the ranks of slavish fans, period, for any artist. It is a general condition. I find myself relating to Bruce, with this album, as with others of his I've encountered, more as a fellow musician, more than as a fan. He interests me because he's a songwriter, his music interests me because it contains qualities of roots music that a lot of rock 'n roll does not. But I feel more like a fellow singer, with writers like Bruce, than I do a fan. Bruce himself is a lot more down-to-earth than many in the music business; and those are the types of rockers I relate to. more often than not.

When I approach a songwriter like Bruce Springsteen, I do sing along, but singing along is, like with folk music, how you learn the songs. There's no better way to learn a song than by getting inside it, and sing it from the inside. you sing along, you eventually memorize the song, then you make it your own, sing it your own way, in your own voice, in your own arrangement.

There are more great singers who sing from inside the song in folk music than there are in pop music, or even in rock music. Jazz singers tend to be coolly sophisticated; as much as I respect that, it can also be cerebral rather than gutsy. Although of course that can depend on the moment. Pop music is very polished, and these day it's pretty much over-polished and over-produced to death. Folk music, by contrast, is still music made casually by folks in the kitchen, the living room, the pub, the union hall, the church steps. It tends to be rough-edged. Bruce says it himself, in his commentary for The Seeger Sessions: "This isn't music being played, this is music being made." And he points out the rough edges that make making music a live thing, not a pre-digested and over-produced thing. There are occasional moments when you hear someone counting out the changes, or flubbing a riff.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions keeps all those rough live edges. Most of the musicians were standing in a circle in the same living room when they played, a living room in a farm-house. (The horns were in the hall, for a little bit of mix separation. The mixing board was on the kitchen table.) There wasn't a lot of rehearsal. What happened, happened live, for real. Spontaneous arrangements. In improvised music, whether we're playing jazz or folk or whatever, we call that making it up as you go along.

Of course, in folk music, you hang your improvisations on the skeleton of the well-known tune with its well-known chords. It's a way of rediscovering the music each time, of bringing it to life, rough edges and all. You hear a song like "The Water Is Wide" or "Shenandoah" and it comes alive for you all over again in the singing. Music to be made, not merely played. I know some high-power studio session musicians on both coasts; many of these have told me that it doesn't get much better than this sort of living-room session, when the perfectionistic rules of most studio recording sessions are suspended, and you're making music, not playing music for your rent. It can be a special thing.

I unabashedly admit that The Seeger Sessions, just found and purchased, though I'd been looking to buy it for at least a year, since I first heard about it, unblocked some very old musical channel in me, and gave me the ending to the song that I've been working on all week. Pete Seeger is once again to thank, along with Bruce. I was a heavy-duty folkie when I lived back in Ann Arbor, playing and going to concerts on the folk music scene for years and years. This music is deep inside my heart, somewhere. It's in the blood. Whenever I come back to folk music, to roots music, which I do periodically, I am refreshed and recharged. Some part of me which loves the sophisticated avant-garde music that I also grew up listening to, and that I also compose, loves to set aside the sophistication and just play.

I remember interviewing a musician involved in the Midwestern Industrial Music scene once saying to me in an interview: "Industrial is the urban-based banjo-and-fiddle music of the future." She was right, because Industrial in places like dirty downtown Chicago or rusting riverside Detroit (my birthplace) is the folk music of the post-industrial urban dweller, the music made by the folk who live in those environs. It's still folk music, even though its sounds and methods and means are all post-apocalyptic, inspired by the failure and disintegration of the post-industrial rust belt. Folk music of the rusting cities, even if it sounds like steam engines and sheet metal being pounded out on anvils, is still folk music. Folk music is the music that the local folk make.

So folk music is a welcome stream, revisited just now by being re-encountered yet again, that feeds into the new music commission I am writing. That stream of folk music, of rural music, of traditional songs sung by untrained and not-overly-sophisticated folk, is appropriate for my suite of songs about living and growing up gay in the Midwestern heartlands. More and more what I am realizing about this commission, as the work develops and I continue to write, is that this is roots music. It's about our rootedness in the land. It's about how the land, and the lakes, and the rivers, the prairies, the open skies, are as much as part of our character as anything other element, and more than some. The land is part of who we are, here. Even when we leave the Midwest, as many do, we take our memories of place with us, and also our memories of the values we learned in our small-town traditional homes.

Playing and singing folk music makes me feel social. And what's more social than singing in a chorus, or playing music with friends in the living room? It's good for me to be social, as I am alone too often. That's not a bad thing, I need a lot of solitude daily in order to keep my equilibrium; too much noise and fury and I get overstimulated. I need solitude and silence for writing my music. But music is also the thing I have in common with people I have nothing else in common with; music brings me together in harmony with people I might not otherwise have anything to say to. Even when there isn't a conversation, there can be music. For me, music is the sacred prayerful glue that holds it all together.

That's why I'm a musician, and not a writer: A writer is someone who responds to life by writing about it; a musician is someone who responds to life by making music. Of course a songwriter does both of these things; but most honest songwriters would tell you that music can stand without needing words, whereas words in songs need the music to be fulfilled and brought to life. So songwriters who are wordsmiths, even poets, still tend to refer to themselves as musicians rather than poets. Like myself. It's the folk way to keep a little humility to hand, even when it doesn't seem essential in the moment.

The song for the commission song cycle that I am currently writing is a sort of a folk song. I've deliberately left it a bit rough around the edges, a bit simple in terms of chords and melodies, so it's easy to sing, and keeps it life. It has a complex alternating rhythm of 6/8 divided duple alternating with 6/8 divided triple (3+3 + 2+2+2)—but that sounds more complex than the music sounds itself. When you get into the swing of the rhythm it becomes very natural, very self-sustaining. Once you get the feel of the rhythm, you don't need to count it anymore. Counting rhythms is sometimes required in more sophisticated music; in folk music, you just go with the feel.

i've got most of the lyrics for this song, now. I am coming to the end of this writing. Suddenly, after feeling like I was fighting an uphill struggle to write, after cleaning out my ears with some serious folk playing courtesy of Bruce Springsteen and friends, courtesy of the influence of Pete Seeger, I am feeling enlivened and charged. Words come easily when they had to be fought for, before. It all falls into place, with the acknowledgment that this is really a kind of folk song.

it's the angry lover kind of folk song. It's in the tradition of spurned, questioning, forlorn, angry love songs. Why can't you love me? Why won't you let love you? In old folk songs, which are often full of death and crime and the harsher realities of life, sometimes the lover is talking to a ghost, sometimes confessing to a murder. Love gone wrong. All the way from Olde England to Patsy Cline and johnny Cash.

So much for the philosophy of writing folk song lyrics. I'll put off posting the current song's lyrics here, except in small part, as, just as in the case of a good folk song, they sound better with the music than they do just by themselves. Here's a bit, though:

Can you love me enough to let me go?

Here we are in this sky full of lightning
Striking around us as we fight for our lives.
Can you still say we're nothing but comrades
When we made love all night? I know your heart.

Did you want to love me or did you just love yourself too much?
Can you ever love someone who loves you or are you too proud
To see who loves you who can always love you no matter what?
Can you make up your mind, just love me and let go, let go now?

. . .

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Process of Writing 18: Fits and Starts

Last week I was experiencing what I came to realize was post-surgery depression. I had a bad week, my emotions on a hair trigger, my fears and anxieties about the future very much with me. I was feeling a lot of physical pain inside, as well, discomfort, and unhappy tissues. I wasn't sleeping well, or comfortably, or restfully. I finally talked it over with the surgical nurse, and was reassured. Post-surgery depression is common. So are the physical sensations I've been feeling, with this kind of surgery. I still have an extended recovery to go through, but at the same time, six weeks out from surgery my outside scars are basically healed and I'm cleared for more strenuous physical activity, including bending, walking, lifting, more exertion. I'm cleared for more normal levels of physical activity, even though I still have limitations and some tender spots. Yet things are better, even if sometimes I still hurt for no apparent reason. The past couple of days, I've indeed felt some pains that were annoying and unpleasant, but i strove on anyway.

Meanwhile, I was so tied up in knots that I got almost nothing done, creatively. It was a very stale, stagnant week. I found it very unpleasant. That's an understatement.

Then, the weather improved, cooling off and drying out, so that I could open the windows at night for fresh air, and sleep more deeply in the cool night air. A couple of days ago, I started pounding away at the piano again. Patterns and changes, little lines of melody, some few words. Little fragmentary ideas towards a small piece.

When things are coming only in small fragments, what you have to do is write down the fragments, and have faith that they will all stitch themselves together later.

At some point, it's like crossing a threshold, and suddenly a pattern emerges, or comes clear, or reveals itself, or is discovered, and you know what goes where. Then it's just a matter of sorting your fragments into their proper, final places. The pattern self-organizes, or you become aware finally of the pattern that was there all along, but only on a subconscious level.

I wonder now if my way of writing music is permanently or only temporarily changed by this surgery.

There is a definite before and after. There is the way I wrote most of the music before surgery, which was sitting at my worktable, away from the piano, and hearing the sounds inside my head. Since the surgery, I'm finding that way of working very difficult. I've only been able to write a few times since the surgery, and mostly at the piano.

The first piece I completed since the surgery, some two weeks ago now, I had to completely write at the piano, and then go back and check by playing through it again. In fact, a day or so after I thought I'd finished the piece, I was playing through it one more time, and found a couple of errors that I then fixed.

I'm told there can be cognitive effects that linger on for a long time after surgery, caused in part by the trauma of the experience itself, and the exhaustion that results from the trauma, but also caused by the lingering effects of the anaesthesia drugs and pain medications. Most of those meds flush out of your system fairly soon, but tiny amounts can still linger in your system for months after. I've heard plenty of stories of people feeling mentally fogged for months after their surgery, then suddenly their minds clear. It's perhaps simply a matter of time.

Right now, I feel at times like writing the words and music for the new commission is an uphill struggle. It can be quite hard on some days, adding to the overall frustration of the new life, post-surgery. Everything is new, now, again: diet, physical limits, self-image, creative process.

I'm working on a short song today. One thing noticeably different about the creative process is that the music is coming before the words, and the lyrics are revealing themselves only as I write out the vocal parts. I'm not writing the words in advance, this time, as I have usually done up till now. The lyrics now seem to emerge from the music, Or, it's a gestalt, all happening at once. That's different. I'm also having to write all the piano parts for this piece at the piano. Also, I'm writing the piano parts first, then the choral parts and lyrics come after I have the piano part down. It's emerging, so to speak, backwards, in terms of writing process, compared to previous pieces. It's a short, angry, rhythmic piece for full chorus. It's part of the group of gathered Stories, although where it will fall in the Stories sequences of collages is as yet unclear.

Maybe my own frustration and anger, since the surgery, is leaking into this piece, but I find myself fairly passionately intent on the writing. The words come out when the melody's already down, and so far they're questions. I think it might become a song about the bad things people say and do to each other when they're in a relationship. The most memorable sentiment, so far, and the opening line, is, Can you love me enough to let me go? Some of the words I've gotten are the kinds of questions people ask each other when they're trying to work out how to love each other. I suppose this isn't just a gay problem, but a problem every person has, sooner or later.


Late at night, now, I shall not complain. I'm five or six pages into this piece, which isn't all that much music, to be honest, as this is a fast tempo piece. It's fast-moving, with a driving, insistent rhythmic pattern cycling between 6/8 divided duple and 6/8 divided triple (3 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 2). (You can also think of this as 6/8 + 3/4.) So five or six or so pages in, I'm only approaching the midpoint.

But suddenly it's getting easier to write. I knocked out those modular fragments over the past few days, mostly at the piano, and just now, the parts have started to fall into place. Like most of the individual songs within the Stories collections, it's not a long piece—but it's an intense one, driven rather than soaring. Now that I know the overall form, I can at least sketch out the scaffolding, and fill in the details as I go forward. I'll perhaps finish it sometime tomorrow.

The words are still coming after the music comes. I now have the words for the first two sections—the overall form is starting to look like A, B, A-modified, C—and the rest will follow. At least I know how many syllables per line now.

That's another interesting thing about writing these lyrics for this commission: Many of these song lyrics have uneven, variable line lengths within each stanza, although each stanza has the same overall form, with a varying number of syllables per line. I am letting the words be through-composed, even though once I have a poetic structure for a given lyric, I tend to stick to it. (A good example of this lyric style is a song completed just before the surgery, "Silences Here.")

The flexible line length makes the lyrics seem more natural. More like speech, or the sort of high-end Broadway song which seems half-recited and which propels narrative, rather than being a strictly-metered ballad-form that becomes too metric, too predictable, too sing-songy. I also prefer slant-rhymes and off-rhymes to pure end-rhymes. The rhymes sometimes fall within the line, too, rather than at the end.

And so we go on. Progress is being made, even if I still feel stuck from time to time.

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Clouds from Many Angles

I take fast walks around the block now to gradually increase my exercise, adding more time or speed or distance gradually. The goal being to start burning more calories then I take in. This is all part of the recovery after surgery, and the work to restore and improve health. I took a fast walk at noon, with storm clouds building to the west, and rumbles of rolling thunder off in the distance. It began to lightly rain just as I returned to my own front walk and unlocked my door.

Yesterday the sky was filled with dramatic cloudscapes. I grabbed the camera and went for a drive out into the farmfields. I got several good photographs of dramatic forms hovering over the tall green tassled corn, sometimes gaps of blue sky appearing through a tunnel of grey and white and steel blue grey. There were drops of rain on the windshield as I drove, from time to time, but it wasn't a heavy rain. Other moments the sky was layered greys and steels, darkly ominous anvils above and darker featureless clouds below, pregnant with rain. I wandered through the afternoon with the camera, stopping at times to frame an image. I drove back into town by back farm roads that no one but locals ever drive on, and stopped at the giant hardware and farm supply store. I stood in the parking lot making more photographs, then walked around the store for more exercise.

funnel of sky
past rolling pins and flights:
flash of heaven

Walking around the block one more time a half-hour before midnight, to walk off some energy. Feeling restless all evening, legs twitching with the desire to move, but feeling tired mostly. The sky half-filled with scudding clouds, thin peels covering the full moon then vaporizing. The moon blazing with silver radiance, light flooding the clouds that scud past it. On the eastern horizon, above the houses and trees, stacked thunderstorm clouds move off further east, their tops illuminated pale silver-blue by the full moon’s light. As I walk, they strobe and flicker with silent lightning from within. Layers and shapes revealed in flash what the moon's light made seem featureless.

midnight thunderheads
to the east lit by full moon:
lightning flash within

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Friday, August 12, 2011


Cooking is alchemy.
Ingredients are combined,
heated in a crucible,
and are transformed
into something else.

Thus we get pancakes.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Digitizing Vinyl

The past few days, I finally got started on a long-intended project: recording some of my old vinyl LP records into digital audio files on one of my computers. I connected a turntable up to my previous laptop (retired when I got the new one, but still useful for this), wiped a lot of data off the old drive to make room, and started recording. I've transcribed about a half dozen favorite old LPs that I have not listened to for at least ten years, and haven't really had the physical means to listen to for half that time. The past few years when I've been on the road a lot, carrying heavy stereo equipment has been abandoned in favor of portable gear like an iPod, a laptop computer, a case of CDs, and a set of computer speakers.

When I closed down my parents' home after they died, I kept my father's old stereo equipment, which at one point in time had been very high-end. My father and my uncle were both audiophiles. They both were willing to invest a lot of time and money into their sound equipment. For example, a Nakamichi 700 cassette tape deck; a Phase Linear 4000 receiver; really good AR speakers, etc. I grew up around high-end audio gear, and also reading my father's monthly audiophile magazines, like High Fidelity. I learned a great deal about recording and reproduction technology before I was in college; later in life, I've spent a lot of time in the recording studio, both as an engineer and as a recording artist. In high school, I got involved with the audio-visual department. I made videos with the other students, and recorded tapes for radio. I was part of the team that read the daily announcements on the school's PA system, a daily five-minute "radio" broadcast of sorts. Not long after I graduated from high school and started college, I got my FCC Radiooperator's License, which I still have, and got involved with programming and hosting community radio. I viewed radio as another means of performance, and with a collaborator or two made several experimental radiopieces that ranged from very avant-grade live performances to mixups of LPs and cassettes and reel to reel tapes that were composed for radio. I have most of that material on cassette, recorded live off the broadcast feed. And I have a high-end cassette player also hooked up to the studio computer, and am digitizing those cassettes, as well.

One of these radiopieces was Bottle Music, made with my regular music partner Stuart Hinds. (Follow the link for a couple of excerpts to listen to.)

Another was a piece I made entirely in the radio station production rooms, and in the University of Michigan's Electronic Music Studio, a stone flute. This piece consisted of poetic texts with soundscape, inspired in part by my reading of Jerome Rothenberg's seminal anthologies of what came to be called ethnopoetics, Shaking the Pumpkin and These anthologies for the first time ever treated the oral poetries and songs of indigenous peoples from many cultures as legitimate poetic traditions, equal artistically and literarily to our own Euro-American fine art literature. Rothenberg has continued this interest over the years, and remains one of our most important editors of large poetry anthologies.

Here is a stone flute in its entirety (about half an hour long), if you care to listen:

a stone flute    

Stuart Hinds, reader; AD, soundscapes, processing, production

Some of the vinyl LPs I am digitizing first are ones I want to listen to again, after not having heard them for many years. Others are more abstract music, and avant-garde music, that likewise I hadn't heard for awhile, but also were sources I used as elements for some of those radiopieces. It's been fun to listen to them, again, as I record them into the old laptop. It brings back memories of the live on-air mixing we sometimes had to do in complex ways, in order to combine sources into our live-broadcast radiopieces.

A lot of my favorite LPs have never been re-released on CD. This is true of much of the avant-garde music I acquired over the years on LP. But it's also true of some classical performances (although these are more likely to be reissued than are other genres), some jazz, some folk music, and a lot of rare recordings of ethnic music. Smithsonian/Folkways has reissued on CD a number of the old Nonesuch Explorer series of recordings of folk music from around the world—recordings I treasured all through college and grad school—but not all of them. Some are only reissued in excerpts, some not at all.

So digitizing a lot of my rare and unusual vinyl is a project that will be ongoing for some time. I will be digging into it all winter, as I will be sorting and organizing other materials, for a proposed major garage sale next spring. After I've digitized many of these old LPs, I will be letting go of the actual physical LP; there are antiquarian collectors and enthusiasts who no doubt will be interested in some of these.

But in digitizing some of those favorite LPs over the past few days I realized as well that I do want to keep some of them. The most important to me; the most rare and unusual. This will be a small minority of the overall collection, maybe only one or two racks. But these few LPs remain valuable to me, personally, as works of music, of unusual sounds, of rare recordings. Once digitized, I might not listen to the LP directly any more, but the liner notes, the included booklets, the multi-media materials that some artists explored in the 70s and 80s: those will be worth keeping, to consult for notes, and to continue to use for future inspiration.

(Further examples of my own original music can be listened to via the Music page of my website.)

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Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Tissue of Experience

The poem has to be saturated with impulse and that means getting down to the very tissue of experience. How can this element be absent from poetry without thinning out the poem? That is certainly one of the problems when making a poem is thought to be a rational production. The dominance of reason, as in eighteenth-century poetry, diminished the power of poetry. Reason certainly has its place, but it cannot be dominant. Feeling is far more important in the making of the poem. And the language itself has to be a sensuous instrument; it cannot be a completely rational one. In rhythm and sound, for example, language has the capacity to transcend reason; it’s all like erotic play.
—Stanley Kunitz, poet

How indeed can experience and feeling be absent from poetry without thinning out the poem? But that's exactly what we're told to do, these days, in this late-stage postmodern mannerist period in PoetryWorld. Anyone who objects to this trend, with the exception of elder statesman such as Kunitz, gets laughed out of the tangled labyrinths of academic poetry and criticism. Sincerity and meaning are forbidden as unfashionable. The current fashion is precisely what Kunitz above says does not work. And don't forget the required dash of irony.

I enjoy Kunitz' final note about transcending reason and erotic play: that's the real poetry. When poetry stays all in the mind, when it's about nothing but reason, when there's no eros in it, it fails. Poems written only from the head ultimately fail.

Poetry proceeds from the totality of man, sense, imagination, intellect, love, desire, instinct, blood and spirit together.
—Jacques Maritain, philosopher

The French philosopher and writer agrees. Bloodless poetry, overly rational poetry, is incomplete. A poem that hasn't been bled on, at least a little, is not a whole experience. How can we expect poets to be able to change the world in any way when we also expect them to be passive, intellectual, and bloodless? There is no equation that adds up.

It is quite evident that a barrier must be cleared in order to escape the psychologists and enter into a realm which is not "auto-observant," where we ourselves no longer divide ourselves into observers and observed. Then the dreamer is completely dissolved (fondu) in his reverie. His reverie is his silent life. It is that silent peace which the poet wants to convey to us.
—Gaston Bachelard, philosopher, The Poetics of Reverie

Another French philosopher and writer. The Poetics of Reverie was a book I first read decades ago, when I barely had enough life-experience to understand it. But Bachelard was discussing the connection between dreaming, the Dreamtime, and creativity, which I already knew was there. He was articulating something I already knew to be true. So I pursued reading the book, even though it had little clarity for me till some years later. that silent peace is something I have always known, often wordless, always immersive, the very essence of what Kunitz calls the tissue of experience. That silence upon which all words are founded, which they all arise from and all fall back into, that silence is the very fabric of existence.

An artist says, "I started being an artist when I was five years old." Well, so what? So did everybody. At that age, everyone's an artist. What makes you an artist is that you keep making art when everyone else stops being an artist. You keep going, while they don't.
—Vic Muniz, artist, in an interview

I did stop making art, for awhile, earlier in life. I didn't stop being creative, as I was still writing and making music, but i did stop making visual art. Then I started again. Photography is and always has been the core of that. I started making mature, decent photographs, when I traveled overseas, specifically in Indonesia. Each time I travel, still, I get better as a photographer. Photography and Photoshop was and still is the artistic tool, my palette knife as it were, that got me going, that liberated me technically, that allowed me to make the images I was seeing in my head but didn't have the manual skills to draw or paint.

There's no separation anymore. On the world's most difficult day, I can still make something, eventually. I might fight against it all day long, exhausted and spent by other things, and finally at the end of the day, with the last ounce of strength, then it's done. Tonight the moon was riding above white cumulus clouds; now it's hovering, half-size, above the backyard pines. How do you fight the tendency for art to crystallize and turn solid, and loose its fluid life?

Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does.
—Allen Ginsberg, poet

Ignore the party line. I don't think poetry is only self-expression, and neither did Ginsberg. But he did think it could be used to express parts of the self the tribe would perhaps rather we didn't express. Poetry is transgressive, not tame. Poetry that is tamed, as Kunitz says, is reasonable, rational, powerless. Ginsberg at his best was all about re-empowering poetry: not the poet, but Poetry. The rational poets would criticize Ginsberg and his ilk as being too self-indulgent, too ecstatic, too unpredictable, too vulgar—by which they meant that he was not to be tamed, and he did not toe the party line. There are several party lines these days in Poetryworld, but most of them are inherently tame, and aren't going to break free of anything, or into anything.

The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect, between life and death. When literature becomes too intellectual—when it begins to ignore the passions, the emotions—it becomes sterile, silly, and actually without substance.
—Isaac Bashevis Singer, novelist and storyteller

This is Singer agreeing with Kunitz, though it's likely they never heard these sentiments directly from each other. Great minds think alike, come to the same conclusions, and say some similar things. Singer acknowledges the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian, the left and right sides of the brain (mind, really, but let's use the conceptual cliché for the moment nonetheless), and expresses that tension as a conflict. But like Kunitz, Singer also implies that it's in the union of emotion and intellect, of passion and craft, that real art comes into being. So much contemporary poetry lacks substance precisely to the extent that it stays in the intellect and ignores the passions, that it is not poetry of the soma, of the whole body. Other poetries, unfettered and cloven-hoofed, march across the dreamscape and send shivers up the playground. Those are the poetries I feel aligned to, allied with, attuned to. Images and sounds and movements that rise irrationally from those parts of the self neither intellectual nor rational.

The imagination is not an escape, but a return to the richness of our true selves; a return to reality.
—George Mackay Brown, poet

Architecture unfetters us as well. A beautiful building breathes with light and air, it brings us into the space it defines as a living thing. The deliberate geometry of a pure space opens the heart as well as the mind. Years ago, when I was studying modern dance, we went out as a class from the mirrored classroom to the open courtyard of a modern building on campus, and danced there. Passersby stared, most not stopping. There was no music, other than the sounds of hands and feet slapping the concrete of floor and walls, the wind, the distant traffic sounds. But I was filled with sound, just filled with it. As we continued, for several silent connected minutes, a few walkers did stop to watch and become part of the landscape. And then we were done, the late afternoon sun was warm, and we went back, aglow with the pleasure of the dance. It was a moment when we lived the saying "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture;" having done the latter, I feel just fine when doing the former.

So, the tissue of experience made into art, poetry, music, dance, is all of these. It is one seamless fabric, not a series of separate, discrete, rational little envelopes. We are all of a piece, all one fabric, one force.

Oh God, save me from being profound! Save me from those who are carefully literary!
—James Broughton, poet, filmmaker, all around wizard

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Friday, August 05, 2011

Ignore Art HIstory and Just Make Art

(Hat tip to Robert Archambeau for finding some source materials here.)

I have two artist friends, one of whom just finished art school a couple of years ago, and one who was so traumatized by her post-art school career some decades ago that she effectively stopped making art until her recent artistic renaissance. Both of these are incredibly talented artists; both of them have made pieces of art unlike what you've seen before. Both of them have come under attack, in art school and later in gallery showings, for being out of step with their times and the artistic fashions. Both of them make sincere, unironic art, art that has meaning and beauty, art that speaks to the audience (if not to the critic), and has spiritual content. (Not overt religious symbolism, which I know is what you first thought of when I said "spiritual content," rather archetypal, deeply psycho-spiritual imagery.)

In an interview with poetry editor Micah Robbins, Daniel Nester makes a point or two that I find brilliant:

Nester: I’d like to run it up the pole here for you and see what you think, and I am sure I am wrong, because I usually am and I’m, like old now—is that we have reached a period of late style, where the already bankrupt aesthetic battles of yore—lyric versus narrative, Ron Silliman’s Post-Avant versus School of Quietude, subjective versus written-for-the-ages—have all been decided on. We’re all to be lyric, subjective, post-avant poets now, and that’s that. Baudelaire used the term “Rococo Romanticism,” and I think American Poetry has entered its Big Hair Phase.

Robbins: I find this both depressing and hilarious! And I don’t disagree with your assessment. I’m imagining Charles Bernstein, Kenny Goldsmith, Christian Bök, and Ron Silliman in leopard print spandex and frilly boas dancing around to “Rock You Like A Hurricane”! Ahhhhh. No! Someone make them stop!

OK. So what do we do about it?

I can’t pretend to have a simple answer, but I can say that I don’t think US poetry ever enters any stage without the calculated and concerted efforts of various individuals with very specific interests in mind. The 21st century scene seems to be dictated from above by a rather small group of poets with institutional (i.e., financial) connections that are constantly protected by a weirdly bureaucratic fiat (i.e., MFA dogma). The result is that contemporary US poetry has become, perhaps more than ever, part of the ideological state apparatus. It’s really no surprise that the gross capitulation to those approaches that you identify as having been ‘decided on’ has quite literally sucked the vitality out of contemporary poetry. It has also contributed to a proliferation of journals that fall neatly in line with the status quo. And this—the disturbing obedience of editors to what’s been ‘decided on’—is not only bland, but it’s frightening in its conservatism.

On one level I think the phrase "American Poetry has entered its Big Hair Phase" is one of the funniest assessments of PoetryWorld that I've encountered in a long time. Also one of the most accurate. One a more serious level, Nester's description serves as a scathing attack on the current state of affairs; and Robbins' reply explains why some poets have become disenchanted with the MFA writing programs that have proliferated all across the land (even as they participate).

I've been writing for over a year now on how mannerist art has become, while noting also that some of the same problems exist in contemporary music. This has been occupying my thinking about postmodernism and the arts for some time now.

That it's been "decided on" by the artistic mandarins that we are all supposed to be lyric, subjective, ironic, post-avant-garde poets and/or artists now makes me think of my two artist friends. That they were rejected by the artistic taste-makers and establishment mandarins seems to me exactly parallel to the state of affairs described by Nester and Robbins. Both of them ran afoul of critiques by other artists—I repeat, because this is important, critiques by other artists—precisely because their artworks were epic rather than lyric, archetypal rather than subjective, sincere rather than ironic, and influenced by art-historical iconography without being shallowly postmodern about their sources. My younger friend constantly felt attacked during critique sessions while in art school, because he was making art unlike anyone else, and he wasn't afraid of expressing darker emotions. My older friend, after her art school experience two decades ago, while she was starting to make a career of her art after art school, ran afoul of very similar critiques, and rejection after rejection from shows and galleries.

I've been through that rejection, too. For myself, I am quite aware that the art I make, and the music, and poetry, is the opposite of lyric, ironic, post-avant. It can be subjective art, but mostly in the sense that I approach the universal through the personal. My goal as an artist is not the "self-expression" of ego-display or the cult of celebrity, my goal is transcendence, getting past my "little self" to find the archetypal Self, which is mythic, shamanic, universal. A lot of my art actively scares people, or causes approach/avoidance behaviors, not because the art is shocking (intentionally or otherwise) or depicts brutality, but because it strips away shiny self-reflective filters of denial to deal with the big issues of life and death.

Over the past few years, as I've dealt with a chronic illness, had a few near-death experiences, and undergone life-changing surgery, my art has become even more focused on the big issues of life and death. In other words, as my life has been pared down to its essentials, its core questions, stripping away all unnecessary artifice and detail, so too has my art. I find that I don't care anymore if my art scares people, because I just don't have time or energy to waste on worrying about what people think of me. I've faced my own mortality, and I know my time here is limited, and I know too that I still have a lot I want to get done.

The younger of my two artist friends said to me, when he was still in art school, "You might as well admit it, the art you make is shamanic." He stopped me in my tracks, then, because I had been flailing for a way to market my art that was avoiding sincere words like "shamanic" or "visionary" or "archetypal," for fear of continuing to drive away the public and the critics alike. I had been using "visionary" as the most neutral possible term—but after my young artist friend called me on it, I made a new business card that openly said "Shamanic Artwork" on one side, with this image on the reverse:

It has in fact been a very popular business card. It might not be ironic or reserved enough for the mandarins of late-stage mannerist art, but the general public seems to love it.

So, where does this leave us?

In talking with both of my artist friends, the older trying to restart a career now that she's gotten past a lot of trauma she'd gone through back then, the younger having just survived the rigors of art school, I've found myself saying to both of them: Let all that stuff go. Let go of all the judgments and theories and -isms that were thrown at you, let go of all the career expectations they wanted to prepare you for, expectations which skew the critical judgments made in school and after. Just empty you mind and make art.

Ignore your history, ignore art history, ignore the mandarins and just make art.

That's my best advice to any artist, writer, or composer. I do my best to practice what I preach. I find it liberating to encounter the blank page with no expectations or history, beginning as if for the first time every time. In Zen, they call this practice "beginner's mind," which is fluid and open and playful, as opposed to expert's mind, which has become inflexible because it thinks it already knows all the answers. The state of affairs that Nester describes, the late stage of poetry, where the ossified are in charge of teaching, to paraphrase Robbins, is very much an example of expert's mind.

In expert's mind, what poetry is has been already "decided on." There are things you do, and that is Poetry, and things you don't do, and that is not-Poetry. I've run afoul of that myself, in a telling moment when a neo-formalist poet objected to a poem of mine on essentially moral grounds. Mind you, not on literary grounds, but on ideological ones. This is another example of expert's mind in operation, but also reflects on the aspect of postmodern Mannerism that focuses on means rather than ends.

So, again, I say that the answer is very simple and plain: Just make art. No matter what, make art. Don't stop. Make art. Don't get tied up in knots by expectations. Ignore the worst baggage of history. Just make art.

Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and César Valléjo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. And there are colonised poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced.
—Adrienne Rich

Poetry is just something you have to do, all the time. It's a wide and varied artform, and like many other wide and varied artforms it can accomodate a wide range of tastes and audiences. Don't limit it. Just do it.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

What I'm Reading This Summer

First off, I've been reading a lot of pamphlets and information packets relating to medical issues. There's even an illustrated booklet describing the surgery I've had, and the next planned surgery, too, co-written by my surgeon. There's lots of forms and papers and guidesheets to various issues pre- and post-operative, and more than one pamphlet on dietary needs and restrictions. Not to mention the exciting "how to" books about the ostomy appliances. These were all real page-turners.

But if that's not exciting enough, there are other things to read, recently acquired. I'll get to some of those in a minute.

First, though, I need to remind myself that I was completely out of commission for almost a month. I didn't go anywhere for weeks, and the truck didn't even get out of the garage for about three weeks. The engine turned over just fine when I finally got around to starting it, and this week I got the front brakes fixed, which had been waiting to be done since before my first date with the scalpel. Since then, I'm still catching up with life. I've spent a little bit of money on books and CDs since I got going again. I spent a fair bit before the surgery, too, laying in DVD movies to watch and books to read while recuperating. I didn't actually get to all of those I'd picked up, usually at random and mostly used at thrift stores for very cheap, but the pile is still there to be gone through. I didn't acquire ephemera, during that pre-surgery stocking-up period, I bought things I knew I'd want to watch, with pleasure, and re-read and re-watch again later.

I was thinking about doing what "What I'm Reading Now" post anyway, earlier today. Then I ran across some online literary friends' thoughts on the same thing, which pushed me over the edge. I've had a difficult night sleeping tonight, so it's the middle of the night now, after I did sleep for awhile, with vivid dreams, and I'm waiting until the pain pill kicks in and I can get through the rest of the night's sleep with better comfort. The idea was to post very short lists of what we've enjoyed reading lately, particularly for summer reading. Some other online poet friends have joined in with their lists, so since I was going to write about what I've been reading anyway, I thought to myself, why not?

Border's, the large bookstore chain, is going out of business. I have very mixed feelings about this. When I lived in Ann Arbor, I was a regular at the original Border's Book Store, the original store before it was ever a national chain. It was a haven for lovers of books. I discovered many treasures there, and they also would order anything you wanted. They were at the time an independent bookstore, the like of which is fading into the past, now. Then they became a chain, but they were still good, and I shopped there often. Now, with their going out of business sales, I've gone down to the closest store and spent a significant amount of money, acquiring rarities that I will treasure for a long time, divided more or less equally among books, CDs, and DVDs. One thing I always liked about Border's is that they were willing to stock music concert DVDs, a particular pleasure of mine, including some rare and unusual ones I never saw anywhere else. In recent years, for example, I picked up a couple of documentaries about Glenn Gould, a German film featuring an historical John Cage concert, and much more.

I've also been having luck at the local Goodwill thrift stores, after not having been to any of them in over a month. That's enough time for stock to turn over, and new things to appear. I found some real treasures earlier this week.

So here's a short list, as recommended, consisting of summer reading: 2 non-fiction books that we have enjoyed; 2 new fiction also enjoyed; and 2 old favorites we've recently re-read. To that list I'll add 2 poetry books also recently enjoyed, as part of this summer's post-surgery reading feast.


I read a lot of non-fiction. I've usually got several books going at once, dipping in and out of them on different days, when particular topics catch my attention. Sometimes I will become absorbed by a particular book, and finish it that day, ignoring everything else. This list is a very brief and very incomplete overview of what I've been dipping into this summer, both before and after the surgery.

Allan J. Hamilton, MD: The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with surgery, the supernatural, and the healing power of hope. Most surgeons, indeed most doctors, are trained to be highly materialistic, treating the body almost as a malfunctioning machine. There has been change, however, in my lifetime, towards a more holistic, multi-factored, and empathetic practice of medicine. The return of family practice is one sign of this trend. And surgeons like Dr. Hamilton are another. He is one of those who is willing to explore alternative medicine, both as a complement to allopathic medicine and on its own terms. There are stories in his book, all based on his surgical practice, of miracles of healing, and also miracles of spirit. He knows the difference between "healing" and "curing," the latter being the removal of disease, the former being the healing of the soul regardless of whether death is evaded or not. This is wise material. I was very impressed with book, and often surprised. As a patient myself, as the son of a doctor who has been around medicine and hospitals his whole life, I cannot say it better than Dr. Hamilton says here, near the end of one chapter: One of the great secrets of medicine is that, as a physician, you have unparalleled entry into the lives of others. Every patient is an existential conduit to seeing your own struggles. Each patient brings you one step closer to seeing the truth about yourself. I read part of The Scalpel and the Soul before I went for surgery; I will continue reading it through this summer, before my next surgery, and probably again after. It helps a lot.

Scott Herring: Another Country: Queer anti-urbanism. One very important truth about living gay in the United States was crystallized for me by several arguments I got into with other, very urbanized, ghetto-living gay men, soon after the movie Brokeback Mountain came out. I found myself confronted again and again with the truth that one of the most significant rifts in queer culture was not, as often postulated, between gay men and lesbians (and trannies, etc.), but between those who assumed that if you were LGBT you must move to one of the big city gay ghettos and live urban, and those who had chosen to stay in small towns, in rural areas, and make their lives there. As a gay man who has lived in big cities with major urban gay cultures, including San Francisco, but has always enjoyed living in small rural towns outside the big cities, as i do now in Wisconsin, the publication of this book has been a validation, an affirmation, and a blessing. Scott Herring has presented us with a very well-written, readable, and also seriously academic-theoretical book that is one of the best discussions of what lesbina cartoonist Alison Bechdel (who features in a long chapter in the book) "the complicated intersection between topography and destiny." This is a book about queer regionalism. It makes the point that not everybody who is queer wants to or likes living in the big city; nor do all of us like the bar scene, or the urban anonymous cruising scenes, or any of the other big-city scenes that have become the clichés of gay life in media presentations ranging from movies, books, and popular music, which are all assumed to be the pinnacles of gay life. The metropolitan lifestyle has been almost exclusively the focus of queer scholars and queer studies, to the point where it becomes an assumption that is never questioned. But Herring questions and deconstructs such assumptions, presenting several alternatives as they have been developed by individuals and groups outside the gay cultural mainstream. The Radical Faeries are mentioned, a decentralized group of misfits of misfits within gay male culture, which I am affiliated with. So are the rural lesbian communes of Albion, CA, in Mendocino County, which I have visited and enjoyed. The history of queer publications, both rural and urban, is compared and contrasted. And a whole lot more. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is interested in alternatives to the urban gay lifestyle and subculture, who is looking for something different, or just plain likes country living. This book, one of only a few in its positional genre, is a revelation.

Victor L. Wooten: The Music Lesson: A spiritual search for growth through music. You probably know this author's name, if you know the music scene at all, as one of the greatest bass players currently living. He has his own band, he frequently plays duos with fellow bassist Steve Bailey, and he's with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones. Victor is also a genuinely nice person. His book falls into that small genre of memorable writing that you're never quite sure is either memoir or fiction, an absolutely true story or a fantasy made up of true elements. This book's closest relatives are books such as Richard Bach's Illusions: The adventures of a reluctant messiah, or Dan Millman's Way of the Peaceful Warrior. This is that kind of book. It gets at the difference between being able to play all the right notes, and being able to make Music. That's a distinction I've always made for myself, as a player and composer; I will never be the best player on the planet in terms of technique, but I can play a wide range of instruments, and when I play them I make music. Victor's book not only validates this attitude, he shows how great technical playing really can also be part of making Music—but the attitude has to come first. I have just started this book, but I already find it true and inspirational.


I don't read much mainstream literary fiction anymore; mostly it's not very good or interesting these days, despite all its pretensions. One of the worst of those pretensions is that mainstream literary fiction places itself above "genre fiction" in terms of writing quality, interest, and relevance to ordinary readers—none of which placements are defensible on the evidence—while denigrating "genre fiction" as basically pulp fiction, all the while ignoring that "realistic narrative mainstream literary fiction" is itself a genre. This attitude is promoted by the guardian gate-keepers of literary artistry, those literary critics who promote prose fiction as great art, usually with an agenda. But for the general reader, a pleasurable rather than critical ideology is more important; and on that criteria, genre fiction is at least as good in terms of writing quality as anything in the post-modernist literary mainstream, and often far more readable.

Jack Vance: The Demon Princes omnibus. Not exactly space opera, not exactly a novel of revenge, not exactly a baroque fiction, not exactly an adventure of discovery, not exactly a 19th C. bildungsroman, not exactly a 20th C. science fantasy escapade—but at the same time, all of these. Vance's style, well known in SF as inclined towards the Baroque, is in fact highly readable and very straightforward, even when it seems its most non-linear. Consisting of five novels originally published between 1964 and 1981, this five-part adventure is also a deeply moral fiction, not only in terms of its plot and its characterizations of future good and evil, but also in novelist and critic John Gardner's sense: a novel of adventure that is also a novel of ideas, with a moral compass that the reader leaves having learned from, beyond the plot itself. Vance was well-known as a great literary stylist, both within SF and in everything else he wrote. His stories were always inventive and colorful beyond the norm, truly a literature of ideas. Reading through these five novels has been great fun, and a reminder all over again that a good space opera can also be just a good story, period.

Patricia A. McKillip: The Bards of Bone Plain. Though this fantasy novel repeats some of the themes that the author is known for, notably the bardic harper on a quest for self-knowledge, which involves some very ancient magic and some very ordinary love—one of the things that attracts me to her fantasy novels, to be honest, of which I have most—in this shorter novel she takes everything to a new level. The key elements of this fantasy, around which all the action orbits, are poetry and music. These are the threads that run all through the story, that are woven into both cause and effect. The characters drive the plot, as it should be, with both good and bad choices having consequences. The culminating scene, in which many mysteries are revealed, was spine-tingling and unpredictable. Some things end conclusively, some threads move on without being tied up—very much like real life. In sum, these is indeed very realistic fiction, very true to life and experience, very natural in execution, with characters both believable and likable, with individual temperaments and quirks. This combination of modernistic realism and ancient magic is McKillip's unique trademark as an author; it's what makes her stand out as feeling very realistic a writer, even as her stories are wound with fantastic elements. If McKillip were not relegated as an author to "genre fiction," she would be a continuous best-seller along the lines of "mainstream" authors who dabble in speculative fiction without being labeled as "genre" writers.

By the way, Patricia McKillip could just as easily go onto my "re-read list," as some of her novels I have read multiple times, each time getting more out of them.

Gene Wolfe: Storeys from the Old Hotel. This collection of short stories and metafictions, experiments, dreams, and more traditional fantasy tales, underlines many critics' opinions that Wolfe is one of the greatest living stylists we have, whether or not you consider any labels for his writing. Like Ursula K. LeGuin, he is one of a handful of "fantasy" authors who has been published in The New Yorker magazine, a publication notoriously picky about what it prints. Wolfe has been called a literary giant, not only in science fiction, but in general, and this collection of stories showcases his talents very well. Contents range from single-page metafictions, including the title story, to longer fantasies, and even a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I first read Wolfe back in the 1970s, and his writing then was like nothing else SF had to offer: clearly literary in the best sense, and rich in texture and deep in resonance. I can still remember the images evoked in my mind by such early works as "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and other stories." Wolfe has continued to be on the literary leading edge, no matter what genre you try to place him in. I'm still reading this collection, savoring each piece as I go. I'm taking my time and enjoying each piece on its own, as I'd recommend any reader do, as well.

Old Favorites Re-read:

Raymond Chandler, Trouble Is My Business. The short stories and novellas featuring Chandler's great character Philip Marlowe. I re-read Chandler periodically, both the novels and the collections, enjoying them anew every time. Even though I have this paperback edition, I found a fresh copy of it at a thrift store just before surgery, in nearly-new condition, for almost nothing. So I took that as a hint, and enjoyed re-reading Chandler again.

C.J. Cherryh, omnibus edition of the Chanur saga: The Pride of Chanur, Chanur's Venture, The Kif Strike Back, Chanur's Homecoming. Four novels set in a particular future history that Cherryh has set several of her novels in, but what makes these unique and different is that humans are the aliens, newly-discovered, and barely comprehended. This is one of the most successful series in SF history for the story being told from an alien viewpoint, with a richly-detailed alien psychology and cultural context. Not only the hani, the lead viewpoint characters, but four or five other alien cultures, all interacting in trade and politics. It's also one of the most suspenseful space operas I've ever read, making you want to go back and re-read it again and again. I've re-read the entire series three times this summer, particularly right after the surgery, when I wanted something comfortable and familiar to read when my mind was still fogged with drugs, and I was tired all the time. I even took this omnibus edition along to my hospital room; I didn't read much of it there, but it was like having an old friend along for comfort's sake.


William Everson: Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a literary region. Published in 1976, this remains an important study of Pacific Coast literature, including historical writing, prose, fiction, and poetry. Everson was a poet, printer, once a monk, and a student and friend of some of the most famous names in California literature, not least among them Robinson Jeffers, who Everson championed for many years after Jeffers lost popularity with the fickle masses. Everson's thesis is that the coastal West creates its own literary style, and presents convincing arguments. It is quintessentially American writing, the end of the frontier West where it runs into the ocean, and encounters Asia. it is writing that treats nature as a living character, as a dominant feature of literature, not as a mere backdrop for human-centered dramas. Everson draws on many examples, and considers many famous West Coast writers in this study. I'm going to have to read it at least twice before I can absorb it all, but it will be worth it. Everson validates in this study what I've long believed to be true, which is also supported by many other writers of the West, from Jeffers to Gary Snyder, and many others.

Patricia Donegan: Haiku Mind: 108 poems to cultivate awareness and open your heart. A haiku-based self-help book? Why not. Actually, despite that caveat, this is a pretty good read. The author is an experienced haiku student and writer, and a long-time Buddhist meditation leader, so the credentials are in place. The book is divided into 108 chapters, each a meditation on the theme of the haiku cited at each chapter's beginning. The haiku themselves are a mix of classical and brand new, written by writers from Japan, America, and elsewhere. Some are well known classical masters (Basho, Issa), others their modern heirs. It's an interesting idea for a haiku book, and it works rather well; although, it's not really a book about poetry, but a book about life and healing and transcendence that uses poetry as its touchstone. So don't expect any poetry criticism here, but do expect some genuine wisdom.

Music: What I've Been Listening to This Summer

I also want to mention some CDs that I've been enjoying this summer. I've been on a lucky streak at the thrift stores, finding CDs both new to me, and filling in the gaps in my album collection with some old favorites that I've never owned before, but are classic albums of various kinds. I've been on a, well, not exactly nostalgia kick, but call it a historical review. Great albums from the past I've been picking up here and there to fill in gaps in my music library.

Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence and Bridge Over Troubled Water

Dave Brubeck: a special five-CD edition of all the original "Time" series albums, boxed as a set, with the CD slipcases reproducing the original liner notes and cover art. I'd already acquired the special edition of Time Out, but I'd been looking for Time Further Out for some time now (ahem), and this filled in that gap. The set also includes: Countdown: Time in Outer Space; Time Changes; Time In.

Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen: Poetry for the Beat Generation. A classic with Kerouac reading his poems accompanied by Allen's piano and jazz stylings. This is one of those great albums that anyone interested in mid-20th C. poetry and music needs to hear at least once in their lives.

Igor Stravinsky: Miniature Masterpieces. A large compilation of several short orchestral and chamber pieces, many of them only rarely recorded or performed. The "Dumbarton Oaks" chamber concerto is here, probably the best-known work on this album, but so are the two Suites for Small Orchestra. Even rarer still are the wonderful "Circus Polka" and my personal favorite among Stravinsky's rarely-performed short works for large orchestra: the "Greeting Prelude," which is his arrangement of "Happy Birthday," a very witty and wry orchestral setting of the familiar song.

Various Artists: the original musical soundtrack for 2001: a space odyssey. I wore out two copies of this on vinyl, back in the 1970s. It was my first exposure, as a budding teen proto-composer, as I'm sure it was to many other listeners, of the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, whose dramatic and abstract works figure prominently in the film. Also included of course is a full performance of Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube," which still in mind evokes those spacecraft and space stations dancing gracefully in Earth orbit. This CD gives us all the music exactly as it was used in the film; in many ways, the long passages in the film in which the only sound is music prefigure my ongoing interest in non-verbal cinema, of which 2001: a space odyssey can be seen as a precursor of the entire genre.

Antonio Vivaldi: Cello Concertos, Vol. 4 as performed by cellist Ofra Harnoy. I've been listening to a lot of classical music again this year, and Vivaldi and Telemann have both been prominent in my listening. This CD was a revelation, giving me the chance to experience several beautiful concerti I hadn't really heard before. My favorite here is the Concerto in E-Flat, RV 408, which contains a middle-movement adagio of sublime beauty. It's a lovely cantabile, full of deep ardor and high emotion, which I find both soothing and mournful to listen to.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

To W.S. Merwin

I was in the bookstore Borders
for their going out of business sale
and I wandered from Music to Poetry
as I always do there was your recent
book of poems Present Company
in which you address many ordinary things
in simple plain language that works through
complex thoughts and lines of thought

I picked up and put down your book
several times wandering back to it
going over to read Borges or Whitman
then coming back picking yours up
and paging through it at random
till I decided to buy it anyway
and brought it home to read

Now I am walking out in the early night
around the block a thin crescent moon
is about to set in the summer heat
which has waved aurorae and mirage
around the street lanterns all night and day
now I am walking fast enough to exercise
my heart legs and pained other self
gaining ground going uphill at last
to return to my own yard with its last lilies
now I am looking again at the last inch
of moon parsed behind oak and spruce
silhouettes against and emerging North Star

i think about your poems some more
as I walk especially the ones on larger things
I like poems that aren't afraid of eternity
and I also like the poems about small things
because you open them up to questions
very large questions asking those things
that poets need to ask and so rarely do
questions that spin out from the small into
the long and large without ever losing shape

I come home after my walk sweaty just a little
and look through your book at random again
I think all poets should read these poems
their questions their simple language that
embodies complex perceptions
this is one for the keeping of secrets
and the revealing of truths whether known
or not yet known

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Haiku is not a lyric poetry form

A haiku is not a lyric poem, although many Western poets, who often misunderstand the nature of haiku, persist on treating it that way. That is an ongoing confusion, I believe.

You encounter these misconceptions and misunderstandings almost any time you read an essay by a Western writer, poet or non-poet, about haiku. Almost equally often, you run into it in essays by non-poets trying to understand and explain poetry. Few really understand. I do not in any way advocate "poetry for poets," or any other kind of cliquish insularity about poetry—although I do find it humorous when contemporary poets who write fairly obscure and difficult poetry complain about the lack of audience for their poems. Such poets often seem blind to how they've become their own worst enemies, when it comes to having any audience outside other poets.

Most writers naturally bring to their interpretations their own cultural biases, having not traveled or studied foreign cultures enough to have expanded their perspective on life or art. Which of course is a general issue of translation, not only a problem with Westerners and haiku. A lot of superficial translation only brings over the words, without recreating the context. Most Western poets, when they explore or adapt poetic forms and styles from other cultures, end up using them as just new forms for lyric poetry. Lyric poetry has a compelling grip on the Western soul, Western history, and Western poetics. It isn't really surprising that Western poets mistakenly view so much poetry from other cultures, such as haiku, as lyric poetry, because the lyric is so embedded in the Western literary tradition mindset that it goes unremarked and unquestioned, it is assumed to be the natural state of affairs. I've tried to point this out to certain poets before, and found myself in a situation parallel to telling a fish that in fact it's breathing water.

One of the very great benefits of immersive travel, of living in other cultures, of studying other languages and cultures, is that it puts your tribal assumptions about the nature of life and art into context as one mindset among many; you come to realize that every piece of wisdom you were raised to believe was universal and natural is in fact local and arbitrary.

So, it's natural that most Western writers, encountering haiku, would adapt the form to their own lyrical poetry needs in their native language. But this often misses the original spirit of haiku, while copying the form's model and scope. Lots of Western haiku are merely 17 syllable poems. Many of these are technically senryu rather than strictly haiku. A senryu is a poem in haiku style that is about human nature, is often humorous, and often topical; in other words, the subject matter and tone of the poem are what make it a senryu rather than a classical haiku. Again, I see most Western poets don't make this distinction, or even know it's there to be made.

A haiku can have great evocative emotional and/or spiritual power, because it evokes some powerful completion in the reader. The nature of the classical haiku aesthetic is that the haiku is intended to be open-ended, allowing the reader to "complete" the poem out of his or her own experience. The reader brings their own life to the poem, thus completing it in ways unique to that person. The poem itself maintains a certain detachment from outcomes, a certain openness and ambiguity, that allows for multiple interpretations, even in such a short poetic form.

There is rarely ever one specific meaning to a great haiku, as though it were a puzzle to be solved—a tendency among Western writers and readers is to treat literary criticism as analytical puzzle-solving, which can often overwhelm savoring a poem in simple appreciation—or as though it had a definitive, singular interpretation. This is one of the key points of misunderstanding haiku: this openendedness in interpretation, this diffuse sense of meaning, which the reader must complete for themselves.

Haiku often seem mysterious and exotic to inexperienced Western poets precisely because the Western mental habit is to look for definite, tangible meaning, imagery, and interpretation. We always look for the story, and we tend to impose a narrative where there isn't any, simply because we're used to thinking that way. We even tend to impose narrative onto non-linear poetry because the dominant literary form in our culture has become the narrative prose fiction form, so we make a habit of thinking in terms of linear narrative.

We are a culture dominated by left-brain Apollonian consciousness; we are a culture where we are taught in school that to understand a poem means to analyze it, unpack its meaning, paraphrase it, bring the poet's biography to the interpretation, and so forth. To find out what the poem means. (This way of teaching poetry during school often puts a lot of readers off poetry from an early age.) We are trained to unpack a poem's meaning, to believe that there must be a meaning in there, somewhere, even if it's hidden. One of the reasons there has been a rebellion against overt meaning in contemporary literary circles is that in part it's an unconscious reaction against the way we've all been taught poetry (or literature in general) in school, to analyze it for meaning. Regardless of reaction or rebellion, the habit of thinking, the mindset, remains in place for most Western writers; so that when they encounter a form like haiku, which has become a popular international form for writing poetry, they still to try to unpack and analyze meaning.

Lyric poetry always had a meaning, a story, or a message, even if it was a simple "I love you" from poet to beloved. Western lyric poetry began, historically, as Medieval love poetry. Its roots lie in the Provençal troubadour and trouvére poetries, and similar upwellings of secular poetry begun throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages. This was not the first invention of lyric poetry, of course, since the ancient Greeks and Romans had also practiced such styles; but it was the origin of the modern ascendancy of the lyric, after it had been disused for some time.

Most of this doesn't actually matter to the classical haiku poet. It's not that the haiku poet avoids including moments from his or her life—in fact, that's part of the aesthetic, the keen observation of nature, of daily life, of human response to nature. But the personal, the humanistic, is often de-emphasized. Haiku is not to be misunderstood as a form of nature poetry, though, because in the same way that the reader must complete the poem out of their own experience, human consciousness is the unavoidable lens through which we encounter nature. And humans are an integral part of nature—the mind/body split, the division into a human vs. nature dichotomy is, again, a Western attitude that is not native to the haiku aesthetic—humans are the conscious part of the natural world, the part that contemplates and reflects upon itself.

The closest we have come in Western philosophy to this viewpoint is Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the noosphere, and later on the Gaia hypothesis, in which human consciousness is seen as the planet's neo-cortex, the part of the overall gaian system that has awakened to self-awareness and self-knowledge. But this is still a minority viewpoint in Western culture, even considered heretical in some quarters.

For a lyrical love poem, although haiku of love and longing have always been written even in Japanese (albeit most often in the modern period, a period influenced by Western culture), a more appropriate form is the tanka. The tanka has a much longer history of being an actual lyrical poetic form, so using tanka to write love poems or lyrical poems in English is entirely appropriate.

Another important aspect of the haiku aesthetic that is counterintuitive to many Western writers is the removal of the personal self from the poem. The essence of lyrical poetry is the persona, whether or not it's the poet's own persona, the "I" and "you" of the poem. A lyrical poem usually exists within a specific psychological space—not a limited or unvaried one, but a specific one nonetheless—which is that of persona meeting world, persona meeting other persona, persona engaged with inner self. In other words, there is always the "I" present, even when fictionalized. There is always the personality-ego present, the mental mind, the self-aware consciousness of personhood. There is always an assumption in lyrical poetry that a persona is present, is part of the writing, part of the poem.

The authentic haiku aesthetic carries the self-aware "I" much more lightly. Persona is frankly irrelevant. The strong Zen Buddhist influence on the origin of haiku is at the root of this aspect of the aesthetic: transcendence of the "I" and a kind of egolessness in observing the world are core elements of the genuine haiku aesthetic. It's not even about the poet's response to the natural world, via observation and engagement, so much as it is about the poet becoming the means by which the natural speaks directly, via image and action, to the reader, even as the reader completes the poem out of his or her own experience and sensibility.

Senryu, by contrast, are heavily laden with the persona, both the poet's persona when the poem makes ironic and humorous commentary on human foibles and human nature—which, let's face it, is a form of judgmentalism, and judgmentalism is exactly what Zen works to transcend—and also the personae in the poems themselves, when character interacts with character under the puppet-mastery of the writer's control. Lots of writers are very conscious about directing their characters and plot. Haiku by contrast is not invested in the writer being in control of things, but rather works to let go of all that.

This is not to say that there is no art and craft to haiku. It is, after all, a poetic form, with a normative aesthetic. Human consciousness is used whenever poetic craft is employed. We shape the world with our words, to the best of our ability. That's what writers do. We shape as much as respond. Haiku aesthetic is as much a sensibility as is lyrical poetry. And like lyrical poetry, lesser haiku fail in part because you can see the scaffolding. At their best, all poems dissolve into direct internally-recreated experience within the reader: the scaffolding of craft and form dissolve, the words become what they signify, the magic of poetry is that it becomes very real.

This is where poetry and music do meet—often misunderstood, again, by those who see only the surface aspects of either art—this point where the elements of craft and sound dissolve into direct experience. This is how we are deeply moved by all great art, this direct connection. Facile comparisons are often made about the similarities between poetry and music, but most of these comparisons go only skin-deep, focusing on the elements not on the totality. And that's really the problem: the lack of deep awareness that many even poets lack about their own art. One can tolerate ignorance only when it's innocent.

What craft and art there is to writing haiku is in the service of making the poem a direct experience, an immediate perception, an "aha!" moment—often called by commentators the "haiku moment"—the synergistic experience that is a poem coming to life. Craft serves the haiku moment. It's essential to the poem, but it's in the service of what the poems leads to.

And that's what I'm really trying to get at here: my impatience with skin-deep facile criticism. My impatience keeps getting retriggered by encounters with articles and books that continuously recycle the same mistaken assumptions about haiku in particular, and poetry in general. In this instance, I am prompted by yet another round of misunderstandings about haiku. I might get back to that later.

So now we've gone a long way towards defining what haiku is not. I've defined before what haiku is, as have many others, many better haiku writers than myself. My main point here has been to remark upon the most common error Westerners make when encountering haiku, which is to collapse the new form back into the familiar tropes of lyric poetry. Not everything fits under that tent, even though the lyric style has come to dominate poetry at this time. The solution is to study haiku more in its native context, and absorb the classical haiku aesthetic for what it can offer us, as an alternative to the dominant tropes of contemporary Western poetry. To the extent that one can absorb something more authentic about haiku, one may find one's entire poetry-writing endeavour refreshed and reinvigorated.

crescent of light
brushes spruce out my window:
summer moonset

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