Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bowls of Zen

this poem's for you, broadcast to the aether, arriving where it must, or when

author-pilgrim of the outer reaches
where is your service? my friendship
is not at your convenience, for you to
demand then reject at your whim,
then demand again. your pretense
of being wronged is in your own
self-interest: I never changed.

I remained consistent, granite to your cloud.
you come and go, just the weather,
now I give you no more solace.
what grace I have's my own.
no regrets, and this is not goodbye:
I comprehend at last you were sincere
if fleeting. I know nothing more ephemeral.
what I won't do for you, now,

is everything. I won't pick up your sticks.
when your house crumbles away, learn to
excavate yourself unaided. my shovel is no more
on loan to you. rewrite your own revision.
now peace of mind's no longer brainwashed
equivalencies, assumed objectivities and tasks.
your task just now is to find a place to stand.
on your own battered pattern. make it into

a lesson I never taught you. I'm done.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Process of Writing 23: Feeling of Accomplishment

That's what I'm feeling tonight: accomplishment. I just finished watching the televised presentation of Richard Strauss' opera about opera, about words and music, and the love of them both, titled Capriccio. This production featured Renée Fleming, and was superb. I'm a big fan of the waltzes from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, which are the waltzes I return to when I want to listen to an uplifting waltz. For me, Strauss was the culmination of the Austrian genre of the form. Capriccio is delightful, a modern meditation on art that is presented as a salon, itself a meditation. It doesn't have a Big Ending. Like real life, it just ends. It even ends on the questionL how can you choose between words and music? which is the greater art? The unstated implication is that it's the fusion of words-and-music which is the greater art: something I have argued for a long time. I found the "message" of this opera to be not only congenial, but close to home, near to my own thinking.

Since, after all, I now find myself writing songs. Music for the new commission that is words-and-music. I am writing both, and they do combine together. Am I poet? Am I composer? I am both, and like the character in the opera in the end I do not have to choose between them, but can love both.

That's the other sense of accomplishment I feel at the moment: I completed three more songs for the commission this week. I had only planned to write two this past week, but then I was surprised. As sometimes happens to me, a piece was gifted to me—I have no better way to state it—and was written down, more or less fully formed, in a few hours. It happened this way: I had finished one song, and was in the middle of forming and writing the second one. I went down to the farmer's market Saturday morning, to buy the vegetables that I like to get there, fresh each week. The apples are starting to come in, too, and I bought a couple of fresh crisp apples, that I have also been enjoying. On the drive back home from the market, some words starting coming into my head, followed by some musical phrases; next thing I knew, I had a complete piece in mind, and all I had to do when I got home was write it all down. Which took about three hours. And when I had accomplished that work, I took a break for awhile, then went to back to writing the other piece I'd been working on. I finished that the next day, and turned them in that night.

One of two pieces I had been working on is "Alone," which is part of the commission's primary set of pieces, that are a universal story about living in the Heartlands, about leaving home, about life alone, and about the return to home. This is one of two interwoven narratives for the commission. The other narrative thread consists of several individual pieces, which are individual Stories, many of which were directly inspired by the stories told me by the men of the Chorus. This has been what the commission has been about, of course: telling their stories of what it is like to live and grow up gay in the Midwest, in the Heartlands, the heart of the prairie and Great Lakes states. The commission has all along been designed to be modular, so that for any given performance any set of pieces can be used: all of them, or just a few of them, or perhaps just the pieces from one of the two interwoven narratives.

"Alone" is a song of loneliness and isolation. Of feeling like you're the only "different" one in your town, or your school. Of being different, and knowing you are, and knowing no one like yourself. I wrote it as a solo for baritone and piano. The style is mostly tonal, mostly intended to be simple, pretty, and song-like.

The second piece is one of the Stories pieces. I had the idea for this particular piece some time ago, when I was reviving once again my interest in folk music. I wanted to write a very simple folk song, reminiscent of but not directly quoting the great tradition of the Child Ballads. Back in my music school days, I had done extensive research on the Child Ballads, including going back and reading the original multi-volume publication of lyric variants; these ballads are at the root of a lot of traditional folk song in the US, especially in Appalachia. They are ancient English and Scots ballads, with many variations and a long history.

I set out some weeks ago to write something new in that ancient style. A variant, if you will, on the traditional ballad about finding one's lover, about being in love, about life and death. There are whole genres in the tradition of ballads about lost lovers, about those who have died, and whose ghosts the surviving lover encounters in dream, or in the night. For example, "She Moved Through the Fair," or "The Unquiet Grave." I wrote a basic sketch of the lyrics a few weeks ago, but I struggled through several rewrites to get the tone and rhythm and rhymes just so. You want to evoke the formal constraints of the ballad tradition, and still write something new.

What's unique about this new ballad, which for the commission I titled "Folk Song," is that the two lovers are both young men. I also invoked the ballad form of the calendar-poem, with the verses counting through the four seasons. If you know the Child Ballads, there are a lot of music-historical details I worked into this new "Folk Song" that evoke the tradition, that are homages or reflections of the ancient ballads. Having spent some scholarly time on the Child Ballads, I put in a couple melodic quotes and lyrical evocations that only genuine folkies are likely to catch; it will be fun to see who catches them and lets me know, if any.

Here are the first two verses, and the refrain (chorus) for "Folk Song," just to give a sense of it:

When trees burn gold in autumn
and the river runs cold and blue,
I first met my own true love
under orchard trees rough-hewn.

I gave my love an apple
and he gave one to me,
we kissed beneath the golden maple
and made our vows to be.

    To be true to each other,
    to live forever, clinging,
    like the vine that loves the tree,
    like the river flows to the sea.

I want to point out that the refrain breaks the strict ballad form, both in meter and in rhyme-scheme. I deliberately made the refrain more "modern" in sound, in a folk-music style, but a different one than the Child Ballads. Playing this kind of musical games is great fun for the composer. If no one else catches on, that's okay. It's one way you keep yourself interested, and amused, when writing lyrics and music for this kind of piece.

The unexpected piece, the one that came to me on the drive home from the market, is the most modern-sounding piece in the entire suite of pieces for the commission. The piece is for tenor solo with chorus and piano; all three elements interweave, one element leading at times, at other times following the others. The pianistic style is modern, polychordal, using overlaid whole tone scales at times—more or less reminiscent of the style of some of my more complex and evocative solo piano pieces. By contrast, the solo and choral vocal parts are very simple, almost chant-like, occasionally monochromatic, holding down one note while the piano goes off into its own musical galaxy.

The piece is called "Night," and falls into the category of the pieces I am calling Illuminations. It's a piece about living in the Heartland, evoking common experience. It's not specifically a piece about living as gay in the Heartland; but the purpose of the Illumination pieces are to give context, provide background. They speak most directly about living here in the Upper Midwest, about the sky, the lakes, the forests, the land itself.

The words for "Night" came to me very quickly. Once I had them down, I spent a few hours writing out the music, and then it was all done. Here are the lyrics for "Night":

walking the dirt road
at the edge of the field
moonless night full of stars
millions of stars so bright
I can see the dirt
I can see my boots
road rising into the sky
celestrail road

edge of the lake
mirror still waters
night full of stars
silver light filling the sky
and reflecting in the lake
stars above, stars at my feet
mist rising near the shore
celestial lake

i was, as I said, surprised to get this song, but I'm very pleased with it. It's going to challenge a few singers in the Chorus, mostly because of its musical style. But in fact, the choral part is very easy, and all the reference notes needed to find your pitch are in the piano part, mixed in clearly against the backdrop of the more modern gestures and chords.

So now I'm a songwriter. I've been writing all these songs. This week I wrote the most music I've ever written in a week. I've been in the flow, on a roll. Even though I am now approaching the commission's deadline for completion, if I continue to have songwriting ideas, I'm going to keep writing them down. I've never thought of myself as a songwriter before, but the process of working on this commission has really cemented that label in place for myself. Who know? Maybe I'll keep writing songs. Certainly if any song lyrics come forward, I'll set them to music, sooner or later. (I won't be moving to Nashville, though.)

This is a whole new world that writing this commission has opened up for me. A whole new level of writing words-and-music. I will at some point sit down and talk about my touchstones: those other songwriters who have influenced my process, both for this commission and in general, that have inspired me and given me direction during this long process. I'm too busy writing the songs to get into that now, though; so, later for that.

During this writing process, I've gotten in the habit of keeping a pocket notebook in my shirt pocket, in case an idea comes to me while I'm out and about. I'd say that 90 percent of the final ideas for the commission came that way—many of them while driving, as did "Night" just now. I think I'll keep that habit going, in future, and have a notebook with me for those moments when a song comes forward to be written.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, September 23, 2011

That Box of Rocks

A Spiral Dance essay

This morning it's all I can do to wake up after a heavy sleep. A sleep induced by chemical agency I'd rather avoid, but at least it was a refreshing sleep. And a hard process waking up. I'm never a quick awakener anymore, and even slower now. At some point, maybe a cup of tea and a good book later, maybe after a half-hour of hands-on meditation and healing, there's a switch that gets thrown in the back on the mind and suddenly I'm alert, aware, able to parse the day's needs. Till then, I am a slow evolving, a fish who just climbed out onto land for the first time, gasping, trying to learn to breathe. Till the spark inhabits the mind, I am a slow ember, a dark waving of treebranches in shadow, pointing towards the river hidden beyond. A walk to the river is no walk at all. It barely stirs the rushes. I am inarticulate. The neighbors wave and want to chat, and it's all I can do to wave back, smile, and keep strolling. Conversation this early in my day is a calamity. I never want to be social till I'm fully awake, fully aware. Even then, some days being social is a drain. As lonely and isolated as I feel some days, morning silence is never unfriendly. Ask me again in an hour, and I'm sure I'll be a cheerful companion. Till then, ignore my silence. Or better yet, leave it alone, and take your need for chatter with the waitress off to the diner, and leave me in peace.

I am immersed right now in writing words and music. It keeps me alive. Its demands keep me going. All else is not much fun, and if I let myself think about requirements and obligations demanded of me by the outside world, I get cranky and irritable. The disordered illogic of bureaucratic systems is enraging. It's not even a matter of putting up with necessity. It's that you're aware of how fragile and arbitrary it all is. It could all fall apart at any moment. Life itself is irrepressible. Those who decry the end of life are usually referring to their own way of life, not yours.

People, even people who should know better, try to sell you on the idea that if you had a better tool for making art, your art would improve. (Of course they're happy to sell you a better tool, to their profit.) It's not about the tools. Good tools do help make great art, it's true. But a great musician would make great music no matter which tools were available. A great musician could sit down, and be handed a box of rocks, and make music out of that. What makes a great musician, or artist, is the attitude of working with whatever is at hand: Let's see what we can make from this. Great artists I've known have an open-ended sense of wonder and exploration, very child-like in many ways, that allows them to see what's actually there, rather than what most people think is there. They do not pre-judge, they observe; and they have an experimental approach to both work and life. Life is a work of art, making art is a way of life; they're not separate, and both are experiments, trial and error till something good happens. Meanwhile, you learn as much as you can about what you're doing, about how you're living. Making art is an ecological practice: art, environment, life, all are intertwined.

Most people never can see past their own projections: what they think is there. They catalog and dismiss. They move on quickly to the next row, to catalog and dismiss that, too. They believe that a sense of accomplishment lies in how much, how quickly, one is able to catalog and dismiss. But wizards, and bards, and artists, see what's really there. They know that there's no end to learning, and many thing are so vast that in the end they will remain mysterious and unknown, even given a lifetime of study. They see what others do not see mostly because others are not looking. I've said this all before. The only people who listened were those who already understood the truth of it. My fellow wizards, bards, and artists.

Most people see only what they want to see, believe what they want to believe. There is a vast distance separating them from what is really there, and they cling to that gap with all their might. Most people believe that if they recite a cant a hundred times, it becomes true. They believe that about political policy, and they believe that about healing affirmations: if you say it's true, enough times, with enough force, it becomes true.

But the world is resistant. It has its own momentum. You can't turn a turnip into a forest by sheer force of will. Your will imposed on the world is your first, childish mistake. Unlike the musician who, presented with a box of rocks, makes some music from them, your stance is refuse to use the rocks, because they're impractical and unsuitable. The basic definition of ego is fear of change, because all change begins in the self. The ego clings to its own image of its changeless self, and is a master of denial. Don't pay attention to the facts, here's what's really true, says the ego. Political display is ego-display; that's not a new insight. National identity is bound up with ego and its fears of change. Confrontation with the Other is terrifying to most, because on some level they know it will require change. They reject the box of rocks because they're not homeland rocks, and they're not the right flag-borne color anyway.

Politics without artists, without naturalists with thirty years of field experience sitting by the river and observing its ecosystem, is hollow politics. It's incestuous and self-serving. More than forty years ago Rachel Carson disturbed the universe by writing her book Silent Spring, and taking to task what we were doing to the environment. She was roundly attacked by the vested political and chemical-company interests, but she was proved right. Her book led directly to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Look who is trying to dismantle that agency now, forty years after it was founded: the vested chemical-company interests, and the politicians they bought. For the sake of expediency and profit they want to go back to poisoning the natural world. The natural world, they want us to forget or ignore, is also the world we live in. For our own self-interest, we can't afford to shit where we sleep. We will pollute ourselves in our own wastes, unto death. This is not news. This is not a new insight. Why then must it be repeated as if it were news?

Because politics without a sense of the sacred is hollow and self-serving. Without a sense of social justice, in which social justice is part of the fabric of the ecosystem, there is no real justice. Without a sense of human equality with all other creatures we share the planet with, we get a sense of entitled superiority that sees nothing wrong with destroying the very systems that keep it alive, all in name of short-term goals. Politics with no long view is murderous and suicidal.

The world resists being controlled. If you think you're the master of the world, you're deluded. If you think you're even the master of your own small corner of the world, you've never understood true mastery. True mastery is husbandry. It's cajoling the world to be more like what it aspires to be, to evolve, to be better than it is, to find efficient solutions to its patterns. Wizards are ecologists at root, because all you're really doing is helping the world be what it most wants to be. Life is irrepressible, and wants to grow. Nobody wants to die, as inevitable as that might be. Everything wants to reach its full flowering, reaches its fulfillment, finds its purpose and meaning. Nothing makes the box of rocks happier than for a great musician to make music with it, or for a child to fantasize a castle wall and moat made from it. That wall wants to hold together, not fall. When you help it stay upright, and fulfill its purpose, you've made the world into its better self. All you do is help. Life is meant to be about service.

Life is meant to be about service, not about self-fulfillment. Actually, those are not contradictory, because few things are more fulfilling than a life of dedicated service. What you are in service to, well, that's where you have to figure out your own purpose in life. For myself, it's finally clear, after decades of distraction and being waylaid by people telling me what I should be doing, that my own life is meant to be in service of the art, music, and poetry that I make. Decades were spent trying to fit into the ideas and patterns and plans that others told me my life should be about. Now I now they were all wrong. Burn those old maps, they'll just lead you astray.

I have lost all my maps, again. I've had significant practice in losing my maps before. I've been through the dark night of the senses, then the dark night of the soul, when all the maps, and all contact with God, are taken away from you. In that outer darkness, echoing back, all you can hear are your own fearful limits. I have lost my mental maps more than once, this lifetime. Now, after the surgery, after the recovery, still recovering, beginning to prepare about moving forward towards the completion of the medical narrative of recovery, with new maps imposed on me about where I am expected to arrive so that the restoration of my life through another surgery and recovery can be made complete, I find myself angrily rejecting those maps again. I am exhausted with other peoples' ideas of where I'm supposed to be, what I'm supposed to do, who I'm supposed to become. I am being presented with constantly-changing narratives of expectations, told that I have to arrive on that shore by my own will and and under my power, told when I ask for help and a crew to man my boat that it isn't available. That I'm on my own, again, with no one to either count on or to help me arrive without blame.

If I've learned anything, it's that every time you survive something life-threatening, you have to redraw the maps. Or make new ones. I've learned, several times, so that it seems like it was all practice for what I'm dealing with right now, right here, that I have to constantly remake my own maps. And just as constantly be willing to let older maps blow off the bowsprit, into the wind. Parchment leaves in the wind, falling into the sea. I find myself once again mapless and uncertain of the territory. Everything is made new, and I don't know the lay of the land anymore. You bet that strikes a nerve. It also strikes a chord, ringing out of the very air: a celestial music, a ring of voices of angels, which, after all, sound a lot like the music you can make out of a box of rocks.

Angel, speak to me. You forbidding and blaring foghorn, you long night of nothing in the wind but cedar chatter, you long road of suffering and rebirth, you constant immolation and dying, you desert silence, speak to me. Speak to me of the ghats in Varanasi where the bodies of holy ancestors are burned, given to the wind. Speak to me of the dessicated ribs of Joshua Trees in the desert, which slipstream the wind around themselves. Speak to me of the quiet brown river curving under overhanging trees, wind riffling its surface under unsteady light and uncertain clouds. Speak to me, angel, of my own death and rebirth: not for the first time, either, but just the latest in a long series of unmapped reincarnations. I've died and come to life again, angel. This morning, my mind finally clear enough to be able to face the day, is just one more evolution of consciousness, reborn out of sleep into waking life. I find some kind of quiet exultation in the wind in the cedars, the annoyed bluejay shrieking from the pear tree's summit. Life will go on. Life will find a way.

Even when I die and am reborn again, which is inevitable, unavoidable, and neither to be feared nor unwelcomed, I see, with the bard's eye behind my own everyday gaze, that this is just part of the spiral pattern that is my greatest work of art so far, my life. Angel, I've finally learned that I'd settle for starvation and homelessness as long as I can make music, make art, make photographs. Nothing else matters as much, I don[t need much else. I've finally learned that it's more important than anything else I've ever done, to just give in and make art. It doesn't even matter how it gets received, or used. My life of service is to be in service to that which prompts me to make art. My life of service is to be in service to art. I'm a slow learner, it only took me my entire life, and this latest death and rebirth, to at last sort out my priorities and stop giving a damn what anyone else thinks about it. That was a tough one, angel. I've always had a hard time ignoring the outer shell of advice. Well-meant or not, it was useless all along. I see that now. I am at last seeing what's really there: that the most wonderful thing I can do with my life is burn myself up in the actinic blue fire of Creation, to spend all my life on living art and making life, and bring as much of the Creation into view as I can, which is the purpose of making art: to praise and reveal the Creation. All a poet can do is praise. That's all the purpose there is.

Since I died, and was reborn, I've started another new way of art, one that I've been meaning to investigate for a long time. But now, there's no time like the present, nearly dying has re-sorted my priorities, and there's point in waiting to do something you've always wanted to do, and are in fact meant to do. After my parents died, I took up teaching myself to draw with colored pencils: a very conscious choice of learning a completely new art medium, for the first time free of any need for, or possibility of, parental approval or rejection. For the first time, I was doing art that nobody could catalog and dismiss, that those family-born voices could no longer say was unworthy. It didn't even matter if I ever got good at drawing with colored pencils; that wasn't the point. Nor was it necessary to be like every other colored-pencil artist, and create photo-realistic drawings such as they teach you in the how-to books. I have no interest in being like everyone else; I'll skip the perfectionism this time around, thank you. And so, now, I've done it again: started another new artistic process that is brand new to me, that reveals a world never seen before, and reveals it in ways both imaginative and spiritual. Namely, I finally allowed myself to get into infrared photography. Now, with digital cameras, it's technically more approachable and easier than back in the film camera days; I was stopped back then by the difficulties of technical mastery. Now, in the past few weeks, with a new infrared photography system for my existing camera, I've found myself looking at the world anew, all over again with new eyes, as if for the first time, revealed in the first light of the first day of Creation.

And that's essential. With the loss of the old maps, I have to make new maps. Finally, I know that my new maps always have to be crayon drawings, finger-paintings, child-like renderings of the terrain as a bard, an artists, or a musician using sonar echo-location, would see it. My new maps, angel, must always be seen from the ground, not from the air. And they have to be paintings, not technical drawings. Great painters have always taught us to see the world in a new way, in new light. Great photographers have revealed the world as never seen by the unaided eye. Great musicians have opened our ears. Charles Ives once demanded of an audience for one of his difficult, dissonant new compositions: "Stand up and use your ears like a man!" That's great advice, angel with the voice of a foghorn or a bluejay. As long as there is surprise and discovery in this new life, this life whose purpose is at last known to be about nothing but making art, and like a wizard-poet, a wizard-artist, revealing the world the way it wants to be revealed, for its own purpose and joy, as long as there is joy and making, then I will have lived well. Any new maps I must remake will be good ones, even if as usual only temporary. I can always make more.

This morning, after a sunny dawn, thin gray clouds have covered the sky. But it's not an oncoming storm. It's the edge of possibility. Map it out, get it down. Finish your tea. Go make some art, sufficient to the day.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Autumnal Equinox

Straw for the Fire: Theodore Roethke

The other day I was at the used book store, selling off some books I no longer needed. While they looked over my treasures, I browsed their poetry shelves. In the end, they offered me enough store credit for me to take home a treasure to add to my own poetry collection: a collection of late, posthumous, and excerpted writings by poet Theodore Roethke.

Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943-63. When he died in 1963, Roethke had left behind almost 300 spiral notebooks full of aphorisms, poetry fragments, notes about teaching poetry, commentaries, entire poems either unfinished or early versions of published poems, and more. He wrote in these notebooks for twenty years, letting his mind rove freely; there are poems in many stages of completion, including many versions he worked on of poems now well-known, worked over till he finished them. Roethke was very much a re-writer, a reviser, a shaper. This is partly because he was primarily a formalist poet, working in forms both old and invented, and was very careful about his word choices, his craft. At heart, though, Roethke was a poet of inspiration, even of lyrical mysticism. His poems all mean something, The collection is edited by poet David Wagoner, who was first Roethke's student, later his colleague at the University of Washington.

This is a fantastic collection of material that I had not seen before. I have all of Roethke's books of poems, including the final Collected Poems. I have long known his poetry. I have heard it set to music, and brilliantly set, by one of my own professors in music composition, William Bolcom. (Seek out the song cycle "Open House" and you'll be impressed.) The collection shows a poet's mind at work. The fragments and aphorisms about poetry, and also about teaching literature, are worth the price of admission. The first half of the book, though, is poems, both complete and in fragment, many never seen before this publication. A short example, very much typical of Roethke's mature poetic voice, as follows:

She moved, gentle as a waking bird,
Deep from her sleep, dropping the light crumbs,
Almost silurian, into the lap of love. . .
She moved, so she moved, gentle as a waking bird,
The bird in the bush of her bones singing;
Woke, from a deep sleep, the moon on her toes.

I'm not much on metered rhymed poetry, nor on neo-formalism, which is more often reactionary than visionary—but Roethke's voice is unique, always more visionary than not. Roethke has a perfect, light touch for rhyme. It always makes sense, never clumsily chiming on the ear the way lesser formalists often do. It's not all about end-rhyme, for example.

The most interesting part of Straw for the Fire for me, however, is the second half of the book, the prose section. I always like to read poets writing about poetry, about how they work, about how poetry is a way of life. Roethke gives us many sublime insights, over a range of topics. Wagoner has arranged the book into topical sections, with time-ranges based on the notebooks they were excerpted from. This arrangement gives focus to otherwise random thoughts covering much time and many topics. Some of what Roethke writes is very close to my own thinking, and when we diverge he is still worth considering. Roethke is a poet who always needed to deal with transcendence, with things mysterious and beyond the ordinary. He was a constant, skeptical explorer. His internal poems, his psychological poems, are among his best.

Like many poets who are his disciples, he is considered at times to be a philosophical poet; unlike many who imitate him, the philosophical force of his poetry is real, and profound. Roethke can write in the abstract, about Big Ideas, but he compels your attention, your desire to follow in thought where he is leading. He does not dull or become intellectual; he remains sharp and visceral. This is a poet who, even when he writes of the life of the soul, does not bore.

Here's a bit of poem from the book, to bolster this point:

Outside time
Beyond the focus of this dark,
Give me one pulse of that heart,
One push from those lungs,
One touch of his ribs,
And I'd dive into the bright
Heart of the night, I'd take on
With the thin bones of my hands
Every weak weed of my life. Their petals fall
To the ground before his imagined shadow.
I am neither near nor far, nowhere in time,
O now nothing but hasps and needles,
With a young snake's tongue to rise an inch from his face:
Only that air he breathes,
With the flaming heart
Of a heart. . .

Here are a few excerpts that I bounce off, from the Prose half of the book. I will spend some time thinking about them, and they will draw out responses in both thought and poems. There are many more that I could also quote here, but a small sample will suffice for now.


A poet: someone who is never satisfied with saying one thing at a time.

The things that concern you most can't be put in prose. In prose the tendency is to avoid inner responsibility. Poetry is the discovery of the legend of one's youth.

Substituting words for thought.
The sneer is easy to master, and usually the mark of the adolescent.
Beware when you think you have found what you want.

It is hard to be both plain and direct and not appear a fool to contemporaries fed on allusions, sybilline coziness, hints and shadows.

It's the damned almost-language that's hardest to break away from: the skilled words of the literary poet.

A poem that is the shape of the psyche itself; in times of great stress, that's what I tried to write.

The poem that is merely painful revelations: my impulse is to tell you everything—which may destroy everything.

When you roar, make sure it's from a true disquietude of the heart, not a mere temporal pitch. . . In the end, if you aspire to the visionary's toughness, you not only have to chew your own marrow, but then must spit it in your neighbor's eye.

Live in a perpetual great astonishment.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Process of Writing 22: Everything Ties Together

I finished and then redid the short folk/country song "Fearless Heart." It felt really good to write it, something completely unlike anything I've ever attempted before. It also felt like actually writing the kind of song that songwriters write in songwriting centers like Nashville. Not that I like Nashville, I don't. I do like Memphis, a little. But I'd never want to move there and join the hordes of career-seeking songwriters. Most of whom are writing songs that I don't like anyway, in genres of music that don't touch my heart very much. Modern country music has become little more than rock 'n roll with a twang and steel guitars; it's more honky-tonk than ever, and mostly not very interesting. Not like the roots music. Not like the oldest country music, or bluegrass, or folk music.

Tonight, restless, I sat down and went through everything I've completed for the commission so far. I needed to sit down and reassess. I needed to take an overview, and pull things together, and see what I still have yet to do. I sat on the porch for awhile and looked things over. I also copied a few lyric sets into the master lyric notebook, gathering them together in one place so I can pull various scraps together into finished poems.

I've now completed ten individual songs, or pieces, for this commission. Words and music both, since that's what I've been commissioned to do. I see that I have six of the "pillar" pieces done, including the beginning and ending movements. I also have four "Stories" songs done. There is a pile of lyrics already done, and still needing to be set. Most of these are "Stories" songs, rather than "pillar" pieces. I still have to write the lyrics for at least three remaining pillar pieces.

By "pillar" I mean those songs that carry and support the main overall structure of the commission. These are pieces that together make up an overarching narrative. They include the "Illuminations" pieces, which are context-evoking, place-setting pieces, that evoke the Midwest Heartlands through description and memory and tone. This sequence of pillar pieces is architectural. Not that the "Stories" are decorative; but they are individual, and can really be presented in any order, as individual modules within the larger narrative.

So I really have two narratives going on in the commission at this point, which overlap and complement each other. The architectural narrative is about living and growing up and dying in the Heartlands. It's a collective story of home, departure, and return. Almost a mythic pattern of being at home, leaving home, and returning home. Like the hero's journey. The other narrative is the individual stories, some of them directly by the individual stories told me by the members of the Chorus. These are individual, with no overarching narrative connecting them together. What connects them is the theme of the commission itself: the stories of the members of the Chorus, about living as gay men in the Heartlands.

Odd sources pull things together. Sometimes you set out to do something, and something else happens. I've written about four poems in two other series, other than the commission itself, over the past few days: a surprise outpouring of other poems. Most of these were written because I'm having difficulty with the emotions and physical sensations of my post-surgery recovery. I'm still dealing with grief, and depression, and just finding it hard to cope some days. What's hardest is breaking away from expectations, and just being present with whatever I'm feeling. So it pours out in a poem.

I realize I've also written three or four poems, written as lyrics for the commission, that perhaps won't get used in the commission. For two reasons: first, some are not central to either of the interlocking narratives, and therefore simply may not get done because I have to finish other pieces first, and then I might run out of time. Some of these I might still write as songs, but as stand-alones, written after the major work is done, and not intended to be part of it. The other reason is that they actually be poems, not song lyrics; one or two seem to move in that direction. The test will be to see if they call to be set to music, eventually, or if they will remain as poems on the page.

I had some arts programs on the TV running the background tonight. Suddenly I wanted to make a drawing, anything, even just random scratches on paper. I pulled out one of my sketchbook pads, and a couple of colored markers, and a new brush calligraphy pen, that's a brush with silver ink in it. I found myself making a long silver multi-stranded S-curve on the page. Then I found myself writing words on the page in four different colors, repeated in each color. Two phrases. "River cross my heart." And "River carry me home." I realized that the silver curve was a calligraphed river, and the words were my soul talking.

Those two lines, I also realized, are part of one of the next pieces I need to write for the commission. Part of the pillar piece about home, and leaving home. River, cross my heart. River, carry me home. And sometimes that's how the words and music come at you: completely sideways, unexpectedly, and out of nowhere.

This is why I say that my main artistic discipline, as a writer, is not to do as many writers claim to do, write something every day. Even when I do that, it's not always a poem I write. My discipline as a writer, as I have said before, is not to practice writing every day, or write a poem a day (the results of that particular exercise are usually crap), but to always be ready to write, when the inspiration strikes. I don't write things down until they're ready to be written down. My discipline is simply to always be ready, tools at hand, notebook and pencil and pen at hand, always ready to drop everything and write it down, whenever it comes forward. It's about listening to the voices inside you, not about going hunting for them. Listening, not seeking out. And that's my creative discipline in a nutshell: Just always be ready for the moment to strike, and the writing to flow.

Now, back to work. I have more words to discover.

Labels: , , , , ,

Disaffection: a deconstruction of lyric

I move as slow as geology the morning after a long day of music,
walks, making photos. It's raining, just a little spit on the window,
which always slows and dampens the mood. It's called a comforter
because you curl up in it, get warm, be comforted. But I'm alone.

Which is no comfort. Nobody love me. Nobody wants to. The inane,
almost comical voice of self-pity, as sincere as a five-year-old
that fearful morning before the first day of school. That voice inside,
no matter how old you grow up, still there. We can always revert.

A man says he wants to come meet me, maybe for a sensual date.
When do I tell him the things that inevitably turn them all away
from my doorstep, the truths of suffering and ecstasy
that have become my new daily life? Rejection seems inevitable.

No one wants to play around an ostomy bag. I try not to blame them,
but damnit I do. Now that I have my life back, scarred as it's become,
I have fifteen years of damaged libido to make up for. Freud no doubt
would have something pithy to say, but I stopped listening years ago.

Sexuality and surgery lurk on the same playing field. My skin
is full of holes, meteoric pockmarks, troughs and long grazes
of near-misses of the familiar scythe. I can objectify; can you?
I'm going to spend this morning, like every morning, alone.

It's not that you had to leave so early. It's that you never stayed.
How can I regret last night when it never happens? No chances
to linger over theory. The minute they find out about the scar
and the shitbag they suddenly remember a forgotten appointment.

With destiny, I suppose. It drives them away. Do you expect sympathy?
From most men the most you ever get is mutual temporary lust.
Asking for deepset, durable, rooted emotion, you need a bard.
Or a shaman. Just not that hero, with his thousand faces turned away.

Some monsters he won't conquer. I feel some mornings a grendel,
a wyvern, a manticore. Some cold nights the sensations are more wendigo.
Anything to make the hunger stop. You eat out of the freezer while
there's still time. Hunger become emotional purge, a twisted balm.

Ask a bard. Only someone who's seen the world, and maybe seen my skin
unscarred, can see it that way again. Maybe he can ignore the bag.
It's certain no one else will. I expect to be celibate for a very long time.
It's good I can still love my own skin, despite all scars and meteors.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Notes to Overcome


As much of my poetic juice as I'm pouring into writing song lyrics for the new music commission, I'm also writing these other poems as they come to me. Which they have increasingly been doing, again.

Remember, one of the rules of creativity is: The more you do, the more you do. The more you do, the more you are able to do. It's anti-entropic: it feeds itself, it starts to run under its own power, like the ancient dream of perpetual motion. One of the reasons you know that the creative process is divine is precisely because it's anti-entropic. Doing work over there feeds work over here. Being in the flow means that everything is flowing, the river of creative force is available to feed all the various media that you might work in. Activity here increases activity over there, because the floodwaters are non-specific. Everything feeds everything else.

Also, these other poems serve for me a different purpose than the lyrics written for the music commission. The song lyrics are specific stories, specific narratives about one part of my life and the lives of others like me. These other poems, especially the Letters series poems, help me cope with my own very personal narrative of recovery, grief, suffering, PTSD, and the daily need to find a meaning in life, a reason to keep enduring what is occasionally unendurable. They too are anentropic, if not overtly anti-entropic, in that they help me be able to not slide down the gravity well into acedia or despair. They become part of my self-healing process, a necessary response to what has ben going on in my life, medically and psychologically. I began writing the Letters poems, after all, as a response to encounters with personal mortality, as a response to almost dying, as a way of pulling my head out of a morass of confusion and despair. You need to vent, to get it out of your system,, to get past it. As I've said before, Making art is the best revenge. Revenge not on people for supposed harm done to oneself, but against the entire systems that try to destroy us, and fail. I never expected to write so many of these Letters poems; I never expected to have the need to. What I try to do is turn raw feeling into art: so that these are not raw screaming into the journal, are not merely venting and shouting and yelling at the walls of life's limits, but that something artful, more permanent, more transcendent might be made. They are fueled by painful circumstances, and sometimes reflect that more than not; but I don't want them to be merely a cry of pain. I want them to map the way out of pain, not merely recite its effects.

There is a scene near the end of Shakespeare's The Tempest, where Prospero realizes that revenge, that inflicting suffering on those who caused his own suffering and exile, will do no good: he must either forgive and let go of his righteous rage, or he will destroy those things he most loves, beginning with his daughter Miranda, and ending with his own honor, his own sense of self. It's a scene where suddenly the tone of Prospero's speech changes from verbal fireworks to calm self-knowledge, rooted acceptance, and powerful self-confidence that needs no more artifice to be self-sustaining. It is a moment of anti-entropy, when Prospero chooses a path of perpetual service that needs no more rough magic. First he releases his anger and desire for revenge. At the last, he releases the spirits he has mastered—however lovingly, they were kept as slaves to his unrealized passions—and drowns his books of magic in the sea. He remains an extraordinary person, an exceptional man, who has been tempered by exile and suffering into a man who make a fair and just ruler, a king whose reign shall be praised overall.

That is an example of how to make a good life out of suffering. It's a template for overcoming pain, obstacles, and the personality-ego's desire for revenge, for lashing out to create suffering in response to its own suffering. It is a template for how to break the cycle of hate, revenge, judgment, and guilt. It leads to a greater wholeness in the person who makes such anti-entropic choices as serve the highest good. The genuine essence of wizardry lies not in the personal power over matter and energy that one has gained, but in choosing to expend one's power in the service of life itself. Prospero leaves the island at last to go serve life, and no longer requires the external trappings of magic, or wizardry, because he has at the last learned to master himself.

I do not compare myself to Prospero, although I do aspire to attain something like that service of wizardry. I make art in part as an act of self-mastery. These poems in the Letters series, as diverse in content as they have been, as similar in tone and style as they might be, all serve my own need for self-mastery. They give channel and direction to energies that would otherwise flail in every direction, and splash over their bounds with perhaps destructive force.

Remember, another rule of creativity is: Use the power, lest it use you. Use your creative process as well as you can, live within it as consciously as you can, or it will use you instead. Serving its own need to be used, to be released, it will exit through whatever channel is provided—which might be your own darkest Shadow, if you give it no other channel. Creative force will out, no matter what. You have a choice about how that happens. With self-mastery comes self-knowledge, and a greater awareness of your own energetic anatomy—including this truth that creative force will out, no matter what else you might hold true. So far better to choose where and when.

Remember, one rule of psychological repression is that whatever you suppress over here will pop back up over there, often inappropriately. The energetic force of the psyche will out. It's up to you where and when it comes out. Sometimes you can measure how self-repressed a person is merely by observing how much is inappropriately leaking out over there, in ways seemingly beyond that person's awareness, or control. Judgmental, self-righteous rage is often a clue towards denial of one's own shadow: and when someone responds with righteous rage to being told the truth, what is happening is that they are fighting hard to remain ignorant, to retain their subconscious denial, their not-knowing. I have encountered artists whose paintings are blatantly, toxically pathological (in one case I recall, psychosexually dysfunctional), and who go through their lives suffering one toxic relationship after another. Yes, art can be a tool for personal therapy: but it can also be a barometer of personally willful, self-ignorant denial. It can be a tool of suffering or of redemption; it can drag you into a shared hell, or it can transcend.

Sometimes both, as another rule of art as life is: Sometimes the only way out is through. Sometimes when you find yourself in deep water, you have to become a diver, and go deeper into those waters, to come out the other side. First you go through the agony in the garden, then the crucifixion experience, whatever narrative form that takes for you, and only then can you see again the light of heaven.

And, sometimes your art is more personally powerful, and more universally meaningful, for having gone through hell to get there. What you make is tempered by what you have lived through. So it is with these other poems, whose writing has helped me cope with overwhelming emotions, with a life-threatening medical situation and its aftermath. They help me get through one more day. They help my recover my life. I still don't know who these Letters are written to; I may never know. Writing them is more important than sending them out. I don't even know if they are artful, or good art, or decent poems—although I do feel that at least some of them are. I don't know if they will ever have an audience—although some of them are probably worthy of being shared. In some ways, writing this other series of poems, these Letters poems—which has been going on in continuous, sporadic parallel to everything else I've done creatively over the past year and more—is an act similar to Prospero writing his books. Releasing these poems into the world is like drowning them: I give them to the sea, and see what changes. No other act of self-mastery will suffice, to keep my own head above water. The more you do, the more you do.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


it was a good day, mostly. A satisfying day, if cold.
I wrote something, then wrote something more. I went
out with the cameras to the river and stood with the light
for a long time, the way an artist is supposed to. Sometimes
I wonder what the neighbors think, seeing me walk around
the block to the bend in the river, cameras hung from me,
tripod like a giant microscope over my shoulder. I made
something of the day. I made something.

Suddenly, dusk hovering at the eaves,
a mood comes over like the end of the world.
I catch myself dropping the brush to weep.
This infinity that never quite goes away.
It's what artists do: make themselves open, attentive,
to see everything that's there, that no one else
bothers to look at.

This morning, reading, sitting on the porch,
a ruby-throated hummingbird hovered long
at the pink-and-white morning-glories,
hovering a long time probing each blossom's heart,
at the flower trellis inches from my knee,
on the other side of the window. Motionless,
I wait, watch, dare not breathe. Then whoever
paints the day moves his palette on, and the flicker
of solid light that is this fiery tiny bird, disappears
in a flash and whir. A long lingering followed,
as I had put down my book and had nothing
better to do, to look at, then the sun-patient flowers.
This year I thought the morning-glories would not survive.
Instead, they are a profligate marvel, a riot, a band of gems.

Night brings on silent desolation. I am mourning for
something lost, I don't even know what. How can a painter
ever trust words? Words turn into ashes. But you can
grind ash into pigment, and apply it to the day. Words
leave less than ash, behind, in their wake. They dissolve
in a flash and whir. Wind up the world, watch it run down,
again. I know what's missing. I just don't know why.
When and where have their own mysterious alignment.

Moods come over you like cold weather. I shiver when
I should be sunning. Cold useless reptile blood stirs slow.
The third anteroom is full of useless reptiles, waiting
to be swept out. As soon as the sun strikes the adobe,
back in Taos, back where I can see the sun, back
at Joshua Tree, where the sun was anvil-struck brass
and blood and heart-filled sacred sinew. Drum in veins,
blood and feet shuffling, nod head towards sleepless dawn,
copal in the firepit, magnificent strands of blessing link
up in parasols of solar haloes. Moods are like that:
the sun comes out, the sun goes away, behind cliff or cloud.
It's not up to you. You just weather it, like monsoon season.

Now there are crickets on the porch and in the basement.
It's too cold for them to want to sing. But a cricket in the house
is the gods' blessing. At last a trade blanket, a pillow for making love,
even if your belly can't fold that way anymore. Some
movements are restricted. It started out such a good day.
How did it end up here, in something like dying mesquite embers?
I need to get back to the desert. I need to be behind the wheel.
I need a white scarf, a barnstorming white-and-pink biplane,
and nowhere to be but the next farm field to land in
when you run out of gas. Free afternoons by the lake. I missed
all that, again, another summer missed. Now it's night frost
under a silver moon one day past full. Nothing resembles
forgiveness like a waning moon.

I'll sit on the porch awhile. The morning-glories are closed
in the dark. Maybe tomorrow I'll wake at dawn and bundle up
in love-made blankets and stare at clouds from the porch.
If there are any. You have to do some time in blankets,
a necessary hour. If you spend too long ignoring the vines,
they start to come inside, invading hours and lovers
like bird-beaks and pine-cones, flowers and snow.
Do you think I can't see that? I'm trying to talk myself
into something better. It takes everything I have to fall asleep.
Once you wake up, there's no hope of returning to the dream.
That's not the loss that matters, though. What matters
is the end of endless suffrage.

Labels: , , , ,

Process of Writing 21: Moving Along

The first poetry is always written by sailors and farmers with the wind in their teeth. The second poetry is written by scholars and students, wine drinkers who have learned to know a good thing. The third poetry is sometimes never written; but when it is, it is written by those who have brought nature and art into one thing.
—Walter Anderson

I take this to remind one of the primacy of folk song, folk music, porch music, words of the old ballads always renewed, old stories retold with variations, the stories and the songs of the people telling themselves around the fire in the dark, songs about the shadows out there, beyond the circle of the light. And so I keep coming back to the folk music sources for renewal, myself, and my music, my words, my art.

A few days ago, rather unexpectedly, I finished the Opening number for the new music commission.

Suddenly, after having set it aside for weeks, the key concept of the opening piece became clear. It came from doing some reading in an anthology of mystical writings, specifically in the section in the book of chants, songs, and stories from the world's First Peoples. I realized that the key to the Opening number, now tentatively titled "Great Lakes Prairie Dawn," was that instead of being a summation-and-introduction of the entire commission, a showy grabber like the razzmatazz of an opening Broadway show, it needed to be quieter, grounded in nature, in life, in people, and be a scene-setting piece. It would be grounded by the traces left in the land by the First Peoples of the eastern prairie and Great Lakes region.

It's remarkable how many tellings by First People from different places and times often seem so similar, so grounded in the same basic reality. That's the place to start, therefore.

So I wrote down a couple of loose pages' worth of short texts inspired by songs, poems, tellings, and stories from the Ojibway, Lakota, Potawatamee, and Pawnee peoples—not quotes, not imitations, but my own words inspired by theirs. Words grounded in thousands of years of living on this land. Words inspired by that long experience of the land, the sky, the way of life here.

What better way to set a scene for the commission than with the original wisdom of the region, rooted in the land, the sky, the geology and geography, the changing seasons, the elements of nature that to this day dominate our worldviews, those of us who live here. Midwesterners always have the weather to talk about, because, as the saying goes, "If you don't like the weather, wait a day, and it will be different." Sometimes you hear "hour" instead of "day." We don't have climate here, the way some places do, we have weather. San Diego and Seattle have climate; the Midwest has active, dynamic weather.

After writing out a flurry of short poems, short texts, short lines, I cherry-picked through them as I was writing out the musical lines. For once the music came before the words; mostly I found words to fit with the phrases of music that were already starting to tumble out. I assembled texts more by intuition than by planned outline. Some things got left out. An entire longer poem got left out, for example, and if I have time, I'll make it into a separate piece later. So the end result is a series of interlinked word-paintings set to music. Some are rather fragmentary. Here's a partial sampling:

eye of the day sees everything
with the eye of the heart
    we help each other
the sacredness of life
bound to the land
we live our days
bound to each other
with love
   with love

Earth, our Mother
   bring rain to wash us
Lake, our Father
   wind to cleanse us
sun is risen
   sun to warm us
day begins
   soil to give us life

sun is risen
day begins

The piano accompaniment, rippling like water underneath throughout whatever the chorus is singing, has its own thread, and quotes at the beginning and end of the movement a well-known folk song, "The Water Is Wide." I made my own arrangement of this song, with altered rather than traditional harmonies. It seems proper to begin with words about the land, and a thread of song about the great water, woven together.

I didn't expect to work on finishing this opening piece till later on in the writing process. Weeks ago, I had felt stuck because working on the opening piece was triggering my tendencies towards perfectionism, which are the fast road to feeling oneself blocked. I got stuck because I wanted the opening number to be an attention-grabber, a Big Deal—since, after all, it's the first thing people will hear, and their first introduction to the overall piece. I realized that I was putting too much pressure on myself, and on the music, to be perfect. Once I realized that humbler, more earthy beginning was what was needed, I was able to proceed. Now it's done. I'm still not completely confident about it, though; I may revisit what I've written in a few days, to see if it has held up. If I have to rewrite it, I shall.

I finished the Illuminations piece "Seven Haiku About the Great Lakes" just prior to working on the Opening piece. These short haiku linked movements came out quickly, a compact set of individual pieces that are thematically related both musically and poetically. This piece, I confess, was a real pleasure to write. The poems came months before the music, but when I began writing the music, it all came together very quickly and smoothly, one of the easiest writing experiences I've had so far.

I feel like I am still in that creative flow, that the writing is going quickly, smoothly, and relatively easily. I think about the commission every day. It's percolating away in my mind even if I've stepped away to do something else for awhile. For example, I needed to clear my mind, so I went out for a walk with the camera in hand. When I got back, some answers came directly out of the pencil and onto paper.

Today I finished "Fearless Heart," adding a new verse as a bridge. In final form, it's basically a simple folk/country song, a shuffle, a simple little tune. Increasingly, I would like to have guitar, drums, and bass, as part of the musical accompaniment. I doubt that's logistically feasible. But some of these latest songs, some now finished, some with lyrics not yet set to music, seem to call for a versatile combo, able to play rock, jazz, country, whatever mood the music has at the moment. I don't know if this will actually happen. In my mind's ear, though, I can hear the arrangements for combo very clearly, even if I end up just doing it all with piano.

Initially I notated "Fearless Heart" as a jazz chart, or pop chart, at first. That is, just the melody line, with chords indicated, CM FM9 G7, that sort of notation. A few riffs written out, but when experienced musicians play to charts they know they have to come up with their riffs based on the chords: that's precisely when a shared musical tradition, such as jazz, is so useful in giving you guidelines about what to do. A folk song is the way I envisioned it, so that's the way I notated it. I can even hear it in my head, being sung in the voice of one of my favorite folksingers, with acoustic guitar, bass, and drums.

But that's not going to work for the commission. The commission is for male chorus, and piano. I doubt I'll have the option to add other instruments. So I'm going to have to re-notate the piece. I will copy out the solo melody again, then add a piano part. It will be a notated improvisation, as many of the piano parts for songs in this commission have been; this time, just more deliberately so. So I will re-notate the piece is a format more suitable for its intended use. But I'll keep my original version, too, and maybe teach it myself on guitar. Maybe it will get re-used in another context, as the folk/country song it was meant to be. Time will tell.

I've now finished two-thirds of the pieces necessary to complete this commission. Most of the main pillars of the construction are in place: beginning, ending, a couple of key central movements. I still have three or four pillar-pieces to build, and a few more smaller stories to tell. When this is all done, it will be an entire half of a concert, almost an hour of music. I am doing everything I want to do, with this, and not stopping myself from writing anything. If it doesn't get used, here and now, for this commission, it will still get used, somewhere.

Writing is what matters.

I feel like I've begun a songwriting career, now that I'm actually writing songs, real songs, like singer-songwriters do. It's an intoxicating feeling, and it makes me want to keep going: keep writing lyrics and songs, both simple and complex, both for chorus, and in the manner that singer-songwriters like Ellis Paul, Bruce Cockburn, Lynn Miles, Joni Mitchell, and others of that songwriting peer-group might do. Songs with guitars as often as piano. Not that I play guitar, but I have a good ear for writing music. We'll see what happens. As long as I'm in the flow, and things keep coming forward to be written, I'll keep going. It may take me well past this current commissioned project—and that's all to the good, as it might lead me where I want to go, now, artistically. Giving attention to what matters in life, and making art from it.

Art is always the replacement of indifference by attention.
—Guy Davenport

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, September 12, 2011

Smile on the Void

A certain lushness in the field of remembrance, before
everything else kicks in and you're brought back to ground.
It's been a long time since Europe called, with scent, sound,
and long summers. Land so long inhabited by humans
that it sometimes loses its own way; but all you have to do is
scrape down to the lime bedrock, the acid soil under the vineyard,
magnificent pink granites of those hills, and it returns
to its own character, its rhythms indifferent of ours. Its own
way and blessing. Today after months of inner gouging
I feel for the first time scraped over, the top bitumen
of scar and sacrifice backhoed loose, exposing the granite under.
Normally I'm unsentimental regolith: where did this filigree
patterned topsoil come from? How long has it been
accumulating in my valleys, behind my curves and waysides?
How long have I been being eroded?

Backlit at dawn, ultraviolet morning glories creep up the windowpane.
There's something tenacious about the riot of color promoted
by flower gardens as riotous as Monet painted in his tilled
back yard. Something permanent in spirit if never in fact.
Always growing, the way you have to grow into a life, cultivate it,
master your own tendency to over-monitor, over-weed.
Let it be a little wild, that's best. The letters I'm writing
these days don't have much more to say than, I'm still here.
That might suffice, as much as I want to write in the margins,
I've survived, yet I need contact, give me constant reminders I live.
Breeze stirs two arbors, one wrapped in vines exploding with
ultraviolet flowers, the other with pink-and-white. Behind the flower
there's a mysterious green force. Lorca said it: Only mystery
allows us to live, only mystery.
I cannot fathom this rich
floral bomb blast. I can only touch it, with eye, camera, memory,
while it never ceases exploding. Every day a different mystery.
I look through new glass at the world.

Under the house's foundations, soil slowly concretizes. It could
take me a million years to grow back what I lost. An eon
of grieving. Can you break free the stones in the dirt, fuse them
into a cemented mass, till they too find mountain streams
that will erode them? It all lies in those unfathomable shadows
under the seal, where sunlight never rows. Exposing the house
bedrock seems a blasphemy; although I constantly expose my own,
no, it's stripped away by time's bristled friction, faster than memory
can build calluses or scar over old wounds. Trace a line where flesh
has been erupted, blood seeping as slow as glowing molten rock
emerging at night from a shield volcano in the pelagic Pacific.
We conceal our hurts with florid lines like that. We use all our
verbal ecstasy to cover up one central frightener: it just hurts.
Agloom on Dover Beach, dodging between the legs of the ignorant army,
we weave a pattern into the sand that if we're lucky we can
memorize long enough to recreate in wool, or yarn, sewn squares.
Abolition and acknowledgment: coexisting cicatrice and cure.
Meanwhile the shadows lengthen on their own.

What salvages the summer from its long unavoided wasting
is the return of the year of the cicada. All night in the trees
surrounding the house, their long rise and fall of thrum, rasp,
and creak becomes a lullaby to soothe. This has been a peak year
for insect love. Walking at midnight under a moon trying to make
an imitation of a Japanese ink-case by flirting with cloud wisps
and the tree-line over the river, constant cicadas deafen.
In bed, later, window open, fan on, their clicks still dominate.
In the morning, a neighbor sweeps her driveway, an identical rasp.
Things fall silent when the thrum gets this loud. The noonday demon
emerges from chrysalis, climbs high, sonars. Inside this vast noise
there's an unquiet silence, an echo inside a cave, a whirled skirt of duende
inherent in van Gogh's crows over a wheatfield as the storm comes in.
Near the end, he stopped painting: the world became too vibrant,
an assault rather than a balm. Inside the summer he died, the summer
I too died, that insect hum fills all the world, while emptying it.
Beauty is only the beginning of terror, after all.
How do you back away from this constant re-emergence of void?
This morning I sense even inside the backlit flower a vast gap between
particles: even what we see as solid is more space than matter.
Light reflects off it, it seems determined whereas it's all just
indeterminate electron whorls, like van Gogh's skies, night or day.
You can see too much. The cicada rise and fall is the sound-call of
that very void, its own voice. I'm reminded perhaps too personally
of almost dying; then of actual dying. This reborn morning life
still uncertain, mapless, inexplicable, impossible to explore.
I'll wear a flower in my hair, attracting lifegiver bees, and hope
that's enough. Sing on, locust, sing.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Apparition of Liberty

Saturday, September 10, 2011

New Business Cards

Every little while, just to keep your hand in and your design talents sharp, it's wise to reinvent your own marketing. I review and revise my own identity systems (letterhead, logos, business cards, envelopes, etc.) every six months to a year. You don't have to do it that often, but it's a pleasant way to spend a free afternoon designing and illustrating.

I've actually gone so far, in the past, as to invent phoney bands and fictional design firms so that I could create an identity system for them. It's quite fun, really, and it does keep your skills sharp.

This afternoon I made a new set of business cards versions, to reflect my own changing priorities and needs at this time. Since I am writing music on commission now, and since I am also wanting to restart my photography and graphic design career, post-surgery, I thought it was a good time.

I started by playing with my photography business card. The background illustration is a grayscale photograph of mine made in the past few days. The image is screened back so that the type stands out in high contrast in front, without being drowned out by the photo.

I made two versions of this photography card, the only difference being in the choice of typefaces. The first version uses some more obscure and decorative fonts, for a retro Art Deco look. After completing that version, I wondered if the typefaces would be too challenging for some folks, so I redid the card using more plain and legible typefaces.

(Note: I've obscured my cell-phone number here, as I don't intentionally put that out on the internet; although my email is open news, so I left that in.)

The next card I made was a card advertising music composition. I began by playing around with ideas using clip art with musical notation to accompany the text. That seemed a little boring, though, so I then thought about using my own musical scores for the art. Regardless, my thinking for the design of a music business card was not very different from these pjhoto business cards.

But then I had an inspiration. I have used Scrabble tiles in the past to make messages, words, short phrases, haiku, etc., then photographed them to make a design image or illustration. It's a fun way of playing with handmade typesetting; the look and feel of the wooden letter tiles has its own beauty.

So I got the inspiration to make the music card out of a Scrabble-tile illustration. I chose the phrase "Words and Music" and my name for the card, and laid them out using tiles. I made a background out of the very music and words I am writing right now for the new music commission. I made an arrangement of notebooks, writings, blank score paper, and Scrabble tiles. Then I photographed it in color and B&W, to get enough material to work with in Photoshop. I photographed with enough margin to be able to crop and edit the edges to make the business-card-sized illustration. A standard business card size 3.5 x 2 inches in dimension.

I added the phone number by laying out blank Scrabble tiles, using their blank backs, then typesetting the numbers onto the blank tiles in Photoshop. Since Scrabble tiles use a generic sans-serif font, I used Helvetica for the numbers.

Then I copied the phone number art into the business card art, and fused them together in Photoshop, using layers. I intended the numbers to be smaller than the words on the image, so I scaled this whole image down once it was made, before inserting it into the business card art.

The blank card-stock paper I was using to print these new business cards is a light tan parchment in appearance, so I color-shifted the entire artwork towards sepia, using the Color Balance dialog box in Photoshop. Sepia is a toned effect I use often for my monochrome photographic prints, and used here it is a complimentary color to the card-stock, giving an overall effect of being contemporary yet also somewhat classically antiqued, like an old photograph. I think the end result is rather pleasing.

Last, I thought to use the back of this business card to provide more detailed contact information, laid out more clearly, as pure type. The front of the card is after all an artistic illustration, so the back can be just type, with all the relevant data laid out very simply.

So, that was an afternoon of design play. I like the results, especially the music composition card. To do it as an illustrated art-card was a genuinely useful but of inspiration. This is the sort of design idea that makes your work stand out and be memorable: it's unique, customized, and different from the norm.

Next, I'll use this or a similar idea to make flyers, letterhead, and other materials for a music composition identity system. Later for that.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, September 08, 2011

feeling of destiny to the morning

(The morning after playing live music for silent film, I was physically tired but mentally and creatively energized. It felt like the floodgates had been opened, after a long time suffering post-illness, post-surgery, and all sorts of white light creative waters were flowing through. I sat down and wrote in my handwritten journal that morning, feeling like writing by hand was more proper and right, and a poem and a contemplation spilled out. The floodgates have stayed open: I am still in the flow for now.

It seemed important, that morning, to document the process. It was an episode of writing at white heat, a state of creative being I have come to recognize and rely upon, as it usually results in good creative work, or the seed of such work later. This is one of the rare times I have self-consciously documented the process of what it feels like to write at white heat; I present it here by way of example.

Note: the second section was all one page in the journal, streaming out in a solid block of writing; I have broken it into pseudo-paragraphs here only for ease of reading.)

intense vivid god-wrought and -given dreams later
sit naked in morning sunlight at the dining room table
light warm and bright streaming in skin soaks up warmth
after a chill night wrapped bundled in blankets
dreams making all the difference giving meaning
give purpose feeling of destiny to the morning
sense of splendor clear blue sky and distant traffic sounds
like waves at every beach rise and fall awakening
rising falling passing away back into the silent ocean

urge for going urge for writing poems half-formed in dream
in mind but stopped halfway because the pressure
behind them runs out that spiritual white heat presence that
propels all this making this writing this to go on living
only reason that means anything anymore without the daily making
there's no point no purpose to life no dreams no rationing
no reason to care about why we're here why we live
just that endless canyon void I've seen before that terrifies

but stop here I am this morning hot sun on my shoulder
arm side of head as I sit sipping tea and writing
a morning awake after lucid dreams full of lessons given
truth you know but need to remind yourself of some greater power
speaking decides it's time to slap soothe anchor you into remembering
and so the morning is the first morning of the world remade
again and again just like it has so many times risen
from death abyss dying rising again a breaking wave into this brilliant light

—sometimes you forget that you just need to write by hand some mornings, not at the computer; that you need to drag yourself into the sunlight and sit and read there in the morning (today skimmed Big Sur by Kerouac, record of his breakdown into paranoid madness in cabin in woods, so like my own various bouts of wintermind) (when I actually let go and let the wolves flood over the snow and into my heart) and then sit some time in sunlight and write by hand in this long-suffering neglected road journal, this big book of things made many places but mostly away from home base;

and after vivid dreams whose tone and joy and pleasure and temper linger with you for contemplative hours sitting hot sun on your shoulder you are at last after the false starts of recent weeks the stutters and half-birthed ideas suddenly you're given a real poem;

finally a real poem, not just an aborted effort;

and this becomes the break in the logjam, the first morning of the world, the very first day, after death and rebirth;

and the dream that was about the flow releases the real flow into the day again, and suddenly for the first real time in real months you're given a morning full of creative fire, and you make a real poem everything flowing flooding out of all of a sudden changing pens because the beautiful calligraphy pen is too slow for the flow;

the world has begun to move again and your dams are released to floodwaters going down narrow canyons to an invisible infinite ocean;

and the day begins already having given you what you need for living, a real poem, art, mythos, eros, life itself;

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Process of Writing 20: In the Flow

The past two weeks, even though my mental and emotional state has been beset by the effects of grieving/depression/PTSD, I have been very busy with writing music for the new commission. I have been feeling bad, but I've also been feeling productive creatively.

While I was in the Twin Cities for a few days, two lyrics for songs came forward; more accurately, came clear, after having been thought over for awhile. Both of these were second attempts at lyrics for particular short songs within the "Stories" groupings.

I also began to get some clarity, one morning, on the Opening piece, which has been stuck for awhile. I mentioned earlier that I want the Opening number to be an attention-grabber, a summation, and a door opening into the world of the music. That's a lot of baggage for a piece to have to carry, and I was getting stuck because my desire for the music was bringing out my latent perfectionism. So I set the Opening aside to focus on other, shorter pieces, most of which will eventually fall into one of the two Stories groupings. Then, that morning, sitting in the living room of my friends' house where I was staying, I began reading some Native American songs, chants, and stories, and some ideas for the Opening began to solidify.

I still have more to do with this, but it feels as if the logjam has broken, and the writing is now flowing smoothly and easily. So despite all the bummer moments of the past few weeks, they have also been fertile and productive.

A week or more ago I wrote the words and music for a piece based on one of the stories given me by a member of the Chorus. It's the story of his youth thinking he was different but not going he was gay; of dating girls in high school; of his travel to Europe in college, where he came out to himself, and experienced the joy of being who he really was. While there, he dated men, and lived openly as gay. But when he returned home, he had to go back into the closet for awhile; his fraternity on campus, for example, was not exactly welcoming of gays. But he also started to notice how men he knew would meet at the gay bar in town, quietly. There was a hidden gay scene in that college town. The story ends with him not being fully out of the closet yet, but knowing there's a place now for him, and other men like him, and eventually, living openly will be possible.

I wrote this song as a waltz, following the metaphor of secret dancing between partners whose lives are partially hidden from view. I called it "Secret Waltzes," for soloist, chorus, and piano. Secretly we waltz around with each other, alone and not alone, our lives interpreted through signals coded to be private from the general eye, but obvious to anyone inside the scene. We dance our lives, both openly and secretly. We go to Europe, where the waltz was king. So there are several semiotic layers for making this piece as a waltz; and it's just plain fun to write a waltz.

I've written about three other lyrics in the interim, including two written while away in the Twin Cities. One lyric is a song against bullying, which I have now done the musical sketches for as well, and have only to set down the final pencil score. Another is a semi-nostalgic song about the "Glory Days" of high school, and how we both survive and are shaped by those days; that song I intend to write as a loud rock & roll song, again probably for soloist with chorus and piano.

I started but haven't completed the lyrics for a folk song-style piece, modeled loosely after some of the old classic folksongs. You meet your love in the apple orchard, you fall in love, you spend time together, then work or travel or death takes him away from you. It's a standard pattern for many folk songs—only in this case the lovers are two young men.

And I was inspired to write a simple folk/country song, again inspired by a story given me by a man in the Chorus. it's about wanting to live more openly and fearlessly. It's called "Fearless Heart":

I wish I had a fearless heart
I wish I could be brave and cool
I wish I knew which tale was true
The apple or the serpent’s part

I wish I could be wild and strong
I wish I could sing my own song
I’d never need to live a lie
i’d welcome every roving eye

I wonder if he’ll ever know
I wish I could just tell him so
This private garden makes a start
Someday we’ll build the wilder part

That day I find my fearless heart

I envision the music to be fairly simple. This will probably be a solo with simple accompaniment. A little wistful, a little bit country, a little gentle smile.

Yesterday, I suddenly began to write the musical setting, for chorus and piano, of the second Illuminations piece for the commission, "Seven Haiku About the Great Lakes." This is a linked suite of short pieces, essentially; some haiku set in as few as eight bars, others taking up two or three pages of finished score. I had written a couple of months ago a short series of seven haiku, taking scenes and vignettes from episodes around the Lakes. I was letting them sit till the music felt ripe to do. I had intended the musical style to be open, simple, evocative, and reflective. The musical touchstones were traditional Japanese melodies, perhaps obvious for a haiku setting, and the heartlands-inspired music of Aaron Copland, such as his opera The Tender Land. My own music is not in stylistic imitation, but inspired by the spirit of those sources.

As of tonight I have finished five of the seven haiku. I will finish this piece tomorrow, I believe. The style is a little more jagged and open than other pieces in the commission. The music is spare and almost minimal, in the sense that there is no extra time spent on anything, no variations, no development. Just state the moment and be done. The piano usually has no more than two bars to set the mood before the chorus enters with the text. And when the poem is done, the music stops.

I want to fulfill my desire and intention to write a range of pieces in a range of musical styles for this commission—which after all was the reason I was chosen to write it.

"Seven Haiku" is, along with "Silences Here," an Illumination: not strictly about the central topic of the overall work (living and growing up gay in the Midwestern heartlands), but about the setting, the context, the overall sense of geographic place. These are place-setting pieces that hopefully give cultural context to the overall suite of pieces.

I feel really good about having written most of "Seven Haiku" in two days. I did sketches in my music notebook, then tonight copied out finished pencil scores for the first five of the seven haiku.

So I feel very much in the flow of composing right now. Despite the emotional/mental turbulence I've been experiencing, despite any physical exertions and rest and recovery, the lyrics are starting to come to me at a rapid rate; and the music for the lyrics soon after. I am approaching my ending deadline, so it feels doubly hood to be in the flow, and making real progress at this time. More to come, and soon.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, September 05, 2011


from The Surgery Diaries

I spent too much money on a short trip to Minnesota this past week. It was the first time I have been away from home any length of time since the surgery. It was partly a test: to see if I was up to traveling, to dealing with changing the ostomy bag when away from home, with lots of physical exertion when on the road, and so forth. I stayed at a best friend's place in Minneapolis, which was a safe place for all this pushing at my limits. I spent one entire day at the Minnesota State Fair, walking and making photos, and taking in the sights and sounds. And a bit of healthy eating; which you can do at the Fair if you pay attention and take your time. I spent another afternoon wandering with friends around the Renaissance Festival outside of the Twin Cities, which was another test of physical prowess. I got home after the long drive, and only then was I really exhausted. So this was a good trip, I enjoyed myself for the most part, I had fun with friends, and I wasn't overly tired. If anything, my energy is returning strongly enough that it's getting harder to tire myself out. And I spent too much money.

But then, it was one of those trips where I knew I would be going to places where I would be tempted to purchase, so I did budget for the spending. And some of that shopping was every-two-years shopping, not on impulse but planned. I needed a new belt for my pants, which I like to get at one particular leather-work vendor at the Ren Fest, for several reasons, mostly because of quality and durability.

I did a little thrift store shopping on the trips up and back, as I knew I would have to stop regularly when driving to give my body a chance to stretch and relax. I haven't driven like this for months, and I knew it would be a good way to unwind. So I stopped at some places I used to frequent, and didn't stop at others.

One of the books I found on one of my stops was The Wild Braid: A poet reflects on a century in the garden, by Stanley Kunitz, with Genine Lentine. This is a poet who has always gardened, who ahs lived a full century and more, who has always written poems in and about the garden, and who I feel has often had wisdom to pass on. Wisdom not only about writing, but about life.

During the preparation and process of this book, which was instigated by Genine Lentine as a series of interviews and excerpts from Kunitz's published and unpublished writings, Kunitz fell mysteriously ill, and as mysteriously recovered. This is what he says about that episode, words which resonate strongly with my own recent experience of surgery and recovery:

The garden instructs us in a principle of life and death and renewal. In its rhythms, it offers the closest analogue to the concept of resurrection that is available to us.

I feel I experienced a kind of resurrection and I'm absolutely grateful for having emerged and yet I have no delusions I've been promised anything but a period of survival, that's all. There is no pledge of survival beyond that.

—Stanley Kunitz

No pledge of survival. I have if anything become even more conscious of my limited time here in this incarnation, of how much I want to get done, of the limited time that is mortality, and that I am aware of my own mortality as never before. No time at all, it feels like some days, to get enough done.

I look for ways to revitalize myself right now. Some have to be new ways, because in some cases the old ways just don't work anymore. I look for a way to come back to life. With the help of some neighbors, I was finally able to thoroughly weed out and mulch the back gardens, where the plants I want there are few at the moment, but very much alive. Earlier in the year, I had thought the morning glories I had planted weren't going to make it; but now, not only have they come back to life, they're exploding with it.

I feel as though I'm a traveler exploring territory that may not be wholly new, but it has reverberations and images that seem to have a collective presence. It's still a feeling, a sensibility that is mysterious in many ways because I don't know exactly where I am at this moment, in terms of the imaginative, the creative process, but I know I am searching for something different from the terrain I was familiar with. And yet, it isn't simply a new landscape. When I finally come to grips with my night visitor, I'll know more clearly what it is I have in mind, which seems to be a new set of images, but connected very much with my whole history.
—Stanley Kunitz

That disorientation, that not-knowing where you are right now. There is a distinct before and after to my life, now. I find myself grieving for the person that I was, who is no more; grieving as well for the parts of my body that were taken away, but also for the vanished sense of integral wholeness. I constantly stumble, fog-brained, around my days and nights not knowing what to think: everything is new, there are no rules, I don't know what's the same and what's changed till I encounter a situation and find out by doing. It's all still very mysterious. Why is recovery so mysterious? I suppose because rebirth is, too, like birth itself.

Certainty is once again dissolved. All the old maps are useless. We seek new terrain to explore.

I've been through this before, in the dark night of the soul, when everything I thought I knew and believed was taken away, leaving a void in me that stayed empty for years. Every time you try to fill that void inside you, it dissolves back into hollowness, because it's a void that can't be filled with belief, only with experience. I've filled that void two or three times since that first voiding, which was the dark night of the senses, the first stage of the dark night. The kenosis of emptying came later, in the desert.

And now I am emptied again. Grieving again. Feeling often lost. As more than one friend has pointed out to me, even at my current diminished capacity I am doing better than most people do at their best. But it's not my own best, and I know it. I can tell I'm functioning well below one hundred percent. I strive in frustration to improve my functioning, and most days cannot. Moments of revelation happen, when suddenly my mind clears, my eyes clear and I see sharper, hear sharper, than I have in a long time. Everything comes into focus. But such moments are not enduring; I am constantly dragged back down the gravity well into rebellious solace.

Everyone seems to think I'm doing very well indeed, but I don't feel that way at all. I still feel very messed up, very uncertain and insecure. I feel sometimes very abandoned, analogous to a person who has been widowed, and is comforted by all her friends for awhile, but all too soon her friends want her to get on with life, stop mourning her loss, and resume. That can make you feel even more alone than you did before, because the support you still need isn't there any more. People think you're fine now, and they can go on. Often enough this isn't really about you. There are two kinds of support, or solace, that people give: the first kind is the support and comfort they give you when you really need it; the second kind is the kind they give themselves, because they're not comfortable with your process. As though grief had a timetable or schedule to be followed.

I find solace for myself in fewer and fewer things. Some days it's hard to find any solace at all. Sometimes you survive purely by distraction and escapism—for once, escapism is not pathological because it's in support of your survival, not an avoidance of engagement with life. I constantly seek new strategies to find and maintain meaning and purpose in my life, which for now remains uncertain and insecure and mysteriously difficult to like. I've heard that some people who go through an near-death experience are troubled by being brought back, they don't want to be here anymore, and sometimes it's just not a very nice place to be. Pain hurts. Some days it takes all my energy to maintain anything remotely near a positive attitude. It can be a real uphill struggle.

Most days, lately, making art does help. Taking a short roadtrip up to Minnesota did help.

But then I had to come home. Right back into the old patterns and enables. Getting pulled right back into the bucket, surrounded by useless black crabs who won't let go. It's depressing just to have to go home when being away is much more life-affirming. It's cabin fever, to be sure, but it's also knowing how easy it is to let discipline and practice slide when lounging about at home. Days you don't feel motivated become an excuse to do nothing. But forward momentum is necessary, if I'm to get anywhere. I need to break out, I need to make this work somehow. Right now, it's not working. I have to find a solution. But all the old maps are useless. I don't know if I have the strength yet to make yet another new map, fill the void one more time. Only time will tell—paradoxically, since time is also the hell we live in, some days.

What's the point? What purpose is there to any of this? I read Stanley Kunitz's book of poems and thoughts and garlands from his garden, and near the end of his book I find this sublime paragraph, and somehow it all seems to make sense, for now, and to give me reason to go on, for now.

When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.
—Stanley Kunitz

Labels: , , , , , ,