Tuesday, November 29, 2011

the Witch Trees

under deadened skies
black firestroked oak branches
whirl in hollow light

cold silent bells
of lost winter temple
ring, ring, still ring

hollowed in heart,
leaden sun, black amber scar,
fingers wave against

the blackened throat
the monstrous heart

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

New Songs for an Afterlife

Interrupted sleep is still sleep. At least nine hours,
broken into stems, this long weekend. Each night
recovering a lost sense of self. Restless, unnerved,
woken from intense dreams about gathering crystals
from a business going out. Crystals of color, electronics,
a microphone stand with bizarre gear attached,
stack of high-end video cameras might still work.
Afterlife of quartz and silicon.

Last night, poet, a small god's song lyric.
Not a shock, once immersed in songwriting,
the obvious poem come out as lyrics. Words dreamt.
Three new lyrics this past month, poet, steady
trickle if not flood. Only half-rhymed, structurally
loose, looking for a new word to say what's familiar,
feeling forward into the unknown. Three new songs
sit by the hearth of dreaming. The more you dream,
the more you write. Gradually gathers into new sets,
a new book. A scattering of words. Some connection
to leaves fallen across grass and flesh alike.

Chain links between paint and film, conflagrations
of carpet fiber, ash, gravel, lost keychains.
Charms for an afterlife of trash and dead symbols.
An angry dying painter makes collage, painting words
into the swirling vibrancy of his last large paintings.
Paintings about dying, paradoxically full of life.
Serenity and rage beside each other, holding hands.
Two saints of agony and ecstasy, roped barbed-wire
cattle dragged to the dullest seaside ledges.
Journals of paint and alchemical magic. Dancers
waltzing the skulls of their gone lovers
in the apocalyptic sundown. Make me a ribbon to wear
from the sinew of your broken thighs.
Write poem lyrics with withered skeletal hands.
An afterlife for songs, long past the singer's
expiring exhalation.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Taking Flight, by the Rivers

Dalles of the Eau Claire River, WI, October 2011

A daylight time exposure in infrared. Exposure time was about 4 seconds. The softening and blurring of the waterfall comes from the longer exposure. This location is one I discovered accidentally a few years ago while traveling through northern Wisconsin to photograph fall colors. Near the headwaters of the Eau Claire River, this is a small county park of exceptional beauty, northeast of Wausau. It's off the beaten trail, as it were, and hardly anyone seems to know about it. There's no camping, but it's got excellent trails along the water and into the northern pine forest. Ancient metamorphic bedrock is exposed at the earth's surface here, creating huge boulders for the river to rumble through. There are also some erosional features downstream, such as potholes carved into the bedrock by time and the river.

Places like this, where the basement rock crops to the surface, contain a magic of beauty and serenity, pockets of old time amidst the surrounding croplands and remnant forests of the northern Great Lakes region. Similar places full of ancient beauty and rough magic are Interstate Park, along the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Devil's Lake State Park, just north of the Wisconsin River north of Madison.

Taking Flight

A multiple self-portrait made by layering sequential infrared exposures. Each exposure was about 4 seconds long in overcast mid-day daylight. The location was a park above cliffs overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul, MN. I set the camera on a tripod, used the delay timer to give me a few seconds to get into position, then the long exposure to blur movement. So this image is a recording of a performance of taking flight, lifting off from the ground, acted out by myself walking along the path.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Writing Gratitudes: A how-to guide

(I've been asked a few times to describe my annual practice of doing Gratitudes. Herein follows a basic, if rambling, guide to my process and thinking.)

Between Thanksgiving and the end of the calendar year is when I write my annual Gratitudes. It can take awhile to write them, because you have to stop and think about them often. I usually give myself several writing sessions over a month's time to do them. You go away and do something else, and let them percolate for awhile. Then you come back with fresh insight.

I write annual Gratitudes instead of making New Year's Resolutions. I've been doing this for several years now.

New Year's Resolutions are set-ups for failure, for self-hatred, and for beating yourself up when you cannot live up to your own expectations. Resolutions are toxic. I stopped making New Year's Resolutions decades ago, when I realized that they were exactly like those damaging expectations we lay on ourselves, then use to later hate and harm ourselves for not being able to accomplish. Most people make unreasonably grandiose Resolutions, that on some level they already know they won't be able to meet. So there's a masochistic aspect to the practice, which is unnecessary.

For many years I did nothing on New Year's Eve. I thought it to be one of the dumber of national holidays throughout the year. It has all the excess and self-indulgence of a Roman carnival, without much actual reflection. Every year it's the party at the end of the world. (Of course, in these days, many people do feel it's the end of the world, anytime now.) So for several years I just ignored the whole thing. Another factor, for me, is that I celebrate the turning of the Yearwheel at Samhain, which is the old agrarian pagan calendar new year.

Then, a few years ago I got the idea to start doing Gratitudes, instead, at calendar year's end. I discovered this idea when I was really stuck. I had given up my own life and career to move back in with my parents and become their full-time live-in caregiver. I needed to find something to be grateful for, as I felt life pressing in around me with death, despair, and hopelessness. I felt like I needed to find something in my life to grateful for, or I would drown.

What I do now instead of New Year's Resolutions is to focus on what lessons I've learned over the past year, what I've accomplished, what has been given to me, and what I'm grateful for. Gratitudes need to be very personal, not grandiose. They need to be about what you sincerely are grateful for.

I have found when doing Gratitudes over the past few years that I have to start with very small, insignificant things. I start small, because if you dive into the deep end from the start, you'll freeze up. So I wade in slowly. I start with something like, "I'm grateful for the Xmas ornament my sister made for me last year, which was the first ornament I put on my tree this year."

If I start small, I can gradually work my way up to the really big things, like, "I'm grateful I'm still alive." If I start small, I really mean it sincerely when I get around to the big things.

The big things to be grateful for are harder to be genuine, authentic, and sincere about.

It's really easy to be grateful when you sit down to a feast of abundance at a large table with family and friends.

It's a lot harder—and therefore probably more real—to be grateful during a famine than a feast.

Yet one of the all-time greatest spiritual masters, mystics, and teachers, Meister Eckhart once said, "If the only prayer you ever prayed was 'Thank You,' that would suffice." Sincere gratitude is much more powerful than insincere thanks, even for very small things.

Most people think the big things are the easy things to be grateful for, but they're only easy on a glib, surface level. If all you want to do is live a superficial life with easy gratitudes, that's fine, and more power to you, and I cannot live that way. Most people state their gratitude only for those things in life that make them feel good, not for those things that hurt to learn. If you have achieved success in career, love life, and more, then by all means do express your gratitude. But don't stop there. Don't just express gratitude for all the good things in your life. There's more to life than just the good things.

For me, the really big things to be grateful for, which I work up to, must include those things in my life that taught me the hard lessons. The lessons I needed to learn, but which were not always comfortable, pleasant, or fun. Like, "I am grateful for the obstacles put in my way, that I learned lessons from." Like, "I am even grateful for the hardships I've been through, the suffering and pain I've been through, because each of those taught me to grow up and become a better person, a more whole person."

I am stating those Gratitudes generically here, by way of example. When I actually sit down to write my own gratitudes, you can bet that this year I will be including the illness, surgery, and recovery that I've been through in 2011. It has been a very hard year in many ways—not only for me, but for several of my friends and family. And I am genuinely grateful for the pain of the surgery and recovery I've been through, because I'm still alive. The blunt truth is, 50 years I would have already died by now.

So I have found that writing Gratitudes is a progression from small, simple things, up to the really big life-altering, deeply cosmic, spiritual-level things. That's how I do it. It's what works for me. Someone else might do it completely differently.

I highly recommend this practice of writing Gratitudes to anyone who wishes to do New Year's differently than they have usually done before. It completely changes the way you think about yourself, and about life, at year's end. You still do the same self-reflection, the same overview of the last year to see what you've done and how well you've done it. But you avoid setting yourself up for future sessions of beating yourself up for not living up to your own expectations. It's a lot easier on the nerves, and a lot better for your self-esteem. If your personal level of self-esteem is already under attack, why add more stress to it?

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Inspiration Cards

A couple of months ago, when I was feeling particularly stuck in life—just after surgery, still blurry and mentally fogged from everything I was struggling through, not least the after-effects of surgical anaesthesia—a friend suggested that I already had the resources to get myself unstuck. I just needed a way to remind myself how to do that.

One obvious means, of course, was just to keep writing music—I was in the middle of the recent commission, then—and making art, etc. Being creative every day became a literally life-saving activity. To the point, now, when the commission is done, and I'm looking for new projects, that I'm having some anxiety about my future again, simply because I don't have a clear long-term project to do right now. I have to find one, or make one.

Actually, a couple of smaller projects, after a large project, are not a bad change of pace. Yet I'm stirred up, emotionally, these days. I feel a little lost at sea, and that creates anxiety. I find myself needing something to focus on, so that the voices of fear for the future don't hover so close.

I've begun to write some other songs, but with no clear deadline it's too easy to set them aside for days at a time, and neglect to work on them. It's too easy to feel rudderless. And because my creative work is what's mostly giving me a reason to live right now, being rudderless is scary.

So my friend and I came up with the idea of making myself a set of customized Inspiration Cards.

There are small cards in a bowl that you pull out at random. They contain ideas. They contain suggestions about things to do. They contain commentary on keeping life in perspective—attitude adjustments, if you will. They are reminiscent of, and indirectly inspired by, the Oblique Strategies cards co-created by Brian Eno. Eno's ideas have often inspired me, shaken me loose, and got me moving again; they are a breath of fresh air. My Inspiration Cards are a sort of personalized version of cards that get you unstuck, full of phrases and words that I need to say to myself, to get myself ground and moving again.

I haven't been counting how many cards I've made. I keep adding to the bowl when new things to write down come to mind. The Inspiration Cards currently live in one of the papier-maché art bowls I made earlier this year; my plan is to make a larger customized bowl for the cards, where they will live more permanently. Something hand-made seems appropriate. Maybe I'll write other messages to myself on the bowl. At least very least, it will be something to inspire me, too.

Here's what a few of the cards say, in random order as pulled from the bowl:


Why are you resistant to grace?

Zen monk
fallen leaves


Naked Pleasure


Make a movie

Scrabble art


Be outrageously sexy

All is forgiven, move on

Laugh or cry (laughing is better)


Camera walk

Esoteric clues

The piano has been lonely

So, we have a mix of practical suggestions of activities to do, spiritual advice, reminders of things you already knew but have overlooked in the midst of your mind-drama, and permissions given to stretch outside of the usual limits and boundaries.

I see several ways to use the Cards that I haven't tried yet, too. Some Cards contain familiar wisdom, restated in my own words, but nothing new. Others are meant to shake me into thinking about life from a new direction, a viewpoint outside the usual. I could use the Cards for guidance in situations that are in flux (when are they not?), as one uses the I Ching. I could use the Cards for assembling a daily practice of mindfulness. And so forth.

The field is open-ended.

I could see each person making their own customized set of Inspiration Cards for themselves, attuned to their own situations and needs. if you were to make a set of Inspiration Cards, what would you put in the bowl? I think there are many possibilities. The only guidance I would render is to make sure to include a few Cards designed to stretch you, to invite you to do things outside your comfort zone and usual habits and patterns. Breaking out of whatever box you usually find yourself in is itself a major source of inspiration and renewal.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sacred Madness

Our real choice is between holy and unholy madness: open your eyes and look around you—madness is in the saddle anyhow.
—Norman O. Brown

The old saying goes, When the world has gone mad, the sane appear to be mad. But it's not we who are insane, we're sane people in an insane world.

Of course, maintaining that awareness requires a certain degree of self-confidence, of belief in oneself and one's own inner compass. It's easy to get pulled off balance if you doubt your own sanity. As a character in a drama once said, though, I may act crazy sometimes, but I am not insane. Acting crazy is sometimes how you stay sane.

I propose that in the coming weeks you make an effort to get more accustomed to and comfortable with the understanding that the entire world is in the throes of utter lunacy. Once you are at peace with that, I hope you will commit yourself to the sacred kind of lunacy—the kind that bestows wild blessings and perpetrates unreasonable beauty and cultivates the healing power of outlandish pleasure.
—Rob Brezsny

Enacting sacred madness appeals to me just now. i've known for some months now, since the surgery, that making art is the one thing that has kept me alive, kept me sane, kept me going, even to the root level of having a reason to keep going, a reason to go on living and making art. There's a need for me to act a little crazy, just to stay sane. Of course, I get called crazy anyway, by the forces of mediocrity, merely for questioning them, and wanting to do things a little differently.

Sacred lunacy is just what the world needs right now. We all could use some sacred clowning by the heyoka spirits to get us back into balance, and get some perspective about how life has gone crazy these past few years. Truly, as the ancient Chinese curse goes, we are living in interesting times.

Loss of art is a social sin. With that deprivation our work life becomes distorted and violent, and so too does our leisure time. [Video] games that announce the killing of galaxies takes over. Or titillating sex. Or titillating news. Or titillating anything. Life can no longer be lived or celebrated in depth. Superficiality reigns.
—Matthew Fox

We live in a dangerously over-stimulating time. We are inundated with noise, loud advertisements, bright and brilliant flashing lights on billboards and theatre marquees. We're encouraged to sit passively before our TV screens, or our computers, and passively absorb the entertainment beamed to us. And of course the loud, bright advertisements interspersed between the things you actually might want to watch.

Performance is life. Entertainment is death.
—Hakim Bey

Entertainment is deadening. It is the opposite of life, because it requires no participation, merely passive absorption. Making art is performance, which is active. Even when listening to music, you can be an active listener or a passive one. Active listening engages with the music. Passive listening just lets it wash over you like a warm bath.

In addition to being overstimulated, we also live in times that are antithetical to art. Seriously, think about it. We are bathed in entertainment while at the same time fine art is disparaged as elitist and obscurantist. Some postmodern artists exacerbate this problem, of course, by indeed being elitist and obscure. Poets wonder why they have no audience, yet continue to write new work that requires specialist academic knowledge to comprehend: a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it's a chicken-or-egg dilemma, since for over a century now the lords of business have declared that only pragmatic, tangible products have any value, while other things have no value because they cannot be sold—and we've gone along with this belief, in our practice of monetizing everything, and determining value on sales. Great fine art of the past has sold for many millions of dollars. Art is only valued when it's a commodity, in this way of thinking. That's why entertainment is valued over fine art: it's easier to sell. And that's where the sin comes in, the social sin of losing art.

In this cynical climate, what could be more radical, what could be a more sacred act of madness, than to proclaim that beauty matters. Genuine beauty, not ironic, distanced, artificial beauty. The plasticized images of beauty seen in beauty pageants, pornography, or heavily-made-up icons of cinema are not what we mean by real beauty: those are all illusions. Real sex isn't pretty, because it's earthy. There is no airbrushing.

Beauty has to do with seeing all life as blessing, with returning blessing for blessing, with forging blessing of pain and suffering and tragedy and loss. Beauty needs to be made and remade. It is the vital work of the artist within ourselves. . . . I believe that beauty is better understood as an adjective than as a noun. Rather than pursuing the question, What is beauty? I believe it is more useful to ask the question, What are beautiful experiences you have had? And how can we forge more beauty from our common sharing of this planet? An inevitable consequence of asking such a question is the truth that beauty is simple and it is shareable.
—Matthew Fox

It is finished in beauty.
—Navajo chant

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the shaman sees doors

the shaman sees doors

once you see a thing
becoming sensitive
you find them

you may have looked
before and not seen
it passed by

but once attuned
they leap out of the world
and into your awareness
a thousand instances a day

the shaman sees doors now

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Seeing the Bones

Legs aching, falling asleep, last pause for breath before
the actual plummet, middle-of-the-night tired,
I see the bones within my own flesh, lingering,
x-rayed in mind's vision, skeleton moving
as I adjust sprawl to spare hips that night
given usual agony. Now I see the bones of hands
and arms as well. Some awakening to see the skull
behind the skin. What's this for? A presentiment
of eventual ends? A warning more local, personal?
There's no sense to it, just vision. In the morning,
though, it's still there, this sense of bones of hand
and forearm and thigh shining through the flesh.

Argument with basic self that armor is unnecessary.
Release those batting layers no longer needed to pad
against the world's black-blooded suffering. Enlivened
to see the ribs of skinny boys show through, attractive
to tickle as well as scan. A young man's armor
of brush, pencil, sketch pad. Long-lined torsos
hatched with fish-bone shadows. Another acting-out
by basic self to try to harden into steel, but one thing
the younger self never wants to learn is the immiscible.
Open that heart, break through those glowing ribs,
fire within something like the sun. Heartburst and live.

Losing armor is not dying. There are gaps between bones.
These fingers held together by nothing so much as will.
Once or twice, maybe more, i've seen the cold dissolving
into atoms, division of the flesh into atomic clouds.
Seen flesh made galaxy, self spun into void.
Lost arms to aspen, thighs to red mesa sandstone.
Once or twice, at least, an emptying of self into self
into void. It leaves its marks. I'm not afraid to see
my own bones, I say. There they are. Is that blue halo
radioactive particle spin? Maybe it's just the x-ray light
from a long billion light-months powering its way
through gas cloud and flesh alike. Some things just
seem more solid, just seem dense.

Cold memory of dying and living again. Hot breath
of vast beasts snuffling your hair to wake you. Make a
fist in a night full of burning horses. Still, they run.
What is left here but the recordings? Shut them off,
they are as useless as memoirs no one dictated,
no one wants to recite. A semblance of ceremony
to want these bone-bound books at all. What have I ever
lost by dying? Just those scars I needed no more.
There isn't much to be said with missing throats.
Just that jaws will clack, teeth will rattle,
and the pound of flesh taken has lost itself
in a memory of marrow bone.

That sunlight feels bountiful good on skin. Pressure
of heat. Thigh-bones sheath themselves back in
muscle holsters. Back and shoulders where the sun kisses.
There used to be less hair around that scar. It trembles
in the freshet. Have we awoken yet? Nearly. Nearly.
Still forearm bones seem revealed, indirect sunlight,
blue beneath the skin. Long there, long passing.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Alarm Dispels a Dream

The alarm dispels a dream of going to a piano recital. The pianist is going to be Emil Gilels, a great concert pianist of my youth. The venue is a modern concert hall in a wooden setting. But we are in a downstairs room, paneled in light wood, which is below the main concert hall. It's not clear to me if there will be a video screen and amplifiers for us in this lower room. I traveled hard to get here, and I don't want to miss anything. The moment of the concert approaches as the alarm goes off.

It's not common for me to remember my dreams anymore. That has changed since the surgery. Some of that is a function of not being able to sleep well since then, partially due to the bag demanding my attention all the time, even at night. I sometimes don't get to sleep for more than three hours at a stretch. I often get enough physical rest from sleep, now, but not always dreams. Or they're too fleeting to remember upon awakening. Mostly they're of this semi-random type of dream, not obviously lucid or communicative.

I like this dream because it involves music. It makes me remember the time my father and I went to see Gilels at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. He performed a first half of Impressionistic and modern pieces, Debussy, Scriabin, some others. The entire second half of the concert was devoted to Mussourgsky's original solo piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition. Gilels played it dramatically, powerfully, beautifully. The music was a revelation in itself, and his performance was one of the most memorable concerts of my young life.

I'm an artist who is used to mining his dream life for images, ideas, narratives, poems, music. I have a vivid imagination, and use both my experiences, including dreams, and my imagination in my art, etc. I've read of artists and scientists receiving solutions to puzzles in their dreams, or the last image or idea needed to make something complete and working. I think we undervalue our dreams when we dismiss them too quickly as just night-vapours. Dreams are relevant to all aspects of our lives. They're the royal road to the subconscious, as Freud put it in one of his more poetic moments. Dreams do much more than simply recycle the day's trashload of events, as some claim. In your dreams, the gods can speak to you directly; or those aspects of yourself deep in your unconscious mind, your shadow, your inner self, who normally isn't available during waking hours. The ancients used to call those inner voices the gods; nowadays, we have more psychological labels for such things. But even if it's just self talking to self, if you pay attention, you can learn a great deal. And you can find some deep wells, in dreams, into that river of creative force that is always flowing, deep underground.

I'm trying not to bothered by having a reduced dream life. I do think it makes a difference to my waking life, whether or not my dream life is active. People have sometimes asked me if my dreams are sometimes more vivid than others, if there's a continuum. But my dreams have always been vivid, been in color. Sometimes they're lucid dreams, sometimes they're so incredibly vivid and real that I am disoriented upon waking. Chuang Tzu's famous question often has relevance to me: Am I a man who dreamt last night that he was a butterfly, or am I a now butterfly dreaming he is a man? Honestly, sometimes it's hard to tell.

In the mornings, I'm often slow to get going. I spend at least some time every morning meditating, reading scared literature, thinking about creative work, doing Reiki on myself. (Lately, mostly on those parts of me still healing from the recent illness and surgery.) I don't listen to music that has words in it, as that pulls me too quickly into my left brain. I need to linger in my right brain for awhile upon waking, absorbing and writing down dreams if I can, otherwise just letting the imagination go wherever it wants. I contemplate the light on the trees. I listen to the wind. I actively, as the Zen expression says, do Nothing.

I take my time in the mornings, whenever possible. I take at least the time it takes to savor and sip a mug of tea. This morning process—it's not really a routine, and it's less than a formal ritual, but it's more than just a habit—makes for a much better day. When I'm on the road, sometimes the morning's departure preparations mean I have to put off this contemplative time till I've left; then, for awhile, setting out on the morning's drive, I do my morning contemplations.

It concerns me a little that my dream life has been affected by surgery, anaesthesia, recovery, not sleeping the way I used to. I value my dream life, for inspiration and more, and I don't want to lose it. Maybe when this process is all done, after all the surgeries to come, and I can sleep on my belly again, things will return to normal, or a new normal. A lot of my life is still in flux, in transition, not certain of outcomes. More questions than answers. I hope my dreams come back stronger, eventually. I hope for many things.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Process of Writing 26: Lagniappe

The concept of a lagniappe was one I first heard many years ago from a New Orleans native. It's the extra little bit the baker puts in your bag, or the grocer, or the fishmonger, as a gift of neighborly friendship, sometimes as a reward for one's loyal custom. The baker's dozen is a kind of lagniappe. The extra piece of candy thrown in for free. One online dictionary gives the origin of the word, naturally, as typically Cajun, a blend of cultures uniquely N'Orleans:

American French, from American Spanish la ñapa, the lagniappe, from la + ñapa, yapa, from Quechua yapa, something added. First Known Use: 1844

I felt the new music commission I've been writing all year would be complete at 18 individual pieces, and it was. 18 is a number that I've always liked, for reasons I can't always articulate. (It turns out it contains some significance to Jewish custom, and mystical interpretation. Who knew I was a Jewish mystic after all? *shrug*) And I still had a small pile of unused lyrics already written or half-written, a few stories left over from the telling, and some other ideas.

One idea was a short, sensual, somewhat erotic poem I'd written during the project, a poem of my own, from the perspective of art and memory. During the week after I had completed the commission, this poem spoke up that it wanted to be set to music after all. So I did that, and the commission now contains 18-plus-1 compositions, 18-plus-1 songs in various styles and voices.


I draw runes on your skin
a labyrinth of circles
over your heart

I draw my name on your breast
an arrow pointing down
from navel to root of sex

I draw chevrons on your arms
sentinel of my self
warrior guarding my soul

I draw your name on my breast
and as we press ourselves together
ink runs from skin to skin
as we imprint ourselves on each other
ink brothers, blood brothers, one

naked self to naked soul
naked soul to naked skin
writing our names
on each others’ arms
blood brothers, ink brothers, one

my only loving brother
we are one

I wrote this song for two tenor voices, with piano. The music follows the arc of the poem—which by the way was originally written as a poem, rather than a pure song lyric—from two separate and different selves merging, in the end, into one. I had some fun with the musical setting.

In 1985-86 I lived in Surakarta, Central Java, Indonesia, on a Fulbright grant to study gamelan music. As I'm sure most other Fulbright alumni would agree, being on a Fulbright can be a life-changing experience, in which you learn a lot more than you originally set out to study. I received my grant as a composer rather than a scholar, and so I felt free to absorb as much music and art as possible during my year in Indonesia. One of the regional musics I became very involved with was West Javanese, or Sundanese, music; Sunda being the western third of the island of Java, with a somewhat distinctive culture and artistic expression.

In Sundanese music, there are three main tuning systems. (A tuning system in Indonesian music is not like a Western scale, and even less like a musical key. It contains fixed tones with more or less fixed intervals, but between different sets of instruments there can be variation in pitch and relative interval, within the recognized standards.) All of these are pentatonic in nature, meaning five notes per octave. One of the aspects of Sundanese music is that the scales can interlock, sharing one or two notes in common, while other intervals within the tuning system are very different.

This use of interlocking scale systems can be used to great dramatic effect. You are going along in one tuning system, when at a pivotal point, the singer will go off in a completely different tuning system, which will share a note or two with the main tuning, then return to the main tuning at another pivotal point in the music. This can create a powerful sense of tension-and-release, of stress-and-resolution.

I have been strongly influenced by this practice of departure and resolution as a composer, and also as an improvising jazz musician. I use the principle of leaving the home scale to go off in another direction, then return, both as a composer and player. This might sound dissonant to the Western ear, but that's okay: the dissonance is resolved into consonance when the scale-patterns reconverge at a point of release.

I wrote this song using these ideas from music theory that I learned from my studies of world music, especially Sunda. Each of the two voices has a completely different tuning system, which they never break away from, although there are notes in common. The piano part follows the lead of each voice when accompanying them alone, then combines elements when the voices sing together.

The first voice uses the notes G, Ab, C, Db, Eb, G, in an emulation of the minor pentatonic Sundanese tuning called degung. The second voice uses the notes Db, Eb, F, Ab, Bb, Db, in an emulation of the major pentatonic Sundanese tuning used in gamelan salendro (which is roughly the same as the Central Javanese gamelan tuning slendro.)

(Note that while in Western music it's conventional to sing a scale ascending, in Sunda, they sing a scale descending. I'm using the Western convention here, but it's worth mentioning the other. Note also that Sundanese exact pitches do not correspond to Western equal temperament, so what I've done is create scales that emulate the Sundanese scales, while using Western instruments and voices. You shouldn't take these are precise transcriptions or imitations; they're not.)

Note that there are three notes in common between the two tuning systems: Db, Eb, Ab. These are the only notes the two voices have in common. Otherwise they exist in their own musical universes.

I did this to paint with the music, as it were, the same emotional narrative arc that is in the poem: two individuals becoming one. So the voices alternate at first, each in their own tuning system. The piano follows the voice's lead, mostly, but is free to add harmonies and chords that fill out the music. By the end of the song, the two voices have begun to sing contrapuntally with each other, and at last merged into a unison on the same note. This is also reflected in the piano part, which resolves its own musical phrases by circling around the keys of Db major and Ab major—but there is no tonal sense of dominant-tonic, as the chords don't have to move in the stereotypical ways, but rather, follow the melodies in their discrete tunings.

This was a lot of fun for me to write, even though most listeners will never hear any of this. I suppose one must have the unique background of being a Western composer who has studied world musics, to get all the references. But the average listener will I hope be able to hear the emotional arc of two becoming one, and the tension-and-release that exists within the music, even though it's not done following the usual clichés of tonal music. I don't mind if hardly anyone "gets it," to be honest, because this was a bit of fun for myself. If all a listener gets is the tension-and-release and the story of two lovers merging, then I am well satisfied.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Full Moon

almost the moon
in a grove of ginger
almost a sun
that warms these hands

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Monday, November 07, 2011

Published Poets

There are two younger gay poets I've met online—Christopher Hennessey and Stephen Mills—who are both celebrating, in their individual ways, having their first volumes of poetry published. Congratulations to both of them for seeing their books into print. I look forward to reading both books, sooner or later.

I feel connected to both of these younger gay poets in part because they are both of Midwestern origin, as am I, no matter where we all find ourselves now. That there is a Midwestern attitude towards life, and a viewpoint that colors how we confront life and the world, I have no doubt. I have been immersed in a writing project that is based on just that premise, that the Heartlands in the middle of the country do have something unique and different to offer, culturally, spiritually, creatively. Both of these younger gay poets make sense to me, when I read their poems, in way that is unfashionably non-ironic and sincere. There is a connection based on real experience, not just imagined experience. That there is a wide difference in style and means only makes the experience given from reading their poems more genuine, more authentic. "Only connect," E.M. Forster wrote, and these two poets do connect.

So I congratulate them both, and wish them all the best—and at the same moment feel a deluge of complex emotions. A blend of pride, pleasure, and some envy. I try to keep the envy to myself, because envy is at root self-centered, and present unvarnished congratulations.

Questions arise, not regarding the quality of these poems being published, but regarding the entire paradigm of publishing. Are we still tied to the idea of A Book being somehow more important to a poet than any other form of presentation? Does being published by an Established (or New) Publishing House somehow make you more legitimate as a poet than not being published? Is it poetic merit rather than the luck of the draw that gets one a book contract? Why do some publishing careers seem to begin younger than others? Do publishing careers that begin young sustain themselves for the long haul?

None of this really has much to do with Christopher or Stephen, beyond being elicited by observing their good fortune. Emotions are like the weather, and many questions don't have definitive answers.

There has been a stigma for many years about self-publishing, about "vanity" presses. The gatekeepers of publishing taste have long insisted that publishing one's own work diminishes its worth and impact. This stigma is losing a lot of traction these days, however, as are the gatekeepers of taste (publishers, editors, critics). Self-publishing has become very easy to do, using new media and print-on-demand, and the criticisms of self-published works on the grounds that they lack quality of writing and quality of design are falling away, because so many good books have now been self-published that the usual claims by the gatekeepers have been called into question.

Walt Whitman published his own poems, in their early editions. He even typeset and printed some editions himself, since he was a pressman with the necessary skills. Whitman even wrote his own reviews, anonymously. Had he not done so, would his poems ever become known? Would Whitman the Poet ever have been known by the world, have the influence he has had, changed the face of English-language and American poetry to the extent he has? His poems were considered unpublishable by the gatekeepers of his day, which is one reason Walt went ahead and printed them himself. And it's a good thing he did.

What I'm doing right here, writing a post on my blog, is considered to be "publishing" by some, and not by others. A large number of poetry journals, both online and offline, are now insistent that poems submitted have not been previously published—which for some poetry editors means, never, anywhere, in any media. So, a poem I posted on my blog is unacceptable to them, even if it's my best current writing. Other poetry journals and editors don't care so much about this veil of invisible originality. There seems to be some anxiety in publishing around things never having been seen before, by anyone—as if, by posting a poem on your own website, your have diminished it, or at least diminished its usefulness to the poetry journal in question. How much of this is lingering stigma over "vanity" publishing, and how much of it is wanting to scoop the competition? It may seem odd to think of poets as competitive, yet many are, and so are many journals. "You saw it here first, folks!" Acquiring first publishing rights is a big deal for some editors and publishers. Poets who habitually share their poems on their websites or blogs, as I often but not always do, can run afoul of these publishing expectations.

Well, that's okay. If there's a journal I really like, that I want to submit a poem to, that only accepts previously-unpublished poems, I can just write a new poem. Some poet friends have a hard time with that, because they wait to be inspired in order to write a poem. As do I, but where we differ is that I know inspiration is endless, to be found everywhere and anywhere—the triggering moment is readily available—and that creativity itself is an endless river of life that never ebbs. I've met more than one poet who writes, as I do, from intuition, from inspiration, and who believes, as I do, that craft exists to serve the moment of inspiration, not dictate to it, who yet also believe that inspiration is a rare thing. Perhaps for them, it is. For me, I can always write another poem. Inspiration is not rare, it's everywhere.

We live in times of turbulence and change, on all fronts. There's a lot of uncertainty. People are anxious, and the old definitions and maps don't seem to apply any more. The psychology of retrenchment, which is what a lot of publishers are doing, is based on fear. The other option, of course, is to embrace change. Maybe it's still scary, but at least it's alive.

Poetry publishing is in severe fluctuation, like all publishing. I applaud the genuine, actual, physical books of poetry being produced—because, it must be said, never has more poetry been produced and published than ever before. The new media technologies make it so much easier to self-publish than in Whitman's day. They also make it easier for traditional routes towards publishing to be pursued: agent, editor, publisher, printing press, book. The gatekeepers complain that a lot of bad poetry gets published now—as though they were a new trend, and had not always been true. Most things published are crap, and always have been. What the gatekeepers want is the return of their power to influence who gets published, and who gets read. I don't have a physical book of poems in the works right now, about to be published, but I still get read. It's not a large audience, but it's an actual one. I don't think that's cause for despair, rather, it reminds me of Whitman's times, and how his fame grew slowly because his poems were good (especially in those early editions).

My two young poet acquaintances have been doing the proper work of authors who are being published: the work of self-promotion, of poetry readings, or advertising, of getting the word out. Both of them have promoted their books on their blogs and websites. That's a good thing, because that's what you have to do these days. Stephen has written about how necessary it is to participate in the business of poetry. He rightly points out that the Romantic myth of the public clamoring at your door for your works of genius just isn't going to happen. You have to get out there are participate.

I'm thinking of new projects to take on. My biggest source of anxiety remains my medical situation, surgery, recovery, surgery, recovery. I am only too aware of how life-saving it has been for me to have been writing a new music commission, the occasional poem, making art, making photographs: being engaged, every day, creatively and artistically. Making art has kept me alive, and has given me a reason to go on living. So now that I'm finished with the music commission (except for finishing touches and other post-production details, of course), I don't want to stop. I need to keep going. To keep making art.

I take a moment's pause, and look over what I've written in the past year or so, as part of this medical adventure. I realize that I've written enough poems in two or three series to assemble at least two full books of poetry. Perhaps I will edit and produce such a book. I doubt anyone will want to publish it, though, as I'm more than convinced than ever that my own poems are too "different" to be widely publishable. That must have been how Whitman felt: that he faced rejection, unless he published himself. Well, I don't compare myself to Whitman, but I think I know how he felt. And so I might take that same route, and make the book myself.

Although I'm not going to rush into it. The poem series that I've been writing don't feel "complete" to me. There are more poems to be written in each of those series, I think, because I'm not done with the part of life which spawned them. Maybe in a year or two, the series will have stopped, and I'll have moved on to something else. You never stop making art, or writing, although what you're working on changes are you do, and as your inspirations change. So I might just wait till the poem series that have been evolving feel complete. Meanwhile, nothing stops me from producing another chapbook of poems anyway. There's certainly enough in the hopper, enough accumulated material, to make that worthwhile.

I've been thinking, too, about more multimedia approaches for my work. I don't really separate visual and written work. There's a book I could assemble from my photographs of the Western lands, with accompanying poems. I would probably do it B&W, although with some color. On my next roadtrip out West, I will at least partly be focusing on making infrared photographs, some no doubt of favorite places I have photographed before. It all changes when you look through a different lens. You see things from a completely fresh viewpoint when you change your artistic methods. The familiar becomes strange and beautiful again.

So I have some options. The main thing I want to do, regardless of what it is, is start a new, long-term, all-encompassing creative project. This too is part of the business of art: Staying busy, making art. Even if you have to end up self-publishing, because only a few people care, it's important to get your art out there, get it available, make it keep happening and growing. As long as you keep growing and developing as a person, so should your art. And that's the important thing I would say to any younger artists: Keep going. Make art. Don't stop. Never give in. No matter what happens, your art is necessary to the world.

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Sunday, November 06, 2011

Process of Writing 25: Completion

A couple of weekends ago I completed the new music commission I have been writing since last January. It's all done, after several months of writing. The week after, one more song came to me, a lagniappe. This leaves me with having written over an hour of words-and-music, feeling like somehow I have become a songwriter. I've written an entire show. I've written an entire album's worth of new songs. There are 18 songs total, plus one. A total of 19, but I tend to think of it as 18 plus 1. When I set out I figured 18 songs would be a good goal. Don't ask me why 18; it's a favorite number, always has been, and even I don't really know why. The plus one, the lagniappe at the end, was an extra gift. I have to find a place to insert it in the sequence of songs. The sequence itself remains a little blurry. I am playing my way through the songs to see how smoothly and logically each segue works.

So I have completed the commission. On one level, anybody who doesn't know me doesn't care. Does it affect their lives? Hardly. Does it affect mine? Deeply. This is a milestone for me, to have been commissioned (paid!) to write music. To write more than music, to write words.

Looking back, I've always preferred to write my own words, even back in music school when I wrote Three Songs, which were art-songs, contemporary lieder if you will, in the long tradition of composers writing songs for solo voice and piano, ranging from Franz Schubert to Ned Rorem. Some years after Three Songs, for baritone and piano, came Five Winter Dream Haiku, for mezzo-soprano and extended-range piano. These Haiku were again my own poems. The piece has been performed, but not recorded. It's still a favorite of mine, a lost child that nobody cares about except me.

Milestones. This is the longest single piece (although it's a suite of individual pieces) I've ever notated, scored, written down the words and notes and music for. It's probably between 70 and 80 minutes duration in performance; that's not yet determined, but will come clear in rehearsal. That's a full concert of music, a full CD. It's not that I haven't written this much for a project before. After all, I have several recorded CDs to my credit, some of which are just as long. But those are recorded compositions that were never more than partially notated. This is the single longest notated piece of music I've written so far.

Each individual song was a complete piece. The overall work is modular, really, and there are two or three groupings within the larger commission that could be performed as smaller sets. For example, the three "Illuminations" pieces could be done as a discrete set. One could also do a selection from the main narrative thread of the piece, or from the "Stories" songs.

Towards the end of the writing process, I was on a roll. I wrote anywhere from one to three songs a week, averaging two songs for several weeks. I still have three or four lyrics and poems that I haven't set to music; perhaps I'll still use those, another day.

I can feel myself shifting gears. The big job of writing has been completed. Now the scores are being engraved in Finale, and I must proofread and make corrections, if any. I have to do some publishing organizational work. Some logistics in preparation for the rehearsal phase of the project. Administrative-level decisions.

I am relaxing from the big creative push. I feel like I can sit down and write new music almost any time, now. I feel like I've been working out, creatively, and those creative muscles are still easy to flex. I may now, for my own pleasure, sit down and continue to write songs. Somehow I've become a songwriter. That's what happens when you compose 19 songs in less than a year's time.

At the moment, the completion of this project, which has dominated my mind and time for almost a year, feels a little disorienting. Not in a bad way, just a little sidewise from everyday life. It's a big project, and now it's done. I've been thinking about it every day for almost a year. Now that mental time is getting freed up, and I feel a little like a baseball pitcher who's been winding up for a big pitch when sudden;y the ball is already in the catcher's mitt, with no apparent transition. How did I suddenly finish?

Well, I exceeded expectations. I wrote more music than the contract required, and I'm happy with everything I wrote. Perhaps not every song is of equal quality, but I love them all, and only time and distance will give me clarity about what I might have done differently, or better. Those things evolve in one's consciousness about one's own art only with time and distance. it is possible to be very objective about one's own art, but while one is still close to it, so soon after giving birth.

So I have some complex, mixed feelings. Part of me wants to get right on to the next big project. Part of me wants to take a break, and just enjoy the glow of completion. Another part of me, a familiar part, feels a little depressed that it's all done. That's the usual slight down I feel whenever I finish a project; it's also what I usually feel the first few days after returning home from a roadtrip. I want to get right back out on the road again. I want to get busy right away with the next project. That feeling of wanting to immediately start out again is an anodyne, I know, to the slight post-partum depression I feel upon completion. The best way to alleviate that depression is to get busy right away, to get right back on the horse and go off in a new direction. I admit I'm a bit of a restless spirit: someone who doesn't settle in place well. I always want to see what's over the near horizon. I like the big sky country because the horizon is far off, and inviting me to rush towards it.

So, I'm done with this major creative work. I will take a little time to catch my breath, then I'll dive into the revisions, if any, and the beginning of the rehearsal period. I'd like to do it all again, right now. I'm not remembering anything but the enjoyment I had doing it; I'm not remembering at the moment any hardships. It's all good.

Two of my favorite four-letter words in the English language are D-O-N-E and N-E-X-T.

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Saturday, November 05, 2011

Witch Tree

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

All Hallow's Eve 2011


Slow humming in the air as the finger writes
along the seam of a bag to close its contents in.
Musical tones that hum in the mind's ear
long past the recording's end. Ringing stillness.
Piercing bell tone that fills the mind, crystalizing
quiet nothing. A bell ringing in an empty sky.

Connections: Driving a two-lane back road, glimpse
at the edge of field between wood thicket and tall dry
cornstalks, buck deer lifts many-pronged head to watch.
A single antler found in the lawn under the window.
Something hums behind that liquid eye. Antlered gods
watch from autumn browns and greens the moon rise.

Nights dreamt under desert stars, immense sky pulling
you out of sleep into floating vertigo: falling up
into asterisms thick as milk, bright enough to see the trail.
See other suns laved with wanderers. Disk of skydust.
Stars so close to high-desert camp you can hear them hiss.
Mountain itself vibrating, gong struck by solar wind.

Days of blood and sand, beating fists on indifferent
granite slabs till they're streaked with drying iron rust.
Implacable silence of stone reply. There is no why.
Broken on an altar cancered with flowering lichen,
poison flask of grey silence, questioned, unanswered.
Mute tenacity to break down walls that won't be.

These smaller mysteries are all we can obtain.
Slow catechism of local spirits, determined and listed.
The largest truth we know, love is all,
compasses only a piece of the boat. Rocking across rivers.
One night, doors opened, light poured out over
lintels made of translucent ivory carved with runes, names,

the long list of those who had passed before. A threshold
radiant with actinic epiphany. A door opens, a door closes.
And forget again, containered back into pitted shells of brain,
blood, internal living ivory not yet fossilized with patience.
Pans too small to hold much water. There for the filling,
easily overflowed. Bread loaf made from the memory of wet.

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