Friday, March 30, 2012

the Fire Sermon

the Fire Sermon

the Buddha addresses his followers in the Quiet Grove,
a stand of old white trees overlooking the Summer Sea.

the birds flash in the fever of living,
dark forms chattering around the boughs
of the summer tree, the first bird speaking in its crown,
sunlight and shade dappling the green into many greens,
a cool blue haze under the canopy,
leaves whispering in the ocean breeze;
they burn with the inner word,
flames of the inmost seeker
that touch the tongue and burn
into articulate speech, the first word,
the genesis tongue. the sun
flames whitely at zenith, standing guard
above distant mountains and the sea;
in the drowsy heat we forget ourselves,
our words, we sleep; birds flicker around us,
their calls breaking the air,
turning and whispering in wild unknowing.
they pattern the air, eclipsing themselves
in restless hunger,
consuming small insect fires, chattering
their words like flames.
the world is fire.

from dark hills broken by rivers
down to rocks breaking the sand,
the eye sees not stones but frozen music,
the dance burning so fast and slow
that to our short-seeing eyes it seems motionless,
more solid to the touch than the hand itself.
but the stones are dancing
in Shiva’s fire; they vibrate in place
like shivering lakes dancing in rain,
humming to themselves of roaring fires,
each atom remembering the forge of exploding suns,
the refuge light of the sky’s red underglow;
the eye sees vibrating chalices of light
and believes it sees silent stone,
but the stone burns.
the world is fire.

in the blue canopy of trees
sulfur butterflies hum, wings rhythmically beating,
pulsing so fast that face-on, edge-on, face-on,
they seem to blink in and out of being,
a flicker in blue air;
the butterfly swims in the hot sea of unknowing,
the forever thirst that sends it flickering
and blinking from flower to leaf to flower,
drinking passionate wine, never replete, never filled;
sulfur and black, mute and restive,
feel the burning, feel what makes them quickly breathe
until they breathlessly fall, mouthparts and mandibles
never still, never motionlessly poised and waiting
like the silent hunter mantis, always flowering
and flickering from point to point
on the burning matrix of day.
they dance, unknowing, breaking themselves
on the sun, the hard white edges of the air.
the world is fire.

the patient mantis well knows the fire
and remains poised, still,
waiting, knowing that the fireflow
will bring the prayer close by,
when it will strike with speed that beats the eye.
the mantis sees the fireflow itself through infinite eyes,
all things as they truly are,
knots of fire flowing in the fields of fire,
bright lines in matrices of shivering flame,
tossed here and there by the field’s hard dancing;
though all believe they give themselves direction, they do not.
the mantis without motion is the observer of all that moves
in Shiva’s dancing, light, the play of flames,
the god’s burning gaze; the mantis is most reverent audience.
this is what it knows; this is why it prays.
the mantis without eyes sees deeper than the eyes of fire.
this is why we fear the mantis: it knows
the world is fire.

as we move beneath the trees, as the breeze stirs its branches,
the sun dapples through sheltering leaves
shatter in our eyes, blinding us with spatters of light;
the greater glare beyond, reflected light blazing on still water,
blazes white in the eye, burning vision black;
the moon is lit by the sun, and lights the sunless plains;
the finger points to the moon, and foolishly
we imagine there is a connection
between the moon and the pointing finger; looking away,
red and green afterimages spin in our gaze,
the field of vision darkens, bluely, dizzily,
like the sky during an eclipse, smothering death of light.
an eclipse of fire is the sun floating in fire,
moon floating between, a knotted light,
darkening, and we imagine it opaque.
light into shadow into light.
lightning spills over into visibility
and we are blinded and deaf, we do not look
upon the god with wonder.
but the trees have not moved, except as they always move,
we have moved through the light beneath them.
is it the wind that trembles their leaves,
or the leaves that make the wind? it is the mind’s moving
that shapes the air, that the leaves turn within.
our eyes drown in their light; our feet
burn on the fiery sands.
the world is fire.

on the beach, rocks break from white sand
like dolphins arcing into sky,
the sun crashes on stones,
sands white and fierce as snow,
snow blind and white like the disused eyes of a beggar child,
like the mute glow of the cave salamander that has never seen,
that would die in the light;
mountain snow softening and melted
by its own trapped heat and the sun’s hammer,
raging white, turning to clear crystal rivers
dancing with searing points of reflected sun,
flowing cold enough to burn the skin
where you bathe in the headwaters by the ice,
river breaking on the stones, flowing closer
till it spills into the summer sea,
warm now with long light, the body’s own endless fever.
light breaks water into vapor,
hot sun feeds the trees that hold the riverbank,
filling the air with cool sweet exhalation;
now, beneath the sun, ocean steams,
and there will come soft rains out of the burning clouds,
falling everywhere and always, washing away like tears.
the world is fire.

like prayers spoken in the wind,
the whale sings, the fish thrum,
songs hot in the ocean’s cold ground;
waters cannot cool them, though they freeze.
they dance in the blazing waters
and are blind.
cold salt wind burns the lungs, is bracing on the skin,
to hold ice burns the hand;
in the shores of ice, shoals of krill
reef and blow in cold currents,
endlessly swimming like seabirds diving through the air,
glowing with inner harvest light, engulfed by the feeding whale;
whale sighs as it sings, breathes deep,
rolls and dives, crying, mourning those who dance
to Shiva’s drum and do not know they dance,
whirling in the heartbeat light till sweat bursts out, skin burns
with fever, they glow to the fiery heat of the dance,
and collapsing wonder why the world spins about them;
the whale knows how they fall off the crest of the wave
and believe the world has gone awry, gone out beneath them,
because they feel it moving now
and do not ride with it; in that moment,
the falling, the fainting, they see,
see truly, just a flash, one terrible moment,
see what the mantis sees.
the whale hears, and sings it; the song will always ring,
even when the whale has gone. even from the edge of the fire desert,
the god hears; the god drums it, eyes glowing red and hot.
the world is fire.

we too, we too, we also.
we also rise and turn and look about in flames,
stone coals in the earthlight;
we feel it through the veil of flames,
perhaps only one forever awful moment,
when we sit beneath the canopies of trees
by the oceanside, where cold salt winds
drift in to mute the hot, heavy sunlight
and the searing blue sky, young birds crying,
butterflies in the blossoms overhead,
when we sit and see whales breaching in the bay,
in the silent blue distance across the wind-cut water,
and do not hear them in the silence of sun and breeze and surf,
though they hear us, hearing instead the deeper roar
of the world’s slow unwinding, down to deeper silence
and dark cold, mountains slowly ringing,
crumbling in the light, when we begin to look through the cracks
in the wall of the world, that wall the eye built
to have something to see—look through the cracks
and find a door, a window, a changing of the light,
a view into what the falling have seen
as they fall, see what the mantis sees;
the fire burns us and we shiver with inner cold.

one said that we must learn to put the fire out.
another said it is the refiner’s fire,
the hot forging that would harden and reshape us.
i do not know; some days the flames are cooling,
some days incandescent. i have burned my feet
upon the icy plain of wind-shaped stones
and must now sit quietly.
but Shiva never stops dancing, never stops smiling,
the drum and bell pulse in the blood forever,
and the god’s eyes glow fiery as he gazes out on us,
the flames dancing in his hand.
it is not cruelty, or anger, or passionate love.
it is not pain, not joy, not weeping, not peace or war.
it is what stands behind all these,
the fire of living, the power under life.
it is the fire.
the world is fire.

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Nothing Spring

Not rushing to start the day because
it promises nothing of absent joy I crave,
I sit as usual naked before the keys
shawl-wrapped and blinking
through the usual steam from a mug of tea.
Last night I woke at 4am to rumbles
of thunder miles southwest, occasional strobe
of nearer lightning, got up in the chill
to shut down and unplug computers,
wandered the house dark and silent,
fell back asleep in my chair.
Some blankets need washing, others
are finally warm enough to forget.
Cold dim dark outside this morning still
although the pear tree blooms white,
remarking on the early tulips, their glare,
profligate willingness to expire in color.
Maybe that's the source of love, in the garden.
I don't love what promises to be another noon
not of my own bidding, which would prefer to laze.
Now that people think I'm well, they've begun
their incessant asking of favors. In this world
no one wants to pay the piper anymore.
If your kid could can do it just as well, they ask,
why pay someone whose experience
whose acquired skills means they charge. So I am
tasked to do free favors that sit on my plate till
I damn well feel like it. This morning I don't.
Urgencies and urgencies, which more compelling,
that deadline you dawdled, or this tree
deciding to explode in pink and white?
You choose. I need my tea to clear my eyes.
It's so easy to distract yourself by taking care
of everyone else. Actually that's almost rewarding,
in a way. Although you still end up needing
to finish your own list of chores, rebuilding that wall
that fell over in the winter, spring planting,
a book to read, a book to write. Electric life
has made my days all the more compelled to juggle.
Objects bite back when devices designed to save labor
end up demanding more. Where's the efficiency
in obsession? I resist my own weak ends,
still they force me to a slower calmer pace.
I don't know when I'll ever get home. It seems
to recede infinitely. Did the Taoist sage have
an aphorism about this? Just go with the flow.
Normal speech for unusual unspoken occasions.
There's a paradox where I can moor my raft.
A cool pond reflects mist and willow sentinels.
It does seem silly, when you bend over then fall
because your center of gravity is gone. Tying shoes
has become a task I want to do before
putting pants on. Naked in my sneakers if
I had a choice for constitutions. I mean everything.
Water spheres droop from the edges of spruce.
It's too gloomy to get dressed. Fire maples are
leafing out, buds still nearly the color of young rice.
I suppose it's spring. i didn't have enough of winter.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

RIP Adrienne Rich

March 28, 2012

Poet, prophet, original thinker, essayist, writer, provocateur, feminist, LGBT icon, lightning rod for those who hate to hear free and prophetic voices. Mystic. Poet of consciousness, life, death, suffering and rebirth. There's more I could say, but I'll let her own words speak for her.

In creating a situation in which they could nurture and rear infants safely and effectively, women became the civilizers, the inventors of agriculture, of community, some maintain of language itself.

. . .

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

. . .

The most that we can do for one another
Is let our blunders and blind mischances
Argue a certain brusque abrupt compassion.

. . .

a touch is enough to let us know
we're not alone in the universe, even in sleep

. . .

Language cannot do everything—
chalk it up on the walls where the dead poets
lie in their mausoleums.

. . .

You played heroic, necessary
games with death

since in your neo-protestant tribe the void
was supposed not to exist

except as a fashionable concept.

. . .

I had been trying to give birth to myself, and in some grim, dim way I was determined to use even pregnancy and parturition in that process.


Here's the New York Times obituary, which says in part:

Widely read, widely anthologized, widely interviewed and widely taught, Ms. Rich was for decades among the most influential writers of the feminist movement and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than a half-dozen of prose; the poetry alone has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to W. W. Norton & Company, her publisher since the mid-1960s.

Triply marginalized — as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew — Ms. Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her many essays, with identity politics long before the term was coined.

She accomplished in verse what Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” did in prose. In describing the stifling minutiae that had defined women’s lives for generations, both argued persuasively that women’s disenfranchisement at the hands of men must end.

For Ms. Rich, the personal, the political and the poetical were indissolubly linked; her body of work can be read as a series of urgent dispatches from the front. While some critics called her poetry polemical, she remained celebrated for the unflagging intensity of her vision, and for the constant formal reinvention that kept her verse — often jagged and colloquial, sometimes purposefully shocking, always controlled in tone, diction and pacing — sounding like that of few other poets. . . .

For all her verbal prowess, for all her prolific output, Ms. Rich retained a dexterous command of the plain, pithy utterance. In a 1984 speech she summed up her reason for writing — and, by loud unspoken implication, her reason for being — in just seven words.

What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”

And here is a short section of a longer poem, "Letters to the Young Poet" from Rich's 1999 collection Midnight Salvage, which I find to be typically fierce and forthright, honest, both present-moment and timeless:


Would it gladden you to think
poetry could purely

take its place beneath lightning sheets
or fogdrip     live its own life

screamed at, howled down
by a torn bowel of dripping names

—composers visit Terezin, film-makers, Sarajevo
Cabrini-Green or Edenwald Houses


if a woman as vivid as any artist
can fling any day herself from the 14th floor

would it relieve you to decide     Poetry
doesn't make this happen?

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Joshua Tree: Infrared 2

images from Joshua Tree National Park

Mid-afternoon and towards evening. Infrared photos of some of my favorite parts of the park.

Ocotillo grove

Chollo cactus fields

sunset at Hidden Valley

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Joshua Tree: Infrared

Images from Joshua Tree National Park, CA, February 2012

Early morning, a hot day in mid-February in the California desert. Strong shadows with sharp edges in the morning light. Infrared brings out the high contrast between light and dark, creating abstract shapes. The rocks and plant forms are almost alien in this strange light.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dream music the world heart's melody

Dream music the world heart's melody

I am being paged on the intercom.
This office space has tall windows and lots of plants.
They keep calling my name. The formidable presence
Of my high school music mentor plows the furrows
Between gray work carrels. Minions track in her wake.
I am in the corridor by the side windows when they find me.

There are men in subdued coveralls, carrying four or five
Large musical instruments from Southeast Asia.
They present them to me, make me sign for them.
My old mentor is as fierce as ever. There's a smile
Mixed in. Two of the large drums are decorative,
Not really playable, crusted with glitter and gold paint.

But there are red-painted drums that sound deep in the flesh,
Warm and alive as distant monasteries.
I am being asked to shepherd this music forward
To the world's third ear, make a home for it in drumming hearts.
It's connected to that night another mentor passed his gift
Of melody to me, in a dream days after he had died.

What melody from this jade xylophone, its keys translucent
Purple green? What sorrow have these red drums seen,
Trembling somewhere behind hibiscus veils?
The key to the world is handed to me in the body
Of a glass slide in a plastic slipcase, hints of temples in its view.
My ears are warm. This corridor is filled with brightening light.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Songwriting: New Songs

When I was traveling on my most recent roadtrip out West, I decided to continue to write song lyrics. Some of the places I visited inspired me, but just as important was the integrative thinking and meditating I was doing while driving. I do some of my best personal sorting, my work on myself, when I'm on a roadtrip. I think best when I'm in motion, whether it's walking or driving. The physical movement connects my head and my heart, and often things come clear in that mode that would never do so if I was just sitting there at my writing table cogitating. That's because thought isn't just intellectual, for me, it's physical. Memory and psychology are in the body, not floating above it.

While I was on the road, I wrote lyrics for about 6 songs. Two of them are basically done, another two I finished after returning home, and two others are still percolating.

I am developing the work habit of keeping a songwriting journal, which is a separate notebook that I copy lyrics into. Some I rewrite as I copy them from my pocket notebook. Others I am just putting in there as fragments, assuming that I will later sit down and rewrite them into something more coherent. That's how "The Power of Love" ended up being written, and rewritten. The songs I already completed I just copied in as finished lyrics, so they are in there. The next step will be to set them to music.

I find myself hearing the melody as I read the words. That's the same way I've been writing songs all along. Some melodic line always seems to emerge from the words, or alongside the words, when they emerge simultaneously. I have another little pocket notebook with music staff lines in it, to write down musical fragments when I hear them with my inner ear. (In various spiritual traditions, they talk about the Third Eye, which is the sixth chakra, on the forehead between the brows, the seat of intuition, and of the reasoning, enlightened mind. I think that there is also a Third Ear, for musical intuition, and all that implies.)

I am beginning to envision writing an entire album's worth of new songs. Then in a few months perhaps I can take them into the studio and record them. (Playing most of the instruments myself, certainly lots of Stick, bass, and keyboards, which I can play myself. One song would love to have some Hammond B3 organ on it, too.) I don't know when or how this will come to fruition, but it is starting to feel like a good next project to work on. Just keep writing songs. Gather them together in sheaves and throw them to the winds. Share them with the world.

These plans could take awhile to come to fruition. Meanwhile, just keep writing. Always keep writing.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mental Illness

The difference between a healthy person and one who is mentally ill is the fact that the healthy one has all the mental illnesses, and the mentally ill person has only one.
—Robert Musil

The thing to keep in mind is that "mental illness" is a label. It's a label we use to categorize and define certain behaviors. It should be clinical and neutral, nonetheless it stigmatizes people. A label like this makes you look at people with doubt, with paranoia, with questions. And sometimes not with compassion, not with understanding, and not with friendship.

I've been suffering from depression for awhile now. But let's see: Is it mental illness? is it "clinical depression," or "chronic depression"? or is it situational depression?

In fact, it's situational. Some of it can be traced to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In the past five years, my life has been extremely stressful, challenging, and turbulent: I gave up my own career and income to move back in with my parents to be their live-in, full-time caregiver until they died. They died, and I immediately was diagnosed with a chronic illness, ulcerative colitis. That illness almost killed me last year, when I almost bled to death and had major anemia which I still am recovering from, and this past year I've gone through the first of three surgeries to cure and correct the problem. I'm still recovering from that first surgery—and even though physically my strength is better than it's been in years, and even though I have an immune system again and managed to not get the flu, bronchitis, or walking pneumonia this winter, for the first time in a dozen years—some days I'm really depressed. Just like I used to be.

It turns out I've had this chronic illness for a couple of decades, but it wasn't diagnosed till recently. Looking back, I can see how UC caused a lot of problems that, at the time, my family, many of my friends, and even myself thought were caused by a bad attitude (tired all the time), a lack of ambition (UC drains your energy, will, and life-force), and being unable to focus (having a wide range of career choices, but never knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up; in fact, there are mental and cognitive consequences to being anemic and exhausted all the time, one of which is being unable to focus some days). These were the favorites amongst other psychological explanations that it turns out were a smoke screen. In other words I was sick for twenty years with a physical illness that had consequences for my mental stability and cognitive resources. Was I mentally ill? No—but many people treated me as if I was. And I believed them.

Reframing this experience now, I can see clearly how the last two decades of my life had been overshadowed by a physical illness that ruined me, but which everyone thought was a mental or psychological problem. Or even an attitude problem.

So if you want to leap to conclusions and label people you know as mentally ill, well, go ahead, that's your right. As Eric Frank Russell once remarked, "Every man has the basic right to go to hell in his own way." But just in case you might have leapt too quickly to a conclusion that's unwarranted, you might occasionally want to step back and take a look at your own assumptions about what "mental illness" means.

What most people actually mean, when they talk about mental health, is a social rather than psychological expectation that people conform to social norms and values and don't act weird. It means get a job, be a normal person, don't stand out, conform to the social normative ideas of what "success" means. Don't be different. Don't be of all things an artist.

Being an artist means being different. And being born gay means being different. It's no wonder so many gay men have mental health issues, when we're raised in a culture that hates and fears us, and still treats us a second-class citizens, and tries to deny us civil rights and social equality. The high incidence of gay men who support political candidates that would strip away their civil rights, given a chance, speaks to a high incidence of lingering and inarticulate internalized self-hatred. Whenever people vote against their own best interests or highest good, you can be sure there is, underneath their rhetoric, some lack of self-esteem, some insecurity.

"Mental health" is a normative concept; it usually means that you're supposed to think and act like everyone else, not be "eccentric" or "weird" or somehow not part of the usual narrative mythos of the American Dream of economic individualism at all costs, or the Dream of Technological Progress, or other sociopolitical myths that we're all supposed to believe and conform to. Individualism vs. collectivism are modern social myths that drive many people's unconscious self-destructive choices.

But every aspect of this is wrong. Socially normative "mental health" is a narrative of conformity and subjugation. The myth is that mental health is a stable steady state. The fragility of this self-image is evinced by the relentless social (tribal) peer pressure to conform to the norm.

Genuine self-esteem does not fear diversity or disagreement, and does not attempt to enforce conformity. Genuine, actual mental health is a state of flexibility and adaptability, being able to cope with change and hardship, being able to celebrate joy and love. Genuine mental health allows for eccentricity and individual variation. Mental balance and psychological/ecological dynamic health accepts the inclusion of dark days as well as happy ones, and celebrates both as authentic to the fully-nuanced, full-range human experience.

For myself, I've affirmed many times, and it's still true, that art-making is a positive force in my life that has kept me alive, that has kept me sane. For me music is medicine, music is sanity.

One of the only really useful definitions of insanity I've ever heard is a very simple, pragmatic one. It goes like this:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and each time expecting an outcome different than the last time.

This definition speaks to individual mental health, to common sense reasoning, and flexibility in the face of changing circumstances. It speaks to how people can get stuck in social and political ideologies that create a bubble of unreality that everyone but the person inside the bubble can see. And it speaks to the group pathology of socially-enforced normative conformity, ranging from peer pressure to fascism, revealing these to be inherently insecure and unstable.

It speaks to the truth that when you are a sane person living in an insane world, the rest of the world labels you as insane, when in fact the opposite is true. It speaks to the truth that lots of times you're right and the world is wrong. Nothing crushes self-esteem more readily than the social need for conformity to normative social expectations that the person cannot live up to (or down to), and is unable to follow.

And it is underlined by a bit of wisdom from everyone's favorite genius uncle, Albert Einstein: "You cannot solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that created the problem."

So, go ahead. Judge others as "mentally ill." You might even be right, some of the time. No more than that, though. Because lots of folks who we judge as mentally ill are in fact just having a hard time living up to your expectations of who they're supposed to be, and how they're supposed to behave.

Some wise man named Yeshua bar Joseph once quipped, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." If all the people who claim to speak for Jesus, who claim to speak in his name, would just remind themselves of his actual words, "Judge not," imagine what kind of world we might actually be able to make for ourselves.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Songwriting: Touchstones

There is a small group of musicians, composers, lyricists, singers, and singer/songwriters, who have influenced me during the writing of Heartlands, rarely directly in terms of style or content, but in terms of their attitude and approach towards writing words and music.

The list of names here is partial and incomplete. These were the songwriters who I was listening to and learning from during the writing of Heartlands, but most of them were already favorites long before then. Coincident with the writing of the commission, Stephen Sondheim published his two books of collected lyrics; in fact, these two volumes bracketed the writing of the commission. During the middle of writing the commission, digging back into folk music for sources on a couple of the songs, folk music being one of my key musical roots, I took the Pete Seeger route towards discovering Bruce Springsteen, who frankly I had never given much attention to before; I had not been a fan before, but I am now, and have absorbed a great many of his albums in the past few months.

Stephen Sondheim.

When I was just beginning to write Heartlands, I acquired the first of Sondheim's two books of collected lyrics: Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981). Just after finishing the writing, I acquired Sondheim's second book: Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011). I can't say enough positive things about what it was like to read these books. I readily admit that I am not a huge Broadway fan, liking very few musicals among those available. Sondheim, however, holds place on my list with the largest body of work that I enjoy listening to repeatedly.

These two books of collected lyrics are amazing, because they are more than just that. Reading these books was like going to grad school in songwriting, not only for Broadway (which I still don't have much interest in) but in general. Sondheim still writes some of the freshest lyrics around, with very original takes on familiar life-situations.

This is like going to grad school on how to craft a lyric. The meat of the lessons are to be found in his commentaries, sidebars, and the several instances in which he gives multiple versions of the same song. Sondheim has a few basic prniciples which can be stated very simply, yet are very profound. I copied these into the front pages of my pocket notebook that I started many of my own song lyrics in, to remind me at all times. This is what Sondheim himself has to say in his Preface—and this should be etched into the hearts of all writers of song lyrics:

There are three principles for a lyric writer to follow, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into clearer and clearer focus over the years through the combination of Oscar Hammerstein's tutoring, Strunk and White's huge little book "The Elements of Style" and my own practice of the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but the underlie everything I've ever written. In no particular order, and to be written in stone:

Less Is More

Content Dictates Form

God Is In the Details

all in the service of


without which nothing else matters.

If a lyric writer observes this mantra rigorously, he can turn out a respectable lyric. If he has a feeling for music and rhythm, a sense of theater and something to say, he can turn out an interesting one. If in addition he has such qualities as humor, style, imagination and the numerous other gifts every writer could use, he might even turn out a good one, and with an understanding composer and a stimulating book writer, the sky's the limit.

—Stephen Sondheim

I don't care if you write lyrics for Nashville or Broadway, if you write for solo voice with acoustic guitar in San Francisco or St. Louis, or if you write for a rock band in Los Angeles or Detroit: the lesson remains the same. Less Is More. Content Dictates Form. God Is In the Details.

Bruce Cockburn.

Bruce Cockburn is absolutely one of the great living singer/songwriters. I put him ahead of Dylan and Cohen both, ahead of Neil Young. His only real peer is Joni Mitchell.

Bruce has probably influenced my own lyric songwriting more than anyone else (again except maybe Joni Mitchell). The songs I'm writing right now owe what's good in them to what I've learned from Bruce, from Joni, and from Stephen Sondheim. That's the short list. I hope my songs are in my own voice, and my prior experience as a poet makes me tend to think that they are, but I can still hear resonances that I am happy to acknowledge.

His influence on me as a singer/songwriter is not literally in terms of content, but in terms of writing approach. Although I do very often agree with Cockburn's progressive politics as presented in his songs—which are stellar examples of how to do a political poem or song well—that's not my main subject matter. I'm not afraid to write a political song, but more often I am moved to write about the inner world of spirit and experience. I tend not to write in the abstract. What Cockburn often does, in his songs of social commentary, is take a very personal moment, a very concrete experience, and connect to the universal human experience that we all share. He makes the leap from personal to universal regularly and compellingly.

Cockburn's lyrics are, unlike most songwriters' lyrics, able to be read and appreciated on the page as pure poetry. I'm very much of the opinion that most singer/songwriters who are declared by their fans to be Poets are not; I am not, as I've said a member of the Cult of Dylan or the Cult of Cohen. But Bruce Cockburn, like Joni Mitchell, actually is one of those rare songwriters who really cam be called a poet.

Bruce has a remarkable ear for metaphors and turns of phrase, and some of his lyrics are so stunningly perfect when you first hear them: something described so perfectly that you relive the experience in yourself, even if you've never put it into words before. His turns of phrase wake me up and catch my attention. A song like "Tibetan Side of Town" is so immediate, so surprising, that you feel like you're right there, in the experience, drawn in by the imagery as if into a film. Early in the song is the remarkable line, from when the leaps onto a motorcycle to drive through Kathmandu to go drinking in another part of town, "butterfly sparkle in my lasered eye." You know exactly what that means, you can see it, even though you've never heard it phrased that way before.

Through rutted winding streets of Kathmandu
Dodging crowded humans cows dogs rickshaws -
Storefronts constellated pools of bluewhite
Bright against darkening walls

The butterfly sparkle in my lasered eye still seems
To hold that last shot of red sun through haze over jumbled roofs
Everything moves like slow fluid in this atmosphere
Thick as dreams
With sewage, incense, dust and fever and the smoke of brick kilns and cremations -

Tom Kelly's bike rumbles down -
we're going drinking on the Tibetan side of town.

Joni Mitchell.

Joni is the songwriter who I have listened to longest in my life. Unlike many of her earliest fans, I applaud the truth that she is creatively restless and doesn't repeat herself. There are still fans who want her to stay in the flower-girl waif mode of her earliest albums, such as Blue, and complained when she overtly took up jazz, and playing with jazz players, as on Mingus and Shadows and Light. The complaints were not as fierce as when Bob Dylan "betrayed" his Woody Guthrie roots by taking up the electric guitar, but they were similar in tone. I've listened to some of Joni's albums so many times that I have them completely memorized, most notably Hejira and Turbulent Indigo.

In fact it was Joni's interest in jazz, and its increasing presence in her music, that introduced me to her. By that time in my own life, I had moved away from my roots in classical and the contemporary avant-garde to explore jazz. I had just finished college, finished my degree in music composition, and was very tired of music theory. I was creatively constipated with Western art music. I was also playing Javanese gamelan music at the time, which remains a music I love. Then I started to teach myself how to improvise on the piano. Not just in jazz standards, but more specifically in the open-ended free improvisational style that Keith jarrett was doing in his live concert recordings; that Charlie Haden and Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman were still doing; I saw a concert with Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society that I can still remember knocked me out of my chair; I saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago several times; and so on. So my ears were being opened to jazz, to improvisation.

Then I heard Joni Mitchell's Mingus album, which I got into because it was a collaboration with Charles Mingues, the great jazz composer and bassist. Bass was my second instrument, after piano, and still is. (Although I recently had a moment in a music store where I surprised one of my best musical buddies by picking up an upright bass and playing it; he'd known me mostly as a Stick player throughout our friendship.) I mean, come on, this was the great Charles Mingus! Well, that album blew me away, and then I heard Hejira with its incredible songs, and I was hooked on Joni for life. Here's the first verse of "Amelia":

I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
it was the strings of my guitar
Amelia — it was just a false alarm

There's so much in there to unpack. Like you'd unpack a poem. The thing with joni, even when she was writing her autobiographical albums (from Blue through Hejira), she always makes the personal universal. She is able to take you from a detail of life and love and connect with you by showing you how your life is no different from the narrator in the song: we all have these same complex human feelings.

During the summer, just before the surgery—which interrupted my creative process for a month, albeit surprisingly only a month—I found a copy of the first book-length literary biography written about Joni Mitchell, with the artist's cooperation: Michelle mercer, Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period (New York: Free Press, 2009). This is the first time that Joni has let herself be extensively interviewed for this kind of writing. The book is a study of Joni's autobiographical albums, from her earliest through Hejira, but it also is a history of songwriting, a biography of the prairie girl who grew up to become a songwriter, and much more. Many aspects of the songs are connected to events in life—but that on;y goes to underline how Joni is able to take personal details and transform them into universal stories and poems.

There are a million quotations I could include here, as I found this book, like Sondheim's two volumes, to be like going to songwriting graduate school: I learned a lot about the process, the sources, how to use your inspirations, how to write a lyric that has a long unrhymed line that is still musical. One thing I learned from Joni Mitchell is to not be afraid of complex jazz chords in your accompaniment; in other words, don't oversimplify the music in favor of the words. As Sondheim says, "Content Dictates Form," and any Joni Mitchell song is a demonstration of that principle.

Another thing I learned, from reading this book, was how to make the personal universal; how to take your own story, and make it one that many others will be able to relate to. I did this with one of the last songs I wrote for Heartlands, which of all 19 movements in the piece, is the one story that's most mine. It's called "Wheatfields," and is in fact a revision of a poem I wrote back circa 1994, about a childhood spiritual experience of mine—as a two-spirited boy who would grow up to be a two-spirited gay men, this spiritual aspect of my life has always been very foregrounded—when it first became clear to me that I was not destined to follow a traditional religious path. The story in the song is very much as it happened to me—and I have already received comments from singers in the Chorus that they too can relate to the song. So, the personal becomes universal. This is how art does that: by helping us connect with each other's stories, through the telling, the singing, the music.

There are some other singers an songwriters I want to credit as touchstones, who I will write about at another time. I've covered here the most important touchstones: Sondheim, Mitchell, Cockburn. Listening to this other list of artists was important to my writing process during the creation of Heartlands, and I've written before about how folk music came to be an important aspect of the overall work. For now, here's the list of names, and I'll come to writing more about them later, when I get a chance:

Michael Smith

Carol Noonan.

Lynn Miles.

Bruce Springsteen.

Pete Seeger.

Sarah McLachlan.

Since I've become a songwriter, through this process of the commission and the handful of songs I've been writing since completing it, I've been listening to lots of music from singer/songwriters both old and new to me. There are avenues I know I still need to explore. I received a great compliment following a recent performance of a song I wrote after Heatlands: a couple came up to me after the show and told me that when I was thinking they thought of Neil Young. I take that as high praise; I also take it as needing to fill the gaps in my knowledge of Neil Young. So that's on my to-be-listened-to list now.

I've been listening to a lot of what is now known as Americana music: something with folk and country roots that tells stories of life in the rooted heartlands of America. In browsing through the stacks of used CDs at thrift stores, I encounter songwriters and bands I don't know, but who intrigue me, and I take them home. I continue to discover new songs and writers that interest me.

I notice that there are a lot of Canadians on my list. I'm not sure that's accidental. I'm from the northernmost parts of the USA, right up there living next to Canada, and when I was a kid in Michigan, we got Canadian radio and TV as well as Detroit. We had Motown, but we also had CBC. It's also true that when I was a young boy in India, we were the only American family among the Lutheran mission folk there; the rest were Canadians or Brits. So I grew up with the Empire all around me, and the Commonwealth as well. I'm comfortable with Canada, just as in some ways I'm more Asian than North American. I'm comfortable with the open prairies of Manitoba because they're not unlike the same open prairies of the Dakotas and Nebraska. Maybe there's something to all this, or maybe I'm just looking for patterns where they aren't any. It doesn't really matter. The truth is that we have a lot of Canadians in the music and entertainment business in the USA; some of their best and brightest come south to make their fortunes, and we're the better for it.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Visions from the Western Lands

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Heartlands: A Bibliography of Sources

I have written before about completing the large music commission I spent most of last year writing, both words and music. I'd hinted a few times at my sources. My touchstones. There are several musical touchstones I'll write about separately; this essay is devoted to LGBT touchstones that fed the creation of Heartlands.

The most important source, of course, was the men of Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus. It was their stories, their thoughts gleaned from writings they shared with me, and from the interviews we did together, that make up the core of Heartlands. Some of the stories were so good that I basically converted them into poetic lines and set them to music with little change. Other threads emerged from several different people telling different stories; stories that had common threads. Some of these threads were tangled in mood, and I set them to music that matched the experience, both light and dark.

The stories in Heartlands are about what it's like to live, to grow up, to survive, to spend one's life, as gay men in the Midwest, in the Heartlands of the center of the United States. Lots of gay men's choruses have commissioned works about the experiences of the men who make up their membership, but most of those I've heard haven't been on this topic, from this terrain, grown from the fruits of the lives of the men (and women!) who live by the Great Lakes, on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, the open Prairie. I'm a Great Lakes native myself, having lived in many places around the world, but mostly, and originally, in Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states that border on the Great Lakes.

There is a spirit here, in the Midwestern Heartlands, that I testify to be unique: different from the rest of the country, maybe not in kind, but in degree. Maybe only subtly, maybe strongly. The dominant economic and cultural tides of America are indeed on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and they do tend to ignore us here in the Heartlands, even referring to us disparagingly as the "flyover zone." To their loss and detriment, I am convinced. But that's whatever it is. People are who they are. Actually, the live and let live attitude is very Midwestern.

So, the core of Heartlands is the stories of the men in the Chorus, of what it is like to live gay in the Midwest, to grow up here, to go through life here. That's the core of the main narrative of the 19 movements of Heartlands.

There were other sources to my inspiration, though. Not direct sources, but contextual ones, which I call touchstones. This is a topic that in some ways I feel was inevitable for me to write, as it's one I've been thinking about, reading about, and writing about for some years. It's a story I've lived. It's my own story, as well as theirs. Some of my inspirations came from my own rather extensive library of LGBT books. Within my library is a small subset of books that are about rural gay life, about Midwestern gay life—a very small group of books, which is all that has been published about such lives.

Most LGBT publishing is about city life, the gay ghettoes in the big metropolises, which most gay men view as normative. I've gotten into more than one argument with citified gay men about this: that their city ghetto lives are not only the only way to live, it might not even be the most humane way to live. I've gotten into arguments with city fags about Brokeback Mountain, along these same lines.

It seems to me a lot of misinformation still exists among the LGBT urban ghettoes about life outside the city. I’ll spare you the occasions, true as they were, when I’ve been wilderness camping with gay groups miles from electricity, when someone complained about the lack of access to their blowdryer, refrigeration, or reading lamps; I’ll spare you the details, but I do have to wonder what they were thinking before agreeing to come along on such a trip.

In fact, many of us live in small town America, or rurally, and prefer it that way. By choice. Not because we can't live in the Big City, but because we don't want to. Myself included. My favorite places to live, in the many places I've lived in the USA, have been small rural towns, usually not too far from the big city cultural centers, but far enough away to be peaceful during the day, and quiet at night. I like to be surrounded by green growing things, and I like to be able to see the sky at all times. I like being close to the weather, to the land. I like the changing of the seasons. Just a short walk away from my home is a placid river I love; just a short drive away are the farm fields under the endless sky.

I'm not alone.

Anyway. In the mid-1990s there was a wave of books published about rural LGBT living. Shockingly, nothing like these had ever appeared before. Some of these books were the first on the topic, and have yet to be supplanted or surpassed. In fact, it seems to me that most of the city queers I know have forgotten all about it, all over again. So I now believe it’s time to clear that air, once again. I know I’m beating a dead horse, and yet it seems to me that it’s time for another wave of understanding to develop between urban and rural peoples, in general, and between LGBT groups in general. So, here’s a sampling of books that are still required reading, in my opinion, about rural LGBT life.

So here's a partial bibliography of sources about rural and small-town LGBT life. I re-read all of these books while working on Heartlands, and thus the stories therein contributed to the commission's context and tone and grace. Each of these a gift.

Will Fellows, Farm Boys: Lives of gay men from the rural Midwest. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996) If you only ever have time to read one book on growing up gay in the rural Midwest, read this one. It is one of the best books on the topic that I've ever read, and re-read. The book is divided into three sections, by decade—it is mostly a book of oral history, interviews, and memoir (some of it creative writing), and is mostly about coming-of-age as gay in the farmlands. There are stories in here of grinding poverty; a lot of death and sadness and loneliness; but also revelation, connection, discovery and joy. More than one man talks about living presently in the city, often for economic reasons, but wanting to move back to the farmlands and live rurally. The interviews are with adult men who grew up gay and rural, on the farm; which accounts for some of the book’s occasional tone bittersweet nostalgia; but there is also much wisdom learned at a young age. Many men speak with pleasure and pride of their accomplishments in farm and home activities, set within the context of a conservative social climate, rigid gender roles, etc. Farm Boys is revelatory, essential reading. It breaks the silence that has often fallen on gay rural life. Very highly recommended.

Michael Riordan, Out Our Way: Gay and lesbian life in the country. (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996) This book is mostly oral history transcribed from interviews, conducted mostly in person. The treasure to be mined in this book is the incredible insight and wisdom of ordinary people you wouldn't look at twice at the county general store; proving once again that life itself is the greatest teacher of wisdom. One thing a lot of couples talk about is their mutual dependence upon each other, in the face of otherwise sometimes severe isolation. There is much discussion of the pros and cons of public displays of affection. There are many voices here, with many different experiences and viewpoints. The people interviewed here run the gamut from young to elderly, First Nations to Anglo, individuals to couple to communities, country socials to rodeos, and more. This is a Canadian book about Canadian LGBT people, and tremendously insightful reading. If you ever felt like moving to Yellowknife, read this.

Karen Lee Osborne and William J. Spurlin, editors, Reclaiming the Heartland: Lesbian and gay voices from the Midwest. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) If you believe that, just because you're LGBT you need to pack your bags and move to one of the big cities on the coasts, think again. This book of poetry, fiction, essays, memoirs, and interviews, is all about living the USA's heartland. This isn't purely a rural LGBT book, as there are Chicago and Milwaukee writers in here, among others. But as we all know, all of us who live out here, we have more in common with folks in Chicago than we do with folks in New York City, much of the time. The editors of this book are self-conscious about their book being a "corrective" to the usual rhetoric that gay culture only exists in NYC or San Francisco or LA (or Chicago, which is a Big City often overlooked by those on the coasts), but the strength of the book is that it does represent real Midwestern values presented by real queers living in the real Midwest. I can affirm from when I lived in San Francisco, that there really is a uniquely Midwestern viewpoint and attitude about life. So, for me, the real joy of this book is in the poetry and fiction, which show rather than tell the reader what that Midwestern viewpoint is all about. There are about 60 individual contributors here, so you also get a wide range of viewpoints on several different issues, for example, being accepted by one's small-town parents, growing up in small towns, finding love out here, and more.

Darrell Yates Rist, Heartlands: A gay man's odyssey across America. (New York: Dutton/Penguin, 1992) This is a "road trip" book, a travel book, a post-Kerouac book, a book in the footsteps of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways. I have a special bookshelf in my library for books on nomadics: road trip books, travel memoirs, books very much like this Least Heat Moon's, and this book. (Nomadics is my own word, inspired partly by Bruce Chatwin's excellent book "The Songlines," which remains a seminal book on the topic.) This book by Darrell Yates Rist, though, is a journey through sexual desire and identity. It's a road trip book that looks to find the gay quarters of each sector of the continental USA. So we meet a Mississippi drag queen, we visit the Denver Gay Rodeo, we meet a roughneck on the Alaska pipeline. Ordinary men leading ordinary lives, in small towns, in big cities, in rural areas, dealing with everything from mild discrimination to outright bigotry, but also luminous moments of comradeship and neighborliness. Some of the most memorable conversations reported in this book are in small-town roadside bars and diners. One of the themes that comes to the surface several times is how, despite our many commonalities around being gay, around AIDS, and so forth, we are still incredibly diverse, even divided, about so many other aspects of life. You meet in this book leftist activists and conservative rednecks, and more—people who share being gay in common, but about many other things completely disagree, be it politics, race, religion, or attitude. You come away from this book with a sense of the incredible diversity and differences among gay men, which is why it's so hard to get all gay men to form a unified political front to create social change. Rist concludes that one reason much of the activism seems to happen in the coastal big cities is because you can get together enough men of like attitude to agree on any form of action and ideology: you get a critical mass of interested bodies who will join in. It may not possible to ever create a unified, monolithic "gay culture" that agrees on what to do about gay rights; and Rist concludes that it might not be possible but it also might not be necessary. Just by living our diverse lines, wherever we are, we make ripples of change that spread outward—that's what he comes away with after all his time on the road, and it's a good message. Rist is a New York City writer, but he wears it lightly; he misses a few things about rural gay men, but he isn't judgmental. So, this is a big sprawling diverse unending inconclusive chaotic adventurous disturbing illuminating empowering book—rather a lot like life itself.

James T. Sears, Growing Up Gay In the South: Race, gender, and journeys of the spirit. (Binghampton: Harrington Park Press, 1991) This is a book critical to the understanding of gay youth, containing many individual stories and overviews. This is one of those books that could help prevent gay teen suicide, if it was more readily available; bullying is a frequent topic of discussion. There is a unique Southern culture, just as there is a unique Midwestern culture. But Southern culture still remains more homophobic, more closeted, than many other regions of the USA. This was a difficult book to read, and a sad one. Not all of the stories told—stories of rebellion, in most cases, as being LGBT automatically makes you a cultural rebel in,say, Georgia—end in triumph. Some end sadly, some have no endings, just as in life we just keep going. Politeness and discretion have always been prized in the South; but this can lead to willful ignorance, and worse. In many instances, in the days of AIDS, gays in the South are the new "niggers." There is hope for change—but change will come from the rebels whose stories are told in this book, and it will have to be won through struggle, as the grace and politeness behind Southern politeness is also the inertia of the closet.

Chris Packard: Queer Cowboys, and other erotic male friendships in nineteenth-century American literature. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) More than just a book of literary history and criticism, Queer Cowboys reveals a great deal about frontier and rural culture, not all of it dead and in the past. I've lived in Wyoming and New Mexico, and I can attest that frontier culture endures. Face it: If you spend a lot of time outdoors with no women around, even supposedly straight men become erotic with each other; this was accepted, if not widely advertised, on the frontier. This book documents the literature that suggests, hints, and reveals country homoerotic life (long before the word "gay" was used this way), is profusely illustrated with period photos, and is a fun read with a light touch. Packard's tone is light-hearted throughout, supported by thorough research. This book reintroduces to modern readers a forgotten culture of exclusively masculine, sometimes erotic, camaraderie between men of the WIld West. It reminds us that Brokeback Mountain was in fact not a new story, but a modern instance of a long-standing one.

Scott Herring: Another Country: Queer anti-urbanism. (New York & London: New York University Press, 2010) This book, which I discovered mid-way through writing Heartlands, is my topic in an academic theoretical nutshell. The book begins with the same premise as I did: by expanding queer studies beyond the city limits. The author counters the usual (and easy) assumption of metronormativity that saturates LGBTQ politics, criticism, and artwork, by examining queer rural art, media, photography, literature, performance, and fashion. He develops a theory of queer anti-urbanism that, despite the somewhat academic technical language used at times, very much matches my own experience. (I have no problem with academic theory-speak, being a recovering academician myself, but some readers may find themselves needing to consult theory primers such as Riki Wilchins' excellent Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An instant primer, which I highly recommend.) The history of the Radical Faeries, and R.F.D. magazine are touched on, as part of the origins of queer anti-urbanism. (Being affiliated with the Radical Faeries myself, I found a lot here that resonated with me, and many other Faeries I know.) There is a fascinating look a queer redneck white supremacists in the Deep South featured in photographs by Michael Meads. There's a in-depth study of Alison Bechdel's Dykes To Watch Out For and other writings, which points out how Bechdel's small-town origins have led her to always have a critical take on urban lesbian culture. Overall, this book is a mind-bomb. If you're a dedicated city fag, there's a lot you'll see by looking into this book's mirror that will make you re-evaluate yourself, and might even make you squirm. But that's all to the good. There is something essential in Another Country and its thesis that gay culture at large must talk about among ourselves, now more than ever in this age of reactionary political retrogression. Very highly recommended.

Melissa Harris, ed. Our Town. (New York: Aperture, 1992) An issue of Aperture, the premiere photography magazine, devoted to small towns, hometowns, rural life, and related topics. There is a tone here, in the writings accompanying the photographs, of Big City snobbery towards the "ruins" of small towns. The photo essays do a better job of it, giving us slices of life, tableaus of Midwestern rituals, with no comments, just photojournalistic rigor. This is in some ways a book I reacted against in writing Heartlands, presenting my own version of Midwestern life that is authentic, sincere, and un-ironic—a stance few New York commentators seem unable to take, or even understand. One of the attitudes that makes us the Midwestern Heartlands is a willingness to embrace sincerity and authenticity, and a suspicion of knee-jerk Big City irony, especially in the arts. Two essays in this volume are worthwhile, though: "Whose Town: Questioning community and identity," by Michele Wallace, which asks us to think about what we take for granted as our community, our origins, our hometowns: in our culture of people moving around from town to city following work opportunities, our culture that is at least always partially nomadic, Wallace asks: "How many family locations in history determine one's community? How many races determine one's ethnicity?" The other good essay here is by Nan Richardson, titled "The Fruited Plain," a look at how essential agrarian culture is to our national consciousness. The Heartlands of the Great Plains are also called the "breadbasket" of the world, supplying grain and produce not only to our own nation, but to large parts of the world. Richardson discusses how changes in farming practices and political policies have led to many rural communities shrinking, even dying out; she goes on to discuss how rural landscape photography (I include some of my own photographic work in this bucket) has taken on an advocacy role, a response to the loss of the family farm, not only elegiac in tone but also questioning the government policies that have led us down this path, and if it mightn't be wise to return farmlands from the large agricultural corporations into family stewardship.

Philip Gambone: Travels In A Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010) This is a book of interviews, made with people from all strata of LGBTQ culture, although focusing mostly on artists, activists, and movers and shakers. What was valuable to me in writing Heartlands was the recollections by the interview subjects of their lives, both rural and not, the stories of living LGBTQ in all parts of the USA, in difference decades. Wisconsin's own Tammy Baldwin was a memorable interview here; so was George Takei, who I have to say is one of my personal heroes. Life stories with common threads to all our experiences.

Ron Fisher: Heartland of a Continent: America's plains and prairies. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1991) This gorgeously photographed book, part of a series by the National Geographic Society on the United States. It's the sort of book NGS does extremely well: excellent writing accompanying evocative, even iconic photographs that tell us the story all by themselves. This is a contextual book for me, an overview of the land and culture of my part of the country, Plains and Prairies and Great Lakes. I live on one end of the Great Plains, and some of my favorite places, including Wyoming, are on the other end, at the feet of the Rocky Mountains. This book gives us a sense of history, of continuity, and of speculation about the future. It's good reading, full of local stories from the Heartland. Recommended.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home: A family tragicomic. (Boston & New York: Mariner, 2006) This is one of the most memorable books I've read in recent years. It's a memoir and family history in the form of a graphic novel, by Alison Bechdel, of Dykes To Watch Out For fame. The story is of a young lesbian growing up in a small town in New England, and her complicated family life. The story is in many ways about the mysterious life and death of her difficult father, who may or may not have been having sex with men on the side, on visits to New York City. The story revolves around public presentation of self, and private reality, and how they often differ—as every young person growing up gay knows. Especially in small towns, where everyone knows everyone else's business, being "discreet" is a buzzword that means hiding, secrets, and lies. The was the story is told is elliptical, spiral, circling back to the same events from different perspectives as the narrator, Alison, thinks things through and creates narratives that make sense. This is a great example of the art of memoir, a beautiful graphic novel, and a disturbing yet satisfying story about family secrets and truths being revealed, at last. very high;y recommended.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Songwriting: Performance Milestones

This weekend just past I performed an original song, "The Power of Love," at a fundraiser Cabaret in Madison, a song I wrote last December, and revised somewhat while I was on my latest roadtrip. It was a personal performance milestone for me, because it was the first time that I've sung an original song while also playing Stick. Actually, the first time I've publicly sung and played at the same time. (You know, the usual post-folksong-revival singer-songwriter gig, where the singer/songwriter accompanies herself while singing. Usually on guitar; but I have no feel for guitar, have never learned to play it well, and never really sought to.)

For this Cabaret show I had piano accompaniment, so it was a fuller, richer sound for the song's instrumentation. It also gives me confidence to play with other musicians; I've always preferred ensemble to purely solo performances. The music I feel most confident performing, when in a purely solo setting, is improvised looping, which allows me to build layers of chords and melody over longer frames of time. For this singer/songwriter debut (I guess that's what it was!), it was very confidence-building for me to be able to perform with one other instrumentalist who knows how to improvise on chords from a lead sheet.

While I sang, I mostly played bass lines on Stick, a few treble chords, and simple bass patterns. I also managed to play a simple eight-bar solo after the bridge. We had two performances on consecutive nights; the second night I performed much better, didn't flub any notes or lyrics the way I had the first night. It's the sort of audience that would support you even during a train wreck, though, so it was a good, safe environment to try out a new performance skill, and build a little confidence around it.

I received several compliments about the song, and my performance—both because it was a new song written for the occasion, and a song unlike anything else on the variety-show program. Receiving compliments is Zen practice being about simple and graceful for receiving praise with neither false modesty nor self-denigration. One couple came up to me after the first night, and said that while I was performing, they were thinking of Neil Young: I took that as a major compliment, and was grateful for it. Some others said they really liked that I had done an original song; they also liked how I'd played, and (as often happens) were intrigued by the Stick.

Remember, as a performer you may know exactly where you performed imperfectly or made mistakes, but the audience usually will not. From their perspective, the performance is seamless and evocative, and the roughness may actually be part of the aesthetic. (Roughness and rawness are often part of the singer/songwriter aesthetic, in fact, where they are often seen positive qualities because they're authentic, not polished to an artificial diamond-hard sheen.)

At this point, I know a lot of more experienced musicians with lots of coffee-house gigs behind them will be thinking, Duh! But remember: what's old hat for you is still new for others. It's always good to remember we're not all alike, and more importantly, that it's never too late to try out venues or styles or performance modes that are new to you. You're never too old or experienced to carve new milestones for your personal roads.

I approached this performance mentally as though it was a poetry reading or open mic type of situation, which made it easier for introverted me to engage with an audience, even a supportive audience. I am actually pretty good at engaging with an audience, but it takes a lot out of me: I have to work up to it, psych myself up for it as it were, and it's tiring to be "on" for any significant length of time. After being "on" for an evening, coming home to the silent sanctuary of my own home is recharging.

I don't plan to run out and perform at local open mics all the time now. I'm a little past that point, careerwise. Nonetheless it's nice to know you can do it when you need to.

Some years ago, I believed very strongly that I was incapable of playing Stick (or bass or piano) and singing at the same time; I admired the musicians I saw doing that, but did not believe that I could do it, too. Now I have broken through, and done exactly that. Somewhere over the past few years of tribulation, turbulence, death and change, I acquired the self-confidence to break through that self-limiting idea. Actually, I know exactly where: It was during this past year of writing a major music commission, which basically has given me confidence to be a songwriter, combined with the attitude of: Who gives a shit, just do it, life's too short, and you almost died already, so take a risk, what have you got to lose. I am taking a lot more artistic risks in the wake of almost dying. Yet—while I could glibly chalk my attitude change up as another example of post-surgery life-changing alterations in my overall attitude—because this is about music, which is the artform I practice that is most closely connected to my heart and soul, it goes much deeper. It goes all the way down to my core, to my root self-image, to my Warrior self, to my self-confidence not just as an artist but as a person. This morning after the gigs, I feel a contentment, a self-confidence, a sense of accomplishment, that is both soothing and exhilarating. In simple words: I feel good.

Some other musicians will view this milestone as coming to me very late, compared to their own careers in performance and writing songs. They may have performed their first song while accompanying themselves very much earlier in life. But that's exactly my point in writing about this experience:

Personal milestones are individual.

They happen at different rates for different people. There is no one "usual" artistic career. There is no point at which you stop growing up, and become a stable, unchanging person or artist. (Stasis equals death.) There is no time at which you have "arrived," and don't have to continue to keep walking on your pilgrimage, keep walking towards the summit of your personal mountain. You don't have the luxury of coasting, you need to keep working. Artists don't retire, the way office workers do. You keep making art till you expire—I think most painters, for example, would be happy to die with the brush still wet in their hand. You keep going until the very end.

I have every intention of using this personal milestone experience to fuel more exploration, more artistic risk, and more reaching out past self-imposed limits that I once thought were permanent but have now become as insubstantial as mist. I don't know where the road will lead me next, but I do not doubt that it will contain more milestones.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Aubade of the Dream of Peaches

suffering through a time-change
waking in the middle of the night
moon-silver streaming in gaps
between window-shade and sill

I dream in that last hour before waking
of trudging on winter sidewalks
to an intersection in my hometown
next to an empty snow-covered field

to the east, we all stop, stare, comment,
thin cold clouds pale-centered, dappled
in sunrise, edged in light, I hear
my own voice say, "Now that's true pink"

as if it were the first color of the first
dawn at the morning of the world,
then I am turning the corner
as the traffic light changes

into a stand of stalls, open market
of fruit-sellers and farm provender
an annual peach festival
I make my way along wooden walls

painted fresh white and palest fruit-tone
colors of the living fruit vibrant and true
firm in the hand, brightly lit this early morn
by light-strung tree-boughs and dawn

there are sellers of jams and preserves
and small peach-shaped bottles of wine
intriguing because wine made from fruit
other than grapes is always tongue-catching

my toes are caught by a wooden sill
I stumble through a display window rather
than a door into a fruit stand overwhelmed
with color, scent, a whirl of sound and memory

and open eyes cocooned in warm blankets
arms wrapped around a pillow, knees bent
it's still wan winter morning, no snow left, and
you're not here, you're not here, you're not here

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Laughter Medicine

There's an old saying that "Laughter is the best medicine," and maybe it's true. I've been having nightmares all week long—memorably, an impassable field of rattlesnakes, being chased by Men In Black—till last night.

Last night I watched part of a DVD I had found at the thrift store (of all places) that afternoon: PDQ Bach in Houston: We Have a problem! I've been a fan of Peter Schickele and PDQ Bach, his research "discovery" in those dark corners of music history probably best left unplumbed, for decades. My Mom the concert pianist and piano teacher, and my Dad, the amateur musician and opera buff, and my sister and I started laughing to PDQ Bach's musical jokes in the early 70s, and have never stopped. It does help to know a lot of classical music to get the full depths of the jokes and the satire, but it's not necessary. There is a certain kind of Spinal Tap humor to PDQ Bach: that is, just as in Spinal Tap, most of us professional musicians have met people just like that, or been in that band, those of us who have been involved in classical music as performers or audience have all seen people just like that, too. Watching this on-stage live performance caught on film made me laugh out loud, just as with every PDQ Bach concert I've been too (at least 5 or 6 over the years).

My last dream before waking last night was funny, made me wake up laughing, and still makes me smile. I was with my artist friend Alex at a seaside place, an art school or resort town or small college or some combination of those, where we were rooming with college-aged artists and other creative types; the atmosphere was funky and friendly; I was the oldest one there, of course, but not the oldest at heart; one young women artist was making her living as a hair stylist, and I decided to let her dye my hair something wild, and she got creative and did a two-tone thing with red and a darker shade, with subtle purple streaks; people were astonished when they saw me later, shocked but positive; in the dream, I really enjoyed it; and in the dream I felt like I was giving her a gift of support and nurturing confidence. I woke up laughing. I've never dyed my hair in this waking life. But who knows. Artistic funkiness is no bad thing. It's good to shake things up. Maybe some henna some day.

I had been watching too much political commentary TV, or movies, the past few nights. Hmn. Be careful what you watch before bedtime. Something that makes you laugh is much better than yet another stupid violent movie. Why don't people make that connection? It's an environmental issue: The place you live, the things you eat, the information you take in, the "entertainment" you absorb: all of these affect your internal environment as well as your external. Maybe it really is just that simple.

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The Adobe Church

St. Francis of Assisi, Rancho de Taos, NM

Cat in door of abandoned adobe building, St. Francis Plaza

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Thursday, March 08, 2012


Images from the Sandia Mountains to the north and east of downtown Albuquerque, NM, the range that the city nestles directly under. These are infrared images made from a small park at the edge of town, at the foot of the hills, called the Elena Gallegos Picnic Area. Here you're a few hundred feet higher than downtown by the Rio Grande bosque, and have a grand view of the mountains and the river valley.

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The Road to the Western Lands 1

During this just-completed roadtrip I made a lot of grab-shots out the windows of the truck, and of the road ahead of the windshield. Each roadtrip is a bit different, and different in what calls to me imagistically as well. This trip, I found myself interested in photographing the road: the journey itself. The icon of the classic two-lane blacktop highway passing across the middle of desolate nowheres. I made this kind of photo again and again throughout my month-long travels, on all kinds of roads, under many kinds of conditions.

Consider this the beginning of a series.

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Ocotillo Flowers

Ocotillo Flowers

At Joshua Tree National Park, where I camped for two nights, there had been a relatively wet fall, so many of the cacti were blooming this mild winter. The ocotillo grove, which is one my favorite spots in the Park, had several stands that were flowering. Long conical red flowers at the ends of the long cactus stalks, some of the stands covered in small green leaves. Ocotillo are dramatic, standing up to 20 feet high, stalks growing from a central taproot point. They bend to the prevailing wind over time, giving them a windswept look even when the day is calm.

I made this drawing on my iPad, with the ArtRage app, using one of the photos I made that afternoon as a reference image. Still, I like the more impressionistic result. I didn't try to be too realistic about the background, or the area around the ocotillo, suggesting more than depicting the surrounding dirt and stands of sage. Still, anyone who's been to the Southwest will recognize the colors, the sky, the desert scene, and the ocotillo.

I did this drawing in several layers, exploring the app's Layers feature for the first time. The cactus and its sun-shadow are foregrounded, while other layers were built up for the sky, the distant line of mountains, and the foreground dirt with its loose jumble of rocks. I used several different tools this time, two different kinds of brushes, pastels, a little airbrush, and the paint roller. I like broad strokes for this kind of drawing, and I think the paint roller made an interesting sky gradient, built up in several thicknesses on different layers. more subtle to create than the end result appears. This kind of drawing/painting painting is about underpainting, building up color in layers, so that subtle effects show through. It took me awhile, but I like the finished result.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Glass Walls

Formless, incoherent, like seeing at a distance
through a glass wall the world ticks on, tides in, tides out,
flowing between ocean and lens, never at rest,
never tranquil, never ceasing. So go the waves.

A month of driving, travel, seeing new places,
seeing old faces, seeing the dead walking through
the living, all of it seen through a glass wall.
You hoped for enlightenment, that fizzy detachment
in which the opened heart engages with suffering
by neither causing nor rejecting. Instead, so obvious,
it's depression, the remembered glass wall of uncaring,
not unknowing. Neither an embrace of mystery nor
a carapace of dejected self-analysis, it's just blah.
Where's the fizz of life? That snowstorm seems to have it,
gathering and drifting in high riverine canyon winds,
till they bite the road and block it, but you don't care.
Is a depression a distraction from worry? Is it a gift?
I don't know. I embrace the few moments where
the world embraced me. And they were few. Only now
realizing how distanced from the foam I've been,
another bleak morning, snowless, cold, bitter winded,
only now knowing what you hoped was satori was only sorrow.

There's a small buoy inside my inner sea, holding on
to anchorage while storm waves surge around.
There's a small boy inside whose horror resurges
unabating, groundswelled by the belly scar he doesn't
understand. A repeating chorus of what the hell happened
to me. A line of scar on his perfect belly, glowing white
where the angel slit him open with the burning fiery sword.
All these sensations surrounding surgical terror, shunted aside
for later; now later has become now. Horror, terror, grief, death,
loss, confusion, a welter of wounds flying thick into memory,
feelings you didn't have time for when all your effort went into
just daily survival, bubble around your feet, stinking of sea-wrack.
Perhaps these glass walls help you from feeling too much, too fast.

So the world howls when I cannot. Winds blow across
the headlands; one night in Nevada they howled like the dead
around the edges of my hotel room door, alkali, dessicant.
The dry bones of the tormented dead sifted ash
dry lake dust seeping in. That night sleep was on vacation.
Another hellride down the Sierras, road twisting away
from the headlights, you'd stop and sleep if it wasn't so cold,
but the two-lane winds away till late, leaving you vibrating
once again on valley floor. In the Basin and Range
there are no oases, just desert sojourns. Normally
that's welcome, a place to stop and listen to silence.
The glass wall between me and world, that I took for transparent,
was a parfait of silence, screams, and silence, layered between
my eyes and desert silence. Now I've nothing to show for it.

What a waste. Did I return refreshed, vacationed, relaxed,
recharged? I feel hollowed, edged far too close to the wind howl,
well aware that if I could only summon the caring I'd dissolve
into puddles of grief. But the glass wall. No shouting
in either cathedral or cemetery gloom, it's unseemly.
In Taos and Albuquerque we wandered through cathedral
gift shops, feeling for once at home. I bought some portable
saints to travel with, alongside the Ganesha statue with his club,
the bronze Buddha found at a new Mexico thrift store.
I'm not particular about my saints. I'll call eclectically on every
source of solace and protection, the thousand little gods,
those interfacial masks between us and silent godhead.
I'm a pragmatic witch, going with whatever works. No loyalty
to any path but the one I find my feet on. Glass walls keep me
from knowing what I was feeling till, spelunking, I write it all down.
Now shudders ripple through me, I cough for the first time all winter.

Lucite, perspex, indifferent vitrine, inches of plexiglass
holding out the sea from waterclap. This was no vacation,
despite desire, or desert silence, despite the wind at ocean's boom.
Instead, archaeology. The recovery of artifacts of dying,
implements of torture, a grid of bones amidst fossilized grain.
If I plant those archaic seeds, I'll fly apart. Is depression so bad,
if it keeps you from incessant weeping? If I had the will I'd break
these walls apart. Perhaps you excavate these petroglyphic bones
by starting with the sills, chipping away till the glass loosens.
Tilts out of its frame the way a painting falls at any museum,
shocked silence after whisper of archaic canvas reaches floor tiles.

Whatever. I need to come back to life. There were moments.
Afternoon light on canyon walls at Zion, dappled by clouds.
The hour around sunset at Pescadero, where waves swirled
around pelagic outcrops ancient in ancient light and incoming tide.
There was a lot of wind. End of the snowbound road at jackson Lake,
whitewalled by the plows, white snow mists cloaking the mountains,
lake frozen and drifted, white on white, every white, even these pines.
Tea and snacks by the adobe fireplace and heavy beams at the Taos Inn,
an hour after brushing by bighorn sheep running across the canyon rim.
Somewhere on a snowbound Wyoming fenceline, bald eagles and ravens
perched side by side, getting along. Sunlight converted into wine.
Frozen wild berries under naked aspen boughs. Scent of juniper and pine.
After all, despite dense inner weeds, I have come through, I have survived.

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