We belong together; or, The (Im)possibilities of Artistic Collaboration

I have a recurring dream of/dread of doing a collaborative project of some sort, with someone or someones from other artistic disciplines. I want to be pushed/pulled out of my comfort zone…but not too far.

I dread the awkward social interactions that I presume will arise in a collaborative environment, the moments of “ugh, I don’t know if I can do this” or “oh no, I think I just hurt that person’s feelings/pissed them off” or “my feelings just got hurt/I just got pissed off” or “how can I tell this person I think this is a terrible idea” or “that person just told me my idea is terrible.” Ayee. Yeah, I know mature people work through these moments. But, ayee.

I have collaborated before, I remind myself. I worked with a videographer friend, who basically just let me order him around. Thanks, Pete! He came up with some ideas, and offered some editing ideas and suggestions, cautioned me about a couple of things, and I was grateful for his guidance. And basically he was a delight to work with, and I’m extremely proud of the video we produced.

I collaborated twice with a choreographer friend. The first time I shared with her a poem series with audio, and she set a dance to the series, incorporating me and two other readers on stage with her dancers. There may have been moments early in the process when she wanted to beat me over the head, because choreographing to human speech is not the easiest thing, varying as it does. When we started practicing, I think I did some minor edits, and at one point had a cringy moment when I heard myself undiplomatically suggesting maybe one of the choreographed movements was too literal. (Sorry, Beth!) But she took my comment in stride. I think the whole thing came out fabulously. We then worked on a revamp of The Nutcracker, trying to use some of the traditional music and dances, but in a shortened form and performed in a nontraditional setting. I started doing a spoof, but she didn’t want that exactly. So I came up with some ideas, we worked them back and forth. I did some more working out of narrative structure and we did some more brainstorming and tweaking. It was great fun. We have not gotten a chance to stage it yet, but we have a template to hit the ground running when/if we get a chance to.

So what am I afraid of? Oh, you know, I don’t like the unknown. The what ifs, the hows and whys. I fear that I don’t know what I don’t know. I fear that I’ll initiate an effort and then fail. What if I get fired as a collaborator? Ayee.

I’ve thought of putting out a call for collaborators among the visual artists, videopgraphers, and musicians with whom I’m acquainted. I’ve stopped myself basically because I can’t come up with a vision or a goal or a thematic framework or anything to basically create a nice bag around the empty space of possibility. Also, of course, there’s no money in it for any of them who actually make their livings through their art. (Well, really, who does that these days, and how on earth would they know ME? I mean, yeah, I happened to have dinner in the same empty restaurant where Laurie Anderson was eating, so consider myself having had dinner with her…but…well…there’s a limit to how far delusion can get one…) I know that I don’t necessarily need a framework, but it would be helpful for the pitch.

Or am I just afraid? Fear is good. As long as it doesn’t stop me from moving forward. My latest fantasies revolve around collaborations not with other artists but with scientists — a geologist studying the ancient terrain around here, an ornithologist tracking all these owls I’m hearing at night, or a limnologist peering at water samples in a microscope (do they do that? I just wanted to use the word limnologist in a sentence). But will they just think I’m eccentric? Who has time for a poet?

Just do something, I say to me.

Gaah, I say.

Just shut up and make work, I also say.

It’s exhausting just collaborating with my many selves. Who has room for someone else?

Into the mystic; or, On the Limitations of Words as an Artistic Medium

I’m trying to write a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail and although I now have a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail it seems to be just a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail instead of what I really want to talk about which is that something about the experience feels more like the trail is skiing me or I am the terrain being skied on.

I am both the dip in the land where a small stream moves through and the bend in my knees that takes me down and up. I’m the curve around the glacial erratic and how I curve around the erratic and yes some part of me is the erratic, this one, furred with moss and lichen, dripping some days like I’m my own little microclimate, my own world, rock and sediment and weepy. How is that? What is that? Do you know this feeling too? But the poem does not capture that.

So I take things out, leave half-sentences and space the wind blows through, leave some parallel tracks of where I’ve been, how I go, but still I’ve said nothing of this ownership, terrain of me, me of terrain, meandering through the great hummocks of rockmass, stringing marsh to marsh. I fail to mention how I stand in the bowl of one marsh, often in snowfall as if a globe’s been shaken, and I’m the small plastic form inside, or I’m the bowl, or the shaker.

I want to say something about finitude. I want to say something about endurance. Rock and water. The deceptions of snow. Something about my body in motion, the land at rest; the land in motion, body at rest. The poem utters, mutters, but in the end fails.

Filmmaker Agnès Varda said in an interview something along the lines of “I believe the surroundings inhabit us, guide us.”

This is no circular route. I go out. I come home. Muscle and bone and panting breath. Broken rhythms. Mute mountains. Sky blinks. Snows covers everything quietly. Light glints on blown snow, disappears. The lines of my passage disappear. Highlight. Delete.

Hitchin’ a ride; or, Brief Thoughts on Art, Self, and Death

A friend asked at lunch one day something along the lines of “What happens to the “me” of me when I die?”

This seems a question better posed over dinner and too much wine, but anyway.

I had been thinking about that very thing before she posed the question, and continue to do so, and have been reading about the mind and consciousness, the mind-body question — is the mind or consciousness the brain in its materiality and chemistry, or is it something else? Here are some other writers’ thoughts that resonate around this.

Christian Wiman quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who just before his execution by the Nazis claimed: “I want my life. I demand my/own life back. My past. You!” Wiman writes, “It’s not the future that Bonhoeffer feels slipping from him, but the past, not some totality of existence he fears losing — he still believes in salvation–but its molecular singularity, all the minute perceptions and sensations, retained by the body if not the mind, that comprise one particular human consciousness.”

In 1956, William Faulkner, who hated interviews, took time to describe this impulse to the Paris Review:
“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.”

Khalil Gibran wrote this, which seems relevant: 
“But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.”

But perhaps Pokey Lafarge answers it best. He sings: “I’m singing la la la.”

Ya know it’s a lie; or, Why We Write

A friend asked me recently what I hoped to accomplish when I wrote a poem. I stammered something about it not reallly being a desire to accomplish something, but more the way you say ouch when you bang your elbow. Only more pleasant. Sometimes.

But that didn’t feel entirely right.

Then I said something about wanting to show the reader something, startle their perspective, the way the view changes when you shift the kaleidoscope and the colored fragments fall into different patterns. But that certainly didn’t seem entirely true. I rarely think about the reader at all.

I started to say something about how poetry appeals to me because of its compression. But although that’s true, that’s not really why I write it.

I started to say something about art as communication, but at that point I knew I had my cerebral hat on, and that that didn’t really get at what she was asking.

So don’t I run into an article by that damned George Saunders, who got it just write — I mean, right. In a Guardian article from 2017, he wrote this: “We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he ‘wanted to express’, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”

Word, George. What he said.


All the noise noise noise; or, On Writing from Prompts

I was trying to write in response to a prompt the other day — a wonderful monoprint. But all I got was words.

You know what I mean. Yes, there were sounds and syntax and “meaning” or meaningish business but really it was all blah blah blah. I never got past the mask of vocabulary and earnest snuffling. I was too aware of being aware, too hard trying to try. Ugh.

So tiresome when my mind gets in the way of my brain, when words stand between me and what I might not be able to say in words but which is exactly what a good poem can do. Or the silence in a good poem, maybe. The white space.

I have an uneasy relationship with prompts. I can’t trust the whole set-up, because sometimes they work: I drop into some strange space of utterance and up bubbles things strange and fantastic; and sometimes they don’t, and I’m clutching my pen and strangling the empty page with grabby fingers of text.

It has something to do with breathing. No. It has something to do with attention. No. Is it in the set of my jaw? Should I squint my eyes? The whole enterprise seems impossible. Except when it’s glorious.

If the effort toward writing from a prompt seems too effort-full, the only thing to do is walk away. Go yank weeds or walk or lately I’ve been taking objects and slathering them with blue paint and dragging them across paper. A bottle cap. The red mesh that onions come in. A stick. Good fun.

Maybe THAT’s my response to the monoprint prompt. I don’t know. And I can’t trust this space of not knowing. Because sometimes it’s confounding. And sometimes it’s exactly where I need to be.

There’s always something happening there; or, On Reading Phil Memmer’s Pantheon

I’m a gobbler. I vacuum my meals, I gobble the pavement under my quick step, I whip-read such that I’m always having to reread because I went too fast to remember what I read. But I’ve had this book of poems now for several months and I love it so much I can only bear to read a few poems at a time. This rarely happens to me, and I’m so thrilled to have the experience, especially during the pandemic, when everything seems to have slowed down around me, and my brain too, stumbling and bleary.

The poems are imaginative, beautiful in all the ways of beauty, sometimes funny, always poignant, almost unbearably so — but in a very good way. Indeed Phil was filled with some holy spirit with these poems, so full are they of wild winds and homely wonder.

Every poem is entitled by the name of the god who is speaking: The God of Wisdom, The God of Snow, The God of Driving Alone in the Middle of the Night. And each god reveals itself in tercets of its thoughts in the form of epistles to a “you” who is we, we who are staggering in the created world.

One poem is called “A Muse.” This might be my favorite. (No, even as I write that, others clamor for my favor.) Anyway, in “A Muse,” the muse describes how hard it worked to gain “your” attention so as to give you “…a worldly thing//to move you, in a world of things/by which you refuse to be moved….” The muse claims credit for the fog that canceled the flight that created a cascade of events that interceded with the haphazard car inspection that resulted in an accident that provided the writer with “…a copse of roadside trees//in peak spring, a perfect green/you might, on another ay,/have sped right by….”

And really that little quote does no service to the wonderful reeling out of the poem and its characters. I just cannot do justice to any of these poems with any snippet of lines. They are a wonder and a delight, and now that I have finally read every poem, I almost can’t bear/really can’t wait to go through them again.

Pantheon was published by Lost Horse Press in 2019. The book has a ghostly black cover that has a funny feel to the touch, as if it’s covered in soft leather, a pair of pale hands folded lit in the gloom.

Got the rockin’ pneumonia; or, On Writing About Current Events

I was thinking about the hazards of writing current events poetry, and asked some poet friends if we talked about Covid in our poems are we not in danger of having them become dated?

One argued that we are writing poems out of a specific experience, out of an extraordinary time.

But don’t all times feel extraordinary when we’re in them? 9/11, World War I, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of a parent — all of them were times that felt catastrophic to the individuals inside them. How to write a good poem that transcends its extraordinary time to encompass all extraordinary times? Or should that even be a goal? Why not linger in the time and be frank about it?

Another person called attention to Yeats’s Easter 1916 as a poem grounded in a specific experience but a poem that has transcended the time of that experience. It is a wonderful poem, which certainly by the title grounds us firmly in time, though makes the assumption the reader will understand the reference to the Irish uprising. That phrase, though, “terrible beauty,” captures the imagination and takes me in any number of directions far from Irish soil. And the naming of the dead is an ancient rite that we still take part in. The movement of the poem to the unceasing natural world is both a common approach of putting us in our place and also effective, a useful reminder of the fleeting nature of our existence. But even though he wrote it shortly after the event, the poem already feels like a historic, long view. It has a vital distance, the “I” a distant onlooker from the start, already elegiac.

Is it this real or perceived distance that offers an avenue into the power of the poem? I don’t know.

We in conversation about this agreed that something happens sometimes with a Big Event; its moniker becomes a shorthand for a layered mishmosh of received wisdom and assumptions and perceptions, and that can be hazardous for a poem. We also agreed that any particular person’s “how I suffered during X event” is not likely to make for a very good poem. Something needs to happen in a poem, some kind of specificity, some kind of universality.

Of course, this is true for any poem, not just a poem rooted in a Big Event. Does every extraordinary moment have its poem? Do each of us inside every extraordinary moment have our poem?

Does anybody really know what time it is; or, On Being Reviewed

It’s a funny thing to have someone else talk about one’s own work. I’ve had a handful of reviews of my books of poetry over the years. I always end up feeling wildly impressed with whoever it was who wrote that work being reviewed…

and often surprised. Mostly because in the moment of making, I can’t say that I have a big picture of what I’m doing, no comprehensive thesis statement. If I’ve put a collection of poetry together that seems to have a theme, it’s only because my mind in the period of time of writing has circled around the same things. And those themes don’t seem to change very much.

A friend who put together a “new and selected” collection of his poems noted his abiding themes across forty plus years of writing. But I couldn’t at any particular moment even identify the theme of my questions particularly. I just wander around thinking stuff, reading, noticing, and at some point I write stuff down. Sometimes it’s directly related to that wandering, sometimes I think I’m remembering something else.

People have said to me about some event, oh, are you going to write a poem about this? And I have to say, if I do, it will be years from now. I almost never writing about something that I’m in the middle of. Even things I’ve noticed may not make it into a poem until long after that moment of noticing.

Anyway, all this is to say that when a reviewer looks at an entire collection and draws lines and connections, it’s often surprising, often gratifying, occasionally baffling. But of course once something you’ve written gets into someone else’s hands, it’s theirs. To make of what they will. Even if ultimately the response is “hunh??”

Here is a review of my recent book, Being Many Seeds, and I’m grateful for the reviewer’s attention to the work. http://Does anybody really know what time it is; or, On Being Reviewed

Sundress Reads: A Review of Being Many Seeds

You’re where you should be all the time; or, More on Paying Attention

Once again, that wonderful site Brainpickings offered up something that got me thinking. This is a quote from Alexandra Horowitz from her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes: “Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, sound — but to function, we have to ignore some of it.”

Artists (and I include writers in that category, even though we’re not always; plus I am always bemused by the title of that venerable site and magazine “Poets & Writers,” but at least, for once, poets are listed first…) seem to be people who retain that interest in and personal inclination toward noticing, less inclined toward ignoring that wash. The act of making art is combining that attentive power with whatever resides inside that caused us to notice what we noticed.

It occurs to me, doubtless again, that revision is the art of clipping away everything we may have noticed in the wild world of detail but which may take away from highlighting what caught our attention, what echoed some inner — what? vibration? emotion? memory? some deep imagining?

I don’t know what it is that makes us makers, what notices us noticing what we notice and calls us to create something, something that records that electric moment. Because it does feel like a kind of recognition, or sometimes a reckoning, that moment.

Today on my walk I asked myself to notice light. Although I draw and paint, I’m not primarily a visual artist, but I know that light and shadow are vital in the world of visual art, so I challenged myself to pay attention to that particular input. It was staggering! All the twinkling of dew on jewelweed, the variegated shadows on fern fronds, how light works its way into the forest, and the astonishing fact of clouds. It was a day of clouds on clouds on clouds leaning on the hills or looming from behind them, and every cloud was an elaborate array of white and gray and gray-blue,  dark edges, white hearts, a little purple, maybe some green. Or was I imagining that?

Should I choose to write about that, my job is, I think, to get down what I noticed, and let what is inside me that caused that interest to rise up and help me find the words. To match those details with something that speaks out of those details.

But to make art, I then need to wade back in to all that I noted, and pare away and pare away everything that’s not vital to those inner interests. It can be a slow process. Confusing, for sure, as for me, only time reveals to me what is really important. This is tricky, of course, because I become attached to what I’ve noticed, wonderful details, or I become distracted by bigger things: Meaningful Notions, perhaps, or Earnest Intentions. It’s also tricky, of course, if I want a poem that meanders, that gets distracted. Even that must be carefully managed.

With revision the task of looking is not over. With revision I need to get sharp at the developmental phase mentioned in the opening quote. To create: notice everything; to revise: focus and focus.


You’re really hanging with the crowd; or, Someone Else on Keats and Negative Capability

Readers may remember my fulmination against Keats and this much-made-of notion of negative capability (https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/keats-pisses-me-off-or-the-beauty-of-fact-and-reason-or-art-and-reaching-irritably/). I have often felt very alone in my impatience with it. But then I encountered this welcome article: http://jacketmagazine.com/40/theune-keats.shtml. I pass it along, having little else useful to say on this or any other matter today.