Art for Art’s Sake; or How Other Artistic Media Can Generate New Writing

Reading, writing, talking, and thinking about poetry at MASSMoCA is creating a feedback loop as I absorb the visual and audio riches of the museum, whose grounds sprawl with both formal-feeling gallery rooms, vast expanses, and unexpected corners of surprise: voices speaking into an empty back lot, strange clanging from an old building open to the elements, the two-tone hum of a 3D printer; even the smell of bacon from the cafe is charged. (Baaaconnn….)

As I walk around with words whispering just unheard in my head, I’m engaged in the ritualized act of seeing that is museum-going. As I spent time in one small gallery, I noticed the rapid coming and going of five or six people, who were in the what’s-this-what’s-that mode that I too get into often when I’m visiting a museum. Some of that has to do with the sheer volume of work to absorb in a day’s visit. You have to measure time and energy in such a situation, and I appreciate that. I wish museums offered multiple-day passes to allow this kind of focused attention absent the anxiety of time and what-am-I-missing. As an artist in residence here, I have the leisure to return again and again.

Because I’m here on a mission of art-making, everything is more alive to my eye, ear, nose. I feel the rubble of metal plates underfoot or the knobs of gravel, the yield of damp grass. Being here I feel art begetting art, and I want to crumple my page of poem into some shadow-casting form to attach to a wall, or mutter my words into the tunnel of an old air duct.

I begin to experience “ostranenie,” a term meaning to defamiliarize, to make the familiar strange. And in that state I can relook at my own work, my usual turns of phrase and modes of expression and come to embrace it, clarify it, discard it as too limited, pile on it, twist it, shatter it open, hone it to a knife-edge. Ideas of new work I might make emerge as bright possibilities just beyond the edges of these buildings, skittering leaves glimpsed through a window, a stalking crow, and I can’t wait to give myself over to what might happen.

I am giddy with the world, the mind, imagination.



Singing the Body Electric; or, Thoughts on Death

“But there is something about time. The sun rises and sets. The stars swing slowly across the sky and fade.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

And someone is born, fumbles around for a lifetime, then dies. It’s no wonder so many of us assume time is linear, that there was a beginning, will be an end. But other worldviews understand time as something other than linear; circular, perhaps, or inextricable from situation, from place. I am interested in place, in our connection to place, how we find ourselves connected to a place or places. Stephen Muecke, who explores this in a book called Ancient and Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy, writes: “Many indigenous accounts of the death of an individual are not so much about bodily death as about a return of energy to the place of emanation with which it re-identifies.”

I’m entranced with the idea of a “place of emanation with which an energy re-identifies.” When my body stops and the energy that resides within it wanders off, where is my place of emanation, where is the place with which my energy identifies?

That energy was embodied on the Atlantic coastal plain, near where silt-covered bedrock is exposed by flowing waters, a low-land, humid zone of hardwoods and laurel. But the consciousness that is me has long identified with a landscape of glacial forms, eskers and cirques, bouldered outwash and till, white pine, maple. Who knows what that pesky energy will have in mind. I swear I’ve also left pieces of myself like breadcrumbs on the beaches of Oregon, wind-whipped and wave spew-strewn, and tangled in the carpet juniper of Newfoundland, and Seine-side on a cement quay with the fallen linden leaves. What will my energy make of this? Can it collect itself or am I forever scattered, ghostly traveler, fractured energy brooding on deluge and erosion and the growth of new seeds and old mushrooms?

I’m reminded again of Olivia Laing’s lovely book To the River. She wrote this: “The tenacity of our physical remains, their unwillingness to fully disappear, is at odds with whatever spark provides our animation, for the whereabouts of that after death is a mystery yet to be unpicked. What is this world, really?”

And this, from Ruth L. Schwartz’s “Ode and Elegy in One Flesh”:
Body, you hold us like a lit match
to the skin of life.
Yet when all we’ve been and done and lost
comes home to rest in us,
then rises, moves like ragged herds
grazing every inch of field,

you are what we love.

No Straight Lines; or, What’s a Human For?

Forty years ago I proposed a research project to answer this question: Do chipmunks follow set paths as they go about their nut gathering? This was high school senior year research bio class. I have no recollection of trying to justify the significance of that research question. I have no idea how I’d answer that. But Monsieurs Rehm and Cederstrom (R.I.P., lovely man) okayed the project.

I then spent very little time actually gathering data — which required sitting endlessly, motionlessly, in the park noting the movements of chipmunks I could in no way tell apart. I then, unsurprisingly with such little data, wrote a paper concluding there were no set patterns.

Now I find myself sitting in this chair (with the pleasure of having little else to do at the moment) almost every morning for the past two weeks out in this yard, with, as it happens, this chipmunk going about its business. From the hole in the brush behind me, it generally moves roughly south, pauses at a chair in front of the house, then disappears into the brush in front of that. Eventually, it returns, roughly from that direction, crosses the yard generally from the south, sometimes right along the edge of the house, or at least within five feet of it. It has many other paths, I know, as I’ve seen it rustling around across the road, or slipping into the outdoor shower and into the hole under that. But its return to this particular hole seems to follow a particular path. So lo and behold, I do think it has a general set pattern. Hunh.

I don’t know that I have much point here. Except that, you know, isn’t life funny?

In spite of my lazy approach to gathering data for that project, I have always been an observer. I had wanted to be a detective when I was a kid. Then a research biologist. Then I studied anthropology. Then public policy, which in a way is, if policy is well thought out, a combination of all those things. Then I studied poetry, which also, at least the poetry I write, is a combination of all those things: whodunit, and why, and what do we as a culture understand about it, how do we talk about it, and what can we make of it all.

If the chipmunk has a pattern then, as a predator, I could catch it. Or as a rival for its acorns, I could follow the chipmunk to its source and plunder. Or I can just notice. Maybe that’s what my role is here.

If human beings could be said to have some kind of unique role in life, maybe this is all it is — observe, note patterns, make art. And try not to kill too many things while we’re here.

Why I Hate George Saunders

For several years I’ve been hearing about George Saunders George Saunders George Saunders blah blah blah. I don’t read much fiction so I had not encountered his work nor did I want to seek it out and the more I heard about freaking George Saunders the less I wanted to read this darling of the literati. Then Lincoln in the Bardo Lincoln in the Bardo blah blah blah, big book award, yeah yeah yeah. Sounded weird, I had no interest. Then two friends whose taste I respect both chimed in, and I thought, oh, all RIGHT, for crying out loud.

So I started it and for the first third I was all yeah yeah right please give me a break. Then bam. I loved it. I loved that freaking book. Dammit.

But I moved on and settled back into my nonfiction and poetry reading mode and ignored the existence of George freaking Saunders. And then boom there he is in the new AWP Writer’s Chronicle. I paged past it, read other articles, looked at ads, the classifieds. Oh for crying out loud, all RIGHT, I’ll read whatever it is he’s going on about. Geesh.

And I loved it. And I laughed out loud. And I found it useful, and thoughtful. Crap. I love this George freaking Saunders. Which is why I hate George Saunders.

Stuff he wrote:
First, he quotes Gerald Stern with this fantastic bit: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking, then…you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Exactly the problem.

Then he writes this: “The individual writer’s ‘craft,’ might be understood, then, as the process of conspiring to work oneself into the necessary state of mystification, such that one is deferring to the innate energy of the story, rather than overriding it.”

He talks about “the goal of establishing an intimate, frank, and respectful relationship with our imaginary reader.”

And this: “…when we write, we ritually remind ourselves that everybody in this world is on a continuum with us and is therefore somewhat knowable to us.”

And: “It is the essential thing that human beings do: we story-tell in order to locate ourselves in the universe, to concoct a viable stance for ourselves here amid the chaos, and forge a less-insane connection with other beings.”


The Cheese Stands Alone; or On Ordering Poems in a Manuscript

Does order matter? I go back and forth about it.

Here’s how I approach a book of poems that I have not yet read. (I just got Bruce Beasley’s All Soul Parts Returned. Very excited. Love his work.) I check the acknowledgments page (professional curiosity — how many of the poems in the volume have been published and where. If there’s lots of good lit mags, I get to feel intimidated and bad about myself). I read any notes in the back, just to get oriented. (This one has lots of notes. I love notes.) I open to a random page and read a poem. I open another random page and read. I look at the cover art. I read the bio. I open another random page. I look at the table of contents to see if there are sections or some organizational system. Only then might I start from page 1.

But even then, I don’t read the book in one sitting, so if there is continuity at work, I might not even “get” it, as I might not come back to the book for another day or so. If there’s no clear narrative in process, the poems may still feel somewhat random, unless the sections clearly group like-oriented poems.

And yet, when I do feel a system at work inside a book, I really enjoy it. “Oh, look,” I can say, “see how this poem refers back to that poem on an earlier page.” I feel like I’ve gotten more access to the poet’s brain, feel a greater togetherness with the poet. Like I’ve gotten some inside joke, or we’ve shared a wink.

I recently got hold of a friend’s fresh manuscript. She is concerned about the order she’s established for the book of poems. So with this in mind, I started from page 1 and read right through. The sections were grouped with a clear idea of why. This appeals to my orderly mind. (Or maybe it’s a disorderly mind, which is why I like order.) But did the order enhance my enjoyment of the collection? I’m just not sure. Under ordinary circumstances, I’m not sure I’d notice much.

Nevertheless, because I was asked to think about order, I started wondering what the collection would read like if the distinctive poems in one section appeared dotted throughout the section. Would this give me a little thrill of insider perspective when I encountered this kind of internal rhythm of certain kinds of poems woven throughout? Maybe. Again, that is, once I settled to read from cover to cover, and if I read from cover to cover in one sitting or in sittings that were relatively close together so that that mind referenced above would remember.

So, does order matter? Maybe. Of course, if it’s a “concept” collection in which something is unfolding or the reader needs to be familiarized with how to read the poems in the collection, then certainly order concerns matter. But how many of us are writing collections like that?

I know that when I read for a contest, I taste from beginning, middle, and end. If every poem I encounter interests me, then that manuscript goes in the Maybe Yes pile. If even one poem falls short, the ms goes in the Maybe pile. If several of the poems fail to interest me, it goes in the No pile. That’s just the way it is. (For more on my experience as a first round reader, see links below.) So in this case, order doesn’t matter very much. But as an author, I want my collection to have a flow, a weave, a pulse of some sort. So in that, case order does matter, if only to me.

So I guess here it is: Does a disorderly order sink a manuscript? I don’t really think so. Can an interesting order enhance it? Yes, indeed.

Am I finding it enjoyable to think about the order of my poems in my ms? If yes, then I should go ahead and shuffle them around as long as I’m having fun. Is it a drag? I guess I wouldn’t expend too much energy, then.

But I’m enjoying shuffling this friend’s poems around, so maybe it’s worth asking someone else to look at order, if that person finds it fun.

But the bottom line is, if every poem doesn’t pull its weight, then no reordering is going to save the ms. It’s all down to the individual poem. Again.

And, by the way, Beasley’s book is fantastic.