Going out of my head day and night; or, On Finding a Hook to Hang an Idea On

Regularly I cycle through a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing. A poem? What IS that? How do you write one of them thangs? I have this long natter of ideas in my notebook, so I thought, well, maybe this is an essay. An essay?!?! What the hell is THAT? What I suspect is that at times like these I have a bunch of ideas but no pathway into or through them.

Whether poem or essay, ideas need something to hook themselves too — an image, a story — something that can keep the ideas from self-inflating and floating away.

Although I didn’t watch them, apparently on the Oscars, Scorsese was quoted as having said this: “The most personal is the most creative.” I think this is fabulously true. The problem with ideas, mine anyway, is that they tend to be separated from the personal. How do I make these ideas come alive with something from my insides? Why did these ideas or philosophies rise up in me anyway — where in my melange of blood, guts, experience, desire were they birthed?

Without some kind of vivid, visceral structure, these words are just blather, gobbledygooking up the page.

The problem is that I’m a sucker for a well-put idea, even if it’s my own. I get dazzled by thought. I forget that what moves me, stirs something deeper than dazzle, is the combination of idea and that other thing that arises from the body, sensorial, flesh on flesh or wind on flesh or hum on ear, tang on tongue.

Get out of your head, I say to myself. In my head.

It’s funny because lately I’ve been living much more outside, so am filled with fresh air and pines and the rumple of hilltops and dit dit dah of tracks in the snow. You’d think my body would have something to more to say to my head.

Where in my body have these concerns risen? Where is the slant of my truth? Where is the half-open door from which these ideas breathe a scent — damp cellar? root vegetables? cumin and cinnamon? Where do the tracks lead?

Call me; or, On Hoagland and Cosgrove’s book of Craft on Voice

What a nice gift Tony Hoagland left us before he departed: The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice, with Kay Cosgrove. It’s a great little craft book that focuses on ways we can use and hone how a poem “speaks,” whether we’re using our own daily, casual “voice” or borrowing from other people or times or ways of speaking. In such chapters as “The Sound of Intimacy: The Poem’s Connection with its Audience” or “Voice as Speech Registers: High, Middle, and Low,” or “Imported Voices: Bringing Other Speakers into the Poem” he invites us to pay attention to not just what we’re saying in a poem, but how we’re saying it — what vocabulary, what level of intimacy or distance, what tone.

With each chapter comes a section with sample exercises, but often also with a little mini-post-script to the chapter that often is as rich as the chapter itself. But what I like most about this book is the number and variety of sample poems he uses, many of them from poets whose work I’m unfamiliar with or poems I had not encountered before.

I had not known of Lisa Lewis’s work, but the “voice” of the first line of her cited poem “While I’m Walking” made me almost laugh out loud: “Sometimes I like to tell people how to live.” I had not known Grace Paley’s poem that says: “what a hard time/the Hudson River has had/trying to get to the sea…” and starts with the Hudson’s rise up out of Lake Tear of the Clouds and traces its wandering lust toward the sea, and then “…suddenly/there’s Poughkeepsie…” which also made me laugh.

I don’t know honestly that I learned anything new, but I appreciated the opportunity to spend time consciously considering the options and tactics of using the various ideas within the overarching category of “voice” as tools of poem construction.

Plus he had some lovely things to say along the way. Here’s one: “A good poem can shape experience into a kind of tango that makes facts dance and shape-shift until we find we must…concede one more time that we are vulnerable to wonder, grief, outrage, and reflection.” Or, as Lou Reed put it, there is “a lifetime between thought and expression,” which to me means that the mode of expression can, and should, contain some thread of the complexity of a lifetime. A poem can be multivocal or can contain the many notes of a throat singer or can be one, high lonesome thread.

Here’s another Hoagland thought: “Experience is many great conversations happening at once. A good poem orchestrates such conversations in a way that makes graceful theater of them.”

And this: “A poem is a little movie, cut and shaped from the fottage of ordinary life. Its vibrant familiarities please and entertain us to draw us inside. Then, if the poem is good, its artful intensifications change our experience when we walk back out the door.”

I think this would be a fine craft book for a writing course of any kind, and was a very engaging read for this short-attention-spanned practitioner.

Under pressure; or, Prose as a Pathway to Poetry

I’ve written a bunch of thoughts, blather blather. Then I culled through them and found a portion that might be a poem, so I excised it out and started thinking about it poem-ically.

But somehow I wasn’t quite done with thinking about it prosily either, so I kept writing more.

But I looked back and found that pretty much everything I was saying in prose I had already captured in the poem. Yet I felt dissatisfied. Does that mean I have more to say? Or was I just on a roll and overshot the runway? Am I deedledeedledeedling over an abyss of nothing-more-to-say-on-the-subject? I’m perplexed.

My mind(s) go back and forth between the two modes, poem and prose, rereading what I’ve written. I admire what the poem manages to do. Poem Mind starts feeling comfortable. Prose Mind keeps nattering away. Poem Mind says, Um, I already said that. Prose Mind says, But what about this? Poem Mind: Yup.

Either I need to keep writing through, or I need to stop and take a breath and release the endorphins of thinking. There may be a deeper level I haven’t written to yet. I just happened to grab a poem along the way.

And don’t tell Poem Mind this, as she already can be rather insufferable, but the unsaid — the space and breaths of poetry — have the capacity to suggest so much more than the word-filled prose.

But she gets lazy, Poem Mind, and Prose Mind needs to push on, dig down, “read” the white space of the poem and write into it so Poem Mind can perhaps breathe deeper still. Even if Prose Mind repeats herself along the way. Sometimes even that can be revealing of something still unearthed.

Just to have a laugh; or, On the Serious Fun of Art

I love reading interviews with Ai Weiwei (a name that roughly means Ai of the unknown what’s next). He reminds me, with both his work and his words, that work is best made of play.

Ai Weiwei’s work is serious play — pillars wrapped in life vests…until you realize the work is about all the refugees who have fled by boat, some to survive, some to die. A giant arch of bikes…that address the strict uniformity of some cultures. Ai is deadly earnest in his fun.

Robert Frost says it this way in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes yield one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

I never want to stray far in my work from that sense of work as play, and the idea of mortal stakes. Which is not to say I want to take myself so seriously and think my work is going to make any shred of difference in the world. But I think to some degree, I have to believe it might.

Or maybe just the fact that I’m doing the creative work I do is enough to make some kind of difference in some strange way to something like the universe’s energy field. To get REALLY woo woo and take-myself-serious-y on you.

I don’t know. Is this just me trying to justify my sitting here? I’ve done all kinds of work in my life thus far, a life that looked like what the culture expects — I got dressed, went to an office, did stuff, wrote memos, developed reports. Even when I worked at home, I helped other people do stuff that was similar. I had “a job,” of sorts. Now in this freefall lifestyle of making, I frequently feel culturally illegitimate.

But of the work I did in ten years of working for state government, not an iota still exists, except in the form of somebody’s bookshelf that might have a dusty copy of one of the major things I helped develop. Of the work I did in college admission, I doubt if anyone knows anything of what I did to help an individual or the process. So really, unless you’re doing groundbreaking research, advocacy, or saving someone’s life, is any of this work we all run around doing really “for mortal stakes”?

But don’t we need to believe we can make a difference? And don’t we need, for our own mortal sake, to take ourselves with a grain of salt, and don’t we need to have a little bit of fun every day? Yes. I say yes to that.

In a recent interview in The Guardian, Ai said that if he stopped making art, he’d become a barber. When asked if he couldn’t mix art and barbering, he said, absolutely not. “You would never mix such a holy profession with art.”

It’s Thoreau, that gadfly, who gives me the last word and some poet-specific encouragement. He wrote: “The poet, for instance, must sustain his body by his poetry, as a steam planing-mill feeds its boilers with the shavings it makes. You must get your living by loving.” To that I’d add: and laughing.


You’re my meat; or, On Words as Artistic Material

I’ve been thinking about materials and art. I have an acquaintance who sees everything as either a print or a device to make a print — he’ll stack objects that have a certain association and then drip liquid down them to make a mark that changes over time, distilling, as it were, that association. I was talking to an artist recently who is interested in making objects out of very thin ceramic to see what it can do with light. I read about an architect professor who encourages her students to design a structure and choose a material to make it from, regardless of whether that material lends itself to the structure designed — in fact, the more the idea pushes the material, the better. (This strikes me as a profound example of the hubris of human-the-maker.) I was looking at the work of an artist who makes walking sticks from old paper maps of places she’s been. I feel like these artists have a different relationship with the material they work with than I do.

It seems to me they can regard their material more dispassionately, as it contains no inherent meaning. My material is words. The same thing we use to say “pass the salt” is what I’m trying to use to say the unsayable, to express something beyond words — an experience, an emotion, a viewpoint, an idea.

Sound is important to me, but comes secondary for me to the word and its meaning(s) and what image(s) it might invoke. The number of words in the world is everchanging, especially if I start using words from multiple languages, make words up, dredge up archaic words long gone out of use. And of course, new words are coined all the time. But my relationship with them is inevitably complicated by the prosaic matters that are also made by this “material.”

On the other hand, my toothbrush holder is ceramic, I still use actual paper maps to find my way around, and I’m pretty sure the structure of this old couch I’m sitting on is about to buckle after years of my weight on my favorite end.

So maybe it’s not so different. I mean, the whole enterprise of writing poems is stacking words and sentences and stanzas to let some intentions drip down and make a mark on the reader, ideally one that changes over time.




Like a Southbound Train; or, Writing out of the Animated World

Lately I’ve been exploring my emotional response to rocks.

Does that say something unfortunate about me? Shouldn’t I be exploring my relationship to my long-dead father, or my inner fears, or why I hate my neighbors, or my notions of gods and the spirit?

Or is it all the same thing? Am I on some spiritual trip, a connection with the ineffable, that thing we humans can’t seem to resist, finding something bigger than ourselves? And in my case at the moment, LITERALLY bigger than myself — this glacial erratic my forest trail has led me to.

This giant boulder takes up space, it has a relationship to time, albeit far different than mine. It is a natural history of which I am a moment, one hand on the cool side of the rock, a sinew in the grand continuity of matter and energy, as far as we know. We are briefly together, erratic and I.

Why does some landscape seem to speak to me? I write into this question over and over in my work but cannot come to a satisfying reply. Why did I feel uneasy in New Mexico’s desert lands until we drove up to where the pine forests grew? Why was I drawn to the austere beauty of Newfoundland, why am I halted always in my tracks at the magic of a certain turn in the trail on Hadley Mountain?

Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “My life … runs back through time and space to the very beginnings of the world and to its utmost limits. In my being I sum up the earthly inheritance and the state of the world at this moment.”

I’ve been reading about consciousness — i.e., what the hell is it? There is a notion that is creeping onward (with the kind of eyebrow-raised reluctance that was engendered by Shrodinger’s cat poser), panpsychism, that consciousness is one big thing, of which material objects like bodies are merely a portion. This is tragically woo-woo and yet so sensible, I think, as I pat pat pat the side of my rock, its chilly nubbled and damp cheek.

Rachel Carson wrote:“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” She wrote that we have a “grave and sobering responsibility…a shining opportunity…to go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”

I just finished Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss, so am hyperaware of the patches of tiny furled mosses, some dry and black caked as tar; and the lichens, which I read somewhere described as an algal/fungal sandwich. We are each a universe, I think, with a nod to my inner bacteria.

As a member of a talky species I rely on words. But I also know I am missing something vital when I chatter into the quiet, especially the quiet of my own mind, and when I ask incessantly “what is this” when I’m stilled by a moment in a landscape. Is the moss winking at me from its fisty matt? No, it’s just a brief glint of sun through storm clouds. Right? Is that my bacteria talking, or am I really hungry? Was it that New Mexico’s pines nodded to me as I rose among them, saying, Oh, yes, we’ve heard about you? This great stone is speaking to me without words. Or am I crazy?

The idea of the subtle quivering of all things, becoming attuned to it, and letting it inform my writing — this is worth thinking about. It’s not just the beech leaves in wind that shiver but the very bark of the branch, the roots, the soil. Even on the rare instances I write about an urban experience, to be aware of all the vibration around me — from the literal metro rumble under my feet to the shimmering electrons of the pitcher of water on my table, the wayward stone under the slim sole of my shoe. From such magic may I reach out, and may my works be as alive.


Cross over into campground; or, on Houston’s Deep Creek

I usually have at least three books I’m reading at the same time. One is often either poetry or poetry craft or criticism, one is often science or some other kind of nonfiction, and one is what I keep by my bedside or read in the late afternoon when I’m tired of doing whatever I’ve been doing. In search of something for the latter category, I chose Pam Houston’s Deep Creek, just because I liked the cover — the viewpoint is looking up the back of a dog toward a meadow and mountain. Finding Hope in the High Country is its subtitle, and who doesn’t want a little hope nowadays? I expected, I don’t know, a nice meditation on what Gretel Ehrlich termed “the solace of open spaces.”

Well. I had never read anything by Pam Houston before, but certainly I had heard of her, but knew nothing about her. The book begins pastorally (or pasture-ly) enough but takes an abrupt turn into a horrifying chapter about her early life. Actually there is much harrowing in this book, as she has lived a life of much risk, some but certainly not all of her own making. She was verbally, psychologically, and physically abused by both parents. She lived a rough and rugged outdoor life — I’m still nightmaring from her tossed-off-in-one-sentence tale of backcountry skiing alone and breaking her leg.

But between these difficult chapters, including a nail-biter about fires ringing her Colorado ranch, is indeed a reach toward hope and the possibility of transcendence. She details the astonishing people she encountered throughout her life who saved her, both literally and figuratively — including a random other solo backcountry skier that day who, incredibly, happened by and was able to carry her out. And the amazing things that have happened to her along the way in her amazing life — including, and I’m so envious of this I could spit!, seeing narwhals in the Northwest Passage.

She also talks about the beautiful and terrible conflict of loving a world that is utterly changing under the abuse of our hand, the necessary torment of staying open to love and grief at the same time.

It was quite a wonderful read. But perhaps not just before going to sleep.