Somebody was watchin’; or, On Participant Observation and the Artistic Urge to Tell

Once out of high school, I never again took an English class, so dismayed was I by those classroom conversations that started with “What do you think the author meant by [insert image-thing apparently symbolic in nature that all along I had thought was just the thing]….” I felt at the time that such discussions sapped all pleasure from the reading. I was impatient then and hubristic.

Gee. How I’ve changed.

I went to college intending to be a biology major and spend my life observing animals of some sort. But what with one thing and another (such as the almost-failing grade in Bio 101) I ended up an observer of an animal, all right, the human animal.

As an anthropology major I learned of the anthropological art of “participant observation.” Indeed discovered that it was a skill I had been practicing all of my life. As the youngest-by-more-than-ten-years member of my family, most converations took place over my head, with me listening in and trying to make sense of it. As the child of a volatile father, moving quietly and keeping still and having one eye peeled for what might happen next was key to avoiding conflict. As a shy and introverted child, I naturally tried to blend in, avoid attention, even as I still wanted to be part of the group.

It was in part that tendency I had anyway of sitting and watching and taking note that had attracted me to animal behavior studies in the first place. And, as it has turned out, is the skill I use most as a writer of poetry. Thanks to my anthropology studies, I can understand what I’m up to as I sit in whatever milieu, observing, and trying to look like I belong there.

I was reminded of all this recently as I have been reading Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. The book is Busch’s extended meditation on the powers and prisons of invisibility. I’m not entirely sure what the takeaway is from this book as a whole, but each chapter provided an interesting set of thoughts ranging from the deliberate invisibility of some species’ adaptations to the imposed invisibility of homeless people on busy streets.

She talks in one chapter of Keats’s assertion that the poet specializes in being a chameleon: of becoming a planet, a creature, another person. Busch was moved to write the book, she says, by the vehemence with which society insists on flouting the self, branding the self, identifying the self as a political act. Maybe, she suggests, a little wallflowering isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe if we keep still, we can see more clearly.

But haven’t I written in this space that art is an attempt to communicate? To stand up from the group and say “Let me show you what I’m seeing.”

Which makes for an interesting tension sometimes  in the artist: the urge to merge, and the impulse to emerge and speak.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?; or, Art and the Question

I’m in the middle of an interesting writing experience. I have yet another new batch of poems (Ugh! MORE? When I already have one full length and two chapbook length manuscripts that I can’t get published? Damn me and my productivity. I depress myself.) that I’m revising through. As I questioned the logic behind one of them, forgetting the reading I was doing that inspired it, I began researching the topic more — which was the origin of life on earth.

Yeah, I know.

So anyway, I found this incredibly fascinating article on BBC.com that summarizes the research thus far and how dead ends in previous research often actually contained useful thinking that informed later research, once someone took a look back on the old stuff with a new eye.

This is the revision process in a nutshell — everything old can be new again. (But again, emphasis on “old,” that is, the necessity of the passage of time to allow one to re-see, re-view, to see afresh, with new eyes.)

I’ve now traveled miles away from whatever I was trying to say in that original poem, and am aswamp with new information that astounds and intrigues me. What it asks in me that I may turn into a poem I have no idea yet. It may never be a poem. But what a fun rabbit hole it has turned out to be. And this question about the question is key.

Research is always about a question, sometimes posed in different ways or approached from various routes. And this too is poetry. Some of the poems I’m editing are interesting but lack a central question. This is what can come of writing from the middle of research — one feels briefly as if one knows something! But to reach back into the central question is essential to make art. Art comes out of the not-knowing, the search. Otherwise, you’re just presenting an academic theory.

There’s a local man who makes hundreds of paintings of local landmarks. They’re okay, in that they have some personality to them and a signature style. But there is no mystery, somehow, no way in which the artist is admitting he doesn’t know something about his subject matter. I’m not even sure what I mean by that. I just know there’s a blandness to the presentation such that I’m fine with looking at it once, but it’s not something I’ll bother to look at again. In contrast, I have a landscape hanging on my wall that I look at often. I’ll find a new streak of color I haven’t noticed before, or haven’t admired in a while. I’ll enjoy anew the shadowed trees, a smear of light on the pond edge.

One of the brilliant things this article is doing with the history of the research of the origin of life is presenting it as an unfolding, of stalls and restarts, of conflicts and alliances, certainties and doubts. The subject and the researchers are alive and wondering, just as the artist of my landscape shows herself.

In these poems I’m editing, I have to reach back to find my wondering self, if it’s there. If there’s no wonder, there’s no poem. Life, as it’s turning out, probably began in a shallow, soupy mess of chemicals and metals with some light thrown on it.

Hey, I’m a mess of chemicals and metals! Maybe I can create some stuff that has some life in it…

 

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.

 

Let Us Now Praise; or Word Power

Paris’s Pantheon is devoted to honoring the Republic’s “great men”…and Marie Curie. By now there are some other women, finally. In the crypt lie the remains of defenders of the Republic; soldiers many, and statesmen, but also scientists, and, of great interest to me, writers. The Pantheon in some ways is devoted to the power of words, words that roused the citizenry, words that safeguard  laws and rights and philosophical ideas of how to be citizens, words too that rendered by imagination tell stories and orate poems that stir us and remind us of the best, and the potential worst, that lies within us. In 100 years, if we’re still here, we humans, whose words will we still be quoting? Who will be our great writers who by their ideas and imagination will safeguard our humanity?

 

Wind of the Wings of Madness; or, On Three Billboards and Greek Tragedy

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri struck me as great in the way of Greek tragedy, complete with tragedy’s alter-ego, comedy. All the characters want something utterly understandable and completely impossible. The horrible things they do to try to get what they want are completely traceable in a direct line from that passionate wanting and the doubtless also deeply passionate knowing the impossibility. It is humanity at its most complexly and awfully human: ridiculous/sublime, fear-ridden/love-addled.

Yes, the characters’ actions are extreme, their own logic is stretched to the shredding point. But none of it is entirely beyond the bounds of what we know is possible, given human history, given, even, if we’re honest, from some aspects of our own personal histories. Is there not some time you acted out of deep passion to do something stunningly stupid? Yes, maybe it was not horrid, not criminal, but was it not a kind of insanity that came out of a deeply felt moment? Did you not act, even a little, out of a madness?

I watched these characters, most of whom I could feel at least a moment of empathy with, and felt the horror when I wondered if I wasn’t watching madness, madness with a very normal face, a plottable trajectory from sane. There is a ruthless vision at work in this movie, and I admired writer/director Martin McDonagh’s willingness to create layered characters who are neither entirely likable nor entirely detestable, and events that tumble outward in chaos that seems controlled by vengeful gods. Like a Greek tragedy, events unfold that are large and looming as a train bearing down and you’re stuck on the tracks: the situation seems improbable, but the outcome terrible and inevitable.

There is tenderness in the movie, sometimes inadvertent. There is grace, often unexpected. Is there redemption? What confounds me about humanity is our capacity for redemption, and our resistance to it. I’ll let you decide for yourself.

But as a writer, I challenge myself to write as unblinkingly of what we are capable of, to be as ruthless in my gaze, and as empathic.

Hope Against Hope; Art in the Face of All This

In Why Poetry, Zapruder quotes Jorge Carrera Andrade from his 1940 essay “Origin and Future of the Microgram”: “It might seem almost impossible to enclose the great movement of the universe in such a narrow space. But through a kind of magic, the poet manages to make the infinite enter into that small cell. There, every surprise may fit.”

I’ve been talking recently with fellow writers about how to manage our world and its nonstop televised violence into the intimate rooms of poetry, while maintaining both our sanity and our authenticity as citizens of the world and artists too. We see everything just like everyone else, have the same responses: “What the…,” “How the hell…,” “This is horrible.” But a lot of art expressing “this is horrible” is not going to make an impact in the saturated world.

I think of Picasso’s “Guernica,” of Wilfred Owens’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” of Maya Lin’s devastating Vietnam Memorial. How did they do it, how did they absorb for us the pain of the time and make of it something that remains chillingly relevant for a future they had no way of seeing?

Pain never ends. Horror never stops. We suck as a species. But we, or I, anyway, persist in thinking that art has some role to play that transcends the everyday outrage, that jolts us from our daily “Are you f’ing kidding me?” into a space of, if not hope, at least of a sense of connection. And in connection lies the possibility of…what? Hope, I guess. Yeah, hope. I guess.

 

Inside Out; or Engaging the Inner Life Outerly

Recently I read an article exhorting newly published writers, and the rest of us too, to protect the inner life. It suggested that the outer life of taking in hand the trembling self and promoting the work, giving readings, trying to get reviews can all chip away at the inner life. And I thought yes, this is my problem. I’ve been overly concerned with what my outer life could/should/would be, leaving my inner life to grow wan and undernourished.

But I wonder, as I wonder about all perceived dichotomies and dualities, if I’m missing something with this perspective. Because I have learned that so little of life is dual or dichotomous, so little is always one thing or another, so much is mutable, connected, tricksy.

When I am working well, I am at ease. My outer life can be whatever it happens to be when my inner life is engaged. At least, to some degree. If my outer life is engaged, my inner life is content to travel along. At least, for a while. So the inner and outer lives aren’t quite two things, nor are they a continuum. Are they that thing of light, particle and wave? Are they the Pushmepullyou?

Is it really about the sense of engagement, regardless of the nature of it? A sense that I’m “working,” the brain firing, the mind making leaps, that I’m reaching out and the world is reaching back in some way — is that what I’m looking for, whether it’s to be found in a rich discussion with other people, or a task well done, or a fruitful day at the page? In this way inner and outer are only the gallery of engagement, the engagement itself the goal.

 

If it weren’t for crabgrass, I’d have no grass at all — gloom, despair, and agony on me; or Art in the Face of

Insects at great number fly into our front porch by the front door and then fail to find their way out again, ending up corpses littering the windowsills. They keep coming in and coming in. My 97-year-old mother has outlived her money, her memory, and may be outliving her lifelong good health, but she herself continues to live on and on. It’s been five years since my 9-year-old friend died from the brain tumor that had been pursuing him since he was 2. Earlier this spring I buried a tiny bunny that something had chomped a leg off of. All over the country people of all ages are dying stupid deaths from opioids because they want to get high. People join groups like ISIS because they think they want to die for a cause. People confuse love for hate and vice versa. Every day new babies all over the world are born and born and born into it. My point is that making art seems stupid in the face of this; or making art is the only reasonable response to this unreason. I haven’t decided which yet.

See something say something: or the varieties of creative expression

At a party recently, conversation turned to nudibranchs and sea squirts (I love these people I was with at this party, as they are the kind of people with whom conversation may turn to nudibranchs and sea squirts). Someone pulled out the ubiquitous cell phone and we looked at pictures of the variety of sea squirts, some feathered as a boa, others squashed as mud. At a little research aquarium I visited recently, I was amazed to see a baby starfish. I had never thought about the development of a starfish, that they were tiny and then got all growed up. We turned it over and peered at its porthole of a mouth. We saw anemones and learned that they can move by means of a sticky tubular foot that can tiptoe its way along. We spied on barnacles. Barnacles have the largest penis to body size ratio of the animal kingdom, so as to inject the girl next door, who ain’t moving. It is amazing the variety of ways we move, feed, and fuck. I’m struck though that it seems likely a snail will not find itself midway upon the journey of life in a dark wood, the right road lost. A nudibranch is not likely to cry out from its soul “what is my purpose?” I dealt an ignominious death to many tiny snails as I crunched across the rocks by the sea. They did not, I don’t believe, think me a harsh and uncaring god. In our seemingly infinite variety, we creatures of Earth, few of us wonder, imagine, doubt. We all procreate (well, I mean, I didn’t, but I theoretically could have) but how many of us create? The breaking waves made a visual Morse code across the bay. In days to come I may try to translate it in many ways: words, lines drawn by charcoal; I may cut pieces of paper and paste them together, could sew fabric swatches, record drum beats. I may sing a song of breakers, whistle through my teeth. Beat that, nudibranch. At the cosmetic counter I could paste on eyelashes the envy of any anemone, would anemones envy. But of anemone and I, only I would wonder if you think I’m pretty. How did it come to this, Charles Darwin? What a shitstorm of random selection led to my self-doubt, to the imagination of the person who invented clamato juice, to Dante and his dark wood. And, for god’s sake, why? I don’t know, but may we allow ourselves, we doubters and imaginers, the fullest variety of creative expression, as various as creation itself.

 

More on Quiet Ways

To my last entry, which was about on being with someone in his or her suffering, a friend replied that listening and prayer are sometimes all we can offer. And I noted that to listen and to pray are actually etymological opposites. This got me thinking about the notion of prayer, which may have transformed over time. To pray is etymologically from “he asks,” that is, an entreaty to some powerful figure, real or imagined.

But I suspect my friend understands prayer in the same way Simone Weil talked about it. Weil wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” This has strayed from the original meaning of the word, and I wonder about that. Has it long been understood this way, or is this a more modern, widened idea of what it is to pray?

The word “listen” is from a history of words meaning to pay attention. Attention, to attend, is etymologically linked to, interestingly, “to stretch.” So to attend to someone is to stretch yourself toward them, perhaps? And Weil might suggest the implication is also a stretching toward God (a word itself that links back to nothing but itself, got, in the Old High German, but wends its way eventually to old roots meaning that which is called or invoked — which should feel rather disturbingly tautological to the believer, I would think…).

To be “present” means to be before someone (pre + to be). And all this sitting with and leaning in is by way of giving comfort, a word from the notion “to strengthen greatly” — which surprised me, as I think of being comforted as feeling assisted, perhaps protected or freed from worry, which seems different from being strengthened. But it does seem true that the ultimate effect of being comforted is to give one strength to move back again into the fray, to move back into the way of suffering, itself a word meaning “to bear.”

So it seems the most basic notion of this thing we can offer to the sufferer is to be with and stretch toward. And some people understand this “God” notion as being not a sky-based dude but something within each other, the best within us perhaps. So to be with a sufferer is to try to offer the best in ourselves to call out to the best in the bearer so they may carry on.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I think our goal should be to conjure our art out of that same place, that same inner place of the-best-of-ourselves. I’m not saying all art needs to be light-filled and divine — out of the best of ourselves we can also conjure great darkness; nor does it need to have as its goal to comfort. Often necessary art necessarily dis-comforts. But those notions of paying attention and being present and being with and stretching toward are all useful to keep in mind in the creative process. You feel me?