Heeeyyy, what’s the big idea?; or, Challenging One’s Limits in Writing

I’ll soon be going to MassMoCA for a writing residency. For a week I wander around the museum, the museum grounds, and the hilly streets of North Adams, not thinking a whole lot, just sponging. I love the Big Ideas behind the crazy installations at the museum. There’s always at least one that blows my mind somehow.

I always hope to bring more Big Ideas to my own work. It falls small sometimes, and I’d like to have a practice that reminds me to be large — both in my concepts, and in my sounds and silences, my reaches and rhythms.

It’s easy to collapse into what’s known, into the grooves of old thought — I first typed “groves,” and that too fits: not seeing the forest for the trees. I can easily lapse into my laps of quotidian thought and response, or even of the Things that Drive Me Crazy, most of which never change, and so by now, any writing I do about them is also likely tired and rutted. Putting myself in the way of others’ Big Ideas can usefully expand my mind and therefore my work.

When I read Marina Abramovic’s autobiography I remember being struck by how her work came out of deep emotion around her country, its people, and how those thoughts/feelings turned strange in her art, turned to something often brutally enacted, uncompromising.

Lonnie Holley’s “In the Grip of Power,” a video playing next to a rickety old voting table, a handgun stuck to it, is simple and devastating in its plain-spoken text about voting rights and how it affectd his own family, playing over the austere visual of Holley, alone in a vast space, setting up the booth. It makes me cry every time. This is the best of the personal being political, the political being personal.

I am tempted sometimes to say that poems of romantic love bore me, because frankly sometimes they do; and poems of first sex or the wonders of masturbation. But of course what is bigger than love? What is bigger than the body, its strange arrangements and electrifying jolts? Saying at least “maybe” to all possibilities is the way to Big Ideas, as is staying with the small moments, the deep breaths, the electricities of body-in-the-world.

Here’s something 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.”

Now that’s a Big Idea, that the self is the sum in and beyond time.

So bring it, World, the moment, the now, the Big Thing that is me-and-you.

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Doorbells and Sleighbells and; or, Reading A. R. Ammons’s Garbage

I love when literary synchronicity happens, that is, when I’m thinking about a thing or have just written about it and suddenly, randomly stumble on someone else thinking or having thought about the same thing. I decided, spurred by a mention of him in an essay on the long essay/poem, to finally explore the poetry of A. R. Ammons. He’s someone whose work I’m surprised I haven’t sought before, as his interests in science and the land are right up my alley. But it’s always been one of those, oh, yeah, I’ll get to that.

But I got my hands on Garbage, his booklength, multipart poem. And there in the first section were things I had written about that very day in my own notes: the competition of trees, the dismay of overabundance, and what has also been on my mind, which he puts this way: “…we tie into the/lives of those we love and our lives, then, go//as theirs go; their pain we can’t shake off…”

The book as a whole contains a lot of…well, stuff. Quite a bit of it is about itself, Ammons being clever about writing about writing, amusing himself to no end. So I have had to plow a bit through it all and hard-to-follow meanderings but just as I would get impatient and start to mutter words like “self-indulgent” under my breath, he’d hit me with something like this from section 3. We are watching the driver of a garbage truck on top of the municipal mound of garbage:

…the driver gets out of his truck
and wanders over to the cliff on the spill and
looks off from the high point into the rosy-fine
rising of day, the air pure, the winds of the
birds white and clean as angel-food cake; holy, holy,
holy, the driver cries and flicks his cigarette
in a spiritual swoop that float and floats before
it touches ground: here, the driver knows.
where the consummations gather, where the disposal
flows out of form, where the last translations
cast away their immutable bits and scraps,
flits of steel, shivers of bottle and tumbler,
here is the gateway to beginning, here the portal
of renewing change, the birdshit, even, melding
enrichingly in with debris, a loam for the roots
of placenta…

That “gateway to beginning” found among the ends of things, the detritus, the beginning found in the ends of things, as a tree grows outward from the center and rots that way too, having absorbed a lifetime of nutrients, having shared what it had.

I didn’t love much of Garbage, but it taught me something about the glory of excess, and the boldness of pouring it all into the poem, carrot peels and rotten meat, old receipts and fancy packaging, and having the patience and faith in the process to make a path and find a pattern.

 

A Cold and Lonely Hallelujah; or, Art and Vulnerability

I read recently this quote from Yo Yo Ma: “Any experience that you’ve had has to be somehow revealed in the process of making music. And I think that almost forces you to make yourself vulnerable to whatever is there to be vulnerable to. Because that, actually, is your strength.”

Surely that’s true also of writing poetry.

Vulnerable is a word that alarms me — the v tumbling into the deep well of the u, the nervousness of the ner, the complicated movement from l to n that gets stuck briefly in the mouth. It comes from the Latin vulnus, or wound, after all.

So much of surviving life is about girding oneself against vulnerability — all that thick skin growing, that growing of water-shedding feathers so stuff will roll off our backs, that creation of a strong center around which the winds can swirl, that hollowing oneself out like a reed. To deliberately pull back the tough skin, part the feathers, to probe the wounds to make art is terrifying. Also, which wounds? How deep do we scrape into the scar?

To make art fromthe wound, though, is not to make art of the wound, necessarily.

I’ve been looking at and thinking about Van Gogh’s work of late. I also just watched part of At Eternity’s Gate, where Willem Dafoe employs his incredibly vulnerable looking face and eyes to portray the wisdom/madness of Van Gogh. (I found the movie itself so arty-farty self-conscious and boring that I stopped watching it — although it must be said that I was on an airplane, which maybe lends itself better to an action film or something.) He did not so much seem to be investigating his own madness. Van Gogh’s wound seemed to be the world in all its shivering beauty against his thin skin. (Or is that the same thing?) Out of that he made his art.

I’ve been thinking too about Faith Ringgold reflecting on her experience as a black person in America, and the history of the black experience, using the venerable craft of quilting to speak of and from history, personal and cultural, those layers, the mix of colors, the many stitches like a scar. She said in an interview in Ebony: “You have to work with what you have, the history, the experience that you have, you take that and you create out of it. You create your music, you create your dance. But that is what you have to do it with. The impact of the history is real and it comes out in different ways, ways that are fascinating… [a]rt comes out of the experience. Art is a form of experience of the person, the place, the history of the people….” She is looking at “the wound,” the wound of slavery, among other things, which is both her wound and that of an entire population.

But look at the so-called confessional poets — are they not probing the personal wound, and sometimes gloriously so? Here is an Anne Sexton poem, “Woman with Girdle”:

Your midriff sags toward your knees;
your breast lie down in air,
their nipples as uninvolved
as warm starfish.
You stand in your elastic case,
still not giving up the new-born
and the old-born cycle.
Moving, you roll down the garment,
down that pink snapper and hoarder,
as your belly, soft as pudding,
slops into the empty space;
down, over the surgeon’s careful mark,
down over hips, those head cushions
and mouth cushions,
slow motion like a rolling pin,
over crisp hairs, that amazing field
that hides your genius from your patron;
over thighs, thick as young pigs,
over knees like saucers,
over calves, polished as leather,
down toward the feet.
You pause for a moment,
tying your ankles into knots.
Now you rise,
a city from the sea,
born long before Alexandria was,
straighway from God you have come
into your redeeming skin.

As we have learned and have been schooled, “the personal is political,” political, after all, meaning of citizens or the state.

And Walt Whitman, tending the wounds of the Civil War battlefields, and yet singing his pain to praise.

All this is to say I have been far from my poetry-making self, eyeing nervously the reengagement, wondering how, in the end, to transcend my sears and contusions, my world-against-skin, -against-vital-organ experiences through art-making that finds strength in vulnerability.

This Little Light; or, A Wish for the New Year

On the figurative eve of this new year I had two dazzling experiences of listening. One took place in my town’s venerable coffeehouse: a concert by Amy Helm, who sings with a body full of rhythm and heart and shining eyes like some kind of earth-bound angel. Her father too, Levon Helm, shone this way. And the second was the Netflix film of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show. It was all I could do not to get up from my chair in order to fall to my knees.

I felt as if some central core had been split open and the inner flame of humanity was revealed, and I needed to respond with my body, needed to prostrate myself to this fire. You know the old Jewish myth that the deity dropped vessels of light and we humans are its shards. I saw in these performances the great glitter of us, what is the best of us, we members of this odd and difficult species, broken and sparkling.

Yuval Noah Hariri defines intelligence as the ability to solve problems and consciousness as the ability to feel. These artists seem to wring out of themselves and into their work the essence of consciousness. They seem to be fearless in showing the edges and facets of themselves through their work. This is inspiring — remembering that inspire is an in-breath, a re-oxygenating of the cells of the body, an awakening.

I love words, poetry, but it’s music that wrenches me most deeply, often vocal music, often that magic of tune and word and beat that creates a live thing that enters me, skin and bone, gut and vein. Many things move me, but only music guts me. Well, with an exception: Hearing Ilya Kaminsky orate “Do not go gentle.” That was transformational.

I dabble in music but am no musician. Still I can hope and strive to create in my own written work this kind of reaching and opening, this level of capturing light. If I could write a poem that could even slightly glitter like those performances, I will have done what I set out on this path to do.

So for this new year, I wish for all of us that we find some light to let loose from our jagged edges, that we find our shine.

Who Wrote the Book of Love; or, Remembering Wonder in the Writing Process

The other night I was listening to a writer read a long descriptive piece. The scene obviously meant a lot to the writer/reader, but failed to reach me. It’s not that I couldn’t picture what was being described — the description was perfectly picturable, and I could understand what would move the person to write it in a diary. But to make a work of art of it,  to make a “poem,” something else needed to happen.

What is the problem, here? I speculated. What can I learn? As I listened, it occurred to me: a. the language needed to capture viscerally the moment — verbs needed to be active, adjectives vivid; b. the imagery needed to be imaginative enough to capture the emotion , and to give dimension, layers, senses; and c. nothing was unknown to the writer/reader. What could have been meditative and transcendent instead was not, for me.

Where, I wondered to myself, was the actual wonder? What was discovered by the writer in writing this? What in this accounting surprised the writer or moved the writer or forced the writer to think harder, to be momentarily confused, startled, to shiver, to shake a head or a fist, to question perception, sanity, to feel dizzy with something, to blurt?

There was an allusion to time: ephemerality and timelessness, but it was almost tossed in there half-heartedly, even though, I think that’s exactly what was at the heart of the thing. And finding the heart of the thing is the whole enterprise, isn’t it?

And by heart I don’t mean that easily achieved shape with two bumps at one end and a point at the other, but the whole mysteriously pumping, sucking and spewing, occasionally off-beated blump or hoosh, or, awful silence, the blupping and forceful chug of this vital organ.

I wanted to shake the reader and say, “Okay, you’ve told us what you know; now show us what you’ve got.”

What we want to be doing is writing through the known into the not-known. I always forget this until I remember again. I am, after all, a know-it-all from way back. It takes an effort for me to embrace what I don’t know. But it’s what I have to do.

And so I again remind myself of this today, as I face the abyss of page, as I think, how do I say this unsayable thing. I wonder.

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.

 

Very Well Then I Contradict Myself; on the First Person Perspective in Poems

I have worried sometimes about my use of “I” in poems. The “I” is certainly not always me; sometimes it is a character or a handy perspective point for the observations around which it is wrapped, a simple first-person eye-to-the-telescope.

The tricky thing with the “I” is that often for an effective poem, the “I” can’t be too full of itself. It can stand in the way of the reader. Sometimes the “I” is useful for starting a poem, but then it might need to be edited out as, in the writing, the poem becomes more about what that “I” saw than the “I” seeing. What is the correct balance for an effective poem between the “I” doing the seeing and the thing seen? Sometimes the “I” throws off the balance.

If the “I” is needed, there needs to be enough transparency in the “I” that it can easily become you-the-reader.

This makes me think of a larger philosophical question about the self. This is the wonderful writer Olivia Laing from her book To the River: “…is it not necessary to dissolve the self if one hopes to see the world unguarded?”

It occurs to me that to make good art, there does need to be a dissolution of the “I;” but then possibly its re-creation as a vehicle for the art, an eye for the seeing.

Which makes me think about a rhetorical question posed in an introduction to a poet at a reading I went to recently, a question I thought was supremely dumb. The introducer asked: Are all poems self-portraits? Of course they are/are not and what’s your point? Of course they are a product of wild imagination shaped by the individual experiences of the writer, and a fake wig and glasses, or stripped down to nude and dancing a watusi. I mean, really. Then there are issues of form, function, experimentation, imitation. There’s wordplay, nonsense, dreamblather. And the possibility of this reconstructed “self,” this constructed “I.”

Lorrie Moore in an article on LitHub said this: “Fiction writers are constantly asked, Is this autobiographical? Book reviewers aren’t asked this, and neither are concert violinists, though, in my opinion, there is nothing more autobiographical than a book review or a violin solo. But because literature has always functioned as a means by which to figure out what is happening to us, as well as what we think about it, fiction writers do get asked: ‘What is the relationship of this story/novel/play to the events of your own life (whatever they may be)?’ I do think that the proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What that cook makes from what’s in the cupboard is not the same thing as what’s in the cupboard–and, of course, everyone understands that….[O]ne’s life is there constantly collecting and providing, and it will creep into one’s work regardless–in emotional ways.”

Which loops me back to the “I” and who the “I” is or who it can be.

Bertrand Russell wrote: “An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”

I think that merging occurs, in a poem, through the use of visceral verbs and vivid images, not through words that represent emotions. No “I felt…” but the depiction of a body feeling, a body in the world. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s you. But I know we’re all in this together.