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?

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.

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.

 

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.

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.