And you always show up late; or, On Words (and Life) That Go Forward and Backward

The other meaning of the word “career” got me thinking about my “career” and my life’s career, and about how much I love double-entendre and the tricksiness of words. So as I careered (derived from horse riding) and careened (derived from ship repair), from one kind of life to another, little remained that looks like a career (derived from wheeled vehicle).

In fact I cleaved from path after path, quitting this, trying and quitting that, cleaving to a desire to be true to myself, whoever she was at any given time.

I buckled up in each trajectory’s car, buckled down to the work, but inevitably buckled from the pressure to sit.

I overlooked clues to what make me satisfied, overly concerned with some imagined authority who overlooked my choices.

Okay, maybe I’ve pushed the game too far. But I love that these are known as “Janus words,” that old two-faced bloke. But truly, I have careered, and cannot claim to have had a career, a definition that includes the notion of durability, of a devotion of time.

And the only thing I can say I have been devoted to across time is words. I have also loved silence. And there we have poetry.

But where am I? Who am I in all this mucking about? Harvey Oxenhorn in the wonderful Tuning the Rig has this to say about that: “Maybe…the problem isn’t knowing ‘who you really are’ but thinking that you can ever know. In an age when experience is far-ranging and the demands of daily life are so complex, perhaps integrity resides in not one ‘true’ strand of endeavors or desire but in the intelligence and love and dignity with which each person’s crazily conflicting strands are parceled, warmed, and served. That kind of strength is filamented — flexible, though prone to fray. It bind against itself, and holds.”

I love the generosity of that thought, how it allows us all to stumble and be contradictory, to be wrong and strong and uncertain, changeable and changed. It opens its arms to confusion. I pinball, therefore I am.

 

And speaking of looking backward: here are links to two poems published online in lit mags that are now in print inside my new chapbook, Being Many Seeds (www.graysonbooks.com/being-many-seeds.html):

https://amethystmagazine.org/2020/01/15/the-unfolding-earth-a-poem-by-marilyn-mccabe/

https://89b51d07-bdbc-4f8c-8b62-740f86360cd5.filesusr.com/ugd/61020d_1712d51103d94ed4be98f6b3470e2e9d.pdf

I don’t know I don’t know; or, On Writing a Chapbook: The Story of Being Many Seeds

So with the birth of a new collection of poems, I thought I might share the backstory, as the poems came together in an unusual way, for me.

The poems in this book began as a monthlong exercise in imitations. Each day I’d choose a poem from a literary magazine or book of poems I had lying around, and I’d try to do a word-for-word imitation, but trying often to use opposite words. That is, if the poem started “One early morning…” I might say “Every late night….” I tried to choose poems that seemed unlike anything I might write: longer lines, narrative rather than lyric.

I didn’t overthink the process, I just let words rise up as prompted by the original poem, and figured whatever subject matters were lurking in my brain would arise naturally from this process. So then I had thirty or so of these, and looking back through, I was interested in many of them.

I began revising them back toward my own voice and rhythms. But they never felt entirely OF me, there was always something a bit different about them. So I thought I’d try a radical revision, really strip each poem down. That was fun.

So I decided to strip them down again.

Then I realized that each of these stripped down versions had something interesting to say to the version before. When I began understanding them as erasures of themselves, I got interested in presenting the poems in all three versions, particularly when the erasures began heading in different directions from the originating text.

Still I felt something missing. I remembered a couple of Rebecca Solnit books had a separate text running across the bottom of each page, like a murmured conversation happening elsewhere in the room. In real life this would have made me crazy, such an eavesdropper am I. But on the page, I loved that view out the corner of my eye of this sort of secret subtext.

So I thought about what the poems seemed to be talking about and around. And I got thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I’m not sure why. I had read bits and pieces of his work over the years, and I knew I had a book or two hanging out on some dusty shelf. So I began reading his work again, and thinking about his ideas, and having my own response to his thoughts. And so I began to set my thoughts running across the pages of the poems.

I had begun to envision this as a digital object, something you could watch while the erased words disappeared before your eyes, and the essay text appeared down the side of the virtual page. But I didn’t know how to do this, nor did I know how to contact an organization or person that did, nor did I know how I would get such a thing out into the world. So I created a paper-based version, at first having the essay text running sideways on each page, so you’d actually physically have to turn the page around. But some beta readers questioned this, so I ran the text across the bottom.

But the idea of a visual version haunted me, so I began experimenting with what software I did know how to use to try to approximate my vision. This was arduous and had several dead ends, but I finally figured out how to make it all happen in iMovie, and created some music/sound and manipulated some of my own photos.

So more than any other collection of poems, this one came together through a series of “lemme try thises” and “maybe I’ll try thats.” I felt through much of the process that I was moving through a combination of instinct and blunder, like walking around a familiar room but in the total dark. I was never entirely comfortable. It was a really stimulating process, and fun, in the end, if a bit bumbly in the middle.

So I encourage you to get uncomfortable. Turn out the lights, get up and wander around. Let something catch your eye and turn toward it, try it. Don’t think too much. Have a little fear, but not too much. Whether my book or video appeal to you or not, you will have a very interesting experience, I can promise you that.

Being Many Seeds, the book: www.graysonbooks.com

Being Many Seeds, the movie: www.vimeo.com/marmccabe/beingmanyseeds

 

Of Rich and Royal Hue; or, On Writing and Paying Attention

Having cancelled an anticipated spring trip, and maintaining the recommended isolation, I’m experiencing the wakening of wanderlust, as friends south of me post pictures of croci and daffodils but all around me is the bleak of northern early spring.

But isolation is forcing us to roam very locally, trespassing here and there, following logging roads or ATV trails currently quiet. With leaves not yet out the land remains revealed in all its lumps and wrinkles, and we course through it, following streams or the lines of topography, discovering a neighbor’s old apple orchards, a rocky and windy hilltop that seems elf-haunted.

In Boundless, Katherine Winter wrote this: “What if we were to stay in one place, get to know it, and listen? What might happen if we were not always on our way somewhere else?”

I took a tracking class once and was so envious of the teacher’s intimacy with his land. He took us to where he’d been checking on a porcupine family. Imagine knowing where a porcupine family was living! I did notice this winter from a large brush file on a neighbor’s land the crisp stink of what I think was fox musk. That was exciting. My trail camera delights me with capturing the comings and goings of a deer family, the trajectory of a fox every few nights, and many many shots of moving leaves, and how the day’s shadows move through the backyard. I know the chipmunks are making good use of the area under the porch, and I just hope it’s not them I hear in the wall. For the past three months, I have watched daily the stream’s many faces, from frozen to frenzy. The other morning an odd bird peep made me look out the window from my bed in time to see a male turkey walk past, with a female peeping at him, then another male hurry up and inflate himself to his puffed up glory. What drama!

When early hominids began to develop what we now know as language, surely it was driven by both need and wonder. So it’s a long history I feel when I say — either to myself, or my husband, or in a poem, or right here — “Hey, look at at that!”

This is Katherine Winter again: “I hadn’t before known earth as a text underlying any word spoken or written by man.” I love this idea of earth as text, of the wildlife around me as text — and by text I mean, and I presume she means, something to be “read,” studied, interpreted, and is a word that in origins means woven.

So even as we’re homebound in our neighborhoods, whether they be urban or rural, small town or suburban development, we’re part of the fabric of what’s around us. And as writers and readers, I guess we might as well weave.

He blows it eight to the bar; or, On Moving Forward, Breaking Out, Stepping Up, Boogying Down; or, On Writing Better

I have an MFA in poetry. I pursued it because I felt I’d come to a plateau in my work, and I feared I did not really know what I didn’t know. And I felt like an MFA would be a good way to get some outside input into my work and to have a good impetus to focus focus focus. I was largely self-taught before that, reading texts of craft and some criticism, having some conversations, and, of course, reading reading reading poetry.

The MFA experience sort of kind of worked, but as I had never had any undergraduate preparation in poetry, nor English at all, it was not quite enough. Once I got my MFA I felt like I was really ready to pursue an MFA. I am lacking great gobs of history and information and could be more skilled in how to read a poem as a poet.

Fortunately, there is no end of great books about all this, and I try to keep a regular practice of reading them, but have fallen down in the recent past. I am feeling again on a plateau, and am happy to have stumbled upon Craig Morgan Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress. He examines the work of a variety of poets, sometimes in depth over the course of a lifetime’s work, sometimes in a more focused way, trying to determine the forces at work in someone’s work over time.

Although I don’t always follow what he’s saying, and am often perplexed at his assertions of examples of a poet’s best work and work that is weak. (It’s not helpful that he uses words like “obviously,” when what he is saying is not at all obvious to me; and assertions such as X work is “the best of the decade,” or Y is “a bit too much.” It makes me uneasy and insecure in my own assessments, and I don’t really need any more of THAT, thank you very much.) But he has a generous and sensitive eye, and for a poet, it must be a gift to be read by Teicher, for all that he can be bit stern in his discernments.

The chapters cover in depth and breadth of work: Merwin, Plath, Gluck; and in more concentrated segments, Ashbery, Francine J. Harris, Yeats, Lowell, and others. Again I’m reminded of the importance of taking one’s time in reading poetry. I cannot be reminded of this enough. And indeed I come back again and again to reading as a primary tool in a poet’s progress.

I have talked before about how to improve: More Better Blues. What I say then still applies now, and in the spiral of life, will apply next time I find myself stopped and slightly confused about how to move forward. But it occurs to me that this moment of pause, lifting my head and looking both back at where I’ve been and forward toward where I might go is itself a part of the process of improvement.

Although the word “improvement” is maybe not quite right, as it implies some scale, some external and rational system of measure. What do I really mean when I say I feel plateau’d? I think I mean I’d like to feel more out of my depth when I’m in the process of creating. If I feel too sure-footed, then I’m not in learning mode, I’m not bobbing around in a sea of possibility. I think I make better work when I’m splashing and flailing a bit, work that is more interesting — to myself, anyway. I guess it’s that old Frost quote about no surprise for the writer, none for the reader either.

One of the things Teicher identifies as breathrough moments in the work of some of the poets he examines is the breaking free of social constraints. I’m not sure if I feel particularly under the weight of social constraints. But of course, does anyone know that until they’ve broken free, or until someone later, in another decade, looking back, identifies what might be considered a zeitgeist, a social expectation or bind, and what might be considered a breaking?

I don’t know that in the moment any of us can understand our time and then act out of it. I think what he means is they broke with their own conventions.

So my takeaway is less that I should examine my constraints and break them than that I try new things. Try this, try that. Scattershot. Haphazard. Downright willy-nilly. Downright boogie woogie. How hard can that be?

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.

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.

 

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.