I’m in a place I’ve never been to before, staying here for two weeks, and I’m more unsettled than I usually am in such a situation. I love my rut and routines. Change makes me anxious. Usually, though, new places make me curious and happy to explore, happy to find corners where I’m comfortable, happy to find new things to look at. But somehow here, I don’t know. It’s odd. So I’m trying to write out of this strange unsettledness.
I think that’s a good thing. I hope the work comes out as strange as I feel, as uneasy, a bit jagged. (Or maybe that’s my insomnia talking. My old stand-by, an over the counter sleep med, seems to have deserted me in effectiveness. There is nought between me and the void of sleeplessness.)
Maybe this is the strangeness of the entire past year catching up with me, or the losses, the uncertainties.
Maybe it’s just that I’m very place-oriented, alive to how I interact with my environment, and this place is not, for some reason, sitting easily on my skin.
It’s interesting, though, this situation, my reaction.
The other thing though is that it’s chilly here and my cold hand around the pen is crabbing my handwriting even more than usual. So whatever comes out of this period may be illegible. That also might be interesting. What I thought was writing might really be an exercise in asemic writing, that mysterious art form that invites, and frustrates, any attempt to decipher. Like life. Like this experience. Like staring sleepless at the ceiling looking for signs in the dark, listening for a voice with a message. Or for mice with malintent toward my granola.
I keep encountering things that talk about “writing out of your deepest dark” or creativity as a way to “exorcise the demons.” Well. Allrighty then. Demons, step right up.
A member of my writing group was wonderfully oppositionally defiant of the intentions she would set herself from month to month — this was how we ended our meetings, with each of us setting intentions for the coming period of time — but would instead appear the next month having done several other, unlooked for, unanticipated, and productive things.
I read that the act of thinking of one’s intentions can actually give the brain so much pleasure that it never bothers to embark on the messy and difficult business of actually acting to complete the stated intentions.
Which is where we find me at the moment.
Summer is not my season. I waste much of my energy hmphing and rssnfrssning about the heat, the humidity, the people everywhere where I might want to be, the legions of imagined lyme-carrying ticks dangling on every branch, the real legion of poison ivy creeping creeping toward me, and the closed notebook. Closed closed closed. In spite of my intentions to get down to it, start that daily practice I’ve thinking about.
Except here’s the thing. I know that come autumn, I will look back in my notebook and find all kinds of stuff I managed to sneak in there while I wasn’t looking. It happens like this every. year. I don’t know how I do it.
It is true that some of what I find has actually been written in the spring. I don’t pay particular attention. When I do these dives into my pages, I don’t care when I find stuff, I just care what I might be able to do with it. Like even now, I may sound like I’m bragging to admit, but I find myself with a chapbook-number of similarly themed poems I somehow churned out in the late winter/early spring. This is not, to me, terribly good news, as I already have two full length manuscripts, one of which also has a chapbook-length version, that are gathering rejections like dust. Damn my f’ing productivity.
But if I’m not creating, making something, trying something, then I’m fitful and depressed. Well. It is possible I’m fitful and depressed while I’m creating/making/trying. But it’s a DIFFERENT fitfulness and depression. More pleasant.
So as with the weather and the world, so with my notebook, I’m looking forward to discovering, come fall, what I’ve been up to over the summer while my notebook seems to be shut tight. Creativity will out. It will have its way, sneaky as tears, as a sigh, a nervous tic.
I have a Facebook friend who just posted some terrific playing around she’s been doing with her visual art. It was inspiring to see how gleefully she was trying things. Yes! I said to myself. THAT’s my intention! So I sit here happily looking out the window, thinking about my intention. My brain feels good. Real good. I’ve worked so hard I can probably relax now. What’s the date again?
Go more wild, was the advice about a recent poem draft. I know what she meant. Sort of. But how?
She meant let the poem leap more, keeping the reader surprised and fleet on her feet. Let my mind go more wild, she meant.
So I said, Okay, mind, go more wild. But it just sat there. Jump! I said. Dance, you varmint! Nothing. I felt like Toad (of Frog and) trying to get his garden to grow, jumping up and down and yelling at the seeds.
But I realized, actually thanks to the Rick Barot book I’m reading, that when my poems get leapy, it’s not because my mind has leaped but rather because it has picked up shiny objects like a crow, objects that are similar, or reflect each other. In one poem in Barot’s The Galleons, he mentions an old woman at a casino, Gertrude Stein, time, a food court, lost languages, extinct birds, Keats. Some of these act as metaphors, some more as associations. Not so much “like” as “as.”
When my mind is usefully gathering, it’s catching the glimpse of connections as I read or listen or watch in the world. At times I’m stunned by the ways in which books and articles I seemingly randomly pick up to read begin to resonate with each other. At times like these, I can just reach out and pluck ideas as they whirl in front of me, so tuned am I to what I’m thinking about that the act feels almost mindless, like reaching for pistachios in a bowl. Later at the page, I’ll do the work of figuring out how to present the images or ideas in a networked way.
At the moment, however, I’m either not paying enough attention or I am just not stumbling on things that are reminding me of other things. Blame summer, my least favorite season, or general distractions of life, or just happenstance. But I can rest easy knowing I don’t have to yell orders at my mind. I can just sit by the seeds for a while. Maybe when they muscle up from under the soil, they’ll remind me of something.
Periodically I watch some free videos offered by artist Nicholas Wilton, who has a program called Art2Life. He’s unflaggingly enthusiastic and filled with wonder at discovering or uncovering processes by which he, and theoretically we, can bring our creative impulses to fruition on the canvas.
In a recent short one, he talked about how he’s trying to stay present with and focused on not what he is putting on the canvas but how he is feeling while doing it. And the feeling he is trying to maintain is, basically one of openness and a sense of possibility. And deliberately NOT a sense of assessment, judgment, predetermination of what should be happening on the canvas. He talks about having a “free outlook” and the “sense of wildness and freedom” with which he often starts a new painting — all that blank space, how it frames the first few marks beautifully — and maintaining that outlook and free sense throughout the process.
By focusing on the space out of which he is creating, rather than what is being created, he’s able to allow all kinds of things to happen. He says he can see both his own training at work in this more intuitive way of making, as well as a new “wild”-ness that is exciting.
Yes, I say. And thank you for the reminder. I’m talking as a writer now, and agree that the key to when I’m writing well and interestingly, and maybe the key to revision as well, is the center — i.e., me — out of which I am creating. And I love that feeling of openness and possibility. It’s a kind of ebullience, a word that means boiling up, bubbling up.
I find it hard to maintain, and of course, any effort dooms it to stiffness, resulting in a stiffness of the work. And I can’t always get to that place in the first place. And I don’t necessarily mean (I don’t think I mean this, anyway) that it has to be a still, calm center. Strong work also can come out of strong inner turmoil, I suspect. (I’m not sure, though, that good revision can come out of inner turmoil. I suspect good revision requires a calm core. I don’t know. I know when inside myself I’m jumpy and upset, I can’t focus enough to revise. I can probably slather some stuff on the page, but I can’t then look at it and shape it.)
What he doesn’t do, Wilton, is tell us how he gets to that feeling, and how he maintains it.
I read this interesting tidbit in Lydia Davis’s book Essays One: she is writing about her own development as a writer, and how she has discovered her way into her own oddball work: “…setting myself absurd or impossible subjects made it easier for difficult emotions to come forth.”
I’ve sort of used this approach in ekphrastic workshops I’ve facilitated — I ask students to do a ten-minute free write about a piece of art that either they do not like or paid little attention to when we moved through the museum/gallery. It’s sometimes the most effective ten minutes they have all day, asking their minds to enter into something that feels, on some level “impossible.” You’d think I’d take that approach myself. You’d think.
Nicholas Wilton does talk about his recent shift to larger canvases, which require a different kind of gesture, different tools, different vision. He uses paint in buckets rather than a palette, uses large brushes and trowels along with fine-line oil sticks. These external things have also changed his work.
What would be the writerly equivalent? Maybe shifting genres, working in form, as I almost always write free verse. Would my writing be different if I wrote directly on to the computer rather than onto paper? If I wrote on my iPad versus my MacBook? If I used a crayon rather than my trusty Bic? I have tried to change venues but have found, for example, writing in a coffeeshop does not work for me — far too much going on, too many people to watch, things to listen to. But I suppose changes are always worth trying and trying again, now and then.
I’m reading a very engaging book called A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow, by Tim Brookes, who had, as a young man in the early ’70s hitchhiked across the US, became a writer, and decided in the late ’90s to reenact his journey and write about it, enlisting the support of National Geographic and a NatGeo photographer to crisscross paths with him periodically as he, at least theoretically — as who hitchhiked in the ’90s? — travelled across the nation. Spoiler alert: he makes it, although he does take a few buses now and then, and he rides with the photographer for a few days here and there. But mostly he hitches, and his drivers range from truckers to a family in an SUV on vacation.
He says this, though, about the zen of hitching, which I think has something to teach me about writing: “I couldn’t shake a very strong sense that giving up control exerts some kind of attraction…It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the conscious mind; in fact, our conscious mind seems mostly to get in the way, by second-guessing and worrying too much. Every time I’ve started worrying about whether I’ll get a ride…it has done me no good.” It was the many times he just stood and let unfold what would enfold that he got picked up by improbable people for improbable distances.
There is more to be explored here with regard to the line between “showing up to the page” or “putting pen to paper” and actually churning out some real writing. As I’m sure, if truth be told, Tim Brookes also spent many mindless hours standing by the side of the road getting no rides at all, no matter how zen he was being. And Nicholas Wilton has doubtless had some ugly portions of canvas.
But letting go worry and effort certainly makes for a better moment passing, for a nicer day in general. And, as Annie Dillard has reminded us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
So. Anyway. I guess I’ll stick my thumb in a bucket of paint and write a big word on the road.
I’m referencing here something a friend said that I agreed with in the moment but now think I may disagree: she said the context of a critique should always be the poet’s intent for the poem. I’ve also preached intent as a necessary level in the revision process. But I’m thinking now that if the poet has an intent for the poem, she’s already lost the poem. “But that’s not what I want the poem to do” is a phrase I hear — and say — in response sometimes to critique. But it’s that very wanting, that very conscious intention, that maybe should not be trusted.
Am I saying that a poem develops its own path, and the poet needs to learn to get out of the way? That sounds awfully woo woo for me. But maybe I’m kind of thinking that way.
But I’ve also argued that if you don’t know your intention for a poem, you’re in danger of writing too superficially. Could that also be true? Am I overthinking?
I think I’m perceiving that at certain stages in the development of a poem, the poet needs to move at first without much conscious thought, much the way I just laid water and color down on my paper, and then turned the paper around and around. What I intended was that somehow the colors would create some shape that would allow me to find something on the page to make a picture of. That didn’t happen. In the absence of that intended result, the absence of a discernible object or presence, I had to find another way. The frustration of my intent turned out to be a freedom and a way to discover something new.
The word intend is from Latin meaning stretching toward something. Sometimes in the writing of something, the process of writing itself causes the thing to stretch toward something unexpected. And it might take a clear-eyed view, probably after some time away from the poem, for me to be able to see what my own poem is saying, what it’s claiming as its own intentions or my own subconscious ones.
I’ve got a few poems in my holding cell at the moment, and keep revisiting them. They’re not bad. They’re not good. One in particular came out of an art exhibit the details of which I can no longer remember, but I know I wanted to write something out of the experience of that exhibit. I’m wondering now if I need to leave the exhibit behind, and see if the poem is actually reaching toward something entirely different. But no! That’s not what I intended! Plus if it goes in an entirely different direction then it won’t fit in with this manuscript I’m developing!
Tough luck, kid. Is this an adventure, or ain’t it?
I haven’t been writing much. This is not unusual for me. I go for long periods without writing much, or writing little bits that I discover later, or writing quite a bit only I haven’t noticed it. Mostly these days the notebook sits closed. But I’ve been willing to paint. Maybe not with alacrity, but I’m more likely to open my little sketchbook than my notebook.
I’ve been painting mostly from photographs, even though I know from my artist friends that that is frowned upon, although I’m unclear why, but one friend is Rather Stern about it. So I do it anyway, but feel guilty about it, which I figure makes it okay. Something about the efforts of imagination or something. But a photograph reminds me about how light and shadow works. I tend to be afraid to go too dark, and unsure how to maintain light, so a photograph keeps me working forward on those fronts.
Anyway, after reading about one artist’s more freeform approach of putting down water and color and then finding an image in the patterns it made and enhancing it, I decided to try that. Rather than doing my usual wet onto dry, I wet the paper well, added color, and a bit more, then rewet and added a new color, turned the paper around so the colors veered and wandered. I contemplated that for a bit, liking the soft hues. I wanted some darker stuff, so I did some spattering. For some reason, that didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to fold the paper in half, like little kids do to make those butterfly-sort-of pictures. Disaster. My spatters turned into pale squashes, and now my paper had a fold in the middle of it. Contemplated that. I still liked the colors and had just received a card that had a cutout garden on top of shiny paper, so I thought to do something like that, and dismantled the card and laid the cutout on top of my paint. Ick. What I really wanted was the opposite — I wanted the flowers to be cut out and the background intact, but I had no interest in the persnickety Xacto knife requirements of such a thing.
More brooding. In the end I turned to my usual go-to, my pen. I lack a very fine-point brush, so I end up using my pen often to outline things in my paintings. I scrawled some squiggly flower and leaf and grass shapes on top of my colors. I quite liked it, and thought to myself, “Well, that was an adventure.”
And I thought what a wonderfully human moment that was, a moment of contemplation of the past, its frustrations and questions, coming out the other side appreciating the, dare I put it, “journey.” I suppose it’s possible that the maple tree by my house comes through a windstorm, boughs intact, and has some equivalent sigh of satisfaction. But it seems like a very human thing. And it occurs to me that my writing efforts would also benefit from that kind of shake-up, of venturing into unfamiliar methods. Unknown, unknowing, trying this and that, contemplating, folding, turning upside down, mopping up spilled words, doodling. I’d like to look up from a writing session and think, “Well, that was an adventure.”
As a project to occupy me, I decided to use each section in a multi-sectioned poem I wrote as inspiration to make a monoprint, then I figured I’d write the poem section on each print.
But my writing is terrible, some of the sections were really long which meant I’d get impatient with writing them out and inevitably make a mistake (would that be interesting, the cross-outs?), the ink obscured too many words (did I want them obscured? Would that be interesting?) so I decided to just write a fragment of the poem on each print.
I’m happy with the prints but the words disappoint me. Wasn’t it enough that the poem inspiration was in the DNA of the visual piece? Or is it my poem? Is it the fragments I chose? Is it that words and text have, to my mind, a problematic relationship — reminiscent as they can be of sentimental cards or cartoons? What am I looking for in this pairing? Should I have left visual enough alone?
I took a dive into what other people were up to with visual poetics. For example, I found an issue of Indianapolis Review that was devoted to visual poetics, plus some other journals like crtl+v often have visual poems of some sort, and Tupelo Quarterly which often has interesting work of various sorts. I was looking for examples that really gave me a zing, the sense of “yes, THIS is what it can be.”
I found lots of fun stuff, but I’m not sure I have yet found what I’m looking for. There’s a lot of collage with ransom-note style pasted-on lines of text. Often the text is brief, aphoristic, or enigmatic, which is okay, I guess, but not greatly of interest to me. Some people are using full poems, which I appreciated. But then I have to ask what the visuals do for the poem — is there something expressed in the comparison/contrast? Or is it just fun? And after I while I got tired of the ransom-note look and crazy juxtaposition of images ripped out of magazines or old textbooks. There’s a lot of it going on. Often the text and what it conveys is less compelling than the mish-mosh of visual, and I guess, being a reader and writer, I want the text to have more heft, to be more “privileged,” if you will.
There’s some work with embroidery that’s kind of interesting. Sometimes sheer excess is interesting, but it’s not something I can or want to emulate. A LOT of stuff is going on with erasure. Again, some of it is interesting. But it’s not erasure I’m looking for.
Cartoons I find are not interesting me. I often find the multi-frame cartoons make me feel claustrophic.
Maybe what attracted me most in this dive I took are objects that use text, and little books or tea bags or other ways people are incorporating words into things, but again, mostly gnomic in nature.
This question of sense-making or meaning-making seems relevant in my quest — not enough sense in the words and I’m left frustrated, too much sense and I’m left feeling like the visuals are decoration.
Maybe it’s asemic writing that I’m after — asemic meaning without a unit of meaning. Asemic writing alone, itself the only visual input, is less interesting to me. But asemic writing as part of a larger visual work? Maybe this is the most freeing use of text-like stuff in the embrace of other visual input. Then my eye and mind are free to course among them.
Plus my bad handwriting would then be artful. This is what I could explain to my husband when he complains about not being able to read what I added to the shopping list. (What’s the mystery? It’s either “ice cream” or “cookies”.)
I was feeling rather smug about having a new collection of poems for which I could start gathering rejection letters, until I realized that at least 10 of the poems in the 50 poem collection seem to be the same damn poem over and over again.
Yes, they differ in imagery and rhythm and movement, but they land in the same place, with they same no-duh realization.
I know I often feel like I’m writing the same poem over and over, but to have it so plainly in my face is, well, annoying.
I thought I could get clever and tried to turn one poem on it’s head, so it at least STARTED in the same damn place but ended someplace else, but I wasn’t fooled by my trick.
It’s funny, of course, because I hadn’t realized how obsessed I’d been. But clearly I’ve got issues. Or one issue, anyway.
How many such poems can a collection can get away with having? Two? Three? Four if I hide them throughout and distract the reader with shiny objects?
I don’t know. Is it so wrong to be frankly obsessed with the same idea? I mean I am climbing the same mountain yes, but it is indeed by different routes.
It’s not wrong, I guess; it’s just boring.
Well, I’m staring at them all now to see who gets to stay and who gets tossed off the island.
And if I’m going to do what I can to get obsessed with something ELSE.
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.