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.

Ring the bells; or, On Successishness

Every year around my birthday I pause to do a year-in-review. This was a particularly good year with regard to my creative life. I had a chance to participate in two visual art shows, which put me in conversation with new people on new topics, including process, product, and science, plus again was part of a festival of short films. I got a chance to see my work shown in a public space and projected large in both a gallery and a theater space. This was huge fun for me.

I got a handful of poems published. I still haven’t broken through into my A-list lit mags, nor even my B-lists, but work that’s out in the world is better than work that’s sitting on my computer twiddling its thumbs. So that’s cool.

Had some great writing retreats and a conference that were rich in friendship and creative stimulation and beauty.

And I’ve had another year of exposure to wonderful art, music, dance, nature, architecture, and food. And chocolate.

I had the thrill of riding a bike past blooming fields of redolent hyacinth. I had the unforgettable and awful experience of watching in person Notre Dame burn; but, not to appropriate a tragedy, but I must say there was a strange grace in being able to be among Parisians and tourists sharing the grief on the bridges surrounding the cathedral.

And I have a whole new swath of poems that I’m in the in-love with stage about. (That won’t last long, but I’m trying to enjoy it while I can.)

I think it’s important, this year-in-review ritual — and I usually combine it with going to a fawncy cafe in my town for a once-a-year cappuccino and the best croissant in the world. I don’t do it often enough, and often fear counting my blessings aloud, as I’m superstitious and generally walk around feeling like there are several large shoes over my head waiting to drop (or am I thinking of Damocletian swords?), and worry that too much reveling will…well…I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway, a pause like this helps me to live that kind of life worth living: the examined kind. And to ring my own personal bells that still can ring, and let some light in. And I share it here mostly to remind you too to ring a bell.

Here’s a blog post from some time ago in which I think about the definition of “success”: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/pass-go-collect-…r-successishness/

Like a Knight from some Old Fashioned Book; or, On Writing Outside of Lived Experience

I am trying to write a narrative poem, which is unusual for me. “Narrative” meaning there’s a story in it.

And the poem is a story that is not my story. It’s not even the person’s who told the story — I’m a bystander three times away from the action.

And the emotion of the central character, desperation that spurs an action that risks everything, is not one I know — desperation, I know; action for action’s sake, I know; but risking everything? I’m far too cautious, canny, and grasping for that.

So can I write this poem?

I have a couple of unsuccessful drafts. They are missing the punch. My advice to myself is good: stick with the visceral image, keep close to the body. And I know that, James Wright-like, I can ask the title to do some work. But I’m not finding my way in, not finding my way out.

Should I not be writing a story that is not my own, however fictionalized? Is the situation I’m trying to write about too foreign from my own experiences? Is it possible for my imagination to fall short?

The purpose of my telling this story is to make a point about a price one person pays but that reflects a price we all humanity pay. Am I reaching too far? Am I bringing to much conscious intention therefore damning the effort from the start? The road to a crappy poem is paved with good intentions. (Yes, I’ve written about this before: The road to hell.) (Oh, and here’s some good self-advice here too: I Gotta Be Me.) (Why don’t I ever listen to myself?)

The drafts I have are dry with backstory, with narrative; the images are too distantly visual, the character too theoretical. It’s a story I’ve been thinking about for two years. But that doesn’t necessarily make it mine to tell.

Am I appropriating? Or insufficiently imagining? Is there such a thing as a story that is not someone else’s to tell? Aren’t we all in this together, so in theory isn’t this story mine too? I don’t know. It’s an interesting challenge, anyway.

 

 

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.

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

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

Yeah, I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Make Me an Angel; or, On Not Committing to a Genre

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I have a love/hate relationship with Poets & Writers magazine. All those contests I’ll never win! All those pages listing who won all those contests I’ll never win! But it often contains interesting articles and interviews. And I got thinking about this quote from an interview with Valerie Luiselli by Lauren LeBlanc.

Leblanc writes about Luiselli: “As a writer she doesn’t confine herself to fiction or nonfiction but instead allows the passion of her interests to guide her note-taking and writing. The genre makes itself known only after she has considered her subject from a variety of angles.”

Exactly, and so beautifully stated!

I don’t know how much is the interviewer and how much was the interviewee in how this was spoken, but I’m grateful to both. I was just putting together some notes for a poetry workshop I’m giving to the general public in April, which is, of course “poetry month.” I would not usually offer a “poetry” workshop. Rather the workshops I have offered ask people to just think creatively and imaginatively and not worry about what genre comes out.

In my intro notes to this workshop (the host organization said I could “do anything I wanted but it had to be focused on poetry”) I want to say something like what this article said, the idea of letting the work figure out its own form. This is part of the mysterious process of making.

As soon as you put a label on something, you’ve narrowed your vision. Just write stuff. And let it be. Meaning let it be whatever the hell it is — nothing, or something, Shakesperean sonnet or story, essay or one-act play. You won’t know until some editorial attention is paid to it.

So I’m going to add to my intro something about “allowing the passion of interests to guide” and “consider the subject from a variety of angles.” Why charge off in the direction of a poem just because you think you’re a poet, or you’re in a so-called poetry workshop? Let’s feel the idea and utterance like clay in our hands. Let’s play with it until it grows feathers and flies.