Art for Art’s Sake; or How Other Artistic Media Can Generate New Writing

Reading, writing, talking, and thinking about poetry at MASSMoCA is creating a feedback loop as I absorb the visual and audio riches of the museum, whose grounds sprawl with both formal-feeling gallery rooms, vast expanses, and unexpected corners of surprise: voices speaking into an empty back lot, strange clanging from an old building open to the elements, the two-tone hum of a 3D printer; even the smell of bacon from the cafe is charged. (Baaaconnn….)

As I walk around with words whispering just unheard in my head, I’m engaged in the ritualized act of seeing that is museum-going. As I spent time in one small gallery, I noticed the rapid coming and going of five or six people, who were in the what’s-this-what’s-that mode that I too get into often when I’m visiting a museum. Some of that has to do with the sheer volume of work to absorb in a day’s visit. You have to measure time and energy in such a situation, and I appreciate that. I wish museums offered multiple-day passes to allow this kind of focused attention absent the anxiety of time and what-am-I-missing. As an artist in residence here, I have the leisure to return again and again.

Because I’m here on a mission of art-making, everything is more alive to my eye, ear, nose. I feel the rubble of metal plates underfoot or the knobs of gravel, the yield of damp grass. Being here I feel art begetting art, and I want to crumple my page of poem into some shadow-casting form to attach to a wall, or mutter my words into the tunnel of an old air duct.

I begin to experience “ostranenie,” a term meaning to defamiliarize, to make the familiar strange. And in that state I can relook at my own work, my usual turns of phrase and modes of expression and come to embrace it, clarify it, discard it as too limited, pile on it, twist it, shatter it open, hone it to a knife-edge. Ideas of new work I might make emerge as bright possibilities just beyond the edges of these buildings, skittering leaves glimpsed through a window, a stalking crow, and I can’t wait to give myself over to what might happen.

I am giddy with the world, the mind, imagination.


writing off the edge of the known world

I get confused thinking about atoms, molecules, cells, space. I set my giant cell-full foot on the fuzz of growing things on this giant rock that reveals itself on the edges and slides as slitting as slate and colorful, blood red, sea green, cloud blue. The snarl of bunched greenery with reds and pale berries-to-be and the sproing of it after I’ve stepped onward counterpoint the kachunk of a wave blasting into a fissure. In the distance what seem to be grand white ships are icebergs. On the horizon what seem to be gray icebergs are low lying cloud formations, now stately, now like a guy waving, now like two arms making monster claw forms like I do when I’m trying to scare small children. What are we? Solids, liquids, in motion, stuck, big, minuscule, gone — or, as we are matter, not entirely. Icebergs are not salty, as they’re made of snow and ice formed from rain coming down. I’ve forgotten where the salt goes when the ocean condenses. I tire of the things I don’t understand. I only feel better when I begin to understand what I don’t know. It’s what I don’t know I don’t know that scares me. Monster claws monster claws. I think about the table of elements. What are they again? Building blocks of stars and me and my milkshake. Things are not what they seem. I saw an exhibit of how the high promontory I’m looking at was formed of ancient pressure, two land masses shoving shoving. Now little is left of them. Rubble, some relatively small islands that are being elbowed by the sea. It’s not just change I’m talking about but the actual shifting nature of all things. Shifty nature. Look away for a minute and nothing is there. Or nothing was there all along. The space of not-knowing is a vital starting point for writing. My last post mentioned memoir. I think what trips up would-be memoirists or personal-essayists is that they (we) think because it’s their life, they know what they’re talking about. But they may only know the timelines, the linear course of “what happened.” The powerful starting place is why, or so what, or and what do I make of all this? The large and small of life, the spaces, they are the stuff of life, but only as waves are the stuff of ocean. It’s the patterns of salt stains left by the spray that we’re after.

Tongue Over Teakettle, or, the Pleasures of Surprises in Poetry

I’m reading Stephen Burt’s The Poem Is You, and found myself intrigued and delighted by this poem, whose author was unknown to me: Diane Glancy’s “Hamatawk.”



Just it was (crow tongued) he was saying a caw.
Then wings fold up the Indian
if antlers deer give
totems of the head the anyhow of them.
This coat gets smaller each year
like the tepee I come from
when I (back) to the (space) I was born,
the small hohum of it,
old ones all reversed
smaller the autumn trees than I remember
(the way) old language breaks.
Hum way to hum hum the buzzled wiggle
of the tall grasses smoothed down
by the path of them (to woods) through the field.
I’m going and if not
I come back smaller.
Then he (the crow) sings like this
his mouth he opens. Caw. Caw. The grasses
(wave) they take flight the crow wings (grasses
burnt) all fields shrivel
next the new world.

There are so many surprises and little winks and nudge, and yet sadness and rue.

From the start: backwardization of the title, tomahawk to hamatawk, the wink at talk and the undermining of that tired symbol from our cowboys-and-indians mythology. I

love the various uses of parentheses to describe or circumscribe or clarify, the creation of a “back space,” the questioning of “the way.”

I love the tangled syntaxes and then the flat statement “This coat gets smaller each year…” and the hohum hum hum and caws.

I love when someone else’s work makes me stop in my tracks and say, wow, how did she do that — and how can it inform my work? “Then wings fold up the Indian” and “if antlers deer give/totems of the head the anyhow of them” and “The grasses/(wave) they take flight the crow wings” really interest me in how they make you slow down, consider and reconsider what is doing what and how and why, and the wonder and space of that wonder.

This poem was published in 1991, and Glancy has continued to publish in both poetry and fiction, as well as plays. I look forward to seeing what else her mind has conjured.




Surge; or The Push-Me-Pull-You of Movements; or Read This Book

For every thing, there is a season. And a book. Turn turn turn. More from the Krista Tippett book, whose huge spirit has been a beacon these past weeks. Page after page of grace.

This week it is Reza Aslan who provided the quote I’m thinking about. He said, “We have to remember that fundamentalism is a reactionary phenomenon, not an independent one. It is a reaction to the natural progress of society. And so when I see fundamentalism surge, I know that what is really happening is that the natural progress of society is surging. And fundamentalism is reacting to it. I choose to focus on the progress, not the reaction.”

Do yourself a favor and read this book. Krista Tippett, On Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Penguin Books, 2016.



This One Somewhere: On Paying Attention

Lying half-asleep, listening — little dog having a fit, chatter of two people walking past, a child’s high-pitched piping in what I am startled to realize is English, mutter of a small boat motor. Tink tink chunk of workmen — no drills, no electric saws — old-fashioned noises of hand tool on old plaster. No: shift and grr of trucks, no whine of car tires, no rattle of loose muffler. I get up and look out the window at my morning Venice: this small canal that is my neighbor, its high wall companion, and the cobbled quay. I see one of the two kinds of people Italy seems to be full of — this one: old woman in shapeless shift pulling her shopping bag on wheels. (The other group in Italy are men somewhere between the ages of 25 and 35 who seem to have found themselves jobs that don’t require them to do much and they don’t do much of it, and what there is to be done annoys them slightly, constantly.) Chill of stone sill under my elbows. The canal’s water is a uniform gray-green, as if it is some substance other than water, something viscous or jelled. One yellowed leaf floats slowly on its back toward me on the subtle vestige of incoming tide. Arc of a bridge down beyond the small plaza. A neighbor is humming somewhere. Church bells suddenly demand attention. Come. Come. Come. Gather. Faint smells: sea, or the dead things of the sea, pee, and coffee. I turn my back to the window to reach for the coffee. Tick tick tick of passing heels. What does this have to do with writing? Just the pleasure of paying attention, of drawing in the world in sips and sniffs. World in the ears. World on skin.

Rilke wrote that travel, to him, was part of doing the work of writing. Anything could be inspirational, and his work was to open himself to that anything, wherever, whenever. As good excuse as any.

Someone else said that the writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.

Where are you?