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.

Time Is On My Side; or, Narrative Motion

I am thinking about time, that mover, that crawler, how it shuffles, how it disappears. I began thinking about this as I have been doing an online course on the braided essay, that is, a prose beast that contains two or more throughlines of thought/experience, the weaving of which can create a conversation, as one line questions, highlights, casts shadows on the others, or creates gaps of warp and weft such that new ideas are suggested. I often love these kinds of essays. But the course offered one example in which I  found myself speed-reading in boredom through. And I posited that I was bored because none of the threads of the bread contained a narrative that moved through time. I wondered if I needed that pull of story to carry me forward, that sense of time passing and something unfolding.

I don’t know if that is actually the case, because I can’t be bothered to go back and reread it to test my theory.

But in poetry my preference to read and to write is for the lyric poem, the poem-of-a-moment, of held breath, a blink-and-now-it’s-gone. So why this testiness when it came to prose?

To be fair, maybe it was just that one essay. I’m reading various works by my latest literary crush Robert MacFarlane. (I know I’ve mentioned him in this space before.) His works are not set in moving time, particularly, yet I find them fascinating. The narratives are of short duration — a hike here, a conversation there. Maybe there are just enough of those to keep me turning the page, maybe it’s that not the magic of his lyrical prose.

The movement of time on the page is prestidigitation: one moment you’re in the dining room, the next, five years have past and you’re on a train. The tick tick of life lived is never that gratifyingly flee-full of the ache of passing time: boredom, the dentist’s waiting room, the wait for the other shoe to drop. (Yes, there is the sending the child off to kindergarten one day and college seemingly the next, the panicked knowledge that time has passed that you haven’t noticed. But is that not also ache?)

But maybe it’s not the passage of time that helps pull the reader along, but in fact, some indication of change — whether that be change in the narrator, in the situation, in the unfolding comprehension of what is occurring. Long ago I attended a creative nonfiction writing workshop, and it was suggested that my essay about my decision to quit my job was too blame-y of everyone else. I was taken aback by this perspective, as I didn’t think that that was what I was doing. But I think back now and suspect that what I had not sufficiently done was to express the internal change that had lead me to that point — had not shown the eagerness turned dread, the hope turned to despair.

Time is change, and change occurs in time. So whether the expression in writing is “later that day” or “I had thought once X but finally realized Y,” the readerly imagination is caught and carried. But of course that inner change is the more satisfying thread to follow, the emotional trip always more deeply interesting than the movement of the minute hand or the walk from point A to point B. But it’s the harder story to tell.

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.

Bitter Pill; or, Considering Irony in Poetry

I have written a short collection of poems that consider the uneasy work of living together in society, but I don’t like the collection. It has too much irony in the poems. Rilke said irony has no place in poems; but Lia Purpura was able to explain to me why.

She wrote in an essay in her book All the Firece Tethers: “Irony is the outward sign of a feeling one’s trying not to have…There isn’t a bit of longing in it. No failure. No danger. No dream.”

And I think it’s true, these poems of irony mask, for example, the admiration I have for Franklin, Jefferson, and the guys, yes, men, white men, slave owners, yes, andthinking deeply about society and the individual, the collective and the future, liberty and cooperation, what a document of declaration must say, what the foundational contract of a society must do. They made mistakes. They drank, whored, backstabbed, ducked some vital issues. They met heated hour after heated hour, wrote, listened, shouted, considered, drafted, redrafted. It was a monumental effort to craft this country. Extraordinary.

The irony I used masks the fears I have that we human beings are still so far from being able to love each other; that I am so far from being able to love my fellow humans; that we are killing each other and the planet because of it. It masks the grief I feel around the virulent divisiveness of the world.

How to write those poems?

Who Wrote the Book of Love; or, Remembering Wonder in the Writing Process

The other night I was listening to a writer read a long descriptive piece. The scene obviously meant a lot to the writer/reader, but failed to reach me. It’s not that I couldn’t picture what was being described — the description was perfectly picturable, and I could understand what would move the person to write it in a diary. But to make a work of art of it,  to make a “poem,” something else needed to happen.

What is the problem, here? I speculated. What can I learn? As I listened, it occurred to me: a. the language needed to capture viscerally the moment — verbs needed to be active, adjectives vivid; b. the imagery needed to be imaginative enough to capture the emotion , and to give dimension, layers, senses; and c. nothing was unknown to the writer/reader. What could have been meditative and transcendent instead was not, for me.

Where, I wondered to myself, was the actual wonder? What was discovered by the writer in writing this? What in this accounting surprised the writer or moved the writer or forced the writer to think harder, to be momentarily confused, startled, to shiver, to shake a head or a fist, to question perception, sanity, to feel dizzy with something, to blurt?

There was an allusion to time: ephemerality and timelessness, but it was almost tossed in there half-heartedly, even though, I think that’s exactly what was at the heart of the thing. And finding the heart of the thing is the whole enterprise, isn’t it?

And by heart I don’t mean that easily achieved shape with two bumps at one end and a point at the other, but the whole mysteriously pumping, sucking and spewing, occasionally off-beated blump or hoosh, or, awful silence, the blupping and forceful chug of this vital organ.

I wanted to shake the reader and say, “Okay, you’ve told us what you know; now show us what you’ve got.”

What we want to be doing is writing through the known into the not-known. I always forget this until I remember again. I am, after all, a know-it-all from way back. It takes an effort for me to embrace what I don’t know. But it’s what I have to do.

And so I again remind myself of this today, as I face the abyss of page, as I think, how do I say this unsayable thing. I wonder.

Order! Order!; or, On Finding a Unifying Principle in the Disorderly Poem

I have been trying a new approach to writing poems these days, very different for me, who usually has a stranglehold on word and idea. I’ve been kitchen-sink-ing it these days.

I start with an image and anything that occurs to me around that image which seems at all relevant to why the image caught my eye, I throw down on paper. And I do this for a while, leaving a file open on my desktop to add stuff to as it occurs to me as I wander around my day. After a while I start rereading them to rediscover what’s there.

If it seems like I’ve got a heap of stuff that has some relation — a bunch of silverware perhaps, or cups and saucers — then I pick through to try to create short, more orderly passages. I try to find threads to weave and gaps to fill. I toss to the bottom things that either don’t seem to quite fit or are blathery or boring, but I don’t want to throw away just yet. Often I find similar versions of the same idea, so I have to decide which one is most interesting, or twist a handle here, ding a tine there, so there’s enough different that I can keep them both. And I start to try line breaks, stanza thingies, start to clip and shift my way toward rhythms. And I try to find the point beyond which an idea I’ve thrown in just cannot stay.

It’s in this editing process that I bring some order to the mess. I do insist, it seems, on having some kind of organizing principle or through-line of reason. (Which it seems puts me out of touch with so much of contemporary poetry I read, poetry that tolerates the, to me, wholly tangential, the inexplicable, the, what I call, “hunh? quotient.” Of course, these contemporary authors may indeed have their own organizing principle for the seemingly random utterances. But what is it? What is it? What the hell is it?)

I am concerned about making sure there’s some kind of connective tissue at work in a poem, a line of thinking that at least somewhat clearly loops back upon itself. I want the reader to happily take leaps with me, not find themselves legs flailing over an abyss.

It doesn’t always work, of course. I have heard from some of my readers that they have at times in reading my poems found themselves all Wile E. Coyote-like, dingetdingetydingety over a poetic cliff. They don’t care for it, I hear…

Some of these poems I’m working seem to want to stay long and unwieldy; some hope to strike out across the page width-wise as well as length-wise; one floundered itself into an essay form instead of poem; one just got whittled down from four pages to one stanza. I’m not sure if any of them quite add up yet to more than the sum of their parts. But I’m enjoying the process at the moment. This devil-may-care flinging of stuff into the sink with a clatter.

Chance and Dare and Devil May Care; the Role of the Uncontrollable in Art

I’m reading Walk Through Walls, performance artist Marina Abramovic’s autobiography. Abramovic is known for her often shockingly auto-violent and long-length performances, most notably the more tame and recent The Artist is Present, at MOMA, in which she sat on a chair and invited the public to sit across from her. I have not experienced her work but was interested in her autobiography, to find out what was behind all the sitting and all the blood. I found the book fascinating for many reasons, but was most impressed by her commitment to work. She seemed always to be conjuring up a new piece, or taking photographs, or making contacts for the next show. This is of particular meaning for me these days as I struggle to keep focused, struggle to keep my mind on generating new work. She reminds me of Rodin, who said to Rilke, “Just work.” Or words to that effect.

She cites Brancusi as saying something like “what you do is not important, only the state of mind in which you do it. And she wrote this about work: “If you experiment, you have to fail. By definition, experimenting means going to territory where you’ve never been, where failure is very possible. How can you know you’re going to succeed? Having the courage to face the unknown is so important. I love to live in the spaces between, the places where you leave the comforts of your home and your habits behind and leave yourself completely open to chance.”

I was thinking of all this as I was working on a sort of collage/shadowbox thing in response to a challenge set up by a friend. I was given a little packet of materials: a sheaf of white fabric sewn into a tiny book, a piece of Japanese-looking paper, slips of paper with writing on them in what may (or may not) have been Japanese, a miniature silk kimono, flattened and thick.

I spent a happy couple of days thinking of different ideas. Then had to approach execution. And I state it that way deliberately. Any use of any of the pieces committed me in a certain direction. Especially if I made any cuts or alterations to any of the components, there was no going back.

Almost immediately, things began to go awry. I sat staring at it for a while, took a deep breath, and kept going. At every step, I had to rethink the general idea, had to either accept the problems that were being produced as I worked, decide on a workaround, or just accept them as part of the piece and keep going. At some point I felt an almost giddiness as I realized I was so far and just had to stumble forward, some steps working okay, some just messy. There was a freedom in that letting go into the process.

Nothing was a total disaster, but everything was just not quite what it looked like in my mind’s eye. And I thought about all those people who like to talk about the ideas they have for things to write, and then somehow never do the writing. Because making art of any kind is hard. And in the making resides chance and error and globs of glue and shredding fabric and intentions-forgotten-along-the-way and unintended consequences and shit you just can’t figure out how to fix. An attitude of willingness and what-the-hell is required in art. And life, I guess.


The Revolution is Just a T-shirt Away: Finding Your Voice

Debra Spark’s article in the recent Writer’s Chronicle “Jump Already” was both interesting and anxiety provoking. She traced in a few writers and painters the point in their development after which they seemed to come into their own as artists: Russo found his downtrodden mill-town milieu, Rothko his color squares. You can see, she says, in their earlier works their efforting, their borrowings and derivations, but after a certain point, their work is singularly their own. This, of course, plays into my constant anxiety that I am not working hard enough, deeply enough, pushing myself creatively enough. Have I plateaued? How do I know? Have I jumped forward recently? Or am I just stumbling along at snail’s pace? Or running in ant circles? There was something she said about the artist finding some true inner voice. What the hell? How can I tell some true inner voice from some fake outer voice? I talk in fake voices all the time. My husband finds himself amused/annoyed when I suddenly scream “Preet Bharara!” in high pitched alarm at some new tale of the demon barber of Cheat Street. I am not infrequently Cartman. What does it mean?

David Brooks’s column the other day talked about Ernest Hemingway, who, Brooks avers, lost his way in the thicket of his own fame and booze, but still was able to exhibit flashes of that thing that made him him, and one reason is because of his dedication to work. So I come back again and again to that idea: doing the work.

But I think that deep sense of self from which some authentic art can form might be accessed — and here again is an ongoing theme for me — through play. When I think about play I think about tearing things up and putting them back together again. I think about giving voice to inanimate objects. I think about that edge of giddiness, that burble of laughter in the chest that hasn’t quite come out yet. I admire my friend Beth who seems to have such easy access to that playing place, that silliness that’s not fluffy necessarily but engaged in fun. Laughing the way to truthiness. I think about P. G. Wodehouse. I think I need to find some old Donald Westlake books featuring Dortmunder and the gang. Okay, I gotta go. I have serious work to do.

In the meantime, here are some lines of Billy Bragg’s “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”:

“In the Cheese Pavilion and the only noise I hear is the sound of people stacking chairs and mopping up spilt beer and someone asking questions and basking in the light of the fifteen fame filled minutes of the fanzine writer mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is. I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses while looking down the corridor out to where the van is waiting. I’m looking for the Great Leap Forward….The revolution is just a t-shirt away.”


To Let

Distracted last time by someone mid-sentence, when I went back to my journal today I found this: “When will I let” — which occurs to me is a good question, even without the finish of whatever was the igniting thought and the absence of end punctuation. When will I let? Isn’t so much of living and living well about letting? Letting go. Letting myself be myself. Letting others be who they are. Letting things unfold in their own time. Letting bygones be bygones. Living and letting live. Letting sleeping dogs lie. Let it rest. Let go. Let loose. Let the chips fall. Let the good times roll. This question of when, it occurs to me, should always be answered with “Now,” as the question is a leading one, the witness under the steady lamplight of inquisition. There is a peevishness to the question “when?” that reveals the impatience of the questioner. In other words, stop doing whatever you’ve been doing, o tiresome one, and start doing the thing that must be done. Okay. Now. Let ‘er rip.


Unto the Breach

I was in conversation recently with some other writers about what can be learned from working across artistic disciplines. Then I came across this from Philip Glass’s fascinating new autobiography Words Without Music about how composing for the theater was vital to the development of his work:

“The theater suddenly puts the composer in an unexpected relationship to his work. As long as you’re just writing symphonies, or quartets, you can rely on the history of music and what you know about the language of music to continue in much the same way. Once you get into the world of theater and you’re referencing all its elements — movement, image, text, and music — unexpected things can take place. The composer then finds himself unprepared — in a situation where he doesn’t know what to do. If you don’t know what to do, there’s actually a chance of doing something new.”

So exciting. This makes me want to call up my visual artist friends and propose a project. Or throw myself at the mercy of some musicians or sculptors. Or… I don’t know what to do!