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.

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There’s a hole in the bucket; or, the Stories of Objects

I have been thinking about made things — a poem, a piece of visual art, a pie, a cabinet, a bolt. There’s a poignancy, I find, to the things we humans make and make, lose, throw away. Here’s a poem I wrote some time ago, the title the name of a train that travels through the US northeast.

Lakeshore Limited

Skeletal small towns’ rebar remains,
heart of a grange hall, a church revealed, shards
pierce and work their way inwards, shattered
bones all alight. A coil of brown barbed

wire, a torqued stave, some fence rod or road tie,
the curled hand of a man blasted
by sun, rain, snow hip deep. How we unfold
across our own horizon, beautiful

waste of our made things strew,
slow destruction of our mettle.

I studied anthropology in college but took all the archaeology courses offered. I was less interested in the (oh, endless) study of different types of arrowheads than modern archaeology, what our material world now tells us about ourselves now. We are what we make, buy, and throw away, even more so than what we say we are with words.

I read an article recently about an exhibition of what remained of the refugee camp at Calais, the things carried by people who, forced to again move on, carried them no farther. Notes and small weapons and paper dolls. I think about the artwork by the children of the Terezin ghetto, now held in Prague’s Jewish Museum. In an article in the Atlantic, “Elegy for the American Century,” George Packer writes about Richard Holbrooke and the break-up of Yugoslavia, and atrocities in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. In the article, Holbrooke visits a refugee camp near Zagreb hosting Bosnian Muslums who had escaped the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The author wrote:

“As Holbrooke started to leave, the baker brought out a dirty plastic bag from under his mattress. Inside was a pair of small figures, three or four inches tall, in blond wood. Human figures, with nearly featureless faces and heads bowed and hands together behind their backs. The baker had carved them with a piece of broken glass while he was interned at the Manjača camp, where the prisoners had stood bound for hours with their heads down to avoid being beaten.”

We are makers, we people, of objects that, though mute, express the best, and the worst of us (there are at least eight torture museums in Europe alone). For all our wordiness, our flapping mouths, it’s what we make that remains to tell the tale.

Poetry too is a made thing, and I love the “poem in your pocket” day idea, although I’ve never actually taken part, love the idea of that little curled piece of paper, an artifact of a tender skinned human in the world.

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?

A real laugh riot; or On Cleverness or Humor in a Poem

A recent critiquer of a poem of mine averred that in two particular places I had “substituted cleverness for humor.”

This gave me paws. Ha ha, see what I did there? Isn’t cleverness humor? Humorous? Humor-ish? Is it a lesser form of humor?

It could be said to be superficial, perhaps — wordplay, for example, whereas humor, perhaps, should dig deep, have a little of its tragedian partner. Is there not room for cleverness in a poem?

The first place the critiquer red-penned in this way was indeed wordplay. I was trying to reconsider the meanings of a word. But maybe I had made my point with the image I presented, and didn’t need to emphasize it with the wordplay. In which case, it wasn’t the cleverness at fault but the redundancy. Fair enough.

The second offense was a quick lightening of the mood — I used an old song lyric to describe a situation. I’m not quite so convinced cleverness was a problem there (or indeed, anywhere). In the poem in question there are a few lighter moments in a poem otherwise taking itself seriously, and this was one of them. Can’t a little levity allow the reader to take a breath, to share with the writer a chuckle?

But maybe such cleverness calls too much attention to the writer. Look at me and my cleverness, it may say, and take the reader out of the poem in a way that is harmful to the poem and its atmosphere. Do we really need to share a wink, you and I?

If I want to inject humor, shouldn’t it be of the deeper kind and arise from the poem itself, not from the author’s ego?

I don’t know. I like to laugh. But when is humor organic to a poem and when is it hiding something or asserting itself in a show-offy way? I just don’t know, in the case of my poem; although I may recognize it immediately in someone else’s.

At any rate, I think it’s an interesting question.

Bring it on home; or Thoughts on Structure

A family crisis plus daily rejection emails plus a flurry of other small irritations recently put me off my writing “schedule” (ha ha) or really any of my efforts to be creative. I’m in a funk and wonder what it’s all for anyway. So I watched Project Runway. Or, in this case, Project Runway All Stars (In which contestants from past Projects Runway re-compete. Really, guys? you have nothing better to do than this again? Dmitry, I’m really surprised at you).

Anyway, in spite of some terrible calls on the part of the judges (Are you freaking kidding me? I shriek), and truly horrible styling for the host, poor Alyssa whatever-her-name-is, always stuffed into some inappropriate boob-bulging dress and teetering in some ridiculous high heel (Are you freaking kidding me? I shriek), I find it inspirational.

I love seeing how the designers rise to a challenge, within minutes conjuring all kinds of ideas, choices of colors, shapes, the imagination, the technical skills required. I love the way they become truly wrecked throughout the course of the competition, sleep deprived, on edge, and how they always say the competition pushed themselves to do things they would not otherwise have done.

I don’t know anything about fashion or clothing design, so I don’t really understand exactly what they mean, but I would like to feel that feeling — of trying something I’m not entirely sure I can pull off. The problem with not being in a reality show about writing poetry is that I have to come up with my own challenges and push.

I have had that experience — in recent times, for example, trying to write a long poem with long lines and leaps, pushing and elbowing and elbowing the boundaries of the poem. My first videopoem pushed me in this way, and my animations. (Can I really draw an octopus that looks recognizably like the same octopus across ten frames? Fortunately, all octopuses look sort of the same….)

So what’s it all for? Well, as regular readers know from a previous post in which I revealed the meaning of life to be, well, a meaningless question, I don’t think “it” is all “for” anything. It just is. I wake up every day (so far). So what am I going to do?

I guess I make things because it can be fun. I write because it’s how I think. I play with animation and video and paint and fabric because it’s fun. I don’t cook things or play tennis or volunteer at a soup kitchen because those things are not fun for me. In the absence of a Project Prod a Poet or a Project Make Something, I have to put myself in the creative zone, and this can be tiring and tiresome. But at least I’m not sharing a room in some hotel with other contestants, and having to worry about what Irina is saying behind my back. Cuz she’s just mean.

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.

 

Off We Go Into the Wild Red-Penciled Yonder; or The Hesitant Editor

Departures make me uneasy, reluctant. I check and recheck routes, dates, times. The prospect of change finds me jittery, mind racing ahead, anticipating the worst.

And maybe this is why first drafts and the entry into the editing process can make me edgy, gloomy. I fear ruination, loss of whatever brilliant impulse created this messy first draft. I fear that by leaving the original, I’ll never be able to get to my destination, much less to get home — home being, ultimately, the poem I want to write.

I start all drafts by hand in a notebook, and there they sit, scribbled, sometimes for almost a year until I can muster the courage to wade back into the fray. I extract those drafts, type them into a second draft on my computer, taking that raw utterance and forming something else. In doing so I stiffen it inevitably — visually, at the very least, taking the crabbed scrawl of my first work and tick ticking it into Times font on a white screen. This is when I start taking things out, playing with line breaks, and listening to hear if there is resonance inside, or whatever it is that gives potential to an utterance, the potential that there may be a poem inside. Have I packed enough in this draft to carry me away and then back home?

Of course, there is no real risk. I know that. I can save each and every draft, if I want, and trace my way back if I get lost. But reason has no standing where irrational fears hold sway. What I am really fearing is that I’m not up to the challenge. No longer a careless writer of what comes to mind, no playing child, but an editor, choicemaker; which words will I befriend, what voice will I take on?

And will any of the strangers I meet like the result? In editing mode, that question rises, grim as the sun on the hot sidewalk on the walk to the first day of school.

I wonder if other people share this editing dread. It’s normal to fall in love with a fresh draft of something exciting and new. Why mar the lovely face of this beloved with some virtual red mark of the editing pen? Surely it’s brilliant as is. First word, best word. And maybe it is. Maybe it is. But I won’t know until I voyage into the process of questioning what’s there — does this belong? does that sound best or is there a better way? does it contain more vitality if I turn it upside-down? — and come to the destination on the other side.

It’s only after I begin — taking away here, adding there, shifting, turning — do I regain courage, lose self-doubt. Once the journey begins, any journey, I’m fine. I find my way, lose it, find it again. And I stop worrying about the outcome, stop worst-case-scenarioizing, stop worrying whether I’ll make any friends.

I figure there’s no changing, at this point in my life, the way I respond to setting off from Point A to some distant Point B. I can only give it a nod, and start the car.