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.

 

Sing it sing it; or, Telling the Daily Story

Although I may have spent a little more time performing in public than the average schmo — singing, speaking and reading poetry, giving speeches, presenting information — I have never gotten comfortable with it. It occurred to me the other day that even having someone turn to me and say, “So how’ve you been?” strikes me deer-in-headlightsish.

I often hear myself stumble through some down-in-the-mouth response, and wonder why I’m doing that. It occurs to me that the other thing that strikes me in that moment is that fear I have of bringing the wrath of the gods down on me if I admit to contentment, to positive thinking, to having good fun.

I also have experienced more often than my anxious ears care to, in the event I do manage to report positively on my beings and doings, someone say something along the lines of “It must be nice,” which gives me some kind of survival guilt.

Cripes, I’m a delicate flower! How did this happen to me?

Well, that’s for the shrink’s couch, but now that I’ve become aware of what all happens when I’m confronted with this pretty easily foreseeable situation, maybe I can better prepare myself for the risk and resilience of answering positively. Because I have generally been doing pretty positive things: new work, little projects, outdoorsy things, keeping good company, and generally going about my business noticing things, generally being “pretty good.”

Or I can just do what my old colleague Arnie Will would do in the face of such question: consistently and with great ebullience, he’d reply “Ab-so-lute-ly faaan-tastic.” It pretty much stops the conversation.

Then maybe in the moment I can quickly piece together a little narrative, something from my recent days that can anchor the conversation.

Constructing stories of our days and lives is something we humans seem to do innately. It seems to be how we make sense of life and the passage of time, and how we connect to each other, each of us tumbling around in the tempests of our own teacups.

But we can also be stuck in a story. It’s fashionable nowadays to talk about a “narrative” and “changing the narrative,” and in many ways, it’s a wise realization — that what we believe transcribes what is possible. If our story of our own situation is limiting, it seems entirely possible that we are limiting our situation and story, that if we edited our story, we might shift our understanding, we might open up possibilities.

I heard a commentary on the radio referring to a new book out called The Queen, which examines the “welfare queen” narrative that was used successfully in the Reagan era to cast deep aspersion on the social service system by painting welfare recipients as living large through government handouts. That story persists, even in the face of other more credible and widespread stories of people scraping by.

The American pull-up-your-own bootstrap story is a double-edge sword: it can give hope to those who want to change their circumstance, but can discredit people screwed by their circumstance, indeed by the generational history of their circumstance by highlighting the stories of people who were able to overcome their circumstance. Must be nice…

On the other hand, the old American democratic narrative notion that “anyone can be president” story has proved itself in…well…all kinds of ways.

So my thoughts have meandered far from the simple question “how ya doin” and my ridiculous response. Sometimes stories do that, I guess. And that’s absolutely fantastic.

With the coming of the sun (in this northern hemisphere anyway, you southern hemispheres also have cause to pause), this seems like the opportunity to tell our stories anew. So, spill it, sisters and brothers. And maybe the most important story is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves. Might as well make it a good one.

 

 

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/

What do you do with a drunken sailor; or, On Failure

I am thinking today about the economic notion of “sunk costs.” I recently finished a project that took a lot of time and effort, and I hate it. It sucks.

I’ve spoken in this space before about how all creative people must allow themselves to make sucky work. But I need to take a minute to dwell in the rendeth-my-garment frustration of coming to the end of creating something only to be gravely disappointed. A moment of grief must be allowed. A flopping about of dismay.

But in the end, crap is crap, no matter how much time and good intentions it took to make. There’s no regaining the time and attention. It’s all part of the process. And I know I’m supposed to be focusing on appreciating the process. But, arrrghghgh.

I know some of you softies are thinking, “Oh, you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s probably fine.” There are some good moments in it, I’ll admit (it’s a cartoon), and I continue to be astonishedly pleased at some of the things that can come out of my not-entirely-in-control scribbling with my fingertip on the iPad. But a few moments doth not an entire piece make.

Can it be saved? I don’t think so. I’ll give a little time to trying to piece something together from the moments I like, just to indulge you. But I’m not sanguine. A word which also means bloody, which is closer to how I feel.

I’ll also spend some time thinking about whether I learned anything along the way, so it might not all be for naught. Processing the process, as it were.

So allow ourselves to make crap, yes. But I think it’s also worth taking a moment to grieve the sunken treasure of time and creative energy, the debris of the process settling lightly on the ocean floor, glinting of false promises.

Synchronistically, I heard an interview recently and it took me three times to understand that what the interviewee was saying was “work of art” not, as I had braingzingingly thought, “workfart”…

Then we take Berlin; or, Editing the Heart of the Matter

Most editing advice edits at the level of the word or sentence: do you have too many articles, are your verbs too boring, are your sentences too syntactically the same? But sometimes (often?) I find the problems I can’t seem to overcome with a poem are either in the entire approach of the poem, or the content. This is far harder to fiddle with effectively.

For example, I have a poem now that is well grounded in sensory stuff, but it takes a sudden turn at the end, and I can’t figure out if that’s okay, or if it seems abrupt because it does not grow organically out of what came before in the poem. Is it another poem all together? If I take out that turn, the rest of the poem seems unfinished. Maybe I have yet figured out what the poem is about, so I stuck on this other thing. On the other hand, maybe I just need to weave the ending into the rest of the poem. Or maybe the poem just sucks and I need to start over.

Do you see the problem? This is not a put-a-comma-in-take-it-out thing. This is an existential quandary at the poem level.

Sometimes if a poem does not seem to work it’s because I have not reached far enough. In this case, it may be that I’ve reached too far — beyond the scope of the poem into another poem all together.

This is the most interesting aspect of the editing process, eyeballing one’s own utterances, meditating on the source of images, the hidden reasons behind unconscious choices of vocabulary, choices of sound. Something has appeared here on the page, blurted out of my various levels of consciousness. It interests me. It fails me.

Sometimes ideas can be unearthed by playing at the level of word and syntax and sentence and sense-unmaking — so editing at that level can be useful too for this deeper examination — but at risk of the nicely arranged Titanic’s deck chairs’ fate.

I need to ask of the poem what it’s deepest intentions are. I need to ask, brutally, whether this is a poem that has enough to be said that it’s worth saying. Is it a nice description but not much more? Is it a clever snapshot but not a well considered moving picture with chiarascuro and resonance? Was it a moment’s effort that came of some deep bodied quake or a moment’s effort that came of a brainy shake?

I owe it to myself and the poems to ask this.

And if I have even a whiff of doubt, I need to listen to it, even if I share it and others say ooh and ah. If I think something’s awry, then something’s awry.

There is some level of communion I have to come to with a poem like this, to feel its beating heart. And if I can’t find a pulse? Well, there’s my answer.