Memorial

snowdrop

At last, the snowdrops: spring has deigned to return.

Renewal, rebirth–and remembrance.

~

In a post from 2011, I wrote about poet Chris Natale Peditto, a long-time friend who had recovered from a serious cerebral arteriovenous malformation that resulted in a temporary loss of his abilities to read, write, and speak.

Chris died in November of 2013, just before his 70th birthday. This afternoon, I will be attending a celebratory event in his memory in the city he loved and left, Philadelphia. We will be reading his poetry, letters, and prose, speaking poems aloud as he loved to do. There will be many artists of many kinds attending this gathering, and we will be honoring his place among us.

Outside this morning, a pelting rain, expected to clear a bit later today. A weather report that suits the mood.

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Ink art

Last weekend, I went to New York with friends to see the Ink Art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The art, all of which is contemporary (the oldest artist represented was born in 1953), has been installed in the museum’s extensive Asian galleries alongside ceramic, sculptural, religious, and paper works going back centuries.

The rationale behind this juxtaposition, says the museum’s site, is to point up “how China’s ancient pattern of seeking cultural renewal through the reinterpretation of past models remains a viable creative path. Although all of the artists have transformed their sources through new modes of expression, visitors will recognize thematic, aesthetic, or technical attributes in their creations that have meaningful links to China’s artistic past.” That certainly proved true for me; and I cannot decide which was more intriguing, the similarities or the differences.

The young artists in Ink Art employ age-old cultural tropes: the triptych, the scroll, woodblock printing, calligraphy, moody landscapes, ideograms, ink, and repetition. The resonance with Chinese heritage is palpably authentic and is often employed in the service of criticism, mostly criticism aimed at the destruction of cultural icons and of the environment (some of the represented artists are exiles). Mounting the exhibition in the Asian galleries meant that the visitor confronts the historical and the contemporary simultaneously.

In Yang Yongliang’s “View of Tide,” the artist uses digital photography collaging to replicate the mood of an ancient Chinese landscape scroll which, on closer inspection, reveals that the austere and mystical imagery of sea and mountains has been composed of smokestacks, highways, powerlines, and the like. I found this work powerful as commentary and shocking in the best possible way.

Being a word person as well as a visual art appreciator, I was especially drawn to the section of the exhibit called “The Written Word.” The highlight of this section is Xu Bing’s installation “Book from the Sky”. My friends and I–avid readers all–entered this room and felt shivers of recognition and joy at the concept of a room-sized, descending, ascending, wall-to-wall book. (I urge my readers to click on the link for a peek.) The information plaque notes “while the work is inspired by the form and typography of traditional Chinese woodblock publications, faithfully replicating every stylistic detail of traditional Chinese printing, not a single one of its roughly 1,200 characters—each printed with type hand-carved by the artist—is intelligible. Each of these imaginary characters conveys the appearance of legibility but remains defiantly undecipherable.” The paradox and the beauty of the concept are amazing; in addition, I find it oddly thrilling to think of the imagination and the craft and simple hard work Xu Bing put into creating meaningless calligraphic pictograms, cutting them into woodblocks, and repetitively setting up the careful lines in rows on long scrolls.

What emerges when the scrolls are installed on ceiling, walls, and floor manages to be indecipherable but not meaningless. There is in fact much opportunity for meaning in “Book from the Sky,” and for discussion and interpretation and playfulness.

One example: after reading about “Book from the Sky” and taking in the environment for awhile, my friend Mark commented, “Imagine if you were a beginner learning Chinese script, and you encountered this room. You might just spend hours in here trying to figure out whether you could read any of it…I mean, if  you hadn’t read that it was indecipherable. Or even if you had that knowledge, maybe you’d spend a long time here thinking that at least something in all this text meant something you could translate. Wouldn’t that be awfully frustrating?”

Or maybe that’s the point?

Carved type for “Book from the Sky” by Xu Bing

~~

Conceptual metaphor. Art. Thinking. Decipherability; communication. These are large ideas, and crucial ones in the scope of human community. Without art–how can we encounter such metaphors? How would we share them?

Enter the philosophy paper…

My “day job” at a small university is part administrative, part teaching, part assessment, and largely tutoring in writing. The last of these requires a peculiar balancing act, because my directive says I must not tutor discipline content; I have to tutor students toward “clear expression” while staying within the areas of grammar, spelling, vocabulary use, assignment interpretation, thesis writing, paper structure, and documentation. As a job description, that all sounds quite clearly delineated and objective enough, but writing well cannot happen when the writer fails to understand content material. Enter the Philosophy paper.

In any discipline, it’s difficult to separate tutoring “clear expression” in terms of grammar and vocabulary without also tutoring content. With philosophy that process is especially challenging, because to a large extent, philosophical understanding (content) relies on grammar (rhetoric). A student can contradict himself simply by neglecting to type the word “not” in a sentence, rendering his attempt at argument void. Or a student may announce she will use one approach to prove her claim and then prove the claim, quite adequately, with a different (and opposite!) approach.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Cases like these cause me to ponder. How can I coach the writer without offering a content-based answer? Philosophy itself supplies the method: inquiry.

“So, you say here that because Locke believed in Natural Law, he would not apply Natural Law in the case of the social contract. Can you explain that statement? Because it seems as though you are contradicting yourself, unless you accidentally added the word ‘not’ or unless you have more to say after this sentence…maybe, why he would not do so?”

“Here, you do a pretty good job explaining why beauty is in the eye of the beholder, although you need to pay more attention to your use of the comma. But back at your claim in paragraph one, you say you will prove beauty is transcendent–and your definition of transcendent doesn’t work with your argument in paragraph three…do you mean beauty is not transcendent? Did you forget a word, or are you missing a paragraph of explanation?”

When the science students or economics students bring papers to me, it is, I admit, much easier for me to stick to grammar and mechanics. The same sorts of logical structure or argument issues crop up, however. Sometimes, I feel as though I am right on the borderline, and sometimes I think I’ve teetered a bit too far into content tutorial–especially when the students are writing about history, philosophy, literature, or philosophy. Yet would any philosopher disagree that you cannot completely disentangle grammar logic from any other kind of logic? They stem from the same root.

The wildest moment

This morning we were visited by thousands of starlings, whirring in a murmuration of wings and twittering enough to raise quite a din. I was wrapped in a warm robe and standing on the back porch because my vegetable garden patch is finally free of snow, and I just wanted to remind myself that the earth lies waiting (and spring will indeed arrive). I heard the flocks arriving, not an uncommon occurrence this time of year, but had never observed such a huge group in my yard and treeline before. And they came so close! Spinning past me at eye level, five feet away.

I felt almost as if I were among them, and for the first time could see how individual birds suddenly reverse themselves–pivoting on a pinion-tip–followed by some in the group while others swooped away on a different arc. There seemed to be flocks within the general flock, each with its own pattern of loop or zig-zag, rushing level or stopping briefly on the muddy grass, some settling, some leaping, their flight paths intersecting…others taking a second or two to hover in the air as if deciding which invisible line to pursue.

The noise floored me. I felt my whole body respond, eyes wide, heart racing: awe, or elation, not fear. I noticed the neighbors’ cat, who often spends hours on my sunny back porch, had backed himself into a corner and was sitting alert but a bit cowed by the loud, wild activity of the birds.

Here’s a short article from Wired that includes a video and some links to research on the physics and dynamics of starling flocks, including the delightful theory of “critical transitions” which smacks of metaphorical possibilities I think I must explore in a poem someday soon.

I’ve looked for videos of starling murmurations, and there are many–but most of them show the flocks from a distance and leave off the noise of the birds, substituting new age music (see below). For me, part of the experience is aural. Too bad I did not have the means to capture today’s wildest moment; that must be left to the imagination.

Thing and All: Reading W. C. Williams Spring and All Through a Thing Theory Lens

Ok, herewith a little concatenation between the imagist “thingness of things” and phenomenology can be read into this critical blog post by Tom Holmes. Not all readers will want to bear with the academic, linguistic, and scholarly analysis here; but for those who do, it’s worth a read. I like the rather ridiculous but genuinely honest idea of “Thing Theory” in poetry.
Here’s an example: “Williams is rendering things, and the rendering is accomplished through the imagination rendering things physical as they are, or rendering their opacity and not their transparency.” So it’s crucial to examine relationships (subject-object relationship, etc.). I concur with Holmes’ assertion that the reader is asked–or required–to “re-see” the thing in question; note how point of view, perception, necessarily gets involved in that process. The re-seeing is a kind of re-creation within the poem’s recreational aspects (pun intended). And the poem becomes a Thing made of words, which of course is what a poem is…among other “Things.”
Holmes’ essay may suggest some controversial ways of reading and interpreting Williams and other poets. Have at that. 🙂

The Line Break

Below I read William Carlos Williams Spring and All through a Thing Theory lens in an attempt to understand “Thing Theory.” My understanding of Thing Theory may not be complete, so if you have suggestions and/or want to clear up any of my misunderstandings, please leave a comment below.

//

Thing and All 

A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American LiteratureIn Bill Brown’s “Introduction” to A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature, he makes a comment about Williams Carlos Williams and Williams’s Spring and All when he writes, Williams “seems to understand the process of wresting things away from life and experience to be the essential dynamic of the artist’s endeavor” (2). Later on, however, Brown misunderstands the meaning of Williams “no ideas but in things,” a quote from Williams that appears a few years later than Spring and All in the poem “Paterson.” In that misunderstanding, Brown also misses out on…

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Writing process? Got that. Sort of.

Last year, I was invited into a blog-go-round for writers (see this post). Many thanks to Lesley Wheeler for tapping me for this 2014 blog tour on “the writing process.” I read Wheeler’s 2010 book Heterotopia and was wowed; she’s also the author of  The Receptionist and Other Tales, Heathen, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920′s to the Present  and other work. With Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace, and other members of a dedicated collective, she coedited Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-po Listserv (Red Hen, 2008). We got introduced virtually via the Wom-po listserv.

Lesley is a formidable scholar and critic who writes a wise and witty blog, which you’ll find linked to her answers in the paragraph below this one. Now the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, Wheeler has held fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the American Association of University Women. Wheeler received her BA from Rutgers College, summa cum laude, and her PhD in English from Princeton University. Despite all these amazing academic chops, which could appear intimidating, Lesley strikes me as approachable, generously interested in the wide world (not just ivory towers), and funny.

Click here for her answers to the prescribed questions. Below are my own.

~water-rites_cover

1)     What am I working on?

I have a completed manuscript that I sent out last year, The Red Queen Hypothesis; but I have had a change of heart about it. I am revising it completely. It’s a major renovation, because as I revisited the not-yet-book I found myself re-thinking the purpose of the collected poems. I had originally conceived the manuscript as an experiment in nonce forms, with a biological theme threading the poems together. As I re-read my work, I realized that my thinking, my purpose, for the poems has altered. Let’s just say some major life changes have been underway in the background of my creative efforts, and the influences made themselves felt. The book as originally imagined turns out not to be the book I want to write.

So, what I’m working on this year turns out to be what I was working on last year, only re-envisioned. I did complete (I think!) a collection of poems centering on adolescent girls of the 1970s that is a sort of a girls’-eyes-view of Bruce Springsteen songs–it’s called Barefoot Girls.  I’ll be sending that out to find a publisher.

Meanwhile, I am writing new work which, alas, seems to be rather dark–if you happen to consider poems about mortality to be dark.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I would love to say that my poetry is wildly original in approach or style, but it isn’t. If you were to categorize my work as “eco-poetry,” it would be different from the genre because of a quieter rhetoric. If you were to call my poetry “nature poetry,” it would not fit quite comfortably into the genre because of its trending toward the intellectual. My poetry is usually “accessible,” but I don’t eschew the multisyllabic latinate vocabulary at all costs, and my allusions are often a bit arcane. I like form and classic poetic strategies, but I also like to break rules, and I adore free verse and prose poems. What did Stevens say? “All poetry is experimental poetry.” Yes. That.

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Journals, because of Harriet the Spy when I was 10, and ever since. Harriet_the_Spy_(book)_cover

Blogs, to practice the less emotional, more inquisitive side of myself and because I’m an autodidact.

Essays and criticism or reviews, because writing that type of work requires skills my brain needs to exercise in order to do other things, such as be an educator; and because I love to read and think about what I’m reading.

Libretti, because colleagues asked, and new things are compelling to attempt.

Poetry, because I can’t do without it.

4)     How does your writing process work?

Interesting question at this time, as I feel the way I go about writing is changing after many years of pretty solid operational process. It may be that I am getting older or because see above: significant life changes.

One thing hasn’t changed, and that is the need for a certain kind of solitude. Distractions aren’t in and of themselves anathema to my writing process, but the distractions need to be of a non-urgent kind. I don’t mind being distracted by a broad-winged hawk overhead or a siren in the distance or an overheard conversation, but sometimes even a loved one’s “Hello, I’m back from the grocery store!” shifts my focus irrevocably.

[aside: My loved ones do not really understand this effect.]

The way I begin a poem is akin to how I’ve heard mindfulness described. I allow myself to be relatively vacant, and something drops in to fill the moment. I assure you this is nothing like a bolt of inspiration from the blue; and usually all I get is a phrase, a metaphor, an image, an aphorism. But it’s a start. From there, the process is about association, relationships, combinations, experiment, and a certain amount of loopy freedom to write a bad poem if that’s what emerges.

Then, I pause. The draft sits there for days (weeks, months, years) until I decide to start revising poems, which I tend to attack in batches. That’s one thing I do differently these days: revise in bunches the way I did back in graduate school under a time crunch. What I currently notice changing, too, is the way that I enter emptiness. In years past, my favored way was to take a walk or to work in the garden. Physical issues have to some degree limited the amount of time I can spend doing those activities, and finding an acceptable substitute has been hard. I am muddling through, waiting to see what works best.

~

Next up, April Lindner and Zara Raab. They should have their writing process blog posts up sometime in the next 7-10 days; and I am excited to learn what approaches each of them takes.

April Lindner is the author of three Young Adult novels: Catherine, a modernization of Wuthering Heights; Jane, an update of Jane Eyre; and Love, Lucy, a retelling of E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, forthcoming in early 2015 from Poppy.  She also has published two poetry collections, Skin and This Bed Our Bodies Shaped.  With R. S. Gwynn, she co-edited the anthology Contemporary American Poetry for Longman’s Penguin Pocket Academic series.  April lives near Philadelphia with her husband and sons.

Zara Raab’s latest book is Fracas & Asylum. Earlier books are Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, narrative poems of the remote Lost Coast of Northern California in an earlier time. Her poems, essays and reviews appear in River Styx, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, and The Dark Horse. She is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash and The Redwood Coast ReviewRumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name?  was a finalist for the Dana Award. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.

Subtle spring

Today, inspired by an apparent and, I hope, lasting thaw, I ventured out into my yard to hunt for any signs of spring. Most years, the first week of March is when we mow the meadow, cut back the buddleia, and prepare the vegetable patch for sowing peas and spinach. The snowdrops are in bloom, as well as the early crocuses, and the trees are budding.

Not so this year. I don’t think our tractor can handle mowing this just yet:

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~

If I look closely, though, the signs are here. For example, the budding catkins on the silver birch:

birch1

                        …and the pool of green beside the river birch:

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A little purpling along the thorny blackberry canes indicates some liveliness has begun.

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At the foot of the downspout–water! Instead of ice!

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Then, the faint fuzz at the branch-tips of the staghorn sumac, a little hard to see,
but easy to sense if you touch them.

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Unsightly, but still a sign of spring: litter by the road as the piles of dirty snow melt off. This brush of some kind has been twisted into an “M” by forces like plows and ice.

trash

But the most cheering photograph, for me, is this one–taken by poet and publisher Michael Czarnecki, whose photos are available here. The photo below is of the first tapping of maple sap from his trees in New York state.

photo Michael Czarnecki, http://foothillspublishing.com

photo Michael Czarnecki,
http://foothillspublishing.com