Nagel, on stepping back

From Thomas Nagel’s 1979 Mortal Questions, and still relevant today (as philosophy tends to be), on doubts, questions, and the value of being reflective and skeptical. My italics to emphasize the sentence in paragraph 3:

“Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.

This fact is so obvious that it is hard to find it extraordinary and important…Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…they can view it sub specie aeternitatis–and the view is at once sobering and comical.

…this is precisely what provides universal doubt with its object. We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even when they are called into question.

17435196-Sand-anthill-of-excavation-black-ants-Lazius-Stock-Photo.jpg

source: Instagram stock photo from sochicat

The things we do or want without reasons, and without requiring reasons–the things that define what is a reason for us and what is not–are the starting points of our skepticism.”

We judge and choose based solely upon our own perceptions and experiences–it seems unnatural to do otherwise; yet stepping back makes it somewhat possible, through listening and observation, to make connections and find relationships with what is Other than ourselves. First, we must agree to feel skeptical about our own view of the world and to pose inquiries and then to shut up and pay attention to someone else’s experience of the human occupation. (See my post here.)

I do, however, admit–as Nagel does–to the limits of philosophy as relates to public policy. Whether reflection can change the methods of oligarchy, capitalism, dictatorships, the Leviathan, revolution, social attitudes, the masses, democracy, or the Republic has already been answered:

“Moral judgment and moral theory certainly apply to public questions, but they are notably ineffective. When powerful interests are involved it is very difficult to change anything by arguments, however cogent, which appeal to decency, humanity, compassion, or fairness. These considerations also have to compete with the more primitive moral sentiments of honor and retribution and respect for strength. The importance of these in our time makes it unwise  in a political argument to condemn aggression and urge altruism…the preservation of honor usually demands a capacity for aggression and resistance to humanity.”

We continue to adhere to unfounded but deeply ingrained notions we cannot rationally justify, and that remains a truly interesting aspect of human life. It is a set of notions I do not criticize nor defend, but which I do think we should question.

Even as we vote–if we bother to vote–with our guts and our resistance to what is Other, even as we defend those powerful interests from which many of us benefit, we should keep up our inquiry and work on becoming more aware of other human beings’ situations and sufferings, joys and social experiences. One thing about the human being and the whole human endeavor: as long as we possess our consciousness, we also retain the startling and magnificent ability to learn new things.

Here’s to life on the anthill.

termite-hills-Steve-Tobin-5

Steve Tobin, “Termite Hill,” 1999–stevetobin.com

 

 

 

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Steel roots: Flower Show

Steel Roots series, Steve Tobin, at the Philadelphia Flower Show 2014

Steel Roots series, Steve Tobin, at the Philadelphia Flower Show 2014

Terrific place for Steve Tobin’s steel roots sculptures: this year’s annual Philadelphia Flower Show. Usually, I attend–and this year’s theme is art!--but circumstances prevent it this time. But the PHS (Philadelphia Horticultural Society) has an up-to-date website, and the Flower Show has its own Facebook page; so I can attend virtually without braving the icy roads and the crowds. I will, however, miss the marvelous olfactory thrill of walking into the main hall and getting stunned by the scent of fresh flowers.

Spring is a long time coming this year. I still can’t see anything but snow in my garden. Here’s hoping for thaw and the charming sight of snowdrops blooming…

Fruition

In 1999, my beloved friend and fellow poet David Dunn died of a diabetes-related embolism. A few years later, some of the poems I had written as I worked my way through my grief made their way into my graduate school (MFA) thesis. After more years of writing and revision, that manuscript became Water-Rites

which is now a book. Many thanks to Keith Badowski and Ron Self of Brick Road Poetry Press and to the friends and colleagues who helped me to work on these poems and who encouraged me to persist in finding a publisher for the book. Link to purchase is here: Water-Rites.

water-rites by Ann E Michael

Thanks also to sculptor Steve Tobin, whose sculpture “Retretti River” as photographed by George Erml gives Water-Rites a striking cover image.

Thanks to my writing group for almost 20 years of critique and support, and to my mentors and instructors at Goddard College, and to colleagues who have written kind words about the poems. Here’s a quote from Barbara Crooker (whose poetry & website can be found here):

Ann Michael says, “There is nothing wonderful here,” but clearly, she’s wrong, as Water-Rites contains many wonders:  goldfinches, “lovely in the lost way of beautiful things,” the richness of beans that “lie warm / one inch below the earth; uncounted yet,” an ordinary robin’s egg, a yellow-shafted flicker in black and gold tail feathers. This is the natural world Ann Michael inhabits and explores: her home, her garden, the landscape of eastern Pennsylvania that surrounds it. Michael takes us on a journey through the woods of loss and grief in poems that are as clean and clear as water running over stone. “And what is as beautiful as water?” she writes.  These poems are unencumbered by unnecessary wordiness, enhanced by careful word choice and a richly varied vocabulary. “I know what I daily know,” says Ann Michael, and now we, her readers, know these things, too.

     ~Barbara Crooker, author of Radiance, Line Dance, and More

More thanks to my non-writing friends who have enriched my life in so many ways, and to my wonderful and supportive family members.

And to David Dunn, who is with me still wherever he is.

Outside the (type) box

Many years ago, back when there was a career called typographer, I was one. I apprenticed to typographers because I had superior proofreading skills, a background in art and design, there was a recession, jobs were few, and I was a quick learner. In an essentially blue-collar job, I was decidedly outside the box: I was a 21-year-old female with a BPhil in philosophy and literature. But I was a terrible waitress. So, in desperation, I essentially talked my way into a job at a typeshop in New York.

A voracious reader all my life, I felt attracted to the potential type offered for expression via the medium of words. I’d studied art since the second grade, so the aesthetic side of typography fascinated me, too. I got into the business just as the field was waning due to the innovations offered by phototype methods, digital typography, and the invention of desktop publishing. Nevertheless, typography kept me fed and housed for a few years while I learned to discern the differences between various counters, serifs, descenders, dashes,  x-heights, weights and the rest. I read books on the history of type design and the history of the alphabet itself. My obsession with words and letters kept me inside the typography box, though I suppose I was often more like a stray Caslon e in the Helvetica drawer.

Wood type was no longer in use, but I used to purchase wooden type fonts–the individual letters–and type cases, because they are so folk-art-appealing and so potentially useful. As collectors began to scour flea markets for wooden type, I bought metal fonts and slugs instead; I’m particularly fond of ampersands and dingbats. (If you’re in Wisconsin and you want to see what the age of wooden type in the USA was like, check out the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum.)

Two of the shops I worked at still used metal type occasionally, though they had mostly switched to digitally-mastered film type; and one shop boasted three Linotype machines. Two of the machines worked. The other was there for parts. The typesetters were all WWII veterans, and the smell of molten lead wafted through the building…it really felt like the end of an era. And it was.

Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

Working at typeshops engaged my brain in novel kinds of problem-solving and detailed observation, taught me about the lives and careers of men who could have been my great-uncles, satisfied–sometimes–my yearning for aesthetics in the workaday world. An elegant logo or headline still pleases me. I learned about all kinds of odd and wide-ranging things while proofreading, too, while I marked up thousands upon thousands of proof pages; and during my breaks, I read novels. One old-timer at a shop I used to work at told me, “Every proofreader I ever knew read books on his break.” He shook his head as if that were sheer lunacy.

Today, I might note that every computer programmer I know spends his or her break time (and post-work hours) at a computer. It is nice to love something about the work one does for a living.

Typographers today are designers and computer graphics folks who understand how to digitize and digitally set and “cut” fonts for virtual pages. The design tolerances are different, though the challenges of readability and clarity and appropriateness remain. As for proofreaders, there are fewer every year, even though we certainly could use them. AutoCorrect and SpellCheck are woefully inadequate proofreading systems, as I constantly remind my students who don’t know your from you’re or their from there or then from than.

And as for me, I have moved from proofreader and typographer to tutor, instructor, poet…jobs that suit me a bit better, where my quirkiness is more tolerated and thus more conventionally acceptable. I continue to admire thinking and being that is outside of the box, however, and in that spirit I offer you some artwork that moves type outside of its outmoded, old-fashioned box. Click on the cityscapes link to find metal-type cityscapes by Hong Seon Jang. For what artists can do with letters, see also my earlier post on Steve Tobin’s sculpture, “Syntax.”

Interview

“Who has not sat, afraid, before his heart’s
curtain?  It rose:           the scenery of farewell.
Easy to recognize. The well-known garden…”
–Rainer Maria Rilke
~

primrose by Ann E. Michael

Herewith, a recap of my side (much edited) of the ArtsAlive! conversation this past Sunday at Soft Machine Gallery. SØrina Higgins was also reading and being interviewed by Lehigh Valley Arts Council director Randall Forte, but I can’t adequately summarize her insightful comments. You can find her book here, however.

~

RF: What is your favorite poem in the collection Water-Rites?

AM: I hate to try to pin down a favorite poem, by my favorite writers or by myself. I once heard Billy Collins reply to that question by saying his favorite poem is always the one he is currently in the process of writing. That’s kind of cleverly evasive, but it’s also a little true. Though sometimes I hate the poem I’m currently working on…

I like the title poem, but I get a kick out of “Doxology” because it is so odd; and perhaps my favorite poem is “Tailfeathers” or “The Big Umbrella” or, for purely sentimental reasons—not because it is my best poem—“At Bull’s Head Pond.”

~
RF: What was the most difficult poem to write?

AM: The most difficult poem to complete was probably the long poem in the center of the collection, “The Valley, the Whitetail: A History.” That was difficult in terms of managing the length and the purpose of the poem; also, it required some research. Yes, occasionally poems take quite a bit of research—I have no desire to be inaccurate when I am writing about history or geology or botany (though I often am, inadvertently, despite my best efforts). Not all poetry is solely a work of the imagination.

There are other ways to be “difficult” however. A poem that was hard to complete was the elegy “I Shall Never Be Nearer,” which came quickly initially but took a long, long time to revise and to come to terms with. Not all of these poems—or any of the poems I write—are “about” me or my experiences, I mean, not as biographical as they may seem. But this poem does deal very specifically with the death of my close friend. It was the day after I learned of his passing, and, completely numbed and sleepless, I went with my family for a canoe trip on the lake. I titled this poem “Single Lines” for several years while I was revising it, because the images came to me in – well – single lines. Single images. I must have revised little tiny things in it oh, about 14 times. So I guess that means it was “hard to write.”

~

RF: So, the opposite question. Which poem was easiest to write?

AM: Some poems do come quickly and relatively easily. Not often, and sometimes those that come rapidly end up being sort of crappy poems. But “Lot’s Wife” only underwent about 2-3 drafts and mainly arrived, haiku-like, as a visual image that carried with it some cultural freight.

Another poem that arrived rather miraculously is “River by River.” That was the result of a car trip to Indiana with my kids and is kind of a list poem. It spooled out as a result of a kind of inadvertent prompt. Will Greenway and Elton Glaser were looking for poems about Ohio for an anthology. I read the call for work, went back to my notebook about the car trip, and recalled an incident with my son and a roadmap. The editors chose it as the opening poem in the main text of the book—immediately following the preface poem by James Wright. I felt completely graced and humbled.

~

RF: How did you choose the title of the collection?

AM: Early on, while I was working on my graduate thesis project, I chose the title for the book. I’d written the title poem but hadn’t really thought of it as the title poem until I recognized how many of the poems dealt with drought or with bodies of water or rain or artworks that portrayed water. And spelling the second word as “rites” as in ritual, rather than as an other interesting aspect of water—the “rights” to water that have caused so much conflict over the centuries—seemed fitting given that there are also rites associated with death. Funerary rites, religious rites. And rites in the form of chants and dances people have done to invoke rain during times of drought. So there’s a pun there, rights and rites, and I love literary puns.

I wanted to use Steve Tobin’s sculpture as the cover art, and Steve granted the rights for that photo (more rights, legal rights) and Keith at Brick Road approved of the image for the book cover. So I am gratified by all of that. The sculpture is an early work of Tobin’s, when he was making art using surgical glass piping. It’s environmental, site-specific art that really looks like a splashing creek. But it isn’t—it is glass.

~

RF: Tell us about your publishing history and about how and if poetry publishing has changed over the years.

AM: I had my first poem published in a tiny literary journal back in the days of Xerox-ed micro-magazines, 1981 or 82. I’ve been publishing pretty regularly since then, regularly but not ambitiously. Lots of individual poems and essays in individual journals. I had no academic reason to get a book out, and I had no real direction either. It didn’t seem to be on my to-do list when I was in my twenties. Then, at 30, I had my children. Most of my creativity went in the parenting direction, though I continued to write. I didn’t really work toward book publication until about 1999. Then I began to think about it—after David Dunn had died. In fact, I got a chapbook and a full-length collection of his work out after his death. This is hard to do—to convince a publisher to put out a book posthumously. After all, the poet cannot promote his work. That’s hard on small publishers. But I succeeded. So I thought, I guess I can get my own books published. Maybe. And my first collection was a chapbook Spire press published right after I graduated from Goddard, 22 poems about building a house, sort of ecologically-invested nature-type poems.

Things have changed in the world of poetry publishing, but it is still hard to get your work into actual print—ebooks and POD self- or partially-self-published options, as well as the web and blogs, have changed the spirit of the poetry world only marginally, though I do think these options have made it possible for more people to read and encounter poetry. The absence of critical, discerning, well-read editors & proofreaders is a loss, in my opinion; but poetry is finding other ways to deal with that. And those editors are still out there. Underpaid and overworked and cranky, but out there nonetheless. MFA programs, perhaps. Critique groups have maybe replaced salons and absinthe cafes. I don’t know.

~

RF: Any advice for aspiring poets who want to get published?

AM: I’d advise aspiring poets to be ambitious. But there are many ways to be ambitious. I’m a bit of a plodder, but I hang in there. I’m not great at networking or schmoozing or even being sort of normally assertive—I’m quite shy with strangers and hate to ask even small favors…like asking an editor to consider publishing my work. Or asking people to host readings. I mean, that goes with the job, but it’s taken me a long time to get good at doing that. I hate that stuff lots more than I hate being rejected. I don’t take the rejections hard at all. My weaknesses lie in other areas. So I can say, if you want to get published, you might not want to do what I did…anyway, if you are eager to see print soon, you might want to be more assertive and organized. On the other hand, I have been self-promoting rather badly for thirty years; and I’m okay with that because the poems are better after thirty years even if my publicity skills are not.

I’m kind of outside the box as far as the “po-biz” goes. I do my job at the college, which is only marginally poetry-related, and then only when I am teaching a section of intro-to-poetry. (Mostly I teach remedial comp and tutor students in English; I like to remind myself that Kay Ryan has the same kind of job!). I attend conferences when I can get away and when I can afford them; I have taken seminars and workshops over the years, but not religiously or frequently. The “big thing” I did for my so-called career was to get an MFA from Goddard College in 2003. This was after I had won a PA Council on the Arts Fellowship—back when the council was giving those out. Please lobby your congress people for an increase in federal and state arts funding. That was so crucial for me, earning that grant. A great confidence-builder.

Since then, I’ve earned my MFA and have four chapbooks and this full-length collection coming out and a job in academia that I probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for my graduate studies and a certain amount of dogged persistence of a sort of quiet variety that I seem to possess in abundance. I still send out individual poems for publication in print and online, though not as often as I should if I were really eager to stay on the po-biz radar. I keep up a blog and a Facebook page for “promotional purposes” but don’t expect to see me on your Twitterfeed anytime soon. Technology takes me away from my reverie zone and is, generally, bad for my poetry. What’s good for my poetry are long walks, gardening, and genial loafing, visits to museums, viewing architecture and geological formations, long face-to-face chats with friends, and reading reading reading.

The quote that opens my book, the Rilke quote, kind of sums that up for me. It’s really the well-known garden that makes me recognize where the poems are coming from. The scenery of farewell, in this case, opened up the place this collection began, in loss and later in fullness.

Snow scene

photo Ann E. Michael

winterhazel

Temperate regions in zones 5 and 6 benefit from snow cover, which moistens soil as it melts and insulates the living things that depend upon soil–a cold “open” winter is particularly hard on plants. Except for an unusual late-autumn blizzard, this season has been mild; so I welcome today’s snow even as signs of spring become visible: a few blooms on the hazel boughs, some snowdrops, reddening stems in the hedgerow shrubs.

phot Ann E. Michael

winterberries

Winterberries are beginning to shrivel, and soon bluebirds and the earliest robins will pick them off for sustenance before the grubs and insects are plentiful. Today, as winter gently asserts itself, there are revelations in the outlines of white against shadow. The squirrel dreys are visible, loaded with dollops of snow, amid treetops. The deer paths and deer beds are more obvious because those areas are flattened by use and thus blanketed more evenly than the surrounding grassy spots.

Meadow’s stalks droop in criss-crossed patterns. If I look closely enough, I can identify the species, dry and broken, tangled together and covered in snow: solidago, eupatoria, aster, clematis, ryegrass, penstemon, milkweed. The snow’s ephemeral, yet I find myself thinking of Steve Tobin’s Earth Bronzes.

The ways shrubs and trees collect snow fascinate me, too; I love the fractal sketching of dogwood and Japanese maple, the calligraphic hatchwork of long-needled pines and the way thorns embrace little cups of ice along vine-y stems. I love the larch and birch that create the perfect image of lacework when a light snow coats their branches:

photo by Ann E. Michael

larch and birch

Overhead, vines rope trees together, creepers that take on a creepy mien, ghostly and dripping, when snow-covered. Vines have become a hazard in our region, with both native varieties (poinon ivy, wild grape) and non-natives (too many to name!) choking wooded areas, killing off tree crowns, usurping the niches of native plants, and adding to the hazards of storm damage.

Maybe that is why the ice-draped vines appear sinister to me.

And yet. A plant is neutral, alive, neither good nor bad, possesses no conscience, cannot be evil, plays its role in the environment–and can serve as inspiration. One woody tendril sways high above the ground, a line drawn against the featureless sky. Using a stick, I copy its shape in the snow at my feet. It might be part of an alphabet I do not know, an ideogram I have yet to decipher, the course of a river. Imagination steers from that point on: I take up my pen and write.