March 26, 2015

History and Memoir

I want to celebrate the poet Natasha Tretheway. Her work inspired me while I wrote Night Train Red Dust (a poetic people's history of my Iron Range). Natasha Trethewey's work comes out of the intersection of history and memoir. The people she writes about had been forgotten by history, nearly erased. Of her book, Native Guard, she said, "I was thinking about the buried history we overlook. Really so much of it is literally beneath us -- the real bones of the people who are beneath us. The Native Guard was a troop of black soldiers who fought for the Union cause during the Civil War. They are a forgotten story in Mississippi and in US history. Here are excerpts from interviews with the poet:

I think I’m someone who has a constant awareness of things that are invisible... I think it in some ways comes from growing up in New Orleans...people either love it or they hate it. People who hate it think it’s seedy. I always think that seediness is just the presence of this history. There are ghosts everywhere around you.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize, but it also holds her own family story about her mother who was murdered by her stepfather. This connects the violence in the political sphere with violence in the domestic sphere. It gives this work a deep emotional heart. The poems are beautifully crafted and haunting.

For a long time I thought the main thing was the Native Guard. When I took my grandmother to a restaurant on the beach on Ship Island, someone heard our conversation and told me this history that I hadn’t learned my whole life. It occurred to me that there was all kinds of historical erasure like that -- things that get left out of the record and are equally important in the history of us as Americans. I started doing research about the guards, and that was what I wanted to write about.
My more personal poems, about me and my place in the South, started to enter into this book. I saw that connection. I started thinking about my place as a southerner, and as biracial, and as a black southerner and what gets left out of history and who’s responsible for remembering, recording, those things that are left out -- the native duty of many of us."
She served two terms as US Poet Laureate, and I look forward to reading her new work, and I hope she will continue to receive accolades and recognition of her important writing.
See more information and links at
Also see: 

March 18, 2015

Art, Code and Narrative

James Coupe, Sanctum. Commissioned by the Henry Art Gallery, with support from the Barton Family Foundation, Linden Rhoads and DXARTS.
Skill Share: A Northern SymposiumMarch 27-28, 2015 at the Soap FactoryFree, registration required for both days on EventBriteSponsored by the Jerome Foundation
Join us for a conversation on art, surveillance and narrative plus an afternoon knowledge-share of information every artist working with media in the public sphere needs to know.  Part artist talk, part skills fair and part happy hour, this gathering aims to build knowledge, peer learning and expand networks around contemporary digital art in conjunction with Art(ists) on the Verge.
Friday, March 27, 7 pmJames Coupe: Metadata and Meta Narratives
Co-presented with What’s Up Pop Up by Sarah Lutman and Associates
Using surveillance systems, social media, and neuroscience, James Coupe makes art that approaches narrative in unusual ways. Some works are composed by using pre-existing literary or cinematic templates as a framework; others take social media as a narrative framework in itself. For example, in (re)collector, a city-wide surveillance camera network attempted to reconstruct Antonioni’s classic film, Blow Up, from people’s everyday activities; and in Today, too, I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days, Facebook’s profiling algorithms are used to generate films that use people’s status updates as scripts.
The talk will consider the use of narrative in Coupe’s work alongside a discussion of metadata, surveillance and autonomous systems.
James Coupe is an artist and associate professor at the University of Washington’s renowned DX Arts program.

March 16, 2015

Algebra and Fire

Matthew 25:30 – by Jorge Luis Borges
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness:
there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The first bridge on Constitution. At my feet
the shunting trains trace iron labyrinths.
Steam hisses up and up into the night
which becomes, at a stroke, the Night of the Last Judgment.
From the unseen horizon,
and from the very center of my being,
an infinite voice pronounced these things–
things, not words. This is my feeble translation,
time-bound, of what was a single limitless Word:

"Stars, bread, libraries of East and West,
playing cards, chessboards, galleries, skylights, cellars,
a human body to walk with on the earth,
fingernails, growing at nighttime and in death,
shadows for forgetting, mirrors which endlessly multiply,
falls in music, gentlest of all time’s shapes,
borders of Brazil, Uruguay, horses and morning,
a bronze weight, a copy of Grettir Saga,
algebra and fire, the charge at Junin in your blood,
days more crowded than Balzac, scent of the honeysuckle,
love, and the imminence of love, and intolerable remembering,
dreams like buried treasure, generous luck,
and memory itself, where a glance can make men dizzy–

all this was given to you and, with it,
the ancient nourishment of heroes–
treachery, defeat, humiliation.
In vain have oceans been squandered on you, in vain
the sun, wonderfully seen through Whitman’s eyes.

You have used up the years and they have used up you,
and still, and still, you have not written the poem."

–Translated by Alastair Reid

Aristotle and Ovid

New work is underway, and I search for new forms. The greatest influences on literature are Aristotle and Ovid.  They offer two different methods of story-telling.

Aristotle in Poetics focused his attention on these elements: plot, character, thought, diction, song, spectacle, and catharsis.  This design usually features a compelling narrative focused on the intense desires of a main character.  Sparknotes contains an analysis of Aristotle's Poetics:
Plot, derived from the word muthos (the root word for myth, Greek) applied to any art form, including music or sculpture. The muthos of a piece of art is its general structure and organization. It means not the sequence of events so much as the logical relationships that exist between events. The best kind of plot of muthos contains surprises, those that fit logically into the sequence of events. The best kinds of surprises are brought about by "peripeteia," or reversal of fortune, and "anagnorisis," or discovery.
In addition, I particularly value the following thoughts from Poetics by Aristotle:
Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental,
or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered. 
...the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.
...magnitude in the sense of the astronomical...brightness or power...  
On the other hand, Ovid's Metamorphoses has also greatly influenced literature and the arts. Larry A. Brown writes: "...there is no central hero, thus no simple Aristotelian unity to the work. So what binds this poem together, making it more than a random collection of stories? We might first consider three superficial strategies of unity within the poem:
  • All of Ovid's tales involve metamorphosis. But some stories (see Phaethon, Pentheus, Heracles) only have metamorphosis tacked on as an incidental element, almost as an afterthought. Ovid is more interested in metamorphosis as a universal principle which explains the nature of the world: Troy falls, Rome rises. Nothing is permanent.
  • Chronological progression: Ovid begins his poem with the story of creation and the flood, and ends in his own day with Augustus on the throne. However, chronology becomes unimportant in the vast middle section of work, as seen by the numerous anachronisms throughout (see notes on Callisto, Atlas, Cycnus stories for examples).
  • Transitional links: Ovid continually surprises us, as we never know where he's going next. He changes strategies using several techniques
Ovid presents a much more associational form, a theme with variations: "gods acting like humans (section I), to humans suffering at the hands of gods (II), to humans suffering at the hands of humans (III), to humans becoming gods (IV)," according to Brown.

Of the two styles of storytelling, I find myself more often prone to Ovid that Aristotle.  My work has been always focused on changes, including Migrations, the anthology of Lake Superior area writers that I collected.  Poetry is often associational.  But as I work on my new play, I can see the strengths of Aristotle's approach, and so I aim to incorporate structural elements of both.

Work Cited:

Aristotle.  Poetics. Written 350 B.C.E.  (full text) The Internet Classics Archive. MIT.  Web Retrieved

Brown, Larry A. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Web. Retrieved 16 March 2015. 

Philosophy Study Guides. Aristotle. Poetics. 384-322 B.C.   SparkNotes. Web. Retrieved 16 March 2015.

February 14, 2015

Cecil Taylor on Poetry and Magic

I've read a marvelous short story in Bombsite Magazine today. "Cecil Taylor" by César Aira (translated by Chris Andrews) explores with aching beauty the hostility and rejection that the musician and composer endured in his career. The writing of César Aira, an Argentinian writer known for 'miniature novels' --a sort of intimate immensity, is phenomenal. [The Musical Brain and Other Stories, by César Aira and translated by Chris Andrews is coming out in March from New Directions Press).  Here is an excerpt by Aira:
Immobility is art in the artist, while all the events treated in the artwork take place on the other side of the glass. Night comes to an end, so does day: there’s something awkward in the work in progress. The opposite twilights drop like tokens into slots of ice. The eyes of statues closing when they open and opening when they close. Peace in war. And yet there’s a movement that’s out of control, and all too real; it makes others anxious and provides the model for our own anxieties. Art figures it as Endless Revolving Growth, and it gives rise to libraries, theaters, museums and whole universes of fantasy. It may stop, but if it does, an enormous number of remnants are left. After a while, the remnants begin to revolve and breed. Multiplication multiplies itself ... But, as we know, there is only “the one life.”
In the contemplation of Cecil Taylor's life, the narrator considers this line between the artist and the art. I found this interview "being matter ignited" between Cecil Taylor and Chris Funkhouser (1994) published in a literary magazine, Hambone. Funkhouser interviews Taylor about his poetry.  This endless revolving growth is reflected in his interview. This is what Taylor said:

And what I mean by it is, after you do it enough, you make a commitment to the magic. Then the magic asserts itself in ways that you don't have to worry about, because it is incorruptible. That's the whole thing. Integrity must stand. If it stands, then you don't have to worry about other things. You do your work and then it comes. Because that is the truth. That is the beauty. That is the force. However, you just made me realize something. I am not conscious of form but yet you cannot not be conscious of it. Because you look at the page. And the page let's you know certain things. So, of course, one of the things that I'm thinking about is how the next part of this poem is going to be different in terms of its architecture. 
I mean, what are they doing, talking about form? I mean, you look at the rivers and the mountains. The forests that they haven't destroyed yet. Look at these rocks. I could have showed you a rock in that place across the street.
Can you imagine all the spirits that are coming out of that rock? And we are, after all, just animals and we are a part of nature. We are a part of, and we are probably the quickest in terms of duration of life. We are the transitory poems. The mountains will be here, and perhaps we will be part of a mountain. You know there are certain West African tribes that believe that life is just a part of death, and when the chemical composition changes--some of them believe that they may become a mountain stream, star, whatever. I think that we definitely go back to the earth. Which is interesting. It's called "mother earth." The Portugese say, "Portentosa", that's Africa. And actually, the oldest bi-ped was found in the Sahara, she was a woman species. But then again that's not really strange when you understand that salps, fish--it is the women who give birth, and without male--and the women, as they mature, they become male and that's how they unite. This is not acceptable by a Christian--but they don't know anything. 
I'm not interested in separations. What I mean by that is what I'm discovering and becoming aware of every day now is that the similarity, although the nature of the material is different, the process of building the structure are very similar. This is a recognition of something that was gradual. And I rather delight in it now, because I know, thus far, how to practice. Practice is very important to me, musically. In other words, practice is-- forget that--the preparation, the spiritual--the preparation is to enter the realm of the spirits. And it is not practice because it is voluntary. It is. Practice has to do with discipline. 
What happens is that you don't even think about it, and you work on it. Once you've been touched by extraordinary beauty, they tell you what you're supposed to do. And of course everyone who has been touched comes up with their own methodological concept how to translate that into their own language.
The phrase "methodological concept" that Cecil Taylor mentions is one that he has fought long and hard to maintain. While in school, he recalled that many teachers were not only disinterested in his concept, but actively blocked it. Because of the endless obstacles, Taylor turned toward other arts to maintain his connection with the "magic." Even at the end of his career, Taylor protected his vision from tampering by recording studios. His writing was not published at first, and he said that it was not his concern, that he simply loved to write and left the results of it to another time or place. Aira in his story:
And what counts in literature is detail, atmosphere, and the right balance between the two. The exact detail, which makes things visible, and an evocative, overall atmosphere, without which the details would be a disjointed inventory. Atmosphere allows the author to work with forces freed of function, and with movements in a space that is independent of location, a space that finally abolishes the difference between the writer and the written: the great manifold tunnel in broad daylight ... Atmosphere is the three-dimensional condition of regionalism, and the medium of music. Music doesn’t interrupt time. On the contrary.  
Aira's technique reveals the forces that make his story. It's a biography that includes a meditation on art and its making and an unforgettable atmosphere, And of Cecil Taylor's failure after failure in the New York clubs, he wrote, "His continual changes of address protected him; they were the little genie’s suspended dwelling, and there he slept on a bed of chrysanthemums, under the shade of a droplet-laden spider web."

February 8, 2015

The Practice of Attention

My work as a writer is to pay attention .... to what is beside, inside, beyond .... inside an image, an object, or a place. I want to capture what wells up at different times as joy or as grief or as both.  "No ideas except in things," said William Carlos Williams.

Artistic practice helps sharpen the skills of observation. But it is through observation and practice that something else emerges. An artist must find someway to leave behind the self, and I think this is done by the act of deep attention. "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity," said Simone Weil.

"The worst thing you can think about when you're working is yourself," said artist Agnes Martin. She believed it was best to achieve an emptiness and to avoid "ideas."  She also said, "My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind."

January 28, 2015

Making the Unknown Known

Georgia O'Keeffe created thousands of paintings. She did not write much about her work, nor did she make many public appearances.  She wrote this in a letter to Sherwood Anderson:  "Making your unknown known is the important thing--and keeping the unknown always beyond you..."

She often worked in sets, and made sets of sets. One image sometimes occurred in twelve variations of paintings. Her explorations were long and deep. According to an O'Keeffe website:
She was not afraid to experiment with the patterns, sizes, design, and the intricacy to detail, which often took on the resemblance of the female form in many of her works. She took the discretion to make small parts large and vice-versa, she changed the color balances, and created disharmony, which would force those who looked at these pieces of art, to see the images as something else. In her work, she also stretched the visual edges, to design features which had metaphysical implications in many of her pieces. 
"I feel there is something unexplored about women that only a woman can explore" and "to create one's world in any of the arts takes courage. ” There is a similarity between painting and the images in poetry. Georgia O'Keeffe is an example of hardworking artist who continued to explore her landscape and unique set of images.  

January 24, 2015

Sara Pajunen - Teija Niku - Aallotar

I enjoyed reading poetry with Aallotar recently, at a house concert. We share a love of Finnish culture and a penchant for research.  Our work has remarkable confluences. Here's a sample of Sarah's exploration into the experience of Finnish immigrants. She and Teija provide a haunting and beautiful music. The video is 14 minutes - (archives from the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota0

Sarah Pajunen and Teija Niku - Aallovar (translation: Daughter of the Waves)

touring the Midwest January and February 2015
see dates/ places:!shows/cihc

January 17, 2015

Poetic Space

Can the unexplainable be explained?  Sometimes poetry is defined as the saying of the unsayable.  How? Poetry is powerful because of a union of image and sound and a strange combination of the seen and unseen. When we love a poem, it is because of its resonance or reverberation, a concept examined in The Poetics of Space.

 "A poem possesses us entirely," Gaston Bachelard says.  He says that the poetic image takes root in the reader.  His book is ostensibly about architecture but uses poetry as its metaphor, and in doing so, creates a wonderfully resonant approach to both.

Meena Alexander evokes this resonance. "Poetry and place—if poetry is the music of survival, place is the instrument on which that music is played, the gourd, the strings, the fret." I especially appreciate her thoughts about the importance of place or landscape.

Gaston Bachelard writes that poems awaken our being with their mysterious blend of knowing and not knowing.  A good poem is perpetually new. It has a quality that evokes new meaning every time it is read. "Forces are manifest in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge."  (xxiii) He talks of the passions that perturb poetry, or disturb.

Similarly, Muriel Rukeyser identified poetry as an energy that passes from the writer to the reader. She also viewed a poem as a "theater."  A theatrical space is one that is open to and resonant with image, voice, and action.  The image and reverberation of a poem has the ability to "touch the depths before stirring the surface," according to Bachelard. This is the most poetic explanation of poetry that I've read, and it confirms my theory that poetry dissolves some sort of boundary, and in doing so, it is spirit speaking to spirit.

Literally, poetry has empty space. Lines break before the end of the page, and stanza breaks leave gaps between lines. Patterns are more apparent.  This empty space gestures toward another kind of empty space inside or beyond.  "As essential portion of any artist's labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that 'begging bowl' to which the gift is drawn," says Lewis Hyde in The Gift. Creating gaps or empty spaces in poetry can develop a dialectic or field of meaning.

Bachelard says, "poetry puts language into a state of emergence."  What are these forces? I'm not sure, but I do recognize them when they happen. "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” asks Emily Dickinson.  I think she must be referring to the physicality, the five senses, and friction. It must be music, myth, memory, and deep patterns in the landscape. We resonate, reverberate, and emerge anew.

January 13, 2015

Road to Williston Project

I'm happy to be one of the artists in the Road to Williston Project, an art installation scheduled for the Plains Art Museum in 2015. The Bakken Boom shares some characteristics with the boom and bust economy of Minnesota's Iron Range.  A hundred years ago, Biwabik was the location of what was essentially a man camp.  This project meditates on the links extraction of minerals, mining, trafficking of women and environmental damage.