November 22, 2014

Three Dimensional Poetry

In the last year, I've been revising a collection of short stories and this last month, I wrote a play.  It's been like riding two horses, using the language as a poet and exploring narratives based on Minnesota's history.  Several poets have written plays: William Shakespeare, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, WB Yeats, Lorcas, Langston Hughes, TS Eliot, Rita Dove, and many others.  So of course I have excellent role models in past and in contemporary literary circles.  

John Lahr of the New Yorker interviewed Sarah Ruhl, poet turned playwright. He writes:
Ruhl began her career as a poet—her first book, Death in Another Country, a collection of verse, was published when she was twenty—and she sees her plays as “three-dimensional poems.” Ruhl’s characters occupy, she has said, “the real world and also a suspended state.” ... She wants to project the delights of pretense, “the interplay between the actual and the magical.” 
Her literary volte-face was due in part to her confusion about the confessional “I” of her poetic voice, which she felt had been exhausted in mourning her father. In “Dream,” for instance, she wrote, “I wake this morning and gather a mouthful of dirt— / words—with a teaspoon, that you may speak to me again.” “I didn’t know what a poem should be anymore,” she said. “Plays provided a way to open up content and have many voices. I felt that onstage one could speak lyrically and with emotion, and that the actor was longing for that kind of speech, whereas in poetic discourse emotion was in some circles becoming embarrassing.”
Poetry is the genre known for its compression, imagery, and patterned language (which also can occur in plays and other genres), but poetry is not known for its characters, plot or dialogue. It's possible to never have to grapple with these elements at all.  When I began writing Night Train Red Dust, the narratives swept me along and I enjoyed the opportunity to explore other voices beside my own.  The book began to feel like a fully developed world to me; it connects to landscape and community.  This year, my writing explores more narratives of this place--northern Minnesota.  When Night Train Red Dust was published, I felt as if I'd only begun.  The poetic "I" in this book encompasses many, and I have found that writing a play provides a natural and logical step of exploring more voices.

Another poet who explores all the genres is Anne Carson. In Decreation, she brings together poetry, essays, a screenplay, an opera libretto, an oratorio ("Lots of Guns: An Oratorio for Five Voices") and a documentary written as a film's shot list. Of her original works, she told Sam Anderson of the New York Times:
We have a kind of inertia, sitting and listening. But it’s really important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before. That happens partly because the material is mysterious or unknown but mostly because of the way you push the material around from word to word in a sentence. And it’s that that I’m more interested in doing, generally, than mystifying by having unexpected content or bizarre forms. It’s more like: Given whatever material we’re going to talk about, and we all know what it is, how can we move within it in a way we’ve never moved before, mentally? That seems like the most exciting thing to do with your head. I think it’s a weakness to fall back into merely mystifying the audience, which anybody can do.
Reading Anne Carson's work is exhilarating. I feel the release of any genre-related stops. Why not use whatever works? Why not find energy in juxtaposing stories and forms of any kind?  Why not think outside the box? We see this sort of playfulness in many writers, for example, Lydia Davis (fiction).  With a draft of my new stories and play in hand, I now plow into this landscape to listen and develop the rhythms, characters, and plot.

I like Carson's objective of making the mind move. But it's not exactly how I would describe my own aims. Exploring change and desire, my work arises from the landscape. Mesabi means the "giant in the earth."  The term has been interpreted to refer the economic power of the ore, but I think the capitalists have ignored the spiritual meaning. The earth--a spiritual power? Mainstream culture seems not to recognize such a thing, and yet people who go to the Boundary Waters or spend time along the shore of Lake Superior and its forests know what I mean.  As a writer, I want to acknowledge and honor this sense of landscape.

As far as the writing, there is definitely a feeling that I've released this stream, and it keeps pouring. Maybe the poems have just gotten much bigger--and they have grown into essays and stories and drama--more three dimensional.

November 21, 2014

Echo & Lightning is a collection of ecstatic poems that trace the intersections between women and God: ascension and descent.  This book is the libretto for the voice and cello composition, here.  

Audio poems and cello:

Single poems:
Loveroot, Silk Thread
The River Falls

Section 1:
Section 2:

October 30, 2014

Night Train Red Dust, in a cross-media installation, will be at the Northrup King Bldg in Minneapolis on Nov 7, 8, and 9, 2014.  Experience the traffic and hear the train pulling earth. Walk in the same footsteps as the women miners, journalists, organizers, doctors, ministers, farmers and artists that made Minnesota strong.

October 4, 2014

Wilderness: The Adjustment

Composition by Mike Olson, "Noopiming." The music of this piece is unusual. The composer used a choir of eight voices who sung the single word, Noopiming. This is an Ojibwe word for in the north, inland, in the forest. Olson then took the recorded sounds and electronically separated and blended the syllables and notes to create this  haunting and beautiful piece. For me, it conveys the feeling of the wilderness perhaps because of its small fragments arranged into a whole.  The sound creates an ecosystem, or echo system. Photographs are by Dale Robert Klous

The Body / The Body of Earth

Write with the body, commands each writing teacher. Use the five senses. This makes writing come alive. Along with writing from our own body, I recommend something more. Consider the other body that we are inside. Write with the details of a river, sea, city, mountain, desert or forest. Be awake to the layers beneath your feet and the ghosts. Other people and animals have tread in this place, old roots have reached in and never been pulled out and stones speak.

Wilderness as Metaphor / Wilderness as Wilderness

The wilderness is our most valuable asset because it contains what we don't know, don't understand, and can't grasp. It is mystery. This is expressed by Wendell Berry, in his "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front":
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
When we awaken to the wider sphere, we are aware that wilderness is alive with its own hidden movement and life. Animals go with intention, and they act upon the environment. They travel or wander or track. Populations rise and fall in accordance with the law of balance. Its boundaries are natural. Watersheds and flows and forces and cycles come to bear upon our experience and become part of our story. Sigurd Olson said:
Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.
We need the wilderness more than the wilderness needs us; we are in fact part of its multiple systems. I do not want to sentimentalize. 


The wilderness is as difficult to navigate with language as it is with other conveyances. One goes from the known to the unknown. Romantic poetry often idealized the wilderness and emphasized individualism. But individualism is problematic, and our culture must find ways of adjusting it.

In the wilderness, ordinary mechanical methods of transportation give way to travel by foot and boat, usually off the grid. In order to navigate over unknown terrain, people use a method called orienteering. Azimuth is an old word, and its origins come from the French, Arabic and Latin. It refers to the way or path. It is a word used in nautical settings, in surveying, in astronomy and in orienteering. Its measure is in degrees. A traveler must use a compass in addition to the map. Further, the gap or a declination between geographical and magnetic north must be calibrated. The proposed path needs ongoing attentiveness.

When it comes to wilderness, we do not have the mind of a fox, and we make more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. People who do orienteering expect to go off-course. But the goal is not a private destination, but the life-enhancing survival of the ecosystem. Similarly, poets create adjustments in the language. Rock should not be "tonnage." Trees should not be "board-feet." The pronoun "I" must be broadened from "my personal, financial interests."  In order to preserve human culture, we must start valuing entire ecosystems.

The wilderness is the "not I." In the wilderness, the I is one bird of a flock of birds, one squirrel among millions, and one tree in a living forest. In the wilderness, we can easily become lost. Uncertainty prevails. I can describe my access point and wanderings. I can describe encounters. And I can describe an experience of being lost, of survival perhaps. These are individual meridians that reveal as much or more about the writer as they do about the wilderness.

The wilderness is speechless. Sometimes, nature writers are assumed to be doing pastoral writing, and they can anthropomorphize and emphasize beauty and serenity. The Romantic poets' work does this. They can provide a sense of reverence and offer a greater perspective. But writers might explore the strangeness. Sounds haunt, and silence fills us. Animals lurk; they appear and disappear. The landscape has unexpected or unknown features. It is the place of balancing, for finding that we are not as important as we thought, that we are part of a system of many dimensions, and technologies can easily amplify missteps.

The wilderness holds 'the prior to birth' and the 'after the death,' both creation and destruction, and the cycles of generation. The stories of animals and cycles and the images come with the hope that these will transcend the limitations of language. For me, the best wilderness writing can be the azimuth that enables us to value the not-I, necessary to our equilibrium.

September 28, 2014

Writing and Healing: Arts Express

On October 11, I'll be in Grand Rapids to lead a writing workshop for people with cancer, family members, friends, and caregivers.  October 4, visual artist Elizabeth Kuth will conduct a drawing and art workshop.  A creative community is already forming. If you are interested, please sign up at Project Lulu. Grand Rapids Arts Express  We would love to have you join us!

The Writing Workshop

Creativity, at heart, is serious play. If you come to this writing workshop, expect that you will do guided writing exercises in an encouraging environment.  Participants might ask: "Must I write about the illness?"  The answer is you can write about whatever you want to!  The focus is positive. Whether beginning or experienced writers, participants will have the opportunity to explore their own images, memories, and landscape. Writing exercises are structured but provide artistic freedom and can help writers find their own material. In session, we experiment with forms, like this definition form, used in the poem "Anxieties" by Donna Masin:

It’s like ants
and more ants.

West, east
their little axes

hack and tease.
Your sins. Your back taxes.

Each person has a unique writing voice, and this workshop is aimed at helping identify and strengthen it. Nobody will be required to share his or her personal writing, but we will have time at the end to read work if he or she desires. We will also talk about ways to revise and answer questions that the participants might have about sharing their writing with family or friends, privacy, and other concerns.

As a writer, I rely on my own daily writing practice. I edited a collection of poetry and prose, Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions. This book brought together the writing of seventy-five Lake Superior region writers and it encompasses changes of many kinds: relationships, health, home, work, aging, relocation, dislocation, environmental changes, and migrations. In order to collect work for the anthology, I brought my writing skills together with my social work skills in this project. As Poet Laureate of Duluth, over a period of a year, I conducted 45 writing workshops and support groups. I visited the Women's Shelter, Family Justice Center, Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, high schools, YWCA's Girl Power, and community groups. I have a lot of experience with teaching, helping people find their strengths, and fostering a supportive community of writers. And personally, my mother suffered acute myeloid leukemia. Serious illness and other significant life events mark us.

Writing about place yields good material. The body is also a landscape. In writing practice, we turn on all of the five senses to both stir and soothe. Here's a poem of mine, "Shore," (from Echo and Lightning) that transcribes or inscribes a feeling into the landscape:

it wasn’t pain but waves
pounding on shore
rolling of small stones
up the slope and back again
breaking waves
with their spatter of white foam
all night long re-living 
that peak or pitch
recognizing, reorganizing
building up and dissipating
all night long
it was the world
creating, recreating, retreating
and waves capitulating

Lately, I've been very interested in exploring layers - history, spirituality, geography, landscape, music, and dreams. Each person has marvelous sources that can become wellsprings for creative work.

I ask participants to give permission to the self to be a beginner. More prompts: Write about a remedy or healing food that was used by somebody in your family. Write about an important object or tool that you received from another person. Sometimes, I ask participants to reach back another generation: Write about what political or social events or life situations affected a grandparent. How did these affect their relationships in the family?  These provide opportunities for exploration and reflection, and the first draft may want to turn into a poem or story.

Journaling Improves Health

Several research studies have demonstrated that writing practice improves health outcomes, helps regulate emotion, increases problem-solving skills, and reduces stress. Journaling is considered a complementary therapy in cancer treatment.  Here is an excerpt of a Rita Dove's "Beethoven's Return to Vienna."

I had been ordered to recover.
The hills were gold with late summer;

This type of poem is called a "persona poem."  The poet wears a mask, becomes another person, and examines another's story.  In these two lines from the poem, Dove uses interesting vowel and consonant sounds, to explore the experience of an accomplished composer and musician who becomes deaf.

Project Lulu is a nonprofit organization founded by the artist Lisa McKhann after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  She helps others go through being "a patient" to becoming actively creative. Some of the former participants went on to develop scripts for staged readings and performances. Art is transformation!

So bring a notebook and pen. Prepare to have fun and relaxation. Lisa McKhann of Project Lulu writes, "art can both elevate and communicate life's simple hardships in a way that deepens our common humanity. Our motto is Reflect - Create - Expand."

Go to Project Lulu to learn more, and to find out more about Elizabeth Kuth and her art workshop. Come and be a part of the healing community.


September 20, 2014

Old Iron Range in Minnesota

Last Tuesday I went to Hibbing with the WDSE Channel 8 Playlist people and we did an interview and video about Night Train Red Dust. We went to the Mitchell Yard which is a 1906 Roundhouse (behind the Sunny Hill distributors near Hibbing). After me, they interviewed a music group from Hibbing. The building is crumbling, and I felt the ghosts of the Iron Range past. I wonder if our nation can continue to sustain economic development that causes environmental degradation. Can we have economic development AND environmental protection?
 Inline image 1 
The Mitchell yard ran 24/7 during WWI and WWII. Now it's owned by an artist, Dave, who has a vision of rehabbing the building to be a pre-vocational school (great place for a machine shop) and artist workshop (he is a sculptor). He has a vision of developing more unity, similar to the efforts of everybody on the Iron Range to help win WWI and WWII. Can we focus our energies on reducing poverty, homelessness, and violence? on creativity instead of destruction?
For Mitchell Yard, fundraising will be necessary! This is a worthy project, and he needs 1-2 million!
I'm standing in front of the old coal fired boiler. Karen Sunderman of WDSE took this photo. They plan to make a program about all of us. Here's a link to the Mitchell Yard website:

September 14, 2014

Innovative Reading and the Web: Choreotextographies

The Invisible Procession
Reading and writing are the two sides of a text. Reading opens doors and writing crosses thresholds. Reading begets writing. For me, it is a steady chase. Writing begins with an insisting image or something stirred by conversation, between pages or words exchanged with a friend. I begin with no expectation—because that is the best way—simply moving my hand across the page, writing the most mundane things and in this process from somewhere comes a word or a phrase that I follow until I’m lost. Getting lost is necessary, and so is way-finding through dreams, associations, experiments, and reverie.

In books, I find stillness and escape. The lamp on my desk shines books splayed downward and others fallen in stair-step patterns up and down. Books I’ve read are turned titles down, spines to the right, and books I plan to read have titles up, spines to the right. I love to read sitting by a window turning the thick pages fragrant with the scent of old libraries and women who wear glasses on delicate gold or silver chains.

Words written in long before arrive into a new encounter, like a letter found in a bottle. While reading, an intimate and silent dialogue occurs with the past or with another life experience. Here is part of an exquisite poem by C.P. Cavafy that uses the phrase "an invisible procession"--

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.

Aside from the narrative of a leader losing his country, aside from underlining the need to face one's losses with courage, and other meanings, the poem identifies an individual's cascade of images, memories, and associations. As the world changes, we might apply this metaphor to our experience with old ways of publishing books and experiencing stories.  In our imagination, an invisible procession occurs that can lead to our own creative work. I want to create new works that are evocative and have openings that invite the reader to make multiple meanings.

I arrived at e-books reluctantly. E-books are static—static as a print book (although this is changing)—but do not give the reader the sensation of a unique object that pleases the sense of touch and smell. The web provides new and different perspectives and languages: virtual reality, online gaming, multiple media and interactivity. A story that goes from print to film often contracts. The visual language and music will carry meaning as well as the words. If that same story is used in interactive gaming, it will expand. Digital media offer new artistic opportunities to make the invisible processions visible. 

With an increasing range and breadth of communication and networks, we select and arrange multiple things, people, places, and experience. We see memes, and we like to participate. We like our videos to go viral. Curation is a system of collecting, organizing and presenting. Patterns have become more apparent and necessary.

As a poet writing on paper and an artist presenting in digital online environments, I consider the reading and writing exchange. I can best describe the web films I've worked on as innovative ways of reading. The projects arrive, and they depart in code. They are mobiles of text, sound, and image. I call them choreotextographies.

I look for metaphors of movement: flows of rivers, wind, and water, bird and animal migrations, human travel and migrations. Also I’m drawn to transformations—metamorphosis, organic growth and decay, alchemy. Creative work can demand this same process. People change residences, relationships, and/or activities in order to complete an artistic work. Even the language conveys how radical the process can be: one executes a piece of art or music. The verb means a successful rendering but also it carries a shadow of death. The old way of being dies, and a new one arrives. We become part of the artistic piece at the same time as separating from it. Every creative work is an act of change.

Artists court change. Virginia Woolf said, "...we can read ... with another aim, not to throw light on literature ... but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers." Writers are good readers. Readers are open to enchantment and meditation. Readers are thinkers and dreamers. In the exchange, there is a potential transmission of energy and breath and intimacy that extends beyond one's life.  

September 7, 2014

Drawing Longer Lines: Poets on Fiction

In poetry, the past juxtaposes with the present. They can easily occur simultaneously. The narrator is not a character; character is not important. Often a poet works on the level of language, the sound, rhythm and things in between. Words have denotations, connotations, and associations. A poet who writes fiction faces conventions about character, plot, setting, and dialogue. 

Traditional points of view are first person (I), second person (you), and third person (he or she). In my work, sometimes I need zero person – to omit the “I” or blur it. Rilke did this in his novel, the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and effectively illuminated need to depart from the self, or to place the self somewhere else—outside the work, and then completely inside of it. Other artists and writers have said the same thing. In order to fully create an artistic work, Dorothea Lange, the photographer, said one must annihilate the self.

Plot generally traces a chain of cause and effect, but sometimes this is too linear. Traditionally, it has been defined by conflict: man against man, against nature, against himself. One aspect deeply related to plot is verb tense. Without present and past tense, causality comes under question. This definition of plot has been problematic--my stories are not like that--and continually I reach for something else.

Other poets have faced this dilemma and have found solutions. W.H. Auden (a poet and librettist) wrote: "Drama is based on the mistake. All good drama has two movements, first the making of a mistake, then the discovery that it was a mistake."  Anne Carson defined metaphor simply as the mind making a mistake. In her definition, the mistake can be a marvelous one. Is the answer then to go deeply into mistakes?

After annihilating the self, can one construct another? Can one step from metaphor to metafiction? Can the forces of language carry into prose? In this essay, Fanny Howe finds a creative solution using form:
Increasingly my stories joined my poems in their methods of sequencing and counting. I would have to say that something like the wave and the particle theories troubled the poetics of my pages: how can two people be in two places simultaneously and is there any relationship between imagination and character?  
There is a Muslim prayer that says, "Lord, increase my bewilderment," and this prayer is also mine and the strange Whoever who goes under the name of "I" in my poems--and under multiple names in my fiction--where error, errancy and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story. …  
The circumnambulation takes form as alliteration, repetition, rhyme.  
 Q--the Quidam, the unknown one--or I, is turning in a circle and keeps passing herself on her way around, her former self, her later self, and the trace of this passage is marked by a rhyme, a coded message for "I have been here before, I will return". The same sound splays the sound-waves into a polyvalence, a daisy. A bloom is not a parade.    (To read more, go to  Bewilderment by Fanny Howe)
Sina Queyras uses line and stanza breaks in what is actually an essay, "Tightrope: Weighing Pound and Drawing the Line."  The title conveys her skill with language. She references the imagist Ezra Pound.
Writing that is discovering is reaching is tightrope walking.

Nature is not natural and if it is it is not nature.

Take the library to the street; bring the street to the archive.

Not the prayer, the moment before prayer.
She creates multiple meanings with the phrase "drawing the line." It conveys the need to set limits, and to make a mark. This level ambiguity takes effort. Once developed, ambiguity makes poets in prose more difficult. Queyras' economical and evocative statements are written so that poets can understand. In my experience, what one begins to write triggers another topic. The real topic emerges as you go. One must walk across ground shifting beneath the feet while a mountain is building. It takes strength, balance and momentum. Prayer is the conventional response to fear or danger. She brings attention to the moment before, where the actual story or drama resides, the fear or danger that one must write.

Poets who write fiction create interesting works. Queyras says, "Write who and how you know who you are and will" and "Create your own aesthetic."

September 2, 2014

August 26, 2014

Rilke: Poet as Novelist

Rilke's Point of View: I, You, and He

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was Rainer Maria Rilke's only novel. It was written while Rilke lived in Paris, and was published in 1910. Especially, I am captivated by his doubleness. He is both inside and outside himself, male and female, past and present, and seeing the world through his memory, and seeing memory as the world. Rilke accomplishes an interesting exploration of the writer's voice that is both the same and different than the person writing. His fluid use of pronouns--he is the I, and he is the you, and he is also the he; this expresses his vision of the artist. His work is novel in its structure, language and point of view, and it provides a fascinating exploration of the writer's process.

This begins with the moment he began to see. "I think that I should begin to do some work, now that I am learning to see." ...  The narrator Brigge struggles with his writing. A poem is not a feeling, he says, it is an experience. The poems should be written after one has lived a full life, experienced love and lost it, travelled, etc. This not the case for him, he says. His work does not measure up to the standards that he created. Not only that, he struggles with his vision. He sees cause for alarm on the street, in his apartment building, in his family, and in himself.