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: http://www.aallotarmusic.com/shows.html#!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.


January 11, 2015

Creative Work: The Gift Economy

Jonathan Lethem in the Ecstasy of Influence writes about influence, plagiarism, and open source culture. Art belongs to both the market economy and the gift economy.

Yet one of the more difficult things to comprehend is that the gift economies — like those that sustain open-source software — coexist so naturally with the market. It is precisely this doubleness in art practices that we must identify, ratify, and enshrine in our lives as participants in culture, either as “producers” or “consumers.” Art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — is received as a gift is received. Even if we’ve paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price. The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.

January 5, 2015

Metamorphosis: How to Make Individual Poems into a Book

How do you develop a poetry manuscript? A book of poems is at least 50 pages, and chapbooks are about 25-30 pages.  Every project has its own unique rules. Each poet finds a path unique to his or her writing voice; this path is key is the decisions in assembling a book.  This will be the topic of  a workshop I'll be leading in February. In order to meet the challenge, the poet must use larger metaphors.

It's helpful to consider advice from other poets. Susan Grimm has a book Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, a collection of essays by several poets that illuminates the individual method.  It's useful as a way to starting thinking about your own set of poems. When I read the essays, I was struck by how idiosyncratic was the process.

Order and Arrangements

Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press has published an essay, "On Making the Poetry Manuscript," encouraging poets to approach the poetry manuscript as a work of art.  In these questions, he formulate the artistic concept:
Where do you see common images developing? In what directions do your various threads lead? What seem to be your concerns as a poet during this period of creativity, and how do they seem to want to group. What sorts of discoveries are your poems making? The process of inclusion and ordering is organic, calculated, thoughtful, instinctual, unconscious, and a somewhat Zen. You need time to permit all of those matters and anti-matters to work upon you, and upon your poems.
Levine's suggestions are useful.  Because these are questions, the answers still emerge from the individual poet, which will ensure the writer's voice prevails.

On her blog, Lynn Pedersen writes:
For me, one of the most subtle aspects in this process is the arranging of poems so that they speak to one another. Like poems can be placed together or spread throughout the manuscript. Finding a way to maximize the energy and impact is key. I’ll finish with a summary from one of my writing professors, Nancy Eimers. “First or second or third person point of view, lyric or narrative, linear or nonlinear, autobiographical or historical, or a mingling of these within poems—these are things you can arrange so that they become not a cacophony but a conversation.”
Her focus on creating a conversation might be useful for writers. Dialogue is an open form, and it invites the reader. Alberto Riós suggests several organizational techniques, including a "last line / first line dialogue."  The poet can link the end of a poem with the beginning of the next.

April Ossman proposes a method of consideration she likens to the "helicopter" or three-dimensional perspective. One must see the poems individually and as a whole.  Seeing from a distance, or the three-dimensional, allows one to make decisions about the book as a whole.  In "Thinking Like an Editor: How to Order Your Manuscript" writes:
Ordering strategies I’ve used include creating a narrative line or arc (regardless of whether the poetry is narrative) and grouping or interweaving themes to create a sense of evolution or growth, proceeding toward a conclusion—not resolution. Another strategy is a lyric ordering, in which each poem is linked to the previous one, repeating a word, image, subject, or theme. This sometimes provides a continuation, sometimes a contrast or argument. Other times I follow one or several emotionally charged poems with one that provides comic or other relief; sometimes I work to vary (or interweave) the poetic styles, individual poem length, pace, tone, or emotion. Some orders build toward a narrative, emotional, or evolutionary climax or conclusion (a “Western ending”) and some end deliberately unresolved or ambiguous (an “Eastern ending”). Different poetic styles can benefit from different ordering considerations. A manuscript composed of poems that function in a deliberately nonnarrative fashion might best be ordered according to a strategy of collage, surprise, or juxtaposition—or by creating a faux narrative arc.
Other ordering considerations include whether to heighten or downplay the poet’s repetition of particular imagery, words, or subjects. If there are too many repetitions of a word or image, I generally recommend making some substitutions, and placing those poems at strategic intervals in the manuscript. This can create a subtle sense of obsession rather than a numbing one. I also alternate strong and less strong poems, and try to avoid having too many poems in a row on the same subject or theme, except where they indicate growth, contrast, or argument. I may order to heighten the importance and relevance of the manuscript’s title or leitmotif, or to create a greater sense of thematic unity. Generally my suggested order juggles most of these concerns at once, which is where that clear three-dimensional or helicopter view is most critical.
Overall, the suggestions here are similar and even overwhelming. Too much information? The main task at hand is to find a way to get some distance.

Change Roles

One must shift from being a maker of individual poems to being a composer for an orchestra of poetry.  Think orchestrate: sections, movements, instrumentation, timing.  To use another analogy, one must stop making widgets (parts) and start assembling the machine (the car).    

In order to get distance, I've used visual art, performance, teaching, and writing in other genres. I make drawings. In performances, I audition various poems and create a narrative. I research other works to gain insight into various poets' methods. I like to assemble favorite works into a constellation that influences my project.  I write about these influences in the effort to explore connections and make discoveries. I do "process writing" about the manuscript in process. I look for the question behind the work.  I dream. I walk. Once the shift in roles is made, then the artistic process continues at another level.

Apply More Metaphor

Muriel Rukeyser once referred to "the theater of a poem." I'm inclined to apply this concept to a book. Therefore, one can consider the backdrop, the drama, and the overarching motif or effect.  This will likely lead to revision and more development of certain parts.  Instead of the script writer, one shifts to become the director.

To use other analogies, one might consider one poem, a bird; the manuscript, a flock. One poem is a tree, and the manuscript is a forest.  One poem a house; the manuscript, a city.  One poem a church, the manuscript, a religion. Use the concept that works.

The word "meta" is very important. One must be considering "the form" more than at any other time during the writing process, the form as it relates to the content.  It's about the container.  One size does not fit all.  The container or shape must grow out of the needs of the contents and must fit the individual poet's voice.  Once one finds this concept, the individual poems undergo a metamorphosis.

More links:

If you are interested in the workshop, here's the workshop description:
Metamorphosis!  Feb 5, 12, 19, 27 at Lake Superior Writers conference room @ Marshall School in Duluth. 6:30 - 8:30 pm.  Workshop fee $65.  In this workshop, poet Sheila Packa will help participants explore ways to build chapbooks or manuscripts in a structured and encouraging environment.  If you have some poems or short stories, then this is the place to do something with them! Over four weeks, participants will do guided writing exercises to create sequences, strengthen the individual writing voice, find ways to arrange poems or stories, and discover the "meta-" force of your own writing.    
Experienced workshop leader Sheila Packa has four books of poems, edited an anthology of Lake Superior writers, and created narrative performances.  She has received Loft McKnight Fellowships (in poetry and prose), a Loft Mentor Award, and ARAC Fellowships. In 2013, she participated in the Creative Community Leadership Institute through Intermedia Arts.   For more detail, see www.sheilapacka.com and http://lakesuperiorwriters.org/

January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

The new writing has so many strands twisted together into one, fraying, and it is both brittle and strong. The story is a meditation on long forms: structure, repetition, standards, metaphor, and choreography. I attend to sections and lists and drift into the subliminal space of myth or silence. In poetry and prose, I seek to go behind the voice, or beyond, to place and movement or change. Here is it is a crossroads, here it is a cloud, here it is a tent.  

by Robert Frost

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all the ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe nought to any single cord,
But strictly held by none is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)