April 17, 2014

A Call to Action: Wake Up and Be Creative

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, calls artists to help people find a story that reflects not dominion over nature but a story that reflects we are not separate. Paul Kingsnorth and the others of this project hope to break through denial and help people respond to the irreversible changes that climate change has already caused. The core of this plan is to do that through art and storytelling. The NYTimes recently published an article about Kingsnorth, but unfortunately, they portrayed the Dark Mountain project as a fringe group that conducts strange rituals; actually they were merely employing theater art.  Theater is powerful, even transformative. As for the New York Times, I'd reply, "In much Madness is divinest Sense," to quote a poem by Emily Dickinson.

I suggest that everybody read the Manifesto for themselves. It acknowledges a fact--civilization is fragile and easily disrupted. Kingsnorth has a new novel that explores the dystopian universe in 1066, the Norman invasion of England. Many citizens were murdered, and some fled into the wilderness in order to survive. His novel explores the aftermath of such an event. The book employed what Kingsnorth called a shadow language,  a blend Old and Middle English.  "How moste i lif?" a character asks a deer, who answers; "thu moste be triewe that is all there is."  Rather sound advice, I believe. Kingsnorth critiques our culture's tendency to believe in endless progress (industrial and technological) and think that we can control the environment. It's folly, he thinks. We would be better off to recognize the reality and live differently. This is an excerpt from the manifesto:

"So we find ourselves, our ways of telling unbalanced, trapped inside a runaway narrative, headed for the worst kind of encounter with reality. In such a moment, writers, artists, poets and storytellers of all kinds have a critical role to play. Creativity remains the most uncontrollable of human forces: without it, the project of civilisation is inconceivable, yet no part of life remains so untamed and undomesticated. Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history. Their makers shape the stories people carry through their lives, unearth old ones and breathe them back to life, add new twists, point to unexpected endings. It is time to pick up the threads and make the stories new, as they must always be made new, starting from where we are."
The Manifesto further says: "Keyboards should be tapped by those with soil under their fingernails and wilderness in their heads."  One of the great blessings of living in northern Minnesota is that we have wilderness, and we have people who do work with their hands. We have the opportunity to lead with creativity.  

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. 2009.  Retrieved 17 April 2014. Web. http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/

Daniel Smith, "It's the End of the World As We Know It...and He Feels Fine." New York Times. April 17, 2014.  Retrieved 17 April 2014.  Web.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/magazine/its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-he-feels-fine.html?hpw&rref=magazine

April 13, 2014

Webs: Transmedia and Poetry

Today, a group of artists gathered at the Prøve Gallery in Duluth to talk with Kathy McTavish about her recent transmedia or net-art exhibit that is on display in the gallery this month. She did a workshop and Q&A about the art, transmedia story-telling, new technologies, and the web.  This post reflects the day's conversations and the participants' next steps. I've included some useful links at the end of this article.  

At the art opening last Friday, I was one of the writers who could "input" text into the film generator.  Her art was the "origin of birds." This posting is about my experience with it, a meditation on the "origin of words." Entering words was addictive. My text was not the only text on the wall-- the generator was randomly combining live twitter feed, climate reports, data, and other phrases. A few other poets were entering phrases as well.  The effect was similar to spraying graffiti on a wall, only to have it drift away and be replaced by other graffiti.

On my computer, at her web-page, whatever I entered in the text box would appear in the projection on the walls. This was new! wild! Generally as a writer, I do my work in solitude at my desk.  In the film, the text was performing live. It was me performing live, actually, but because I was at a table in the corner, I was not visibly part of the exhibit. My words appeared whenever I pressed 'enter.'  I noticed interesting juxtapositions and flows. I had surprises and sudden flashes of inspiration.  It occurred to music (her compositions in cello were also part of the film).

Sometimes, I'd share my text box with friends. Cecilia Ramón sat down at my computer and translated the text she watched on the projection into Spanish for our viewing pleasure. The other designated poets showed some of their friends how to access the text entry point, so a number of people were participating at the same time. Some of the writing sparked material I intend to go back to when I'm at my desk. Some was silly or forgettable. It cascaded or even precipitated on the screen, like the live tweets.  My writing evaporated (much like the way that 'too much information' is ignored or disregarded in other settings). I did walk away with the appreciation of how poetry, with its concentrated form and powerful image and sound elements, makes an ideal text for video work.  

Kathy McTavish's work was an exploration of climate change, the effect of overwhelming news and data, and the individual walking through the world. In addition, the software she created suggested new ways to combine multiple elements. I went to her workshop because I'm interested in finding ways to take my poems and stories off the page and into new media.  

The web, of course, applies to the world wide web but the term also offers an image for the artist or storyteller.  A spider's web is circular with many connections.  Web art or story-telling similarly presents a nonlinear form with many entry points and multiple connections. It might be participatory.  Henry Jenkins defines transmedia as "the art of telling one story over multiple media, where each medium is making a unique contribution to the whole."  I found Henry's blog (he is an expert in transmedia) with a lot of fascinating interviews, ideas, and links. 

In the workshop, we discussed her work and some examples of i-documentaries. Kathy had an interesting phrase about some of the work by other artists as having "a hole in the center." Especially artists who are writing about or creating work about trauma or atrocity, the hole in the center could contain the unsaid, the unspoken or the disappeared. I understood how the image of web or circle can offer a useful format for many uses. Kathy also talked about semantic webs, CSS3, HTML5, and Javascript as tools.  

Other artists at the workshop: a musician, a visual artist, a digital media artist, a fiber artist, three poets. We decided to meet with our own work next time. We launched a research institute.  Each of us will create a web aspect of our own work over the next few weeks.  Individually, we will spend an hour with "The Hour of Code" or go online to the "Code Academy." We will each find a example of a transmedia project that inspires us or we might emulate.  Next week when we gather we will bring our concept.  Kathy will help us take it into a transmedia form, social media formats, or code. Individually, each of us will walk away with a web component for art.

Because my book of poems, Night Train Red Dust is forthcoming from Wildwood River Press, I am thinking about women's stories and the five noteworthy women from the past (1900-1930) that I told stories about in my book: Mary Bray, MD; Viola Turpeinen, musician; Rev. Milma Lappala, Unitarian minister; Meridel LeSueur, journalist and writer; and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, union organizer for the Wobblies, and my grandmothers.  These women have inspired me and deserve greater attention for their contributions.  So I thought about an i-documentary or a video story about these women. I look forward to seeing the work that emerges from our group.  Stay tuned! And thank you Kathy!

Here are some useful links:

Learn How to Code - (it's easier than you think!)
The Code Academy: http://www.codecademy.com/
An Hour of Code: http://csedweek.org/learn

For more information about Kathy McTavish
her Origin of Birds workshop:  http://originofbirds.blueboatfilms.com/workshopnotes.html
her website: www.cellodreams.com
Note - she will be available as a trainer or consultant. Contact her through her website.

For more information about Henry James (transmedia expert):

Examples of interesting transmedia work:
Tiffany Schlain, "From Neurons to Networks."  (10 minutes):
YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLp-edwiGUU
National Film Board of Canada https://www.nfb.ca/
Waterlife:  http://waterlife.nfb.ca/#/

April 2, 2014

The Blog Tour: Welcome!

What am I working on?

Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range: stories of women’s, labor, immigrant and mining on the Iron Range in Minnesota. Forthcoming June 2014 from Wildwood River Press.

Love on the Iron Range: Liz, the main character, grows up on the Iron Range to work in a taconite mine and later, become a musician. This novel is structured with twelve linked stories (daughter, sister, mother) based on Minnesota’s Iron Range and its immigrant, women’s and labor history. Several motifs or images of engagement, rings, wedding dresses, birds, water-life, and naming connect the stories. The narrator’s names are various, and the structure of the narrative is musical.

Recent Collaborations: “Migrations:” A collaboration with Finnish composer Ollie Ortekangas who has been commissioned to create music for Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra. We also plan to work together on an opera. A collaboration with media artist and composer Kathy McTavish around her net - art installation “origin of birds.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I am from the Iron Range. It has geologic layers and friction between the natural and industrial. I excavate. There are fractures. Glimpses at objects often open up other perspectives and histories. I work out of certain tensions and silences. I search for structures instilled by my landscape: rivers, forests, and shorelines. I believe there is a connection between women and birds.

Because I grew up in two languages, I am influenced by the rhythms and culture of Finland, and also its modernism. Traditional forms in poetry do not appeal to me. I believe that writing is a physical art, that it must find ways to enter the body. Good art must “break something open.” 

In my fiction, the narrators have odd perceptual experiences. I explore obsessions. I discover that certain motifs or objects appear in different stories and they become visual languages. It happens subconsciously. My poems in Night Train Red Dust are driven. They are fast moving trains or rivers.  Previous books of poems:   The Mother Tongue poems are about growing up on the Iron Range and mother/daughters. Echo & Lightning explores bird migration as a language of women's intersections with the divine.  Cloud Birds explores women walking through violence and a story of immigration.    
Why do I write what I do?

Does any writer get to choose the material? I believe this is given. We can either accept it or reject it. Certain things haunt me: images, phrases, absences, and I write about them. I write about my dreams, I find patterns and I read a lot. 

How does your writing process work?

The process is always changing.  Each project has a new set of rules that I need to discover. It’s my job to follow and learn.  Carl Jung wrote “…a work of art is not transmitted or derived - it is a creative reorganization…. One might almost describe it as a living being that uses man only as a nutrient medium, employing his capacities according to its own laws and shaping itself to the fulfillment of its own creative purpose.” In some ways, this is alarming idea, but I do think that creative work does take a life of its own. It's wise to learn to nurture this plant and make it beautiful.

My process works best if I have more than one project going, because then if one needs time or I if reach an obstacle, then I can work on the other. Somehow they cross-pollinate. Sometimes I will take what I wrote in a poem and try to create a story from it or I will create a character based on favorite authors and add them to my fictions. I experiment and find what works the best. I like to wander through archives, scan microfiche newspaper files, and surf the internet. I fall into rabbit holes. I feel a personal mission to write women’s stories in order to honor and make those stories stronger. I am inspired by many great writers.

Other Blogs and Twitter Accounts
Thank you to Anne Higgins for inviting me into the Writer's Process Blog Tour

Here are some links to interesting writers who should get more attention:
 Kathleen Roberts, poet: https://twitter.com/sirenblaring
I recommend the poets Kirstin Dierking http://kkd.dierking.mobi/home and Diane Jarvi: http://dianejarvi.com
see what Kyle Elden has up on her "Grace Intoxicated" Blog:  http://graceintoxicated.blogspot.com/
and Kim Sisto Robinson: http://myinnerchick.com/

March 26, 2014

Origin of Birds: Circles Within Circles

A new net-art installation will be at the Prøve Gallery in Duluth. The opening is on April 11 at 7 pm with live music by the Cosmic Pit Orchestra.  "The Origin of Birds" is created by Kathy McTavish: it features her new film generator, text, and music. For more information: http://originofbirds.blueboatfilms.com/  and and http://www.provegallery.com/

In the creation stories, both the bird and its egg arrived before the earth was made. According to an ancient Greek story, the god χάος (Chaos) was the first to emerge at the creation of the universe. Soon after her came Gaia (Earth), Tartaros (the Underworld) and Eros (Love). In many versions, Chaos then gave birth to the Birds. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God created birds of on the fifth day of creation.  

In the creation story of the Kalevala, in the beginning when the universe is only sky and water, a bird flies over the ocean looking for a place to build her nest. Ilmatar, the spirit of the air, has been swimming in the ocean because she had become bored in the sky. In addition, the wind or waves have made her pregnant. She has been pregnant for a long, long time. The bird —perhaps a Common Pochard, a medium sized duck known for its diving—needs a place to build a nest.  In order to help, Ilmatar raises her knee and shoulders above the surface of the water. The duck mistakes her for an island and builds a nest. When the duck broods upon the nest, the heat becomes so intense that Ilmatar can’t help but twitch her knee and this upsets the nest, and the eggs break. Here is an excerpt from the Kalevala Runo 1:  

            In the sand they do not perish,
            Not the pieces in the ocean;
            But transformed, in wondrous beauty
  All the fragments come together
  Forming pieces two in number,
  One the upper, one the lower,
  Equal to the one, the other.
  From one half the egg, the lower,
  Grows the nether vault of Terra:
  From the upper half remaining,
  Grows the upper vault of Heaven;
  From the white part come the moonbeams,
  From the yellow part the sunshine,
  From the motley part the starlight,
  From the dark part grows the cloudage;

After the fragments transform into earth and sun and sky, Ilmatar begins to shape the earth beneath her feet as if it were clay. She forms the rocks, reefs and deep parts of the ocean. She makes the shores and headlands and forest pillars of the sky.  After this work, finally her labor begins and she gives birth to an old man, a magic singer named Vainamoinen. This story was in the north.

Farther south, I found another creation story involving a bird and an egg.  In the Slavic story Песни птицы Гамаюн, The Song of the Bird Gamayun, creation begins with a golden egg.  Inside this egg was the supreme God, the parent of all life on earth, from his body comes the sun, moon, stars and earth. However, the earth sinks beneath the surface of the ocean and cannot be found. The Supreme God sends a duck to search for it. Three times she attempted this.  The first trip took a year, and she came back with nothing. The second trip took two years, and still nothing.  But after the third trip, which took three years, she came back with a branch from the earth. The supreme God rubs the branch inside his palms with an invocation. The wind blew and the branch fell into the ocean, and the sun shone, heating the water.  As the ocean evaporated the earth emerged and the moon cooled it off.

In these stories of lost and found, the earth is formed. In the first story, the eggs break accidentally. In the second story, the egg follows the normal course of development. A circle inside a circle forms the egg, two lines without beginning and end, but both breaking.

There is another circular story in our cultural history, the Buddhist tale of karma. The word karma means action, the sum of actions in a person’s life (and past lives) and the results. In other words, what goes around, comes around:  

Once there was a bhiksu [monk] who lived in the mountains and practiced sitting Zen. Every day at his noon meal he would give some of his food to the birds. The birds, therefore, always flocked around him. One day after the bhiksu finished his meal, he cleaned his teeth, washed his hands and picked up a pebble to toss. There was a bird on the other side of the fence where the bhiksu could not see him. When the bhiksu threw the pebble, it hit the bird in the head and killed it. That bird was reborn as a boar, which lived on the same mountain. One day the boar happened to climb a ledge above the bhiksu's hermitage and dislodged a boulder while grubbing for food. The boulder fell down and killed the bhiksu. The boar intended no harm. The boulder killed by itself.

The circles are linked vertically and horizontally. One circle, that of a person’s life from birth to death begins again at rebirth. The actions within this circle impact the lives of others. The intentional or unintentional action both circle into the world. According the Buddhist tale, “Doing good and setting one's sights on bodhi [enlightenment] is the behavior of one whose heart is awakened.” This tale shows that what comes first is not as important as what comes next.  


Buddhist Karma Tales.  See this website: http://www.floweringofgoodness.org/buddhist-scriptures-41.php

Lönnrot, Elias, compiler.  The Kalevala: or Poems of the Kaleva District. Translated by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr.  Harvard University Press.  Print c1963.  Another version is available as a free e-book from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5186.

Songs of the Bird Gamayan.  Slavic Creation Story.  Information available at http://russophilia.wordpress.com/2008/09/12/slavic-creation-myth-translated-from-songs-of-the-bird-gamayun/

March 25, 2014

Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range

"I excavate these words from a vein of iron….” these poems are “test drills and core samples” — a weave of memory, archive, dream, song, story — drawn from the history and people of the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. These pages sound the whistles and roar of the mines, the dust in the lungs, the dangerous crossings into a new language, the accordion’s
breath. Culled from violence and tenderness, bone and ash, ore and light, they map a place, a time, a journey through love.”

Pamela Mittlefehldt, PhD and co-editor
The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home
Holy Cow! Press


Wildwood River Press announces the May 2014 publication of Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range.  ISBN: 978-0-9843777-7-0  Available at bookstores. 

This collection of poems draws from the rich geologic, mining, Native, immigrant, and women's stories on the Iron Range. The book has two sections, Track I: Night Train and Track II: Red Dust. Night Train is a narrative about travel and immigration. Red Dust is about derailments--of many kinds including labor strikes, cancer, violence, accidents, and relationship splits. 

The book uncovers and excavates layers. It asks the questions: are we using everything until it's gone? taking from another body?  The characters in these stories are metamorphosing, dealing with overburden, effluence, and tailings. The walk on the Divide, like the Laurentian Divide, and they are rivers flowing in opposite directions. The stories reflect the lives of the people who built this community: Mary Bassett Bray, MD; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, union organizer; women miners in WWII; Meridel LeSueur, writer; Rev. Milma Lappala, Unitarian minister; Viola Turpeinen, accordionist. This is a working class story of the midwives, farmers, miners, immigrants, and many others with iron in their veins. 

The Iron Range is economically supported by and environmentally damaged by mining.The poems provide strong images of the beautiful landscape of open pit mines and ore dumps, the Boundary Waters, and the wildlife. My grandparents arrived here because of the employment opportunities: one grandfather was a lumberman, and many relatives worked in the mines. My aunts worked in the iron mines during World War II, in the war effort. I have tried to present the music and the frictions of the Iron Range. 

The poems are inspired by family stories and the rich archives of the Iron Range Research Center and the Minnesota Historical Society.This project began when I started to look for information about my grandmothers. In the archives, I found many stories of women who deserve to have their memories preserved. This book reflects the community where I grew up, and the place where my grandparents built homesteads. 

KUMD Radio feature:  poems from the book: (audio file): http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/kumd/.artsmain/article/17/392/1955818/Women's.Words/Women's.Words.September.22..2013.Sheila.Packa

Poetry video: http://vimeo.com/wildwoodriver/bonfireofroses

Sample poem

Vermilion Trail

I am leaving
the Mesabi Iron Range
on the same trail
that a gold prospector
came in on,
with a compass gone awry
and red dust on my boots.
Me, the daughter
of a cat skinner
born on the Divide.
I can say we got by.
In my pocket
is the copper penny

Collaboration: Cello & Poetry - Echo & Lightning

PlayList - Sheila Packa - Migrations

Read a review of Migrations in Culturology at PRX

February 20, 2014

Willa Cather: Poetry vs Prose

Willa Cather published poetry when she was young, although she is known for her later short stories and novels. Her poems seem to sink under the heavy weight of meter and rhyme, but still they reveal the world from which she drew her art:  

Prairie Spring
by Willa Cather

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

Her material was better served by prose. The poetry seems dated, but not her prose.  This excerpt from My Ántonio
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
These few sentences convey much more. The poem seems static and this is alive and in motion. Willa Cather, in “The Art of Fiction,” wrote: 
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—  ....Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there  is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture. 
She admired poetry by Sappho, and she focused attention on the music in her poems. But the music she imposed does not seem to fit with the music of the prairie. Perhaps each landscape holds a sound that the writer must hold true on the page. For her, it could be achieved from shifting genres. It allowed her to simplify and to detach from the old forms in order to articulate her own vision.  

Cather also has some very well written essays. In 1925, in an essay about writing, Cather said:  
The struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates a strain that keeps everybody at the breaking point...Even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe...and underneath, another-secret and passionate and intense-which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends.  Always in his mind each member [of the family] is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven around him....One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of life: every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. 
Her life experience on the prairie, before she was fifteen, is the material of her novels. She lived primarily in urban settings throughout her life. My Ántonio and Death Comes to the Archbishop focus on characters who are Catholic. Jewell and Stout correct the assumptions that readers have:  
Raised as a Baptist, Cather later became Episcopalian, but had two of her greatest successes with books so steeped in Catholicism that readers thought she was a Catholic. In fact, in a letter written from Pittsburgh in August 1896, she told a friend, "There is no God but one God and Art is his revealer; that’s my creed and I'll follow it to the end, to a hotter place than Pittsburgh if need be."
She worked as a journalist and continued to write poetry all of her life in addition to doing the fine work for which she is celebrated.

Cather, Willa. "Prairie Spring." This poem is in the public domain.

Jewell, Andrew and April Stout.  "Ten Things You Probably Didn't Know about Willa Cather."  Publisher's Weekly.  April 19, 2013. Retrieved 20 February 2014.  Web.  http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/56879-10-things-you-probably-didn-t-know-about-willa-cather.html 
Jewell, Andrew. The Willa Cather Archive. U of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2004-2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. http://cather.unl.edu/index.wcse.html

February 4, 2014

Thunder of New Wings

Often, I'm attuned to poetry's forms, but this essay considers its earlier stages, even of formlessness. It is difficult to separate the elements of writing that writers use. Vision, voice, and technique are interlocked, and the whole seems to exceed the sum of its parts. Lao Tze wrote:
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other:
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
He says what cannot be spoken. It is the province of poetry to express the inexpressible. In exploring ways that "the spirit" can intersect with poetry, I wanted to bring together some thoughts about making new work. It is a creation story, somewhat abstracted, of the way that writers create objects made of language.     

In poetry, before the voice arrives, we attune to the world with our ears. Our ear gives us a sense wonder and awakens us. Our ear gives us the vowel sounds and cadences of the language we are born into, and we feel its rhythms in our body, listening comes before speech. The ear can pick up a tune. It is our ear that leads. A poem listens. Listen, a poem, 
titled "Beginning" by James Wright: 
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.   
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
There they are, the moon's young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

"Be still./ Now."  Attentive to the moment, Wright invites the reader to do the same. In the magic of the night, between no sound and sound, James Wright gives the reader nocturnal stirrings and glimpses of the luminous. I trust this poem. The world is an alive being. It listens to the beginnings of things, to the places where darkness is separated from light, to creation. 

In Wright's poem, action and the figurative occur in the first words. This is also true of the next poem. The poet Joy Harjo uses creation stories of her Native culture alongside her narratives of people caught in the struggle between darkness and light.
At dawn the panther of the heavens peers over the edge of the world.
She hears the stars gossip with the sun, sees the moon washing her lean
darkness with water electrified by prayers. All over the world there are those
who can't sleep, those who never awaken.

My granddaughter sleeps on the breast of her mother with milk on
her mouth. A fly contemplates the sweetness of lactose.

Her father is wrapped in the blanket of nightmares. For safety he
approaches the red hills near Thoreau. They recognize him and sing for

Her mother has business in the house of chaos. She is a prophet dis-
guised as a young mother who is looking for a job. She appears at the
door of my dreams and we put the house back together.
The narrator at the beginning of the poem is ambiguous, the poem story begins with myth: "the panther of heaven peers over the edge of the world/ She hears the stars gossip...." The sense of hearing is invoked. The mythic also has human characteristics. 

The poet brings together "those who can't sleep and those who never awaken." Two negations are conjunct, those who want to sleep can't sleep are juxtaposed with those who want to stay asleep. In the next stanza, the story's perspective emerges with the word "my." In figurative language, in metaphor, and in the actual, the awake world is indistinguishable from the world of dreaming. The poet has a two-fold consciousness. We walk in two worlds. In Joy Harjo's poetry, in her vision, action is not separate from creation and myth. 

Both of the previous poems focus "in the beginning." They invoke all beginnings. Perhaps all writers must separate darkness and light, and establish a world complete with conflicts and correspondences in their stories and songs. The creation stories, the sacred texts, the writings of mystics reveal light, illuminations, enlightenment, awakenings. These stories and texts and writings are mirrors, each capturing a glimpse of light, shadow, and the writer. 

There are no rules. Form rises from the material and comes intuitively. Formlessness is perpetual, it is the ocean of impulses, false starts, wrong directions, and abandoned ideas. I came to The Mirror of Simple Souls, the writing of a 12th century mystic, by way of Anne Carson. Her book Decreation explores the undoing of form in several ways (the word decreation, from Simone Weil, means the undoing of the creature inside us, or the self). I do not mean to intepret Porete's theology or even her experience, living in a different world and a different time. Her work passed into other's hands, and they made translations.

The Mirror of Simple Souls is a difficult but remarkable text, brilliant. "FarNear" was Porete's word for God. It's paradoxical and relates to proximity. In her book, an allegory of the seven steps on the "steep staircase" to God, Porete separated the concepts of self and soul, and she sought a state of "not-willing"--giving up desiring. 

This concept is not new in spiritual writing. But for the first time, I've seen writing through this lens, and it has resonance for me. There are some things that require a new language. The self, in art-making, can become an obstacle or a boundary that needs to be crossed. Maybe this is because preconceived ideas interfere with the process of bringing forth new work. One can't impose external structures on emerging work, but simply listen to it.  

In Porete's allegory,the characters are Love, the Soul, and Reason (and a few intervening: Pure Courtesy and Discretion)--all of whom she has given voice. Perhaps all writers carry on a negotiation between these elements and need to consider the undoing of form to reach the core of the work. Porete's metaphor was one of lovers: the soul and God. By "not willing," she could lose the self which was an obstacle to her quest for God. The river loses its name when it joins the sea, she said:
"This soul," says Love, "swims in the sea of joy, that is, in the sea of delights, streaming of divine influences. She feels no joy, for she herself is joy. She swims and drenches in joy, for she lives in joy without feeling any joy. So is joy in her, that she herself is joy, by the virtue of joy that has merged her in Him. And so is the will of the Loved and the will of this soul turned into one as fire and flame." 
This small passage from her long manuscript represents a moment of complete absorption, a flow experience. In her longing for the "thunder of new wings," she climbed the steep staircase she described, the seven "estates." She paid with her life for this pursuit, but her words, after centuries, remain. 

Another writing comes to mind: Rumi:

Why, when God's world is so big,
did you fall asleep in a prison
of all places?

This suggests that we need to dismantle the ideas we have about everything. I like the tone, the affection in consternation. My thoughts are still unformed, and perhaps this is appropriate. In formlessness, all is possibility. 

Image:  Pottery by Gladys Koski Holmes, Minnesota, 1995.  

Harjo, Joy. "Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace." The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1996. Print and Web (Poetry Foundation): http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177196

Lao Tze. Retrieved 4 February 2014. Web. http://www.iging.com/laotse/LaotseE.htm#1

Porete, Marguerite. The Mirror of Simple Souls. Retrieved 4 February 2014. Web sources:
http://www2.kenyon.edu/projects/margin/porete8.htm and

Wright, James. "Beginnings." The Poetry Foundation. 2014. Retrieved 4 February 2014. Web. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177231