September 25, 2010

Synergy: Poems & Music & Film


water resists
breaks without breaking
flows along invisible scores
courses between continuous
ends, begins

doesn't resist
touches, touches, turns
over the same skin...." 

Click on the link to view a sample of collaborative work. In this piece, I have written and read the poems and Kathy McTavish has composed and performed the music on cello.  The video images are selected collaboratively; Kathy has made the film. 

Immersion: poetry on video

In performance or in video, my poems are often joined to music and image.  Poems are often created in silence and solitude, and sometimes they are created while listening to music.  My poems have strong images, and they are a painting with words.  The poems reflect my landscape of northern Minnesota and the body.  I use memoir, myth, and the patterns in nature to tell a story of change.  Yet it is not 'nature poetry.'  I tend not to write wisdom poems.  Not that those are bad, but they aren't what I'm after artistically.  I seek to evoke multiple meaning and in the interest of that, pare down the language and have rapid "turns." In the patterns of nature, migration, erosion, flood, storm, I find meaning that lends itself well to human experience.    A good poem is vivid and immediate.   I like the poem to be an investigation that breaks open emotion. I have no ready answers nor do I trust that there are any.

When Kathy McTavish and I perform together, we do not seek to illustrate the other's work.  Poems are made of figurative language; we love the imagination.  We strive to 'push off from each other' and present a sound that has a creative tension and dialectical meaning.  We begin, but the sounds are like two people in conversation who are not necessarily talking about the same thing. This technique makes a much more interesting dialogue and story.  It is improvisational.

In hand, I have more poems than I will read that I've arranged into an arc.  The individual poems are pieces of mosaic that create a larger story.   My choices in performance are spontaneous and in relation to the sound of the cello.   The cello sound that Kathy has developed is done by a technique that we call "deep listening."   Deep listening demands a concentration and being in the moment.    In the moment, the changes of intonation and color are responded to immediately.  We do not erect rigid barriers but are open to the subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes in the environment, the instrument, the voice, and the setting.  We have learned that relying on intuition is best.  

The voice of the cello and my own voice are similar.  We are doing a duet.  It means that we can flex and alter and shift and build on each other.   The video work that we create also seeks an independent flow.  We have learned that interpreting the words of the poem literally in video image also does not work well for our purposes.   It must evoke meaning, and continue to be able to provide new meaning.  Therefore the still motion images create an abstract expressionist painting in motion.  The film has gestures and movement and color, and by itself is a shifting and beautiful story that invites the viewer to participate.  There are glimpses of character in shadow or mirror or other oblique means. The viewer interprets the meaning.  This is the same for the poems and music.   

The still motion images are created by the use of DSLR camera, a Canon EO5.   Kathy has been exploring Bokeh effects.  It is an artistic technique initially used by some Japanese photographers who enjoyed the aesthetics of blur.    She comes to this work by way of music; in fact the images are created in the same way that she creates music in her studio.  Her echo pedal and harmonics perhaps are a musical expression of blur.  She likes the 'infinite between.'   She began using images in her search for techniques of writing scores.   The images evoke meaning; to her, they create a synesthesia and seem to have their own sounds.  

The creative work that occurs simultaneously in performance will draw more shades of meaning and energy in proximity.  We seek to share this synergy with the audience and are pleased to talk with people about their own 'invisible procession' of images that arise in their imagination while they listen to our performance.

Poetry works well with other media.  See this website for the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, Germany.

September 13, 2010

From Duluth's Poet Laureate: A Community Wide Poetry Assignment

Since becoming poet laureate of Duluth, I've been considering ways to invite the community to write poems.   Poems are marvelous little machines.   They are made of sound and image and if poems are good, they will touch you. This kind of touch is especially important during times of transition:  a loss or a death, a departure, a journey, a union like a marriage, a new job, new home, an illness, a recovery, a birth, a new beginning.   Poetry has so much to offer everybody.

So on this blog, I've decided to offer some writing prompts.  I've gathered three examples and invite you to write a poem that is structured like the example.    "Copying from the masters" is a good way to learn the craft of poetry.   But instead of recreating the master's work, make a parallel poem.  Try adapting one of the master's features to your own.  Make a poem with the same number of lines or stanzas.   Make a poem on a related topic.   Use language in a similar way.   Play with it 'fast and loose.'  In this way, you can use the master's poem as a scaffold of sorts to build your own poem.   

The following suggestions are drawn from the following poem examples.   When you begin writing, detach from the internal critic.   Avoid perfectionism.   Focus on details and the five senses.   Experiment, play, follow your instinct.   Make a first draft without much thought.  Save that for later.

Writing prompt:   Write a poem about a piece of clothing  
Writing prompt:  Write a list poem about something you've lost or found
Writing prompt:  Write about a first lesson

In this poem by Connie Wanek (from her book of poems, On Speaking Terms, Copper Canyon Press, c2010), Connie focuses on a rag, a sleeve of an old shirt, to express changes:


I dust with a sleeve I loved
to look at on my arm.
Blue is gray now, like a patch
of sky filthy with clouds.
Why is piano dust always so gray?
Something about sound waves
and day
that science could explain.

I didn't need scissors
the cotton was so rotted
by sun and sweat, the salt I made,
the sticky seawater.  I was glad
to actually wear something out,
to have seen one thing
completely through,
even though I'd miss
being the person who wore it.

Poetry has such an economy of words and yet conveys volumes.   This poem focuses on just one object, a dust rag that she'd made from a worn shirt.   The last line is so striking; one understands suddenly getting older.

In this poem, Elizabeth Bishop talks about loss.  It is from her book The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, LLC).

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names and where it was you meant
to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next to last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

This poem is a form called villanelle that features 3 line stanzas and repeated lines 1 and 3 from the first stanza.  It uses figurative language like many poems.    It starts out with simple losses but with each stanza, the loss becomes greater and deeper.   Bishop's tone is light and ironic, but she conveys the devastation.   Poems like these bring the reader gifts of solace and beauty.

Poems are gifts.  To receive a poem is an honor.   Consider writing a poem about a person, a place, or a thing in your life.   In the example by Connie Wanek, she shows us how writing about the sleeve of a shirt can reveal a life.   Wanek's poem is tightly focused.      In the example by Elizabeth Bishop, she creates a list.  Lists are very good ways to build a poem.  Bishop's losses were very important ones to her.  It is essential to write about what is important.  

This poem by Philip Booth (you can find it at is a memory that also becomes a blessing:

First Lesson

Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

This poem concentrates on the details of learning to swim.   Booth does allow the poem to open up, past the particular day of the swimming lesson, but he remains in the metaphor of swimming.  Metaphors allow the writer/poet a longer reach.  Booth is talking about swimming, but we all know he is talking about life as well.

I invite you to try these exercises and share your work with others.