December 30, 2010

Ecstatic Poetry

What is ecstatic poetry?  For examples of ecstatic poetry, I can name names:  Rumi, Kabir, Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rilke, Rimbaud, Ginsberg.  It is poetry that is visionary, reveals spiritual wisdom, crosses beyond ordinary boundaries.  The self dissolves.  The poem is a ladder that the reader climbs.  The poem is a lightning bolt.   

Rilke's poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," ( is an ekphrastic poem, a response to visual art.  The poem grasps not just the art but the god in a sudden flash of beauty.   I consider it an ecstatic poem; at the end, Rilke writes in the final line:  "You must change your life."

In a brilliant flash of light, ecstatic experience changes you.  This is often described as an awakening, like in this Rumi poem (translated by Coleman Barks)

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.

Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.

Don't go back to sleep.

An ecstatic poem, in my opinion, is an intersection with the divine.  Falling in love is ecstatic; one's vision expands. The poet Anne Carson has an interesting essay about women and ecstatic experience in her book, Decreation.  The essay can be found online at this web address:

This essay was pivotal for me while I was revising the ecstatic poems in Echo and Lightning.   In the poems of Sappho, and in the writings of a 13th century female mystic, and in the writing of Simone Weil, Carson examines the 'dissolving of the self.'    I believe it is the point of profound change for an individual, to leave oneself is to let go of the past, to let go of an investment in one's identity, to let go of attempts at control and enter the present moment.

The ecstatic is best expressed in poetry.  Poetry has its roots in religious ritual; poetry has the immediacy, metaphoric capacity, and compression that best creates the divine flash.

The poet Federico Garcia Lorca gave a lecture about the Duende, a dark spirit that he called before each poetry reading.  It was a spirit close to death and sexuality, he explained, that infused his work with power and beauty. Poetry that can evoke the power of the gods is ecstatic poetry.  To read his lecture, click on this link or paste it in your browser:

Other resources:
  • Women In Praise of the Sacred, edited by Jane Hirschfield (Harper Perennial)
  • Holy Fire - Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment, edited by Daniel Halpern (Harper Perennial)
  • News of the Universe Poems of Twofold Consciousness, chosen and introduced by Robert Bly (Sierra Books)
  • How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch, Harcourt Press

December 29, 2010

New Work

It's a double-edged sword, seeing one's work into print. Simultaneously, the writer must embrace the text with clarity and purpose to achieve the best re-vision (after all, once published, the work enters a fixed state) and also, at the point of the greatest obsession with detail, let go of it.

Putting a manuscript of poems together is a process unique to each writer. It begins for me in disorganization. Because I reside in individual poems that I write, in order to see the poems as a group, I must pull myself up to achieve and see them in a larger perspective. Not easy. I start by sorting the poems into sets and build sequences. This takes time. It does help that I do regular performance, and each time, must create a set list with a beginning, middle and end. The practice of creating a larger story begins in performance, definitely. The poems are like pieces of a mosaic that I've found will create different stories depending on how they are arranged.

I should add a lot of work happened on a subconscious level.  I'm often working with dream images, and follow an image in and through collaborative projects, visual art, other poets' work.  I write a lot.  I write to process my life experience and to develop my imagination.   In a relationship break-up, I was thinking about "don't look back" and I wrote the poem, "Salt," about me and Lot's Wife.   It is only later that I connect my own poems of experience and imagination with mythic stories.     

The new book, Echo and Lightning, came together out of three well developed sequences. The first was a set of love poems I had called "Fearful Journey." The title is from a poem, "Blindfold." It was an erotic poem exploring Hildegard Bingen's concept of erotic justice, published in The Mother Tongue. This poem was triggered by an invitation to participate in an art exhibit at Northern Prints Gallery. The gallery owner and printmaker Cecelia Lieder, who later published my collection of poems The Mother Tongue, invited me to write poems for this theme. After some contemplation, I realized that the image of blindfold was appropriate for both justice and erotic.  While writing, I begin in image and follow it.    This sequence of poems became the last section of the book.  

The first section of the book is concerned with ecstatic experience, intersection with the divine, cleaving.  Cataclysmic grief and joy.   The set begins in migration and follows the image of flight into the story of Zeus (in the form of the swan) and Leda.  These poems were written over a period of a few years.  I was curious about mystical stories.  I'd found the Gnostic text, Thunder, Perfect Mind.  As a piece of writing, it was electric:  a female God, the intense combination of opposites.   I began contemplating the stories of myth and the Bible: Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lot's Wife.  Each story involved a woman's intersection with the divine.  What happened to her, what did she give up? Because I'd been reading the cosmic story for a solstice celebration, the story of the universe, I was thinking about the origin of the universe, simultaneous creation and destruction.   Finally, the poems followed a sequence of ascension.

The poems in the mid-section of the book I'd recorded on an audio cd with Kathy McTavish.   I called the set "Undertow" because the poems were underwater, submerged.  It was all subconscious.  Curious to me, at first, but then they made sense.  I realized these underwater images fit well after the sequence of ascension. It was the form of a wave, climbing and falling. That overall image was important to the book.  One doesn't have ascension without descent.

It was a stroke of luck to find the book's cover image, a painting called "Dawn" by my friend from Argentina, Cecilia Ramon.   The image perfectly expresses the themes of migration, love, ecstasy, and undertow.

Now, that book is out. I'm working on a new one, Cloud Birds, that will be out in 2011. This one is now under intense scrutiny as I proofread, re-vision, and develop its final form.  Once new work is at this stage, it's time to look ahead to the next project.

I'm generating new poems, playing really.  I am focused, but one must also take writing lightly as new work starts to percolate.  I'm curious and not too attached. I started a twitter account, and have been using it to assign writing prompts.  It's a personal challenge to make an assignment for others and then follow the assignment myself.   All teachers should take up this practice in order to stay humble.  I like to be entering unknown territory, to be exploring images from experience and dream and artistic works I encounter, to discover ways to tap the subconscious mind.   Writing isn't just what I do, it's how I live.

December 9, 2010

The Dragon: Agnes Martin

Creative work can be satisfying, but most often it puts you in touch with the feeling of inadequacy.  In fact, most writers will tell you that they love "having written."  Afterward.  Writing usually presents the challenges of what some people have termed "monkey mind."   The mind offers up all sorts of anxieties, fears, distractions, and difficulty.  The self is one of the great obstacles in writing. 

The visual artist Agnes Martin addressed the feeling of failure in her book Writings (c2005 Hatje Cantz).  The following is from a lecture, "On the Perfection Underlying Life," delivered to art students:     

"Why do we go everywhere searching out works of art and why do we make works of art. The answer is that we are inspired to do some certain thing and we do do it. The difficulty lies in the fact that it may turn out well or it may not turn out well. If it turns out well, we have a tendency to think that we have successfully followed our inspiration and if it does not turn out well, we have a tendency to think that we have lost our inspiration. But that is not true. There is successful work and work that fails but all of it is inspired. I will speak later about successful works of art, but here I want to speak of failures. Failures that should be discarded and completely cut off.
"I have come especially to talk to those among you who recognize these failures. I want particularly to talk to those who recognize all of their failures and feel inadequate and defeated, to those who feel insufficient--short of what is expected or needed. I would like to explain that these feelings are the natural state of mind of the artist, that a sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work." 

In other words, embrace the feeling of inadequacy, defeat and failure and do your work anyway.   
The discipline of work allows one to continue despite the feeling of failure.  She recommends the Chinese sage Chuang Tau's concept of "free and easy wandering."   No attachment.  Let yourself wander. Along with this, she recommends solitude and acknowledges that in solitude one encounters both fear and a self-destructiveness she refers to as "the Dragon."   As an artist, one must strive to become independent of judgment and familiar with the "ways of the Dragon." 

Self knowledge is valuable.  If you know how you subvert your own process or create obstacles for success, you will more likely be able to overcome the destructiveness. Agnes Martin didn't think it was possible to actually slay the Dragon.  For her, it was more a matter of working while it slept.

Talking to other artists and writers will provide encouragement and support.  Also, I learned a good maxim from a writing teacher, Carolyn Forche.  She said, "Whatever gets in the way of your work becomes your work."  In other words, if you find something interfering, then write about that.  It is perhaps one of your important subjects. 

Practice open-mindedness. Maybe you want to write about x, y or z but whenever you sit down, you start writing something else. My advice:  go with it!  Learn to honor the resistance and accept what comes.  Artists and writers often believe that we have very little choice when it comes to our material.  It is given.  Craft and skill come in during the development and final draft.   

Samuel Beckett said: "To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail... failure is his world and to shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living.... "    Like Agnes Martin, Beckett urges the writer to continue on despite failure.  "Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

Artistic work is difficult.  One needs to suspend judgment of the early stages of a project and manage the interruptions and distractions that arrive.  One needs to accept what is given.  One needs to develop writing into a discipline. The practice of meditation may help one develop skills to let go of the mind's chatter and be still.  Walking usually helps.  After reading Agnes Martin, I'm wondering if it might work to create a nice comfortable place for the dragon to sleep.  Sometimes it does work to write or draw the image, to make the intangible manifest.

Another teacher, Kate Green, suggested that we write about the Muse.  This was a writing assignment:  What does the Muse look like?  what does the Muse want?   Where does the Muse want you to write, what sorts of things should there be around you?  In the spirit of "free and easy wandering," you might extend this exploration and find out from the Muse what to do about your personal Dragon.