Monday, May 24, 2010

Scrub Brush: "This is It"

Tools of Rage and Poetry, With Cat

A new how it feels, continually adjusting to life events. I'm struggling in my own quotidian rhythms to embrace and accommodate to and balance among my particularities -- the personal wrestling of my individual circumstances -- and a concept of "greater good" -- the ways in which the community -- my community or communities -- and in fact the natural world go on with or without me. What is my role in this? How do I keep my individual body going, my mysterious individual consciousness, the consciousness that inhabits me and in which I am trapped for the duration -- as are we all, of course, humans moving around in these limited containers held together by our sturdy skins.

Saturday night's reading (see below) was a fine moment -- four readers, as it turned out, an audience of 50, double-digits of wine bottles, red and white, flowing along with the concertos of voice and word. Connections with my history; I was present at the opening of Buckham close to 30 years ago; I was present when Alan Ginsberg performed there; I have reviewed many art shows staged there; I have read there myself a number of times over the decades.

Waiting for people to show up the other night, I stood in the open window at the back wall and looked down at the Torch parking lot, the brick law offices, the southbound traffic on Beach Street; it was a mild lovely evening and downtown Flint smelled like a city, delicious, evocative -- a mix of asphalt and exhaust with a bit of stubborn spring green mixed in. Framed in the window, that swatch of Flint on a spring Saturday night seemed romantic and melancholy, my own history and desires and sadnesses inescapably in the air. I went to the gallery's bathroom where I've retreated for solitary earthy functions uncountable times during uncountable art openings. There's a full-length mirror in there, and I inevitably looked at myself, my whole self, before going back out into the world of the life I've made. Hmm: yes, that's me, I had to say. Still me. I recognized myself, still there. In that one specific moment. As Sheldon Kopp says in Item One of his Eschatological Laundry List: This Is It.

Before the reading I was in a foul and volatile mood. Trying to load paper into the empty printer, I couldn't get the packaging on the ream open and in a sudden fury, slammed the whole pack down onto the floor. Ripped off my glasses and threw them on the floor too, violently swearing. The symbolism isn't lost on me. Language, my beloved, trusted soul tool, so often resists. The world so often resists our words, or doesn't care. And what I see, sometimes clearly, the evidence of my senses, often leads to pain and disappointment.

So I abandoned the upstairs and, in the spirit of Gaston Bachelard, stomped down to the basement. To clean the cat litter. In the pungent cool darkness. Still in a fury. The place smelled so strongly of ammonia my eyes watered. Back from Pedro, we had somehow forgotten to check: forgotten our duty. Three litter boxes overflowing, the cats had peed on the concrete floor and pooped in cool corners. I took over the basement with dangerous energy. Ted came with me. That fact. The man who loves me: In the basement, holding the bag for cat shit, holding the dustpan for piles of scattered litter. I filled a bucket with bleach and water and got down on my knees, slopping the mix onto concrete; me in a teeshirt, old socks, raggedy shorts and rubber gloves, daring Ted to laugh at my flaggellating getup. He refrained. He simply held the bag. I scrubbed down the stink and my rage with an old scrub brush. I like that word "scrub brush." My scrub brush helped.

The basement smells clean now. The floor is soothing and cool and free of crud.

The eight poems I read Saturday night were, as my new literary pal Matt Falk said, a "set" encompassing a range of emotion. On the whole, indeed, I felt them as a sequence, a cri de coeur from my whole Flint life -- one poem I first drafted in the 80s, several others I wrote within the past few months. It felt good to cry them out, to declaim. I am at cusp these days and the act of witness, of saying my life, of working the sounds of my life -- all of it was gratifying. I slept well that night.

See, I am taking this as a serious occasion in my life, even though my current poetry manuscript has been rejected at least ten times since September. I am taking this as an act of scrubbing into my life, doing what I can do. On my knees in the cool basement, taking it in, taking it in, making my life whatever it will be.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ink Takes a Village: and that village is FLINT

Nic Custer, Alan Matthews, Kelsey Ronan, Grayce Scholt, Jan Worth-Nelson

Join in to hear and see a dynamic lineup for a memorable night in Flint-Town -- the East Village Magazine writers.

Those of us who have lived here for years have powerful stories to tell. AND there will be wine from D'Vine Wines and hors d'oeuvres from Oliver T's. This is a literary event not to be missed.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Words for Flying High and Coming Down

Hawk over Angels Gate, closest I can come to a flying image at the moment

This is a first for me -- a blog from 30,000 feet. In seat 22C on a Delta flight east, coming back to Flint from LA on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday. It's my first time to encounter WiFi in a jet. As I noted on FaceBook, I'm not sure if this is good or bad...usually, being free from email and other electronica for four hours in the air means that these trips, my many commutes, are times when I've started new writing projects and read books I'd long neglected. Another zone of solitude changed. Instead, I'm cramped up in my teensy seat, my elbows scrunched back against the inadequate cushion, the laptop on the tray table. Not an empty seat. They've finished beverage service and most people are asleep including, blessedly, the infant two rows up in 20F who bawled the whole way over the Rockies. I'd bawl too, actually -- tough way for a baby to spend four hours, not to mention her harried mommy and daddy.

And beverage service: let's see. Now we are told via not so kindly intercom that we can only have ONE packet -- peanuts, pretzels or cookies -- and we should be thinking about it ahead of time. We still get free juice, water or coffee, but the booze is $7. I learned long ago I'm better off not drinking up here in the high clouds, so I save myself that expense. But I studiously select a package of peanuts, issuing my decision quite responsibly when the old ladies (they're all close to my age these days) rumble the cart down the aisle. I buy a sandwich for $8 -- turkey, provolone and greens of some sort in an oversized bun. I shouldn't eat all of it, but I feel sorry for myself, trapped up here. No cash anymore: credit card I have to twist myself around the tray table, dig my backpack out from under my seat with my feet, do a perverted yoga bend to unzip the outside pocket, pry out my wallet, get the ELGA debit card, and hand it over...the flight attendant slices it through a little holstered box and declares me paid. I ask for a couple of extra napkins to sop up the bad balsamic vinaigrette dressing and that is what I get -- exactly two flimsy leafs of napkin, as insubstantial as onion skin.

Oh, did I mention Ted got upgraded to First Class? So he's up there enjoying free everything, the bastid, stretched out in his capacious seat, wiping off the angst and sweat spreading like a cloud of Agent Orange from back here in steerage. Oh, no, the kid just woke up. She's not happy. I know why. My ears are telling me -- we're coming down. Coming down indeed.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Wide Open Roses: In Memoriam

Sunset through the Wall at Pt. Fermin

So sad that another apparent suicide victim has been identified at the foot of the cliffs in Pt. Fermin Park. Here's what I wrote several years ago, after another suicide there, when Ted and I lived on Almeria Street:

Wide Open Roses

Wide open roses tumbling over fences
start this peaceful morning,
wild dill trembling in the ocean breeze,
the air so pure I am breathing in blue.
I feel my blood get redder, my hotspur
skin tip its cells up to the sun. This day
I almost take my happiness for granted,
walking my sprung senses serenely along
the sea, where grasses bend and stand up, where
bougainvillea spills down every wall and eave.

But I am walking with a reason -- to see
where a woman jumped or fell, they didn’t
know which, on Tuesday. It happened
close to noon, they said – so cruel, full sun.
They found her body at three in the clackety stones
of low tide. I am here to try to know, I think,
how my new joy collides and cleaves
to what might have been her despair.
The truth in my heart like a sprig of sage:
how those tough cousins, our
hope and hopelessness, can be such
rivals, sometimes depending on
the curve of the rose that morning, the kiss
or the missing kiss of one azure day.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Forty Years Later with two Old Testament Dudes

The earbuds are locked in and I've got old Neil Young cranked up loud; it's one of those weird mornings at the harbor where the fog still hangs over the docks but the hillside is bright, and for that matter, so is the fog, so white in the sun it hurts the eyes. And since that blinding fog a quarter mile or so down there still is thick, the ships are plying their horns, deep bass honks like bull moose, as I said this morning on FB. I can hear that even over Neil Young crying out "I've seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone."

It's a strange combination of mournful opacity and troubling brilliance, suitable to my reflections on this anniversary of the Kent State killings. Just finished "Down by the River", then "Cowgirl in the Sand"; now "Cinnamon Girl". Today, can't get enough of these old songs, so lavish with elegiac doubt and love for all that surrounds us, a sense that it is all ending: "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the Nineteen-Seventies." Neil Young always seemed so morosely hip to what was happening, more than hunky Steven Stills or the prematurely avuncular David Crosby -- even when he was a kid, Neil Young was a sort of Old Testament dude, his yearnings reassuringly dark, the anger burning off in those gorgeous chords, cathartic minor melodies, poignant steel guitar and pounding rhythms that served as liturgy for me, the kid running away as fast as I could from my father and mother's religion, but with a taste for ritual rhythms imprinted irrevocably in my DNA. Even now, the swinging dirge of "Helpless" pulls at my deepest heart.

And of course, "Ohio" -- ..."four dead in Ohio..."

I'm back 40 years ago, a sunny Monday much like this bright one; then, though, I'd never yet been west of the Mississippi, much less to California, where I now ply half my life through elucidating fogs. That day as the news of the shootings hit, my father, another Old Testament dude, raced across country roads and came and got me, shouting his way through the barricades; as he saw it, he rescued me. He needed to take me home. Now, at 60, very well aware of the dangers of the world and the primal qualities of family love, I understand that, and I am crying a little bit as I remember it, and him. I admit the scared kid in me re-emerged, and briefly, I wanted to go home. In the face of all that blood, it was permissible to want his protection. It was okay to accept it. And when he and I sat at the table together after dinner that night, there was something different between us than there had been for several years. There was sweetness.

So that was it. May 4, 1970, last day of my childhood.

And the first day of a shared adulthood. My father raged against "state violence"; I was impressed; it launched the possibility of the two of us connecting as mutually skeptical and watchful citizens of the world. We still had a lot of fight ahead of us, some of it bitter, corrosive and hurtful...but that day opened a door.

That semester I was taking a black and white photography course, and when offered the chance to finish it on my own after the shootings shut the campus down, I set up a smelly darkroom in my parents' bathroom. My quality control stunk -- may I say, nothing, really, was black or white: the images I'm left with are murky and naive -- the patterns of a concrete black wall on the boring parsonage patio, my mom sitting in cloudy focus, unposed, in the kitchen -- it was clear I was trying to see her anew, but it was a condescending lens...see this poor middle-aged Ohio woman, unglamorous and doing her best, quaintly still believing in God and craving whatever little crumbs of intellectual life she could extract from The Upper Room and Guideposts. I know that's how I thought about it then. She made me sad and wildly restless.

Man, I wanted out of Ohio so badly. Kent State gave me a necessary kick: I was out of there within a year, and from then on, I only came back to walk around my father's garden, sit impatiently on the infuriatingly familiar hard pews and sometimes cry at the old hymns, relishing and chafing at the lurid words. My parents were the only reason to be there; eventually I came back to bury them.

The Kent State killings were a first wake up call about the "real world," for me, and also, importantly, a first thrilling moment of first-person witness. That has not been insignificant in my life. When I've found myself unintentionally at several other similarly epic moments -- the murder of Debbie Gardner in Tonga in 1976 where it seemed that the America I had sought to escape followed me into one of the most remote outposts in the South Pacific, and then a huge earthquake the next year, and then the melodramatic and infamous collapse of an emblematic American town -- my response has always been to simply try to describe what it is like.

Well, I've written about that day at Kent and thought about that day a lot over the years, as have so many others who were there, but today, overall, I find myself wanting simply to blanket myself in Neil Young's plaintive voice, "flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun."

I'm not sure what all this means, except that here I am again, writing things down.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Specifically, Pat Endings: A Post Pretending to Sound Like I'm Tenure-Track at least at the Beginning, While Obsessed with Revision

Windblown Coastal Grasses
I was reading Robert Lee Brewer's "Poetic Asides" interview in Writers Digest with H_NGM_N Press impresario Nate Pritts while revising my ms. this week. One paragraph stood out. Pritts, one of the golden boys of the Warren Wilson MFA program, who's since become a Doctor, was describing how he used comic books as "ekphrastic" triggers for his book Sensational/Spectacular. (Throwing around words like "ekphrastic" is how we know Dr. Pritts might qualify for a tenure-track job some day; pairing"ekphrastic" with comic books, smart aleck that this young Doctor is, is how we know he's STILL SO COOL). Anyway, this is what he said:

First, the project was a reaction to the fact that there seemed to be an accepted language for poetry, or at least an accepted diction, that I found stifling. In some ways, I was developing a voice in my poems that was coming from the poems I was reading and not coming from me. At the time I was reading a lot of poems that were incredibly reverential and too serious, pious poems that seemed to be simultaneously thrilled with and in awe of their precious ability to turn the quotidian into something messianic. There’s a teenage version of me inside me still that calls bullshit on my poems sometimes – why is Nate writing about arias or “a cacophony of larkspur” or, in short, relying on images and experiences that are not him to tell things that are?

Ouch. That tiresome turn from the quotidian to the messianic. Eeek. Oh how many times have I slid messily down that inviting mossy rock? And now Pritts has me picking at another hangnail (h_ngn__l?) the notion, that the "accepted language for poetry, or at least an accepted diction" might be stifling. Oh jeez. Especially since I've never written a poem from a comic book, now I feel all old and, well, rusted. But that's not really what I wanted to say.

What I want to say is that I'm newly examining how my love of the language I see as available to me means that I'm limiting myself and my poems' vivifications. I started my professional writing life as a journalist, and I've always doggedly sought clarity, coherence, what I think of as architectural or structural integrity. My poems have a beginning, a middle and an end. As I've looked at the poems in my current ms., they seemed designed, like a sequence of yoga poses that should be executed in a particular order, or a dance designed to fill a particular stage, or a piece of music that I can follow, like Miles Davis's "Blues for Pablo" or Lyle Lovett's grand collage "I will rise up/Ain't No More Cane" with swoops and transitions that on repeated listening, I've learned to cherish and anticipate. I wonder if I should bust them up -- the poems, that is. And I think it's likely I should.

I'm thinking of Pritts's poem "Endless Summer" in which his repeated use of the "f-bomb" propels the poem's exaggerated anger and hyperbolized regret, and in which the syntax begins to drop off, twist and fall apart. Or Pritts' buddy Matt Hart's poem "Broken Foot Effusion," in the latest H_ngm_n, in which he writes,

"I use the word flamingo,
my one leg gleaming as I stand for something
resonant: beauty in the face as the sun cracks
up. Truly, I have used the word flamingo
maybe ninety-five hundred times in an attempt

to achieve some kind of devastating balance"

and then he throws the poem open into an exuberant, stream-of-consciousness list of all the people who love him. I heard Pritts perform "Endless Summer" and Hart perform "Broken Foot" a month or so ago at the Court Street Gallery in Saginaw, and they were riveting; the effect these two poems had on me, spoken aloud, was to wake me up from a lugubrious rut. I drove home as fast as I could. I couldn't wait to write some more myself. Anyway...

In another interview, on Elizabeth Hildreth's raucous blog "Bookslut," Pritts said, "...maybe I’m worried about the word “narrative” as it implies a starting point, a stopping point & that, in between, something happens."

And that's exactly what's bothering me about my poems these days, and so I'm looking to these young scalawags of verse for triggering and transformative energy. Maybe their audacity will help me pry apart the resolving declarations that seem to conclude almost every damn poem in my manuscript. Here are a couple examples:

from "Missiles, October 1962"

There was going to be
plenty of time for me, to revel in
my vivid hurts, my lucky changes,
my charmed survival after
my mother and father were history.

from "The Blissfield Parsonage," (this is really embarrassing)

"Something grew, spring came."

from "Begonias Then and Now":

To my relief
I see that they are just begonias –
they stand for nothing.

Okay, and there are a lot more where those came from. I'm not sure what else I want to be reaching for, but it'ssomething -- something more: surprise, uncertainty -- or something less, ending before it's over...whatever. I'm looking different endings. Now that's damn existential, ain't it, for a Saturday night?

And for the next post, comes the question, what is the function of the poem? For me, as I'm free associating and/or balancing on at least one leg of my reflections, I think the poem is for comfort. Damn, I can't believe I just said that. Well, it's a complicated matter. I want my poem to be, as I wrote in one of my explicitly architectural poems, "Message to my Neighbors on Seventh Street," (look it up in MQR about a million years ago), a "fist of order thrusting up between your opulent oaks." Yikes. Put away that Freud, asshole.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Revising at a Table Set for One

Self Portrait at the Korean Bell

Settling in to my hillside LA life, I've been working on my poetry manuscript this week, a joy in many ways. It was a challenging and tempestuous winter, during which I was thrown into questioning my own role and value in the world and during which I felt confronted (thornily, nettlesomely) by others' judgments of my life's work and obsessions. At the same time, I was operating at full bore as a writing teacher, reading and judging the works of 80 other writers -- 45 freshmen, 20 intro creative writers, 10 advanced poetry students, 5 graduate students/poets.

So, interestingly, even though the winter's tumults could have set me up for a period of deep doubts about myself -- and certainly I did descend, for a time, giving in to the perils of the frazzling darknesses of February and March -- on this glistening hillside, 2500 miles from Flint's turmoils, I'm experiencing in contrast a self-healing impulse to turn inward, back to my "material" -- the material of my life as a writer that has always sustained me. In a way it's not really a choice. It's just there -- like my blood type (A+, vainly pleasing to an old teacher's pet like me). It's a relief to return to my own work, to plunge into the trance that is revision. I believe what "they" say about writing being one of the activities that takes the brain into its most salutary brain waves. After a few hours of working, rewriting, rearranging and rethinking, my brain feels deeply massaged and gratified.

And I am grateful for that.

Some of the poems in my current manuscript go back, in a couple of cases, 25 years -- a realization that astonishes me -- and some of them were written as recently as three months ago. Yet putting them together, I see connections, and some fairly consistent tendencies in style and method. Some of this hits me anew -- some sort of understanding of "who I am" as a poet, something I'm able to see because of how long I've been at this, how many poems I've written and rewritten, what I chose to throw out, what I dug into old files to reclaim. I'm not comfortable with all that I see there, but doubt is a necessary condiment for this work.

I'm not sure I've found the "right readers" for this poetry collection, or for my body of work in general. I'm not sure I ever will. Recently, somebody I've never met emailed me that one of my old poems is one of her favorites, and that she's been using it as an example in her own creative writing classes for years. She wanted to know which collection of mine it appears in, and I had to tell her it appears in no collection, because no collection of mine, other than my three self-generated chapbooks, has ever made it into the mainstream.

But that doesn't change what's happening to me, in my brain and recouping spirit, as I work and rework the words of a lifetime. Some gifts are like that -- self-generating, self-healing and always there, inviting tender and scrupulous attention. In a way, it's a table for one, set up with nice cloth napkins and a candle. A dinner for one. I could be there awhile.

Another Self Portrait at the Korean Bell