10. The funny people who took everything so seriously
Thank you funny people...your sincerity was not in vain.
9. The 13-hour van ride that gave me excuse to read
...and bust through a heavy chunk of Mariani's biography of John Berryman. Highly recommended.
8. Getting time to 'talk shop' with friends
So, this is why people go to conferences. Thank you friends for the interesting conversations and helping dream up the 'Midwestern School' of poetry, or whatever we're deciding to call this.
7. The incredible hospitality of the Calvin students we stayed with
You all were too much. They even baked a birthday cake for Nicky! And let us stay up really late and order pizzas and watch movies. And I thank Peter for the little bit of shampoo I stole when I forgot my own.
6. Listening to the Calvin A capella choir sing poems set to music by Eric Whitcre
If you are not familiar with this composers work, I highly recommend it. I originially hear about him from Ruthie, I believe. The choir was surreal, the music was very creative, the space was beautiful.
5. Marilynne Robinson
I went to an interview session with her and also heard her keynote speech entitled "Good Faith," which I hope is published somewhere. She was very humble and intelligent. She seemed to feel slightly out of place, but also well-travelled and used to being applauded by large crowds. She promotes a very classically American egalitarian, democratic kind of literature.
4. Andrew Hudgins
Scott Cairns and Hudgins read at one of the morning sessions. I was very impressed with the pure music of Hudgins. He has a melodic voice that wraps around every sound and syllable of every word. Very original, creative work. Some of his lines still ring my head...
3. The Calvin Theatre Dept's performance of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia"
I had not seen or read any of Stoppard's work before, though he had been recommended to me. It was a heady, funny script and the acting was mature and fresh. Although I had trouble with the existential "the universe is going to fizz out, but at least we have love" ending, I walked away stunned and delighted.
2. Seeing the Andy Goldsworthy show at the Grand Rapids botanical garden
I was deeply moved by this artist's work in a way that will last for a very long time, I think. It resonated with some of the work I've done, the spirit behind it...the human spirit in celebration of the world, a deep love for life. Something of the child in it, the primitive urge, the innocence shaped by a fine artistic sensibility...
1. The flowering trees with their heavy white blossoms, falling, falling in the evening sun
Tony Hoagland refered to this once in a poem as silent applause, which is exactly what it looks like. Such moments drop a person down like a spinning top, perfectly still, vibrating with energy. This world is too much with us, Wordsworth captures it so perfect:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
"Poetry is verse a large part of the meaning of which is suggested or implicit, rather than explicit."
Many people seem to have this idea about poetry and much bad poetry comes from it. Poetry is not an illusion, it's not a trick or a riddle, masking some obvious point in language games, word play or dissociated metaphors. Poetry is not indirect. It's not a hidden way of saying something that could've been said more clearly. (The adolescent whine comes to mind: "Why didn't the author just say what he was thinking?") The irony is that what is suggestive or implicit is most all of our everyday speech!
Poetry, on the other hand, is always direct, always straightforward. Very unlike a magician, every move is done in the open and if there is a miracle it is causally traceable (why there is no 'magic criticism' but there is 'literary criticism'). Explicity is the absolute, primary goal of poetry--it is born of the need to put precise language to human experience. But it is not explicit like a grocery list or like directions from MapQuest. What the poet hunts best are the often subtle, usually complicated (but particular) states of human being, the natural habitat of which is the infinitely dense jungle of our psychology. Language, the poet's only weapon.
Then, after hunting an entire day, the poet drags the bloody corpse of his poem out of the jungle, and the onlookers shout out to him, "Why didn't you just shoot it right away?"
Some truths can only be caught by a hundred well-placed traps.
And yet, as I become more keen, more fine in my tastes, I am sad at how quickly I pass judgment and shut down possibilities. I require such high expectations from the books that I read that I am entirely blind to anything that might be good in them. I don't allow for the possibility that I can still receive something even from the poorest of offerings. I am shutting down possiblities and probablities--the more I learn about the world, the more I exclude from what is worthy to learn.
College makes you really good at analysis; being a philosophy major makes you really good at analysis. Analysis is a very good thing, it's what makes us able to live better lives and solve our problems. Somehow we need to keep a sense like babies who are willing to stick everything in their mouths, to explore without judgment--perhaps even to be like scientists gathering data regardless of its implications. We must not shut down the flow too quickly; we are already well-experienced in division.
Then I went to an interview with Makoto Fujimura. He stands in a very unique place. A have a very strong sense that Fujimura is going to be / is already historical very significant.
After that, an interview with Alice McDermott (sp?), a Catholic writer, who actually helped me process through a lot about Flannery O'Connor. That kind of Catholic sardonic humor, bitterly ironic, dogmatic openess to seeing God everywhere...
Lauren Winner and Donald Miller are all the talk, though I've been avoiding their sessions for terrible, pointless reasons. Why can't I enjoy them? (Another "Problem is..." post on the way)
The downside of imagination is the continual torment it brings. Imagine if I had gone to a "better" school than NW. Imagine I lived in on the East Coast. Imagine all my friends were the next great American writers. Imagine I had something more interesting to write about, had a better life...imagine I was more ambitious. Beyond even these concerns are the strains of imagination against my skills and experience--my imagination extends far beyond my ability to communicate--there are visions I have that I am unable to translate. In the act of creation, every idea seems to dim, dull, rot.
Against the power of imagination, the world's color fades. Friends turn banal and annoying. The small town could use a little something here or there. The library does not have any of the books I need to feed my brain. Classes are a waste of time, my studies are getting me nowhere. If only my dreams could come true, if only my "true" potential could be realized...
Somehow imagination must rise from the everyday things, from the grain elevators, the rounds of disc golf, old photos of my grandfather in boot camp during World War II, the Bible stories of Sunday School...from these raw materials, from what-is, beginning with gratitude, I can rise up with dreams that do not poison me in the end, that do not leave me sick with fanciful, self-sugary puke.
Ever since I decided to become "serious" about writing (and a host of other creative projects) I have been strung up and pulled taut by the problems of ambition and imagination:
Ambition, for me, is perhaps the primary force in my life. Any chance I get to improve, gain new insight, make new connections, try a new technique, I take it. With all the digusting cliches attached, I lie awake some nights imagining my future--publication, being interviewed, fan mail, wide or narrow acclaim, a cult following. Nauseating, sickening. In my better moments, ambition takes the form not of praise or fame but simply wanting to make more and more beauty; I simply want more goodness, more happiness, more of More in the world--it is insatiable. It has taken me a very long time to be able to confess this to even myself.
The upside of ambition is that it motivates me to keep on. I can rely on my ambition; I know that I will never ever give up. When failure happens, it's my ambition that dusts it off and moves on. It drags me up out of sloth and boredom. It is an engine turned on, if not driving, idling in wait. Ambition is the soul, the motivator, the quantum nervousness that comes with unfulfilled desire.
The downside of ambition is that, as I mentioned, it is incredibly gross. It repulses the majority of people, including friends. It offends people who want the same things you want. And, being a Christian, there is the constant refrain "no selfish ambition, no selfish ambition" that echoes in the head, while that tempter Nietzsche questions, "Did God really say you shouldn't fulfill your potential?" And people begin to look like means instead of ends, like the starving shipwrecked man who starts to see his friend as a juicy, t-bone steak.
It is difficult and embarassing to proclaim my ambition without qualification, the same bashfulness that comes when talking about any of our deepest human desires. Yet somehow if my ambition was to be the world's greatest preacher or AIDS fundraiser, there would be no worry about selfishness or vain conceit--though, we find it even there, clothed in gold tassels and phylacteries.
Growing up in school everyone would hate the person who actually worked hard (nothing's changed here at college) and the inspirational message on the classroom wall read: "Live Your Dreams. Stand Against the Crowd. Be An Individual. Show The Competition." But how miserable do we become when we see everyone around us as steps to walk on or as obstacles holding us back?
"Excellence is never granted to man but as the reward of labour. It argues, indeed, no small strength of mind to persevere in habits of industry, without the pleasure of perceiving those advances; which, like the hand of a clock, whilst they make hourly approaches to their point, yet proceed so slowly as to escape observation. A facility of drawing, like that of playing upon a musical instrument, cannot be acquired but by an infinite number of acts. "
"Language is the instrument; conviction is the work."
"Art has its boundaries, though imagination has none."
"Be as select in those you endeavour to please, as in those you endeavour to imitate. Without love of fame you can never do anything excellent; but by an excessive and undistinguishing thirst after it, you will come to have vulgar views; you will degrade your style; and your taste will be entirely corrupted."
"Our art [painting] being intrinsically imitative, rejects this idea of inspiration more, perhaps, than any other."
"No art was invented and carried to perfection at the same time."
"I am, on the contrary, persuaded that by imitation only, variety, and even originality of invention is produced."
"...always imitating, always original..."
We’ve been telling artists that the only sin is to not be honest to what is inside of them. No. There are a few other sins for artists. One of them is, not being honest about whether they really have the gifts of nature to be supported by the community as a prophet. If you’re not good enough, don’t waste our time. Your art is probably just for your own therapy.
Another sin is sloth. Many artists have natural ability, but they can not motivate themselves to do the hours and hours of scales that it will take them to develope technique. The craft takes dedication. So don’t get me to try to buy your painting, watch your movie or read your story if you’re not good, if you haven’t put the time in.
On another level, artists need to be led to see that sometimes some of the things inside of them are poisonous. They could be sick - someone who really has ideas that are disordered. Just because you’re an artist you get to disease me with your ideas? If you had a sense of responsibility, you’d be able to discern, “In my creative time, I have all of this stuff. This is kind of sick. This is kind of dark. This is actually something that is wonderful.” It is this fundamentally different view of the arts. The secular side is saying the arts are about the artistic expression of the artist. The church is saying that the arts are about service to the People of God, and to the global community.
Artists need help discerning the difference in the stuff they make that is catharthis just for them, and the stuff that is prophetic for the rest of us. I absolutely do not think the decision needs to be made by anyone outside. That’s when you talk about censorship. It’s not about that.
The rest of the interview is packed full and worth the careful reading.
The book brings back memories of being a library assistant in high school. Every afternoon I would check in (and browse) the stack of magazines and wander the shelves, looking for anything that stood out. I remember that's where I first met Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, then The Illustrated Man, then Something Wicked This Way Comes, and on and on... That's where I first read Langston Hughes (The Panther and the Lash). At that desk I first read John Updike, Arthur C. Clarke, Ayn Rand and Jean-Paul Sartre.
I lived in the literary "atomic age"--of civil rights, spacemen and communist dystopias, as if a massive nuclear warhead hung over the library, ready to drop at any moment. It was a strange education for young man in the year 2000, an extensive but now obsolete knowledge (how to land a man on the moon, how to duck and cover, how to deal with the existential angst of a world war). Nevertheless, it was the world of my father, of a generation just one step back from me and so it hung like a shadow world behind the buildings, the cities, faces and ideas of my common life--lingering like a dream.
I don't know what it was really like during the race riots, the space race, Vietnam and Andy Warhol. I've received these memories second-hand and have idiosyncratically twisted them to fit my own life. But I feel the human intimacy in these memories, the lingering fingerprints, the longing and the fear of a world next door to this one. No, these aren't my worn jeans--these holes and stains have stories I couldn't remember even if I tried--but I still wear them, if only because they came into my hands by happenstance, if only because they meant so much to someone else.
This year I performed for the first time in RUSH, Northwestern's student dance show (story here). Though I've done choreography in church pageants and the like, this was my first time doing 'serious' dance. I've since learned that the modern dance I performed was a particular kind of dancing known as Modern.
Another thing I've learned: Controlling the movement of your body is really, really hard. This seems against common sense; I've lived in my body all my life...if I should be good at anything it's controlling my body! But I've realized, after practicing lifting my arm over and over, looking at my arm, trying to get it to float with grace, that my body is a stranger to me.
If I walk (or dance) away from this experience with anything, it will be that for one week I was aware of the act of standing itself, posture and form, aware of each step walking down the sidewalk...
And Jesus answered and said unto them, Are ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and with staves to take me? I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and ye took me not: but the scriptures must be fulfilled.
And they all forsook him, and fled.
And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.
Out of nowhere, a young unnamed follower of Jesus is mentioned having "a linen cloth cast about his naked body"...if that isn't strange enough, he escapes without it, running naked into the night. The image is stark (forgive the pun)...a naked man running out into the night, leaving behind a linen cloth. Strangely moving, haunting, surreal...
The commentaries are particularly dull and amusing as to the nature of the young man.
that never fade in the crouching grass
you may walk sixty-five, sixty-six
miles for a tall yellow rock to sit on
when you have to get away
from the city that rocks in the sky
like a descending birthday cake
the saints melting like wax candles
dancing the tiers all the way up
too much for you, but then you find
the smooth path worn down
the clay not hard but replying
with white cloud puffs beneath you
sibilance of grass ripples without wind
not a tree around—no need, he told you
trees are for dying on
slip back on the rock, and lie flat open
a simple pancake of undirected love
water will come from that rock
if you speak to it but if you
sing it will pick up the harmony
and if you decide to hold still
not very long just a hundred
thousand years it will hold you
a rubbed down bed around your body
lizards will come and write messages
on your body in scrawling print
secret hieroglyphic tattoos of praise
a little bird will drop lime juice
in your mouth on the even days
the angels will keep the path swept clean
a great white string on the summer plain
stomped down and invisibly repaired
for whenever you choose to return