creativity, Poems, Uncategorized

(Re)Visiting Bob Dylan on his 80th Birthday

Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan

I don’t remember how I got introduced to Bob Dylan’s music, but I think it was probably by my dad. The first time I saw Dylan perform live was in July of 1987, at JFK stadium in Philadelphia, as part of that summer’s tour with the Grateful Dead. My friend Derek and his parents invited me along. I was seventeen. I remember fragments — it was very hot, and there were so many people. I wasn’t a particular fan of the Dead, but it was a big, intense show. It was thrilling to hear Dylan. A few years later, I saw him perform again, on his own, in Boston where I was in college. I think that show was at the Boston Opera House — obviously a much different venue and vibe than JFK in July.

Years after that, I saw the documentary (I cannot for the life of me remember the title — MAYBE it was this one?) that inspired me to write this poem:

Dylan Plugs In At Newport

“Maybe he didn’t put it in the best way. Maybe he was rude. But he shook us.”
— Jim Roony

The crackle of the amp, the whine. The thunk
of the pickup sliding home. The unthinkable. 
The first pluck sounded like a big fuck you
to Pete Seeger, who cowered, hands clapped
to his ears, rocking back and forth in disbelief.

The flat electric guitar body looked soulless,
and the crowd thought they were getting flipped
the bird by that long, skinny neck he fingered
to Maggie’s Farm. And who were these friends
of Dylan, these black men backing him up
with music and bodies that didn’t fit?
What did he think he was doing?

It is said the crowd booed him, but the evening
sounded more like a wail, a noise of panic and confusion.
The sound the rabbit makes only when it’s dying
in the jaws of the murderous dog.

The decade snapped open like a cracked skull.
What poured out looked like a bad marriage —
the folkie soul and the rock and roll moves.
Joan Baez and Ike Turner. That bad.

Later we would love him more for pushing us over,
for the elbow in the guts, the unrelenting riff
and jangle, but that night we couldn’t say
what we saw and heard; that long ago night
when possibility bled once more
from an artist’s fingers, slid from his throat. 
When, once more, we groaned against it,
we threw up our hands, we resisted.

This poem was first published in 2003 in the literary journal 5AM. In 2019, it appeared in the anthology, Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan. It was (still is!) a thrill to be included in that anthology alongside work from Patti Smith, Johnny Cash, Charles Bukowski, Anne Waldman, Robert Bly, Dorianne Laux, Yusef Komunyakaa, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Eileen Myles, and others whose work I really admire.

I use a “we” in this poem that might imply that I personally witnessed Dylan perform at Newport in ’65, but I wasn’t actually there. I wasn’t anywhere yet, not having been born. In retrospect (it’s nearly 20 years since I drafted this poem!) I think I’m “borrowing” the “we” from the Roony epigraph, and/or maybe just presumptuously elbowing my way into it (?) and using it less to claim attendance at the literal event, but more to admit that I, too, have resisted or willfully misunderstood art I wasn’t ready for — art that troubled lines or borders I’d drawn or which had been drawn for me, so invisible they seemed natural.

Maybe that’s part of the gift of an artist in a moment like that — offering us (even those of us who weren’t there) a chance to see those lines for what they are, to imagine more expansively the possibilities for art and for culture and for living.

Also, maybe he just wanted to fuck with us a little bit.

creativity

Hand Work: Practice & Pleasure

Sort of on a lark, feeling a Venn diagram of urges (to do something with my hands, to make something in the space where I’d normally be making poems, to calm and (re)focus myself) I signed up for an online workshop — Non-Linear Books — through the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. I’d also add to that diagram the arrival of birthday mad money from my mom — I used it to pay for the class — and the fact that we’d be making volvelles. I had just recently learned that word, though I have long loved and been fascinated by volvelles. So that word in the description may have sealed the deal.

To prepare for the course, I did some rummaging and scavenging to get the tools and materials I’d need, according to the list I’d been sent. I wasn’t going to be making any unnecessary pandemic trip to an art or craft supply store — I would make do with what I had, and what I could borrow. I already had most of what I’d need — cover papers, regular papers, linen thread, needles, x-acto blade, cutting mat, bone folder, PVA, a compass, etc., etc. I didn’t have any brads (needed for volvelles!), but my friend Sally, unsurprisingly, had a box she brought over for me. (Sal — I owe you a volvelle!)

Brads!

I have all this stuff because of an on-again off-again practice of book arts. Most of what I know (or what I knew and have since largely forgotten) I learned in graduate school, where I did what they called a “collateral field” (like a “minor,” kind of?) as part of my PhD program. It was a collateral field in “book arts.” My particular aim was to learn how to set type and do letterpress printing, but I also learned quite a bit about paper, about folding it, cutting it, sewing it, etc. Later, through a couple of different workshops and classes over ten years or so, I got more letterpress printing practice, but also learned more book binding/stitching techniques. Sewing is still my favorite piece, I think. This particular class involved minimal sewing — some basic pamphlet-stitching as part of the dos a dos and French door books.

Because the class was hosted by MCAB, it ran on Central time — which meant that the 7-9:30 class actually ran 8-10:30 for me, which is definitely later than I’m accustomed to being capable of doing any kind of sustained work. But it was just once a week, so I figured I could handle it. It was great to put my hands to that work those nights, even if the lighting could have been better and I was a little sleepy. I love folding paper. Our instructor taught us how to score paper properly, which is so great to know! Folding, creasing, unfolding, folding in another direction, creasing, unfolding — I guess there’s a meditative quality to it. The instructor talked us through everything, and the videoconferencing screen was set up with a birds-eye view of her workspace, so we could see her demos. And she also provided printed materials for each week’s style of book. The class was small, and we didn’t really get social with each other. We’d occasionally share work, but mostly we tuned in, asked questions as necessary, and did our work in some kind of tandem.

The most challenging book form for me was definitely the hard-cover flag book. The smaller, “beginner” flag book was challenging, too, but when we bring adhesive and boards (hardcovers) into the picture — my tendencies to be impatient with precise measuring (and other things I need to be more patient about) catch up with me. Here’s the first flag book:

Below is a slideshow of (some of) the process of making the second flag book. If you do some googling of flag books, you can see some really interesting uses of the form — unlike my super-basic first go of it here.

Here’s a link to a video I made, showing how the flag book moves/”works.” It has “pages,” but also it has those flags which fan open into….something like pages but also something else entirely!

The final class was focused on the volvelle, and we spent time using templates to get a feel for the basics of the form, before attempting to explore it a little bit on our own. I’m overwhelmed by the multiple dimensions of the volvelle — very unsure as to how I’d make one, how to conceive of those layers of image, or text, or both. I don’t know how to “plan” it. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t even know, really, what to want to make. This is partly because of my own habits of thinking/making, but also because I haven’t had enough practice just playing around with the basic forms yet. The materials, the parameters, the movements, are still new enough to my hands and mind that I don’t yet have a sense of what I might make of them.

Trying out the volvelle

If I keep playing, I feel pretty sure the materials themselves, or rather the the dynamic/action of (mis)handling them over time (cutting, combining, trying, messing up, trying to fix, fixing or not fixing, happy accident) will create conditions wherein I might expand my imagination of what’s possible in the volvelle. Partly this is just what many call “practice.” I feel comfortable sewing bindings largely because I have enough practice (time) sewing to feel a familiarity with thread, wax, needles. What they are capable of, what they might ask for or resist.

Rummaging through my stash of materials — papers in particular — was a fun part of the experience of taking this class. I found papers I didn’t remember I still had — ordered for past book arts workshops or independent projects and not quite used up, or acquired for projects I never got to or finished. Handling that material again, and handling the tools, cleaning out and re-organizing my art supply box, reminded me of specific projects, specific people I’ve collaborated with and learned from in making broadsides, chapbooks, stationery, etc. It also sparked some muscle memory around this work — around the activities of folding, measuring, tearing, and sewing — those pleasures in and of themselves, the “practice” which is not a means, but which is its own end.

scraps worth saving

Poetry

Celebrate National Poetry Month with a Great Deal from Hobblebush Books

You have until the end of April to snag this great discount (30% off!) on all poetry from Hobblebush Books, including titles in their Granite State Poetry Series. These beautiful books unite New Hampshire writers with a New Hampshire book designer and publisher, and I’m grateful that Beating the Bounds is in such good company.

If you are looking for more poetry sources to beef up your personal library stacks, these last months I’ve been reading and especially appreciating poetry collections from Milkweed Editions, Graywolf, Sibling Rivalry, and Headmistress Press. Buy directly from the presses, or from your favorite local bookstore, or your other favorite local bookstore, or from Powell’s or Bookshop.org.

About Writing, Poetry, rumination

Grinding Out Poem Drafts

A wordcloud (made with Wordle) of my most commonly used words
in my poem drafts of this most recent Grind month.

In December 2014, six years ago, an old friend, also a writer, invited me to participate in a writing accountability group/experience called “the Grind.” Well, actually, he had invited me months before, invited me more than once, but I resisted — it was a month-long commitment to draft and share a new poem every day, via email, with a confidential group of readers, most of whom I would not know. No feedback, just daily accountability and practice. I don’t remember what finally enabled/forced me to say “yes” for that first December. This year, signing up for my first Grind in two years, it was a long dry spell that finally nudged me into making the commitment, the longest & driest I can remember, not only a not-writing but some kind of not-wanting-to-write, I think.

I just looked back through my emails to examine the archive of my poem drafts from that first experience. I see that I was assigned to a group with a poet whose amazing book (not published yet in 2014) I read and was blown away by in 2020. When I look at the list of participants in my first “welcome to this month’s Grind” email, I see a few familiar names of writer friends of mine who’d been participating already — poets and prose writers.

In December 2014, there were 9 groups (poem-focused groups and “manic mixture” to accommodate genre variations) with 63 participants signed up. This December: 174 signed up in 25 groups including new and revised poetry, new and revised prose, and mixed-genre). Some of the same names from 2014. When I look at the poems I drafted that first time — all new ones — I see that four of them have since been published, in a chapbook and then a full-length collection of poetry, my first. Another poem from that month was revised into the title poem of a forthcoming chapbook (hopefully out in 2021). Another poem from that month was published in an anthology in 2020, and I actually revisited/revised one of those 2014 poem drafts this month in my current Grind (I was in one of the “new and revised” poems groups, so revision was allowed!). I suppose I could look through all my monthly Grinds — I think I’ve done something like eighteen months total over six years — and inventory those “success stories,” poems that found a life outside the Grind. But of course the “success” of the Grind is daily, monthly, and mostly private. The success of the Grind is to show up with your poem, and to be there so others can show up with their poems. (or prose or whatever).

I always complain my way through the Grind. I kind of hate it. Hate having to write a new poem draft every day (I have done almost exclusively “New Poetry” during my time on the Grind), having to send it to people whose drafts always seem so much more finished and interesting than mine. Once I was randomly placed into a group with a VERY WELL-KNOWN writer whose work I have long admired, and with whom I would NOT have been inclined to share my shitty poem drafts (or even, frankly, poems I thought were decent) — it was disconcerting at first, but then just….lovely. Not having to give feedback — indeed, feedback of any kind is not only not required, it’s sort of frowned-upon — turns out to be an important element of doing a Grind.

On very rare occasions there have been folks who (habitually, repeatedly) did not show up daily, and that not showing up sometimes added (disproportionately, for sure) to my Grind grumpiness. You signed up, (I shouted to the empty room) voluntarily, to do ONE THING — to be accountable, alongside others, in this one daily thing — if you can’t do it — that’s OKAY! Just don’t sign up! God, who would even WANT to do this? My anger was mostly blooming and booming from insecurity about the roughness of my own drafts, and was (I cannot emphasize enough) DISPROPORTIONATE to the actual “offenses,” and probably not useful in any way. And for the most part, I have found that those who sign up come through on that commitment, and I am grateful for it, because it is HARD.

Why did I even sign up to do it? Different reasons or combinations of reasons each time, I think. Different contexts, imperatives. Grind founder (The Grindfather?) Ross White articulates so well the “whys” of the Grind in a two-part post (here and here). So many of the reasons he describes resonate with me – again, maybe different ones at different times over the last few years.

I thought briefly about signing up to do January as well, but I didn’t, for a number of reasons. I think I will, without benefit of the Grind’s specific pressure, try to do some revision of a few of these drafts in January. I’ve got a bunch of work stuff looming – specific tasks but also general conditions – that occupies so much of my head and heart recently. I will have to get back to it in January. And I am still not feeling the impulses to write poems that I have historically felt, that I have relied upon, that have been clear and strong enough to see me through other, different, shorter stretches of not writing, or writing struggle.

My December 2020 Grind poem titles are: My Love & Other Things, Pandemic Garden, Strangers, People You May Know, Fathom/Father, Prepared, The Book, Arecibo, 2020, Endearments, Mosh, Wind in Trees, Why I Woke at 3AM, My Mother Doesn’t Miss The Christmas Tree, Binding, Accumulations, Monhegan (revision), The College Bar, Ghazal to Remind the Rain, Dimensions, Conjunction Weather, Conjunctions, 2020, Walk of Shame, Salt, Not Even Now, We Learned, We Learned (revision), Certain Premises, Here, A Year in the Woods Behind the House, Tired, Therapy

I did a revision of “Conjunctions, 2020” and on a lark sent it to Transitions: Poems in the Afterglow, part of an ongoing project of Indolent Books, and they selected and posted it, like, the next day. That was a speedy turnaround. And a little queasy-feeling in the speed of it, from my end. Most of the rest of these drafts will never see the light of day beyond the Grind, and that’s okay – that’s as it has been. But some of them may make it out into the world a bit – that’s also as it has been.

In any case, as grumpy and whiny as I can be in the middle of it, I am grateful to my friend for inviting me to participate in the Grind, grateful to those many writers who showed up for themselves & each other, and grateful to Grindfather (surely I am not the first one to use this phrase??) Ross White for making so much so possible through his community-minded generosity.

Poetry, Readings/Events, teaching

“The Poet’s Dream:” The 2020 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (October 22-November 1)

In October 1986, I was a high school student in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and attended the first Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in the village of Waterloo.

My family lived in Cherry Hill for two years when my dad was stationed at the Naval shipyard in Philadelphia. It was difficult time for teenage me, a time of struggle and growth. I was caught shoplifting. I smoked pot for the first time. We were renting a house in a neighborhood that wasn’t really accustomed to welcoming “new folks,” and for most of my first months of school at Cherry Hill High School East, nobody at the bus stop would talk to me. And I was too shy to talk to them. I was used to living either on a Navy base or in a neighborhood near enough to a large enough Navy base that there were lots of new kids every year, and we just kind of knew how to be with one another.

But eventually, at this supremely well-resourced public school, I found teachers and peers who were “my people.” Miss Beck and Mr. LaVoie, in particular, and the students I met in their English and Creative Writing classes, were, finally, such a source of connection. I also found a weekend program, the New Jersey School of the Arts, hosted at the then Glassboro State College, where I connected pretty intensely with three other young writers.

That first Friday of the Festival was specifically organized for students and teachers, and free to attend — and that access to poetry and its communities has always been a part of the Festival’s ethos and mission. It continues this year — you can get a free all-access pass if you are a student or educator. They are also offering their standard all-access pass as “pay-what-you-can,” and a free version for live-streaming and discussion groups only. I’m hoping to encourage some of the writing students I’m currently working with to register and attend.

Looking at this year’s amazing Festival schedule, I see so many poets whose work I love and admire, I see old friends and acquaintances and teachers from various parts of my poetry life. I see necessary themes and conversations.

Access to programs and events like the Dodge Festival, the NJ School of the Arts, and others really shaped and helped me, especially during certain periods of my life. Now, in 2020, access online to an overwhelming variety of readings and talks has been, for me, another nourishing source of connection and hope and help. I am so grateful the Dodge Festival endures, and if you can, I encourage you to join me in financially supporting this work. If the financial support isn’t an option, consider spreading the word and, of course, participating in the Festival.

If it’s back in person next year for the 35th (contingent upon so many other urgent “ifs”), I might have to head down there, as I can imagine the Festival serving as a good emerging-from-pandemic-isolation (please please please) experience. A poet can dream.

Uncategorized

Middling

So many things are so crappy right now. But watching Amanda Whitworth’s work here — appreciating the instrument or language (?) of her body, and also of the work of her collaborators, the cinematographer and composer — transports me not exactly “away” from all that’s crappy, but . . . I don’t know . . . into a dimension or a facet of possibility. I don’t even know what that means. Maybe only a body could say, wordlessly.

About Writing, rumination, teaching

Practice/Versions/Revisions/Rehearsals

I often think of and describe my dad as a “poster child” for a conventional/idealized U.S. middle-to-upper-middle class vision of retirement for his cohort — the “silent generation.” After thirty years in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam, unaccompanied deployment with the Seabees, and running the Public Works Center at the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, he was able to retire. He and my mom moved back to Washington State, where he had worked to help build the Bangor Trident Submarine Base on the Hood Canal — we lived there for three years when I was in elementary school. They liked the area, and had retired Navy friends there, and so they made one last cross-country move and landed outside of Poulsbo, right up the Hood Canal from the sub base, on a piece of land where my dad designed and supervised the construction of the last house he’d ever live in, after a life of moving every one to three years, due not only to his own itinerant military career, but also to his father’s thirty years in the Navy.

My dad’s birthday is coming up in early October, and then, the fifth anniversary of his death at the very beginning of November. I have, in my adult life, resisted anniversaries of all kinds, have been skeptical and even cynical about them, not sure why, but a part of me also enjoys certain rituals and traditions. The approaching of the fifth year “mark” of my dad’s sudden and unexpected death is on my mind. I wonder if my urge to commemorate is related to the pandemic, to the way the pandemic has altered — is altering –my relationship to time, to the passing of it, the measuring and marking of it, its role in how I try to live and comprehend my life. Many usual markers — many having to do with work, but also having to do with the rhythms of social and personal life — are radically altered or gone. So maybe how I feel about the role of ritual, of the intentional marking of time, which used to seem to mark itself (?), is changed and changing.

I opened this piece by asserting that my dad was a retirement “poster child” because he was such a good hobbyist. He Kept Busy. He made artful, precise scratch- and kit-built model ships. He took up the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. And he took up watercolor painting. Or, more precisely, in retirement he was able to dedicate himself more fully to even deeper pursuit and practice of these avocations to which he had been called, to varying degrees, before he actually retired.

I am interested in this turn of phrase, to “take” something “up.” I picture a person gathering something into their arms, maybe lifting it a bit? To take something “on” is to “begin to do” something, according to etymonline.com. I can’t find an entry there for “take up” but it feels to me like a step past “taking on.” In this thread, “take on” is described as more “burdensome,” hinting at an obligation, a challenge, or maybe at something adversarial, whereas “take up” is more of a free choice, maybe a chance at pleasure?

Now that I think about it more, I’d say my dad took on “taking up” as a retiree, for sure. As if it was his obligation (his new “job?”) to “pursue interests.” His obligation to enjoy them deeply. To not squander his opportunity. He probably wouldn’t have called it privilege, but it sure seems like privilege, that leisure.

My dad was not a mere dabbler in any of these three major avocations. He took them on and up with a patient seriousness of purpose, such a long-game for learning. He was a faithful practitioner, a “practicer.” My dad believed, I think, in mastery, but also, I think, he was patient about not achieving it. Especially with the painting, he put in the process and practice work. I wonder if this is related at all to the fact that both his sister and his mother were accomplished, “professional” artists. When he died, I already had a framed painting of his — my favorite from among a half-dozen or so from which he asked me to choose — hanging in my house in New Hampshire. (Also on the wall, a painting by my grandmother, and one by my aunt.)

But when my mom asked if I wanted any of the … dozens? hundreds? of stiff sheets of watercolor work he’d left behind, I didn’t look for another finished piece to hang on my wall. I was mostly drawn instead to the artifacts of his process, his practice.

There was even more of this stuff — and I took more than I’ve pictured here. His careful study documented. His practice, his learning, his trying, preserved here in these patches of color, these “tests.” And there were also a few starts or “drafts” I snagged. Though I guess I have no business saying what part of his process they represent or occupy.

Here’s my dad’s finished painting on my wall, the one I chose when he asked me to choose:

img_6981

In the work he left behind, I found two versions — shall I call them sketches? attempts? perhaps rehearsals? — of the same scene. I am fascinated by them. I look and look at them.

It’s like seeing a little bit through his eyes, or so I tell myself, in this moment, trying that notion out in these words, this draft of an idea. A version. Not a commitment, even though putting the words into the white void sometimes can feel like signing a contract. Not so, not so. There are more words, different shades of the same idea, different ideas. Time passes through ideas/ideas pass through time.

Here are the two versions/drafts of the painting:

img_6979

img_6980

I look at these and I think: rehearsal. Practice. Getting to know the materials. Getting to know one’s own vision as enacted by brush strokes, color choices, quantity of water.

How do you rehearse for the “final version?” When do you know the final is the final? Is the version on my wall “finished” because it is framed, because it’s displayed? My dad is the one who decreed it finished, who had it framed as a gift for me. Also — he was finished — is forever finished — painting versions of the work. There will be no further work. So, in some literal sense, this is the “final” in a series. But I guess I’m asking, wondering, why even care about “finality?” I’m not sure.

These questions are ones I ask myself from time to time, and which I encourage my writing students to ask themselves and one another. They are sort of unanswerable. I try to talk with students sometimes about the difference between BEING finished WITH something (for now?) and a THING being FINISHED, though is that even a real distinction? And of course for writers I work with in university classes, the constraints of a “semester” which ENDS (and then a new one begins!) influence the pace and timing of composing, reflecting, and revising.

If to begin a thing is to “take it up,” might “finishing” be an act of “putting down?” (Sometimes we describe acts of writing as “putting (something) down” on paper. We also sometimes use the expression, “to write down,” not just “to write.” “Write down these instructions.” What is “up” in that figuring?)

What shall I do with these versions of revision? These versions of my dad’s vision? These transcripts of his trying? These archived attempts? What story of painting, of learning, of testing materials and gestures, do I want them to serve? What story of my father do I want them to serve?

It must be a kind of revision when I write about my dad in certain ways, certain genres, on certain days. Re-vision as I re-member him when he is dead and I am fifty, as opposed to when I was thirty and he was still living. Revision if I make it past the age he was when he died a few years ago to remember him again, remember him differently. I am thinking again, still, of time — how my thinking about my father recently is connected to the time of year, to the passage of time, to the commemorations of “birthday” and “day of death.” To my own aging. And so I think also of how re-vision feels connected to the passages of time, the duration and pace (of the poem, of the world swirling around the poem, of the before-poem and during-poem and after-poem), the shapes and textures we call time, those marks of it we make. Marks like clock numbers, like brush strokes, like words.

I wish he were here to ask; I’m sure he’d have things to say about the flaws of the versions of his painting — their failures, their incompleteness. And yet, the materials and technique — watercolor — he uses in this painting feel so….resistant to completeness. The painting edges up into what feels to me like a kind of minimalism when I imagine practicing what I see as a skilled kind of restraint. What I mean is, the few times I’ve tried seriously to draw or paint, I think my fatal flaw is not stopping soon enough. I was told this once (kindly, I think) by an art teacher. I look at the framed painting and wonder if the reason he framed it, named it finished, and not the others, is his feeling that he stopped painting at just the right moment? I don’t know. Probably if I’d found all three versions in the huge stack of his work, I wouldn’t be so certain which was the “final draft.” Which one I would have chosen to have professionally framed, which two relegate to the closet archives?

For the most part, I save no such archives myself — most of my versions disappear in the wake of revision — my rehearsals in the form of sequences of drafts are mostly ephemeral. There are exceptions, but most of the saved work is printed out and annotated, and is in a folder of “unfinished” stuff I mean to get back to.

Except that some poems I write are of course revisions/versions of poems I’ve already “finished,” or of “a poem” I keep writing and (re) writing and may never finish. And so maybe some poems are rehearsals only I don’t know they are rehearsals.

Or maybe many or maybe all my poems are rehearsals of some kind.

About Writing, COVID-19, Poetry, rumination

The Next Step

I make myself go outside. It is nice outside, not too hot, but sunny and robin’s egg blue sky. A light breeze to keep the bugs off. To have to “make” myself go out into such temperate loveliness is so absurd. I am glassy-eyed and dimwitted from hours, days, weeks of screen work punctuated by the social media work-distractions which also serve as my sole contact with most of my people these days, and it is a nice day and I have a book of poems to finish reading and it is August and I am sad and frustrated and the fall semester of teaching writing (online) is looming, and winter is coming and so out I go.

There’s some windfall from the remnants of tropical storm Isaias. Acorn-studded bouquets thrown down from the skyscraper oak. Last year’s paper wasp nest gust-scrubbed from the skylight frame.

(I have not been writing poems. These words about the nest and the oak have the vague feel of poetry, but don’t pull me into drafting a poem the way they might have in March. That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else. Some place I don’t want to tread.)

All those empty chambers

I sit down to read but want to scoot the potted celery over so I can set down my notebook on the picnic table. As I shove the pot over, I reveal a toad. He is not amused. He was not expecting this turn of events.

img_7088-1
The toad scoots back underneath the pot, where it’s cool and safe, for now.

I think about the metaphors I want to make from the toad. The contemplative distance between my wanting to and my doing it is nearly nonexistent. First I consider the sudden exposure, the moments of disorientation and maybe fear, and then the finding again of that cool, dark space. I think about all the time I have spent inside over the last months. Then I’m thinking about how the few times I go out now, masked and skittish, I feel exposed and worried and strange. E(strange)d. And I am lucky enough to have a long-term partner at home, someone with whom to talk and cry and laugh and eat and be. And maybe I should just let a toad be a toad. I do not have a good history of letting toads be toads, however:

Toad
from my chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (2008, Slapering Hol Press)

I wrote that poem almost 15 years ago. Maybe longer? I was still teaching Introduction to Literature, which I think I only did my first few semesters on the faculty at my university, where I will start my 20th year in a couple of weeks.

It’s (e)strange to read this poem now, to revisit its long-ago March (or April?), and to think back to this year’s pandemic shut-down right after spring break. Hubris. Being on the lookout. Toad as soothsayer. Spring full of flood, earthquake, astronomical rarities, weather extremes, and my own casual imaginings about what “plague” might descend next. 

*

Later, after reading some poems and pausing to stare at the sky and reading some more poems,  I notice a caterpillar, on the picnic table, making its way somewhere. When I first see it, it is caterpillar-ing confidently forward, like it knows where it’s headed. But when it hits the edge of the picnic table, it seems fully unprepared for the sheer drop, the next steps suddenly gone, suddenly air. It reaches and reaches into the void where the path should be.

If I can’t let a toad be a toad, I also definitely can’t let a caterpillar be a caterpillar. I mean, they transform (!) into moths and butterflies (!!) for crying out loud. They can’t let themselves be caterpillars. They spin cocoons of self-generated silk around their bodies and mutate into a new form, often one dramatically different from their caterpillar embodiment in terms of color and texture.

Out on an errand last week, I wore a face mask as usual, but also happened to be wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I’m pretty sure someone who has known me for 15+ years did not recognize me — they are a brassy, call-to-you-across-the-crowded-restaurant extroverted person who always notices/sees me, says hello/engages in chat when we run into each other. They were oddly standoffish, and it wasn’t until I was back in the car that it occurred to me that maybe this person had not actually known it was me. Had not recognized me.

This didn’t make me mad or upset — instead, it reminded me of when I was new to the area all those years ago, how nobody knew me from Adam, and also about how much I enjoyed, for the first two thirds of my life, the opportunity, given and given again, of being a stranger, being unknown, being anonymous. Being new, and maybe transformed by that newness.

Was I enjoying the notion of (possible) rare anonymity in pretty much the same instant I was mourning spending 95% of my time physically — and emotionally — apart from the world beyond our front door? Was I remembering a more itinerant life, when I rarely lived anywhere for more than a few years? When I was somewhat regularly renewed by…..being new? By being the stranger?

Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 9.44.32 PM
From Etymology Online

What is my current relationship to estrangement, anyhow?

*

I make myself look at the sky. Then I take a photo of the sky. I am documenting and archiving, which feels like a thing I can do to disrupt the strange stillness of just looking at the unmediated sky. Or observing, without recording, a caterpillar.

I have never succeeded at meditation, as far as I know. (I have also perhaps not tried very hard.)

sky

How long was I outside before I was putting all of it to metaphorical purposes? Did I bring the purposes with me out onto the deck, with my book and notebook and iPad, or were they only revealed to me (like a toad!) after I got out here?

I wonder if there can even be an unmediated sky or caterpillar if I am there looking at it, camera or no. Aren’t I just a camera? I’m not even sure I want to let the caterpillar just be a caterpillar, or a toad a toad, or if that’s even an option, given language, given my hungry, narrating gaze.

*

Two ways I think about ending this writing. First way — another video, with my foolish narrating voice calling a melodramatic play-by-play for an inchworm who, in “the end” (of my documenting/narrative framing) succeeds, survives, makes it across the gap, doesn’t get eaten by the toad, etc., etc.:

Second way — I consider how the caterpillar and the inchworm, in their reaching with the whole front ends of their bodies into the empty air, across the gap, remind me of the first card of the major arcana of the standard Tarot deck: The Fool.

On the left, the Rider-Waite (classic, popular tarot deck) rendition of the Fool; in the center, a more contemporary riff on the traditional Fool iconography in the “Light Seers” tarot deck, and on the right, the Fool from my own tarot deck, the Hanson Roberts. The significant common image: the cliff the Fool’s about to step (or fall) off of.

At Tarot.com (the Hanson-Roberts link above), this is part of their description of the Fool:

“Modern decks usually borrow from the Rider-Waite imagery. Most Fool cards copy the bucolic mountainside scene, the butterfly, and the potential misplaced step that will send The Fool tumbling into the unknown. Don’t forget, though, that the earlier versions of this card represented already-fallen humanity, over-identified with the material plane of existence, and beginning a pilgrimage toward self-knowledge and, eventually, wisdom.”

The gap. The fumble and reach. The unknown. Fools of all stripes, neither fully innocent nor irredeemably fallen, poised to take that tumble or leap or step.

That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else.

Uncategorized

More Moten & Harney: Two-Part Podcast “Revisiting The Undercommons in a Time of Pandemic and Rebellion”

“Wildcat the Totality: Fred Moten and Stefano Harney Revisit The Undercommons in a Time of Pandemic and Rebellion (Part 1)

“Give Away Your Home, Constantly:” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney Revisit The Undercommons in a Time of Pandemic and Rebellion (Part 2)

As in my earlier post on Moten & Harney, I am mainly transcribing language and ideas from the podcast that I wanted to capture and study further. I am hoping that taking this step leads to the next step — some kind of synthesis & further reflection — and I am finding connections between the things discussed these podcasts (and The Undercommons) and other reading/thinking/talking I’m doing.

PART 1

Moten and Harney discuss critique versus study, & “wildcatting.” Reminding us that when they wrote The Undercommons, they were writing a book about “study,” not a book about the university. And particularly about certain kinds of Black study outside of institutionalization as Black Studies in the university.

They talk about the (American? primarily?) university as a place of violence –  a place that “has always been a structure for the regulation and incarceration of intellectual life – not for it to flourish.”

But at the same time, they note, “the brutal interdictions of intellectual life OUTSIDE of the university have been so intense, folks have fled to the university to seek refuge from that brutality.”

But they find that the notion of the university as refuge is ultimately false.

They examine the university as “a job, a place where people work,” and seek to understand the university better on those terms, but to do this (study) outside of academic labor — to move from “critique” to “study.”

*

Tearing down statues of racists as “national plastic surgery.”

*

The police are just policy by another name. This idea is one that has been really resonating with me over the past months as I have read/studied/considered police/prison defunding/abolition as connected to the university/classroom as a carceral space. And “policy” is, for me, a really clear way to see that connection, that carcerality. As in, policy is just police by another name.

*

Solidarity is also fundamentally selflessness (not about that something that activates your SELF through some figure of the Other so that you can become more fully and completely who you are, the good person you were meant to be, etc…)

*

I really liked the whole thread at the end about politics/candidates/voting – too much to transcribe here (I’m lazy I guess) — start around 45-50 minutes into the podcast and listen for yourself. Or, really, truly, just listen to the whole thing, both parts.

PART 2

Some issues and ideas Moten and Harney get into in this part — the destruction of the commons, the problematic of ownership, living on stolen land and “homelessness.”

MOTEN: “Homelessness is not the condition in which you ain’t got no place to stay. Homelessness is not the condition in which you ain’t got a house. Homelessness is the condition in which you share your house, literally. It’s the condition in which you give your house away, constantly, as a practice of hospitality . . . . home is where you give home away.”

*

On study:

MOTEN: “The kind of thing that we do, which is reading and writing and talking about books, I think it’s important. I’m not ashamed of it. I think it’s a good thing to do, I think it’s important to try to imagine ever more radical ever less privatized ways to do that. But Black study is not reducable to reading and writing and talking about books. Reading and writing and talking about books is an irreducible part of Black study, but Black study is not reducable to reading and writing and talking about books.”

HARNEY – playing/listening to music together, watching sports together, dinner and conversation – all intellectual pursuits, all are potential Black study that don’t get counted by (university) Black Studies (discipline/institutions)

HARNEY: “It seems like a general condition in study that if it appears at first like a gentle and passive thing, that’s ‘cause we are trying to practice being gentle and passive. However, it’s also an immediately antagonistic thing, it’s that primary insurgency coming forth, and the way you know that is that no matter where you practice study (not equally, and yet it is the case), that someone will come after you to stop you. And that’s of course what we first discovered in the university, when we used to say, early on, “what’s the one thing you’re not allowed to do in a university?” and the answer was “study.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s a risk of that seeming flippant with regard to trying to study in a prison. I’m not trying to equate them. I’m simply saying that although study is in many ways the practice of allowing people really to have the time to think about something and rehearse something, revise it together, sit and be with each other on and on and on, it does have this quality of allowing a kind of gentle flow of time to give you this space…it is nonetheless caught up in a struggle all the time to maintain itself. And if you don’t believe that, try studying, and very quickly you will see how many people come to your door to stop you: landlords, bosses, teachers, police, the water man. Whatever the case may be that you have had to struggle against in order to be there together. Study is a struggle.”

*

Other ideas/concepts explored in the podcast: “the surround,” indigeneity and its relation to Blackness, enclosure, settlement, destruction of the notion of sovereignty itself, and fugitivity

HARNEY: “The surround is a constant insurgency against sovereignty and everybody who participates in it . . . . there’s so much misunderstanding, especially in Afro-pessimism, about indigenous sovereignty, but that comes from putting things backwards, to imagining that sovereignty precedes the rebellion, and I think that’s just not right, just not correct, and that historically its not the experience of indigenous struggles. The experience of indigenous struggles is that one can find a home there, a fugitive home. That land is not “sovereign” in that sense, there’s not a fence there’s nothing permanent in that way about its ownership. The surround is also set as a constant broil against land in a way, a constant broil against settlement, which is not to say that it can’t take the form of home, or homelessness, in the way that we’ve been talking about it.”

I found it engaging to listen/think about this after reading and discussing Tuck & Yang’s “Decolonization is not a metaphor.”

*

Other topics and issues discussed as the podcast continues — abolition, non-reformist reforms, defunding of police, current uprising, and carceral policies generally.

I was interested to hear them discuss “fugitive planning” connected with recent/current protest movements (but/and which has been ongoing for a while – mutual aid, bail funds, community orgs, etc.) — self organized, insurgent work that is constantly calling out the police/policy (that’s where planning is going on all the time – in what we might take to be “unorganized” way – but that misapprehension might be the result of our own lack of study/understanding)

The idea that we have “policy” (public/visible/”rational”/”what folks want to see”) versus (fugitive) “planning” is one I want to study further.

Moten speaks of thinking more about solidarity – how it operates with policy (as opposed maybe to the refusal of policy).

MOTEN: “I can’t deny the very palpable shock to the system that occurs when you watch mainstream TV news taking seriously a debate about defunding the police. That’s a thing. I wasn’t expecting that any time this century. I don’t know what it means. I think that it can, it should, fill people with equal measure of exhilaration and dread. And that all has to be worked out in practice on the ground. One of the ways it gets worked out is in maybe trying to understand better, let’s say, what the difference is between the expression of solidarity or the expression of empathy and the PRACTICE of empathy, or the PRACTICE of solidarity.  And maybe what we might want to say would be that the expression of empathy the expression of solidarity manifests itself within the realm of policy, and the practice of solidarity and the practice of empathy, that manifests itself in the realm of planning. And maybe protest is a more general phenomenon which can contain but also move by way of the suppression of either of those modes. And at a certain point when the protests dwindle, which they must do, because protests don’t generate their own energy, right, they’re not self-generating energy fields, and  when that energy is expended, then we have to say, “okay what do we do now, where do we go now?”, not only to regenerate that energy but also to imagine the distribution and circulation of that energy within our own social field and not just as an expression either of solidarity or an expression event of conflict, let’s say, with the police or with policy. . . . For all the folks who really love that conflict, they don’t have to worry, ‘cause policy and the police, they ain’t going anywhere just yet, whether the shit is funded or not. But there always remains the question of “what are we going to do?” And it’s really important for us I think to try to get enough information to look really closely and think really deeply about what folks have been doing. Which is part of the reason why we adamantly refuse and resist, in general, the constant invitation to write something about the present crisis. ‘Cause we don’t fucking know that yet, but we’re trying to learn. We’re trying to think about it. And there’s always room for that learning and thinking. It doesn’t always have to manifest itself as an immediate response.”

FURTHER READING/STUDY

“The subprime and the beautiful,” in African Identities, Vol 11, 2013 – Issue 2: Cedric J. Robinson: Radical Historiography, Black Ontology, and Freedom

“Politics Surrounded” (Moten & Harney) South Atlantic Quarterly (2011) 110 (4): 985–988

“Fred Moten’s Radical Critique of the Present” (The New Yorker, 2018)

rumination, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Thinking about the “Backchannel”

Was in Zoom webinar conversation yesterday with faculty and staff colleagues about the “chat” function in Zoom being a kind of backchanneling that some folks found great/helpful/fun and others found overwhelming/distracting/not fun. We had a general conversation of different kinds of “backchanneling,” like, for instance, live-tweeting a conference presentation or class or other live/f2f event. We talked about access, distraction, engagement, etc.

We were asked to actually take a VOTE about whether we wanted to continue (in our synchronous/Zoom professional development sessions) to keep the Zoom chat live/open, or to have a separate (on Microsoft Teams) backchannel. We were also, of course, and more importantly, asked to think about this stuff with respect to the university courses we would be teaching in online and hybrid formats in the fall. We ran out of talking time, but were invited to reflect further. So I did.

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In our conversation, I mentioned being reminded of Robert Brooke’s notion of “underlife” in the writing classroom. Here’s a wee summary, and here’s a link to the original scholarship (man, that was a long time ago!).

*

Channels are interesting to think about metaphorically. I think of water flowing – how a river might split into smaller channels and then rejoin. The English Channel (swim it! put a chunnel under it!).

A channel can be a (alternative? unplanned? VERY planned?) way of getting somewhere AND a channel can be a barrier. Channeling is also what a medium does, to speak to (and for) the Spirits.

*

Backchannel implies front channel. The river is the front channel, and when it hits the delta, it splits into multiple (subsidiary? smaller? less powerful? unnamed? seasonal? unmapped?) “back” (side?) channels.

*

Regarding the Zoom backchannels as I have experienced them – I have mixed feelings for sure. I like that the backchannel might “capture” something (a question, an idea) that might otherwise be “lost” (or never…exist?)

BUT

maybe not everything needs to be “captured?” What is the function of the ephemeral? The advantage of forgetting?

I sometimes find the backchannel distracting – I distract myself with it and am distracted by it.

When I am grumpiest about it, the backchannel/backchatter that happens during a presentation makes me think about the times at poetry open mics when a poet gets up to the mic, midway through the reading, and says, “I just wrote this here tonight,” which my internal grump-translator translates into “I am only here for you to listen to me, I am to busy with myself/my own work to bother listening to YOU.”

I occasionally imagine I am better at multi-channeling than I actually am – but mostly I know I am NOT good at focusing on more than one thing/thread/stream at once.

I occasionally use the backchannel to indulge in unnecessary chatter. Sometimes snarky, sometimes not.

BUT

such small talk might be “signs of life” in a class community? (or signs of “underlife?”) Which could be helpful for all to see?

I think the backchannel worked pretty well in the Advanced Poetry Workshop this spring, and has worked well in Zoom poetry readings I’ve attended – it’s a space where folks can emphasize lines/images they liked, during the reading, kind of like at an actual poetry slam (or some readings) – you know, that little sound you or someone might make when you hear a really AFFECTING line? In the poetry workshop, I think students appreciated being able to go back through the chat (alongside the written feedback they received AND the spoken feedback in the live zooming) as part of the overall experience.

*

When are the “distractions” worth the reward? Maybe we can’t always anticipate the reward, and therefore can’t plan for it.

*

Could the chat be used/function like a “fishbowl” discussion? Like, assign some folks to the chat to describe/comment on the spoken activity/conversation? This sort of….un-backs the backchannel, or, like, brings into alignment with the main channel.

Maybe there’s room for both – moments when the backchannel is (necessarily, unavoidably, helpfully) subsersive/counter/”back”, and other moments when the backchannel is harnessed (?) or serving (??) the main channel.

Or should the backchannel be left entirely to its wild, unbroken, un-harnessable ways? I don’t know! (Maybe the real backchannel is never for me — the teacher — to see?)

*

Can backchannel reinforce “clicqueiness?” Battle it?

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Backchanneling can be a way IN and/or a way OUT. And a way…alongside?

*

That’s all I wrote. (in my notebook, I mean. Like, my paper notebook. And now here.)