(a thin breath of air through a faulty window seal? a sip of ale drawn from a cask? a conscription of the unwilling? the distance from waterline to keel?)
and language itself is maybe the first transformation, and already it is wrong, the poem, it can never be right—and the body changes, and the world, and the understanding wrought between them, and I come to the poem a draft from a different direction, I change, I change, the language
is insufficient, a reaching, a lie, and so I change it, and I change it again, and then I change, and so I change it, and it changes me, and I change, I’m conscripted, poised always to dodge, eye on the northern border, and how did war come to the page where I meant nothing of the kind? my mean-ing wages itself, weaponized, against an impervious breeze—
I spent most of January at a very rural, isolated retreat, a place I love and have visited before. I brought with me some printed drafts I’d forced myself to write during three month-long daily “grinds” in 2021. I’d completed my commitments to write a poem or poem-like thing every day for those three months; then, for the most part, wrote nothing in between the three grinds; with a few exceptions I didn’t even glance at those drafts again until I printed them, didn’t give them any kind of deeper look until the retreat.
When I was finished with each printed forced poem draft, finished writing on it, crossing out, circling, adding – after I’d typed it into a word doc or given it up to the unfinished, the forgettable – I found myself folding the paper copies into cranes. My brother taught me how to do this years ago. This didn’t mean I was “finished” working on the poem, only that my work with that particular paper copy was over.
When I was on “work study” at the Vermont Studio Center, a dozen years ago, for a month-long writing residency, my job was to work breakfast and lunch prep – I can’t remember how many days a week, but not all of them. It was a very early morning shift, in the small dining hall/kitchen, and that early dark work shift was a boon that particular July, given the smothering heat wave that had settled over northern Vermont. My job included setting up/making the coffee and hot water for tea, putting out the coffee/tea fixings, topping off and putting out the cereals, setting up the breads at the toasters. The other piece of my job was prepping the salad bar for lunch, which meant that I had to duck into the walk-in cooler, frequently, respite from both heat wave and, as the other morning-duty worker got the hot entrees going, the blazing griddle and burners. I liked also that the work shift got me up and going so early in the day, because even if I had a totally unproductive, stuck, distracted failure of a writing day, I could console myself with the fact that I had helped feed us. I had made something. With my hands, a physical thing.
I spent some of the past pandemic year and a half folding and tearing and gluing and sewing paper. I was taught some new techniques. While I was doing it, it often felt more real or meaningful or grounded than writing poems did. Most of the poems I drafted felt forced because they were forced. But/and, that work sometimes seems all of a piece – the folding and tearing, the writing and even the not-writing. The threads, the glue. Even the forcing.
I made a list, called “options” at the beginning of the January residency. I tacked it to the bulletin board over the desk. I didn’t want to spend time having to think of something new to do or work on when I was tired of doing or working on whatever I was working on. I made a list that included different kinds of things – a handful of revision and writing projects, sure, but also writing letters and postcards, or doing counted cross-stitch, or listening to a podcast, or reading a book or article or literary journal issue I’d brought with me. I didn’t want to get hung up in potentially paralyzing “productivity” imperatives, yet I didn’t want to squander the incredible time and space I had been granted to “do my work.” I think this list was trying to be generous about pace and scope and rhythm and what might constitute work, or conditions that might make work rich, rewarding, surprising, sustaining, sustainable.
After I had folded a lot of paper cranes, I found the feather. The feather from a bird, a real bird, some kind of brazen flicker. Enough feathers spread across a section of the grass near the fenced in garden that it seemed like there might have been a squabble or an attack.
Thread. Revision having to do with picking up threads, or following them, or discarding them. Thread of thinking – like a theme. Here – literal thread – borrowed from spare skeins from the cross stitch amusement that was Not Writing (an other thing, a thing to do with my hands) – links the one work with the other. Or suggests a set of linkages. Like a trail? Like a leash? Like an umbilicus? From the folded words to threads to wings.
My old cigarette-smoking hands, my idle hands, my hands that wanted something more than a poem at hand, wanted a poem inhand, for folding. Some occupation. No more smoke-breaks for this iteration/version/draft of myself. Folding, sewing, reading, listening, staring, taking the cranes out into the landscapes. Re-reading via crane-folds.
I finished my planned cross-stitch project – a bowling towel with The Dude from The Big Lebowski on it – and had a set of small patterns but no big project left, so I experimented a bit with using random “wrong” colors of thread in place of the suggested colors in those small patterns. This made me remember someone I knew — a poet, actually — who did paint-by-numbers but instead of following the instructions, wherein paint #1 would be added to the sections marked #1, he’d use #1 to paint all the #7 sections, and so on.
Transform, re-form, re-figure the paper, fold, press the creases, then press them against themselves. Fold new lines against the old, printed ones. Fold with the grain, fold against it. Consider and reconsider the materials. Follow part of the pattern, ignore part of the pattern. Recombine. Recycle.
Bring an edge closer, push what’s at the center to an edge, reconsider here, and there, scope and relation and perspective – one window, another window, edge and ledge –
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.
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!)
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.
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.