Posts Tagged ‘writing process’

Egon: Don’t cross the streams.
Peter: Why?
Egon: It would be bad.
Peter: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean “bad”?
Egon: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

***
During workshop week, I sat with different poets and talked/shared about our writing and performing lives and philosophies. Someone asked about my writing and poetry life and I asked them theirs. Over the days, it occurred to me how many of the writers here didn’t perform or read their work very often in public. Meaning, they rarely or never went to a café or performance space and read aloud anything they’d been writing. I considered it part of my practice. For many of them, it was uncommon.

That’s not 100% true. A couple of the people there were very familiar with public readings. But others, for example one or two of those leading the weeks’ workshops, had no idea how to use or approach a microphone.

It struck me odd if only because I discovered poetry In Public — in this bookstore, or in that café. ‘Spoken word’ is synonymous with ‘poetry’, right? And after years of familiarity, once I heard Gwendolyn Brooks read ‘We Real Cool’ aloud at a sold out event at UC Berkeley did I realize that was the first time I’d ever heard the poem at all.

If music is created for instruments, isn’t poetry created for voice? If lyrics are made to be sung, isn’t poetry made to be spoken? If a theatrical monologue belongs to a play, shouldn’t a poem belong to the voice as a random, anywhere recitation?

At the end of dinner on the final day of workshop week, all the participants gathered together and volunteers were asked to recite a poem they didn’t write from memory. It was a way of bringing the classics, the published, the famous and infamous, the authors from different cultures and languages into our current conversation and gathering, grounding us as would a prayer.

But earlier in the week, seated at the foot of a gorgeous mountain and the sun quietly setting behind it, when I asked a woman if she’d ever gone to any open mic events or read aloud, she shook her head, unsure if events like that even occurred in her home city.

I had no idea what to say to her.

***

I went to an event at a café in Berkeley Friday night, in support of my friend, a writer and storyteller and who herself has never attended any kind of workshop and, now in her 70’s, is ‘starting to consider’ signing up for one since I’d been going on about it.

It brings me little joy to be at a poetry reading on a weekend night, but since she’d been so supportive of me in the past, I felt socially obligated. We walked in and the place was packed wall to wall with people. My friend, S, came over to me and asked if I’d help him do a quick skit for his part of the open. I loved him and without thinking quickly agreed.

“All you have to do,” he directed, “is go: Oh really, and then what happened.”

He signed up first, of course, and instead of his name, signed up as a corporation of some kind. Instead of doing any poetry, he decided to just play– as he’s apt to do– to throw away any poetry and vibe his way through a absurd story or joke he’d made up.

Once the host stood and got the room to quiet, he had me stand with him at the side of the room, then grabbed my wrist pulling me up to the front of the room with him. Like a bad Abbott and Costello routine, we went to it. He immediately began stammering and spitting about being in a horror workshop with a bunch of, in his impression, slow witted, condescending old people. And in his story/sketch, a child was asked to come speak to the workshop group and of course in the story provided the best poem of the night.

The audience applauded, and we sat down as if nothing had happened, allowing the rest of the night to unfold quietly and without further incident. I sat with him. He’d taken out a mini notebook and wrote while the first feature began, giving his manic, impulsive OCD a point of focus to sit still. I took out an equally small notebook and also wrote, mostly to complain about what I was hearing.

I thought about S during my week in the mountains, mostly how much he’d like the area and hate how we were using it. That his OCD and distractions would tickle his impatience too often to even sit and have a reasonable conversation about writing — much less take time to read anyone else’s work. And though he’d love the outdoors and nature, he’d never stay with the group on any hikes or lectures. He’s his own man, uncontrollable, impatient, distracted, impulsive, manic. And hates even the idea of workshops and what he perceives them to be about.

And then I thought: how sweetly he used me to shit on whatever he thought was going on in the mountain, to illustrate how little he cared or respected anything he assumed was happening during my week, and to basically toss his arm around me and flip off the experience I’d just had, while smiling broadly.

And we sat together for a while during the reading, but he had to run off for work mid-way through and vanished. This just before the friend I came with read. I stayed and listened until the end of the night.

I don’t remember anything I heard. My friend who was featured that night and I arrived minutes before the reading began. I did not sign my name on the open mic sheet. Later, when the host announced the last reader on the open mic for the night, the woman I came with turned and stared at me. I didn’t return her gaze. Reading/sharing wasn’t immediately essential. I was there for her.

As the room began dispersing, I chatted with someone whom I’d known for years. I made the mistake of mentioning to her about my week up in the mountains and asked if she’d ever done anything like that and she immediately scoffed. Read: laughed in my face.

Maybe you don’t need it if you get access to the cabin, I said referring to the one she just mentioned in her poetry.

Oh, its run down, she said, dismissively. The structure I’d sketched in my mind immediately fell apart, splintering and sagging as she spoke.

She laughed, hard, over even the idea of a poetry workshop. She’d heard of it, she’d
“submitted something once before, years ago…” but never applied again and she was now 70 so why bother. She knew ____ about Galway Kinnell and _____ about Sharon Olds and what else did she need to know? I felt foolish for bringing it up and left it alone. But as I was trying to make my way to the door, my ride trailing far behind me soaking up the appreciation for her set, I stopped to talk with someone at the entrance whom I hadn’t spoken with in a while. He seemed distant, shy, bewildered and talked about being/feeling stuck and not writing. Lacking anything new to say, I began ministering to him about the prospect of going somewhere if just to get out of town, out of his life, out of his head for a minute. To refresh himself and his work. He seemed to not know what language I was speaking.

I had nothing else to say to him. My ride approached and I leapt out of the room ahead of her.

***

I nearly thought my ride was going to ask what I thought of her or her work. I expected her to corner me into a review. She waved off anything I tried to say.

“I recorded it,” she said. “I’ll find out later…” I shut my mouth.

***

These are the two worlds I live between. Worlds that I thought were the same or similar but are obviously not. The rooms are full of poets that periodically share the same people, but they are not the same at all and barely have anything respectful to say to one another.

Years ago, before Poetry Slam even, back when I first began this journey through poetry, I would often sit in on conversations about Page versus Stage poets. Performance artists who sound great, but you just can’t read them. Standing alone in a room with just their work, the poems lose much of their electricity and appeal. S could be guilty of this. I tried reading his book, which is as stubborn a tome as he is a person, and find the book is exhaustingly unreadable and weirdly joyless. Hypnotic in its commitment, its a single poem at roughly 120 pages. Where’s the rest of his amazing poems I’ve heard him do over the years? Where’s the easy exhilaration had in listening to him? Perhaps I should try again, but there isn’t much of a hook to engage me and return with commitment beyond the fact: I know him!

In turn, there are Page poets– who write lovely work but who cannot (or should not) read their own material, and often stamp out any power or joy found in their poems simply in the droll way they read them– reading into their chest dispassionately, as if they held their breath. One of the sweetest, warmest writers I met at workshop is an awful reader of their own work. This reminds me how years ago there was a brother who attended one now-defunct series in S.F. who always used to sign up early and was one of the greatest poets, writers I’ve ever heard. He was someone I still think of and consider, without hyperbole, a genius. He would place his lips directly on the mic and whisper his work, which was deadly personal and close– about death, drugs, relationships, family, abuse. The room would hold its breath and physically lean towards him, listening. He didn’t need to emote. We, knowing he was good enough and worth it, went towards him.

I, naturally, aim for the middle ground. I want to sound good, and I want the poems to work without me. I want anyone to pick up my work and find something of value in it, something to hook themselves with. I also enjoy reading aloud and finding the audience wanting to pay attention. Neither of these things is easy or come naturally. But seems to me an obvious lesson that emerges between practicing and performing. Practicing your craft (writing) is about strengthening your work on the microscopic line level, (which means publishing). Practicing your craft (reciting/reading) is necessary in order to hear what gets received, what gets missed (which means performing, slamming if necessary). Being clear in what you’re communicating. There exists a middle ground between the two, and of course its unmarked. But I think its worth finding and settling in. There’s valuable audiences awaiting both sides of the fence.

But what if improving and getting better at what you do is not the point? What if all you know is all you need to know?

Last night I itched to write something and had nothing to say. I’d fallen behind, not writing much of anything last month, set aside usually for National Poetry Writing. What I did do though, was rescue and edit work I’d paused on. Word Camera is a webpage that converts photographs into text. I had three word camera documents on my computer based on three found photographs. Last night I opened them and began re-editing, re-assembling the text in collage form. Like William S. Burroughs Cut Up method, though not as random with multiple sources. It was more myself in conversation with old, found text. I combed through the blocks of computerized text, randomly broke lines, then changed nouns and verbs, cutting entire sections, moving things around, adding an original line beneath the computer’s line. I mailed all that stuff to myself this morning to print at work where I plan to do more shuffling and editing and conversing.

William S. Burroughs was one of my earliest inspirations, one of the first writers I respected because of his voice.

I became introduced to Burroughs sometime in the mid 80’s through performance artist Laurie Anderson. Bill had a cameo in her film Home of the Brave which, due to good reviews, I saw on the big screen in Berkeley at an Old Repertory House. (I probably saw it on a double bill with the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense) Her music was white girl funky– curious and fun to my ear. Burroughs popped up briefly on her album Mister Heartbreak, doing vocals on Sharkey’s Night.

Eventually, during my digs through cd stacks at Rasputin and Amoeba I discovered an album, Dead City Radio. Burroughs had a hung over mid-western drawl that rattled and purred through reading his weird sexual sci-fi work. His writing was fun and dangerous and twisted. Though I’ve owned Naked Lunch for years, eventually saw Cronenberg’s film adaptation and listened to readings, I can’t read it cover to cover nor, really, any of his work. It comforts me having his books around, in the way I’m comforted by James Joyce’s Ulysses on my shelf, equally admired and mostly unread (Kate Bush once helped me eventually revisit the final Molly Bloom chapter, as did a BBC dramatization where an actress skipped through that meandering monologue while mid-way memorably squatting over a chamber pot). What connects me to him, what interests and draws me, is his voice and the sleepy confidence with which he reads. It is effortless and conversational. He is no orator. He is a philosopher with, as my former classmate once said, “the voice of them old junkies”. His was a voice I wanted to share with people, as if it were a song I liked. His being queer (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That) didn’t bother me: “(The Mugwumps) secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism.” I’ve never seen him photographed with, speak of, acknowledge, nor even take any photos with any artists or writers of color and I’m okay with having never heard or known his thoughts on race. But I still adored the way he constructed sentences and told stories. And his voice. His voice simmers. His manner, his spoken word tempo, paired equally nice with producer Hal Wilner’s NBC Orchestra needle drop samples on Dead City Radio as it did with crunchy electronic hip hop from the brothers behind The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy for the album Spare Ass Annie. Dub him via reggae, put a Kurt Cobain guitar solo beneath him, it all works.

What did I learn from him? How language can be a toy– a building block. A Lego. That, and the motor of voice. His voice made me better appreciate words, language. In reading for audiences or recordings, he was never nervously rushed or panicked to get out his work. He never sounded eager to please anybody– he let the work and images speak for themselves. Yet one could hear a sly pride in his reading of his often disturbed and challenging work. He read slowly hypnotizing audiences following his dream-imagery and surreal juxtapositions.

Burroughs was a superb reader. There are not many writers who do their own work justice. Dylan Thomas was certainly a master. Even Sylvia Plath’s stately manner in her recorded versions of Daddy or Lady Lazarus for example, she reads poems with the precision and form of a runway model. You can nearly hear her shoulders being pushed back and her chin lifted as she reads. She sounds like a 1950’s movie star, falling between Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwick. Burroughs in turn sounds as if he’s seated at a kitchen table haloed in smoke with an eternal shot of gold liquid within reach. He sounds sleepy, slouched, slightly aggravated and familiar with evil. A wicked grandfather who might slip you some extra rock candy if you place nice and pull your pants down.

I’ve rarely written or spoken of writers who’ve inspired me. Perhaps I’ll do more of these. But while working last night, I thought of Burroughs Cutting up blocks of text to get new fresh meanings and lines, or to cull weird word pairings and find new ways of saying things. He might have really dug that word camera page. It was greatly helpful to me last night while feeling anxious but stuck and uninspired, stoned and slightly drunk.

Follow up on more regarding Burroughs Cut Up Method here.

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Months before it opened, I was asked to participate in a poetry reading as part of a museum exhibit. When I finally went to the gallery, Generation to Generation at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, it was as reporter with a notebook slipped in my pocket. It wasn’t until walking through the gallery and being present with the material that I was startled by how appropriate it was for me. The theme was Inherited Memory, and for me as an adopted son, I felt all my memories were inherited and somehow not wholly mine. I maintain memories from both the family who raised me and the family I belong to by blood– memories, it seemed, that neither side was all that interested in engaging me with.

Another local poet, who turns out to be my cousin in my adoptive family, mentioned in social media something about his grandfather and great-grandfather. I knew both of those men, and because of my cousins age, I wasn’t wholly sure he did. I was at his grandfather’s bedside the afternoon he died, I remember his great grandfather capping on me for being a chubby kid crawling under the dining room table, wondering if I’d get stuck. Body shaming children. Yeah, that was the good old days alright.

I walked through the modestly sized gallery and stood for a long time with each work. I made notes, here and there, regarding everything I saw. As if I could take tiny DNA samples of each piece and work them into… something. Much of the art was fascinating, gorgeous. But of course there was one I was deeply drawn to. Unbeknownst to me, it was made by a brother, Hank Willis Thomas. The work, What Goes Without Saying, is a installation using a wooden punishment stock with a classic style steel microphone positioned before it. Somehow, that piece is indicative of my poetry life and memories. In its stillness and juxtaposition, it says everything I haven’t been able to put into words. Its the kind of art I wish I’d made.

hwt12_008_what_goes_withough_saying_1860

Thinking about Inherited Memory, thinking of my adoption story and my cousin, thinking too about that stock in the middle of the gallery, I started writing. The drafted poem was about my adoption and me being the holder of family story that no one has time to hear, nor wants to. The following week, I returned for a second lap through the museum, this time with one of my poetry friends. I wanted to see it again through her eyes, see it again for myself, see if anything new caught my attention for subsequent re-writes. A couple days later I had a solid second draft that felt good to go.

The idea was to pair a poet with one of the art works on display. I was open to read wherever I was assigned. But when I got the email from the event organizer saying she was having me stand with Thomas’ What Goes Without Saying, I audibly gasped and immediately texted my friend about it. I was to stand with one piece that really got my attention.

I auditioned a third draft of the poem at a open mic in Oakland, after which another friend came up to me and said: You just told my story! I hugged her, and said: I had to.

The event was held on “the last good night in America” as the following day was the, ugh, inauguration. There were about six or seven writers paired with paintings, installations. A museum volunteer moved a mic stand from one work to another while a second volunteer recorded it on a video camera, and another acted as curator introducing the name of the artist and the poet. We were given only a few minutes to read. Early on it felt like a remarkable and special evening, an event I would have gone to if I hadn’t been in it. Art excites me. Certainly this kind of event has been done before, but here and tonight it felt new and different. The audience herded from event to event and was open and attentive. When it was my turn people assembled into an arc around me and I read from my journal sending my voice to the people in the back peeking over shoulders. Years ago, I wondered if audiences could be engaged with my adoption story, if anyone could relate to an adoptees mindset, to my struggles with identity and family. Now, I no longer care — I write as truthfully as I can and let it go. If it holds meaning for you, awesome. Lets talk. If not, let the words wash over you in the abstract and we’ll soon move on to something else.

The event ended and I felt positive and energized. What is this on my face?? Oh, my bad– I’m smiling. I told the organizer she should do this every year. It would get my attention again even as an audience. My friend came to see the final show and even got to participate. The whole event lasted about an hour, afterwards we stood around chatting with folks until we all were gently swept out by patient security guards, one of whom, an older African brother, smiled at me–recognizing me from my earlier reconnaissance visits– saying he liked very much what I was doing and told me so lovingly and parental while steadily pushing me towards the exit.

writingpoems
SPOILER: I don’t. They write me.

I woke up in time to catch CBS Sunday Morning and the moment it was over, I clicked off the television, already annoyed by the Sunday morning crew newscast, and started getting myself dressed and my stuff together.

Four notebooks, some print outs of articles and Other People’s Poetry I found the previous week at work, two pens, one pencil. Some books I didn’t open.

I’m a morning person, obviously. If I can get out of the house before 8:30 I feel like I’m accomplishing something and there’s hope. I like it early when the streets begin to aspirate gently. What people there are move slowly. By rights I should walk, but the arthritis in my knees and my unreliable feet make that downhill mile more daunting than I’d like. I don’t wait long for the bus. From there, its a two block walk past the children’s playground to my preferred café. The other name cafe’s you’d recognize, with better coffee and pastries, have tables that are much too small. In their large communal rooms, only a couple of tables are appropriate, both at the window and against the brick wall (one inside, one out). Those tables usually go first to students staring into their laptops or seniors leisurely combing over newspapers. I found one café with strong coffee and kinda miserable Costco pastries and huge tables with bay windows overlooking the lake that’s dreamlike for me. Its owned by an Ethiopian family. And part of my effort to get here early is for a prime window seat. Both tables were taken by the time I arrived, but I found a large table, centered against the wall, a couple of arms length away from the window where a woman sat talking on her phone with her laptop yawned open. On my other side, a younger Asian male finished a breakfast burrito and stirred the white pages on his desk.

I took out a yellow legal pad and a pencil and wrote three pages. Those were pages of therapy. Cleansing out whatever stray detritus floated in my head. Last nights dream, my insecurity, shame, wishes for what I’d rather be doing, what I did the day before and what I didn’t do. I wrote without stopping, as if sitting across a therapist and free associating. Until finally I ran out. I sipped coffee, I pinched off a chunk of muffin.

In one of my notebooks I made a bullet list: What goals did I want to accomplish, Right Now, while sitting here? I wrote three sentences. My intent was to write about Prince, via three specific experiences. Friday morning, I wrote a page of stray inconsequential notes and phrases. I gazed at them again, then took up the essay I’d found on line the previous week. Then read a poem. If writing my head clear with a pencil is one thing, this act of reading harmonizes my brain. Pointing my imagination to a goal, a direction.

Reading was a way to jump start the conversation in my head. Where and how do writers begin– how do they track their feelings on the subject, in this case Prince. How are they successful and how do they disappoint me? The poem I read started with a truly lovely idea and image, but it kinda devolved into sugary gibberish as it reached its end. The essay I read was better: strong, beautiful, admirable and personal. He’d write a far better version of whatever it is I’m sitting here hoping will emerge.

I reminded myself there were three memories I wanted to try to capture. I took up another notebook and free-wrote thru one memory at a time. I couldn’t stop. It was like automatic writing. I watched the images in my head and like a journalist made notes on what I was seeing, thinking, feeling. Because it was a poem, I pushed the boundaries of what I remembered and attempted to add things, images, elements that didn’t happen but could have. I wrote quickly, almost trembling in effort to write faster.

I stopped and looked up. A half dozen spandexed joggers had come in and sat down. A dude with a very runny nose sat next to me, also with a notebook so I quietly wished him luck. I took up my second memory and turned it over in my mind. Hadn’t thought of it in years. Then picked up a pen and ran with it; When I couldn’t remember something, I made it absurd. Surreal. Sometimes its not just what the Thing is, its what else it is. I wrote quickly, choreographing all manner of insane things into a memory which was more like a GIF file stored in my brain. Same with that third memory. Crazy write, I think is the phrase.

I left my laptop at home. On purpose. Hand writing is like sculpting. Creating directly from the heart. Because you’re writing by hand, you work slower and become more specific in your word choice — or crazy in your word choice once you realize you can’t stop and check a thesaurus for an alternative. To stop and check something is to stop, period. I only found myself stopping and looking up across the room from time to time as if I were listening to someone on the phone and they just put me on hold. It was swimming a few strokes and coming up for air. Right now, the goal isn’t to get anything right, its just to Write: to dump out of my mind every crumb of imagery that wants to come up while turning something specific over in my head.

Consequently, to initiate something on the computer– as I’m doing now– is creating something directly from ego. The effort is faster, which isn’t to say better, more muscular and from a seat of certainty, knowing. Ego. I can end this, scan it for errors, and publish it quickly. Instead of being the best it could be, it’ll just be Done. Last week I found a quote attributed to Dylan Thomas: “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flush, or thunder in.” I think handwriting leaves holes that allows for conversation to happen later once you re-approach the page. What I’m writing now, this blog, will be finished in a few paragraphs and never thought of again.

But yesterday… I left the café to go to a bakery for cookies. Then I returned home, put on Oscar Peterson, Art Blakely then a recording of Langston Hughes The Weary Blues. I cleaned up the kitchen, smoked half a joint, then typed up all the notes from earlier this morning. The typing showed me a lot of holes and clichés. How many different words can there be for heart? How many different ways can I say galaxy? Being high I made editing choices that were raw and interesting (and brief. High-James is not a great writer, but he’s a solid typist and edits well enough).

Those notes are marinating now. I finished and mailed them to myself for today, to print and go back over tonight when I leave work and to review ‘what happened’. I printed those pages blindly without looking, then slipped them into my notebook. To marinate your work seems most essential in writing– even more important than whether you type or hand-write. My brain is, even as I type this, very curious as to what happened in those notes. But forcing myself to wait while thinking other things, to let the words congeal on the page without me, allows me to approach my own work again, but with fresh eyes, a different face and new outlook. To read my own work as if I were a friend or critic of myself.

ME: Hey!! I wrote seven pages yesterday!
NEW ME: Are any of them worth reading?
ME: Hater!