Friday, December 5, 2014

Genius and fraudulence in music and poetry

Genius is easy to recognize if you understand how it works. Once when I was in college studying music, I had a professor who asked me to explore some early Mozart works. I was very curious myself as to what this child genius would sound like as a composer. The music library had some very old rare LP records, and I heard some of Mozart's earliest symphonic works. What was so moving and poignant about the child Mozart was that I could hear and feel the style of the mature genius, but he was still very obviously a child. But within that child I could see and feel that self, the original and unique style of the later Mozart. The genius of Mozart was always there from the beginning, and he had learned later to do more marvelous things with it, but the self within that style was the same "person."

Just as one can often see the same smile on a baby picture that one sees in the adult picture, there is something essential that identifies one self as no one else. And one self can sometimes do truly awe-inspiring things by remaining true to itself.

On the other hand, fraudulence in poetry and in the arts in general is quite easy to slide into. Likewise, corruption is easy to fall into, that is, if one is given certain unfortuitous circumstances. It often begins with the best of intentions; for example, an editor might believe that there really is only ONE style of poetry that has validity, relevance and truth on its side (or beauty, irrelevance and truth on its side, as some might believe).

When poets realize that a style or trend is running "hot," they know that they must appear to embrace this craze or they will miss out on the wave. One can learn to mimic the particular affects of a style and to plug them into one's work, as needed. Then one can ride the wave, which may include publications, jobs, money, prizes etc.

But when poets study the affectations of any new style just to show off that they have acquired the new or last or greatest avant-garde symptoms, it is like they are checking off a list of things to do and to not do. Now they will be accepted, promoted, and valued, or so they believe. In reality, what has happened is that they have sacrificed the most important thing in any self-expressive art—one’s true self.

I actually know some people who have altered their style for exactly these sorts of reasons, which means that they did not feel that the writing was truly better. But it would help them please the powers-that-be.

The poets who do this sort of thing may be largely unconscious or lying to themselves in part about their own motivations. I had a friend who was a well regarded, famous poet who admitted that he thought all of his poetry was $#!*. He wrote just to make a career. I had been troubled personally by the way he portrayed himself and his culture sometimes, for he would sometimes create self images that would play into or gratify a cultural hegemony that put a dominant Eurocentric American culture above his own culture. I do not believe he really thought that any Eurocentric culture was superior to his own culture. But it worked well for his career.

I have also known poets who are in positions of power of one sort or another (editors, publishers, professors in Creative Writing programs) who only promote poets who emulate their own school or style. (You know who you are by whom you have hired.) If one fails to subscribe to and support the "right" people, then one is devalued and marginalized. One fails to get the invitation to the big wealthy-donor-supported conferences. One does not get the great job.

I have also known people with great integrity in similar positions of power who, due to ideological systems of belief, cannot recognize any great art unless it conforms to certain political ideals, whether they are very progressive or very conservative. I have seen both sorts of ideological programming, and they both suffer from a lack of openness to real differences of perspective.

It's hard to truly love any art that was made to fit a political agenda.

And, by the way, for some strange reason, the average book of poetry published in the United States today sells 300 copies.

The generally curious and intelligent reader who cares about society and culture resorts to the poetry area of the bookstore only if serious depression strikes. Or it could be during the post-New Year's doldrums when winter has a grip on everyone and life isn't fun anymore. That's when poetry books have their best chance of selling. And those books are written by mostly dead poets and older poets.

In the end, after the careers and the short-lived fame of prizes no one will value in the future, only the love will remain. The love, and only the love, will remain.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

On the disconcerting klutziness and greatness of Maurice Ravel's Pavane, etc.

Recently, I've woken up and gone to sleep with Ravel's music on my mental music player, (formerly known as one's memory). These memories drove me to seek videos of some of my favorite compositions by Ravel, The Left Hand Concerto in D and Pavane pour une infante defunte. I used to compose left hand piano music and loved some of Ravel's works for many years. At the same time, I have to say I'm no musicologist and I was never even a very good musician though I did sometimes entertain friends and small audiences of strangers on the piano. That said, it has always seemed to me that Ravel lacked a power of musical imagination that one finds far more effusively expressed in Mozart or Debussy—they never seem to run out of great musical ideas, phrases, and sentences. They always have more to say that makes sense, and the ideas follow with a fluidity and inevitability. Such imaginative genius can find or invent new musical ideas everywhere and in everything. On the other hand, Ravel seems to very obviously (even embarrassingly) run out of ideas sometimes.

In his famous Pavane, he works through some profoundly beautiful variations on one simple theme—it is so poignant that it is truly unforgettable. But then after doing that over and over for a while, it feels like he really just runs out of ideas! The B section that follows does not really stick together very well or even make sense. It even sounds klutzy, confused and confusing. I've heard many great pianists struggle to make this B section make sense. At best, it is bearable, but one really just waits for it to end. Fortunately, it doesn't last that long, and then the theme from the first part returns in an even more gorgeous variation. So the greatness is really undeniably there, and it reasserts itself.

One has to wonder why he could not find a more worthy second theme, something at least a little memorable. Perhaps it was wisdom or perhaps it was simple despair to accept the fact that he just could not invent or discover a second theme anywhere nearly as good as the first theme.

In retrospect, to be able to accept that inner failing and to lurch bravely forward is a very humane way to go on. He was kinder to himself than many other composers would have been. Somehow, I think we forgive him as listeners. We don't listen to Ravel for the same reasons we listen to Mozart, whose genius can shine so magnificently all the time that it is awe inspiring. We can still remember and love those parts of Ravel that ring the most true to our feelings.

The Left Hand Concerto in D has a less obvious flaw in its "great" cadenza, and many people may disagree with me on this. But to me it seems as though he spent so much energy trying to make one left hand sound like two hands that he did not really develop the melody very much or very far. He manages to create a very powerful and beautiful series of effects with some of the longest and fastest arpeggiated passages anywhere in piano literature. After he establishes the methods of his techniques, he does make it sound very powerful, convincing, and engrossing. But then it seems like he just runs out of ideas again! So we get all the ingredients for a great cadenza, and then he closes it out with a big orchestral bang. So it is a little disappointing musically, but one cannot deny that there is still greatness there, even if just for a few brief moments.

The story around this concerto may explain why people love it so much—Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist and brother of the very famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, lost his right arm in WW I, and this piece was commissioned by him. The fact that Wittgenstein was playing at that level at all with one hand was a triumph, and to keep this almost "magical" series of technical feats going too long might have seemed a little like tempting the fates or torturing a musician who had already seen more than enough suffering. So there is that sense of the humane acceptance of one's limitations again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Today I got up early and read in the NY Times that Galway Kinnell passed away on Tuesday, 10/28/2014. He was one of my greatest teachers at NYU. So I am re-posting some brief 'snapshots' in prose [from 3/8/05] on Galway Kinnell, the teacher/poet.
§ § §

§ § §


[March 8, 2005* On Galway Kinnell as a teacher/poet, something to be grateful for....]

Galway would regularly ask us to do the impossible. Once in a one-on-one conference in the spring of 1999 he was helping me with a poem about the out-of-body travel experience of a thirteen-year-old. I was struggling to show how it was both a transcendent and a sexually arousing experience. He perked up with a great idea, which went something like: ‘Why don’t you show how the spiritual and the sexual are interwoven inevitably in adolescence? I’ve never read a poem about that. Why don’t you do that?’

After the enormity of this sank in, I said something like, ‘Okay.... I guess I could try that....’ (read: Sure, just toss off the answer to a mystery that has baffled thinkers and sages for millennia).

Even though I was stumped for a very long time, the idea Galway planted took root and a year later I wrote the poem that fulfilled that idea, and it was published later in 2000.

I have always felt indebted to Galway for daring to believe in me (and so many of us) with the same kind of ambition that he had in his own work. That was a gift that you could never fully measure. Thank you, Galway!

(The poem that Galway and I were discussing this idea over was called "digression," and it was written as the second part of a series called "out-of-body travel at thirteen." I think he had already seen the third part called "out-of-body travel at thirteen"—that was the most narrative part. The next part, which took a year to write was about the transcendental and sexual elation, and it was called "elation: some variations." I brought this to Sharon's workshop the following year and explained how it came about. I seem to remember Sharon's reaction when I recollected Galway's suggestion to the class as a kind of moment when her jaw dropped open momentarily. Thanks to Ashlie Kauffman, fellow NYU alum for asking about this.)


[The wonderful poet and fellow alum Susan Brennan sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

Once, in Galway's classroom, he played a tape of animals sounds—I remember the wolves especially and thinking—this is wild, and comforting and—so sexy. In that same class, he explained Whitman as a kind of fertility god who spoke through the lines of Leaves of Grass. I remember cherishing this note especially because the previous semester I was in an English class with doctoral students who just about crucified Whitman.

Reading Galway's work, being his student at NYU, watching him get intense over line-drives at Squaw Valley, having him generously listen to poems that were difficult to write—all these moments have conveyed to me a special knowledge about poetry; that it's a wilderness which poets can graciously and proudly inhabit. Galway has shown my poetry-creature ways to make a home in this wilderness.

A couple of summers ago, I was standing on West Third Street with Humera and we saw Galway crossing the street. He had on a bright, white shirt and it was billowing in the wind. We watched as strangers turned their heads to look at him with an impulsive curiosity. We sighed to each other "he's so beautiful and sexy and wild and free"! Poetry.

[03/12/2005]



[This is from fellow alum Emily Gordon who sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

This is the Galway story I love to tell. In 2002 on the last day of Craft, he gave out books of his to everyone and talked for a little while about how much having poetry friendships has meant to him. He said, "When you leave, I hope you'll stay in touch with each other, and trade poems. The most marvelous thing is how easy it can be! You don't have to wait for the mail for weeks anymore to find out if your friend liked your poem. Now there's the fax machine, which makes it so that in only a few minutes your friend can see your poem, and send it back, and you can read it! Isn't it wonderful?" And we all burst out laughing in the most affectionate way possible, just about in tears.

[03/14/2005]

§ § §

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

early memory from infancy

I can remember one of the first times I was ever photographed. I was only three months old, according to the notes written on the backs of the photos. The moment stood out because my parents went to some great efforts to get me to smile. They moved away from me so I was alone on a big red blanket, and they made silly, funny noises that were supposed to sound like a baby’s sounds.

If I had had an ego at the time, I might have thought that this was very patronizing of them to imitate the way I sounded as if mocking my infant sounds would entertain me. But I did not have an ego at the time, so their pseudo-baby sounds worked. I started to laugh at how silly they sounded.

As I was starting to laugh, I saw that they got behind a cumbersome machine, which looked very big to me. It blocked one of their faces as one of them held it up. They also spread a shiny chrome-plated parabolic mirror—almost as big as a face—that was attached to this machine. I had no idea what was about to happen. 

Then it struck me—F L A S H ! ! !  

I was not only blinded, but it felt as though the painfully bright light had penetrated to the very back of my little head. It really HURT my head! I also realized in that moment that my parents had TRICKED me! I had been SET UP to be exposed to this painful explosion!

In an instant, I started to crumble up inside.

Meanwhile, they were thrilled at their success. 

Before I could protest (meaning, cry like an H-bomb), they did it again.

F L A S H ! ! !

I cried like an H-bomb!

They thought that that was really funny, and they had a really big laugh at me before they picked me up to make me feel better.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

How to promote a book on a shoestring, a talk prepared for AWP Seattle, 2014

    First things first: a specific kind of love makes people keep books and return to them at odd hours, even middle-of-the-night hours, and share them. This love is hard to define, but it is when people love books so much that they can’t feel alive or complete without them, and they spontaneously want to share them. A symptom of this is when you love a book so much you give it away to friends a half dozen times because you want them to be able to appreciate it.
    (This isn’t bibliomania—this is not about collecting/possessing/owning)
    The way it starts is that you the reader/the editor have to love the work so much that you feel compelled to do everything you can for it to advocate for it, to sell it, to bring it to light.
    There are practical things you can do that cost nothing or nearly nothing, and these are just commonsense:
    Step 1: Start with friends and colleagues that you respect as readers. If you can persuade them to read it, if they are teachers, ask them to teach it. If they have book circles, ask them to share it.
    Note: course adoptions can mean a lot because students—when they love a book—share it and talk about it.
    Corollary: listen to their responses because they will help you shape the way to pitch the book to various people, decision makers, program coordinators, radio hosts etc.
    Step 2: Ask local libraries or college libraries etc. to buy the book, and/or ask friends to do the same.
    Step 3: Share good things with your authors. I don’t honestly remember how it happened that I was invited to be interviewed on the Joe Milford poetry show as a poet, but it went very well. My appearance attracted a near-record number of downloads, so I asked the host if he would interview all of the other authors in MMM Press. Joe did all of that on his own, and he was very happy about the interviews. So actually ALL of us with the press then got into the Joe Milford radio podcast archives. You can find everyone here: http://www.thejoemilfordpoetryshow.com/archives.php
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2010/10/02/joe-milford-hosts-rebecca-foust
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2009/11/16/joe-milford-hosts-patrick-lawler-1
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2009/11/08/joe-milford-hosts-susan-settlemyre-williams
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2009/11/21/joe-milford-hosts-anee-marie-cusac
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2009/11/09/joe-milford-hosts-alison-stone

    As words gets around, spontaneously great things can start to happen for a book, e.g. Rebecca Foust’s book’s cover art by a great artist, John Folinsbee, gave Rebecca the idea to find out more about the artist, which led her to a museum showing his work, which led to an event at the Woodmere Museum in Philadelphia, and then the museum bookstore sold the book.
    Another example: our author Patrick Lawler got featured in Brian Brodeur’s blog, “How a poem happens”:
http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com/2011/01/patrick-lawler.html

    Coincidentally, Brian Brodeur was the copyeditor of Patrick’s book and he even suggested one or two of the poems in the Table of Contents, so he was already an ardent fan himself. Patrick’s book had a new ally and friend in a very well-respected peer poet.

    Here is another fortuitous, spontaneous thing that no one could foresee. One year the poet Sean Thomas Dougherty was visiting Drexel University and a student asked during the Q&A part of the reading who he had learned the most from, and he really paused thoughtfully, and then he said spontaneously: Patrick Lawler—he learned the most from Patrick Lawler. Given that Sean is a voracious, impassioned reader—it would be hard to find his equal in that regard—this was no small compliment.
    No way that could have been planned.
    Important note: this kind of fortuitous good thing doesn’t work as well if there is a sense of “I’ll-do-this-for-you-if-you-do-that-for-me.”
    Just as there is no way to plan to fall in love with a book, transactional calculations have no real place here. To fall in love with a book is the only really good reason to buy a book or to sell one, or to teach one.
    If you are selling (or publishing) a book to score political points with someone or to advance your career without regard to the real feelings of your friends, readers, and the audience of unsuspecting readers, I am afraid that evil karma may pursue you through a dozen lifetimes and jackals may urinate on your grave.

    Be that as it may, back to practical steps:
    Build web pages for a new book— (off the press site, or off the author site)
    Why? Give people a chance to browse in depth. Give some text and audio samples or other forms of media. Give hungry readers a chance to fall in love.
    I’m sure web offerings helped my books, so I knew it would help the other authors’ books. Here are some samples pages that show sample poems, audio and video links:
http://mmminc.org/mmm_press_new/silkie/TOC_samples.htm
http://mmminc.org/mmm_press_new/invisiblesisterwebpage/html/audiowebpage_is.htm
http://mmminc.org/mmm_press_new/theysing/TOCpoems.htm
http://mmminc.org/mmm_press_new/Underground/sample_poems.htm
{Play (if possible): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-68Lmykjm_Q }

    Further, good online offerings help inspire other good online things, and many good things come up for our authors, often because of their own initiative, and here is just one:
http://firstbookinterviews.blogspot.com/2008/12/9-susan-settlemyre-williams.html
    Why else do all this work (or pay someone else to)?
    It makes it much easier to sell the work to a teacher, a colleague, a committee, a decision-maker, a programming director.
    For example, Rebecca Foust was easy to bring to Drexel University given all the resources available about her. Further, Patrick Lawler’s Underground got adopted for use as a selection for the Syracuse University Living Writers Course (i.e. over 200 students read it, and most of them loved it—I know, because otherwise they would have returned it). The same thing happened at Muhlenberg College for their Living Writers Course, where they had 80+ students reading it and most of them also actually read and kept the book. Ditto SUNY Oswego.
    So far, all the above costs very little money. And book sales have actually made money to pay for other things to help the books/authors.
    Here is another simple thing—when a great thing happens for your author from another source like another press, try to work with those people because you both want your author to succeed. So, for example, a few days ago Renato Rosaldo had a brilliant, tragic, harrowing, intriguing new book from Duke show up at our MMM Press table, and he sold quite a large number of them yesterday. So in a way you could say that was bad for MMM Press because it means all that money went not to help MMM Press but to help Duke, which did not even come to AWP. But I think Duke and MMM Press can work together better to find and create events for Renato, and actually both books together sort of complete each other, honestly. So we both would want the author’s works come further into the light.
    MMM Press has also created a lot of different author events in many cities, including NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia and Denver, and these did not cost much either.

    Readings are great for everyone (the authors, the editors and staff) because you are reminded of the most important things: you hear a reading where you get chills. You see new strangers fall in love with the work the way that you did, for its own sake, and even the author can realize that she/he has created something greater than oneself. With Renato and Patrick and Alison Stone in NYC at the Cornelia Street CafĂ©, I was reminded, too, of why these poets are so wonderful and worthwhile.
    BIGGER COMMITMENTS (now that you have a budget, thanks to sales of books:)
    Competitions: I try to nominate the books for every prize that they might deserve. I’ve always tried to nominate them for things like the Pulitzer and many smaller prizes. (Usually, I thought the MMM Press authors were robbed if they didn’t win.) Often the authors take the initiative and win things, e.g. Anne-Marie Cusac won a prize from the Wisconsin Library Award. Rebecca Foust’s book also won a prize from the San Francisco Book Festival for a poetry book.
    More significant money goes into advertisements in respectable print publications:
Poets & Writers, APR, ABR, Library Journal etc.
    What also costs money: review copies.
    For Rebecca Foust’s book, we did send out a very large number of review copies, and we got  maybe a dozen reviews and notices, all positive, some glowing. Rebecca also got a radio interview on a local station (I think it was an NPR affiliate), and she also got very glowing responses from her own network of friends, peers, mentors, which helped give her book a lot of momentum. So she has almost completely sold through her first printing of over a thousand copies. Patrick Lawler’s first book likewise has sold through almost all through his first printing of over a thousand copies.
    What else costs MMM Press a lot of money:
    The AWP bookfair ($500 per table fee this year, which goes up pretty drastically EVERY year. Ho hummm. The expense of flying people to AWP, which also goes up every year.) And the cost of cakes, drinks, utensils etc. for bookfair.
    Last words:
    I only get to do 10% of what I’d like to do for the authors, if that. (This is due mostly to the conditions of the serf class of @^#%#%#$%, but that is another panel that AWP rejected.) MMM Press is free, independent, and not beholden to anyone. That also means unsupported by any institution. We have friends who have given us money, though, but that was out of love, given freely, and received in that spirit.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

out-of-body travel at thirteen

Thanks to a very wonderful teacher, John Darby, I was invited to read a few poems at Sky Lake in Rosendale, NY, a Shambhala Center for meditation at the end of a meditation weekend recently. This is one of the poems. The other, "a far and pure wilderness" is also in this blog if you search for that title.

["out-of-body travel at thirteen" was published in the towards euphoria chapbook from Seven Kitchens Press as the winner of the Editor's Prize a year or two ago. This is actually the end of a long series of poems. The story was also a prose story that was published a long time ago. It can be found through this link: “Out-of-body travel at thirteen,”]


[Eighth-grader Jeff’s side of the story:]
I snapped like a branch
and was released—
as if a tree had a soul
that flew away
when its boughs
were broken,
sky absorbed me
like a breath exhaled
despite cars, blacktop
and careless passersby,
a peace held me
like a cloud
sustaining ice
in its mist—
I felt like
a sapling
that remembers
its ancestor forest,
its millions
of green lives
in each tree,
each rooting
into other lives,
each racing
rival life-forms,
parasites grinding
pulp leaves
to worms’ food,
warm and cold-blooded
voices, mammals
moved by hunger,
rage, lust, fear—   
I understood
but was free
from the struggle
to be fed by sunlight,
water, air—   
the spirit
each body holds
was one with me,
yet I was
sustained
as free from self
as from body
and in the ether
I saw my self too
with all its flaws
before it could sl-
am shut its
small gates of
mind again—
I saw
what I was
while you
could see only
the shell of me,
and I had to choose
to be thrown in
the tangles of
life again—
I wasn’t prodded back
this time—
my body dragged me
in its heavy waves,
but the ether
still filled me
like a sail
until I ached
all over me,
suddenly a body— 
bewildered, diminished...
But then,
back in me
as if for the first time,
I grasped
that the soul
is not beyond,
across or through us—
it is us—
it is us
and I was
so moved to see
in your eyes
the farthest
purest wilderness

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sunday, April 21, 2013

This March  I was at the annual writers conference sponsored by the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP Boston, 2013) and a magazine had a flash fiction contest at the bookfair. You had to write a story which met several criteria. It had to fit on one piece of paper with the guidelines printed on it. It had to be set on one of several possibilities, one of which was a space station. It had to have a plot situation, and one of them was that a device goes horribly wrong. It also had to have one of a series of types of characters, one of which was an impostor. I can't remember all the other rules, but this flash fiction, below, owes its eccentricities in part to the "rules." This did not win, but it did get some pretty good laughs. So here is:

Rescuers of Monkey Minds Search among the Water Bubbles (316 words mmxiii)


    If you say “Monkey Mind says” after everything you say in your head, it kind of deflates your ego. For example, you see a gorgeous woman float by on a space station, and you say, “Wow, what a hot woman! Monkey Mind says.”

    See, no one thinks you’re serious.

    So I was floating around a space station, the S. S. AWP, trying to wash my hands in the fully-automated “Zero-G” kitchen sink. It was made for guys who can’t even work a toaster. It was a giant clear balloon with one-way valves to let hands in and no water out. My hands went in and water flowed in—lots of water and a little soap, but it wouldn’t drain or let my hands back out. I started to panic and pulled away harder, which in Zero-G meant I was thrust face-first into the bulging balloon, and it POPPED!

    Water droplets exploded in all directions, but mostly they just floated into my face and around my head—I couldn’t breathe! And water was still flowing into the water sphere around my head.

    I pictured my ashes in an urn ejecting into space like Spock’s remains after the moving eulogy by Admiral Kirk in that Star Trek movie. I pictured that gorgeous woman coming to rescue me, wearing a Zero-G snorkel with an extra-long air tube. She wrapped her arms around me, planted her legs on the wall and shoved us out of the water bubble—I could breathe again!

    Then she took off her mask, and she had a three-day beard, and then she removed her torso body suit, and she was a skinny man in a plaid flannel shirt. “It’s not what you think,” she said. “I’m not transgender. I’m not an impostor. I’m just questioning.”

   “Wow, you really burst my bubble,” I said, and then I just felt deflated.