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Reflections on Teaching, Reading, and Writing... and Art

Last Build Date: Wed, 27 Sep 2017 17:31:46 +0000



Fri, 12 May 2017 19:44:00 +0000

In the same way that artists and writers are often pleasurably surprised by the way their work is enriched when it doesn't evolve according to plan, I am often delighted, when looking for one thing, to find another. This is one argument for browsing as an act of value creation. The other day I went to the local library to pick up a book I had reserved. While I was there I went over to the new book section, as I most often do, just to see what might be of interest on the shelves. There was nothing in the fiction section that caught my eye, but over further I noticed that there were several new books of poetry: Whereas by Stephen Dunn, who I have admired for a long time, and The Last Shift by Philip Levine, a posthumous collection by another writer I have read with appreciation for many years. I snapped both of them up, and then noticed one more book by a writer I had never heard of: Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, by Dean Rader. I liked the line drawings on the cover, and as I flipped through it it looked as if it might be interesting, especially since a number of the poems seemed to reference Paul Klee, whose approach to and thinking about art has been a big influence on my own work, so I took that one as well.When I got home, I sat down and read through the Dunn and Levine books first, and found in each a couple of poems I wanted to include in my archives. (I began collecting poems in the mid-1970's, when I was teaching middle school English and was trying to find poems that might serve in the classroom to introduce students to the way poems work. I started with a single folder with four or five poems in it; eventually I had a folder for every letter of the alphabet with multiple poems by dozens of authors represented in each folder.) Back in the day, I used to just photocopy poems that I liked. Over the last ten years or so I have taken to typing them out, primarily because I find that doing so gives me to the opportunity to attend to the way the poem unfolds, one word, one line at a time. In so doing I often notice things about the way the poem is put together—the way the lines break, repeated words, patterns of sound, etc.—that I don't necessarily pick up by just by moving my eyes across the little black marks on the page and then heading for the photocopier.The big surprise came when I started reading the poems by Dean Rader. He's a thoughtful, witty, offbeat writer whose poetry exemplifies the spirit of writing that I have throughout my career tried to encourage in my students. His poems are excursions, explorations, investigations. They are surprising both in conception and in execution. Many of them are linked explicitly or implicitly to visual art. Of the fifty-one poems in the volume, 24 include the words "Self-Portrait" in the title, and each of those poems is indeed a kind of self-portrait of the writer at a particular moment in time, or in the case of the poem I'm about to quote—typical of Rader's atypicality—at a particular moment outside of time. Here are the first few lines of "Self-Portrait: Postmortem":Imagine a poem that begins at the end, in that big boat beyond the end,where things are both timeless and no longer part of time or even part of things,which is a little bit like picturing water without waves or light without the starsbut not at all like a sky made entirely of stars or the stars composedof our thoughts about them, more like the body's bones minus their crushed musicof music free of meaning and misapprehension, but most of all like a seasin which there is neither up nor down, forward or backward, depth or distance,only the motion of stasis, the weight of weightlessness. I love the way this poem unspools itself, starting with the simple injunction to imagine a certain kind of poem, and then following the emerging line of thought to its logical conclusion. (Although the logic, in this case, is being stretched and extended in ways that may seem il-logical but are appropriate to the investigation.) And the "conclusion" of the poem, some twenty lines later, actually brings us back to [...]

What Can People Do to Get Better at Learning?

Thu, 11 Feb 2016 03:51:00 +0000

A short video on learning from the current Atlantic, with Jo Boaler, Amanda Ripley, Tim Brown, and others making good sense:

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Tue, 08 Dec 2015 00:09:00 +0000

RBS: Homeland

November came in like a sauna and went out like a cold shower. We had a sustained period of hot, sunny afternoons, and then the last two weeks have been more typically autumnal. My art practice during November turned out to be mostly collage. Strathmore makes a very sturdy textured paper out of bamboo. As far as I can figure out it only comes in two sizes, trading card (2.5" x 3.5") and greeting card (5"x 7," folded, with envelopes.) The card stock stands up well to the acrylic medium that I use as glue and glaze for my collages. It was pleasant, after having spent most of October working with only black and white, to play with color again. I wound up doing about 35 collages in this series, and within that set of 35 several smaller sequences. Typically I'll choose a set of papers and then wind up doing two or three or four different collages using the same basic set materials, and then pull out a different set of papers and do the same thing with them. One thing I noticed about what I have been doing is that my tendency is to build a collage additively, using only one piece of each kind of paper in any given collage, as in these examples.

Colors or shapes can and do echo one another, but I do not normally include or layer multiple pieces of the same paper. But I do see other collage artists doing that to good advantage. Here, for example, is a masterful instance by Robert Motherwell entitled Australia II, where he has an interesting mix of repeated and cognate elements on the one hand and unique elements on the other:

Motherwell: Australia II

So I'm thinking that's something I want to start playing with in my next sequence. But so far in December I've been playing possum. I've been doing a lot of reading and a fair amount of writing, but no art yet, and I've been turning over in my mind what I would like to do next, and when, and why.


Sun, 01 Nov 2015 17:30:00 +0000

Last day of October. The late afternoon sun is streaming in my window as I write and it feels less like Hallowe'en than an early summer evening. It's our second autumn in Northern California and I'm still getting used to the early morning chill, the pleasant warmth of midmorning, and the baking afternoon heat. For some reason, the afternoon sun feels even hotter in California than in Hawaii. And for most of September and October the California afternoons have put me in mind of the summer afternoons of my youth in New York State. There is talk of El Nino bringing much-needed rain during the winter months,  but we have not had more than a few drops here and there since spring.I generally try to have one form of practice—writing, drawing, collage, woodwork, walking, something—going on, and this month it's been drawing. I started out on a series of 4" x 4" pen-and-ink abstracts during the first week of October, and have done one or two pretty much every day this month. They are, like much of my work in previous years, explorations of what can be done in a small space with just black against white. They are not intended to be representational, although sometimes when they are done they seem to be want to be read that way. Most of them begin as movements of the pen and hand in defining small black spaces, but the creation of those spaces creates negative shapes in white, which by the time the drawing is done are what command the eye. One of the things about this way of working is that I can only begin to sense what the drawing is actually going to look like when I am more than halfway through. Once in a while I'll start with an overall idea in mind, block out the areas in advance, and work from the outside in, but must often I just start with one small shape in some random place on the paper, then add another, and another. I know at some point for sake of variety and visual interest I'm going to have to segue into some other set of contrasting shapes, but I do that more or less by feel, when the time is right. Then there's the question of when the drawing is done. Sometimes I will choose to leave a large area of white unadorned to set off the areas that have been heavily worked. This often has the effect of turning the abstract image into a landscape of sorts, with the white areas reading as sky: Each of these small studies takes two to four hours to complete. Every once in a while I'll go for a larger format which gives me the chance to set up individual zones that play off one another, as in this 7"x9" piece which was recently accepted for the annual member show at the Marin Society of Artists:EquinoxA piece like this can take anywhere from five to ten hours to complete. In this particular case, I decided to include a more or less literal nightscape: mountain and moon and stars, as the last element in the sequence, both for visual balance and because, as often happens, a theme ("Equinox") had occurred to me and I wanted something to reinforce that.A similar thing happened when I was working on this last 4x4 study. Earlier in the day I had had a conversation with my granddaughter about ladybugs and for some reason the very odd nursery rhyme ("Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home; your house is on fire, your children will burn.") was running through my head as I was drawing, and that theme made its way into the drawing as I moved from my beginning in the top left down to completion in the bottom right.Fly Away Home[...]

Wooden Heart

Thu, 11 Jun 2015 21:46:00 +0000

This is a video I ran across a while back by vocalist Dan Smith of Listener. When I first saw it I was like "What?!" There's a guy walking along dragging household electronics through a field with a rope. He's pulling a tv and crutches and a vacuum cleaner out of a lake. He makes a pile and takes a sledgehammer and starts smashing it all up. Then it's dark and he's holding flares. Then he walks into the water until it's over his head and he disappears. I don't know how you arrive at that video to go with this song, but weirdly enough the video and the song both seem to make each other stronger. What comes across to me after repeated listenings/viewings/readings is that despite its manic intensity and apocalyptic imagery it's essentially a love song, or at least a plea for love and mutual understanding. I think it's kind of great. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="285" src="" width="380">We're all born to broken people on their most honest day of livin'Since that first breath we'll need grace that we're never givenWell I've been haunted by standard red devils and white ghostsIt's not only when these eyes are closedThese lies are ropes and I tied them to my stomachBut they hold this ship together tossed like leaves in this weatherMy dreams are sails that I point towards my true northStretched thin over my rib bones and pray that it gets betterBut it won't, at least I don't believe it willSo I've built a wooden heart inside this iron shipTo sail these blood red seas and find your coastDon't let these waves wash away your hopesThis war ship is sinking and I still believe in anchorsPulling fistfuls of rotten wood from my heart, oh I still believe in saviours'Cause we are all made out of shipwrecks, every single boardWashed and bound like crooked teeth on these rocky shoresSo come on and let's wash each other with tears of joy and tears of griefAnd fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beachCome on and sew us together, just some tattered rags stained foreverWe only have what we rememberWell I'm the barely living son of a woman and a man who barely made itBut we're makin' it, taped together on borrowed crutches and new startsWe all have the same holes in our heartsEverything falls apart at the exact same time it all comes together perfectly for the next stepBut my fear is this prison that I keep locked below the main deckI keep a key under my pillow and it's quiet and it's hiddenAnd my hopes are weapons that I'm still learnin' how to use rightBut they're heavy and I'm awkward and I'm always runnin' out of fightSo I've carved a wooden heartPut it in this sinking ship hopin' it'd help me float for just a few more weeksBut I am all made out of shipwrecks, every twisted beamLost and found like you and me all scattered out on the seasSo come on let's wash each other with tears of joy and tears of griefAnd fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beachCome on and sew us together, we're just some tattered rags stained foreverWe only have what we rememberMy throat it still tastes like house fire and salt waterI wear this tide like loose skin, come on and rock me to seaIf we hold on tight we'll hold each other togetherAnd not just be some fools rushin' to die in our sleepWhile these machines will rust, I promise, but we'll still be electricShockin' each other back to lifeYour hand in mineMy fingers and your veins connected Our bones grown together in timeOur hands entwine and my fingers and your veins connectAnd our spines grown stronger inside'Cause I know that our church is all made out of shipwrecksFrom every hull these rocks have claimedBut we pick ourselves up, try and grow better with this changeSo come on and let's wash each other with tears of joy and tears of griefAnd fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beachCome on and sew us together, we're just some tattered rags stained foreverWe only have what we remember[...]

From the Archives: Reading and Writing

Thu, 11 Jun 2015 03:16:00 +0000

I spent several hours today working through folders on external hard drive where I keep backups of pretty much everything, insurance against the day when my now-four-year-old laptop gives up the ghost. I was looking for several particular files I think I might like to use next week when I head back into the classroom, but I also ran across a lot of other files I had more or less forgotten about. One in particular caught my eye, a dialogue or self-interview I had put together maybe ten or twelve years ago which speaks to some of the goals and aspirations of the course I am going to be teaching. So this evening's exercise has been to read and revise that dialogue:Why do you ask your students to read?Well, first of all, I’m teaching an English course, and the traditional mission of English programs is to help students learn to improve their reading, writing, and speaking abilities. But beyond that, I’m convinced that reading is fundamental to whatever it is that the students will wind up doing in high school, college, and beyond. In almost any academic discipline, the way you learn is by reading. Whether you’re on your way to becoming a banker, a lawyer, a scientist, a doctor, an architect, a policeman, or a historian, there is a body of work in your discipline which you are going to need to be able to read and to master in order to be effective in your line of work.But what’s the connection between the reading students do in sophomore English and the reading they may have to do later on?Well, we could use an analogy. It’s like playing a guitar. You don’t just pick up a guitar and start to play. You teach yourself, through attention and careful practice, what you need in order to be able to improve. If you stop practicing, your skills deteriorate. When you pick up the instrument again, it takes a while to get your mind and your fingers up to speed. There is also no “end” to the process. You don’t simply arrive at a point where you are now an officially certified guitar player with nothing else to learn. There are always new challenges, new levels of craft. What you learn this week is what makes it possible for you to learn even more challenging stuff next week. It’s always possible to get better.Like playing a guitar, reading is an acquired skill. Students already know how to read, but they bring to their reading a wide range of skills and abilities. They are all capable of learning to read with greater sophistication. Some students are good at one aspect of reading - getting the main idea, for example - and not so good at others. Some students can read one kind of text well—say, a particular kind of  short story— but find poetry (or analytical essays, or postmodern novels) baffling and frustrating to read. I tell my students that one of the goals of the course is to prepare them to be able to read anything they might encounter capably and with some degree of pleasure.What about students who don’t like to read?The question seems to imply that liking to read or not liking to read is an inherent and unchangeable trait. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a matter of choice. I frequently ask students to rate what we are reading on a scale of 1 to 7, with one being utter disdain and 7 being enthusiastic acceptance. Typically, in a room of 20 students there will be at least one student at each of the seven stations, and a cluster of students between 3 and 5. The point which I make with the students is that the range of responses—and there is always a range of responses—highlights the fact that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the texts we read. (In fact, pretty much any text a student is likely to read in class has already been screened multiple times before it even hits the students’ desk: it was selected by the author from among all the things s/he might have written to be published in the first place, it was later selected by the editors [...]

Notes on Collage

Tue, 09 Jun 2015 00:18:00 +0000

Over the last few years I've spend hundreds of hours making collages of various kinds. I've also made an effort to familiarize myself with the work of other contemporary collage artists, and to archive their work on tumblr and Pinterest, as for example on this board, which has nearly 5000 examples. I've been making an effort lately to try to articulate some of what goes on in my head as I'm working. This is what I've got so far.Considerations:• You are always working in two dimensions within a rectangle. It's a grid. You can work against the grid, with it, or, most often, in some combination of both.• Variables include the shapes (both positive and negative), the colors, the number and the relative sizes of the elements.• In terms of number of elements in the collage, there are challenges at both ends of the spectrum. I've seen very interesting collages that are composed of only two elements. On the other hand too many elements can threaten to overwhelm the eye.• Text can be included as a formal design element, as a vehicle for the introduction of a concept, as another kind of contrast to color and shape, or to signal seriousness of purpose or lack thereof.• Colors can be coordinated or contrasted.• Juxtaposition can go in many ways: one on top of another, edge to edge, overlap, or with space in between.• There is an inherent element of randomness and playfulness in collage. There are tradeoffs. Things that don't work for me: 1) complete chaos on the one hand, 2) overdetermined, message-oriented, pictorial stuff, 3) incongruous combinations: eagle heads on cacti, cars with boobs, people with apples where their heads should be, etc. I like to work in a zone of semi-abstraction, one the elements of the collage create a field of energies that are like a nonverbal conversation. I don't generally like explicitly narrative collages, but I do like collages which function, as in the best abstract art, as independent universes whose idiosyncratic rules distantly echo our own, and which invite the viewer to think about what those rules might be in this particular case.• There is a very large intuition quotient in the creation of a collage. You put it together piece by piece, and every part of the process—the selection of the elements, the decision whether to tear or cut or both, the placement of each piece, the configuration and extent of negative space—is made holistically and without explicit strategic planning. Sometimes, very rarely, I will lay out the major elements of the collage first before I start gluing, mostly to make sure that the last pieces don't look just stuck on top. But more often I start, as I do when I'm drawing abstracts, by gluing down a single piece somewhere on the paper and then simply building from that, linking the additions via placement, color, and shape as I go along. Given a pile of materials—and of course there is always an element of selection, however arbitrary, in the makeup of the pile—it is not completely off the mark to say that once I start working the collage builds itself.• On the other hand, it could also be said that every collage is in effect a kind of oblique self-portrait at a particular moment in time. I'm the one who has collected and selected the materials. I'm the one who has decided, even if the decisions have been intuitive rather than strictly rational, what goes where. And each collage reflects my inner sense of what juxtapositions feel right and complete one another. The collages I make now don't look much like the collages I used to make. I'm a different person; they're different too.• The ecology of collage: there's something inherently satisfying about up-cycling old, often discarded materials in order to make something new. One of the great masters of twentieth-century collage, Kurt Schwitters, was explicit about this:I could see no reason why tram tickets, buttons, and old junk from [...]

Go Figure

Sun, 07 Jun 2015 05:15:00 +0000

Okay, I'm back. Three months and change since I last posted anything, but I'm heading back into the classroom next week and it's been on my mind to get back in the saddle and ride for a while. It's not that I haven't been writing at all. I've been making it a point to try to write at least 500 words a day in my MS Word journal; since my last Throughlines post on February 25 I've done 31 entries of at least that length. That is, needless to say, a different kind of writing, and most of it would be of even less interest to anyone who stumbled by this blog than the stuff that I have usually posted in the past. (I've also been cranking out collages like crazy. Lots of recent examples on Flickr, if you want to see where I've been.)As far as reading goes, my most recent exploration began with a review by Tom Perrotta of Kate Atkinson's new book, which led me to Ben Lerner. In the last couple of weeks I've read both of his novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, and two of his collections of poetry, Angle of Yaw and The Lichtenberg Figures. I find him very smart, very inventive, and very funny. He works in that very interesting territory somewhere south of fiction and north of nonfiction. As Perrotta points out in the passage that originally got my attention: Some of the most interesting “novels” of the past few years — Teju Cole’s “Open City,” Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation,” Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” not to mention Knausgaard’s epic, “My Struggle” — are barely novels at all. They read more like memoirs, or a series of lightly fictionalized journal entries, recounting the mundane lives and off-kilter ruminations of their first-person narrators, who are either postgraduate students or blocked writers. There’s a bracing smallness to these books — even those of Knausgaard, who’s a miniaturist on a gargantuan scale — and a serene indifference to what has long passed for ambition in the novel. There’s no plot and barely any action, very few characters, no shifting points of view or tricky chronologies, no attempt to recreate a distant era or illuminate the inner workings of a particular society at a particular moment in time. There’s just the writer, eating his omelet, putting her child to bed.I'm drawn to Lerner for many of the same reasons that I'm drawn to the artwork of Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters, or the poetry of John Ashbery (whom Lerner admires). I like art and writing that is chancy and generates its own logic as it evolves, rather than relying on pre-existing formal or cultural conventions.Lerner's poetry, like Ashbery's, adopts conventional forms mostly in order to play around with subverting them. The Lichtenberg Figures, for example, consists of 53 poems that look like sonnets, that are sonnets of a sort, but that don't play the same games that most traditional sonnets play. Example:True, a great work takes up the question of its origins and lets it drop. But this is no great work. This is a sketch sold on the strength of its signature, a sketch executed without trial. Inappropriately formal,  this late work reflects an inability to swallow. Once my name suggested female bathers rendered in bright impasto. Now it is dismissed as “unpronounceable.”  Polemical, depressed, these contagious black planes were hung to disperse museum crowds. Alas, a generation of pilgrim smokers has arrived and set off the sprinklers.  True, abandoning the figure won’t change the world. But then again, neither will changing the world.There is, at least preliminarily, and perhaps ultimately, a there there. It is a poem that engages the question of what is good and what is not good in art and writing. But there is also what I find to be a rather delightful off-the-road romp that liberates the poem[...]

Just Listen

Thu, 26 Feb 2015 04:27:00 +0000


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The Meaning of the Sky

Wed, 18 Feb 2015 02:25:00 +0000

I've recently been reading several books by Tim Ingold, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in the UK. Ingold is one of those very rare thinkers who not only has a lively and infectious curiosity (and a formidable store of knowledge as well) about pretty much everything under the sun, but who also writes with clarity and a sense of humor and a poet's sensitivity to the rhythms and sounds of words. The first sentence of his amazing book Lines is "What do walking, weaving, observing, storytelling, singing, drawing, and writing have in common?" Those of you who have followed this blog for any length of time know that I am pretty deeply fascinated by the relationships between six of the seven items in the list (weaving being the outlier), and how all of them relate to the dynamics of thinking itself. Once in a while you find a book that seems to have been written expressly for you. Lines is that kind of book for me. I'm going to be mining it for a long time to come.Today I came across this passage in his book Being Alive, in which he discusses with characteristic elegance our default assumptions about the sky and weather, and about how these phenomena might be understood from another (animic) perspective:Sky, earth, and the weatherI mentioned earlier our propensity to suppose that the inanimate world is presented to life as a surface to be occupied.  Life, as we say, is lived on the ground, anchored to solid foundations, while the weather swirls about overhead. Beneath this ground surface lies the earth; above it is the atmosphere. In the pronouncements of many theorists, however, the ground figures as an interface not merely between earth and atmosphere but much more fundamentally between the domains of agency and materiality… this has the very peculiar consequence of rendering immaterial the medium through which many organisms and persons move in the context of their activities. Between mind and nature, persons and things, and agency and materiality, no conceptual space remains for those very real phemonena and transformations of the medium that generally go by the name of weather. This, I believe, accounts for the virtual absence of weather from philosophical debates on these matters. It is a result of the logic of inversion—a logic that places occupation before habitation, movement across before movement through, surface before medium. In the terms of this logic, the weather is simply unthinkable.In the animic ontology, by contrast, what is unthinkable is the very idea that life is played out upon the inanimate surface of a ready-made world. Living beings, according to this ontology, make their way through a nascent world rather than across its preformed surface. As they do so, and depending on the circumstances, they may experience wind and rain, sunshine and mist, frost and snow, and a host of other weather-related phenomena, all of which fundamentally affect their moods and motivations, their movements and their possibilities of subsistence, even as these phenomena sculpt and erode the plethora of surfaces upon which inhabitants tread. For them, the inhabited world is constituted in the first place by the aerial flux of weather rather than by the grounded fixities of landscape. The weather is dynamic, always unfolding, ever changing in its currents, qualities of light and shade, and colours, alternately damp or dry, warm or cold, and so on. In this world the earth, far from providing a solid foundation for existence, appears to float like a fragile and ephemeral raft, woven from the strands of terrestrial life, and suspended in the great sphere of the sky. This sphere is where all the lofty action is: where the sun shines, the winds blow, the falls and the storms rage. It is a sphere in which powerful persons seek not to stamp their will upo[...]


Thu, 20 Nov 2014 02:59:00 +0000

          Thursday afternoon and the library is full of rumpled, damp old-timers in retreat from the soft, steady rain falling outside. The street is shiny and slick as the cars splash by. At the crosswalk by the coffee shop, a mother and her sober-eyed daughter stand squinting, then break for their car across the street, hands on their heads against the rain. Inside the coffee shop, a bald, portly man watches the rain, sips his coffee, and works intermittently on a crossword puzzle by his plate. A woman peddles her bicycle through the puddles, leaning forward, her dark hair shedding droplets of water. Process Reflection:The other day I found a collection of poems by William Matthews in a second-hand store in town. It include his translations of some prose poems by Jean Follain to which I felt an immediate, intuitive connection. Yesterday I wound up typing the whole series out, trying to get a sense of what makes them work for me. Here's the first one in the series:            On Easter Sunday the old man puts jewelry onto the wrists, ears, and neck of a long-haired woman.  Already hitched to the black and yellow carriage, the glistening bay mare whinnies.  A sailor sings by an engraving of the end of the world with Christ in the billowy heavens, the dead caught in their shrouds, leaving their graves.  Time fills up with a future that may be fearsome.  A child goes by on the road, wearing a motionless garter snake for a bracelet.  How hot this long day beginning a century will be!  Housebound, a deformed girl closes her blue eyes.An old man. A horse. A sailor. A child on the road. A blue-eyed girl. There's something elemental and yet mysterious about the sequence. In this poem and others, Follain seems to be exploring the gap between what can be said, what can be enumerated, and what is necessarily elusive and must remain essentially mysterious. I thought I'd try a few of these. This is the first one.[...]

Checking In

Sat, 15 Nov 2014 04:19:00 +0000

Funny how fast a couple of weeks can slide by. Last time I posted something here was eleven days ago. I've been writing; just not here. I've gone back to my Moleskine, which confers some freedoms while making others harder to exercise. The writing I do there feels more relaxed and less fraught, maybe because I know while I'm writing that the only one who is going to see it is me. But it also tends to be ultimately more impulsive and fragmented, because the kind of patient building and layering and re-shaping that I can do over the keyboard is much harder to do with just a pen.

I also circled back around and did a drawing over two days that harkens back stylistically to the series I was doing in late summer.


While it does bear a family resemblance to some of the others I've done along the way (see below), its architecture and temperament are uniquely its own. The combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces in the composition makes the piece feel pretty alive to me.

I started it by just just drawing and connecting the generally horizontal and vertical (and occasionally curved or diagonal) lines into a loosely structured grid, just black on white. The second step was to populate each area of the grid with some kind of shadowing, either by cross-hatching or by filling in areas with black. The last step was shade various blocks with one shade or another of brown ink. Total time invested on this one: maybe five hours. It's time that I consider well spent, even when, as sometimes happens, the experiment goes awry. There's something both calming and satisfying to me about working through the challenges that a drawing presents as I attempt to bring it to life on a blank piece of paper. It's an activity, like washing the dishes or sweeping the leaves off the sidewalk, that has a clear and concretely experienced beginning, middle, and end. And the result of the process is (most if not all of the time) visible progress. You can check that one off. It's done.

Where the Fingers Succeed

Tue, 04 Nov 2014 04:47:00 +0000

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can't imagine saying them to the people to whom I'm closest. Every once in a while I try to say them out loud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?          - Rebecca Solnit, from The Faraway Nearby, 64I've been aware for a long time that I'm a different person on paper than I am in person. Or at least that my mind moves differently, and that what my mind serves up on paper is not the same as what comes out of my mouth when I'm in company. Perhaps it has something to do with pace: the words appear under my fingers one letter at a time, and as I type, I am frequently in free fall: I literally have no idea what is coming next, except that it is going to have to bear some relation to what has gone before. When I speak, I usually know what I am going to say; that's why I'm saying it. But when I write, I am most often writing my way into I know not what, which is, to me, sort of the point of writing: to find out both the what and the how. That's perhaps what William Stafford meant when he called writing "a reckless encounter with whatever comes along." This particular moment in this paragraph is a good example; I did not know even one minute ago that I would be writing these words in this way. (Nor did I  know that I would be citing the Stafford until I re-read what I had written earlier, at which point his phrase popped into my head, and I had to Google it to remember who had said it, and then I went back and stuck it in.) And so the writing proceeds, not in a strictly linear fashion, but in a kind of herky-jerky movement: forward, then back, then to the side, then back, then forward again. (*) There's a rhythm to it that changes as it goes along, a rhythm which includes pauses and changes of direction which are for the reader nowhere in evidence in the final product. One such pause is denoted by the asterisk. I had been typing along at a relatively even pace, and then became aware, as I approached the end of the sentence, that I had arrived at a fork in the road: there were a lot of places to go from there, and it took me some seconds during which I was NOT typing for my brain to register that fact and then choose (if choose is the right word, it was actually more of an impulse) to continue by addressing the topic of rhythm. (Another move, considered almost subliminally and discarded, might have been to address the way that the colons and the semicolons arrived in the preceding sentences, and how they influenced the unfolding of the thoughts. In which case I would have wound up citing not William Stafford, but Lewis Thomas, whose essay "On Punctuation" includes several passages that would have been apt.)It's true that some of those same dynamics apply in conversation: one might begin to say something and then either swerve in mid-utterance or suddenly have an even better idea and leave the opening gambit behind. But it's harder to track those moves when you are in conversation, whereas when you are writing you have more time to process [...]

64 x 64 (The End of the Road)

Mon, 03 Nov 2014 04:33:00 +0000

We changed the clocks last night, and though it was sunny and warm today at 3:00, it was dark by 5:30. They were playing Christmas carols at the Mall today. This is the last post in the series of 64: the end of the road. A metaphor, but then the air is thick with them: the cold, the wind, the dark. Winter is coming.[...]

64 x 63 (Rebecca Solnit)

Fri, 31 Oct 2014 03:15:00 +0000

I've been reading Rebecca Solnit, first The Faraway Goodbyeand now A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She is brilliant at weaving threads of ideas together in a way that is surprising and yet feels fluid and unforced. She's interested in the way the stories we tell ourselves define us both by what they include and (perhaps more importantly) by what they leave out.Sample Quote (One of many I've been typing out as I read): Darkness is generative, and generation, biological and artistic both, requires this amorous engagement with the unknown, this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next. Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you're doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that's where they may be seen by others, that's not where they're born. (185)[...]

64 x 62 (The Home Stretch)

Mon, 27 Oct 2014 03:54:00 +0000

Now near the end
Of this set of posts.
It's been a long ride,
with lots of side trips

of which this is just
one more. Not too hard
to dope out this game:
just keep the ball in play

and hope for the best.
The stakes are not so high
that the brain will be apt
to freeze up. Three. Two. 

One. Done.

What I Did and Why: Had it in mind to try a post with just short words. Just came up from the ball game (Game Five, and both teams played well, but the home team won (yay!) and some of that snuck in as well. And then of course once you start, it may be that you get in a groove, and then it is not a big deal to keep at it. True, there are a lot of things you just can't say when you write this way, and it can make you feel like you're tied up in knots, at least some of the time. But if you just let all of that go and stay with the game plan, it will, most times, turn out, if not great, at least all right. Now it's time to crash for the night. New day on the way. Got to catch some z's and get off to a fresh start at the crack of dawn.

64 x 61 (The Road)

Sat, 25 Oct 2014 04:06:00 +0000

Been gone for a week or so. Just got back. Didn't get to write while I was gone, but did work on a series of small drawings of the kind I was doing a while back but had gotten away from.  Now that I'm back I'm trying to find my way into a working rhythm. Again. Here are a few from the recent series:[...]

64 x 60 (Nothing Is…)

Wed, 15 Oct 2014 04:26:00 +0000

I started drawing tonight on a piece of paper five and a half inches square. It's basically a backwards drawing: inking in the black spaces creates the white lines. Right now, it looks like a collection of black shapes on a white background, but once it's done, it'll be a latticework of white lines against a black background. Nothing is but what is not.[...]

64 x 59 (From the Index of First Lines)

Tue, 14 Oct 2014 03:59:00 +0000

In Zagreb, the windows of the old hotel (13)
Moonlight casting silver shadows on the street (85)
Most days it's really hard to pay attention (27)
Perhaps the precipice is not as steep (142)
Sometimes when I see the darkness steal (4)
The only reason I asked you (73)
To lie, when you know you will be found out (17)
Up the street, some burnouts on skateboards (35)
"Who knows what she wants," he screamed (41)

Process Reflection:

The idea for this came to me the other night after I did the post where all the lines began with "A." I recall having read a pretty funny poem of the same title by Nicholson Baker which appeared in the New Yorker magazine 20 years ago. So I thought I'd play around with that.  The formal structure is like a poetic version of collage: random (but not entirely random) fragments being put together to create a coherent (but not entirely) coherent whole. The tension between the centrifugal and centripetal forces gives the poem (or the collage) whatever energy it generates. And, again as in collage, no matter what gets chosen or left out, it winds up inevitably being an autoportrait of sorts. Some of these lines are actual first lines from poems I've written, some of them are bent first lines from an anthology I happen to have on my desk, and some were made up on the spot as I was writing.  It's the kind of poem that could be extended indefinitely, so in this case the 64-word limit also serves a useful purpose, to give the poem a shape, and creates a certain kind of boundary tension. It's also the kind of poem that could be attempted over and over again, and no two would wind up being the same.  If I were to do ten more, chances are that one or two of them might wind up being better than the others, and that I'd get a better sense of what was likely to actually work. This one is just a prototype, a wet one, a Monday night experiment.


Mon, 13 Oct 2014 04:18:00 +0000

It seems fitting that on the eve of Columbus Day (at least in those places where his exploits are still celebrated) I'd have this piece of work ready to share. The famous line about Columbus is that he didn't know where he was going, he didn't know where he was when he got there, and when he got back he didn't know where he had been. That's sort of how I feel about this piece. I spent about ten or fifteen hours over the last week and a half working on this pen-and-ink exploration, starting with the little mechanical-looking widget in the upper left quadrant, working down and over, coming back around the outside with the rectangular pieces, and then basically filling in details until it felt right. I had no idea while I was working on it where it was going, and now that it's done I have only vague notions about what it adds up to. But I'm happy with it. My granddaughter saw it in mid-process and had a lot of perceptive things to say about it that helped me decide on certain directions. There's definitely a watery place in the mix, a cityscape that grounds and connects to the more interior spaces and conceptual cabinetry that frame it. There are several portals in view. And there is something celebratory about the whole enterprise. So hats off to Christopher C, and all due thanks to his queen. Let the celebrations begin.

Metropole (9" x 12")

64 x 58 (A Dream)

Sun, 12 Oct 2014 00:34:00 +0000

Arc: the line rising and falling
Angle of incidence and so on
Anticipation of the touchdown
Alighting how? Delicate, maybe.
Absorbing the impact with grace.
Antithesis: sudden crash, silence,
Amnesia (if not oblivion); you have
Arrived, but are no longer here.
Appearance vs. Reality. Who will
Answer? What we don't know
Actually will betray us in the end.
Amazement as the axe comes down.

Study Hall

Fri, 10 Oct 2014 03:46:00 +0000

I've had occasion over the last few days to think about the notion of study and what it consists of. I don't really remember doing much study when I was in elementary school. I was a voracious reader early on. Both my mom and my dad read to me regularly until I could read on my own, and once I was old enough to go the library my mother would take me down as often as I wanted to go, which was several times a week. Mom also played word games and chess with me, and encouraged me to write. My dad kept scrapbooks on various subjects, and I remember I had one too. Given all that,  I didn't really have any worries in elementary school, and I don't remember spending much time studying, other than learning my multiplication tables off flash cards.I spent grades 6-8 in a district public school in upstate New York, and there are only about four things I can remember about that time: 1) having a stamp collection and meeting with the Stamp Club after school in Grade 6, 2) sitting and listening to Social Studies teacher Mr. Colclough in grade seven lecture us about how we should never throw paper balls in class because a sharp corner of a paper sticking out could scratch a classmate's eye and blind him (an assertion which struck me then, and perhaps moreso now, as being wildly implausible), and 3) being bullied in the hall and in gym class by a big kid named Tommy Gonzowski, who wore his white t-shirt sleeves rolled up around his biceps (the better to hold his cigarettes) and a big wide black leather belt to hold up his jeans, and 4) attending afterschool meetings of the 4-H club, where we learned, among other things, about how to care for animals and about the inner workings of the 4-cycle internal combustion engine.So what I'm getting at is that even though I did okay in school, I didn't really have much in the way of study habits that I can recall until, in ninth grade, a year or so after the death of my father, I was sent off to Delbarton, a boarding school in New Jersey. It was at Delbarton that I learned how to study. It wasn't that they had any particular program or methodology to teach us. It was just that we had mandatory study hall from 4:30 to 6:00 and 7:30 to 9:00, every day of the school week, every week of the school year. We each had single desk in the library, we were expected to be sitting at it, and there was a proctor walking around making sure that we were in fact studying and not, say, reading comics or magazines. (The proctors would also answer questions if you were stuck on something.) That was it. That was the deal. You were going to be there anyway. You might as well do the work. This was in the early '60s, so there were, of course, no cell phones, no texting, no videos, really no distractions of any kind. That seemed okay. That seemed normal. I didn't think much about it, one way or the other. It's only now, 50+ years later, and in a completely different world, that I can fully appreciate the value of that enforced solitude and that explicit expectation that you were there to do work. We learned how to focus, because there was no alternative. We also had to be in bed, lights out, at 10:00, which in retrospect also served to provide a different kind of nourishment for my adolescent brain: sleep.During my junior year, I transferred from Delbarton to a day school in Connecticut. I was once again living at home, and I no longer had to submit myself to a regular study schedule.  I enjoyed being able to switch on the TV or listen to music if [...]

64 x 57 (Wolf Brother)

Mon, 06 Oct 2014 03:34:00 +0000

Wolf loss moon shadow
Knife walk brother forest
silence eyes branches murmur
Vines swamp raven wings
Question river sparkle briar
demon prophet trial arrow
obsidian walls searcher haven
helper wrestle darkness kindle
trust betrayal totem prayer
power fire prepare fist
bone inherit choice befuddle
battle dawn arise return
spirit mountain tremor message
blood before stolen molten
steel band tradition song
story sorrow pride belong

Process Reflection: Was in the car this evening and heard a discussion on PBS about a children's book called Wolf Brother. Checked out a couple of reader reviews and had some words bouncing around in my head. Just started putting them down. The first fifteen or so came pretty easily, then I started having to wrack my brains for each next line. The whole thing took a lot longer than I thought it would. But in essence it came out as a loosely structured word bank associated with a certain genre of storytelling.

64 x 56 (Trousers Rolled)

Sun, 05 Oct 2014 03:13:00 +0000

Once upon a time Saturday night was apex of an arc of excitement: getting through the week, getting psyched for whatever was coming up, planning logistics with friends, making the scene, cranking it up, rolling home at one or two to crash. Now, it's a quiet evening at home, maybe a book, maybe get to bed early. Truth to tell, I like this better.[...]

64 x 55 (The Path of Least Resistance)

Sat, 04 Oct 2014 02:20:00 +0000

The path of least resistance is simply to start writing and wait to see what will turn up on the page. No predetermined concept, no outline, no formal boundaries to work within or push against; just the words as they arrive, lining themselves up obediently and without apparent resentment, moving forward across the page toward whatever fate their Creator has in mind for them.Process Reflection: It's a Friday night, the end of a busy day and a busy week. It's earlyish (6:55) and I mostly wanted to get something posted tonight so I could go back and sink into The Secret Place for the rest of the evening. I'm becoming a big fan of Tana French. One of the things that I like about her mysteries is that they tend to undercut the predominant generic characterization of the detective who is always one step ahead of the perps, not to mention ahead of the reader. The scenarios she describes inevitably turn out to be messier and more hazardous to the mental and emotional well-being of her protagonists than they have any reason to anticipate that they will be. The detectives often go in thinking that the case in front of them will be a piece of cake. But it never is. Complications abound. She's also good—better than good, actually, more like amazing—at setting up scenes where two smart and crafty people (detective and detective, detective and suspect, detective and witness, suspect and suspect, etc) are working on other, trying to dope each other out and/or fake each other out. In these encounters both sides have a lot at stake, both are concealing more than they are revealing, and there's the ever-present risk of screwing up badly. A large proportion of each of her books consists of crackling good dialogue in just such scenarios, often very funny. Her books also engage a lot of other quite serious issues (gender relations, class conflict, career politics, identity politics, family dynamics) in ways that are entertaining and instructive. So you get some quotient of redeeming social value to go along with getting drunk on words. So yeah, for my post tonight I took the path of least resistance. Heading back to The Secret Place.[...]