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

Last Build Date: Wed, 07 Feb 2018 03:21:10 +0000


Taking a Dot for a Walk

Sat, 03 Feb 2018 03:40:00 +0000

Paul Klee: "A line is a dot that went for a walk."William Stafford: "Writing is a reckless encounter with whatever comes along."Jasper Johns: "Do something, then do something to that, and then do something to that."These are three drawings I worked on recently. All are pure explorations, drawn with my left (non-dominant) hand in order to add another layer of unpredictability to an already open-ended process. I'm considering whether to add color to either of two black-and-white pieces, and if so, what kind of color. But there's a presence to each of these drawings, arising from the movement of the lines, that I can respond to.(The pictures are showing up pretty dark on the screen, for some reason.)So here's the connection I've been thinking about and exploring. Drawing and writing are physiologically and intellectually similar activities. In most cases we are taught in our schools that there are rules to be followed and basics to be mastered before you can become an artist, or a writer. Little children, who love to draw and write before they are told that they don't know how to do it, grow into adults who have little or no use for art or for writing. Having to follow the rules in order to produce a predictable result based on someone else's idea of what that result should look like is not interesting, and it's certainly not much fun.My inclination—and for those of you who are open to it, my recommendation—is to go back into the process in a pure spirit of play. Take up a pencil. Start drawing. Start writing. Push marks you make onto the paper. There will necessarily be a sequence of moves. Once you are doing any particular thing, you will continue doing it until you decide to do something else. First this. Then that. Then whatever comes next, like the man says. That's exactly what I was doing as I was typing this paragraph, and it's the basically the same kind of exploration that I was conducting as I worked on these drawings: pushing the line (of words, of thoughts) into the white space in front of them. I wrote it the first draft on the fly. (The next morning I came back to tidy up.) But as I was writing I had no idea where we were going to wind up. But here we are. The moral of the story: trust the process.At some point you can step back and review your work decide what is most interesting or worth pursuing. Some of what you write, perhaps a lot of what you write (or draw) won't be great. As Stafford says, of writing poetry, "A writer must write bad poems, as they come, among the better, and not scorn the "bad" ones. Finicky ways can dry up the sources." The first task is to get the lines on the page. Then you can begin to look at what might be worth extracting or reworking, or what might suggest a new beginning.It is a practice. It's an exploration. As Stafford says in his indispensable essay "A Way of Writing," "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them."[...]

Twenty Questions

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 20:16:00 +0000

The other day there was an interesting post on Tumblr a list of questions that Paul Thek used as “Teaching Notes” for a class that he taught at Cooper Union from 1978-1981. I have always been intrigued by inventories of this kind—lists, list poems, brainstormed possibilities—both as artifacts in themselves and as challenges to me (and, once upon a time, to my students). I have had in my files for more than 40 years now a poem by Donald Justice that goes like this:Twenty QuestionsIs it raining out? Is it raining in?Are you a public fountain?Are you an antique musical instrument?Are you a famous resort, perhaps?What is your occupation?Are you by chance a body of water?Do you often travel alone?What is your native language, then?Do you recall the word for carnation?Are you sorry?Will you be sorry?Is this your handkerchief?What is your destination?Are you Aquarius?Are you the watermelon flower?Will you please take off your glasses?Is this a holiday for you?Is that a scar, or a birthmark?Is there no word for calyx in your tongue?I find this poem to be, well, charming. It’s playful and purposeful at the same time. There are elements of structure in it (the framework of the game of twenty questions, the sense that there is a conversation going on between strangers who speak different languages, the suggestion of a seduction taking place) combined with elements of (apparent?) randomness (“Is this your handkerchief?”). It’s a kind of verbal collage. The poem has a logic, individual lines undercut or redirect the logic in ways that are surprising. The poem creates in a short space an implied world, a world in which certain facts are established but most are left open to question. There’s a game being played here, and, as often happens when we see a game, there’s at least the possibility that we might ask, can I play too? I’ve had my students write “Twenty Questions” poems; the results are always surprising and interesting to read. There’s something about not having too intention that frees them up. So here I am, working on this post, and the task is to come up with something to say. So I think I’ll play. Here goes:Twenty QuestionsDid you hear the thunder this morning? What was up with that?Shouldn't there be an easier way to get those sneakers clean?Have you seen my sweater? What are we going to do aboutElizabeth? Can you tell me what you have in mind? Don’t youThink we’d be better off if we just stayed home? What is that crowSo upset about? Is there a reason why you need to be doing that Right now? How many times have I asked you to stop?If I get done in time, would you like to come with meTo the basketball game? Why are the newspapers still coveringThat story? Would you care for some peppers? Is my scarfToo much? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to fly a plane?What do you think you’re doing? Isn’t there a statute of limitationsOn that? When is the rain supposed to end? Can I ask you a question?Okay, so there’s a draft, created in the moment and lightly edited as I set this up on blogger. I may go back and work on it more later, but for now it serves the purpose. What I noticed as I was writing was that even as I was just pushing forward certain elements of voice and tone kept asserting themselves more or less in spite of me. I’ve remarked before how every collage—every work of art, really— is in some ways of necessity a kind of self-portrait. And that certainly applies to this poem. It’s a little bit odd. It’s a little bit random. But it was fun to write. How about you? You want to try?[...]


Wed, 17 Jan 2018 23:04:00 +0000

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This Shanghai grandpa, my new hero, is the apotheosis of funkiness. The grandkids are pretty awesome too. The song, "Phur" ("Fly") by Anu Ringlug, won the Song of the Year in Tibet in 2017. Bonus track: The original artist video dubbed with English lyrics:

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Sue Grafton: An Appreciation

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 04:45:00 +0000

In the final days of 2018 I was saddened to hear about Sue Grafton, who died on December 28. I was a fairly recent convert to her works. I had been vaguely aware of her name showing up on the best-seller lists. She was the author of 25 mystery novels, starting with A is for Alibi, and progressing through the alphabet right up to Y is for Yesterday. I had not read any of them until about a year and a half ago, when someone donated a bunch of used paperbacks to the local library-sponsored second-hand bookshop. I saw them there and picked up several for 75 cents each, which turned out to be the bargain of the year as far as reading materials are concerned, and started me on a long and satisfying reading journey. The novels feature a feisty, irreverent private detective named Kinsey Millhone. Grafton started the series in 1982 and wrote roughly a novel a year until 2017. (In an interview with Mora Macdonald of the Seattle Times, she commented wryly on how that played out: “When I started, she was 32 and I was 42,” Ms. Grafton said. “And now she’s 39 and I’m 77, which I just do not think is fair.”) In any event, I was taken with the books. They are inventively plotted and keep you turning the pages, as mystery novels are supposed to do. But what I appreciated about her writing, more than the stories she was telling, was the clarity and vividness of her descriptions. What Kinsey Millhone sees and feels in the course of her investigations goes a very long way toward making her a credible crime-solver. Often as I was reading the books I found myself marking particular passages and then typing them out for the sheer pleasure of it. Even when the descriptions have nothing to do with the case at hand, they serve the purpose of indirect characterization, offering evidence of a Millhone’s particular brand of sensitivity to the world. For example, here is a passage from early in B is for Burglar where Kinsey is just out for a run:I generally do three miles, jogging along the bicycle path that borders the beach. The walkway is stenciled with odd cartoons at intervals and I watch for those, counting off the quarter-miles.  The tracks of some improbable bird, the mark of a single fat tire that crosses the concrete and disappears into the sand. There are usually tramps on the beach; some who camp there permanently, others in transit, their sleeping bags arranged under the palm trees like large green larvae or the skins shed by some night-stirring beast.            That afternoon the air seemed heavy and chill, the ocean sluggish. The cloud cover was beginning to break up, but the visible sky was a pale, washed-out blue and there was no real sign of the sun. Out on the water a speedboat ran a course parallel to the beach and the path of the wake was like a spinning ribbon of silver winding along behind. At this distance, the low-growing vegetation looked like soft suede, with rock face showing along through the ridges as though the nap had worn away from hard use.There’s nothing self-consciously artful about the language or the syntax here. But there are thoughtful, intelligent choices that Grafton is making about what to include and what not to include that make the scene come to life in my imagination. The speedboat, for example, is not strictly needed; it does nothing to advance the plot. But it does a lot of other important work. It helps to snap the afternoon run into focus. And, taken at face value as the thoughts of the protagonist rather than the verbal choices of the author, it demonstrates the alertness and  attentiveness of the narrator in a way that makes me feel that I like her and trust her.Here’s a similar sort of passage from M is for Malice. This time Millhone is just walking:I walked home along Cabana Boulevard. The skies had cleared and the air temperature hovered in the mid-fifties. This was technically the dead of winter and the brazen California [...]

Reservoir 13

Mon, 08 Jan 2018 22:55:00 +0000

One of the enigmas of human life is that as humans what we know for certain about the nature of our lives is most often inconsistent with our lives as we actually lead them. We know, for example, that the universe is unimaginably large and has been in existence for an unimaginably long time. In his book the Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan included a graphic called the Cosmic Calendar, in which he laid out a timeline as if the history of the universe were overlaid on a calendar of a single year. In these terms, the origin of the Milky Way comes around May 1, the formation of Earth on September 14. Life on Earth begins on September 25. The first humans arrive at 10:30 p.m. on December 31. All of recorded human history occurs in the last half second of the year. The birth of Christ? 11:59:56.Here’s the poet Rosser Reeves, coming at the same concept from a different direction:E=mc2Someday, perhaps, some alien eye or eyes,Blood red in cold and polished horny lids,Set in a chitinous face,Will sweep the arch of some dark, distant skyAnd see a nova flare,A flick of light, no more,A pin-point on a photographic plate,A footnote in an alien chart of stars,Forgotten soon on miles of dusty shelvesWhere alien beetles feed.A meal for worms,Sole epitaph,To mark the curious end of restless man,Who for a second of galactic timeFloated upon a speck of cosmic dustAround a minor sun.An individual human life, seen in this context, is a very small thing indeed. And yet that is not the way that we as individuals experience our lives. For us, “a lifetime” is a synonym for “forever.” Our consciousness is housed in blood and bone, and as individuals we are the center of our own worlds, regardless of whatever scientific evidence might offer by way of contradiction. We are, in this sense, always deluded. Our subjectivity skews our vision of the world and overemphasizes the importance of our place it. We live within a network of what we take to be certainties, but are surrounded by much greater and numerous uncertainties.  What we don’t know is always by many orders of magnitude greater than what we do know. But we do not, we cannot, live that way. It’s a dilemma that raises existential questions.This past Sunday, Maria Popova, in her blog Brain Pickings, cited Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue talking about how we might respond to this dilemma:Every human person is inevitably involved with two worlds: the world they carry within them and the world that is out there. All thinking, all writing, all action, all creation and all destruction is about that bridge between the two worlds. All thought is about putting a face on experience… One of the most exciting and energetic forms of thought is the question. I always think that the question is like a lantern. It illuminates new landscapes and new areas as it moves. Therefore, the question always assumes that there are many different dimensions to a thought that you are either blind to or that are not available to you. So a question is really one of the forms in which wonder expresses itself. One of the reasons that we wonder is because we are limited, and that limitation is one of the great gateways to wonder.O’Donohue suggests, and I certainly agree, that the proper response to our inevitable ignorance is to ask questions that are rooted in wonder, which is to say, appreciation. The other, and unfortunately more common response, particularly in our present political climate, is to simply double down on your certainties, whether or not you have any evidence that they are in fact reasonable. The problem with that, as O’Donohue points out, is that “thought, if it’s not open to wonder, can be limiting, destructive and very, very dangerous.”One of the most powerful and value-creating functions of literature is to liberate us from our certainties, free us from the constraints of our inherited perspectives, and allow us to see our lives as individu[...]

A New Year

Tue, 02 Jan 2018 19:01:00 +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 extende[...]

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 [...]

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 student[...]

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.[...]

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 [...]

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[...]


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[...]

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.