Instagram and Poetry Month

This past April was National Poetry Month, as it has been every year in the U.S. since 1996. While I do sympathize in some part with the quiet criticisms of the celebration, a somewhat trivial designation for the public’s attention to turn toward poetry (the point being that after you’ve taken brief notice of the fact of its existence you can then continue with your general neglect of poetry), I decided to say Bernstein be damned and take on a reflective self-challenge.

I wrote a poem each day this April and posted it to my Instagram feed (not too far of a scroll away). Being my birth month, I associate the Spring and the re-awakening of the earth in this hemisphere with creative activity. But never have I forced myself to compose one poem, each day, for a month, as if I were manually breaking open seeds and thrusting them through to the surface prematurely. Most took in some light (and likes) amidst all the visual splendor of that medium. After week one I gained a steady pace of alternating between writing and posting, then took time to peruse the other poets at work through the convenience of Instagram’s self-making engine.

What I found was a strange mix. There was certainly cobwebs-upon-cobwebs of cliched and tired metaphors applauded with fan hearts and digital accolades, but there were also some authentic voices stringing together solid and resounding verse. In some cases, poets in either camp are making the leap from the app to bookstore shelves. My old employer of West Coast indie fame, Powell’s Books, has collected a number of such authors for your interest and support with handheld yet plug-less reading. Mostly self-published at first, these poets have made the successful transition to authors-with-contracts by the proving ground of Instagram – which saves the publisher most, if not all, publicity and marketing expenses upon the volume’s release.

Has this made poetry a well-read form again, as it once was in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century? Probably not as it once was, and perhaps “well-read” is a generous and not altogether substantial statement. The scrolling must continue on Instagram, indeed, it feeds off such motion which your twitching digits reinforce. What seemed so noble or profound in scant lines once jammed between the colorful plate of food before, and the glorious body come after, may not hold for much longer with its own spine. These are not uncharted waters, but the fog of short attention is always rolling in to obscure our appreciation of the beautiful, and the trash, alike. My only advice would be to read with a critical eye, not just for pleasure.

Advertisements
Instagram and Poetry Month

Doctor Strange, The Shadow and Golden Age Myths

Films are offered to the public at the price of a meal. As we sit in the dark and take in kernels of popcorn, we also digest the films we’ve come to see. They pour in through our senses, are metabolized by our minds and carried by whatever consciousness we may have to associate – with other visual and audio memories, prior knowledge and in many, many inner meeting halls with other versions of ourselves. If a film sits with us and we sit with it, this kind of digestion can cause our experience of it and everything connected to it to rise high within, rather than foul without.

zz151ab103

After sitting through Marvel Studio’s 13th hit Doctor Strange, I had the lingering sensation of the above process. I’m on my weekend from graduate school – not toward a medical degree but for a masters in education, and it so happened that in the middle of preparing a lesson plan for high schoolers on Western interpretations of ‘the East’ I happened to sit with this film. I didn’t need the quantum mechanical/metaphysical explanations by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One character through some astral trip to bridge entertainment and education – a sequence of graphic awe in DS that worked against the lines she was imparting to Benedict Cumberbatch’s broken doctor. By chance this Marvel film fit in nicely with a lot of the material I’ve been reviewing about Orientalism since the 18th century. Doctor Strange‘s new depictions of old ideas (Leonard Cohen, R.I.P.) are no exception to the fascination with and misunderstanding of civilizations and cultures not originating from Greece and Mesopotamia. As I left the theater, there was a lot of chatter between the new and the old but not much agreed – which often happens with generation gaps…

What set me going enough to write this was re-watching a similar film in aspect from 1994: The Shadow. Based on the 1930s radio show/pulp by Walter B. Gibson, it stars Alec Baldwin as Lamont Cranston, a wayward son of NYC’s elite who after the First World War apparently goes rogue to become an opium warlord in ‘Tibet.’ He is then taken under the wing of a tulku, a teacher of a lineage of ‘Tibetan Buddhism,’ who helps him develop the ability to “cloud men’s minds” through ‘concentration’ – to become invisible to them. This helps him to curb the darker side of his nature, which he can never hide (hence, The Shadow) and so Cranston returns to the West, reformed and gifted by ‘the East.’ He helps people and they help him in return, and soon there is a large network of eyes and ears throughout the city. This aids him crucially in his fight against the last descendent of Genghis Khan who just arrived in New York via a silver sarcophagus sent to the Natural History Museum. He’s another student of the tulku (whom was killed by Khan for his living knife) and is on the lookout for a proto-atomic bomb so that he might fulfill the world conquest of his namesake! Interested!? The Shadow was not a summer blockbuster upon its release and has been receiving poor reviews ever since.

theshadowcomic01

Unlike in success, these two films share a likeness of origin stories. It’s not only that each of the lead characters are persons of privilege at the end of their ropes; each of them are these people out-of-place in a geographical and/or existential unknown, ‘the East’ being not the West and they not being themselves: or, becoming someone else. Before Cranston is taken in by his tulku he’s like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (I should say Coppola’s Apocalypse Now but I’m studying to be an ELA teacher). He’s “gone native” whereas Strange is a desperate tourist only partly aware of why he’s there, a little more like Marlow of HoD. Each are a vulgarity to the cultures they find themselves in because they do not belong and take the native people as stereotypical (unlearned, backwards, provincial, etc.). Then an intervention occurs: each encounters the figure of a wisdom teacher, from which both are reluctant to learn. After a time, each proves an excellent student of their respective schools of “ancient arts.” When both return to the West, each face a counterforce which endangers the fabric of their world(s) who in some aspect are eerily similar to their former selves. This is made explicit visually in a disturbing dream with Cranston and Khan in The Shadow and in dialogue between Kaecilius and Strange in Doctor Strange. These forces/faces are eventually defeated and their new selves remain, mastered.

What both The Shadow and Doctor Strange share most deeply is the twisted heritage of popular culture appropriating the realities of traditions, ways of knowledge and religions to create the allure of Orientalism, the sense of a “mystical” or “exotic” Other,  for (in today’s terms) capitalist profit. Edward Said’s study of this ongoing phenomenon is essential reading on its history. The Shadow failed to make loads of money but in its depiction of an “actual” lineage (with the crude liberties of the living knife and whatever ‘concentration’ is meant to signify – deep states of meditation?) is less offensive than the idealized fireworks magic of the Ancient One in Kamar-Taj (Read: Shambhala). The announcement of Swinton’s casting caused a stir of Hollywood whitewashing articles back in the spring, most which never called out Marvel’s real reason for not casting the Ancient One as Tibetan – the likely large loss of profits in the Chinese market. However, the film and script as it stands conceals a very old myth and key piece of Western interpretation of ‘the East’ that is significant in Swinton’s casting as a Celtic sage.

When the counter-cultural movement of the ’60s received the creation of Steve Ditko’s character Doctor Strange, Europe and America responded to him because it was yearning to regain something they thought lost in the current ideologies, religions and social mores of their civilization. They wanted to reach back to a “source,” the origin of a kind of animating quality, as people in periods before had searched for during social disorder, governmental strife and economic ruin. Cranston and Strange are representatives of that yearning for some kind of authentic self that, so the story goes, we lost long ago. This story is always being told. And with Swinton cast as a Celtic and without age, it seems a glaring reference to the particular myth of some kind of original, perfect state  – call it Albion, as Blake did – that generations of Westerners have attempted to symbolically reorient themselves back toward: be it from revivals of Druidism/Wicca in the late 19th century (the Golden Order, the Theosophical Society, etc.) to Zen, Vipassana, TM, yoga and “mindfulness” today.

druids_celebrating_at_stonehenge_1

Whether a Golden Age lived in the past of Western cultures or Asitatic ones and we are to find ourselves there again, Doctor Strange comes from a well-known land: Hollywood. And since it is a Marvel Studios production, I waited after the lights went up in my local theater for one last, little scene. If you missed out, it shows Karl Mordo paying a visit to Pangborn (played by Benjamin Bratt), the character who tipped Strange off about Kamar-Taj. Mordo uses his power to take back Pangborn’s ability to walk because P. was accessing a different dimensional energy than Earth’s and therefore, breaking a natural law. Mordo, especially in being played by black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, could be saying in the final line of the film (“Too many sorcerers”) that the abuse of authentic traditions and vestiges of culture in the West by those who craft stories about ‘the East’ for profit needs to end. This would be giving Doctor Strange the secretly self-critical credit that at least a few reviewers gave to Jurassic World, which in my opinion was far too generous. But perhaps the West does need to swallow this truth before taking the next cinematic pill to entertain the brief illusion that our unquenchable thirst for disrespectful myth-nodding stories has been slaked.

Doctor Strange, The Shadow and Golden Age Myths

From One Equinox to Another

Now that autumn has arrived (this very night full of the cool breezes and beads of soft rain that wash away the heat and bear away the humidity), I am posting a piece that I attempted to shop around to various local journals and magazines when the spring equinox was upon us here in upstate New York. It is entitled “The Swifts of Spring” and was finished in late May of this year:

The night sky begins to pale toward morning. There is a bright chatter that rises up before the sun. It wakes you in the still yellowy night, lit only by a few streetlights. In the alley below, an exhausted and tearful weeping sounds over a deep but impotent protest. It’s the playing out of a lover’s quarrel, the current theme set to birdsong above the village streets an hour before dawn. Their voices soon fade away as night diminishes and I roll back over into the short dream before coffee.

I’m no birdwatcher but as I acquaint myself with my new home of Catskill, I watch on Main Street the arcs and lines of birds with the daily trails made by my fellow residents below going into Catskill Grocery & News for coffee, smokes and scratch-its; strolling between the Greene County courthouse and the county offices; working out to Zumba music from the open door of the Community Center; heading into the Community Theater for the latest Captain America film or out of Kirwan’s Game Store for fresh air. Weekenders from the city also trounce the sidewalks, and a part of me feels as if my partner and I’s move is just as transitory as their visit. However, we both know this is now home and these residents, our community.

From creekside to the tombstones at the top of the hill, across the variously stormy and sunny skies, the village now has a rarer visitor. Since the first two weeks of May, twenty or more migratory Chimney swifts have been sighted. Swifts are exceptional creatures and commit their energy to an almost totally airborne life. They eat, mate, and do everything but sleep in the air, having no ability to perch like most common birds. In fact, they are in the same order as hummingbirds, Apodiformes, meaning “footless” in Greek. Since leaving their wintering homes in South America, their high-pitched squeaks and chirps have been lilting overhead.

How much envy has greened our race for ages while admiring the flight of birds. Whereas a bird would use a crease in the ripple of a wind to bank or roll its body further along its course of flight, we clumsily trip on the edge of a slightly upturned sidewalk block. Some of us drag our feet while walking – I myself have an odd ‘duck-footed’ gait that reveals itself slowly in the wearing down of the backside of my heels. We feel the rule of gravity’s kingdom on our shoulders and try our best to straighten the somewhat crooked sway of our travelings. It’s no wonder that birds were imitated for a good many centuries by would-be aviators before we had to figure out our own means of catching the air.

(As an interlude, I scribbled the following poem while musing on this phenomenal influence:

 

Aviators

 

You have to admire

The stapled wings of foolish inventors

As much as the quilled designs

Of Leonardo –

Both inspired by the grace of birds

As much as – or more than,

The mechanics of flight)

 

It’s now the breeding season. Chimney swifts make nests of twigs which are glued together using their own saliva, holding their clutches of 4 or 5 eggs. In the early morning the other birds of this village, the house sparrows, starlings, and purple finches, keep their nests in the slightly open cracks between cornice and gutter or among the now greening vines along the side of the old Oren’s building. The making of nests is in the nature of all birds, from the complexity of the bower to the simplicity of the penguin. For the benefit of the swifts, Catskill features many chimneys from the 19th century that no longer hold flames. It seems fitting with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s new studio and exhibit on the painter’s architectural designs that the swifts are making new use of our old brick. For local historians, this could be a point of pride in a town once known for its industrious brickyards.

I’m uncertain how long the swifts will be flying among us this spring. A brief bit of research shows that incubation and nesting takes a combined 40 days. And as much as I can glean from eBird.org, no sightings of Chimney swifts have been recorded in Catskill in the last decade. It makes one wonder at their being here, soot-dusted and gulping down great amounts of insects each day, to return at sunset to a few chimneys hanging in the air. If you live in this village or are visiting in the next few weeks, observe their grace while you can.

I hope more than a few of us took in the sight of their arching flights. There was ample time and number, as by the close of August more than 40 were in the undulating groups of parents and their brood before taking flight from Catskill, Hudson, Saugerties and number of other towns and villages in the area. Soon after they left, a legion of spiders soon filled the insect-eating vacuum left by the swifts and populated the streetlight, windows and facade of my building along Main St. to a creepy extant.

From One Equinox to Another

Weekend/ers

Sitting on the windowsill of another blooming summer day, Saturday opens its arms up to the weekenders in Catskill. The unhurried pace of parents or grandparents and their younger brood cast hovering shadows on the sidewalks. The shuffling of shoe soles halt for a moment with a quick look into the Exchange House space on Main Street. The owner is putting out some bikes, plants, chairs, and speaks a little to the visitors. It’s midday and the sun has already warmed the once cooler breezes of the morning. The trees which are maintained by Cultivate Catskill are briefly animated. Our visitors don’t seem to mind much at all beneath their large sun hats and baseball caps and after nodding the small business owner away, the attractive cool of The General Store of Catskill draws them inside. Further along our historic downtown strip lined with gaudy cat sculptures that merit a photo or two and a laugh, they disappear out of sight and return to their cars.

And then the week comes  – and with it, its relative peace and quiet. This is the gentle ebb I appreciate the most: slow enough to almost watch the plants grow. When you walk into a local pub after a day of work, you know who is here. We visit one another with the aim of burning some time away during long shifts and running errands. Small business owners, county office workers, police officers and locals strolling or sharing some shade, a cigarette, a little advice or a bit of gossip, create and augment the atmosphere of Catskill without its gawkers and gift buyers. With the farmers market on Friday evening, the whole cycle is begun again. Music from Carmen and Alison of Jumbo Bungalow emanates from the event to kick off a new summer weekend and lure citizens and visitors to the tables setup by farmers like Carol Clement of Heather Ridge Farm. Those who are willing to meet you and ask your name and get a sense of who you are, might be the very neighbor you live down the street from. We all have a tendency to self-isolate in our rigid routines, but opportunities abound when the weekend arrives. This double action, of the visitors coming in and the locals coming out, seems to grant us some kind of balance in a very, very chaotic country.

Weekend/ers

Looking to Age

DonaldHallSlider

I read the paperback edition of Donald Hall’s 2014 book, Essays After Eighty, within the last few weeks of 2015. A reading list was compiled during that summer, which didn’t include this newest of Hall’s publications. As happens with summer reading lists, it promptly extended itself into the fall and winter. More than a few titles from last year are now due to be held this summer in my hands, with morning coffee nearby or propped upon my lap before bed. However with Hall’s book I felt an urgency to take in his voice on the page immediately. It was also an unexpected purchase, and as I heard no complaint from the other books in queue, I followed his literary towpath into the world of the former Poet Laureate’s native New Hampshire town and into his home at Eagle Pond Farm.

His ancient and warm voice can be heard here, if you’d like to pair sound with his prose on the page. The essays are not terribly vast in their range but are bound by the horizon line of his current locality, his bodily state and the breadth of his memories. We return again and again to the landscape of his last few decades: to the barn of his grandfather’s farm; to the local roads he looks out on from a passenger seat window while being driven to physical therapy or the airport; to his farmhouse where mice and snakes scurry and wriggle their way across the floor while he searches for his dentures. What’s unique about the perspective of Hall’s voice in this book is his humility through the advance of his years. It is both self-deprecating and appreciative of his limiting dependence and diminishing energy.

While the end of our lives are never known (except perhaps by medical diagnosis or superstitious prophecy) we are freely given mountains of advice as to how to live it. For the devout especially conservative religious we are told to repent now and strive to live without blemish or sin in our actions and thoughts – for the next life. For the hedonistic, never mind the soul – you better live it up while you’re able to function, as the body is sure to wither away. Then, there is the strange cult of fitness that is the sort of flip side of the latter: eat well, watch your diet, don’t smoke, work out, drink smoothies, etc. Even if the body is going to pass away, it ought to be in the best possible condition! And for as long as it can exist. What is most common with all these prescriptions is this: whatever you are doing with your life probably ought to be changed before you die.

We never know when we’ll divest the planet of our consciousness, but while we age the reality of this fact makes different impressions to different people, and is often dependent more on our outer practices than our inner beliefs. In his essay titled “Death” Hall proclaims, “at some point in my seventies, death stopped being interesting.” Later he affirms that his activities in spite of the reality of old age are very much the same things he was doing in the middle of life – “I try not to break my neck. I write letters, I take naps, I write essays.” I was reminded of an interview by Q TV’s Jian Ghomeshi of CBC with Leonard Cohen (another brilliant human past the age of seventy) who quotes his deceased friend and poet Irving Layton that “it’s not death that he’s worried about, it’s the preliminaries.” It makes a good point about where our heads usually are – do we live life from death’s perspective with dread or see death from life’s vantage point? He later tells Jian,

Of course, everyone has to have a certain anxiety about the condition’s of one’s death-the actual circumstances, the pain involved, the effect on your heirs. But there’s so little you can do about it. It’s best to regulate those concerns to the appropriate compartments of the mind and not let them inform all your activities. We’ve got to live our lives as if they’re real, as if they’re not going to end immediately, so we have to live under those…some people might call them illusions.

 

I see in Donald Hall, Leonard Cohen (and another of my “Don’t Trust Anyone Younger Than 70” club: author, educator and essayist Marilynne Robinson) a number of great inspirations to me and others that while we are wading through life’s swampy marshes or traipsing through its golden landscapes, we will continue to fade. How we are or aren’t becoming to the inevitable is but a little difference of musculature in the face – either a tensing up to brace, or a relaxing into the pleasant smirk of acceptance.

Looking to Age

Calasso and Literary Civilization

It’s a slim and colorful volume from FSG that contains the insightful and wise words of the Adelphi publisher and multi-varied scholar Roberto Calasso on the very art he has exercised for near fifty years. To have this translated work, The Art of the Publisher, available to an English speaking audience and to those within such a collective who take an interest or make investments in the design & production of the vehicles we know as books, is quite a modest though stimulating event for our culture at the near-end of 2015.

Here you can read a short excerpt from this new book.

Calasso’s manner of stating the very nature of the presentation and the substance of a publisher’s duty to quality and value (“that the publisher enjoys reading the books he publishes”) reminds one of an old path that is cut through with such simple, precise words. They reveal beneath our overgrown, commodified brush of books a way once trod on by the few who found it necessary to guide readers on an aesthetic journey – rather than a brief, sensory delight. As he writes, the public can be invited along on an “editorial program” which envisions each book as a chapter in a much greater tome.

I’ve written elsewhere about a publishing enterprise in America similar to Adelphi in its scope and variety. If there is something close to it now, it might be found in FSG or New Directions and the growing catalog of works joined together by these publishers’ visions for a “literary civilization”. But perhaps, in the wake of Calasso’s book or the waning of modern ideas about scholarship, there will be or is now emerging new “forms” of approaching the art of publishing as a higher calling toward the outward balance of unity and variety – as we might hope for this to occur, to each one of us, inwardly.

Calasso and Literary Civilization

Speaking Music

The Scotland-based transatlantic publication Dark Horse Magazine is celebrating its 20th anniversary. A recent article by former U.S. Poet Laureate Dana Gioia entitled “Poetry as Enchantment” is available to read online here. I recommend it as an example of criticism done judiciously and with consideration to the future of the craft. Mr. Gioia writes of the sense of wonder at critical invention in a poem that can be understood intuitively be a reader. This same poem can also be examined to gain working knowledge of its form and structure, as a building is examined to discover how it is held up. More often than not today our wonder is subsumed by the task of the critic, as the child is surpassed by the adult.

"Spring Song" by Simon Glucklich
“Spring Song” by Simon Glucklich

Being able to listen to a poem read out loud is something the deaf are not able to do. But poetry began as an ancient oral art requiring no physical sight but the eye of imagination. Reading a poem on the page is likewise what the blind are not able to do. Poetry today stands somewhere between the page and the air, riding the backs of linguistic symbols and launching their arrows of meaning toward the reader. Somewhere between the old and the new, the sight and the sound of a poem, is its sense, which does not seek a house of understanding in one of our five physical senses. Both the deaf and the blind encounter this sense in poetry, and for those of us with senses intact, comparisons can be made and criticism “done.”

Poetry reading doesn’t begin with the critical eye. If it does so, say in the increasingly stringent quarters of an ideologically “rich” academia, a very narrow and more often literal or linguistic reading occurs. The study and enjoyment of poetry cannot be sustained by this activity alone, nor can it be continued with it at as the helmsman. There’s something in the immediate apprehension of language made in poetry that delights the intellect and connects it to the heart and the body – perhaps, feeding our souls. Enjoy the article and if you have the time, listen to a new poem I’ve recorded for the public at my Soundcloud. Spoken word – or spoken music?

Speaking Music