Wednesday, August 29, 2007

August 29, 2007

My program of toleration for the local opossums is not turning out well. They– I think it was they–broke into my cantaloupes. It forced me to harvest the two which were untouched, and which turned out to be not only ripe but delicious. More cantaloupes, fewer marsupials next year.

The Field Museum in Chicago sends me a thank you note, a souvenir booklet, and free entry tickets in thanks for my tyrannosaur poem. I am the sort of person who must resist flying to Chicago just to use the free tickets.

Lunch with JF, where I learned, as if I hadn’t learned before, how oblivious I am concerning my effect on others. People I think hardly know me write touching letters of thanks and homage, while some I love seethe with loathing and resentment. I have no clue, usually, how I earned either one. I blunder about doing what I do, assuming that people have perfect understanding of my motives, and will honor the motive above the sometimes contradictory action. All is right between JF and me, but I still feel a little staggered, a general blamed for botching a battle he didn’t know he was fighting.

David Gary gives my paintings back, not needing them for the walls of his new office. They are old, and in a style I no longer use, in a style I’ve almost forgotten why I used, and I don’t know how to relate to them anymore. I hang two in the house to get reacquainted. They are cool and lovely. I wonder if there’s something in them that I want back.

. . . assuming I ever get to the studio again.

I am almost never cool and lovely.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I wrote a poem in the dark of night, which, when I look at it now, seems a summary of my life. If so, I hold my head high.

One Love

On earth the vessel bears the fire
and is made beautiful with the fire
and there is no fire but what the vessel bears

I have had one love.
That I had to seek him through the bar rooms
and black alleys, through the thousands and their dust,
lies at God’s door.
That I have spoken of him with a tongue of flame
and broken rose and rose in fullness, lies at mine.
August 27, 2007

Red rose and yellow rose in a vase on my dresser, the roses finding a way to come back from this drought, even the one buried under tomato vines, its gold flowers pushing out beside the green fruits and tendrils.

Jack and Leland took it into their heads to give me a party for my birthday this Saturday. The fact which I keep as secret as I can is how dizzily excited I am about this, like a schoolboy, wondering who will come and what we will do. Will there be cake? Will the people I quarreled with but whom I put nevertheless on the guest list come, and peace be restored all around? I looked at my near-rapture over this last night, considering the simple things which make us joyful, which we did not know we desired, or, if we knew, did not know how to request.

Monday, August 27, 2007

August 27

From the past days.....

Raging thunderstorm yesterday afternoon, the wind with the force of a hurricane for twenty minutes, enough blessed rain that nothing else withered and died during the night. Lightning struck quite nearby, and a few times it was near enough to startle the imperturbable Titus from his catnap. Jocasta, on the top of the big green chair, deaf as a post, slept through it all.

Yellowish, grayish morning, with a stink about it of something vaguely rotting. A hummingbird drills fiercely into the steeple of the mullein, buzzing hard and loud, like a machine jammed at its work. The moon was a gouged cup last night, though whether it waxes or wanes I had lost track.

Surprisingly chipper for having returned this morning at 2, surprised as I made my way to the car how lively the streets still are at that hour. I had participated in The Best of No-Shame Theater, which started at 11:20 instead of 10 because of the play marathon at NC Stage. Alison and I reprised our mountain climbing piece by Nathan Zumwalt. Zumwalt was hesitant and imperfectly communicative when we first did the piece last autumn, but this time through he was quite specific about what he wanted, and my impression of his potential as a playwright was enhanced. He’s smart and possesses an ear for dialogue. The playlets were much better than they usually are on a Saturday night, less like skits and more like plays, which I suppose justifies the title “best of.” A few managed to wear thin in under five minutes, but I’ll set some of that down to the hour.
Devin had gone to San Francisco to see “Something About Death,” the festival in which we were both included. He said it was awful. And so it goes.

Poetry Syllabus

Decided to radicalize my approach to the Poetry Workshop. My perception is that poetry is mired where it is, that poetry invites questions about its relevance, because it regards society from the middle of society, prizes what society prizes, wants the rewards that society gives. I thought we might try it this time from a little outside. I thought we might turn ourselves into poets before we attempted--or at least while we attempting--the work of poetry

Poetry Workshop Syllabus, Autumn, 2007

I’ve made a mistake in the past by assuming that poetry is, for this century, the record--albeit in heightened expression-- of everyday life. I bought, if only partially, into the dogma that the materials of poetry are unavoidably mundane, and that the inspired, the particular, the sacred are somehow effete or fantastical or against the solid American grain. This semester I am going to try an experiment, with you as my partners and co-conspirators. The experiment is to see if perhaps Shelley and Keats and Milton and Blake and Whitman and Yeats were right that poetry is not merely heightened craft, but heightened perception as well, even a finer tone in the living of life. I am going to ask you not only to write poetry, but to live like poets. We will talk in class about what that could possibly mean. There are a few things I am sure of at the outset:
1) I am going to ask you not to watch television.
2) I am going to ask you not to read the Citizen-Times, or any publication which aims primarily at excitable 7th graders.
3) I am going to ask you to choose a poet from before 1950 as your guide and mentor. Any language, any nationality. Read him. Know him. Understand what he meant poetry to be.
4) If drugs or alcohol or cigarettes are a problem to you, if you think about them more than a few minutes a day, I’m going to ask you to give them up. You cannot serve two masters. Well, maybe two, but more than that gets iffy.
5) I am going to ask you to impose on yourself a discipline. Milton said an epic poet must live simply and drink water out of a wooden bowl. Yeats recommended fly fishing. But reach into your soul and see what you need, what you are capable of, and choose a discipline you can be loyal to. Examples? Become a vegetarian. Do not eat after 3 PM. Meditate nightly. Fast two days a week. Give up drugs and alcohol. Run three miles a day No Matter What. Become the best friend of the kid in the hall whom you really, really hate. Walk the streets of Asheville of a night and do not come home until you’ve done a good deed. Learn every plant or tree you encounter in the Botanical Garden, and not only the ones with signs on them. Learn yoga REALLY. Learn how to give your devotion to Shiva (Jesus, Buddha, Ahura-Mazda, the Great Mother) and do it. The discipline you choose can be anything. It can be arbitrary. It can relate intimately to your history and life goals. You may share your discipline with anybody, but you MUST share it with your workshop partner (see below) so you can keep each other on the straight and narrow.

Now, for the actual class:

A) I don’t want to see anything you did before this semester. We’re starting new.
B) You will keep a journal (you probably already do) in which you consciously and conscientiously record the experiences and observations out of which you will make your poems. You may also choose to record the unfolding (or the failure to unfold) of your chosen discipline.
C) You will choose a workshop partner, who will be your critic, confessor, mentor, friend, sidekick, model through this semester. Each week you will meet with your partner BEFORE class and critique each other’s work for that week. You will then revise the poem according to the recommendations made by your partner and the revelations achieved by yourself during the process. On Monday afternoon, you will hand the class:
i) the first draft of the poem, the one you gave your partner to look at,
ii) the written version of your partner’s critiques and recommendations
iii) your revised draft.

The full class will then critique the revised draft, giving you a second critique of your poem.

iv) Judging by the class’s reaction, you may choose either to bring the same poem to your partner and then to the workshop the next week for further revision, or to present a new one, but each time your offering must go through the same process.

Meetings with your partner are part of the process. Don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t meet five minutes before class time. USE him or her, and be willing to be used in return. You are wise. Give your partner the benefit of that wisdom. You don’t have to talk only about poetry. If you talk about other things worth sharing, don’t hesitate to share it with the rest of the class, too.

v) Remember that “revision” means TO SEE AGAIN. Don’t tinker. Use a flame-thrower, a battle axe, if you need to. A scalpel, a single hair, if you need to.

vi) Go to as many poetry readings as you can. Talk them over with your partner. Dissect them in your journal.

GRADES will be based on 1) Your loyalty and adherence to the rubric above, 2) How good your poems are, 3) Attendance and class participation.

Friday, August 24, 2007

On Play Development

Lucia’s reaction to people’s comments about Athena reminded me of an odd truth. Jack and Jill in the bleachers feel free to critique a play in a way that no one would dream of doing in an art gallery or a concert hall, or in a library with a book in their hands. Why do secretaries and math teachers think they know better than the playwright how the play should go? The living playwright, I should say, for Shakespeare is never subjected to the same use (though his directors are). No doubt everyone assumes he is being helpful, but such help is impossible to use because it is based on random preferences or unexamined expectations which cannot help but clash with the random preferences and unexamined expectations of other audience members. In the day since we closed, I heard one person say the basement scene was the best and culminating scene, and another that it was irritating and unnecessary. What is one to do with those contrary perceptions (both from intelligent theater professionals)? When it’s Shakespeare we don’t get, we assume the fault is ours, but when it is someone alive, someone possibly in the audience, we suddenly assume an egalitarian perspective which reigns nowhere else in the arts. Of course we see the one little fault which the author missed which, if addressed, could raise this flawed work to perfection. I remember my freshman star critiquing the language of Night, Sleep without even a hint of embarrassment. I remember a plump Atlanta housewife saying she was “thrown out” of the action of The Faith Healer because one of the characters had a name which reminded her of something, presenting that fact as though it were my fault, and my place to do something about. We approach all art with preconceptions and prejudices, but when it concerns theater, we think, somehow, those the preconceptions and prejudices will be valuable to the creator, must be valuable to the creator if the creation is eventually to succeed. Part of this comes from the way new plays are treated in America, the “development” process in which a script weathers perhaps years of contradictory, sometimes ignorant or malicious, critiquing before it approaches a stage, when even then it is not considered a finished product, but rather that it has opened itself up a new and broader (and less well equipped) panel of critics That as many plays are ruined as helped by the development process cannot be doubted. Those which survive have had their edges rubbed off, not necessarily a good thing. If “development” involves more than a few truly perceptive professionals, all that it achieves is a state of least possible objection. You answer this objection and you answer that objection, and finally you are left with vanilla pudding. The script must be OK now because no one is griping about anything anymore. I think playwrights should keep a copy of their first draft in reserve, to judge how often “the process” has actually improved it.

Some of this attitude derives from a sense of ownership of the theater, and that part is good. The audience is telling us what they are willing to laugh at, what will make them cry, and that part, at least, should probably be listened to. Every actor knows that the audience tells you where the laughs are and how to get them, where the tragedy is and how to milk it. The playwright can profit from this, too, but only by exactly the same process which informs the actors, in the midst of performance and almost never by listening to what the audience says later, when it is trying to intellectualize its own response. When I cry out with laughter or sorrow in a theater, it is pure truth. When I try to explain later why it happened, I am almost certain to be wrong, and even certainer if I have come to the moment with what I suppose to be sophistication. The way to make playwrights is to produce their plays. Their own ears listening, their own eyes watching, will tell the good ones what they need to know. The others will not be heard from again.


August 23, 2007

This day always seems sacred to me as, alone, secretive, and bitterly in love, I sat at my hand-me-down desk under the light of the lamp my father had when he was a boy, and wrote my first poem. The night was blue because of the orange light of the room. There were voices in the street. I had never done anything like that before, never by my own might slammed a door open into a greater world. I didn’t know if sadness or exultation was uppermost in my heart. So it has been ever since. What would I have been if I were not a poet? It is almost impossible to imagine. I was a poet before I wrote that poem. I was a poet before I knew there was a word for what I was. People say there are emotions which exceed or exist without words. I concede that, but think they are like water which is not gathered into a cup or a river or a sea.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Seven men came with a little bulldozer to pave Caroline’s parking lot. It is blazing hot August, and six men with their shirts off stand while the seventh uses the little yellow bulldozer to dig up the old pavement, or the old dirt and gravel which has hardened into something like pavement. I keep thinking the bulldozer driver is going to ram into Caroline’s parked van, or the basketball hoop, or my fence, but he doesn’t, even though he goes fast in a small space. When the bulldozer has done its work, the men get shovelsful of hot asphalt and ladle it onto the lot until it’s black and smooth. They follow each other in a loop for a while, getting the asphalt, placing it, dumping it, going back for more. Someone must be smoothing the asphalt out and making sure it is right, but I can’t see him.

Caroline’s parking lot lies, for the most part, in the shade, and the green of the trees affects the color of the naked bodies of the men. They are not green, exactly, but something cooler than the red and pink and bronze you’d expect them to be. The men take turns drinking out of a garden hose. The farthest the hose reaches is a place in full sun, so when the men come to drink, their bodies are momentarily a blaze of red shadow and white-gold light, with the plume of water from the hose almost unendurably bright. Then they go back into the shade, where they are not green, exactly, but cream and cinnamon under green silk.

They must be talking to one another–I see that they are–but the little bulldozer is too loud for me to hear them. Even though I’m sure they can’t see me watching from inside my house, I’m embarrassed, as though it were stealing from them to watch, as if I were probing a secret which could be damaged merely by being looked at too hard. When I have to go out, when I have to pass them to get to my car to go out, I see first that they do not all look alike. I thought from the distance that they did. I speak to one of them, the nearest one. I try to tell him that the new pavement looks fine, black and orderly and artificial under the green light. But what comes out of my mouth is jibberish. He looks at me, trying to decide whether I had said something he was meant to hear. I’m not sure myself. I do not repeat it. I keep walking. Some of the men are looking at the cooling pavement, and some at me.

When I return that night I see they have built a barricade of trash cans and lumber and the little bulldozer parked just so. So not anybody can get to Caroline’s parking lot just yet. So that all they accomplished might not be ruined by somebody from outside.