Being both a writer and an artist, I often get the question of how can you switch from one medium to the other? To be honest, I don’t consider that I’m switching. It’s all in your head (or mine, I suppose). There are so many elements that cross over from one medium to the other—metaphor, imagery, form, symbolism, etc. that I don’t think I need to belabor that point. And of course there are very narrative artists such as Magritte or Joseph Cornell. And there are many other artists who are also writers or actors or musicians (William Blake, Terry Allen, Tony Bennett, Patti Smith, to name a motley few). And when I lived in New York, it seemed that everyone was writing a screen play, sculpting and playing in a band or photographing, juggling and tap dancing or putting together dance, jazz, projected painting performances or some variation of any of the above. Doesn’t all creativity spring from the same source?
I suspect that I’m sounding a bit defensive, and I guess I am. I’ve sometimes felt the need to justify being a photographer who prints and hand colors her photos, a painter who works in almost every medium (I started to say except printmaking, and then I remembered that I did those mono-prints once) and a writer of both fiction and poetry. “When do you sleep?” I have translated in my own head into “What kind of freak are you?” or “Maybe you should just do one thing…” (“really well”, my ego defense system adds). And then there’s the “prolific” problem—the most commonly used adjective bounced around my studio by new visitors. I have grown to dislike the word, which I associate with weeds. And I hear myself sounding defensive when I answer that the studio contains years of shows with, yes, unsold works still lurking about, and let’s say you put up a show of thirty pieces and you sell two, and you have at least one show a year, well…you do the math. And of course there’s other work that you do that doesn’t go into a show. Other times I just say, “Yes, I’m productive” (a “p” word I can live with).
But I started out to write about the crossover, which I actually wasn’t that aware of until I had to do a presentation for the writing class of a colleague. I got together slides and poems and suddenly realized almost all of my poems and art pieces had some element that reverberated from one medium to the other. For example, I found paintings and photos with eggs and then discovered any number of poems also hatching eggs right and left. Which came first the painting or the egg, or the poem?
One of my most fun and challenging experiences involved a collaboration with a sound artist titled “Out of the Darkness”, inspired by Roethke’s poem of the same name, projecting double exposed slides of scraps of my paintings and other abstract images with a one to twenty second dissolve, triggered by a tape of new music composed on a (at the time) very sophisticated synthesizer. Part of the fun was setting small plastic figures on fire and photographing them and going on excursions to record the traffic or the wind. The final effect was very much like a film, with images overlapping and dissolving into each other at different speeds.
Maybe I should have gone into film, which combines all the elements: imagery, narrative, sound, metaphor, color. Instead, I’m on the board of Filmworks a local group that brings alternative, independent and foreign films to Fresno. Last year, as a fundraiser for our organization I dreamed up the idea of combining jazz (another love) and poetry and invited a local jazz saxophone artist, Ben Boone as part of a quartet to collaborate with Phil Levine and Peter Everwine. I called it THE JAZZ OF POETRY, THE POETRY OF JAZZ. Herding all the people and elements involved together was harder than herding cats, (even cool ones) but it all evolved as probably the best jazz or poetry does in a very casual, spontaneous, and improvisational way and was a huge success. In fact, Ben and Phil have gone on to other jazz/poetry collaborations.
I confess that sometimes when I’m dry in one medium, I just turn to another which maybe says more about my own obsessive/compulsive tendencies than I’d like. But I do think that dipping into another medium can really open up all kinds of possibilities for your primary medium. If you’re a poet, take up piano or painting or puppetry, not necessarily to start a new career, but to stir up the creative waters. Nothing is more exciting or scary or (scary exciting) than the new blank document. When will you find time to do all this? When will you sleep? I don’t know, but when you do, you might have some wild and crazy dreams.
For some people, “serious art” is a compound word. They say it with the most severe reverence that is usually reserved for funerals and graduation speeches. These are people who think that good art can’t be silly, or that silliness can’t be sincere or profound.
However, as any creator knows, art is entirely unpredictable and rule-breaking. Creating something good is like riding an endlessly bucking horse; if the artist wishes to ride any distance without falling off, they must learn to adapt to the horse’s movement.
Mediocre art is very easy to identify; it feels unnatural, restrained, sedated, in chains. A horse that doesn’t buck will never go anywhere interesting. It’s more like taking a pony in a circle at an amusement park.
For critics, there is little worse than making the wrong distinction between good and bad: mediocre art is sincere, however poorly executed; bad art is always insincere. While mediocre artists give us clichés and flat soda, they are not as dangerous as “serious art” snobs.
“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. Attend a wedding reception to see this in action; watch the bride and groom, hours after making “the most important decision of their lives,” get drunk. Watch their parents get drunk and start reminiscing about baby moments. Also, consider sex, one of the silliest acts. Intercourse is the only time when it is interesting and enjoyable to repeat the same motion hundreds of times, time and again. Yet this is what allows the human race to continue.
“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. When evaluating art, one must treat “silly” and “serious” as the primary colors of any good work. The mark of a brilliant artist is the ability to be both silly and serious.
This appears in all genres of art, and I’m going to take you through music, literature, and unframed art with such examples as Mozart, Lewis Carroll, YouTube, and Futurama.
I love Mozart. I love the calm-before-the-storm-iness of Mozart. I love the crystalline confidence of his scales. I love the catch of his melodies. I especially love how Mozart mixes silly and serious.
Mozart’s canon “Leck Mich Im Arsch” (literally, “lick me in the ass”), is one of my favorite examples of how silly and serious can work together to produce art that is unquestionably brilliant, even if it does make you giggle. Just think that without these lyrics, this would sound like a solemn ode to brotherhood.
Another of my favorite Mozart moments is from his final opera The Magic Flute. In one of Mozart’s most cheerful, upbeat, and memorable pieces, the Queen of Night asks her daughter to murder Sarastro, while exercising insane vocal techniques that singers have to dedicate their lives to attain. It’s a funny song, because the seriousness of the lyrics clash with the flowing lightness of the tune.
The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
It’s a scary song; listening to it, I get chills. And it’s a song that gets me through the day, one I love to sing over and over, under my breath, everywhere I go.
It’s not just the mixing of silly and sincere that makes these pieces great; it’s the undeniable humanity and sincerity of the music.
Now consider Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”Its linguistic brilliance and inventiveness is first class, as the beauty isn’t in the meaning so much as in the way the plot is actually understandable, despite the strangeness of its language. The atmospheric brilliance of the first stanza is inimitable:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Its specific nonspecific language allows us to imagine and feel anything, depending on how we enter the poem. Many would write this poem off as silly. Yes, it is silly, but I find serious and sincere qualities in its retelling of the hero’s journey. It is a metaphor for triumph over any conflict in our lives.
There is also the problem of unframed art. Some people tend to think that art must present itself as art, and that only certain kinds of art exist. Music, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, etc… What about TV shows? What about YouTube videos?
This YouTube video by user wendyvainity seems at first to be nothing but nightmare fuel, with dogs. Here is a full synopsis of the video: two dogs sing an auto-tuned song about being dogs while the hairs on their coats grow incredibly long and then shrink back into their body; they jump over each other, and then they jump over what is probably the River Styx. Even on the other side of the river, they keep singing, and their hairs keep growing and shrinking back. Yes, I’d say nightmare fuel with dogs is a pretty accurate term, but—wendyvainity’s video also engages the absurd and the nonsensical to speak about (or at least prime in our unconscious minds) mortality, change, identity, fate, self-consciousness, and the possibility of real connection. Oddly enough, it reminds me a lot of Beckett.
The animated sci-fi comedy show Futurama has proven itself capable of genius, but what really makes some of the episodes “art” is the show’s commitment to sincerity. Take for example my favorite episode, “Jurassic Bark.” The episode is a perfect blend of silliness and seriousness.
For those who are not familiar with Futurama, the premise of the show is that Fry, a loser pizza delivery boy living at the turn of the 21st century, accidentally gets cryonized until the year 3000, and must adapt to his new life. A common theme is Fry’s attempting to reconcile his past life with his current existence, and the possibility of his own insignificance.
Why is “Jurassic Bark” such a brilliant episode? Because it confronts cynicism with sincerity.
Here is a brief summary of “Jurassic Bark”: A museum in New New York digs up the remnants of the pizza restaurant that employed Fry in the 20th century. In the exhibit, Fry finds the fossilized body of his old dog, Seymour. After making a show of protesting in front of the museum, Fry gets to keep his fossilized dog. Fry’s mad scientist boss, Professor Farnsworth, says that he can bring the dog back to life. However, Fry’s best friend, Bender, gets jealous and upset with Fry for spending so much time preparing for the dog’s revival.
The episode alternates between Fry’s preparation for Seymour’s arrival in the present, and flashbacks of the history of Fry’s experience with his dog. The flashbacks start with their first meeting, when Fry gets a prank pizza order and shares the unpaid-for pizza with the starved dog in an alley, who follows Fry home. The flashbacks culminate in Fry’s cryonization and the dog’s subsequent search for Fry.
Fry: “I have a pizza here for Seymour Asses.”
Man at Delivery Address: “There isn’t anybody by that name here. Or anywhere. I hope in time you realize how stupid you are.”
Fry: “I wouldn’t count on it.”
At the end of the episode, learning that the dog lived for twelve years after Fry got cryonized, Fry succumbs to the contagious cynicism of his coworkers, and decides, for the first time in his life, to be ‘emotionally mature’ and to let his dog stay dead. The last lines of the episode (as given by IMDB) are:
Fry: I had Seymour ‘till he was three. That’s when I knew him, and that’s when I loved him… I’ll never forget him…
[Picks up the fossil and looks into its apparent eyes]
Fry: But he forgot me a long, long time ago…
But the episode doesn’t end there. The episode ends with a montage of the twelve years Seymour spent waiting in front of the pizzeria for Fry’s return, accompanied by a beautifully sung rendition of “I Will Wait for You” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Good writers are deliberate, and every detail in “Jurassic Bark” is necessary to the episode and has some poetic value. I am going to offer a few of the most striking motifs, and some parts of the episode that I think embody them. As a warning to the reader, many of these examples are extremely specific and require a familiarity with the tropes and characters of Futurama:
The buried past is still alive in some form: fossilized Seymour, flashbacks… False emotional showiness: Bender the magician, Leela dramatically stripping and running to the lava, Bender emerging from the floor like a volcano, Bender’s robot dog… Cynicism as a destructive force: Bender’s throwing the fossil into the lava, Fry’s parents ignoring Seymour’s barking at Fry’s cryonized body, Fry’s ultimate decision not to recover Seymour… Cynicism as learned behavior: Fry is Bender’s apprentice, Fry’s ultimate decision… Sincerity as something frowned upon: the crew’s lighthearted scorn of Fry’s three-day dance-protest to get his dog from the museum, Bender beating up Zoidberg after Zoidberg explains Bender’s magic trick to the audience, Bender choosing to believe that Fry’s emotions are fake and that Fry is only acting that way to make Bender feel bad… Sincere connection as a rare and valuable ideal: Seymour is weak at first but grows healthy when fed and given love, Fry is only happy when with Seymour, Fry and Seymour are lonely and outcast but fill a void in each other’s lives, symbolized by their ability to sing together “Walking on Sunshine”…
Many viewers, angered by their own emotional responses to the episode, have complained that the ending of “Jurassic Bark” is manipulative, and rightly so; like all great stories, we are tricked into feeling emotion for people that don’t exist and the decisions they make. Where the objectors are wrong, however, is in denouncing this manipulation. Yes, we are tricked, as many great writers have tricked us in the past. We are tricked into first believing that Fry is making the right decision (a triumph for cynicism), and then shown that his dog never stopped believing and just kept waiting. In the end, moved to tears and anger as many viewers are, we ourselves are the triumph of sincerity.
So. What’s the takeaway? Why is any of this important?
Silliness is the most underrated aspect of art.
More than anything, sincerity is what counts.
Art doesn’t have to be serious to make you a better person.
Wild-eyed Tommy plays the dulcimer on the streets of the French Quarter. Actually, what he does is tune the rusted strings on his trapezoidal wooden box more than he plays them. On week-end nights, so late that few tourists remain at Jackson Square, he can be found tuning his dulcimer under a balcony of the Pontabla building. His scraggly mane will be bent over the instrument, ear cocked to the dissonant zing zing of the strings he strikes with stubby mallets. He seldom looks up, absorbed in a music nobody else can hear.
This evening, on my way home from the grocery, Tommy buttonholes me on Royal Street to tell me about the extraterrestrial origins of Chalmette. Located among the phantasmal lights of the oil refineries in nearby St. Bernard Parish, this is a blue-collar town that we New Orleans city slickers love to poke fun at.
“They’re hybrids, you know,” he tells me. “The extraterrestrials colonized Chalmette a long time ago, right after they landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1948. That’s when the first human abductions started. You can tell by the way those people talk. Why do you think they call them Chalmatians?”
“Oh, I see.” I shift my bag of groceries from one hand to another. Local wags say the last time understandable English was spoken in Chalmette was during the British invasion of 1814. “Chalmatians. Like Martians or Venusians.”
Tommy tells me that several years ago, before hurricane Katrina destroyed St. Bernard Parish, he was busted in Chalmette for just a liiittle bit—he holds up the tip of a pinkie finger—of marijuana. Then, after all the court dates and drug testing and community service there, he finally figured it out.
Chalmatians are hybrids.
“Just like the people in Zone 51,” he insists, crowding me up against the plate glass window of the fancy paper shop next door to my carriageway gate.
“Isn’t that across the lake?” I ask.
“No, silly.” He shoots me an indulgent smile. “Zone 51 is somewhere in Nevada, in between Las Vegas and Hollywood. It’s where the C.I.A. brought the extraterrestrials after they landed in Roswell, and where they started the hybrid experiments. But only one human is still alive who was involved in this.”
I’m all ears, even though a cut-up fryer is dripping through my plastic bag.
“George W. Bush’s daddy.”
This is starting to make some sense.
“He was one of the C.I.A. types who started the human-extraterrestrial hybrid experiments. Most of the hybrids were born between 1957 and 1986. But now it’s really gotten out of hand. The youngest are about twenty-five years old. You know Loose Marbles, those dreadlocked musicians with the dark, funky clothes who play on the corner down Royal Street?”
I nod. “Good musicians, and I love their look.”
He leans in and whispers. “Hybrids.”
“You can tell by all the stripes they wear. Striped socks, sweaters. That’s always a dead giveaway.”
Tommy’s pale, thin face is hard to read, hidden behind a bushy Wright-Brothers’ beard. He tells me that what tipped him off years ago was when he spotted a flying saucer sail out of the attic window of socialite Germaine Wells’ apartment. It was about as big as this, he says, pointing at the S.U.V. passing in front of us. Ever since then he’s been studying the hybrid situation, which is particularly severe in Louisiana, where they’re been experimenting on us.
“Just last month I was coming out of the Rawhide at dawn.” The Rawhide is a gay bar on Burgundy Street with a notorious back room. “Fog was rolling in from the river, and I looked up in the sky over the gate of Louis Armstrong Park at all these thick clouds crinkled like potato chips. And right in the middle was a perfect round hole big as the Super Dome. Looked like it was made by a cookie cutter. And right though the hole was the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.”
“Did you think the Chalmatians were landing?” I shift my grocery bag to the other hand and move closer to my gate.
“Seriously,” he says, clutching my arm, as if somebody finally understood. “The hybrids are at the bottom of everything. Reality itself is changing.”
Suddenly I’m staring at an enormous floating TV screen filled with air-borne basketball players. The screen is attached to the cab of a truck, and ear-splitting rap is blasting from inside. It dawns on me that this must be roving publicity for the National Basketball Association’s all-star play off being held in town this weekend. A good time to stay home, I decide. Drunken fans will take over the neighborhood.
“Do you see what I mean?” Tommy asks, pointing at the TV screen. “They’re everywhere.”
“It sure explains a lot.” I turn around, moving toward my door. “Where’s your dulcimer?” I call over my shoulder.
“It’s out of tune,” he shouts back. “Besides, I’m not playing on the street with this crowd. Are you crazy?”
The Fiddleback is a free, independent, online arts & literature magazine that features poetry, fiction, nonfiction, interviews with artists and musicians as well as book and music reviews. Our guiding principle is cross-pollination: We believe in mixing and colliding artistic disciplines to attract a diverse readership and promote work that asserts itself. We believe in giving our contributors the spotlight, in limiting ourselves to small, quality-driven issues. Above all, we believe in never underestimating our readers.
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Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple; there are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many:
It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers moves back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.
Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader. To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction. Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.
This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. The reader needs to be informed of what cannot be articulated. To be made whole the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning. It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.
This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.
To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable idea. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile conflicting views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. See, Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins, Professor of Law, University of West Virginia.
The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, MD. who, in his Brain Storms, A Study of Human Spontaneity, on page 15 writes:
If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.
Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid writes on page 26:
One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.
Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in his The Lives of a Cell, on page 138 describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known facts, he writes:
In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty. If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, one percent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…
Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?
In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 a.m. I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.
For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:
Walker Evans Farmer’s wife
Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth? Sorrow?
Not too bad looking. Plain dress
This description went on and on till I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled On Various Words from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:
Words –bricks and mortar
Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,
building the ant hill,
not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished
its too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.
This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the above mentioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.
Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.
No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.
Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract. Abstraction and music are soul mates and poetry is nothing if not music. For each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.
Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain till it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling,” with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.
Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.
Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it…
I stood under the flicker of thefluorescent lights, transfixed, unable to move. In front of me, the display of fruit shimmered, otherworldly: oranges the size of softballs, lacquer-shiny apples. I picked up a kiwi, then put it down. I wandered, slightly stunned, through the aisles of bright jars and boxes. Finally I stepped out through the magic doors, empty-handed.
When I returned from two years serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I felt raw, hesitant, unmoored by the simplest things: the grocery store; a simple and impersonal transaction at the bank or the post office; turning on the tap and having water pour forth.
I peppered my conversation with words in Cape Verdean Creole, and listened to sappy Cape Verdean pop music, and felt nostalgic and vaguely tragic.
Soon (though perhaps not soon enough for my family and friends), this moony phase passed. But as I cast about for what to do next with my life, Cape Verde’s landscape and people and the intensity of my experiences there haunted me.
I didn’t quite understand why I had nearly stopped eating while I was there; why my marriage had been pushed almost to the breaking point; why after two years I still felt a simultaneous excitement and dread at the thought of facing a classroom of 40 ninth grade English students. I imagined these struggles in some way reflected in the geography and culture where they had arisen, but the connection was still unclear to me, blurred as bruma seca season, when dust had obscured the sky. I needed clarity, and the only way I knew to seek clarity was to write.
At the same time, when I mentioned Cape Verde to anyone, I was greeted with a blank stare. I was jealous of Peace Corps volunteers I knew who had served in Central America, or Russia, or on the African continent. The ideas people had of these places may have been distorted or false or based on stereotypes, but at least they had heard of them.
If I had often felt lonely or misunderstood during my stint abroad, when I returned, it seemed I was once more cast adrift.
I wanted others to feel the dry dust of the harmattan winds, to taste the earthy corn grit of djagacida, to understand the history and resonances behind the beautiful, mournful ballads.
In writing the book–a process which ended up taking almost 15 years–I want to say I found some of the clarity I had been looking for. But maybe it was simply that 15 years of living led me to cultivate more compassion for the 22-year-old girl with an eating disorder, or to see that the struggles my young marriage endured had both everything and nothing to do with our immersion in Cape Verdean culture.
Maybe it wasn’t clarity that I needed, though. Maybe it was simply to tell my story, dust-obscured, deep-throated wail that it was. What I’d wanted all along was to put the island where I’d lived for two years on a common map.
There is a primal urge in our muscles, housed in ligaments, tendons, cells. For a wrapper around us: the shell of an egg, nest, hut. To sit reading by a fire in a house with sturdy walls: one remembers the pleasure.
I want to advocate for a dedicated space—for each of you, each of us, as writers—and if possible a writing space separate from your living space. As I write the sentence I lament that it took me years to know I needed such a space and then years to have the means to build one. Mine is small enough a white pine hides it from view, and yet it’s ample. How much does a writer need?
A desk, a chair, a lamp, heat, a ceiling fan for when it’s too hot. A shelf for books. A notebook, a writing implement. Windows, with some that open wide.
What shall it be called? I reject shack, but wish that the word studio had fewer syllables. I prefer the word hut. A friend recommended a longer title, suggesting cursive words burned into a plaque I nail up: “Pavilion for the Gathering of Harmonious Intent.” I resisted that, too. I refuse a sign, a name. I have a knocker in the shape of a trowel next to the door. “Please don’t knock unless it’s an emergency.” This is what I’ve told my husband.
I step outside, hiking up on my shoulder a bookbag with notebook and binoculars; in my other hand a thermos of coffee, a cup. Once I step into my writing hut, I breathe new air. I look out on a ravine behind our house, a creek, deciduous trees. All is forgotten: teaching schedule, chores, dinner menu, dentist appointment. I am riding the crest of a wave, alone. It’s thrilling. It’s where I need to be.
Depending on your writing methods, you can leave technology behind—though wireless does extend out this far. I write longhand in a notebook, ones I buy in bulk quantities. I buy the same ones: lined, thick paper, with a colorful front and back and an elastic closure. I write with a pen. Eventually I will put the poem on my computer (in the house), print it out, work on revision (on paper), and repeat the process. But I love writing by hand. It slows the words down for me; there is time to think, reflect, stop and start again. Recursive, reflective, slow. It is “slow food,” this writing. Here’s a pat of butter sliding across the page, or a piece of ice melting, moving. Mixed metaphors. I think of Robert Frost’s words, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove a poem must ride on its own melting.”
One also leaves behind the whole writing profession, its worries, publishing, frets, envies, niggling doubts. Here one is up against writing itself, by itself. One grapples, struggles. The opponent? Oneself. There is no other here. Get it right; tell the truth, give the right, specific detail.
I like it quiet, like it with the windows open to birdsong, and I like it with music. Either way, find your space. Have it reflect the unique self that is you, and relish it.
Writing as practice, the hand caressing the page, the wet ink lapping at the dry paper. Each poem is a walk, a journey, and the mind wants to rove. Let us go a’maying, let us venture out.
I have been thinking about the ways in which musical and verbal intelligences merge in a poem as compositional strategy, because I have wanted to understand how a poet “thinks” through the music of the poem, as distinct from stating a thought directly as an abstraction or translating it visually into imagery. What interests me is the way a poet puts sonorous “truths” in play. These “truths” are not always articulated thematically in the poem, but the poem’s music gives rise to them, in the musical supplement to signification that Northrup Frye called the “babble” of poetry. The choric aspect of poetry supplements and complements poetic signification, in meaningful (if indeterminate) ways, with what I’ll call sound-thinking.
Music functions as an intellectual, even visionary element of poetry, putting into play something akin to a counter-intuitive logic. A poet sees through words and thinks in song. To give a brief example, consider Tess Gallagher’s elegiac poem, “Comeback,” in which we find resonant moments of words chosen for the aural effect, with semantic intonations rippling afterward like the wake of a boat. What the reader is told is that—as the speaker remembers how her father “loved first light,” and would sit, exactly as the speaker of the poem is sitting in early morning with her cup of coffee looking out over the “Strait”— the speaker may be dying, like her father and her husband, of cancer. But any “certainty” in the poem comes not from direct statements, but in the music of the metaphor: “Light is sifting in/ like a gloam of certainty/ over the water” (emphasis added). Claims to knowing have no explanation, so of what can readers be certain, reading this poem?
I glom onto the word that draws our attention because of its antique music: “Gloam” goes etymologically back to OE, meaning twilight, not dawn, and darkness coming on, not the sun’s light growing brighter as it rises. The use of “gloam” at that moment in the poem is paradoxical. We are not aware of the paradox consciously, but our access to its insight is through the poem’s music. We register that insight subliminally, through the sound of the word, which is a vowel shift away from “Gloom” and “Glum” (as well as to the idiomatic “glom”). The word “gloam” suggests the other words, which are darker, moodier, and would spell out morosely the sense of feeling attached to life and contemplating losing it. The mournful music of long o’s punctuates the poem, where the poem also locates the speaker’s intuitive knOwing, withheld semantically but articulated musically.
I doubt that Gallagher thought of this as she wrote the first draft, or even paused to look up “gloam” in the OED, at least at first. Nevertheless, given the poet’s precision, I trust that “gloam” was retained deliberately during the process of revision. I speculate that while writing the first draft, Gallagher followed initially the aural insight residing in language itself, allowing associative connections to arise, trusting the inner ear to choose the right word for the poetic moment. She must have looked up “gloam” later when revising the poem, and at that time, was reminded that it denotes the exact opposite of how she uses it (dusk not dawn). Perhaps she then articulated to herself the kind of paradoxical logic the moment holds, the spell of sound tugging against the march of meaning. Perhaps she kept “gloam” because its presence is a door into the most profound level of meaning in the poem.
A poem is able not only to make something visible through language, to see through words, but also to make something audible cognitively, sound-thinking, as I’ve been calling it. The point I’m making inverts the notion that content determines form (pace Robert Creeley), and that is that content follows sound.
 See J.H. de Roder’s useful overview of Fryean “babble” and “doodle” in “Poetry: the Missing Link?”: “Northrop Frye in his monumental Anatomy of Criticism simply states that the basic constituents of poetry are BABBLE and DOODLE, going back to CHARM and RIDDLE. In Frye’s view, poems babble, they foreground prosodic features of language – such as sound and rhythm – and by doing so produce charm” (Frye 1957: 275-287; qtd. in de Roder; http://webh01.ua.ac.be/apil/apil101/deroder.pdf).
 On the associated notion of “thinking/ singing,” see Hank Lazer, Lyric & Spirit (Richmond, CA Omnidawn, 2008), 185-204. As Lazer observes, there is a cognitive element which song both activates and enacts, and which we as readers only access by attending to the way music signifies in the poem.
Tom Williams is the author of the novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice and the forthcoming novel Don’t Start Me Talkin,’ due out in February 2014 from Curbside Splendor. He’s also the Chair of English at Morehead State University and this year’s judge for cream city review‘s fiction contest, among other things. CCR‘s Mollie Boutell recently caught up with him to chat about writing, music, and beer.
Cream City Review: Give me three stories everyone should read.
Tom Williams: This is such a difficult question. Why only three? And which three? How to choose and not sound deliberately obscure, a literary log-roller, or hopelessly conservative? My solution: a first, second, and third-person story by people I do not know:
1. “The Moths,” Helena Viramontes. US Magic Realism, sad and triumphant, rite of passage, incredible ending.
2. “Soul Food,” Reginald McKnight. Will honestly flip your lid when it comes to notions of what second person does or should do, and was published in the ’90s, well before the quasi-literary, post-apocalyptic, zombie genre was getting its footing. And it’s in second person! With a first and last line you’ll not soon forget.
3. “Murphy’s Xmas,” Mark Costello. Simply put: Costello is the best short story writer you do not know. And this holiday classic makes Fear’s “Fuck Christmas” and The Pogues’s “Fairy Tale of New York” look like Hallmark cards.
CCR: I love that you included a second-person story. Sometimes I feel like Lorrie Moore was the last person allowed to use it. Speaking of Lorrie Moore — she said “a short story is a flower, a novel is a job.” What’s a novella?
TW: When I was writing The Mimic’s Own Voice, this is what cheered me every day: Melville’s line from The Confidence Man: “It is with fiction as it is religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.” And that reminds me of a scene in Animal House, where Pinto (played by Tom Hulce) and Professor Jennings (played by Donald Sutherland) have this pot-stoked conversation:
Pinto: Our whole solar system could be like one tiny atom under the fingernail of some other giant being. Oh. Oh. This is too much! That means one tiny atom under my fingernail could be . . .
Jennings: One tiny universe.
This strikes me as a perfect analogy for the novella: a complete and complex object—a tiny universe–that fits neatly under a fingernail. If the short story is too brief for you and the novel too long, yet you want both the perfection of form and the complexity of life, there’s that middle form that you either call the long story or the novella.
CCR: If you could make a soundtrack for your soon-to-be-released novel, what might be on it?
TW: Mollie, this is the softball. My forthcoming novel is called Don’t Start Me Talkin’, which is also the title of a song by the book’s principal muse, Sonny Boy Williamson II, who your readers might know lived for some time in Milwaukee in his later years, while he was recording for Checker, in Chicago—where my publisher is located. And in addition to borrowing that title, at present, each of the twelve chapters of my book have Sonny Boy Williamson titles as their titles. So the simplest thing would be to go to iTunes and download His Best, by Sonny Boy Williamson, and listen to such numbers as “One Way Out,” “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” “Good Evening Everybody,” and “Help Me.” And then listen to Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, James Cotton, Sugar Blue, Charlie Musselwhite, Satan and Adam, and any other blues harpist of note.
CCR: We will. Now, your best advice for someone, say, entering a short fiction contest?
TW: Send the story that’s currently making you worried; the one that appears to be finished but has something to it that keeps you from sending it out might be the one that’s busted through all the limitations one invariably muscles into one’s work. If a story seems “your” story, it might be one that only works for you. If it’s one that seems to trouble your aesthetic, your standards, your sense of what it is that stories essay, it might work for others. Send it out to a contest sponsored by a magazine you like to read and then don’t periodically check the contest journal’s website for updates.
CCR: What’s your favorite Wisconsin beer?
TW: This question is even harder than the one about three stories people should read, because there are so many good Wisconsin beers, including the macro brews of Miller, the resuscitated majesty of Pabst and Schlitz, the serious old school wow of Point, the craft intricacies of New Glaurus and Sprecher, the unbelievable freshness of Hinterland and Titletown. All of this is to say that while I lived in Wisconsin, it was not the best time of my life, but the beer was ineffably wonderful; but the one that caught me first and best was a Leinie (not of the new vintage but the old)—a can of what’s now called “Original,” with its less than politically correct Native American in profile logo. It came dripping with ice from a cooler on a summer day and I can still feel the tang at the back of my throat. And suffice it to say when I think of Wisconsin beers, it’s the one that first surfaces in my mind.
Cream City Review’s contest postmark deadline has been extended to January 15. Stuff your story (and the $15 entry fee) into an envelope right now and send it along to: cream city review c/o UWM Department of English, PO Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201.