from a finite
set of details—
at the top of a pine
one of the threads
(a leaf turns,
exposes the next
from a finite
set of details—
at the top of a pine
one of the threads
(a leaf turns,
exposes the next
To my surprise . . . I’m writing a novel. Let me tell you first why this is a surprise. a) a short attention span, b) aversion to linear structures of any kind, c) I don’t know enough to write a novel, d) I’m way too busy to write a novel. Well, what gives?
Around New Year’s, when everyone is busy setting goals for the new year, I thought, “why not write a novel.” In truth, I originally thought “novella” which sounded less intimidating.
At the time, I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel, The Virgin Blue. I liked that she switched back and forth between past and present, and that there was a mystical link between the two stories, via the particular shade of blue and the allusion to the Virgin Mary. The psychic linkage between the female characters across hundreds of years’ time, was intriguing although (I felt) heavy handed.
I like reading first novels, because of their rough edges; I don’t mind if sometimes I am not entirely convinced of the “myth” of the story environment. (Entering into a story is, after all, much like immersing oneself into a mythical world, no matter the subject or genre.) I found myself considering the dialogue in the novel, which I thought did not entirely ring true, and wondered how an author creates authentic dialogue. Regular dialogue is usually boring, if transcribed exactly the way people speak. But how to spin the web of the story with dialogue that moves the story along, and sounds believable?
Another novel came to mind, and I started reading it again on Kindle: The Passion, by Jeannette Winterson. One of my favorite novels. When I first read it, I fell in love with the storytelling. I loved how Winterson introduces each character’s story, the soldier Henri and the Venizian androgyne boatperson, Villanelle, as two separate stories that she then weaves together. I loved the unreliability of each narrator. Henri, who tells the reader, “Don’t believe me.” The directness of the characters’ voices, the way she wrote the inner dialogue for a French soldier and an Italian young womn, help me to understand how I might try this, too. Winterson’s first novel was highly acclaimed, but it was this second novel written when she was in her mid-20’s, that was a financial success. She was able to make a living as an author due to the success of this book.
In both novels, I enjoyed the historical setting, was impressed by the research I imagined an author needs to do to keep the reader suspended in the myth of the tale. I started to realize that, as when creating a drawing or painting, you are really creating lines and marks in a way that suggests reality. (If the work is non-represenational, it still must create a believable “structure” of some sort, that the viewer will enter into–yet it is only marks on paper). Is writing a novel that different? How much do I actually need to know in order to write a novel?
It is different than poetry, the wholeness of the illusion that you are attempting to create (if the poet is writing in a non-narrative style, which I do).
Now I have written (only) thirty pages of a novel that was originally titled “Estrella and the Texture of Light” and is now tentatively called “Avenida Chimera”. Loosely based on the life of Leonora Carrington, para-surrealist painter and author, who escaped WWII Europe to expatriate to Mexico City, where she developed a unique and mythical oevre of painting, sculpture, and stories. After writing thirty pages, I have started over, now with the story in a radial structure, starting with three characters around a table.
I found writing the scenes that interested me the most, helped break the ice and kept me excited about the project. Over the past two months I have read, skimmed, analyzed a dozen or so texts related to the novel in progress, in diverse topics such as: Celtic mythology, Spanish Civil War, Vichy France, Provencal lifestyle, surreal novels set in Paris, the occult, kabbalah, Alice in Wonderland, art history texts on surrealism or the movements leading up to surrealism, surrealist games, the Mexican revolution and the industrialization of Mexico, etc. I have never been more intellectually stimulated and outright obsessed as when writing this novel.
The novel starts in a courtyard in Mexico City, with three friends around a table.
A candle flickered on the table between them. From above in this light, all three appear identical. From within the circle, one with an angular face. Another, a long oval, and a third, her face shaped like a heart.
The first voice makes a brief comment in Spanish. A second voice laughs a gentle, dancing laugh. Water murmurs from a nearby fountain, now invisible outside the circle of light. The third, in a sarcastic tone, says something that ends in “inolvidable”. Of the three, only one a native speaker.
The main characters are three female artists, expatriated to Mexico City from Europe. As the rest of the novel unfolds, their life stories will emerge through flashback, through dreams, through the reader’s experience of their art-making. Overall, the story is about the challenge and power of art making. The characters happen to be female, at a time when the art world was dominantly “male”, and women were seen as the counterparts of great (male) artists. Through their work, they explore their own beliefs about the nature of the world and society. The story also explores notions of nationalism, and identity, through the thoughts and experiences of these “maverick” characters.
But for now:
The three friends gather as many evenings as possible in the summer, in this high walled courtyard crowded with blue palm and bush sage.
Inside the summer courtyard, quiet music of the fountain. Outside the walls, the concrete sounds of all-enveloping Mexico City repeat at the same pace as they do every day. The conversation topic one day is Mayan mythology. Last week, Sufism. A week from now, interpretations of the Fourth Dimension. Interwoven between these conversations, memories unfold. An insatiable desire to understand oneself as a being in the world. And human comfort to hear the stories of parallel paths that bring each of them to this table.
The first, rises and walks into the kitchenette, brings back a bottle of tequila and in the other hand, three glasses pinched together in her fingers. Sets these without ceremony onto the enameled metal table top. The second pours. The third says, “Salud” and they drink and pour another which they sip slowly now.
It is now completely dark. Two smile and lean in, while the other talks. The candle adds an incantatory effect. Shadow ebbs and flows around the edges of the round table, a table with scratches in the enamel, and polished spots from elbows, dishes, bottles. Blots of wax cluster in the center, and a red wire twists in an upward knot, from the time they constructed an impromptu sculpture into the network of the table.
Picking up the thread of an earlier conversation, Stella, the woman with the oval face, says, “I just do what the painting asks of me.” Adi, with the heart shaped face, nods. Noa, the aquiline, responds, “Eso es lo unico. . .”. They each sip the tequila, and think quietly to themselves as a means to extend the conversation.
I cannot tell you how terrifying and exciting it is to start a novel; all of my fears of my own ability to complete a project arise, at the daunting nature of the task. Then, I get back to work.
Well, to come clean: about 18 years ago, a group of friends got together for brunch at an artist-friend’s house; she taught us to carve and print a lino block. I carved one small block (of a rose–perhaps carving something so complicated prevented me from trying again till now?).
For whatever reason, only a few months ago I assembled all of the tools and materials needed to carve and print a lino block, and only this weekend printed my first “real”prints. Like many people, I suppose I’m better at generating ideas of what I want to do than actually doing it!
For this project, I used an unmounted lino block, and Speedball carving tool (the handy kind with the blades in the handle). I used Speedball water-soluble inks, mulberry paper, and Speedball brayer and baren. I also used a piece of glass from the hardware store (for inking). I plan on buying better carving tools for the unmounted lino (for sharper blades).
As a reference, I used several large Burr Oak leaves from a tree in our yard, and its one and only gargantuan acorn (the size of a golf ball!). I was fascinated by the thing and determined to represent it as best I could.
I first drew it on paper, then traced my drawing and transferred it to the lino block by placing it face down and then retracing the lines, on the back. Ah, graphite is such a wonderful thing–fascinating that it is the same stuff as a diamond, just on the opposite end of the hardness spectrum!
In the future I will also make sure to leave more lines in the back ground, since I love the effect in other linotypes I’ve seen. Lots of ideas now that this first print is free in the world; blocks of different sizes can be used for different purposes. Next, I’ll use a small (2.75″X5″) block to make a print for handmade cards–not ready to try another 5″X7” yet.
Nuance and unconscious skill comes over time; if you are intrigued by a particular type or method of artmaking, jump in and try it. We live at a time when we can watch a video on how to do just about anything–and if time (and funds) allow, take a class to commune with other newbies!
Pinterest offers a somewhat mindless way to do some pre-work, reflecting on artworks whose style you admire. See my growing “collection” on my Linocut board.
The beauty of attempting to make art is, hey, it’s just paper and ink, you can do no harm. But you may regret never trying!
For a fun guide on lino, rubber, foam, and stamp printing try: Block Print by Andrea Lauren. It’s amazing the art you can create with even a few white rubber erasers as your printing blocks.
It’s true that as members of the human race, we need poems that can be memorized and shared, that connect directly with our own memories and emotions. Canonized poems are the ones we tend to read in school because they are repeated, repeatable; some were subversive at some point but now they are subject to analysis by teachers and students, and thus they become conventional and further from their origins with each reading.
I can think of many “conventional” poems that sing in my heart over many years. Poems I enjoyed for their cleverness, their mastery of form and device. Poems that contain a continuous narrative. Poems that speak to me. Sylvia Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather”, William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming”. Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking”. John Donne’s “Daybreak”. These are only a few.
To fully understand the power and purpose of poetry, the poet must evolve over time. The alternative is to stay suspended as if in a clear gel, to relive the same patterns over again. To replay a greatest hits album. To live in a museum of sorts.
I’m no longer infatuated with derangement of the senses—a seemingly dynamic method of poetry–though I love Jack Kerouac, Arthur Rimbaud, my old party friends. Although there is dynamism when tapping into the subconscious, in this method and lifestyle, the experience is too random. If fueled by drugs, is tied up in the ego and is, ultimately, damaging. (Sure love Jack’s “Bowery Blues” . . .).
Some poems have a thesis, a persuasive point they are trying to make. I feel a little sad reading a poem that has the soul of a persuasive essay. I’d much rather read a poetic essay than an essay masquerading as a poem.
Ancient poetry is narrative, formal, memorizable. The most innovative, energetic poetry today is not.
Now, the image is everything. With an image, a poet creates a world. Creates the world.
The dynamic image does not come from a set of stock cultural photos one pulls down from a shelf.
The experience of accessing the image is a channeling—a tunneling—to make room, and then walls slowly peel away from the room leaving only the indifferent universe. And there lives and breathes the Image.
The dynamic image is not recycled or manipulated. The dynamic image is born.
Future topics: entropy in poetry; insight
three o’ clock
a clean root system
for ease of transport
only short range
for nectar of one
thousand years’ sleep
I walk from here
to the edge of indifference,
all the talk—diverged
to an abstract
to the sound—is–
the sound of small creatures
within the thicket
flexing of the wind
thought pulls at underlying meaning
now stacked and labelled
in the onset of winter afternoon
stands at a gradient
as the gender assigned to an hour
now in between where identity,
decisions draw on for hours
within the stone
I admire people who go against the inner voices that tell them “you can’t” and who try anyway; I had the opportunity to overcome some of those voices.
In spring 2015, I felt burdened physically and emotionally by a grueling work schedule, personnel “challenges” that made day to day work difficult, with no end in sight to the relentless avalanche of paperwork. I felt a sense of sadness that perhaps in giving up teaching for an administrative position I have given up my true career. (While teachers are in demand in New Mexico, the pay is low and conditions are not great; I would have to spend time and money to get licensed in the state, etc., etc.) When in an emotionally dark time, it is so easy to see the “can’ts”, isn’t it?
I made a decision to sign up for painting classes that started in June , as a “light” to keep me going. I am not one of those people who says “I can’t draw”, however, painting remained an absolute mystery. I had painted, but my paintings always seemed cartoonish, and I could not fathom how to start when faced with a blank canvas.
After the very first class, I was struck by the uniqueness of each person’s work. As our first exercise, all eight of us painted the same philodendron, “Phil”, and you could see some of us were more expressive, loose in our brushstrokes. Others were more precise, more detail-focused. Even though we used the same color palette, our personalities showed through our color mixes. No two paintings of Phil contained exactly the same green, although green is merely a mix of blue and yellow. Some of my classmates claimed they could not draw, yet every painting was beautiful!
When you start to feel like a cog in a machine, or stuck in a routine that starts to feel meaningless, remember this. Cherish the uniqueness of how you see the world, and enjoy the unique qualities in others’ perspectives. In our uniqueness is our strength; skills can be learned, it just takes time.
“Each of us is a unique strand in the intricate web of life and here to make a contribution.”
― Deepak Chopra
This post was originally posted on my previous blog, in October, 2015.
You can find information about Cesar Vallejo online, or in the prefaces to the reprinted books of poetry. In this post I will proceed, as philosopher of poetic imagination, Gaston Bachelard says: “without worrying about the poet’s ‘complexes’, without rummaging about in the history of his life” thus, free to explore the original power of his images, to search for the poetic imagination in the poems themselves which, ultimately, are more than enough.
The poems in Vallejo’s Trilce have been described as the great avant-garde poetry of the Latin American world, but I claim him as a great and truly original poet, period. The only kin to the power and originality of this work, in my opinion, is Paul Celan’s challenging and deeply moving Breathturn (Atemwende, 1967) for its emotional power and inventive expression.
I believe that each poet wrote these works not to write experimental work, but to express the depths of an existentially anguished soul using words which are, by nature, limiting and meager, as the poet faces his soul and attempts to transcribe what he hears and sees there. Though Vallejo employs elements of daily life in his poems, he is poet of Humanity, searching, longing, striving, and at times, tongue-tied with the bubbling out of the vastness of existence through his pen.
From Trilce (1929)
I sdrive to dddeflect at a blow the blow.
Her two broad leaves, her valve
opening in succulent reception
from multiplicand to multiplier,
her condition excellent for pleasure,
all readies truth
I strive to ddeflect at a blow the blow.
To her flattery, I transasfixiate Bolivarian
at thirty-two cables and their multiples,
hair for hair majestic thick lips,
the two tomes of the Work, constringe,
and I do not live absence then,
not even by touch.
I fail to teflect at a blow the blow.
We will never saddle the torose Trool
of egotism or of that mortal chafe
of the bedsheet,
since this here woman
—how she weighs being general!
And female is the soul of the absent-she.
And female is my own soul.
I escape with a feint, fluf by fluf.
A projectile I know not where it will fall.
Incertitude. Tramontation. Cervical articulation.
Zap of a horsefly that dies
in midair and drops to earth.
What would Newton say now?
But, naturally, you’re all sons.
Incertitude. Heels that don’t spin.
The page knotted, factures
five thorns on one side
and five on the other: Ssh! Here it comes.
Vallejo, César. The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition (pp. 181-182, 189-190). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
Vallejo’s work, and Trilce emphatically, pulses and surges with neologisms, numbers, abstract and sudden links between the poet’s experiences and imaginations. It would be tempting to read either of these passages with a lens that searches for meaning in male/female psychology, however this would lead us on a fruitless surface interpretation. Besides, what joy could it possibly bring us to analyze the poet’s psychology? Let’s read his words.
In “IX”, we experience humanity in the poetic persona’s stuttering. We experience awe-struck sensuality in a world that centers on deeply-felt experience with a woman. We feel complete immersion and release into what I can only describe as the mysterious dark matter that holds existence together. The reader continually feels tension between what the poet wants to express about his felt experiences, and the limitations of language as we know it, a tension that results in imbalance, where invented words and stutters break through the cracks.
I feel childlike joy in Vallejo’s invented words in “XII”, yet tension in what seems to be anticipatory avoidance of something coming, something beyond his control. His playful allusion to Newton, the spontaneous and urgent hushing at the end of the poem, the knotted page and balance of five thorns with five thorns; I interpret this poem as a poet, attempting to write, the “incertitude” of channeling the poetic imagination on command, and the crushing awe the poet feels once the poetic imagination is channeled.
I am moved by his poems, especially the poems in Trilce, which unfolds as an energetic and at times tortured struggle between personal or familial experience and worldly conventions, the unattainable “ideal”, between neverending questions.
I encourage you to read the poems in Spanish; Clayton Eshleman, translator, is loyal to Vallejo’s artistic vision, but you can only truly benefit from the profundity of this work by reading the original in Spanish side by side with the translation.
This lengthy post is a meager effort to pay homage to a great poet, a deep and brilliant human being whom I very humbly acknowledge as a mentor for my own work.
Handing down embers
gravity does not prevent we are distinct
with each other; fluid blue, paint
against the likelihood of reaching,
and the outer-reaching in strings and blots upon it
we are noisy together, varied radios
working wavelengths, but reaching
brings us to the catalytic canvas, distinct
and noisily circles our fingers
through pools as hues make gold speak
true, mythopoeic fact:
creates, and knowledge assumed from many fires
extraction till we cradle our implements
in extraction, even though descent,
to pour our bequest into the site,
where the hues speak true
and true to our inherited noise, the ember
pours from one hand to the next hand
to the next
"The artist exists because the world is not perfect" - Andrei Tarkovsky
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Creative Life through Poetry, Philosophy, Art, and Literature