On Banality

How are you doing with banality? What? You know, your daily encounter with your ordinary banal self. You want to write a truly good poem, bake a great red velvet cake, create a subtle layer on your encaustic painting and it just doesn’t work out: the poem is clunky, the cake falls, the wax cracks. And there you are, face to face with yourself and your ho hum-ness. Do you despair, give up, throw away your pens, your paints, turn on the tele? Or do you take it in stride, go for a walk and get on with getting on? I hope the latter.

I have been trying to finish a particular poem I wrote five years ago. At the time I was inspired and I see the inspiration of the poem and I see also, that it doesn’t quite work yet. I have tried forcing the ending out of impatience. I have tried chucking the entire poem into the “I am a lousy poet” file. But I keep returning to it because something in it is alive and I want to be true to that spirit. Today, looking at this poem, I feel what the poem is asking for and am “suddenly” able to write it and to give the poem the ending it needs. Another writer might not have taken five years to discover what their poem needed, but I did. That’s just how it works sometimes.

One of our greatest challenges as artists, as human beings, is always going to be facing our banality. (Jane Hirshfield has written about this concisely in her marvelous book, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, but I can’t find the reference right now.) Despite moments of startling clarity, insight and depth, I never get over the pain of encountering my limitations, my profound dullness. But I have learned to just keep plugging along. Sometimes I need to lower my standards (thank you, William Stafford for that one); sometimes I need to raise them. Most of the time I need to show up (Woody Allen–”80% of life is showing up.”) — showing up over and over again. And every now and again, I have to throw something new in the works and see what happens to lift myself out of the horizontal, out of flatness. I remember the writer, Grace Paley telling one of her workshop participants, that whenever she (Grace) got stuck in writing a story, she would just drop someone horrible in the story and see what happened (thank you, Grace Paley).

Well, that’s what was on my mind this morning. Time to run some errands, look at some art (it’s Open Studios here in Santa Cruz), and come home to try and finish that other poem I stalled out on.

Be brave and keep showing up. Bye for Now.

Speaking of Poetry — Coming Up

I will be reading, Nov. 17, as part of the “Sparring with Beatnik Ghosts” series the third Wednesday of every month held at the Santa Cruz Art League, 7-9 pm. For more info check out these two websites: http://www.sparringwithbeatnikghosts.com &   http://www.scal.org


The Art of Seeing

The photographer, Ansel Adams, used to have his workshop students set up their tripods and large format cameras, frame their image and just when they were ready to click the shutter, have them turn around and photograph what was behind them. What was he up to?

We all develop our habits, our tics, our frames of reference, and over time we tend to rely on these more and more. Last night a friend and I were telling a new acquaintance about the joys of eating popcorn with brewer’s yeast on it. The new guy in town, unfamiliar with some of Santa Cruzan’s culinary habits, said he was kind of a traditional guy––plain popcorn, same flavors of ice cream, and so forth. The idea of brewer’s yeast sprinkled on his popcorn was not at all appealing, although he did say, perhaps under duress, that he would give it a try.

It is important to know and honor our preferences; I return again and again to coffee almond ice dream, and to the landscape of the desert. But as an artist, I want to learn how to pay attention to everything and not let habit narrow my vision, or my possibilities of engaging with the world. Of course one can’t really pay attention to everything; we have to make choices, select out from massive amounts of sensory input, but we can cultivate our skills of perception and of receptivity. We can learn to be open to what is both in front of us and behind us, what is all around us. Ansel Adams was teaching this skill when he had his students turn around at the last moment and bring into focus what they had turned their backs on.

What are you not paying attention to? This might be a practice question for the next month in all of your affairs, be it art-making, writing, cooking, the art of friendship, the art of daily life. Whenever I am stuck now with my work, I ask myself, what am I not paying attention to? This simple question re-directs my intention and my focus, often with surprising results. I once spent over an hour looking for the Yellow Pages in a friend’s house I was vacationing in while she was away (there was no internet service, so I was not able to go on-line to find whatever it was I sought). Frustrated I gave up. The next day, feeling determined, knowing she must have such a thing, I went looking again, and much to my chagrin, found the book lying right where it ought to be, next to the phone––only the Yellow Pages were blue, not yellow––that’s why I had not found them. This is a bit embarrassing to share, but my guess is that you can relate.

So my friends, try it out. What are you not paying attention to? Just notice. You don’t have to change everything. You can still photograph what’s in front of you, but don’t be afraid to turn around and look at what else is there.

Good Art

The late and beloved art historian, Mary Holmes, defined art as “anything you make.” Then we are left with the question (and debate) what is good art? Skipping right over that issue, I saw some good art last night.

Brenda Wong Aoki and her husband Mark Izu, who perform stories and music of people living between worlds, gave a fine performance at Santa Cruz’s marvelous Kuumbwa jazz center. (http://www.kuumbwajazz.org) The avant-garde jazz was performed by consummate musicians and was transporting, smart, and moving music. When the first piece got-going with drums and bass in a grab-you-up-beat I was immediately tapping and moving along, but then the koto began its jazz riff and I was stunned. I only know koto as played in classical Japanese music. This was a use of the instrument in contemporary and brave ways, and it worked. Other pieces linked taiko drumming with saxaphone, bass, snare drums, flute . . .  — whew, what a treat. And Brenda Aoki’s storytelling was captivating. Her timing and use of gesture, motion, costume, humor and horror were stunning. I am a new fan and will be following their work. If you are interested: http://www.aokizu.com/first-voice. Good art, fine artistry.

Loving the Pig

Ah, back again. I was recently in Berlin on an art vacation, going to galleries, art shows, having long conversations over good meals, eating the much loved currently in season white asparagus called spargel. It was new to me, this big thick white tender delicately flavored vegetable. I liked it very much; although, even though I am a Taurus and believe that more is more, I did finally have enough spargel.

I discovered a new (to me) young artist whose work, I saw at the Barbara Wien Gallery (http://www.barbarawien.de/artists/canell_tex.php) in Berlin. Her name is Nina Canell. I found her installation oddly compelling, and curious, and inexplicable, and satisfying in ways I haven’t figured out yet how to articulate. Check her out for yourself–here’s one place to see some of her work: http://www.artnet.com/artists/nina-canell

While enjoying a warm, sunny, evening sipping something bubbly and eating good cheese, on a Berlin balcony, a good friend showed me a quote she had come across. She and I collect meaningful quotes for keeping on keeping on making art. I liked this quote as much as the spargel and so I pass it on to you: It is by Elias Canetti, a Bulgarian born writer who wrote in German: First the German, then a rough translation:

erkläre nichts
stell es hin
sag es

don’t explain
bring it forth
name it
walk away

In your art practice, whatever it may be, from the humble to the monumental, how often do you find yourself not knowing how to talk about what you are doing, or have made, or are interested in? How often, whether you say it out loud to anyone or not, do you apologize . . .”I don’t really know what this is about, but . . .” and how often do you then stop yourself?

Or another scenario: perhaps you get part way into something, and it begins to veer off in to a direction you didn’t intend, or perhaps it just stalls out and you freeze. Deer in the headlights: you don’t keep going, you don’t try something else, you don’t just mess with it, you don’t throw it away. You do nothing, except feel anxious. If you are like me, at this point you stick the work in a box or a file somewhere, thinking that some day you will do something with it. Suddenly years have passed and that “thing” still sits in its box, unnamed, unloved, undelivered, precious. Yikes. What to do?

The late, great, writer, Grace Paley, once told her short story writing students that whenever she, Grace, got stuck while writing a story, she would just “drop in some horrible character and see what happens.”

Another bit of Grace advice to someone who was stuck and whining about it; “Oh, just write the fucking story.”

In other words (literally), do the work, name it, walk away.

And apropos of absolutely nothing: on my way home, listening to one of my favorite radio stations, KPIG, http://www.kpig.com, which is known for its absurd humor and witty irreverence, I heard this: “We are all swine. Some of us are lower to the ground than others.”

Gotta love the pig.

Be well. And always take a chance on yourself.

on Danger

I’ve been thinking about a quote by Toni Morrison, from her book, Sula:

In a way, her strangeness, her naïveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the reslessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.

Idle imaginations              lack of form(s)                 danger,            not just depression, or anxiety    a torch the lights the wildfire, or a knife that kills and skins a cat and pins it to the wall. No good comes of this kind of “dangerous.”

How then to find form(s), to create work that is dangerous in another way: dangerous in it’s audacity (which may mean its subtlety); in its honesty, its breath taken in

( inspiration )

its willingness to  surprise          to changes             to wiggle and slouch

to face not only the  saber-toothed tigers of oneself, but all those screaming hungry ghosts of not self.

OK then: Here’s an exercise for today:      write something,( or dance, or paint, or stain glass, whatever medium you would like), in which you explore something that is absolutely forbidden for you to explore––fucking your mother for example. If that just sent a chill through your stomach we are on the right track. The late, great writer, Grace Paley, once said that whenever she got stuck somewhere in writing a short story, she would just drop in a horrible character and find out what they’d do.

I once explored the psyche of a torturer in my performance, THREE: a risky, irreverent and curious look at the things that keep us awake at night, I am horrified by torture and it was frightening to enter in to such a person, yet it ended up bringing great depth to my performance. The late writer, Tillie Olson, just came to mind. In her classic work, I Stand Here Ironing, (I read this about a hundred years ago and I haven’t thought of it in years), the action is internal, fragmented, the overt action is a woman ironing, how boring is that, in fact, I haven’t ironed anything in a year so maybe we should talk about dusting, and yet so much is explored and discovered. You do not have to think of something horrible to investigate, even the banal can be forbidden (I know someone who will not allow herself to read  People magazine, or watch American Idol-– go, go local boy, James Durbin!). Pick something; enter in; find out what happens.    Risk this kind of danger.

And happy spring.



on Surprises

Walking along the bluff at Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz, on a much needed gorgeously sunny day, the honking sounds of geese over head. Surely not. They must be ducks. But no; two Canada geese––heading south. But it is April; aren’t they supposed to be heading north? Along the path a man and a woman in bird watching garb: khaki pants, large shade hats, expensive binoculars with heavy duty shoulder and chest straps, warm and friendly. I ask them first if they might remind me of the name of the large whitish bird with black wing tips and a white band across the tail that was hunting by flying low over the marshland. Yes, they know: it is a Northern Harrier. Ah yes, now I remember the name. And then: about the two Canada geese we just saw flying south? Oh yes, it is a pair that has made their home here at Wilder Ranch. Apparently they knew a good thing when they flew over it. They no longer make the long commute.

I spent a bit of time later in the day admiring one of the geese who was floating in the small puddle pond on the beach I was napping on. Thought I might write about the geese somehow, didn’t know how. Then it dawned on me: yes, surprises. Many of my best discoveries as an artist (and in the rest of my life) have been surprises. I turn a corner and there is a bit of graffiti that begs to be photographed, or a bit of trash that is all twisty and rusted that begs to be taken home to be made into something. Or, there was the time after two years of trying to get a particular look while photographing water and being unsuccessful, I accidentally fell off my deck while documenting the re-building process of the deck, and the Polaroid camera in my hand fired an image of the sky (as I was falling) and gave me exactly the look I wanted for the water images I had been seeking. Silly me, thinking that I had to photograph water to get an image of water when all along what I was looking for was in the sky.

The more open we are to surprises, the more gifts come our way. How often I hear beginning writers get stuck on trying to know the end of their story, or poem, or whatever, rather than discovering the end. It takes a great deal of courage to enter into making work not knowing where it will end up. Often the work veers into territory that is uncomfortable, and often, the beginner, but also far too often the more experienced, artist, freezes up, or gets scared or just gets stubborn––”This is not going where I think it should.” ––and stops the process. The little surprises are the geese, or the bit of graffiti, or the treasure found in the junk store; they often come easily if we just pay attention. The big surprises can come easily and when they do they are a delight. But often, the big surprises scare the shit out of us and we run from them. “But I was heading North; why do I now find myself driving south?” Why indeed? and Why not?

Be brave. Stay open to yourself, to your work, to whatever the universe is going to offer up. Let yourself be surprised.

Falling on Your Face

Shortly after graduation at the age of 50 with my MFA in interdisciplinary studio arts from UC Irvine, my performance teacher, who liked and encouraged my work, invited me to participate in a well-known annual performance art event in Los Angeles. It was a way for me to be launched. I was thrilled and scared. Then I made an unwise decision (to try something new that involved some tricky tech) that collided with some mishaps and the worst happened––I failed utterly. ART SHAME. (Trust me on this, I did an awful performance and the audience agreed: the sound guy blew all the cues, I was too inexperienced to re-bound; I froze up, left my body, lost my humor, my connection with the material and the audience––the whole catastrophe.) The shame I felt was intense. It’s true I have a predisposition to be easily shamed, but nonetheless, I had blown it in front of some of Los Angeles’ best performance artists and affcionados, so this shame was earned.

After the show, my lover, and a good friend, found me backstage crumpled into a corner, hands over my face, indulging in thoughts of suicide and never again setting foot in front of an audience. They managed to talk me down and loved me up, reminding me that in the grand scheme of things, it did not matter that the performance failed, but it did matter that they loved me. And that I stand up and get on with life. Which, eternally grateful to them, I did.

I went back to the theatre the next night, because I knew if I did not, I would never perform again. Yes, it is the climb-back-on-the-horse scenario. I went back, did a different performance, one I was comfortable with, that I knew the audience would like, and one that did not rely on the sound guy or any tech. I did just fine; not great, but good enough.

I wish I could say that all went well from then on, but no. The teacher who had invited me to participate in this event never again invited me to participate in anything she sponsored. Etc. Etc. There has not been a steady trajectory to success (although I have had many successes) ; it remains hard work. As they say in Nepal when things aren’t going well, or you are lost in the wilderness (literally), or things are just tough –– Ke Garné. Which translates as, Oh well.

That experience of failure, has made me tougher, stronger and more committed a performer. I learned that although I both like and am willing to take risks and to experiment, I must also pay attention to the event and the circumstances. It is important to match up the event and the audience. Important to know the space and what it will allow. If tech is involved, one must have the time to make it work. Mostly, I learned that shame is survivable, that my friends still love me even when I fail, and that with lots of practice and experience, my skills continue to grow and my resilience increases. And there are the blessings of age, and the wisdom that comes of it. If someone asks me, “But what if I fail?” I can respond with great compassion, “Well, what if?”

I do not wish failure on any of you, but should it happen, learn from it, don’t turn away; face those inner demons and outer critics, the harpies hovering in the corner; learn what you need to learn, toughen up your outer layers, and make sure you have friends who love you. Then keep on making your work, finding out what you have to say and saying it.

The core skill of an innovator is error recovery not failure avoidance.
––Randy Nelson, former dean of Pixar University