Mucking About

Hello Everyone:

In my recent show, Starting from the Wrong Place, which I am happy to say, sold out and was a satisfying success, Neal Hellman and Adam Stanton were musicians who joined me in the second monologue. Their music brought a deepening and beauty to my words that enhanced and enriched the piece without overwhelming it.

But it didn’t start out easily for me: I usually work alone, so this was a new adventure. I remember one of the first rehearsals: Neal had worked hard and written a great deal of music, and I thought I had my piece memorized. But when I sat down next to Neal and he started playing, the dulcimer was loud and only about two feet away from my left ear and suddenly I couldn’t remember my lines, and the music seemed jarring and threw me off and I couldn’t see how it was going to work and, and, and . . . I started getting anxious and frustrated. Well, what to do. Well, of course, take it out on the dulcimer. Interior monologue: I hate the fucking dulcimer. Well, if you saw the show, you know it all works out fine in the end. And if you didn’t –– well it all worked out fine in the end. More than that. I came to love what Neal offered to my work. I/we just had to get past that first day, and I had to sit further away, and learn to interact with the music, not pretend it wasn’t there. The minute I understood that, everything started to work.

And then we added in the sax. And, damn if the same thing didn’t start up all over again. At first I couldn’t see how it was going to work and I was ready to pull the plug. But then, suddenly Adam’s music connected with Neal’s and then they both connected with my words and suddenly a little magic. And we were all surprised that a sax and a dulcimer could be so beautiful together. Who knew?

Point #2

Be patient with yourself. And, I was reminded over and over by my director Bill Peters, to enter into a relationship with the music. To turn to it and interact. How often in our creative work, do we just want it to work out without having to deeply engage somehow? It’s odd, because that deep engagement is what is so satisfying, but we live in an age and a time when we are constantly being pulled into  “continuous partial attention,”(http://lindastone.net/qa/continuous-partial-attention) and it is harder and harder to settle down and settle in. At least for me. But the moment we get quiet within, and ENGAGE, then the magic can happen. And that’s what worked here.

Which brings me to point #3

Sometimes it is important to get help, especially in the areas where you don’t shine. It’s ok not to know and understand everything. I can’t design flyers to save my life: I am a good artist, but have no design sense on the page. So, I hire someone who is good at that and let her take over and then I can go about doing what I do well.

I had a professor at UC Irvine (the late Robert Blanchon), who said to me once: Your job as the artist is the have the ideas–you don’t have to have the expertise in every technical part of executing the final product. This was a new concept for me and it has been so useful. If you bake terrific cakes, it doesn’t mean you also have to know how to grill well. Someone else might help you with that. Or, if you want to try it, be prepared to make messes, to throw some of it away ‘cuz it doesn’t always turn out well. But get in there and try things. Muck about. Be surprised. And let yourself have fun. By the way: I love the dulcimer now. And the dulcimer with a sax—oh yum.

Winter Light & Root Vegetables

Hello Everyone,

First the news:

For all of you who have asked where you can read some of my current work here you go: My personal essay, “On Reading Anne Carson’s, Nox,”  will be published in this month’s (December, 2011) issue of “Poetry Flash,” which will be available on-line and in print soon. And my performance story, “Way Out West,” was published in “Generations: a journal of images and ideas,” Vol 2, Spring, 2011. Also a reminder that a version of my performance story, “Dinosaurs & Haircuts,” appears in the excellent on-line journal,  “TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism,” Issue 11, October, 2010.

Now the meanderings:

Ah, the light, the light. Love the winter light. Get out the cameras and take portraits. It is the best light for portraits. Long and low and soft. Shadows short and sharp. Time to go deep inside and find out what’s wanting and needing your attention. Maybe more sleep, or perhaps just more “noodling” time. Chop wood and carry water time. Time for that pensive music: perhaps some Bach solo cello concertos, Russian choral music, or a quiet piece by Anoushka Shankar or . . . well, we all have our favorites.

Rest and quiet and dark nourish our creativity as much as sun and fire and rock n roll. Consider two kinds of creativity: active and receptive. In one, we go out seeking. We write our thirty drafts, work hard, do our research, make those phone calls, feel our energy directed outward –– active creativity. In another, we kick back, take a long hot bath, stare into space, “do nothing” –– receptive creativity. In one we work hard. In the other, we don’t work at all. When we are receptive we listen, we receive. It is in this doing nothing that our right brains can show up with their gifts. The poet, Jane Hirshfield once talked about intentionally going for long walks without pen and paper when she was stuck on a poem. One has to be committed to receptivity.

And the shorter days, longer nights, the darkening cave time is an invitation to receptivity. This does not mean you can’t be producing, (I am busy getting my new solo monologues ready to put up on stage which is a lot of work), but it does mean there is a turn of intention. Inward. I am sleeping more, lighting more candles, making all those wonderful cold weather foods, the soups, the stews, the root vegetables. I warm to the dark and the cold. It is a good time to listen: to your dreams, to stories. A good time to be close. Happy solstice to you all.

Events in our life happen in a sequence of time, but in their significance to                             ourselves, they find their own order…the continuous thread of revelation.
–– Eudora Welty

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.

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
verschwinde

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

Feeling the Pain

It is storming in Santa Cruz, the electricity is out, the Allies have attacked Libya, Japan is beset with a horrific crisis, a 17 month old child has been found almost beaten to death by his caretaker; People are holding their breath.

It’s a good time for the practice of Tonglen. (See Pema Chodron’s teaching. http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/tonglen1.php) and you don’t need to be a Buddhist to find this practice useful. To breathe, to connect, to care. We are all in this together. And so, tonight: Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.