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,”( 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.

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: &


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 ( 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:

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,, 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.