Friday, May 12, 2017


In the same way that artists and writers are often pleasurably surprised by the way their work is enriched when it doesn't evolve according to plan, I am often delighted, when looking for one thing, to find another. This is one argument for browsing as an act of value creation.

The other day I went to the local library to pick up a book I had reserved. While I was there I went over to the new book section, as I most often do, just to see what might be of interest on the shelves. There was nothing in the fiction section that caught my eye, but over further I noticed that there were several new books of poetry: Whereas by Stephen Dunn, who I have admired for a long time, and The Last Shift by Philip Levine, a posthumous collection by another writer I have read with appreciation for many years. I snapped both of them up, and then noticed one more book by a writer I had never heard of: Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, by Dean Rader. I liked the line drawings on the cover, and as I flipped through it it looked as if it might be interesting, especially since a number of the poems seemed to reference Paul Klee, whose approach to and thinking about art has been a big influence on my own work, so I took that one as well.

When I got home, I sat down and read through the Dunn and Levine books first, and found in each a couple of poems I wanted to include in my archives. (I began collecting poems in the mid-1970's, when I was teaching middle school English and was trying to find poems that might serve in the classroom to introduce students to the way poems work. I started with a single folder with four or five poems in it; eventually I had a folder for every letter of the alphabet with multiple poems by dozens of authors represented in each folder.) Back in the day, I used to just photocopy poems that I liked. Over the last ten years or so I have taken to typing them out, primarily because I find that doing so gives me to the opportunity to attend to the way the poem unfolds, one word, one line at a time. In so doing I often notice things about the way the poem is put together—the way the lines break, repeated words, patterns of sound, etc.—that I don't necessarily pick up by just by moving my eyes across the little black marks on the page and then heading for the photocopier.

The big surprise came when I started reading the poems by Dean Rader. He's a thoughtful, witty, offbeat writer whose poetry exemplifies the spirit of writing that I have throughout my career tried to encourage in my students. His poems are excursions, explorations, investigations. They are surprising both in conception and in execution. Many of them are linked explicitly or implicitly to visual art. Of the fifty-one poems in the volume, 24 include the words "Self-Portrait" in the title, and each of those poems is indeed a kind of self-portrait of the writer at a particular moment in time, or in the case of the poem I'm about to quote—typical of Rader's atypicality—at a particular moment outside of time. Here are the first few lines of "Self-Portrait: Postmortem":

Imagine a poem that begins at the end, in that big boat beyond the end,
where things are both timeless and no longer part of time or even part of things,

which is a little bit like picturing water without waves or light without the stars
but not at all like a sky made entirely of stars or the stars composed

of our thoughts about them, more like the body's bones minus their crushed music
of music free of meaning and misapprehension, but most of all like a seas

in which there is neither up nor down, forward or backward, depth or distance,
only the motion of stasis, the weight of weightlessness.

I love the way this poem unspools itself, starting with the simple injunction to imagine a certain kind of poem, and then following the emerging line of thought to its logical conclusion. (Although the logic, in this case, is being stretched and extended in ways that may seem il-logical but are appropriate to the investigation.) And the "conclusion" of the poem, some twenty lines later, actually brings us back to where we began, with the word "imagine":

You sit beside me in the dark ride as the organ plays and our boat lifts and drops over
the edge. We are so close, it is as if we have traveled the many distances solely for this.

You ask if I hear the violin, and I ask if you fear what awaits you. But you
remind me that we are not afraid of what we cannot see, only of what we can imagine.

There are many other odd resonances for me in this collection. When my children were young my wife and I used to love reading Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books to them. Rader, who is often allusive (his poems reference Rilke, Frost, Basho, Neruda, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Twain, Ginsburg, and Wallace Stevens, among many others), includes in each of the five sections of the book a poem referencing my old friends Frog and Toad. There is, for example, a very playful poem entitled "Frog and Toad Confront Basho beneath the Wreckage of the Moon," which is a sequence of 14 haiku. A couple of examples:

Toad leaps from the stone
into the river's black heart.
Frog pictures the stone.


Snow on the mountain,
water in the pond, Toad
and Frog leap in the moon.

*  (with a nod to Stevens)

The river is move-
ing The blackbird must be fly-
ing. The toad? Eat-ing

There are other poems in this collection that seem to me to ready-mades for teachers in pretty much any classroom from elementary school to college. There's a poem entitled "Democracy; or Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite Last Line." It consists of the same six-line poem presented five times, each with a different last line each time. Read. Reflect. Discuss. Which last line works for you? Why? How does this last line change the way you think about the rest of the poem? Find another poem that you think could be improved by the substitution of a different line. Write a poem of your own and consider multiple possible last (first, middle) lines. Etc, etc, etc.

In a similarly useful vein, should you happen to be a teacher looking to jumpstart a discussion of the work that titles can do when writing poetry, (or simply a reader interested in the physiology of poetics) is the "Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite Title." The five possible titles are listed, multiple-choice style (A-E) at the top of the page. My experience has taught me that most students view poems—and most other pieces of published writing—as the end-product of a very matter-of-fact process that begins with having something to say ends with the completion of the necessary but unenviable task of saying it. Rader's work offers clear illustrations of the dimensions of writing that students tend to underestimate, if not miss entirely: its playfulness, its mystery, the explorational quality that Picasso talks about with regard to his artwork:

"Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you're going to draw, you have to begin drawing… What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas…"

It may seem from my too-brief summary that Rader is merely playful, but that is not the case. Yes, at times he's goofing around. But he's also extraordinarily attentive to the way words work together, well-grounded as a thinker, and disciplined about the architectural qualities of his sentences and stanzas. Here are the last few lines of his poem "Self-Portrait with Contemplation":

It is evening. I think of Rilke and the
longing for infinity and absence

rung into the deep silence of the self.
If silence is bitter, change yourself to song.

O listener, I think of you alone there
on the cliff's edge of your daily duties,

waiting, the way saints wait, for the
falling to cease and the fire to rise,

when the tiniest note, the loveliest letter
from this world finally arrives.

Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry is Rader's letter to the world. Check it out.

 (Here are links to two samples… the title poem (Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry,) and a .pdf of the poem Paul Klee's Winter Journey at the End of Summer.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What Can People Do to Get Better at Learning?

A short video on learning from the current Atlantic, with Jo Boaler, Amanda Ripley, Tim Brown, and others making good sense:

Monday, December 7, 2015


RBS: Homeland

November came in like a sauna and went out like a cold shower. We had a sustained period of hot, sunny afternoons, and then the last two weeks have been more typically autumnal. My art practice during November turned out to be mostly collage. Strathmore makes a very sturdy textured paper out of bamboo. As far as I can figure out it only comes in two sizes, trading card (2.5" x 3.5") and greeting card (5"x 7," folded, with envelopes.) The card stock stands up well to the acrylic medium that I use as glue and glaze for my collages. It was pleasant, after having spent most of October working with only black and white, to play with color again. I wound up doing about 35 collages in this series, and within that set of 35 several smaller sequences. Typically I'll choose a set of papers and then wind up doing two or three or four different collages using the same basic set materials, and then pull out a different set of papers and do the same thing with them. One thing I noticed about what I have been doing is that my tendency is to build a collage additively, using only one piece of each kind of paper in any given collage, as in these examples.

Colors or shapes can and do echo one another, but I do not normally include or layer multiple pieces of the same paper. But I do see other collage artists doing that to good advantage. Here, for example, is a masterful instance by Robert Motherwell entitled Australia II, where he has an interesting mix of repeated and cognate elements on the one hand and unique elements on the other:

Motherwell: Australia II

So I'm thinking that's something I want to start playing with in my next sequence. But so far in December I've been playing possum. I've been doing a lot of reading and a fair amount of writing, but no art yet, and I've been turning over in my mind what I would like to do next, and when, and why.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


Last day of October. The late afternoon sun is streaming in my window as I write and it feels less like Hallowe'en than an early summer evening. It's our second autumn in Northern California and I'm still getting used to the early morning chill, the pleasant warmth of midmorning, and the baking afternoon heat. For some reason, the afternoon sun feels even hotter in California than in Hawaii. And for most of September and October the California afternoons have put me in mind of the summer afternoons of my youth in New York State. There is talk of El Nino bringing much-needed rain during the winter months,  but we have not had more than a few drops here and there since spring.

I generally try to have one form of practice—writing, drawing, collage, woodwork, walking, something—going on, and this month it's been drawing. I started out on a series of 4" x 4" pen-and-ink abstracts during the first week of October, and have done one or two pretty much every day this month. They are, like much of my work in previous years, explorations of what can be done in a small space with just black against white. They are not intended to be representational, although sometimes when they are done they seem to be want to be read that way. Most of them begin as movements of the pen and hand in defining small black spaces, but the creation of those spaces creates negative shapes in white, which by the time the drawing is done are what command the eye. One of the things about this way of working is that I can only begin to sense what the drawing is actually going to look like when I am more than halfway through. Once in a while I'll start with an overall idea in mind, block out the areas in advance, and work from the outside in, but must often I just start with one small shape in some random place on the paper, then add another, and another. I know at some point for sake of variety and visual interest I'm going to have to segue into some other set of contrasting shapes, but I do that more or less by feel, when the time is right.

Then there's the question of when the drawing is done. Sometimes I will choose to leave a large area of white unadorned to set off the areas that have been heavily worked. This often has the effect of turning the abstract image into a landscape of sorts, with the white areas reading as sky:

Each of these small studies takes two to four hours to complete. Every once in a while I'll go for a larger format which gives me the chance to set up individual zones that play off one another, as in this 7"x9" piece which was recently accepted for the annual member show at the Marin Society of Artists:


A piece like this can take anywhere from five to ten hours to complete. In this particular case, I decided to include a more or less literal nightscape: mountain and moon and stars, as the last element in the sequence, both for visual balance and because, as often happens, a theme ("Equinox") had occurred to me and I wanted something to reinforce that.

A similar thing happened when I was working on this last 4x4 study. Earlier in the day I had had a conversation with my granddaughter about ladybugs and for some reason the very odd nursery rhyme ("Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home; your house is on fire, your children will burn.") was running through my head as I was drawing, and that theme made its way into the drawing as I moved from my beginning in the top left down to completion in the bottom right.

Fly Away Home

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Wooden Heart

This is a video I ran across a while back by vocalist Dan Smith of Listener. When I first saw it I was like "What?!" There's a guy walking along dragging household electronics through a field with a rope. He's pulling a tv and crutches and a vacuum cleaner out of a lake. He makes a pile and takes a sledgehammer and starts smashing it all up. Then it's dark and he's holding flares. Then he walks into the water until it's over his head and he disappears. I don't know how you arrive at that video to go with this song, but weirdly enough the video and the song both seem to make each other stronger. What comes across to me after repeated listenings/viewings/readings is that despite its manic intensity and apocalyptic imagery it's essentially a love song, or at least a plea for love and mutual understanding. I think it's kind of great.

We're all born to broken people on their most honest day of livin'
Since that first breath we'll need grace that we're never given
Well I've been haunted by standard red devils and white ghosts
It's not only when these eyes are closed
These lies are ropes and I tied them to my stomach
But they hold this ship together tossed like leaves in this weather
My dreams are sails that I point towards my true north
Stretched thin over my rib bones and pray that it gets better
But it won't, at least I don't believe it will
So I've built a wooden heart inside this iron ship
To sail these blood red seas and find your coast
Don't let these waves wash away your hopes
This war ship is sinking and I still believe in anchors
Pulling fistfuls of rotten wood from my heart, oh I still believe in saviours
'Cause we are all made out of shipwrecks, every single board
Washed and bound like crooked teeth on these rocky shores
So come on and let's wash each other with tears of joy and tears of grief
And fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beach
Come on and sew us together, just some tattered rags stained forever
We only have what we remember

Well I'm the barely living son of a woman and a man who barely made it
But we're makin' it, taped together on borrowed crutches and new starts
We all have the same holes in our hearts
Everything falls apart at the exact same time it all comes together perfectly for the next step
But my fear is this prison that I keep locked below the main deck
I keep a key under my pillow and it's quiet and it's hidden
And my hopes are weapons that I'm still learnin' how to use right
But they're heavy and I'm awkward and I'm always runnin' out of fight
So I've carved a wooden heart
Put it in this sinking ship hopin' it'd help me float for just a few more weeks
But I am all made out of shipwrecks, every twisted beam
Lost and found like you and me all scattered out on the seas
So come on let's wash each other with tears of joy and tears of grief
And fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beach
Come on and sew us together, we're just some tattered rags stained forever
We only have what we remember

My throat it still tastes like house fire and salt water
I wear this tide like loose skin, come on and rock me to sea
If we hold on tight we'll hold each other together
And not just be some fools rushin' to die in our sleep
While these machines will rust, I promise, but we'll still be electric
Shockin' each other back to life
Your hand in mine
My fingers and your veins connected
Our bones grown together in time
Our hands entwine and my fingers and your veins connect
And our spines grown stronger inside
'Cause I know that our church is all made out of shipwrecks
From every hull these rocks have claimed
But we pick ourselves up, try and grow better with this change
So come on and let's wash each other with tears of joy and tears of grief
And fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beach
Come on and sew us together, we're just some tattered rags stained forever
We only have what we remember

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

From the Archives: Reading and Writing

I spent several hours today working through folders on external hard drive where I keep backups of pretty much everything, insurance against the day when my now-four-year-old laptop gives up the ghost. I was looking for several particular files I think I might like to use next week when I head back into the classroom, but I also ran across a lot of other files I had more or less forgotten about. One in particular caught my eye, a dialogue or self-interview I had put together maybe ten or twelve years ago which speaks to some of the goals and aspirations of the course I am going to be teaching. So this evening's exercise has been to read and revise that dialogue:

Why do you ask your students to read?

Well, first of all, I’m teaching an English course, and the traditional mission of English programs is to help students learn to improve their reading, writing, and speaking abilities. But beyond that, I’m convinced that reading is fundamental to whatever it is that the students will wind up doing in high school, college, and beyond. In almost any academic discipline, the way you learn is by reading. Whether you’re on your way to becoming a banker, a lawyer, a scientist, a doctor, an architect, a policeman, or a historian, there is a body of work in your discipline which you are going to need to be able to read and to master in order to be effective in your line of work.

But what’s the connection between the reading students do in sophomore English and the reading they may have to do later on?

Well, we could use an analogy. It’s like playing a guitar. You don’t just pick up a guitar and start to play. You teach yourself, through attention and careful practice, what you need in order to be able to improve. If you stop practicing, your skills deteriorate. When you pick up the instrument again, it takes a while to get your mind and your fingers up to speed. There is also no “end” to the process. You don’t simply arrive at a point where you are now an officially certified guitar player with nothing else to learn. There are always new challenges, new levels of craft. What you learn this week is what makes it possible for you to learn even more challenging stuff next week. It’s always possible to get better.

Like playing a guitar, reading is an acquired skill. Students already know how to read, but they bring to their reading a wide range of skills and abilities. They are all capable of learning to read with greater sophistication. Some students are good at one aspect of reading - getting the main idea, for example - and not so good at others. Some students can read one kind of text well—say, a particular kind of  short story— but find poetry (or analytical essays, or postmodern novels) baffling and frustrating to read. I tell my students that one of the goals of the course is to prepare them to be able to read anything they might encounter capably and with some degree of pleasure.

What about students who don’t like to read?

The question seems to imply that liking to read or not liking to read is an inherent and unchangeable trait. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a matter of choice. I frequently ask students to rate what we are reading on a scale of 1 to 7, with one being utter disdain and 7 being enthusiastic acceptance. Typically, in a room of 20 students there will be at least one student at each of the seven stations, and a cluster of students between 3 and 5. The point which I make with the students is that the range of responses—and there is always a range of responses—highlights the fact that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the texts we read. (In fact, pretty much any text a student is likely to read in class has already been screened multiple times before it even hits the students’ desk: it was selected by the author from among all the things s/he might have written to be published in the first place, it was later selected by the editors of whatever text they are reading, and it has been chosen by the teacher for their consideration.) A good reader, should be able to read such a text, get something out of it, and, ideally, derive at least some enjoyment out of the process of doing so. In my experience, many students do. And the fact is that all the way through high school and college students are going to have to read texts which are challenging and which may not at first glance be the kind of thing they would have chosen to read— if in fact they chose to read at all. I ask my students, “Given a choice, would you rather be the kind of student who can read works like this with appreciation and enjoyment, or would you rather be the kind of student who has to struggle through this, and who will hate every minute of it.” Because—and this is the key point—you do have that choice. Whether or not you enjoy what you are reading has a great deal to do with how you are reading it.

Students often find it easier to simply blame the text. They say things like “This book is boring,” or “This author can’t write.” But as I've already pointed out, there are of course other readers, including other student readers, who find value and enjoyment in the process of reading the very same book. So a student who wanted to learn how to read better might be well advised to ask, “What are those readers doing that I’m not doing?” Or, to pose the question another way, “How might I change the way I am reading this text that would allow me to derive more value and enjoyment from the process of reading it?”

We are none of us doomed to remain the kind of readers we already are. We can change, we can learn, we can get better. The bonus benefit is that there is a satisfaction that can be taken in that as well. The apprentice guitar player who finally masters his instrument has something he can DO that gives him pleasure. The same might be said of the apprentice reader.

Can you give an example of a change in the reading process that might result in a more pleasurable reading experience?

Sure. A couple of years ago we had a book-in-common reading program at my school. Everyone on campus— students, staff, admin, and teachers— had agreed (in theory) to read the same book over the summer. For many years previously the books were chosen had been mostly novels or other English-teacherly kinds of books. Someone made the suggestion that the books in common should rotate among departments, and the first department that was chosen was the science department, which selected Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. The book was met with almost universal disdain by the students. The reaction was universal and antagonistic: the kids hated the book. Most of them read a few pages and simply gave up.

I remembered Microbe Hunters as a book I had read and enjoyed when I was in junior high school. But when I picked it up during the summer I read a couple of pages and said to myself “Uh, oh.” I felt two things right away: 1) that the kids were going to have trouble reading this book, and 2) that I myself was going to have trouble reading this book. There was something about the book that was deeply troubling to me. At this point, I had a couple of choices. One would have been to toss the book aside, as in fact most of the students did. The other option, the one we’re discussing, was to change my approach to the reading process. What I decided, very self-consciously, was to go back to the text and try to figure out exactly what it was about the writing that was getting under my skin and making it hard for me to read this text with enjoyment. I was looking to identify specific passages that bothered me: “See, here it is, right here! This what I object to.” Once I started reading this way, several things began to happen. First of all, the reading went more smoothly. I now had a different purpose for reading, and it became a sort of detective hunt, looking for clues, and that had a kind of inherent interest, and a satisfaction that arose as I was able to figure out exactly what stylistic features were presenting themselves. Secondly, because I now had a purpose for reading that was pulling me forward, other features of the text that I had previously not noticed began to come to my attention. I began to see that in addition to the (relatively few) things that were bothering me, there were a lot of other qualities which were worthwhile and admirable, not the least of which was that I was (re)learning a lot about science and history. Dr Kruif’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject and his admiration for the scientists he was writing about began to draw me in more. In the end, I was glad I had read the book, and looking back on it I can say that although I did not enjoy it when I started, I was able to change my reading process in such a way as to result in a more pleasurable reading experience.

But you’re an adult, and a skilled reader. Do you really think teenagers would have the patience and self-discipline?

It comes back to choices. I don’t think age matters. We all have choices. If there is work to be done (and there is always work to be done) wouldn’t it be better to figure out a way to enjoy doing it? I can’t imagine anyone saying, “No, I’d rather be miserable. I’d rather fail. I’d rather quit.” My working hypothesis is that it is always possible to change. The question is whether we are willing to try. Perhaps some teenagers do lack patience and self-discipline, but I would certainly hope that as teachers we would be in the business of trying to help them develop those qualities.

How do you do that?

First of all, by modeling them. To cite Gandhi's famous dictum: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” I think it’s important for kids to see us working though problems: reading problems, writing problems, problems of articulation or of execution. It’s not easy to read well, write well, think well. It requires time; it requires patience and flexibility and sustained attention. And I’ve become more and more convinced, both in my own life and in the classroom, that in the key to developing those habits of mind is writing. Writing is perhaps the most powerful instrument for self-teaching that we possess.

What is so important about writing?

Most of the time our thoughts at any given moment are in a greater or lesser degree of disarray: a complex jumble of ideas, feelings, beliefs, intuitions, hunches, desires, and moods. Writing is a kind of funnel, it channels thought, develops a line of thought, and allows the thinking to hold still long enough to be reconsidered. The act of writing forces you to stop and find words for what you actually do think. The process of articulating thoughts is clarifying. I often find that once I have written something I begin then to see it differently. In other words, the process of articulating your first thoughts makes it possible to begin having second thoughts. Writing about something you know allows you to consolidate and verify your knowledge. Writing about something you don’t know allows you to figure out what your questions are, what you have to find out. In either case, the process of writing produces thinking which is more structured, more disciplined, and more easily evaluated than thinking which “just happens” in the brain.

Writing, like reading, is a craft, a set of skills. Like most crafts, it can be done well or poorly, with a greater or lesser degree of artistry and sophistication. And the essential element in gaining mastery of the craft is regular practice. I ask my students to write so that they will learn to think better, and read better—and write better.

Are you assuming that writing is self-correcting? That all students have to do is write and they will automatically get better at writing?

No, not really. Although I would argue that such a thing might be possible. A kid who spends hours and hours on a basketball court may not become a good player unless he has mentors or models or coaches who help him learn the dynamics of the game. But in all likelihood, even without the feedback he’s going to wind up being a better player than the kid who only plays once in a while. Yes, it’s important for students to write often if they want to grow as writers and thinkers. But it’s also important that they get feedback and guidance from other readers: peers, teachers, significant others.

There’s another factor that has to be considered as well. “Careaboutability” is a term coined by one of my colleagues that gestures at the issue of significance. It has been my experience throughout my career that students tend to write much better when they are writing about something that is of central importance in their lives. To paraphrase Robert Frost, “No significance for the writer; no significance for the reader.” How well we write, and how carefully we think, has a lot to do with how much is at stake. The single most important element in thoughtfulness is quality of attention that we pay to what we are doing. Many students write as if they were on their way to doing something they consider more important. Which is in fact probably the case. We need to find ways to create with students the opportunity to think about and articulate things that are essential to them, that make a real difference, that are “careaboutable.”

How do you do that?

One way is by turning over the choice of form and topic to the students and allowing them to conduct their own explorations. I make a distinction in my classes between directed assignments and open-ended assignments. A directed assignment is one in which I tell the students what I would like them to do. For example, I might ask them to read a poem, frame a significant question about the poem, and then write two plausible answers to the question. That's a writing task of a fairly familiar sort that asks them to develop a line of thought about what they have been assigned to read. It's not unlike what students have been asked to do in English classes from time immemorial.

An open-ended assignment, on the other hand, is more like, "I'd like you to hand in a piece of writing on Friday. It can be in any form, on any subject you like. The only requirement is that you spend at least half an hour on it." That's an assignment that is in essence a gesture at a territory: "Go find a place to play. Come back when you're done and tell me how it went." I have been giving these kinds of open-ended assignments for 40 years and more, and I'm here to tell you that the writing that students do when you give them the chance to make their own choices is superior, by several orders of magnitude, to what they typically do in response to directed assignments. I'm not arguing for a steady diet of one or the other. But I do think students need both, and in most classrooms they get very little of the latter.

Finally, to return to the connection between reading and writing: my own personal experience has been that I understand and remember much more about what I have read when I make myself write about what I have been reading. Again, writing is a way of channeling a somewhat fuzzy conglomeration of impressions and hunches and perceptions and reactions to a text into something more structured and more deliberate. Writing about a text allows you to see very clearly what you do understand, what you don't understand, and what you have questions about. I find that students who have written about what they have read before they discuss the text in class get a lot further than students who come to class and "wing it" without having experienced the deliberate, thoughtful processing that writing provides us with the chance to do. Furthermore, writing about what you are reading while you are reading it allows you to go back to the text with a clearer purpose, a clearer sense of what you are trying to figure out as you read.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Notes on Collage

Over the last few years I've spend hundreds of hours making collages of various kinds. I've also made an effort to familiarize myself with the work of other contemporary collage artists, and to archive their work on tumblr and Pinterest, as for example on this board, which has nearly 5000 examples. I've been making an effort lately to try to articulate some of what goes on in my head as I'm working. This is what I've got so far.


• You are always working in two dimensions within a rectangle. It's a grid. You can work against the grid, with it, or, most often, in some combination of both.

• Variables include the shapes (both positive and negative), the colors, the number and the relative sizes of the elements.

• In terms of number of elements in the collage, there are challenges at both ends of the spectrum. I've seen very interesting collages that are composed of only two elements. On the other hand too many elements can threaten to overwhelm the eye.

• Text can be included as a formal design element, as a vehicle for the introduction of a concept, as another kind of contrast to color and shape, or to signal seriousness of purpose or lack thereof.

• Colors can be coordinated or contrasted.

• Juxtaposition can go in many ways: one on top of another, edge to edge, overlap, or with space in between.

• There is an inherent element of randomness and playfulness in collage. There are tradeoffs. Things that don't work for me: 1) complete chaos on the one hand, 2) overdetermined, message-oriented, pictorial stuff, 3) incongruous combinations: eagle heads on cacti, cars with boobs, people with apples where their heads should be, etc. I like to work in a zone of semi-abstraction, one the elements of the collage create a field of energies that are like a nonverbal conversation. I don't generally like explicitly narrative collages, but I do like collages which function, as in the best abstract art, as independent universes whose idiosyncratic rules distantly echo our own, and which invite the viewer to think about what those rules might be in this particular case.

• There is a very large intuition quotient in the creation of a collage. You put it together piece by piece, and every part of the process—the selection of the elements, the decision whether to tear or cut or both, the placement of each piece, the configuration and extent of negative space—is made holistically and without explicit strategic planning. Sometimes, very rarely, I will lay out the major elements of the collage first before I start gluing, mostly to make sure that the last pieces don't look just stuck on top. But more often I start, as I do when I'm drawing abstracts, by gluing down a single piece somewhere on the paper and then simply building from that, linking the additions via placement, color, and shape as I go along. Given a pile of materials—and of course there is always an element of selection, however arbitrary, in the makeup of the pile—it is not completely off the mark to say that once I start working the collage builds itself.

• On the other hand, it could also be said that every collage is in effect a kind of oblique self-portrait at a particular moment in time. I'm the one who has collected and selected the materials. I'm the one who has decided, even if the decisions have been intuitive rather than strictly rational, what goes where. And each collage reflects my inner sense of what juxtapositions feel right and complete one another. The collages I make now don't look much like the collages I used to make. I'm a different person; they're different too.

• The ecology of collage: there's something inherently satisfying about up-cycling old, often discarded materials in order to make something new. One of the great masters of twentieth-century collage, Kurt Schwitters, was explicit about this:

I could see no reason why tram tickets, buttons, and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps should not serve well as materials for paintings; they suited the purpose just as well as factory-made paints… it's possible to cry out using bits of old rubbish, and that's what I did...


This collage, which I completed in January, consists of eight elements placed in a roughly square configuration. They do not "mean" anything, either individually or taken together. (I make it a point of practice NOT to make collages which have a paraphrasable content or message. Any attempt to "interpret" them is more or less doomed by design and intention.) Which is not to say that there isn't anything to think about here, but that the thinking I am trying to generate is intuitional, nonlinear, nonverbal. I am going by feel. I put things together so that I like the way they look. But I am also interested sensing the energies that are set into motion by particular juxtapositions, and by the irregularities and disharmonies, as for example between the rectangular, gridlike elements and the soft, irregular torn edges of some of the shapes.

I have tried with some consciousness to provide lines for the eye to walk. There is for example, an arm which moves the eye up from the landscape, pointing to the people on the bridge, the same people which the eye of the bearded man on the old coin seems to be looking at. There are patterns of rectangles, but there are patterns of disruption in and among the rectangles. In the upper right corner there is a rectangular piece of paper holding a triangular shape framing a half-circle on which is superimposed a full circle, holding a face, looking at the faces of the other people on the walkway, facing us. The checkerboard is one sort of landscape plan, a playing field, which echoes the actual field below it. The upraised hand and finger belong to Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors basketball team, photographed at play on a different plane. The checkerboard in the center is a kind of abstraction and simplification of the lines the collage as a whole, a kind of playful mirror-in-miniature: the rigorous grid-like logic of the former both echoing and contrasting with the loose connectedness of the grid-like elements in the latter.

The whole collage is made of pieces of paper that 1) are in a certain tonal range of brown, grey, and black, 2) have been selected by me in a preliminary way at various times previous to the construction of the collage, and in a very specific way during its construction, and placed in square 6" x 6" format that was a given before any of the arrangements began. (That particular format is one of my favorites, both because I like the paper the pads are made of, and because the size constraint feels about right to me for the materials I most often use. It's also a convenient format when you are working, as I most often am, in a limited space.)

Perhaps it's only because I have taken the time to work all this out in words, but I have a particular fondness for this collage. Every time I make a collage it's a crapshoot. I'm just playing with shapes and colors and juxtapositions, and sometimes they come together in ways that are emotionally and intellectually satisfying to me. As I have said above, each collage is a world of its own, with its own internal harmonies and disharmonies, its own logic, its own set of unarticulated and preferably unarticulatable overtones or reverberations. Sometimes, it just feels right.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Go Figure

Okay, I'm back. Three months and change since I last posted anything, but I'm heading back into the classroom next week and it's been on my mind to get back in the saddle and ride for a while. It's not that I haven't been writing at all. I've been making it a point to try to write at least 500 words a day in my MS Word journal; since my last Throughlines post on February 25 I've done 31 entries of at least that length. That is, needless to say, a different kind of writing, and most of it would be of even less interest to anyone who stumbled by this blog than the stuff that I have usually posted in the past. (I've also been cranking out collages like crazy. Lots of recent examples on Flickr, if you want to see where I've been.)

As far as reading goes, my most recent exploration began with a review by Tom Perrotta of Kate Atkinson's new book, which led me to Ben Lerner. In the last couple of weeks I've read both of his novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, and two of his collections of poetry, Angle of Yaw and The Lichtenberg Figures. I find him very smart, very inventive, and very funny. He works in that very interesting territory somewhere south of fiction and north of nonfiction. As Perrotta points out in the passage that originally got my attention:

Some of the most interesting “novels” of the past few years — Teju Cole’s “Open City,” Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation,” Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” not to mention Knausgaard’s epic, “My Struggle” — are barely novels at all. They read more like memoirs, or a series of lightly fictionalized journal entries, recounting the mundane lives and off-kilter ruminations of their first-person narrators, who are either postgraduate students or blocked writers. There’s a bracing smallness to these books — even those of Knausgaard, who’s a miniaturist on a gargantuan scale — and a serene indifference to what has long passed for ambition in the novel. There’s no plot and barely any action, very few characters, no shifting points of view or tricky chronologies, no attempt to recreate a distant era or illuminate the inner workings of a particular society at a particular moment in time. There’s just the writer, eating his omelet, putting her child to bed.
I'm drawn to Lerner for many of the same reasons that I'm drawn to the artwork of Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters, or the poetry of John Ashbery (whom Lerner admires). I like art and writing that is chancy and generates its own logic as it evolves, rather than relying on pre-existing formal or cultural conventions.

Lerner's poetry, like Ashbery's, adopts conventional forms mostly in order to play around with subverting them. The Lichtenberg Figures, for example, consists of 53 poems that look like sonnets, that are sonnets of a sort, but that don't play the same games that most traditional sonnets play. Example:

True, a great work takes up the question of its origins
and lets it drop. But this is no great work. This is a sketch
sold on the strength of its signature, a sketch
executed without trial. Inappropriately formal, 

this late work reflects an inability to swallow. Once
my name suggested female bathers
rendered in bright impasto.
Now it is dismissed as “unpronounceable.” 

Polemical, depressed, these contagious black planes
were hung to disperse museum crowds. Alas,
a generation of pilgrim smokers
has arrived and set off the sprinklers. 

True, abandoning the figure won’t change the world.

But then again, neither will changing the world.

There is, at least preliminarily, and perhaps ultimately, a there there. It is a poem that engages the question of what is good and what is not good in art and writing. But there is also what I find to be a rather delightful off-the-road romp that liberates the poem from its self-consciousness and allows it to become, well, something else than what it would have been if had stayed on the road. In his review of Ashbery's new book of poems in the June 1 New Yorker, Dan Chiasson says at one point, that "These poems conjure a massive mental errata slip made up of what they almost say and nearly mean." I like that formulation, and I like that zone of consciousness in art and writing, the one in which the meanings remain (and are intended to remain) fluid and unresolved. There's a playfulness, a freedom, an openness at work which I find inviting and encouraging.

I often ask my students, once we have read something that is a little out of the range of their normal reading experience, to take a shot at writing something like that, whatever it was, not so much because it's likely they will be able to compete, but so as to better understand the nature and challenges of the game. In that spirit, with apologies to both Ben Lerner and Mark Strand, I'll close with this, my own unrevised proto- (or perhaps post-) sonnet, which I wrote earlier today in my journal:

The last of the golden retrievers bays at the rising, broken moon
as the shadows lengthen over the village green. How much time
remains is anyone's guess. In the elms across the street two crows
speak to one another in their enigmatic code. In here, no sounds

but the hum of the fan and the refrigerator's gurgle. Gleeful seems
a long way to drive, easier to just do the dishes, put out the cat,
and head downstairs, which would be upstairs anywhere else.
One and two and snicker snack, the scissors at their surgery,

cleaning up the edges. You could try to do something
with the trimmings, but at some point diminishing returns
have the last word. How granular does one go? Enough is
enough; into the bag with you. You've served me well,

but now it's time for a change of pace, a fresh start, a horse

of a different color, something new to wish for. (Careful.)