Tuesday, October 14, 2014

64 x 60 (Nothing Is…)

I started drawing tonight on a piece of paper five and a half inches square. It's basically a backwards drawing: inking in the black spaces creates the white lines. Right now, it looks like a collection of black shapes on a white background, but once it's done, it'll be a latticework of white lines against a black background. Nothing is but what is not.

Monday, October 13, 2014

64 x 59 (From the Index of First Lines)

In Zagreb, the windows of the old hotel (13)
Moonlight casting silver shadows on the street (85)
Most days it's really hard to pay attention (27)
Perhaps the precipice is not as steep (142)
Sometimes when I see the darkness steal (4)
The only reason I asked you (73)
To lie, when you know you will be found out (17)
Up the street, some burnouts on skateboards (35)
"Who knows what she wants," he screamed (41)

Process Reflection:

The idea for this came to me the other night after I did the post where all the lines began with "A." I recall having read a pretty funny poem of the same title by Nicholson Baker which appeared in the New Yorker magazine 20 years ago. So I thought I'd play around with that.  The formal structure is like a poetic version of collage: random (but not entirely random) fragments being put together to create a coherent (but not entirely) coherent whole. The tension between the centrifugal and centripetal forces gives the poem (or the collage) whatever energy it generates. And, again as in collage, no matter what gets chosen or left out, it winds up inevitably being an autoportrait of sorts. Some of these lines are actual first lines from poems I've written, some of them are bent first lines from an anthology I happen to have on my desk, and some were made up on the spot as I was writing.  It's the kind of poem that could be extended indefinitely, so in this case the 64-word limit also serves a useful purpose, to give the poem a shape, and creates a certain kind of boundary tension. It's also the kind of poem that could be attempted over and over again, and no two would wind up being the same.  If I were to do ten more, chances are that one or two of them might wind up being better than the others, and that I'd get a better sense of what was likely to actually work. This one is just a prototype, a wet one, a Monday night experiment.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


It seems fitting that on the eve of Columbus Day (at least in those places where his exploits are still celebrated) I'd have this piece of work ready to share. The famous line about Columbus is that he didn't know where he was going, he didn't know where he was when he got there, and when he got back he didn't know where he had been. That's sort of how I feel about this piece. I spent about ten or fifteen hours over the last week and a half working on this pen-and-ink exploration, starting with the little mechanical-looking widget in the upper left quadrant, working down and over, coming back around the outside with the rectangular pieces, and then basically filling in details until it felt right. I had no idea while I was working on it where it was going, and now that it's done I have only vague notions about what it adds up to. But I'm happy with it. My granddaughter saw it in mid-process and had a lot of perceptive things to say about it that helped me decide on certain directions. There's definitely a watery place in the mix, a cityscape that grounds and connects to the more interior spaces and conceptual cabinetry that frame it. There are several portals in view. And there is something celebratory about the whole enterprise. So hats off to Christopher C, and all due thanks to his queen. Let the celebrations begin.

Metropole (9" x 12")

Saturday, October 11, 2014

64 x 58 (A Dream)

Arc: the line rising and falling
Angle of incidence and so on
Anticipation of the touchdown
Alighting how? Delicate, maybe.
Absorbing the impact with grace.
Antithesis: sudden crash, silence,
Amnesia (if not oblivion); you have
Arrived, but are no longer here.
Appearance vs. Reality. Who will
Answer? What we don't know
Actually will betray us in the end.
Amazement as the axe comes down.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Study Hall

I've had occasion over the last few days to think about the notion of study and what it consists of. I don't really remember doing much study when I was in elementary school. I was a voracious reader early on. Both my mom and my dad read to me regularly until I could read on my own, and once I was old enough to go the library my mother would take me down as often as I wanted to go, which was several times a week. Mom also played word games and chess with me, and encouraged me to write. My dad kept scrapbooks on various subjects, and I remember I had one too. Given all that,  I didn't really have any worries in elementary school, and I don't remember spending much time studying, other than learning my multiplication tables off flash cards.

I spent grades 6-8 in a district public school in upstate New York, and there are only about four things I can remember about that time: 1) having a stamp collection and meeting with the Stamp Club after school in Grade 6, 2) sitting and listening to Social Studies teacher Mr. Colclough in grade seven lecture us about how we should never throw paper balls in class because a sharp corner of a paper sticking out could scratch a classmate's eye and blind him (an assertion which struck me then, and perhaps moreso now, as being wildly implausible), and 3) being bullied in the hall and in gym class by a big kid named Tommy Gonzowski, who wore his white t-shirt sleeves rolled up around his biceps (the better to hold his cigarettes) and a big wide black leather belt to hold up his jeans, and 4) attending afterschool meetings of the 4-H club, where we learned, among other things, about how to care for animals and about the inner workings of the 4-cycle internal combustion engine.

So what I'm getting at is that even though I did okay in school, I didn't really have much in the way of study habits that I can recall until, in ninth grade, a year or so after the death of my father, I was sent off to Delbarton, a boarding school in New Jersey. It was at Delbarton that I learned how to study. It wasn't that they had any particular program or methodology to teach us. It was just that we had mandatory study hall from 4:30 to 6:00 and 7:30 to 9:00, every day of the school week, every week of the school year. We each had single desk in the library, we were expected to be sitting at it, and there was a proctor walking around making sure that we were in fact studying and not, say, reading comics or magazines. (The proctors would also answer questions if you were stuck on something.) That was it. That was the deal. You were going to be there anyway. You might as well do the work. This was in the early '60s, so there were, of course, no cell phones, no texting, no videos, really no distractions of any kind. That seemed okay. That seemed normal. I didn't think much about it, one way or the other. It's only now, 50+ years later, and in a completely different world, that I can fully appreciate the value of that enforced solitude and that explicit expectation that you were there to do work. We learned how to focus, because there was no alternative. We also had to be in bed, lights out, at 10:00, which in retrospect also served to provide a different kind of nourishment for my adolescent brain: sleep.

During my junior year, I transferred from Delbarton to a day school in Connecticut. I was once again living at home, and I no longer had to submit myself to a regular study schedule.  I enjoyed being able to switch on the TV or listen to music if I felt like it. I was spending more time out, more time with friends, more time going to school sports or hanging out downtown. I could drive. I could stay up as late as I wanted. It was great. I loved it. And, oh yeah, my grade average dropped twenty points. It wasn't until I got to college that I was able to figure out how to successfully balance the things I wanted to do with the things that I had to do, and force myself to set aside scheduled time to study.

Then I got married and became a teacher and had kids of my own. And though I had not thought much about this before, it seems apparent to me now that the rhythms of my life as a teacher came to mirror pretty closely the study rhythms of my life as a student at Delbarton. For most of my adult life, I spent two or three hours alone at the kitchen table every school night, correcting papers, writing comments, entering grades, planning lessons, screening out the distractions in order to do the necessary work of teaching.

There's nothing here that is earthshakingly revelatory, just my dawning awareness of how important it was to my development as a student that for at least one part of my life I was given the dual gift of structured time and the expectation that I would use it to get work done.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

64 x 57 (Wolf Brother)

Wolf loss moon shadow
Knife walk brother forest
silence eyes branches murmur
Vines swamp raven wings
Question river sparkle briar
demon prophet trial arrow
obsidian walls searcher haven
helper wrestle darkness kindle
trust betrayal totem prayer
power fire prepare fist
bone inherit choice befuddle
battle dawn arise return
spirit mountain tremor message
blood before stolen molten
steel band tradition song
story sorrow pride belong

Process Reflection: Was in the car this evening and heard a discussion on PBS about a children's book called Wolf Brother. Checked out a couple of reader reviews and had some words bouncing around in my head. Just started putting them down. The first fifteen or so came pretty easily, then I started having to wrack my brains for each next line. The whole thing took a lot longer than I thought it would. But in essence it came out as a loosely structured word bank associated with a certain genre of storytelling.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

64 x 56 (Trousers Rolled)

Once upon a time Saturday night was apex of an arc of excitement: getting through the week, getting psyched for whatever was coming up, planning logistics with friends, making the scene, cranking it up, rolling home at one or two to crash. Now, it's a quiet evening at home, maybe a book, maybe get to bed early. Truth to tell, I like this better.

Friday, October 3, 2014

64 x 55 (The Path of Least Resistance)

The path of least resistance is simply to start writing and wait to see what will turn up on the page. No predetermined concept, no outline, no formal boundaries to work within or push against; just the words as they arrive, lining themselves up obediently and without apparent resentment, moving forward across the page toward whatever fate their Creator has in mind for them.

Process Reflection: It's a Friday night, the end of a busy day and a busy week. It's earlyish (6:55) and I mostly wanted to get something posted tonight so I could go back and sink into The Secret Place for the rest of the evening. I'm becoming a big fan of Tana French. One of the things that I like about her mysteries is that they tend to undercut the predominant generic characterization of the detective who is always one step ahead of the perps, not to mention ahead of the reader. The scenarios she describes inevitably turn out to be messier and more hazardous to the mental and emotional well-being of her protagonists than they have any reason to anticipate that they will be. The detectives often go in thinking that the case in front of them will be a piece of cake. But it never is. Complications abound. She's also good—better than good, actually, more like amazing—at setting up scenes where two smart and crafty people (detective and detective, detective and suspect, detective and witness, suspect and suspect, etc) are working on other, trying to dope each other out and/or fake each other out. In these encounters both sides have a lot at stake, both are concealing more than they are revealing, and there's the ever-present risk of screwing up badly. A large proportion of each of her books consists of crackling good dialogue in just such scenarios, often very funny. Her books also engage a lot of other quite serious issues (gender relations, class conflict, career politics, identity politics, family dynamics) in ways that are entertaining and instructive. So you get some quotient of redeeming social value to go along with getting drunk on words. So yeah, for my post tonight I took the path of least resistance. Heading back to The Secret Place.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


Interesting post by Shane Parrish on Farnam Street last week about Alain de Botton's book How Proust Can Change Your Life. The full backstory is in the post, but the short version goes like this: in 1922 Proust saw and responded to a query in a French newspaper posing the following question:

An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you’re concerned, what would you do in the last hours.

Proust's reply includes this perhaps surprising assessment:

I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future delays them occasionally...But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

Here's part of de Botton's gloss on Proust:

Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realize the imminence of death suggests that it was perhaps not life itself which we had lost the taste for – so long as there was no end in sight, but our quotidian version of it, that our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than anything irrevocably morose about human experience. Having surrendered the customary belief in our own immortality, we would then be reminded of a host of untried possibilities lurking beneath the surface of an apparently undesirable, apparently eternal existence.

I'm bringing this up because it seems to be to be relevant to me and many of my friends and colleagues as we continue to come to grips with the loss of Dan Mindich. Keeping Dan in our minds and hearts is one way to combat the lamentable tendency to fall into the vale of quotidian dissatisfaction, and one way to continue to celebrate life as he chose to do.