Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ars Poetica

My ars poetica can be seen at the online journal Ars Poetica.

Work is Love Made Visible

This from the PoetryEtc listserv, where a novice poet who's been making some significant breakthroughs in her work, and has reached that necessary and powerful stage of being excited by process, not statement, wrote:

Wasn't there a famous writer that used to cut their work up, throw it in the air and then reassemble it - or have I been dreaming?

I think I might try this method myself next!

My response:

Burroughs did it, and most famously Bryon Gysin (1916-1986 - I had no idea he'd lived that long. The reason why Bryon Gysin is not more famous may tell you something about the limits of this method.

To me, these things are all tools, not an end in themselves. Cutting and throwing can be good...if it works for you. Reassembling, perhaps, even better. But for me that would still be a first step.

If you've looked at my website, you've seen it's off of a home base -- There are some pictures of Opus 40 on the site, though they don't really do it justice. But it's a magnificent work of art -- a 6 1/2 - acre stone sculpture. The sculptor was my stepfather, Harvey Fite, and he spent 37 years creating it, stone by stone, moving all the stones himself, by hand and with hand-powered tools -- winches and booms and chisels.

So I grew up seeing this amazing creation taking place in my back yard. And what I learned from Harvey, perhaps more than anything else, is that art comes from work. Norman Maclean put this really well, in A River Runs Through It. Speaking of the father, McLean wrote "He believed that all good things in life come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy." Or for another take on this: A few years ago our family donated a piece of Harvey's, a stone carving, to Bard College, where he had taught for 30 years. There was a little ceremony, and they made up a little program for the event, and they asked me if Harvey had a favorite quotation that they could put on it. I called my brother and asked him, "Do you have any problem in using a note from a writer who is these days considered hopelessly kitschy and declasse?" He said, "Of course not -- you're talking about Kahlil Gibran, right?" I was, and the quote that Harvey loved from The Prophet was "Work is love made visible."

So I learned that art comes from the making. It's what comes after you throw the words up in the air, or after you collage them. That's what makes Patti Marshock's essay so valuable -- she talks about that work. Not just the translating back and forth, not just the collaging, but what you build out of that raw material. Harvey worked in tons of stone, and he worked it, and reworked it, the way you have to work and rework a line of poetry. Last weekend was the Saugerties Artists Studio Tour, and one of the artists in the group is me, so one of the studios was mine (and I sold five pieces! Yay!), and during the course of the afternoon, a few people stopped by who remembered Harvey, and remembered seeing him work (he died in 1976). "You'd see what he was doing, and they you'd come back a few weeks later, and it would be totally different! You'd ask 'what happened, Harvey?' and he'd say, 'Oh, I didn't like the curve of that wall.'"

That's why it took me a long time to appreciate the Earthworks sculptors, to whose work Harvey's is often compared -- and I still don't appreciate a lot of them, but I've come to recognize the value of artists like Robert Smithson and Robert Morris. I had a hard time with art that's conceptual rather than organic, that's imposed on a space rather than developing from it.

There are other models in poetry for randomness, but controlled randomness. James Merrill wrote The Changing Light at Sandover based on messages he got from a Ouija board. Donald Justice used his "chance cards." Here's from an interview with Dana Gioia.

D.G.: Several poems in Departures were written using the element of chance. Can you describe how you started composing them?

Justice: As I recall, I got started not long after playing poker one night in Cincinnati with John Cage. Only I wanted to control chance, not submit to it. Chance has no taste. What I did was to make a card game out of the process of writing. I'd always loved card games anyhow, gambling in general. As well as I can recall now what I did, I made up three large decks of "vocabulary" cards--one deck each for nouns, verbs, and adjectives-and a smaller fourth deck of "syntax" cards, sentence forms with part-of speech blanks to be filled in. I would then shuffle and deal out a sequence of "syntax" cards, then shuffle the "vocabulary" cards in their turn and fill the syntactical blanks in. I would go through all this three times, allowing myself to go back and forth as I wished across the table of results, mixing them up to taste. It sounds silly enough, I suppose, and of course anyone could do it. But it seemed at the time to simulate, at least a little, the way the mind worked in writing. And there was enough choice left for the writer's sensibility to enter. I thought that was important.

D.G.: Why aid you stop writing poems according to this method?

Justice: The third set of chance cards I made produced nothing at all interesting. Well, I knew you couldn't win every hand.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Stonework and Earthworks

Two books to our attention recently, one new, one new to us. Suzaan Boettger visited Opus 40 recently, in the company of our old friend Tram Combs, and after a delightful afternoon, she sent us a copy of her book Earthworks, which gives a brief mention to Harvey and Opus 40 (Suzaan will be including more on Opus 40 in her next book). Earthworks is an important addition to any collection of books on the art of the late 20th Century. It told me a lot that I didn't know about the lives and backgrounds of the key figures in the Earhtworks movement, and gives a solid and thoughtful insight into the aesthetic underpinnings of the movement.

Stone Primer, by stonemason Charles McRaven, is a beautifully photographed coffee table book, and also an excellent book on building with stone. Opus 40 is one of the examples McRaven uses.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Idle Thought on Music

Has it ever struck anyone that in the era before 1960, no one making popular music of any sort thought of their work as having any lasting cultural or aesthetic importance, and they produced so many masterpieces that will live forever--and in the era after 1970, everyone making popular music thought of their work as having lasting cultural or aesthetic importance, and hardly any of it does?


In Episode 5, Bob marshals his forces in preparation for his campaign against campaign, and we find out about Blanche's gigolo.

RIP Max Roach

RIP Max Roach, great artist, Founding Father of bebop.

My most potent memory: I heard Max play in a club in New York in 1977. It was right after Paul Desmond had died, and Max did a tribute to him that he called "Five for Paul." It was an unaccompanied drum version of "Take Five," and it was mesmerizing.

Peter Jones and I were wondering, who's left now who played with Bird, or at least recorded with Bird? There aren’t many, but here are the names I came up with:

Roy Haynes
Dr. Billy Taylor

And here's a surprise. Not that he's still alive, but that he played with Bird:

Dave McKenna

Bird did an album with Woody Herman, something else I never knew, called Bird With the Herd, and McKenna was on the date.

Anyone got any more?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Saugerties Art Tour

The Saugerties Art Tour kicked off this rainy Friday evening with a group show opening at Opus 40's Gallery, and a first rate show it is. The studio tour itself takes place tomorrow and Sunday, and my studio in the Fite House at Opus 40 will be part of it.

Here are a couple of the artists featured:

And here are a couple of new pieces of mine that will be on display at my studio:

Situations and Miles

In Situations 4, a vortex of forces begin to coalesce around Carlene's pilgrimage, Will The Major be drawn into Polly's plan to lead a revolution that will install Ross Perot as dictator?

And a poem, "With Miles," in issue 36 of

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Most Deserving Poet of All

This is from an exchange with Bob Berner, a lifelong friend from back in Iowa Workshop days, a fine poet himself and a tireless champion of poets and poetry. Among Bob's many other fine qulaities, he's never short of opinions, and never shy abput expressing them. He's also not to dig his heels ion and refuse to listen to other opinions. Bob wrote to me on the occasion of Charles Simic's being named Poet Laureate, not at all happy with the choice, and not happy, in general, with the fat cats of poetry getting fatter -- Simic winning the Laureateship on top of MacArthur grant.

I wrote back saying that actually, I was a Simic fan.


Tad--Maybe I'm wrong about Simic [he would later delve into Simic further, and find much to admire]. If I read more recent stuff of his I might change my mind about him. I remember changing my mind about other poets, Creeley and Ashbery to be specific. I hated their early stuff and changed my mind after reading more recent work.
But I know in my bones I'm right about the money. Simic is no more worth $300,000 than any jock is worth the millions they get paid. Moreover, it's not exactly that Simic was on the verge of bankruptcy even before he got the MacArthur. He'd been nicely employed in academia for YEARS, thank you very much. Which brings me to my major complaint about the awarding of such big-money prizes: they always seem to go to people who Don't Need The Money. So, instead of giving a six figure award to someone who's been an assoc or full professor somewhere for 10 years, why the hell not give a series of $10,000 grants to people who Need The Money? That would at least take some of the day-to-day pressure off people struggling to pay their bills while they struggle to make it in the quality-lit game,
As to Simic's elevation to poet laureate, I don't know what other poets were under consideration, and I don't even know what the process is. Do members of the Academy of American Poets submit the names of candidates to a committee? Can you and I nominate someone? Can we name ourselves members of the Academy? Can we find out about how a poet laureate gets nominated/named by going to the Academy's website?
For me it's still a matter of Give The Money To Someone Who NEEDS It. Give the titles and honors to anyone you want, but don't give money to people who don't need it.

I didn't know how the Laureate got selected. I knew the selection was made by the Librarian of Congress, but I didn't know who he was, or how he made his selection. But I did know in my bones that Bob was wrong about the money. Actually, I knew no such thing. He's probably right about it. But I argued back anyway.


As far as the money is concerned, that doesn't upset me at all. I'm always glad to see any poet getting money. I suppose I believe in a kind of artistic Reaganomics, a rising tide lifts all boats. If a poet gets the high visibility of a MacArthur grant or a Poet Laureateship, it creates more visibility for poetry. Now, I do understand that this works about as well for poets as Reaganomics does for ordinary citizens, but the stakes are different. You're not talking about people's basic needs, like food and shelter, and as important as I think art is, the unequal distribution fo wealth to artists is not as important as the artificially engineered unequal distribution of wealth to everyone. If 95 percent of people who actually take note of Laureateships or MacArthur grants at all, only go so far as to Google Simic and read a poem or two by him, no one is really hurt, If a few of those people go so far as to go to a reading by Simic if he shows up in their town, all the better, and if a few of them decide they liked it, and go to hear readings by local poets, than that's great.

And Simic's paid his dues, like we all have.

Marvin Bell has had greater recognition, and made more money out of poetry, than you or I have. Now, you and I deserve more money and more recognition than we've gotten, but that doesn't mean Marvin deserves less. He deserves more. I'd like to see him get a MacArthur Grant or a Poet Laureateship. Hey, he's already been Poet Laureate of Iowa -- maybe that could be a stepping stone, like the Governorship for Mitt Romney? (OK, that's a bad example.)

And yeah, while I don't begrudge Simic or Strand their MacArthurs, I'd like to see a series of $10,000 grants to people who Need The Money, too. Maybe Poetry Magazine could use some of its millions to set them up. least this is true for me...the only selection system I'd be really happy with is one where the criteria would include the most deserving poet of!

Sunday, August 05, 2007


In this week's episode of Situations on Fieralingue, Childe Roland to the hotel comes, The Major falls deeper under the evil spell of Tisha, and Mary Jo and Julia go on a road trip to Nashville, but don't quite make it. Don't miss it! And look for the wholesale theft of "The Ballad of Thunder Road" (Robert Mitchum's, not Springsteen's.

Thanks to Lee and Patrick Walker

Lee Walker, who for the last several years has been Opus 40's everything - plant manager, caretaker, fixer of anything and everything that needed fixing, and also the compiler of a complete list of Opus 40's needs for a grant proposal we have recently submitted, has moved to Georgia. He's damn near irreplaceable here, and we'll miss his friendship as well as his help. Thank you, Lee.

With him has gone his son and my grandson, Patrick. Before he left, Patrick set up a server for us so that we can host our own website. He'll be able to continue to maintain the server by remote control from Atlanta, but we'll miss him more than I can say.