Wednesday, August 22, 2007

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.

1 comment:

J. Newberry said...

I have this book called The Practice of Poetry which is a collection of writing assignments from teaching poets.

One of the most fascinating ones includes making a "Personal Universe Deck," a kind of imagination-springboard.

The Justice story also made me think of the introduction to Ray Bradbury's anthology of short stories, which came out a few years ago now. Bradbury says as a young writer, he started writing down words that triggered emotions of images in him. He listed some of them, too: RAVINE, RIVER, CAVE, CARNIVAL, OCTOBER.

A good exercise, seems to me.