Thursday, March 13, 2014

Stanley Kunitz: Your Fugitive Presence.

"When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life."

~ Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid

Friday, February 14, 2014

Writing Wild.

Two summers ago, I spent a week kayaking in the Tongass National Forest wilderness with two rangers and a photographer, Irene Owsley. Irene and I were artists in residence, there to experience the Tracy Arm Ford's Terror wilderness and create art from that experience. As soon as we landed in Holkham Bay, Irene got busy with her camera and tripod and an array of gear. Me, I sat on a rock and stared at the water.

A writing friend once noted that writers often look like they're just wasting time when really they're working. Being a writer means spending lots of time thinking, imagining, noticing, experiencing, staring out a window, she said, but to others it looks like you're just, well, staring out a window.

And that's why I sometimes felt awkward on that kayak trip. Irene was so obviously working, sitting under her umbrella changing lenses, switching filters, clicking away, while I mostly looked like I was goofing off. Sure, I had my rite-in-the-rain pad and pencil always at the ready, and scribbled whatever little image or phrase surfaced in my consciousness, but mostly I was just there, kayaking, looking, listening, letting my hand dip into the cool glacial waters. Not until I got home did I get down to the part of writing that looks like work.



So, on this past summer's kayak trip to Shuyak Island in the Kodiak Archipelago, I did my usual thing: while out there, I was just there. Rite-in-rain pad, check, and morning pages most days, check, but mostly I just soaked up the experience like the sphagnum moss that lined the edges of forest and pond. I paddled through sea otters bobbing among bull kelp so thick it was like paddling through spaghetti; I walked outer coast beaches resplendent with wildflowers and washed up treasures; I climbed into old-growth Sitka spruce forest, padding upon layers of moss so soft I could have slept away my life there; I brushed my teeth at water's edge while watching barnacles and sea stars and hermit crabs carry out their lives.

This trip didn't come with any outside expectations that I would create anything from it, since it wasn't an artist residency but was simply an adventure with three friends (one of whom, Carol Hult, is also a writer.) Still, I did what I always do: soaked it up, scribbled down a few things, and then, once home, stared at a blank page.

After an adventure, I try to devote at least a full week's worth of writing time focusing on nothing but that adventure time. I want to do it right away while the experience is still so fresh in my mind that the seas still sway me and the forest wet still drips on my head. I sit in my familiar office, in front of my familiar blank screen, and let the images flow. I recreate scenes. I capture bits of conversations. I describe each day with the detail of a diary entry, eyes open to the outer events of the day and the inner responses of my own mind and heart. I move from this sort of freewriting into essays, poems, short stories, scenes for a novel... I let the work take shape as it wants. In the poet
A.R. Ammons' words, I "look for the forms/things want to come as."



This pattern works for me. For the Tongass trip, I ended up with two poems, an essay, and a magazine article that was published in Canoe and Kayak magazine and graced with Irene's incredible photographs. For the Shuyak trip, so far I've got a brief essay and three poems. I'll share below one of the poems, as long as you promise to see it as a work in progress, but one that nonetheless captures some of the feel of that time on the water.

The Outer CoastI have dreamed
this have dreamed
long swells rocking
and the light swaying
westward have

dreamed the round blue
of sea meeting nothing
but lambent sky. from
where this longing for
something beyond the
familiar? where
this dream of floating
far from what I love
to call my own? remote
as stars glinting among
undulations of kelp
these seas and yet
home to some deep
sounding of the heart,
a primigenial memory
of a time when I, like
these moon jellies I
paddle softly through,
spent my days adrift
aimlessly aimed for what
i could not yet see.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Doris Lessing: An Artist's Job.

"I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for. This is what our function is. We spend all our time thinking about how things work, why things happen, which means that we are more sensitive to what’s going on."

Doris Lessing, the Art of Fiction No. 102, excerpted here.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

To Find Stars in Another Language: poetry and the video art of ice.

At this time of year, when we have reached Winter Solstice, the great turning and return of the light, a time of year when, in the midst of the darkest days in the Northern Hemisphere, there are so many celebrations of light, it seems fitting to share with you two creative collaborations about the interplay of light and ice, the interplay between word and image.

Collaboration with the natural world, collaboration with other artists: to me, this is key to growing creativity. Poet Elizabeth Bradfield and video artist Demet Taşpınar teamed up to create three powerful word and moving image creations: To Find Stars in Another Language, Travel of the Light 
and Deliquescence

So, take a look: watch Demet's film and listen to Liz's poems in the two videos below. And read my interview with Liz, who was beyond generous in describing their collaborative creative process. Then learn more about both artists through the links in their bios at the end of this post.

Happy Winter Solstice.

Marybeth:  What sparked the idea for a collaboration between you and Demet?

Liz:  We were working together on a ship in the Antarctic -- maybe it was the first day, in Chile, when we were checking guests in to the ship and I noticed she had amazing purple streaks in her dark hair which seemed unusual for a ship's doctor, which was her position, and we struck up a conversation and she mentioned she was an artist and I was curious. We talked loosely about the weirdness of being an artist and science-minded, about being inspired by the high latitudes, about why we loved working on boats.... and we talked about possibly doing something together. But I'm a very reluctant collaborator. My work is very deeply personal, and it's hard for me to open it to another voice or vision. Once I saw Demet's films, though, I knew it would be more than ok---it would be inspiring and exciting.

Marybeth:  I'm guessing that your work on Broadsided helped you imagine the possibility of a collaboration, right?

Liz:  Yes, I think so. I envy the collaborations that I publish on Broadsided, in a way. To see your words refracted by art. To use art as a springboard for inspiration-- much of that is the goal of Broadsided. In fact, Broadsided was in part inspired by seeing art-making in process. I was deeply moved by a residency I had at the Vermont Studio Center, where writers were in the minority. I spent a lot of time haunting the studios of visual artists, and loved being around their energy and art. I think, in part, I started Broadsided to make sure that I kept in touch with visual artists--both the artists themselves and the palpable vitality of their making.

Marybeth:  Once you two decided to work together, how did you do it?

Liz:  I've tried collaborations in the past, but they haven't quite worked. There was something about the moving image... the dream-state of video and of Demet's subject-less, lyric films in particular that felt like a door into another poetic world that I really really wanted to step through.

On the ship, Demet gave me some files to look at. We watched the films together, talked a bit about what both of our visions were. It was very loose--text over the image? alongside it? something else? That was January. It took me a long time until I was ready to look at the videos and engage with them. Summer. July or August. Then I played them again and again, staring at them, trying to invoke (it wasn't hard) a trance-like state. I loved falling into that state. I wrote the poems to the motion and time of the videos. Keeping the final collaboration to voice and image ended up seeming right. Both the video and the poem, I hope, stand on their own. And then they become a different thing altogether upon their conversation.

I sent Demet sound files of my reading the poems. We wrestled a bit with technology -- Demet has some better software than I do, and we both have strong opinions about design. After a few email exchanges and Skype calls, which helped us a lot over our language barrier -- Demet is fluent in English, but we communicate better by speech than by email -- we found our place.

Marybeth:  What came first, the poem or the video?

Liz:  The video. I wrote the poems to Demet's videos. What a rush and release! I had never before set out to write a three minute poem, a nine minute poem.... I had never considered silence and motion as much as in writing to Demet's amazing and evocative videos. I watched and watched her videos, trying to find a voice and story that would pace with them, speak with them.

Marybeth:  What have you found are the benefits of collaborating like this? How has it affected your own work, how and what you create, and how you get it out into the world?

Liz:  It was so exciting to write to Demet's work. It was a thrill to approach a poem not from my own experience but through the vision of someone else. I don't know that it's affected my own writing in other regards. Perhaps only time will tell. I can't write the kinds of poems I wrote for Demet's videos without their invocation. I love the deeply inward, dreamy, reflective and associative state they put me in. I hope I can do more video-poem collaborations and, in fact, I'm working with another video artist whose work I love. We'll see what happens there.

Getting it out into the world -- I'm finding there's a whole community of video-poets I didn't know of. I haven't quite entered into a conversation with them, but I'm lurking on the edge. There's a festival in Berlin, the Zebra festival, that is all video-poems. I'd love to see what they're doing and, at the same time, I'm intimidated. This feels so raw and personal and vulnerable... I'm not sure I'm ready to be in a room full of other people doing similar work. I think I'd be too swayed by their opinions and ideas and right now this feels very personal and private to me as a creative process.

Marybeth:  What's next for you two? And what other great collaborative ideas do you have simmering on the back burner?

Liz:  I'd love to do more with Demet, but we've both got a chaos of boat work, art/writing work, and personal lives to negotiate. I am hoping that the next time I work on boats for this particular expedition travel company, Demet is the ship's doctor again and serendipity can strike twice.

Elizabeth Bradfield is the author of two poetry collections: Approaching Ice and Interpretive Work. Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Orion, The Believer, Poetry, and she has been awarded the Audre Lorde Prize and a Stegner Fellowship, among other honors. Founder and editor-in-chief of Broadsided Press, she lives on Cape Cod and works as a naturalist and teacher. She is the current Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University.

Demet Taşpınar is a video artist and painter from Turkey, currently studying for her MA in Fine Art at New York University. She has shown work at Art Bosphorus and Canakkale Art Biennale in Turkey, Auto Center in Berlin, and Kingsgate Gallery and the Tate Modern in London. She works as a ship’s medical doctor on expedition ships in Antarctica, the Arctic, and elsewhere, looking and filming and responding as she travels.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Poetry of the Wild: of recycling, nature, sculpture, and words.

Poets and Writers recently featured this project - which is an astonishingly brilliant and effective amalgam of poetry, sculpture, nature, and recycling. What a way to connect people to the places where they live.

From the Poets and Writers feature:

"For ten years ecological artist and sculptor Ana Flores has been bringing "Poetry of the Wild"—a project that combines poetry, visual art, and nature in an effort to connect people to the land around them—to locations both public and wild. Each installation features a box or sculpture, built by artists and community members using recycled materials, that contains an original or classic poem as well as a journal for passersby to contribute reflections of their own."

And here's one of the installations, entitled "It is Born." This poetry box was erected along the Mystic River shoreline during the summer of 2011. The box is by Ana Flores, and it contains the poem "It is Born" by Pablo Neruda.

It is Born
It is Born
Here I came to the very edge
where nothing at all needs saying,
everything is absorbed through weather and the sea,
and the moon swam back,
its rays all silvered,
and time and again the darkness would be broken
by the crash of a wave,
and every day on the balcony of the sea,
wings open, fire is born,
and everything is blue again like morning.
Pablo Neruda, from "On the Blue Shores of Silence."

See more of these installations at Poets and Writers and at the facebook page of Poetry of the Wild.

Get inspired. Start a project like this where you live.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Martha Graham: Keep the channel open.

"There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not hear it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive."

Friday, August 30, 2013

Gordon Haber, Grace Paley, and Satyagraha.

I hold in my hands an advance copy of Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal. It feels good to have this tangible evidence of the last few years' of work, feels good to have it be more than words in my head, images on my computer screen. It's here, it's real. Velveteen rabbit come to life.

It’s a different kind of book for me: on it, I’m listed as co-author with Dr. Gordon Haber, a wolf biologist who died four years ago on a research flight. This book was not something I had been looking to do. It simply arrived, a project that needed doing, one that no one else was willing or able to tackle.

At first I resisted it, having plenty of my own projects clamoring for precious writing time. But I wanted this book to exist. I wanted Gordon's forty-three years worth of insights to not disappear, but to reach a greater audience. Because I knew that his insights into wolves need to be heard, now more than ever.
Gordon Haber was a scientist, absolutely grounded in hard fact. But he was one who never lost his initial sense of wonder for the subject of his studies: the lives of wild wolves. Having an undergraduate degree in the sciences myself, having worked with scientists as a research assistant and then as a writer, I’ve met all too few scientists who have retained the wonder that first propelled them into their chosen work.

This blog’s link name, “artandnatureand,” points to what happens when art and nature combine – what grows from that. For me and many of those whose work is featured here, this combination often leads to direct activism. Consider Rika Mouw, James Balog, and Mimi White. It's that famous line many attribute to Lenin: “What then shall we do?”

Among Wolves describes a mirror equation: science and nature and – activism. Gordon Haber is best known for his tireless, fearless advocacy on behalf of wolves. Every single bit of his advocacy is grounded firmly in the results of his research, and yet it took that untrammeled wonder, that unbridled passion, to give him the fearlessness to stand up, again and again and again, for what he knew to be true.

It’s so easy to let fear shut us down and close us off from our own unique source of expression, insight, passion. It’s so hard to stay open and fearless, so hard to resist the pressure to be silent and conform. I’ve often thought of each person as a piece in a giant world puzzle: just think what would happen if each of us stayed true to our unique shape, and expressed that unique self into the puzzle we call life.

So I’m always filled with gratitude for those who express what Mahatma Gandhi called satygraha: standing truth to power. I’m grateful for scientists and artists, people in any walk of life, who stand for the truth. It reminds me of something Grace Paley once said when asked if writers had a moral obligation:

“Oh, I think all human beings do. So if all human beings have it, then writers have some, too. I mean, why should they get off the hook? Whatever your calling is, whether it’s as a plumber or an artist, you have to make sure there’s a little more justice in the world when you leave it than when you found it. Most writers do that naturally, see that more lives are illuminated, try to understand what is not understood and see what hasn’t been seen. “