Self and reality. Symbol and language. Myth and image. Memory and consciousness.
Dream and unreality: locus communis.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Greening Water

Period of reconstruction: building new approaches to syllabi for the upcoming semester. At times the process is a tedious chore, a labyrinth of material to (re)examine, (re)analyze, (re)classify—but the monotony is what I enjoy about research and lecture-building. Books, paper, ink, tea, laptop, coffee, drafting, redrafting, more coffee, more reading. Everything, all elements, developing a stage of production towards a transition towards an end-product. Something to hold in the hands.
On my morning walk, I rescued two small box turtles. The first wanderer only needed encouragement, a terse nudge to send him scuttling in the right direction, back to his creek off the walking trail.

Later, I found the second meandering off the edge of the subdivision street, trying to climb over the curb which blocked access to his end goal. As expected, once lifted, he immediately withdrew head and appendages within his green-cobbled shell. Yet, he owned no heft. A feather weight covered in green slime and mud residue. Compact and damp. So easy to damage. A frail tank. On the upper right corner of the casing, a slug coiled, darkly refracting light. Midges circled a halo. When placed by the creek’s perimeter, he hesitated, then shuttled quickly down the banks, leaving a trail of ooze and algae in the greening water.
Briefly I considered translating the above scene into a nature-themed poem, but such themes are hard to manipulate for a wider reading audience. The metaphor becomes too recognizable or the plot-event too common. Although I dabbled with a handful of poetry based solely on a "nature is wonderful" theme, such writing can quickly turn stale if the writer is ready to quickly twist the message towards something else. Of course, some writers such as Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and Mary Oliver can safely navigate such tricky oceans, but for now I am seeking something else.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Frayed Coat at an Outdoor Secondhand Shop

For some reason, I have completely overlooked the musical career of the Pixies.

Yes, in college I was aware of their presence in the Alternative Music scene, however, I never bought a CD or cassette tape of their work. I never listened fully to any of their singles. It’s odd looking back—but, a catalyst does exist for their absence in my musical library.

The word “Pixies” alone should have peaked my curiosity. Aside from the heavy folktale influences of their name, the phonetics follow a verbal influence I value: the hard ‘x’ mirroring axe or kick followed by a soft pair of vowels matching the sounds in ease and allow. The vernacular inserted into my poems of the time, words of behavioral cutting, bloody violins, deconstruction, urban-graffiti, deflation, regression.

This all falls down to this morning, when the radio played “Where is My Mind?”— from the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa album, released in 1988. That year was transitional. A period of motioning out into a wider scheme of self. I was living in Minneapolis, exploring non-trending music, feeling a nostalgia for hard-core Mississippi Delta Blues and pornographic, hedonistic Kerouac jazz clubs. That year, on a daily basis I walked across the Mississippi River in the middle of winter to get to work. A self-imposed tolerance to the extreme winds of Minnesota. The cold water knotted in slow rapids below the bridge. That year my then-partner feel into a self-destructive alcoholism which I couldn’t comprehend—we were on again-off again in a cycle of denial in between his bouts of drinking and rebellions against expectations from his family, or from me, as well by society. That year, one night in particular, he drank excessively, even more so than usual, glass after glass of cheap draughts of beer, falling into a coma-like sleep—in just a few hours, the sounds of him choking on his own vomit woke me up—it resounded as an alarming guttural death rattle, a warning sign.

He haunts my work even now, slipping casually into some poems unnoticed at first, in a subtle manner, as one trying on a frayed coat at an outdoor secondhand shop.

Today, when I previewed the material of Surfer Rosa, the tracks proved to be electric-heavy, laden with eclectic and erratic themes of rebellion, pissed off frustration, and on occasion, slight tongue-in-cheek-humor. Although now I appreciate “Where is my Mind?”—back then, in 1988, I was seeking something entirely different musically. Escaping from anger, resentment.

Have I mention that I updated my promotional site?

Since the book publication of Variations, items across my social networks have been shifted, updated with new information. The main web site now has a new splash page— and a new promo page for my book. This section in particular contains blurbs and a brief, informal essay defending the style used to construct most of the work. (The essay appeared here already at an earlier date.)

Of course, over time I will document any future particulars regarding the sale of the book, or potential reviews, as updates and changes occur. Using the logic of maintaining archival records, the site has provided a great service since its implementation back in the day.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Persona as Witness, Rather than Participant

Re-thinking a project once again. Toying with an old idea—but it behaves as a wild horse, not wanting to be calmed. Controlled.

The same horse-idea from months past: Innocence to Experience. The concept of self-portrait as a tragic female figure (as a male using female mask).

Odd putting the problem in these terms, but the trouble still lies with the want to use the passive-self as a voice; what results, my personal, past experience does not mirror Persephone’s mythical experiences. Of course, the wording of “self-portrait” carries the problem. I’ve said this before. I do not want to make a masculine example out of Persephone. Likewise, I do not want to try and claim the circumstances of her story as my own. However, I want to borrow the trauma of her story in order to show another level or another side of the tragedy.

In “Leda and the Swan,” W. B. Yeats successfully retells the ugly scene of Leda being attacked by Zeus-as-a-Swan, with the reader's sympathy remaining with the young girl, the mortal caught in the throes of an amoral deity.

Or perhaps follow Larry Levis’ elegies, longish titles explaining the elements embedded in the poem:
“Elegy with a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It”
“Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage”

so, in this sense, following this logic what could result is:
“A Self-Portrait Including the Tragedy of Persephone”
“A Self-Portrait Approaching the Tragedy of Persephone”
“A Self-Portrait Acknowledging the Tragedy of Persephone”
“A Self-Portrait Carrying the Tragedy of Persephone” –or–
The persona as witness, rather than as participant:
         “A Self-Portrait as Persephone’s Cup Bearer”
[…] (The) awkward uncle leaning too close
his lips brushing a small ammonite ear,
his voice a drunken fly thrumming
brusque riddles
his finger along the curve of her thigh
As it is, slowly, the theme seems to be remapping itself. The initial lines I want to utilize still are possible—I just need to work my way carefully around the various probable areas of insensitivity. Take the notion very carefully, a day at a time.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Preparations for Poetry Reading

Spent time this morning motioning the tongue and mouth muscles with a few tongue twisters and jaw exercises.

I will be participating in a poetry reading at Trinity Episcopal Church, in Midtown Houston tomorrow night. —and although I selected specific poems to read from Variations— it took awhile to decide which themes best fit the environment—the book ranges from the secular to the profane at a unexpected pace, often leaping between the two extremes at a moment's notice, from faith to lust to devotion. With a respective awareness of the church itself, I do not want to charge the air with too much blue celebrations of the physical body.
While moving a range of boxes and small furniture out of storage, I scratched the base of my palm on an exposed, sawed off bolt. The hand bled only for a few minutes, but the pain lingered, tiny pin pricks in the skin. For a moment I considered utilizing the event for a poem; the pulse of the thumb ticked of iambic metrics as I drove home, gauze taped over the one inch scrape—

but then, I remembered Sylvia Plath's short poem "Cut." Due to the slight ambiguity in her piece, I like using it for discussion in composition classes. Critics love discussing the persona's intentions (Was the act of cutting the head of the thumb intentional or accidental?) and mood (Is she genuinely thrilled with the sight of her own wound or is she simply nonplussed, slightly confused?) The tones for me always carried a sense of a flat, unemotional reaction, as in a sarcastic, almost bitter, fashion.

Which in fact was my mood yesterday, lugging cardboard boxes and antique furnishings from storage unit to garage. It is tiresome dealing with excess possession, material which over-extended the perimeters of the house.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

As a Preface: Importance of Fragments

The following text acts as an introduction to my recently published book Variations on a Theme of Desire. In a semi-formal fashion it address the the structure of a majority of the poems and the mindset which helped generate them.
Poems never emerge in a writer’s head fully formed as a completed, finalized piece of artwork. Rather, poetry often begins with only a single word, a simple image, or a fragmented phrase. Poets manipulate the various fractions of ideas, molding images, words, phrases into fuller art forms, which frequently take on a life of their own.

The majority of poems displayed in Variations on a Theme of Desire follow the logic of constructing a large piece of art out of smaller deconstructions of various ideas, utilizing small units of expression, clusters of terse, fragmented lines, momentary expressions and catch phrases—all brought together in order to project a finalized construction. For example, from the opening section of the book, the poem “Venerations of the Temple” specifically holds multiple splinters of thought which follow a similar thread:

Thrumming against the glass, a horsefly crosses the window where Whitman sits at his desk.

The pen scratches a phrase—then draws a line through the text

—as a knife in the kitchen slices through a fresh loaf of dark rye bread

—as a carpenter’s assistant trudges through late winter snow, arms loaded with firewood, scraps of kindling, his red cap bobbing under the drawing room windows.

Whitman shifts back in his chair by candlelight as winter descends outside in maternal darkness.

The blank page mirrors the lots of snow spreading outside his window.

— cast off by a lantern—hour past sunset, walking within a perimeter of arched light—

The fly transposes identities, becoming the poet, the poet becoming the fly. A nervous twitch. Divulging of words—broadcasting the basic senses of perception—the surface of a plum, or for instance,

By accident the arch of his left hand catches the tail end of a fresh inked paragraph, smearing patterns of words, shifting letters into blackbirds—[1]

These fragments show Walt Whitman during, and leading up to, the winter before his death. In the full poem, some lines are loosely based on eyewitness accounts of his last days; other lines are pure creative speculation of events, a blurring of fiction with reality.

Likewise, what is also important to keep in mind, a fragmented sentence carries the same beauty as the ruins of an ancient city. Advantages exist for beginning a creative work with textured fractions and broken sentences. This process is much like basic rules of brainstorming and free-writing: no idea is a bad idea, formulate the thought before editing the thought, value quantity over quality. Poetry often survives off abstractions and half-formed impressions. These elements promote mood, formulate style, and instigate diverse interpretations and further discussions.

For example, looking at the existing fragments of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, over time much of her work is limited to partial forms: quotes from other writers, scraps of lines left on papyrus, lingering remnants of larger works copied by hand. Yet, even when reading the shortest of these surviving phrases, a sense of the full poem can be gained, a theme of intense desire can be visualized: “I do not expect/to touch the sky” (No. 8). [2] With these brief eight words, a full theme addressing the intensity of an individual’s desire can be visualized.

Another modern example, Lynda Hull uses fragmented imagery throughout her poem “Ornithology.” In this particular case, Hull utilizes various fragments of experience to elaborate a full picture of impression for the persona. Formatted as a modern ode, with intricate placement of jutting lines and tabbed phrases, stanza four and five state:

[…] Women smoked the boulevards
     with gardenias afterhours, asphalt shower–
slick, ozone charging air with sixteenth
          notes, that endless convertible ride to find
the grave
               whose sleep and melody
                    wept neglect
     enough to torch us
               for a while
through snare-sweep of broom on pavement,

the rumpled musk of lover’s sheets, charred
     cornices topping crosstown gutted buildings.
Torches us still—cat screech, matte blue steel
          of pistol stroked across the victim’s cheek
where fleet shoes
               jazz this dark
                    and peeling
     block, that one.
               Vine Street, Olive.
We had the music, but not the pyrotechnics—[3]

Each stanza merges the persona’s various experiences of urban living as one continuous event, memory blurs with the present now moment of the poem’s telling. The persona, in an act of justification, presents more than one recollection as a means to enhance the full theme of the work. What results: the audience collects supplied phrases and scattered images and reconstructs their own intuitive readings based on what becomes Hull’s multi-layered ode to Charlie “Bird” Parker. Through the use of grounding words such as “boulevards,” “pavement,” “charred/cornices,” and “crosstown gutted buildings,” readers are able to build upon the available components and follow Hull’s concluding message of vitality and passion.

One last example comes from Arthur Sze in his book Archipelago. In particular, the poem “The Redshifting Web” is comprised of varying components, diverse patterns, and conflicting objects—building loose connections between numerous subjects and unexpected pairing of articles. In a sense, to develop his themes, Sze mirrors Whitman’s intentions for developing lists and enumerations. For Whitman, these litanies celebrate the Nineteenth Century American experience. These in turn spiral out to provide a suggestion of a Transcendental model for the world to follow. In Sze’s case, his lists follow closer to Zen-inspired themes and analogies. What appears to be at first a casual, fragmented list of ideas is in fact an informal pattern. He writes:

The dragons on the back of a circular bronze mirror
swirl without end. I sit and am an absorbing form:
I absorb the outline of a snowy owl on a branch,
the rigor mortis in a hand. I absorb the crunching sounds
when you walk across a glacial lake with aquamarine
ice heaved up here and there twenty feet high.
I absorb the moment when a jeweler pours molten gold
into a cuttlefish mold and it begins to smoke.
I absorb the weight of a pause when it tilts
the conversation in a room. I absorb the moments
he sleeps holding her right breast in his left hand
and know it resembles glassy waves in a harbor
in descending spring light. [4]

In the above sample, Sze supplies the reader a variety of images as a means of showing the components of a basic metaphor—then, he steps back. In the fashion of meditation-exercises, he tells the reader, now you build the bridge between the elements. You find the universal connection that exists between these isolated ideas.

Both Lynda Hull and Arthur Sze in the end provide unexpected abstractions and controlled abridgements to successfully convey their unique themes and points of view. Their phrasing and line constructions mimic the actual thought process of an individual, moving in a stream-of-conscious fashion from one interior, private reflection to another.

After all, one important benefit for writers to use abstractions and fragments is to closely echo the interior monologue—that conversation one conducts in the head throughout the day on an ongoing basis. As outside environments influence one’s speaking tone and internal moods, the display of abstractions also controls the subjects within internalized discussions. Fragmented sentences heighten the informal voice of Self and provide readers a better idea of the personality of a writer’s persona—all through the rambling presentation of details and broken observations noted by a poet-speaker. Memories overlap, as a result; experiences become confusing and sporadic when retelling important episodes, even for a firsthand witness of a personal event. The more intricate and fractured the individualized comments are presented, the more creatively realistic the monologue becomes.

Taking this stylistic approach into account, most of the individual poems presented in Variations offer up a broken series of perception for the reader to piece together. Section 2: “Fragments of a Self Portrait” specifically takes the notion of an English Renaissance sonnet sequence, slightly distorting the tradition, and then proceeds to reassemble the series in a cut-and-paste manner. Utilizing the interior thoughts and motivations of an emotionally wounded persona, the poems collectively display the speaker rambling about his recent broken relationships, seeking a firm resolution, but finding unsatisfactory results. By using a non-linear construction, these flawed sonnets can be read in any order; the sequence does not follow a chronological, straightforward path. In this case, the poems’ arrangement is circular, one large collection of various thoughts ruminating on desire in an abstracted collage of observations, memories, and reactions. A layered presentation is shown: a blurring of internal, conscious thought with external, waking, everyday life. As a result, fragmentation and fractured scenes help redefine for the reader the persona’s flawed understanding of love.

Through a poet’s utilization of abstracted strategies, fragments promote a stronger network bond between writer and reader, allowing the respective themes to develop and communicate in an intensified manner. In other words, through the use of fractured imagery and broken observations, a greater sense of empathy towards another’s experience is constructed for the reader, due to the psychological presentation of the character’s motivations and emotional reactions. This in turn enables the possibilities for a greater socializing influence on individuals. Variations on a Theme of Desire insists the fact that with a fragmented text, a stronger analytical approach to the reading process is encouraged for the average reader.

1. Smith, David-Glen. “Veneration of the Temple: Observations of Whitman in Winter 1891.” Variations on a Theme of Desire. Houston: Saint Julian Press, 2015. Print.
2. Sappho. “No. 8.” Sappho: Poems and Fragments. Josephine Balmer, trans. Northumberland NE: Bloodaxe Boks, 1992. Print.
3. Hull, Lynda. “Ornithology.” The Only Word. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995. Print.
4. Sze, Arthur. “The Redshifting Web.” Archipelago. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press. 1995. Print.