Welcoming Autumn and Poet Laureates

September 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Of all the many anticipated events of autumn, I am sure there are none more eagerly awaited than the beginning of a new term of our national poet laureate.

Even The Onion commemorates the occasion with its article, “Distressed Nation Turns to Poet Laureate for Solace,” which aptly portrays the vital role the poet laureate serves in the U.S. Here’s an excerpt:

Despondent citizens from across the country began gathering this weekend outside the Fresno home of 83-year-old Philip Levine, the California State University professor and poet who in less than two weeks will assume the widely celebrated title, beginning a yearlong term in which all Americans will turn their gaze upon him in search of hope and guidance.

“We’ve long relied on our poet laureates as a beacon of hope in times of trouble,” said 55-year-old car mechanic Chuck Burgess, who traveled from Minneapolis to keep vigil alongside the many thousands waiting for the sagely Levine to emerge from his two-story ranch house and take up his new mantle. “Their masterfully crafted verses and subtle explorations of interiority dispel the nation’s fears in a way that nothing else can.”

“Right now, America is eagerly anticipating his words,” added Burgess, later saying that he’s been tracking Levine’s work ever since it won the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1981. “We’re counting on the discursive lyricism and shifting postures of fractiousness for which Mr. Levine’s poems are renowned to lift our spirits.”

To mark the transition of the poet laureate, who holds this honorary title from October to May and receives a stipend to continue creating, here is a masterfully crafted poem from our former poet laureate W.S. Merwin:


Remember how the naked soul
comes to language and at once knows
loss and distance and believing

then for a time it will not run
with its old freedom
like a light innocent of measure
but will hearken to how
one story becomes another
and will try to tell where
they have emerged from
and where they are heading
as though they were its own legend
running before the words and beyond themselves
naked and never looking back

through the noise of questions.

And one with plenty of discursive lyricism from our incoming poet laureate, Philip Levine from Detroit, who says of his work over the years, “Anger was a major engine in my poetry. It’s been replaced by irony, I guess, and by love.”

Our Valley

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

Merwin and Levine, goodbye and hello.


Creatively Clogged

September 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Guest post by musician and composer Alyssa (Severson) Hedenstrom.

As of late, I have begun to write letters to a good friend who, like me, is trying to recover her creativity. We have both just recently moved to Texas from the Midwest, her to Austin and me, to Dallas.

It’s no Wisconsin.

We are composers, creators, and confident women, yet both of us have failed to write a single note for months, and our usual creative selves, have been replaced by anxiety, tear-stricken imposters. We thought a new environment would easily give inspiration, but loneliness crudely has been knocking at our door.

Despite all of this, we call and write letters each week, encouraging one another to unclog our creative intestines and let the thoughts flow! We both committed to create something new each week, and my friend’s poem was a sort of consoling salve to my mind:


by Anna Brake

The rhythm stopped;
the ebb and flow of curiosity and determination
dried up in the scorching sun.

The stillness is a solitude;
the burning of loneliness and disconnect
consumes the seeking soul.

The waiting continues;
the dragging of time and the unforeseeable
control the tempo of mood.

I understand this depression, this stillness, this disconnect; but I trust that I have not been the only artist in time and history to undergo this confusion. And so…our waiting continues.

Each day, I wake up, force something new, and the pot simmers (even though my identity has been stolen). I must tell myself that I am and always will create, that it is part of my body and my humanness.

And so, this is where I turn to Ms. Nina Simone and let her lyrics shake my bones as I dance naked to the hope of recovering my artist within and sing,

“…I’ve got life!”


Handwriting As An Art

September 26, 2011 § 9 Comments

I remember sitting next to the new girl in third grade and on her first day, Mrs. Berndt, my third grade teacher said, “Jessica, your cursive is beautiful. Keep up the good work.” Then Mrs. Berndt walked away without even noticing my attempts at looping, curving, and linking all my letters together. I was reminded of this moment when I saw a video of artist Bili Bidjocka and curator Simong Njami’s  current art project titled Ecriture Infinie (Infinite Writing).

Bidjocka’s idea is to create one piece of literature that brings all people of different backgrounds together focusing on the process of handwriting words into massive notebooks (8 of them).

As a consistent letter writer I love receiving and sending handwritten letters. Handwritten letters seem more permanent and personal because revisions are so visible. One can’t just press the delete button or use the cut/paste option; thus, making the process of writing more involved and in some ways vulnerable. The process of writing seems more visible on a handwritten page than an electronic typed document.

Photo from Ecriture Infinie

Have you handwritten anything lately? If so, please do share.

Please, Hang On My Wall

September 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

There are rooms in my home that are still bare-nakedly bare. I have been dreaming about some pieces of art that I would put in each room of the house. Dream with me as I choose room by room a piece of art.

I really enjoy the bright inks that Samanatha Hahn uses in her watercolor illustrations. The blend of colors are beautiful. For the entry way I would hang this:

Hooray-Samanthan Hahn

I would also find room for more of her pieces. Some other favorites are here and here.

Next to my most prized piece of furniture, my bookshelf, I would hang Daniel Frosts’s illustrations. He is a London illustrator who creates magical images, which pairs great with my children’s picture book collection. I am dreaming about my nephew and niece reading through books beneath this piece:

Gulliver's Travels-Daniel Frost

My dining room already has a Hmong story cloth that is filled with stitches of scenes of the way life once was for Hmong people. Go up the stairs and my bedroom will have a Bobbette Rose piece of work on the wall. I was first introduced to her work at a gallery showing last year and immediately became an admirer. I would hang the wax painting below in my room.

I Was Born Into a Violent and Beautiful World-Bobbette Rose

Although I could hang something beautiful and permanent from an artist on the walls of my work room, I think I will leave it like it is. I have clipboards and corkboards on the wall with images, words, photos, and fabric of what inspires me. The wall is a part of my creative work space. This wall is never bare and constantly changing. I like this. It is the wall in my home to create my own art.

What visual artist are you currently inspired by?

A Bearable Life

September 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

I heard a lovely story this week of a friend and fellow creator – discouraged in the process of creating – receiving a note in the mail. In the envelope, on a scrap of paper was nothing but the following quote by Kurt Vonnegut:

“The arts are not a way of making a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Sit with that for awhile.

I’m reminded of a documentary I keep returning to which follows a group of painters painting advertisements on buildings in the city. Watch Up There below (about 12 min).

I think it’s the mood and music of the piece that strike me – the painters are far removed from the bustle of the city, hanging about on the scaffolding. It’s lonely and painful work, and the video is shot during cold, grey, and rainy days.  The film is a visual representation of the creative process of artists, of the inner, daily battles to move past doubt, loneliness, and frustration and do the hard work of creating.

They face the same obstacles other artists do. Their art is an unnecessary, antiquated one. Vinyl is cheaper, faster. It takes years for a new painter to learn technique and style. Even if all the people watching from the streets below admire their work, few companies want to employ them. Still, what they do is valued and beautiful. “We paint green,” says one artist. I love that.

In the end, they have created something. They have made life more bearable.

The Epic Battle of Books Vs. Ebooks

September 19, 2011 § 12 Comments

As a book lover, I’m often asked my opinion on the ebook versus traditional book debate. Am I not thrilled by the ease and convenience of carrying around 320 books at once wherever I go in the world whether that’s to the far reaches of Tajikistan or to my toilet? Isn’t the story the same whether on screen or on paper? Do I think the onslaught of cheap ebooks will devastate the publishing industry? (Ok, no one’s yet asked me this, but I have an opinion nonetheless.) Do I want a Nook for my birthday? (No.)

I will admit, handling a book is a large part of my reading experience. As I wrote previously, stumbling over physical books makes me pick them up to read and the presence of books cheers me up. There’s the mustiness of old books and the crispness of new ones. I like the physical knowledge of progressing through a book and seeing how much is left (which also helps me decide if I should finish it up or put it down and go to sleep), and of holding a book someone else loved: the underlined sentences, the dirt and food stains, the crumpled page corners and familiar creases. We readers leave our marks on books, and we share that part of ourselves with the next reader.

Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, sums up my feelings:

I am very grateful to the electronic world for making my life easier, but there is something about holding a book — the smell and the world of association. Even when e-books are perfected, as they surely will be, it will be like being in bed with a very well-made robot rather than a warm, soft, human being whom you love.

And  it’s not just that I like to touch books; I like to see other people handling books too. Or rather, I like to eavesdrop on what other people are reading in waiting rooms and coffee shops. I’ve fleetingly met a few kindred spirits this way who share the same literary tastes. This spying is terribly hard to do electronically. Unless we’re friends and they leave frequent Facebook status updates:

  • Wish Heathcliff would stop being a drama queen and just damn apologize already!
  • Stayed up all night with Katniss. Still hasn’t chosen Peeta.
  • Sho’nuff, too distracted by a white author’s rendition of southern Black domestic help.

Besides my own preferences, there are a few things I think we lose with ebooks. One of them is the role of book covers and browsing. As The Guardian writes, we indeed judge books by their covers and there is an art to them (check out these cheesy science fiction covers here or GalleyCat’s infographic to decode women’s books by their cover here). We browse the bookstore visually first. This isn’t impossible to do electronically, but it is harder. Online browsing is cluttered with ads, and we browse differently, urged on by Amazon’s memory of our tastes.

Good E-Reader poses the idea that ebooks are changing the way we view ownership. Unable to lend or resell your ebooks, buying digital books more closely resembles borrowing from the library than owning. And it’s harder to keep in mind the file of books in your digital library than the piles of books in your home library.

Still, I’ve found good reasons to laud the ebook format. Ebooks could help out the declining publishing industry by learning from the music industry. They give away freebies to boost sales (who doesn’t gravitate towards free stuff? And if you like it, you’ll buy more), sell individual tracks (what if you could buy just the one essay or poem you wanted? You could build your own anthology. Or what if you could buy the first two chapters of a book to see if you like it in the first place?), include bonus tracks if you buy the CD (give incentives for buying books), and sell the more expensive vinyl format in conjunction with an mp3 download (you can have the beautiful book for your shelves and still have the more practical e-version for your trip to Tajikistan).

Seattle Pi suggests that ebooks could also bring back serial stories. Not only could we read authors such as Charles Dickens the way his contemporary audience read him (and in smaller chunks, one might even get through the 800+ pages of Little Dorrit), but new writers today could build the same engaged following as television shows have with their drawn out plots and cliffhangers. When Dickens published The Old Curiosity Shop, leaving little Nell’s life hanging in the balance, American readers crowded the edges of New York City’s piers for the last installment, asking the incoming sailors if Nell was still alive in the end. What writer wouldn’t want that in any format?

Perhaps this compromise is the best way to go.

Weekend Do: School Edition

September 16, 2011 § 3 Comments

I love to learn. After 19 years of school I continually (initiated by myself) enroll in classes. Last spring I took a 6-week sewing course from the community college. This fall I will be taking an art drawing course from the University. I am already feeling the “first day of school” jitters and class starts on Tuesday. I received a class supply list of twenty items in the mail. I only knew three of the twenty items listed-not a very good beginning to the course.

However, I will remain positive. I have this weekend to prepare, so please do join me in this adventure as I journey into being a student of art.

1. Do create. Sometimes it is frustrating when you feel stuck creatively. This is a helpful list, created by Elsie, to guide the move out of the creative frustration. Moving to a new home forced me to change my creative workspace; thus, many projects are in the making. What might also help is to have some sort of accountability, which could be partnering with someone on a project, be in a community of creators, or enroll in a class.

2. Do stream Megafaun’s new album. It’s pleasing to the ear and soul-trust me. It will be the soundtrack to my lesson planning this weekend.


3. Do rest. My first full week of providing speech therapy and I realize how much mental, physical, and emotional energy little people need. I love giving it to them but I am truly ready for the weekend. My loose leaf Assam Gold Rain tea is already brewing.

Photo via Katelyn Herenda Pinterest

Have a good weekend!

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