Friday, December 18, 2009

a road map & a full tank of gas

Having overslept from staying up too late; And having taken a couple minutes to sit and read; And having thrown down some coffee and read Williams and Hass; I pick up Brenda Hillman's "Cascadia" and read a few poems and come to "Glacial Erratics," which ends:

The word being
A box with four of its corners hidden;

Everything else is round.

And that is beautiful and mystical and challenging and mind- and aesthetic-expanding (especially when taken with the full poem in context).

Last week I came across Marvin Bell's "Thirty-Two Statements About Writing Poetry," and so I could remember a few, scratched these in a notebook:

14. Every free verse writer must re-invent free verse.

15. Prose is prose because of what it includes; Poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

26. A finished poem is also a draft of a later poem.

31. This Depression era jingle could be about writing poetry: "Use it up / Wear it out / Make it do / Or do without."

And sometimes when I read and sit with some of this stuff it feels like I am being given a road map and a full tank of gas and being told to "DRIVE!"

Even still, I might opt to hop on a longboard and skate the road at night with a headlamp because, well, the map still works and everyone drives, so the view and experience is different on longboard and that different perspective and voice is something I am after.

And then I think, hey man, it's just a metaphor. Get on with it!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Banging the Plate

When our cat wanders off we go outside and bang the plate. Like ringing a dinner triangle, he generally pops out from a neighbor's yard and cruises home.

So banging the plate calls back lost things. Boomerangs a cat with wanderlust. For me, it has become a bell of mindfulness inviting me back home as well.

Up until Sunday/Saturday, banging the plate has generally worked. It can take a little time and it might be towards midnight, but he would appear out of the chilled dark ready to come in.

Saturday night/Sunday morning, nothing. The cold is kicking, rain is imminent, it is 12:30am. I'm beat and need to sleep, no cat. So he's out for the night.

Cats being stubborn, free-spirited, strong-minded, "in-de-pen-dent" (it is Christmas/Rudolph time, after all), a cat could quite easily play the role of Muse. The artist/writer has to invite the muse back, bang the plate to get it to come home to the house he or she has built for creating their particular art. And we've all got those plate-banging activities that we use to call them. Writing in a particular kind of notebook, particular time of day, specific kind of pen, or place in the house. We bang the plate to get the Muse to come sit with us. We hope that it works. And when we find something that works with success, we stick to it. In some cases, we may hang on like crazy even at the risk of choking it. Note: don't choke the Muse!

Sunday morning, I'm banging the plate in the rain. I'm wandering the cul-de-sacs of our neighborhood. I'm up and down the streets and sidewalks of the cat's normal haunts. Nothing. Occasionally I think I hear a faint meow, but birds and rain and sounds are having their way with my imagination. False cats.

We're on towards 11am. It is obvious I need a new approach. Other than a raincoat, I'm not dressed for mucking, but I walk up through one of the cul-de-sacs near Rails-to-Trails that leads up a flooded, grassy path. This isn't where he goes, but nothing has worked so far. I bang the plate.

There is a faint trailhead, off more toward the field and back toward our side of the neighborhood. More flooded, but it gets me back closer to home anyway. I bang the plate. I come out in the field nearer to our house. Boots and jeans soaked through, but not cold. Nothing to lose. A hunch coming from the gut.

I cruise through ankle-deep water and mud of a flooded field and walk up a wooded path behind the houses across the street from us, between our neighborhood and Route 50. This is his stomping grounds. Where he likes to hang. But there is a lot of ground to cover and he's one cat.

At this point, I'm not really driving with my head. It's more intuition, and I've been putting myself in his eyes, where he'd likely go, what he'd do. It's new territory. Off the paved streets and sidewalks, into the muck of fields and woods during a soaking rain. I bang the plate.

After playing hunches and letting the gut drive, I wander next to the woods for maybe a minute, banging the plate, when I hear a high pitched meow (he was neutered early) and see his familiar gray and white prance pop up over brush and out of the trees. Ankle-deep flooded fields, are not a cat's idea of a way home. I scoop him up and cruise back to the house.

My old notion of banging the plate didn't cut it. I couldn't just go through the motions to bring him home. But Sunday's experience opened up a whole new level of following the gut, intuition. I was sort of following blindly and trusting, but at the same time, intensely aware and alert. The process led me right to him. And thinking on it, he was likely lost and not willing to walk through the deep water necessary to get himself to familiar turf. Going to him was likely the only thing that would have found him.

So I think about the new version of banging the plate. And I think about it in terms of the Muse. And how to invite it back, but also to trust and follow the gut as to where and how to seek it out, when it takes more than just showing up. When the process deepens.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dialed-In Like Cat Nip

Serendipity. Being dialed in. In the groove or flow. Every now and again, if we're lucky, we get a glimpse of this kind of feeling. For me, when it happens, it often happens outside. Running can open me up to it. Walking. Occasionally while playing a team sport like vacant lot football or pick up hoops. Writing, reading, and talking with people about same presents one of the main veins or avenues of opportunity for this feeling.

Saturday morning I was the only one up. Kicked back, drinking coffee, reading and writing on the couch. Christmas lights glowing and just watching our cat, Carlos, for a good stretch of time. And contemplating the life and actions of a cat. They are a trip to watch, their forever-in-the-moment approach to life. And I thought about how freeing, to be able to just be there, not so caught up in the next thing. So I took the photo above and a couple others. And I scribbled this down in a notebook:

Cats have got zen down.
It's now. And the next.
Fuck tonight, or tomorrow--
neither exist.

Everything is fixed in a gaze.
Or a coiled-spring crouch.
Or a stretched out nap.

Weather forecasts,
shopping lists,
checking balance,


There's not much to that. That's an exercise I call skimming the surface of first thoughts. Just snatching the rough material that's there at hand before it wanders off somewhere else. Hopefully it opens a door, or becomes the on-ramp to bigger flow.

I sipped some coffee, picked up Gary Snyder's "The Real Work," and started reading where I left off. Here's what I found, where he's discussing the value of meditation and his study of zazen:

"It wasn't alien to my respect for primitive people and animals, all of whom/which are capable of simply being for long hours of time. I saw it in that light as a completely natural act. To the contrary, it's odd that we don't do it more, that we don't, simply like a cat, be there for a while, experiencing ourselves as whatever we are, without any extra thing added to that."

Uuuummmm... Yeah. I guess Snyder gets what I'm talking about. Perhaps gets it enough that he can expound on the thoughts I'm having at present via an interview he did in April 1977, just as I pick up his f-ing book on page 97. Go figure. Thanks, Gary ;)

So that's my dialed in moment for the weekend. I love when that happens. It charges me, inspires me, affirms thoughts occasionally. And keeps me tuned in to being open to it happening more. I think it's a kind of experience where you've gotta recognize it in order to be able to cultivate it and invite it back. Make sure it digs hanging out.

Any of those kind of moments for others? What activities or experiences put you in touch or get you dialed in?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Name Us a King", A Beginning of Sorts

Portrait of Carl Sandburg, by Edward Steichen.

Skate punks don't write poetry. As a rule. At least not the ones I rolled with. But rules are often fickle. Skateboarding, to some, is a form of expression. Poetry can find its way onto grip-tape, or tagging brick walls. It could happen.

I was sitting in the back of Mr. Springer's world history class. 14. Probably rocking a pair of Air Walk shoes, trench coat, bangs long enough to tuck into a shirt pocket. A good look, still ;) I don't know what was discussed in class that day, but I wrote a short poem, between anarchy symbols in the margins. I read it. Thought about it. Re-read it. Got it the way I wanted it. I was still tough--it was called "Duel to the Death." Or was it "Dual?"--there were two people. Maybe Springer was talking medieval warfare. I don't think so. I felt like I did more during that class than the rest of my freshman year at Easton High School. Those who knew me back then would likely concur. But something stuck with me, for having written it, without setting out to.

The next year I was at St. James School in Hagerstown. I still skated. I ran cross country. I got ready for lacrosse. I read and wrote poetry. I found a cat named Carl Sandburg. He wrote the first poem I ever wrote out long-hand and read out loud to myself. I still remember taking a copy of it to our English teacher, Mr. Taylor. It was the first poem that I found and read on my own that I can recall the name of. The poem was called, "Name Us a King." It went something like this:

Name us a king
who shall live forever--
a peanut king, a potato king,
a gasket king, a brass-tack king,
a wall-paper king with a wall-paper crown
and a wall-paper queen with wall-paper jewels.

Name us a king,
so keen, so fast, so hard,
he shall last forever--
and all the yes-men square shooters
telling the king, "Okay Boss, you shall
last forever! and then some!"
telling it to an onion king, a pecan king,
a zipper king or a chewing gum king,
any consolidated amalgamated syndicate king--
listening to the yes-men telling him
he shall live forever, he is so keen,
so fast, so hard,
an okay Boss who shall never bite the dust,
never go down and be a sandwich for the worms
like us--the customers,
like us--the customers.

Though I've thought about it by name, line, and word, I haven't read that poem, one of the ones that started it all for me, in probably 20 years. I remember trying to imitate it in my own style, with my own words and thoughts. I dove into Sandburg--this cat writing free verse, who had lived as a hobo after dropping out of school, who had served in the Army, who wrote advertising copy and worked as a journalist and wrote about life. American life. A Whitman for the city.

My grandmother gave me a copy of Sandburg's complete poems for my birthday that spring. I know because it says so on the inside page: "To Michael Valliant, Happy Birthday, 1988." Thinking about writing about this poem early this evening got me to go grab that book out of a box in the garage. And go back to one of the poems that started it all, for me. The one I found, not for a class, but on my own. And wrote down. At age 15. Funny what can spark a love of language. A love of writing. And a sense of kinship, a connection with a poet who died five years before I was born. Goes without saying I never met him. All the same, I'm glad he wrote it for me.