Friday, August 15, 2014

Doris Lessing: Do It Now.

“Whatever you're meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” 

~ Doris Lessing

Friday, July 25, 2014

Happy 50th to The Wilderness Act.

                                 Barry Glacier, Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area,
                                                      Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

Fresh out of college, I visited my older sister, a ceramic artist teaching in West Virginia. She beckoned me to her yard to see her latest creation—a six-foot oblong curved shape, slightly hollow in the center. It was unlike anything I’d seen, and yet also strangely familiar. “It’s beautiful,” I said. She beamed, and walked over to another shelf, picking up a piece of wood, weathered and shined by time. “It was inspired by this,” she said, “that you gave me.” I didn’t remember this remnant tree limb, but she said I’d found it on a hike in the Smokies near Asheville, NC, where we grew up. That I’d given it to her, and it had inspired her art.

This was when I first realized that most, if not all, art has at its root inspiration the natural world. A few years later, becoming disillusioned with my work in renewable energy policy for the state of North Carolina, I began thinking of trying my hand at writing. I wanted to get at deeper truths, I wanted to reach people at a gut level. At root. The way Edward Abbey’s Monkeywrench Gang and Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea had reached me when I was navigating college.

I’d also come to realize that powerful works of writing had inspired policy makers as well; I’d listened to historian Donald Worster explain how The Wilderness Act -- signed into law 50 years ago -- resulted in part from a national attitude towards nature and wildness that was defined and nurtured by the words of Thoreau, Emerson, Carson, Muir – all the great early American nature writers.

Growing up in the Appalachians, I figured out early on that the natural world was my bedrock. Over time I learned that this bedrock is the most solid, clear, and unyielding in wilderness—in those places that remain the most unmediated by human activity or development.

By mediation, I mean a kind of buffer, like when we’re in a car or behind the glass of a visitor’s center, looking out—any human construct that comes between us and the actual physical world.

When a place is unmediated, I have that sense of being there, fully immersed. This is not easy, it’s often not comfortable, but it is where I feel most alive. All my senses are heightened by being where bears live, by being where I can’t control the tides, where I am put in proper scale with the rest of the living, breathing world.

So it makes perfect sense that, when I came to Alaska for a summer job nearly 30 years ago to sell tickets on the train between Portage and Whittier, I never left. Alaska is replete with places where I can feel in proper scale.

I still recall with crystal clarity some life-changing moments of my first summer in Alaska. That first afternoon in a kayak, paddling Passage Canal, drifting by the kittiwake rookery (the tides were with me) and hearing the sounds of waterfalls, of birds, appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing. And then that fall, the long daylit nights at Denali National Park, getting off work at the gift shop and taking a late night hike up into the hills. Driving out the road after the first snowfall, during the two weeks cars were then allowed in the park, and stopping, getting out of the truck, looking back--at a line of wolves, all black, trotting up a hillside, in perfect formation, perfectly fitting their world, and me, there, too, at least in that moment, in proper scale.

The power of Alaska’s wild to invoke this in me has not diminished with time and familiarity. A few years ago, on an artist residency in the Tongass National Forest’s Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness, I felt that sense of proper scale once again, sitting on a swirl of ancient rock recently released from ice, taking in the vast view: a tidewater glacier rumbling to the sea, a seal diving in the cerulean waters at the base of a waterfall, a massive iceberg floating by our camp, big as an island I could live on the rest of my life.
                            Shining Rock Wilderness, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina.

I am lucky. I know this to be true. I grew up on family hikes to Devil’s Courtyard and Craggy Gardens and Wayah Bald, on wild rides down Sliding Rock—a 60' natural rock slide that ends in a deep pool—on rock climbing in one of the country’s first designated wilderness areas—the Shining Rock Wilderness. These places are as much a part of my childhood as my little brother laying down on the floor, poufing out his stomach, and yelling, “Hey, look, here’s Mount Mitchell!” Mount Mitchell being, well, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. And my brother, well, having a special talent. These places—Craggy Gardens, Devil’s Courtyard, Shining Rock—they are family.

And then I moved to Alaska, where I’ve been surrounded by wilderness—some designated and thus protected to varying degrees of success, some not designated but de facto wilderness because of how few people live here. We Alaskans have been lucky that way for a long, long time. But that’s changing, has been, my whole life here, and more and more I see how tenuous even those places designated wilderness hang on to the essential characteristics that make them what I, as a human and as a writer, need.

Two places in Alaska that are touchstones for me—family for me—have shown me this tenuousness: northwestern Prince William Sound, which has been a wilderness study area for decades but has not, it turns out, been managed as wilderness; and Denali National Park, where the iconic top predator, wolves, are decimated along the NE boundary on state lands. We draw lines, but for wolves those lands are part of their territory, the natural topography of their continuous territory. And then, of course, overlaid on all the other pressures human society puts on wild places is climate change.
As a writer, I owe it all to natural places, the birth of all my best ideas, images, stories. And Alaska’s wild places fuel my writing endlessly. In the wild, I enter into a conversation that’s always going on but is usually drowned out by my busy, noisy, human-centered life. I enter that wild conversation and am ignited, and new insights and images appear, and everything makes sense.

Making sense – my senses, all alert and awake—in that I find what’s real. And there are rare moments when I feel, as Mary Austin wrote about her experiences in the desert southwest, a “flash of mutual awareness,” when there is some apparent reciprocity between me and an oystercatcher, a wind-sculpted hemlock, a rock outcropping.

When I do my job right, I’m able to capture some small part of that conversation, that reciprocity, in words. That’s why, in The Heart of the Sound, I wrote short prose pieces in between the main chapters. In one, I’m boating back in pouring rain and heavy seas, wanting only to get home, when a Steller's sea lion pops up in front of our Zodiak, tosses a salmon into the air, catches it in its pink mouth, gives me a look, then arcs beneath the seas, home. These are moments of insight, reciprocity, shared conversation—and they are my attempts to give voice to the more-than-human world.


                                       Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska.

You know what they say about visiting wilderness: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. But I always take with me so much more. Not just my scribbles in my write-in-the-rain pad, but a host of experiential knowledge that carries on in my work, a subterranean river of knowing, that conversation reverberating in every experience I have after.

I’ll end with a quote from the late, great, Peter Matthiessen, from The Snow Leopard, which speaks to reciprocity: “The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share.”

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Metabolism of Stars: A Guest Post by Scott T. Starbuck

Welcome to guest blogger Scott T. Starbuck, poet, teacher, ceramic artist, and fisherman, who says his blogging is an attempt to follow Ken Kesey's advice in a 1993 letter to Allen Ginsberg: "Ancient Advice Left in cave by Wise French Caveman: 'When Bigbad Shit come, no run scream hide. Try paint picture of it on wall. Drum to it. Sing to it. Dance to it. This give you handle on it.'"

The Dream of Seven Tails

"Metabolism of Stars" was the line I remember from poet/fisherman Ted Hughes describing the silvery side of a steelhead he had just caught.  I think that image reaches deeper and truer than anything I've read or heard about this torpedo-blazing, tail-walking, much sought after cousin of the rainbow trout.  I think those words came from being in the presence of a fish momentarily lifted into sunlight.  I spent the last eight months fishing from Gold Beach, Oregon, to Kamloops, British Columbia, focusing most of my efforts in the Columbia Gorge; the Forks, Washington rivers; and close to the house I rented on Whidbey Island, trying to catch steelhead or salmon, and trying to find words to carry some of the brilliance of fish, and wildness of human spirits who chase them into my new poems.   Now that my sabbatical is over, I'm back in the classroom, finding myself eager to get back in the river, and near the sea, casting to monster kings and massive schools of pink salmon streaming up the western side of Whidbey at this moment, less than 10 minutes from my house there.  It is much more important to me to catch fish than to write about catching fish.  I once missed a David James Duncan reading in Portland, Oregon, even though he was one of my favorite authors, on account of fresh summer steelhead that wandered into my area.

Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum was widely quoted as saying "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." When I went to sixth grade in Oregon, my class went to outdoor school, which I still recall as one of my favorite childhood memories.  Later, the ten years I spent at sea as a charterboat captain or commercial fisherman reinforced my love for nature. My best poems, essays, and short stories are still rooted in this kind of direct experience which makes me want to go beyond admiring nature to become a defender of wild animals and wild places.

Just before my sabbatical, one of my creative nonfiction students at San Diego Mesa College complained of writer's block, and other students agreed. I told her and the others, "Drive north to the redwoods. Throw your arms around a big 2000+ year-old tree, and say 'Tell me what you know,' then listen."

October Chinook

Clearly, I come from a long line of others who feel the same.  In 1987 Robert Bly came to visit Tom Ferte's literature class when I was a student at Western Oregon State College (now Western Oregon University) where he was asked what the next major focus in poetry would be. Bly's answer was the environment.  He said a poet's job is to defend nature.  Later, I read Keats held Wordsworth in higher esteem than Milton for how Wordsworth understood human psychological development. Keats wrote, "Well--I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me--The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think--We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening the thinking principle--within us-we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the heart and nature of Man--of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression--whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open--but all dark--all leading to dark passages--We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist--We are now in that state--We feel the 'burden of the Mystery' To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive, when he wrote 'Tintern Abbey' and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark passages. Now, if we live, and go on thinking we too shall explore them."

I know this poetic/thinking/feeling process is not the same for everyone.  In the Voices & Visions, Walt Whitman, VHS, Allen Ginsberg describes how Whitman and Poe walked the same streets of Manhattan" but "Poe was a dream-generalist, that is a philosophical dreamer, who had phantoms that he described in detail" while Whitman "could notice anything you want, and could bring in all the everyday particulars of kitchen-ware life, dock life, skyscraper life . . ."   Therefore, it seems some poets/writers, like Poe, are better dreaming or daydreaming their visions, while others, like Whitman, have to get outside to write.

Socrates, like Poe, was well-known for loving books, but not the outdoors.  It is lucky for us Socrates never discovered joys of fishing, or he likely would have spent more time casting, and less time speaking things for Plato to write -- which reminds me of something else Bly said in Ferte's class in 1987: "The trees will carry what we don't say," (perhaps a quote from another author), which is another good excuse to go fishing.

Life Force




Water Cave Near Mogollon Rim


The baby in the womb knows the language of touch,
heartbeat, silence, movement, desire,
connection, water sphere, mother, life.
I rest in the crevasse of a watery Arizona cave,
hand on my chest and breath,
meditating on the words placenta and phoenix,
the bird that rises from ashes to live again
because soon I will be born
back into the world of those who have forgotten
where they came from, where they are now
and, like all animals, where flesh is soon going.

Scott T. Starbuck, a 2013 Artsmith Fellow on Orcas Island, feels destruction of Earth's ecosystems is closely related to spiritual illness and widespread urban destruction of human consciousness. A former charter captain and commercial fisherman turned creative writing professor, his newest book The Other History, on unreported and underreported issues, scenes, and events of the 19th, 20th, and 21 centuries, published by FutureCycle Press, was reviewed in the June 2014 issue of Amsterdam Quarterly. Starbuck's other eco-poetry blog posts appear at South 85, Miriam's Well: Poetry, Land Art, and Beyond, and on his blog Trees, Fish, and Dreams.

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 Coast

I 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.