Sunday, February 27, 2011

Friends tell me of a study. Two men, tried for the same crime. One guilty, one innocent of the crime. Both found guilty and sent to prison. The guilty guy does his time, gets off in six years for good behavior. The innocent guy ends up doing twenty years, no early release for good behavior. The wrongly incarcerated are more prone to trouble. As one might expect.

Yes, I would imagine it's hard to rise above something unjust. Or maybe I know first hand. Maybe I will try, maybe I will be able, to behave better.

Friday, February 25, 2011

You have to fight on several fronts. You work at writing when you can, work a job when you have to. There is also the mental front, finding the morale to keep writing. Occupied so, a social/sexual life becomes, in absentia, your religion, something spiritual, artistic, educational. Yes, the lines of Corinthians about love long suffering speak to the pains and longings and sufferings associated with marital stuff and being alone. No way around it, a basic reality written into existence.

Somehow, innately, you believe a wife, a partner, should appear, become a part of your life, a spiritual helper who takes care of you, your psyche's needs, your physical needs, keeps you in tune, and of course, vice versa.

The Muslim, may be, creates a society, a social order in which there are strict rules aimed at making this marriage happen, as restrictive as it may sound to the great variety of the individuals comprising the human species. In the West, may be, it's some form of economical law, older than Rome, that imposes upon you who you'll marry, how you will behave as a human, your attitude, your rank, what you can get away with, the sort of confidence you'll be allowed.

And where does love, or 'love,' fit in? You remain in your slot, as assigned by social forces, and maybe, hopefully, shining heavenly amorous stuff beams down on your existence, okay with Jesus, okay with Allah. (Maybe Buddha is too ascetic for this sort of thing.) There is the Gnostic too, the thoughts of Samael Aun Weor on the Tantric energy kept in tune through the magic of marital unions. Obviously, there are spiritual grounds for making sexual love a gift of heaven. For the sake of popularity, no religion would want to deny the joy and pleasure of it. A religion must address and make room for the concept of love.

And yet, sometimes it is the case where lovers seem the most impractical creatures, a story often honored in literature, by the way, and often as tragedy. True love versus economic condition, versus strict societal lines, versus authoritarian religious law. Negativity and bad attitudes can arise from within, and bleed out on to innocent selves.

Jesus, one enduring model of love and all it stands for, is crucified through being taken at face value, as an empire, a tyrant, would take any number of minor troublemakers who seem to cause discord and unrest in a colony. "No, forget all your words, your acts, your deep and beautiful sermons and teachings, you are being taken away," the powers of empire say, taking a prophet as a criminal against social order. (A political prisoner often has a deep love to profess and hold, like the Decembrist is a lover of Russia and her people, against the cold face value judgments of a tyrannical Tsar.)

It happens on all levels. You become your job. By face value, you are pretty much just a barman, let's say, stuck in weird hours, isolated often, not so set. We are individuals, very much so, but society can wield a force deeply judgmental, so much that it may even condemn itself and its own, as happens in a World War One. Yes, Lincoln was right. The modern battlefield is full of meaning, far beyond whatever Nationalist terms that might be said, extending completely and fully to the heart. Those who love life die by the dozens.

You get older in the meantime, and maybe you feel less energy to fight, to fight the stereotype imposed upon you (as you go about doing God's work.) The job exhausts, leaves whole days you wish not to move.

Shakespeare wrote about this stuff, the heart that knows a lovely truth but encounters the lies and selfish manipulations of the power hungry. And yes, the lady doth protest too much, finding herself torn between very practical offerings of safety and that which could be, could be, the real stuff.

They beat Christ, they mocked him, even as he loved and turned the other cheek. He carried his cross without much of a word, and he may well have wondered, 'why? what crime have I committed?' If he had somehow lived, what might his attitude have been like? He may well have gone into some form of seclusion, tolerating, every now and then, time with trusted friends, but kept himself obscure, disguised almost, shaken from nerves at remembrance of the whole thing.

Dostoevsky had the grounds for epilepsy by the time they let him out. But, for a creative man, creative seeds were planted, the clay for Karamazov, once he'd written out his experience of prison and madness. More grist for the mill, the Universe cooperating with a creative soul, nudging him on toward the big topics at the root of all. A house divided against itself cannot stand, but undivided, strangely, it's pretty darn stable and can handle a lot thrown at it.

I wonder this is one of the worst things I've written.

Money, lastly, in this jumbled piece, I've forgotten to include, can be the same as vanity. Some people perform plastic surgery on their money, and maybe it grows. Jesus was right, and poetic, with that line, 'render unto Caesar the things...' The age has proven it. To the benefit of the vain, to the detriment of the retiree who ably served society all his life, to the devastation of pensions... robbery, really. Knowingly, it was vanity that led to where we are. And, as we still love our own vanity, we still have Wall Street pulling the same crap, which puts pressure on American companies so that they must go overseas, and basically leaving a lot of victims in its wake. Madoff, well, he's just an example, and you can blame him no more than anyone else who participates in the vanity of money.

It's six am. I managed to go out and get some groceries done. I took a nap after dinner, one hard to wake up from, and now it's a weird hour again. One a barman is familiar with, a time for thinking about the absence of a rosy future a lot of people in the world have, not just America.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Good God. Jazz night at Bistrot XEZEEPEEEKK. African gentleman sits down at bar. Orders Amstel Lite, his selection out of the six beers we have. "I don't like it." Good sweet Jesus. "I want a merlot."
I've seen it often. That part of barter. The first thing they are offered. No, they don't like it.
Oh man, you learn a lot about humanity waiting on people.

Maybe it's the solar storms lately.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bathroom renovation. Dust everywhere. Bookshelves covered with plastic. Rug rolled up, workmen noise. All of which provokes me to see things a little differently.

Tucked away in a closet, a small box of Miele vacuum cleaner bags. There seems a care for the design in the box, even. Something that speaks of a culture that has reverently pursued the spiritual side of life since 'they' sprang from the woods, and before. (The same brave aesthetic that brought us Martin Luther, the Guttenberg Bible...?) I think of cave paintings as I look at the box with the diagrams of bags and instructions in seven different languages. I mean, obviously this is industrial design. It's not the same thing as Giotto's inspiration to take holy figures, previously flat, remote, not of the real actual world of light and shadow, gravity, dimension and individual personality, and breath real life into them, but... Maybe that is just the creatures own innate response to something designed well. We have a deep meaning moment. The simple joy of something made well, with great care and considerations, in its own utilitarian way, a work of art, maybe great art (as if 'when all is said and done.')

Covered with dust I retreat to straightening out my email inbox and iTunes. I listen to the first movement of Mahler's 9th. I listen to Beethoven's piano concerto no. 3. I hear in Beethoven for maybe a moment or two--this is just me--all the women he would have made love to, silly as that sounds, I know. But there is a passion there. There is a reverence. There is something we could call spirituality. There is something in play which makes us better human beings, less likely to be inconsiderate of another's effort to live, kinder, anticipating decency in what we come across.

Does one sense, say, in Kerouac, a kind of inspiration of a deeply religious man, serious about his art, one in keeping with the Catholic background, practicing or not, a sensibility... Well, yes, I think so. And we can see it in his transcription of the life of Buddha, Wake Up. A reverence toward the human species' attempt to understand why we are all here and that sort of things.

That's what goes into good books, just as in good music, painting and little boxes for the proper kind of vacuum cleaner bag. A personal sense of preserving the spiritual of things.

Ah, yes, but we all know, it can hurt to be reverential, hurt to care about something and place deeper meanings within. And in your own passion for making that which is religious into something deeply personal, you run the risk of being taken as a bit mad (as was Van Gogh.) No? Or maybe that speaks about the nature of heresy. "No, you got to do it our way." No one has exclusive ownership over the right to make art, nor the right to prevent its creation, arguments over obscenity and inflammatory statements, racism, Hitlerism, harmful stuff, violence, put aside for the moment, of course.

Friday, February 18, 2011

{All writers write crap sometimes.  I'll temporarily hold off on deleting this immature embarrassing late night ramble.}

Washington, D.C., is weird, weird, maybe, and maybe in the same way, as Ancient Rome. Surprise surprise.

A further surprise: Washington, D.C., runs on arrogance. It is run by people (Capitol Hill stuff, I mean) who think highly and unquestioningly about themselves, who size you up and use you for whatever you can be used for. Charm is a weapon, yes, of theirs, but also their innate grasp of where you fit into the economy.

Now that is all well and fine and to be perfectly expected, but there is one small problem. The arrogance of holding, or pretending to hold, power gives rise 100% of the time to equally cold and arrogant people wanting their share, and more, of power. One form of arrogance begets another, and so on. The Tea Party is only the latest example of the long line of the Robbespierre-like arrogant back and forth.

How many Washington people ever step out of the cycle? How many ever acknowledge arrogance as a systemic endemic problem? How many are willing not just to point the finger at the next guy, and like old Dick Nixon try to 'screw him.'

"When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry teaches him of his limitations." Yeah, old JFK said something like that once, not long before he went to Dallas.

But that's something you might know only if you watched stuff like Public Television (or were insane enough to search through the most obscure blogs.) And the Tea Party, as you know...

We all end up in nursing homes, listening to the guy in the next bed having a dialog with himself. "You shut up. No, you shut up." Back and forth.
Folks, poet Garrick Davis has done it. His latest, I assume, Terminal Diagrams, is an astounding literary accomplishment. Some 34 poems along with some pertinent notes I confess helped me to navigate this Kubrick-esque terminal I walked into when I started reading them. I find myself drawn to them at that hour known by the farmer, the middle of the night, the middle of the sleep cycle when a man gets up to check on the livestock, to have an hour of activity before feeling calm again. These are not calm times. The creature still wants to get up 4 hours in to the night, if only to have a glass of milk, a beer, to listen to everyone sleeping, to enjoy, for an urban moment, silence. That is one way this correspondent deals with high anxiety.

This little book is a reading experience. Like, to a lot of people, Birthday Letters, they might read hard at first try, and not seem that poetic. (Too many readers immersed in too much theory will dismiss the Hughes series. It takes someone down to earth to say, 'well, at least he could have written good poems," to honor his wife. That is a critique I do not at all agree with, and would think that only a writer without sin, such not existing, could think such a thing. Yet, one of the finest critic of our times, as far as I know, agrees, not seeing much poetry... but that is gossip, and I'll shut up.) But these poems of Mr. Davis render up their poetic justice and the terms of their language to the psyche of whatever medieval modern serfdom we have found ourselves in, and maybe these poems identify some of the powers that be and exist quite beyond our control.

Mr. Davis has aimed high. He has brought us a natural experience akin to listening to a voice from the early blossoms of our childhood from when we first listened to discourse, enjoyed whatever form of salon we could find in humble teenage form, listening to a respected buddy, or reading Mark Twain's alter ego's voice.

Terminal Diagrams is the first poetic experience I've had in a long time, and not reading a voice of the past, honoring a Larkin, an Eliot, or even a Dryden (thank you, W.H. Pritchard) but man of our own times, who has expressed our experiences in fresh language. I cannot say enough about their perfection, a vision matched to earth and words.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Okay, I'll have to try this quickly. Your correspondent wanders into a writing conference. The highlight of the program Joyce Carol Oates reading from memoir, the events surrounding her husband's death. Wow. Real. Someone like you and I.

Then there was other stuff. My unnerved bowels are blindsided by a reading of New Directions Poetry droning over the sound system in a big conference room the size of the deck of an aircraft carrier, as one introduction put it. That I escape this reading to seek the solace of a rest room epitomizes the awkward feeling attached to being present. (I later find out, basically this is a class reunion for MFA grads, teachers, this from the nice young woman kind enough to talk to me, who was very cool. She was married.) I wander at the edges, investigate the book fair booths down in the basement of the Marriot Wardman Hotel, small presses, poetry publications, MFA programs, and so on. It should be noted, by the way, as far as New Directions poetry, that I've enjoyed my copy of Susan Howe's "My Emily Dickinson."

The second day, I sleep in. I run the dishwasher through, and miss panel discussions on various topics, but make it eventually and pass through the book fair again, (getting up there with a leisurely walk passing over Connecticut Avenue Bridge with the mist over the woods below, that nice breathing space of Washington DC that is Rock Creek Park.) And once that is done--they're all packing up anyway by the time I get there--having no desire to enter the bar area of the Stone's Throw Restaurant (where barkeeps move at a pace keeping with their union status), I go find a table and pull out the old yellow legal pad, my instrument of choice in this long battle of attrition or whatever it is, not really a battle...

When you're alone in a place where everyone seems to know people, that's as good a time to write as any. I write a bit, finally feeling restored to some feeling of groundedness, or maybe, why I too belong to this tribe that is upstairs mingling, cool haircuts, funky clothes, hip attitudes, social intelligence, artistic archetypes like the guys who look like Chuck Close.

It occurs to me, the correctness of the vision of my own little obscure book, a copy of which I'd brought along like a security blanket. And amidst writing, I pull it out and read, letting words I wrote washing over me. And here, I begin to run out of time to explain. Let me try: sorrow, the sad feeling that hovers over a notebook when there are people around enjoying themselves, really is the key to opening up the Universe in all its beauty. (All this is at the risk of giving up a great trade secret, but... ) That sorrow is a layer, an atmosphere, a condition we must enter into and spend time in, pay our respects to. And we are rewarded, oddly enough, by being able to enter, at least for a time, into the natural form of peace we somehow know instinctively and organically about, natural truth, let's say. And by the way, we have a wonderful system, kind of like checks and balances, of our nervous system to guide us toward the light, if you will. So did the creature invent soothing activities, satisfied with the invention of music and painting and words. Completely natural for us to write, as a way of maintaining our nervous balance, as Kerouac, natural athlete, knew as well, just like catching a football, don't need to think about it.

There is no avoiding the fact that life is full of sorrows, and things like loneliness. We go about life with our bullet holes and our bleeding wounds. Now and again a writer, like Joyce Carol Oates, will bring forth a life episode that captures the general condition, as she did with the hospital scenes of her husband's illness.

We try to shake away from that truth, to cling to a somewhat selfish belief that there is another way than passing through such things. Can't blame anyone. We all do it. But as a writer, you're not doing anyone any favors lying to them that life is perfect sustained happiness. That we are created human beings is enough that we'll always have some companionship in our condition. One reason I've never really minded the dreary task of tending bar, or whatever other dreary things without glory we pass through, striving to maintain some form of elegance.

By the way, all the greats have a good handle on this basic observation upon the fibers permeating existence. All we do is marked upon by failings, and that calls for some kindness, one form of that being making certain observations. And so we write, a kind of simple gospel about a real living person, such as we observe in our own lives.

And with that, time to get ready for work.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

I've been reminded of Joyce lately, custodian, guardian, protector of human mind and language.
Great literature aspires to be common, of the people, grandly non-judgmental, capturing the ways of humanity, not residing within experience of a particular sort set apart as special and exclusive, but speaking for the intelligence belonging to all.

One has the sense, with Ulysses, of he got the whole thing, he got the whole fish and brought it back whole. He got the whole thing. He did try chucking the whole thing in the fire, but his wife snatched it back out of the fire maybe only an outer page or two was lost. The rest of us writers share that feeling of Hemingway's, of having found something wonderful and marvelous out in the experience of the world, but of arriving back at the place where you show things with but a broken crumpled piece of it there in your drunken arms to show. As if to do little but make a case for the fragility of art.

One wonders too if Joyce was able to channel an excess of L-dopa, that neurochemistry happening in the cortex that in excess produces schizophrenia and the schizophrenic tendency to ramble on with meaningless words. Which is not to take away at all one iota of Joyce's accomplishment, as the brain is a balancing act we shoot for on a daily basis as the sun flashes across the sundial in beaten rhythm. That may be what a lot of human beings who write are trying to achieve, a kind of inner innate chemical balance. Some find it in society, like New Yorkers do, shutting people off completely unless they happen to want something someone else might be able to provide in way of material or ego goods or some other form of sustenance. Some exercise. Some write.

Yes, Mr. Joyce, the wonderful problem of being a writer is really not knowing how to turn it off, for there are always words, there is always flow underneath, the flow of thinking. (Hamlet grows weary of them at one point, as if they were driving him to the point of exhaustion, but on he rides, on top of the current again, words, words, words.) The problem is not a lack of words, but, as Ulysses shows us--and it will be one of those great acts of art, like the cave paintings of Lascaux, the creature leaves behind to reveal its humanity--the wonderful excess.

This is why writing classes, which tell us to edit, and chop, and cut, are to prose and the brain's workings, rather like cutting the hind legs off of an animal like a favorite dog or cat or cow. Hemingway twitches in horror at it, and knew it to be like 'killing one's favorite children' to get rid of something, and could only sleep at night knowing of some iceberg effect, that in the reader would still see the missing limb as if it were bumping up against him as he read. And Hemingway had a brain that was full of short clipped telegraphic sentences that meant so much to him, so that he could write, "Nick sat there," let's say, and it was startling, hair-raising and chock full of stuff. He was a deeply sensitive person, I would guess, I mean, just the way his chemistry worked, the way he saw and cared about things. And again, here's a fellow with a huge sense of the wonder of the world, found, say, in the morning in a cafe with the waiter sweeping, and knowing that agonizingly you can only bring back just a little bit of it.

(There can be a kind of insider snootiness in those who preserve a professional life in the so-called writing/literary world? Unfortunately there is no choice for some, that they must be professional writing teachers, and so must set themselves apart as being worthy of the job. Can't really blame 'em. But still, there's attitude. Like you and I can't write a poem just off the tops of our heads, 'not a real poem at least.' Or as Scott Turow was overheard saying, something like 'well, we professionals actually do the work of writing:' off stage suggesting that his efforts are set apart from all the rest of you amateurs, who can only pretend... A certain self-congratulatory vibe within that, as if he were subconsciously defending himself, knowing the pasteurized cheese quality to the plot-driven best seller. But that's me, who pretends at least, or fancies himself, to have a certain democratic belief that writing is 'of, by and for the people.' Yes, I think that's the real reason I came to Washington, out of some belief that a governing system should provide for the writing effort, as it should foster all beneficial things, maybe under the 'support the general welfare' clause. Government has, I hope anyway, been oddly supportive, at least at times, of great writing, giving a Lincoln, a Kennedy, a chance to write and read out loud. Ahh, but that is a particular kind of writing. Still, though, I don't see a great difference between a Lincoln, a Jefferson, and a Kerouac, rather a genetic similarity down to a great portion of the last few tiny DNA strands.)

The fellow who wrote about the foul excess of memoirs out there in the book market recently in the Sunday New York Times Book Review is barking up the right tree. To me, to my eyes, he is saying that some people write books about--at least they themselves think so--a particular set of experiences, like having an autistic sibling for instance. They have some notion that this particular experiences entitles them with a right to share... along with certain sense of self-importance , no? Such a writer has got it wrong. It's not some grand event that gives one a right to be a writer. Being human, that is what gives one a right to be a writer. The creature will walk down a street, and it's the reflections, the meanings and shades of relevant things he or she brings out, maybe imposes upon them a little bit, it's the thoughts that make a book and make a book readable. You don't have to go to the moon. You could just go to Dublin. And Joyce says it himself, that in the particulars of Dublin there is the universal, no, the Universal, and all the cities in all the world.

Okay, maybe a certain kind of writer admits some kind of bias. And I admit, I wrote one of those books, one of those books that someone could look at and say, 'hmm, looks like another one of those memoirs about a perfectly unremarkable experience, and on top of that, delusion!' If that's all a particular sort of reader would see in it, fine, that's just the way that particular reader is. But I didn't write what I wrote out of some notion the plot was terribly important. All I wanted to capture was the thinking, the thoughts of the creature as he goes about some little time at college. It really has very little to do with, I would argue, that which we would traditionally call plot, very little to do with the particulars. The particulars are only weird occurrences, just markings of the fiber of the universe like the fibers and grain pattern in wood or meat, just strange semi-random but in a certain light meaningful events, as Buddha poetically says it's all a dream anyway. The focus in on the observations a person may make. A book should portray a success of interpreting things in a way that is fresh, unique, maybe even illogical to the circumstances. Like Quixote, who fails to see things logically, but who succeeds in getting us to see things a bit differently. Yes, maybe there are worse things than siding with the failures of life.

Okay, sure, sure, there's a girl in it. There are his teachers, the usual mix of things that happen in a certain time of life we are lucky if we are able to get in the first place, etc., etc.. There's a kid, the central character, who likes the girl, who is in some way trying to be a good student, but in some ways, I don't know... has the unique and uncannily perfect ability to mess things up? I dunno. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who absolutely cringes at having to write a little statement for the sake of the back dust cover, about what the whole thing is about. Ugh.

"Now this song is nearly over. We may never find out what it means," Shane MacGowan economically pens the line in a song called "Rainy Night in Soho." A perfect line. A line with an awareness of Joyce, who, as Mr. MacGowan points out in "A Drink With Shane MacGowan," a very fine book, had a fine tenor singing voice.

Any book these days, maybe mine as much or moreso as any, stands to teeter off the edge into perfect oblivion, a memoir of a perfectly boring subject, one more upon the scrap heap of vastly forgettable memoirs (and-why-not-tell-us-about-something-actually-useful-and-applicable-and-interesting-and-a propos of the times, like-memoirs-of-Cairo-and-my-life-as-secret-bartender-of-the-Islamic-Brotherhood. Huh? Not this stupid shit about some mucky daft college kid going on about his woe-is-me difficulties as he goes on a stroll through the happy pastures full of opportunities and nubile college girls and endless supplies of beer. Go out into the real world, kid, and then tell me your story, you little fop. Ehh, not so easy, is it, you spoiled little prick who thinks he's got something grand and important to contribute to Literature.)

But there is Ulysses. And the genre of the bildungsroman of an artist, as Joyce took and ran with, with his Stephen, his hero, on into attempting one of the great works of the Twentieth Century, a time blessed with modernism a person of our times might feel envious of. C'est la vie.

Yup, a writer goes out there and tries to drag back a piece of something he found grand and whole and remarkable, worthy and significant. And all he brings back, can bring back, is, well, a mortal version. Hemingway would never let on The Old Man and the Sea had a parallel to a writing life. Maybe it says something about him that he would never admit that, as if he simply preferred to maintain a simply clear 'fuck off' message to communicate to all 'critics' and leave it at that. Or maybe he was saying, I am a writer, without even to have to think about it, with there being never any possibility of his being otherwise. Yes, it would have been for him like spelling out one of those very tedious 'here's what this is about, plot, etc.' statements for a back cover of a long and wonderful work of written art.

Well, (shrug), it's kind of like Ulysses, that story, the Greeks called it The Odyssey. What does it mean? Who knows. Maybe it doesn't mean anything.