Monday, April 21, 2014

Art's Impulse


You know who they are. People I call "connectors." The ones you meet along life's path who challenge you to become your personal best, who provide encouragement in your skills as a writer and artist, who recognize the dynamics of living a creative life and show, through their own examples, how to sustain it.

That's why when Suzi Banks Baum asked me to talk about my process as a creative person, I obliged. Through the sharing of her art, poetry and life, Suzi is a master at bringing women together to share their stories of struggle, accomplishment and beauty.

Suzi is an artist, writer and full time mom who edited An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice. On her blog, Laundry Line Divine, Suzi writes about the juggling act of motherhood and creativity, and how to navigate the waters of social media for authors and artists. She hosts a blog series with guests from around the world, and provides "hands on" writing and art workshops in real time. In real places! 

Suzi lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts and I live in Alaska. We will finally get to meet in person this August at a reading of her anthology (in which I gratefully have a story) in the north woods of Marquette, Michigan. We'll also let our imaginations fly in a mixed media art workshop. 

I am a poet, writer and dabbler in painting and mixed media and this is how I work: 

Sometimes in the writing of poetry, I have an initial idea and start by "clustering" to create a portal into the mind. Gabriele Lusser Rico describes this technique in her book, Writing the Natural Way. Many natural forms come in clusters...grapes, lilacs, spider eggs...as do thoughts and images (when given free rein). The literary critic Northrop Frye said "any word can become a storm center of meanings, sounds, and associations, radiating out like ripples in a pool." To follow art's impulse is to write whatever comes to mind in the moment.

It's as simple as writing a word down on a page, and then free-associating words and ideas triggered by that word without censorship or dwelling on anything specific. Keep your hand moving for two minutes, letting words and thoughts spill out without thinking or analyzing anything. Clustering happens naturally and feels a bit chaotic as you let words radiate out from the nucleus word without judgment. 

Stop writing after two minutes, then connect the words with arrows on the page. At some point, a shift occurs and you suddenly understand what you want to write about; the subject of the piece becomes clear. Sometimes I have to repeat the process several times until the clouds dissipate and a mental shift occurs. At this point, I switch from using a pencil to writing on the computer. My poem, Trajectory, was created in this way:



                                                             Trajectory

The river doesn’t follow a straight line
pulled by the moon but roams
like a coyote
following root skin and scent.

Ice jams push sludge brown waters
(on a screaming path), uprooting
one-hundred-year-old spruce trees and
cutting the silt bank to its knees.

We count our blessings. shore up with big rocks.
muscle against the inevitable, learn
to soften and adapt.

And this summer you turned eight.
smarter. taller. faster. still freckled.
learning to skate and paint.
are you who you once were?

a fish pulled from the net slides
through my slippery hands, gulls wheel
the sky goes rust and
everything, it seems
is carved in sand.

Another way to generate poems is to create an amalgam of images, and write from the the finished product. This is also chaotic from the start, but interesting because associations may be made from the interaction of images that initially had nothing in common. I keep a big box of images: pictures cut from magazines, old postcards, greeting cards, sketches, small impromptu paintings, photographs. 

I'll take a photograph and cut out images to interlay on the photograph, and experiment to see what emerges. The image at the top of this post is one such creation. I haven't created a poem from this appropriated image yet, but I suspect when I do, it will be about any number of things: language, ancestry, the rhythm of time, lineage, Native Americans, the art that binds people of different ages, or something as obscure as salt or silence (clustered words), or it may even dip into a political realm.    

Digging through my big box of images clipped from magazines, recycled books, and drawings, I pull together possibilities. The results are often times surprising and revelatory. I didn't know I was going to write about sugar maples today! 

In the area of writing, I am currently working on a memoir about the adventures I so adamantly searched for in my 20's by making a move to Alaska, and the intersection of those experiences with my immediate family's upbringing (originating in Michigan). At the same time, I follow the intensity of poetry because it brings out strong feeling, even though often contradictory, and find it is grist for writing longer pieces of both fiction and non-fiction. 

Thank you, Suzi, for inviting me on this blog hop to share my process and introduce other writers, artists and digital media gurus to the reading public. 

Next on the list...Joanne Tombrakos. Joanne is a storyteller, marketing and sales consultant, and Professor of Digital Marketing at NYU ( www.joannetombrakos.com). 
Joanne considers herself a creative entrepreneur and she is the self-published author of It Takes An Egg Timer, A Guide To Creating The Time For Your Life and a novel, The Secrets They Kept. Joanne contributes to The Huffington PostForbesWoman and BlogHer. A two-time career reinventor, her previous incarnations included teaching in the public school system and sales and marketing positions for CBS and Time Warner. When not consulting, blogging or working on the next book she can be found indulging in dance breaks, naps and dark chocolate. 





Monday, April 14, 2014

Make Room



          Make Room

          what tall ships sailed under
          snow on these dry-blue beds

          crushed by the weight of
          heavy moons and black ground

          how many layers of bones
          lie below the lake, no

          longer shaded by trees
          of a hundred rings.

          the workers meant to catalogue
          tools, children's toys, bent eyeglasses

          digging up artifacts disguised as old comforts:
          cooking pots, woolen shawls, keepsakes

          a pentagram engraved in stone
          made sense of things, each point

          on the star given meaning for
          the purpose of solace, consolation.

          still nothing changes

          even the oldest among us don't sense
          cresting the last hill

          or waiting for the ocean
          to loosen.





Monday, April 7, 2014

Emma Hill House Concert


Let me first say this about Emma Hill. She was born and raised in Sleetmute, Alaska, a village of 100 people, give or take, on the salmon-fed upper Kuskokwim River. She's well-traveled, and has toured the world sharing her exquisite musical talents with eager listeners everywhere. And reviewers have compared her music to that of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (no, really....I'm not kidding!) 

As young as she is, Emma Hill has learned boatloads about the pains of first love (and second and third), the tragic loss of loved ones, and the rigors of being on the road in service to her art. Lucky for us it is from these experiences she so soulfully shares the rhythms of her life. 


Brian Daste and Emma Hill
But she never forgot her home ground. After living in Portland for five years, Emma returned home because she missed the land and people that made her who she is. I say this without sentimentality. Alaska...the rivers, mountains, coastlines...the sweep and scope of the place is like a character in a story, not just a point on the map. Its mystique runs deep in your heart, and holds a mighty tight grip you just can't shake. 

Emma will tell you so. She grew up singing and writing songs, and remembers sitting in the back of her Dad's Cessna  jotting down words to songs as they flew up and downriver in their travels from the village. That was many years ago, and she's still cranking out great music. Take a listen to this tribute to her uncle/pilot Steve Hill, who lost his life in a small aircraft accident. For Alaskans listening tonight, you understand. Everyone of us knows someone who has encountered the same fate in a land where airplanes are as common as taxis and buses. Emma pours out her heart with grit, grace and passion on this song titled, "A Pilot's Goodbye." 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO7DBrerdlA




House concerts are a marvelous way to get to know your favorite artists face-to-face. To enjoy their music and stories right in your own living room. As singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris once said, though she's played the world over, her fondest memories are those when she played and sang in the living rooms of friends and family, enjoying the intimacy and comfort of their homes.



Tonight Emma brought the memories of her home and life into ours, and it was indeed, a memorable show. 





Thank you Brian and Emma, and thanks to all the friends who came over to hang out with us in the living room. 

To hear more of Emma's music, click here:  http://www.emmahillmusic.com/listen/




Monday, March 31, 2014

A Blazon to Quinn-Doggy


What, exactly, you may ask, is a blazon?

A blazon is a poetic form, first appearing by the French poet Clement Marot during the 16th century.

It started out as a poetic catalogue, which lists or analyzes the virtues or attributes of a woman by defining her admirable features, and comparing her body parts (from the hair down) to something beautiful or precious.

You know, the cheesy stuff like "there is a garden in her face, where roses and white lilies grow...she has lips like coral, teeth like pearls, and hair like spun gold."

The poet deftly uses simile and hyperbole to describe a woman's physical features; regardless of how deft and romantic , it still sounds cheesy to me.

Why, even Shakespeare had it in his right mind to turn blazons into parodies...like this: "wouldn't she be ugly, monstrous even, if her breasts were really "globes", her lips "cherries"? And "my mistress eyes are nothing like the sun, if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun." 

But the blazon form has changed over the centuries. Now it is a line-by-line use of words to describe, in obvious and even obtuse ways, not only a person but inanimate items, like a mountain, a doorstep, a rock. 

Here is a blazon by Miriam Sagan, from her book, The Widow's Coat, about her husband who died too soon:

My husband in stubble, zen priest in a nicotine patch
My husband by the open grave with a handful of dirt
My husband the Jew, bleeding from uclers
My husband in ivory beads carved into skulls
A man with designer sunglasses, speeding tickets, the collected works of Han Shan
Of weight loss, skinny Auschwitz, whose new name is colitis
Whose other name means water course in Japanese
Whose name was taken from the western sycamore tree
Whose original name was changed on Ellis Island
Who began to vomit the day I kissed him
My husband who buys one pair of boots per lifetime
Who loses forty pounds, whose wrists make me hysterical, who molts, 
parakeet or polar bear
My husband who swam without his glasses towards a horizon marked by a red tanker
Who stood up and hemorrhaged rust, who wrote his initials in blood
Who coached me in childbirth, who owed me fifty dollars, who gave me a mushroom
Who moved the sprinklers, who cut up the counter with a carving knife
Who crossed his legs and sat down
Whose name was raven and anemia and something else secret
An internal organ shaped like Minnesota
Shadow, skeleton, moth owl
Sitting on a cache of eggs in the dark, city sitting on its own skyline
Empire State Building, Arc de Triomphe, Coit Tower
This curve of the world lit up by expensive 
Electricity I call husband.

The following is a blazon I wrote about my dog, Quinn:

Quinn, the Eskimo dog
who jumps for joy, drags voles from under snow
nibbles innocently on counter food, then looks up and says, "What?"
Quinn who noses plastic bags
thunder pads on ice who hates moving water
who never learned to walk or stay in one place
who sprints from wall to wall, dirtball 
an eagle eye, who roams neighborhoods chases coyotes
and if he could, would Tweet every known dog on earth
to cop a smell to chase and mount and strut his ware
Quinn alpha Quinn rabbit hops in mid air, who
chose the colors gray and sable, black
who won't be leashed, won't give slack
Quinn, the champion were he to race, ten years
going on two, he howls like wolves do, true to 
husky culture, lore
Obsessed with motion, his altar miles of space
feathers, bones, and stones he'll dig a hole to China


pull like a John Deere plow


help me skate, and even contemplate, Quinn
a curled ball within cabin walls

man's best friend and woman's too
who pokes his nose in thin fish and smoke
rarely reposed ready to go

whose scent is never hidden roving 
crashing through willow
frosted ears paws nose down under snow
                                                           yellow-eyed the root in canine-speak of
                                                           all that rises up, a squall
                                                           Quinn the silver bullet
                                                           Quinn, the mighty Eskimo
                                                           Quinn-doggy, the outlaw.






Monday, March 24, 2014

Sanctuary


The snow kept falling and ice seized as

winter pressed dark and hard 

Exhaustion mounted 

layered high as the banks of a deep river

draining your strength, dry.


Though no consolation, some say there is beauty in the breakdown

and that great movement is gained the deeper you go.

I know. 

you didn't ask to go.  had

no desire to carry the world on the slate of your back

begging for slack.


would suffering slough off, peel away, shift into freedom

someday?


I will not say that your shattered world will make you stronger

I will not impose meaning where there may be none


I will just say that structure will return

that all possibilities are fleeting

that the water will become clear again, though leave a heavy trace.


Take no ownership of this trial

put your head on my shoulder and cry, knowing 

when things fall apart


they fall back together, again, and we are left

to ask nothing, but why.







Monday, March 17, 2014

IMPACT



          They say when you come to the end of your life
          your memory reaches back to those practices 
          and traditions you learned in childhood.


          I do not know if this is true. There were only three of us aboard.

          the pilot…a woman
          flying the double prop Caravan, a bush plane.

          behind my seat: a case of fuel oil, bales of straw
          for sled dog teams, Pampers for the village babies,

          squeezed in next to me: a Native man wearing a cowboy hat
          his hatband a string of ivory beads

          carved into the head of a raven or bear.

          I twiddle a pen between my fingers
          watch the land and sea-caps drop away.

          Did I remember to bring my bathing suit, so I can
          take a steam at night with the women?

          they are modest in New Stuyhawk, though
          I don’t mind being naked.

          slow roll, pitch and dive.
          grip my pen, swallow
          hard, hard into the belly.

          a big hand is pushing
          down on us

          we can’t climb, can’t
          find calm air

          long slow breathing helps, with the
          terror.

          I am not a religious person, but
          it is time to pray now

          the air is angry.

          open my book. look.
          an orchid is pressed there

         lean down and smell it
         one last time.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Be Good and You Will be Lonesome


On a visit to my brother's home in North Carolina, I came across this photo of my mom and a couple of her sisters; I don't know who took the photo or when it was taken (perhaps early 1940's); so much of my mom's Polish immigrant story has been buried deep in the memories of her now-deceased relatives. But I'm guessing this is sometime after the second World War, and my mom (second from left) is being teased by her friends (one is pulling up her skirt) and the girls are being silly, laughing and having a great time together. There is a beautiful spontaneity and joi de vivre in their expressions. I imagine a very tight bond was formed among the neighborhood girls at a time when brothers and fathers were coming back home to their families from the hellfire of war. 

I was so focused on my mom that I missed the young girl in the top right hand corner of the photo; my first thought went to Mark Twain's quote: Be good and you will be lonesome

But then I wondered beyond that simplification. The girl appears sad and introspective; maybe she was too frightened to join in on the exuberant fun the other girls exhibited. The more I looked, the more I wondered about her; how did her life develop over the years; did she live an ordinary, pedestrian life marked by the usual joys and tragedies of simply being human? 

Black and white photos like this one are at once provocative and vividly memorable. I love seeing my mother as a young girl, before the concerns for her family and children took center stage. There is a story here, told in the absence of color, that is deeply affecting. 

A story that parallels my own in a way: growing up in a Michigan suburb with tight neighborhood friends; spending most of our time outdoors exploring streets beyond our own, climbing trees, riding bikes, playing games. Growing into self-awareness, and expanding that self-awareness beyond those in our circle of friends, to others on the sidelines who may have been too frightened or too shy to take part.


                                "Baltic Sea" (Sutkus)


I became fascinated with the work of Antanas Sutkus, a renowned Lithuanian black and white darkroom photographer born in 1939 (he still eschews digital). His series People of Lithuania is a continuing body of work started in 1976 to document the changing life and people of Lithuania. 

"I know the ordinary man; he is close to me," Sutkus is quoted as saying.

The excitement of seeing in the darkroom, for the first time, a white sheet of paper turn into an image was unforgettable and drove Sutkus to claim photography as his life's work. For him, taking pictures of conventional informality was "warming"; after working a short time as a photojournalist, he intuited a style of his own, leaving much open to the viewer's interpretation, though strongly anchored in historical time.



                                1968 

Sukus reports he discovered himself through the art of photography. He accumulated a large personal library, following the expressions of Andre Kertesz, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and others. He collected many photographic books found in antique book stores in Moscow as well as in Germany and Poland. 







Perhaps this photo of the girl and a goat's head best exemplifies his work in the rural areas of Lithuania, where living day to day meant the raising and killing of animals for sustenance. 

We are looking inside this young girl's life as she looks out the window, revealing a cold reality and perhaps dire set of circumstances, but again, Sukus leaves it up to the viewer to develop her own interpretation. What is compelling are the two sets of eyes looking straight at the viewer, unifying the idea that living a life gives way to taking a life.



Lastly, take a look at Sutkus' kinetic photograph of philosopher and novelist, Jean Paul Sartre, pushing into a headwind, perhaps, or deep in thought on the subject of existentialism and the human condition; just one of many subjects that captivated the mind of this most fascinating man.



Jean Paul Sartre

"It is shocking to see how easily snow falls outside the window..." 

...this uttered by Sutkus in reference to how long and hard he works, day and night, with an irritated brain that sometimes cannot find rest. 

In his later years, he writes how he would like to distance himself from unnecessary work and action and just rest in a simple state of being, without so much "doing." 

If there is any secret to Sutkus' long-standing success as a photographer, it would be in his easy, unadorned quote:

Love.
"You just have to love people."




Monday, March 3, 2014

On the Streets of Portland

    The Desert Room, 1950's Portland

There are many reasons to dig Portland; the first being it is only a 3.5 hour flight from Anchorage, so when you live in the middle of hicksville, PDX can brighten your weekend in a painless hop down the north Pacific coast. 

The reason we're here: to watch a live concert of our favorite band, Walk Off The Earth. It's amazing when a bunch of young people get together and just "click" with incredible talent (and they did it their own way, via the Internet, until Columbia Records figured they couldn't have orchestrated the same reach of 300 MILLION followers on U-Tube). 

I just love how technology is literally changing the face of the earth; democratizing the playing field of artists, musicians, and wannabes of all stripes and colors. Lucky for us. WOTE plays dozens of covers far better than the original artists, dare I say. And the only female band member, Sarah Blackwood, is an amazing singer/songwriters in her own right.

But back to Portland. Here is one (small) take on the "city of roses." 

We are staying at the McMenamins Crystal Hotel, a historic landmark built in 1911 that has seen many incarnations over the years, from a glove factory to an automobile tire store to a bath house and nightclub to a hotel. Lots of stories sprung from this place as everyone from jazz connoisseurs to Portland's so-called underworld stayed and played here. After the 1905 World's Fair, everybody wanted to be in Portland, including prominent businessmen, politicians and best of all, musicians. 

The walls of the hotel are covered with original artwork; each room inspired by a song or performance from the Crystal Ballroom's past 100 years. Colorfully painted murals and headboards anchor the rooms; deeply-hued walls and blue velvet drapery give it a "back in time" vibe when rock musicians, shady politicians and ladies-of-the-night roamed the halls. Over the years, the Crystal stage has been graced by the likes of Rudolph Valentino, the Grateful Dead, the Kingsmen, Black Eyed Peas, Lionel Hampton, and too many others to name. 

Plus right across the street from the Crystal Hotel is the infamous Powell's Books where you can peruse the shelves for an entire weekend and still not cover the enormity of its literary offerings.


             (Our room was Patti Smith-themed; notice the photos of "the boss" in the painting)

All the rooms have paintings of musicians, and the words from their songs written on the walls, even in the bathrooms.

And once you wrestle back the heavy velvet drapery, large windows afford views of the bustling city streets below. There's nothing quite like downtown Portland. It's iconic, kitschy, modern and a throw-back all rolled into one. 

And yes, it is sooo Portlandia. As I soaked in the 100 degree saltwater pool at the hotel, I noted 8 out of 10 people were touchingly tattooed; everyone stood out, and no one stood out in that there was plenty of body art to capture my immediate attention and hold it for a long while. 

Here are a few more paintings that graced the walls:



                                Neil Young; Buffalo Springfield


                                Lucinda Williams

And I thought you'd enjoy more of Portlandia...


                               Drag shows and...recycling, hahaha (I'm still laughing)









                                I guess you can find truth here...for real, but probably not for free.

And lastly, the reason we ventured to Portland in the first place. A great concert by Walk Off the Earth at the Crystal Ballroom. Because Husband just got a partial knee replacement and he was gimping along on crutches, they put us in the front row balcony of VIP! Wow, that was unexpected and turned out to be perfect. The band was fantastic...every single person in that ballroom sang along with "Little Boxes" and "Red Hands".  Dads had kids on their shoulders to get a better view; twenty-somethings drank their beers and cheered, 60-somethings drank their beers and cheered. We loved it. Every minute of WOTE and the downtown streets of Portland.





Monday, February 17, 2014

Constructions and Conversations

                                                                   Unknown Place

You know it when it hits you. You're stopped dead in your tracks, turning the pages, contemplating the pictures and words, wanting to know more of the artists who crafted them. I was perusing the bookstore at the Anchorage Museum, looking for nothing in particular, when Double Moon caught my eye. This was back in 2009. I bought the book on the spot, and couldn't wait to get home and sink into its contemplative matter: the artful combining of Margo Klass' constructions of found objects (she combs beaches, river banks, and junk shops for everything from old doorknobs to sticks of birch), and her spouse, writer, Frank Soos' responses to those constructions. It's rare when you receive a sudden whack on the side of the head in response to evocative art that shimmers. I keep this striking book close at hand so I can absorb the comfort of the artist's lovely pairings of "Constructions and Conversations."

A little bit about their bios before I share with you their work.

Margo's influences are derived from the study of medieval altarpieces, the art of bookbinding and the Japanese architect Tadeo Ando. Her constructions have been exhibited in galleries and private collections from Maine to Alaska. 
Frank's published works include Early Yet, Unified Field Theory, and Bamboo Fly Rod Suite. Frank and Margo live in Fairbanks, Alaska. 

"Klass often uses skylight-type panels that viewers can't completely see. The short prose pieces written by her husband, Soos, often deepen the mystery behind Klass' work, increasing the viewers level of engagement." (Juneau Empire)

So here we go...for a glimpse of a couple of Alaska's finest artists.

                                                                   
                                                             Celestial Navigation

What's so bad about not knowing exactly where you are? To round the corner and be taken by surprise? To look out the window and find a new world is waiting outside? With my driver's license safely in my pocket, I have permission to get out and go, to find a place where I might learn better who I am.


Rock Paper Scissors III


Notice the size of the scissors. We've entered the delicate phase of the procedure. 

Yes, there will still be cuts, but they will be made with greater precision. 

And the rock? Smaller, too.

Made for a more accurate aim. Will it still hurt? We haven't figured that part out yet.










                                                                      

                      Rube

Find the solution to this puzzle and the red ball will spring free. 

Then what? 

You'll have a red ball pulled loose from the tricky ins and outs that kept it running from side to side. 

You'll have a red ball with nothing left to do but get itself lost under the couch.



Long Winter

To know I've gathered enough wood for the woodpile. To be able to sit by the comfortable fire through the winter.

Shouldn't that be enough?

Left alone with my thoughts while the wind rocks the house, I hear the clock humming and find myself lacking. 

No the world doesn't ask too much. 

I offer too little.




Apparently Never


Behind that mustache and silly grin is just a guy, a guy who buys only tools with lifetime guarantees, a guy who will wear a shirt to rags and then use it for rags. 

When will it light up the tiny bulb of his brain: love is something that might lend itself to the job at hand,

that might wear itself comfortably in, 

that might grow to be a part of who he is?

     Early Snow

Remember when it snowed early that time? I think it was the fall of '92. It bent the trees still full of leaves over just like that. 

My father was in the hospital, far away, having his chest cut open, his heart repaired. That day, he almost didn't make it.

Come spring, we all thought the trees would right themselves, straighten right up. But they didn't. They never would.

If you're local, Margo and Frank's work is running through April 20, 2014 at the museum. Go see "Proximity" which includes altarpieces, box frames with found objects, and earthy handmade books.


Monday, February 10, 2014

It will be summer, always

    Gold Mint Trail, Hatcher Pass

                       
                         Today is not a day I dreamed...it will be summer, always

                          not a day I longed for tall grasses to pant and froth
                          like winded ocean waves

                          Light clears the ridge for the first time
                          in two months and

                          a vicious storm brews behind my eyes
                          (place your hand on my heart, feel the trembling)

                          something bottomless is stuck, sinking slowly but
                          never reaching the ocean floor. 

                          Up here the air is thin, the sky cerulean blue
                          not your ordinary magic (ha)

                          a pale day-moon gathers, refusing to be extinguished

                          unwarmed by a brief slant of sun
                          the wind is cold

                          so cold it burns my cheeks.

                          No more talking:  listen
                          No more pushing:  yield

                          until the mud settles

                          until the water is clear.


                                          

Note: This poem made its arrival after hiking the Gold Mint Trail at Hatcher Pass yesterday with friends. The trail was hard packed, the wind severely blowing and cold...but we were exhilarated. Sometimes just getting out and walking in the natural world banishes all that ails us.