Friday, February 18, 2011

Poetry Jam #6

I'm not sure why, but my poetry backlog is about a year and a half deep.  It's not that I write all that many: they tend to come in spurts, and I can go months without writing any.  But when I do, I write a lot, and then I sit on them, until time and distance have forced me to reinterpret them in a new light.  Actually, that sounds like a good justification.  Let's go with that.

Anyway, a year and a half is far too deep, so I'm going to post a whole bunch of poems today.  Hope you all like them!  If you don't, I hope you don't hate them?

A Dark Soul

I detest, I deplore, I degrade, I desire,
I denounce, more than that, I do loathe and conspire,
I hate, and through hate I seek to empower,
To denigrate, self-destruct and inspire
The same wretched impulse to hate and to hurt,
I feel pain, I inflict, I instruct in the worst

I delight in the lack of delight that I feel,
I neglect, I attack, and I feel I must kill
To justify living and breathing at will,
I murder and I lash out, I instill
My fear in the eyes of the weak of the soul,
I am dead, I break down, I would bury the world.

Fire and Water

Fire and water, opposite powers,
Water consumes the flame,
But break it down into its parts
And fire will stand to gain

For oxygen and hydrogen will
Make it burn the brighter,
Until they will exhaust themselves
And likewise starve the fire

The fire will burn itself to ashes,
The rain will fall again,
The ashes make the stuff of life,
From mud it will begin


The question of substance is pressing against me,
I brush my hand against your skin;
The theory has been that our bodies are different,
I wonder why that has been

The weight of the world and the life in your whisper,
The carbon and water and blood,
The eyes of the children who've grown into adults,
They see, they are blind, they love

Regardless of whether the question is answered,
The flesh will remain here at hand;
I wonder whether we're different at all,
You answer as best as you can.

Call Them to Breathe

Call them out to breathe the vapors of the morning
And recall the scent into the evening meal
With the vegetables and entrees of the table,
Thus enhanced by the memory of waking
And the gratitude of making
A space within the universe,
To live and not to be disturbed
By ever aging discontent,
We will be happy to have kept our good perspective
And we'll spare ourselves the worst of our invective
And convert it to its harmless, inert state;
When we have the wisdom to accept our standing
We can stand to face our own uncertain fate

Experiment: Blank One

Beneath the tunnels, underground a monk
laments the cosmic crack, which split the Earth
and drained the seas into the yawning wound
of time, a wound that heals but never mends,
and only he can see the scar that marks
the catastrophic site.  He sees it in
his mind, because his mind is ravaged by
disease; what seems like simple truth to him
is madness unadorned.  The doctors all
agree that this would best explain his mental
state, and give him pills to calm him down;
his sons and daughters bring him home, to dream
his nightmares all alone.

The world ends in lonely minds that lack
the vision or perspective of their youths,
and cannot be retrieved or saved.  The world
simply disappears, where reason fails
to give it form; and without form it
sublimates, as gas escapes and leaves behind
the yawning wound of time.  The living one
becomes a monk, though he has never taken
orders or received a solemn cloak;
his brain is cloistered in the nothing and
the key is locked inside a chest.

Prison Piece

Wandering in rows and numbers are the people
Who are caught up in the larger system,
They rely on lights and signals to survive the
Maze, they stumble into walls and prisons,
From the borders of the body
To the limits of the soul;
If the fences were much higher
They would swallow humans whole

All the while I am here, waiting for the signal
To be sounded by whatever sounds it,
Wondering if noise or light bulbs will announce it
Or, if I will know it when it passes;

Water flows into the body
And the plasma to their hearts
With the spark that makes a heartbeat,
And the wheel of freedom starts.

After Noon

So much for the patch of blue sky,
Now obscured by rainy clouds;
The sky is wet with shady vapor,
So much for the afternoon.

You cannot tell the day from night,
Except that daytime has no moon;
The winter overcomes the fall
And brings the evening very soon,
You stumble headlong at a lamppost,
In the dark, hours only after noon.


I am red
In tooth and claw,
Within my mind;
My nails are short and soft from wear,
My teeth off-white and round;
Within my mind
I'm thirsty, brutal,
I am red
In tooth and claw,

And now I see,
My eyes are burnt by morning air,
I hear the din and sound
Beneath the fog,
I am encumbered;
I am red
In tooth and claw,
I can't be stopped,
I give a deadly, deadly stare;

My eyes fall on the ground
And gather dirt,
It irritates me;
I am red
In tooth and claw,
Through dust I crawl
In search of muddy, bloodened fare
From cold and rainy ground;
I am afraid

I wander, mumbling,
Am I red
In tooth and claw?
I wonder still;
My back is straight from standing there,
I spring at sudden sounds;
I shudder at
The thought of that,
Am I red?

I am red
In tooth and claw
Within my darkest dread and drear;
I taste the iron in my soul
And cry with salt-less fear.

Just What Are You Asking Me?

Give me a blank sheet with none of this scribbling,
And see that I don't go mental or crazy,
I can't take this shit right now, I can't,
I can't take it anymore, I can't,
Give me an empty space in the writer's room
To fall asleep with my pencils,
I can't take this right now.

A Poem About a Fire

Fire, burning indiscriminate,
Children inside, outside, where?
Tears of youth at such destruction,
Baying hounds; for us, despair.

Dimming Blue

If your sparkling eyes were water
They would splash across my shoulder
On the bridge above the river;
As my heart was turning over

And my fingers felt your sweater,
While a chill wind made them eager,
I would bless the pleasant weather,
Hold you tight and not let go,

Would you kiss me in the sunlight?
I would follow you forever;
If you led me back to Earth and
To the warmth of your embrace,
If you fell upon the flowers
I would fall beside your body;
If the rain should start to fall then
We should hurry home with haste;
I wouldn't hesitate to follow you
Until the skies were dimming blue,
Then you would follow me.


Sing, Jingo, sing your heart out,
Sing to your adoring flock,
Everything will soon be settled
By a song, no time for talk!

Sing Jingo, to the millions
Who admire your every word,
Sung with anger, fire and sulfur,
Cry and shriek, you noble bird!

Jingo, you can see for miles
Underneath the northern lights,
Jingo, you can sing for hours,
A single song for every night

Sing, Jingo, sing your sorrow,
Cry yourself at night to bed;
A cup of tea will surely help your
Peace of mind, your troubled head

Jingo, you must raise the beacon
Of the city on a hill,
And salt the Earth, let it be salted
With the blood of those we'll kill.

Inspirations of Joan Miró

I see you, blood and darkness,
Thorn and thimble, eyes in azure night,
The crescent affirmation
Purple heartstrings, birds in violet flight
I want to close my eyes and fall asleep,
Revolution opens, shatters, tears the streets,
Within me, within reason
Such a pity to be lost in sound,
The horse and fish and monster
Tear my center, pieces all around
I want to close my eyes, I fell to dreaming,
Revolution, Revolution on the streets.


Barcelona by the ocean,
Trilobitely resplendent,
She is resting by the sunny ocean side,
Resplendent by the ocean shore,
And sinking to the ocean floor:

A la Rambla, to the sands of
Beaches under Spanish skies,
She is basking in the shadow of the hills,
Diagonal to ocean waves
And gazing up to sunny days,

Resplendently she gazes up
And sees her fleeting borrowed time
With her gift of second sight,
The Barcelona Trilobite.

The Sea-Elf

I woke in love, and loving one who'd gone
Away beneath the silver setting sun
While singing in a voice of ice and storm
"The moon is up, the skies are lit,
The fire is out, the frost is come,"
To Elvish lands the dreaming girl had gone,
The Elf girl of the ocean's sighing song

Although to her I knew I did belong,
She left me stranded in the sand alone;
To Elvish lands the dreaming girl had gone,
And I could never hope to bring her home.

Drowning in the Fire

Fountain, fountain
Mountains in the water
Rising up through smoke and fumes and fire,
I am choking on my indecision,
Drowning in the dying tombs and pyres
I am burning inside out and through,
I don't know what to say to you
The words aren't even coming through

Fountain, fountain
Bubbling in the laughter
Crashing into stone and brick and marble,
You don't know the things that I am thinking,
Rushing through the channels, streams and brain cells,
A flaming river, blazing blue,
I'm drowning at the thought, it's true
Just tell me what I have to do.

Water Tower

It was midnight on a hilltop
And I couldn't see the stars,
They were hidden by a hazy bank of clouds;
The horizons were a fuzzy orange tint
From the shining of the lanterns on the street,
And it stretched across forever
At the end of time, the end of the world
Without a soul in sight,
You could almost call it night.


When you touch her pale skin,
Then the world stops turning round
And you scarcely hear a sound
While your heart is beating loud

And you wonder where you've been,
Who has lost what you have found?
And you wonder this aloud
Though your lips are tightly bound.

Thursday Night

I had a dream about you late at night,
And I thought you had been crying
Since you had that crying look in your eyes;
We were in the smokeless section
Of a lighted outdoor bar,
But the smokey air was blocking out the lights

You told me things I knew could not be true,
And I'd say that you were lying
If I weren't lying down in your eyes;
We were feeling slightly tipsy
When I bought another drink,
And I took the words you told to be the truth

Beneath the lamps your hair was shining bright,
And I'd give up half a lifetime
Just to catch the quickest glimpse of your thighs;
But it was the loudest section
Of a crowded outdoor bar,
And I barely got to look you in the eyes.


They say Kayla was an acrobat
Who wore an open cloak and laughed at death,
And if you asked her, she'd say yes;
She'd go sailing through the circus tent
And hear the laughter everywhere she went,
And she would send them each a kiss

They say Kayla was an honest girl,
Her cape was speckled blue and green and pearl,
But then her eyes were apple red;
I saw her leap in Brandenburg,
She vaulted up above the crooked world,
And when she landed I was sad

Kayla was an aeronaut who never flew away,
Kayla stayed and gave her smile away;
Kayla was an argonaut who couldn't sail away,
Kayla smiled and gave herself away

They say Kayla was an open book
And anyone at all could take a look,
And if you asked her, she'd say yes;
She would cast aside her precious cloak,
She'd stand before the world, all alone,
And if you asked her, she'd say yes.


I'm not really sure what I was trying to do with the first seven of these.  Dark Soul is a character piece, a sort of diagnosis of negativity in the world.  I also liked the euphony of all those negative verbs.  Blank One is not so much a poem as a rambling example of blank verse.  I seem to have been trying something with the rhythms of the other ones, and for the life of me I can't remember what that was.  There were several other poems from this same period: approximately July to December of 2009.  Those others were not very good at all, so I didn't include them here.

But Red, that's where things get interesting!  I don't know why, but starting grad school in January of last year was a very fertile time for me in terms of poetry writing.  I like writing things that include internal contradictions, and Red is just like that.

A Poem About a Fire and Inspirations of Joan Miró are both essentially the product of my showing off in front of my classmates, and were written spontaneously in response to classroom prompts.  The first I must give partial credit for to my friend Jeff Martin, who is a genius and deserves kudos for anything tangentially related to him.  Inspirations, on the other hand, was written as part of an activity where we responded to abstract paintings; mine was a work by Catalan surrealist Joan Miró.  I can't find an image of the specific painting I responded to, but here's a gallery of his crazy, crazy stuff.

Jingo is a political poem.  In a sense, it is easy to understand, but it is also kind of obtuse and weird and really bad.  I guess I decided a Jingo was a kind of songbird?  Oh well.  Back in early 2010 a certain politician of a certain political party was making noises about how we should invade Iran or not sign a nuclear weapons treaty or some nonsense.  Mockery was needed: mockery in verse, no less.  There is an alternate final stanza that references the Mayan Apocalypse meme in connection with the next Presidential election.  I am not sharing it with you.

Trilobita is a ridiculous poem.  I know I promised not to do any more ridiculous poems about trilobites.  I couldn't help myself.  It just sounds so GOOD!

The Sea-Elf is inspired, as you might guess, by Tolkien; specifically by a biographical work on Tolkien I was reading at the time.  Tolkien is one of my favorite authors and I assumed that he'd probably had an influence on my writing in some way, but I wasn't really cognizant of what it was.  I wrote something touching on one of his favorite themes in order to try and solve the riddle.  It didn't work, and I still don't know what aspect of my writing is Tolkien-esque, but I think the poem is pretty.

Some of these poems, including Dimming Blue, Thursday Night, and Kayla, are vaguely erotic in nature.  I'm not in the game of writing *that* kind of poetry, but I do think that it's good to spread out into unfamiliar and uncomfortable terrain.  I think I was also trying some kind of weird metrical trick in Thursday Night, and it came out kind of muddled.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The End of the World

Modern science tells us that the world is a large sphere, and mathematics makes plain that on the surface of a sphere there is no edge.  One cannot walk across the edge of the Earth as if it were flat, or even as if it were a cube, because there is simply no edge to be found.  Perhaps you'll come across a high cliff and think that it must surely be the edge of the world.  But you'll discover your error when you reach the bottom and realize that it's not a true edge; the sphere is just a little bumpy.  It is a peculiar property of the area of a sphere, that it can be so finite and yet never come to an angle or a limit.

Without a doubt there is no edge of the world, but there is most certainly an end to it.  It's not a gaping, menacing hole, or an imposing cliff, or any sort of extra-dimensional void.  The end of the surface of the world is to be found on a California highway, and only if you should be so unfortunate as to find yourself there under the most distressing of circumstances.

Most people pass over the end of the world without incident, saved from destruction by the miracle of the automobile, which whisks them along at a mile a minute or more, leaving only time to briefly gaze at the scenery on either side of the road.  At rush hour when the movement of cars is much slower (or perhaps halts altogether) you can perceive it a little more, when you feel like you've always been there and that you are never going to leave.  But when your car starts moving again and you are once again driving towards your destination you forget all about it.  The truth is that the end of the world just doesn't matter when you're moving fast enough, or when you're far enough away.  It has little to offer to the life of a man or a woman engaged in some business, and its menace is restricted to its immediate location, so that a person is entirely removed from dread once he's gotten far enough away in either direction.

The end of the world has a power though, which neither science nor mathematics can explain; nor can the automobile preserve a person from in its entirety.  No one knows why or when or how, but every so often it will claim a soul who wanders to the end of the world without the benefit of the shield his fellows enjoy.  Perhaps his car breaks down and he has no choice but to sit on the shoulder and await rescue.  Or perhaps, even more inexplicably, he finds himself on the unfortunate spot having arrived there on foot.  Once there he may not remember how he arrived, or what possessed him to come.  Nevertheless, it is late afternoon, and he walks along the side of the road at the end of the world.

Strange things have a way of happening to people under these conditions, unless they should be rescued by a compassionate motorist.  Left to his own devices, the unlucky person on the shoulder of the road will eventually either leave or vanish, through processes that are completely unknown.  Nobody, after all, can experiment in a laboratory with the forces native to a place such as this.  When rescue seems remote, the unlucky traveler must walk in whatever direction will lead him to civilization as quickly as possible.  Whether he succeeds is not under his control.

If cars are on the road at all, they drive by with no heed to the pedestrian.  Nobody, after all, wants to stop on the highway before they reach their destination.  Afternoon falls to evening, and if the person has not made significant progress, he can expect his wide open prison cell to begin to toy with his mind.  The billboards will expand, even as they fade to a featureless gray.  The cars will accelerate, and occasionally honk for no reason.  If the landscape could be said to have any life in it before, it will all drain away.  It is no illusion or trick of the light.  At the end of the world, the laws are very, very different.
At some point, the experience will drive the person mad, with rage at his predicament, with fear at his isolation, with profound regret at his not having tried hard enough to escape.  But if he reaches this stage, then his madness is wasted.  He's reached the end of the world, and when he gets there nothing matters any more.  All the truths he's been taught, about love and God and commerce and motion, are as nothing before the end, and who is to say how much weight they held even in the beginning?  At what point the madness consumes him and he disappears forever is unknown.  There are no witnesses to the disassembling of the mind, and the disappearance of the body always occurs just out of sight.  It is only after the end that the rest of the world takes note of something missing.  But nobody wants to stop in the middle of the highway, so the search is short-lived.

This fate is a rare one.  Mankind's genius and invention allow him to travel great distances and move from one end of the road to the other with little difficulty.  For the lucky person, the end of the world is of no consequence.  For some, it represents nothing more than a vague feeling of strange unease as they traverse a road that by all rights should be familiar.  Only the most unlucky will lose their footing,  fall off the road and tumble into the end of the world.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Art, the Artist, and the Reduction of Both

In Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, a university student called Victor attempts a daring act of creation.  His goal is nothing less than the exact duplication of the form and content of a human being; and what's more, to do it from inert matter.  Frankenstein is science fiction, and Victor's goal has traditionally been depicted as scientific in nature, either admirably or not.  But the same goals have been attempted, piecemeal, in a different context by artists of every generation.  It is the root of all depictions of the human body in sculpture and pigment.  It is also the root of poetry and philosophy, as well as all other attempts to define in words or symbols the nature of the human soul.

He expressed it in terms of chemistry, but Victor Frankenstein's ambition was artistic.  In fact, it was the perfect representation of the creative principle in art.  For millennia, artists had to settle for the consolation of evoking humanity's qualities.  The primary drive of the mad student was to do what had never been done before: to fully recreate man, rather than to merely evoke him.

Unfortunately for Victor, although his experiment was a material success, it was a conceptual failure.  In building a human being, Victor created an independent mind as flawed as its creator's.  He looked upon his magnum opus and found him ugly; when he encountered the creature again, he had grown violent and uncontrollable.  In aiming for a perfect creation, Victor Frankenstein deconstructed humanity and reconstructed a monster.

It is probably possible, in physical principle, to give life to a creature such as Frankenstein's.  With proper regard to medical ethics, the worst consequences of that creation could be avoided.  Shelley's novel isn't exactly a prescient warning for us not to try (or if it is, it's not an absolutely convincing one).  It speaks more generally as a commentary on the nature of creation, as a reminder that a creative act is inherently limited; that the dream come true bears little resemblance to the dream itself.

But what is especially fascinating to me about Frankenstein extends beyond the mere words that Shelley wrote.  In the collective imagination, the name “Frankenstein” conjures the hulking creature, not the ambitious young chemistry student to whom the name rightfully belongs (his identity has shifted over the years, so that he is more often remembered as an elderly baron).  Likewise, it is impossible to discuss Mary Shelley without alluding to Frankenstein; it was the author of the book that gained cultural immortality, not the woman herself.  I believe that something of the nature of all art is reflected in Shelley's case: that just as producing a work of art requires a conceptual reduction from an ideal or inspiration, the act of production reduces the artist into an abstraction.

The Purpose of Art
It would be very controversial to try and identify, once and for all, the purpose of art: the one, true reason why people are inspired to create impractical objects of aesthetic or intellectual significance.  For that matter, the results of that sort of project are invariably blasé.  If you think too generally, then the “purpose” is meaningless.  If you think too specifically, you fail to account for the majority of what other people consider art, and your explanations are once again meaningless.  And if you get lucky and hit it right, then your thesis can take its place with all the other plausible theses, and become collectively meaningless.  So before I do identify, once and for all, the purpose of art, I'd like to apologize for trying.  Call it an irresistible impulse.

When I thought recently on the meaning of art, I began with what was personal.  I knew what I liked about art, and that was the way that it unifies something in my brain.  We speak about intellect and emotion as being separate and opposing forces, but in the presence of great art, I know instinctively that it isn't true.  The pure delight that comes with the recognition of craft and intention, and that strange state of mind where answers and questions circle each other without knowing who goes first; you can't describe these in terms of intellect or emotion alone.  It's like a psychic conflict resolution, or a hint at how things are really supposed to be.

Chasing that sensation can be a thrill, and it's genuinely distressing when your mind is less than receptive to it, whatever your desire might be.  But the moment is infinitely sweeter when it takes you by surprise.  I once rode the light rail from the Portland airport, not looking for much more than idle distraction from my music player.  I heard a few songs in a few minutes, but didn't experience much of anything.  But when Frank Sinatra's rendition of “Blues in the Night” came on, my state of mind synchronized with the song almost immediately.  The song took hold of me and ; I couldn't think of anything else for the whole bus ride home.  I'd never heard it before, but for a moment it was the only song in the world, and that moment ignited the kind of passionate obsession that characterizes an experience with great art.

Things like that, works of art that consume the mind and place it in that rare space between intellect and emotion, are both common and scarce, easy to find yet precious when found.  And for all the satisfaction we take from them, we take as much from producing them ourselves: art is a reciprocal drug, just like religion, or sex.  When I decided to make art as seriously as I enjoyed it, it was to satisfy my urge to be a part of that reciprocal process.  When you reach a certain awareness of art, I suspect that that urge becomes nearly irresistible.

I don't know how other people experience art.  I've heard descriptions that echo mine, using words like “sublime” and “transcendent” to a quasi-divine effect.  There are also people who choose more mundane, scientific language to describe the cognitive effects of great art; others have no articulated feelings on the matter, or don't think they even like art.  And of course, there is disagreement among many about which body of works actually is great art, or whether that body is actually discrete and canonical.  But I do know the sort of thing that I am talking about: whether the reader shares my conclusions will probably depend on the reader's sympathy for my perspective, in addition to their understanding of my argument.

Art as a Reduction
The problem with art, of course, is that it is defined by artifacts and performances, which are inherently finite.  No matter how transcendent and boundless the experience may seem for the audience, the artist is always aware of its limited nature.  The artist was there to watch it transform from a state of pure inspiration into an imperfect, material reality.  With resources and skill, art can hew  closely to vision, but a perfect match between a startling idea and a physical manifestation is simply impossible.  A composition requires choices, and choices mean compromises.

Artistic criticism, in at least one of its many forms, is about taking an artist to account for the choices he or she makes in realizing an inspiration.  It's a worthy and necessary task, but one that often breeds megalomania and loss of perspective in its practitioners.  Artists may often be forgiven for dismissing their wildest critics, but I suspect that most of the best have thoroughly internalized the sort of criticisms commonly fielded: “Is this coherent?  Is its potential fulfilled?  Was this worth doing in the first place? Will anyone see this with the same eyes as I see it?”  An artist has to ask these questions, otherwise there is no point in art: it becomes like commerce, except that it is entirely pointless.

When skill and inspiration are mutually limiting, an artist has to accept every work as at least a minor failure.  There just isn't anybody out there, past or present, so perfectly blessed with the ability to generate perfect ideas and artistically execute them with perfect competency.  There's really no such thing as “perfect,” anyway; it's either unattainable by clumsy human hands, or a philosophical impossibility.  Everything's got something wrong with it, whether it's a lapse in judgment or a slip of the brush; something that defies the artist's best efforts.

It strikes me that if there's ever to be a universal purpose for art, it had better reflect a universal characteristic, a rare and controversial item if ever there was one.  But if there is something universal across all forms of art, something that applies as well to Dada and scribbles as it does to neoclassicism, it's got to be this: everything is less than it could have been.  If art is inevitably a process of reduction from an ideal conception, then what is the point of art, except reduction?  It is, at the very least, the only thing an artist can be sure of when he or she tries anything.

The Artist as a Reduction
There is a lot to be said for reduction: complexity reduces to simplicity, and the many reduce to the one.  The concept of minimalism, which is often ascendant in artworks of the modern era, is a testament to the power of less.  But to suppose that artists make things for the purpose of reducing a concept exposes a potential contradiction.  The repeated attempts of ambitious artists to closely approximate an inspirational concept, stretch the limits of their talents and demonstrate virtuosity, does not look like an attempt to reduce anything.  It is a reduction nevertheless, as I insisted earlier, but it is seemingly in spite of their efforts, and often contrary to their stated objectives.  If reduction is the purpose, then what is there to make of strenuous efforts of craft?

The answer lies in the conception of art as communication and self-expression.  Descartes wrote “cogito, ergo sum,” demonstrating through logic that a human being's own existence is the only thing that he or she can be sure of without relying on additional assumptions.  A more extreme view of this has been expressed by some solipsists, who hold that their own minds are the only minds that actually do exist, with all other apparent minds being either zombies and automatons, or elaborate hallucinations.  An audience of solipsists would be very unsatisfying for a proud artist: if the artist should show them his latest masterpiece, each one would assume that the experience of that artwork originated in their own minds, and was thus their own creation.

Regardless of solipsism's philosophical merits (it has few), it is a nightmare scenario for an artist, because artists are compulsive communicators.  More importantly, they are self-expressive: their art ultimately comes from inside of themselves.  When people invest time and effort, which could and theoretically should be used for self-interest, into creating art, their work becomes a proxy for their selves.  Therefore, any effort to communicate that work to others is an effort to communicate the self: the self is the thing that is truly being reduced by the artist, into a form which can more easily be transmitted into other minds through light or language.

I believe that art is a human defense against radical solipsism: a desperate attempt at communicating to skeptical others that the artist exists (which implies, of course, a fundamental belief in “others” on the part of the artist).  It is a stunning leap of faith, as well as a sobering reminder of human limitation.  Self-expression through action is strongly motivated by the assumption that anything less is inadequate; in order for other people to really get it, a person has got to give them some kind of symbol of their existence.  A work of art is one such symbol.

There are no true solipsists: the brain has an irresistibly strong bias toward believing its senses and attributing actions to the wills of other minds, even when it can be demonstrated that this is actually false.  This “theory of mind,” as scientists refer to it, ensures that we see others around us at all times.  And yet somehow, humans live in constant fear of being unseen, unacknowledged, or unremembered.  This is because humans are selective in their perceptions and prefer simpler explanations for their lives.  Human minds, defined in multiple dimensions by history, personality, and potential, are simply too difficult to digest, and so our awareness of them is limited: how many of the more than six billion minds on this planet can we claim to understand half as well as our own?  How can we expect to be understood under such impossible circumstances?

Artists, instinctively, see a solution for this.  If they could reduce themselves from multidimensional entities into simple ones, then they could effectively communicate any aspect of themselves to any receptive member of their communities.  Their beliefs, attitudes, and emotions would become relevant and compelling outside of their own heads, and with a little luck, remain widely-known long after they have passed.  This is why artists feel gratified and even ecstatic when their work is well received, and also why they love art from others: they recognize that same impulse in their own hearts, to hear and to be heard.

Self-Portrait at the End of the World
Assembling this framework in my own head was helpful in making sense of my own work.  Themes like loneliness, dissatisfaction, and the dreadful gap between minds have a way of popping up in my imagination, and I am certainly not alone in this.  I've often said that all great artworks are at least a little bit sorrowful; even a happy song can imply the sadness that would be heard in its absence.  But aimless sadness is no more artistic than mindless giddiness, and understanding why is critical for any would-be artist's own success.  The sorrow, I feel, is twofold: sorrow at our isolation, which prompts an act of artistic reduction, and sorrow at the sacrifices we must make to achieve that reduction.

Deciding how to express this idea was challenging, but what I realized was that I had to somehow become smaller than myself in some way.  If the goal was to reduce myself to an abstraction, then I wanted to produce something that challenged my role as “author.”  I aimed at abstraction in a new work that was made from pieces of myself: in practical terms, something recycled from my previous work.  I wanted to build something meaningful out of something apparently meaningless.  Most of all, I wanted to try something I'd never tried before.

While flipping through the files on my computer I remembered a very short piece I wrote when I was twenty, about a year and a half before I began writing creatively in earnest.  It was called The End of the World, and had a sort of bleak, almost magical-realist element, concerning stranded motorists disappearing into some unfathomable oblivion off the 52, near Santee, California.  I opened the file and settled on a working method of deconstructing the story: I removed words at fixed intervals in three sets.  I then took those words, placed them into three chunks, and put them on a master sheet for the sake of reference and contemplation.

One early thought was to produce a poem or story that was grammatically and structurally correct, yet semantically empty.  I counted up all the words in each set, and then proceeded to categorize them according to their parts of speech, grouping nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, and so on.  I started working with crude diagrams and building new sentences out of the words, making sure to avoid investing them with too much meaning.  But problems soon presented themselves.  I had too many words to work with, particularly small, auxiliary words, and it was too difficult to fit them all into sentences that didn't seem hopelessly contrived (it might even have been impossible).  Furthermore, I found it hard to keep myself from arranging words into conventional meaning: it was essentially turning into a game of Mad Libs with all the parts of the sentences revealed, which basically defeats the whole purpose of Mad Libs.

So I scrapped the idea, because I was out of my depth.  Soon, a new idea suggested itself.  If arranging them by part of speech was too tough, then I could forgo sentences altogether and turn my efforts strictly toward meter.  I marked each word according to the patterns of stressed syllables and divided them into sections according to their metrical quality.  By working with meters rather than words, I could write a more thoroughly abstract poem.

Purely for the sake of being weird, I decided to use an offbeat metrical pattern, alternating lines between iambic and trochaic pentameters.  Combined with the anti-sensible nature of the words themselves, the intent was to produce a poem that would be physically difficult to read out loud, particularly when one strong beat led directly into another.  Initially, my plan was to chop the lines up, resulting in more and shorter lines: the result I found was absolute metrical chaos.  Thinking better of it, I decided instead to keep the lines at five beats long; otherwise, the poem was artificially long and painful to look at.

I titled the finished poem Self-Portrait At the End of the World, in reference to the nature of its composition and to the source of its lexicon.  I ended up being more proud of it than I had expected: I realized that I had actually written six poems in one, by separating the three chunks and interweaving the trochaic lines with the iambic ones.  Reading lines out of order, more conventional poems sprung out, essentially an accident of their creation.  Furthermore, the arrangement of words actually made a certain kind of sense, in spite of their quasi-random distribution, and in some cases echoed the themes of the original story: reading only alternating lines produced new combinations and new possibilities.

The Self-Portrait, by its nature, had basically written itself.  At the same time, its composition was mine, and I considered the project a qualified success.  I had my very own ungainly Frankenstein's monster to show to the world.

The critics' questions, of course, followed hot on the heels of the Self-Portrait's completion.  “Is this coherent?  Is its potential fulfilled?  Was this worth doing in the first place?  Will anyone see this with the same eyes as I see it?”  Of course, it isn't coherent.  I don't know if it could have been more so, or if it was supposed to be.  I do think it was worth doing, because doing it was gratifying in many ways.  But I don't believe anyone will ever see it in quite the same way that I do.  It's the nagging doubt that drives me as an artist and a writer, that makes me want to be heard and acknowledged.  It is that constant impulse to transform myself and become part of my own work, and disappear inside of something worthwhile.  It's that motivation to keep trying what is fundamentally impossible, and hope to receive in turn the benefits of the inevitable.