Friday, June 23, 2017

Mind the Gap, Little Leaps, Book Art & Teju Cole's Blind Spot

When we read, we carry memories of what came before. To make sense of the book, we hold onto its information as we go. At the same time, we compare what we are reading to what we already know. If the book has both words and images, we search for a relationship between them, based on what the author gives us coupled with our own personal observations. The moment in time while we are searching is a little leap, like the gap between steppingstones. The reader doesn't give up after one stone, but keeps going, sensing a longer path ahead. This gap can occur between picture and title, or between image and text. We are primed to make connections. This is how we learn.

On one page (46) we have a paragraph about a secret mass murder; facing it we have a photo of a garage partly open with a covered object. We fill in one gap, assuming the covered object is a car. We fill in another one metaphorically by connecting the covered/masked/muted car with the words, "We are advised not to say." The cover itself becomes a shroud, representing the dead, the mass murder. On another page (36) we have a photo of a man in a wheelchair and a shadowed man, standing; on its facing page we have a musing on how we leave "echoes" everywhere. Each man is an unnoticed echo of the other. These are two examples from Teju Cole's newest book Blind Spot, where his photographs have a conversation with his writings. The tension between the words and the images is exactly what I think happens in the best artists' books.


In the foreword, Siri Hustvedt illuminates this very issue, trying to explain it to those who might want literal representations of the words in the pictures (which these pictures are not). Perhaps without realizing it, she is talking about a marvelous event that book artists understand, but is often too rare. Hustvedt writes:
Some of the mental "ties" are apparent, others are veiled or masked—there to be found if one cares to look, but if one doesn't look and doesn't read closely, if one doesn't take the time to uncover what lies in, between, and beyond the words and pictures, one will be blind to their meanings (xii).
You might notice in some book art that either the images are abstracted or the words speak abstractly. The maker is reckoning with that tension, the gap that will occur, eventually resolving it by emphasizing either the images or the words. The more specific of the two becomes the foreground, and by default, the more important. Even so, this method creates a kind of harmony: both images and words working together toward a common mood or feeling. 

Sometimes one of Cole's images appears abstract, but the subject comes into focus as you look again, read the text,  re-read the text, and look at the photograph again. What looks like lines of color is really a curtain on a track, the separation between it and the wall above. The gap between this image and the text, which contains the phrases, "Faraway wave seen from the deck of the ship" and "A presence made of absence," fills in slowly as you spend more time with the parts (71). Sometimes describing the picture out loud to yourself will provide the connection. Ask questions of what you are seeing: What is it? What is the mood? What else do you see? What is the light doing? What verbs would you use to describe its action? How do you feel about it? How does this relate to what you already know?

Teju Cole also takes the connecting process a step further, deeper, wider. Here, the photos and the texts are equals. Each can stand alone and needs no further explanation. Together, they spark and create a kind of poetry, another meaning. He asks you to step in, and sometimes he waits for the other shoe to drop, for the realization to occur, for you to see the transformation.  There is more here than what you see and what you might think. And once you read and look through the 332-page book carefully, you will understand his viewpoint, voice, and vision, what he is interested in, what he finds compelling and important and funny and heartbreaking, and how he engages with his memories and what he's read as he travels all over the world. 


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It may be helpful to read Known and Strange Things: Essays first. Then bring your memory of the essays to Blind Spot to help sketch in the gaps. 


More about Teju Cole and his book Open City: A Novel from a previous post here.

Teju Cole website

Monday, June 19, 2017

Star 82 Review Issue 5.2 Is Now Live Online & Print

Star 82 Review, the art and literary magazine I founded and publish, now in its fifth year, has just seen the release of the eighteenth regular issue! This particular collection has moving work: we are looking to be transported to places inside and outside, both familiar and fresh, on the road and in the home as residents, tourists, and immigrants. The pages include a mini comic, "Clueless Tourists: Tokyo, Japan," by Angela Seon Young Lee, a concrete poem made from wood type and printed letterpress by giovanni singleton, and two heartfelt prose poems from Hugh Behm-Steinberg alongside many other wonderful works.

Online: http://www.star82review.com/5.2/contents.html
In Print: https://www.createspace.com/7159325
Subscriptions at nevermindtheart
And follow the news on Facebook!

Contributors
C.B. Auder
Hugh Behm-Steinberg
Krys Malcolm Belc
CL Bledsoe
Micki Blenkush
Thomas Gillaspy
F.I. Goldhaber
Jessica Goodfellow
Thomas Griffin
Jamie Haddox
Nancy Hathaway
Jenna Heller
Matthew Hittinger
Stanley Horowitz
Jacqueline Jules
Angela Seon Young Lee
Alex MacConochie
Jessica Mehta
Tracy Mishkin
Leah Oates
Sergio A. Ortiz
Grant Price
Ron Riekki
Bradley Samore
Penelope Scambly Schott
giovanni singleton
Radhika Subramaniam
Sarah Summerson
Diana Vazquez
Vivian Wagner


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Intensive Journals & Connective Threads

Every time we pick up a book to read, we inadvertently choose a path or take up a thread. We may be choosing consciously or we may not even realize what we are doing. From that one book we may be propelled to another. From Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, a quote by Anaïs Nin lead me to read the book, In Favor of the Sensitive Man, and Other Essays, in which Nin reviewed Ira Progoff's At a Journal Workshop: Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke Creative Ability, which I am reading now. In turn, that book took me back to books by Judith Tannenbaum that I had read previously.

Nin's book review of Progoff's book was written in 1975, when it was first published. (It should be noted that she had already published half a dozen of her own journals by then.) I'm sure part of what attracted her to the book was the repetition of the process of sitting still, being quiet, taking deep breaths, and letting words, events, and images flow without judgment or editing. This is the way to get into the creative zone, familiar to many of us now. In her essays, Nin writes frequently about the extraverted world, and how this inner stillness is needed. She also seems glad that Progoff "begins by eliminating the idea of the journal as a literary achievement" (98). Right there, the focus changes from something that sounds unattainable to something part of everyday life. As we proceed through Progoff's method, "every life acquires a value, a richness." With Progoff's book we move back and forth between what we consciously remember and what appears to us in that quiet stillness. Through some of the exercises, our conscious thoughts and feelings are woven with our subconscious images and feelings.

I wondered what other of his methods had already been absorbed into psychological work, into creative society, and/or what I would recognize from my own practice. Progoff suggests reading what you wrote aloud, which is standard advice in writing classes today. In addition to the quiet and stillness, he also talks about "the well" where each of us goes to find our own meaning. Progoff expands the metaphor, adding that if we go deep enough within our own wells, we can find the underground spring that we all share. We can connect to the universal via the personal. But Progoff goes deeper than that. We can do good work in society, empathize, and understand other people better if we are connected to ourselves.

If we each have a well within us, we must dive down to see what is there. This reminded me of something I had read before, but still decades after Progoff published his methods. "Diving" as a concept first came up for me in Judith Tannenbaum's 2000 book, Disguised As A Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San QuentinSpoon Jackson, an inmate, uses it as the term for accessing something deep inside and learning. It later becomes an activity they do together. "Diving" is the title of Jackson's chapter six in the 2010 book they wrote, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two LivesHe writes that in these two-person diving sessions, "I discovered the importance of questions" (65). Questions can direct our attention, allow us to notice without telling us what to think. Jackson was able to make personal discoveries with the help of Tannenbaum's questions. Progoff also makes very good use of questions to get us thinking for ourselves. In Disguised as a Poem, Tannenbaum uses the idea of depth for creative work this way: "in meditation I let pictures and sounds come and go, while when writing a poem I keep my gaze on them steady and words arise and I write the words down" (143). Being still and then both diving down and letting words and images bubble up from the well is alive today into creative culture; these words echo back at me as I continue to read through Progoff's book. 

As you do the exercises you may be taken to buried territory. Progoff's questions about an image or memory may stir up new emotions as you view them with today's eyes and how they connect to today's you. Some of his questions are: "What do you recall of the feelings you had about yourself at that time?" "Did you have any particular beliefs about your personal destiny, favorable or unfavorable, fortunate or unfortunate?" (95). At first, I felt impatient and a little annoyed, partly because I am resistant to other people's assignments, but after reading a while, I began embracing the methods to see what I could learn. Just being reminded of something we may have already known or thought is useful in itself.

What makes Progoff's journal method appealing for some people is that you keep separate pages for separate kinds of thoughts and approaches, but work back and forth among them. There is a system and some limitations, which can free you from certain kinds of choices. The point is not to make an artistic or literary masterpiece at the end that is separate from you, the point is integrating yourself, finding your story and discovering what is really important to you at whatever point you are in your life. He talks about finding the "connective threads." Progoff writes, "We work day by day as much as possible to keep ourselves in an ongoing relationship with whatever is taking place within ourselves" (65). It's a process, and it is fluid. We can change where we look at and how we approach what is happening in our life story every day.

At a Journal Workshop seems long, but the length is due to quite a bit of repetition. The point I think is to try to create a way to experience the Intensive Journal practice on your own. In a workshop or classroom setting, the teacher must often repeat something new several times before the students can absorb it. The repetition in the book provides that learning situation.

Nin writes about the process, "evaluation is creative, judgment is not" (103). Judgment is useful in certain situations (don't pet the alligator), but not necessary when doing exploratory creative work. Editing and judging your thoughts and feelings before you can explore them can lead to a creative block. While it is possible to read through the book and lightly do some of the exercises, I think it is ultimately more helpful and more fulfilling to dive in and engage with them. Being open to new experiences helps. So does trusting that we can spin the assignments in whatever way works for us. Even the light work I've done with the book has already sharpened my vision and changed my approach, letting me work with the raw material that is given to me as is, without judgment.




Thursday, June 8, 2017

Stories that Fly and the SF Bay Osprey Cam

As if I need one more thing to attach me to my screen, I've been watching the SF Bay Osprey cam on and off for the past few weeks. It's nice company while I am making things. A friend alerted me to this nest on the bay where eggs were going to be hatched. Although I missed the egg-to-chick transition, I've been attentively watching the chicks' growth since then. These are screenshots from the cam.



There is always much feeding.



The family scene, several hours later. Richmond is in the front. He is
a little smaller than Rosie and his chest is all white. She has a little spotted necklace.


More interesting is the daily story. There are some dedicated folks who comment in the live chat section so that when you step away from the cam you can find out what happened in the soap opera that is birds. How many fish and what kind did Richmond bring in to Rosie and the chicks, Whirley and Rivet. Are the chicks fighting? What sort of home improvements has Rosie made today? You, too, can view eating, pooping, mating, and sleeping.

Then, there is the inexplicable collecting habit of Richie. I was poised to take a picture of Richie bringing in the next fish (often a striped bass), but I caught this instead.


The chat folk were calling it "red duct tape." He has apparently brought in a variety of red objects. Eventually, Rosie sends them over the edge. Nope. Not having it.

Once, Rosie was cheeping, hungry. Richie flew in with something, I think just a portion of the tail of a fish  (the camera is infrared at sundown, so nighttime viewing is in black and white). He stood on the tail. She sidled up closer, eyeing it. "What? This is all you brought me? You certainly took quite a bit for yourself, didn't you?" He stood down. She gobbled it up. Those beaks can really tear up a fish.


Cut grass, weeds, twigs, and lichen-covered sticks are looking less like random things on the sidewalk and more like nesting material every day. I've started watching for red objects, too. They can keep the fish, though.



The birds' names reflect their location; they are on top of an abandoned whirley crane in Richmond, California, next to the SS Red Oak Victory Ship. We visited the ship, in the wind by the water, from fog to sun, wandering about for close to two hours.



You can see the edges of the nest and barely see Richmond on the rail (on the left, the dot under the camera).



The nest and ship overlook Brooks Island, acquired as a park in 1968, and reached only by special reservation. It was home for thousands of years to Ohlone Indians.


It was nice to confirm that yes, they do exist in real life. Slowing down, taking time in one place, watching for an extended period of time: these will bring in the stories like fish to the chicks, right out of the air.

The SF Bay osprey camera, run by the Golden Gate Audubon Society, is here.
The SS Red Oak Victory Ship info is here.