On Aging and Creativity

Recently, longtime friend and colleague Priscilla Long gave a talk on Aging and Creativity at Elliott Bay Bookstore, which got me to thinking about the subject as it relates to my own life. Following are some miscellaneous thoughts that came to me rather briskly after I watched the video of her talk. The video can be viewed at:

http://www.priscillalong.net/talk-on-aging-and-creativity/

To begin with, I’m so impassioned and engrossed as an artist that I’ve hardly ever given thought to my creativity in relation to my aging. I give more and more time and energy to my writing projects and pursuits along with ever-greater effort toward playing the violin more beautifully (the physical activity of the latter seems to sustain the mental activity of the former). I feel full of potential, imbued with purpose and meaning, and rewarded by ever-stronger messages of confidence and satisfaction. I’ve noticed no lapse in my personal successes, my voice, my innovation, or my overall productivity. I never have doubts, tremulousness, or even hesitation in taking up my pen or bow. Although occasionally I feel a little dry, particularly with my haiku writing, I never have writer’s block. The only question I have is this: How much more time can I squeeze out of the time I have left on Earth to do what I love, the work that, in turn, seems so much to sustain me, to enrich me, and perhaps even to extend my life? So-called “retirement,” for me, has turned out to be my greatest opportunity to have a full-time writing career.

Cooper’s (chicken) hawk, Green Lake, Seattle

I can remember thinking, once I’d set out on the path of writing poetry at age 39, that I’d better get as much down on paper as I can now, before I grow old and “dry up.” That way I’ll have built an archive of material to work up with my “drier,” more editorial mind later. The operative stereotype, then, was that with aging comes creative desiccation. This stereotype is supported by the common expression “creative juices,” the idea that, as we age, our creative juices dry up. Many people have this idea that aging, in general, means “drying up.”

First autumn leaf, Ocean Shores, WA

Another idea, a more positive one, is that if along the way I somehow concluded I wasn’t very creative, that is, not very imaginative or innovative, then it was only by facing that question with sincerity and openness that I set out on a path to become more successfully imaginative and innovative. In other words, I had to ask myself, what does it mean to be creative in the first place, and what makes a work imaginative or innovative? I’ve encountered many significant questions along this line since I set out on this path: I wondered if by being more concerned with clarity and reality in my writing that I was being less creative. I wondered if by being more vernacular in my style I was being less creative. I wondered if by not relying on figures of speech and prosodic devices I was being less creative. Worst of all, I wondered if by not imbibing in drugs and alcohol or other sense-deranging approaches to the creative process I was being less creative.

Great blue heron, Green Lake

The irony is that, as I’ve come to understand what it is to be creative, to understand what makes a work more imaginative or innovative, the more imaginative and innovative I’ve become. Considering that I didn’t get serious about playing violin until I was 28 and didn’t get serious about writing poetry until I was 39, most of the creative enlightenment that has occurred in my life has occurred in my forties, fifties, and sixties. I have to say that at sixty-six I’m only now in the throes of producing my richest, most structurally creative, most humanistically purposeful work of writing: In Search of Morris: The Ancestry Research Writing How-to Memoir. And my sentence writing at this “late date,” is, indeed, like greased lightning—sinuous, leaping, soaring, delving, poetic, multi-textured, and musical. Of course it helps that I’m spry, if not still athletic and agile, in body. Keeping the body young, I believe, helps keep the mind young.

Leaf in spider web, Ocean Shores

The book, in 1992, that helped me address what being more creative in my poetry writing entailed is Leaping Poetry, by Robert Bly. I read this book when I was 40. The idea that I took from that book that was so helpful is that there is a sideways leaping of imagination, rather than a linear one, involved in bringing together surprising words and images. Another book that helped was Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town, the idea that we need to expose our selves to word-stirring places, people, and stories to excite poetic responses and deeply human stories in ourselves. In other words, rather than lying down and dying by thinking I’m not naturally creative, I dove deeply into the question of what creativity is and how it works and, in turn, opened the way to being more imaginative and innovative. And I did a lot of this work starting when I was 45, when I got interested in Zen poetry in translation. Zen has played a huge role in my life in seeing how my thoughts were in my way.

Grass shadows on fallen leaf, Green Lake

A lot of the stereotypes and blocks that prevent or slow us from being creative, from continuing to be creative, or from becoming all the more creative as we age, involve the tiny, confining boxes and bubbles with which we close ourselves up: I’m too old. I’m too stuck in my ways. I’m not creative. My creativity will dry up. I have no imagination. It’s all been said before. I’ll never write as well as so and so. I’ll never write as well as I wrote when I was 25. I get frustrated too easily. I’m lazy…. And one doesn’t have to be old to close oneself up in these little boxes and bubbles. As a college writing instructor of many years, I’ve heard the same kinds of excuses and justifications expressed by people in their teens, twenties, and thirties. I wonder how many of us defeat ourselves even before we’ve stepped into the game or the battle.

Autumn lily pads, Green Lake

This brings up that greatest of all psycho-spiritual issues: How can we come to believe in ourselves? Maybe it takes the better part of one’s life to come to believe in one’s self. Young people who appear to believe in themselves may only be ebullient—putting on the dog, so to speak. Not that feigned confidence doesn’t work. Feigned confidence may, indeed, result in authentic confidence. In any case, as we age it’s possible we can begin to see that we’re still hugely full of potential that we never even began to fulfill and that it’s just a matter of setting our minds to doing so. We are not predetermined by the stars, our genes, our parents, or even by a certain past lifestyle or life mistake. We can erase the chalkboard if we choose to do so and pick a new color of chalk—a lot of new colors, if we like.

Autumn hummingbird, Green Lake

In fact, “artists of age” may have the edge over youthful artists simply by dint of the fact that they’ve had more time to get to know themselves—as people and as artists. They may also be imbued with that beautiful energy known as “having nothing left to lose.” Young artists, ironically, may actually be more conservative and less willing to take chances. They may also be too concerned about the reception of their work by the public since they tend to be new to the game of peer pressure and the Jones effect.

Coffee shop crow, Green Lake

Finally, having lived more years, more decades, the older creator or artist has the abundance of his or her entire long life from which to draw stories, images, memories, landscapes, characters, wisdom, and insights. And the memories that stick and continue to recur are those that have floated to the surface as the most poignant or meaningful. There are not that many young artists who have seen through to the heart of life and can write that life deeply and beautifully. However, there are some who seem to be born with gifts of human understanding and linguistic sensibility. Yet there’s no evidence that they lose that ability as they enter their forties, fifties, or sixties.

Helming the green sea home, Ocean Shores

As for continuing to strive to improve at playing violin: I was stuck at intermediate level from age 28 to about age 55. Not only had I quit playing for 14 years prior to that, from age 14 to age 28, but I had a foolish self-inflicted accident at age 23 in which I severely yanked both my shoulder joints out of their sockets so my arms dangled numbly and uselessly at my sides. So at age 55 I began working harder at increasing the range, fullness, speed, and facility of my bowing arm until I developed tendonitis and bursitis in the shoulder. I saw a therapist who had me take Ibuprofen routinely and work out with elastic bands in order to strengthen my shoulder. Meanwhile, I continued to practice violin while trying all the more carefully to play in a gentler and lighter way. At the end of nine months, at the age of 56, the tendonitis and bursitis had subsided, my shoulder had strengthened, and my bowing range, power, and speed had increased considerably.

Sibling retreat barred owl, Ocean Shores

Then, at age 56, I set out to strengthen my left shoulder in the same manner. I began by trying harder to support the instrument in such a way that I could finger and vibrate with greater facility and power until, again, I developed tendonitis and bursitis in the shoulder. And again I began with the Ibuprofen and the elastic band therapy while continuing to play in a more gentle and light way. In a year my left shoulder had strengthened such that I could finger more freely, speedily, and powerfully and without any pain whatsoever.

Heron silhouette, Green Lake

I am a 100% believer in the idea that “if you don’t use it you’ll lose it.” At age 23 I injured myself and didn’t do any healing therapy but then underwent the needed therapy in my mid-fifties and was still able to heal the injuries. The body, like the mind, is infinitely more resilient as we age than we tend to think. And as my body has grown more facile with the instrument so my mind has grown more facile with the music making. The body was no longer an impediment to the mind, the artistic sensibilities. I’m also a believer in the idea that the body supports the mind at least as much as the mind supports the body.

Heron and dock fisherman, Green Lake

More broadly speaking, creativity is a big part of my spirituality (in the secular sense to the word spirituality). Art and spirituality for me are synonymous. Throw in Nature and Mind and you have the basic outline of my personal spirituality. It wasn’t until I was well into my forties before I had a stable working philosophy. Only with age, I believe, can a person evolve a truly authentic, experientially derived spirituality or working philosophy, and it’s my belief that a truly mature art must be informed by a mature, worldly philosophy.

Autumn dew spider web, Green Lake

Then there’s the matter of distractions. I find that as I grow older I manage my time better and can concentrate for longer periods of time. I’m not as attracted to everything that’s going on around me, as I was when I was a younger, wilder person. I didn’t want to miss anything when I was younger. By now I’ve seen and done so many things that I’m not drawn to them anymore. Also, I’ve learned to make better use of my thinking mind. I used to think more in abstractions, sensations, and images. Now, not only can I think in these earlier ways, I can think in solid sentences or dialogue when appropriate. I can write in my mind and remember what I wrote, although I always keep my voice recorder near to hand for when I need to remember longer chunks of material or when I want to capture my authentic voice. I’ve written many a good haiku in my mind.

Misty night full cold moon, Ocean Shores

There is nothing I’ve described or explained here that I experienced or thought of in my early twenties. Most of these thoughts, developments, and approaches I’ve come to realize or have evolved in my forties or later. If life can be an adventure, then I’ve certainly had an interesting and exciting one since I set out to write beautifully and to redeem my violin body and sound. Maintaining a day job as an educator has been fulfilling, but I’ve kept the day job to support the night job, in order to more deeply educate myself in the ways of art making and to enrich the spirit. If I’ve been a successful educator at the college, then it’s because I’ve persisted in educating myself in these challenging and deeply fulfilling ways and sharing the adventure, the spirit of the adventure, with my students.

Copyright 2018 by Rick Clark

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Eleven Unthunk Thoughts on Approaching Writing

This morning a friend and I met for breakfast with the intention of talking about writing. She’d like to dump the day job and take up a vocation she’s always loved but never fully pursued: yes, writing. Her father was a Hollywood writer and a novelist, so writing is in her blood. She has no illusions about writing; she’s simply reached that place in her life when the day job is growing old and she has the time and money to make a much-needed change. So I shared some of my approaches with her that have evolved out of years of writing, teaching writing, and publishing and thought I’d shape them up into paragraphs (adding a few thoughts unthunk till after breakfast) and share them here:

Every second is an opportunity to write: If you’re obsessed with your writing, your project, you’ll carry a field notebook or a voice recorder (smart phone works well). Ideas, memories, lines, and dialogue don’t wait to occur till you sit down officially to write, during the sanctioned period you’ve set aside for doing so. The best ideas and words often come when you least expect them. Be ready. I’ve “made note” in almost every setting or situation imaginable: the woods, at a concert, in the midst of an interesting or important conversation, while brushing my teeth, and upon waking. I’ll add that very often there’s more space for ideas to occur when you’re not in the mode of expecting something to happen, when you’re not sitting at the one and only writing desk between, say, ten and noon, when you’re not all boxed in spatially and temporally. I keep my voice recorder near to hand as I drive. My thumb knows where the record button is. I’ve produced hundreds of useful notes while driving.

Write every possible minute: I write every minute I can. People tend to think writing isn’t really a job. I’m always available to meet, to visit family, to help with a project when it’s convenient for them to do so, not necessarily when it’s convenient for me. But, ironically, this works for me. I’m not a time-structured person. I’m really quite flexible about when I write—and where I write, for that matter. I meet for coffee in the early morning, mid-morning, and even early afternoon on occasion. So how do I produce so much material, books, manuscripts, essays, blog entries, emails, etc.? Well, I write every chance I get, any time of the day, any day of the week. I can sit down for ten minutes and complete or start a writing or writing-related task. The beauty of starting such a task is that I’m anxious to get back to it when I have more time.

Write everything: I write everything of interest, applicability, and/or authenticity, not just material for the book or project at hand. I find I have time to do this. But this implies two things: one that I’m energized and flexible; and two that I know what my genres, subjects, and themes are. There’s a kind of obsessiveness connected with the former, that I don’t want to miss anything; and the latter has required that I’ve written so much and grouped and regrouped my writing so many times that I’ve come to know who I am, what I have to say, and how and in what form I need to say it. I’ve come to know that my strongest genres are poetry, memoir, and creative nonfiction, my subject matter travel (the journey), nature, mind, music, birds, ideas, and writing itself, and my forms are haiku, long-form poetry, journal-based memoir, and in general highly structured books. More recently I’ve found I love the detective work involved in doing ancestry research writing. I could never have come to know this much about my own writing tendencies if I hadn’t made the space for those tendencies to express themselves.

Mix it up: I write till I reach a point of fatigue, scatter-mindedness, and/or accomplishment, then get up and do some dishes, neaten the house a little, take care of a chore or an errand, walk, or sit in the woods. Within 15 minutes or an hour, I find when I sit back down in front of the computer I’m completely refreshed, with new material or a new course of action at the ready. I do some mental work, then some physical work, and then return to the mental work. I can sustain this mixed activity longer than if I concentrate on only one kind of activity. I also go back and forth between producing material and organizing material, between researching material and producing material, and between researching and organizing material. I use my fiddle to clear my mind and to find the rhythm and music in my writing; after all, making music and writing poetry are attached at the hips, according to the Greeks. After writing long paragraphs, I work on a haiku. The short informs the long, the long the short. Keep the interest fresh, the body alive for the mind.

Use email to generate material: I often use email and, to a lesser degree, texting and messaging to produce material—and, by expressing them, I explore my ideas. The strength in this is that I have an audience for my writing. I’m engaging a correspondent or correspondents at the other end of my email, which makes the writing real, authentic (and of course I’m staying on topic—because I’m obsessed!). I have a manuscript consisting of about 90% material from emails—the great American email! Also, more people know about my project and may want to buy my book. And often my email recipients have ideas, affirmations, and helpful questions. I have to keep in touch and email folks anyway, so why not tell them all about what matters to me, my writing project.

The present informs the past: I also assume that what’s going on around me might somehow be related to what I’m writing. I’m presently writing a book in which I have the opportunity to explore the parallels between my life and my once-unknown-grandfather’s life, at both the personal and historical levels. I needn’t just stay focused on my grandfather’s experiences and historical context, but suddenly what’s going on with me now and what’s coming over the radio may have some relevance to the book.

Writing like breathing: Writing is like breathing for me, as it should be, ideally. I have to admit it wasn’t always like this for me. But since I got comfortable with it, writing resembles breathing in many ways. Inhalations are like questions while exhalations are like answers. I have to do it to stay alive, or at least to keep the writer alive—the linguist, the storyteller, the explorer. But how does one get comfortable with writing? Well, mostly by doing it, and by getting to know oneself as a writer, as I mentioned above. But not just by doing it, but by doing it with few enough expectations as to leave an opening for authenticity of expression to occur. Read a lot. Emulate. Try new modes and styles of writing. Throw your sentences up in the air and see what they look like when they hit the ground. Don’t be precious about your writing. If you do, you’re probably stuck and just don’t know it.

Trust your mind: Trust the mind to work on your writing even when you’re engaged in other activities or while you’re sleeping. Sure, struggle with an idea or a sentence for a while, but then forget it. You will have left a hole or a question for the mind to fill or answer if you just give it a chance. Pressure can often shut down processes.

In us hide many stories: It’s been said that everyone has a story, and as a sailor, a bartender, a teacher in Japan, and a college professor, I’ve found this to be true. In fact, I think that we have within us more stories than we can write, if we can only realize this, hear the stories within us, hear the stories inside the stories or the stories growing out of stories (as in fan fiction). Around us are an infinity of subjects. Haiku poets know this and can write a successful haiku on a leaf falling unlike any other haiku on a leaf falling ever written. The problem is that we become inured to the world around us. The world is so present that eventually we shut it out; we don’t notice what’s going on. Virginia Woolf wrote a short piece called “The Mark on the Wall.” It’s about just that, a mark on the wall, and it’s quite well known.

Do not compare: Trouble begins when we compare ourselves with other writers, dead or alive. How many give up writing, saying, “ I’ll never write as well as so-and-so”? In the University of Washington Master of Fine Arts program, Rick Kenney instructed a poetry writing class called Imitations in which we imitated other styles, poets, and cultural forms. In my introductory letter to him I stated that I’ll never lose myself in another poet because I’m too anxious to express myself, to become the poet I must become. It’s very important to imitate and emulate in order to learn, but then move on. One of the most destructive forces on creativity and self-expression is the ego. Best to just grope along in the search for one’s authentic self.

Structure, structure, structure: Many aspiring writings have come to me with what for them is their number one problem or question: How do I structure my book? Virtually every book has “structure.” Chapters are structural devices. Beginnings, middles, and ends are aspects of structure (they may also be aspects of plot). Structure has more to do with the physical arrangement, organization, or flow of material (which may nevertheless have everything to do with content and story), while plot pertains to conflict and resolution. Plot is generally an element of fiction, although it may be present in memoir. Therefore, it’s probably best, for the moment, to think about structure in memoir, (creative) nonfiction, and poetry. Memoirs are generally delineated by chronology; nonfiction by the various elements of the subject in some logical order; and poetry by stanzas, line breaks, patterns of rhythm and rhyme, various forms of repetition, etc. I find that thinking about structure early in the process of writing a book aids both the production and consumption of the book. If I have small sections or chapters, I can knock off two or three a day, tick them off on the abacus, and sleep deeply that night. It’s comforting, measurable piecework. It’s easy to reorganize as I go, to change the order of sections and chapters. I keep my mind clear this way, as it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by so many ideas and materials. This goes for the reader, as well. Structure is major means of producing clarity. You can use bolded subheadings early in the writing game and then remove the headings later. My breakfast friend mentioned she likes to use outlines in order to structure and organize her writing. I can’t tell you how many of my students from my college teaching days thanked me for insisting they produce and hand in outlines in advance of their drafts. Many professional writers admit they sketch out a little word-map and stick to it to the end. Yet a word-map isn’t set in stone, is it? There is no stone, only words.

Meditation and the Arts

Writing poetry and playing violin teach concentration, mindfulness, and non-attachment.

The violinist experiences a kind of samadhi “in action” when she achieves the full expression of her playing. She must be wholly mindful to the act. She concentrates her whole life energy on moving the bow hairs across the strings to make her instrument sing. Put another way, she inflects the body so as to project, with full power and nuance, the melody or musical figuration. In so doing, she eliminates all bothersome distractions beyond her focus on making beautiful music and detaches herself from all thoughts outside of playing violin, including irksome self-recrimination and unnecessary self-criticism. She transcends being too concerned with audience response, especially the feeling that she’s failing them in some way or is inadequate to the task of entertaining and moving others.

Every fiber present in this playing....

Every fiber present in this playing….

Writing descriptive poetry involves a similar approach and makes for another good example of how yogic or meditative approaches can be applied to other activities. Sitting by the lake, I watch a female bluebill duck hesitate at water’s edge, then clamber up on to the bank beyond my legs. I see that her beak has a metallic blue tint with a few subtle orange spots and that her fine white and brown markings are quite symmetrical from side to side. I see that her feet are of an unlikely, almost “man-made” orange color. She jabs with her beak at a blue-and-black-striped dragonfly perched on a blade of grass. Misses. She waddles by, disappearing behind the bench where I sit.

Female mallard

Female mallard

As I watch, however, observing the duck in detail, feeling perhaps what it might be like to be a duck, to desire to eat a plump, “wingy” dragonfly, to rip up and choke back green grass with a toothless beak, I do not produce these words in my mind; I do not distract myself with language and “being” descriptive. I save all that for later, for that moment when I shift into “writing mode.” I simply watch, absorbed, even mesmerized, by the image, by the presence of “duck,” in me as much as outside of me. I’m taken by the “natural world” in action (the premise here being that all life, the whole world, is real and valuable and worth attending to). I abandon myself to the world; I do not resist. I do not keep myself separate, distinct, or even “detached.” Rather, the world absorbs, encompasses, and “possesses” me.

Taste the wings

Taste the wings

So to the world, as both “object” and “subject,” I give myself, wandering along the path of meditation on the journey toward “wholly being.” Such reversals of view are a way of practicing non-attachment to self and to other than here and now.

Finally, if I’ve been struck deeply by an image, if I want to explore the image further with words, I pick up my pen and write. This shift of focus to language and writing can be its own form of meditation. Some poems, in fact, like some musical pieces, are actually called “meditations.”

Hand, writing

Hand, writing

Thus all actions one undertakes in life in which quality is the concern— achieving some sort of ideal experience or expression, including doing everyday chores, running errands, carrying on personal interactions, and performing tasks at work—ideally involve the same approach of mindfulness, concentration, and non-attachment. Meditation is a state of mind that we can carry throughout our day.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

the duck snaps at
the dragonfly—we get it
when she misses

Three Frog Poems

Gnomic Frogs

for frogman Brent

Tree frogs are creaking
out in the dark cave of night,
in the hollow of the ocean’s roar
beyond my open window.

Where do they live during the day?
For hours I’ve studied the moss
growing on the forest’s trunks
and never spied a green tree frog.

Can I blame them for being
so completely themselves,
for embracing night so wholeheartedly
when it’s during the day we people clamor so loudly?

Were there only such a frog
as could sing a few appreciative lines
about the bubble of light in which I dwell
high up in my room above the woods!

How I exclaim myself with my pen,
how such human attentiveness
must be worthy of mention
in the annals of the frogs,

but who seem only to say,
“Prayers are best not
answered. Silence
is the soundest reply.”

Pacific Green Tree Frog, photographed by Brent Matsuda (bio below)

Pacific green tree frog (all photographs by Brent Matsuda—bio below)

Lucky Frog

Frog, I see you hop across the freeway
in a rain storm as I speed by.

Water blasting out of wheel ruts,
juggernauts of tires bearing down,
cars like hydroplanes, freighters
like mountains flying by.

Under a hundred wheels (and mine)
you hop and hop and do not stop,
you do not dodge or turn around or give a thought
to being crushed and turned to mush.

In my rear view mirror I see you make it
to the other side. You lucky, lucky frog,
the whole wide world
your slippery bog!

Note: “Lucky Frog” was previously published in Many Trails to the Summit: Poems by Forty-two Northwest Poets, edited by David D. Horowitz, 2010.

Columbia spotted frog

Columbia spotted frog

Haiku

her stream dried up
the young frog sets out
down the human trail

*

sitting on the deck—
both my cat’s and my head turn
at spring’s first frog-croak

*

hey there’s a whole clan
of green tree frogs
creaking over there

Peruvian frog

Peruvian frog

The photographer: Brent Matsuda is a naturalist and wildlife biologist with a specialization in herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles), based in British Columbia. Although most of his professional work involves birds, his personal passion is frogs. Brent conducted his thesis work on the only frog in North America that uses internal fertilization and breeds in fast-flowing cold mountain streams: the coastal tailed frog. He is the lead author of the Amphibians and Reptiles of British Columbia field guide. In his spare time, Brent loves to photograph frogs wherever he travels in the world.

Sensitive species

Sensitive species

Writer’s Envy

How many there are of us who want to write! Ah, to become a writer, to finally write that book we’ve always wanted to write! It’s almost a cliché. Yet many of us don’t bother because we can’t imagine that we can actually write clear, compelling prose or that we can write like the greats or the pros. Or we don’t feel we have the follow-through to finish a full-length book.

It seems that successful writers are to be envied for being able to sit at their desks and, with a few keystrokes, command the attention of a vast, paying readership.

Theodore Roethke, my personal "father of poetry" (American, 1908-1963)

Theodore Roethke, my personal “father of poetry” (American, 1908-1963)

Writer’s envy is as natural as the very desire to write. It’s what we do with these feelings of envy that either make us or break us as writers. If we feel we can’t write as well as the writers we admire and therefore don’t try, then we’re conquered by our own desire. If, on the other hand, we set out to try to write as well as the they do—that is, to imitate them—then we risk not writing our own story or not writing in our own voice.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Yet this second choice is, nevertheless, the right choice; it’s just that we have to keep in the back of our minds that, once we learn how our admired writer conjures his or her verbal magic, then we have to move beyond to write our own authentic selves. As they say in Zen, kill the Buddha when you meet him on the road.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for a two years straight.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for two years straight.

I’ve known poets who say they won’t read other poets because they don’t want to be influenced. They forget that the genre of poetry, specific forms of poetry—the language itself—evolved long before the poet was ever born and “influences” him at every turn of phrase. One could argue that we even inherit our thoughts, the very desire to write poetry. Thus, the aspiring poet or writer is obliged to read as much as possible, to see what possibilities exist for writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, to see what’s already been “done,” and to see where his or her work fits in the stream of literature.

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me...

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me…

When I was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at UW, poet-professor Rick Kenney taught a poetry writing workshop called Imitations, in which we set out to imitate various established closed forms, occasional poems, cultural permutations, and individual poets and their poems. I remember writing in a letter to Rick that I was sure I wouldn’t lose my identity to these other poets because I was so anxious to explore and establish my own voice as a poet.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Yet some poets do lose themselves, for years on end, emulating a certain poet. Linda Bierds, who also teaches poetry writing in the MFA program at UW, told us once that, early in her career, readers compared her work to that of Norman Dubie so often that she realized she needed to establish her own voice and style—a break with the “other,” of course, that she succeeded beautifully in making.

I have emulated many poets without guilt or shame and, I like to think, without crippling envy. I’ve tried to write like Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver, and other poets of stature. I discovered that one can strive to write like another without experiencing envy and instead feel sheer admiration—a desire, via the work to learn everything possible about the poet’s craft and relationship to subject, much in the way an art student strives to replicate a famous painting while sitting in an art museum, down to the finest stroke—in order to learn what happened personally, technically, and historically in the creation of the artist’s work.

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Japanese Zen monk hermit poet (1758-1831), lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

And the development of an artist’s skill, vision, and voice, I might suggest, more often than not follows the development of the art form in history. Each artist gropes through a medieval period, blossoms during a little Renaissance, tries on the finery of the Baroque, casts off every stitch of excess clothing in the name of minimalism, flourishes during an abrupt midlife Romantic period, dabbles in pointillism, screams leaping off the bridge of reason into a modern period, then collapses in a paroxysm of Post-Modernism.

Perhaps it’s natural to feel a little envious of the magic that great writers conjure. If, as a reader, we feel mesmerized by the beauty of a novel, short story, or poem, then why wouldn’t we want to conjure such magic? It’s only natural to want to wield the very power that mesmerizes us to conjure it in others—other readers.

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures (I’m writing bird and bug haiku).

It may be that by trying on the clothes of the writers we admire—the greats, the masters, the pros—those who command great audiences—we come to realize how we are not meant to be the very writer we admire or emulate, that we’re not at all like the master whose footprints we’ve been dogging. In other words, we come to realize who we are, how we’re distinct, how we have our own story to tell or body of words and images to share. Yet we may never have found ourselves in our totality if we hadn’t tried on the master’s silky, piney, or smoky robes.

Wrenzai Attends the Great Haiku Getaway

When my old friend the barred owl hooted her message to me from the crabapple tree, I was surprised and pleased to discover that I’d been invited to attend the Great Haiku Getaway in the woods beside the Great Water. I hadn’t ventured out to such an event for years and in fact had begun to grow moss between my toes. I tossed and turned that night over the decision, but as morning grew blue, as the sun rolled up into the sky and the robin chirruped pure as cherries, I donned my bamboo hat, coat, and sandals and set out East.

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

The journey was long. I wandered cross-country around the south end of the Great Mountains and then beyond, up the east side of the Great Water to a tiny hamlet in the woods known as Seabeck, in ancient times an elven timber station. The Main Hall stood wide and welcoming on the side of a hill beyond a silvery lagoon. The journey had taken me days and left me both exhausted and invigorated. I remembered how good it is to get out of my myrtle hut now and then. My fall crop of mushrooms could wait this time. As I crossed the lagoon these words came to me:

the old car bridge

Seabeck Conference Center

Seabeck Conference Center

What magic I sensed in the air as I arrived! I found many other hermits, mountain poets, and hut-dwellers in the Great Wooden Dining Hall at the midday meal, chattering about the tantalizing words and incantations known as haiku that the Great Party was to celebrate. Ah to mingle with others like me again! For so long it was just me and the chickadees, me and the old antlered bucks who stared up at me through the windows, me and the crows consoling each other as the world heats up near to burning—only the rare human visitor—for years.

Old Buddy Buck

My old buddy Buck

My counterparts wore rice-planting or wizards’ hats, had companions of ravens or crows, even a starling, perching upon their shoulders. Some wore coats of moss or woven cedar bark. Others smoked long thin pipes of incense or gesticulated in meaningful runes, reciting ancient haiku—or fresh ones, composed on the tongue, winging their way out of their mouths like hummingbirds or dragonflies. They’d arrived from all over the world. I was overwhelmed!

introductions

Soon we were off to what for me was my first haiku gathering, held in a Hall whose walls resounded with the profound but simple verses of the great and ancient haiku poets, of masters and disciples both. The chatter and gesticulations were hard to follow, so much was happening at once. Then four Masters gathered before us to discuss “haiku as poetry.” What delight I took in how seriously these great minds considered such tiny poems in the context of poetry and culture at large. I was mesmerized!

After a short break, I joined a large and enthusiastic group in the lower quarters to construct a book—to actually make a book in an hour! What fun it was to create a quality piece of workmanship in a matter of minutes wherein we were encouraged to inscribe our haiku. What fun measuring, cutting, and gluing as if we were Gutenberg’s apprentices—or the Beowulf monk himself! What pretty, useful, tiny tomes we conjured for later inspiration!

Then there were haiku quilts, thinking like an editor, a history of our venerable venue, each presentation more interesting, informative, and mind-dazzling than the last—which is to say a lot, because the first presentation was so intriguing and inspiring!

What energy and thoughts we took to dinner. Our haiku diners were a veritable galaxy of stars glinting with glee and reminiscences. And the food was delectable, not to mention endless, for those of us who’d worked up bottomless pits of haiku hunger.

Back in the hall, we celebrated a wonderful poet who’d recently left our world of haiku-ing (unless there’s a world where everything is haiku). Sad but all the more beautiful were her haiku in the aftermath of her existence. To be touched like that is to be touched deeply. Everyone sat up straight, with respect, interest riveted.

Soon we were deeply immersed in Chiyo-ni—of ancient times in a strange and wonderful country—and given a lesson in greeting with haiku in the ancient way. My lovely partner wrote this in greeting me (thank you, Ruth):

rainy night haiku

I was moved—to say the least. Then up we stood to receive Japanese candle lanterns so as to set out on a night ginko. We walked silently through the night and rain, listening to sounds we might ordinarily miss. With what strange, beautiful, and solemn attention we stepped through the pristine water, grass, and forest, bearing our long line of blue glowing lanterns, like fireflies in search of deeper experience. We were stilled to silence by the plash of rain and clothing rustling. I wrote

forest patter

Mushroom umbrella

Mushroom umbrella

I was so at home in the dark dripping forest, standing at length in silence, it was as if I’d brought a little of this from home, from the Myrtle Forest at the Edge of the Universe—though the singing of rain there differs.

Soon a few of us returned to workshop haiku. What gentle souls we were, making suggestions anonymously with a sincere desire to improve the magic of each others’ verse, then revealing ourselves as the conjurer of the workshopped haiku out of immediately-felt trust. The Haiku Poet is a sensitive creature, indeed.

Then off to bed this tired old hermit wandered through the cozy dark, to sleep without stirring through the night, till the next morning when we would re-enter the transcendent world of haiku—haiku-ists haiku-ing haiku (achoo)!

late night rain walk

And though some stayed up to the wee hours the night before, no one looked the worse for wear the following morning as we gathered in the Great Haiku Hall. There we played a Haiku Game, getting to know each other—or better. The Grand Haiku Poobah led us though his Haiku on Steroids, sharing his thousand years of albeit humble haiku experience—a generous soul that man! Then for one of the Featured Events of the Getaway: Ancient Masters (though they look so young) guided us on an extensive journey through the Cyber World of the Haiku Chronicles—its history, distribution, technology, and the teamwork involved in this enormous venue for the Ever Evolving World of Haiku. I was dazzled—speechless—swept away by the great symphony of this enthusiastic and dedicated duet. I saw what is possible. Paths broke open before me. Ideas bounced around like hacky sacks in my usually meditative mind. Great thanks to these Giants of Haiku for wandering much further, much farther, than I, to bring us this explosion of information and inspiration!

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Then contest winners announced, a group photograph, a nature walk, sound in haiku—an endless stream of haiku delicacies to enrich and mull over. The day was ceaseless—seemed to stretch to eternity to accommodate an impossible lineup of ten-course haiku meals. I experienced my first kukai, a contest (or ranking) of haiku. That was nerve-racking, but fun. So good to see how it all works, in spirit so unlike the poetry slam. I began to feel dizzy for all the wonder I felt at what so many poets had to offer in readings before and after dinner. And if all the haiku were too much to appreciate, there was a talent show that evening, mostly for comic relief (or so I hoped). Afterward, I could take no more (had groomed a meaningful headache) and excused myself to bed as the party raged into the night.

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

distantly creaking

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) with weightier subject matter

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) present a weightier subject

And still, the following day, there was another full morning of festivities, entertainment, and haiku evolution. First, Haiku Comics: Master Frog and Disciple Frog, like Basho and Sora. Then, believe it or not, Monkeys Invaded My Sacred Palace and Chased Out My Tiger! If ever I was confused by the difference between haiku and senryu, or ignorantly conflated them, the difference was untwisted and unscrewed by our Grand Wizard of Haiku.

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace and Chasing Out the Tiger

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace Chasing Out the Tiger

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

Michael Dylan Welch presenting the book haiku from all of us at the Getaway

Michael Dylan Welch presenting a book of haiku from all of us to Al

By this time, I knew I’d had enough inspiration, information, insight, and ever-increasing interest to hold me till the next Great Haiku Party in the Woods by the Great Water, scheduled for next fall. I set out for my hut so nourished by the Getaway that I hardly noticed the week-long trek back to my little Myrtle Woods by the Edge of the Universe. Haiku fluttered about my head like butterflies around honeysuckle as I skirted the toes of the mountains on my return. I came away with enough gifts to hold me for many months till I grow antsy for the next Great Round of Haiku. I was relieved to find that my secret chanterelles, under the nurturing arms of their spruces, were just popping open their ocher umbrellas.

Golden chanterelles!

Golden chanterelles!

Note: Please visit these links and sources:

https://sites.google.com/site/haikunorthwest/seabeck-haiku-getaway-2014

http://www.seabeck.org/

http://www.haikuchronicles.com/

Stehekin River Washington Photos and Haiku: Fishing for Mosquitoes

what fun! the squirrel
depth-charging the river
with green pine cones

The Sneakiest of All Intruders: The Squirrel

War-mongering squirrel

reading the river
for the biggest rainbow trout—
I’m illiterate!

River's a rune!

River’s a rune!

there the two ducks squat—
on a rock watching me cast
the stream flowing by

Western grebes

Western grebes

across the river
the spinner casts glances
at the tied flies

The fly-fishermen across the river

The fly-fishermen across the river

just one good yank—
keeping the fisher’s spirits alive
for the next day

in my rubber raft—
held up by air by water
held down by stone

Wrenzai headed for other side of river (photo by Fran)

Headed for other side of river (photo by Fran)

not having a net—
tricking the big trout to swim
into a puddle

Tricked trout

Tricked trout

catching many more
mosquito bites than fish
biting my fly

please owl fledgling—
cry all night to your mother
over in the woods

Barred Owl, Waiting for Her Chance

Fledglings are noisy!

just hearing
a mosquito in the dark room
I itch all over

to swat or not
to swat the mosquito is
the question Buddhist

looks like Troy—
the mosquito carcasses
strewn about my legs