"Orch Pugin": An Appreciation

Thanks to Harvey Taylor once again for his comments : 'art' is, essentially, communication...
the poem in a notebook, the photo on a memory card, the guitar in its case, etc, etc--don't they yearn
(allright, metaphorically), to come alive, with appreciation?

One of the definitions of “appreciation” (I just checked!) is to increase in value, as money “appreciates” when invested. I like that connection to art. I agree that poems, photos, music “increase” with an audience.

The date for my piano recital has changed from May 30 to Saturday, June 6, 2015. I’m hoping that whoever is around Milwaukee that afternoon can come to “increase” the work that I’m doing!

I continue, on these last bright days of autumn, with “scrub work”: working on the most challenging passages from all four “new” (to me) piano works. There is definitely satisfaction in seeing the smoothness take form over time—similar, I imagine, to seeing a sculpture emerge from a block of wood or stone. With my shoulder now in better shape, I can put in more time and effort without pain (though I still have to be careful to take frequent breaks).

The book rejection has been softened by having several poems recently accepted by various journals. It is something like having a slot machine pay off every so often: it keeps you plugging away!  One of the poems was one that I wrote, partly on a whim, because of the contest prompt at Zo Magazine. It didn’t win the contest but will be published, along with other “runners up” next January. The poem was a different kind of thing for me because it was a response to a specific painting. I did some research on the Peruvian painter, and then incorporated references to several Peruvian dances in the poem. It occurred to me while writing it that, without the Internet, it would have taken much longer.

The other is a poem I wrote many years ago. I thought of it when Persimmon Tree called for entries from women in the upper Midwest. So I called on my farm roots and re-worked an old poem called “Chicken Dinner.” It was interesting to me to see how easily I could see, at the distance of several years, what needed to be changed/deleted/added.  As I tell students, never throw anything away!

As I grow older, I seem to trust my critical vision more, at least when it comes to writing. However, one never knows. When I take my week’s work to my piano lesson, or a poem to my writing group, there is always something that I overlooked. Again, there are times at every stage in the creative process when we need the input of others.

This last weekend we celebrated my husband Steve’s birthday. Two of our daughters, son-in-law, and two grandsons attended.  One of our daughters has recently returned to piano lessons. She played for me a wonderul piece she had memorized, but then apologized for its not being note-perfect! I disabused her of that goal quickly enough! 

Seven and four, our grandsons have blessedly not yet been burdened with too much self-consciousness about the value or perfection of what they produce creatively. Birthday gifts drawn with markers flowed; books of them, some with written descriptions, were stapled together and presented right along with all of the “bought” gifts.  When I ran out of old songs to sing while we were topping and tailing green beans for the birthday dinner, my grandsons each spontaneously produced original songs about “a tree under me” and about a flower picked for a mother. Partly wishing I had a ubiquitous tape recorder whenever something magical like that happens, I could only listen and appreciate what they brought to my attention.



Is There a Receiver Downfield?


I have not mentioned the fact that the volunteer coordinator of the hospice I have completed training for can now find no facilities (nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, etc) that have pianos—not even out-of-tune uprights. “We have an organ,” one said. “Can’t she bring a keyboard?” asked another.

I hate to be a stickler, but the organ is a very different instrument from the piano; so is the keyboard. Also I was not told that most of my gigs would be in Ozaukee County, and travel expenses would not be compensated.

So I am still waiting to hear of facilities near enough for winter driving conditions and which have a piano.

I’m wondering why pianos are no longer considered standard issue for facilities dealing with the old and the sick.  Is it that they bother people seeking rest, open-season as they usually are for anyone who wants to sit down and try their hand? That itself is an issue that sets pianists apart from many other instrumentalists—our piano is not portable, and every piano is different.

I also indicated in my last post that my motive for volunteer work was perhaps less than altruistic: i.e. needing my work to be “useful” in some conventional way. 

I do believe it true that art needs to be received. It is not enough merely to be created and then shoved away in a drawer or expressed in solitude. There are many exceptions, I’m sure, including Emily Dickinson, a poet I deeply admire. There are those who are reclusive my nature or by circumstance. I see myself as an introvert (and recommend the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by  Susan Cain). I often prefer my own company simply because of the effort it takes for me to enter a world which, yes, is always talking.  And yet I talk a lot too. I have kept an on-and-off journal since I was 16, and this blog provides me the opportunity to link my ideas and experiences with those around me (far and near).

I have found feedback to be essential in the development of whatever talent I have. I mean "feedback,"not only in the sense of teachers and corrections (there is SUCH a difference between playing “just for myself” and under an experienced teacher’s guidance), but also in the sense of support and encouragement, especially if one tends to occasionally lack in self-confidence (and who doesn’t? Having my poetry group back and re-united last week gave me a tremendous boost).

But aside from even that, there is, I believe, a sense of a work’s "wanting" to be received, heard, seen, by someone other than its author, composer, etc.  Not to get too post-structural here, but it is one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of my lifetime that quantum particles only “tend” to exist. Unless someone is “paying” attention, objects have only a “tendency” to exist. Now I am no physicist, and I am not the first to see a connection between the artistic impulse and physics, particularly poetry. And even if untrue on the macro level, it is a “felt truth” for many artists. The work WANTS to EXPAND: to be experienced by new eyes and ears, in new contexts.

As Baubo, one of my alter-egos, says in the poem “Baubo Considers Questions of Quantum Physics” (from my chapbook Avatars of Baubo, available on this website),

Stay with the hard questions,

I say severely to my

self in the mirror.


Like Schroedinger's cat

you have only a tendency

to exist. All depends


on what you're looking

for, what you believe



As Libby Larsen, whose “Mephisto Rag” I performed a few years ago in recital, said,I wanted to write something that carries in the air. [. . .]A piece cannot live until an audience lives with it.”

And yet it seems so easy to confuse that need with the ego’s need for self-justification and (in some cases) self-aggrandizement, especially when “worth” is so often determined by competition and the economy one lives in.

For a typical discussion of different approaches to the question of whether or not art needs an audience (in this case photography), check out Darwin Wiggett’s blog. This posting ends with a lovely piece of performance art by Marina Abramovi. You can access this here.

All said, it seems to me that, yes, art can indeed be created in isolation. However, it becomes something new, something more, when shared with an attentive audience, which becomes co-creator of the event.  A recital, a poetry reading, can become a potlatch of gifts.Watercolor by James G. Swan depicting the Klallam people of chief Chetzemoka at Port Townsend, with one of Chetzemoka's wives distributing potlatch

A mother may give birth to her child by herself, cut the cord, and nurse it, but the child has a hard time discovering who s/he is until s/he leaves home.

Perhaps it takes a village to raise a work of art.

(Motherpeace Tarot, Vicki Noble)



A woman is pictured scrubbing the Underground track in 1944 (British Pathe—

My piano teacher Stefanie calls it “scrubwork:” taking difficult, troublesome passages and meticulously taking them apart to see what you have not seen before that is creating the problem. I am at this stage now with all four new pieces. With the Bach, Beethoven, and even the Rachmaninoff, it is often just a matter of fingering (still)—working and re-working the fingering in measures that stop the “flow” so that they can be brought up to speed. With the Golec and, perhaps surprisingly, Beethoven, and, OK, at times Rachmaninoff and even Bach, it is my old bugaboo--rhythm.

Yes, it’s true, as Stefanie has told me, that one only needs to count to four (and multiples of four), but this is surprisingly difficult with slow, uneven passages. For instance, in Golec’s Toccata, written this century, there come passages like this, counted out in 6/4 time (quarter note gets a beat; six beats to the measure):

play and hold and two and play (three) play (and) hold and four and five play hold and six and

given that each of the plays is on a different octave or five-fingered chord in separate hands, it takes some scrubwork, for sure, to make the rhythm automatic—to get it into one’s ear where it will hopefully hold. And then to get those passages up to the same overall tempo (eventually 120 quarter notes a minute) as the rest of the piece, much of which is six sixteenths a measure, is the next task.

It is also the time in the process when I am tentatively trying out memory in the Bach and Beethoven, which just about have to be memorized for the scholarship auditions. I take it a few measures at a time, adding to whatever aural and finger memory are already there, the clincher: the cognitive realization  that here, where I’m having trouble, it’s a jump to a D, and there, it’s a shift to a C.  For me, all three kinds of memory have to be soundly in place for me to attempt performing.  (I will not be memorizing the pieces for the recital—I have talked about why in a previous post.)

Scrubwork. Satisfying. It’s work and it usually produces immediate results.  I remember Barbra Streisand saying, long ago, how much satisfaction she got from scrubbing out her pantry. It’s similar.

Scrubwork also applies to poetry revision.  I have been involved in the last several days re-working a poem from broken line form to “letter” form for a specific journal seeking “letters” about “protest.” My original poem, rejected several times, is called “Protesting ca.2012” and is about an American’s following from behind her screen the protests and resulting imprisonments of the members of Pussy Riot Punk Band.  I have never been completely satisfied with it (too one-dimensional, as poems about protest can be). But over the period of several days, changing to the letter form, the whole meaning has changed and, I hope, become more complex. Now it is a letter to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Aleyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich from a shape-shifting Black Madonna, Kali, and Tituba (American slave hung as a witch in Salem), responding to statements by Pussy Riot calling on the Virgin Mary to “be a feminist” and accusing Americans of being too comfortable in their ways of protesting.  Complete with illustrations, I think it now works, at least for me, having more layers and more shades of meaning. We’ll see whether the editors agree.

Meanwhile, as reported in Al-Monitor, The Pulse of the Middle East, “Iraqi Poets [Are] en route to Baghdad.” Omar Al-Jaffar writes:

                On Oct. 11, three poets from Karbala province will initiate the “Iraqi Poets’ Anti-Violence Convoy,” which will take off from the southern province of Basra and cross through nine other provinces. Members of the convoy will recite poetry in public squares near historic landmarks. According to the organizers of the convoy, the initiative aims to help eliminate the rampant violence in the country.

                Iraqi activists are constantly working to hold cultural and civil events to promote peaceful coexistence between groups and encourage the culture of moderation instead of the hard-line religious tone that has resounded in Iraqi cities.

                “The idea came about while we, a group of poets who believe in life, were thinking about the need for coexistence and tolerance in Iraq. This initiative aims to turn Iraq into a country of peace and diversity, where people are treated as beings with sacred value who must be preserved and safeguarded against all forms of violence,” Nabil Nehme al-Jabiri, a member of the preparatory committee of the anti-violence convoy, told Al-Monitor.

                “The convoy will carry a significant humanitarian message, whose motto is: no to violence,” he said.

                “Participants will recite poetry in public squares and in front of passersby but will not perform in halls. They will make poetry come alive, as poetry is first and foremost a way of being. Therefore, intellectuals would play their role as people who interact with their surroundings,” Jabiri continued.

                Since the beginning of the year, Iraq has experienced a sharp rise in the level of violence, which was further exacerbated when the Islamic State (IS) captured entire cities and provinces in a campaign that started on June 10. This has led to the aggravation of the security situation and an increase in killings, which amounted to 12,976 as of October.

                Jabiri said, “We posted the event on Facebook and the convoy soon turned into a global project.” He said they received “solidarity statements from cultural and intellectual figures and institutions from Europe and the Arab world.”

                The European Culture Forum in Belgium expressed solidarity with the anti-violence convoy and declared that it would start a similar activity at the same time, bearing the same name and motto. Moreover, the Iraqi Cultural Center in Tunisia, in addition to groups of Tunisian journalists and literary salons in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, showed solidarity with the convoy, according to the organizers.

                “The rampant violence in the world has turned into a phenomenon with well-defined features, which necessitates a counterculture. It is our responsibility to take to the street and take on our role to build a society free of violence and extremism. The convoy started with poetry, but it will end up affecting individuals and be part of their life. We hope we can bring about a change through the words of love and sincere behavior,” Jabiri said.

                Hussein al-Qassed, a poet, academic and member of the Central Council of the Iraqi National Writers Union, said, “The convoy will carry a message of love for everyone and is open for anyone to join in all Iraqi cities. It will take off on Oct. 11 near the statue of Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and will travel across the cities of Nasiriyah, Samawah, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Karbala, Hillah and finally Baghdad on Oct. 17.”

                Qassed told Al-Monitor, “The anti-violence convoy was an initiative based on personal efforts and is not affiliated with any political or cultural party.”

I have quoted a significant part of this story (which came to me via a link on Twitter) in hopes that you will read all of it. It brings a different kind of meaning to the “protest” of art. Compared to Pussy Riot, which has taken a (perhaps necessary) aggressive and confrontational approach to protesting the tyranny of Vladimir Putin, Jabiri and his like are taking a different approach, trusting poetry’s tolerance for inclusiveness and ambiguity to counter the rhetoric of hard-line religious extremists.

I think of Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass (s. 51):

 Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

 I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

And W.B. Yeats, who wrote in The Celtic Twilight around the turn of the 20th century:

We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images. And so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even fiercer life because of our quiet.

Of course, Jabiri’s approach reminds me also of Mahatmas Gandhi's and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s. I read recently that the recent protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, can be divided into two groups: those who use the approach of civil disobedience, learned and practiced in the 1960s in America, and those who believe that modern times demand more aggressive tactics.

Who is an artist? What kind of scrubwork is required for art to come to fruition? How beneficial is its performance? And in what ways?

I woke at 6 a.m. this morning, my mind full of these thoughts and connections. Today I go to my piano lesson, see a doctor, run an errand for a friend, watch a baseball game.

Somewhere inbetween I will do interval work on the stationary bike to scrub out my clogged arteries:  starting at 92 beats per minute, I work my heart up to 140 or so (my limit) and then back, and forth, and back again.


The Usefulness of Art, Redux

I have been working on a piece about Pussy Riot for a journal with an upcoming, advertised theme of “protest.”  It has brought up a number of old issues for me, including the “usefulness” of art and, by extension, art as protest.

Dana Stevens, writer for Slate magazine, tells us that, “’Poetry makes nothing happen,’  wrote W.H. Auden in a poem on the occasion of W.B.. Yeat’s death in 1939.[. . .] Auden mourned “the incapacity of even the most politically engaged art to stave off the awful fate looming over Europe at the time. But the rest of the stanza makes clear just how important this ‘nothing’ that poetry enables is to the survival of human culture: ‘It survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper;…/….it survives/A way of happening, a mouth.’”

It is perhaps synchronous that, recently, several friends/readers have sent me articles or political cartoons or other material related to this matter.  This “apologia” for music is from a forwarded Facebook post from the Seattle opera.

And Pat, from Loveland, CO, sends me yesterday’s Mallard Fillmore cartoon about "protest" art.

So what is the purpose of poetry? of art? of music? of Pussy Riot?

More interesting, why am I even asking the question?

More thanks to Carolyn of Green Bay, WI, who sent me the link to Kate Taylor’s article Creation theory: Scientists are unlocking the biological secrets of creativity  in The Globe and Mail. According to Daniel Levitin, McGill University professor and author of This Is Your Brain on Music, “Those who do not come from artistic families often feel they have to justify what they do, especially if it doesn’t make much money, which is often the only measure of success. Here is a justification for their passion.”

He goes on to say, “Still, the notion that music, painting and literature are fulfilling ancient functions that make us human – and that science can prove it – could be very attractive to those who have spent a lifetime arguing that the arts should get more respect, and often rely on job-creation arguments.

“’The neurological argument has something to do with what it takes the species to survive in changing conditions,’ said Robert Sirman, the recently retired director of the Canada Council for the Arts. ‘I don’t want to fall back on a single argument for the arts … but I think attaching them to humanity rather than to part of the economic system is the future.’

“He cautions, however, against the dangers of just swapping social utility for economic utility. The English philosopher Alain de Botton has been criticized for presenting art as a kind of social work, an idea articulated in his current show Art as Therapy at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, where paintings are analyzed for their ability to make us feel less lonely, escape our money worries or give us a break from our cynicism. Here, the idea that visual art should be immediately and obviously improving seems reductionist in the extreme.”

Full confession here: my volunteering to play for hospice patients may be motivated, in part, by such reductionist thinking and by such a need to justify my spending thousands of hours on something that, as Dana Stevens says in a recent “Bookends” discussion around the theme, “Should literature be considered useful?”: “Literature may not be in a strict sense useful—may even, by its nature, mock ‘usefulness’ as a category, allying itself first with pleasure, idleness and play—but its necessity seems self-evident from the mere fact of its continued existence, so inextricably bound up with our species’ own.”

Her co-panelist, Adam Kirsch, poet and literary critic, remarks, “The life that literature really equips us to live is not the one Wordsworth derided as devoted to ‘getting and spending,’ but the second life of inwardness and imagination. For those who not believe in the reality of that second life, no amount of insisting on the usefulness of literature will justify it; for those who live it, no such insisting is necessary.” 

John Darnielle, recently longlisted for the National Book Awards for his novel Wolf in White Van, offered this comforting (to me) thought in a recent interview with Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times: “…creative work is labor, like any other kind of labor. It’s got value and it takes your time and it’s useful to people, depending. The difference is if I make a wrench, anybody who picks it up can use that wrench. With creative work, not everybody’s creative work is going to be useful to everybody—it will only be useful to the people who connect with it.”

But John is also a musician, and gets paid for it. He goes on to say, “being a musician is what I do for a living.”

But what of amateurs? I raised this question in two previous blog posts, “To Be of Use” (September 3) and “Starlings, Bowerbirds and the Purpose of Art” (August 25).  I’m not sure I feel any more resolution of the issue that I did then.  But it is somewhat helpful to know that others are dealing with the same questions.  But not all arrive at the same answers. Here are my current ones:

Did I grow up in a family where art was venerated? No.

Do I make any money from my art? No.

Have I therefore had to find time for poetry and music inbetween other responsibilities? Yes.

Is art an indulgence, a pass-time? Yes, but see below.

Are poetry and music essential  for me to live a meaningful life? Yes.

Do the poetry and music I make need to be shared, considered by others (how many?), to be considered “useful”?  Depends.  Possibly. Sometimes. Why else do I seek to publish, write this blog, plan a recital?

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Aleyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich depend on Vladimir Putin as well as on Twitter for a response to their art.  On whom do we depend, here in the United States?










Rejection and....Acceptance

My poetry manuscript was rejected by one of the two presses I sent it to last month. Rejections are never pleasant: it’s sort of like being slapped. First there’s the surprise (but it’s really good! what did I do wrong?) and then the sting (they thought my work was terrible) and then, if one is a) experienced or b) lucky, one reconsiders the work: could it use further revision after such and such a time? does it need another pair (or two or three) of eyes before you send it out again? Luckily, for me, my poetry group is reconvening next week after a several-months absence.

Gotham Writers’ website offers good advice about receiving rejections.  They start by reminding us that “Rejection is part of a writer’s life. Anyone who wants to make it as a writer needs to learn to face rejection bravely, gracefully, and frequently.”   They add three tips for coping, the second of which I mention above:

  1. Laugh at your rejections.
  2.  Learn from your rejections.
  3.  Always have a new project underway, something that will give you hope no matter how many rejections come your way for the previous project.

And it helps to remember that we are in good company (though they don’t mention any poetry, I notice).  Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time received 29 rejections before finally being accepted. Beatrix Potter received so many rejections of The Tale of Peter Rabbit that she ultimately decided to self-publish.

Rejections slips are usually pro forma. The one I just received is typical and went like this: Dear (author’s name): Thank you so much for sending us (title of work)  for our consideration. After careful review, we have decided to pass. We wish you the best of luck in placing (title of work).  

There are exceptions. Years ago the editor of The Missouri Review sent me a form rejection that was still so humane and generous that I had it taped over my desk until I recently gave it to a younger poet. Basically, it reminded the author that taste is subjective: that the very work he was rejecting might very well appeal to another editor; that unfortunately he had to turn down many, many excellent works per year because of lack of space. He encouraged (me) not to give up but to keep writing and to keep sending my work out.  Even though it was a “form” letter, it encouraged me every time I looked at it.

But perhaps even it was not as encouraging as this (perhaps apocryphal) rejection letter quoted, again, on the Gotham Writers website:

Rejection from a Chinese economic journal:

 “We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.”

Another kind of encouragement has come from my friend and fellow poet, Antler, who speaks of all poets (I’m paraphrasing badly here) as bringing their unique vision, their own voice to the great circle of writers,  something like we imagine story-tellers of ancient times to bring their own imaginative skills to share around a campfire.

I like the oral aspect of that vision, and, indeed, Antler has always been an excellent reader of his work. It reminds me that poets share their work orally as well as in print. Below are just a few “voices” who have brought their work to the shared circle of writers:

                Louise Glück                                                                   

Louisa Loveridge Gallas



Edward Hirsch





Judith Harway and Dan Armstrong

                                                                                                                              Kathleen Dale

                                                                           Bill Murtaugh