This Choice is Who You Are has been my mantra these past years: a mantra for becoming the person I want to be. I believe that choosing to live with the attention that poetry demands is a good start.
In the podcasts, I look to other artists to learn from their experiences.
I ask poets how their work with poetry influences the choices they make in their daily lives, and how these, in turn, affect their sense of self and their relationships.
How are they using the experience of art to shape The Good Life for themselves?
Tim Mayo lives and writes in Brattleboro, Vermont, where he is also a mental health worker at the Brattleboro Retreat and a substitute teacher. He holds an ALB, cum laude, from Harvard University and an MFA in Writing & Literature from Bennington College. He’s also been studying circus arts and flying trapeze at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vermont, off and on for the last ten years.
Tim Mayo’s work has appeared in a long list of journals, and his many awards include the International Merit Award from Atlanta Review 1999 and 2000; Finalist in the 2009 Paumanok Poetry Award Contest and five Pushcart nominations.
As the title suggests, Tim Mayo’s carefully structured book deals with the multiple forms of separation: separation from the past, from a sense of family, a sense of belonging and ultimately from the self. His poems capture the sense of alienation many of us feel in this contemporary world where we want (as the poet does in “The Yellow Afternoon”):“the inexplicable to be/explained and the eggshell of answers/to close over the yoke of our questions.” Full of surprising phrases and metaphors (“Trapezing,” “Darning Needle,” “Self-Storage”) the poems ring with important truths such as: “you must accept the perennial fly/its karmic place in your ointment,” and “what do we know about the world/except what we know about ourselves.” These poems are extraordinary and generous gifts.
—Patricia Fargnoli, former New Hampshire Poet Laureate, author of Winter and Then, Something
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It was one of those days that the Norwegian poet Tor Obrestad called white days. I’m sure he’s not the only one to have called them that. But translating his work, it was the first time I’d run across the phrase. I found “white days” much more beautiful than “overcast”. More sensual. And therefore more meaningful.
Usually, when my translation work comes up in conversation, Norwegians comment on how rich the English language is compared to Norwegian. Then I spend ten minutes trying to convince them otherwise.
Yes, the English dictionary is thicker, unwieldy at times for even a native speaker. And I suppose that is the point. More does not necessarily mean better–even when it comes to vocabulary. Throwing more words at an experience doesn’t guarantee better communication.
I find a lot of the English words to be analytical. A self-conscious step removed from sensual experience. And it is my impression that, when it comes to self-conscious descriptors, English can’t touch German.
Take the word angst, for example. One cure for which is Norwegian nature.
This weekend’s hike (2 hours) began as a walk along a tractor road. Then a steep hike, stepping stone to tuft to stone to avoid the gaps that can clamp down suddenly around your ankle to jerk you into stillness. Down again, and over the moorland (giving up being prissy about wet socks). As we climbed again, balancing on the sharp edges of quartz-lined rocks, we could hear an underground brook. The Norwegian word is pipler. Not babbling, not bubbling, not popping.
It’s times like this that I wonder over what I have gained and what I have lost settling here. How tied is the landscape to the language? What does it mean to be tied to the land and still not tied to the language? I suppose it leaves me still searching always to describe; leaves me picking apart the experience, and comparing it to what went before–what might be transferable as a kind of metaphor, because I have never heard that sound anywhere but on the moorland here, or along the shore where the water and air tangle between the stones.
Then again, I can recall so easily the hot, gritty sidewalk-dust air of Bakersfield. I don’t know of a specific word for that either.
At the peak, the wind blew my phone from the selfie stick and it landed face-first on a rock that shattered the glass. So much for the Survivor case.
I knew there would be some kind of divine punishment for getting a selfie stick.
I’ve forced myself to run. Forced myself to move through the morning asanas. I’ve had a good breakfast for the first time in weeks: real eggs and homemade salsa, instead of a plastic cup of protein powder and tap water. And still I have to force myself to sit up straight at the desk. And force myself to write.
These days staying healthy is taking all the discipline I have. And then some.
Take a deep breath. Shoulders down. Let the back expand.
I am ten again and swimming in a spring somewhere in Nevada. And matter how bright the sun is shining on the surface, cold currents bite at my ankles, like tiny monsters.
These are deep days. I believe most writers will admit to being seduced by their own darkness: when everything appears flat, the tug of anxiety and the welling of tears from somewhere unknown can actually be a comfort: there is still a bit of dimension, a form of sorts.
And tiny monsters can be muses. Unreliable, but they tap you on the shoulder just before you wake, and they whisper things to make your heart beat hard enough to force you to take notice: Your heart is beating.
I’m never more in touch with everyone I’ve ever been, than when I’m on the edge of drowning. All memories are comforting memories, seen from at least one perspective. So knowing this too will pass is a comfort–and not.
In the photos I take on hikes, the light and the shadow interplay, but is it difficult these days to experience both at once.
To engage with one, without losing sight of the other.
Every time I read about the “creative class” I feel uncomfortable. I thought that we (speaking as a former American, and now as a Norwegian) have been deliberately seeking to dismantle the social classes of previous centuries.
Isn’t the “creative class” is just another division of privilege? These people who set themselves above working class (who get their hands dirty), and the blue-collar workers (who are, apparently, creativity-devoid drones); who position themselves as more sensitive, more attuned, and somehow entitled.
Only the privileged can leave the grid, trespass in the wild, and exploit what is left of the wild to find their individual authenticity. Not that it usually ends well for those who do manage it. Even if we all had good field guides to edible plants, it’s hardly a sustainable prospect for our species. Someone has to hold down the fort: work in the hiking boots factories, print and bind the field guides, while the chosen ones instagram the view for us.
I am torn about projects like kickstarter and patreon. One the one hand, it is an inspiring, class-defying solution for arts patronage. On the other hand, they seem contribute to the climate of reward-for-potential. A world of virtually realized ideas.
Obviously, I am not even on the forward edge of the wave of the desire for real craftsmanship. But are we so seduced by the desire for belonging and association that the actual quality of the product no longer matters? It is the experience of proximity to whatever is popular? Not coffee, but the experience. Not the experience, but the image of the experience?
It’s all about branding. Bluff, pose and con. It’s still the cult of personality. Our current obsession with “living in the now” that also manages to keep us continually entertained: Nothing really needs to be taken seriously. We are all post-truth anyway.
How was the earnest Occupy Wall Street swept out of the way for the bread and circus of this election cycle?
The history of our cultural self-destruction might well be written in sarcasm font.
Not that it’s a new concept. History repeats itself. For example, the Catholic church sold indulgences, and today quasi-secular meditation gurus will sell you a mantra.
Surely even before Oscar Wilde, artists liked to be recognized for their personalities as much as (or more than) their physical labor. And with the rise of conceptual art, artists only had to point to a bit of clever interpretation of the obvious. It’s all in the packaging of the commentary, the marketing, and the branding of the mouthpiece. No investment necessary in anything other than one’s self.
I think it is a little ironic that in a culture that seems to be increasingly disinterested in history, people seem to be increasingly concerned about their “image”. Their place in the world, rather than their relationships with the world. Even “documentaries” have become little more than infomercials for people-as-brands. Singers. Murderers. Gurus.
Today I saw a video with celebrities encouraging people to vote.
So we can see a celebrity’s naked penis. Wink, wink.
Bread and Circus.
I’ve always had little crushes on the bad boy celebrities, so I’m not saying I am above it all. I’m not saying that I don’t secretly want to be in the club, want a spot of my own on Olympus with all the other flawed demigods who can rise above their little foibles (ranging from illegal drug use to the eternal torment of some inconsequential mortal). Of course I do. And the Internet (which now has an identity all its own: as in, “this latest leaked sex video broke the Internet”; and which also demands capitalization from my spellcheck) makes us think it’s possible. The demigods may just reach down, once your twitter followers hit so many K, and pull you up onto the mount. For a while.
Even the presocratic philosophers believed that good reputation was a factor in happiness: a kind of fame, I suppose.
But what matters? The fact that Gandhi is promoted as an icon for good, doesn’t change the fact that he was a sick son-of-a-bitch who slept naked with his grandniece. People forget that he was disavowed by many of his followers before his death.
Ben Jonson was a much beloved playwright who overshadowed the “upstart […]plagiarist” Shakespeare during their lifetimes.
Michelangelo relied on the church (so did Dali – much to his fellow Surrealists’ dismay) to fund his projects. He bowed, and bent, and served in order to paint.
Ah, the complex details of history; the complicated lives.
Not that I’m a historian.
Last year, when I was studying in Lillehammer, I kept passing a poster in the hallway at the university. There were three photos of the same young woman: one with her holding a baby, one in which she wears glasses and holds a book, and one with her holding a bottle of beer. The tagline was something like “What do you want to project to the world?”
While at the same time we are touting the importance of – and claiming our commitment to—authenticity?
That young woman should be allowed to be all three of those images. Whittling ourselves down for the sake of branding means loss, in terms of the complexity of our humanity for the sake of a image, an income, or (the hope of) a legacy.
Writers who have never published a best seller, sell courses on writing a best seller. (Writers whose specialty is writing about writing, or writing “content” are probably the only people who get paid to write.) Writing gurus crawl out of the nether by the hundreds of thousands, telling you how to make a fortune branding yourself. It is not an uncommon question: Do I write the book first, or develop my brand?
They tell us: Quit your job. Believe in yourself. Invest in yourself. Write your own narrative; create your own brand: now. Promote your “acclaimed” novel, your “Pulitzer-nominated” book (for the record, you can nominate your own book if you are an American citizen – some people have already noticed this little marketing gem).
Gertrude Stein was independently wealthy, and a master at branding herself. I will always admire her for both her writing and her audacity. But Wallace Stephens was an insurance lawyer until he died, and he is a good enough role model for me. I will leave the new creative class to their branding. I am too old for that club, anyway. I’ll continue to work a day job that puts me squarely (safely housed and fed) in the lower middle class, and I will write.
I’m no entrepreneur. I’m a poet.
The bulk of my books will continue to be remaindered after a few years in my publisher’s warehouse, but every now and then someone will write to let me know a poem meant something to them on a particular day. Then they will forget my name.
But at least, when it’s over, it will have been an authentic run, in real time.
They say look to the source of your envy to find out what you desire. Yeah, I’ve been doing that.
Now it’s time to figure out how to move on.
I am hereby giving up any and all self-conscious attempts to brand myself. To sell myself as an image. It has been like trying on clothes for paper dolls.
“Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.”
– Edward Albee
Or out of her way.
When I was 26, the theater department head told me he was a friend of Susan Sontag, and he was going to send her my scripts. He invited me to stay in town the year after I graduated – he called it a New Play Festival – and I could stage my experimental plays at the university: access to actors and technicians, and a black box.
I did get to stage my work (despite a “supportive” professor who went to the dean and tried to get the whole thing shut down in order to protect me from myself). I got good reviews from the local paper, worked with talented people, and learned a lot.
Of course, my scripts never got to Sontag. And I know now how absurd the thought was, and wonder if the man had been drunk at lunch on a Wednesday when he told me he was so impressed.
I was set to apply to graduate school. But couldn’t afford the application fees.
The story I’ve been telling is that when I moved to Norway later that year (unexpectedly, because that is how love is), I contacted the theater and asked if I could do volunteer work. But the American dramaturge I spoke with told me that they didn’t use volunteers in Norwegian theater; unions were strict. But a few days later he sent me a poetry manuscript for translation – one he didn’t have time to do himself. When I balked, he explained that knowing your own language well was more important than knowing the original language well. In some ways, 20-something years (and nearly as many books of translations) later, I agree with him. And not. But that is a digression.
I worked very closely with the author of that first book. Then a second book, another author. It began a informal apprenticeship in poetry, with many excellent Norwegian writers. This lead to my own books, and my own work being translated.
I told myself I was going back to my roots. After all, I had written poetry as a child and teen (who hasn’t?), and had even taken graduate courses form a celebrated poet who humiliated me, but gave me an A;a man whose work I still admire greatly—though perhaps not so much his teaching techniques.
But this week, attending a theater festival, all these forgotten details rushed over me. I hadn’t given up that easily. I wrote four plays the first year I was in Norway. I remembered handing one full-length script to a director who weighed it in his hand, smiled and said, “You must have put a lot of work into this.”
Clearly, he had no intention of reading it.
I was never under the delusion that I was the Next Big Thing on the Great White Way, but I had enjoyed the privilege of being taken seriously.
Several times over the next twenty years, I started and stopped. There were the small excursions into performance work. The libretto that I got a grant to finish, then a grant to produce. But the composer flaked, and the producer dropped the ball. And I shelved it.
I guess it has been easier to forget those failures.
No, not the failures, but the giving-up. Because that is worse.
My sixth poetry collection is coming out just before Christmas. (I am hoping it will appeal to the middle-age market, since it is all about mid-life reckoning, and carpe diem: clearly, this is not a coincidence).
I have a first draft of a bad novel. An outline for a playtext. And I have discovered several old documents on this laptop. One-acts. Fragments.
I have a sputtering start to what is probably my fifth blog, which seems not to have a focus this time around.
I have no idea where to go from here.
This week Collin Kelly, at the Modern Confessional (a long-running blog with a clear focus) asks, “How many publications are enough?”
A part of me says it’s time to chuck genre and forms. To chuck reliance upon approval.
To write. To focus on that, and trust that I don’t need to please the gatekeepers to the Susan Sontags of this world. Not now. Have I earned that? Does one need to earn that?
Maybe it is time to see if this very long distance has just been a great big circle.