Monday, February 8, 2016

is it flowers?

Poets think they're pitchers when they're really catchers.

- Jack Spicer

The above quotation is lifted from an essay by Charles Simic "Notes on Poetry and Philosophy" which you can find in his book The Life of Images.

Simic talks bout how we cannot will our metaphors, how words have a mind of their own. "It's like saying, "I wanted to go to church but the poem took me to the dog races."" He says, "When it first happened I was horrified. It took me years to admit that the poem is smarter than I am. Now I go where it wants to go."

"The labour of poetry is finding ways through language to point to what cannot be put into words."

I think this is something that anyone creative can relate to - that moment when you realize how you've less control over this thing you're making than you might like. This novel I'm writing. I begin thinking I'd like it to be a bit more like this writer's work, a bit like that novel I love, that it's shape should be thus, and that the language should be so. But what ends up happening is that I'm following it, I'm trying to catch up with it. I'm listening for it, and hoping for it. What it can be is the sum of what I know right now, what I'll learn while writing and waiting. It's going to be what it can be, limited by my skills and talent, the time I have to lavish upon it, intervening factors, interruptions, serendipities.

The thought that there is so little control might be paralyzing, I suppose, or totally liberating. It's part of the play, part of opening oneself up to unexpected possibilities.

In photography, one follows the light. Who knows what the subject will be. There, too, I'm trying to say things that I can't say with words.

The photo as utterance. Sometimes a stutter. Sometimes a breathing out. A held breath. 

This week was busy, and most of my free time went into thinking about the thing I'm writing. A lot of nothing is happening in my writing at present. I'm trusting that this is what it needs, and go on calling what I'm doing, "writing." 

So I took the photos I could take and didn't allow myself to overthink them. I went to the light with what I had on hand. The book is my super dog-eared copy of The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks. The flowers are last week's flowers. 

Thanks to someone on Facebook, I was led to this really cool website on handwriting, called, Handwritten, and to this interview with Karan Mahajan about his process. 

DEMETRI RAFTOPOULOS: You mention in Poets & Writers that you wrote one of your novels by hand. Do you always write first drafts by hand, or only certain kinds of things?

KARAN MAHAJAN: Increasingly, I write my first drafts of every kind of project by hand—fiction, non-fiction, reviews. Drafts are not a writing problem; they are an emotional problem. Usually, you haven’t broken through the material in the way you should have. When you type out first drafts, you get needlessly attached to the language you’ve used, and this keeps you from moving on.
 Writing by hand also slows me down. I tend to write first drafts in a panic of excitement, and I’m calmed by the analogue action of handwriting.

And then, this:

This cancels self-criticism immediately; unless you have truly ugly, banged-up handwriting, everything you write will be visually and stylistically unified by ink. Better still, in an age of Internet-rehab apps like Freedom and SelfControl, nothing approaches the uncluttered nondigital quiet of a page. Take confidence in the fact that much of our canon was composed on paper. But mostly, when you achieve a flow, you're much less likely to break it on the page than on a screen—you'll be less tempted to double backwards into revision, checking e-mail, opening a tab. I found this to be true when I wrote the first complete draft of my second novel, The Association of Small Bombs. For years I'd been struggling to make progress, only to lapse back into revision. The minute I committed to paper, the story ribboned forward, inventing itself. I had never felt anything like it.”

This came to me when I had just started remembering how I wrote Rumi and the Red Handbag. With essays and poems, for me, the notebook is a given. But with longer pieces, inevitably I spend more time on the computer. But, I also go back and forth between my notebook and the machine. 

There are long intervals where I write solely in the notebook. Yes, with my purple Edison fountain pen (1.1 nib), and a certain kind of ink. I also write in a diary, and go back and forth between that and the notebook. 

Even the act of sitting with a pen poised over paper, thinking, is very much part of the process and it allows you to feel you're writing in a way that just staring out the window doesn't. Anyone walking in on you would immediately know what you're up to. 

What I love about what Karan Mahajan says is that the flow of handwriting really does keep you 'ribboning' forward. I love my computer. I love the time it saves. But it's to the slow rhythm of handwriting that I keep coming back when I need to solve a problem or answer a question or come up with a new scene or image. 

Let's return to the Simic book. In an essay on a small untitled ink wash by Eva Hesse, Simic says,

"There are works of art that can be confidently described as minor and of marginal importance, perhaps even to the artist in question, that for reasons far from clear, one can't get enough of." 

He ends by saying:

"The simplest test for the strength of any work of art is how long one can bear to look at it. This work passes the test for me." 
"Being a poet, I know what she was after, I, too, wish to make contact with some unknown person's inner life. Our mutual hope is to bequeath a phrase or an image to dreamers so that we may live on in reverie. Because she has done that to me, I have no choice but to revisit this little work, again and again." 

The encounter Simic has with this painting reassures me. It reminds me I'm not alone in wishing for a work of art, a book, a poem, a painting with which to make contact. And if you go looking, you find them. I keep coming back to my favourite books, and there are paintings I've lived with for twenty years and have never wearied of breathing with them, of meeting with them in certain reveries.

There's no one who understands the poetics of reveries more than Bachelard, who says:

"What a magnification of breath there is when the lungs speak, sing, make poems! Poetry helps one breathe well. Is it necessary to add that in poetic reverie, the triumph of calm, the summit of confidence in the world, one breathes well." 

And on the act of writing he says, 

"Under the pen, the anatomy of syllables slowly unfolds. The word lives syllable by syllable, in danger of internal reveries."

"A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one not dream while writing. It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream. If only one could write for himself alone. How hard is the destiny of a maker of books!"

What You Cannot Hold

by Rainier Maria Rilke

You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins behind you.

Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.

Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.

The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.


The Life Being Lived

By Rilke

And yet, though we strain
against the deadening grip
of daily necessity,
I sense there is this mystery:

All life is being lived.

Who is living it, then?
Is it the things themselves,
or something waiting inside them,
like an unplayed melody in a flute?

Is it the winds blowing over the waters?
Is it the branches that signal to each other?

Is it flowers
interweaving their fragrances,
or streets, as they wind through time?

Is it animals, warmly moving,
or the birds, that suddenly rise up?

Who lives it, then? God, are you the one
who is living life?


I like this advice of Rilke: to enter the breathing that is more than your own. And his questioning, always, this. This opening up to the mystery, the mystery of all living things, the mystery of flowers. (Not so different from Clarice Lispector in The Stream of Life....this book I breathe with, with which I cannot live without).

"What am I doing in writing you? I'm trying to photograph perfume."

"Now I'm going to speak of the sadness of flowers in order to feel more fully the order of what exists."

This was a week of scrambling to find something to photograph. Anything.

And here is one who is living life.

First, a little stretching before we begin.

Next, a bit of reclining.

Lastly, a bit of sitting, with bright eyes.

I bought Chloe a tiny pot of succulents for her windowsill.

Dragged out the rocks I usually have on my study windowsill.

And lastly, the new sugar bowl from Winners. (The lid on our previous sugar bowl had been broken for years). (The sugar bowl is always changing....etc).

Other last things:

Would love to see this show of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun at The Met in NYC. Alas. It's likely a once in a lifetime exhibit.

Finished reading: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. From an article in the New York Times:

In the story, Lucy becomes a novelist because, having been rescued from despair by books as a child, she wants to help alleviate others’ loneliness. 
What about Ms. Strout? 
“I write because I want the reader to read the book when they may need it,” Ms. Strout said in an email. “For example, when I first read ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’ I thought: ‘Wow, I really need this book!’ So I always hope that a reader will find the book when they need it, even if they didn’t know they needed it.”

For those of you who read my "Entitled Interview" you may guess that I love the title of Strout's book. I also loved the book. It's so beautifully and cleanly written and constructed. But you'll want to read it for the characters, for Lucy Barton.

Wanting. (Though resisting because I don't really wear necklaces...)

Resisted buying, but only barely. (Because it would be weird to own a keychain worth more than my actual purse). Still, cute.

Wishing you all good breathing, good writing, good reveries.

- Shawna


  1. Such a lovely post. I like what you say about the pen hovering over the notebook. I love the physical act of writing for the stillness that settles on you. As the pen draws each word, more of that something elusive comes to you. It's like a discovery that dawns on you.
    I agree that relinquishing control when writing or painting or doing anything creative is how the potent energy of creativity is released.
    Thanks for sharing such lovely photos and words.

  2. Wonderful Monday reading Shawna.
    Thank you for all this beauty.

  3. You have the enviable talent of being able to express things so well in both words and images. The light on the flowers, the dog-eared page of the book, Ace's sweet expressions and that stone bowl I love so much. "What am I doing in writing you? I'm trying to photograph perfume." Love, love, love that quote!

  4. Such a relief. I have been doing a lot of my own writing recently and it is all by hand. I LOVE the rhythm. I love that it is just slow enough that I can think in complete sentences and consider word choice. I feel connected to it. I was worried I was maybe doing something wrong, that when I did decide to write something longer, I'd have to abandon the hand written draft. It's good to know that it works for others as well.

    Also I love the quote about trying to photograph perfume. I was contemplating just that very thing this morning and trying to figure out how to get that which cannot be understood in words on paper.

  5. Thank you so much for the link to Handwritten, and, as always, for your beautiful, evocative, thought- and emotion-provoking collection of calm words and images. Today's post reminds me of a Gertrude Stein quote I've carried around for years:

    “... think of the writing in terms of discovery, which is to say that creation must take place between the pen and the paper, not before in a thought or afterwards in a recasting. Yes, before in a thought, but not in careful thinking. It will come if it is there and if you will let it come, and if you have anything you will get a sudden creative recognition. You won’t know how it was, even what it is, but it will be creation if it came out of the pen and out of you and not out of an architectural drawing of the thing you are doing. Technique is not so much a thing of form or style as the way that form or style came and how it can come again.”

    from "A Conversation with Gertrude Stein" in John Hyde Preston's The Creative Process: Reflections on Invention in the Arts and Sciences (University of California Press, 1985)

  6. I used to write letters with great frequency but stopped for some reason in my mother's final years. I still wrote the occasional letter to a friend or my son but this year I've made a pact with myself to write letters on a 'regular' basis. No schedule but meaning simply to be conscious about sending out at least a letter or couple postcards each month. I sent one to Arthur Black yesterday.
    Anyway, what I mean to say is that I love how handwriting slows a person down. You have time to think about where you are in the writing and where you wish to go, or where the writing will take you. When I wrote short stories, I always did the first draft by hand, always.
    I adore those photos of the books, and of Ace, of course. Pretty sugar bowl. Happy handwriting this week Shawna and thank you.

  7. Thank you everyone for the good love, the quotations, the words. xo S.


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