Autograph

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Autograph
(1603 AD)

it spews out words
bones to hungry
academic dogs
gnawed the word-knot
grammar’s gristle
doubly chewed
then eschewed

wet concrete sets
where the statute’s
clay feet whisper
damp follies
to waiting bergères

prance advance
macabre the dance
ink its acid burning
fragile the page
held to the light

pin-holes where stars
peep through thin paper
more fragile than
parchment

parched for knowledge
crisp pages crumble
under the fumble
thumbed
by dumb hands
lusting eagerly
for  wisdom drawn
from bone-dry dust

My Favorite Pen

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My Favorite Pen

This is my oldest Mont Blanc fountain pen. I must have bought it in 1986 when I traveled to London to attend a Spanish Golden Age seminar at one of the university colleges. I can’t remember which, though I do remember the seminar was on someone called Francisco de Quevedo. We met like spies, my pen friend and I, on the steps of the British Museum. I had never met him before, so he carried a specific book under his arm, one of Quevedo’s I think, by which I would recognize him. We lunched together at an Italian Trattoria, whose name also escapes me, and we discussed the ways of that ancient Hispanic world and our own research upon it. I paid for our lunch from my travel funds. I had a sabbatical that year and had arranged a short tour of four or five British universities in my search for knowledge. After lunch, he took me back to his London college and I sat and absorbed wisdom from 2:00 until 5:00 pm.

After the seminar, walking back to the nearest tube station, I passed a shop that had this Mont Blanc in the window. I went in and bought it. On the spot. No second thoughts. Then I caught the tube to Paddington station. While waiting for the train back to Cardiff, I sat in the station bar and ordered a pint of beer. A well-dressed man, slightly older than me, asked if he could join me. I said yes. He sat down and began to talk. He told me how to commit suicide by slashing my wrist with a knife.  There were many incorrect ways to do it, he explained. But only one right way, if you wanted to be successful. He rolled up his sleeve and showed me his collection of scars that ran crisscross and welted over his left wrist. Failed attempts, he said. But I’ll get it right next time. I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistakes as me, if you decided to try it.

Must go, I told him. My train’s about to leave. I left the remains of my pint on the table, looked back, and watched him finishing my beer. Good job I didn’t spit in it, I thought. Then I realized that I probably had, one way or another. I boarded my train and 90 minutes later I was back in Cardiff. No more post-war, coal and steam engines, a diesel this, powerful, fast, and smelly. It reduced the former four hour journey to much, much less than two. Cafeteria style, the train carriage offered a table top for every four seats. I opened my new pen and wrote in the pocket journal I had bought for the trip.

So many memories. But I don’t remember the names of either of these two men. I do recall those scars, though, deep and ridged, crisscrossing like railway tracks. Every time we clicked over a junction or a cross track I shivered and my writing wiggled on the page.

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Knowledge

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Knowledge
Thursday Thoughts
9 August 2018

In response to yesterday’s post, The Curse of Cursive, I received this comment.

“I have always blamed my own illegible (except – well sometimes – to me) scribble on the hours sitting in college lectures attempting to make a record of what was being said. Consequently, I could only ever record about every 3rd sentence. Something which I claim accounts for all those gaps in my learning.”

This comment merits a Thursday Thought.

First thought: the whole process of note-taking. One of my professors in Bristol University, where I did my undergraduate degree, was in the habit of sipping Harvey’s Bristol Cream while munching his sandwiches, consequently his post-lunch thoughts were always most enlightening. Here is his post-lunch declaration on knowledge: “Knowledge is that which passes from my notes to your notes without passing through anyone’s head.” This statement was followed by a closing of the drowsy eyes and an enormous hiccup.

For me, the art of note-taking goes way beyond the copying down of another’s ideas. As  note-takers, we must sift the incoming information, break it into salient and important features, and get the main drift of the argument down on the page. And not just the argument, but our own questions and challenges as well. Much of what I was taught at the various schools I attended was, frankly, nonsense. However, I learned a great deal about teaching from those who taught me that nonsense. A dictated note from an early geography class, preserved for ever in the young student’s mind: “The earth is geoidal, ie, earth-shaped.” Good one, teacher. “Please sir, if the earth is earth-shaped, what shape is the moon?” “Don’t be cheeky, boy, I’ll see you afterwards.”

When I received my first important teaching award I realized that it came to me on account of what I had avoided (all those inadequate lectures and lessons) and that what I was doing was engaging students and challenging them to challenge me by developing their own questions and ideas, by doing their own background checks, and by establishing their own thought processes, rather than trying to imitate somebody else’s dictated and regurgitated notes with their partial pictures of (in)complete and often antiquated knowledge, and all this often dredged up and recycled in the form of ancient, dusty scrawlings from pre-historic graduate courses.

I realize that this is unfair to several lecturers I encountered over the years who were able to deliver riveting and thought-provoking adresses. However, these were few, very scarce, and much appreciated. Their names and ideas are engraved on my mind. They and their methods are not forgotten, even now, but, as I say, there weren’t many of them.

As for knowledge, it is so personal and becomes an integral part of who we are and what we do. I know people who received everything they knew about life with their first degrees. They thought they possessed everything, the complete tree of knowledge in one rolled up certificate. Alas, many of them spent their lives never progressing, standing still and contemplating their known world, neither learning nor needing to learn anything else.

Our knowledge is incomplete. If we are at all ‘thinking people’, we know this. We also know we can never get enough knowledge. A PhD is great: knowledge Piled higher and Deeper. But often it is Reinforced Ignorance, the false knowledge that this knowledge is the only knowledge, well, the only knowledge that matters to the individual who, at a substantial living wage, ekes it out with great care and tests other people on their ability to reproduce it in its exactitude. “And I never-ever thought for myself at all” (I am the Monarch of the Sea, the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy, HMS Pinafore).

And here we enter the world of clichés: life-long learning, an everlasting thirst for enlightenment, for more light, more knowledge. The only real knowledge that we simply must transfer to our students, our followers, is how they can gain knowledge and even more knowledge for themselves. A love of and a desire for life-long-learning is the teacher’s greatest gift. If the teacher can pass that on, then the world of ideas will not fail, knowledge will not become carved in stone, set in concrete, entrenched in notes ‘that pass from my notes to your notes without going through anyone’s head’.

Here ends my Thursday Thought. A rant, really, and a very satisfying one. Thank you, Roland of Roland’s Ragbag, for turning on the tap and allowing these refreshing waters to once again flow.

Comment: Opening photo, knowledge set in stone. One of the Bulls of Guisando (Province of Avila, Spain), with graffiti carved by a Roman legion.

Violet

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Almas de violeta, an early poetry book by Juan Ramón Jiménez, the Nobel winning poet, was first published in violet ink. I have a copy of his complete works, Obras completas, in which those early poems still appear in purple, or violet, rather, to match the color of the title. He published poems in green ink, too, but personally I prefer purple. Bruised clouds in an evening sky, dark depths of a rainbow’s glow, Northern Lights at the deep end of their descending scale … or is it just a desire to be different … slightly different, as if that one thing, the color of my ink, might tip the scales and turn me from mediocre to celebrity with a wave of a violet wand or the click of a pair of ink-stained fingers.

What else is there to do, other than meditate and walk your fingers across the keyboard, when rain mingles with snow and grey and white streaks fall at faster, slower rates to trace a network across window, trees, and garden? JRJ, Juan Ramón Jiménez, forgotten now by all but the scholars who read and teach him to the few ardent graduate students who clutter the ivy covered halls of academia and blow away the dry dust that settles on unused books when they languish on library shelves. Is that what will become of us, we poor poets of today? Are we to be reduced to the polvo seco de tesis doctoral / the dry dust of a doctoral thesis, as my good friend José María Valverde once wrote?

I guess the dry dust of a doctoral thesis is better than the silence of unturned pages, the empty sands of the voiceless desert, the dunes of forgetfulness shifting here and there along a sea-shore swept by shiftless winds. Forgetfulness: we must first be read … only then can we discarded and forgotten. And who will read us? Who will emerge from their twitter and their tweets to open a book and lift the written word from the page and carry it into their hearts so it can be placed on the soul’s altar and surrounded by incense and flowers?

Purple ink on a purple page, the violence of violet, life with it’s doldrums and purple patches, the cat curled up in its basket, one paw out to test the weather on this rainy, snowy day, when coffee appears at my elbow, as if by magic, and words seek sanctuary in a ritual flow of  song.

Creativity: Thursday Thoughts

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Creativity:
Thursday Thoughts
Kingsbrae 15.1

15 June 2017

The KIRA experience has been very kind to me. It has enabled me to spend time writing and thinking without the necessity of worrying about the daily rituals and necessities of everyday life. In addition, the daily conversations with the other artists in residence have kept my mind focused on the process of creation and this has allowed me to study how I am creating. As many on this blog have noticed, I have been very productive during this residency, and there are several reasons for it. I would like to share some thoughts and ideas with you.

Journal: On 2 March 2017, I received an e-mail telling me that I had been accepted for the arts residency at Kingsbrae. As most of you know, I keep a journal and write in it every day. On 3 March 2017, I started my Kingsbrae poetry sequence. I began by reading the entirety of the Kingsbrae web page and then watched the Kingsbrae Garden videos online. Then I began jotting down in my journal poems and snippets of poems, creative thoughts, metaphors, images,  and ideas. By the time I came to Kingsbrae, I had 90 proto-poems in place. Since they were taken from photos and videos, and were not written in situ, I saw them as prototypes, rather than as the real thing.

The Journal as Poetic Quarry: I look on the journal as a poetic quarry. It contains many stones, some tiny, some larger, some useless, and some very precious indeed. One part of my poetic journey here at Kingsbrae is to go back over these stones, turn them over one by one, discarding the dross, and concentrating on the precious material that has lain there waiting to be re-discovered. Now that I am on site, it is easier to distinguish between those essential words, the ones that really count, and the lesser words, the ones that can be dismissed. This sifting process needs time and thought, and that is exactly what the residency has given me. Writing tip: keep a journal. Mark in red those passages that contain seeds of poetry, images, metaphors, rhythms etc. Return to them when you have the time to do so. Time and space are essential: a time in which to work and a space in which to work. Without these two things , we are lost as writers. ‘I don’t have time,’ you think. Ask yourself: ‘what is more important than a little time each day, spent on yourself and your writing?’ As writers, we MUST indulge ourselves with those two little gifts, time and space. An hour a day is more than enough: find that hour, use it. Ten to fifteen minutes a day is enough to keep us ticking over: if we can’t find that ten minute space, then we are unfortunate indeed.

The Revision Process: As I develop as a writer (and believe me, I am still developing), I realize that the ability to recognize good writing is one of the most important skills that we possess. Re-reading is one thing. Distinguishing the great (oh yes, there are great thoughts and metaphors in those journals), from the good, from the average, from the futile and meaningless is a key skill. All of us have wasted precious time on an idea that just didn’t work. We have worried at it like a dog at an old bone, drooling, gnawing away, growling at ourselves and the bone, getting no nourishment. Leave those ‘dead’ ideas, those ‘dead’ metaphors. Move on to the good ones asap. Our writing time is precious: don’t waste it. Learn to recognize the good and workable from the lesser writings that waste our time.

The Creative Process: “What is this life if, full of care, / we have no time to stand and stare?” This is the first line of one of W. H. Davies’s poems. The Kingsbrae Residency has given me time to stand and stare. It has also given me time to sit and stare. Emptying myself of the daily drudge, I have been able to allow light and inspiration to enter my mind and fill me with creativity. I have discovered that there are ways to do this: meditation, an open mind, an emptiness within that slowly fills, and, above all, carpe diem, the ability to recognize that moment and seize it and exploit it. None of the above is unique to me. If we are at all creative, we are all faced with a simple choice: to develop our creativity or to let it wither. Most of us are too ‘busy’, in the worst sense of the word, to allow ourselves the time we need to create. This is a process we must reverse. We must return to self time, thinking time, emptiness time, metaphoric creative time.

The Value of Art: The modern corporate businessman’s mind is of the type that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. As a result, we have the tendency, as artists, to fall into the ‘price’ mold rather than the ‘value’ mold. If we do not stop and think, if we do not find the time to create, if we do not search for the absolute values that are represented by our art and our creativity, then we count the pennies, add up the costs, and look at the price. Nobody said art was facile. Nobody said that creating the time and space in which we could create would be easy. This residency has convinced me of one thing: that without that time and space, we are nothing but drones, workers, lifeless puppets, going through the motions as other people pull the strings, lacking the spiritual wherewithal … We must stand up for creativity, for being different, for doing things differently, for being ourselves. We must stop being digitalized consumers and become, or continue to be, active, thinking creators. The world needs creativity and art. It needs people who stop and think. It needs people who think differently. It needs artists and creators. It needs us. What we do as artists and creators is precious and valuable. Never doubt it. Never forget it.

 

Freedom

 

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Freedom

We are all so lonely,
locked in our cardboard castles,
no view beyond the battlements,
save for the wild lands, the forest,
from which the enemy might come.

Wild beasts, we cage ourselves
in our isolation and bang our heads
on the bars we built to protect us.

Sometimes, at night, we ascend
to the topmost turret to observe
the stars that dance above us,
tracing our lives in their errant ways.

And is this freedom, the night sky,
with its wayward planets, trapped
in their overnight dance and weaving
our futures, for ever and ever, amen?

Warning: Raw poem … written last night at 8:0-8:30 pm (according to the notes in my journal) and  typed out this morning. “Beware the jaws that bite, the claws that snatch …” And be wary of that which lurks beneath the forest’s dark and is never seen in the light of the sun.

 

People of the Mist 11

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8:00 AM

… the sky is a sharp blue guillotine, poised between twin roofs … a winding metal staircase … a caracol … a snail-shell cork-screwing up to the roof garden … a butterfly in the grapefruit tree opens and closes its painted wings with their wide-open peacock eyes …

Tim went up the stairs to his apartment and sat back down at the table.

Betrayal: the word shocked him and he meditated for a moment on its multiple meanings. He opened his journal and thumbed through the pages looking for a recent conversation he had shared with Alonso, the historical anthropologist. He sighed as he found it and started to read.

… early morning … Sunday … I was on my way to church … I walked through empty city streets … I was lost … I gazed from side to side … closed doors … barred windows … an old lady dressed in black emerged from a doorway in front of me … a lace mantilla covered her face … she carried a basket full of bright wool … I wanted to go to the Church of San Vincente … “This is the way to San Vicente, isn’t it?” I asked, pointing in the direction I was walking …  “Yes,” she said, and started walking in the opposite direction to me … I continued on my journey but I was still lost … I met a second lady … she walked towards me leaning on a walking stick marked like a slide rule with numbers and measurements … “This is the way to San Vicente, isn’t it?” I asked her … she nodded and walked right past me following in the tracks of the first lady … still lost, I stood there doubting … a third lady who looked like the local hairdresser approached … she was carrying an open basket with knives and razors and scissors within it …“This is … can you … will you tell me how to get to San Vicente”  I asked. “Of course,” she said. “Follow me.” … I turned and walked with her in the same direction as the first two ladies … we turned one corner, then another, and there was the church of San Vicente … I slowed down and the third lady went ahead and joined the other two ladies of whom I had asked the way … they seemed to be waiting for me on the church steps … so I walked up to them … I opened the door for them … “All roads lead to San Vicente,” they said in chorus … and they went inside … I sat down on a pew at the back … I looked for them … but there was no sign of them in the church …

I asked Alonso, my anthropological friend, about this weird behaviour. Alonso has a vast store of archived knowledge and seems to be able to locate the strangest facts and discover whatever hidden truth lurks behind almost everything.

“It’s simple,” he told me. “You’re a North American. No native person corrects a man of European descent. You said ‘This is the way to San Francisco, isn’t it?’ and the first two ladies said ‘Yes, it is.’ They’re not fools. They’re not going to put their heads in a noose and correct you by saying ‘No. It isn’t.’ And remember, the older they are, the more steeped they are in the traditional customs. Now, you addressed the third lady in the correct fashion and she gave you the correct answer. That’s what life’s like around here. You must learn to accept the culture and to ask the right questions. Otherwise, in your innocence, you might get misled.”

Tim sat at the table and thought about the day that lay ahead of him. Then he picked up his pen and wrote.

… evening … Monte Albán for the ceremonies and the dances … a dance group who dance native legends by torchlight …. something they say I mustn’t miss … this morning I must go shopping … more mescal … more groceries … must go to the baths …. not the Baños de Oaxaca … those other baths, I forget their name, on Reforma … Alonso told me they were good … and clean … no tourists … all locals … up by the Post Office … Alonso wants to take me to Mitla … late this morning … or early this afternoon … before we go to Monte Albán … it’s going to be a very busy day … I’d better sort it out …

He looked up. Then he stood, walked into the kitchen and looked for the mescal.  None left. He went back to the table, sat down, picked up his pen, unscrewed the cap, and continued writing.

9-11, shopping and los Baños;

1-4 Mitla, with Alonso;

5-8, Monte Albán with Alonso;

8-11, procession with a castillo and dancing

… it’s going to be a tight squeeze to get it all in … I’d like to go back to the cathedral … just to see if that man who looked like my father turns up … if I go there I can walk to Santo Domingo and listen to the old lady who stands alone at the altar and sings … such a beautiful voice …

“Yes,” Tim announced to the room in a loud voice. “I should just be able to manage it, provided Alonso arrives on time.” He stood up, pushed the chair away, clicked his fingers, and started to dance.