Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Category: What’s New

OUT OF OBSESSION INTO THE BLAZE

Words or appearances often mask deeper, contradictory currents. Sometimes, as they tangle, each knot becomes an aching triangle.

In the throes of romantic passion, a participant will choose one line of argument over the evidence of another. To call him or her a victim is hardly accurate, no matter the pain, even after the heart and mind conflict.

The poems of Braided Double-Cross arise in such obsession, the white-hot tension rather than in some cool quietude years later – the pursuit of a golden ideal and then falling. Call them love poems if you dare.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

IN THE OVERLAPPING KNOTS

What the heart hears and sees may be quite different from what the mind observes and records, much less decides. These may be considered two strands in a braid, into which a third is woven. As for the third? It may be the beloved Other or some Unknown factor or even the undisclosed Rival. Each possibility leads to some distinct  tension in the series of overlapping knots.

The poems of Braided Double-Cross move through sexual attraction and passion into obsession, rejection, even betrayal. In the heated accusations and arguments between lovers, the dialogue – reaching into childhood, history, geography, career aspirations, and the future – invokes an absent, silent third participant, a recognition of the inequality emerging in the core relationship itself. Details of confession mount quietly. Truth becomes unbearable. At times a scream is silent. The braid ultimately becomes a whip. As Diane Wakoski has observed, “Rapunzel and the witch were always one / and the same.”

It’s what Ted Berrigan, in the American sonnets this set emulates, called belly-to-belly white heat.

~*~

Braided Double-Cross

Braided Double-Cross

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

WITHIN A SHIFTING FOCUS

Envisioning a grouping of my poems under the umbrella of Exposure, I initially drew on the photographic sense of admitting light to a sensitized film or plate, and then watching the image take form and density in stages on white paper in the developing bath in the darkroom – admittedly, now, obsolete practices, supplanted by the much less technically demanding use of digital cameras. (With all of its own advance technical dimensions.)

The title survived even though the contents kept shifting until settling on what now appears in the middle section of my collected Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag.

At first, this was to be a set of micropoems – brief, flickering revelations akin to snapshots – especially of the kind my Uncle John Orr calls “mockery photography.” Or, better yet, multiple exposures, with their overlapping actions. But those works scuttled elsewhere, where they’ve seemed to fit better.

In their place came Treated for Exposure, a grouping of pieces originating in wilderness encounters. In the backcountry, individuals who are caught unprepared in sharp downturns of the weather may require rescue and even hospitalization, where they are reported being “treated for exposure” – dehydration, hypothermia, frostbite, and the like. Again, those works drifted elsewhere, where they seemed to fit better.

What remained was a sequence of tenacious afterimages leading to a third route, though still not the final round.

Like most Americans today, my exposure to the outdoors, much less wilderness, has come in flashes – an hour or two, a day or even a week, typically chosen for fair conditions or else domestic tasks, such as weeding, mowing the grass, or shoveling snow. (As for “unfair” conditions, the lessons can be harsh and unforgettable, yet opening lessons of essential understanding – life is fragile, after all, and above all else, keep dry or get dry, quickly. I must wonder how many who have faced death in these situations return to the trail with a deepened sense of awe and respect, as well as caution.) Once again, in the end, the exposure is fleeting, caught in a flash of time and incomplete observation – something transformed or vanished in the flick of an eyelid. Even so, it is possible to approach these experiences as a pilgrim, acknowledging there is much to absorb here, as well as profound renewal and revival. A sense of humility helps, as well, for even skilled outdoorsmen find a wrong turn can become life-threatening. We come back to what is essential and timeless. In the rush of modern society, I require grounding and rooting, which these ageless places give back to me.

In a leap, this led to an exploration of something I thought I’d avoided – poems about poetry and poets. Generally, I’ve long had an aversion to art about art: movies about musicians or writers (or, worse yet, university English departments), and the closer they get to their own field, the more incestuous the practice commonly feels. Yet there are marvelous exceptions, leading me to question my original premise. Perhaps it arises in the newsroom dictum of getting as far out into the field as possible to get the best story: out on the street, where a council vote has impact, rather than in City Hall or the Mayor’s office, for instance, or out into the battlefront rather than safely ensconced in the Pentagon. (Admittedly, yes, after decades as a journalist, I have written that newsroom novel, my Hometown News.) Perhaps it is also a recognition and desire that writers speak to and with a larger audience or readership than other writers only. And it is definitely with an awareness that artists are not a special class of Genius, one needing apology or explanation or reverence as some type of Holy Order, at that. Ultimately, art is what we do, like prayer, regardless of the outcome or our reasons.

Like prayer, our practice embodies a host of assumptions and approaches: pages from a Book of Common Prayer, at one end, to the wordless Pentecostal outpouring of glossolalia, often called (erroneously) “praying in tongues,” at the other. It can give voice as communion, adoration, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, or intercession – and more, to say nothing of the range of our individual vocabulary, concepts, and situations. Such as sex.

In a leap, too, a dual awareness arises. The act of allowing the Other to expose its secrets to us – whether as a backcountry trail to a mountaintop, a lover, or the Divine – also demands that we also become vulnerable. We, too, are exposed, often unintentionally, in our strengths and weaknesses, our virtues and sins, our pride and shame. In this state of exposure, we are permitted to observe as long as we ourselves are being observed. The photographer enters the picture; the poet, no matter how carefully concealed, still enters the poem. The musician becomes the music. Truth demands honesty that can be painful and healing.

I think of my poems that arise from experiences while spending a week in a cabin in the Maine woods to twists in particular trails in Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, or Pennsylvania; the Florida Everglades; the Cascade Range of Washington state and northern California; or the Appalachian foothills of upstate New York or southern New Hampshire. Others, from family or lovers or friends and coworkers.

In the end, then, we, too, may be treated for exposure. Treated, but not tricked.

For the moment, let’s toy with the scarab – the beautiful jewel or the moving beetle. One, to my mind, will point to the other.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

PREPARING THE BODY FOR ETERNITY

Paradoxically, to meditate on death and dying, as I do in the poems of Shroud, the final section of my collected Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag, is to consider life itself in its manifold opportunities. The blessings of teachers and mentors, guides and ancestors, family and friends all spring forth.

Hearing that the Amish, who dress in plain dark colors in the humility of their lives, are clothed in a bright white shroud upon death startled me. A shroud? It’s something I’ve come to appreciate over time, especially as an alternative to a coffin or casket or any of the usual funeral industry practices. A shroud fits into the simplicity of green burial endorsed by my Quaker meeting’s burial ground policies.

A shroud, too, has a shape like the ancient Egyptian scarab, celebrated for its ability to venture into the underworld and return to the air. I’m fond of the leap that suggests.

~*~

Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag

Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

THIS MATTER OF FLASHES IN A POET

Chancing upon an old comment in my files, “Our practice also reflects other practices and practitioners we’ve been exposed to,” now has me uncertain which our I was referencing. I’ll assume it was the Society of Friends (Quakers), although other religious circles or fellow poets would be equally valid. Now I’m appreciating how these differing practices, from one field to the next, converge in my own development over the years.

The key word in the remark is expose, and I vaguely recall trying to determine whether I wanted a collection of my poems under the banner of Exposures to be a mirror what happens with a camera and, in those days, film, or perhaps arise in candid, perhaps embarrassing, intimate revelations, or inflict some peril of being caught unprepared in the wilderness. Any or all might fit.

Another kind of exposure, however, involves personal encounters with the Holy Presence, however one wants to define that. Epiphanies may be rare, even once in a lifetime, yet smaller, refreshing opportunities may happen almost daily. Just ask those who believe in miracles or angels.

Meditation – first within yoga and later, among Quakers – has been crucial in my growth as a poet; Japanese and Chinese poetry, even in translation, rings with sustained silence, as do many of the pieces in English I cherish. Sitting motionless lets the restless mind settle into calm, opening a space for intuitive flashes to appear and connect in unexpected relationships. Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred anthology opened an awareness of the directions that firsthand spiritual experience could take in describing the physical world throughout history.

Dreams do something similar, if you pay attention.

Being at Indiana University when Mary Ellen Solt was pressing her field of Concrete Poetry also had an influence in my thinking about the potential voice of typography itself, even though I never studied with her; the Russian filmmaker S.M. Eisenstein’s collision of thesis and antithesis to create an unanticipated synthesis has also played its role. I could even attempt to articulate my aesthetic, with its preference for lines long enough for each to have a snap or twist, as well as a collision between lines or stanzas to erupt as synthesis, a desire for discovery and exploration (moving along The Edge, wherever that is), a demand for solid reporting, and so on.

My drive for strong visual images may be rooted in the discipline imposed by a demanding high school art teacher, a sensibility applied throughout my journalism career as I designed newspaper pages and cropped photographs. I should add I’ve worked with some of the best photojournalists in the newspaper business.

It should be no surprise, then, that I’m especially fond of poems that evoke a play of light – even flickering lighting or stars – in the forest, on a pond, in the high country of mountains, in a child’s eyes. Light, as it turns out, is the foundation of photography, too. Lightness, and a light touch. More profoundly, in Quaker usage, the Light is a metaphor for Christ, as the opening of the gospel of John proclaims.

And, yes, like my exposure to the outdoors, much of my writing arises in flashes of time rather than interrupted long blocks of solitude: a few words, noted when I was driving on my daily commute or after drying off from a morning shower, or a sentence or two that emerged in my journal (itself, an irregular practice of sessions days or weeks apart).

These elements are central to the middle section of my poetry collection, Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag. The part that remains titled Exposures.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

REFLECTIONS ON MY POETRY AND FICTION

Maybe you’ve seen the adage that you can’t move on in your life if you’re stuck revising the past. (Well, it’s a variation of some more common versions.) I know the message is aimed at an individual’s emotional life, but it hits writers hard, too. No matter our subject or genre, the project in front of us draws on the past – even if it’s nothing more than research we did earlier or our previous drafts. It’s even truer when you’re heeding the counsel, “Write about what you know.”

For an author or poet, moving on typically comes when a project is finally published. Well, one usually moves on into promoting the work, even if the writer’s thinking and work are already on a new project.

Up to that point, the writing can usually be revised – and with poetry, there’s no end, you just have to let it go.

For most of my five decades of writing, my literary efforts – writing, revising, submitting to journals, and attending readings and workshops – came in my “free” time. And for a good portion of that, I was just getting a locale and its people in focus when my job would uproot me and I’d have to move on – just as one big project or another was coming into focus. I’d have to put work aside to complete later.

It also meant that much of my life was stuck in revising the past – meaning the unpublished projects – even I was adding more from the new encounters.

For me, blogging has freed much of that past, weaving it actively into my present. And the book-length releases at Smashwords.com and Thistle/Flinch, especially, have been emotionally liberating.

Seeing the poetry, in particular, as it’s appearing almost daily at the Red Barn gives me a fresh perspective. For all of my repeated honing of the work, compressing to some essence, I also sought a sense of jazzy improvisation and raw edges, an admission of working on the run in contemporary society. A recent essay on graffiti as public art, in contrast to the oil canvas masterpieces of earlier centuries, keeps echoing in my awareness. Yes, I can see many of my poems as graffiti or at least swift sketches or calligraphy.

Yes, there are things I’d revise and other points that leave me wondering just what prompted the line. But they’re up now, in your presence, and I can move on.

What a relief!

At this point in my life and career, I don’t even have to worry about what critics might say, though kind words from perceptive readers and fellow writers are always appreciated.

Not that I’m fishing for compliments …

STARTING WITH PRAYER FLAGS OR A VOLKSWAGEN

My first release of the new year is a poetry collection called Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag. I suppose I should admit once again I’ve long been fond of Tibetan prayer flags, even before they became available in this country, and the addition of the word “bejeweled” adds a play on words to the mantra, “Om Mani Padme Om,” which is sometimes translated as “jewel in the lotus.” But the Egyptian scarab also took form as a jewel, and a scarab can be a beetle, which then points to a Volkswagen Bug from the hippie era, and that in turn carries me to a Buddhist-influenced sutra in this round of poems. And that’s before the trail scurries into ruminations on the practice of writing itself or, in the final section, death. The Amish have their reasons for favoring a funeral shroud, as do I.

Pay attention, if you will. These are not your usual poems.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

REFLECTIONS ON THE BARN’S PHOTOGRAPHY

As I’ve previously confessed, I have no illusions that what I’m presenting as snapshots to accompany my posts or as my stand-alone Postcards category fits in with what I consider real photography. Point-and-shoot digital, in mind, is almost cheating, no matter how fine the results. No, real photographers have a knowledge of f-stops and become expert in reading negatives and skilled when it comes to mixing chemicals. They’re more patient, too. They even learn to move around in the dark, or something very close to it when you consider the “safe” light, usually dull red. Yes, that dates me, even if I am amazed at the quality of what people are capturing on their cell phones, bypassing anything even resembling a camera. You don’t even have to focus? Where’s the control or discipline that defines art?

Even after all of my professional experience with great photojournalists, back when I selected and sized their work for news stories and picture pages, blogging has added to my understanding.

For starters, it meant moving into some very amateur hands-on photography for the Red Barn and my related blogs. Yes, it’s digital and requires very little by way of training. Just about everything depends on the zoom in or out for composition, and then letting the camera “see” what it will. That is, sometimes the results differ from what I see.

The majority of the photos presented in the Red Barn were taken with an entry-level Kodak with a delayed shutter release. Often I found myself clicking and then moving the camera for the shot itself a second or two later. More recent photos come from a more advanced Olympus, with a hairline click I had trouble getting used to.

Shooting has increased my empathy for real photographers. I recall standing in the twilight at the Nubble lighthouse beside a man with a tripod and sophisticated camera while I held my Olympus in hand. He had just driven to the Maine coast from Albany, New York, for this moment and spoke to me technically in terms I didn’t understand. He had my full respect, though.

Shooting in the cold, too, is a challenge. Your fingers soon freeze and pushing the buttons is shaky. The pros suggest I wear golfing gloves or surgical latex.

Looking at results after shooting has its own lessons. The pros are expert at seeing obstacles normal eyes scoot around. The camera’s not as forgiving, as I’ve seen in a portfolio of New England autumn foliage – utility and phone lines drape along the roads, detracting from the colorful leaves I’d composed.

Both cameras have left me baffled by my off-balance horizons. I really do try to have them level. But lately, wandering through art galleries, I’m noticing how often landscape painters have wonky horizons. So it’s not just the camera.

When I launched the blog, I had no intention of making photography the component it’s become. But, in a curious twist, the blogging has stimulated my shooting. When I pick up the camera, I’m often thinking of ways to use the image.

Subject matter’s another consideration. The garden and loft of the barn have provided their share, as have favorite sites like the waterfalls downtown, the pedestrian bridge on the Community Trail, and the seashore at Kittery Point, Maine. And then there are the old mills themselves and New England towns, especially the nearly four centuries of architecture in my town, including its urban barns and weather vanes.

One thing I’ve largely avoided is people. When they’re present, it’s usually from behind. It’s not that I don’t find people fascinating; rather, after some discussions I felt convinced that blogging differs from news reporting and rather than have folks sign release forms, just in case, I’d steer clear. I might add, in general, when you’re in public, you’re fair game if it’s not for a commercial (advertising) purpose. Here, I’ll err on the side of caution.

And then there’s been the application of the work in blogging itself. My initial ideal was to use a single shot as a post, inspired by the covers on New York magazine when it was a section of the New York Herald-Tribune’s Sunday editions. Something laid-back, low-key, everyday rather than the more dramatic news photos in the rest of the paper.

Over time, though, I found that varying the sizes in presentations of multiple images could allow the equivalent of a picture page in a blog’s scroll-style format. And then that could be extended to multiple pictures within a text itself.

None of this is new, of course, but doing it was new to me.

Multiple photos in a single posting? Well, let’s try the gallery function! And that was fun. The slide show, meanwhile, was something we could never do in a newspaper – I find it mesmerizing. (Both galleries and slide shows are more likely to show up on my Chicken Farmer I Still Love You blog, by the way – they just seem to fit in better there.)

Add to that the ability to schedule far in advance, and seasonal shots from one year could appear in a timely sequence a year or two later. Though I must admit, with the climatic instability we’re experiencing, that’s become more of a reminder of what would normally be happening than what’s just occurred.

OK, so these are scenes of my life, mostly from the last half-dozen years, unlike much of my texts, which span nearly five decades of writing.

Blog on!

REFLECTIONS ON MY EARLIER POSTINGS IN THE EVOLUTION OF THIS BLOG

Differing from the typical blog, my vision for the Red Barn was to create a kind of digital magazine that featured regular departments each month. The plan was to release a sequence of postings that moved through eleven categories – American Affairs, Arts & Letters, Home and Garden, Newspaper Traditions, Personal Journey, Poems, Poetry Footnotes, Postcards, Quaker Practice, What’s New, and Wild Card – before starting over again. If I posted two or three times a week, this plan could cover a month. Boy, was I naive!

My initial intent had been to create an author’s website to support my submissions to literary journals and small presses, to let editors and readers know a little bit about me, including the pronunciation of my name. But the mere mention of a website drew derision from a daughter who knows my software limitations. “Why don’t you create a blog instead,” she countered.

A what?

Admittedly, there were some I’d read regularly and others I chanced across while surfing the web, but I hadn’t really thought about journaling online, which is what many bloggers do. Nonetheless, as I examined the venue, my concept took hold.

Designing a blog-cum-website within the framework of an out-of-the-box package, or theme, as it’s called (in this case, Manifest) and learning your way around the methods of adding content is another, even when it’s largely cut-and-paste. Venturing forth, however, brought many unexpected discoveries. Think about something as simple as “Like.” Why would anyone do that, I wondered. Punch a button marked “Like”? Don’t they just read it and move on?

As I said, Boy, was I naive! Following up on those Likes has led me to a host of kindred spirits, many of whose blogs I now follow and enjoy.

Follow? Another concept I hadn’t anticipated, along with the WordPress Reader itself. Now, of course, checking in on the flow of other bloggers is a fascinating part of my day. It’s like getting letters and postcards from pen pals around the world. Same-day service, in fact.

The realization my readers are spread around the globe and not just across the country has been another surprise, as has the whole range of Comment. Many days I feel those of you commenting are far more interesting than my original post. Even a pithy word or phrase can make my day. At other times we soon engage in a lively exchange. Publishing a newspaper rarely did that, apart from a letter-to-the-editor that arrived days later or maybe a stray phone call.

As you will detect, the Barn’s evolved from my original plan. Oh, my, has it! But the bones, I’d say, have held up well.

~*~

Reflecting on the evolution of the Red Barn has me thinking of related changes in my own life over the period and the ways the two have interacted.

When the Barn opened, I was still employed full-time as a newspaper editor and submitting heavily to literary journals, with more than a hundred of my poems annually finding acceptance for publication. In that first year, the blog largely focused on introducing me and the world I inhabit in a bit more depth than contributors’ notes allow. My blueprint was for a modest, text-driven site that could draw upon many of the drafts, related correspondence, journal entries, and previously published literary efforts from my four decades of practice. Easy enough, I thought. Folks would find me through Googling.

A few months into the project, though, I realized the importance of photography. It’s not that I was visually immune – I’ve worked with some of the best photojournalists in the business and had a rigorous training in visual art in high school. The central character in five of my novels is, in fact, a professional photographer. So I know how a strong image can function in garnering readership, too. My reluctance stemmed from the fact I didn’t want to take on more than I could handle. But a few trial runs on a borrowed digital camera prompted me to purchase an inexpensive Kodak, which allowed me to snap the scene around me and share the results online. Without claiming to be a real photographer – I know all too well what that entails – the point-and-shoot results have reflected the ways I frequently see people and places, and I’ve made a point of composing the shot in the camera rather than cropping after the fact, just to instill some artistic discipline.

In that first year, I never posted more than 24 times a month, and that included announcements of upcoming publications and readings.

As I learned my way around the blogging world, one of the big breakthroughs came in discovering I could schedule works to automatically appear on a time frame, rather than having to remember to post them as desired. The other breakthrough discovery was the importance of tags, both as a publisher and a reader looking for kindred spirits.

The evolution has also led to a kind of annual focus each year. The opening round stayed close to home, with all the quirky bits of our household and garden, to say nothing of the barn itself. From there, the spotlight opened out into the community where we dwell, and after that, a circle further into the Granite State and neighboring Maine.

My experiences with WordPress – and the range of material I still had in my filing cabinets – encouraged me to establish subsidiary blogs. One, focusing on Quaker theology, and another to share my genealogical findings, were launched mid-2012, followed by Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, with its initial presentation of money-related workshops, in mid-2013.

That, in turn, led to other shifts at the Barn. For one thing, not everything had to appear here. I mean, for all my blog’s variety, some focus is important. No matter your reason for checking in here, you still have expectations of finding entries that will mirror your interests. Nothing too esoteric or far afield, right? So why shouldn’t I sometimes wonder if more tightly defining the mission from the outset would have been wiser and more effective than the course I’ve followed?

By this point, I’d edged into retirement from the newspaper. A renewed flurry of writing and submitting to literary journals, increasingly an online process, crested with the release of my first ebook novel at Smashwords.com in 2013, followed by six more and a collection of poetry.

The Red Barn’s content shifted again. For one thing, my novels introduced a conversation about the hippie movement’s legacy on the American experience and popular culture – including yoga.

That, in turn, led to the realization I could move my small self-publishing imprint over from print media to online, which prompted my Thistle/Flinch site in mid-2014. Bit by bit, the Red Barn’s pace of postings picked up as a sampler for my longer collected writings.

And then we got into the American presidential year of 2016, with all of my pent-up rage from previous political battles. By now, rather than an equal balance of eleven categories, the entries were primarily American Affairs, Poems, and Arts & Letters, and I’d pretty much run through my Newspaper Traditions insights. The other categories appear sporadically.

So here we are, embarking on a new year. What’s ahead?

For all of my intent of slowing down, there’s still a busy round of new releases to share. So the Barn will be emphasizing poetry, for certain, perhaps with a poem a day reflecting my zig-zag journey to here. One small shift, though, is that many of the poems will be appearing under categories other than Poems. Let’s see how that works. I’m also anticipating a new form — with a new category — I’m calling Tendrils. Let me know what you think.

I’ve always been taken with the concept of cross-disciplinary interactions. Or, for that matter, dinner parties where you wind up in stimulating conversations with people you’d otherwise never run across. (A founder of the Internet? Right after I’d ranted about how the Web has killed professional journalism? It happened.)

Let’s see what unfolds, OK? Please stay tuned …

A SHELF OF NEW RELEASES

Here are the 12 books released by my Thistle/Flinch imprint in the year 2016. I think it’s an impressive list. Oh, my …

~*~

For these collections and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.