Saturday, May 30, 2009

Collage for creativity and self-understanding

I love to collage.  Its a way that I get unstuck creatively.  I don't consider myself a visual artist, and so collage isn't something I do for 'work'.  Its all just fun, and so I can love my collages in a way that I find I can't love my writing-- that is, completely uncritically.  My collages are like letters sent to me my by my subconscious. 'This is what you're into right now', they tell me. Sometimes startling patterns emerge.

The key for me is not caring how it turns out. The collage doesn't need to be pretty, or sophisticated, or even interesting. Its a game.

When I'm feeling miserable about something, the images help me to discover what else is happening in the murky backwaters of my subconscious. It may be that a part of me finds the situation funny or exciting, and I am not as pathetic as I'd assumed I was. Collaging helps me to break out of feeling habits by scratching beneath the surface.

I find words and ephemera from old magazines, newspapers, books from the street, whatever flotsam is lying around that grabs my attention. The only rule is that I can't stop and think about why I like a word or image until the collage is finished. (Although I'm always breaking that rule.)

I collage when I can't write, when I'm raging, overwhelmed, confused, depressed, elated, blissed out, flummoxed. I explore my dreams, ideas, or stories I'm creating when the writing feels tight and airless.

I collage often. After taking words and images and pasting them on paper, I can usually make my way back to the pen or the keyboard. I've listened.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Green Angels and Jabberwocks: Overcoming Fear

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms my beamish boy!
O Frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy.’
--Lewis Carroll from ‘Jabberwocky’ in Through the Looking Glass

A woman who is an actor, screenwriter, ex-cop, and lesbian once told me that she had no fear. ‘Really?’ I asked, trying not to sound too incredulous. ‘Nope,’ she answered.

This made me think. I’m not afraid of rats or snakes or spiders, and when I was held up at gunpoint I was able to focus on the robber’s scrawny shape, wide-set eyes, and large ears so that the cops got a good description. But I do have fears, deep and strange ones.

At one point I was writing a story about a woman who becomes unhinged. I used material from my own nightmares, family traumas, skeletons in the closet, hauntings. The first draft was difficult. I found myself experiencing the emotions of the character as I wrote. I know that suffering for art is a silly notion, but my pain seemed to prove that I must be doing ‘real’ work.

The despair and hopelessness that had racked me as a teenager began to resurface raw. I confided in a close friend, who later told me she was so worried that she had almost called my family; afraid I might take a dive off a high pier. I put the story down for a few months. In the second draft I glossed over those scenes, working instead on the less emotional material.

I wasn’t sure how to approach the piece. I wanted to do it maturely, with my center intact. I thought of a successful, grounded novelist I know through meditation work. She must have a method, I figured. ‘Maybe I should ask her’, I thought one night before bed. Then I went to sleep.

My novelist friend showed up in my dreams that night. She read two poems. One was about her cat, entitled ‘Green Angel’. It felt like an exhalation, an unwinding. The other was about some past trauma. I remember colors: bruise purple, jaundice yellow and cut red, a water color of pain that was rich but contained. I woke up feeling like I had a plan.

A mutual friend of ours had recommended a book by Alice Hoffman several years prior to this dream reference entitled Green Angel. It is a young adult novel written in simple, elegant prose that chronicles the journey of a girl named Green after she loses her family and the world as she knew it in an apocalyptic event.

I had picked it up in a bookstore once, putting it down again quickly because the subject matter seemed too depressing. But the day after my dream I found a copy and devoured it. The story is an inner map for healing the psyche written as a modern-day fairytale. The girl Green must find a way through her grief or else die of despair. She gradually begins to grow again after taking in a thin white greyhound who becomes her guardian.

That was it. I remembered that the ‘Green Angel’ poem in my dream had been about my writer friend’s cat. The dream’s message seemed to be that I couldn’t go into the nightmare realm alone. I needed a guardian. Luckily, I have a pack of dogs. There are the two bright-eyed waggers who whine for their dinner every night, and then there are other beloveds from earlier times who still show up in my dreams when I need them.

I know something about the special ability of animals to nurture the soul. Mired in my own depression soon after September 11th 2001, I found a ghost white, ancient, starved down dog in the New York City subway system who led me and my life partner slowly back to daylight.

I named the dog Beamish Boy from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky because though his frail body and thin white coat revealed battle scars, he had made it through his ordeal, triumphantly snuggling into our arms. The three of us lived together for almost four years before Beamish passed away, very well loved.

I put a picture of him by the computer as I began the task of tackling my scary (to me) story. I asked my two waggers to watch over me too. The dogs sat on the overstuffed chaise, studying me carefully as I typed. I was able to write that difficult material without being overcome by emotion, feeling instead a flood of compassion for my character. With the help of my guardian dogs I had slain my Jabberwock.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Lost Tribes of New York City from Carolyn London on Vimeo.

I love animation and NYC street inspiration. This seems to be a riff on Nick Park's brilliant Creature Comforts. If you haven't seen that and like this, check it out.

I live for spontaneous street parties. When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs I would stare out my window into the empty cul de sac, listening to 'Feel the Beat and the Rhythm of the Night...' on the radio, and imagine the quiet dead end street transforming into a giant dance party. I thought that was what New York City must be like all the time.

Friday, May 15, 2009

I'm Still Standin (yeah yeah yeah)

What do I think I’m doing,
staring at a computer screen late at night
watching Elton John cavorting by the sea
with men dressed in rainbow body paint and loin cloths?
This is what it has come to.
This is how I find my inspiration
when it has been set down, casually, on the street outside a taco shop.

You’re not a
real poet, she said.
You haven’t attended a poetry workshop at a Seven Sisters school,
or been published recently in a prestigious literary journal.
You haven’t won a Slam or even dared enter one.
You are just like me, she said.

I’ll admit it stung.
My inner sixteen year old,
clutching her pencil,
writing about spiders and death
and the twisted way sex is represented in culture,
buckled her knees and sucked in her breath.

But-- I –will—still—write—a—poem.
I will find my poem inside Elton’s jaunty cap.
His cane comes flying out of the sky
to land in his hand like the wand of a b-movie wizard.
Fawning dancers with their Fosse-for-dummies choreography
jut their hips and snap their wrists;
take synchronized smooch sessions under beach umbrellas;
float their balletic bodies through each others arms across the sand.
How could I have missed this splendor all my life?

I used to be serious.
Loved songs about the apocalypse.
Attended the right protests.
Read the New York Times
but often skipped the arts section
unless there was a review of End Game or Homecoming,
some play about life in a dustbin
or the inherent violence underlying all human exchange.

Now my protests are in the form of ecstatic dances
and peach trees grown with children out of garbage dumps.
I wear pumpkin socks and stretch in frog pajamas.
I read cartoons when the newspaper words swirl and blur.
Swine flu rhymes with Xanadu.
Strategic strike with baby dyke.
Missile defense with swingin gents.
I say things like thank my lucky stars, as I do thank them,
for beaming Sir Elton,
sauntering in a white suit and boater on the Promenade des Anglais,
into my computer when I needed him.
And I don’t care,
not really,
whether I'm a real poet or not.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Deadly Shoulds

Let them go
All of them
Do not let
one shadow
of the shoulds
the deadly shoulds
Scrap them
Burn them
Trick them
Vomit them up and out
They will try to snare you
with their wheedling whining pleas
their antiseptic perfume
their weighted compliments
their prickly handshakes
They will grey your flesh
Cover you in dust
File you under undone
They will rifle through your dream machine
Put red rubber stoppers on all your gaskets
Plug up the exhaust system
Chase out the fairies
Choke out the magic plants
and leave you trussed
and full of lists.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Painting Pumpkins and Bananas

I am having trouble letting go of the play I’ve been working on for a few years. It is the play that has taught me, finally, how to sit at a desk for hours and write.

I tell myself that it doesn’t matter if it is any good. What matters is that I started it, and I finished it all the way to the end. But I want it to be good. I want people to like it. I am afraid that they won’t; that it isn’t.

I also fell in love with my characters. Right now their world is my own secret realm, shared with no one except for one loan, steadfast writing partner who keeps her comments brief.

So it is time to paint some bananas. Actually any vegetable or fruit with a hard fleshy skin would work, but as it is spring not many things like that are in season. I learned this trick from the kids in my local community garden who paint sugar pumpkins at our annual Halloween party every October. They ornament the pumpkins with wild strokes of electric blue and hot pink and canary yellow non-toxic tempra paint, embellishing with poofs and squiggles of glitter glue.

We try to send the kids home with their art, but when they are finished they clamber onto the see-saw or line up to have their fortunes told. They forget about the pumpkins, leaving them to wash clean in the next rainstorm. Then the bare gourds are cooked into delicious late fall soups.

It is good for me to remember the pumpkin's journey when I am finished with a project and trying to let it go. I don’t want to put my pumpkin at the foot of my bed, staring at it every morning until it begins to rot. No. I will eat my pumpkin. Or in this case, my banana. And by this ritual I hope to gently remind myself that the fun part is in the doing. So it is on to new pumpkins, or bananas, or plays. Soon.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Poetry in Hell

I used read my poems, the ones I wrote incessantly, at a bar in Adam’s Morgan, Washington D.C. called Hell. It was in the basement of a club called Heaven, which I never visited. The walls and ceiling of Hell Bar were painted red with Halloween zombie hands sticking out of the light fixtures. The place felt safe: part womb, part pirate hideout. I made certain to be there every Sunday night.

The bartender would turn off the heavy metal screaming from the speakers. I would sit at a tiny round table nursing a beer and let the poems wash over me. 

A rumpled balding man played the dulcimer every week as he recited long poems about herons. A Capital Hill type guy in pressed khakis and shiny loafers read acidly funny treatises in the persona of Wile E. Coyote. 

I nicknamed a Courtney Love-esque punk girl the cum poet because she recited her opus on cum at least once a month. I’d smirk in a dark corner as she spoke, clutching my Sam Adams, a grown-up beer, something a teenager would never order, I calculated, because I was in high school and there illegally.

I usually kept to myself. I listened to the poets, read one to three short new poems that, to quote the founder Greg Gerding, I ‘soberly, painstakingly, worked on’ during the week and left as soon as the heavy metal resumed to catch the last metro train back to Northern Virginia. 

But I felt connected. Over time the hell poets became my congregation. Greg’s poems inspired me to write on bar napkins. We were all there for the love of the word, small w. Clapping at the end, no heckling, and a generous time limit for each poet were the only rules.

When I got to New York to continue my study of theater at NYU, I went to the Nuyorican and was lost. Some of the poetry was phenomenal, but it was all so…. DECLARATIVE! I didn’t see a place in the Slam world for depressed middle-class suburban girl verse full of gentle sadness and a love of the small.  Where was the equivalency of Poetry in Hell? The anything goes kind of place? My studies took over; I never found it. I stopped writing poetry.

This lead in part to a toxic writer’s block which leached beyond poetry into everything else I tried to write. Poetry had been my first church. Time unwound; meanings were illuminated; my deepest self was given voice. Without it I was silenced in ways I hadn't anticipated. 

The block lasted from age 19 to 29. I twisted, cajoled, bullshitted, wept and fasted, wept and prayed my way out of it, along the way finding new congregations of actors, dancers, seekers, gardeners, and herbalists. But I think that I may have bypassed years of struggle if I had simply sought out other people who wrote poetry. ‘They’re doing it. I can do it too.’ I need conspirators. I know this now.