My poetry/art collaborative

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For a recent workshop, I put together an afternoon about writing visually. The workshop was a kick-off to Carver County Library‘s unique Poetry/Art Collaborative, a new event this year that challenges poets to submit poems about Carver County — places, events, people, activities, objects, scenery, etc. — and challenges artists to create work for an exhibition in November.

Doesn’t seem right to ask my students to do something I haven’t attempted, so I wrote a poem about the apple tree in my back yard and challenged my beloved, Dick Osgood, to create a photo that reflected my poem. Dick’s beautiful photo is above. Here’s my poem:

Apple Tree, Spring

This morning
a pink gull passed over
the bluesilver lake.
Under her rosy wings,
ten thousand ancient spurs
newly white.
Eighty years
twenty-nine thousand evenings
past the careful parsing of
youth and the prudent provisioning
of prime, every year a glorious
exuberance. Because any year
might be the last.
Bushels, baskets, climbs, nests, forts, bees,
swings, kisses, robins, jays, picnic blankets.
The annual passerines for two weeks
every May. Bud, flower, fruit and
fruit-fall. Malus domestica.
The star at the white heart
of every apple.

 

Writing Visually, and a collaborative poem

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Writing Visually, and a Collaborative Poem Setting: Saturday afternoon, June 6, at the Chanhassen branch for Carver County Library’s class on Writing for Real People: Writing Visually. Purpose: to have fun with words! And to get ready to write a … Continue reading

A handout!

Here’s the handout from a wonderful class last night — not at all the same as being there, but this version has live links!

Writing An Artist’s Statement, TEXTILE CENTER, Minneapolis, October 7, 2014

My beloved partner is a scientist; he’s convinced physics explains the world. I’m pretty sure poetry does. Makes for interesting dinner conversation. Here’s the thing, though. While physics certainly existed before language and poetry, we humans needed crafted language — poetry — to explain physics to each other.

 ART = PHYSICS AND POETRY

Physics is what allows us to manipulate materials into art, and physics holds the materials together to match the artist’s vision. (Or fails to hold them together, in the case of intentional or unintentional deterioration.) Poetry is what the physical manifestation of art says to us, how it connects to us as humans.

Words tell the story of the art and the artist — that’s the artist’s statement.

 “In general, an artist statement should address what you make, how you make it, why you make it and your understanding of your work’s meaning.” — from the Writing Center at Claremont University

Here’s a word person talking about an artist: He still does not really believe that an artist needs occasionally to use words. David Hockney’s English teacher when he was 13 years old

And here’s a musician talking about words: I like to think that when I sing a song, I can let you know all about the kicks in the ass I’ve gotten over the years, without actually saying a word about it. — Ray Charles

The challenge in writing an artist statement — in writing anything, really — is to write like we speak. To say what we mean, and trust that our experience, our truth, our story will shine through.

The goal by the end of the two-hour workshop is for everyone to have at least an elevator speech about their work, a sound bite. (OK, we can say ick! But sound bites existed long before modern media communications — it’s how we humans listen.) Here’s my elevator speech when people ask me what I do: “I’m a freelance writer. Most of my work this year is with older adults who want to write their life stories — fascinating twist to 30 years of telling stories with essays and poetry.” Gives me openings to say more about life story writing, or about essays and poetry, depending on which my listener is most interested in.

I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances. — Anne Tyler

On to a review of the exercises we covered:
LIST POEM #1
Write MY ART at the top of a blank page
Freewrite 3” – everything that comes to mind about what you make, how you make it, why you make it, what it means to you
End with a noun, concrete depiction of material or tool. Use adjectives if you like.
EDIT — circle anything you like or want to work with, cross out stuff that doesn’t belong

LIST POEM #2
A painted picture is like a vehicle. One can either sit in the driveway and take it apart or one can get in it and go somewhere.Mark Tansey

Write MY ART at the top of a second clean page
Freewrite for 3” — Where does your art take you?
Freewrite for 3” — Where do you hope your art takes others?
EDIT — circle anything you want to keep, cross-out what you don’t

EXERCISE 3 — MICROSCOPE, TELESCOPE
Adapted from exercises created by:
Sarah White, Madison, WI
Cara Ober, MICA

Sometimes I see the world as one gigantic sewn image, held together with small, neat stitches.— Sherry Brody.  Dollhouse Room by Miriam Shapiro and Sherry Brody features Brody’s handmade lace

Top of new page, write the noun from the last line of List Poem #1
Now the Microscope/Telescope part: Most of us tend to write from big picture to small — which can result in too much extraneous background before we get to the action or tension or question. This exercise helps focus our writing on the essentials first, then we add background. We write three paragraphs. (Or we write lots more than that and winnow it down. Working from abundance, we say.)

Write these pages one at a time:
1) OBJECT — Describe your materials and tools, noting anything unique about the way you use them
2) SETTING YOUR STORY/CONCEPTS/COMMUNICATION — how do you use these materials/tools and what do you make with them? Tell us what that means to you, or what you’re communicating or questioning or exploring. Use List Poem #2 to help you start.
3) ACTION/TENSION — How do 1 and 2 interact in your work to reinforce or contradict one another? What does your art DO?
EDIT BY GUT — put these paragraphs in the order you like them at the moment

In class, we share our writing and ask others to respond to phrases and concepts they find effective, or to ask us questions about something they want to know more about. We can also ask family, friends and colleagues for this type of feedback at this point before proceeding.

EXERCISE 4 — FINISHING WITH QUESTIONS
Good writing, writing that we humans want to read, either asks or answers a question. And the questions are almost always more important than any particular answer.

Suppose no one asked a question. What would the answer be? Gertrude Stein

There are certain mysteries, certain secrets in my own work which even I do not understand, nor do I try to do so. — Georges Braque

I’m not qualified to, nor particularly interested in, generating a discussion about art vs. craft. But I like this definition from Mary Hark, an expert papermaker who teaches at MCBA and the University of WI-Madison: “Tension is what makes art. Tension is what draws our eye and holds our attention.” There’s tension in unanswered questions, sometimes even in asking a question. That’s a good thing. It’s an invitation for people to engage with you and your art.

EDITING THE THREE PARAGRAPHS — WHAT’S YOUR QUESTION? TO CONVEY THAT, WHAT’S MISSING FROM YOUR STATEMENT? ARE THERE WORDS OR SENTENCES THERE THAT YOU DON’T NEED?

 It is not hard to compose, but it is wonderfully hard to let the superfluous notes fall under the table. — Johannes Brahms

FURTHER REFINING. LATER. AT HOME, OR WITH FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES. OR THE PEOPLE SITTING NEXT TO YOU IN THE COFFEE SHOP. Again, put these pages you’ve written in the order you like them at the moment — go with your gut. Read them tonight. And again tomorrow or next week when you have time. Live with your words for a while; make notes and doodles to yourself. Then try to connect these paragraphs into a story, adding and subtracting words and sentences until it tells your story. Re-arrange your paragraphs as you like, and strive for three beautifully constructed paragraphs that only you could have written about your work. Our best art, and best writing, comes from our gut, our heart, our core, whatever we call the essential part of ourselves that makes each of us a unique human being. We can trust this to connect us — and our work — to other human beings.

Even in the most sophisticated person, it is the primitive eye that watches the film. — Jack Nicholson

Every story is completed by the reader. — Grace Paley

RESOURCES:

Analog: Textile Center Library, local libraries, Springboard for the Arts workshops and services (some of them free), workshops posted on mnartists.org, other artists working in your area or other areas.

Upcoming mnartists.org workshops about their new web site, free at Walker Art Center:
Thurs, Oct 23, 2014            5 – 7 pm
Thurs, Oct 30, 2014                       5 – 7 pm

Digital:
Springboard for the Arts
mnartists.org

 Alan Bamberger’s site artbusiness.com has an excellent article: “Your Artist Statement: Explaining the Unexplainable”: “On this planet, people communicate with words, and your artist statement introduces and communicates the language component of your art.”

Leslie Pontz, recent Mondale Gallery exhibitor, wrote a beautifully direct statement about her art

Matt Siber’s advice for a photography seminar at Columbia College, Chicago explains how statements “provide insight into the artist’s concept and motivation behind making the work.”

Daniel Blight’s advice in the UK Guardian on the pitfalls of International Art English: “…writing about your work should be an open and compelling activity…”

Iris Jaffe on hyperallergic.com: “The Anti-artist-statement Statement”

Robin Grearson on hyperallergic.com: “In Defense of the Artist Statement

Cara Ober on BmoreArt.com leaves her notes after teaching a class at Maryland Institute of Art on Professional Practices for Visual Artists: “What does your work DO?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Time in Between

Another effective writing exercise is to consider two photographs taken at different times (decades apart, or a few minutes) or your own mental images of yourself or another. Or photos or mental images of places.

Write a few words to orient yourself with each image – who, when, where. Add a word or two about the feeling or emotion most prominent when you think of each image.

Now spend a few minutes writing about the time between the images. What changed for the person in the image?

Go deeper: Return to the images a few more times over several days or weeks. Guaranteed, you’ll come up with more to say, questions you’d like to ask (or wish you could ask). Write about that.

How To Be

Writing a mini-instruction manual (really, just a paragraph) about How To Be a particular person is a quick way to remind yourself of all sorts of stories you can tell. For each line of your “recipe” to be this person, you’re drawing on your experience and memory. Those are the stories.

For instance, I could tell you that my mom is from Indiana, she’s 5’3”, she likes to read, she’s kind, she eats healthy food, she loves me. And maybe, if one of those things resonated with you, you might want to meet her.

Or I could think a bit more about each of those points, and give you a recipe that shows how my mom is unique. Bingo. Instantly, she’s a more interesting person. Fiction writers use this exercise all the time to see what their imaginations “know” about a character and to help predict how that character might act. I think it’s just as much fun to do with real people.

How To Be Sandy – Be born in a small town in Indiana and be both glad that your childhood was spent there, and glad that you left as a young adult. Be small, about 5’3” and neat and modest. Smile often, except when you are reading; when reading have a relaxed yet intent expression. Be kind. Be critical of ideas, but not of people. Rarely eat fast food, but once or twice each year or so, really, really enjoy a Big Mac. Interrupt frequently, and fail to notice that this annoys people. Love your family unconditionally.

 

Story Starters

And here are some writing prompts I use with my students. They also make good conversations starters if things get dull at parties!

Writing Your Own Stories:
–  write about someone or something you loved with all your heart at age 10 –  or 16, 38, 67.
–  tell about a time you moved from one place to another. What did you miss? What did you like/dislike about the new place?
–  write about a trip you took. Did it meet, or fail to meet your expectation?
–  is there something you wanted but never got? What filled that space?
– write about your jobs in the order you held them, and how you learned what you needed to know.

Tell about your best birthday gift.
Who was your favorite relative when you were 10 years old?
What would you ask your grandmother if you could?
Tell about a family food or meal that you either like or dislike.
What is the most significant weather event you can remember?
Tell about the worst haircut you ever had.
Who was your best friend as a child?
What’s the naughtiest thing you did as a child?
What amazes you most about the year 2014?
Who was your favorite teacher?
What do you remember about learning to swim or ride a bike?
How old were you when you left home? Where did you go?
Tell about your ideal Sunday afternoon.
What skill do you wish you had learned better?
Did you have siblings or cousins to play with?

Story Starters for Writing About Family Members:

It’s OKAY – more than okay – to start with questions. That may be all you really have. Consider any documentation you have about a particular person – diaries, letters, photos, charts, notes. What’s missing? What would you ask that person if you could? What do you wonder about? Know that it’s also okay if you can’t find answers. Just asking the questions connects your life to theirs, and connects their story to your story.

Try to imagine your relative in the year 2014 —  what would be most surprising to him or her? Why do you think so?

Did the person emigrate from another country? Another city or state? Why? What did they miss about their old home? What did they like and dislike about their new home?

Who left for, came home from or stayed home from a war? What did this mean to family members?

Think of an object you associate with this person, and describe it in detail. What does it say about the person?

What was their first job? Their last? What happened in between and why?

How old were they when they left home? Where did they go? Why?

Tell about a vacation or trip they took.

Tell about a family food or meal that you either like or dislike. What do you know about the family members who started this food tradition?

Who in your family tells the funniest jokes?

What did an ideal Sunday afternoon look like?

 

 

 

 

 

List Poems

This is one of the easiest and most popular writing exercises I do with students.

1.  At the top of a blank page, write the name of the person you’re writing about, yourself or another.
2.  Freewrite for 2-3 minutes, jotting down every word, phrase, thought, or image that comes to you about this person. Write as quickly and as much as you can; editing comes later.
3.  End with an object, something this person holds in their hand or pocket. (Because this can give you a clue to writing more about this person later.)
4.  Read through what you’ve written, circling or noting any recurring themes. Cross out anything you don’t want to keep.
5. You have a List Poem, a snapshot or sketch of the essential characteristics (as seen by you!) of a particular person. Now, you can:
A) Use this to write a story.
B) Copy your edited poem in your best handwriting, one ides or phrase per line, and frame it along with a photo of the person.

Variations:
Love Poem — in step 2, list everything you love about the person. Step 3, end with I love you because…

Think about everything that scares this person when you are freewriting in Step 2.

Peeing on our monsters.

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Wonderful piece from 1/1/2014 on NPR’s All Things Considered about editing your life stories — and the health benefits thereof.  You know which stories we’re talking about, the ones that run in our head and tell us who we are and how we should move through the world. Turns out we can edit the stories we tell ourselves — in effect,we can pee on our monsters.  A little crude (sorry, Mom) but what a simple and effective idea.

The radio interview is well worth listening to, and James Pennebaker’s writing prompts are worth trying. I’ve followed Pennebaker’s work at the University of Texas on healing through writing, and incorporate some of his ideas into my workshops and classes.

Improving our mental health with our life stories seems like a good thing to consider in this very cold early January. I’m looking forward to exploring this with my writing students this year.

Join us at The Blessing House on Saturday, January 11.

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Stephanie Friant has invited me to teach a writing workshop at the Blessing House in Victoria, Minnesota this coming Saturday, from 9 am to Noon. We’ll be talking about writing your own life story, or family stories, and we’ll do some fast and fun writing exercises together so everyone has a head start. The Blessing House is a peaceful and contemplative place to enjoy a winter day — and Saturday may even be sort of warm.

I met Stephanie last summer, and quickly discovered that we share an interest in spiritual writing, and in spirituality as a journey. She’s a thoughtful and humble writer – visit her blog when you’re looking for food for thought, and she’ll point you in all sorts of interesting directions.