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Saturday, May 23, 2015

The unguessable current

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Glimmerglass
Three days in Vermont for the graduation at The Center for Cartoon Studies, lots of long track meets in far-off places, deadlines, an Antioch Midwest independent study, a month jammed with events for a high school senior... I've been busy and off in the wilds. And I suppose that was good because I was a little weary of the online world. All that flogging of books coming up on the twitter feed! All those links to advice about getting at least 15 Amazon reviews for algorithm visibility, all those "Top Ten" things to do in order to sell, all those cries of hawkers! Somehow it can be disheartening to see so many people striving so hard to be what we call visible and commercial and successful. I'd rather not see what appears frantic. I'd rather know that those people were working and playing in joy, twisting words into beautiful shapes and sounds.

When I was younger, I felt conflict between what the world seemed to want and what I wanted, but now I feel clear on the odd times that are ours. The over-focus on commerce and unleashed torrent of new books are just facts of our era and our cracked culture, nothing to do with what happens when a writer sits at her table and lets the words stream forth.

In the end, I am a solitary maker who is dreaming something into being, spinning the straw of the world into what I hope will be gold, true and beautiful and doing justice to the marvelous, tragic, lovely Creation. And I am mad enough to think that the gold-spinner dreaming along in the room is what an artist should be.

Also Clive, a portrait of Thalia
for Thaliad
Many of my strongest relationships tend to be with artists in other fields, and I often find the words of a composer or a painter pertinent to what I do. This morning my favorite online words about making come from my longtime collaborator, painter Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
I begin with an underdrawing, sometimes faint like smoke, sometimes confident, usually a bit of both, mostly fluid at this early stage. Then the painting and the rendering begin. It feels as though I'm attempting to produce a mosaic from thousands of glittering tesserae, each one of them a different micro-thought flashing through my brain. When I'm working away I have to make the image one tiny tile-of-thought at a time, and it's as though this flood of thoughts and moods spreads across the board. The thoughts/voices/poetry at this point are a cacophony, and I have to try and catch at the most insistent ones to fathom their meanings, all while listening/watching for the next to emerge. Each takes me where it will. I get buffeted in one direction by playful zephyrs, carried smoothly for periods on the dazzling surface, or dragged down into deep currents where all is shadowy and cold. Sometimes everything slows and then halts. I trace the curved route for the stem of a tulip, graze a petal with the striations of its markings. Becalmed, I drift.

Then something pulls at me again, the insistent and unguessable current reasserting, the line of poetry that lightning-flashes in the head, the breeze though the open window that sends all the fragments of drawings and poetry flying, and in a moment I'm away again, off into the unknown.
Into the unknown, leaping off the edge of everything one has created before...

Coming up soon: events at Hanford Mills in central New York and at the Culture Care Summit at Cairn in Philly.


  1. It is good to fly for the love of it!
    A refreshing blog, Marly. I also loved what Clive wrote!
    Creating simply for the joy of creating.

  2. I appreciate the insight Clive gives us into the making of visual art, which resembles the making of verbal art, in my experience.
    And yes, I agree that the commercial efforts of enterprising artists get old. That's why I'm not on Twitter, despite the knowledge that it would be good for my own commercial efforts.
    For sure, I prefer to play.

    1. Twitter is fun if you make your own sub-lists. Then you can talk to friends on the other side of the world in the middle of the night, or meet new, interesting people through friends. I have lots of sub-lists, only one of which is open for view.

      If you look at the general feed, it's overwhelming.

  3. Ah, without creativity the realities of life can sometimes be overwhelming. Thank God for the creators like you. We who do not create are eternally grateful.

    1. Oh, I think we are all creating things together, you know--the castle of culture, the heavenly kingdom, the brighter world--despite all the overwhelming parts of life.

  4. It seems to me that one of the biggest problems with the marketing and promotion machine, aside from the fact that it somehow turned into the self-marketing and self-promotion machine, is that we're all increasingly writing for our fellow writers—who don't have time to read what we write, since they themselves are busy writing. I think this failure to cultivate larger audiences is one of the great overarching problems in the arts today, whether we're talking about museums, fine-arts centers, theaters, symphonies, poetry, or what have you. Most organizations, institutions, and individuals just don't have it in them to defy the pop-soaked culture and affirm that quiet, contemplative places can be remarkably rewarding, or that certain books are worth reading even if they don't get a notice in the New York Times or coverage on NPR.

    Lately I've been trying to do my bit by using my blog to write about poetry collections that almost nobody has reviewed or even noticed. I doubt I can help these authors sell many books, but maybe some honest praise popping up in their Google results will do some good? Either way, I can't escape the conclusion that the only way any of us will start selling more books is for all of us to become nigh-evangelical about expanding the audience; we need to find new ways to convince people to check out books, art, and cultural experiences beyond what they're hearing about from their friends, peers, or tightly tailored social media. I wish I knew where to begin with that...

    1. Jeff,

      I liked that last post about the medievalists' anthology! I do that sort of thing too, though often it's at another blog or social media. Sharing work is essential these days.

      There's a man in Canada who sells poetry books door to door and has been very successful at it! That sort of thing is a bit safer for guys, of course. But thinking outside of the box is great for all of us.

      "Writing for our fellow writers" is the fault of Modernism, don't you think? And perhaps another reason it seems that way is the increasing flood of books, now that anyone can publish anything...

      I keep recommending Makoto Fujimura's "Culture Care" as a remedy or road map or idea book for what you call "the pop-soaked culture."

    2. I can't competently weigh in on the consequences of Modernism, but I'm seeing lots of hard-to-describe cultural trends that are working against people and institutions in the more traditional art-and-culture business.

      A couple years ago, my day job gave me occasion to attend several big conferences in the museum world. Again and again, I saw museum executives working so hard to listen to millennials' wants and needs, almost always using marketing cant, all in the name of increasing visitor numbers. I almost never heard anyone say: "This is what our 150-year-old institution that preserves even older thoughts and works has to teach you that you're not getting anywhere else in the culture." Only squares try to make those arguments now.

      I also think the same Internet that makes it easier for all of us to share our work and connect with each other—and thank goodness for it!—also discourages experimentation. Thirty years ago, you might pick up a book on a whim, read it, and be exposed to new ideas; you couldn't preemptively google it to see if you're politically or culturally predisposed to dislike it. Also, if the thought of (say) attending the symphony, seeing a play, or visiting an art center crosses one's mind, it's easy to look at one's social-media feed and think "hey, no one I know is talking about those things; they must not be relevant to my life."

      There's also something going on economically that I'm trying to understand. In the past 40 to 60 years, it's become possible to live in an enormous house and be upper-middle-class in terms of possessions and luxuries without having to send out the cultural signals of decades ago. That is, most people no longer need (or want?) to know anything about the arts to move up economically. That may have been good for social mobility, but it's been terrible for the arts.

      I'm sorry to go on at such length in your comments section, Marly! I really need to pull together these thoughts on my own. It's just that posts like yours renew my focus and make me wonder which sort of writer and artist I'll ultimately turn out to be, or even should be: active or contemplative?

    3. Never be sorry! I'm always interested in what you have to say. The perceived need to cater to (pander to) the audience (rather than entice the audience in some better way) is often a wretched spectacle, I agree. It pulls the institution off course. Also, marketing has come to rule the roost in many arts settings--certainly in our field, books are often rejected solely on the basis on Bookscan numbers, and all Big 5 books have to jump through a marketing hoop that is all about whether the publisher can make a profit.

      I do think that a cursory internet experience of someone's work often replaces a deeper encounter. The reader/viewer then "knows" it and goes on to browse elsewhere.

      Don't you think that the middle class has simply bought the current cultural attitude that only what makes a lot of money really matters? So we go for celebrities, for bestseller books, for pop culture icons in music and movies and even visual arts...Part of this can be blamed on tendencies in the university, which abandoned its mandate to pass along culture, abolished the canon, studied pop culture and third-rate books, etc. So you can now get a liberal arts degree without really knowing the monuments of the past.

    4. I think you're right about the consequences of the university's crumbling sense of cultural mission, but I'm not sure that middle-class people value their arts and entertainment because it makes money; I think there's something else going on, a fear of "snobbery" (I word I hear invoked with surprising frequency) that keeps people from straying too far away from, say, Times-reviewed books, NPR podcasts, or ambitious serialized TV shows. People value them because they're part of a larger cultural experience in which they can participate. I'm not necessarily casting aspersions on any of those things as creative works; it's just that they occupy nearly all of the attention of people who, decades ago, would have been spending more of their time and money on more traditional arts and culture organizations. Museums, symphonies, theaters, art centers, et al., can't just piggyback on their success, i.e., "If you liked that show about the Vikings, some see our exhibition!" They need to re-stake their own claim in the culture.

      Thanks for the chance to chat about this! I'm heading out for a couple days with the book Culture Care (per your recommendation) and some antique cameras. Perhaps art will result; one out of every hundred times, it does...

  5. I am always interested to read your thoughts about the writing/artistic life, though I don't like the distress you often experience at this "cracked culture" that is ours. But not to be distressed by it wouldn't say much good about any of us. Clive's part is beautifully expressed, of course. My own process is quite different from his, but I sure recognize the "unguessable current." And I know the solitary maker role, like is my foundational self. And, Marly, I want to add here how much I see and treasure your support of other artists. You are extremely generous with your words, your energy and your spirit towards the efforts of others. You deserve the same support in spades. Thank you.

    1. Ah, that's sweet! Thanks.

      I'm not sure I would call what I feel "distress." What I feel is that the arts need a lot more nurturing than they are getting, and that we need to share a great deal.

      And I have to confess that many of my choices for my own work have been turning my back on the things that one is "supposed" to do. So maybe I don't have any business talking about building an audience!

  6. I done mentioned this here post on my marketing blog.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.