Pepys, uncut

Despite making erasure poems from the Diary of Samuel Pepys for more than a decade, I’ve always worked digitally and never actually owned or indeed opened a volume of the 1899 Wheatley edition, whose text I’ve been taking such liberties with… until now. Last night when I went to the monthly meeting of our local Audubon chapter for a presentation on orchids, a member who had attended my own presentation back in November, in which I’d mentioned my erasure project, gifted me the entire set! I was momentarily speechless. She said she’d been a book collector for many years but was now in de-acquisition mode and finding homes for all her treasures.

I’m beyond grateful. From a haiku perspective, there’s so much wabi-sabi in old books like these. For one thing, they seem never to have had a single reader in their more than century of existence: the pages in most volumes, though yellowing, remain uncut. (And no, I’m not going to mutilate them to make analogue erasures. My dad was a librarian. He’d come back to haunt me! I’ll use photocopies if it comes to that.)

I record this here as a reminder to myself never to say no to local gigs, no matter how much they might cost me in nights of lost sleep. As Qoheleth says: Cast thy bread upon the waters.

New haiku hither and yon

A batch of haiku and haibun that I wrote last summer specifically to send out—some with darker imagery, influenced by my regular consumption of death metal—has met with mixed reactions from editors: acceptances from tinywords, The Heron’s Nest, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and Drifting Sands Haibun (as previously noted) but no bites from Acorn, Whiptail, Rattle, or Contemporary Haiku Online. The one in tinywords appeared back in October:

monitoring the dead zone blue crabbers

The image came from a lengthy article in the Chesapeake Bay Journal, an essential source of environmental news for anyone living in the Chesapeake watershed.

My haiku in The Heron’s Nest came about in the approved manner, however: an encounter in nature prompting a nearly instantaneous response, in a haiku all about responsiveness.

night bird—we startle as one

I’m grateful to the editors of Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, for selecting this one for their Winter 2024 issue:

being measured for a coffin first snowflake

This had been included in the batch I sent to Modern Haiku, but editor Paul Miller chose this one instead:

unrivaled in my kitchen cricket

I love and read all these journals whether I place work in them or not, so it’s fun to feel as if I’m taking part in building something bigger than ourselves. That something being, I think, no less than a complete reassessment of how we in the West relate to nature: seen no longer as something apart from humans but a spontaneously self-organizing cosmos, “of itself thus” as the two-character compound for “nature” in Japanese and Chinese may be translated. But that’s a topic for another post.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning, for those who might be curious, that I do not necessarily hold my best haiku to send out. If I get an idea for a photo haiga, that sucker is going up on my photoblog and on social media right away, because I think sometimes the immediacy of haiku is more important than anything else. And by sharing these kinds of haiku more widely, with people who aren’t already up to speed with the modern understanding of Japanese short forms in English, my hope is to enlarge the tent of modern haiku readers and creators.

Realization

Avoiding the whole po biz scene as I do might seem brilliant to an outsider, but it does mean there’s a lot of pretty basic stuff I’ve had to work out on my own. For example—and this is always a big one for me—why bother to put my work out there at all? Since the writing itself is what gives me so much joy, why not just live for that?

Well, it occurred to me just the other day that while I may not need an audience, the work does. It needs that appreciative Hmmm! or that doubtful Hmmm. Because avoiding self-satisfaction is absolutely essential in order to safeguard what skill I’ve managed to build up. I mean, that’s the task of every serious artist, isn’t it? To remain critical of one’s own work without losing awareness of its quality. And it’s hard to maintain a realistic sense of the work’s quality without at least occasional feedback.

Also, I owe it to the creative energies that produced it to share the work widely, because such energies feed off of conviviality; it’s in my own interest as an artist to keep the virtuous cycle going. It’s a leap of faith, of course, and sometimes feels about as meaningful as writing my poems in the snow with a stick.

Although that can be meaningful, too, if you’re a child walking home from school and you write messages in the snow of your driveway for your father to read when he drives home. Years later, Dad told me those were some his favorite memories from raising kids.

It helps to know your audience.

Pepys Erasure Project, Vol. 1: back to the future

Another year of Pepys erasures, done and dusted. And before New Year’s for once! And as I’ve done every year since 2017, I’ve compiled the erasures into a PDF, free for download, samizdat-style circulation, and remixing. Here’s the link. (And if you’ve missed any of the others, you can find all the download links in the last sentence of the top-of-page description of the Pepys Diary Erasure Project.)

Painting of Samuel Pepys as a young man by John Hayls
Painting of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls

Looking again at this painting of Pepys, I’m reminded how much older than him I am this time around: three decades, instead of just the two I had on him last time. But it’s hard to tell how much that might’ve influenced the inevitable change in my perspective on Mr. Pepys, as I’ve gotten to know him over the course of this ten-year-long ‘deep misreading.’ In general, though, my wonderment at people in my own life who resemble Pepys in their energy and ambition has only grown with age, as the erasure project has assumed an increasingly significant role in my otherwise shambolic existence, now that I’ve reached a level of mastery I could barely conceive of ten years ago, when I was still just entranced by the process of erasure and posting any old garbage in my typically impulsive manner. But in defense of my 47-year-old self, Pepys was just a side project at the time, something to be fitted in around other, more exciting projects… which I’ve half-forgotten and can’t even be arsed to look up right now.

I remain deeply grateful to my then-partner Rachel for getting me started on the whole thing, so we’d have an excuse to read it together. Those were great times. But reading my 2013 erasures every morning this year was painful, I’m not going to lie—so many wince-worthy lines! Fortunately, Luisa Igloria and I had plenty of other content, so readers didn’t abandon Via Negativa in droves. I don’t expect I ever would’ve had the nerve to start blogging like that if Luisa hadn’t already joined.

Look at me reminiscing like some kind of geezer! LOL.

I dimly recall that it was partway through the summer of 2014 that something clicked and finally figured out where I was going with Pepys, so I’m excited to see what happens with the project this year: will I be able to coast a little at some point, and just polish previous drafts? There have only been about a half-dozen times when I’ve been able to do that so far. Regardless, I hope to keep going in this till I have PDFs for all ten years of the diary. But I have to tell you, I am already champing at the bit to get started on my next erasure project, and if you know me, you can probably guess what book I have in mind. Superstition prevents me from saying anything further.

Anyway, enjoy the PDF, and do consider sharing it with anyone who might enjoy it. Happy New Year.

Bottle up and go

I love my filthy, bird-safe windows, especially when they’re being caressed by cedar-tree shadows on St. Lucy’s Day. The antique bottles are there so I can still savor the look of light through glass, and are of an age with the old springhouse in the dirt-mediated view they frame. The one on the right lies on its side because its bottom is round; it was made to serve as ballast in a sailing ship. They are green because of the presence of iron oxide, considered an impurity. Glassmakers went to great lengths to remove it so they could achieve the sought-after clarity, only to decide a century later that colored glass was better for preserving the contents of the bottle from the harmful effects of ultraviolet and infrared light. But the process they settled on in the interim generated initially clear bottles that slowly turned purple with age. When my brothers and I were kids, we collected whiskey bottles of this type from the old farm dump and all over the mountain, and I still sometimes find shards of purple glass out in the woods, disinterred by frost heave, and think about the lives of those who left them there—colliers, quarrymen, loggers, hunters, hard-working sorts living on the margins of society and doing what they knew to give the hard hours a bit of a glow. Because life can be pretty fucking grim, you know? They say between 365 and 988 million songbirds die each year in the U.S. from flying into glass windows so clean they can’t distinguish their reflections from reality. They simply haven’t evolved to process images in that way. Meanwhile, we humans are drowning in a similarly unnatural stream of images of our own volition. Yesterday after supper my mother and I were comparing notes on our respective grieving processes (for Dad, for the earth) and I said something like, every day I don’t wake up bleeding out in the wreckage of my home in an open-air prison is ultimately a good day, and Mom said yes, exactly that. There’s no escaping the imperial blowback; I’ve been expecting it all my life: the retreat into warring camps, the rise of authoritarianism, the quiet setting aside of the First Amendment ‘for our own protection’ from the barbarian hordes… it’s here. I’m sticking to my guns as a pacifist and free-speech absolutist. But I do notice in myself an increasing suspicion of our story-telling instinct, seeing so many people with seemingly unimpeachable faculties of perception and analysis, as certified by multiple institutions of higher learning, fall for the most absurd fabrications because they’re well told, they like/trust the teller, and it reconfirms them in some strongly held prejudice about scary Others. Few are willing to abandon their screens, leave the house, and exercise their brains and bodies in the open air. For prisoners or inhabitants of concentration camps, of course, that isn’t even an option. And I’m guessing we will soon reach a point when it will be hazardous to do so nearly everywhere, whether because of dangerously high temperatures, smoke from wildfires, or new tick- and mosquito-borne diseases. Someday I may have to wash my windows so I can enjoy the outside from inside, and learn how to construct seductive story-lines instead of erasure poems and haiku. But right now, engaging with the world through lyric poetry feels like a healthier response. Through all the tumult and the strife, as the old folk poem puts it, how can I keep from singing?

New poetry film: PSALM 2.0

Watch on Vimeo

First came this brilliant clip on Instagram by UK poet and artist Janet Lees. I wrote this poem in response, as our mutual friend Marc Neys in Belgium was beginning to compose electronic music in response to the same clip. I suppose it was inevitable that the three elements would eventually merge. Janet helped Marc decide which composition worked best, and they surprised me with a draft of the videopoem last Saturday.

I’m not sure my poem quite does justice to the awe I felt the first time I watched the clip… which I might still prefer without either of our additions. Nevertheless, I think this is a fairly compelling thing that we’ve made. It is always so deeply satisfying and humbling to be able to tap into the creative power of the universe like that. Especially in collaboration with other artists equally attuned.

In solidarity

Words alone cannot stop the onslaught of devastation of Palestinian homes and lives, backed shamelessly and without hesitation by the entire axis of Western power. At the same time, we must reckon with the role words and images play in the war on Gaza and the ferocious support they have engendered: Israel’s defense minister announced the siege as a fight against “human animals”; even as we learned that Israel had rained bombs down on densely populated urban neighborhoods and deployed white phosphorus in Gaza City, the New York Times editorial board wrote that “what Israel is fighting to defend is a society that values human life and the rule of law”; establishment media outlets continue to describe Hamas’s attack on Israel as “unprovoked.” Writers Against the War on Gaza rejects this perversion of meaning, wherein a nuclear state can declare itself a victim in perpetuity while openly enacting genocide. We condemn those in our industries who continue to enable apartheid and genocide. We cannot write a free Palestine into existence, but together we must do all we possibly can to reject narratives that soothe Western complicity in ethnic cleansing.

Statement of Solidarity, Writers Against the War on Gaza

I’ve signed. Will you join me?

Ambition without careerism

I need to stop saying I’m not ambitious about poetry. I am actually highly ambitious… for my writing. I try like hell to avoid repeating too many received ideas, I read as widely as possible, every day I push back against my natural laziness where word choice is concerned—I work hard at poetry.

It’s the whole publications-and-awards business that I have a hard time with—literally. The older I get, the more zealous I am about preserving time for walking, contemplating, and reading—a mix of poetry, mostly in single-author collections, and nonfiction. I’ve whittled back my news consumption to just a few independent media voices, for a total of about ten hours a week. All these things feed the poetry, which, now that I am no longer in a marriage or LTR, I can devote my full attention to whenever I’m most alert and attentive: first thing in the morning, especially, but also at any other time throughout the day when an idea might hit.

So sending work out is a huge time-suck, but that’s not all that makes me neglect it. Tellingly, I find myself quite enjoying it where haiku and haibun are concerned, because the global network of English-language poets working in Japanese short forms is welcoming and relatively unpretentious: someone who just started writing haiku a month ago has as much chance as a veteran with dozens of books and awards under their belt of landing an acceptance at virtually any journal in the space. It feels like a genuine meritocracy. And author bios are rare in such journals. The overwhelming emphasis in that community is on the poetry, not the poet, within a spirit of mutual assistance and support.

So if mainstream poetry culture were like that, I’m sure I’d take more of an interest in submitting, maybe even occasionally enter a competition. I’ve just come to really loathe academic poetry culture, which seems so divorced from the real world: a hierarchy existing seemingly for its own sake, whose members cling to a decades-out-of-date conception of their own cultural significance. Poets like to console themselves with the hope of some kind of literary legacy, but the reality is that even in the unlikely event that humans survive the next hundred years and give rise to a new, healthier civilization, the literary artifacts they’ll be most interested in from the late 20th and 21st centuries, as they seek to understand our genocidal and ecocidal ways, will be things that had a mass audience: genre fiction, the screenplays for TV shows and movies, pop and rap lyrics, etc. Poetry, not so much. Just as when we want to understand the Elizabethans, we tend to read a scruffy playwright who was barely even regarded as a real writer at the time. Except for a few scholars, who still reads Sir Philip Sydney?

Needless to say, I’m only free to adopt this attitude because I’m not in academia. I certainly don’t blame my academic colleagues for following the conventional route. Though with tenure going away and the American university system increasingly inaccessible to all but the wealthy, I’m not sure how much longer teaching will make sense as a profession for poets. Catering to the elite is already distorting the politics of poetry, favoring a corporation-friendly, cultural version of leftism focused on ethnic and sexual or gender identity to the virtual exclusion of class politics. So bourgeois. So much less threatening to the status quo.

And this kind of material is so in vogue now with the funding orgs and academic gatekeepers, a curious kind of anti-lyrical flatness is taking over—which I actually don’t mind, since I’ve grown rather bored with the dominant autobiographical lyric, and I think it’s good to get more ecological and political concerns out front, as long as didacticism can be kept at arm’s length. So if/when the academic system collapses, I think poetry may emerge stronger (because true strength comes from diversity), however bourgeois it may seem now. But will anyone read it?

Who knows. I write because I can’t not. It’s how I seek to understand the world. And one of the great things about my Pepys erasure project now is that I can see my progress from ten years ago, as I make new erasures from the same diary entries and always compare with my previous attempts. I see plenty of decent poems, but few truly satisfying ones, and for the first couple of years, no real vision or coherent voice. Now I think I do have that, and it’s hugely rewarding, even if some days still don’t produce works of genius (whatever that may be). So I feel the past ten years were well spent. I’m glad I didn’t waste them trying to get big.

*

These ramblings were brought to you by an all-day rain. See what kind of BS I get up to when I don’t go for a walk?

New film adaptation: Extra Terrestrial by Marc Neys

I love this new videopoem by Belgian artist and composer Marc Neys. The fact that it’s based on one of my own poems is gravy.

Speaking of gravy, here’s a very meta few seconds of video I shot a month ago on a whim: a snippet from Marc’s previous adaptation, SOME FACTS ABOUT PARADISE, viewed at the very spot where I wrote the poem:

At Home in the Middle of Nowhere: Insights from an Ecopoetry Practice

a bare tree white with snow against a background of snowy, wooded mountains

I’m grateful for an invitation to present a slideshow-reading for the Juniata Valley Audubon Society at the Bellwood-Antis Public Library in November, as it will force me to actually go back over all the stuff I’ve been writing for the past two years, see what works, and maybe think about putting out some kind of collection (possibly illustrated, if that doesn’t make the book horribly expensive).

Poet and photographer Dave Bonta has made a practice of writing as he walks, producing what he calls walking poems, and in the process cultivating a mindset that might be closer to pilgrimage than science. Re-visit familiar places through his serendipitous photos and the ideas they spark, from Plummer’s Hollow, where he’s lived since the age of five, to the Little Juniata Natural Area, Mt. Etna, Tytoona Cave, Bell’s Gap, and more. Along the way, we’ll be asked to consider how a simple walk in the woods can lead to new insights about the universe.

All JVAS meetings are also shared over ZOOM these days, for any folks from out of the area who might want to listen in (in addition to those who simply wish to avoid infection, etc.). See the instructions on the Programs page. I’m not sure how accessible their website is to people outside the US, though.