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28 JANUARY, 2015

Pulitzer-Winning Poet Mark Strand on the Heartbeat of Creative Work and the Artist’s Task to Bear Witness to the Universe

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“It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”

In the 1996 treasure Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — the same invaluable trove of insight that demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius and gave us Madeleine L’Engle on creativity, hope, and how to get unstuck — pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 prominent artists, writers, scientists, and other luminaries, seeking to uncover the common tangents of the creative experience at its highest potentiality. Among the interviewees was the poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) — a writer of uncommon flair for the intersection of mind, spirit and language, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and served as poet laureate of the United States.

For Strand, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “the poet’s responsibility to be a witness, a recorder of experience, is part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness.” He quotes the poet’s own reflection — which calls to mind Rilke’s — on how our sense of mortality, our awareness that we are a cosmic accident, fuels most creative work:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

Illustration by Bárður Oskarsson from 'The Flat Rabbit,' an unusual Scandinavian children's book about making sense of mortality. Click image for more.

But that response is not a coolly calculated, rational one. Echoing Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report,” Strand describes the immersive, time-melting state of “flow” that Csikszentmihalyi himself had coined several years earlier — the intense psychoemotional surrender that the creative act of paying attention requires:

[When] you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is too great. You can’t continue to work or continue to see the end of the work because you’re jumping ahead of yourself all the time. The idea is to be so… so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re, uh, making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it. Without undue regard for the words you’re using. It’s meaning carried to a high order. It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication. When you’re working on something and you’re working well, you have the feeling that there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying.

Echoing Chuck Close’s notion that the artist is a problem-finder rather than a problem-solver — a quality recent research has emphasized as essential to success in any domain — Csikszentmihalyi adds:

The theme of the poem emerges in the writing, as one word suggests another, one image calls another into being. This is the problem-finding process that is typical of creative work in the arts as well as the sciences.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from 'Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People.' Click image for more.

Strand speaks to this himself:

One of the amazing things about what I do is you don’t know when you’re going to be hit with an idea, you don’t know where it comes from. I think it has to do with language. Writers are people who have greater receptivity to language, and I think that they will see something in a phrase, or even in a word, that allows them to change it or improve what was there before. I have no idea where things come from. It’s a great mystery to me, but then so many things are. I don’t know why I’m me, I don’t know why I do the things I do. I don’t even know whether my writing is a way of figuring it out. I think that it’s inevitable, you learn more about yourself the more you write, but that’s not the purpose of writing. I don’t write to find out more about myself. I write because it amuses me.

Like T.S. Eliot, who championed the importance of idea-incubation, Strand considers the inner workings of what we call creative intuition, or what Virginia Woolf called the “wave in the mind”:

I am always thinking in the back of my mind, there’s something always going on back there. I am always working, even if it’s sort of unconsciously, even though I’m carrying on conversations with people and doing other things, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m writing, mulling over. And another part of my mind is reviewing what I’ve done.

And yet too much surrender to this pull of the unconscious, Csikszentmihalyi cautions, can lead to a “mental meltdown that occurs when he gets too deeply involved with the writing of a poem.” He cites the practical antidotes Strand has developed:

To avoid blowing a fuse, he has developed a variety of rituals to distract himself: playing a few hands of solitaire, taking the dog for a walk, running “meaningless errands,” going to the kitchen to have a snack. Driving is an especially useful respite, because it forces him to concentrate on the road and thus relieves his mind from the burden of thought. Afterward, refreshed by the interval, he can return to work with a clearer mind.

Driving, coincidentally or not, is also something Joan Didion memorably extolled as a potent form of self-transcendence, and rhythmical movement in general is something many creators — including Twain, Goethe, Mozart, and Kelvin — have found stimulating. But perhaps most important is the general notion of short deliberate distractions from creative work — something more recent research has confirmed as the key to creative productivity.

Csikszentmihalyi crystallizes Strand’s creative process, with its osmotic balance of openness and structure, reveals about the optimal heartbeat of creative work:

Strand’s modus operandi seems to consist of a constant alternation between a highly concentrated critical assessment and a relaxed, receptive, nonjudgmental openness to experience. His attention coils and uncoils, its focus sharpens and softens, like the systolic and diastolic beat of the heart. It is out of this dynamic change of perspective that a good new work arises. Without openness the poet might miss the significant experience. But once the experience registers in his consciousness, he needs the focused, critical approach to transform it into a vivid verbal image that communicates its essence to the reader.

Csikszentmihalyi points out another necessary duality of creative work that Strand embodies:

Like most creative people, he does not take himself too seriously… But that does not mean that he takes his vocation lightly; in fact, his views of poetry are as serious as any. His writing grows out of the condition of mortality: Birth, love, and death are the stalks onto which his verse is grafted. To say anything new about these eternal themes he must do a lot of watching, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking. Strand sees his main skill as just paying attention to the textures and rhythms of life, being receptive to the multifaceted, constantly changing yet ever recurring stream of experiences. The secret of saying something new is to be patient. If one reacts too quickly, it is likely that the reaction will be superficial, a cliché.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind one of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence“the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts” — Strand himself offers the simple, if not easy, secret of saying something new and meaningful:

Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. For as long as possible.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity remains a must-read and features enduring insights on the psychology of discovery and invention from such luminaries as astronomer Vera Rubin, poet Denise Levertov, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, social scientist John Gardner, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

For more of Strand’s genius in the wild, treat yourself to his sublime Collected Poems (public library), released a few weeks before his death.

The opening piece in the collection, which is one of my all-time favorite poems, offers a remembrance particularly befitting in the context of Strand’s lifelong serenade to mortality:

WHEN THE VACATION IS OVER FOR GOOD

It will be strange
Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever,
The certain voice telling us over and over
That nothing would change,

And remembering too,
Because by then it will all be done with, the way
Things were, and how we had wasted time as though
There was nothing to do,

When, in a flash
The weather turned, and the lofty air became
Unbearably heavy, the wind strikingly dumb
And our cities like ash,

And knowing also,
What we never suspected, that it was something like summer
At its most august except that the nights were warmer
And the clouds seemed to glow,

And even then,
Because we will not have changed much, wondering what
Will become of things, and who will be left to do it
All over again,

And somehow trying,
But still unable, to know just what it was
That went so completely wrong, or why it is
We are dying.

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23 JANUARY, 2015

The Principle of Infinite Pains: Legendary Filmmaker Maya Deren on Cinema, Life, and Her Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers

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“The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other…”

Russian-born American filmmaker, poet, photographer, choreographer, and critic Maya Deren (April 29, 1917–October 13, 1961) endures as one of humanity’s most significant experimental filmmakers and champions of independent cinema. She was only twenty-six when she made the influential classic Meshes of the Afternoon, which remains required viewing for film students, visual storytellers, and general connoisseurs of creative culture alike. But Deren was also a masterful writer and film theorist, who authored dozens of articles in film journals and popular magazines, often included extensive program notes with her films, and self-published a chapbook of her writings. Nearly half a century after Deren’s sudden and premature death, the best of her written work was collected in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film (public library) — a compendium of her views on cinema as an art form, the rewards and challenges of independent filmmaking, and broader questions of art, reality, and the creative process.

But arguably more revealing and insightful than all of her formal critical writings in the collection combined is a single letter Deren wrote in April of 1955, shortly before her thirty-eighth birthday, to James Card — film archivist for George Eastman House, the institution Deren was considering for representation and preservation of her archive. Card had invited her to send a reel of Meshes of the Afternoon and preview prints of her other films.

After a series of questions intended to assess whether George Eastman House would provide a proper home for her films and be a bastion of her legacy — Deren observes that “it may seem exaggerated to speak of a will,” a remark particularly poignant given her untimely death a few years later — she notes that she considers her films Ritual in Transfigured Time and A Study in Choreography for Camera “most representative” of her work, then writes:

Meshes of the Afternoon is my point of departure. I am not ashamed of it, for I think that, as a film, it stands up very well. From the point of view of my own development, I cannot help but be gently proud that that first film — that point of departure — had such relatively solid footing. This is due to two major facts: first, to the fact that I had been a poet up until then, and the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because actually my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating image into words, and could work directly so that it was not like discovering a new medium so much as finally coming home into a world whose vocabulary, syntax, grammar, was my mother tongue; which I understood and thought it, but, like a mute, had never spoken.

Noting that “the first speech of a mute is hoarse, ugly, virtually unintelligible,” Deren points to the second reason of her film’s success — the technical acumen and mechanical expertise of her husband and collaborator, Czechoslovakian filmmaker Alexander “Sasha” Hammid, who made sure the film didn’t sound like a mute’s “first speech.” Embedded in her specific gratitude is Deren’s general advice to aspiring filmmakers about the importance of technical mastery and painstaking attention to detail — especially regarding speech and sound — as the foundation for a well-executed creative vision:

My debt to him for teaching me the mechanics of film expression, and, more than that, the principle of infinite pains, is enormous. I wish that all these young film-makers would have the luck for a similar apprenticeship. As it is, when they revolt against the meaningless rhetoricians of film, they tend to throw out the baby with the bath water. They don’t bother to shape the lips and mouth carefully before letting the sound out, and ignore the fact that a good idea merits careful enunciation with the result that a good many of them sound, at best, like Marlon Brando… I mean, you just know he’s feelings things like crazy, but why doesn’t he take those marbles out of his mouth!

Maya Deren and Aleksander Hammid, 1940

But Deren places even greater importance on the role of movement. Reflecting on her film A Study in Choreography for Camera, she writes:

This principle — that the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else — than any changes of matter… that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful, than space or matter — that, in fact, it creates matter — seemed to me to be marvelous, like an illumination, that I wanted to just stop and celebrate that wonder, just by itself…

And yet Deren offers a perfectly worded disclaimer to mistaking her insistence on technique for an absence of a deeper concern with creative vision, which she illustrates with an exquisitely insightful metaphor:

I have reticence about the more profound significance which is hard for me to explain except, perhaps, by analogy — the way a woman will look up and say to a man “That suit looks very well on you” instead of, “I love you. I am happy that you are here to look at.” The trouble is that people often think that technique is my primary consideration when I speak of techniques — just as if that man would begin discussing wholesale prices and yard goods, which would make the woman feel peculiar.

Similarly, Deren points out, the masterful technique for which her films were commended wasn’t an end of itself but merely a way for her to both access and articulate the deeper vision:

Each time one of those technical sequences buzzed in my head, like a beacon signaling “This way, this way,” it was because I was tuned to that frequency. I was not simply trying to get out of that room and go somewhere, anywhere, I was heading in a certain direction, and no matter how minute the crack that gave upon it, it was to pass through there that I labored. There may have been wide doors to both sides. I did not even try them for they did not give in my direction. And, looking back, it is clear that the direction was away from a concern with the way things feel and towards a concern with the way things are; away from personal psychology towards nerveless metaphysics. I mean metaphysics in the large sense… not as mysticism but beyond the physical in the way that a principle is an abstraction, beyond any particulars in which it is manifest.

She points to each of her films as complementary examples:

[Meshes of the Afternoon] externalizes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external world. At Land has little to do with the inner world of the protagonist; it externalizes the hidden dynamic of the external world, and here the drama results from the activity of the external world. It is as if I had moved from a concern with the life of a fish, to a concern with the sea which accounts for the character of the fish and its life. And Rituals pulls back even further, to a point of view from which the external world itself is but an element in the entire structure and scheme of metamorphosis: the sea itself changes because of the large changes of the earth.

Noting that her latest project, The Very Eye of Night — which would be her last finished film — had “taken [her] out in space about as far as [she] can go” and spurred her desire to explain why she considers Meshes of the Afternoon a “point of departure,” she zooms out into a wide view of her body of work:

Each film was built as a chamber and became a corridor, like a chain reaction.

Maya Deren (Still from 'Meshes of the Afternoon,' 1943)

But Deren’s most poignant point in the letter has nothing to do with her films themselves and everything to do with the spiritual foundation from which they spring. She recounts a recent awakening of sorts — the kind common to near-death experiences from which one emerges with a newfound gratefulness of the glory of life:

Last May I had an emergency operation; it was touch and go for a few hours there, and I came out of it with a rapidity that dazzled: one month from the date of that operation (I had to be slit from side to side) I was dancing! Then I actually realized that I was overwhelmed with the most wondrous gratitude for the marvelous persistence of the life force. In the transported exaltation of this moment, I wanted to run out into the streets and shout to everyone that death was not true! that they must not listen to the doom singers and the bell ringers! that life was more true! I had always believed and felt this, but never had I known how right I was. And I asked myself, why, then, did I not celebrate it in my art. And then I had a sudden image: a dog lying somewhere very still, and a child, first looking at it, and then, compulsively, nudging it. Why? to see whether it was alive; because if it moves, if it can move, it lives. This most primitive, this most instinctive of all gestures: to make it move to make it live. So I had always been doing with my camera… nudging an ever-increasing area of the world, making it move, animating it, making it live… The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other, and, perhaps, I have not so much traveled off in a direction as moved in a slow spiral around some central essence, seeing it first from below, and now, finally, from above.

Deren leaps spryly off this spiral of intensity into a playful sign-off:

Anyway, this is one way to look at that reel of film. You can’t say you haven’t been briefed!

Six years later, Deren died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. She was forty-four. Essential Deren remains the most complete record and bewitching glimpse of the singular mind and spirit which produced some of the most influential visual masterworks of the twentieth century. Complement it with a contemporary counterpart — Werner Herzog’s compendium of reflections on film and life, which was among the best books of 2014.

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23 JANUARY, 2015

Little Tree: An Uncommonly Beautiful and Subtle Japanese Pop-Up Book about the Cycle of Life

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“No one notices such a small presence…”

Pop-up books have a singular magic, but even the pioneering vintage “interactive” picture-books of Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari can’t compare to the beauty, subtlety, and exquisite elegance of those by Japanese graphic designer and book artist Katsumi Komagata.

When his daughter was born in 1990, Komagata expanded his graphic design studio, One Stroke, into publishing and began making extraordinary picture-books — including some particularly thoughtful and beguiling masterpieces for children with disabilities, from tactile pop-up gems to sign-language stories.

In 2008, Komagata released Little Tree (public library) — a most unusual and immeasurably wonderful story tracing the life-cycle of a single tree as it explores, with great subtlety and sensitivity, deeper themes of impermanence and the cycle of all life.

I received this delicate treasure as a gift from a dear friend, who had met Komagata at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. The book, she said, was inspired by a young child struggling with making sense of life and death after the loss of a beloved father, one of Komagata’s own dear friends.

On each spread of this whimsical trilingual story — told in Japanese, French, and English — a different stage of the tree’s growth unfolds, beginning with the tiny promise of a seedling poking through the snow.

No one notices such a small presence … be still here in the snow

Slowly, it grows into the recognizable shape of a tree and makes its way through the season — shy leaves greet the world in spring, a lush crown bathes in summer’s sunshine and turns a warm yellow, then a glowing red, as autumn embraces it.

A family of birds packs its nest, preparing to fly away for the winter.

When winter descends — that philosophical staple of intelligent children’s books — the mood darkens.

Clouds cover the sky
The wind blows hard, almost breaking the branches
Sheets of rain fill the darkness … be still here in the dark

But spring eventually returns, and the whole cycle repeats and repeats, until the tree grows “tall enough to look around when at the beginning it was too small and everything was big.”

Indeed, the book is very much a study in perspective — the existential through the spatial — as the tree’s height increases and its shadow shifts. With his gentle genius, Komagata casts the shadows of all peripheral characters and objects — a street lamp, a man walking his dog, a bird — not from the perspective of the reader but from that of the tree, appearing upside-down on the page. (To capture Komagata’s intended vignettes, I photographed the book from the top of the page facing down, following the tree’s viewpoint.)

And so the cycle of life continues — a new crow takes the nest built by last year’s bird, and as it observes these rhythms, the tree’s “point of view keeps changing.”

The man who lost a friend lays a flower down
It can’t be helped … be still here

But as wistful as the story is, the book is ultimately optimistic — a beautiful allegory for the same notion found in Rilke’s philosophy of befriending death in order to live more fully. At the end, the seed spurs a new turn of the cycle of life, going back to the beginning.

The seed was carried somewhere unknown
Surely it will exist for someone even though no one notices such a small presence at the beginning

Couple Little Tree — which, sadly, is almost impossible to find outside Japan — with an exploration of what the world’s oldest trees teach us about life and death, then revisit Thea’s Tree, an imaginative ode to daydreaming from another part of the world, and The River, a very different but no less bewitching perspective on seasonality and the flow of life.

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