The Cultivation

Chiang Huang's "Brass Kettle"

Chiang Huang’s “Brass Kettle”

Cultivate. Harvest. Slow things both, the former taking precedence over the latter almost always. Several years ago I started following an artist from Austin whose precision with the brush is abruptly offset by a curiously thick brush stroke. I’m not well-versed in art, and I’d be hard pressed to explain what draws me to a style that transforms the round objects in a still life (fruit, tea cups, flowers) into more angular, block like images. But Qiang Huang’s style — that thick brush stroke — makes even the most sedate still life something more interesting, almost always.

Qiang holds a PhD in Physics, and until a few years ago he worked in that capacity while he pursued art in his off time. And then he took the leap — he quit work in favor of art, which he shares online along with a few paragraphs about what he’s going through artistically and emotionally.

Qiang’s writing is beautiful and simple, and he rarely holds back. Highly personalized, it often verges on a kind of artistic despondence. He wants to make an impact, but it’s clearly a struggle. He writes, I think, to remind himself that he has doubts and fears, that striving to maintain personal priorities can be difficult. I can empathize with that struggle.

These days, Qiang conducts workshops across America, and has gained a substantial following. He’s been featured in national art magazines. His leap from scientist to artist was clearly successful. And yet just this week he shared this tiny gem on his art blog:

I will keep on cultivating. Cultivating persistently, and do not think [sic] about harvesting too much.

It’s a reminder, a “note to self,” a personal diary entry shared with the world: stick to the cultivation, worry less about the harvest that certainly comes when you do.

A fairly poetic notion. We all struggle, but mostly in private. The artist struggles publicly, laying bare parts of an inner core that can sometimes be a little raw. The emotional risk is tremendous, but that’s what the artist does. He or she doesn’t see any option, and so the artist quits his work in science and turns to the only thing he really wants to do: in this case, he paints, and he goes public while his inner core warns him of all the potential dangers associated with doing so.

But the message is, I think, twofold. Yes, keep learning your craft, keep the harvest at bay as much as possible and concentrate on the cultivation. But harvest can equate to ego as well. Being too certain of ability and craft — bolstered by public appreciation — allows ruts to form. The ego’s satisfied, and that’s all that matters. The cultivation turns stale.

Most often I gain little appreciation when I go public with a poem or collection. At first this was a bit of a surprise, but after the initial elation of receiving an acceptance letter from a journal editor I almost always regret that I submitted. Maybe the poem’s too weak, perhaps I didn’t consider craft enough. I like that I feel this way — it makes me want to learn more, read more, to tighten every element of craft that goes into good poetry. I write poems in a vacuum, as alone with words as Qiang is with a brush. So I appreciate this reminder: cultivate with care, worry less about harvest.

I’ve never had much of a green thumb, but I’m not to shy to keep planting. So thank you, Qiang, for the simple grounding. I’m much obliged.

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The First-Person Bio

I overthink most things. No, that’s not quite right. I overthink everything. Case in point: last month a poetry editor asked me to provide my bio for a poem he’d accepted. Bios are necessary for publishing, but I’m not a big fan. In the third person you still know the omniscient narrator is the very poet writing the bio. It’s corny, or stiff. Maybe it just feels cheesy having to write yourself in the third person (“Richard Fenwick became a poet at the tender age of three after reading Eliot’s The Wasteland.”). But as I said, bios are a requirement, and long ago I canned a 50-word explanation for external publication.

This time, however, the editor wanted a first-person bio, with a short explanation: why do you write poetry? And I floundered. I didn’t want to bloviate or be flip, and I wracked my mind to get to the truth. Frankly, the question felt a little frightening, so I put the bio on a back burner for over a month.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when we gathered at a cemetery to say goodbye to another Holocaust survivor friend. She was a dear woman from Ukraine, a living textbook on Russian literature and politics, a former teacher who carried herself with an omnipresent smile hiding any pain she may have had in her older years. When we’d celebrate various Russian holidays, she always stood last, propped up by her walker, to propose a toast to America. She’d remind the group of the conditions they’d left behind, and always finished with “Спасибо Америка, за все.” “Тhank you for everything America.”

The temperature Tuesday was in the mid-70s, the sky a light blue thanks to wisps of thin clouds that hid the deeper blue prevalent in the desert southwest. The treetops were full of wind, noisy. At some point, as the Rabbi spoke, I searched across the vast cemetery toward a newer section that had yet to be seeded with grass. Out there, in that empty field of distant graves, a tumbleweed slowly bounced across the section, skipping over certain graves and getting hung up on others, until the wind captured it again and pushed further west in a curious and constant motion. It kicked up small amounts of dust as it rolled, then disappeared past the east bank of a dry arroyo.

This image is, I think, a fair representation of why I write poetry: A tumbleweed, dry and prickly, being pushed by the wind through a cemetery during a Jewish service. This was a curiously strong metaphor that seemed to represent . . . something. For now, I’m not sure. I know that it somehow made my heart sink. And until I can capture the imagine and its emotion on paper, until I can incorporate the metaphor in some meaningful way, I won’t be able to remove its essence from my mind. Even now I can see it, traveling slowly and haphazardly, moving, as all things do, toward some form of conclusion. In this case, to its resting spot at the bottom of a shallow, dry river.

I hope the editor will understand this notion. More than that, I hope I can synthesize it into one or two sentences. It would be a bit embarrassing, after all, to have my bio rejected.

But perhaps I’m overthinking things again . . .

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New Year’s Day, 2015

New Year’s Day, 2015. Somewhere in the great white southwest.

I didn’t celebrate last night, and I didn’t wake when the neighbors launched what remained of their New Year’s arsenal. Instead, I read parts of James Wright’s Collected Poems (again) and nodded off early. This morning, to my surprise, a thin layer of snow covered the yards, so I took a small drive to a hill overlooking Pantano Wash to wait for the sun. It was cold, and for some reason I thought of Amber Hall, the building on Eielson Air Force Base where we pre-briefed our reconnaissance missions.

Winter missions out of Eielson, located 25 miles south of Fairbanks, were magical. The temperatures were always somewhere below zero — no wind factor — and the metal engines of the RC-135s would groan to life during engine start and taxi. Prior to boarding, we’d sit on a blue bus in parkas and fur hoods over flight suits, some in mukluks, others in the mountain boots we’d been issued. For the Pacific missions it was always dark, but for the Arctic missions we’d arrive at the aircraft during the few meager hours of sunlight that define the Alaskan tundra.

RC-135V, Tail # 14842

RC-135V, Tail # 14842

Leaving the bus, a brute cold invaded our nostrils and eyes. It froze the hairs in our noses and mixed with the smell of JP-4 jet fuel. The mission aircraft, either an RC-135 V- or W-model, looked cold and ready, its telltale hog nose and cheek pods somehow magical, steam rising from any cracks or openings in the fuselage from the large yellow heating tubes attached. We’d board excitedly, wondering what it was we’d confront on that particular mission, pre-flight our parachutes and butt boats (survival kits), and run through each checklist until takeoff.

Engine run up, brake release — 60 seconds later (these were heavy aircraft) someone would announce “S-1,” the speed of no return, then “rotate” and we were airborne. 40 minutes after, for the arctic missions, we were bearing down on the beacon at Dead Horse, Alaska, near Prudhoe Bay, getting ready for the first of two aerial refuelings. Many years earlier, the choreography of launching our mission aircraft and two supporting tankers must have been a challenge. By my time it was routine: we took off first, then the tankers, all three heading north, over the top of the world toward the Soviet Union. Refuelings were conducted in radio silence (to hide that we were coming), and the tankers returned to Eielson without getting near the operations area.

Soviet Su-15 Fighter Interceptor

Soviet Su-15 Fighter Interceptor

But it was the cold I remember most. That and the dull white turtle necks of nomex long underwear rising from the tops of everyone’s flight suits. And the Arctic ocean en route to the area. And the notion, once on orbit, that no one could possibly survive in the Barents Sea for long. Bailout seemed ludicrous — you’d just extend your misery. The sea below was dull and uninviting, dangerous.

All told — from pre-mission brief, taxi, takeoff, two refuelings, a fur ball of Barents Sea activity, and finally landing at Mildenhall Airbase, in England — the duty day lasted about 21 hours. 17 of those were in the air. Amazing, in hindsight.

And that’s what Tucson’s paltry amount of snow reminded me of this first morning of 2015. It seems useless to me to consider the past all that often. And yet, sometimes, it seems like parts of my past were so monumental that I can’t help returning to them from time to time. It’s too bad I didn’t always understand just how monumental they were.

Get lost 2014, come on in 2015. Let’s hope this year treats us well, and that we find time to laugh and love together. Now, back to James Wright . . .

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Putting Fall to Bed

IMG_3273 - Version 2

Two Roads Diverge in the Blue Ridge Mountains

November, 2014. Somewhere in the Sonoran Desert.

I returned from North Carolina on Tucson’s last 90-degree day. The next morning I drove out to nose around in the Tanque Verde and Agua Caliente Washes, watching for the numerous Javelina, coyotes, and various other beasts that traipse through these empty rivers, these natural desert interstates for animals. It was warm early, but the forecast called for changes.

My trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains was helpful. I’m still processing my father’s passing in July, and can’t quite write much about it yet. My experience in these things is that meaningful poetry related to his life won’t emerge until early next year. For now I’m left to think of him a lot, and to plunk about on my guitar in poor attempts to dedicate a song to him. He loved the guitar; it’s likely I received my first one from him, when I was eight-years old, just so he could have a guitar player in the house. I’m grateful to him for that.

This year, like all the others, is coming to its end, and friends in the east and north have already reported first snows. Despite the fact that winter begins, on paper, over a month from now, across this great country the trees have given their collective nod of approval: winter may now commence. Winter gladly complies to such orders.

So let’s put fall to bed with a poem. Most of us know this one, and many of us may have even (had to) put it to memory at some point in our lives. Robert Frost’s lines here have been shared often enough that his “I took the one less traveled by” has become a little bit of a cliche. Still, it’s a beautiful poem with a universal message of choice, given to us by one of America’s most precious poets.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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Sunrise Near the French Broad River

This Morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains

This Morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains

There are, as I count them, at least eight different ways to snicker over a river officially known as the “French Broad,” the shallow-but-steady body of water that runs just a little over 200 miles through North Carolina and down into Tennessee. The river gains here in Asheville, North Carolina, where the Swananoa River and numerous named creeks empty into it, where I like to sit on its bank and silently cheer it on as it continues south to Tennessee. Watching it, I wonder if there’s any metaphor we understand better than a silent river passing by.

I’m in North Carolina again. Here in Asheville the night air is cold now, and in the day I wear sweaters and watch the Pisgah Forest go dormant, acre by acre, in preparation for the inevitabilities of winter. In the higher elevations, the Blue Ridge Mountains have already turned and the trees have gone from stunning to stark. In Asheville, tourists (like me) clamor for the chance to catch the sun as it rises over the ridge lines and casts its first light on the red and yellow treetops. If I lost you with the river metaphor, surely you can see that autumn, as a metaphor, is nearly as strong. And even if you’re not well versed in the concept of metaphor, why else are hundreds of us converging along the Blue Ridge Parkway this morning, prior to sunrise, stopping at east-facing pullouts to witness what is, after all, just another sunrise? If you are well versed, consider the sunrise metaphor as well.

We humans, I think, hungrily feast on the thousands of metaphors earth provides us, searching for that elusive something we can’t quite name. As I write this I’m reminded of the final line of narration from the movie A River Runs Through It: “I am haunted by rivers.”

This momentary convergence of metaphor is precisely why I come to these mountains each October. In the span of two weeks the metaphors collide all at once: the river, the turning trees, the sudden dips in temperature. The earth turns and whispers out: winter is coming. And as I think of it, perhaps winter is the overarching metaphor here, that our lives as we think of them pass in cycles, just as the seasons that cycle around us.

In his book, Winter Garden, Pablo Neruda writes:

I am a book of snow,
a spacious hand, an open meadow,
a circle that waits,
I belong to the earth and its winter.

To a degree, metaphor is one of our most mysterious driving forces. It can be lovely and meaningful, and it can be dangerous. We instinctively need order in our lives, and order includes the rudimentary understanding of where we are and where we’re going. Order. We stack our silverware in separate piles: forks, spoons, knives. Order. Disorder confuses us, and there’s nothing more confusing than demise. I suppose that’s why we’re all out here this morning waiting with some impatience for the sun to bounce its rays against the treetops in autumn.  We’re searching for order and meaning.

I am haunted, as the movie line says, but not by rivers. I am haunted by order. That’s why, on this chilly fall morning, I’m about to drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway to join all the haunted others.

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