Monday Feature: A web of hand-me-downs by Michaela Kahn

A web of hand-me-downs –

 Earlier this week I got a text from a friend of mine, someone I’ve known since Middle School, about a song she thought I’d like. She recommended the whole album, actually, but steered me to Ane Brun’s YouTube music video for her song, “Do You Remember.” It’s a great song – very strange and simultaneously sad (the lyrics) and yet happy (the music). The video itself is like its own universe, sort of Steampunk meets the the Dust Bowl.

 The exchange got me thinking about all the art that has been passed on to me over the years by friends, family, teachers, even strangers.

 There’s my step-sister, so much more worldly-wise than I at thirteen, who made a whole 90- minute video tape of various MTV videos she thought I needed to know (being MTV-less, myself). Another friend introduced me to most of the Pop music that I am still listening to today. There’s an Uncle (in-law) who introduced me to the Le Mystere des voix Bulgares and the movie Duck Soup. My husband introduced me to Wim Wenders movies, Miles Davis, and the paintings of Leonora Carrington (no wonder I fell in love).

 For literature, there is another list of great books and poems that have been passed on to me by others. Whether it’s the teacher who told me to read Gregory Bateson or the stranger at the Boulder Public Library who told me to read his book of poetry, “Tony the Bricklayer.” But with literature I’m more often the one trying to pass along favorites. Over the years I have passed on the names of dozens of writers and works to friends, colleagues, family, strangers. I become part of their web of hand-me-down art.

All this thinking about where the art and music in my life comes prompted me to look a little deeper into my experience of this passed-on art. I realized that when I listen to a favorite song, one that was shared by a friend, my own memories and emotions surrounding the song are also layered with memories of the person who gave it to me. It’s richer for having that connection. It got me wondering whether, in some ways, this is an essential part of what art is all about –that intricate web of interconnections that develops between the people who love it.

Have You Sacrificed To Be A Writer or Artist?

After writing a recent blog post about not having it all, I started to wonder about the rather old-fashioned romantic view of the artist as having to sacrifice something for that art. This might include ordinary life, financial security, even health or mental well-being. It’s an idea that held some sway with me when young—and I’ve always loved La Boheme. However, when I asked a group of contemporary writers and artists this question, most hardly saw any dilemma at all.

What did you sacrifice?

Some noted that one choice excludes another:

Isabel Winson-Sagan Other life plans

Yehudis Fishman really every choice that is chosen sacrifices the choices not chosen; most of us have multi and often conflicting interests that we have to navigate between.

A few did note the sacrifice:

Larry Goodell A huge sacrifice. No moneyed career. Poverty as a result of priority being the demand of creativity. Consequently very little travel and almost a daily penny pinching. But creative life has its incomparable surprises.

But a lot of the response focused on the purely positive:

Audrey Erin Wiggins I see writing as a gift not a sacrifice. It’s special.

Rod Scott I think it is a sacrifice to ignore the muse. Ignoring the muse has led to decreased empathy and frustration. My challenge has always been to make the effort to embrace the creative muse as it attempts to envelope my consciousness.

Reverie Escobedo When I was writing more, sacrificed on all fronts but was so glad to be writing and it allowed me to be home with my kids.

Holly Baldwin I sacrifice time daily as a parent for my children’s art, but that is very important to me as a member of the human family. More than anything, I sacrifice sleep and exercise, although I have become much better with that studying art/writing than I ever was as a pre-nursing student. I think we all sacrifice something in our pursuits, but it has to be for something extraordinary to our heart for it to be worth the trade off. Do what you love.

Jan Marquart I sacrifice nothing. Writing is first, everything else falls behind that.

Michael Smith No sacrifice at all, except TV. And that is no big loss! But perhaps I am in a unique position.

And some continue to contemplate the muse:

Russell Miller I don’t think I’ve offered up to the gods anything I wanted to keep for myself. But I admit I ask myself that question almost every day.

Guy Nickson Threading the different imperatives of life may not be a matter of volition or sacrifice. Maybe it’s karma or the puppet master that makes us dance our feverish jigs? Only Regret invites the question.

***

Thanks to all participants—a wonderfully varied and thoughtful cohort.

I Don’t Want To Have It All by Miriam Sagan

Recently, people have been complimenting me on my apparent creative productivity by saying: I don’t know how you do it all. But this is not a compliment I deserve, because I’m actually doing very few things. Yes, my novel (that took decades to write) just came out, and I’m running a writing program, and going on residencies—but this is essentially an integrated whole. I’m good at it, I know what I’m doing, I’m focused—and most important, I want to be doing it, and feel this is my life’s purpose.
I’m a 61 year old woman who right now isn’t doing any primary care taking for someone very aged, sick, or dying. Or, conversely, for small children or crazed teenagers. The periods of my life where this was true were considerably less productive. I also don’t can from my garden, volunteer, belong to any organized religious groups, work out at a gym, or floss. I don’t go to Paris. And I am uninformed on popular culture and not very well informed on world events.
Honestly, I’ve never tried to “have it all” because I’ve never had the stamina, or the skill set. I’m not in the entitled male artist role because I can cook tofu and clean up after myself—but I must admit I lean more in that direction than in the female direction of having it all.
What I really like, besides being a writer and teacher, is hanging around, being with my husband Rich and daughter Isabel and son-in-law Tim, having friends, being pretty places, dancing by myself, taking a bath, Netflix, reading, and going out for coffee. I have my guilty materialistic pleasures—but they aren’t very time consuming. I feel my obituary should read: She divided her time between Tune Up Cafe and Counterculture. Tune-Up is walking distance, Counterculture three minutes by car down Baca Street. Both provide cafe au lait.
Conversely, those who praise me often criticize me too— I don’t go out much to events, I tend to bail quickly from parties. I don’t have a smart phone—or even a workable cell. I may say I live for art but I seem to have a lot of accessories. The truth is—I’m not off the grid, or unmaterialistic. I just want a small but firm wedge between me and consumer culture. I may be femmey, but I also want that wedge between me and feminine expectation. I have what I need, I don’t much mind what I don’t have—and that is ample.

Good-bye to Wildacres

My daughter Isabel and I had a wonderful week in a cabin in the mountains of north Carolina–so lush compared to New Mexico.

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It is sad to leave–as we had may blissful hours of creative process–writing, marbling paper and fabric, embroidery, photographing, and collaging.

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We got a bit of a proto-type for a piece of paper sculpture with text–lots of work ahead.

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And of course it is always nice to go home.

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to shape mountains and canyons
water must grind
going somewhere lower
to whatever the eon’s
sea level

in suminagashi
the basin of water
must remain perfectly still
disturbed only
by the artist’s breath
like a garden pond
rippled by golden carp
or the mind.

***
Poem Miriam Sagan
Photographs Isabel Winson-Sagan

Can I Count Lunch As Part of the Project?

My daughter Isabel and I were recently evaluating a “failed” project. We’ve done a fair amount of collaboration, and are currently focused on collage—mostly words and suminagashi, which is Japanese marbling. We had some chai and sat in the community college courtyard under the redbuds.
First, we addressed the project’s strengths:
1. The collaboration had gone to a new level.
2. We’d made big strides with our largest technical problem.
And, I wanted to add
3. We had fun because we spent the night at the old hotel in Ojo Caliente and had a great lunch at Gabriel’s on the way there.
“You can’t count that,” Isabel said.
“But we had fun! We got to work at Ojo!”
“You always want to count fun…you give your projects points if you get to stay in a hotel.”
“Of course. I count it a lot.”
“You can’t. It isn’t part of the project.”
I caved. From the start with our collaborations, she is ultimately in charge. She’s younger than me, knows more about art, and I figure we should swap out the old hierarchical pattern. Isabel had the final say. Only two strengths. A full evaluation of the audience, setting, etc. A take away directive for each of us, mostly to be clearer in how we communicate with the outside world.
But I just have to ask—would you count lunch? The guacamole at Gabriel’s is truly excellent.

Why You Don’t Have To Work Harder As An Artist

The southern part of the United States is known for its writers. In Charleston, SC I am thrilled to see that the free give away ART MAG has real literary coverage, including an amazing resource:
Making Your Life as an Artist by Andrew Simonet.

The book is downloadable at:
http://www.artistsu.org/making

Here are some quotes—but I really suggest reading the entire thing.

Taking power as an artist means going
from beggar to partner. Artists who are
strong partners thrive. They find resources,
connections, and audiences. They don’t wait
for opportunities; they create opportunities.

I think of careers like scaffolding, those metal
and wood structures you put up when you are
building a house.
The scaffolding is important. Pay attention to
it. But it is not the house. If you focus all your
efforts on the scaffolding, you end up with a
lovely scaffolding and nowhere to live.
Your career is not your work; your career
supports your work.

Sustainable means your life can work over the
long term.
A lot of artists’ lives are built for 23-year-old
single, frenetic, healthy, childless workaholics.
That doesn’t last. Our lives change and our
needs change.
Sustaining is radical.
(Starving is not.)

Do you even know where your ideas come from? Essay on creativity by Bibi Deitz

My writer friend Denton Loving recently mentioned that he is composing a craft essay about the source of ideas. He sent out a call for ideas about ideas: Do you even know where your ideas come from? It got me thinking on the C train; I started scratching down some thoughts for him, but I wound up writing my own essay about ideas. (So, of course, emails from smart friends should necessarily be on the list of places from which ideas surface.)

Biking. Listening to classical music performed live, watching the cellists and flautists and violinists close their eyes and twitch and sweat. Listening to hip-hop: in the car, biking, walking paths urban and rural. The beach: watching the water. Flying, every single flight. Sex—sometimes I’ll have such a good idea I’ll almost want to pause for a moment to jot it down (almost). Long talks, especially with other writers. Fireplaces: watching the burn. Long drives (dictation). Museums and galleries and dance performances. Epic walks. New cities; architecture. Anything new. Reading, of course. Yoga. Meditation. Baths short and long, with or without bubbles or Epsom salt or essential oil. 

But these are all experiences. Truth is, ideas just arrive. I feel as though the French must have a word for this—that moment we’ve all had, that mysterious alchemy of timing and memory, circumstance and scent and the right kind of light, the moon out or rain or another day of medium sun and the phone rings or doesn’t ring and perhaps we’ve showered already or maybe we’re just getting started with a pot of tea; no matter the context, these moments of grace, these muse-moments just come. They come precious and infrequent, but the important thing is that they do roll in from time to time. 

These moments appear with more regularity, I find, if I am putting seemingly unrelated work in to further their probability of existence. This includes more obvious self-care–type things such as yoga and meditation, but it also includes unlikely or inexact practices including but not limited to: late nights with old friends; no writing for two weeks because—life; long Sundays with lovers; binge-listening to records; answering the phone when it would be easier to hit “ignore”; eating soft-poached eggs in morning light with a little salt; reading a book instead of writing; going to the movies instead of writing; going to a friend’s birthday party instead of writing. Which is to say: leisure. Going slowly. The counterintuitive idea of slow and steady winning the race. 

This is not, of course, to say we shouldn’t write regularly or to provide excuse to goof around or play hooky or blow it off altogether (though I maintain that this is important sometimes, at least for me—my muse doesn’t like stringency!), but it is to say that writing is not so rarified or, god forbid, formulaic. A writer and teacher whom I admire and respect beyond belief once told me that she wrote just one hour each day for a period of time. She found that she couldn’t get herself to adhere to the rigor of writing every day; but when she broke it down to one hour, she not only stuck to it but also accomplished more in that one hour than she had previously in longer stretches, simply by virtue of the fact that she knew she only had that one hour, and had to make hay, etc. At the end of her hour, she would stop. Another trick I learned from yet another fabulous writer and teacher is to set a writing window and only write for that quantum of time: no more, no less. This seemed insane to me. “But what if you’re on a roll at the end of your window?” I asked. “All the better,” he told me. “Then you’ll be excited to write again the next day.” At first when I tried this suggestion it felt so counterintuitive that I almost couldn’t adhere to it, but he was right. 

I digress. This is an essay about ideas, and the source thereof, and not about what to do with such ideas once they arise—sometimes first like a mirage, blurry and almost hallucinogenic, slowly developing over time; and sometimes so clear and in focus from the start that it is actually startling, a somatic experience of heart-skip or breath-gasp, the pulling over to the side of the road to capture the idea, fragile and prenatal, before it flits back from whence it came without further comment, never to return again. 

This brings me to another aside: Where do ideas go when they ring in and we don’t write them down? This happens routinely, the fantastic idea for a character or a scene or a whole story in the shower or on a bicycle or ferris wheel or date or in a swimming pool or on a long walk or literally up a tree with no paper in sight. While I’ve dreamed up elaborate and hilarious mnemonic devices to remember such ideas, they often slip through the lattice of my brain despite my best efforts and have fully departed by the time a notebook or napkin or the back of a receipt is at hand. While this is an incredibly frustrating phenomenon, I’ve come to a conclusion: The best ideas, the ones I’m really supposed to roll with, double back or stay. If it’s important, it will come back. As to the rest, the ephemeral, the ones that get away—negligible. Or at least that’s what I like to believe. 

And so, dear readers: How do you think of ideas? Where do you think they come from? I should conclude by saying that collaboration has always been a vital source of idea-making for me, and that there is a special type of magic that happens when we bounce ideas off each other, some kind of power of multiplication that spreads and squares and cubes ideas. Ideas need and breed on other ideas; and for ideas, for certain, we need each other. 

Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Bookforum, The Rumpus, Berfrois, Queen’s Mob’s Teahouse and BOMB, and is forthcoming from Marie Claire. 

Weird Summer by Devon Miller-Duggan–conclusion

The past three years have involved three heavy hits (a job that dissolved in weirdly nasty ways, the death of a god son, my mother’s illnesses and increasingly rapid descent/disappearance/dissolution into dementia). But they’ve also been years full of particularly wonderful stuff with my daughters and grandkids, the publication of a chapbook, and a deepening awareness of the long list of wealths I have to bring to my walking through these years—a remarkable, if slightly imperfect husband; two fascinating and loving grandkids who live very close by; the parents of those grandkids, whose marriage is a wonderful thing to watch unfold and bloom; another daughter who’s found a really good guy who makes her glow; students who give me more than I could ever give them; enough money to help with my mother (and, as I write this, to pay the three guys wrestling with the ivy that ate my yard while I was dealing with other things…); a network of remarkable friends and other writers; a strong faith community (though, if I don’t dial back on the stuff I do at/for church, the aforementioned daughters may take a shovel to the side of my head…). I could go on, but you get the gist—this is a privileged life. That never means that anyone is defended from suffering, of course, but it certainly helps to be able to go out for crabcakes on the spur of the moment and to have (bless its mechanical heart) functioning air conditioning.

Obviously, because I’m not teaching for these months, I’m left spending way too much time either worrying about Stuff That Needs To Get Done (someday my bedroom will get painted…), procrastinating (my one true genius), or wallowing/thinking. I do get some things figured out, a bit. And maybe it’s a good thing that this year I’m taking more naps and just zoning-out rather than frantically pushing myself to makemakemake. Turning 60 was/is a big deal, and it deserved at least some of the existential crisis it birthed. I suppose I’ve learned a fair amount about myself in the past three years—always a good thing, yes? Lots of buried crap about my relationship with my mother (if the Truth will set us free, I ought to be able to levitate by now…), my own relationship to creativity and life and faith and doggedness. Maybe a little patience with myself.

But what has struck me forcibly is that, at least for me, life is not generally a matter of feeling 50/50 or 60/40 or any other mathematically sensible set of emotions/emotional conflicts. It’s very often, maybe even mostly a matter of 100/100. I 100% never wanted to have any relationship with Pretty Good U after I got ground up in an institutional clustermuck, and 100% cannot conceive of not teaching. I 100% loathe my adjunct-ness and 100% adore my students. I 100% want my mother’s increasingly fragile and narrowed life to end and 100% do not want her to die. I 100% rejoice in making things, and 100% have nothing calling me to do so. I am 100% extroverted and 110% introverted, 100% bossy/dynamic/rebellious and 100% passive/goodgirl/compliant. 100% obsessed with my looks and 90% whogivesashit. And so forth and so on.

I conclude that I am a failure at The Dialectical. I conclude that I am (and am not particularly special in this) maybe pretty decent at The Paradoxical, The Oxymoronic, The I-Don’t-Really-Know-A-Word-For-It. Whatever it is, it isn’t balance, that’s for damn sure. It’s mostly like eating firecrackers for every meal and waiting for them to explode. I don’t think all of us are this way. I actually know a number of people who manage (some) balance, (some) equilibrium, (some) conversations with themselves and/or God that do not consist of nothing but shouting. I am pretty close to deciding that I just am this way and need to figure out how to make it work for me for however many decades of functioning brain I have left. I think enough humans share this trait for me to call it a kind of normalcy. Some of us are moderate by nature, or at least moderation-seeking, some of us not so much.

But it does make me feel like I’m caught in summer all the time—living in a cool house surrounded by thick, slimy, choking air. That the inside is not really safe because, even though it’s cool, it’s also a kind of prison. That the outside, even though it’s where the light and the alive things and connectedness are, is a deathly threat.

A little melodrama, anyone? 100%? A little normal, anyone? 100%?

As near as I can figure, it amounts to being 100% good for creativity and 100% choking. Which, I’m thinking, explains why this particular summer is maybe more discombobulated, clarifying, and cranky-making than usual.

What Have I Learned (recently?)

What Have I Learned?

I’m unclear about destruction

I can’t work ONLY quickly

You’re always/never really working in public

You don’t have to be aware of a threshold to cross it

I know what I’m doing even when I have no mastery

People want you to be like them—even artists

Each person is an entire world, but that isn’t obvious when you’re young

Time is moving in more than one direction, but it is moving

“Get over your fear” is not the final piece of advice

Creative stress requires carbs

Icelandic E-Book Is Out! Enter the Creative Womb of Darkness with Mother and Daughter Team of Poet and Photographer

Poet Miriam Sagan and artist Isabel Winson-Sagan went to Iceland to experience the Arctic night near winter solstice in early 2014. They shared experiences such as searching for the northern lights and swimming in thermal pools, and responded in words and images. These photographs and poems were produced during the trip, and edited and shared later. Together, they express an elemental experience where such forces as celestial bodies, light and darkness, weather, and the points of the compass are embodied.
It is not that usual for a mother and daughter to collaborate, but our experience has deepened our understanding of both place and of each other–two women of different generations and sensibilities. From SIM guest house for international artists to the Hotel Fron to the sky viewing pavilion of the Northern Lights Inn–Iceland proved not only hospitable but inspirational.

Here’s the link to Amazon Kindle for SWIMMING TO REYKJAVIK http://www.amazon.com/Swimming-Reykjavik-Miriam-Sagan-ebook/dp/B00JQNGP60/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1397749162&sr=1-1&keywords=miriam+sagan

Poems in which I knit and Isabel naps, photos of volcanoes and laundry, darkness is our creative womb and where are the northern lights?

The e-book is also FREE at free at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/429698