Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Thursday, February 11, 2016

You Asked, no. 11: a painter's words

Mary's studio windows and chest of drawers.
Click to enlarge the images.
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.

Youmans: We met in college, in a writing class taught by R. H. W. Dillard. You still write poetry (and I still think you should put a book together.) Talk about the ebb and flow of your own writing, and how its course (a tidal stream, maybe?) moves through the lands of your painted work. 

A motto for
Mary's studio
Bullington: Marly! You have given a question here that I could write a book or 2 about—or at least a chapter or two. So I propose answering this question in parts. We don't want to overwhelm our dear readers!  
     My first impulse was to say that I find writing poems and painting really don't mix. In fact, I wrote out a rather petulant first draft of an answer saying how antithetical the process of working on each of these art forms is for me. True!  I find that writing of any kind—and the analytical thinking that goes with it--gets in the way of making visual art, and therefore I try NOT to mix the two. On the whole, I find that the act of writing activates very different parts of my brain from the act of making visual art, so I consciously try not to get too verbal or analytical when I'm in my studio, especially when beginning a new work or radically revising an old one.
Mary in the studio, c. 2010
      I was also going to say that the "course (a tidal stream, maybe?)" of my literary thinking or writing process that "moves through the lands of your painted work" comes mostly after the fact, or in the later stages of making visual art, or in titling finished pieces. Once I cross the studio threshold, I try to block verbal (much less literary) modes of thinking. If I turn on the radio too soon, the words of the D.J. or the lyrics of music can get in my way. I like to get down to work most often in utter silence. I pick up a tool or a color, look at whatever I have on the table, and decide if I want to fool with that today. If I have a blank sheet of paper in front of me, I start to make arbitrary marks and see what happens. Sometimes I'll write down an arbitrary phrase of two, or the names of the colors I'm using—not to stimulate verbal thinking, but as a mindless way of drawing. Because writing, especially cursive writing, was the first training I ever got in drawing. To write words down
on paper or canvas or wood is, at the most literal level, to draw! And our handwriting is so ingrained in us by the time we're grown that writing with a pencil, crayon or other graphic tool is a kind of drawing that we do without thinking—or at least, without thinking of it as drawing per se. So I begin by making marks or writing phrases or screwing around in some way that makes the paper less clean. In short, I begin by doodling.
The rainbowed shelves
of acrylic paints.
     Fact is, I love doodling. All through grade school I doodled; all through college and graduate school. Not one of my spiral bound notebooks is free of awful and godawful doodles and woodles and woogs. It's the only way I survived all those words coming at me! (Mind you, all my formal education, right up to the Ph.D. is in English.) But I confess that doodling during my classes helped me weed out the stuff I wanted to remember from the rest. Without it, I'd have died of boredom. Nothing made of paper was sacrosanct--not even the family telephone book; not even the mimeographed poems in our creative writing classes; not even my F. N. Robinson 2nd edition of Chaucer's Works. At 40-something, I decided to buy another copy
"The Studio, Early September" 2011
of that sainted edition because I found the doodles I'd done in the margins of my old one in early twenties distracting and downright embarrassing.
     Ah! But here I DO see a marked similarity between my process in writing poems and my process in making visual art. The years of creative experience I had of writing poems was of sitting down in front of a typewriter or a blank screen and doing a kind of mental doodling. This was not drawing, but simply letting words come, and come totally at random. When I start writing a poem, any word will do. My first job is—and always has been to pay attention, and to type the words, phrases, and sentences almost as rapidly as they come into my brain. And the kind of attention I pay—rapt attention—is key to this process. I can change the words later, but at the start, I dare not break the chain that brings them, one after another, sometimes filled with surprises. I'm not making a poem at this point, not at all. I am simply recording a rhythmic, hypnotizing thought, a thought I didn't necessarily know I could have, and to have it I have let it come, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence.
Mary's poetry table, downstairs.
     My life-long penchant for doodling in tandem with this process of waiting and letting come what may is a strong common current that runs through the both my poetry making and visual art making. When I go into my studio, my process is very similar. I'm not there to create a picture—much to less to create Art with a capital A. I am there to make marks on a surface, draw from thin air or perhaps from a photograph, cut and arrange shapes on a surface. Whether the marks or arrangements will be any good is not, at this point, any of my business. My business is to make marks, cuts, and arrangements and pay attention-- rapt attention--to whatever ensues.   

Click on You Asked in the labels below for the whole series thus far. Click on Bullington-Youmans interview party for just the Mary-Marly yack so far.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A crumb of dust

George Herbert, who left us gold...
"To be a window, through thy grace."
St. Andrew's, Bemerton, Wiltshire.
Ash Wednesday.

Flakes of snow falling out of the ash-light.

As I am dust, and to dust I will return, I started off the day properly with tea (needed to moisturize that dust in the meantime!) and a rich, metaphysical poem from the marvelous Anglican poet-saint, George Herbert (1593-1633), writing of "a crumb of dust." Some poems are touchstones that tell the gold a poem can be--how large and bold and beautiful. This is one.

The Temper (I)

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rhymes
     Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
     If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
          My soul might ever feel!

Although there were some forty heav'ns, or more,
     Sometimes I peer above them all;
     Sometimes I hardly reach a score;
          Sometimes to hell I fall.

O rack me not to such a vast extent;
     Those distances belong to thee:
     The world's too little for thy tent,
           A grave too big for me.

 Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch
      A crumb of dust from heav'n to hell?
      Will great God measure with a wretch?
           Shall he thy stature spell?

 O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,
      O let me roost and nestle there:
      Then of a sinner thou art rid,
           And I of hope and fear.

 Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best:
      Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor:
      This is but tuning of my breast,
           To make the music better.

 Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,
      Thy hands made both, and I am there;
      Thy power and love, my love and trust,
           Make one place ev'rywhere.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Cephalopodish at TerraNullius (Italy)

More than a year ago I posted about some tiny stories starring cephalopods. Though I've written quite a few miniature stories of late, I haven't sent them out, and so it's entirely to the credit of Italian poet Alessandra Bava that these appear in Italy's TerraNullius. I love being asked. Thank you, Alessandra.

Need octopi and cuttlefish in your day? Jump in here.

What's that? That's the w-shaped eye of a cuttlefish looking at you, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, February 08, 2016

You asked, no. 10: children and books

Mary Bullington, "Creation," 2013
Mixed media collage of painted papers
on monotypes and painted paper
(acrylic, gesso, oil pastel, india ink)
25" x 22"
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other. This question is rather close to You asked, no. 1, but as that one is collecting a lot of readers, the yoking of motherhood and the arts is clearly a burning question for many. So here goes, though there will no doubt be a bit of overlap.


How on earth did you find time to write all those books while having and raising 3 children?

I wrote a book with my first baby on my lap. Once I had two children, that idea didn't work so well. At times I have dispensed with sleep, though I don't recommend this as a way of proceeding. It probably impairs baseline health and will make the books more wild. I drafted The Wolf Pit on very little sleep because for several years prior, any spare time had been taken up by general over-busyness, two long-distance moves, and a problem pregnancy. My lively youngest child wasn't yet in school. Nor was he particularly sleepy. A little more sleepiness would have been helpful and obliging of him, but it wasn't in his nature, and so that was fine.

The questions of finding time and whether to have children are important to any artist who is a woman. It is essential to remember that children have no need for a writer (or other sort of artist) in their lives. It is essential to recall that they have a deep need for a mother. Not infrequently, children present syndromes or issues that turn out to be quite time-consuming. Of course, many of our great, now-historic women writers were childless--Woolf, Austen, Dickinson, Wharton, Emily and Anne Brontë, George Eliot, etc. On the internet, one can still learn that young women sometimes mourn that their children stop their writing, or diminish their ability to write. We live in an era of falling birthrates in the West, particularly in Europe, where many people are choosing to have no children and to enjoy the subsequent leisure time and increased wealth that comes with living without them. Having children is a decision, one with a cost.

For me, having children meant having a bigger life, a more challenging and profound and beautiful and even more painful life. After all, without life, there is no art. The question was whether I was willing to patch together scraps of time and quilt together books in them, whether I had the mental concentration to write books in that scattered way, and the discipline to write late at night. And yes, it turned out that I did. I should add that three of my books were impelled by the obsessions of my children. Also, fragments here and there ought to have footnotes to their credit. But even if those things were not true, the simple yielding to a larger life was transformative to me.

A final tribute: I would not have thirteen books and a batch of nigh-finished manuscripts if my husband did not cook dinner most of the time. He took over much of the cooking when my middle child was two, and life became busier than before, and he never quit. He's a stellar cook and baker. Am I properly grateful? Yes, I am.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

You asked, no. 9: resources

May your head be full of dreams!
Division page by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Maze of Blood.
Here's a reference list of critique and forum sites that I've made for the people on twitter and Facebook who ask me to read and critique their work. I'm afraid that I can't do such things for all who ask--I need to manage being a mother of three, hitting my deadlines, and accomplishing the writing and reading that I must do.

I think the best advice--advice I have often given--may be to get to know your regional poetry-and-fiction scene and area writers and poets. That way swapping work and critiquing can happen in a more natural way. I don't do that, but I imagine it's rather enjoyable if you don't--as I do--live in the middle of nowhere. But many people have little access to the kinds of events that occur in an urban area.

I'm not very good at telling people, NO. So here is a list of helpful places in lieu of a big fat NO. In other words, this is an attempt at a polite and helpful No, but thank you very much for thinking of me, and the very best of luck to you.

If you have a site, workshop, or person to recommend, please leave a comment.

ERATOSPHERE. FORMAL POETRY. I'm a member of the site, though I've never participated in the workshopping--just a tad too busy. But plenty of well-known writers of formal poetry have passed through its machinery, and people seem to love it. (I go by to see who has a new book, ask a question, see what the latest fracas is, etc.)

ERATOSPHERE. FREE VERSE. Look for "Non-metrical Verse" in the forum topics. Workshopping of free verse.

CRITTERS WORKSHOP. FICTION. SF/F/H. I know a bit about this one because someone in my family has used the site. He seemed to find it useful, although I remember him saying that one person who critiqued his work was stellar and the rest less or little help. You have to critique some work by others in order to become part of the system.

CRITIQUE.ORG WORKSHOPS. FICTION. MANY GENRES. NONFICTION. SCREENPLAYS. This one is a child of CRITTERS but is bigger than its parent--does all fiction genres, as well as nonfiction and screenplays.

LAURA ARGIRI. Reasonable fees for editing and revision work.  If you're interested, I can send you an email address.

CLAIRE YOUMANS. (No doubt she is a very distant relation!) Writer who edits nonfiction, fiction, and translations from Japanese and French. Ask me for contact information.

THE WRITE LIFE INDEX TO FINDING A CRITIQUE PARTNER Includes a lot of possible forums and workshops.  I don't know much or anything about most of these, but the site seems a good place to start.

POETRY COURSES And since someone also asked me about a poetry course this week, here's a site with links to free poetry courses

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Amara at Mezzo Cammin

The new issue of poet Kim Bridgford's Mezzo Cammin is up--for any of you interested in my The Book of the Red King (the focus of the prior post) manuscript, here are three poems focusing on the court alchemist, Amara. And read the rest of the issue!

Monday, February 01, 2016

You Asked, no. 8: Kin to the Fool

Watch out, Fool!
Bullington-Youmans interview party, continued. In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You Asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.

  --from At Length 
  (more Red King poems there)

What does it mean to be a fool?

Is it to reel about the world
Like stars made out of icicles,
Dangerous and breakable?

What does it mean to be a fool?

Is it to make the things no one
Can recognize or put to use?
For the beautiful, for hurt joy?

He spins around, wanting to learn.

The Fool is dreaming that he lies
With truth—across a grave like glass
He lies, the shaft shoaling with leaves.

What can he do with schooling dark?

Each minnowed leaf says leave-taking.
He shakes his rattle at the dark
And fills his antic hat with leaves.

In response to my question about the place of myth in your work, you wrote of the book of poems you first sent me in 2010 and that you're finishing now, The Book of the Red King: "Why do I feel so kindred to the Fool?" This struck me like a hammer. A fellow artist once brought me an astrology chart image of myself, based on the time, year, and date of my birth. It was the tarot image of the Fool looking back at the little dog playing at his heels as he steps off a cliff into thin air. I thought this was hilarious—and very true of me! But I didn't see the Fool as an image of the creative until I read your Red King poems. So, tell me, why do you "feel so kindred to the Fool"?

First, I will not lie, exactly, in answering this question, but I will not answer it as fully as I could do, if I wanted to do so. But I don't. Fair warning!

Second, all Fools are tricksters, wielders of stories and parables. I may have lied already, while wearing the mask of the Fool.

Third, I feel that the poems themselves say all I could possibly say about why the Fool and the writer (or any artist who has a calling) are the same. The reading of the book-to-be will be the experience of why the two things are the same--and it will be more, a good deal more, I hope.

The Fool in The Book of the Red King manuscript has a great struggle growing up. There's early death in the family, there's difficulty. He runs to the forest and becomes a sort of young woodwose: "When I ran off to the forest, I was / Looking for a favorable message, / I was looking for a sign or omen, / I was searching for some news of dreamtime." Eventually he lies down in darkness and has a kind of death himself. Even his bones are scattered, until "The little animals and the big came / Trotting with my teeth-grooved bones in their mouths." A "Lazarus breath" enters his mouth and he awakens, "braced to live before I died again."

The story's all about metamorphosis, transformation, reaching for a union of opposites, and climbing the alchemical ladder toward a kind of burning gold. It's about finding more and larger life, reaching for wholeness, mixing the profane and the sacred--"A wordless word, a sluice of fiery rain, / A sweetness that is hurt, made flowering"--into one great unity. The holy Fool is an ancient figure, and this Fool is a torrent of opposites, seeking more life and love of all sorts (including the love of his pearly girlfriend, the lovely Precious Wentletrap), often finding confusion, desiring to make, to be bigger than he can possibly be. It's a question early on, whether he will be destroyed by his own impulses and situation or instead will answer the call to aspiration and journey. Even when he finds a stopping place, darkness and memory still visit him--it's still a challenge to not tumble back into that former world. After all, he appears doomed from birth: "The Fool crashed out, howling into the world-- / A bruiser, slimed and slick and shock-haired, plopped / On his fontanelle, his catch less body / Like something tumbled from a guillotine."

from the Major Arcana
But when he reaches the city of the Red King, it's clear that he has found his real home, in part because he becomes immediately fruitful. All the anguish and hardship of his long journey flowers into something else: "He stood as pivot of the wheeling square, / And language was a gold chrysanthemum / That burst with fountain-like abandonings / Of stories, fragments, anecdotes, and jokes--." His excessive flood of words calls out to the world, and one person answers: "At dusk when the Fool shone, his petals fire / Against the cobalt air, the city lay / Hip-deep in golden words and visible / To naked eyes as far as the new moon, / The Red King left his tower under stars / And followed gold to make the Fool his Fool."

All I will say is such a weird pilgrim's progress feels like the story of my own life. And that is despite the fact that I never ran away, or that my parents were not wild as I "crashed out" (though I was, indeed, a shock-haired Marly.)

All this business about metamorphosis is, of course, tied in with the Tarot you mention. In esoteric meanings, the Fool is a story's protagonist. The Tarot Fool goes on, passing through the various mysteries of life and meeting archetypal figures along the way--that is, he goes on a fool's journey through the emblematic places and archetypal figures of the Major Arcana. While the Rosy Cross and such esoteric brotherhoods made use of the Tarot as an initiatory pattern, I didn't study or make a lot of use of that material, though the Fool does meet "the Tarot witch"and her daughter, and there's a poem that is based closely on the Fool card: "...The fortunetellers sketched / This card, the Fool with feathers in his hair, / As if those ancients knew that he would come to pass / And stand between all things, the ground and air, / Wildwood and the castle, Red King and Corvid King." The Tarot connection does, however, reinforce the idea of transformation and archetypes that come from alchemy.

In some ways, we are all the Fool because we go on a wandering path through the life and are changed by it--we begin as children (i.e. innocents or fools), going on insufficient knowledge, and learning as we are knocked about by events.  An odd thing about the Tarot and this book-to-be is that it seems quite possible to talk about the sequence in detail based on the Major Arcana and the Fool's Journey, even though I didn't have that in mind. Jung would have something to say about that mix of Tarot and archetypes. Don't we set off heedlessly into the big world with its Magician and Hierophant and Lovers, little realizing that we are about to step over precipice after precipice?