A few weeks back I took a train to Seattle for the Cascadia Poetry Festival, a four day smorgasbord of readings, speakers, and expert panels.
Now, for those of you who think attending a poetry festival would be about as exciting as filing a callus, restrain your clicking impulse for a second. Poetry is the dope bomb shiznit. Seriously. And the Cascadia Poetry Festival was three days of creative hedonism that included parties, a beer slam (with free beer!), and a living room reading series. Yes, there were some serious readings and discussions of pedagogy, but they were offset with poems that eulogized the end of smoking culture and readers who began with the invocation,
“Oh Lord, if I have but one life to live… I hope this ain’t it.” -George Bowering
There were poems that glorified bumper stickers, oral sex, bar fights, and roadside fruit stands.
It was, in other words, not boring.
Over the course of the weekend I read a few times and had some very flattering feedback from people I respect, which is always nice. But, for me, the very best part of attending a festival of poetry was simply hanging out with people who get high on creativity. We’re all human. We all live within the contours of one small life, but sharing our perceptions of that experience is liberating because it opens up new landscapes and new possibilities. When we see through other people’s eyes, our own vision is enhanced.
Hobnobbing with creatives is inspiring too. In a hallway of the Spring Street Centre I overheard someone use the phrase “situational rhyming.” …Ok, so I’m still not sure what that might mean, but it feels loaded with possibility. Some phrases seems to catch fire in my brain, burning the way a pine branch does – with sizzling smoke and sparks, too wild to control. One speaker talked about an “activism of the ethical imagination” and I was off again… remembering that there’s a point to all these sentences we write. Art, and poetry in particular, can be used to unpack important issues – poverty, climate change, sustainability, social justice. The pen really is mightier than the sword. Writers can change the world – and, bloody hell, the world needs some changing.
The next Cascadia Poetry Festival happens in Nanaimo, BC April 30-May3, 2015
Here’s a sample 3:15 from August 2013 (see previous posts for an explanation).
The idea that the dishes
of our mind
be laid out
elegant as swans
I would rather be a dog
barking at my reflection
I see balls
I chase them
wag at inopportune moments
and live ever expecting
A measured imagination
is too shy to yodel
in the pancake house
lest the patrons disapprove
stiffen newspaper spines
create a space
safe from poets,
calmed by the pleasant geometry
of plate, spoon, fork, mug
– another refill please –
two packets of saccharine, two creams.
Building on the theme of my previous post, just getting out of your own way so the ideas can flow is one of the most important tasks facing an artist of any kind. There are countless books on the mystery of creativity (two of my faves are The Artist’s Way and Flow). But last August I tried something different: I participated in the 3:15 Experiment. Begun in 1993, participants, for the entire month of August, wake up at 3:15 am, grab a pen and paper, and write. As it turned out, the waking up part was easy (I’m usually engaged in mental blood sport at 3:15 am anyway). The really hard part was just letting myself write. I froze.
The idea behind the Experiment is that at 3:15 am your dreaming mind will be doing its thing (putting ducks in marching bands, sending you to parties with long-dead relatives, getting naked with an appalling assortment of people, and so on) while your asshole critical mind will still be off duty. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen the first couple of nights. Instead, I recall sitting on the bathmat with the icy tub against my back, shivering and trying to come up with something to put on the page. Oh god, just anything.
Except that’s not really what I was doing. What I was actually doing was trying to come up with a concept that I could write about: how nighttime noises might be metaphors for daytime fears, how a bed might actually be a ship we sail to new worlds, blah, blah, blah. Exactly the kind of high-level thinking work that is next to impossible at 3:15 am. After a couple of confidence blighting nights, I hit on the idea of just writing down whatever floated into my brain-space: images, fears, phrases, anything. Really anything: doggy sleep placemat sky belch. It worked – mostly because I stopped caring so much. I was writing down instead of writing about. Things didn’t have to make sense, or come to a tidy conclusion, or demonstrate my ear for rhythm, my vocabulary, etc. I was just plucking images from the cloudy soup of my 3 am brain.
By the end of the month I felt a stronger connection to that dreamy, random idea generator. And I had the confidence to just write stuff down, because every once in a while something really interesting would show up. Also, the discipline of getting up to write every single night for a month meant that part of my daytime brain was thinking ahead: Hey that limping dog is really sad, you should put that image in a poem. Which word is funnier: scrotum or proboscis? From a distance, those rocks looks alive… perhaps our goals are like that.
A collection of 3:15 poetry was published a few years back (including work by the fabulous Danika Dinsmore!) and there’s even a website where participants can upload their works. I’m posting a sample poem or two above, not because I think they’re affecting, finely wrought masterpieces, but because they captured something of my hypnogogic creative brain. And they remind me how effortless writing can be if I just let go.