Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Art Matters

There's been so much to say--a constant action of it--through Twitter; Allen Ginsberg's "three-fold logic" (the simplified "haiku" method grounded in observation, realization, and gestalt) has been a springboard to recent selections and posts. We take these things in, work them into a personalized response and offer the brightness of any synthesis. The mode has been this, so much so that the lengthier slog of essay feels just beyond reach (may this be temporary*). However, this two year old link came through Twitter today and the article is exceptional. Relevant Magazine published Why Art Matters by Makoto Fujimura:

The essay is one of the most apt and quotable pieces of writing on the topic I have read since Lewis Hyde's book about the gift economy.

As it happens, I was up past midnight last night responding to a request from our state arts council for stories about our recent tropical storm Irene (hurricane/tropical storm). Many of the things I found myself writing are uncannily like Makoto Fujimura's, whose article was divined as a tweet hours later. The pressure of the universe seems to release these little stars as our need, unbeknownst to us, most subconsciously requests them.

Here's what I wrote. The threads of affinity are matters of tone and conclusion that surely must arise out of mood, circumstance, yearning, crisis, resolution, a prone abandon in reflection. I neglected to add here that my friend and poet Colin Momeyer was waist deep inside the Zen Center, trying to tend to the situation--until he was called out, as though from a preacher on the stairs above him, I think he said. I also want to emphasize that my press's managing editor was not "mindless" (he is quite mindful)--but the sudden and surreal circumstances of flooding, everywhere he drove (and increasingly by the moments, place to place) must have felt like a dream in which we are mindless, for if we think too much about the fact of it coping through the "dream" of such a situation is defeatist. I've since added "single purpose." And so. . .

We put aside our routines to engage in a whole new set of detours, given the odds of chance and necessity during and after one of the most brutal storms to foul our state in almost 100 years. The artist is used to detours but some come at a price greater than delay, distraction, or inconvenience. While my home showed little change apart from loss of power, by morning it was clear that our community had been rocked--and changed almost unrecognizably. The road below our house suddenly ended and became a vast river instead of a once narrow brook with a two lane road beside it. Where there was road there was now a bluff. Such visual rearrangement challenges your sense of whatever was thought to be stable. The view, while opened-up, is unsettling. Not far from there our village volunteer fire dept. looked like it had gone through an earthquake: the pavement was uprooted and water had eaten up earth around the large building's foundation. Several bridges were "lost"--if only in the upset of the first days (to be quickly repaired--although temporarily). The covered bridge to our kids' school was rocked by enormous water (Quechee) digging over and around supports, land, and road--on both sides. It is unnerving, to a child and to the adults, to see one's "bridge to school" a tooth in the middle of no mouth, suspended without way to or fro. How surreal for children to see. And how do you explain "stability," "normalcy," "structure," "you'll be o.k." to children who take this in? Some of these children were children when, at the same school above the same bridge, they were asked to suspend the fact of two towers vanishing.

I direct a small non-profit arts organization in Windsor County, a small press that publishes and presents artists, poets, and other writers. We collaborate with, use the services of, and support colleagues, friends, and neighbors in the creative economy and in the economy of daily interaction. I am a poet, doing this. When I walked to our creative center, The Main Street Museum, I intended to do what any bard would do--what my mentor, in fact, modeled: to transform strife into song. Yet when I got to the place the blasts of a ghost-town dust and wedged sea-fared shipping containers and errant avenue dumpsters made the scene an eery upheaval of context. Workers bid "things" farewell in almost abandon. I could not play (a child's guitar on me, a harmonica in my pocket); I took notes--the words of poems rising in the "blank" of a kind of destruction that seemed to, over night, connect us with war zones and disasters all around the world. I don't mean to make unjust comparisons, but to a poet who holds words as both the wounded and enlivened, the salvaged and the saved, the power to destroy and the qualities of character to contribute, the ephemeral and the lasting--one understands that these dichotomies are not exclusive, that they are--as the vessel of the word tries to tell us--of the same source.

My Managing Editor drove through thick water in Woodstock, almost mindlessly in a dream (with single purpose)--disbelieving, at times, the rising water's threat could be so fast. He avoided Bridgewater and Rutland only after someone who had come from there emphasized the power of this was visceral in extreme. My organization's trustees (on their own) helped dig out, in White River Junction and in West Hartford, at separate sites. My wife drove to where she'd never been to be one of several to answer a call to re-establish a catalog system for a library practically destroyed. Back in my village, I only modestly helped--serving food to volunteers and fire fighters--and kept the sole grill man company for a period. The town had turned out to help a family shovel out from the muck of a high saturated basement. Traveling west, the sights became even worse. Roads dropped off. Boulders had swarmed and stopped around houses where two ponds and a river gave way; a marker, a plaque to acknowledge a hard time between natives and pioneers, was washed away on a pull out where passers by would often rest.

Members of a creative economy are members of communities too, of course. They are partners and husbands and wives, individuals and teachers and storytellers; relatives, loved ones, parents, employees, employers, civil servants, self-employed. In other words, those who witness struggle are also the ones who buy from the local grocery store, farmers' market; who will shop and sing and go to the fair; who stand for, represent, and thrive in a kind of life tourists see as profound in relative rural beauty and self-sufficiency. The humanity that is changed by chaos is not a humanity that disappears but rather this is a humanity that reforms, that gathers its steed, that re-configures through the push & pull of loves and labors lost. Is humanity taxed in the unthinkable recalculation that must summon a collective rebuilding? Sure, there is communal sorrow through it all. We are not immune to the knowledge of those who actually died in the chaos of a storm we call "tropical." (Now we know, everyone does, that "tropical" means the earthquake in Haiti just as much as it used to mean "vacation"; we can look through the screen--and feel for people.)

Whether we are at home having witnessed any part of these strange and unsightly changes or whether we travel on, we carry a stronger sense of suffering and the ephemeral moment--we hold the fragility of living a little closer. Of course the creative economy of artists and participants is impacted too. These will be the places and people who will bring us back, also, along with the volunteers and the construction workers, the guard and the fire fighters, the catalogers of disaster and the curators of what's left.

PM, 9.6.11

And I had wanted to add "to celebrate." Given what's left, we do. We must. So we do.