On the other hand, though, what emerges is a body of work. It isn’t conventional, or even graspable, and perhaps will be impermanent, but I know that it is, in fact, THE body of artistic work accomplished in my lifetime which most closely represents me. It’s also taught me the most. Once upon a time I wasn’t satisfied with that. Now, I am.
For as much as I sometimes have wished to be otherwise, I am not first and foremost a novelist or a painter, a writer of non-fiction books or a photographer or printmaker. I’m a reader, and observer, and an integrator, whose chosen form is the informal essay, illustrated with my own photographs or artwork, and whose perfect medium of expression is the blog. Being a blogger became an intrinsic part of my identity: like someone who works in watercolors or oils, I see the world and my daily life through an intimacy with this medium. It used to feel a bit weird, like constant translating; now it’s so normal I don’t even think about it, even though I’ve become a lot more choosy about what to base my posts upon. The change from pure writing to a greater focus on art has simply mirrored what’s going on in my own life, too.
In accordance with Marly Youmans’ suggestion in comments, I want to share a few observations about my on-going erasure poetry project with the Diary of Samuel Pepys. First, I should say that the encouragement of a number of writers, bloggers and readers whom I respect has been a great boon, and probably plays a larger role in my continued commitment to the project than I’m willing to admit. Thank you all.
I’m not ashamed to admit, however, that this began as a surprise gift for Rachel, whose long-standing enthusiasm for Pepys’ diary I did not initially share. Reading the Pepys entry of the day has since become part of our nightly ritual on Skype, and she enjoys seeing what erasure I’ve made of it when she wakes up in the morning. That’s a powerful incentive for me to keep going.
Tom Phillips, the author of the most famous erasure poem, A Humument, has said that he’s never actually read the text he uses (A Human Document by W.H. Mallock). That’s interesting, but it’s not my style. I view this erasure as an homage to Samuel Pepys as much as a new creation/discovery (or series of creations/discoveries). Although I make no particular effort to sound like Pepys or to avoid modern references, I want the “I” in the poems to reflect something of his interests and appetites — a son of Sam, as it were.
I’m also very interested in the two periods reflected in the online Diary of Samuel Pepys: the latter half of the 17th century, and the period from 2003-2012 when the online version made its first run. Because I started blogging in 2003 myself (as did Rachel and many other of the bloggers I still read), Pepys’ diary feels oddly like a piece of my own personal history. I was never an avid reader of it, but it was always there, and now I find that reading (or at least skimming) the copious and informative annotations left by readers ten years ago gives me a sense of inhabiting three historical periods at once. The diary is no longer just about them, those far-away Englishmen and women of the 17th century; it’s also about us, and about the many ways in which, over the past ten years, we’ve used the web to share and generate texts — and to present or invent our own daily lives.
With 51 Pepys erasures under my belt, my approach has changed in small but significant ways. The visual presentation itself has changed from “blackout” — using the highlighter tool in MS Word set to black to blot out all but the chosen words — to digital erasure. At first, I took a screenshot only at the end of the process. Now, the process involves copying and pasting the text from the online diary into a new file in my word processing program (Open Office Writer rather than Word these days); adding back any text censored from the 19th-century edition used for the online version, as supplied in the annotations by readers with newer editions; full-justifying the text; taking a screenshot with Screenpresso and saving it as a jpeg; drafting a poem below the text, in the same text file; and finally, opening the screenshot in Photoshop and using the eraser tool, set usually to a 15-pixel radius for a 700-pixel-wide image. Sometimes the text of the poem gets adjusted in the course of the erasure, but not too often.
My rule that I can only use words, or consecutive groupings of letters, in the order in which they appear in the original hasn’t changed, and won’t. (Contrast with A Humument, where Phillips typically constructs passages from words that are adjacent on the page, and links passages via umbilical-cord-like strings.) But I have loosened up: originally I only permitted myself to use words unchanged from the original, allowing for differences in spelling which I would correct in my text versions. But several weeks ago I began permitting myself to look for shorter words within longer words, which opened up more possibilities. For one thing, there are now a lot more potential indefinite articles!
Initially, my focus was completely textual, not aesthetic at all (and I think the blackout-style erasures were pretty ugly, too). But now I do pay attention to the look of the erasures, though I still try to keep the process simple enough that it doesn’t become enormously time-consuming. I try to preserve a scattering of un-erased marks to give the erasure a more physical, analogue feel, as well as to suggest the continued, shadow presence of a larger, parent text. If I have two or more options — duplicate words — in the parent text, I tend to pick those on the most natural visual route. And sometimes, as with yesterday’s haiku, I’ll allow myself to include an extra word (“west,” in that case) which the poem doesn’t necessarily need, but which gives the image a more balanced look.
Although I’ve entertained vague notions of building a collection whose component parts make some sort of consecutive sense, in practice each erasure stands on its own. I add the titles last of all, as with almost all poetry I write, but since they don’t emerge from the process of erasure, I think of them as quite superfluous — there because my blogging style at Via Negativa has been to provide original titles (as opposed to, say, “Pepys I.2.20,” which is how I am saving them on my hard drive). Nevertheless, in some cases I think the titles have added something to the poems.
The text versions below the erasure images aren’t as much of an extra as my decision to place them in brackets might suggest. (And I’m considering doing away with the brackets.) In part, they’re there for accessibility reasons: if I didn’t put them out front, so to speak, I’d include them as HTML “alt” text instead, so as to make the erasures accessible to screen readers for the visually impaired. But for those who are not so visually impaired as to need a reader, and who simply rely on increasing the font size, the 700-pixel-wide image by itself, available on click-though, would not suffice. Hence in part the gloss. More than that, though, I am obviously enough of a traditionalist to want to make standard-looking, modern lyric poems out of the erasures, punctuated and arranged on the page for maximum impact. And I kind of like the idea of having two versions of each erasure, neither one of them authoritative.
The writing has certainly gotten easier than it was for the first three or four weeks, when I was often drafting two or three different poems before deciding on a keeper. Now there’s usually just a single draft. That’s largely because I no longer put the cart before the horse (as I now see it) by trying to erase from the outset. I start with a list of attractive nouns and phrases, then see where the best verbs are and start matching them up until an idea occurs to me. Occasionally, as in the one I called “Revolution Revelation,” Pepys’ language is so vivid and exciting, I can’t resist lifting great portions of it almost unchanged, and the erasure poem becomes more of a found poem.
As I suggest in the category description at the head of the archive, I started this project at a moment of personal crisis, if that’s not too strong a word. Re-reading too much of my own poetry has always left me slightly nauseated, but recently it had gotten even worse. I needed to expand my horizons, get a transfusion of new vocabulary, not worry so much about making complete or even comprehensible statements, and most of all, stop imposing so much of my own preconceptions on my poems. I wanted to give accident a larger role in my writing, so that perhaps genuine discovery could take place more often.
Judged on that basis, I feel this erasure project has been a success so far. It may seem ironic, but working within these fairly severe, self-imposed restrictions has taught me a lot about creative freedom, which is always a dance between some kind of rules (be they only syntactical) and total license. Thinking of my materials as given in some sense has been immensely liberating, though it’s something I’ve long felt, a bit more abstractly, about writing in general. The arbitrary restrictions I’ve imposed on myself for this project probably don’t limit me much more than would the challenge of writing, for example, a sonnet sequence, though in the case of an erasure it’s the material rather the organization of the material that is limited. And I’ve enjoyed indulging certain delusions of an erasure poet.
My initial expectation that these erasure poems would all be of a piece — semi-surrealist, full of eating and drinking and bodily functions — has not been borne out. Instead, the results have resembled my usual flow in their variety: sometimes dominated by word-music, sometimes humorous, sometimes metaphysical, etc. Probably I need to stop fighting my natural tendency toward variety in style and tone. Also, as Luisa can probably attest, writing a poem every day is enough work without trying to strive for a high degree of continuity yet. Still, I’ll be curious to see if Son of Sam’s voice ever develops a degree of consistency, or if he continues to suffer from multiple personality syndrome.
My poetry is like
the ice cream my mom
would make from
a bowl of new-
fallen snow when
we were kids. Eat
quickly before it
melts! If you want
more, get your own
bowl & hold it
up to the sky.
It has been hard
to sell magic—
will a time come
when it can’t
be given away?
—Elaine Equi, “From Lorine”
Yes, that’s right. Nothing says “Joyeux Noël” better than a collection of sayings from an embittered, wise-cracking homeless guy on the streets of New York City. Imagine the pathos of Tiny Tim combined with the misanthropy of Ebenezer Scrooge (and perhaps a soupçon of bad-assery from the Artful Dodger).
Actually, you don’t have to imagine it — you can simply browse the Words on the Street archives here at Via Negativa (where I recently took an afternoon to go through and restore the old cartoons that had long ago vanished from the servers of their original host, because I am a librarian’s son and I believe in archiving everything forever). All the cartoons that my publisher and I selected were re-lettered for the book, at a much larger size and higher quality than what I posted here. A significant number of Diogenes’ comments were re-written, and a couple are brand-new. I even re-drew the sketch especially for the book.
Knowing of its relevance to the holidays — especially to the holiday shopping season — my publisher and I strove mightily to get it done in time for Christmas last year, but ran into unanticipated technical difficulties, so it didn’t appear until January. You can order the print version (£9.99/$17.47) directly from the printer, Lulu.com, and 100% of the profits will go to support the upkeep of this website.
The introduction is by Kaspalita Thompson, because frankly, if you can’t trust the word of a ukulele-playing Pureland Buddhist priest, you’ve got a hole in your soul, my friend. He writes:
Bonta’s words are given another layer of meaning by their fixed context, the unchanging homeless character whose placard they grace. “Friend Me” takes on a completely different significance seen here, as opposed to on one’s favorite social networking site.
Each page I flick to raises a smile and then asks me to come back to it and think, and then to think again. In this book Dave moves towards cementing his reputation as satirist and as an important contemporary gadfly.
Now, the “important” part might seem like a bit of a stretch, but it doesn’t have to be. If you buy a copy for everyone on your list, and they buy copies for everyone on their lists, and so on, not only will this “inaction comic” be granted automatic cultural relevance by the capitalist arbiters of taste, but even the part about a timeless holiday classic might come true. A Christmas miracle! And my publisher, my blog and I will be able to afford a much-needed, rejuvenating
holiday strategy session in Aruba.
Today is the fifth birthday of The Morning Porch. I thought I’d mark the occasion by sharing some lesser-known facts about the blog and my daily writing practice.
1. You’d think that this discipline would have made me a better, more assiduous devoteee of the early morning hours, but if anything, it’s been the opposite. I was a very early riser when I started back in 2007, as my first entry attests. Now I sometimes sleep in so late, I’m lucky to get out on the porch before noon. In my defense, there’s no doubt that waiting at least for daylight, if not late-morning warmth, does give one a lot more to write about in terms of (for example) bird and insect activity. But I can’t really claim that’s the motive for my increasingly late-rising tendencies.
2. I was very skeptical about Twitter when it got started, and felt like a relative late-comer to the platform when I finally joined five years ago. I had two ideas in mind: use the 140-character limit to literary advantage, and use the novelty of what I was doing to spread interest in nature among ordinary internet users. For most of the past five years, I’ve been very poor about using Twitter to communicate, and for several years, I was barely on it at all, preferring the open-source alternative Identica. I still feel guilty about using a social platform for broadcasting, but I just find Twitter awkward for carrying on a conversation. Part of that is because:
3. When I’m not forcing myself to be concise, I’m actually very long-winded. Browse the first couple of years of Via Negativa if you don’t believe me.
4. And I guess the other reason I’ve never really taken to Twitter is I don’t own a mobile device of any kind, and therefore don’t use an app. I interact with Twitter exclusively from the web interface.
5. I am still not sure that The Morning Porch is a particularly good fit for Twitter. I do follow some other people who use Twitter for literary purposes, of course. (One curent favorite: British poet George Szirtes’ surrealist microfiction.) But my personal favorite twitter feeds are the humorous ones, the purveyors of pop-culture snark and whimsy such as KimKierkegaardashian and Your Life Coaches. Above all, I think Twitter was made for such displays of wit. Which is why I’m never too bothered by the occasional negative reaction to The Morning Porch: people accustomed to a steady diet of snark who encounter retweets of my posts must find the sincerity and attention to nature really jarring. I think I would.
6. I’m still inordinantly proud of the fact that my Twitter feed made a sports writer’s list of Worst of 2010 at the Gawker media site Deadspin. With fewer than 3000 followers at the time, it felt like a real honor, albeit a perverse one, to be singled out as the worst feed on all of Twitter! Evidently the dude thought my use of common names such as “mourning dove” was a literary affectation.
7. From the beginning, I’ve archived my tweets at a blog, but for the first couple of years, I used Tumblr. I migrated it to a WordPress installation to take advantage of plugins and features that give better access to the archives, such as tagging (which didn’t exist on Tumblr at the time) and especially the “on this date” column in the sidebar, which fills me with geekish delight.
8. Though I don’t really think of The Morning Porch as poetry, a lot of other people do, and I’m fine with that. At one time, I was part of an active community of poets exploring the microblog medium on Identica, where I coined the term “micropoetry” to describe what we were doing. The irony is that I don’t actually think I’m very good at haiku or other types of short-form poetry. Writing haiku is hard, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the knack for it, though that won’t stop me from writing and sharing the things from time to time.
9. Writing The Morning Porch is as much or more about the writing than it is about the observing, but my most successful posts over the years have been those I’ve composed in my head, while sitting on the porch, rather than those I’ve composed inside at the keyboard. My usual approach is to try to stuff at least two observations into each post and rely on the relationship between them to do most of the literary work, augmented by as much alliteration and assonance as I can muster. If you go through the archives, you’ll notice that metaphors are very thin on the ground.
10. Apparently a lot of readers suffer from the misapprehension that I’m a good naturalist; I’m not. I was raised in a nature-loving family, so of course some of that rubbed off on me, but when I was growing up I was actually somewhat in rebellion against the family culture — especially what I saw as the obsessive compulsion to identify everything. I felt that assigning a name to a creature put it in a conceptual box that kept us from seeing it as it truly was. Also, I was very lazy about looking things up — and still am. But writing The Morning Porch has forced me to become more disciplined about it. So if you’ve ever wondered “How does he know all that stuff?” the answer is I don’t — not always. Many times I have an idea, or several ideas, and have to rush inside to consult field guides and the internet. And sometimes those names turn out to be poetic enough that a mere roll-call comes to resemble a poem.
11. I almost never use binoculars. I just don’t like them.
12. One of my biggest disappointments is that more people on Twitter haven’t followed my lead and begun tweeting what they see from their own front porches or stoops. Despite what I said above about preferring witty Twitterers, I’d also love to read other porch sitters, especially if they’re in urban and suburban environments filled with colorful specimens of humanity.
13. Completing five years of a daily journal may seem like an admirable achievement, but it doesn’t really compensate for the fact that to me, my front yard is a landscape of loss. Gone is the big, spreading butternut tree that once shaded it, the focus of an earlier, short-lived chronicle from the porch. It fell victim to a canker that threatens the very survival of the species. This puts me in mind of all our other tree species under threat from non-native blights and insects, such as the eastern hemlock (hemlock woolly adelgid), American beech (beech bark disease), and white ash (emerald ash borer) — all of them common trees here on the mountain. The dead elm tree recently truncated by Sandy was very much alive when I started writing the Morning Porch; it fell victim to Dutch elm disease and died in less than two years. It snapped off a few feet above the flicker nest-hole, which reminds me of that little domestic tragedy (nestlings eaten by a black snake) every time I look at it. The ornamental cherry beside the porch, now reduced to a tall cluster of limb-stumps, was also alive in 2007. It fell victim to a native disease, black knot. It was never a great tree, but I miss its messy sprays of blossoms in the spring, and the way it served as a bird-perch all year long. And finally, the dog statue next to the lilac, which may well mark the grave of some forgotten family pet from 80 or 100 years ago, was smashed when the top of the elm blew over.
14. I guess this doesn’t really qualify as a lesser-known fact, but: I really don’t get off the mountain much. So in a certain sense, writing The Morning Porch amounts to making lemonade out of a lemon. I suppose I could claim that some mornings, my porch-sitting feels more rewarding than a journey of a thousand miles. And it does! But many other mornings, it’s just kind of humdrum, you know? And at those times, I don’t feel as if I have anything especially original to share. But I do it anyway.
15. Doing The Morning Porch has made one thing very clear to me: I don’t take writing as seriously as many of my peers. When I discover, as I often do, that I’ve repeated myself and used the very same image or analogy for some critter as the previous time I wrote about it, I tend to be amused rather than depressed at the limits of my imagination. And I have no trouble acknowledging the truth behind the accusation that The Morning Porch can be a bit formulaic:
some weather, birds, other animals, sound effects, and sentiment, now repeat ad infinitum. That was my attempt at a @morningporch thoughts?
— Sean W. (@oikospolitikos) March 25, 2011
But it’s not just the product; it’s the process. And part of the process, for me at least, involves growing so sick of one’s own words, one lurches in a new direction from time to time and inadvertently produces something brilliant.
16. When I started, my goal was to keep it going for five years. I am not a very goal-oriented person, to put it mildly, so the fact that I’ve made it astonishes me. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would become a source of writing prompts for a number of talented poets, and that one of them would become a co-author at Via Negativa, driven by the much more impressive goal of writing a poem every day, no matter what. Luisa’s been at it for nearly two years now! That alone makes me feel as if I should keep doing this Morning Porch thing as long as I can. If nothing else, it will force me to get my ass out of bed before noon.
We hadn’t planned our Adirondacks camping trip to coincide with the peak of fall color — in fact, my hiking buddy Lucy and I hadn’t really thought about it at all, because we see the fall foliage display every year, and we knew that if we didn’t catch it at its peak there, we’d certainly see it here. We just wanted to show Rachel one of our favorite places. (It also didn’t hurt that another blogger friend happened to live less than two hours away.) Hell, we were even foolish enough to think the campgrounds would be virtually deserted, as they had been the last time we’d visited the Adirondacks in October. No such luck.
Instead, we found ourselves hopping from campsite to campsite as spots became open in what had otherwise been a fully booked campground in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. (Thank you, rainy weather!) The cold rain might have made hiking and camping less than optimal, but it did nothing to diminish the autumn colors. And our British visitor seemed suitably wowed — that’s her arm in the photo above, gesturing in inarticulate appreciation at the drops of water dangling from the ends of shed white pine needles ornamenting a balsam fir bough. Though I did bring my own camera along, I had a hard time seeing things afresh. There’s just nothing like seeing something for the first time, as Rachel’s Adirondacks photo set attests. Go look, and prepare to be wowed yourself.