Six Hungry Ghost Abatement Protocols

Wrote this up for a job app and thought I’d post it here—after revising blogwise. Medium is so message.

Been working about a year on a manuscript called Six Hungry Ghost Abatement Protocols. It’s a study of creative process done at a crossroads of word and image. In which crash prose passages go through a series of verbal and visual metamorphoses—extraction, precipitation, illumination, inspiration.

My thought here is that even well tamed verbal structures possess a wildness inherent in language. In that wildering I feel less that I am writing and drawing poems than that the poems are drawing me out and writing me down.

Themewise the book takes on the Buddhist figure of the hungry ghost, a being of insatiable hunger, unassuageable suffering, to trace some connections among desire, attachment, loss, release. Process and content are very interwoven here: renunciations asked of the poems in their proceeding, as each gives way to a successor, are kin to renunciations they wrestle with in mind.

The transformations in their turns.


Extraction

I begin with a passage from my journal, streamlined and depunctuated, for instance this dream transcript.

I’m with R. on roads in the mountains ∙ at the
base of a ski hill we are looking at trail maps ∙ a
web or net of red lines thrown down over a
volcanic core ∙ a whole series of them side by
side ∙ each to the left steps back a bit further ∙
takes more in ∙ the gradations so fine I have to
take more steps across to get to the map that
has what I want to show than I thought to ∙ at it
I point to the road or trail on a southwestern
shoulder of a mountain ∙ One branch goes west­-
ward ∙ that’s somewhere we’ve been ∙ one goes
rightward across the valley of the Stehekin
though we’re in Colorado ∙ that’s the trip I’m
talking about ∙ somewhere else I am saying how
full the colours were up there ∙ Even in winter ∙
a lake in the mountains ∙ sunlight on it and me
through firs on the far side ∙ bleached wood of
fallen snags half-submerged in the water ∙ in
the foreground tall as I am so I must be crouch-
ing ∙ brilliant red blueberry leaves ∙ a few in a
bare bush ∙ the colours give life to the sun and
to me ∙ then in a car with R. driving in and
away from the mountains ∙ he says he doesn’t
use trails when hiking ∙ he just pulls over to the
side of the road and starts bushwhacking up ∙
because of how his mother taught him hillwalk-
ing ∙ she was crazy or maybe just very intense ∙
I laugh too loud ∙ say ∙ But that was in Scotland
where they cut down the forests centuries ago ∙
do you really want to bushwhack through fir
thickets ∙ I wake picturing different sorts of fir
woods ∙ an impassable thicket of small dead
densely interwoven branches ∙ a stand of ma-
ture trees ∙ spacious and cool ∙ a floor of moss

Next I mine this source material for word clusters that bear poetic charge. Here’s the same prose with the mined bits prominent.

I’m with R. on roads in the mountains ∙ at the
base of a ski hill we are looking at trail maps ∙ a
web or net of red lines thrown down over a
volcanic core ∙ a whole series of them side by
side ∙ each to the left steps back a bit further ∙
takes more in ∙ the gradations so fine I have to
take more steps across to get to the map that
has what I want to show than I thought to ∙ at it
I point to the road or trail on a southwestern
shoulder of a mountain ∙ One branch goes west­-
ward ∙ that’s somewhere we’ve been ∙ one goes
rightward across the valley of the Stehekin
though we’re in Colorado ∙ that’s the trip I’m
talking about ∙ somewhere else I am saying how
full the colours were up there ∙ Even in winter ∙
a lake in the mountains ∙ sunlight on it and me
through firs on the far side ∙ bleached wood of
fallen snags half-submerged in the water ∙ in
the foreground tall as I am so I must be crouch
ing ∙ brilliant red blueberry leaves ∙ a few in a
bare bush ∙ the colours give life to the sun and
to me ∙ then in a car with R. driving in and
away from the mountains ∙ he says he doesn’t
use trails when hiking ∙ he just pulls over to the
side of the road and starts bushwhacking up ∙
because of how his mother taught him hillwalk-
ing ∙ she was crazy or maybe just very intense ∙
I laugh too loud ∙ say ∙ But that was in Scotland
where they cut down the forests centuries ago ∙
do you really want to bushwhack through fir
thickets ∙ I wake picturing different sorts of fir
woods ∙ an impassable thicket of small dead
densely interwoven branches ∙ a stand of ma
ture trees ∙ spacious and cool ∙ a floor of moss

I compile my extractions to make a shorter stranger paragraph.

The roads in are look thrown down over a side
of them a bit further ∙ so fine I have to map that
too ∙ each step I want more a mountain road to
where the valley of what else I am even in win-
ter sunlight on it and me bleached wood in the
water in a crouch ∙ a lake fallen through firs in
the foreground ∙ brilliant bare red bush ∙ then in
a car with the mountains hiking us ∙ art a moth
taught us ∙ Just be at rest as you hack through a
rent sort of small dead ∙ the trees here really do
wake an interwoven densely spacious impasse

And perform the same extraction operation on this paragraph. This time my record of the process becomes a visual poem in its own right at hang on a threshold between signal and noise.

The roads in are look thrown down over a side
of them a bit further ∙ so fine I have to map that
too ∙ each step I want more a mountain road to
where the valley of what else I am even in win-
ter sunlight on it and me bleached wood in the
water in a crouch ∙ a lake fallen through firs in
the foreground ∙ brilliant bare red bush ∙ then in
a car with the mountains hiking us ∙ art a moth
taught us ∙ Just be at rest as you hack through a
rent sort of small dead ∙ the trees here really do
wake an interwoven densely spacious impasse

Extracted text stays black, a corona of greyscale text persists about it, the rest of it’s let fade to the colour of the page.


Precipitation

The second round of extraction yields a material enough enriched for the next transformation—precipitation of a verse poem. In this process material drawn from the prose paragraph descends and settles into verbal strata.

RED KING

Look so fine.
I want what else I am brilliant at.

Red
king, hack us through these
here red trees.

Each step bit them.
Am really in a rough pass.
Winter oven.

I count myself free, making this one, to arrange words and lines as I wish. But only get to use words I can plausibly find in the source paragraph. I interpret “plausibly” often quite and sometimes really very generously.


Illumination

A book made just of these poems seemed a cold prospect, too procedural, not human enough, so I started to think and feel my way towards companion poems—poems born of those already made, but freely, with no constraint or set procedure.

At first nothing came. One morning, though, staring at an extraction record in frustration, I started drawing lines around the black text, then round the grey. I thickened lines and emphasized the faces and forms I began to think I saw. The result was a monstrous assemblage of eyes and mouths, horns and spikes and tusks. Faces predominated, mostly in profile, and I found them both frightening and endearing. They seemed spirits caught up in all sorts of longing and yet capable of illumination.

I decided to trust the weirdness and began to do the same with other extraction records. Sometimes the process yielded a compost of half-formed faces. Other times, I came to a single form, as here, where illumination got me a frog.

Image - Frog Star

The extraction process may be familiar from Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os and Jen Bervin’s Nets, the precipitation process from Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager. Likewise these illuminations owe a debt to the work of Tom Phillips in A Humument. But as far as I know these methods haven’t been combined in this way or directed to quite these ends. Quite possibly for good reason.


Illumination

The ghosts showed me the way to the fourth poem, the companion poem, which I hear as the voice of their suffering as it grows aware of itself. No constraints now except that the poem share a page with its illuminated precursor.

STAR FROG

The
size of the real
is fly

That we
never were
may be

the only
thing we need
never

fear
say I an unironic self
digesting fly.

The term “inspiration” may want scare quotes. One point here is to challenge our still persistent notion of the poet as a solitary figure fashioning her art ex nihilo. But still I feel that something in these poems draws a deep breath.


All Together Now

The four poems together make a two-page spread.

Upper left: prose scarred by an extraction process
Lower left: verse precipitated from the extracted ore
Upper right: illumination of the extraction scars
Lower right: verse inspired by the longing of the image

Click on me!
Click on me!

Final projects: Caitlyn

Caitlyn assembled a source text from found material and then performed an erasure on it to generate

EVE

          She thinks          this is
                      morning,         “I’ve got my

    things, I’m on the
verge.”

                    Guess
                    I  have
                        you

  breathing.

                      Finally, this

                                                two to one

static:

                        I swim across an
                    ocean
                from an         empty

                                                    room.

(Erased from a base text made of the first words of each song on the album Everything in Transit by Jack’s Mannequin.)

One thing I really like here: how the poem combines (composts) two time-honoured practices — the found poem and the erasure poem — in a way that feels seamless and self-assured.

On erasure practice (II)

Yestereven, erasure marked typographically, as with Carson and Schwerner, giving a feel of fidelity, though that’s often mock. Also, erasure as palimpsest, as in Bervin’s Nets, the source poem receding into the page but not altogether invisible.

The maybe most austere mode is just to leave the page untouched in its white or creamy presentness. That’s Ronald Johnson’s approach in Radi Os, his seminal erasure of Milton’s Paradise Lost

image

If austere is one end of a spectrum, and illuminative the other, somewhere in the middle’s any practice that retains the erasure marks, making what art of them they propose. Can find a precursor to that in this page from Johnson’s draft copy of Paradise Lost

image

It’s a question I’ve messed with some in Overject, erasures I’ve tried out of a minor Anglo-Saxon poem sequence variously called “Maxims” or “Gnomic Verses” or (by me) “Proverbs.” Here I work up the redaction marks to make some funny (and some not-so-funny) faces.

image

At the illuminative end of the spectrum (both ends and all middles presided over majestically by Wm. Blake) must for sure be Tom Phillips’s A Humument.

Fun fact. My college roommate, Johnny Carrera, my first year at Oberlin, recently had a show with Phillips at MassMOCA. And that’s all for tonight, mes amis, dormez bien.

On erasure practice (I)

Gonna hit erasure practice hard next week with my class. So thought here to summate. So much, to lift a word or three from a forebear to this sprawly lineage, depends on how you mark the missingness of what’s missing.

There’s a typography angel (sic) taken by Anne Carson in her Sappho —

image

Okay wow so the first clump suddenly recalls me to the borderline people in my life. And the second clump to how I’ve answered them. Well anyway I do love the aberrant slant in the image. Too, Armand Schwerner in his Tablets

image

Brackets, ellipses, squares, circles, squared circles, enlisted to mark the polyambience of what’s missing, or imagined to be. Though nothing is really missing, is the message, as I take it, of erasure practice. The blank page a perfect poem no one has ever managed to write.

Then there’s the palimpsest, where the new poem greys out, but doesn’t quite white out, the old. Jen Bervin’s erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Nets work here, both stilly

imageand movingly, as here, where the palimpsest of it flickers in and out. That’s it for tonight, happy sultry (for here) weather all, more tomorrow.

An upward headed poem

So I promised an upward facing compost poem in counter to a sad East. Here, I think’s, it. First the compost heap —

Up I say to mad friends and now stop ∙ stay
seated ∙ turn round ∙ spot the ash river a sad
king thought to face at a right angle and be wed
to war in these rockscape hills ∙ to each angel
comes a kind of rest ∙ a Hell no lucent woman
or man may be other to ∙ so I own that inmost
forge where in woods a road runs to an island

And then the worm work —

GLEAN

No man island.
At each weed angle
dew be angel.

In hell-wrought
urn, in these ash even,
a kind of May.

Allusion too of course is composting. None of them here were deliberate, and that they showed up spontaneous, is the clearest sign of my over-education any could wish for. Donne in line 1. Dogen in lines 2 and 3. Cleanth Brooks in lines 4 and 5. Argh! Well but I still like it.

Postscript Sept. 30. And, line 6, William Carlos Williams’s “Locust Tree in Flower,” which I taught just today, on which, something soon, very soon, very very soon.

Exercise: Worm in the compost bin

We’ve talked [my students and I] about erasures that read horizontally and erasures that read vertically. The former preserve more of the gist of the source text. The latter create a more fully new thing, though some of the ground tone of the source, somehow, remains.

I’ve also proposed that composting, broadly construed, includes what we usually think of as “inspiration.” Because what is inspiration but suddenly, in a flash, connecting disparate elements of your own experience, and finding them transformed in each other’s company?

This exercise draws those two gists together: reading vertically, composting your own experience. First, find some of your own prose, between 75 and 150 words, and type it up as a column around three inches wide, give or take half an inch. You should sense a resonance in the prose, an electric charge, though it may fall here and there into cliché, overwriting, or banality.

Transcripts of dreams work well. So do journal entries that have a lot of concrete, specific detail. Here’s an example, a transcript of a dream:

A pathway, root-broken pavement, branches
hang down on both sides, willow branches in
new leaf with towering clusters of tiny white
aromatic flowers. I bring a branch to my face.
The scent is beautiful, pervasive, it floods me
and I begin to cry with a peace I suddenly
know has always been with me. I tell a doctor
on an island and he readies a needle over my
heart on a point called penetrating fragrance.

Kinda sentimenty, with that peace bit, but lots of concrete words to work with. Now, print your source text out, and burrow vertically for word sequences that please you, whether or not they make sense to you. (The pleasure they give is the sense they make.) You can select sequences by circling with a pen; I’ll approximate that in my example by greying the unselected text:

A pathway, root-broken pavement, branches
hang down on both sides, willow branches in 
new leaf with towering clusters of tiny white 
aromatic flowers. I bring a branch to my face. 
The scent is beautiful, pervasive, it floods me
and I begin to cry with a peace I suddenly
know has always been with me. I tell a doctor 
on an island and he readies a needle over my 
heart on a point called penetrating fragrance.

It took me several tries to get to that; print out a few copies, and go through as many times.

Once you have some vertically chosen text that pleases you, arrange it in lines, making what will look to an outsider like a poem received from the Muse, though you’ll know better. Finally, give it a title. In my example:

A PATH DOWN IT

A path down it
low beautiful cry ways
land to a point. Branches
branch tiny white branch to flood
sudden tell a fragrance

And there’s your poem. Composting? Inspiration? Who can say?

Hot off the compost presses

Apologies, been away a bit, teaching, making poems. Thought I’d post a most recent one. The process I’ve been working out, I take a transcript of a dream from my journal, streamline it a bit, and type it up as a column of text about three inches wide. Looks something like this:

Across the water to an island ∙ I’ve left my
clothes in a woods a road runs through and
forget where ∙ a woods full of the light of an
inmost summer ∙ feeling naked on my way to
town I backtrack and find myself in a tent of
translucent fabric full of that same light ∙ a
young woman comes in ∙ we’ve not ever seen
each other ∙ Hello she says and lies down beside
me ∙ I put my arm around her and my hand
comes to rest on her breast ∙ she moves it off
with a kindness that seems to mean our love for
each other is ∙ but is not that it was recalling on
waking her kindness that made me so awfully
sad ∙ now I have clothes on and have hitched a
lift toward town with a trucker ∙ we go up and
down hills ∙ through mountainous sunsoaked
landscapes ∙ we come to a stop ∙ the road is an
upward rocky path with breaks and ledges at
skewed angles ∙ I’d like to get out of the truck
but stay seated ∙ The better way ∙ I say to me ∙ is
to be right there for what’s given ∙ what’s really
up though is I don’t want to look a coward ∙ the
driver takes a deep breath ∙ starts the engine ∙
we crash forward to the other side ∙ at another
spot the path is a notch between a boulder and
a rockface ∙ I or my mind am or is outside the
cab ∙ a post with a box on top blocks the path ∙
and now I’m at the ferry terminal where my
friends have made it over in their large toy cars
∙ mad how long it took to get here ∙ they mean
to turn round and get the next boat home ∙ Wait
I say we can all go to my place now ∙ that cheers
us up ∙ though evening the light persists in me

It’s far from being a poem. In fact, speaking of feeling naked, I feel quite exposed posting it! But I know we’re all friends here.

Given a source text, I burrow through, finding phrases that please or scare me. It’s pretty quick and quite intuitive … things go wrong when I become deliberate or try to make “strategic” choices. Starting at the bottom of the column, and hewing mostly to the left side, I get to this paragraph:

Up I say to mad friends and now stop ∙ stay
seated ∙ turn round ∙ spot the ash river a sad
king thought to face at a right angle and be wed
to war in these rockscape hills ∙ to each angel
comes a kind of rest ∙ a Hell no lucent woman
or man may be other to ∙ so I own that inmost
forge where in woods a road runs to an island

Not awful. Could stand on its own as a prose poem maybe. But I feel undone with it so I burrow through again. Here’s, this evening, the poem I got to:

EAST

Comes war to forge a man.
Eats up to king.

Hell, so a road.

Hills, right at the stop end.
Sad,

stay sad,
a woe angle.

I know it’s a downward poem and that’s about it. There’s an upward poem in there too, its complement, next to be writ.

Been playing around awhile

with a composting practice. Take a transcript of a dream, embarrassingly open maybe, and type it up as a paragraph, stripping out punctuation and caps, a first stage of digestion. Then, burrow through it, wormwise, a la Tom Phillips, making phrases you’d never a thunk of, on yer own. Compose those phrases as a poem.

I’ll post one of those sometime soon probably. But here now’s to tell, I’m playing with a modified practice of that, two stages. One, worm through a dream transcript to make a prose poem, such as

The roads in are look thrown down over a side
of them a bit further ∙ so fine I have to map that
too ∙ each step I want more a mountain road to
where the valley of what else I am even in win-
ter sunlight on it and me bleached wood in the
water in a crouch ∙ a lake fallen through firs in
the foreground ∙ brilliant bare red bush ∙ then in
a car with the mountains hiking us ∙ art a moth
taught us ∙ Just be at rest as you hack through a
rent sort of small dead ∙ the trees here really do
wake an interwoven densely spacious impasse

And then, pass through again, wormwise as before, to make verse poems as castings, as here

RED KING

Look fine.
I want what else I am brilliant at.

Red
king, hack us through these
here red trees.

Each step bit them.
Am really in a rough pass
Winter oven.

Feels to me, it has more of me in it, the me most meaningful to me, for having about zero autobiographical to offer.