17 January 2011

An Example . . . .

Yesterday, I spent about an hour capturing video imagery of the historic live oak tree at the courthouse in downtown Fort Myers.  The oak tree, like most of the property owned by the city and county, has been neglected for decades.  Other places under the city's and county's care that have gone to ruin because of this "benign" neglect include:

the Pleasure Pier

the Hall of Fifty States

Exhibition Hall

The live oak at the courthouse has undergone, over the last twenty years, a number of "fixes," usually meaning the cheapest remedy available, and it's now destined to being cut down after two of its limbs have broken off, constituting a legitimate safety concern.

The current plan is to "save" the trunk by commissioning wood sculptor Marlin Miller to create an eagle out of it.  He's made something of a name by sculpting "Katrina trees" in and near Biloxi, Mississippi.  At best, some of his work is whimsical, and to his credit, he works with the natural shape of the tree to create his carvings.  One of his signature pieces is located at the town square in Biloxi.

He transformed this dead tree

into this sculpture

I have no doubt that Miller's work will be received well by the community, and in that respect, I suppose it will be a successful work of public art (and there are much worse examples, for sure). But I am having a difficult time of it, as it seems a grotesque usage of the oak, a degradation, another cheap erasure. I think of all that makes use of a decaying tree, from the termites to the air plants and fungus to the woodpeckers and bluebirds, that slow heatening and releasing that is death, an old, old carbon breakdown.

So we break out the chainsaw, cut and hew a cartoon emblem, and it is clean, reassuring, and not the least disrupting, not the least ironic, not the least arresting. Yes, I am angry about it.

So, in translating the live oak to some digitalized coding,  I realize my own hand in making use of the oak. I'm no better than Marlin Miller in that respect.  No, I won't go Julia Butterfly on it, either, as the tree is too far gone to survive (the enemy here is the sidewalk and pavement, what modernized Oak Street into Main Street in Fort Myers, over 100 years ago). The county commissioners have done a good job of it, with plenty of hand wringing, gathering up of the acorns, and then doing nothing. The tree was to be cut down three months ago. Evidently the county has not the funds to finish the job.

I don't know if I'll ever make anything at all from the video (just the capture itself might be enough of a fugitive artistic response), but it exemplifies the kind of thing I'm after these days.

15 January 2011

Postscript on Retirement, and Hello to the New Year

Two weeks into my "retirement" from being a professional poet, and no retributions yet from the gods, and so I think I'm safe.

I want to add a postscript to my last post, as I've received a couple of very sincere questions from friends and students about what my decision means.  What it means, simply, is that I will not engage in the processes of writing poetry for publication and of trying to publish my poetry.  No more submissions to magazines, anthologies, contests, or publishers.  It also includes refraining from applying for grants based on my poetry or toward the writing of my poetry.  No poetry-based residences, conferences, or sabbaticals.  And no more publishing about the poetry trade.

I may do the occasional local reading or open mic, as a courtesy to my friends or as a performance opportunity.  I may respond to a friend's request for a submission to a magazine or anthology (not that I get many of those anyway, but it happens).  I may, in five to 45 years from now, put together a final "new and selected" volume.

I will continue, however, to work as a teacher and editor of poetry, to support individual magazines (my current favorite, which you should subscribe to, is the Crab Creek Review), and to assist in enriching the life of poetry in my community.   I will continue to consume poetry.  But that's pretty much the extent of it.

My choice here is not whimsical, though I hope I land in some state of whimsy through it.  And I'm looking forward to the New Year, performing as one of the chorus in Agamemnon, participating in another joyful round of ArtPoems, teaching my workshop on performative poetics, constructing transmedial performances, and writing performance pieces for specific actors (I'm just getting started on a collaboration on this last one).  For me, I am realizing it's about my own peace, reconciliation, with disappearing.

 *     *     *     *     *     *

Or, it's something of a delayed appreciation for what took place in a graduate workshop some 30 years ago.  This was during my second semester at Indiana University, and the M.F.A. program was in its second year.  The workshops, thus, were under-enrolled, and the program allowed other graduate students to take the workshop, provided they were "cleared" by the M.F.A. program.  So in this workshop, we had one such student, a visual artist who was putting together her own masters project.  I think she had a miserable time of it, as none of us really talked about anything beyond the poetry biz.

For one workshop, when we were to workshop one of her poems, she came in with 12 lunch paper bags, each half-wadded up, and she was distraught over her failure.  "This really doesn't work unless you found these accidentally--you know, at a bus stop, or under a luncheon counter, or next to a water fountain.  It's a total mess."  We opened our bags, and each contained rusted bottle caps, deflated balloons, and decoder rings, all on a bed of white confetti.  The confetti, cut angle-hair fine, had been the paper she typed her poem on.

Of course, we were angry with her.  Yeah, we got the fact of it as an artwork--we were hep enough to understand her avant-garde gesture--but we thought, even so, we need to see the poem as a poem before she shredded it all up.  The following week, she returned, with that poem typed up for us, and we went on our way with it, giving it a healthy and smart and well-spirited review. 

After that workshop, I talked to her, probably wanting on some level to assuage my own guilt in joining in the mob that bullied her.  As you can imagine, she didn't want to hear anything of that.  But she did ask me, "Do you still have the poem-bag?"

"No."  I couldn't lie to her at that point.  "I threw it away."

And she gave me a kiss.  "Perfect."