On Being Challenged, and Being Challenging

So, I read this thing, and couldn’t believe that someone finally said it out loud:

“We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect,” says Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity.

Staw says most people are risk-averse. He refers to them as satisfiers. “As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform,” he says. Satisfiers avoid stirring things up, even if it means forsaking the truth or rejecting a good idea.  

(from “Inside the Box” by Jessica Olien on Slate.com)

Reading the article made me think about how much of a satisfier I am, and have been.  Less and less as I’ve gotten older, I think, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not, but like most people, I’ve made far too many decisions based on what was expected of me, or what I perceived to be expected, or on what I thought would create the least conflict and rejection in my life.  I’ve wanted to fit in, and to be liked, and to be smiled at, more than I’ve wanted to be original, and to be iconoclastic, and to be self-directed.  I know some people probably see me as quite willing to go out on a limb for what I believe, or to reject the restrictions the outside world would like to impose, but that’s just it:  only I know what a tamed-down version of my real self I show the world.  Only I know how many times I hold myself back.

Don’t read this as a plea for reassurance.  It’s not.  Reassurance is what causes the problem in the first place.  Or needing reassurance is.  I’m not looking for that here.  I’m not looking for anything, I think, except the clarification of my own thinking, which has always mostly happened for me through writing.  Of course publishing the writing, even on a blog that few people read, is an act of communication, so I suppose I do have a purpose beyond self-examination.  Maybe it’s to have an honest conversation with other creative people about all the ways we capitulate.  Maybe it’s an attempt to own my individuality, however difficult,  and to stop trying to fit into a world that keeps me smaller than I could be, and does so with my full permission and cooperation.

Part of this is fear of success.  If I reach some of the goals that I have in my secret heart but that I would never talk about, will I still have the life I’ve grown comfortable in?  Will the people around me be happy for my achievement?  The simple truth is, sometimes they’re not.  I’ve already seen that, even with the modest level of success I’ve had in my life.  Everybody who has accomplished something has.  It’s easy to say “just don’t worry about those people,” but I worry about people.  It’s what I do.  It’s what I’ve been taught to do.  It’s what I’m expected to do.  And you do it, too. It’s an integral part of the system in which I must live. Or the system in which I have lived. Whether I must continue to or not is the question.  Whether I am willing to sustain the losses I will sustain is the question.  Whether the gains will be enough to make up for the losses is the question.

That is what is revolutionary to me about the line of thought in this article: it tells me that it’s not just me; that the system is schizophrenic–saying it wants creativity and originality, but punishing those who take it at its word.

You will read this and you will think, the people who aren’t happy for your successes are not people you want in your life, anyway.

You will read this and you will think, change is hard, but a person will never move forward into the future unless they let go of the past.

You will read this and you will think, no one should make themselves smaller to fit in anywhere, ever.

And then you will go back to your comfortable life, to think your comfortable thoughts, to bite your tongue when you think it’s prudent, and to answer your “crazy” dreams with silent admonitions to be realistic and to focus on achievable goals.

You will do this.

Maybe I will, too.

Or maybe neither one of us will.

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Reading and Book Signing 12/19

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a reading in my own town!  I will be doing so next Saturday, 12/19, at my favorite indie bookstore,  Beagle and Wolf Books and Bindery.   I’ll be there from noon-2pm.  The reading part will be from 1-1:30, during which I’ll read new work of my own (not the same old poems I’ve read before!), and a few poems from Mary Oliver’s new collection, Felicity.

This event is happening in part because I haven’t done an event in Park Rapids for a long time, and partly because the owner and manager of Beagle and Wolf, Sally Wizik Wills and Jen Geraedts, are incredibly supportive of me and my work,  but also to celebrate the inclusion of a poem of mine in a new anthology from Blue Light Press, River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty-First Century. According to editor Diane Frank, “This anthology features more than 100 poets, mixing the best voices of our generation with the grass roots — poets who have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, along with lesser known poets who also deserve to be read.”

There will be copies of the anthology available for purchase, as well as my own book, Mary Oliver’s Felicity, and various other books of poetry.

I hope you will stop by!

RiverofEarth

RiverofEarthBack

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Vermont Studio Center

In this last quarter of what has been one of the most challenging years of my life, this.

I am extremely grateful and surprised to have been offered a scholarship and a month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center, the largest international artists’ colony in the United States.  That I have been offered this gift and that I am actually in a place in my life to be able to accept it seems miraculous to me.  A couple more miracles will be required to actually make it happen, but then, what doesn’t require a miracle or two?

Solitude, time to focus on my writing without the demands of home and other employment, and the company of other creative people in a creative environment have proven to be the exact formula needed for my best work to come forward.  Never in my life have I had an entire month of those conditions.  Now, I will, which is both thrilling and daunting.  With all excuses removed, how will I do?  Will I rise to the occasion, or will I find out that all the things that I thought were obstacles were not the obstacles? Now that I’ve gotten what I thought I wanted (or a piece of it anyway), will it be what I’ve imagined it to be?

Time to really believe what I often say:  Leap, and the net will appear.

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Tinderbox Poetry Journal

I have two new poems up at Tinderbox Poetry Journal.  Tinderbox is a fantastic and relatively new journal run (in part at least) by the equally fantastic Molly Sutton Kiefer.   Poets–consider submitting!  Poetry lovers–put this journal on your monthly “to-read” list!

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I worked at a bookstore this summer, and I’ve had a lot of conversations about this summer’s blockbuster, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  This is the “found” manuscript that pre-dates To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lee wrote this version first, and it was rejected by an editor with the suggestion that she instead write the back story.  She did, and that book is To Kill a Mockingbird.  There is a lot of controversy about this “new” book–both about its content (Atticus is a racist?  What?!?) and its publication (Lee may or may not be of sound enough mind to have given her true permission, and the timing is suspect coming just after the death of her sister/business manager.  Lee was always adamant in the past that this book not be published.).  Taking all of that into consideration, I read the book, as I have taught Mockingbird for 26 years and plan to continue.  I must know all things Harper Lee. To assuage my conscience in supporting what is probably a money grab that exploits her, I did not purchase it, but read a borrowed copy.  It almost worked.

Here are my thoughts after having read the book:

It is clearly a rough draft, and the editor was correct to reject it.  I am not of the belief that has been expressed by some that this proves the rumor that Lee did not write Mockingbird (Truman Capote is the usually suggested ghost writer). The voice of the writer is exactly the same in both books.  In Watchman, however, the structure is much weaker.  Lee spends too much time “telling” and not enough time “showing.”  She skims the surface of events that need to be fleshed out. For those who know Mockingbird well, it makes perfect sense when Scout is horrified that her heroic father falls from grace.  But Mockingbird did not exist when this book was written.  Without the back story, the reader simply would not believe that Atticus was such a hero, or at least would wonder why.  Newsflash:  writers of bestsellers usually have many failed manuscripts in their drawers and attics before the book that hits it big.  To be a polished, competent, brilliant writer on the first try is pretty much unheard of.  This is a first attempt.  Like most first attempts, it is clumsy.  Add to that the fact that  Mockingbird came only after friends of Lee’s, the composer Michael Brown and his wife Joy, provided her with a year’s wages and the note, ““You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”  This freedom from having to earn a living gave Lee the time and focus that all writers yearn for, but only a few find.  Maybe that, plus the help of an astute editor and/or agent made the difference between Watchman and Mockingbird. Maybe Lee just got better with practice.

There has also been much hand-wringing over Atticus’s racism in the book.  I maintain that this makes us uncomfortable in ways that we should be made uncomfortable.  “Good white people” cling to Atticus Finch like a life raft saving us from the stormy seas of our own history (and present).  But it is unrealistic to believe that a 75-year-old white man who had spent his entire life in rural Alabama would have embraced desegregation in the 50s.  Lee is not promoting Atticus’s view that black people are “in their infancy as a culture” and not ready for the responsibilities of voting and self-determination.  She is exposing it. Scout (Lee) is horrified by it, and so is the reader.  That’s a thing Lee gets right in this rough draft–she makes us feel what her main character is feeling, and that’s no small feat. She also shows us that it is not impossible for a good-hearted person who loves law and equality above all else to be paternalistic and condescending to a culture that he sees as inferior to his own.  In this book, Atticus is wrong, and that allows him to be human.

White America would like to forget our racist past and slap a “post-racial” banner over our present.  Both are dishonest.  Both cause harm. Lee’s book makes us confront the reality of a particular time in America, in a particular place.  I hope that we can withstand that.  If we can’t, then there is little hope that we can withstand the scrutiny we need to be giving the present state of race relations in America, and little hope for the change we must demand from ourselves as well as others.

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Intentions, Actions, and the Law of Attraction

I start out almost every post with a mention that it’s been a long time since I last posted anything.  Why should this one be any different?  As I am about to enter my 27th year in the classroom, I realize that calendar years mean nothing to me.  August (or sometimes September) is my new year, my new start, my time to make resolutions. Even my daily planner is a school-year one, and I’m on the lookout for the perfect one for 2015-16.  Such decisions are not made lightly.  2014-2015 has been a roughish year, as transformational years always are, and that daily planner is one I’m ready to put in a box in the attic. We lost my dad this spring, which was just one of a few significant though not entirely unexpected disappointments. But if you know me, you know I don’t stay down for long, and there have been some amazing things to keep me going, most of which you’ve read about (or can read about) here.

The Associated Writers’ Program Conference of my last post has been a highlight, mainly because I got to spend time with my graduate school compatriots from the Sierra Nevada College MFA Program.  I met these people a year ago August, and I’ve only spent a little time with them over the year since then, yet they have become my lifeline, my tribe, my best readers, and my favorite writers.  This week, I head out to meet up with them again, for another 10-day residency in Lake Tahoe.  I’m thrilled to be working with Gailmarie Pahmeier as our workshop leader, and heartbroken that I can’t be in both her group and the one led by the amazing and transformational (and newly-minted Poet Laureate of Fresno, California) Lee Herrick. Alas, as Frost taught us, we cannot travel two paths and be one traveler.  This residency will also start a much-anticipated semester with Patricia Smith as my mentor, and I feel like The Golden Child for having the opportunity.

I will head to Tahoe by way of Seattle, where my classmate, roommate and dear friend Suzanne and I will start our road trip, camping our way through Washington, Oregon (maybe California?) and Nevada to get to the residency that starts with the new month.  I don’t know if I’m Thelma, or Louise, but there will be no slow motion swan dives.  Brad Pitt…maybe.

This trip is a portal, as all trips are.  I will start it as one person and end it as another, just as I started this sentence as one person, and end it as another.  Change is the thing, always.  Best  to embrace it.

One way of doing that is to set  intentions and watch for the opportunities to move closer to what you want.  Twenty years ago, I wanted to write more poetry and have someone besides my mom read it.  That has happened.  Fifteen years ago, I wanted a chance to learn from some of the poets I’ve admired.  That has happened and is happening.  Ten years ago, I wanted to have a book published and maybe have some people like it.  That has happened.  Five years ago, I wanted to get an MFA from a school with top-notch teachers, though it seemed utterly impossible.  That is happening.  Time for some new intentions.

What I want now is to have the courage to go where the writing takes me, and maybe, sometime, to become a writer who occasionally teaches, instead of a teacher who occasionally writes.

There you go, Universe.  Go wild.

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AWP Conference, Minneapolis, April 8-12

For the first time EVER, I am going to be attending the Associated Writing Programs Conference this year.  I’ve always wanted to go, but never could.  This year, it’s being held in Minneapolis, and I get to be there!  I know it will be quite overwhelming and I won’t get to do a tenth of the things I want to do, but I am still very excited.  It’s the largest gathering of writers in the country (I’m fairly sure) with around 14000 attendees.  There are over 2000 presenters, and–here’s the really cool part–I am one of them!  I will be a member of a panel discussion on teaching creative writing online, called Byte by Byte: Teaching Creative Writing Online on Saturday, April 11 at 3 pm.  Click on the title to get to the full description, location, etc.  I’m joined on the panel by distinguished poets and teachers Cass Dalglish (organizer and moderator for the event), Kathryn Kysar, Athena Kildegaard, and Wendy Call.

And that’s not all!  At some point in the conference, I’ll be spending some time volunteering at the conference tables of The Loft Literary Center and the Sierra Nevada College MFA Program. 

Plus, there’s the Prince Purple Party at the Record Room, and who knows what else.  There are so many things to attend, I’ll just wander into conference rooms, knowing that whatever is going on there will be stellar.

It’s going to be a whirlwind–most of my writing buddies in the same place at the same time!  My head spins just thinking about it.  Let me know if you will be there–yes, YOU–and we will be sure to touch base.

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Sierra Nevada College MFA Program

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here.  That’s at least in part because I’ve been doing my writing elsewhere: namely, in my work toward a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Sierra Nevada College.  I’m just embarking on my second semester, after an absolutely transformational first semester working with Lee Herrick as my mentor. I simply cannot say enough about Lee’s mentorship–his intelligence, sensitivity and generosity.  He was exactly the right teacher for me at exactly the right time, and I’ll be reaping the rewards in my writing and my life for a very long time.  Then I spent a magical and transcendent ten days in a workshop led by Patricia Smith, and found more transformation and growth there, aided in no small part by my stellar classmates. This semester, I’m beginning to work with Laura Wetherington, and I expect the leaps to be just as great.

There’s a lot of discussion of MFAs in writing and of MFA programs.  Some people feel that they are just factories, turning out writers who all sound the same, who engage in a kind of in-crowd cronyism, and who stretch out their schooling as long as possible because there are no jobs for writers. I can’t speak to any of that.  Maybe some programs do that.  Sierra Nevada definitively does not.

I do know that the MFA, and especially the low-residency MFA, is only available to a fairly privileged sector of the writing world.  The cost is great, and the monetary rewards are few.  For me, though, the non-monetary rewards are enough.  (Remind me I said that when the loans come due).  I’m not doing this to get a different job.  I’m not doing this to get good grades.  I’m not doing it to make connections that I plan to capitalize on at some point.  I’m doing it because I have to.   Because something inside me is driving me to it, to push myself, to be a better writer, to be in an environment with other writers and creative people who are having significant discussions about the things I love and value most.  It’s an important step in my own personal development, career development notwithstanding.  And I’m doing it because I have the level of privilege and agency in the world to be able to.  Can’t forget that part.

What I’m realizing  is that to really “do poetry” at the depth I want to do it, the lines dividing poetry/life/self have to dissolve.  I can’t keep my writing  in a separate compartment anymore.  That changes things.  And it’s as terrifying as it is wonderful.

Stay tuned.

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Closing Reception: Reassurances at Cedar Crest

Last week, Tiffany Besonen and I traveled to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Cedar Crest College.  It was an incredible trip.  Yes, it was the first exhibit of our collaborative work, Reassurances: Incantation Bowls, Reimagined, but it was much, much more than that.  It became a collaboration not just for the two of us, but for the two of us and the Cedar Crest community.

Art Department Chairperson Jill Odegaard coordinated a campus-wide community art project.  Students, faculty and community members were invited to write their own incantations or prayers against fears, and to create bowls on which to write them.  The results were stunning, and turned out to be my favorite part of the whole experience.  This is a part of the exhibit that we will continue, as it (we hope) travels to other places.

Listening to our fellow bowl-creators talk about their processes and share their courageous words with us was transformational.  And that’s what these bowls have always been about, from ancient Babylonia to now.  They are about confronting our fears, standing up to them, asking them what they want of us, and casting them out so that we can move forward with grace and awareness.  Two people doing that is a big deal.  A hundred people doing that is  a HUGE deal.  I have to think that so many people coming together and fighting the forces that hold us back, as individuals and as a community, must have a beneficial effect beyond the people in the room last Thursday, and beyond the bowls that were displayed there.

Making things and having people come and look at them is one thing.  Having them join you in what you are creating, and take ownership in it, and think deeply about it as a participant and not just an observer is something else.

Deepest gratitude to Jill Odegaard, to gallery director Brian Wiggins, and to all of the students, staff, faculty, and community members who contributed to this exhibit.  You made it so much bigger than we knew it could be.

LouAnn Muhm is the recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is funded, in part, by the Minnesota State Legislature from the State’s arts and cultural heritage fund with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota on Nov. 4, 2008.

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Article by Elizabeth Johnson

Elizabeth Johnson relocated to Easton, PA in 2011 after living and working in San Francisco, CA for 25 years. She received her B.A. from Bard College in 1986 in Fine Arts. She began writing about art for artpractical.com in San Francisco in 2009 and now writes art reviews and profiles about shows in New York, Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley for theartblog.org and artcritical.com, as well as visiting artist essays for Cedar Crest College. She had a solo show of paintings at the Cafe Museo at SFMOMA (2008), and showed in “Paint” a group show at the Fort Mason SFMOMA Artists Gallery (2004). Recently, she has exhibited at the Associated Gallery in Bushwick, the Soft Machine Gallery in Allentown, PA, and at Schmidtberger Fine Art in Frenchtown, NJ.  She curated “Edge Vs. Line” at Lafayette College in 2013, and has two shows planned for 2015 with Brooklyn co-curators at Muhlenberg and Cedar Crest Colleges.

 

Reassurances: Incantation Bowls, Reimagined, at Cedar Crest College

by Elizabeth Johnson

In 2010 at Concordia College in Minnesota, LouAnn Shepard Muhm and Tiffany Besonen attended a symposium called The Artist in Society that discussed Babylonian Incantation Bowls from the 6-8th Century AD. One of several kinds of amulets, or objects that protect one from evil or harm, the yellow, wide-mouthed, bisqueware vessels are commonly unearthed today in Iraq, a historic crossroads of religion. Syriac Christianity, Mandaeism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and older Mesopotamian religions started here, and after the 7th century Islam joined the mix. A universal belief during this era was that sin, something you knowingly or unknowingly did wrong, was the cause illness; and that demons, either inherently malicious ones or ones sent by an angered deity, visited affliction for mysterious reasons. Incantation bowls were covered with Aramic, Mandaic or Syraic script that ran from the rim into the middle or from the center out to the rim. Near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers: prayers, incantations, laws and literacy overlapped and evolved together as social powers. ‘Miracles’ were distinguished from ‘magic’ mostly as an attempt to elevate one’s religious practice over rival methods and beliefs; and yet, the script on incantation bowls evoked even older deities such as: Astarte, the goddess of fertility, sexuality and war, and Pazuzu, the king of the wind demons, or bearer of storms and drought. Commissioning incantation bowls was a thriving business, a form of insurance, and the bowls were buried upside down to capture evil spirits: at thresholds, in courtyards, at the four corners of a house or in the homes of the recently dead. Like the Jewish practice of placing a mezuzah inscribed with a homeowner’s name at the left side of a doorway, incantation bowls sought to control demons at the limit of a home, where public space transforms into private.

 

Reassurances: Incantation Bowls Reimagined, considers the ancient need to control illness, misfortune and other hazards as being contiguous with our modern one. In their collaboration, LouAnn and Tiffany reassert the fact that our collective fears are hot-wired to our human need to control circumstances. The incantation poet half of the collaboration, LouAnn, states, “I originally thought these poems would be about ‘contemporary fears’ (terrorism, chemicals, technology…), but what I finally came to is that human fears are and always have been the same three: fear of the unknown, fear of suffering and fear of isolation…That is one of the many revelations that came as the result of writing these poems.”

 

Replicating Babylonian incantation bowls, Tiffany molds sewing pattern paper around exercise balls, and seals them with clear acrylic; and the resulting semi-transparent forms seem cryptically marked with typeface, arrows and selvage lines, recalling ancient cuneiform script. She transcribes LouAnn’s poems in black paint marker working from the outside rim of the bowl towards the middle. At the center, where Babylonian demons were symbolically held captive, she paints hybrid fox or crow images in black tempera. In traditional folktales, foxes are characters of cunning and trickery and crows are associated with death and bad luck; but for her, “Crows and foxes have become characters of these poems against fears, reassurances that our fears cannot win. In some cases the crow and fox are the fear itself. In others, they are us, empowered to overcome fears.”

 

For Tiffany and LouAnn, Fox and Crow represent cancer, violence, poverty, ignorance, and loss of hope, or the fear of these horrors, and/or the empowered artists and viewers themselves. Their collaboration injects the Postmodern concern with absence, lack and emptiness into Babylonian personification and dualism. LouAnn’s poem This is a talisman against want visualizes a lack of money, self-recriminations and jealousy as a multi-faceted demon, one that is boiled down into a single character, rendering it less powerful. Twin Demons calls two demons named Known and Same, embodiments of boredom and lack of courage, out on the carpet, prodding the poet to confess that she needs to embrace starting over again. Conversely, Violence transforms a shared state of destructive being into an object: a tool, a god, blood, then banishes it and condemns it to bury itself. Litany speaks in puns and with double meaning, seeking to distinguish cause from effect. The line “That our travel may reveal what is fulcrum, what is spoke,” contrasts balancing with branching out from a center, but it also makes a pun on speech. And O Body conjures up the physical horrors of the flesh, only to beg that we be allowed to forget.

 

These mini-dramas diverge from, and then reincorporate the Babylonian dialectic of good verses evil. Even though cancer, violence, poverty, ignorance and loss of hope (and any number of other evils one can think of) rule us now just as completely as they did the ancients: collective conceptualization of these terrors has changed. History provides the model for Reassurances: Incantation Bowls, Reimagined but our collaborators take the leap, devising new words and images to collar familiar demons.

 

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