Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Kind of Cat I am: The Artistic Temperament in August

I was consoled this morning to see that my most creative, artistic Facebook friends also had -- what to call it? okay, fits. They, too, had fits yesterday. You can call them mini-breakdowns. I had a tai chi teacher who told me to call them "nervous breakthroughs." How right he was - you fall apart, you find some truths in the junk at the bottom the mess, you put yourself back together a little better. Better how? Maybe less constructed. Or more organized. Or over it. Which function is more useful, Control or Delete? Depends.

The kind of cat I am is creative, and generally in need of more mess. All artists make things out of our experience (Norman Fischer is very good on this). In my case, I arrange words or sometimes blocks of color, or angles, to catch someone in a photograph . . . or flowers, one of my favorite forms of art, so impermanent, so frivolous, meant only for my appreciation, which is keenest as I make the arrangement. I make art when I think I should be making something else. See image, a bowl of raw yellow squash, cut in circles, and laid across it a scape of garlic. There it is, found beauty interrupting the task. I would never never want to work as a chef, purposeful and fast, intent on the end product.

The essence of Being an Artist, of allowing one's creativity to flourish, is to have purposeless time, empty time, uselessness. It is from that open, rambling, no-should do-nothing spot that art pops up, that we can hear the poem when it whispers. That place can be peaceful and contemplative, but to tell the truth, the poems that emerge from that later read as . . . boring. The paintings might make good hospital art. It is from the rough and ragged that interesting art comes. Why is that? I suppose because what we want from art is to arrange the rough and ragged in some way that makes us feel better about it. And so, many of my own poems are about death. A death plunged me into writing. I have since written much about other people's death. Now it's about my own. But a Poet once told me, "Every elegy is really about the poet."

This week my friend Bob gave me a refresher in a game I used to play a lot, pinochle. I told him, making a chancy bid, "I'm not a good card player. I like to take risks."

"Actually," he said, "that's what makes a good player."

"It's the same in literature," I said, sweeping in tricks like a riverboat gambler. "It's the people way out there who dare to do what they do and to hell with what you're supposed to do."

I was thinking to myself (as students so often write, as if there's another kind of thinking) how 20 years ago I compulsively wrote a collection of linked stories about people who were friends and showed up in other people's stories. No one was doing that then. I tied myself in monkey knots trying to make the thing into "a novel." Despite that, it won first place in a national contest, but I never had the courage to market the thing aggressively. Agents and publishers want to know, What kind of book is it? See, it's sort of something new, I would have said (if you discount Canterbury Tales). Oh well. They don't want new. They want proven success. Now I am reading prize-winning books of linked stories, Three Junes, for instance. The genre is coming into its own. It's too bad I didn't have the confidence, or connections, back then.

I endowed our cat Sherlock with the quality I wanted to cultivate in my art, total unquestioning self-confidence. He did things his way. Sometimes he seemed to smooth his lapels before walking slowly away, emanating as he did, Well, I guess you don't like what I did, but that's the kind of cat I am. Get used to it. Up on the table licking the roast? That's the kind of cat I am. I bit you? Oh well. That's the kind of cat I am.

Not that I, Jeanne, want to go around doing evil things with no conscience - what I mean is that in a sense, genuine art is disruptive. It breaks the boundaries of Should. To be an artist in any field, that's what you have to do to get down to the real. Everything else is just doing the conventional thing.

It is hell to be an artist, and probably worse to live with us, I don't know. In August in this hemisphere, some of us get way out of balance. I myself am a largely Air person endowed with Fire, and I get all blown about inside by relentless overripe August. It isn't just the sun, it's the time of year. Summer goes all out, ripe and poised on the edge of death. This morning what I saw helicoptering down in the sky across the street was the first maple seed. There are many many redbud seeds in the back yard, clustered like little green bananas, poised on the brink. I am tempted to go out and photograph them - just discovered the macro in my digital camera - but I'll wait until evening. The long light is better then, and I have sworn to stay inside during the heat of the day, with all the blinds closed. Dim and cool feels wonderful.

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