Monday, April 28, 2014

Week 7

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

When I’m writing fiction, I kind of go seat of my pants. I don’t plan too much in the way of the structure and length of the project because I’m a character-driven writer, and I like to have the character develop the story. It means a lot of revision on my part, but that’s all right. I love revision.

An epic poem, however, needs structure. Besides, I need to follow the actual history of Muir and Mulholland. That means figuring out the structure.

Equally important in terms of structure is the need to make the piece modern. We tend to think of epics in terms of the ancient works. A poet might begin by addressing the audience directly or the king or one deity or another. I like that last one. It makes the epic sacred and the moment of the shared poem more interesting.

But that’s not modern, and I’m writing a modern epic.

The first and biggest difference between the ancient epics and the modern is that my poem is not meant to be oral. I’m sure I’ll read some of it aloud at some point, but I’m a visual poet, and though I might be able to sell a verbal line like “Oh Muses listen to me as I speak the tale of Muir and Mulholland,” I don’t think it will work on the page. A invocation to the audience is likely to come off like the beginning of the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. Not what I’m looking for.

And I need a center to the story.

So after weeks of thinking about this, I’ve decided that the story is going to be told from the point of view of my character Harrison. Harrison is the protagonist from my short story collection, Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods. He’s a modern day forestry worker who travels around California. His son suffers from mental illness, and the story is going to be about what happens when he’s kicked out of high school and the boy’s mother asks Harrison to take him off her hands for a while.

Harrison’s belief is that nature cures all problems, and he’s going to contemplate Muir and Mulholland as he tries to show his son the power of nature. I don’t want nature to be a perfect cure. I think that would be insulting to anyone who’s ever had to suffer through mental illness.

So that’s the structure of the epic. Harrison uses the history of Mulholland and Muir to help him deal with his son’s mental illness as he travels through the backcountry of California.

It will either be a work of genius or it will be a complete failure. I’m taking too many risks here for there to be any middle ground. I hope I have the talent for it, but I really don’t mind failure in art. The art isn’t in the end product but in the living moment as I sit here typing. I’m the Writer-in-Residence at the dA Center for Cultural Arts in Pomona, and I’m writing this blog post surrounded by works of art with classical music playing in the background. This is the moments of art. If I get a nice product out of the project, that will be a great addition, but it’s not why I work.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Week 6

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

This week I started to reread Rivers in the Desert by Margaret Leslie Davis, which I came across years ago. I’ve been kind of obsessed with Mulholland for a long time. I decided last week that I was going to structure the collection after the first part of the Old Testament, Genesis through Exodus. Both men had different views of California as the Garden of Eden, and they both hoped to bring a kind of Exodus to the promised land. Both had great floods. Well, you get the idea. It goes on and on.

I started to reread this book and realized that Davis has structured her work in the same way, Genesis through Exodus. Okay, so the idea was hers first and maybe that’s what put it in my head, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t use it. It will be my homage to her. Certainly both men had a biblical sense of their own.

She does something else that I like. Most people hate Mulholland, especially since he was used as the villain in Chinatown. I think he’s much more complex than that, and he certainly was well intentioned. His part of the story is going to be a tragedy. Tragedy is not defined by the death of someone. Death can’t be tragic in fiction. After all, everyone dies. Tragedy is the downfall of a great person. By definition that person need to start off as being great.

And that’s kind of the way I think of him. He erred greatly, and he violated his ethics many times, but it all came from a place of great intentions. He was someone trying to do good things. What he wanted to do was to create a Garden of Eden in Los Angeles, but that’s hubris. He was taking on the role of God. Muir wanted to preserve the Garden of Eden in the mountains. That’s the role of people.

Muir died sad, but not tragically. His story is the quest of the hero.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Week Five!

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California, what really made it what it is. She’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the fine art work for it.

Last week, I mentioned that I’m going to look at the two Scotsmen, Mulholland and Muir who were kind of reverse opposites of each other in the battle over water in the state. Mulholland wanted to create a garden of Eden through various dam projects and Muir thought it already was a garden of Eden and didn’t want it destroyed.

I posted this and we informed immediately by my friend Fergus that Mulholland was Irish.

Okay, well, that underscored the fact that I need to do some research. I knew that I did, but that brought it all home to me in no uncertain terms. So, if you’re serious about poetry, what do you do?

The first thing I did was cancel cable. Why had I been watching it anyway? Sure, I like the show The Americans, but mostly I was just watching a lot of sit-com reruns when I could be reading and watching documentaries. There was a fifteen minute period of mourning, but frankly, this is much much better.

Second, I went down to Gatsby Books in Long Beach and talked to my buddy Sean who owns the place. I like going there. It’s one of the only bookstores in the world I can go to and ask, “What should I read?” I’ve done that a few times, and he always gives me winners. Anyway, he grabbed a Mulholland book off the shelf, and I’m started.

Okay, so now is the time for me to transform myself into a monk and start to read. What could ever be better than that?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Week Four!

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California, what really made it what it is. She’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

Last week, I realized that my original idea wasn’t going to work and that I was going to have to use Muir and Mulholland and their water battles as the focus of my work. It doesn’t seem interesting at first until you consider the amount of violence and passion the men had for their work. There were battles and huge projects including a couple of dam disasters.

Both Scotsmen saw California as a kind of Garden of Eden. For Muir, it was perfect as it was, and he fought a battle that he sometimes won and sometimes lost to keep California natural. For Mulholland, it was the opposite. He saw the potential for agriculture in California, saw that this state could become his vision of the Garden of Eden. He relied on recreating the landscape in his own image. He would pipe water and dam up rivers that should not have been dammed. He accidentally killed many people and died feeling that he’d been a failure in a lot of ways.

Anyway, when I realized that they both saw this state as a kind of Garden of Eden, I knew that the structure of my collection was going to have to be biblical. In fact, the two men had their own versions of the same story going, Genesis through Exodus. Both tried to save the Garden. Both experienced world ending floods. Both created a kind of Exodus to two kinds of promised lands.

That’s all I’m going to hint at for the structure for now, but the idea has me excited. I’m going to have to start traveling soon to get the texture of the lands. But that’s coming.