Monday, May 26, 2014

Week 11

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.

Of course, the research is the most difficult and most necessary part of the project. Every poem needs to wrap itself around a single moment of magic. That moment draws us in and develops the concept. I’m going to probably write 200 or 300 sonnets so that is 200 or 300 moments of magic.

What do I mean by a moment of magic, you might ask. It doesn’t have to be something big. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It needs to shock the everyday so we can reconceptualize what it means to be alive. If you think of the romantic poets, you know what they did with everyday events. Wordsworth gave dignity to the conversations with homeless people on whom most people looked down. Keats wrote odes to birds. Shelley wrote about ruins. On and on. They helped us to resee the world, and they certainly weren’t the only poets to do that. The big and dramatic moments can and have been written about, but the small moments need the same treatment or there is no reason to write a poem.

That brings about a problem however. History books are mostly written about life’s big events. I’ll certainly go into that. But I need the moments of small magic too, and they aren’t in books.

So I called my buddy, Justin. Justin is a man of many parts. A Ph.D. in English, he also works for the water department and knows where to do research. Also, he has thought of and dreamed of water for years. I have always been fascinated by public works. I know that’s a strange thing to be fascinated by, but I love the idea of roads and the electric grid and street numbering systems. How we develop our cities is based on how we see ourselves. Justin is even more interested than I am about it.

Talking to him helped to give me direction. Talk about magic moments. Here are two of the more brilliant quotations he gave me after talking to him for just over an hour:

“Every single person is a watershed.” That’s the center of a poem.

“When you talk about water, you have to talk about salt.” I don’t know how that’s going to fit in, but it’s such a musical way to describe what I’ve been thinking about. Mulholland knew this. So did Muir. In fact, Mulholland originally didn’t want to pipe in water or dam it for this reason. He understood ecological principles that people of his time did not.

Justin gave me resources. Books yes, but more importantly told me where I could go to experience the magic of these public works projects. When water was drawn into the LA area for the first time, Mulholland’s famous speech was simple, “There it is. Take it.” He let me know where that was along with dozens of other important and fascinating sites.

And he is willing to give me introductions to a number of archives and people who have studied these ideas for years. Thank you Justin. This is exactly what I need.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Week 10

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.

I spent much of this week studying the work of John Muir. It’s hard not to like him. If you’ve never read My First Summer in the Sierra, you should do so now. It’s a beautiful meditation of the man’s journey through the Yosemite area. He wasn’t the first person to visit those mountains, but his love and enthusiasm for it helped to popularize it, and of course, he was key in turning it into a national park. It’s a beautiful book, and he was heroic in it, but his grace and wisdom and intelligence pose a major problem for me.

The structure of my collection has the youth of Muir and Mulholland as a reflection of the Garden of Eden story. Both men saw California in those terms. Mulholland wanted to bring water to make it an Eden while Muir wanted to preserve the garden he found. The story of Eden ends with Adam and Eve being cast out for their sins. Muir left at the end of the season, but by choice. He wasn’t cast out and what kind of sin could he be said to have.

The only thing I can think of is that there is some level of unconscious racism on his part against some of the Native Americans. At one point, he calls them dirty. He doesn’t dwell on it, and he even seems to feel guilty for feeling it, but it’s disturbing. That might be his original sin, but it seems a distraction to the story. He was also up in the Sierra to use it to graze sheep. That might be his sin as well.

Frankly, I don’t know. It needs to fit the narrative of my story, and I’m not sure either of these things do.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Week Nine

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.

For me the first draft of the first chapter of anything is a throw away. It helps me to get into the novel or the epic or whatever, but by the time I’m about halfway through the work, I realize that I need to change it. Still, I put as much effort into it as I can. Even though I’m going to throw it away later, it has a use.

Mostly, it tells me how I am going to start my project. It gives me a foothold on what I am doing and it helps me to move forward. It sets a possible tone from which my entire piece will evolve. So this week, I finally decided to work on the epic.

I wanted a modern connection to help get us through the entire work, so I’ve gone with my old character Harrison, from my short story collection, Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods. Harrison works for the forestry service and has a son going through emotional problems. His son has these kind of pseudo-religious delusions of grandeur. Harrison’s mission is going to be to bring his son up to the mountains to find peace there. It will be a failure of sorts, but his son will be moved by the experience.

Anyway, I’m not ready to work on Muir and Mulholland yet. They need more research. I need to clarify who they are in terms of story, and of course, I need to know what they did in precise detail, so I started with a couple of quick sonnets about Harrison to start off the story in the first person. Here they are:

The ex calls when I’m sitting in traffic,
of course, air conditioning out, hottest
day of the year. I figure this is a test,
that she wants to know if I’ll always pick
up the phone even when I’m on the road.
I will. I do. Every call might be about
Stanley. This one is. She tells me that
he’s been suspended again, and she knows
I’m busy, but she is too. Could I just
take him? On the back wheel well, my bottle
of water is rolling back and forth. Finger
tips brush it, but it’s gone. “Harrison, you must
know what I’m going through. I want to throttle
him. Every day I push down the anger,

so he can’t see it, but it’s just getting
too hard. He’s your son too.” He is, and she’s
right, but all I can think about is the heat
and my sweat and the bottle that’s sitting
just out of my reach. I jerk the truck right
and the water rolls my way, and I grab
for it but I’m distracted, and I can’t nab
the damn thing, and besides, the brake lights
in front of me go on, and I nearly
crash into a Pinto. “Harrison? You’re
still listening to me?” I am. I am. We
both know I’m going to say yes, and she
knew it before she called. So I tell her
I’ll take the boy, and my chest feels heavy.

The story of California is the story of water just out of reach and human relationships not quite working, so I thought I’d start with those two themes on the first page.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Week Eight

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.

The question a couple of people have asked me is “Why the sonnet?” My project is going to be updated after all, and thoroughly modern. Shouldn’t I be using free verse? Are the sonnets going to be overrun by the need to rhyme and a difficult meter? The answer is absolutely not.

A lot of free verse poets (and I write free verse too and love it) and prose writers try to write the sonnet and are immediately stymied by the style and the rhyme. They start to work for the rhyme instead of allowing it to help draw ideas out of them. The problem is that they approach the sonnet in exactly the same way as they would approach a free verse poem, and the two are very different things.

The free verse poem is and should be very controlled. A poet starts with a vision and shapes the style and sound games to fit the vision in his or her head. A sonnet, done well, should do the exact opposite. The sonneteer starts with a kernel of an idea and allows the form to shape what he or she is going to say.

What this means is that properly done, the sonnet gives access to both the conscious and unconscious mind. The sonneteer writes the poem but so does the form of the sonnet. It’s a fantastically malleable art form.

Also, properly done, most sonnets should have errors to the form. After all, there are no sonnet police. The form is there to serve you. If you miss a rhyme, drop the meter here and there, good. That means you have carefully considered the way you are going to state something and have chosen the best possible option. If everything fails, and you don’t follow the form at all, what you end up with is a pretty good free verse poem.

Anyway, I made a video a couple years ago about how to write a satisfying sonnet for beginners. Here’s the link: