Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Norton Simon Museum of Art

This Friday, I’m taking the creative writing club to the Norton Simon Museum of Art here in Southern California. If you’ve ever watched the Rose Parade, it’s the museum that all the floats drive past, and it’s one of the best collections around.

It’s not a large collection, but Norton Simon and those who took on acquisitions after he passed on have very good eyes for good work. The Norton Simon is one of those places I like to take students who are just starting to write poetry. I personally like confessional poetry, but after a while, good poets and writers need to look beyond themselves so they can understand their world in a new way. Ekphrasis is one way to do that.

Ekphrasis is the art of writing about art. I like to get my students out of their heads and into writing this kind of work. What I like to tell them is that the job of the painting, like the job of a story or a poem, is the work of two people, the artist and the viewer. It’s up to them to construct meaning out of what the artist has created. It’s a way of looking through a window into their own lives.

Plus, it’s fun to go to museums and think about art.

It’s one of those things that they can do for mindfulness. They can find themselves in the images and the art. They can understand themselves by what they notice, and they can lose themselves in the moment of connection.

My favorite time at the Norton Simon was wandering the halls as a world class cello player performed under the eyes of several Jesus paintings who all blessed him and us. It’s hard not to feel sophisticated when you’re doing something like that. And the music put me into a kind of trance state that I have been trying to write about since that day. I haven’t been able to capture it in a poem, so I thought I’d try a blog post.

Will we reach that level of meditation when we’re at the Norton Simon this week? Maybe not, but that’s all right. What I hope is that the students start to see themselves in and through the art. That’s what they’re there for. Anyway, it’s one reason. And what more could you want from a college experience?

Monday, March 23, 2015


I’ve been thinking about inspiration a lot lately. It’s that point in the semester when students are developing their first stories, and they’re worried about where to get them. I have a thousand methods for coming up with ideas, but the best is daily writing.

This is news to no one. The second part of this equation, however, is silence, and that is the part that is often more difficult to manage because in this day of noise and motion, silence seems like laziness to a lot of people.

Except, I think about the first time I knew that I was a writer. I must have been about fourteen years old and just forming my identity. My parents had taken my brothers and me up to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks for a week, and once we were there, they gave us as much freedom as we wanted to wander the mountains. We could stay with them or go on our own, and I did both as the mood struck me. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a week as a kid or a better way to give a child inspiration and a love of nature.

I’d get up just before dawn and walk as far as I could before anyone on the mountain had woken up, and I’d experience the forest in complete solitude, just me and the nocturnal animals going home for the night.

One morning I was standing on the edge of a meadow on a sunny day watching the wind blowing through the trees. It was a hard wind and I was mesmerized by all of it. A cloud blew in and in the space of thirty seconds, I watched as the sunshine was covered up, and I was in the middle of a cold, dark morning. I didn’t think it could happen like that, but it did.

I decided at that moment I was a writer. I don’t know why except that the inspiration hit me then. Thinking of nothing, my brain was overwhelmed and the quiet made me understand something bigger about myself and the world.

That’s a great memory for me, but I think of that now as the kind of epiphany and the kind of circumstances that a child needs. I hope I can do more with less now. I hope that every silent moment opens the potential for larger thinking and better clarity. I hope that I don’t need an entire forest to understand who I am.

On the other hand, the forest is always there waiting for me if I do.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Public Kind of Life

I’m still processing a trip that I took to Shanghai, China a few weeks ago. I’m trying to understand what I saw and how I feel about it. There were all of the big things, the big touristy events, the poetry readings that I gave, that kind of thing, but I think what affects me the most were the small moments, like when we passed a grocery store that was closed for the night. The owners had left their cats there for the night to guard the open stands of fruit against the vermin that live anywhere food exists. I thought to myself when I saw those cats that they would never be left like that in the U.S. Instead, we would play that game where we pretend that we have no rats or mice and throw out the food gnawed by them when no one is looking.

I think the person who affected me the most was the caretaker of the longtang where my friends Dan and Charlotte live. He was someone from a poor province who had come to make a lot of money to send back to his family in a distant village. He was kind of permanently on call, so the place where he lived and slept twenty four hours a day was public. The residents of the longtang expected him to be available whenever they wanted him, so he was given a five foot by eight foot room at the entrance to the community with a large picture window that had no curtains. He was on display as he slept or ate or just waited for the next minor emergency. He had no expectation of privacy, and if he was awake, he smiled solicitously at everyone who entered.

I thought about this strange life that he led, and wondered how I would take it. He had a kind of intimacy with all of these people who normally would be strangers. He was from one of the smaller ethnic minorities of China and would have lived his life apart from all of these people, who were also from distant parts of the world for the most part. He had come here to take care of the small parts of their lives. If their toilets were broken, he was there to fix them. If a mouse scared them, he cornered it.

He lived in a small corner of the biggest city in the world. Shanghai is also one of the most cosmopolitan, so he had been thrust into the place of incredible diversity. It is ultra-modern because is has grown up in the last ten or twenty years, but it is over a thousand years old. The influence of colonial powers, French and English, are everywhere, and he has to find a way to see beyond whatever prejudices fill his life to take care of the people who pay him.

I found myself wanting to find out more about his life, but how could I interrupt a life like his. He’d be required to sit there smiling at me patiently as I asked my questions. A kind of exaggerated politeness was part of his position, but he could never escape if he were offended or even just bored by a conversation. It made me wonder what kind of dreams he had about the family he was working so hard for. Did he dream that his children would follow him to make big money in the city? Did he hope that they would pursue something better? There was no way to know. His life would always remain invisible to me as mine was to him.

I wish him well though. I hope his invisible dreams come beautifully true.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Toddlers and China

I just got back from China where I gave a couple of poetry readings and looked around the country for six days. Six days is too short a time to try to see and understand any country, let alone one the size of China, but I can’t imagine a length of time that would be sufficient for that kind of complex understanding. I lived in London once for four months and found that it wasn’t enough time to understand a city that rich. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for nearly forty years and I have that same distance from my city.

I don’t think any amount of time is long enough to understand any particular place because these places are defined by their people, and we’re nomadic animals washing in and out places creating new meanings to old places. The creation of civilization is the most unconscious of art forms. We all try to create perfect places for ourselves and the people we love, and our visions of perfection work with each other to create a larger place.

Shanghai, the city where I stayed, is now the largest city in the world, and it is certainly Chinese, but it’s an up and coming city still changed by the American ex-patriots who live there not to mention the European, African, and South Americans. Walking across the town, I would emerge from a street of steaming pots straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel from the 1950s into a modern street that had its clone in Paris or Pittsburgh. Of course, China never was just one place, but a group of cultures brought together under a single leadership.

So how does one write about a place like this? In the same way that one writes about all places. Each place is defined by this shifting population of people trying to find whatever paradise they can find wherever they are for that minute. In the end, I think, when you write about place, what you’re really writing about are the people who are standing in front of you right at this moment.

The person I remember most clearly is a toddler in Yu Gardens. He had come to this landmark with his grandmother who had given him shoes that squeaked every time he walked, so people turned to look at him, and he came stumbling through the crowd. When they looked at him, his grandmother’s love was such that she picked him up, kissed him, and showed him off to the crowds that grew around him. For me, Shanghai will always be those two people and their obvious love for each other. That’s a beautiful kind of city.