In the Drifts of Words

4360906179_e7400abbf7_o“You do not have to offer great spiritual visions, I only ask that you look.” St. Teresa of Avila

Emerging from blog hibernation, into a frosty Charleston night. Waiting for snow (maybe?), and offering these borrowed words to rekindle the writing fire ~

“In the bare images of winter’s speech, day and night still talk to us about the presence of the sacred, a presence as common as a rabbit’s track in snow, a bare tree leaning over a dark river, the comfort of snowy mountains, long, long nights, china blue at the edge of the fire, a cold moon above empty woods, slowly falling snow under street lamps, the crowded waiting room at the doctor’s office, standing stock still on skis, one’s face looking back in the evening window, mid-morning dark, tiny birds huddled together on a branch, a train whistle disappearing into the cold night, a herd of cows all gathered at a fence, leaving footprints for fresh, deep snow, a hotel lobby’s sudden warmth, first car tracks down the street, after the storm an ax sounding in the woods, snow flying swiftly into the car’s headlights, all the graves covered, my mother’s voice, a cat curled in a doorway, a mighty branch breaking in the yard cracking the night open, a thousand white roofs, one star outshining all the others, sunshine for a morning and childhood returns, will spring come again, my coat so warm, morning’s brief shy–hint of another world. Earth is crammed with heaven as someone wrote, sphere follow other writers, witnesses of the subtle, companions for winter days and nights, strugglers in the drifts of words, observers of fine lines, of slender realities hidden in the images and motions of mind and landscape, winter seers, spotters of the Divine Hare against an expanse of white.”  

from The Journal of Sam Martin  

found, amidst many other treasures, in  An Almanac for the Soul  by Marv & Nancy  Hiles

 

On the Rebound ~ celebrating Spoleto’s prolonged shelf life (and a return from blog hiatus)

 
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I wonder what Webb Woodrow from 706 Greene Avenue in Brooklyn is up to these days?

I wonder if he has any idea he’s part of one of the best art exhibits I’ve ever seen in Charleston, at Spoleto USA, or anywhere, for that matter? If he’s got a clue that his minuscule name and address info buried in the yellowed white pages entry (on same page as Weidman, Berta –  from 1150 Brighton Beach Ave, phone # 332-6799) from a discarded decades-old phone book (remember those?) is now part of a Buddha head? Meditate on that reincarnation, will ya?

Actually the whole mesmerizing REBOUND exhibit is meditation worthy, in my book. And in the hundreds of books, magazines, catalogues and printed bound materials that have been sculpted, sawed, dissected, meted out, meshed together, stacked, whacked, carved, glued, nailed, and gorgeously, evocatively, masterfully transformed into landscapes, busts, topo maps of language and image. This exhibit is a page turner in the most artistic sense, as the Halsey Institute and curator Karen Ann Meyers have brought together five contemporary mixed-media artists who re-envision and explore the meaning and value of books as cultural objects in the Halsey’s 2013 Spoleto exhibit. And even though Spoleto itself wrapped up weeks ago, REBOUND has an extended festival shelf life — on display through this Saturday, so hurry!

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Though I didn’t make it to much else of Spoleto this year, I’ve been to this show twice now and have been blown away each time. I’m not the only one. At the one other official Spoleto event I went to, Compagnie Kafig’s kick-ass dance performance, I sat beside a discerning couple from Baltimore who have been coming to the Festival faithfully for 10 years — planning their trip months in advance and buying their desired tickets as soon as they go on sale. “But yesterday I saw the best thing I’ve ever seen at Spoleto, and it was free,” she told me. I guessed immediately that she’d been to the Halsey. She had.

 

I was particularly captivated by the meticulous and imaginative landscapes of Guy Laramee. They drew me in as if I was a hobbit off to explore the Shire or some mysterious corner of Middle Earth.

I loved the playful, re-contextualized art deco-like compositions of Francesca Pastine, as she X-Acto’ed the hell out of Artforum magazine, crafting it into another forum of art altogether. th_6192a65a51d89cebd1da65c58deb66f8_bookart1

But I was totally wowed by the larger constructions of Long-Bin Chen, who turns paper and pages into some other mysterious medium, more stone than fiber. His artist notes speak of reclaiming the “cultural debris from the information age.” He seems to be caring for, and loving, the non-digitized detritus that clutters my book shelves at home, and probably yours too, and bringing new life out of the raw material and imagination (or tedium) that some writer somewhere, or some godforsaken phone book creator, summoned at some point in the past.

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I urge you to go meet the Buddha, and other wondrous creations in this incredible remnant of Spoleto. And give kudos to Bibliolabs as presenting sponsor (more on them in a future post).

Gallery hours are 11 am to 4 pm Mon – Saturday, with extended hours till 7 pm on Tuesday.

 

 

 

 

 

Elements of Style: From Run-ons to Runways, The Strunk & White Guide to Charleston Fashion Week

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Writers are, for the most part, a stylishly ho-hum, hunched-over lot, too much hovering over a desk, not much strutting around looking glam. Skinny jeans keep words from flowing; stilettos stifle the ability to go get another handful of Cheetos every time I get stuck on a phrase or waylaid by clunky transitions. Scarves and blingy bangle bracelets get in the way of typing. Yoga pants and sweatshirts are my professional attire – God forbid I have to go to a special event, like Charleston Fashion Week!

 

eudora-weltyjpg-37306da1bf4c6dfa_largeEvidently I’m not the only writer whose affinity for words is stronger than her (or his) fashion flare. The fabulous Eudora Welty was all tweed and neutrals – yet she gave us some of the world’s most evocative stories, without one bit of frill.

 

 

JK Rowling, bless her muggle heart, hit the red carpet wearing upholstery (perhaps a nod to the literary darling, Scarlett O’Hara?).

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Tom Wolfe evidently has not spent his royalty checks on a diversified wardrobe.Writer Tom Wolfe600full-oscar-wilde

And Oscar Wilde had flare alright, but good style? Not so much.

 

Clearly, I ain’t one to talk. I don’t quite understand fashion — it’s a foreign language to me. Like Calculus. I appreciate good clean lines and classic style; I vote for comfy over trendy any day, and frankly, I think that many of the get-ups I see strutting down the runway could use what every writer loves – a good editor. And who do you turn to for editing advice? Strunk & White, of course. So, in the spirit of Fashion Week, I offer my own makeover of the inimitable “Elements of Style” – E.B. White and Will Strunk’s timeless and flawless guide to good writing, to demonstrate that good prose can, in fact, make a good pose. (And if your wardrobe still suffers, at least your writing might improve.)

 

Strunk & White’s “Elementary Principles of Composition,” applied to the catwalk:

 

  1.  “Choose a suitable design and hold to it.”

“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing…. A sonnet is built on a 14-line frame…The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better the chance of success.” In clothes-speak, I take this to mean find what styles and shapes work on your frame, and stick to it. Just because someone deems absurdly short bubble skirts to be “in” doesn’t mean you should wear one.

 

2.    “Make the paragraph the unit of composition.”

The paragraph is a convenient unit, it serves all forms of literary work….”  This, of course, translates to: Little Black Dress & Good Pair of Black Pants.  Will serve all forms of fashion needs.

 

3.    “Use the active voice.”

“The active voice is more direct and vigorous than the passive….’I shall always remember my first trip to Boston,’ is better than, ‘My first trip to Boston shall always be remembered by me.”  So, whether in Boston or elsewhere, dress vigorously and directly, don’t hide behind or under slouchy, passive clothes. Make an active statement, be bold, but be you.

 

4.    “Put statements in a positive form.”

“Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language…. As in, ‘She was not very often on time,’ becomes ‘She usually was late.’”  And yes, I am usually late because I’m usually dilly-dallying trying to decide between tame, noncommittal outfits that I should just toss. I’m not exactly sure how to dress in a more positive form, but I’m working on it.

5.    “Use definite, specific and concrete language.”

“Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract…. As in: ‘A period of unfavorable weather set in’ becomes ‘It rained every day for a week.’”   In fashion terms, maybe ditch the vague-ish oversized shirts that now parade as short, short, short dresses. Go on, wear a real dress. Cover one more inch of thigh – it won’t hurt you.

6.    “Omit needless words.” 

Need we say more? (They would be needless words, no doubt).  Over accessorizing is like a run-on sentence or a too-wordy blog post (watch it!). Err on the side of tastefulness. Any fool can put on ridiculously high heels and layer too many trendy layers in that mismatched mode that simply says “trying too hard.” But how many Jackie O’s are there? How many Audrey Hepburns? Edit, dear friend. Edit.

And if you’re feeling a little underdressed, come find me – I’ll be in the yoga paints and sweatshirt, taking notes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Popes, Particles and Poetry

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It’s been a big week for mass. Yesterday, as Pope Francis celebrated his first papal Mass in the Sistine Chapel, scientists at another Italian conclave — okay, it was a conference in Italy — released a major white-smoke announcement: yes indeedy, not only do we have a new pope, we have a God Particle.

 

The Higgs boson, the elusive particle thought to imbue elementary particles with mass (the other kind of mass, as in “the measure of the amount of matter contained in or constituting a physical body”) made a peek-a-boo appearance on July 4th this summer, when physicists at Geneva, Switzerland’s Hadron Collider thought they more or less, just maybe, could have possibly “found it.”  Yesterday, on Pi Day no less, after doubling down on the data, their initial inkling was further confirmed. Evidently the Higgs boson reveals itself when subatomic particles crash into each other at supersonic speed – it’s a high-energy mash-up. And evidently, if it were not for this particle, the electron would have no mass, and thus none of us would be here at all, the new Pope in his Prada red shoes included.

 

Honestly, I have no idea what any of this Higgs hoopla really means or why it matters. In light of our current obesity epidemic, I’d say the need to prove the existence of mass is perhaps a little behind the curve. (Just as I’d say the whole College of Cardinals conclave-and-smoke thing is a little passé in the day of Monster and Craigslist, not to mention the perpetuation of the ancient high church patriarchy culminating in the Holy See — but that’s another topic, and God bless Francis for riding the bus, paying his hotel tab and caring about the poor.)  But despite my ignorance, or perhaps even because of it, I am enthralled by both of this week’s big reveals. Because I don’t fully understand what’s behind these centuries of papal pomp and circumstance, or behind the mystifying physics equations that compel scientists to spend billions of dollars and millions of hours on the Higgs hunt, my main response is a quiet, head-scratching awe. And poetry.

 

I am a science flunky and religious tinkerer who is both curious and skeptical; to me, the most reasonable answers and most compelling cosmic questions are expressed in verse and image. Turns out one of today’s most brilliant astrophysicists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, agrees. As Tyson shared in a totally fabulous, worth-your-time interview with Stephen Colbert, he believes science and poetry and religion are basically on the same page: “Some of the greatest poetry is revealing in the reader the beauty of something that is so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. The simplicity of the universe, if it doesn’t drive you to poetry it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.”

 

Basking is good enough for me. But for those of you who might want more insight into this majesty and into what the heck this Higgs is, I am pleased to share a brief interview with Charleston’s own John Keller, one of the physicists who is in Geneva, completing his PhD work as part of the team that discovered ol’ Higgs boson. John grew up on Wentworth Street, is a product of Charleston County public schools (Buist Academy and Academic Magnet), and gets his God particle smarts, in part, from his dad, the Reverend Bert Keller, the former (now retired) minister (and non-retired science buff) of Circular Congregational Church.

 

So, John, how did you all first celebrate on July 4th?

Champagne. Actually the celebration was sort of thrown together: there are two experiments, and neither one had quite discovered the Higgs on its own, only when you combine the two was there enough data to declare “discovery”. But we didn’t know what the other side was going to present, and you never want to buy champagne prematurely, so immediately after the press conference someone was sent to the grocery store to get it (7 bottles, one for each Higgs sub-group).

What does the discovery of this new particle mean for the average Jane/Joe?

On a practical level, not very much. It’s unlikely to be used in any new technologies in the short-term, though having a coherent understanding of fundamental particles will certainly lead to new breakthroughs in the long term.

On a more fundamental level though, knowing the mass of the Higgs boson we can now calculate the quantum corrections to the Higgs quartic self-coupling and deduce the vacuum stability of the Standard Model. In other words: if the Higgs is heavy enough, the universe is safe; whereas if it is too light, then at any point in space and at moment in time, a “vacuum bubble” could randomly appear which would rapidly expand and destroy all matter in the universe, including Jane, Joe, and everyone they know. The preliminary verdict: it is NOT heavy enough, and the universe is unstable. However it is close to heavy enough, so it is only 50-50 that such a bubble appears in the next 10^100 years. So Jane probably shouldn’t lose any sleep.

How would you explain your work to, say, a surfer at Folly Beach, or a bartender at Taco Boy?

Mostly I sit at a computer and write code. But occasionally I have the opportunity to break something that cost several hundred million dollars to build.

How did Chas County School District and AMHS prepare you for an international career in physics?

The key word there is “international”. Of course learning math and physics were important. But I think it is the diversity and global focus in CCSD (and the magnet in particular) that I’m most thankful for. I share an office now with 5 other people: a Greek, a Brazilian, a Briton, an Indian, and a Saudi Arabian. Knowing that Fortaleza is in the northeast, or which language is spoken in Chennai, or when Eid-ul-Fitr occurs this year … these things make a huge difference, professionally and socially. Geography, history, and foreign languages are hugely important, no matter what you want to do.

Love Letters and Tongues Aflame

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“We are animals of language. All the words that were, and all the words that will be, are asleep inside our bodies.”  

Artist Leslie Dill

If you are a lover of letters, of language, if you’ve got a thing for words, if you’re hot for font and a fool for the mesmerizing voluptuousness of phrases writ large and draped about, as if an old monkish scribe got manic, then get thee to the Halsey. thumbs_img_4256_g

Poetic Visions: From Shimmer to Sister Gertrude Morgan, Leslie Dill’s wordy and wondrous exhibition at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art, is one good read. And its the perfect cheap date for Valentine’s Day, especially since Valentine’s falls right at the start of Lent. Dill conveys the spiritual mania of New Orleans street preacher, Sister Gertrude Morgan, with a hyper-graphia reminiscent of folk artist Howard Finster, but she also demonstrates tender and fierce reverence for the Word. This exhibit is a visual ode to the power of language. Dill revels in the graceful architecture of letters. She creates a wall of shimmering wire that all emanates from wire-scrolled words. I’m not even sure what they say, but maybe there’s meaning in that mystery alone. There’s a bride, too, if you want a little more Valentine’s tie-in.

To further celebrate Dill’s artistic vision, for which, she says, poetry is the “touchstone” and language is “the pivot point”  the Halsey is hosting a poetry series throughout the exhibition (on display through March 9). Tomorrow night is the second in the “Tongues Aflame” series, and will feature the College of Charleston’s brightest talent.  Last week’s inaugural reading featured local poetry heavy-weights Marjory Wentworth, Katherine Williams, Richard Garcia, Kit Loney and Susan Finch Stevens, and it was as fabulous as the art surrounding it. For those who missed it, I’m pleased to share poet Susan Finch Steven’s prose poem, “How to See Visions at the Halsey.”

thumbs_all-seeing-eye-13337300How to See Visions at the Halsey

by Susan Finch Stevens

Enter the gallery as though entering a book. Come alone so as not to be distracted by someone reading over your shoulder. That shoulder, the one draped with the superfluous sweater, which will unravel here to hang from you like threads, like the words that habitually spin from the dark cave of your mouth. Books change. Marvel at the strange architecture of a child’s pop-up but prepare to be regaled by apocalypse. Turn to the page that shimmers, that becomes a wall like a waterfall, like strands of hair you long to run your fingers through, to braid, to be raised up by like the prince in another book you read long ago. Remain lucid here so you will resist the longing to touch out of fear of waking in a gallery. Perhaps you can stem the urge by becoming the maiden with no hands from that long-ago book. Turn a page with your stump and Allegorical Figures bring memories of the metal hands the king once made for you. Or were they made for someone else? You will not find THE END in this book. You will find an EXIT. And when you exit you will take something that gets lost inside you like your words that have not yet found air.  It is wise to remember that the maiden had to venture out on her own before her hands became flesh.

 

Welcome Home!

 

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If home is where they always have to let you in, then every writer needs a home. An open door. A welcome mat. A stocked cupboard and handmade ceramic coffee cup, or a well-used wine glass is, of course, equally good. Maybe both.

A place where you can spill words on the page and not worry about whether they leave a stain or not. A place where fellow writers and/or wannabe writers will offer encouragement, helpful criticism, a few training tips, a pen if yours runs out of ink, a beer when you come up dry.

Writing is like long distance running — it’s lonely out there, and tiring, and occasionally boring because you get so stuck in your own self-doubts and sore writer’s quads. A good writing group is like finding that coach who cheers you on and makes it somewhat bearable, maybe even fun.

Lucky for you, Charleston, poets Brit Washburn and Bryan Penberthy have created that writers’ home at 107 Ashley Avenue. Added bonus: it’s one of those fabulously wow Charleston homes. With a spectacular curvy curling staircase so you feel like your ascending into a truly magical realm, which of course you are. Poets House South (a nod to the Big Apple’s venerable Poets House) is Brit and Bryan’s brainchild and abode, but it’s also the coolest Charleston salon-with-a-view-and-piazza. A gathering place for poetry readings, wine tastings, musicales, book signings, and tonite, and most every other first Tuesday night of the month, a Writers Group, which is open to you, the writer who needs that friendly little nudge.

It’s for all comers. Just bring your paper and pen, 10 or so copies of a piece (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, recipes, whatever!) that you’re working on, and then the magic begins. Wine and nibbles are welcome if you’re so inspired. But mostly, just bring it on home. Climb those stairs, one a time, curl your way up into that place where words find their place, and you find your place with them. Just like our neighbor Bill Murray does in this clip from Poets House in NYC.

 

Writers Group tonite. 7 p.m.  107 Ashley Ave, Apt A. 

Poets House South.  Built circa 1829. Poeticized in 2012. 

And if you can’t make it on short notice tonite, mark your calendar now for the next Sunday Musicale Soiree on February 24th.  Check out their Facebook page for more info. 

 

A Strange New Thing

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“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

I love this quote as I catch my breath here, teetering on the verge of the New Year, peering over cliffs, gaping into holes — in Newtown, in my town, in my heart; pumping myself up for a fresh start despite the unfulfilled intentions now scattered on the floor of 2012, like the bits of ribbon and wrapping I’m still tripping over. “Then they begin to hope it can be done…,” says Burnett’s wise young protagonist. May it be so for the Strange New Things that beckon in 2013.

I also love that this quote is but one line of text embedded in the above graphic image, a poster from Litographs, a brilliant company that creates lovely prints from the ENTIRE text of literary masterpieces. Words into art. Story into image. A strange new thing from something old and preexisting. Exactly what I hope to cultivate in these next 365 days.

And speaking of the New Year’s unfolding days, minutes, hours, seconds…here’s Litograph’s textual illustration of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, along with another apt New Year’s quote, courtesy of Wells. May we indeed face this world, learn it, find its clues, and its beauty. Like lines, words, letters transformed into image, hidden in plain sight.

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“To sit among all those unknown things before a puzzle like that is hopeless. That way lies monomania. Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all.”