Subversive Writing and Rambling

Subversive documents

We historic site colleagues were picking words to describe our presentation styles with the public. We like words: They’re artists and grad students who love communicating about history, and I do, too, and I’m, you know, CPT Me.

I suggested I’m “Intellectual but Funny.” They nodded agreeably, and one said, “The word we chose for you was Subversive.” Really??? Explanation: Because I had dismantled and rearranged our Revolutionary Personages talk to add in colonial poet Sarah Wentworth Morton, and to connect the subjects of the talk in my own chain of meaning.

My colleagues are young and in Master’s programs, blissfully unaware that in the Academia where I used to dwell, that’s not Subversive. That’s Required. That is called “intervening in the conversation,” and You’d Better have a new twist on things if you want to live in EnglishPhDland. Theoryguay. LitReviewistan. Jonestown.

OK, OK, a little dark humor isn’t going to leave a stain. I am proud of some of my work, deeply impressed by some scholars I know and read, and full of stuff to say about the 18th century. But I gloriously failed to be an academic many times while acting like I was trying to become one. That’s OK, though. Let’s all live our best lives.

Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that Scholarly and Creative can harmonize. But often they don’t, and I still don’t quite get it. For example, the author of an important book in my field said to me over cocktails that, although nearing retirement, she was discovering a whole new way to approach theater history. She was now attending actual rehearsals at her university for the first time in her career. Yeah. From her tone, she felt subversive. I felt a little sick. I can laugh about it now.

My Revolutionary talk at work is a good, coherent little talk, a star shape nicely squeezed out of the Play Doh Fun Factory of my Intellect. But it was prompted by real, personal interest and Creative Sisterhood with Mrs. Sarah, and those things aren’t too academic. Do I get to call the talk Creativity? I don’t know, yet oddly, I care. I hope someday to have more Intellectual/Creative harmony.

Am I subversive? I don’t write in a bare garret, rejecting everything but Art; I have an AC. I read mysteries and watch Antiques Roadshow. I like vanilla ice cream a great deal.

The writer and queer/feminist activist Michelle Tea described “Sister Spit, the all-girl performance tour that tore up the United States at the end of the last century” as, among other things, “the my-poetry-can-beat-up-your-theory menace.” I like that. That’s funny. I value poetry a lot more than academic writing. I’ve been dealing with some things and been pretty sub-versive lately (get it?), but I still see a poet in the mirror. And will even if I do finish that book about 18th-century theater history.

I don’t know if I can reach Tea’s subversive heights, but I was busy writing this today instead of writing for money. Taking an actual day off work to prioritize whatever creativity showed up. Not wearing pants. Reading literature in the current administration. You do what you can.  I could murder some ice cream right now. Chocolate? I like eating it with a fork.

 

The portrait of John Adams by J.S. Copley belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I quoted from Michelle Tea’s piece “Sister Spit Feminism,” in her new book Against Memoir, published by Feminist Press. I highly recommend it. My talk and other good ones are available at King’s Chapel on the Freedom Trail, Boston.

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Return of the Blog. Oooooh.

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I haven’t done what I would classify as My Creative Work in more than a month, and as a result, I feel crampled (a word I accidentally made up) by life and also more than ready for change. I have been writing for money, about issues in moving with kids, and about the various Revolutionary Personages of the historic site where I am an educator.

Dilemma: being a CPT whose mind really needs to rest when it can, in the hopes it will stop being either the scattered monkeys or the wild elephant of Buddhist metaphor. The blessing and curse of being deeply engaged in and satisfied by multiple thinking-intense jobs, I find, is loving your work and then adoring empty quiet time. What blog? What poems?

So I’m going to change strategies to get uncrampled (second word I made up). First of all, I still stand for Going with the Flow and not criticizing yourself. You can’t demand the tide be in when the tide is just out right now. Use it as an opportunity to Experience Creativity, not in the way You Decided was right and meaningful, but just as it happens in your day, however it happens. Or doesn’t. No Ego required. Lots to learn and enjoy.

This year I’ve been trying to observe/receive more and think less in my Creative Work. Some of my usual writing is a fallow field. But I’m taking a lot of photos, trying to wait for things to show me themselves, rather than deciding first what it is I see. (For more on this creative process, see The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori and the photos of Minor White.)

I’m going to bring that exploration here, so that the blog can Be when I’m too tired even to think about an intelligent mini-essay or having Something Important to say. When he was interviewed by On Being, Yo-Yo Ma inspired me  with, “It’s not about proving anything. It’s about sharing something.” As an ex-academic, a teacher, and an artist, I deeply appreciate that reminder. That’s the Flow I want to Go with.

Yeah, I was Inspired by a Book Again

Tenant

We’ve had major “stay in with a book” weather in New England, so I just re-read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  She impresses me more and more and that’s sad, because she only wrote two novels.  Death be not proud, suggested another writer, and I second that.

The post, though, is really about the Preface to the Second Edition. I’d like to quote some of it because I was moved by the way it echoed from the 1840s into today.

…I wished to tell the truth…But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he that does so will be likely to incur more scorn…for the mud and water in which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures; as, in like manner, she who undertakes the cleansing of a careless bachelor’s apartment will be liable to more abuse for the dust she raises, than commendation for the clearance she effects.

“Acton Bell,” Bronte’s pen name, depicted a society of childish adults, bullies without inner resources or self-restraint. Not that you’d need those qualities back then if you were a wealthy landed gent with no natural predators. Or if you were a movie producer, or an ill-coiffed business tycoon with a red cap. Wait. Did I just mix things up? What we were talking about? Oh, a society that produced and valued this sort of thing, that criticized someone more marginalized for speaking up about it.

As the story of ‘Agnes Grey’ was accused of extravagant over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life… so, in the present work, I find myself censured…O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace—there would be less sin and misery…

That last sentence laid me out flat: With the privilege of a white-skinned/cis/nondisabled/hetero/American-born citizen, I often get to whisper “Peace” at will, both in Life and Creatively.

Some accused Bronte of indulging in the “coarse” and “brutal.”  They were probably extra-shocked that the journal of a female character records that coarse brutality. Helen Graham struggles to protect herself from oppression and abuse, but it still becomes her story because she writes it down. In Bronte’s novel, Graham and her journal survive by acting against the conventions of society. Other emptier, seemingly more powerful people disintegrate from the inside out. Creative check-mate. Food for thought.

 

(For Ali Smith and Ijeoma Oluo.)

 

Shriek and Spit

Yes, 2017 is here, and like some, I’ve been troubled by what exactly I’m doing with this blog in this world. When I gave you my elevator pitch of “being creative in a brimming-over world,” I had little idea what kind of Brimming Over was brewing. I don’t want to be pithy here, and I’m having trouble finding a new, significant way to say it’s time for Artists to make sure they are present, because every act of love, connection, and clarity counts. But if I can start this blog up again, then I think I Mean it.

As poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote for another Inauguration Day eight years ago:

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,/anything can be made, any sentence begun.”

To get started again, I’m going back to some pure, basic lessons in Creativity I learned from the wisest of the wise. I encountered both these Amazing Creatives by accident, at different times, and was fortunate to witness their work. I don’t know their names, but I think they were both two, maybe three, years old. You thought that “Shriek and Spit” title was some sort of metaphor, didn’t you? Nope.

The first Teacher crossed my path in the central atrium of the Boston Public Library. Four stories high, it was once a cavern that matched the rest of the plain, concrete-is-king-era architecture. It was fine. Now that the big Renovation is complete, and the library around it is badass (but cozy) red and purple, the atrium has become a wonder of soaring simplicity. Suddenly I find it irresistible, but unlike my Wise Teacher in the stroller that day, I didn’t know what to do with it. He/she/they did. (Yeah, I don’t even know.) Right in the middle, and the kid waited for it like the master he/she/they was, out came, through a wide smile, one perfect, Loud, high-pitched, single note of air-slicing shriek. And it flew upward and echoed like the work of art it was. The kid knew it would, and the little face glowed with pure joy and smug triumph. Like any artist. Then the stroller-pushing adult said, “Ssshhhhh!” Really.

The second Teacher I met in hot sunshine, while meditating in the middle of Boston with Thich Nhat Hanh (yes, I DID) and several hundred other cross-legged people. A couple in front of me had a wee girl, standing behind them and doing Her Own Thing, oblivious to the mob of silent adults around her. She had realized that if you gather enough saliva, lean over a little, and go carefully, you can release a long, long string of spit that reaches the ground, if you are rather small and a total Master of your Art. I was fascinated. I couldn’t help it. It was great. And I couldn’t help noticing her steady, perfect concentration as she just did the thing she was doing, present to her moment, creating her gleaming thread. Simply enjoying herself, she had gone, naturally and completely, somewhere every adult there was practicing to reach.

It’s important for CPTs to remember that Creativity can burst or flow out of simple moments of openness and attention, and right now, every moment like that counts. So whether it’s mouths, hands, or whole bodies, keyboards, canvasses, cameras, kitchens, kilns, stages or streets…shriek, spit, and speak!

kid