Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tools of the Trade

I told you about my desk, my corner, my current notebook project, and (one of) my typewriter(s)... But I haven't told you how that all comes together into a poem... Well...

Here is how I do my job. Every morning I go to work at my desk in our house. I have coffee with Lily, see her off to the theater, and clock in about 9:15. The first thing I do (and sometimes the only thing) is pick a notebook and a pen and spend some time writing...

Twelve years ago, the day before I moved from Chicago to St. Paul, the poet Raul Jaimes gave me a gift. "You write with crappy plastic pens, Fred. You need a real tool," he admonished. And in a little black box was a heavy charcoal Tombo Zoom cartridge pen. Let's just say it changed the game.
Six years later, the week I moved from St. Paul to Brooklyn, I gave that (glorious, dented, many-times-nearly-lost) pen to Sarah Fox. But I was smart enough to have another, which I won in a bet the year before from Lily (she didn't think I could go 1 year without buying any records. She didn't know me very well then...). On the way out of New York, nervous that I would lose it in transit, I bought another. So now I keep two, with different colored inks (currently burgundy and indigo).

Like clockwork, an hour after I sit down, I have a visitor.

This is when the fur really starts to fly.

Once I finish a notebook (which can vary in time from a few days to a couple months - I work on several concurrently), the next step is to "pull" the most useful notes from the notebook (this varies from 4-10 pages of a 24-page notebook) into a large (9"x12") draft book...

This is usually the first time I start to break lines, chop out the junk (but not too much chopping), unpack all the tense- and point-of-view shifts (always a struggle for me) and (hopefully, sometimes) see images and phrasings gravitate toward each other.

Then, I jump on the Alpina...

I pull the notes out of the draft book and sort them into loose collections on typescript pages. This step includes more line-editing, more refining of language, and the first steps in making the parts fit together. Typing out the notes after I pull them serves a few purposes: it gives me an idea of relative line length and "standards" (rather than my crazy handwriting); it allows me to see all the notes at once (spread the pages across the desk); by shuffling the pages, the original context of the free writing, its sequence and the images' relationship to each other, is weakend significantly, so I'm allowed to forget all the associations the images had, and try to see what associations can be made. Poems are rarely written in order.

Here are the typescript notes from the notebook "Long Distance Relations." These notes led to a longer poem (with, as you can see, long lines), but the sequence of the notes bears very little relation to the sequence of the poem, and many of these notes, entire sections, were cut from the final poem.

Why do this? Why not knock it out on the laptop?
Novelist Harlan Ellison summed it up nicely:
"It is not that I hate the technology. What I hate is them telling me that I am not entitled to work at the level of technology that best serves my purpose. Form follows function... I operate at a level where I can best produce material using a manual typewriter. It fits my need. I get pleasure out of it. I get no pleasure from using a computer. Using PCs for doing term papers, or scientific treatises, for lists, for stuff like that, it's fine, but NOT for creative work... many writers say yes, it has made them write in a more slovenly fashion. They are not nearly as alert to the fact that they're going to actually have to do the physical labor of changing something... The only thing I've ever heard in aid of using a computer over a typewriter is it makes it easier... making it easier, I think, is invidious. It is a really BAD thing. Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It's not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. The should be out selling public relations copy."

The next several steps of culling and drafting also happen on the typewriter. The best way to describe it is as a series of sieves, each time pushing the work through to get rid of distractions, weak lines or phrasings, anything that doesn't fit. This process can take anywhere from a couple days to a couple months. It helps to keep slowing myself down, to put a draft away and come back to it, as a way to dissociate myself from it and read it "cold." The errors surface easier this way.

When I have a draft that I think is close to complete, I show it to Lily. Then I type it into the computer and send it to my friend Sarah to read. Both give insightful notes. The poem usually doesn't end here (it's tough, remember), but this is usually where it's getting close to moving off the desk.

It's funny, the poems that come out are different all the time, and have changed a lot over the years in both style and substance, but the way they're made has stayed pretty close to the same since I set up shop in Chicago in 1993. I still can't tell if it's working... but, as Ellison says, "I get pleasure out of it."

Monday, January 28, 2008

The First MOC Marquee Word Scramble Contest

Last year, Lily and I received these 8" marquee letters as a gift from Lily's sister Kate (who buys all her gifts at thrift stores). We've spent the last couple months re-arranging them to amuse ourselves and each other ("POOR NICK" was a favorite...). Today we decided to throw it open to you, our beloved readers, for:

The first MyOtherCountry Marquee Word Scramble Contest.

ENTER NOW! It's easy... All you have to do is create a saying (or sayings) using any or all of these marquee letters...

(if you can't read 'em in the picture, they're: B, C, G, H, I, I, K, N, O, O, P, R, U, W)

Post 'em in the comments section. We'll keep it open until Saturday noon. Winner (as judged by Bird and Juju) gets a care package from the Heimat.

Viel Spass, Scramblers!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

An Anniversary

On January 30th, 2007, Brea Cali, Isadora Wolfe and I arrived in Germany.
At JFK Isadora repacked her over-the-weight-limit luggage while Chris reiterated "Priority Number One on Arrival" to a weepy Brea: secure internet connction. At Heathrow while trying to avoid the question "Are you coming into the EU for work?" - we didn't have permits yet - we missed our connecting flight. When we finally made it to Frankfurt, the "van" we had been told would pick us up turned out to be a 4 door compact car. Somehow we stuffed all the luggage in. Slumped over it in a daze, we were driven to Kassel. By the time we arrived at the Staatstheater and started meeting people, the news had already spread. "Nice to meet you...heard you had a lot of luggage" they said, shaking our hands.

Kassel was much bigger that we had expected. Freeways, a multiplex cinema and malls, who knew? And look at that theater!

After dropping Brea off at her knick-knack-and foliage-encrusted sublet, Isadora and I arrived at our new home. "Yia Yia will be so happy we live by a church!" she said. By morning we realized her grandmother was about to be disappointed: we were across the alley from a cemetary. We went to the Balletsaal for the first time. All of the dancers were making a phrase, and were spread evenly througout the room. We opened the door. They turned and stared.

We started to settle in. Isadora lost her glasses on the Strassenbahn. We couldn't believe how cheap things were. I broke into a cold sweat whenever I spoke German. Brea worked dilligently on "Priority Number One." The dancers in the company showed us the ropes. Isadora found her glasses at the city Lost and Found.

Carmen was our cigarette-smoking fairy godmother. Over and over she told us, "You guys, just relax..."

In February we appeared on the Staatstheater stage for the first time, dancing a section of Cabaret that Johannes choreographed for a theater event. I was so excited about my wig.

When I sprained my ankle 4 weeks before the premiere, Jens took me to the doctor, translated for me, and let me cry on his shoulder when i learned what "ganz gerissen" meant.

In April we premiered 'perspektive'. The stage had a huge ramp in the center of it. The piece was cinematic, non-linear, episodic, challenging. We busted our asses running up and down that ramp. Isadora jumped over tables. Brea seduced the audience and the Intendant with her rendition of "Un Ano de Amor." I was a puppet being manipulated while lip synching "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen."

At the end of the season we danced 'progressive coma' in Kassel before touring the piece to Poland.
This was the last piece we created in New York before our Germany adventure began.

By then, we had stopped rushing around like crazed New Yorkers, the cemetary had become our favorite Sunday afternoon walking spot, the tchotchkes had been stuffed in the closet, the German was still difficult, and the colleagues had become friends.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Current Issues

It's not that I've been asleep in a sock drawer for the last three weeks like this chick...

I've been up early...

writing these poems...

On that note, I have poems in the current issues of these two smashing magazines:

CONDUIT and 6x6. So buy one online or at your favorite bookstore and you won't have to think about what to read next.

And I've been up late...

because we got a television and The Africa Cup of Nations is on EVERY NIGHT for the next three weeks! The only thing better is being sent there on Puma's dime (again), like my friend Knox. Ho-hum, another coffee table book on African soccer.

Consolation prize (malaria not included): I'm packing my bags for two weeks in The Algarve (southern Portugal) with Timm, Ellen and other local runners for training in the sun and warm weather. Lily's mad jealous, but she released me from my cooking duties because she likes how I look with a tan.

She has vetoed any Green Sweatsuit moves I might be considering.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


In order to get here

We start here

To get here

We start either here

Or here

And if we want to get here

It's got to start somewhere

Every day, 15 of us make our way to the Balletsaal to train. Pin Cheih sits with her back against the heater. Leyla, using all the equipment in the room, goes through a special and mysterious routine. Jason practices tendus with his pants pulled up. Brea rolls back and forth on the foam roller. Roberto rolls around on the floor. Ben comes in and opens the window. Mats props Szu Wei's head up on his thigh. I rearrange my bag. Lisa stretches her back and says "Que pala...." Cesar puts on a third pair of pants. Kristen does Pilates while laughing hysterically with Ekaterine. Julian and Evangelos slip in last.

These two hours are our preparation and our discipline. They're how we stay strong, and how we keep learning. They're where it all starts, 10 am, day after day.

Matjek's playing lifts our spirits

So that we can turn

And jump

Saturday, January 12, 2008


We're developing material for a new piece here in Germany called "Neue Heimat."

How do you research a dance, you ask?

That depends on the dance. This piece has to do with home and homeland. One task from Johannes was: make a German Folk Dance.

A Swede, a Taiwanese, a Georgian and three Americans made this one, danced here to Bluegrass music

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Here's looking at you, kid

Take a walk through Paris

Reading the streets signs,

Watching the light change,

Keeping an eye out for the beautiful children,

And eventually the sights that made the city famous will emerge.

The Louve is full of great rooms

To sit

Or write

Or look at art

Anselm Kiefer is a new favorite

Out of a pile of books a sunflower emerges. Its gold petals have all dropped.

My sister, who is a visual artist, talks about the layers in his work, how terror and the sublime coexist. He is German.
"My biography" he says, "is the biography of Deutschland."