Fear, Art, and Mud


My first attempts on the wheel.
I've been making ceramics for about four years, but today was the first time I'd ever thrown on the wheel. My husband, Alex, and our various ceramicist friends have offered to teach me many times, and several art schools in the area offer beginners' classes, but I've never tried.

Part of the reason I've never bothered with the wheel is that I really like hand-building. I like using firmer clay and really manhandling it. I like the organic wonkiness of the pinch pots and sculptures I've made, and I don't really want to make functional ware. Truly, I've never wanted to use the wheel. Lately, though, I've been wanting to make bigger things, sculptures that would be difficult to fire if they were solid, different kinds of vessels. There are things I want to make now that I need this other skill to accomplish, but I've waited to ask to be taught because I've been a little scared of not being any good at it.

Fear is part of art. One of my poetry mentors used to ask me often, "What's at stake in this poem? What are you risking?" If you're not risking something, if you're not a little scared, you're not doing the work. If you know for sure that it will turn out well, you're not trying hard enough, you're not "reading beyond your grade level," to borrow an idea from my 4th grader's FCAT information night.

I like to think of myself as being a little bit brave. At least I like to think of myself as a person who isn't afraid of failing, an artist who believes in the experience more than the outcome, so I was pretty annoyed to realize that it was silly, self-conscious fear that kept me from trying the wheel. I was embarrassed to be a beginner. As Alex was showing me how to center the clay, I found myself giggling nervously, and I was glad that he knows me well enough to show me the steps and then leave the room so that I could figure out the details in private.

As you can see, I've got a long way to go before I can throw the larger, sculptural shapes I've been imagining. I might not ever get to those imaginary shapes. I might really suck at this and give it up as an artistic false start, but it won't be fear that keeps me from trying.

This week is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, a week-long celebration of our right to read, learn, and explore. One of the events this year is a Virtual Read Out. You can make a video endorsing a banned book, reading from a banned book, or explaining why the freedom to read is important. I'll be posting short readings from some of my favorite banned books throughout the week.

Just to be contradictory, this first reading is from a book I don't really love; in fact, when I first read it in college, I hated it. The main character of Kate Chopin's The Awakening annoyed the shit out of me. Barely out of adolescence myself, I found Edna immature and selfish, her suicide the ultimate cop-out of a person too cowardly to make a place for herself in the world. I hated how dismissive she was of her friend, Adele Ratignolle, a woman who seems to be truly happy in her role as wife and mother. I was 20 years old, single, childless, with barely any sexual experience, and I was outraged on behalf of the cheerful, fulfilled mothers of the world.

And then I got married and I had a baby and I ran full speed into the wall of society's expectations of parents in general and mothers in particular. I realized that I didn't want what many people seemed very happy to have--a house and two cars and a 9 to 5 job and three kids. I realized that, however much I loved my husband and my child--and I loved them a whole fucking lot--I wouldn't be able to keep loving them if they were all I was allowed to have or want.

And then I read The Awakening again.

I still think that Edna is immature, but I also see how she's treated like a child. I still think her suicide is a bit cowardly, but I also see how few choices she has. I find that I sympathize with her very much as a fellow mother, and I feel grateful to have found a way to be myself: an artist, a parent, a spouse, a citizen--a whole person. I wish Edna had had more choices. I think she could have grown up to be quite the human being.

The Awakening is often banned for its sexual content. It also has some old-fashioned racist language (in the section I read, she uses the word "darkies," which makes me cringe). It was challenged in 2011 because some editions show a bare-chested woman on the cover.

Coincidentally, my cousin also read from The Awakening this week at her blog. Her take is a little different from mine and includes more historical context.
When I write, I don't think too much about the one I write for, but I know who she is. She's me: the barest, truest, sternest version of myself. She knows when I haven't been brave enough to tell the truth. She knows when I'm bullshitting her. You could call her the Muse, I guess. She's my internal reason for writing.

The first person to read my poems is usually my friend Jae Newman. He is an ideal reader. I can count on him to understand what I'm trying to say, to see the poem I'm trying to write, and to tell me straight up when I've failed to write it. When it comes time to revise, his voice often surfaces in my mind (and my email). If my poems could find an audience as kind and perceptive and receptive as Jae, I would be very lucky.

Like a lot of "page poets," though, it's hard for me to imagine my real audience, the people that might actually stumble across my poems online or in a little bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky. Once, my friend brought home a stack of literary journals from a conference and found one of my poems in one of the magazines, and I thought with some surprise, "Oh, wow, they really exist out there on their own."

Musicians, dancers, theater folks do their art face to face with their audience. A poet's audience is more abstract most of the time. Of course we're as susceptible as anyone else to pandering for approval, but the audience isn't right there in our face when we're doing our thing. We get to keep our motivations internal for longer than some artists.

I was thinking about this while choosing poems to read at the Maitland Art Center's Summer Concert Series and even more after a "poetry cover night" at Urban ReThink a few days later. Who is my audience? What do they know? What do they need to know? Both events turned out to be really fun, in large part because the audiences were really varied. Especially at Urban ReThink, there were slam poets and page poets and performers, readers and artists and prose writers, teachers and students and know-it-alls, and they were all excited about poetry!

I've been thinking about that room full of poetry lovers a lot over the last few weeks. Which of those people would I most want to reach with my poems? Determining that determines, to some extent at least, what kind of poems I want to write. I'm a little surprised to find that it's mostly the non-poets I want in my audience: the artist who delivered Yeats as a terrifying dramatic monologue; my friend, a fiction writer, nervous but not showing it, who admitted she tried to choose poems the poets would find cool; the poised young woman who said, "I've never read a poem in public, but this poet is a family friend and I like this poem," and then beautifully delivered the hippest poem by the hippest poet anyone read that night.

Of course, I want the approval of my big, weird tribe of fellow poets too. I want to be accountable for my work in a way that only they can provide, but I'm really not interested in inside jokes or showing off. The poet who starts her reading with an obscure literary reference, and condescendingly points out how obscure it is? I don't need her in my audience. The one who's more interested in showing how cool or clever he is than sharing something real? I'll never seem cool to him, and I think he's a jackass.

I want an audience that teaches me something, and I don't think I have a lot to learn from those guys. I'd rather open the circle, find out what the sculptors and mathematicians and carpenters and bartenders know.  How about I read you a poem and you sing me a song? How about we all listen?

I've been sculpting dragons in clay. They're cartoonish, primitive, wonky. They're also pretty thick-bodied, which I know is a bit dangerous in ceramics. More clay means more chance of air bubbles and other flaws that might cause a break in the high temperatures of the kiln.

Last night, we did a bisque fire of several pots and four dragon sculptures. This morning, the kiln is full of half-baked pots and shards that were my dragons. There must have been an air pocket in the largest sculpture. I think its shattering caused the one beside it to break along some internal fault line into the four pieces you see above.

I've fired enough ceramic not to cry about this. You don't count your ceramic dragons before they've hatched (if that's not an old potter's saying, it should be). Of course, I'm disappointed. I spent hours carving these, finding their personalities, imagining what they would be when they were fired and glazed. No matter how much I tell myself not to get attached to things, I do.

At my parents' house in Frostproof, where we raku, there is a pile of red brick against the pasture fence left over from building the house I grew up in. It's covered in weeds and spiders, and when we break a piece in a raku firing, we take out our frustration by hurling the fragments against the brick pile, shouting for the necessary catharsis. This morning, unable to hurl and shout in the early Sunday quiet of the apartment complex, I unpack the kiln carefully. Half-fired ceramic is brittle and easily shattered. I burn my fingers on the hot clay as I examine each piece, analyze this failure, look for where I went wrong. I find things I can salvage.

These pieces are broken cleanly. I'm going to fire them as they are. If they survive, I will glaze and raku them. I will imagine a new life for them, a new personality. Maybe a mixed media piece called "Deconstructed Dragon." I will make something of my failures. I will call it art.
Canaveral National Seashore
I recently finished/abandoned the longest poem I've ever written. It feels like the only poem I've ever written or the poem I'm always writing. I don't know. I can't really talk about it yet. It's about the things I love most--family, art, the idea of home, this place--and I've been writing and revising it for a long time, scribbling lines here and there, adding and taking away, looking for the thread that might tie it all together.

What's been great about writing this long poem is having a focus. It's not really true that "the hardest part is getting started"--I think we all know that the hardest part of any creative endeavor is finishing--but starting is one of the intimidating parts of writing, and it's been nice not to have to face a blank page for a while. Now that this long poem and the bigger chapbook project that's gone with it are finished, the new page seems especially blank.

I'm not sure that I want to write another long poem, at least not right away, but I do want to get started on another specific project in order to maintain the focus I've had over the past few months. I think this blog might be a good tool for that eventually, but for now I'm casting about among infinite possibilities, looking for the idea that will grab me next. I expect my creativity will be fairly random for a little while.

After you finish a creative project, how do you find the next big thing? How do you know when you've found an idea worth your energy and focus?

Easy muffins: flour, baking powder, sugar, milk, oil, egg, lemon zest, blueberries.
Most days aren't perfect; that's a fact and not much of a revelation. Most days go wrong in a lot of small ways--a joke that falls flat,  bill I didn't expect, a flood of unproductive emails that keeps me from good work. On those not perfect days, making something keeps me afloat.

I remember a fantasy novel I read years ago in which the vague, distant evil is called the Unmaker. The Unmaker wants to take apart the world, and the only way to combat it is to make things. In one scene, the protagonist explains how he can only push back the destruction, not defeat it. Agitated and fearful, while he's talking, he makes a tiny basket out of the grass at his feet. It calms him. Making something keeps destruction at bay, even if that something is small and unlikely to last.

I think that's what I like about cooking. It's necessary, but it can also be beautiful if you take a little care. On Wednesday morning, I made these very easy blueberry muffins, mostly just to use up the blueberries that were going bad faster than we could eat them in yogurt and pancakes, but when they came out of the oven all golden and oozing bright purple juice, I felt a great sense of comfort. It felt like, however my day might go wrong after that, I had made something beautiful and nourishing. That made all the mundane nonsense that followed almost irrelevant.

That's the thing about art: it sustains us. It pushes back the chaos of the universe. It lets us make a little space in which to thrive. But we have to keep making it.

I'm interested: what keeps you going, art-wise?