Clive Matson writes from an itch in his body

Structure of Large Work

November 11th, 2014 | Posted by Elaine Watt in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

by Clive Matson

The first topics of our new class, “Structure of Large Work,” seem straightforward enough. “Whose Story is It?” “What’s at Stake?” “Plot Works through Character,” “Sequence of Challenges,” and “Subplot.” What these compact phrases leave out are the intricacies.

Each topic is highly articulated, so much so that you could lose sight of why we write. Our texts, Field’s Screenplay and Vogel’s The Writers Journey, lay out schemes that are layered and absorbing. We could, instead of developing our writing, become entranced with getting each page to line up with what the guides propose.

These finely evolved schemes are recipes after the fact. We have, in our past and in our bodies, in our DNA perhaps, thirty-five thousand years of storytelling around village campfires. That’s salient story-telling, too, where the stories carry forth our identity and ensure our survival. In those thirty-five thousand years we learned more than two years in an MFA program can teach us. More than one author can put in a guide. That’s the scab we’re picking.

Why should we offer this class? For one, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of received wisdom on the basic structure of stories. Even after those thirty-five thousand years, however many times a year, it probably helps our mental editors, in understanding and editing a story, to review the concepts. This may enhance our rewriting and it could speed our next first draft quite a bit. But this works only if we don’t take the suggestions as dictums. Take them instead as stimulus.

What our audience gets involved with, at every level, is the story. The trance and the dream. When structural guides help the story speak, we are using them effectively. I saw a movie (Was it “Good Girl”? Or “Pirates of the Caribbean?”) where the structure was so well done I was bored. You could feel what was going to happen before it happened. Some might say the fault was the casting, some might say the directing. I think, with inspired casting and directing, the movie still wouldn’t work well. The structure was too micro-managed. Too obvious.

The second reason to do the class is the same as the first, with the angle of approach reversed. We, in our technological abundance, have removed ourselves a long ways from those village fires. We are too isolated from each other and too comfortable. We are no longer in direct touch with the elements involved in telling a fine story. We see too many movies, watch too many tv series, read too much slick fiction. We need to remind ourselves of the knowledge in our bodies and in our DNA.

We want the passion, the story, the dream to bend the structure in ways that are surprising, but only to the critical mind. The reader should go with the flow and not notice. Not notice because the story has carried the reader away.

That’s the goal. The reader is in a trance.



By Clive Matson

Wonderment and curiosity fuel the poems in Greed: A Confession. “Things can’t be what they seem,” puzzles Didi Goodman when, after a windstorm, an unusual golden light fills her driveway. She discovers the hue comes from yellow leaves blown to the ground, their color enhanced by a moon that’s no longer blocked by the leaves.
Nature supplies a kaleidoscope of topics: a frog that freezes in winter and thaws for spring; a bird concealed in a variety of shapes but, without awareness, the eye discerns where it is; the confusion of lights at dusk, which is star, which porch light, and which the jeep on a mountain track; a raptor’s boundless world where a morsel of flesh is pin-pointed, “one unlucky pigeon on a wire.” Add a cricket, bones, swallows, hummingbirds, dusk, a burr, a burned-out house, and many more, even paintings of landscapes.

At the core of these poems are natural ironies, or disjunctures, or improbabilities that inspire awe, bafflement, and even disbelief. The poems are frames through which we view this magic. Goodman creates clear windows, often tinged with humor, especially when an event runs counter to intuition. The title poem traces the poet’s curiosity to childhood delight in toads, in berries, and in coins on a laundromat floor. She calls her impulse “greed,” which shows how completely the draw toward wonderment dominates and propels her poetic life. That draw, however, is healthy, enriching, vibrant, and brings to light intricacies of the world.
The poet first needs the acuity to notice an event. Curiosity compels her to observe it over time, and this gives the magic a chance to reveal its machinery. With that the poet’s initial goal is achieved. Such immersion elicits an insight, though, often placed at the poem’s end, on some parallel in history, or in human experience, or in mythology. Swallows are “like skiffs on the sea”; hope changes “as easily as water, once, to wine”; we could be salamanders that “ sprout such tiny, useless hands”; we are like cattle facing “wide-spaced slats of change, unable to risk a step.”
Goodman uses a variety of forms, most often the sonnet, and that’s testament to this form’s flexible power. Rhymes and half-rhymes are embedded in her sentences and not often rung, but when it serves to ring them, she will. The tone is generally cool, reflecting her intent to be accurate and to reveal an event, not to exclaim over it. A personal passion ripples through the pieces on Jerusalem, implying longer stories one hopes Goodman will explore. But throughout most of Greed: A Confession the poet’s interest is in discrete happenings. This stipulates that her language be tailored to each topic, and communicate clearly. That she does so in an accessible, conversational style, while fulfilling her forms’ often intricate requirements, is remarkable.
Goodman chooses subjects from our lives, too. She treats vision, aging, memory, desire, and illusion with interest equal to what she gives fauna and flora. Her metaphors, reversing the usual order, then come from the physical world. The heart finds a simile in the Luna moth, “poised for flight, perched on the edge”; the poet’s love varies as much as the “Shostakovich Preludes Opus 34”; a birthday takes on the urgency and “whistled lunacy” of a robin’s song; minute ancestral forces reappear in the present, opening “a sudden canyon at your feet.”
Didi Goodman is a scientist of natural history, which, in these poems, includes human experience. The poet shows us how to see in ways that are revelatory. The pleasure she takes in this process displays itself, with characteristic irony, in “A Certain Joy,” where her persona meets death and comments, “How the sun glints on the beautiful curve of your blade.”

(With help from Sally Bolger and Jack Litewka)

John Wieners’ Usefulness

February 11th, 2014 | Posted by in Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

By Clive Matson

            “Oh put down thy vanity man the old man told us under the tent. You are over-run with ants.” .” – John Wieners, from “A poem for early risers,” The Hotel Wentley Poems (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco: 1958), page 12.

Many lines from John Wieners have taken up permanent residence in my psyche. They’ve been exact and revelatory for more than fifty years, and the intelligence that came up with his words is mysterious. But the process is not.

Ezra Pound wrote “Pull down thy vanity” in Canto 81, and Wieners must have started there. A friend read the Canto while we were camping in Baja California in remote mountains, and that’s significant. For me, the clutter that inhabits awareness falls away in the presence of nature.

Pound’s poem contrasts what one loves with what vanity has built. “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage” he proclaims, and references classical Greek, 19th century Spanish, and early American history. But Canto 81 is not easy to understand. This reader gets more involved with Pound’s stance than with his material.

Wieners brings Pound’s insight to street level. It’s a common refrain, of course, from Bible school and Ecclesiastes (1:14 and throughout) “All is vanity and vexation of spirit” probably down to many of our parents’ exhortations. But look at the subtexts: Ecclesiastes puts us in a house of worship for a sermon and Pound puts us in oratory awe, hearing a sage rail at the culture. John Wieners talks to us.

Wieners distills to usefulness a line that doesn’t ordinarily reach outside its literary circle. Why put us in church or in the library, why give us any word that doesn’t communicate directly? Wieners’ work has brevity and clarity. No need to add to the clutter! “The small fires I burn in the memory of love.” “Held as they are in the hands of forces they cannot understand.” “Who has opened the savagery of the sea to me.” ‘The poem does not lie to us, we lie under its law.”

Keeping the anachronism “thy” in Wieners’ lines on vanity gives them a single, cavernous echo from the Old Testament. That one reverberation is all that’s needed. “You are over-run with ants” backs up the dictum with a physical sensation; it doesn’t need to be phrased “Thou art over-run…,” which would put us back in church. It comes as a small surprise that “Canto 81” contains an ant: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.”

Wieners brought the ant from its obscure setting and made it an apt correlative in the body, working just as he did with the arcane “Pull down thy vanity.” What about “the old man told us under the tent”? Is this Wieners taking an appreciative snapshot, or is it a dig at Pound? In any case the image brings the reader into the realm of revivalist tents and country preachers. This grounds us with a thump.

Most of Wieners’ couplets have literary or folklore sources. “The scene changes” and a variety of others are from William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”; “My middle name is Joseph and I walk beside an ass on the way to what Bethlehem,” the Bible and William Butler Yeats; “God love you, Dana, my lover,” Irish folk sayings and the Bible, as well as “The small fires I burn in the memory of love” and many others. “I do not split I hold on to the demon tree.” I suspect this is taken from somewhere in the hip lexicon.

Inversions and anachronisms in service of what Wieners intends are frequent in Hotel Wentley.“When green was the bed my love and I laid down upon.” This phrasing gives the lyricism a mythic tenor. Equally instructive might be “I am engaged in taking away from god his sound.” Conventional phrasing, like “I’m engaged in taking god’s sound away from him,” would not demonstrate the aural resonance Wieners claims.

Wieners wrote Hotel Wentley in one week, on an amphetamine run. That could be evidence of the drug’s ability to aid focus, but one could also lament amphetamine as a contributor to chaos in the remainder of Wieners’ life. The drug created neither Wieners’ wisdom nor his refining. Both are evident in poems from before 1958, and, curiously, many of the lines in Hotel Wentley are distilled from Wieners’ earlier poems

It’s startling that, instead of the Wieners’ line above, I remembered “Held in the hands of forces we cannot understand.” This is a Wieners-like revision of his own words. The line comes from “A poem for painters,” in which paintings in an Edvard Munch exhibition are templates for some of Wieners’ most brilliant stanzas. My inadvertent revision brings those words out of the museum, and out of the clutter, into the palpable present. This process is natural, or is natural with me, and we may all do it: turn literature into something useful. I suspect the extreme daring and vision and entitlement in using this process so extensively for writing Hotel Wentley is unequaled anywhere in literature.

In this discussion, the practical is presented as essential to poetry. Many people have asked, “What makes good poetry?” Not easy to answer, with today’s entrancing personalities and spectacular intellects. Poetry should be passionate and clear; it should cut through the clutter; and it should be useful in living. This smacks of “Gebrauchtmusik,” music for public events, of the nineteen-twenties and thirties that gave us Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith. It’s a stretch to view Wieners’ poems as parallel to Gebrauchtmusik, unless we accept that events in consciousness are equivalent to external events. A difference is that musicologists and connoisseurs judged whether the compositions were useful. Wieners’ lines show their usefulness over time, staying as cornerstones, or guides, or signposts in our minds. The judgment is made organically, and internally, by our psyches.

I’m reminded of a professor’s question, in 1959 at the University of Chicago, which became my signal to leave the university: “Why did Milton write Paradise Lost?” I raised my hand. “It’s the tug-of-war between good and evil,” I offered. “Life is like that.” I wanted as clean a relationship with literature as with mountains and valleys.

The professor replied, “That’s a good answer, but it’s not the one I’m looking for.” Milton identified with the devil, he explained, and God was the king of England, with whom Milton had a long quarrel.

My answer, like the answer embedded in Wieners’ poems, is more useful.


(With help from Sally Bolger, Vince Storti, and John Paige.)


(View the entire article at

By Jerome Poyton

Bill Heine, an influential figure in the 1960s Downtown art and social scene, died on Sept. 15, 2012, at Kingston Hospital after a long illness. He was 83. He was born Bill Mossman, the son of a popular radio show personality. Upon his mother’s divorce, Bill took the name of his second father, Paul Heine. Later in life he used both names.

As a student at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in Washington, D.C., Bill visited Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital with fellow student, Eustace Mullins, secreting in a bottle of wine. Pound proceeded to open and down the bottle immediately without taking a breath of air.

Moving to New York in the early 1950s Heine visited the San Remo, on the advice of poet Sheri Martinelli, and he became integrated into the thriving New York art scene, rooming with Willem de Kooning and playing drums with Charlie Parker. Heine socialized with Parker offstage and recalled once entering a drug den with Parker, with Hank Williams entering right behind them. Who knew these two American greats met and shared a drug proclivity?

Heine was acutely aware of how racism impacted the early jazz scene, where police and sailors routinely beat up jazz musicians for sport. In one instance, he remembered drinking Navy men slamming the keyboard cover down on the fingers of a jazz pianist in mid-performance. On another occasion, a black musician stepped between an altercation between New York police and Charles Mingus, protecting Mingus by taking the beating for him. It was a time when jazz greats, such as Billie Holiday, died kicking heroin, under New York Police Department guard.

In the ’60s Heine was credited with introducing tie-dye to America. He created his paintings by injecting bundled sheets with dye, using a hypodermic needle, and unfolding them to an array of bright color. In “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” Dylan’s lyric, “The empty-handed painter from your streets/is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets,” is a reference to Bill Heine’s work.

Heine was a member of the Beat Generation with poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Janine Pomy Vega, Lee Forester, Clive Matson and many others. Herbert Huncke wrote about Heine in his notebooks, and Irving Rosenthal published this as “Huncke’s Bill India” in his landmark novel “Sheeper”: “His magic absorbs his spirit—black magic—white magic—Gods and Demons. He practices magic—creating. He reads about the formulas—he knows the forces to command—he calls upon the planets—the moon—the animals—the spirits of wood—metal—stone—earth—of all things—watching for signs—letter combinations—numerical values—good omens—bad omens.”

Poet Anne Ardolino met Bill Heine on the Lower East Side in the 1960s. Of the neighborhood back then, she recalled, “There were pushcarts on Avenue C with dried donkey penises and pig penises for sale. There were sheep balls hanging from clotheslines in tiny wooden stalls that passed for places of business. There were stools and people sat there and ate meals that had those ingredients.

“Heine was extremely young and thin and had a nose like Karl Malden,” she said. “He was extremely hot, as in sexy, and he was scary. He was THE person to check with if you wanted to find drugs. He was a criminal and not to be messed with. Period. And yet, as bad as his reputation was — and it was — he never did me harm or caused me grief. Never.”

Bill Heine lived in a time when there was extreme crosspollination between artists and socialites. The Lower East Side and West Village were the epicenter of this explosion of talent. Rent was not a staged play; it was cheap. Often, the drug world was where people met — some lived but some died young. Those who lived left much evidence of their spirit in today’s film, theater, performance art and music


Clive Matson comments:

Brilliant portrait, vivid and accurate – kudos to Poynton – of the man who, without being noticed, frequently inscribed arcane symbols on the lintel or an edge of the doorjamb. My partner would discover these, copy and interpret them, trembling with their effects, while I was swimming in currents underneath this activity. Strange how some people with ultra-gnarly reputations were also intuitive, wise, and inspiring mentors. Anne Ardolino’s sense of Heine might be parallel to mine of Huncke.

For Tom Quontamatteo

April 30th, 2013 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

“Almost like dancers” completes Tom Quontamatteo’s description of horses mating in the fields at dusk. If he’d used a metaphor, that would color the horses in our minds. If he’d written “like dancers” we’d miss their essential quality, their horseness. They’re energetic and graceful in ways that are difficult to articulate, but we’ve all seen them, and “almost” frees our imagination to remember their full beauty and mystery.

Every poem shows this precise attention to the world, to his psyche, and to exactly what his words accomplish. “A full moon inflated over the eastern hills.” “Sirens wail in the distance like insects in search of a fix. “In the back of old Chevys still going straight in the hot redneck wind.” And “The telephone rings a few times before I take notice of it” concludes the title poem of his book, Emptiness That Plays So Rough. Quontamatteo presents the situation and his mind in a way that holds the essence of both.

Quontamatteo treats his subjects, mostly loneliness, flawed love, and tenuous spirituality, with the same acute awareness. His work is written in the plain, most controlled, most concise language of his mind, with no enhanced feeling or embedded glamour. Compare Wieners’ “A poem for record players,” where both are uppermost, with Quontamatteo’s “Minor Chords,” which has neither. Such an exquisite sense, of how little need be said, should elicit admiration, but Quontamatteo’s own estimation is understated. Did he not know the beauty he created?

There was nothing glamorous about his adult life. That he was bipolar is troubling. His decision to die without medical analysis, in one view, is admirable. His acceptance of the psychiatric industry’s arrogance and disregard is another. “Do you talk to your therapist?” we asked, after an episode like that in “Wondering What the Trouble Is.” “Yes” was his answer, but it was clear he wasn’t being helped and he didn’t know how to manage. He let his teeth turn black and rot in his face.

The poet functions as personal and cultural guide, and this shamanic quality is omnipresent in Quontamatteo’s poems. But our society has dismissed that role, to our loss. Quontamatteo participated by devaluing his life, profoundly aware of his ineffectiveness and of his sadness. “I am calling your name as if you can hear me.” “I put together an insignificant poem, my evening’s raison d’etre.” “My reality is, yes, a contrivance, etched out of loneliness.” The same can be said of many of us, and the shamanic quality of these lines needn’t be restated.

Nothing was said to Quontamatteo about his value, beyond the little a few friends mentioned. I participated, too, sadly, unaware and slow to express my love. Free now from the pressure of trying to relate, I see Quontamatteo’s power.

“Now that I am gone I am leaving you alone with me for the first time.”


January 23rd, 2013 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

“I write it so I can read it,” said one of our writers.

Of course, what could be more obvious? We want to read what we write, and that’s not possible until we see the words on paper or on the screen. And we instinctively take this further, don’t we? We want to share our writing so others can read it.

“I hope you write it so we can read it, too,” someone quipped.

“No!” The writer made a face, twisting her mouth. “You don’t get it.”

We look at each other. “Explain yourself.”

The writer slowed down and spoke emphatically. “I find out what the words are as I write them.”

This is a wowser. Is she writing so fast she doesn’t know what the words are? Or something blanks out the words, but she’s still able to write? This is mystifying. We ask her to continue.

“I don’t know what the story is. I find that out as I write.”

Okay, this, at least, is familiar. We often hear that writers learn what their stories or poems are about after a draft is done. Is this our writer’s experience, too?

“You discover what the story is as you write it?”

“Yes. The book was already written. It just had to get through my fingers into the computer.” But then she takes a breath and gives us the full picture. “I have no idea what the words are until I read them on the screen.”

She means it literally. Having “no idea” is extreme. I throw up my hands, this is beyond my experience. But the workshop must go on, so, hoping that this case can shed light on more ordinary processes, I invite comments.

One writer says that every writing day is an adventure. Her subconscious has been busy, very busy, while she’s not aware of it, at work or at play. “I love the discovery that’s involved in writing.”

“Writing helps me see what I think. If I’m just thinking it, it goes away.”

In Deborah Janke’s novel, The Spy’s Daughter, the professor has an alter ego, Gudrun, who’s a sort of muse. The professor explains, “Gudrun is the one who sabotages my plans and makes poetry possible.”

I’m reminded of David Whyte’s observation. “Poetry is a way of eavesdropping on what we didn’t know we know.”

Another writer comments, “To be a writer is to be a spy on one’s own insides.”

By definition we cannot know what the creative unconscious is doing, so that fits. We are spies on the work of the creative unconscious.

But not knowing what the words are, until you write them?

That’s a mystery of another order. Our writer’s awareness must be so close to her Crazy Child that there’s no space between them. That’s very unusual. Usually we capture words in our head and wrestle with them, knowing what they are, before we push them out our fingers. This writer’s words come out her fingers before she knows what they are.

Then our writer ups the ante. “I dreamt about my novel. There’s a photo that’s supposed to show all three members of the family. But the dream photo had only the mother and the son.” She looked surprised and pleased. “It was blank where the father should have been.”

“What did you do?”

“I killed off the father.”

And that, we found out later, worked. The father needed to be out of the story. Our writer wasn’t responding to a random message, but instead to a signal showing that the plot had already been developed.

“I write it so I can read it.”

We’ll give it full credence, the next time someone says this.


(With help from Elaine Watt, Sheila Meltzer, Jean Hohl, and Sally Bolger.)

Early Influences

November 12th, 2012 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (3 Comments)

I’m standing at the Berkeley City College podium about to accept a lifetime achievement award. Tears stream down my cheeks. I’ll need to speak and of all the ideas rattling around my head, I haven’t settled on one. I tell this to the audience and mention, “I asked my mentor, Herbert Huncke, who passed in 1996, what to say. He thought for a moment and then replied, ‘I have no idea.’”

I begin a mini-biography on the spot. An old fellow, with elegant gray hair streaming from his tonsure and an alert glint in his eye, introduced himself as a poet. “How did you get into poetry?” I asked, and he shrugged. “Teenage angst. I never left it.” That’s the feeling in the body, an authentic, informing source of the first poem I wrote, too, at fourteen. I quarreled with that impulse for years because it wasn’t cool. I would work halfway out, and the impulse would pull me back into one of the body’s disguises. Little by little I sank into the creative unconscious and got stuck.

Michael McClure laments in Dark Brown, “So much to remember, so much to remember, so much to remember.” The conscious mind admits so much is going on in the creative unconscious that it can’t keep up. The poet stands at a portal, overwhelmed. Confronting a darker portal, Alden van Buskirk wrote in Lami, as he was dying, “I could write in all tones, mad and/or sweet drones.” I hear this as awe at the range of possibilities. Allen Ginsberg concurs in a casual, playful tone, “I am eye, old father fish eye,” with a touch of self-mockery, since “Fish eye” might be something suspect. But to this young writer, his words hinted at the wise and mysterious strength of the sea, as if that’s the creative source and Ginsberg is there, swimming in it.

In The Hotel Wentley Poems John Wieners asserts, “The poem does not lie to us. We lie under its law.” The poem does take over our minds. We are like the Greek soldiers, whose epitaph reads, “Here we lie, obedient to your will,” and we’ll tell untruths to serve its ends. We should do just that.

In 1964 Diane di Prima wrote, “The sidewalk is crumbling into diamonds. In the sky a mouth is opening to take you finally in.” I drop into the myths and passions flowing through us when I read this. Could it be an accident that the men, effective at pointing the way, contrast so sharply with the woman, whose words themselves are a portal?

Alden van Buskirk’s advice to himself was “Indolence.” That’s his way to the source, and it underlines how the huge amount of cerebration about poetry sucks our energy. Whole systems of thought tell us how to write poems, what we should include, what we should leave out. We’ve got those systems in our heads, and bend under their weight, even if we haven’t been to school.

Just be lazy, says van Buskirk, and they’ll go away. How refreshing and how simple, like Timothy Leary’s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Except that we can ignore the middle command. Once you tune in to the creative unconscious, you are turned on.

You might want to turn yourself off, though. The creative source could have raging sand storms, rain funnels, a chaos of weather, foul mists, and glorious sunsets. No wonder the conscious mind wants to protect us! But too often that protection becomes a wet blanket.

Don’t give it energy, says van Buskirk, and that restrictive mind will vanish.

“Tune in and drop out.”

How does that sound?


Why write?

May 4th, 2012 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (2 Comments)

“When you write, you go deep into your most personal place, discover and make clear to
yourself what you find. And you share your most intimate self with your reader. You imagine
your audience and you speak your truth. You know you will be understood.”

These are Adele Mendelson’s reasons for writing. You might say, well, that’s true for a
poet who writes personal stuff. It doesn’t apply to prose writers.

But the same thing does happen in stories, I believe, though it’s probably not so easy to
recognize. It happens through the action and through a change in a character. For the writer, the
personal insight may be a few steps removed. Why, for instance, did Flannery O’Conner have
the grandmother murdered after her epiphany in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”? Did something
come up for O’Conner about her family? We could ask a similar question of James Joyce, about
commitment and illusion, in his story “The Dead.”

Adele goes on, “This is a unique kind of communication. Best friends, lovers, even
spouses don’t receive this pure flow. You may speak to your husband about your work, your life,
relationship issues.

“But you don’t tell him, ‘In the earliest blue, I am gone. I’m not the me you know, I’m
far away in a space that only I can fly to. I return, put on my apron, kiss you good-bye. But one
day I may stay away. It’s not that I don’t love you. It’s because I am more – boundless, unknown,
hungry, free – ’”

How can you tell somebody words like those? Adele says you might not even know the
words until you write them. And you don’t say these things because other people “operate on a
different level.” She might have said that the poet operates on a more authentic level. In writing
and rewriting and thinking again, you reach for your exact, intimate meaning. “The poem is a
bridge from my mind to yours.”

This is close to what Allen Ginsberg says. “Poetry is not an expression of the party line.
It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world
public, that’s what the poet does.”

The power we experience in writing may be beyond anything. One grain of authenticity
may be worth all the self-doubt, all the naked feeling, all the struggle with demons. It weighs
more than a mountain of effort and pain. It’s life-changing and enduring. It stymies any system
of cost analysis.

One grain of authenticity. Go figure.


April 15th, 2012 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

Fifteen years ago my partner was into reading books, many books: mysteries, trendy novels, science fiction, trash novels, poetry, prize-winning novels. She’d finish one she liked and pass it across the bed.

“Try this, I really enjoyed it.”

I’d read a few pages and then stack it on the floor.

“That’s it? You read a dozen pages and you’re done?”

Yes, I’d tell her, that writer seemed to have an intriguing plot going but it didn’t hold me for long. Or I’d enjoy the dialogue for a few pages, but I wanted more. Or the characters were likeable at first but eventually I couldn’t relate. The pile of books at my side of the bed got large.

I was more involved with writing from the workshops than with published work. That didn’t seem right, so I surveyed book stores and asked other writers who read a lot. Of course there was, and is now, a wide variety of adroit, competent writing out there. My partner had shown me a broad sample. Still I was more interested in the workshops’ efforts.

“What about this one, should I hand it to you?” My partner had finished another well-loved novel. “Or just throw it on the pile?”

I couldn’t broadcast my prejudice, though, since I need to look appreciative for people interested in workshops. I learned to say something intelligent about current writers, especially those with cache, at the time Alice Monroe and Tobias Woolf. Or, if the questioner leaned toward classics, I’d mention Tillie Olsen or J.D. Salinger or Flannery O’Conner or Charles Bukowski.

What’s going on? I remembered something an alert reader had observed in the 1970s. He said enduring work has “muscle in the ectoplasm.” Maybe that’s the angle, for my first models were Alden Van Buskirk, early John Wieners and Michael McClure, when I was protege to the Beats during 1962-1967 in New York. Add Sappho, Simonides, Rumi, Shakespeare, Keats, Elliot, Virginia Woolf, and Marge Piercy, and there’s plenty of muscle. That muscle comes from deep personal commitment.

But this doesn’t explain why workshop writing appeals so much. Do our writers all happen to be great, just undiscovered? Does my personal esthetic seep into the air and into their heads, and we have a class full of Shakespeares? Are we part of Dorothea Brande’s university of the unconscious, and the writers somehow teach themselves?

Not a chance. Truth be told, I have no idea how it happens, and no idea how to introduce muscle. I think the only answer can be that our strategy, with its focus on the creative unconscious, directs us little by little to a barrier we can’t easily cross. We follow the restlessness in our psyches, or the itch in our bodies, and we come to a place where personal issues weave into the characters and into the plot. And, to continue, we have to develop a lot of strength. We have to solve problems.

I haven’t any idea how to teach this. In the workshops, we listen to the journey and support the writer. There’s nothing to do but say, writer, you put yourself there, now it’s your fight. Good luck.

“Yeah, Honey, just throw that book directly in the pile. It doesn’t need me to turn pages.”

I want to feel the tug-of-war as the author grapples with a serious problem. Work out, author! Like writers in the workshops.



March 11th, 2012 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

“Writing workshops are exercises in magic. The entire creative unconscious operates according to its own logic, by definition a logic we know nothing about. When we dip into our creative source, we’re dipping into magic.”

I give this talk every workshop. It opens another dimension of the Crazy Child exercise, where we tell the Editor and the Writer to take a walk, and let the Crazy Child write whatever it wants. In the tropics those voices could head for the beach, try bird-watching, or go climb a tree with the howler monkeys.

In Costa Rica, magic entered the room the moment I finished my spiel. A white moth, an inch-and-a-half wide, fluttered over the heads of the dozen people in our workshop. A gecko came suddenly out of hiding and scurried along next to the ceiling, in position to pounce. The hapless insect flew close to the gecko, and a second gecko appeared, twin to the first, a gray lizard-shaped animal about five inches long, moving adroitly high on the wall. For an instant the moth was poised midway between the geckos, who faced it from either side. We expected to witness the moth’s demise.

Instead the moth fluttered into open space. Flitting this way and that, out of reach of gecko jaws, it seemed oblivious, happy-go-lucky, and why not? It flew in comparative safety. The moth demonstrated the huge size of the creative unconscious: It lives in three dimensions and the geckos, in effect, are confined to two, the surfaces of the walls.

Casual magic is commonplace. How often does the phone ring, when a line is read that mentions the phone? Or a siren goes off, when there’s sirens in someone’s story? Costa Rica gave us a perfect representation of the Editor and the Writer in bad moods, or eager for action, or just hungry for lunch. And the Crazy Child escaped.

In Costa Rica the portal to the creative source is wide. When we did workshops in Scotland and Italy, wonderful as they were, the very things we love about Europe limited access. The portal felt crowded with cathedrals, museums, castles, and hundreds of years of tradition. But Costa Rica is Central America, it’s the new world and not much nibbles around the edges of any portal. A wide open sky with very little history we’re aware of, with sunsets you can walk into, hosts of exotic and colorful birds, a tribe of monkeys in the trees, a green flash almost every night as the sun sets, and a warm ocean that lets us swim freely and soaks away our doubts. It’s all as vast and as intriguing as the creative unconscious itself.

The geckos might have commented, with their crisp calls, “clack-clack-clack” a half second apart, on what we were saying at the workshop. They did call from their hiding places, but I didn’t notice any sort of fit. Afterwards I walked to my room, and the howler monkeys were talking. “Uhhgg-uh-uhmnhg-mnh” they called out in the trees, an extremely loud, dinosaurial sound like nothing else. You don’t have to go through a portal to hear these guys.

Do they speak for my creative unconscious? The calling continued into the night. If I could translate that “Uhhgg-uh-uhmnhg-mnh” I’d put it in a poem.