In a few different episodes of You Made It Weird this year, Pete Holmes reminded us of a common mindfulness metaphor, the necessity of finding good wood for the fire of consciousness to burn. As someone with bipolar disorder that often presents in aggressive manners, I have learned that this mantra is extra relevant to my day-to-day living. Whatever I allow into my brain holds the possibility of bursting back out, out-of-context & irrationally, tangled in a mess of psychosis. Thus, this year, especially the past six months, I’ve been acutely aware of what I allow into my brain, much like a dieter monitors what is eaten.
I see it in two ways; it is important to note the intensity level of the media & also the amount consumed. In the last few years, I have learned to avoid violent movies & video games, as they tend to feed fantasies & nightmares about possible danger & tragic outcomes. I’m also in a habit-changing phase to reexamine activities that make me feel guilty because of their relationship to violence & immorality, such as porn & fast food. Instead, I am focusing on engaging with stuff that propels the spirit forward, be it my mindfulness practice, my new exercise routine, or my daily reading & writing schedule.
In many ways, it is about avoiding unnecessary stressors. Like focusing on good conversation rather than obsessing over my phone, or like showing gratitude instead of bottling up bad feelings, I am learning to lean towards the positive. In my younger days, I signed all of my correspondences with “Stay stoked, Tyler,” which was less of an affirmation of positivity, but a regular reminder, both to myself & the recipient, to try to stay burning bright; as Matt Hart said, “Stay alive & stay light for as long as you can.” Here are twenty morsels of creation that helped me shine a tad bit bright this trip around the sun:
Weakness is the Brand by Maria Bamford
“You don't have to be that good at being a therapist to make a ton of money. I've been paying this one woman -- online therapy, two-hundred bucks a month. She just texted me: "Christine, of course you're stressed. You just had a baby."... And it was helpful!”
MB’s stand-up doesn’t just utilize mental illness as a schtick, but rather, it harnesses such hardships as the fuel that propels the performance on-stage. As MB notes in this special, the combo of medication, therapy, & personal growth have left her with less direct lessons & anecdotes from being one of the psychologically troubled; still, this hour takes a step forward in embodying the mental health journey in our current culture. The best example of this is her story about going to a funeral of a friend who committed suicide & hearing someone call the person selfish. Everyone is allowed in on a joke not everyone is in on.
End Times Fun by Marc Maron
“You never know when someone's gonna dump some shit in your head that's gonna ruin your life.”
I watched this special with my friends JH & CM right before the Covid put some brakes on the world. What a weird predictive force this special ended up being! MM is aging quite nicely, both growing into his curmudgeonly self & growing wiser in terms of being more contemplative & less reactive. Still, MM speaks for the “What the fuck!” moments in all of us, watching people bramble in & out of stores without masks, helpless daily to a president who chooses division on unifying truth & a society, which is in fact us, that seems hellbent on killing us, be it through global warming, societal upheaval, or all this junk we shove down our throats. When MM sits on the stool, you owe it to your inner turmoil to listen.
David Bazan at Tinker Coffee Company
“It’s hard to be / hard to be / it’s hard to be / a decent human being.”
One of the first & most soul-brightening things of 2020 was my 2019 Christmas present from DS: tickets to see one of my heroes David Bazan live. I’ve seen him a couple times before, both solo & with Pedro the Lion, & I think this was my favorite, a performance I’ve been living off of for the past eleven months. He’d play a few songs & then do some chatting with the host, back & forth till the night wore off. His young son was there just hanging out. DB could be seen both before & after the show just waltzing around the warehouse. I lied when I said “performance” earlier; really, what DB does, & what I strive to do in all my work, is generously & vulnerably allow the world to gaze upon you as your humblest self, be it in song, in conversation, or in mere being.
Bad Dad Brewing
When I moved back here to the middle of elsewhere, I was worried about a separation from fresh-ingredient restaurants (most of the eating places in my county are frozen / GFS places) & good local craft beer (drinking less these days, I want to make my brews count). Bad Dad Brewing filled a big hole in that regard, providing a safe (big converted warehouse space) & delicious (made-from-scratch pizza) option around here. I’m particularly fond of Sundays, when you can snag two pizzas & a pitcher of beer for thirty bucks.
I’ve yapped about this app by Sam Harris plenty on this here blog this year. Still, it obviously had to be on the list. In terms of managing my disorder--keeping symptoms in check, staying productive through the stress, & recovering from episodes--my new mindfulness practice has literally saved my sanity, & quite possibly my life, this year, & just to be clear, Waking Up is my mindfulness practice. Its daily meditation is the ten-minute break I take each day to re-ground myself, often two or three times over. Its conversations with mindfulness teachers & neuroscience scholars allows me to better understand the mind I’m often battling to stay balanced. That moment when I open my eyes after a session is often the most joyous part of my day, when I see clearly my body, my mind, whatever is myself, as simply more objects mixed in the world, ready to go. What a relief!
You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes
“Like, a lot of this is me putting this stuff out there to let a counsel look at it, like a group of strangers look at it, and just be like ‘is this that strange?”
In my battle for balance, I sometimes erase quiet & true solitude with any & all opportunity for the company of another; thus, I’ve had to stay mindful this year of not just turning on podcasts as background noise, something to keep me company when I should probably be practicing being alone. Podcasts first became interesting to me because it was one of the first spaces in my life where I heard men talk about their feelings, their interests, & their journeys honestly & openly; obviously I appreciate those same efforts by folks with other gender identities, but as a man from the Midwest, it was a shocking & necessary example of male vulnerability & progress. This is all to say that PH settles all those criteria with engaging conversations about how we laugh, why we love, & what we believe. As a podcaster myself, I feel granted permission to be goofy, a little off-kilter in pursuit of connection & understanding, thanks to PH.
The Bill Simmons Podcast
“Our favorite teams bring people together, keep family members close, bond people from different generations. Some of the happiest moments of my life involve something that happened with one of my teams.”
Not everything has to be in dogged pursuit of mindfulness & peace; much of that journey can exist in pleasure, in entertainment, or in contentment. Sports has always been that gateway get-away for me & BS has long been my pilot. I appreciate folks who are opinionated without being an asshole, who are knowledgeable without being a show-off. Like with You Made It Weird, in his own way, BS holds out his allegiances & models his thought-processes in a vulnerable, connective way. I escape into his episodes as a way to think of something beyond my own journey, the hallucinatory effect of fandom.
Sacred Smoke Herbals
A big change this year for me was swapping a self-medicating relationship with weed for the high-free world of CBD. My buddy JL introduced me to Sacred Smoke Herbals, a small woman-owned operation that offers that perfect top-quality / affordable combo of plant magick. Between the anxiety of having a mental illness, the chronic pain of my bad bones, & the late night tussle with slumber, my days possess spots of time that require some relief. I’m thankful for CBD’s ability to boost me legally without the distraction of the head high. These days I am rolling with either Lifter (for the needed pick-me-up) or Moon Dust (for the necessary calm down).
The New One by Mike Birbiglia & J. Hope Stein
“Writing is always a process of trial and error, but this was writing about my own errors, so the errors felt compounded, like I was re-living my own mistakes and failing at that too.”
MB is one of my favorite artists because of how he allows his work to snowball beyond bounds. Where most comedians would write & record a stand-up special & then move on to the next one, MB gets carried by curiosity, wondering what can be built further out of this special. It is like a house; additions & pole barns & landscaping & basketball hoops are added instead of just selling the house & moving on to build a new house. I got to see his special, The New One, live & I’ve watched it several times, often alongside new parents, but here, MB has brought in his wife, the poet J. Hope Stein, to add connective tissue through her poems, relating to the stories MB has already told. These new ligaments allow the beams to grow stronger & the joints to become tighter.
Diagram 20th Anniversary tarot deck
“I am afraid I have poisonous thoughts.” - Jack Hereford
Diagram magazine has long been one of my favorite literary journals, existing mostly as a online journal for twenty years now, but always with a few merch surprises up its sleeve, like the 10th anniversary playing card deck or the disc golf discs. This time, they’ve truly outdone themselves, honoring the two-decade run with a tarot deck set, featuring new pieces by past contributors, including personal favorites like Sean Lovelace, Amber Sparks, & Ross Gay. I’m no tarot head, but I just had to snag a copy. I’m thankful I did because it has already become a source of inspiration, begging, “How do I make the next creation even more timely & interesting than the last?”
The Nightgown by Taisia Kitaiskaia
“He watches / a virgin exit the church. Her beauty is a single / Plump word squealing in between the pews, / Leaving behind a sticky streak, marmalade or dew.”
I had the honor of being classmates with several incredible poets while at the University of Texas-Austin for my MFA in poetry, TK among them. She has created a truly unique voice situated at the intersection of surrealism, folklore, & translation. It’s no secret I like poems to unnerve me a little. These poems do just that, insisting on exploration over explanation, hilarity over clarity. I don’t just mean “hahahaha,” but more like “wow, okay, that just happened”--antelopes feeding on beauty, drunks toasting the speaker’s foolishness, “giraffes, [c]hewing the moon’s soft yogurt with blind lips.”As I’ve been editing my own next poetry manuscript, this collection has reminded me of the power of going on one’s nerve, as O’Hara recommended.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown
“A poem is a gesture toward home.”
I see JB exploring many of the same concerns in these new poems as I hope to in my current work--poem as container for an ever-evolving vision of the self. He is inventive, creating a new form, the duplex, combining the sonnet, ghazal, & the blues. He is precise, tapping out piece by piece, line by line, a vision of the full poem requiring truly giving over to the poem as a full-loop experience. He is open to possibility, utilizing line breaks as a way to make contradictions, revelations, & characterizations. This collection feels less like a book & more like a giant moment, teeming with a poetic commitment that feels really fresh.
A Treatise on Stars by Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge
“Consciousness embodies it by acting self-referentially, not dualistically as in seeing, not seeing.”
Once in Dean Young’s workshop, he asked us to bring in a poem by a poet we highly admire but that would surprise the class as an influence; back then, I offered Anne Carson as said poet, but now, I would present Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. As I’m becoming familiar with her work, after discovering her in the Hick Poetics anthology a few years ago, I’m evermore in awe of the space, both of the page & of the intellect, that her poems insist on filling. This new book speaks with a meditative tongue, but thinks in a prayerful direction. Wandering deeper & deeper into the connection between us & whatever is out there, from the grass to the farthest galaxies, these poems model another option in wonderment.
Schitt’s Creek / Longmire
“I’m incapable of faking sincerity.” - Stevie / “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” - Sheriff Longmire
Like with the Bill Simmons podcast, the mind requires moments to exist in a contented pleasure that creative, spiritual, & intellectual avenues don’t offer. This is where television usually comes in for me. With most television, I use it as mild accompaniment to mundane household tasks--doing dishes, folding laundry, cleaning--but certain shows shift right into a necessary form of attention. With Schitt’s Creek, I found some comfort in the face of my wife leaving, a comedic pick-yourself-back-up story too absurd to be true, but also somehow too heartfelt to not connect with. For spurts of the year, I’d find myself in late night hours, unable to stop crying, unable to find rest, turn to the Rose family & their community as my own playful distraction. With Longmire, it was a recent trip with my dad, him & I closing out days with this contemporary western drama. Over-the-top, it was rubbery enough to not bother the sensitive tendencies of my mind, but there was also a real humanity to the show that book-ended my own feelings of the day. The best television for me always toes the line between absurdity & sincerity.
Show Pony by Orville Peck
“You and I bide our time / And I miss summertime.”
This EP crashed into my life like a glittery meteorite. Burrowing out of the influence of grand country characters of yesteryear like Dolly & Elvis, OP has created here songs that have a deep, deep core to them below the glamour. This argument that he’s not country because he’s a gay Canadian or because of the glitz is just ridiculous. These six songs connect to the contemporary country music I love that is inclusive of both the past & the future, acknowledging influence (such as a cover of “Fancy” & a duet with Shania Twain) while also breaking new ground (such as representing LGBTQ+ country kiddos). For a fella that doesn’t show his face or use his own name, Orville Peck sure seems to be a great example of making the art you want to make, presenting oneself as truly as desired.
Long Violent History by Tyler Childers
“It’s the worst that it’s been since the last time it happened / It’s happening again right in front of our eyes.”
This is another album that honors its legacy while making true strides forward. His message that he released accompanying the album sums up this dichotomy well, calling for a better application of southern values to supposedly (as in “how is this not just the default yet”) progressive issues like racial justice. As a piece of art, I’m amazed by this album’s commitment to vulnerability. First, we get eight instrumental fiddle tracks, with TC himself doing some sawing, an admittedly new endeavor for him; to end it, the title track presents a liberal southern white man’s perspective of the current Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the Breonna Taylor & George Floyd killings. We should all hope to be so able to push aside our ego to pursue our values & our talents as far as they’ll take us.
The two Cuttin’ Grass albums by Sturgill Simpson
“You could have told me you didn't care about me / You could have told me you was the cheating kind / I'd be out on the town running around / Seeing what else I could find / Instead of sitting here without you / And with you on my mind”
I must have a thing for country artists who push their own boundaries, often just for the heck of it. SS is the current shining example of a musician who follows the pattern of his own wind. What started as an outlaw country trajectory added in psychedelic rock & jam-band vibes before blistering into last year’s Sound & Fury, an industrial rock record that coincided with an anime film. Now SS has hopped deep back to his roots, turning his first four records’ worth of material in two bluegrass albums. There’s this misconception that country boys can’t like non-country things, that somehow it invalidates our country card. SS has proven that not only do those forays into other matter matter, but in fact, it makes our hillbilly side even stronger.
“Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt / “Kyoto” by Phoebe Bridgers / “January” by Tyler Lance Walker Gill / “Where To Start” by Bully
Here are four songs from four strong 2020 albums. I stuck them here together for two reasons: practically, I wanted them to fit on the list & artistically, they all exude an angst that covered 2020 with its dust. “Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt is where I hide whatever hope I have left for my love with my ex-wife DS. “Kyoto” by Phoebe Bridgers is where I let loose the frustration I feel for how she left. “January” by Tyler Lance Walker Gill is where I let loose the frustration of what this year’s done to me. “Where To Start” by Bully is where I learn to live with the rubble of my current predicament. I’m always down for a rowdy, catchy song played entirely on heart strings.
Justin Townes Earle
“LE, LS / GS, GT / Don't mean one damn thing to me / Just get me something that will get me where I'm going / Like that pretty little thing riding by in a champagne Corolla.”
I wanted to take a moment here at the end to honor two of my favorite musicians who passed away this year. Clearly taken too soon, JTE’s death is a reminder of how anyone can struggle, how struggles loop in & out. I’ve grown as a JTE fan since his death, finding remarkable wisdom in his pop-rock-tinged blues. Whether quiet or raucous, the best JTE tunes burn because of his understanding of the dilemma of living: one must keep going until they don’t. My favorite JTE tracks since his passing have been “Harlem River Blues,” “Champagne Corolla,” & “15-25.”
“Then as God is my witness / I'm getting back into show business / I'm gonna open up a nightclub called "The Tree of Forgiveness" / And forgive everybody ever done me any harm”
JP understood the cosmic joke, that everything is at least a little ridiculous & thus life should be approached accordingly. His songs open up the possibilities of what can be in a folk song. I’ll stand by the fact that The Tree of Forgiveness is the best album ever made by someone over the age of 70. The expansive journey of his career should give all of us artists inspiration to just keep going, just keep making. My favorite JP tracks since his passing have been “When I Get to Heaven,” “In Spite of Ourselves,” & “Lake Marie.”
FINDING CONNECTIONS TO & APPLICATIONS FOR MY MENTAL HEALTH JOURNEY IN THE MAKING SENSE BOOK BY SAM HARRIS
“[H]istory doesn’t repeat itself so much as offer you a broad palette of what’s possible.” - Timothy Snyder (189)
In the preface to his new book, Making Sense, a collection of selected conversations from his podcast of the same name, Sam Harris declares this “a new golden age of public conversation,” thanks to the proliferation of podcasts & interview shows. He speaks to the benefit of our ability to “replace the voice in our heads with the voices of others,” learning, being entertained by, & keeping company with whatever expert, celebrity, or thinker one chooses to listen to on a given day. I’ve begun to think of managing mental health similarly. The negative voices of the self, in the case of mental illness, override the more stable, rational self; one of the main tricks in remedying this imbalance is by allowing the voices of others--therapists, mentors, heroes, your better side--in turn to override those disconcerting head voices, prompting one to retain grounding, make better choices, & navigate the murky waters better.
Reading these transcribed conversations, many of which I’ve heard before, I became acutely aware of how the prevailing interests of both Sam & his guests--consciousness, morality, free will, even artificial intelligence--strike similar cords to the work, in thought & in therapy, that I’ve been doing in my personal life regarding my mental health.. As I manage my bipolar disorder, I am attempting to be more mindful of what Pete Holmes reminds us on his You Made It Weird podcast: to give the fire of consciousness good wood to burn. In these conversations, I find much insight, challenges, & hope for the further understanding & management of this wild mind, this barnacled brain, of mine.
Harris often starts with the basic question, what is consciousness? Early on in the book, David Chalmers defines consciousness as “what it feels like, from the first-person point of view, to be thinking and piercing and judging” (3). Moreover, he declares that “a system is conscious if there’s something it’s like to be that system” (3). In managing my disorder, it is this awareness, or at other times the lack of such, that declares whether or not I am level, stable, & grounded; when I have an episode, a gulf divides the what-it’s-like-to-be-me from the reality I’m positioned in, often creating confusion & panic. In conversation with Anil Seth, Harris reminds us of the alternative view of consciousness that Chris Frith has offered, a theory of “consciousness as a controlled hallucination.” I know a thing or two about uncontrolled hallucinations, within, I supposed, the structure of consciousness.
In some ways, this experience leaves me better-suited to pay attention to the ebbs & flow of the controlled hallucination. As Harris said in conversation with David Deutsch, “Evolution hasn’t designed us to fully understand the nature of reality,” so thus, this is me talking, one must adjust as time ticks on, striving towards the best understanding possible. In their conversation, both Harris & Max Tegmark emphasize the possibility & necessity of this better understanding of reality. Tegmark warns us “that whatever the ultimate nature of reality is, it should seem weird and counterintuitive to us,” which is a sentiment, on a functional, everyday level, I can get behind (388). The reality I am familiar with, one dotted with hallucinations, time loss, & delusions, is already a rather peculiar version; here’s to hoping, as both our understanding of reality & my own trip within it continues, I might be able to adjust to such peculiarity with more grace than I’ve shown in my early days of madness.
Furthermore, Deutsch, without meaning to, offers some comfort, induces in me some power, when he says, “You can’t deduce an ought from an is. But we’re not--or shouldn’t be--trying to deduce; we should be trying to explain” (59). This is totally a misapplication of his idea, but this statement acts as a reminder for me to continue to understand my symptoms, triggers, & disorder, not to sit in the purely conceptual understanding of those things, but rather, to put that knowledge into action, by managing my illness & in some small way, making the world a better place; it reminds me of how my psychiatrist emphasizes the symptoms over the disorder, the treatable variables over the conceptual label. As Deutsch says later in the conversation, “[T]here’s no limit to the possibility of removing evil by knowledge” (75). In terms of my mental illness, this means talking to the experts, reading the literature, & practicing the mindfulness in order to prevent the terror, confusion, & pain my unchecked behavior can cause.
For me, I’m terrified & in awe of the depths of my mind, judging from the bits that spew up during spells or psychosis, as well as in my creative work & emotional connections. Harris in conversation with David Chalmers believes there is “reason to wonder whether or not there are islands of consciousness in our brains that we’re not aware of” (11). Later in the book, Deutsch supports this idea when he declares, “What we’re aware of is just the tip of the iceberg, and even our conscious thoughts are supported by a rich infrastructure of unconscious thoughts, which obey the same epistemology as the conscious ones” (82). Here, I am reminded of the critical necessity of maintaining a good subconscious, a la Pete Holmes’ tip, & making the most of my conscious mind. In one of the final conversations, Harris & Daniel Kahneman get into a lengthy discussion about the remembering self versus the experiencing self. Kahneman sees the experiencing self as “the one that’s doing the living” & the remembering self as “the one that’s making the decisions” (304). For me, that dichotomy becomes skewed in the face of symptoms or episodes.
In those situations, the remembering self has gone haywire, irrational & unduly influenced by misconceptions, misperceptions, & perception errors; now, it is the experiencing self trying to juggle both jobs & its many factors. As Harris says in conversation with Robert Sapolsky, “[M]ost of human evil is the result of bad ideas more than bad people” (275). In my case, my evil moments--harming LR, terrifying DS, verbally abusing others--often arise out of the bad ideas perpetuated by paranoia, hallucinations, & delusions. In the confusion & panic of such symptoms, I am overtaken by the bad thoughts arising, the ones I am unable to squelch. Similarly, when I look back on my past, this decade-long struggle with mental illness, I see clearly what Kahneman says about regret, that it is “not about something that happened, it’s about something that could have happened but didn’t” (295). I could’ve been more proactive in distancing myself from my victims before the tragedy; I could’ve been more careful about who & what I trusted for advice & counsel; I could’ve prevented the stressors--a big move, an ill-fitted job, certain social circumstances--that caused such flare-ups of symptoms.
I see now that I’ve been caught up in what Harris calls “the apparent split in my brain between what-it’s-like-to-be-me and what-it’s-like-to-be-the-rest-of-me” (11). That is part of the beauty in Sam Harris’s work with mindfulness & meditation; it bridges that gap. If we believe Thomas Metzinger, “[Y]ou have no self, but you have a self-model active in your brain, and it’s naturally evolved representational structure that’s transparent,” then there is applicable work to be done in awareness. Anil Seth claims, “We perceive the world as it’s useful for us to do so,” which is what I think is so frustrating about knowing when I’m slipping into a manic or psychotic episode (121). I am not functioning in a way that is reasonable & productive for myself. It is completely disruptive & at worst, destructive.
In terms of how we deal with things, Deutsch adds, “Science is a way of dealing with theories regardless of whether or not one believes them.” I use the scientific method & other methods of verification to settle myself when the rumblings of hallucinations & delusions begin, testing out the reality by asking questions of others (“Did you hear that noise?” “I’m starting to be paranoid that [this] is happening.”), checking for evidence (searching for the speaker of the voice I heard, maker of the shadow I saw), & reminding myself of the facts of reality (the conceptual nature of dreams, for instance). Deutsch means it more generally, but I am relieved to know “the fact that improvements create new problems” (90). I am not caught off guard when attempts to improve or actual improvements themselves bring about new challenges; I had this when my anti-anxiety meds caused manic episodes, I had this when my move home to Indiana started rockier than I would’ve liked, I had this when it took awhile to find the right, side-effect-free combo of medications following my hospitalization.
Though he’s talking about larger structures like society & culture, Snyder’s points can be brought down to the individual human level as well, with a warning to heed: “The future will always be full of surprises, structural forces we don’t anticipate, & accidents.” So what do we do in the face of that? As Robert Sapolsky says of behavioral biologists, in response to something happening, we must ask, “Why did that behavior just happen?” (257). I believe on an individual level, we can ask the same question of ourselves. In discussing free will, which Harris & many of his guests don’t subscribe to, he often points to the sheer number of outside influences affecting our decision-making--genetics, biological responses, subconscious impulses, others’ influence, etc. I see that point, but I have found avenues to circumvent such pressures, even in the face of mental illness & loss of control, such as separating from stressors & pinpointing biological catalysts. Though he’s talking more about philosophical & societal concepts, I like Kahneman’s clarification of “a fairly clear boundary about when you can trust your intuitions and when you can’t” (288). I apply this to my management of my mental health, back to the application of evidence-based modes of inquiry. He says you can trust intuition if 1) “the world [is] regular enough” 2) you “have enough exposure to those regularities to have a chance to learn them” & 3) “the time between when you’re making a guess and a judgment, and when you get feedback about it” (288). One thing to do, then, is to manage the container as much as I attempt to harness the reactive material within that container, creating a better context within which to work.
Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle, because, as Harris says in conversation with Metzinger, “[O]ur intuitions weren’t designed by evolution to enable us to grasp reality as it is. Our intuitions were designed to avoid getting hit over the head by another ape and to mate with his sister.” I, more than others it seems, have trouble keeping the lizard brain at bay, instead of leaning on reason. Furthermore, as Metzinger says, “The self-model we have as human beings is something that brings a lot of conscious suffering into the world” (179).” Then, I stumble upon something like this from Robert Sapolsky: “We assume that as creatures with big cortexes, reason is at the core of most of our decision making. And an awful lot of work has shown that far more often than we’d like to think, we make our decisions based on implicit emotional, automatic reflexes” (259). Again, in terms of disorder & symptom management, it circles back to awareness, training & utilizing mindfulness as a means to better understand the conscious nature of our reality & work in tandem with the unconscious impulses in our software.
At the end of his talk with Metzinger, Sam Harris calls for “a fully rational spirituality.” I think that is a good place to start. Using what we know of how the brain, & my mind in particular, works, I can situate myself in more comfortable contexts through mindfulness, gratitude, & better decision-making. This is totally out of context, but David Krakauer says, “The middle ground has always seemed lukewarm and uninspiring--but that’s exactly the bath I want to sit in” (377). When I first started therapy as an adult, my sophomore year of college, my therapist noted how I only lived on extremes, how I was all-in or all-out on situations; the growth comes, continues to come, through following the clues of my own experiencing to lead me to a middle-ground, somewhere closer to contentment, the safety of. Tegmark sums up my feelings well, “[I]f you’re a secular thinker, where does meaning and purpose come from? It comes from our having subjective experience, having consciousness, and I feel that we shouldn’t risk that” & this is me, by letting its depths run-wild, unfiltered & unprocessed, as much as I can (426).
One of the hardest lessons of these last several months has been separating the symptoms & pressures of my bipolar disorder from the grief & depression of my wife leaving. Before I acquired that skill, it was too much, was overwhelming, the disjunction of my mind & the pang of the broken heart coinciding. Since then, I've been able to see the sad seep on the edges of what would otherwise be completely normal days. I call them sad sack days, & I've found that singing my sorrow helps alleviate some of that burden. It gets me through the moments, through the mood, through the sad sack day. Here are seven songs that I like to sing on a sad sack day:
"Sometimes" by Luke Bell
Key Lines: "Sometimes I'm alright / And sometimes I get you off my mind / But other times all I do is cry, I cry"
Take with: a glass of whiskey, a seat at the drum kit
Quick review: This is a prime example of how contemporary country music doesn't have to suck. It packages Bell's modern cowboy swagger into a catchy tune that combines age-old despair & the classic structure of our lonesome country heroes of the past.
"Bite the Dust" by State Champion
Key Lines: "It's always shining on Kentucky when you're sad / But I ain't mad about the weather / I just ain't trying to feel much better about my past"
Take with: a warm shower, a good book of poems
Quick Review: The way Ryan Davis of State Champion clarifies how he's feeling is more poet than rocker, an honesty that isn't always brief, an experience that isn't always clear, as in exactly like life is.
"Weakness" by Margo Price
Key Lines: "I can't hide what I am, guess it's plain to see / Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me"
Take with: a cool glass of water, a handful of aspirin
Quick Review: Whatever your brand of weakness, Margo Price acknowledges the dual-nature of the self, one's good & bad. They say admitting is the first step; sometimes it is best to start with a song.
"Dylan Thomas" by Better Oblivion Community Center
Key Lines: "If it's advertised, we'll try it / And buy some peace and quiet / And shut up at the silent retreat / They say you've gotta fake it / At least until you make it / That ghost is just a kid in a sheet"
Take with: a PB&J & a glass of almond milk
Quick Review: The unapologetic forward-trajectory of this song forces one to sing along, to get tangled in the knotty mess of these lines. I find comfort in the being swept along, almost child-like joy of being in the blur.
"Oh Messy Life" by Cap'n Jazz
Key Lines: "Fire is motion. / Work is repetition. / This is my document. / We are all all we've done."
Take with: a lawnmower & a needs-to-be-mowed yard
Quick Review: Recovery is hectic, as they say, "messy," winding one's way through the catastrophe. Sometimes it just feels nice to shout in unison with another body, proof you can move along.
"I Said I Wouldn't Write This Song" by Black Belt Eagle Scout
Key Lines: "I said I wouldn't write this song / I said I wouldn't write this song"
Take with: a dog in the yard & a sparkling water
Quick Review: A song like this exists for that single line, loosely surrounded by few other quips, & in that single expression, there exists much possibility for application, depth. It might be deceiving how joyously I dance to this song in my yard with the dog.
"All the Best" by John Prine
Key Lines: "I wish you love / And happiness / I guess I wish / You all the best"
Take with: a cherished photograph & some CBD
Quick Review: I've been doing metta loving kindness in my mindfulness practice. This is that in song form, trying to move beyond the heartbreak to get to a gracious, open place, to be able to say to the one that hurt you, "I wish you all the best."
“Write what you know,” said approximately 1.43 million nervous creative writing instructors. “You just go on your nerve,” suggested Frank O’Hara. In these poems, Shira Erlichman does not panic in an attempt to communicate what she has experienced in her journey with bipolar disorder, but rather, she turns attention to the very drug meant to calm her in a concerted, fruitful effort to capture the nature of the happening. It is important here to remember the words we use to label this journey--bout, battle, struggle. These are acts of conflict, aggression, & difficulty & we mustn’t forget it.
“What they don’t want of me lives. It sees through my eyes that they would prefer it dead. It knows better than to whimper, or show defeat. What they don’t want of me breathes.”
I’ve learned first hand how wild it is to attempt to convey to folks how it feels to be mad, to be drugged, to be blurry-between; you can say the who & the what & the why, but it doesn’t capture the visceral excess of the experiencing. In these odes, which also take the form of sonnets & prose poems & ghazals & etc., I kept remarking on how the poems show great skill in repossessing the language of mental illness in the container of poetry’s various forms. Dean Young would call it shoving fission material in a reactor; I would call it putting wolves inside a fence. Regardless what you call it, these poems succeed in capturing the visceral nature of mental illness & the shape of experiencing it.
“Have you ever seen the dark split / into two peaches? Sickness is a lot like that. / To the uninitiated it looks like fruit.”
These poems take a razorblade to the moments to carve something truly expressive & connective for the ill; for the allies & uninformed, these poems can make crisp the state of experience otherwise cloudy for them. As Dean Young said, “The great accomplishment of consciousness is the imagination, & the greatest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” I’m reading Against Empathy by Paul Bloom, in which he dismisses emotional empathy--the attempt to feel what another is feeling--though not necessarily cognitive empathy, the informed, rational understanding & sympathy for what another person or group of people is going through. These poems achieve a empathic middle ground of entry for readers.
“Chicken wire undulated behind my lids / & the sky looked beat to death.”
These poems use an inventiveness that might only be available to the mad, the variations & the twists, the jumbles & the jams that we have, in our own cognition, been terrorized by, dealt with, & hopefully managed. In “They,” Erlichman deals with the difficulty of being two days removed from a psych ward, attempting to navigate small talk & conflict at a friendly dinner party. In many poems, she lives with the sights, sounds, & flesh of the people she met in the psych ward, both of versions herself & others. Never do these poems ask for pity, but instead, earn witness with their honest & startled lens.
“I retreated to my small room to sleep / two days on a wiry bed frame on public sheets / that had belonged to others’ private sweat.”
Today was a scheduled day to release a podcast episode for Dispatches From Elsewhere, but with the current climate & wanting to maintain focus on the right perspectives, I'm holding off on that. Instead, I'd like to compile a small list of resources that have been useful to me right now--as a white man, as a hick, as a hopeful ally--in supporting the aims of social justice warriors to end police brutality & obtain racial equality. This is a incomplete, randomly ordered list, but I hope it'll provide some folks good avenues for recognizing, processing, & understanding the current situation & what we might do in the face of it.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine -- "And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn't know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two step backs though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here."
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo -- "To interrupt white fragility, we need to build our capacity to sustain the discomfort of not knowing, the discomfort of being racially unmoored, the discomfort of racial humility."
"The American Nightmare" by Ibram X. Kendi -- "History is calling the future from the streets of protest. What choice will we make? What world will be create? What will we be? There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist."
DeRay Mckesson on the Bill Simmons Podcast -- Be sure to check out Mckesson's Campaign Zero, an effort to reduce the murder of civilians by police to zero.
The Daily podcast's updates
Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes -- "I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame."
"The riots were not senseless" by James Brigg -- "The ensuing violence might have been unsanctioned, but it was not senseless. To the contrary, the protesters’ violence has a tragic logic. It is a frenzied outburst among people who lack power and want to force those with power to pay attention."
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander -- “The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.”
"A Small Needful Fact" by Ross Gay --
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
With the world (hopefully) practicing social distancing amid the Covid-19 Pandemic, I thought I'd plop some More Recs More Recs for things that have been keeping me informed, productive, & mentally stable this week. What have you been digging in this strange time?
I can't stress this enough: when it comes to a pandemic, a global health crisis, whatever you want to call this Covid-19 situation, it is important to listen reasonably & rationally to scientists & experts. Here are some that have been keeping my paranoid mind in check:
In home-bound times, especially ones cased in such uncertainty & worry, it's crucial for me to feel productive, to have a list of reasons to get up, be it digital community-based work, homestead activities, or art-related activities. Here's a peek at my to-do list this week:
As someone prone to bouts of depression & mania, certainly when faced with isolation &/or a limiting injury like, say, dislocating my shoulder, I have learned some necessary routine steps that help me stay grounded, mindful, & strong. Here are some healthy activities that keep me in line:
I've been getting in the habit of making seasonal playlists as the years pitter-patter along, collecting songs as the calendar days go--new singles by favorite musicians, first “whoa-what’s-this” tunes from new-to-me folks, songs I can’t get out of my head, etc. There’s no reason, in the moment, for a choice, but there is certainly a theme, in retrospect. I thought I’d pop a favorite lyric & a little tweet-I-didn’t-tweet-because-I-don’t-tweet for each song. You can find the full playlist here. You can leave me thoughts on these tunes or recommendations for good tunes that got you through this winter. I would like that.
“The Ways of a Woman in Love” by John Prine
“Now when I come to see you, you're sittin' in the light / Doin' all those things I'm dreamin' of / You've got the ways of a woman in love”
FYI: an old John Prine singing a young Johnny Cash song is a good formula, really unleashes the tenderness of the lyrics.
“Be at Rest” by Possessed By Paul James
“For there are battles o in these classrooms, there are battles o in these hearts, if we don’t start to work together, man, this whole damn thing will fall apart”
Normally, it is his feet stomping & his voice howling that excites me most about PPJ’s performances, but this song hoots in its call for camaraderie & hollers through its insightful compassion.
“Texas Sun” by Khruangbin, Leon Bridges
“Wanna feel you on me, can't wait to get back there again / That Texas sun”
On them days when my soft heart yearns for my old Texas life, blurring in this forward momentum & Midwestern cold, I pop this song on.
“Untitled (Play It On Repeat)” by Courtney Barnett
“Tell me, would you even know? / Would you even care? / If you never see me again?”
Then on those days the distance & the paranoia commingle, I rest in the plucking melancholy of this song. Not only is Courtney Barnett (in the words of my wife) “a total badass rockstar,” but stripped down tunes like this showcase how well-knit her structures are.
“That’s Enough” by Janelle Monae
“Let's make new memories / Think of schemes that we can hatch / Make magic out of simple things”
I don’t care if it is a cover of an old song for the new adaptation of Lady & The Tramp, you can just send me every Janelle Monae track here till I’m dead.
“Single Girl” by Charley Crockett
“Fellers, if you’re listening / better not do like I did / just show the world you love her / instead of keeping it all hid”
This is how a good artist puts his own twist on a traditional tune, retaining the antique spirit while still updating some sense of the perspective, this time singing from the husband’s point-of-view.
“It’s Cool” by Lula Wiles
“Don't act like this doesn't matter / 'Cause I know it fucking matters”
It is like if First Aid Kit tried to write a Sarah Shook song, which is to say, “This song is awesome.”
“Sixteen Years” by Vandoliers
“Sixteen years / I've been working for sixteen years / Yeah I'm gonna make it if it takes another sixteen years”
The album cover is a yellow-tinted upside-down photo of some old train tracks & that tells you everything you need to know about this band’s ethos.
“Dead of Night” by Orville Peck
“See, see the boys as they walk on by / As they walk on by, as they walk on by / As they walk on / It's enough to make a young man”
It’s official: everyone’s favorite masked Canadian cowboy has become the soundtrack to both my dreams & nightmares--one where I couldn’t seem to reach my house returning from a walk across the family fields as the sun was setting & another where I sat on the patio of Savage’s Ale House & here comes people I’ve lost touch with.
“Stuck in a Head” by Mean Jeans
“Stuck in a head / How'd I end up this way? / Ding dang dude / I don't know what to say / I'm paralyzed”
Is there a way to find out if I’m the only person that owns multiple Means Jeans records & is a subscriber to the Waking Up app? Asking for a friend.
“Jingle And Go” by Ryan Bingham
“I got the struggle / I got the hustle / Got your lowdown blues and country shuffle”
I had to get over a psychological hump with this feller (he looks a lot like an old friend that drunkenly came to my house in the middle of the night & threatened to kill me), but this has become a go-to song for what we call “the daily dog dance,” the dogs & I bouncing around the property while a boogie plays.
“Neon Moon” by Brooks & Dunn (with Kacey Musgraves)
“If you lose your one and only / There's always room here for the lonely / To watch your broken dreams dance in and out of the beams / Of a neon moon”
Thank you Kacey Musgraves for bringing one of my favorite songs & favorite duos of my childhood back to relevance with your patented electronic hum rendition.
“American Childhood II: Bad Kiss” by Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band
“It’s just the war/Same fucking war/It’s always been/Never ends.”
In terms of the intersection of expansive concepts & country execution album-to-album, Terry Allen has few peers in the last fifty years of country music. No kidding.
“The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson
“There's a cup of coffee waiting on every corner / Someday we're gonna wake up and find the corner's gone / But the dead will still be walking 'round this ol' world alone / Oh, well after life is over the afterlife goes on”
I saw The Dead Don’t Die (the movie) like what six months ago & I still have "The Dead Don’t Die" (the song) popping in my head-radio daily. If having my favorite Sturgill song be a movie soundtrack tune makes me less-country, then send me back to the city, dude.
“I See A Darkness” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy
“And then I see a darkness / And then I see a darkness / And then I see a darkness / And then I see a darkness / Did you know how much I love you? / Is a hope that somehow you / Can save me from this darkness”
In the darkness of winter / psychological illness / elsewhere, I returned to this thick version of my favorite BPB song (which I just discovered is ((another)) Johnny Cash cover! WTF!) when I awoke from a dissociative spell in my underwear, ankle-deep in snow, mid-scream at the overcast sky.
“After The Gold Rush” by Jeff Rosenstock & Laura Stevenson
“I was lying in a burned out basement / With the full moon in my eyes. / I was hoping for replacement / When the sun burst thru the sky.”
Why am I falling in love with so many covers these days? I don’t know & I don’t care. What a joy to both be reminded of a classic song & too feel swept away by something completely fresh.
“Barbara’s Song” by Ian Noe
“Well, oh my / I'm a train in the sky / Sweet Lord, let me feel no fear”
I get it, there’s a whole bunch of these rambling, scratchy-throated folk singers that aren’t Dylan. I get it & still I can’t get enough. Screw off.
“Pearl Cadillac” by Gary Clark Jr. (featuring Anda Day)
“I remember when I left home in that pearl Cadillac / I was searching for some kinda way to pay you back / For your love, your love, your love / Your love, your love, your love / Your love, your love, your love / Well, I won't let you down, I'ma make you proud”
I was listening to the new Ringer podcast Music Exists & the hosts (Chris Ryan & Chuck Klosterman) asked, “Can a song sound like a place?” This is Exhibit A for me. I’ve never heard a song that sounds so much like contemporary Austin, TX.
“In The High of Morning” by Twain
“In the high of the morning / I discover it’s fine / to be gentle & kind / to myself & my mind”
Yes, I wish Mat Davidson was still the booming-voiced fiddle boy for Spirit Family Reunion, but if we can’t have that, at least we have this: Twain’s singular songs of bearded self-reflection.
“Hard To Be” by David Bazan
“You expect me to believe / That all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree / And helpless to fight it we should all be satisfied / WIth the magical explanation for why the living die”
There’s nothing like seeing David Bazan exhale into the mic--”it’s hard to be a decent human being”--& see 100 strangers nod in unison.
“Gates of Heaven” by PR Newman
“Better mind your manners while you’re living it easy / soon you’re gonna have to share”
If the world does me one music-related favor this spring, let PR Newman play a live show while I’m visiting Austin in March so I can see them play this live. Absolutely one of the top-5 bands I stumbled upon in my Austin days.
“Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt
“And don’t worry about that other guy / he’s just got the right tattoos / the brightest star in my whole sky / is you”
Maybe I am a skeptical prick when it comes to contemporary country music (I blame the onslaught of Luke Bryan bro-country bullshit), but Lilly Hiatt took some time to break through my thick skull. This song did it for whatever reason, maybe the Loretta shimmer of her voice or the fuzzy-bop-bop of the chorus.
“My Broken Arm” by Futurebirds
“Take the best outta me / Take it as far as your eyes can see / But don't leave me with my broken arm”
It is probably clear by now that I believe the title of the playlist I’ve been working on for close to seven years now--Contemporary Country Music Doesn’t Have To Suck--& songs like this are why, simultaneously recognizable as country music but sticky enough to bring with it several elements from the progress of the music of the last fifty years. See here: the emo-induced crackly voice & chugging guitar of the chorus.
“Milwaukee” by Maritime
“Everyone knows you were going / But I couldn't tell you when / You bought a postcard, your hands were new / And I knew I couldn't take you there”
Can we please band together & get Davey von Bohlen a lifetime achievement award of some sort? The dude was the man in both The Promise Ring (I’ll argue with anyone that they’re on the Mount Rushmore of emo bands) & Cap’n Jazz (noisy sensitive punks that are still influencing people today), & he continues to make incredible true emo songs with Maritime.
“Other Side of Town” by Sam Doores (featuring Alynda Segarra)
“Everybody’s having a party / I’m all alone / I ain’t got no body”
The Deslondes might’ve been the main musical ligament that stitched Diana & I together, so when I heard they are “indefiinitely on-hiatus” (can someone tell me what the heck that actually means?), I was very very bummed. This sad-ass song is somehow a perk-me-up tune, as it signals we get to keep on keeping on with Sam Doores’ good grooves & smoky voice.
“Pick Her Up” by Hot Country Knights
“If you really wanna rock the world / of a pretty little country girl / just remember when you pick her up / pick her up in a pick-up truck”
This is how you use your power & pull for good! Dierks Bentley is bringing 90’s country, roughneck hair metal’s little cousin, to the forefront in 2020. Thank goodness!
“Dust on the Bottle” by Curtis Chambers
“There might be / a little dust on the bottle / but don’t let it fool you / about what’s inside”
I am gonna be honest: I moseyed up to a video of this cover of one of my Mount Rushmore 90’s country male country songs when I was stoned & alone in the garage in the middle of the night & I’ve been addicted ever since.
“Nice to Meet Ya” by Meghan Trainor (featuring Nicki Minaj)
“Sweet, but I get rough, just what I wanna be / What I wanna be, just what I wanna be / I don't know you, but I'm just what I wanna be”
We’ve self-actualized the term “guilty pleasure” out of existence, right? Thank goodness! I’ll sit through the worst pop song (& this ain’t that!) for a NM verse any day
“Easy Money Down in Texas” by Ray Wylie Hubbard
“Roll into Austin about sun-up / Two Torchy's tacos and a Shiner six-pack”
Remember earlier when I was yapping about that question “Can music sound like a place?” For a state, Ray Wylie Hubbard has Texas on lock--the direct Texan references, the blues guitar riffs, the Lone Star-breathed vocals. I rest my case with this Hubbard track.
“Are You Thirsty” by Jonny Fritz
“Are you thirsty? / Are you angry? / Is there something I could do to help you through?
You know how they say humor is the sincerest form of honesty? I don’t know if they actually say that. Jonny Fritz writes some of the most haha country songs that still sincerely pack a pang. I spent January sober with this song as my neverending entrance music.
My incredible wife, the playwright / director Diana Lynn Small, is premiering a new play called House Play in Austin, TX in June 2020; with the help of the likes of The Ground Floor At Berkeley Rep & Salvage Vanguard Theater (SVT), who are also producing the premiere, she's been developing this performance for over 3 years, teaming up with some long-time, awesome collaborators. I am honored to be lending my hand as co-producer / creative support for this beautiful piece of theater.
At the end of February, we’re bringing this magic to my beloved hometown of Elwood, IN to put the final tune-up on the thing before the big premiere this summer, offering limited workshop performances to our local loved ones. Thus, this month, we’re raising money to cover the cost of travel for the collaborators to boogie out to Elwood, as well as to help fund our first leg of the tour after the Austin premiere. This play is meant to tour, so this is truly just the beginning (hint, hint: we hope to bring this show to a dinner table near you soon).
Here’s a little more about House Play:
Like its preceding show, Mad & a Goat, House Play is being developed with artists across the country--James Hapke / Marie Ponce / Paige Tautz in California, Heather Johnson in Colorado, Kate Taylor in Texas, and Diana Lynn Small / Tyler Gobble in Indiana. Following February's workshop in Indiana and June's premiere in Texas, the show will be toured to a variety of hometowns & beloved locations, with an emphasis on places without traditional theaters.
House Play is a new play performed around your dinner table. Part meal and part fairy tale, House Play is a dark comedy that follows three young girls who have been left for dead in the woods as they adopt new identities in order to survive: a Woman, an Animal and a Sibyl. It’s like if Lord of the Flies was a dark comedy, used household items as puppets, and featured female characters.
Would you consider donating to help House Play? Any amount, really ANY! is exactly the love and support we need. Here is the link to donate.
Starting at ten bucks (Instagram shout-out from the House Play account) up to 5000 big ones (for your own private performance of the play), we have lots of fun rewards for donating. At the fifty dollar range, we are offering personalized rewards from the various team members of House Play, including a limited-edition release of Diana's unreleased album Bad News & my offer of a special, made-for-you package of letters, poems, & collages.
Being around these incredible artists has truly enhanced my own artistic vision & zest for living, & I hope it'll do the same for you. Please don’t hesitate to email with any questions or comments. Stoked you are alive.
Again, here is the link to donate.
Good gracious, aren’t end-of-the-year lists annoying? I repeat this sentiment I have heard elsewhere, both feeling it & rejecting it, at least for this purpose. I must insist on giving props to the makers--of things, of art, of moments--that, to not be hyperbolic at all, changed my life this year, or at least, prevented a negative change as I dealt with 2019’s collection of transitions--accepting myself as someone with a major psychological disorder, leaving Austin / moving back home to Indiana, & learning how to be a homemaker. The people I respected most in my formative years modeled an enthusiasm for stokedness, be it my dad psyched for another hunting season with his buddies, or my favorite literary folks blogging away about what they were reading, or the just-a-tad-bit older dudes in this area playing their rowdy songs & singing along to their friends’ bands with unabashed joy.
This list, though certainly incomplete & flawed, showcases a balance between the comfort of home & last-spark of time in the big city. I am feeling thankful for “my spots” in Austin that provided me good tunes (& other arts), good booze (& other things to toss down my gullet), & good times (& other variations of moments); as I told a friend today, Austin really was an amazing place to finish out my 20’s. But back here now, I am thankful for the local businesses & makers & their persistence, staying open & keeping on with the small town vibes, how the history of this place continues to pulse & expand. I cannot help but laugh at the people who think of this place as “the middle of nowhere.”
Today I woke with that feeling hovering over the skin, like maybe I’m living someone else’s life, which rather than depress or disrupt, rather injects an needy empath like me with a grave, kinetic urgency for each & every moment. Top of the list of small-but-distracting agitators today is the fact that I can’t find the envelope this spirit I inhabit has been stuffing with an assortment of poems & collages, along with a letter, this body I find myself inside had been itching to send Dean Young--this brain’s favorite poet & a former self’s grad school mentor. If I learned one thing from Dean (though the mountain of quotes & anecdotes I lug say much more knowledge I’ve surely acquired), it is that poems are not modes of communication (“poems are not a horn you blow your shit through,” I once remember him saying in class); if I have learned one thing from my vast times living in the middle of elsewhere, it is that letters certainly are.
Now comes flooding a memory of a letter Mary Ruefle sent to an old pal of mine, another influential poet I’ll leave unnamed though whose moments & verse are stitched here inevitably; she dusted the page with perfume & a small drawing, if memory concocts properly. “All poems are a form of hope” is what Dean Young declares in his latest. For me, the hope is in the future possibilities that the poem represents. The poet lives, has lived! Another poem will be written! I’m about to see something I’ve never seen, yay! That’s what the best poets insist in us, I think, even if they are in fact dead or a thousand miles away (real or perceived); luckily for us, like these new volumes & like the vigorous poems within, MR & DY are anything but dead!
Once I saw MR open a reading by demonstrating how to fold a fitted sheet. Once DY let me come over to his house so he could sign a copy of his book for my parents. It’s not what is communicated, what meaning might get made, etc. It’s about the grand possibility of the raddest gift of human consciousness--language.
In these two new books -- Solar Perplexus by Dean Young & Dunce by Mary Ruefle -- I found what I have come to expect from these personal Mt. Rushmore poets. DY is pushing the limits of contemporary poetic disjunctive & dysfunctional utterance through odes, occasional, & litany-laced poems, while MR is dancing in brevity & the anecdote as modes for reflective revelation. We find MR in continued conversation with the contemplatives, the Japanese poets. We find DY channeling the huge spirits of the lost bodies (Tomaz Salamun, James Tate, John Ashbery). Even in this check-marked expectation, there is a reverberating baffling quality of where those modes & meanderings lead.
Once DY wrote a poem called “Mary Ruefle Poem,” which she published in one of her books, & MR, likewise, wrote “Dean Young Poem,” which he plopped inside his own volume. In a recent interview at Neon Pajamas, MR recollected very simply this collaboration, “It was a lot of fun to do. It was like trying to channel him. I don't really remember. I loved the project, I love that we did it.” No extravagance, no nostalgia, no fabricating. The poems in her new book hark a similar herald, gluing plain memories & crisp language to the page. She reminds us in the power & difficulty of brevity.
DY, likewise, spins some smaller webs, among his normal page-and-a-halfers, but anywhichaway, these poems enact what DY has been preaching for years. Take this ending paragraph from a short 2005 essay in Poetry Magazine: “Poetry’s primary & perhaps only obligation is, through the manipulation of its materials, to express and discover forms of liberty, thereby maintaining the spirit through constantly renewed meanings. Its greatest task is not to solidify groups, is not to broadcast, but to foster a necessary privacy in which the imagination can flourish. Then we may have something to say to each other.” This chunk of his, fairly enough, could be its own review for each & every DY book.
I will be honest with you--I did not even know these two heroes had a new collection out till my buddy Brendan sent me a screenshot of a DY poem after he carried it home from a bookstore. “How embarrassing,” I thought / felt. But of course, these two might would say it is better this way. I do not attend poetry readings anymore. I live nearly two hours from the closest bookstore with a reasonable poetry selection. I have not spoken to a poet in person in months! Instead I have been clapping through the clutter of my grandpa’s nine decades, setting up this Future Barn for hopefully a few more. I have been walking the dogs across the family field. I have been reading & writing, hallucinating & cutting out, inventing & drowning in lots of words, both my own & others. Still, the joy these two poets have once again brought me is paramount to my continuing, obvious in my grinning. I couldn’t quit poetry if I tried, as it stitches together my hide.