In her memoir, A Sketch of the Past, Virginia Woolf insists that making art means dropping into a collective mind-stream. “Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or a Beethoven Quartet,” she says, are some truth about who we are. “But there is no Shakespeare,” she adds, “there is no Beethoven. Certainly and emphatically there is no God. We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” Though I am writing down these words from memory (and so might not have them quite right), they still resonate deeply with me.
I have always been engaged with artistic processes, collaborations, communal creations like the ancient Japanese poetic form called Renga that involve interconnecting minds rather than individuals, and evolving thought that belongs to everyone. I don’t think of art as precious or self-contained, and like to practice myself through a myriad of distractions. Just now, at my daughter’s gymnastics practice, there is a little boy with a screeching tyrannosaurus rex. I am half-paying attention to the way his imagination is working with his new toy, because, and I mean this to sound at once whimsical and grounded: there might be something there for me. As a practicing Buddhist, I do not wait for a mat to meditate: my whole day (doing the dishes, thinking through a question my son asks before answering, talking to an angry colleague, watching, again, that particular quality of light in the late afternoon in Prospect Park) is a meditation; and when it comes to making art, I similarly crave or need contemplative space rather than solitude. This means that children might be gazing over my shoulder at the poem I am writing and also asking me questions about it, some of which will invariably work their way into the poem. I am after a quality of attention and alertness that is involved with and part of a community, that acknowledges the importance of public undertakings.
Also, I have faith always that the next thing that pops into my head will lead me somewhere worth going to. I tend to follow threads without judgment, without worrying about whether or not they are “important.” And I have never thought of my own practice in poetry and other forms of writing, or glassblowing or singing or performing as separate from the other engagements in my life, among them family, community practice and activism.
My creative life has always taken place at the intersection of social activism. When I was a graduate student in a doctoral program in literature I also worked full-time directing an HIV/AIDS project in New Jersey. This “job” naturally found its way into my dissertation, my poetry and my teaching, and also started me thinking about a life in which love, a “profession” and art did not compete with one another for my attention, but were part and parcel of the same thing. “Let the beauty we love be what we do,” Rumi says.
I am interested in any medium that carries wisdom. I am currently also teaching at Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and conduct workshops on poetry and community practice as often as I can elsewhere. Recent publications include poems in Logolalia, a chapter on the poet, Kevin Young, in American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan University Press), and an essay on art and ecology in the environmental journal, Watershed.