In Praise of Small Spaces

“‘This is fine,’ replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.'”

-Voltaire, Candide

Click for Photos“It’ll be like living on a boat,” a friend remarked upon hearing of our plans to move to a tiny cottage in rural England. Looking out my office window at the expanse of field and garden stretching beyond the horizon, it now feels more like a toy submarine, at the depths of what my wife’s Aunt used to call, “England’s green aquarium.”

This is not the first time we have downsized — going from California to London was a huge lifestyle shift. But when I tell American friends that our Victorian cottage in the countryside now measures 500 square feet in total, they understandably laugh, since they often have bigger garages than that.

But then, when I describe our narrow strip of garden that stretches back almost 300 feet, in several stages, past apple trees and tall poppies to a honesuckle-clad archway leading into a final, secret garden with its Monet-like profusion of wildflowers and a single wooden bench — well, then they want to come visit. As an American poet, the Walden-like aspect of retreat also appeals to me immensely.

Furthermore, I know that creativity often springs from constraint. Force your thoughts into the tight little “rooms” of a sonnet (which is what “stanza” literally means in Italian) and the language becomes more interesting than if you give yourself indefinite space to ramble on. A concise poem is a more elegant poem. And, as I am discovering, a life with conscious constraints is often a more elegant one, too.

One definition of “elegance” might simply be quality over quantity. When we had lots more space, we had greater potential to unconsciously accumulate lots of stuff. But then I found myself spending more time managing the stuff around me than I wanted to, instead of focusing on the stuff within me.

And so I am learning to take pleasure in the little cultivations of a simple life. A poem comes present line by line, and a garden takes shape snip by snip. Already the results of this recent fierce pruning are beginning to bloom.


Citizen of Poetry

Cactus BlossomI spent fourteen months in England, working hard to make the odd feel normal. When what is foreign feels odd, it is understandable. But when what was formerly normal now feels odd, that is perhaps the oddest feeling of all.

I now find myself, back in the US for a brief visit, ambling through coastal California towns taking snapshots — both mentally and with my iPhone — that a British tourist might take: cactus blossom, stars and stripes, the shimmering coastline. The very scenery of my childhood and early adulthood has become an archaeological dig.

The “shock” in the phenomenon of reverse culture shock occurs while driving, when I turn at an empty intersection and there is a momentary flash, in that between-lanes space, where I have to think hard to remember which side of the road I should be turning into.

Yet I always make the turn. There is a way in which intersection has become more the norm, and made the counter-shock less shocking than I feared. Sucking on a chili-covered lollipop from Jalisco, Mexico while sipping a mug of English tea, it occurs to me that I have always lived in the interstices of cultures — first on the US-Mexico border, and now as an American in England.

More and more, I feel both “at home” and “on vacation” wherever I go. Although my formative experiences will always make me an American, the context through which I relate to the world has expanded beyond my sun-drenched beginnings. For me, this is the place where poems come from — in fascinated relation to the world at large, through moments of specificity.

Perhaps, in this sense, my travels have made me a citizen of Poetry — that state governed by aesthetic appreciation of human affairs, where the tax is repaid on one’s attention by the ability to abide in liminal mysteries, living deeply, line by line.


At Home in the English Countryside

“A stillness so complete, you hear / the whispering inside of you”

-Jack Gilbert, “Betrothed

During the most recent London riots, I was ambling through the Wye Valley with family, staying in a 12th-century monks’ cottage, and meditating on the nature of peace. A seed was then planted in my mind about how necessary the natural world is to me, perhaps to all of us. I love it for its unassuming present-tense state of being, how it seems to lack all ambition in its persistence to thrive. Perhaps that is why settling in to our new cottage in rural Hertfordshire this week, and getting to know the surrounding meadows and woods, has felt so deeply restorative.

Today during one of our country walks, we came upon a field of horses, who approached us curiously but cautiously, and seemed to embody this alert-but-strife-less state. It seems the more I can approach my life and art the way this colt approached us strangers, the more I might abide in this place that is at once vital and content.

Because the visual landscape has been so much a part of this experience, here are some photographs I took over the past few days of the surrounding area.

It is a green beyond anything I have ever known. Next week, we return to the beiges of Southern California for a visit. But the green, having found its way into my core, goes with me.


First Year in London: Lessons in Negative Capability

“Not wrong, just different.”

 — Valerie‘s mantra for overcoming culture shock

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of my arrival in London. This afternoon I attended a reading at Keats House in Hampstead. Four volunteers read poems and excerpts from his letters dealing with the concept of Negative Capability. This ability to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” is something I have cultivated in my writing process, and admired in the work of others. However, it occurs to me that living in London has exercised this quality in my life as well.

My first time living abroad has also been my first time living outside of California. Stepping off the curb while looking in the habitual (but wrong!) direction can cause a visceral shock. But the same can happen in conversation. Learning to navigate the labyrinthine streets of London can feel stressful and overwhelming. Likewise, the literary terrain. And semiotic estrangement produced at least one new poem.

Challenged with startling newness, the temptation is to make a split-second decision: either “they” are doing it wrong, or I am. But neither decision is sustainable, or leads to positive adjustment (for there are more of “them” than me, but in the end, I have to live with myself). So instead, I have been repeating my English wife’s third-way statement, which she used extensively while living in California: “not wrong, just different.” This in itself expands my capacity to abide the contradictory.

Also, faced with so much newness, the temptation is often to compartmentalise. Continue reading…


Small Gestures

“A short poem need not be small.”

-Marvin Bell

20111018-111259.jpgI am tapping this out on my iPhone from Florence, having left the laptop in London. My first time in Italy finds me marveling at so much grand art, and wondering if there is still a place in the post-colonial, post-modern, post-financial-collapse world for the enduring opera magnifica.

Though my nickname in the seminary was “Dante”, my own poems often focus on small moments, coaxing the universal from the quotidian. To attempt to expiate like Milton these days just seems somehow naïve.

Is it true? Has the grand just become grandiloquent? The epic apocryphal? What is left worth having writ large? If Signor Alighieri knows, he isn’t saying so far.


Finding My Footing

Photo: Wikipedia

I declared my intention, over and over in my head, to “hit the ground running” upon my arrival in London. After three weeks of pounding the pavement with a heavy laptop on my back during my daily commute, I developed plantar fasciitis, an injury to the connective tissue at the arch of the foot. After a range of treatments, including stretches and shoe inserts, tonight was the first night I could walk home from the tube at a normal pace without pain.

It has been nearly three months since they stamped my resettlement visa at Heathrow Airport. Since that time, I have been putting one foot in front of the other, journeying toward what I hope might one day feel like “normal” life again. Each step has been an act of faith, and often what I thought looked level turned out to be uneven ground. So often, whatever I assumed, culturally or logistically, has been perfectly wrong.

My parents are over to visit, giving me fresh eyes on my new circumstances. Having them here brings a much-needed sense of continuity back to me. Still, the journey ahead is one I must ultimately take on my own — toward an understanding of what brought me here, and how to stand tall on foreign soil, sure-footed in this strange new land.


Reading, Writing, Surviving, Thriving

A Review of MFA in a Box by John Rember

Each chapter of John Rember’s MFA in a Box can be read in the time it takes to travel between Finchley Central and Leicester Square station on the Northern Line of the London Underground. I know because I read it this way. At least, I read full chapters on the days I could claim a seat. Other days, I read what little I could at the distance of two inches from my nose, using the book as a v-shaped shield against the armpits of businessmen’s suit jackets as they made their way into the The City to plan the next financial collapse.

A recent transplant to London from a rural town in California, I was following the “when in Rome” adage — immersing myself in written ideas to transcend the fact of my animal body crammed in with the warmth and smell of my fellow humans in a speeding subterranean metal box. Each article in the tabloids unfurled all around me had been engineered to be read in the length of one tube stop. By a precise mix of fact and moral opining, they were also designed to provoke an “Isn’t that terrible?” reaction, before being discarded in the overflowing waste bins at the top of the stairs.

I was reading a book about why one should try to write literature. But in fact, MFA in a Box is about much more than this. It is about how to survive, and perhaps even thrive, through writing, in this highly-engineered world.

I met John during my first residency in the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program. It was less than a year after the death of our infant son. John gave a talk that was to become chapter eight, about The Book of Job, and Leviathan, and why one should “go deep” in the process of writing — as “conscious dust” in a cosmos that we can only pretend to control, wrapping our arms around the big human questions because we are human, and questioners, and big and deep at our core, despite our cultural contract that says we should instead keep lacquering the surface.
Continue reading…