Tag Archives: Art

Coffee: A Steamy Love Affair

Coffee Poet.jpg

Those who know me know that I love coffee. Those who don’t know me can easily guess, thus far, that I have a moderate fondness for coffee. To be clear, I’m not picky; I like tea, cocoa, water, smoothies, milkshakes, juice. But coffee has a special place in my life.

I had my first cup in my high school cooking class. During one of the baking sessions, our teacher turned on the coffee pot near my station while our muffins were still in the oven. That’s when I had my first cup of caffeinated hot brown acidic water, filled with cream and sugar like most first-timers. After a while, I started drinking coffee whenever I cooked, then every morning, then every morning and afternoon, then several times a day. For a while, I got headaches when I didn’t consume any caffeine by 10:00 AM.

I’ve since become less addicted. I once considered giving it up for Lent but decided that not even Jesus would have gone that far. Nevertheless, I have cut back, and not just because I’ll probably have an ulcer by the age of twenty-six if I don’t.

There are coffee addicts and there are coffee lovers, and I want to be the latter. The difference between a violinist and someone with a violin is making every note a masterpiece. The difference between a chef and somebody who cooks every meal is mastering the kitchen’s tools and ingredients, and cooking with gusto rather than mere hunger. Anything can be an art, and the only way to become an artist is to inhabit a practice so fully that we infuse ourselves with it.

Everything about coffee is perfect to me, and if not I try to make it perfect. Espresso, lattes, dark roasts, light roasts, the smell of the beans, the feel of them in my fingers, the careful measurement of fresh grounds into the coffee pot, pouring the first cup, breathing in the scented steam before the first sip, and feeling it run down my throat hot and fresh, until it bounces around my stomach looking for a place to sit. I write with it; I read with it; I get to know people with it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly for me, which is likely why I haven’t slept since 2015.

What practice or hobby or food do you love? Let me know in the comments!

-jk

P.S. If you thought the title was cheap, consider all the other possibilities I had to work with. Drip coffee was only a starting place.

When a Story Strikes

Blank PagesCreativity is sneaky; it can strike at the most inopportune moments, and writers need to be prepared. Writers can find inspiration while showering, cooking biscotti, giving back rubs, performing open heart surgery, or in my case all of the above simultaneously, and creative ideas can whither if not recorded quickly enough. Many writers, myself included, carry around small notebooks to salvage sudden ideas.

Sometimes, the best preparations fall short. While flying home this week, I was enjoying the on-flight complimentary burned coffee when something in my brain clicked, and an idea for a story crystallized.

Before I could pull out my notebook and pen, the plane began to shake. The pilot announced that we should remain seated through the turbulence, “even if you do like it shaken, not stirred.” My tray table lurched as I flipped to the next blank page and scribbled down every detail of my brilliant, wonderful story idea while it was still fresh.

Several hours later, as I waited for the shuttle to my hometown, I had a few spare moments to look back at the brilliant, wonderful, award-winning story idea. Instead, I found in my notebook a slim paragraph of what looked like ancient hieroglyphics. My handwriting is bad to begin with; add a jittery writing space and a lack of patience, and clarity is doomed. I could make out the words “old man” and “saucepan” amid the scribbles, but otherwise my brilliant, wonderful, paradigm-shifting story idea was illegible.

Rest in peace, story idea. I’m sure what I would have titled “The Old Man and the Saucepan” would have been excellent. In my rush to preserve it intact, I lost it entirely. As a writer, I should slow down sometimes. More importantly, I should learn to trust myself to utilize a half-formed idea. Even the best ideas I’ve recorded legibly have evolved. Art, after all, is a process of evolution, patient and sometimes careless. The key to producing good art is the ability to improvise. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to clean biscotti dough out of my shower drain.

-jk

To Hear Hamlet (In a Cemetery)

Graveyard

This weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing a live production of Hamlet by Lincoln’s Flatwater Shakespeare Company. The performance was held in the Swan Theater, which also happens to be in Lincoln’s historic Wyuka Cemetery. The show started at sunset; as the characters progressed into madness and scheming, the night grew darker and colder, and the full moon rose higher and higher. The experience was exhilarating.

Ham1As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I love theater despite my minimal experience with it. Plays are not meant to be read, but seen, and heard. Words are powerful enough in print, but when given a voice, they have so much more power to move the audience. Some readers are familiar with how important voice is to me. I’m drawn to people with strong voices; to me, it’s the first part of attraction. I grew up caring about voice more than any other part of a person. Garrison Keillor’s rusty voice on the radio; the beautiful harmonies produced by folk singers, The Wailin’ Jennys or Peter, Paul, and Mary. Of course Renaissance theater isn’t for everyone; nothing is. But hearing Shakespeare’s words put to the instrumentation of a cast of strong voices makes it impossible for me not to enjoy those words.

But the experience of hearing Hamlet in a cemetery was even more gripping. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, the audience is reminded that hundreds of ghosts are in the ground behind him. When Hamlet contemplates mortality, that undiscovered country, we are forced to remember that emigrants to that undiscovered country are just a few yards away. Finally, when a clown digs up a grave, tossing skulls out of the earth, we cannot help but think that an actual gravedigger is performing the same task, under the full moon. We are surrounded by actual skulls while Hamlet picks up Yorick’s skull; we are surrounded by actual corpses while Ophelia is placed in the grave.

The very ground the audience walks on to reach the stage is defined by mortality. The theatricality of undoing the grave’s permanence, of waking up the dead and gazing into their empty eye sockets, hits us uncomfortably close. The stage mocks the dead we struggle to leave hallowed; we depart from the performance facing the cemetery illuminated by a full moon wondering if our own skulls will be unburied, if a tragedy will be staged on the field we’re confined to.

In this case, the play’s the thing wherein the audience finds its own conscience, and as we all know, conscience does make cowards of us all. That’s the power of theater, and poetry, and art. It places mortality in our face and invites us to wonder. To look around. To investigate. To consider that soon we’ll be departing for an undiscovered country, and we can either go mad waiting in line for our plane ticket, or we can enjoy the graces the terminal has to offer. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, unless we muster up the courage to laugh at all the skulls surrounding us. Why not laugh? Aye, there’s the rub.

-jk

 

A Novel That Sounds Like Bach

Typewriter musicStarting a new writing project can sometimes feel like latching onto an umbrella and jumping off a cliff, relying only on improvisation and plain luck to keep me from hitting the ground. The key difference is that, unlike jumping off a cliff, writing is a lot scarier.

The other day, I latched onto a good idea for a novel (lawyers, blogs, Texas). It’s since pulled me over the edge, and there’s no turning back. Fortunately, I have plenty to write about. I pull my inspiration from many sources, the authors I read, the people I talk with. One notion fueling this new novel is that I want it to read like the sonatas and partitas of J. S. Bach.

Of course prose and music are two different forms of art, but I’ve enjoyed listening to Bach for over ten years. I enjoy the deliberateness in his music. Nothing is superfluous, allowing the chord progressions to take center stage unhindered by a fixation with virtuosity, and I say this as a violinist who has personally dealt with the pretentiousness of virtuoso musicians and composers.

Instead, Bach patiently jogs along, sometimes as straight 8th notes for measure after measure. The emotions he conveys vary from movement to movement, but they always carry the same deliberate awareness, the same steady pace, putting focus on the chords rather than the structure. Similarly, I want to write prose that invites the reader to go on a run with it on an Autumn morning, that invites the reader to turn corners in an unfamiliar neighborhood but to keep running no matter what they encounter together. Ultimately, I hope to write something the reader can get along with easily, more a friend than a confusing professor. I admit that I am sometimes guilty of lecturing my readers in past stories.

I intend to listen to Bach’s sonatas and partitas while my fingers unravel this novel, but specifically I will listen to Chris Thile performing them on the mandolin. Bach wrote them for the violin, but I enjoy Thile’s rendition more. The timbre sounds more autumnal, more like raindrops or footsteps. And unless I get back to work writing, I may never see this idea to the end.

-jk

Questions About Charleston

Candles

The recent terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina, has warranted a variety of unsurprising responses. Among the various issues commentators are discussing (guns, flags, mental health, racism) is a debate about the language to use when discussing the attack. The terms “lone wolf” and “individual shooter” are popular to describe the attacker. It is rarer, however, to hear the phrase terrorist applied to Dylann Roof.

Roof walked into a historically black church, announced that he intended to kill black people, and murdered nine black civilians. He did not seem to target specific individuals but massacred a group of people. The location he chose was of historical and religious significance, and it has become apparent that he actively engaged white supremacist ideologies. Every fact of this case screams that Roof is a terrorist. My use of this term is not new or unique, and depending on what company you are in it may not be very radical.

But I’m reminded of another terrorist attack. Two brothers killed twelve people in Paris this past January. The contexts in both cases differ. The Paris attack targeted a newspaper for its conscious decision to portray the Prophet Muhammad; the French have a long history of politically oppressing Muslims abroad and domestically, which does not excuse the shooters but serves as a broader explanation for their motive. In contrast, the terrorist in Charleston targeted the historically oppressed population in the U.S., rather than the other way around. In the United States, racism has a painful history that I believe most Americans, namely white Americans, have yet to fully comprehend.

But both cases are terrorist attacks. The ideology the shooters in Paris carried with them did not come out of a void, but was inherited from other people and organizations. Similarly, the racism Roof harbors does not come out of a void. He also inherited it from the long-standing and violent presence of the KKK in the United States; he inherited it from a Confederacy of states who intended to maintain an economy on race-based slavery; he inherited it from five centuries of colonialism that built empires upon the backs of Africans in forced diaspora and cultural genocide; he inherited it from systemic racism that continues to lurch through American society in covert ways, in language and collective denial. Dylann Roof is in no way a lone wolf. He is the amalgamation of American racial hatred that is still alive and well. He is part of a system that produced him, and while he must be held accountable, so too must the society that created him. His intent was not only to murder individuals, but to assault the black community as a whole. What he did was an act of terrorism, and just because he’s not a Muslim does not mean we should refrain from using that term.

One thing that bothers me is how solidarity has become trendy, and by extension fleeting. Again, returning to the Charlie Hebdo attack, it became trendy to say Je Suis Charlie; it became trendy to oppose censorship, and then for a while it became trendy to critique Charlie Hebdo for its decision to deliberately mock Muslims (along with nearly every other religious group), but both instances ignored critical historical contexts (French imperialism, orientalism, the rise of anti-immigration and neo-fascist parties in Europe). But for months afterward, artists all around the world were expected to take a stand about Charlie Hebdo, to stand with those who died for their right to freedom of expression.

Fair enough, and I believe some good came out of that solidarity movement. I got involved in the fervor as well. I was angry, scared, confused. I wanted to write about it. Certainly it is unacceptable that a gun should be used as art criticism. The problem is that, in the wake of the solidarity movement, the violence did not end. The violence continued, but in other parts of the world. Boko Haram massacred students attending college in Garissa; the Taliban targeted people for trying to learn; a white man killed nine black churchgoers. Freedom of expression may not be at stake in each attack, but freedom always is. If we are to say we defend people’s rights all around the world, why do we only do so when it is popular to do so? Solidarity through twitter and social media, sometimes called clicktivism, may be useful in spreading information and awareness, but it must never be confused with actual activism.

We’ve collectively moved on from the Charlie Hebdo attack. We’ve drawn our cartoons praising artists and criticizing barbarism. Now we no longer feel compelled to write, to draw, to sing, even though the terrorism continues. And with a few crucial exceptions, Dylann Roof and the Kouachi brothers committed the exact same crime. The only real difference I can see is that Roof now has the privilege of people trying to take the blame away from him by pinning the issue on guns or psychology or upbringing. Perhaps even worse, he alone must bear responsibility while everybody else who is a part of his ideology, the entirety of the United States, its history of trauma and its ongoing racism, can walk away blameless.

So what can I do? I can educate myself and change the way I approach this attack. I can suggest that we address this for what it is, a terrorist attack rooted in systemic issues, and I can attempt to draw attention to those systemic issues. I can explore and identify the historical contexts, I can write poems of solidarity and short stories that tackle racism in U.S. society at all levels. I can write with candor or try to use metaphor. But will it do any good? I’m tired of seeing solidarity become a fleeting trend. I’m tired of seeing white people taking selfies at predominantly black protests against racial profiling among police officers, #LoveMeI’mALiberal.  I’m tired of my communities looking at French victims as more worthy of their outrage than African victims in Garissa or African-American victims in Charleston. But I don’t know what more I can do. All I know is that it is not enough.

Today is Sunday. Today sermons are pouring out like the sun. Maybe, with a little grace, we as a group will move. We are, after all, a giant group and not a chessboard of scattered individuals. Our movements are shaped by those of others; our propulsion is dependent upon that of others. If Roof is not the sole root of the problem, I cannot be the sole root of the solution. We are a collective in crisis. I praise the artistic momentum in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, but I lament how quickly that momentum diminished. Perhaps, this Sunday morning, I can only meditate over a very tiny sermon from a great American teacher.

“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Resurrection of the Berries

It’s Spring, and World Poetry Day, so I wrote a poem to celebrate both.

Rivers Flow

They bloom every year,
bulbous little puffs sprouting
cell by cell, drop by drop

from dirt, light, water,
these berries on the vine, soft,
inflated with juice, dark,

and ready to fall.
They grew from the same water
the Buddha’s mother drank,

the same soil Plato
decayed into, swept away
by worms and roots and seeds

that birds carried off
and dropped. Did Socrates know
that I would pluck him clean

off the vine? Maybe
his particles swept downstream,
joined the clay formations

used in giving birth
to Michelangelo’s David.
I let this black juice drip

down my cheek as I
stuff molecules of the past
between my teeth, compress

my dead ancestors
together with my tongue.
I’m sure that we will meet

not too long from now
when we are resurrected
from our bodies, when we

slip hesitantly
into a nirvana
of disconnectedness,

when we fly away
element by element,
cell by cell, drop by drop

into wilderness.
Then I’m sure we’ll meet again
as we’ve met in the past,

me as a flea’s leg,
you as the fur on a wolf,
or me as a flower

placed on the forehead
of a dead saint cremated
with sticks from your branches,

or, if dreams come true,
you as a wild berry bush,
me as a ladybug,

both of us together
in a bubble of green time
carried down a cool stream.

-jk

Photograph of the Lochsa River in northern Idaho, by the good folks at Keene Short Photography. Poem by Keene Short, 2015.

A Letter From Ludwig van Beethoven

Fiddle

On this day in 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven died at the age of 57. He completed nine symphonies, twelve concertos, numerous arrangements, sonatas, trios, and quartets. He was a prolific composer whose impact on the musical world and western art is immeasurable. He was young when be began to lose his hearing, and there was at least one distinct moment when he weighed the burden of his life against the value of his art. At that moment, Beethoven considered the possibility of ending his life.

In 1802, he moved to Heiligenstadt, a short distance from Vienna, to rest while facing the reality of his deafness. In October, he wrote a letter to his brothers Carl and Johann in which he expressed his grief and anguish over his loss of hearing, lamenting incidents when, for instance, a flute played but he could not hear it.  Of these incidents he wrote the following: “Little more and I would have put an end to my life –only art it was withheld me, as it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce.” He was twenty-eight years old when he wrote this letter, but kept it secret. It was only made public after his death.

I have always been fascinated and inspired by his reasoning to refrain from ending his life, that the world demanded he keep composing. I think of it as a humble and intellectually sophisticated approach to his struggle; he could not hear music, but his community could, and he felt he had an obligation to contribute. His life could continue so long as his ability to compose remained, even if he could only imagine the music he produced, the applause he received, and the praises of his family.

Although I find it inspiring that he allowed his art to take precedence over his misery, I wonder about other artists, musicians, and writers who chose to commit suicide. Could Ernest Hemingway have written one more novel? Was Sylvia Plath depleted of poems? What more would Vincent van Gogh have painted had he held out a few more years? I cannot speculate about most artists, but I know that if Beethoven had chosen to end his life when he seems to have considered it most seriously, we would not have his third symphony Eroica, his D Major violin concerto, or my favorite of his late string quartets.

I know too many people who contemplate suicide regularly. They are my close friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Today, I think, it is easy to romanticize Beethoven’s life and call him a tortured artist. In truth, there is nothing romantic about considering suicide. Most, if not all, writers who suffer from depression or bipolar disorder will tell you that it’s detrimental to creativity.  But despite the darkness that so many of us inhabit, I know many people for whom art is the only sustenance. I know poets, musicians, painters, and writers who contemplate suicide but feel joy and meaning in their creative outlets. For them, art is a necessity during the worst periods of depression, no matter how difficult creativity can become during those periods.

I don’t know if we can determine that Beethoven suffered depression by current medical standards, but I think more honestly we can say that he found himself questioning the value of life and decided that there existed something more important than, and yet at the same time dependent upon, his life. I think that this is a great paradox for artists: what sustains the artist is a product of the artist’s own efforts. It is a positive cycle. I know that when life no longer feels worth living, I can take comfort in Beethoven’s decision, and like him I can treat my life like the rough draft of a magnum opus.