Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Against the Dying of the Light

Yesterday, Liz Kuball sent me a url with an attached urging to see the referenced site. Following the lead of the url, I came upon Zoe Strauss' memorable:

Thanks for nothing, Guggenheim!
I did NOT get the Guggenheim and I was MISERABLE when I received the letter. Right, FUCK YOU! Then I realized that I was out of my mind. As I was cleaning earlier this week, I found the paperwork for the 2004 discontinuation of my welfare benefits. So if I'm not getting the Guggenheim 3 years from getting off the dole, I should be ok with that. Within the time frame of the 95 project, I've done pretty well, I need to simmer down. But then... I just sit and stare straight ahead...why wouldn't I get it this year? What the hell? And then I've moved into, did I think I deserved the Guggenheim based on my recent accolades, or based on my work? Well, of course based on my work, I'm totally full of myself! But did think I had a better chance based on my sudden entrance into the commercial and academic art corridors. Now, that's yes. It's embarrassing but true. And I think that's fairly dangerous, considering that I judge my work to my standards without taking any institutional input into account. Also, I don't take rejection well AT ALL and I feel things deeply, good and bad, which means I've got to pay attention to expectations based on product and not on laurels.

It's now brought me to "what are my expectations?" Guess what? I'm shooting for the motherfucking stars like I'm riding Voyager 1 bareback! I will risk endless disappointment, with great ambition and hope. Unstoppable, baby!

which is simply one of the best blog posts I have ever seen, a bright, furious star burst in the heavens. It wrenched me over to another furious star burst, this one from Dylan Thomas, who on the occasion of his father's impending death wrote the now iconic poem, Do Not Go Gentle. Thomas urged his father--and us--to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Some years back, the informed preoccupation was making a dignified exit, having a "good death." Thomas puts paid to that notion for those of us who chose to light our way along the paths of artistry. And in her remarkable blog, so did Zoe Strauss, for whom, apparently, any dimming of the light of potential for her own art is so unthinkable as to cause rage. 

I vote for that. I'm for the vision quest, the seeker who will not quit in her search, who is angry at all the Fates and accidents that get in the way of, ta da, The Discovery, mindful that today's Discovery may eventually devolve into a mere discovery. But it may also remain a Discovery.

A few years back, I published a short story in which an academic whose specialty was Nathaniel Hawthorne, had occasion to recall a favored passage of his [and mine] from a short story ("The Intelligence Office") by Hawthorne. A character with the kind of reach I associate with Zoe Strauss (whom I know only through that remarkable blog), says in a state of exasperation:

"I want my place, my own place,my true place in the world, my proper sphere, my thing which Nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry, and which I have vainly sought all my lifetime."

To hell with a good death or leaving the impression of understanding. In the class room, I make a point of trying to dehumanize rejection, which is indeed inevitable but not something to ignore. It is surely gratifying to get the letters of acceptance or, indeed, the letters inviting submissions. The sting is somewhat removed with a near-miss rejection, but sting there is, and I am happy to note the flare or outright rage with a generic rejection or a "Sorry." or a "Please try us again."

When we come to the part of class in which I hold up a batch of rejection slips and ask with a kind of professorial feigned innocence, "Does anyone know what these are?" I will have Zoe Strauss' response to rejection, her raging against the dying of the light, because in that rage I recognize my own and the sense of the thing we all of us bring to our work when we put it out there.

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower," Dylan Thomas also wrote, "Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/ Is my destroyer. / And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose / My youth is bent by the same wintry fever."

It is the lovely accident of convenience that Zoe Strauss is a photographer and that the dying of the light is such a powerful metaphor. "It's all about light," Lizzie said after an afternoon of shooting images. To which I add: "The rage doesn't hurt, either, kid."

"You purchase pain," Alexander Pope wrote, "and all the joys it has to give/ And die of nothing but a rage to live."

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