When you make a poem, you become an active soul, not a victim.
~ Gregory Orr
Driving up the thin dirt road above Jamestown to Jo and Glenn’s house I hug the land side. And then I can’t really hug the land side as my tires fit into tracks. Part of the road gives way a little near the cliff, around a curve. I look over the edge and then quickly straight ahead, repeat Joanna’s simple advice, “Follow the road.”
In the hand-built multi- sided greenhouse that Glenn built, Jo picks leaves of chard as big as her arm. Old beagle, Hershey, follows us. We eat our chard and sweet potato soup outside on the patio overlooking mountains and sky, and keep eating through the first drops of rain. There’s a moment when one of us could say, “I feel a drop.” Or, “It’s raining.” We put our sweatshirts over our shoulders and hold our tongues.
Summer Solstice, 2002, I’m in a dance studio at Naropa, Nalanda campus, the newer building; built for the expected growth of arts. It’s the first “dance.art.lab.” We are 12 people, many flying in or driving for three days to get here. We each got a message in our inbox inviting us to this retreat five months ago. Five days of meditation, improvisation, dance scores, making dinner, staying with friends, discussing art and gift economy. Five days of flocking, grid practice, corridors, solos, duets, trios, open space. I’m not particularly comfortable as I push myself into the space, singing “rolling on the river” in my worst singing voice on purpose.
Barbara Dilley teaches us to “raise wind-horse.” I touch my sternum. Earth comes through my legs, to my heart. Sky comes through my head, meets earth. “Hold, hold,” she says. And, “like a fish jumping out of water,” I open my eyes and imagine myself in the space in front of me. Then I walk into the space, take the shape I had in my mind. Hold. When the usefulness fades, I walk away.
I do a solo to the sound of crickets with my eyes closed. I’m moving from upstage left to down right, on a thin diagonal. I open my eyes long enough to pull my wedding ring off and slide it across the space. The actual weight of it feels new and strange and it makes a clinking sound as my hand touches the wood floor. How do I make this ring part of my dance.
I just got married three weeks before, and Steve and I had a fight over my participation in this lab. He’s sleeping in his sleeping bag in the studio attached to our garage and I’m in the house, on the queen futon. We leave each other short notes on the kitchen table with our schedules so we can avoid accidentally running into each other in the kitchen. As the lab continues our notes get longer and turn into phone calls. One day my clothes are down from the line and neatly folded. By the end of the lab we’re in the kitchen together chopping celery and boiling potatoes.
At Joanna’s, above Jamestown, the rain falls. We continue eating for a little longer than if we were versed in polite society. We’re both dance artists. We’ve performed duets together. During one duet for a concert at Naropa we wore pleated skirts and button up to the throat silk shirts. We found a table light enough so we could lift it easily. We turned the table, got under and crawled on top of it. We lay on the table, touching our feet together, and craned our necks to see each other underneath. We crouched underneath and we spoke in a made- up language. A child in the audience cry. We tried to speak in a friendly non-sensical way. The child kept crying. Another time we wore polka dot dresses, rain boots and used a kitchen timer and talked with actual words.
Joanna and I know our dinner outside in the rain could be a performance. We both thought it, to sit in the rain and keep eating as if it wasn’t raining. We both knew it without saying. We would be soaked by the end and the audience would wonder. Some would laugh. Some would be puzzled. Some would think, oh this old haunt, it’s been done.
There is no audience, this isn’t a rehearsal, and the cold rain prickles. We grab our dinner and go inside with Hershey and the cat and watch the soaked mountains through enormous windows, patterns of rain on glass.
It’s the first night of a five-day retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. I say to a circle of people sitting in chairs and on meditation cushions, “We have the opportunity to exchange polite society for two guidelines. Take responsibility for yourself and don’t cause harm.”
I stop. I barely know what this means. Can I even do it? I wonder if this scares people. Maybe it’s a relief to hear. I try to figure it out by looking at their faces.
I don’t know what you are thinking, I say to myself. My brother, Roger, who is a psychotherapist taught me that. *
“What does it mean, Refuse Polite Society?” someone asks.
At the end of the retreat the youngest woman, Kirsten, speaks up. She has a particular joy and lightness about her. Secretly I think of her as an angel. She tells a story about how she called me a month before the retreat. You’re that phone call person?! I thought. I remember thinking she’ll never come here. She told the group the conversation went like this:
“Hello” Katharine said in a bothered voice.
Is Katharine Kaufman available?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” I said.
“How much Yoga will we be doing and how much meditation?” She said.
“It depends”, Katharine said.
“I can tell you this: At the end of this retreat, if you come, if you do it, you won’t want anything.” You won’t need anything but what is in front of you.” Katharine said.
Kirsten imitated my hassled, gruff voice and it was so different from her that we all laughed. On the phone she didn’t tell me she was about to travel around the world, to teach religion.
“Now it’s the end of this retreat there is nothing I want.” She said.
I am speaking from a different eye as I write. I place an ice cube in my cup and ask students to do the same. We march away with our cups and ice looking for the exactly the right place to lie down. We lie with the cup by our head for eight minutes. Then we get up and write. We find a space the size of our body and write what is in that space.*** We repeat words, find patterns. We blow air out of our mouths and cry. We listen to the shapes and movement of the words. We move in ways we have not moved.
On Science Friday today materials scientist and professor at MIT, Markus Buehler, has figured out the sounds of proteins. **** He is an extremely intelligent musician and scientist.
“Did you listen to rock and roll as a child?” Ira Plato interrupts.
He speaks to the Marcus Buehler differently than to a straight scientist. Mr. Buehler is embarrassed. This is his work. He makes music from these equations and then plays it back to the computer then plays it back to the animals. Sure, it’s playful, and it’s his life’s work too. It’s communication. He cares about communication.
People feel confused and embarrassed and shy and think they should know more when it comes to poetry. In my home class Bert askes, “What is poetry?” and I try to explain that there is no “solving it.” There is no answer.
Haunted by this question, the next time someone asks I actually try to answer. I am grasping for definitions. My brain tightens. I’m reaching for what inspired me.
I leaf through my notebooks.
“Not real, always true. (Artaud)
“No ideas, but in things.”(William Carlos Williams).
“No such thing as repetition only insistence.” (Gertrude Stein)
“Real frogs, imaginary gardens” (Marianne Moore).
“Poetry interrupts the status quo!”
“Can’t you say all this about prose,” she says.
I don’t want to pit one against the other, so I stop trying.
The next day I go to a poetry reading. This is a poem, I think. This person, standing at the mic. Saying a line, and then another. Having complete confidence that this line is alive. All the readers are so themselves that their personality evaporates a little in service to the poem. That the person is a vehicle for the poem, not the other way around.
And the audience, we’re all a part of it now, together.
I’m home now, afternoon, windows open. Across the alley Anacita’s singing. She’s four. It’s not really a tune. She’s singing high and loud. Now like a siren. Her voice wobbles and she goes with it, like a turkey, and then she shrieks in a laugh. Then she keeps the shrieking up. Now I hear an actual siren, and now the wind.
Earlier it rained a few moth sized drops.
Now the giant wind comes through the house carrying no rain.
*Joanna Rotkin’s website: www.joannaandtheagitators.com
**Here’s Roger Kaufman’s website:
***Poet,Eleni Sikeliano’s prompt, to write the space of a body.
Her bio and poems: Eleni Sikelianos | Poetry Foundation