"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Collage Process

Here are some of my latest collages.

The creative process of collage has taught me a lot about
Rose and Beans, mixed media
composition (juxtaposition of color and form) and how art emerges. Unlike a painting, I never go into a collage with an idea of how it should be. I peruse shapes, subjects in magazines and my own artwork, cut them up, and arrange. Through this process, I have discovered the technique of layering. I use a simple monoprint to serve as a first layer (this is evident in the collages below). The synthesis of the parts--monoprint, magazine cutouts, etc-- brings into being an entirely new image.  What delights me, what keeps me coming back for more is these emergences, discoveries that I make while playing.

I think that is one of the secrets of contentment: always setting time aside (and space in the mind) for small discoveries, be they artistic or otherwise.

REM Guitar Dream
mixed media (the music of our sleep)

Bright Idea, mixed media                                                    (If only there was a potion we could drink to give us bright ideas!)

Bottles, mixed media


Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Review of Lost Hearts by Vincent Panella

 Lost Hearts

I read with Vincent Panella back in December at IAM Books in the North End of Boston and bought his book, because that's what readers do--buy each other's books--but in all truth, I was not prepared for the powerful punch this book packed.

Lost Hearts is a spectacular short story collection mostly about the life of Charlie Marino, his boyhood, his coming of age, his intimate relationships, marriages, infidelity, Catholic guilt, aging parents. Panella captures the hungers, the idiosyncrasies, the food, the banter, and overall Italian American familial allegiances and dysfunction in this collection. This isn't the Godfather; this is raw truth about the mediocrities of Italian American life in 1950s/60s Brooklyn and beyond and how one of our own makes his way into the world. In this collection we witness deep human truths astutely expressed by a master of his craft. Panella can easily be compared to John Cheever or John Updike with his biting realism.

The first story is titled "Original Sin" and the setting is turn-of-the century Sicily. We start at the very beginning, in the motherland, with a protagonist named Peter who could very well be a relative of Charlie's. Peter lives among Sicily's poor agrarian communities where many have already left for America and "half the houses in [his] little town [are] empty, windows blackened, doors padlocked, and keys given to relatives." There is an agrarian movement culminating; the itinerant workers or "the landless ones" are uniting and revolting against the rich landowners. Peter's father is a man hired to contain the uprisings, and in doing so, kills one of the leaders. This puts Peter's father on the fast track to America. The Oedipal theme of the story is palpable; Peter hunts down his father's mistress, Murena, (despite his being happily engaged) to "see" her, but "seeing" ultimately leads to the two becoming intimate. Panella captures their intimacy exquisitely: "She was a shadow lying across him, a witch perhaps, someone with appetites he'd only imagined. He observed her as though from a distance, as though his body belonged to another person. And that other person was his father, muscle, bone, and fluid."

Clearly Peter is used by Murena to gain power over the father, while Murena is a portal to a new life for Peter, a life that would have been his father's: "This life with its daily toil, with its hand tools, buckets, donkeys, and mules, its religious rites and careful marriages, all this had been called into question by one afternoon with the woman who'd made love to both him and his father. He was no longer a boy, or even the young man who would marry Concetta and follow these twisted roads."

The Oedipal theme is a psychological archetype that fits into the grand scheme of things--why some people left the old country and why some stayed.

In "Introduction to Calculus," Charlie is persuaded by his boss Scalzetti to pose as a photographer for a modeling agency and photograph Scalzetti and his mistress Anne having sex. Anne has a reputation for her sexual prowess; the men in the neighborhood regard her as "insatiable" with "something haunting and burning" that the men want. Scalzetti thinks he's duping Anne by bringing in Charlie and he wants the young buck, who at this point is still in high school, to have a go with her. Like "Original Sin" this too is an initiation story, one wrought with disillusionment: Charlie doesn't see an insatiable sex goddess through the viewfinder of the camera; he sees a women with a scar below her abdomen, her wedding picture, and photos of her "angelic" twin boys, and he can't un-see them. Panella carefully constructs the tableau, gives us all the un-sexy details of the photo shoot, the imperfect bodies, the complaints, the clumsiness, the humor, the life underneath the porno which some can ignore and others can't.

We enter into relationships not only for the physical and emotional pleasure, for the comfort; we enter into relationships to learn another's philosophy of the world, to experience a lover's body like a landscape, take on his/her history, and day-to-day life, and we assimilate into our own lives the things that we think we should. It's a discovery on multiple levels and, given our own emotional/psychological makeup and needs, the reason why we choose some lovers over others. Through every relationship, whether romantic or otherwise, we get the feeling that Charlie is absorbing the experience as life's witness, and learning. Or maybe it's Panella who is learning, but either way, we as readers reap the benefits as well.

In "A Symbiotic Relationship," Charlie runs into his ex Beth at a job interview at a college and the two rehash the reasons for their breakup. At the hotel where they are both staying, Beth tries to seduce Charlie, manipulate him, and they rehash some more while Charlie fields calls from his wife. What we are witnessing is closure; in the rehashing we learn that Beth predicted Charlie would cheat on her, and was eternally guarded and mysterious; Charlie wanted Beth to tell him that she loved him, but he ultimately proved Beth right and cheated on her with his future wife. When he did, Beth didn't grieve; she instead retaliated with anger, plunged a key into his forehead.

What Charlie decides that evening is that he doesn't want sex from Beth, but he wants "something." When she weeps in his arms that night in the hotel; Charlie feels complete. Beth ultimately shows him what he wants to see, that she is a vulnerable human after all: "She came to me and opened her blouse and cradled my head to her naked breasts the way she used to do, holding me there while the bleak and lonely rush of cars and the drone of idling diesel engines washed into the room with the meager light. Some tears rolled onto my face from above and I wiped them from her eyes."

We learn that what they had in their relationship was not necessarily love; Beth was older and matriarchal; Charlie had a young spark that drew Beth to him. It was more need, a symbiosis, and although this term has a negative connotation, it's a very human thing and more common then we dare to admit.

In "Like Father," Charlie visits his father in a nursing home, and the old man has every ailment in the book--diabetes, Parkinson's, dementia. Charlie's father Hank has begrudgingly given up his money to his son for him to pay the nursing home bill; he's begrudgingly given up everything, but the fight is still there in the way Hank flirts with the nurses and questions Charlie incessantly about the money. "Like Father" is short, but potent; here is a story of a once powerful man who was integral to the neighborhood, whose presence created unbearable tension in the household, who exercised his virility to the extent he could, and who is now reduced to being a toddler. But the touching aspect of this is how Charlie relates to Hank, how he compassionately cares for him, even though Hank was a son-of-a-bitch of a father. And Charlie can't help but see it, the physical evidence of their connection, how they are linked: "But for several years now he felt himself moving into his father's form. Or maybe it was the other way around, that his father now occupied him, and as death released the father's soul it rooted in the son." It's a bittersweet story, sure enough, but it's so satisfying that someone got it right.

Panella gets a lot of things right with this collection. I hope he gets the recognition he deserves.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Rules, Kids, and the Alternate Life

My daughter Marielle has been acting especially wild lately, waking us up with her energy, her screeches of delight while playing with her brother. This has prompted me to sit the twins down and have them think up "rules of the house." After years of their exuberances-- not cleaning up, not eating at the table, using the couch as a bouncy house, not following simple directions, not getting dressed for school on time, not being polite, respectful, etc., etc.--I had had enough. I needed to rein in control. I had the kids come up with the rules, guiding them when necessary. Every teacher knows that rules can only be enforced if kids take ownership. But even this is terribly idealistic.

One day when we were at my sister's house, Marielle was especially wild, racing around doing that screech of hers. I told her to calm down, not act like a banshee. She said what's a banshee; I said something wild. She said, I am supposed to act this way. I am a kid. I replied, I am a grown up; I am supposed to discipline you when you do. She harrumpfed and walked away.

That got me thinking about kids, what they want, what they should be allowed to do, allowed to have, allowed to believe. Should I allow my daughter to run wild, act like a banshee sometimes? Sure, I pick my battles, but I wonder, do I get on her too much? Should I learn to let things go, despite the rules? And just when should I let go and let them do, believe, be, what they want?

When my son came into our bedroom early morning St. Patrick's Day and asked me if the leprechauns had come and left him a gift, I told him there were no such thing as leprechauns. I turned over, tried to go back to sleep, and he slumped out of the room.

The night before the twins wore green to bed because their teachers told them that if they didn't, the leprechauns would play a trick on them. I was too tired for the facade. My philosophy on imaginary entities is to play them down. Don't get them all hyped up. I got all hyped up about Santa Claus and the magic of Christmas, the cookies, the milk, the reindeer, the sugarplums, and one afternoon my neighbor Sharon Taylor in her rotting tree house with cobwebs and dead bugs put an immediate end to it all. I was, in a word, crestfallen. I was a kid with a boundless imagination who enjoyed a rich inner life. This was disillusionment at best, and I didn't want my kids to experience that. So in the past, we didn't write letters to Santa; we didn't leave him cookies. We mentioned him in passing, like he was just a means to an end.

And yet, the way my son slumped silently out of the room, and my daughter went from room to room looking for evidence of little green men, proved to me that it was a kid's right to believe. It was a kid's right to enjoy the magic of imagination. Sure disillusionment would come later, but we're supposed to live in the moment, aren't we? It's true. I wasn't letting my kids be kids.

So when their father took them out for a couple of hours, I went rock hunting and painted two nuggets gold. I cut shamrocks from green construction paper, crafted a letter about luck on parchment, and sprinkled glitter. It took me about an hour and a half to do all of this. When they came home, Marielle found the stash first, and then the two of them inspected the stones. "I can't believe it! They came!" The thrill was quick, about three minutes and then the rocks were abandoned on the floor and they went on to something else. Because that's what kids do.

I try to enforce the rules when it's necessary. Most of the time it takes my holding dessert over their heads to get the job done. But this does work, despite it being redundant. As for imagination, it's imperative to cultivate that in a kid. This will lead to a rich inner life, a necessary indulgence in the unreal, an indulgence for fiction, stories, games, movies, daydreams, art. Because real life can be inherently dull and we need that alternate life to feel alive.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Incubation Period

Latest painting: Still Life 1, How I find beauty while waiting for spring to truly arrive.

It's taken me a longer time to find my visual voice than my written voice, probably because I don't work at as much. As with poems and stories, however, I do get ideas in my head on how a painting should be. I get inspired by other artists and emulate their ideas. I am still learning about the medium of paint, and in the past this certainly has been an obstacle for me. You can draft a poem or story anywhere, but with painting, there is the medium to master, to make a space for. 

I had this particular painting in my head for months; it had a long and committed "incubation period." I learned that term from the writer Brenda Ueland who included putting the pen down and going for a walk as part of her writing process. She said, "when you walk, angels whisper in your ears." There's something about being "away" from the project that allows the anxiety to dwindle and for creativity, like a feral cat, to come creeping into your head. Once the incubation period is over, you will have more ideas, a more complete vision, probably just as complete as if you had white-knuckled it and produced a series of sketches or sentences.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Importance of Literature

I ask myself, why do I teach literature? Why teach writing? Aside from the fact that it fits nicely into my schedule, it isn't all that practical, financially speaking--I make a small fraction of what I used to make as an engineer. The truth is I teach literature because it has meaning for me. I have sacrificed meaningless money for a meaningful avocation. 

Studying literature is a lesson in humanity; it teaches us what we intrinsically know but tend to forget because we are too busy striving for that A, or that dream job, or making sure our children are fed. By putting this very intimate knowledge on the page, we bring it to a higher level of awareness, and in this higher level of acknowledgement, we span space and time; we see ourselves in others. This commonality that literature enforces--empathy--is one of the virtues of being a human being. It paves the way for compassion, for making peoples' lives better. We seem to be deviating from the tenets of empathy politically these days; amidst all the insanity of whose button is bigger and who can destroy whom faster, but in literature class, we go back to the basics and the spectrum of experiences and emotions that compose us, translated through exceptionally astute minds. 

Literature Quilt Panel 1

We live in a time when the media's saturation of terms results in insensitivity or apathy, but stories can still reach us. Once an issue is personalized, something in us can't help but be engaged. By studying literature, we realize that people who may look differently than us, who may live in different places, from palaces to shitholes, all are capable of the same range of emotion. It’s harder to kill someone when you can see yourself in the eyes of “the other.”

Conversely, in writing, we contribute our own emotions and experiences to the human canon, whether it be journal entries, letters, blog posts, short stories, poems, novels: we contribute our ideas and this should not be taken for granted. This should be championed. There is a significant reward for seeing the self to show up on the page. It makes us wiser.

Literature Quilt Panel 2
In my classes, student engagement is imperative. I am not always successful in accomplishing this; at eight o'clock in the morning I tend to be the one answering my own questions. My main intention, however, never changes: it is to spark curiosity, because curiosity is the greatest learning impetus. Most of my students are relatively new to this planet; their minds are fresh and vulnerable, in the grand scope of things. They are at the brim of the universe, peering in, deciding where they belong, who they are. Literature can help with this.

Literature Quilt Panel 3
If literature is the fabric of humanity--a large quilt sewn in time and space, and one that is continuously being sewn, it is up to us to recognize the patterns of experience, emotions, human truths. Oh the vibrant colors of human truths! Remember, I tell my students, to carry a swathe in your pockets, or knit it across your heart. Let me tell you something, I tell them, at times you will feel that you are an exceptional thread, an anomalous thread, that you don’t fit just right into the fabric, or that you are not the right color or texture. Literature is all forgiving; literature is enlightening; it can present you with other “anomalous threads,” threads like Holden Caulfield or Huck Finn, or Esther Greenwood, and you will say, “Oh.” And you will recognize yourself in these anomalous threads, and you will know that you are woven as well. 

Literature Quilt Panel 4

Or perhaps you will see where in the tapestry it is soiled or worm-eaten, you will feel a sudden rise of inspiration and purpose to make reparations, or you will observe that there are places in the tapestry that are so incredibly vibrant and exotic, you seek to go there. Just knowing that these places exist gives you joy or a sense of adventure or a willingness to indulge yourself. This too is a gift of literature.
Literature Quilt Panel 5

I have taught physics, mathematics, and engineering. I am happy that there is a focus on STEM, because it comes with its own benefits and thinking skills (and some of these are not unlike what you learn in literature and writing classes). But let’s not forget how important literature and writing is, especially now, when old social ills are creeping back in.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Five Collages

Here are five of my latest collages.

Bouquet for Life

This time of year, when I see pictures of gardens, I literally start to itch for green and lush and bloom. I look forward to planting my garden and starting seeds, which will happen the end of next month. It's a lesson in patience, waiting out winter for spring, but also a time to plan and set intentions. The red petals of the bouquet remind me of a heart.

Winter's House

This collage is my way of not taking winter too seriously. It was actually created in the midst of summer; this brings to mind what Neil Diamond famously said about writing songs: you write breakup songs when you are happily in love and love songs when you are breaking up. The yin is always curious about the yang.

The centerpiece in this collage is actually a tulip that I disassembled and then reassembled to look more like a flame, which I intend to mean essence. For me, that essence, that thing I need to keep burning, is my creativity.


Natural Urges

This collage portrays summer and sensuality. I was primarily looking for patterns and colors of the natural world when life is warm and easy.

Lotus Opening
I titled this collage "Lotus Opening" without knowing that the opening of a lotus represents spiritual awakening. I Googled "lotus opening" and found this out. There is something always working behind the scenes of art, and it's when you become aware and curious that you see what it is. 

I suppose if I am living my life correctly, I am always in the throes of a spiritual awakening.

The Fallen Land of Ozymandias

The Fallen Land of Ozymandias
(from the flash fiction collection Upon Waking)

She was angry with her mother for buying a beaten down cape in New Jersey, half a mile from an overpass, three quarters of a mile from a beach littered with abandoned cars, old tires, and discarded clothing. It was ugly and she hated ugly. She lamented her mother leaving the well-preserved beauty of the New England landscape, but her mother could no longer afford it. She told her daughter if she had to move, she'd go south, to the mid-Atlantic states where she could be closer to extended family. So she did, and her daughter begrudgingly went to visit her and walk the coarse sand of the polluted beach where someone had dumped cabinets and suitcases. Her mother said it might have been the mob. The daughter regarded the tall smoke stacks as they belched fumes into the gray sky and felt ill.

After lunch, she took a ride east. It was sunny and she drove with the windows down, the songs from the radio hampered by the din of the wind. The land, with its enclaves of reaching blue water, was buzzing with summer activity; people were out jogging, riding bicycles. She passed a carnival with a Ferris wheel and games of chance. Tickets littered the streets; people waited in lines for rides and concession stands where food associated with fun—cotton candy, ice cream, fried dough—was sold. She passed this place and came to a bridge, a contemporary slender and elegant structure in decks, towers, and fanning cables that spanned the inlets of blue, connecting the polluted modern world with the eroded ancient ruins of the old world. It was a fine summer day now. Indeed, the water is blue, she thought. On the other side of the bridge was the abandoned land of Ozymandias, its once enchanting sandstone structures still in place. Here people wandered through the ruins and pocketed ancient gold coins embossed with the King of Kings.

She parked the car, got out and squeezed through an opening in the giant gate. There were people carrying stacks of books in the ancient streets, looters with scraps of fool's gold in their hands. Vendors were selling trinkets of the once-great kingdom; you could buy a t-shirt with Ozymandias's eroded face on it. She remembered the pope they dug out of the Catacombs, his well-preserved body on display at the Vatican, the face looking calcified.

The earth shuddered and she thought Did I imagine that? The great gate creaked and leaned forward, spreading its arms out to the forgotten world. The people carrying books dropped them and started running. Chaos and mayhem ensued as each of the ancient sandstone structures started to crumble. Why now? she wondered. After thousands of years of being upright, why now? Then she saw a high school friend on her cell phone just outside the gate. She was still thin, with long black hair, a cigarette in her hand, imperturbable as the world rushed by her. She must’ve been talking to her high school sweetheart. She would take him back, despite what he did, despite what she did—a forgiveness poised at the end of the world.