Woven strands: Artistic Influence

“I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.”

When interviewing Ernest Hemingway for The Paris Review, George Plimpton acknowledged the “occasional waspish tone of the answers”, born of the author’s belief that writing “is a private, lonely occupation with no need for witnesses until the final work is done.” This sounds all too familiar. I’ve overdone my own exposure, in essays that – while useful at the time of writing my first novel, for relearning techniques – have left me somewhat strung out when it comes to starting anything new. I’m perhaps too self-aware now for a clear sense of originality. When Hemingway stated that “such ideas should remain unexpressed”, with probing questions leaving him “almost inarticulate”, I know what he means, with the usefulness of hindsight. That being said, the essays were good to write, in the way taking a clock apart allows you to know its mechanism for when something goes wrong.

But on one subject, Hemingway was willing to show his hand: those artistic influences found in the deftness of a painter with tubes and brushes, the composer his sheet music. Donne to Cezanne, “the good Kipling” to Van Gogh, Bach to Mozart – all creators that touched his life and his mind, to be called upon when he would “stand in absolute concentration” for writing. Nowadays, with the help of mobile technology, we can as easily wander through the minds of favourite artists via apps and websites like Pinterest, as we can take the conventional route of walking the echo-halls of an art gallery. Playlists can be tailored to a written draft. Dance and drama can evoke the method approach, for getting into the mind and moods of a character.

“Harmony” in music, is defined as “the simultaneous combination of tones, especially when blended into chords pleasing to the ear”, while counterpoint is “the art of combining melodies / the texture resulting from the combining of individual melodic lines.” Generally speaking, harmony and counterpoint are the agreement of elements distinct from one another, and “any element that is juxtaposed and contrasted with another”. Those moments are wonderful – aren’t they? – when you touch upon a particular paragraph that fits the background music of a bar or pub, at a time of day when you’re drinking something with the taste to somehow mirror the mood. When it feels as though everything has been geared towards inspiring an image or mood. As a method-writer, I work towards achieving this kind of interdependency of art to form a “backdrop” – something sustainable for the duration of a scene, perhaps. Watching Weimar cinema to add disquiet (in filters of blue, with nuances of light and shadow) or wandering into a particular gallery room to find the narrative of a display. When a piece of instrumental music seems to have been written for a character or scene, adding textures previously unthought of, there’s the chance to review your writing from a different angle, one governed more by instinct and mood than lyrical content.

Any piece of art can at once stand alone, and be linked to another in a different format/medium. There might be no apparent crossover, except in subjective terms. Time changes perspective too, with personal experiences adding emotional layers almost indefinable, except for the way they get under your skin and stay there. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Dead Flag Blues once belonged to a winter’s morning slog uphill, until I read the opening chapter of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger for the first time. Now the heavy-tread rhythm and bronze guitar twangs belong to Roland’s feet through the desert, on the trail of the man in black.)

When choosing décor, we look for the blends of tone and texture that will make a house feel like a home; furnishing the lines of a living space to present an image of ourselves. Even the sparsity of an office can be made to feel like an extension of “home”, with those framed works and prints by a favourite artist, drawings made by the kids, holiday souvenirs, newspaper cuttings, empty whisky miniatures lined up in a row. Each facet reflective of individuality, while shining together to create the image as a whole. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person, based on what they choose to surround themselves with – or allow others to surround them with.

Remembering and learning about WWI, we can read the words of Sassoon, Rosenberg and Owen to live in the immediacy of those desperate moments. They connect with the likes of Paul Nash and Richard Jack, whose work asserts direct historical links as well as the more subconscious achievements of art to carry emotional resonance forward in time.

ypres salient
Paul Nash, “The Ypres Salient at Night”

return to the front
Richard Jack, “The Return to the Front: Victoria Railway station”

As much to make sense of what they were experiencing, as to capture the rawness of conflict for the ones who would rebuild peace, the artists imposed control – a strange sense of beauty – upon the ugly chaos around them. Time has no way of diminishing their effect. Standing in front of Jack’s Return to the Front: Victoria Railway station in York art gallery, I couldn’t move for about twenty minutes, absorbing each detail. The scene is absorbing in its raw portrayal of human emotions, played out in the set of a jaw, the resigned curve of shoulders, downcast eyes, pity around the girl’s mouth, the looming presence of the waiting train. It was a world away from my own liberal time… and still, almost one hundred years ago. Art crosses the borders of time and geography, carrying emotional salience forward to our own time and circumstances. Somehow, the unimaginable becomes all too real.

And it’s still going on.

“On a trip like this it is best to do rapid fire sketches, with movement. I used my drawing book like a camera. I rely very much on the power and energy of the initial drawing.”

But why is art necessary in a war?

Graeme Lothian, who was sent on the same trip as Jules George, has a unique perspective. Decades ago he was a commando before breaking his back. He sees the artists’ purpose as complementary to the journalists and historians who will also chronicle the war.

“It’s good to stand there and take a step back and just look at the Army from a distance. This will be history one day, Camp Bastion will be dust. We are painting history.”

And he believes the very act of deploying artists to Afghanistan shows progressive thinking on the part of the MoD.

“The Army have always said no to artists, now they are changing their mind. There is a sea change that artists are important.” –
Why do we need oil painters in a war zone?

There are some works of art which must be experienced in their original state for the message to come across. A postcard rendition of a Mark Rothko piece has no chance of capturing the awesome (I mean this in the strongest senses), silent sentience, hung on a wall in the Tate gallery. When surrounded by them in the Rothko room, you are compelled to fall silent yourself; to stand still, and watch them breathe. Pulse with life. They draw you in, as though towards an answer for every posed question, or perhaps the end of time itself.

I can’t bring myself to look at some of them full-on, only with the sideways glance of a reluctant admirer, with defiance and submission both. The damn things speak for themselves. They make you listen.

Art allows us to learn as much about ourselves as each other. While inadvertent plagiarism (cryptomnesia) is an undeniable part of creativity, there’s no sense in shutting down a project for the tension between goodwill and guilt, and certainly no shame in reworking ideas as an homage to another. As Pete Seeger put it, “You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little… It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.”
(I wish I’d known about this as a teenager, when I gave up on writing out of fear I was just borrowing from all the inspirational childhood literature. Personal perceptions are what make us unique. Everyone has their own story to tell.)

I feel most at home among the Tonalist painters, who in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, established an American art movement based on “an abiding spiritual feeling for the intimacies of the human landscape.” The name itself alludes to “the use of muted natural tones… portraying the symbolic and abstract character of landscape forms.” James Abbott McNeill Whistler, a key founder, sought to bring harmony to the wilderness of nature with the essence of humanity. Like Hemingway, Whistler valued the idea of artistic crossovers.

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful — as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.” – “Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock”, Public lecture, Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, 20 February 1885.

The founder of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky, “wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears”; he spoke of art in the synaesthetic language that is a characteristic blending of the senses. “Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.” In the same way as Whistler, who believed that “art should not serve narrative, but rather project the artist’s subjective feelings through the handling of the medium,” and who drew upon the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” Kandinsky wanted to further the internal appreciation of music through the colours he experienced; giving non-synaesthetes the chance to experience a sensory crossover too. But anything more would be a distraction from the audience’s emotional connection. A simple gratification was to be found in viewing art, without looking for any more meaning than what was before them.

As a chromesthete, I see colours and patterns in sound – predominantly music – and moods. Though abstract and impressionist art lend themselves towards some kind of external view of what goes on in my head, nothing comes quite so close as Whistler’s “Nocturne” set. The play between light and shadow, abstract over concrete, with things appearing not quite as they should seem. The once-firm lines of steel and stone are now seemingly spun from cobweb, and likely to be blown away in a wandering night breeze. Time is dialled down to sequential movements; less a narrative, than a handful of slow-shutter shots. The gluey state of dreams and drowsiness and half-light.

800px-James_McNeill_Whistler_-_Nocturne-_Blue_and_Silver—Battersea_Reach_-_Google_Art_Project
Nocturne, Blue and Silver – Battersea Reach

A construct undone, and somehow more accessible for it.

“Taking a cue from a critic who had referred to his early portrait of his mistress… as a ‘symphony in white,’ Whistler began to envision and entitle his works with the abstract language of music, calling them symphonies, compositions, harmonies, nocturnes, arrangements, and so forth.” It’s not difficult to see how the French critic would have drawn comparisons; just as snow is never only one colour, “The White Girl” (or “Symphony in White No.1”) is composed of as many shades in a pale palette as you would find instruments in an orchestral piece. In Whistler’s tonalist work, the visual theme weaves itself into the very semantics of music: “Nocturne” is defined as “a composition inspired by, or evocative of, the night” – that resonance found in the twilight hues of a trickling character piece for the piano, played to a blue-and-silver garden or lowlit bar. Disbelief is more easily suspended when written between the lines. Whenever I’m feeling not quite myself – stuck with my head on the writer’s block, greyed-out by the Everyday – I go flicking through the works of Whistler and his contemporaries, to find the same fluid surreality of a moonlight sonata. It’s a bit of immersion, prior to writing.

As individuals bring their experiences to art for subjective interpretation, so the arts in turn allow creators to reflect upon and complement each other’s work. What is the first draft of writing, but a slew of words spilt with inspiration? We then edit to needs, as a gardener prunes a rose to allow it to flourish. The painter somehow knows when the next dab of colour will be as a jarring note in a composition. It’s not so much the willpower to begin, as the control to Stop – to insist and argue with the inner critic, that a piece is complete.

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This writer’s life (holding a compass)

Who am I, as a writer?
Well, I couldn’t tell you that. I have no deep insight into anything beyond immediate experience – which I suppose you could say is true of many of us, I don’t know, I didn’t research it. I read enough to keep my brain fired and fried by turns, but it’s a constant process of catch-up, after over a decade of mental stagnation. Oh ja, I could tell you about the interior of various mental health institutions, and how it feels to see the lights of an ambulance bracket the walls, and the dialling-down spiral of knowing you have disappointed so many people who care about you, who you care for –

But who wants to read that sort of noir life, back and forth, time and again?

I could tell you about counting calories like grains of sand through the hourglass, and how it feels when your heels crack for pacing; what it means to know your grades are failing because you can’t keep up, juggling mental and physical duress –
That conflict doesn’t leave in a hurry, it’s why I have trouble with employment –

But again, how to spin that line to a sustainable cobweb?

I could tell you about the different types of cat coat, the ticked and the spotted, the swimming breeds, the docile v.s. the gregarious. I could go off on one about the many cat shows attended, with the surprising variety of stalls showcasing craft innovation (kitty alarm clock, anyone?) and the cages filled with pacing, bawling, squeaking, hiding, wide-eye denizens of another world that we’ll never know, because you cannot bottle smoke. Even caught behind the bars, those jungle eyes found me, and I wondered who was the real prisoner.

And I’ll tell you what colour your name is, and how to find it in a song; where to weave it into words that might spill over to poetic enjambment, a river-run of themes, time, love, relief, abandonment, chaotic self-delusion. Write what you know.
Know what you write?

So many little things, spun away into an endless world of tomorrows. So many signals replayed. Refrains. I often watch myself in writing and find a wire-grin: “She’s at it again, look – haven’t we seen that before?”

My short-term memory is shot to shit. Prolonged malnutrition tends to inhibit cognition, even years after some semblance of mental and physical health have been restored. I must read and reread what I know, what I thought I knew, until getting into debates and conversations and finding myself tits-up for details … And trying to write essays and articles, when the facts and the words were tucked safely behind my ears, a tapetum lucidum for the eye, but … What did I really want to say? Why will it not come? What is all of this white noise?

Somehow, the latter has grown louder of late.

As a child, I began and finished many things with incredible speed, usually through a lack of consistency than any kind of real talent. Some skills remain – I can move with the grace of a dancer, but to go en pointe is a skill I shall always lack, after quitting aged nine. That time at least, it was not my fault; an old injury. But such things come back to haunt us, and I have rarely completed anything in full since. My parents learned quickly, not to indulge my whimsical side – it is prone to grabbing onto new interests, passing flights of fancy like the gossamer-silk of a baby spider in flight. But we all must land eventually. Boredom is my lesser enemy; envy is the bete noir, my main failing, turning kind regards to spite and a small-minded pettiness. But I am only stringing myself up, losing time better spent elsewhere, and it is (thankfully) not applicable to everyone. Only those I fear to lose.

University – I quit after nine weeks. I blamed the relapse, the lack of coherency in the course. The truth is, I was afraid, as ever, of change. I bottled it, and let anorexia win, because the timetable was hectic and I was unable to engage in “behaviours”. So it goes that, in a slow process of erosion, I have tried many things over the years, and quit out of higher sense of duty to an illness that lives in my brain, subsidizing a life.

I have lose count of the opportunities walked away from, out of fear and self-destruction. God knows where I might be now, with a little more education and ten years of living something closer to a life, under my well-notched belt. A continuous conflict between what I would like to be, and how to get there (since childhood, this certainly predates the illness), with a short attention span and aversion to rules, but a desperate desire to know the world. To read its features and hear its people, and to stay still long enough to show that I actually give a damn.

But if I can recognize these things, why have I not made changes? Why continue to feed the monster?
When does an illness become a lifestyle?

So if you really want to know why I lack motivation and focus, why I do not put my (not inconsiderable) range of skills – shallow graves that they are – to better use, look no further than this.
I am a Tryer, rarely a Doer. Much of what I actually manage to achieve is down to sheer blind luck, and the kindness of strangers.

So, stumbling from one plus to a negative, one mood and one day to another year… that’s how you’ll find me, in late 2014, with as much focus as Pot Noodles and a chestful of hopes and a headful of fears, and a heart … made for lions. Because, with all of this out of the way, I am still proud. I danced ballet, and it welds steel to your bones, laces pearls into your hair.
I do not stop trying. Not because “they” or “it” will have won, but because I’ve nothing better to do. Incidentally, that is what brought me around to recovery.
There’s your motivational poster for the day.

Now I guess I’d better sleep. I’m supposed to be at work in about an hour. Sometimes, the words won’t wait, and it’s then that I know I’m a writer yet. Holding a compass.

Shadow, thorn, and one blue rose

I find myself frequently bemused by this face.

Looking into the mirror as a child, I would stare hard until my eyes bled out tears; until the small, fine lines swam into adulthood – until an image of who I might one day become, was an image grasped in the hand of argent moonlight, riming the effortless sheen.

“I disappeared the lines – as memories came flooding in, the tears blew out my eyes.”

I am not so much who I thought I would become, as an evolved form of what once was. Older and quieter, arrogant still; believing herself to be above the world, even while walking at its feet. This is what sets me apart from those who are documenting what conflicts rip open the threads of humanity, bringing the truth of the world to unresolved eyes, to hearts that have learned the riddle-speak of care and continuity.

I still have far to go. Inhibitions are invisible manacles about my feet, and the years are heavy yet. But they will break. They must break, because I will have no one but myself to blame if they don’t. We are the successors to our own tenure, coming as going – or the flatline of Existence over Life.

I am thirty years old next April. This only bothers me in the context of what I have not achieved, may never achieve, if I don’t find the willpower to focus my voice; to know what it is I wish to talk about, and with whom. Right now, I dither from one place to one more commission, to one more job. There is freedom in these scrappy lines; I am able to up sticks and leave whenever I choose. But as Dido once said – and I do believe in this song, if no other – “But if my life is for rent / And I don’t learn to buy / Well, I deserve nothing more than I get / ‘Cause nothing I have is truly mine.”

I am still afraid of plans. Of setting down roots, of putting trust in anything longer than it takes to change my mind. Why?
Because I have felt the breath on my neck, of one who does not wait. Even as I try to slow down to enjoy things – food, company, a book, a life – I am aware of those thin spinning fingers, and the whispering echo, and the way it all came so close.

But what is a life, of a thread pulled taut?

Grandfather Time, within your tower
– Darkened brick and filled with icy
Breath of ages, standing still –
You hear my voice
You know my name
You watched a lifetime dialling down
To needle clicks and spinning threads.
Now pointing west, the arrowhead
Is finding love that cannot lie
That will not sleep;
You know my choice
A shadow, thorn, and one blue rose.

He bids me rove. There is still much to learn; to be accounted for.

King and Lionheart.

I had locked him away in a pillar of ice, hoping to set his heart free, so that he might return to his duties – for are we not all bound in such ways? Certainly, no royal can remain asleep forever, even while touched by the tint of a blue rose – and this heart does not lie easy, for knowing its shadow falls on a picture painted elsewhere, in another realm. I had hoped that by stifling his voice, so full of thorns, I might return to my own barren ways, this wild wood, this writing in black-gold … but it’s never so easy, is it?

Summer sun and winter moon
I have forgotten who is who
And still we chase, across the sky
The one to live, the one to die.

His blue-black shadows of doubt, for this lionheart. His dark water for my fire. I stride forwards, even while falling back; there is no letting go, though the words meet my eyes as thorns in the palm. I cannot deny what has not been done. Just as I cannot let go of what has not yet set beyond the horizon.

The sky is filled with both moon and sun so rarely; it is these times I cherish, with the world held between, a little black kitten with ocean eyes. We are the balance, do you understand?
I am tired, inside and out. Even this heart grows weary of pain, though she cuts open her own lip so frequently, on a wire-grin.

I live for pain. To feel alive, to know that I still exist. That I am not merely asleep. This once took the form of self-harming, hot needles on the skin (irony lives in fear of contamination, even while drawing blood.) I once danced my legs down to the knees, and trained beyond the gravel-pain of heartbeats in the throat.

Now, I set the moderation bar, and try to remember that to live is to know peace, too. Quiet. Sifting dust. Just because I am awake and aware, does not mean that I must push to the very last breath –

– before fading out.

These are but thoughts, as ever. I have been called many things recently – “wise”, “adorable”, “arrogant bitch.” I would say, put in a blender, they might summarize someone I would like to be. Who I thought I would know, when “all grown up.”

Instead, I am merely blinking away tears in front of the mirror, trying to resolve a firm image of the person staring back, with water-dark hair and freckles that have seemingly appeared from nowhere. I never had them as a child. But they are a good find.

I like tracing patterns. Stars, algorithms, the flecks of a magpie’s wings against a gunmetal sky, in accordance with the turning pages of a book, clasped in the hands of a hurtling-home commuter.

I can pretend to be cute, for all of an hour, before growing bored and wanting the serious façade back. Then this will be dropped too, in time for a giggle over a colleague’s terrible mug of coffee.

We are only a collective of emotions, rick-rolling from one situation to the next. I used to believe that I had to be same person for each, a static entity, so that no one would doubt my credibility. But this is boring as whale shit, and not sustainable. Mutability lives in the fire, stirred up by the rising air; water flows to enjambment –
And earth clings to the shovel, digging your grave.

I am a nonsense of words tonight. Just flexing these fingers, after all – a warm up, before chasing the sun back across the sky, as Celena, as Gaia, as the pseudonym made up at age fifteen, with no clue (then) of what significance it would come to hold.

Here, fire lights upon the ice
The shadows thaw beneath the smile
Of summer’s name, now caught between
A sea of stars, to call you home.

Trust in this, if nothing else.
Tattoo

Darker Shore than Time

For in a silent wave, I stood
Abreast of time, aware of none
Who knew the coming of the day
Would bring us loss, a love undone

Or so it seemed; we wander still
Afar, apart, alone beneath
An endless sky of faded brass
Hope goes to die amidst the swell

You were as me, and I as you
Our paths are deeply scored as time
Who buttons up his coat to find
The deepest pockets, full of silt

It goes along, the story sings
A faint and lilting lullaby
To ageless men and kittens with
The darkest fur and keenest eye

Whatever pain, is silent bent
On hurting what we hope to find
Is never worthy of our cause;
It leaves us cold and older yet.

The water waits on darker shores
Than what time gave us – nothing more
Than talking to and with the stars
A way of light, among the words

It was our silent world of pain
Of absence known, in cut-out space
Here by my side; your shadow-name
Is blue, and folded in my hand.

Loveless talons (Red Kite)

You circle low, and wing-out wide
With eyes that darken savage days
I watch you leave, all bitter sloe
With loveless talons; sigh and wait

On frozen ground, the pale-rime lie
Of shattered tongues of water, slow
You keep your secrets guarded well
A heart of lust; a silver mind.

red-kite-in-flight-during-blizzard
Image courtesy of http://www.benhallphoto.com/

Refrain: Never Mind

Never mind the fracture lines
The cobweb heart, the steely rope
Of wires crossed, of losing hope
Of seeing shadows in the day
We’re here and gone, we all decay

And blinding white, the pale refine
Of seeming to exist, and not
Within-without the trail of moss
To some old oak, in which we climb
To sleep away the dust of time

And sleep we will, when all has passed
When love, a splinter in my side
Is torn from flesh and soul and bone
And in this whiteout state we find
The numbness we all know as home.

It went like this (I am that is)

….the buildings toppled in on themselves.
Mothers clutching babies, picked through the rubble, and pulled out their hair.
The skyline was beautiful on fire – all twisted metal, stretching upwards; everything washed in a thin orange haze.
I said, “Kiss me, you’re beautiful – these are truly the last days.”

You grabbed my hand, and we fell into it, like a daydream, or a fever. – Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Dead Flag Blues”

I am:

Every lover’s hate
Every plate that smashed against a wall
Every cheater’s lie
Every liar’s wordless mouth, and twitching foot
The pocketful of things that should not have been

I am

A twisting wire-smile
A wreath of thorns, black with blood
A horizon full of nimbus, the sun’s love
And it’s dying grace, the final word
On a day long forgotten by now

I am

Every moment passing
And passing still, into a future
That never was, that might have been
Had the mind ruled the body with a will
Not a way, towards red turning black

I am

The bundle of rue, laid on the grave
Of every poor sod who never tried
Who never went to that horizon
To strike down the sun, with his blood
Pushed against that nimbus, to find
A world of tomorrows, a lifetime alone

I am

What could yet still be
A longer shadow on the ground
A freefall freeform, wandering away
Leaving you all behind
Leaving this name to rot
In a place where it meant something, once.

I am

The voice of every scream
Sent into the abyss, unheard
Every fist on the table
Every plate smashed
Every foot stamped
From a petulant woman-child
Who has only herself to blame.

I am that is.
Your sullen friend
Your shadowy goal
Your world of tomorrows
Here, and gone.

bullet in the sky