The Spirit of the Bathtub is a limited edition book available until 1st June 2019
When Ewa and I first arrived in Madrid, Christian Pérez, his wife Megan, and their son Oscar welcomed us. Showed us around their neighbourhood of La Latina, lollies and neighbourhood festivals with sweet meats, up on their rooftop terrace, an introduction to mighty fine Spanish olives, wine, and cheese. And much much much more. They are great friends!!
Christian is a terrific musician, so versatile and expansive and curious with his instrument, it is more than an instrument, both Ewa and I love attending his performances. One of the first ones we experienced, and experienced is the right word, it is fully immersive, you feel it with your whole body, expansive, was at the old tobacco factory, a kind of network of cave street art and music, a lively place, and Christian and other musicians collaborated with dancers, improv, the dancers moved in and out of the instruments, around them like snakes, slithering and bendy, it was all very sensual, and also beautiful.
Last Sunday, 3rd June 2018, Christian played some terrific improv/free jazz with some visiting avant-garde musicians from Canada, Francois Carrier and Michel Lambert, and it was a spaceship, my pineal gland was vibrating.
The concert was at Cafe El Despertar, one of my very favourite places in Madrid for experimental music, tons of pictures of various legendary jazz musicians on the walls, and the room for concerts is intimate and cosy, there is direct interaction with audience and musicians, a nook.
At the beginning of their second set, Christian invited me on stage to read my balloon poems, from my latest book The Spirit of the Bathtub, an improv collaboration with these stellar musicians. It is just what the doctor ordered, feeling that energy, something larger than small mind self, by the time I started the second poem I was letting go, feeling the hula hoop, it is the best kind of nomadic travel. I am still riding those waves!
My writing is part of a life practice, using language as a means of travel, being in the flow, letting go. Language in motion, not attempting to impart stale or static knowledge. Maybe language is a little bit like a finger. If language is the finger, then what is the moon? The moon is a great mystery. Do not mistake the finger for the moon. Or vice versa. My writing attempts to travel with those great mysteries, to the moon, or other places, without clinging, or judging what is appropriate, better or worse. The Spirit of the Bathtub is part of that great mystery. It is, essentially, a spiritual book of nomadic surrealist travel. In the expansive tradition. Sometimes minimalist like Basho. Sometimes narrative and parable like.
If you listen to Alan Watts and other American Buddhist dharma talks, they often talk about expanding, rather than constricting. What does it mean? We all feel it, in one way or another, the tightening in the mind and body from various obligations, fears, and worries. The natural response is to cling, try to hold on. For example, as a teacher, I sometimes think in order to create a good lesson I need a lot of planning, and also anxiety, before entering the classroom. I have to prepare myself for the unexpected. But does the anxiety really help? Are my lessons more effective when I am anxious beforehand? It seems when I am in a more open and expansive state, some call this being in the flow, I am also more likely to complete various tasks more effectively, including writing and teaching. Of course, most importantly, the quality of my life is also better.
Many of us, in one way or another, have to deal with anxiety. My anxiety is very high. I used to take various prescriptions for severe anxiety, among other mental health issues, but stopped taking them in 2007. It is not easy but I felt they were no longer useful. Cognitive behavioural therapy is sometimes helpful. But I often feel I have a long way to go in dealing with my anxiety. It is a practice. I have to find ways of letting go. How to let go, in a skilful way? Without either repressing the emotions or feeding the anxiety by expressing it? Sometimes I need to allow for anger, and that is something I am still working on. How to express anger in a healthy way. I rarely express any anger. I just internalise it. I am afraid if I express anger, or any other so-called negative emotion, I will feed it. So how to let go? I am most happy in the moment, not holding onto anything, not clinging, being in the flow in an alert observational state, but this takes practice, without clinging to ideas of the “correct” outcome, and sometimes it takes expressing my “negative” emotions in order to let go.
In Alan Watts book,The Wisdom of Insecurity, he explains the often repeated story of the finger and the moon:
“It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”
Poetry is part of my life practice, but it is only the finger pointing to the moon, bright and radiant. If language is the finger then what is the moon? It is the great mystery. It is original mind. Beyond good and evil.
Twice a year my partner and I visit Katowice, Poland. At Christmas and also during the summer. It is a great time to visit Ewa’s family and it is also partly my writing retreat. I feel at home there even though my Polish is still basic. Like any forever beginner, I can of course understand a lot more Polish than I can speak. Someday I will speak better. I also lived in Poland for a number of years, in various parts of the country, and I feel connected to Poland, but per usual with every country, I am also an outsider. Occupying the outsider position is a good place to be, with the right mind.
One Christmas, it must have been 2012, there was magic snowman, with over 100 lights, and I sat next to the snowman, in my own mini room, tucked away to the side of the living room of Ewa’s parents. There was no door, but it was a nice writing nook. I sat on a nice hardwood rocking chair and took out my notebook. I was reading a lot of so-called Alt Lit back then (although that label, like most, encompasses a lot of very different writers). It was the big peak of so-called Alt Lit writing. Writers such as Chelsea Martin, Sam Pink, Melissa Broder, and many others. I finally felt like the writing I had been writing and reading, absurdist, sometimes surrealist, and often plainspoken, sometimes broadly confessionalist, had a larger community. Previously, closer to my generation, there were other writers with some similar inclinations as the so-called Alt Lit writers, and I was drawn to their writing very early. Poets like Matthew Rohrer and Dorothea Lasky and Zachary Schomburg.
I was never at the centre of that Alt Lit community, but I attempted an essay/review entitled The New Poetics of Confession. The Alt Lit community had a lot of potential, as well as problems that led to its demise. It was good to feel that potential. That aliveness. Art outside the walls of various academies/universities. Something fresh. It all dissolved, as most artistic communities are prone to dissolve, with quite a bit of controversy. But no matter. Many of the writers associated with that largely online community have continued writing some interesting work.
So there I sat, with my notebook and pen, Christmas 2012 in Katowice, Poland, writing a nomadic surrealist prose poem. It all came at once. The voice and the story/lines. This doesn’t happen often. Usually there are years of tinkering and collaging. But it was a whole birth. It feels nice to be written though completely, to lose yourself. The radio of Orpheus speaking through you, as Jack Spicer would say.
It was also the Christmas my sister sent me a t-shirt. In Utah there is small town called Beaver, it is very famous, and my sister sent me one of their famous t-shirts for Christmas. I was wearing that t-shirt, in that little compartment, rocking on the wooden chair with my notebook, feeling the heat from the snowman with 100 lights, and remembering the dancing from the previous night, at Ewa’s brother, with Gangnam style. Gangnam style was sweeping all the nations, and I was feeling it. The birth of the Polish beaver.
Here is a reading of that prose poem/story, “I Love Beaver,” from my new book The Spirit of the Bathtub
A terrific launch last night of The Spirit of the Bathtub with Grzegorz Wroblewski reading from his latest work (in English) Zero Visibility (translated by Piotr Gwiazda).
Super nice folks in the audience. Nice chats during and afterwards.
We are not alone folks!
Tomorrow in Madrid, 11th May 2018, at Desperate Literature Bookshop, I am launching my new book The Spirit of the Bathtub, along with visiting poet Grzegorz Wroblewski, also reading from his newest work, Zero Visibility (translated by Piotr Gwiazda).
The fun starts at 8PM. Entry 3 euro. You get a glass of wine (or beer) and support the bookshop. The only one of its kind (except maybe Shakespeare and Company in Paris).
At a panel on Polish poetry, with the poet and artist Grzegorz Wroblewski, one of the audience members, clearly annoyed, said he was sick of the idea of the artist as outsider. The theme of alienation in art. I replied that yes some artists and writers in history are also insiders, movers and shakers, but that artists and writers, by being outside in some fashion, have something valuable to contribute to society, as the observer, and perhaps trickster, and can provide new ways of seeing and questioning, an aid against inflexibility and rigidity.
When I read some poems from The Spirit of the Bathtub later in the evening, a lecturer of Polish culture and literature, a little drunk and very annoyed, complained about my poems written about Poland. If “about” is really the right word. She said that Polish people were already exotic enough in London and my writing was exoticizing them more. I looked at my other writing later and I could see it was not limited to Poland. The speaker in my poems is a kind of outsider in many cultures and countries. Also, what is culture and is it always sacred? Yes, of course there are power dynamics to consider sometimes, the domination and destruction of less powerful cultures by more powerful cultures, but I do not find culture sacred, it is often another commodity, traded and sold, usually, or used for nationalistic purposes.
In a well written review of my new book The Spirit of the Bathtub, the reviewer mentioned the theme of alienation and also individualism. They also talk about some existential bummers.
All of this is on my mind because tonight I am teaching “Sasquatch,” a short story by Tao Lin, at the International Institute in Madrid, and the main character, Chelsea, is clearly an outsider, alienated. The narrators of the stories of Sam Pink are also outsiders. I gravitate towards outsiders. Why? What can they offer?
Well, I don’t think being an outsider always means being alienated for one. Or at least painfully alienated. They don’t always have to go hand in hand. But sometimes they are clearly outsiders in great pain.
The artist as an outsider in great pain has become a stereotype, just look at all the movies about writers and artists as alienated loners. We could of course point to a culture that does not value the artist, unless they are in the service of capital. The artist as shaman is certainly of little value for capital. So yes we could move in that direction. The alienated artist because of society. And that is certainly true. But this is of course problematic and I think that is partly what the audience member during the Polish poetry panel was referring to. The self reinforced stereotype of the artist as self destructive. There are of course many books about writers and alcoholism, writers and depression, and there does seem to be an unusually high number of writers and artists with so-called mental health issues. The danger is assuming that in order to become an artist, in the romantic sense, you need to become self destructive. Or, if you are generally happy and adjusted to the mores of society, why write or create art?
But I think it is, in part, not an either/or. You don’t have to be completely adjusted to society (does such a case exist) or completely alienated. By being somewhere in-between, and helping to keep the borders porous, maybe some artists provide a great service. Can it be measured? Probably not.
Existing outside as an observer, as well as inside, is a common technique of meditation. The difference is perhaps that you don’t need to react, just observe, accept, let go.
For such a long time, I tried to jump to letting go. But that just created repression of my emotions, desires, fears etc. Maybe art, as Aristotle suggested with drama, can act as a kind of purging. We just need to know how to let go, and to do it skilfully. If we don’t observe and accept, we might repress, but if we only observe without letting go, we might spiral and end up feeding the emotion, helping them grow larger and larger, out of control.
I think a lot of my favourite artists are outsiders, or outlaws, and also skilful at letting go, at least in their art. I cannot speak to their so-called personal lives. I mean artists like Bernadette Mayer, Frank O’Hara, Eileen Myles, Lydia Davis. They can see the world as outsiders and outlaws, but they are not clinging to this, not weighed down by it in their writing. They have a lightness of touch as observers and outsiders. I think that is the kind of outsider art I am drawn towards. Why? Well, for me at least, it makes me fee less alone and more connected with other human beings, in other words less alienated, more accepting. Also, with looking from an outsider position, everything becomes less serious, and there is less clinging. All of this can be done with a light touch. The artist as trickster, crossing borders, another form of the shaman in modern culture.
Perfectionism. I have felt it, and feel it, do you feel it? For me, it comes from various places. My Mormon upbringing and experience as an immigrant in the United States. Trying to get everything right, as the eldest of seven children and a first generation immigrant, and that optimism of American culture that can sometimes mask pain rather than dealing with it. Or, the reverse, in Britannia, misery feeding on misery, sometimes.
Keep trying, fail better.
We are all broken.
It is maybe helpful to admit our vulnerabilities.
Here is a poem. It is called “Leaky Lifeboat.” From my book The Spirit of the Bathtub
The Spirit of the Bathtub is available now from Apocalypse Party:
Some of my stories are lyrical and surreal. They allow a lot of room for the imagination to create meaning. An active participation of reader and writer. Also, in the surrealist tradition, a journey between the conscious and less conscious parts of our minds. The various energies that direct our lives. Hopefully something to hold onto, like a good walking stick, but also allowing for spontaneity and directionless wanderings. The umbilical cord. You have to cut it. Welcome to the cosmic bathtub. This one has some mashup from Basho. A nomadic surrealism. It is also in the tradition of the cosmic egg. It is called “The Big Egg.”
The Spirit of the Bathtub is now available from Apocalypse Party:
In 2012 I was living in Katowice, Poland. One of my favorite days was national donut day. It is a big deal in Poland and in Poland the donuts are very good. They are maybe my favourite donuts in the whole world. There really isn’t a hole in a Polish donut. You have to make your own hole. It is, however, a little round. But not as round as the prefab donuts in other countries. It is more imperfect, less round. There is no real round in nature. The Polish donut is closer to real nature. It is very filling.
Happy national Polish donut day!!