Friday, November 28, 2008

Doing Everything in Nothing

I've been kicking my self lately since I have been doing nothing on my play. Other things have been taking up my time: a wedding, working for Obama. I'm not a great multi-tasker. And on my list of important things the previous two items easily came first. Then one day I read a story of a taxi cab driver helping a dying woman. Normally i'd feel wellings in my upper chest - sensations almost outside my body. But that day I was feeling heart tugs and tears coming from the very center of me. After that when I'd be hearing the stories of my daughters, my husband or simply feeling my love for them, I could feel my heart. I could feel motion and movement and upwhellings and spirals of sensation emanating from my heart. Some days it would be the same old sensations of before and then some days it would feel like an explosion. A profound change.

A profound change out of nowhere? Realization. For months I've been repeating Emily Dickinson's "A Single Screw of Flesh" to myself under my breath, out loud, before I fall asleep, choreographing it with my hands, saying just the vowels in it then the more muscular consonants- even sending it out from on "stage" in an ancient Greek theater. Just simply saying this poem over and over in different ways in small little snatches of time. Feeling the impact of words on me. Feeling the sounds and rhythms. Catching the feelings and sending them out into the world. It was just one poem. Small actions of inconsequence. I was doing "nothing". Not really a work at all. And then, amazing grace. In working on something small I was doing everything.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Beginnings of Theater

I just got back from Greece and had some heart throbbing experiences in theater. First of all my husband and I went to Delphi the home of one of the ancient oracles. There, there was a Greek theater nestled into the side of a mountain. It seated an audience of 5,000 which looked down on the orchestra where the chorus took place and looked out on a breath stopping view of the valley below. The Greeks liked to have the audience look down on the actors like the gods look on us and have the audience realize the foibles of mankind. It's kind of like the Buddhist blue skying technique where when you are mired in troubles you are supposed to spend time looking at the sky. Perspective. Perspective. What we loose so often. So I walked out onto the central spot of the orchestra and started doing one of my monologues from my play, a bit under my breath since I didn't want to impinge on other people who were there. I felt something I haven't felt in a theater before. I felt held, taken care of. The curve of the audience as it was placed in the hill was the perfect curve for the "stage". The proportions were perfect. I felt like I could do no wrong on that "stage". I made "mistakes", but they were ok and I took my time. My words came from myself from my being present in the moment. Now that's good acting, but here I didn't have to do any preparation to get there. The space did it for me. I didn't have to "do" anything.

The second theater I went to was in Epidaurus and that theater's capacity was 15,000 people though I heard that when Maria Callus sang there they squeezed in 17,000. There the ethos was for people to stand in the center spot of the orchestra and speak, sing, do whatever you wanted. I stood there and spoke with a sending out voice. Not pushing, or speaking loudly. Just sending my voice out to the audience. I spoke three monologues out loud and the acoustics were such that my voice both echoed back to myself and soared to the uppermost reaches of the audience. I was pulled into a heightened sense of theater that you can get from performing from a great play. The enormity of the theater plus it's astounding acoustics plus it's perfect shape created the physical container for drama. It's a place where every word is literally heard and literally supported. I sent my words out and they came back to me and fed me. Thrilling.

Later a guide came and struck a match on the center stone. It rang throughout. Imagine Maria Callas singing there.

The Greeks: no microphones no acting techniques. They used location and use of space in location to create the effects they wanted. Feng Shui experts.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Clown of God

I just figured out that I'd love for the Saint Francis actor to have a strong clowning background (comedia dell'arte, buffoon). St. Francis in his humility thought of himself that way. I kept getting stuck with how am I going to find a male actor with a movement background who loves poetry. There aren't that many out there, so this is perfect. Everything I know about St. Francis was that he was a physical physical man who threw himself into everything he came across- sometimes literally. I even had a children’s book about St. Francis called “The Clown of God.” DO YOU KNOW ANY CLOWNS?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

vowels and consonants

Well my eldest was reading about Daniel Radcliffe (you know, the actor who played Harry Potter) and his preparation for the main role in EQUUS. He did some intense training since it's quite a jump from film to stage. One of the exercises he loved was reading the text through by just pronouncing the vowels and then reading it through by just reading the consonants and then reading the complete text. I tried it with my play and the results in one pass through was astonishing. The unconscious comes through with much stronger articulation and rhythmic sense. It made the poetic sections stronger and more differentiated from the prose pieces. My voice became stronger with no physical effort. I got to know my work directly on a whole different level. It felt like diving into the ocean.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In the Telling

I’m learning so much by memorizing Emily Dickinson's poems and saying them out loud. Yesterday saying the words “inebriate” I could feel a propulsion of breath bursting out of my mouth to be sucked in by the words “of air”. Leaning into the words and letting them create sensations and then feelings in the body. (Check the August 1 post for the poem: "I taste a liquor never brewed.")

I'm beginning to read a book by Cicely Barry called "From Word to Play: A Handbook for Directors." In the beginning she says there is no difference between words to action and action to words. Now I'm beginning to feel it. The body speaking is a moving instrument. Barry says we must bring sound back into theater. It reminds me of what I learned from studying with Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires. They pointed out that before written language the sounds in the oral traditions were so graphic that the TELLING evoked intense feelings. That's why Shakespeare's language is so visceral and compelling. When really spoken the consonants clang, burst, throb, ssssss's slither and lisp; lll's be liquid lilting waves. Sounds go straight to the "body" of the audience.

Makes me understand why theater is so wonderful. To hear a live actor reverberating on stage with all the nuances and minute tellings...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

This is Hard to Write,

but I said I'd report on the progress of my play. So here it goes: I've read the play with my husband, read it with an actor Douglas Kenning, and now have gotten it critiqued by my assistant, and they all confirmed this tiny but insistent voice inside of me about certain parts of my play. It needs to be rewritten. I didn't want to cop to it. I wanted to cut to the chase, get it up... But I noticed that all these different points of view often corollated with a slightly nauseous pulling sensation I'd feel inside when I'd read certain sections. So tag I'm it and I have to rewrite. I also realize that part of my reluctance was my nervousness about whether or not I could do it. The play came through me in two weeks. It was a gift. How could I go back and find the inner threads to reweave places where the fabric was stretched too thin? How could I cut some of the imagery without destroying the integrity? Now I know I can do it. I was writing so fast that I skipped stuff. And my listening wasn't quite as acute on some days.

One of the scary parts of being an artist is sometimes you've got to break some eggs and the risk is sometimes you can't put it back together if you don't like it. It's scary, but as the egg breaks I'm going to try and let in the excitement too.

So my plan is to spend the next while listening to my play in as many different ways as I can so I can feel the core and let the core tell me what to write. I find myself taking a deep breath.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Definition of Emily Dickinson

I know this sounds like an oxymoron. I didn't know you could define a person, particularly Miss Emily, but this one fell into my lap while I was reading a review of "A Summer of Hummingbirds": "Emily Dickinson was fierce and enigmatic, an exotic genius disguised as a New England spinster."

This epiphany came from a fairly damning review of the book by Laura Miller in the "New York Times." I could agree with her if the book was supposed to be the type she was reviewing. But as you can read in my last post, the book offers something else and I think more important. I'm so glad I stumbled upon it in a bookstore and didn't listen to the review.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Well I've been on a long sabbatical. I was helping put up a wedding. And thank you. It was magical.

Working my way back into the play, I found a wonderful book: A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, And Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade" by Christopher Benfey. (Now I will NEVER think the subtitle for my current play is too long.) This book doesn't have a clear through line which is the typical structure of most books. But how could you expect that of a hummingbird? What you get is a structure like that of a hallogram: bits and pieces adding on to several themes and from the different points of view - different people, different art forms. What I walked away with was this inner colorful experience of that era mapping the shift of the United States from right before the civil war to right after. It's a seminal period. And timely, considering the developing crises facing the U.S. and the world.

And for dessert: a couple poems by Emily Dickinson

A Route of Evanescence
With a revolving Wheel--
A Resonance of Emerald--
A Rush of Cochineal,
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head--
The Mail from Tunis probably,
An easy Morning's Ride--


I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to window run,
To see the lttle tippler
Leaning against the sun.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A single screw of Flesh

I'm still working on this poem written out in the April 22 post. It has so much mortality in it. I confront it again and again. Finally realized besides my creative nervousness and tension, the poem is creating tension in me. I have to give in to it. She does offer a beautiful bouquet in it. Perhaps what is single most important about being human. She will not relent. She will not let the gods talk her out of the gift and out of the Peril of being human. To know this poem is one thing, but it does navigate you to fundamental experiences if you let it.

I read recently that a poet's breath is in her poems. Of course. What an amazing experience. So today I'm going back and trying to drop into the poem. Let the rhythms take me and the raw words evoke me. I'm paying particular attention to the dashes, the punctuation, and the capitol letters.

Anyone with any thoughts or experiences on this poem, PLEASE post. The poem keeps unraveling and unraveling for me. And every time I think I've got it, something else emerges. My husband pointed out that "new-mailed" probably means armoring with metal, i.e., "nerves of steel". That's probably correct. Or, she might have been playing with multiple meanings/puns: new-mailed (as in mailed a letter) playing off of "Just granted."

Just for the record, I don't think interpretations are essential, but are tools for diving back into the poem and opening up more treasure boxes.

- Christina

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I feel so stupid. I haven’t been able to reconcile why Emily Dickinson wrote poetry and didn’t want to have it published. I’d gotten it was a spiritual discipline. It helped her focus and listen to her inner spiritual yearnings. But why the paradoxical structures: the starting of a poem in one direction and ending on it’s opposite or the absolute trailing off at the end of a poem. Or then there is the constant opaqueness. These devices capture people and bring them into a poem. Why do this if you aren’t going to publish? I know. I know. She could have done this just for herself. (She may have been conflicted about publishing/not publishing her entire life—I want to do a check on her later poems and see if this is still an issue). But what I realized today is so obvious it made me almost fall down.

I’d been memorizing and playing with some minimal choreography of Emily Dickinson’s poem #293. (Franklin edition). I’d only gotten up to the third verse and I was straining to hear what she was saying when I suddenly realized that she’s building these structures for her to catch god, for her to catch a piece of divinity. They are structures with roots and boots and sides, but always with something left out - almost like triangulation. The something left out is almost palpable and is often pointed to. She’d create the structures where she’d stand securely and then strain for the ephemeral nature of divinity. The straining for something unknown makes her drop what she knows, drop ordinary personal constructs. In this winnowing process the structures kept her rooted and not flying off into the ozone. If she stood there long enough and listened long enough, sometimes something would appear: Something magical something divine something which because of her structures and her emphatic presence in her poems connected with the magical parts of herself. Her poems were devices that helped her capture pieces of her own divinity: her transcendental mission.

And the poem:

A single Screw of Flesh
Is all that pins the Soul
That stand for Deity, to mine,
Opon my side of the Vail –

Once witnessed of the Gauze –
It’s name is put away
As far from mine, as if no plight
Had printed yesterday,

In tender – solemn Alphabet,
My eyes just turned to see –
When it was smuggled by my sight
Into Eternity –

More Hands – to hold –These are but Two –
One more new-mailed Nerve
Just granted for the Peril’s sake –
Some striding –Giant – Love –

So greater than the Gods can show,
They slink before the Clay,
That not for all their Heaven can boast
Will let it’s Keepsake – go


Yesterday as I looked at a meaning I had discovered in the poem, I thought this is obvious. Why had I had such a struggle? Once the cocoon falls off it seems silly the amount of strain I had to go through to get there. Then I realized that one reason I had such a hard time understanding the poems was they were written in a 6 -beat, 8- beat line rhythms scheme which echoed hymns of Emily Dickinson’s times, and the rhythms were contraindicated for the words she used. She was using her more modern and personal syntax and lexicon in an old fashioned structure which created enormous tension and fracturing. I settle into the rhythms, but unlike the hymns they don’t take me home. They throw me out on the sand in bewilderment and I have to dive back in for another take. Going back and back a layering happens which finally gets dense enough so that I can “understand” it. But, this understanding is not a simple linear understanding, intellectual understanding. My psyche has made these trips and each trip has added a more “fullness” to my feeling of the destination land. Emily Dickinson: How you build something out of nothing.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Play Reading #2

Play Reading # 2 on March 29 with Douglas Kenning. Patti Trimble and Tim O'Reilly present.

Reading the play with Douglas Kenning a fine Sicilian/San Franciscan actor was a hoot. There was so much interactive fun. I had been working the play entirely by myself and had gotten into some dead ponderous patterns. I had gotten caught in some of society's views of this "serious spiritual " poet and got caught in trying to hold onto what I'd discovered. Working with Douglas certainly blasted that out. Also I’ve played and sat with the play long enough that my nerves were secondary to the fun. When I’ve acted in the past I'd never gotten beyond the shear fear of being on the spot to experience the joy. I’ve had the adrenaline rushes (but unfortunately I’m not an adrenaline junky), the immersion into another character and achingly taking time to come back to myself, but was never able to shake that feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. That was my goal. I shook it. So I’m elated.

Besides spending time with the script, I finally got hard core with techniques I learned from my work with Lennie Dean (Eric Morris) and The Loading Zone: I guess it all boiled down to I love this work and character. I want to do it. I’ll do it as honestly as I can and stay in the moment and bring my feelings of the moment into the character and accept everything that happens. With a dash of Martha Graham’s exhortation to Agnes de Mille where she said it’s not her job to judge her work. Her job is to be open to her own unique creative spirit. Otherwise I realize I'm cutting my feet out underneath myself. It’s so much more fun this way.

I got some really good feed back and when I’ve absorbed it more I’ll post SOME of it. I’ve got to retain some for mystery. But if anyone thinks I’m off in this, let’s have a discussion. It will be a constant tension as I write this blog.

A big THANKS TO Douglas, Patti, and Tim


Friday, March 14, 2008

St. Francis and the Sow by Galway Kinnell

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within of self blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and
blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Video of "Our Life in Poetry: Emily Dickinson"

Awhile back my daughter sent me a link to the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination based in New York ( For everyone's good fortune, they have begun posting their discussions on the web. January 8th there was a course on Emily Dickinson curated by Michael Braziller, publisher of Persea Books, and Alice Quin, the executive director of the poetry society of America and a professor at Columbia University. I was so excited to see this video, but had a little trepidation. Would this be one of those dissecting discussions where the real agenda was just to prove the owner's intellectual skill? NO! Two people deeply involved in enjoying and sleuthing the poems to release more overtones for enjoyment. And, they offered suggestions for further fun. Alice Quin was particularly a delight in her sensuous appreciation of the poems. There were some interesting comments from people in the audience. The first 50 minutes or so is the most absorbing. To find it click on "Past Programs" and look for the title. And yes i will learn how to send links :-).

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bio of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson rejected the facile Christian revivals of her time and put herself on a path of deep renunciation to help her focus on an inner intuitive sense of the divine. She rejected all religious forms of the divine that abounded in her time and spent her life facing the infinite and eternal with her feet planted in the mortal. Instead she looked unflinchingly at death against the backdrop of the divine. She had many opportunities to do so between the high number of consumption victims in Amherst and the carnage of the Civil War. Her poetry became both her prayer and her path in life. It was a stark path lit by the ecstasy of experiences summed by deep penetration into the mysteries of death and existence. Often with a backdrop or moment of whimsy and humor. "I heard a fly buzz when I died." She said the only commandment she ever followed was "Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not. Neither do they spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

At twenty she began withdrawing from the world. She stayed away from public functions. Then stayed just to her garden. Then to her house, and finally just to her room. Her father was very controlling and very afraid for her health. She had many illnesses. Went blind or nearly blind for years and went blind the last two years of her life. She probably had consumption and is believed to have died of Bright's disease, but underneath these physical and psychological reasons for withdrawal was a conscious choice to choose the life of renunciation and spiritual commitment. For most of her life she simply wore white though she often had many pockets sewn in which to keep a pencil and scraps of paper to write down her poems. She never published her poems since publishing was not the point of the writing and she rejected material success. She also was a great cultivator of flowers and spent hours in her conservatory. She sent countless letters to friends, people in need, often refurbished with her poems and flowers. She had a number of passionate loves and friendships, primarily on paper. For children, she would often lower a basket of gingerbread by a rope out her upstairs window. It was said that the death of her nephew eight year old Gilbert sent her into full retreat. In her later years she saw almost nobody. Letters were her primary contact.

Mentors and inspirational sources were Charles Wadsworth (a well known reverend and fiery thinker of the time), Emerson, Shakespeare, Jonathan Edwards (a Calvinist--but she rejected the outer forms as it was manifest in the churches and by her family and went on her own inner search), the Bible and the Dictionary.

She had little comfort in religious forms but the ecstatic was a balm. And on one level she made no distinction between terror and the joyful. All of it was connected to living. She felt intimately connected with all life. Many poems were written about flowers, flies, a snake, the woods, mountains, sunsets, the sea --all against the backdrop of the eternal. Her last written words were, "Called back." When she died her sister found a box under her bed with over a thousand poems in it. No one had known.

About her poetry, people have spent decades studying it. She left almost 2,000 poems. The scope and body of work is so vast it can be likened to the story of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and describing what they touch as what an elephant is. Like Shakespeare, Dickinson is revisioned and reframed with each successive modern construct and trend, from psychoanalysis to purported lesbian relationships. Like Shakespeare her work is bigger than anything that can be pinned down. Two cogent analyses come from “My Emily Dickinson” by Susan Howe. According to Howe, Dickinson was inspired by Jonathan Edwards and believed that words were annexed to reality by sensation. (p. 49). In poem after poem it is the sensation which leads you in. And, “Edwards and Dickinson forced people through shock and through subtraction of the ordinary, to a new way of perceiving. Subject and object were fused at that moment, into the immediate ‘feeling’ of understanding. This re-ordering of the forward process of reading is what makes her poetry and the prose of her letters among the most original writing of her century.” (p.51)I believe that the vitality and multi-dimensionality of her poetry is rarely met in modern poetry today. Like a contemplative, her retreats gave her room to hear the non-ordinary. She used the cold steel of her life, her passion for nature, and her constant awareness that there was never any separation from the Immortal as the forge to create her work.

To me one of the last poems she wrote says it all:

The Ecstasy to guess,
Were a receipted Bliss
If Grace could talk.

I believe Grace talked to her and she listened.

And yes, I am yet another person touching the elephant.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Emily Emily Emily

I have been reading my way through Dickinson's poems and have only reached the quarter mark at #450. First I have to say I had an amazing experience. To understand some of her poems I have to stretch and listen and remain open at a level that recreates the creative experience for me. After reading a number of her poems I've literally felt that I've written a poem myself. I've read and experienced that Dickinson tried to fashion her poems to throw the reader into the event that she was talking about. Devices she uses are paradoxes, eliptical sentences, NOT summing up a poem at the end, not giving you mental hand holds to take you through the poem. Sometimes she uses structures which literally scramble your brain such as beginning a poem with the end of a sentence and ending at the beginning. You follow her inner steps when you read her work. You have to since there is nothing else to hold onto. But what I am talking about carries this one step deeper. She gives you materials to go play in literally extraordinairy experiences. How does she do this? I don't know yet. I've just had the experience. I've ideas, but don't want to come up with a facile answer. I figure with 3/4 more poems to go it will sing to me. Or maybe not. I've learned that there are scholars who have spent over 30 years studying her work. Her scope is beyond breath.

By the way i'm reading her poems from: "The Poems of Emily Dickinson," (the reading edition) edited by R.W. Franklin of The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998,1999. This edition is supposed to be the most complete and most accurate respresentation of the poems as they were written by Dickinson. Earlier editions changed her spelling, changed her punctuation to be "correct". Emily Dickinson had such a strong ear that she would change spellings, and had a whole system of dashes (rising up, down, long, short to indicate how to read the poem). She also had revisions and revisions and revisions making it very difficult to discover which was her favorite. Maybe the last one was. Maybe not. Maybe she was like Bob Dylan who is always changing how his songs are sung. As you can see, her kind of poetry writing is a publishers nightmare. Unfortunately, current printing practices being what they are the dashes cannot be duplicated. Franklin has painstakingly prepared these poems for publication always with respect and an ear on the poet. He's published another edition with all the versions, but this edition is pared down to one version per poem.