Choosing What to Photograph

When I’m in Vietnam, for example, I take pictures mostly like a tourist, so that I can remember places & people & events; occasionally I photograph more self-consciously, looking for the same sorts of things I look for when taking pictures at home: pattern, quality of light, strangeness, color. For the last couple of years, until it became hard for me to walk around outside, I’ve been obsessively photographing clouds. I don’t generally like vistas or landscapes, though there are exceptions such as the lush absolutely flat rice country of the Mekong Delta. I like abstraction. I like sequences.

I take lots of pictures & erase most of them off the memory card & never think of them again. As a Buddhist, I suppose I should be drawn to the relatively new movement of contemplative photography, which emphasizes spending a lot of time looking before squeezing the shutter. Several photographers I admire have used this method–or at least taught it. Minor White was a pioneer of the contemplative aesthetic & he was the teacher of John Daido Loori, who founded the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, in which I am a student. Maybe I just don’t trust my technique enough.

As a poet I am committed to technique as a means of elucidating subject matter, but when I pick up the camera, I keep my technique basic. I usually use the aperture priority setting on my camera, which allows me to set the f-stop & control depth of field, letting the camera figure out the correct shutter speed.1 I find it hard to compose in the viewfinder, so I usually crop pictures in my photo-editing software, where I also tend to either punch up the color intensities, or mute them–often all the way to black & white.

With the self-portrait sequence, I decided that taking photographs of my face while I’m ill2 is just too, well, “in your face,” so I settled on taking pictures of things I can hold in my hand. Question: “What has someone’s left hand holding a common object got to do with the self? Where is the self?” Response: The self is a composition of different, ever-changing objects, relations, conditions–or so I was taught in Buddhism 101. The hand & the object hold each other. They need each other.

Whatever the specific object¬†chosen for the self-portraits, it has to be small enough to hold in my hand. The specific objects were not chosen according to a particular plan other than a kind of intuitive attraction, sometimes rooted in childhood memories. That is one source of numinosity–but color plays a part as well, because it seems so fundamental, & cultural allusion. Culture & allusion–a technique from literature–come from widely differing modes of cognition & feeling, but both have operated in the process of selection. And I think this is true of most of my photography–not just the recent self-portraits.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. With these self-portraits, though, there is virtually no technique since I am using my iPhone 5c, hand-held.
  2. I hope I’m not being melodramatic: I have a diagnosis of cancer, but I won’t know for a few days what kind & what treatment I’ll need & my prognosis. Perhaps I’ll get off easy.

Vietnam Diary 1 (Nhat Ky 1)

Yesterday was the day the Vietnamese officially* celebrate the founding of the nation by honoring the Hung Kings and so I am starting my VN diary on — or at least near — an auspicious day a week before I leave the US. The goldfinches have begun turning gold here in South Colton, but yesterday rain mixed with snow splattered out of the sky all day and then last night turned to snow. It is still snowing. We have about six inches of heavy wet snow on the ground this morning. I’m ready for some warm weather, which will really be getting going by the time I arrive in Hanoi, though I’ll also be heading into the summer monsoon season, so it’s going to be wet. But it will also be green, which will be a relief after the long winter and recent brown thaw here.

So what is it about Vietnam? The history with the US makes it an interesting place, of course, fraught with analytical and moral peril; but for me that’s not really the center of my interest. Dana Sachs says simply what I have tried to say in various complicated ways over the years, that Vietnamese society is different and appealing even while it is strange and sometimes difficult for an American. I wrote a diffuse and impressionistic response to Vietnam during my second trip to Hanoi ten years ago, but rereading it now I have the sense that I was skating over the surface, imposing my patterns of perception on the my experience of the city. [That page of diary entries is, I see, a hodgepodge of things written at different times over two trips — not sure how that particular document came into existence: I was writing for a now-defunct poetry magazine. –jd] I touch on some of this nystery† in a light-hearted way in my recent interview with Ly Lan.

What draws me? Something that seems at once completely clear and at the same time obscure. There is one paragraph from those earlier diary entries that I would keep:

With Dao Kim Hoa Iíve just finished translating five poems by Huu Thinh and I may have learned more about Vietnam from this process than I did in my two months in the country. What I learned, however, seems impossible to describe. Literally impossible. I can tell you about the tree-lined streets of the Old Quarter, and I can tell you about the riverside cafes of Hoi An; I can even have a shot at describing the sense of holiness I felt visiting a little pagoda of no particular significance out among the orchards of the central coast. I could tell you how the older monk laughed with me when we managed to piece together a few sentence in “Vietlish” about the beauty of the evening, and how the two young monks stood smiling among the fruit trees in the courtyard in front of the sanctuary. I could tell you about the lunch prepared by the boatmanís wife on the Perfume River outside Hue. But the mental and spiritual world I have just begun to see into by learning the language is completely beyond my powers of description. Every time I open my Vietnamese dictionary I feel as if I have been granted access to a world that until three years ago might as well have been in another galaxy.

In recent weeks I have been intensifying my study of Vietnamese and over the last few days have begun to understand sentences. This makes me very happy and I think represents a new set of possibilities for my understanding of Vietnam and of Vietnamese poetry.I’m going to try to write something here nearly every day during my travels in the coming weeks.

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*The festival itself is scheduled according to the lunar calendar, but the national holiday occurs on April 6th each year on the Gregorian calendar for the convenience of businesses and government offices.

Sleep

I wonder what it would be like to be one of those people who sleep soundly virtually every night of their lives. I never have, not since I was a kid. Last night, though, I slept deeply & almost continuously. The extent to which sleep, or my waking relationship to sleep, has directed the currents of my life is extensive. When I think of my childhood, for instance, I often think of lying awake, sometimes in fear of night noises, sometimes listing to rock & roll on a tiny transistor radio under my pillow. Nine volt batteries were expensive and an eleven year old boy needed to hoard their power, deciding on a particular night whether to sip or binge.

Pretty Quiet Around Here: Reasons for Not Blogging

Seems like I haven’t had much worth reporting on the blog recently. I’ll read something & think, “I should blog that,” but then never get around to it. It’s not that I’ve been terribly busy — some work around the house & getting ready for the semester, but nothing overwhelming. Maybe the prolonged rainy weather we’ve been having since I got back from BMC has depressed my spirits. And there was a big blowup on the Poetryetc email list (a real nest of ninnies, where overt plagiarism goes unremarked & clique-politics is called “democracy”), of which I was one of the managers. My resignation from the list a week ago left a very bad taste in my mouth. Then there was the anxiety leading up to my annual physical exam — I always feel this for days — though I am routinely in “excellent health,” according to my doctor. I have been doing a lot of visual art, which is satisfying, but feels kind of mindless. I’m so used to thinking of imaginative work as involving language & a certain kind of verbal thinking that the processes of making collages don’t feel like using my mind, though I realize of course that I’m just doing another kind of thinking. And I’ve been spending too much time by myself — one of our cars is in the shop getting body work done, so Carole takes the remaining car, leaving me at home in south Colton. It’s funny, because in many ways I’m a quite solitary person, but if I don’t have conversations outside the home for several days I get way too much up inside my own head. Anyway, school responsibilities will really begin ramping up next week, we’ll have two cars, & I’ll be much busier. If past patterns hold, this will lead, paradoxically, to more posts on the blog. I think I’ve got a bunch of drafts, in any case, to finish up & post. So life will resume out here on the very tip of the long tail — somebody has to live out here!

BMC: Finishing Up

I’ve been circumspect blogging about BMC — I don’t want to have the sense that I’m invading anyone’s privacy, while at the same time wanting to give some impression of my time here. (I have in fact password protected one post that seemed overly personal.) Now that the month is winding down, I’d just like to say how impressive a group my fellow-campers are. Each & every one a fine artist from whom I’ve learned something. I’ve had a pretty good month working & will leave with seven or eight finished poems I didn’t have before, as well as with an outline of the book-length poem I’ve been thrashing around with. I probably could have done more, but I’ve always been a streak worker — I’ve had three mini-streaks each lasting a few days while I’ve been here & I couldn’t have expected more. In the periods between streaks I did a lot of useful reading & had many, many fine conversations. A good month.