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ROBERT KENDALL - FALL 2002 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Tory Dent
An interview and reading with New York Poet Tory Dent. Grace Cavalieri hosts this one hour program of transformation.

R.T. Smith
Fatalities: A poem for 9/11

James Reidel
Ex-Libris Weldon Kees: Silver Poets of the 16th Century leads to a meditation on the life of Weldon Kees.

Robert Kendall
A Day In The Life: Epistemological sit-ups and perception stretches.

John Kinsella
You and I—blackout: Cambridge, mushrooms, anarchy, and teetotalling, all in the final installment of John Kinsella's autobiographical series.

Robert Kendall

Robert Kendall is the author of A Wandering City, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Prize, and a book-length work of hypertext poetry published by Eastgate Systems. His poetry has appeared widely in magazines, in print and on the Web, as well as in several anthologies. His electronic poetry has been exhibited at many venues in the United States and internationally. He is the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship, a New Forms Regional Grant, and other awards. He teaches creative writing for the New School University and runs the literary Web site Word Circuits.
A Day in the Life of Robert Kendall

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Funny thing, poetry. Odd the way it seems to hover over my life like... well, what exactly? Some all-powerful logomaniacal presence. Some indefinable force demanding that every nook and cranny of perception be filled with words. Sometimes I try to give it a concrete shape in my mind and imagine it gazing back at my mind's eye like an old-style benevolently despotic god. It always has a smile on its lips, but I'm not always sure it's really one of benevolence. Sometimes it seems more an expression of malevolent amusement at its own unlikely power, which even now forces these sentences into metaphors.

I've always suffered from an inability to grasp the world in the straightforward and practical terms that many others seem to have no trouble with. I suppose it's in this tendency—some would say deficiency of character—that poetry saw its opening. With its eye for an easy mark, it came on the scene whenever I had smacked my face into the wall of the maze once too often. I fell for it every time. The cuts and bruises became words. Then the words became the next hesitant steps I took. I still couldn't find the way, but somehow it didn't seem to matter as much anymore. The furniture of language made the bare corridors livable, made them feel like home.

So each day I wake up vaguely aware that I'm one of those bumblers who can't help tripping over their own existence without the mediations and ministrations of Art. Sure I may get through the better part of a morning, or maybe even several full days in a row, without being reminded of my affliction. But sooner or later it will come to a head.

The poems demand to be written. And it's not simply a matter of sitting down periodically with that formidable adversary, the blank page. Sometimes the most urgent need to write will produce only a quantity of insipid scribbling and the nagging bloated feeling of mental constipation. I often find that the poem has to be nurtured over a sustained period, that it must be lived with, must be borne or relished in its nebulous embryonic form for days or even weeks before it will yield up a passable first draft upon the page.

To stimulate the process, I try to set myself daily mental exercises that may lead eventually to poetry. Nothing too strenuous most of the time. Maybe a few epistemological sit-ups mixed in with my normal routines, or a few perception stretches. The mind has a natural tendency to run along familiar paths, so it's largely a matter of forcing the mental wheels from the ruts, disengaging the automatic pilot for seeing and feeling.

Take, for example, that eminently quotidian undertaking that kicks off each day—the morning shower. I'm inclined to climb into the stall thinking about little more than how I wish I were still in bed. Then my thoughts are apt to wallow idly in the pleasant sensations of the warm water or wander aimlessly through a few convenient daydreams.

Yet when I determine to open my eyes and really see what's there, it's amazing what comes unexpectedly into view. The patterns of water droplets on the glass door present a unique, dynamic, infinitely extensible composition of light diffusion and refraction. The formal coherence, the principles of proportion and balance underlying this seemingly haphazard byproduct of daily hygiene are as compelling as those behind any Pollock action painting. Then I might consider the glass "canvas" behind the droplets. Quite a telling cultural artifact, really. Through a process that few people could adequately explain, natural substances have been converted into this perfect polyhedron of solid transparency. Its very existence seems to defy the laws of common sense, yet glass has become so ubiquitous we barely seem to notice it. Think what a dark place our world would be without it.

I try to invoke this attenuated mode of perception whenever I can and challenge myself to sustain it. It would be nice to be able to live life in a Zen-like state of permanently heightened awareness, I suppose, but the mind enjoys its routines—needs its routines—and eventually slips back into them as I get the kids ready for school, sit down to answer e-mail, or prepare to teach a class. I can say that my seeing exercises let me clean out some of the spiritual cobwebs, and they work wonders for alleviating boredom in the line at the post office. More to the point, they foster some conceptual disturbances, some cognitive unease that I can carry around with me until they congeal into the images and tropes of poetry.

Of course one does eventually have to sit down and get something onto paper. I don't have any sort of regular writing regimen. The poems get written whenever I can set aside a few uninterrupted hours in my rather chaotic schedule of teaching, running the Word Circuits literary Web site, working for the Electronic Literature Organization, preparing my publications and conference presentations, looking after my two daughters, keeping up with household chores, and all the rest. A good writing session, even though it may only last two or three hours, will be the focus of my day, or perhaps even of an entire week. Everything else seems just to lead up to and culminate in that small stretch of time.

To complicate my creative life, much of my poetry ends up in the electronic medium as hypertext or animated work. Sometimes this means taking texts originally intended for print and coaxing them into the domain of multimedia or interactivity. More often it involves texts conceived exclusively for the computer screen. Either way, the creation of the words themselves and the fashioning of the electronic settings for them are for me two distinct creative processes, each with its own tools—pen and paper for one, the computer keyboard for the other.

Writing the text and conceptualizing an electronic structure for it are intuitive, "right-brain" endeavors. When engrossed in them, I often find my sense of self seeming to dissolve. The result bears interesting similarities to the mental state attained by serious practitioners of meditation or prayer—or so I gather from what I've read about these practices. This frame of mind becomes so addictive that I find myself becoming depressed when I go for long periods without writing.

Implementing the electronic elements is a more deliberate, analytical process that can involve endless hours of sometimes-tedious coding, formatting, and graphics editing. This process is so time-consuming that I have to set aside large blocks of time for it every week if I'm to make any progress. Though this part of my work can often be repetitive and mechanical, it always affords at least the simple satisfaction that comes to any artisan plying a difficult craft.

So there you have it: the habits and proclivities that conspire daily to make me a poet. Oh yes, there's one more ingredient to the mix—that faint, nagging voice from somewhere in the wings. Are you for real? it asks incredulously. Do you think there's actually a place in our get-it-done-yesterday-then-throw-it-away culture for the sort of laboriously obsessive linguistic perfectionism that constitutes poetry? Is the poet any less an anachronism than the fresco artist who paints minute details high up on the cathedral ceiling where they will be visible only to "the eyes of God"? I am forced to try to answer these questions over and over again with every poem I write.


 

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2002 The Cortland Review