Friday, April 29, 2011

Review of My Tennis Shoes

They're everyday wear. That means by definition they're grungy.
There's something odd to note about us
21st Century XY chromosome types.
Maybe it's because not so long ago most of our ancestral father figures were still farming the land. We act as if we've got mud on our heels and hereditary manure between our toes.

Just ask one of us guys to bring out our favorite shoes.

Anatomy of a Pair of Shoes
It's very simply accomplished, this transformation of ordinary shoes into exceptional footwear.

Guy in question takes a pair of pristine tennis or running shoes and beats the crap into them through vigorous use and abuse. After that, lace us up! We're ready for the next five years or until the  poor things expire like dead earthworms on the sidewalk.

In the meantime, for as long as possible we'll wear these many-eyeletted, shredded canvas terrors everywhere.

Of course, there are occasional exceptions to the foregoing bold modus operandi which is supposed to result in such desirable shoes. I must humbly report that my own tennie favs didn't reach their current state of near perfect degradation through worthy outdoor, athletic endeavors.

No fast and sweaty pickup games of basketball to break them in. No hikes through the high country where pebbles cut into the tread and glacial silt impregnated the canvas sides as I forded a rushing, ice-cold stream.

This was a kitchen accident.

Seeking the Perfect Shoe
It began with my wanting some walking shoes that were made in Europe. I had a reason. I was traveling to the Continent for the first time in decades and I lived with the unrealistic hope that I might look as little as possible like a tourist.

Here was the goal: To avoid resemblance to a blatant species of American traveler--the one who gives off the vibe of I'm an SUV driving, McDonalds burger eating, American Idol watching citizen of the  Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.

You know, he's all Yankees baseball cap and flapping cargo shorts and Bruce Springsteen "The Boss" T-shirt and the whole of it is shod with a pair of sparkling Tommy Bahamas or ProSpirits (Target brand).

The French invented an interesting shoe in 1936.
Let's say I'd rather blend in.

So I first figured out that black is a popular color in Europe, especially at our initial destination, Paris, where les hommes and femmes serieux se habille comme la nuit and fume beaucoup (apologies for murdering the French language).

"Dress like a Parisian," I told myself, "but defense de fumer!"

So I put together a no-smoking outfit of black jeans, black T-shirt.

Tres simple!

Then I went looking for a comfortable walking option, Euro-insider shoes if possible.

Spring Courts have distinctive "sole holes" to help
ventilate the feet., but we're not advocating you buy some.
Please see our "Endorsement Policy" at the bottom of this post.
There were some English brands (pricey) and then I found them. Spring Courts.

Invented in France in 1936 and manufactured there ever since.

Spring Courts are the world's first  tennis shoe with ventilation holes along the edge of the rubber sole. They are extremely cushy as well.

Spring Courts (in white) are what John Lennon was wearing to complement his white suit as he crossed the street on the famous cover of the Beatles' Abbey Road album.

But guess what? For a number of complicated reasons, not worth explaining here, I didn't end up wearing the Spring Courts on the trip. They stayed at home in their tissue-lined box.

The Anointing
So last June the three of us return from Paris and Rome. The trip has gone well, and I find myself ready to wear my new shoes. I hardly have them on my feet for a week when my pedestrian life is altered drastically.

I go to the grocery store. I buy provisions for the pantry and fridge and I'm bringing them into the house in those flimsy plastic bags the store provides.

That's when it happens.

The bottom breaks in one bag like a ruptured spleen and out tumbles something that from the sound of it hitting the hard tile floor I know instantly is a very large glass container.

It's a quart of olive oil.

I look down at my shoes. They now reside in a lake of golden oil. Their spiffy gray canvas sides are splashed with dark swirls of Italy's finest.

In that instant, my tennis shoes enter the mature phase of their lives. From here on out they will be sheer grunge.

Walk Another Mile in Those Shoes
I did try washing them. At first it appeared that the stains were almost gone. True, the heat of the dryer caused some of the rubber trim to start to melt away, but the shoes looked so much better!

I was deceived.

Soon those stains began to come back. The damaged areas of the canvas seemed to magnetically attract dirt. The oil spots darkened, turned brown.

Do I really love these shoes or am I just hanging on to them because of what they could have been?

Or am I trying to do what my father always called "get my money's worth" which meant he wouldn't toss anything until it had reached the point of decomposition or had converted itself into particles of rust?
Or could it be I'm futilely clinging to the romantic idea of these shoes the same way I cherish the notion I've always had that I will actually master the French language (although, let's face it, after much study I have as much proficiency in le francais as my dog Bullwinkle has in English)?

Or is this just a blatant guy thing?

I say any object that can provoke such existential, probingly deep questions can't be all bad. They may be ugly, but in quite an anatomical stretch they make my feet speak to my head. For that reason I'll rate theses shoes a solid 3 stars ««« - V.W.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Twisted Plots and the Wrinkles in Life's Fabric

I keep reminding myself that if a person is "Van Winkled" to what's happening elsewhere on the planet, then the only news that remains available is "local" and "personal."

Specifically, "news" becomes whatever seems of import that happens directly to him or her. It's the solipsist's news beat.

Or Welcome to Me-World...

Of course, the blogosphere is replete with this sort of daily diary stuff.

Most of the time, I find myself unwilling to risk a Twitter-style yawn by sharing nuggets of the monstrously mundane aspects of my life (e.g., I had a BLT for lunch, yum! e.g., Just took a Gas-X tablet, ugh!). There's nothing in my daily routine worth reporting on this blog.

Every day is average. Every day goes much as expected. So I write about other matters.

But the last couple of days! Whew! I won't claim it was as if we were on board the Titanic, but our metaphorical ship of life sure wasn't reaching its ports of call in an expected fashion.

All Is Well (Or Is It?)
It began with a planned Easter holiday junket to the nearest major metropolitan area to seek some cultural nourishment not available in our little burg of 110,000 people. We set out on our adventure on Saturday afternoon by getting in the car and driving two hours east of here.

There have been rampant wildfires in this part of the state. For weeks now the daily temperature has approached the summer heat levels of July and the wind has ripped across the arid plains and there has been no rain and no rain. It's a recipe for out of control flames to sweep unimpeded across the landscape.

For weeks, the weather app on my computer desktop
has delivered the same "alert" nearly every day...

Pastures have blackened. Houses have burned. Cattle have been barbecued alive in the field.

Many days I'd stepped outside the house and smelled the smoke in the air. One night my wife drove home with the car's sun roof open. Mistake. She found ash drifting down onto the seats and into her hair.

During our drive on Saturday we checked for places where the fires had burned. We saw one small charcoaled patch alongside the road. Not too impressive. I think it was at this point we began to relax.

The Nonexistent Noodles
So for our Saturday night dinner we selected a Vietnamese restaurant we  had discovered on our last trip to the big city. They featured the kind of delectable, well presented food we can't obtain back home. But wait. Something was wrong. Yes, I mean wait. Really wait. Our appetizers arrived and the server said that our orders were coming. But you know where this is headed.

So March was "National Noodle Month" (seriously) and we
missed it, so we thought we'd atone by ordering up some serious
platefuls of Asian noodle dishes...

We waited. We waited. Our glasses of ice water ran dry. Outside we could see through the tall windows the sky was being illuminated by giant scribbles and lassos of lightning.

Mother Nature was having a blast. Not us.

When the food finally came it was with apologies. At least it was delicious. The manager knocked a few dollars off the bill and gave our son a free cup of chocolate ice cream.

To conclude the evening we headed over to the used bookstore. The night sky still appeared apocalyptic. But the Four Horsemen remained at bay and only scattered drops of rain fell on us. We went back to our hotel with a bag of books and used LPs. We were feeling pretty good about life...

The Empty Church
The main reason we had journeyed all the way to this lovely large metropolis was that I'd picked out an  elegant, Spanish-styled church associated with a major university at which we would attend Easter services. It was near our hotel, but we still had to hustle to pull our best clothes out of bags, dress, and get ready to go.

We arrived on time. Hurray! But another twist, another wrinkle awaited us...

A man accosted us in the parking lot and told us that the service had been moved from the church. "There's been a power outage," he explained. We were redirected to the nearby campus. Church would be held in the student center where they still had power.

Such disappointment! We had wanted to hear the bells toll in the tower. See the robed choir process down the stone tiled aisle. Watch the morning light pouring through stained glass. Feast our eyes on the vaulted ceiling.

The church we hoped to attend...

It was too late to amend our plans. So we joined a line of Easter church goers who, like us, had found that the grand old church on this morning was only an empty, non-electrified, darkened tomb. Plan B was to gather in what resembled a hotel banquet room. Industrial carpet, rows of banquet chairs, cheesy chandeliers. Everyone made the best of it.

Sometimes life doesn't go according to plan. This isn't necessarily bad. Isn't that the message of Easter?

Ah, the MOMA, the perfect venue for our Easter brunch...
Spill the Wine
We were really looking forward to our Easter brunch.

We had reservations in the cafe at the Museum of Modern Art.

Soon as we arrived we knew: this was it! The architecture was wonderful, the food the other diners were tucking into looked aesthetic and palate pleasing.

Indeed once our food arrived my son and I whipped out our cameras and started acting like tourists and taking pictures of it. That's where I became incautious. My blazer sleeve snagged my champagne glass.

A glimpse in the foreground of the glass of sparkling wine moments
before the tragic (and messy!) fall...

The glass tumbled. It shattered with a LOUD  pop!! on the table. I was splashed with golden wine and, with my synapses firing like military grade ordinance, I leaped up by reflex before I even realized what had just happened. Behind me my chair fell over. The nearby diners went "oh!" just like they do when a waiter drops a plate.

"Are you all right?" the waitress asked, hurrying to my assistance.

Some part of me was. All right. The rest of me? Not so much.

I tossed a wadded napkin in the direction of the puddled wine. I excused myself to head in the direction of the bathroom.

The Seventh Plague
It was almost time to go home, but what else could go wrong? Hadn't we had our quota already?

In fact, I refuse to count as an adversity that we had planned to finish our visit with a visit to a large super market that features gourmet and natural foods that we can't buy back home. We had even brought a cooler that we planned to fill with ice and then pack with organic meats and vegetables.We arrived and found the parking lot empty.

Closed for the Easter holiday.

So we began the two-hour drive back. Again, we relaxed. Then, only half an hour from home, the sky began looking gray and grim. It appeared to be storming off in the distance. We were within fifteen minutes of home when the rain began to fall. Heavily.

Photo by Greg Kendall-Ball (who V.W. personally knows!)

The windshield wipers had to be put on full speed and visibility was only as far as tail lights of the vehicle ahead of us. Still, we could proceed, albeit at a slightly reduced speed.

Then hail began falling.

Not good. We sought shelter under a highway underpass with a crowd of cars, SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks. We were now on the outskirts of town, only five minutes from our driveway. Soon the rain slackened .

We and the other highway travelers took shelter, huddling beneath the underpass. while rain and hail poured down

I started up again. Only a mile from our house the hail started falling again. Big hail. Verging on golf ball size. I screeched to a halt beneath the gas pump awning of a car wash. The entire town appeared be swamped with water. This came after months and months of drought.

Eventually the hail relented and sun began to poke through and I got the three of us home. Hail stones still littered the front yard. Our roof might have to be replaced. But that was it, right? Nothing else untoward would happen to us on this day? There as to be a time limit on such things?

Apparently so. Which makes me happy. You see, it may have been a lot of trouble, but at least I derived a blog post out of the weekend. What I don't want, though, is an entire series. - V.W.

Home again.

Friday, April 22, 2011

It's a Black and White World

I'd heard of Anselm Adams. Eliot Porter, yes.
Edward Steichen, of course,
but why not this man with the Leica?
It's as if I believed I knew a bit about physics and math and I'd never heard of Albert Einstein.

It's as if in the realm of the development of computer operating systems I was familiar with Bill Gates but not Steve Jobs.

Yes, that's how I felt after all these years of taking photographs and exulting over the exquisiteness of this art form whenever it is practiced at its highest level and then...

A friend came along and awoke me to the work of a photographer I'd never heard of.

What? I didn't know about Henri Cartier-Bresson?

Ce n'est pas possible!

HCB, as I prefer to call him for conciseness sake, worked in the medium of black and white film. As I've indicated, he is hardly an obscure figure. HCB, who died in 2004, has been called by some the 20th century's greatest photographer.

Yet it was only last year that the first full-scale exhibition of his work in the U.S. in nearly thirty years took place. 'The Modern Century" show opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (moving on thereafter to Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta).

So much has been written and said about HCB that there's no need for me to stir the pot further. I'd rather say what I've noticed about his photos and how they've impacted me of late.

Being Henri
HCB first looks with an eye that is drawn to an underlying order in the environment humans have surrounded themselves with. This order manifests itself in repetitions of lines, curves, triangles, squares, rectangles, etc. HCB's eye embraces tight geometry the way a sailor loves the wave tossed sea, a rancher craves the open range.

The other thing I notice is how HCB brings our eyes to bear upon a human subject who intrudes or leaps or freezes in the midst of the geometric feast. Spotting the person in the picture puts me as viewer in a unique position. I know something the person being photographed perhaps doesn't know.

First, the subject often doesn't know that his or her picture is being taken (many of HCB's most iconic photos appear to be taken surreptitiously from a distance). Second, they are not privy to the fact that they are standing in the midst of the geometric orderly arrangement the photographer has enclosed within his view finder. In this way, HCB places himself and his viewers in a special place of privilege.

In HCB's worldview, it almost always requires the human element to make the final piece of the geometry come together.

It's also possible for the human form itself to constitute the geometric moment of note.

When I look at a photo be HCB I find that he has gifted me with what I'd call a "god's eye." I can see the world the way the humans ordinarily can't. And it is good.

The 3-Minute HCB
So I was on this photo quest last weekend in a quaint little cowboy town where I was participating in a digital photography workshop. Toward the end of the day I thought, why not put away my digital SLR camera and switch to my compact point and shoot?

I had a further thought. I would set the camera on black and white mode and I'd rest my weary bones by sitting down on the curb and simultaneously try to capture the tourists as they passed by.

I would dabble in the genre called "street photography."

I held the camera at knee level pointing up so hopefully no one would realize that I was sitting there taking pictures of them.

It turned out that I only took three pictures. It was easy. People walked by, I squeezed the shutter release. I didn't really know what I had captured until I switched the camera from "record" mode to "play."

Okay. I'm no HCB. People's backsides, boring background. Nothing
too exciting or revelatory going on here.

Definitely better. Background much improved. I like the silhouetted
fingers, the clasping of the cup, the right angle of the elbow.
The slightly curvey body in contrast to the vertical of the pole is nice too.
But a tall, lean woman with half a head?

Ah! More like it! As the boy walks past he grabs the pole, and lifts his right foot off the ground. Why?
Because to a child "It is there, ergo I must grab it!" I didn't even know about this little moment until 
I downloaded the shot and examined it on my computer the next day.

On Not Being Henri
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a  giant. He took pictures that captured what he called "the decisive moment." In my puny case, the best I can do is seek the "haphazardous moment." That is, I hope by accident more than deliberate design to bring in something worthwhile through the lens.

But I don't think that should discourage me or anyone else. So I have to have many more tries before something emerges worth remarking upon? It's not an impossible approach. In fact, it could be a life's credo: take risks, live a lot, be willing to throw away much, especially our most foolish and mistaken behavior. Then, once we wash away the silt, we'll hope to find a few grains of gold sparkling at the bottom of the pan. - V.W.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Healing Art of Photography

Lately I've been bothered by a space inside me that has developed as a result
of not knowing what has happened in the greater world since I went to "sleep" on Sept. 11th of last year.

I can feel this emptiness. It's a dark chamber within where a tiny metal ball is bouncing around.

Let's call the metal ball "frustration" and "anxiety" and "disconnectedness."

Recently, though, I went on a photo workshop weekend and made a discovery.

I found that I felt reconnected to the world every time I raised a camera to my eye. My empty space began to fill up with a sort of "news" I'd been overlooking. The news of shadow and light and shapes that are right in front of me.

The prescription goes like this: I look intently at nature or people or the things people have made. I snap a photo. I feel better.

I wonder why?

A Book to Spend Time With
Years ago my wife gave me as a present a book entitled God Is at Eye Level by a woman named Jan Phillips. Rather than a "how-to" book, it is a collection of Ms. Phillips' fine black and white images, quotes by famous people, and her own narrative of how she has profited from a life of making photographs.

She begins by telling how way back in 1967 when she was 18 years old she wanted to devote her life to God. She entered a convent. Two years later she found herself dismissed for "lack of a religious disposition."

The situation was handled brusquely. One night Jan's parents came to take her away. She was not allowed to say goodbye to anyone, and she was told she that hereafter she could not communicate with any of the sisters. The novice director ended with, "They will keep you in their prayers."

Jan Phillips first camera,
the humble Kodak Instamatic.
Nine months passed and Jan realized that the birthday of Lois, her best friend in the convent, was coming up. She couldn't write Lois a letter or send a card, but perhaps she could send her a present? How could she make it personal and still have it get past the order's superiors who were censoring all the mail?

Jan decided to make a photo album. The only words she included were quotes from authors she and Lois loved, songs they'd sung together, poems and prayers they'd shown one another.

As for the photos she used a Kodak Instamatic to take pictures as a substitute for the words she could not write.

She took a picture of her own footsteps being washed away by the tide and one of a collapsed sand castle. She photographed her body against a twelve-foot cross. She captured her shadow on the steps in front of a locked church door.

Each photo, including one of "birds soaring into a golden sunset," was a coded message about what she was feeling. The images were visual metaphors. They were signposts pointing to her emotions and her shadowed soul.

They didn't let her become a nun and that
led to a journey...
When Jan's photo album arrived at the Motherhouse the novice director called Lois to her office and told her to read it aloud. Lois did so without revealing the personal implicaitons which she very well understood,. Thus, she was allowed to carry the book back to her room.

Even more than this story of an artist's craftiness that allowed truth to penetrate the walls raised by implacable authority, I am impressed by something Jan says about what happened as she selected the photos and fixed them into the album:

     "Making that album was a healing ritual from beginning to end...
     As I glued each photograph onto the page, I was touched by its power,
     its ability to give voice to my silence, to shed light on my darkness."

An Eye Behind the Viewfinder
The subtitle of God Is at Eye Level is "Photography as a Healing Art." I've begun thinking of photography this way, too. Taking pictures heals some of the loss I feel at stepping away from the stories and developments affecting humanity. The pictures I take become my own coded messages to myself about what I'm looking for in this world that for me temporarily seems full of emptiness and echoes.

Sometimes my pictuers have surprised me. Three themes seemed to choose me, rather than the other way around, during my photoshoot last weekend.

1 - Craving Form:
Ah, to find structure and order in a sometimes chaotic, randomly arranged life!

2 - Loving Texture:
The varieties of bumpiness and smoothness and in-betweeness call out to the attentive eye ("I") .

3 - Desiring Peace:
In a world of troubles and a relentlessly fast pace, it's nice to be reminded that there are pockets of calm that yield quiet moments as the river of cares rushes past.

- V.W.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Joy of Pentax

Point, shoot! Van Winkle embarks on a photo quest.
One thing I've learned after all these months of being Van Winkled
is that living with proscribed access to what's happening in the larger world means that I have to make my own news and entertainment.

It's that or stare into an empty blankness until I wake up in September...

So one way I've redefined "news" for myself is that it's whatever I happen to notice happening in front of me, in real time, with my own eyes. There's an entire world of what some might call the "mundane" that unfolds before me each day. Like a faithful journalist, I try to notice it.

I've discovered something in the process. If a person really wants to make discoveries--some of them unexpectedly exciting--then he or she has to slow down and start to be more attentive. One way to do this is to pick up a camera and go looking for pictures.

Photo Ops
#$!*^%!! newspaper vending machine!
Last weekend my wife and I joined a photography workshop held in a small rural town that's close enough to a large urban center that it's become an attractive weekend destination. People shop for antiques or dance to country western bands inside the quaint old dance hall.

The whole package made for a nice getaway for the two of us--especially after I accidentally saw two words (out of several) in a newspaper headline.


This was almost unavoidable since the metal vending box for the papers was right outside the door to the bed and breakfast were staying at. I had to pass it several times a day.

Ignore that headline, Van Winkle! I was ready to spend two days in a more mature rewarding activity than shutting down the government.


I would be working with a one-note, comforting soundtrack: Snap! Snap! Snap!

Street Shots
As I dusted off my camera and began pointing the lens around I was hopeful something good might happen. It was an advantage that our able instructors provided tips and refreshers on photography so we might get better photos than in the past. You know, the rule of thirds, lower the F-step to blur the background, remembering to check white balance.

After our first class meeting we were given an assignment. We were told to go onto the street and into some of the nearby buildings and see what we could find.

I sought a sort of visual poetry.

I wanted to find shapes and colors and juxtapositions that my eye fell in love with.

My attention was drawn to simple things that spoke of a multiplicity of human actions.

To the photographic mind the most important news is the arrival of the light...

And more light...

Sometimes I knew I had found what I was looking for because of how it made me feel.

The Eros of Photography
Though I've placed the brand name "Pentax" in the title of this post, I don't intend it as a celebration or endorsement of this particular manufacturer of cameras. Yes, it so happens that, for various reasons, I own a Pentax K100D digital SLR. So what? Nikons, Canons, Minoltas, they're all fine. The great thing, however, about pairing the name "Pentax" with the word "joy" is how it echoes the title of a book that once sold with panting urgency in the 1970s: The Joy of Sex.

And that's what I want to make manifest here. The "joy of Pentax" is what occurs when taking a camera in hand and raising it to eye level and placing within a frame a small portion of our world. This simple activity can result in a kind of intimate carnal knowledge of the animate and inanimate things that surround us. Squeeze the shutter release and...

Photo orgasm!

And that's how you love the world with a lens.

- V.W.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Welcome to Nat'l Poetry Month - Part 3

Here it comes...the world's
dumbest question.
Today as we conclude our meditations occasioned by the arrival of National Poetry Month (NPM), I'd like to ask the world's dumbest question.

It's a question I seldom notice teachers and readers of poetry considering.

In fact, if you go to, the official home of National Poetry Month, you'll find 17 questions under "What is National Poetry Month?" Yet this question does not appear:

                                    What is poetry?

Lots of people want to appreciate poetry, even write poetry, including my students each fall, but do they have any idea what poetry is? If not, how will they know if they've succeeded?

Of course, we think we know what a poem is. Sorta. And sometimes that might be a problem.

Sloppy Definitions
I'm often told that "poetry is an expression of feeling using heightened language." All right, but how does that distinguish it from some lines in a bathos-filled chick-flick? A paragraph in a novel in which a character rages? Can't prose writing be expressive of feelings and tread the waters of heightened diction? And what about poems that eschew heightened language and are written in plain speech? Is the following not a poem?

So much depends...
upon definitions of poetry.
     so much depends

      a red wheel

      glazed with rain

      beside the white

At this point, the definition-maker usually backs up and states that a poem's words have to be written in shorter lines than prose. The poem's lines don't just wrap around arbitrarily depending on page margins. Instead, the poet deliberately "pauses" or "stops" each line before continuing on to the next. This tends to create a rhythm and emphasis in poems that's different than prose.

And oh yes, they might add, poems, as a rule, are more concise and compressed than their prose cousins.

Hmm. Is this enough? Armed with this information could a visitor from another planet set out to find a poem? Perhaps. The above information at least describes the shape and look of a poem.

Something More
With the above definition of a poem it is as if we've outlined the characteristic curves and smooth texture of a glass wine bottle. Now we can find such a bottle. But there's still one more thing to address.

What is goes in the bottle?

Poetry: It's not about the bottle or the glass, the mere vessel
that contains. What we're interested in is the quality
of the wine...
You see, when it comes to poems, and distinguishing good ones from bad ones, we're not so much interested in the equivalent of the wine bottle (the deliberate use of lines, the concise language, the rhythmic flow) as contents thereof.

Because many of us are thirsty. In our souls. So a perfectly serviceable wine bottle that's either empty or filled with Pepsi or Coke won't do.

All this is to say that what I'm most intent on exploring is what goes inside the bottle of poetry.

What is the magical substance that makes something poetic? What is the mysterious quality in a great poem that causes it to be the word equivalent of wine, that makes it taste good on the tongue and lifts the human spirit?

Where poets hang out
 Ask an Expert
A few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in the annual Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop. About sixty of us had been deemed worthy to hang out in the Sierras above Lake Tahoe in July for five days. All we had to do was each day write a new poem and bring it to class.

A new poem that had to be critiqued by others every day?

Now that was pressure. It's also called the "Squaw Valley method" and is designed to get the creative juices flowing.

A tradition at the workshop is that one of the famous poet-teachers uses Friday afternoon to answer questions placed by students in a box. It sounded like a great opportunity.

I put my little question in the box. By now you can guess what it was.

Robert Hass: Excellent poet, excellent definition of poetry.
 The poet performing Friday services that year happened to be Robert Hass. Hass is one of the most highly esteemed and honored poets in America. A few months after our gathering his latest volume of verse, Time and Materials, would win the Pulitzer Prize.

Hass dug around in the box, looked at a handful of questions, and chose one. It was my question: What is poetry?

For the next 45 minutes he answered it.

It was a very erudite, improvised lecture that started with evidence of Paleolithic humans burial practices in Russia and moved forward in time to give a glimpse of poetry of the future. Hass's point was plain: every generation decides for itself what poetry is.

There is one unifying factor, he said. "Poetry is always the expression of what it's like to be human in an amazing world."

With that, he named for me the wine that goes in the bottle. He gave me a reason to read and try to write poems.

Final Stanza
These days I'm not much worried about the style of a poem or the credentials of the person writing it. What I'm looking for is that recognition the poet's words can give me: Yes! This is what life is like.

The way I look at it, the poem--with its careful choice of words and fine crafting of how the words are arranged--is only a means to an end.

The poem isn't the words.

Instead, the poem is a signpost that points to an experience of life or feeling about life that the poet wants to share with me.

An anonymous poet I ran across recently puts it like this:

     You ask me what
     is a poem.

    The purple dress of the girl at the mall.
    The pink stab of gum on the sidewalk.

     I saw these poems today
     and the crumpled ones in the receipt box

     my father left behind after
     he died on St. Patrick's Day.
     What is a poem but a pile of stones,
     each stone a word.

     The stone is rolled into place,
     heaped upon other stones.

     The poem is a marker.
     Some human being stood here.

     Someone felt something, turned eyes
     far away, deep within.

     Then he, then she, walked away
     and now the stones stay

     in the sun, in the rain and at night
     when the stars shine

     and the occasional stone,
     caught up in the gravity of my emotion,

     streaks from the sky,
     burning all the way to the ground

     as I stand here on the grass
     in front of his grave at midnight.

- V.W.