Insomnia Poem

A bout of insomnia last night produced a short poem. At 3 a.m., my five-year-old son Colin and I were both wide awake. While he squirmed and rolled around in bed, I covered up to prevent getting struck by his flailing elbows and knees. And in the early morning darkness, these words came to me:

Manifesto for Dejected Artists

To create is to make something
that did not exist before—
something no one requested
and something the world
does not want or need.

And yet, you decided
to make it anyway.
So now it’s here for others
to accept or reject.
Either way, your job is done.

And I have realized from experience that if some lines, words, thoughts, characters or plots float in my head when I’m in bed, that I must jot down the ideas immediately or I will forget them upon awakening.

And on a totally unrelated note, here is a photo of Colin holding his pre-K diploma, which he received on the last day of school on Thursday.

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A Camus Quote

I am currently reading Albert Camus’s Notebooks 1935—1942, and I found this little piece of wisdom from the section May 1935 to September 1937. I thought it was worth sharing, and I hope you find some value in the words.

“One must not cut oneself off from the world. No one who lives in the sunlight makes a failure of his life. My whole effort, whatever the situation, misfortune or disillusion, must be to make contact again. But even within this sadness I feel a great leap of joy and a great desire to love simply at the sight of a hill against the evening sky.”

Camus, Albert. Notebooks: 1935-1943. Knopf, 1963.

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Man Inside Nighthawks: A Flash Fiction Story

Here’s a flash fiction story inspired by the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks.

I assume I was nothing before I found myself sitting here, staring straight ahead. But I don’t know for sure.

This is what I do know: I can’t move my head. I can’t smoke the cigarette pressed between the fingers of my right hand or drink the cup of coffee resting on top of the counter. I can’t touch the woman seated next to me or talk to the other two men.

This is my life. Suspended in warm, yellow light. Unable to move, locked in a soundless existence—no water running, fan whirring or grill sizzling. No sirens or street sounds beyond the glass.

Time drags on with no discernible shift—no transition to morning. Here night never ends.

Yet my mind still works. In fact, it never stops; I’m cursed with thoughts that run continuously.

I wonder: Why am I here? And where exactly is here? What purpose do I serve? Why put me next to these people and not give me an opportunity to interact with them?

Do I have a past? Did I exist before I became frozen in this moment—captured and imprisoned for eternity?

As you can see, I have nothing but questions that yield no answers. If only I could talk to the other people. If only I could pry open my lips and make a sound. Then maybe we could communicate. Maybe we could figure out our reason for being here. Then I could scream for help. But who would hear my voice and who would come to our aid?

If only I could stand up and walk around, stretch my legs and peek outside the window.

But then I would upset the balance of the composition. And so I will stay in place. Funny, right? I don’t have a choice. I can’t move even if I wanted to. So I’ll be here any time you feel like looking at me.

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Been Away Too Long

I’ve been so tied up with work, family and long-range creative projects that I have neglected this blog for far too long. I haven’t posted anything since January—not that anyone is missing my content.

But during my Saturday morning jog/walk in downtown Syracuse, I snapped a photo and composed a short poem. To me both represent the ephemeral nature of life. If I had not stopped running on the sidewalk to take the picture or pull out my mini notebook and jot down the poem, the image and words would have been lost.

The sun would have shifted or shadows would have altered the light hitting the buildings and the words would have escaped my mind. A good reason to always carry a smartphone, a pen and a notebook. You never know when inspiration will strike.

Morning reflection. A George Costanza pinkish hue. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Giving Up Admission

I can’t keep
it together.

I don’t have
the strength
to carry on.

Can I let go
and fall into
your arms?

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Kathleen Kramer: Everything Matters

I’d like to offer a book suggestion that would be a good read anytime but seems ideal for a pandemic—during an unprecedented time in human history when we are all contemplating our existence on this planet.

The book is a collection of poems inspired by a series of photographs captured by the author, Kathleen Kramer. I must state at the outset that I am biased; Kathleen is a friend and we have supported each other over the years through many writing projects.

The author with her husband, Jack.

I also wrote one of the blurbs on the back of the book, which is entitled Everything Matters (Yesteryear Publishing, 2020). But that’s not why I’m recommending this collection. I’m recommending it because of the quality of the writing, its universal message and the transcendent feeling the book delivers to the reader.

Everything Matters by Kathleen Kramer.

To better explain the book, I turn it over to Kathleen, who has agreed to answer some questions about the work. I highlighted some phrases that caught my attention.

Can you give a brief description of the book? What do you hope people will take away from it?

The book, Everything Matters, is a collection of poems and the photographs which inspired them. (So, I guess if I could be bold enough to call my simple photos art, this is a collection of ekphrastic poetry.) I’ve found that if I pay attention, there is often something about an object or a scene I may see that “catches” me. I’m guessing many others have found this, as well. Maybe as we mail a letter and are struck by the pattern of shadows on the steps of the Post Office. Or, at the bookstore, we catch sight of a book we used to read to our children 50 years ago. Or we see a little boy contemplating his first big snowfall. There’s something that has connected on a level deeper than the simply visual. So these photos and these poems were not planned nor conceived together, but arose later, paired, and out of a place within and, perhaps, a place “beyond” myself.

“Small Things” by Kathleen Kramer.

It’s my belief that creativity, whatever form it may take, is a gift from something greater than ourselves. We are enlarged by creating something beautiful, authentic, honest. And I think our hope is that those who read or see or hear our work will be enlarged, too, and feel a personal connection that is important to them.

My observation: I love Kathleen’s statement that “we are enlarged by creating something beautiful, authentic, honest.” It’s the sense that art is a shared connection between the creator and the reader or audience, and both sides are required for a satisfying experience.

Can you describe how your work celebrates or gives heightened meaning to the ordinary moments of existence?

 Almost 30 years ago, when I first began writing seriously—both plays and poetry—it was the “ordinary” life or the “ordinary” event that called to me. There always seemed, to me, to be something bigger that lived in that life or event. For lack of a better way to explain it, I believe there is a holiness at the heart of most ordinary things. Or, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Lines by Kathleen Kramer.

So I guess what I wish for is that by calling attention to the seemingly-simple—a moth on the window or a chocolate sprinkle fallen from an ice cream cone—the reader or listener to these poems will be led to see a holiness in their own lives and the lives of those around them.

What was the most challenging part of the process for you—writing the poems, taking the photographs or piecing the words and images together?

 Truthfully, in most cases, the process seemed organic. Something in me responded to something I saw. I didn’t stop to think about it, I just took the photo. Then I waited for whatever “spoke” to me in that image to come to the surface. Sometimes it came within minutes, but usually it was hours, or even days or weeks, or months. Again, it seemed organic in that it happened in its own time, maybe like a baby robin hatching or a peony opening from its tight bud. So to answer your question, neither part—taking the photos or writing the poems—was particularly difficult—except for getting myself out of the way enough for the authentic to come forth.

Not So Long Ago by Kathleen Kramer.

Then, of course, there’s the re-writing, when it’s not always easy to let go of a phrase or a line that takes away from the integrity of the poem, regardless of how much I loved that particular phrase or line.

My observation: Her responses, “I didn’t stop to think about it” and “getting myself out of the way,” inspire me. The goal is simple—just create and don’t worry about the result. Trust the process and have faith that it will yield results.

How can reading poetry help people during a pandemic?

Perhaps the greatest benefits to reading poetry at this very challenging time is that poetry can take us out of ourselves into a larger consciousness while, at the same time, leading us deeper into that part of ourselves that is tender and receptive, hopefully affirming a wholeness that exists, regardless of the conditions around us.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, no matter what genre they are writing?

 I think writers come to write for many reasons. Some have to. By that, I mean that they don’t feel complete unless they write to explore life and to articulate, first for themselves, and then, hopefully, to share what they’ve written as a way to affirm their lives and to connect with the lives of others.

I guess there are some who write in the hope of recognition or fame. This isn’t an easy motive for me to relate to. Mostly because we all know how unlikely it is that many writers will achieve it. But also because to write with “the market” in mind, feels shallow, contrived, and unrewarding to the writer. But that’s me speaking from a place where this motivation never held much importance.

What I’m getting to, I think, is that an aspiring writer needs to be fearless, in a way, and bold in reaching for the heart of what he or she is moved to write. Be authentic. Strive to write what is true for you. At the same time, be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to write bad sentences, bad poems. You can delete them! Or rewrite them! And, as a beloved writing teacher used to say, “Get the censor off your shoulder.” I would add, “trust yourself, trust the process, and trust that something larger than yourself is at work.”

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Inspired by Vincent

I am continuing to work my way through the book The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I am reading it from beginning to end, but I haven’t been consistent with reading it on a daily basis.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics.

Yesterday I came across a passage worth sharing. To set it up: the time is July 1885, a few months after Vincent painted his master work depicting peasant life—The Potato Eaters (April 1885).

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885).

However, Vincent is still having trouble selling his work and his financial situation appears bleak. He writes to his brother Theo:

“I find myself faced with the necessity of being that most disagreeable of people, in other words of having to ask for money. And since I don’t think that sales will pick up in the next few days, the situation seems rather dire. But I put it to you, isn’t it better for both of us, après tout (after all), to work hard, no matter what problems that may entail, than to sit around philosophizing at a time like this?

I can’t foretell the future, Theo—but I do know the eternal law that all things change. Think back 10 years, and things were different, the circumstances, the mood of the people, in short everything. And 10 years hence much is bound to have changed again. But what one does remains—and one does not easily regret having done it. The more active one is, the better, and I would sooner have a failure than sit idle and do nothing.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

What inspires me about this passage is Vincent’s willingness to press on with his art, undeterred by his lack of success. The fire in him to create burns too intensely for him to abandon his avocation.

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A Compulsion to Create: Reflections for 2020

Here are a few thoughts as the calendar flips to 2020. I hope these musings do not seem like platitudes. I am giving in to reflection as a way to maintain perspective during this season of transition.

I am working on multiple side creative projects—in the genres of poetry, film, theater and memoir. Some may bear fruit in 2020; other may die on the vine.

With advancing age, declining health and the combination of full-time work and family responsibilities, I realize I am limited in what I can accomplish as an artist. And quite honestly, I wish I were not so driven, so fueled by ambition to write and attempt—yes, only attempt—to create art. I wonder: How many hours have I spent trying to attain my creative goals, and what have I sacrificed along the way?

But I have learned some lessons in pursuing my side projects, and these can be applied to anyone working toward a challenging goal—whether the person is an artist, entrepreneur or business owner.

Kitchen Garbage Can. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

This is just my opinion, but I believe effort beats intelligence and discipline is more important than talent. You have to show up and do the work every day. And it’s important to appreciate the process, to pause and acknowledge minor achievement as you inch toward fulfillment of your ultimate goal.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that desire does not dictate success. Striving does not always equal triumphing. In this life, your wishes will get trampled and your dreams denied. Accepting this reality means pressing on despite the inevitability of failure, while realizing you can’t control your fate. It means being okay with who you are in the moment and not who you need to be to consider yourself worthy. That’s the fallacy. You are already worthy. You have already achieved—even if your painting does not hang on a gallery wall or your product appear on a Walmart shelf.

Slanting Desert Tree. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I guess that’s it. At nearly 51 I see the truth of my latter years—I won’t achieve my childhood dreams. But the adult here recognizes the goodness of this mundane life—the opportunity to live and work and spend time with family. How lucky I am to just be here. To be an entrant, to earn a participant ribbon in this race.

I wish you much happiness and success in the new year.

And I will close with a couple of new, reflective poems related to the above topics:

Syracuse

This is the city where I learned to be an artist, waking at 5:30 a.m. every day to write—pecking away at poems that remained tucked inside the electronic hearth of my computer, never traveling the world, never finding an audience. This is where I learned that sometimes ambition and discipline are not enough, that there is no magic recipe for success. This is where I learned that you have to accept rejection and bear the shame of failure without getting deterred, rising again each morning to face the blank page—fully aware that your words may never be seen by other eyes. This is where I learned that although I may not be good enough, the compulsion to create demands that I write—no matter what. This is the city where I learned that for me being an artist was never a choice.

Shift in Thought

At some point
you have to
deal with the
Who you are
instead of the
Who you want to become.
By now the
form is fixed.
You are
complete as is.
Don’t expect
anything else.
Don’t hope
for anything more.

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Wisdom from Vincent

This summer I am reading The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I had discovered the book when I was in graduate film school at American University in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. A woman from the Deep South who was pursuing her MFA in painting suggested I read it. It consists of letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, a Dutch art dealer.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics.

And although the book was written in the 19th century, Vincent’s words never seem dated. In fact, I could pull inspirational quotes from the book on a nightly basis, and if Vincent were alive today, he might be the host of a motivational podcast.

Through his words, we see that despite his financial, romantic, mental and emotional struggles, Vincent persevered, sacrificing everything to express his creativity and to paint works of art that will endure as long as humans walk the earth.

This passage is dated September 24, 1880. Vincent has made the decision to become a full-time artist and he addresses Theo with this opening line: “Your letter has done me good and I thank you for having written to me in the way you have.”

He describes some art studies he is working on based on prints and etchings that Theo had sent him.

He writes, “These studies are demanding & sometimes the books are extremely tedious, but I think all the same that it’s doing me good to study them.”

The following passage then caught my attention and stirred my heart:

“So you see that I am working away hard, though for the moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course & that these apparently fruitless struggles are nothing but labour pains. First the pain, then the joy.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

The words inspired me because as someone who works full-time and writes in my off hours, I rarely see progress; I often get discouraged because I spend hours working on projects that are rejected in the end. But still I press on.

And Vincent’s words are universal—they could be applied to people attempting to achieve a dream, as well as to anyone trying to survive the challenges of every day. I think about artists, actors, singers, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, couples and parents.

And fortunately—for both Vincent and for art lovers around the world—Vincent’s white blossoms did bloom in later years.

Almond Blossom by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

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