Wednesday, December 12, 2018

How Things Come and Go

I'm headed into my last week at the guest house. This residency has been an absolute pleasure, the kick my writing needed, a reminder about community, just everything. Thank you to the board and staff who chose and have supported me, especially Nan Friedman and Naomi Okuyama.

This past Monday, I was spending some time in the sitting room on the first floor, working through the third stanza of a poem that had been giving me fits -- mainly because I couldn't find the right image to express a certain kind of healed brokenness. Just as I decided to take a break, a couple walked in. They were visiting from Asheville, North Carolina, a creative community I'd just spoken with my sister and mom (who also happened to be visiting me from North Carolina) about visiting later this month.

The couple introduced themselves, asked about my work, told me about their own lives. She is a writer, he a musician. Their daughter, also a writer, is in residency at UNC Chapel Hill. As we conversed, my mom and sister arrived with lunch.

Two days before, driving to El Cid to see some kitschy flamenco, we'd listened to a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on the concept of genius. Gilbert notes that it's only fairly recently that artists take credit for (or, when it's not so great, disavow) their own work. For centuries before this ego-driven way of understanding creating, we seem to have understood genius as something like a personal fairy -- a visitor who arrived with a story, a picture, a song. If the work's great, genius; if the work's poor, genius. You see.

I gave the couple a tour of the house. As we looked out at the beach from one of the upstairs bedrooms, we talked about the city seagulls one often sees on the beach with injured legs that have healed into knobby, stubby (and thankfully secondary) appendages. The husband mentioned a haiku with which he was acquainted:

The one-legged man
watches the one-legged bird
as it flies away.

The haiku gave me an image: the footprints a stub-legged seagull has left on wet sand. Something like

<    <    <    <    <    <    <    <    <    <
   .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .     .      .

and then, no prints at all.

-- Catherine Coan, 11/12/18

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Following (and Reconciling) Different Artistic Currents with Catherine Coan

How is the residency going? Is it as you expected? Does the location inspire your progress? 

I love the peaceful, light-filled environment at the guest house. Sometimes, I think I can feel the energy of all of the creative people who have stayed and worked there before me. It’s been a challenge to write during certain hours as opposed to whenever I feel like it (which, let’s be honest, is usually less often than optimal). I wondered how I would meet that challenge. I’m happy to say that I have a bunch of new poems. Perhaps I’ve learned something about discipline — Perhaps not. 

Who can benefit visiting you during your Monday office hours? 
Writers, people thinking about becoming writers, students, and anyone in or interested in the arts might benefit from a visit. I also love to talk politics, books, travel, movies, dogs….  

Catherine at work in the Marion Davies Guest House

Although your work as Writer-in-Residence here at the Beach House is solely focused on poetry and the art of writing, you’re also a noted visual artist. It might not be an unusual combination, to be both a poet and to work in another discipline, but the form that your artmaking takes is quite unusual.  

I work a lot in this form called hybrid taxidermy. It might seem an unusual combination, but a poem is a kind of still life, as is taxidermy; both offer me the opportunity to meditate on the human relationship to wildness and domesticity. 

Catherine Coan, detail from Her Question, 2016 

I know our readers might be curious about your taxidermy practice as well? 
I practice ethical sourcing; this means that I don’t use animals who have been hunted or killed for the work, and I have relationships with breeders, farms, and others who provide me with animals who’ve died of natural causes. I also sometimes repurpose taxidermy which has already been completed. You can see the work at my website,

Meret Oppenheim, Le Déjeuner en fourrure, 1936

When you look back at Meret Oppenheim's famous teacup, in some way it seems like a progenitor to this genre. That piece seems to biomorphically evoke a whole animal in some way beyond what simply covering an object in fur “should” manage to do. Would you consider this to be hybrid taxidermy? 

I’ve always loved this piece. I don’t think the teacup is hybrid taxidermy — Rather, using fur as a medium. But I do think you’re right that the piece evokes a whole animal — likely because it’s entirely covered, so its “new thingness” is complete. My sense is that for a piece to be considered taxidermy, it needs to play harder at being an animal. Oppenheim’s piece seems to me a little more highbrow than that, with ideas about femininity and utility at the forefront. Cute-ing the piece up — with eyes or a tail or antlers or something — would diminish it, don’t you think? 

Your recent public event, "Cross-disciplinarity" gathered artists whojuggle multiple disciplines - any insights stick with you?  

The event brought together artists who I know go across genres to talk about how multiple directions feed their work - Mathieu Callier writes poetry, prose, and children’s books; Cindy Rinne is a textile artist and poet; Sheree Winslow writes both memoir and flash fiction; Leslie Wood-Brown is an oil painter, printmaker and poet. I loved Mathieu’s idea (from David Bowie) about wading into the ocean juuuuust past one’s comfort zone, where one can’t quite touch the sand below. That’s where the good stuff happens! How when you work in multiple disciplines you’re always working with impostor syndrome in some fashion, and being confronted with that provides an opportunity to improve. And I loved Leslie’s thoughts about mentorship, in particular for women... though regardless of gender, so often it’s just one word of affirmation… it’s all it takes for us as artists and writers to have the confidence to move forward. 

Cross-Disciplinarity discussion: Left to right, Catherine Coan, Leslie Brown, Sheree Winslow, Cindy Rinne and Mathieu Callier 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Three Kids in a Trench Coat

This week, I've been working on a poem that I think is about impostor syndrome (not to be confused with Capgras delusion, in which a person believes that a loved one has been replaced with a stranger, though there's a poem in there, too).

In this poem, three kids in a trench coat get away with some stuff -- like stealing pies from windowsills and buying cigarettes -- because, well, they're three kids in a trench coat and no one's really paying attention.

Unlike those with impostor syndrome, the three kids in a trench coat are totally happy with themselves as they teeter about, chasing their fedora in the wind. Many artists, writers, and others, though, feel like three kids in a trench coat who've lost their fake mustache and are going to get caught at any moment and called out for pretending to be what they are not.

I have impostor syndrome more often than I'd like to admit -- that feeling that while maybe I've lucked out or worked hard on occasion, I'm not a real writer, artist, or other in the sense that my betters are.

Good news? I've read that those who really should have impostor syndrome rarely do. Of course, those of us with impostor syndrome probably think we're the exceptions to that rule. And certainly there are those who are both totally authentic and 100% confident.

So: Three cheers (one for each kid) for impostors! Keep working hard, keep lucking out, and keep reminding yourself that you deserve every happiness, every success.

And I like that trench coat on you, mustache or no. Let's go steal a pie.

-- Catherine Coan, 11/30/18

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Precious Cargo

From my desk, I can see the coastal curve of Malibu. Today, it's barely visible through an eerie brown haze. 

Hundreds of thousands of acres -- including almost 100,000 in Malibu -- have burned around Los Angeles for the past week. Images on the news -- an otherworldly wall of smoke sweeping evacuees down Pacific Coast Highway, a lone horse hitched to a lifeguard tower against a red sky -- sink the heart. The human death toll is at 48. And all day and night, firefighters, police, EMTs, and just regular people keep going back in to get others out.

A few days before my first office hours at the Marion Davies Guest House at Annenberg Community Beach House, I got a voicemail from Naomi Okuyama, Cultural Affairs Supervisor: A letter had arrived for me. 

It's funny how remarkable a letter is, these days -- a handwritten one even more so. So remarkable that it wouldn't just be slipped under the door with my other mail. There isn't any other mail. 

I was pretty sure who'd sent it. I asked Naomi if the envelope had super-neat, kind of chubby printing. It did. 

J, a dear friend since college -- writer, actor, physician, teacher, husband, father -- has sent me a postcard or letter several times a year since about 1990. Sometimes the missives are literary, sometimes humanitarian, sometimes absurd, sometimes transcendent, often all of the above. What a fine thing, don't you think? Even finer when you consider that I am totally delighted by every missive but rarely write back because I'm a big jerk and my handwriting is terrible. 

In this letter, J shared with me Sea Prayer (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House, 2018) by Khaled Hosseni, author of The Kite Runner. Sea Prayer is a short work of first-person poetic fiction in the form of a letter from a father to a son. Hosseni was inspired by Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, a toddler who in 2015, along with most of his family, drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Lebanon to Greece. Images on the news -- of the boy's body face-down on a Turkish beach, of a police officer carrying him away -- were heartbreaking, infuriating, unforgettable, yet too easy to flip past because, after all, that's somewhere else. And everything everywhere is falling apart.

Sea Prayer's language is simple and direct as it moves between awe, adoration, and plea. It is about indifference, power, love, and hope:

...all I can think tonight is
how deep the sea,
and how vast, how indifferent.
How powerless I am to protect you from it.

...Because you,
you are precious cargo, Marwan,
the most precious there ever was.

I pray the sea knows this.

How I pray the sea knows this.

When self-sufficiency, human kindness, and even human cruelty is dwarfed by nature, we negotiate. With the divine, with ourselves. In the face of indifference, when we are at our most powerless, love drives us -- even non-believers like me -- to risk and to pray. 

We're all here. There isn't somewhere else. 

Thanks, J. I wrote you back.

-- Catherine Coan, 11/14/18

Monday, November 5, 2018

Rhymin' and Stealin'

Brooklyn toile by Michael Diamond

On "Rhymin' and Stealin'," the opening track of the Beastie Boys' License To Ill (1986), the band samples Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks." It's perfect -- ominous and celebratory, struck through with a fat needle. This loop came from an Adam Yauch (MCA) experiment wherein he literally looped tape -- from a two-reel player around a chair and back -- in his apartment.

I learned this detail last night, seeing the remaining two Beasties, Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), with their long-time collaborator Michael Schwartz (Mix Master Mike, who played that loop, scratches and all) on their tour for the delightfully thick new Beastie Boys Book at the Ricardo Montalbán Theater in Hollywood.

The Beastie Boys are my favorite band. I've loved them since high school. I still have Paul's Boutique (1989) on vinyl. I wore out at least two License To Ills on cassette, hurtling my dad's 3/4-ton Dodge pickup down Montana back roads. I saw them in Washington state at Lollapalooza (where my best friend lost half her boot in the mud), then a few other venues I pretty much remember, in the '90s. When I sold my CDs, theirs were among the first albums I purchased on iTunes. They were my soundtrack for college road trips and my beats of choice for after-party dance-offs. They've accompanied me on hundreds of grown-up slogs along the 405. And in my dotage, they join me for ferocious bouts of elliptical and dusting. Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz last night, sharing stories from their lives and careers, were joyous and heartbreaking. Adam Yauch died in 2012. His presence and absence are palpable.

These guys were and are incredibly talented, across genres and disciplines. On top of making and producing music, they act, direct, write, helm podcasts, even design wallpaper.

Speaking of stuff you stick on other stuff: The term "collage" comes from the French coller, "to glue." Collage, sometimes called "assemblage," is my favorite form -- visual, auditory, and written -- to witness and to work in. The Beastie Boys revolutionized sound collage via sampling in their music: Their curated layers of sound are beautiful, indebted, original, and fun. Sometimes they give props; sometimes they just catalyze joy in the communal experience of art. They Rauschenberg. They move me. Sometimes to tears, sometimes to dance like a 48-year-old white woman with a tricky back probably shouldn't.

Today as I work in my office at the Marion Davies Guest House, I'm grateful. To be alive, to be writing, to be supported in my work, to be witnessing the work of other artists. We are all collaging, consciously or unconsciously, all of the time. And we are all collage, fragments that make new sense vibing with and juxtaposed against other fragments.

As MCA writes in "Something's Got To Give" (Check Your Head, 1992): Someday, we shall all be one.

-- Catherine Coan, 11/05/18

PS: If you, too, love artists who work across genres and disciplines, please join me Tuesday, November 27, at 6:30 pm at Annenberg Community Beach House as I moderate a conversation between collage-y artists and writers Sheree Winslow, Mathieu Cailler, Leslie Wood-Brown, and Cindy Rinne.

Monday, October 29, 2018

On Doing One Thing Instead of Another


What are you meant to be doing instead of reading this?

I'm at my desk in my office at the Marion Davies Guest House. I'm meant to be working on poems. Instead, between you and me, I'm

-- checking email,
-- reading a letter from a friend (an actual letter! on paper! from an envelope! with a stamp!),
-- grading some late student papers,
-- looking up movie times for A Star Is Born,
-- watching a video of deer walking into a very blue lake,
-- comparing prices on long sweaters with fringe,
-- texting my sisters, and
-- writing this blog post.

But you know what? Procrastination is my prewriting. Procrastination doesn't look much like the prewriting I learned in poet school -- It has a lot more Arclight seating chart and a lot less "make a list of 20 nouns" than that. It's happy tasks, filling entertainments, that get my mind right to write. I'm not a very disciplined or from-a-dark-place writer -- I write from joy.

So procrastination? The stuff I'm doing instead of writing? Joy fuel. I'm meant to be doing exactly what I'm doing right now.

What if we all felt a little less guilty and a little more in the moment? What if everything we did other than the the thing we were supposed to be doing was exactly the thing we were supposed to be doing?

Here's a still from the video of the deer walking into the very blue lake.

Hope your procrastination is fruitful today. You probably should have a coffee now.

-- Catherine Coan, 10/29/18

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Reading, Writing, and Chromatophores

You know that feeling when you encounter something really great and it makes you want to create in the same vein? Like you have a great meal, then want to cook. You see a great painting, then want to paint (or, in my case, apparently, to buy paint, so so much paint). You read a great poem, then want to write.

Today was my third day working on a new book of poems as writer in residence at the Marion Davies Guest House. When I got to my office, I decided to prime the pump -- drink coffee, read a little Richard Wilbur.

Richard Wilbur's work is gorgeous. Sometimes difficult. Generous. Melancholy. Encouraging. It makes me want to write. And it's also a little depressing, sometimes, reading it. Because let's face it, I'm never going to write as well as Richard Wilbur writes. He does things like this, from "The Beautiful Changes":

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon's tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

I mean, come on. Write something that great in your entire life. You've done it? Hooray! You're lucky, and good.

So I drank my coffee and read a little Richard Wilbur, and the pump pulled up water: a draft. And I'm at the Marion Davies Guest House to draft. And to drink coffee, and to read a little Richard Wilbur, and to look past a bouquet of waxy white flowers out a window at the nearly empty autumn beach, where a few people hold their Converse and socks in their hands and test the chilly water with their sock-printed toes and decide maybe, no, nope, not to wade in.

Well, next time, then. You don't have to be brave every day.

Room for Everyone

When I read Richard Wilbur, I think
I must write immediately and also
really, why write ever again?
With Richard, you get how the beautiful
changes: as a forest is changed
by a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it.

With me, you get some stuff
about a carnival fish, Love’s Baby Soft,
the idea that to Prince,
mini marshmallows were regular size.
But there is, as they say, room for everyone.

The carnival fish was a guy I won
with a quarter, took home,
and named Carl. He lived for years
before the bathroom funeral,
the long spiral into nothingness.

I might recall Carl’s little orange body
with a smile when I am ninety.
I might remember that for a few days
in 1984, I kept Carl in his bowl
in my junior high locker, which smelled
of Love’s Baby Soft and wet wool jacket.

Carl swam around in there
past and past a page from Tiger Beat
taped to the door: Prince,
resplendent in white, glowing purple
under stage lights, his lace jabot
the envy of the Venticelli.

And after the concert, his assistant made him
an instant hot cocoa with marshmallows
of regular size, to his thinking,
as I attempted metachrosis,
tuning my skin to my locker, trying 
to be invisible or really anything else at all.

-- Catherine Coan, 10/24/18