On mastery…

**Note to readers: apologies for disappearing for a while there…and thank you for coming back or for visiting for the first time. My goal is to post monthly, at least from here on out…**

…I was catching up with Barbara Jane Reyes’ blog the other day…. http://www.barbarajanereyes.com/2013/01/15/viewing-jiro-dreams-of-sushi-reminds-me-of-some-things-about-poetry/#more-7588

And it made me want to respond at length….

First, I don’t think the majority of Americans have the concept of mastery as BJR was  discussing/defining it. This society (dominant American society) seems to only value mastery that has brought fame (certain actors, chefs, etc.) or mastery that demands a high price (master craftspersons, for example). There’s no appreciation for mastery without money or fame. And it especially has no appreciation for mastery that comes with long-term effort or sacrifice. Which is why America idolizes the stories of the young—of inborn talent or natural beauty suddenly recognized. It makes the story more interesting if they’re somehow otherwise an underdog (born poor or of the wrong skin color) and maybe they have to take on some Rocky Balboa-training montages, but for the most part, it’s not a talent or skill that took decades or an entire life to develop.

BJR’s post brought to mind the year I was taking t’ai chi classes—ten years ago already. I was rapturously in love with it, with learning, with how strong I was becoming, with how, even in sixteen movements, I could feel my body singing. And I loved that it was so difficult. It was interesting, as an adult, to try to learn something that wasn’t easy and that I had no natural talent for. Within minutes of beginning, I’d feel my body shaking uncontrollably. But I kept at it—even after a year, my body still shook, but I was so much stronger and I hope, more graceful.

Often, too, it seemed that there were parallel lessons that I could apply to poetry, to writing. Our Sifu often spoke about American impatience—how often his students were dismayed that they were only taught one movement at a time and had a week to practice it before returning and learning another. He spoke of masters in China who would have a student learn one movement and practice it for a year before returning to learn another—because they understood it took time and practice and dedication to even begin to truly master something. I also remember that he often quoted a proverb about how long it took to do some things/tasks/projects: “if not one year, then five, if not five years, then ten.” Other students often asked him how long it would take to get to the next belt or to a black belt or how long it would take to be able to teach. He’d give them such a look!

I had all kinds of timelines…how long it should take me to write a poem, write a story, publish a book, win this or that. But I’ve always found that poems, stories, books tell you when they’re done—it never works the other way around. With t’ai chi, there was always the option to stop—to stop going to classes, to stop learning, to stop practicing—or to go on. With writing, there’s also always a choice: stop or keep going. Stop or keep working with a piece until it ‘felt’ real. Stop or keep trying to go deeper. Stop or refuse to give up. Stop or create my own definitions of success. Stop or create my own definition of what it meant to be a writer.

I did eventually stop going to t’ai chi—a car accident and finances interrupted my progress—but I still dream of returning to it. Though writing has had all kinds of obstacles, I’ve never truly put it down. Sometimes I’ve had to lay in wait, sometimes I’ve had to fight my way back to it, sometimes I’ve had to hunt it down—but as the years have gone by, it’s the work I’ve clung to the most tenaciously.

A piece from BJR’s post: “But before this becomes about amateurs versus professionals, I want to add what Lisa Jarnot wrote at the Poetry Foundation blog: “If I have something to give as a teacher (collaborator? conspirer? facilitator?), it’s the message that a passion for poetry, plain and simple, can triumph over the banking model of education.” I want to say this “banking model,” is the opposite of the love/passion for art, and the apprenticeship-mastery model that Jiro Dreams of Sushi presents to us. In this “banking model,” while you may be working towards a profession, I don’t think you are necessarily striving for mastery, but consenting to be shaped into a commodity/product that can be plugged into the economy.”

And whether poets/writers know it or not…I think that’s a choice they have to make: early on and then over and over again…marketability or soul? And if you choose soul, then you also have to choose how much soul—the skin-surface level of your soul? The depth of its flesh? The depth of its bone? Or the depth of its red, red marrow? And whatever you choose necessitates further mastery—not as defined by prizes or publication, but as defined by—by what, by who?

I’d be afraid to begin to pin down an “objective” definition of mastery. I wouldn’t trust a checklist of criteria. By its very nature, I think mastery can only be recognized when it’s seen, when it’s felt. However, that also means that not everyone will be able to recognize it. Recognition would require some level of appreciation and discernment and knowledge and engagement. And that may begin to sound like I’m saying that only the educated can appreciate or pursue mastery—but I’m not. Recognition that comes only from education is a cold and lifeless thing—a thing that says “this ____ has been judged to be good and therefore everything else must be compared to it.” The most important recognition comes from engagement at the level of soul. That moment when you see some work of art or hear some form of music or read a line of poetry that so completely enraptures you that it feels as if your whole body has been made into a bell and then rung…and everything in you resonates and you will never be what you were before. Engagement at that level of soul recognizes mastery.

The first place I ever felt that was listening to music…listening to Mexican rancheras. Listening to Lucha Villa and Lola Beltran…Jose Alfredo Jimenez and Vicente Fernandez…Cuco Sanchez and Cornelio Reyna….and later, Chavela Vargas…

From them, I’ve come to form my own definition of my goals as a writer. I want to plumb the depths. I want to find the song. I want to sustain rawness. I want my writing to tear me up and to tear up my readers—the way that rancheras leave me crying or laughing or breathless or holding myself back from throwing grito after grito into the air…

All the singers or singer/song-writers I just named had long, long careers…and one of the things I find most fascinating about them is how they sustained a certain quality of rawness…their performances were always emotionally alive, their hearts were in their voices. They weren’t always smooth or polished and in fact, that rawness always served the song. Like Lorca relates in his “Play and Theory of the Duende”, La Niña de Los Peines had “to tear apart her voice, because she knew experts were listening, who demanded not form but the marrow of form, pure music with a body lean enough to float on air. She had to rob herself of skill and safety: that is to say, banish her Muse, and be helpless, so her duende might come, and deign to struggle with her at close quarters. And how she sang! Her voice no longer at play, her voice a jet of blood, worthy of her pain and her sincerity…”

And that brings me to my last thought…that the only way the individual artist can pursue mastery is by defining for themselves what mastery is—not  a self-serving definition that incorporates the ‘banking model’—but a unique definition that speaks to the artist’s aesthetics and that creates an ongoing challenge for the artist herself.

After that, we have to trust that those who can discern mastery will do so.

With many thanks to BJR…


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