What you see...

I've been writing poetry since I was a baffled teen, about forty years. I have published four books of poetry and have just completed my fifth collection, "The Invisible Library". I am also a culture worker, editor, and publisher (Hagios Press).

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Celebrating a Quarter Century, SIAST Applied Photography, 1986 – 2011

“No matter how slow the film, spirit always stands still long enough for the photograph it has chosen.”   Minor White

 The above quote from the brilliant American photographer, Minor White, has always summed up my love of photographic images. What the accomplished photographer captures within the frame is imbued with a sense of reinvention that transcends time itself. 

This elegant volume of photography traverses time on many different levels. Each of the photographers featured in the book is a graduate of the Applied Photography program at SIAST in Regina. On every page, as I made my way through the book I encountered clarity of intent, and many excellent photographs.  In its entirety, it points to the legacy of SIAST program which will live, long after the misguided decision to discontinue the program.  

In this celebratory book, we enter the strong current of photography and the photographer's craft; from the deeply personal images that engage the heart, to adamant commercial photographs arrest the eye, this is a book that is difficult to put down. In reading the profiles of the photographers it is interesting to note how many are still engaged as professionals. This in itself is a strong endorsement of program and the faculty, but it is the photographs themselves that speak to the potential that was realized during a quarter-century of teaching photography at SIAST.  

I will refrain from naming photographs and photographers who had the strongest impact on me, the list is long. I would recommend this book to anyone, like me, who loves the “spirit” quality of photographs. There is much here to immerse yourself in, and for the professional or perhaps an educator in photography, this book is a must, and will be one you return to again and again.  

On the cover of the book is black and white image of a tree. Despite the misty landscape that surrounds it, the tree stands with clarity and definition. Like photography itself the image is evocative of resilience and remembrance.  In many ways the tree represents for me the impact the SIAST Applied Photography program has had on its many graduates.  Even though the program has been ended, each year there will be new growth, another season of light.

Celebrating a Quarter-Century, SIAST Applied Photography 1986 – 2011is available for $135 from AP Press, 2140 Montague Street, Regina S4T 3J9.

You can e-mail:  publisher@ap-press.ca  for further information.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

A New Paradigm for Cultural Value: Musings on the work of John Holden

Has the dialogue surrounding arts policy and public funding of the arts become a closed conversation between politicians (policy makers) and arts professionals (leaders working in the arts and culture field)?  How might the dynamic of this conversation change should arts professionals and the organizations they work for were to actively seek and gain a mandate from the public based on the true value of the arts in our daily lives?
These salient questions have been advanced by John Holden, one of Britain’s most respected cultural thinkers and teachers. The ideas outlined in this paper are from two of Holden’s publications: Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool of government policy and Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy: Why culture needs a democratic mandate. Holden is writing about the arts and cultural sector in England, but since our arts agencies were modeled on those in Britain there are parallels to be found in our cultural sector.

Regarding his use of the word “culture” Holden says, “I will use a narrow characterization of ‘culture’ to mean the arts, and arts and cultural institutions and organizations that receive public funding.”

For instance, like in Britain there has been recently been an increased expectation on arts leaders and arts organizations to expend more resources to the justification of publicly funded grants. Organizations are increasingly being asked to explain how their efforts have contributed to broad policy objectives, which are undoubtedly different at each level of jurisdiction. Politicians and their policy makers are changing the way arts organizations articulate their mandates by compelling them to provide outcomes expressed in terms of efficiency, diversity, youth engagement, to name a few examples, rather than focusing on results in terms of artistic achievement.  

Holden describes this trend in England, which has been well established for two decades: “The funding bodies … have marshaled statistics on the social outcomes of the activities that they fund, and deployed arguments about how the arts and culture helps social integration, economic regeneration and health. The attempt to make the effects of culture transparent and manageable, in order to support it effectively, has somehow obscured the true nature of the activities and experiences themselves… In sum, the identifiable measures and ‘ancillary benefits’ that flow from culture have become more important than the cultural activity itself: the tail is wagging the dog.”

 Holden argues that publicly funded arts activity generates three types of value: intrinsic, instrumental and institutional. Holden maintains each of these values is problematic when attempting to assess or measure their impact on the public yet he feels that intrinsic values seem to be the most salient in the public’s engagement in arts and cultural activities.

Intrinsic values are those related to the experience of the arts, intellectually, emotionally and contemplatively. These values are not easy to measure but can be captured in personal testimonies, qualitative assessments, anecdotes, case studies and critical reviews.

Instrumental values are those related to the ancillary effects of the arts where arts activities are employed to achieve a social or economic purpose. They are most often expressed in figures, and are captured in terms of ‘output’, ‘outcome’ and ‘impact’.

Institutional values are related to the processes and techniques that organizations adopt in how they work to create value for the public. Institutional value is created (or destroyed) by how these organizations engage with their public by providing a context for sociability and the enjoyment of shared experiences. Institutional value sees the role of arts organizations as active agents in the creation or destruction of what the public values.

Explanation of Holden’s ‘The Relationship Triangle’

Holden suggests that when pared to its essentials the decision about funding for the arts operates  (particularly in England) works like this:

  1. The public elects politicians.Politicians shape legal and policy framework within which the arts operate including critical financial resources.
  2. Funders occupy the space between arts professionals and arts organizations and are often expected to lead the arts sector as well as speak on its behalf while distributing government funds in order to achieve government aims in addition to demonstrating the impact of government spending on the arts.
  3. Arts professionals and Arts Organizations do the work of engaging the public through the creation and dissemination of the arts and cultural products while at the same time must justify their activities in terms of evidence of the impact desired by government for government spending on the arts.

Holden suggests thatat this model no longer works. In way of explanation he looks at the changing nature of the public, politicians (policy makers & funding agencies) and Arts professionals & arts organizations and at the changed relationship between them.

The term ‘The Public’ embraces everyone; we are all citizens and we all have an interest in public life and its expression through arts and culture. Obviously “The Public” is not a unified field. This reality has become more profound in the 21st century as we increasingly see that ‘the public’ has many identities and many voices, as well as many new methods for express individual identities. Holden envisions the arts and culture as a force that is undergoing a fundamental shift.

“Through out the twentieth century we—the public—were defined by two things: our nationality and our work. In these circumstances culture was both a reassurance and a decoration. They were a reassurance because we lived in relatively homogenous societies with clear identities; the cultural markers were obvious and well understood. It was a decoration because it was offered as compensation for work, a leisure pursuit, something affordable after the serious business of the day was done.

“In the twenty-first century all that has changed, Our nation states are far from homogeneous; every individual citizen is now part of a minority; and we no longer define ourselves by our work…we the public, need culture more and more to make sense of our lives, and to construct our individual and collective identities.” 

Holden recognizes that within a globalized world that people have ‘fluid identities’ with access to multiple, diverse and interwoven arts and cultural activities, which could be translated as answers to essential questions: “Who am I?” and “Who are we?”.

 He underlines that this fluidity of self raises the stakes for the arts and culture: decisions to engage are no longer primarily financial, as choice now puts into play the participant’s sense of self-definition.

The upside of this shift says Holden may be the ways in which ‘the public’ values the arts and culture. The most profound value his research suggests is through intrinsic experience, “…all those wonderful, beautiful, uplifting, challenging, stimulating, thought-provoking, terrifying, disturbing, spiritual, witty experiences that shape and reflect their place in the world.”

Holden recognizes that arts and culture within a country or a community provide a sense of ‘rootedness’. “This can play out in two ways—in a sense of place and geographical location where cultural infrastructure can anchor local identities, and in a sense of belonging to a community, either a geographical community, or a cultural community of interest.”

Not unlike their expectations of other sectors Holden suggests that the public values, “being treated well and honestly, by the cultural organizations that they choose to engage with.“
Holden asserts there is much evidence to determine that politicians value arts and culture for what it can achieve for agendas beyond the cultural sector.

“Although there has been a recent shift towards recognizing that instrumental values do not tell the whole story, they continue to dominate political discourse… Politicians want measurable, tangible results that help deliver government policy predictably, cost-effectively and on a mass scale, because that is the job of politics.”

Holden argues that the divergence of value goals between politicians and professionals that, “…the question then becomes how to create mutual understanding and constructive engagement between the two groups. Two decades of supplying ‘evidence’ do not appear to have worked, but perhaps if both politicians and professionals understand each other’s value positions clearly, and recognize their respective legitimacy and limitations, we may move in the right direction.”

John Holden

Read Holden’s essays on Cultural Value at:  http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/culturallegitimacy

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Cultural Affirmations

This is my final blog as an Artist Animateur for SaskCulture and I want to close by discussing something that might be useful to artists at every level of development.
One of the reasons poets don’t stick with their craft even though they possess considerable skill is damaging self-talk. This can be debilitating in any activity but since writing is such a solitary endeavor all writers are vulnerable to old tapes we play in heads that tell us we can’t do this, is we can’t create. Many damaging self-talk tapes are recorded in childhood. In grade five I had a wonderful teacher who loved poetry and had her students memorize and recite Frost, Wordsworth and Blake. In many ways I was hooked on poetry at a very young age.
 In grade six my teacher had no interest in writing or poetry and I was labeled by her as a “dreamer”, “lazy” and “inattentive”. I hadn’t changed but the tapes in my head had been rewritten. 
As a writer I wasn’t really aware of damaging self-talk, until after my first book was published. A year after the book came out my father became very ill and they found an inoperable brain tumor. In many ways my father was my life compass, I was devastated. In writing and in life all those self-damaging tapes arose and I became fearful, untrusting and unable to write.
 It wasn’t until a year after my father’s death that I recognized that it was me, my mind that was preventing me from doing something I loved. With that awareness I could counteract it. One of the methods I used to write about my relationship with my father, his illness and his death, was to speak/compose into a tape recorder.  I think of it as “voice freefall”. The words I wanted to write were so deep within my body that this seemed to be the only way to access them and counteract the self damaging voices in my mind. The result was a book I am still very proud of “Dreaming my Father’s Body”.
 I still have to be vigilant because these old tapes play quickly, and often below the level of your conscious awareness. One of the things I do daily even when I know I won’t have time to write is to repeat affirmations. This may at first seem uncomfortable but I can assure you from personal experience you will feel more latitude and freedom as a writer or artist if you practice this.  Find one or two affirmations that speak to you and then place them somewhere in your environment that will allow you to see and read them many times every day: above your writing desk, on the mirror in your bathroom, above your telephone. If you feel stuck at the writing desk write out an affirmation several times until your mind begins clicking and you begin writing. Here are affirmations I have used but as you discover about your blocks or damaging self talk you will come up with your own affirmations to counteract them.
Engaging with people in the Artist Animateur program I met many people who felt that they just weren’t creative. As if they missed the day in grade school where all the other children were given their “creativity shots”. The truth is that everyone has creative capacity, but we must make time in our lives to explore our own creative outlets.
I will leave you with four effective affirmations for writers but artists from other disciplines need only substitute words from their discipline.
The Artist Animateur program has been a wonderful journey for me and I’m very grateful to SaskCulture for the opportunity to awaken creativity in others.  

If I listen I will be lead to what I need to write
Writing is now fun and easy for me
Today I will write with full confidence in my skills
I write easily and effortlessly, I'm an excellent writer

Paul Wilson
Artist Animateur, SaskCulture

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Pandemonium Box: A Culture Days Fable

The kingdom of Erutluc was flat but not so flat that people could see all the way to next week.  Every day was a day to bow a fiddle, pen a poem, dance a jig, practice a play, or sing a song.
The Rankle King ruled over Erutluc with what the people often called “frustrated desperation”. While the people did not fear the Rankle King they knew that he had mastery over all of the elements of the universe and would often manipulate them to his whims.
The Rankle King had grown weary of the sounds that his subjects made. It seemed to him that his kingdom was a symphonic caterwaul of catastrophic proportions from the first light of morning until the stars appeared in night sky. 
He heard the vivvy –vrrivy-vim-vip, as a flock of fiddlers learned a new tune.
He heard the thromp, tomp, tap pick, as a troupe of dancers learned a new dance.
He heard the scattle-skittle-scratch of a coterie of poets penned new poems.
He heard the laa-lee-lap-louree of a soiree of singers, sounding a song.
He heard the tattle-tru-truu-tittle, of a company of players practicing a play.
The Rankle King heard Shhhffff of a fast running stream by his window, he heard the EEEEk of his table scraping the floor when he got up to close the window.
 The Rankle King, had had enough of the sounds of his kingdom, he locked himself into the Rankle Room determined to find a solution to the constant racket that was driving him to distraction. 
When the Rankle King emerged days later he commanded his people to gather and he appeared before them carrying a box of black stone.
He said, “In this, The Pandemonium Box, I will enslaved the abomination of alarm…the cacophony of chaos…the voices that stun and crush the ear…from this day forward we will become the placid stillness of our kingdom…Let us make silence a ceaseless balm for every brow every ear…beware any hearing soul who would loosen this din of dread on the unwary world.”
The people were stunned by what their king said but as he closed the box, his edict became their reality.
No one heard the vivvy –vrrivy-vim-vip, as a flock of fiddlers learned a new tune.
No one heard the  thromp, tomp, tap pick, as a troupe of dancers learned a new dance.
No one heard the scattle-skittle-scratch of a coterie of poets penned new poems.
No one  heard the laa-lee-lap-louree of a soiree of singers, sounding a song.
No one heard the tattle-tittle-truu-tale, of a company of players practicing a play.
For one year the Rankle King ruled his kingdom in complete silence, and each day the mood of his people became darker and more forlorn. The king understood because he found himself missing the many amazing sounds his people made each day.
One bright spring morning the king went to the Rankle Room and retrieved the Pandemonium Box, and he went into the square and waited as the people slowly and silently gathered around him.
The people opened their mouths to ask what the Rankle King was up to now, but they could not make a sound.
After a long time the Rankle King opened his mouth and miraculously began to speak.
The people marveled at the sound of his voice after so many years. Still they could scarcely believe what the Rankle King was saying:

“The sounds of the people are an unwavering gift that unveils the many layers of silence.

The sounds of the people are an exotic promise, a finger poking, no jabbing out the future.

These sounds have the power to explode lies. These sounds are the pulse, the weight of each and every heart.

The sounds of the people are a map, a path for the mind that must unhinge. These sounds are a perfect and unwieldy time-piece that bangs out eternity.

Let the pandemonium begin!”
In that instant sounds leapt from the Pandemonium Box:

The vivvy –vrrivy-vim-vip, as a flock of fiddlers learned a new tune.
The  thromp, tomp, tap pick, as a troupe of dancers learned a new dance.
The scattle-skittle-scratch of a coterie of poets penned new poems.
The laa-lee-lap-louree of a soiree of singers, sounding a song.
The tattle-tittle-truu-tale, of a company of players practicing a play.
The sounds leapt into the air until the kingdom was full once more all the loud lavishness of living in the world.
All that night no one in the kingdom could sleep not even the Rankle King, for the croack-reed-it, of the frogs and the chit-t chit-t of the crickets sounded like the most beautiful music they had ever heard.

The End

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

An Inspiration Tune-up

Some writers will tell you that inspiration is for whimps, or that it doesn't really exist and the only way to produce as a writer is to put your butt in a chair until the ideas come. I take a different approach with inspiration, I want to be inspiration's friend and I want to know all I can about our on-again, off-again relationship.
When I feel inspired to write a poem, I’m usually so pleased to have creativity on my side again I rarely stop to notice where and when I was given the impetus to write. However when I’ve hit a dry spot in my creativity and nothing seems to inspire me I spend a good deal of time pondering this mysterious process.
I would like to suggest that there are two distinct kinds of inspiration. The first is Primary Inspiration; of course each of us has our own distinct sources of this form of inspiration. For me these sources  include  solitary sojourns into nature, walks in the city which involve people watching, relationships with people I love and people I barely know,  also collect small snippets of conversation I hear in cafes and other public places. Then of course I have to mention my senses which are arbiters of primary inspiration. 
Often a phrase or poetic line has arisen from a particular fragrance or an unexpected sound. Suddenly I'm transported to a heightened sense of awareness or become aware of a potent memory which in turn leads to a poem.  Touch and taste play less of a role with my creative process yet I am aware that images involving touch reoccur regularly in my writing. Visual artists, dancers, actors, musicians would likely share some of the same sources of inspiration but may also contrast sharply in other areas.
Secondary Inspiration arises when we are moved by the creative intent within a work of art, not our own. We may be in an art gallery or a library and the instant we see a painting or read a particular story or poem we feel we have been given something that we must in turn share with the world. Writers read, painters look at paintings, dancers study choreography and so on. While artists are compelled to learn more about their art form, it is also natural to be inspired by other artists. As a writer I am inspired by writers in all genras and  I am equally inspired by the works of painters, musicians, dancers, in fact most art forms. If we want to understand the the transformative nature inspiration plays in our lives we must live by the declaration: I will take inspiration from where I find it.
 What is an inspiration tune-up?
Does inspiration just happen, do we have any control at all over how, when and where it arrives? Perhaps not but we can become more sensitive to what specific conditions bring our inspired impulses to the forefront.
Try this: for one week keep a small notepad with you at all times. Make a running list of inspired ideas as they arise as well as the time, location and experience that triggered the ideas. Were you in the shower, on a walk, waking up or falling to sleep, waiting in line a Tim Horton’s? At the end of each day review the list looking for connections between the experience and the ideas themselves. Do you always get an idea for a painting or a poem when you get up early and eat breakfast alone? Maybe this is because as a child this alone-time allowed you to write and illustrate your own stories. Over the course of your tune up week you will find that certain experiences fall into the category of "primary inspiration". As you become more attuned to these experiences take time each day to cherish these moments. Don't be discouraged when ideas don't come, just relax in the knowledge that inspiration is on the way and you will be ready to act when the time comes.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Good Question

"Why is it important that I engage in a cultural activity?”

"Let me ask you this, have ever given yourself permission to explore your own inventiveness?"

 "What do I mean by 'inventiveness'?"

"I mean, the power of your own creativity. Can you remember a time when you created something  entirely your own: drawing a landscape you loved, a performance of a dance from your culture, speaking your grandfather's language,  writing a story, telling the story, composing on your guitar, making a quilt for a grandchild, can you remember what your 'inventiveness' felt like?"

"Yes I can, it felt as if creativity was flowing out of me, as if I was bringing forth this wonderful thing from deep inside of me."

"That's why."

"That's why what?"

"That's why it's important for you to engage in a cultural activity, so you can experience the power of your own creativity and then share it with others."

"Will anyone even be interested in what I have to share?"

"Yes, by engaging in cultural activities, you and others are enriching your community. Soon more people will give themselves permission  to express their inventiveness."

"That would be a very good thing, wouldn't it?"

"It sure would."

This invented conversation isn’t as Utopian as it might first appear
I recently read about a cultural research paper* that defined the term “Inventive Mode of Cultural Participation” as referring to “activity that engages the persons mind and body in an activity in artistic creation, regardless of his or her talent and real talent of the discipline undertaken.”

This term really resonated with me. Every artist from the amateur to the highly accomplished professional has passed through this “inventive” stage phase. Many never transcend it but I believe many do and go on to develop broader interests in the arts. This threshold of engagement in cultural activity can be powerful as it is a holistic experience that involves both the body and the mind.
Once someone engages in “inventive” participation in culture and the arts and stays engaged, the participant can soon associate certain personal and external benefits to this activity. Soon they see a shift in their awareness and perception as the imagination is engaged and the brain stimulated. The whole concept of self-expression is broadened and feelings and opinions that may not have had an outlet are manifested through inventive practices. This new form of expression may also allow for the integration the participant’s inner life and world view.
Cultural engagement allows people to develop and appreciate important personal values such as a sense of identity, self-esteem, pride and dignity. I’m not saying that everyone is an artist and can achieve great things through participation in cultural activity or an art form. Yet it seems clear to me that engagement in culture and the arts builds understanding on both the personal level and the societal level.
I have had opportunities as a writer, editor, mentor and now as an Artist Animateur to bring people along this path, and it is gratifying work. Programs such as Culture Days are very successful in encouraging engagement in the arts and culture and have had a positive impact on many, many people, yet there is always more to be done in regards to expanding and diversifying cultural participation within Saskatchewan and across Canada
* The Values Study, Connecticut Council on Tourism and Culture (2004), quoted in No Culture, No Future (2010) by Simon Brault.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Poetry Game

Culture Days 2011 is on its way, celebrating arts and culture from coast to coast to coast in Canada. This is a game for anyone who reads or writes poetry and knows what they like. This game was passed on to me by Barry Dempster at Sage Hill Writing Experience and is perhaps the most fun you can have reading and talking about poetry. There are no winners or losers in this game, in the end poetry wins and everyone involved increases their knowledge or what makes a good poem, good! Of course I recommend choosing poems by Canadian poets for the game, before or during Culture Days.
Here are the rules of the Poetry Game:

1. The Poem Master, picks four different poems (from four different authors)

2. He gathers a group of six to ten “Listeners” who are readers of poetry, (with eight to ten Listeners form teams of two or four people per team)

3. The Poem Master reads the first poem without revealing the authors name, and each Listener writes notes and impressions on the poem while it is being read.

4. After the reading the poem, the Poet Master gives the Listeners three minutes to write notes on the poem they have just heard..

5. The Poem Master repeats steps three and four with each of the remaining three poems.

6. When the poems have been read and notes taken the Poem Master asks the Listeners to rate each poem from 1 as the poem they like most to 4 as the poem they like the least based on poetic craft and the impact of the poem on the Listener. (Time will have to be given for discussion if team play is employed).

7. The Poet Master asks for scores on poem one and welcomes discussion between Listeners who have divergent views on the same poem. This isn't in order to change someone's scoring of a poem but merely to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the poem.

8. Repeat step seven for each of the four poems. The Poem Master facilitates discussions, trying to draw all of the listeners into the discussion. The Poem Master also tabulates the scores for each poem with poems earning four points for first choices, three points for second choices, two points for third choices and one point for forth choices.

9. When discussion winds up on the forth poem the Poem Master reveals the placing of the poems based on the scores of the Listeners. The Poem Master may also ask if anyone wants to guess the names of the poets who wrote the poems. He entertains these and finally reveals the names of the poets. The game is complete.

This game is a lot of fun and it’s an easy way to learn more about poetry craft and the kind of poetry that has an impact on you. If you don’t own many poetry books look for anthologies or Canadian poetry for many wonderful poems to choose for the game.