Friday, September 24, 2010

These Are My Essays

I am applying to earn my Masters degree in Writing and Poetics at Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado. These are the application essays I put in the mail today. This is super-personal stuff,so please just don't tell me if there are any terrible spelling errors. I'll find out soon enough if there are. Enjoy!

Statement of Intent

Things fall into place. Though at any given moment the path appears random, retrospect reveals a progression of experience leading inevitably from one lesson to the next. The karma I carry with me in this life has continuously uprooted and replanted me around the world, ensuring that I meet certain people and arrive at essential realizations only when the time is right. Now again, I am like a fruit, overripe and ready to abandon the nourishment of my by-now-familiar Bogotáno tree; ready to leap, floating for a moment before finding fertile ground in which to spread new seeds. I feel overwhelmingly blessed to rest in the knowing that Naropa is the piece of earth I seek.

The source of inspiration for the course of study I intend to pursue can be traced to a series of dreams in August of 2008. Having graduated from college in the spring, I spent the summer as headwaiter and handyman at a boutique hotel and restaurant on an island in Wisconsin. Anticipating the change of seasons, I made concrete plans to move to Red Lodge, Montana, to become a bartending ski-bum. Alas, it seems there were more subtle plans already in place. Three consecutive mornings I awoke with lingering images of being trapped on a ski lift, rising into storm clouds; or of arriving at the top of a mountain without my equipment, proceeding to drift uncontrollably into the abyss. The ominous intensity of these dreams shook me to the core, and I made haste to change course.

Of course, our modern-day divination system (Google) led me directly to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm, in Grass Valley, California. At that time, my experience with Yoga was limited to one-semester of bikram as a sophomore; however, I instantly recognized the Yoga Farm as the obvious next step upon my path. I lost a significant cash deposit by abandoning the Red Lodge agenda, but awoke the next day from a blissful dream of flying over paradisiacal island chains with a voice, booming out from a bottomless pit in my chest, saying, “You are on the right path!” It is great comfort to have confirmation, even when you already know.

On the 1st of January, 2009, I arrived for the start of 4 months as a Karma Yogi in the Ashram’s work-study program. This was by far the most transformative time of my life, and my experiences there continue to inform my daily existence. In addition to establishing a steady meditation practice, I soon became one of the Ashram chefs. I have always loved food; now I love feeding people too. This was also my first exposure to the complementary sciences of Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology. The discovery of this ancient wisdom was akin to finding a blueprint and a headlamp after clumsily stumbling through an unlit maze for what appears to have been years. The holistic system of self-knowledge that is Yoga gently revolutionized the way I think, speak, act, and eat, and launched me on a course of accelerated evolution that continues to this day.

Having said that, the aspect of yogic life that remains closest to my heart is the spirit of bhakti. Before arriving at the Ashram, I was skeptical (at best) about religious devotion. I assumed I’d just do the asana, stimulate my academic mind with scripture, and enjoy the tranquil Sierra atmosphere while merely tolerating the daily kirtan and intermittent religious rituals – probably watching aloof as people in orange robes washed rocks, gave clean clothes to voodoo dolls and tossed julienne-cut coconut into a supposedly sacred fire. How silly of me.

Like in a nightmare, where I flee an apparently evil pursuant: if I simply turn to face it, in direct but loving confrontation, that which I most fear becomes a source of supernal strength and elation. With the help of Swami Sita, Swami Guruprasad, and world-renown kirtan performer Karnamrita Dasi, I soon realized my deeply devotional nature. They aided me in understanding that bhakti takes many forms. In my case, it finds expression primarily through athletic performance and literary endeavors. For example, Swami Guruprasad, the resident tantric priest, noticed me reading for hours on end, and lauded my concentration. Never before had I considered my incessant literary indulgences from this empowering perspective!

Another wonderful surprise was the way my writing practice exploded with inspiration after mere weeks of Yogic immersion. There were days when, in all honesty, I had to give my karma yoga hours short shrift, being inexorably drawn to my journal or computer to hastily transcribe the flood of conceptions flowing through me before they disappeared downstream. I almost forgot to notice the joy of watching, with eerie detachment, as whole poems arose spontaneously on the page. Such ecstatic, humbling fun!

This is the state I expect to recreate at Naropa. I believe Naropa is the ideal environment in which to pursue the careful combination of my writing and contemplative practices. I hope to discover a course of study based in bhakti, blending the composition of devotional poetry with a special focus in Sanskrit song and translation. I sense that Naropa is the place where my ever-evolving meditation practice will encounter the structure and guidance it needs, while simultaneously engaging with the rigorous academic context I am seeking. For two years I have said I would not go back to school until I knew exactly what I wanted to study. Now I do, and I’m devoted.

Since I left the ashram, I have lived in Maine, Mexico and Minneapolis. This past year, I have seen the 4 corners of South America and am currently living in Bogotá, Colombia, teaching English and learning Spanish. My visa will soon expire, and I had been agonizing over what to do, where to go. Since this Master of Poetics idea dawned on me, I have been thoroughly energized and inspired. The effortless discipline I am experiencing while creating this application is evidence – the ever-sought confirmation – that this is precisely the path I've been preparing for myself. This preparation has again occurred without my conscious knowledge – but if I'd known what to do before now, I would have missed all the fun and adventure of discovery unfolding as I dance up the mountain!

There are many paths, but only one peak. I believe that ultimately, my path spirals toward some form of teaching. This TEFL venture is the latest in a pattern of tutorial roles that goes back to the 4th grade. This time, I have learned a level of self-sufficiency heretofore unknown; it has truly been a crash=course in adulthood. It has satisfied my nomadic instincts, and allowed me to establish a common humanity with people who carry karma far different from mine. I have become socially functional in Spanish, and have developed the unshakable confidence that I can harmoniously handle any situation I might encounter – in the classroom, calle, or otherwise. But while I enjoy the process of teaching, the TEFL world has grown rapidly dull. Recently, in an advanced class, we discussed Jorge Luis Borges, Paramahansa Yogananda, and one of my poems. My enthusiasm became contagious! I vastly prefer these topics to endless speculation over modal auxiliary verbs and prepositional phrases. This expedition has been an enormous blessing – however, I am ready for my next lesson. Above all, teaching has taught me that I am still a student, and always will be.

Having wandered long enough, I now know precisely where to go, and why. I am craving the opportunity to once again engage with a community of lively, thinking people. While I have met many amazing people in my travels, I have become disheartened by the lack of intention present in the general population. I thrived in the high-vibrations of the Ashram community, and I hope to find yet another group of intently focused individuals at Naropa. Employing all the tools of discernment in my developing toolbox, I sense a deep need for grounding, for a stronger sense of community, of home. I long to plant my feet firmly on the earth and grow roots that allow my more subtle selves to branch out endlessly.

Bogotá, despite its many charms, is not a place where this grounding is possible. It is a hectic, sprawling, heavily polluted city of nearly 10 million people, and it exhausts me on a number of levels. Therefore, outside the academic realm, the principle attraction of Naropa is its location. I know Boulder well, and I cannot wait to arrive and settle down. With such easy access to intense exploration, I will gladly carry my tent, sleeping bag, bicycle and skis with me. I believe the surrounding beauty feeds Boulder’s cozy, vibrant community, creating an ideal setting for the life I aspire to lead. I am overcome with giddy anticipation as I imagine the joyful potential future I am here attempting to manifest.

I must also mention the awe I felt in reading the brief biography of Professor Andrew Schelling. His list of publications and description of interests resonate in a powerfully familiar way. He seems to be doing (or has already done) everything I hope to do! For example, “the ’conjunction of wilderness expertise’ with homegrown radical politics and an immersion in Asian literatures” is a strangely precise summary of what I hope to work towards over the next 2 years.

Having mentioned this hypothetical future, allow me to describe what I have in mind. After 8 months away, I will arrive home in Minneapolis on the 25th of September, 2010. I will then drive to Grass Valley, where I will spend October as support staff for the Teacher’s Training Course at the Yoga Farm. As soon as I can separate myself from the magnetism of the Ashram, I will move toward Boulder, in order to be comfortably acclimated in time for the start of the Spring 2011 semester.

Having completed the degree requirements in December of 2012, becoming well versed in Sanskrit along the way (maybe Hindi, too?), I eagerly anticipate an extended journey into India to further my studies. Swami Guruprasad has enthusiastically invited me to visit the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, and I fully intend to take him up on this generous offer – when the time is ripe. I feel I must first seek further orientation in my higher purpose, so that I might travel beyond mere sightseeing. I have seen enough of the world to know beyond a doubt that what I am truly seeking is not found without, only within. All I need now is a supportive place to sit, to study and to write, a situation where diverse seekers gather for satsang. Is not Naropa ideally conducive to these simple aspirations?

In conclusion, I humbly request this assistance on my journey. In my mind’s eye there exists the potential for a wonderfully fruitful relationship between the Naropa community and myself. I intend to be a student-teacher for many years to come, and I would be both incredibly proud and profoundly grateful to continue in pursuit of my highest dharma as a contributing member of the Naropa community.


Supplemental (Self-Indulgent) Essay

It seems paradoxical that my primary inspiration to write stems from the very impossibility of the poetic attempt. Impossible because language can only ever point towards its subject, because words, like all symbols, are forever one step removed from the reality they aspire to portray. I think of a cairn: the cairn describes a path, but is not the path itself. A poem – simple ink upon paper – can never truly reproduce the experience from which it springs. Therefore, the poet’s best hope is to use the available word-stones to craft a small tower, marking the way towards a new experience. The Word, as way-shower, has illimitable powers of ever-fresh creation. This, then, is the worthy, worldly task at which I joyously toil.

Wisdom traditions around the world recognize the powerful influence of the Word. It has the ability to incite revolutions or invite needed rain, depending upon the vibratory harmonics of the chosen phoneme sequence. The Bible tells us that, “In the beginning there was the Word…” (John 1:1). In Christian traditions that word is ‘Amen’, while the ancient rishi’s of India pronounced it ‘Aum’. In both cases, it is understood to be the basic vibrational framework upon which physical existence is constructed. From Hindu kirtan, to Gregorian chanting, to numerous Native American ceremonies, employing sound to produce profound effects on one’s self and surrounding environment is a pervasive human practice. With this in mind, I constantly strive to find a symbiotic balance between sound and meaning in my work; and in this pursuit, two books have particularly influenced me: “conVERSations”, by Kamau Braithwaite, and “Skywriting by Word of Mouth”, by John Lennon.

Lennon first shocked my literary paradigms sometime during sophomore year, with his linguistic contortionism and irreverence for linearity. He lets words wash over one another, making meanings overlap, allowing what is written and how it sounds to exist in productive tension. Most writers seek to fix meaning; Lennon intentionally sets his signifiers afloat. At the time, I was just starting to see language as a multi-dimensional phenomenon. Lennon’s light-hearted – yet deadly serious – literary manipulations, helped me welcome into my writing a divine wildness of word-choice and purposeful abstraction of structure. My first attempts to incorporate Lennon’s influence were overzealous, but over time I have assimilated ‘skywriting’ so that its strange playfulness echoes throughout my work. This is a process.

The tension between what is written, how it sounds, and what it means, finds ultimate expression in the work of Kamau Braithwaite. He puts his vast theoretical work into practice in the book, “conVERSations” (although I hesitate to call it a book, due to its radical multi-textuality). Using his ‘video-style’, Braithwaite transcribes a 1993 conversation with Nathaniel Mackay (including audience participation), supplements it with textual elaborations, then intersperses sonic poems written in what he calls ‘nation language’, while running footnotes create a counter-narrative, challenging the privileged, ‘primary’ text. These different narrative strains are identified through varying font style and size, choices so dynamic that the result refuses categorization as mere literature – thus, ‘video’.

Braithwaite’s poems demand to be read aloud. This is the secret to deciphering their meaning, because the written words are slashed and cut short, carefully distorted to form a hybrid poetics that aims to establish an authentic literary experience where none was previously recognized. For Brathwaite, ‘nation language’ represents the merging of oral folk traditions from the Caribbean with those imported from Africa, under the structural umbrella of the colonially imposed Spanish and English. This alchemy of forms and influences is startling, and expands the limits of what I previously imagined a book could do. Braithwaite, therefore, provides a useful blueprint for how to successfully inter-textualize my diverse interests, which span, in brief, from quantum physics, to the Mayan calendars, to geo- and exo-politics, to shamanism and Sufism, to viticulture and gastronomy, and of course, to semiotics and linguistics.

In my own writing, I seek to combine the organic imagery made available by abstract, right-brain inspiration, with my hyper-intellectual, linear left-brain tendencies, to create a unique style that speaks to both the heart and mind of the reader. I hope to create poetry that is pleasing to the eye and ear, intuitively soothing and inspiring for the soul, while also able to entertain the analytical, academic brain. I want to perform mystical poems in front of a raucous crowd, while simultaneously submitting them for literary deconstruction.

Technically, I imagine most of my poems will be considered free verse, but they are all highly organized. For example, the prose poem “Final Relaxation” consists of 12 stanzas, representing the 12 basic postures in a Sivananda-style asana session (the final pose of which provoked the poem). Each stanza has 7 lines, to honor the 7 occult energy centers located in our spinal cortex. This specific asana practice, developed by Swami Vishnu-Devananda, is intended to progressively harmonize and awaken the chakras; the poem is intended to echo this process in print.

In addition to poetry, I have experience with journalism, short fiction and creative non-fiction. I was a staff music writer for the Arts section of the The George Washington University Hatchet for three years, and what began as a travel-blog at the beginning of 2010 has evolved into a patchwork narrative of how I survive since I left home. Blogging is the no-mans land of genres; most of my posts are short, disposable, creative non-fiction that sometimes rhymes. Yet there is something deeply appealing about this synthesis of forms. It is an alchemical process of expression, ideally melding the base metals of poetry and prose to create spontaneous literary art otherwise unachievable.

In this way, Jorge Luis Borges has exercised tremendous influence over my thinking. His concise vignettes are like tiny doors that open into vast realms. Borges’ artful sketches are like poetry, in that every word is crucial, yet they take the form of short fiction. They are considered fiction, despite the profound truths they point towards. I am attracted to Borges, not only by his mysterious, metaphysical themes, but by the ambition of his true literary aim, which he states quite explicitly in his poem, The Moon, describing a time when, “a man / Conceived the unconscionable plan / / Of making an abridgement of the universe / In a single book”. This ‘abridgement’ is a constantly recurring theme in Borges’ work. In addition to labyrinths and mirrors, Borges is obsessed with the concept of a one-word poem that contains the entire universe. In The Parable of the Palace, the poet is beheaded for theft after uttering his brief composition, because its raw power swallowed the vast palace in its entirety. Borges claims, “the text has been lost,” but he is clearly describing the Word, ‘Aum’.

Before I conclude, I must also mention my brief experience in bookmaking. My lovely parents run Photobook Press in Minneapolis, creating beautiful, custom books. For Christmas 2008, I gathered some high-quality scraps and hand-made 17 chapbooks, each with a unique cover, as gifts. The collection, entitled “Ear Sum Pomes”, begins with A Vesper Sotto Vocce and ends with a Morning Song. The content in between theoretically describes one wild night of the mind.

In my life, as in my writing, I pursue dynamic synthesis, whether with the spices in an Ayurvedic recipe, or by linking ancient wisdom traditions with modern science, or Sancho Panza with Arjuna, or Spanish with Sanskrit. In my experience, the “Aha!” moment that readers and writers crave is most often established through these unexpected connections. I seek to reveal the underlying unity of seemingly disparate topics, to create a many-varied voice that emanates from One Source, with characters arising and falling (like in life) across prose, poem, and the occasional diagram or drawing, so that the reader may access an experience yet unimagined. In his essay, The Poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson describes how he, “has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.” Here in this New Age, I offer my confession.

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