Creative Quest #3: To Box the Wind

“I want to always sleep inside a golden sunrise”

I asked a poet friend recently– semi jokingly and semi seriously– if it was allowable to write a poem after Terrance Hayes, who wrote a poem after Federico García Lorca, when I haven’t studied the poetry of either writer very deeply. Being supportive, my poet friend replied: “It’s poetry; do what you need.”

This advice could apply to any kind of art making, I think. Do what you need. My poet friend went on to say– semi jokingly and semi seriously– that he’s proudly from the “School of Discombobulated Poetics,” a membership that presumably gives him a bit of *ahem* poetic license to mix and match whatever material is around him to create an idea he can call his own. As a practicing junior member of this School, I’m going to go ahead and borrow my poet friend’s idea as the genesis for this blog post.

For the third creative quest in my yearlong artmaking fellowship with the Masumoto family, I decided to try making something I’d never tried before: a sort of multimedia tone poem about the farm. I’ve long enjoyed the cinematic scope of American independent filmmaker Terrence Malick, in particular his films The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. I wanted to see if I could imitate his sweeping visual and non-narrative style, to push myself in both my rudimentary poetic skills and in my rudimentary video editing skills. I wanted to make a short film about the farm that felt like the farm but didn’t need a “story” to inspire this feeling. Here’s the result:

I started out by thinking about basic shot sequences in movies– wide, medium, and close-up. I could never make a movie as grand as Malick, especially considering the equipment it would take to make his signature panoramic wide shots and the gorgeous orchestral music he has composed by professional musicians, to stitch together unrelated images and scenes across time. But I knew that I am a pretty good shooter, due to my experience with photography, so I wanted to practice basics– wide, medium, and close-up. I would stitch the footage together later with some kind of voiceover, maybe some lines from a Masumoto essay, or maybe an original poem I would write.

After spending a morning in early June on the farm, starting at daybreak, I had a little more than an hour’s worth of footage to work with. I spent a lot of time mentally drafting a possible order, sketching a few visual ideas in a notebook, and then finally sitting down to give the shoot a serious edit and put together some kind of visual order. My first cut was nearly 12 minutes long, my rough cut was just over 7 minutes long, and the final version came in at 4:23. I put my faith in the visuals, much as Malick does, to generate some kind of “story” that was outside of a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. I’m pleased with the result, a snapshot of a morning on the Masumoto farm.

This brings me back to my poet friend, and to Hayes and to Lorca.

Watching my 7 minute rough cut several times, I sketched out key words and phrases and ideas that came to mind. I didn’t want the words to necessarily be synced to the visuals or an “explainer” of the visuals like traditional narration, but I wanted to feel the words were doing their own work, with the visuals side by side.

Perhaps the primary “character” I discovered in the rough cut was the wind. The sound of the wind was always present in every piece, often challenging me to deal with its power and unpredictability in the audio editing. I remembered an article I read once about an experimental sound artist and NPR field producer who “interviewed” the wind for a longform feature story. I thought: What if the ingredient I am looking for to stitch these visuals together is actually in a sound? This idea felt right.

This is the moment I did something very 21st century: I googled “famous poems about wind.” One of the first was “Wind in a Box” by Terrance Hayes, a striking and elegant poem he wrote after Lorca. Which led me, of course, to google “Lorca poems about wind,” leading me to the beautiful, forlorn translation of his “Romance sonambulo.” I heard my poet friend in my ear at this point: Take what you need.

From there, I tried to use my own key words and phrases about the wind with the cadence and line breaks of Hayes, to generate my own poem. Here’s that poem in text form, which I find interesting to look at in comparison to how it works inside the short film.

To Box the Wind
After Terrance Hayes

I want to always sleep inside a golden sunrise
on your farm. I want to tune your engine
so it sweeps itself onward and outward,
past the sunflowers, past the unblinking horizon.

I want to outlive daybreak, tune myself
to the silt and the grass. I want to become a shadow
along the edge of your orchard, become the wind
humming through the peach trees, become leaves
neatly folded around each glowing piece of fruit.
I want to march tenderly, forcefully
past the hills the ants made, toward your harvest.

I want to ride through your grove, gilded
on all sides, riding a great big Massey Ferguson
to the very end of each row. Bring your farm dogs;
I want them to meet me. I will sit with them
in the middle of the avenue and we will listen to the wind.

I want to catch this morning’s last band of sunlight,
caught in the wind’s hum, before it’s gone;
after the fruit falls, I want to leave it for the earth.
I want to become the old water pump
working through its rust, moving ditch water forward,
sparkling, electrified, holy, pumping straight to its sump.

I want a brand new moment— a quiet moment
in the packing shed, which lives at the farm’s heart.
I want to learn the wind’s intuition here, but not
its fury. I want to hit the switch of your old AM radio
just to see what it’s like to interrupt this beautiful dream. …

… I know, of course, the discarded fruits from your
organic farm are not really discarded. I know they return
to rest in the very ground they sprang from. I want
to mash them. I want to blow them a final kiss.

I want the wind of your farm to become the calm
at the center of my heart. I want your chimes
to chime like a sound in my memory, a memory
of makeshift altars, for the dead and for the living,
a tiny house where time itself speeds and then slows,
moves on. When I leave your land, I want the wind
to fight its way into each poem, each photograph, each song.

How joyous it felt to take what I needed– from Malick, from Hayes, from Lorca, from the Masumoto family farm, from my poet friend, from myself– to make this short film, my own little wind song for summer.

Previously in this blog series:
• Creative Quest #2: Names of Old Friends
• Creative Quest #1: Beauty in the Central Valley
• A Conversation with Nikiko Masumoto

Creative Quest #2: Names of Old Friends

This month marks the five-year anniversary of The Perfect Peach, a collection of recipes and stories from the Masumoto Family Farm. It feels funny to say that a cookbook has deeply touched my life in all aspects. But in the case of The Perfect Peach, this statement is true.

The literary cookbook is co-authored by Mas, Marcy, and Nikiko Masumoto, and it’s filled with dozens of delectable recipes for your summertime haul of Central Valley peaches. The book is also filled with passionate and contemplative stories of what peaches mean to this California farm family. The essays interwoven with the recipes not only provide a “peach primer” for those unfamiliar with the world of the Masumoto Family Farm, but they also offer, to me, a glimpse into what it means to love something so much that it seeps in your bones.

I used to freelance for public radio and various publications, and in my reporting adventures I got to review The Perfect Peach for the former Fresno Life Magazine. The finished story, entitled Peaches as Performance, focused on conversations with Marcy and Nikiko about the creation of the book and about the intersections of food and culture, a subject that deeply resonates for a multi-generational, multi-racial farm family.

I will never forget my conversations with the Masumoto family in Mas and Marcy’s kitchen that day, June 11, 2013. In my mind, it was the moment where I went from being a Masumoto fanboy and admirer to being a Masumoto friend and collaborator. As with any reporting assignment, I walked away that day with a ton of interview material that was left on the cutting room floor, recorded in high-quality audio to my trusty Marantz PMD-661 digital recorder. The FLM review of the book, in fact, didn’t even include my short but profound conversation with Mas, where he talked with me very candidly about the urge to write and the urge to work, in relation to his own health and mortality.

I hope in the future to revisit the recordings again, to pull more snapshots out of the archive and bring them into the present. But for now, and in honor of the fifth anniversary of The Perfect Peach, I am happy to share the following recording of Mas. He reads what I like to think of as an impromptu poem, “Names of Old Friends,” inspired by the names of the peach varieties in his essay of the same name in the book.

I remember when I first read the essay, the variety names felt to me like an incantation, a summoning of the spirits of summer, of the coming harvest. I also think that by hearing the names of the varieties, and by savoring the way they sound in a performance, it makes us acknowledge and think about the rich differences in varieties, so we can start to see that the “peaches” we eat all have their own qualities. I hope you enjoy it:

About a month ago, when I was first sitting down to dig through the archive recordings to revisit the conversations with the Masumotos and recover this gem of a poem by Mas, my wife Tracy pulled the very last baggie of our 2017 Masumoto peaches out of the freezer. She had spent hours last summer preserving the fruits of our volunteering on the Masumoto Family Farm, and we had been rewarded throughout the fall, winter, and spring for Tracy’s work.

She asked me what I wanted her to make from The Perfect Peach, with our last bit of last year’s peaches. I didn’t hesitate to request the peach shortcakes, which feature a hearty and savory biscuit, a light whipped cream, and of course a generous helping of Masumoto peaches in their own very light simple syrup. As Nikiko suggests in the cookbook, Tracy and I didn’t hesitate to eat this incredible treat with both breakfast AND lunch that day!

And why not? The 2018 harvest has just begun. There will be more peaches and more beautiful peach adventures in the next three months.

Previously in this blog series:
• Creative Quest #1: Beauty in the Central Valley
• A Conversation with Nikiko Masumoto

Quest #1: Beauty in the Central Valley

So first, a collage poem, made from ingredients found in my neighborhood:

What is beauty in this Valley?
That’s hard. What kind of beauty?
It could be any beauty you’d like.
The mountains. Say more about why.
You have a property there, so when you go
it’s your quiet place to get away. Or,
you can go for a short drive. Blossom
Trail, mountains, rivers, creeks,
everything between. You don’t know.

You know. Beauty is a nice person,
someone genuine. It means not littering;
that’s a mentality you can’t believe.
Beauty means … beautiful. Everything’s
beautiful! The first step towards beauty
would be to solve the ugliness. Give me
some examples of what you like most.
Dogs are beauties. When they’re fluffy,
it’s beauty. Beauty comes from within
because you can be very pretty and still be
very ugly. Attitude has a lot to do with it.
Personality, character. Is this you?
You’ll be okay. Can we re-do this? Sure.

You think the people are beautiful. You love
the art, the culture. Beauty … is culture.
The Valley is like a mixing pot of all
different types of cultures and people.
Because you see and understand different
backgrounds and holidays and meanings.
Yeah. You like it when you’re shopping
and you see a woman with her children and
the children just run and scatter everywhere.
The woman’s trying to get them all together. You
find that a beautiful thing. You know, family.
Why is that? Maybe because it’s the trust
and love they have in each other. All in all,
it’s one of the most decent places you’ve seen.

And wait! One of the most beautiful aspects
that we have to offer is the food. We have the very
best fruits and vegetables. It’s the food! Absolutely.
You’ve traveled. You’ve traveled many places.
We have the best. There’s your beauty!

This collage poem is inspired by my first “creative quest” for the 2017-18 Masumoto Family Fellowship, a yearlong opportunity I’ve been given to make place-based art and share creative practices in collaboration with the Masumoto family. It was a real joy to work on.

Here’s a collection of portraits I made of the dozen people from my neighborhood whose stories and ideas inspired the collage poem:

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In response to my desire to make more time to “wander and wonder” in my everyday life, Nikiko Masumoto set up my first fellowship project as a “creative quest.” She designed it as an opportunity for “courageous spirit” with the tools of creation: 4-5 hours of time (I dedicated about 10 hours, by choice); a simple recording setup (I used my iPhone 8 Plus, iOgrapher case, Røde video mic, and a patch cable); a computer with Internet (I used iMovie and YouTube); some form of transportation (I chose walking); and a generous commitment to allow myself to wander and wonder and create. “You already have all the tools you need for this adventure,” Nikiko said in her instructions. “We designed this especially for you, with no expectations. Think of it more like practice or a free-write; it’s a beginning and a process to explore and create. … We hope you will find both generative space and fun as you complete this quest!”

In addition, Nikiko limited me to collecting up to only 20 photographs and up to only 15 minutes of total video or audio footage. She didn’t want the editing process to bog me down too much, so she set some hard limits in that area. (Although, by Nikiko’s guidelines, the finished product was only supposed to be a prose piece that was 1 minute in length when read aloud and a multimedia piece that was 1 minute in length; those limits actually felt like they’d take me more time to comply with, to cut everything down so far, so this blog post runs long and my accompanying video runs about 3 1/2 minutes.)

So the prompt for my first creative quest, in case you didn’t catch it from the start of the collage poem, was: “Beauty in this Valley is …”

Kind of a huge topic, right? Where would I even start?! But not to worry. Nikiko gave me a meditation exercise, then a free-write exercise, and then a focused free-write exercise (which she called “sifting”). At the end of the sifting, I had a list of words and phrases to keep close by as I completed the quest. The list:

Get inside beauty
Craggy, lined, up close
Get close

One of the things I’ve long struggled with — as a journalist and as a storyteller — is the impulse to stay inside vs. going outside. Since I was a young journalist, I’ve faced the scary uncertainties of reporting in the field. There are so many unknowns, and those unknowns have always heightened my social anxiety. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced as an interviewer, and as I’ve moved more into what I consider storyteller territory, rather than traditional journalism, I’ve surprised myself more and more when I get myself out the door and out into the world. Talking to random strangers is still not easy for me and it probably never will be. But my 100 Days, 100 Portraits project and my long-form Q&A interviews for my communications job at Fresno State — especially including this wide-ranging interview with the poets Peter Everwine and C. G. Hanzlicek after the death of their friend, Philip Levine, that I’m particularly proud of — all serve to remind me that talking to people and asking them to share their stories and ideas is always a good thing to do.

This creative quest could have easily been me driving to a place far away, sitting on a bench and watching and thinking, and then writing poetry or a short essay from what I collected. That approach would have been fine, of course. But after doing Nikiko’s prep exercises, I felt an urgency to do what was already in me: get outside and immerse myself in the beauty of others.

I went for a 2-hour walk around my neighborhood. I carried my multimedia gear openly as I walked the streets and randomly talked to strangers. I only “knew” one person — one neighbor on our street that I don’t know well — and everyone else was truly a stranger. I asked them if they’d help me with a project. I made their portrait. And then I filmed them responding to Nikiko’s prompt.

Here’s the short video I made, linked below. I hope you enjoy the beauty I saw in what these 12 beautiful people had to say:

For reflection, Nikiko asked me to complete three very short focused free-writes. (What I’m “sifting” for with these, I’m sure, will reveal itself to me later!) I’m finishing this post by including the free-writes here, with light edits. They feel, in an odd but wonderful way, like a conversation with Nikiko that I haven’t had yet. Or perhaps, it’s an ongoing conversation with the Masumoto Family that has many beginnings and endings.

What happened in your body when you encountered beauty?

At first, I was hesitant in walking up to people. I probably always will be. But I also felt a rush of excitement in approaching people I wouldn’t normally approach. I punked out several times, most notably with my neighborhood donut shop guy, with the first homeless man I passed, with several people coming out of the Fresno/41 Starbucks, etc. But overall, I did walk up to a dozen people that normally I wouldn’t have, and I asked them about something I wouldn’t normally get the chance to ask. I felt joy in the creativity of the moment. Skepticism about who I was and what my project was about seemed to disappear pretty quickly once the subject learned the topic. And I think that immediate honesty and trust also gave me a jolt of joy and confidence. I could tell immediately that this moment of connection meant something, at least to me. Best descriptor of what happened in my body: transformation.

How did the experience of beauty manifest in you?

This is a question that I didn’t really think about before, during, or right after the quest. Not until just now, more than two weeks later, have I considered it. Reflecting, I think my own confidence established a connection with these strangers. It reminds me that we often don’t have a lot of trust for strangers these days, especially random people on the street that maybe don’t look like us. I think opening myself up to the quest gave me an opening into the world around me. The beauty of many of the stories and ideas the subjects talked about was revealed in those moments and felt very present in my own life, as the stories and ideas were being spoken about in theirs. For me, the collection of beauty statements from others created its own beauty, in the assembling and also in the final video. Beauty, I guess, manifested in me simply as presence.

How did you know you found something beautiful?

To be honest, I feel like I kind of knew that every person would share with me something beautiful, no matter what they said or how it all fit together. Even the ones that seemingly didn’t say much, or the ones who may have seemed shallow or simple at first, really shared something immediate with me. There’s a true beauty in the sharing. A few people, I immediately sensed, in walking up to them, that it was going to be a beautiful encounter, even if difficult. Some, I knew as they were speaking that it was beautiful. For some, I think they were trying really hard to say something profound and meaningful, and in trying to do that they cut themselves off from being fully present; those moments I mostly left on the cutting room floor. The video camera can turn us into actors, you know? But for the most part, there was a moment, a spark, a glimpse, a nugget of beauty in all the footage and in all the encounters. Even the uhhs and umms had beauty, to me, both as humor and as laughter, but also as a reflection of real humanity and uncertainty and presence. In brief: I think I found beauty with every stop, every subject.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the results of my first creative quest with the Masumotos!

Cary Park water temporarily stopped, but now continues to flow

As of today, the broken sprinkler head on the SE corner of Cary Park continues to release water steadily into the gutter. It has been one week since I first noticed it, and it has been 5 days since the leak was reported to the city.

As of today, the broken sprinkler head on the SE corner of Cary Park continues to release water steadily into the gutter. It has been one week since I first noticed it, and it has been 5 days since the leak was reported to the city.

This past Friday, as I left the house, I spotted two white City of Fresno trucks in Cary Park. Repairmen were looking at the sprinkler heads, two days after my initial blog post about the daily watering of Augusta Street. When I came back in the afternoon, the busted sprinkler head at the SE corner of the park, which had been quietly releasing water into the street since at least the start of the week, looked like it had been dug up and presumably repaired. At a glance, the curb looked dry. I then posted a tweet saying that the city appeared to have fixed and adjusted the sprinklers. I felt happy and relieved. The city said it would fix the problem and it looked like they did.

But then I noticed on Saturday that a bigger plume of water had formed in the gutter alongside Holland School. On Sunday, I walked over to check it out and I was heartbroken to trace the source: The same busted city sprinkler head at the edge of Cary Park was again flowing. And it’s still flowing today. I’m not a landscape guy, so I’m not sure how these kinds of repairs work, but it seems like this water leak must be coming from somewhere deeper than the sprinkler head at the surface. I’m not sure when the city plans to come back. I hope it can be fixed soon, so I can get back to focusing on not-watering my own (mostly brown) yard!

Local journalist Joe Moore and the news team at Valley Public Radio have invited me to come on their Valley Edition program on Tuesday to talk about “drought shaming” and my blog posts from last week. Also appearing will be city spokesperson Mark Standriff, as well as someone from the state water board. I’m looking forward to seeing how the conversation develops. The show airs live on FM 89 from 9 to 10 a.m., and the re-broadcast airs from 7 to 8 p.m. I think our segment is scheduled second, and it’ll run for about 15 minutes or so.

In the comments section of my second blog post last week, Mr. Standriff invited me to ask more questions about the city’s water plans. He pointed to 10 “water conservation representatives” that the city apparently has on hand to respond to residents. Among other things, I’d like to know more about what exactly those folks do. (The Fresno Bee less flatteringly called those 10 city employees “water cops” in their Sunday cover story on the drought.) If the VPR segment runs short, I’ll post more questions here so that Mr. Standriff and the city can respond in full and so that others can chime in too.

City pauses overwatering, blames the homeless

So first, the good news.

After I wrote a blog post yesterday calling out the City of Fresno for its daily watering of Augusta Street alongside Cary Park, a wide range of friends and strangers on Facebook, Twitter, and in local media responded by sharing, retweeting, and engaging with the story. This morning, as I made my morning walk, the sprinklers were off for the first time this week and the city’s overwatering of Cary Park was paused–for now.

Now, the bad news.

As my new video above shows, there’s still a busted City of Fresno sprinkler head on the SE corner of Cary Park, where the water has been leaking into the street 24/7 for at least four days. The broken sprinkler head is on the edge of the park where people with cars–including city vehicles–often drive over the curb and onto the park’s grass. Local journalist Mariana Jacob and a news crew from ABC30 captured the quiet gusher in action yesterday as well, as part of their story on the challenges of water wasting that both the city and others are facing. It aired last night on ABC30’s 11 o’clock news.

Here’s what upsets me about the city’s response. In the ABC30 story, the city’s public works director, Scott Mozier, blames the homeless for the broken sprinkler head, rather than accepting responsibility himself. He says: “People [are] vandalizing and breaking into boxes to be able to get water out of the system, and sometimes that’s damaging the irrigation system.”

The homeless? Really, Mr. Mozier? Yes, the city’s public relations strategy for owning up to its own water wasting and lack of oversight and prompt fixes to public parks seems to be to blame the homeless, some of the most vulnerable people in our city, a group that our mayor and city manager saw fit to flush from downtown in a series of removals the past two years. A friend of mine on Facebook yesterday commented that he’d heard from neighbors near Einstein Park that sometimes the city would run the sprinklers in that park all night in order to keep the homeless from sleeping there. I thought that might have just been a rumor, but perhaps giving the city the benefit of the doubt on having such a strategy would be too kind.

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So, let me be clear.

First: Dear city, please come and fix this gushing sprinkler head in Cary Park. Mr. Mozier told ABC30 that when fixes are reported, “We will be jumping on that. If there’s a repair that needs to be made, we’ll make it happen.” How about today?

Second: Dear city, own your mistakes and stop blaming others. If the city’s high-paid communications director, Mark Standriff, is asking local journalists (like VPR’s Ezra Romero, in the above photo’s Twitter exchange) to give the city a chance to have its voice heard, it better be ready to point the finger at itself when necessary.

Finally, as the city prepares to move us to “Stage 2” watering restrictions on Aug. 1, which will include fines for violators who run water unchecked into the street, I ask this question: Is the city prepared to fine itself the state-mandated $500 per day for mistakes like this broken sprinkler head in Cary Park, as it seems poised to fine residents?

The city says to call 559 621-5300 to report problems you see with the city’s water wasting in parks and medians. I say, take them up on it.