I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.
When I’m writing fiction, I kind of go seat of my pants. I don’t plan too much in the way of the structure and length of the project because I’m a character-driven writer, and I like to have the character develop the story. It means a lot of revision on my part, but that’s all right. I love revision.
An epic poem, however, needs structure. Besides, I need to follow the actual history of Muir and Mulholland. That means figuring out the structure.
Equally important in terms of structure is the need to make the piece modern. We tend to think of epics in terms of the ancient works. A poet might begin by addressing the audience directly or the king or one deity or another. I like that last one. It makes the epic sacred and the moment of the shared poem more interesting.
But that’s not modern, and I’m writing a modern epic.
The first and biggest difference between the ancient epics and the modern is that my poem is not meant to be oral. I’m sure I’ll read some of it aloud at some point, but I’m a visual poet, and though I might be able to sell a verbal line like “Oh Muses listen to me as I speak the tale of Muir and Mulholland,” I don’t think it will work on the page. A invocation to the audience is likely to come off like the beginning of the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. Not what I’m looking for.
And I need a center to the story.
So after weeks of thinking about this, I’ve decided that the story is going to be told from the point of view of my character Harrison. Harrison is the protagonist from my short story collection, Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods. He’s a modern day forestry worker who travels around California. His son suffers from mental illness, and the story is going to be about what happens when he’s kicked out of high school and the boy’s mother asks Harrison to take him off her hands for a while.
Harrison’s belief is that nature cures all problems, and he’s going to contemplate Muir and Mulholland as he tries to show his son the power of nature. I don’t want nature to be a perfect cure. I think that would be insulting to anyone who’s ever had to suffer through mental illness.
So that’s the structure of the epic. Harrison uses the history of Mulholland and Muir to help him deal with his son’s mental illness as he travels through the backcountry of California.
It will either be a work of genius or it will be a complete failure. I’m taking too many risks here for there to be any middle ground. I hope I have the talent for it, but I really don’t mind failure in art. The art isn’t in the end product but in the living moment as I sit here typing. I’m the Writer-in-Residence at the dA Center for Cultural Arts in Pomona, and I’m writing this blog post surrounded by works of art with classical music playing in the background. This is the moments of art. If I get a nice product out of the project, that will be a great addition, but it’s not why I work.