Before Seven Suns / Seven Moons

Seven Suns / Seven Moons
is a book of surreal poetry I wrote with Tanya McDonald (NeoPoiesis Press, 2016). The book’s final afterword went through several iterations before resolving, with suggestions from NeoPoiesis editor Dale Winslow and from Tanya McDonald, into “Courting the Eyeball Kick: A Short History of Suns and Moons.” What follows are three precursors. The first is “A Short History of Suns and Moons,” originally intended as the book’s introduction, followed by “Courting the Eyeball Kick,” first intended as the afterword. Following this is a combination of the two earlier texts, designed to serve as the book’s afterword (with no introduction). This was also titled “Courting the Eyeball Kick: A Short History of Suns and Moons,” but is referred to in the subtitle below as a “revised afterword.” Perhaps the refinement and condensation of this material will interest those who enjoy reading or studying editorial progressions. These texts also provide additional information about the genesis of our “Seven Suns” and “Seven Moons” sequences that is not provided in the book. From the same book, also see our kasen renku, “Up,” and two rengay, “High Score” and “Torpedo.”

A Short History of Suns and Moons [original introduction]

        “We all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.” —John Lennon

        “Men should take their knowledge from the sun, the moon, and the stars.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

        “The Sun-faced Buddha is good, the Moon-faced Buddha is good. Whatever it is, that is good—all things are Buddha. And there is no Buddha, even.” —Shunryu Suzuki

I wrote my original sixty-three verses for “Seven Suns” over the course of two days, 16–17 March 2009, driven by an idea and structure that caught me by the pen and wouldn’t let go. The poems poured out. Tanya McDonald and I were both at the SoulFood Poetry Night (a reading series I founded, which we later curated together) on 19 March, at which I excitedly told her about my “Seven Suns” poems. I don’t recall if she was curious to see them or if I just inflicted them upon her, but I sent my verses to Tanya the next day, saying “Here’s the ‘Seven Suns’ creation. Not sure what to make of it, or what you might make of it.” It was all still fresh, and I hadn’t figured them out yet, but was reveling in that ecstatic flush of creation.
        On 21 March, Tanya wrote, “Just read your ‘Seven Suns’ collection. Weird, but I like it. Quite a lot, actually. I’m still digesting it, but I had one question, and maybe you explained it Thursday night and I forgot: Is seven suns in reference to something, or could it have been six suns, seventeen suns, etc.? There’s a surreality to it that captures me. Part of my mind is trying to make sense of it, and part of it is content not to. Thanks for sharing it!” Seven suns go by in the course of a week, of course, but I didn’t think of that until years later. In reply, the same day, I wrote: “I picked seven because it’s generally an iconic number in Western culture—a lucky number for many people. Perhaps it could have been any number, but if it hadn’t been seven, I probably wouldn’t have used a number at all. Yeah, surreal and weird, but perhaps it’s doing something of interest. I have no defense or explanation for it.”
        What followed next was a serendipitous surprise. Tanya emailed me her “Seven Moons” poems on 25 March 2009, saying “Even though you didn’t ask for it, I’ve attached my response to your ‘Seven Suns’ collection. I really liked the idea of what you did, so I hope you don’t mind that I used the form to come up with my own version. I wrote it pretty much in one sitting, in this order, and have revised only a few of them (though others need fixing). Anyway, just a little something to distract you from more important things.”
        When I immediately replied to say how much I enjoyed her “Seven Moons,” Tanya wrote the following the same day: “I’m so pleased to hear that you enjoyed ‘Seven Moons.’ I had a blast writing it. It was one of those rare, wonderful times when verses just flowed out. Wish I could flip that haiku ‘switch’ to ON more often.”
        Still energized by what we had written, we decided to try writing more. We wrote the “Up” renku on 7 April 2009, at SoulFood Books in Redmond, Washington, and wrote the “High Score” and “Torpedo” rengay while riding the Walla Walla ferry between Edmonds and Kingston, Washington on 17 April 2009, on our way to the Field’s End Writers’ Conference. It’s a short ferry ride—only thirty minutes—so that’s how quickly we wrote them.
        Here I am reminded of an observation once made by Robert Lowell: “I’m sure that writing isn’t [just] a craft, that is, something for which you learn the skills and go on turning out. It must come from some deep impulse, deep inspiration. That can’t be taught, it can’t be what you use in teaching.” Indeed, sometimes all you need to do with poetry is to be open to inspiration, and then hang on for the ride. That’s what the poems here have felt like for us, and perhaps they will feel that way for you as well.

Courting the Eyeball Kick [original afterword]

It’s worth telling the inside story, I hope, of how this book came to be. As described in the introduction, I composed the “Seven Suns” poems spontaneously, but there’s a story behind the inspiration. The idea arose partly as an extension of my neon buddha poem series (writing many poems with that repeated phrase), and from Allen Ginsberg’s concept of the “eyeball kick,” which he employed with the phrase “hydrogen jukebox” in Howl. My thought was to pick a double-take phrase that wasn’t quite true, thus a little surreal, and then juxtapose each use of the phrase with a (usually) concrete image, ringing the changes as I went along. The juxtapositions aren’t quite random. And yet, as the verses shift here and there, exploring the everyday in deliberately leaping ways, some sort of energy bubbles and boils in the seemingly haphazard pairing of each image with “seven suns.” Some verses even have a sci-fi feeling to them, I think, but range in other directions as well.
        The idea behind the eyeball kick is not just Ginsberg’s of course, since Ginsberg partially got it from haiku. Haiku has employed such juxtaposition for centuries. The term “eyeball kick” has been attributed to science fiction writer Rudy Rucker, who has described it as “A perfect, telling detail that creates an instant and powerful visual image.” Ginsberg expanded on the idea in his longer poetry by using repeated pairings of unexpected images and phrases. To explain in more detail, Wikipedia comes in handy:

Ginsberg . . . made an intense study of haiku and the paintings of Paul Cézanne, from which he adapted a concept important to his work, which he called the “eyeball kick.” He noticed in viewing Cézanne’s paintings that when the eye moved from one color to a contrasting color, the eye would spasm, or “kick.” Likewise, he discovered that the contrast of two seeming opposites was a common feature in haiku. Ginsberg used this technique in his poetry, putting together two starkly dissimilar images: something weak with something strong, an artifact of high culture with an artifact of low culture, something holy with something unholy. The example Ginsberg most often used was “hydrogen jukebox” (which later became the title of an opera he wrote with Philip Glass). . . . The phrases “eyeball kick” and “hydrogen jukebox” both show up in Howl.

        I was driving to work in March of 2009 thinking about “seven suns” as a possible phrase to use for a series of poems. At one stoplight or another, a defined structure occurred to me for how a set of verses could extend this idea, employing the number seven. When that structure came to me, I couldn’t help but start writing. I immediately wrote nearly all of the verses, in the order presented here, employing the “prelude” structure of counting up from one sun to seven suns, then the middle section of seven segments of seven poems each, followed by the “postlude” section counting down from seven suns to one. It was all remarkably in the moment, and even thrilling to watch it all spill out. And yes, I wrote most of these sixty-three verses at work, after writing the first verses in my car—while driving. Good thing each verse was short. But the idea grabbed me so deeply, I couldn’t resist.
        I was jazzed by what I’d written, too, and almost immediately emailed a copy to Tanya McDonald. Imagine my surprise, a few days later, when she responded in kind, with her mirrored compositions using “seven moons”—she too had written a full set of sixty-three poems to match the structure I had used. Tanya’s idea to jump from the sun to moon was a stroke of genius, adding yin to my yang, night to my day. She got it all immediately, and I don’t think the manuscript would have amounted to as much if she hadn’t responded the way she did. As she said in her email message, “I had a blast writing it. It was one of those rare, wonderful times when verses just flowed out.” That was certainly true for me, too, in writing my part of the text.
        I was flattered that Tanya had responded in such an engaged fashion, but more than that, I was fascinated by the impression that some sort of energy in what I had written had caught fire in what she wrote in response. For both of us, it was quick and spontaneous. Or as Anne Sexton once put it, “Those moments before a poem comes, when the heightened awareness comes over you, and you realize a poem is buried there somewhere, you prepare yourself. I run around, you know, kind of skipping around the house, marvelous elation. It’s as though I could fly.” For us, that marvelous elation extended into the writing itself, and for some time afterwards. Less than a month later we wrote the rengay and renku, both again fairly spontaneously, and did so in person—the two rengay on a ferry trip from Edmonds to Kingston, Washington, and the renku at SoulFood Books, in Redmond, Washington, as mentioned in the introduction. Perhaps we tapped into what Robert Creeley referred to when he defined poetry itself as a transfer of energy. Indeed, what a wonderful and mysterious energy the verses seemed to maintain while jumping at right angles with each successive verse, always seeming to surprise—or at least we hope as much. As I said in one email message to Tanya, “I have no defense or explanation for it.”
        Indeed, I don’t know that there’s necessarily any meaning to be gleaned from all of the verses, yet I do hope they come across as more than just a game. Nor do I want to celebrate it merely as serendipitous process, but hopefully as something energetic to read. It’s not narrative, nor is any one verse particularly logical, but perhaps that lack of logicality plays off a fairly rigid structure for how the verses are arranged. Maybe that structure grounds the unexpectedness of each flying verse. The renku form traditionally uses a technique of linking and shifting. The repeated phrases we used provide an obvious link from verse to verse, but we also sought to “taste all of life” the way renku does, as each verse constantly shifts away. This renku technique informs the relationship of verses not just in the “Up” renku but also within the “Seven Suns” and “Seven Moons” sequences, and in the two rengay. However, I was not trying to link the verses at all, and tried my best to avoid that, other than with the repeated phrase. In contrast, I trust readers will find an added synergy in the riffs and relationships, verse by verse, between each successive verse in the “Seven Suns” section when compared with its counterpart in “Seven Moons.”
        While the poems in this book are not necessarily haiku, they’re perhaps on its fringe, and we came at them with haiku minds, minds both steeped in that tradition and open to variation and possibility. At the very least, I hope readers will catch the energy that ended up suffusing our exploration of each sun and moon verse, all interwoven with touches of everyday experience and wordplay, and a dose or two of the surreal. The repetition of the “seven suns” and “seven moons” phrases becomes something like a mantra, too, an arbitrary focus of meditation that may grow numb or even meaningless, and then perhaps reengage the reader who may have to pause consciously on the phrase so he or she doesn’t read over it mindlessly.
        Tanya and I hope the energy with which we wrote these poems catches fire with you also. Embrace the eyeball kick—and don’t blink!

Courting the Eyeball Kick:
A Short History of Suns and Moons [revised afterword]

        “We all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.” —John Lennon

It’s worth telling the inside story, I hope, of how this book came to be. I wrote my original sixty-three verses for “Seven Suns” over the course of two days in March of 2009, driven by an idea and a seven-fold structure that caught me by the pen and wouldn’t let go. The poems poured out. The next day, Tanya McDonald and I were both at a poetry reading, at which I excitedly told her about my “Seven Suns” poems. I don’t recall if she was curious to see them or if I just inflicted them upon her, but I sent my verses to Tanya the following day, saying “Here’s the ‘Seven Suns’ creation. Not sure what to make of it, or what you might make of it.” It was all still fresh, and I hadn’t figured them out yet, but was reveling in an ecstatic flush of creation.
        Two days later, Tanya wrote, “Just read your ‘Seven Suns’ collection. Weird, but I like it. Quite a lot, actually. I’m still digesting it, but I had one question, and maybe you explained it Thursday night and I forgot: Is seven suns in reference to something, or could it have been six suns, seventeen suns, etc.? There’s a surreality to it that captures me. Part of my mind is trying to make sense of it, and part of it is content not to. Thanks for sharing it!”
        I wasn’t sure what to say in response. Seven suns go by in the course of a week, of course, but I didn’t think of that until later. In reply, I wrote: “I picked seven because it’s generally an iconic number in Western culture—a lucky number for many people. Perhaps it could have been any number, but if it hadn’t been seven, I probably wouldn’t have used a number at all. Yeah, surreal and weird, but perhaps it’s doing something of interest. I have no defense or explanation for it.”
        What followed next was a serendipitous surprise. Tanya emailed me her “Seven Moons” poems another four days later, saying “Even though you didn’t ask for it, I’ve attached my response to your ‘Seven Suns’ collection. I really liked the idea of what you did, so I hope you don’t mind that I used the form to come up with my own version. I wrote it pretty much in one sitting, in this order, and have revised only a few of them.”
        When I immediately replied to say how much I enjoyed her “Seven Moons,” Tanya wrote the following: “I’m so pleased to hear that you enjoyed ‘Seven Moons.’ I had a blast writing it. It was one of those rare, wonderful times when verses just flowed out. Wish I could flip that haiku ‘switch’ to ON more often.”
        Still energized by what we had written, we decided to try writing more. The next month we wrote the “Up” renku, at SoulFood Coffee House in Redmond, Washington, and wrote the “High Score” and “Torpedo” rengay while riding the Walla Walla ferry between Edmonds and Kingston, Washington, on our way to a writers’ conference. It’s a short ferry ride—only thirty minutes—so that’s how quickly we wrote the two rengay.
        Here I am reminded of an observation once made by Robert Lowell: “I’m sure that writing isn’t [just] a craft, that is, something for which you learn the skills and go on turning out. It must come from some deep impulse, deep inspiration. That can’t be taught, it can’t be what you use in teaching.” Indeed, sometimes all you need to do with poetry is to be open to inspiration, and then hang on for the ride. That’s what the poems here have felt like for us, and perhaps they will feel that way for you as well.
        As spontaneous as our “Seven Suns and “Seven Moons” poems were, there’s still more of a story behind their inspiration. The sun poems arose partly as an extension of my neon buddha series, writing many poems with that repeated phrase as a sort of personal mythology. It also arose from Allen Ginsberg’s concept of the “eyeball kick,” which he employed with the phrase “hydrogen jukebox” in Howl. My thought was to pick a double-take phrase that wasn’t quite true, thus a little surreal, and then juxtapose each use of that phrase with a (usually) concrete image, ringing the changes as the poems went along. The juxtapositions aren’t quite random. And yet, as the verses shift here and there, exploring the everyday in deliberately leaping ways, some sort of poetic energy bubbles and boils in the seemingly haphazard pairing of each image with “seven suns.” Some verses even have a sci-fi feeling to them, I think, but range in other directions as well.
        The idea behind the eyeball kick is not just Ginsberg’s of course, since Ginsberg partially got it from haiku. Haiku has employed such juxtaposition for centuries. The term “eyeball kick” has been attributed to science fiction writer Rudy Rucker, who has described it as “A perfect, telling detail that creates an instant and powerful visual image.” Sounds like haiku to me. Ginsberg expanded on the idea in his longer poetry by using repeated pairings of unexpected images and phrases. To explain in more detail, Wikipedia comes in handy:

Ginsberg . . . made an intense study of haiku and the paintings of Paul Cézanne, from which he adapted a concept important to his work, which he called the “eyeball kick.” He noticed in viewing Cézanne’s paintings that when the eye moved from one color to a contrasting color, the eye would spasm, or “kick.” Likewise, he discovered that the contrast of two seeming opposites was a common feature in haiku. Ginsberg used this technique in his poetry, putting together two starkly dissimilar images: something weak with something strong, an artifact of high culture with an artifact of low culture, something holy with something unholy. The example Ginsberg most often used was “hydrogen jukebox” (which later became the title of a song cycle composed by Philip Glass with lyrics drawn from Ginsberg’s poems). . . . The phrases “eyeball kick” and “hydrogen jukebox” both show up in Howl.

        I was driving to work thinking about “seven suns” as a possible phrase to use for a series of poems. At one stoplight or another, a defined structure occurred to me for how a set of verses could extend this idea, employing the number seven. When that structure came to me, I couldn’t help but start writing. I immediately wrote nearly all of the verses, in the order presented here. I was jazzed by what I’d written, but Tanya’s idea to jump from the sun to moon was the real stroke of genius. It added yin to my yang, night to my day—the pairing of the two parts itself like an eyeball kick.
        I was flattered that Tanya had responded to my verses in such an engaged fashion, but more than that, it fascinated me that some sort of energy in what I had written had caught fire in what she wrote in response. For both of us, it was deliriously quick and spontaneous. Or as Anne Sexton once put it, “Those moments before a poem comes, when the heightened awareness comes over you, and you realize a poem is buried there somewhere, you prepare yourself. I run around, you know, kind of skipping around the house, marvelous elation. It’s as though I could fly.” For us, that marvelous elation extended into the writing itself, and for some time afterwards we still felt like we were flying. Perhaps we tapped into what Robert Creeley referred to when he defined poetry itself as a transfer of energy. Indeed, what a mysterious energy the verses seemed to maintain while jumping at right angles with each successive verse, always seeming to surprise—or at least we hope as much.
        Indeed, we don’t know that there’s necessarily any meaning to be gleaned from all of the verses, yet we do hope they come across as more than just a game. Nor do we want to celebrate these poems merely as serendipitous process, but hopefully a poetic product that’s lively to read. It’s not narrative, nor is any one verse particularly logical, but perhaps that lack of logicality plays off a fairly rigid structure for how the verses are arranged. Maybe that structure grounds the unexpectedness of each verse as they fly here and there.
        The renku form traditionally uses a technique of linking and shifting. The repeated phrases we used provide an obvious link from verse to verse, but we also sought to “taste all of life” the way renku does, as each verse constantly shifts away. This technique informs the relationship of verses not just in the “Up” renku but also within the “Seven Suns” and “Seven Moons” sequences, and in the two rengay. However, I was not trying to link the verses at all, and tried my best to avoid that, other than with the repeated phrase. Tanya mirrored that stance in her verses. In contrast, we trust readers will find an added synergy in the riffs and relationships, verse by verse, between each successive verse in the “Seven Suns” section when compared with its counterpart in “Seven Moons.”
        While the poems in this book are not necessarily haiku, they’re perhaps on its fringe, and we came at them with haiku minds, minds both steeped in that tradition and open to variation and possibility. At the very least, we hope readers will catch the energy that ended up suffusing our exploration of each sun and moon verse, all interwoven with touches of everyday experience and wordplay, and a dose or two of the surreal. The “seven suns” and “seven moons” phrases become something like a mantra, too, an arbitrary meditational focus. They risk growing numb or even meaningless with mindless repetition, yet perhaps these phrases also reengage readers who pause on each phrase consciously to keep from reading them unthinkingly or without feeling. Marvelous elation!
        Tanya and I hope the energy with which we wrote these poems catches fire with you also. Embrace the eyeball kick—and don’t blink!