Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Does size matter?




Forgive the tawdry title. Recently I read a piece by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, August 3, 2015. He is using the occasion of a reprinting of some Max Beerbohm's work to present Beerbohm as Proust manqué. He closes the piece by arguing that there are, really, no minor writers nor great writers, because the only thing that matters is whether a writer is read at all, and that everyone who is read at all is the same 'size'.

Several thoughts on this. My first reaction was very pleased: I often get blocked by judging before I write, namely, judging that what occurs to me is not "great". Which of course it isn't, and a criterion like that is a sure-fire silencer of my own idiosyncratic voice, whatever stature it may have. So, if I am read at all, I am 'great' enough. My second thought was that Gopnik may well be frustrated with his own topping out--that is, that he has risen about as far as he is going to rise. His books are pleasant, he is a regular staff writer at the New Yorker fer gawd's sake, he has written about Paris (which makes him dear to me), and he wrote a fine autobiographical piece, "Man Goes to See a Doctor" about his psychoanalysis, in which he confesses what his readers surely perceived, namely, that he is a narcissist who has some trouble remembering that he needs to make others interested.

And my third thought was, Well, isn't it pretty to think so. Major or minor, great or just OK, there are indeed great writers, and we are not those. We may be good-enough. We may be interesting enough, true enough to say what only we can say. It is a valuable development to be able to write despite not being great, and to be able to tolerate knowing this about ourselves.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Room in the room: ten women I read




 Recently, another online poetry person challenged her readers to name ten writing women they liked to read. Many of the names were of great and well-known women. I had no trouble naming women who write, but I found that naming the women I actually read, regularly, did not produce the same list. So, I give you ten women, living and dead, whose work keeps speaking to me:

1. Hillary Gravendyk--Harm. Hillary lived the same town as I do. She died last year after many years of medical travail, including a failed lung transplant. Her book-length collection deals with griefs of the body as well as anything I could ever wish to write.

2. Mary Barnard--Sappho. Bernard attended, studied, and graduated from the same college as I did. To think that she performed these translations before she was 30 is to sit down hard and sigh. A small book packed with beauty. I keep it on my desk.

3. MFK Fisher--The Art of Eating. O Mary Francis, you write beauty, and you live beautifully, or at least give us hope of doing so. She opens to the reader a world of feeling-full bounty.

4. Virginia Adair--Ants on the Melon. Another resident of my town. She had lived in the shadow of her husband, a gifted history professor who inspired a generation of students and who committed suicide, but not until he had finished grading that semester's papers. Something wrong with that. She had got her work published  before their marriage, then wrote, quietly, until friends sat with her and on her and got her to send poems out again. Immediate acceptance to the New Yorker. Her friends also worked with her through her later blindness, so she could edit and revise.

5. Karen An-Hwei-Li--Phyla of Joy. Ardor. In Medias Res. She packs a punch. I've heard her read. Go find, go find.

6. Wislawa Symborska--View in a Grain of Sand. She was a Nobelist. She wrote from points of view that made me say, over and over, "I wish I'd written that." Funny, heart-wrenching, true as an arrow.

7. Nickole Brown--Fanny Speaks. Another one I came across in a journal I was submitting to. Loved her so much I wrote to her. She sent me her book. I read it three-quarters through before I looked up. How often can you say this about a book of poetry? She was a delightful lunch guest when we gave her lunch before she read for Fourth Sundays. One of her dogs is named Oscar Wild.

8. Kay Ryan--brings the singsong back into poems, in a good way. Her rhymes and chimes surprise and arise to make her point--and there is always a point.

9. Lydia Davis--can't and won't. Prose poems, dreams, short shorts. She loves language(s). Kafka lives.

10. Hilary Mantel--Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. She can write about intelligent perceptive people because she is one. Wotta page-turner. I'll read anything she writes.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

When strange things start to emerge, part 2

 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the great composer and detective, is waiting for his mid-morning repast of cherry muffins when he is visited by the great French detective inspector Charles LeChat. All the muffins have disappeared from Paris, and Inspector LeChat fears that the same fate is befalling Vienna. The culprit may be the nobleman, Don Pastrami, who has been known to sing as the great operatic tenor Apollo Grosso-Fortissimo. After exciting adventures and terrible musical puns, Mozart lures him out of hiding by playing the tiny violin that he played when he was five. Then the great and terrifying scene commences:

Mozart:  "Don Pastrami! I've come to get you!"

Don Pastrami:  "You'll never get me!"

M: "You are the awwwwwful mufffffin fieeeeend!"

DP: "I am!"

M: "Why did you take the muffins?"

DP:  "I did it. I felt like it. That's all."

M:  "You must have had a reason."

DP:  "I didn't have a reason. Go away."

M: "Tell me. Tell me why you took the muffins."

DP:  "No!"

M:  "Tell me!"

DP:  "No! "

M:  "Tell!"

DP:  "No!"

M:  ''Tell!  Tell!"

DP:  "No! No!"

M:  "At least shake hands.......to show.........that you're not chiiiiiicken."

Truly one of the great scenes in opera, children's literature, or anywhere else.
--from The Muffin Fiend, Daniel Pinkwater. Lothrup, Lee & Shepherd, 1986

Friday, July 3, 2015

Lexus Verses & Flow, part 4: Diva diving in



 I didn't get the name of this gorgeous singer. Pamela Johnson? Jackson? Not Pamela at all? in any case, she is serious old-school, digging deep into her songs. Towards the end of the show, when they brought her back on to close things out, we the audience had become kinda tired, and weren't responding the way the sponsors liked to see. The emcee had her repeat her number, not once but twice. On the third run-through, she took matters into her own hands. "Everyone stand up now," she told us, and once we were on our feet, we responded all right, dancing in place, swaying arms overhead (some of us), looking like a live crowd come yet more alive, thanks to her music. I loved this one.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Verses and Flow 2015 by Lexus, part 3: Things I Can't Say



The warm-up emcee knew his crowd. Think about it:  you've pulled together a group of hip urban black people with enough money to be interesting to Lexus. They are out to have a good evening with friends, not necessarily to perform as a studio audience. The warm-up emcee has to gather them as a group into a group, get them having enough fun as a group to relinquish the people they came with. They've already been seated by prettiness or interestingness, cautioned about keeping purses off the very shiny tables. He starts off by miming how tacky it looks to be on TV caught chewing gum. Then he engages some of the more resistant (that is, not attending to him) audience members by the reliable insult-method. Hey man, what's all that? Blazer on top, Air Jordans on the bottom? You don't look comfortable, you just look confused. Then he starts his routine. The crowd loved it a lot. I kept thinking Damn, that's funny, but I could never say it. I mean, I'm a white woman just past middle age. I could not, would not even think of saying Lexus is a good car--faster than a runaway slave! I tried that one on for size, to see if my quoting it here would be racist. My method for doing that is to reconfigure the remark for Jewish people, my people. In this instance:  how would I feel if someone said, "That car is faster than a Jew escaping Dachau." Ya know, I would be fine with it. I would say, "That is one fast car." I hope I am right, because I am going to publish this post--now.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Verses and Flow 2015, by Lexus: Pernickety work



Behind the Siren sound stage in Hollywood sits an unobtrusive trailer, sort of a truncated Aerostar with the sort of perforated metal steps you might associate with sneaking into a factory. The Aerostar houses the crew and equipment that produce the show. Last year the atmosphere was funky, like the saggy sofa over against a wall. (How did they ever get that thing through the doorway?) This year it is sleek and cool, like the efficient climate control that keeps crew and equipment from overheating while they scan every one of those screens in real time. Andrew-do-not-call-me-Andy explains that he has to choose views of performer and audience that convey the flow and mood of the performance and the audience's response, and set them in packages four to six minutes long, to allow for station ID and other FCC requirements. It is not simple to manage the mood and the length and the coherence all at once. Sometimes he gets it by shaving fractions of seconds from different shots. I commented that this sounded like pernickety work. Yes, it is! That is exactly the word I've been looking for! My cousin-escort informs me sardonically that the crew will not thank me, because now they will be hearing this word all day and night. Yes, but getting the right word is worth it. I take one red M&M from the hygienic plastic cup on the console.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Verses and Flow 2015, sponsored by Lexus, part 1



Ya gotta hand it to Lexus for sponsoring this performance series. This is the fifth season that they have presented half-hour shows of performance poets who know who they are and where they are from. The crowd trends under 40, black, and friendly. Thank you, Delvis, for offering me your seat when my heels overcame me, and for offering to get me a drink. It was another exhilarating event. Once again, the color was violet.

Poetry is alive and well and rocking at the Siren!