The cavernous beaux-arts building, clad in stone, steel and glass, was demolished in 1964 to make room for a plain modernist complex including an underground train station, a skyscraper and Madison Square Garden. The travesty of this loss is the subject of a heartfelt children's book, Old Penn Station, written and illustrated by William Low. The author's lush and warm paintings pay tribute to the lost architectural masterpiece by imagining them back into being. I got a chance to ask William a few questions about Old Penn Station recently.
Have you gotten a good response to this book? Are you surprised by any of the reactions?
I've had a terrific response to the book, especially with the artwork. The book took over three years to complete, so I am naturally proud of the way that it came out. However, I am surprised by the emotional response to the book. The building was torn down forty years ago and yet the outpouring of sadness and anger continues to amaze me.
Do you think this book appeals differently to New Yorkers and non- New Yorkers?
At first, I'd say yes, especially if the reader is a New Yorker who remembers the original Penn Station or has visited its crowded, underground replacement. For non-New Yorkers, I hope that the art will draw them into the story.
But I hope that this book will not be perceived as a New York book, because Penn Station really is a symbol of a broader change in America. Many believe that the destruction of Penn Station was in part, a result of changing times and attitudes during the 50's and 60's. During this age of the suburban house, many cities suffered when its middle-class residents moved out of the city. Long distance rail travel also suffered when travel by plane became affordable. This had a direct effect on cities and railroad terminals on a national scale.
What words would you use to describe the architectural vision of the old Penn Station? (note: I know you describe it in "kid-speak" in the book, but how would you describe the visual/artistic appeal in "grownup-speak"?
Grandeur comes to mind. That's something that adults can understand. But my focus is really on the child's perspective, and I would imagine that the station must have been an imposing, scary place because of its size. Converting this massive architectural space into a kid friendly place was tricky ... and I decided to focus on light and the effects of the changing light instead, to make it less imposing, more magical.
Are you a "train freak"? Do you find that trains and train stations have always been a big part of your sensibility, or is it just that there is something special about Penn Station?
My father had a Chinese hand laundry in the Bronx next to the elevated number 6 Pelham train. I used to sit for hours by the front of the store reading comics, drawing and watching the train go by. I guess that makes me a "train freak." When I was in high school, I had a part time job in a store in Grand Central Terminal and I fell in love with this space.
This was during the mid-70's, when the homeless slept in the Terminal's waiting room and it was a pretty scary place at night. The financially strapped Penn Central Railroad wanted to overturn the Terminal's Landmark status, to clear the way for its development and possible demolition. Protestors (including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) stopped traffic on Park Avenue South, determined to save Grand Central Terminal from the fate of Penn Station. That was the first time that I heard about this station and upon further research, I rediscovered the original Pennsylvania Station and my heart was broken by its loss.
Do you think the proposed relocation of Penn Station in the Farley Post Office across the street will be a success? Are you excited about it, or do you have mixed feelings about this attempt to replace what was lost?
I have mixed feelings about this project for a number of reasons. I don't know if the new station will ever be built, given the cost and size of the project. Of course, I welcome any change and I would even tolerate the inconvenience during this new construction. But the Farley Bulding is on Eighth Avenue; the station will go further west. That extra block makes a big difference in terms of accessibility, convenience and ease of use.
What are some of your favorite works of classical architecture in New York City that have not been torn down?
Grand Central Terminal is at the top of the list. I just love the restoration and the attention to detail. As a Long Island commuter, I am jealous that we do not get to pass by this incredible station on a daily basis.
What are some of your favorite train stations in cities other than New York?
I've been to the magnificent Amtrak station in Philadelphia and the Union Station in Washington D.C. is also terrific. One day, I'd love to visit the large train stations in Europe.
You can see more of William Low's work at his website. You may recognize his richly expressive painting style if you've ever seen the classic Penguin paperback series of John Steinbeck novels for which he once painted a series of evocative and memorable covers.
But it's his own city that brings out this author's deepest convictions, and Old Penn Station stands as a personal statement about the importance of great public artwork for young growing minds. William Low will be signing copies of this book at Books of Wonder in New York City on Saturday, May 19 (information can be found on on the store's website).
I'm in the Brooklyn home of Danny Simmons, artist, novelist, poet and creator of HBO's groundbreaking Def Poetry. Danny's living room is like an art gallery -- no, it's like three art galleries all packed together in one room, and the good-natured eclectic chaos I see around me reminds me of the welcoming attitude of the long-running TV show I'm here to ask Danny about.
Danny doesn't seem to care if anybody thinks of him as a media mover-and-shaker or not, but the facts speak for themselves: the only successful TV show about poetry ever created has just begun its sixth season on HBO. But Def Poetry wasn't born from a business plan or a power-lunch napkin sketch. It grew and evolved out of a nucleus of Danny's friends, who would gather and perform open mic's at art galleries (visual art seems to be Danny's original passion) in the early 1990's.
1. Sander Hicks, my favorite political rabble-rouser and coffeeshop proprietor, has launched a new print -- yes, print -- muckraking publication with the appealing title of The New York Megaphone. Last I heard, Sander was running for Governor of New York, and then he was running for Senator. He might not win either, but I won't fault a guy for trying. Once again, go Sander!
2. Some people have let me know that I should clamp down on poets who over-post to our Action Poetry page, but I like what Nasdijj is doing with his SEXWORK series too much to be the bad cop. In fact, I like everything that's been posted on this forum recently very much -- am I wrong or is Action Poetry on a major roll lately? If I were slightly more insane, I'd start thinking about another book. First, I've got to take a few more vacations.
3. According to Syntax of Things, the much-wondered-about new film of Bukowski's Factotum may actually exist, and might even hit theatres sometime this millenium.
4. I missed the chance to beat up on Lev Grossman's Time Magazine article, "Who's The Voice of This Generation?". I guess there's little point to doing so now, as several other people have already handled this task. But I must wonder: why do people write articles like this? Why, why, why? Generations are not real things.
4. I'm not the type who gets my picture taken at chic art gallery openings, but I did turn up at the Jen Bekman Gallery where a series of artworks inspired by Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency are on display. I'm the big lug in the khaki shirt in this photo.
5. I'm going to try to catch Cynthia Ozick, whose visage I have never apprehended within the plane of reality, Wednesday at 7 pm at the Barnes and Noble on 86th Street. I'll be sure to file a report if I get there.
My Name Is Red isn't Orhan Pamuk's most recent book, but it might be his best. This is a surprise because Snow was so good, but in fact the books make a great pair. One is as current as yesterday's newspaper and paints a frozen world of whites and grays, while the other takes place in 1591 and bursts with color and pure vision. Both books are classics, in my opinion, but My Name Is Red is the bigger book, and reaches for the grander statements.
Orhan Pamuk has a calm and modest demeanor, but this book is much a tour de force as anything Chuck Pahlaniuk's ever written, and it's nearly as manic. The book is mainly a murder mystery, set among a highly exclusive community of artists, soldiers and politicians in Istanbul at the height of that city's golden age (the Sultan himself even makes a cameo appearance in this book). The best painters in the Ottoman Empire work here as manuscript illuminators, or miniaturists. They are treated like celebrities, and their talents are viewed as mystical expression of Islamic ideals by their customers and fans. But the artists struggle to find their artistic boundaries, because their religion disdains representative illustration, which they all indulge in, as a form of vanity.
Much of the dialogue in the book revolves around this problem, and in this sense My Name Is Red is similar to other works that encapsulate religious debates, like T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral or Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Pamuk, however, is clearly more interested in art than in religion (he used to be a painter himself), as are most of the characters in the book. In fact several of them are literally crazed by the beauty -- and the forbidden vanity -- of visual art.
And one is more crazed than the others, because he starts killing people. That's the setup, and the murder plot gives the book plenty of forward momentum. But it's Pamuk's literary intelligence that raises this story to a much higher level than that of, say, a Turkish Da Vinci Code. Pamuk always writes with great control, and in this book he carries on a unique narrative conceit, allowing the story to unfold in a series of connected vignettes told in first person by each of the main characters in turn.
The first character to speak is the corpse of the murder victim. We then hear from a soldier, the woman he loves, a dog, each of the artists, a Jewish matchmaker, a horse, Satan, etc. As a writer, Pamuk probably got this idea from James Joyce and Ulysses (the vivid sex scene that closes the book, told in the voice of earth mother/mystical wife Shekure, recalls Ulysses as well). But, as an artist, Pamuk may also have borrowed this idea from Pablo Picasso, because his narrative has the same concise super-logical effect -- seeing the world from God's point of view -- as one of Picasso's Cubist paintings.
An overly clever narrative technique can doom a book where it doesn't belong, but this unique approach is a perfect match for this story, which is all about seeing. When the story finally reaches its crisis, I am pleased to report the surprise ending does deliver a strong punch (and it was better than any of the surprise endings I'd guessed). Here, the book begins to feel like The Alienist by Caleb Carr, as we approach the inner mental state of the killer and discover the secret object of art he has been hiding from the others, which he killed to protect.
I was also intrigued to discover a short chronology of Ottoman history at the book's end, which explains that one of the book's characters, the aging master artist Osman who yearns for blindness as the ultimate proof of sublime vision, is based on a real person. There is also a suggestion that another key character is based on a historical figure named Velijan, but Google turns up nothing about this name and I suspect Pamuk is just getting metafictional with us again.
I have a lot of respect for Art Spiegelman, a manic-depressive comic strip artist and writer who holds nothing back from his craft. In the great self-effacing tradition of Robert Crumb, a Spiegelman comic is always "too much information", splattering personal urges and anxieties and weird notions around like a loose garden hose. But the best confessional comix artists have the artistry and wit to make the splatter beautiful. Spiegelman's graphical autobiography promises to be a deeply personal document, and it's off to a great start with the first two sections.
One reason I relate to Art Spiegelman is that he grew up about three and a half blocks from where I live now, in sunny Rego Park, Queens. I know this because Spiegelman drew a map of his street as part of the back cover of his signature work, Maus. Maus is the terribly sad and odd true story of Spiegelman's parents (who could have been role models for George Costanza's parents in Seinfeld, except reality beats fiction). Both were holocaust survivors, but Spiegelman's father adopted an infuriatingly contrary, almost cheerful tone about the experience, which apparently taught him important survival skills (but also made him cruel to women, emotionally dense with his son and generally crazy). Spiegelman's mother, on the other hand, never recovered from the shock of the camps. She committed suicide when Spiegelman was a young man. He had been recently released from a mental hospital when he walked home one day to find police cars outside his house. This was how he found out about his mother's suicide.
As a friend to many of the Beat Generation authors and characters, Graham was always willing to share a story or a bit of knowledge whenever anyone had a question. He was also an adept storyteller in his own right, recounting many events, such as this one about the famed "Beat Hotel" in Paris. These great stories are not only a pleasure to read, but provide a link to that piece of literary history. Graham was also integral in helping LitKicks to present one of our best features -- a 1970 original recording of Corso reading BOMB. Graham was generous in helping us put this together with his audio and images and we feel it's a great testament to not only his spirit, but also his desire to keep art and poetry alive.
As did a few others here, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Graham in person, and he was just as kind and friendly as in his postings or email. He will be missed as not only a resource on Beat history, but also as a friend.
We'll pass along any memorial information if/when it becomes available. In the meantime, consider checking out the Jazz Foundation of America, a cause that Graham was involved in recently through this site. Please share any thoughts or memories of Graham Seidman, his art or stories here.
There are only a few photos on Coupland's site relating to this story, however, my daughter was kind enough to offer this dramatization of how the exhibit might appear. If anyone makes it to the real exhibit (which will run through November), we'd love for you to tell us all about it.