I saw Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors who died today, at a poetry show with Michael McClure at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City a few years ago. I was awestruck by both legends on that stage: McClure for being a Beat Generation poet and Ray Manzarek for being the most exciting keyboard player in the history of rock, the architect of the "Light My Fire" sound, a key literary/avant-garde scenester of the hippie and post-hippie era, and the enabler of Jim Morrison.
Droopy eyes under the hat. An old, creepy looking man leaning on the bar, crouching like a frail spider among a few smarmy-dressed women. The 50-ish ladies sneered at me when I wandered in off Bleecker and Houston streets on a Tuesday afternoon, but the spider just squiggled his mouth in a thoughtful glance toward me. He then screeched something inaudible to my ears, and his ladies cackled in response like obscene muppets.
I was hungry. That's what I remember most about that day. I had just started a new job in furniture sales and was sending every penny I made back home (which was still nowhere near enough). I had lost weight, but I felt good and desperate. A stranger.
The Bowery Poetry Club was one of my stops, along with Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, the Nuyorican Cafe and the Yippie Museum. By the end of the night I would be in front of a bunch of veteran NYC poets at Big Mike Logan's demand (he pushed me to the stage at the Yippie Museum) reciting my own complaints/poetry after seven drinks on an empty stomach, but I hadn't gotten there just yet. It was only 3 pm as I sifted through all the flyers in the dark, beer-musked Bowery with the screeching spider and his smarmy muppets.
1. The Beat Poetry Happy Hour will take place at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City this Thursday, April 17 from 6:30 to 7:30 pm, featuring Tao Lin, Zachary German, Clarissa Beyah Taylor, Larissa Shmailo, Joy Leftow and, of all people, me playing bongo drums. How, you may wonder, did I end up playing bongo drums? Well, it has something to do with a recent Bowery Poetry Club Beat Poetry Happy Hour I attended. A drummer was struggling a bit onstage, and I casually sauntered over to host George Wallace and said "I can play bongo drums better than this guy."
I meant it in a sort of smart-ass generic way, the way I might also say, for instance, "My mother can pitch relief better than Aaron Heilman". The actual truth, though, is that my mother can't pitch relief better than Aaron Heilman. The actual truth is also that I don't know how to play bongo drums. However, George took me literally and signed me up, so I will fake it as best as I can this Thursday. I will also shout out a poem or two, and if you are anywhere near downtown New York this Thursday at 6:30 I really hope you'll come by. I guarantee it will be fun.
Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a blend of Jewish folklore with detective fiction, a sort of Saul Bellow meets Raymond Chandler. Or maybe if Bernard Malamud wrote haggadic murder mysteries. It begins, as all good noir begins, with the knight-errant detective, a real mensch of a cop named Landsman, called upon in the middle of the night to investigate a mysterious murder. Through the unfolding plot, Chabon draws a richly imagined world of a civilization that never was, a Jewish homeland in Alaska instead of Israel.
Salman Rushdie played the host of last year's event as well, and once again I find his MC'ing skills underwhelming. He speaks with grandiose elocution as he delivers mild chuckle lines about turning off cell phones and feeling old among all the young faces in the room. (To my surprise, Rushdie will go on to deliver the best reading of the night, but more about that later).
The presence of Steve Martin on the bill must have presented a conundrum to the event organizers, since the seasoned humorist can obviously blow any mumbling poet or novelist off the stage. The only solution is to put him on first or last, and the organizers wisely place him in the leadoff spot. The event's theme is "Writing Home", so Martin chooses a chapter from his upcoming memoir Born Standing Up that describes his arrival as an unknown comedian in 1965 San Francisco. His performance is great, of course, especially when he acts out some of the material he originally performed in these North Beach nightclubs. The audience loves him, I do too, and I'm looking forward to the publication of Born Standing Up in December.
Pia Tafdrup, a Danish poet, follows Steve Martin with a few gentle poems about her mother and father. Next is a rare appearance by Don Delillo, who reads a scene from his new Falling Man in which the novel's taciturn hero visits his apartment near the wreckage of the World Trade Center. I'm not surprised to discover that Delillo reads with an unsmiling demeanor and a gravelly voice that complements his written work well.
Delillo is followed by Russian novelist Tatyana Tolstoya (yes, there is some relation, though she is not a direct descendant of Count Leo), who reads a moving narrative, complete with "suffocating stars". Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef makes a strong impression on the crowd, especially when he seems to become lost in reflection while reading about being lost in Paris.
I'm excited to see Kiran Desai, who acts out the charming Chinese-restaurant delivery scene from The Inheritance of Loss. Desai turns out to be a terrific reader, emoting delightfully along with her characters as she reads their words. She's the first performer of the night to actually "project", which makes a big difference in a theater this large.
The best-dressed writer of the night is Alain Mabanckou, a novelist born in Congo-Brazzaville, who looks great in a long white coat and cloth cap. I've been reading a translation of his African Psycho that's just been published by Soft Skull. African Psycho is a bitter and clever tour de force about a devious murderer, with a strong and quirky narrative voice that loudly recalls Albert Camus. I'm therefore surprised when Mabanckou's English translator delivers a gentle, scenic poem that seems completely removed from the violent satire of his novel. But even his smirk belies his scenic words as the translator reads, and I have a feeling this novelist knows exactly what impression he wants to deliver to this crowd.
Neil Gaiman saunters to the mic to much applause, and reads first a dull piece about travelling abroad on July 4th, then a good second-person piece about what to do if you find yourself inside a fairy tale ("If a creature tells you it's hungry, feed it").
Nadine Gordimer is impressive in the penultimate slot, speaking first about the crisis of political and economic refugess in the world right now, then reading a story narrated by an 11-year-old from Mozambique seeking refuge in South Africa. Gordimer is followed by Salman Rushdie, who finally unleashes his considerable talent. His "The Ground Beneath Our Feet" points out that humans have always located themselves on earth by looking to the east, and that words like "orientation" and "disoriented" are rooted in the concept of "the orient". He then asks what it would feel like to allow ourselves to become completely disoriented, to "let go", to exist without moorings, and then as we ponder this he lets us know that we will never find out, because we are afraid. It's a beguiling, melodic performance, a crowd-husher, and I am thrilled to finally discover what Salman Rushdie can do with an audience.
Wednesday night's "big show" ends on a satisfying note, but there is much more PEN World Voices to come.
This is the work of The Movement Group, a very original dance troupe founded by a young woman named Aynsley Vandenbroucke. She conceived and choreographed this 50-minute work, which begins tensely as Dawn Springer, Djamila Moore and Kristen Warnick take tentative steps around a wide floor, muttering the poem's opening lines, "Let us go then, you and I." Typing paper appears as the first symbolic element, as the dancers box themselves in with stacks of blank pages and try fitfully to sleep, until one of them has a burst of inspiration and sends a jet of white papers flying into the air. But moods change again, and they sadly sweep the mess up, embarrassed. Two of the dancers engage in a hilarious dual-voiced pastiche while spinning coffee cups, and eventually the three dancers curl up like crabs, become old, turn into crashing waves and then into spinning mermaids, attempt to hug and touch each other, and finally find peace, falling asleep in three separate spots on the floor.
I am no expert in modern dance, but I found the experience dazzling. I got a chance to ask Aynsley Vandenbroucke a few questions about this work in an email interview this week:
Where did the idea come from? Have other choreographers done work like this?
Well, actually someone (Ariane Anthony) created a dance/theater piece based on "Prufrock" a few years ago. I didn't get to see it, but her work is really interesting. I was annoyed when I found out she was doing it, because I'd had this piece in mind for a few years. For a while, I thought I shouldn't go ahead and make mine because she'd just done one. But then this year, I realized I really needed to make it. And that it would be my own take and style anyways.
Another choreographer I can think of is Alexandra Beller. I think she did a piece related to Sartre's "No Exit". I can't think of other pieces in dance that are built around particular poems or existing works of writing, but I'm sure they exist.
Working on this piece also brought home strong similarities between the art forms of poetry and modern dance. I felt like they're both working with images and essences in a way that is very experiential and not necessarily linear. I think that way of working is the beauty of both forms and also what sometimes makes them hard for new audiences.
Can you tell me about your own personal encounter with T. S. Eliot's poem?
I first read the poem senior year in high school. We had to memorize and recite a few lines for the class. At the time, I thought the memorizing assignment was silly. But then the poem really stayed in my head... I would find myself repeating lines and thinking about it regularly. When I think back on it, it was a lovely poem to have people read as they're about to leave home and high school. It was a time when we were all asking questions, wondering what to do with our lives, how to find meaning.
The poem has always touched me deeply. Here is this man experiencing the nuances and concerns that I feel. They're not so wierd or unusual and they're not made pretty in a fake way. I've always been particularly pierced by the lines about "one turning her head should say, 'That is not what I meant at all, that is not it at all'." This human (and artistic) experience of trying to share what is inside, to be met.
When I first heard that your piece dramatized Eliot's poem with three women dancers, I was wondering what role gender would play. Of course, Eliot's poem is about a man who sees women as somewhat alien -- and yet in your poem it seems the women *are* T. S. Eliot (or, to be more precise, they are J. Alfred Prufrock). Was this gender switch part of the meaning of the work, for you, or was it an incidental choice?
My company is generally all women, just because that's the way it's worked out, not for any particular statement. I too was curious how we would deal with these beautiful young women being parts of Prufrock. At the same time, what I wanted to explore was human experiences that I think transcend gender. I've always related to Prufrock and I've always read his concerns as more universal, fundamental than being about a particular man relating, trying to relate to a woman. We had some interesting discussions in rehearsal about Eliot and his relationship with women. But again, I felt that what he is getting to in the poem is much bigger.
I understand that you are involved in Buddhism (as I am as well, and as T. S. Eliot was too). Do you see "Prufrock" as in any sense a Buddhist-themed work, a meditation upon "desire", and did this play a role in your conceptualizing of the dance?
Yes! For me "Prufrock" is deeply related to a Buddhist focus on awareness of life and death. If I am aware of the preciousness of my life and that it is going to end, I want to make sure I spend every minute of it taking advantage of being alive. Prufrock seems aware of time slipping away and yet he is not quite able to take charge of how he is going to spend it. I find myself constantly checking in during my every day life. Am I worrying about parting my hair? Am I worrying about eating a peach? Is this the way I want to spend my life? If I've only got a short amount of time, how do I want to spend it and what kinds of risks make it worth living?
I've written elsewhere on LitKicks about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. We each have our own favorite poems in the world; this is mine. In fact, the only other poem I like nearly as much is Eliot's later, longer The Waste Land, which has much in common with Prufrock (both deal with the dread of sexual intimacy, both are "purgative" works infused with nearly pathological honesty, and both personify human beings as cities, and cities as human beings).
If Aynsley Vandenbroucke and her talented dancers ever decide to take on The Waste Land, I'll be there on opening night. Till then, try to catch this show while you can.
I attended an interesting display of speed poetry last night at the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York featuring two acclaimed practitioners of the verse form, Paul Muldoon and Brad Leithauser. An eager audience of literati, blogerati and peoplorati had gathered to watch, quietly munching on grapes and cheese or sipping wine, as the two poets nervously typed into laptops connected to QuickMuse.com. The odd experiment made for a good evening of spoken word, and the finished poems aren't bad at all.
Here's an example of the corny: three soldiers on leave pick up two women on a rainy night, and at the end of the night the three guys are dancing in the street because they got kisses on the cheek. But even that turns out to be a great scene.
And there's plenty more. Mainly, the movie reminded me that a serious theme pervades Saroyan's poignant and lilting novel about a farm country childhood. Homer (the eager teenager played by Mickey Rooney) gets a job delivering telegrams. Sometimes they're singing telegrams, but sometimes they're Department of War death notices from the European or Pacific fronts. Frank Morgan (four years after Wizard of Oz) is a dispatch chief who's become a sad drunk because he can't stand typing these messages. Mickey Rooney is the rookie (with an older brother at the front) who has to knock on doors and deliver the news. This amounts to a big and sobering note that gives weight and feeling to this otherwise simply gorgeous and warm old movie.
I definitely recommend The Human Comedy as a new Christmas family movie, if maybe you're getting sick of watching the kid with glasses whine for the BB gun yet again. If you know what I mean.
Oh, and an older Carl Switzer ("Alfalfa") shows up as a neighborhood teenager in a funny scene stealing apples from a farmer.
2. This is probably a contrarian opinion, but I like Time Magazine's choice of "Us" (or, as they put it, "You") as the Person of the Year. I think Lev Grossman does a fine job with the explanatory essay. There's only one questionable moment in the piece, which is when Lev says "We blogged about our candidates losing." Dude, I don't know who you're voting for but my candidates won.
3. The Underrated Writers Project is back in effect! And this time I actually managed to contribute a couple of names.
4. David Lehman, an esteemed poetry critic and anthologist, is guest-blogging every day this week at the Oxford University Press Blog. Good stuff!
5. The 92nd Street Y on New York City's Upper East Side is hosting a 50th Anniversary celebration of Beat Generation literature on January 15, 2007. Guests will include Joyce Johnson, Laurie Anderson, Ann Charters, Bill Morgan and Hettie Jones. Should be an inspiring event.
6. Folks, I'm sort of winding down for Christmas vacation, which I hope to spend in relaxing surroundings (in other words, I'm flying the hell out of New York City). I've got some good stuff for the next couple of days (I think), and then I think we'll put up some poetry for a week. Hope you're all making good holiday season plans too, if you believe in holiday seasons.
She's reading a story called "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall", which is about her mother, her birth father, her love of symmetry, her knowledge of skin coloring and her skill at strip poker. I had to butcher the original video a bit to get it through YouTube's ten minute time limit, but you can view the full text here.
I got to know Leslie better in 2002 when we spent a year together working on the relaunch of an ambitious fine arts site. Our office was on the sixth-floor of an old Chelsea building with an endlessly broken elevator, and Leslie hated those stairs. I wish I had gotten to know her better; she was the chief designer and I was the chief techie, and we were often too busy to talk about anything but work. Here are a few things I remember:
• I won't say she was always in a good mood, but I will say she was always in a friendly mood. She was a people person, a good listener and a good talker.
• She once showed me a bunch of pictures of where she grew up, somewhere in the Appalachian mountain country. I don't remember if she was offended by the term "hillbilly" or not, but Leslie definitely came from deep country roots.
• As a web designer, she had a fabulous client list, and I always had a feeling the clients she didn't talk about were more interesting than the ones she did. I remember her talking about hanging out with Tony Hawk and Steve Burns (the original Steve from "Blue's Clues", who I later met).
• One day she came in to work raving about the movie Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. I remember her practically commanding me to go out and see it immediately. I felt guilty that I didn't and still haven't, but she raved about it so much that every time I hear of the movie I think of her.
• She was a natural onstage (as you can tell by listening to the crowd reaction in the video above). She also joined me for a post-September-11-themed poetry reading at a deserted theater in the Lower East Side in March 2002; this show had a smaller audience but she was a pleasure to listen to.
If you knew Leslie, the video above may bring back nice memories. If you didn't, I think you might enjoy her short story, "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall".
I have been a McEwan fan since reading his Atonement, but I had no idea how popular he was until I found myself at the very back of a crowded room where at least 150 New Yorkers, mostly eclectically-dressed Hunter College students, sat and listened attentively to the author's every word.
He picked a great passage for this crowd: a sex scene in separate male and female voices featuring a British couple on their wedding night. It's 1962 and both Edward and Florence are nervous virgins. They struggle to get their clothes off, and then finally reach a small sensual epiphany together, even if it's not exactly sex. McEwan first presents her side of the story, then his. Their private metaphors cross and complement each other: as they caress each other she hears Mozart quartets, while he has a vision of farming equipment.
The audience loved the piece, and I enjoyed it too. McEwan answered a few questions after the reading, and mentioned that the nuclear crisis of October 1962 was an underlying theme in the sex scene with Florence and Edward. He also spoke of Atonement's upcoming film interpretation, which will star Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. He mentioned that filming was finished, and said that he'd found his participation difficult because the medium of film does not capture the interior worlds of its characters as easily as fiction.
This was the first time I'd seen McEwan in person, and he made a very good impression on me. His demeanor is polite, detached and rather coolly droll, as when he answered a student's long, convoluted question about the process of writing about sex in literary fiction with a single sentence: "Well, there are many positions to take". That was McEwan's whole answer, and a pretty clever one at that.