Author Archive

01 August
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These are a few of my favorite…

Bruce Norris’ play A PARALLELOGRAM, which is playing through August at the Taper, contains many of my favorite things: time travel, birds, and Mary Louise Burke.

Time travel: I’m a sucker for the idea that we can and do and will be able to surf the zones. Soon.

Birds: Who doesn’t love a beautiful bird? The British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem the “Windhover” said it best: “My heart, in hiding/Stirred for a bird/The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

Mary Louise Burke: is an old timey and deeply delightful NY stage actress. As a stage presence she has both gravity and grace.

The play is getting “mixed” reviews, which is what prompted me to write this, to let our MPW community know that the play is worth seeing.  I almost missed the gorgeous/subtle production of Nina Raines’ TRIBES – I saw the penultimate performance—  so I couldn’t get the word out and many people missed it.

But this one? Don’t miss this one. Even if it sort of annoys you (as it did my two companions) or if it completely delights you (as it did me)—it contains not only Time Travel, Birds, and Mary Louise Burke—it contains IDEAS about fate, Karma, agency, mental illness, relationships, love, and what language is good for—almost anything it turns out.  And it reminded me of this subtly profound Ashbery poem:

At North Farm

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

Click here for info on tickets.

P.S.:

Here are M.G. Lord’s thoughts on the play, as posted on her FB page:

I loved Bruce Norris' A PARALLELOGRAM at the Taper. It might be about a woman losing her mind. But I prefer to see it as about a woman realizing the shortcomings of the human race and how much better life might be after an apocalyptic event that wiped out most of humanity. Of course, I am not an entirely reliable source: I cheer for the Cylons in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

02 July
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Past Lives

PastLives1Amy Gerstler & Alexis Smith recently spoke about the art of collaboration at the Honor Fraser Gallery in Culver City.   This installation is part of a larger exhibition, one that focuses on Portraiture.  They re-mounted part of their show “Past Lives” which is a psychically charged stage set that creates the effect of a mythical classroom. There are more than a dozen children’s chairs, all of them beaten up by generations of children.  The text on the wall summons up the commingling of past and future—there are horoscopes and hints to the Fates of all of these children. A blackboard tilts in one corner of the room, full of cryptic writing in strong slanted penmanship.

Of their collaboration, Alexis Smith said that she and Amy summon up or create a third person – and this person is the real artist behind the work. “We make-up a third person, who is not a collage artist or a poet,” Alexis said.

That idea of a persona who is a sculptor, and who comes into being because these two are collaborating, is such a fanciful idea.  It’s also a perfect way to think about the combined forces that these two artists generate in making this Magic Schoolroom.

ALEXIS SMITH’s work has the kind of wit that undermines the status quo. Her collages always seem to use language, and to summon up great writers.  Indeed “When I met Alex she was only working with dead writers—Whitman, Raymond Chandler, Borges, Longfellow, Kerouac,”  Amy said.  Amy said that she wanted to hang out with Alexis, but the only way that could happen was if she worked with her on a project.

“She worked all the time, and I realized that I wouldn’t get to hang out with her unless I collaborated with her,” Amy said, revealing the foundation that I suspect is at the heart of every true collaboration—affinity.  Part of that affinity probably has to do with Alexis’ immersion in writers.  “Over time, the images beat out the words,” Alexis said.   Later she said “I want to see what I can do without the words.”

A thousand startling juxtapositions animate her pieces.  It’s an eccentric (a word that Alexis Smith used) body of work, an insistent one from what I’ve seen, and it makes demands on a viewer.  You have to put a kind of mental pressure on the images and language for them to release their often funny, always critically sharp, punchlines.  The pay off is often that feeling of consolation that someone else sees the inherent absurdity in certain manifestations of culture and capitol and the types of manipulations that we are all prone too, since we are so often in a prone position as consumers.

The audience included the MPW class on Ekphrasis that I taught….and once again the word Ekphrasis came up for discussion.  It is a pretentious-sounding word, but it is an accurate one, one that means “description” in Greek. And, after all, as Wallace Stevens noted “accuracy of observation is the equivalent of thinking.”  Amy noted that Alexis’ process is a sort of “reverse ekphrasis.”  This brilliant observation drew no response from the audience but bafflement, but I know what Amy meant.

Both Amy Gerstler and Alexis Smith are profoundly inspiring and startling thinkers. To see the collusion/collision of their sensibilities, you need to see it in person.  And to linger—and to read the wall text which will reveal to you the whimsical darkness and levity that Amy Gerstler is so good at capturing:

Has no morals. Suffers from migraines. Refuses to bathe.

Talks all night. Broke new ground. Lost 50 pounds. Hates her

Name. Humiliates his children. Can’t sit still. Published

Eighteen novels. Can’t eat seafood. Lies to everyone. Gets lost

often.  Finds motherhood fulfilling. Succumbed to smallpox. Sees the

future.

 –wall text from “Past Lives”

PastLives2

19 February
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Patti Smith in Los Angeles

In his book “A Bright and Guilty Place” Richard Rayner writes that “cities have characters, pathologies that can make or destroy or infect you….”   This phrase came to mind when I went to hear Patti Smith speak and sing at USC.  I associate her with certain places and times— New York City, the Chelsea Hotel, the punk scene….but then, too, with Detroit, where she raised her children.

Josh Kun asked Patti Smith what place Los Angeles occupied in her imagination.   She said that she first saw it through the eyes of her mother, who loved Hollywood. She also mentioned the influence of hard-boiled Los Angeles writers—from James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler onward. She mentioned that she loves the nicotine-gum chewing detective from “The Killing” so much that Sarah Linden is the screensaver on her computer.  When I told my friend Dawn Prestich, who is an Executive Producer on “The Killing,” she was thrilled—she texted me that “Patti Smith is now our screen-saver!”

Los Angeles figures as a place in the imagination through a blend and a whirr of associations.  Geography, immigration, inheritance and new technologies were the perfect mulch-bed for Hollywood. There is also Noir—that distinctly Los Angeles sub-genre.   Rayner describes noir as “on the one hand, a narrow film genre, born in Hollywood in the late 1930s when a European visual style, the twisted perspectives and stark chiaroscuros of German Expressionism, met an American literary idiom.”  He goes on to say that it is also a “counter-tradition, the dark lens through which history came to be viewed, a disillusion that shadows even the best of times…”

Patti Smith went on to talk about her love of the materiality of books: “the feel, the tissue, the paper, the frontispice”—I am reminded of a short essay that she wrote for the New York about shop-lifting a book from a New Jersey supermarket.

She also talked about what Josh Kun called her references, but what I understood to mean her influences:  “I mix freely,” she said.  “I take what I like from different worlds and try to make my own world. I look to work that makes me want to work—work that agitates me.”

She said that as an artist she feels “sort of dogged…I can’t relax. I always want to photograph– I always want to translate–” I always travel with a small notebook, and as she spoke I was trying to keep up with her, trying to write down the sense and gist of her phrases. We weren’t allowed to record or photograph that night, so this is written from those notes and those impressions—of course I did see many people in the audience covertly taking photos or recording on their little easily hidden devices.

Patti Smith spoke about loss and love—and how emotions and experiences get transformed into art.  She spoke of losing her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, and her mother and her dog—“they’re all gone.  I’ve lost them all.  But as I lost people I thought I can still talk to them. Because they’re still here—a host of happy, scolding spirits.”

As she played “Because the Night” she invited the audience to join in.  She said that she’d always hated it when she was at a concert and the singer cajoled the audience. “Now I’m doing it,” she said.  She also said how she still felt the love and tenderness and lust she’d felt for her husband when she sang “Because the Night.”

After she sang, after she spoke, after the event ended I was walking my dog Violet across campus.  We crossed paths with Patti Smith.  When I introduced Violet to Patti Smith, she kissed Violet on the head and said “Beautiful name.”  Yes.  Then she asked me “Do you want a pick?”  YES, I did, and she handed me a guitar pick. Here it is, and here is Violet:

“I don’t like meeting my heroes,” MG Lord said to me when I told her this story. I didn’t really meet her, I said, Violet met her. I just happened to be there when it happened.

13 July
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Sapphire and Influence

Last year, when poet and novelist Sapphire visited USC, we asked our students to come up with questions for her visit. The students had read Push, Sapphire’s “underground classic” that was made into the film Precious.

One of the students wrote:

“I was surprised and touched to see a quote from the Talmud in the introductory pages (of PUSH): “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’”  I love this quote because it really almost undermines the Job-like quality of life within the book.  While Precious should curse her maker for her life, she is astoundingly resilient.  I have to assume that’s at least part of why this book is so popular.  The Talmud, while old and full of wisdom, is not oft quoted by lay persons.  Where did you come across this quote and what does it mean to you?”

I don’t know which of our MPW students wrote this question (if you read this blog post, let me know!)  but it goes to the heart of so much about writing practice, and it also speaks to the presence of influences in Sapphire’s new book, The Kid (Penguin 2011).   Precious’ journey is so much about coming into language, learning to read, to write, to articulate her experiences, and she becomes influenced not only by her teachers and classmates but also by poets such as Lucille Clifton.  The Kid’s protagonist is Abdul Jones, Precious’ child– and he inherits his mother’s love of story and of the word. His journey is harrowing…indeed The Kid makes Precious look like Anne of Green Gables.   Sapphire’s influences–the poets Ai and  Gerard Manley Hopkins,  Flannery O’Connor, Basquiat, and many others– hover above and below the surface of the text.   When I read The Kid I thought about the challenge it’ll raise for many readers, even sophisticated ones.    I also thought of John Cage’s  response to some of the questions that his compositions raised in the mind of a harmony-loving and bereft audience: “I am going toward violence rather than tenderness, hell rather than heaven, ugly rather than beautiful, impure rather than pure — because by doing these things they become transformed, and we become transformed.”

Sapphire will be reading from THE KID reading at Eso Won Books on Friday, July 22.

17 June
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Cartography, Context, Debuts

I have always loved opening up a book and seeing a map.  The map’s a promise of a world, a landscape.  “Terrain determines tactics,” is one of my favorite quotes– Kenneth Burke said it, and he’s talking about context.  Place is context.

Two books by recent MPW graduates have crossed my desk in the past week, and both have to do with place. The first is a collection of short stories by TONI MARGARITA PLUMMER,  “The Bolero of Andi Rowe”  (Curbstone Books, Northwestern University Press, 2011).

When you open this award-winning first collection, there’s a  hand-drawn map of Los Angeles and its environs– the San Gabriel Mountains looking as mystical as the mountains that the Fellowship of the Ring charts.  Underneath the San Gabriel mountains is a webby network of freeways– the 210, the 10, the 605, the 5, the 110.

“Inez Suarez didn’t have a man…No, what Inez Suarez had was Los Angeles,” notes the narrator in “All the Sex is West,” the third story in the collection. It’s an impressive debut, with a blurb from Sandra Cisneros on the cover  (see below)

The other book is a collection of poems by BRIAN McGACKIN, entitled “Broetry”   (Quirk Books, 2011).  This first collection of poems has some riffs on canonical poems– nods to William Carlos Williams (see cover, below) as well as Frost et al.  But there are homages and contemplations of Los Angeles, as in this poem, “The Clown Outside the Furniture Store” which catalogues a list of neighborhood characters including:

The guy twirling a Little Caesar’s Pizza
sign on the corner of Lankershim and
Vineland. Two of the five homeless dudes who
hang out under the overpass….
….
My Jiffy Lube guy. Jessica Alba.
All actors. This town is ridiculous.”
…..
So add two MPW graduate takes on Los Angeles qua Los Angeles.