Thursday, May 31, 2007

Poetry Challenge - NEWER VERSION POSTED JUNE 2 Link to it below

Link to Summer Poetry Challenge Rules by clicking here.

I would like to propose a summer reading challenge. It's easy in one way - the reading assignments can be quite short, it might be challenging in others.

This occurred to me today as I was posting a comment to Daniel in response to her reading of The Good Soldier at her great blog A Work in Progress. Poems do things with words that prose does not - that might seem obvious - but we pretty much all use words everyday and have a certain expectation of how they're meant to be used - we're supposed to explain our point clearly and, generally, economically, if possible. But poems use words purely for the sake of structure, texture, sound, how they look on the page, their aim may not be clarity but instead obscurity, poking fun, doing what we're not supposed to do, or expressing private matters in a secret code. We pretty much accept that paint and clay can be used non-representationally, we know that space can curve, that light can be conceived of as both a particle and a wave, but when words challenge our expectations...

See the rules by clicking on the above link and, meanwhile, here's one I enjoy:

The Wrong Way Home
- James Tate

All night long a door floated down the river.
It tried to remember little incidents of pleasure
from its former life, like the time the lovers
leaned against it kissing for hours
and whispering those famous words.
Later, there were harsh words and a shoe
was thrown and the door was slammed.
Comings and goings by the thousands,
the early mornings and late nights, years, years.
O they've got big plans, they'll make a bundle.
The door was an island that swayed in its sleep.
the moon turned the doorknob just slightly,
burned its fingers and ran,
and still the door said nothing and slept.
At least that's what they like to say,
the little fishes and so on.
Far away, a bell rang, and then a shot was fired.

Jeff Buckley - Dido's Lament

Jeff Buckley Lament, as promised

Lament for a Genius - (Jeff Buckley - Live at the Green Mill)

My friend Sheila over at The Sheila Variations had a great memorial post to Jeff Buckley the great rock troubadour, who died ten years ago, remembering a concert she and I attended together at the Green Mill in Chicago. Not only the best live performance I've ever attended -period - but most influential one for me as a an acting teacher and director. My memory of that great evening was that it started with a depressed woman with very talented hair singing songs of doom to open the show. Every bit of her exuded gloom - her diction was depressed, her outfit was depressed, never mind the songs. She invited JB up on stage to do the final song with her. He reluctantly gave up his position at the bar where he'd been drinking a too much tequila, still in his overcoat, slunk up to the stage, and sat on the floor with his back to us so that she would have the limelight for the end of her set.

When JB and his band got up on stage they tuned and suddenly photographers were everywhere, shooting pictures which made Buckley very self conscious. I should just say that I'm going to take the liberty of imagining some of the thing's Buckley thought, and I could be way off. The tour was for the release of his then new album - Grace. He riffed vocally for a while with no words - just 'ah' - until they stopped taking pictures, he seemed to hate the photographs, The first several songs he could not find his footing, he would sing a piece from the album and would feel it was lifeless and just moan to us "God this sucks. I'm so sorry. I wish I could give you all your money back." It was agonizing to watch. He was a performer that was all about being with the music at this one moment in time that would never come again. His tour was about publicity and performing the same pieces over and over again like he did on the recording, but because he'd said some stupid thing to Rolling Stone or MTV - some really influential media outlet in music they threatened would cost him any future publicity- he was kicking himselft and censoring himself and just couldn't get past it. He was not meeting his own standards. He apologized after every one of the first few songs and then, I believe it was on Leonard Cohen's Halleluiah, he started the song and then quieted the band and began riffing a capella - I believe it was on the line "it's a cold and it's a broken Halleluiah" - I think he just couldn't stand not being with the music any more. He improvised for at least five or ten minutes on that phrase until he finally found his way to the moment he was in - disappointed in himself, in the conflict created by career and art, in love with the music, and finding that new moment in a song he's performed 100 times. I've always thought that that was the job of the artist - not just a live performer, but a painter or a writer too. It's the part of the work that is hardest in some ways. I'm obsessed with artists' creative processes, how we awaken ourselves to the moment we're in rather that the moment we think we should be in - because of our artists' expertise - about the right words or the prettiest notes - we get sidetracked and start trying to get out of the lousy moment we're in (which is the actual pay dirt) and instead get to some "better" thing we think should be there to make the song or the character or the sentence good, right, funny, brilliant - or in some way appealing to our vanity. That struggle is a tough one - it's a daily war for an artist - and the thing that always amazed me was that he fought that battle right in front of us. When I think of the really great performers I've seen - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in concert (Alex Ross at The Rest is Noise who always has great writing on music, has some excellent posts on Hunt Lieberson), Kim Stanley on film, Billy Crudup in Waking the Dead, Geraldine Page in almost anything at all - that's what they all do. It's an act of courage really - to strive to be your imperfect self in front of everyone.

The rest of Buckley's concert was like being under a spell. It's sad that there is not more music to be heard from him, more of that haunting voice, great taste in songs (he sang Pink Floyd like Rock ballads, Edith Piaf, Benjamin Britten - stupendous stuff), and that we can't see him continue to wage that battle. I'm sure it would have been beautiful.

And what is more fitting than having him sing his own lament (let's see if I can figure out how to post this recording and slide show). Hah! I've succeeded, it's above. "Remember me, but ah, forget my fate." How apt.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Happy Weekend

Off to my partner's grandmother's 90th birthday party and a long weekend with the family (and hopefully a fair amount of reading - I want to get a running start on Bleak House for the Summer Reading Challenge (see below, I hope that's not cheating), and I have tons of reading to do for the autism research I'm working on. More on that later.
Danielle at A Work in Progress has some nice stuff posted on Katherine Mansfield's diaries, if you want to continue on that theme (and I do!). I've linked to her blog on the Blogs I Like list.
See you Wednesday.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Transformation Courtesy of Katherine Mansfield

One of the reasons I love French film (aside from the fact that the characters always have to find parking spaces and they're constantly eating) is how I see the world after viewing them. Certain film makers use the camera not to make the world more perfect that it really is, but to see how perfect this world is, and that stays with me when I leave the theater - if it was a really good film, all day long. Great documentaries can do this too, like the great double feature Film Forum showed about the artists Kiki Smith and Agnes Martin back in January, or the absolutely amazing John Cage and Merce Cunningham one of my favorites. You sit in their workspaces or their homes with them and the film renders them as objects of utter fascination. I love watching John Cage, one of music's most controversial composers, rinse the grain that he is about to prepare in the kitchen of his loft. But I'm digressing, the point is that the world seems different after watching them. French films often make me see a brick wall or hear the sound of a shoe clocking on the pavement as something new and Katherine Mansfield's Prelude seems to have the same power. I'm nearly done reading it and At the Bay and The Doll's House, in a neat little edition of three Mansfield stories that all feature the same family.

They quote Virginia Woolf on the back cover, who said that she was jealous of Mansfield's writing, and it is easy to see why. The stories remind me of nothing so much as The Waves. It's as though we're watching the world through the eyes of a dragon fly, skimming over the surface of this glassy world and every so often we land weightlessly and pick up a phrase or stark detail that , like a shard of glass, cuts beneath the surface and makes the world bleed, and then it flits on. There is a chilling moment in At The Bay where the mother lies dreamily with her baby boy on a summer day, one minute you're smelling the heat and laziness and the next you hear her thinking that she really doesn't like her baby boy at all, and then the sound of the ocean pulls you out of that thought and on to something else.

I broke open a brand new bag of sencha this morning (I'm something of a tea freak), and I saw the amazing potent green of the leaves and tasted the grassy, nutty tea through the lens of the Prelude. I love that - the world transformed by a story. Mansfield's voice is lyrical but stark, and the volume is slim but not "lite."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Summer Reading Challenge

There's a fun summer reading challenge hosted by Amanda's Weekly Zen and I have accepted with alacrity... and 10 books, (yeah, right):
Bleak House
The Symbolic Species
Memory, Brain, and Belief
Beyond Black
All the Names
The Unconsoled
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
The Author of Himself
Elia Kazan

Shameless Self-Promotion

I am shamelessly tagging myself for this meme (which I always think of as a Me Me!) courtesy of Reading is my Superpower who I enjoy reading.

A book that made you cry: Sula by Toni Morrison - bawled my eyes out in an ice cream store in Pittsburgh.

A book that scared you: The Magus I guess freaked me out would be more accurate. Although it may have been the 16th century castle in Bruges that I read it in. It was haunted.

A book that made you laugh: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.

A book that disgusted you: One of my neuroanatomy textbooks had a section on the part of the brain connected with vomiting (area postrema) and it made me gag - does that count? Interestingly, this part of the brain is one of the few that is permeable to toxins. It is responsible for inducing vomiting in humans but in animals like rats, which are scavengers, and cannot vomit, it is responsible for associating certain tastes with danger. This kind of learning is accomplished in just a single trial (if the rat is lucky enough to survive being poisoned). It accomplishes conditioned taste aversion in humans too, which is the reason you can't eat the food you get sick on for years. Was that too much information?

A book you loved in elementary school: From The Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I still dream of spending a whole glorious night in the Metropolitan Museum without being caught.

A book you loved in middle school: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook - I never had enough of it.

A book you loved in high school: All the President's Men and everything by Agatha Christie.

A book you hated in high school: I can't believe it's true but, A Catcher in the Rye.

A book you loved in college: Franny and Zooey.

A book that challenged your identity: Brideshead Revisited, and I'm just watching the BBC adaptation again - one of the best things ever made for television.

A series that you love: His Dark Materials trilogy.

Your favorite horror book: I don't like being scared, but I remember Something Wicked This Way Comes, being a good kind of scare, romantic with the smell of autumn in it.

Your favorite science fiction book: Maybe this is more horror or psychological thriller but The Man Who Turned into Himself is pretty great.

Your favorite fantasy: Memory and Dream is pretty great and de Lint's voice is a singular one. Also, I admit it, I'm a Harry Potter fan.

Your favorite mystery: I love the early Arturo Perez-Reverte stuff, especially The Flanders Panel and The Club Dumas.

Your favorite biography: Oh my god - one? You have to understand, I love biographies. and I get so into them that I have to check whether and how the person dies at the end if I'm getting into it so that I don't have to end my reading experience with their death: Personal History about and by the remarkable Katharine Graham, Joe Papp, John Adams, and two less conventional ones Rodinsky's Room - a great read - and Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters.

Your favorite “coming of age” book: Shadow of a Man. I love May Sarton's writing and ate up the romance of this novel about coming of age when I was coming of age.

Your favorite classic: The Waves

Your favorite romance book: Maurice.

Your favorite book not on this list: The Goldbug Variations just amazing, but it's dense, give it time!

Long-time bloggers probably hate being dinged the way I hate getting promises of much luck and fortune coming through emailing 9 people some ridiculous piece of drek so, I'll leave this to any reader so moved.

Actually, I lied, I'm ammending this post one day later and dinging two bloggers for this meme. Memes are silly however, they're one way to get acquainted and I'm new to the blogging world and want to meet my community. Also, I want to mix up my worlds - my life mixes arts and sciences - so, I hope you take this in the spirit I intend it - I read you regularly and enjoy your blogs a lot: Jake at Pure Pedantry and Jonah at Frontal Cortex, consider yourselves dinged (dung?) ...but no pressure if you'd rather not.

110 In The Shade - hot, hot, hot

From time to time I plan to write on my theater going experiences, since that has been such an important part of my life. 110 In The Shade is a musical version of N. Richard Nash's 1954 play, The Rainmaker by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt of The Fantastics fame. You will certainly be familiar with the play if you have every been in an acting class. You can't get out of one without seeing someone do a scene from that play. More likely many of you saw the film with Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn. I saw the show a few weeks ago at the Roundabout Theater (linked above) when it was still in previews and it is terrific.

In many ways this is a classic Broadway musical - it's structure is tried and true. It opens with a chorus number, the lead character - Lizzie Curry - has a character-revealing solo in Act I, it has a secondary romantic couple who do a silly dance number, but classical form has never been a fault. It works for Shakespeare. That's one place I really fault Ben Brantley's NY Times review which called Audra McDonald's superb performance "too good" for the piece. He's certainly not off the mark about the quality of her performance - utterly human, compelling, beautifully sung whether lyrical or belt, real deeply-felt acting at every moment - but I think he misses what her performances reveals about this musical. A good performance is not going to change the form of a piece created for Broadway in 1963, however the musical doesn't patronize Lizzie, as Brantley claims, its her father and older brother who patronize her. If you read traditional plot summaries of this piece, they describe Lizzie as an "old maid" and Starbuck - the rainmaker - as a "con man." Sure, those are their stereotypes, and her father is an "old man," and her younger brother is a "rube," BUT if you can get past your expectations of what a musical is supposed to give you - and with many of the performances in this production you actually can - you see a story where those characters belie their stereotypes, and that is what this show is all about. It seems to me this is not a story about an old maid (the point of view one takes looking in on the story from the outside) it is Lizzie's story. She has almost all the music in the show - and as such, this story reveals the experience of the "other." Whether that is the experience of two musical theater-loving boys growing up in Texas in the 1930s , as in the case of Jones and Schmidt (am I reading too much into this?), or the story of a black woman growing up in a white society, as I can imagine Audra McDonald probably experienced - they both speak deeply through the experience of Lizzie, still unmarried because she is bookish and outspoken and taught that that means she is not attractive. Audra Mcdonald infuses each moment spoken or sung with the most deeply human pain and rage, and that's far from being "too good" for this piece, it is rather exactly what it needs so that we can feel this story from the inside and either remember or learn what the pain of ostracism is like. It is a disservice when a society teaches us to judge others merely for their difference from us. It is tragic when that society adds to that corrupting that person's own judgment of themselves, so that they imagine themselves less smart, beautiful or worthy than they actually are.

Other things to enjoy in this worthwhile production are John Cullum's relaxed, hapless father, and a wonderfully understated Christopher Invar (although he sometimes sings under pitch) , as File, the sherrif and another outsider in this story. Santo Loquasto's double-turntable set is very effective - particularly as used by director Lonny Price in one number of Lizzie's toward the end of the show. I also liked the simple disk serving both as the "curtain" and the looming sun of the drought afflicted Southwestern town. The fancy house that trucks in for the early scene in which we are introduced to the Curry family and then witness Lizzie's homecoming, replete with walls and a door, seems like overkill - some furniture on the turntable would have served just as well. And I'll put in a plea you may hear frequently from me: these are talented singers - does the show HAVE to be miked? I hate when a show works so hard to create intimacy with a nicely sized theater and honest performances and then completely throws me out of the experience when their voice seems to come from somewhere else. Finally, I praise the casting of good singers and actors of all races - without respect to whether they are playing members of the same family. The opera world been way ahead of theater on this score for years. It's about time that it becomes common practice on the Broadway stage. Talent is talent and this show is full of it - I hope you get a chance to see it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

First Post Ever

There is probably no one reading this besides me, but the whole point of starting this blog is for me to interact through writing, and I am writing. And I see no reason not to cut to the chase...

I've just come off a two month jag of not being able to read what I want - I'm in graduate school - so the end of the spring term meant one thing for me - books I choose, especially fiction. Rebecca Stott's Ghostwalk was the first. In its early pages you can feel the author trying hard. It boasts not one prologue but two! And the line "it was difficult to tell where your skin ended and mine began" almost scared me off, but I stuck with it. If you enjoy literate mysteries, this one has the ultimate in romantic settings - Cambridge (UK). It satisfies every pop-lit craving you could ask for - stories in twin time periods, the history of Cambridge, romance, animal rights, Sir Isaac Newton, and neuroscience. The voice is a trifle self-conscience, and at times corny, but it is well plotted - a satisfying literary page-turner - and a lovely welcome back to fiction after starvation, if ever there was one.