Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Regaining Visual Contact

I’ve pretty much pared my physical book collection (library?) to art titles and tours de force, and one of those tours is the nine stories that comprise The Jules Verne Steam Balloon by Guy Davenport.  (Available for astonishingly cheap thru Amazon.)

As I was updating my website and thinking about new blog topics, and, of course, sex is always topic numero uno, I happily remembered the plenteous sex scenes in the Mr. Davenport’s book, and their joie de vivre descriptions—among a million and one additional virtues contained within the stories—including wit, erudition, and a breezy, accessible style—which I haven’t the ability to do justice to, other than enjoy. For example, a scene of, shall we say, spirited and enthusiastic  coupling climaxes with something to the effect of “and she came like a brass band passing the royal box on Liberation Day.”

Hasta luego.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Summer reading: Jenni Rivera and Sam Pink

Books by Jenni Rivera (Unbreakable, an autobiography) and Sam Pink (Rontel, a novel) were my reading recently. 

As a child, Jenni Rivera knew she wanted to be a performer. She was smart, talented and pretty, almost a baby face, but she was SO street.  A Latina growing up in tough, workingclass,  multicultural neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area, and throughout her life right up to the very end, she was a fighter.  She’d fight girls as well as boys, women and men, with fists and objects and words.  As she describes in her autobiography, trouble always seemed to find her, manifested in bad choices of boyfriends and husbands (very bad, in some cases), misplaced trust, and just plain negative shit.    

A memorable passage in Unbreakable describes a teen mom, with a 3-year-old daughter and pregnant with a second child, no dad in the picture, living in a converted garage, no car, getting up at 4 a.m. getting herself and her daughter ready, securing the little girl in the child seat on a ten-speed bicycle, and then peddling to the child care center, then across town to her community college classes, and then to her job.  And dreaming of being a performer.

Improbably, she rose from these unglamorous beginnings to become “the most acclaimed Spanish-language singer in the United States.” This young mother became a powerful force in Mexican American culture, playing to sold out crowds at Staples Center, Gibson Amphitheater, and other venues in Los Angeles. 

Her popularity spread across the country (and in Mexico), and her story—the tough Chicana from Long Beach, California, who raised five kids with or without fathers around, the obstacles she overcame, (more than a few of her own making) and her songs, composed and recorded in popular Mexican music styles—resonated profoundly with Latino audiences, particularly women.  They adored her.  Her records sold in the tens of millions.  Later, in addition to musical enterprises, she starred in reality television shows, and was beginning a movie career when, in December of 2012, she was killed in a plane crash in Mexico on her way to a performance.  She was 43.

Unbreakable is, of course, a show business autobiography, released after her death, and there is a lot of promotional b.s. that I’m sure was added by other hands. And the book is explicit in its descriptions of events and relationships.  Jenni Rivera’s ritmo and style in her music is not necessarily evident on every page of the book, but her life is a hell of a story.  

While Jenni Rivera was a Latina with a fierce desire to succeed and live large, the narrator of Sam Pink’s novel, Rontel, is a 29-year old white male, single, no kids, no ambition, who lives, minimally, both in the middle of Chicago and deeper still in his twisted imagination.
The novel opens on the narrator’s last day of work, he has been laid off.  He shares an apartment with his brother (living on unemployment) and seems to be a somewhat depressed and perpetual slacker.  Except for when he’s with his girlfriend (she works and has her own place!) he’s got a lot of time on his hands, and the book is a bizarre odyssey of listlessly looking for a new job as he travels the public transportation system of Chicago, and a crazy album of the people he encounters.  The narrator combines outrage, resignation, and anomie, all at the street level—and not Bling Street either, not Pimpmobile Street; no, these streets are down and out street, and burnt out Brains Street, and missing teeth street, and crazy people street.  And he gives the damaged their due. He can discuss pot pie with the best of them. 

Unlike Jenni Rivera channeling her anger into performance, Pink’s narrator internalizes the strange eruptions of (often transgressive) imagination, like mental asides in the apocalyptic drama in his head. Some examples:

I got off the Blue Line train and went down the stairs into the transfer. In the long, tiled tunnel between the Blue Line and the Red Line, I imagined flames slowly building at each end of the tunnel, with no time or way for me to get out on either end. So I just stand there screaming and flames fill the tunnel.


Paying for my food, I imagined myself accepting change from the cashier then floating sideways out of the sandwich place. Just, out the door and up into the sky. Not too fast, not too slow. With enough time to fully enjoy it.

And sometimes he goes way off on a polluted stream of sick consciousness. For instance, he sees a dead cat in the street, mangled in such a way it looked as though someone had run over the carcass, had “peeled out” on it, in fact.  And then his mind takes over:

That seemed funny to me—someone “peeling out” on a dead cat. And for a few seconds, the thought of someone peeling out on a dead cat made me completely lose my mind. Anybody in Chicago could’ve robbed me or murdered me or whatever and I wouldn’t have known what to do. Insane!

This is alterity similar to the brain stem flowering in a Robert Williams nightmare.  Now the obsession and the afterburner thrust to the next level:

Couldn’t stop thinking about someone “peeling out” over a cat carcass. And how I’d have to watch, even if I closed my eyes to it. How the mouth of the cat carcass would shake terribly at me as the tire spun. And how, yeah, it’d be fucking awesome if a magic key came out of the cat’s shaking mouth—a magical key that took me on a magical journey and ended up, somehow, with me being born as a baby eagle but like, with the mind I have now (why not).

Who would, just out of nowhere, think of that?  That’s the level of innovation of Mr. Pink, superb at recreating the rhythms of speech among the burnt-out cases his narrator travels among, and nicely confident at the controls of seemingly runaway mental train.  (Also of note is the re-creation of a post-fight interview with a heavyweight boxing champion, a tour de force of inflection, timing, and description.)  There’s a spontaneity to all of it that seems effortless and improvised, but I’m here to tell you, it can only be done by an artist, and it takes a lot of work.

I enjoyed both books.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Shoppe Talk at the Mermaid Tavern

Refreshing as a summer cloudburst stalled in daylong masquerade, I’ve received a profusion of literary and visual art: fiction, non-fiction, visual essay---the lyrical prose, the intellectually attractive thought, the lovely photographs. Some are still in production, some have been out for awhile, and some have just been released.  (The three discussed below fit in one or the other of the latter two categories.)

Rebecca Solnit  The Faraway Nearby  This book length essay is a meditation about personal vulnerabilities, family challenges, the ends of things, the beginnings of others, apricots, meth, Che Guevara, Buddhism, Iceland, surgery, Mary Shelley, leprosy, and more.  The topics extend independently for awhile and then cross with others, run parallel, come together, separate, like a series of trails in an accessible wilderness. And the author is an intelligent guide, there is grace and beauty in the writing, and occasional virtuosity, such as when she contrasts ecstatically benevolent feelings induced by methamphetamine with the destructive side effects:  “It’s as though you dug your grave with what you thought were wings.” 

Joseph Keppler:  Rewriting a Presocratic Chorus/RemixingVerbal + Visual Lines A beautiful, illuminated meditation, just released.  Different from his previous E-ratio expositions, in that it is not in essay or discursive form, but rather in what he calls fragments--brief statements, phrases, observations, mystical, profound, banal, didactic.  The fragments are “interwoven” with artwork, a familiar Keppler presentation trope, drawings, photographs and graphic designs elucidating the text.

Paul Forte:  Visual Thinking & Cognitive Exploration   Deeper into the trees of theory and artspeak, this essay briefly reviews the history/timeline/scene of "conceptual art." He quotes Arthur Danto, at the time a prominent critic and expositor:  “Artists today are an especially serious group of what one ought properly to think of as visual thinkers.” But then quickly expands the universe, from artists to everyone, turning “aesthetic experience” into “visual thinking,” the new, digitally enriched thinking being expostulated about on the web’s smarter sites.

In discussing Rudolf Arnheim, Forte notes “But visual thinking, according to Arnheim, is hardly limited to the activities of artists.  It is a capacity that we all share, artists and lay people alike, and may be the only form of thought capable of engendering productive understanding on a broad scale. ‘Visual thinking is the ability of the mind to unite observing and reasoning in every field of learning.’” 

So, in addition to its erudition, the essay teaches a change in the art world mindset affecting the digital transformation happening around the world.  Plus, with Forte as with Keppler, there’s a terrific bonus: you get examples of the art embedded in the text.  Fine work. 

A precept attributed to Chinese painter Fu Baoshi is that a person should be drunk when creating art.  Rebecca Solnit, Joseph Keppler, and  Paul Forte, drunk or not, and all of us artists, we are finding our places in the nano/micro/insta/digital/globalization meme. With the capability for a work of art to be created and sent to any screen anywhere in the world, it can’t be helped. 

I like to think about my place in terms of appeal, or potential appeal, to screenviewers. What am I creating that would appeal to the truck driver in Belarus, the dental assistant in Afghanistan, the philosopher in New Zealand, the movie director in Rwanda, the box partition specialist in Vietnam?  What attracts attention to anybody’s screen, anywhere, in tents and campers and trailers, in homes and apartments, mansions and shacks, in unincorporated areas or in cities, Paris, Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago, Berlin, Dallas, Rome, New York, Tokyo, London, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Cairo, Johannesburg, Bogota, Lima, Mumbai, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Manila, Shanghai, Mexico City, Nairobi, Kinshasa? 

And of the cities listed above, taken  from a list of the “Top 25 Cities for Young People,” the continental locations break down as follows:

·         Six in North America
·         Five in Africa
·         Five in Asia
·         Five in Europe
·         Four in South America

Have a great week.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Joseph Keppler: “Philosophy, history, and art at the present moment seem to me alive with beautiful surprises.”

I thought about what I wanted to express in this post and I could only come up with two words:  gratitude, wonder.  Joseph Keppler has a beautiful new illuminated essay.  I’m enjoying the languorous buzz of summer. I uploaded a new sequence in Summer Session ("But Yeah No Honestly") and the three other projects I’m working on are proceeding unhurriedly. Amazon figures in two of the them—I’m going round and round with the Kindle Publisher on-line previewer, an issue that came out of the blue and is delaying one project (publishing a friend’s novel); and then, learning Kindle’s comic creator is part of the second project (collaborating on publishing a friend’s book of photographs). The final project will outcome with an ebook of the lyrics and  poems written and performed publicly by another friend of mine.  I'm in the research phase, but, without having any real kind of an OK from anyone or even beginning to go through the proper channels, I’m just working at it intermittently right now.  

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Cool Out of a Cellar a Mile Deep

“I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world.”
------from a letter written by John Keats

I admitted earlier that I was reading John Keats while simultaneously watching television, a talent I haply discovered to be illustrative of a concept, attributed to Keats, called “negative capability,” which to my understanding means the ability to remain serenely focused amidst the loud chaos of the world. 

For example, the sporting events on TV and cities from which the events were telecast included:  baseball, soccer, lacrosse, racing (bicycles and motocross, thoroughbreds and quarter horses, NASCAR and Formula One (horsepower!), golf, tennis, Chicago, District of Columbia, New York City, Ruidoso, London, Denver, Detroit, Utrecht, Oakland, Daytona, Halifax, Vancouver.

Yet, in a grandiose display of negative capability, I was enjoying a collection of Mr. Keats’ letters while players grunted, engines screamed, and crowds roared. 

For those who don’t yet know, and to reinforce what others do know, Mr. Keats was a poet from the Romantic period of English poetry that began in the very late 18th century and carried into the mid-19th century.  His letters reveal him to be amiable and ambitious.  He intended to, and did, make a name for himself (remarkably, in an awfully short life—he died at age 25) among the lofty pantheon of his contemporaries—Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Samuel Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. (How fortuitous is that?  All those English Lit icons alive at the same time, and in some cases, socializing with each other.) 

Each created literature that, 200 years later, continues to be required reading for millions, maybe billions of people on this big, beautiful planet called Earth. (In my opinion, however, and to my poor brain drenched in 21st century speed media, in addition to the immortal, Big Time poetry, there is no small amount that is incomprehensible: prolonged, jungly, convoluted and often referencing goddesses and muses and myths that are all but archaic.  And in Mary Shelley’s case, I find her fiction, Frankenstein for example, and her travel writing superior to any verse of hers I’ve read.)

Mr. Keats posited three “axioms” about poetry.  The third---if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all—I’ve quoted in previous posts but I wasn’t familiar with the first two.

His first axiom is stated this way:  “I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; it should strike the reader as a wording of [the poet’s] highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”

And his second:  “[The poem’s] touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight.”

A “fine excess” that leaves the reader “breathless”:  that’s the standard by which all writers should be judged, and all readers should expect, wouldn’t you agree? 

It takes some of us 60 or 70 years to reach the levels of poetic understanding and the meaning of life attained by Keats in a mere 25 years:  “O there is nothing like fine weather, and health, and Books, and a fine country, and a contented Mind, and diligent habit of reading and thinking, and an amulet against the ennui — and, please heaven, a little claret wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep.”  John Keats---cool out of a cellar a mile deep.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Family. Friends. Freedom.

All the latest breakthroughs in pharmaceuticals and exercise and diet are keeping me alive for another day.  (I remember when the horizon was endless and incomprehensible; now the Verizon is wireless and there are many, many plans from which to choose the one perfect for you and every member of your family.)  So here goes.

In reading from the kelp wrack of writing about the imminent death of reading and writing, one encounters thoughtful observations that connect authoritarian control of “the people” to the lack of critical thinking caused by the deliberate devaluation of the written word.  This condition has been popularized by the phrase “amusing ourselves to death,” that so long as we are agog in hermetic world of social media, and breathlessly keeping up with the Kardashians, we are paying scant attention to the personal infringements on liberty and the environmental depredations  being created and perpetuated by the ruling class. We are arresting ourselves.  Eric Hoffer wrote:   “Those who are awed by their surroundings do not think of change, no matter how miserable their condition.”  So bring on the circus, the games, the festivals, the must see t.v., the hash tags, the tweets, the retweets.  It’s all good.

It is possible, however to watch t.v. and read, for example, John Keats. 

 John Keats / John Keats / John / Please put your scarf  on.”

I imagine Keats, and his contemporaries Percy and Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron sitting at the CafĂ© Calypso on Avenida Del Mar in San Clemente, California.  Mary might have written something like: “I thought the food was probably going to be ‘just ok’ however when my Breakfast Croissant was delivered, I was pleasantly surprised. It was perfectly warmed slightly crunch on the outside and the ham was generous as was the provolone and tomato which blended together into yummy bites. I loved my sandwich. My husband chose the waffles and he gave me a bite - they were warm and had just enough syrup, whipped cream and fresh strawberries. The guys had the Breakfast Bagel and the Breakfast Sandwich and the pitaya bowl. These are picky eaters and they all commented several times how much they enjoyed their food.”

And now that we’re in verano puro, there’s a new entry in Summer Sessions.