Category Archives: The Writing Life

QUA BECKETT?

WHY Samuel Beckett?

In the spirit of full disclosure:

I love his work.

 Anne Carson said “I love Beckett. Especially his face.”

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I recently met Rick Cluchey,  founder of the San Quentin Prisoners Project and Beckett’s friend, and now my friend. Rick is in his late 70’s. He lives in Culver City in an apartment full of memorabilia. He, like Beckett, was a boxer, and he still has a wirey build and tattooes. He’s passionate about theatre and about the capacity of theatre to create redemptive experiences for the spectator and for the participant. Rick’s thoughts and ideas re-animated my connection to Beckett, and this forum gave me a chance to think about Beckett once again, in a new context.   This blog….. READ ON!

 

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HOW THINGS END

Dear Reader:

I am obsessed with endings and have been gathering them in magpie-like fashion for many years. Not that I have formalized that obsession, I have not, these last lines are in my head and they occur every now and then. That being said—good endings have changed my relationship to reality because they proffer elegant mini-solutions to that final conundrum that Kierkegaard set out at the opening of Fear and Trembling: How did I get into this and how do I get out of it again? How does it end?  

This is story-anxiety, of course, it is the anxiety that things end, that they must, and that there might be a way that an ending in art is sort of a dress-rehearsal.

My favorite first lines are always one that begin Dear Reader.

My favorite last lines are diverse, and at the end of this essay-qua-letter I’ll list them. Meantime, I’ll depart from the letter that I never wrote and still have not written, because there is a distinction between last lines and final images.

First lines, in a play, are titles.   Titles are important because as playwright and performance artist Holly Hughes, when asked how she titles a play, said, “I work backwards from the press release.”  In the East Village theatre scene of the 90’s (where I first met Holly) most theatres didn’t have a way to advertise.  This was way before the internet Now.  If you weren’t under the institutional arm of a major theatre, and most of us were not, then you posted flyers at bookstores, clubs and cafes and left handfuls of postcards around town, and in the lobbies of other small theatres.  You had to have a title that drew in the potential, that expanded in the mind like one of those small pellets of paper that drop into a glass of water, something that resonated and haunted the mind.  At least that was the idea. You worked backwards from the press release, that meant the title.  Titles can be either notoriously difficult for people—or easy-breezy, as mother says.  A title is a kind of first line.

Theatre is a time art, so we don’t get that final line/image/utterance until we’ve endured the rest of text/performance. Of course with reading you can skip ahead and around, probably someone (Dear Reader!) may have abandoned this altogether and skipped to my end-of-the-line list.  In a live performance there’s no fast forward.

So that’s on the table: to work backwards from the final image—image, not utterance.

Although final lines of plays are usually a fusion of utterance/action  (which can also be inaction, as Beckett shows us again and again and again.)

Disparate endings/beginnings:

John Cage: Begin Anywhere

Bishop: I let the fish go

Ellison: Who knows, but on some level, I speak for you

Beckett: (stage direction) Repeat Play

FINAL THOUGHT: How did I get into this and how do I get out of it again? How does it end?—Kierkegaard

 

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)
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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.
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Keeping It Real at the Festival of Books

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is a miracle of sorts—of the many ways to read and write in America in 2011.  In the midst of celebrity authors (Jillian Michaels, Rainn Wilson, Ted Danson, etcetera) and the local grass-roots contingent and hardcore, high-end literati, I hosted a panel called Teaching Kids Writing.  Due to the increased marginalization of the arts in the national curriculum, it has fallen to nonprofits and arts organizations to create outreach programs that preserve and nurture the arts as well as create unique experiences that only arts education can provide.

DSC_0947-1CROPPED_1Melinda MacInnis from the University of Southern California’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative talked about the genesis of her program, which began after the 1992 L.A. Riots:  “Years ago, when L.A. was literally on fire, USC had a choice—to build walls around the campus, or to reach out into the community. USC reached out.”

Melinda brought two students (pictured) to read from their work.  Joslynn Cerrato, an 11th grader from Foshay Learning Center, read a short essay called “I Am American”  and Vanessa Lopez, an 11th grader from Manual Arts Senior High School, read a poem called “Feeling Blue.”

Michelle Meyering, from the writers’ advocacy organization PEN Center USA, introduced her program, which brings writers into schools. Two of our Master of Professional Writing students, Amie Longmire and Krishna Narayamurti, brought in three students from West Adams Preparatory High School. Teresa Meza read a  memoir, “I Was Wrong”; Domonic Flowers’ poem, “Save Me a Spot in College,” was a college application essay written in rhyme; and Natalia Zepeda’s short story, “Snow Woman/Ice Queen,” was riveting—all in all these young writers brought down the house.

Krishna talked about the three goals he and Amie presented—to be better writers, to be published, and to be brave. The last injunction, which was about BRAVERY, was an interesting one because we do talk about the risks involved with writing our truths, our stories.

Because writing is itself, as Gandhi reminds us, “an experiment with the truth,” the very act of writing can be an act of discovery.

Culture Is Always Arising

LH_Lear_Rothko-21-225x300When I lived in Cambridge, Mass., I had the good fortune to live around the corner from Lewis Hyde and his wife, writer Patsy Vigderman. Lew was recently in Los Angeles to talk about his new book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, and television legend Norman Lear held a book party in his honor–this is a snapshot of Lew in front of a happy Rothko that hangs on a side-wall in Norman Lear’s very large home.

Common as Air is Hyde’s third book. His first two (The Gift and Trickster Makes This World) are cult classics among artists. Hyde writes about ancient ideas and inheritances with startling freshness. There are anecdotes and shards of autobiography in his writings–his persona is of a scholar in a thicket of tangible ideas. He’s at home in both secular and sacred realms and brings the past into the present with alacrity. His arguments take the form of stories.

In his introduction to Hyde, as moguls settled into chairs and ingenues draped themselves on the stairs, Norman Lear spoke about our culture being “gobbled up.” He was hosting this book party because “of the importance of Hyde’s ideas….”

“Culture is always arising, and those who participate in its ongoing creation will rightly want to question any cultural expression that comes to them wrapped in a right to exclude,” Hyde writes in the first chapter of Common as Air…which is also Book of Questions.

It took Hyde six years to write this 300-page book. He gave Lear’s guests a nutshell version in his 20-minute talk, tracing ideas of copyright, notions of creativity, and examples of enabling and disabling protocols of ownership. Hyde’s an autodidact with a lyric poet’s style and sensibility. He puts pressure on words, squeezing meaning from etymologies, shifting social contexts, and sensitivities. His vocabulary re-animates old words and presses them into service in a multiplicity of meanings. Early on he states, “I want ‘common’ to be available as a verb….”

He looked a bit of the Trickster at Norman Lear’s house–a disruptive presence among Hollywood types. He spoke of ideas as belonging to all of us, and he referenced the founding fathers’ notions of property-rights as material goods. He quoted Jefferson: “Ideas cannot in nature be the subject of property,” Jefferson wrote. (JEFFERSON! I might add, slave-owning Jefferson!)

The founding father that Hyde gravitates toward is Benjamin Franklin. In a chapter entitled “Benjamin Franklin: Founding Pirate,” he describes Franklin’s attitude toward his own contributions and inventions as not being about self-promotion but for “the common Benefit.” Franklin shared ideas freely, and he absorbed ideas quickly. He did not hoard what he knew, and he did not personalize it either. “He understood, first of all, that scientific claims do not depend on particular scientists; the more personal the origin of the claim, in fact, the more likely its errors.”

Lewis Hyde’s arguments are critiques of the commodification and distribution of art as product. Questions of Intellectual Property become increasingly fractious as experiences of art become virtual, as we take the body (video games) and the object (the book) out of the experience (somatic?) of art. Lew wanted some resistance, and Los Angeles should have been one place to receive it–but he received only sanguine admiration for the sacrifice he’s gone to in creating this argument. At Norman Lear’s pad he was talking to artists, actors, and entertainment industry visionaries. Gore Vidal was there as well, and at the end of the evening Lear asked Mr. Vidal to speak. Gore Vidal spoke of Benjamin Franklin, bringing us back again to that founding pirate. Everything seemed possible.

This idea that the self, that the ego, that the personality needs be distilled out of the work is longstanding. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” T.S. Eliot states: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

Things Need Me

A bumper sticker that was popular in my Las Vegas youth: He who dies with the most toys, wins.

books-300x225There’s a reality television show (a confession is implicit in that utterance, I know!) called Hoarders and it’s fascinating slash horrifying. Here are people buried by Things that they cannot stop buying, saving, stashing. They lose all sense of value—all objects become important.

The show puts me in mind of Richard Greenberg’s brilliant play The Dazzle which is based on a true story: Homer and Langley Collyer, two New Yorkers die from hoarding—crushed by their Things—in their Harlem apartment in the early 1900’s. In the preface Greenberg states that “this play is based on the Collyer Brothers, about whom I know almost nothing.” The research that Greenberg does is imaginative, inward, there is empathy and despair and humor.

I have always had an ambivalent relationship to Things, and identified with the character in Marilynn Robinson’s novel Housekeeping whose mantra is “It is better to have nothing.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few things that carry resonance, and that I carry from place to place (I move around a lot).

“Ask anybody about the most meaningful object he owns, and you’re sure to get a story—this old trunk belonged to Grandpa, we bought that tacky mug on our honeymoon,” Rob Walker writes in his ongoing column in the NY Times Magazine.

I started asking people about their most meaningful object—and every response did have a story, an embedded narrative, anecdotal and antidotal. Many people wear their Most Meaningful Possession—a silver & gold ring made for her mother by her father, a jeweler; a crucifix, with Jesus on it, not real gold, but her mother gave it to her, or a favorite pair of earrings, the small one never comes off…. Of course, because this is Los Angeles many of those I asked mentioned their cars, or one of their cars.

Many of my writer friends mentioned books—a first edition, a book of fairytales from childhood, tattered and stained. Other meaningful objects: a fountain pen; a Purple Heart medal that was a gift from her father; her grandmother’s amber beads brought from Russia. Most of these Meaningful objects were gifts. (Except the cars. People tend to buy cars for themselves). But the gifts, the gifts were plentiful.

0307279502.01.LZZZZZZZ-191x300What is it about the Thing as Gift? It has immediate resonance, connotation, totemic power. Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift is a poetic, scholarly and digressive meditation on art-making in a consumer culture. It’s always on the overall reading list that I give to my students (usually they are artists) who sometimes ask for such a list. The Gift is a solace and a preparation. Lew’s second book Trickster Makes This World is a cross-cultural study of trickster figures—and the artist is often a trickster. His newest book, Common as Air, is the culmination of his interest in Ideas and Ownership. Lewis is in Los Angeles this Thursday, September 23, at the Los Angeles Public Library’s ALOUD Series, being interviewed by visionary theatre director Peter Sellars.

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!”

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

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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.