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.

No Fugitives from Science here

M.G. Lord’s Science Writing class has been cooking on all (bunsen) MC900438714-300x300burners. She started off the semester with a visit by screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) ,followed up with tv writer and inorganic chemist Bill Odenkirk (Futurama, The Simpsons), and will end the semester with TV writer and screenwriter Paul Attanasio (House).

Last week novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin (The Player) was on hand to talk about his screenplay for Deep Impact, a disaster film about rogue asteroids. M.G. showed a clip from the film that included Morgan Freeman delivering the bad news to TV crews, and she confessed that she’d re-watched the film earlier and had spent the afternoon weeping…. How did a disaster film manage to unhinge M.G.? It’s the emotional content of the film–and the fact that it depicts the end of life as we know it. (Gerard Manley Hopkins: “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for….”)

M.G. asked Michael if it was depressing writing about the end of the world. “Oh, no, it’s fun destroying the world…on paper.” Dr. David C. Pieri from the Earth Surface Science Group at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at CalTech was also on hand, and the three talked about research, verisimilitude, science as inspiration, story as metaphor and meaning as inevitable. A video podcast of the event will be available shortly. Here are some highlights:

  • Planetary geologist Dave Pieri had one quibble with the Science Stuff in Deep Impact–the depiction of the cresting tidal wave vs. the reality of a wave of that magnitude which would have a flatter and more destructive shape. He asked Michael Tolkin about the problem of verisimilitude.
  • Tolkin said, “Everything serves the story. Nothing stands in the way. The research is there to give you ideas.” That being said–Tolkin praised the benefit of research for its own sake as well. He spoke of the pleasure of knowing things, the intellectual rewards, the fact that everything that he writes, not only the science stuff, entails research. Part of his research for Deep was going to the launch of the Space Shuttle. “I’ve seen Dylan, Hendrix…. A night launch of the Shuttle is all of rock and roll compressed.” He also made pilgrimages to the Chalk Caves and Kitt Peak to research the film. He interviewed geologists, NASA scientists, he did asteroid research. “You start with research to get the facts right and then you lie,” he said, giving MPW students a sort of permission slip. (Robert Frost: “Fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows….”)
  • M.G. asked Tolkin how he chooses a form since he writes both novels and screenplays. His advice to our students? “If you have a REALLY good idea, write it as a novel first. Writing a novel is–internally–a much richer experience than writing a screenplay.” It’s a much richer reading experience too. He went on to praise The Privileges, Jonathan Dee’s novel about a certain strata of society. Tolkin wrote his meta-Hollywood film The Player as a novel first–and then adapted it. This reminded me of Chekhov’s method (by default?) of writing short stories that are character sketches and tone poems for all of his plays.
  • Tolkin described all disaster films as metaphors that illustrate our fears of loss of control. “The gift is being given a good metaphor. The work is structuring the story.” And how does he do that? “You work backwards from what would be the most dramatic.”

MG_students2-300x225How does M.G. enlist such a line-up of amazing writers, thinkers, scientists? It’s no accident. Her memoir, Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, is what started her ongoing conversation with Scientists and Science Writing. The book’s a memoir because her father was an engineer at JPL, where she also brought her students.

M.G.’s also a cultural historian. She’s written about Barbie (Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll), and next up is her book The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice.

M.G.’s class has shown all of us that we need to use everything–science, etc!–to really understand the world through our writing. Dave Pieri described most people as being “fugitives from science.” Not at MPW!

N.B.: I just remembered that Davi Pieri, our geologist, had said that the role of films such as Deep Impact is that they can serve as warnings. They help to create the bigger picture of the real dangers that face all of us, and they should convince our governments to take heed…. And so these disaster films, and especially a film such as Deep Impact, also serve as cautionary tales, the kinds of fairy tales that mothers told their children to wake them up, to make them pay attention. (Anton Artaud: “We are not safe, the sky can still fall on our heads and it is the purpose of the theatre to remind us that this is so….”)

Timely, timely, timely: “Earth Needs Asteroid Shield, UN Told.”

And for more about M.G. Lord, read the article “From Barbies to Rockets.”

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.

Past Lives

PastLives1-300x200Amy 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.

Alexis Smith and Amy Gerstler
David Ulin’s “Writers and Their Influences” class and Brighde mullins’ “Ekphrasis” classes turn out to hear poet AMY GERSTLER and visual artist ALEXIS SMITH talk about their collaboration at the Honor Fraser Gallery.

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”