Trapped Downtown…not “Downton” which would be even worse, to be trapped in that PBS world of high tea and smug smugness….no, this is a section about being a citizen of DTLA– Downtown Los Angeles. A recent cover of LA Magazine reads “Why We Love Downtown: 75 Reasons…” or something like that…you can check out the lists and laudatory commercials and boosterism yourself. I read that cover and the first thought that popped into my head is “YOU love downtown because YOU don’t actually live here.” I appreciate the juxtapositions of downtown, I notice the dissonance…that being said….there’s a lot to dislike about downtown Los Angeles. So I am actively looking for things to appreciate. First on my list is not the proximity to culture, by which I mean that you can walk to Disney Hall or Santee Alley. It’s the Quixotic Palpable dream of so many of the organizers who live here, those who toil against the fact that it’s impossible to shine up downtown because it would take a lot of political power to address the drugs, homelessness, and the ongoing epitomization of class inequality in Los Angeles. “In dreams begin responsibilities,” as the poet said.
We all know what a blog is—right?
But what is a DRAMATICULE?
I first learned the word from Samuel Beckett. He uses it to describe his short, his EXTREMELY short play “Come and Go.” Beckett’s plays became shorter and shorter as he got older. My friend Rick Cluchey, who worked with Beckett, says that Beckett didn’t want to “waste people’s time” and that’s why his texts became shorter and shorter.
“The word dramaticule is a noun that can be defined as a little or insignificant state or situation of events involving interesting conflict of forces. It is rarely used and thus not recorded in most dictionaries.”
My definition: a dramaticule is short form that can be a dialogue or a statement or a pithy utterance or an acute observation or a cri du coeur.
This space is devoted to some of my dramaticules—mini-essays, tiny dialogues, meditations.
Jennifer Egan received the Pulitzer and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and all of the other Prizes for her remarkable novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. When she accepted the L.A. Times Book Award (pictured: David Ulin, Jennifer Egan, Brighde Mullins), she spoke about the fact that she’d write even if no one paid any attention, because she loved writing. She reminded me of my poetry teacher saying over and over “the only thing that really matters is your relationship to your work.” Or, as John Ashbery puts it—“He danced on the bridge for the feeling of dancing on a bridge.” Adrienne Rich has written that “you must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.” Our lives do depend on our ability to to make things, and to make things is an act that is audacious, difficult and necessary.
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.
Last year, when poet and novelist Sapphire visited USC, we asked our
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.