Category: poetry Page 1 of 2

ensemble unitedberlin: Between Past And Future

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The Goethe-Schiller-Denkmal (Monument) by Ernst Rietschel in Weimar. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Lately I’ve found myself re-evaluating the past within the context of the present. It’s been an important and sometimes painful journey, for a variety of reasons both personal (disposing of photo albums, many of which were my mother’s) and professional (my slow if sure transition away from journalism). Through travels, research, readings, and various creative ruminations, I’ve come to appreciate just how deeply recontextualizing materials of the past can help us understand and appreciate new ways of being fully and completely present, however uncomfortable that may sometimes be; evolution is not, after all, supposed to be a comfortable process.

I suspect this is something Georg Katzer understood. The award-winning German composer, born in what is now Poland in 1935, was a pioneer of electronic new music in the German Democratic Republic. He founded the Studio for Electroacoustic Music in the 1980s, and made a career of redefining past to understand present, setting the stakes high for future modes of expression. The weight and influence of Europe’s shifting history through the decades lent him a ravenous curiosity for exploration of the past mixed with an enthusiasm for for redefining the present; he did so much with a twinkle in his eye as well rather than the furrowed brow of a serious artiste, which gives his work a discernible humanism, even amidst the plaintive bleeps and sighing bloops of works like “Steinelied I” (1984) and “Steinelied II” (2010). Listen to his wide-ranging oeuvre, which moves easily between lyrical brutality and brutal lyricism, and you’ll hear Bartok, Stravinsky, Lutowslawski and Zimmerman, as well as bits of Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubauten. Sounds brush, bump, groan, and grind against each other in ways that are, even many decades after their creation, gripping, contemporary, and theatrical.

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Georg Katzer (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

That theatricality is readily apparent in Szene für Kammerensemble (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), premiered in Leipzig in 1975. A smart work that embraces various meta aspects of music-making, Szene was, at its inception, a meditation (and, it must be said, a sarcastic commentary) on the bureaucratic nature of the GDR and its uneasy relationship to cultural life and artistic expression. The work was presented by German chamber group ensemble unitedberlin last month at the Konzerthaus Berlin for their 30th anniversary concert; the group first performed it in 1994, on the premiere appearance of conductor (and eub Artistic Advisor) Vladimir Jurowski leading. As the program notes state, the piece is “one of the representatives of “Scenic Chamber Music” or “Instrumental Theatre,” in which performative aspects of music production and linguistic elements came to the fore.” 

I’ve written about ensemble unitedberlin in the past (specifically in relation to composer Claude Vivier), and this concert was special in terms of its being a symbol of remembrance as well as anticipation; never did the word “present” feel so apt. Katzer has taken lines from Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe and placed them directly within the piece. Delivered by the conductor to the audience, the lines relate specifically to the nature of new composition, and concern a new piece written by none other than Felix Mendelssohn. As recorded by Eckermann:

Conversation from Sunday evening, January 14 1827:

I found a musical evening entertainment with Goethe, which was granted to him by the Eberwein family together with some members of the orchestra. Among the few listeners were: General Superintendent Röhr, Hofrat Vogel and some ladies. Goethe had wished to hear the quartet of a famous young composer, which was first performed. The twelve-year-old Karl Eberwein played the grand piano to Goethe’s great satisfaction, and indeed excellently, so that the quartet passed in every respect well executed.

“It is strange,” said Goethe, “where the most highly enhanced technique and mechanics lead the newest composers; their works are no longer music, they go beyond the level of human feelings, and one can no longer infer such things from one’s own mind and heart. How do you feel? It all sticks in my ears.” I said that I am not better in this case. “But the Allegro,” Goethe continued, “had character. This eternal whirling and turning showed me the witch dances of the Blockberg, and I found a view, which I could suppose to the strange music.”

It’s interesting to note that Mendelssohn and Goethe enjoyed a great friendship thereafter.

Katzer noted in the program notes for a 2016 presentation with the Dresden Sinfonietta that his inclusion of Goethe within Szene für Kammerensemble “should not be interpreted as malice towards the genius. Lack of understanding of new music is a widespread phenomenon and, as we see, not a new one.” His essential point is clear, driven home by the work’s closing scene: the musicians gathered around a spinning top, silently observing. Our perception of change and its inevitable nature is coloured by a near-unconscious wiring of a past we don’t want to remember, yet cannot forget, much less look away from.

Katzer passed away earlier this year — on May 7th, to be precise, which is the date Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony made its world premiere, in 1824. The two composers shared a program last December thanks to the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, when Katzer’s “discorso” for orchestra was given its world premiere just prior to the orchestra’s annual New Year’s presentation of Beethoven’s famous symphony (led by RSB Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Jurowski). I thought about this strange confluence experiencing  Szene, and of Beethoven’s reported meeting with the very man Katzer quotes. The composer created incidental music for Goethe’s 1788 drama Egmont, as well as lieder incorporating his texts. The two came from utterly different worlds — Goethe being Privy Counsellor at the Weimar court, Beethoven, decidedly revolutionary — but despite such vastly different experiences and worldviews, the composer was effusive in his praise of the writer, and Goethe may have enjoyed the new sounds Beethoven created, however much he would complain about his sticky ears to Eckermann just four years later. According to an account in Romain Rolland’s famous book Goethe and Beethoven (1931):

On October 27th (1823) a Beethoven trio was played at Goethe’s house. On November 4th, in the great concert given at the Stadthaus in honour of Szymanowska, Beethoven figures twice on the program. The concert opened with the Fourth Symphony in B Flat, and after the interval his quintet, op. 16 for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, was played. Thus Beethoven had the lion’s share, and without mentioning his name, Goethe confessed to Knebel that he was again “completely carried away by the whirlwind of sounds (da bin ich nun wieder in den Strudel der Tone hineingerissen).” Thus there had been opened to him a new world, the world of modern music which he had hitherto refused to accept — “durch Vermittelung eines Wesens, das Geniisse, die man immer ahndet und immer entbehrt, zu verwirklichen geschaffen ist (through the medium of one who has the gift of endowing with life those delights which we resent and of which we deprive ourselves).”

Classical music lovers tend to enjoy —nay, expect —the so-called canon to never change, let alone the ways it’s presented (something Washington Post classical writer Anne Midgette addresses in a recent piece).  However, contemporary composers have mostly embraced change and risk, frequently at the cost of widespread popularity and acceptance; they, and the artists who perform and program them, stand at the vanguard of creative evolution, come hell or highwater, fully present of time, place, space, and relationships. The ensemble unitedberlin was formed at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989; like many German cultural institutions, it’s using 2019 to mark the changes wrought over three decades — how past merges with present, in sculpting possibilities for the future. As the program states, the group’s aim has been to explore “areas of tension, between the past and the future,” presenting works that incorporate and inspire a “joy of musical discovery.” Experiencing many works live that I’d not been given an opportunity to hear live before was not only a discovery, but a revelation; it’s been akin to squeezing out a tube of a color never seen before and then experimenting with its application on different surfaces. There are certain works I’m happy to take a (lengthy) break from, but contemporary works I heartily want to explore; I have ensemble unitedberlin, in part, to thank for stoking that long-suppressed curiosity.

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Hans-Jürgen Wenzel (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

Hans Jürgen Wenzel is one of those composers whose work I hope to know better. Along with Szene, his intriguing Eröffnungsmusik (opening music, 1978) was performed as part of their birthday celebrations; the program charmingly describes the composer (who passed away in 2009) as the “the initiator of the formation of the ensemble.” Wenzel was dedicated to introducing young people to contemporary music, and many of his students went on to become composers in their own right. It was a perfect opening to the evening, and enjoyed a perfect follow-up: the world premiere of young composer Stefan Beyer’s зaukalt und windig (cold and windy). Katzer’s Szene was followed by Vinko Globokar’s Les Soliloques décortiqués, premiered in 2016 by Ensemble Musikfabrik. The France-born Globokar, whose creative process involves writing music based around stories he’s written first, told The Globe & Mail in 2011:

“I was part of a group of friends, an avant-garde that was based on risk. The idea, collectively, was to find something new. But even if you didn’t find this end result, it was still okay, because you were exploring ideas. That kind of collective thinking we did has disappeared.”

Based on cultural experiences over the past few years, I’m not so sure that spirit has entirely disappeared — it’s just become more of an effort to find and subsequently commit to. It was a decidedly stirring experience, to observe Katzer’s widow interacting with Globokar (elegant in a suit), the young Beyer, Jurowski, and ensemble co-founder Andreas Brautigam casually interacting post-concert — generations of past and present, all moving into the future, in their own ways and methods. Here’s to the unbound joys of new discoveries, sonic and otherwise; may we never deprive ourselves of them, but welcome them, with open arms, clear ears, and brave hearts.

Counting From One To Ten (But Not In That Order)

books collage mine

#7BooksILove (Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

#HBD is probably the most common hashtag I use online. I use it to mark birthdays of artists, musicians, poets, and others whose work I admire. Overall though, online trends are not things I tend to engage in. I know about them, working for myself and needing to be aware of what’s popular when, but rare is the moment when I feel inspired to partake, partly out of a fierce desire to protect my non-online life , partly because the trend will fall a little too far outside my interests; also, my style simply doesn’t fit the compact style social media promotes. (My #SaturdayThoughts are here, and they are more than 280 characters.)

The pullback in personal online shares has been gradual if needed; I tend to agree with a blunt assessment on the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter triumvirate made to me last year, that their nature is essentially “vampiric.” I will only add that one can play the vampire as much as the victim here, and I have certainly drunk more than my fair share of digital blood, in the form of music, movies, history, and art, as well as an unfettered love of Mariella Frostrup columnsBBC Food, and cat pages. (A million thanks to Curious Zelda.) Curation — of what I share, what I imbibe, how I do both, when, and in what spirit — matters, and is largely a private matter.

nigella favorite books

#7BooksILove Day 3/7. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

So I surprised myself in choosing to partake in a recent revelation of favorite books on Twitter. Nominated by Washington Post classical journalist Anne Midgette with #7BooksILove, I shared a variety of titles from different points in my life, with no explanations and no respective personal histories. (A similar nomination took place on Facebook a while ago with music albums, and I am still mulling participation; my Instagram is full of record covers, after all. ) The photos are not perfect; I don’t care. For those wondering, “why all the legs? Don’t you ever wear pants?!” — again, the answer is spontaneity; I grabbed a book, flopped on a chair, and took the photo. (Also I largely favor dresses in my wardrobe; for days off, large shirts.) The pose was semi-planned (you have to see the covers somehow) but also intended as a simple reflection of my life and ethos — one integrating curiosity, intellect, sensuality, the vividness of living. This vividness is something I admit to currently finding difficulty in keeping and cultivating lately, perhaps an important reminder to myself, that amidst so many changes and challenges of late, it’s important to keep (nay, cultivate) the parts of my identity where beauty, wonder, and the ever-present sensuality so central to my life and being can eat, drink, dance, and also stop, embrace, and inhale, free and unencumbered.— well, as free as I choose to be online, that is, in my big shirt, on my big fancy chair, feet up.

Doing this list was ultimately a useful cosmic reminder of  accepting what was and what is, a notion applicable to method as much as to content; it took more than seven days to complete this task. It was once said about director Francis Ford Coppola that “he can count from one to ten, but not in that order.” I relate to a similarly scattershot, non-linear, non-conventional thinking and approach to living. In learning to navigate a life free from maternal influence and its concomitant harsh judgement, it is liberating to give one’s self permission to explore the unorthodox person within (the artist? I wonder this), a figure who forced into the shadows for so long. In my teaching life, lessons do go from A to B to C as they must, but they might incorporate A flat, C sharp, diminished fifth, dominant seventh (and so on) along the way, and my students might tell you (I hope?) it makes for a rather less dry learning experience. Explorations across the digital realm (and that includes my professional writing work) move in similar ways — the greatest difficulty has been in sustaining the tone. Ah, the ever-present digitally-inspired attention deficit; combine it with the weighty responsibilities and ever-expanding anxieties of older age, and one is sometimes left with impatience instead of enlightenment , impotence in place of inspiration — cracked eggs over Kandinsky, you might say. The course of any serious study requires diligence, dedication, and concentration, even (or especially) voyages within the creative realm. Clarity can emerge from chaos, but that chaos has its own kind of order and definition and schedule that can (and probably should) change with every experience.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That shouldn’t mean leaving spontaneity by the wayside, however. As I wrote, the photos of the books were done spontaneously, and the choices made as to which books I’d share was equally unplanned. Still, I admit relishing the mystery folded into this entire process: Here’s a little slice of my life; no, I’m not telling you more; here’s a bit of me but no more than that, hurrah! There is a great value and power to mystery, particularly in this reveal-all, tell-all age, which leaves little if anything to the imagination — notably when it comes to the lives of women. I am aware of this reality, and have learned to deal with it in different ways since my first posts on social media more than a decade ago. A mix of spontaneity and mystery seems like the best recipe I can muster when dealing with the sometimes welcome, sometimes-unwelcome nature of the digital realm. You can hit “delete” in your online life, but technology has a memory; there’s a reason the word “branding” has become so popular. Similarly, there’s no “delete” button in life. The consequences of choice can be dire, but they can also be surprising, strange, beautiful. Sometimes it’s worth the effort and the inevitable mess to apply a pure color, to scrape it off, to reveal something entirely new; to take away a note, to add a pause, to leave unsaid what escapes mere language —  each act a mystery, a prayer, a stab at grace. There are no hashtags for such moments; there is only the beautiful silence unfolding between the bleeps and bloops of new, unfolding life.

Forever Robin To Me

(photo via)

Many people will remember where they were when they heard the awful news about the passing of Robin Williams. I had just returned from walking my dog; she enjoys trotting through the grass and being pet by the small children we inevitably run into; I enjoy the moody, orange streaks of a summer sunset and the cool early-evening breezes. We both return to the house refreshed and happy. But my calm, content mood went straight south when I opened my computer to see the update about Robin.

And it is “Robin” to me, it’s been “Robin” for a long time. I had the pleasure of spontaneously running into the man not once but twice when he was filming in Toronto almost a decade ago. There’s a strange intimacy that happens with some actors; Robin struck me as a quiet, thoughtful person, not even half the manic personality he was onstage, but more of a deeply sensitive, feeling artist, the cute, funny boy in school who used humor as a defense mechanism. Being funny was a way of expressing the tremendous energy and imagination he carried around inside him, continually incubating new ideas while keeping watch over his latest batch of squawking hatchlings. He was tremendously playful, and tremendously feeling, and, to me at least, he was somehow always in need of a hug. Within much of his wide and varied work lay a deep sense of vulnerability, which was deeply touching, even as it was occasionally hard to watch. Perhaps that’s why there was a odd sense of the familiar when we met, an immediate understanding that allowed each of us to come away from those impromptu chats gently beaming. I didn’t expect or ask anything of him, and he seemed relieved I wasn’t starstruck or asking him to be “zany.” It was just good to be around a very talented, very real human being. I often wonder if he had a radar to pick out us sensitive souls who appreciated his playfulness and understood its humanistic, deeply vulnerable origins.

Like so many, I grew up watching Robin, on television, and then in movies. His turn as the teacher in Dead Poets Society came at a vital moment when, as a frustrated high school student, I realized there were many different styles of teaching, and the one I was being exposed to in my own English class at the time was definitely lacking. (Thankfully, I got my own version of Mr. Keating a year later.) Many times since I find myself wishing he’d done a series of poetry readings —live, online, for radio; he had a depth of feeling for words, language and music, and used them to full (sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad) effect whenever he performed. His solo voice was just as powerful and memorable as his rubbery physicality. Oh, that he had read the poetry of Shelley into a microphone, or done a live performance of Ginsberg’s work. A million magical worlds lived in him and were given voice through his performances, worlds we were entranced, seduced, beguiled by. He allowed us to remember wonder, and to find our own.

Robin understood “funny” but he was keenly aware of what can lie underneath. Mrs. Doubtfire was uproariously funny (and still is, to my mind), but, like his character in The Birdcage, there’s an intense hurt shot through the performance, one you can keenly sense in those sad blue eyes, and it’s made repeated viewings of both movies difficult to endure. Funny! Sad! Funny! Sad! His mix of humor and drama, of light and dark, feels authentically human, and continued to be expressed in a variety of roles, with the darkness (particularly in One Hour Photo) providing a vital counterpoint to the more life-affirming material (Good Will HuntingPatch Adams) that won him mainstream awards and accolades.

(photo via)

Robin’s movies have, in so many ways, been markers for moments in so many lives, the “I remember whens” over the last 48 hours collected and offered like sacrifices on the alter of a disease we can name but can’t quite approach. Since Monday night, I’ve debated with myself about posting anything on his passing, not only because I’ve had my own intense experiences of depression, but because I don’t want to equate them with his suffering. Do I have a right to analyze, compare, or contrast? No, and neither does anyone else. Robin’s depression was his own; his suicide is also his own. Impossible to condone, difficult to understand, his decision does bring into stark relief the deep, dark room many depressives (I count myself among them) move in and out of, with frustrating, sometimes exhausting regularity.

As such, it seemed important to me on a personal level not to jump on the journo-pageview-train and spew out something half-assed, half-baked, schmaltzy, trite, narcissistic, didactic, high-handed, or grief-splaining. The rush to reaction, to “thinkpiece” a tragedy, for clicks and shares and comments, makes me recoil at the perceived ethics (and unfortunate financial realities) of my chosen world. How do I bridge the need to report as a journalist with the need to think, feel, grieve, and contemplate as a human? I’m truly not sure it’s possible in today’s high-speed world. In many ways I’m still not sure why I’m writing this now. But having lost many people I love to depression, and having nearly succumbed myself, it seems right that perhaps shouting to the darkness will inspire something greater than words and links from the armchair-activists I’ve seen across social media lately. Something like acceptance, and compassion in action. As Robin himself wrote in a reddit AMA last year, “Anytime compassion can be contagious, it’s a good thing.” That, to me, is a contagion worth spreading, acting on, shouting about. We need it.

(photo via)

It’s probably selfish of me to want more from Robin in terms of work — movie performances, television appearances, those taped poetry sessions — and yet I keep wishing for them. As someone wrote on my Facebook wall Monday night, “I thought and hoped this was a terrible hoax.” Robin’s light reminded at least this sensitive soul I wasn’t alone, that vulnerability is nothing to be ashamed of, that playfulness matters. Keeping these elements intact against a world filled with ugliness is difficult, sometimes painful, but I want to believe it isn’t impossible. It can’t be. Carpe diem, shazbot, good morning Vietnam… O Captain, my Captain. The rest is silence. Thank you, dearheart. x

Clutching the Spawn

After news of a violent dictator’s violent demise, the disunity of the European Union, the leaving of one troubled country (and trust issues with another), Jobs, more jobs, a GOP horse race, moaning millionaires, occupiers everywhere, and some very awful flooding, my writer’s block feels less important than ever – but it’s burning more keenly. My creative panic is running rampant, worried it’s losing its sacred pride of place in my life.
WRITE SOMETHING!, it shrieks, late at night.
“I’m tired,” I yawn.
WRITE NOW!, it shrieks upon waking.
“I have to go to work,” I say, making a sympathetic face.
WHAT ABOUT NOW?!, it shouts in the evenings.
“Walk the dog/do the laundry/email A through M about N through Z.”
Oh, and watch the news.
It’s a wonder the creative panic -I think it was once called a Muse -sticks around at all.
I often feel like my journalistic self is pushing my creative self out of the way, the big-shouldered bully pushing down the black-caped wimp in the schoolyard. But every once in a while, that caped figure gets back up again and waves a magic wand.
Lasntight, Seamus Heaney was on PBS NewsHour, a program I watch with fervent devotion and intense admiration. It was excellent, if jarring, to see Jeffrey Brown interviewing one of my favorite poets after the newscast’s featuring reports on Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, and much more. NewsHour’s website features Heaney reading his poem, ‘Death Of A Naturalist’, which is ridiculously beautiful and worth a watch.

Watch Seamus Heaney Reads ‘Death of a Naturalist’ on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

What a treat to see this celebrated writer speak so candidly about his innate fear over suffering a stroke in 2006, and what a strange blessing to hear him share his initial feelings of doubt when embarking on a new piece work:

…when you’re beginning, you’re not sure. I mean, is this a poem? Or is it just a shot at a poem? Or is it kind of a dead thing? But when it comes alive in a way to feel that’s your own utterance, then I think you’re in business.

More often than not, it’s been poetry that’s brought me back to that uniquely personal “utterance” of late. Daily news does make a glorious, chaotic clang that is its own sexy siren song, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the more quiet meditations of poetry. That shrieking creative panic who troubles me morning, noon, and night seems like little more than an ignored muse who toes I keep inadvertently stepping on.

Perhaps I’ll let the chorus of Heaney’s marshy choir envelope the newsy noise that’s been covering up the gigantic, five-borough-shaped hole in my heart. Creation is messy business indeed, but one has to be clutched by the wordy spawn sooner or later, or, more accurately, take a ride on the back of the Leviathan that sloshes its tail through the swampy waters of my daily life. To quote another poet, the readiness is all. Hang on. Eyes wide open. Pen ready.

Paintings:

Top – “The Muses Melpomene, Erato and Polymnia” by Eustache Le Sueur
Bottom – “Urania and Erato” by Sebastiano Conca.

“What Do You Want?”

It was beautiful in New York today.

The sun was shining, the sky was a lustrous blue, it was mild. The rain that had been threatened all weekend didn’t materialize. People were happy to welcome the spring weather, walking around in loose t-shirts and perhaps-too-soon rubber sandals. I got off work and decided I’d make a trip back to Strand Books. Poetry was calling, along with a general desire to walk around Manhattan on a gorgeous Monday afternoon and observe, reflect, walk, and breathe. The rhythm of street life -of peddlers, poets, con artists, lovers, dreamers, stragglers, strugglers, tired parents, scared tourists, oblivious locals, obnoxious students – all co-mingle here with a natural harmony that is both breathtaking and choking. Get out of the way!, I wanted to shout every few steps, if you want to yap with your boyfriend, don’t try to walk at the same time! Surely it’s a sign of becoming a local, though I still get shocked looks whenever I say “thank you” in a store. Habits from home die hard.

I entered Strand Books and immediately knew what I wanted. I’d seen Patti Smith: Complete when it was first released in 2006, but I couldn’t afford it. Now, five years later, in a place where Patti figuratively welcomed me to the city my first night, I couldn’t afford not to. Did they have a used copy? Yes, just one -but where? I looked, high and low. Nothing. Was the computer lying? I checked again, and there it was, snugly tucked in on a high shelf; even standing spider-like on the edge of a cart, it was just out of my grasp.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that short people hate asking for help from a tall person. But… I swallowed my vertical-challenge pride. I didn’t look at it until I got it home, to my bedside, my bathtub, reading in barefoot with a glass of wine and a sharpie.
Poetry, music, prose, drawing -these things are keeping me sane, even as they drive me to more and more questions. Art isn’t and should never be a baggy La-Z-Boy of comfy, feet-up vanity and smug self-congratulations. I keep wondering in what order I should place all the things I’ve seen and heard these last two weeks: the faces, the floors, the pieces of gum on the sidewalks, the squeaky rails of the subway, the boomboomboom of a hip-hop boy’s earbuds -and if I’ll ever do all of them justice. My iPod has been a vital tool in attempting to make sense of these moments, giving them themes, names, direction, and momentum. Recent playlists have reflected this tornado of anxious confusion, with a selection of tunes, both new and old, urban and urbane, soft and abrasive, uber-cool and super-gauche.
Bizarrely, this tune has become a mainstay on my iPod since -and even as -I moved. What I love about the above performance (from Brazil this past Sunday night) is that you can’t actually see the band; you can only hear them. Maybe it was the rain. Or maybe it was on-purpose. either way, there was a forced listening at work, an experience of the quiet-but-awesome marriage between sound, ideas, and art in a way many bands of that caliber wouldn’t attempt in such a mondo-stadium context. The slick glammy sheen of the original has been stripped away for a world-weariness and a nose-to-the-grindstone grittiness, even with those gorgeously swooping, theatrical guitars. The audience is clearly confused: where are they? what is this? I don’t get it! But… who cares? Should mass art always be digestible? Should life always be full of answers and no questions? Should we be spoon-fed everything our entire lives -even (or especially) the meaningful stuff?
To quote a favorite poet whose posthumous work I recently picked up in Strand Books, “poetry is what happens when nothing else can.” That “nothing else” can be so many things -for me, it’s the striving to understand everything, all the time, it’s the “what ifs” that don’t get (and won’t be) answered, ever. And so the possibilities -of the streets, the subway, the stains, the sleepless nights and somnambulant days -is louder, softer, harder and more real than any slick glamorous picture people have of the Big Apple, and more beautiful to anyone with two eyes and a beating heart. It is those questions, singing loud, a little more weary but every bit wiser, confusing the masses, and maybe, just maybe, inspiring a few of us along the way, that is the real poetry. Viva love, viva life, viva… New York.

Dear Lord

Lord George Gordon Byron was born on this day in 1788.

Like a lot of adolescent girls, I had romantic visions and tendencies, and Byron’s work was the perfect reflection of that gooey, goggley-eyed disposition. He was the first celebrity as we understand it, and fled his home country to escape the ruinous gossip that surrounded the dissolution of his marriage and his questionable relationship with half-sister Augusta. Through all his trials and tribulations (and there were a lot, his club foot being the least of them), there was -is -something undeniably intoxicating about the way he blended the heady and the common, and his love of both the high life and his robust embrace of the gutteral, in both his work and his life.
I have a huge collection of biographies of Byron, as well as several volumes of his poetry, including a three-volume set of his collected works published just after his death in 1824. When I lived in London, I would go by where he lived at the Albany, and at one point, was even given a tour by a kind doorman; he gently motioned toward the ground-level door that lead to the apartment where Byron lived, adding that “an Hungarian doctor lives there now. He has trouble walking.” I was a regular visitor to John Murray’s offices (once located in Albemarle Street), where Gini Murray -married to the then-current publisher (and directly descended from Byron’s Murray) -would kindly welcome me with tea and allow me to wander the famous upper floor, taking pictures and looking at the immense volumes of books lining the walls, as well as the cabinet containing a few of Byron’s personal effects (including one white shirt I longed to bury my nose in). I wandered down Piccadilly Terrace, where he and wife Annabella shared their unhappy moments (and where the brilliant Ada was born), and gazed up at windows, imagining Byron popping the tops off soda bottles as his wife was in labour. I’ve been to the church where he is buried, and recalled the stories I’d read about the creepy 1938 opening of his coffin many moons ago by a group of curious investigators. The entrance to the crypt was closed, but is small and narrow, the church dark and grey and cold. It felt like an incongruous ending for such a dramatic, colorful life.

This visit to Hucknall Parish coincided with my poetic visit to Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead Abbey (near Nottingham) one fresh spring day. I wandered around the seemingly-ancient quarters in a daze, touching the stones, door frames, stairs, shrubery, and avoiding the squawking peacocks (little wonder Byron wrote about their noisesome fierceness -eeek). I’ve painted and drawn countless works of art based around the photos I took there, and even now, ten years later, I’d love to return, if only to wander the gardens. Though the house is much different than it was in Byron’s day (ancestral misdeeds meant the Abbey had fallen into terrible disrepair when the poet lived there), I felt a palpable presence of … something… during my visit (a feeling akin to the ghosts in New York recently.) I left utterly appreciating just how difficult and painful it must’ve been for him to part with such a beautiful, magical place.
Still, I hate admitting that don’t read as much Byron as I once did; I’d like it to be far more often, but he asks so much energy, attention, and care. Finding the time to provide those things -in full, without scrimping or cheating -is challenging, and yet I feel it might be worth it. Every time I return to his work, I’m taken back to a specific time in my life -one I’m proud of, thrilled by, and continually in awe of -and I’m re-awakened and energized by the power of human imagination and our capacity for creation in the midst of incredible, painful circumstances. It’s no understatement when I type that Byron’s work emboldened me, opened my eyes, ripped my heart out of my chest, & put it back again whole. I’ve developed a deep appreciation of his poetry, as well as his life, and becoming so familiar with each has immeasurably enriched my own artistic output and worldview. Out of all the poems I know and love, this one has become my personal favorite; it takes me back to a specific time and place, day and face:

I speak not, I trace not, I breathe not thy name;
There is grief in the sound, there is guilt in the fame;
But the tear that now burns on my cheek may impart
The deep thoughts that dwell in that silence of heart.


Too brief for our passion, too long for our peace,
Were those hours – can their joy or their bitterness cease?
We repent, we abjure, we will break from our chain, –
We will part, we will fly to – unite it again!

Oh! thine be the gladness, and mine be the guilt!
Forgive me, adored one! – forsake if thou wilt;
But the heart which is thine shall expire undebased,
And man shall not break it – whatever thou may’st.

And stern to the haughty, but humble to thee,
This soul in its bitterest blackness shall be;
And our days seem as swift, and our moments more sweet,
With thee at my side, than with worlds at our feet.

One sigh of thy sorrow, one look of thy love,
Shall turn me or fix, shall reward or reprove.
And the heartless may wonder at all I resign –
Thy lips shall reply, not to them, but to mine.

May, 1814.

Bloomin’ Great

Today is Bloomsday.

Not having read Ulysses in over a decade, much less looked through it (ironically, I left my annotated copy in Dublin), I decided it was the perfect day to pick up a copy. As I flipped through page after page of beautiful, confounding prose, I was reminded of the place writing once occupied in my life, and how my perceptions around it have changed.

It’s not a higher calling to me anymore, nor is it some kind of holy act; it simply is, along with any number of other things people have a particular affinity for. I both fought and embraced the monikers of “writer” and “artist” for years, feeling, on the one hand I wasn’t worthy of those titles, and, on the other, I was purely defined by them. Neither, life has shown me, is quite accurate.

And yet there’s the same sense of wonder, joy, and wordless awe when I open Ulysses, just as there was way back when I first read it in the mid 1990s. The mad combination of drama, poetry, geography, and frankly… a jazz-like feeling of improvisation infuse every word in the 700+ page novel with wonder for me. It isn’t polite, tidy, or precise; this is rough, edgy, coarse prose, the kind you might find your brain -much less (eeek) soul -getting cut on (badly) if you’re looking for soothing respite. That’s a big part of its appeal. Who wants soothing? There’s yoga for that. Joyce’s words are real, raw, crude, shrewd, raunchy, sad, infuriating, confusing … and poetic. Like people. Like life.

This, of all days, feels like the right time to offer up a tribute, and I can think of no better way of saluting the book, and all of us still intoxicated by it. Yes, for real:

There’s a beautiful roughness to this, without the 360 frills, that feels right for the poetic (dare I say Joycean) lyrics; the musical rawness here feels (and sounds) like the perfect dance partner for the pitbull-like aggression of the prose, and, conversely, the prose has a wild, unhinged musicality that becomes more muscular with the beefy sonic accompaniment. My first reaction when I heard this song was: Joyce. And it wasn’t just the June 16th reference, either.

Words -they’re not much, but they can get us through some dark times. They, like any art, don’t define -they refine; the silence between syllables and the long yawning vowels become the music we understand. Writing isn’t reformation but sublimation to a higher power: imagination.

“How moving the scene there in the gathering twilight, the last glimpse of Erin, the touching chime of those evening bells and at the same time a bat flew forth from the ivied belfry through the dusk, hither, thither, with a tiny lost cry. And she could see far away the lights of the lighthouses so picturesque she would have loved to do with a box of paints…”

Your Life

Amidst the stress of joejob work (whoops, I’ve been advised to call it “enable-job”, because truly, attitude is everything), planning for (and conducting) radio interviews, chasing future stories for Play Anon, hosting company, and mad job applying, I really haven’t been keeping up to date on my writing. And I feel bad about that. I came across this little treat via Twitter today, and wanted to share it. There’s something in Tom Waits’ plaintive, gruff delivery of this beautiful, simple poem that strikes a chord with me: the sense of struggle, of survival, of a shining, brilliant faith beaming forth amidst the crap of the world Hank was so familiar with.

Corny but true: “The Laughing Heart” makes a heart laugh. Enjoy. More soon.

Linkalicious

Voila, Play Anon’s latest batch of neat cultural and human-interest stuff found through a week of online trawling. Enjoy, and please feel free to leave your own suggestions too.

Photographer Viviane Sassen captures a gorgeous Africa
. According to PLANET magazine, the fashion photographer’s work is “(n)ot quite haute couture, not quite documentary” but is “the result of directed African pilgrimages. (They) fall into an enigmatic category incorporating personal memory, imperialism, and sensual beauty.” The exhibit, on now through April 10th at Danziger Projects in New York City, is the photographer’s first American exhibition and incorporates images from past series based around the cultures and peoples of Ghana, South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Beautiful stuff.

Photographer Izabella Demavlys documents scarred lives in her latest series. The former fashion photographer took pictures of women in Pakistan who survived acid attacks in Without A Face; she also document their family time with Saira. In an interview with Eyeteeth, she explains her move away from the world of fashion, to a wider definition of beauty:

One of the reasons I shifted over from fashion photography was its conceptualized views of women. I came to a point where I couldn’t work in that environment anymore….nor did my work change perceptions, behaviors, or engage the viewer in any issues. I simply fueled the fashion world with more images of young women who would represent what I believe is a distorted idea of beauty.

It’s so encouraging to see Demavlys actually living the old adage, of being the change she wants to see in the world. She has a real artist’s eye for the female face, combined with an unerring love for her subjects. Inspiring.

Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko has been arrested. His crime? Daring to question the government in his latest exhibition of graffiti work, 3D installations, and paintings. Artist Voti Thebe, who is also the director of the National Gallery where Maseko exhibited his work, was also arrested. Maseko’s own website is here. I’m angry and disappointed this didn’t make bigger news, or garner outrage from fellow artists in North America; Maseko and Thebe are both hugely talented and they truly deserve every bit of support here.

Photographer Matthias Heiderich captures a colourful Berlin. Despite rising rents and a rapidly homogenizing “underground” culture, I’m still sensing the weird, wonderful, experimental Berlin of old through Heiderich’s beautiful shots contained in his series, Color Berlin. Anyone else?

A moving collection of photographs captures seven years of war in Iraq. March 19th marked the seventh anniversary of the invasion of Iraq; the Denver Post has an incredible compilation of photos that are tragic, heartening, funny, sad, infuriating, inspiring, and will, frankly, give you a whole new appreciation of the art of photojournalism, and the resiliency of those who do it.

English artist Antony Gormley gets spacey in his latest New York exhibit. Gormley’s bio describes his work as “a radical investigation of the body as a place of memory and transformation” and the exhibit, Breathing Room II (running at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City through May 1st) takes those notions and uses you, the viewer, as a prime subject. Heady, fascinating, and ultimately revealing about the comfy, pre-conceived notions we hold about space and time.

The Art Gallery of Ontario is featuring the concept of time too. Running through August 1st in Toronto, Sculpture as Time: Major Works. New Acquisitions features a bevvy of international artists’ works including that of Tino Sehgal, whose last exhibit at the Guggenheim caused a stir about the role of performance art in the 21st century. Prepare to re-think ideas and preciously-held beliefs. In other words, you may get uncomfortable -which is sometime a good thing. Right?

Loopy (pun unintended) Frenchman Sebastien Tellier has a cheeky (pun intended) new video out to commemorate the tenth anniversary of stylish French music label Recordmakers. This video really makes me want to pick up line drawing again. Surreal, funny, sexy… I see Bunuel smiling at this one. Nice tune too.

Man writes Shakespeare anagrams, s=l=o=w=l=y. No, it isn’t a joke. K. Silem Mohammad, a published poet and professor, is using a painfully meticulous process based around anagrams whereby he’ll render all 144 of the Bard’s sonnets into new expressions of poetry. So far, he’s finished 68. I like that he’s into both traditional, metered poetry, as well as the “collage” approach. Re-defining the definitions is what keeps art -and life -interesting.

This week: Posts on Hot Docs, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… , the latest Daniel Lanois video, and more food features and recipes. Happy last-week-of-March!

walk good, children

Director/Playwright ahdri zini mandiela‘s moving theatre work who knew grannie? a dub aria is currently on at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. I went to the show unsure of what to expect; I had seen mandiela’s other work (notably her inspired direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Stage Company) and I was also aware she’d founded the ground-breaking b current Performing Arts Company.

Now, I’d been told grannie is “more of a song” than a formal play. Well, what a beautiful song -and what a delightful, wholly satisfying, of theatre it is! Exploring ideas around family, community, loss, and black identity in the 21st century, the work carefully, masterfully incorporates musical elements into its rich, poetic dialogue; it reminded me of Beat poetry, of jazz, of Caribana, of church, of things intimate and epic and singularly, defiantly boundary-crossing -all elements that, to my mind, should be playing a part in humming the tune of contemporary Canadian theatre.

Characters like the bespecled likklebit (Miranda Edwards), the cellphone-addicted vilma (Andrea Scott), yuppie kris (Marcel Stewart), and rebel tyetye (Joseph Pierre), as well as grannie herself (Ordena) are all well-drawn and eagerly performed. Despite their different journeys, mandiela has created a vital thread of connection running between them, a thread that’s given physical manifestation in the form of multi-coloured lines of cord running across the Factory’s wide stage expanse. Used alternately as clothing lines, cages, lines of demarcation and nationality, Julia Tribe’s inspired design is a beautiful compliment to mandiela’s writing and direction, demonstrating the twin notions of separation and connection, distance and intimacy, past and present (and even future) all at once.

Combined with the live percusison of Amina Alfred, who knew grannie: a dub aria is masterful, moving theatre that salutes the past (be it conventions, generations, people or places) while moving boldly into new, exciting realms of performance possibility and the outer reaches of the human heart. I had the opportunity of interview ahdri zhina mandiela about the work; her answers are, unsurprisingly, every bit as poetic as her show.

What inspired who knew grannie: a dub aria? Was it a specific person, or situation?

the aria is inspired by my mother, who is the eldest daughter of her mother, the grannie on whom the central character is based. my mother is in her mid-80’s and may pass on soon; this is my way of facing that impending loss.

How did you decide on the show’s format? Was music always a major part of it?

as a performance poet, most, if not all, of my writing is poetry, and the musicality of language has always been present in my work. this piece demanded that the music be highlighted in the telling of who knew grannie; hence the coining of the term ‘dub aria’.

How does the language inform and shape the narrative and characters?

verbal language is just one of the communication principles in the narrative. emotional language, language of space & movement are others; each contribut(es) to shaping the characters personalities, journeys, and interactions.

Why did you include drums?

the ‘languages’ needed to have their music highlighted/enhanced/embellished.

plus, the drum is a primal musical instrument, and very much represents grannie’s voice: that’s the musical instrument she would play if she was a ‘musician’.

Who is this for?

everyone: we all have a grannie still living or on the other side. and we all have some memories of relating to a grannie or grandmother figure.

who knew grannie: a dub aria runs at the Factory Theatre in Toronto through April 4th.

Photo credit: Nicola Betta Photography.

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