Like many following the crisis in Haiti, I’m left with tremendous feelings of sadness. What can I do? How can I help? Is my donation enough? What else? As a journalist, it’s been interesting to observe the various ways stories from Port au Prince are being related; some are more positive than others, but there is an undeniable emphasis on loss, which is both fitting and yet discomforting. Surely we have to start focusing on the reconstruction stories soon. Energy goes where eyes go, after all. And eyes need to be on feeding, rebuilding, doctoring, and all-around aid.
Jean-Michel Basquiat understood this concept of energy. His paintings were full of question marks: who am I where do I belong? how do I define myself -as a black man, an artist, an American? His works, utterly shaped by graffiti and street art, have a rhythm and pulse that many painters work hard at capturing. They’re not meant to be soothing, polite, or elegant, but rather, raucous, loud, and confrontational. I frequently wonder if this is owing to Basquiat’s own mixed background and the sense I get that, in his 27 short years, he was on an urgent, stabbing quest to try to fit in -on artistic as well as socio-economic levels -with a society that he knew, to some extent, would never entirely welcome him as their own. Maybe this sense helped to fuel the rage I see (and love) in his works.
I came across a book featuring his work today and was forced to pause between floor cleanings. Leafing through Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, Basquiat’s shifting sense of power, vacillating between lost rebel and confident artiste, was both enthralling and challenging. His works are a loud, exuberant complement to Maya Angelou’s proud paean to resolve in the face of massive fear and overwhelming odds.
It may sound pretentious, but I found a new power in his many works exploring black identity in the light of the Haitian tragedy. Basquiat’s father was born in Haiti, while his mother was Puerto Rican. What would he think about the events of the last few days? How would he express the magnitude of the calamity that has befallen his father’s homeland? Would he look at UN efforts and proclaim SAMO? Or might he paint, in the spirit of Angelou’s words, a defiant, fortifying tribute to the indomitable spirit of Haiti’s citizens? We will never know. But seeing his works again have, in a strange way, given me a sort of hope the news hasn’t, and perhaps, won’t. That’s okay. Maybe that’s part of the beauty -and mystery -of art.
I moved from Dublin to London a little over ten years ago. My head was full of poetry, music, art and anxiety. I loved writing and I loved writers. While I have a hard time remembering my last few months in Ireland, one event, driven by this passion, sticks out: seeing Nick Cave twice in one day.
The lanky, deep-voiced Australian artist was in Dublin on the lecture circuit, delivering his treatise on the relationship between creativity, poetry, life, and love. He held an afternoon chat, during which he would occasionally break away to play the odd tune on a grand piano. I recall his stripped-down version of “West County Girl,” with its dramatic, low-roaring ending of “then purrrrrs… AGAIN” sent chills down my spine. He talked about saudade. He talked about owning grief. He talked about Jesus, creation, the Old Testament, the New, an the relationship of art -of writing -to each. Fancying myself a true writer, I was in love with Cave’s dramatic, deeply-felt works, even if I didn’t quite have the life experience to fully understand them. And a writer talking about writing… was manna from heaven. Verging on broke, I took what little I had and bought another ticket for the same talk happening that evening. I filled an entire journal with notes hastily scribbled during his chat, and once I’d run out of ink, I sat, silent and pie-eyed, hoping to someday be half the writer Cave was -and indeed, still is.
Cave has never shied away from showing his writerly streak, in all its flagrant glory. Part of this, for those who know his work, comes from his early exposure to literature courtesy of his English teacher-father, who died when Cave was still quite young. Known for his work with the Bad Seeds, Cave also published And the Ass Saw The Angel (Harper Collins) in 1989, a wildly surreal, violent, bizarre work that was equally potent, poetic, and memorable. He’s always worn his love for the written word proudly on his sleeve. He says (in the clip above) that his work has always been “bursting at the seams with lyrical information” -which is putting it mildly in terms of his own gift with words. As befits a rock and roll guy with a poetic streak, he credits music for giving life to his words, noting there’s “a musical rhythm to the language.” But his heart’s still firmly with those words, just as much as it is with tones, sounds, and rhythms.
The Death Of Bunny Munro (Harper Collins) is Nick Cave’s latest novel. While I’m not the biggest fan of some of his more recent music (Grinderman being the exception), I admit that the novel is deeply intriguing. It’s as if, in embracing his literary side, he’s also embracing the aggressively male side that characterized at least a portion of his workin the 1990swith the Bad Seeds (the stuff I particularly adored then, natch); it’s like Cave is exercising (not exorcising) that still-remnant Bad Seed, the one that’s been at least outwardly tamed by domestic responsibility. He can live in the squalid, dark corners of his imagination through writing, without robbing the his other creative pursuits of their pungency.
I’m really glad to see Cave still writing, and still exploring this important side of his artistry. And I’m glad he’s being honest about it, in traveling through this kind of dark, non-cuddly terrain. Artists worth their salt shouldn’t, by their nature, always release likable, easily-digestible stuff. The artists I happen to love the most, that tend to stay with me longest, often release work that is challenging, thought-provoking, hard -and distinctly non-nice. Record companies may not always like their artists’ extra-curricular creative activities, but… balls, I do, and some of them enjoy doing it, too. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps sanity intact for artist and audience alike.
That doesn’t mean sales don’t matter, though. As if to underline this, Bunny Munro was itself released in three formats: hardcover, audio book, and iPhone application. The audio book version includes a score by Dirty Three member/Bad Seed/scary-lookin’ dude Warren Ellis. The audio book intrigues because you get Cave’s deep voice giving a deeply-dramatic rendering of his own words (I remember in Dublin he called them “children,” which I was chuffed at, referring as I did then to my own work in the exact same way); in addition, you get Ellis’ intuitive musical underscoring, creating an eerie, atmospheric complement. If you have an iPhone, you can partly-read, partly-listen, using the specially-designed app. Who would’ve thought books would be so easy, so multi-faceted, so … octopus-like in reach, scope, presentation and marketing? I don’t buy the whole romantic notion of “simple appeal” even though I do enjoy the sensual appeal of the tangible (I mean hell, I love cooking, right?). I love how technology and tradition have married with The Death Of Bunny Munro, and I love that Nick Cave is so very open to it. He says he wrote the first chapter on his iPhone, and the rest in longhand. And yet he equally admits that sitting down with a book is probably more intimate.
This balance between tradition and technology is really refreshing; its equal embrace by an artist of Cave’s calibre is downright inspiring. I haven’t decided which format I’ll get yet, but I’m leaning at the audio book -if only to hear that dramatic voice reading words rendered by mind, heart, and those long, elegant fingers. I ran into Cave -by accident or some grand intelligent design -several time after I moved from Dublin to London. He was in Toronto recently to read from Bunny Munro and do a raft of interviews as well as a book signing. When I heard his voice on the radio, I smiled. My romantic ideas around writing have totally vanished, but Cave’s respect for his art is a boon to me still. And I can’t wait to be corrupted by Bunny.
I’ve started reading a book called Direct Red, by Gabriel Weston. It’s about Weston’s experiences in the world of a hospital; the British author was an arts grad who decided to become a surgeon, so she took the requisite night classes, and years of medical training, to achieve her dream. Direct Red is her account of day-to-day life in her chosen field.
But reading the book, Weston has the beautiful, flowing wordplay of a poet:
At medical school, while studying pathology, I was charmed by the names of the colourful dyes used to stain tissues for clearer microscopic viewing. Crystalline as jewels, primary as food colourings used for cake icing and egg painting, the names of these elixirs seemed brighter in my mind than the substances themselves, the Platonic hues offset by their arcane prefixes. And through a process I cannot chart, every time I feel sick in theatre, I summon a rainbow collage of these names to mind. They stimulate my ebbing consciousness and usually call me back from that strange physiological precipice to normal function.
Somehow, this shimmering language describing hues, shapes, shadows, forms and memories reminds me so much of a favourite poet I’ve recently rediscovered: Seamus Heaney, who is currently being feted in fine style by the RTE (and beyond) on account of his 70th birthday. More about him, and his poetry, in a future post.
For now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy Weston’s beautiful, imagistic work; by bringing the poetical into the surgical, she marries the worlds of science and art in a way that hasn’t been properly explored since Da Vinci.
Toronto-based writer Julie Wilson has a fantastic site called Seen Reading, where she writes about works she’s observed being read in public places. It’s smart, insightful, and deeply telling about our relationship to words, images, and each other.
Lately, Julie’s also been collecting readings of poetry. To quote from the site,
30 in 30 was created April 1, 2009 to celebrate National Poetry Month. Thirty Canadian poets were asked to submit two readings: one poem of his/her own, and one cover/tribute. That audio will appear over the course of April.
But there are more than thirty poets, poetry lovers, and days on the calendar. To that end, you, too, can help us build upon this growing archive of appreciation and performance by sending your recordings to julie[AT]seenreading[DOT]com.
My own recording of Rumi’s Ghazal 441 is included (scroll to the bottom). It’s long been a favourite of mine, and I recited it, spontaneously, by heart one day when I had extra time in a radio studio. Enjoy, and if you have a poem you love, record it & send along to the good Julie Wilson! Share the poetry. Tis the month, after all.