Tuesday, May 16, 2017

from "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and Other Poems," Pablo Picasso

26 April 43

TO THE SALMON-PINK CARESSES OF THE LEAF a thousand times half-opened and fixed detached offered as music to the fires and long trains of spangles
waved and crazy so said and splashed in glory and rockets screamed and
painted to the pearly distinct braids to the solitudes seen all mixed up
with the caressing burned distillations to the branches and to the raised
hangings to the sordid little secrets and to the unfortunate discoveries in
digestions and prayers vomited from a point into far enamored sumptuous
arabesques and ritornellos of the decompositions and tears to the spattered
and festooned arcs labors torn in perfumes and in crowns and diabolic sated
processions  to the tendernesses prepared disappeared and undone so late of
each long trajectory revolted enveloped stretched in the woods to hooked and
shredded trances in meat and bone unfolded into veils and vellums oars smack
raised in flames and good-byes rigorously projected as bait to the crowd of
mirrors aping the drained apparition at the bottom of the raised lakes of
the sun with large brush strokes painting three quarters of the sideboard
buried in the mess of hairs of the fur caulking with cotton waste the belly
open to the light with large strokes of the icy roof of the stretched sheet
of the water armor screamed at the window with all the strength of the gay
bouquet in plucked apparel to all chance and risk imagined.

(Translated from the French by Pierre Joris)

In 1935, at age 54, an emotional crisis caused Picasso to stop painting and devote himself entirely to poetry. Even after resuming his visual work, Picasso continued to write, in a characteristic torrent, until 1959, leaving a body of prose poems that Andre Breton praised as "an intimate journal, both of the feelings and the senses, such as has never been kept before." Near the end of his life, Picasso himself was quoted as having "told a friend that long after his death his writing would gain recognition and encyclopedias would say: 'Picasso, Pablo Ruiz--Spanish poet who dabbled in painting, drawing and sculpture.'" Burial of the Count of Orgaz and Other Poems (Exact Change, 2004) is a collaboration of translators coordinated by poets Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, a project to translate the majority of this writing into English for the first time. Working from Picasso's original Spanish and French (he wrote in both languages), they enlisted the help of over a dozen contemporary poets in order to mark, as they note in their introduction, "Picasso's entry into our own time." Pierre Joris' blog, Nomadics, is worth a browse in its own right.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What do writers listen to when they write?

What do writers listen to when they write? In these media-saturated days that doesn't seem like such a far-fetched question for an interview any longer, but it remains unasked most of the time. Even more rare is the chance for an author to write about the music that inspired an idea or enhanced the form of a story.

Perhaps it seems more appropriate to ask a writer simply if he turns the music off or on when he sits down to write. To many, music is only a distraction. But it turns out that many contemporary authors find music forms a soundtrack to their writing. And for some authors, music can help find a way into a story.

The Largehearted boy site has a regular feature, Book Notes, which asks writers to comment on music they listened to while they worked on their books. Thaisa Frank writes about her first novel Heidegger's Glasses, a story of World War II, that the music of Beethoven was her first choice while conceiving the story. But there were other inspirations as well: California rain on skylights, and an iPod shuffle that included Cat Power, Bob Marley, and The Cranberries.

Frank decided early in framing her characters that the camp Commandant would be listening to Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, the "Pastoral." But she changed her mind: "after listening to the Pastoral, I decided the dissonance was heavy-handed and remembered Mozart's Piano Concerto in C, which my boyfriend gave me in college. It joined my iPod shuffle. The Commandant played it, too."
...Since I studied piano perhaps it's not surprising that I chose the Concerto or made the one of the characters a pianist, although at the time I didn't give it much thought. Nor did I give it much thought at first when she played Scarlatti sonatas. Then I listened to Scarlatti and remembered how much I loved playing his sonatas and the sense of a clean, well-ordered world. I found as many Scarlatti piano sonatas as I could and they also joined the iPod shuffle.
At some point -- perhaps toward the middle of the novel -- I began to watch documentaries about WWII, documentaries in which Germany's national anthem at the time was played again and again. I heard this anthem in a curious way -- distancing myself, trying not to hear it. Perhaps I listened the way people who were threatened by, or unsympathetic to the Nazi Party listened.
In one documentary, however, I found a song that became emblematic -- a song I then listened to again and again. This was from Lotte Leyna's German recording of The Three Penny Opera. It is called "Solomon" in English, "Saloman" in German. I first heard it on a documentary about Leni Riefenstahl. While Riefenstahl insisted that she didn't know about the concentration camps it was played over and over, like a dirge. The song sounded less ironic in German than it does in English. It sounded mournful. The rhythm is insistent and relentless. It washes over Riefenstahl's denials like waves.

Thaisa Frank
I also listened to Cat Power, blues piano by Jimmy Yancey, and The Cranberries. Each piece of music felt close to the novel or the act of writing it. The Cranberries and Cat Power are close to the feelings of love and betrayal that persisted in Germany during WWII. And Jimmy Yancey's piano seemed closest to the way I seemed to disappear when the writing went well. His blues are deceptively simple--as though the piano is a guitar and he is picking out tunes. I always see him at an old upright late at night in a smoky Chicago bar. There's a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he's playing as if no one is listening. ...

The music of the blues and the reality of German concentration camps in World War II make an unlikely pairing, but that was Frank's way of "disappearing" into the story and letting the story tell itself. Most writers, if pressed, would have a difficult time explaining where their inspiration comes from. It seems that an author's music playlist is one small facet that can make the mystery of creativity a little clearer, even as the connection between source and inspiration remains as inexplicable as ever.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Writing it all down: for the Beats, too much was never enough

Bill Morris at The Millions has had enough. His post Will you Beat Hagiographers Please Be Quiet Please (with its intentional double please), about the ongoing parade of films and books lionizing the beat generation, contains some valid points about the myth-making and the saint-making machinery of American popular culture. He notes, as well, the increasing trend toward what Joyce Carol Oates has called "pathography" -- that the facts of a creative individual's life are as important as his art, with an emphasis on dysfunctional detail -- in literary biography.

It's ironic that Morris would find this abundance of lurid, personal psychology unwarranted in the biographies of beat figures like Kerouac and Burroughs -- writers who seemingly suffered from logorrhea so much more than most in letters and journals and scribbled diaries and, finally, in books. Many of them wrote everything down and some, it seems, were impatient waiting for the ink to dry before turning their lives into literature.

Their personal lives, and the stories they fashioned from them, form a carnival ground of (in Oates's phrase) “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.” With the beats, it's all there on the blotted page, with the "artifice" of fiction very nearly removed from the "art" of the story. But learning more about a writer's life, Morris writes, doesn't count for nearly as much as the books themselves:

... Since we live in an age that’s obsessed with personalities and celebrities, it’s not surprising that so few readers are satisfied with loving a book and so many insist on knowing as much as possible about the person who wrote it. While this appetite has inspired literary biographers to produce a long shelf of pathographies and other monstrosities – does the world really need Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene? – it has also resulted in some well researched and finely written literary biographies that did what such exercises do at their best: they led readers back to the subject’s books.

Among these I would include Blake Bailey’s recent biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever and, strangely enough, Ann Charters’s thorough and balanced 1973 bio of Kerouac. In her introduction, Charters wrote insightfully, if a bit clunkily: “The value of Kerouac’s life is what he did, how he acted. And what he did, was that he wrote. I tried to arrange the incidents of his life to show that he was a writer first, and a mythologized figure afterward. Kerouac’s writing counts as much as his life.”

I would argue that his writing counts more than his life, much more. Eventually Charters seemed to come around to my way of thinking. In 1995, after she’d edited two fat volumes, Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and The Portable Jack Kerouac, I interviewed her for a newspaper article. “I wanted (the book of letters) to be a biography in Jack’s own words,” she told me. “His life is in his books, but on the other hand the most essential thing is missing from those novels. What he tells you in the letters is that the most important thing in his life is writing.”

At the time The Gap was using Kerouac’s image – and images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and other ’50s icons – to sell its khaki pants. In the face of such shameless hucksterism, Charters’s insistence on the importance of Kerouac’s writing seemed both quaint and heroic to me. It still does today, as the hagiographers keep bombarding us with abominations like One Fast Move or I’m Gone and Howl and A Man Within. ...

Morris is half right. Today's hot-house atmosphere of celebrity and promotion is a blurry mix of authenticity and the artificial. Some would argue rightly everything in ad-land is all packaging. But so what? Morris's own griping about the commercialization of Kerouac seems quaint itself this late in the advertising game -- the appropriation of Kerouac's image doesn't make what he wrote less "authentic," it only questions the decisions of his estate. If fans find this kind of legend-buffing intriguing, it may be that the link between beat writers and beat writing comes close to solving the mysterious alchemy between personality and page. And that leads readers back to the words themselves -- which is Morris's basic starting point.

For many readers the movement's legacy of writing-it-all-down is a key to finding the raw material of fiction in real life. For fans, too, beat literature can seem a kind of romantic ideal, opening the gates to self-expression and revelation. Then the trick, of course, is to find a public outlet, and the internet seems to be obliterating that hurdle more rapidly every day. We can all make messes of our lives, and we now have the means to tell everyone -- friends and complete strangers -- about it.

Making real and discernible art out of a messy and careening life takes perception and some amount of craft, however, and there a writer is on his own without a net. There is a simple way past the image-crafting and the cults of personality, the flood of films and the biographer's "pathography." Writers like Morris suggest it, if a bit over-wrought, in his essay: it used to be called "letting the words speak for themselves."