Posts Tagged ‘Allen Ginsberg’

Glimpsing the Future

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet 2014

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet) © 2014 David Jouris Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene

I like that quote, but I think for me there were many moments in childhood when doors opened and the future came in.

When I was six, having arrived mid-year in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade class at Las Lomitas Elementary, I won my first friends by telling them stories at recess, stories I made up. And there came a day when Mrs. Bushnell was desperate for a nap and asked us to put our heads down and nap with her, but Donny Dorset protested, “We’re not tired, Mrs. Bushnell. Couldn’t Todd tell us a story?”

So while dear Mrs. Bushnell slumbered, I stood before the class and told a story about a boy who befriends a talking alligator named Albert and a smart aleck parrot named Cocolamoko and the adventures that ensued from their friendship. And as I gazed out at my classmates and saw them hanging on my every word and laughing at the goofy voices I gave Albert and Cocolamoko, I saw what I might be one day: an actor playwright.

During the summer after First Grade, I fell madly in love with my classmate Diana Fernandez who lived just up the hill from me. She was the fastest runner in our class and the most fearless of girls, and to my eyes she was exceedingly beautiful and I wanted to kiss her. To that end, I started a neighborhood Science club, a fancy name for catching bugs and lizards and looking at drops of pond water through my father’s microscope and discovering the strange creatures therein. When I invited Diana to join my club and she unhesitatingly said Yes, I immediately scheduled our first field trip.

Looking back on this scheme to be alone with Diana in the forest, I marvel at my ingenuity and perspicacity, for I never again was so ambitious and calculating in my wooing of anyone or anything.

The blessed day of our expedition arrived and Diana came to my house in a darling blue dress, her long brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, a bag of freshly baked cookies in her knapsack for our luncheon in the field. And then, with each of us carrying a large glass jar and notebook and pencil to record how and when we captured our specimens, we ventured into the forest of giant oaks a quarter-mile from my house.

Several of these ancient oaks had branches so long and thick that over time they had bent down to earth under their own weight without breaking and snaked along the ground before rising up again to become entangled with other massive branches.

Thus it was possible to simply step up onto one of these branches and walk along and up until we were high above the ground. This is what Diana and I did in the name of science, though we both knew we were aiming to find the perfect place for kissing, which we did. I remember feeling confident we were in no danger of falling, though I cannot quite picture our perch. I do remember looking down at my dog Cozy who had followed us, and how small she seemed so far below.

Then we gazed into each other’s eyes, and Diana hypnotized me, and I was no longer a boy but a man, and she was a beautiful woman, and we kissed for a short infinity, during which I glimpsed a future where kissing Diana or someone like Diana would be a primary motivating factor in my life. I also glimpsed (or certainly sensed) the steamy jungles of adult sexuality, though I had no ready place to file that glimpse in my emotional file cabinet, though I must have filed the sensation somewhere because I remember those moments with Diana vividly sixty years later.

And then there was the poetry reading I attended with my friend Rico in a little church in the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1966, featuring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. I was sixteen. To quote from my novel Ruby & Spear (available for a penny plus shipping online):

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.

“I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.”

Just Old

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

if my head sinks beneath the sea site

If My Heads Sinks Beneath The Sea painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2015)

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” Samuel Ullman

A friend suggested that the reason I find contemporary American movies and books and plays and music to be largely junk is that I am just old.

Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Crosby, and many other older musicians aver that contemporary popular music today is inferior to the popular music of their day, but that’s just because those guys are old.

Every writer I know over fifty decries the deplorable state of writing and editing today, but that’s just because we’re old. And when older poets recoil at the poetry of younger poets whose verses are rife with clichés, void of subtlety, and might be lyrics to rap songs, they are recoiling because they are just old.

If you ask young people about the movies of today, they will name dozens of films they think are light years better than movies we thought were great when we were younger. Young people are certain I cannot see and hear and understand what they are seeing and hearing and understanding because my eyes and ears and mind are just old, and they might be right about that, though I don’t like to think so.

My mother plugged her ears and shouted, “Turn that off!” when she caught nine-year-old me listening to Ray Charles. Maybe Mom was just old. She liked The Mills Brothers and Artie Shaw, and so did I, but she didn’t like Sam and Dave and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield because she was stuck in the musical aesthetics of Tommy Dorsey and Jack Little.

“Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.” Andy Serkis

I am sixty-five-years-old at last count. Depending on your view of things, I am middle-aged, old, or real old. Yes, contemporary cultural aesthetics are in constant flux, and yes, I am not enamored of most of the latest fluctuations. However, my estrangement from American culture did not begin when I qualified for Medicare and Social Security. No, my disaffection began when I was in the prime of my life, otherwise known as my twenties and thirties, and coincided with the lightning-fast conquest of America’s publishing industry by a few massive, politically conservative, morally bankrupt multi-national corporations.

To echo Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best minds in the publishing business fired by soulless corporate operatives and replaced by Yes people who only follow orders from the unimaginative number-crunchers above them, those orders being: publish books exactly like the books we already know sell lots of copies. Do not buy anything that might be too sophisticated for a poorly educated ten-year-old. Buy nothing remotely original. And only consider things sent to you by literary agents who agree to follow these same orders.

That merciless corporate blitzkrieg of America’s publishers began circa 1972 and the conquest was complete by 1980. Call me a conspiracy nut, but I think this takeover was part of a conscious effort by the ruling elite to snuff out the fires started in the counter-culture renaissance known as The Sixties, with the election of Ronald Reagan a direct result of their coup d’état.

Publishing was not the only branch of our cultural tree thoroughly infected by the corporate fungus during that same decade. Record companies, movie studios, magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and television networks were also conquered and gutted by the same multinational consortium, and we have lived in a culture shaped and controlled by this mind-numbing corporatocracy ever since.

I don’t hold this view of history because I am just old, but because I experienced this cultural takeover firsthand when I was a young and successful writer and screenwriter. When I refused to acquiesce to the new cultural guidelines imposed by the recently installed corporate managers, my career was effectively ended.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Alan Watts

Before I was just old, I founded the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. Every summer for five years, my faculty and I would greet the fifty young writers we had selected from many hundreds of applicants, and we would invariably discover that all these bright young people were starving for something to read other than Anne Rice or Stephen King or To Kill A (expletive deleted) Mockingbird. I use the word starving because the nincompoops running our schools in collusion with the corporate overlords intentionally deprived those young people of varied, original, challenging and nourishing literature.

One of our first acts of compassion for these bright young people was to give them long reading lists of our favorite novels, short story collections, plays, and non-fiction works, as well as the names of hundreds of excellent writers and poets, most of those authors dead or just old. And for this simple gift of sharing the names of books and writers we admired, we were looked upon by our young peers as angels descended from heaven to end the vapidity of their cultural experiences.

Now that I am just old, I sometimes delude myself, just for fun, by imagining another totally neato renaissance happening in my lifetime. Or maybe, as a friend who is also just old opined, “The renaissance is always here, but like a whale, she dives deep for food and we can’t see her most of the time unless we happen to be watching when she comes up for air.”

Watching and Listening

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

1215beatsthinking350col

beats thinking ©John Grimes fizzdom.com grimescartoons.com

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2014)

“If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.” George Gobel

Prior to television taking over virtually every home in America by the end of the 1950’s, there were several hundred weekly and monthly magazines in America publishing multiple short stories per issue and paying thousands of writers good money for those short stories. And there were also hundreds of daily newspapers publishing short stories and serialized novels and paying well for the privilege. Before 1960, the vast majority of American novelists, playwrights, and humorists developed their talent by writing short stories and submitting those stories for publication.

By the time I sold my first short story in 1975, there remained but a few dozen monthly magazines in America that published a story or two per issue, and only a handful of those magazines paid more than a pittance, though by today’s standards those pittances were small fortunes. Television is famously known for ending The Golden Age of Radio, circa 1930-1955, but less well known for terminating The Golden Age of Short Stories that was the foundation of our literary culture.

Now in 2014, as a former voracious reader of short stories, I very rarely encounter contemporary fiction that interests me—my taste formed in a bygone era—and I will sometimes watch an episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen television show from the 1950’s on my computer in hope of satisfying my hunger for a good short story. Alas, George and Gracie do not satisfy this craving, but their goofy shows do embody that seminal moment in our cultural history when television supplanted reading, radio, movies, live theatre, and hanging out at bowling alleys as the thing most Americans did with their spare time.

As contemporary writing continues to evolve, fewer and fewer people can discern the difference between what I used to call good writing and now call classical writing, from what I used to call bad writing and now call modern writing. In thinking about the vanishing of this particular kind of discernment, I am reminded that reading and writing of any kind are barely discernible blips on the timeline of human evolution, whereas watching and listening span the entirety of mammalian and human evolution and are as significant in our specie’s development as procreation and digestion. And that is why television is both irresistible and addictive to humans: watching and listening are what we were born to do.

“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” Satchel Paige

Our ever evolving watching and listening powers supplied our simultaneously evolving brains vital information for taking action to secure food and mates and safe places to rest and sleep. Our survival depended on skillful watching and listening and the application of information we gained thereby. Advanced applications of information accumulated from watching and listening made possible the development of all sophisticated human activities, including drawing and writing and composing music and baking bread and sailing and bowling.

Watching television, however, has nothing to do with survival or giving our brains vital information or enhancing our lives. This is in small part because of what our overlords put on television for us to watch, but is largely a function of the hypnotic, numbing and deleterious effects of the medium itself. Indeed, for the likes of me, the best hour of television I have ever seen was a depressing soporific compared to taking a walk or reading a good short story or picking blackberries or playing the piano or going bowling.

“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra

Born into a literate household in 1949, I grew up gobbling books. My parents bought our first television in 1954 to watch the McCarthy hearings, my father a publicly vocal opponent of the Korean War and therefore fearful of being added to The Big Black List of Subversives! However, my siblings and I were not allowed to watch television on weekdays and were only allowed to watch for an hour a night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Being a kid obsessed with playing ball and riding my bike all over creation and reading books and listening to Ray Charles, I was never much of a television watcher. In 1969, when I quit college to pursue a career as a writer and musician, I decided to give up television entirely. Save for watching a few playoff games over the next forty-five years, and nowadays watching sports highlights and the occasional George and Gracie episode on my computer, I have adhered to my decision.

Why did I make that choice? To echo the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with one minor change: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by television.

A few days ago someone was showing me a few things on her smartphone and after a few minutes of gazing into the little screen while she tapped various buttons to bring up various apps, I felt my psyche disintegrating. I think it must be the way I’m wired that makes me hypersensitive to stuff projected on a screen. Indeed, the way I’m wired makes it imperative I avoid violent movies, and for that matter violent prose, because I experience the violence as real.

Did you ever see the movie Taxi Driver? 1976. I was living in Medford, Oregon, working as a landscaper and writing short stories. I was an avid moviegoer and fledgling screenwriter who avoided violent movies. One day I got a letter from my friend Rico, a psychotherapist who knew all about my aversion to violent films. He wrote, “Saw an interesting little flick you might enjoy. Taxi Driver. Check it out.”

That being the sum total of what I knew about the movie, and never thinking Rico would steer me wrong, I went to see Taxi Driver at Medford’s one and only multi-screen movie house. Why I didn’t walk out after the first few minutes when my skin was crawling and my heart was pounding to a bossa nova beat, I can only attribute to my faith in Rico. To this day, thirty-eight years gone by, just thinking about that horror movie gives me the creeps.

Rewriting Kerouac

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” Jack Kerouac

More than fifty years after his novel was first published (in 1957), a movie has finally been made based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I have not yet seen the film, but because the movie was written and directed by Walter Salles, the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker who made the most magnificent Central Station, I wager his movie of On the Road will be beautifully made. I will also wager that On the Road, the movie, will owe much more to Salles’s genius than to the text after which it is named.

“I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to come incongruous matter which quit distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether.” Alfred North Whitehead

Any meaningful discussion of Kerouac’s On the Road must take into account when the book was written and published. The book is a loose-knit rambling account of male friendship set in America in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when automobiles and the advent of suburbia were swiftly reshaping the physical and social landscape of the country and accelerating the breakdown of the social mores that had defined America for generations. Outside of this specific historical context, much of the novel will have little or no relevancy for most contemporary readers.

I think many of the complaints (and they are legion) about On the Road being badly written, boring, misogynistic, juvenile, shallow, and a colossal waste of the reader’s time are the result of readers hoping the book will reveal itself to be a timeless masterpiece, a revelation that will elude the reader unless he is that rare bird who enjoys Kerouac’s speedy chatty name-dropping word flow that is short on plot and continuity and long on…word flow, which in the context of the literary style-revolution of the 1950’s is significant. I think it no coincidence that Samuel Beckett’s highly abstract existential play Waiting For Godot, about two guys hopelessly lost on the road, was written and produced at roughly the same historical moment that On the Road was written and published, both works eschewing many of the structural and grammatical rules that theretofore governed their respective literary forms.

“All our best men are laughed at in this nightmare land.” Jack Kerouac

I first tried to read On the Road when I was thirteen, a paperback edition being available on our living room bookshelf. I was hunting for sex scenes and hopeful of finding them because the cover illustration on the 25-cent paperback featured a sexy young stud in the foreground with little pictures of scantily clad women in the background, including one picture of a couple in bed making love. Racy! Alas, careful skimming of what was to my young mind nearly unintelligible prose, uncovered only a few references to people having sex or having had sex, with almost nothing remotely juicy or graphic or titillating. Even the Mexican whorehouse adventure—a sort of climax to On the Road—was not particularly sexy, but rather pathetic. Fortunately, I would soon discover Lady Chatterley’s Lover and need no other masturbatory aid for years to come.

 “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Jack Kerouac

In 1966, when I was sixteen, I was introduced to the San Francisco Beat poets by my friend Rico, and over the next several years I attended poetry readings featuring Philip Whalen (my favorite), Lew Welch, David Meltzer, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg. In retrospect, I find it fascinating that though all these poets owed much of their notoriety to their intimate connections to the world-famous Jack Kerouac, I never heard a single mention of Jack at any of those readings. When I was twenty, and only because I was so enamored of Philip Whalen’s poetry, I attempted to read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (starring fictionalized versions of Whalen and Snyder) but could not force myself to read more than a few pages, no matter how many times I tried. Then shortly after giving up on Dharma Bums, I learned that Kerouac had recently died at the age of forty-seven from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism.

“Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” Jack Kerouac

And so I attained the ripe old age of thirty-two without ever having read any Kerouac (other than my teenaged skimming of On the Road). I was living in Sacramento and very much enjoying the local poetry scene when I was invited to participate in a show entitled October in the Railroad Earth, a celebration of Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets. My fellow readers were D.R. Wagner, Patrick Grizzell, and Bari Kennedy. The format of our show, which became an annual event for many years thereafter, was that we would read works by Kerouac and his Beat poet pals in the first act and our own work in the second act. The readings took place in October in various dives around Sacramento, and for the first few years one of us was assigned to read October in the Railroad Earth, Kerouac’s poetic prose account of riding the train from San Francisco to Gilroy in October.

When I confessed to D.R. Wagner (a great visionary poet) that I had never read any Kerouac and had no idea what to read for the show, D.R. suggested I find a little something in On the Road. So to find that little something I decided to read the book and see what jumped out at me. Alas, if Kerouac’s word flow was largely unintelligible to me as a thirteen-year-old, On the Road held even less interest for me at thirty-two. And so I resorted to skimming, which brought me to a passage in which the narrator (the fictional Kerouac) hooks up with a young woman he meets on a bus—a passage I hoped to perform with some success for an audience of inebriated poets and poetry lovers.

However, when I previewed my reading for an audience of friends after supper one night, the unanimous judgment was that despite my best efforts, the narrative was difficult to follow and essentially pointless. And so, though I knew I was committing a great sacrilege, I spent some time editing the passage, adding a descriptive line here and there, and clarifying the myriad antecedents therein, something Kerouac seemed little concerned with, as if he assumed his readers needed no such clarity.

“It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” Jack Kerouac

When the night of our performance arrived—the venue appropriately a subterranean bar (appropriate because one of Kerouac’s novels is entitled The Subterraneans)—the place was packed with Kerouac aficionados and poets and the special sort of people drawn to such literary social alcoholic events. And as I listened to D.R. and Pat and Bari read their Kerouac selections, I was filled with dread about what I was about to do: read my rewritten Jack to some of the only people on earth who might know that I had dared revise the work of their god. Was I crazy? Well, I was young and arrogant, which sufficed, so I took my turn, read with zeal, and garnered loud applause for my perfidy.

During the interminable intermission, I was approached by an enormous man with a prodigious mustache and a menacing look in his eyes. I braced myself for condemnation, but none was forthcoming. On the contrary, he shook my hand and declared, “You nailed it, man. You got the rhythm of his words absolutely spot on. I could hear the bass line going as you read. Bravo.”

And hot on the heels of the mustachioed behemoth came a gorgeous woman wearing a slinky sheath that clung most pleasingly to her many admirable curves. She clasped both my hands in both of hers and gushed, “Wow, I hate to admit, but I never really got Kerouac until now. I just…he never made sense to me, but as you read that scene I saw everything so clearly, like a fabulous movie. Thank you.”

At the next year’s Kerouac reading, I read Jack’s October in the Railroad Earth, and I didn’t change a word; and as I read that lovely flow of words I really got what Jack was trying to do with language, which was, I think, to sing like a jazz musician, talking and emoting through his instrument of words while staying open, wide open, to the feelings of the moment.

Both At Once

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2011)

“Truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Morning: A beautiful day in Mendocino, the rhododendrons madly blooming, the headlands a riot of wild roses and wild irises and wild mustard, while across the ocean a terrible thing is happening: four nuclear reactors in Japan are out of control, melting down, and turning vast areas of that nation into dead zones for thousands of years to come.

“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world.” Allen Ginsberg

Noon: A friend writes to say his business is doing well, his daughter about to get married, and he hasn’t felt so well in ages. In the same mail is a note from another friend telling me about his neighbor, a fellow from Japan, who now has five relatives living with him in his tiny apartment in Berkeley, the hope being they can somehow figure out a way to stay here once their tourist visas expire, because as far as they’re concerned there is no going back to Japan unless they want to die much sooner than later.

“There is only one answer to destructiveness and that is creativity.” Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Afternoon: I weed my burgeoning beets. Oh how they loved all the recent rain; and oh how they love the fulgent sunshine. Making tea, I turn on the radio and listen to Michio Kaku, the renowned physicist speaking to Amy Goodman. He believes the ongoing meltdowns of the nuclear power plants in Japan, along with the massive releases of radioactive materials into the atmosphere, must be dealt with promptly and thoroughly or there will soon be catastrophic consequences far beyond the already catastrophic consequences. When Amy asks him what the Japanese government should do, Michio says they should call out the army and do everything necessary to entomb the power plants as quickly as possible.

“The only thing you can believe in a newspaper is the date.” J.B.S. Haldane

Night: The Giants win a great game in the bottom of the tenth inning—a real thriller, the winning hit causing me to hoot for joy. On my way to bed, I check the interweb for news of the nuclear meltdowns, though I know such news might mess up my sleep, and I find a recent statement from Barack Obama saying nuclear power is definitely the way to go because nuclear is clean energy and won’t contribute to global warming.

“The fool has one great advantage over a man of sense—he is always satisfied with himself.” Napoleon Bonaparte

Morning: I make a pot of coffee and turn on our local public radio station and listen incredulously to a show purporting to be about energy. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. The hosts, two self-proclaimed experts on energy, are both extolling the virtues and safety of nuclear power. Having just read the latest nightmare news from Japan, I am about to call the show, when they take a call from a guy who says, “Hey, all power is nuclear, right? Solar power is nuclear, right? Comes from the sun, which is nuclear. Right? So…”

And the hosts agree. “That’s right, all power is nuclear. So…”

They take another call. A woman. I’m hoping she’ll say what I want to say, which is, “Are you out of your minds? There are four nuclear power plants in Japan in full meltdown, radiating the entire earth, sewing the seeds of millions of cases of cancer, and you dare call nuclear power safe?” But she says something about life being a beautiful dance “…and, like, so…enjoy the dance.”

I turn off the radio and do the dishes. I vacuum the house. I chop kindling. I mulch the potatoes. I grab my bucksaw and go down into the woods and find a fallen fir. I cut the tree into draggable lengths and lug them up the steep hill to the woodshed where I saw the logs into firewood. I chop some more kindling. I drive to town and park at Big River Beach and walk into town along the beach and up the stairs to the Presbyterian. I am so angry at those people for saying nuclear power is safe, I’m about to explode, and I figure if I keep working and walking and using the energy of my anger to get things done, I won’t explode.

At the post office, Sheila and I talk about the Giants. We’re both sorry De Rosa hurt his wrist, but, hey, the guy was a dead weight on the team, bad mojo, and without him we’re winning again. We’re both looking forward to Pablo coming back. I buy some Gregory Peck stamps. I didn’t know Greg was dead. Did you know a person has to be dead before he or she can be on a postage stamp? The one exception to this I know of was the stamp (3 cents?) commemorating the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. Apparently, one or two of the men in that famous (staged) photograph were still alive when the stamp was issued.

Part of the official reason for America dropping not one but two atom bombs on hundreds of thousands of defenseless Japanese civilians at the end of World War II was so our armed forces wouldn’t have to invade Japan “Iwo Jima-style” and suffer thousands of “unnecessary casualties.” This was not the real reason the bombs were dropped. I don’t know what the real reasons were, though I have my suspicions. What I do know is that anyone who says nuclear power is safe and clean should immediately go to Japan and help entomb the nuclear power plants that are in full meltdown and radiating the planet.

“The two divinest things this world has got,

A lovely woman in a rural spot.” Leigh Hunt

Marcia just came home from a three-week vacation in England, her first vacation in a very long time. She is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. We laugh sometimes about being artists and how people, lots of people, think artists have it easy and don’t work as hard as, say, dentists or hedge fund criminals. But we work seven days a week from morning until night. Yes, we take breaks and eat meals and go on walks and run errands, but we put in ten to sixteen hours of labor every day for which we may or may not get paid a cent. That’s our life. We work because to not work is to not answer the call of whatever is calling us, however esoteric that whatever may be.

One of the hardest things for me and probably for you, too, is not letting all the horrible terrible frightening sickening news depress us so much that we can’t work. Thus I intentionally limit my intake of news when I feel overwhelmed with fear and anger. A few days of ignorance may not create bliss, but it usually clears the lobes and allows me to focus on the few things I have some control over.

“There are only two emotions in Wall Street: fear and greed.” William Le Fevre

Buddha understood that fear was the great obstacle to peace, both personal and societal. When we’re afraid, we don’t fully experience the present moment, and therefore we are not fully alive or fully aware of what’s really going on. When we’re afraid, anger arises and seeks release. War might be said to be a massive release of anger masking fear.

“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” William Sloan Coffin

I’m reading a letter from a friend full of news about his five-year-old daughter. I grin as I visualize his brilliant, beautiful child racing around, singing, talking, learning, when suddenly these big drops of water splat down on the page. I look up into the clear blue sky. How can it be raining? Oh. I’m weeping for joy at hearing about the miracles of his daughter’s happy childhood, and weeping for sorrow about the world we are leaving her—weeping about both at once in the same breath.

Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.

Writing Good

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

(This article originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 2010)

I daresay creativity cannot be taught. Creativity can be engendered, encouraged, cultivated, and supported, but being creative is as natural as breathing, and so to purport to teach creativity is to lie. And the multi-billion dollar creativity-teaching industry in this perpetually adolescent culture of ours is just that: a big fat putrescent lie. And the crown jewels in this cartel of deceit are the several hundred MFA programs in Creative Writing sponsored by academic institutions large and small that yearly hoodwink tens of thousands of misguided people, young and old, who very much want to become more accomplished writers and have succumbed to slick fairy tale propaganda promising mastery and success with their writing in just two or three years of apprenticeship to writers who, almost without exception, cannot write their ways out of paper bags let alone teach anyone to write any better than they.

I am particularly sensitive to and alarmed by this Creative Writing MFA fraud because several extremely promising writers I’ve been privileged to work with have been severely damaged if not entirely ruined by either undergraduate creative writing classes or these insidious MFA programs. I did my best to warn these folks of the pitfalls of embarking on such misadventures, but the temptations were apparently too many, the propaganda too convincing, and the alternative of decades of solitary labor too daunting, so they surrendered to the academic combine, walked into the maws of institutionalized idiocy, and sacrificed their inherent originality and uniqueness to systems run by sycophants and frauds.

Or to quote Allen Ginsberg, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” and I have witnessed a dozen marvelous writers deformed and defused by the madness of MFA programs in Creative Writing.

Twenty-some years ago I was hired to design and run the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. The founding mandate of this summer school for artistically inclined teenagers was that the heads of each department should be accomplished artists in their fields apart from any academic credentials they may have accrued. I was the only department head without a college degree, and though I parted ways with CSSSA after five fascinating years, in the history of that still extant school I remain, as far as I know, the only non-degreed department head they ever had.

I had never taught creative writing when I took my one and only state job, nor had I ever taken a creative writing course. However, I had published novels with big New York publishers, written screenplays for big Hollywood movie companies, published dozens of short stories, and practiced writing for twenty years, so I was confident that practicing was the best way for people to learn to write. I hired teachers who had similar notions about training young writers, set up a schedule of twice-daily practice sessions for the month we’d be working with our mob of ambitious teenagers, and we got to work.

The first thing I discovered was that most people, even those who want to be writers, are reluctant to just sit down and write whatever comes to them. They need prompting. So I invented a bunch of exercises to trick people into writing without thinking too much about what they were writing. Thinking too much about what we are writing is a huge obstacle to maximal writing flow; thus all my exercises were designed to expeditiously circumvent the inner editors/critics/intellects and postpone their arrivals until it was time to rewrite. Analysis and criticism are premiere killers of creative flow, and analysis and criticism, alas, are fundamental to all MFA Creative Writing programs. My several dozens of exercises were compiled and published a decade ago in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path. Viable used copies of that out-of-print tome may be had for a fraction of a dollar each via the Interweb, and though I don’t make a dime from those sales, I highly recommend the book.

The second thing I discovered working with teens, and later with adults, is that nearly everyone in America is terrified of being punished or humiliated or rejected for writing anything substantive, but especially for writing deeply personal things. A week into my first stint at the summer school for the arts, a promising poet handed me her very first attempt at fictive prose and said, “I think maybe I trust you enough to show this to you.” I began to read her story, but a few sentences along she snatched the page away from me and cried, “You hate it!” and fled the room. The next day, finding her in a calmer mood, I asked what made her think I hated her writing, and she said, “Your nose twitched a little and you might have been about to grimace, so…”

Granted, hers was an extreme sensitivity, but I soon discovered that all my teenaged charges, and later all my adult workshop attendees, were nearly as sensitive and vulnerable as she about their maiden voyages in writing imaginatively. With this awareness, and recalling my own experiences of being pummeled by teachers for my flights of literary fancy, I cautioned my faculty that it was essential we ease very slowly into our roles of constructive critics, and that for the first several encounters with our students we should strive to be as uncritical as possible without resorting to phoniness. Eventually, once a modicum of trust and mutual respect is established, writers worth a damn will voluntarily ask for critical help with their work, though that criticism should never be about content, and only about the clarity and efficacy of the writing.

In the adult workshops I offered, in which we simply practiced my exercises designed to trick us into not thinking too much about what we were writing, I found it helpful to begin the course by letting anyone who wanted (which always turned out to be everyone) to testify about the abuse they and their writing had received throughout their lives, and how they had subsequently struggled to overcome the trauma of that abuse. Sometimes it was one particularly horrible teacher who had demolished them for something they’d written, but more often it was a pattern of punishment beginning in elementary school and continuing through college and into the work force and MFA programs that had alienated them from their own language. And yet they all still desperately wanted to express themselves through the written word.

Then I would share my experiences of being smashed by teachers and rejected by moronic editors and agents and publishers, and the commonality of our experiences created comradeship and sped the growth of trust among us.

The other sort of abuse experienced by many of these writers came from bestselling how-to-write books prescribing writing regimens of at least an hour a day, every day. But since for most beginning writers, scribbling for an hour at a stretch is the equivalent of running five miles the first time you try running, such dogmatic nonsense guarantees failure. Furthermore, any self-doubts a writer may have about his or her ability will be instantly ignited with the first inevitable missing of a day or running out of inspiration after twenty minutes, which happens all the time to the most experienced writers.

After the venting was over, I would proclaim, “In our time together, you do not have to share anything you write unless you want to; and criticism and analysis are verboten. If you want to criticize and analyze each other’s work, do it on your own time.”

I recently met a thirty-year-old man in his fifth year of an MFA program in Creative Writing at a prestigious California university. I would name the college, but I don’t wish to be sued. I said I had not heard of a five-year program for writing credentials short of a PhD. “Oh, it’s a two-year program, but I keep getting extensions,” he said blithely. “So I can keep getting student loans until I finish my novel.”

“So do you keep taking the same classes over and over again?” I asked, barely able to conceal my disdain.

“Oh, no more classes,” he said, shrugging. “Just, you know, occasional meetings with my mentor and…” He paused ominously. “…the classes I teach.”

“Excuse me? You’re teaching classes in the MFA program you’re enrolled in? But what are your qualifications?”

“Well, I’ve already taken the classes,” he said, nodding complacently. “And, like, they didn’t get so and so (published author) like they thought they were going to, so I filled in, and it worked out, so…”

Following my interview with this fellow, I did a bit of investigating and found that the practice of “upper level” MFA candidates teaching “lower level” candidates is ubiquitous throughout the accredited creative writing industry. Keep that in mind as tuitions soar.

“And just what do you do?” I asked this buffoon. “As a teacher?”

“I oversee, you know, the seminars. Lead the critiques. People bring in their stories or chapters, we all read them, and then we, like, critique and analyze them, and then they rework them. Oh, and I also teach the how-to-get-published seminars, too.”

“And how is one ultimately judged worthy of the MFA and the title Master?”

“We each have an advisory committee that evaluates our work, usually a collection of stories or a novel, and they see, you know, a couple drafts and then the final manuscript.”

“And these advisors are…”

“Oh, we had (names a well-known writer) on board two years ago, and almost everybody else has, you know, published something, and we might get (names another well-known writer) next year to teach an advanced workshop and be on a couple committees. Man, would I love to get his name on my résumé.”

“Tell me more about the how-to-get published sessions?”

“Oh, you know, we go over the nine steps to writing a successful query letter, the seven do’s and six don’ts of pitching ideas, the five sure-fire plot devices, the four ideal manuscript lengths, stuff like that.”

“And you learned all this from…”

“A guy one year ahead of me.”

“Have you had any luck selling anything?”

“Not so far. But I’m working on a teen vampire novel with the most amazing twist. I’m trying to sell the synopsis before someone else comes up with the same idea. Promise not to tell? The teen vampire turns out to be a consulting detective name Hercules Watson. Get the references?”

I got them, and then I murdered the guy and drove a wooden stake through his heart, but I’m not telling where he’s buried.

So if you or anyone you know is tempted to enroll in an MFA program in Creative Writing, or if you have a kid in college who wants to take a creative writing class, do anything you can to stop them. Tell them if they want to become good writers to read hundreds of short stories and novels by writers who have stood the test of time (at least fifty years) and to practice writing as often as they feel motivated to do so. Tell them to stop watching television or they can forget about having an original inspiration, and tell them to ask everyone they meet along their ways to tell them stories, and to prompt the tellers with questions, and to listen intently, and to take notes if they are so inclined. And tell them if they keep at their reading and listening and practicing, they will get better and better at writing down and rewriting what comes to them from a source transcendent of the intellect.

As for the five sure-fire plot devices, they are all contained in the following sentence. “God,” said the princess, “I’ve been raped, and I don’t know who did it. But I suspect a vampire.”

Audio versions of Todd’s novels are available from ITunes. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com