Posts Tagged ‘Letters’

Postcards & Notecards

Monday, August 14th, 2017

cardquestM

Card Quest notecard and postcard by Todd

I love the postal service. I love getting letters and postcards and packages. I’m sixty-seven; thus for much of my life there were no such things as personal computers and email and smartphones. The mail, the actual hold-in-your-hands letters and cards, was the great connector over long distances, especially among artists and writers and less conventional folks.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I got two or three letters and postcards every day, and some days I might get seven or eight. Nowadays I get a postcard or letter, if I’m lucky, once a week. And though I gladly partake of email and depend on my email connections for an important part of my daily happiness, I still think of letters and cards I find in my post office box as holy relics.

In response to what I consider the new Dark Ages that have descended upon us, I have revived my habit of writing and sending out letters and cards each week. I don’t expect these missives to elicit replies via the post office or otherwise. I write these notes and letters because I find the process satisfying, and because I know such communications bring pleasure to the recipients.

To facilitate my pleasure and the pleasure of people I write to, I like to create postcards and notecards that are the kinds of notecards and postcards I wish to find in stationery stores or bookshops, but never find them—because they don’t exist unless I create them. In the last year, since reviving my habit of sending handwritten messages on one-of-a-kind postcards, and handwritten letters in one-of-a-kind notecards, several correspondents have asked if they could purchase copies of my cards. One thing led to another and I decided to launch a line of notecards and postcards and offer them for sale from my web site. If you’d like to see the new line, go to Underthetablebooks.com and click on CARDS in the menu. Then on the CARDS page click on Postcards or Notecards. Voila.

Many of my postcards and notecards are ideas related to people communicating with words, and these ideas are written out in colorful handmade lettering. The process of creating the wording for each idea is identical to the process of writing a poem; many iterations resulting in a final construction of words. Here are a few examples.

My SOMETHING postcard reads: Something reminded me of you today and I wanted to let you know I was thinking of you. Then I saw this postcard and thought, “Yes! Exactly!”

My CONNECT postcard and notecard reads: One day a person receives a card that seems to be about a person receiving a card. But that is just the beginning of a story about someone who wants to connect with you.

My WILD ADVENTURE notecard reads: This card went on a wild adventure through time and space to reach you (via the Postal Service). This card is both a message and a carrier of a message. The card’s message is: Look Within. The message within is…

I also have a card called SHALL WE DANCE? An extremely fanciful and colorful parrot is flirting with a flower, with the words Shall We Dance? writ large in the air above them.

So far, the buying public has not beat a path to my web site door, but that’s okay. These are the Dark Ages. Much in our culture and society is obscured, and most things of value are invisible to the general public. Keepers of the flame, you and I, do what we do without regard for fortune and notoriety. We keep the flame burning because engendering originality and excellence is our job.

Taking a break from writing this morning, I walked to the post office and found in my box a package from the visionary poet D.R. Wagner. I haven’t heard from D.R. in several years and I was eager to see what was in the package. But rather than open the package in the post office, I used my curiosity about what D.R. sent me to help propel my body, the old mule as Kazantzakis liked to call the corpus, up the steep hill to home.

In the package were two new volumes of D.R.’s poems, The Generation of Forms and Love Poems, published by small poetry presses—NightBallet Press in Elyria, Ohio, and Cold River Press in Grass Valley, California—keepers of the flame in these new Dark Ages. Reading some of D.R.’s new poems made me hungry to read my favorite D.R. Wagner poem, The Milky Way, which D.R. allowed me to use to conclude my novel of stories Under the Table Books. Here is that poem.

The Milky Way

We live in a spiral arm of a spinning

Field of stars. We whirl around, a carnival

Ride, full of birds, loves, emotions, endless

Varieties of things unfolding in seasons;

Full of bells and an endless weaving of hearts.

These connections ride upon our consciousness,

Demanding constant performance from us.

Each of us, most royal and majestic as night,

Vile, vindictive and spoiled even before we speak;

Sorrow and joy, the way we sound our name.

We endure all of this, our lips kissing each moment,

Crushed, elated, misunderstood, praised for things

We do as part of ourselves, damned for these same things.

There is no road, there is no plan. Only love

Survives. Everything is forgiven, finally.

Understanding limps behind the parade,

Always late, always burdened with qualifications,

Always abandoning every opinion and argument,

Leaving each of us our place only, describing

This place, the swirling arms, the myriad ways

We twist ourselves to achieve

This weaving, this carnival of love.

Actual Abstract

Monday, August 29th, 2016

shallwedance

Shall We Dance? painting by Todd

“The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” Iris Murdoch

An announcement came in the mail, and by mail I mean those actual paper things we find in our mailboxes. The announcement was from an old friend, Dan Nadaner, who is having a show of his paintings at an art gallery in Los Angeles, the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. Happily, I am still on Dan’s mailing list.

I’ve known Dan since we were in junior high school together at La Entrada in Menlo Park fifty-five years ago and at Woodside High thereafter. And though we have had little contact for many years, I consider him a present-tense friend. I was thrilled to get this actual announcement from him in the actual mail so I could hold it in my hands and carry it outside and sit in the garden and look at the little picture of his painting, turning it this way and that while thinking of Dan and remembering some of our shared experiences.

Thinking about Dan reminded me of my friend Mark Russell who lives in Nova Scotia. He and I became friends at La Entrada at the same time I got to know Dan, and because I am still in touch with Mark, I thought he might like to see the announcement of Dan’s show in Los Angeles. He would remember Dan and enjoy knowing our old friend grew up to be a successful artist.

For a moment I thought about asking Marcia to take a photograph of the announcement to send via email to Mark, but then I considered the richness of my experience of thinking about Dan with the actual announcement in my hand, so I decided to send the actual announcement in an envelope to Mark in Canada.

“We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment. Maybe that’s what writing is all about…not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” Paul Auster

Then I decided to write a letter to accompany Dan’s announcement and bring Mark up to date on the little I know about Dan’s life. So I found a card I like—a fanciful bird flirting with a flower—and handwrote a letter to Mark.

Writing longhand activates our brains in much different ways than does writing on a keyboard and watching letters and words appear on a screen. As I wrote to Mark about Dan, I was reminded of how very important Dan was to me at several crucial points in my life. I had forgotten many of our shared experiences, but writing to Mark awoke dozens of vivid memories of Dan.

When I finished writing the letter to Mark, I placed it in an envelope, got out my address book, and hunted for Mark’s address. And while writing his address on the envelope, an address that includes the descriptor “Head of St. Margaret’s Bay”, I had a vision of Mark driving a tractor on his farm overlooking that gorgeous bay; and the vision dissolved into memories of shooting hoops and throwing a football and going on bicycling adventures with Mark when we were boys.

“The stories that you tell about your past shape your future.” Eric Ransdell

Now we are all sixty-seven, Mark and Dan and I. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years and I haven’t seen Dan in twenty. But this experience of spending time with Dan’s announcement and then writing a letter to Mark about Dan made me feel connected to both of them again. What wonderful creations are the brain and the mind and our relationships, and how mysteriously and fantastically they collaborate to create our reality.

When I was twenty-seven, I took a break from being a landscaper in Oregon and flew to New Jersey where I stayed for a night with Dan and his wife Janka in their little apartment before moving my base of operations into Manhattan. Dan was doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum and making short films, while Janka was launching her career as a psychologist.

The purpose of my trip was to meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, she who had miraculously sold a handful of my short stories, and to lunch with those magazine editors who had bought and published my stories and thereby made me a professional writer. During my two weeks of exploring Manhattan, I visited Dan at the Met a couple times, and one day we went to the Museum of Modern Art to take in the vast Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

I was not a big Wyeth fan, nor was Dan, but the show was fascinating because alongside the finished Wyeth oil paintings were the artist’s preliminary charcoal sketches and watercolor studies for each of the famous paintings. After we had looked at several of these paintings and the accompanying sketches and watercolors, I said to Dan, “I prefer his watercolors to the finished pieces. They feel so much more fluid and alive and exciting.”

“Much more exciting,” said Dan, nodding in agreement. “And surprisingly abstract.”

We then made a quick tour of MOMA’s permanent collection, a tour that made Dan angry. When I asked what was so upsetting to him, he said that this most influential collection in the world had been assembled by a small clique of elitist academics and art curators and wealthy collectors to impose on the culture their extremely limited and already outdated notions of what should be considered important modern art—an art mafia severely constricting the free-flowing evolution of contemporary art.

Dan went on to become a professor of Art at Cal State Fresno and a prolific studio artist. One of the things I enjoyed about Dan’s painting on his announcement was seeing how gorgeously abstract his work has become. Long ago, in the days when I had more regular contact with him, he painted exquisite impressionist landscapes and unpeopled exteriors of beach houses—exciting and simply beautiful.

More Menebroker

Monday, July 25th, 2016

paths tw

Paths painting by Nolan Winkler

“We have never grown up from magic—just away.” Ann Menebroker

I recently wrote a piece about my friend Ann Menebroker, the fine poet who died recently at the age of eighty. In response, I received a number of communiqués from people who wanted to read more snippets from Annie’s letters, so I present them here with one of Annie’s poems.

March 2009: I loved the artwork of your friend Marco Donner. In this one, the young Madonna is separated from her child, who is way above her. She looks enraptured and the child looks like a girl…so perhaps that’s what it is…an elevated perception of adult/child, of the specialness of birth, of new beginnings, of innocence. Of the female influence, which is supposedly less wild and warlike than the male. And I could be crazy.

July 2007: I have been writing a little and think I have amassed some eleven or so new poems. Of course they must sit around and I must go back to them after the glow of genius has faded. Ha!

July 2006: If we get to come back once we finish a round on earth, I want to come back flooded with the joy of music, voice, instruments, all of it! Soaked up like gas on a rag, blazing like a Bic lighter starting up the fire. I want to learn harmony and notes and how to put those notes and that harmony together. All of it, baby!

My only two “lovers through the mail” boyfriends are a crazy drunk writer/musician/broke/ill health guy in New Mexico, and a crazy artist/poet trying to quit smoking pot friend in Australia. Their letters, the flirting, all of it, I love! Being with them would be a disaster.

February 2004: I am very bad about rewriting. I am one of the sloppier poets, one who accepts the gift too easily, rips into it, pops out the gift, throws the tissue and ribbons aside! What I edit, I edit as I’m writing in that powerful flow of creativity. I need to work on my editing skills, not to be so easily content. I have had a poem I thought “hot stuff” get cool comments from fine critics to remind me of this!

I treat poems like lovers, caught up in the passion. I know passion cools.

June 2002: I went to Nevada City and spent the night with my daughter Sue and her husband Kevin. We went to a barbecue of a young poet up there. It turned out there were a lot of males and only 3 women, Sue, myself, and another gal well into her fifties. So we got flirted with, which was most fun! A young man kissed me with barbecue sauce on his lips, and an older man hugged and kissed me. Then I left and went safely with Sue and Kevin to their home. I felt like a kid! I’ve been telling all of my women friends about being kissed. God, I’m silly.

It seems lately that I need a little male attention, which hasn’t been the case in a lot of years. So I have to watch it and stay away from them (in any romantic sense, that is.)

No sense messing up a perfectly satisfying life!

January 2004: I’m getting another book out. But don’t worry, no need to buy it. I’ll send you a copy. You’ve seen most of the poems. Many of them are in my previous collections of poetry. They are all from The Wormwood Review. The publisher, up in Grass Valley, came upon them, some 57 or so, and asked me if he could put them in a collection. I said, hmmm, ok. He sent me the book to proof. I just got it. I hadn’t seen some of those poems in years! They are full of my life, my history. They have that “tough gal” feel to some of them. It will be titled Tiny Bites, the Wormwood Poems of Ann Menebroker.

March 2006: And here I am, loving it downtown. The other night I was awakened by all of this noise, as if the two men upstairs (landlord and his partner) were either having very violent sex or were murdering each other. It went on and I got up and looked out the windows, but saw nothing. The next morning my landlord told me that some drunk had tried to kick down the wooden gate at my end, and there was a huge disturbance, police were called, so I was way off!

Stealing Lorca

A fat-paged book in sepia cover

with a young Garcia smiling from

the flat memory of who he was, is

left on the front seat of the old Mercury

Cougar that belonged to her mother

who was more porcupine than cat.

She still pulls quills from her child’s heart plant.

Who did Lorca love? His mother sent

an omelet to the prison where his

rhetoric and fame, his love of handsome

men, brought him. Did he eat this

meal his frightened mother sent?

He smoked loaned cigarettes and cried

the cry of fear and death.

Her mother died at home in her own bed.

Lorca died near a group of olive trees

in the hot season, dramatic bullets

for his final act. Sex is forgotten.

I am really going to die.

Someone stole the book when she

went into the store for a tub of margarine.

This Is Your life. Candid Camera.

I’ve Got A Secret. Survival.

A goddamned book! It wasn’t even hers.

A man’s whole life stolen twice.

Ann Menebroker December 2002

 

More of Ann Menebroker’s poems can be found on the worldwide web.

Ann Menebroker

Monday, July 18th, 2016

flora tw

Flora painting by Nolan WInkler

“the two figures, male and female, are naked and gracefully huge. their raised right feet begin a dance that never continues.” Ann Menebroker

I moved to Sacramento in 1980. I was thirty-one and experiencing a bit of success with my writing. I bought a piano and an old house in a quiet neighborhood and thus began my fifteen-year residency in that river town. I still own the piano and play her every day.

Immediately upon settling in Sacramento, I got involved in the vibrant poetry scene, though I was not a poet, and my first new friends there were poets, one of them Ann Menebroker. Known as Annie to her many pals, I met her when she was forty-four, a beautiful charming woman, shy and brave, funny and deeply serious—a humble and brilliant maker of poems. She died a week ago at the age of eighty. I got the news from our mutual friend Martha Ann, and I have been crying off and on since.

Annie was never anointed by academia, but she published over twenty books of poetry and her poems appeared in dozens of poetry magazines all over America. She was revered by hundreds of poets and is, to my mind, one of our greatest unknowns—unknown in the sense of never being ballyhooed by the grand poohbas of the American literary scene. Her poems were consistently good and often great. She was highly self-critical, but knew she had a gift and continued writing poems until the end of her life.

Annie was poor and for many years lived in a tiny house on an alley. She cleaned houses, worked in art galleries, and for a decade or so was averse to reading in public, a phobia she eventually got over, thank goodness. We began to correspond via the post office while I still lived in Sacramento, though we lived but a few miles apart—we enjoyed keeping up with each other in that old-fashioned way.

One of my favorite memories of Annie was a poetry reading she gave at Luna’s, a Sacramento eatery. Somebody on the bill with Annie brought along an electric piano, and when it was Annie’s turn to read she asked me to accompany her. I stood behind her playing ever so sparingly to not interfere with her marvelous words, and she seemed to subtly sing her lines to the quiet music, her voice deep and warm.

When I moved from Sacramento to Berkeley in 1995, our correspondence accelerated and today I possess a big box full of letters from Annie along with many of her published works. Most amazing to me was that she had this same scale of correspondence with dozens of other people, mostly poets. She made the news of her daily life, no matter how mundane, into delightful impromptu poetry.

In 1991 Annie wrote, “I have never thought anyone would truly be interested in who I was, as I figure I’m just another female bloke who has gone through life, ass-end first, often, in my struggles to grow wiser.

“I was child-like in the 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s. I may be growing up in the 90s. I drank and partied with poets by night, and tried to maintain this image of the better parent by day. I probably mixed both worlds to my disadvantage, often. The odd thing is, Todd, as wild as I considered myself, my kids have this image of the very good, caring mother. I hope that’s true. But I was pretty weak and confused.”

In 2003 she typed, “I do not like writing longhand. I used the typewriter as a teenager to write letters, and that—my dear—was so many years ago!

“My thoughts somehow run, where my body sits and lies! I feel I am someone else when I am working on a keyboard. That I exist in a more favorable disguise as a person of knowledge and wit and strength.

“Take away my keys and you take away my engine of existence! I am nothing!”

In 2004 she wrote, “A man on the street moved me, and also nearly intimidated me. I gave him $5. I had $11 in my wallet. I’d come to the grocery store and paid for my groceries with a check. He had spoken to me on my way in, and I liked something in his being, his voice. He practically demanded me to give him $5, but not in an intruding way. So I did. And he got all strange. He wanted to talk and talk and talk to this older woman who was suddenly talking to him and giving him $5. He wanted to write something to me, but couldn’t find any paper. He wanted to hug me and/or kiss me. I kept smiling and saying No, no, it’s fine. Please, may your day go well. We talked in the spirit of the street and he insisted on grabbing my cart and walking with me to my car to put my groceries in the trunk. I thought he would never leave and I wasn’t afraid, but people were staring at us and I was afraid they would insult him by asking me if I was being ‘bothered.’

“He said a few times, ‘Who are you?’ He said something else and told me never to forget, and I came home and was writing a letter to a woman poet down south, and told her [the thing I was never to forget] and she said, Annie, that’s a small poem. So I put it on top of a poem about winter I was working on but I’m not sure if the longer poem is any good, or that what I put on it makes sense. It was something silly, about the survival of a goose, what he said. I got it all mixed up. Does it matter? No.”

Several of Annie’s fine and inimitable poems can be found on the worldwide web.

Sources of Wonder

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature necessity, and can believe nothing else.” Blaise Pascal

Marcia and I watched the movie Source Code last night and I loved it. I very rarely watch American movies and almost never watch films containing more than a suggestion of violence, and this movie was made by Americans and is full of violence; yet I did not feel I was watching a violent movie, nor did the film seem remotely American. I will not spoil the show by telling you the plot, but I will say that for me Source Code beautifully and skillfully explicates the Buddhist notion of karma and how through our actions and intentions we create our future.

I was thinking about Source Code this morning while walking on Big River Beach, amazed by how vivid everything looked and felt to me, as if the movie had somehow altered my perceptions. And then I realized I was in a state of wonder, that my personal cares and woes were no longer holding sway as they so often do these days, and I was inseparable from the wind and the roaring of the waves and the ravens gliding through the air and the sand underfoot. I was only there, it seemed, because all these other things were enlivening me, and in their absence I would disappear.

When I got home from the beach, I sat down at the piano and played with such ease and fluidity I was in heaven, and I knew the movie was working in me, though I couldn’t say how. I played and played, riding the waves of sound and marveling at the multitudes of harmonies—the entire escapade improvised yet sounding entirely composed—my hands and fingers guided by muscle memory and forty years of learning to be open to what wants to come through.

 “One never knows how one’s gifts to the world may brighten it for others and contribute to the ever-changing mystery.” Taylor Stoehr

I correspond regularly with three men, and each is a source of wonder to me. Max is about ten years younger than I, Bob is exactly my age, and Taylor is eighteen years my senior. Max is an artist and musician, Bob a former video producer turned Special Ed teacher, and Taylor is a retired English professor, poet, and translator. I am very interested in these guys and what they think and do, and they are interested in me. I have never met Taylor in-person, only met Max in-person a couple times thirty years ago, and only see Bob once a year, though for fifteen years we lived a few blocks apart and we saw each other every day.

These three men are my best friends, other than Marcia, and when I think about the truth of that I am both amazed and grateful—amazed that we have such rich connections through the words we write, and grateful that these sweet souls care enough about me to stay in touch over so much time and space. Their letters always induce in me a state of wonder in which I become for a time inseparable from their thoughts and feelings—a holiday from inhabiting this separate solitary self.

“‘I consider in my own mind whether thou art a spirit, sometimes, or sometimes an evil imp,’” said the lama, smiling slowly.” Rudyard Kipling

When I was in my early forties, I met a British fellow at a party and we got talking about our favorite authors, and he was wildly effusive about Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the novels of Russell Hoban. I had never heard of Hoban and had only read a short story or two of Kipling’s in my childhood. Because I was ever in search of great writing, I went to my favorite used bookstore in Sacramento, Time Tested Books, and got Hoban’s first three novels, The Lion of Boaz Jachin and Jachin Boaz, Turtle Diary, and Kleinzeit, along with a beat up paperback of Kim.

You may have heard of Turtle Diary, which was made into a charming movie in 1985 starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Each of Hoban’s first three novels is quite short, with chapters only a page or two in length. I gobbled those books and liked them pretty well, though the greatest gift I got from them was to be on the lookout for Hoban’s next novel, Riddley Walker, which is Hoban’s masterpiece, though not an easy read. Written in the imagined vernacular of a twelve-year old boy two thousand years after nuclear war has laid waste to the earth and the English language, I needed three determined tries at the book before my brain was able to translate Hoban’s disintegrated English into something I could understand—but I was glad I made the effort.

Reading Kim, on the other hand, was a complete life changer for me. I have now read Kim ten times in the last twenty years, having consumed it most recently a year ago. When I read Kim, I lose myself entirely in the language and the story, and always emerge from the experience deeply inspired to continue my creative pursuits, to amplify my spiritual investigations, and to relish every moment of life I am given.

For some years I urged everyone I knew (and even people I barely knew) to read Kim, but few of those who read the book on my recommendation found it to be the holy book it is to me. And more than a few women said the book was a male fantasy and not for them, and more than a few people said they thought the story dated and the writing florid, and some said Kipling was a racist and a sexist; and so I have ceased to recommend the book to anyone without massive disclaimers. Still, I read Kim every two years and the grand saga never fails to be a fabulous source of wonder and rejuvenation for me.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

In 1979 I was living in Santa Cruz and frequently attended concerts at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a small joint in those days where jazz people with weekend gigs in the Bay Area would come down to give Monday night performances. One Monday evening I got to the venue early so I could sit close and watch Roland Hanna play. I had seen Roland when he was the pianist for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, and I loved his playing on Jim Hall’s Concierto album, but I had never heard him play solo.

Roland Hanna was sometimes called Sir Elf because he was short and because he’d been given an honorary knighthood by the king of Liberia. But he became a giant to me that night, playing so melodically, so thoughtfully, so spontaneously, and with such groovy swing, that I walked out of Kuumbwa feeling blessed and more determined than ever to keep pursuing my own piano explorations.

My favorite Roland Hanna album was Swing Me No Waltzes, solo piano recorded in Sweden in 1979 on a Bösendorfer grand piano. I wore that record out; my favorite tune Roses Not Mums. Fast-forward several years to a jazz joint in San Francisco, Roland Hanna to play solo piano. Once again, I was there early so I could sit close, except there was some snafu with the club manager who didn’t know anything about anything and was insisting Hanna get a trio together because that’s what had been advertised. So Hanna’s manager got on the phone, and while the maestro sat in a booth sipping wine and waiting for a bass player and drummer to show up, I got up my nerve and went over to tell him how much I loved his music.

To my amazement, Hanna gestured for me to sit opposite him in the booth, which I did, and after I blurted something about seeing him at Kuumbwa and loving Swing Me No Waltzes, he smiled and said, “You play?”

“Um…well…yeah, though…”

He shook his head. “No though, man. You play. Own it.”

“Okay,” I said, sudden tears in my eyes. “Okay. Yes, I play.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.” He sipped his wine. “I like to play for players. You know? Because you guys get what I’m doing in a deeper way, you know?”

He was talking to me as a fellow musician, miracle of miracles, though he knew nothing about me. And then I realized he did know something about me. He knew I loved his music, especially Swing Me No Waltzes, which was an esoteric and wholly original creation, and my naming that album must have told him many things about me, about my taste and my personality. Or so I decided to believe.

“What’s your favorite tune on that record?” he asked, reaching up to shake the hand of one of three bass players who’d showed up in hopes of gigging with him.

Roses Not Mums,” I said, nodding. “Such a great tune, such an amazing journey.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” he said, nodding in time with me, “but I don’t play that tune anymore. Wrote it for my favorite bass player, and since he died I don’t play it now. But I will play something you’ll dig, I promise.”

I dug everything he played that night, and when he died ten years ago at the age of seventy, I played his music day and night for three days, thinking of him, loving him, hearing him say again and again, “No though, man. You play. Own it.”                        

Signs Of Spring

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Starry Starry Mona painting by Ben Davis Jr.

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Claes Oldenburg

Harbor seals have returned to the mouth of Big River, sleek silver gray cuties with childlike faces and spindly white mustaches, as curious about me as I am about them. When the wind is right and the sun is out, I will sometimes toss my Frisbee up into the offshore breeze and the disk will boomerang back to me, and the seals will cease their fishing to follow the flight of the disk to and from the sky, just as humans might watch the ball going back and forth in a tennis match.

The harbor seals of Big River are curious about singing, too. I recently had a wonderful experience singing to the seals, an experience witnessed by two people visiting Mendocino from Los Angeles. The tide was way out and the sun was shining when I stopped on the edge of the river to commune with a seal who had popped his head out of the water to take a look at me. Thinking he might enjoy a tune, I started to sing, knowing from past experience that high notes held for a long time are more intriguing to seals than low notes held briefly; and shortly after I commenced my singing, the aforementioned couple from Los Angeles, a middle-aged woman and man, stopped to watch the seal watching me.

After a minute or two of listening to my impromptu song, the seal sunk below the surface and swam away, but I kept on singing. The middle-aged woman opined, “Guess he didn’t like your song, huh?” And then she and her mate laughed. No. They cackled. At which moment, the seal returned with a friend, and the two seals listened to me for quite a long time.

The couple from Los Angeles conferred with each other about what they thought was going on, and decided to come a little closer.

Seal #1 then swam away again while Seal #2 stayed to listen, and then Seal #1 returned with two more friends, the four seals bobbing in the water close together and only fifteen feet away from me, listening intently and seeming themselves about to break into a four-part rendition of Take Me To the River. I’m thinking of Al Green’s Take Me To the River, not the song of the same name by Talking Heads, though one can never be sure about harbor seals.

Then the man from Los Angeles proclaimed, “This is impossible.”

And the woman from Los Angeles said, “It can’t be his singing. He must feed them.”

Well, I thought, marveling that anyone could doubt that these four lovely seals were listening to me sing, there are all kinds of food.

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” T.S. Eliot

I recently received a big packet of letters I wrote to my friend Bob between 1972 and 1977, hundreds of letters. He was cleaning out his garage and came upon the cache, and since he didn’t want the letters anymore he gave them back to me. The first several letters I read so annoyed me and upset me and embarrassed me, that I burned them, the woodstove in my office handy for the swift eradication of printed matter.

But then I regretted burning the letters; and a moment later I was glad I burned them; and then I regretted the burning; but then I was glad. I didn’t like who I was in those letters. I didn’t like how I came across. I loathed how self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing I was, sometimes in the same sentence. We were having a long distance dialogue, Bob and I, but because I didn’t have his letters to refer to, I could only guess at what he might have written to elicit the various responses from me, most of which seemed insensitive and pompous and stupid and obnoxious, so much so that I marveled Bob had stayed my friend. We disagreed about many things, but we also clearly loved each other. We couldn’t find our own ways in the world but had reams of advice for the other. I was forever apologizing for being such an asshole in my previous letter, and then I would proceed to be an even bigger asshole.

In some of my letters I thanked Bob for sending me postage stamps or a few dollars. I was poor in those days and he had a job working for the state, so he had a little money and shared some with me. (This would become the pattern of our lives, giving each other money when we perceived ourselves richer than the other.) In many of these letters I wrote about being poor, and I also wrote about what I would do if I ever struck it rich. I wanted to own a house with some land so I could have a big garden and a greenhouse and an orchard. I wanted to start a collective of artists. I wanted to make world-saving movies. I wanted to be a famous writer and musician. I wanted people to truly madly deeply love my music. I wanted love and sex and understanding and sex and to be left alone and to never be left alone. Forty years later nothing has changed and everything has changed.

I read a few more of my letters to Bob, and I burned those, too, though some of the letters I burned were terribly interesting to me and full of things I had forgotten. I wondered why I felt the need to burn these letters. When my father died five years ago (two years after my mother died), I inherited several hundred letters I’d written to my parents, and I burned all of those because they were the same letter written over and over again begging my parents to love me despite my being and doing everything they did not want me to be and do.

But these letters to Bob were a record of my life in the 1970’s, and they contained bits of wit and insight amidst the bravado, as well as some fascinating remembrances. Political events, movies, travel experiences, and relationships I’d long forgotten were chronicled therein; and plays and stories and books I wrote and subsequently lost were talked about as the most important creations of my life; and tales from my days as a working musician were in there, too. Even so, I continued to read and burn, read and burn, until Marcia said she might like to read some of the letters, and her saying that stopped me from feeding more of my past to the flames—the pile diminished by half.

Today I read a letter I wrote to Bob in 1975. I imagined Marcia reading the words, and I realized that the reason I burned those other letters was because of the very thing the letters so vividly described, which was that I was ashamed of myself for not succeeding as an artist, ashamed of being poor, ashamed of not owning a house, ashamed of not building that creative collective of fellow artists I so continuously dreamt about, ashamed of having done so little of what I set out to do so many years ago.

And this shame is something I still occasionally feel, despite the modicum of success I attained now and then in the intervening years. I understood that I burned those letters because they confirmed my lifelong suffering from two huge and insanely competing ideas trying to share this one little body/mind/spirit consortium called me: the idea that I am good and the idea that I am no good. Yet when I imagined Marcia reading these letters, I realized that despite the persistent (and annoying) neurotic overlay (which she is well aware of and forgives) the letters have their fascinating moments, so why not keep them around a while longer?

Miraculously (or matter-of-factly if you can’t stomach the idea of miracles), Bob and I still correspond by regular mail, a letter a week back and forth, though we no longer save each other’s letters. We just don’t. We are still the best of friends, having gone through thick and thin together for forty-five years, having been teenagers and young bucks and middle-aged farts together—nothing changing and everything changing so fast it doesn’t seem possible—waiting for Godot but no longer overly concerned that he hasn’t showed up yet because we now know he’ll get here when he gets here. Right, Roberto?

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” Pablo Picasso

We are nearing the end of pruning season. The plum trees, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are in their full glory of blossoming, the apples steadfastly approaching their blooming time. I’ve gotten a few phone calls from people alerted by the blossoming plums that they need their gangly apple tree pruned, their recalcitrant pear tamed just a bit; and these people want to know if I think it’s too late for me to help them this year.

I tell them it is never too late and it is always too late. There is never enough time and there is always enough time. I tell them that nearly everything we used to think we knew about pruning trees is not what we think we know now and that the secret to taking care of a tree is to listen to that tree and allow her to tell you what she needs. A few of my clients have a wee bit of trouble with the idea of listening to a tree, perhaps because they can’t imagine how a tree would talk to them, or if their tree did talk to them, how they would understand what their tree was saying; but most of my clients enjoy the concept of interspecies communication. What’s not to enjoy about a talking tree?

I wrote a novel some years ago, not yet published, the main character a man who prunes fruit trees and is also a poet. I append a poem this character wrote about pruning. I like this poem, though I would have written it differently if I, Todd, had written it. This is one of the trickiest things about writing fiction, at least the way I write fiction, and that is allowing characters to be who they are and resisting the impulse (conscious or unconscious) to make them into thinly disguised versions of the author, though one could argue that every fictional character is a version of the author, that we, you and I, are actually versions of each other, and that separateness is an illusion, not to mention the cause of all suffering, according to Buddha. In any case, here is Edward’s poem.

Pruning

Before I touch blade to branch

I walk around the tree,

stopping every step to study

the relationships of the boughs.

 

When I have gone round twice,

and know what I know from the outside,

I climb into the tree and memorize how

the branches emanate from within.

 

So when at last I begin my cutting,

I know how I will enrich

the tree with spaciousness.

 

Woody Polanski

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

(This essay originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser)

For most of my life it has been my habit (one might even call it a duty) to write letters to artists and authors I admire. I wrote my first fan letter when I was seven years old, the intended recipient Willie Mays. Shortly thereafter I wrote to Will James, the author of Smoky the Cow Horse. Will James was long dead when I wrote to him, but I had yet to learn that authors of books could be dead. When I was seventeen, nineteen, and twenty-two, I wrote long impassioned letters to the playwright Arthur Miller asking if he would take me on as his apprentice. He did not write back. Indeed, most of my letters to writers, directors, artists, and musicians have failed to elicit responses; so now when I write such letters, I expect no replies.

On the other hand, in the course of my own forty-year career as an author and musician, I have received a few dozen letters from people responding to my creations, including much-appreciated missives from readers of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. And it is inconceivable to me that I would not write back to someone who has taken the time to write to me. Then again, I am not, as the famous must be, inundated with fan mail, so I suppose I should not judge the Great Ones as I judge myself. Except…

British artists and artists from the Commonwealth nations, no matter how famous and busy, almost always respond to my letters, albeit tersely. I attribute this to the British tradition of teaching their young to answer their mail. Among my prizes are a letter from the film director Jane Campion, a note from the actor and director Kenneth Branagh (dictated to his secretary), and a card from the director Nicolas Roeg.

Poets, too, eventually write back, but even moderately famous Americans of other disciplines generally do not. And once in a great while I make a connection with an admired artist that produces a lively correspondence.

Which brings me to Woody Allen. I was a zealous fan from 1965 to 1984, from my teenage years into my thirties, and I continued to attend Woody’s movies until 1995, hoping against hope he would make another good film. I wrote him several letters over the years, none of which he answered. As a young writer, I had been heartened by his leap from clunky sophomoric comedies to carefully crafted comic dramas, and I identified strongly with his evolution as an artist until, to my mind, he ceased to evolve circa 1984. In my final letter to Woody, written in 1993, I suggested he stop making movies for a few years and get a job in a grocery store, or move to Canada and work as a house painter, or get a gig on a fishing boat in Alaska. He was, I felt, not just repeating himself ad nauseam, but missing the chance to transcend the mediocrity inherent to his redundancy.

This redundancy has largely to do with Woody’s obsession with women much younger than he and his concomitant fear of mature women. Woody is now seventy-five, and the younger women in his movies are no longer teeny boppers but starlets in their twenties and thirties. When Woody was thirty-four he made the movie Manhattan in which he proclaimed his preference for docile, naïve, submissive fifteen-year old girls to women his own age. And thereafter, in movie after movie, Woody or his surrogate chooses much younger women over older women because, well…Woody can’t help himself.

If Woody had explored this paramount male obsession in depth rather than length, or if he had varied his story lines and given his female characters complex (i.e. authentic) personalities, or if his movies had continued to evolve as visual works of art, I might have been able to hang with his redundancy of theme. After all, a single overriding obsession drives the work of many great artists. But Woody’s tragedy is that circa 1990 he abruptly and completely lost his finer capabilities as a writer and a director. In seeming desperation (delusion?) he fully regressed to his beginnings as a perennial adolescent lusting after pulchritudinous gals who weren’t exactly bimbos, but were never sharp enough to resist the likes of Woody, a wealthy influential movie director.

Allen’s greatest film, in my opinion, is Stardust Memories, a film he made in 1980 in which he examines his life and motivations more honestly and openly than in any other of his films, and in which he plays a real self, as opposed to his usual self-caricature. His other standout performance is in Broadway Danny Rose, wherein he proves himself capable of superb acting at the expense of his usual schlemiel shtick. In Stardust Memories and Broadway Danny Rose, Woody involves himself with women his own age who are not obviously types, and both films suggested to me that Woody was on his way to even greater cinematic creations. Sadly, these were two of his rare box office failures, which apparently scared him away from originality in deference to making money. Oh, well.

Fast forward to the 2010 Cannes Film Festival where Woody was on hand to tout his latest movie. And though I long ago ceased to watch his self-aggrandizing voyeuristic flicks, I was fascinated by Woody’s willingness to weigh in on the question of whether Roman Polanski should or shouldn’t be extradited to California for raping a thirteen-year old girl. Woody opined, and I paraphrase, “They should leave Polanski alone. He’s suffered enough.” Suffered? Since when is living like an emperor in a French chalet for twenty years and making big budget movies considered suffering?

And I couldn’t help thinking, “Hold on here, Woody. You married your adopted daughter forty years your junior, having seduced her when she was a teenager under the not-so-watchful eyes of your then wife Mia Farrow, and we’re supposed to give even a whiff of credence to what you think about anything, let alone sexual abuse of a minor?

To be fair, Woody is not, so far as we know, a serial rapist as Polanski is reputed to be, but Woody clearly identifies with the diminutive Polish director. Not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with liking beautiful young women or making a movie or two about liking them. I have no doubt that liking attractive young females is burned into the genetic code of the vast majority of male humans, and was burned there to insure the continuance of our species. The problem, and it’s a gigantic world-threatening problem, is that the genetic command to mate with every fertile young woman we can possibly mate with came about over millions of years of evolution during which individual humanoids rarely lived much beyond their teens, and the survival of our widespread little bands was an extremely iffy proposition.

What we need in this time of earth-killing overpopulation is not the glorification of perpetual adolescence, but the glorification of mature love, instinctive generosity, and collective creativity. And I think Woody was heading in that direction when he blew a main fuse. Oh, if only he’d answered my letters. We might have been friends and I could have encouraged him to continue his explorations of those deeper waters where every artist worth his or her salt needs to go.

In any case, here is what I propose for Polanski and Woody. They should be exiled from their places of privilege and given low-paying jobs in working class neighborhoods in Chicago and Cleveland, live in studio apartments, only be allowed to date women their own age, and after a few years of scrabbling for rent money and waiting in line for healthcare and serving the needs of other people, they be allowed to make movies again.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com