Posts Tagged ‘poets’

Paterson Jarmusch

Monday, May 29th, 2017

queenandjack

Queen and Jack drawing by Todd

 

Objects have names (what our dreams

come to). “It’s what I want.”

Begin asking.

          Kate Greenstreet

We recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s new movie Paterson and I loved it from first frame to last. Marcia loved Paterson, too, and we have been talking about the film for days—a sure sign of a movie beyond the ordinary.

Adam Driver portrays the main character in Paterson, a man named Paterson, an introspective and emotionally subdued fellow; and Paterson is also the city in New Jersey where the character Paterson is a bus driver circa 2016 and lives with his sweetly zany artist wife portrayed by an angelic Golshifteh Farahani.

Paterson is also the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams about this same Paterson, New Jersey, founded in 1792 to harness the power of the great falls of the Passaic River. The movie is, among many things, a tribute to William Carlos Williams and his enduring influence on poetry and literature and art in America and around the world; and more specifically, his influence on Jim Jarmusch.

How would I describe William’s influence on literature and art? While running the risk of annoying those more credentialed than I regarding William Carlos Williams and his place in the evolution of poetry, I would say his lyrical non-rhyming poems explore abstract concepts—death, life, time, love, change, sorrow, joy—through the contemplation of things and happenstance composing everyday reality. His poetry was certainly not the first to do so, but he was among the early escapees from rhyming poetry, his sensibility modern and non-paternal, and his poems about birds and wheelbarrows and flowers and paintings and going to work and changing seasons and grieving and love are beautifully wrought, musical, humorous, unique, and accessible to those who don’t know Latin.

I first collided with Williams’ poetry when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, 1967. I had recently fallen under the spell of the poetry and personalities of Philip Whalen and David Meltzer, so visited Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park to see if they had any books by Whalen or Meltzer.

“Sorry, no,” said the all-knowing clerk, “but we’ve got several volumes of William Carlos Williams. Huge influence on the Beats.”

So I bought Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Selected Poems, and devoured them countless times over the next several years, feeling certain those poems were antidotes to the ills of growing up in middle-class suburbia. Fifty years older now, I rarely read William Carlos Williams, but while watching Paterson felt thousands of poetry synapses lighting up and burning brightly—much of that frisson owing to my youthful imbibing Williams and some of the poets he inspired.

In this day and age of political and economic chaos, when most American movies are painfully unoriginal sensory assaults created for the entertainment of not-very-bright children stuck in the bodies of adults, Paterson, a contemplative movie about a poet bus driver who lives and breathes poetry, is so unusual and gratifying for the likes of me, I must heap praise on Jim Jarmusch.

Things got complicated.

“It’s hidden

in the ordinary.”

(a shot that everybody

had

and used)

            Kate Greenstreet

For me, Paterson is a profound call to share our gifts with other humans. To not share our gifts is to go against nature, to betray the purpose of being human. We are here to share our thoughts, our feelings, our food, our wealth, our love, and our creations. Our brains and bodies evolved to interact and collaborate in complex ways with other brains and bodies; and to constantly resist such interactions and collaborations will make us unhappy and unwell.

On two occasions in the movie, Paterson bumps into other poets—people he doesn’t know—and is privileged to hear those poets recite poems they have written. As a result of hearing these poems, Paterson comes out of the shell of his emotional privacy and encourages his fellow poets to keep pursuing their art, to keep sharing their poems with others. As I experienced the movie, the universe clearly put these people in Paterson’s way to show him how to proceed with his life and poetry, a way he resists until…

Where nothing was, it had to be created.

We can’t make everything we need inside.

            Kate Greenstreet

Those two lines from Kate Greenstreet’s poem phone tap from her collection of poems case sensitive, elucidate Paterson’s challenge, the challenge for every poet: to birth a new reality, to bring forth a new world, through our words. Australian aboriginals believe they cause the physical world to manifest through their songs—they call it “singing up the country”.

Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lines from his poem Ash Wednesday, lines I used to preface my novel Louie & Women.

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

And that reminds me of another thing I loved about seeing Paterson: the movie inspired me to re-engage with favorite poems written by favorite poets, one poet and poem leading to another poet and poem—a delightful way to spend time. So if you love poetry, or if poetry was a formative force in your life, I think you will enjoy Jarmusch’s movie Paterson. And if you love poetry and movies, you may also enjoy the poetry and videopoems of Kate Greenstreet, who graciously allowed me to punctuate this essay with lines from her poems.

Inventing Ourselves

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

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

“You don’t have to suffer to be a poet.  Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.” John Ciardi

My last few trips to the village of Mendocino have coincided with the lunchtime release of the children from the high school on the hill—dozens of young ones wandering singly and in groups down into the miniature commercial district to buy food and drink and to escape the air of confinement and regimentation that is so antithetical to the spirit of the young.

Some of the kids wander as far as Big River Beach to smoke pot or sunbathe or commingle with scruffy older boys and girls, some of whom are homeless, some simply at loose ends as they haunt the beach and headlands, waiting for Godot. But most of the high school kids go straight to their chosen food sources—Mendocino Market & Deli (across the street from the post office), Harvest Market, Frankie’s, the bakery, Moody’s, Mendo Burgers—purchase their goodies and boomerang back to campus where they scarf their food and socialize until the bell tolls for them to resume what we hope is meaningful education but fear is mind-numbing incarceration.

Watching this lunchtime parade of teens often puts me in mind of my own time in high school (1963-1967), a death-defying adventure in communal insanity, the insanity of puberty in America and the desperate search for a workable way to survive the frightening world of our parents and their fellow adult imbeciles who seemed hell bent on destroying the planet before we had a chance to write a good song or get laid.

I think it must be the costumes the Mendocino teens are trying on these days that most remind me of my own high school experience—that search for the perfect apparel to capture the essence of who we hope to be. Look! Here are three lovely young women walking shoulder to shoulder, each clutching a cell phone—a full-blown hippy, a quintessential geek, a scantily clad prostitute.

Hippy: So is your mom picking you up after school today?

Prostitute: Yeah, I have to get my fucking braces tightened.

Geek: I totally hate dentists.

Hippy: Can I like…get a ride with you?

Prostitute: If there’s room in the car, but she’ll probably have my sister with her cello and my brother with his trumpet and probably the dogs.

Hippy: Forget it.

When I went to high school, girls were not allowed to wear pants or shorts or short skirts or lingerie or sexy stockings, nor would they have been allowed to wear belly shirts had such things existed in those days—all of which the Mendocino girls are fond of wearing. But girls in my day were allowed to wear long skirts and fanciful blouses, the myriad forms and combinations of which ultimately became the signature attire of female hippies. Indeed, the rebellion against boring and constrictive clothing was a large part of the creative expression that defined the Sixties; and if clothes make the person, then hippies were certainly made, at least in part, by their looser and more colorful clothes.

 “Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own.” Logan Pearsall Smith

When I was sixteen I was on the basketball and soccer teams, and I was also in plays and hung out with artists and musicians and poets, many of whom were among the first hippies, which meant I was a jock artist thespian hippy, though my standard mode of dress gave no hint of these affiliations. I wore blue jeans and mono-colored T-shirts and dirty white tennis shoes and a dull gray plasticized rain jacket; and I gave little thought to my appearance until one day I was having lunch with a bunch of gorgeously attired girls and boys of the artist musician poetry drama crowd, and Mona, who could (and often did) give me an erection with the merest glance, said, “Dear Mr. Odd, why so persistently dun? Wouldn’t you like to be just a little more peacock? Hmm? Please? For Mona’s happiness?”

Mona’s words struck deep (and that’s really how she talked, being one of the first truly gone potheads of my generation). I wanted to please her and I very much wanted to be more peacock than dun. Thus I was distracted for the rest of the day thinking about clothing, missed easy lay-ups during basketball practice, and was off my feed at supper, consuming a mere four thousand calories instead of my usual six thousand. I eschewed my homework for rummaging around in my closet, and finding nothing there I snuck into my parents’ bedroom and rummaged around in my father’s closet, something I had never done before.

To my surprise and amazement, at the end of a long line of conservative suits and ties, I came upon an old suede fawn-colored jacket with leather buttons and big pockets. I took it off the hanger, put it on, and felt embraced by angels. Wow! How had this amazing garment come to be among my father’s possessions, being so unlike anything I had ever seen my father wear?

“Hey, Dad?” I called, carrying my prize through the house. “Where are you?”

“He’s in the garage,” said my mother, transfixed by Perry Mason.

I opened the heavy gray door leading from the kitchen into the garage, a place of chaos and danger and probable tetanus where my father was standing amidst the rubble, soldering something.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, always more than a little afraid of him, “is this yours?”

He turned to me and his scowl gave way to a sheepish smile. “Oh, that old thing. That was my father’s smoking jacket. From the 1930’s. I had it cleaned, but…I never wore it. You want it?”

“Yes,” I said, wanting that jacket more than I had ever wanted anything since I’d wanted a bow and arrows (with real steel tips) when I was ten.

And the next day when I wore that old suede jacket over one of my father’s faintly pink dress shirts, I felt properly attired for the first time in my almost-an-adult life. I felt suave and creative and on my way to where I was supposed to be going, though I had no idea where that was. I felt strong and sexy and daring and unique, and less afraid than I usually felt. To my surprise, boys rather than the girls were the most overtly complimentary and envious, several asking me where I had purchased such a groovy thing, because they wanted one, too.

But the crowning moment came when I presented myself to Mona at lunch and she put down her Anais Nin (Delta of Venus) and took off her big red-framed glasses and wrapped her arms around me and gave me a phantasmagoric open-mouthed kiss and whispered, “Imagine such bed sheets.”

 “I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do now.” Will Rogers

Teenage boys need little (or nothing) to arouse them, sexually speaking. When I was in high school one of my greatest challenges was getting from one class to the next without revealing my persistent erection. This, I think, was the real purpose of binders, shields to be held over our midsections as we moved along the crowded halls to that next desk under which we could conceal our tumescence. For as I said, a mere glance from Mona, or from any number of other young lovelies, would render me brain dead and ready to procreate; and that was in an era when school rules severely restricted the amount of flesh a young woman’s outfit might reveal.

Today there are numerous young women patrolling the streets of our hamlet who, with only the slightest alterations to their ensembles, might easily be mistaken for escapees from a Victoria’s Secret bra and panties photo shoot, which displays of pulchritude, for an old fart like me, are simply wonderful to behold and make me smile and sigh, innocently, of course, in much the same way I smile and sigh when I espy an osprey winging by overhead with a fat fish clutched in her talons or when I catch a glimpse of a mint condition 1956 turquoise Thunderbird or…that sort of thing.

And for those teenaged boys who must survive their long and tedious high school days sitting and standing in such close proximity to such generous displays of so much luscious female flesh, my sympathies run as deep as the deep blue sea.

When Is It Done?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

(This piece appeared—twice!—in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2008-2009. I recently got a request for this article, thought it was on my blog, but could not find it herein. So here it is now. Enjoy.)

Thirty-five years ago, I was hitchhiking from Santa Cruz to San Francisco on Highway One, and I got a ride with the poet William Everson, also known as Brother Antoninus, one of the more esoteric Beats. He sported a wispy white beard and a well-worn cowboy hat, and his old car reeked of tobacco. Recently installed as a poet-in-residence at UC Santa Cruz, he was going to a party in Bonny Dune but had no idea how to get there.

 I knew exactly where he wanted to go and offered to be his guide, though it meant traveling many miles out of my way. I was obsessed with poetry and wanted as much of the great man’s time as I could finagle. He accepted my offer to be his Sancho Panza and did me the honor of asking, “So what’s your thing?”

“Guitar. And I write stories and poems, too.”

He nodded. “Who do you read?”

“Philip Whalen. Lew Welch. Faulkner. Kazantzakis.”

He lit a cigarette and seemed disinclined to continue the conversation.

And then, without consciously intending to, I asked, “So…how do you know when a poem is done?”

So pained was Everson’s expression, I might as well have asked him what he thought of the poetry of Rod McKuen. Here he was on his way to a party, no doubt to drink and smoke and let his hair down and take a break from all the bullshit attendant to his newly won academic sinecure, and his guide to such bliss—a scrawny wannabe with nary a joint to share—asks him the single most annoying question an artist can be asked.

I was about to blurt an apology for my stupid question, when the good man cleared his throat and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

William Faulkner rewrote his first two novels, Mosquitoes and Soldier’s Pay, many times. But no matter how many drafts he wrote, he always wanted to rewrite. He came to realize that in the time it took him to complete a new draft, he had so changed as a person and grown as a writer, that he had become, literally, someone else; and this new person wanted to make the book his book.

So from then on, Faulkner made it his practice to write three drafts and call the book done. Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ also settled on three drafts. And I, in the days before computers, would do four drafts before undertaking a final draft with an editor. Of course, with the advent of computers, rewriting has taken on whole new meanings, and our beleaguered bookstores and libraries are jammed with proof that computerized word processing has in no way improved the quality of writing or the quality of books.

There is a marvelous movie made in 1956 entitled The Mystery of Picasso. The film was revived in the 1980’s and shown in art houses all over Europe and America. In the film, Picasso paints on one side of an absorbent canvas that allows colored ink to seep through the canvas unadulterated and without running. The camera is on the other side of the canvas, filming Picasso’s strokes as they appear, as if by magic, and coalesce into paintings. Some of the paintings are shown developing in real time, some manifest in time lapse.

When I watched this movie in a theatre full of artists and art lovers, the response from the audience was remarkable. As Picasso rapidly created a painting, a person—or several people—would cry out, “Stop! It’s perfect!” and then they would groan as Picasso carried on, changing the image until someone else would shout, “Yes! There! That’s it!” only to have the master paint on and on and on.

By the end of the film we had witnessed the making and annihilation and making and annihilation of hundreds of great works of art—done and not done and done and not done and done.

With the exception of The Prince and the Pauper, which may be a perfect fable, Mark Twain had great difficulty finishing his novels, as did Thomas Hardy. Both men would write in trances of inspiration until they reached the climaxes of their stories, and then not know how to end them. Both writers would put their incomplete manuscripts away for several months, even years, then get them out and affix endings quite unrelated to the original spontaneous flow. Sadly, these forced completions are the great weaknesses of otherwise masterful works.

So Twain might have said a book is done when the writer ceases to write it. Faulkner might have said there is no guarantee that when a thing is done the artist will like it. Picasso might have said the thing is always done and never done. And in this moment, reserving the right to change my mind in the next, I say the poem or song or book or painting is done when a comfortable silence falls and I’m absolutely certain it’s time for me to do something else.

Poets and Artists

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.

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.

The Presence of Absence

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the AVA June 2010)

Thursday in the village of Mendocino is the day the AVA (Anderson Valley Advertiser) arrives in our post office boxes and at the liquor store (should we need extra copies.) Now and then the AVA is delayed for a day and arrives on Friday. But this week, the AVA did not come at all. I inquired of my heroes at the post office, but they had not seen hide nor hair of the goodly rag. And though I knew the liquor store is supplied via the mails, too, I nevertheless went thither in the vain hope that a batch had been brought by pony express or valiant pickup from the inland empire to our coastal enclave.

The liquor store in our hamlet is a living foreign movie. No matter how many times I go in there, I have the feeling something important is missing. There is an empty feeling about the place, as if the proprietors are just moving in or just moving out. The lighting is strange and forlorn and bathes everything in a pale yellow light. My friendly greetings invariably fall into a bottomless chasm of ennui, and in thirty tries I have never once elicited a smile from the fellow at the cash register. Perhaps he is hardened by years of dealing with drunks. I don’t know. I don’t buy anything there except the AVA, and maybe this bugs him. In any case, they didn’t have any AVAs and I was apparently not the first person to inquire.

Certainly one of the great appeals of the AVA to me is that I often have something published therein. Discovering that I am once again in the goodly rag never fails to impart a momentary thrill, a sense of well-being, a revivifying and inspiring validation that I did not waste however many hours I spent writing whatever I wrote. I never know in advance if my pieces will run. The editors are not in the habit of telling me, possibly because they don’t know themselves until the very last minute before they put the paper to bed, and perhaps not even then.

No, the only way to find out if I’m in the AVA is to look through her pages. Now and then I will land an essay on the front page (mazel tov!) but more often than not my pieces are tucked away in the cozy confines of the middle. In truth, I don’t care where they land, just so they do. Land.

Those weeks when I do not appear (assuming I’ve submitted something before the deadline) I invariably experience a brief emotional downturn. I want to make it clear (to myself if no one else) that this downturn has much less to do with my absence from the pages of the AVA than it does with the absence of my books from the bookstores of America, the lack of reviews of my books in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the towering indifference of the great big world to the creations of little old me. So when I am not in the AVA, it merely ignites a feeling, for just a moment or two, that I am truly nowhere, that there is no place for my words, that I am, metaphorically speaking, clinging to a leaking dinghy in a storm tossed sea, etc.

Germaine to this sense of not being anywhere, I’ve been enjoying of late a marvelous book of poems entitled I Hear My Gate Slam, Chinese Poets Meeting and Parting, translated by Taylor Stoehr. These poems, written by a handful of poets thirteen centuries ago, have survived because they are very good poems and because they speak compellingly of human emotions immune to the so-called advance of culture and technology: love, loss, longing, death. And there are two wonderful little essays at the end of the volume written by the author, one on the art of translation, the other about how the friendship among these poets inspired many of their poems. Stoehr writes, “They often wrote poems borrowing, imitating, or otherwise reflecting each other’s work.”

So as I was sitting at the kitchen table sipping black tea and stewing about the absence of the AVA, and therefore not knowing if I was absent or present therein, I came across this passage from Stoehr’s Afterword: Translating Classical Chinese Poetry that seemed to be reflecting my very thoughts. “The bereft poet is constantly in the presence of absence—an empty place at the family table, an empty bed—so that the ache of loss seems never to go away. I want to call this ‘the presence of the absence’—absent friends and loved ones hovering in the imagination.”

Now there is a grandiloquent expression. The presence of absence. And that is how it feels when there is no AVA in our post office box, no AVA at the liquor store, no AVA on the kitchen table, no fresh gossip to chew on, no fellow writers to jiggle our cognitive synapses in ways the electronic digits will never jiggle them. There is an unexpected vacancy of that certain sensibility that is the sum of Bruce and Mark and their collective writing and winnowing of the incoming verbiage of latter day exiled poets. For all poets are exiles inhabiting a terrain defined by a perpetual presence of all manner and variety of absences. That is why poets write their poems, and why we prose writers toil to put our thoughts and feelings into words. To bring light and sound and feeling to the void or the chaos or the darkness or the presence of the absence.

Then, too, the presence of absence begs to be modified to the presents of absence, presents suggesting gifts. The gifts of absence. And what might those gifts be? Well…

I am currently reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain, his brief and famous preface concluding, “It has seemed to me that I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was writing could be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware and indifferent.” Despite Twain’s disclaimer, there are many moments in the course of his narrative when he is clearly constraining himself because he is, in fact, not yet dead as he dictates this last great work.

The most shocking to me of Twain’s constrained moments comes when he declares his direct responsibility for the death of his firstborn child, his only son. Though verbose about every other matter, large and small, Twain speaks of his most terrible crime for but one terse paragraph.

“Our first child, Langdon Clemens, was born the 7th of November, 1870, and lived twenty-two months. I was the cause of the child’s illness. His mother trusted him to my care and I took him for a long drive in an open barouche for an airing. It was a raw, cold morning but he was well wrapped about with furs and, in the hands of a careful person, no harm would have come to him. But I soon dropped into a reverie and forgot all about my charge. The furs fell away and exposed his bare legs. By and by the coachman noticed this and I arranged the wraps again, but it was too late. The child was almost frozen. I hurried home with him. I was aghast at what I had done and I feared the consequences. I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning’s work and have not allowed myself to think of it when I could help it. I doubt if I had the courage to make confession at that time. I think it most likely that I have never confessed until now.”

Twain never makes another mention of this event or of this child, though he later goes on for dozens of pages attacking and excoriating Brett Harte for what Twain describes as hideous amoral narcissism and monstrous neglect of wife and children. Yet for my entire reading of this powerful memoir, I could not get Twain’s confession of murdering his son out of my mind. Indeed, it strikes me as the truest paragraph in the entire book, constrained as it may be, for it is free of the artifice of cleverness. And I can’t help thinking that the death of his son informed everything he ever wrote thereafter; indeed, that Twain’s greatness, his profound sympathy for the poor and downtrodden that illuminates his finest works, that powerful presence of absence, sprang from his terrible trial that would never end until his own death.

Which brings me back to the presence of the absence of the AVA, which I think of as a very Twainian sort of paper, the kind of paper Twain first wrote for, the kind of paper that is not constrained by anything but the whims of her editors, both of whom strike me as having little fear of death, which the Buddha said is the fear that underlies all fears. And in the absence of the presence of fear, these editors are free to improvise, which is the mother of originality. And the present of her absence in my life this week is this essay, which may or may not make it into her pages. I’ll have to wait until next week to find out.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.

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