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“Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.”
Writers who have day jobs outside the literature industry aren’t a new thing. Oscar Wilde wrote, “The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.” Essays at The Millions, Ploughshares, and elsewhere feature stories of folks who have made the double life of writer and Joe or Jane Worker fruitful and rewarding. Short story writer Lorrie Moore wrote, “First, try to be something, anything, else,” in her essay “How to Be a Writer.”
Poet Amy Woolard, named one of the 50 Best News Poets of 2013 by Best New Poets editor Brenda Shaughnessy, has tried “something, anything, else”—including, most recently, working as a child-welfare lawyer. But she has also kept writing. I spoke with her about what it’s like to maintain a career in poetry while also maintaining a demanding, white-collar day job. A condensed, edited version of that email conversation follows.
When did you first consider yourself a “poet,” and what was your job at the time?
This is one of those moments that kids face in a spelling bee when they’re unfamiliar with a word, right, and they furrow their brows and ask, “Poet. Can you use it in a sentence?” It’s a title I’ve never really taken on or have been comfortable with, but it has been used on me in different contexts. For example, at Iowa, we were often called poets but only really to distinguish us from the fiction writers, viz.—“The poets are going to the Foxhead for drinks, and I think some of the fiction writers will be there, too.”
Shorter story—I don’t think I’ve every really considered myself a poet, just someone who writes poems, I suppose.
One moment that stands out, though, as a moment when I thought the writing of poems would certainly come to define me in some significant way: as an undergrad at the University of Virginia, when I’d applied, via portfolio submission, for Charles Wright’s Advanced Poetry Workshop. Charles is someone who came to mean a great deal to me and still does. I’ve often called him my “poetry dad” because of the way he took an interest in me and supported my work early on. But in this moment, the first day of that workshop, nearly 30 or 40 students filled the room—we did not yet know if we’d been accepted into the class. And Charles came in, welcomed everyone briefly, and then without another word began writing names on a chalkboard: the 12 or 15 students he’d admitted. And when he wrote out my name, mid-list or so, it was one of those rare occasions when you know something will stay with you forever. That class was also the true beginning of a writing community that I’ve been tied to ever since—other students in the class included Mary Szybist, Heather Derr-Smith, Rebecca Dunham, John Casteen, Jen Scappettone, and I think Sam Witt might’ve been in there too. It was a great crew, many of whom went on to join the crew I was lucky to be among at Iowa.
Tell me about some of the jobs you’ve held while writing poems between that time and today.
Oh, lord. Well, I’ve always considered Shakespeare’s Henry IV to be one of my favorite plays—most specifically Hal’s dilemma between life at the Tavern and the Court. My own years have played out similarly (sometimes quasi-literally), with an overindulgence of grad school thrown in. During and since my undergrad years, I’ve bartended and managed restaurants a lot—probably a total of seven or eight years’ worth of that time. I love that life, but it definitely takes a physical and mental toll that just became unsustainable. I’m definitely drawn back to that scene again and again, though. I do love a good bourbon.
In between and amongst those jobs, I went to grad school for advertising/copywriting, worked as a writer and editor for a San Francisco dot-com (during the boom and just before the bust), did a financial journalism gig, taught online English Composition courses, did some project-based freelance writing and editing for a few organizations (including a company in SF who gave me “naming gigs,” where I had to come up with names and URLs for new companies. There were all these rules to watch out for. You had to make sure a phrase-based URL didn’t end up unintentionally reading as unsavory—like, oh I don’t know, if you’re doing a site for a therapist named John Smith, you don’t want a URL that’s http://www.therapistJohnSmith.com, that kind of Arrested Development-type humor). This was years ago, however, when the internet was really starting to multiply, and quickly. People are much more savvy about those things now (I hope).
And of course, law school. I’ve been a lawyer/policy wonk for about five or six years now, and it seems like (especially given my financial investment in it) that this is the one that will stick.
Tell me about your current job.
Right now I’m a policy attorney for a statewide non-profit research and advocacy group called Voices for Virginia’s Children. I’ve been there for a few years, and before that was a legal aid attorney representing kids with education and school discipline issues. The subject areas I cover now include child welfare and foster care, juvenile justice, child homelessness and some general child poverty issues—most recently child hunger. Essentially, I write, research, analyze data, advocate, lobby, and attend a hell of a lot of meetings in order to bring to Virginia good laws/policies and fight bad laws/policies around children’s issues. I absolutely love it. It lets me tap into my journalism background to write articles and op-eds, use my legal background to actually write laws and regulations at times—and I totally thrive off of the lobbying part. A lot of people find lobbying for social justice issues, especially at the Virginia General Assembly, to be frustrating, annoying, and painful—which it is—but it’s an amazing study in human behavior and the power of persuasion—my favorite part of the job, by far.
How does your current work affect your writing?
I’d like to say that it doesn’t, but I think whenever you have to perform a couple of different identities within your life, each is affected by the other in some way. My job provides a nice counter-balance to the anything-goes world of poems—it’s still a persuasion-based job, but definitely in a rational, intellectual, responsible, real-world sort of way. This may sound terrible, but in my day job, I have to be a good person—and don’t get me wrong: I want to be and like being a good person, but poems give me a path to wrestle with the terrifying, difficult, absurd, imperfect, uncontrollable parts of the world in a much different but incredibly important way. As an attorney and a policy advocate, I can focus on actual change for the better. In poems, I can kind of tear a hole in that continuum and play around more with the scaffolding of it all. In policy, “good” is always the desired outcome. In poems, “good” rarely has anything to do with my goals—and sometimes it’s just desire itself that I want.
What do your co-workers think about your writing?
They don’t. I mean, for whatever reason, I just don’t tend to share much about that side of my life at work. The two versions of me–work self and writing self–seem like such different entities that it almost feels too vulnerable to share that part of my life in an environment where I need to have a kind of commanding presence, you know? Or else, it plays into my superstition that the more you talk about something, the less likely it will go the way you want it to. I know—it’s the least rational thing about me, but I think I’ve always been that way. I remember not even telling any family that I’d applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop until I knew I’d gotten in. Ditto with law school (control issues much?) And aside from that, I just think that there’s something a little too incongruous between law and poetry. In the legal world, it tends to make sense to others that someone would be a fiction writer, but no one really knows what to do with a poet (although that’s probably true everywhere outside the writing community/academia).
When do you do most of your writing?
I’ve persistently had a terrible writing schedule. By which I mean, for the most part, I have no schedule. I’ve never been a “write every day, even if it’s crap” kind of writer, and I’m a slow producer—ridiculously slow. Part of this, I think, is because I used to think about writing the way you’re supposed to think about credit card debt: Pick the highest interest rate card, and pay it down until it’s done. Then move on to the next. But in writing, that strategy was leading me to a kind of paralysis—getting hung up on the most challenging, wrenching piece was keeping me in a persistent stall mode. Finally finding a way to allow myself to move between projects was completely liberating—it was the best thing for my overall process to learn how to jump between work-writing, lighter poems, other essay ideas, and those heart-sucking poems that won’t ever leave you alone. Once I did that, it felt less excruciating to make time to sit down and write, and I stopped creating all the procrastination traps to keep me from the hard work of it.
I actually stopped writing altogether for about 10 years, for various reasons, beginning with the unexpected, sudden death of my closest friend, which led into the creative purgatory that is law school—a place that can kill both time and any adventure the mind might want to wander into. I’ve only picked it up again in the last two or three years—which, I think I knew I’d always come back to it, but needed to feel ready and able. Luckily, I think it’s been worth the wait—I feel much more confident in what I’m doing now than I ever have.
And now that I’m writing seriously again, with an eye toward a cohesive collection, I do some kind of writing work every day, whether it’s reading or dreaming or just chiseling away at a piece that’s in progress—I give myself more permission to see different kinds of work as writing. I usually write early in the morning, which is also kind of a revelation, because before my decade hiatus, I was mostly doing night shifts at restaurants, which meant I never really experienced mornings for the productive times they can be. I also write a lot on weekends, at all times of day, depending on my energy level and how close I am to finishing something.
Have you ever written at work? (I won’t tell anyone.)
Well, as long as it stays a secret just between us… Sure, I have, but only in the sense of jotting down a line or word or image I want to work on later. The paid job I do and the job of writing poems require me to be in two totally different brains, so it really only happens when my neurons slip a gear every now and then and something will stick with me enough that I just have to type it out so that I can get it out of my head for a while and get back to doing my job. And since I have an hour commute to work and back most days, sometimes I’ll turn on Siri on my iPhone and just talk some ideas out in the car as they happen. And sometimes it turns out Siri is a better writer than I am.
What would be your ideal job while writing poems?
I’m nearly there, I think—or else it doesn’t actually exist. Someone asked me this question recently, and I think my answer took the form of something like: having six months out of the year to just write, say April to September, with no other work obligations, and then the remaining six months to work on policy campaigns during the legislative session (which in Virginia runs from January through March). I’m not sure there’s a joint-advocacy/poetry foundation out there who would fund that, though. Is there? Call me.
Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. —Alfred Whitney Griswald
kate of jubilant antics created some great mug shots inspired by banned books week. featured are the protagonists from their eyes were watching god, the catcher in the rye, the scarlet letter, looking for alaska and the harry potter series.
check out her art below (order the prints here). you’ll also find a list of banned classics after the jump:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
– timeless advice from the late gary provost. he shows how variety is not only the spice of writing, but the spice of communication. throughout the day, look out for the rhythm in people’s speech/writing. note who’s conducting orchestras with their words and whose notes are falling flat. via nikyatu.
in the essay “creativity and refusal”, author zadie smith explores creativity (the word itself + its application today) and how refusing to conform to norms (or refusing to rebel) comes into play. with it, she adds some new perspective into how we should view music, design, literature, technology, & other “creative” elements of everyday life. read it below (via the 12th international literature festival of rome) and discuss any points that stand out to you:
I have been asked to talk to you this evening of “creativity.” It’s one of those slippery words, popular with the organizers of literary events, and I confess I stared at it a long time without gaining any traction. ‘Identity’ is another word of the same type. We must have a genuine need for such terms – we use them so often – but like a pair of well-loved shoes they’ve worn right down to the soles, and now tend to let in more than they keep out. ‘Creativity’ has had an especially long fall from grace. If you pick up the modern culture dictionary Keywords, by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams, you can trace its decline. As he tells it, ‘creation’ begins life as a prerogative of the gods (as in Augustine’s maxim ‘creatura non potest creare’; the creature who has been created cannot himself create) from which height it descends, in the sixteenth century, into a synonym for “counterfeit”, or “imitation.” “Or art thou,” asks Macbeth, “But/A dagger of the mind, a false creation/proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” For the Elizabethans, whatever was ‘natural’ was the truth. Whatever was created in the minds of men was in some sense secondary, suspect. Which faint stain of shame lasted a long time – even the Romantics were not entirely free of it. More recently, Williams argues, we use the word to disguise from ourselves the fact that the arts are dominated not by innovation or originality but by “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” In other words: we like to think the ‘creative arts’ represent a form of rebellion against the way of things, but more often than not they reinforce the status quo. The most painful bit comes at the end: “The difficulty arises when a word once intended, and often still intended, to embody a high and serious claim, becomes so conventional…Thus any imitative or stereotyped literary work can be called, by convention, creative writing, and advertising copywriters officially describe themselves as creative.”
I suppose it is in this last, loosest, sense that I most often hear the word used in my adopted city, New York. A young woman at a party will proudly tell you she works in ‘creative branding.’ The man whose job it is to rid our apartment of cockroaches speaks of finding a ‘creative solution to the problem.’ The marketing department of any large company is considered its ‘creative hub.’ As I write these words it is officially ‘Creative Week’ in New York (“Where advertising, design, and digital media collide with the arts.”) In Manhattan, when a person is described as ‘creative’ it usually means they’ve found a particularly ingenious way to sell you something.
The other place I hear the word a lot, unsurprisingly, is behind the door of 58 West 10th street, where I teach in a Creative Writing program. There, ‘creative’ has transformed from adjective to noun. “I knew from the earliest age,” writes a student, in her application letter, “that I was destined to be a Creative.” In its Sunday supplements, the New York Times regularly tortures my students with lavish articles about the fantasy lifestyle of this person, the ‘Creative.’ She lives in Brooklyn, sits in cafés with a laptop, makes her own hours, and is answerable to no-one. I wouldn’t begrudge any young person this entirely reasonable desire (although personally I have never typed a single creative word in a café) but I sometimes wonder whether it is creative writing itself or this advertised lifestyle that is the main attraction. To create something, as the Gods knew, requires a certain boldness. But though my students are excellent readers and sometimes brilliant intellectually what they write is often, at first, oddly timid. It is writing that aims to please; specifically writing that seeks to fill some perceived niche in the literary market. Often this niche is characterized by that other slippery word ‘identity.’ I heard Salman Rushdie claim recently that the most important advice he can think to give to young Asian writers these days is the following: “There must be no tropical fruits in the title. No mangoes, no guavas. None of those. Tropical animals are also problematic. Peacock, etc. Avoid that shit.” Just because Asian novels are the fashion you needn’t make a fetish of yourself. Or to put it another way: it is not creative to let the logic of the market into your mind. One of the virtues of novel-writing is, or used to be, its relative independence. Unlike movies or television you do not need to please a committee or get a green light before you set out to write. But what if the phantom committee has been internalized? Sometimes students can seem more attuned to the chatter of publishing PR departments than whatever is going on in their own minds. They plan on penning the ‘Next Great Post-Colonial Novel’ or a ‘Multi-Generational Epic’ or a ‘Delicate Canadian Historical Drama.” At the end of a semester, not long ago, a student asked me: “How did you choose your literary brand?”
Most of my time with students is spent trying to press upon them the idea that creativity is about something more than finding the perfect audience for the perfect product. To my mind, a true ‘Creative’ should not simply seek to satisfy a pre-existing demand but instead transform our notion of what it is we want. A work of art forms its own necessary audience, creates its own taste. In this sense, at the heart of creativity lies a refusal. For a genuinely creative piece of work always declines to see the world as others see it, or as it is commonly described. It refuses received notions and generalities – it “makes new.” Sometimes this forced change of perspective provokes delight, and a Creative should count herself extremely lucky if that turns out to be the case. But she should also prepare herself for the more usual reactions: discomfort, distaste, confusion, shock – even anger. The genuinely new rarely slips easily into the world-as-it-is. It causes at least a little friction. But I find it’s difficult to cultivate and encourage in students – especially American students – a willingness to risk displeasure. They are brought up on the principle of supply and demand, of entertainers and audience. As antidote, early on in our time together, I assign Kafka, in the hope it will embolden them. Kafka being the type of Creative whose creativity was not rooted in the need for approval. A man for whom creativity itself was a form of refusal.
This is all happening at the high end of the creative industry – my students being the type of kids whose parents don’t mind dropping sixty grand on a writing program. Meanwhile, down at the other end, the urban youth of New York, in particular the young African-Americans, do not require Creative Week to be creative. Their fashion, their language, their music, their visual arts – all are a source of constant innovation. Not one but two entire art forms – jazz and hip-hop – have risen up from this minority community within one century. (Not to mention the various subset activities these art-forms have spawned: bebop, funk, spoken word poetry, street art, break-dancing, scratching, beat-boxing.) But – as is often the way in America – all the way at the other end of the class ladder you find a strange mirroring of what happens at the top. The sad state of contemporary Hip-Hop is an obvious example. The creative energy is still there, as it was at Hip-Hop’s inception, but so is a new keenness to be co-opted, monetized. Once an underground, resistant culture, now rappers speak enthusiastically of “becoming a brand.” Happily they make deals with sportswear manufacturers and perfume companies, hawk high-end drinks in their videos, and lend their hard-won aura of authenticity to various aspects of the socio-economic status quo. Some of these gestures are as old as the hills. The surest sign of a successful rapper, for example, is his willingness to rap a verse over the anodyne pop song of a white starlet. She sings; he raps; she tries to dance; he stands behind her, looking impressed. If you squint it looks no different than that old tap dancer Bill Robinson clapping his hands and grinning as Shirley Temple dances in front of him. The black artist lends authenticity to the white star; the white star legitimizes the black artist. The music may have changed but the deep structure remains the same.
Such cultural repetitions make me nervous; they are primarily nostalgic, and nostalgia is the enemy of creativity, and the driving force behind “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” Over and over in Hip-Hop we see what began as a creative refusal of the mainstream culture ending up as its support act. We used to call this ‘selling out’. Now it’s called ‘consolidating your brand.’ Rappers themselves like to argue that “getting paper” (making money) is itself a creative act of rebellion against the socio-economic status quo in America. But there seems to me a qualitative difference between monetizing the end product and monetizing the process itself, a line between selling a record and selling yourself. I confess it depressed me to hear that a rap collective as innovative as the LA-based Odd Future recently signed on to make an advert for the soft drink Mountain Dew. Not to star in it, mind you, but to actually design and direct it. (I was later cheered to hear their efforts were too offensive for the company to use.) To think of your creativity as a brand – or as at the service of a brand – is to build into the creative process the consistency and audience approval that products require. It is to think of yourself as product. And products cannot refuse their buyers. The whole point of a product is to slot into the world-as-it-is, seamlessly.
I grew up in the age of grunge and refusal, the tail-end of that generation of people who still feel sad when they see Iggy Pomp in a TV advert for car insurance or Bob Dylan in a deal with Starbucks. I was fifteen when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I was raised on the idea that there is a deadly tension between creativity and the market. I imagine that for the generation under me this idea of the ‘sell-out’ is considered as sentimental and impractical as those other 60’s throwbacks like free love and peace on earth. They grew up largely unmolested by the fear that the logic of the market is in any way in conflict with the act of creation. This must partly be because they grew up in a world of digital technology in which the seamlessness of creativity and capital is real. What is Apple if not “creativity” and “brand” working together in perfect synergy? Perhaps I should be teaching students about the creativity of Steve Jobs rather than Kafka? But here we get to the limits of this word ‘creativity.’ For though I may, on occasion, be so in love with my iPhone as to call it “a work of art,” the creativity embedded within it is of a different kind than the creativity that brought “In the Penal Colony” into existence, and I think it a little dangerous to confuse the two. The ultimate purpose of creativity in technology is to be frictionless, in form and function. Its final aim is not to challenge but to facilitate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – a tool, if its working well, should feel simply like an extension of us, and should work in the same way and equally well for every soul who picks it up. We get used to tools – they become invisible to us (Unless we happen to be hackers or especially technologically literate.) The creativity of art, by contrast, is something we never ‘get used to.’ I read “In the Penal Colony” every year with my students and every year it is a new kind of provocation, a challenge to the way I think and behave, to the things I claim I believe. The creativity of art is different from the creativity of tools: it forces us to be active in the face of it and always individual. Your reading of Kafka will not be the same as mine, but both of us will use our iPhones in much the same way. Still, it’s true that in the world of creative technology each new iteration of hardware or software does induce a jolt in us – forcing us to see our world differently, not unlike a work of art – and certainly for a day or two, or even a month, we may find ourselves confounded by some element of a new design, or refusing it outright (as is happening presently with Google Glass, which, in America, is being preemptively banned and legislated against in various contexts.) But very soon, almost sooner than we realize, we get used to the new design, whatever it is, and it begins to become invisible to us, we cannot imagine it was ever any other way.
The iPad, the iPhone et al – these may be an expression of Steve Jobs’ creativity, but they are also products, and for all the talk of revolutionary freedom in the adverts, all those billboards of Einstein and Hendrix above the slogan ‘Think Different’, Apple the company slipped seamlessly into the world-as-it-is, with all its iniquities, as we learnt when stories of work conditions in the Foxconn factory in China began to surface. To really ‘think differently’ necessitates some kind of refusal, and products – no matter how beautifully designed – simply do not have that freedom; they exist only to please, which is why Jobs’ creative brand utopia is not an especially good model for creative artists. It feels important to insist that when I say “I don’t know how I ever lived without my iPhone” (and I say it all the time) I am not speaking of the same kind of creative experience as when I say: “I was a different person before I read – and re-read -“In the Penal Colony.”
However, there is something very important the digital era has to teach young Creatives: un-sentimentality. A passion for the new. Technology is fundamentally un-nostalgic and young people who want to be creative would do well to cultivate this instinct. In my experience, fighting nostalgia, as an artist, is a full time job. Never more so than when I lived in Italy, which seems to me to be a country perversely designed to make you feel both awe at the cultural achievements of the past and a great doubt that you could ever add to them yourself. It’s not so easy to paint in the city of Michelangelo, nor to make music in the land of Verdi, or write sentences in the shadow of Dante. If ever there was a country over-burdened by a legacy of creativity, it’s Italy. Of course, a great cultural history can also be a wonderful advantage to a young Creative; the better you know your own cultural history, as TS Eliot argued, the less likely you are to repeat it in a formulaic or dull manner. Nostalgia may be the enemy of creativity – but history, properly understood, is its friend. When I lived here I always felt that the young creative people of Italy were in some sense deprived access to the full greatness of their cultural history by a conservative mass media that curiously insists on its nostalgic aspects; that insists, for example, that the 50s and 60s in Rome represent the very pinnacle of modern Italian life, never to be forgotten or equaled. Alberto Sordi and Anna Magnani movies play in rotation on the television; the chat shows continually reminisce about the good old days, and there are so many magazine articles about Agnelli you’d think he was still alive. There’s something deliberately soporific about all that, as if an older generation refuses to get out of the way to allow the flowering of something new. I think a young Creative has to learn to be a little ruthless about the past, and that can be hard to do in a culture preoccupied with heritage. Surely one of the reasons young Creatives from around the globe flock to New York is that city’s impatience with nostalgia. The town seems to change week by week; old buildings are torn down, new ones arrive. No doubt it’s brutal, but it’s what makes it a city on the side of the young. It’s always looking ahead, never sentimental about what came before.
I should confess before I finish that I don’t think of myself as particularly creative. At best I am a good synthesizer, someone who, in Eliot’s sense, reorganizes and rearranges the materials of the past. If I am occasionally able to ‘make it new’ this is wholly due to this tendency towards refusal I’ve been trying to describe. As a child, born into a certain class, into a particular race and gender, my first creative act was to refuse, in various ways, the destiny England thought it had in store for me. My writing springs from this same instinct. Even if my publishers print my name in the same font on the covers of all my books, I still want what is inside to be free to mutate, transform and surprise, and otherwise fundamentally disturb a ‘brand.’ I like writing that is inconsistent and a little unruly. And like all creative writers, I want to rescue this word ‘creative’ from its recent devaluation. Because there’s something vital and radical about the creative arts, when they’re good. They’re not just well-designed tools or beautiful products, they’re experiences, in which space is made for you to wrangle with what you are offered, re-interpret it, or refuse it, in an ongoing and unique engagement. They may be sold as product but they can refuse the form and identity of products. And in their habit of creative refusal they can encourage a broader creative refusal that may actually have some teeth to it.
What if the most creative thing we can do right now is refuse? Show ourselves not content to slot our energies into the smooth running of the present order? Imagining the world other than it is feels like a creative duty right now, and everywhere you look a principle of refusal seems to be taking hold. The Internet activists ‘Anonymous’ refuse an identity at all, while the global Occupy movement also took the form of a refusal: the refusal to name leaders or even policies. Your recent election here in Italy bore some traces of this same legacy: the refusal of business as usual. And we’re beginning to see artists refusing ‘content providers’ all together – bypassing publishers, record companies and TV stations in creative and interesting ways. The end of the financial order, or of the political order, or of a certain version of the cultural and media industries – we were always warned that when these familiar certainties collapsed, anarchy would follow, anarchy being the refusal of everything. We have been taught to fear it – but the moment is upon us and why should it be purely nihilistic? It might be the most creative thing to happen to us in a long time.
in this multimedia-driven age, schools should place the same emphasis on visual literacy as they do written. we need to be able to parse through the latest breaking news report or the latest breaking bad episode to the point where we can both grasp what’s being said (audibly & visually) and appreciate/understand what exactly the directors/actors/reporters are doing to convey their messages.
director martin scorsese provides a solid argument for this stance in his new essay “the persisting vision: reading the language of cinema”. in it, scorsese also touches on what he loves about movies and scatters in some great bits of film history. check it out below (via ny review of books) and respond to it in the comments:
In the film The Magic Box, which was made in England in 1950, the great English actor Robert Donat plays William Friese-Greene—one of the people who invented movies. The Magic Box was packed with guest stars. It was made for an event called the Festival of Britain. You had about fifty or sixty of the biggest actors in England at the time, all doing for the most part little cameos, including the man who played the policeman—that was Sir Laurence Olivier.
I saw this picture for the first time with my father. I was eight years old. I’ve never really gotten over the impact that it had. I believe this is what ignited in me the wonder of cinema, and the obsession—with watching movies, making them, inventing them.
Friese-Greene gives everything of himself to the movies, and he dies a pauper. If you know the full story of his life and its end, the line in the film about the invention of the movies—“You must be a very happy man, Mr. Friese-Greene”—of course is ironic, but in some ways it’s also true because he’s followed his obsession all the way. So it’s both disturbing and inspiring. I was very young. I didn’t put this into words at the time, but I sensed these things and I saw them up there on the screen.
My parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I had been sick with asthma since I was three years old and I apparently couldn’t do any sports, or that’s what they told me. But my mother and father did love the movies. They weren’t in the habit of reading—that didn’t really exist where I came from—and so we connected through the movies.
And I realize now that the warmth of that connection with my family and with the images on the screen gave me something very precious. We were experiencing something fundamental together. We were living through the emotional truths on the screen, often in coded form, which these films from the 1940s and 1950s sometimes expressed in small things: gestures, glances, reactions between the characters, light, shadow. These were things that we normally couldn’t discuss or wouldn’t discuss or even acknowledge in our lives.
Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease.” I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother. You’d go through the doors, up the thick carpet, past the popcorn stand that had that wonderful smell—then to the ticket taker, and then in some of the old theaters there would be another set of doors with little windows and you’d get a glimpse of something magical happening up there on the screen, something special. And as we entered, for me it was like entering a sacred space, a kind of sanctuary where the living world around me seemed to be recreated and played out.
What was it about cinema? What was so special about it? I think I’ve discovered some of my own answers to that question a little bit at a time over the years.
here’s a brand new poem for the atomic lemon drops series. i’ve been working on this one for a while and recently got it to a spot where it’s worthy of your attention. check it out + the usual background on the piece below. share any questions & reactions in the comment section.
Blue Roses Pt. II
When the quiet comes,
watch me pop-lock into Death’s
old school Caddy. Bloodclot
red, rims lean to the side,
we cruise the city of angels
looking for God. That bum
on the corner said:
“You’ll see Him near Sunset,
draped in everever & grace.
At His heels swoon stars,
burning for true scriptures
and a picture near Perfection.
He signed mine with a rainbow.”
Her sign said:
the apostle paul sharing his thoughts on love with the early church in corinth, greece. centuries later, his words continue to hold up well and transcend any religious divisions. taken from the new international version of the bible, via spiritual inspiration.
details via artist cheryl sorg:
Thumbprint portraits use your own thumbprint to create a large (three feet high!), modern, colorful work of art that will be absolutely YOU. I will use your own thumbprint and recreate its unique patterns using snippets of imagery, text and color from your favorite things (you’ll provide a list and I’ll pore through and gather hundreds of images to best represent that list). Your favorites could include much-loved books, music, films, poetry, quotes, places traveled and lived and more. The result is a truly one-of-a-kind portrait that captures your personality and passions. It makes a wonderful gift for yourself or a loved one. A great way to do a unique family portrait – you could create one for each family member, or (like the one shown above!) use one family member’s thumbprint and incorporate the interests of all family members into one portrait.
take a close look at the portraits in the gallery below. think about what you might include your portrait (you can buy one here) and share in the comments. to help you along, listen to “my favorite things” by john coltrane.
via open culture:
Here’s a rare recording from 1929 of the British author A.A. Milne reading a chapter of his beloved children’s book, Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne was a prolific writer of plays, novels and essays, but he was most widely known–much to his chagrin–as the creator of a simple and good-natured little bear.
Pooh was inspired by his son Christopher Robin’s favorite teddy bear. In Milne’s imagination, the stuffed bear comes alive and enters into little adventures (or one might say misadventures) with Christopher Robin and his other stuffed animals. The name “Winnie” was borrowed from a famous resident of the London Zoo: a black bear from Canada named for the city of Winnipeg. The young Christopher Robin liked visiting Winnie at the zoo. He also liked a graceful swan he saw swimming in a pond at Kensington Gardens, who he named “Pooh.” His father combined the two names to create one of the most popular characters in children’s literature.
listen to milne read the story “in which pooh and piglet go hunting and nearly catch a woozle” (you can follow along with the text after the jump). on a related note, pictured above are christopher robin milne’s original stuffed animals (l to r, eeyore, kanga, piglet, pooh, tigger) then housed at the new york public library. you can find more info on them here.