Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Ladies Scarf, Billowing Goodbye

Writers On Music

This is a series of short essays about music from the perspectives of young writers. Several members of The Corresponding Society have been asked to address the subject. The participants have academic backgrounds in fields such as literature, poetics, and history; they are enthusiasts, but claim no formal musical qualifications whatever.

Placing Rhapsody in Blue
by Adrian Shirk

Once, in Albuquerque, I stopped at a record shop called Natural Sound, a squat building on the dusty corner of Central Avenue known formerly as Route 66. The shop was going out of business and everything was on sale. The shelves, not unlike those of small businesses in Brooklyn, were already thinning; the recession had been officially announced the night before during our layover in Houston. Announcing it did as much as the diagnosis of a quiet form of cancer which has already taken a scoop out of your liver. Presenting the dime-store map to the young man at the counter, I asked him which canyons were the good ones, but he only blinked at me through the morning sun, saying nothing. So my companion and I bought four CDs, including a Gershwin compilation featuring Rhapsody in Blue, and started up I-25.

I was not entirely sure why we’d come to New Mexico. There had been free airline miles to use, a limited expenditure period --- I knew this --- but the destination had been picked out over coffee two weeks before, and now we were here. I-25 is a barren stretch of road that cuts through the state vertically. The San Andreas Mountains stand erect to one side, with the sheer, bald face of southwest erosion, jutting from dirt plains that undulate like water. It is not unlike the vision Warner Bros. once painted for Merry Melodies, and when we put on Gershwin, the likeness grew: Rhapsody is commonly associated with New York, but what struck me as the first cartoonish crescendo seared from the rental car’s speakers --- the sweet shrieking rise of the clarinet, the way it flowers at the end --- was how it matched the playful, grandiose landscape of cowboy country just as well. Reflexively, I could see Roadrunner and Coyote darting from behind the yucca, mimicking the frantic, innocent pace of Gershwin’s piece. Wasn’t Bugs Bunny always on his way to Albuquerque?

My relationship to music is not a sophisticated one. My parents met at a jazz program in college during the early 70s, where my mother played flute and my father, bass trombone. Without finishing his bachelor’s, my father took a job at the American Federation of Musicians, Local 99, and climbed his way to a position that hovered around Secretary Treasurer for twenty years. And when my parents split up, he married another flutist, and all of these people raised me, and at no point coerced me into a music education of my own. They didn’t even push piano lessons, or elementary school band. We lived across the street from a large Mormon family, the children of which played five instruments each. We listened from our front steps. I still can’t read notes. Each parent took me to countless concerts, their own and others, and on our home stereos played Classical 89.9. My dad fought on the side of tinny-voiced musicians until I moved out. Music was an atmosphere more than anything, a godlike presence I couldn’t name. I remember sitting in the backseat on the ride home from seeing my stepmother play The Rite of Spring for the Oregon Symphony, and suddenly being old enough (probably fifteen) where I felt awkward realizing I had no idea what to say.

Everything flattened and browned as we moved south. I-25 converged with Route 3, and in a town called Truth and Consequences, the second movement of Rhapsody commenced and we stopped for coffee. The song slowed, becoming dramatic, breathy --- a ladies scarf, billowing goodbye from a passenger train’s window. The brass section picked up, punctuating the melody with pile-driving bars that sounded (and looked) like the gears of a steam engine. Like all the other western New Mexico towns, Truth and Consequences had once been the home of coal miners, but all the remained were closed-up civic buildings, a bank and a muddy trickle of the Rio Grande that ran along the highway. Even the name, once Hot Springs, had been coughed up for a popular 1950s television show running a national contest. On Gershwin’s album jacket was a 1913 Colin Campbell Cooper painting called “Fifth Avenue, New York,” of the intersection in front of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and almost a century old, the painting depicted the same city I live in now, whereas most of New Mexico would be unrecognizable to its citizens of yore. I assumed Rhapsody to be about an unchanging American face --- something that united the bodies of freights and subway cars, hurtling over their respective rails. But how, when all I could see was the businessman and the buggy on the corner of 81st? And where in this forsaken state did they keep it?

And what did Gershwin know of place: reared in Brooklyn by a pair of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who pushed all their children into music training, it was only expected he and Ira rise to national greatness, and who better to reflect industrial America than a culturally bastardized foreigner who could see every piece of it, whole and raw. There was nothing godlike about it. Gershwin was a man’s man, surrounded by fancy women, tripping fans, and great noise. Though a close friend of Gershwin’s, composer Kay Smith once said, “under the vibrant and gregarious exterior was a sad Russian.” Perhaps Gershwin was writing about New York, but perhaps New York contained shards of every united state, and perhaps he could isolate the smaller pieces from the mess. The myth is that he conceived of Rhapsody on a commuter train to Boston, that he finished it in a month’s time, and improvised parts at its first concert. It is this act of improvisation that suggests to me he drew his material from what was around him, responding to the energy or enthusiasm at hand; and that the nature of Rhapsody is not a representation, but rather a perfect mirror, conjured in the moment of its opus. Maybe America liked him so much because listening to his music was like watching ourselves dance. In my most earnest attempts, this is to what end I write. “I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise,” Gershwin said.

We drove through tiny towns dotting the edge of the White Sands Missile Range, past the Trinity Site. It was a warm, September afternoon. We stopped at lava beds and saw antelope and the terrain began to rise, still vast and tan, but rising now in dikes that the road snaked through, gently releasing us back into the plains. I played Rhapsody on repeat. These were the sounds I wanted to write, the movements, this dance. I did not want to write fiction or poetry or journalism or travel guides or songs or manuals or plays; these were not the right ways or words. I wanted to record, to reverberate, to sound the rhythms of everything around me; to terrify and move people with their own bare reflection; to rove the highways like the guy who drove the night soil cart in medieval Europe, picking up the national excrement flung out the windows of American homes.

We pitched a tent in the backcountry of White Sands National Park, just outside of Las Cruces. Our site roosted amongst miles of gypsum white dunes and the deepest silence was known to me --- settled, penetrated by only the sonic booms of fighter jets launched from a nearby military base. We wedged our propane stove into the sand and shared a dinner of Dinty Moore stew and dried fruit as the sky grew impossibly dark. I had dreams that night of driving through the West at the turn of the century: I, gripping my Gibson hat, and my companion crushing a cigar under his heavy mustache.

Even now I don’t know the lexicon of music, but I know that it does the work I wish to do. It has an agility I can’t summon with words; writing is the beginning of a thing, the framework and casing, and music occupies the space of what must be a pure and present form. In his 1979 film Manhattan, Woody Allen pairs the clumsy short-comings of language as his character, Issac Davis, recites the working-preamble of his new book over a montage of turn-of-the-century film clips set to Rhapsody in Blue. “‘Chapter One,’” Isaac begins. “‘He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.’ Uh, no, make that: ‘He --- he... romanticized it all out of proportion. Now... to him... no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black-and-white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.’ Uh, now let me start this over...” The Super-8 clips continue, showing the roaring bustle of a classier era, rugged docksmen hauling nets of fish, first-rate girls and a climbing skyline, but Isaac keeps trying: “‘He was as... tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat’ --- I love this! --- ‘New York was his town. And it always would be.’” But at this point we have stopped listening to him.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Unrelated Triad

Visual Preface:

Abraham Lincoln.

I. The Chinese New Year This Year: There is something happening soon, a sounding. It is part two of what is known as Painted Faces. It involves several associates of The Corresponding Society, viz. Robert Snyderman, Tallon, and Matthew Daniel and: some bells attached to a rake and a flautist with an impressive beard. There will probably be other features of interest besides. I believe it is related to the Chinese New Year. Here is a video provided by Helen Wu to shed more light:

Dreamscape - dream and escape from helen wu on Vimeo.

Here is information to guide you in attendance:

Painted Faces (Part II)
Location: 14 Bowery (near Pell St), 4th floor
Date: 23 January
Time: 8pm-10pm
Suggested Donation: $3
After party: Bar 169, 169 East Broadway (near Rutgers)

II. Correspondence No. 2 Status: As we the editors of this journal go about our daily business, we have developed, some of us, a tendency to perk up and blurt to somebody in the room, “This issue is superlative.” We are all pleased with the shape of the thing, the quality of the work, et cetera, and await trying to figure out how to share, disperse, get rid of the published result. Correspondence No. 2 is being carefully prepared by a tireless team of editors and will be available within a month or thereabouts (maybe a little more/less). This time we had to make sacrificial cuts, even with material we felt strongly about, to manage a length under our decided limit of two hundred pages. (Ergo, the artistry in number 2 is of a condensed, extra-strength formula.) The range of work, consistent muscle, as well as especial concern for essays and translations, and the inclusion of hybrid forms --- all contribute to something with an atypical constitution for a biannual literary journal, as far as I am qualified to say so. More re that later. The book will be available through our online store, mail order, and whatever booksellers we manage to contact. (An aside: Adrian informs me that the first issue is now at Powell’s of Portland, Oregon, but stock dwindles.) We are planning new events and convergences to correlate with the release of our sequel. That’s the status as she is.

III. Frowning American New Year 2009: In California, at least on the television channel that was incidentally being broadcast in the room I was standing in, a taped rerun of the New Year’s celebration in New York’s Times Square was presented for those in less fashionable time zones. I attempted to discern whether this trick of mechanical reproduction rendered the spectacle any more inauthentic, but I interrupted myself by spilling wine on myself. Here’s a cute supplement to the previous entry re my visiting San Francisco, some real bloggy content: a photographic document, provided to me by friendly Richard Loranger, of inexplicably dour countenances together in poet Joie Cook’s living room on New Year’s. I don’t know why two of us appear so frowningly --- it’s unrepresentative of the night’s festivities, but perhaps evinces the poetic despair we carry always within us.

Pictured: Lonely Christopher, Kathleen Wood, Richard Loranger, styrofoam cups. Photo attribution unavailable.

Popular Postscript: Obama!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The World Is Round and You Can Go On It Around and Around

This is some prolix periphrasis thereabouts. We like friends and I went to California.

Occasionally I suspect that we of The Corresponding Society are too hermetic when it comes to knowledge of and interaction with a spectrum of writing communities, movements, or scenes. Our project does represent emerging writers with (sometimes violently) dissimilar ideologies and poetics --- and although the press is organized in Brooklyn, where the director/publisher and most of the editors happen to live, we aren’t totally centralized and are informed, geographically, by correspondents across the United States as well as Scotland, Russia, France, and the Caribbean Sea. Withal, each one of us is differently involved with his own intellectual pursuits that collectively reflect an eclectic range of focuses. But there is a myopic tendency reflected in our nonparticipation in a general discourse outside of this particular assemblage of peers. We are taking measures to change that --- public appearances/readings have promoted communication with strangers and we’ve collected engaging work from a broader plash of writers for Correspondence No. 2 --- but the habit has not been corrected altogether (ex: Rob Fitterman pointed us to a particularly vanguard community of young poets in Manhattan and we’ve yet to investigate, &c.). As Mr. C. Sweeney, the press’ director, pointed out: the activity amongst contributors alone that results from this project is extremely rewarding --- but in the same interview in which he made that statement he also exhibited an unawareness of who and what constitutes other contemporary writing scenes, even those rumored to be operating and thriving within walking distance of our lair. Quoth he, “There certainly are writers in Brooklyn, there are many, but I don’t think many of them are interesting.” He couldn’t indentify specific communities, but criticized two generalized poetic modes that he vaguely disliked (suspicious of “trendiness,” he seemed to be suggesting categories sort of resembling what some would label the school of quietude and the post-avant; he casually dismissed the former as too confessional and the latter as superficially experimental). This is characteristic of our shared flaw. I certainly understand his defensive mistrust of the most maniacally postmodern dissent and most mawkishly unrefined sentimentality (although I am very critical of many of his value judgments). The problem is that this encourages disinterest through abstraction --- as in: we don’t even know who they are, but we don’t care because we’re already annoyed at something we think about them. My personal major stereotypes about the work coming out of our borough include bourgeois lit, which clogs the bloated fiction sections of our fine bookstores with novels that appeared excerpted in The New Yorker, and hipster lit, which is lackadaisical, unserious, and petulantly insignificant (the representative neighborhoods of these hallucinated cabals might be, respectively, Park Slope and Williamsburg). Indulging inadvisably in taxonomical perspectives is another kind of reductive mistake, of course. Regardless, since we of this press are not united around a specific doctrine or poetics (and are not positing ourselves as a movement, but rather a network of noisy exuberances) we ought to avoid exclusionary prejudices unless they are merited by undedicated/substandard work. We’re trying. The editors’ meetings have become less intense: in lieu of ideological scuffling/scathing rejections, we’ve taken to respectful/nondiscriminatory engagement with a gamut of submissions from unfamiliar sources. Yet we remain notionally localized (which threatens discourse with durance) and unable to expedite the sluggardly process by which we improve our participatory reach. Ex: Correspondence No. 1 is only available in two bookstores. Robert Snyderman was championing the growth of our ambit through collaborating on the Poem Shop project, whereby he made his praxis public (in warmer weather) in a distinctly positive way: he abetted poetry’s visibility (under the paving stones: the word!) while simultaneously working/developing as a writer and promoting our community and journal in an earnest, populist fashion. He made friends, met new peers, and promoted our project uniquely. Since the weather has prohibited the operations of Poem Shop, we have been selling significantly fewer copies of the journal and not discovering as many opportunities to enrich the scope of our correspondences. There are medical reasons for why we’ve unfortunately exacerbated a condition of noiselessness. Sweeney, for instance, somehow manages to direct our press while suffering from an antisocial disposition bordering on paranoid schizophrenia. As for me, I am a hermetical misanthrope. I would surely suffer a panic attack upon attempting Robert’s exhibitionistic enthusiasm. (Today I argued about cancelling my life insurance because I feel I’m too likely to render myself contractually ineligible for benefits through self-termination.) Also: while Sweeney and co-editor Adrian toured the West Coast and Robert rambled around on the road during a cross-country road trip/walkabout/dérive this summer, and while David and Greg, co-editors both, have respectively attended university in Scotland and temporarily relocated to France, I despise and avoid travel (seldom even leaving Bed-Stuy). Atypically, I have just returned from a brief holiday in San Francisco --- it was the first enriching journey outside my normal boundaries since I spent a week with a friend in Belgium about four years ago. This was occasioned by the decision, made somewhat at whim, to visit poet (and official patron saint of The Corresponding Society) Richard Loranger --- an erstwhile Brooklynite who left a teaching position at the Pratt Institute to return to the city from whence he arrived nine years previous. (Richard is the author of the book you must read right now, Poems for Teeth; withal, he contributed to Correspondence No. 1 and we hope to get him in No. 2 if we can figure out how to format the Möbius strip he submitted to us.) Sweeney, Adrian, and Robert all have had the chance to see Richard in San Francisco since he left us, which made me tremendously jealous and in need of rectifying my deficiency. While I am an Andy Warhol of attachment to New York City, and find the brusque severity of Brooklyn quite suitable, I admit this borough was actively engaged in a campaign to totally destroy Richard --- when he was finally fed up, he went to climes more amiable to his mammalian status. I had never known San Francisco, but had recently watched the biopic “Milk,” ergo actualizing myself as a veritable aficionado of the town, as far as I was concerned. Richard lives in the Mission and is employed by Dog Eared Books on Valencia --- Jen Hyde, director of Brooklyn’s Small Anchor Press, actually took some initiative (which we lack) and organized a reading for her outfit at Dog Eared (featuring novelist Joshua Furst, who drove there from here with her) during the Small Anchor West Coast tour that I was asked to participate in but declined so I could attend the opera. San Francisco is a city of bookstores; this is very unlike New York, where independent concerns are scarce and even important monuments like the Strand Annex are closing (along with big box Barnes and Noble locations, which might be even more alarming in a complicated way). As a New Yorker, the idea of more than one bookstore on the same block was previously incomprehensible. I visited establishments in the Mission (notably Adobe), the Castro, (notably Aardvark), the Haight, and North Beach (notably City Lights). Not every bookstore is amazing, but the quantity of them is admirable. I detected a general trend of strong collections of queer studies and beat poetry while the conceptual vanguard seemed limited to collected essays on John Cage (why does it feel like language poetry never happened according to many of those poetry sections?). I suspect that part of the local cultural heritage is kind of negatively retarded by the beats’ legacy. It is almost as if the magnitude of the beats’ achievement mutated the anxiety of influence into a monster that broke the calendar. In New York it’s different because the city has indomitable inertia, like a furious tide that can sustain a canon of writerly movements, bobbing around in the waves, as new developments compel the watery tempest yet. (I should mention my visit was all of three days long.) My perception of a cultural fixation or anxiety that can trap poetics in a state of post-beat arrested development was, at least, startling to my sensibilities. My peripheral, unqualified judgment is that the major difference between contemporary poetry in San Francisco and New York is that the former is about expression and the latter is about articulation… if that makes any sense whatever or is even a correct distinction at all. I certainly admire the beats --- as a reader I adore Ginsberg and I couldn’t breathe without Burroughs (who I studied extensively several years ago) --- although I was too busy marveling over some rare finds (Ex Why Zee by Bruce Andrews and Head Citations by Kenny Goldsmith: both books, unavailable on the shelves in NYC, by NYC poets) I made on the poetry floor of City Lights to peak at their obligatory beat section. I forget who told me that he was unimpressed after visiting City Lights, but he was absolutely mistaken; City Lights might be the most generally superlative bookstore I have ever visited: it is like our Saint Mark’s Bookshop if that place was far more personable, more expertly organized with a larger collection, and three stories tall. (Anecdotal aside: I have never seen a bookstore with a “praxis” section before.) City Lights had critical theory, music, drama, and literary journal divisions comparable to St Mark’s; it’s queer and gender studies, fiction, and literature (categorized geographically) sections were of a comprehensiveness unparalleled in my experience, and then the third floor is dedicated entirely to poetry (with ghettoes for the beats and Green Integer publications). It wasn’t a used bookstore with as much personality as some of the smaller places I came across, but I ended up with some texts (a primer on Derrida, a queer reading of Gertrude Stein’s operas, &c.) that I’ve never found elsewhere. I came back to Brooklyn with a suitcase full of books, which is unfortunate inasmuch as we’re running out of space for printed material. Withal, I picked up a now-ancient book of textual scholarship on Hamlet by John Dover Wilson and monographs on minimalism and Benjamin Britten. (Now I have this piece of the libretto from Britten’s Billy Budd stuck about my skull: “Would that I lived in my own world always, in that depravity to which I was born. There I found peace of a sort, there I established an order such as reigns in hell. But alas, alas! the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers.”) The evident friendliness of some of the establishments toward literary journals convinced me that The Corresponding Society must alert a few of these places of our existence, thus establishing a slight West Coast presence for our project if we can convince them to carry our wares. It also reminded me that we don’t pay especial attention to the climate of contemporary literary journals and are indifferent beyond the assumption that we are opposed to things such as n+1 and McSweeney’s (I guess our interests are kind of antique: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, New American Poetry, New Directions, &c.). I address this subject at length, but I did manage other activities: I walked back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge and was taken to a bar, in an area of South of Market that my docent referred to as “the fruit loop,” full of older men in leather gear and/or cowboy hats (it was the Hole in the Wall, for anyone familiar, but I think it was a slow night). I toured the Castro, which amused me, and the Haight, which didn’t, and Richard and I caught “The Times of Harvey Milk” at the Roxie (after which Richard commented that Dan White’s perplexing lack of an objective correlative is similar to my critical position on the character of Hamlet). This trip coincided with New Year’s and that night Richard and I were guests of poet and artist Joie Cook and her peers --- I am told their community is known as the “babarians”; the celebration was supplemented by a poetry reading featuring performances by most of the guests. This was the first reading I’ve participated in constituted exclusively by published poets and I was sort of charmed by how we read our work out of books of ours pulled off shelves or out of bags. I was a bit of an anomaly, being the youngest waking guest (one couple had a daughter who quickly fell asleep on the coats) and a New Yorker withal, unfamiliar with the cultural climate of the West Coast or with the friendly and exuberant babarian poets. I noticed themes of emotional content and beat-like sensibilities throughout most of the work from the Mission writers; the formal structuralism of my work was much apart from the communal vibe, but it was gamely received by the group: my favorite response was a new acquaintance flamboyantly calling out, “That was better than John Cage!” (Aside: Cage came up often during my stay; I even managed to catch a performance of his piece 4’33’’ at the SFMOMA before my departure.) My impression of the babarians is that they are ingenuously in love with expression and a niche for them has naturally formed like a joy consolidating within the cultural architecture. They seem yet to function under the popular anxiety of influence: somebody inevitably began speaking about the days when they all ran with Corso, Ginsberg, and the gang. Their insularity might be comparable to ours (of which I have been addressing as a mistaken tactic), but they have the benefit of being old enough to be relaxed about matters that send me into youthfully nervous fits. I am reminded, after writing all of this, of Robert Snyderman’s assertion that he is not a poet of bookstores, but of the streets. Whatever the “streets” can be interpreted as, I am grateful that we young and determined writers have begun building (whatever structure we think we’re going to be working on) on a proper foundation of vocational engagement with the word. The desire to spread isn’t vainglorious --- it comes from the impossibility of shutting up and the need for an expanding network of correspondence, the alphabetically baroque context in which we position ourselves individually and as an appropriately deformed collective. So that’s what I mean, in a way. (Lonely Christopher, web editor)