A Verb or a Title

Today was a not-too-old, but widely observed American holiday. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, a holiday initiated by some indigenous Americans and some illegal immigrants who celebrated a military alliance and an autumn harvest together in the 17th century. As one native wit put it: we did the giving, we got no thanks. Invasion and conquest, colonial crimes—there’s no American exceptionalism in that.

Still and all, Thanksgiving’s purpose is generally to recognize a day to be grateful for what one has, the sufficiency of family, friends, life, community.

The day that follows, now given the unlikely name of “Black Friday,” reflects another facet of American culture: it purports to be a day designated to try to purchase all those things one doesn’t have,  or those things one thinks friends and family don’t have yet and should get for Christmas. What an odd juxtaposition!

What did I buy for Black Friday? I watched a streamed Patti Smith concert. A minor expense with no crowds and no rush to get the last one before it’s out of stock—though with artists of my age, in our time, there’s always the chance that what performers once offered will soon go out of stock faster than big-screen TVs or whatever Apple Corp object is offered in our naked garden. Patti Smith has spent much of her life cultivating a vocation as an American artist, earnestly so. That earnestness is a strong spice in her presentation, not to all tastes, but I found it helpful as a young person. She once chanted “I am an American Artist, and I have no guilt!” I suspect that wasn’t a report of something achieved, but a maxim to goad herself toward a goal. She got further to her goals than I did, but for either of us—and for you—a question is brought forward: is artist a verb or a honorary title?

Shopping needs answered with my virtual ticket, I enjoyed the concert during which she reminded the audience that tomorrow is William Blake’s birthday. Ah Blake, another inspirational artist. When I was still a teenager the idea that someone could remove the scrim in front of reality and converse with what they found there was a romantic temptation, but also there was this other thing: Blake marshalled enough skills technical as well as artistic and creative to make his art books with only as much resources as he could obtain, often by being his own technical arm.

A visionary depiction of Black Friday shopping? “The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan” by William Blake. Note that Admiral Nelson is wearing his mask way too low for these Covid-19 times.

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This project is about to present its 500th audio piece. It’s been a stout 4 years and a few odd months work. I often think of how much better it would be if I had additional musicians and singers who can do more than I can muster. I listen to work of other recordists whose audio quality surpasses mine, but for William Blake’s birthday this highlighted section is a link to a post from way back at the beginning of this project that talks not of Blake’s birth, but of the day he died. It discloses an unusual connection and possible inspiration to another set of poets who came by that place much later.

Wally Wood

Back when I was kid there was something we were taught to be concerned about, our “vocation.” This was somewhat like the perennial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but with a religious and spiritual aspect.

As the word “vocation” suggests, we, while still children, were asked to consider our calling, what task God would ask us to do with our lives. Yes, there as an expectation inherent in that, that some of us would find that we had been called by God to become Christian clergy, but at least in my small town and church, this was not set out as the answer most of us were to find. It was assumed that each of us would obtain a distinct answer fitting to our talents and the universe’s needs.

Jesus BaptismWally Wood's Joan

Religious paintings depict a calling as a clear and vivid action,, like in a comic book

The folks who provided religious instruction in my town were practical people, and I couldn’t picture any of them expecting us children to be visited by spirit birds, or hear mystic voices to lead our country into battle. Rather they expected a small inner voice to whisper to us that we should be family farmers, or mechanics, or nurses and so forth. In my family, I could look to a grandfather who I never knew, who was called to the Christian ministry, or to an uncle who followed his father’s path, or to the more complex stories of my parents, whose vocational path I’ll defer talking about for reasons of space now. It never occurred to me, but I could have asked my teachers or myself about my great-grandfather and namesake, who would have had to have been called to be a common laborer by this scheme. Somehow this talk of calling and vocation seemed a bit grand a process for that.

I never knew what to answer that question with until my late teens when I decided that I would be a poet. That’s certainly a grandiose enough answer for this religiously-infused process, but even in my naïve youth I knew that meant I’d be doing something else beside that with my lifetime. So, a calling, but no answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Most decisions to become an artist of any kind expose a person to things that will mess up one’s life. First off, you are going to do something that is likely unlikeable—you are going to privilege your own interpretations of our common life as somehow more valuable than modest silence or undecorated space. Even successful artists most often have a majority of people judging what they produce as not worthy of their time, or generically replaceable by something similar but different from what you do. And these odds of rejection, combined with the concentration of effort needed for much artistic work, make many artists defend their self/center with self-centeredness.
  
So there, as so often here in the Parlando Project, I’ve violated one of the principles that I set out to follow: I’ve spent time here with my story, talking about myself. Alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore avoided this in today’s episode “Wally Wood”  which Dave gave the longer title “Wally Wood’s Co(s)mic Philosophy.”

Here’s what Dave had to say about the piece:

“Wallace Wood was one of the great comic book artists of the fifties and sixties.  His detail work for EC Comics and Mad is still astounding to look at.  Like many, he was also an alcoholic, and increasingly bitter as he aged.  His words in the song are from a late interview in some fanzine.

I can’t draw, so far be it from me to draw conclusions about success or happiness.  Or the scope of a talented artist’s frustrated Fifties ambitions.  What strikes me most are the words ‘And yet’ after a pause.  No matter what he says, no matter how things ‘work out,’ it was worth it for me and all the thousands of others who enjoyed his work.  Go look him up, you won’t forget him.”

Wally Wood Self PortraitWally Wood - Art Ain't Pretty

Wally Wood, combustible master of line

What did Wally Wood add the “And yet” to? Listen and find out, using the player below.

Potential Graveyard

Our last episode featured words by Phillis Wheatley, whose story I first heard about in a graveyard.

I was taking a walking tour in Boston, and there was a lot for the guide to talk about as we strolled through the Granary Burying Ground near one end of Boston Common, the cemetery where many of the instigators of the American revolution are buried. That’s where I heard Phillis Wheatley’s story.

Granary Tombstone Boston

the Granary Burying Ground, Boston Massachusetts

 

There’s no tombstone for Phillis Wheatley there, and no record of where she was buried, though it could have been there. So, we don’t even know her graveyard, but we know her story.

Only a few days after wrapping up the work on the Phillis Wheatley episode, I happened to catch Viola Davis’ Oscar acceptance speech. Like David Harbour’s speech earlier this year, it compressed an artist’s calling into a few well-chosen words, and so, I set about creating today’s audio piece.

I trimmed and recast Davis’ words a little, turning it from her own pledge and testimony, to an artist’s pledge than we all can take:

There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered – that’s the graveyard.

People ask me, what kind of stories do you want to tell?

I say exhume those bodies, exhume those stories,

the stories of the people that dream big and never saw those dreams to fruition,

people who fell

in love

and lost.
Become an artist

They are the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.
Here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed, and exalted, the ordinary people.

There are only a few words here, but the opening sentence announces itself strongly, while going—to my take on it—in two directions. “There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered—and that’s the graveyard.” In that magnificent sentence, we may think of all the potential that’s totaled up short in every graveyard: potential lost due to life’s duration, lost due to injustice, lost to just bad luck, potential never reached for the many human failings. One of the most common of those human failings is to just not try, and when we fail to try, the graveyard is where that potential will end up.

This direction, where the sentence could go, is not where Davis takes us however. She reminds us: there, in those graveyard lives is that precious struggle, the part-ways reach, all the somedays that someday may see victories. We should “exhume those stories,” she says.

And then Davis’ makes a daring statement. Art “is the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.”

Can that be so? Certainly, historians and social scientists collect and analyze information about lives too—but perhaps they must step beyond that role to light the footlights that art does. Art is the transference of the emotions and the perceiving inner being between people.  Only at that level of communication can the celebration of what it means to live a life be reached. That’s what we do when we create art, or when we consume it actively.

Davis repeats her specific charge to artists, as she praises the creative acts of August Wilson, the writer and playwright: art’s radical empathy empowers and obligates artists to tell other people’s stories.

Writers listen to her here, listen to her evoke August Wilson: even your story is not your story. It’s your great-grandparent’s story, perhaps it will be your great-grandchild’s story. The graveyard, the grocery store and the stars are full of stories. Allow them to ask you to tell them.

 

Viola Davis delivered her words much better than I could, but today’s Parlando Project piece “Potential/Graveyards” adds the music I composed and played to go with my recasting of them., To hear this short piece, use the player below.