We are over half-way through Black History month and I’ve mostly spoken obliquely about it. I think that’s my nature. As poet I’m often doomed to reader response that they just don’t get it, and that bothers me, because in my mind I’m intending to link disparate things because I think that’s powerful. But in intending to do that, I make myself obscure—and painfully, some fine people who’ve heard or read my work think that’s my intent or my error.
So, when I speak about one of my discoveries, a law I think is strangely comforting: “All Artists Fail,” I’m speaking from personal experience. You may think, that’s not true about famous artist X or highly revered artist Y, but it is. Even those that are—for a time or for a long time—popular, many will not hear of them, many will not care for their work when exposed to it, and even those that are treasured and ranked highly, how many will understand what they are trying to do sufficiently? Some? Perhaps. Many? One hopes. All? Never. It’s good to aim for the some and honorable to hope for the many. Be prepared for the never-all however. Sequester or armor yourself against that or be prepared to take comfort in it.
That’s part of why this project has a principle of “Other People’s Stories.” More than 90% of the time the words I’m presenting and talking about here are not mine. Trying to encounter those words a couple times a week with an open heart and whatever limitations or strengths I have is the goal. I’ve done that here over the 420 audio pieces and the over 500 posts in the last few years.
The great majority of those that I present here are now dead, many long so. As my son points out to me, mostly white men too. One needs to interrogate the past to form the future. I have a culture I inherited. One that spoke English, was based in the middle of the U.S., and was as blinkered as any. Everyone inherits a culture. It’s inevitable, as inevitable as “All Artists Fail.” What do you draw from it for strength and inspiration, what do you oppose, what do you seek to add?
What can you find in what is not you? All those things. The future is not made of one heart alone, no matter how perfect, it’s made of many hearts. Good art can tear open our boney-caged chests and let us glimpse the beautiful glistening ooze within all of us: Chinese, African, Irish, English, indigenous, immigrant, and on and on. It’s right and wrong—yes, in some proportion, inside all of us—but it’s always beating as music and poetry does.
Long dead CIS white man Phillip Sidney wrote “Fool, said my Muse to me, ‘Look in thy heart, and write.” That can work. That can fail. My muse said, “Look in another’s heart, and no matter how dim your vision inside that swooshing pump, write there.”
More new audio pieces soon. But I was heartened today by a post over on the Yip Abides blog linking to a post from a couple of years ago here. Bob Roman has some very nice things to say about what’s attempted with the Parlando Project, things that reminded me why I do this. He also recomends that the archives here have a lot for those who’d like to find something different any day. The particular piece he linked to had Jimi Hendrix’s SciFi parable about an alien scout-ship dealing with observing life on the “Third Stone from the Sun.” The alien gets it wrong, or sees that we get it wrong: the prime Earth species is a bird, not us warm blooded mammals.
I’ve not engaged much in re-blogging, but two pieces I’ve read this week really struck me: one for an idea and examples of how it might be executed, and the other for a sharply-written essay on a novel from the same early 20th century era that much of the poetry we use comes from.
The idea? A professor and poet Lesley Wheeler, who teaches a course in American poetry from 1900-1950, gave this assignment in lieu of the conventional essay: “create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few ‘solicited’ submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted.”
That’s a powerful idea. She shows examples of some of the responses to the assignment, and I’d love to see more of what the respondents chose to do. No one lives in history, even those old dead people were immediate. Here’s a link to her post.
The essay came from an unexpected source. I follow a blog Yip Abides that features unusually framed urban-midwestern street photography, a genre that follows the photographic aesthetic of my late wife. He also likes to feature videos that have impressed him, often animation. Visual art and musically oriented blogs are a large portion of my follow list as my own portion of reading on literature is taken up almost entirely with things that directly apply to material for this project.
But this week, there was a post there about The Virginian, a novel I’ve never read, but one of that helped formulate a genre, “The Western,” that dominated popular entertainment in the mid-20th century much like a certain kind of SF/Fantasy dominated the last part of it and the beginning of our current century.
The blogger, Bob Roman, writing about The Virginian ranges perceptively over the areas I’d want a writer to cover. What’s the connection between the cowboy “necktie party” and KKK style lynchings and murders?* How much does the American frontier underlie some particulars in contemporary libertarianism? And there’s more. Well worth reading, and here’s a link to it.
And before I leave to write another post on a new audio piece, a few miscellaneous follow-ups on things discussed earlier in the year.
I’ve now seen the first episode, and so far it seems to be what I’d hoped it was: a tongue in cheek re-contextualizing of Emily Dickinson’s life which both comments on her actual mid-19th century issues and our own times. Last year’s theatrical film Wild Nights with Emily tried to do something like this and had its moments, but I thought the overall execution flawed. Wild Nights with Emily and Dickinson are both comedies, but it was as comedy that Wild Nights failed, its portrayals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Mable Loomis Todd were all too broad. True, they are peripheral characters in Wild Nights, but that too was a choice. As best as I can tell from one episode Dickinson doesn’t make those choices and is the better for it as a comedy. The characters of Dickinson’s world are more rounded portrayals.
The first episode was full of little footnote-quality accurate factoids about the Dickinson family—the creators apparently wanted to show they had done their research. Two choices Dickinson appears to make could work or fail as the series continues: It may have trouble showing why Dickinson matters and it makes the choice to play Emily Dickinson as younger than she was.
At least in the first episode, Dickinson is represented as being recognized by some in her peer group as “a genius” and a few lines of one of her best known poems are repeated almost as often as the hook in a current pop song, but we so far get no sense of why her poems are crucial. This may change over more episodes of course, but it’s always hard to show what a writer does visually. If you do a biopic about a great performer you show an actor portraying them performing, if the simulation is good you’ve made your case. Watching someone write, or how that writing works inside the minds of readers, is not so easy to act.
The first episode seems to be set in 1852, when Dickinson was the age that actor Hailee Steinfeld who plays her is in real life, 22 years old. But this is before Dickinson wrote most of her poems. Chronology seems to be a difficult issue for filmmakers trying to portray Dickinson’s life, but if the show works, I’m willing to grant them license for being loose with that. More problematic is that they appear to be portraying Dickinson as a teenager rather than as a 20-something, much less the 30-something that apparently wrote much of the poetry. I’m aware that different times had different norms for childhood and youth, but were 22-year-olds acting more like 16-year-olds in 1852? I couldn’t help but think the history they were unintentionally demonstrating was the TV and Hollywood practice of having high-school age characters played by 20-something actors.
I’ve had to live through an era when Dickinson was thought of as an arid eccentric, frustrated spinster, and even as a corrective I’m not sure I want her now to be portrayed as only the hormone-saturated brain of our adolescences either. We’ll see how they deal with that as the show goes on.
The knowing comic anachronisms and indie soundtrack? Bring’em on! The Parlando Project obviously isn’t opposed to purposely doing that kind of thing.
In closing then another thing relating to a recent presentation of a Dickinson poem here. What might be behind that striking image of windblown snow starting to fill a field as “summer’s empty room” in Dickinson’s Snow poem? Well, it was one of those poems she enclosed in letters (one of Dickinson’s contemporary uses for her writing). This one went to Susan Gilbert, the woman some modern scholars posit was her lover, and who was certainly one of the intelligent intimates that helped sustain Emily. I think that was an image of longing in the otherwise “winter wonderland” mise en scène of Dickinson’s poem.
An audio piece? As we approach winter solstice, here’s one of my favorite Dickinson presentations from this project, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” The player gadget is below.
*White-on-white lynchings and extra-judicial killings were a common trope in Western movies and TV shows of mid-century, while terrorism directed at Afro-Americans was almost never the subject of popular entertainment. Consciously or subconsciously, this could have been American culture trying to address that which it was loath to address.