23 March 2006

DADA at the National Gallery

DADA; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shame-faced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners: DADA; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: DADA; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets: DADA every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight: DADA; abolition of memory: DADA; abolition of archaeology: DADA; abolition of prophets: DADA....
Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918

In Washington for a few days for a work-related conference, I managed to slip away early one day to catch the National Gallery of Art's exhibition "Dada: Zurich/Berlin/Cologne/Hannover/New York/Paris." The exhibition explores the work of European artists reacting against the horrors of World War I, and the beginning of the mechanical age and mass advertising.

"Dada, one of the crucially significant movements of the historical avant-garde, was born in the heart of Europe in the midst of World War I. In the wake of that brutal conflict, Dadaists raucously challenged tradition, and art-making was changed forever. The most comprehensive museum exhibition of Dada art ever mounted in the United States, Dada features painting, sculpture, photography, film, collage, and readymades emerging in six cities: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, and Paris. The exhibition presents many of the most influential figures in the history of modernism, as well as others less known, including Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber, Hans Richter, Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, George Grosz, John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp."

I was very taken by the political engagement of the artists. Although often their work intentionally 'doesn't make sense' that non-sense was created in reaction against what they saw as the collapse of western european civilzation caused by the war.

Also impressive was how fecund and inventive they were, how many different fields their expression took: painting, sculpture, 'ready-mades' or found objects, craftwork, music, poetry, performances, print materials from Dada journals to broadsides, pamphlets, and posters.

As a poet, I'm also drawn to the nonsense poetry many of the writers associated with the movement wrote for performance. I first got introduced to this work through The Talking Heads, who did a very rocking adaptation of Hugo Ball's poem "Gadji beri bimba" as 'I Zimbra' on their album Fear of Music. Recordings of some of their readings are included in the exhibit and on the audio tour.

One raucus, fascinating, part of the exhibit is the daily performance of sections of George Antheil's, Le Ballet Mechanique. Performed by 16 programmed grand player pianos, sirens, and alarm, two fans, various drums and a gong, it is a heck of a strange conglomeration of noises. I'd heard the work on the irreplaceable Naxos label, and didn't particularly care for it. I'm still not too sure (and I usually like 'noise':), but seeing it 'live' makes me want to think about it again. The pianos and instruments are like an otherworldly ghost orchestra, and watching the keys on the pianos move 'all by themselves' is particularly striking and eerie. One can't help but be struck how well the work ties in with the shock and losses of World War I, as well as the consern that Dada artists had over how people were to relate to the increasingly machine-oriented world.

15 March 2006

If We Have To Take Tomorrow

I'm very honored to be in the company of so many fine writers and good men. Many thanks and congratulations to editors Frank Leon Roberts (the Other Half and I live for your Ball photos!) and Marvin K White (keep burning those pots baby:)

"A follow-up to 2003’s Think Again, this collaboratively supported publication brings varied voices to bear on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. Edited by Frank León Roberts and Marvin K. White, If We Have to Take Tomorrow features thought-provoking essays, memoir, poetry and dynamic photography by and for black gay and bisexual men about their lives, loves and belonging in the era of HIV.

If We Have to Take Tomorrow is the result of a collaboration among several organizations, spearheaded by the Institute for Gay Men's Health and including AIDS Project Los Angeles, the Black Aids Institute, Gay Men's Health Crisis, the National Black Justice Coalition, the New York State Black Gay Network."

For a PDF version of the collection, click Here or Here

14 March 2006

News and Notes

...with apologies to Ed Gordon for stealing his show's title!

A few of the current happenings I've been keeping my eye on:

Deregulation Chickens come home to roost in Maryland

Why the "Law & Order" prosecutors are never shown sending e-mail

New Celstial Vacation Spot: Beach front property w/great view of The Rings

Best Response to Hate: Kiss it away

Dont Mess with Women Writers (and don't snub them at the Oscars either!)

And, in our first Audio Clip: Someone who's phone has NOT been ringing off the hook (Don't worry, baby: I'm sure Oprah's can't wait for you and Mom to get back to Chicago!:)

09 March 2006

Gordon Parks 1912-2006: "I didn't have time to think about the pain of failure, because failure was not on my mind"

I also hadn't planned for this blog to be a necrology, either, but so many Originals are passing, it's beginning to bother me. Who among us will be stepping into the void they leave behind?

Gordon Parks: Writer, Director, Photographer, the man could do it all, and did. Astoundingly versatile and prolific, he set the creative bar for himself and others very high. Many of his images, (particularly the American Gothic variation at right), are part of our cultural memory. A great -- and stylish! Dang he always left the house looking sharp -- man. Quite an example for us all.

Many thanks to the incomparable Elizabeth Alexander for passing along this rememberance and interview excerpt from filmmaker St Clair Bourne:

Most people will remember Gordon Parks for his many achievements in various fields. I will miss Gordon's wry sense of "Blues humor". Underneath his suave, sophisticated sense of personal style was a "race man" in the old school sense - a man who was fully aware of the traps of racism that lay in his path as he forged ahead. He also knew that much of the African-American tribe would be judged by his actions and so he sought to achieve a level of excellence in all that he did. At the same time, he was motivated to create personal art, that is, expressions of art that came from his individual sense of beauty. Finally Gordon Parks managed to marry an African-American sensibility with the commercial demands of the mainstream. I hope that we as a people have moved past that juncture but without Gordon's presence, that achievement would still be a challenge and not an historic accomplishment.

The following excerpt comes from one of the many interviews with Gordon for the documentary HALF-PAST AUTUMN: THE LIFE AND WORKS OF GORDON PARKS that I produced for HBO.
St.Clair Bourne. Filmmaker

QUESTION: Since you didn't have a lot of art in your early life, when did the desire to actually make something or create art start for you?

GORDON PARKS: I can't remember having been inclined to be an artist or anything of that sort. [LAUGHS] Yeah, I do remember - we had an old upright piano I used to plunk on, you know, and at 6 years old my father didn't like the idea that a boy played the piano for some reason or another. He would rather have me been in the fields, feeding the horses, the chickens-- and the cows and doing things of that sort.
The only time I really was allowed to play when my mother was around, and she insisted that if I wanted to play, that I play! And my mother was the boss! When Sarah Parks says something, that's the way it was! For me, for my brothers and sisters and [LAUGHS] for my father! Okay, Sarah that's what you want, that's the way it was!
I do remember having an experience once in my father's cornfield. June bugs were buzzing and I remember that moment. It struck me that it was symphonic music. And I often think of that today. Because I had never heard a symphony orchestra and never dreamt of even writing a symphony or a piano concerto or anything of that sort. The poetry that I heard was not certainly by Langston Hughes or Pablo Neruda. It was on Christmas and Valentine cards and birthday cards, so I wasn't exposed to much literature, and in the high schools they didn't-- in Fort Scott, at least, they didn't expose you to literature and I think that I would have been absolutely shocked to have seen a black writer or composer during my studies at high school.

QUESTION: So where did the art come from?

GORDON PARKS: Today I look back and wonder about where it all came from myself. Very often I've been referred to as a Renaissance Man. Well, I don't really buy that. I think that what I've accomplished I accomplished through trial and error, and one thing led to another. It was just a matter of survival, to tell you the truth, rather than any Renaissance situation. When I first started into photography, which made everything else possible, I took the camera up as sort of a lark at first. Then I realized shortly after that it could become a weapon against bigotry - against what I disliked or liked about the universe! And once I was on my way, and was accepted into the journalistic field and world, other things opened up for me! But music was always there; it's been there since I was 6 years old. Painting was always there but I never had a chance to execute it as a child.

QUESTION: Was music the first art that you loved?

GORDON PARKS: I would say that basically music was the first thing that I was attracted to. I probably was attracted to the beautiful prairies of Kansas and the great sunsets over my father's barns and things of that sort. It struck me but I didn't absorb it, not until later on when I went back to Kansas, years later, on an assignment from Life Magazine to re-capture my childhood. Then I realized what had really inspired me later on because all these things lay deep inside me and I had no way to express them.
But now things were opening up for me, and I realized then after I became rather successful in photography and then later on writing, that you could just about do anything you want to do if you want to do it badly enough.

QUESTION: But music didn't obviously provide you the same ability in the survival mode that photography ultimately did.

GORDON PARKS: I accepted music just as a pleasure. Listen, I heard choirs sing in church, at Sunday school. That was all seeping in. A little later at the junior high school where I went I played for a little orchestra that we'd formed, and that was my first taste of being a performer, but it didn't sink in deeply. But when I look back I realize all that was doing something to me. I hadn't really thought about it, but the music had probably the initial effect before anything visual did, cause I had never dreamed that I would have a camera. I didn't even know what a camera was! I certainly hadn't thought of a camera as an instrument which I could work with.

QUESTION: So we talked about surviving using art for survival and photography was easier for you to make a living or was it that you thought the imagery was easier for people to see or understand?

GORDON PARKS: Oh-- photography came to me purely as an accident. I never dreamed of having a camera. I was a waiter on a railway running between St. Paul, Minnesota and Seattle, Washington and Chicago. So for some reason or another when I got to Seattle, Washington I had an extra 7 dollars and 50 cents from tips that I had made on the way, and I went into a pawnshop and purchased a cheap camera.

QUESTION: When you look at your work now, do you feel that you were in a position to effectively change things - race relationships and things in America with your photography?

GORDON PARKS: I'm a little surprised now at all the letters and things I get from all around the world! I did a story on Flavio Da Silva, the little boy who was dying in Brazil who was poverty-stricken and taking care of his brothers and sisters; he's only 12 years old. When the story was published, I brought him to America at the behest of American readers of Life magazine who said you can't leave that kid there to die, and they in less than 3 weeks sent me over 30,000 dollars to go back and get him. Life gave me another 25,000 -- I went back and I moved him out of the slums with his family

QUESTION: You believe that we can effectively change things. I mean Flavio's situation - I mean you saved his life, but basically is his life better for what you've done?

GORDON PARKS: Well, for one thing, what's better about it-- Flavio lived! Even if he just alone had lived, it would have been all right. But the camera was able to awaken people to the needs of poverty-stricken people! And the very fact that within 3 weeks 30,000 dollars had come in nickels, dimes, quarters, checks to me to go back and get that boy and rescue his family out of, out of the favella. And the letters that I get say that that story changed my whole way of thinking about poverty and about people who are inflicted with poverty.

QUESTION: You believe that we still have to keep trying.

GORDON PARKS: Well, yes! You keep trying! You never give up; you always have an optimistic viewpoint.

QUESTION: Where did that come from though? Do you think from your parents?

GORDON PARKS: It's not so much confidence as it is curiosity and knowing that the capability is there - if you try. If you fail, you fail. But nothing is better than a good try - that's what my father used to tell me - try! And that's what I've done with practically everything! I didn't know I could write; I didn't know I could become a photographer; I didn't know I could compose; I didn't know I could write poetry or direct films. When I directed my first film, which is The Learning Tree, I had no idea that I could do it before I was given the chance to do it. It's the way I have been with everything - from my first work on the piano - work composing; if Bach did it; if Beethoven did it -- Beethoven and Vivaldi did it -- why can't I do it? That's the way I've always thought about everything. And painting - I feel the same way. Poetry I feel the same way. I have my mentors--; I remember you know reading Richard Wright's Twelve Millions Black Voices which was my first Bible, and-- I said God-- maybe I can write like that!

QUESTION: For a black man at that time taking those kind of chances and possibly failing...what did you feel about that?

GORDON PARKS: Well, to be very honest, I never thought about failure and I knew I didn't want to fail. I know my mother and father and brothers didn't want me to fail. I was the youngest; success had been instilled in me; that is, the need for success.
Well, that was telling me something. Try - try a little harder. When the first-- the camera thing came along, well-- my God! I landed an FSA - the people I worshipped -- I landed there! Well by this time you're realizing that hey, you're the only Black photographer on the FSA staff, and you made it with, with Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and all the rest of the great photographers on the staff and-- then you went to Vogue as the only black photographer on Vogue--;
So by the time I got to Life Magazine, I was the only photographer on Life Magazine staff although I didn't feel that I was the best; I figured I was in big company at Life Magazine with Cappa and all the rest of them there. I felt...well; I've had experience with documentaries with Roy Stryker. They have not had it. I've had experience in fashions at Vogue with Alexander Lieberman and there wasn't a fashion photographer on Life Magazine.
And-- now it was up to me to explore the fields with my camera that I felt that I could do it better than they could -- because I was Black! -- which was poverty; which I experienced; which was racism. And so in a way-- although I went in feeling a little shaky, I had enough confidence in myself to know that I could make it, and I had some things going for me that they didn't have! So-- actually I was way ahead, and there was no reason in the world why I shouldn't have confidence in myself.

QUESTION: You didn't feel the pain of failing?

GORDON PARKS: Well, to tell you the truth, I didn't have time to think about the pain of failure, because failure was not on my mind. You know Sarah Parks had told me way back that don't come home crying because you're discriminated against or you didn't get this or you didn't get that because you're Black. If a white boy can do it, I want you to do it better. That was her, her credo. You know? And that's what I followed! So you had to have this confidence. I had the same confidence riding a horse when I was a kid on my father's little farm, you know. I could ride well! You know? And I only rode well because my father showed me how to my feet in the stirrups and, and to keep my heels down and my head's up! [LAUGHS] I remembered those things! And I could think about that when I went to Life Magazine and keep [LAUGHS] heels down and head's up, you know, and, and watch everything - move ahead. You can't be just as good as they are, hear? You gotta be better if you're gonna exist here, and I knew that.

QUESTION: Do you get tired of the double standard?

GORDON PARKS: I never let the double standard bother me, because I do not even today think that there's something that I cannot - that I can't do something that anybody else has done - if I am given the time and the wherewithal to do it.

Brother Ocean has posted a series of photos from the Parks funeral at his blog, including this shot of 100 Black Photographers who were there to give Gordon Parks a proper sendoff.

About Sunday Night....

"For those of you keeping score at home...Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars. Three 6 Mafia, one." -- John Stewart

I really hadn't planned on writing about The Oscars. I didn't watch them (I made a point of being at my writing desk, working during the show) and haven't in a number of years. Like a lot of people I had dreams of standing on stage, thanking the Academy, but I think my days of getting the 'Best Actor' nod are long gone ('Screenplay,' however....hmmm...). On the whole I've 'gone off' most award shows: I did see a bit of Halle Berry's and Denzel Washington's acceptance speeches ,but not the rest of that years awards, but the last time I watched the Grammys was the year Madonna turned "Vogue" into a Marie Antoinette fantasia. Sometimes I'll watch the Tony Awards, in part because its fun to see who shows up with their same-sex partner (something only Sir Ian McKellan does at the Oscars). I did, however, correctly pick the winners in the top four categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress) Saturday afternoon over lunch -- and I have 3 witnesses to prove it!

So -- nothing about the Oscars. I will however say this: Some have touted this year as being "The Gay Oscars" with 'Capote', 'Transamerica', and 'Brokeback Mountain' getting good reviews, nominations, and two of the films winning top awards. Some over here on this side of the sexual orientaion street are claiming this as some kind of a victory, or herald of a change in attitude in Hollywood toward depictions of gay/lesbian/bi/transgendered characters. Forgive me if I remain skeptical.

Ignoring the fact that none of the key players in the industry is comfortable enough to be 'out' or the fact that no major American actor is 'out' either (did Jody Foster go back into the closet or was her coming out a figment of my imagination?), it just seems to me other groups have been here before. The success of "La Bamba" was supposed to usher in a new wave of films about Latinos. The Oscars to Berry and Washington (and before that John Singleton's nomination for director of 'Boyz in the Hood') were signs of the begining of a new day for films by and about African Americans. Every few years the success of a couple of motion pictures somehow means a veil has been lifted in Hollywood and suddenly they notice this whole group who'd been ignored/badly depicted in the past, and That Will Never Happen Again. The Millenium keeps on approaching, but somehow never arrives.

Film has always been both Art and Commerce, (and heavy on the Commerce, please, with Art more often stumbled into accidently or 'smuggled in') or all eyes on the bottom line. And the industry, for all it's much vaunted 'liberalism' has always been very concerned about how it is seen by Middle America. They know they can be only so 'far out' or else Mr & Mrs Average (white heterosexual) America won't come to the box office or rent their film from Blockbuster (which in some cases won't even stock it). The promise of higher grosses and keeping everyone pacified and happy trumps just about all. For example: last weekends #1 movie? 'Madea's Family Reunion'. Yeah, the Millenium is here alright...

PS: I wonder what Robert "Honorary Oscar" Altman, the creator of the modern multiple character multiple point of view film, thought of seeing 'Short Cuts' -lite AKA 'Crash' win for Best Picture?

04 March 2006

The Debut

Hello and welcome. I'm starting this experiment in blogging after reading a number of other writers do some amazing work over the past year or so. I make no promises about how often I will be able to update this blog, and illusions about my ablities as I step into the blog community. I'm constrained by the pressures of my day job, time, and my own occasionally questionable physical and mental health. Also, there are so many fantastic people in the blogosphere (check the blogroll to see what I mean), and I suspect that quite often I will be saying "Hey check out what so and so has said."

On the otherhand, I do have an original thought every now and then that I'd like to share with others, as well as the usual shameless plugging of my own work. So here we go.

I really began thinking seriously about starting this blog last week, upon hearing of the death of the great writer Octavia Butler. Her passing has touched a number of my friends and fellow writers, as well as Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction fans, and readers around the world (I had the great pleasure of meeting her once at the American Library Association convention in New York in the 1990's, and want to write something about what's turning into her very curious after-death experiences in a later post). Her passing struck me very deeply, and reinforced the fact that none of us knows how much time we have in this life, so we need to make the most of it. And most particularly need to do what we can to do the work we were put on this planet to do. Ms Butler's last lesson for me was to get off my butt and get to work. So here we go.

I'm fascinated by people like Octavia Butler, who started writing SF when there were no other black women in the field and only one other African-American, the amazing Samuel R Delany. She went somewhere 'black people don't go.' Who were her 'role models'? Did she even need to see someone who looked like her to make the decision to be a writer, to enter into this space? What kind of strengths did she have to enter into such spaces? Watching the Winter Olympics with my partner, we were, of course, caught up in the drama surrounding Gold and Silver medalist Shani Davis, yet another ground breaker, someone boldly going where no black man had gone before.

Ground breakers, rule breakers, 'transgressors' of various written and unwritten codes -- these are the people I admire, who are my heroes and she-roes. People who don't 'fit the profile' of what either other African-Americans or the majority culture in the US consider to be 'truly black.' These are people I wish to learn more about and celebrate. Not all of the people who I like and admire are African-American, but I think that the 'elbow room' (thank you, James Allen McPherson) that other 'non-traditional' black people make for themselves gives all of us greater ability to be who we are.

So here we go: Welcome to my world, and (among other things) an exploration of Non-Traditional Blackness.


I'd like to end with excerpts from Octavia Butler's essay "Furor Scribendi", which appears at the end of her short story collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995). Butler sold her first short story in 1970 and then went five years without having another work accepted (Five years of rejection slips -- think about that for a moment). I encourage you to read the complete essay, and the stories in Bloodchild if you've not done so, and her two Parable books, Kindred, her latest novel, Fledgling, and.....

"Writing for publication may be both the easist and the hardest thing you'll ever do. Learning the rules -- if they can be called rules -- is the easy part. Following them, turning them into regular habits, is an ongoing struggle. Here are the rules:

1. Read. Read about the art, the craft, and the business of writing. Read the kind of work you'd like to write. Read good literature and bad, fiction and fact. Read every day and learn from what you read....

2. Take classes and go to writers workshops...Learn from the comments, questions, and suggestions of both the teacher and the class. These relative strangers are more likely to tell you the truth about your work than are your friends and family who may not want to hurt or offend you....

3. Write. Write every day. Write whether you feel like writing or not....

4. Revise your writing until it's as good as you can make it...Let nothing substandard slip through....Make a habit of doing your best.

5. Submit your work for publication...If the idea of doing this scares you, fine. Go ahead and be afraid. But send your work out anyway. If its rejected, send it out again, and again. Rejections are painful, but invevitable. They're every writer's rite of passage...

6. Here are some potential impediments for you to forget about:

First, forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable...Habit is persistence in practice.

Forget talent. If you have it fine. Use it. If you don't have it, it doesn't matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.

Finally, don't worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need, and all the reading, journal writing, and learning you will be doing will stimulate it....