18 July 2006

Art and 'Security' (or Bringing Home the Bacon)

After the recent death of director and Yale Drama School Dean Lloyd Richards (...am I the only one who loved the coincidence that he shares a name with the playwright actor Hugh Marlowe plays in "All About Eve"?), poet Elizebeth Alexander shared this excerpt from from an interview filmmaker St. Clair Bourne did with him in 1999, for Bourne's documentary on Paul Robeson, 'Here I Stand':

"My biggest hurdle of course, was not the fact that there was no opportunities out there or very few -but what do we say to my mother, who really was looking forward to my being a doctor - and I had already reneged on that and was now going to be a lawyer. And she had adjusted to that and how would she adjust to the fact that I wasn't even going to be a lawyer. I was going to go into this no-named profession, where there was no possibility of acquiring anything, certainly stability, or security, and that's what I was going to college for, she thought - for security. And I had to take really stock in myself and ask myself that question…what is security, for me. Is security money in the bank? Is security having a home that one is paying on? Is having a bank account… Is that security? Or is security getting up in the morning, and not counting the hours? And I decided, that for me, security was that. Getting up in the morning and not counting the hours and in the theater, there's a place where I did not count the hours - where you simply do the work, and you live off the doing of your work. You're in it, trying to accomplish it. And so, just after, I encountered Paul [Robeson], who was a factor in that decision, I decided to commit to the theater."

I've been thinking about this recently, particulary since I too had parents who drilled into me the notion that one had to 'put food on the table.' I remember from a documentary on Andy Warhol, one of his assistants saying that he too kept talking about having to go out and 'make the bacon', which may have something to do with the celebrity portraits he did during the 1980s which often graced the cover of Interview magazine. Your parents or someone is always worrying that, if you're an artist of some type, you're going to wind up starving in a garret somewhere, or out on the street.

"Get a real job," is something one hears all the time -- and it could be part of the reason why I do in fact have a 'real job' only tangentially related to writing. As someone pointed out to me a number of years ago, I am often like the persona in John Ashbery's "The Instruction Manual", which begins:

As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them--they are so far away from me!
Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on schedule.
And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk and leaning
out of the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!
City I wanted most to see, and did not see, in Mexico!

I love Richards' comment about REAL security, and that place where one does not count the hours. So beautiful about being in your creative space, and so true. I also recently read this, from Julia "The Artist's Way" Cameron:'

Dear X,
I recieved your disheartening letter conveying the fact that your family was urging you again to "be sensible." I have never understood what was "sensible" about trying to ignore the things you love. What is it about being a declared artist that people find so threatening? I don't know. In any case, I am sorry for the pressure you are under and suggest you repeat to yourself the following: "If I give in, I will only feel more pressured, not less."

Ours is a pedestrian culture. We have no place in it for the "calling" to make art....There is honor to following your vocation...Beyond honor, there is also the matter of success. I think of that as "filling the form," as in "If the shoe fits, wear it." In other words, if you are called to be an artist, you may just be supposed to be one. And who is to say you will not be an successful one, even in worldly terms....

I do not think, for myself, that the money can be the only measure of success, although in America we are certainly clued to think of it as the foremost. I think there is something to be said for feeling that we are in our proper role, that the shoe fits, as I said before, and taht we can walk in our shoes without them pinching. I am friends with a writer, an estimable writer, who for eleven years cleaned houses and washed dishes to support his writing habit. That's a lot of dishes and a lot of dusting. But it was also many years when he went to the page a happy man. I will tell you something else about this man. He is comfortable in his own skin. He seems to be aging well, with a sense that his life has been well spent. That happiness and sense of right action must count for something.
(Letters to a Young Artist: Building a Life in Art by Julia Cameron)

And this brought me back to one of the most moving letters I have ever read, one that I loved so much I used to carry a copy of it around with me in my wallet. It's by poet Hart Crane, to his father, who had recently offered him a 'good job' working for the family business. Here's an excerpt:

To Clarence Arthur Crane
January 12, 1924

My dear Father:
...I don't want to use you as a makeshift when my principle ambition and life lies completly outside of business. I always have given the people I worked for my wages worth of service, but it would be a very different thing to come to one's father and simply feign an interest in fulfilling a confidence when one's mind and guts aren't driving in that direction at all. ...

You will perhaps be rightously a little bewildered at all these statements about my enthusiasm about my writing and my devotion to that career in life. It is true to date I have had very little to show as actual accomplishment in this field, but it is true on the other hand that I have had very very little time left over after the day's work to give to it nd I may have just as little time in the wide future to give to it, too. Be all that as it may, I have come to recognize that I am satisfied and spiritually healthy only when I am fulfilling myself in that direction. It is my natural one, and you will possibly admit that if it had been artificial or acquired, or a mere youthful whim it would have been cast off some time ago in favor of more profitable occupations from the standpoint of monetary returns. For I have been through some pretty trying situations, and, indeed, I am in just such a one again at the moment, with less than two dollars in my pocket and not definately located in any sort of a job.

However, I shall doubtless be able to turn my hand to something very humble and temporary as I have done before. I have many friends, some of whom will lend me small sums until I can repay them -- and some sort of job always turns up sooner or later. What pleases me is that so many distinguished people have liked my poems (seen in magazines and mss.) and feel that I am making a real contribution to American literature...If I am able to keep on my present development, strenuous as it is, you may live to see the name "Crane" stand for something where literature is talked about, not only in New York but in London and abroad.

You are a very busy man these days as I well appreciate from the details in your letter, and I have perhaps bored you with these explanatioins about myself, your sympathies engaged as they are...Nevertheless, as I've said before, I couldn't see any other way than to frankly tell you about myself and my interests so as not to leave any accidental afterthought in your mind that I had any "personal" reason for not working in the Crane Company. And in closing I would like to just ask you to think some time, -- try to imagine working for the pure love of simply making something beautiful, -- something that maybe can't be sold or used to help sell anything else, but that is simply a communication between man and man, a bond of understanding and human enlight[en]ment -- which is what a real work of art is. If you do that, then maybe you will see why I am not so foolish after all to have followed what seems sometimes only a faint star. I only ask to leave behind me something that the future may find valuable, and it takes a bit of sacrifice sometimes in order to give the thing that you know is in yourself and worth giving. I shall make every sacrifice toward this end.

Affectionately, your son

16 July 2006

Acting Just So

This weekend I had the pleasure of being one of the judges for the national finals of NAACP's Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) competition, in Crystal City, Virginia. I've been a judge and assisted a few of the young people involved here in Baltimore, but this was the first time I'd been to the Nationals.

I confess to being somewhat less than enthusiastic about doing the local competition, because I'm not really a 'slam' or 'spoken word' person, and the majority of the work that gets submitted falls into that category. I worry that I might not be fair to the young people since it's 'not my style'. However, more often than not I do it, thanks to some discussions about this subject with other current and former poet-judges, and because I do know and enjoy the work of a number of spoken word artists. We all recognize the fact that, while yes the poem comes to life on stage, but its really not going to be strong if the craft isn't there beforehand on the page as well. As much as I moan and complain about having to get up early on a Saturday morning to do it, the talent and enthusiasm of the kids always energizes me the moment I get there. And the last time I judged, someone turned in a sonnet -- so much for stereotyping the Younger Generation!

I always wind up feeling a great deal more hopeful about that Younger Generation and the future of the country after doing the local event, and Nationals was no different, just on a larger scale. It was amazing to see a hotel filled with bright and highly talented black teenagers, buzzing with excitement and energy. Walking through the halls one had to be careful not to bump into someone leaping to the ceiling, practicing for the Dance competition, or interrupt young actors and actresses running lines with proud moms, dads, aunts or uncles looking on. The energy, drive, and sheer mindboggling ambition of these kids was extraordinary. Most of the young people I talked to were looking forward to pursuing double majors in college, and one young man aspired to both double majors and double minors. He made the rest of us 'old heads' seem like real slackers.

Some of the other judges included photographers Linda Day and Carl Clark, my friends and poets Kwame Alexander, and Linda Joy Burke, and others. I judged the Original Essay category, along with poet, filmmaker, and editor of the new anthology Growing Up Girl: An Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces, Michelle Sewell. Before coming to Nationals and meeting the students we had to read and evaluate 48 essays, over a wide range of topics from African-American role models to quantum mechanics. In some ways, our talks with the students felt almost like mini-dissertation defenses: come in, discuss what you wrote and why you wrote it, try to win over the panel.

What is this thing called Essay?
Oddly enough, the question we asked just about every student also turned out to be the hardest for them to answer: What is an Essay? We could tell from our reading that surprisingly few knew what it was, and its form. In the Original Essay category we got short stories, speeches, memoirs, term and research papers, religious praise pieces, but very few actual essays. For most of the kids, they answered the question with 'TO ME, an essay...' and usually wound up by saying that it could be pretty much whatever kind of thing they wanted to write. A couple said "I don't like rules, so I broke them." At least they were being true to themselves and their definitions, or lack thereof, in the work.

Back to The Black Table
It was striking how many of the young people we saw were 'the only' or 'one of the few' black kids at predominantly white schools. Michelle and I were both curious about their experiences there, and whether, as Michelle said to one, the "MTV Generation" is really seeing beyond race and just accepting people as they are. THe sad report from the youngsters we spoke to is that this is not the case. Kids are facing some of the same kinds of comments, "jokes," and lack of understanding that people in my generation faced. One young man's paper was in fact about this very problem. While the media may appear to be more mulitcultural than in the past, it appears that old attitudes and mindsets die hard.

No Boyz Allowed?
Of the 48 entrants, only 12 were male. There were a number of other young men throughout the Nationals in other categories, but I hope the relatively small number of guys with essays does not mean that men aren't into writing.

Page vs Personality
One of the most striking things we noticed was the 'disconnect' between what the young people wrote and who they were and how they came across in person. Extremely bright, high energy, passionate kids would come in having written solid, fact filled, but ultimately slightly plodding papers. Why wasn't that drive and energy on the page? They could talk very eloquently and vibrantly about topics, be it the role of women in Afganistan, stem cell research, or affirmative action, but somehow they felt that when writing about it they had to be stiff, formal, and a bit pedantic. Time and again Michelle and I wished that the kids we talked to had put some part of their wonderful selves on the page. How are kids being taught writing these days? What are they taught?

What does the 'A' stand for?
Related to that, we were also somewhat suprised by the number of kids who proclaimed themselves to be in AP English whose work to our minds didn't seem to be at that level. I can think of only one paper I read from someone who said they were in AP seemed to show their work in that class to me, by the complexity of their sentence structure and some of the words they used. The others... pretty standard for basic English, okay, but Advanced Placement English? Whether it was a reflection on AP or the level of the 'regular' English class or not we weren't sure, but in either case, Michelle and I were ready to put the smack down on any number of teachers and school administrators by the end of the day.

It was a VERY full day for us. We saw our first young person at 9 am, and, after breaks for lunch and dinner, sent the last one off after midnight. The the energy, intelligence, drive, ambition, and sheer joy and exuberance coming off these kids kept us going throughout the day. And there were a number of truly wonderful surprises as well. Kids who wrote astonishing, moving and at times horrific stories about their growing up turned out to be some of the most sharp, polished and put together young people we'd ever met. They managed to (WARNING: Cliche Alert!) not only survive but thrive -- truly inspiring. Although they may not know what an essay is, we ran into some 'real writers' in our group, young people with great eyes for telling detail, color, who know how to pace their writing, and one young lady who had a near-professional ability with handling transitions in time (we strongly encouraged her to continue the mini-memoir she had turned into us, and Michelle wishes she'd had her piece for the Growing Up Girl anthology, it was that fantastic).

We met a future political speechwriter (either that or he's the next Bill Clinton -- and a future Hillary was there as well), budding Opera and classical music composers (which really excited me:), future neurosurgeons, doctors, physicists, and psychologists, mathematicians and 17-year-old entreprenures with their own brochures. One bright but somewhat shy young man sadly didn't realize he also has a natural, very amusing, dry wit. Another we wished we could connect with a third entrant's parents to give him a bit more focus. One paper had us crying out for an editor to take just one quick pass at it, since it was this shy of being something really special. In another case, we were sorry to hear an entrant say she had changed the name of her work at someone else's suggestion because the title we thought would be the 'better fit' for it was in fact the one she originally had.

It was a great couple of days, and almost heartbreakingly inspiring. These are the kids one wants to introduce to counter the stereotypes about 'troubled black youth', or to answer concerns about 'the future of young people in this country'. If these kids are a snapshot of what's really going on out there, and if adults don't mess them up, overall I think we'll be fine.

Just keep them away from AP English!

Vive le (true) France

Fans wave flags in front of a giant jersey of the French team which hangs on the front of the Hotel Crillon in Paris, Monday July 10, 2006. France was stricken and shamed by Zinedine Zidane's brutal exit from soccer's biggest stage, yet the nation's president proudly embraced the favorite son, and masses of fans appeared to forgive the national hero who carried his team to the World Cup final, even if they didn't bring home the trophy. (AP Photo/Michel Euler) (http://fifaworldcup.yahoo.com)

As if playing in the World Cup final wasn’t pressure enough...(f)or France, there’s the spectre of Jean Marie Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing National Front and candidate for the presidency, who complained that the French national team, with its 16 nonwhite players, didn’t resemble French society as a whole. “Perhaps the coach exaggerated the proportion of colored players,” he told L’Equipe. “The French don’t feel totally represented, which explains why the crowds are not as supportive as eight years ago.”

"What can I say about Monsieur Le Pen? Clearly, he is unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown. I think that reflects particularly badly on a man who has aspirations to be president of France but yet clearly doesn’t know anything about French history or society.

"That’s pretty serious. He’s the type of person who’d turn on the television and see the American basketball team and wonder: 'Hold on, there are black people playing for America? What’s going on?'

"When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. When people were celebrating our win, they were celebrating us as Frenchmen, not black men or white men. It doesn’t matter if we’re black or not, because we’re French. I’ve just got one thing to say to Jean Marie Le Pen. The French team are all very, very proud to be French. If he’s got a problem with us, that’s down to him but we are proud to represent this country. So Vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants."


French defender Lilian Thuram

(...and Merci John)

05 July 2006

Poem: Is English Your First Language?

I just realized that, although I've been meaning to post poems here, I've been very bad about doing so. To remedy that, I thought I'd put up this one, which appeared in Issue #48 of Washington DC's grand annual literary cornicopia Gargoyle. Many thanks to Richard Peabody and everyone at the journal, and those who were at the launch reading in DC, (where The Other Half took this photo of your less-than-regular Blogger on stage)

Is English Your First Language?

Try evasion, ellipsis, and regret.
Or silence, unabridged, volumes spoken
with a whisper, encyclopedic furtive glances
in an echoing house dressed and lit for Scenes
of Childhood
, the ever changing lines rewritten
every night. Improvisation: American family breakfast – action!

Primers on mind- and palm-reading the most helpful
dictionaries for translating the fading Braille of a hard
sentence across the butt, or face. Code- and willow-
switching learns you good: English is a conditional tongue:
only adults can misuse it, curse, or lie.

When outside the house say ___

Outside the family say ___

When white folks are around, say nothing.