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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Some inspiration for you? Writers Recommend at Poets and Writers

Poets and Writers asked what advice I'd give writers. Here it is:


See other posts which are also interesting.

US Involvement is (Check One) Nefarious; Useful

I quote:

"Last week, a top official of the U.S. Embassy in Managua dismissed Nicaragua as no longer important to the U.S. and told a Nicaragua Network delegation from the United States that he wanted nothing to do with the country’s political parties, all of which he characterized as “feckless, corrupt, nasty and worthless.”

Despite these comments by Matthew Roth, the political officer of the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Agency for International Development is funding Nicaraguan groups to provide training in “democratization” and media skills.

Media programs, such as those offered by the International Republican Institute, are supposedly designed to help Nicaraguan media, particularly radio stations, learn to provide fair and balanced coverage. However, leaders of the Association of Nicaraguan Journalists (APN), told the delegation that they intended to teach reporters to oppose the re-election of President Daniel Ortega and to play a double role as reporters and unofficial electoral observers. Jan Howard, the USAID officer for the embassy, acknowledged, “Sometimes they get a little carried away.”

In the 2001 and 2006 presidential elections, the U.S. embassy overtly supported a particular candidate opposed to Ortega. Such public declarations have not been issued this year, although the delegation heard concerns about the possibility of threatening or leading public statements from US officials late in the campaign term as occurred in 2001 and 2006. Such prior statements included threats about the termination of remittances, which many Nicaraguan families rely on. Additionally, the US has urged and even organized a united opposition in past elections. In the current cycle, a representative of the Constitutional Liberal Party implied that the party has privately been encouraged by the US Embassy to withdraw from the race.

The delegation from the Nicaragua Network, which has more than 30 years of experience following Nicaraguan issues, recently concluded a one-week trip to Nicaragua to investigate the role of the United States in the upcoming Nicaraguan elections. The delegation met with officials from the US embassy, Nicaraguan government officials, three political parties and alliances of parties running presidential candidates, and several U.S. and Nicaraguan non-governmental organizations that have received funding from the United States government."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Proto-Lola Piece on Air

When Lola was just a spark in my eye, when I was living on the North Coast of California, back in the days when I was directing the MFA program at the late New College of California, I wrote this germ of a piece in response to a request by editor David Rothenberg (see previous post), also of the late journal Terra Nova (and where do all these late beloved institutions go with their histories and pleasures and infighting? There is a Japanese word for dead web sites, something like "lost pebbles"; what word would be useful in speaking of late, beloved institutions?)to write toward the element of air, I wrote this -- I do not edit it now, I just offer it up to your eyes


What happens in Northern California is that people get pushed north with their desire for cleaner air. There are huge hulking iron beasts, old logging machines rotting in the hills up here, but the cars which pull off the tortuous curl of Highway One up the coast flash bits of silver upon one another, light refracted off the ocean refracting off their sides. All of this serves as an appropriately spangled metaphor for how people desire their own light and air up here, so proficient at passing one another here without engaging.

Here, on the so-called Redwood Coast, you’ll find small-town America writ large upon the apocalyptic consciousness of California: here you will not find all too many concrete dividers separating your car from your destiny, whether it be to careen into oncoming traffic or off the highway and into the ocean.

Any such dividers you do happen to find are recent afterthoughts. More often, on Highway One, you find plenty of sites where one waits for sleek cows, themselves oddly individualistic. The cows, like the people, amble oceanward; in the bovines’ case, across the highway from one spit of land, leaving one spot for better air, better grazing on a more perilous cliff. We happen to share with the cows this instinct for ingenuous destruction.

Construction foremen will boast with a certain happy hubris of a house which they are building on a rapidly eroding section of coastal land. It’s the county’s responsibility, they’ll tell you, to keep the land solid fifty feet oceanward from a house’s outermost perimeter. A complicated system of metal braces helps, part of the house’s foundation. This turns out to be ironically similar in form to that invoked by the old jokes about the cockroach architecture, what will be left of New York in the event of a nuclear holocaust.

The metal braces here are not afterthought but West-Coast-style insurance, a certain fatalism to them: they do help to moor these devil-may-care houses, so that, allegedly, when the cliffs erode (which they will all do, give or take ten or twenty or fifty years) the house will stay propped up on its metal buckle, bound to more steady ground, if you don’t count the earthquakes.

Where in a prior age some of our greatest designing minds were drawn to shipbuilding, men who longed for the full wind in their faces, manning shipyards in Oakland or Brooklyn or Penzance, now those same souls are constructing houses on cliffside dwellings in California.

But mostly up here engineering is left to nature. Consider those cows again: their hooves on those cliffs are more confident than any Detroit or Tokyo could dream of when it comes to sheer tread factor. A few centimeters before total hurl-down-the-mountains-at-your-own-leisure death, these cows do what we do: ruminate, if not on mortality and hubris; their digestion remains unimpaired by thinking of which species of catastrophe might await in the next moment.
Perhaps it is the imminence of catastrophe that buffers the human dwellers more tightly in their mantle of self-absorption. For every young promising student who gets killed by a driver-under-the-influence, there are twenty other drivers speeding by, blissful when their tailgating in their monster vehicles succeeds and they can force drivers into ditches off the road. What is self-absorption, after all? Could we say it entails a lack of the friction usually made up of, in equal parts, conscience and curiosity?

In the few markets, the post office, people do pass one another quite easily, friction-free, their bodies smooth or rough but able to glide by.

What mostly gets exchanged are molecules, transfering silently from one host to another. The lack of engagement is not a mobile air purifier here, as it might be, say, during cold season within a crowded New York subway compartment, when one passenger turns away, slightly, from another. It is rather a willful act of moral hygiene; failing to interact with a stranger helps one hold more closely to one’s own plot of land, near the promised land of the ocean, the one to which we will all one day subside and return.

This is why California has a partial monopoly on the apocalypse. It believes in the promised land and it has the front-row seat on the promised land; not land at all but the great primordial Pacific, named by Balboa on what must have been a deceptive calm-water day for the wild Pacific.

Out here, apocalpyse takes many forms. One can almost sense the Silicon Valley former billionaires sighing their impatience in the supermarket aisles, itching for life’s video-game to move to its final conclusion, with the ultimate crash so near, the crash that goes beyond the mereness of personally borne mortality. This is why some readers skip to the last scene of a book, and why, for many people, this Redwood Coast happens to be one of their favorite rural outposts, some 100 or 200 miles north of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the cyber-bubble of success, not seen in these parts since the gold rush, may have burst, slightly; but there is that annoying fact that one must share the breathing-space of the country with others: in this way, the apocalpyse is delayed; one cannot get to one’s cozy cabin retreat because there are still people approaching. One must retreat from the retreat.

And this land unfortunately is not the tabula rasa that might have appeared on the Web screen, the immediate gratification of a seemingly uninhabited strip of ocean. Coastal getaway! as the highly oxygenated ads scream, swirling blues and whites in flashing pixels.

Yes, there are those who have come here to get away but on a permanent basis: whole tribes of people. They are stepping outside of history and occasionally off the grid -- of electricity, yes, using their solar panels and compost outhouses -- but also off the grid of the task-reward systems prevalent in cities. Here are the artist tribes; the back-to-the-landers who came circa 1970, from Maine and upstate New York and south-side Chicago and Berkeley and all spots between; there are the expatriates from Germany and England who feel themselves to have arrived at the very mule train itself, their childhood archetypes of savage America. There are the aforementioned Silicon Valley billionaires and then the pot growers who grow their booty on others’ land, to avoid having their own repossessed should the cops discover their plants, growers who in their particular breed of libertarianism-so-long-as-you-don’t-screw -with-mine, a not-so-new kind of NIMBYism, will also hide with guns to shoot those who tread too close to their treasured plants.

There are the lonely men in plaid shirts furtively buying a six-pack of domestic beer at five o’clock on a Friday in the one supermarket which is, subtly, in that subliminal discourse that is caste in California, earmarked as being Their Kind of Supermarket (corn masa flour for tortillas, jugs of water and cheap wine on sale, giant fried pig ears). Right across the highway happens to be the Fancy Supermarket, with equivalent prices but which does not advertise so openly that it takes food stamps. The fancy market sells thirty varieties of non-American cheese and also offers its clientele a tasting bin for olives.

But it is in the pig-ear supermarket, that you will find a more representative mix of the population that is scattered up here, among the redwoods and mountains: the state troopers and electrical line layers, the loggers who have bumper stickers that say Save My Sanity, Kill an Environmentalist. There are the seasonal workers and there are also the last of the Pomo or Konkow Indians holding on, trying to make a life for themselves in the towns or the all-too-depressed reservations, land lost behind the crowded trees and mountain wilderness you can still find here. There are also, to mix cultural terms, the nisei and issei Mexicans, first- and second-generation, exercising their right of return, repossessing their land while sporting various arcana from the detritus of American society, whether it be a vintage Brooklyn Dodgers coat or a Britney midriff shirt.

In the fancy supermarket, you might find those who might have been, by birth or vocation, slotted for pig ears but prefer goat cheese, and again, everywhere, those Silicon Valley weekenders, picking up their copy of the New York Times before continuing to chug north or south in their mammoth gas-guzzling tanks. Sports utility would seem to be an oxymoron, until you see how lifestyle and its conduits have here, as elsewhere, become a little mechanized.
What does get exchanged up here happens, as in other climes, mainly within tribal affinities; though perhaps such affinities are more transparent within such a linear community. Unlike life in most towns, up here, along Highway One, you do not find the serendipity native to urban life. A child born and raised here easily enumerates the places one can go to and come from, the horizon line of the possible. You drive down the fittingly named One, a declivity along the cliffs, the ocean to its west and the mountains to the east. You bear only specific destinations in mind, nothing that can catch you unawares, really, short of events on the spectrum of the apocalpse -- fires, earthquakes, hell and turbation. Otherwise: cars pass you, cars tailgate you, then you pass cars.

There is not the surprise of a face appearing around a corner, as in any of the great cities, whether Venice, Manhattan, or Paris; and the human encounter and exchange that open up by surprise. It doesn’t take a Jane Jacobs to understand what is lacking up here. Breathing room ends up meaning room for me to breathe. As Denis Johnson remarked about a town in this specific part of the world in his penultimate novel, Already Dead, Gualala, the town whose name means confluence of rivers in an almost-lost Native American tongue, is a town which ignores the sublimity of its natural surroundings in order to best underline the repetitive and linear nature of much of what people think they need. This is a different sort of confluence.

Because people come up here for their own version of Lebensraum, the idea of living room first used in such a specific sense by Hitler’s Germany, in which Austria was to be annexed in order to provide the Germans a bit of breathing space, a relaxation of the senses. This rural part of Northern California has been annexed by various names. The Chamber of Commerce likes to call it the Redwood Coast, meaning those towns that commence with Stewarts Point, lost in its sheep pastures and its tall metal cranes falling into ravines, moving up through Point Arena. But the real estate agents like to call it the Banana Belt, the area within the Redwood Coast known for grabbing the bit of California sun managing to burn through the fog: Banana Belt because it is shaped like an unrelenting smile and there is some hint of tropicalismo in the people who have come up here for all their various reasons.

What becomes clear is that if anyone is having a party, it is the treetops. The people for the most part can have a dreary despair, like the 24-year-old scion of a hardware-store-owning family around these parts, already drunk at two in the afternoon of a Friday, narrowly avoiding the cars and throwing out a swaggering thumb to get a ride just about anywhere.

What is it that, at least in the States, makes our less breathable cities great and our more recent ideas about how to scalp and carve out a livable existence in rural America so abysmal? When one goes back to Hitler -- and why always him, except that he provides such a fine example of individual points of will coalescing in a terribly singular will, when what we are looking at is man or woman exercising their will and sense of virtue in nature. You all must know some back-to-the-landers, people who live righteously, use solar panels, lug their own water from a well and compost from their outhouse. And if you don’t know them, or even know about them, that’s okay; they already have taken up squatting rights in your brain, existing in your consciousness, a fine sieve of virtue through which one can always sift oneself, find oneself wanting. Once my brother, the recently minted restoration ecologist (what is he restoring? people always inquire) asked me how many trees had gone into the making of my first novel -- and when one puts two such opposite forces on a scale, of course the human creation comes out wanting.

Outside my window, where I sit writing this, on the Redwood Coast, people have been living off the grid, in enough pockets, that the idea is as familiar to anyone as the New York subway system was familiar to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, living below the city’s structure and tapping its juice for his own personal light. But out here, we have been experiencing the euphonically named “rolling blackouts”, California’s energy consumption having reached the outer limits of possibility in a state in which the word limit is practically banned from your vocabulary the second you apply for a driver’s licence, i.e., citizenship in a state in which mobility, chewing up all that clean air, is promised you if you just as in, say, the French ideas for Algeria or any other part of its empire: s’il vous plait obey our basically republican ideals of assimilation.

And to create a Californian correlate to the term writ on the pamphlet for application to French citizenship -- francisation -- one can be well californiasé if one follows the statewide articles as bold and simple as a Sierra Club graphic: to wit, individualism, self-sufficiency, a taste for adventure. True, the north is always tugging at the south to secede, and vice versa -- mostly about water but also about air, and the pollution, the air pockets -- and yes, the north and south are split primarily along the axis of political virtue, the north being in some cosmic rotation of the dial more left, barring those loggers, and the south, barring the denizens and hangers-on of Hollywood, tending toward the kind of Ronald Reaganism that says: You seen one redwood tree, you seen them all, and defines ketchup as a vegetable.

Funny that a state which is called golden believes so much in the alchemical properties of air and wind, fire and water. But primarily air -- there is a bargain people make when they agree to live out here, and it has nothing to do with the particular angle of sun that will etch their faces more deeply, a kind of cattle branding, and it has everything to do with a greed for that Puritan virtue that a New England stalwart like Cotton Mather might have been happy to have seen extrapolated from his original plan.

Because out here one can see every inference of the Constitution played out, almost as personified adventure heroes, playing dungeons and dragons. The local paper will frequently write out how to foil police attempts regarding search and seizure -- there is an insecurity, what religious writers would call humility, about the grandeur of nature out here, and what one can do to stick one’s finger, lamely, in the wind, preventing it from blowing too hard your way.
Which, apart from all Buddhist or Hindu influenced ideas of meditation and spiritual discipline, is why so many people have reminders everywhere. Breathe, the reminders say. Just breathe.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe some more. That sometimes seems to be the limit of human aspiration, out here where the air still blows (mostly) free.

About Music from the Day the World Was Supposed to End

I'm going to start putting up little foundling pieces I've written in this recent period, here in this safe viewing space. This first one comes from last month, written the day after I saw an amazing performance at The Falcon:

On Permanent Waitress Leave: A Note on Historic Music Last Night

Dedicated to those about to enter the real world

According to certain sectors, last night the world was supposed to end.
Ignoring this fact, last night I went to a music performance at The Falcon. And in theory, this could be a very simple statement: culture exists and people go out and enjoy it in particular venues.
And yet, and yet. Other families may have figured out better how one has a life going out at night, alone or as a couple, after kids arrive but we seem to remain forever in the pre-training-wheels stage, even eight years into having kids, staying in our cloistered home night after night, dealing with this one’s urgency or that one’s need for the cuddle of routine, so going out – solo or as a couple -- is a rare treat.
So that The Falcon, in upstate New York, in the small town of Marlborough, became my mecca last night: a giant, heaving, raftered, and yes, falcon-colored barn of a place perched over an unusually beautiful waterfall which, in its past, overflowed all human intervention and hence the lower landing requires some impressively cantilevered stones to remind all of the potential for revolution, that is, natural overthrow.
The Falcon in its acoustical and natural splendor is the dream space of some 1970s music impresario whose name I didn’t catch, one of these white-haired, smooth-cheeked people fired by a certain post-1960s idealism who has managed to stay preternaturally young: he announced the musicians with avuncular warmth, having arranged an endless series of evenings for musicians who come not because they get paid but because the audience is urged to donate. In turn, there is never a charge to come hear music, only a gentle solicitude on the part of the place’s waiters who carry out their black-clothed functions as if part of some elite monastic cadre.
You will see later why I say they are elite.
I came to see David Rothenberg play. I had met David years ago when I was following out one of my own new monastic precepts linked with the idea of starting to write. At the time, I was copy-editing at both Ms. and Esquire magazines, if you can manage the gender spin in my head as I walked the twenty blocks between the two jobs. I was also giving up, slowly, the idea that I could edit film as a day job in order to support my writing habit. I was finishing my first novel, begun in remote hill towns in Sri Lanka, and was living in what felt to me as if it were a one-room palace, on 104th and West End in Manhattan, a rent-stabilized, loft-bed, old-wood tiny place with large prewar windows looking onto the sidewalk in front of a halfway house where a bunch of largely unrepentant addicts rumbled.
In short, I was in a sort of heaven for a fiction writer.
Except I was a bit disconsolate. Whenever I eyed the racks of literary magazines at any of my favorite bookstores, I could not quite find the literary conversation that would have me. The truth of this, rather than suggesting that I was a youngster at an adult table, is that I could not find the literary conversation I liked, the one with enough rigor and play, the one with a certain archetypal boom! in the heart when I read it.
At the same time, given the paltriness of the funds flowing into my bank account, some of my relatives were suggesting I seize control of the tracks and just, darn it, switch them. That I should become, for instance, an insurance grantwriter, making what at the time was the princely sum of fifty thousand a year. Others thought I should use my interest in science – as well as coming from a family of scientists -- to become, well, naturlich, a science writer!
But as I now, in my latterday cloak of college professor, often find myself counseling graduating seniors: there are no compromise professions. Or, rather, there exist too many, a plethora. The world will suggest that if you have a certain aptitude and at least a quarter of a calling, one can crunch qualitative factors and emerge with a sum, a profession that puts one close to the fire yet leaves one neither maker nor, to stretch the metaphor, marshmallow-toaster. For example, the dancer whose parents suggest she become an arts administrator. The writer who, without true interest in the fine art of editing or selling, ends up in publishing or a literary agency. The filmmaker who ends up writing pop culture reviews.
I do not mean to suggest that there should only be artists and creators in the world: I only mean to say that it is necessary, at these hinge moments, to listen to that still voice that tells one that one will better serve the world by following a path the masses don’t support. In such moments, it is salutary to leave aside for the moment the distracting question of selfishness versus service, because, with Joseph Campbell, with all others in priestly professions, with everyone who has come from post-1960s California, either metaphorically or not, I still believe we serve best when we follow our bliss.
And, as a good friend often reminds me, there are paintings in a dentist’s office; imagine the world without music; and on. Art, an undertaking which can be questioned at its most foundational principle by the simple question is it self-indulgent? can also be profoundly generous.

That said, the world is full of gatekeepers who are dedicated to keeping those below from bliss-following, whether toward or away from art and its creation, and these gatekeepers are expert at land-grabbing zones in a young head. They are also morphers: gatekeepers can appear in the form of someone who is interviewing you for a job or a good friend or anyone who is a tad too certain when telling you the restriction of your pathways. In other words, even for cancer patients, there are always outliers, those who beat the odds and survive.
And yet, in my New York aerie, I was feeling the pull of these gatekeeping voices. Was I deluding myself? Should I just chuck in my writing habit, glistening and polished after so many years of daily tending, and just feed bits of my soul into a meat-grinder, take on a day job that would suck the last bit of writing out of me?
My own former mentor, Peter Matthiessen, had counseled me years earlier: never take a profession that is too much like writing! Keep your fiction pure!
I had taken his words as a true edict, thinking it much better to be a carpenter, a farmer, waitress, to learn from the world and its people and its handiwork. And yet in my chosen career pathway, to be a waitress, I had been fired too many times to recount. My father could not hide his glee whenever I was fired: had I graduated from a fancy college only to serve finicky customers Caesar salad with dressing on the side? Because, unlike Dana Spiotta and many other memorable waiter-writers, I never got waitressing right. At one fancy Italian restaurant in Berkeley, I poured the wine wrong. I chatted too much with the customers. Or I couldn’t hide, in one Venice Boulevard diner, what my face thought of a particular customer. The Venice boss, in his past one of those enthusiastic Kinsey-experiment participants, had a tone both kindly and sorrowful when he told me the news. He pulled his overlong blond handlebar moustache, saying, I’m sorry, Edie, we’re putting you on Waitress Leave. But it’s that particular kind of Waitress Leave – permanent.
Within my permanent waitress leave, therefore, years later, living in New York, somewhat ignoring my mentor Matthiessen’s advice since I worked with print in my day job, copy-editing at Ms. and Esquire, I could not help but feel disconsolate about the literary conversation that I imagined. But I found it, in a small literary journal, called Terra Nova, published by MIT Press, one that happened to catch my eye at one of my favorite bookstores where I had spent some of those desultory hours, rich in a kind of melancholic curiosity.
When David Rothenberg, the journal’s editor, published an excerpt of my early novel, he then asked to meet me and so we began our long conversation, one that has followed spirit as much as letter in that months can go by without any contact.
But last night I thought I should change the terms a bit and go out for once to hear music, that proposition simple enough when you’re young and starting out and not when you have two cuddle-hungry cute kids. In the middle of my path, a path the outcome of all those many choices made years ago, having that day met some parents at the college where I teach, therefore, I went to The Falcon.

David is one of those kids who started playing an instrument at school when he was in third grade and, a true bliss follower, never stopped: he has played his clarinet since in some unusual settings, to whales, to birds, and most recently recently to Laurie Anderson, being someone who is unafraid of sending a hero a CD of his, a book, homage. With his philosopher’s bent (he teaches both philosophy and music at New Jersey’s Institute of Technology) he has written books about some of the settings in which he has played: Why Birds Sing and A Thousand-Mile Song among his other publications. Last night he was playing with a friend of his, a pianist named Lewis Porter
who is a full-time music professor at Rutgers-Newark, a guy listed in the program as, in quotation marks, a “helluva pianist”, a quotation pulled from Jazz Times, a writer-pianist who had written a biography of Coltrane about which Coltrane’s son, Ravi, said: it’s the best there is.
This is what I knew.
Now, my family and I had just come back from two months in Cuba where the music, whenever we heard it, was sublime but lacked the quality I always listen for: it wasn’t historic.
Historic music, to me, means that moment when you, whether listener or performer, encounter a moment of playing or interaction, improvised or set, that lets you know you have been witness to a hair-tingling moment. The moment will never happen again. All the choices that led up to it made the moment possible.
Part of the nature of first love, I had been thinking that day, is that it seems more intense because the face of the beloved is the face of your unmarked future: immense, big as Oz.
And part of hearing historic music is that the moment hinges: the music may never again be so good, but all the musical context prior to it made the moment possible.
And you are part of history even when you are just a listener, forming part of the experiment, changing its very nature by your listening.
Until this night, I had not realized that I had been a bit disappointed, while we were in Cuba, with the lack of historicity in the music. What we heard felt like slipping into a warm bath of tradition, an endless cycle, which could take us into its warm or familiar or sexy embrace, but could just as easily not have us listen, a big fat sloppy mama, not a whore but a mama.
This is not to say that during our two months we did not hear good music. For example, one night we braved a doorman line in Havana, our fellow queuers young gussied-up prostitutes, foreigners, and a few wealthy Cubans wanting to plunk down an ordinary Cuban’s month’s salary to see the salsa legends Los Van Van, a group that manages to turn salsa into a narrative bully pulpit. On another occasion, a black-market street-seller had pressed on me some lively protest CDs by the group Los Aldeanos and I’d thought their music made Cuban reggaeton seem much more dynamic than the mind-numbing quality of the majority of Mexican reggaeton.
But in the main, the music we had heard, recorded or live, had stayed within certain conventions so deeply encoded that they form part of the national neural pathway: nothing disturbed, nothing pushed against surprise.
So back to last night: David and Louis began with some piece they called an ode to New Jersey impressionism, which as a phrase would seem an oxymoron – impressionism? in New Jersey? -- and yet the music did spill with a force like the waterfall outside The Falcon. Louis’ head seemed to be in a vise, nodding assent; he clearly liked David, who gets wracked by an internal rhythm when he performs, jumping and popping all over the stage, that inner rhythm only occasionally coming out in overt music. I realized quickly these two trafficked in covert music and its transformation, as if each were confessing private dreams to his instrument. Between them, there was a patient assertion in the way long notes or passages were held; the piano would deepen in a series of open fifths, making the music into some jazzy Debussy water music.
The group of us at a table, all David’s friends who had been published by him way back in the past of the late Terra Nova, which we realized he had used as if it were his proto-Facebook, often laughed in recognition at his antics, given the shamanic energy he infuses into performance. He plays like a suffering Jesus, like it hurts but he must continue out of inner necessity, and then, occasionally, will be tender toward his instrument as if he now must needs offer a balm to someone. Behind David and Louis flickered some neopop light sculpture, while around them blared unsettling art by local high school students, and then I heard David introducing his next piece saying: “Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast! As you all know, it’s the best title of classical philosophy. Giordano Bruno wrote it and he was burnt at the stake for writing it.”
At The Falcon, people actually listen: the place offers up a concert in a beautiful restaurant but no one eats while the musicians play. I once read a study that said that the sense of hearing is diminished when one eats, which perhaps goes some of the way to explaining skinny rock musicians, but this certainly seemed to be the case last night: forks perched midway and then were abandoned entirely, though the libations – given that elite cadre of waiters – kept flowing.
David introduced the next piece by mentioning Lou Reed who had apparently told him two weeks ago that every day he listened to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, every single day, but never with words, because “words ruin it.”
They were getting into their set; Louis was biting his lips. The bassist, the leader of the tango band that was headlining, came on for this piece, chewing gum while he played. David’s clarinet squalled and he started hopping more manically. Squall, hop, squall, hop. I was wondering why David kept introducing pieces as being “written by” someone when clearly there was such improvisation to it all, and later Louis explained how proprietary jazz is: you have to pay an artist 125 dollars every time you play or record a piece of his, and there is a way to hide the use of a piece, but much better to be, as it were, open-source.
In the middle of the Ornette Coleman piece, deep in open-source bliss, Louis could not hide his happiness: he looked at his wild partner, smiling, nodding into some deep piano riff. David looked as if he were about to have a seizure. Sometimes, behind them, the sculpture lit up, as if some Juliet were about to appear on a metal balcony, making me wonder whether jazz remains, at this late age, fundamentally a male enterprise, given that I once lived next to a known saxophonist who never once had streams of women coming to his house to play, only young acolytes and legends, all male. I also was thinking about how some musicians seem to have a sadistic relation to their instrument: a dom, submit, dom, submit pattern that becomes the conversation of their music, i.e., what the listener notices. While David and Louis were interested in some kind of conversion of the masses, fitting their title, a true expulsion of the triumphant beast.
Because right then came the highlight of the evening, the historic beat: a Stephen Foster piece, “Hard Times Come Again No More”. One of the best and worst things about jazz is how it is always so ready to throw off its center, yet here the center held. In the pair’s inspired riff off such archetypal, steamboat chord changes, the audience was moved. Louis played it to the hilt, doing cheesecake vibrato octaves, and we were transported to another time. The two of them pulled such watery depths out of the piece that there was a collective intake of breath, an echo of the performers’ energies at the end.
I was thinking too, while watching, of Ernesto Granado, the cinematographer of Fresa y Chocolate, Strawberry and Chocolate, the iconic Cuban film which tore apart certain prejudices: anti-gay, pro-revolutionary. What would Ernesto have thought if he were here? We’d had the luck to meet him on a public bus coming back from the cowboy backcountry of Cuba, and he had taken it upon himself, our last weeks in the country, to try to introduce us to Havana’s artistic intelligentsia. Unlike many we had met, he was not soured on the revolution; it still paid him, both conceptually and actually; and he was filled with an enviable love of his fellow countryman in a fully essentializing, most un-PC manner. When we had gone to see Los Van Van perform, in that crowded club, he had danced with and near us in a sweet rendition that had reminded me of Woody Allen dancing in a fugue of aggrieved coolth in Annie Hall at the beach house, or do I mistake the movie?
If he were transported to The Falcon and were American, he would have raved: This is what I love about Americans! You see? They are filled with life, filled with color! They listen! They can come together despite all their differences!
And yet, the problem or gift of America may be that we are so darned ornery, we persist in seeing everyone as individuals, which is – to go back to the beginning of this whole discussion – what makes choosing a life profession so difficult. You feel such responsibility on your shoulders when you are choosing in a vacuum of collective support or identity. You ask, for one of the most significant times in your life, do I want to become part of this tribe or that tribe? While, in a place like Cuba where the population and roots may be multiethnic but the culture has a homogeneity, tribe fails to matter.
So that in this iconic American moment – jazzy riffs off Stephen Foster, how much more American does it get? – somehow, magically, David and Louis made a historic tribe out of all of us.
Meanwhile, the world was still going to end.
We had been knit together, a bunch of people in America, listening to music linked in subterranean channels to our history; the community we secretly longed for lived.
Meanwhile, in the background, expert waiters slipped people their bills. When the audience went out into the night, the endless rush of that waterfall made it seem that, at least that night, we had performed at least one sacrament correctly, one stolen from our own national religion: we all had made at least one good choice.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Love Letter to VS Naipaul

Someone I know responded to Joanne Valin's call to write love letters to VS Naipaul after his now infamous statement that he could, essentially, sniff out a woman's writing and that no woman writer could ever be his equal:


The Diviner's Tale; War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning; Unlived Professions

I just finished Brad Morrow's THE DIVINER'S TALE and was truly impressed; it is rare to find a male writer who can convincingly channel whatever we want to believe might be a female consciousness, and in Morrow's original story, which begins as a sort of Self vs. Self plot, inasmuch as its narrator is cursed/blessed with a power of divination which she doesn't wholly embrace, the consciousness radiates outward to make the ending truly a page-turner. You finish the book and then want to start it again to pick up all the clues, and this recursive urge seems to me to be a strong hallmark of success.

One other aspect of Morrow's book that proves his strength as a writer: he is able to toy with fabulism and magical realism, i.e., what we used to call aspects of the traditional ghost story, and yet does so without sacrificing narrative tension. In other words, ghost stories often fall flat since, in a universe in which anything can happen, an author immediately plays his or her full narrative hand of tension. Yet Morrow's world is spun tightly around these closed, hungry psyches that populate his novel, and so the paranormal becomes congruent with psychology.

I just started this book: the former war correspondent who rejects the mythos of war. So far, so good.

When I wrote CRAWL SPACE, part of my urge was to exercise/exorcise my great admiration of war correspondents, one of many unlived professions I seem to have collected. When I wrote LOLA, CALIFORNIA, I wanted to do the same with any of the hundred and one professions that had seemed possible to me as a child growing up in the incense-laden fumes of Berkeley.

Please find space below to write any of your unlived professions:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New Nicaragua Video posted

Hi you literate ones,

Just posted, upper lefthand column of www.ediemeidav.com, some truly rough initial footage from the boxing gyms of Nicaragua, taken in 2011.

A sneak peek, more to come from there and Cuba.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

New review of David Foster Wallace up

Lola, California: A Novel

Dear literate ones,

Some six months ago, I wrote this piece for a folio for the enigmatic Conversational Reading, the intelligent blog run by Scott Esposito, considering DFW in his book of essays. See what you think. http://conversationalreading.com/the-quarterly-converstion-issue-24/


may I also recommend this book to you?

Daughters of the Revolution

Even if she weren't a friend, I would still love her writing.

Next week, excitingly enough, the songs composed in/around LOLA, by Kevin Salem, come out, available online for free.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Beautiful New Film for LOLA just released now

Lola, California: A Novel

Dear friends,

The great director Rebecca Dreyfus just made this beautiful movie in honor of LOLA coming out very soon -- See what you think.


She used two students of mine and our upstate New York locale, and somehow emerged with a beautiful palette reminiscent of all those 70s films I used to watch back in my lost youth.

Incredible soundtrack by one of my musical heroes, Kevin Salem, who had many interesting alternative soundtracks as well; some sounded like a lost Mexican opera singer was crying her heart out alongside Highway Five. Please note: next week, Salem is coming out with a whole album, available for free, online, with songs composed for LOLA.

I am really thankful.

Please see it and, as they say, if it finds grace in your eyes, recommend it to your Facebook or Internet masses! For this is how I understand such things work. Ask them to pass it on, come to the readings this summer, all that.

(July 9, Oblong/Rhinebeck; July 16, The Golden Notebook/Woodstock; July 20, Elliott Bay/Seattle; July 23, The Gallery/Mendocino with Beth Lisick; July 28, Bay Area book launch, Mrs. Dalloway's/Berkeley; July 30, 4-Eyed Frog, Gualala with Sharon Doubiago; August 4, Book Passage with Oscar Villalon in San Francisco; August 5, A Great Good Place for Books with Carolyn Cooke in Montclair, CA; later on, Merritt Bookstore and elsewhere . . .)

Until soon,

Yours in the moviesphere,


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Newsletter up and running again

Dear good readers,

Just to keep you in the loop: there's a newsletter (quaint word in this era of blogs, right? Can you remember the first person who savored the word "blog" as s/he said it to you? I can. San Francisco, circa 2000, a proud fire-dancer who liked to swerve around half-naked in the dark. Are these not,really, the way that blogs function?) at www.ediemeidav.com.

Go ahead. Subscribe again to something else. I promise to try to keep it interesting.

Yours in the logosphere,