Volume 5 Number 3
Table of Contents
Fiction requires mystery, questions unanswered, thoughts unheard, actions unseen. What a writer leaves out of a story is as poignant as those details left in, and it is a good and powerful writer who knows what should be guarded and what should be revealed.
I'm gonna see a movie -- hopefully a good one -- for free so I can report back to you guys. The Heavens are a-shinin' today.
Through standard documentary devices such as interviews, home movies and pieces of Brakhages films, the life, ideas and creative output of a prolific and influential avant-garde filmmaker is revealed.
There are many places to experience poetry in Austin. When taken at face value one may feel that they can't tell one venue from the other.
Eleven locally based poets and six Southern California poets have contributed their works to the anthology.
There are not enough words to describe my sister Marsha.
When visiting Mr. Large it seemed utterly impossible to free him of his toy circuits, which he had hooked up to surround sound, causing the room to vibrate the alphabet in a slow droning voice in various frequencies. Apparently he had been at it for twelve hours straight.
Jazz artists who could successfully communicate the vitality of their art within commercial settings were able to build up enough support that their unique artistic expression transcended the limits of popular music.
Salvage Vanguard Theater will rock you. It will take you out of reality while slapping reality in your face. It will not give you answers, but push you to ask more questions.
Austin is a festival-loving, arts-friendly city if ever there was one, hosting such festivities as the 1998 National Poetry Slam, Frontera Fest, and most recently, three days of SXSW spoken word programming.
By and large, most of my columns have a lot to do with issues that are real to me.
I've written poetry since I learned to write. Poetry taught me things about life. And gave me a voice to answer back. Poetry has influenced me more than family, teachers or evening news.
Ah, Fat! by Manuel Gonzales
Hemingway and Fellini both espoused the idea that the writer, the creator, should know the story, know it well and completely -- every thought, every action, the way it begins, the way it ends, down to the last and final minor detail -- the writer should know all these things, but that the writer should never tell the whole story. As readers, we should not always know everything that happens, or why. The hows, the whys, the wheres, the whats -- leave these trappings to journalism, dailies, weeklies, news, life. Fiction requires mystery, questions unanswered, thoughts unheard, actions unseen. What a writer leaves out of a story is as poignant as those details left in, and it is a good and powerful writer who knows what should be guarded and what should be revealed.
Everything I had heard about Haruki Murakami's work led me to the conclusion that he would be this kind of good writer, if possibly too extreme -- leaving out too much information, throwing us too blindly into a confusing and unintelligible sortie. I was anxious to test the murk of the Murakami waters with South of the Border, West of the Sun, and found a strong first few paragraphs and a narrator who struck me as similar to many of Salman Rushdie's narrators -- light, whimsical, stuttering characters who cannot be trusted for a second. Soon, though, Murakami had buried me in page after page of wasted and, worse yet, dull information. Facts and thoughts and opinions that did not further the story or give me any great insight to the character, Hajime (Japanese, for "beginning" and fitting as this novel seems more like a beginner's), filled every page in long and thoughtful internal monologues.
Hajime is a middle-aged man who owns two jazz bars, leads a successful life with his not unattractive wife and two daughters, and who, in the course of the novel, finds himself unsatisfied with where he is going, where he has gone, and where he came from -- thoughts not unlike those of anyone who is still alive at forty-five. He is an only child, and he quickly and frequently points out that being an only child in Japan causes misery and grief through the school years. He befriends Shimamoto, another only child who is also different because a twisted foot causes her to limp, and together they form a bond that only children can form -- strong until someone moves away. He moves away, loses contact with his friend, lives his life, makes his mistakes, breaks someone's heart, falls into some long, dark misery spanning his twenties, and then meets a girl he likes enough to marry, a girl he cheats on only while she's pregnant and never with any one woman more than once or twice...okay, three times, tops, and by the middle of the novel, he's related all this with exact and unrelenting detail so that soon, the need for action overwhelms the soul, until action occurs and then dies, talked to death by Hajime, the narrator whose mouth spans wide like a river and who talks enough for three dull novels.
But, Murakami cannot be entirely blamed for this tragic over-narration.
He had help, that twister of words and phrases, and foiler of form and style, the translator. When reading any foreign work not written with its native tongue, translation is key. Consider Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate: in Spanish a nice and smartly written novel; in English, nothing more than a breezy and ditzy afternoon read. Garcia Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude so expertly written and then translated that little is lost between the two versions. Clearly, Philip Gabriel had something to do with the unraveling of narrative style and garbling of clear prose that often has been associated with Murakami, and so to test this theory, I went to the bookstore and scanned a few of his other works. The results: Alfred Birnbaum is an excellent translator who grasps not only the words of the language but the intricacies and subtext of Murakami's plots and characters and the language his characters, his narrators, speak. Philip Gabriel, on the other hand, is not so good. After a quick browse, I picked up Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and was astounded.
Murakami's world, intricately imagined and detailed (but not too detailed), grabs you by your fingertips so that you cannot let go and then emanates a soft warm glow, as if you were dreamreading a unicorn's skull. Set sometime after the War (which war?) and amidst huge information wars and then in some otherworldly existence known as the Town, surrounded by the Wall, dissected by the River, the novel picks you up, tosses you over its shoulder like you're a sack of potatoes, and carries you in a way that you can only see bits of what's happening and only by straining and turning and twisting, looking for the little clues scattered on the ground like paperclips or pieces of bread, a Hansel and Gretel trail that guides you through the incredible and elaborate maze that is Murakami's mind. No one is named -- the narrator is the narrator, the Librarian, the Librarian, the chubby girl in pink, the chubby girl in pink, the old man, the old man, and they are all surrounded by Calcutecs and Semiotecs, and thugs and suits sent by the System and the Factory, two sides of the same coin constantly waging their information wars, one safeguarding, the other stealing. And in the balance hangs the choice for independence or immortality. After the first two chapters, you are in, but those first two (maybe three) chapters you are lost, blindfolded, perhaps, and nothing makes sense and for a second you wonder if maybe the work wasn't really translated, or if it was, perhaps Murakami didn't write sentences, but instead, strings of unrelated, made-up words that do not coincide with anybody's reality. Patience, though, will be well rewarded. The prose is sharp and quick, and the story and characters make as important a statement about independence and the future of mankind as Orwell's 1984. This is a book to be read more than once. It is to be savored, tasted like good wine and good cheese over stale bread. And it was translated by Alfred Birnbaum, and the difference is large.
But what I cannot understand is how Murakami could write such a static, frenetic wholly enjoyable and important novel as Hard-Boiled Wonderland only eight years ago and then publish such a plodding, normal, John Updike-ish novel today. Because, bad translating or not, the story itself is old, has been told and re-told and demonstrates none of the power and ingenuity and talent of Murakami. But flukes do happen, and perhaps South of the Border, West of the Sun is nothing more than just that.
South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami, $22; Hard Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami, $11 paper.
An All-American Film Adventure by Kelli Ford
Standing in line at the Dobie...
After twenty minutes of sitting alone except for one poor badgeless soul, I'm almost there. Finally, there it is; the smell of popcorn -- pop, pop, pop -- Whee! The blue room borders suddenly light up the ceiling. Here I am, I'm one of them. "Kelli Ford, Austin Downtown Arts -- FILM" my purple badge boldly states for all of those SXSW ticket takers. Yes, I am official, and in line number one. Number two is reserved for those who have individual passes, and number three is for those with neither passes nor badges. After two missed attempts to see American Chain Gang, Xackery Irving's first feature length film, I am the third in line number one.
I look around. I see a big, shiny Gold Badge pass me...and another one. And then a Platinum Badge. I am third in line number one. ONE, damn it! I would have been first in line, but my press kits I was diligently looking over fell in the floor as I was trying to sprint to the assigned line place. Where are these people going? Do they have a special screening rooms with hors d'oeuvres and Guinness? I was on top of the world, and suddenly I find out I am third in line and at least third down the ladder of the SXSW Film hierarchy. I nervously enter the theater half expecting it to be filled with the secretive gold and platinum badge holders.
It's okay. I am in, and I have a good seat so Guineas and finger foods be damned. I'm gonna see a movie -- hopefully a good one -- for free so I can report back to you guys. The Heavens are a-shinin' today. Before this afternoon, I checked out Amerikan Passport, directed and produced by Reed Paget, and American Hollow, directed and produced by Rory Kennedy.
I knew nothing about Amerikan Passport before I moseyed into the theater just as the movie began. It looked interesting in SXSW guidebook, and I thought I could do a cute little American documentary motif for my reviews. Paget, who first called his film A Beer Drinker's Guide to Global Politics, takes you on his four year journey through sixteen countries with nothing more than a used 16 mm camera and a microphone. His narration throughout the film gives you the feeling that you are getting to see a personal dairy on the big screen. Which is exactly what you get, complete with hints and snippets of a love interest that developed in Costa Rica. However, the film is far from mush. Paget chose to seek the truth behind American foreign policy in some of the most dangerous places in the world, and we get to watch him -- from the comfort of a theater thankfully -- run from Chinese soldiers, sneak visaless through Cambodia, and brave civil war in El Salvador. Through interviews and personal experiences, Paget shows us the contrast of ideals -- from both the left and the right -- versus realities. This was my favorite film, and a major distributor will surely pick it up so you can catch it in theaters soon.
Next on my list was American Hollow. (Rushing to the theater, again I was late by SXSW time standards. I forgot my notebook, and the director didn't answer my last minute email requesting a press kit; so I have to pull this review from my memory.) American Hollow is a family portrait. Rory Kennedy takes us deep into the Kentucky hills to spend a year with the Bowling family. These are true to the phrase, "down home country folks." They don't have running water and exist with help from government checks and by selling herbs they gather in the hills. Kennedy does a good job of drawing us into the Bowling's lives and showing us that many of their day to day struggles are just like ours. Eighteen year-old Clint Bowling yells, "The school system sucks!" He yearns to get out of Mudlick hollow away from his unlces who, "don't do nothing but pick roots," and has his heart ripped out, picked up, and ripped out again by his girlfriend. Kennedy remarkably portrays the humanity of this family. Their humor is too. Without seeming urbanly condescending -- okay not too often -- the audience erupted with laughter throughout the film. If I hadn't seen Amerikan Passport first, this would have been my favorite film. Go see it.
And now, back to American Chain Gang. Irving, who directed, produced, and filmed the documentary, shows us to a side of America about which everyone has an opinion, and there don't seem to be any perfect solutions. He filmed inmates and prison officers at the Limestone Correctional Facility in Alabama and the Maricopa County Women's Prison in Arizona where both facilities had recently reinstated the use of the chain gang as punishment for the prisoners. Irving was careful not to pass judgement, and shows us both officers and prisoners. (By the way, the officers tend to be the ones who have the most obvious attitude problems.) Most effective, however, are the scenes of the prisoners working chained together surrounded by officers carrying shotguns and pistols. The only problem I had with this film is its shortness. At only 56 minutes, I was left wanting more. He covered all the bases, I think -- there could be no clear-cut resolution with subject matter such as this. I just liked the film so much, I wanted to keep on watching it. It would have definitely be my favorite if it I hadn't seen the other two first.
I saw three distinctly different documentaries, and left the theater contemplating and questioning each time. Not questioning the films; questioning our lives and how we live them. I think that one of the best things you can do in film or art for that matter -- help us look deeper within ourselves. No eye candy here, just three quality and honest films. Go see any or all of these films wherever they show up next.
Brakhage by Grace McEvoy
Among the many worthwhile films screened in Austin at this year's SXSW film festival, one of the most intriguing was the documentary Brakhage (1998), directed by Jim Shedden. Through standard documentary devices such as interviews, home movies and pieces of Brakhages films, the life, ideas and creative output of a prolific and influential avant-garde filmmaker is revealed. Stan Brakhage has made over 200 films ranging in length from less than a minute to over four hours. Born in 1933, Brakhage studied photography at the Institute of Fine Art, San Francisco and made his first film, Interim, in 1952. Throughout his career, Brakhages self imposed challenge has been to make film that asks the viewer to see without preconceptions. In his book Metaphors on Vision, he wrote of an unprejudiced eye "which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception" An obvious example of this "adventure" is the film Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971) which contains rhythmic and rich visuals of an autopsy that the viewer must see as purely visual in order to endure the gruesome content.
Brakhage's career spans over nearly 50 years and it is such a treat to see interviews of him as a young man bursting with creative energy. Ultimately the film reveals not only an artist, husband, father, teacher and friend but also chronicles the creative ebb and flow(mostly flow) of a man with a seemingly limitless supply of ideas and output despite the inevitable struggles with family and, as he ages, health. Heartening to those who have experienced the terror of lengthy creative blockages, one of the most charming segments of the film is a conversation between Brakhage and a friend about overcoming those blockages as well as the strains of middle age. Brakhage suffers the loss of most sight in one eye, depression, and bladder cancer yet manages to continue to be a productive artist. Ironically, the cancer may be the result of exposure to paint used to make some of his most beautiful films which have paint applied directly to the film base and look like moving abstract expressionist paintings.
Hardly at a loss for new ways to use film, Brakhage's interest in light and movement is purest in his surprisingly beautiful abstractions created by chipping emulsion off the film base. Most of his films are made without sound because Brakhage feels that the use of sound "cuts back sight." This use of silence is very effective especially in the examples from the Song series where the visual rhythms need no accompaniment. One may not even remember the films as silent because the visuals have a way of making the viewer create sound in his/her mind. Brakhages use of 8mm film format for many of his films elevates the home movie to high art and makes the art form more democratic as the tools for production are available to nearly anyone.
Jim Shedden's Brakhage is an excellent introduction to the mind of an artistic innovator, whose ideas are borrowed on a regular basis. Given his body of work and the influence that Stan Brakhage has had on the visual language of moving pictures, this film is an important document of the creative process of an artist, and as a bonus, Brakhage is a delightfully compelling subject himself. He tells a good story, can articulate his ideas well and is not too self conscious to burst out in song. By the films end the audience is excited about filmmaking and the prospect of seeing more of Brackages work.
For those interested in Stan Brakhage and experimental film there are more opportunities to see avant-garde film on the horizon here in Austin. The sound and visual artists collective, in*situ will be sponsoring a film series in September that will be curated by non other than Stan Brakhage. The Series will include films from Brakhage's personal collection and the plan is for Brakhage to come and introduce the series. Contingent upon funding, in*situ is also planning an event showing film of the late ethnomusicologist and avant-garde filmmaker Harry Smith who was a great influence on Stan Brakhage. Smith, well known for compiling the nations most influential collection of traditional music, the 1952 Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, was given a lifetime achievement Grammy award in 1991 for that work. The showing of his film in the fall will be a must see event that will involve the use of lantern slides that give the film a 3-D effect. Check our events listings for locations and times for these screenings.
In*situ, under the directorship of Jon Ausbrooks, has been responsible for bringing and screening much of the experimental film seen in Austin since the groups inception five years ago. To date they have brought among others, internationally recognized film pioneers Kenneth Anger, Babbette Mangolte and Stan Brakhage. in*situ is sponsoring a presentation by minimalist filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad at 8p.m. on Saturday, March 27, 1999, at the Scottish Rite Temple Auditorium, 207 West 18th St. Conrad, an experimental filmmaker and a violinist will perform with cellist Alexandria Gelencser and screen his classic 1966 film The Flicker along with recent video works. Conrad emerged in the 1960s in New York working with artists such as John Cale and Lou Reed. Conrad is recognized as an important experimental filmmaker and The Flicker should prove to be an interesting experience as it has been known to induce audiences to perceive phantom colors, images and shapes. This will be a rare evening of performance and visual art. Admission is $12 in advance and $15 at the door. Tickets are available from Waterloo Records, 33 Degrees, Austix, and Vinal Edge Records in Houston.
Hear or Be Heard by Shilanda Woolridge
There are many places to experience poetry in Austin. When taken at face value one may feel that they can't tell one venue from the other. Granted, each and every venue will have a microphone, an amplifier system, and an audience; but each space has a different flavor, atmosphere, and theme. The person who started the venue had an idea of what he or she wanted, and then watched that spark light a flame with the participation of regulars. As an outsider who isn't a regular to any poetry venue, I could easily show up and write dry facts about what I see and leave it at that. The What, Where, and When are the easy part. The Who and the Why are another story all together. So I went to the proprietors of two word venues, the Ebony Sun Java House and Blast Your Own Breath @ Movements Gallery, and let them do all the talking.
Ebony Sun Java House
As silly as this may sound, I've found myself wondering if the Ebony Sun Java House is named after Marla Fulgam, one of It's owners. Anyone who has met Marla knows she is a never-ending source of energy and warmth, whose bright smile lights up the place. We shared many laughs and kept wandering off-topic as she told me the story of the Ebony Sun Java House's beginning.
When working on a business plan, I wanted a venue for creative arts -- a place where we could have visual art, music, literary groups, a songwriting group, and other events. The coffee house would earn money on the side. Since I'm a writer, I tried to develop what I wanted and what was lacking. There is diversity at other places, and I can go to other places. However, there was no place where I could feel at home. Sometimes black people don't feel comfortable expressing themselves in other venues. I don't know why. I don't have a problem with it, but some do. So I wanted to have a comfortable and homey feel. The Ebony Sun is a coffee house, not a coffee shop. Back in Harlem, we would meet in people's homes and read poetry, and that's the atmosphere I was moving towards. When we started, the place was a mess. There was junk all over the place, but we had a vision.
That vision is thriving; one of the most successful parts of it is the East Side Black and White Poets that meet every other Thursday. This event is emceed by Stazja McFayden and is the glue that brought her and Marla together. The East Side Black and White poets were in full swing before they found a home at the Ebony Sun. Stazja speaks of their humble beginnings.
It tore me up that that neighborhood [East Austin], once so culturally rich, had deteriorated to the ghetto tableau I found there. I wanted to do something about it. I found East End Coffee House, on E. 13th Street, made a presentation to Spencer Alldridge, It's proprietor, who had a similar purpose. He agreed to let me start up the monthly East End B&W poets, third Thursdays of each month. We got it off the ground in October 1997. From the start, it was a righteous mix of poets, young and old, black and white, east side/west side, north and south. Never a big crowd, but always a high spirited one.
In the meantime, Marla was getting things ready for the opening of the Ebony Sun.
I was reading the Chronicle, and I noticed a poetry reading was going to take place right around the corner. I decided to go check it out. I also wanted to make sure that our coffee houses didn't have events at the same time; that way everyone would be free to hang out at both places. At the reading, there was a nice little group there, but it was the last reading because the place was closing down. I was sad, but a light bulb went off in my head.
When I announced the closing of the venue, Marla stood up and said she was opening Ebony Sun Java House only a few blocks away, and invited B&W Poets there. Without missing a beat, we had our February show at our new home, with Floyd Freeman and Marvin Kimbrough featuring. The venue name changed from East End B&W to East Side B&W when we moved out of East End Coffee House. There have been a couple spin-off venues, including Edward "Chippie" Powell's "That's Poetry To Me" Po-Jazz at Ebony Sun Java House on other Thursdays than East Side B&W, and Ivan "Ivanho" Miller's new Tuesday night readings at Whole Bean Coffee House -- progeny with different formats. Marla also has her monthly "Midnight Love" readings at Ebony Sun, usually last Saturday of the month. I wanted to make a safe environment for poets, and anyone: one that transcends barriers of race, gender, nationality, age, economic standing, geographical location, occupation, religion, even the barriers within poetry such as academic vs. street poetry. That's what East Side B&W, and one of my poetic purposes, is about.
Marla's description of the East Side B&W confirms Stazja's goal and is being accomplished:
The word was getting spread about, then all of the sudden Thursdays were full! I think people want to come and listen. This is a place where the professional and amateur can come together. We've even had a few non-writers who felt motivated write poetry and read.
When a poetry venue can inspire non-writers to pick up a pen it is truly a place for creative arts, I hope Marla is proud and knows how much her little coffee house is appreciated by artists in all four corners of Austin's city limits.
Movements Gallery's Blast Your Own Breath, Wednesdays 9-10:30pm
Tammy Gomez is probably one of Austin's most outspoken and well-known poets. She has been a pillar in Austin's poetry scene and will be departing soon for a four to five month stay in Nepal. She leaves behind a legacy of word activism and activity, most notably Blast Your Own Breath [BYOB] at Movements Gallery. She was very direct and had a lot of frank things to say about poetry and her venue at Movements.
I've always honored underground fringe spaces, the places that are built from the ground up and are not commercial. Unfortunately, I meet people who deal with you only if you are getting press, or have major products. It's so subtle, that to call it out would get me labeled a racist or sexist, so I just do my work. I've earned the credibility I have in this city. Knowing I have privilege that was earned, I wanted to stay committed to using that for community benefit. A while I ago, I kept getting the same fortune in different fortune cookies. It said: "The people will trust you to use the resources in the way that's best for everyone." I took that as an A-OK from above that those resources would come; that's the way it should be for everyone.
I knew experimental musicians that performed at Movements Gallery. It's a space that encouraged the work of underground artists. In December of '97, Andrew (the owner of Movements) contacted me and he wanted a poetry venue. He trusted me to be in line with their politics. I've been doing events for years, and thought that it could be a new kind of open mike setting. When coming up with the title, I knew that Movements Gallery was BYOB [Bring Yur Own Booze], so I played with that. I didn't want to use poetry in the title, because I didn't want peoples pre-conceived notions of what poetry should be to keep them away. BYOB is not a poetry event; It's a spoken word event that is open to everyone. You may hear a cheer, chant, rant, an emotional tirade, a journal entry being read as they cry, announcements, or even a plea for help. We started in January '98 and it feels real good to support people in the space. At BYOB I don't have a sign up list and rarely introduce people by name. There is a de-emphasis on personality, the focus is on what they say.
Think about a family at a dinner table, where the mom sets things up and makes it just right. that's how I am at Movements, I provide a service to the people who come. I light candles, burn incense, and turn on the soft-focus lights. I make sure they are heard as best they can be. I don't want it to become the Tammy Show. I don't have to read; in fact, sometimes I don't.
Tammy's focus on making BYOB inclusive has stretched past the Austin city limits. Even if you can't make it to Movements Gallery in person, you can listen online through your computer. According to Tammy:
We've been webcasting for five months. As far as I know we have the only reading that's webcast over the Internet. We've had people from different states logon and listen, and they can send our computer text messages. If they want to read, they send us a text message we change a few settings and they can read their poem from wherever they are. Everyone in Movements can hear them. It's like they are really there.
I created a space where poets, writers, and performers could share with activists, single moms on welfare, and students from other cities. Creating a blend that evokes a feeling of tolerance inspiration and respect so that by the end of the night on Wednesday, weve created a microcosm of what Austin should be. It's the commonality of sharing work that makes the experience. The warmth and respect keeps people coming back."
If you would like to BYOB over the Internet, point your browser to: www.movementsgallery.com/spokenword/spokenword.htm, and follow the instructions.
The Heritage Blue anthology was compiled from a series of salon readings at the East 13th Heritage House a/k/a the Big Pink House, that took place in September, 1997 (Unprotected Poetry World Tour), April, 1998 (Austin International Poetry Festival), and August, 1998 (Our Stories, tribute to American playwright Lorraine Hansberry).
In 1978, the City of Austin granted landmark status to the Heritage House, located at 810 E. 13th Street, as the last remaining structure of Samuel Huston College. Bennedene Walton took up residence in this former home of Samuel Huston College Professor J.W. Frazier, providing temporary housing for students from around the world, and a rainbow community home base for persons involved with the education and expression of the creative arts.
Heritage Blue is a vibrant tribute to Walton's goal: to create a sense of community through play, through creating together. All profits from the anthology's sales will be donated to Heritage House for renovations and restoration of the historical landmark.
Co-editors Stazja McFadyen and Larry Jaffe have compiled a rich ensemble of poets offering a kaliedoscope of colors in 62 poems, in a vibrant tribute to East 13th Heritage House. Eleven locally based poets and six Southern California poets have contributed their works to the anthology. Woven into the fabric of Heritage Blue are moments in history, moments in lives, and witnesses to battles fought -- some won and some still raging. The poetry is breath-taking -- sometimes humorous, sometimes spine-tingling, always impacting, always witness to who we are and who we might be.
Tammy Gomez, self-described "street journalist," poetizes Austin's everyday street scenes, such as this passage from "Hunger Poem":
I've engorged on the sweat of working class microwaved meals at the Circle K. and I know I've scarfed down a mile-long page of begging words I've heard on the street corners. Please pass the bread. Dame de comer.
Dr. Marvin G. Kimbrough, who serves as Chair of Humanities at Huston-Tillotson College, is a native Austinite. In "Ghost of East Eleventh Street" she describes the passing of the neighborhood where she grew up, recalling a community once so culturally rich, now gone to:
...the odors of residual cigarette smoke And regurgitated muscatel mingling with the fragrance of flowers Growing in yards of houses that shared the property line with juke joints.
In "The Heart of the Room in a World Made of Art," Heidi Zeigler celebrates a resurgence of artistic energy in East Austin, such as the poetry readings at Heritage House and Ebony Sun Java House:
The words in this room are the world learned by heart They beat with the rhythm of the art of the art, They flow like blood running red through the heart. This room is a world made of art made of art.
Heritage Blue will be released at a reading at Heritage House on Sunday, April 18, beginning at 2pm From PoetWarrior Press, the edition is priced at $11.95.
How to Make a Hero by Jayne Fenton Keane
It all started when they gave me a white feather.
Jabbed the accusing quills into my palm.
I marched with it through the now-you-see-it
now-you-don't bomber's arcade
and wrote to them with fantastic tales of blood.
The censors were pleased with these stories
with the way they spelled glory and victory
without ever mentioning death. So pleased
that they published and made movies out of them
and before I knew it, I was a hero.
It is a temporary job with permanent repercussions.
Do not mention the eye-pecking birds.
Do not mention the hair coiled around a tap.
Do not mention the pile of bloody clothes
or the vacant, staring men you see through bars.
Do not mention the boys with scarves tied to their jaws
or the girls playing stitch-up in the dirt.
Do not mention any of these things
and before you know it
you could be a hero,
you could even be
the next President.
© 1999 Jayne Fenton Keane
Jayne Fenton Keane lives on the Gold Coast in Australia. She has been extensively published in university journals and anthologies.
Inspiration by Guy LeCharles Gonzalez
The bum and I exchange a knowing glance
as I palm him a dollar,
my daily ritual as I go underground
with the clueless masses.
It's a symbiotic relationship he and I have;
a dollar towards his slosh fund
for the occasional psychic flashes.
Words aren't exchanged only glances,
and we go about our day
my nine-to-five a check every two weeks on payday
the thin line between us.
I think of him as I stand there
next to you clutching your bag
a little tighter now.
It's a reflex I know.
Nothing personal as you look me up
wondering where I fit in.
Did you notice him up there?
Does he fit in
in the world you hide in?
Does he speak to you in the lonely hours of the night?
Inspiration comes in the strangest faces
but beggars can't be choosers right?
© 1997, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez
A member of the 1998 National Poetry Slam #1 Team Nuyoricans, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is membership coordinator for the Academy of American Poetry.
Marsha A. Gomez by Bridget Gomez Day
December 24, 1951 to September 29, 1998
There are not enough words to describe my sister Marsha. There will never be another person in this world like her. She had a gift. She was a professional artist. Her work has been in many galleries and several museums in the United States, Kenya, Russia, Mexico, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and throughout Europe. She was one of a kind. Marsha was so multi-talented and so full of life. Her personality, life experiences, and challenges, her fiery temper along with her passion for our sacred Mother Earth and the healing power of peace were reflected in her art. She was not only a renowned artist and activist in her day but she was also a good mother, sister and friend. Our mother's qualities of love and compassion for her children and others without any judgement or condemnation reflected in Marsha. I had always looked up to her because she was my older sister. She always seemed to have her hands in so many different things. She was very busy with her work, art, traveling and being a mother. In spite of it all, she always seemed to have time to pick up the phone and call me and most importantly to tell me that she loved me in her sweet voice at the end of every conversation. Marsha and I were very close. Growing up together we always seemed to share a bed. We would talk and laugh until wee hours, usually waking my parents. We took turns scratching each other's backs until we fell asleep. She had such a good spirit and humor. We were inseparable. Marsha was creative even in her childhood. I can remember my mother asking her to look after me and my twin sisters while she went grocery shopping. I just sat and watched as Marsha picked up a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut the twins' hair. Marsha couldn't have been more than eight years old. Needless to say, it was a sight to behold! When my mother came in the house with bags of groceries in her hands the twins came running up to her. She dropped the groceries all over the kitchen floor. She was in shock! Oh Marsha! She was so proud of herself. In her school years she was a bright student always making A's. She was the Homecoming Queen her senior year and was on the dance team. Boy, she could "Jive"! She was loved by her classmates and teachers alike. When she graduated high school she went to Nichols State University in Thibodeaux, La. She received an associates degree in education and art. Not long after, she moved to Fayetteville, Ark., and pursued her art career from there. On Sept. 29, 1998, I received a phone call about her death. That same day and hour a part of me died with her. She is truly missed. I wrote this poem for her.
Precious Little Memories
Precious little memories of all the things we've done,
Make the darkest day a bright and joyful one.
Tender little memories of some word or deed,
A mother who gave her all to the son she loved,
And gave us strength and courage when we were in need.
Blesses little memories help us bear the cross,
Soften all the bitterness of failure and loss.
Priceless little memories are treasures without price,
Through the gateway of the heart they lead to Paradise.
"Those precious little memories 'til we meet again ..."
Mr. Large by Samira Selod
For the past year Mr. Chuck Q. Large has mesmerized audiences with his hypnotic light shows. Despite only sleeping three nights a week due to his busy schedule as UT computer science major Charles Clark; he still manages to use his scientific mind to concoct new and bizarre ways to manipulate audio and visual effects for your entertainment. Vivid colors circulating in and out of geometric patterns overlapped with clips from old sixties and seventies science films enhance the ambience of electronica, which guides you throughout Mr. Large's visual maze. Walking into one of Mr. Large's shows is a mind blowing experience so be prepared. Shades of red, green, and blue flow in the form of water relaxing you to a tee until the film clips, slides and transparencies all come in at once making the eye lose control of its focus and get lost in Mr. Large's channels of light.
The music is an important factor in Mr. Large's lighting. The music he plays for are almost always electronica although he appears to be open to new music as well. Electronica works well with his lighting because it develops a trance effect which is important when observing the slow, uniform, and repetitive patterns. Mr. Large began his adventures into projections last April, performing with local electronica acts Kitty and OMD 20/20. He has continued to add visual effects to OMD's performances throughout the year. He has also added lighting ambience to the sounds of Inkblot, quaquaversal, and DXM (not to be confused with DMX). In the past he has played at venues such as the Electric Lounge, The Spider House, The Purgatory Lounge, and the Red Room.
In conversing with Mr. Large, it was difficult for him to simply state what goes on behind his console, so he showed me instead. Mr. Large's set-up includes two overhead projectors, three film projectors and a slide projector. One overhead has a rotator on it and the other has a bubbler all which were hand made by Mr. Large himself. The rotator lies above various transparencies, usually consisting of some sort of pattern that creates an optical illusion when spun. He often uses the moire effect by overlaying transparencies and rotating their image in order to create the illusion of a new pattern of motion. Mr. Large finds his patterns wherever he can, be it in books, magazines or over the internet. He often uses color transparencies over the black and white patterns to make the images more vivid. The other overhead projects the bubbler which is made with a fish pump and colored water causing the band to look like they are floating in a tank.
On the slide projector, Mr. Large often uses negatives of certain pictures, usually of people since it gives the skin a strange green effect. He also uses diagrams of circuit schematics on the slide projector.
The film projectors consist of two sixteen millimeters and a Super 8 projector. The sixteen millimeters play old science films. Mr. Large's personal favorites are Plasma: The Fourth State of Matter, Dr. Seuss: The Lorax, and The Eagle Has Landed: The Apollo Eleven Mission. The Super 8 displays images of fractal loops which basically create uniform patterns by overlapping chaotic equations. These fractal loops are incredibly colorful and psychedelic.
As for the future, Mr. Large is looking more towards digital technology than the analog. He would like to use video projections allowing him to feed existing projections back onto each other creating video feedback. Video mixers intrigue him as well since they would enable him to sequence visuals so that he could create a basic pattern adding layers on top of it live. Eventually, Mr. Large would like these visual sequences to match up with the bands audio sequences so that the patterns would move rhythmically with the music. This would give Mr. Large ultimate satisfaction since for him, "the idea is to have all these multiple things going on at once." It is obvious Mr. Large finds thrill in the sensory overload.
Aside from the light shows, however, Mr. Large has begun to venture into the audio realm as well. His emphasis is circuit bending , a technique often associated with Sonic Boom from Experimental Audio Research. Circuit bending takes a circuit and rewires it to manipulate the original audio source, changing the frequency, tone and wave form of the sound. Mr. Large often uses children's toys and old keyboards as an audio source since they are cheap and easily accessible.
When visiting Mr. Large it seemed utterly impossible to free him of his toy circuits, which he had hooked up to surround sound, causing the room to vibrate the alphabet in a slow droning voice in various frequencies. Apparently he had been at it for twelve hours straight.
Notes from the Woodshed by Paul Klemperer
Jazz has always worn at least two hats: it is popular commercial music but at the same time it is improvisational art music. The umbrella term "jazz" has been stretched thin to include many types of commercial music, resulting in a persistent backlash by jazz purists against genres like "smooth jazz," "new age," "fusion," "lounge," and so on.
The easy logic dictates that jazz loses its integrity when it becomes too commercial, when it subjugates artistic freedom to popular acceptance. However, this is a simplistic equation which does not accurately describe the complex history of the music. Jazz artists have always worked within the constraints of commercial music. One can trace the tradition directly back to the minstrel show, where black performers negotiated the peculiar tastes of a White America which simultaneously idealized and demonized African American culture.
Historically, jazz artists who could successfully communicate the vitality of their art within commercial settings were able to build up enough support that their unique artistic expression transcended the limits of popular music. Artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington succeeded in this way, and made it possible for later generations of jazz players to think of themselves as artists and not merely entertainers.
But jazz still has one foot firmly planted in the world of commercial music. This is partly because of the economics of the music business. As much as educational and cultural institutions support and promote jazz, most jazz players must struggle in the musical marketplace to survive. But it is also partly due to the nature of the music. Jazz involves a symbiotic relationship between the performers and their audience. This audience is a mixture of musically educated and ordinary listeners. When the scene gets too rarified, when overly polite and attentive listeners hang on the notes of overly studied and careful players, the music tends to get a little anemic. By contrast, some of the hottest jazz is played in noisy dives to intoxicated, rowdy patrons.
In my experience as a jazz musician, I've found three general scenarios for jazz as commercial music:
1) Background music, such as the obligatory cocktail party replete with networking professionals and polite bossa novas.
2) Jazz fills, in which the player injects short jazz "stylings" into predominantly non-jazz songs as a sort of musical cake frosting.
3) Dance music, in which jazz is layered on top of and to some extent constrained by the standardized rhythms and structure of the music.
Of these three scenarios I've found that dance music actually offers the most room for musical innovation and inspiration (with the possible exception of cocktail parties where the liquor is free and the neckties are loosened). Of course every jazz player dreams of the showcase gig, a night at the Village Vanguard or, more realistically, a night at Austin's own Elephant Room. But the jazz gigs just don't pay the rent. If you're lucky, you can find steady work playing dance music that incorporates jazz improvisation in it.
Currently there are three such types of dance music favored in the clubs: swing, Latin, and acid/funk jazz. As with any trend, there are highs and lows. There are dedicated musicians striving to further their art, and newcomers just jumping on the bandwagon (hopefully they will evolve into dedicated musicians). There are clubowners who seriously want to promote good music, and their are opportunists who latch onto the fad du jour while pinching as many pennies as possible. There are music lovers who appreciate the traditions which local musicians are trying to uphold, and there are musical tourists whose tastes are mediated by MTV and Spin magazine. It's all part of the mix. Through it all, jazz musicians try to advance their art, hone their craft, develop their ideas.
The audience often votes with its feet, meaning people gravitate to music that moves them, and in particular that they can dance to. In the hipper situations both things happen: the music moves you physically with its rhythm, but it also moves you spiritually, connecting you to that essential inspirational energy. Both the musicians and the audience can feel those moments and they create a particularly satisfying musical space, when collective effort joins with individual genius, and the groove encompasses conscious and unconscious expression.
This is what I look for in live dance music, and what makes it exponentially more satisfying than canned dance music. This is the challenge for improvisational players who work within the medium of dance music, for when they can infuse the songs with that spontaneous inspirational energy, the audience will respond in kind. In those moments, we transcend the boundaries of commercial and art music and reach that state, fleeting as it may be, of a real music community.
The Poet's Blood by Moshe Benarroch
I have walked your cities
but you have not listened
You talked to me of
I cried your streets
I shred my clothes
I tore my skin apart
but you did not see my blood
You were drinking your wine
inside your houses talking
about God, Atheism and Justice
I have walked your sidewalks unshod
till my feet were flesh
till there was no more blood
still you couldn't touch my pain
and my joy
still you didn't hear my silence.
© 1999 Moshe Benarroch
Moshe was born in Morocco, and emigrated to Israel in 1972. His poetry is published in Hebrew, Spanish and English.
Untitled by Maria Rios
I think I have mentioned that I will return this summer Those were your words.
I locked them away
in my struggle to find
what I'd buried in my silly metaphors
about time singing away its hunger over chocolate cake about your eyes, green jewels in the oceanic sky far like the the journeys absent from my own mute stare When you touched my sleeve and asked me
to tell you the truth,
I smiled a similie
I'll give you more details as they come.
Maybe we can see each other.... and I didn't tell the truth
but I stacked cliche after cliche
and placed them anywhere devoid
of what it once contained
like in dreams where you watched me sleep dreams of oblivious conversation between the beheld and the beholder and there were no sleeves to be found, only your voice
singing songs about Spanish soldiers
scratching rythmic lines for their lovers on their own skins
and I said
but I thought
How difficult it is to be original
Only time will tell ...
that a memory of you is both waste and want that it is twice the lie in a promise
that it is twice the lie in a poet's first verse wet with inspiration
when I will see you again
and chocolate cake
Salvage Vanguard Theater in 1999 by Rachel Staggs
Salvage Vanguard Theater's [SVT] Artistic Director, Jason Neulander moved to Austin to form a group with the goal of producing new avant garde theater pieces. In November of 1993 Salvage Vanguard Theater was born, producing its first play in April of 1994. As stated in its mission, SVT "challenges the audience to see that which they take for granted in a new light," producing "original plays by American writers whose work falls outside traditional dramatic structure." Salvage Vanguard Theater will rock you. It will take you out of reality while slapping reality in your face. It will not give you answers, but push you to ask more questions.
I attended a performance of Hey-Stop-That in June last year. It was written by Thalia Field and directed by Katie Pearl. Seven of the twelve performances sold out -- a fascinating show filled with creativity and improvisation; Field used this piece to explore the nature of hatred in our society. The performers created their characters right along with the energy of the play, improvising with thoughts and feelings in the moment. It was a complete ride! Also produced last year was the raved about Altamont Now! written by David Bucci. Director Jason Neulander says, "David Bucci's work is terrifically topical and has a great indie-rock quality to it." Altamont Now! combined live music, theater, and video to tell the story of a rock star who starts a youth revolution against everything old. SVT produces work that does away with exposition. It is more about the raw energy than conveying a message.
After producing eight shows last year, SVT presents a three-ring circus of attractions with Dirigible by Dan Dietz in the first ring. A wild new play that reexamines the Hindenberg disaster, placing particular emphasis on the theory of sabotage. Dr. Aaron P. Treadwell presents a new lecture entitled Dirigible while uncovering relationship disaster, as well. Dan Dietz, a two-year veteran of SVT is a performer, director, and playwright. Dirigible opens April 9th and runs for three weekends at Hyde Park Theatre.
September will be taken by storm when The America Play appears in the second ring of this 3-Ring Circus. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks. Neulander says this piece is about "the Foundling Father, a black gravedigger from back East who goes out West to be an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. It's basically an examination of how history was created and written. The context that it is performed in is lecture/vaudeville. The first half is a monologue and the second half is this almost minstrel show performance."
In December, The Cry Pitch Carrolls, written by Ruth E. Margraff, appears in the third ring. SVT produced Margraff's first professional show, Wallpaper Psalm, in 1996. Then in 1997, SVT commissioned from Margraff The Battle of San Jacinto, a piece that Neulander believes put SVT "on the map" artistically. Neulander states that, "Margraff's newest piece is a retelling of the Christmas miracle from a visceral, intense, emotionally overwhelming perspective. Seeing one of her shows is totally unlike anything you've ever experienced. It is an entire full body experience -- nauseating and exhilarating at the same time." Austin musician Graham Reynolds will be composing music for this piece.
Neulander shared with me the most important aspect of Salvage Vanguard Theater as it stands today: the company produces work they love. "The result is that I've never been more excited about work as a whole, coming up. I think that there's going to be, overall, a much higher caliber in our production and a much more consistent level of work. I think that what is coming up has the potential to be world-class theater."
The Choreography Dialogues
Deborah Hay of The Deborah Hay Dance Company and Jason Neulander, Artistic Director of Salvage Vanguard Theater, present the third installation of "The Choreography Dialogues," an ongoing discussion about performance. This is an opportunity to open a community dialogue about choreography across artistic disciplines. Goal number one is to develop new language for discussion and to conceive new ideas in performance. The second aim is to have stimulating conversations about modes of performance work. And lastly, these discussions will help us recognize the presence and use of choreography. The Dialogues are held on a monthly basis and feature speakers from various artistic disciplines. The second Dialogue was held on March 23 at The Texas Fine Arts Association, 700 Congress Avenue. The Dialogue sessions are free. Neulander hopes these discussions will "give artists the kind of feedback that might produce a whole community zeitgeist."
Signs of Spring by Ruth Solomon
I can always tell
when spring arrives
by the perennial swarm
of tiny horny bugs
face-high in soaring
of ecstasy between
the evergreen bush
and front gate I pass
through to get the mail
they appear like magic
from some warm
these tiny horny bugs
to screw smiles
and spring to my heart
like tiny six-legged
tools of nature
and I want to laugh
for the joy of it
throw back my head
and laugh out loud
for the wild crazy
joy of sunshine
warmth after winter
but I have to pass
silent through the swarm
to get my mail
for as much as
I would love to drink
in the intoxication
of today, a mouthful
of tiny horny bugs
a good chaser.
© 1998 Ruth Solomon
Ruth was awarded the Babylon Arts Council (NY, USA) BACCA Written Arts Award (1998) for helping to reawaken interest in both poetry & performance.
Springtime for Poets in Austin by Stazja McFadyen
Poets love a festival. Poets love Austin. Austin is a festival-loving, arts-friendly city if ever there was one, hosting such festivities as the 1998 National Peotry Slam, Frontera Fest, and most recently, three days of SXSW spoken word programming.
And now we have the 1999 Austin International Poetry Festival [AIPF], which will attract over 200 poets from eleven states and five countries. The festival runs from April 15 through April 18.
AIPF readings begin Thursday, April 15, at 7:30pm at three major bookstores: Book People, Borders Books and Records, and Barnes & Noble on the Drag -- with the release of TrEs Di-Verse-City, the 1999 anthology edited by Scott Wiggerman, containing the works of 74 local, national and international poets.
Unlike "juried" festivals, where participants must be invited to participate, AIPF accepts anyone who pays the nominal registration fee. Audiences will hear some mediocre poems, some really amateurish reads, mostly good work, and some truly great performances.
Programmed readings are scheduled to include all registrants. While offering some themes such as "I'm Every Woman," "Cornerstones -- Gay/Lesbian Poets," and "Poetics with Music and the Avant Garde," programming emphasizes diversity of style and cultural mix.
If the 50 hours of programming isn't enough for the poets, they will prop their eyes open with coffee and sign up for one of the midnight-to-dawn open mikes.
Last year, both nights of "cutting edge performance poetry" at Waterloo Ice House on Lamar drew standing room only audiences. Hoping this year proves twice as successful, the organizers expanded the festival to include four performance cutting edge venues: Friday, April 16 at Ruta Maya Coffee House at 8pm, hosted by Clebo Rainey; and Waterloo Ice House on Lamar at 10pm, co-hosted by Larry Jaffe and Tim Gibbard; Saturday, April 17 at Movements Gallery at 9pm, hosted by Rich Perin and Waterloo Ice House at 26 Doors at 9:30pm, hosted by Larry Cordle. General admission is $5 per venue. All other AIPF readings are free.
Now in its seventh year, AIPF began as a grassroots volunteer festival welcoming anyone, with or without publishing credentials. The only qualification was a willingness to pitch in, run a venue, house a guest, provide transportation around town, whatever it took to create a gathering where all voices would be heard. It was a success. After incorporation as Austin Poets International, Inc. in 1995, the festival became eligible for funding through grants from the City of Austin.
The spirit of community has not been lost. Volunteers still work the venues, provide transportation, and house visiting national and international poets. Support from local businesses, such as City Grill, which donated over 200 gift certificates, creates a welcoming environment for visiting artists.
"I think the festival is an artwork in itself," said Australian poet Jayne Fenton Keane. "I have been amazed at the level of generosity amongst poets and can't wait to meet everyone concerned."
Jayne is among the handful of featured poets who will receive a small fee from AIPF, in exchange for hosting venues, conducting workshops, and participating in community outreach programs. Edward Reilly, a Celtic bard from Geelong, Australia, will do presentations at Anderson High School and at a nursing home. San Francisco poet Alan Kaufman will visit Austin Children's Hospital. Keane, Reilly, Alexandra Krysinki of Yorkshire, L.A. poet Larry Jaffe, Ruth Solomon of Fairhope, Alabama, and Guy LeCharles Gonzales of New York will host venues. Kaufman, Reilly, Jaffe and Virginian Dean Blehert will conduct free workshops.
What inspires poets to travel from Australia, England, Canada, Israel, and both U.S. coasts, largely at their own expense?
College professors, street poets, seasoned professionals, housewives, first time readers, published and non-published -- all come to hear and be heard. Their expectations are rarely commercial. Claiborne Walsh from Montrose, Alabama expects "a long drive with friends, junk food, pit stops, etc. People who are wanting to see, meet and hear new and friendly faces. I expect to meet friends whom I have never seen face to face. I expect to hear quality poetry from quality poets." Walsh will travel with Robin Travis, editor of Poetic Voices, a monthly online publication. Travis has "met" many of the attending poets, but not yet face-to-face. She said, "Whenever poets get together there is a magic, a bonding that goes on that affects our craft and performance. I am looking forward to the magic and to meeting friends I know but have not yet met."
Moshe Benarroch from Jerusalem heard about AIPF only a few months ago, through email. "When I heard the word Austin, I said: I have to go! I have been listening to music from Austin -- from Townes Van Zandt to David Rodriguez -- 25 years now."
Springtime in Austin is an attraction. Returning guest Alex Krysinski said, "There is one other reason that I like coming to Austin. You have sunshine and there isn't a lot of that in Yorkshire."
"Austin is just one of the greatest towns in America and I haven't had a chance to visit for many years. I'm driving from northwest Indiana, which is currently covered with an icy blanket of snow. No matter what T.S. Eliot says about April, I can't wait for it this year," said John Billings.
Guy LeCharles Gonzales, membership coordinator for Academy of American Poets, first heard of AIPF last August when he competed as a member of the winning Nuyorican slam team in the 1998 National Poetry Slam. "At the Nationals, I barely got to see any of Austin. The little bit I saw impressed me and I'm looking forward to soaking in both the community and the poetry this time. I'm expecting to hear a wide range of voices, not only from Texas, but from all over the country and overseas. It is this apparent commitment to diversity that I find most attractive about the Festival."
Alan Kaufman said, "The fee I'm getting to come is roughly ten times lower then the lowest fee I've ever received to travel such a distance, but for some reason, I feel ten times as excited." Kaufman is an veteran of the Spoken Word movement in America and Europe. In 1994 he headlined in Berlin along with Allen Ginsberg. What is so exciting about AIPF? Kaufman said, "The prospect of meeting and hanging out with many poets from different countries. It's an experience that, as a poet, I have often enjoyed in Europe, but have never known in my own country. In the U.S., I've performed with poets from many different regions but never with both regional and international poets! That's pretty wonderful."
Although the gathering of poets is not about fees, many hope to sell their books and CD's while they are here. Thom the World Poet produces "fringefest," booking over a dozen readings in Austin, San Antonio and Temple to promote the score of English and Australian poets arriving in the week preceding AIPF.
Sue Littleton and Dr. Miriam Balboa de Echevarria produce the Hispanic festival in conjunction with AIPF. Book People will host the four-hour Spanish language segment on Saturday, April 17, 7pm to 11pm.
The Austin Younger Poets Award Anthology, edited by festival chairman Frank Pool, will be released on Sunday, April 18, at the LCRA Meeting Hall on Lake Austin Boulevard, followed by AIPF board members reading, then closing ceremonies and awards.
Up All Night by Harold McMillan
I don't know how many folks out there actually read my column every month. I do know there are some of you who do read what I have to say at least some of the time. I know this because folks comment to me about what I've said in the column. Sometimes it's complimentary, sometimes critical. Sometimes folks just want to know what the hell I'm talking about. They don't get it, so they ask me.
Getting that feedback is really good for me. The thing is, I guess, I'll never get a balanced review of my musings. From most folks who read me, the critique will never be critical enough for me to know how I'm being received. Because I do have an ego investment here, I am concerned with my ratings, want to know how I'm doing with this.
As I was going through my usual hand-wringing about what I'd write this month (past deadline, still considering three possible directions for my rant), I got some feedback from someone who actually reads each and every column I write. My best friend, my wife, the mother of our child, gave me a critique of past columns, made a suggestion based on her observation, and wished me good luck as she went away to bed.
By and large, most of my columns have a lot to do with issues that are real to me. I don't often write simply to "cover" an issue that doesn't affect me or the work of DiverseArts. "Up All Night" is perhaps about vanity, is surely autobiographical, is real life stuff that is important to me.
As I was discussing this column with Grace I told her my head was scrambled with all kinds of stuff: SXSW in review, new collaborations with ArtPlex folks, City of Austin arts funding season, budget shortages, lack of support, damn this, more damned that, and damn etc. Even with those potential good damn-this/damn-that topics, the real thing that is going on with me/us right now is that we are in the middle of moving into a new house. A new house that is ours. That is the biggest thing on my mind right now.
As I conjure topics to rant on, my personal situation is what keeps coming back to the top of my head. The whole house thing, however, is very much connected to all of these issues about doing cultural work in Austin. And if you live in the nonprofit arts world, believe me, once you sign-off on that stack of paper that comes with a mortgage contract, that whole complex of issues about work -- doing cultural work in Austin, money, credit history, and financial stability come into focus. Or, as Grace sometimes argues, denial sets in. If you want to own a house, the question begs to be asked: knowing that financial rewards are rare, why start, and continue, to work in the arts?
So, I am talking to my wife, trying to decide what I'll write about, asking her for advice and critique. I tell her, given my preoccupation with the house and moving, I want to avoid being quite so autobiographical this time. Who wants to hear about our house?
This is the point where the fair critique comes in. Grace tells me that many of my recent columns show too much of my frustration with this life I've chosen. Lack of support? Nobody forced me to choose a career in arts and culture. Because I've grown old (compared to my 20-something staffers) and cynical, too many of my columns show my jaded, tired-of-it self. Why do I do this stuff anyway? What is the purpose behind my projects, where does the will come from to do this work?
Grace tells me that autobiographical is OK, but maybe I should try to remember why I started all of this stuff to begin with. The work that is now the work of DiverseArts started as ideas in my head. If I decided to dedicate my life to this stuff, surely there were motivating factors that have to do with some amount of passion in me that is fueled by something good. Surely there was something that proceeded my frustration, there was something that caused me to find joy in the work to begin with.
Well, I do argue with my wife about a range of things. This time, though, I think she is right. My frustration, my jaded cynical self has been way out front recently. Folks probably think I walk around being mad all of the time. I don't. I do want to find support and approval for my work. But let me tell ya, I/we do this stuff because we think art and culture are important. We do this work because our hearts are tied-up in it.
I actually feel lucky, I feel good about being able to pursue my passions this way. Life is hard for artists. Life is hard, too, for the 8-to-5 working stiff who hates his/her job, hates the boss more, and envies the creative freedom of the starving musician. Perhaps the difference is most obvious in the tradeoffs that come with those choices. I guess the frustration that tends to come to the top happens after one realizes that he/she has traded just about everything there is to trade. When that finally has happened, when you've traded it all -- most everything but your soul, you don't fare very well in the marketplace.
For the cultural worker, the artists in this society, it's their work, soul and integrity that provide trade value, of sorts. Good or bad, like it or not, the trade value of soul doesn't necessarily buy much out there in the financial marketplace. In the best-of-all-possible-worlds scenario, soul and integrity don't require food and housing. The human individuals connected to those souls, however, do get hungry now and then. Therein lies the dilemma.
Given that I already had many of these same thoughts in my youth, how and why did I make the leap to begin building a cultural arts organization?
Before there was a DiverseArts, there was the Jazz Fest. I founded the Clarksville Jazz and Arts Festival 12 years ago because I though it was a project that Austin needed and wanted. Austin needed it because there was a jazz community, a community of players at all levels, that did not have sufficient opportunities or venues to exhibit their art. I wanted to do this because it was also an opportunity to bring this community together to celebrate a significant area of African American-based culture. This was especially important to me because that kinda thing was simply not happening in Austin. There were jazz clubs who seldom booked black players. There were huge blues festivals where all of the players were white. There was a community of music business-types (not really the musicians, so much) who pretended that these issues, pretended that the cultural roots of this music didn't matter in Austin.
There was also Clarksville, an historical African American neighborhood in the midst of rapid and not-so-genteel gentrification, struggling to hang on to its identity and cultural roots. To me, these "Austin Stories" provided a very interesting cultural parallel. It made sense to link these and put together a celebration of the music, the community, the culture, and organize a full-blown arts fair right in the neighborhood (actually not in the neighborhood, but as close as the city fathers would allow me to), and invite the whole city to attend. To be able to pull this off in Austin, I knew it would have to qualify as a "media event." Although we started out as a very small festival, we had to project an image that something really special was going on in Clarksville.
In spite of what I've just said to you, to my way of thinking, the Jazz Fest was/is not a Black Festival. That is not the point. The point in 1989 was to bring Austin folks, all of us, together to celebrate art and culture, life. This particular culture happens to be rooted in Black America. Just as the Austin Symphony's season is not a celebration for white folks and white music, our little Jazz Fest was to be a celebration of the neighborhood, for all who appreciate and perform the forms presented. The thing that we did want to do, however, was to put on this very inclusive event and get all kinds of folks from all over Austin to attend. In my vision, that was what it was all about.
There was a subterranean agenda, too. Once we got them there, we wanted them to see and hear artists that they were missing on popular Austin stages. We wanted them to see what and who they were missing because of the booking policies of the local jazz and blues cartel. We wanted them to hear performers, of all stripes and colors, who were being excluded from the few gigs available in Austin. And we wanted Austinites to see that, yes by-golly, this kind of inclusive multicultural, multidisciplinary event was being put on by a group of folks who were just as diverse as the line ups. And the guy behind it (me) was a black man.
You see, in my perfect world, that shouldn't have been a factor here. But, believe me, in the 1989 jazz scene, and in the 1999 Austin festival presenters community, the fact that I am a black man does (sadly) matter to some of the players here.
Eleven years later the Festival hasn't made any real money, and has cost me untold thousands of dollars in personal cash, trade, and bad credit ratings. See, I believed in the idea of it. My soul and my integrity told me that I simply needed to concentrate on doing good cultural work. All I had to do was put the Festival out there -- for free -- for two or three years and the money-powers-that-be would see that I was really into this stuff for the cultural good of Austin. That's what I had to do, then they would step in and help make sure that my personal financial position would no longer be the underwriter of this project. I thought this because that is what made sense to me, I believed it. Yes, I did/do this work because I get a real charge out of putting on a good show. My ego does get served when it's good. But, really, the idea for the Jazz Fest was not just about what I wanted.
There are, at this point, literally hundreds of other poorly paid Jazz Fest staffers and volunteers who do this work simply because they think Austin needs it, wants it, and should support it. Although most have now moved on, there is actually a small handful of folks still with me who worked on the first one or two Festivals. They keep coming back. They share my frustration about sponsorship and fund-raising, but the work is really a labor of love for most of us.
And regardless of all of the bitching and moaning that I do, I am very proud to be the person responsible for a decade of introducing or reintroducing Austin to world class music from the likes of...McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Smith, Cornell Dupree, James Clay, Charles Neville, Ellis Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, Nicholas Payton, Mark Whitfield, Roy Hargrove, Crisol, Marchel Ivery, Jason Marsalis, Kermit Ruffins, Ray Barretto, Chucho Valdez, Carmen Bradford, Bobby Bradford, Pete Mayes, Sebastian Whittaker, Tom Braxton, Kenny Kirkland, Jeff Watts, and many others. This is the reward.
Now, I just need to figure out a way to make those house payments.
Verities by Stazja MacFadyen
Georgia Klipple, a past president of the Austin Poetry Society, called me "a real poet." I like the sound of that, but I'm not sure what it really means and I've been trying to figure it out. I think it's a mixed blessing, a crown of thorns, so to speak.
I've written poetry since I learned to write. My first poem was published when I was six years old. Even before that, poetry was an indulgent great uncle, fondly tempering reality with art, softening the world's hardness as I approached, putting bumps and bruises into perspective. Poetry taught me things about life. And gave me a voice to answer back.
Dr. Seuss was my first favorite poet. His "nonsense" rhymes were brilliantly crafted with wry wit and imagination, imparting wisdom at a child's level of understanding. For example, Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose did more than amuse me; it gently illustrated humiliating consequences for the submissive moose who just couldn't say "no" when other animals came to live in his antlers. He suffered ostracism from his herd and eventually imperiled his life. If Nature hadn't intervened, causing Thidwick to shed his antlers just in the knick of time, he would have fallen to the sporting hunters' bullets. I was a preschooler incapable of articulating the complex concept; still, I grasped the essence.
Poetry has influenced me more than family, teachers or evening news. During adolescence, I came alive absorbed in the melodramatic tradegy of Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman, the macabre romanticism of Poe's The Raven, the impossibly idealistic nobility of Kipling's If, and William Ernest Henley's Invictus. Vowing, after reading Ferlinghetti and Kerouac, that I would go on the road someday -- I wanted to be a beatnik!
At 15, I read Khalil Gibran's The Prophet, rejoicing in the passage "On Children." I showed it to my father, eager to convince him of the clear and plain truth: "You may give them your love but not your thoughts/For they have their own thoughts." Daddy, a big fan of Archie Bunker's, called it communist propaganda.
I understand what poetry is. It annoys me when poets argue that poetry cannot, should not, be defined, and yes, there are those poets who would argue the point. Even the "poetry" entry in Compton's Encyclopedia states that poetry is harder to define than other art forms. Evidence to the contrary, Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary contains a workable definition that goes something like this: "writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm." That definition works for me. When I write a poem that fails to elicit the intended emotional response, it only means I didn't do as good a crafting job, a more practical approach than getting my feelings hurt or muddling the meaning of poetry when someone doesn't like one of my poems.
I don't expect poetry to replace Rogaine®, or Viagra®, or Sallie Struthers. It isn't particularly remunerative, unless you are Jewel, a top recording artist with a pre-existing legion of fans to make her poetry collection a best seller. That isn't my goal. I require it in my life, like breathing.
When someone says, "I don't like poetry," it distresses me. People do say that sometimes. But how can someone not like poetry -- the very essence and passion of the language? I usually don't let it pass unchallenged.
Was it a perfunctory introduction to poetry by the sterile drone of a grade school teacher who couldn't stimulate a Siamese cat in heat if it were humping his leg? Or the mortifying moment of embarrassment and shame, before you mastered the language, when you were called on to stand up and read a poetic passage aloud from a text book and you couldn't even pronounce the words, much less comprehend message or meaning? Berated by classmates who secretly feared their own inadequate reading skills would likewise be discovered? Did you spill your vulnerability in verse only to get corrected for bad grammar? Were you rendered so numb by intricately structured pedantic epics, you eschewed all poetry before you sampled Ogden Nash's lampooning humor or Pablo Neruda's provocative sensuality?
When people are turned off to poetry, I assume something happened, some bad experience. This is my steadfast, unwavering conviction. I engage these people in earnest dialog, wanting to enlighten and salvage them, to extract a voluntary recant for the unintentional offense against my beloved muse. More often than not, I score some success vindicating poetry, one of my oldest and dearest friends.
Personifying poetry is a poetic ruse, but what the heck. I am a poet. An abstract thinker, I enjoy befriending inanimate objects, even concepts and ideas. And this is where I hit the skids, and bog down in the gray areas. What exactly does it mean to be a real poet? It isn't limited to composing lyrical verse, of that I'm certain. Why a poet? Why not a novelist? A lyricist? A playwright? A forgodsake freelance journalist?
There is something about poets that sets us apart. I've identified this as a common factor among poets, a sense that one is "different." It was my own mother who first brought it to my attention. With all due respect to my white haired mama, I love her dearly, I got the distinct impression that being "different" wasn't perceived as an admirable trait in a daughter. A mildly alarming je ne sais quoi about being out of synch with the status quo.
I once surveyed a room of poets, when I was hosting the "New Voices" readings at the now-defunct Rio Grande Coffee Haus. I had two rules: 1. the audience couldn't heckle the reading poets and 2. the poets couldn't drive away the audience. Knowing how often poets give their work away, knowing how seldom they get paid for it, I guaranteed $10 to the featured poet each week. That reading series got very popular among street poets and alternative lifestyle types, twenty to thirty sign ups every week, standing room only. We listened to each other, reached poetic highs grooving on the words. So one night I asked for a show of hands: who among them felt they were different from other people, or had been made to feel different. The response was unanimous.
It isn't all square pegs in round holes. Through poetry I have found camaraderie. And the poets don't even have to be alive, necessarily. Their words come through time, through pages and web sites, reassuring me that no matter how bloodied is my head, I'm among friends.
I asked my live poet friend Larry Jaffe what makes a person a poet. "They got rhythm," he said, "and soul. Conscience. An uncanny eye for the truth."
"Wow," I said, "those are all good things."
"We fly," he continued, "but we ain't perfect. We fly on stage or on paper." Adding, "I don't know if I am right or not."
That pretty well sums up the way I feel about it, too.