Sunday, April 27, 2008

Thanks, Chad Swiatecki

Did anybody else hear departing Flint Journal reporter Chad Swiatecki's charming "Valentine to Flint" on Weekend Edition's Weekend Soundtrack yesterday? Thanks and best wishes, Chad. Here's the link:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Playing My Ex's Keyboard a Journey Back to First Music

So, as my first husband emptied out the house we were married in after its recent sale, he offered me a keyboard he'd bought his current wife that she no longer wanted. It's a convoluted way to start this story, except to set the emotional context and to get me to the point where I said yes and took it home -- the place that I now call home. I set it up in my dining room -- with its big table and expensive chairs we hardly ever use, and with my relatively new, upright hutch with its glass doors and inside lighting, the hutch that symbolizes, as I've written here before, my perceived ascension to full adult womanhood. It seems right to me to have the keyboard in a room devoted to womanhood; if I had not turned into a heathen and left the church as soon as possible, defying my parents' hopes for me, I might have been the kind of woman who'd play piano (and organ) on Easter Sunday, at prayer meetings, at revival meetings, and at funerals as needed.

So I set the keyboard up there, facing the wall in the northeast corner. For ten years of my childhood -- six to 16, when my mother mercifully agreed I'd learned enough and let me quit -- I took piano lessons from a trio of long-suffering teachers; first delicate young Carol Martz, a dark-eyed beauty in Canton; then a sturdy, intelligent woman named Pat Ramsay who tried to teach me how to improvise hymns in Akron; then sweet Jesse Williamson in Coshocton, a powdery, formal old dame who wore lacy dresses and cried when I played Berceuse. I faced the wall in three different parsonages, banging away on our dark brown Estey and setting the Seth Thomas metronome dutifully at adagio or andante or larghetto depending on the piece. Looking back, I liked it. When I quit I had had enough of my daily hour on the piano bench, but I liked making music, learning the keys, working first the left hand (always awkward and plodding, a slow learner) and my spunky right, then putting them together. I had a good long reach and long fingers. But I wasn't obsessed enough or driven enough to really get every piece down. I showed up in party clothes for a few recitals, an important part of childhood, but performed unreliably positioned somewhere in the middling mediocre.

Nonetheless, sitting down now to the keyboard -- which has only six octaves, not eight -- I've been remarkably soothed and delighted by re-discovering the old patterns. My sheet music, saved over all these years in a dusty box, remains in the attic for now, so I've been playing only hymns, from an ancient Evangelical Hymnal from one of the churches of my childhood. Luckily for my neighbors, I quickly discovered the volume option, and thus I can save them from cringing at my repeated attempts to get the sharps right in "Christ the Lord is Risen to day" (labeled "Worgan 7777 -- the metrics -- with Alleluia, words by the prodigious Charles Wesley, from a 1708 tune) or handle the charming left hand in "Christ Arose," which although it's in the sharp and flat-free key of C still flummoxes me every time.

Anyway, I'm enjoying this re-emergence of an old skill. And the hymns, even to my apostate self, are fun to play. They were, after all, my very first music.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Smells Like Summer

Ahh! Somebody's barbecuing chicken tonight. Walking along Calumet, I could smell it for at least five blocks. Red spiricles are uncurling from the tips of every silver maple and the chickadees are making that earnest LOVEyou LOVEyou call from the rooftops. Can true summer be far behind?

Hard Stuff in Cheboygan

This week I loved my life, even its bedevilments of memory and sadness triggered by retracing old paths. I want to praise the "mutilated world" in the words of Adam Zagajewski, and I am grateful for the blessings of language. Driving the 280 miles north up I-75 on Thursday, I found myself marking treasured mileposts: the three "G's" -- Gladwin, Grayling, Gaylord -- the 45th parallel, halfway between the Equator and the N. Pole, the turnoff for Hartwick Pines, where some of the oldest trees in the country still majestically survive. Then there's the exit for Topinabee and Cheyboygan, where my first husband and I used to get off 75 in our dash for the ferry from Cheyboyan to the property we once owned on Bois Blanc Island. It is hard not to reflect on the past, a past refusing to behave itself, an incorrigible past which sometimes still insists on nosing back into the present.

So, I did not successfully resist the flood of memory from those years. We used to have to leave at about 6:30 a.m. to make a 10:30 ferry, as I recall it. After pounding up the highway at about 90, keeping an eye out for tricky cops in the piney byways, I remember once making it to the parking lot just in time to meet two old friends who were joining us for a camping trip. I see us standing there in the morning dampness trying to catch our breath, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee spiked with whiskey from a green thermos. Man, I was younger then and could get away with such deliberate self-abuse and cherished decadence. I remember the gray water of the Straits, rippling and melancholy, and maybe some mallards or the occasional cormorant gliding up past the pier. I think we liked ourselves standing there in that parking lot enjoying strong drink in the morning, waiting for the ferry. I mourn the passing of that particular self-conscious wildness. I'm healthier now but less interesting to myself -- I suppose that is one of the disadvantages of growing up. Perhaps I simply haven't cultivated enough of a taste for moral and intellectual complexity -- pleasures available to an aging mind as the body retreats from the turbulent exertions of youth.

Now that I think of it, that's the moment I wanted to see again, from all the memories of my trip north -- the four of us huddled in a parking lot in the fresh and evocative Michigan fog, cracking wise, downing slugs of hard stuff, and waiting for the boat that would take us across the Straits to our next adventure.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Big Mac Always Bigger Than This

Last weekend at Interlochen, in a panel titled "Five Things I Know," Keith Taylor said "art is always bigger than our definition of it." The same could be said of the breathtaking Mackinac Bridge. No matter how many times I see this span across the Straits, its splendor always delivers and is hard to capture in pixels. Here it is just this morning from the north side. It was chilly in Bridge View Park at 11 a.m., an hour after I'd left Sault Ste. Marie. Yesterday when I shot up from Flint, there were still piles upon piles of ice chunks in the straits, something I had never seen in my many years as a Down Stater. But remarkably, over night most of them either melted or moved on.

My Buddha Loves Scilla Season

He's sat through months of snow, laughing though it all, but his countenance with the little blue flowers in full bloom under the mulberry tree is especially delightful. Happy Spring!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Rose or the Melon? Femi Osofisan on Art and Politics

If I am hungry and if everybody around me is hungry, will I grow a rose or a melon?

Nigerian playwright and poet Femi Osofisan offered this question by way of probing the writer's responsibility when he visited my poetry class today at UM - Flint, Osofisan, a Yoruba and one of Africa's foremost writers, is on an extended visit in Flint in a collaboration with UM - Flint's Africana Studies Program and the Flint Public Library. Thanks to Ernest Emenyonu, the Africana Studies director and an Ibo Nigerian, a precious slice of time in Osofisan's schedule was eked out to share with my students in our aerie on the fifth floor of French Hall.

In an earlier talk today, Osofisan noted what he characterized as a dearth of political art in America -- a suspicion of it, in fact; he added that what he does, in plays such as Once Upon Four Robbers or poems such as "Fodder," or "The Announcement" are likely to be considered "propaganda" here. Several of us humbly objected to what felt like a contestable generalization, so in the class, after he'd marvelously sung, chanted, tapped at three Yoruban drums and performed several poems, we asked him to elaborate on his views about political writing.

He asserted he resists the notion of art for arts' sake. He said he understands American writers take for granted the right to create art for itself, but that African artists have never had that luxury.

The literature of his country, he said, has been wrenchingly shaped by suffering, by tyranny, by privation and bloodshed and hunger. Describing how the high hopes of the liberation movements of the Sixties were violently dashed in a new victimization -- the tyranny of black on black in the country after country in the forty years since -- he said, "Writers have not had time to write about the rose. Writers have had to concentrate on speaking for the victims. We have had to worry most of all about surviving." Noting how many of his contemporaries have been killed, jailed, or driven into exile, Osofisan said he is lucky that he has escaped all three of these fates and continues to work, though sometimes quietly and inconspicuously, sometimes deliberately avoiding publishing his work overseas, in his homeland. The result is a fiercely brave body of work, based on circumstances I can scarcely imagine.

It made me think about what Barry Lopez said this weekend in Interlochen. Like Osofisan, Lopez calls for an art that "helps," noted in the entry below. It's a contention that calls for further consideration. I've argued here that the greatest vitality in the Flint poetry community, for example, is in the spoken word world largely peopled by African American writers, and their work is frequently and lustily political, invariably voicing anger and calling for change.

I'm not part of that scene, though I regularly visit, support and appreciate it. But here's my view. I've lived a life of incredible privilege. I have never been hungry. I've never had to choose between the rose and the melon. But I believe it's possible that if ecological collapses continue, I well may have to make that choice in my lifetime. So when I write about the rose, I increasingly find myself writing out of elegy and urgent mindfulness. I mean to say, "See here. This is what we must not lose." The literature of "the rose" is a literature that documents and celebrates possibilities for a life lived in peace and plenty -- a possibility that has been enacted in unparalleled ways -- not perfectly, and not without violence, but with remarkable durability -- in my homeland. It is a possibility we must cherish and believe in while it simultaneously becomes more and more imperiled. We deeply need that vision, that hope, the remembered experience of peace. I will continue writing about the rose. And I ardently hope the literature of the rose does not turn out to be yet another tragic extinction.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Barry Lopez at Interlochen: Facing Down the Barbarians

Before I get to Barry Lopez, though, I want to start with a comment from novelist Jack Driscoll, who's retiring after 33 years at Interlochen Arts Academy, that idyllic incubator of creativity in northern Michigan. Driscoll, author of nine books, said on Friday, "the impulse to write is the impulse to love -- to love humans, to love language, to love the world." While I sometimes suggest to my students that writing is the best revenge, thus exposing my own less evolved attitude, I found Driscoll's contention moving, and a heartfelt and apt description of what's in the air at Interlochen.

I'm freshly back from a conference there called "Between the Lakes: A Symposium for Writers and Educators." Its keynoter was the deeply quiet and reflective Lopez, who arrived a day late after a 27-hour ordeal from Texas thanks to American Airlines. The conference coordinator was Anne Marie Oomen of the Interlochen writing staff, and Driscoll and Michael Delp, another longtime Interlochen teacher, offered readings and discussions. Other writers featured were Keith Taylor from U of M -- Ann Arbor and Patricia McNair and Randy Albers from Columbia College Chicago.

Stories that sustain community -- "the coming of all men into one fate," as Lopez quoted Robert Duncan -- those were the stories that the symposium writers sought to nurture. Lopez recalled an old man from a tribe with a long storytelling tradition instructing him, "if the stories don't help, you're not the storyteller." The storyteller, the old man said, was the person who "creates the atmosphere in which wisdom can develop." And the fate that is to be shared, all voices raised in the gentle spring contours of a rainy Michigan weekend suggested, is to live without destroying the planet -- to live in mindful reverence and active love for our imperiled world.

Lopez said it raises his hackles to be called a "nature writer." "My subject," he said, "is justice" -- attempting to build good relations with other people and with the other elements of the world." The real issue, he said, is community. Looking around him at the many young faces of the Interlochen high school students, many of whom joined in the conference proceedings, he said, "When you meet a genius, you are meeting everybody who ever loved that person, including the animals."

Plaintively, in his keynote address he asked the crucial question, perhaps, of our remaining time on earth: "Who will be the inventors of peace?" Addressing the almost-packed house of Interlochen kids, adult writers and dozens of silver-haired and avidly attentive seniors from nearby towns, he got down to business.

"Your job," Lopez said, "is to make the barbarians irrelevant -- to create beauty that will overpower them." His deep and focused anger at U.S. leaders. minced no words: they are "men who have never grown up," who dominate brutally with ignorant cultural narcissism, who "silence the middle ground with their extremism." "The strong man," he asserted, naming Musharaf, Putin, Bush, "has nothing enlightened to say."

And he concluded with the following gorgeous poem, after which we all walked out into the chilly, rainy April day:

Try To Praise The Mutilated World
Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Translated by Renata Gorczynski

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Okay, no more geezer rockers

I'm just writing this because nobody commented about any of my recent posts. Maybe that demented shot of GeezerBoy Keith Richards is scaring you all away.

This is what happens to Boomers, children! We refuse to go quietly into that good night.

Tomorrow, in contrast to last weekend's Flint music orgy, I'm leaving for an interlude in Interlochen, where I'll be pleasantly ensconced with a cadre of geezer poets, headed up by Geezer Elder Poet Barry Lopez. I can't wait. There's nothing scary about that.

Bye for now.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Shine a Light on IMAX

So I admit it -- I'd never been to an IMAX movie. I know, I know, and I've never had an iPod and my cell phone is so old it's got a little antenna on it and I have to keep it taped together to keep the batteries from falling out.

Anyway, what better way to get deflowered, IMAX-ly speaking, than to see the new Scorsese Rolling Stones documentary "Shine a Light."

Imagine Mick Jagger's face about forty feet tall and sixty feet wide.

Imagine zooming in on Keith Richard's weather-beaten clown face, his koal-eyes sparkling, his silly head beads and feathers swinging.

I'm still absorbing the intense effects of the movie -- and what it means to me that Mick Jagger was 63 when this movie was filmed at the Beacon Theater in New York -- at Bill Clinton's 60th birthday party. SIXTY THREE. Still the boy-man boogied as if he was 19, pulling up the shirt on his skinny little torso, shaking his tiny butt. It's bizarre.

And irresistible. And those guys can still ROCK. I imagine kids might find it simply icky to see how old these rockers are. But you can't deny it -- that music is incredible. Still shaking my guts and my bones, two days after wandering, shell-shocked, back out into the sun from the Trillium Cinema.

It was a weekend deluge of oldster musicians -- I'm still ruminating.

Ain't Got No Euros

One of those Flint "backwater" moments.
This morning, in a burst of Monday ambition, I popped out of bed on a hunt for euros. My sister-in-law is going to Italy for her birthday and I thought it would be fun to send her a few euros: I know the exact piazza she'll be hanging out at in Rome, the one right in front of the Pantheon. I wanted her to have a couple of espressos on me.

Called my credit union. NO WAY, NO EUROS.

Called two banks: in addition to sounding incredulous that I wanted some euros, they said I had to order them and there would be a several-day wait.

Called what's supposed to be Flint's best hotel: clueless and apparently lead-poisoned.

I settled for express-mailing her a Franklin in her birthday card. Happy Birthday, Gail!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Earthy Etta James and the Roots Band at Whiting

Ted said to say about Etta James's performance at Whiting Auditorium Friday night, "She takes her diminishments with a certain degree of bumptious grace." He adds (exceptionally glib on this Saturday morning) that those diminishments, including a recent loss of 200 pounds after gastric bypass surgery, didn't seem to affect her rich contralto voice. (We did hear somebody say on the way out, "She's lost some of her range," but what would you expect from a 70-year-old rhythm and blues chanteuse who battled heroin addiction for decades and has been hitting the road since she was 15?)

We were in the third row, just to the left of center, and her aged-ness was at times, as Ted further commented, a bit macabre. Moving clearly pains her, and she sat during much of her performance in a padded chair with a padded armrest on one side. She sometimes leaned back, closing her eyes in a blues trance, and she seemed at those moments both extravagantly ecstatic and startlingly sexual. Of course she has always been unapologetically sexual, bawdy, outrageous in her lascivious tongue wagging and concupiscent remarks. She said, not once but twice, "I've been a clown since I was five years old." But now, coming from an old woman, her stage presence is clownish in a direction unnervingly close to the grotesque: heavily made up face with its big eyes and wide sensual mouth, her legs sometimes spread wide apart, her arthritic, beringed hands sometimes grazing her breasts and sometimes resting right between her thighs. She is a stereotype-busting performance artist of bold and wily innuendo. She's fascinating -- and a bit unsettling -- to watch.

From what I've just said, it might not seem obvious that I'm a huge Etta fan. But I totally am. I couldn't take my eyes off her, and last night she delivered some of the incomparable songs that have made her reputation -- "I'd rather go blind" -- one of her opening numbers -- gave me goosebumps that lasted into the next three songs, for example -- and "I want to ta-ta you baby." Two of the night's most riveting performances were Randy Newman's "You Can Keep Your Hat On" and Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart." Damn: the almost all white, almost all LATE middle aged crowd lustily sang along, with her encouragement. This is essentially the same show she's been delivering across the country, including at Carnegie Hall in 2006, where she even reportedly told the same story about going to Walmart with her grandchildren, but who cares -- it's a great show. She'll be performing next at Knoxville, Nashville and Detroit next week.

One other note: the Whiting, in its conscientious, politically correct way, provided surprising frosting for the show: its two deaf interpreters, who got into the sexy songs with remarkable panache. The slim, shaved-headed signer for "You Can Keep Your Hat On," for example, had most of the men in the audience and half the Roots Band watching her as closely as if she was Naja Karamuru stripping in a Boston burlesque house. I don't know how many deaf folks were in the audience, but she put on a memorable show for everyone there.

My husband, riding the high of recovery from an attack of the flu that's been plaguing us all, said, "Etta doesn't have the bawdy she used to." He gets points for this clever remark. But I think her bawdiness, expressed from that creaky body and the still amazing voice, is astonishing.

P.S. Etta's "Roots Band," as expected, was fabulous -- tight, cookin', irresistible. It features two of her sons, Donto and Sammeto. They're hot.

P.P.S. Where was the Flint Journal review of this performance? I scoured through all Sunday sections and came up with nothin'. Is this what we can expect after the departure of Doug Pullen -- a shriveling of local news? I expect so.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Walking into Venial Sins Having to Do with Hair

Sometimes I'm alert to every nuance, checking out every concrete bump, every change in the thawing pads of grass along the sidewalk, every person coming toward me and walking away from me in the distance, every breeze rustling at my collar. Today, though, I walked in to work head ducked down in a meditative trance, my mind raveling around what I hoped to do in class and worrying about Ted, who's recuperating from that damned virus that's grabbed so many others. I didn't even notice how far I'd gone, hardly looking up until I had marched straight through Mott and the Cultural Center and was crossing the Kearsley Street bridge onto campus. I was there and it didn't really matter how I got there, my body invigorated by its half hour of cold spring sun and fresh air.

Yet even after an equally soothing return walk -- this time down Avon to Crapo to Court, entering the neighborhood at Woodlawn Park Drive at mason David Smallidge's sturdy brick signpost -- I feel old and uneasy in the world tonight. My snazzy plans for helping my students move forward with "cause and effect arguments" were foiled by a mid-class tornado sense in dragging them back in. I just let them go. I wonder if my students even care about any of it. I wonder if they're learning anything. I think they just want to get out of there; the tornado drill was a blessing, a stroke of luck, sweet freedom.

Before that, I embarrassed myself, getting caught telling them a story I'd apparently already told them. It was about how I got kicked out of my parents' house at 18 for listening to the soundtrack to Hair. That was 40 years ago -- this summer, the exuberant musical of my youth will be performed in Central Park to celebrate the anniversary. My students, bored groans unsuccessfully suppressed, reminded me they'd already heard about it. I committed a venial sin, repeating myself, not to mention the possibly mortal sin of evoking my own obviously long gone youth in the present audacity of theirs. How dare I? I'm an old fart. Send me off to the floes, right now. Oh, wait, the floes are almost gone, too. I'm sunk.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

"Maneuvers of Some Later Wars"

Here's the poem Grayce Scholt read Saturday that most knocked my socks off. It's in the section titled "In War In Peace" in Bang Go All the Porch Swings.

1. "The War to End War..."

The spinning reels flicker, stop,
biplanes (prop to prop)hang
(nose to nose), enemies (I/du-
you/dich) in fierce repose.
WW eyes are burning!
Ace-high hearts are bold!
Whirrr, the dim projector's turning:
silently we both explode.

II. "The Good War..."

From rubber raft I see
a blue stain sliding:
from broken sub below
your face is riding on the slick:
eyes are open,
lips are loose.
I lean out over you
(tooth to tooth)
of supernatural mile:
our death heads disap-
pear into the smile
of our first kiss.

III. "...hearts and minds..."

We fall across each other
near Saigon in the spring
not unlike lovers
rolling in embrace.
You draw your knife across
my jugular vein, I touch your face:
dying, with my careful gun
I shoot your balls off
one by one.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

In Withdrawal from "In Treatment"

What do I do tonight, again, at 9 p.m. when there is no "In Treatment" on HBO? Over the past nine weeks, I've gotten gradually more and more addicted to the innovative five-night-per-week replication of psychologist Paul Weston's practice with sexy Laura, arrogant Alex, hapless teenager Sophie, and the intractably mismatched couple Jake and Amy.

Damn, what a terrific show. To begin with, Gabriel Byrne with his beautifully melancholic face and mournful, melodious Irish brogue is perfection as Weston, the shrink. And the incomparable Dianne Wiest delivers one memorable performance after another as Weston's own longsuffering shrink Gina, to whom he submits every Friday night. Their sessions give us a rare sort of view of how the shrink allows himself to be therapized, how his clients and the chaos of his own personal life twist, torment and challenge him. It is fascinating how he resists Gina's observations and suggestions with truculence matched only by the resistance of his own clients, a delicious dip into the doctor's prickly inability to take his own medicine.

My favorite client was Alex, a black Air Force pilot from the Iraq war played with rich complexity by Blair Underwood. Referred to counseling after he accidentally bombed an elementary school in Iraq, killing dozens of children, Alex denies he feels anything even though he's recovering from a massive heart attack and struggling with severe marital and family disruptions. My favorite "Alex" theme revolved around the lack of a decent cup of coffee in Paul's office: one morning, he delivers a fancy espresso machine he bought on EBay, and generally terrorizes Weston, a tea drinker, with the right way to make a cup of espresso. From then on, he begins each session making himself a tiny cup and drinking it suavely while rampantly resisting Weston's authority and resisting every move toward revelation and insight. Eventually, however, Alex begins to break through; in one of the most riveting half hours of TV drama I've ever seen, he remembers being beaten up after a pickup basketball game, his sneakers stolen, and how his father punished him for crying, making him walk around barefoot for a whole day afterwards.

I have more to say about this, but for now, let me just say it was a terrific series and I'm missing it immensely.