Friday, March 24, 2006

 

Anthony Braxton played four straight nights at Iridium in New York last week. I didn’t get there, alas, but Steve Smith did, and reports on it here, here and here. There are even more comments tucked in amongst other topics elsewhere on his weblog. Thanks to Herb Levy for pointing me in Steve’s direction. I did review Braxton’s November 4 gig at Philadelphia’s I-House here. The New York gigs expanded the sextet he played with in Philly to a full “12(+1)tet.”

Barrett Watten is giving a talk on Saturday at NYU entitled “Transposing the Limits of Open Form: Language Writing and Anthony Braxton.” 12:15, Room 207, the Silver Building on Waverly Place. This is part of a day devoted to Current Free Practices in Music and Poetry. In addition to Watten, Alvin Curran, George Lewis, George Hartley on Nate Mackey, Dana Reason on women & improvisation, will be among those contemplating the relations between these two genres.

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As for yours truly, I’ll be in Chapel Hill on Saturday, reading with Selah Saterstrom at Internationalist Books at 8:30 pm. Next week, I’ll be in Boston on business through Thursday. If this blog goes dark, it’s just the contingencies of laptops & hotels & travel.



Thursday, March 23, 2006

 

I am not, as you might have gathered, an unabashed fan of rhyme & regular meter for their own sake in poetry. When it makes sense, when it adds to the poem, it can be terrific – I can think of poets who have used it well within the past half century, tho I could count them on the fingers of two hands. 99.99 percent of the time these hoary devices of bygone centuries simply pose a large red flag of incompetence, a sign that the writer is not paying attention either to language or the world. I have a new exhibit for my argument, tho curiously it’s not a poem at all but a film, Sally Potter’s Yes.

Yes is a film that asks the question “Can a wealthy American woman in a loveless marriage find happiness in an affair with a Lebanese kitchen worker?” and the title gives away Potter’s answer, albeit with more than a little inner angst & sturm und drang along the way. At one level – perhaps its innermost core – this is a classic women’s romantic movie, the archetypal Chick Flick, done however as an art film, with lots of crazy camera angles (no Hollywood headshots with overlit sitcom livingrooms here), a score that includes Phil Glass, Tom Waits and additional music by Fred Frith, with lead characters who have no names & an occasional comic narrator in the form of a maid, portrayed by Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle to Harry Potter fans). Virtually all of the dialog in this overly talky film (She, portrayed by Joan Allen, talks to God when filming herself with a video camera, He is the most eloquent man alive, even if the thickness of Simon Abkarian’s accent is intended to convey the recent acquisition of his English¹) is in rhyme & meter.

It takes, at most, five minutes to recognize what’s going on, metrically, after which it tends to drown out what is being said underneath it throughout the rest of the movie. He & She are having a huge argument in an underground parking garage, but the steady beat of the iambs hints at a deeper – deeply clunky – harmony underneath. He’s shouting into his cell phone in a bombed out Beirut – and it rhymes. The notes to this film at IMDB suggest that Potter wanted her cast not to think of Shakespeare but rap. Yet it sounds like bad A.E. Houseman or Miller Williams instead.

This device could have been used more effectively – think of how riveting it is when, in the middle of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, lines from Henry IV pop up amidst the street hustlers & druggies of Portland. But to reach this same level of intensity here, Potter would have had to have been far more sparing in her application of these treacly measures – perhaps limiting them to the one character who actually sounds like the language fits her, Shirley Henderson’s narrating maid. But casting the device throughout the entire film is like giving everyone in the audience a valium before viewing, it lends what follows an overall coating of irreality that makes you feel like you’re not watching a story, but rather the stylistic frou-frou overlaid on top of a tale that is hiding somewhere underneath. The result is a film in which the whole remains forever a jumble of unassimilated parts.

 

¹ Abkarian is a French actor of Armenian descent, which is what passes for Lebanese in this film. There’s a lot of faux reality effects here like that, such as with the Havana beach scene pictured above, which was shot in the Dominican Republic since Allen felt constrained by George Bush’s ban on travel to Cuba. Ironically, Abkarian’s Beirut neighborhood scenes were actually filmed in Havana. Go figure.



Wednesday, March 22, 2006

 

Before there was Kenny Goldsmith, there was Dmitri Prigov. Conceptual poets emerged in the 1970s in the old Soviet Union as the answer to multiple problems: (1) how to pursue a career when the state monopolizes the means of production and only publishes the most conservative poets imaginable, (2) how to write critically even of the post-Stalinoid Communist Party without committing suicide or consigning oneself to internal or external exile. When I was in what was then Leningrad in 1989, Prigov was surrounded by a posse of younger poets, distributing “poems” that had been torn to pieces and then sealed into envelopes. You could, in theory, tear open the envelope & piece together the original text, tho in practice I never met anyone who had done so. Like Goldsmith, Prigov appeared to practice a poetics that didn’t require reading in order to “get it,” and which proved useful in throwing situations into new social frames that rendered them visible in new ways.

But that was then and this is now. The old Soviet context is gone, even if the current government in Russia appears every bit as enamored of limitless central power as does its counterpart here in Washington. Gauging from Fifty Drops of Blood, or – to use the fuller title – Fifty Drops of Blood in an Absorbent Medium, published a year or two by Ugly Duckling Presse, Prigov has made the transition not only from the Bad Olde Bloc of Actually Existing Socialism to the current age of economic and political decline.

Fifty Drops is a series of 50 short untitled free verse pieces, mostly in the four- to seven-line range, each of contains some reference to a drop of blood, e.g.

Ice-cold vodka between the windowpanes
The faint crackling of bare wires
A lynx, turning into a girl with a drop
           of blood in the corner of the mouth

Or

Uatsrior, an intelligible beast of vengeance
For some reason the ballet
slippers of Anna Pavlova recall
A drop of blood behind a teddy bear’s ear

Or

Tiny swastikas on the wedding sheets
A drop of blood on a ring finger
Pure, as a rabbit fur
        collar, existentialness

The reiterated phrase is at least plausible wherever it occurs in every poem. Together, however, it creates a thread of connection between the poems that feels entirely arbitrary, almost Oulipo-esque, like a novel in which every character walks with a limp or has one green eye. That perpetual & reiterated oddness strengthens these poems as poems &, at points, rescues some that otherwise don’t seem to work, tho I can’t tell here if that’s a feature of the poems themselves or merely the translation. The poems are given in Russian and English on facing pages, but my Russian is at the “sign recognition” stage at best.

Prigov’s resilience, tho, strikes me as noteworthy. So much of conceptual poetry – conceptual art of all media – is involved in framing its own context, revealing assumptions, highlighting the conundra that surround any art in any society that one can hardly envision it surviving the kind of convulsions that have transformed the Soviet Bloc since 1988 or thereabouts. One might anticipate it seeming as quaint as 1930s Socialist Realism, maybe with a little more humor. So to see a major – perhaps the major – practitioner doing just fine, thank you, nearly two decades after the old context was ripped away is a testament to his own powers as an artist, whether or not this is a great volume. One wonders, for example, if Kenny Goldsmith’s Day, retyped from an issue of The New York Times, could survive in the same world twenty years from now if The New York Times itself did not, and what that might mean. Prigov shows himself to be capable of that challenge.



Tuesday, March 21, 2006

 

From an email from Blogger technical support:

Due to a temporary problem with our servers, many users are having intermittent problems publishing and viewing their blogs. Please rest assured that we are working hard to resolve this issue and prevent this kind of thing from happening again. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience and hope to have the problem resolved soon.

In this case, “temporary” means at least five days, because I’m still having problems this morning.



 

Taryn Manning “in charge” in Hustle & Flow

 

If Abigail Child had a weblog, I would have hoped that she would have written about Craig Brewer’s breakout film, Hustle & Flow. Her 1972 film, Game, a 40-minute documentary following the life of a likeable New York City pimp, directly anticipates the movie that garnered Terrence Howard a best actor Oscar nomination & scored the first Oscar for a rap song, It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp. The first time I saw Child’s film was at a COYOTE Film Festival in San Francisco sometime around 1977 or thereabouts. COYOTE, an acronym for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, was the first attempt at a prostitute’s union in San Francisco, and Child’s film certainly fit their political agenda, breaking through all the stereotypes of the pimp as exotic Other, showing a fairly straightforward guy who was scrambling for a living & who, at other moments in his life, was more apt to do yoga than coke.

Hustle & Flow, which I just got around to seeing last weekend, is in the genre of struggling artist makes good against all odds, a film that at one time could have shown at San Francisco’s great Chinatown theater, The Times, where it no doubt would have been triple billed with the likes of 8 Mile & The Harder They Come. You can almost count on the probability that it will show up in due time in rotation on some cable network like VH1 or MTV or Spike. It’s far better than a lot of the films that do.

Hustle’s pimp, as I suspect you must know by now, wants to be a rap star, but the three women who work for him – one of whom is out of commission in the last stages of a pregnancy – are about as far from a gangsta posse as one might imagine. As much as anything, this film is about how the three women respond to Djay’s dream, unrealistic as it might be for a 35-year-old hustler. Unlike most other music-centric films, at least pre-Ray, Hustle is an actor’s film even more than it is the director’s. As he was as Cameron in Crash, for which he also easily could have received an Oscar nomination, Terrence Howard is on a terrific roll right now in which his sensitivities as an actor bring his characters alive right to their fingertips. His Memphis mumble & stylized do make him seem like a completely different human being than the actor who, in Crash, was struggling to make his way into the upper middle-class as a TV producer only to have it threatened when events reveal to him (if not to his wife) just how rapidly back into racial stereotypes & ghetto presumptions one can fall – it can be a simple as a speeding ticket.

Howard is surrounded by a terrific cast of supporting actors – there’s not a single weak actor in the ensemble – three of whom in particular stand out. Taryn Manning gives a chilling performance as Djay’s “prime investor,” the hooker who actually earns most of the little clan’s money. Her value as a commodity is simple – she’s white. Manning, the one-time Arizona state karate champion, comes across more street than any of the amateurs Larry Clark ever coaxes into his films. There is one scene, one of the most powerful in the film, when Djay has just thrown out Lexus, played by Paula Jai Parker, and her child, after Lexus has challenged his efforts to make a demo tape to give to rap star Skinny Black (Ludacris, another veteran of Crash, playing a character half way between Tupac & Snoop Dog, tho without the smarts of either). As Djay slams the door after leaving the howling Lexus & her screaming baby on the porch, the two remaining women cower as if they expect him to turn on them next. Manning’s presence in the scene is wordless, but as intense as any I’ve seen on film in some time. That’s the image that I will retain from this film far longer than any other.

A more minor role belongs to that of Shelby, the white boy music nerd who leaps at the chance to work on a record, performed by D.J. Qualls, whom I’ve seen once before in an episode of Law and Order. It’s a part with some subtext of the comic sidekick – a generation ago Michael J. Pollard would have gotten the role (as he did, say, in Bonnie and Clyde) – but Qualls makes it feel real in a way that this foil almost never does in the movies. Largely, it’s because he understates everything. The actors who don’t – Parker, Anthony Anderson & Elise Neal – never take on the depth of those who do. Taraji P. Henson, who plays the pregnant hooker, Shug, who inspires the fledging rap group by buying them a lava lamp & ends up recording the song’s hook, does the entire film looking as tho she’s about to burst into tears, without ever once doing so, and it’s that element of holding back that makes this role for her – as it is for Qualls, Manning & Howard – a breakout performance that should have a huge impact on her career.

Actor’s films differ from director’s in some fairly significant ways. For one thing, they don’t have to hang together entirely in order to work, where director-centric projects really have to cohere. The last film I saw before Hustle & Flow was Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, a film that uses amateurs in virtually all its roles & demands very little from them, and which manages to make it work because its self-contained nature casts the film very much into the Grant Wood mode Soderbergh is after. Hustle in comparison makes enormous demands on its cast & when it gets a tone wrong, as when Elise Neal overplays her role as an upwardly mobile manager, complaining at dinner to her husband that her bosses don’t see her as ruthless enough, it jars. When Djay and his crew intrude on the repast, Neal attempts to tone down her character, but she still stands out like an emu at a duck pond. Something that askew would have burst Bubble, but here it fades fairly rapidly because scene after scene offers such depth & richness of performances that Neal’s harpy really is only one off-tone instant in a much greater whole.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

 

I saw a promotional paragraph for a forthcoming reading by Rosmarie Waldrop “of Brown University” & had to chuckle. While Rosmarie’s husband Keith has taught at Brown for decades, Rosmarie has for the most part resisted employment there so that she would be able to devote her energies to her own work as writer, translator & publisher, three activities at which she is one of the very best on the planet. It’s a division of labor that seems to have worked out excellently in their marriage – she taught during the periods when Keith didn’t, but the Brown job has had staying power & he obviously loves teaching – the last time I saw Keith, he swore he’d never retire, and it was the students, not the paycheck, who were motivating him. We should all be so fortunate.

Rosmarie’s freedom has really had an enormous impact on what she can do, and has done, with Burning Deck, and it has much to do with why this has been such a terribly influential press for so very long. She doesn’t need to worry about how this or that book “looks” to the colleagues in the department, doesn’t need to worry all that terribly much about whether the books will ever make a profit, though it would be nice not to lose so much money that it shuts the press down, a periodic hazard for any ambitious small press. One consequence of all this has been that Burning Deck has published some tremendous books by poets who did not go on to publish 20 big collections over the next 40 years. For all of the famous poets the press has published, the many people published there who aren’t famous represent some of the press’ greatest accomplishments, marvelous books by George Tysh, Margaret Johnson, Tom Ahern, David Ball, Ray Ragosta and many many more. Rosmarie Waldrop may have done more to bring forth the work of neglected poets than any other single publisher around. On top of which you can add another long list of books by poets who became widely known only after they had first published with Burning Deck. Thus Jackson Mac Low & Forrest Gander, thus Ray DiPalma & Lyn Hejinian. Burning Deck published my second book, nox, at a point in my career when I could count on very few readers ever having heard of me. I’m not even certain that the Waldrops had heard of me when Rosmarie first published that book – she listed my date of birth on the colophon as 1935, aging me 11 years – but somehow she saw something in those fragile poems for which she was willing to take a risk. Thirty-two years later, I’m still amazed at that.

All of which is to say that when I get a book from Burning Deck and I haven’t ever heard of the author before, I’m willing to give it more than the benefit of the doubt. I’ve learned over the years to pay attention – the writing will be anywhere from good to glorious, but there’s no guarantee that this poet is going to have a fat volume from a bigger press ever, let alone soon. Which is the framework I use to approach Erica Carpenter’s Perspective Would Have Us. There is no biographical data on the book itself and if it wasn’t for a paragraph on a public relations sheet slipped into the book, I’d’ve had almost no idea who this person might be. Googling will tell you a little more, tho not a lot.

The poems themselves are delicate & exact, a balance of qualities that one seldom finds among younger poets, which these days means anybody who hasn’t yet turned 50. Consider this, for example, as an act of depiction:

Two Minutes Later

Darkness kept, even with the streetlights,
holding constantly erect, so that the boulevards could perish
into frames of passing cars.

At one level this is a very simple description. On another, it is full of quirks – that long disruption of the initial verb phrase, that exceptionally literary second verb pushed right out to the end of the second line, the point of greatest emphasis in a poem with this shape. One could almost imagine this poem somewhere in the collected works of a Rakosi or Reznikoff, but not quite. Rezi could never accept the flourish of perish.

Or this poem, one of several to use the mode of correspondence:

Dear _____________

We eat the biscuits even though they’ve left us
feeling weird and unrequited.

Friday night: now this has nothing
more to tell, my feeling full about one half

or all the time I would be vigilant and constantly
on watch. Rather I’m speechless

where the time goes (think vibrations
at the dull end of a rope) and insist

I’m fully functional in terms and really fine.

Even tonight it must be obvious,
having started several novels, to conclude

with our beginning other novels

There is an awkwardness here that I trust completely. It would have been so easy to have run this poem as six couplets, but that’s not how it works, nor wants to – those two single-line stanzas, one ending on the most optimistic of closures, the next dangling without a moment of final punctuation, miming the incompleteness of beginning, govern the poem’s energy, which is not at all ordinary. Or go back and try parsing the poem’s second sentence: you will be forced to recognize just how much it patterns itself on the disruptive angles of speech rather than the expository integrating machine of verse.

If I hadn’t gotten that paragraph and seen those sites on Google, I might have thought Carpenter to be an older writer than she is – for one thing, she has a deft way with a line, which is not something that comes easily & is a value I’ve seen more often in poets born in the 1940s than those born in the ‘70s. The values she argues for in the poem are relatively delicate, which seems amazing in age where the rocket-propelled grenade appears to have overtaken the saber.

The finest work here, to my ear, is “Six Views from Capri,” a series that carries the epigram after Godard. It operates on several levels, only one of which (and not the most important) is cinematic. Here is the fifth section, far enough into the poem where the elements are colliding:

Still, do I know Paul?

Paul falls within the genre
of the thriller: though not overly complex
can be exciting and a beast.

And Camille?
Camille is an apartment.

Worse, she’s trapped
inside an art file in the ‘60s.

Here we have the question of characters combining with the question of commentary (with its attendant problem, how can one know anything “from the outside,” from viewing, let alone directing?), with an overlay of actual cinema. The line Camille is an apartment made me laugh & brought to mind Jean Eustache’s great The Mother and the Whore, not Godard perhaps, but a work involving two of the masters major collaborators, Eustache & Jean-Pierre Léaud, who in that film plays the rebel-flâneur of 1968 who, a few years hence, has become a parasite on the lives of two women, one of whom has now become the owner of a small boutique & who, for Léaud’s character, is indeed “an apartment.” For such a simple passage – nothing, literally, happens here – there is so much going on, something we’ve seen earlier in the book with a series of translations from Sappho that, to my ear, carry a faint hint of the Spicer of Heads of the Town, the bitterness, perhaps, but not the sarcasm:

At my age – well,
things were different.

This way, that way
my lovely friends and I.

Of course I love you, but I
hear that girl Andromeda
is well




____________________

Standing by my bed,
I asked myself and said
I will confess: it’s noontime

So this is an excellent, wonderful book, but I wonder if, twenty years hence, Erica Carpenter will be a name to conjure with in American poetry. So much of what she does seems to me at odds with a lot that is going on now, a celebration of subtlety in an age of bluntness. If she doesn’t become a household name, she surely will be a neglectorino of the future, someone who certain, discerning poets will find & turn to, knowing that what is to be had in a book like this is rare indeed.



Sunday, March 19, 2006

 

Before it tries to rule the world, Google should try to get some control over its own server farms. The Blogspot server this weblog is hosted on went down around 9:00 p.m. Eastern on Thursday. It came up briefly a few times yesterday, but by the time it was finally up constantly, the Blogger server I use to post messages was having problems.

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I am so not making this up – Jim Berhle, au natural, in bed, promoting a forthcoming reality series on VH1 in which he is one of the stars. Debuts at midnight, April 7. What’s it called? Can’t Get a Date, of course.



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