Saturday, October 13, 2007

 

A quick recommendation here to catch Sean Penn’s magnificent Into the Wild while it’s still in the theaters unless you already have one of those new humongous screens at home. Some of the visuals – not just of the Alaskan wilderness, but of the Anza Borrego desert in California & wheat fields in the Dakotas – are breath taking. This is not a film that is going to do big box office, but I personally will be surprised if, come December, it doesn’t get redistributed, this time with a fat handful of Oscar nominations – for Penn both as director and writer, for Emile Hirsch as best actor, for Catherine Keener & Hal Holbrook as supporting actors. Just for starters.

A film made from a popular book based on real events, in this case Jon Krakauer’s account of the transformation of Emory University graduate Christopher McCandless into Alexander Supertramp, sort of the ultimate post-hippy Thoreau wannabe who hitches all around the west before heading to Alaska, his great dream, to get away from it all, and who does – so well in fact that when he decides to head south again, he finds himself trapped, the game he’s lived off of for months having itself fled, then poisons himself by misidentifying the wrong potato root, and as a result starves to death at the age of 24 – Into the Wild’s challenge is to make Supertramp’s solitary ways interesting as narrative. Penn does this by making it two stories: the first that of his surprisingly brief time, less than four full months, in the Alaskan wilderness, camping out for the most part in an abandoned bus; the second the tale of the journey that took McCandless from graduation in Atlanta to the road north on his final venture. It is the second tale, which is that of human relationships, that holds up this film. We witness McCandless’ gradual transformation into Supertramp, told in terms that don’t make him seem at all the extremophile it would be easy enough to dismiss him as, while at the same time setting up a final transformation at the end of the other tale in Alaska that serves as the film’s true denouement. A third story – that of McCandless’ family – is principally a backdrop, suggesting why & how somebody could grow up so distrustful of all human interaction.

His parents, played by William Hurt & Marcia Gay Harden, undergo a transformation of their own in losing their son, who simply disappears after graduation, sending all of his savings to Oxfam, abandoning his car in New Mexico after stripping it of plates. Their presence principally serves to set up both Keener, as the “wheel tramp” hippy who gives Christopher/Alexander a ride & bonds with him in ways that are more motherly than anything else. She and her “old man” (played by the film’s marine coordinator, Brian Dierker, not a professional actor) take the kid to the coast, give him some life clues & tell him about fabled hippy hangouts like Slab City (which Supertramp eventually reaches, complete with a visit to Leonard Knight’s nearby Salvation Mountain, a fabulous little set piece within the film).

If Keener proves to be a surrogate mother to Alexander Supertramp, Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of Ron Franz, a retired military man making a modest living as a leather worker in the Imperial Valley, functions as an even more explicit surrogate father. Not having read Krakauer’s book, it’s not clear how much of this portion is fiction, how much these characters might be predicated on actual people. Both Keener & Holbrook’s characters have good reasons to see this bookish outdoorsman as a child, and their relationships with him are the actual heart of the film, followed in turn by a friendship with his boss on the wheat farm in the Dakotas (played by Vince Vaughan) who gets hauled off by the feds as a 1990s phone phreak, selling illegal black boxes (a terrific tiny detail in this film), and by Kristen Stewart as a teenage girl being raised by parents who live in a tiny trailer at the Slabs who tries unsuccessfully to seduce Alexander – he’s too committed to commitment for that.

This is a world off the grid – sort of upper limit Burning Man, lower limit the gypsy audiences of the Grateful Dead. It’s radically different from, say, the life of the urban homeless, as Alexander learns when he tries to spend a night at a mission in Los Angeles – he has nothing in common with urban squatters, save perhaps his sense of resourcefulness. This is a tale of a man who never even wants to see a city. More than once, Alexander is off in the wilderness, whether Alaska, the Salton Sea or the Pacific Crest Trail in the California Sierras, only to look up and see jet trails threading the sky.

Penn does a great job handling this material without judgment. Unlike, say, Motorcycle Diaries, where you can see the rigidities in its lead character, a college-age Che Guevara, that will lead him to become Castro’s Trotsky, I don’t think you can come out of Into the Wild with any sense of diagnosis beyond the notion that kids in violently dysfunctional families are apt to react strongly to the emotional abuse. Penn is much more interested in the books Supertramp reads: Jack London, Tolstoy, Dr. Zhivago. An even more delicate proposition is giving a sense of Alexander’s inexperience as an outdoorsman – the driver of his last ride in gives him his boots and tells the kid to call him “if you survive” – without making him look like a fool who could have found emergency supplies and a way out within a quarter mile of the bus where he died. Penn shows Alexander hunting for edible plants with his guide book in hand. He manages to kill a moose, but since all he knows about what to do with game that size comes from notes he took back on the wheat farm, he has to go back & read them, which takes too long so that flies lay eggs in the carcass.

McCandless/Supertramp has become something of a folk hero since his death, the abandoned bus turning into the closest thing Alaska has to Jim Morrison’s gravestone. According to an interview I heard of Krakauer talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air last week, much of McCandless’ stuff is still on the bus. Still, the world is encroaching. He burned his i.d. and the money in his wallet, changed his name, never contacted his family. Now he’s a major motion picture. Those boots he was given as he hiked in through the snow were briefly available on Ebay last fall.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

 

A new book
from
Robert Hass

It’s already a finalist for
the National Book Award*

§

Doris Lessing
has won
the Nobel Prize for Literature

§

Tonight at Writers House
in
Philadelphia,
Bob Cobbing’s
Suddenly Everybody Began Reading Aloud

§

Video of
Rae Armantrout
reading in Berkeley

§

Talking film
with John Ashbery

§

The autobiography
of
Christian Bök

§

Talking with
Geoffrey Gatza

§

The Colbert suffix

§

Charles Simic
on PBS

Laureate relishes
new challenge

& begins by attacking
Robert Creeley
($3 fee)

Simic to teach
at Baruch College

Simic reads
with Jack Prelutsky

If you like Simic,
you will love
Vasko Popa

§

“You don’t get
to be
poet laureate
for nothing

§

Hounding Howl:
What the FCC?
(MP3)

Meanwhile,
at the Alberto Gonzales school
of pornography prosecution

§

Kerouac’s scroll
as Oulipo constraint

§

Speaking of Oulipo:
3by3by3
21 Stars Review

§

Debating
what poetry is
in
Nairobi

§

Jennifer Moxley
&
Maggie O’Sullivan
reading
at the Bowery Poetry Club
(MP3s)

§

Talking with
Jason Christie

§

A review of
Javier O. Huerta

§

In Canada,
Indigo
is putting hotels
on Boardwalk & Park Place

While readers
come to the USA
to buy books

§

Random acts of poetry
in
Sackville, New Brunswick

§

Writing poetry in the army
in
Iraq

§

A writers’ workshop
at
Homeboy Industries

§

The return
of
Easy Rawlins

§

Reading Catullus 64

§

The only call for submissions
I know of
that quotes
Theodor Adorno,
seeking
”emergent poetry & prose”

§

More on the demise
of the hyphen

§

Putting Celan to music

§

Prizes for
the
School of Quietude

& more

Plus
the same ole same ole
in the
U.K.

§

Writing like Sean O’Brien
is, he concedes,
an affliction

§

Fondly recalling
the poetry wars
of the 1960s

§

The bio of
” a skilful, harmless,
minor writer of light verse”

§

Joyce Carol Oates:
autobiography
against the grain

§

Adam Thorpe
doesn’t think
he’s easy reading

§

An anthology
of women’s poetry
from
Minnesota

§

The future of the book
may not include
bookstores

But in Grand Rapids,
a bookstore opens

§

One use for old books

§

A new opera,
Poet Li Bai,
debuts in
Beijing

§

On the origins
of
The Life of Pi

§

The selected letters
of Ted Hughes

§

A profile
of Paul Durcan

§

High school students
producing
poetry on demand

§

100 years of MacDowell

§

Comparing Don Share
to Robert Lowell

§

Talking with
Li-Young Lee

§

Troy Jollimore’s blog
for Powell’s Books

§

A poet laureate
for Winona, Minnesota

§

An anthology
of
New York poetry

§

Frank Wilson
likes the Sony e-Book,
sorta

§

The continuing relevance
of books

§

Poet Tree
in
Victoria, BC

§

Talking with
Greil Marcus

§

A personal history
of the
Somerville News
Writers Festival

§

Violet de Cristoforo,
poet imprisoned
in
US concentration camp
during WW2,
has died

§

Interviewing
Janet Malcolm

§

The © Olympics

§

The best-selling suicide
of André & Dorine Gorsz

§

The Social and Political Views
of American Professors
(PDF)

§

Two serious views
on global warming:
pro & con

§

Appomattox

“one of the best new operas
in many years”

§

Billy Bragg
on the
power of music

§

She writes the words

§

Mallrats run wild!

§

With art
comes injury

§

Do museums matter?

If not, why
are they spreading
like kudzu?

§

Renoir
&
why the Barnes matters

§

 

* Strictly a School of Quietude affair this year.
The selection panel was chaired by
(surprise!) Charles Simic

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

 

THE GRAND PIANO, PART 4
is now available!

An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco, 1975-1980, by Carla Harryman, Kit Robinson, Tom Mandel, Barrett Watten, Rae Armantrout, Ted Pearson, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman & Steve Benson.

Like the early avant-gardes, the poets who gathered at the Grand Piano developed not only an exacting and liberating poetics, but also a way of living-in-art. Its chronicle here is many things, among them a deeply human and amusing map to building community through literature in this most unlikely of times.

— Cole Swensen

The Grand Piano is an on-going experiment in collective autobiography by ten writers identified with Language Poetry in San Francisco. It takes its name from a coffeehouse at 1607 Haight Street, where from 1976-79 the authors took part in a reading and performance series. The writing project was undertaken as an online collaboration, first via an interactive web site and later through a listserv. When completed, The Grand Piano will comprise ten volumes, with the authors appearing in different sequence in each volume.

New volumes are scheduled to appear at three-month intervals.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

 

One of the tests of a reading – or perhaps I should say of a reading audience – is laughter. Whenever I read, I’m conscious, possibly hyperconscious, of just how the audience reacts to certain lines or phrases. There are some lines that I can be certain will get a laugh in the right towns – New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore or DC – but which might get no response at all if I’m reading on some college campus. It’s not that students at colleges don’t get jokes, or that they don’t have the depth as readers that audiences of mostly poets will have in cities, so much as it seems to be that some schools have kept it a secret that it’s okay for literature to have humor, be funny even. Would my parents be paying this much tuition for me to study something that makes me laugh? Who, one wonders, is responsible for giving students permission to actually feel at ease with writing? One of the great values of works like Ulysses or Tristram Shandy is that they do just that.

The audience at Mills was perfect, picking up on the humor from the very first line. This audience, tho, was filled with poets & Mills itself has taken an interesting turn in recent years hiring several good poets (currently Leslie Scalapino, Juliana Spahr, Stephanie Young & Stephen Ratcliffe) to teach at the same time. In short, it was as well read an audience as one could ever hope to have. When I got to the end of the sixth paragraph/line of Ketjak and read

Look at that room filled with fleshy babies. We ate them.

the audience responded with laughter. In a work full of “arbitrary” juxtapositions, ones such as this do indeed occur.

In Ashland the next night, with roughly the same texts, the audience let that line pass by in complete silence and I will concede to wondering if I was getting through. I actually started off reading Ketjak more slowly than I had in Oakland, where it had felt rushed to me out of my own nervousness at confronting a large crowd. By the time I got to the sixth paragraph/line in Ashland, tho, I felt that I was cooking as well as I ever do in a reading.

At both events, I followed my excerpt from Ketjak by jumping around in The Chinese Notebook. One paragraph that I read in both locales (there was maybe only 50 percent overlap) was

55. The presumption is: I can write like this and “get away with it.”

I was really pleased in Ashland to find that by the time I reached this passage, the laughter was every bit as loud as it had been the day before at Mills. Had a constant barrage of puns finally loosened their tongues, was I finally giving as good a reading as I had the day before (even if, in my mind, Ashland was the better of the two readings), does it just take an audience unfamiliar with “my kind” of writing a little longer to get with it, had the panda’s presence finally swayed them? I have no way really of knowing. Tho I’m glad the panda was there. Not only did my driver and I follow it to the reading (where else would a panda be going?), it brought the right energy.

Humor is not the only thing going on in my poetry, but it is the one aspect for which there is a clear verbal cue from an audience that it gets it. I have no way of knowing that an audience that either doesn’t get my humor (or doesn’t find it funny) gets anything else either. So I tend to think that a laughing audience is a more serious one. Thus when I read a response, such as the collaboration between SOU students Lacey Hunter & Nichole Hermance, that itself has some humor, I take this as a good sign indeed.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

 

I’m back – it took 13 hours door to door Saturday (and Sunday, since I arrived home at 3:00 AM). Five beds in seven nights is a rough way to travel. I missed the best day in recent Phillies history – tho Krishna fed me the play-by-play of the last half-inning of the division-clincher over the phone – and just about all of the Phils short tragic run in the playoffs, getting to hear a little more than one inning over ESPN radio while I was stuck in Seattle traffic Thursday waiting for a train to go by. Then the signal went dead & by the time I was able to get it back, in the parking lot for the Bainbridge Island ferry, the 10-5 rout was complete. When I noted September 28, that

in recent years, wild card teams have had a better than average chance of taking the whole enchilada. That’s usually because they’re performing at playoff intensity for two, maybe three weeks before the playoffs even begin….

I wasn’t even thinking of the Colorado Rockies. Tho they had obviously had a good run, I just presumed that they were too far back and that there were too many decent teams still competing for the wild card spot – the Phils, Padres & Mets, even the Braves – for the Rockies to sneak past them all. But obviously, they have the hot hand right now, and in the playoffs that matters. Plus, once again the cliché held true: good pitching always beats good hitting.

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