Saturday, September 13, 2003

My piece Wednesday on H.D., Noveliste, has me thinking about the further question of how form, genre & chance impact our lives. Several things I saw this past week reinforced this mulling-over process. One was an article in The Guardian, which I actually suspect may be an adapted introduction from his book, by Salam Pax. Pax, a Baghdad architecture student, created a personal weblog in English only to discover that it had become one of the most widely read “inside views” of the last days of Saddam & the first days of George & Rummy, a process that turned him, to his considerable discomfort (and undoubtedly much risk), into


·         An author

·         An “expert” on the Iraqi experience


Pax professes to be neither. But excerpts of his blog can be had now in book form in the U.K. & Grove Press will release a U.S. edition in October.


The second item is the Perceval Press web site. Perceval is a new small press that recently published a book of RenĂ© Ricard’s paintings & drawings, and is about to release Land of the Lost Mammoths, a novel of left culture critic Mike Davis. Some interesting & quirky material. Perceval has also published four books, including poetry, painting, collage work & photography, by press founder Viggo Mortensen, whom you may know better as Aragorn/Strider from The Lord of the Rings films.


As someone who has edited Davis, a brilliant but exceptionally undisciplined author, the prospect of a novel, a project completely in keeping with Davis’ uniquely British mode of Los Angeles post-Marxism, just makes my eyes dilate, nostrils flare & chest constrict. This I have to see.


Mortensen has seen his own public notoriety skyrocket of late. In addition to his career-making role in the Ring trilogy, anyone who saw his turn as the painter boyfriend in A Perfect Murder & realized that those were in fact his paintings will understand Mortensen takes these other genres seriously, however variously he may succeed or not in each. Unlike, say, Jewel or Leonard Nimoy, Mortensen is at least a serious artist whose day job happens to be in film, not unlike Michael Lally or Harry Northrup.


The third is a DVD I saw the other night, Genghis Blues, a 1999 documentary starring two musicians, Paul Pena & Kongar-ol Ondar. If you saw the list of CD stacks I have in my study, you know that one stack focuses on blues & another on world music, with a fair amount of Tuvan throat singing in the latter pile. Genghis Blues is one of the very few places in which these two interests converge.  


Throat singing or khoomei is a harmonic singing tradition in which the performer sings two, sometimes even as many as four, notes at one time. Different versions of this tradition exist in Tuva, Mongolia & Tibet. Pena, the blind-since-childhood blues singer who wrote “Jet Airliner,” a hit song for Steve “Guitar” Miller in the mid-1970s, discovered & taught himself not only this exceptionally difficult method of singing, but, in order to do so, had to learn at least the rudiments of the Tuvan language. And since there are exactly zero Tuvan-English dictionaries in the world, he had to learn Russian just to get to the Tuvan. (Pena may be an almost archetypal example of the starving blues artist, but he is also very obviously nobody’s fool.)


Tuva, once the nation of Tannu Tuva, is now one of the Russian Republics & is located along the northwest border of Mongolia. It’s a state of just 300,000 people the size of North Dakota & a large portion of the population remains nomadic, raising camels & horses & rather furry looking Asian cows. Even though Genghis Khan’s top general was Tuvan, the history of the nation is that of so many landlocked cultures, shifting from parent state to parent state, spending relatively little historical time with any kind of autonomy.


After Pena’s wife died of renal failure in 1991, the bluesman has lived a pretty hand-to-mouth existence in San Francisco’s Mission District. He had discovered throat singing over a shortwave radio broadcast, but it had taken him years to find a recording. But from that point, it appears to have taken him only a week or so to actually learn the process of singing in multiple notes. Having learned this extremely rare singing style, Pena managed to get himself invited to a Tuvan throat singing competition in Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva. Genghis Blues is a documentary of that trip, where Pena cemented his friendship with Kongar-ol Ondar, the “Elvis Presley of throat singing,” won two awards in the competition & found himself in a place, literally, where his skills & talents could be completely appreciated, a mere 12,000 miles from home. A fairly rudimentary, even crude, documentary, Blues was nominated for an Oscar and won several film festival awards largely on the basis of its improbable, infectious content, fabulous music & the openness of its two main characters to go beyond their intellectual & cultural borders.


In every one of these instances, questions of social framing can be raised in many different ways:


·         Is Salam Pax an architecture student who writes, or vice verse?

·         Is Viggo Mortensen an actor, poet, painter, photographer?

·         Is Mike Davis a novelist?

·         At what level is Paul Pena a Tuvan singer?

There are artists who have been successful in more than one field, such as Abigail Child, but historically they’re rare. Bruce Andrews likes to note that every nice thing that has ever been written about him in the New York Times has been about his scores for Sally Silvers’ dance, never once about his poetry. Ned Rorem, a composer more widely known for his memoirs, simply demonstrates that this phenomenon works in both directions.


What conclusions might one draw from this? Only that there are no guarantees – what makes an artist successful in one genre may have no bearing whatsoever on another. And there certainly are instances in which artists commit a larger part of their live to an endeavor that, like Hilda Doolittle’s novels, gets far less public recognition than some other form. Gertrude Stein had something like this happen to her when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, clearly written to be a best seller, recast Stein’s public image dramatically.


One can come up with even more complicated configurations. Stan Rice, when still an extremely ambitious up-&-coming academic poet/professor, encouraged his wife Anne to write. The phenomenal financial success of her vampire novels eliminated any economic need on his part &, after he left his job at San Francisco State, Stan developed into a kitschy sort of painter who actually refused to sell his work. After publishing two books of poetry in two years in the mid-1970s – we shared one publisher, The Figures – he only published four others over the next 25 years. Anne’s publisher printed the last three volumes, which gave them broader distribution than even most School of Quietude poets can hope for. And frankly Stan’s skill as a poet disguised his sentimentality in a way that his paintings could not. Yet by the time he passed away last year, the only context remaining for either of his media was the one created by her writing. It may have been a very comfortable sort of marooning, but if ever there was a man who needed to invite other poets into his room of one’s own, it was Stan.