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27 Feb

In the fall, as you know, I stalked several bands as part of my folk beat. PigPen, described below, was the one I chose for my finals essay.

It was the night Bette Midler came to see  The Old Man and the Old Moon. An hour before the house opened, the only visibly excited people were the stage managers, David and Allyson. Allyson was constantly bursting into “The Rose” during warm ups, while David pirouetted across the tiered stage as he set up. The seven performers that write, sing, play, act, and direct themselves as PigPen Theatre Company were remarkably impassive, their apprehension only betrayed by occasional fumbles whilst tuning their instruments. The mood was convivial, as it is each night they perform, but this saturday night was special: not only was Bette Midler coming, but the house was full, a luxury for performers in theatre-saturated New York City.

 “You’ll love tonight” PigPen’s understudy Nick whispered to me “In a full house, there’s space to laugh… the audience gives each other permission to enjoy themselves. Smaller houses are intimate… but you can’t rely on adrenaline to carry the technical stuff, like timing or scene breaks. In a full house you can just tune into the audience and it’s a high like no drug I’ve never done.”  True to his prediction, that night the show was mesmeric, even after Bette Midler left at intermission.

Everyone who sees PigPen’s play The Old Man and the Old Moon leaves the theatre with a different memory. It is not a tale, the narrator tells the audience as it begins, that you can carry away with both hands.  The story itself is simple and fabulist:  an old man sails across the world following a melody and searching for his wife. Across eternity his job has been to fill the leaking moon, and once he abandons his duty the world comes apart at the seams. The moon and the oceans disappear; the stars fall out of the sky. The Old Man finds himself in paradise, in the belly of a fish, on a dirigible, in a sunken city made of light. He travels with adventurers, sailors, ghosts, milk-bottle dogs and talking planks. Ultimately, as in the way of any fable, he finds himself back at home, surprised to find that the world keeps going round and round and round. Their barebones story is told, the New Yorker’s critic said, with  a “perfect combination of original bluegrass-style music, stunning shadow puppetry, and vigorous physical comedy.”

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The Dying of a Light.

27 Jan

On 27th January 2010 I had just finished setting up my first apartment. I was 23, I was in love, the world awaited my storm. I had an independent study in which to be an Intellectual. I had a boyfriend who did the dishes. Nothing could stop me now, this was It. It was perhaps the last time in my life I would be incorrigibly optimistic.

That was the day Howard Zinn died. That was the day when, though I didn’t know it then, I set out to be a writer. Was that a fair trade on the universal balance? Probably not. But this is how I began. I restrained myself from tinkering too much with this elegy, and not only because I’d end up rewriting it entirely. It might be verbose and a little pompous, but it was written for love, and that is rare in this writing life. Besides, as it turns out, I did spend 2010 researching the Reformation and (in)direct democracy, and there is a lot to be said for beginning a new life with an act of mourning. In the darkest part of this silent Sunday morning, as Barthes might have said (but did not quite), I was vigilant. And all of him leaped before my eyes.

Zinn

An Encomium

Professor Howard Zinn died on 27th January 2010, a fortnight ago at the time of writing. Apart from the resigned rage one feels about the mortality of one’s heroes, my primary emotion was anticipation. I had recently procured, with some difficulty, a copy of Zinn’s Passionate Declarations. I now had good reason to ignore boring daily life and work my way through Zinn’s legacy, a project as inviting as it is daunting. After a month spent separated from my library, the prospect of a reading list soothed me.

In the fortnight since his death was announced, I have spent many nights listening to his lectures, mining his books, locating his prolific journalism. I spent even more time tracking Zinn within a maze of historiography: all great scholars spin a web around them that can prove as revelatory as dissecting the shape of the beast itself. I gave myself a week to “get a grip” on Zinn, and have never underestimated a task more.

It was not the sheer profligacy of his work, as I never expected to read all of it, but the amazing variety of subjects that his writing suggested that ultimately did me in. It’s difficult to chart matters in an organized fashion when a single book (Passionate Declarations) can make you want to research everything from the Reformation to direct democracy. When one ventures into the vast terrain of work inspired by or transformed by Zinn’s historiography the project looses all moorings in rationality. It becomes epic, spawning academic cottage industries.

I have no doubt such a fate lies in store for the late, great Professor Zinn. I suspect he would be amused by all the posthumous interest, considering he spent his lifetime languishing in academia’s back closet, but he wouldn’t be surprised. Genius is historically betrayed by the grave.

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Tabernacle or Tomb?

19 Jan

One of the dilemmas I’m grappling with is that of an audience. Who am I writing for? It’s not that I write to be read – this would be foolhardy- but that the proposed reader influences how any text is constructed. It’s a question answered instinctively when you write for publication, even when that publication is simply your own blog. But I remain entirely at sea when it comes to writing as a graded exercise with defined guidelines. Partly, of course, it is that I carry it badly. Last semester I folded my words into my life, rather than the other way around, which is never a good idea for someone as chronically fickle as me.

The Dickinson essay below is a good example of the weird niche I currently occupy. I wrote it (and I admit this is dubious) for a “controversy” assignment, and while it was fun reading Dickinson for two weeks, I’m not sure where/how to pitch it, or indeed if I should pitch it. I’m leaning towards no: which self-respecting books blog would accept my solemn exegesis of her verse? (in less than fifty words!) Who else would care? Is this basically a blogpost pointing out that other people are writing blogposts? Is it only logical to expect my reader to know who Emily Dickinson is and why she is VITAL? If so, why bother writing it?

 Anyway. I fully expect y’all to consider this a purely rhetorical puzzle, so here’s another reason to read it. This essay has sentimental value: the first booksy thing I did in NYC was attend the launch of Paul Legault’s Emily Dickinson Reader. It was my first solo outing in DUMBO; I got spectacularly lost* and I kept circling this guy selling pretzels until eventually he took pity on a starving student and gave me one. It was a magic pretzel. I finally found my way down Water Street the next go-around and a great good time was had. I mingled. I sipped artisanal beer and made eye-contact and small lit-chat and was generally an urbane sophisticate** and a new din was born. All for the love of Emily Dickinson.***

 *Even google is stumped by Brooklyn.

** yeah, ok. I wore perfume and I scuffed my sneakers.

***tbh, I often find Dickinson fucking exhausting. So frenetic! So baroque! I know her well enough to misrepresent myself as a fangirl, but in most moods I’m.. conflicted.

Dickinson

Dickinson

All great poets spawn cottage industries of interpretation. Emily Dickinson, High Priestess of American Literature, is no exception. There is an Emily Dickinson museum, an International Society, and an academic journal dedicated entirely to explicating her riddling verse.  Several poets have written tributes to Dickinson, from William Carlos William’s “To An Elder Poet” to Adrienne Rich’s essay “Vesuvius at Home” to Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters.

 What is curious is the extent to which she survives in the popular imagination. There has been a novel written about her every year for the last five years, as well as six popular biographies, a parody, and a book inspired by her penchant for writing on envelopes.  In 2010, the New York Botanical Society held a Dickinson-themed flower exhibit. She was on Broadway in 1976, as the protagonist of The Belle of Amherst. She turns up as a larger-than-life puppet in the movie Being John Malkovich, a mockery of the Dickinson cult that Joyce Carol Oates expanded by writing a novella featuring a diminutive robotic Emily.  2013 will see a Dickinson biopic starring Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City’s Miranda. Popstars, a certain barometer of the cultural temperature, have also invoked the spirit of Emily Dickinson: Pete Doherty admits to “nicking her lines” because she’s “fucking outrageous”; Carla Bruni went so far as to set an entire poem to music. As Paul Legault writes in the introduction to The Emily Dickinson Reader, “Emily Dickinson used to exist. Now she’s doing it again.” The question, then, is why. What’s the secret to Emily Dickinson’s immortality? The best vitality, she once said, cannot excel decay. But what of that? 

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Relief

17 Jan

This fall I assigned myself a beat: folk music. It wasn’t an official requirement, but one of my professors suggested that I might find the discipline useful once he figured I haven’t a fucking clue where my life is headed. It was incredible: I’m no closer to a Plan, but I wanted a footloose semester and by the gods I got me one. My beat led me several interesting places and down a few dubious alleys, but I certainly felt  supremely professional. Even when I used it as an excuse to escape deadlines, or (arguably) stalk people. I went to some amazing gigs; from Keb Mo’ at BB King’s to Jalopy Wednesdays out in Red Hook to a Dominican dance-box up in Harlem.

I met some beautiful people, of whom the 198 String Band described below are indisputably the most respectable. I met them at the “Imagining America” conference; attending that was an official requirement. This was one of the longer pieces I wrote off my beat — most of my “reporting” consists of squiggles and squeees. I had fun writing this, tight word-count and all, and it is (you might notice) a new style for me. I call it my school voice, because bogey wouldn’t be caught corpsified assumin’ y’all need this much explainin’.

But that’s why bogey’s dead, see.

tea

We’d rather not be on the rolls of relief.

One friday in early fall, a small band of Occupy Wall Street protesters were busily organizing Columbus Day insurrections in Zuccotti Park. They were planning rallies and writing protest music, oblivious to the minor miracle underway in the Westinghouse Building a few steps across Broadway, where an equally tiny tribe of genteel New Yorkers were gathered for an evening sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities. There, in offices that shared space with bankers and accountants, the 198 String Band resurrected Woody Guthrie.

The 198 String Band began in tribute to the “other” Guthries, the forgotten minstrels of the Great Depression. “Unlike Guthrie and Steinbeck, these people didn’t choose to be in the Dustbowl” one member of the band said, “they just picked up the family banjo and played from the land”. Alongside each song, they curate photographs from the Library of Congress archive, choosing images that chronicle the lives of migrants during the depression. The inspiration behind the presentation is to provide audiences a textured history of the folks that the late, great historian Eric Hobsbawm would have called “uncommon people”.

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Stammersong.

2 Jan

2012 was a year of silence. I am a person complacent in my silences, and for a long time I thought of my quiet as reserve. I even believed it a dignified reserve until one unexpected morning six years ago I realized it was fear.* Something unspoken is something that might not have happened, and within that ambivalence I can construct another universe. A reality that isn’t as cruel, one in which I’m not as vulnerable. My plan, a poet once said, is to sow myself a shroud out of small pieces of silence.

*honestly, I’m a hobbit.

Words are deceptively fragile things. They bend and they blend and they bleed, until suddenly they don’t. Until suddenly they break you. They impose meaning upon memory and dispel shadows and exact sense where there was once only sensation. Words are spells, and spells are promises: of control, of coherence, of consequence. I am not, though I try very hard to pretend otherwise, a person gifted with words. I write not because I can or must, but because I cling. I write from desire.

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