Essays & Articles


"Keats/ and Light"
by Diane di Prima
pp 13-37, in Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute:
Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodies Poetics,
Volume One,
Edited by Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb
Shambhala, Boulder & London, 1978.)
Left:    poet Diane di Prima  
June 24, 1975, Boulder Colorado-- The actual stuff that poetry is made out of is light. There are poems where the light actually comes through the page, the same way that it comes through the canvas in certain Flemish paintings, so you're not seeing light reflected off the painting, but light that comes through, and I don't know the tricks that make this happen. But I know they're there and you can really tell when it's happening.and when it's not. So I've been rying to figure out what makes it happen.And I think it's not very different from the light of meditation. So that I'm beginning to suspect that what makes it happen is the way the sound moves in you, moving your spirit in a certainway to produce a certain effect which is like the effect of light.
And I want to read to you something about the way sound moves in you, the way the sound moves in the hearer. It's from the second book of   Natural and Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa in the 1400's. In the second volume of this three-volume work, Agrippa gets a lot into numbers. When he gets into numbers, he gets into music. When he gets into music, he gets at one point into the fact that vocal music is the most effective of all musics for moving the hearer. And what he has to say about vocal music. And what he has to say about vocal music is not that very different from the effects of a well-read, well-chanted poem:
Singing can do more than the sound of an instrument, inasmuch as it, arising  by an harmonial consent, from the conceit of the mind and by imperious affection of the fantasy and heart, easily penetrateth by motion, with the refracted and well-tempered Air, the Aerious spirit of the hearer, which is the bond of soul and body, and transferring the affection and mind of the Singer with it, it moveth the affection of the hearer by his affection, and the hearer's fantasy by his fantasy, and mind by his mind, and striketh the mind, and striketh the heart, and pierceth even to the inwards of the soul, and by little and little, infuseth even dispositions;  moreover, it moveth and stoppeth the members and the humors of the body . . .
He goes on to say that breath is, of course, spirit, and that what happens is that the spirit,  your spirit as a person singing or chanting or reading aloud, enters the ear and mingles in the body of the hearer, with his spirit, and so moves and changes the body's humors and dispositions. What we are is nothing but a physical instrument, not much different than a musical instrument in some ways, and the effect that we produce--or perceive--of light or other really high energy--meditative high--comes only out of changes in this physical instrument.
And so there is a way, to me, is that the most high aim of poetry is to create that sense of light. There are passages in the Cantos that do that. There are poems in every language that do it, and it's a question of some real subtle juxtapositions of vowels. Pound tried to track it down when he talked about the tone leading of vowels and harmonizing the different vowels, and Duncan is into that when he talks about assonance and "rhyme". Like picking up the same vowel over and over for a long time, and then changing it. Or paced--spaced--repetition of sound. Pound tried earlier to get at it when he wrote--in his critical essays-that we've always in recent centuries had a stressed beat in English verse, whereas the older, quantitative verse, where some syllables are more drawn out than others, gives more the sense of music. It also gives more the space for that phenomenon of light to occur.
One thing that I have just a glimmer, have a handle on, that I really think may be worth thinking about, is this phenomenon of light, in all, maybe in all arts. How it could suddenly burst into light in you body, if it does.
Another really separate thing that I wanted to do today is to share some passages of the letters of John Keats with you. Passages about the writing of poetry. They were maybe my earliest information on what poetry was about. Just like the most recent information I have is this of the breath and light, for me the earliest information was this that I want to read to you next. When I was a youngster, I had been reading a lot of Western philosophy and novels and came upon in a book, a novel by Somerset Maugham, a quotation from Keats. And then I pursued finding Keats and discovered there was poetry and wondered why anybody did it with philosophy when they could do it in a poem. And you can do it different in a poem every day, you can make a different construct. You can make a different reality every day instead of sticking to your system for the rest of your life, like poor Schopenhauer. So at that point I fell totally completely passionately endlessley eternally in love with John Keats. And mainly the information that was in his letters.
Keats was born in 1795 and died in 1821 at the age of 26. These letters were written between 1817 and 1820, so Keats is in his early 20's, 23 or 24. This first quote gives you some sense of his sense of commitment to poetry:
April 17, 1817-- I find I cannot exist without Poetry--eternal Poetry--half the day will not do--the whole of it--I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan. I had become all in a Tremble from not having written anything of late--the Sonnet overleaf did me good. I slept the better las tnight for it--this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again.
Less than a month later, he begins to really get into it--get led by the pursuit:
May 10, 1817--I've asked myself so often why I should be a poet more than other men, seeing how great a thing it is--how great things are to be gained by it--what a thing to be in the mouth of Fame--that at last the idea has grown . . . monstrously beyond my seeming power of attainment . . . Yet 'tis a disgrace to fail, even in a huge attempt; and at this moment I drive the thought from me . . . However I must think that difficulties nerve the Spirit of a man--they make our prime objects a refuge as well as a passion . . . the looking upon the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Earth and its contents, as materials to form greater things--that is to say, ethereal things . . .
At this point, he's climbing, in some sense, out--really climbing out of the matter universe, and there's a flicker, kind of a flicker, of a real gnostic consciousness: how we have to climb back through all the realms, all the concentric spheres of matter, like the planetary spheres, the zodiacal spheres, back into the immaterial. And one way to do that-- use it all up-- every minute. Let's go on. Here's a quote about the long poem.
October 8, 1817-- Why endeavor after a long poem? To which I should answer, do not the lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in, where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second reading: which may be food for a week's stroll in the Summer? . . . Besides, a long poem is a test of invention, which I take to be the Polar star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails--and Imagination the Rudder.
Diane di Prima & Amira Baraka (Leroi Jones)
Amira Baraka and Diane di Prima
I find myself very often when I'm reading something someone gives me, I find myself saying, "you sound like you're just getting started." You know, at the point where the poem finishes. Why not go on for twenty, fifty more pages? "Cause what we tend to kind of like to do is put our toe in?--or like  peek in through the door and stay on the threshold. And if you go past the point where you know what you're talking about and then thru all the blather that goes after that, you might come out in an inner chamber, you know? You just might. You might blather for the rest of your life--a lot of us do--but that's a chance you gotta take. Anyway . . .
Here's a take he did on genius, a take on what "a man of genius" is:
November 22, 1817 -- Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellet--abut they have not any individuality, any detrmined Characer--I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self  Men of Power . . . I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections, and the truth of Imagination.What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth--whether it existed before or not,--flr I have teh same idea of all our passions as of  Love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty . . . The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream,--he awoke and found it truth:--I am more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning--and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his Goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! . . . I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness--I took not for it if it be not in the present hour,--nothing startles me beyond the moment. The Setting Sun will always set me to rights, or if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part iin its existence and pick about the gravel.
This quote, for me, has three different nuggets. First, the thing he goes back to often and later about having--here he says the man of Genius and later he says the poetic character--having no individuality. Later, he goes into it in more detail and talks about partaking in the life of every creature. Really, what he's trying to get at, or describe, seems to be some kind of egoless state. There wasn't that kind of vocabulary in England, thank God, in 1817--thank God, because otherwise he might have said: "Hey man, I just reached a far-out ego-less state the other day, watching this sparrow," and we wouldn't have what we have got.
Then Keats' idea of the imagination, which is really not that different from Blake's--the imagination creates worlds. It brings into being whatever it can vividly and completely conceive. "The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream, he awoke and found it truth." Creative imagination: that idea keeps growing with him all through his life. Somebody, a little old lady in Phoenix--it was one of those question and answer periods after a reading--asked me what I thought the function of the poet was in this society. And I said that if you could imagine anything clearly enough, and tell it precisely enough, that you could bring it about. Anyway, the theory of imagination as creative principle keeps growing for Keats. It is for him--as for Blake--a cornerstone.
And the third thing here--for me, one of the guiding sentences of twenty years of my life, or maybe still, maybe always--is, "I am cerain of nothing baut the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination." That about says it.
Okay, this next is a paragraph that relly got Olsoon off, he quotes it a lot--it's the passage on negative capability. It's very interesting, and these things: imagination, genius as a kind of egolessness, are all part of it. There is a system here, if you wanted to sytemize it. There is a growing system of thought that Keats is evolving, but systemetizing it would be simplistic--it would do him an injustice.

As Keats said, "I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning." I want to just take the quotes and look at them--follow him chronologically through the process.
December 22, 1817--[The winter solstice, by the way.] The excellence of evry art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth . . . several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, , especialy in Literature, and which Shakespear possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
So, at this point what Keats is calling "a sense of beauty," what obliterates all consideration or all thinking process, is that same experience that we have whenever it all drops away. A kind of satori. My friend Katagiri Roshi, who's a Zen master in Minneapolis, gave six lectures once on the word WOW. WOW, as the complete American Zen experience. When it all drops away, when the sense of beauty obliterates all consideration, or the sense of the overwhelmingness of it, WOW, that's all we said for the lat three days, me and my two friends, as we drove here from California, through all this incredible country, and we kept saying . . . they were asleep one night and I'm driving, and saying WOW! WOW!
Negative capability. Now you see how that idea, first of the man of genius not partaking of any inidividual character, becomes a bigger ormore universal idea, which is that idea of negative cpability, of not pursuing any viewpoint. It's kind of a real Eastern idea. Except that it happened fresh from nothing at this point in this kid in some dumpy English suburb. "When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." And to get that state, clearly enough focused to make it the matter of poetry, so taht you don't try to "make sense," but become this receiving tube, become this focusing point.
I have been asked, "how does the artist function in society?"  I'm not saying that the high role of the artist is to function in society at all. But the way that your art does function socially is that when you can visualize clearly any possible human state, or social state for that matter, or universe, and focus it clearly and precisely enough, and then bring it into being either verbally in a poem, or in a painting--you bring that world into existence. And it's permanently here, it doesn't go away. Doesn't even go away when the book gets burned, look at Sappho. Those worlds don't go away.

Question: Do you see any contradiction between that and a statement by Picasso that one should have an idea of what one wants but not too precise an idea.
Oh, no! I don't see any contradiction. Because, you see, the idea of what you want, it's just your launching pad, just what you start off from, it has nothing to do with what you make. When you get through that threshold and you enter the chambeer, that's where you start to see clearly. If your idea is too precise, you might be at that door forever. You know, 'cause you might have the wrong combination for the lock. For example, I might say I know this next part of this poem has to have that feeling of line that they had in paintings in Sienna. I don't mean anything but that I have a feel of something about to happen there. That's a non-precise idea, and at that point, that's all you have. And then when you enter into the act of composing, at that point you have nothing--everything drops away, and you have only what you're receiving. Your whole purpose as an artist is to make yourself a fine enough organism to most precisely receive, and most precisely transmit. And at that point--total attentiion to total detail, total suspension of everything but that vision, whatever it is, and gain, at that point, no idea at all, no idea. The idea was just your first--the idea is what made you get up that morning and put your shoes on. And when you find yourself in an incredible grove, it's not because you had an idea you were gonna get there. But when you get to the grove, you damn well better open your eyes. It's two different parts of the process.  More Keats . . .
February 3, 1818. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul and does nt startle it or amaze it with itself--but with its subject . . . we need not be teased with grandeur and merit: when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.

Poet Diane di Prima

Note: more text of Diane di Prima's lecture
on Keats/Light and his notion of
"negative capability"
to be uploaded by maryclaire
this weekend . . .
I will do my best, it's a lot of typing.
March 7, 2003


The Alluvial Marshland: 
The Development of Imagination
and the Power of Memory

by Maryclaire Wellinger, March, 2003

The Tigris River . . .
Make a cup of your hands,
cradle its fragile body of water,
and let its tributaries flow through you fingers.
You are cradling the cradle of civilization.
On the Eve of War, here sitting at my computer in Marblehead, Massachusetts, I am meditating upon the vast alluvial Marshland at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, a fragile ecoregion. This life-giving and life-sustaining marshland was damaged by the Gulf War, and its waters have been bled by Saddam Hussein for a decade.  For ecological information, read the four articles on:
This vast  alluvial marshland is the Glacier's gift to the birds-- pelicans, egrets, flamingos-- the greatest fly-over for all Eurasia. This place also has been the home of the Marsh Arabs for 3,000 years.  It is where you would go to collect papyrus reeds and to build yourself a sailing vessel, sound and seaworthy. The impending war, with its heartless bombs, depleted uranium, and killing spills of chemicals and oil , threatens the marshland's lifeblood, its waters,  to extinction.  This poet expresses her despair in the poem "Great Glacier -- Monumental Sculptor" --see 
One of the four articles on the NO MORE WAR page, explains the crisis in a scientific way:
 Environment Problem Type:  HABITAT LOSS.  Due to the marsh draining, there is a large bio-diversity problem.  FISH, BIRDS, and HUMANS are being displaced.  CROPS are also being destroyed, as well as the LAND and the marshes them-selves.  The salinization of the land is polluting formerly good agricultural areas, such as the land surrounding the `Amara Marsh.
But on the Eve of a War  which will reign an ordinance of bombs to a massively lethal degree and so will likely kill and wound many humans, families, students, mothers and children -- why concern myself with a  marshland?  You might wonder,  "of all the things to focus on".  Well, it's my way of connecting with the monumental nature of the war against Iraq -- it makes it real to me.  My friend Lisa Atkins, was talking about this problem with me on Monday. She is a mother of young children and she makes the war real by thinking of other young women like herself who are mothers, and how they must be frightened for themselves and their babies.
I also think of individual people -- a Gulf War veteran who has serious health problems because his body contains 100 times the safe dosage of depleted uranium. This substance was used by our troops in rifle bullets during the first Gulf War, and we have no way to treat our veterans who were harmed by that weapon. This makes it real to me. One person whose life has been severely impacted.
For me, the alluvial marshland is a place of mystery and beauty and the source of  life.  It is a place of great significance to me as a poet and artist because it is the place where I first learned how to live in my Imagination.

The Marshland was the Original Place Where I Learned to Live in my Imagination

Growing up in New England, I was introduced to the beauty and mystery of the marshland on Cape Cod during summer vacations when our family would rent a cottage.  Days and weeks to explore these coastal waters teaming with sea life, shore life-- birds, muskrats, fin-fish, and shellfish.  The marshland was the nurturing space for my imagination, my  psyche-soma teaming with images and connections-- colors and shapes that looked good and words and phrases that sounded good. The creatures who lived in the marsh had lyrical sounding names -- names like "hermit crabs" and "starfish." This was a place where I could go to-- literally-- as a child to live in my Imagination, think my own thoughts, meditate on my own dreams and create my own visions. 


"Memory, The Root of a Lily"
As an adult, I traveled with my ex-husband, Christopher Coulson, to England and was enthralled by the Saltcombe Estuary ecoregion and also the Romney Marshes near Cliffe and Rochester in Kent where Chris had lived before in England. Then in later years, we sailed through the landscape of East Anglia, along its system of tidal rivers, abandoned windmills, the stone foundations of  medieval hermitages, Roman bridges and flourishing farms that reached to the riverbanks and sheltered near the brick  corn exchange, still an active trading center. This was in the early  1980's. I wrote a poem, which you can read on my poem-paintings page, "Memory, the Root of a Lily"  which is about the nourishing food for growth our brain-heart memory gives to us -- it is about the positive aspects of how memory can sustain us. It might help to first read the poem  --  click on:

As a poet and painter in this present time and place, I still mostly live in my Imagination.  And it is this marshy sea and river place of my childhood  summers, wth its  forest of reeds, which sustains me now.  This is where I go to, and where the Life of My Imagination thrives-- this is the origin, the original place.   


The alluvial marshland's confluence of waters, its tidal comings and goings, is the place where I am creatively energized and artistically renewed. One moment, I am washed up, stranded on the mud, bleached out in the sun, open-mouthed,  agape--  gasping for air.  And then, I begin to feel a sensation, the lapping of water -- tidal waters are rushing in. I am renewed --  uplifted and buoyant  in salt-sea waters, to heights of fifteen feet or more to the tips of reeds.  I float on my back on a warm summer evening with moonlight reflecting softly on the surface of the water beyond my free- floating body, my skin caressed by the light summer airs of Massachusetts Bay. I hear the sound of an owl's wings whistle above, then a rustle of reeds, a sharp cry.  Using the stars scattered like marbles across the sky above me, I can imagine a mythical creature, trace its  profile and draw the outline of its fantastic shape with my eyes. No need for pen-and-ink.

Also, when I wrote the poem, I was beginning my practice as a psychotherapist with my then husband and partner, Christopher Coulson, and we had moved to Marblehead to be near our antique wooden sailboat we named "Memory,"  and to open our joint psychotherapy practice. As a psychotherapist I appreciated that one of the significant tools for our healing work was the client's memory of incidents and events which took place in their Family of Origin.  How we remembered early traumas and the language we found to describe them,  provided a key to their unfolding, and to realizing and expressing  feelings and thoughts dormant for a long time. And to eventual integration, a growing sense of strength and loveability for the client.  Memory was a significant tool.


The poem begins:

 "Memory illuminates our sleep,

gliding near silence through saltmarsh down the long river.

Memory swims through water like a boat,

a shark of cedar, its white beaminess

bearing down upon weathered bronze currents . . ."

In the poem, the metaphor of the sailing vessel as  our "Memory", refers to (1)  the discrete and finite memory of events experienced by one person-- that kind of memory, and (2) also the collective memory of our experience as a species remembering our true connection to Nature and its boundless circle. There are many layers to the poem , as there are to the organic process of  Memory itself. Because the name of our boat was "Memory" and the recurring dream I had which powers the poem was a striking visual image of that white-hulled wooden sailing vessel under sail on the horizon with mainsail and jib shining a brilliant white against the purple night-sky, under the white moon,

" the white moon, whose maternal station is kept

there-- beyond the tip of the pine tree's black spine,


the white moon-- the muskrat's lodestone on purple nights." 


In the dream and in the poem, the vessel Memory glides along the edge of the night-sky's horizon in a sea of pale golden marshreeds  in the foreground . Throughout the poem, Memory is described as  " . . . gliding near silence"  then   "humming near silence . . ". and lastly ". . . reaching near silence under her sail . . . "


Years later, after Chris and I had  divorced, after that sad parting-of-the-ways of our river-of-life together, one summer I would often visit with a friend who had inherited land on Cape Ann in Ipswich, Massachusetts -- the  miraculous marshland of my childhood resituated in time and place. We would swim at night in a tidal river  winding its way through the pine and birch trees, the perched boulders of his woods, preserved in its natural state in perpetuity through his family's land trust. 


Twice a day, the miles of  unwinding ribbon of muddy, exposed earth would fill up to the depth of ten feet, twelve feet, fifteen then twenty feet high to the tips of the saltmarsh reeds.  Seawater  would rush  in -- flooding, engulfing-- and our bodies would be uplifted, buoyant from salt-sea waters . The absence of  earth's gravity encouraged that floating, meditational, poetic way of being-- that sense of  "one--ing"  with all aspects of nature. Through my night-swimming in the Ipswich tidal estuary, I could revisit the original child-place where I had first learned to live in my Imagination-- the alluvial marshland, the gift of the Great Glacier, Nature's Monumental Sculptor.


This is why I feel an urgent need to petition the great Glacier to preserve the marshland she once created at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.  To spill ordinance of bombs, to spill oil or depleted uranium on these waters -- unspeakable horror created by human beings who are split off, disconnected, in denial from their true connection to Nature in all its aspects.  Oh, great glacier,  preserve this alluvial marshland, a fly-over for the birds of all Eurasia, a place of great personal affinity, a place where I first learned to live in my Imagination.


a scene from the film"Anna Karenina"
by Count Leo Tolstoy, 1878
writer/director Bernard Rose, Warner Brothers, 1997

"Anna Karenina" by Count Leo Tolstoy, 1876
Writer/director BERNARD ROSE, Warner Bros., 1997

Words of War

By AZAR NAFISI,  March 27, 2003
published in The New York Times

WASHINGTON These days I am often asked what I did in Tehran as bombs fell during the Iran-Iraq war. My interlocutors are invariably surprised, if not shocked, when I tell them that I read James, Eliot, Plath and great Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez. Yet it is precisely during such times, when our lives are transformed by violence, that we need works of imagination to confirm our faith in humanity, to find hope amid the rubble of a hopeless world. Memoirs from concentration camps and the gulag attest to this. I keep returning to the words of Leon Staff, a Polish poet who lived in the Warsaw ghetto: "Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all."

I think back to the eight-year war with Iraq, a time when days and nights seemed indistinguishable, and were reduced to the sound of the siren, warning us of the next air attack. I often reminded my students at Allameh Tabatabai University that while guns roared and the Winter Palace was stormed, Nabokov sat at his desk writing poetry.

My Tehran classroom at times overflowed with students who ignored the warnings about Iraq's chemical bombs so they could reckon with Tolstoy's ability to defamiliarize (a term coined by the Russian Formalist critics) everyday reality and offer it to us through new eyes. The excitement that came from discovering a hidden truth about "Anna Karenina" told me that Iraqi missiles had not succeeded in their mission. Indeed, the more Saddam Hussein wanted us to be defined by terror, the more we craved beauty.

If I felt compelled to keep rereading the classics, it was in order to see the light in the eyes of my students. I remember two young women, clad from head to toe in black chadors, looking as if nothing in the world mattered more than the idea that "Pride and Prejudice" was subversive because it taught us about our right to make our own choices.

Among my scribbled notes from those days, I found a quote from Saul Bellow about writers in the Soviet work camps. To my friends in the United States who are skeptical about the importance of imagination in times of war, let me share his words: "Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances is also to reach the heart of politics. The human feelings, human experiences, the human form and face, recover their proper place the foreground."

And so a new war has begun, though this time it is my adopted country and not the country of my birth that is fighting Iraq. Nothing will replace the lives lost. Still, I will take some comfort now as I did then by opening a book.


Azar Nafisi,

a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran."





"The Struggle"
an excerpt from her book  Between Lives by 
Dorothea Tanning

'Thus I have come one morning to the studio, into the litter and debris of last week and the day before. Tables hold fast under their load of tubes and brushes, cans and bottles interspersed with hair roller pins, that view of Delft, a stapler, a plastic tub of gypsum powder, a Polaroid of two dogs, green flashbulbs for eyes, a postcard picturing the retreating backs of six nudists on a eucalyptus-shaded path, a nibless pen, an episcope (an optical projector). On the floor or on the wall or on the easel, a new surface waits whitely.

 Dorothea Tanning


Battle green, blood geranium, rubbed bloody black, drop of old rain. The canvas lies under my liquid hand. Explosia, a new planet invented with its name. That's what we paint for, invention. Unheard-of news, flowers, or flesh. "Not a procedure," I say to the room. "Nothing to do with twenty-four hours: just an admixture for all five senses, the sixth one to be dealt with separately."

Because this is only the beginning. A long flashed life, as they say, before dying. I am a fish swimming upstream. At the very top I deposit my pictures; then I die as they ripen and hatch and swim down, very playfully, because they are young and full of big ideas. Down and down, and finally, among the people who like to fish pictures, they are caught and devoured by millions of eyes.

In this artist's dream-plot there are only artist-scales, iridescent though they may be. And the rest? For thirty-five years, life was love, a second skin. Authoritative, instinctual love. Now life is life, sybaritic, an absolutely polished structure of skeletal simplicity. Uninvolved, uncommitted, underworn, deeply and evenly breathed. Its second plot, not life but art, unfolds painty wings each day to try the air, pushing out perhaps reluctant visions, uninvolved, yes, unaware of their public category.

It is one of those days and it is time to reconsider. Time to turn inside out before the first gesture. You have drawn up a stool and sit gazing at the first whiteness, feeling suddenly vulnerable and panic-stricken before your light-hearted intention. What has happened, where is the euphoria, the confidence of five minutes ago? Why is certainty receding like distance, eluding you, paling out to leave the whiteness as no more than a pitiless color? Is a canvass defiant, sullen? Something must be done.

Ambivalent feelings, then, for the blank rectangle. On one hand the innocent space, possibilities at your mercy, a conspiracy shaping up. You and the canvass are in this together. Or are you? For, seen the other way, there is something queerly hostile, a void as full of resistance as the trackless sky, as mocking as heat lightning. If it invites to conspiracy it also coldly challenges to battle.

Quite mechanically during these first moments - hours? - the little bowl has been filled with things like turpentine and varnish; tubes of colour have been chosen, Like jewels on a tray, and squeezed, snaky blobs, onto a paper palette. The beautiful colors give heart. Soon they will explode. A shaft of cobalt violet. With echoes from alizarin and titanium and purple - which is really red. There is orange from Mars, mars orange. The sound of their names, like planets: cerulean and earthshadow, raw or burnt; ultramarine out of the sea, barite and monacal and vermillion. Siren sounds of cochineal and dragon's blood, and gamboge and the lake from blackthorn berries that draw you after them; they sing in your ear, promising that merely to dip a brush in their suavities will produce a miracle.

What does it matter that more often not the artist is dashed against the rocks and the miracle recedes, a dim phosphorescence? Something has remained: the picture that has taken possession of the cloth, the board, the wall. No longer a blind surface, it is an event, it will mark a day in a chaotic world and will become order. Calm in its commotion, clear in its purpose, voluptuous in its space.

Here it is, seduction taking the place of awe. After a quick decision - was it not planned in the middle of the night along with your subject and its thrust? - a thin brush is chosen, is dipped and dipped again - madder, violet, gold ocher. A last stare at the grim whiteness before taking the plunge, made at last with the abandon "of divers," said Henry James, speaking of birds, "not expecting to rise again." Now, after only seconds, blankness and nothingness are routed forever.

A hundred forms loom in charming mock dimensions to lure you from your subject, the one that demands to be painted; with each stroke (now there are five brushes in two hands) a thousand other pictures solicit permanence. Somewhere the buzzer buzzes faintly. Sounds from the street drift up, the drone of a plane drifts down. The phone may have rung. A lunchless lunch hour came and went.

The beleaguered canvass is on the floor. Colors are merging. Cobalt and chrome bridge a gap with their knowing nuances. Where is the cadmium red-orange? The tubes are in disorder, their caps lost, their labels smeared with wrong colours.

Oh, where is the red-orange, for it is at the moment the only color in the world and Dionysus the only deity.

Now there is no light at all in the studio. The day is packing up, but who cares? With a voice of its own the canvass hums a tune for the twilight hour, half heard, half seen. Outlines dance; sonic eyes bid you watch out for surprises that break all the rules: white on black making blue; space that deepens with clutter; best of all, the fierce, ambivalent human contour that catches sound and sight and makes me a slave. Ah, now the world will not be exactly as it was this morning! Intention has taken over and here in this room leans a picture that is at last in league with its painter, hostilities forgotten. For today.

As brushes are cleaned and windows opened to clear the turpentine air, the artist steals glances - do not look too long - at the living, breathing picture, for it is already a picture. Once again light-hearted, even light-headed, the mood is vaporous. There are blessed long hours before tomorrow...

Have I slept? Once again before the daubed canvas, which is now upright in the harsh morning light. I am aghast. How could anyone have found it good, even a good start.? Traitorous twilight, fostering those balloons of pride that had floated all over the studio! Yesterday ended in a festival, was positively buoyant. Syncopating with glances canvasward, brush-cleaning drudgery was a breeze (a hellish task after a failed day). Now you are bound. The canvas is to be reckoned with. It breathes, however feebly. It whispers a satanic suggestion for the fast, easy solution. "Others have done it, do it, why not you?" How to explain? There is no fast and easy for me.

Daily depths of depression, as familiar as a limp is to the war-wounded, are followed by momentary exhaltations, sometimes quiet certainties: Yeah, that's it... But if that is it, then the presence... on... the other side... all changed now, dark again... Must wait for tomorrow... Oh God... How awful...

Several days have left their gestural arabesques in the big room, adding up to clutter and despondency. Dust has been raised in the lens of the eye; intention has softened to vagary. Then an idea in the night brings its baggage to the morning. Welcome! Go ahead. Stare at the canvass already occupied by wrong paint, hangdog. But not for long. Not this time. Because you dive - with an intake of breath you dive, deep into your forest, your desert, your dream.

Now the doors are all open, the air is mother-of-pearl, and you know the way to tame a tiger. It will not elude you today, for you have grabbed a brush, you have dipped it almost at random, so high is you rage, into the amalgam of color, formless on a docile palette.

As you drag lines like ropes across one brink of reality after another, annihilating the world you made yesterday and hated today, a new world heaves into sight. Again the event progresses, without benefit of hours.

Before the emerging picture there is no longer panic to shake heart and hand, only a buzzing in your ears to mark rather unconvincingly the passage of time. You sit or stand, numb in either case, or step backward, bumping as often or not into forgotten objects dropped on the floor. You coax the picture out of its cage along with personae, essences, its fatidic suggestion, its insolence. Friend or enemy? Tinged with reference - alas, as outmoded these days as your easel - weighted as the drop of rain that slid on the window, it swims toward completion. Evening soaks in unnoticed until lengthening shadows have caressed every surface in the room, every hair on your head, and every shape in your painted picture.

The application of color to a support, something to talk about when it's all over, now hold you in thrall. The act is your accomplice. So are the tools, beakers, bottles, knives, glues, solubles, insolubles, tubes, plasters, cans; there is no end...

Time to sit down. Time to clean the brushes, now become a kindly interlude. Time to gaze and gaze; you can't get enough of it because you are now on the outside looking in. You are merely the visitor, grandly invited: "Step in."

"Oh, I accept." Even though the twilight has faded to black and blur, making sooty phantoms of your new companions, you accept. Feeling rather than seeing, you share exuberance. You are surprised and uneasy when you seem to hear the rather conspiratorial reminder that it was, after all, your hand, your will, your turmoil that has produced it all, this brand new event in a very old world. Thus, you may think:" "Have I brought a little order out of the chaos? Or have I merely added to the general confusion? Either way a mutation has taken place. You have not painted in a vacuum. You have been bold, working for change. To overturn values. The whirling thought: change the world. It directs the artist's daily act. Yes, modesty forbids saying it. But say it secretly. You risk nothing.'

--Excerpt from 'Between Lives'
by Dorothea Tanning, 2001, Norton.


In 1975, Tanning spent eleven months trying to cope with the stroke-smitten, powerless, angrily powerful Max Ernst. Her husband and soul-mate of so many years and so many homes survived a head wound in the Great War, survived the Nazi invasion of France, escaping Paris, then Marseilles by the skin of his teeth and in 1942 met the much younger Dorothea, a struggling illustrator, at her New York apartment. Seeing her painting, 'Birthday', seeing that she played chess, seeing her... he never left. 

"The Struggle" was written in her solitary state, returned to New York, refinding her own voice without her Max's dominating fame and presence. All her contemporaries were gone: the Belgian and Parisian Surrealists, free-spirited American women: Kay Sage, Lee Miller, great friends, John Cage, Marcel and Teeny Duchamp, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Julien Levy, Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote... She continues to work at the age of 92.

below: "Birthday" by Dorothea Tanning, 1942


'Surrealism: Desire Unbound'  at the Tate Modern

A Review by Borin Van Loon


Not a 'blockbuster' exhibition, if such a thing exists, and probably all the better for it. As one of the most important, turbulent and, it must be admitted, inherently flawed movements in art, poetry and revolutionary politics of the last century, Surrealism explores and uncovers that which is 'above the real', a dimension of meaning which transcends bourgeois 'common sense'. Given their positioning in history (born out of the unbridled nihilism of Dada, itself a product of the horrors of the Great War) the founding fathers of Surrealism (and it was mainly men at the start: women were seen as muses for the males) didn't have much time for that dominant and dreaded class dubbed by Marx 'the bourgeoisie'. Uneasy off-and-on relations with the official Communist Party throughout the Stalinist era didn't really help; it's clear that the hard left in France couldn't cope with these semi-anarchic, strange young men and their passionate, disturbing attitudes towards the stifling mediocrity of the European middle class.

At the centre of Surrealism's agenda was the pursuit and examination of desire. The word 'desire', as it appears in the title of this exhibition, applies to all areas of human activity which are suppressed by bourgeois values. Adopting the spirit and vocabulary of the Russian Revolution and Freudian psychoanalysis (two unlikely bedfellows) led the early practitioners to experiment with pure psycic automatism, often to the exclusion of other forms of expression. These factors conspired to destabilise a movement which was remarkably long-lived, eventually being shattered only by the invasion of France by the Nazis. As a coherent movement Surrealism found a figurehead (and he did have a remarkably large, leonine head) in Andre Breton. Breton himself embodied a revolutionary spirit with a questionable attitude towards women and extreme homophobia. During the 'Discussions on Sexuality' which were transcribed in the thirties and published in full only recently, Breton threatened to terminate discussions which wandered into same-sex practices on several occasions. Given the free-ranging and openly frank intentions of these group discussions, his impulses mark him out against many of the more liberal participants. Needless to say, any women present remained largely silent or were busy acting as secretary.

Many of the prejudices and contradictions inherent in society as a whole were embodied by the Surrealists. Successive expulsions from the group were often followed by tacit reacceptance into the fold, in typical French counter-cultural mode (see also: Situationists whose leader Guy Debord eventually expelled everyone from the inner core except himself). The group were destined to drag their remnants back together after the war and find Breton at the centre of a new generation of followers in Paris, though with diminished influence. Jean-Paul Sartre had a very existential and jaundiced view of Surrealism, but I wonder what Simone de Beauvoir would have had to say about the bundle of Maoist contradictions which was Sartre.

Slavish adherence to automatism, even though it had contributed notable work such as the prose-poem 'Magnetic Fields' by Breton and Paul Eluard and the automatic drawings and paintings of Andre Masson, led to freer expressions. Salvador Dali, whose extreme posturing shocked even the Surrealists, invented the Paranoic-Critical Method of capturing dreams and nightmares on minutely detailed canvasses. The dazzling vision and technique of these paintings from the thirties, as well as his 'symbolically-functioning objects' and poems comprise major works of the movement.

The Tate Modern offers us all the usual suspects from its own collections and many rarities from around the world. Magritte is here only sparingly ('The Lovers' 1928), some major Ernsts ('The Robing of the Bride' 1940), fine sculptures by Giacometti ('Woman With Her Throat Cut' 1932, shown left) , great photography by Man Ray and Lee Miller ('Anatomies' 1929), and good selections from the man-child paintings of Miro. Meret Oppenheims 'Object', which set American society alight when it was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art, demonstrates the characteristic paradox of object and material: a cup and saucer covered in fur. Man Ray's flat-iron which has a row of nails welded down the centre of its pressing surface, 'Gift', embodies the same feeling of unease: an object which destroys that which it is intended to improve. On the ironing theme, Marcel Duchamp proposed his own version of the surrealist object: the Old Master painting which is used as an ironing board.

An extensive selection of documents, photographs and letters lies at the heart of this exhibition. Not spectacular in itself, this gallery contains much of the restless spirit of Surrealism. The star of the show for me was the painting 'Gradiva' by Andre Masson (shown above). Based on its own borrowed myths and references it contains - quite literally - volcanic sexuality and a part human, part stonework female figure bisected by a joint of meat (shades of Stanley Spencer here), with a conch shell instead of genitalia.

In the words of the Comte de Lautremont: it's as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing machine. At its best, it quite takes the breath away. We all know that Surrealism continues to be the currency of much of today's advertising. One only has to look at some of the slightly repellant television advertisments on our screens (BBC internet: walking fingers with little human heads; a monstrous computer-generated baby which rampages through a hospital like Ridley Scott's alien: some make of car or other) to see its dominance. Meanwhile it reverberates in the stand-up comedy of Eddie Izzard and Emo Philips and the film-making of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Jan Svankmajer. It informs comic strips (modesty forbids...) and situation comedy ('Fast Show', 'Big Train', 'Smack the Pony'). "It's quite surreal" has become a commonplace amongst people who have no idea what surrealism is; quite often the situation so described isn't really surreal at all (see also 'Kafkaesque').

Finally, one of my favourite artists, Dorothea Tanning, soul-mate of Max Ernst and a superb painter to boot, leaves me with the most memorable of images. 'Birthday' (1942, shown left) is a full length selfportrait of the artist at the age of thirty, bare breasted and standing in front of an endless succession of open doors. At her feet a grotesque succubus crawls. In the specialist shop afterwards I spend 45 minutes and loadsamoney on my choices. Tanning's autobiography, a book of automatic texts (including 'Les Champs Magnetique') and Michel Foucault on that most equivocal Magritte work: 'Ceci n'est pas une Pipe'. A crystal paperweight with the enlarged eye of Lee Miller at its heart and a few postcards and I am done. Disappointingly no t-shirts (I didn't really want one of the extortionate 'TATE' ones with the lettering composed of three dimensional Dalinian ants). But, all in all, an exhilarating show.

As I walk into the huge halls of the Tate's main exhibition area, I'm drawn by a crowd huddled into one of the mini-cinema areas where once the full-frontal film of a naked artist disporting himself was shown. There, transfixed, visitors stare at the projected animations of Jan Svankmajer. 'Dimensions of Dialogue' explores two clay-sculpted heads on a table top as they stare with glass eyes at each other in an unnerving manner and fence with a variety of objects which issue from their mouths. One of the finest pieces of film making in the history of cinema.

--Borin Van Loon, January 2002

The Surrealism exhibition ran from 20 September 2001 to 1 January 2002 at the Tate Modern in London. Our Chairman Borin Van Loon went along and sent us this review.


Fusion feast
Vogels Ride is well worth taking

REMARKABLY LIFELIKE, the bunraku puppets are here manipulated by Angela Brazil, Rachael Warren, and Stephen Thorne.

The Long Christmas Ride Home By Paula Vogel.
Directed by Oskar Eustis. Set by Loy Arcenas. Costumes by William Lane. Lighting by Pat Collins. Choreography by Donna Uchizono. Sound by Darron L. West. Puppets designed by Basil Twist. With Angela Brazil, Timothy Crowe, Seán Martin Hingston, Anne Scurria, Stephen Thorne, Rachael Warren, and musician Sumie Kaneko. At Trinity Repertory Company through June 29.

Playwright Paula Vogel spends more time in a car than a taxi driver. She won her 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for How I Learned To Drive, the lyrical, economical story of a young girls liaison with the uncle who taught her, among other things, to handle an automobile. Now, in her first play in five years, the haunting The Long Christmas Ride Home, which is getting its world-premiere production at Trinity Rep, she puts yet another unhappy family in a Rambler for a metaphorical journey that blends the influences of Thornton Wilder and Japanese noh. Throw in Vogels own savage whimsies and you have a potentially exquisite contemplation of the childhood roots of personality, dysfunction, and heartbreak in which past and future, East and West, actors and puppets share the stage.

Inspired by the short plays of Thornton Wilder, including The Long Christmas Dinner and Happy Journey to Trenton, as well as by the final act of Our Town, Vogels intermissionless tragi-comedy begins in the 1950s, on a miserable, pivotal car ride to and from Grandmas house for Christmas dinner. In the front are hostile parents Ray (a bitter philanderer) and Kate. In back are the children, precocious Rebecca, sensitive Stephen, and daddys tomboy Claire, in the form of lifesize bunraku puppets manipulated by the actors who will later play the children as adults and by masked black-clad puppeteers. Clad in their Sunday best, the puppets, the creations of Basil Twist, are remarkably lifelike, their faces little masks of sorrow, elation, apprehension, and bewilderment.

Relating the shattering events of this family Christmas, " years and days ago, " the parents narrate each others sins and grudges, often in deftly heightened language; the puppet children alternately swat at one another and soar in holiday reverie, anticipating turkey and presents and " disappointment. " On the way home, after the party has ended in hostilities, a moment of violence results in the cars leaving the road to rest perilously above a creek bed. In an agonized moment of suspended time, the three children are then hurtled into the pained, disconnected futures for which their wounded childhood is preparing them. It is here that the play, like the car, spins a bit out of control, only to return, at the end, to a beautiful coda that echoes both the dead Emilys realization in Our Town and the mantra of the Grandma of Vogels play that " its amazing what people throw away. "

In the second half of the play, in three brief, melodramatic scenarios, each grown sibling finds himself shut out by a rejecting lover. Rebecca, who never wanted children, is pregnant by her live-in boyfriends best friend. Claire, abandoned by her lesbian love, is suicidal. And Stephen has died of AIDS willfully contracted through unsafe sex on the rebound, in the back room of a biker bar. These arguably clichéd dramas, luridly sketched, are themselves daringly enhanced by the use of puppets (including naked lesbians making love in a lighted window), their part of the dialogue supplied in abstract blats by on-stage musician Sumie Kaneko on a long-necked Japanese string instrument called the samisen.

The use of Eastern philosophy and artistry is, for the most part, ingeniously incorporated into The Long Christmas Ride Home, from the flashback to the Unitarian Universalist Christmas Eve service that begins Stephens lifelong fascination with things Japanese to the music and puppets. At the core is the Buddhist belief in " ukiyo, " " the floating world, " in which the ephemera of life is both acknowledged and celebrated (joy in the world as opposed to " Joy to the World, " as the UU minister puts it). Toward the end, as the dead Stephen explains the presence of " the ancestors " breathing among us, there is also an Asian-influenced dance sequence by electrifying actor-dancer Seán Martin Hingston, though it was unclear to me whether meant to represent Stephen or the love of Stephens life.

Whatever its flaws, The Long Christmas Ride Home is a stunning stage piece, theatrical and tender, and Oskar Eustiss expert Trinity production, developed with Vogel, is a proud accomplishment. To my mind, there remains work for Vogel to do in the second half of the play, to tone down the formulaic, overwrought, and repetitive elements of the flash-forwards. But the saga of the forlorn and angry nuclear family, and of the puppet siblings in particular, joined like ONeills Tyrones by old sorrows and unbreakable " strands of flesh, " is original and unerring. Vogels ambitious, impossible notion to fuse her Rambler with a Toyota was worth waiting five years for.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003

''Ambreen Butt:

I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips'' is on display at the Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through May 11.
508-799-4406 or

A woman of many worlds

In art, Ambreen Butt grapples with the clash of Western, Islamic values

By Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent, 4/11/2003

WORCESTER -- The title of Ambreen Butt's solo show at the Worcester Art Museum speaks not only of her paintings, but of the 33-year-old artist herself. It is called ''I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips.'' The phrase, which is also the title of her most recent series of paintings, comes from a work by the 18th-century Sufi poet Bulleh Shah. Butt cites these lines:


Speaking the truth creates chaos.

Telling a lie saves one scarce.

I am afraid of both these;

Afraid I am both here and there.

I must utter what comes to my lips.

The Pakistani-born Butt is petite and soft-spoken, and when she speaks, she seems to be seeking the truth. She knows this can be a slippery thing, especially when the subjects are politics, war, and culture. Even so, she keeps trying.

''Certain things are right and wrong,'' the Cambridge-based painter says as she walks through the Worcester exhibition. ''I need to express that. It's my role as an artist and as a human being. For instance, I don't understand when bombs are dropping from the sky and at the same time food is dropping from the sky. I don't want to hear about the politics of it. I just don't understand how that could happen.''

Wrestling with such questions and contradictions is what drives her to make her art. It's an endless and daunting cycle of loss, learning, and renewal. Butt knows about being lost and found. A Muslim, she came to Boston to get her master's degree at the Massachusetts College of Art nearly a decade ago and stayed on. She hasn't returned to Pakistan in seven years. A woman of many worlds, Butt says she's not exactly at home in any of them.

''There's no place you can say that is home,'' she says. ''Really, home is within yourself.''

Butt studied Persian and Indian miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore. She grounds her paintings in the precise technique, saturated colors, and storytelling tradition of Mughal miniature painting.

Her works also embrace themes of contemporary Western art. The winner of the first Institute of Contemporary Art Artist Prize in 1999, Butt makes herself the protagonist of most of her paintings, but she sees the woman in the paintings as a stand-in for everyone. She uses the self-portraits to wrestle with questions about relationships, identity, and desire. In ''I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips,'' she focuses on the clash between Western values and those of Islam, and on the responsibility every man and woman has to speak the truth.

''I think she's very brave,'' says Susan L. Stoops, curator of contemporary art at the Worcester Art Museum. ''She's asking questions, and she's willing to put them out in public when they're still questions, when the outcome isn't realized. The content is not about resolution. It encourages us to keep asking questions.

''People want the story to have an ending. Ambreen raises the bar. She doesn't make it easy. She doesn't say there's one answer to the question.''

Butt's paintings, sometimes as large as 17 by 14 inches, are bigger than traditional miniatures. That's because she wants her viewers to see the expressions on her protagonist's face. Still, the works are rooted in a centuries-old technique that was dying when Butt happened upon it in the early '90s. Lately, it's had a resurgence.

The brushes she uses, which she brought from Pakistan, are made from squirrel fur, lodged into the shaft of a pigeon feather, which in turn is installed in a bamboo stick.

''You make the paper, the brush, the pigment,'' she says. ''It's such an engaging process. You work many hours a day, many days a week, and you don't see much happen. You must be persistent and patient.''

The new exhibition features three bodies of work. The paintings in the ''Home and the World'' and the ''Farewell'' series are done on numerous layers of transparent Mylar, suggesting the many levels of the artist's identity, memories, and feelings that go into each painting. Those in the series ''I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips'' are painted on paper created for miniatures, called wasli, made of multiple layers of fine cotton and silk pulp and burnished with a conch shell.

She painted the final series over the past year at artist-in-residence programs in Michigan and North Carolina. ''I was isolated, living by myself in the middle of the woods. There were bears,'' Butt recalls.

Yet the world crashes into ''I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips.'' Missiles explode. Planes fly into skyscrapers as the protagonist walks a tightrope in the foreground. She's attacked by birds with stars on their wings, dragged up by her hair by a phoenix, blindfolded and armed with a pistol.

One painting depicts a woman on her back, being hauled up by her feet by a flock of birds. Her hair has grown tree roots, from which a tree sprouts. The woman clings to the branches as she's dragged away.

''She's a victim,'' Butt says. ''Growing the tree was a little selfish act. She's grown something for herself, the tree from her hair. Now she must let go. It's the human psyche: Today she's the victim. Tomorrow, she's the oppressor.''

For a viewer besieged by television images and radio reports of the war in Iraq, Butt's exhibition is a balm. It doesn't explain the war or accept it. But through its beauty and its unwillingness to offer pat answers, it opens a pathway for the viewer to begin to understand his or her own feelings about war, violence, and oppression.

''When the art makes you think, that's when I feel I've succeeded,'' Butt says. ''The poetry has to be there, even if it's difficult. The message has to be foiled in beauty to get it across.''

In a later e-mail, Butt described her experience working on one of the paintings, which portrays a woman who has constructed a cage from her long hair. She has captured a phoenix in it. As she painted, the artist says, she listened to a recording of poetry by Shah, sung by Pakistani folk singer Abida Parveen.

''In one verse, Bulleh Shah questions that you go outside to search and fight the devil, but have you ever looked into your own self?'' Butt explains. ''Have you ever fought with your own conscience?

''This was exactly what I was thinking when I was making that painting. The image suggests that there is no need to go out to fight the evil. If only we can control the evil within our own self, everything would fall in its right place.''




Yoko Ono: Yes

Retrospective, 2001
MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge


Many people know Yoko Ono only as John Lennon's widow, the woman who staged high-profile protests with the former Beatle during the height of the Vietnam War, and later witnessed his murder at the hands of a deranged fan.

Detractors condemned her as the dragon lady responsible for the Beatles' breakup and a social climber who garnered publicity on the back of her world-famous husband.

But few know Ono the artist, who left Japan with her parents to settle in New York, and later played a vital role in the artistic avant-garde. The survey of her work from the 1960s to the present currently on display at MIT List Visual Arts Center may change all of that.

From the start of her career, Ono was on the front lines with New York's most accomplished creative minds.


She aligned herself with Fluxus, a late 1950s-early '60s group of artists in southern Manhattan who sought to erase the boundaries between music, poetry, visual art and performance. Trained as a classical pianist, Ono's association with the group brought her in contact with multidisciplinary artists, such as underground composer La Monte Young and video artist Nam June Paik, who also began his career as a composer.

Many of Ono's seminal pieces are in the List Center's survey of her work. These include her "instructions paintings" texts that suggest actions the viewer should take, or ideas that one could visualize and sculptures, films, drawings, as well as posters, photographs and videos that document "happenings" and "events" that she staged through her career.

Short films that she made, including "Fly," which features close-ups of a house fly walking on the recumbent body of a nude woman, and "Cut Piece," which documents a performance in which Ono sat motionless on a stage and invited audience members to cut her clothing away, are given continuous screenings in the exhibit.

Greeting visitors to the List Center is "Sky TV," a TV monitor displaying a closed-circuit live video feed of the sky above the gallery. The piece is typical Ono, circa 1966 groundbreaking, as video art was in the mid-1960s, seeking out beauty in the frequently overlooked fabric of everyday life, and presenting that beauty in an unexpected context.

Much of Ono's work has been defined as conceptual in nature, that is art made with an emphasis on the idea behind the work and a deliberate effort to de-emphasize craftsmanship. In most instances, Ono commissions others to fabricate her art objects an act that puts the artist at a physical distance from her work and divides her artistic decision making and the hand labor that goes into making it into two distinct categories.

"Yes," the piece from which the exhibition takes its name, was the work that she exhibited at her now famous 1966 exhibition at the Indica Gallery in London. The piece consisted of a white stepladder that viewers were invited to climb. Hanging on a chain from the ceiling was a magnifying glass. Viewers could use the magnifying glass to read a tiny piece of text on the ceiling. The text merely read "Yes."

As Beatles aficionados may recall, it was at that exhibition she met John Lennon. Lennon said in later interviews that he felt relieved that "Yes"'s message revealed something affirmative, as opposed to what he thought was the negativism of the avant-garde in that era. Lennon and Ono married in 1969.

The List Center is exhibiting the ladder that was used in the 1966 exhibit.

But if you're hoping to climb the same rungs that Lennon once scaled, you're in for a disappointment. The ladder, and the platform on which it rests, are off limits to visitors. Not for safety reasons, as one might assume, but because the ladder must be kept in archival condition understandable, yet that changes the piece markedly. Ono's work blurs the distinction between artist and spectator, allowing the spectator to complete the piece through an activity." In its current installation, "Yes"'s true message is only hearsay.

Had non-historic objects been used in place of the original ones, "Yes" may have sacrificed some of its nostalgic kick but paradoxically gained a great deal in authenticity.

This is a small complaint, however. The outstanding quality of works presented, and the breadth of Ono's artistic achievement offers much to consider and debate. Her reputation will undoubtedly be bolstered wherever this exhibition travels. Paul Parcellin


Indepth Arts News:

2002-06-22 until 2002-09-08
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco, CA, USA

YES YOKO ONO offers the first comprehensive reevaluation of Onos work, exploring her position within the postwar international avant-garde and her critical and influential role in originating forms of cutting-edge art, music, film, and performance. The exhibition examines her early and central role in Fluxus, an avant-garde movement that developed in New York in the early 1960s; her important contributions to Conceptual art in New York, London, and Tokyo; her concerts; experimental films; vocal recordings; public art, including works made with John Lennon; and recent works, including interactive installations and site-specific art.

Avant-garde figures such as John Cage, George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Andy Warhol, and Ornette Coleman collaborated with Ono, and their resulting works are also represented. Accompanying the exhibition is the catalogue YES YOKO ONO, the first major art publication surveying Onos artistic career, co-published by Japan Society and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The catalogue features an essay by former SFMOMA director David A. Ross and includes a CD of new musical works by Yoko Ono.

The exhibition title, YES YOKO ONO, refers to the interactive installation known as Ceiling Painting, an important work shown at Onos historic 1966 Indica Gallery show in London. The viewer is invited to climb a white ladder, at the top of which a magnifying glass, attached by a chain, hangs from a frame on the ceiling. The viewer uses the reading glass to discover a block-letter instruction beneath the framed sheet of glass it says Y E S. It was through this work that Ono met her future husband and longtime collaborator, John Lennon. (Note: Due to the fragile nature of its materials, the installation is no longer interactive.)

Born in Tokyo in 1933 into a prominent banking family, part of Japans social and intellectual elite, Ono received rigorous training in classical music, German lieder, and Italian opera. She attended an exclusive school where her schoolmates included Japans present emperor, Akihito, and Yukio Mishima, the world-renowned novelist who committed ritual seppuku, or suicide by disembowelment, to protest Japans Westernization. Ono, raised partly in America, witnessed Japans devastation in World War II, and by the time she entered Gakushuin University in 1952 as its first female philosophy student, she was swept up by the intellectual climate of the postwar Japanese avant-garde. This movement was characterized by a spirit of rebellion against all orthodoxy, a yearning for individual self-expression, and a desire for spiritual freedom in a landscape reduced to absolute nothingness by the ravages of warfare.

Disillusioned with academic philosophy, Ono left Japan to join her family in New York. Attending Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, she soon gravitated to the vibrant art community of lower Manhattan. At the time, non-Western cultures, especially those of China and Japan, were inspiring new forms of artistic expression.

A loose association of these artists was eventually formed under the name of Fluxus. The group experimented with mixing poetry, music, and the visual arts through a wide spectrum of activities including concerts and exhibitions. As a member of Fluxus, Ono presented work and launched a career that would take her back to Japan, where she became an active member of the Tokyo avant-garde, back to New York, and then to London, where the 1966 Indica Gallery show took place.

In the decades since that seminal show, Ono has continued to expand the boundaries of her art in diverse media. After her marriage to John Lennon in 1969, she collaborated with him on a number of projects in music, creating a bridge between avant-garde and rock in releases such as Unfinished Music for Two Virgins (1968), Wedding Album (1969), and Double Fantasy (1980). Their happenings, Bed-Ins for Peace, and the billboard campaign, War Is Over! If You Want It, were landmark projects created to promote world peace, a continuing theme in their work together.

During the 1980s, influenced by the rampant materialism of the decade, Ono revisited some of her 1960s objects, transforming works that were originally light and transparent into bronze, symbolizing a shift from what she calls the sixties sky to the new age of commodity and solidity. In the 1990s, Onos prolific output of interactive installations, site-specific works, Internet projects, concerts, and recordings were widely represented in numerous venues across Europe, America, Japan, and Australia.

Yoko Ono
Ceiling Painting (YES Painting), 1966
Text on paper, glass, metal frame, metal chain, and painting ladder
Collection of the artist
Photo: Oded Lobl

The Fluxus Movement (top of page)
by Peter Frank

The Fluxus movement emerged in New York around 1960, then it took root in Europe, and eventually in its way to Japan. The movement encompassed a new aesthetic that had already appeared on three continents. That aesthetic encompasses a reductive gesturality, part Dada, part Bauhaus and part Zen, and presumes that all media and all artistic disciplines are fair game for combination and fusion. Fluxus presaged avant-garde developments over the last 40 years.

Fluxus objects and performances are characterized by minimalist but often expansive gestures based in scientific, philosophical, sociological, or other extra-artistic ideas and leavened with burlesque.

Yoko Ono is the best-known individual associated with Fluxus, but many artists have associated themselves with Fluxus since its emergence. In the '60s, when the Fluxus movement was most active, artists all over the globe worked in concert with a spontaneously generated but carefully maintained Fluxus network. Since then, Fluxus has endured not so much as a movement but as a sensibility--a way of fusing certain radical social attitudes with ever--evolving aesthetic practices. Initially received as little more than an international network of pranksters, the admittedly playful artists of Fluxus were, and remain, a network of radical visionaries who have sought to change political and social, as well as aesthetic, perception.


John Currin Selects

May 14 , 2003 - January 4 , 2004

By William Stover

Paintings such as Fishermen, (2002) reveal John Currin's adept handling of paint and his synthesis of historical styles.

It has been said that the longer you look at a John Currin painting, the less you know what to make of it. Unabashedly in love with the high culture painting tradition of Europe, Currin (American, born in 1962) fuses influences from such old masters as Lucas Cranach and Gustave Courbet, the Rococo idylls of François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard with girlie pho-tos from 1960s mens magazines and wholesome American advertising images into paintings that spring forth from the artists imagination.

When looking at Currins paintings, the viewer immediately recognizes the historical tradition from which the work emanates yet realizes it is quite unlike other painting in the figurative tradition. Currin combines his knowledge of the technique of the old masters with intentional ambiguity, creating paintings that confirm the value of the imagination in art. Currin was given carte blanche to train his keen eye on the MFAs distinguished collections of European and American paintings those on view as well as works from the deepest recesses of storage.

The small painting Blood of the Redeemer, by Bartolomeo Passarotti (15291592), measures only 13 ½ inches high by 6 inches wide. It is one of the MFA paintings John Currin selected for this exhibition.

The diverse group of works he assembled brings to light questions and issues the artist wrestles with daily and reveals his own anxieties as a painter within a society that does not, Currin believes, value painting. John Currin Selects includes approximately forty paintings that range from William Rimmers mythological fantasy Evening (The Fall of Day) to the incisive, psychological portrait of poet Luis de Góngora y Argote by Diego Velázquez. The modern, white spaces of the Foster Gallery, combined with Currins insightful placement of paintings, allows Museum visi-tors to view familiar works in a new lightproviding a glimpse into the mind of one of todays most intriguing artists.

William Stover is assistant curator, Contemporary Art.


Of Related Interest:

Click here to view a list of related lectures and events.


Bringing La Bohème to Broadway

by Vanessa Conlin

Part I - Becoming Part of the Cast
My journey with the "Broadway Bohème," as it has come to be called by cast and crew, began in autumn of 2000. I was in my last year of graduate school as a voice major at Boston University. I saw an ad on a music department bulletin board that said something like, "Baz Luhrmann, Director of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Strictly Ballroom, is casting for a production of La Bohème, to be mounted on Broadway."

The ad caught my eye, but I was skeptical. I love Strictly Ballroom, a great movie, but La Bohème on Broadway? Would they perform the actual Puccini score, or would it, like the show Rent, be a new score loosely based on the same story, but having nothing at all to do with "opera" singing? Would the show be in Italian, like the opera? I blew off the ad. I thought it was an interesting idea, but would never get off the ground, so I forgot about it.

Fast forward to ten months later. I graduated with my Master's degree and moved to New York City. I was lucky enough to be signed with a manager right away, Martha Wade, who mentioned to me that the "Broadway Bohème" was still not cast, and that she could get me an audition. Several things piqued my interest. First of all, I discovered that this Bohème would indeed be the Puccini score, and that it would be in Italian. Also, since I had first seen the ad, the movie Moulin Rouge, directed by Baz Luhrmann, had been released. I thought it was incredible.

I went to my first audition full of trepidation. What on earth would these people be looking for? The other singers in the waiting room definitely did not look like the people I usually see at opera auditions. Opera singers, unlike actors, usually dress pretty conservatively, and aren't well, um... hip. Clearly the singers had seen Moulin Rouge and were trying to look as colorful as possible to impress Mr. Luhrmann! I guess I had the same motive, but I went about it in a different way. Instead of the simple but slightly sophisticated red dress I usually wear to auditions to make me look older and more experienced, I wore a little black dress that I wear to go out for cocktails with my friends. (Opera audiences, generally focusing on the voices rather than the acting, will accept singers who are much older than the characters they are playing, or even one who weighs in at 300 lbs. playing a pretty young thing, but Broadway audiences are much more visually oriented. I figured it couldn't hurt to show off the fact that I am young - about the same age as the bohemians in La Bohème!)

This first round of auditions (the first of many, but we'll get to that later) was judged by two women from the casting agency. I decided to sing the aria Quando m'en vo from Puccini's opera. I was in really good voice and gave what I thought was a persuasive dramatic interpretation, but once I finished, the women on the panel wanted to hear it again. This time they gave me some directions - "make eye contact with us, use the whole room," etc. I sang the whole aria again, and I heard the very next day that I had been called back!

Over the next ten months I was called back eight times! I sang for the producers. I sang for the musical director. I sang for Baz, but it seemed there was always another round to make it through. In February, 2002, I was in Tampa, Florida under contract to sing with the opera there. Word came that Baz was about to make his final selection, but I would have to be in New York City for just one more audition! Groan! After much negotiating, begging and pleading, the conductor agreed to release me from one day of rehearsal in Tampa so I could fly back to NYC. This meant waking up at 4 am, getting on a plane at 6:30 am, and singing for Baz at noon. This would be tough!

At my audition, Baz and his assistant followed me around with a hand-held video camera, sometimes putting it right up in my face while I was singing. In all my training no one had ever prepared me for anything like this audition! I also had my picture taken in all sorts of poses. "What was THAT??!!" I thought as I ran to catch my flight back to Tampa, where a message was waiting for me: I was in the original cast of La Bohème!

I have heard varying reports of how many singers were auditioned for this La Bohème, anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 from all over the world. It took over two years to assemble a cast of 50, which includes some singers who don't speak a word of English.
Part II - From Costume Fittings to California


After hearing I would be a member of the original cast of Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème on Broadway, things seemed to start happening at lightning speed. The contract came in the mail, and I learned that the rehearsals would be occurring in San Francisco, California. We would also be doing six weeks of shows in San Francisco at the Curran Theatre, before moving to Broadway in November. Baz said he would attend every single performance in California (8 per week!) to make sure Bohème would be everything he dreamed it could be, before moving it to NYC where it will be scrutinized by critics from all around the world.

While in New York, I was instructed to go to a wig fitting at a loft apartment in an unfamiliar neighborhood in downtown Manhattan. It was rainy, cold, and miserable, and I got lost trying to find the address. When I rang the buzzer, I was not in the best mood. What happened next was like magic. The door opened, and inside this unassuming and unmarked building was an enormous and blindingly colorful world of artists, designers, and craftsmen, all busily running around with sketches, model sets, and fabrics. The woman who answered the door was none other than Catherine Martin - Baz's wife and creative partner, and Academy Award winner for her costume designs in Baz's movie Moulin Rouge. Although I had never met her before, she greeted me by name. "Baz would love to say hello as well, but CBS is here interviewing him," she said.

I saw that there were pictures on the wall of all the cast members with sketches of costumes taped beside them. There were beautiful and intricate models of the sets for Bohème, and what seemed like a hundred people gathered around Catherine, or bent over desks with colored pencils. I saw Baz giving a tour to the news crew from CBS. He was speaking so excitedly about the work being done, and explaining to the crew that he and Catherine live in the back of the design studio. It was in their bedroom that I had my wig fitting! Two Italian men who also did the wigs for Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet, and Strictly Ballroom put a wig cap on me and traced the outline of my natural hair. This is so when the wig is made, it will match my real hairline so precisely that the audience won't be able to tell I'm not using my own hair.

On a later date I had a costume fitting with Catherine Martin and her incredible team. Catherine and Baz are Australian, as are most of their assistants. Five good-natured Australians pulled and pinned my costume until it met Catherine's approval. All costumes in Bohème were made from scratch to the exact measurements of the cast.

In the next few weeks I made plans to move to San Francisco for nine weeks - three weeks of rehearsal, and six weeks of performances. As I prepared to leave New York, the buzz about Bohème began to be palpable. There were articles in Time Out magazine and The New York Times, and the full-page color ads and commercials began to run daily. It dawned on me just how enormous and ambitious this project really is, and that's when the nerves set in!

The entire cast traveled together on September 8th. We met in front of the Broadway Theatre at 53rd street (where we will be performing), took chartered buses to JFK Airport, and flew on a Continental jet to San Francisco. I couldn't believe how friendly the other people were, and how darn good looking!

Once in California, we settled into our different residences and prepared to start rehearsals first thing the very next morning.

Part III - Rehearsing with Baz Luhrmann
The day after the cast of the Broadway Bohème descended on San Francisco, we all boarded vans and were taken to a section of town called the Presidio, where we would be rehearsing for the next two weeks in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. (Most Broadway-bound shows have their out-of-town trial runs in Peoria; how nice it is that ours is in San Francisco, one of America's great cities!)

That first day was a very exciting one, with so many new people to meet,

and a dramatic presentation by director Baz Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin about their vision for the project. Baz and Catherine are the brains and heart behind this Broadway Bohème. We got a sneak preview of the promotional ads that would be running on television, took a virtual tour of the stage sets still under construction, and marveled at the sketches of Catherine's gorgeous costumes.

Baz's plan is a simple but courageous one. He wants to bring opera back to the masses (Wasn't Giacomo Puccini the Stephen Sondheim of the Nineteenth Century, and even more popular, at least in Europe, than his 20th-Century colleague?), but not by watering it down. This Bohème is completely intact musically, just as Puccini wrote it, and will be performed in Italian. Baz says he wants to bring back the excitement and feeling of spontaneity that traditional opera often lacks. He wants every moment to be believable. What a concept!

Rehearsals were run with this idea in mind. All of us were given direction from Baz, but were encouraged to fill in the details of the lives of our characters with our own creative visions. We imagined what a street on Christmas Eve in Paris in 1957 would look and feel like, and we made it a reality. We spent days and days on what seemed like the smallest of adjustments, put those changes into our Parisian street, and the results were magical. A detailed and individual journey exists for every single person onstage, not just the principal characters as is almost always the case in opera.

After a couple of weeks in our temporary rehearsal space in the Presidio, we moved into the Curran Theatre just off Union Square. At the first viewing of the stage set, the cast was speechless. It is a breathtaking work of art. The setting itself, predictably, was applauded by our audience every night. But once we started rehearsing on it, we felt like we were starting our staging all over again. Nothing happened the way we had rehearsed it, and people were running into each other and tripping over platforms and other pieces of the scenery. It took another week to work out the kinks and get the show running smoothly. How quickly that week in the theater raced by! And how the enthusiasm was growing in all of us!

Now it was time for the first invited audience to savor the show. We had two weeks of previews in San Francisco. (Previews are presented prior to the official Press Opening. No reviews can be written at these performances.) I was very nervous. Would they love it? Would they boo us off the stage? The preview audiences, I am pleased to report, loved the production! Every time the curtain fell we got cheers and standing ovations. However, even with the adulation of the audience, the two weeks of previews were very stressful. Baz was still changing details of staging right up to moments before we went onstage. We tried new things every night in front of a live audience, and continued to make changes until Opening Night.

Opening Night in San Francisco was a star-studded affair, with many celebrities in attendance. From the stage I spotted Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey, Andy Garcia and George Lucas. The cast tried to go about its predetermined stage business, but we were all secretly trying to get glimpses of the stars in the audience. After the performance the entire cast was invited to a bash at the famous Ruby Skye nightclub. The celebrities were all there congratulating Baz, Catherine and the singers. It was an extravagant feast with mountains of food. All of us danced until the sun came up!

There was still one more test: what would the San Francisco critics say? I dashed to the store the next morning to pick up the local newspapers, which I shredded in my exuberance to find the critiques. Aha! The headlines said it all: "Simply Sensational - Luhrmann's Broadway-style 'Boheme' sets a new standard for musical theater," according to the Chronicle, and The Examiner said "Brilliant Bohème - Baz Luhrmann's take on the Puccini classic, at the Curran Theatre, perfectly balances tradition and innovation."

That we were really a hit was apparent as I walked past the theater later that afternoon and observed the box office line wrapped all the way around the block! Within days every ticket to the six-week run in San Francisco was gone. Friends from high school and college called me desparately in need of tickets, but there was nothing I could do. There wasn't a single ticket available.

On the date this article was written, there were two more weeks of performances in San Francisco still to go. On November 11th the cast flies back to New York City for a week of rest before beginning another sequence of rehearsals with Baz in the Broadway Theatre at Broadway and 53rd Street.

Will this spectacular and moving operatic production be a success on the Great White Way? If so, history will be made and the risk will have been worth taking. There have been other operas on Broadway, but nothing like Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La Bohème.

Part IV - Back in New York


On November 11th, the very next day after our last performance in San Francisco, the cast of Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème boarded buses at 6:00 am, drove to the airport, and flew home to New York City. We had spent nine weeks in San Francisco rehearsing and performing La Bohème eight times a week to critical acclaim. The cast and crew had worked incredibly hard on the show under Baz's direction. We were rewarded with six weeks of sold-out performances and reviews so good they could have been written by Baz's mother. I felt so proud to be a part of the show. I was also completely exhausted!

While I enjoyed being on the West Coast, I was definitely ready to get back to my own apartment in New York, and very much looking forward to our week off. The week flew by in a blur of unpacking and catching up with friends, and before I knew it, I was walking into the Ford Center at 43rd and Broadway where La Bohème was rehearsing. Even though the week off passed quickly, I felt as though I hadn't seen my friends in the cast for months. We became so close in San Francisco that we are now one big family. It is amazing to me that any group of performers can get along so beautifully, but we truly do. It is a very special group of people onstage at The Broadway Theatre every night!

Rehearsals at the Ford Center lasted for only one week. There was still work being done on the sets and lights at our real home, the Broadway Theatre, at 53rd and Broadway, that made it impossible to conduct rehearsals on the actual stage. Our rehearsals were spent on intensive detail work. I was impressed with the new ideas Baz had formed since we had last seen him. He refined, cut, polished and obsessed over every moment onstage. I am continually amazed at how many things he has running around in his head at any given moment, and how he can keep them all straight.

There were many new challenges in New York. The Broadway Theatre is much larger than the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Baz insists on only "true life" onstage, meaning no excess gesturing or "indicating." We worked hard for many days to figure out how to play to a much larger audience without losing the intimacy and the reality. Another challenge was that we have a new set of kids in the cast. The children in San Francisco were all local kids, so we started from scratch staging the New York kids into the opera.

After a week at the Ford Center, we moved into the Broadway Theatre to rehearse on the set. We had less than a week to rehearse before the first preview performance on November 29th.

Although we were received far better than our wildest dreams in San Francisco, New York audiences are much tougher. I felt excited because it was my first performance on Broadway, but very nervous about the audience reaction. At all of the preview performances, Baz talks to the audience from the stage before the start of the opera. Before he even started talking, the audience went crazy - screaming his name, cheering, and applauding. Backstage we looked at one another with huge smiles on our faces. Clearly this audience would be open to Baz's big risk - opera on Broadway.

The audience responded enthusiastically all night and gave us a raucous standing ovation at the conclusion. We got the same positive reaction at all of the preview performances. Does this mean we will be a hit?

The official opening night is December 3rd. Until then we are still called to rehearsals even if we have a performance on that day.

Part V - Opening Night in New York


Baz Luhrmann's production of La Bohème on Broadway officially opened on December 8th. The show had already been in previews for two weeks at the Broadway Theatre on 53rd Street. The audiences during previews seemed to love the show. We received standing ovations at every preview, but no one can predict how the New York critics will respond, so the cast was on pins and needles.

Ben Davis as Marcello and Chlöe Wright as Musetta
in Act II of Baz Luhrmanns production of Puccinis La Bohème.
Photo by Sue Adler. Image courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown.

On December 8th, the Broadway Theatre could easily have been mistaken for a ritzy Hollywood award show. There was a red carpet surrounded by paparazzi with flashbulbs going off right and left. The list of celebrities in attendance was incredible - Leonardo Di Caprio, Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant, Cameron Diaz, James Gandolfini, Katie Couric, and Regis Philbin, just to name a few. Baz was there with his wife and artistic partner, Catherine Martin, who looked incredible!

The first two acts of the show, which are performed with just a short pause in between, went beautifully, so the cast was already feeling pretty good, but nothing could have prepared us for the news we received at intermission. Ben Brantley, theater critic for the New York Times, had seen La Bohème during previews and written a rave review which would be in the paper the next day!

After the show, the producers threw a huge bash for the cast, audience and invited guests at the luxurious Hudson Hotel on 58th Street. It was a beautiful party, but so crowded that it was hard to find any other cast members. There were news crews circling the party, trying to get quotes from the celebrities. I went home very late, but woke up early to read the New York Times review.

In the New York Times, Mr. Brantley wrote, "Baz Luhrmann's rapturous reimagining of Puccini's opera of love in a garret turns out to be the coolest and warmest show in town, and enchanted mixture of self-conscious artistry and emotional richness......Opera critics should know that this production is no slice of wise-guy revisionism. What Mr. Luhrmann and his extraordinary production designer, Catherine Martin, have done is find the visual equivalent for the sensual beauty and vigor of the score."

The day that Ben Brantley's review appeared in the paper, La Bohème did one million dollars in ticket sales. Later in the week, that number would grow to four million.

One of the really fun perks that comes with being in La Bohème is seeing and sometimes meeting celebrities who come to see the show. Since Opening Night, the list of stars in attendance has included Michelle Pfeiffer, David E. Kelley, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Springsteen, Drew Barrymore, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

La Bohème is currently taking ticket orders through June 2003. The next big event to look forward to is the Tony Awards. We are hoping to be nominated in many different categories and hoping to perform in the ceremony which occurs every year during the first week of June.

Part VI - Behind the Scenes

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine how hard it would be to perform the same show eight times a week for an entire year. Although La Bohème is an exciting and fun show, sometimes it is difficult to find enthusiasm in performing the same action and music over and over.

My pre-show activities are always the same. I am required to sign in at the theater at one half hour before the curtain time, at the latest. After I sign in, I walk upstairs to the ladies' dressing room, where I have a portion of the room reserved for me. My costume is waiting there for me, courtesy of the Wardrobe Department. On the way upstairs I pick up my microphone, which is tiny and on a long cord attached to a small transmitter. The transmitter goes in a special pocket hidden inside my costume, and the microphone will get hidden in my wig by the Hair and Makeup Department. In La Bohème we do our own makeup. We were given the makeup and instructed on how to apply it. Doing my makeup usually takes about twenty or thirty minutes. I am not in the first act, so my hair appointment is at the "places" call, which means at eight o'clock pm for an evening show, or two pm for a matinee. I go to the hair and makeup room wearing a bathrobe and have my wig pinned to my head. After that I go back to the dressing room, put on my costume, and wait for the stage managers to call the ensemble to the stage. When I hear the stage managers call "places" over the backstage loudspeaker, I go downstairs to the stage.

Jessica Comeau as Musetta with the Company
in Act II of Baz Luhrmanns production of Puccinis La Bohème.
Photo by Sue Adler. Image courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown.

When the show is over, I give my microphone back to the Sound Department, have my wig taken off, and take off my own costume and makeup. As I exit the stage door, there is usually a big crowd waiting to get autographs from the stars of the show.

If I am running late getting to the theater, I have to call the stage managers and tell them the situation. The stage managers have to keep track of the cast, because if somebody is absent, they must have a cover or "swing" go onstage instead. A "swing" is a person who knows many different roles in the show, who may have to step in at a moment's notice. The stage managers understand, and take into account that sometimes people are unavoidably late, through no fault of their own. However, a cast member who is consistently late runs the risk of getting fired.

Flu season in New York has caused many cast members to miss performances. There has barely been a single performance since December with the entire original cast present. Members of the ensemble accrue one sick day for every month of work. If we miss more than one performance a month, we have one-eighth of our weekly pay deducted from our paycheck. I was sick and unable to come to work on a Wednesday, which means I used two sick days because we have two performances on Wednesdays.

As an ensemble member, I cannot take a vacation for the first six months. After six months we each can take a week off, but it is on a first-come, first-served basis for requesting time off, as only one woman and one man can be away at the same time. If I don't take my vacation week, at the end of my contract in September, I will get an extra check.

The mood of the audience always makes a difference in the energy of the performers. When we can tell that an audience is enthusiastic, it makes us more energetic and excited. When an audience is quiet, we still give them our best, but it is much harder work and much less fun. Sometimes an audience will surprise us by being very subdued during the show, and then giving us a huge ovation at the curtain call.

Part VII - Intermission

The backstage of the Broadway Theatre goes straight up and down. The women's dressing room is on the fourth floor. In the course of one show I have to go to the stage and back to the dressing room several times, which means I probably climb about 30 flights every show! On two-show days I feel like I have been on the Stairmaster. The cast has all been commenting that after all those flights of stairs, we look pretty good from behind!

On Wednesdays and Saturdays we have a matinee and an evening show. Most of the principals are double- or triple-cast, so they never have to do more than one show a day. The exceptions are Daniel Webb, who plays Colline, and Daniel Okulitch, who plays Schaunard. Those two guys do all eight shows a week, unless by chance they are sick. Daniel Webb did over one hundred performances before he finally caught the "Bohème Bug," and was too sick to perform. The "Bohème Bug" is a twenty-four hour stomach flu that has struck the majority of the cast at some point over the last month. Just when we think we have finally beaten the Bug, somebody else comes down with it and has to stay home from the show.

It is always a dilemma how to spend the three hours between shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I am lucky that I live on the Upper West Side, so I can go home and make dinner or even take a nap, but some of the cast commutes in from New Jersey or Upstate New York, and have to find a way to fill the time. Many people have a leisurely dinner in the Theater District, go to the gym, shop, or lie down on the floor in the dressing room to try and get a little sleep.

Almost everyone in the cast has some free time backstage while the performance is in progress. I like to read or study some music that I am working on at my voice lessons, although sometimes it is fun just to gossip with the other women in the dressing room. Many people catch up on calls on their cell phones, and there is usually a fierce card game in the hallway. Sometimes on Saturday afternoons we listen to the radio in the men's dressing room if there is a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera.

We do not have the luxury of a lot of space backstage. There isn't really a Green Room. What we call the Green Room is just a table with some folding chairs in the basement. In spite of the small space, the cast keeps the "Green Room" stocked with chocolate and fruit. Usually around once a week someone will bake some cookies to share. It is forbidden to eat while we are in costume, although a cookie now and then sometimes slips by unnoticed!

On any given night there are usually a handful of Bohème cast members who go out together for a beer or margarita. Sometimes there is a large group if someone is celebrating a birthday. Recently, some of us went salsa dancing down in the East Village to celebrate the birthday of the assistant director, Heidi Marshall, but mostly we stay in the Theater District. After attending a Sunday matinee in January, movie star Jim Carrey came backstage to meet the cast and then came out for beers with us!

Every once in a while there is a Question and Answer session with the audience after the show. February 4th was Kids Night at La Bohème, complete with an autograph signing for the children and an early curtain time. In general, the cast is very generous about donating their time to special events. Many of us have participated in benefit concerts for various organizations on our own time, and as a cast, we performed a benefit for the Robin Hood Foundation. Sometime in the next few months we will do an extra performance to benefit The Actors' Fund. I recently attended The Actors' Fund performance of Hairspray. It was a fantastic performance, with an especially enthusiastic audience, as many of us watching are members of other Broadway shows.

January was a particularly tough month for Broadway. The months following Christmas are always difficult because tourism is down after the holidays and many Broadway shows are forced to close. Even though Bohème is surviving the audience slowdown, there are nights when we have several empty rows of seats in the balcony. One would be surprised how easy it is to get a seat this time of year at any of the hit shows. In February, on a Wednesday matinee or a Tuesday or Wednesday night, it is possible to walk up to the box office and immediately buy a ticket. This won't be the case for much longer, however! Tourism picks up in the spring, and with the Tony Awards coming up, I predict it will be nearly impossible to get a ticket for La Bohème until at least September 2003.


About the Author:

Vanessa Conlin can be heard singing her audition piece, Quando m'en vo, in the Newsletter's Artist Pages at

La Bohème ran at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco from 1 October 2002 through 10 November 2002. Previews in New York began on 29 November 2002, and the official opening night was 8 December 2002 at the Broadway Theatre. For more information about Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème on Broadway, check out and



Memphis Minnie's Blues
New York: DaCapo, 1992

"Woman with Guitar is...a vivid portrait of a talented singer and guitarist. But it is much more than this... By an imaginative application...Paul and Beth Garon unpeel the layers of meaning in the themes and motifs of her lyrics. . . The authors have added a new dimension to blues scholarship." Paul Oliver

"Woman with Guitar is a delight. The book is both thorough and brilliant, a rare combination these days. It is wide ranging and supported by astonishingly diverse and wise readings into psychoanalysis, feminism and Black studies. . . " David Roediger

* * *

(An excerpt from Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues)

At the dawn of the new decade, Minnie's popularity was hardly on the wane. Minnie, now with Son Joe, continued to work at the 708 Club at 708 E. 47th St., where they were often joined by Big Bill, Sunnyland Slim, or Snooky Pryor. The 708 was a favored hangout, recalled fondly by Pryor, who remembered that "it used to be right side of Montgomery Ward. Memphis Slim, he used to play there," and Pryor's partner, Moody Jones, remembered seeing Minnie at the 708 Club, too. The 708 was Minnie and Son's "home club," to the extent that they had one, and it was the tavern most frequently mentioned by Minnie and Son's compatriots.

But Minnie played at dozens of the better known (and better paying) night-clubs, from the Music Box and Club DeLisa to Martin's Corner, Gatewood's Tavern, and the White Elephant (Don's Den). Minnie and Memphis Slim played together at Gatewood's, especially when Big Bill was out of town, and she often played across the street from the White Elephant. As likely as not, she was joined by local musicians like Homer Harris or James "Beale Street" Clark; (the latter's home became the new rehearsal hall when Tampa Red "went nutty" after his wife died). Minnie was a regular participant in Chicago's blues milieu, a hard drinker who played just as hard. One night, she, Son Joe, and Sunnyland got drunk together, and in the wee hours of the morning, Sunnyland staggered home. The next day, and after a good, recuperative slumber, he went over to Little Brother Montgomery's. Lee Collins was there, and so were Minnie and Son, still partying! They hadn't been to bed since Sunnyland left them.

Son Joe, Minnie and Roosevelt Sykes occasionally played the midnight show at the Indiana Theatre, just as they played at the Square Deal and The Flame. While most singers had regular gigs at certain clubsfor Minnie, the 708 and Sylvio's like most blues artists, she played at dozens of clubs with scores of colleagues. As Jimmy Rogers put it, after patiently explaining that he had seen Minnie playing in the basement at 31st and Indiana, as well as on the North side, "we was all around playing the blues in Chicago."

Poet Langston Hughes saw Minnie play at the 230 Club, and he was impressed enough to devote his entire Chicago Defender "Here to Yonder" column for January 9, 1943 to the occasion: ". . . Memphis Minnie sits on top of the icebox at the 230 Club in Chicago and beats out blues on an electric guitar. . ." Drummer Jump Jackson was with Minnie on the same job. "I worked with Memphis Minnie. I remember we was on, the little club at 51st and Prairie, way up on top of a icebox. Just drum and guitar. She had that place packed. You know those walk-in coolers? I said, 'Minnie, gee, I'm gonna work this week out, but I can't take this! I'm gonna fall and break my neck here.' They had a banister up there but if you'd fall against it, you'd go right through that thing. Fall right down on the people."

Disc jockey Big Bill Hill used to host a "cocktail party" that moved from club to club on Sundays: From the 708 Club to the Du Drop Lounge to Sylvio's to the Blue Flame. But there were other, more famous, parties for Chicago blues singers, and these were hosted by Memphis Minnie. These Blue Monday parties often took place at Ruby Lee Gatewood's, Big Bill's Lake Street home base. The parties were well attended and recalled with great pleasure, and Minnie herself memorialized them in her "Daybreak Blues"


Come daybreak in the morning,
I'm gonna take the dirt road home.
Wooo, soon daybreak in the morning,
I'm gonna take the dirt road home.
'Cause these Blue Monday blues is 'bout to kill me,
sure as your born.

Well, this man pitches a party, every first of the week,
I can't cross the floor for other people's feet.
Come daybreak in the morning, etc.

Well, I went to my kitchen, intendin' to eat a bite.
The table was crowded from morning till night.
Come daybreak in the morning, etc.

Spoken: All right, Little Son Joe. Yes, I know. Keep on playing. I'll come home.

Hey, now I turned around, aimed to go to bed,
There's four at the foot and six at the head.

Come daybreak in the morning, etc.

As Brother John Sellers recalled, "Memphis Minnie...really those Blue Monday parties in those days were too much. . . ! With all her greatness and her songs and her Blue Monday parties that she gave, she was...a singer to be remembered." Said J. B. Lenoir, "[Minnie] used to give cocktail parties, you knowthose Blue Monday parties at the Gate, you know, and I actually found she would ask me to play a number for her."

* * *

There is nothing wrong with seeing the blues singer as someone who plays while she works, as long as we understand that she also works while she plays. But beyond that, the blues singerand Minnie is especially exemplary hereprefigures and prepares the dialectical resolution of the two. The abolition of work is the first big step toward the realization of poetry and freedom.

Minnie's attitude toward "the abolition of work" provides a fitting and emblematic closing for our study:


Interviewer: When she would visit you in Walls, was she ever interested in working, like on the farm, or. . .

Daisy: I never knowed her to go to a field, did you Ethel? [laughter]

Ethel: Naw. [laughter] Now, she would go out in the field and pick tomatoes and come home and cook 'em. Now, I don't know what she did before I knowed her.

Daisy: She didn't work then either! [laughter]

Ethel: She would really go out in the fields and pick tomatoes, and she loved to cook tomato dumplings.

Daisy: She was a good cook.

Ethel: Sweet tomato dumplings. And she would go out, and say, "Don't you all cut those tomatoes up." And she would cook, make the best tasting dumplings and every thing. But she not going to chop no cotton and pick no cotton. She stayed at the house. 'Kid' loved to cook, but she sure didn't do nothing else. . . much. [laughter] She'd stay here and practice on her songs.


Velvet goldmine

A classically trained viola player, John Cale took career advice from Bernstein and Copland before fetching up at the Factory with Warhol, Nico and Lou Reed. Now, with some extraordinary new music and a headlining spot at Glastonbury, the creative force behind the Velvet Underground tells Ed Vulliamy why he feels like a traitor to his native country

Friday May 23, 2003
The Guardian

Velvet Underground and John Cale
'So much older then, younger than that now': John Cale, with fellow Velvets (top) and as he is today
John Cale says of his time with the Velvet Underground that he wanted, then, a life without brakes or a break, as though they were days of youth gone by. But the truth is that Cale never stops.

He never stops churning material - be it sentient, political or intellectual - around the miasma of his head; he barely pauses for breath during his daily rounds from the studio to the subway, to the trattoria, to the gym, into deep cyberspace, to the squash court, to the subway again and then back to the studio again. And Cale never stops writing music.

The music that John Cale is about to unleash is probably the most radical he has ever written, certainly the most ingenious and arguably the best (including the Velvets); it is an ethereal sound, broadcast from some distant planet, and this time a haunted one.

It does three interesting things at once: it stretches that unsettling, time-warping drone of his days with the Velvet Underground to some new, outer limit; it is the culmination of Cale's solo career, and it also rejoins and resurrects something quintessential and deeply personal that Cale began before he was joined by Lou Reed et al.

The music - on an EP out this month, with an album later in the year - is a reminder that Cale, not Reed, was the creative joker in the pack of New York's underground, jester at the court of Andy Warhol. It recalls also that Cale was the coal miner's son from the Welsh valleys among a coterie of rather self-regarding Americans, who had played classical viola and made music his life, long before he ever picked up an electric guitar.

And it recalls that Cale is an artist more than a rock star, a maker of modern music that is dangerous, playful, intense, heartfelt and so highly informed that it makes the rock'n'roll ersatz paraded by many of those he has worked with look silly.

I've had the honour and pleasure of keeping an irregular tradition of lunch with Cale; we meet at a favourite Italian joint staffed by football fanatics, on the sidewalk when it is pleasant, for a plate of mozzarella or salted spinach, and a bowl of pasta.

One of Bob Dylan's great lines is "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now" - and this is what John Cale looks like this day, aged 62, physically fit with restless eyes and a puckish, mischievous face.

Maybe being with Cale is not unlike listening to his music, only much funnier. There is that same animation, that same range of reference points somewhere out there - a range nowhere more eclectic that in his latest work, which quotes from literature, the New York subway, the street, Afghanistan, the rugged roads of the hills around Rome and those in his own head.

We hardly ever discuss music. Cale prefers to remember some joke about "fornication being a basically vertical experience" in Welsh car parks during his youth, or else talk about what he found that morning on his favourite internet website, called "Cryptome", like Cale, a jackdaw cruising for trinkets among the world's intelligence communities.

"Artificial Intelligence" is the title of one of Cale's great albums, and the world of intelligence is one of Cale's favourites and least favourites. "Don't believe most of what is out there," he counsels.

It is a fascination, he explains, with origins in his Welsh childhood (like most of Cale's fascinations): secrecy over reports by "Her Majesty's Inspectorate for Schools, so that parents couldn't find out which was the best school for their child" and lies about toxic chemical leakages into a popular swimming hole in the Amman river, which caused polio.

"I realised early on that secrecy is based on a lot of nonsense. That you have to learn to read patterns until you understand things. If I get a book on medicine, I will read it and read it and read it until it becomes clear and sinks in."

Then Cale will switch, over a double espresso, to some nugget about the oil industry he gleaned either by scouring the web or from his mosaic of friends, which spans the World Bank, the avant-garde film industry, Indian squash players, high and low finance, art dealers, political think-tank researchers - oh, and the music business, but you wouldn't know.

"Look at this! - it's from a journal called Hydrogen Economy, some analyst, Jeremy Rifkin - he's calculated the life of Iraqi oil reserves compared to its global rivals. Here: US and Norwegian reserves would last 10 years at current levels of consumption and extraction; Canada only eight, Iran 53, Saudi Arabia 55, the United Arab Emirates 75, Kuwait 117 - and Iraq: 526 fucking years! That's what the Americans are doing - they've been planning this for years."

Of course, of late, there'll be talk of the war, which has exercised - not to say obsessed - Cale. "It has sickened me. I was just incensed. It was a confirmation that there was not going to be any let up on my disappointment with the road the United States is going down. America was a place of great generosity, and I'm a product of that generosity, but now America has turned back on its origins; and you realise the extent of the corruption at the foundations of this country."

The television set in his new apartment in Greenwich Village is never switched off; neither is his computer. Cale's life, like his songs, is permanently carpet-bombed with information. And Cale will need to discuss some book he has just finished, and sometimes make a gift of a copy. Harvard and the Education of an American Terrorist was a recent hit, about the background and methods of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. There's likely to be an article to recommend from a political journal - lately, a lot of stuff about former Soviet central Asia.

And all this in a Welsh accent that sounds not unlike the strings of Cale's viola, and rings as though he had left the valleys yesterday, not 40 years ago. Now, however - both in terms of musical texture and theme - Cale's origins have never been so important to his work.

Cale was born in March 1942 in Garnant, between Swansea and Carmarthen (a week after Lou Reed had arrived in the world via Brooklyn), son of a miner and school teacher. "Working in the mines is a soul-destroying job. My father never stood a chance. He had come from Taff's Well, from an English-speaking home. My mother was Welsh and he moved into her house, where my grandmother on my mother's side banned the use of English - only Welsh could be spoken. She dealt me the same card, and that did a number on my head. What it did" - and suddenly Cale finds an anger he usually reserves for his political adversaries - "is it drove me away from the Welsh language. I speak it and love listening to it, but all that really did my head in. It was one of the reasons I had to get out."

There was a place to hide from the language hex: learning. In the Welsh tradition of the time, children never visited each other's homes (for fear of exposure to evaluation and envy) and Cale had no close friends of his own age.

But he was taken under the wing of a Methodist preacher, the Rev Davies, who encouraged him to aim for university. Cale accordingly, "really liked school, I liked learning." He made it to grammar school, and decided he wanted to be a conductor. Music, says Cale, was the language that transcended Welsh and English, "a comfort I found nowhere else... Music gave me a stronger sense of who I was".

Cale became a child who fought gang fights, robbed the preacher's daughter of her virginity after choir practice, read Das Kapital ("the earliest sign that obsessiveness was creeping into my character") and was glued to the BBC Third Programme, listening to Schoenberg and Stockhausen.

"The viola came to me by sheer chance," he recalls. "It was the only instrument left" in the school orchestra, "and I found that I could play it". As the family hit crisis after crisis through his mother's breast cancer, the death of a favourite uncle, the collapse of another, Cale "retreated into the luxury of my interior universe, which was filled with music". And there, albeit now in much greater harmony with the outer world, Cale has remained.

Cale's road to America was via Goldsmith's College, London, a meeting with Aaron Copland and winning a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to the prestigious Berkshire Music Centre at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Once in New York, Cale famously changed gear; his pieces composed at Tanglewood "were too violent", and, after consulting Bernstein himself, he cashed in his return ticket to London for the deposit on a loft apartment.

Most of what happened next is well recorded: pairing up with Lou Reed, friendship with Andy Warhol and Nico, and the adventures of a remarkable band through an odyssey of musical innovation, heroin, alcohol, and eventual fragmentation in acrimony.

The personal issues are perhaps best summed up in two remarks - on Warhol: "Real friends are hard to find in New York, and Andy was one I knew for 20 years." And on Lou Reed, following the funeral of bass player Sterling Morrison, who died of cancer (Cale's car had been caught in traffic and he was worried he would miss Reed's oration. But his erstwhile friend had not even bothered to turn up): "I realised," said Cale, "what a friend I had lost in Sterling Morrison, and what a friend I had not lost in Lou Reed."

But the more compelling issues were actually musical, not personal. There were, audibly, two or more Velvet Undergrounds. There was that strange, spectral sound - the "drone" - and there was the pre-punk adrenalin. Loosely speaking, the first was Cale, the second was Reed. The band was renowned for its long improvisations, recalls Cale, "because we hated playing the same thing every night. We needed to have a piece that would allow us to let off steam.

But then there were the psychological reasons; improvisation became a bolt hole - Sterling would come up. Then I would come up, then Lou would come up - and we extended the stuff until we weren't a band at all. If you are separate, you don't have to put up with each other."

Cale's solo career is also well documented, both as songwriter/performer and as producer for Patti Smith, Nico and others. The oeuvre is like an autobiography, both in lyrics and sound - from the iconoclastic Vintage Violence through the lachrymose Artificial Intelligence to the searing, crashing rush of Sabotage Live.

You can feel Cale progress towards and through a point in his life in 1989 when the booze and the drugs came to an abrupt end, with the birth of his daughter, Eden. "I looked at her and said to myself: 'If I carry on like this, I'll miss the best years of your life.' I had lost my sense of humour. I wasn't having any fun any more. I said to myself: 'How the hell did it get to this? You've got all these records, so how the hell did you get here ?' " So he stopped doing drink and drugs. "I stopped the lot, and wondered: 'What's the most taxing sport you can think of? Squash. OK, go and play that twice a week.'"

Musically, Cale's gear-shift took him back to "whatever is familiar. I thought, 'I'll go back to classical music and see what's there.' That's what happens in these situations: you go back to what's familiar." He began work on an opera around the character of Dylan Thomas's umbrella, which accompanied the writer from place to place, meeting WH Auden, from bar to bar to bar. It didn't work, explains Cale, because Thomas's poetry "has its own internal noise system" with which he didn't wish to interfere.

Before the Velvets, Cale recorded an experimental album called Sun Blindness Music - long experiments in sound and time, influenced by John Cage. The viola had gone, but not the "classical" training, now applied to what Cale calls "the things we have to understand about what time and sound do to our senses".

This was the sound which, converted to guitar and a rock band, was diverted by the Velvet Undergound, and which Cale has been gradually returning to ever since. With his new music, he entwines it all through working with technology and what he calls "the organic entity" of music "at that particular moment" while improvising in the studio.

There is a fair comparison to draw between what Cale has done and Radiohead's progression from the unrelenting edge of The Bends to the remote, other-worldly universe of Kid A or Amnesiac. As with that of Radiohead, Cale's new work has what he calls "a floating quality; it's a haunted place, I suppose". And such music brings Cale back, by necessity, to the viola.

Cale once wrote: "I've no business in rock 'n'roll. I've said it over and over, I'm a classical composer, I'm not a rock'n'roll musician - I'd love to conduct a Brahms or Mahler cycle." He gives a little shrug when this is quoted back at him, adding: "I love rock'n'roll."

But there is this: "All that stuff I couldn't do on the viola I'm doing now. After all that time when people were just not interested in hearing the instrument, I'm pursuing it. I'll be working on a song like this thing I've got called Twilight Zone. And I'm not fooling around - this is a six-part string arrangement, and it's carnivorous. I tried to put a guitar on it, but it just didn't survive the experience. The viola was too vengeful. But there are traps," he adds.

"You can easily end up just being a techno guy if you're not careful. You have got to have some humanity in there." And so what Cale brings into this parallel universe is what he calls "chatter". It is a hallmark of modernism: injection of vernacular or the burlesque sounds of life - kitsch indeed - into music.

Cale describes the mood of one new song as "cloying" - a song called E is Missing, the "E" being Ezra Pound. In a way, this is the most important, on the EP at least. "Your fingernails are missing / There's ink all over the place," it goes. "What I mean is there is blood all over the place," explains Cale.

The song about Pound deals with one of the most erudite masters of "chatter" in the history of poetry. "Pound is full of chatter," says Cale, "multilingual chatter, extremely learned and elitist". But the song has greater significance. Cale says that "I try to get away from literal things. I'm not so concerned to write about events, as what the events evoke beyond their time."

E is Missing addresses, indirectly, a period of history Cale devours at the moment, the armistice in Italy, when Pound - having defected to fascism - was taken by American troops and imprisoned. "It was a time when the partisans were wreaking their revenge, and everyone was wreaking their vendettas on everyone else." It is a song about a traitor.

Cale says he is "still fascinated by the emotional curve of my journey from Wales to New York and back again. When I return to the Amman valley, it is as if to the bosom of a friend. That friend floats in the language and seduces me with each translation."

The most intriguing thing about Cale's new work is that it takes him not only to the instrument - and, to a degree, the sound - he played as a youth in Wales, but to that original dilemma: the love-hate of Welsh at home, learning English at school, and leaving. "I'm now very sensitive to the idea that I have betrayed my heritage. I'm over here, in America, and I wonder whether what I did has turned me into a traitor. If you reject something you grew up with, does that mean that you have the DNA structure of a traitor? I'm very interested in traitors these days."

So, John Cale, perturbed traitor to Wales and Welsh, where is home? "New York is home," he says, with a moment of hesitation. "I don't see myself going back. All that stuff about the 24-hour city, it's true. You can get your business done any time in New York. I like that. I love going back to London, I love going back to Wales. But this is home - I think."

· The EP 5 Tracks is out on Monday on EMI, price £5.99 inc P&P. To buy it call the Guardian music service on 0870 066 7812. John Cale plays Glastonbury next month.


The Many Voices of the Poet Ai

by Pat Harrison

The Radcliff Quarterly, Spring 2000

In this age of multiculturalism, when so many writers are exploring their ethnic identity, the poet Ai B '76--who is half Japanese, as well as African American and Native American--defies the times by assuming a myriad of other identities and voices, none expressly her own. Ai's six volumes of poetry, which began appearing in 1973 and culminated last year in a major collection of new and selected poems, feature dramatic monologues by people whose voices don't usually make it into literature: a child-beater, a rapist, a self-abortionist. She has also written in the persona of public figures as diverse as J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe, and Mary Jo Kopechne. But until recently, when Ai began work on a memoir, she had not written directly about her own background in what she's described as a "half-breed culture" in Tucson.

"I like making up characters," Ai told the Quarterly in a recent phone interview. "Writing the monologue has afforded me that opportunity, but I really kind of fell into it. My first poetry teacher said that the first person is often the strongest, and that seemed to be my gift. I just did it so well that every poem I wrote in the first person seemed to be a success, whereas others weren't. So I did it over and over, and by the second year of graduate school, I was firmly on that path. I find it very exciting to become other people. I don't think of them as masks for myself. Some people say that, but to me they're not. They're my characters; they're not me."

Photo of Ai

Inspiration for her monologues comes from diverse sources, including late-night television. "For my Jimmy Hoffa poem," Ai said, "I was watching Johnny Carson one night and he told a joke. 'Who did they find under Tammy Fay Baker's makeup?' The answer was Jimmy Hoffa. And I said to myself, 'I want to write a poem about Jimmy Hoffa.'"

More recently, she's been writing a cycle of poems about the race riot that occurred in Tulsa in 1921, when the Greenwood section of the city, known as the black Wall Street, was set afire by white men and boys. "I was watching Nightline," Ai reported, "and one of the survivors said there was so much smoke and fire that his sister said, 'Brother, is the world on fire?' That line got me into my poems."

From the beginning of her career, publication has come easily to Ai, perhaps in part because her poetry is so accessible. As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, she met her mentor, New York University Professor Galway Kinnell, when he came to campus to read. After the reading, Ai began sending her poetry to Kinnell for his comments, and he encouraged her to apply to the writing program at the University of California at Irvine. During her second year at Irvine, Kinnell took a copy of Ai's thesis to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, and in 1973, her first book, Cruelty, appeared. It was after Cruelty came out that Ai was awarded her Bunting fellowship, which she held in 1975-76. Five additional books followed: Killing Floor (1979), Sin (1986), Fate (1991), Greed (1993), and Vice (1999), all published by Houghton Mifflin except the last two, which Norton brought out.

Photo of Book:
Vice: New and Selected Poems.

The titles of Ai's books indicate the gritty content of her poems. Listen, for example, to the opening lines of "The Cockfighter's Daughter," from her book Fate: "I found my father,/face down, in his homemade chili /and had to hit the bowl/with a hammer to get it off,/then scrape the pinto beans/and chunks of ground beef/off his face with a knife." Some critics have accused the poet of sensationalism, while others have lauded her risk-taking. Whatever the critics think, though, Ai's books have always done well with readers, selling better than poetry usually does.

"I decided to go the Wordsworthian way when I was in grad school," Ai said, "and write in the language of the common man. I don't know if I succeeded, but that was one of my goals. I made my work as accessible as I could, without compromising my intelligence."

Ai's plain speaking has certainly earned her a share of prizes. In addition to her Bunting fellowship, she has won a Guggenheim fellowship, the Lamont Prize, an American Book Award, and, most recently, for Vice: New and Selected Poems (Norton, 1999), the life-changing National Book Award. Before this latest award, Ai was a visiting professor at Oklahoma State University, a position similar to the many teaching appointments she's held throughout her career. But last fall, on her return to Stillwater from accepting the award in New York, OSU offered her tenure as a full professor. "The financial security that I have wanted my whole career I now have. It was almost too much for me. I had wanted it for so long."

Now comfortably ensconced at OSU, Ai is conducting research for her memoir, looking up relatives who were members of the Choctaw and Southern Cheyenne tribes in Oklahoma. One of the next voices we hear from the poet Ai will likely reflect her own rich history, including details about that Tucson "half-breed" culture.


 Ai's first book, Cruelty, received critical acclaim when it was published in 1973. Her second book, Killing Floor, was the 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Her next book, Sin (1987), won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and was followed by Fate in 1991. In 1999 Vice was the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. Ai is a native of the American Southwest and lives in Tucson, Arizona. In the year 2002-2003 she will hold the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Southwest Texas State University.

JIM LEHRER: The National Book awards were announced last night in New York. Awards were given for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children's literature. Elizabeth Farnsworth begins a series of conversations with the winning authors.

viceELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner for poetry this year is known as Ai, a Japanese word meaning "love." She won the award for Vice, a book of new and selected poems, many of them dramatic monologues. Born in 1947 in Albany, Texas, Ai published her first book in 1973. She currently teaches poetry and fiction at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Thanks for being with us, and congratulations.

AI, National Book Award, Poetry: Oh, thank you, and you're welcome.


Tough topics for poetry

boxesELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm struck by the tough topics you take on. You deal with child abuse, murder, necrophilia, torture. What draws you to these topics?

AI: Well, it's really the characters, because I write monologues. So when I find an interesting character, I usually start that way. I'll think of somebody who interests me, and then fill in the blanks, so to speak. So it's sort of happenstance in a weird way, you know. It's just sort of... I'm sort of constructing these lives. But I tend to like scoundrels. I like to write about scoundrels because they are more rounded characters in some respects than a really good person. You know, there's a lot more to talk about with the scoundrels.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, why the dramatic monologue form?

aiAI: I'm very comfortable in that form. My first poetry teacher said that when you wrote in the first person, that your work was often stronger. And I discovered over the years that that was... my poems that were written in the first person were the strongest. And I sort of kind of fell into that, so by grad school, that's all I wrote. And I love it, because it's so interesting. Every time I write a poem, I'm someone else without actually being that person, you know? It's really great.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I may have missed something in looking at your poetry, but as far as I can tell, you're almost always someone else. It's not about yourself, even though it's in the first person.

AI: There will be, like, little things in poems sometimes. But if I don't tell you, you'd never know that I was dealing with something from my own life.

Jimmy Hoffa's Odyssey  

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right, let's read one. Let's read the one about Jimmy Hoffa.

AI: Okay. One night I was watching Johnny Carson, and he told this joke. And he said, "Who did they find under Tammy Faye Bakker's makeup?" And the answer was Jimmy Hoffa. And it was just like that, snap my fingers, "I want to write about Jimmy Hoffa." I usually read biographies when I write about historical figures, so I got a biography, and I was stuck for a while. I had a great opening and then was stuck. Then when I hit on Hoffa having been abducted by an alien, I had my poem. Unfortunately, we won't hear that part of the poem.

"Jimmy Hoffa's Odyssey": I remember summers when the ice man used to come, a hunk of winter caught between his iron tongs and in the kitchen, my ma with the rag, wiping the floor when he'd gone. Sweet song of the vegetable man, like the music a million silver dollars make as they jingle-jangle in that big pocket of your dreams. Dreams, yes, and lies. When I was a boy, I hauled ashes in a wagon pulled by a bony horse, not even good enough for soap. aiSo later, when they called me a stocky little dock worker with my slicked-back black hair, my two-toned shoes, cheap suits and fat, smelly cigars, I didn't care. I had my compensation. Bobby Kennedy didn't want to understand. But to the Teamsters back in '58, I had 'em all in my pockets then: Statesmen, lawyers, movie stars, Joe Lewis for God's sake. For a time, I won spin after spin on the tin wheel of fate. But in the end, like those glory boys Jack and Bobby, I was only icing on the sucker cake."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you get into his head? You've been in Trotsky's head and a lot of other people in your poems. How do you do it?

AI: Well, it's almost as if, you know, I'm an actor. I feel all the roles. Like, I'm the actor, I'm the writer, the director and everything. Sort of like a method actor. Sort of like De Niro, but I don't gain weight as De Niro did in "Raging Bull." It's all in my mind. I really didn't have the Hoffa character until I read that he always referred to himself in the third person. Once I had that and my alien abduction, I was on the road to completion, so to speak.

The name: Ai  
boxesELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now about you personally just a little bit: How did you get the name Ai?

AI: Ai is my middle name. My father was Japanese. And my mother is Choctaw Indian, southern Cheyenne, black, Dutch and Irish. They love the Irish part. They never talk much about the Dutch part. So I'm truly all American, you know.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did getting the book award surprise you?

AI: Yes, because I convinced myself I wasn't going to win. And I was full of self-pity yesterday. I couldn't get a taxi. I was down on West 17th. I couldn't get a taxi. I said, "They're torturing me. I'm not going to win this thing anyway."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why were you so sure you wouldn't win?

AI: I don't know -- you know -- because I had been optimistic the night before. But I think partly, when I'm realistic about my work, it's rather edgy and very dark in many respects. And I was worried that someone whose work was a bit safer than mine might win.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you think your work is so edgy and dark, aside from the fact you love scoundrels? You're very interested in violence.

AI: Well, I think violence is an integral part of American culture, and I set out to deal with it, actually, you know. I felt that when I was an undergrad, I was not able to deal with violence in my work, so I made it a point to be able to do that. I've always preferred tragedy. For instance, Shakespeare's tragedies are my favorites. I rarely go to comedies. But I do have a sense of humor. It's warped, but it is a sense of humor.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thank you very much. Congratulations again.

AI: Oh, thank you. Take care.


Ai comments:

Ai is the only name by which I wish, and indeed, should be known. Since I am the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop, and I was forced to live a lie for so many years, while my mother concealed my natural father's identity from me, I feel that I should not have to be identified with a man, who was only my stepfather, for all eternity.

My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I've been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.

A. Robert Lee

Born in Tucson, Arizona, the poet AI, pseudonym of Florence Anthony, looks to a complex American multicultural ancestry--a Japanese father and a mother part black, Choctaw, and Irish. Raised also in Las Vegas and San Francisco, she majored in Japanese at the University of Arizona and immersed herself in Buddhism. Currently based in Tempe, she has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and various universities; she has also been a frequent reader-performer of her work.

So eclectic, not to say peaceable, an upbringing makes a striking contrast with the kind of poetry that has won her ongoing attention. Her particular forte has been to adapt Robert Browning's dramatic monologue to her own purposes, poems whose different voices speak of fracture, violence, revenge, sexual hunger, as if to emphasize the human disorder both beneath (and often enough at the surface of) society.

Cruelty (1973) offers a run of soliloquies, dealing with, among other things, suicide, abortion, female masturbation, hanging, child-beating, and the unpredictability of desire. AIs style of poetic utterance has from the outset rarely been other than tough-edged, in the words of an early critic, "as if she made her poem(s) with a knife." Little wonder that the title poem in Cruelty begins with an image of a dead wildcat. In Killing Floor (1978), a poem like "The Kid" assumes the voice of a boy-murderer, a natural-born killer, who methodically and pathologically destroys his entire family only to emerge sweet-faced and apparently unperturbed.

Sin (1986) attempts yet more complex personae--ruminations, for the most part, of men of power, Joe McCarthy to the Kennedy brothers. In "The Testament of J. Robert Oppenheimer" the note is transcendental, millennial, that of the Manhattan Project leader eventually troubled by the possibilities of nuclear mass-destruction. In 'The Good Shepherd," however, the voice, more locally but no less chillingly, belongs to the anonymous mass-murderer of Atlanta's black youth. "Saturn. . . devours its children," says the killer. Fate: New Poems (1991) offers a further gallery, equally dark, a speaking dead that includes General George Custer, Mary Jo Kopechne (now the bitter, retrospective party-girl), Elvis Presley, Lenny Bruce, and President Lyndon Johnson.

AI opens her fifth collection, Greed (1993), with "Riot Act, April 29, 1992," a poem spoken as if by an unnamed black rioter taken into police custody in South Central Los Angeles, who ruefully construes the looting and fires in the aftermath of Rodney King's beating as "the day the wealth finally trickled down." A similar bittersweet note runs through "Self Defense." Washington, D.C.'s mayor Marion Barry, sentenced for crack possession after an FBI setup, is forced to conclude, 'That is how you hold the nigger down." In "Hoover, Edgar J.," law enforcement as paranoia has its say, the meanness at once racist, homophobic, class-loaded. The diatribe ends boastingly and bullyingly: "J. Edgar Hoover rules." Other monologue-poems equally offer markers for the times--whether in the voice of Jack Ruby, or of a witness to the Marcos regime in Manila, or of a street girl contemplating Mike Tyson and the Desiree Washington rape.

As always this amounts to a slightly stylized ventriloquy, creating an effect of distance, things seen at one remove. All has not by any means been praise; critics have on occasion thought the poetry monotone, close to mannerism, too determinedly dour or black-humored. But AI is not to be denied her own kind of verse Gothic, an America, a world, seen as though through disembodied witness and nothing if not at one with her slightly maverick status in contemporary African American poetry.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © Oxford University Press


Les Femmes Surrealistes
A paper by Julie Byrd
presented at the Interdisciplinary Cross-Cultural Conference 
University of Illinois on March 3, 1995.
Sincere thanks to Ms. Byrd for her work


Leonora Carrington was a revolutionary before she ever encountered the Surrealists. Born into an upper class family in Lancashire, England, Leonora learned at a very early age the injustice of society. Since her parents were both very strict Catholics, they sent her away from convent to convent and then to boarding school. Finally after many rebellious acts and expulsions from school, she succeeded in convincing her parents to let her study art at the Amédée Ozenfant Academy in London. There she lived on a modest pension from her family and established herself as a painter and a writer.

In 1937, Carrington met Max Ernst in London. He left his wife for Carrington, his "Bride of the Wind". The couple lived together until the outbreak of W.W.II when Ernst was taken prisoner as an enemy alien. Carrington's work during this period moves from themes of childhood filled with magical birds and animals, to a mature art based on Celtic mythology and alchemical transformation. It is an art of sensibility rather than hallucination, one in which animal guides lead the way out of a world of men who don't know magic, fear the night, and have no mental powers except intellect.

One can clearly see this in Leonora Carrington's self-portrait where animals reveal themselves to be forces of nature.

"The source of Carringtion's magical white horse lies not in Freud's use of the horse as a symbol of male power but in the Celtic legends that nourished her childhood...the horse is sacred to the ancient tribe of the Tuatha de Danaan...the hyena belongs to the fertile world of night; the horse becomes an image of rebirth into the light of day and the world beyond the looking glass. As symbolic intermediaries between the unconscious and the natural world, they replace male Surrealists' reliance on the image of woman as the mediating link between man and the "marvelous" and suggest the powerful role played by Nature as a source of creative power for the woman artist (Chadwick, p. 79)."

Thus Carrington suggests a redefines the image of the femme-enfant - the child who plays the role of innocence, seduction and dependence on man, and transforms this woman into a being who, through childhood worlds of fantasy and magic, is capable of creative transformation through intellectual power rather than sexual power.

During the years of World War II, Carrington suffered enormously due to her lover Max Ernst's imprisonment in a concentration camp. In fact she had several mental breakdowns. On one occasion she was institutionalized (by the intervention of her family in England) and given cardiazol, a powerful shock inducing drug. This drug was administered to many female patients from what doctors diagnosed or rather coined the term "hysteria". In an article she wrote in 1944 published in Down Below, Carrington describes her experiences of having a mental breakdown and the rupture of the world around her:

I begin therefore when Max was taken away to a concentration camp...I wept for several hours, down in the village; then I went up again to my house, where for 24 hours, I indulged in voluntary vomiting induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap. I hoped that my sorrow would be allayed by those violent spasms which tore my stomach apart like so many earthquakes...I had realized that injustice of society...My stomach was the seat of that society, but also the place in which I was united with all the elements of the earth. It was...the mirror of the earth, the reflection of which is just as real as the person reflected. (Chadwick, p. 84).

In 1940, Carrington was reunited with Max Ernst, but he was now in the company of Peggy Guggenheim. Alas the loss of a loved one, and the reverberations of these events, left an indelible mark on Carrington's work between 1940-1944.

Carrington lived in New York after the war, and then moved to Mexico. It was in Mexico that she developed a mature body of work heavily influenced by magic, alchemy, and a lot more of the Celtic tradition. Her female protagonists are like the Sibyls, sorceresses, and priestesses of some ancient religion: their journeys are mythic voyages that unravel like fairy tales. But in life as well as art Carrington grounded her pursuit of the arcane and the hermetic in images of woman's everyday life: cooking, knitting, and tending children.

In 1946, she married Chiqui Weisz, a Hungarian immigrant. Her paintings Night Nursery Everything, Kitchen Garden of the Eyot, and Amor que move il sole e l'altra stella, celebrate the birth of her son and contain references to a female creative spirit.

Leonora Carrington has written a myriad of articles, novels, essays, and poems. She has produced thousands of paintings, sculptures, collages, and a number of tapestries. She has also made many public appearances. On in particular, was the women's movement in the early 1970's, where she spoke about women's legendary powers and the need for women to take back the rights that belonged to them all along. Carrington, just as Kahlo and Fini, is truly a remarkable human being and artist.

"To possess a telescope without its other essential half --
the microscope --
seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension.
The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope,
while the left eye peers into the microscope."
                                                                                  L. Carrington
Leonora Carrington, 1939  (photo by Lee Miller)



Leonora Carrington's 'The Hearing Trumpet'
Geriatric Goddess

f C.S. Lewis had been a Woman Who Runs With the Wolves, his fiction might have resembled The Hearing Trumpet, the fantasy novel by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. Published in English in 1976, The Hearing Trumpet (recently reprinted by Exact Change Press) boasts the kind of whimsically eclectic stage dressing that decks The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Carrington's senior-citizen heroines plunge from reality to a magical world as suddenly as Lucy and her siblings do in Lewis's Narnia series. But while Lewis roped his fantasy series to Christianity, Carrington tethered The Hearing Trumpet to a more eccentric mythology smelted from dream imagery, Celtic legend, alchemical literature, surrealist rebellion, and goddess lore. By her novel's end, six old ladies have helped defeat an Angry Father God, delivering the worldnewly in the grips of a second Ice Ageto a redemptive female spirit incarnated as a swarm of bumblebees.

Buoying the novel up against such weighty feminist themes, fortunately, is its quirky humor, which takes its tone from Marian Leatherby, the irrepressible 92-year-old narrator. So spunky and opinionated she could be a mascot for the Gray Panthers, Marian isno kiddingone of literature's most endearing and colorful characters, all the more remarkable for belonging to a demographic category novelists usually slight. She is a gregarious, nearly deaf, toothless grandmother who is a fanatical cat lover and a vegetarian"I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway," she remarks. She's no youth-culture victim either: "I do have a short gray beard which conventional people would find repulsive," she observes in the opening pages. "Personally I find it rather gallant."

But Marian's son, a British diplomat in an unnamed South American country, is not so enamored of his mother, whom he packs off to a local nursing home. This curious place, where residents live in oddly shaped bungalowsone like a cuckoo clock, others like a birthday cake or a toadstoolturns out to be a nest of supernatural intrigue. After one elderly occupant dies from poisoned chocolate fudge, Marian leads a hunger strike against the home's priggish administrators, Dr. and Mrs. Gambit. In doing so, she unwittingly precipitates a cataclysm that involves werewolves, an atom-powered ark, a uranium mine, an aphrodisiac discovered near the mummy of Mary Magdalene, and the Holy Grail.

At the core of the adventure is the story of an evil 18th-century abbess who is eventually canonized, despite having infested her convent with orgies and black magic. "She must have been a most remarkable woman," Marian optimistically concludes after reading the saint's secret history. Carrington's gleeful willingness to take swipes at the church is also evident in her portrait of the Gambits, who practice a kind of pretentious Christian gymnastics (a parody, perhaps, of the philosophy espoused by G.I. Gurdjieff, which Carrington encountered in the '50s).

The Hearing Trumpet's blasphemous strains are, of course, classic surrealist shock tactics, but they also reflect Carrington's personal rebellion. Born in 1917 into a wealthy British Catholic family, she was repeatedly thrown out of convent schools, and when older she scandalized her family by opting to study art. In London in 1937 she met one of the surrealist movement's founding members, the painter and sculptor Max Ernst, who left his wife for her. Living with Ernst in France, Carrington began crafting stories and spooky paintings like her 1939 Portrait of Max Ernst, which poses a man with a furry fish's body in an eerie arctic landscape.

In 1940 the German Ernst was interned by the French as an enemy alien, and Carrington had a nervous breakdown. After fleeing France, she turned up at the British Embassy in Madrid, threatening and delusional, and was committed to an insane asylum. Eventually, her family, intending to hospitalize her further, attempted to return her to England, but en route Carrington escaped from her escort. She sought refuge in Lisbon with a Mexican diplomat acquaintance, who married her as a way to help her travel to New York. In subsequent years she continued to write and paint, in New Yorka magnet for émigré surrealistsand in Mexico, where she lives now.

During her first decades in the Americas, Carrington wrote The Hearing Trumpet, but the manuscript was lost, and she had to re-create it from a rough draft that turned up in 1973. The book was published to favorable notice; Luis Buñuel marveled, "Reading The Hearing Trumpet liberates us from the miserable reality of our days."

The novel's audaciously bizarre story line has often earned it comparison to Alice in Wonderland, but the analogy is, perhaps, too easy. Carrington's tale lacks the ruthlessly tight weave, and the underlying puzzle logic, of Carroll's. Its vision is more like a collage, that medium admired by the surrealists. Encountering references over the course of two or three pages, for example, to Lapland, nuclear science, and an embalmed cuckoo, one thinks of the surrealist aesthetic of jarring juxtapositionsa style summed up in Comte de Lautréamont's simile, seized upon by surrealist kingpin André Breton: "Beautiful as the unexpected meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella."

At the same time, the images in The Hearing Trumpet are more psychological than those in Alice. When Marian Leatherby plunges down the equivalent of a rabbit hole, she meets a shamanic version of herselfa witch who scoffs at the question "Which of us is really me?" The scene practically invites readers to be armchair shrinks: Analyze the novel through a biographical lens, after all, and the Gambits' nursing home appears to be Carrington's therapeutically comic rewriting of her Spanish hospital stay.

The real common denominator between Alice and The Hearing Trumpet is the unflappability of the two heroines. The intrepid Marian views old age, levitating abbesses, and other alarming occurrences with the calm self-confidence Alice directs at the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat. And both heroines scrutinize the marvelous with the same hilariously deadpan logic. "We are thinking of teaching them to draw a sledge," Marian reports of a werewolf litter born into the new Ice Age.

Carrington's zany novel challenges us to rethink stereotypes about old age, and old women in particular. Marian's elderly female pals are as resourceful as a Bruce Willis hero in a tight spotfor example, Carmella, a cigar-smoking octogenarian who likes to discuss machine guns, pulls off a blackmailing scheme. In fact, it is tempting to read the book as a sort of belated protest against the male surrealists' idealization of fragile young women. As Whitney Chadwick points out in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, André Breton & Co. cast women, and particularly naive, mentally unstable women, as museshaunting, enigmatic creatures who maintained a direct line to the Irrational. This patronizing vision had little room for women who were strong and worldly-wise, or who aimed to be artists in their own right, instead of simply channeling inspiration to men.

Chadwick reports that, when asked her opinion of the surrealists' Woman-as-Muse mythology, Leonora Carrington answered, succinctly: "Bullshit." The Hearing Trumpet elaborates with comic genius on this response, conjuring up a world of geriatric heroines spirited enough to explode the patriarchyteeth or no teeth.

Celia Wren is the managing editor of the magazine American Theatre.


Jarboe laughs
The humorous side of the Swans siren

from "THE BOSTON PHOENIX", August 19, 2003


Jarboe explains that her original idea for the cover of the remix set Dissected (The Living Jarboe) was "me lying on an autopsy table nude with some organs removed." But as she collaborated on the design with photographer Cedric Victor-DeSouza, it evolved into something less elaborate: her face with a sewn-up gash running from forehead to chin. "That seems less gory or industrial."

Gory and industrial are words that could be used to describe her former band, Swans. As well as punk, sexy, debauched, and plain goddamn house-shaking loud. In her 14-year partnership with Swans founder Michael Gira, singer and keyboardist Jarboe who plays the Jorge Hernández Cultural Center this Tuesday was responsible for some of the creepiest, most strident music in American rock. Although the New York Citybased band mellowed and expanded their sound as they grew, their trademark remains a churning caterwaul alleviated by the more colorful melodic and ambient interests Jarboe introduced to Gira mated to lyrics about exploitation and dominance.

So its a little surprising when Jarboe proves to be such a cheery presence over the phone from a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, one of the stops on her first major US club tour, her voice further sweetened by the honey tones of a slight Southern accent thats the result of her Mississippi upbringing. Although maybe it shouldnt be. There was always an undercurrent of humor in Swans songs like "Raping a Slave" and "Red Velvet Wound." And since that band broke up, Jarboe has been intent on exploring her broad musical interests. "My own identity as an artist is much different from Swans. Being a studio musician and playing in a lounge band before I met Michael and growing up exposed to church music, Ive been through a lot musically, and Im having fun now rediscovering my reference points and trying to incorporate more and more elements of classic rock in my sets. Im doing an interpretation of Reason To Live by Kiss on this tour. I was invited to play an industrial festival in Greece, and Im going to work up a Led Zeppelin cover for that because I know theyre not going to expect it."

Jarboe has crafted her own surreal playground of dance music, ambient experiments, and soaring ephemera on five solo discs. And shes continued to explore themes of sexuality and identity that are often summed up visually by her CD covers, including the photo of herself nude except for a chastity belt adorned with vicious hooks on 2000s Anhedoniac (The Living Jarboe). Another liberation point was establishing herself as an Internet-based artist ( so she wouldnt be label-dependent. But right now what seems to be moving Jarboe again is collaboration. On this tour shes backed by the intriguing Italian ambient rock experimentalists Larsen, who record for Giras Young Gods Records. Theres also a new DVD, Krzykognia (The Living Jarboe), of a March 2003 Jarboe/Larsen performance in Gda<t-70>´<t$>nsk. And shes almost finished an album of duets recorded with male artists, including Ministrys Bill Rieflin, Einstürzende Neubautens Bliza Bargeld, guitarist David Torn, and singer Iva Davies of Icehouse.

"My next step," she says, "is going to be a CD of me alone my piano and guitar and voice. I have to complete the duets as a kind of filter to center myself. You have to be centered in yourself to do something as stripped down as just one instrument and your voice."

Jarboe and Larsen, with opener Thalia Zedek, play the Jorge Hernández Cultural Center, 85 West Newton Street, at 8 p.m. this Tuesday, August 19; call (617-927-0061.

Issue Date: August 15 - August 21, 2003



Patti Smith

is a genuine phenomenon.



Now in her mid-fifties, and with two teenaged kids, Smith has lost nary an ounce of the unequaled intensity and passion that's been on display since her classic 1975 debut, Horses, made her a rock n roll legend. She has a new album, Land that will be released this spring, and her previous album, Gung Ho, is right up there with the best of her seventies work. The fervor in songs like "Lo and Beholden" and "Glitter in Their Eyes" would be astonishing for someone 30 years her junior.

Though Smiths energy and presence are ageless, they don't come from having traveled an easy road. If anything, Smith has undergone more hardships than any mere mortal could be expected to handle. In the span of a few years, she lost her best friend (photographer Robert Mapplethorpe), her husband (Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5), her brother, and close friends Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Yet through it all she fights on, even maintaining some semblance of optimism. In the beautiful acoustic number "Farewell Reel," the song that closes 1996's Gone Again, Smith sings, "And God only knows / We're only given / As much as the heart can endure." The song, dedicated to Fred, shows the heart of a fighter and philosopher.

Forgive me if I gush a little, but there are very few heroes left in the world, and even fewer in rock n roll. Patti Smith is one of the most inspiring people most of us could ever hope to come in contact with. And yet her most impressive feat is that though she has associated with the likes of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Dylan and the Dalai Lama, she puts on no airs. You're more likely to find her doing laundry than riding in a limo.

You did a live Webcast recently. What was that like from your perspective?

It was unnatural. (Well, not that performing is ever really natural.) Part of what we do as a band is to break as many barriers as possible: I'll never ignore what's going on; I'll never try to pretend things aren't happening. We were in an unnatural setup. There were five huge TV cameras, all these bright lights, I could see all of the audience there's no mood-setting thing. We were trying to do a little video at one point. Clive Davis was in the audience. It was not your normal meeting at the Bowery Ballroom. There were a lot of unnatural elements. But they're still human elements. So it was interesting to see where these new invaders would take us. It's just like another episode of The X-Files or something. I thought it was a very interesting world; a sense of humor was absolutely essential.

Did you get a chance to see what the Webcast looked like afterwards?

Yeah. I thought it was pretty cool. It was funny. It looked like what it was. I only saw bits of it on a laptop, and it looked pretty raw, as it was. What did you think?

It was a really good show. It was different. From the audience perspective it's hard to get into a show with all the lights on the same way you would without all the lights on. When you're at a rock show the house lights aren't supposed to be on.

But I still believe all things are interesting, even the fact that our band and our people were entering into this (in some ways) self-consciously moving event. We stuck together and we spar together. And I think it was okay. I mean a lot of things in life are humiliating. Everybody has times in their life where they feel like a jerk, where they feel uncomfortable, where they're forced to perform in a really unnatural situation. And I think it's sometimes important to let people see that, because I want people to see what it's like to go through a lot of the same things from my perspective. Because I do go through them. I have a lot of confidence. I have certain gifts. I have a lot of vision. But sometimes I'm on stage and I feel really stupid or I'll feel really awkward. Or I just don't feel good and I can't move right, or the sound is really bad and I can't sing very good or I just get, like, weirded out by some spirit or something. But it's just human stuff.

I've never really liked how within the rock n roll arena they sort of canonize people, not because of their work but because of the externals. But I think the rawness and all of the human aspects of performance have to be preserved. And I think that we've gotten so technical and we have the ability to use tapes, to lip sync in a supposedly real live performance, or have so many costume changes, or so many lights, or so many effects that the actual human core of things is sometimes lost. Some of the really street revolutionary energy is sometimes lost.

If this is not too personal, could you talk about how much having writing and music and your art has really helped you overcome all the losses in your life?

Well I think work on any level helps people when they're going through a grieving process. It's good to work. I just think that work is important for human beings. It's good to be productive, whether it's gardening, writing or whatever one pursues as their work. But I think really the most important thing is, again, human interaction friends reaching out to help you, saying one's prayer, staying in communication, because it's very easy to go into some really dark, unhealthy cocoon. And unless one wants to have a Victorian death, if one loses a loved one and sort of expires in the wake of one's loved one, it's important to get back on your feet and accept the help of others.

When I've had difficult times...only a couple of months after I had lost my husband and my brother, Allen Ginsberg came out of the blue. I hadn't seen him in a while and he said, "Come out and work. Get up out of bed and come out and work, work for others. Do something charitable." So he got me involved in the Tibetan situation, which I had always been concerned about. He got me on my feet.

I met Oliver Ray and he got me working. Lenny Kaye pursued me to work. And even Bob Dylan, who I didn't really know that well, called upon me to go on a tour with him. I spoke to him privately and he said, "Come back to work, the people need you. I think really accepting the help of others is a very important thing. It's sometimes more of an effort to accept help than not. But if you're gonna give help, you have to learn to accept it as well.

How much influence does your environment have on your writing?

When I was in Michigan for 16 years, my principal duty as a human being was as a wife and mother. And so a lot of my time went into my daily tasks as a wife and mother. So the way that I worked was very specific, instead of indulging myself in any writing at like four in the morning if I felt like it or sitting around with books all day. I found more specific time frames, like when the children were sleeping.

For me it's a matter of work ethic. I think that if one is given a gift, one has a responsibility to the gift. And it's fun to sort of live a bohemian lifestyle. Which I'm always sort of a bohemian, it's just the way that I am. But it's not necessary to creation. What's necessary to creation is motivating one's self, acknowledging your responsibility to your gift, and developing a work ethic.

Artists have the same responsibility as a person who has to work a nine-to-five job or any kind of person that has to do their work. An artist has a responsibility to himself and should be able to draw from himself and do his work regardless of his environment.

Genet had to write his books in prison on toilet paper and had to hide it. Anne Frank writing her diary in hiding there's all different ways that people have had [to] create. And I found really that it doesn't come from living a romantic lifestyle and smoking pot all day. It just comes from within and it comes from a lot of practice. Being a performer and doing a record is work. It's hard work


Kimberly Akimbo Review From NY1

David Lindsay Abaire is an up and coming playwright known for dark comedies like "Fuddy Meers" and "Wonder of the World." His latest quirky creation is KIMBERLY AKIMBO, a piece about a girl who's 16 going on 70. NY1's Roma Torre filed this review.

KIMBERLY AKIMBO is one weird show, but I was bowled over by the singular theatricality of David Lindsay Abaire's new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The way this harrowing and hilarious work continuously shifts from satire to black comedy to realism could never work anywhere else but the stage. And blessed with a first-rate production featuring an exceptional acting ensemble, it is theatre at its most original.

Kimberly Levaco is about to turn 16. She's met her first boyfriend, and is soon to experience her first kiss. Though her dad worries about the boyfriend's intentions, there's no fear of accidental pregnancy. That's because Kimberly went through menopause four years ago.

Kimberly was born with a degenerative disease that causes her to age four and a half times the normal rate. Betrayed by her body, she's staring squarely at her own mortality, with a life expectancy that's just about up.

But Kimberly, as played and written, is no maudlin, self-obsessed teen. In fact, she's the normal one. And we discover she's suffering something even worse than her terminal illness - her family.

The family includes a pregnant, uncaring hypochondriac mother. Bandaged from carpal tunnel surgery, she's convinced that she's the one who's about to die. Her father is a spineless alcoholic with brief flashes of affection, and Jake Webber is outstanding in the part.

Both parents, in a chronic state of denial, manage to forget Kimberly's birthday, which statistically should be her last.

There's also her reckless aunt - a vulgar ex-con who ironically seems to have more feeling for Kimberly than her own parents.

It's a tricky play to produce because it requires the perfect balance between quirky and sincere. And this company, expertly directed by David Petrarca, pulls it off with exceptional flair.

Then there's Marylouise Burke. This 62-year-old actress' convincing performance as a teenager is a revelation. She's so believable that at one point, when she dresses like an elderly woman, the startling image takes your breath away. She provides the heartbreaking sanity to Lindsay Abaire's nightmarish world, where family dysfunction thrives amid a cultural wasteland. It's exaggerated to be sure, but rooted in reality just enough to make us all squirm from recognition.

The play's power comes from its ability to comment on so many profound issues in our lives: family neglect, aging, morality, love and innocence. It's painful to watch, but also enlightening. And if you stick with it, you may find yourself laughing through tears. Now that's theatre.

- Roma Torre

Manhattan Theatre Club's production of KIMBERLY AKIMBO, by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by David Petrarca, is playing at City Center Stage I (131 West 55th Street). The performance schedule is: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 PM. Sunday evening performances are at 7 PM. Tickets are $60 and can be reserved by calling CityTix at (212) 581-1212. Group and student rates are available. For group ticket information, call (212) 399-3000 X 132. $20 student tickets are on sale for all performances based on availability on the day of the performance, up to one hour before showtime (limit 4 per student with valid identification). Call (212) 581-1212 for further information. MTC at City Center is accessible to people with disabilities and is equipped with a hearing augmentation system.


Flute in the Storm
Filmmaker Jocelyn Glatzer discusses her upcoming film "Flute in the Storm," a portrayal of activist Arn Chorn Pond and his struggle to revive Cambodias dying musical heritage.

By Evelyn Adams Carrigan

An Interview Provided by the Boston Film/Video Foundation

Arn Chorn Pond at age 16.

Cambodian refugees in this country are somewhat of an enigma to most Americans. Few are aware of the devastation caused by the Cambodian holocaust during the 1970s Khmer Rouge uprising. In part, this is the power of Jocelyn Glatzers film, "Flute in the Storm."

The story documents internationally acclaimed human rights activist Arn Chorn Pond -- his amazing feat of escaping death several times; his courage to live on despite the pain; and his attempts to revive Cambodias dying musical heritage.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pots peasant Communist regime, systematically decimated 90 percent of Cambodias musicians, dancers, teachers, artists, monks and anyone else suspected of being educated. Those who were captured were sent to labor camps to work 18-hour days. The prisoners were eventually killed or forced into military duty to fight the sudden Vietnamese invasion.

But a 10-year-old boy, Arn Chorn, managed to keep himself alive. During his internment, Arn learned from a master performer the ancient music of his country. The master was killed for the deed, but Arn was spared so that he could play military tunes on his flute for the officers at the camp. Later, while fighting the Vietnamese, Arn managed to escape his company, winding his way through the jungle for days until he found a refugee camp. There he met Reverend Peter Pond, a Cambodian relief worker, who adopted Arn and two other boys, and brought them back to America two years later.

"Flute in the Storm" tells a compelling story of healing, hope and the struggle to revive a cultural tradition on the brink of extinction. Knowing that he survived after having watched so many die has been a painful cross to bear for Arn Chorn Pond. But at 34, he has reached out to his Cambodian-American community in Lowell and in his native country. Arn is passionately and successfully implementing programs that are bringing the music back to its people. His Cambodia Master Performers Project is a valiant attempt to restore dignity and power to the few surviving masters by coordinating paid teaching positions for them.

The filmmaker, Jocelyn Glatzer has worked for Maysles Films and WNETs Great Performances series as well as various feature films. She started her own production company, Over the Moon Productions, after working in the documentary business for 10 years. She is a recent recipient of an LEF Foundation grant and director of "Flute in the Storm."

EAC: How do you know Arn Chorn Pond?

Glatzer: I met Arn in my senior year at Northfield Mt. Hermon School in western Massachussetts. It was obvious to me that he was not your ordinary prep-school kid. We started having dinners together and he told me his incredible story. Weve been friends ever since.

EAC: What prompted you to make this documentary?

Glatzer: Over the years weve kept in touch. We have both worked with an organization called Facing History and Ourselves so we ran into each other at workshops and conferences. I knew that someday I would work on a project with Arn. It was just a matter of when.

When I moved to Boston last year from New York, I contacted Arn to see what he was working on. Last September he spoke at Simmons College, and I videotaped the event. We had lunch and he told me about his work to revive Cambodian music. I knew immediately that Arns story and his important work should be documented. Arn mentioned that he was going to Cambodia in November, and he willingly agreed to let me follow him. I was ready to be engaged in something challenging and I knew that working with Arn would be an adventure. The film is about personal recovery and cultural survival in the aftermath of war -- music is the vehicle used to explore these issues.

EAC: How did you prepare for the trip?

Glatzer: I only had two months to get ready. Fortunately, I had some money in the bank from previous commercial work, and I went ahead with the faith that funding would appear sometime in the future. I hired a cameraperson and a sound engineer only, because I didnt want to have a huge crew. Arn had his itinerary set for the trip so I could plan a strong shoot schedule around the work he had mapped out for himself.

EAC: What was it like to travel around Cambodia?

Glatzer: Its tough because the countrys infrastructure is in such disrepair. The roads are a series of ditches, and it takes three hours to travel 50 miles. The option of taking a boat from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat was no less inviting because the walkway was too narrow for us to carry our equipment and the boat was in rough shape. We chose not to go, but the next time Im there Im definitely going to try it.

For me personally, the toughest aspect of travelling in Cambodia was navigating the emotional terrain of the people who live there. Theres still so much pain because every single person has lost at least one family member and many people have seen the darkest side of human nature. The pain is palpable. It definitely had an impact on how we worked.

Arn is trying to make a dent by rebuilding the framework of his cultural heritage. He feels that the arts are the heart and soul of the country. He is really trying to save peoples' lives -- and doing this work heals him as well.

It was a very intense shoot. Very emotional. But I was driven by the fact that that its important for Cambodia to have world attention. The country is still very unstable. War crime tribunals are supposed to begin soon and they could severely impact the already precarious political climate.

EAC: Given the extant fear in Cambodia, how are people receiving the Cambodia Master Performers Project?

Glatzer: In Cambodia, the younger people dont know the music because it is never played. There is no music in the elevators, office buildings, or stores. They listen to Thai music and pop music. In America, Arn is helping the kids find a way to incorporate the traditional music with hip-hop and rap, which has worked well. Cambodian music has an incredibly unique sound that Westerners havent heard much. Ill be interested to hear how people will receive it.

"Flute in the Storm" will be completed in early 2002. For more information about "Flute in the Storm," contact Jocelyn Glatzer at Over the Moon Productions, Inc. 617-971-9497 or Also visit

Arn Chorn-Pond (PBS)

Arn Chorn-Pond (PBS)

Cambodian Fluteplayer
Story aired: Tuesday, July 22, 2003


When Arn Chorn Pond was nine, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge seized control of his country, Cambodia. Nearly two million were killed in the genocide that followed.

The Khmer Rouge tried to kill Arn's culture as well, and almost succeeded. Artists, intellectuals, many members of Arn's musical family, were wiped out in the slaughter.

Arn was taken to a forced labor camp, where ironically, it was music that saved him. He was forced to play propaganda songs on the flute for his captors.

He also was made to help in executions and at the age of 14 was drafted to fight the Vietnamese.

Arn was eventually able to escape and tell his story. Despite Arn's adoption by an American minister and despite his full immersion in American life, he decided to return to
Cambodia to help his native country recover it's lost culture and to heal himself.



"The Flute Player" is a one-hour documentary film about the life and work of Cambodian genocide survivor Arn Chorn-Pond. Arn was just a boy when Cambodia's Khmer Rouge military regime took power in 1975. For four long years, Arn followed the strict orders of the Khmer Rouge doing whatever it took to save his own life amidst torture, murder, starvation and brainwashing. While imprisoned in a labor camp, Arn participated in the execution of others in order to survive, and he played propaganda songs on his flute for his captors' entertainment.

Arn was later forced by the Khmer Rouge to fight against the Vietnamese when they invaded Cambodia in 1979. After seeing his friends killed on the front lines, he escaped to the jungle, eventually finding his way to a Thai refugee camp. Two years later, an American refugee worker adopted Arn and brought him to the United States. At the approximate age of 16, Arn was living in rural New Hampshire, struggling to rebuild what was left of his shattered life.

In an effort to reconcile with his past and to prevent future atrocities, Arn set out, flute in hand, to awaken the world to Cambodia's holocaust. Accolades like the Amnesty International Human Rights Award, however, could not heal his broken heart and tortured mind.

Today at the age of 38, Arn has taken his very tragic past and turned it into something inspirational. He is striving to heal the deep scars of Pol Pot's genocide by bringing Cambodia's once outlawed traditional music back to his people. It is estimated that up to 90 percent of Cambodia's Master Musicians (the trained professionals) were killed or starved to death during the Killing Fields and the ensuing Vietnamese occupation. As the few surviving traditional Master Musicians grow old and fall ill, a way of life quietly sits on the brink of extinction.

From Lowell, Massachusetts to the back streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, "The Flute Player" follows Arn as he brings Cambodia's remaining Master Musicians back to their craft, and encourages Cambodian American kids to write songs about their lives and mesh hip-hop with traditional Cambodian music. Throughout this journey across generations, continents and cultures, Arn confronts his own life, lived in the shadow of a painful past.

Arn Chorn-Pond's story provides insight about the specific ways in which the past continues to influence the lives of refugees living in the United States today by illuminating and probing some of the most critical issues of our time: What does war do to the psyche of individual survivors? What steps can a country and its people take to rebuild after experiencing profound destruction? Why is the preservation of culture important to personal identity and survival? "The Flute Player" explores these questions as it tells a riveting and enlightening story about hope, healing and the will to survive in the aftermath of war.

Cambodian Master Performers

Meet the lastgeneration of surviving Cambodian masters and listen to recordings of their performances of traditional songs from the Cambodian Master Performers Program archive.

Chek Mach Chek Mach, vocalist, Phnom Penh
Chek Mach began her vocal training at the age of ten, studying Bassac opera in Phnom Penh. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power, she toured all over Cambodia, performing traditional songs as well as works in Chinese, French, Vietnamese, and Laotian. She joined the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 1999, and for three years she taught students near her home. Chek Mach passed away in January 2003 at the age of seventy.
Listen to a music clip:
Chek Mach, vocals
Youen Mek, tror so (two-stringed fiddle)
Recorded November 1999
"Jao Dawk"
Chek Mach, vocals
Recorded April 1999

Kong Nai Kong Nai, chapei dang veng and improvisational singing, Phnom Penh
Kong Nai plays the chapei dang veng, a two-string long-necked guitar. He also practices the Khmer tradition of improvisational singing while he plays. Improvised lyrics were traditionally satirical or humorous, but this was forbidden by the Khmer Rouge, and he was forced to sing songs of praise for the government. He now performs less controversial songs, mostly stories and fables. Kong Nai has been a teacher at the Cambodian Master Performers Program since 2002.
Listen to a music clip:
"Khemin Chum Nom Dai"
Kong Nai, vocals and chapey dang veng (long-necked guitar)
Recorded November 2000
"Pritia Cha Khmer"
Kong Nai, vocals and chapey dang veng (long-necked guitar)
Recorded November 2000

Nong Chok Nong Chok, 55, vocalist, Banteay Meanchey
Nong Chok began performing as an actor and singer when he was a young boy. He frequently performed with the touring opera company run by his uncle, Arn Chorn-Pond's father. During the Khmer Rouge's reign, he was allowed to perform only revolutionary songs. After the Khmer Rouge fell from power, he founded a new opera company devoted to telling traditional stories and fables, but he couldn't keep the company open. He became a teacher at the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 2000, and hopes to rebuild an opera company.
Listen to a music clip:
"Lom Toueng"
Nong Chok and Chek Mach, vocals
(with ensemble)
Recorded April 2000
"Lom Jom Heng"
Nong Chok and Chek Mach, vocals
(with ensemble)
Recorded April 2000

Yim Saing Yim Saing, 80, woodwinds, Phnom Penh
Yim Saing's first instrument was made for him when he was sixteen by his grandfather, who was also a musician. He plays five different woodwinds, and prefers to play ajai, a kind of ancient 'rap' music in which two speakers improvise a discussion from the structure of the music. Although mistreatment by the Khmer Rouge left him partially deaf, he continues to perform and teach. His daughter Chanthy is also an accomplished flute player. Yim Saing joined the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 1999.
Listen to a music clip:
"Dom Noeur Khmer"
Yim Saing, khloy (bamboo flute)
Recorded April 1999
"Traw Yawng Yom Tgno"
Yim Saing, khloy (bamboo flute)
Recorded April 1999

Yoeun Mek Yoeun Mek, 63, tro so, Battambang
Yoeun Mek has played the tror so since he was fifteen, when he built his first instrument. While a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, he met Arn Chorn-Pond, and taught him the kind of traditional songs that were then forbidden by the government. After the Khmer Rouge fell from power, he worked in the state department of art and culture. Yoeun Mek began teaching at the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 1999.


Documenting Year Zero: The Yale Cambodian Genocide Project

P.O.V. spoke with Ben Kiernan, founder of the Yale Cambodian Genocide Program.

P.O.V.: You founded the Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) at Yale in 1994. What was the CGP intended to do?

Ben Kiernan: First, in January 1995, the CGP established the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, and formally began documenting the mass killings by Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime in 1975-79. While funding, training, and equipping the Cambodian staff of the Documentation Center, the CGP set out to collect, study, and preserve all extant documents and other sources of information about that period of Cambodian history; to make this information available to a court or tribunal willing to prosecute the surviving war criminals and genocide suspects, to victims or their family members, and to scholars around the world; and to generate an analytical understanding of genocide to assist in the detection and prevention of political and ethnic violence against populations elsewhere in the world.

For nine years, the CGP has furthered these goals of documentation, preservation, research, and training. In 1998, we expanded our activities to include other international tragedies. Under the rubric of the comparative Genocide Studies Program, we have established parallel interdisciplinary projects to document and research events during the Holocaust and in the colonial era, and more recent genocides such as those in Rwanda, East Timor, Guatemala, Bosnia, and Sudan.

P.O.V.: How does the CGP go about gathering documentary evidence? What kinds of materials are in the archive?

Kiernan: We first built up a multi-lingual library and archive at the Documentation Center. In Phnom Penh in 1996, the CGP obtained a 50,000-page trove of documents produced by the former Khmer Rouge regime's security police, the Santebal. We had these confidential communications between the top DK leaders and their apparatus of repression microfilmed by Yale's Sterling Library and made available to scholars worldwide. Based on information in this and other archives we had assembled, the CGP and the Documentation Center compiled and published over 19,000 biographic entries on Khmer Rouge officials and their victims, 3,000 bibliographic records on sources of information about that era, and over 6,000 photographs, documents, translations, and maps, along with CGP books and research papers on the genocide. Meanwhile we visited hundreds of mass grave and former prison sites throughout Cambodia, recording their precise locations on computerized maps and on satellite images taken during the genocide.

P.O.V.: What sort of opposition has the CGP faced in gaining access to documents or witnesses?

Kiernan: The CGP has benefited from helpful cooperation from the Cambodian and U.S. governments, and financial support from the U.S., Australian and Netherlands governments. Both of Cambodia's major political parties, the People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec, and King Norodom Sihanouk, have also provided encouragement and support. The Cambodian coalition government gave the CGP written authority to search throughout the country for documents, to interview witnesses, and record mass grave sites. The government itself provided documents, and donated land to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Meanwhile, in 1995 the Khmer Rouge opposition "indicted" me as an "arch war criminal." Pol Pot's clandestine radio station complained that "the Australian Ben Kiernan, who is an accessory executioner of the U.S. imperialists," was "prosecuting and terrorizing the Cambodian resistance patriots." Two days later a Khmer Rouge spokesman also called me a "vile and odious hireling of the communist Vietnamese and the Allies." The Khmer Rouge had me "tried" and "sentenced." Their own day in court is now approaching.

P.O.V.: What is the role of technology in the documentation project? Are the resources of the CGP widely available? Are there common access privileges, international standards, or rights to documentation?

Kiernan: We have made the original documentation which the CGP gathered as widely available as possible, in hardcopy in Phnom Penh, on microfilm through university libraries, or in scanned digital form on our website. Much of the data is also accessible in searchable form in our large biographic, photographic, bibliographic, and geographic databases (see links at right). These were developed using UNESCO standards and software, with the support of the Departments of Information Technology and Geomatic Engineering of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, the Center for Earth Observation at Yale's Institute for Biospheric Studies, and the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

P.O.V.: The government of Cambodia and the United Nations have recently come to an agreement on genocide tribunals. How do you think the tribunal will proceed? How do you see the prospects for success?

Kiernan: The signing of the agreement on June 6, 2003 is a major development in a long campaign to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. For a quarter century justice has been delayed and denied by political considerations. U.N. support for and supervision of the tribunal to be held in Cambodia's Extraordinary Chambers is to be welcomed. A mass of probative evidence is now available to the international and Cambodian co-prosecutors and judges. We can only hope that a fair trial of perpetrators of the genocide and other crimes against humanity will help entrench the rule of law in Cambodia and deter criminals in other countries from contemplating such outrages against human rights in the future.

Ben Kiernan, born in Melbourne, Australia in 1953, is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. He is the author of a hundred scholarly articles on Southeast Asia and genocide, as well as several books including "The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979." He recently won the Critical Asian Studies Prize for 2002, and is currently writing a global history of genocide since 1492 for Yale University Press.

P.O.V.: You founded the Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) at Yale in 1994. What was the CGP intended to do?

Ben Kiernan: First, in January 1995, the CGP established the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, and formally began documenting the mass killings by Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime in 1975-79. While funding, training, and equipping the Cambodian staff of the Documentation Center, the CGP set out to collect, study, and preserve all extant documents and other sources of information about that period of Cambodian history; to make this information available to a court or tribunal willing to prosecute the surviving war criminals and genocide suspects, to victims or their family members, and to scholars around the world; and to generate an analytical understanding of genocide to assist in the detection and prevention of political and ethnic violence against populations elsewhere in the world.

For nine years, the CGP has furthered these goals of documentation, preservation, research, and training. In 1998, we expanded our activities to include other international tragedies. Under the rubric of the comparative Genocide Studies Program, we have established parallel interdisciplinary projects to document and research events during the Holocaust and in the colonial era, and more recent genocides such as those in Rwanda, East Timor, Guatemala, Bosnia, and Sudan.

P.O.V.: How does the CGP go about gathering documentary evidence? What kinds of materials are in the archive?

Kiernan: We first built up a multi-lingual library and archive at the Documentation Center. In Phnom Penh in 1996, the CGP obtained a 50,000-page trove of documents produced by the former Khmer Rouge regime's security police, the Santebal. We had these confidential communications between the top DK leaders and their apparatus of repression microfilmed by Yale's Sterling Library and made available to scholars worldwide. Based on information in this and other archives we had assembled, the CGP and the Documentation Center compiled and published over 19,000 biographic entries on Khmer Rouge officials and their victims, 3,000 bibliographic records on sources of information about that era, and over 6,000 photographs, documents, translations, and maps, along with CGP books and research papers on the genocide. Meanwhile we visited hundreds of mass grave and former prison sites throughout Cambodia, recording their precise locations on computerized maps and on satellite images taken during the genocide.

P.O.V.: What sort of opposition has the CGP faced in gaining access to documents or witnesses?

Kiernan: The CGP has benefited from helpful cooperation from the Cambodian and U.S. governments, and financial support from the U.S., Australian and Netherlands governments. Both of Cambodia's major political parties, the People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec, and King Norodom Sihanouk, have also provided encouragement and support. The Cambodian coalition government gave the CGP written authority to search throughout the country for documents, to interview witnesses, and record mass grave sites. The government itself provided documents, and donated land to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Meanwhile, in 1995 the Khmer Rouge opposition "indicted" me as an "arch war criminal." Pol Pot's clandestine radio station complained that "the Australian Ben Kiernan, who is an accessory executioner of the U.S. imperialists," was "prosecuting and terrorizing the Cambodian resistance patriots." Two days later a Khmer Rouge spokesman also called me a "vile and odious hireling of the communist Vietnamese and the Allies." The Khmer Rouge had me "tried" and "sentenced." Their own day in court is now approaching.

P.O.V.: What is the role of technology in the documentation project? Are the resources of the CGP widely available? Are there common access privileges, international standards, or rights to documentation?

Kiernan: We have made the original documentation which the CGP gathered as widely available as possible, in hardcopy in Phnom Penh, on microfilm through university libraries, or in scanned digital form on our website. Much of the data is also accessible in searchable form in our large biographic, photographic, bibliographic, and geographic databases (see links at right). These were developed using UNESCO standards and software, with the support of the Departments of Information Technology and Geomatic Engineering of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, the Center for Earth Observation at Yale's Institute for Biospheric Studies, and the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

P.O.V.: The government of Cambodia and the United Nations have recently come to an agreement on genocide tribunals. How do you think the tribunal will proceed? How do you see the prospects for success?

Kiernan: The signing of the agreement on June 6, 2003 is a major development in a long campaign to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. For a quarter century justice has been delayed and denied by political considerations. U.N. support for and supervision of the tribunal to be held in Cambodia's Extraordinary Chambers is to be welcomed. A mass of probative evidence is now available to the international and Cambodian co-prosecutors and judges. We can only hope that a fair trial of perpetrators of the genocide and other crimes against humanity will help entrench the rule of law in Cambodia and deter criminals in other countries from contemplating such outrages against human rights in the future.

Ben Kiernan, born in Melbourne, Australia in 1953, is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. He is the author of a hundred scholarly articles on Southeast Asia and genocide, as well as several books including "The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979." He recently won the Critical Asian Studies Prize for 2002, and is currently writing a global history of genocide since 1492 for Yale University Press.


September 11 revisited

Lars von Trier's allegedly anti-American film Dogville has been the talk of the festival. So how will US citizens find it? As terrifying as those two jets hitting the Twin Towers, says New York film critic John Anderson

Friday May 23, 2003
The Guardian

Nicole Kidman in Dogville
Even the most blinkered, Bible-beating Bushite would have to admit that Our Town, dramatist Thornton Wilder's 1938, Pulitzer prize-winning homage to bucolic, small-town America, has become all but unbearable. Even if taken at its most ironic, the play possesses such cloying sentimentality, faux simplicity and tortured naivety that it's become as embarrassing as an episode of Amos & Andy. Or Will & Grace.

Part of the reason for the quasi-hysterical reaction to Lars von Trier's Dogville at Cannes this week (a Variety critic was all but foaming with Ashcroftian umbrage, or auditioning for US talk radio), is its merciless reconstitution of such a venerable institution as Wilder's play. Or, to cite another example, Tom Sawyer, which makes several appearances throughout the film. Or the naming of Dogville's male lead Tom Edison (whose namesake once said that genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and always expected the perspiration to come from someone else). Or the Capraesque qualities of its heroine, played by the incongruous Nicole Kidman. Or the perhaps minor, but telling, detail that Hummels - the kitschy figurines that even the Germans can't take seriously - are considered high art by the movie's Erskine Caldwellesque characters. A lot of Americans, we must reveal, collect Hummels.

So without even mentioning foreign policy, Von Trier has hit a lot of us where we live. And that place, in the Danish director's fertile mind, is a bubble of myth and provincial thinking.

It's too bad that, during his press conference on Monday afternoon, Von Trier side-stepped questions about the film's unmistakably anti-American bent, declaring at one point that he himself feels "like an American". (Of course he does; if you ascribe to his view of US cultural imperialism, how could you avoid it?) There are plenty of Americans who appreciate Von Trier's point of view. And they might have appreciated hearing him back it up.

It's somewhat ironic that a film festival featuring Von Trier's very pointed drama would also include Time magazine critic Richard Schickel's documentary about Charlie Chaplin, and have as its closing night film Chaplin's 1936 masterpiece Modern Times. Chaplin seems a classic example of the outsider who comes to America, makes mighty contributions to his new country and delights the US public only to have it turn on him. In Von Trier's film, it is Grace who arrives from elsewhere and provokes suspicion (she is, after all, fleeing a carload of gangsters) but who is eventually embraced - and then exploited, abused, enslaved and betrayed. She, however, gets to exact her revenge. Which is the most outrageous turn in von Trier's brilliantly twisted plot.

It is necessary to give away a bit of Dogville in order to get near its politic essence, which shouldn't affect its commercial prospects because, frankly, it doesn't seem to have any. At a current running time of three hours (or a reported two hours and 20 minutes in its soon-to-be-released European version), Dogville was a tough ride for even the most sympathetic viewer. For more mainstream American audiences, it'll be too obscure in its meaning to generate either interest or outrage. Von Trier, unfortunately, will be preaching to the choir.

But it will still be a discomfited choir: Von Trier explodes the complacent self-image of the US the way De Tocqueville once deflated its democracy, Upton Sinclair exposed the malevolence of its commerce and John Steinbeck exploded its illusion of community. The Dogville townsfolk are basically a mob, kept on a leash by boredom, poverty, provincialism and children. Their worldview is nil (no news reaches Dogville, which may explain their antiquated diction). Their self-interest is not enlightened, and they may have been inspired by a line out of Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy: "The more I see of men, the more I admire dogs."

The men who were originally chasing Grace are gangsters, but they include her mob-chief father (James Caan, in a cute bit of casting). Given the power by him to destroy the town, Grace seizes it, has the population machine-gunned and the place burned to the ground.

Call her a terrorist, because that's what she is. But that's not what she was - she initially fled the terrorists, her own people as it were, seeking what she thought would be a better life, based on seeing the best in people. Those people, whose village should have provided a safe haven for someone like Grace, instead exploited and abused her.

For any American, seeing such nakedly hateful sentiments expressed by a filmmaker such as Von Trier should be as terrifying as a replay of those jets ploughing into the World Trade Centre. It is equally terrifying to think that those sentiments will be dismissed, à la Variety, as "anti-American" in the sense that they are a fad, or a stage the rest of the world is passing through. Von Trier may be displaying a fascist instinct in Dogville, but he is not without a sense of history, be it political, religious or revolutionary. And history would seem to be on his side.

· John Anderson is chief film critic for Newsday.

Kurt Vonnegut Vs. the !*!@

By Joel Bleifuss, In These Times
February 10, 2003

vonnegutIn November, Kurt Vonnegut turned 80. He published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952 at the age of 29. Since then he has written 13 others, including Slaughterhouse Five, which stands as one of the pre-eminent anti-war novels of the 20th century.

As war against Iraq looms, I asked Vonnegut to weigh in. Vonnegut is an American socialist in the tradition of Eugene Victor Debs, a fellow Hoosier whom he likes to quote: As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

You have lived through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Reagan wars, Desert Storm, the Balkan wars and now this coming war in Iraq. What has changed, and what has remained the same?

One thing which has not changed is that none of us, no matter what continent or island or ice cap, asked to be born in the first place, and that even somebody as old as I am, which is 80, only just got here. There were already all these games going on when I got here. An apt motto for any polity anywhere, to put on its state seal or currency or whatever, might be this quotation from the late baseball manager Casey Stengel, who was addressing a team of losing professional athletes: Cant anybody here play this game?

My daughter Lily, for an example close to home, who has just turned 20, finds herself as does George W. Bush, himself a kid an heir to a shockingly recent history of human slavery, to an AIDS epidemic and to nuclear submarines slumbering on the floors of fjords in Iceland and elsewhere, crews prepared at a moments notice to turn industrial quantities of men, women and children into radioactive soot and bone meal by means of rockets and H-bomb warheads. And to the choice between liberalism or conservatism and on and on.

What is radically new in 2003 is that my daughter, along with our president and Saddam Hussein and on and on, has inherited technologies whose byproducts, whether in war or peace, are rapidly destroying the whole planet as a breathable, drinkable system for supporting life of any kind. Human beings, past and present, have trashed the joint.

Based on what youve read and seen in the media, what is not being said in the mainstream press about President Bushs policies and the impending war in Iraq?

That they are nonsense.

My feeling from talking to readers and friends is that many people are beginning to despair. Do you think that weve lost reason to hope?

I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup detat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs.

To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athletes foot. The classic medical text on PPs is "The Mask of Sanity " by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!

And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country, and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And so many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick.

What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply cant. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybodys telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!

How have you gotten involved in the anti-war movement? And how would you compare the movement against a war in Iraq with the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era?

When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.

And so it is with anti-war protests in the present day. Then as now, TV did not like anti-war protesters, nor any other sort of protesters, unless they rioted. Now, as then, on account of TV, the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, and petition their government for a redress of grievances, aint worth a pitcher of warm spit, as the saying goes.

As a writer and artist, have you noticed any difference between how the cultural leaders of the past and the cultural leaders of today view their responsibility to society?

Responsibility to which society? To Nazi Germany? To the Stalinist Soviet Union? What about responsibility to humanity in general? And leaders in what particular cultural activity? I guess you mean the fine arts. I hope you mean the fine arts. ... Anybody practicing the fine art of composing music, no matter how cynical or greedy or scared, still cant help serving all humanity. Music makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it. Even military bands, although I am a pacifist, always cheer me up.

But that is the power of ear candy. The creation of such a universal confection for the eye, by means of printed poetry or fiction or history or essays or memoirs and so on, isnt possible. Literature is by definition opinionated. It is bound to provoke the arguments in many quarters, not excluding the hometown or even the family of the author. Any ink-on-paper author can only hope at best to seem responsible to small groups or like-minded people somewhere. He or she might as well have given an interview to the editor of a small-circulation publication. Maybe we can talk about the responsibilities to their societies of architects and sculptors and painters another time. And I will say this: TV drama, although not yet classified as fine art, has on occasion performed marvelous services for Americans who want us to be less paranoid, to be fairer and more merciful. M.A.S.H. and Law and Order, to name only two shows, have been stunning masterpieces in that regard.

That said, do you have any ideas for a really scary reality TV show?

C students from Yale. It would stand your hair on end.

What targets would you consider fair game for a satirist today?


Joel Bleifuss, The Interviewer, is the editor of In These Times.



What is generally called free verse is now more than a century old. It was in 1886 that Gustave Kahn's Paris La Vogue published Rimbaud's "Marine" and "Mouvement" (both written in the early 1870s), translations of some of Whitman's Leaves of Grass by Jules Laforgue, ten of Laforgue's own free-verse poems, and further experiments by Jean Moréas, Paul Adam, and Gustave Kahn himself. On the other side of the Channel, vers libre was soon picked up by the Imagists: in the March 1913 issue of Poetry, Pound put forward his famous Imagist manifesto, whose third principle was "As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome."

Even as he made this pronouncement, however, Pound remarked that "vers libre has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it. . . . The actual language and phrasing is often as bad as that of our elders without even the excuse that the words are shovelled in to fill a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-sound" (LEEP 3). And his friend T. S. Eliot, who was to declare in "The Music of Poetry" (1942) that "no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job," observed in his 1917 "Reflections on Vers Libre," that "there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos." How to avoid the latter? "The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse." And in a formulation that was to become a kind of First Rule in poetry manuals, Eliot declares, "the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the 'freest' verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation."

Eliot's formulation, which was, of course, based on his own practice, still governs most discussions of free verse. As recently as 1993, in a book called The Ghost of Meter, Annie Finch treats contemporary free verse as essentially a fruitful quarrel with meter, especially iambic pentameter, and tries to show how in the lyric of poets as diverse as Charles Wright and Audre Lorde, "anger at the pentameter and exhileration at claiming its authority engender much poetic energy." Derek Attridge's Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (1995) characterizes free verse by citing poems like Adrienne Rich's "Night Watch," which "derives its rhythmic quality from its existence on the borders of regular verse." And in recent years the New Formalists have gone further, arguing that "free verse" has been no more than a temporary aberration, given that, in the words of Timothy Steele, "poetry was always, before the modern period, associated with meter." Indeed, in a 1996 review of the Library of America's newly edited Collected Poems of Robert Frost, Helen Vendler cites approvingly Frost's dismissal of free verse ("Let chaos storm! / Let cloud shapes swarm! / I wait for form"), and remarks:

There used to be a critical orthodoxy (still prevalent in a few backwaters) that anyone practicing rhymed and metered verse was a reactionary and no Modernist; we now understand, having seen many later writers (Merrill, Lowell) alternating metered and free verse, that both forms and free verse are neutrally available to all.

The implication of this claim for "neutral availability" is that verse forms, whether free or otherwise, are independent of history as well as of national and cultural context and that metrical choice is a question of individual predilection. And further: that free verse is some kind of end point, an instance of writing degree zero from which the only reasonable "advance" can be, as Steele suggests, a return to "normal" metrical forms. At the risk of allying myself with those "backwater" forces Vendler refers to so dismissively, I shall want to argue here that there are indeed other possibilities and that verse, like the materials used in any art medium, and like the clothes we wear and the furnishings in our houses, is subject to historical change as well as cultural and political constraint. But before I consider the large-scale transformations "free verse" is now undergoing in America (and, for that matter, in the poetry of most other nations as well), some definitions and clarifications are in order.

What is free verse anyway? However varied its definitions, there is general agreement on two points: (1) the sine qua non of free verse is lineation. When the lines run all the way to the right margin, the result is prose, however "poetic." The basic unit of free verse is thus the line. But (2), unlike metrical or strong-stress or syllabic or quantitative verse, free verse is, in Donald Wesling's words, "distinguished . . . by the lack of a structuring grid based on counting of linguistic units and/or position of linguistic features" (EPP 425). As Derek Attridge explains:

Free verse is the introduction into the continuous flow of prose language, which has breaks determined entirely by syntax and sense, of another kind of break, shown on the page by the start of a new line, and often indicated in a reading of the poem by a slight pause. When we read prose, we ignore the fact that every now and then the line ends, and we have to shift our eyes to the beginning of the next line. We know that if the same text were printed in a different typeface, the sentences would be broken up differently with no alteration in the meaning. But in free verse, the line on the page has an integrity and function of its own. This has important consequences for the movement and hence the meaning of the words.
(DA 5, my emphasis).

The implication of free-verse writing, Attridge adds sensibly, is that poetry "need not be based on the production of controlled numbers of beats by the disposition of stressed and unstressed syllables." A more accurate name, Attridge suggests , would be "nonmetrical verse, which, as a negative definition, has the advantage of implying that this kind of verse does not have a fixed identity of its own, whereas 'free verse' misleadingly suggests a single type of poetry" (DA 167-68). But the adjective "nonmetrical" is somewhat misleading, given that the item counted may be the number of primary stresses (no matter how many syllables per line), as in Old English and much of Middle English poetry, the number of syllables per line, regardless of the number of stresses, as in the syllabics of Marianne Moore, or the number of long vowels per line, as in classical quantitative verse, and so on. Charles O. Hartman's definition is thus more accurate: "the prosody of free verse is rhythmic organization by other than numerical modes." Free verse retains the linear turn inherent in the etymology of the word verse (Latin, versus), but there is no regularly recurring counted entity.

Once we try to go beyond these basics, there is little unanimity as to the features of free verse. For Donald Wesling, free verse has its roots in the oral forms of ancient cultures--Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Sanskrit, and Hebrew--none of which have meter (EPP 425). The speech-base of free verse is also accepted by Northrop Frye, who defines it as "the associative rhythm"--that is the rhythm of ordinary speech, with its short, repetitive, irregular, often asyntactic phrasal units-- "strongly influenced by verse," which is to say by by lineation. And Robert Pinsky observes that "the line in contemporary practice seems to fall roughly into two overlapping kinds: a rhetorical indicator for the inflections of speech . . . and a formal principle varyingly intersecting the inflection of speech."

But "inflection of speech" doesn't in fact distinguish free verse from its metrical counterparts. On the one hand, there are those like Derek Attridge who argue that all verse is speech-based; on the other, those who hold that free verse is distinguished primarily by its visual form, its typographical layout, and that indeed the line break creates verbal and phrasal units quite unlike those of speech. But the link between free verse and visual formation is by no means essential. For the majority of free-verse poems--say those one finds in any issue of Poetry or American Poetry Review--retain the justified left margin, some form of stanzaic structure, and lines of similar length, so as to produce visual columns not all that different from their metrical counterparts.

If, then, free verse cannot be definitively distinguished, whether aurally, visually (or, for that matter, syntactically), from, say, blank verse, this is not to say that there isn't what we might call a free-verse culture that occupies a particular place in twentieth-century literary history. In Critique du rythme (1982), Henri Meschonnic works from the premise that "the aim [of prosodic theory] is not to produce a conceptual synthesis of rhythm, an abstract, universal category, an a priori form. Rather, an organized understanding of historical subjects." As he explains:

It is not a question of opposing form to an absence of form. Because the informe [formless] is still form. If we want to provide a proper base for the critique of rhythm, we must pass from imperious abstractions to the historicity of language. Where freedom is no more a choice than it is an absence of constraint, but the search of its own historicity.

In this sense the poet is not free. He is not free in confronting the alexandrine, any more than in confronting free verse. Not free of being ventriloquized by a tradition. . . . One doesn't choose what one writes, nor to write. No more than one chooses to be born into one's language, there and then.

The so-called freedom of free verse must be understood in this context. When Pound declares in Canto 81, "To break the pentameter, that was the first heave," he is speaking to a particular situation in late-Victorian "genteel" verse, when meter stood for a particular collective attitude, a social and cultural restriction on the "freedom" of the subject. Vladimir Mayakovsky, coming out of an entirely different tradition, but in the same time period, makes a similar gesture when he declares in 1926, "Trochees and iambs have never been necessary to me. I don't know them and don't want to know them. Iambs impede the forward movement of poetry" (cited in HMC 528).

Such statements, Meschonnic points out, are neither true nor untrue; rather, they must be understood as part of the drive toward rupture characteristic of the early twentieth-century avant-garde. And the form Pound's own prosody took--the "ideogrammizing of Western verse," in Meschonnic's words-- had everything to do with the revolution in mass print culture, a revolution that bred what Meschonnic calls the "theatre of the page." "If we were to talk about practices rather than intentions," he says, "every page of poetry would represent a conception of poetry" (HMC 303). Blank spaces, for example, would become just as important as the words themselves in composing a particular construct (HMC 304-305). Thus, the structuralist argument that lineation in and of itself guarantees that a text will be read and interpreted as a poem is based on two misconceptions. First, it ignores the active role that white space (silence) plays in the visual and aural reception of the poem: the line, after all, is anchored in a larger visual field, a field by no means invariable. Second, and more important, the response to lineation must itself be historicized. In a contemporary context of one-liners on the television screen and the computer monitor, as well as lineated ads, greeting-cards, and catalog entries, the reader/viewer has become quite accustomed to reading "in lines." Indeed, surfing the Internet is largely a scanning process in which the line is rapidly replacing the paragraph as the unit to be accessed.

How lineation as device signifies thus depends on many factors, historical, cultural, and national. The history of free verse in English remains to be written: when it is, it will be clear that the dominant example has been, not that of Ezra Pound, whose ideographic page has only recently become a model for poets, but that of William Carlos Williams, whose verse signature is still a powerful presence. But since my concern in this essay is with the current situation in poetry, I shall confine myself to the postwar era, using as my example two representative anthologies, both of them cutting-edge at their respective postwar moments. The first is Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms, edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey for Bobbs Merrill in 1969 (but including poems from the early fifties on); the second, Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK, edited by Maggie O'Sullivan for Reality Street Studios in London in 1996.

"An Echo Repeating No Sound"

In their Foreword to Naked Poetry, Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey tell us that they had a hard time finding "a satisfactory name for the kinds of poetry we were gathering and talking about":

Some people said 'Free Verse' and others said 'Organic Poetry' . . . and we finally came up with Open Forms, which isn't bad but isn't all that good either. And we took a phrase from Jiménez for a title which expresses what we feel about the qualities of this poetry as no technical label could do. But what does it matter what you call it? Here is a book of nineteen American poets whose poems don't rhyme (usually) and don't move on feet of more or less equal duration (usually). (NAK xi, my emphasis)

The assumption here is that there is an "it," alternately known as free verse, organic poetry, open form, or whatever, but that this "it" cannot be defined "technically," which is to say, materially. And indeed the editors quickly go on to add that "Everything we thought to ask about [the poets'] formal qualities has come to seem more and more irrelevant, and we find we are much more interested in what they say, in their dreams, visions, and prophecies. Their poems take shape from the shapes of their emotions, the shapes their minds make in thought, and certainly don't need interpreters" (NAK xi). Not "form," then, but "content" is what matters. Still, the choice of free verse is central because "We began with the firm conviction that the strongest and most alive poetry in America had abandoned or at least broken the grip of traditional meters and had set out, once again, into 'the wilderness of unopened life'" (NAK xi).

This is a perfectly representative sixties statement about poetry. It takes off from Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" (1950), with its strong dismissal of "closed" verse and concomitant adoption of the line as coming "from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes." It is the "LINE" that speaks for the "HEART," even as the syllable does for the "HEAD": "the LINE that's the baby that gets, as the poem is getting made, the attention." Interestingly, Berg and Mezey, who were by no means disciples of Olson, here give a curious twist to the famous Olson credo that "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN THE EXTENSION OF CONTENT." Whereas Olson demanded that form take its cue from the semantic structure of a given poem, Berg and Mezey take the aphorism one step further, dismissing "formal qualities" as more or less "irrelevant," entirely secondary to "what [the poets] say, in their dreams, visions, and prophecies." Indeed, if poems "take shape from the shapes of their emotions," from "the wilderness of unopened life," then "free verse" is effective insofar as it tracks the actual movement of thought and feeling, refusing to interfere with its free flow, to inhibit its natural motion. Or so, at least, the poem must appear to be doing, no matter how much "craft" has gone into it.

Naked Poetry includes nineteen American poets, born between 1905 and 1935, the largest cluster of them born between 1926 and 1930. In chronological order, they are: Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Patchen, William Stafford, Weldon Kees, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, James Wright, Philip Levine, Sylvia Plath, Gary Snyder, Stephen Berg, and Robert Mezey. Despite the paucity of women (two out of the nineteen) and the absence (characteristic for 1969) of minority poets as well as poets writing outside theUnited States., the editors have clearly made an effort to transcend schools and regional affiliations by including representatives of Beat (Ginsberg, Snyder), Black Mountain (Creeley, Levertov), Deep Image (Bly, Kinnell, Wright), Northwest (Roethke, Stafford), and East Coast Establishment (Lowell, Berryman, Merwin, Plath) poetry.

So what do the poems in this anthology look and sound like? Consider the following five poems (or parts of poems), for which I have supplied scansions:

/ / || / >

(1) A headless squirrel, some blood

/ \ / \ >

oozing from the unevenly

/ /\ /

chewed-off neck

/ / /\ /

lies in rainsweet grass

/ / /\ /

near the woodshed door.

/ / /\

Down the driveway

/ / \ >

the first irises

/ /\ /

have opened since dawn,

/ || / >

ethereal, their mauve

/ /\ \ / /

almost a transparent gray,

/ /

their dark veins

/ /


(Denise Levertov, "A Day Begins," NAK 140)

(2) / / / /\ /

The sun sets in the cold without friends

/ / / / \

Without reproaches after all it has done for us

/ / / /

It goes down believing in nothing

/ / / / / / \

When it has gone I hear the stream running after it

\ / / ||\ / /

It has brought its flute it is a long way

(W. S. Merwin, "Dusk in Winter," NAK 255)

(3) / / /\ / \

In the depths of the Greyhound Terminal

/ / / / || / / || /

sitting dumbly on a baggage truck looking at the sky waiting for

/\ / \ / /

the Los Angeles Express to depart

/ / \ / / /\ / / /\

worrying about eternity over the Post Office roof in the night-time

/ / /\ /

red downtown heaven,

/ / /\ / / \ /

staring through my eyeglasses I realized shuddering these thoughts

/ / \ || / / \ / || / \

were not eternity, nor the poverty of our lives, irritable

/ /

baggage clerks,

/ / / / \ / / /

nor the millions of weeping relatives surrounding the buses waving

/\ /


/ / / / / / / /

nor other millions of the poor rushing around from city to city to

/ / /\

see their loved ones. . . .

(from Allen Ginsberg, "In the Baggage Room at Greyhound" NAK 194-95)

(4) / / / /\

Down valley a smoke haze

/ /\ / / / /\ /

Three days heat, after five days rain

/ / /\ / /\

Pitch glows on the fir-cones

/ / / /\

Across rocks and meadows

/ / /

Swarms of new flies.

/ / / / /

I cannot remember things I once read

/ / / /

A few friends, but they are in cities.

/ / / /\ / /

Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup

/ / /

Looking down for miles

/ / /

Through high still air.

(Gary Snyder, "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout," NAK 330)

(5) / /\ / /\ / /

The ice ticks seaward like a clock.

/ / >

A Negro toasts

/ /\ / / /\ >

wheat-seeds over the coke-fumes

/ /

of a punctured barrel.

/ / >

Chemical air

/\ / /\ /

sweeps in from New Jersey,

/ /

and smells of coffee.

/ /

Across the river,

/ / \ / / \ / >

ledges of suburban factories tan

/ /\ / / >

in the sulphur-yellow sun

/ /\ / / /\

of the unforgivable landscape.

(from Robert Lowell, "The Mouth of the Hudson,"NAK 110-111)

The five poets cited are by no means alike: the conventional wisdom would be to oppose the "raw" Allen Ginsberg to the "cooked" Robert Lowell, or the Black Mountain-based Denise Levertov to the more mainstream New Yorker favorite, W. S. Merwin, and so on. Indeed, there are real prosodic differences in the above examples. Certainly Ginsberg's strophes, made up of two or more lines, characterized by their emphatic, predominantly trochaic and dactylic rhythm, each strophe emphatically end-stopped, are a far cry from Levertov's minimal, lightly stressed (two or three stresses per line), frequently enjambed lines, arranged in open tercets. For Ginsberg, repetition, whether clausal or phrasal, is the central sonic and syntactic device; for Levertov, whose poem charts minute differences of perception, repetition is studiously avoided. Again, Levertov's "A Day Begins" differs from Snyder's "Mid-August," whose two five-line stanzas are notable for their monosyllabic base (seven of the poem's fifty-seven words are monosyllables), which ensures strong stress on almost every word in a loosely trochaic sequence. Unlike Levertov, Snyder does not run on his lines; neither, for that matter, does Merwin, whose lines are evenly paced to the point of intentional monotony, the avoidance of secondary and tertiary stresses heightening the epiphany of the final line in which two sentences are unexpectedly run together, culminating in the pyrrhic-spondee pattern of "it is (a) lóng wáy." And finally in Lowell, whose free verse most closely follows Eliot's prescription that the ghost of meter must lurk behind the arras, the frequent enjambment (as if to say, look, I am writing free verse, using open form!) is offset by the underlying iambic rhythm, as in "The íce tîcks séawârd líke a clóck" and "A négro toásts," as well as by the repetition of identical stress contours, as in the two-stress lines "and smélls of cóffee," "Acróss the ríver."

But despite all these differences--and who would mistake the sound and look of a Ginsberg poem for that of a Lowell or Levertov one?-- there is a period style, a dominant rhythmic-visual contour that distinguishes

the lyric of Naked Poetry from that of a recent anthology like Out of Everywhere. Consider the following features:

(1) The free verse, in its variability (both of stress and of syllable count) and its avoidance of obtrusive patterns of recurrence, tracks the speaking voice (in conjunction with the moving eye) of a perceptive, feeling subject, trying to come to terms with what seems to be an alien, or at least incomprehensible, world. Thus Levertov's "A Day Begins" follows the motion of the eye, taking in the frightening sight of the bloody headless squirrel, its location being specified only in the second tercet and in turn juxtaposed to the next thing seen, "the first irises" {that] "have opened since dawn," the poem moving, in the final line, to the "bruise-blue" conjunction between these seeming dissimilars. The same temporal tracking characterizes Merwin's "Dusk in Winter": in line 1, the sun is seen setting, in lines 2-3, the poet responds to the resulting "cold"; in lines 4-5, the sense of loss gives way to renewal as the stream is metaphorically perceived as "running after" the sun, its sound like flute song. In Ginsberg's "In the Baggage Room," the first line sets the scene "in the depths of the Greyhound Terminal," and each subsequent strophe adds an element of perception or cognition. In Snyder's "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout," the patient description of the valley in the first stanza triggers the step-by-step withdrawal into the self in the second. And Lowell's eleven-line conclusion to "The Mouth of the Hudson" focuses on the bleakest and ugliest items in sight as representation of the interior "unforgivable landscape" that is the poet's own.

(2) Free verse is organized by the power of the image, by a construct of images as concrete and specific as possible, that serve as objective correlative for inner states of mind. Surely it is not coincidental that the origins of free verse coincide with French symbolisme and Anglo-American Imagism. From William Carlos Williams's "Good Night" (see Essay #5) and "As the cat. . ." to Snyder's "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout" and Levertov's "A Day Begins," the free-verse line presents what are often unmediated images, as they appear in the mind's eye of the poet: "A headless squirrel, some blood / oozing from the unevenly / chewed-off neck" (Levertov) "The sun sets in the cold without friend" (Merwin), "In the depths of the Greyhound Terminal / sitting dumbly on a baggage truck looking at the sky" (Ginsberg) "Down valley a smoke haze" (Snyder) "The ice ticks seaward like a clock" (Lowell). Perception, discovery, reaction: free-verse is the form par excellence that strives toward mimesis of individual feeling, as that feeling is generated by sights, sounds, smells, and memories.

(3) Although free verse is speech-based, although it tracks the movement of the breath itself, syntax is regulated, which is to say that the free-verse "I" generally speaks in complete sentences: "the first irises / have opened since dawn," "When it has gone I hear the stream running after it," "staring through my eyeglasses I realized shuddering these thoughts were not eternity," "I cannot remember things I once read," "Chemical air / sweeps in from New Jersey, / and smells of coffee." If, these poems seem to say, there is no metrical recurrence, no rhyme or stanzaic structure, syntax must act as clarifier and binder, bringing units together and establishing their relationships.

(4) A corollary of regulated syntax is that the free-verse poem flows; it is, in more ways than one, linear. Again, the stage for this linear movement was already set in a poem like Williams's "As the Cat," which moves, slowly but surely, "into the pit / of the empty / flowerpot." Even Ginsberg's complicated patterns of repetition (of word, phrase, clause) move toward the closure of "Farewell ye Greyhound where I suffered so much, / hurt my knee and scraped my hand and built my pectoral muscles big as vagina." In Levertov's "A Day Begins" the perception of death (the view of the blood-soaked squirrel) modulates into one of renewal (the opening irises), the epiphany coming in the final line with the compound "bruise-blue," tying the two together. In Merwin's "Dusk in Winter" moves from its quiet, anapestic opening, "The sún séts in the cóld withoût friénds," to the markedly divided final line with its two "it" clauses ("It has," "It is") and concluding spondee, "lóng wáy." In Lowell's "The Mouth of the Hudson" every image from the ticking ice to the "sulphur-yellow sun" sets the stage for the reference to the "unforgivable landscape" of the last line. And even Snyder's "Mid-August," which does not push toward such neat closure, moves fluidly from line to line, culminating in the three strong stresses of "hígh stíll aír."

(5) As a corollary of (4), the rhythm of continuity of which I have been speaking depends upon the unobtrusiveness of sound structure in free verse, as if to say that what is said must not be obscured by the actual saying. In this sense, free verse is the antithesis of such of its precursors as Gerard Manley Hopkins's sprung rhythm, with its highly figured lines like "I caught this morning morning's minion, king- / dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding." Not that the free-verse passages cited above aren't very much "worked," organized as they are by internal sound patterning, repetition of stress groups, and the counterpoint that arises from the isolation-by-line of units that otherwise form part of a larger sequence. In Levertov's poem, for example, "oozing from the unevenly / chewed-off neck," produces a sonic disturbance by means of the "uneven" line break and the jagged rhythm (only two full stresses in eight syllables) of the line "oózing from the unévenly." Or again, end stopping and strong stressing on monosyllabic units produces special effects as in Snyder's "Pitch glóws ôn the fír-cônes," where "cones" picks up the long o sound of "glows" and has an eye-rhyme with "on." At the same time, Snyder is wary of the sound taking over: hence the casual quiet lines like "I cannot remember things I once read."

(6) Finally--and this accords with the unobtrusiveness of sound--the free-verse lyric of the fifties and sixties subordinates the visual to the semantic. Levertov's open tercets, Snyder's five-line stanzas, Ginsberg's strophes, Merwin's minimal linear units, and Lowell's loose verse paragraphs--none of these does much to exploit the white space of the page or to utilize the material aspects of typography. Except for Ginsberg's Whitmanesque long lines, all the examples above have columns of verse centered on the page, with justified left margins, and only minimally jagged right margins, line lengths being variable only within limits. The look of the poem is thus neither more nor less prominent than in metrical verse.

Interestingly, the six features I have discussed here, all of them, of course, closely related, turn up in the poets' own statements of poetics included in Naked Poetry. "The responsibility of the writer," says William Stafford, "is not restricted to intermittent requirements of sound repetition or variation: the writer or speaker enters a constant, never-ending flow and variation of gloriously seething changes of sound" (NAK 82). "Page arrangement," Ginsberg observes of "Wichita Vortex Sutra," "notates the thought-stops, breath-stops, runs of inspiration, changes of mind, startings and stoppings of the car" (NAK 222). "Organic poetry," writes Levertov in her well known "Some Notes on Organic Form," "is a method of apperception": "first there must be an experience, a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him [sic] their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech" (NAK141). And Merwin seems to speak for all the poets in the anthology when he says:

In an age when time and technique encroach hourly, or appear to, on the source itself of poetry, it seems as though what is needed for any particular nebulous unwritten hope that may become a poem is not a manipulable, more or less predictably recurring pattern, but an unduplicatable resonance, something that would be like an echo except that it is repeating no sound. Something that always belonged to it: its sense and its information before it entered words. (NAK 270-271, my emphasis)

An unduplicatable resonance: from its inception, this is what most free verse has striven to be. "For me," says Snyder, "every poem is unique. . . . A scary chaos fills the heart as 'spir'itual breath--in'spir'ation; and is breathed out into the thing-world as a poem" (NAK 357).

But there is one (and I think only one) exception to this poetics in the Mezey-Berg anthology, and it marks a useful transition to the poetry in Out of Everywhere. That exception is the poetry of Robert Creeley. Although Creeley's own "Notes apropos 'Free Verse'" make much of Olson's field composition and the use of breath, it also contains the following statement:

I am myself hopeful that linguistic studies will bring to contemporary criticism a vocabulary and method more sensitive to the basic activity of poetry . . . . Too, I would like to see a more viable attention paid to syntactic environment, to what I can call crudely "grammartology." (NAK 185)

And he talks about his own interest in "a balance of four, a four-square circumstance, be it walls of a room or legs of a table. . . . an intensive variation on "foursquare" patterns such as [Charlie Parker's] "I've Got Rhythm" (NAK 186-87).

The "foursquare" jazz-based pattern Creeley talks of here may turn up as a four-line stanza (e.g., "A Form of Women," "A Sight") but also as the number of words per line, as in Part 4 of the sequence called "Anger":

Face me, >

in the dark,

my face. See me.

It is the cry >

I hear all >

my life, my own >

voice, my >

eye locked in >

self sight, not >

the world what >

ever it is

but the close >

breathing beside >

me I reach out >

for, feel as >

warmth in >

my hands then >

returned. The rage >

is what I >

want, what >

I cannot give >

to myself, of >

myself, in >

the world.

(NAK 182-83)

To call such poetry "free verse" is not quite accurate, for something is certainly being counted in these little block-like stanzas, even if it is neither stress nor syllable but word. The pattern is 2-3-4, 4-3-4, 2-3-3, 3-3-3, 4-4-3, 2-3-4, 3-2-4, 4-3-2, the final stanza reversing the word count of the first. So short are the line units and so heavily enjambed (twenty of twenty-four lines) as well as broken by caesuras (see lines 3, 18), so basic the vocabulary, made up as it is of prepositions, pronouns, and function words, that each word takes on its own aura and receives its own stress, as in:

/ /

voice, my

/ / /

eye locked in

/ / /

self sight, not

And the stresses are further emphasized by the internal rhyme ("my / eye", also echoing "cry" "my" in the preceding tercet), overriding the line break, and the pulling of "sight" in two directions: one toward "self" via alliteration and and the second toward "not" via consonance.

Indeed, although Creeley's tercets superficially resemble Levertov's, the features of free verse I listed above hardly apply. This poem does not present us with a mimesis of speech, tracking the process of perception. The first-person pronoun ("I" / "my" / "me" "myself") is used twelve times in the space of seventy-five words, and yet that "I" is less speaking voice than a particle that passively submits to external manipulation:

is what I

want, what

I cannot give

where "want" and 'what," separated by a single phoneme, occlude the "I's" halting presence. Again, monosyllabic lines like "is what I" refer neither to sun and stream, as in Merwin's poem or to rocks and meadows, as in Snyder's. There is no image complex to control the flow of speech; indeed the shift from line to line is by no means linear: "See me," does not follow from "Face me." The normal syntagmatic chain is broken, the first tercet, for example, calling attention to the play of signifiers in "face me" / "my face" rather than to that which is signified. And when we come to line 4, "It is the cry," the normal flow of free verse is impeded because the unspecified pronoun "It" returns us to the previous tercet as we try to make out what "it" might refer to. Or again, in line 7, "voice, my" means differently within the line than in the larger structure of "my own / voice, my eye locked in / self sight."

The syntactic ambiguity of lines like "for, feel as" and "want, what," coupled with the insistent word-stress, produces a rhythm of extreme weight and fragmentation--a kind of aphasic stutter--that is both heard and seen on the page. Each word, to cite Gertrude Stein, is as important as every other word. Sound becomes obtrusive ("me I reach out") as does the creation of paragrams, formed by cutting up complete sentences or clauses. Thus, although at first glance, the look of Creeley's poem on the page is not all that different from, say, the Snyder counterpart, the consistent detachment of words from their larger phrasal or clausal environment--a practice that goes way beyond what is known as enjambment-- creates a very different physical image.

Post-Linears and "Multi-Mentionals"

If the unit of free verse is, as all theorists agree, the line, then the unit of Creeley's poem might more properly be described as what the Russian Futurists called "the word as such." Indeed, just as early free-verse poets called metrical form into question ("To break the pentameter, that was the first heave"), what is now being called into question is the line itself . As Bruce Andrews puts it in his and Charles Bernstein's symposium "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Lines":

1. Lines linear outline, clear boundaries' effect, notice the package from its perimeter, consistency, evenness, seemingly internal contours which end up packaging the insides so that they can react or point or be subordinated to a homogenized unit, to what's outside. . . . Boundary as dividing--'you step over that line & you're asking for trouble'. . . . Territorial markers and confinements, ghost towns, congested metropolis on a grid. . . . .

3. Better, constant crease & flux, a radical discontinuity as a lack, jeopardizes before & after, stop & start, a dynamic in fragments, suggesting an unmappable space, no coordinates, troubling us to locate ourselves in formal terms. (LIP 177)

Who would have thought that less than forty years after Olson celebrated the "LINE" as the embodiment of the breath, the signifier of the heart, the line would be perceived as a boundary, a confining border, a form of packaging? "When making a line," writes Bernstein in the mock-romantic blank verse poem "Of Time and the Line" that concludes the symposium, "better be double sure / what you're lining in & what you're lining / out & which side of the line you're on" (LIP 216). Similarly, Johanna Drucker talks of "Refusing to stay 'in line,' creating instead, a visual field in which all lines are tangential to the whole" (LIP 181). Peter Inman refers to Olson's sense of the line as unit of poet's breath "too anthropomorphized." "The general organizational push to my stuff," says Inman, "becomes page-specific I tend to write in pages . . . not in stories or poems" (204). And Susan Howe remarks that in The Liberties, she wanted to "abstract" the "ghosts" of Stella and Cordelia from 'masculine' linguistic configuration." "First," says Howe, "I was a painter, so for me, words shimmer. Each has an aura" (LIP 209). And as an example of a "splintered sketch of sound," Howe produces a page from The Liberties (LIP 210).

Howe's own long verbal-visual sequence Eikon Basilike (see figure 6.1), which is the opening selection in Maggie O'Sullivan's new anthology Out of Everywhere, forms an interesting bridge to what Wendy Mulford calls, in her "After. Word," the "multi- and non-linear" writing of younger women poets in the U.S., UK, and Canada. Howe's use of cut-ups and found text (or invention of a found text, since her version of the Bibliography of the King's Book, or Eikon Basilike is a complex refiguring of the ostensible forgery of Charles I's own writings) come out of the Concrete Poetry movement, but her typographical devices (mirror images of lines, overprints, broken fonts) are designed to question the authority of the historical document, even as she selects certain passages and, so to speak, overstresses them, as in the lineated text "ENGELANDTS MEMORIAEL," where every word has the "aura" Howe speaks of in her statement on the line:

/ / / / /\

Laud Charles I Fairfax

in which even the number "I" (as in Charles the First) is given a full stress.

According to conventional criteria, the material forms used by the thirty poets in Out of Everywhere can be classified as "verse" (e.g., Rae Armantrout, Nicole Brossard, Wendy Mulford, Melanie Neilson, Marjorie Welish) "prose" (e.g., Tina Darragh, Carla Harryman, Leslie Scalapino, Rosmarie Waldrop), or some variant on concrete poetry (e.g., Paula Claire, Kathleen Fraser, Susan Howe, Maggie O'Sullivan, Joan Retallack, Diane Ward). The collection also contains short plays or scenes by Lyn Hejinian, Caroline Bergvall, and Fiona Templeton. But such classifications obscure what is also a common impulse.

In Rational Geomancy, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol remind us that in standard prose as well as in the "visually continuous poem (Milton's Paradise Lost for instance) the page has no optical significance. . . . Being to a large extent a working out of information through duration, prose structures tend to be temporal rather than visual. . . . In extended prose or poetry the page becomes an obstacle to be overcome. [Whereas in poetry] the left-hand margin is always a starting point, the right-hand margin a terminal, neither of which is determined by the randomness of page size but rather by the inner necessity of the compositional process. (RGEO 61).

It is this "inner necessity" that may be noted in the four examples above. Whether ostensibly "prose" (Rosmarie Waldrop) or "verse" (Karen Mac Cormack), these poems are first and foremost page-based: they are designed for the eye rather than merely reproduced and reproducable, as I found when I tried to type them up leaving the original spacing and layout intact. In these visual constructs, the flow of the line as the individual's breath as well as of the simulation of the eye's movement from image to image, observation to observation, is inhibited by any number of "Stop" signs. This is the case even in Waldrop's prose passage, which opens with the sentence: "Although you are thin you always seemed to be in front of my eyes, putting back in the body the roads my thoughts might have taken." Syntactically, this sentence is normal enough, but the reader/listener must stop to consider what the conditional clause can possibly mean here. What does being "thin" have to do with inhibiting one's partner's "thoughts," except that the two words alliterate? And does one really "put" those "thoughts" back into the body, as if one is stuffing an envelope? Robert Frost's famous "The Road Not Taken," which is alluded to in Waldrop's sentence, moralizes its landscape, turning the two divergent, but quite similar, roads into emblems of the futility of the choice-making process. But in Waldrop's Lawn of the Excluded Middle, paysage moralisé gives way to a curious collapsing of the distinctions between mind and body, space and time, inside and outside. On this new "stage," "only space would age" (notice the rhyme) and "exaggeration . . . took the place of explanation." What looks like prose is in fact highly figured: take the "increase of entropy and unemployment" which characterizes these proceedings. Denotatively, the words are unrelated, although both refer to states of negativity. But visually and aurally, the second is almost an anagram of the first, the only unshared letters being r, u, and m. The dancer's "leap toward inside turning out" of the last line thus enacts the verbal play we have been witnessing--a play in which "you" and "I," "juggl[ing] the details of our feelings," find momentary rest as the voiced stop (t) culminates in the silence of the blank space.

If Waldrop's "sentences" are thus more properly "non-sentences," the lines in Karen Mac Cormack's "Multi-Mentional" open like an accordion and close down again, putting pressure on isolated centered words like "preen," "renew," and "telepathy." The relation of space to time, which is central to Waldrop's text, is intricately reconceived here. "Multi-Mentional" signifies "multi-dimensional" but also the "multi" things "mentioned" or worth mentioning in discourse about space-time. On the one hand, we have the "line's running-board basics," those reliable "straight-line" ledges beneath the car door that help the passengers to "get out." What with "perfect timing," "maximum syncopation," and "pieces of time at regular intervals," linear motion should not be impeded. But the "line's running-board basics" are countered by a motion that is "sidereal on all fours." Does planetary influence control our ordinary moves and why are they on "all fours"? And why are the statistics we should rely on "mongrel"? No use, in any case "preen[ing" in this situation, a situation in which tantrums are ominously "temperature tantrums" (is something going to explode?) even as being "up in arms," gives way to a case of "Head up in arms," which sounds like a military or calisthenic routine. How, Mac Cormack asks, delimit word meanings? "If the ring fits answer the phone," initially sounds absurd only because we are looking for a finger, but the adage actually makes good sense. If the ring fits (if you recognize the ring as being that of your phone), answer it. Or has the caller already been recognized by "telepathy"? In Mac Cormack's "multi-mentional" world, "patience" is "soft" (which implies there's a hard patience as well), landslides "float," and the location of birds in flight can never be "pinpoint[ed]," any more than "similes" (a is like b) can measure the "multi-mentional."

The progress from line to line here is thus reversed and spatialized (another "multi-mentional"): "renew," for example, points back to "preen," which has all its letters except the w. The heavily endstopped "témperature tántrums cléver yés" jumps ahead to "telepathy." Indeed, going into reverse seems to be the mode of operation in Mac Cormack's poem. Secondary stressing, so central to the poetry of Ginsberg or Snyder (e.g., "Pítch glóws ón the fír-cônes"), as the representation of an actual voice contour, the flow of speech, is avoided as is ellision so that each morpheme receives attention, as in the guttural "Thát líne's rúnning-bóard's básics," which is almost a tongue-twister. Sounds cannot coalesce into rhythmic units, as they do in Snyder's "Sourdough Mountain," for then their "Multi-Mentional" quality would be lost. Which is to say that in the ear as on the page, the language act becomes central. "Word order = world order" (RGEO 99).

Maggie O'Sullivan's medievalizing moral tale "A Lesson from a Cockerel" performs similar operations on the catalogue poem. From Pound to Zukofsky to Ginsberg, cataloging has been a popular poetic device, but here the list is so to speak blown apart by spatial design: the first three lines in capital letters are followed by a rectangular box containing, in a row, the words "CRIMINAL" and "CONSTITUENTS", with a word column along the right margin, and the line "SKEWERED SKULL INULA" (reminiscent of Pound's "Spring / Too long / Gongula"), placed beneath the bottom border. The catalogued items, many of them archaic or obscure, like "boldo" and "inula," both of them bitter alkaloid plant extracts used as drugs, and the many neologisms like "JULCE" and "SHOOKER," are part of an elaborate roll-call of exotic narcotics, a kind of postmodern "Ode on Melancholy," in which the address to the "POPPY THANE" or opium lord becomes a drumcall heightened by its Anglo-Saxon and pseudo-Anglo-Saxon ("SAXA ANGLAISE") word particles--"pendle dust," 'wrist drip," "neaptide common peaks," "SWIFT PULLERY.TWAIL." Lines like "GIVE GINGER,|| GIVE INK,|| SMUDGE JEEDELA LEAVINGS" exploit the rhythm, alliteration, and assonance of the football cheer or political chant, but the captions inside the empty box marks all this chanting as "CRIMINAL / CONSTITUENTS," and label the "frame" as so much "SKEWERED "SKULL"

Is "A Lesson from the Cockerel" free verse? Yes, if we mean by free verse the absence of meter, stress, syllable count, or quantity. But, strictly speaking, O'Sullivan's verse units are closer to the Old English alliterative line, as in

/ / || / /


or to such Poundian variations on that line as "líons lóggy || with Círce's tísane" (Canto XXXIX), than to non-numerical linear verse, and, in any case, the visual layout calls attention to itself as what looks like a computer printout, a set of headlines, a sheet of advertising copy coming through the fax machine. As in Mac Cormack's poem, secondary sound features (rhyme, assonance, consonance, alliteration) take precedence over the recurrence of stresses. Phrases like "UDDER DIADEMS INTERLUCE" or "CRAB RATTLES ON THE LUTE" perform at a sonic level before their semantics are fully grasped. The visual/vocal dimension of the words is more prominent than their actual referents. And this too is a time-honored tradition in poetry, however far free-verse poetry, the poetry of the voice and the Image, has gotten away from it.

Not images, but "afterrimages," as Joan Retallack's sequence by that title makes clear. "We tend to think," says Retallack in the frontispiece of her book, "of afterimages as aberrations. In fact all images are after. That is the terror they hold for us." "I do not know which to prefer," writes Wallace Stevens in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / the blackbird whistling / or just after." In Retallack's scheme of things, this becomes "After whistling or just ______": in our fin-de-siècle world, every image, event, speech, or citation can be construed as an "afterthought" or "aftershock" of something that has always already occurred.

One form of "afterrimage" Retallack uses is found text: the poem before us draws on Chaucer (the opening of "The Wife of Bath's Tale") and Swift (book 3 of Gulliver's Travels) among other "literary" sources; it begins in medias res with someone's advice that there is a "need to give latitude which is often silence," followed by the typographical convention of "and/or." In keeping with this choice, no given line follows from the preceding one, at least not in any normal sequence, the text incorporating reportage, question, number, iambic pentameter citation (lines 4-6), and narrative fragment. The last six lines recall Creeley's strategy of counting words rather than feet, stresses, or syllables. The pattern is 4 (at center), 2-2 (left and lowered right), and then a 2-2-2 tercet. And now, come the "afterrimages," chosen, Retallack tells us, by chance operation: thirteen characters or spaces from line 8, six from line 10, two from line 12. These tiny morphemic particles are living proof of what a difference a single letter can make. The ellipsis preceding "all this I see" becomes the mere stutter of all th; "point" loses its p, only to regain it from the capital P of "Paul" that follows; the loss opens up the text so that we think of "joint" or "anoint," the latter certainly being appropriate for St. Paul. And the afterimage of "sunbeams," the meaningless vocalization nb, is a witty comment on the activities of Swift's Laputa. Not only, the poem implies, can sunbeams not be extracted from cucumbers, the word "sunbeams" doesn't break down neatly into sun + beams or even into neatly arranged vowels and consonants, but into the difficult-to-pronounce nb, followed by an exhalation of breath, or visual blank which is so to speak, "silence and/or." The final stop (b) is the voiced equivalent of the preceding p. Retallack's is thus an artifactual, wholly composed meditation on what can and cannot be "extracted from" language.

Susan Howe, I noted above, has referred to her typographical experiments as "abstractions" from "masculine linguistic formations," and many of the poets in Out of Everywhere would concur that such deconstruction has been central to their work. But it is also the case that their poems have many counterparts in the work of Clark Coolidge and Steve McCaffery, Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman, Bruce Andrews and Christian Bök, and my own sense is that the transformation that has taken place in verse may well be more generational than it is gendered. We have, in any case, a poetics of non-linearity or post-linearity that marks, not a return to the "old forms," because there is never a complete return, no matter how strongly one period style looks back to another, but a kind of "afterrimage" of earlier soundings, whether Anglo-Saxon keenings, formally balanced eighteenth-century prose, or Wittgensteinian aphoristic fragment. The new poems are, in most cases, as visual as they are verbal; they must be seen as well as heard, which means that at poetry readings, their scores must be performed, activated. Poetry, in this scheme of things, becomes what McCaffery has called "an experience in language rather than a representation by it."

I have no name for this new form of sounding and perhaps its namelessness goes with the territory: the new exploratory poetry (which is, after all, frequently "prose") does not want to be labelled or categorized. What can be said, however, is that the "free verse" aesthetic, which has dominated our century, is no longer operative Take a seemingly minor feature of free verse like enjambment. To run over a line means that the line is a limit, even as the caesura can only exist within line-limits. To do away with that limit is to reorganize sound configurations according to different principles. I conclude with a passage from Caroline Bergvall's "Of Boundaries and Emblems"

By Evening We're Inconsolable. Having Reached This Far, Bent

Over Tables Of Effervescence Within The Claustrophobic Bounds

Of The Yellow Foreground: Art Has Kept Us High And Separate,

Hard In Pointed Isolation, Forever Moved By The Gestures Of Its

Positions And The Looseness Of Even That: Now Vexed And

Irritated, Still Plotting Endless Similitudes: We Trip Over Things:

Strain To Extricate Ourselves From Closing Borders: (OOE 206)

Is this prose or some kind of kind of alphabet game, using majuscules and justified margins? The question is falsely posed: whether "verse" or "prose," Bergvall's is first and foremost a performance, an activation, both visual and aural, of a verbal text, whose every stress, "Hard in Pointed Isolation," seems to reverberate. No wonder those "Closing Borders" in the last line above are followed by a colon: a signature, as it were, of things to come. | Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage


1 See the entry on "Vers Libre" by Clive Scott, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 1344-45. This book is subsequently cited in the text as EPP.

2 Ezra Pound, "A Few Don'ts," Poetry 1, no. 6 (March 1913); rpt. in "A Retrospect," Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p. 3. Subsequently cited as LEEP. See also the entries on "Free Verse" by Donald Wesling and Eniko Bollobás and on Imagism by Stanley F. Coffman in EPP.

3 T. S. Eliot, "The Music of Poetry" (1942), On Poetry and Poets (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1957), p. 31.

4 Eliot, "Reflections on 'Vers Libre' (1917), To Criticize the Critic and other Writings (New York: Farrar Straus, 1965), pp. 183-89. The citations are from pp. 189, 185, 187 respectively but the whole essay should be read carefully.

5 Annie Finch, The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), p. 139. For Wright, Finch maintains, "the connotations of iambic pentameter remain positive" (p. 134); for Lorde, "both iambic pentameter and dactylic rhythms carry abundant stores of wordless energy" (p. 135).

6 Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 172. Subsequently cited as DA.

7 Timothy Steele, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (Fayetteville, Arkansas and London: The University of Arkansas Press, 1990), p. 10.

8 9 Vendler, London Review of Books (4 July 1996): 6.

10 Charles O. Hartman, Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 24-25. Subsequently cited in the text as COH. I discuss this definition of free verse in relation to "prose" in Essay #5.

11 In Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine, the Collected Research Reports of the Toronto Research Group 1973-1982 (Vancouver: Talon Books, 1982), Steve McCaffery and bpNichol have this entry on "Verse & Prose":

12 verse--from the Indo-European root 'wert": to turn, from this root derives the medieval Latin "versus" literally to turn a furrow, in subsequent usage the furrow became the written line by analogy. . . .

13 prose--deriving from the same Indo-European root--is a contraction of the Latin "proversus" contracted thru "prorsus" to "prosus": literally the term forward, as adjectivally in "prosa oratio"--a speech going straight ahead without turns (p. 106). Subsequently cited in the text as RGEO.

14 Northrop Frye, The Well-Tempered Critic (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1963), p. 21. Cf. Frye, "Verse and Prose," EPP 885.

15 Robert Pinsky, Commentary, in Rory Holscher and Robert Schultz (eds.), "Symposium on the Line," Epoch 29 (Winter 1980), p. 212. The symposium is subsequently cited as EPOCH.

16 Derek Attridge, for example, defines rhythm as "the continuous motion that pushes spoken language forward in more or less regular waves, as the musculature of the speech organs tightens and relaxes, as energy pulsates through the words we speak and hear, as the brain marshals multiple stimuli into ordered patterns." (DA 1)

17 A classic account of this position is Eleonor Berry's in "Visual Form in Free Verse," Visible Language 23, 1 (Winter 1989): 89-111. I have discussed the visual form of Williams's and Oppen's lyric in The Dance of the Intellect (1985; rpt. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), Chapters 4 and 5. For statements by poets who stress the visual component, see for example, Margaret Atwood, EPOCH 172: "The line, then, is a visual indication of an aural unit and serves to mark the cadence of the poem." Cf. Allen Ginsberg, EPOCH 189, George MacBeth 203, Josephine Miles 207. In their Introduction to their collection The Line in Poetry (Urbana and London: University of Illinois Press, 1988), Robert Frank and Henry Sayre state that "the line--its status as a 'unit of measure,' what determines its length, the effects which can be achieved at its 'turn'--has come to be the focus of . . . concern" (p. ix). But the portfolio called "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Lines," edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, that concludes The Line in Poetry (see pp. 177-216) actually calls this statement into question, as does my essay #5 here, "Lucent and Inescapable Rhythms: Metrical Choice and Historical Formation." I shall come back to the "Language" essays below. The Frank-Sayre collection is subsequently cited as LIP.

18 See COH, Chapters 7 and 8 passim; Donald Wesling, "Sprung Rhythm and the Figure of Grammar," The New Poetries: Poetic Form Since Coleridge and Wordsworth (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1985), pp. 113-144; Jonathan Holden, "The Free Verse Line," LIP 1-12. "The most fundamental rhythmical unit in verse," writes Holden, "is not the line but the syntactical unit" LIP 6).

19 Henri Meschonnic, Critique du rythme: anthropologie historique du langage (Paris: Verdier, 1982), p. 21. All translations are mine. Subsequently cited as HMC.

20 HMC 593, 595, my emphasis. A similar argument is made by Anthony Easthope in Poetry as

Discourse (London: Methuen, 1983). For Easthope, all verse forms--from the feudal medieval ballad to the courtly sonnet to the transparency of the "ordered" eighteenth-century heroic couplet --are ideologically charged.: blank verse , for instance, has to serve as the bourgeois subjective verse form for the Romantic period, a form that gives way to free verse when the transcendental ego is replaced by the dispersal of the subject and the dominance of signifier over signified. Easthope's analysis is overly schematic and he seems to accept the common wisdom that free verse is the end point of prosody. But his basic premise--that verse forms are not just arbitrary or "neutrally available" to everyone at any time-- is important.

21 See, on this point, Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 161-64. Culler borrows from Gerard Genette the example of a lineated version of "banal journalistic prose" ("Yesterday / on the A 7/ an automobile / travelling at sixty miles per hour / crashed into a plane tree. / It's four occupants were / killed") to show that lineation transforms reader expectation and interpretation.

22 Consider, for example, the airline menu on "easy SABRE" that gives commands like "Return to the first line." Or again, consider the following protest poem by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, the so-called Gravy Poet of the San Joaquin Valley, cited in an article by Peter H. King in the Los Angeles Times (11 August 1996, p. A1): "You can put your trust in gravy / the way it stretches out / the sausage / the way it stretches out / the dreams." Earlier in the century, such versifying would have demanded meter and rhyme; now even polemic jingles are as likely as not to be in free verse.

23 I discuss Williams as a representative "free verse" poet in Essay #5. Pound's "visualized" page, especially in those Cantos that make frequent use of Chinese and other ideograms, has been a key source for Concrete and post-Concrete poetry and contemporary experiments with visual poetics.

24 Naked Poetry (New York and Indanapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1969) is subsequently cited in the text as NAK. Out of Everywhere (London: Reality Street Studios, 1996), which has an Afterword by Wendy Mulford, is subsequently cited in the text as OOE.

25 Charles Olson, "Projective Verse," Selected Writings, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp. 18-19. Subsequently cited as COSW. Donald Allen, who reprints "Projective Verse" in his The New American Poetry (New York: Grove Press, 1960) obviously has Olson's rejection of "closed verse" in mind when he writes that the poets in his anthology "have shown one common characteristic: a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse" (p. xi), the most obvious of those "qualities" being, of course, metrical form.

26 COSW 16. Here and elsewhere, Olson attributes this aphorism to Robert Creeley, and the attribution has stuck, although Creeley never gave a systematic account of the proposition.

27 The editors do claim that they had wanted to include LeRoi Jones, and Michael Harper but were constrained "because of cost and space" (xii). As for the U.S. focus, "We decided to keep it American because we knew nothing much new has happened in English poetry since Lawrence laid down his pen and died" (xii). It is true that English and American poetics were probably furthest apart in the 50s and 60s, when "The Movement" dominated in Britain. But note that it never even occurs to the editors to include Canadian poets or poets of other English-speaking countries; their chauvinism is characteristic of the U.S.-centered imperialist ethos of the 60s.

28 The notation used here is the standard one adopted by George Trager and Henry Lee Smith Jr. in An Outline of English Structure (Washington, D.C.: American Council of Learned Societies, 1957). Trager and Smith identify four degrees of stress in English: primary (/), secondary (/\) as in a compound noun like "bláck-bîrd," tertiary (\), as in the first syllable of "èlevátor"; and weak or unstressed ( ), as in the second syllable of "elevator." A double bar (||)is used to indicate a caesura, and I use a right arrow (>) to indicate that the line is run-over.

29 In this regard, it differs from its free-verse precursors: in Williams's lyric, as we have seen in Essay #5, line break was brilliantly used for visual effect.

31 The count of syllables per line here is: Levertov: 2-8, Merwin, 9-13, Snyder: 4-10, Lowell: 3-10. Ginsberg's strophes are visually even more unified because of the dropped indented lines.

32 Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Lines," LIP 177-216.

33 See Susan Howe, "Making the Ghost Walk About Again and Again," A Bibliography of The King's Book or Eikon Basilike (Providence, R.I.: Paradigm Press, 1989), unpaginated. This preface is reproduced in Susan Howe The Nonconformist's Manual (New York: New Directions, 1993), pp. 47-50. The poetic sequence itself follows (pp. 51-82) but the page design is not quite that of the original, largely because of page size.

34 In Poetic Rhythm (p. 171), Derek Attridge describes an extract from Howe's Pythagorean Silence, Part 3, as follows:

35 Susan Howe's poetry illustrates the potential that free verse possesses to fragment and dislocate the normal sequentiality of language, beyond even the techniques deployed by Pound and Williams. This extract . . . uses the disposition of words on the page in combination with disruptions of syntax to suggest bursts of utterance interspersed with silences. The morsels of language demand maximal attention. . . . [These lines] indicate something of the resonating power phrases can have when the connectivity provided by syntax, phrasing, rhythm, and visual linearity is partly--though only partly--broken.

36 It is interesting that although Attridge puts his finger on exactly what makes Howe's verse quite unlike the earlier model, he still categorizes it as "free verse," as if there could be no other name for Howe's obviously very "different" page layout.

37 They are in order of appearance (but not chronology or nationality) Susan Howe, Joan Retallack, Tina Darragh, Paula Claire, Diane Ward, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Maggie O'Sullivan, Meilanie Neilson, Denise Riley, Rae Armantrout, Catriona Strang, Nicole Brossard, Wendy Mulford, Rosmarie Waldrop, Deanna Ferguson, Hannah Weiner, Carlyle Reedy, Geraldine Monk, Karen Mac Cormack, Kathleen Fraser, Lisa Robertson, Marjorie Welish, Barbara Guest, Grace Lake, Caroline Bergvall, Fiona Templeton, Fanny Howe, Bernadette Mayer, Leslie Scalapino.

38 Ezra Pound, "Papyrus," Personae: The Shorter Poems, A Revised Edition, ed. Lea Baechler & A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), p. 115.

39 Steve McCaffery, "Diminished Reference and the Model Reader," North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986 (New York: Roof Books, 1986), p. 21. McCaffery's discussion of the Klein worm (pp. 20-21) as emblem of a poetry "without walls," in which "milieu and constellation replace syntax" is also very helpful.


Legal Challenges to Artistic Expression

by Donna M. Hart

At the symposium on "Arts Legal Challenge," presented by The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School on 6 November 2002, the presenters illustrated how the courts in the US have become the new "salons" for discussion of the arts and aesthetics. Judges at the state and federal level have the power to distinguish expressions of artistic merit (speech that is protected by the First Amendment) from obscenity (speech that is not protected by the Constitution). The panelists question whether courts are the appropriate venue for defining art and whether lawyers and judges are adequately equipped with the intellectual capacity to make such determinations. The definition of art has traditionally been discussed in the art community and marketplace. One intellectually accurate definition of art is "whatever people call art," and this definition, among others, is currently at odds with the legal definition of art.

The recent ban on nude images in public places illustrates the conservative climate. Earlier this year, for instance, the Department of Justice hung drapes to cover a semi-nude art deco statute of "Spirit of Justice" that has stood in the Great Hall since the 1930's. The Department reported that the blue curtain was a better backdrop for Attorney General John Ashcroft when he delivered speeches on camera.

Censorship laws have controlled artistic expression for the last century, particularly in the area of sexual and religious content. Violations of these laws have resulted in bans on art exhibits or public funding, fines or imprisonment. The following paragraphs highlight some noteworthy developments discussed at the symposium.

In 1921, a motion picture commission was established in New York and was directed to deny exhibition licenses to any film it considered "obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious, or of such character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to crime." Under this law, The Miracle was banned in the US in 1951. This short film by Roberto Rossellini is a religious parable featuring a peasant woman who was seduced by a vagabond whom she mistakes in her drunken stupor for St. Joseph. She discovers she is pregnant and decides it is an immaculate conception, a "miracle."

Although criticized in Italy for its objectionable religious viewpoint, the Vatican declined to ban the film. Pointing to "scenes of undoubted screen value," the Vatican concluded, "we still believe in Rossellinis art." Yet in New York, public officials were not so broadminded. The City License Commissioner Edward McCaffrey announced that he found The Miracle "officially and personally blasphemous" and ordered the movie theater to stop showing it. The next day, the Catholic Churchs Legion of Decency called The Miracle a "blasphemous mockery of Christian-religious truth," and McCaffrey suspended the theaters license. The film distributor, Joseph Burstyn, filed a lawsuit to challenge McCaffrey, and at a preliminary hearing, the judge questioned McCaffreys power to censor movies. Film censorship was well entrenched in New York City, but it was vested in the state Board of Regents, not the municipal license commissioner. McCaffey backed off and lifted his ban.

After controversy erupted, including picketing, in New York City, the Board of Regents convened and declared the film "sacrilegious" and ruled that it violated the thirty-year-old film censorship law, but in 1952, the Supreme Court declared in Burstyn v. Wilson that "sacrilege" was far too vague a censorship standard to be permitted under the First Amendment. Justice Tom Clark opined that trying to decide what qualifies as sacrilege sets the censor "adrift upon a boundless sea amid a myriad of conflicting currents of religious views, with no charts but those provided by the most vocal and powerful orthodoxies." He added, "it is not the business of governmentto suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine."

Almost forty years later, in 1989, the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) was severely criticized for funding a museum that displayed Andres Serranos photograph Piss Christ in a show of contemporary art. Serranos work was referred to as "shocking, abhorrent, and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever" by a group of senators who then called for a review of the NEAs procedures used in allocating grants to artists. Similarly, members of Congress criticized NEA support for the Robert Maplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Moment, organized by the institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

Funds appropriated by the NEA for the Arts or Humanities were banned from being used to support "materials which in the judgment of the NEAmay be considered obscene," including depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or of individuals engaged in sex acts which taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." In 1990 a federal court invalidated that appropriations amendment, saying it was unconstitutionally vague and chilled the exercise of First Amendment rights.

In that same year, Congress passed an amendment requiring that all NEA grants take into account, "general standards of decency and respect of the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." In 1998, in NEA v. Finley, the US Supreme Court upheld the "decency" standard for federal grants to the arts. The majority decision holds that the "decency" standard cannot be used to mandate the censorship of controversial art or ideas, but this decision is tenuous because it turned on the fact that the standard is not mandatory; it is merely advisory.

Congressional threats to de-fund the NEA combined with new legislation requiring the agency to consider "respect for the diverse beliefs of the American people" in awarding grants, forced changes that now make it unlikely that any work, artist, or show that uses religious imagery in ways likely to offend religious authorities will receive support. As the Supreme Court said in Burstyn, government "has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them." Arts funding decisions that are driven by fear of offending religious beliefs not only violate this principle but also inevitably squelch expression disapproved by the dominant hierarchies of the dominant religion.

In 1957, in Roth v. US, Supreme Court Justice Brennan narrowed the definition of obscenity and held that material had to have "no redeeming social importance" for it to be considered obscene and thus unprotected by the First Amendment. Under this compromise standard, it would be up to the court to determine the meaning of "redeeming social importance."

Under the current standard of obscenity as established in Miller v. California, the court applies a three-part test: (1) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

In the case of Skyywalker Records, Broward County, Florida, banned the sale of 2 Live Crew's musical recording "As Nasty As They Wanna Be." Applying the Miller test, a federal judge deemed the music obscene because it appealed to the prurient interest and was patently offensive where lyrics and titles of songs were replete with references to genitalia, excretion, oral-anal contact, fellatio, group sex, sadomasochism, other sexual activities and sounds of moaning, and commercial exploitation of the work was done in a manner calculated to make a salacious appeal. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the lower court's ruling for violating the First Amendment.

Only "serious" art is considered "good" art worthy of constitutional protection and it is up to the courts to decide what "serious" art is. In reaction to this legal determination, some works of modern and post-modern art are self-critical and question the distinction between art and non-art, as in the display of pornography in art galleries. In Jeff Koons sculpture of a porn star hugging a pink panther and the depiction of a porn star as a member of Parliament in another work, Koons trashes "serious" art and accentuates the line between art and obscenity.

Billy Boggs, an internationally acclaimed artist who creates images of money, appeared as one of the guest speakers. He recounted some of the travails he encountered after he released drawings that resembled $1,000 bills into the stream of commerce. Even though it would be unlikely to mistake the drawings as real currency because the reverse side of the drawing are blank, and real $1,000 bills are rare and have been out of print since the 1930s, and even though the drawings are worth more than the $1,000 face value, Boggs was investigated for allegedly violating counterfeit laws. Secret service agents raided his home, seized over 1,300 items and threatened him with arrest. A comparison of art and currency were explored at a hearing, and although Boggs prevailed in the legal dispute, his confiscated works were never returned.

This writer left the symposium able only to conclude that it is virtually impossible to protect both art and censorship laws simultaneously, as freedom of artistic expression and the censorship laws are at odds with one another. In the end, artists will continue to create art regardless of these roadblocks.

About the Author:

Donna M. Hart is a regular contributor to the Newsletter. Other articles by her can be found in the Newsletter's complete Archives.


For an article on the ban of nudity in public buildings, see "No nudes is good nudes: The great Federal coverup," Washington Post, October 24, 2002, by Nicole Miller at

For a discussion of the controversy surrounding The Miracle and a history of film censorship, read "The Miracle: Film Censorship and the Entanglement of Church and State, University of Virginia Forum for Contemporary Thought," Oct. 28, 2002, by Marjorie Heins at

For a timeline of censorship, see "A Selective Timeline of Censorship in the U.S.A." prepared by the National Coalition Against Censorship at

Court cases:

Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952)

NEA v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998)

Roth v. US, 354 U.S. 476 (1957)

Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)

Skyywalker Records, Inc. v. Navarro, 739 F. Supp. 578, 58 USLW 2744 (S.D. Fla. 1990); reversed by Luke Records, Inc. v. Navarro, 960 F. 2d 134, 60 USLW 2724 (11th Cir. 1992); Cert. denied by Navarro v. Luke Records, Inc., 506 U.S. 1022, 113 S. Ct. 659 (1992).

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