On the Tongue Tonight

 

I want to eat when the fire’s done

I want to dance when the bulls have run

Other side of the hard day’s sun

The water’s coming to a boil

 

I want to ask when the bills are paid

Do the work of my father’s day

See the road from a dead highway

The water’s coming to a boil

 

Cause there ain’t one way to live in the dark tonight

Life is long and the fire’s bright

The trees don’t lie when the wind goes by

Water of life’s on the tongue tonight

 

Bring the dog if you must, all right

The world don’t wait on your trust, old wight

I can’t think what the future might

The water’s coming to a boil

 

Cause there’s nothing to say that has been said

And campfire coffee after the world’s short end

And when your mother father declares the world won’t end

 

Bring ’em back to the fire

I want to walk in the fire

The books are in the fire

They’re dancing in the fire

If We Can Sparkle He May Land Tonight

david-bowie-blackstar

In the late 1980s I became obsessed with a movie called Labyrinth starring a man named David Bowie.  My parents appeared to recognize him as some kind of celebrity, but to me, at the time, he was only Jareth, The Goblin King.  Labyrinth was one of a number of 1980s films that augmented my nascent love of fantasy and cemented it as a foundational part of who I am.  It was only later that I realized that I had been watching a rock legend dance around in a movie aimed at children.

Last night, I played Starman for my son, who is three years old.  We danced to it in front of my laptop.  I had recently downloaded David Bowie’s newest album, an eerie, atonal, masterpiece of symphonic jazz.  Like so many other people, I had no idea he was even sick.

My wife woke me up this morning to tell me he had died.  The irony was not lost.

I was a Bowie fan long before I even knew I was a Bowie fan.  When it came to music and art, he was always a central figure for me, looming in the background like a quiet alien.  First as Jareth, then as a musician, and later as a symbol of what it means to be an artist.

We all thought he was immortal.  Yes, he lives on through his music, but, appropriately, there’s something more to be said about that.

Listening to him on satellite radio this morning, it occurred to me that Bowie has been broadcast into outer space by radio and now satellite for over four decades.  His voice has been traveling through space at the speed of light (or the speed of life?) since at least 1969, when Space Oddity was released as a single.  That means that Space Oddity has traveled approximately 47 lightyears into outer space.

The nearest star to our sun is Proxima Centauri, which is approximately 4.24 lightyears away.  The first transmission of Space Oddity has traveled over ten times that distance.  What does that mean?

David Bowie is literally a starman.

Only My Camera, Like, ‘Gets’ Me

Like every teenage girl in the process of discovering herself and flowering into womanhood, I’m going through a photography phase.  All images taken with a Canon 70D and processed in Lightroom.

Poetry and Potatoes

It’s hard to talk about liking poetry without coming off as an affected douchebag.  Unless, that is, you hang out at the type of parties I don’t get invited to.  But the truth is, there’s not a lot of love for poetry in the modern United States, an assertion I feel comfortable making given the evidence that it’s next to impossible to support yourself as a working poet.  Ask your average person what poetry is and you’ll likely get an answer lying somewhere on a spectrum between dirty limericks and the one Shakespearean sonnet their English teacher made them read in high school.

Mark Lawrence had some interesting things to say recently about the allegation (from a fan) that his writing was not poetic:

A well-known blogger who liked Prince of Thorns very much told me that he didn’t think my prose was at all poetic. It turns out that to him poetic prose is prose with lots of curls and twiddles, prose with endless description, flowers and clouds a la Wordsworth’s famous daffodils.

I do write poetic prose. No question about it. But I’m more of the Philip Larkin school. I also write actual poetry, but poetic prose is a different beast, it’s poetry diluted to taste.

Poetic prose, done right, is about wringing more out of a single line.

The idea that the adjective “poetic,” when referring to prose, might be meant as a criticism is enough to cork most English professors’ merlot.  But in the aforementioned blogger’s defense, that’s probably a common enough viewpoint these days.

I think the discord comes not from a genuine dislike of poetry, but from a popular misunderstanding of what good poetry is.  (Here’s where the affected douchebag bit comes in; as if I know better, right?)  I’m no expert, but speaking as someone who does occasionally read and write poetry, I feel like the major disconnect is due to the fact that those who don’t read or strongly dislike poetry think of poetry in terms of the worst Romantic frippery.  If you think of poetry in terms of Wordsworth and Shelley, it’s understandable why you’d think of “poetic prose” as being something purple and overdone.  You might not think of the sparseness of Hemingway or the bold economy of words in a Mark Lawrence novel as being poetic, but they are–in the best way.

One of my favorite poems is The Simple Truth by Philip Levine, written in 1995:

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

The irony is that the simple way of saying things has become poetry over the last century.  Upon first reading, a poem like the above might irk you–its simplicity is blatant, like an abstract expressionist painting.  But the power of the words and the story it tells, the feelings it evokes, stay with you.  That’s what art is, isn’t it?  Something that produces an emotional response?  If Levine had used flowery language and ornate metaphor, the impact would have been lost.  As it is we have a simple truth: beauty lies most often in restraint.

Christopher Nolan on Obsession

The Tribeca Film Festival is happening right now in New York (it goes through the 26th), and The Hollywood Reporter has some great coverage of the event and its various panels, one of which involved a discussion on filmmaking with Christopher Nolan and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher).

There were two moments in particular that I enjoyed reading about.  While discussing the difficulty in maintaining creative direction over a studio film, Nolan talked about some advice given to him by Steven Soderbergh and having the courage to do your own thing:

“You have to get out there and find a place for yourself,” he explained. “You have to make your own rules. You have to figure out what’s going to work for you…. That’s the thing he taught me, is that you’re on your own and you have to get out there and make it work.”

Nolan made his own rules when he was writing the script for Memento, attributing the film’s mind-bending storytelling approach to him just disregarding the rules.

“It’s the classic example of something interesting that can come about when you don’t know what you’re doing,” Nolan said when Miller asked how one writes a script like that. “You’re starting out and you think, ‘Why are there all these rules? Why do people take screenwriting courses? Why can’t you just write the movie you want to see as it would appear on the screen?’ “

Later, when asked about his fears going forward, he said:

“My biggest fear is embarking on a project that you lose faith in or fall out of love with,” he said. “There’s a huge investment of time [in a film], and the biggest fear is that I’d get halfway through and think, ‘No, this isn’t something I really care about anymore.’ So before I embark on a project, I just have to test it, however I test it, by writing drafts, by just living with it and really trying to dive into it. You have to be sure that you’re going to be as happy, as obsessed with this film two-and-a-half, three years later as you are the day you commit to it.”

Christopher Nolan is a great role model for aspiring artists of any genre or medium, because he epitomizes an ideal balance between mainstream appeal and artistic integrity.  He tells stories that move and excite people and that appeal to a diverse audience without sacrificing his artistic vision or dumbing down his subject.

His fear of losing interest in a project he’s working on likely hit home with many artists, particularly writers.  Writing is the art of the long con, a marathon not a sprint, and it’s important to be able to gauge how in love with an idea you are before embarking on the process of turning it into a real thing.  Even when you find an idea you love consistently, there will undoubtedly be times when you need to bolster your enthusiasm–when you’ll need to sit back and remind yourself of why you wanted to write this particular story in the first place.  When you’ll need to take a break and regain some of that lost passion.  This can happen to anyone at any time.  With that in mind, it’s obviously best if, like Nolan, you only put your creative effort behind the projects that really grab you.  The ones you can’t let go of.  The ones you’re obsessed with.

With art, obsession can be a good thing.

Zen and the Art of Tom Sachs’ Vimeo Account

I was introduced to artist Tom Sachs about a month ago, when Jason Kottke posted Sachs’ short film “A Love Letter to Plywood” on kottke.org.

Sachs’ Vimeo account is comprised of a collection of videos that serve as a primer for prospective visitors to and employees of his studio.  The films he makes have a strange zen to them, that I find incredibly appealing.  This is how art should be made.  Here, craft and art combine.

My favorite is COLOR.:

I’d imagine these videos would be excellent viewing for those interested in ASMR.

Richard Morgan on ‘The Slow Death of Nuance’

Richard K. Morgan, author of Altered Carbon and The Dark Defiles, the latter of which I finished reading (and loved) recently, wrote a fantastic essay on his blog a couple of weeks ago about the dumbing down of storytelling and how it increasingly asks less and less of the reader:

Dip into the broad waters of commercial fiction and you’ll bump repeatedly into that same terror of open narrative space, of letting the reader think for themselves.  Paragraphs abound with that jerky last sentence sutured on, subtle as Frankenstein surgery, to hammer home the point the text just spent ten finely penned lines carefully implying.  One notable horror writer, a firm favourite of mine for many years, has gone so far down this treat-your-readers-as-morons-with-ADD path that I now find his books unreadable.  There is no longer any nuance anywhere in the text, no room to breathe and wonder – you’re just herded along from one big narrative signpost to the next; don’t stop, don’t think, just open wide, here comes the next big helping.  You end up gagged and bound, stifled by subtitles for the hard-of-thinking.  Never mind nuance, never mind thinking for yourself, you’re being entertained here!  Get with the programme.

And right there in your hands, reading turns from a textured, open experience full of challenge and invitation to extend yourself – like, say, rock climbing or playing a musical instrument – into a satisfaction-guaranteed sit-back-relax repeat-prescription experiential product, like being strapped into the same rollercoaster ride over and over again.

He opens by discussing the ending of Lost in Translation, and the powerful way in which Sofia Coppola uses stylistic storytelling to allow the viewer to form their own opinion as to what precisely passed between the main characters while nonetheless showing fairly clearly what actually happens.

The ending of Morgan’s most recent novel The Dark Defiles presents a deliberately inchoate conclusion to its story: the action is cut off at a point where the reader, presuming he or she has been paying attention, should have absolutely no doubt about what happens next, but the coup de grace isn’t shown.  And it’s brilliant.  Apparently not all of Morgan’s readers got it, though, which is unfortunate, because it was a hell of a lot of fun:

The Dark Defiles does not end ambiguously.  Honest.  Not at all.  There’s some space at the end, sure, but what’s going to happen in it is a pretty solidly foreshadowed and foregone conclusion.  You don’t get given blow-by-blow chapter and verse, because I figure you’re smart enough to step into that narrative space and figure it out for yourselves, sophisticated enough to enjoy that process for its own sake.

Most readers seem to have done that.

That some didn’t, and more importantly that most of those who didn’t felt somehow short-changed and even angered by the nuance and the space, continues to perplex me.

As Mr. Morgan goes on to point out, sometimes it is indeed the author’s fault, not the reader’s.  But that isn’t the case here.  If you couldn’t follow the ending of The Dark Defiles, you weren’t paying close enough attention.  It’s all in there.  Reread it.  If you still don’t get it, email me and I’ll be happy to explain it to you.

The broader point Morgan makes is well-taken: it’s unfortunate that the mainstream trend in fiction and in film is to remove all ambiguity, and thus do the audience’s thinking for them.  That’s not what art is suppose to be.  Don’t let your art talk down to you.  You deserve better.

To Err Is…Human?

This is eerie: Kottke.org explains the phenomenon of “miss-mixing,” a growing trend wherein DJs intentionally make mistakes mixing tracks together to show that they’re doing it manually and not using the computer.  Jason’s comments on it are intriguing:

As computers get better at things like DJing, cooking, writing, and the like, imperfection may become a mark of human-produced goods and media. In the future, we’ll be urged to buy not just hand-made but Human Made™ the way people go for American made, locally made, organic, artisanal, or vintage goods nowadays. The problem, as Tyler Cowen notes, is if computers are smart enough to DJ, they’re certainly clever enough to be a little sloppy too.

In William Gibson’s novel All Tomorrow’s Parties, there’s a scene where a former businessman, now living in a squalid tent with a half-naked old man who’s a master at building Gundam models, imagines the point the old man’s work might be making:

Laney has a theory that the old man is a sensei of kit-building, a national treasure, with connoisseurs shipping in kits from around the world, waiting anxiously for the master to complete their vintage Gundams with his unequaled yet weirdly casual precision, his Zen moves, perhaps leaving each one with a single minute and somehow perfect flaw, at once his signature and a recognition of the nature of the universe. How nothing is perfect, really. Nothing ever finished. Everything is process, Laney assures himself, zipping up, settling back into his squalid nest of sleeping bags.

In a world where perfection is achievable through technology, will human imperfection become the ultimate hallmark of quality?  I see this becoming something of an emergent trend across a variety of different spheres–industry, academia, art.  Imperfection is what makes things interesting, and the rarer it becomes–in artwork and products, at least–perhaps the more true it will be.