Monthly Archives: June 2016

Silence Is For Singing

girl on a ceiling

Everything is possible

A few days ago I went to a restaurant here in Atlanta for a Meetup group that gets together to listen to opera. The event is put on by a restaurant once a month, providing dinner and several opera singers, who perform between courses.

When I got home I was thinking about opera, and one thing led to another (you know how the internet leads from one thing to another?), and I ended up watching an interview with one of my favorite opera singers, the French soprano Natalie Dessay. I’ve transcribed a few lines here between Natalie and the interviewer:

“And what you wanted to do was get on stage?”

“Yes. Desperately.”

“Desperately?”

“Yes, since I was five.”

“Why do you think that was?”

“Because for me the stage is the space where everything is possible.”

Let’s move for a moment from that stage of dreams to a real stage, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. On Monday night I had the remarkable experience of watching a live stream (again, thank you, internet) of my second cousin, who just graduated high school, perform on that stage. She won a Presidential Scholars award, and that night about twenty or so winners were performing. I remember years ago watching Victoria as a little girl with my aunt teaching her to play piano, and there she was on the stage singing and playing at the Kennedy Center. You can look her up—Victoria Canal.

Among the kids on that stage were also several writers, and at the end of the show each person had a few seconds to say something about their artistic inspiration. One of the writers said something that struck me, which was, as best I remember it, “I see the world through glasses made of typewriter keys.” This strange metaphor I think means “I experience the world through writing.”

What do Natalie Dessay, and Victoria, and this unknown young writer have in common? They feel the need for artistic expression that says, “You have to do this.” I think I feel what they feel, the mystery that moves you as you walk around with a fire inside, looking for a place where you can pull a handful of that fire out and turn it into light.

Natalie Dessay began with a desire to be a dancer, felt she didn’t have the ability, switched to singing, found a love of acting, and discovered that she’s one of the best opera singers in the world. When she says that a stage is “the space where everything is possible” she means that everything we think of can somehow be represented on the stage, that it is possible in some ways to experience life through performance.

I was telling someone recently that I thought one of the purposes of art is to help us deal with the world and perhaps make some sense of it. Art can keep us from going crazy in the spooky chaos that is the real nature of our existence. With art—on or off a stage—everything is possible, including finding meaning for life and peace between us.

What I’m describing there is thinking about art from the point of view of the listener or viewer. As creators, however, what I feel when I write, what my cousin and the other young people on that stage feel, what Natalie Dessay feels when she performs, is that we experience the world from inside the art. When we create, we live in a different way, a way that takes the madness of the world and turns it into a song, a dance, a character in a book.

Everything is possible.

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We Have This Word

colored boxes

Make sure you get in the right one

This week I was reading an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, which we inexplicably subscribe to at work. The editorial was discussing whether we’ve reached a point, using genetic engineering, that we can treat each person individually, because down on the cellular level, no two people are alike. The question raised by the article was how soon we can go to individualized medicine and stop using race as a clumsy substitute.

I don’t want to get into a lot of medical talk here, but there are some conditions that are more common in certain genetic groups (such as Tay-Sachs disease among European Jews or sickle cell anemia among blacks). Until now, doctors have used race as a potential marker for such diseases—and yet race doesn’t work very well. Most Jews, for instance, don’t have Tay-Sachs, and some other groups, like Cajuns in Louisiana, also get it. Most blacks don’t have sickle cell anemia.

Medically, “race” is a sloppy idea. Obviously human beings differ from one another in many ways, including skin color, body shape, facial features, and so on. Observing this fact, however, it does not necessarily follow that we would create a concept that humans exist in mutually exclusive groups, although unfortunately, human stupidity being what it is (vast and endless), we did invent the idea of “race”.

Not long ago I heard the poet Nikki Giovanni interviewed on the radio, and she said something that stuck with me: “Race was a bad idea.” She was referring to the fact that “race” as we use it in our society is a socially invented idea. Having a word for something, however, does not make it exist, unless you believe that hobbits and witches are real.

Consider what the notion of race means:

  • all human exist in “boxes”
  • every person can be placed neatly in one of the boxes
  • no one can change boxes

It does not take a lot of education or thought to see how foolishly wrong this is. The medical difficulty with race that the New England Journal of Medicine refers to is one bit of evidence for this. A historical bit of evidence contradicting the “boxes of race” is the fact that over time people have defined race in many ways, such as the time when they talked about the “Irish race” or the “Nordic race”.

In our personal experience, as well, we encounter evidence that the boxes simply don’t work. We meet people, or at least hear about them, who don’t seem to exactly belong in one of the current boxes. In addition, everyone knows that people of different “races” can have children together, which begins to make the boxes meaningless.

So does “race” exist? Biologically, no. We made this up. The idea is a social creation, and yet socially, does race exist? When people hate you for being born, and when you know you have a greater chance of being killed—including by the police—because of the color of your skin, by God yes, race exists.

Here in America, the idea of “race” is like poison air that we breathe just from being alive. No matter how hard you try, no matter how decent you are, this evil idea will affect you. The most noble people among us are still conscious of race, are affected by the stereotypes and the history that have soiled our country from the first day. And those are the good people.

Is there any hope for getting rid of this nasty concept, for a world in which children only learn the word “race” in school as a historical artifact? I don’t know. No time soon. But there is no excuse not to try, if you’re a decent person. As the New England Journal of Medicine said, we are not getting very far using “crude racial and ethnic . . . categories.”

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Stifle This

pizza

I want my own

I was thinking that after the tight, elegant blogging I’ve been doing lately, with touches of grace and philosophical depth and a hint of lime, I’ve earned the right to babble like an idiot this time, with no meaning or control.

And that’s so easy for me to do.

Man, it’s hot here right now, 10:30 at night and 78 degrees in Atlanta, Georgia. Thank God for fans. Anyhow, I thought I’d update you on some aspects of living a writer’s life, in case you’ve lost your mind and are considering doing that. This evening I was in a pizza joint that specializes in 10-inch personal pizzas. A family came in, and at their table, a cheerful little girl who seemed maybe four years old apparently expected her own pizza, but then was told she was sharing with a younger sibling. Immediately, she went into moody-faced scrunched up tearfulness.

I don’t mean to compare myself to that, but if I were a four-year-old writer, this would have been a moody-faced week. Specifically, I’ve been anxious to work on revisions for the new novel The Invention of Colors. When I’m writing from scratch, even 20 minutes is enough for me to be productive, but for this revision, I need stretches of time to really focus, and I’m not getting them. It’s been very frustrating. There is so much to do, and other novels waiting to be worked on, and yet I’m wasting my life going to work. Not that I’m unmindful of the luxury of a salary and benefits, having done without them for a few years.

Part of the impetus this week pushing me into the revision is that I traded this novel with another writer—I read her book and she read mine, and we gave one another a critique. She returned some very helpful comments on weaknesses and problems in my novel. I’m grateful for that, and if she had not, I’d have been disappointed, thinking “So how am I supposed to make this better?” At the same time, she had strongly positive reactions to the book in several ways, so I feel more confident of what I have. But I need time to work.

In other sparkling writer news, I don’t believe I’ve mentioned on the blog that a few months ago I hired a publicist to help with promoting things. One of the things he did was to send the short story collection that is in the works to a publisher in North Carolina, who had agreed to read it. This week I learned that the publisher liked the writing but has decided to focus on other things, the bastard. Well, moody face. In the meantime, my publicist found a publisher in Australia and sent the book to them. So, hmm.

And though I have whined here about lack of time—a true whine, heartfelt, and I own it—I nevertheless went twice this week to open mic poetry readings to read a few poems. You can slap me for braggadocio, but I get fairly positive reactions to the poetry, so going to the readings is partly putting myself in front of people (building publicity to use later, someday), and partly just balming the ego to hear people say nice things. It helps to avoid the moody face.

At these poetry readings, I have to admit that I hear little that makes me say, “Oh, yes!” And yet…sometimes I do. Sometimes, sometimes, I just open my eyes wider and think Wow. But in general if you want to hear a lot of mediocre, cliche-ridden, desperately sincere poetry—open mic poetry readings are the place for you. One very common theme is “I’m OK” (anxiously and loudly declared by people who are clearly not OK, but are working on it). Those poems are usually addressed to a former romantic interest, though sometimes to a hideous relative. Another theme also quite common is “X is good, you should like it” (X being, at different times, yourself, love, peace, the earth, God). This second theme tends especially to wallow in cliche, and many poets seem unaware that repeating phrases they’ve heard all their life does not make particularly good poetry. A third tendency one hears at open mics is a poem that makes the point the poet wants within the first five lines, and then goes on for another fifty lines.

But listen to my snarky bitchiness. I should be ashamed. I should be, I know. But I’m not. I might end with a fake humble “Aw, shucks, I don’t want to discourage you from writing poetry” but I’m remembering a quote from Flannery O’Connor, a fellow Georgia writer. She was asked whether she thought that universities stifle writers. She replied, “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”

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The First Attempt to Announce Ourselves

tattoo on arm

Something like this

Last Friday I saw a woman walk by wearing a T shirt that said, “Don’t Blog About It”. Oh? So I knew I had a topic for this week. She was perhaps in her early 30s, had short straight blond hair, which I believe was dyed, and her upper left arm was heavily tattooed.

At the time I saw this woman, I was sitting at an outdoor table at the Café Framboise, in Charleston, South Carolina. I was drinking coffee, working on a poem, and watching an occasional horse-drawn tourist carriage clop slowly by. The tourists looked at us, we looked at them, and the horse looked stoically ahead. At a table nearby where I sat were three women who appeared Italian to me, having breakfast. Behind me I heard a woman say (strangely appropriately), “Vacation goes by fast, but the work week drags on.” I’m not sure what caused that truth to suddenly appear.

As I was writing down all these details, so that I could not blog about it, a pretty waitress came out and I noticed she had a French accent. I was just on the point of getting ready (or as we say sometimes in the south, I was “fixin’ to”) head down the street to a brew pub for lunch, then on to the Dock Street Theater to listen to chamber music.

For a second year, I was at the Spoleto Festival, hanging out leisurely in Charleston, listening to music, looking at art, eating seafood, and did I mention eating seafood? But since this is a language and literature blog whenever I have enough self control to do that, let’s focus on some language incidents from Charleston.

  • A clothing store named “Impeccable Pig”—I was thinking I probably should be buying my clothes there.
  • Another store called “Ooh! Ooh! Shoes!”—but I don’t wear shoes, so this didn’t matter to me.
  • At St. Philip’s Church, a sign in the graveyard that surrounds the church said, “The only ghost at St. Philip’s is the Holy Ghost.”—This may be true, as I tried calling a ghost and none came.
  • Gravestones can be an interesting kind of “literature”. Most of them said “Died” but I found several that said “Entered into rest”—It’s a pleasant euphemism, and after all who hasn’t had days in life of thinking “when does this suffering stop?”
  • Also in the graveyard I passed a family, mother, father, grandmother, and baby, who looked very American, out for your normal stroll in a graveyard, but I heard them speak a few words, and it turned out to be a Russian family.
  • In the linguistic cornucopia of Charleston, on another day when it was pouring rain, in a coffee shop I met a woman from Ireland and knew her by that delightful accent. We chatted a bit, and she had come to Charleston to help put on one of the Spoleto shows, the play “The Importance of Being Earnest”. By an Irish writer, you know.

During the Spoleto Festival, they give out catalogs about the events, and while looking through the catalog, I found an article by Carl Hancock Rux, in which he describes the cry we make when we’re born as “the first attempt to announce ourselves and to equally name suffering…”

I often think about writing (or art in general, frankly) as an “attempt to announce ourselves” to the world, so the quote of course struck me as a familiar idea, but then it has the second part, that we express ourselves to “name suffering”. Both of these ideas could have a long discussion. Do we truly have a need to say to the world “look, I’m here”? I think we obviously do, like getting a tattoo, but you might disagree in your quiet way. As to naming suffering, maybe that is what serious art is partly after, to give a voice to the suffering that is inevitable. Is art just more sophisticated versions of the cry of a newborn baby?

But don’t you think art can also sometimes be a voice of joy? Like sitting at an outdoor cafe, watching a horse, and thinking about lunch and chamber music.

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