Tuesday, November 30, 2010
This morning, I just finished a review of the excellent Burning River book by Jim Meirose, titled Crossing the Trestle, which I submitted to Gently Read Literature. The review will appear in the January issue. Yesterday, I also finished a review of Scale, guest curated by artist and CMU instructor Ally Reeves, who recently returned from a Fulbright to India. There are some itneresting ideas and tacit statements there. She helps to define a contemporary ethos, which is growing out of and fighting against to the thatch-thick detritus of commercialism (something that is, lest we forget, a not so distant relative of fascism).
Also, I have a new 'memory story' called "Foreigner Among Foreigners" up at Dan Waber's That reminds me hypertext project, which writer Chris Bowen also contributes to. The project is fantastic, allowing writers to stretch their expressive capacities, overcome blocks, remember in words their previous experiences, which is both cathartic and creative. It also creates a reading experience full of pleasant surprises, and is kind of like opening the doors on an Advent calendar, although of course, it has nothing to do with Christmas. It the joyful discoveries behind each click that are so exciting.
I have class today, my second-to-last before my semester ends. We go over the final today, meaning that most of my heavy lifting is over, although I will soon have a raft of final papers and final exams to grade. But, next week, my entire daytime energy and efforts will be devoted to writing, something about which I am very excited.
What am I listening to right now? Arvo Part's gorgeous, soaring contemplations on (what seems like) the infinite. You can hear them here.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Hypertext is a kind of "choose your own adventure" story--remember those? I made reference to them before in my review of Matt Bell's Wolf Parts (which appeared here in an earlier posting). Choose-your-own-adventure stories usually had sentences like these at the end of cliff-hanger segments: Turn to page 120 if you want Jim to return to the space ship or 350 if you want him to swim the phosphorescent canal. I was always amazed at the architecture of these stories--how they were put together, where the narrative paths converged. I was constantly flipping between segments, trying to determine their path, their trajectory, to see if they ultimately lead to the same outcome. I don't remember what I discovered. I just remember they were a revelation. I even remember, back when I was painting and making images of brightly colored cadavers (no, not macabre--never macabre because there were sequins) on canvas, I conceived of an exhibition in which a pulley system moved a series of canvases around the lower half of a gallery wall. The canvases that hung from this line would feature the legs, tails, or escaping vapor of monsters. The top canvases, which defined faces and torsos, would be static, but visitors could choose the combinations they wanted to see. I had been planning to call it the "Choose Your Own Adventure Series". (I'll have to admit this idea was inspired in part by a box of long fireplace matches my parents' bought in the late 70s. You could move the lid and get different dress combinations for the men and women--long yellow muumuus of the women might soon become purple bell bottoms that had previously belonged to the man on the adjacent facet of the box).
So, let's talk about art now that we're on that subject. Specifically, let's talk about Edward Hopper. To the right is Soir Bleu, painted in 1914. Her was 32 at the time of its execution. It was after he'd sold the painting Sailing (1911) at The Armory Show and moved to Greenwich Village.
Here, the lasting influence of Impressionism in the Japanese lanterns, the gauzy atmosphere and the low skyline (and Post Impressionism--is that one of Van Gogh's potato eaters on the far left, sitting with the seltzer bottle?) is evident, as it is in many of Hopper's earlier works, where he admitted to having difficulty finding his own style. But it is the characters that are so arresting here: while the woman might be the focal point the first time you look at the work, since she rises like an Amazon over the horizon (and the longer one looks, the more one asks whether this is a woman at all), the white clown is what my eye is drawn to on the second look. It is his sheer unsullied pallor and the dangling cigarette that says to me: this is the real subject, and while not a genuine self portrait of Hopper, it is the portrait of the artist, even...the writer. We perform and make other laugh or cry or feel, but we, too, are full of cynicism and addictions (and here we are again at the cigarette, the drink). Here, a Pierrot, smoking. Before him, a glass with yellow-green liquid. It could be absinthe--the water is there, but I see no slotted spoon or sugar cube. Perhaps that part of the ritual is done.
Is that Van Gogh across the table from the clown, and who sits with epaulets and short-cropped hair next to him? Here, Hopper reaches into Toulouse-Lautrec's world, into the green-glowing gas footlights that colored the faces of Degas' second-rate, scandalized actresses. Here, friends, is beautiful blue bohemia. Here, Hopper has not yet met wife Jo, who will bring him into the brown, ochre and black of the Ashcan School where she grew into artistic maturity herself. Then Hopper went from the clown (a la Hamlet's dear Yorick) to the King of Melancholia.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
"I was a student of people’s habits, and I learned the ways of men, especially foreign men, who eyed my mother even as they passed around pictures of their children, wallet-bound photographs that included their reluctantly smiling wives. These wives, at the exact moment my mother’s gray eyes rested on their features (whether doughy or sharp), were most likely lying awake under thick featherbeds five hours advanced from us, listening to the cracks and ticks of their sleeping house, instinctively knowing their husband was in a hotel bar thousands of miles and many times zones away. It was the not knowing with whom that rose like bile in their throats, that kept them awake. Other women simply slept, knowing but not caring."
Monday, November 15, 2010
What appears at Litsnack is actually an early version I sent out shortly after I wrote it. I later revised the story to read more fluidly and to deepen its implications, but when the original version was accepted by Litsnack, I was thrilled. And I still am. Below is part of the revision I was toying with just before the initial version was accepted:
"I feel his eyes again, and I look back at him with impulsive boldness, a daring I do not recognize as my own. I have not received this kind of attention before. It chases away my headache and causes me to sit up straighter, to feel slightly more alive. His gaze appears level, earnest, if somewhat cloudy and unfocused. He looks down in the direction of my parents. My mother has her chin on her hand, listening to something said by someone at the end of the table. My father is equally absorbed in the conversation and notices none of what is happening where I sit, none of the intent gazing, which brings the blood rushing up to my face. The men beside me continue talking and have turned towards the subject of work, while the man named Peter leans forward and asks in a low voice, “What room are you in? Or are you with them?” He nods sideways in the direction of my parents. I smell the alcohol on him, which wafts towards me in a volatile billow as he speaks.
I shake my head. I tell him I have my own room. He nods, smiling. “What’s the number?” he asks, his left hand still resting against his face. “Tell me the number,” he whispers again. “Please.”
I glance quickly at my parents once more. “215,” I answer, looking down at the table cloth as I say it.
He nods. Fear is rising in me, but excitement, too. I do not yet really understand the power I seem to have at this moment, or even that it is a kind of power. And I am certainly too young to recognize that it will end up being weakness, too...."
And so, you ask, it's written in the first person. Is it true?
Friday, November 12, 2010
I realized, though, as I was preparing to teach Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” a few weeks ago in my English class, that the opening segment of “The Fascinator” is so much like the arrival of the bible salesman (who later steals Hulga’s prosthetic leg) in O’Connor’s story. I didn’t consciously realize this when I was writing it, but certainly, because of the subject matter and the location, I realize that most of my stories involving Appalachian characters seem to channel Flannery. Moreover, there are many stories from where I now live that seem to defy reasonable explanation. They are fabulist in nature or the characters themselves are so emphatically bizarre or amazingly quirky, they seem unreal. They might well be unbelievable if I were to write them as they actually happened. I have a stash of stories to last me years, but they must be handled with care, so their theme can be communicated honestly and purposefully without the subtle ironies being lost in reader skepticism.
In relation to "The Fascinator", I want to thank Necessary Fiction Editor (and The Bee-loud Glade author) Steve Himmer for his careful review of the story and his suggestions--without his input and feedback, the story wouldn't be the solid work I feel it has now become.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
In the meantime, an excerpt:
"My favorites are Tin Drum and The Flounder, translated by Ralph Manheim in 1961 and 1978, respectively (my copies are badly dog-eared). Both are like that really good first shot of bourbon, which seems to brighten and sharpen the look of the world."
The young lass here has been busy lately. Teaching yes, but also writing. I just finished a review of Audio Space, an exhibition at Wood Street Galleries by interactive media artists David Rokeby and The Pogues co-founder Jem Finer. I'll be visiting Wood Street's sister gallery, SPACE, in a week or so to see the exhibition "SCALE" by guest curator Ally Reeves.
Here's a little preview-excerpt:
"Johnston’s sterling penannular bracelet Did Dolly Dream of a Bio Mom?, 2010 makes witty reference to the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired Blade Runner. Her work’s helix-shaped band – ending in the bounding front halves of two fuzzy ruminants – alludes to the extraordinary leap taken by cloning sheep DNA. "
Friday, November 5, 2010
Purchasers are allowed to request a single word appear on their bowl, and so I requested "SchrollGuz" be inscribed on the side of standing bell number 2.6, which is part of the permanent installation. Michael's and my bell is in the Alto key of 'E' and will eventually go to Tasmania and several other venues for live play.
And while I call it "our bell", it's actually property of The Long Player Foundation, which will ensure the continued performance of the non-repeating Longplayer score, composed by The Pogues co-founder Finer.
Above left, a Tibetan "singing" bowl, part of Jem Finer's "Longplayer"
Although Finer conceived of "Longplayer" between 1995 and 1999 as a response to millennial angst, the work was brought to fruition in 2000 with help of a grant from Artangel, a London-based nonprofit that has financed other amazing works like "Seizure" by thirty-something artist Roger Hiorns. (For "Seizure", Hiorns filled an abandoned council flat with copper sulfate and allowed royal blue crystals naturally populate the walls, floors, and ceilings of every room. The effect is stunning, and started a daily pilgrimage to the site. The work short-listed Hiorns for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2009. )
at right: "Seizure" (2008) by Roger Hiorns
On September 12, 2009, at London's Roundhouse Theatre, Finer's "Longplayer" was performed live, while a similar "happening", titled "Long Conversation," took place in another portion of the building. Listen to Long Conversation. It begins with British author Jeanette Winterson , who speaks with writer and psycohanalyst Susie Orbach, author of Bodies. You can also take a look at a video of their conversation here. Other author discussions follow theirs.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
above, left: "Camille Terry as Marilyn Monroe, Palisades Park, NJ"
A series of Graham’s photographs, on display at Pittsburgh’s Silver Eye Photography Center in 2008, revealed the persistence of eccentricity in spite of (and sometimes because of) America’s relentlessly homogenizing and gentrifying forces. Many of these striking oddities, like the gold-tone statue of Lenin that greets customers like Ronald McDonald in the parking lot a Dallas burger joint, have trickled down from popular consciousness to become pristine examples of local kitsch.
Graham’s human subjects likewise appear passionately consumed by their interests, even if these inclinations tend towards the surreal. There are, for example, Graham’s photographs of Liberace impersonators dressed in suit jackets made of tinsel garland. And there are his many early 1990s portraits, like Randy Allen as Betty Davis, Philadelphia, PA and Bud Burkhart as William Penn, Levittown, PA. These photographs reveal the pop culture reservoir that Americans draw from in their search for personal expression.
In an interview conducted via telephone, David Graham explained his enduring notion of America, his thoughts on icons, his undying interest in photographing Americana, and his conceptual and technical evolution as a photographer.
SSG: What’s your definition of America? Or what is the America you attempt to capture in your photographs?
DG: America is a chunk of land, but it’s also a bunch of people. The land doesn’t know it’s named America. It’s the people, who are very friendly, expressive and, I find, enthusiastic. And the part that I’m interested in is the outward, 3-D manifestation of what they do. I’m interested in what somebody does to their car, if they paint it a funny way or if their front yard is full of things or if they’ve built some odd shed behind their house — anything that goes beyond simply going inside and watching TV. Really, how they express themselves.
SSG: The inside worlds that come out.
DG: Yes, that’s right.
SSG: So how often are you on the road each year, exploring America?
DG: It all depends. The way I generally get on the road is that I either have a project of my own — something I want to do or a place I want to go — or preferably, I get a free plane ticket from a magazine. And that’s what gets me where I’m going. I go a little early or I stay a little late and shoot whatever is in the area. I’m not like a National Geographic guy who’s out there for months at a time, but I probably do eight to ten small trips every year.
SSG: Do you actually take pins and randomly stick them into maps as a method of finding where you’ll go next?
DG: Yes, I have actually done that. For one project in particular, I had a big map and pins all over the place, and when I’d get a bunch of pins in one area, I would go there.
SSG: With the exception of Ay, Cuba!, nine of your ten books focus on American subject matter and still lives. What keeps you photographing America and not another country?
DG: Cuba was amazingly photogenic. It was the most photogenic place I have ever been. But I find that whenever I go somewhere else, I don’t have as much insight into the culture. You can drop some people into, say, a country in Africa, and they see everything that’s unique and new. I get dropped into some place new, and I see what’s superficial. I grew up in this country, and I just know it better.
SSG: You often photograph impersonators, from Ben Franklin to Marilyn Monroe. What is your view of icons and what role do they play in your photography?
DG: What I’m always looking for is an iconic photograph. I want every picture to be that, to be straightforward and to have an inevitability. In terms of the impersonators, I would go back to the idea of how Americans express themselves. Those are people who use their own bodies to express an inner passion, interest, or love — whatever it happens to be. And once you start photographing people who do those sorts of things, you hit on powerful icons such as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley. Actually, the ones I think are more peculiar and funny are the ones that are esoteric, for instance Midge Mattel, Barbie’s best friend. Or there’s a guy around here [Buck’s County, Pennsylvania], who does the Quaker naïve painter Edward Hicks. Nevertheless, going to an Elvis impersonator’s convention is always good fun. I’ve been to a number of these. It’s a way of meeting the people, and it’s just a riot to see ten different flavors of Marilyn Monroe, a Philippino Elvis, or a black leather Elvis.
SSG: Do you feel your photographs tap into or dispel an American mystique?
DG: I think they tap into it. A big problem for me is that there is a real ‘blanding’ of the American culture. As everything becomes more homogeneous, it becomes a lot less interesting and a lot harder to find things that are more personal. For instance, when you’re on the road, it’s interesting to see some Mom & Pop restaurant that’s sitting by the road side. Say they’ve had a great idea for a sign, and they got the local sign maker to build it. But increasingly, there’s a Red Robin or a Cracker Barrel in their place. So many of these pre-fab franchises use the spirit of archetypal American restaurants, but they make it into a formula. And I find all that very difficult.
SSG: Your newest work deals with Post-Katrina Louisiana and Mississippi. What did you go down there to look for?
DG: Initially, I wasn’t going to go down to Katrina because, although I had photographed a number of floods before, this one was a real disaster. With the others, water came in, people lost their water heaters and their cars, but nobody got hurt. Katrina was completely different. A student of mine went down there and brought back pictures that showed two things: one was the way that emergency workers would put ‘Xs’ on the sides of houses and used numbers to denote different things, like when they were there, how many bodies they found. This had an amazing gestural quality and finality to it. A friend of mine later told me about a particular Wal-Mart, where the entire contents were blown into a forest behind where the building had stood. And I thought, “Wow, that sounds amazing — the juxtaposition of strollers, beach balls, and whatever in the trees.” So, that’s what got me interested in going down there. In addition, I thought, that will be my way to help. If I took a lot of pictures and was able to get them out there — as a means to reinforcing the need for people to be helping — then that would be a great thing.
Then, once you actually have your subject matter in front of you, you forget about the subject itself, and you become interested in the visual forms. You’ve got to construct a rectangle, a square or an oblong shape in an intelligent way.
But for me, the most astonishing image was driving along I-10 at 70 mph at night, knowing that you’re driving through a city, but it’s pitch black and empty. There were just miles and miles of empty houses — even during the day they looked like nothing in particular happened to them when you were going at that speed. It’s when you drove down the streets that you realized that you soak a house in water for months, it’s worthless.
In the end, I went down twice. The second time, I went down with my daughter, who’s 21, and she took pictures and helped people rebuild in a Native American area that’s 45 minutes south of New Orleans. When we came back, she organized a symposium at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where five of us presented what we had seen and experienced and passed along information about where people could volunteer and donate money. So I figured that was better than me, who can hardly pound a nail into a 2 –by-4, trying to rip out drywall for five days.
DG: It was kind of weird that there were many of the same elements, but the humor was not there. Part of humor, when it works really well, is its surreal quality — you often jump from one idea to another unexpected idea. With Katrina, the same mechanism was at work, but it just wasn’t funny. My new work is trying to use the Katrina photographs that have a more surreal feel — as opposed to the sense of outright disaster — and weave them in with some of my other pictures. So you’ll see what you would normally think of as The United States, plus a slightly darker side — because, in fact, that was what was revealed.
SSG: Are you working on a new book then?
DG: I am. It’s called Almost Paradise.
SSG: I like the title.
DG: Thank you. I’m really terrible on titles, but I like Taking Liberties, too. Someone reviewed a book of mine, and they used that as the article title. I thought, “Oh that’s great! I’m stealing that for my next book.” But the editor at Aperture, Michael Smith, came up with the title for Land of the Free.
SSG: Speaking of that, you seem to have found a kindred spirit in writer Andrei Codrescu. How did you find each other, and was it your photographs that resonated with him or his writing that resonated with you?
DG: We had one of those six degrees of separation deals. My friend’s college roommate’s wife, knew this guy, who was making a film with him. And he said, “You know, David Graham has photos you’d be interested in.” So, we were hooked up through these mutual acquaintances, and when we were doing Road Scholar back in 1992, we did some traveling around together. It is really fun to travel with him because, if you’re familiar with his NPR commentary, it’s just one--stop commentary after another. That’s what he does. We got along great and had a lot of fun, so he suggested we do the Cuba book [Ay! Cuba] together. Later, he did the introduction to the Land of the Free. We’re actually now republishing Road Scholar in Romania, where he’s from. And we’ve been talking about working on another project, but he’s just so busy. He’s the busiest poet I know.
SSG: Let’s turn to technical issues now. Did you begin with black and white film because that was, traditionally speaking, the accepted choice for fine art photography?
DG: Yes. The joke is, Ansel Adams said: “Black and white are the colors of photography.” When I first started shooting in the early to mid-seventies, there was hardly anyone doing color. I learned in school to do color, but everything was black and white until the later seventies.
SSG: Did you gravitate towards color because it seemed to happen organically, as a result of your interests or because it seemed to better define the places you visited?
DG: Actually, it was because I started shooting with an 8"x10" view camera, which makes an 8"x10" negative. I was shooting black and white, and I was taking boring, old-fashioned pictures. And really, it was such an ordeal to take a photograph that way instead of walking around with a 35 mm camera, so I figured I wanted to get more bang for my buck, more information. I thought if I shot in color, it would give me another layer of information. I wasn’t enlarging them at the time. They were infinitely sharp. So using color was just a way of putting another set of concerns into the picture. One thing led to another and that’s how it happened.
SSG: Do you work with digital formats?
DG: I do. It’s inevitable. When I do freelance work, for a publication or a landscape architect, it’s usually digital. But I still shoot film for myself. I’ve been doing it forever.
SSG: Do you develop your own film as well?
DG: I don’t do that. A lab does that for me, but I do make the prints from the negatives. I have a color dark room. It’s very…20th century.
SSG: How do you select your commercial projects? I’ve seen a correlation between the creative and contract works on your web site. Are they often serendipitous matches between what you’ve photographed and what is needed?
DG: A web site is always a little misleading. You don’t put the boring work on there. You just put the ones on that look great. (laughs) Those are the ones where it really worked out, but I get tons of projects where I take pictures of guys in offices. I mean, you gotta pay the rent. A lot of times they are exciting and interesting, even if the pictures themselves aren’t. For example, I just photographed Kelly McGillis recently. They just wound up being simple pictures of her walking her dog, but it was a great way to spend a day. I photographed some banker in East Stroudsburg [Pennsylvania] a couple of weeks ago, and he turned out to be a really fascinating guy.
SSG: So really, you’ve lead us right back to your concept of America — you show us what America is by photographing the types of people that comprise it.
DG: Yes. You’ve got it.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
"Water," Boone says, "is the new oil."
Read "Edward Boon and the Angel of Death" here.
I made water one of the major symbolic elements in American Soma for a reason. Water (or lack thereof) will fuel tremendous civil unrest unless we are able to arrest its depletion. It is a more vital resource than oil has ever been, since he who controls access to water, controls all of life.
Of course, in my story, Edward Boone was one of the figurative apocalyptic horsemen. It could even be argued that he was two: famine and war. But I thought of him more as famine, an effect I consciously created when I juxtaposed him with the thirsting cattle and the wilting soybean fields:
"The following summer, Lubbock disintegrated to a scorched husk. Plants curled their leaves against the sun and bent over under the weight of the heat. Cattle suffered and stood around their troughs, lowing hoarsely for water. A drought left the land little more than escaping dust. The winds aided its flight by contributing gusting eddies that eroded fields and further parched the earth. In the cities, a water emergency was in effect. Local reservoirs had dipped so low that residents were encouraged to boil their water before drinking it. Boone imagined his profit margins climbing. "
Frighteningly, my story isn't so far from fiction anymore. According to the article, "The Ten Biggest American Cities that Are Running Out of Water" at Yahoo Finance , urban aquifers are drying up. The article's authors, Charles B. Stockdale, Michael B. Sauter, and Douglas A. McIntyre, underscore the gravity of the situation in the first two paragraphs:
"Some parts of the United States have begun to run low on water. That is probably not much of a surprise to people who live in the arid parts of America that have had water shortages for decades or even centuries. No one who has been to the Badlands in South Dakota would expect to be able to grow crops there.
The water problem is worse than most people realize, particularly in several large cities which are occasionally low on water now and almost certainly face shortfalls in a few years. This is particularly true if the change in global weather patterns substantially alters rainfall amounts in some areas of the US." (Stockdale, Sauter, McIntyre)
There are three Texas cities on that list. Frightening indeed. In light of the government's current fragmentary nature, would we, as a nation, be a strong enough to weather the civil unrest--possibly even the civil wars--that would potentially follow protracted water shortages? It's certainly something to think about.