Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Amazing Mr. Pinsky

by jeffery mcnary

(Cambridge, MA) It’s dangerous for political writers to wade into the world of literary greats. No matter what they say, there are weapons of mass destruction there, particularly around syntax and structure. One misplaced comma and you may never write “in this town again.” But how do you take a pass on Pinsky, even on a cold, wet, winter's evening.

Robert Pinsky, in case one lives in a cave and is unaware, is considered one of America’s finest writers. Pinsky has crafted six books of poetry. Pinsky has authored several volumes of essays. Pinsky has edited a host of anthologies, and his book length piece, An Explanation of America, first published in 1980, was awarded the Saxifrage Prize. He has won numerous awards, if you’re into that, and is a member of the Academy of Poets, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1997, Dr. Pinsky was named Poet Laureate of the United States. He was reappointed to that position the following year, one of the few occurrences in this republic’s capitol during that period which the Clintons were unable to fuck up. Perhaps the poet in Pinsky didn’t grasp their capacity for ill’n when, as “a new boy-professor”, he caught the act of the female of that species at her Wellesley commencement. All that said, Mr. Pinsky holds an appreciation of Coltrane, of Sonny Rollins, of Coleman Hawkins, among others, and shared with this writer his passion to be a poet resulted from his “inability, early on, to play the saxophone well enough to have a career in music.”

On a Thursday, in February, I caught up with Prof. Pinsky, and his long time friend, Dr. David Thorburn, Professor of Literature at MIT and Director of the Institute’s Communication Forum. They appear to have a long standing friendship, the kind many men, most often only wish for or lie about. Newman and Redford? No. Far more rich than that. They shared the graduate student experience together. For the literate, that can be grueling while simultaneously exhilarating. Prof. Thorburn, in his own right, has written many significant essays and reviews on literary topics. He is author of Conrad’s Romanticism. They were joined by Tod Machover, head of MIT’s Media Lab’s Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group, and several faculty, students and locals at MIT’s Bartos Theater. There, Pinsky discussed his ongoing Favorite Poem Project, his concepts around poetry and democratic culture, and his new work of prose, The Life of David, a particularly interesting piece, enfolding and unfolding myths around the Biblical poet-king and Judasim. “It is David”, Pinsky writes in this work, “not Abraham” that has emerged historically as “pillar” of the faith, although Abraham holds the role as symbolic and synthetic “father”. “King David, like the six-pointed design he would not have recognized, gathered his meaning…in need and invention over centuries of containment and outrage, suffering and ordinary life….” A more critical exploration holds a place in the parking-lot of future writing. What stood out, however, was a glimpse of his latest project, an opera, (opera?) in collaboration with Machover and others, which ran on a loop outside of the theater like an out take from a Bertolucci movie...sorry, film.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the switches, changes and crossing of aesthetic boundaries and evolution of Pinsky’s writing, its excellence in style and substance. In The Night Game he writes:

Some of us believe
We would have conceived romantic
Love out of our own passions
With no precedents,
Without songs and poetry—
Or have invented poetry and music
As a comb of cells for the honey.

Shaped by ignorance,
A succession of new worlds,
Congruities improvised by
Immigrants or children

I once thought most people were Italian,
Jewish or Colored.
To be white and called
Something like Ed Ford
Seemed aristocratic,
A rare distinction

Possibly I believed only gentiles
And blonds could be left-handed.

When called upon to write a work relative to 9/11, Mr. Pinsky closed it with:

And if they blow up the Statue of Liberty-
Then the survivors might likely in grief, terror

And excess build a dozen more, or produce
A catchy song about it, its meaning as beyond
Meaning as those symbols, or Ray Charles singing “America

The Beautiful.” Alabaster cities, amber waves,
Purple majesty. The back-up singers in sequins
And high heels for a performance—or in the studio

In sneakers and headphones, engineers at soundboards,
Musicians, all concentrating, faces as grave
With purpose as the Statue herself.

Queried on the evolution of Pinsky’s work, Prof. Thorburn responded, “When he starts out, (early in his career) he writes a very conversational style. When he first comes out of school his first book is called An Explanation of America, and as he explained in the session (at the Bartos), it’s the fiction of the poem, it’s the poet speaking to his five year old daughter, and even though he understands she won’t understand what he says now, when she grows up she will read the poem and understand it. It’s a beautiful and moving poem, It even has fatherly elements in it. Essentially it’s an attempt to account for the bizarre, and to the weirdness of American society in the mid 70’s to a young child. So it’s very ambitious in one sense because it looks at all kinds of disparate phenomena of American society.” Thorburn continues, “As his career develops, he becomes real compressed, less willing to explain things, elusive. Most of all he becomes incantatory, his poems become to sound more like prayers. Some of them actually do read like prayers. In a way they become visionary. Some of them become fantastic, in a sense. There’s one called the Un-creation, from the late middle of his work, probably from some time in the 1980’s in which he imagines all the old pagan gods descending into the ocean, finding in the ocean all the books that human kind has made (humankind is now extinct), and the books are melting into pulp in the water, and the ink from the pages is about to go up into a kind of cloud. In many ways it’s a terrifying poem about the world beyond the human”, says the professor. “He begins to develop in his poetry a kind of visionary and almost science fiction, imaginativeness that you would not have predicted if you had looked at the plain spoken works from his earlier career.”

The most remarkable examples of Thorburn’s model may well be found in Robert Pinsky’s initiative as America’s ninth Poet Laureate, The Favorite Poem Project, and the leap to his current collaboration with Machover and others on the surreal and awesome opera, Death and the Powers.

As Poet Laureate, Pinsky initiated a phenomenal program, inviting ‘all American voices to be heard”. He invited any and all Americans to contact him via e-mail selecting their favored works accompanied by an explanation as to why it held such significance to them. This Favorite Poem Project, in its tender beauty, was his main undertaking during his tenure as “The Poet Launderette”, a kooky, loving title his young children referred to him as in that period. It was part of the nation’s Millennium Celebration driven by his and conviction that the “essential medium of poetry, the instrument on which poems are to be played, is the human voice.” The project involved construction workers, welders, children, doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs, and folk from across the nation’s spectrum to read aloud their favorite works.

Now, Pinsky has challenged, again, the constraint of the couplet, of form and norm, and of the word-smith vaudeville which all too often surrounds contemporary American writing. Although his work, Shirt is written in iambic pentameter, the like, including rhyme, was considered vulgar by the likes of Milton. The classical languages didn’t rhyme, he takes a hard left from that style to something radically new. Is it goodbye to:

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist.


His new thing, his “librettist” role for the opera Death and the Powers, commissioned by the Opera of Monte Carlo, about a man who wants to be a robot, sends everything else to date irrevocably plummeting toward the soil as useless bauble. Somehow the fall, for the thoughtful, becomes salvation. At a glimpse, it’s a disturbing experience which you gotta just let flow over you.

Simon Powers, “a great man obsessed with his death” is at the center of this piece. An inventor and businessman wants to go beyond the bounds of humanity. “He is the founder of the System, a human organism material experiment which investigated the transduction of human existence into other forms.” Comes now the g-forces. As his overview reads, unlike the responses Pinsky gathered to the Favorite Poem Project, Powers, “has received thousands of hate letters. To many, he is considered a pariah. Reaching the end of his life, Powers faces the question of his legacy: ‘When I die, what remains? What will I leave behind? What can I control? What can I perpetuate?’ He is in the process of passing from one form of existence to another in an effort to project himself into the future. Whether or not he is actually alive is the question. Simon Powers is himself now a System.” Whoa!

The work is “framed by a quartet of robots”, resulting in global havoc followed by visits from The United Way, The United Nations, and other “victims of famine, torture, crime and disease” seeking knowledge of the System.

Mr. Pinsky is joined by Diane Paulus, Randy Weiner, Cynthia Breazeal, and Alex McDowell, and “all the little people”, as they say at awards ceremonies, at which you can expect to see this crew picking up their trophies. It’s billed as a “one-act, full evening work (90mins) scored for a small ensemble of specially designed Hyperinstruments, and will include a robotic, animatronic stage- that will gradually ‘come alive’.” Breazeal, who directs the Robotic Presence group at the MIT Media Laboratory, convinced the team that robots could be portrayed, there was no need to use actual robots. In 2003, Breazeal’s work – Robotic Flowers- was featured at the Cooper-Hewitt/Smithsonian National Design Triennial in New York.

Concerns from the audience addressed the concept of humans being replaced by machines and if robots will ever be able to write poetry. “In the characters lines, you will see”, responded Pinsky, “you will see the opposite being the issue. He’s freeing himself from the mortal machine, the human body, he’s leaving that, he thinks he’s becoming pure spirit. The word ‘robot’ as I understand it is a Czech word which means worker. In that case, we always aspire to get our work done. I don’t think it’s that simple. I do want very much for that story to raise questions.” And surely it will. It’s not the Frankenstein story, Pinsky makes clear.

There’s a specialness about this man who links messages and words, hopes and threats through the generations, from Dickenson to Ginsberg to the postmodernism of today. In his role as editor of Slate, an on-line poetry journal his is more than generous and tolerant of those who push the envelope of contemporary writing. “In the year 2070, if the republic survives”, I asked the poet, “will the Poet Laureate of the United States be propped up by structure or subject?” “My strongest ambition, a hundred years from now, some woman who is studying English in Tanzania, or Uganda, or Belize, or Thailand will chose the same words that I have chosen. And in 2070, the Poet Laureat is not important. It is just a title. But if there is a poet from how I have gotten inspiration….whatever books I’ve read, I’m hoping that the person looks around has feelings for the sound of the words.”

Robert Pinsky moves about the arena of poetry, of words and letters, much like Ali moved about boxing the ring. And poetry, contrary to common opinion, is a bloodsport. Just take a look at the ‘Boston poets’, at Plath and Sexton, at Berryman and the hundreds that flowed in and out of MacLean Hospital or Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, and the depression that all that shit creativity can bring with it. I spent a gritty year or two on an island off the coast of Massachusetts trying on the trade for size. It was a bad fit. Yet Pinsky and I were able were able to connect on the rush of covering campaigns and conventions, he in 2000, me in 2004, and the crazy manic, rush that brings. I don’t play the sax either.

Pinsky is acceptable to the flexing of new writers. Even the ‘slam crowd. It brings them in. It’s a hook. “He is very reluctant to say openly what I know he believes”, said Dr Thorburn. “He’s sort of a public ambassador for poetry. I still don’t approve (of some of the stuff out there) I wish he’d speak out…I tried to make him do it. What I wanted him to say is what I know he believes, which that’s about 40 percent of the poetry that’s being written is terrible evil shit. Nobody can understand it no matter how hard they work on and the pretense that it’s poetry is an offense against the idea of poetry of rational intelligent human beings.”

Mr. Pinsky is yet to go that far, and probably won’t. He's larger than that. Remember his Ode to Meaning:

Or presence ever at play:
Let those scorn you who never
Starved in your dearth. If I
Dare to disparage
Your harp of shadows I taste
Wormwood and motor oil, I pour
Ashes on my head. You are the wound. You
Be the medicine.

I recently came upon an essay he'd crafted sometime back in which he wrote of W.E.B. Dubois and that "DuBois's cadences echo Ralph Waldo Emerson, and behind Emerson the Founders - those Enlightenment landowners and merchants educated in the classics, some of them slaveowners, some of them autodidacts, all of them imperfect idealists. The words American and idea", Mr. Pinsky continued, "make a provocative combination. The United States itself can be considered a partly realized idea."

I'm sure there's an alcove waiting somewhere for a bust of this cool and deep writer. And even though we didn’t get to chat about in detail about Lester Young, it was a gas to catch the laureat, albeit briefly, and in full flight.

"Gulf Music", is Pinsky's most recent volumn of poetry, his seventh.

Ms. Stovall's Canticles

…glimpses of the scared and chillin’ art of Suesan Stovall
by jeffery mcnary

New England is hardly known for an absence of culture or a failure to appreciate the arts. In fact, Cambridge, Massachusetts can legitimately be tagged as the epicenter, the cradle of the tension and brawls between the cultural melieus of tradition and modernity. Sparks fly from these collisions and engagements on a daily, if not hourly schedule.

The work of Suesan Stovall, recently on exhibit in the Neil and Angelica Rudenstine Gallery of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University is an example of such an encounter. For in this citadel, Ms. Stovall fronted and framed her song and stories, and in the house that Henry Louis “Skip” Gates built, her images, both stinging and sacred, float in the ether as if she’s held a backstage pass to the African American experience. They are neither burdened nor ponderous, yet insisting of place somewhere, talisman like, and in all American households.

The installation, titled, ‘Journey of My Soul, Come Along for the Ride’, is a sweeping recount of historical attitudes, and is consistent with Ms. Stovall’s interest in assemblage as a medium, and her passionate belief and life journey to discover and develop things not always rolled out as the obvious.

While studying theatre in London, the “complete artist”, an operative in both the visual and performance genres, wandered through markets filled with old wooden chests and box and text and daguerreotype. There is knowledge, and wisdom, and magic in such places. There are tales, and legend, and mythical things. And Suesan Stovall became awed and nudged to create from legacy tossed asides. This, she does with caresses and curses.

Altar, a multi-piece phenomena, at the entrance to the exhibit, strands the memory and imagination of both viewer and artist with materials used with delicacy and color scheme. While the introductory wall mounted work begins with an aged photograph of what appears to be a black woman outside of a log cabin with several children, all lined up according to size. An orange pinwheel design stands sun-like above and to their right. The centerpiece presents seven candles arching along the floor thinly shrouding bowls of beans, and burnished gold and red rose petals, and gain; oils and ointments line the space behind the makeshift offering like with statuettes, and small bottles labeled ‘jinx remover’ and other similar titles. Feathers, and an animal jaw-bone activate the piece, along with flowers and more small bottles. The final section presents a cerulean blue background with a silver metallic angel figure with lettering inviting the viewer to knock on “heaven’s door.”

Ms. Stovall says the work is, “…an homage to the Great Spirit, the ancestors and the creative forces in the universe. The objects in and around it, some coming all the way from Africa, are offerings to the powers that be. Offerings in request of divine protection, guidance, and prayers for abundant life. Not bound by the confines of religion, societal rules and dogma. Just a place to take in some magic and enjoy the feeling.”

Both Coon Song and Nigger Blues, teachable moments, engage in a visual dialogue. Ms. Stoval refers to the pieces as, “explorations of minstrelsy.” There is no amnesia here. No lessons layered in abstract. Both present a close-up reminders of violation. Pulsing blacks and reds weep from Coon Song, and the beige and tans of Nigger Blues interlock lynching and Uncle Remus on a background of sky blue. Here the artist refuses to take an easy way out. Being of mixed race, Suesan Stovall was, “both deeply disturbed and fascinated by the popularity of an art form that so blatantly degraded African American people”, she said. “I also found it disturbing that white people in black face singing “darky songs” was accepted by both black and white people as a form of entertainment.”

Deeper into the exhibition we hit an imaginative habeas corpus in Political Correctness, a composition which came to be as Ms. Stovall was working with her collection of antique stereoviews. Here, the black and whites roll in aboard the tans which outline, if not dominate the show. “I had two cards, printed different years, with the same image of a typical African market scene, with scenic views of people selling their wares and vegetables, etc. On the back of the first printing was a written description of the scene. The Africans were described as not being far removed from the savagery of cannibalism. Their clothes were described as scanty and far from clean.” Continuing, “The other card, printed at a later date, had a much more dignified description of the Africans selling their lovely wares with their colorful native garb and exotic selves. I wanted to depict how someone was obviously enlightened from the first printing to the last, and that the negative wording was not “P.C.”.

In these days of war on two, or maybe more fronts, and political campaign fatigue grown chronic, this compilation covers territory too often overlooked and rattles an all too often frozen attention span. Suesan Stovall’s use of earth shades and natural material connects, does not blink, and as some aged and classic reworked leather bound volume, screams and whispers to the sinner and righteous alike. The exhibition, of thirty-seven pieces, suggests one think, and look, and hang on sans expectation. The art does not showoff, and she will surely have a busy year ahead.

“Suesan Stovall combines the narrative brilliance of Jacob Lawrence with the mastery of collage by Romare Bearden, but with lyrical form”, said Prof. Gates of her work. “Her use of found objects is unprecedented in the African-American artistic tradition. Her work posses and demonstrates an uncanny ability to capture the combination of history and passion.”

Born and raised in New York City, Ms. Stovall, daughter of legendary Peabody and Emmy award winning journalist and correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, attended the High School of Performing Arts, graduating with honors. She attended Sarah Lawrence College. Her vocal performances have found her working with a host of bands and performing around the world on soundtracks, music videos, theatre and film. Her work has been shown in several galleries, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and the Tubman African American Museum, in Macon, Georgia. Ms. Stovall currently divides her time between Los Angeles and the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.

The Rudenstine Gallery is the only exhibition space at Harvard University devoted to works by and about people of African descent. It’s curatorial mission is to support historical and contemporary practices in the visual arts. Suesan Stovall’s current exhibition there, sans et, from what these eyes of mine have seen, clearly does that.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

danton's kitchen

by jeffery mcnary

this phenomena stays untitled
as the fearless in perilous times,
change agents hover and gather as if
called by trumpet
with mixed seed with purpose
among aromas of herbs
of roasting rara avis
here the 2nd floor chat and clatter
hums with transformation,
here, pre-goethe scribes scratch for walk on parts,
is where the sure money is
…yet untamed by tragedy

left of center guests
quenching thirst
momentarily pause
their momentum of fine movement building…
the tip of that iceberg calling as shrill as the cuckoo
to duck and cover dear
your socialist mouth while chewing
your marxist mouth while drinking in
your youthful mouth while becoming
dear, while
…filling upon the fragrances of otherways
…have more… please

stalling shouts
stalling storms
stalled by broken glass
and lightening
… close and tightly held hands in
rainpolished streets
soggy from great struggles
from wrongs
from consequence of uprising
…from shiny new cultural myths

the solstice warns of
settling in breech’s
of t.v. news
of seduction
of berets and other hats
of fashion and hours
of Sartre grown late and tired
of guerillas too dangerous and scented
of gales and change and comrades of second helpings and
…those colored, shredded pitched policies
offering their steamed and new spicy candidate entrées

in the corner
balanced and postured
egalite strikes it’s arc
they have called
from far back
they have called again
the thunder
of complete change
they have called…the take out
portions for the daring
of fidel and che-likes
of whom the elders spoke
of fanon
of whom the poets sang
of others blessed and sainted
of others betrayed

they are near again now
like an implicant order in physics
preparing the crashing of crowns
and consorts
with spectacular light and brightness
they have called
the dragons
as if gone mad
gallantly refuse to lay
delicately their heads upon the block

if in weakness we have forgotten
our taste
we will hear you
and your deeper meaning
and when we’ve forgotten to listen
…we’ll hear your dinner gong
and hold and preserve what is known
…of tyranny
and arise and carry on.

dedicated to george jackson and the soledad brothers