No Thanks

e.e. cummings serves us a master class in petty retribution with this, his sixth book of poems, self-published in 1935 and dedicated (with “no thanks”) to the 15 publishers who rejected his manuscript. His mom ponied up the $300 to privately publish this; his previous publisher had only sold 11 copies of Is 5 that year (sales down also due to the Depression). From the introduction, a few random bits of trivia: a reminder that cummings was pals with Joe Gould (immortalized by Joseph Mitchell), and he always referred to Samuel Goldwyn of MGM as Samuel Goldfish, which was his earlier name. cummings also thought about getting rid of the word “poem” to substitute “fait,” French for “the thing made,” thinking of himself as a faiteur.

Many delicious poems in here, including 21:

IN)
all those who got
athlete’s mouth jumping
on&off bandwagons
(MEMORIAM

23 is also great, containing bits that are apt today:

he does not have to feel because he thinks
(the thoughts of others,be it understood)
he does not have to think because he knows
(that anything is bad which you think good)

I’m now eyeing my copy of Is 5 for a re-read.

My Life as a Work of Art: The Art World from Start to Finish

I bumped into this book while nosing around the 700s at the library and loved it. Co-written by Katya Tylevich (based in LA) and Ben Eastham (based in London), they provide well-written behind-the-scenes analysis of the art world, showcasing work by and interviews with Marina Abramovic (Dream House), Martin Creed (Lights Going On and Off), Camille Henrot (Grosse Fatigue), Barry McGee (The Sound Wall), Erwin Wrum (One Minute Sculptures), and more.

Henrot was invited to do a residency at the Smithsonian. “By exhausting the possibilities offered to her, and by exploring every avenue open to her during her time at the museum, Henrot hoped to buy herself the opportunity to ‘become stupid’ when the research period ended and the creative process began. Then, in the manner of Wordsworth’s dictum that poetry is the ‘spontaneous overflow of personal feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’, the chaos of information that she had complied would resolve itself into form.”

 

Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World

I broke my rule of reading the book after seeing the movie, but I enjoyed the movie so figured why not? Great story although Tobey Maguire’s petty ridiculousness got a bit tedious, charging rent for the shuffle machine in each game and complaining about how much money Molly was making. Still, an entertaining romp through the high stakes poker world of highly curated games she ran in LA and NYC, all ending with the FBI bust and confiscation of her cash.

The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings

Well, I can’t help myself. Even though I ended my last post about Brautigan wondering if we really need to listen to jerks, I can’t resist the work. This is a collection of his writing that surfaced in the late 1990s from a woman he knew growing up in Oregon. “When I am rich and famous, Edna, this will be your social security.” And it was, Edna Webster sitting on a treasure trove of his earliest work. Lucky for me, this is a tightly edited selection, dropping out the crap and keeping the good bits, like “all the cities at once:”

Pretend
is
a city
bigger
than New York,
bigger
than
all the cities
at once.

You can almost forgive the misogynist as long as the writing holds up. These stories and poems were from a simpler time before his head swole up with fame and turned him into a huge asshole.

Revenge of the Lawn, The Abortion, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away

Walking past the Presidio branch library on a recent weekend stroll, I dipped in and spotted a display case with letters written from people to the library, asking if it really existed. These were readers of Brautigan’s The Abortion, where the narrator works as a librarian at the 3150 Sacramento Street location. A copy of this book was on the shelves upstairs, soon to be in my possession.

The book was bundled with two others, which went from Bad to Better to Best. I was disappointed in Revenge of the Lawn, a collection of his stories from the 1960s that seemed to have as much talent as you’d expect from a team of monkeys pounding away at typewriters, albeit with occasional glimpses of greatness, like The Gathering of a Californian:

Like most Californians, I come from someplace else and was gathered to the purpose of California like a metal-eating flower gathers the sunshine, the rain, and then to the freeway beckons its petals and lets the cars drive in, millions of cars into but a single flower, the scent choked with congestion and room for millions more.

California needs us, so it gathers us from other places. I’ll take you, you, you, and I from the Pacific Northwest: a haunted land where nature dances the minuet with people and danced with me in those old bygone days.

I brought everything I knew from there to California: years and years of a different life to which I can never return nor want to and seems at times almost to have occurred to another body somehow vaguely in my shape and recognition.

It’s strange that California likes to get her people from every place else and leave what we knew behind and here to California we are gathered as if energy itself, the shadow of that metal-eating flower, had summoned us away from other lives and now to do the California until the very end like the Taj Mahal in the shape of a parking meter.

He has a great description of my credit union, which used to be the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, on the site of one of California’s most famous cemeteries before they shipped the dead off to Colma, but still some tall cypress trees linger. “Perhaps these questions are too poetic. Maybe it would be best just to say: There are four trees standing beside an insurance company out in California.”

I was fully prepared to not like The Abortion, and yet it was simply good. The librarian accepts random books 24 hours a day, has been locked inside the library for three years until he gets his girlfriend pregnant and they head to Tijuana for an abortion. There is, of course, that terrible streak of misogyny that seems to taint all the Beats, but if you hold your nose or just sigh and skim through those parts, it’s almost worth it.

But best of all was So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, an intriguing look back to his Oregon childhood with dramatic flashes (the decision to buy bullets for his gun instead of a hamburger, then the accidental shooting of his friend) and theatrical descriptions of the pond he’d fish in and watch a fat couple drive up to and unload their living room furniture night after night so they’d be comfortable while doing their own fishing from the overstuffed sofa.

I guess I’m on a Brautigan quest now, an irresistible blend of decent writing mixed with San Francisco history.

****

Hmm. I’m having second thoughts after reading the Rolling Stone writeup after he suicided, with choice quotes like:

  • “A lot of Richard’s male friends blamed women for his death, but they admitted that he was impossible to live with.”
  • “Although he hated feminists, Richard understood women’s frailties and fears.”
  • “he became frighteningly violent” to one of his wives.
  • “Richard bought a house in Bolinas, upsetting many people in the community when he dispossessed poets David and Tina Meltzer and their children.” Michael McClure elsewhere noted “It was Richard buying the house that David and Tina [Meltzer] lived in right out from under them and their two children that was the straw that broke my camel’s back. I thought he should have bought it and let them live in it for nothing. Or even have given it to them.”

Does the world need to continue to read the works of jerks?

Inside the Painter’s Studio

I enjoyed Joe Fig’s interviews and photographs of 24 visual artists (in NYC and Long Island) mostly for the descriptions of their typical day and advice to people just starting out—it reminded me of the Paris Review series that asks writers about their writing process (who writes standing up, etc.). The questions posed to each artist: when did you first consider yourself a professional artist and dedicate yourself to that full time? How long have you been in this studio location? Does it have any effect on your work? What’s your typical day? Do you listen to music or TV while you work? Do you have any special tools you use? Do you work on one thing at a time or several pieces? How often do you clean your space? How do you come up with titles? (I loved the artist who mentioned that she enlisted the help of a Title Muse) Do you work with assistants and have you ever worked for other artists? Do you have a motto or a creed? (No one had a good answer to that one) Advice to artists just starting out? (Mostly it was around sticking together with your peers, seeing their shows, creating noise and vibration from your group, and working always working)

Actually, Chuck Close’s answer to the motto question was best: “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Barnaby Furnas‘s advice resonated with me, as I tend to immerse myself in 19th and 20th century literature: “Stay in your time. You need to participate in what’s going on now.”

As for the daily routine, it was eerily similar (although a few outliers liked to sleep late): up by 7 or 8, a bit of puttering, some breakfast, then to work until lunch, work four more hours then break. All preferred no interruptions and didn’t want telephones nearby (the interviews were in 2006 before cellphones were absolutely ubiquitous).

April Gornik had some great things to say about photography. When people tell her that her paintings look just like photographs she thinks how revolting a comment that is, “Don’t you see how different this is?” And she thinks it’s hard for people to see art now, because photography has become the “common visual denominator in all the arts. And people tend to see things as images, and they don’t understand or even experience the somatic import of the art. They’re seeing it only with one of their senses—they just see the image. They don’t know how to read into it…. people are accustomed to seeing things as kind of a quick fix. So when they see representational, figurative painting, they tend to reduce it to an art historical past or they see it in terms of simply being an image. I don’t know of any so-called realist painters that, in fact, aren’t riddled with abstract notions about what they are doing. Even plein-air painters that I have known will talk about painting in the same way I will, which is about an investment in time, a building up of surface—that’s an entirely abstract activity that then arrives at something that looks recognizable, but it’s as much of a surprise to you as anybody. I think we are on the brink of visual illiteracy even though we have so much visual information culturally.”

I loved Bill Jensen‘s story, how he stayed in Minneapolis after graduating, working as a mason to make money to come to NYC in 1971. He describes showing at a big gallery but feeling terrible about it because his work was purchased by the people who had financed the Vietnam War, so he dropped out of the art world for five years, working as a carpenter and mason (painting at night in the Williamsburg studio). “To support myself I could ride my bicycle from Williamsburg with my mason tools on the handlebars and do jobs on the Upper East Side. I could do a job for three weeks and take off six weeks to two months to just work on my painting.

Matthew Richie called art grad schools a scam, “the professionalization of something that is not a profession… I always got the feeling that a successful person would have done just as well having not gone to grad school and the other 80 percent of that group have no reason to go and will go nowhere afterwards.”

Dana Schutz’s work looks incredible (and I just realized that I know her controversial “Open Casket” shown at the Whitney) and she’s so young in this book! She has been making art since she was 15 and comes across as a nice, fun spirit. I liked the story she related about de Kooning supposedly asking Gorky how he could afford such great paint during the height of the Depression and Gorky saying, “Priorities.”

Glass, Irony and God

I’m late to the Anne Carson party but I loved her poem The Glass Essay so figured I should go straight to the source and read the collection it was in. The Glass Essay is so meaty and rich that it deserves to be read on paper instead of online anyway, her overcoming grief from a relationship ending by carting the collected works of Emily Brontë out to her mother’s home on the moor in the north.

Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see
over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps
once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.
A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.
My mother is studying her lettuce.
I turn to p. 217.

Also in this collection: The Truth about God, TV Men, The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide, Book of Isaiah, and an essay: The Gender of Sound, which is a roundhouse kick to the face of those misogynistic patriarchal assholes, the ancient Greeks and Ernest Hemingway. Apparently Socrates described Echo as “the girl with no door on her mouth.” Amazing how many examples she packs into a tight 18 pages.

 

Kumukanda

Book of poems from the British poet Kayo Chingonyi in 2017; the name means “initiation,” the rites boys from tribes in NW Zambia must pass through before considered men. Most deal with trying to understand identity in a place where his roots seemed stripped away, plus a jab or two at Eminem (who gets to be dubbed a poet because of his white skin and blue eyes) instead of just a brother who can rhyme.

My favorite of the bunch has to be Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly:

You’re on an Airplane: A Self-Mythologizing Memoir

I love Parker Posey but this one goes in the trash bin as another example of why artists should stick to their usual medium and not attempt to write. Her voice comes through every page, making me wonder if she dictated the book instead of typing it out. Some hobnobbing with celebrities but particularly tone deaf rhapsodies over Louis CK and Woody Allen. Probably the most interesting celeb gossip was finding out that Wiley Wiggins (Mitch from Dazed and Confused) worked as an Apple genius and fielded a call from Jason London, his co-star in the movie, who was having software issues.

Agnes Denes: Sculptures of the Mind, 1976

I discovered Agnes Denes yesterday when images of her 2 acre wheat farm in Lower Manhattan circa 1982 were making the rounds as part of the remembrances of 9/11.

Sculptures of the Mind was published for an exhibition of works by Denes at University of Akron in October 1976 in an edition of 1,000 unsigned and 250 signed copies.

Parts of her artist statement are chilling to read 40+ years later, like “unless human values are reassessed, the quality of life (even life itself) is in danger (population growth, diminishing human resources, environmental crises, dehumanization, mind control and the use of fear)”

Other parts spoke more directly to things I’m interested in:

  • “my basic interests can be defined as time, truth and communication”
  • “my art is a process using contradictions, opposing forces and paradoxes inherent in our existence”

 

Whale Nation

Heathcote Williams’ poem celebrating whales was one of the sources of text in John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015) but I didn’t hold that against the poem. (Most of the texts referenced in Akomfrah’s video installation—e.g. Moby-Dick, To The Lighthouse—seemed a sort of lip service that was supposed to grant the work intellectual rigor by association.)

This 1988 poem is presented swimming in a pod of photos of whales and dolphins, then jammed up against a dusty compendium of notes and amendments about whales—of course from Moby-Dick, from which it gets this idea of Extracts, but also from Fichtelius and Sjolander’s 1973 Intelligence in Whales, Dolphins, and Humans (most often referenced it seems), Montaigne, Pliny the Elder, etc. Aristotle’s quote: “The voice of the dolphin in air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulties with the consonants.” (trans D’Arcy Thomson 1910).

The poem was informed by the facts presented in the end section, which by themselves are impressive. Apparently whales can call to each other over the entire breadth of the Pacific Ocean by emitting sound at a depth where two sound-reflecting layers are close to each other. The photos are not terrific, and fair warning there are several beastly ones of captured and flayed bodies.

Arbitrary Stupid Goal

Amazing book by Tamara Shopsin, daughter of the legendary NYC chef/philosopher Kenny Shopsin who died a few weeks ago. I watched the 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies to understand more about this lovable eccentric but I think Tamara’s book adds all sorts of melty layers to his essence. It’s almost a love letter to her dad and his utterly unique friend Willy. Stories about Willy seem almost too good to be true, but I believe them. Like how in the 1960s he was looking up World Wide Photo (a photo-assignment agency) in the phone book but mistakenly swapped Wide World instead of World Wide. Then he bought that mistaken name in the phone book, put his number there, and would field erroneous calls for the real agency, buying images from the real one and selling them at a higher price to the rubes who dialed him instead.

Kenny originally had a store instead of a restaurant, open between 7am and 8pm, but he gave sets of keys to his regular customers so they could help themselves 24 hours a day, just writing down what they took. “The city may have been more dangerous, but it was a less hostile place. Everyone knew each other. The rent stabilization laws were hard for landlords to beat, so people weren’t forced to move out. They lived on the block forever. And that forever built a neighborhood.”

Vivid and heartbreaking descriptions of a New York that is fast disintegrating if not already gone.

Bonus: discovering the Donnell Library’s basement with the NYPL Reserve Film and Video Collection, a curated archive of “educational, avant-garde, political, industrial, out-of-print, rare, foreign, local, and historic films.” It shut down in 2008 when the NYPL sold the building, but the film collection lives on in the Library for the Performing Arts.

On Reading Ruskin (Prefaces to La Bible D’Amiens and Sesame et les Lys)

Proust was influenced by Ruskin early in his writing career, as seen in these prefaces to the two translations Proust did of Ruskin’s work, La Bible d’Amiens in 1900 and Sésame et les Lys in 1906, including the long prefaces and extended notes that are included in this. My favorite, of course, is his preface to Sesame and Lilies, On Reading. This is the essay in which he called the moments of unity between reader and writer “that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude.”

Books “are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished….” Proust loosely quotes Descartes in that “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the most cultivated men of past centuries who have been their authors.” Fetishistic respect for books is dangerous, maybe even unhealthy, and the “taste for books grows with intelligence.” He points out Schopenhauer as an example of a mind “whose vitality bears lightly the most enormous reading, each new idea being immediately reduced to its share of reality, to the living portion it contains.”

“No doubt friendship, friendship for individuals, is a frivolous thing, and reading is a friendship. But at least it is a sincere friendship, and the fact that it is directed to one who is dead, who is absent, gives it something disinterested, almost moving… In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its first purity. With books, no amiability. These friends, if we spend an evening with them, it is truly because we desire them. In their case, at least, we often leave only with regret.”

So why do writers most often seek the classics for mental solace? Proust thinks it’s “doubtless because contemporary thought, which original writers and artists make accessible and desirable to the public, is to a certain extent so much a part of themselves that a different type of thought entertains them more. It requires, in order form them to proceed to it, more effort, and also gives them more pleasure; we always like to escape a bit from ourselves, to travel, when reading.”

Translated and edited by Jean Autret, William Burford, Phillip J. Wolfe

A Rap on Race

On August 25, 1970, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead met for the first time and spent about an hour getting to know each other. The next night they discussed race and society, the conversation flowing over into the next morning and evening, lasting over seven hours in total. The transcript of that taped conversation is this book, and it is marvelous.

Towards the end Baldwin careens more and more off the rails, with Mead asking him to “Wait a minute” and not agreeing to take on the sins of her ancestors. They also differ significantly on the Israel question (Mead for, Baldwin against). Mead tries to bring up Women’s Lib several times but Baldwin doesn’t seem to want to stick to that line of thought, instead focusing on race and whether history is present or past. Mead brings up going to the Cosmos Club with Ralph Bunche but there were parts he couldn’t get into and parts she couldn’t, but both exclusions were based on prejudice.

Baldwin points out that no one takes responsibility in society, using Germany as an example. He’d get into fights there after saying to them “You mean to tell me that six million Jews were murdered while the entire nation was out to lunch?”

It’s no use predicting what will happen in the future, “it’s what we do this week that matters… Right now, this minute,” said Mead. But it’s eye-opening to read their sentiments on the fright of conservatives, Mead: “They are terribly easy to frighten, and their fear is frightening. Though all fear is frightening, and certainly all groups that are frightened are frightening.” Baldwin: “Because it may be that their fear will precipitate the kind of social chaos which no society can really survive. This fear can result in a kind of convulsion of apathy.” Mead counters that it’s not apathy but rather that people just don’t know what to do about anything. “There is an enormous sense of frustration, and people feel so strongly in this country that you ought to be able to fix at once anything that goes wrong…. Everybody in the country is in a state of frustration about something. I think irritation rather than apathy is much more important here now. Everybody is irritated. Their skin is sort of scratchy.”

Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler

This is a collection of bits from Oursler’s archive of magic and occult. His huge personal archive contains objects about  paranormal, ghosts, pseudoscience, and technology. Oursler (born 1957) is a NYC-based artist and he uses these objects as a visual resource and inspiration. His grandfather figures significantly in the collection; Charles Fulton Oursler was an   author and publisher in addition to being a magician and pals with Harry Houdini. Grandfather Oursler was instrumental in helping to debunk the myth of spiritualism, including interactions with Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed in the paranormal. The book features a dazzling array of objects from grandson Oursler’s collection: letters, objects, photos, rare books, etc.

Beside ghosts and UFOs, there’s info on cults and demons and Ouija boards and the moon landing and nudists. Amazing collection and a few good essays at the end by art historians who try to make sense of it all.