My Audience at The New School, New York
On the Way Back from Yaddo
On Yaddo's Steps
Wednesday 15, February 2006
Looking back, looking ahead...outward, inward...up, down...left, right....
OK, my Blog Advisory Board says I'm dawdling, so here we are on the beach at the very end in Seaside, having a picnic lunch high up on a dune on a warm, cloudy day:
And then, just like that, we all went our ways. But I remember Lee, the quiet one, starting to cry, and you don't spend a month with a bunch of great people, with whom you share a passion for the arts, without becoming what we are now--good friends who are staying in touch! May each of us prosper in our fields...we all have the talent, but you never know, it's rough out there. In some ways, Seaside was a supportive oasis in a world that routinely rewards average utility with a livelihood, but not average enrichment. Not even, most of the time, above average enrichment. It killed me to hear Leslie wonder if she would be able to remain an artist the rest of her life, or that she has to house-sit in order to have a place to stay in Omaha. Or that about half of us had spent years waiting tables in order to support our art--Matt even had to work on the evening when one of his compositions had its premier in NY City, although with his customary good humor he raked in the tips from good people with his story of where he couldn't be that night in order to take care of them; and Barbara will return to legal translation by day, in Munich, and waiting tables at her favorite film museum's cafe by night, while applying for the next prestigious Leverhulme grant that sends her winging to China on research. Or that several of us still can't afford health insurance, and had to worry about that when deciding whether to see a doctor during our flu outbreak. So it goes.
So in a way, while Seaside is very real for the good folk living there, for us looking back now it has an element of the Truman Show's picture-perfect unreality. I recall one of the residents insisting vaguely that Seaside has its dark side, and us rolling our eyes and thinking, Like what? A Publix sale on avocados (2 for 99c) that disappears overnight? (Yep, 99c a piece now, good heavens :) Could the Garden of Eden really have in it, hidden somewhere, a ...? Hey, as one who shared his home with a Sudan plated lizard for eight years (but that's another story, one that went over well at Spiazza's), I happen to think snakes and other reptiles are just as much God's creatures as any of us, if any of us are. Check out this pic of the garden at Gimme Shelter and tell me if you can spot something hidden:
Well? Give up? Now, see that little bench just southeast of center? Go up & left along that diagonal roughly the same amount northwest of center. See that curved white shape, like a blob of light, pretty much at the bottom right corner of the pumpkin-colored cottage wall? That, my friend, is a crane or snowy egret. Not a real live one--a garden decoration, just so white it's lost in the sun.... Sure, I've made up some goofy things on this blog, but not this time, trust me, it's there: go by Gimme Shelter in Seaside and check it out, if you don't believe me. So hmm...a lurking garden egret. What could that mean? I don't know, but how about I tell you instead about a real live bird I found in the garden? See those trees near the cottage wall? At night we'd hear tap-tappings on our roofs and what sounded like people moving around upstairs--except that we were the only ones in our cottages. So we compared notes and agreed the cottages were haunted; more fun than saying it was tree branches and squirrels. One afternoon, climbing the inner stairway along that wall, I looked out the side window at the high branches of a tree, and on one, just a yard away from me and utterly unperturbed by my presence was a sort of cross between a swallow (but no swallow tail) and a small dove (but with black markings), happily bobbing its head and pecking at berries and hopping even closer to me to get at them. I put my face right up against the pane and everything behind me fell away and it was just like being out and up in the high branches right next to this wild bird doing its thing without a worry. Magical. I stayed like that for over twenty minutes, and when I finally tore myself away, it was because I wanted to leave the bird still happily there instead of having flown away.
Anyway, here we are, back home again, and for all of you going, Did they ever get any work done, we all reported getting a bunch of good stuff down, and Seaside even got to hear some of Mary's new songs written there, before she drove up to Nashville to record a new CD, which, by the way, is going to be awesome, get it. For me, it was great just being able to look up from the PC, when I hit a stop, and rest my eyes on the back garden, eventually adding several, long, complex scenes across a couple of new chapters by the time we pulled out of town. I know from experience that I'm in a marathon, and for every complicated stretch I cover there are a hundred more to go...but also one less. And like the other book, this one makes me nervous, but if it didn't that would mean I wasn't putting myself sufficiently out on a limb, pushing into places that I have to go if I'm going to make something that, with some luck, has lasting worth. In the meantime, I got something lovely in the mail from Germany last weekend: a copy of Ort der Augen (meaning Place of the Eyes) containing the German translation of my first ever story, "The Reader" (not in my collection), to be accepted for publication (way back in 1992, by Other Voices, Chicago). If you'd like to read the original, unchanged, it's reprinted online at the WriteCorner.com link below, a bit self-conscious and amateurish, understandably, but still kinda nice. And its talented German translator, Thomas Loschner, is now hard at work on translating the final story of my book, which will be released in Germany as Fahrschein bis Minto later in the year by Mitteldeutscher Press--check out the link, pretty neat.
So things are chugging along; check out some upcoming events in the Jacksonville/St. Augustine area on the Events page. One last word before I leave you for a while: when I was about to start this entire blog (see A Blog is Born, November 12), I remember saying to my Blog Creation Council, manfully manned (hmm... can you say that about two lovely women? double-hmm... can I say that about two happy moms without their husbands coming after me?) by Laura and Kim, that at least it would have two readers, them. So I was a bit startled and mightily flattered when Ann McQueen, contributing editor at the Seaside Times, asked me, halfway through the residency, if they could reprint excerpts of "your blog that everyone's talking about." (I promptly gave her carte blanche, so, those of you in Seaside, if it's not already out, look out for the piece, including interviews & pics of all the Escapees. And someone please send us a copy.) Turns out, in fact, a few hundred of you crazy people tuned in from all over, during the past coupla months, thanks a bunch! My Blog Committee will be proud, and I'll end on this note about them: Kim Bradley won the 2005 Page Edwards Short Fiction Award for her story "How to Draw a Circle," final-judged by yours truly before I ever knew her, and, having studied for her MFA under such literary luminaries as Stuart Dybek, is now poised to complete her first novel. Laura Lee Smith co-authored the charming and insightful children's biography Natural Writer: A Story about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and is now breaking into literary magazines such as The Florida Review with her own fiction. Check out the link to her web site below this. Until next time...ciao for now...auf wiedersehn...hasta la vista...over and out!
Sunday 29, January 2006
Not so Ah-some...
Down with the flu... That's what I say--down with it! Who invented it anyway? In the past coupla weeks, it has swept us Escapees, taking down eight out of nine to some degree or the other. Started with Typhoid Matt. And once he got over it, out of sheer exuberance he went around kissing everyone in sight. Oops, that kinda tells you how I got it, huh? Not true. Matt and I, we just skip the whole kissing thing and get right down to having fist-fights and making mad, heated love on top of Bareknuckle Mountain. Anyway, at the end of it all, after even Barbara and Leslie finally succumbed, only Kathy was left still standing, the champion!
Well, now that I've tragically bared my deepest feelings for Matt (very deeply submerged, trust me), here are some great pics of the recovered artists displaying their work at the gallery showing in Ruskin Place. Taking you clockwise around the room (please note our incredible paintwork of the walls), here first is Barbara (with Mary and Leslie) and her Chinese Flasks' comparison.
Next, we see Kathy the champ (on the right) delighting Leslie Scott of the Seaside Institute with her subversive refiguring of iconic paintings.
Continuing, here's Leslie (Iwai; add Leslie Pickel, self-titled Miz Pickel of the 'tute, and we had Leslie cubed much of the time) standing shyly by her ghostly parachute-silk girls' dresses (sorry about the lighting). You can also see some of her sketches in Sierra Leone behind her.
And with the grand send-off, it's Shea and her funny, subversive blueprint for a Dead Sea Casino!
And finally, putting us over the flue blues, we had Matt the Genius (in half-unbuttoned denim shirt and baseball cap; didn't have my camera, sorry, but you've seen his ugly mug in the outfit, cutting boats) last night, with a fascinating overview of the classical composition process, and a gorgeous video of the New York City Ballet's performance of his haunting Clarinet Quartet. Who woulda known. So today we all par-tee: barbeque time on Matt's grill at his cottage Salad Days. Then Shea launches her flotilla on Monday (she says watch out for the schoolkids' boats going blub, blub, blub), and oh sad day on Tuesday we roll out of town, never to return :( But stay tuned for a retrospective next month! After which, by popular demand, I plan to emerge at least annually from my hermit artist's slumber for a newsletter-style update. Later!
Wednesday 18, January 2006
That's the word of the month--everything's awesome! We almost sound like the South Park kids. Ah-some! Barbara Laber, the visual artist from Munich, Germany, has been quite tickled by our liberal sprinkling of the conversation with the term. As I said at the reading/music performance, one of the best things about the experience has been the interaction with artists from other genres, bouncing our various creative approaches off one another and finding surprising resonance in what we do. And also just plain helping one another out and sitting in at one another's presentations.
Kathy, Shea, and Leslie's visual art presentations were, you guessed it, awesome. So smart and original. I tried taking pics, but the lights were dimmed, so they didn't turn out. But they are also going to have a gallery showing at the end of the month, so I'll take more pics then. We all got together, Thursday afternoon, and painted the walls of the new gallery space, donated locally, and had a blast doing it to the tune of songs on Mary Bue's boom-box--she used to be a radio deejay, so she had a bunch of great stuff. The owners of Cafe Rendezvous, in Ruskin Plaza, were so impressed by our ah-some brushwork (I've found a new vocation as paint pourer par excellence, and might even cut it as a high roller...of paint, that is) that they sent over a complimentary bottle of wine. Thanks, guys! And then the owners of Spiazza's on the beach front sprang for free pizza for all of us. What a community!
Saturday was packed. First we writers had our book signing at the wonderful Sundog Bookstore. Here's a pic of Loretta Cobb and her lovely, gutsy collection of Southern stories, The Ocean Was Salt, Lee Reilly and her wise and funny book of letters, Teaching Maggie, and finally me, modestly hiding the incandescent brilliance of Ticket to Minto behind Maggie, just so the folk in the bookstore didn't have to shade their eyes.
Soon as the signing was over, off we went to help Shea out with cutting up balsamic wood into boat shapes, toward the flotilla that she and the Seaside school kids are going to launch into the gulf! There's Shea, Matt, and Barbara at it:
And here I am, looking incredibly moronic:
Then before we knew it, it was time for the collaboration between Mary and me at the evening's reading/music performance. It was just ah-some! A lovely crowd came out to the Lyceum for it. I opened with my book's penultimate story "Keeping Time" about Miss Davar, the aging piano teacher in Bombay who keeps time in more than one way by holding on to the past, and her reluctant young student Zubin. Then Mary sang her wonderful songs on the piano keyboard, and told us about how she too had been a reluctant young student at nine or something, in Duluth, Minnesota, and her mom had bribed her to go to a teacher to learn. Then I read a brief excerpt from my concluding story "The Mark Twain Overlook," in which the piano student Zubin as an adult comes to America on work as a computer programmer, and after watching the sunset over the Mississippi with his girlfriend at the scenic point named for the famous author, feels the stirring of long-forgotten aesthetics inside him, and naively announces he wants to write a book. And finally Mary brought down the house and closed the evening out with an encore! So talented, that girl, a star in the making if there's justice in the music world. Click on the link to her web site below her pic and check out the sampling of songs on her CDs East to the Sea and Where the Monarchs Circled!
Once again, if anyone needs to reach me, my contact info is in the famous dispatch below this one. Ciao for now.
Monday 9, January 2006
Dispatch from Seaside!
I hope the above title, suggested by my Blog Advisory Board, conveys the extreme danger and seriousness of this mission. I'm pleased, of course, to be putting my life on the limb in order to get this back to you, my hopefully existent and all-important reader. This is for you and not the Pulitzer that I'm sure I'm going to have to turn down for this and other reports. OK, just in case anyone's actually contemplating giving me one, I really don't know why I would turn down a Pulitzer; it just sounded good that way. Anyway, on to the meat of the story:
Loaded up the car and headed out from J'ville fully equipped with munchies, thanks to my good neighbors Lynn & Steve (awesome pasta salad, Lynn), and after a stop in Marianna and under six hours of driving, rolled into Seaside, which is less homogenous and even prettier in reality, and was promptly handed the keys to this un-fucking-believably idyllic cottage called Gimme Shelter. (My number here is 850-231-1372.) Haven't seen the Rolling Stones movie (not so idyllic, I hear) and can't particularly place the song, but thank you David & Phyllis of Memphis for so generously donating your vacation home to the Escape to Create program; thank you for giving me and other artists shelter. A picture is worth etc. etc., so here it is:
That Tuesday evening, nine new Escapees gathered for dinner graciously hosted by ETC Committee & Seaside Institute members Marsha, Nancy, Karen, Leslie, & Marsha's exceptionally affectionate Icelandic sheepdog Elska (meaning "Love" in Icelandic). During the week since then, in dogged pursuit of excellence, we have biked around town and along nature trails, hit the beach, watched the sun set over the gulf waters from the sky bar at Bud & Alley's, had dinner there and got slightly trashed, sucked down bowls of seafood gumbo at the famous Red Bar in Grayton Beach to the accompaniment of a jazz band, been invited over for chilli dinner by local deejay Randy on 107.1, watched the poor Jaguars go down in flames against the Patriots at Bud & Alley's (yes, I'm officially in deep depression and open to being consoled by soft-hearted women), hit the tennis courts and heated swimming pool, and altogether earned the inner satisfaction that comes from unrelenting, back-breaking toil and personal sacrifice. All of this we do for the sake of our art--you can see by this group pic how utterly exhausted we are from keeping our noses to the grindstone:
Working from left to right, that's Mary Bue, Barbara Laber, Loretta Cobb, yours truly, Kathy Grove, Shea Gordon, Leslie Iwai, Matt Fuerst, and Lee Reilly. It sort of touches me that even though the program's rules explicitly state there will be a maximum of eight Escapees each year, when the selection committee found merit in nine of us, they simply said that's okay, we'll invite all nine. That's so the opposite of bureaucratic thinking and so cool. I love it. Anyway, each of us is great in his or her own way, and at this point it's hard to think of the group without any one of us there.
Of course, some of us are just so shy and introverted, we had a hard time drawing them out of their shells. Take Shea, for example: within minutes of our meeting around the orientation dinner table, she was telling us how Paris is a feminine city because the Seine is shaped like a vagina and the buildings are low and they wash out their gutters every day (ok, don't ask me to figure out that last metaphor), whereas New York is masculine because of the phallic tall buildings etc., and how the John Irving book she recently read made her realize how vulnerable men really are because their penises are on the outside of the body. Or take Matt: if you can imagine a burly six-foot-two, 28 year old former frat boy, wildly enthusiastic about anything and especially all things baseball, who can chug down twelve beers (I kid you not; I was there and counting for the first eleven) and stay totally lucid, his speech unslurred, absolutely steady on his feet and determined to party, and then superimpose the fact that he was an award-winning whiz-kid classical composer at Juilliard, the most famous school of music in America, where he now teaches classical composition while his original sonatas and ballets are performed in some of the most august concert halls in New York, you have Matt in a nutshell. As I remarked to him, it's absolutely ridiculous.
Well, duty calls, but more about the trip roughly a week later, by which point a few of us will have made our public appearances (art shows, readings, music performances) around Seaside. For a brief announcement of mine with time & place etc., check out the Events page. Once again, my number here in case anyone needs to get in touch, is 850-231-1372, and I'm still able to access e-mails to email@example.com
Saturday 10, December 2005
Son of Blog...
I'm back, with plenty of info on Seaside to share. First of all, raise your hands, those who saw Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show" (1998). Rent it if you didn't--great movie, probably Carrey's best, not his usual over-the-top shtick, more low-key irony, basically serious and pretty original. Briefly, it's about the mother of all reality shows (the film was made well before reality shows swept the channels), wherein Truman Burbank's entire life, from the day he was born, is being broadcast live on TV, but he doesn't know it.
Pretty soon into the movie, though, he starts to suspect what's going on, and develops an urge to, um, escape.... I won't spoil the rest of the movie for those who haven't seen it yet, but those who have will recall that Truman and his wife (who is in on the plot) live in the idyllic township of Seahaven Island, thus isolated from the viewing world. Now, I'll give you exactly one guess as to where the movie was shot. Yes, I had faith in you. Its director Peter Weir shot it almost entirely in Seaside, Florida.
And no wonder! Seaside is well-known for being a planned beach town that embodies the principles of an architectural movement called New Urbanism, which reduces suburban sprawl by scaling for the pedestrian and deemphasizing auto and mass transit. It is situated along the Gulf Coast, between Destin and Panama City, so it has a temperate climate that has attracted permanent and parttime residents as well as vacationers from around the country. The generous donation of cottage space during January by owners who live elsewhere during that month is at the heart of Seaside Institute's Escape to Create program!
Which brings me to us Escapees! You'll admit it's a nice irony that, whereas Truman sought desperately to escape Seahaven to the normal world, we are a set of artists who are delighted to escape the distractions of our regular lives to the tranquility of Seaside, so conducive to focusing on our creative endeavors. And quite a variety of endeavors, too. Alphabetically by last name, the 2006 Escapees are:
Mary Bue, a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter from Minnesota, who composes, performs, and records alternative folk songs, to her piano accompaniment; Loretta Cobb, Alabaman author of a book of Southern short fiction, The Ocean Was Salt, and director of the writing center at University of Montevallo; Sohrab Fracis, c'est moi; Mathew Fuerst,award-winning New York City composer of sonatas and quartets, who teaches music at Juilliard; Shea Gordon, a performance artist who works with paint, print, and carvings in Kansas City; Kathy Grove, a visual artist from New York City, whose work revisits iconic art images while subversively removing the women in them; Leslie Iwai, a visual artist from Omaha, whose work explores the formation of space as an experiential event; Barbara Laber, a visual artist from the Fine Art Academy in Munich, Germany, whose documentary filmwork of acrobatics reflects the realization of supposedly impossible feats; and Lee Reilly, a Chicago author of non-fiction books, Women Living Single and Teaching Maggie: Letters on Life, Writing, and the Virtues of Solid Food!
What a great group of people. Did you notice a certain preponderance of women? You don't hear me complaining. We all heard from an editor of the Seaside Times recently, requesting recent pics for a feature article on the 2006 Escapees. I've asked for a possible link to post here, but in the meantime here's the pic I sent:
Saturday 12, November 2005
A Blog is Born...
OK. (That's the written equivalent of clearing my throat.) I was at the University of North Florida's Lazzaro Performance Center with a couple of writer friends from Flagler College, last Tuesday, listening to Ernest Gaines read from and talk about his novel A Lesson Before Dying. Laura & Kim were having a case of the mid-semester teaching/grading blues (I remember it well from my years at UNF; that's about the time it seems like you'll never get through the rest of the sem). So I kind of rubbed it in by reminding them of my cottage-by-the-beach artist's residency coming up in Seaside, Florida, and they were like, We don't want to hear about it! But after the talk they admitted to being insanely jealous, poor creatures, and said I had to keep a blog of the experience. I said, Hmm...good idea. And this blog was born.
Seriously, the residency, offered by the Seaside Institute, is not only a wonderful honor (thank you, Seaside), but also an unbelievably good gig! A whole month (January 2006) of being put up for free in a neat little vacation cottage by the Gulf Coast and actually being paid a weekly stipend to work on your own writing project...? I highly recommend it. On top of that, Seaside's bookstore, The Sundog (which Kim has been to and says is wonderful), will stock Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America and organize a book reading/signing. That's by way of a community service I'm asked to do in return for being named an Escapee (the program is called Escape to Create), but I have to admit it's a pretty self-serving service. Anyone else want me to serve like that anywhere else, just let me know. And it gets even better. I'm only one of nine Artists in Residence (3 writers, 2 songwriters/composers, 4 visual artists) who will get away from it all to work on their stuff in Seaside, and we'll all be guests at weekly dinners hosted by Seaside residents. So we'll be like a little artistic community within the beach community...what fun!
All right, that's all for now, but stay tuned for more about Seaside and my fellow artists-in-residence in Son of Blog... next month, before I go weekly during Jan, direct from Seaside....