Saturday, March 27, 2010

(back to) Shaped Poems

OK, I know it is sort of silly to write poems in shapes, like angel wings or diamond rings. I get that it has the tang of the effete, as in a goose quill humanist script penned by a hand encased in an ink-flecked flocked-velvet cuff. The words locked in the vise of a vase or crammed in a crate... but... I digress...

I can't stop. 

Calligrams. Word warps. Shape shifters. Visual poems. What would you call them?

And like anything I take time with, the obvious is fading and I'm considering my rules of play with this enterprise. I won't call it "form" since the form is the shape. So what are my rules?


1. Like a joke, move beyond the obvious punchlines and tame set-ups. Go ahead, write the first ideas that come to you and agree they are lame and write more. And more after that. Riff on a shape. Aim for exploring the unexpected.
2. Use meter, rhyme (both internal and slant), and pauses to make the poem read aloud as if it existed full and complete outside it's assigned shape.
3. Accept that line breaks are more arbitrary once the poem is packaged, so build suspense in other ways.
4. The "thingness" of the shape must be used to flavor the poem but not direct it.
5. After many a rewrite, give up when the foot won't naturally fit the shoe, it just won't be worth the blister.
6. Accept that only 1 in 25 shaped efforts will be worthy to move on for consideration for publication or inclusion in my as yet unnamed chapbook (soliciting title ideas from friends).
7. Consider the folly of assigning cookie cutter shapes to ideas; shrug, write more.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Get a grip and Flash on the Whoopi

Yesterday Flash needed an assistant to operate a mic at a live event. I am, of course, not world renowned for my skills in audio capture, but game, I am. So imagine me, dressed in black, in the elegant glass-domed Bartos auditorium, pre-show, trying to look like the grip of the century. I occasionally gave a thumbs up to the professional dude filming the event on my left. I suspect he could tell my skills weren't up to his when the mic demonically spun upside down several times and I tripped over the feet of our tripod.

This from the official press release after the event : "Live from the NYPL presented an evening to honor the publication of George Carlin's posthumous “sortabiography” Last Words (written with Tony Hendra)... an evening of warm and lively remembrances of late comedian George Carlin on Wednesday, March 24 in the Celeste Bartos Forum. Hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, the tribute featured special appearances by Carlin's family, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Ben Stiller, Amy Stiller, Kevin Smith, Lewis C.K., Dylan Brody, Floyd Abrams, and Lewis Lapham." Not to mention an impressive list of performers playing the role of audience in the front rows, including Steve Martin.

Flash is Artist-in-Residence for LIVE from the New York Public Library and she draws responses to the spoken events they host, which are projected onto a screen as she does them. Later, she creates  videos, a.k.a. Conversation Portraits. Last night she tried adding a new approach, by inviting audience members to step up to the mic, tell a joke, and she'd illustrate it for them and the entire audience would see the joke drawn and written in real time and projected over their heads.

Sadly only a few stepped forward to tell their jokes. But given that George Carlin was one of the funniest guys ever, and the main event, who would feel equal to adding their brand of humor as a warm up? Precious few. For those that came forward, I managed to walk them to the mic, press the record button and laugh at their jokes, usually in that order. Luckily Flash had brought a slew of Carlin jokes and illustrated them.

Dressed in her usual black and white patterns, she sat and drew madly, using pens, watercolors, and expressive moves of hand, zoom and paper to make the art of her response the main show for me. Until they ran the Carlin films. Then I was laughing so loudly the video guys will have to edit out my hoots and wheezing snorts. Flash and I laughed until we cried during a live recitation of Carlin one-liners looking at each other the way you do when it is that funny. After, we agreed Carlin was a master of language, a poet of humor, with inner rhyme and rhythm.

Great to see all the Stiller family on stage, not one of them demure. Whoopi is totally natural. Lots of cussing all around. But hey, this is for George Carlin after all. They played his 7 words bit. The lawyer who protected his right to use those words spoke, and everyone said how much he had helped them and other comedians. 

Flash and assistant (me) were invited to the after party! Of course we had to pack up the pens, pencils, duct tape, brushes, cables, earphones, and papers first. When we got there, we didn't see Whoopi. I was so hoping to hear someone introduce Whoopi to Flash. "Flash meets Whoopi!" or "Whoopi meets Flash," Sounds like a vaudeville act. I may need to change my name to a verb soon. Although "Enjamb" (or would that be "N-Jam") doesn't have the same ring, does it?

As I walked in I reminded myself to respond to celebrities like real people and avoid the empty fannish things that can blurt out of my mouth and kill conversation. So over the chopped veggies I recognized performer Caroline Rhea and instead of blathering about Sabrina or The Biggest Loser, I said what I would to someone I didn't know, "Hi, I'm Claudia, what's your name?" because actually, I really didn't remember her name, just her face. We talked about the food, she loaded my plate with carrots and cucumber saying after all the years of catering it was hard for her not to serve. She introduced me to someone I didn't know, Scott Blakeman, saying his classes in improv helped launch her and Jon Stewart's careers. He was both modest and self-assured and has the ability to listen in a way that makes you feel interesting. The three of us had a lovely conversation punctuated with flashes from cameras, which I am guessing, weren't focused on me. I told them about Natalie, just finishing up at Actors Theatre of Louisville and most likely coming to NYC to pursue improv instead of Shakespeare. It is always great the way people who know, give a little start, when you tell them your daughter is in the best acting apprentice program in the country. Like saying junior got into Harvard. We talked about political humor and Scott's role as the liberal minority on Fox. I likened it to my year working at Lehman Brothers with very conservative folks that were smart, often sweethearts, even though their politics were so different than my own. I told them I was a poet and reading my poems was as close to performing as I wanted to get!

I met several editors of the Latham journal (love talking literary press talk), Ben Stiller's good-looking sister Amy, library important persons, and then I met a very very tall woman who told me she is in a tall person's club. I mentioned I was the shrimp of my family, with my 6'4" brothers and daughters of Amazon heights. You aren't short she exclaimed, you must be 5'8" or so. No, really I'm average, just under 5'6". Nooooo, no way, you must have heels on. No, no heels I assured her, I just stand tall. She peered at my sneakers with disbelief. Apparently they serve very tall cakes and record their adventures on very tall newsletters. I felt a bit like Alice in Longerland.

The whole evening was dreamlike actually. I walked Flash back to her studio and we couldn't stop laughing. She has an ability to respin the world and words, I have never heard her use a cliche, ever. We passed the windows of Lord & Taylors featuring spring frocks. "That one, only the skirt is worth wearing," she said, then to the next window "that one, only the color is good," and finally, "in that one only the window is good!"

And then I took the subway home, happy my career as a grip passed without a gripe.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Echoes and eclairs...

When I was a girl and visited my grandparents in their third floor walk-up apartment at 1908 Newkirk Avenue, I had several great things to look forward to. Well, besides being made to feel I was the most original, wonderful, grandchild to ever eat an eclair or learn to read Dr. Seuss. But in addition to my doting grandparents, the adjacent apartments had welcoming neighbors, each living utterly different lives.

To the right, in apartment 3B, was a Brazilian (or was it Colombian?), family where I would visit, soon affect a Spanish accent and play with a girl about my age who had, I think, my name too! This girl arrived in Brooklyn periodically. I am left with the taste of their food, so unlike what white folk were eating in West Hartford in the 60s, with fragrant meats, rice and beans. Their apartment filled with family members, all talking at once. The colors were sharp—definitive reds, starched white lace racing around skirt hems, waving black hair, snappy pink dresses. I remember getting letters, with flamboyant postage stamps, from her for several years, and when I opened them I could smell the lemon furniture polish, perfume, and hot pepper that suffused their living room.

To the left, in apartment 3D, a refined elderly woman had a very well dressed child named Cordelia come visit. We would sit on the carpet attempting to fill our grandmothers with the joy of watching us play together. And while I admired Cordelia's carefully waving hair and pale blue wool coat, I don't actually remember talking or laughing very loudly. And yet I looked forward to seeing her. I did my best to hold the teacup very properly and eat the tea biscuits without getting too many crumbs on my favorite pilled orange sweater. The colors in this apartment were as if a faint blue gray fog had rolled out of the seascapes on the walls. They told me that they were related to the very Hudson who gave the river its name. I couldn't believe The Hudson had been a Mr. Hudson once. It was clear that no rivers had been named after members of my family, who being Jews, had needed to move often throughout history and took their names with them.

If I were to write and illustrate a picture book based on this memeory, I'd like to revisit the wonder of being an ambassador of cultural exchange in Flatbush. And how I'd patterned myself, like human silly putty, on the lives they projected. Given my penchant for fantasy and science fiction, perhaps the neighbors would live further away than South Hampton or South America? You never know.

Of course, the best part was the welcome in 3C, where the rituals of mutual delight still make smile. Here's to the mushroom barley soup, the scrabble games, and the well-told stories. It is wonderful to have grandparents who adore you, I don't need to remember any of the details exactly to know that one thing completely, with all my heart.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

How to recover from too much new technology

After my mighty swearing learning curve with ePub, I had to recharge with the stuff that is fueled by imagination and requires nothing more complex than ink, pencil and paper.

I simply had to eat visuals. 

I absorbed some of my favorite illustrators of all time,William Blake, John Tenniel, Gustave Doré, Arthur Rackham, Frank C. Papé, Maurice Sendak, Pauline Baynes,  and more currently Posy Simmonds (who does terrific social satire in graphic novels that make adroit reuse of 19th century plots) and Shaun Tan.

I discovered Tan is working (as director, artist and author with a team) on an animated version of his picture book The Lost Thing. See this, and this. He too is adapting work into a new technology. He is turning the drawn by hand into its CGI incarnation. Paper to moving image. A picture book is a series of moments stilled on a page and it must be tricky making it merge into one moving picture. Plus when I read or look at illustrations, I can slow down as much as I want, the pacing is controlled by reader vs pacing by film maker. But it is even more than the transformation of full animation, the technology itself shapes the artistry. And with every aspect having to be created, the suggestively fuzzy must be harder to hold onto.

I can see the advent of technology in photoshop, illustrator, and indesign. Each new release of the software offers new "tricks" and graphics reflect their use. You can date design and artwork created on computers by how most people have used the available technology. Of course, having a strong vision will keep the tricks from taking over. Tan speaks so thoughtfully about the differences between the two mediums. How the possibilities of animation can easily overwhelm what is at heart a simple story.

I am sure Tan's adaptation will be terrific, and stay true to his vision, looking at the video and images in the article. But I am willing to guess it has had its technical frustrations and negotiations. Of course, spill your coffee on your drawing in progress to meet the technical oops of "by hand."

There is also this, a pencil sketch is subject to areas of smudge or faintness or all scribbled-in-ness that means it is not fully explicated in those areas. And this is good, the mind likes to fill in or ignore, just as we do when walking down the sidewalk. And about those walks, I come back refreshed from every one I take. It is as if the mind finds the increased oxygen, the rythm of walking, and the unfolding perspectives of urban and natural under the sun, the mist, or the night, all trigger something deep. Or at least burn off the calories from my chocolate habit.

To illustration! To walks! To the muse of the streets!