Monday, June 29, 2015

Poetry at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (Pt. 3)

Jewish Poets on Jewish Poets: live Jewish poets reading dead Jewish poets. An interesting concept, I thought. I'll go. June 2015 was quite a great month for art and writing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Envisioned by poet Bill Berkson, the reading was made possible by his friend, also a poet, Chief Curator of the CJM, Renny Pritikin.

The auditorium was cool and high-ceilinged, spacious without feeling cavernous. About one hundred movable, blue padded chairs faced a podium and lectern. A rotating slide show of photos of poets no longer with us gently played across a huge screen. To the side stood long tables displaying books by the living and the dead, staffed by gift shop workers. The seats filled slowly. Mr. Pritikin informed us that we needed to start on time, not "poet time" (which I know from childhood as "Jewish standard time," but perhaps he didn't want to say). Over the next hour and a half, people, mostly in the over-forty crowd, trickled in and occupied nearly all of the seats.

Mr. Pritikin introduced the evening. "There are nine of us," he said. An audience member called out, "Not a minyan!" Mr. Pritikin smiled a little, but also seemed a bit pained. I didn't see Maxine Chernoff, who was listed on the website and who I knew from my graduate studies, but perhaps she would come later. I had hoped to say hello. She had been gracious enough to let me include her then-unpublished poem, "Edge," for Star 82 Review in 2013. But that was not to be. She was not mentioned during the evening. Maxine would have made ten: the minyan. 

There was no program, so I have to write from my notes. My thoughts follow the list.

1. Renny Pritikin read from Joel Oppenheimer's, On occasion: Some births, deaths, weddings, birthdays, holidays, and other events : poems.

2. Suzanne Stein read Gertrude Stein because of their shared name. She read from Stanzas in Meditation. "I wanted to do this because it would be hard for me," she said, which made me laugh, which in turn made the woman across the empty seat next to me laugh, but I'm not sure other people noticed how amusing it was.

3. Alan Bernheimer read from Robert Desnos (b. 1900), a surrealist and dadaist who was eventually sent to Auschwitz, then to Terezin, where he died of typhoid. Bernheimer told a magnificent story from an article by Susan Griffin, about how Desnos saved a group of men, including himself, from the gas chambers by reading their palms. Bernheimer then read from the poem "Midway"with a line that took my breath away: "Thru empty streets at night / Drops a marvelous tomato that rolls in the gutter / To be swept away later." The bright tomato—no the "marvelous" tomato—is a bright spot in the center. This poem may be in The Voice of Robert Desnos: Selected Poems. I need to read a paper book of Desnos's.

4. Susan Gevirtz read from "Tannais" (sp?) in Collected Poems of poet Iossif Ventura, considered a patriarch in Greece. 1986. She would read, she said, three pages from one book, then from her own translation. The three pages were lists of names of Greek children and their ages, who died in a cargo hold as they were being taken by the Germans to a concentration camp and were fired upon by the Allies, who did not know what was contained within.

5. Norman Fischer read from several poets. Edmond Jabés (The Book of Shares), which included the lines, "to read the erasures under the writing" and from a compendium, a description of the "endless unrolling" of parchment, referring to the Torah and life as a Jew. He also read the 1962 jazz-based and very rhythmic, "19th Light" by Jackson Mac Low from The Complete Light Poems. Lastly, Fischer read "from a card he received from Poltroon Press," a poem called "The Tongues" by George Oppen, which had the lines, "journey there is loss in denying" and "strange words surround him." I wrote to the printer, my friend Alastair Johnston, who kindly sent me the excellent card. Interesting where the breaks are.

Poetcard printed by Poltroon Press

(pink color added by the postal service)

6. Alli Warren, possibly the youngest of the group, and who energized me with her excellent performance, read particularly powerful poems from: Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich ("Rape"), and Stacy Doris ("Proverbs"). Rich's work, about giving details of a rape to a cop she grew up with, was chilling. Doris's work is playful and inventive, made more poignant by her recent death in 2012, her fiftieth year. Ms. Warren made me want to read her own work, as well as that by Stacy Doris. (A week later: I tried to read it, but sadly, Warren's work doesn't resonate with me.)

7. David Meltzer. Although he was on crutches, he seemed at ease in front of the audience, as if we had dropped by his living room. I liked him immediately and want to read his work. He read from Else Lasker-Schüler: "The Blue Piano," Rose D… (?) "The Choice." The last poet was someone who had submitted to his long-ago magazine Tree and who he liked so well he published a whole book just of her poems.

8. Norma Cole read three translations of "The Lorelei" by Heinrich Heine: one by Mark Twain, one by Emma Lazarus, and the third was her own translation, which was funny and modern and winked at you. I liked her as well. The memorable phrase that repeated throughout was a version of: "She combs her golden hair / She combs it with a golden comb." The Lorelei is a high rock on the Rhine river in Germany whose position causes it to murmur. In mythology: a beautiful water spirit who sits on top of it and sings, distracting sailors then who crash on the rocks below. 

9. Bill Berkson wrapped it up by reading from Charles Renikoff and F.T. Prince ("Testimony"). He wore a memorable hat.

Choosing what to read is like choosing clothes that someone else has made but knowing that your taste will show. With each choice and presentation style, each poet revealed their own inner voice. The choices appeared individually as a mask, a mirror, a window, or frame. A mask replaces one's own face. A mirror shows it. A window admits newness. A frame points, enhances, and underlines. Did they want to appear earnest? charming? funny? Did they know their style was nostalgic, intense, serious magical, playful, or ironic? 

Choosing another person's words to read and how to read them exposes self-image and aspirations as well as admiration and delight. The choices are personal and bare and uncover personality traits more than you might think at first. I started wondering what I might read, if asked, and then why. (In eighth grade we had to memorize a poem and recite it—is this telling?—I chose "Father William" by Lewis Carroll.)

Part of what drives a reading is the desire to teach, celebrate, and/or the desire to entertain. Did they succeed in communicating? Yes. Was it what they intended to communicate? I'm going to leave that open. Many of the poets are luminaries in the field, many are teachers, so I would hope so.

I dutifully filled out my questionnaire regarding the event. It was only later that I realized that seeing each tiny poet reading in front of a voluminous blank screen (the slide show ended once the evening was introduced) exposed a missed opportunity. When each poet read, a photo of the author could have been shown as well as a list of the poems or quotes from the poems, or some visual cues, perhaps related art by Jewish artists. 

While I can't say I was entertained, I can say I was thoroughly educated, my brain challenged and teased, my heart strummed. This is a good thing. I know of some poetry I will read next. I close my eyes and strange words surround me.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Art at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (Pt. 2)

Tucked into a corner on the ground floor of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, beyond the restrooms, is a warm and inviting place to make art with kids, your friends, or just by yourself. Currently featured is "Artist's Studio with Ascha Drake."

Every Sunday they have Drop-in Art-Making as well. Even though I have my own studio, the workshops are described in an enchanting and inspiring way that makes me want to go to all of them. Ascha Drake will be there on June 28. There is a tempting wall of oversized pegs like Lite-Bright.

The workspace offers Drake's photos of textured walls and places for inspiration as well as tiny scraps of the photos to incorporate into collages to make on a pre-punched card.

There are lovely rolls of colorful tape, scissors, and hole punches. Textures to rub with crayons, lots of string. I really wanted to sew something with all that string. 

In the end, I made a tiny circle accordion and taped it to the card; words immediately found their way in.

I was there after 5pm, so the place was quiet. I waited for a young couple to finish before I sat down to work on a quick project in solitude. They giggled in the photo booth while I worked.

This is part two of a three-part series about Books, Art, and Poetry at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Monday, June 22, 2015

New Linocut Print: Clownfish

I was waiting to release these fish, waiting to see what would happen with A Humument contest that was running on the venus febriculosa blog. The blog provided page four from A Human Document, the source material that Tom Phillips has been working with for forty years. The challenge was to include the page and "create an original visual and/or poetic work using any media or methods." Phillips himself would judge them. 

As I combed the text I found a gender-bending narrative and decided to create a print of an animal that switched genders. The hilarious clownfish turned out to be that animal. They are all born male, but the dominant and largest male becomes a female, the second largest becomes her mate. When she dies, the second largest becomes the female and chooses a mate herself, usually the next largest again. One female lays 600-1500 eggs. More about them here.

In addition to the erasure text piece for the contest, (you can see my entry posted here, just scroll down), I made an edition of playful prints just of the fish and their anemone.

So, send in the clownfish, created in April 2015. And now available on Etsy.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Books at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (Pt. 1)

Books are in the air. On the ground. On custom shelving. Being displayed as libraries and archives and collections outside of their usual homes. The Bay Area Book Festival recently had their Lacuna; the Berkeley Art Museum had one in 2012-2014: The Reading Room (my 2012 posts here and here); the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco currently features Bound to Be Held: A Book Show by conceptual artist Josh Greene, through June 28.

I visited on Thursday June 11, after 5pm, when the admission was $5. In the center of the downstairs gallery stood an actual lending library, featuring books donated by regular folks, and available to be checked out and meant to be returned in a week or two. Carpeted within, the library also encouraged the visitor to sit and read with floor cushions and chairs.

And yet, the room could be cozier, divided into cubbies or intimate spaces. When I visited, it was vast and empty, just the guard and me. I peered closer at the books. Greene has labeled the spines with 1) birth year of the donor 2) the astrological sign of the donor and 3) the religion of the donor. Not surprising for this venue, many were labeled "Jewish."

Curiously, some were labeled "Hopeful." This word seemed the warmest part of the exhibition. It made me wonder if other kinds of creative labeling would have been more inviting. Actually, creative labeling opens up another world of possibilities. "Hopeful" was a great start.

How is this different from a public library? The labeling is one difference. The notations in the card catalogue, also there, is another. But for this aspect, I prefer Ann Hamilton and Ann Chamberlain's work (+50,00 others): annotated cards embedded in the walls at the San Francisco Public Library. I see a problem: in order to access this library you have to pay an admission fee to the museum. You could get a membership, I suppose, which is essentially prepaying.

As a second part of the project, Greene solicited donations from famous people, which will be auctioned off for a good cause. They were also asked to write what made the book meaningful to them and to send the notes with the book. A selection of these donated books are arranged on the wall on small shelves with a framed photo of the notes alongside. I do not know if these were representational of the bulk of the books received, but a high percentage of these books were from people in show business. (A friend suggests that writers might not want to part with their books.) There were also a few writers and artists. One donation was both sad and chilling.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's selection of Death Be Not Proud by John Donne. "For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me." The actor died recently,  in February 2014 of a drug overdose.

Once again, I have a mixed reaction. I am not happy criticizing anything that promotes artists and the book or the Jewish museum, but as much as I love books and the stories behind why we read them and own them, this kind of project doesn't inspire me on an artistic level or even on the human level; it doesn't turn my pages. Much of community-based art is like this. Some isn't, such as Ivan Cash's terrific and very human project, Last Photo that asks the question of residents of various cities: "What is the last photo on your phone?" Questions about community art to ponder:
  1. Whom is the work intended for?
  2. Who benefits/learns from it?
  3. What questions does the work ask?
  4. How does the work connect the viewer to humanity, the human condition, human problems, human emotion, etc.?
  5. How does the work either take me outside my comfort zone or teach me something new?
  6. How is the work original, surprising, unique, inspiring on its own and in compared to similar works?
  7. What is the viewer's take-away?
  8. In what way does the work engage the community now or during its creation?
  9. What does the work invite you to do or think about in the future?
I would hope that it could reach out to an audience unfamiliar with art or build a new community. But housed in a themed museum where one needs to pay to enter, I'm not convinced that this work does that, since the audience is somewhat homogeneous. I'm still baffled as to why, but it takes a powerful work for me to accept community-based art as art. Call me old-fashioned. Call me Ishmael. Call me maybe.

This is part one of a three-part series that looks at Books, Art, and Poetry at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Opinion: In a museum or gallery setting I would rather see book art, zines, and related objects rather than commercially published books on shelves; Olivia Carter created something closer to that vision  in her 2012 senior BFA show. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Print Public: Art in Plain Sight

Kala Institute's current exhibition, through June 27, 2015, is called Print Public and features work by and about the local Berkeley/Oakland community through performances, borrowing of objects from neighbors, video interviews, and an interactive scavenger hunt created by artist Imin Yeh. Additional participating artists: Taro Hattori, Taraneh Hemami, Sue Mark, Susan O'Malley, and Swell.

A friend and I drove to the Kala gallery and picked up Imin's letterpress printed map, part of her project "Points of Interest," which had a print on the back with spaces we could add to. We took a map from the stack and pondered the task. Photographs hung in the gallery as clues. We were to use the map to find rubber stamps. The stamps were placed in boxes painted to blend into their surroundings. The first stamp was in the gallery. We found it. According to the map, we were now to walk south.

Our search launched, we headed outside.
Our senses were heightened. We began noticing everything.

The man who wasn't there.

Does the interstate disappear when off?

The second box I missed completely, but V saw it.

We began paying attention to the neighborhood,
one we usually drove through and
never had a reason to walk in.

An actual sign painter.

A former repair shop.

The third box, outside of a screen printing shop.
We took a peek inside the shop.
It was run by a CCA(C) graduate.
With him was a young man who studied at SFAI.
The world is very small.
The stamp was there, but the ink pad had been stolen.
"The day after she put it there, the stamp pad disappeared," said Conor.
She had replaced it, but the replacement, too, was gone.

On the pavement: "and all my nights / were trances / - la bruja"

"the world / has taught me / nothing. / - la bruja."

About here, a woman shouting at the world asked for a dollar.
She held our map while V gave her a handful of change.

We began noticing Susan O'Malley's signs: her project was
Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self.
She interviewed people, then chose some of their words
to make into posters and banners.
She died suddenly last March, before the exhibition was installed.

We searched and searched for the fourth box,
but found only a cut cable instead.

Back at the gallery, we asked for some tape.
We had found some "field notes" and a clean
bandaid still in its wrapper (sterile!), and a page
from a children's book and wanted to collage them
on the spot where we were missing the fourth stamp. 
I turned the "field notes" into a folded X book.

Finished, out we went again, north this time, on our way to tea,
finding more O'Malley banners along the way.

Between our first step into the gallery, through our scavenger hunt,
meeting Conor, stopping in to talk to Sarah at Jered's Pottery, and then relaxing
at Far Leaves Tea, we had spent four hours on San Pablo Ave.,
a neighborhood we had not really known until then.
You can see quite a bit if you stand still long enough.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Bay Area Book Festival & Liz Climo

I was on the fence about heading into downtown Berkeley for the Bay Area Book Festival on Sunday, June 7. It wasn't clear to me what I would be seeing there, aside from a huge circular structure around a dry fountain made from 50,000 books donated from the Internet Archive and dubbed "Lacuna." The website told me about booths and free lectures (but you need to get tickets), demonstrations and book signings. Aw, I thought, it's a book event. Just go.

We parked easily, several blocks away, down University Avenue and walked up to Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The white peaks of the tents were visible. I had hoped to say hi to Marissa Moss, an author and illustrator I knew, creator of children's books like Amelia's Notebook and now publisher of Creston Books, but there were people at her table and she was occupied. I knew I had to take a picture of the Lacuna, so we went in that direction to take a look. Many of the books were already gone. The structure was more open air than library now.

We came upon The Forest, an amazing installation, built perhaps as a meditation site when lit up during the night, and it functions as a play site during the day.

But the most wonderful surprise of all was happening upon Liz Climo, creator of a webcomic I follow called Hi, I'm Liz. She's also an animator for The Simpsons (watch for her name in the credits). I walked by a table with her newest book Rory the Dinosaur: Me and My Dad and asked the woman sitting there if she was Liz. "No, she's over there giving a demo. She'll be back to sign books when she's done." We looked over at the folding chair audience and the woman standing in front of it, and yes, recognized the characters the woman was drawing on a newsprint pad. 

"What would you like me to draw?" She asked. Children raised their hands. "A giraffe!" said one boy. And then a little girl: "a cat!" Liz asked if the cat should have spots or stripes? "Spots."

Next? Another little girl: "A smiling cat." 

We wandered the streets—the festival covered nine square blocks—and talked with Mary Laird at the San Francisco Center for the Book booth. My spouse printed a bookmark on the tabletop platen press and pretended it was a miracle. 

We saw Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books from afar, and picked up a cool sticker at the National Novel Writer's Month (NaNoWriMo) booth.

Finally, we got back to Liz Climo's booth, and I purchased two copies of the book. I told her that my daughter and I were two of her thousand-million blog followers. She asked which characters were my daughter's favorites, and I was stumped. They are all cute. Climo drew the rabbit and bear on a postcard and signed them to my daughter. Then she signed the books. I thanked her for her work and for making our world happier. I think we made each other's day.

Liz Climo has a wonderful book of her webcomics that I promise will make your day, too, called The Little World of Liz Climo.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

H Is for Hawk and Helluva Book

Okay, so it's on bestseller lists. It has won prizes. But that's not why you should read it. Yes, it's about a hawk, and about the author, a falconer. It's also about mourning. It's beautifully written: three hankies for emotion, at least. Applause—no, a standing ovation—for the prose and rhythm. This is H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

It's autobiographical, nonfiction, but unfolds the way a good story does, capturing and enrapturing. It's autobiographical, but it is connected to the larger world; along with Macdonald's life, we experience the life of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King and The Goshawk, among others, and we glimpse the 1970s television version of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as well as other British cultural references and history. "It is not a biography of Terence Handbury White. But White is part of my story all the same. I have to write about him because he was there" (Ch. 4).

Experience is really what the book provides. Macdonald does not tell you in advance what will happen and why, she does not tell you how to feel; as you read you simply feel you are in the moment, experiencing the places, thoughts, feelings, memories and events as she does. Miraculously, the book seems free of judgments. You are there to sort it out for yourself.

It connects to art as well as to life, and she could be talking about art materials and found objects in a section in Chapter 12. She writes, thinking about her hawk, "I once asked my friends if they'd ever held things that gave them a spooky sense of history…Everyone agreed that what these small things did was strangely intimate; they gave them the sense, as they picked them up and turned them in their fingers, of another person, an unknown person a long time ago, who held that object in their hands." Through her words, Macdonald's book gives you that intimate connection with birds, and with everyone who has mourned a loss, including Macdonald herself. "It's like all the years between you and them disappear. Like you become them somehow." (Related post about materials is here.)

While I was reading the book (which I wished were paper, but it was not; we were traveling) we visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, our first time. There, we were confronted by, among other things, a hall of taxidermied birds. The book excited me, made me want to find the bird, see just how big it was, what its colors were. I was not disappointed; they have a stuffed goshawk there with a "café-au-lait front streaked thickly with cocoa-coloured teardrops" (Ch. 7). Although I am a vegetarian, I was still happy to see the goshawk in the display of dead birds. It made the book even more real, I thought. The bird in the book that much more alive.

Or did it? My feeling at seeing the stuffed goshawk ties into an art exhibit Macdonald describes later, in Chapter 19, of "a full-sized bird hide…an exact copy of a real structure in California." In her case though, she finds it "as disconcerting as opening a fridge door and finding a house within," because inside the structure is a window to a video of a condor flying in California. The stuffed goshawk helped to ground me and my imagination and gave me a tangible clue to size and shape and color. But Macdonald has seen condors, she knows them. She continues, "The condor on the gallery screen was nothing like them…" and "Eventually rarity is all they are made of…It is a shadow, a figure of loss and hope; it is hardly a bird at all."

She questions the piece, then realizes it is not meant to be real or a substitute for reality: the condor in this work of art, like in many works of art, is a symbol, a metaphor for the changing landscape around us. One can also look at the passage as a metaphor for memory. Particularly memories of the father she has lost. The video is not the bird. The photograph is not the person, the belongings of the person are not the person. The stuffed hawk is not the hawk. It has none of the character or abilities of the actual bird.

Which, she realizes, "is the whole point of this exhibition." And, I would add, is the whole point of the book. The book is a space to feel another person, become another person, and feel your own feelings and make your own connections in the process. A beautiful work of art.

Goshawk in the collection of 
the American Natural History Museum

Monday, June 1, 2015

Ekphrastic Poetry: Words Inspired by Images

A photo I took and then submitted is the subject for this month of June's Ekphrastic* Poetry Challenge at Rattle magazine. You have the whole month to write a poem to or about the picture and submit it to them (not me, although I'll get to read them all, too). Here's the link:

If you have not heard of ekphrastic poetry, here is one example. Octavio Paz wrote an ekphrastic poem for the artist Joseph Cornell that was translated by Elizabeth Bishop and is included in Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters, as well as in her book Geography III: Poems. That the work is a translation is only revealed at the end, a curious kind of reframing. The poem is "Objects & Apparitions." You can read it online here.

Susan B. Rosenbaum, on pages 209-213 in her book Professing Sincerity: Modern Lyric Poetry, Commercial Culture, and the Crisis in Reading makes an interesting observation about this particular ekphrasis. She writes that Paz translates Cornell's art into words, framing them and arranging them to create his own image, then Bishop makes decisions and choices as she translates Paz's work. Rosenbaum writes, "…translation makes the poem no less her own; Bishop's signature is most legible as she wipes it away to reveal a box within a box within a box."

Mentioned in the boxes of the poem are: "Marbles, buttons, thimbles, dice / pins, stamps, and glass beads: tales of time." As I search through a wonderful catalogue: Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, I note marbles, buttons, dice, but no thimbles or glass beads. I see colored sand and cork and rings more than anything else. The poem mentions "Grand Hotel de la Couronne" and I see only "Grand Hotel Fontaine," I see no "in a vial, / the three of clubs," but that does not mean these objects are not in other pictures in other books I do not have.

Even so, ekphrastic poetry is most interesting when new ideas and layers are added, when other thoughts are juxtaposed with what is first just seen and felt. Rather than literally describe and outline what is already there, art can weave the image and the word together to create a deeply enhanced or completely new meaning. It appears that this is what Paz's/Bishop's poem does: invoking its own collaborative cabinet of wonder.

L'Egyte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode: cours élémentaire d'histoire naturelle, 1940
by Joseph Cornell (photo, page 114)

*Definition from Wikipedia: A graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art, inspired or stimulated by it. From the Greek "out" and "speak"; to call an inanimate object by name. In poetry it is also used to show essence and form, the spirit of the visual work.