AN INTERVIEW ITH HYPERTEXTUALIST STUART MOULTHROP [from Washington Review, November/December 1999]

Stuart Moulthrop creates “stories” that consist of very many small text files on one or more computer, all linked to each other like pages on the internet, all telling part of some larger “story.” This new art form is called hypertext fiction. A work of hypertext fiction may be on the internet, on a CD-ROM or other digital media. The following interview was conducted by exchanging emails in the winter and spring of this year.

RT: I’d like to talk to you about hypertext fiction and how it relates to traditional fiction and other arts, but also more generally about new media and the internet.
First, in traditional, linear fashion, how about some background. You teach web design at the University of Baltimore, you have presented numerous papers on the relation of hypertext to literary theory, you have authored numerous hypertext fictions, notably The Color of Television and Heigirascope, and, with Adrienne Wortzel, you judged the recent New York University Press Prize for Hypertext (was that the first of its kind?). You are a literary person who works primarily with computers. How did you come to these particular coordinates? Was there a time of deciding you wanted to write? What was the first computer you owned? Does asking more than one question at a time help break down linearity?

SM: >How did you come to these particular coordinates?

It’s hard to answer this question because I feel I’m still maneuvering, so the coordinates are somewhat momentary or transitional. I’ve been interested in contemporary fiction and various kinds of experimental writing since I was a teenager (mid seventies). My graduate training is in literary criticism and theory, especially narrative theory. While I was in grad school, a couple of articles by Mark Edmundson (then a classmate) got me re reading McLuhan, which in turn made me think about media more generally. It was about this time that the Macintosh came along, with Storyspace and HyperCard hot on its heels. There’ve been a few moments of professional risk taking (e.g., deciding to write Victory Garden instead of an academic book), but things have worked out very nicely since the advent of the Web in the early nineties.

>Was there a time of deciding you wanted to write?
I’ve wanted to tell stories since I learned to read. When I was much younger I wanted to be Jack Kirby (who counts in my book as something more than a “writer”). Actually I’d still like to be Jack Kirby, but at my age there’s no point aspiring to genius.
I love science fiction and have sent a few miserable stories to editors who wisely slushed them. (Compare my colleague John McDaid, more serious in all things, who’s a prizewinning SF writer.) I wrote a bunch of stories as an undergraduate, one or two almost passable, scribbled notes toward a bunch of terrible novels, then was fortunately distracted by graduate school.
At the end of the eighties, shortly after HyperCard, I got the only sabbatical I’ll probably ever have, the result of which was a draft book on postmodern fiction and a fragmentary hypertext. After a year or two the hypertext seemed more interesting than the book, so I chucked my career prospects and wrote Victory Garden. The rest is work in progress.

>What was the first computer you owned?
Answering this question makes me feel like a total geek, but I’ll wear my pocket protector with pride. It was a Commodore VIC 20. I sold it after a few months to finance a Commodore 64, which is boxed up with a bunch of old Macs in our basement.

>Does asking more than one question at a time help break down linearity?
Not the way *I* answer questions…

RT: This also could have been my first question: what is hypertext and what’s it good for?

SM: >What is hypertext…
The canonical definition, given by Theodor H. (“Ted”) Nelson about 1964, is “non sequential writing,” which I like to understand as something more like “polysequential discourse.” Hypertext doesn’t abolish sequential relationships; on the contrary, it makes them all the more significant since sequence emerges through a system of articulations, or as Nelson later said, through “free and knowing user movement.” Also, while much hypertext is still word based, there have been interesting moves toward more graphic or “spatial” conceptions, and toward polysequential form in
time based media like sound and video. These days I’m more comfortable with the term “hypermedia.”

Let me also offer a critical definition: Hypertext is NOT identical with the World Wide Web or with most things produced using Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). I’ve been known to call HTML “Hypertext, More or Less.”
That’s not to say the Web isn’t a legitimate implementation of Nelson’s ideas, just that it’s not the only one, or even the most interesting one a point the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, makes very clear.
In a nutshell, the Web tends to enforce a limited conception of the link.
It basically has a single predicate: “go there.” Other hypertext systems
allow more sophisticated logics of transition and relationship. In Storyspace, for instance, a writer can change the behavior of a link depending on what the reader has read previously. Instead of just asking, “where do you want to go today?” we can add, “and where are you coming from?” Other, even more advanced systems complicate this process even further.

>and what’s [hypertext] good for?
There are two answers to this question, one concerning instrumentalities and the other concerning imagination, or art.
The instrumental answer is easy: Remember what life was like before Amazon.com. Today the World Wide Web confers small but substantial benefits on a growing number of people. Folks like Nelson and Douglas Engelbart (who built the first practical hypertext system in the late sixties) have argued for decades that these benefits will scale up into a broader literate franchise, maybe even a true commonwealth of information. People still dismiss this as hokum, but it gets harder and harder to do
that, even as the Fortune 500 open their “portals” all around the Web. Once you’re through those doors, after all, links can lead anywhere.
The case for hypertext in art or literature demands more subtlety. I’ve suggested in a few scholarly essays that hypertextual art is a complicating practice, disruptive and disorienting to be sure, but part of a larger cognitive program that represents a legitimate human response to information technology. For some reason, critics tend to overlook the second part of this argument. The quote comes out: “hypertext is a
complicating [and] disruptive practice” period. So I move to a simpler, more adversarial stance.

If you define art (speciously, in my view) as a filtering operation that separates dross or “noise” from worthy, definitive statements, then hypertext is a wrong turn, or to follow the etymology, a *perversion* Sven Birkerts refers to exclusive, linear sequence as “the missionary position of reading.” Things happen differently when you allow a range of movement. The business might not follow a predictable track. Hypertext (to return to the subject) may entail recursion and redundancies. As Mark
Bernstein says, “repetition in hypertext is not necessarily a vice.” Or as Michael Joyce opens his classic afternoon: “There is no simple way to say this.” Hypertext is, well… kinky.
Birkerts describes his critique of hypertext as part of a broader “war” in defense of an ink on paper literary tradition. This brings to mind the “culture war” we’ve been having since about 1980 and reminds me which side I fight for. Hypertextual art stands in opposition to any singular view of the world. To be sure, partisan interest can never substitute for talent, craft, and hard work, but there are plenty of hypertextual projects
works by Judy Malloy, Michael Joyce, Ed Falco, Jim Rosenberg, Shelley Jackson, among others that live up to those standards. These works present an important alternative to the narrow, print bound tradition of the Gutenberg elegists. A very smart Norwegian critic calls the sort of reading we do in hypertext “ergodic,” which is a Greekified way to say “pathfinding.” As the world gets more complicated, this can be a crucial skill.
What’s hypertext (fiction) good for? In a single proposition: it inscribes
alternatives.

RT: People unfamiliar with the medium might think of, in addition to the web, popular CD ROM games as similar to hypertext. Particularly strategy games, such as Gettysburg, or fanciful puzzle games, such as Myst, involve a sort of story which has options. Are these related to hypertext? Could they become more related?
SM: I carry in my hip pocket a column by the doyenne of American book critics, Michiko Kakutani, in which she predicts that hypertext writers can produce at best “Myst or Warcraft II as re imagined by Robbe Grillet.” You can see why they gave this woman the Pulitzer! This is absolutely correct: At the moment, and perhaps for the long haul, the most important prospects in polysequential art lie with things we call “computer games” and I consider the work of Rand and Robyn Miller, from The Manhole (1988) to the marvelous Riven (1997) particularly groundbreaking. The Miller
brothers are the Lumières of these dim days. They’re inventing a new way to tell stories. Cross Myst with In the Labyrinth or with Mumbo Jumbo or The Crying of Lot 49 or Always Coming Home and you might have something really significant.
Of course, La Michiko wouldn’t agree. Leading book reviewers still regard
anything that doesn’t look like a 19th century novel as suspicious, sub cultural, infra dig. You get the feeling they’re not at all sure about cinema and the telegraph. Why should this amaze anyone? It’s their business, after all, to award prizes and keep down hoi polloi. Once this made me angry, but not so much anymore as the poet Costello says, “I used to be disgusted. Now I try to be amused.” Much of this amusement is self directed, largely because someone asked me recently to judge a hypertext prize, which taught me a few things about practical criticism. To begin with, anything you say about something as complex as literature, let alone hypertext, will seem wrong to most people. Critics are the straight men and women in history’s variety act. What dolts! Even when we’re right, we’re wrong. Culture wouldn’t be half so funny
without us.
So, a rash prediction: Within 20 years (which means hopefully I’ll get to see it), someone who probably hasn’t yet been born will produce an enchanting, complex, spatial graphic text that weaves a deeply moving network of stories and becomes indispensable to millions of people, not as throwaway amusement but in the way of “great” films like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, or (ahem) Star Wars, and also of “great” novels like Pilgrim’s Progress and The Sorrows of Young Werther, and other “great” examples of name your form. I have no idea what the medium or conventions
of this supreme fiction will be, but I hereby predict, putting aside my straight man role, that its cultural DNA will contain sequences derived both from today’s games and, to a lesser extent, from hypertext fiction.
Hoo ha! Tell us another one.

RT: How do you start on a piece of hypermedia? How, generally, does work progress with a technically simple piece that just links from one text segment to other text segments?

SM: >How do you start on a piece of hypermedia?

Once upon a time (for instance, with Victory Garden) I spent many weeks making plans, flow charts, schemata, mock ups, and prototypes, trying to come up with the best marriage of form, function, narrative, and purpose, and going seriously crazy in the process. I’m pretty sure I spent as much time planning Victory Garden as I did writing it. Eventually I threw out all of the early scaffolding, after I had convinced myself that I had a minimal sustainable structure that would let the work write itself. For Victory Garden this structure consisted of John McDaid’s War Night videotapes plus the plot line of “The Garden of Forking Paths” structures that now don’t seem particularly central, but which gave me the strength to jump.
These days I like to think I’m more spontaneous, but in fact I spend so much time tinkering with interfaces that I’m always at that stage of pointless experiment. Tinkering can be important.
Hegirascope started with the gimmick of “client pull,” more or less the way R.E.M.’s “Stand” started as “a big, dumb lick.” My new piece, “Reagan Library,” grew out of some fiddling I was doing with 3 D graphics, JavaScript, and QuickTimeVR. Technique is undeniably important. On the other hand, technique without story yields nothing but the big, dumb lick. I also keep notebooks with story ideas, characters notes, bits of dialogue, in the way that real writers do, and I’ve had a couple three largely unwritten projects going in my head for many years now.

>How, generally, does work progress w/ a technically simple piece that just links >from one text segment to other text segments?
As Robert Coover wisely says, every attempt to get off the Line will eventually bring us back to it. Writing is never more linear than when it’s hypertextual, because hypertext is all about *multiple* lines, or threads if you prefer. Victory Garden and Hegirascope both have lots of very linear threads, though I think the weaving has gotten more complex in the later work. The new project (“Reagan Library”) isn’t so linear, since it’s largely a work about space, or about losing the thread of discourse. But I still believe in lines, somewhat (to compare great things to small) the way jazz players do.
Polylinear writing has a simple but powerful charm: Lines can go across as well as along the flow of a reading. So as you start laying out a storyline moment by moment (in Victory Garden these “moments” were defined by the amount of text that would fit into the “classic” Macintosh 9 inch window) you find yourself sensing connections to other lines, and sometimes articulations that involve several lines at once. It’s in this way that the text begins to write itself.

RT: Three small things about readers, or “users” storming the hypermedia studio:
1)Fairly drastic
My main experience w/ CD ROM games has been with Douglas Adam’s loopy
Starship Titanic. I loved the elements of story and media, but being a bear of little brain, the puzzle elements were often too hard for me. So I went a web site with “spoilers” answers to the puzzles. The guy who’s site it was said he’d hacked the executable to the game and found a list of key words for prompting responses from the game’s robots (who talk back to players) which he printed. This enhanced my enjoyment of the game.
2)Less drastic
Last I looked, the Online Pynchon Pages were set up so that by chopping off all but the first part of the site’s address you could see a full index of all the pages on the site useful, since the organization of the entries and the way they are linked to each other is (I bet deliberately) arcane.
3)Not too drastic
Sometimes when your Hegirascope loads the next segment too fast (I bet deliberately), I hit my “back” button to finish what I was reading.
Any thoughts on hacking a work of art (not w/ a knife)?

SM: >a list of key words for prompting responses from the game’s robots (who
>talk back to players) which he printed. This enhanced my enjoyment of
>the game.
I’ve had a similar experience (though less ambitious) with Riven. After spending a solid and joyful week poking around in the Miller Brothers’ amazing universe, I gave in to what had become an unbearable curiosity, opened up the Hints and Solutions book, and took the complete tour. This did put me in a position where I don’t want to re play the game, though I wouldn’t say it’s diminished my respect or admiration, or my sense of huge enjoyment.

>2)Less drastic
>Last I looked, the Online Pynchon Pages were set up so that by chopping off all but >the first part of the site’s address you could see a full index of all the pages on the >site useful, since the organization of >the entries and the way they are linked to each >other is (I bet deliberately) arcane.

You can do this with most Web sites (though interestingly enough, not mine at the moment). The better servers can be configured to display a directory structure if there’s no appropriate head file. Security freaks find this horrifying, but I approve of the practice (and will implement it when we migrate to our new server).

>3)Not too drastic
>Sometimes when your Hegirascope loads the next segment too fast (I bet >deliberately), I hit my “back” button to finish what I was reading.
That’s okay with me. It’s part of the scheme.

>Any thoughts on hacking a work of art (not w/ a knife)?
I deeply approve of all the things you’ve mentioned here. Though I don’t insist that cybertexts have to be hackable, or that readers of these texts have to hack, nonetheless one possible argument for this artform is that it encourages people to “jump outside the game” or recognize the contingency of media constraints.

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REVIEW: Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer by E. Ethelbert Miller [from Washington Review, April/May 2001]

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The only time I ever managed to share a stage with the marvelous poet Ethelbert Miller, I was playing bass in an electric blues band that was sharing the bill with him in a program that dealt with poetry and music. We were to follow him. He read his words and a beautiful young woman stood close to him and sang counter point to the melody of his words. She had a lovely voice, but his words matched her note for note. Our lead guitarist, poet A. L. Nielsen, turned to me and said “After that, we’re going to sound like a bomb.”

Miller’s new book, a memoir, tells at least two stories. First, it relates how Miller arrived on the scene as an important African-American poet in Washington and the nation, and, in fact, how the scene arrived on the scene, with regard to black writers in DC. Second, it tells the story of a family, particularly the men in the family, Ethelbert’s brother and father, both of whom are now dead. Miller broadens this picture by, daringly inserting regular chapters told from his sister’s perspective. The narrative really advances by regular shifts among what may be four interrelated stories – the coming to maturity of a young black writer, the growth of the black arts movement in Washington and elsewhere, the writer’s coming to understand the relationship between himself and the men in his family, and the family coming to know itself as a whole, as seen through the writer’s and his sister’s eyes.

This is an ambitious project for a compact volume such as this, so it is no surprise that occasionally one is aware of the gears changing, particularly when the gripping personal material gives way to the sometimes more mundane literary history. What holds it together is Miller’s poetic vision, which encompasses the mood of the country in 1968, the details of organizing the new kinds of literary events in the 70s, and an important wave of his father’s hand.

Eugene Ethelbert Miller has been a major gentle force in Washington arts and in poetry since the early 1970s. In 1974, two years after graduating from Howard University, he became Director of the African American Resource Center there and began the Ascension series readings which later moved to Martin Luther King, Jr. Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library. These readings helped bring many new African American poets into view and brought important writers like June Jordan to Washington. Miller himself has written five books of poetry full of lyric energy, including Andromeda, Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators? and Whispers Secrets and Promises. He has also edited several anthologies, most notably the popular and influential In Search of Color Everywhere.

Writing about playing ball while growing up, Miller says “My signature move was leaping against a fence, sticking my glove out over it, and taking away homers. I liked to hang on the fence, giving the hitter the impression I had missed the bad ball. As soon as I spotted the home run trot, the swagger, the clapping of the hands, the boast or yell, then, like a magician I would stick my glove up showing the ball to all.” Miller pulls this trick often in his writing and many times in this book. He reaches into ordinary life, where we miss so much, and slyly returns a stunning observation.

This is how Miller introduces his father and his brother: “Growing up in the South Bronx it was important to believe in something, and so my brother made the decision to believe in God.” He describes standing, terrified of crossing a big street alone, “and so I did something my brother was good at doing. I started praying to God.” He promises God his goodness: “I closed my eyes and only opened them when I heard my father running across the street, cursing and trying to fix his clothes at the same time. When I was little I thought my father was God.” From this he cuts to his brother’s funeral. “I saw my father cry for the first time in my life … My father, Egberto Miller, dressed in black, his shoes polished in a way he could never teach my brother or me, sat in the limousine waiting to return home from Richard’s funeral. I watched him raise his hands and heard him mumble one word, ‘gone.’ Maybe this is how God will end the world. He will say one word and end everything.” His brother, older than him, had become a Trappist Monk. Two years after Richard’s funeral his father was dead.

Throughout the book Miller examines his relationships to his distant, worried father and his unconventional brother, whom he was close to. These are the things that are taken away. The things that come to him are the women he loves, his children, a daughter and a son, and other poets such as June Jordan and Ahmos Zu-Bolton — as well as poetry itself. In telling this, Miller sneaks in an excellent overview of recent African American writing and a good discography of Jazz and other music to boot. This is a case of an artist bringing together life and art, and giving life its full due.
http://www.amazon.com/Fathering-Words-Making-African-American/dp/1574780565

Eleanor Ross Taylor’s poem for Zora Neal Hurston

In honor of Ms. Hurston’s birthday, here’s my mom’s poem for her.

Born Alpha

Zora Neal Hurston, Greensboro, NC, 1939

Using only the letter Alpha,
convert a shack into a belvedere.
Half pine, half palm.
Half gift, half waste.

Using only the letter Alpha
raise a goddess in a desert.
Sands blow and storms half bury.

             You rise laughing.  Stand

                        flat against our parlor wall,
                        all Alpha.
                        Decline our tea, smiling a bit
                        beneath your pillbox veil,
                        smoothing gloved hands.

                        Your fierce transcendence
                        made ashes of
                        our girls’ Quill Club.
                        Bearing our brand ruefully
                        we still petition Time,
                        thirsting for tea with Alpha.

         -- Eleanor Ross Taylor, 1920-2011 (from Captive Voices, LSU Press, 2009)

Eleanor Ross Taylor on Amazon
http://www.amazon.com/Captive-Voices-Selected-1960-2008-Messenger/dp/0807134120/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389224425&sr=1-4&keywords=captive+voices

Open Up the Heart : : : : SHUT DOWN THE STREETS : : by : : A. C. Newman : : : :

 

ACNewman_house

After a number of listens to “I’m Not Talking,” the free download single from A. C. Newman’s latest album Shut Down the Steets, I cried.  There were extenuating circumstances.  It was very late and I’d had a thing or two to drink.  It was also the six months anniversary of my mother’s death, and I’d just learned of another related death that day.  I wasn’t listening carefully to the lyrics and I misheard many of them, but the refrain of “I’ve never been close/ but I’ve never been far away” summarizes a part of my relationship to my parents.  The next day I looked up the lyrics online and decided the song was about inspiration and creativity.  A good set of words, but not what I’d thought.  Then I went to Newman’s website and read the copy about the album.  Apparently it had been an eventful year for him – his first child was born and he lost his mother.  Despite the fact that these things weren’t directly mentioned in the song, they had been communicated.

A. C. – Carl – Newman is most well known as the driving force of The New Pornographers, but his first solo album, The Slow Wonder, pretty much gets equal billing with NP’s albums, and I think his last one should too.  It gave the impression of a quiet album on first listen, but as I got to know it I realized it’s quite lively, could be danced to at an appropriate volume.  Aided by the green foliage of the cover shots and some prominent synths, it suggests rural futurism – as a baby boomer I immediately think of the spacey chord changes of Jimmy Webb’s “Witcheta Lineman.”  It has a home-brewed feel, including the possibility that at least some rhythm tracks are programmed.  Newman is a master of rich, if oblique, lyrics and of complex song structures and textures.  There is a lot of information in these tracks, both verbal and musical.  But while some of his lyrics might please an abstract poet like Rae Armantrout, a number of these songs are pretty direct.  They are still crafted with ironies and subtleties but they tell stories that, if listened to soberly, can be understood on the first hearing.  This is kind of new for Newman.

One of the most direct songs is “There’s Money in New Wave,” clearly a song for his daughter.  It’s tender and easily understood, but ironies abound.  It doesn’t sound new wave, it has the pulse of a lullaby.  Near the beginning he sings “…you will know what no one teaches you/ and I will say the kid needs learning.”  Later he sings “I’ll want to tell you there’s money in new wave/ and I will deserve the blank stare.”  A blank stare for a blank generation dad, even if he was a kid himself at the time of the Voidoids.

“They Should Have Shut Down the Streets,” a song for his mother, is also easy to understand but it rides an even fiercer line between irony and emotion.  To the sounds of a quirky march he imagines what was really a private, personal loss blown into Lady Di proportions of publicity:

                    All the papers plastered with tributes.
                    We should have asked for privacy
                    Though we understand it that some want to share their pain
                    We would ask to grieve this in our quiet way
                    And they should have asked again, again and again

The real sorrow, decorated with sarcasm, is forceful.

Though it seems like a private album, the songs are often beset by spooky images of showbiz that might have escaped from David Lynch’s Inland Empire.  In “Strings” he wonders “if you got help from someone there on high/ who may have heard the beacon’s faint cry:/ ‘I could do things for you…I can do things for you …’” This combination of religious salvation, an electronic rescue beacon, and an underling desperately offering favors to a possible patron is typical of Newman’s brilliant, snarky density.  On the other hand, later in that same song is this bit of pure romanticism:

                     Did some orphan’s lament get heard one night
                     Pinball through moons and time
                     Wind through some harmless darkness, bounce off stars
                     And knock into some warm waiting arms?

Certain forces seem to battle with each other throughout the album: 1) Absolute, Eternal Art  2) human relationships  3) Showbiz, or A Scene  4) the outside world.  The outside world comes in little glimpses.  “Someone should turn the lights off/ don’t you know there’s a war on here” he sings at one point.  It could refer to lowering the lights for a performance, but yes, there still is a war on.  In another song he mentions “the sell button pushed but the title left blank,” which sounds like online commerce, but also like a question about what kind of Art he is doing.  It’s also an example of the kind of very specific images that keep his surrealism from being vague.

“Do Your Own Time,” a standout song, seems to be about the collision of a groovy scene and human relationships.  “We did not come to raise the bar/ we came to tear it into pieces” – the slogan of every new movement.  There seem to be two voices in the song, one saying “Do your own time, go back to your own kind,” the other saying “Whatever you, whatever you need me to do…”  The song is a great example of how singer Neko Case (who is fortunately all over the album) highlights certain phrases, complicating the meaning and adding tension.  The energy is also helped by a jazzy guitar outro from Shane Nelken, who was on The Slow Wonder.

I’ve been focusing on the words both because they are strong and because I don’t really know how to write about music.  The melodic twists and turns here are breathtaking, and the rhythms are never dull, covering Latin-sounding beats reminiscent of Burt Bacharach and more herky-jerky new wave.  “I’m Not Talking” has a haunting vocal melody and an even better horn fill that is used sparingly.  “Encyclopedia of Classic Take Downs” can inspire spontaneous shadow boxing.  The whole package is surely an example of why indie rock is in another golden age.

A.C. Newman, Shut Down the Streets, on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Shut-Down-Streets-C-Newman/dp/B008XJM84Q/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1386443786&sr=1-1&keywords=shut+down+the+streets

MORBID CHEER — Robyn Hitchcock’s LOVE FROM LONDON

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Robyn Hitchcock, who has been at it at least since the 1977 “Give It to the Soft Boys” EP by The Soft Boys, is enjoying a later period with a large number of high points.  The problem is, he was always a bit underground and the music business now is completely up in the air.  There is no radio to speak of.  There are no geographically local scenes any more [The Guardian].  The record companies barely matter because everybody’s doing for themselves.  And the internet, wonderful as it has been, is, as always, like drinking from a fire hose.  The past dozen years have been an incredible time for indie rock, even a baby-boomer like me can see that.  But you’ve got to admit a whole lot of discs that should have mattered tons just mattered some.

Into this scene throw superb albums like the Soft Boys reunion Nextdoorland (2001), or Robyn’s work with the Venus 3, Ole Tarantula (2006) or Propeller Time (2010).  His other recent albums are good enough that I’m probably being arbitrary to leave them out.   Ole Tarantula in particular strikes me as something that with the variety and strength of its songs, the committed playing, its ability to connect with the times and draw on pop history, should have gotten more attention.  Check out the song “Underground Sun” [Youtube].  But, like I said, modern distribution is weird and there’s a lot of competition.

Earlier this year came Love From London (Yeprock), Robyn’s latest work, with a different line-up.  Like Ole Tarantula, this is rockin’ Robyn (he’s also rightly famous for his acoustic albums).  However, there’s no drummer listed, and the steady thump of the songs suggests they have programmed percussion, if not programmed bass too on some.  There are tasteful backing vocals by a number of people that add to the arrangements but don’t add much character.  Still, the album fits pretty well with his incredible run of recent work and several songs are standouts in his repertoire.

Some of the songs are neither more nor less than Robyn playing to his strengths.  “Harry’s Song” is a slow, minor key piano drone with an oceanic feeling of morbid disconnection, comparing favorably to “Born on the Wind” on Propeller Time or “The Lizard” from 1981.

A new sound comes with “Be Still,” a sunny beach feeling of resigned disconnection.  It’s the most reggae he’s been, with an infectious bounce.  It sounds like a love song but it’s actually about admiring a woman without ruining things by, like, speaking.  It’s also probably about accepting death, “…be still, let the dark fall upon you.”

(“Be Still,” prompts a few more words on Propeller Time.  There is a similar, goofier spring to that album’s “Luckiness,” which might be called morbid joy and is occasionally quite funny what with the musical saw accompaniment.  “Lucky when you stumble, lucky when you bounce.” Later on PT is “Evolve,” almost an anthem of resignation:

 What you call love, I call evolution

What you call fate, I call mom and dad

Which echoes poet Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad …”  “Evolove” resolves in a chiming folk rock chorus, “We evolve …”  “Be Still” lightens up by coyly telling you not to move, over an irresistible rhythm.)

Back to LFL.  “Devil on a String” is an almost jazzy new wave groove, some jaunty jaundice that heats up at the end.  “Strawberries Dress” has a windup toys beat, nice melodies, psychedelic lyrics with good touches, “the scene doesn’t change around your heart, from the chimneys to the pink horizon.”  “Fix You” is a big rock song with political implications like “Authority Box” on Tarantula, moving from love-y 1967 to hate-y ’68.  Robyn doing what he does well.

“Death and Love” is an almost weirdly different sound (for Hitchcock) but it is a gem.  It sounds like a glossy, radio pop song, with a clearly programmed rhythm but with committed singing and a sweet melody.  The title echoes Woody Allen and the lyrics sound like Benedict and Beatrice verbally jousting with each other in Much Ado About Nothing.  The chorus, “Be wi-ise with me baby…” is at once an invitation to joke around, possibly a warning (“watch yourself with me”) and a plea for advice and maturity.  The break where he sings “’cause I got screwed – uh huh” is funny in its contrast to singing about thinking.  It shoulda been a hit.

“End of Time,” the last number, is also strong.  Robyn nails his Lennon-esque vocals over a Sgt. Pepper mellow stomp.  The lyrics are pretty straightforward, but maybe that’s what you need when you’re accepting mortality for real, without any lysergic metaphors.  “Sunrise doesn’t give a damn/ about who I am.”  “Take me, I’m ready for the end of time/ all of the glory, none of the real hard labor …” He may be mystical, but he looks at life with clear eyes.

On Love From London Hitchcock creates a consistent mood of facing downer Ultimate Facts without sacrificing his imagination or grooviness.  Being almost of an age with him, I know this is the time when some of us start dropping off and others of us have health scares.  I hope this moment finds him well.  He sounds terrific.

Love From London on Amazon

BEAUTIFUL RUINS: An Interview With Science Fiction Writer Elizabeth Hand [from the Washington Review, September, 1993]

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Interviewed by Ross Taylor

Elizabeth Hand lived in Washington from 1975 to 1988, studied Cultural Anthropology at Catholic University and worked at the Smithsonian Institution.  Her first novel, WINTERLONG, is set in Washington, 500 years in the future when the world has been drastically altered by centuries of viral warfare.  Her second novel, AESTIVAL TIDE, a sequel to WINTERLONG, deals with a super-city that has sealed itself off from the threats of the outside world.  The third novel in the series, ICARUS DESCENDING, was published by Bantam in August 1993.  Ms. Hand has published many stories and articles here and abroad and often reviews fiction for the WASHINGTON POST.  She is currently working on a novel of the supernatural, WAKING THE MOON, also set in Washington, which she says is about “the return of the Goddess, only she’s not the Goddess people think she’s going to be–more like her evil twin.”  She is also working on a comic book about a riot grrl superhero for DC Comics.

RT: Starting with your books, there’s an anecdote about how much H.G. Wells enjoyed making notes about places in and around London for his Martians to destroy.  Did any negative feelings about Washington get into WINTERLONG?

LH: I fell in love with DC.  I never really actively thought about destroying any of it.  There’s a great quote from Gore Vidal.  He was with his grandfather, the senator, who took him up onto Capitol Hill and pointed down to all the buildings in Greco/Roman revival styles and said, “Someday this will all make beautiful ruins.”  I worked at the Smithsonian for a long time, so there was probably a little bit of wish fulfillment about wanting to see the Air & Space Museum blown up, I guess.

RT: Which part of the Smithsonian did you work in?

LH: The Air & Space Museum.

RT: Did you use that experience in WINTERLONG?

LH: It was great working in the Smithsonian because it was like being a rat in the walls of a castle.  The Smithsonian was such a great collection of old buildings in various states of decay and new buildings being opened up.  When you have a Smithsonian ID, you used to be able to just wander anywhere in the museums at all, places that are off limits to tourists.  Parts of The Museum of Natural History look like the scene at the end of Citizen Kane, where there are all these boxes, you walk around and see huge crates that say things like “Mesosaurus, 1868, Montana,” that have never been opened.  It was a spectacular place to use as a playground for a few years.

RT: You mythologize DC in WINTERLONG, make it seem vastly bigger than it is, with the characters hiking through carnivorous underbrush, mutated by the viral warfare, and all these other dangers, taking forever to get from the mall to the wrecked Cathedral.  But AESTIVAL TIDE is also about–sort of–a town.

LH: Originally, AESTIVAL TIDE was supposed to take place in Ocean City, Maryland, then I changed the geography so it takes place in Indianola, a little town in Texas, on the coast.  Indianola’s a real place where they built a city, and twice within eleven years the city was destroyed by hurricanes.  They’re building there again now, so I figured probably 500 years from now they’ll still be building there and still getting wiped out.

RT: Is the next book going to deal with a town?

LH: The next book is called ICARUS DESCENDING.  It doesn’t take place in any one locale; it jumps around.  Part of it happens at sort of a trumped-up version of Luray Caverns, but most of it is set in outer space, a more traditional science-fiction setting.  The language and style is very much of a piece with my earlier two books though.  There are first person narratives by two characters from the first book, and then there are also several third person narratives and a new first person narrator.  No city there, but sort of an organic space station/space ship.

RT: Your cities seem to be sort of microcosms of civilization, and since there are so many fragments of texts quoted from culturally diverse sources, they seem like the kind of city that shows up in Eliot’s WASTE LAND or Baudelaire’s “unreal city, changing faster than a human heart.”

LH: There was a really perceptive review of WINTERLONG in a British magazine called FOUNDATION, by Robert Irwin.  He’s a serious writer, so I was immensely flattered that he reviewed the book.  He was the only reviewer who picked up on the fact that WINTERLONG was meant to be a decadent novel, in the sense that I was trying to deliberately evoke the fin de siecle decadence found in Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde, but related to Baudelaire.  I read Durrell’s ALEXANDRIA QUARTET when I was 13 or 14, and I loved what he did, creating a city that was almost a character in itself.  He said that if the real Alexandria was like that everybody would move there.  I’ve always been trying to capture this sort of dream Washington I carry around with me.

RT: When you’re creating a world out of whole cloth, where do you start?

LH: The basis for WINTERLONG was supposed to be Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT.  I decided to try to make my own version of it, though what came out was nothing at all like TWELFTH NIGHT.  When I was living in DC, I belonged to a writer’s group with Ted White, who is a seminal person in science fiction.  One day when Ted was about 150 pages into WINTERLONG he looked up and looked at me and said, “You’re just making this up, aren’t you!”  I wasn’t working from an outline or anything.  He was rather horrified.

RT: Managing a sci-fi tetralogy must be hard, keeping details straight etc.

LH: It’s terrible!  I keep my novels on my desk because I always have to refer to them.  My copy editors say, “how come on page 23 they’re in the 24th century and now they’re in the 27th?”  Oh, you know, Martian time-slip.  I’m just making it all up.

RT: You use a broad vocabulary in the novels, with words coming from very disparate sources.  This creates a texture that I think is appropriate for an ancient, fragmented society.  Where do words like baratdaja come from, “the healing wind,” the cataclysm that’s coming to the city in AESTIVAL TIDE?

LH: Baratdaja is Indonesian, refers to typhoons.  I’m always writing down weird words, particularly things that have origins not just in other languages but in completely different mind-sets.  I also have a very old thesaurus that’s got lots of weird stuff you won’t find in ROGET’S.

RT: Speaking of fragmentation, there are many different voices in your novels.  At the beginning of WINTERLONG is the isolated line “Our heart stops.”  Who says that?  At first I thought it was the spirit of destruction who is coming to WINTERLONG.

LH: Well I was sort of using Wendy Wanders, the main protagonist, as a vessel for all of the other characters and spirits . . .

RT: She is an empath, so she does end up psychically absorbing, and almost getting overwhelmed by, other people’s memories . . .

LH: When I started ICARUS DESCENDING, I realized the character I was most fascinated by was Tast’annin, the evil Aviator, because villains are just so much cooler than nice people.  Everybody wants to go on a date with Richard the Third.  You don’t want to live with him or be married to him or be beheaded by him, but he’s a fun guy.  But Wendy Wanders is like Nefertity, the robot in AESTIVAL TIDE, who is a repository of oral literature and whose memory banks contain all these other people’s stories of the dying earth.

RT: In your books there’s not much about space and there are no aliens, but lots of varieties of human experience.  You studied anthropology, and I was reminded of how Ursula LeGuin, who’s the daughter of famous anthropologists, tends not to have aliens, just different kinds of humans.  Did your anthropology background effect your choice of subject matter?

LH: In college I started out in play writing.  Believe it or not I wanted to be like Noel Coward, writing brittle, elegant drawing-room comedies, which obviously I have absolutely no talent for.  I stopped going to classes.  A couple of years later, after working at the Smithsonian, I went back and picked a major I felt would give me good stories to tell at cocktail parties.  I’d never really had a burning desire to be an anthropologist, but I did want to write.  I felt that Samuel Delany’s kind of science fiction was what I wanted to do and that anthropology might be helpful–as you said, the varieties of human experience.

RT: Malinowski said anthropologists are at war with their own culture.  I was thinking about your writing as being in some ways feminist, and about women in science fiction, a genre that tends to be untraditional but is still male dominated.  There’s that image in AESTIVAL TIDE, really a birth image, of the robot Nefertity and the boy Hobi fleeing the doomed super-city through the rotten basement levels and coming out on the sea shore–which he’s never seen.  An adolescent boy following a glowing woman robot.  She almost seemed like an image of idealized science fiction.

LH: Oh, she was.  When I was growing up, I never read science fiction novels, but I loved science fiction movies.  So with WINTERLONG and AESTIVAL TIDE I took a lot of cliched things from films but tried to turn them inside out.  Nefertity was pretty much taken from the “fembot” in METROPOLIS, Maria.  I think one of the eeriest scenes in all cinema is when, in Rotwang’s laboratory, the fembot comes alive and walks very slowly down the center of the room and then turns and looks at him.  Every time I see that it makes my hair stand on end.  It’s interesting that one of the earliest and most powerful images in science fiction films is a female robot.  As for women in science fiction, I’m almost afraid to say anything.  I’ve gone on record in print a number of times and caught some flak for it.  Obviously, there are some very good women writers in SF: Ursula LeGuin, Pat Murphy, Pat Cadigan and a British writer named Storm Constantine.  SF is still kind of a boy’s club, but less so than ten years ago.  There’s a new group–Lucius Shephard; Paul Park, a fantastic writer; Gene Wolfe, who’s older; Terry Bisson.  Some of the women writers are too polemical.  There’s this thing where you take a simple notion–like here’s a capitalist planet and a socialist moon, and what happens?  I mean, LeGuin’s a brilliant writer, so in her hands it becomes something more.  But there are a lot of writers, male and female, who take these feminist ideas, and–like you put a woman in pants and she can fuck like a man and fart like a man and swear and drink beer, and put her behind the controls of a rocket ship and in the dark you wouldn’t know she has tits.  I just have no patience with that.  I’ve gotten kind of a bad rep, perhaps deserved, for ranting about this.  Lucius Shephard called me, in print, the Jeane Kirkpatrick of the field.  But what I read for and write for mostly is style.  Although my short stories are more politically charged.  I wrote a story called “The Bacchae,” after the play by Euripides, which was printed a year ago in the British magazine INTERZONE.  The editors loved it, but it was subsequently voted the “most hated story of the year” by the predominantly male readers of the magazine.  The story got into several anthologies.  Still, a lot of people thought it was a male-bashing story, which it was not.

RT: The Maenads have a history of occasionally doing that.

LH: I know, I was saying, “But I didn’t make it up . . .”  It’s really about a near-future in which nature starts sort of fighting back.  If you’re looking for women ripping off men’s heads, you’ll be disappointed.  John Clute, a British critic, who reviews for the WASHINGTON POST too, lumped me in with what he called “the New England school of ethical romance,”  putting me and Richard Grant, my husband, and John Crowley and Alexander Jablokov and James Patrick Kelly together.  I like that, “ethical romance.”  It sounds so much tonier than being a science fiction writer.  It is interesting that the writers that he named, at least maybe four that I know of, are Catholic or had a Catholic background.  So I wonder if that puts one in a mind to want to grapple with moral issues.

RT: The moral issues in the books seem masked.  Awful stuff happens.  Early in AESTIVAL TIDE there’s a scene featuring the aftermath of a child being tortured by the character who otherwise seems most normal.  Unsavory characters are front and center much of the time.  And the decadence of WINTERLONG, including sort of a fugue on defenestration, seems very punk.

LH: Well that’s sort of where I came from.  I grew up in the 1960s, people wearing these clothes, this medieval look, this whole notion of everybody being on a pilgrimage.  But then of course by the time I was sixteen everybody was gone.  I thought they were going to all be waiting around, I thought that was what real life was going to be like.  I had no prior experience.  But instead it was, like, GREASE playing on Broadway.  In the 70’s everybody was saying “who’s going to be the next Beatles?”  And of course the next Beatles came and they were the Sex Pistols.  But I caught the first wave of punk.  So that was fun.  You grew up with the bomb, and then it didn’t really drop.  I had a, not a nervous breakdown, but an attack of nihilistic preoccupation in the late 70s when I was living in Mt. Rainier in Hyattsville, Maryland.  People fired bullets through their windows there and stuff.  I guess nowadays everybody takes that for granted.  It was just a horrible place to live, but very near the fire station, and I would wake up from these apocalyptic dreams–it was the fire station, the sirens went off every night.  I would wake up thinking this was it, someone was dropping the bomb.  Then of course a couple of years went by and nothing happened.  I forgot what the question was.  Oh yes, “very punk.”  So I have this deep pessimism, but I try to write about it beautifully.

Elizabeth Hand’s new collection of stories, Errantry: Strange Stories, is available on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Errantry-Strange-Stories-Elizabeth-Hand/dp/1618730304/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383715960&sr=1-1&keywords=errantry

POET/MUSICIAN/SONGWRITER: ROBERT RAY OF THE VULGAR BOATMEN [Interview from the Washington Review, July 1990]

 Interviewed by Ross Taylor

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The Vulgar Boatmen in 1990; Robert Ray on right

 

ROBERT RAY is lead singer and one of two principal songwriters for the Vulgar Boatmen, whose record You and Your Sister recently came out on the Record Collect label (distributed by the Independent Label Association) to very positive press in Rolling Stone, Musician, and Spin.  Ray has also published long poems in Poetry, The Antioch Review, and other literary magazines—which is why I decided to talk to him about poetry and songwriting.  The Vulgar Boatmen are actually two bands operating out of Indianapolis and Gainesville, Florida, which get together in Gainesville to record.  I spoke to Ray in February in Gainesville, where he teaches film at the University of Florida and lives with his wife and two children.

RT:  I wanted to talk to you about poetry and songwriting because you’re substantially involved in both – you’ve published widely in literary magazines such as Poetry and The Antioch Review, and your poems are brainy and well crafted, often metrical or with regular numbers of stresses, and allusive.  At the same time you’re in a rock band, the Vulgar Boatmen, and your recent independent record You and Your Sister got three and a half stars from Rolling Stone, and they aren’t always that kind to independents.  I’m interested in any possible connections or similarities between poetry and songwriting, but obviously it’s also important how different these two things are.

RR:  I think in fact the two things are more different than they are alike.  Probably songwriting and poetry writing as different genres as drama and fiction.  The first thing that strikes me about the difference between them is that if anything, poetry is the more flexible form and more can be done with it than with songwriting.  When you’re writing a poem, almost no particular word that I can think of is unusable, but all sorts of words would difficult to use in a popular song without sounding pretentious or hokey.  So in some ways, popular songwriting is a more restricted form, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t all sorts of emotional or intellectual possibilities in pop songs; but it’s restricted, like working in a sonnet form or something.  The difference with pop lyrics is that as soon as people start treating them as poetry or as something other than pop songs, they’ve made a real mistake.  If you print even superb pop lyrics on the page, say Bob Dylan’s at his peak in the mid ‘60s, they don’t look like very good poems; they look like bad poems, but they’re great songs.  The two things are related, since they both use language, but they’re remarkably different.

RT:  How far do you go back with pop music?  What’s the first pop concert you went to?

RR:  Elvis Presley, in about 1954-55, and when I was a little kid.  In Memphis.  And the second concert would have been Elvis too, in about 1956, next door to my father’s office in the baseball stadium in Memphis, which subsequently burned down.  I was simultaneously enormously excited and terrified by what I was seeing, because I was very young, and I’d never been in a place where there was so much screaming.  All the women were screaming.  It was really frightening.  That was the first thing I ever heard; I’m from Memphis and I grew up hearing that kind of stuff.

RT:  Were you involved in rock or pop in the ‘60s?

RR:  I never played an instrument at all until I got to college.  I played in bands all four years in college.  These bands were incredibly primitive.  Then I quit playing.  From 1965 to 1982 I didn’t play at all.

RT:  How about poetry?  Was that a late discovery, after college?

RR:  In graduate school.  I’d always been interested in poetry; I’m not really sure what got me started writing it.  There were a few writers who suggested possibilities to me, made it seem as writing were possible.  I’ve always thought the whole purpose of certain artists was to sponsor or promote other people’s work.  Godard in film, for instance:  if you see a Godard film you think, “I could do this,” and not only “I could do this” but “this looks interesting and I would want to do this.”  If you see, let’s say, a Spielberg movie, regardless of how you feel about him, you don’t feel that, unless you happen to have on hand 60 or 70 million dollars.  I also think that with pop music at major junctures – and I take these junctures to be 1954-1955 with Elvis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, and then again in 1964-1965, with the Beatles and Rolling Stones and then again with punk, with the Sex Pistols – each of those spawned garage bands, a huge outpouring of amateur musicians.  You see something like the Sex Pistols and you say “I could do this.”  Whereas if you saw Genesis, Kansas, or Yes you wouldn’t say “I could do this,” nor would you think you even wanted to work in this medium.  But I think with poetry, to certain writers encourage you to think “I could do this.”  And for me, Apollinaire was really important.  I would read him and say, “This is so matter-of-fact, so about everyday life, so colloquial; the vocabulary is so interesting and the choices of things to write about are so interesting” – that made a huge impression on me, and he remains someone I think about all the time.  I also think Ashbery suggested all sorts of possibilities in writing, that curious mixture of an extremely abstract intellectual vocabulary with an absolutely colloquial vocabulary.  I think some combination of those things got me interested.

RT:  The credits on the album usually give your name and someone else’s name – is this head-to-head songwriting?

RR:  The main person I’ve written songs with is someone I often refer to as my songwriting partner, Dale Lawrence.  He was and undergraduate at Indiana when I was a graduate student there, and we remained friends.  He’s been in bands since ’77 or ’78.  He and I typically write songs through the mail.  There are a few songs we’ve written in the same room, but that’s rare.  Usually we send each other things back and forth.  I’m not the only lyricist; sometimes he’s written the lyrics, sometimes I’ve written the lyrics.

RT:  What sorts of things get you started?  A musical phrase?

RR:  I will say that as a rule the lyrics are never the first thing.  There are occasions where the title comes first, but even that’s not very common.  Usually the music comes first.  In terms of musical phrases, I can’t say how he comes up with them.  I think he is the more gifted melody writer.  I know in my own case with melodies, I tend to hear things in my head; I don’t tend to work out things on the guitar.  I hear them, then I will have to go to the instrument and try to find it, which seems to me much different from the way most people work.  So the melody line is very important to us; in fact the melody line comes first.

RT:   Do you work with the other people in the band?

RR:  Well really there are two bands here, there are two Vulgar Boatmen.  There’s the band here which plays very infrequently, maybe three or four times a year; this is mostly a recording band; then there is Dale’s band in Indianapolis which tours regularly, is playing around the country all the time – Chicago, Texas, so on – and some of them come down here to record.  It’s an ideal situation for recording because we usually get together the two bands and find the people who can do this recording the best.  Often the band will have worked up a different way of playing one thing and Dale’s band will have a better arrangement, or vice versa.  So we have a lot of stuff to draw from.  It gets confusing at times, too.

RT:  I was thinking of Ashbery when you spoke of the importance of the musical phrase; so much of Ashbery will turn on that.  In your songs there’ll be these little very plain phrases that will carry a sort of narrative that’s very open-ended – the first side of the album ends with the line “I need a decision” and the second ends with the line “who do you love?”  I see some of the open-endedness of a lot of contemporary poetry in your songwriting, and even in the spirit of the music, the open chords where you can’t tell whether it’s the tonic or the dominant, whether it’s the E or the A.

RR:  I’d never thought about this consciously in these terms but it’s very interesting to me, and we like chords that suggest the I and the IV simultaneously, let’s say a C chord with and F note added, but the E retained in the C, which would not be there in the F, so the resulting chord is suspended between the two.  I also like songs that have two chords, that go back between the I and the IV, because I like gospel a lot, and always have.  And by gospel I mean things like Same Cooke and the Soul Stirrers.  And R. H. Harris, the guy who started the Soul Stirrers, the master of the incantatory form, of repeating, saying a phrase over and over, accompanied by two chords.  I like that a lot.  I lke Bo Diddley even better, since he only uses one chord [laughs].  That seems to be ideal.  He’s one of my all-time heroes, as big a hero to me as Apollinare.  Sometimes I would like to meet him just to tell him what a decisive impact he had on my life.  When I was fifteen I snuck into a place in Memphis around the corner from my house in a armory where some big party was going and Bo Diddley was there with walls of amplifiers, all of which had tremolo pulsing.  Yeah, I do like the everyday phrase.  My idea of a really, really good lyricist, the best rock lyricist imaginable, is Chuck Berry.  And his songs are all everyday phrases.

RT:  I always thought of him as giving rock its narrative tendency – this is something I was always fascinated about with rock lyrics, the idea of dancing a story, where there’s a story asking for attention, yet the music makes people dance and think about each other – but at the same time, with him there is often a sort of a loose, open end somewhere in the story, it doesn’t have a happy ending, or it’s built around a “who do you love?” kind of emotion.

RR:  Well the lyrics to “Let it Rock,” for instance, where you can’t quite specify what’s going to happen, but you know “an off-schedule train’s coming two miles out” and it has this absolutely casual off-handedness, but it’s perfect.  To me those lyrics are just triumphs.  On the other hand someone who’s enormously ambitious and wants to make rock lyrics “better” than that, and I would put “better” in quotation marks, because I think it’s a false ambition, would be someone like Sting.  Here you’ve got a wonderfully gifted musician and singer who has no conception of what lyrics should be like, or he has a conception, but it’s all wrong in my opinion.  He wants to make it poetry and it’s simply not poetry, so what comes out are middlebrow ideas and phrases trotted across the page.  I do like songs like “Every Breath You Take” where you can’t quite tell what’s at stake, you don’t really know whether this a love song or an angry song and so on.  Where this mode of indeterminacy is really prominent, and I never realized it until I had children, is children’s books.  A lot of great children’s books are really   open-ended and shaggy, probably to accommodate children’s needs to read these things over and over again.  A person who’s very good at the unresolved narratives is Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos, who started the Vulgar Boatmen.  He’s got a new record with songs that are wonderfully suggestive.  One of them is called “Commodore Peter,” and you can hear that there’s a narrative here but the story is just barely withheld from you.  You can’t quite tell what it is, so it’s available for several possible stories.

RT: Is he someone who’s involved in poetry, or someone who came straight to songwriting?

RR: His background is painting.

RT: Rock keeps getting involved with visual art …

RR:  Well I think there are reasons for the connection, as Simon Frith wrote in Art Into Pop.  He was trying to trace the connections between the British art school and British pop.  And the connections are profound since every major British rock band of the last 20 or 30 years has had art school people in it.  There are particular sociological reasons in England obviously, since certain kinds of disaffected but smart students won’t end up going to universities but will end up going to art schools, the designated home of the disaffected.  We don’t have that in this country.  But I think the connections between painting and pop are closer than those between poetry and pop.  Recording is more like collage: you rarely record bands live, you don’t set up with everybody in the room; instead you construct from bits and pieces and put it together.  Certain parts are recorded live but then other things are added on.  Brian Eno was the one who talked about recording being like painting.  But second, and maybe even more important, art schools in this country, or art departments or art students, are much more comfortable and used to thinking in terms of experiment, innovation and breaking with tradition than literature students are.  If you think about it, fiction, for the most part, is still written in the mode of Jane Austen.  The dominant forms are still realism, and the consecutive narrative; for 98 percent of the fiction that’s published, it’s as if Joyce never happened.  So literature for some reason, and it would be very interesting to think about why, has been more resistant to change than the other forms. It may be that language itself, because it’s the repository of so many cultural values, is the most traditional element in this society, it’s what holds all of society together.  Derrida once said “The institution can stand any kind of critique, but it cannot stand having its language touched.

RT:  Talking about influences in rock is hard because it’s notoriously fragmented, the extreme factionalism is almost part of the show.  Do you see any way that specific areas, like New York City or California or the South play into styles?  There was the thing for a while of Southern bands like REM having a distinctive sound, though there were other periods before …

RR:  Like Elvis.  Or Little Richard or Otis Redding, all Southerners.  Well, I don’t know, I never think about it.  I’m from the South.  I grew up in Memphis so I’ve heard a certain kind of music my whole life and that’s the music that’s influenced me.  I remember in the late ‘60s in Memphis we were all listening to Otis Redding and Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett and then Al Green after that, and we were just absolutely baffled by psychedelic music.  We could not possibly understand why someone would want to listen to Moby Grape or Jefferson Airplane when you could to listen to Otis Redding.  But when someone sits down and tries to deliberately write a Southern album, like Tom Petty with Southern Accents, the results seem labored and arch.  In fact the people who’ve written the best “Southern albums” seem to be not Southerners at all, like John Fogarty.  Those Credence albums seem very Southern and he’d never been to the South.  The Band’s second album … Robbie Robertson’s a Canadian.

RT:  I was wondering if you have any other favorites of current indie bands as far as songwriters go?

RR:  The best record I’ve heard in the past two or three years is this Silos record, the one that’s coming out next week.  I love the Feelies, especially the second album, The Good Earth.  I like that sort of incantatory strumming they get into.  I wish they sang a little better frankly.  But I like them a lot.  I love the first REM records.  I actually like the songs more than the records, because I saw them several times around that period, ’82 or so, and they played the songs – they were absolutely fantastic.  And talk about evocative – there seems to be a story to a song like “Pilgrimage,” but you can’t quite tell what it is, or “Boxcars” – and they played them – the records are just pale shadows of what they sounded like.  Still that e.p.  and the first two records are great.

RT:  Do you like any British bands?  Or do you tend to be more interested in American bands?

RR:  Well I certainly don’t have any bias against British bands, I love the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols, three of the greatest bands of all time.  I hate bands like The Cure, and The Fall, and Depeche Mode.  I despise them.  They’re just incredibly pretentious, unmelodic, and unrhythmical – guys in whiteface.  I also dislike David Bowie.  But I love Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry; I think he’s great.  On the surface Bowie and Roxy Music are very similar.  But for some reason Bryan Ferry seems to be, I don’t know, more rooted in rhythm and blues, and soul, and his stuff is sung more earnestly.  I mean it’s very ironic, I know, but there’s something like his heart’s on his sleeve too – of course, that’s one of his song titles.

RT:  Pop in the ‘60s tended toward “meaningful lyrics,” political messages, as opposed to the blankness of ‘80s pop.  But has had this period of trying to make things happen, and as opposed to much contemporary poetry pop at least tries to make people dance, or rush the stage, or walk out or something.

RR:  Poetry makes nothing happen, as Auden said?  I don’t believe that.  I don’t think he believed it either.  My sense is that all cultural forms which circulate in a society – not a poem that you have written and put in your closet and no one sees – but all cultural forms which circulate and get reproduced, have some influence.  That’s an easy statement.  The hard thing is to measure exactly what influence, and how quickly, how soon.  But I would say the opposite of what you said about the ‘80s being the blank decade, I would say that the ‘80s has been the period in which more political songs have been written than in any other period, more even than the ‘60s.  But I also think more absolute crap has been written in the ‘80s masquerading as political songs than in any other period.  In the ‘80s, if you were writing a political song, you were deemed to be a serious band with serious things to say, and most of the bands doing that were just nonsense, I’m not interested in hearing them talk about child molesting or what’s happing Central America.  Bands like the Alarm, for instance.  I mean these are bands that just latched onto things that The Clash started and then used it, the way people use electric guitars.  Politics became just another instrument.  My Argument has always been that the way rock works, both in terms of its emotional effectiveness but also in terms of its politics, is at the level of sound.  No matter how powerful you think “Ohio” is, in terms of politics “Tutti Frutti” is more politically profound.  The problem is, for politicians, or for musicians who have political intent, or want to seem significant, the change effected by sound seems too subtle, too hard to measure, too slow.  But it’s profound.  Coleridge once said that the way poetry, or art, can influence people is like the sap going through a leaf, and I think that’s the way it works, like ink in a blotter, until It’s gradually diffused into a whole culture’s way of thinking about itself and the world.

RT:  In “The Meaning of Coincidence in the Old Stories: you say:

Why this obsession with repetition?

The distinction between the original

And the counterfeit depends on the coincidences

That appear when the various accounts

Are superimposed.

That seemed to say something to me about this kind of songwriting as well as a current style of poetry stemming from people like Ashbury or even from Beckett’s The Unnnameable, where there’s a voice that keeps going on saying essentially the same thing over and over again; it’s almost like people exhorting you to give money to public television, but somehow there’s some little kernel of mystery that the speaker is trying to get at.

RR:  [laughs] I like repetition a lot, and the language you just quoted from that poem is really almost a paraphrase of Derrida – he’s the person who raised the question “is it possible to counterfeit one’s own signature?” because signatures always involve notions of repetition.  But I like repetition a lot, not necessarily because of any carefully considered philosophical position, but in music and writing I respond to it.  I like Andy Warhol, especially his serial paintings and his multiple images.  And I like repetitive songs.  My favorite Soul Stirrers song is “Be with me Jesus” where “Be with me Jesus” is chanted for about fifteen minutes, Sam Cooke vamps over it.  I guess that Sam Cooke could vamp over anything and it would sound good – “contribute to public TV” – he could sing that over for fifteen minutes and you would contribute.  I certainly would.

After the interview Ray said “You know Warhol, at the height of his fame, used to have clones of himself, guys in silver wigs or whatever, going around giving his lectures for him and collecting ridiculous fees from universities.”  He added “you say about the repetition issue that’s it’s perfect for someone who likes repetition as much as I do to have two identical bands.”

You and Your Sister by the Vulgar Boatmen on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/You-Your-Sister-Vulgar-Boatmen/dp/B000001XTU/ref=ntt_mus_ep_dpi_1

 

Am I Playing on Words, Are Words Playing on Me? An Interview with Toni Blackman of Freestyle Union, Daughters of the Cipher and Opus Akoben [from the Washington Review, September 1997]

 ImageRT: Well, first, what is the Freestyle Union?TB:The Freestyle Union Cipher is a regular event, used to be bi-weekly, where rappers would come into a jam session.  We would just sit down in a circle and rap about different topics.  I got a lot of the topics from when I was on the speech team at Howard  undergrad and when I coached the speech team in gradschool at Howard.   So I started using proverbs, and every MC that came through, he had to rhyme on the proverb.  They would have to explain the meaning of that proverb lyrically.  But it had to be improvised.  We kept coming up with more and more exercises.  Sub-Zero actually helped me get it started, the Kokayi became a regular participant.  And then the younger guy, Black Indian, it was like his church.  Anything we said we were going to do, he was there.  There was a younger crew of artists who had absolutely nothing to do, there was nothing for these kids to plug into that they’re interested in around town.  This became such a big part of their existence that they were there rain, sleet, snow whatever.

RT:Where was this?

TB:We started at 8-Rock Cultural Arts Center in Anacostia, on Martin Luther King Ave.

RT:How many people would be in those first groups?

TB:When we first started performing we weren’t doing songs, we were doing Cipher demonstrations.  Basically we would entertain an audience with what we do in a jam session.  It could be anywhere from ten to twenty people.  That lasted about a year or so.  At the old 9:30 Club we would do Cipher demonstrations on a regular basis.  It started to grow.

RT:Would you have people from all over, who’d never see each other on the street?

TB:That too has been a challenge.  Everybody came together for the love of the music and the poetry.  But all these people would have different backgrounds.

RT:In the video you say “I’m the transplant here.”  Where were you transplanted from?

TB:California.  The Bay Area.  I’m originally from Pittsburgh, California.

RT:Let me see . . . So you started out with more word-oriented things.  Then how did it build up?

TB:It started out that we’d just have a tape–instrumental music–and we’d rap over it.  And then we had a DJ that would show up and spin records.  Then we tried the live music.  Then we came back to the tape–a lot of the producers who’d started out had grown.  The music was much tighter, stronger.  That tended to work best because I didn’t like to use a microphone in the Cipher.  I found that when people have not been taught to use a microphone it can be deadly in terms of creativity, spontaneous combustion–with young artists.  So we haven’t used the microphone in the Cipher.  We still do the Cipher monthly at the Kaffa[?] House on U Street.

So then people started working on the music, but no one was really performing.  There weren’t a lot of venues for performing either.  Or the shows were put on by people who didn’t really know how to put a show together, how to promote.  Then everybody kinda grew over the past four years.  We’ve seen people sort of start and stop.  People just disappear.  But we’ve kept plugging away at it and learning as we went along.

RT: Would you ever have inter-personal dynamics that would be a problem, someone would come in full of rage or something?

TB:Yeah, what I used to say was, “I get cursed-out once every two months.”  We had a guy come in–he used to come to 8-Rock, then he came back a year and a half later when we had a new location.  The attendance had doubled, there was structure that wasn’t there before and he did not like that.  And he had also not grown artistically.  But all these people that he knew before had grown.  And he had had a hard day at work, had just lost his job . . .

RT:Talk about a hard day at work!

TB:. . . And he got in the middle of the Cipher and was like, “fuck this, fuck that, I gotta pull a number to rap? This isn’t art. This isn’t freestyling.  This is crazy!  You’re killing the art form!”  He kicked chairs down . . . And there are guys who come in drunk.  Or young guys who come in with their raps in their pocket, want to read their raps in the middle of an improvisational event.  A couple of guys came were obviously doing stuff that was written.  And a couple of people said no, no, it’s freestyle.  One of the guys stands up and starts cussing everybody in the room out, there were a hundred people in attendance.  He says “This is wack, this won’t work, you guys are not going to make any money off it, why do it if you aren’t going to make money.”   You learn that their anger has nothing to do with you.  It’s easy to be a frustrated artist in this country.

RT:Do you feel there’s a balance between wanting this thing to be the best it can be and wanting to bring in the most people?

TB:The first four months we went from four to fifteen people, and the first four months were the best Ciphers in my entire life.  But the people that came–there were a couple of teenagers, the rest from twenty to twenty-six–they all had jobs, you know struggling with adulthood, and they were just happy to see each other and the focus was “let’s rap.”  But then you put in all these other dynamics–there are the kids who are spoiled, who take life for granted, the kids who couldn’t care less about life because their lives are messed up, the kids who are in and out of jail, the kids who can rap but can’t read–and it affects creativity, it affects the vibe, it affects the quality of what we’re creating.  So that’s where we’re at right now, trying to figure out what’s our goal, what’s our priority.  Do we set more ground rules, which might keep people away?

RT:What kind of rules do you have? You gotta take a number to rap?

TB:No. [laughs] There’s no hogging the floor.  If you keep going on and on somebody’s gonna cut you off.  Then there’s the “bitch, ‘ho’” thing.  You cannot come in here degrading women.  So elevate and be more creative.  There’s no battling in the Cipher.  In the Cipher you battle yourself.  We support that element of hiphop culture, but here there’s no competing against anybody except yourself.  And there are absolutely no written rhymes, that means you must improvise.

RT:How do you start?

TB:We start with introductions.  Whoever jumps up, you introduce yourself freestyle.  The purpose of the introductions is that people be able to remember your name and something about you.  It gets people in the habit of thinking about performance.   Then we’ll do a warm up, we’ll do alliteration.   We move on to maybe story telling or proverbs. We have a series of “if” questions.

RT:You’re doing that regularly–

TB:Once a month.

RT: And you’re also performing with people with drums and amplified instruments–have you ever done any of that before?

TB:This is my first serious band.  It’s been good.  When you have the drum, bass and all that stuff, there’s so much more it pulls out of you than just a beat on a tape.  So now–yes, people say we’re rappers, but the goal is to make good music.  Taking ourselves out of the box that we actually put ourselves in.

RT:You’re in two bands, Opus Akoben and Daughters of the Cipher–what’s Opus Akoben?

TB:Well, we started Freestyle Union three and a half years ago, and then a couple of the guys  got picked up by Steve Coleman to go on tour. They toured 13 countries in Europe.  Then they came back and picked up one of the younger guys, who was at that time still in high school.

RT:Black Indian?  And he and Sub-Zero and Kokayi recorded with Steve Coleman and Metrics on Tale of Three Cities and The Way of the Cipher.

TB:Yes.  So one thing led to another, and Steve set up a situation where they could do their own album.  Now Opus Akoben is their own group.  Opus, a piece of music, and Akoben which is Adinkera for “war-horn.”  So they’re waging war with music. I’m on their CD on a couple of cuts . . .it’s available in Europe on RCA records.  They’re still trying to secure US distribution.

RT: And your other band will be performing in the area?

TB:The Daughters of the Cipher will be opening for Regina Bell and the Manhattans, August 10 at Carter Barren.  And we’re going to be in Taste of DC, and maybe Adams Morgan Day.

RT:When you’ve got this big sound, and the beat, and people are probably dancing–can everybody always hear the words?  Or be paying attention to the words?

TB:No–well, see I’m speaking as a hiphop head when I talk about the lyrics–there might be a hundred and fifty people in a club, and there might be forty of them trying to hear the lyrics, and those are the hiphop heads.  They are such a big part of why you put so much time and effort into making your music good.  It’s almost like your conscience is out there.

RT:It sounds like there’s an interesting bunch of influences in Opus Akoben–reggae, hiphop, really jazzy stuff.  Tale of Three Cities is in the jazz bins at Tower Records . . .

TB:With Opus Akoben their focus is more on the music.  With the band Daughters of the Cipher it’s more about what I feel.

RT:How did you come to this–both music and poetry?

TB:I’ve been writing poetry since I was eight.  My aunt was a writer in the Bay Area writing movement.  So I’ve been going to book fairs since I was walking.  Then I had an aunt who’s husband was a DJ, and she had walls and walls of records–but I didn’t realize how much of a love of music I had–because it wasn’t “a real career” [laughs].  I took piano for ten years from a master piano player who played jazz. I rapped in highschool, I had a group.  In college I focused more on drama and public speaking–did a lot of that.  Then after college I got the corporate job, went crazy for year and then quit.  Got right back into music, that was like, ‘92.  I decided I wanted to develop my voice, took a workshop with Ron Elliston . . .

RT:That’s interesting because, well a real basic thing about rap–when it comes to the chorus and it’s time to sing some, they’ve got a voice, usually better than a lot of people in rock [laughter] and then they turn it off.  Do you ever feel that you’re sacrificing something to not sing . . .

TB:Yeah, you have that battle.  I have three octaves and I only use one.  The girls in my group . .  . it’s like the rhymes get them going but the singing might mean they’d have to sit still [laughs].  I know Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Qwest–I was at a workshop in New York with Weldon Irving, he wrote the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”–Q-Tip’s studying piano with him now.  So you have people moving into a more musical vein.  So it’s coming full circle.

RT:It brings in a lot of energy–those things where it’s got the jazz tonality but the rap beat.  Well, lets see . . . Anybody you read these days?  Or do you feel you’ve gotten more caught up in spoken than written poetry?

TB:Yeah.  I did a lot of writing–back in ‘88 at Howard University with Ethelbert Miller, and I did a lot of performance of that work.  And now my motivation to do that . . . it doesn’t compare.  I still write, but I don’t think I’ve written anything good in at least two years, in terms of poetry I’d send to get published.  I read, but more old stuff . . . Anne Sexton.  I read Henri Dumas all the time.  Amiri Baraka, Audrey Lourd, June Jordan.

RT:What do you rap about?  What do you get going on?

TB:In terms of subject matter?  Because I did so much reading about mental elevation and creative healing and spiritual healing and being able to accept myself as an artist, a lot of my work deal with that theme of “you can do anything.”  So the lyrics might start out “Ginger lace trinkets dangling from evergreen leaves, sweet pine aromatically melt in my senses, I swing from trees, birdlike, complete with ebony hue, I relax with pen and paper, Calgon takes me nowhere, has no clue . . .”  Even if I try not to let it come out, it does, the whole idea of meditation being healthy, physically and mentally.  The guys keep joking ‘cause I keep on talking about colonics, [laughs] toxins in the system and so forth.  In ‘93 I did a song called “Don’t drink the Water.”  Cause I drink a lot of water and the water’s not drinkable.  Then we have our violence song.  They always talk about how it affects the males, so we [Daughters of the Cipher] have our own interpretation.  And my take on it is I’m tired of crying, my tears are all dried up–and I wondered is God punishing these guys, a lot of guys I went to highschool with, between ‘88 and ‘90, were killed.  So I really questioned God.  We also question the art form, the exploitation of it.   One of the decisions I had to make a year and a half ago was what is the purpose of Freestyle Union.  And I said “This is about the art of hiphop, the art of music and the art of poetry.”  We’re not here to make your political statement, we’re not here to save the world, we’re not a youth drop-in center.  If the youth drop in, they’d better be artists.  Because I’m socially aware some people call me an activist–my activist friends would not.  I believe in self-actualization, in living your dreams.   I’ve seen the difference that art makes in people’s lives, in the way they treat themselves and the way they treat others.  It’s frustrating because of the way art is not supported.  If I’m any kind of activist I’m an art activist.

RT:I hope I can make this next show with Opus Akoben. [I persistantly have mispronounced the last syllable of Akoben as not ben but bon, sort of “opus autobahn”] Well, talking about toxins in the system, I’ve just come off the wage-slave grind so I’m probably carrying a cloud of bad vibes, but could you introduce yourself for the tape, could you rhyme some for us?

TB:Ok.  So you want me to freestyle . . .

RT:Well, whatever you feel like . . .

TB:So I lyrically improvise as I recognize and realize that you had a long day and to rest makes you real wise, I be Toni Blackman sittin’ upon the futon as I come on as I rip the rhymes without a microphone, I stand up as I did a little rehearsal in the afternoon and I didn’t do too much a little too soon because we have a show on Thursday this way and we’ll display the skills and you will see us build, it will be Daughters of the Cipher and the Opus Akobahn, oops Akoben, oh excuse moi, pardon I.

Inner-course, A Plea for Real Love by Toni Blackman on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Inner-course-A-Plea-Real-Love/dp/0375509143/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1383717268&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=toni+blackman

 

THE LIMITATIONS OF FIRE [Fiction from Washington Review, November 1992]

— a story by Ross Taylor

1. The Father a Dog, the Mother a Bird

They are his parents.

Whose parents? This guy? The one with whiskered, furry muzzle, unspeakable prehensile wings, and cold pouring of scales in between?

He mopes through the wet city streets when few bars are still open. He remembers his parents …

Do you remember your parents?
Shhh, there’s a dragon …

He remembers his little mother rustling off through dead leaves, broken-winging it to distract a bad cat. Or his old man bounding off the porch, ears back, to challenge a stranger in a tattered pin-strip suit walking onto the farm with no luggage.

Here he is, his bad self, in the questionable city; and questions he had, when he first came. But he was among other equally curious monsters. There were career opportunities, but he burned his bridges. He has begun working toward the Zen of invisibility, lack of affect, lack of effect, except when he scares some other drunk coming around a corner on a rainy night.

See! Crying for himself. A dragon. Wouldn’t his tears be like a crocodile’s?

2. Above the Rest of the City

From a rooftop many floors up he looks out towards the river and the distant bay, smoking, feeling the night breeze. There is a rustling near him. A Sphinx has joined him a few yards to his left. More sounds – the tapping, scratching of her claws as she turns round and round in small circles, unable to find a comfortable spot on the still-warm tar-paper.

Just the kind of girl his mother would have hated, the bars are full of them, looking at people sideways, talking in their silly little riddles. But of course she also reminds him of his mother. Her fur gleams, but her wings have that mottled brown woodsparrow look, only duller for being larger.

He throws her an opening remark and she responds, of course, with a question, but somehow they get a conversation going. Here questions are mostly sarcastic enough to be statements, after all. She seems a cross between a psychoanalyst and a catty talk-show host. He talks a lot about himself, how he got through most of the seventies on the fumes from the sixties, but now it’s all defense de fumer.

She responds with hints about herself. “You ever been to the Rotisserie? They’re real friendly there, aren’t they, all those Designer Robots who go there? One of them put his hand on my ass, and as his first come-on asked me to guess how much he was worth, and didn’t I slap his face?”

She says this kneading the roof, sometimes forgetting to retract her claws in time so she occasionally pulls up some tarpaper revealing the planks beneath. “You ever burned someone,” not looking directly at him, “intentionally, I mean?”

He looks farther out in the direction he has been looking. “I think I’m going to go to the beach tomorrow,” he says. “Why don’t you come with me?”

3. Sort of a Suicide

The morning is reasonably clear, a little hot, haze building, though still what fliers refer to as “unlimited visibility.” They land halfway, for food and coffee to make up for no sleep. There is a small white building with a flashing sign in a neighborhood of chest high chain link fences. By the ramp up to the door a large dog with a bitter face is chained, his ears already back.

The Dragon goes first and the dog gets in his way.

“Ain’t no service here” says the dog, but he keeps on ignoring it. “Ain’t no food inside” says the dog, and the Dragon laughs.

“Well, what have you got?”

“We’re just gonna give you grief, so if you don’t want grief you can go someplace else.”

“Don’t pick this fight with me,” the Dragon replies. “I’m a lot stronger than you and I mean to eat in your restaurant.”

“Eat or be eaten” says the dog, who leaps and sinks his teeth in the Dragon’s shoulder. The Dragon hits him under the ribs, shooting him straight up to the length of his chain. When the chain pulls taut it breaks his neck.

With the help of a stranger the bitter dog has hanged himself in reverse, and while his dying brain falls back from the sky , his spirit hovers there, free, unsure where to go next.

4. The Beach at Noon

On the beach, in the noon, the couple sit like carvings rising out of the sand, and sleeping sitting up with the sun filtering through their eyelids so they dream of landscapes with a glow that comes from no place in particular. Children play around them, and later on he makes love to her. They have no contraceptives, so he tries to interrupt himself at the last minute, but isn’t sure if he’s withdrawn in time. Still, she lies smiling with her eyes closed and refuses to respond when he calls her name. So he sits up and looks out halfway between the sun and the sea.

He wonders what their children would look like. In the back of his mind, bitterness revolves like a gas cloud condensing into a proto-star, but heavier than a star, huge, like black hole: maybe a trap door into someplace else, maybe life so intense it becomes nothing at all.

He gets up, goes down to the waves. They march in to him like rows of faces in a preposterous stadium. He wants to chase and be chased by the waves, as he saw his father do in idiotic wild spirits, barking – but when he gives in to this there is a louder noise and the waves steam, and oily sputum, still burning, floats on the soiled, subdued waves. This is his nature.

He looks out to the horizon. From there to his feet march the rows of faces, all slightly familiar, like the human trash on the sidewalks accusing him of things that aren’t his fault, or the receptionists that aren’t receiving this week, or the beautiful faces, male and female, like the faces that offer goods in advertisements, only unlike them by not being friendly. And beneath those face, what a coy menagerie. He craves the power to burst this shimmering, undulating surface and face facts on a grand scale, to swallow the medicine straight.

Worse than nausea, something at the pit of his stomach collapses into a small tight ball, then and unbearable pinpoint, and shoots pain down into his crotch and up into his head. Digging in all four feet with his rear slightly crouched, he lets his abdomen contract like the recoil of a field piece and an arm of fire reaches out to touch the waves, the faces, while the Sphinx stealthily rises and bolts for the dunes, and the waves continue to slap under the smoking film that darkens them. In a minute he collapses, defeated.

As the sun sets he sleeps with his head on the sand.

5. Apotheosis

Complete darkness. The surf rumbles and hisses. Perhaps his oil has already washed up onto the sand. He weakly raises his head, lifts his chest. The absolute night is only emphasized by the sea noise. The darkness is so complete that Proteus arises from it. Immediately the Dragon knows of His presence. With all his strength the Dragon again shoots fire but its light barely reaches the waves to sparkle them, it is surrounded by the not-really-a-cloud which is no place in particular. The light, confused, gets lost, is gone. Proteus speaks, saying “I have come to take away your grief,” and reaches deep into the Dragon’s throat. He is all through the Dragon in an instant, touching the tops of the soles of his feet from the inside, touching the corneas of his eyes from behind, pressing all the way through his heart to its back then reflecting forward in waves so bright one could only see them as burn marks on the lens of any detecting machinery …

Well there go the characters. All I can see now is the noon beach, no, it’s just paper. I like the Dragon and his friend, but I have my own sorrows.

An old poem of mine I hope is in the spirit of this thing

DRIFTER’S ESCAPE

                       his serious illness around the time Ginsberg, Burroughs & Garcia died

Venom of rattler, tarantuler, Robert Johnson’s widder
girlfriend, the tip jar that smells of brine,
the journalist who’s got your words and proceeds
to torture them under your big nose.
The songs you don’t own but you will someday.
The singers who own you, who make you go forth without drums
for truth, or who make you buckle your leather
and go bring your unfaithful drummer back
for ransom and shock value and the good of all.
The secret marriage, the covert returning home,
the motherfucking kids who’ve got your words
and throw them at you, just when your mouth’s open, hard.
Then divorce, and movies.  Yeah, big lights. 

So your new records and tours all start piling up in the corner, and if you can’t remember what something was for just stick your arm in up past the elbow and pull out a wriggler. Now the train, the one you almost thought that you’d made up, comes close, whistling it’s way right up to where you’re resting, and those compadres you relied on all have tickets they didn’t tell you about.  Here ya go, buddy, one for you, we can share. And they get on.  You can’t fucking believe they’re getting on. You get in line.  Then you get out of line.  Suddenly everybody whoops and hollers and gives you awards saying you could last a long time. You kick yourself a bunch, yelling Einstein was right and these bruises I’m placing on myself are actually debatable. Shit, I feel sick about my buddies.  I just don’t like getting in line.