Archive for ALOUD

A Night with Patti Smith

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 11/17/2015 by Janet Fitch

I can’t get enough of Patti Smith. Not since first seeing her in Portland Oregon in 1979, an artist I’d never heard of, but the ticket was $2, so why not? She took the stage, in an old theater–this skinny… boy? girl? in white shirt and necktie. She began, in a voice that was both gravelly and breathy, very very slowly: Jesus died… for Somebody’s sins… BUT– NOT –MINE! she screamed.  The audience went nuts. I went nuts.  My sins, they belong to me…. And then launched into the rock standard GLORIA–with the sexes remaining unchanged.  It was permanently mind-blowing.  My mind is still blown.  Like someone whacking the top of my head with a board.  Ever since, I’ve craved more–the music, the poetry,  the preacher-like gestures with those sensitive, little-tipped fingers–rising, hushing, reaching out. The power of her voice, her control of it, belting, murmuring. The rhythmic skeins of language–chants and incantations, true bardic rapture.  Her unabashed joy in art and in the things of the world, her sense of outrage, her sheer energy.

I have seen her turn gray, and sweeten with the years, a real surprise. Then her book, Just Kids, was published. It absolutely charmed me, a gorgeous recollection of how artists are made, that’s what got me about it, what commitment to art looks like,  the attitude of wonder and openness and goofiness and non-judgement–here’s my review of it on goodreads if you’re interested: Just Kids

A new book has now hit the bookstores, M Train, a dreamy memoir, and to celebrate, she came to LA and spoke at the Los Angeles Public Library Aloud series last night, in conversation with the novelist Jonathan Lethem. Of course I dumped everything to be there. I’d drive 100 miles just to hear how her mind works.  It’s so inspiring to see an artist who considers herself an artist. Who still has a creative vision as fresh as it had always been, whose layers of wisdom and experience manage not to rob her of her artistic vitality, her openness to the world–something I treasure more and more the older I get. How cheerful she is, unpretentious and direct, without any pose– unless naturalness itself is a pose, and if it is, it’s the best one to have.

The book sprang from a dream. She allowed one association to suggest the next, uninterrupted, and then explained that she edited it down and inserted small title heads so readers can rest and orient themselves, little ‘stations’ on the mental train… – Lots of pieces from her travels, photographs… I look forward to just spending time again inside her mind–that quick, broad, childlike, unjudgemental, alert, appreciative space.

Here are some notes from the evening I managed to jot down in the dark.

I learned that she works simultaneously on a number of books at once. “This was the first one to cross the finish line,” she joked.  She jokes a lot–I love the way she  takes her work very seriously, but not herself.  She spoke about her sense of responsibility to the reader, to the audience–“There was such responsibility in Just Kids–to chronology, and the people and the times.” To get it right. Where the new book is more a meditation, a dreamlike work.  She enjoyed writing M Train because it works associationally–didn’t have to be as responsible to truth and people in the outside world.

I liked hearing her talk about the difference between writing lyrics and writing poetry. She was talking about   a poem she wrote about Amy Winehouse and her death, which became a lyric to a song,  “This is the Girl.” She’d written it, and then her bass player shared a piece of music he’d written, and she realized that her poem would fit it perfectly. But the difference: “There’s a responsibility with a lyric, to others.” With a lyric, you have to think about the audience being able to understand you, follow you, it also has to not  violate the mood of the music.  “But with a poem, the responsibility is to the poem itself.  There are a lot of different sensations encoded in poetic language. Your blinders are on this way”–she held her hands up in front of her eyes–“in, towards the work.” The poet’s task is not to explain or make clear to the outside world, but to speak to the work, to deepen within the poem, a very intimate thing.

A lot of her musical work is improvised, a process that fascinates me, part of that shamanic element of her poetry. It often starts with a riff from the musicians, like  in Radio Ethiopia, or that incredible run in Birdland, about Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter, one of my all-time favorites. The musician starts, and then she mprovises language out of that, around that, a real bardic trance.

Great questions from the audience. Here were a few of them:

An audience member, an actor and writer, asked her about how to find/define success.  She said, “My definition of success is doing something really good. That you can read again and know it’s good. even if it doesnt get published or anything, even if nobody else sees it, I’ll read it and go, man, that was good!”    Not numbers or sales or followers, image etc. Just to do good work. “How it transformed other people, that’s another way.” Its contribution to the conversation.   And simply accepting that she’s an artist who does work across genres–“I always wanted to be Joan Mitchell. I saw her sitting in front of a big canvas in a film once, and she’s smoking and she said, ‘I’m a painter. That’s what I do.'”  But Smith’s been a poet, writer, musician, performer, mother, wife, all of those creative parts.

There were lots of references to films and other poets and writers. She lives in a cultural world, everything from Funny Face–‘that’s who I wanted to be, Audrey Hepburn in her little beatnik pants, working in a bookstore.’ to Rimbaud, Nina Simone, Blake,  Moby Dick–“I read it when I was about 13–but I skipped the whaling chapter.  I was a good reader but I’m a girl, and I skipped the whaling.”

About gender: “I staked the right not to have to be fettered by gender.”

One audience member asked her what she would recommend for reading material for juvenile offenders who are looking at long sentences. She said, “Who’s to say.  Depends on their reading level. With one you could give them the Glass Bead Game, with another it’s comic books.  The one thing that can’t be incarcerated is your imagination.  Genet was in jail at 14, and read Proust. It changed his life.  Who’s to say that a little thug like that shouldn’t read Proust. I think we should widen the choices of prison libraries.”

On the subject of responsibility, an audience member asked about writing non-fiction, ‘what if you’re writing about someone very close to you, who would be hurt…’ a question frequently asked of memoir writers.  Smith surprised us by saying that you have a responsibility to the living breathing people around you… that in Just Kids–full of real people. She felt a responsibility not to hurt anybody, even the ones who–she didn’t even say hurt her, she looked for a kind way to say it ‘weren’t that careful with me.’ “Books last a long time.  I think you should be careful with people in print. It’s up to you, but that’s what I did.”

“I’m not afraid to look uncool.” What I like best about Patti Smith is her absolute lack of cynicism, of irony, of beentheredonethat.  Her direct apprehension of reality, her mixture of air and earth–her emergence as the quintessential American artist. I left there inspired in about nine different ways. THIS is how to be an artist. THIS is how to age–joyfully.

Franzen at ALOUD in LA

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , , , , on 09/17/2010 by Janet Fitch

Like myself and half the writers in LA, 600 people paid their hard earned money to see Jonathan Franzen at the Japan/America Theater last night, where he was hosted by the Los Angeles Public Library’s ALOUD series.

I came away so inspired, I am still thinking about it.

Now, I have not yet read Freedom and I have to say, I encountered The Corrections at a bad time in my life, as my twenty-year marriage was breaking up. Not the time for a funny but vicious family novel.

And as an Oprah author, I’d cringed to watch his clumsy handling of that unexpected turn of events–the sudden embrace of an outsized media figure and her vast audience, something I’m sure he’d never even imagined and was ill-equipped to field, having been used to operating within insular literary circles, where he’d long been defending serious literature against the depredations of mass culture. To even imagine that someone like Franzen could have gracefully made the transition from insider-cult-figure to national-media prominence is to misunderstand the elacticity of the human personality.

Seeing him last night made that doubly clear.

Asked to read for ten minutes, he read for 20, saying that the novel (not just his novel, but ‘the novel’) is really not made for cutting up into such small bits. That the art form is a living whole that cannot be so easily sampled–part of his entire project, which is to create novels that a) cannot be so easily sliced and diced and summed up and ‘performed’; and b) that the slowing down demanded by the consumption of a novel is inherently one of its great merits, the way we have to stop flitting about and concentrate in order to partake of this art form, how it changes US to have this particular conversation.

The selection he read was funny and mean… his tools for understanding where we are in America in our time are the satirist’s… and whether this is my favorite kind of writing (it isn’t) or not, the suppleness of the prose and the precision won my admiration.

Then afterwards, he settled down to an interesting, awkward conversation with Meghan Daum, author (Life would be Perfect if I Lived in That House) and columnist with the LA Times.

I would not have wanted to change places with her. He is a difficult interviewee–though I don’t think he means to be, he just very clearly struggles to speak with precision, authenticity and honesty, and is embarrassed and uncomfortable with anything that would tempt another writer to cozy up to an audience or be a “good boy” for the interviewer–the very trait that caused his Oprah troubles to begin with.

We are not used to seeing difficult, authentic, often awkwardly honest writers on the national stage. We expect prominent writers to be performing seals to a certain degree, dealing with interviews and audiences with the confidence and aplomb of pitchmen selling miracle floorwaxes at the County Fair. So to see someone struggling to be honest and authentic, rather than charming and appealing, is a lot like catching an appearance of Hailey’s Comet.

That’s the first thing that impressed me, and helped me better understand the difficulties someone like this can get into on the public stage.

The second thing that impressed me was his refusal to comment on any of the controversy surrounding the publication of Freedom. Whew. Would have eaten up all the time and been boring as shit.

Instead of getting caught up discussing how women are reviewed in America (not well), he spoke about Alice Munro, a favorite writer, an extraordinary woman who has very little recognition outside of literary circles. Guess he’s learned a bit of judo in the last nine years–takes it where HE wants to go, instead of letting the wave pound him.

Also loved his refusal in general to let the natter of the internet rule his life, as it does so many of us–really giving me a lot of thought today… A friend told me that after David Foster Wallace, a very close Franzen friend, died, Franzen poured super glue into his internet port and went back and rewrote Freedom in a concerted burst of energy.

So how do you do your research, if you can’t just go online? Meghan asked. He just writes down all his questions as he’s writing, and when he goes home (clearly has alternative writing space), he looks it up all at once.

About Freedom vis a vis The Corrections, he said that the Corrections was a more autobiographical book, and that he’d been unable to get to the hard ‘unwritable things’– had to be more cartoony, a broader and simpler approach. That’s what happens when you make it too autobiographical. With Freedom, he felt he was better equipped to get to those unwritable things, because he could make up the characters to hold them.

Meghan commented on his incredible vocabulary and asked him if he uses a thesaurus. I loved that he said yes he was, but it wasn’t that his vocabulary was so exotic–“I’ve never used the word nacreous“–it was just that he loves precision. And you could hear it in his speech as well as in his writing–such balm after ‘kind ofs’ and ‘sort ofs’ and ‘that so-and-so thing’ and ‘well like you know’ we hear all the time.

I LOVE that he’s a thesaurus guy. (Any of you who have worked with me, and have had to go out and get a Roget’s International Thesaurus with the finger tabs, knows how happy that made me. My thesaurus has been so well-used it’s bound in duct-tape.) Evidently Nicholson Baker (Vox, Double Fold) was devastated when he learned that John Updike used a thesaurus. but as Franzen pointed out, all of us have the experience of knowing there’s a perfect word for what you want to express and not being able to think of it. So instead of throwing in any word, better to use a book to find the perfect word. Also, we writers are simply lovers of words. How wonderful, he said, to open a book and have all the breeds of dogs in there. YES.

How did he write Freedom? He wrote for five years, piling up the pages–and then saw which characters he kept coming back to, and fashioned a narrative from those, throwing the rest out.

Talking about the satiric nature of Freedom, he said, “Satire is making fun of things you feel superior to.” Maybe this is some of the trouble I had with the Corrections, and probably will have with Freedom–that sense that the author feels superior to the people and phenomena he writes about–very different from the work of say, TC Boyle… who makes you laugh and yet you don’t feel that superiority bleeding through. It’s a different existential standpoint. This is where I get skeptical when I hear Franzen compared to Tolstoy. In his ambition maybe, and his cultural critique… but in his essential attitude towards his creations? We’ll see.

I was fascinated by his reply to Meghan’s asking him to characterize ‘his generation’ (Franzen was born in 1959). At first he said it was very hard, as he could easily characterize other people’s generations, but “we’re just us.” But on second thought, he said, “I was born just in the last minutes of the Baby Boom. I felt like I was seeing the doors shutting right behind me. Things closing down. The openness, the freedoms of the boomers. The year after me in high school, in college–people started thinking about going to business school.” I’ve had that sense myself, of just squeaking in somehow, just as things are ending, or even that it was just ending as we got there. Wonder if that’s a common feeling, or if we are in that ‘tail-end’ generation.

But I especially liked him talking about the novel as a form: “I want to write a book that argues for the form itself.” Had to just sit with that one. And I continue to sit with it. What a mandate, what a challenge. he continued: “My ambition is to write an unfilmable novel.” The LA Times book blogger Carolyn Kellogg asked him to elaborate on ‘the novel making the case for the novel’ in the Q and A period (told you half the writers in LA were there): ‘What makes a novel say ‘fuck you, Hollywood?’ He replied that in the novel “you get to turn the story around constantly. In an omniscient third-person scene, you can get the entire perspective from any number of people. There are more surprises when you live through the time of the artwork. [i.e. the days it takes to live through the reading of a novel], the novel’s capacity to delay the introduction of a new point of view is unlike that of any other art.”

True to his diffidence to accommodate the audience, he refused to discuss the themes of the book: “I pretty radically decline to to talk about the themes of the novel or to interpret it.” (Takes balls to say that in front of an audience of 600–and to see how difficult it was for him to say it really made me admire his choices, his refusing to play footsie, when it would have been the ingratiating thing to do. How he squirmed in the Q and A section… as he tried to not to bullshit but really respond in an honest and authentic and not always loveable way. I really appreciated that, where I once might not have.

And of course, I loved him advocating for the Novel as the superlative art form, the grand project of the Novel, talking about kind of attention novel-reading demands, as opposed to the “busy-ness of the buzzing and tweeting. It’s a way you can keep yourself from sitting still. Novel reading keeps you present to yourself–I don’t mean like yoga, but being present to yourself with ego intact. You’re allowed to be a person reacting to the work of another person.” That one to one sustained encounter.

Funny–the program I use to detach myself from the internet is called… Freedom.

Wishing you all good reading.