21 January 2012

An exhibit at Tibor deNagy of Elizabeth Bishop‘s art — both her original art and art she collected — reminds me that the creative process is constant.  Writing, painting, collecting too – these are all acts of seeing.

I love the inscription of “Happy Birthday” here – no one knows to whom Bishop wrote this, some speculate that she wrote/painted it for herself.

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43 King Street in NYC, where EB lived not too happily (for a year or so, I believe).  She was never able to feel at home in New York.  “I’ve never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I’ve never felt particularly at home.  I guess that’s about right for a poet’s sense of home.”

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EB did not have an easy life — she was adrift, suffered heartbreaks and isolation — but she made her own way, always finding ways to live where she wanted, and how she wanted (Maine, Key West, Brazil) — as an artist.  A rare and beautiful thing.

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16 January 2012

I worked through most of MLK day, but I did enjoy wandering the Studio Museum of Harlem for an hour or so.  It’s a privilege to live in this neighborhood, to partake in its culture, present and past; and I forget it too easily.

I found this photograph utterly arresting and beautiful.  I failed to photograph the plaque with the artist’s name, but I’m working on tracking it down.

Kira Lynn Harris‘s homage to Romare Bearden‘s “The Block,” part of the Romare Bearden Project, celebrating the centennial of his birth.

If you’re a New Yorker, be sure to make the trip uptown; if you’re an uptowner, be sure to get over to the Studio Museum sometime if you haven’t. It will  be worth your while.

11 January 2012

Two things: an essay and a blog post.

My essay on James Salter, “In the Light Where Art and Longing Meet: My Day With James Salter,” is in the current print issue of Tin House Magazine.  I couldn’t be more tickled.  The project began almost exactly two years ago(!) — with my piece at The Millions (on sex writing by “great” male writers), a stunning email from JS himself, and an ensuing correspondence over the following year.  Other amazing authors in this issue, themed “Beauty” — Marilynne Robinson, Michel Houellebecq, Eric Puchner, Paul Willems, Michelle Widgen, Aimee Bender on artist Amy Cutler, and more.

I also have a blog post, “Living and Learning in Bookstores,” as part of Tin House‘s “Book Clubbing” blog series — wherein I describe the independent bookstores in NYC that I love, and the unassuming bookstore in Seattle where I embarked on my literary education, many lifetimes (although really not that many years) ago. Enjoy!

4 January 2012

Mark Haddon‘s new novel, The Red House, will be out in June.  I wrote a brief blurb about it for The Millions‘ “Big Preview,” i.e. our most-anticipated-2012-releases extravaganza.  Check it out — it’s exciting and overwhelming, from the perspective of both writer and reader.

In researching The Red House, I found a few of Haddon’s blog posts about his writing process, in real time.  This one encouraged me — it reminded me that writing a novel is hard, it’s supposed to be hard; and yet half the angst of the process (for me, lately) is this ridiculous, tormenting voice inside that says “It shouldn’t be so hard, so slow, so painful; what’s wrong with you?”

I’m about 30,000 words in and it finally has momentum, but it’s been a long haul (i’ve just noticed a previous entry last december in which i announce cheerfully that i’m under way, so whatever i say should be taken with a pinch of salt). on the train on the way home i was perversely reassured by reading hermione lee‘s introduction to virginia woolf’s the years in which she detailed the interminable, painful and tortuous genesis of the novel (impossible… eternal… incredibly dreary… my vomit… i’m so sick of it… never again… failure… failure).

Perverse reassurance is something that we seem to “pay forward,” so thank you, MH.  And thank you, VW, who is perhaps the most extreme/haunting example of this sort of reassurance: there is suffering in the process of art-making – meaningful suffering – let us never forget.

2 January 2012

In contrast to a barrage of “man of the year” talk surrounding the late Steve Jobs, Sue Halpern offers a counter-view at the New York Review of Books — of a “repellent man” who gave the world not “something of enduring beauty” but rather “products.”  Unlike Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson, who put Jobs forth as a “genius” (with attending personality issues), and Jobs who considered himself  a great artist-figure, Halpern suggests that Jobs was mainly in the business of “manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s” — no more, no less.

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man […] derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. Friends and former friends speculate that his bad behavior was a consequence of being put up for adoption at birth. A former girlfriend, who went on to work in the mental health field, thought he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Sculley, who orchestrated Jobs’s expulsion from Apple, wondered if he was bipolar. Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior. Isaacson seems to think so, too, proving that it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.

The designation of someone as an artist, like the designation of someone as a genius, is elastic, and anyone can claim it for himself or herself and for each other. There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

Ouch.

This question of the bad behavior of artists is one I am always interested in.  While I’m not sure I’d necessarily take such a hard line as Halpern’s, there is something — here at the start of the new year — sort of cleansing about her voice in the sea of Jobs-mania.

26 December 2011

Phew — made it.

Every year, during the month that starts at Thanksgiving and ends after Christmas, I feel like an undersized running back at the two yard line (deep in my own team’s territory), working my way down the field.  I keep hoping that the quarterback will hail-mary us to the end zone in one gorgeous, painless swoop; but it ends up being more like piecemeal progress, fending off tackles, a little achey and bruisey.

There’s just too much expectation around these holidays.  Some of which I feel unable to meet, some of which I am unwilling.

In a few days my homage to Giuseppe di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard will go up at The Millions; and in it I write about how much I sympathize, and even empathize, with Don Fabrizio, the novel’s middle-aged Sicilian protagonist, a Prince circa 1860 no less.  What could I possibly have in common with the Prince of Salina during Italy’s Risorgimento?  Well, principally this:

I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.

My family life is not conventional enough to conform to holiday expectations; and I suppose I am not (yet) unconventional enough at heart to truly feel free from all those expectations.

Anyhoo — officially, we (if you happen to relate to this) can now come out of hiding.  It is okay to be doing non-holiday things — like work, correspondence, etc — without seeming too much like a sad weirdo.  Here is a bit of what we did on Dec 25, here in Buenos Aires, Argentina:

Parque de la Memoria (for The Disappeared) — “To Think/Contemplate is a Revolutionary Act”

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Kitschy Nativity Scene, outside Congreso

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Quiet subway platforms — a gathering of tourists mostly!

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Families fishing along the Rio de la Plata

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Football (soccer) stadium, River Plate Team, the rich team (think Yankees)

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In Once (OHNsay) – an immigrant neighborhood centered around a place called Plaza Miserere (yikes) that reminded me of Queens (and not really miserable at all)

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And what did we eat?  Leftover Chinese takeout, sauteed gai-laan, leftover peach pie (homemade, by a lovely young expat  who hosted us for Christmas eve dinner), and flan from the corner bakery.  Whiskey and soda, cheap Malbec. Good stuff.

15 December 2011

Can I just say how much I love the siesta concept, here in Latin America (and many places around the world)?

I’m using mine to catch up on… well, to catch up on everything at this point, but at the moment, catch up on blogs and literary periodicals.  From Claire Messud‘s review of Michael Ondaatje‘s new novel, The Cat’s Table:

In a rare, distinctly essayistic moment in his new novel, The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje articulates his position thus:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they: we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves…. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

This view, almost an authorial ethics of representation, explains some aspects of Ondaatje’s literary style: his prose, while gorgeous, is on occasion quite oblique, and his narratives—as is true of The Cat’s Table—can be strikingly fragmented. (It is wonderful and, in these fundamentally homogenizing times, increasingly rare to encounter a writer who does not shape his art to a known and satisfying form, but instead fashions the form around his content.) His goal is to reach toward that elusive complex we might call experienced human reality, and in so doing, precisely to grant each of his characters his own wisdom and autonomy. In an Ondaatje novel, there is much that we do not directly know, much that we cannot know for certain.

I think often about what it means, in this current cultural moment, to be a “literary” writer; and if that terminology even matters anymore.  There is a sense that it doesn’t; that it is an anachronistic, old fuddy-duddy kind of categorization; that you will die in dinosaur-like fashion if you hold too tightly to such high-art ideas.  But something about Messud’s description of Ondaatje’s literary vision speaks to what I consider to be literary — to be art — in a way that matters.  Uncertainty; unknowability; “experienced human reality” as elusive and complex; ultimately a reading experience that effects some discomfort and reminds us that life is a mysterious, unstreamlined business.