Tag Archives: words

a distant star

imperceptibly, the gray skies of winter have overtaken minnesota the past week or two. there have not been many sunny moments. even when the sun has been out, it’s so far off and alien that it might as well be cloudy. on sunday i was writing and i wanted to accurately describe the cloudy winter sky so i went to the window to take a good look and realized that there was actually quite a bit of blue in the sky. it was pretty surprising.

in any case, it was good to crack open my first ever richard brautigan, (trout fishing in america) last night and find this brilliant description of the sun:

“The sun was like a huge fifty-cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then lit with a match and said ‘Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper,’ and put the coin in my hand but never came back.”

I sit on a mid-stream rock, my head in my hands, dazed and exhausted.

On our last night in Russia, Swenson and I decide to fish after dinner, in the haunting gray gloaming of the late Arctic summer, and we hike a few miles upstream, then hopscotch our way down, fishing each pool with intensity. At midnight, I stop at Peter’s Pocket, a small pool boxed in a canyon like a present from the salmon gods, and make a short cast. I think my line is hooked on the bottom, and I throw repeated overhand casts to try to dislodge the fly. But the rock suddenly starts moving and I hold on for dear life.

For 10 minutes, the contest is a draw, with neither the fish nor me budging. I can tell that this is the biggest salmon I’ve ever hooked into, possibly over the 30-pound mark that demarcates a “serious” fish. I want to catch it, for myself and to prove something to Peter. I yell in vain for Swenson, but the roar of the rapids soaks up all noise not its own. After 20 minutes, the fish makes its move. It starts slowly upstream, then suddenly accelerates toward the rapids above the pool like no fish I’ve ever hooked. It leaps, suspended for a moment in the air, then shakes its head and my line goes slack.

I sit on a mid-stream rock, my head in my hands, dazed and exhausted.

-Monte Burke, The Russia Diaries, Fly Rod & Reel, January/February 2005

the writer acts, the actor will soon write

sam shepard has a new play off-broadway, the god of hell, and is also acting for the first time since starring alongside patti smith in his own play, cowboy mouth, in 1971. although acting and actors have occasionally fascinated me, writing and writers are far more immediate, so i’ll ignore the parts of this village voice article and stick to the parts about shepard’s new play about republicans, totalitarianism, patriotism, etc…

The God of Hell opens in familiar Shepard territory, a Wisconsin farmhouse where taciturn Frank (played by Randy Quaid) oils his boots and mutters about feeding the heifers while Emma (J. Smith-Cameron) dithers around the kitchen burning bacon and overwatering her plants. Soon, two cartoonish characters intrude upon this Midwestern idyll — Welch (Tim Roth, making his American stage debut), a vivacious devil disguised as a businessman who barges in with an American-flag cookie as his calling card, and Haynes (Frank Wood), a nerdy scientist hiding out in the basement who emits bolts of light whenever someone touches him. While the action is zany, a steady undertow of disturbing references to torture, beheadings, and contamination accumulates, making the play darker, stranger, and more political than anything Shepard has written in years, possibly ever.

…On the occasion of this West Village/East Village double whammy, Shepard agrees to an interview at the Jane Street Tavern after a preview of The God of Hell. Just a few days after his 61st birthday, he shows up sporting a sleek, grown-out buzz cut.

“I really wanted to write a black farce,” says Shepard, “so I went back and studied Joe Orton. Nobody wrote better farce than him, and he was very dark. Not being as witty and clever as Joe Orton, I used Entertaining Mr. Sloane as a jumping-off place. I started with three characters, the couple and the stranger who comes to stay with them. The notion of somebody coming from out of nowhere and disturbing the peace. It fit perfectly with the Republican invasion. The whole storm that built up after 9-11. The Welch character came in last. I wanted him to be like something out of Brecht’s clown plays. Tim plays him with the perfect tone: the demon clown.”

Shepard’s working title for The God of Hell was Pax Americana, an ironic hint at the play’s theme of toxic patriotism. When Welch appears out of the blue, he pointedly asks Emma why her living room lacks “symbols of loyalty” and tries to sell her patriotic paraphernalia, which she declines. The minute she steps away, he whips out a staple gun and proceeds to cover the inside of her house with strings of little flags. A typically Shepardian theatrical device, this proliferation of objects is both comic and creepy, like the artichokes in Curse of the Starving Class, the vegetables in Buried Child, and the toasters in True West. But it also unmistakably refers to the blanketing of red-white-and-blue that turned the country’s outpouring of post–9-11 grief into something bullying and coercive.

“We’re being sold a brand-new idea of patriotism,” Shepard says darkly. “It never occurred to me that patriotism had to be advertised. Patriotism is something you deeply felt. You didn’t have to wear it on your lapel or show it in your window or on a bumper sticker. That kind of patriotism doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

What is that show-your-colors mentality about? “Fear,” he says. “The sides are being divided now. It’s very obvious. So if you’re on the other side of the fence, you’re suddenly anti-American. It’s breeding fear of being on the wrong side. Democracy’s a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it’s no longer democracy, is it? It’s something else. It may be an inch away from totalitarianism.”

Wary of being drawn into a political discussion, Shepard insists, “I don’t want to become a spokesman for a point of view. I really want the play to speak for itself.” He chose to write a comedy specifically to keep things ambiguous. An image of torture simultaneously evokes Abu Ghraib and Waiting for Godot. Haynes’s bug-zapper handshake is a metaphor for radioactive contamination, but it’s also a silly, fun theatrical effect. (“I get that static shock thing in the winter whenever I walk across a rug and touch something, which I hate, and I’ve always wanted to put it in a play.”)

and yes, the greatest playwrite and one of the true heavyweight actresses of our generation have left my hometown for greener pastures, so to speak.

Being back in New York is a big switch for Shepard. He and Jessica Lange recently sold their house in Minnesota and their 300-acre cattle ranch in Wisconsin and bought a new place in Kentucky, though they’re staying in the West Village for the time being, since Lange goes into rehearsal herself in January for a Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. When A Number finishes its run in January, Shepard plans to head back to Kentucky, to ride his horses and work on a new book of stories

keep ‘em coming, mr. shepard.

my personal pursuits, especially sitting in a tub winding up a small blue tugboat, would not be especially conducive to their companionship

i’m on a paris review kick. when george plimpton, the heroic founder and longtime editor of that fine publication (hell, they were the first ones to publish kerouac!), died last year, lewis lapham introduced me to the great soul in his editor’s note of the december 2003 issue of harper’s. the whole thing is worth reading, but lapham himself said that there was no happier eulogy for the man than his own words

“Twenty years ago I asked several New York editors to contribute to Harper’s Magazine their notions, in a thousand words or less, of the perfect balance of form and content otherwise known as Paradise.”

An island. Something along the lines of the Seychelles–with a coastline of granite rocks, like Henry Moore sculptures, rising out of a warm tropical sea.A few incidentals: a large and perfectly balanced boomerang, some bright-colored bathtub toys with small propellers and keys to wind them up, the ingredients and tools for making and setting off large aerial fireworks (along with an instruction booklet), athletic equipment, and a substantial amount of fishing gear, including a number of small red and white bobs.

The island compound would feature a dining pavilion among the palm trees, or a hall, rather, a somewhat baronial edifice with excellent acoustics, so that conversations, even very whispery ones, would not drift up into the rafters and get lost among the ceremonial flags. On hand would be an excellent butler, quite deaf, but faithful, and willing to help with the fireworks.

The compound would contain a number of guest houses. These small mushroomlike structures, set apart from each other, would all have views of the sea. They would be well appointed inside, each one having a white fan turning slowly on the ceiling and a large porcelain washbasin with a neatly folded, fluffed-up towel alongside. Every afternoon I would know my guests were being installed into these accommodations by the sounds of the houseboys chattering excitedly among themselves as they carried the baggage from the quay.

I would not see my guests before dinner, my own day being quite somnolent. Oh, a little boomerang tossing, perhaps, the construction of an aerial bomb or two, some bait-casting in the mangrove swamps, and surely a bit of a tub before dinner. (It’s not that I would feel unfriendly toward my guests, simply that my personal pursuits, especially sitting in a tub winding up a small blue tugboat, would not be especially conducive to their companionship.)

The guest list would be composed of people I have never met. Not only that, they would be dead. Ludwig II, the mad king of Bavaria, dined alone with busts of various dignitaries–Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette among them–set on chairs down the length of the banquet hall at Linderhof, and carried on an animated if slightly one-sided conversation with them. My guests would be the real shades.

Many of them would be seagoing people–the captain of the deserted brigantine Mary Celeste; Joshua Slocum, who also disappeared at sea; Richard Haliburton, who may have fallen off the stern of a Chinese junk; and Captain Kidd, to discuss the whereabouts of his vanished treasure. Shubert, to inquire about the “Lost Symphony,” and perhaps to persuade him to play a bit on the stand-up Yamaha in the corner.

Some of my dinner partner choices would be more quixotic. I’ve always wanted to know why Thomas Cromwell, Oliver’s great-uncle, was so anxious to get Henry VIII to marry Anne, the daughter of the duke of Cleves. (The king took one look and hated her. The marriage took place but was never consummated, and Cromwell lost his head. Frightful error of judgment.) So he could have a brandy or two at dinner and perhaps give an odd little talk on matchmaking. And General James Longstreet. Why, I would ask, did he not roll up Cemetery Ridge when he had the chance?

I don’t know how much of this it would be possible to take. So my Arcadia would also have a swift means of escape–preferably a drug-runner’s cigarette boat with a deep rumble of a motor in it, which, after a time, would tie up at a New York pier where, waiting in a fine mist, there would be a yellow cab.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Harper’s Magazine Foundation

dna live

yes, the dna of literature project over at the paris review is off the ground. i was way off last week when i said i thought jack was interviewed in the 50s. he wasn’t interviewed until 1968 which means that not only will his interview not be released until january, but also that the jack that is interviewed could very well be the defensive, angry drunk jack of those last years.

even so, i’m looking forward to it. it must have been the late 60s when he appeared on william f. buckley’s show and told buckley that he thought the north vietnamese had initiated the war over there to “get more jeeps in the country.” after a quiet moment, buckley asked him if he thought they had been successful so far and jack said something to the effect of “well, they got a lot of jeeps over there now.” keep in mind, this at the height of the war.

nonetheless, along with the release of the first batch of the interviews, apparently the paris review got a whole new web site. it’s much more modern, but also much busier and even i, web navigator extraordinaire, can’t figure out how the hell to access the text of the interview with hemingway from 1958. if i do, watch out.

literary interrogation

i’m a firm believer in knowing your roots. as such, i am indescribably excited that the paris review is preparing to launch all of it’s “writers at work” interviews online in just a few short days.

The Paris Review has interviewed almost 300 authors whose work has defined the literary landscape of latter half of the twentieth century. From its first interview with E.M. Forster, the Writers at Work series has, in the words of The New York Times, “set the standard for literary interrogation.” Now the Paris Review Foundation proposes to make this vast archival resource–what has felicitously been referred to as the DNA of Literature–available online, for free, to anyone who visits the Paris Review website. In addition to the interview itself, the website will feature author photos, images of original manuscript pages, a special forum in which authors will be able to revise or expand their original interviews, and links to pages that provide up-to-date biographical information about the authors. A customized search engine will allow a reader not only to search by name and date, but also to search the full text of the interviews so that, for instance, a search for Gabriel García Márquez will turn up his interview along with every other interview in which his name is mentioned.

The project will launch in mid-November of 2005, beginning with the interviews from the 1950s. These will be followed by interviews from subsequent decades, until all the interviews are available.

they are fully justified calling this project the “dna of literature”… these people, these interviews, are simply the building blocks of contemporary literature.

i don’t recall when jack was interviewed, but i’m guessing it was the 50s. oh, for yay!