Taming the Wildebeest

PaulSimon_Ellmann_hero_SeptDates

This week, I had the chance to attend the Richard Ellman Lecture Series at Emory University. It is a four-part event, held biannually, that features a great literary thinker. The last presenter, Margaret Atwood, was wonderful, and I expected nothing less of this year’s speaker—Paul Simon.

He gave two lectures, had a public conversation with Billy Collins, and gave a concert to bring the event to a close. I had tickets to all parts except the concert (because they went like wildfire the morning they were released). But that didn’t matter because, during the conversation, I got to hear Billy Collins read five poems and Paul Simon sing three songs—“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

I also briefly met both men after their time on stage was up, which was a thrill to say the least! And, despite the long, hectic day, they were wonderful and gracious and signed the stuff I stuck in front of them.

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I got both in one day. Color me excited!

During their discussion of songwriting/poetry, they agreed that there is no moment in a piece of writing that is without consequence. As Mr. Collins said, “No line must sleep; every line must make a contribution.”

They went back and forth for the better part of an hour discussing exactly how to go about it (and how you could know you had accomplished this lofty goal.) However, the most interesting point for me was the “wildebeest note” example Mr. Simon gave.

Apparently, when he was recording “Rewrite,” a song on his 2011 album So Beautiful So What, a note at the end of a repeated phrase just sounded “wrong.” Not out of tune or a poor fit for the key, just flat out wrong. It sounded, according to him, “like a note being played on an acoustic guitar in a recording studio.”

That’s exactly what it was, but he wanted it to have an altogether different color, a distinctive depth of tone. So he said he thought on it for awhile and decided to blend that slightly pear-shaped note with a sound he had recorded on his last visit to Africa.

Photograph by ABPL/Gerald Hinde/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.
Photograph by ABPL/Gerald Hinde/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.

Yep, you guessed it….a wildebeest. There is a note in “Rewrite” that is part guitar and part wild animal, but for the life of me, I cannot hear it. Can you?

He went to amazing lengths to get a sound precisely correct. He labored over it for who knows how long until it resonated just the way he thought it should. My ears cannot suss it out, and had I not attended this lecture series, I wouldn’t even know to listen for it. But it’s there just the same.

That’s the kind of attention to detail that has to be present when we create anything, be it in the field of music, art, dance or writing. And it made me ask myself, “Am I always paying that much attention to the things I create? Have I settled for an almost-right word instead of going back to the thesaurus one more time? Have I gotten lazy with my sentence structure and gone for what’s safe instead of what’s best?”

Hearing Paul Simon tell this story made me realize that creating something from nothing is hard. I mean damned hard. But it’s also worth it. And with everything I write in the future, I’m going to ask myself if I can add a “wildebeest noise,” a certain element that makes the piece feel natural and beautiful. There will always be an element I can slyly place in my work to make it flow more organically without sounding forced. To be worth it, writing must be done to that level of painstaking detail. Always.

Can you tell me a way you’ve done it? Is there something you’ve added, some tweak you’ve made to a piece of art or a performance that made it perfect? Was it worth it even if you were the only one who knew it was there? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments. Lay it on me!

Music to My Ears

Last week, my writing group discussed how long we’d been working at the craft, what got us started, and what keeps us going. The stories ranged from silly to serious, but there were a few things we all shared. For example, we all love reading and do so voraciously. We also started penning stories, poems, and essays at a very young age. Each one of fell in love with words, and there were moments and people who helped us discover just how winsome they truly are.

I think the same is true of other creative efforts like dance, art, music, cooking, and design. We each have a certain amount of natural talent in one or more of these areas, and it can always be developed through disciplined practice and the help of experts.

I wish my first grade teacher, Mrs. Davis, had thought about this fact. One week, she gave our class an assignment: draw a character and write a story featuring him/her. I’m sad to say I don’t have the original drawing, so I tried to re-create it using the crude art supplies in my office. Ladies and gents, I give you Miranda…

characterportrait

First off, I apologize for the uber creepy Jack Nicholson Joker lips, but it did the best I could. I remember her story was a simple one. She was ten years old (the age I so desperately wanted to be at the time because it had two numbers in it instead of one). She had curly brown hair and green eyes. She was a singer who loved animals and the color purple. I believe she rescued a fluffy gray and white kitten and gave it to a lonely old lady named Mrs. Kimberly who lived down the street. Yeah, she was pretty boss.

Well, when it came to drawing her, I was a little perplexed. I was the kid who liked to paint a picture with words rather than shapes and colors. But the assignment required both parts, so I–ever the diligent student–set out to complete the second part.

When we’d finished our work, we sat around Mrs. Davis in a circle, and she held our drawings up for everyone to see. She asked us questions about them, especially what we saw and liked. Finally, it was my turn, and she held up my drawing of Miranda. I held by breath, wondering what everyone would say about my magnum opus. But all she said was, “What’s wrong with this picture, class?”

Wrong? What’s wrong?  I asked myself. What could possibly be wrong with it?

My classmates threw in suggestions until Mrs. Davis finally gave up and answered her own question, “It’s wrong because she doesn’t have any ears.” Everyone snickered, and she moved on to the next victim.

I wanted to defend my artistic choice, to scream, “Of course she has ears, you ninny! They’re under her hair!” But I didn’t because I was mortified.

When I saw the assignment the next day, I saw a huge red “B” etched in one corner and the same assessment scribbled in another. For an entire week, the drawing was pinned to the bulletin board at the front of our classroom—mocking me. And I think that was the moment I gave up any and all thoughts of trying my hand at art.

Granted, I never would have been naturally gifted at it. You can tell that I have no eye for proportion or form. Unlike my friend Jeff Gregory, whose doodles are works of brillance, I could never labor over something made of acrylic, pencil, or charcoal and make it beautiful. But I always wonder if Mrs. Davis’ appraisal of my drawing forever altered some part of me that was willing to take a risk with something new, something that I wasn’t necessarily skilled at but could have gotten better with over time. Horses were only things I ever practiced drawing from that point on because, like all girls, I was obsessed with them. I doodled in notebooks, but I showed what I’d drawn to no one. And no matter how much I tried, they never got better than this…

horse

My writing, however, fared far better. Granted, I’m still far from perfect (and famous…and rich…and critically acclaimed), but I enjoy scribbling words on paper as much now as I did at the tender age of seven. More so, in fact. And while I know this mostly due to my own desire, I can’t help but think Mrs. Davis played a role in it as well.

She caught me staring at that scarlet B one day in class. She said nothing at the time, but before I left for home that afternoon, she pulled me aside and admitted, “Your story was very well done, Jamie. I liked Miranda.”

It was the first compliment for my writing I’d received from someone who was not related to me. I suddenly discovered something very interesting on one of my shoes and mumbled, “Thank you” in reply. I was embarrassed, but it wasn’t just because of the praise. All I could think was that I wished she had given it sooner.

Why? Well, that’s the what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.”

The day my drawing met with criticism and laughter, I did something I’d regretted ever since. I went back to the art corner to sharpen my pencil using the silver hand crank unit we all remember so well. When I went to wedge my good old number two in the slot, I realized I’d also carried a blue crayon back there with me. Camouflaged by a half wall stacks of paper, and jars of tempura paint, I had a “wonderful, awful idea.”

Image from avclub.com

In a moment of impish inspiration, I decided I would show her the extent of my ire by sharpening it too. Yeah, I went there.

I gummed up the works of that machine with my aqua-tinted rage and felt somewhat justified for having done so. But when we left for music class, I saw her carrying the sharpener to the bathroom and felt triumphant for another 2.7 seconds until I realized she’d spend most of her planning period cleaning up the mess. Then I felt putrid about it. And the compliment she gave me only made it worse.

I learned several valuable lessons from the entire experience, the most important of which is this: Words matter. Kind ones are worth the time it takes to say them. Unkind ones wound. They can change someone’s opinion about an issue or a moment in time or even make a person love or hate herself. They can inspire people to greatness or leave them defeated before they begin. Words are powerful in a way few things will ever be, and they’re ours for the using. So that means we should always use them well.

How about you all? Is there a talent you always wanted to explore but didn’t? A person you’d like to thank for encouraging you to pursue one? What do you think about words, both kind and cruel? Give me your thoughts in the comments section below.

Love Letters

For those of you who read my previous post about storytelling and how my first attempt at it went, I thought I’d show you what I can do with a little more time and a keyboard in front of me. I submitted that blog entry for my creative non-fiction workshop class to get feedback, and now it’s time to re-submit the new and improved version, written for readers rather than listeners. I’d love to know what you think!

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Love Letters

Image from bikeacrossamerica.org.

I’m from Arkansas, which is something I don’t tell many people. Unlike other states with sexy selling points like Broadway, Hollywood, or Disneyworld, we’re best known for cotton, catfish, and the only diamond producing mine in the United States. We also grow half of the rice consumed in this country each year. Wahoo, right? Granted, being able to lay claim to Johnny Cash, John Grisham, and Maya Angelou is a bit of terrific, but it doesn’t make it any less painful that our state’s unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi.”

Folks from “The Natural State,” we’re a little…different. One only need examine the teeming multitudes at a University of Arkansas Razorbacks football game to see why. It’s the only place in the South where grown men slap plastic Hog Hats on each Saturday and scream, “Woo pig sooie!” without thinking themselves the least bit odd. However, I can honestly say that none of those bleacher warriors can keep up with my great uncle Darrell when it comes to idiosyncrasies. My grandmother’s baby brother was the quintessential Qualls, even more so than his twin brother, Doug.

We Qualls, for those of you who’ve never been blessed to be in our presence, are some of the downright peskiest people on planet earth. I once watched my forty-year-old cousin, Lyndal, lock and unlock an automatic car door twenty times for no other reason than to irritate my great grandmother. He only stopped when she flipped him the bird and he couldn’t catch his breath because he was laughing so hard.

Image from fourfoolsdriving.blogspot.com

Darrell was a Qualls through and through. Tall, lanky, and long armed, he always made me think of Ichabod Crane, and like his literary look-alike, he took his food seriously. So much so that he brought his own onion to cookouts just to make sure he’d have enough. Always optimistic, he refused to let anything—even losing a finger to diabetes—get him down. “I can’t give you high fives no more, Jamers,” he once told me. “How’s about a high four?”

Though he never enrolled in college, he was highly intelligent and creative, which is a lethal combination in a super villain, but just borderline dangerous in regular folks. He was quick-witted and liked to tell stories he made up on the spot. For instance, I once saw him rubbing his bicep like it was sore and asked, “Uncle Darrell, does your arm hurt?” He replied, “Oh no, baby girl. I just love myself.” Another time, he actually was sick with a terrible case of the flu, and I asked him how he was feeling. His reply?—”Little Sister, I’ll tell you this. I’m not buying any green bananas.”

Like many men in the small town he called home, Darrell worked at the pulp mill. He was put on the night shift but wasn’t one of the men throwing wood chips into machines or hauling away the finished product. He sat up in the control tower watching lights blink and gauges move on a leviathan control panel. Unless there was a blockage somewhere in the machine, the water pressure got too high, or a possum got into the factory (which happened once), he had little to do. It was a job custom made for boredom, which was the last thing Darrell needed.

Image from (I’m not kidding) howtogetrideofpossom.blogspot.com

So he started writing letters to his first cousin, Leroy. Like many members of my family, Leroy was a veteran of a foreign war, but I couldn’t tell you exactly which one. It was likely Vietnam, but it could just have been the American Revolution. I honestly don’t know because the man never seemed to age. Many of my relatives, including Darrell, have gone on to their reward, but Leroy is still alive and bumping around. That’s why I’m convinced he made the same deal as Dick Clark, that or there’s a painting somewhere in his attic that shows his true age. My right hand to Jesus, the man looks the same as he did when I was nine and had a crush on Prince.

Leroy had a bad case of shell shock and was a little off in the head in a way that made him endearing to me when I was a kid. I remember he always wore tattered ball caps, their logos made indecipherable by sun and sweat, and he had small eyes, a large nose, and an overbite, which made him look like a rabbit. He never married and isn’t comfortable around a lot of people, but he had an imaginary friend named Oliver who was always after him for something. He turns the television off during the commercials to save energy and is always on the lookout for pieces of Styrofoam to add to his collection. But one of the oddest things he does happens whenever he comes around to eat a meal with us. He loads up his plate, grabs a napkin and fork, and proceeds to stand in a doorway to eat it.

“Leroy, you wanna sit down?” someone always asks, though we all know he’ll answer, “No’um, I’m just fine right here” and keep on eating. He comes back to refill his plate or glass and then returns to the doorway to continue chowing down. And he can put it away, perhaps because it can go straight down his leg.

One of Darrell’s chief delights was playing elaborate jokes on Leroy, some of which involved a bit of spontaneity. Once, he picked his unsuspecting cousin up at his house and said, “Let’s go for a ride.” Leroy assumed the jaunt might take them as far away as Memphis, less than two hours up the road. But when he saw the sign for Chattanooga, he knew he was doomed. They ended up driving all the way down to Florida to visit us.

Darrell repeated the gag years later and drove Leroy—who didn’t have more than ten bucks in his wallet or a change of underwear to his name—all the way to California. As they crossed the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts, Darrell got the bright idea to turn the on the car’s heater and laughed silently as Leroy tugged at his sweat drenched collar and repeatedly said, “I don’t recollect the desert being this hot.” When he told Doug about it, his brother could only ask, “Son, weren’t you a might bit hot, too?” Even Darrell’s answer was uniquely him—“Hammers, yes, I was hot!” I suppose, even for the prankster, great art is born of suffering, and Darrell was willing to do whatever it took in the practice of his craft.

A four-day practical joke is a fine thing, but Darrell was never one to settle. He once got this strange notion that he would pretend to be a salesman and write letters to Leroy to get him to purchase what he called “countless amazing and esoteric works of fiction and non-fiction written for the discerning reader.” In each handwritten epistle, he’d mention who he was and where he worked, chastise Leroy for not purchasing any of the books listed in the last letter, and proceed to offer him another fifteen or twenty titles. He also told him where to leave the cash and when, using a different drop point each time. Sometimes, it was as simple as leaving the cash under a rock on the corner of the porch, and other times, it involved hiding the money between cans of yams at the corner store.

He made up each and every one of the books that were on these lists. No self-help texts or works of classic fiction for Darrell. After all, his brain always needed something to do, especially at work, so he came up with titles like:

The Care and Maintenance of Your Dromedary Camel

Making Stockings for Lady Caterpillars

The Disagreements Between Longshoremen and Shortshoremen

Mouthwatering Recipes from Southern Ethiopia

How to Grow Yellow Blueberries

and (my personal favorite)— How to Fall from a Ladder with Dignity

Every four or five days, Darrell would write another letter and drop it in the mail, and he kept this up without fail for nearly seven years. Never once did Leroy order anything, and he never knew it was Darrell who was behind it all. Perhaps because it was harder to research a company without the Internet or Leroy wasn’t a naturally inquisitive person, but in all the years this went on, he asked very few questions about the letters. He just kept reading and tucking them away in drawers or throwing them away. Darrell also avoided the subject because he knew he’d burst out laughing if it came up—that and he knew he’d have to write any book Leroy ordered. And the secret sat undiscovered for years like the arrhythmia that would suddenly steal him from us in 2000.

Image from tasteofhome.com

At Darrell’s funeral, we were all sitting around the house after the graveside service. We’d done everything we were supposed to do. We’d read the twenty-third psalm. We’d sung “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We’d shaken hands with relatives we didn’t know and wedged smiles on our faces. We’d eaten lukewarm food on plastic plates. We’d spent an entire day sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs. But it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like Darrell at all. It was stiff, formal, and bland—like a rental house with its white walls and tan carpet.

At the end of a frustratingly long day, the ladies from the church packed up the legion of casseroles, pies, and salads that invariably show up where death comes to visit. As I picked petals off carnations, a flower I’ve long associated with death, we talked about how we’d rather just be chunked in a hole or cremated and scattered on the field at Busch Stadium. Finally, my aunt Nita asked, “What do you think Darrell would’ve said about all this?”

That question sparked a lengthy session of story swapping about the dearly departed over a fresh pot of coffee and slabs of Mary Katherine Schug’s homemade, three-layer coconut cake, the one that involved an entire bottle of Wesson Oil and reduced those who ate it to shameless plate licking. You can guess which story eventually came up. Mind you that up until this moment, Leroy still didn’t know. However, he looked at Doug and said, “Douglas, you mean to tell me it was Darrell Hunter Qualls who was behind them funny letters a way back yonder?”

When Doug (who, having lost a twin, was more heartbroken than he let on) nodded, Leroy did what might have been offensive to some. He laughed. Out loud. It was a joyful, full-bodied chortle replete with knee slapping and head shaking. It was an infectious kind of guffaw that caught us all up in it like a rip tide and pulled us briefly out of the quagmire of our grief.

It was just what we needed and what Darrell had been waiting for, but not because he would have felt he deserved anything special. There were actually two essential things to understand when it came to my great uncle—the sheer genius of his quirkiness and just how fiercely he loved. He could no more have left us brokenhearted than he could have turned down a plate full of fried catfish, and I think that was his reason for writing those letters all along.

Getting in the Boat

Have you heard the one about the Christian fundamentalist and the approaching hurricane? Well, if you have, you’ll just have to bite your lip and think about something else like grilled cheese sandwiches or the steps involved in mitosis because it’s the controlling metaphor for this blog post, and I can’t start without telling it. So here we go….

Hurricane Klaus is approaching the south Florida coast, and the flood waters are rising. A man is sitting on his front porch when some friends come by in a Jon boat to offer him a ride to safety.

“No thanks,” he tells them. “God will save me.”

Several hours later, the water has risen to such an extent that he’s been forced to sit on the roof of his house for safety. However, this time, a boat from the National Guard comes by and offers to rescue him.

“No thanks,” he says again. “God will save me.”

Finally, when there’s nothing left but the rapidly dwindling ridge to stand on, a rescue helicopter comes by, drops a line down, and offers to pluck him, like Moses, from soon to be biblically epic waters. His answer? It’s the same as before.

The Christian fundamentalist drowns, takes the HOV lane to heaven, and when he stands before his Maker, asks, “God, why didn’t you save me?”

The Father’s reply? “I sent two boats and a helicopter. What else were you expecting?”

How could he resist such a SWEET ride!?

The joke is unrealistic (for the most part), but it does make me think of people who pursue a “prayer only” method for healing and reject any and all medical avenues for curing an illness. Am I saying that prayer is powerless? Nope. If you or someone you love is ill, you pray fervently, expecting that God has already provided the solution (See James 5:14-16, Psalm 5:3, and Mark 11:22-24.) However, you should also visit doctors because God’s solutions are sometimes more cerebral and less, shall we say, celestial in nature. It’s not that miraculous healing doesn’t happen nowadays; if the Creator of the universe wants to do it that way, He will. However, He usually has other plans in mind.

For example, I have a friend in his late twenties who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer less than a year ago. Doctors weren’t sure about his prospects, and after an exploratory surgery where it was decided they could not remove his lung, he was put on a very aggressive regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. He has spent more days than not feeling like the floor of a New York taxi cab, but he has continued to trust God and to be his beautiful, ebullient self through it all.

Many people around him have witnessed God’s unbelievable goodness because of what he has endured, and through it, his faith has been strengthened ten-fold. He’s been able to witness to people who might otherwise never have heard the good news of Jesus Christ. And I think that’s what God had in mind all along. By the way, his doctors have found that the tumor has shrunk dramatically, and in another month or so, he will be reevaluated. Don’t tell me miracles don’t happen.

The truth is that God doesn’t need all the attention and hubbub a display a healing like that would produce to get the results He wants. I think He’s benevolent and chooses instead to use us instead to carry out His plans, to be His hands and His feet.

These “get in the boat” moments aren’t only reserved for big ticket life events either. I recently had one myself that was job related. One of my tasks at work is to write articles for In Touch Magazine, which is both exhilarating and terrifying. Why? Well, writing is like walking a very taut high wire. One wrong word can throw off the flow of a sentence, and one unclear idea can mar the meaning of an entire piece. Writing is a lengthy process of moving words and phrases around until only the best ones remain in the perfect order. It’s very easy to miss the mark, and more often than not, it is also very lonely work.

When I struggle with a piece, I have to remind myself that I don’t have to work in my own strength. I can rely on the Holy Spirit to put the words He would have me say onto the page. But how does one do that exactly? Do I simply sit there and take divine dictation in a psychography session with my heavenly Father?

I think, once again, God’s way is simpler than that. I only need to be sensitive to what He wants and use the spiritual gifts He’s blessed me with to make it happen. Instead of twiddling my thumbs waiting for inspiration, I must constantly seek God’s will and search for the answers He has provided both in the Word and in the world around me. If I can always be cognizant of His presence, what I say and write will be directed by Him in a way that feels effortless.

Take the men who wrote the Bible for example. Those sixty-six books were penned by different people from all walks of life, but each word was inspired by God. That’s why there are no mistakes in it and why so many books, chapters, and verses written centuries apart are intricately interconnected. (One has only to look at the four gospels, portions of Isaiah, and Psalm 22 to see evidence of this.)

However, despite the fact that God provided the information, I can still see each writer’s personality and tendencies in their books. Each book is a beautiful marriage of the Almighty and a mortal scribe who was blessed to capture His truth. That’s why, as a former doctor, Luke’s contributions (Luke and Acts) are highly logical and rational and why David’s passion for God fill each and every psalm he penned. Likewise, Paul’s personality is also very obvious in each of His letters. For instance, he consistently uses questions and answers them with the phrase, “Certainly not!” His thoughts are deep and dense–full of information and written using the rhetorical methods he learned as a Pharisee.

All of my official training until now has been in academic writing and fiction/poetry. I have crafted a few non-fiction pieces in the past, but my body of work is limited. I also have little to no experience in journalism. Simply put, I have the passion, but I need practice—time behind the keyboard if you will— to get my writing chops in better shape. For awhile, I hemmed and hawed about what to do, thinking that if I simply waited on God to provide the right words, my writing would improve without any outside effort on my part. However, I came to realize that’s the literary equivalent of passing on the Jon boat.

That’s why I enrolled in a creative non-fiction certificate program at Emory University that began this week and will take me a year or so to complete. I believe working with an instructor and other writers who offer constructive feedback will help strengthen my skills, tell better stories, and write more compelling prose. I’ve gone into this grand experiment with the mindset that, in the end, I will be a more effective servant having honed my talent using the whetstone He’s provided. Rather than doing this to be famous or make a ton of money (which is highly unlikely given my choice of career field), I’m attempting to follow Paul’s advice to Timothy—“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

Just as the hurricane of stress appeared on the horizon, the pieces of the solution fell into place. To me, that’s the kind of everyday miracle only God can provide, and I am grateful to serve a King of such flawless wisdom and perfect judgment.

In a Manner Worthy of the Saints

I have had a lot of conversations with the ceiling this year. Most of them begin with, “Are You sure, Lord? I mean really sure?” Most of the time, this question pops out of my mouth when He’s asking me to do something for which I feel woefully unprepared. I know He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent—that everything that happens does because He has the perfect knowledge and power to make it so. However, I sometimes look at where I was eight or nine years ago and compare it to now, I am speechless.

At In Touch Ministries, I serve as an editor and a writer for the magazine, which is something I never imagined myself doing a decade ago. But, in all that time, He was preparing me spiritually to do the things He has ordained. I am humbled beyond measure that the Creator of the universe not only knows me and calls me His child, but also loves me enough give me a talent with which to serve Him. In short, this article is proof that God is truly in control.

I taught a wonderful young woman named Catie Carter who passed away in June of 2010, but before she left, she managed to touch thousands of people in the Jacksonville area. God wasn’t content to let it stop there though. Because of His perfect plan, I was in a position to share her testimony with millions of readers around the world. I have no idea how many people the Lord will touch as a result of this connection. But He does….and always has. I simply cannot wait to see what happens!

I would like to thank Catie’s family–her parents, Jimmy and Kerri, and her siblings, Emily, Jimmy, Lindsay, and Ellie–for being willing to share their precious girl’s story with me. Because of your courage, faith, and strength, people you and I will never know will have a chance to meet her and will be changed as a result.

**In Touch Magazine is a free monthly publication. If you are interested in subscribing, please visit this website.**

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Today, I treated myself to a visit to the High Museum here in Atlanta to take in the new exhibit titled Picasso to Warhol: 14 Modern Masters. Like all the exhibits on the special second floor space, this one didn’t disappoint. I didn’t like it as well as the Dali exhibit they put on last year; however, I think that was due to the different depth of each. Trying to cram fourteen artists into a space that served previously to feature one made the current exhibit feel a bit rapid—like a stone skipping across the lake rather than plunging in, which is what I prefer.

However, it was nice to see these fourteen men and women near one another; it was easy to see how one influenced the other or how one used his or her predecessor as a springboard into a new creative sphere. It was also a nice exhibit because it included multiple mediums–painting, photography, film, sculpture, collage, and many others. It was arranged chronologically by the artists’ ages, and it flowed beautifully from one mini collection to the next. Many of the sculptures were stationed on slightly raised platforms in the middle of their respective spaces, and that meant patrons could walk around them and take each in from multiple angles and perspectives. It was crowded but never felt that way due to the exceedingly well-designed layout and spacing between pieces.

The audio tour, which can be purchased for $6 ($4 if you’re a member!), is well worth the cost as it allows you to gain greater insight about several key paintings in the collection and enriches the experience as a whole. The High also created a pretty excellent app called ArtClix, which allows those who have downloaded it to snap pictures of paintings, access audio/video information about them, post those photos on social media sites, and interact with both museum staff and other patrons nearby via comments. It’s free, which is always nice, and it can also be used once you leave the museum.

I discovered several things about modern art and myself during the two and a half hours I spent touring the exhibit, first with my audio tour and then again with my iPhone as my guide.

1. With the exception of Nude Descending a Staircase, I really do not care for the work of Marcel Duchamp. Say “Shame on you!” if you want, but I toured the space featuring his work twice–very slowly–looking for something that spoke to me. I got bupkis.

2. I did discover that I have an affinity for Giorgio de Chirico, an artist about whom I knew very little about before today. The dream-like quality of each of his works is utterly compelling, and while he only painted everyday objects, the manner in which each is presented makes them seem totally foreign.

Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Enigma of a Day”

3. I have underrated the work of Jackson Pollock. Granted, it is not as technically masterful as Johannes Vermeer or Rembrandt van Rijn, but there’s something more to it than squiggly lines and splashes of paint. Today, I learned that he didn’t paint on a canvas that had been stretched on and stapled to a frame. Instead, he laid it flat on the floor and walked around it do to his work using a method called Drip Painting. (As a result, he became known as Jack the Dripper in certain circles.) He said it made him feel more connected to the work because he could approach it from all sides, be on the same level as it so to speak. He would paint using sticks and other objects rather than simply paintbrushes and perform a sort of choreographed dance around the canvas, slinging paint according to his mood, and then repeating the process again with another color to create a multi-layered work that seems simple but becomes more interesting once you start looking at it and trying to trace the origin, source, and rhythm of that movement. In a way, the canvas is a map of that dance he did to create it. The creation (and creator) of it is still “alive” inside of it in a manner of speaking. You can even see his hand prints in the upper right hand corner.

Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1A”

4. Museums might just be okay for kids…some of them at least. For this piece, there was an Artclix info page, a track on the adult audio tour, and a track on the family/kids audio tour. I listened to mine, stood there contemplating, and then noticed this cute little girl staring at Number 1A the same way I was. She was moving her arms, imitating Pollock’s movement as best I could tell, and she was really into it!

I’m not normally a fan of kids at museums. Often, they’re bored by the second painting, and the remainder of the time they’re there, they’re whining or trying to touch the art. Most curtain climbers who I’ve come into contact with don’t have a volume control on their voice boxes either. Museum rules be damned! They see no problem telling everyone around them, especially when they have to go to the bathroom (including which “number” they have to do of course) or what they think when they see a naked person. Generally, they ruin the artistic buzz of everyone else in the gallery until either their parents give up and take them home or they fall asleep in a sweaty heap on someone’s shoulder.

However, this little one made me re-evaluate my stance. She was obviously digging on what she saw, interacting with it in a way that I think Pollock would have enjoyed. She stood in front of that large canvas, braids flopping and boots thumping on the floor, and embraced it as best as her little arms and growing mind could. Simply put, she couldn’t get that same experience from simply reading about him in a textbook or from a photograph of the artwork. I’ll put up with the others who beg for juice boxes they can’t have in order to afford kids like her the opportunity to experience art as a young-un.

I snapped a few photos with my camera phone, but they really don’t do the moment justice. However, I hope you enjoy looking at them almost as much as I did taking them!

I knelt down to take this one and am glad that no one arrested me as a creeper. I’m pretty proud of how it came out considering my low tech camera and my lack of skill.
Taking it all in.
Channeling Pollock…
Yep, that’s life imitating art that’s imitating life!

Lost at C

Alright boys and squirrels, this one is going to take some explanation.

I recently visited the High Museum here in Atlanta, and I walked around the corner to find the installation piece titled Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey. At first, the sheer size of it caught me off guard; it filled one of the larger spaces on the second floor of the museum by itself! However, despite its size, it contained very few elements. Unlike his other pieces, which were mixed media and contained everything from fishing line to glitter drenched construction paper and old photos, Windward Coast was stark by comparison. The description posted on the wall informed me that what I was looking at contained nothing more than “piano keys, a plaster bust, glitter, and a shell with sound.”

The description also informed viewers the intention of the piece, what it was meant to convey. (Yes, I am aware that what an author or artist intends to say is meaningless to discuss because we all experience art and come away with different interpretations. I’ll not argue that here as this piece is direct proof of that fact.) The title of Mr. Bailey’s entire collection was titled Memory as Medicine, and it was his attempt to connect with his immediate and distant past as a black man, a soul abruptly uprooted because of the evils of slavery. The plaster bust, glittering and black in the spotlight floats amid a huge “sea” of piano keys that are arranged to replicate moving water and crashing waves.

I had to admit as I looked at it a second, third, and fourth time that the piece was impressive. However, when I sat huddled in the corner to examine it and take notes, I was able to see the keys  at eye level. Some were tipped with plastic, others with something darker (perhaps bone or ivory), and black keys, those glorious half steps, were intermingled with white. It was then that I got to thinking about the pianos themselves–their guts lying on the floor. What kind of pianos had these keys come from? What kind of “lives” had they led?

Which sat in cold parlors or warm family rooms? How many of them proudly bore the family manger scene at Christmas? How many had the pleasure of enjoying two family members playing them together or been a part of a child’s musical education all the way from “Hot Cross Buns” to more challenging pieces? Had someone fallen in love near one or spent an hour in solace using it? How many had been given up willingly, and how many were sold out of desperation or ignorance as to their true value?

The more I thought about it, the more I saw a parallel between the pianos and the slave floating in them. They, too, were displaced, stripped of their meaning, value, and voice! That’s what bothered me the most about the piece–all the stories of pianos and the families who owned them floating in there that could no longer be told. Theirs were stories worthy of attention, too, and they had been cancelled out to create this installation.

I was planning on writing a free verse piece to mimic the chaos of the sea of keys, but the more I thought it over, I came to see that a fixed verse poem was more appropriate. To make something orderly out of something chaotic, to give meaning to something so disjointed, I would have to try something requiring rules.

I didn’t want to rhyme or be stuck by a meter, so I chose the challenge presented by the sestina. Please take a moment to read the link here if you’d like to know more about this form.

Essentially, the poet must choose six words and repeat them at the end of each line. I chose sea/see/C (homonyms, homophones, and homographs are fair game), keys, tone, master, wood/would, and sound. The first stanza is A,B,C,D,E,F. You then repeat that pattern, using the last word in one stanza as the first in the next. For example, if you look at stanza two, you’ll see that tone (my F word) is the end word of that new line. That stanza is ordered F,A,E,B,D,C, and so on and so forth it goes until all six stanza are complete.

The envoy, the three line stanza that closes a sestina, includes all six words in three lines. They do not have to be at the exact end, but you must use the B and E words in line one, the D and C words in line two, and the F and A words in line three. (However, some poets change that up and use the six words in whatever order they prefer).

It’s difficult because of the repeated words that create a sort of internal rhyme structure. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a solid start. I’ve not written a complete sestina on my own before this, so that’s progress!

Please read and comment. Let me know what you think!

***

Lost at C

A Sestina Inspired After Viewing Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey

The gallery floor lies buried beneath a sea

of writhing, cacophonous keys.

In the distance, as if discarded by his master,

a slave’s head bobs without a sound

amid the endless waves of splintered wood.

His suffering sets the tone.


But I’m left longing for the tone

that sounds when striking middle C,

the note among all others that would

help me place my fingers on correct keys.

A familiar place, safe and sound

on the instrument I longed to master.


In how many homes was it the master,

the symbol of domesticity? In tones

of chestnut and mahogany, the sound

made by each was like the sea,

rhythmic as a metronome, as key

to the security of its home as the roof or the wood.


If not for this artistic creation before me, how many would

still remain in the hands of a master

who’d polish its surface and clean each key,

tune it to maintain those harmonious tones,

relish the marriage of hammer and string, and the delicate C

atop the eighty-eight orderly architects of sound?


Would someone open the lid to release the sound

and the family history locked within the wood?

Would a starving soul sit on its bench once again and see

that while time is something we can never master

we can preserve memory in the mind’s sepia tones

and in sacred objects like a piano, those that are key


to understand our parts in life’s symphony? From key

signature to coda, from downbeat to the sound

of the final fermata, our pasts set the tone

for all that was, that is, and that ever would

be. None of us live lives made from a master,

without uniqueness, our own variation in C.


Knowing this is key to what otherwise would

be a sound failure. One cannot master his past

by stripping another of his tone and using it to create the sea.