The Reason I Jump

After at least a dozen editorial changes—made after I had posted the original version—I may have finished my review of Naoki Higashida's book. This was an important piece of writing for me, touching on the familiar and the personal, and allowed me to articulate my feelings about reading literary work on an electronic device (in this case, a Nook I bought for myself last Father's Day).

Inner, True, and Secret Animals

In slightly different form, this post originally appeared on the home page.

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The above photograph by Rosemania has the following caption: "Twelve Chinese zodiac jade figurines. Capital Museum, Beijing, China."

The image on the right, a photograph by Jakub Hałun, has this caption: "The carvings with Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka [a prefecture in Japan]."

About the Chinese zodiac, Wikipedia says the following:

"The Shengxiào (Chinese: 生 肖), also known in English as the Chinese zodiac, is a scheme, and a systematic plan of future action, that relates each year to an animal and its reputed attributes, according to a 12-year cycle. It remains popular in several East Asian countries, such as China, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

"Identifying this scheme using the term 'zodiac' reflects several similarities to the Western zodiac: both have time cycles divided into 12 parts, each labels at least the majority of those parts with names of animals, and each is widely associated with a culture of attributing influence of a person's relationship to the cycle upon their personality and/or events in their life. Nevertheless, there are major differences: the 'Chinese' 12-part cycle corresponds to years rather than months. The Chinese zodiac is represented by 12 animals, whereas some of the signs in the Western zodiac are not animals, despite the implication of the Greek etymology of 'zodiac'. The animals of the Chinese zodiac are not associated with constellations, let alone those spanned by the ecliptic plane.

"In Chinese astrology the animal signs assigned by year represent what others perceive you as being or how you present yourself. It is a common misconception that the animals assigned by year are the only signs and many western descriptions of Chinese astrology draw solely on this system. In fact, there are also animal signs assigned by month (called inner animals), by day (called true animals) and hours (called secret animals)."


"Male Creations and Their Female Creators"

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This is a draft of my introduction to our conference presentation.

I will be serving as moderator and would like to introduce our presentation by reading from a friend’s essay:

The writer tells the story, creates the text, but the reader “makes” the story in his head. Both writer and reader dream the story in their respective minds…. In this analogy, story is neither a physical artifact nor something saved in a computer file, but a dynamic experience that takes place in the human mind.…

Texts are solid, but the stories we make from them do not hold still. Stories are not solid. A story is what the writer dreams in her mind’s eye when she writes. A story is also what the reader dreams in his own mind’s eye when he reads the writer’s words. Therefore, there is never just one story—because stories do not hold still, just as dreams do not. The text is solid, but the writer’s dream and the reader’s dream always differ.

Those passages are from “Welcome to the North Shore: A New Metaphor for the Art of Story-Making,” an essay by Steve Heller, past AWP president and the head of the creative writing program at the LA campus of Antioch.

While rereading the essay recently, I was struck by how closely it described something—in addition to writing—that is important to us: our relationships with fathers, friends, boyfriends, husbands, and other men in our lives. We read their thoughts and feelings, construct narratives that account for their behavior independent of us—as well as their reactions to us. We spend much time and energy—and many words—recording, analyzing, constructing, deconstructing, and reflecting on our relationships. Given the strength of the internal narratives we develop about men, it seems natural that these stories would make the leap from the personal and psychological to the page. Once rendered on the page, our relationships can be studied in their complexity and mystery—but not to the degree that we stop writing.

When we render male characters successfully—when we are true to their motivation, behavior, and so forth—we can create a place where men and women can meet. Sometimes this is an electrifying place, sometimes a peaceful sanctuary, sometimes a negotiating room.

These are the ideas we’ll be talking about today. I will introduce each person, and she will read from her work and describe how male characters came to appear in her writing.

Poetry classes of Adele Ne Jame

After starting to add part of this material to the Talks page, I decided to place it here instead and to write about two talks I gave: the first in April 2011 and the second in November 2013.

2011 talk

My prepared notes:

  • Writing: book, Stray (2006).
  • Designing: interior of Backstage in a Bureaucracy, 2010; About Them and The South Wind, 2011.
  • Publishing: Mixed Nerve, summer 2010; Manoa, twice a year. Now working on summer 2011 issue, Living Spirit: Literature and Resurgence in Okinawa.
  • Editing: Manoa.

What do I write about? I'm most interested in moral decisions people make: what compels them to make them; why they choose as they do; how these choices affect the people around them and the rest of their lives. Sometimes, of course, these choices put them in situations where further moral choices are required.

My aesthetics are bound up with my ethics to some degree. For example, like Steve Jobs, I have an aversion to pornography, so I don't use it in my writing or designing. However, I do write about sexuality, and when this is bound up with love—or opposed to it—there is what some people might regard as an erotic component in my writing.

Some of my subjects:

  • a victim of a U.S. military attack
  • an unfaithful husband
  • an angry conflict between friends
  • a diver's experience of the dangerous and mysterious
  • the death of a good friend
  • a young girl's loss of innocence
  • a young boy's loss of his mother and his redemption through understanding.

Poems to read:

  • "Poem for an Empty Rose"
  • "Journey through the Break"
  • "Trestle"

I think the effect I'm trying most to achieve in my writing is the sense of peace and calm that is possible after trauma. If we can understand what happened and heal from it—and this "if" is possible for me through writing—then we may contribute things of lasting value to our community.

2013 talk

My notes for this talk were informal and fragmentary, so I'll just summarize the talk.

I spoke first about my Peak Services work: editing, designing, producing books. In connection with this, I brought up Lawrence Levin's book, Poems and Essays from an Ordinary Room, and read his introduction. I also read two or three paragraphs from the concluding section of his essay "An Ordinary Room."

I was trying to get the students to see that poetry arises out of living intensely, thoughtfully, deeply—that it's not a hobby or form of recreation. I also pointed out to them that there is a room within the "ordinary room": the mind. And that within the mind, one can explore the world.

Work of mine that I read included the first two pages of a novel excerpt that will be published in Eleven Eleven, the literary journal of the California College of the Arts. Poems were "Gateway," written while I was listening to a lecture at Shangri-la, the Black Point estate of Doris Duke; a short untitled love poem beginning "It was the moon who teased me to rise"; and "Devotion," a long poem that Adele's student Shannon requested. 

Nine students were enrolled in the workshop: eight women and a man, a war vet. The man was absent that day, unfortunately. I say "unfortunately" because we also discussed "Male Creations and Their Female Creators," the presentation that Adele, I, and three other women writers will be making at the 2014 AWP conference. After I read "Devotion," Shannon asked how it was possible to enter a man's mind and write about him, and I'm afraid I didn't give her a good answer. I said that we are always entering the minds of other people, even other creatures, imagining what they feel and what it's like to be them.

After a short break in the class, I said a few more things about "Gateway" before departing. I brought up the delicate architecture of Shangri-la and the way it contrasts with the powerful waves hitting the land on which the estate stands. And I said that experiencing both while listening to the lecture put me in a certain state of mind—one reaching for the spiritual—and it was that state I was trying to capture in the poem.

 

 

 

Eve of 2014

Much to reflect on and be thankful for as 2013 draws to a close.

  • The chance to speak to the workshop students of poet Adele Ne Jame, who teaches at Hawai‘i Pacific University. I read from the introduction to Poems and Essays from an Ordinary Room, a collection by Lawrence Levin that will be published by El León Literary Arts in the coming year. Included in the book will be photographs by brother Wayne Levin. Check the Talks page in a day or two to read more about my visit.
  • Meeting with Michael Duckworth, head of the University of Hawai‘i Press, and Rebecca Clifford, managing editor of the Journals department. One happy consequence of that meeting is that UHP will be participating in the 2014 annual meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.
  • Lunch with friends and writers Phyllis Young and Tom Farber. We talked about the writing they were doing and about mutual friends. The same week, I had a holiday lunch with office mates Frank Stewart, Sonia Cabrera, and Noah Perales-Estoesta. We were joined by writer Shawna Yang Ryan, who told us about the manuscript for her new book, set in Taiwan.
  • Receipt of "Welcome to the North Shore: A New Metaphor for Story-making," the printed version of a seminar given by writer Steve Heller, head of the creative writing program at the Los Angeles campus of Antioch University. I found "Welcome to the North Shore" fascinating and will be writing more about it in the days to come.
  • The near completion of our winter 2013 issue, Bright as an Autumn Moon: Fifty Poems from the Sanskrit, a collection of translations by poet and translator Andrew Schelling.

Below is part of a message I just sent to my friend Gary Mawyer, a fiction writer and editor in Charlottesville, Virginia. We had been talking about "(Sub)Mission Creep," which ran in Chuck Klosterman's New York Times column, The Ethicist. I started off by talking about writing and ended up by talking about music.

Tremendous hard work goes into these things [writing books]. More than cash, I think writers want validation of their efforts. You're probably right that Random House could not have given you more profits, but it could have given you the cachet of being published by a NY house—very valuable if that is what you want.

In this day and age, writers are happy with alternatives.

One thing I've done in the last few weeks is discover a whole new side of music. I know it has existed for decades, but for me this is something new and exciting: young singers and musicians who are making their own videos and creating audiences for themselves. This is very much like self-publishing except for one thing: their songs are covers, not original music. If their followers like what they are doing, this popularity can be leveraged into contracts with music companies and their original music can be sold.

What I like so much about these videos is the freshness, artlessness, and talent of the performers. One young guy, Sam Tsui, is what we call hapa haole in Hawaii: a mix of Asian and, I'm guessing, haole parentage. Here is Sam in one of my favorite videos. 

Returning to Yi-Fu Tuan

World-renowned geographer Yi-Fu Tuan turns to the subject of his minority status—as a result of his sexual identity—in the latter part of his autobiographical work Who Am I? An Autobiography of Emotion, Mind, and Spirit. In these closing paragraphs of chapter 4, "Intimate: From Justice to Love," he explains why he doesn't dwell on the particulars of this identity but chooses to focus on a larger preoccupation: the apprehension of "the beautiful and good" through his lifelong study of the cosmos.

In this story of my life, I am necessarily the centerpiece. If I do not detail my own attachments, it is because I wish to offer a psychologically accurate portrait of the total person that I am, not a confession or case history of particular parts, however emotionally charged they were for a time. I try to take a page from the poets, who tell us that to capture a mood, a feeling, an intimate or sublime experience, one must resort to the technique of indirection. I resort to indirection for another reason. It puts a distance between me and my loves that seems to me just right, for there is that distance, even in my most aching desire for the warmth of another human being's body. Why this distance? The short answer is to say, again, that I am less a Chinese than a Greek. And to a Greek of the fifth century B.C., yes, there is the beauty of youth. But there is also the beauty—the greater allure—of the cosmos.
Without the cosmos, without, more precisely, my delight in the harmonies of nature and of human works at their best, my life would be miserable—unlivable. I am saved by geography. Naturally, I see harshness and ugliness in the world "out there," as I do in my disordered interior world. I even believe that my own misery, my unalterably subaltern status in society for all the outward shows of acceptance, gives me an insight into human misery and especially into what it means to belong to a disdained minority group. However, I choose not to dwell in the shadows—my own or the world's. Have I gone too far in the opposite direction—have I too often dwelled in the beauties of the cosmos? Am I an escapist, or am I, to put myself in the best possible light, not only expressing an important side of my own nature, which happens to be optimistic, but also reminding the erudite world, occupationally prone to seeing the dark side of things, that there also exist the beautiful and the good? I don't know. How can anyone know?

In a previous post, I had said that I wanted to return to Mr. Tuan's autobiography, and this excerpt may help explain why. Poets also seek to learn that which is difficult to know, and they also sense that this mystery, in its ultimate form, is beautiful and good. They are born to divine their own paths, and in this seeking beyond that which is easily known, they experience loneliness, doubt, and uncertainty. Oftentimes they also question themselves: their aims are so lofty and their abilities so ordinary that they feel they may be deluded in attempting to write poetry.

In another section of "Intimate," Mr. Tuan describes a teenage infatuation: 

As a schoolboy in Australia, I was drawn to another boy. But no alarm bell rang, for other boys, especially the older ones, were also drawn to him. I still remember this schoolmate. He was somewhat younger than most of us and looked delicate without being effeminate.  He had a small well-shaped mouth that was always slightly open, warm peach-colored cheeks, large eyes topped by long lashes, and a crown of unruly fair hair. But my feeling toward another boy, an athlete with the sleek beauty of a well-oiled machine, was another matter. I couldn't persuade myself even then that it was just displaced longing for female loveliness. One day he came to my desk. We talked a bit. He showed me the palm of his hand and asked me to press mine against his, which I did. He said, quite simply, that my hand was smaller and had the delicacy of a girl's. We left it at that. There was no name calling, no propositioning, no bullying.

Mr. Tuan then describes the kind of incipient fear a fifteen-year-old might feel if left alone in such a situation. He tells us that, unlike his two brothers, he decides to leave the all-male school and join his father, mother, and sister in Manila when his father accepts a new diplomatic post. The technique of indirection can therefore be applied in life: rather than confront something within oneself, one can take an indirect path and lengthen the approach, eventually meeting it at the right time, when one is older.

 

Chiyogami

This post previously appeared on the home page.


Chiyogami: Hand-Printed Patterned Papers of Japan (Kodansha International, 1992) is a book by Ann Herring on the art that originated in the Edo period (1603–1867). 

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In the upper right of this page is a detail from figure 91 (click on it to enlarge), identified in the book's caption as half of a spread from the June 1943 issue of the magazine Collection. The caption says it is a "collotype plate [reproducing] an alphabet-based chiyogami pattern designed by Ryushi Kawabata."

Looking through Chiyogami, I came across this figure and thought it might be a wonderful way to introduce visitors to the themes of this site: the printed word, art, design—and the blending they undergo when one takes an intellectual and artistic approach to life. With books like Herring's, a mind filled with ideas and images, and a gaze focused on life's promise and ephemerality, we can proceed toward Some Perfect Future.

 

Detail of figure 91 in Chiyogami by Ann Herring. 

Image from the Jomonjin page on R.K.

Wave of Cereus: Some Comments on My Poem

This is the paper I presented as a member of the January conference panel organized by Steve Heller. 

* * * 

I wanted to share the following information as background to comments on my poem “Wave of Cereus.”

Several sources were combined to produce the following Wikipedia text on Hylocereus undatus. I’ve changed a few words, I should note.

Hylocereus undatus (White-fleshed Pitahaya) is a species of cactus and is the most cultivated species in the genus. It is used both as an ornamental vine and as a fruit crop - the Pitahaya or Dragonfruit. The native origin of the species has never been resolved.
There is a locally famous cacti hedge on a lava rock wall of the Punahou School in Honolulu, the hedge of Kapunahou. 
In 1836, Mrs. Bingham planted the hedge of Hylocereus undatus, the famed cactus known in Hawaii as panini o kapunahou. Its exotic blossoms still bloom during the closing summer months on the Punahou walls. The hedge is on two sides of the school and about three hundred meters long.
From July to as late as October the hedge blooms and several times there is a wall of white flowers hundreds of yards long. Supposedly all the H. undatus in Hawaii came from the wall of Punahou School. People used to come in the evenings from all over the island to see them blooming and “borrow” some cuttings so that now they have this species all over the islands.

From a Hawaiian-dictionary site comes this entry for Punahou:

Private school, street, and section of Honolulu, formerly called Ka-puna-hou. The school was established by Hiram Bingham in 1841, on property given at the request of Ka-‘ahu-manu, for chiefs’ children and missionary children. There were 34 students in the first class; in 1971 there were 3,500, from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. Lit., new spring. (The god Kane thrust his staff into the ground here to get water. According to another story, an old couple lived by a pandanus tree and each dreamed of a spring; when the man offered red fish and pulled up the pandanus tree, water oozed out. The seal of Punahou School depicts a pandanus tree, pool, and taro leaves.)

The word wave makes us think of sustained intensity; travel toward or journey to a point of rest or completion; development from a low point to high and perhaps back down; vibration, current, pulse through a medium, e.g., air, water, time, thought, emotion.

A poem may start with a sound—word, phrase, emotion, sensation—or an image. As it builds, it generates a wave through the poet’s heart and mind, engaging both as a large wave might engage a fish or bird. 

Once set in motion, the poet proceeds unconsciously for the most part—i.e., navigation is unconscious, though a poet will try to move toward meaning or resolution. Sometimes resolution is that of form. For example, when my principal reader, Frank Stewart, reads an unfinished poem of mine, he may say, “You haven’t solved the form yet,” meaning that I have created a problem—i.e., a subject—but not given it the right form, the one in which it might find full expression or release.

The poem I am going to read, “Wave of Cereus,” appeared first in a different form. It was a sort of tribute to a writer friend that expressed the mystery of what lies in the dark of poetry and can, with the poet’s skill, be drawn into the light. He, I, and the group of writer friends we belonged to were all familiar with the lava-rock wall surrounding Punahou School. One member of the group, Barbara, lived on the campus, and we would frequently walk across it to her house for dinners and other gatherings. The cereus flowers would bloom several nights a year, and many people would stop to appreciate them as they overtook the lava rock. Wondering at the large white beauties emerging from black lava, people young and old would linger as if entranced.

After I wrote the poem, I had the experience of walking along the wall with another friend. It was evening, and we were talking. There was no flowering of intense feeling, so to speak, as described in the poem. However, I began working on the poem again, and as I did so, my feelings deepened and I made a leap. The wave flowed through me, and I expressed it by heightening the register of the voices and intensifying the risks being taken by the two people. 

Then wordlessly he takes her hand
and unfolds the slender fingers against the wall.

That image of flesh and bone pressing against the lichen-covered lava rock changed the meaning of the poem. Once created, the image assumed weight, form, and energy, and it became my task to place it in the reader’s mind with a story he or she would not forget.

Botanical drawing from Wikimedia Commons.

The end of the poem draws together, unifies several elements: the cereus plants, the light they emit, the relationship between the two people, the nascent feeling that moves beneath them like a wave. Just as white is the sum of certain colors, white hearts are the sum of subtle but strong feelings, delicate but powerful images: the modesty of people who feel for each other, the purity of their connection, cereus plants blooming in moonlight. And the power such forms of beauty can have to make the mind want and the heart wish. 

Logic that is not logical

In this passage from Joan Acocella's review, she is describing the fine relationship between chanting—providing narration and dialogue—and puppetry in the Japanese cultural form known as awaji. 

As for the characters’ words, those, too, are displaced—to a chanter. This person, considered the star of the puppetry team, sits to the side of the stage, where he tells the story and, when necessary, speaks the dialogue. The characters’ lines are not always interesting. (In “The Miracle at Tsubosaka Temple,” the cliff-jumping couple is restored to life, and the husband is given back his sight. He greets his wife as follows: “You are my wife? What a surprise! It’s very nice to meet you. Oh, I am so happy.”) But, as with many equally unstirring scripts in Western opera, the crux is not the words but the singing. The chanter sobs; he gasps; he calls on Heaven to witness his grief. (And he does so in male and female, old and young, high-status and low-status voices.) When the woman in the ferry-crossing scene from “Hidakagawa” describes her jealousy, the chanter runs the gamut of vocal expressiveness: head notes and belly notes, squeals and grunts, trills and runs without end. Meanwhile, the lady for whom he is speaking stands there with an unmoving face, white and lustrous, like a pearl. We seem, here, to get everything that art can give: the abstemious and the unleashed, the Gothic and the Baroque. The logic is not logical; it is lyrical, musical.

In poetry, the writer creates figures much like puppets and animates them with a poem, providing the narrative, dialogue, and commentary. Sometimes, depending on the path the poem takes, the narrator-actor-commentator will alternate voices; or the poet will insert a stanza or section break, ending one part and beginning another with a caesura, or pause.

The poet attempts to play the elements of restraint and power—power being restraint's diametrical opposite—against each other to heighten the reader's emotions and thoughts as he or she is guided to the conclusion. Restraint is manifested as the sparing use of words, and power as the meaning, which is sublimated at the start of the poem and is all-encompassing by the end.

The parallels between Acocella's analysis and my thoughts about poetry were so strong I couldn't help but comment on them. Of course, the main difference between awaji and poetry lies in the text, that is, the choice of words. As John Gardner says, a choice of words is a moral choice, and it is the strength of that morality that determines the quality of a work. Not moral in the sense defined by religion or the Bible, but in the sense of being critical to life. 

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

—William Carlos Williams

 

Eighth of the eighth month

Mozaic Design's lovely card for 2013.

Mozaic Design's lovely card for 2013.

In two weeks I shall be a year older.

Two thousand twelve was a water dragon year, and 2013 is a water snake year. The following description of the color for 2013 is from hanban.com:

The colour of the 2013 year of Snake is Black. Black color is the Space, Arctic night, darkness on the Abyss, this is a color of deep waters. The Black Snake will bring people unexpected changes, instability, and changeability. That is why it is important in the year of Snake to plan everything beforehand, and evaluate adequately before taking any actions. You need to be more careful and cautious than ever. 

Looking back on the past six months, I see that I could have planned my work more cautiously and carefully and that my failure to do so complicated things. What happens after an initial failure to plan is that little problems appear, and trying to address these diffuses the project focus. A project needs to stay unified in order for quality to be uniform throughout.

* * * 

I have a list of things I want to write about in this blog. I need to return to Mr. Tuan's autobiography—to two things in particular: his description of his withdrawal from society after a colleague fails to help him in a time of need; and his attraction to, and retreat from, things of beauty. I also want to write about "Lifelike," Joan Acocella's review of puppet shows in NYC, and compare poetry to puppetry.

Photograph from Joan Acocella's review.

Photograph from Joan Acocella's review.

Life and Breath of the World

Our latest issue, Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World, just arrived from the printer. Hundreds of hours went into the editing and production of this landmark publication. The flyer on the left lists all the contributors and provides bibliographical and purchasing information.

Looking at the F&G (folded-and-gathered) set, I feel overwhelmed by memories and sensations of all the work that went into Cascadia. Trying to describe the process of making this book would require yet another book to contain all there is to say. Here are just some of the things we did.

Cascadia is 240 pages long, which roughly translates to 400 pages of manuscript, each page of which is edited, proofread, and styled (our term for applying our template styles). These steps alone can take over three months, especially when we are working with many authors and the pieces are fairly complicated. We also produce galleys so that authors can review and approve our editing and see how their pieces have been styled in our word-processing program.

Note that these steps don't include the intensive process of acquisition, during which the editors negotiate the inclusion of each work. Sometimes, they need to obtain copyright permission from publishers or representatives of the estates of authors who have died. Both copyright laws and standard practices make this a complicated process, involving tact and diligence in equal measure.

The interior art consists of sketches by Emily Carr, and we obtained permission to use these from the Royal British Columbia Museum. Acquiring permission went fairly smoothly, as did obtaining the digital images. Laying out the pages and styling the captions were slow, deliberate processes. For example, most of the full-page images have shoulder captions on the facing pages, and these had to be carefully sized and placed so that they wouldn't disturb the design and balance of the spreads.

Book composition requires that the total number of pages be a multiple of eight (that being the number of pages in a signature). If the number of pages falls short, content must be added. We had to add four pages to Cascadia.

Page-makeup rules are many and fairly complicated; I'll just list a few:

  • no page may have fewer than five lines of text;
  • the first line of a paragraph may fall at the foot of a page, unless it follows a subhead or extract; 
  • the last line of a paragraph must have at least five characters;
  • paragraph endings that occur on the first line of a page (widow) are not permissible, even if the widow runs the full width of the type page; 
  • the number of consecutive end-of-line hyphens cannot be more than three. 

Elsewhere on this blog, I've talked about the use of multiple typefaces. Late in the production process, a note about the back cover was added, and this made the typesetting even more difficult. And always, of course, we were running up against that one element that obeys no maker of books, however skilled and well intentioned: Time.

Through special arrangements with the University of the Fraser Valley and a few contributors, copies will be going to First Nations' communities. In Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World, they and other readers will find poems, songs, recipes, reading lists, admonitions, praise, stories, and much else from this extraordinary region. 

 

Six stars

I saw 20 Feet from Stardom last night. Beautifully filmed and superbly edited, this is the story of six back-up singers who have long wanted to make the leap from the side of the stage to the front: Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudine Lennear, Darlene Love, and Táta Vega. 

The site for the film offers this synopsis:

Millions know their voices, but no one knows their names. In his compelling new film TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM, award-winning director Morgan Neville shines a spotlight on the untold true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century. Triumphant and heartbreaking in equal measure, the film is both a tribute to the unsung voices who brought shape and style to popular music and a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others. 
These gifted artists span a range of styles, genres and eras of popular music, but each has a uniquely fascinating and personal story to share of life spent in the shadows of superstardom. Along with rare archival footage and a peerless soundtrack, TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM boasts intimate interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Sting to name just a few.  However, these world-famous figures take a backseat to the diverse array of backup singers whose lives and stories take center stage in the film.

Included are interviews with The Waters family, producers Lou Adler and Bill Maxwell, and music scholarsarchival footage (e.g., George Harrison at the Bangladesh concert in 1971); and segments on the role of church and gospel music in the lives of some of the singers. In the background of much of 20 Feet from Stardom is the U.S. at different periods in its political and social life—a subordinate story that enriches and deepens the film. 

Very moving for me was the story of Claudine Lennear, who gave up her singing career and now teaches Spanish. In a tender and modest way, she expresses her regrets toward the end of the film.

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Director Neville founded Tremolo Productions in 1999. Known for its documentary films on cultural subjects, Tremolo has received three Grammy nominations and numerous other awards. Its website says, "Tremolo has also worked on a variety of other film projects including those on language, art, film, and politics. In addition to feature projects, Tremolo produces a variety of museum shorts, industrial shorts, music videos and DVD content for various cultural and commercial institutions." Neville and producers Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers have made a wonderful film—one that is everything a film should be.

Writing the wave

Below is a spread from Wade Davis's extraordinary book The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World  (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2009). On Pearl Harbor day of last year, Davis gave an electrifying lecture at the University of Hawai‘i. For most of the seventy-five minutes that he spoke, I sat on the edge of my seat.

In this section of his book, Davis is describing Mau Piailug, "a master navigator from Satawal in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia…who grew up on a coral islet less than 1.5 square kilometres, a third the size of Central Park in New York. His universe was the ocean."

The paragraph beginning "Beyond sun and stars is the ocean itself" has particular meaning in terms of the panel we have proposed for next year's AWP meeting (for details, see the "Writers of the Wave" post and the Talks page). Heretofore, we have been talking about the wave as something we ride upon but not as something we exist within. If our panel proposal is approved by the AWP selection committee, I would like to read this paragraph from Davis's book and talk about composing from within the wave and trying to interpret long "pulses" that travel to us from distant places.

 

Pages 58 and 59 of The Wayfinders.

Morning meeting

This morning my sister and I went to Morning Glass Cafe, and I asked a man if we could share his table with him. As we sat there, I listened to the conversation he was having with the man at the table next to ours. I tried to work and talk to my sister, but their conversation was so interesting, I couldn't help listening.

Turns out the man at our table was Sean Priester. After the other man left, I turned to him and said, "Are you Mr. Priester?" He said he was, and I told him I'd been a fan of his cooking for a long time. Old-timers may remember that he was with The Wild Mushroom, a restaurant formerly at the YWCA on Richards Street. I told him I'd gone there a few times.

He was a very nice gentleman, and I'm so pleased that I overcame my shyness and spoke to him.

The effort we make in trying to speak to a stranger is similar to that of composing a story or poem. The paper is lying there, and it takes a certain amount of courage—and confidence—to put our words on it, to extract them from heart and mind and apply them to the page. This reminds me that I recently spoke to Tom Farber about a piece of fiction that I hope to turn into a book. Tom has been teaching fiction at UC-Berkeley for many years, and he read my story with expert care. I was amazed at some of the things he pointed out to me. At first I was reluctant to return to the story because he had asked me about and commented on so many things. But this morning, at Morning Glass Cafe, I looked at it and felt renewed, ready to return to it and engage the main character and his problems.

How lucky I was to also meet Sean Priester!

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