Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dragon & Clouds

The lobster and the canary are too busy at present to do more than point to beauty and wonder that inspires them, such as Dragon & Clouds, a painting on sliding doors (fusuma) by Soga Shohaku.  Made in 1763 CE, the work has just returned from Japan to the MFA in Boston.  If the lobster were still in Boston, he would go see this, dream himself out of the water and into the swirling clouds, with the canary perched on the dragon's crest.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Throwing The Ink": Pat Steir's Gestural Genius

[All artwork and images copyrighted to Pat Steir and/or her representatives; no infringement intended; images used here solely for non-commercial purposes, i.e., for commentary]

Pat Steir is an artist whose work deeply informs my own thinking about gesture, disciplined spontaneity, form and field.   (Click here for her bio).

In an excellent interview with Phong Bui  in The Brooklyn Rail (click here), Steir says that she was told thrown-ink painting began in the third century:  "I looked everywhere for it, I didn't understand what it was because I couldn't find it.  That was because thrown ink meant broken line, not traditional painting.  The artists did not actually throw the ink.  I was influenced by the idea of throwing the ink but it was just a misunderstanding.  I think a lot of art comes about through misunderstanding."

I just love that, the idea of misunderstanding yielding meaning and beauty.  I think the misguided search applies to life much more broadly.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

come celebrate with me: The Work of Lucille Clifton

The lobster & canary last wrote about Lucille Clifton upon the sad occasion of her death:  click here.

Yesterday, at Poets House in NYC, we spent time at the special exhibition come celebrate with me: The Work of Lucille Clifton.   Curated by Kevin Young, with Amy Hildreth Chen and Lisa Chinn, the collection of Clifton's books, notes, manuscript drafts and other ephemera stems from Emory University's libraries & archives.  

Click here for more.

Her voice is in our head forever.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Fund science (thank you Neil deGrasse Tyson)

The wisest statement I read this week is a singularly compelling and important point that astrophysicist & public intellectual Neil deGrasse Tyson makes in an interview in the current issue of Wired magazine:

" least in America, science has been treated sort of cavalierly, not only by the public but also by government.  The idea that science is just some luxury that you'll get around to if you can afford it is regressive to any future a country might dream for itself.  Innovations in science and technology are the engines of the 21st-century economy; if you care about the wealth and health of your nation tomorrow, then you'd better rethink how you allocate taxes to fund science.  The federal budget needs to recognize this."

For more in this vein by deGrasse Tyson, click here.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dancing Architecture

Frank Stella, from his Scarlatti Kirkpatrick series (2006--ongoing)
All images copyright to the artist and/or his representative(s); images used here solely for purposes of commentary, i.e., non-commercial usage.

I always chuckle at the statement-- variously attributed to Martin Mull, Frank Zappa and several other musicians-- that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" (click here).   I admire its glibness, but I do not agree; too precious, too clever by half, in my opinion.  Why shouldn't we cross those hoary boundaries?

Was recently reminded of this, seeing one of Stella's Scarlatti Kirkpatrick pieces at the Museum of Art & Design in NYC.   Stella bases his series on both the 17th-century Italian composer Scarlatti and on Yale musicologist & harpsichordist  Ralph Kirkpatrick, who authored the definitive catalog of Scarlatti's work in 1953.

As Stella says:  "If you follow an edge of a given work visually, and follow it through quickly, you find the sense of rhythm and movement that you get in music."

Click here for more on the Stella series.  

And here for a little Scarlatti.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hacking The Book

Su Blackwell, Out Of Narnia (2009)
(Blackwell holds the copyright; image used here solely for purposes of commentary, i.e., non-commercial).

The more digital our world becomes, the more we remember to cherish its physicality.  Not in a fetishistic way, or with antiquarian longing, but in a visceral, "cut to the gut" joy...we sculpt with our slow food, we mash up our music, we slice and dice our tweets and chats....

....and our books, oh my yes, we may read on a countless array of screens, yet still return to the printed page and its binding... as works of art in their own right.

Thinking of an upsurge over the past decade of mixed-media, hand-crafted works involving books, sometimes building on the tradition of "the artist's book," in other cases stemming more from scrapbooking practices, and in others from the principles of collage and iconoclasm saturating the Internet.   Su Blackwell transports us into the world within the book.  (Click here for more).  Last July we blogged about Lisa Occhipinti and her re-envisioning of the book as object.  (Click here).  Gabe Cyr's Mixed-Media Books: Dozens of Experiments In Altering Books is a lovely collection.   (Click here). 

Other resources:  Printed Matter, Inc. (click here).   The Contemporary Artists' Books Conference (click here).   1,000 Artists' Books: Exploring The Book As Art by Peter & Donna Thomas and Sandra Salamony (click here).    The Center for Book Arts (click here).   

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mapping a billion stars: another space break

Giving ourselves another breather, after the long-form interview with Sandra Kasturi.

The European Space Agency is preparing to launch Gaia, a probe that will map a billion stars over five years.

Per the ESA site:

"It is expected to discover hundreds of thousands of new celestial objects, such as extra-solar planets and brown dwarfs, and observe hundreds of thousands of asteroids within our own Solar System. The mission will also study about 500 000 distant quasars and will provide stringent new tests of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity."

Click here for more.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sandra Kasturi Interview, Part Two

Question 4.  “Palelemon sunstreaks”...echoes of the “thick Teutonic languages, the languages of augurs” (as you put it in “Augury”).   Similar echoes throughout your poetry, for instance, in your “October Country”:  “the flotsam joy of the petal storm,” “purple-buttered thistle,” “deranged-yellow heat,” “that pan-cracked, brittle, ice-slippered sweet,” “its red-leaf-feathered, burnished golden limbs.”   Yet, hold on, strewn among the Germanic thicket are latinate flowers (“joy,” “deranged,” “burnish”) and blooms from the Greek (“petal,” “purple”) and Persian (“lemon”).   Talk about word choice and especially whether you think that being a poet from an officially multilingual country has made you more alert to the inner life of the words you choose.

Kasturi:  Well, with "palelemon sunstreaks" and other things of that ilk, I am probably cribbing a bit from the feel of Earl Birney's wonderful poem, "Anglo-Saxon Street" in which he evokes those old odes in a very modern setting. I always thought that poem was really funny, so it probably infused some of my work.

Language has probably always been important to me, though not in a conscious way. I was almost a polyglot growing up: English was my fourth language, after Estonian, Singhalese and German. I'm still fluent in Estonian, but Singhalese is completely gone, and German is like listening to a radio station that's not quite tuned in. I also have a smattering of French from the Canadian school system...but I think those early languages probably altered the way I think at a very young age. Some languages have concepts that simply can't be that probably gives you interesting pathways in the brain. I sometimes make funny typos when writing really fast--I'll start to spell something the Estonian way, and then when I look back, I go, "Whaaaat???" My favourite one was when I wanted to write "used to" and started typing "juust"--which is how it would be spelled in Estonian. Actually (felicitously!), "juust" means "cheese" in Estonian, so I had this weird bilingual typo/joke going on that probably only other Estonians (or maybe Finns) will find funny.

So yeah, maybe living in a multilingual country has helped? Cultural mosaic? Speaking a bunch of languages at an early ages? Nature/nurture? Who knows. But I love the sounds of words and I love stringing together things and making entirely new words. I was influenced in that by my friend, Carleton Wilson, who's a wonderful poet. He said in one poem something about "the branches of trees gnarcing..." I adored that. "Gnarcing" isn't a word, but of course you know immediately what he means. So perfect!

Question 5.  Words and images, and how to separate the dancer from the dance.  Which comes first for you: the words, summoned from the hoard in the middle of the night, needing then the image to clothe them in the light?  Or the image, born in those palelemon sunstreaks, needing the proper words to adorn them?  “Hummingbirds don’t fly south for the winter.  They just freeze/ where they are in the air, mistaken for speckles of winter/ sunlight, or, sometimes, low-hanging stars” (from “Hummingbird Hagiography”).   “You are black as bees,/ dark as the spine of a prison tower” (“Black as Bees”).  “Here is freedom, strange as irregular/ knitting.  The other side of the wall is static/ with bald poets, wry madmen and bizarre/ women flapping their arms in the attic” (“The Soft Key”).  “...a smile fifteen years in the making” (“Cryogenics”). 
Kasturi:  "Hummingbird Hagiography" is another cheat, I'm afraid, in that it was done for this wonderful poetry exercise called "Twenty Little Poetry Projects" by Jim Simmerman. I highly recommend it, especially for when you are creatively blocked. ( I wasn't blocked when I wrote that; we just did it in a poetry workshop I was running with David Clink. We also gave a 15-minute time restriction on writing it--a lot of great stuff came out of that exercise from a lot of people.

Generally, though, I think words come to me. I think in titles or in first lines, and they float around, and then the rest comes. I don't really think in images, but if the words help create the image, I guess I've done my job? Though I've done some ekphrastic poetry based on paintings or other images--but they're never as good, I feel. I guess my brain just doesn't work that way. I'm bookish to the core.

Question 6.  You’re funny--­I laughed out loud several times while reading Come Late, and chuckled often.   Daedalus spinning the story of Icarus in “Obese Mythologies,” the Avian High Supreme Action Committee requiring a special license for caged-bird keepers (shades of Monty Python!) in “Bird Logic,”  the European Bee-Eater going hungry because the bees have moved to condos in the city (“Regretful Orbits”), in your shoe the bee (“a sort of dirigibly-fat, apian/ ghost ship, damned for whatever sins bees/ commit.../ a bumbleship”) in “Big Bee Cosmology.”   Do you set out to be humorous or does the humor suggest itself as the poem emerges?
Kasturi:  I think I'm just weird. I don't usually set out to be funny. In fact, I've had poems receive huge yuks (like "After Misreading Emerson" which is my earlier collection, The Animal Bridegroom), which I've actually thought were sad poems. But then people laugh when I read them aloud. Go figure! Or maybe I just had my skirt tucked into my underpants or something.

But I do confess that sometimes there are things that I'm so enchanted with, and so charmed by, that I really hope other people will feel the same way. Bumbleship! Who wouldn't like that? It's adorable.

Like many other people, I think I find the universe and existing in it to be this kind of absurdist comedy, so maybe that comes through?

It's nice to hear I'm funny, though. Feel free to tell me that, often.

Question 7.  Humorous yes but often tinged with sorrow, with longing for the unattainable, with la musica del amargue:  “Just as you and I wish to be birds...wish to listen to the fabled echo, the faint/ but steady pull of birdsong, that brags/ to landbound mammals about the joys of flight,/ the sweeping pull of wings” (“The Movement of Men and Gods”);  “Let us end this tyranny/ of waiting, of longing to fly/ south for the winter, to imaginary/ countries where it only rains/ lullabies...” (“Let Us Begin”); “We are not wading,/ but are treading water carefully/ in a narrow sea” (“Godwit”).  Does writing poetry ease your yearnings, or enflame them?
Kasturi:  I've felt lost for much of my life, I think. Or maybe I read too many fairy tales. That's also possible. It's not surprising that Sondheim's "Into the Woods" is one of my favourite musicals of all time. I love stories and reversals in stories and tales that go wrong.

I often feel like I'm homesick for places I've never been or that are long past, or places that don't even exist: Agatha Christie's England, Michael Gruber's voodoo-riddled Miami, Hogwarts, 1920s Paris. Narnia. Middle-Earth. Though I look at that list and realize that all those places were filled with terrible things. Murder, racism, dictators, evil and abuses of all sorts. I always thought the Germans would have some sort of giant compound word for "longing for places that you have never been" but I haven't found it yet. I just finished rereading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, but for the first time in my life, I wept at the end. What's that about? Sorrow at partings, at journey's (and book's) end? Yearning for magical things? Yearning for the time in my childhood when I first read it? Knowing I can never re-experience that first sense of wonder again? Nostalgia, that criminal muse? God, it's all so terribly sentimental and maudlin, isn't it? I'm ashamed of myself!

I think writing, for me, gets the yearning on the page. Does it ease anguish? No, I don't think so. But maybe it gives it parameters. Here is the very thing that is breaking your heart: you can look at it cleanly. Does doing this mend you? No. But knowing a thing can help.

I don't reread the sad poems like "Godwit" much. Elegies are often too hard and the memory is (cliché alert!) like probing a sore tooth. You become like Laurence Olivier doing terrible things to your mouth, muttering "Is it safe?" Why do that to yourself? Of course I do it. We all do it. That terrible, delicious anguish of loss and memory.

Question 8.  Along the same lines, I recently ran across this statement in Mary Ruefle’s “On Beginnings” (in her collected lectures, Madness, Rack and Honey):   “Gaston Bachelard says the single most succinct and astonishing thing: We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment.”   Your reaction to this sentiment?
Kasturi:  Ha! That's wonderful. It's such an enormous statement on so many levels, I'm not sure I can even answer properly. My initial reactions: Hilarious! Awful. Apt. Why can't I say anything that profound? Depressing. Is that my own humdrum little life? Do I admire myself and my work only to find it all terribly disappointing? Embarrassment and shame at the possibility of admiring myself too much. Not done! Off-track. What did Daniel ask me? Oh yeah, that quotation. Hilarious! No, sad. Do I understand it? Or myself? Or my writing? Maybe not.

Maybe that's the best example of how my squirrelly, self-absorbed little brain works. Show me something profound, and all I can think of is how it relates to me. Quel horreur!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Come Late To The Love Of Birds": Sandra Kasturi Interview, Part One

Another lovely treat for and from Lobster & Canary, to start our 2014:  an interview with poet Sandra Kasturi about her latest collection, Come Late To The Love Of Birds, recently published by Tightrope Books, which also put out her debut collection, The Animal Bridegroom.   Click here to purchase the book.  (Full disclosure:  Sandra is co-owner of ChiZine Publications, which published my two novels; I received a free advance copy of Come Late To The Love Of Birds).

Sandra is a Bram Stoker Award-winning editor.  CZP won the British Fantasy Award last year and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award.  She identifies closely ­with speculative fiction, the new fabulism.   Her work is among the best these hybrid genres have produced in recent years, and is part of the renaissance within fantastical poetry, along with that of --among others--our fellow CZP author, Helen Marshall, as well as by Sonya Taaffe, Theodora Goss, and the many talents gathered by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Wick at Goblin Fruit, by Mike Allen at Mythic Delirium, and by Erzebet Yellowboy at Cabinet des Fees.

I see Come Late (and Animal Bridegroom), along with the work of Marshall and the others I list here, as part of an important endeavor within English-language poetry much more generally: a revitalization of the Romantic mode, building on Blakean and Wordsworthian tropes and the dreams of Coleridge and Shelley with sharp-throated words for modern times, not least with a deft ear for the nuances of gender and the demands of a post-colonialist world.   Marianne Moore as one bridging figure, Jorie Graham another?  As I read Sandra's work,  I find myself reaching for volumes by Sharon Olds, by Clayton Eshleman, by Albert Goldbarth, by Charles Simic.  By Alice Oswald, by Sarah Lindsay, by Laura Kasischke, by Seamus Heaney.   Past time for “fantastical poetry” (and isn’t all poetry fantastical, the changing of words into the world and back again?) to stake its claim more forcefully in today’s poetry landscape.   I hope Come Late garners the praise it deserves among the readers of Olds, Simic, Heaney et al

Question One.   The title of your latest collection comes from a passage you read decades ago by J.A. Baker:  “I came late to the love of birds.  For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision.”  And actually you first read the lines as quoted in a Judith Van Gieson novel; lines that you savored for years, waiting for the chance to use in a recipe of your own.  Tell us more about the origins of the poems as a cycle: the intertextual tracing, the widening of your own vision to include birds, your desire to widen vision for others (arguably the greatest gift of poetry).
Kasturi:  Firstly, thanks so much for having me on Lobster & Canary! And you are very kind in your praise indeed. My god, to be mentioned in the same breath as Heaney, etc! Swoon.

I was so struck by that quotation when I saw it in Van Gieson's book, The Raptor (a mystery novel, incidentally), that I looked up Baker's book, The Peregrine, which is where the lines are originally from, and bought a copy from Abe Books. I think it's out of print now? Anyway, The Peregrine is itself an odd thing, and not much is actually known about Baker himself. He wrote this naturalist's study, but it actually reads like poetry. His passages are so eloquent and beautiful, I can't even describe them. I'm not a huge non-fiction reader unless I'm doing research for something specific, but that's a book that I'd go back to, just for the beauty of its language. I think it should be on all poets' must-read list! I mean, he's even mesmerizing when he's talking statistics! But that's not the question.

I often think in titles, so "come late to the love of birds" was just something ringing in my head for a long time, and I thought it would be a good title for a book. And then it just seemed like I was writing poems that involved birds in some way, without really planning to. It all coalesced when I wrote the first poem in the book, "Roc" although of course I didn't really think of it as an opening poem for anything--it was just a thing I wrote and workshopped in my poetry group. So when I was thinking about my next poetry book, it all came together, and I went, "Hey, that might be a cool thing to do." I went through my newer poems and picked out the ones that seemed like they would fit in the books--poems literally about birds, or about flight, or space travel. Which was when I realized I had nowhere nearly enough and I'd better get off my ass!

The thing is--as you start thinking about themes for your writing and pulling a book together, you start looking at the actual things your poems are about. So I would really notice birds in a way I hadn't before. I would notice their funny little personalities, and how some of them would get cross with each other and squabble in our backyard. When we were in Rhode Island, I saw this hawk in the botanical gardens there--which resulted in the poem "One Red Thought." The movement of birds is like poetry.

Incidentally, Helen Marshall liked the title of my book so much, that she developed the very naughty habit of writing all these awesome poems which were perfect for my book, so I will obviously have to write poems for her next book now. Heh.

Question Two.  I came early to the love of birds:  I started birdwatching when I was nine years old.  So, I am enthralled by your trenchant sketches of birds as (in your words) “poetry made flesh,” nodding as I see old friends so well depicted.  Since your “conversion,” besides seeing birds for the first time, have you also found them in literature where you previously had not noticed them?   I am thinking of, to name just a few in a flock:  Ted Hughes...Mary Oliver...the sublime Walton Ford (devious homage to the magnificent Audubon)...Emily Dickinson...Birds Drawn For John Gould by Edward Lear...Bartram’s Travels Through North & South Carolina, etc. and Wilson’s  American Ornithology...White’s Natural History of Selborne...da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds...from our medieval forebears, The Parliament of Fowls...

Kasturi:   I think I notice them more in mythology and folklore or fairy tales. You find them in Grimm and Andersen, and the Greek myths of course. Weirdly, I don't really read a lot of poetry, but the stuff I love, I love a lot. People like Anne Carson, Anne Sexton, Laura Lush, David Clink, Helen Marshall of course.

But I remember the birds in the Mary Poppins books best, I think. P.L. Travers was such a weird and funny writer! I love her so much. She anthropomorphized birds (and animals) of course, but I'll always remember Mary Poppins arguing with the cheeky starlings.

And you know I grew up loving dinosaurs--all those in-school claymation "documentaries"! How I loved them. I'm still sad brontosaurus doesn't really exist. And later: Ray Harryhausen! Bliss. So when the theories about how dinosaurs evolved into birds, it all seemed to make a kind of exquisite sense.

 Question Three.  Let’s talk prosody for a moment.  When you compose a poem such as “The Flowering Tide” (“Palelemon sunstreaks arc wide amid snow- / falls of cherryblossoms that shiver through chills/ or warmth, fickle gusts of vernal air that blow/ from the east.”), do you have the meter already in your head before the words come, or do the words tumble out, challenging you to order their rhythm?   Here is another passage that spurred this question, from “Poets and Other Birds of Prey”:  “Such exsanguinations had to be effected personally:/ flesh rendered by others/ was, even at the very moment of death,/ already too old to be touched./ You were fastidious.”   Or likewise this, from “Cardinal”:  “Look ­two cardinals perch on a still-bare tree,/ one red, one brown, watching, sharp-eyed; the least/ movement sends them skyward, winging free/ across the slow evening.”

Kasturi:  I must confess that with "The Flowering Tide" it was terribly contrived. I had this "Sonnet a Week" project that I was doing where I was trying to write, yes, a sonnet a week. Because I'm not really a formal verse person, so I wanted to see if I could do it. One week I couldn't think of anything, but I wanted to write a spring poem, so I asked my friend, writer Jason Taniguchi, to give me the end-rhyming words. So he did, but very naughtily gave me only winter words! Which you can see if you look at the last word of each line. But I like restrictions when writing--I think sometimes the more severe the straitjacket, the cleverer you are forced to be. So it expanded the way I thought and the way I wrote, which I think is good. I sort of trailed off before the year was out though--so really, it ended up averaging out to a sonnet every two weeks, I think.

"Cardinal" of course is also a sonnet. I wrote it for my great-uncle after he died and read it at his funeral. Again, the severity of restrictions involved in a form like the sonnet I think lend themselves beautifully when a tremendous amount of emotion is involved with what you are doing. It keeps you from veering off into hysteria or maudlin thoughts. Allows you to say things and makes it easier to handle all the unhappiness and despair you feel when you lose someone you love greatly.

As for "Poets and Other Birds of Prey"--my god, I wrote that a loooong time ago. It might actually be the oldest poem in the book. I know I absolutely did not think about meter then; I do it far more now. Some things seem to lend themselves naturally to certain rhythms, and you usually know from the first couple of lines what it's going to be. I've had things change from very formal verse to free verse, because I was trying to force the form and it wasn't working. And I've done it the other way round too--realized that it was a hodgepodge mess and it needed more stricture and then gone off into the formal vein.

Isn't "stricture" a wonderful word? It sounds like a poison, or something you'd add to a chemical solution to give colourful results.

[Second Half Of Interview To Come Next Sunday]

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Space Break

The Chinese moon rover Jade Rabbit (Yutu, in Mandarin) was reactivated last week, having been set on "dormant" for a month after landing so as to ride out inclement "weather."  The rover begins its mission in earnest now.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity steadily sends back pictures-- this one was taken on January 17th.

Lobster and Canary takes a mini-break this week, between the two-part interview with Mike Carey and another two-part interview to start next week, this one with poet, editor and publisher Sandra Kasturi.  In the meantime, we send our thoughts out into space, dreaming, dreaming....

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mike Carey Interview, Part Two

Question FourOne of the most compelling features of your Felix novels is the close reading of urban space, the concrete descriptions of the places where both thought and action unfold, as well as your allusions to the history and myth that accrue to and sometimes obscure that very reality.  As a native Liverpudlian, you bring perhaps an outsider's sharp eye for the quirks and vagaries of London; as Felix says in the first novel:  "I was born elsewhere, you have to understand-- up North, two hundred miles from the Smoke-- and my view of London is an outsider's view..."  Hence the specificity of the locales: the Bonnington Archive in Euston, on Eversholt Street near Drummond Street; the Charles Stanger Care Facility on Coppett's Road near the North Circular and Coldfall Wood; Number 14 Oak Court, Folgate Street, "right off Bishopsgate, up the Shoreditch end."  Would you share with us how you structure the space and the action within your fiction, what place means to the impact of your stories?

Carey:  It’s because the Castor books are a noir construct. The city often functions as a character in noir fictions, and the exploration of the darker interstices of an urban landscape is a big part of the impetus for noir. I was on a panel at Eastercon where the existence and robustness of rural noir was very strongly insisted on, and I accept that (Lawless is a good recent example). The sense of place is still paramount, though, so I spend a lot of time getting that right. In fact, the largest part of the research I do on the Castor books relates to location. I go to a lot of places and walk around looking at them from various angles – like a casting director, auditioning the landscape.

Even the wholly fictional places in the Castor books are based on real places and sort of sit askew on real places. There is a hospital (not a mental hospital, a regular one) roughly where I put the Stanger home – and the roundabout in West London where I put the Oriflamme actually has the derelict shell of a small community museum on it. The Bonnington is very loosely based on the London Metropolitan Archive – with the location changed, but a lot of the interior and exterior geography retained. I like that there’s a thread of real-world sinew running through the books. Psychologically, it feels like that anchors the supernatural elements and makes them more believable.

Question Five:  Regardless of medium, you work primarily within the field of horror, the bleaker ends of fantasy, the nouveau-gothic.  At its core, your work strikes me as profoundly moral, in a refreshingly old-fashioned way.  Your monsters are terrifying, but the real evil is perpetrated by the humans...and you are explicit that everyone has a choice.  Is the presentation of tortured choice, of personal accountability and potential guilt, in the midst of the gruesome what keeps readers so attuned to this genre, and specifically to your work?

Carey:  I think it’s a strong theme in my writing, certainly – and it feels like it’s very much at the heart of most noir. You very often have a protagonist who’s trying to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t even present the right thing as an option.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately in connection with The Girl With All the Gifts. The concept of evil really requires a sense of agency. A monster that’s insentient, or a monster that just obeys its own appetites and urges, can be scary but it can’t be evil. You have to choose evil, and you have to choose it knowing what at least some of the consequences will be.

Maybe for that reason, I think a lot of horror – like a lot of folklore and fairy tale, which are precursors to horror – is fundamentally about moral choices. Joe Hill’s and Graham Joyce’s work spring to mind as very fine and clear examples. It’s what distinguishes true horror from, say, fictional disaster narratives. In horror, characters choose their fates.

Question Six:  You are a reflective practitioner.  For instance, your Guest of Honor keynote address at the 2011 Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, 'Speak of the Dazzling Wings': Myth, Language, and Modern Fantasy," was anchored in the work of Wallace Stevens, and spanned evolutionary biology (touching on Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition & Fiction), T.S. Eliot, hard-boiled detective novels, comic books, Owen Barfield (perhaps the least-remembered Inkling, whose Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning from 1928 is steadily gaining more notice and adherents), and more.  You refer to Blake and Defoe, to John Owen and Isaac Watts ("the reservoir dogs of eighteenth-century theology," in your memorable phrase)-- I catch allusions to Poe and Dickens, possibly Woolf and Balzac-- and you enjoy a sly joke in the way of earlier learned correspondence (naming your hard-luck protagonist "Happy Beaver" for starters).  Do you plan to write more critical commentary about your own work and its place within the genres, and/or about the work of other writers?  If so, what form might such criticism take?

Carey:  I don’t know whether there would ever be a readership or a constituency for that sort of thing! I love concordances, but I think the worthwhile ones are always written by people other than the writer of the original text. They’re free to be merciless in pointing out unacknowledged borrowings and stuff like that.

It’s a fascinating field, though. I tend to think of Harold Bloom as something of a pillock, and the Anxiety of Influence as over-egged post-Freudian phallocratic nonsense, but there is something in the idea that every text is haunted by the ghosts of other texts, and it’s wonderful when you’re able to tug on one of those threads and see something unexpected unravel from it.

One of my favourite reads of 2012 was John Fuller’s Who Is Ozymandias? It’s a book about literary puzzles and unlikely connections. It does a great job of convincing you that certain words and phrases in certain poems are fossils from earlier poems left lying around there because the poet’s mind was unable to let go of them.

So yeah, I love the commentaries on my writing that are floating around on the net, but I’d probably fight shy of writing any myself. Apart from anything else, the most interesting influences and echoes are probably the ones you’re not aware of yourself – or the ones you won’t admit to because they’re too embarrassing.

Did I really say that about Owen and Watts? That sounds like something I may have stolen…

Question Seven:  You can invite a half-dozen guests to dinner:  who would you invite and why?  And what theme or lead topic might you suggest for the evening?

Carey:  Do these have to be real, living people or is it a wish fulfilment kind of deal? Assuming it’s the former, I’d have a horror fantasy evening. I’d invite China Miéville, Ursula LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Mike Moorcock and Hilary Mantel (I know she writes history, but she gets an invite anyway on account of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies). And I’d steer the conversation around to the things genre can do that mainstream can’t.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mike Carey Interview, Part One ("Genuinely Chilling And Numinous")

Lobster & Canary starts 2014 with a special treat: a two-part interview with Mike Carey.    I had the honor of meeting Mike when he was the keynoter and Guest of Honor at the 2011 Toronto SpecFic Colloquium.  You can read more about Mike here, here and here.  The second half of the interview will run in next Sunday's edition.

Question One:    Many writers are famously lone wolves, but you collaborate with many others, often over many years (thinking of, for instance, your long-standing partnership with Peter Gross, and your work with Linda Carey & Louise Carey).  What makes collaboration work in your experience, when is it the optimal way forward and when not?  

Carey:  I think the enormous blessing that comes with collaboration is that it inevitably pulls you away from your own centre of gravity as a writer. When you’re working in a single genre area and writing a lot of different works that share the same DNA, it’s very easy to plagiarise yourself without even meaning to. You just mine the same seam of inspiration repeatedly, and your work converges on a single flavour or feel.

But when you collaborate, you’ve immediately got somebody else’s comfort zone to accommodate yourself to. A lot of things have to be done by negotiation – which means they take a terrifyingly long time – but you come out in a different place. You find yourself trying out different things and taking chances that you wouldn’t normally take. I don’t think I could have written The Girl With All the Gifts without having done the two collaborations with Lin and Lou first.

But notwithstanding all that, I’d say collaboration only works – and is only worth the trouble – when it’s a real meeting of minds. I was working on a comic book series a few years ago where I was essentially co-writing. But because of other commitments, I was having to let the other writer do all the conceptual heavy lifting. It was a pretty bleak experience for both of us, and I think it would have come out better if I hadn’t been involved at all.

Comics, of course, are always a collaboration, which is one of the reasons why they’re such a wonderful school for learning the craft of writing. You get a lot of rough edges knocked off you very quickly, because you get exposed to a lot of different people’s ideas of good practice.

Question Two:  You are also more versatile than many writers, working in media ranging from comic books to novels, and including screenplays and less-definable forms.  How do you select the medium (or does it select you) for a given project?  What remains the same within your craft, what differs as you tell stories across various platforms? 

Carey:  Wow. That’s a tough question to answer – or at least, to answer without falling into tautology. Because on one level, what remains the same is you – your perception and your take on the story. If you’re doing the job right, everything else should be up for grabs. The last thing in the world you want to do is to come up with a scene-for-scene faithful translation of the story from one medium into another.

I was lucky enough when I was first getting established as a writer to be offered a lot of adaptation work. I adapted the Fantastic Four movie into comic book form, and also did comic book adaptations of two novels – Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Ender’s Shadow. I felt like I learned a lot from that. When you’re adapting, you really have to dismantle the story and examine all the moving parts closely, then decide what structure would best express them in the new medium. With Neverwhere, we decided to use a first person narrator – Richard Mayhew – and we radically recast Richard and Door’s first meeting with Islington. Both of those things, it seemed to me, made the story work more smoothly and organically in the comic book medium. An omniscient narrator is perfect (if slightly obvious) example of a convention that’s invisible in prose but often really marked and awkward in comics.

But to come back to the first part of your question, I believe that any story can be made to work in any medium – although it will often have one medium to which it feels really “native”. For example, Star Trek Next Generation functions perfectly well in movies and novelisations, but the TV episodes feel like the ur and genuine statement of those characters and that situation.

The trick, always, is to find the way through – to make the medium serve the story. I hated the movie version of The Road because I felt that in spite of wonderful acting and often imaginative direction it really failed to do that. When you read the novel, the unrelenting bleakness of the situation is leavened by the sublime beauty of McCarthy’s prose, so you’re constantly in a suspension between despair and some other emotional state I can’t quite name. The movie didn’t find or even look for an audio-visual equivalent of that experience.

Question ThreeI am a particular fan of Felix Castor, the freelance exorcist and anti-hero of the series you began with The Devil You Know.  Felix is a most worthy addition to the tradition of occult detectives that goes back to, among others, Blackwood's John Silence, Hodgson's Thomas Carnacki, and Wellman's John Thunstone.   More recent cousins would include Preston & Child's Agent Pendergast, Butcher's Harry Dresden, Stross's Bob Howard, Selene in the Underworld series, Anton Gorodetsky in the Night Watch trilogy, Buffy, Mulder & Scully in The X Files, more distantly Tyador Borlu in Mieville's The City & The City.   How do you see Felix within this tradition?  How do you explain the reading public's apparently boundless fascination with all things paranormal? 

Carey:  I’m delighted to see you put Castor in that distinguished company. I think what I was trying to do with that series, more than anything else, was to create a supernatural crime fusion that was true to the spirit of both of those traditions. In other words, I wanted the supernatural elements to feel genuinely chilling and numinous, and I wanted the mystery elements to work as a mystery – with no supernatural “get-outs” or breaches of logic.

In terms of style, I took my cue from Raymond Chandler. I was trying to make Castor feel like the exorcist half-brother of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. I don’t know how far I succeeded in that, but that was the blueprint – an exorcist who walks the mean streets and does what he has to do for a moderate daily fee plus expenses.

The other aim was to create a supernatural taxonomy that makes sense and is consistent. We’ve got ghosts, zombies, were-creatures and demons, but there’s only one mechanism at work in all these different manifestations – so you only have to believe one impossible thing before breakfast, and everything else flows from that one thing. Obviously many supernatural stories work without any explicit explanation at all, and that’s fine. But I felt like I’d be missing a trick in the Castor novels if I didn’t make the ultimate mystery be: why is this happening?

[Second half of the interview next week.]

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Skiffs on the Endless River, a Convoy of Joy

Skimming dozens and dozens of "year's best" lists, I once again come to the three-parts delighted, one-part melancholy conclusion that my time will run out long before I can possibly read even a small number of all the books on my "to be read" list.  Oceans of books, fathomless pools of words, serpentines of sentences...and me there, the humble lobster, dabbling, clutching and slowly clambering as best I can in the shallows.  The canary can only sigh...

Any sense that literary culture is declining dashes itself on the sheer volume of publication.  The tidal river accommodates every taste, form and subject   Even assuming Sturgeon's Law holds true, the vastness of global literary output assures us of more high-quality, worthy books published in any one year than any one of us could possibly read in that one year.  And then the next year is upon us...and what about all those acknowledged classics still unread...?

A marvelous situation as we cozy up to whatever we are reading right now, our eyes already looking ahead to the book to follow immediately and the ones stacked up beyond.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Worlds, Hopeful: The Art of Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu is the artist I have most often returned to this year-- her work draws me in, inspiring with its grace, strength and beauty (a word that so rarely enters into today's art critical discussion). She presents a self-assured, singular vision, unmistakably her own, yet welcomes us all to join her-- a calmly passionate creator of grounded globalized mysteries.  

Border crossings, chimerical figures, the echoes of fairy tale reverberating in the space age, layers of history framing today's concerns...a palimpsestic world that beguiles and astonishes, that forces the viewer to think.

Above all: a world that has women at its center.  Matter of fact, not fragile; axis and volume aligned.

For more by and about Mutu and her work, click here and here

P.S.  Would be an interesting exercise to look at Mutu's work in the context of others wakening us to a world that transcends borders (without overriding the cultures contained within), one based on emancipatory dynamics, and a sense of play and humor as the deepest way to make serious points and effect serious change.   Thinking here of-- among others-- Kiki Smith, Anish Kapoor, of Ursula K. Le Guin, Janelle Monae, Amitav Ghosh, Anoushka Shankar, and Herbie Hancock.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Think, Eye, Think!

Return over and over to the most familiar works of art, and be rewarded with fresher insights, more understanding.

I have seen Veronese's iconic Wedding at Cana at the Louvre, and have looked at reproductions countless times over the years...yet I only this month realized that almost none of the c. 130 revelers at the banquet-- clearly all in animated conversation, as befits the occasion--has open mouth.

Look carefully...with the exception of a bare few whisperers, the multitude cannot be speaking at the precise moment Veronese has chosen to create.  A visual oxymoron.  A confounding of our (and their) senses.

Peter Greenaway provided the clue, as he discussed how he imagined dialogue for the banqueters in his update and gloss on the painting at the 2009 Venice Biennale  (click here for more).   He reminds us that the Benedictine monastery San Giorgio Maggiore commissioned the painting for its refectory, and that the Benedictines ate in silence, as a way to honor God and attain virtuousness.

Veronese found a way to combine the sacred and the secular in a most clever way.   And I am reminded that, no matter how many times I may have looked at an image, further and more intense study almost always repays the effort.  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Drop-Time Revisited: Shatter/ Stop/ Run (Beat, Heart, Beat)

Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991, at the Tate)
As always, copyright in work and image held by the artist and/or the museum; image used here solely for purposes of commentary.

I have written here and here about Drop-Time, the moment that is frozen in motion, simultaneously gliding and flying while having been lived once, in a specific blink or gasp, months or years or decades ago.

Cornelia Parker captures this feeling of mine, crystallizes the arc of the energy, lets light play through so that the aftermath is perpetual and perpetually changing in shadow.

Sometimes I think I can see my heart-beat in slow motion, kinetic (e)motion, feel it expelling outward, rimmed in living darkness yet pierced by light.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Writing Like Cezanne

The Basket of Apples (1893)

Every time I think I have fastened a color to the page, I discover Cezanne there long before me (and others too, of course, but always and above all: Cezanne).

As Rilke wrote about Cezanne's work, there is something mysterious in the normalcy, a sneak attack on senses lulled into an everyday sensibility:

…in this dense quilted blue of his, in his red and his shadowless green and the reddish black of his wine bottles. And the humbleness of all his objects: the apples are all cooking apples and the wine bottles belong in the roundly bulging pockets of an old coat."

The Boy in the Red Vest (1888-'90)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sing, Celebrate, Defy the Unlight (Snarky Puppy, with Shayna Steele)

I return to a perennial theme, one I have written about here and here:  the raising of music by a group, to celebrate ourselves, so alone on this tiny vessel in the oceans of unlight.  Spurred no doubt by the steepening slope of night here in the northern hemisphere (sliding as we are towards the solstice), I think communal song is our telos.   Or certainly at the core of our purpose, if not the sum total.

Out of Nothing, Something... sing out the verse in us.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Peering backward over the shoulder of a giant (what if there had been no Armory Show?)

I have been re-visiting The Armory Show all year, in this year of its centennial.  Such a powerful outpouring of commentary and commemoration, including the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society and the primary sources now freely available online at the Smithsonian.

A hundred years on and many of the paintings remain as fresh and demanding as ever...but, as a whole, that which was revolutionary in 1913 long since achieved iconic status as the new mainstream.  A well known and frequently told story about the triumph of Modernism, and its subsequent ossification (Post-Modernism being little more than another slosh of lacquer on a brittle old facade).

What intrigues me most is how The Armory Show, and all it stood/stands for, might now be used as a springboard not forward but backward towards new viewings and understandings of the Western art that came in the prior generation or two, all those artists and their imagery that Modernism first rebelliously and then imperiously washed away.

The place to start is from within the show itself-- besides the now-iconic names of Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, Kirchner, Munch, Braque, Cezanne and so on, then mostly unknown on American shores, dozens of other artists participated in the great event, many of whom were well known at the time and are now largely forgotten.   Or, if not forgotten, pigeon-holed in the more obscure and neglected parts of the critic's dovecote.

Childe Hassam, the grand man of American art in 1913, the great lion, who had six paintings in the show, but who railed against Cubism and the other new movements that the show helped foster...  Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose work may be among the most forged of any American artist, a back-handed testament to his popularity but who I imagine most artists today will have studied little if at all... Bessie Potter Vonnoh, later elected to the National Academy of Design and to the American Academy of Arts & Letters...Maurice Prendergast, a Modernist at heart but left stranded by art historians in the footnotes, not thoroughly identified with one or the other of the victorious battalions...I could go on.

How do we recapture the light of those brushes, the slant of those chisels, without reference to what flowed after, from the explosion (as it understood itself to be, and was so described by both friends and critics alike) that was The Armory Show?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

[untitled, blog post nr. 298]

I have been thinking about titles recently, in particular really long titles, and what they can mean, or not.  For instance, Rina Banerjee has created a spiky, insectoid sculpture, which she has given the title:

She drew a premature prick, in a fluster of transgressions, abject by birth she new not what else to do with this untouchable reach, unknowable body as she was an ancient savage towed into his modern present

Fiona Apple titled her latest album:

The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Nathaniel Mackey calls the latest volume in his ongoing exploration of jazz, poetry and much else besides:

 From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still EmanateBass Cathedral

Some of my favorites come from Marianne Moore:

"A Lady With Pearls, To  A Blood Red Rook from Turkey, Who Has Depicted Her With Pathos In Surly Monotone."

"In 'Designing A Cloak To Cloak His Designs,' You Wrested From Oblivion A Coat Of Immortality For Your Own Use."

.... and so on (Moore is an especially rich source for lengthy, allusive titles).  

Are layered, coruscant titles merely a conceit, or do they provide a necessary bridge into the work of art?  I think of the ones above each as an ornate forecourt, promising treasures beyond the main gates.  Eye- and heart-catchers, beckoning me in to a world I would not otherwise have visited, a world I likely will not understand even once I have been there but one I will be glad not to have missed.  

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Raising Back Once-Famous Ghosts

Enduring mystery:  the vagaries of taste, the creation of the canon, who's in and who's out in the great salon. Why does one generation hoist up an author, or entire genres, artistic forms, styles, only to have following generations neglect and forget the same?  Race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion all play roles, now well documented by scholars, a thousand thousand cases and analyses of bias explicit and prejudice unacknowledged. (Many were not and still are not invited into the salon in the first place, have been ignored or excluded rather than forgotten). Crucial work, with much more still to be done there; here I refer to the more humdrum, less sinister process by which-- even controlling for parameters such as race, class and gender--many authors dwindle into muted phantoms where once they were sinewed, full-throated voices in our minds.  Dead letters, gone out of print, the purgatory of half-remembered prowess.

Thinking about that as I read V.S. Pritchett's wide-ranging, clever literary criticism.  Well, start with Pritchett himself...who reads Pritchett these days?  Not many, judging from the fact that I bought his complete collected essays (1991, from Random House), 1,319 pages, weighing probably 2 or 3 pounds, for about 5 dollars on Amazon...

For sure, most of his essays deal with writers seemingly (for now, at least) immune to the winds of neglect, but many names are already hard to recall, their work on a side-shunting:  Arthur Morrison, J. Meade Falkner, Arthur Hugh Clough, Ronald Firbank, W.W. Jacobs ("wait, wait, that rings a bell...oh right, "The Monkey's Paw"...had no idea he wrote much of anything else").  More alarming is the realization that even grand lions--Anatole France for instance ("on the right side of the Dreyfus Affair, with Zola," you think, a bit sheepishly, "oh and yes, he was awarded the Nobel")--can sit increasingly alone at the party, at best recognized but now rarely approached, let alone engaged with.

Thankfully we have specialized publishers who act as the solicitous host, bringing us to the faded personage otherwise alone in the corner by the aspidistra:  Capuchin Classics, NYRB Classics,  Persephone Books, Chicago Review Press "Rediscovered Classics," to name a few.  (Not to overlook in the spec fic field the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, given annually since 2001).  And now a new actor enters the scene: the Internet.  As Clive Thompson reminds us, the Internet nurtures ideas (good, bad, indifferent-- the propagation and testing is the point) ...and will help us reclaim lost glories, rekindle old loves, (re)discover voices once heard or who should have been heard when first they issued. The salon just got infinitely larger, the lights turned up, the host and hostess multiplies into endless squadrons...and now the library too has shed its walls and doors.

Perhaps as a result we will see a revival in the fortunes of James Branch Cabell, William Hope Hodgson (surely someone should make a movie of The Night Land?), Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore,  Manley Wade Hopkins,  Frank Belknap Long.   Two in particular intrigue me, as I believe they are over-due for rediscovery:  A.E. Coppard, and Walter de la Mare.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Founder's Tale, Round Two

Artists and artisans of every possible stripe, editors, publishers, gallerists, curators, producers of theatricals: all are (too often unsung) entrepreneurs, who seed and nurture the arts, creating the ecosystem that parallels, critiques and reinforces the mainstream economy.  The Lobster & Canary returns to one of our favorite themes:  the Founder's Tale (click here for our example-filled March 4th, 2012 post, which inspired a round table we led at Arisia in January this year).

I am especially struck by the proliferation of small literary presses in the U.S.A. over the past two decades, at a time when major media conglomerates have acquired and consolidated so many of the older imprints (not in itself a bad thing, but an organizational trend that has logically favored least-common-denominator blockbusters as opposed to bolder, experimental, and decidedly off-beat productions).  Today's small-press founders are the latest descendants of Plantin and Manutius-- long live the Republic of Letters!

Jeffrey Levine, founder of Tupelo Press, tells the story of how he got started, in terms that I am sure are essentially identical to those of his fellow small-press creators:

"So, in 1999 I created this 'job' out of, well, nothing.  I knew what I wanted to do but I didn't really know very much about doing it. Strictly speaking, that's not really true. It would be more true to say that I didn't really know anything about it, except, I felt I had one important talent: that I could trust my judgment about what great writing looked- and sounded-  like. (Every entrepreneur needs a healthy dollop of ego.) So, I rented a little office on the second floor of the U.S. Post Office in Walpole, NH, and I found a desk and a chair, a telephone (remember those), a computer and a printer and set about learning my craft."  [For the entire interview, click here].

Why isn't this flavor of the Founder's Tale featured more prominently in the general business press, made into case studies for the business schools, held up as an exemplar at the venture capital pitch fests?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Golden Age of Print

Andrew Losowsky, senior books editor at the Huffington Post, recently observed that print culture--far from dying as a result of the digital revolution--is expanding, improving and engaging:

"I'm a believer that we're entering a golden age of print.  When something loses its monopoly, it allows it to express what makes it special"  (quoted in Print, 67.5, Oct. 2013, p. 46).

I could not agree more.  I am in a (physical) bookstore at least once a week, and browse their online equivalents every day--and am deliciously overwhelmed by the choices, the inventive qualities, the lure and the blandishments of covers and fonts, the million voices whispering, illustrations leaping, every genre and new ones hybridized every week, deep and beautiful writing on worthy themes, cracking good yarns to liven up a subway ride, higher up and further in on entirely novel continents...

...and the old is refreshed and kept in print, and much that was lost is reclaimed inexpensively online...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Alexander Is Lowered Into The Sea: The Archaeology of Story

[Image & Artwork Copyright Held By The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; Image Used Here For Purposes of Commentary Only, i.e., Within Fair Use; Museum Link Is Here]

The picture above spoke to me from across the room yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum, a small item amidst the panoply at the newly opened exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 .  See the exhibit if you can--it is the sort of bravura display that only the Met and a few others (the V & A, for instance) around the world can do, expertly melding history, anthropology, connoisseurship and aesthetics, and over-brimming the viewer's eye with one exquisite piece after another.   Enmesh your gaze in the glories of palempores on acres of bed-linens, of rinceaux patterns on bonnets and evening gowns, of pheasants and lions cavorting among the original paisley-fronds, of chintz before the word took on its present-day meaning.

The picture above the Met placed as a visual footnote or supplemental (having to do with the contrast between the Mughal headgear and the hats on the Portuguese sailors) yet I found myself more deeply drawn in the more I studied it.  "Alexander Is Lowered Into The Sea," it is titled, being a folio from a Khamsa (a quintet) by Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, with the painting itself attributed to Mukunda.  The Met tells us that, "while underwater, [Alexander] will receive a visit from an angel who will foretell his death."

I did not recall any such story attached to Alexander the Great when I stumbled through Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch (even in translation!) my freshman year of college.  How curious, this legendry revolving around a primitive but apparently functional diving bell.  Alexander--it turns out (but why was I surprised, since Aristotle was his tutor?)--had an interest in such things, if only to thwart any submarine defenses of the maritime cities he besieged.  Click here and here for more.

Alexander invaded Persia in 334 BCE, and India in 327.  Amir Khusrau  (1253-1325 CE) wrote the poem illustrated above some 1,600 years after Alexander's death, one flower in the great garden of verse planted and pruned during the Delhi Sultanate.  (For more on Amir Khusrau, one of the most influential and creative minds in medieval Eurasia, reputed to have invented--among other things--the sitar and the tabla, click here).  

Mukunda, or some other master-artist of Akbar the Great's court, painted the scene another three centuries after Khusrau wrote the poem.  One can imagine Akbar, with his syncretistic worldview and cosmopolitan sense of majesty, enjoying both poem and picture very much.

Four centuries after Akbar's time, we are admiring the painting and reading the story yet again-- and perhaps recollecting how much is shared across millennia and across seemingly disparate cultures.  Alexander founded cities as well as destroyed them, cities still important today.  While echoes of his battles at Gaugamela and on the banks of the Hydaspes live on in scenes such as those written by Tolkien for his men of the West confronting the elephants ridden by the Haradrim ("the men of the south"), we might also bring forth other bits of Alexandrine lore, those more tied to cross-cultural understanding and the pacific quest for revelation.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Memorials to the First Voyage

Barbara Remington's Covers for the 1965 Ballantine Paperback Edition of LOTR (photo of copies from the 21st printing, 1968; from the Mike is Bored blog, click here for more.  Lobster & Canary does not hold copyright in the images or original artwork in this post; their presentation here falls under fair use, is for purposes of commentary).

We visited the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle last weekend, a compendium of great favorites, uniting Jimi Hendrix and Harry Potter under one roof.   A loving, Bowie-esque hodgepodge of drum kits and Daleks, light sabers and Stratocasters, complete with Captain Kirk's chair from the deck of the Enterprise and Neo's long black coat from The Matrix, the EMP was thronged with pilgrims. 

The first exhibit is an homage to modern fantasy and mythmaking.   And on the hall as you enter are two original paintings:  Barbara Remington's LOTR poster, and the map of Middle Earth by Pauline Baynes.

I gazed long and longingly at the two, transported instantly to a young reader making his first voyages on the bark of Tolkien's story.  Recursive memorials to immersion and the gaining of identity through the loss of time and self.  Places of memory about places we imagine and then inhabit.  Recollection of my own paperbacks with their Remington covers (a slightly later printing of the 1965 edition, the 22nd or 23rd perhaps, from 1969, worn to just the same crinkled state as those pictured above, ultimately read right off the book itself, bound with a rubber band, all now lost).  Memories of the sunlight in the front-room on Concord Place where I first read these, and of the smell of the back-stairs (a slightly ominous corridor, like the entrance to The Old Forest), the solitude of my bedroom where a small lamp provided enough light to read by, late late into the night, but not quite enough to dispel the whispers of the Nazgul from the encompassing dark.  

"Memory installs remembrance within the sacred," to quote Pierre Nora.  "Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images and objects."

P.S.  This summer I read Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, a marvelous 2009 anthology edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois.  Vance, like Tolkien (and Le Guin and Peake), looms very large in the minds and memories of many modern fantasy authors; I found Vance only a little later than I discovered Tolkien and Le Guin, and can see and feel where I was when I first followed Cugel the Clever on his adventures and first shuddered at the appearance of Chun the Unavoidable.  Besides the great affection for Vance evident in their pastiches, nearly every author in the collection -- and the line-up is a "who's who" of the current field-- recalls in intimate detail when they first encountered Vance's writing, right down to the specifics of the editions.  For instance, Mike Resnick writes: "One of the very first science fiction books I bought as a kid was Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, in its original paperback edition published by Hillman."  Phyllis Eisenstein remembers paying "75 cents for that Lancer paperback with the odd leathery cover.  Only many years later did I learn that this was its first printing since the scarce 1950 Hillman edition."  Lucius Shepard:  "I first encountered Jack Vance's work in junior high, when I read a paperback edition of The Dying Earth sheathed in one or another textbook (I hated mathematics, so most often I read it during math class)."  Glen Cook speaks of forking over the "outrageous sum" of 75 cents for the Lancer edition at the independent bookstore next to a tavern he frequented.  Tanith Lee still has the English Mayflower edition her mother bought her decades ago, "though by now the pages are brown and many are loose inside the cover."  Dan Simmons stumbled into The Dying Earth and other Vancean worlds in stacks of his brother's Ace Doubles and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, when he was 12, in his uncle's third-floor apartment on North Kildare Avenue just off Madison Street in Chicago, "with me sprawled on the daybed...under the open windows with the heat and street noises coming in...reading Jack Vance."   Howard Waldrop:  "I remember sitting in a green and white lawn chair under a magnolia the summer of 1962, reading...The Dying Earth."   Martin was ten or eleven years old when he "grabbed one of those Ace Doubles with the colorful red-and-blue spines off the spinner rack in the candy store at First Street and Kelly Parkway in Bayonne, New Jersey."  Elizabeth Hand movingly describes "the single most intense reading experience of my life," a rainy Saturday alone in a rented beachfront cottage in Maine the summer before she started high school, devouring doughnuts she had bought with her father and a cover-less copy of  The Dying Earth found in the bottom of a box her mother had brought home from a library book sale.  As  Hand says, speaking I think for most of us:  "It was my madeleine."

Sunday, September 15, 2013

"What Would It Be Like To Actually Don Their Slippers?": The Fairy Tale Worlds of Caroline Golden

That's No Rabbit (2007; mixed media collage)
[All artwork and images copyrighted to the artist, Caroline Golden, and used here solely for purposes of commentary, i.e., non-commercially].

Caroline Golden is a consummate bricoleur, building worlds of loving intricacy, oblique, enigmatic yet inviting.   Few artists-- Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Le Corbusier, Matisse--work so confidently across so many media, and few-- Paolo Ventura, Cornell, Laurie Simmons-- make the miniature so real.  Golden is expert at combining just the right objects in just the right arrays, to untrammel the exquisite and lodge the viewer in dreamstead.  Come in, she beckons, and we find ourselves unwilling to leave, snuggled into the details of linen-fold, polished porcelain, eclectic veneered surfaces.

Her workshop is itself a place of magpie magic, heaped with oddities and incompletes, cut-outs of eyeballs, hands and teeth piled here and there, a bottomless reserve of unlikely inspiration.  Some of her finds will wait for years for their final juxtapositions-- Golden is a patient weaver.

As I have written elsewhere, but repeat now with amplified application to Golden's work:  Here Bachelard's "poetics of space" meets Tolkien's "elvish craft of Enchantment, the sub-creation of a Secondary World."  Calvino's sixth principle, Visibility, merges with Benjamin's "panoramas, dioramas, cosmoramas...phantasmagorical and fantasmaparastatic experiences, picturesque journeys in a room."

The Rabbit House (2011; mixed media construction)

For more of Golden's fairy tale worlds, her "architectural follies in miniature," her "Invisibles" and "Atlanteans," visit her newly relaunched website.   And now for a conversation with the artist:

Watch Cat (1999; paper collage)

Question 1.  Caroline, your "Many Faces of Alice" gives us a new look, a new take, on the well known heroine.  Why Alice, as opposed to, say, Dorothy, or Lucy in the Narnia adventures (or Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, for that matter)? 

Golden:  Alice is a very old friend.  I first met her in Alice's Adventure Underground when I was a child.
The "Underground" Alice found herself within- a dark, nightmarish and, at times ridiculous layer not far from the surface of what we would term as normal.  Logic and meaning had no place there but she defiantly refused to accept the upside down world for what is truly was. Throughout her journey she never seemed to doubt she would survive her trip down the rabbit hole. I admire Alice’s bravery and perseverance, while she maintains an appreciation for the absurd.  I suppose I consider much of my life as a journey back and forth down a rabbit hole, so Alice will always remain my heroine. 

And The King Replied (1999; collage)

Question 2:  Your approach is enormously painstaking, with long periods necessary for the preparation and construction of your worlds.  Talk to us about your process, walk us through the arc from inspiration to completion.  (Which begs the question: is a work ever really complete?)  

Golden:   In the early 1960's while my father was working for IBM, he brought home a paper model of one of their new computers. This model was printed in hushed tones of green and taupe and the precision of the folds and die-cuts had me mesmerized.  My father was less than thrilled when I used the model as Barbie furniture -but that's another story! Another early memory was at a carnival in Ohio where I watched a man cut into a piece of paper with a tiny pair of scissors to magically release a multi-winged bird. His hand holding the scissors remained stationery while the paper he was cutting danced between the blades - literally "painting" with tiny scissors.   To this day I employ this method of cutting.  I have always been intrigued by the trans-formative qualities of paper.

After college I worked in several ad agencies as a studio artist. Before computers, one had to actually draw out the area to print on a sheet of illustration board and then paste down camera ready text and imagery. The nuanced perception of visuals and text along with the precision of being a paste-up/mechanical artist was the springboard to how I work now - as a collage artist. 

I tend to work in a series. I have a large work area of multiple tables where at times I may have fifteen collages being worked on at once. My work area will eventually become like an archaeological dig as pages are torn, images cut some used, many discarded until I am happy with the end result.  I have some 1500 magazine and old books that are part my palette as well as my own photography and painting along with  tree limbs, mirrors, class, dollhouse furniture, wooden toys, cigar boxes and assortments of objects that are creating quite a storage issue!

The images that I have cut and don't use are stored away in tiny flat file drawers. These drawers contain images I have cut spanning the last fifteen years. For example, I have a drawer of eyes that must contain nearly 500 cut eyeballs or elements that would read as such. I can usually remember where images are filed and where I cut them from, which sometimes stuns me! 

Question 3:  You are so very multi-media and cross-disciplinary.  I was struck by the library of books you have in your studio (not every workshop I am in has so many books!), especially since they include many literary texts, not "just" art books as references...Umberto Eco's book on "Ugliness" is there, a slew of others...

Golden:  I have done quite a bit of reading about Lewis Carroll as well as many commentaries about his Alice books.  More recently I have delved into the history and significance of fairy tales. 

As I began to delve more into fairy tales and Alice - reinterpreting these tales that were such a part of my childhood - I became quite interested in the emotional life of the characters themselves. What would it be like to actually don their slippers? As I mentioned above, my training was in commercial art - where my creativity had very specific goals to sell a product or an ideal - to manipulate.  When I first started collage it was precisely this imagery I chose to cut up, in fact some of the very ads I worked on!  This revolution of sorts heralded a retraining of my eye and outlook. 

Question 4:  "Many Faces of Alice" is both an elaborate physical assemblage and its representation via your new web site.   How do the two reinforce and/or nuance one another?  

Golden:  My website is a selection of "portfolios" from the various series I have created.  Certainly a website to show case one's work is a far cry from a plastic sleeve containing 20 tiny slides!  It is always a challenge to capture art work in a photograph, especially if the piece is multi-dimensional or comprised of many layers, so it still does not take the place of seeing the work in person. It was also very important for me to create an engaging website to explore rather than just an inventory of my work. It was truly a collaborative effort with my website designer - as by default I was a member of the design team. I am very pleased with the results.

In my never ending quest to bring the viewer into my work I ventured into the world of stop animation.  I created a box based on the Rabbit House and, when Alice finds herself trapped within it, titled it Alice's Folly. I have always been intrigued by pop-up paper sculpture and wanted to employ this technique in this piece. The box took over a year to finish and I sure wish I had paid more attention in geometry class! It was completed just in time to be featured on my site upon its launch. 

Question 5:  I love how you bring the viewer right down inside the dramas you have created, putting us on the stage with Alice (as well as fairy tale characters) as it were.  When we spoke earlier, you talked about how you often find smudges of fingers and most likely noses on the glass that contains your two-dimensional works, suggesting to you that viewers are keen to enter (literally) the worlds that you depict.    Why do you think so many of us are drawn so powerfully to the worlds you create?
Golden:  I think most people are as captivated by the magic of miniature as I am. I believe the allure is based on being drawn into a place impossible to set foot in - leading one to want to explore the space all the more. My collages are multi-dimensional and I often create an opening to look within where I've used multi-layered imagery to further draw one in.   Over the last several years my architectural pieces have leapt off the 2-D plane and are 3-D; instead of in a frame, I place them under bell jars. Leaving the interior space absent of any character I leave the viewer to step in and take a look around. They may see a castle tower empty after the damsel as been rescued or Sleeping Beauty’s chamber long after she awakened and her bed stripped of its mattress. They could find themselves in grandmother's house, a claustrophobic depiction where Red Riding Hood met her demise. These collaged constructions are mostly made of paper, disguised to mimic wood shingles, linoleum flooring, plaster walls and wood molding.  With the aid of mirrors I have created additional spaces within, toying with the viewer’s perception of the space actually available for them to explore.
Question 6:  With your new website launched, what is next for "Many Faces of Alice"?

Golden:  I am currently working on a concept for a book based on Alice’s Adventures Underground and am further exploring The Rabbit Hole for inspiration.  The most important aspect of exploring any narrative is realizing "The End" may just be the midpoint of the story and the freedom and possibility remains mine to discover. 
Lobster & Canary:   Thank you Caroline.  Readers:  hie yourselves to the Golden website!