Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee: "Harlequin," Lunacon, and Middle-Earth More Real Than the New Yorker

[Dave Grusin, Lee Ritenour, Ivan Lins, "Harlequin," 1985]

[Margaret Organ-Kean, "Masque," no date, c. 2008]

[Matthew Stewart, "Dernhelm," 2009]

[K.M. Kotulak, "Hiberno-Curio," 2009]

[Christy Grandjean, a.k.a, Goldenwolf, "Spirit Hunter," 2007]

[Donato Giancola, "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire," 2009]

Coffee is ready! We're listening to "Harlequin" this morning, recalling the show by vocalist Ivan Lins at the Blue Note in the Village a few years ago.

The lobster and the canary participated last weekend in Lunacon, the oldest science fiction/fantasy convention in New York. The usual variety of panels and talks. Most impressive was the art show, featuring works by (among many others) Margaret Organ-Kean, Matthew Stewart, K.M. Kotulak, Christy Grandjean, and Donato Giancola. Giancola also painted a picture of Smaug, the dragon in The Hobbit, in front of a rapt crowd, genially explaining his choices as the painting emerged before our eyes. The canary snapped photos of Giancola in action, which we will post this week.

Lobster stirs his coffee with one claw, and savors this quote from Ross Douthat in the March 25th New York Times:

"The whole reason that modern fantasy, in all its various guises, has proven such a potent genre is precisely because it seems to capture more of reality than its technically-more-realistic competitors. Fantasy re-enchants our disenchanted world, and recaptures something essential to mortal experience along the way: Whether you literally believe in fairies or not, a great fairy tale is truer to the richness of human affairs than many “New Yorker” short stories. I’ve felt this with many fantasy writers, but like many readers I felt it first and strongest with Tolkien — and whenever I return to him, I feel it still."

Click here for the entire essay.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Recommended Reading: First Quarter, 2010

Lobster murmurs and canary whistles... time to blog again...

Recommended books read this first quarter of 2010:

We highly recommend N.K. Jemisin's debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit, released February, 2010). Jemisin has created a distinctive world, with idiosyncratic characters, vaguely Peakean in flavor, but entirely her own. We especially enjoy her dry wit, precise prose, and intricate plotting. Above all, we like her portrayals of the gods who have been enslaved: they are both more and less than human, raising a chill up the reader's spine while also tugging at our heart. We love them, fear them, do not understand them all at once-- we are as baffled, entranced and repelled as the heroine Yeine is by the immortal trickster youth Sieh and the terrifying (and terrifyingly erotic) Nightlord Nahadoth. Jemisin promises us two more in this series-- we await these eagerly.

Cherie Priest also does a fine job creating alien (eldritch, to use an overused but in this case very appropriate word) characters in Fathom (Tor, 2008, first paperback release February, 2010). The water elemental Arahab seeks to awake Leviathian from his slumbers deep below the earth's crust-- which will destroy the world. Yet Arahab is no caricature of evil: her actions have a defensible if wholly alien logic and ethic; she is willful, mercurial, but she weighs and measures, ponders, has doubts, is not merely hateful. If anyone is truly and one-sidedly evil in Fathom, it is the human Berenice, who betrays everyone, including her savior and patron Arahab. And then there is the enigmatic spirit called Mossfeaster: "From the feet up, the creature began to dissolve itself, not so much collapsing as letting the ground absorb it. But before the last of the shoulders, neck and head disappeared, it offered one final thought. 'You can help a thing who loves the world destroy it; or you can help a thing who hates it save it'" (page 100).

Spiritual quandaries also pervade Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress (Tor, 2009, first paperback edition February, 2010). Extraterrestials arrive to atone for a crime against humanity that no one on Earth knows anything about. "The Atoners" take selected humans to other planets to witness the consequences of this crime. Kress combines fast-paced drama with thought-provoking propositions. The revelations of the witnesses challenge deeply held beliefs; Kress is very good at describing how humanity reacts, in ways both trivial (celebrity tours, pop culture engulfment) and mortally important.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (Hodder U.K., 2007; first U.S. edition, Dial/Penguin, 2010) is really, really good. Finn has no memories of his past, but is now a Prisoner in the unimaginably vicious, squalid and vast prison-world of Incarceron-- a prison that is itself coldly intelligent, indifferently manipulating the fates of its inhabitants. There is and can be no escape from Incarceron. But where is Incarceron? That is the question for Claudia, daughter of the Warden, and her tutor, the Sapient Jared. As Finn and his deceitful, half-crazed companions desperately seek to escape the inescapable, Claudia (about to be married against her will to the Crown Prince) is furiously trying to locate Incarceron...all the more so when she and Finn stumble into conversation via a matched set of scientifico-magical Keys. Incarceron has it all: a twisting plot, flawed and believable characters, settings that live on after you shut the page. Peake and Vance come to mind, The Man in the Iron Mask, Dickens, Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games... we look forward to Incarceron's sequel, Sapphique.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sharon Dolin: Composing for the eye

The lobster and canary are especially delighted to offer today's post: an interview with widely acclaimed poet Sharon Dolin. Sharon has published four books and five chapbooks of poetry. She is Writer-in-Residence at Eugene Lang College, The New School and she also teaches at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in NYC.

Click here for her website.

Lobster & Canary: You frequently give readings. How does reading your work aloud for an audience influence (or not) how you compose in the first place? Talk to us about the interaction of writing and performance as it may apply to your poetry.

Sharon: I don’t think that reading my work aloud before an audience influences the way I compose poetry. Certainly, I read my work aloud to myself while in the process of revision in order to catch the rhythms, to see if there is any unwelcome awkwardness (although sometimes awkwardness is the point). I come out of the Williams tradition and compose much more for the eye than for the ear. I spend a lot of time thinking about how a poem looks on the page. Is there enough white space? Should the poem have uniform stanzas? How long should the lines be? Are the enjambments perky?

Of course I enjoy giving readings, to feel firsthand how a poem goes over to a live audience. But this means that I carefully choose which poems work better at a reading and which poems work much better on the page. There are some poems that I would never read aloud to an audience.

L & C. You pay great attention to formal technique-- you are perhaps unusual in this (?). (Among your peers, I think of Molly Peacock, the late Reginald Shepherd, Susan Stewart, Louise Gluck, W.S. Merwin, but not so many others.) Tell us a little about that, about how you see form in relation to content. Do your words and images arise first, followed by the search for appropriate structure, or vice versa, or in some other order altogether?

Sharon: It’s funny that you should say I pay great attention to formal technique. I think of myself as a free verse poet, but one who has worked very hard, both in my poetry and in my theoretical writings about free verse, to claim that free verse is as formal as any poetry written in a fixed form. That the burden of finding the form is even more onerous for a free verse poet. Of course, I deplore how much sloppy free verse writing is out there, how many poems are merely prose chopped up into lines. I hope my poems never fail in that way. I think very carefully about the constitution of the line. Each line in a poem has to carry its own weight. Charles Wright has written some of the best essays on the subject. So I make no distinction between poems that use a fixed form, such as the ghazal (one of my favorites) and poems that have no identifiable formal label.

That said, usually an image or idea hits me first. Sometimes the form follows almost immediately and sometimes I struggle with making the two marry each other. Here are a few examples: In my first book Heart Work, there’s a long poem called “Praying Mantis in Brooklyn.” I knew right from the start that the poem would take the form of a sestina followed by a free verse expatiation on it. What had happened was a praying mantis appeared several times in very unlikely places: on the windowsill of my 4th floor walkup and on my street gate. The uncanniness of the meeting and the strangeness of the insect got me to thinking about Louis Zukofsky’s famous poem (really my favorite of his short works) called simply “Mantis,” in which a praying mantis flies at his chest on the NYC subway. He wrote this poem during the Depression and the mantis came to stand for the poor. He used a sestina followed by a free verse riff. In the late Eighties, when I wrote my poem, when there were lots of homeless on the streets of New York, I decided I would write my own Mantis poem with a nod to Zukofsky by using the same two-part form.

The same think happened with a poem in Burn and Dodge, my fourth book. I was at the Philadelphia Zoo, watching my niece and her girlfriend watching two tortoises copulate. I wanted to write a poem about the tortoises and about my niece coming out to the family. It seemed necessary to me that the poem take the form of a syllabic, Marianne Moore’s characteristic form, because she loved to go to the zoo and because she was so prissy about any sexual content entering her work. So my poem was an irreverent syllabic.

And here’s one more example of how I think about form over the course of a sequence of poems: In Serious Pink, my ekphrastic collection, I thought about the fact that Howard Hodgkin always paints over his frames. So in my sequence of poems in dialogue with his work, I wanted a flexible framing device. I decided to write 15-line lyrics in varying stanzaic patterns—near sonnets. Of course, in one poem, a ghazal it had to be 16 lines, an even number of lines, to accommodate the couplet form.

Many of the “free verse” poems in Burn and Dodge that deal with contemporary vices are written in tercets because I think of that form as a nod to Dante’s terza rima form in the Inferno.
In one of those poems, “Cursed Anger Sing” (Anger being one of the original Seven Deadly Sins), I chose a backwards moving tercet, because I think of anger as something we are only aware of in retrospect. Here’s the opening stanza:

Wound inside snake coils, cruel lover of blood
who sees only red, unlike Gluttony, Lust
and Sloth, when you are wroth . . .

Here you see I do also enjoy playing with internal rhyme as well.

In the poem “Grudge,” I chose boxy quatrains because there is something closed off about that emotion. Here’s the first stanza:

To have is not to surrender
pockets of the mind
where hurt sojourns.

Finally, I probably feel drawn to couplets when there is a strong sense of a dialogic you and I, or some kind of love, as in the poem written for my son called “Shame.”

When my five-year-old, not listening , climbed over
the broken fence head first

and fell (the gash on his cheek, a huge backward “C”),
we didn’t recognize, as he bled,

what he’d opened up for himself . . .

Again, what I am calling a retrospective lineation, a not-seeing until after the fact, as well a way to represent non-alignment of self with the world at the same time preserving the couplet as a sign of tenderness between my son and myself. I was not trying for radical enjambments in this poem, which tells a story.

Elsewhere, more radical line breaks might be the rule.

L & C: We love your ekphrastic work. Which visual artists are you following with particular avidity right now, and why?

Sharon: First, thank you. Serious Pink remains the book I’m proudest of, in a way. I can’t say I “follow” particular artists. It’s all about serendipity. And I never know in advance what kind of book I’ll be writing. I just write poems and see where it takes me. Serious Pink began with the Joan Mitchell sequence, “My Black Paintings,” because I happened to visit the Robert Miller gallery to see a show of Mitchell’s work from the mid-Sixties that she called her “Black Paintings.” They were painted (I initially wrote “written” here!) when she was recovering from the death of her father and when her mother was ill with cancer. I, too, was slowly recovering from the untimely accidental death of my fiancĂ© who, by the way, liked Joan Mitchell’s work. Perhaps that’s why I attended the show. Anyway, it gave me a way to write about the loss indirectly (I had already written a sequence of poems about him, published finally in Realm of the Possible in a section entitled “Geniza.”). So I bought the catalogue and decided to write about one of the paintings. Then the next. And the next. There are other stories for each of the other sequences, always quite personal. I was also interested at the time (this was in the mid-90s) in how I could write about abstract painting. Most ekphrasis, as you know, is the art of description. How do you describe an abstract painting? You don’t. So I had to do something else. That was my adventure. And in each of the sequences I approached it differently. Here’s one of the poems from the sequence “Black Paintings” that makes the elegiac subject matter quite clear:


Blue winter rain
that's what you’ve become

a cloud
whitewashed by weather

this window
beyond being

the elements eat you

damp cold
of the first winter

now the second
you said you wanted

to travel
now you're still

blotches of flight
descend into your

stationary car

In my last book, Burn and Dodge, where there is a quadriptych scattered throughout the book on Envy, the final one is, as the title says, my “Letter to Seven-Hundred-Year-Old Invidia in the Scrovegni Chapel to be Folded in the Shape of a Snake Swallowing Its Tail.” I imagine Giotto’s figure of Envy looking across at the figure of Prudentia, who looks like a writer to me, and being envious of her. I thought of the poem in sculptural terms: Envy as a circle from which one never exits. Here’s the first stanza, which is almost purely descriptive of Giotto’s Invidia—well, obviously as seen through my manic eyes:

Letter to 700-Year-Old Invidia in the Scrovegni Chapel to be Folded in the Shape
of a Snake Swallowing its Tail

. . . out of your niche, Galatea'd on hate,
if it weren't for the bloody anemonaed
flames (coelacanthed), that hold you phoenixed
rebirthed, recursed
consuming you spewing you flue-ing
you up. Clutching your moneybag already
by the tasseled rope at your waist
and reaching to grasp—what?—You can barely see
for the serpent jutting from your mouth whose head circles
back to flick its tongue
over your eyes—your ears so outsized—batlike cartilage
ram's horns wrap around.

Right now, I am not “following” any artist in particular. A few years ago, I was looking at a painting by Cy Twombly called “Scenes from an Ideal Marriage” and that sparked me to write about my own very imperfect marriage. It’s a poem in four parts that got published by Ducts (

L & C: The canary in particular is struck that so little poetry is written about music (as opposed to the visual arts, and not meaning lyrics composed for and as part of song). A case of sibling rivalry? Your thoughts?

Sharon: I think the tradition of ekphrasis, which began with Achilles shield in The Iliad, has always been one of the visual arts. Lessing’s book on the Laocoon was an entire argument about the strengths of sculpture and painting compared to poetry. Debussy’s Prelude to an Afternoon of the Fawn, was inspired by a MallarmĂ© poem. I think there are lots of contemporary composers who set poems to music. I’m not sure what to call that. It’s reverse ekphrasis: from words to images. We’ve had a few notable examples of that in painting: Charles Demuth’s painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold after Williams’s “The Great Figure.” There just seems to be a primacy to the image as visual as opposed to auditory. Poems are put to music as opposed to poems written about music. Think of the American art song tradition: Aaron Copland’s "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson,” for instance. And contemporary composers such as Ned Rorem or Tom Cipullo come to mind but there are many others.

L & C: Robert Pinsky, in "Culture" (the first chapter of his Democracy, Culture and The Voice of Poetry) glosses Tocqueville's assertion that American democracy "has dried up most of the old springs of poetry." Pinsky suggests Tocqueville should be read to mean poetry's trajectory in the U.S.A. is the result of "not exactly the absence of legends, memorials, heroes, and pantheons but their insufficiency: a worn, jejune quality--a need for something either more candid, or more candidly fantastic." If the Tocquevillian premise is sound, then how has American poetry become either more candid, or more frankly fantastic over the past 150 years?

Sharon: I understand Tocqueville to mean that we don’t write public poetry anymore: to dead heroes or to living presidents after Whitman. Or, at the least, that’s not the source of our best poetry. I find this question a puzzling one as someone who has always been more interested in the lyric than the epic. I go to poetry—both to read and write it—for what the solitary voice has to say from his or her personal experience. The is one of the oldest “springs” of poetry. I never find myself moved by public poetry. It’s why I love the Psalms, no matter who has written them, because they are the voice of an individual, not a people. I’m not the first one to say that the tragedy of 9/11 reminded people that poetry could offer a certain kind of solace through an expression of grief that can’t be duplicated by other art forms.

American poetry as more candid or more fantastic? These elements have always been present in American poetry. Who is more candid than Whitman? Who is more fantastic than Poe or Dickinson? I think the use of language has changed, perhaps due to a sense of audience: poets more and more writing for each other. Or perhaps the causal connection is reversed: the language has changed and that has led to a falling away of audience. But that is another matter entirely.

L & C: If you were exploring poetry with sixth-graders in NYC, which poems might you include on the syllabus?

Sharon: As the mother of a fifth-grader who rolls his eyes at the mention of poetry, I think I’m going to duck this question and say: That’s why I prefer to teach college students and adults.

L & C: Fair enough! Thank you very much, Sharon, for your poetry and for your thoughts about the craft.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Supper's Ready

[Chaim Soutine, Still Life with Fish, c. 1921]

[Paul Cezanne, Ginger Jar and Fruit, 1895]

[Pierre Bonnard, The Dining Room, c. 1940-1946]

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wood and Barthes and the Unreality of Realistic Fiction

James Wood in the current New Yorker (ppg. 71-72):

"The French literary theorist Roland Barthes['s]...larger argument...was that realistic fiction, like ideology, tries to palm itself off as the most natural and real of literary modes but is in fact the most artificial and unreal. Barthes is ninety-nine percent right.


But Barthes is one per cent wrong, too; and, like the one per cent that separates us genetically from chimpanzees, Barthes's tiny wrongness is quite large."

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Armory Show 2010

[Joao Pedro Vale, "Of the Monstrous & Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales (I)," (2009)]

[Kristine Roepstorff, "Exercise Within the Frame (Including the Summer of Discontent)" (from the series, It's Not the Eye of the Needle That Changed, 2007)].

[William Daniels, "Vase of Flowers with Pocket Watch (1)," (2005)]

[Leonardo Drew, "Number 33.a" (rust, shoes, 1999).

[Eva Lundsager, "Hermit Style" (2006)]

[Pablo Bronstein, "Two Architectural Studies in the Style of Jean Jacques Lequeu" (2005).]

[Polly Morgan, "Still Birth (Blue)," (2009).]

[Martin Jacobson, drawing (2009).]

[Andrew Sendor, "Alejandro Celestino, Artist Unknown, 2013, human beings & mixed media, dimensions variable, Soliloquoy, Ana Libitina, 2012, video projection, 107 minutes (detail)" (2009).]

[Kristof Kintera, "I see, I see, I see," (2009) a talking, animatronic raven-man sitting on a branch above the viewer's head.]

[Jorma Puranen,"Shadows, Reflections and All That Sort of Thing, #42" (2008).]

Yesterday we delved and dallied at The Armory Show, one of the largest contemporary art shows in the world (click here for more.) In a delightfully confusing way, The Armory Show is held not at The Armory but at Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson, while The Armory holds a similar show sponsored by the Art Dealers Association of America. Elsewhere in Manhattan, some dozen other venues are hosting contemporary art shows this week as well. A feast beyond reckoning...

Reproduced above are some of the artists who caught our eye, with notes below (in some cases the image above is of a piece we saw at the show yesterday, in others-- unable to find an image from the show-- we have posted an image that most closely resembles what we saw).

Generally speaking:

* The Europeans seemed more inventive and adventurous than the Americans.

* The children reject their parents (abstraction was little in evidence), reach back to their grandparents (much here in the spirit of Dada and Surrealism).

* The naked female body was everywhere on display-- the male nude, um, not so much. Why is that?

* Prominent: mixed media, collage and assemblage, woven and stitched objects, textural detail, lots of attention to surface and color (shiny, shiny, bright, bright), less to form and composition.

* Perhaps the most striking image was Marina Abramovic's "The Kitchen II: Homage to Saint Therese" (2009). Click here to see (scroll to the fifth image in the series).

* Also arresting was a very large (digitally manipulated?) photograph by Vanessa Beecroft of marble-white female nudes in a somber-grey medieval cathedral. We cannot locate that image but click here for a sense of Beecroft's work.

*Jennifer Steinkamp's "Orbit 2" is a mesmerizing digital piece, with a mass of leaves and branches in constant motion, swirling, emerging. It is Tolkien's Lothlorien come to life. Click here to play the video.

Click here for more on Roepstorff, and here for more on Vale.

Daniels appeals strongly to the neo-antiquarian in us: he re-envisions works by the Old Masters, first re-creating an iconic painting as a torn paper maquette, then painting an image of the maquette, in painstaking detail. Fractalish homage... Click here for more.

Drew's vision is subtle, powerful, elusive. The canary tries to alight, but cannot; the lobster seeks to seize, but cannot. Click here for more.

Lundsager (one of the few abstractionists) had several powerful paintings-- what is our word for "that which draws you in, into which you fall and fold yourself"? Writing about the Lundsager above (which was not at the show, but is a good proxy), Stephanie Buhmann wrote in The Brooklyn Rail (July-August, 2006): "...this soil is far from infertile, and various mysterious structures made of dotted lines and curvilinear swirls have begun to populate the scenery. As they thrive, so might our trust in the eternal cycle of life, which proves that even a lava field will at some point serve as a breeding ground for new life forms."

Bronstein creates mythical pasts for real buildings: "His palette encompasses a myriad of styles: from the mannered baroque of Turin to the classical architecture of 18th-century France, from early 20th-century Modernism to Postmodernism... Adopting the guise of the architect, architectural historian, and the user of buildings, Bronstein reveals what might be described as the veneer of architecture." [quote from The Metropolitan Museum website-- for more, click here, then scroll down to mid-page.]

See more of Morgan's work here.

Jacobson about his work: "My work is based on the curiosity and fascination of that which is beyond my understanding and experience. I try to see and read the phenomena and objects that come in my way. I search for provisional recipes or methods, which can articulate and activate something in me or in somebody else. I search for the combinations for the locked parts of my consciousness. Some objects and phenomena remind me of the inadequacy of my senses and my state of awoken sleep..." For more, click here.

Click here for more by Sendor.

Click here and here for more on Kintera.

Puranen on his approach: " ' While photographing painted portraits I thought that what I was doing was in fact like knocking on the frame of a painting and asking "Is anyone there?" or saying "Wake up, I know you're there.' " For more, see Galerie Anhava's site here

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thinking of Alice

One of Rackham's illustrations... looking forward to seeing the Burton version on screen soon...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The river's story

Johan Sevenbom, c. 1765, drawing of a river god.

Begs for a story or a poem about this riparian old-father.

Bring out your quill, sings the canary!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Left brain, right brain: Data are gorgeous

AH, the lobster and the canary find nourishment for their oh-so-different brains....

David McCandless offers up data visualizations that qualify as art... in his new book Information is Beautiful, and his blog of the same here.