Saturday, January 31, 2009

It’s Audrey’s Party, &….

OK, I am changing the posting schedule a bit—I’m sure you are all anxiously awaiting the history of the kazoo, but that’s going to get pushed back a bit. This, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing, which is not to cast aspersions on the marvelous kazoo, but instead to say we’re going to have a marvelous guest blogger tomorrow, our dear SoCal pal, Audrey Bilger.

I’ve known Audrey since my days in Charlottesville, VA, & I remember her from that time as witty & smart & always up on the coolest recordings—
as I recall, Audrey & I shared a passion for Jonathon Richman’s music. Audrey & Eberle have been fast friends for many years, a friendship built on the voracious reading habits of each, as well as their passion for feminist criticism—& no doubt on each other’s wit, since they are two of the funniest people I know, as well as both being quite brilliant. In addition to her other qualities, Audrey is always a stalwart friend.

So I’m completely jazzed that Audrey will be contributing to Robert Frost’s Banjo as a guest blogger, with her first post coming tomorrow. A few biographical facts: Audrey received her PhD from the University of Virginia, & has taught both at Oberlin College, & at Claremont-McKenna College, where she’s a professor of lit & gender studies. She’s also done time as a drummer in a blues band, & when her insane schedule permits, I’m hoping Audrey will join the Musical Questions series. She lives with her spouse, Cheryl (one of the many marriages those Prop 8 SOBs are trying to undo), & when not teaching she keeps herself busy with a lot of writing projects, including interviews—in fact, Audrey was a big contributor to the interview questions for our own Musical Questions series. Audrey’s initial guest appearance will be an interview she did with Lesley Gore a few years back. The interview was slated to appear in Rockrgrl, but sadly that mag folded before the publication date. It’s happy for us, however, in the sense that Robert Frost’s Banjo now gets to post the interview with this rock legend. I’m sure at least the folks out there of my vintage will recall Gore—not only her monster hit “It’s My Party,” (see video below) but also pop songs with a feminist slant that was unusual (to say the least) in the 1960s: “You Don’t Own Me” & “That’s the Way Boys Are.” Audrey’s interview with Gore was done right after the release of Gore’s 05 album Ever Since. In addition to showcasing the singer in more jazz-oriented settings (tho it’s worth noting that Quincy Jones worked as arranger for Gore’s 60s hits), the album also has a new version of “You Don’t Own Me.”

So be sure to stop by tomorrow for Audrey Bilger & Lesley Gore!

In other blog news: one more grateful nod to Jacqueline T Lynch of Another Old Movie Blog, New England Travels & Tragedy & Comedy in New England—all blogs that are really worth regular visits—for the Premio Dardos award. I was also gratified to see that Scott over at Deep Craft has started his interview series with other Bay Area craftspeople. Scott contacted me about the questions used in the Musical Questions series, & he’s now using a modified version of these for his own blog. The first interview is here. Scott’s blog is also a delight & very much recommended by yours truly.

Speaking of delightful blogs, I’ve found some new ones over the past several days that I’d like to give a plug in my own small way: JenX67, a blog that presents personal observation & experience in a very compelling way—whether the blogger is contemplating the situation of Generation X latchkey kids or writing about how she experiences the urban frontier of Oklahoma City—a place I’ve never visited, but which she renders fascinating
JenX67 is great reading; & as someone who came along as the Boom generation was petering out (1956), I can say you needn’t have been born after 1960 to be engaged by the writing here.

Another wonderful blog that’s new to me is Lizzy Frizzfrock; this blog originates from a city I’m abashed to say I’ve never visited, Austin, TX. Lizzy Frizzfrock’s photography & observations are wonderfully refreshing. The blogger & her husband share at least one passion with Eberle & me—bird watching, tho based on her photos they do a lot more of this out & about, while Eberle & I often do it thru the windows looking at our various feeders. Lizzy Frizzfrock, like JenX67, also is able to write compellingly about place—I’ve been quite taken by her observations about Austin.

The Pics & Poems blog comes to us from the UK, & brings some thoughtful (& often humorous) observations on any number of subjects relating to the arts: the role of poet laureate both in Great Britain & stateside; observations on Robert Burns; an in depth examination of swearing; & a post considering the question of whether a viewer needs “context” in order to appreciate art. This is a wonderful essay entitled “Like what you’re looking at, then?”; it’s quite relevant to some recent observations on reading poetry that I’ve made in this space. Speaking of which, thanks to Kat at Poetikat’s Invisible Keepsakes & Willow at Willow’s Manor for their support of the Reading Poetry series.

& finally, one more classic film blog: Silents and Talkies; the concept here is wonderfully original—blogger Kate Gabrielle is also a talented artist, & she produces a sketch of a classic film star to accompany her appreciations of their work & recommendations for viewing. It’s an enjoyable blog, & pleasing to look at as well as to read. Many thanks to Ginger Ingenue of the equally enjoyable Asleep in New York for linking to Silents and Talkies in one of her recent posts.

Nuff said. But one last reminder: tomorrow—Gore & Bilger—be there or be square!

“Have you anything to say in your defense?”

Peruvian poet César Vallejo is one of the most moving writers I know—a poet who can convey complex existential states thru a sheer rush of image & language. These images give us access to deep emotions: deep despair, deep rage, a deep sense of beauty. There’s no question in my mind that Vallejo is one of the great 20th century poets.

César Vallejo was born in Santiago de Chuca, Peru in 1892. He became attracted to leftist politics in his 20s, which led to ongoing problems with the authorities. Vallejo was drawn to Marxism as he witnessed the plight of laborers, particularly those on a sugar estate where he worked as a tutor; these scenes of dire poverty & extreme exploitation informed both his political activity & his poetry. It was during this period (in 1919) that Vallejo published his first book of poetry, Los Heraldos Negros (The Black Heralds), from which today’s poem is taken. He published a second book, Trilce, in 1922—this was written while Vallejo was hiding from the authorities who were seeking him as a political agitator. Later, Vallejo was jailed for over 3 months. In 1923, anticipating further difficulties arising because of his ideology, Vallejo emigrated to France, & spent the remainder of his life in Europe. He traveled to the USSR, & in 1930 moved to Spain. The Spanish Civil War was a momentous event in Vallejo’s life, & both while in Spain & later after he returned to France, he wrote passionately on behalf of the Republican side. He died in Paris in 1938 of a condition that may have been malaria. An odd fact: Vallejo "predicted" the circumstanes of his death in his poem "Black Stone Lying on a White Stone" ("Piedra Negra Sobre Un A Piedra Blanca"). The first stanza (translated by Robert Bly & John Knoepfle) goes as follows:

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris
—and I don't step aside
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is a Thursday, in autumn.

In fact, Vallejo died on a rainy Thursday in Paris
— tho it was in April, not in autumn....

“Have you anything to say in your defense?” is the final poem in Los Heraldos Negros. In this work, the poet stands before some sort of tribunal, attempting to justify himself—a situation in many ways that reminds one of Kafka’s The Trial, tho the underlying emotion is different here. While Kafka never strays too far from a certain dark humor, Vallejo never strays far from passion. But Vallejo’s thoughts & emotions seem clear to me, even in the swirl of surreal imagery, so I won’t attempt to explicate the poem further—his words stand on their own.

The translation was done by the fine U.S. poet James Wright.

Have you anything to say in your defense?

Well, on the day I was born,
God was sick.

They all know that I'm alive,
that I'm vicious; and they don't know
the December that follows from that January.
Well, on the day I was born,
God was sick.

There is an empty place
in my metaphysical shape
that no one can reach:
a cloister of silence
that spoke with the fire of its voice muffled.

On the day I was born,
God was sick.

Brother, listen to me, Listen...
Oh, all right. Don't worry, I won't leave
without taking my Decembers along,
without leaving my Januaries behind.
Well, on the day I was born,
God was sick.

They all know that I'm alive,
that I chew my food...and they don't know
why harsh winds whistle in my poems,
the narrow uneasiness of a coffin,
winds untangled from the Sphinx
who holds the desert for routine questioning.

Yes, they all know...Well, they don't know
that the light gets skinny
and the darkness gets bloated...
and they don't know that the Mystery joins things together...
that he is the hunchback
musical and sad who stands a little way off and foretells
the dazzling progression from the limits to the Limits.

On the day I was born,
God was sick,

César Vallejo Translation by James Wright, from Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, edited by Robert Bly (©Beacon, 1971).

Friday, January 30, 2009

Thursday Playlist on Friday A.M. #3

Yesterday morning out here in our little corner of paradise was, in a word (& a good New England word for weather at that) brutal: 4 degrees Fahrenheit, & thick fog at 7:30 a.m. when I headed up the road toward Donnelly. The temperature sank to –7 (still with thick fog) by the time I passed the Tamarack sawmill which stands beside the Little Salmon River. The small settlement of Tamarack bears no relationship to the Tamarack resort outside of Donnelly. Tho the latter establishment made national news when Bush visited there (the highlight was some hapless pilot who wandered into “forbidden airspace” & was escorted down to Council airport), the resort has now fallen into bankruptcy & receivership, a victim not only of the national economic disaster, but also of Idaho’s endemic boom & bust cycle. The mill on the other hand is still belching white smoke from its cogen furnace, surrounded by hills that turn golden with the tamarack needles themselves turning golden in the fall.

By the time I entered McCall (around 5,200 feet) the sun was glaring wildly off the snow—but this was short lived. The last leg found me in the fog again. It’s been that sort of January. Fortunately, I had some great tunes to listen to—lots of banjo & lots of kazoo, which ought to brighten anyone’s day.

Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Best of Cannon’s Jug Stompers (Yazoo)

1. Feather Bed

2. Last Chance Blues

3. Big Railroad Blues
4. Going To Germany
5. Minglewood Blues

6. Mule Get Up In The Alley

7. Viola Lee Blues
8. Walk Right In
9. Noah's Blues

10. Wolf River Blues

11. Riley's Wagon

13. Madison Street Rag

14. Bring It With You When You Come

15. The Rooster's Crowing Blues

16. Pig Ankle

17. Money Never Runs Out

18. Heart Breakin' Blues

19. Springdale Blues

20. Jonestown Blues

21. Prison Wall Blues

22. Ripley Blues

23. Tired Chicken Blues

24.Pretty Mama Blues

Greil Marcus coined the term “weird old America” when he wrote about Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music; the Jug Stompers (who ap
pear on the Anthology doing their wild rendition of “Minglewood Blues”) certainly come from this musically mythic place. The instrumentation: banjo, guitar, harmonica, kazoo, & jug; the vocals are often haunting.

Gus Cannon was a man who grew up in the late 19th century & who assimilated the string band music of his youth. It’s interesting to consider that this man who played a type of music often imitated by various folk & old-time revivalists was himself a revivalist of sorts when he & the Jug Stompers were playing in the ‘teens & 1920s. Although Cannon played several instruments, he concentrated on banjo & the jug with the Jug Stompers. The jug is a singular musicmaker—"homemade," of course, & with all the baggage of not being a “real instrument” that it shares with such wondrous devices as tissue paper & comb (or even the “store-bought” version of same, the kazoo), the washboard & the washtub bass. In fact, the prejudice toward high-end, manufactured instruments (& hey, we like those kind of instruments, too!) obscures the fact that in capable hands the jug or kazoo, etc. all are capable of making wonderful music. As evidence of both jug & kazoo: check
out the cut “Whoa Mule, Get Up in the Alley” on this album. The jug itself is omnipresent & provides an amazing bass.

Cannon hooked up with ferociously melodic harp player Noah Lewis, who also sang some (e.g., “Big Railroad Blues”); Cannon & Lewis started playing with singer/guitarist Ashley Thompson, & this became the original line-up for Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Thompson was later replaced, first by Elijah Avery & then by Hosea Woods.

Along with the Memphis Jug Band, the Jug Stompers are probably the best-known of the early jug bands; they were an inspiration to later practitioners of this weird & wonderful music like Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band (a fun & recommended band, also noteworthy for featuring Maria Muldaur back when she was Maria D’Amato). Cannon’s Jug Stompers also were an inspiration to the Grateful Dead, who covered the earlier band’s “Viola Lee Blues” (a close musical cousin to “Joliet Bound”) & “Big Railroad Blues.” In fact, if you’re running a Google search on Cannon’s Jug Stompers the first site that comes up is a Dead Head page discussing not only the earlier band, but also various Grateful Dead versions of these two songs. Say what you will about the Grateful Dead (I haven’t listened to them in years myself): they had fantastic taste in old music. Finally, many of us decidedly middle-aged types will recall the Rooftop Singers’ cover of the Jug Stompers “Walk Right In.”

This is a fantastic album—a look into a style of music that was a vital part of the roo
ts of much that we know in popular music today, & even of styles we think of as themselves “roots” or “old-time.” This is the blues, but it’s not the blues of Muddy Waters or B.B. King. It is the “weird old America.”

R.D. Lunceford: Cotton Blossom (Ceilidh Brothers Music)

1. Green Corn/Sandy Boys

2. Alabama Joe/Jenny Get Your Hoecake Done

3. Where You Goin’ Rabbit?/Rye Straw

4. The Battle of Waterloo

5. Nellie Gray/When You & I Were Young Maggie

6. Jim Along, Josie/Polly Put the Kettle On

7. Old Stepstone

8. Run Rabbit Run/John Bowlin’s Walkaround/Cornstalk Fiddle

9. Old Jim Wren

10. Cripple Creek/Sourwood Mountain

11. West Virginia Gals

12. Last Chance

13. Charleston Girls/Grapevine Twist

14. Greensleeves

15. Bee Gum Road/Old Jimmy Sutton

16. Unsworth’s New Jig/There Was an Old Soldier

17. The Yellow Rose of Texas/Dixie

18. Over the Mountain

19. Needlecase/Liberty

20. Lonesome John/Texas

21. The Minstrel Boy

Banjo Newsletter editor & gifted banjo frailer has issued two albums of clawhammer tunes, Cotton Blossom & Drop Thumb. For you non-banjoists out there, the latter title doesn’t refer to some medical condition, but to a technique used in old-time banjo styles allowing the thumb to produce melody notes. Cotton Blossom is the album I was listening to yesterday, however, & a real treat it was, too. The repertoire Lunceford presents ranges from very familiar old-time tunes such as “Cripple Creek” & “Needlecase” to more obscure selections such as “Bee Gum Reel” & “Old Stepstone, & even includes two tunes not associated with the banjo: “Greensleeves” & “The Minstrel Boy.”

Lunceford’s frailing is vigorous, with a lot of rhythmic drive. To my ear at least, his rhythm is a bit more straight-ahead than Mary Z Cox’s (whose Secret Life of Banjo was on the playlist a couple of weeks ago), but his playing would easily propel dancers. One thing that really struck me about Lunceford: you can tell he’s a “purty good” player (as he describes himself at the Banjo Hangout—in fact, a very good player), with lots of technique at his disposal, but he
uses that technique to put the tune across—too often, some talented players do the opposite, which is never pleasing to my ear. I think the initial reaction to Lunceford’s playing is “What a great song that was,” because he doesn’t force you to think about his playing technique apart from the song itself.

There really aren’t any weak tracks on this album. The medley form works well in Lunceford’s playing; the transitions are seamless, but the tunes are each given a distinct & recognizable feel. Of course, Lunceford is capable of delightful variations, & he puts those to effective use throughout. For those who are interested in such things, Lunceford has issued a tab book to accompany this cd (& also one to accompany Drop Thumb). Although I haven’t seen either of these books, I suspect you’d learn a lot about arranging, & about these songs in general if you gave them a look.

The one moment that I balk at is “Dixie.” I realize there’s a movement amongst the old-time music set to resurrect this song; folks point out, for instance, that it was a favorite of Lincoln’s. I don’t say this to disparage Mr Lunceford in any way, & I certainly believe his motives in including the song are righteous enough—but as the song was playing, I drove past
a trailer house where the mailbox was painted with the Confederate stars & bars. At the risk of offending readers from the South (which I don't intend to do—I lived in Virginia for several years & like the region) I’m not convinced this song can ever be separated from some of its negative connections….

But otherwise, the cd is fantastic (& the playing per se on “Dixie” is certainly fine). The version of “Greensleeves” & “The Minstrel Boy” are both very good, & far from “oh wow” novelties. In fact, Lunceford’s “The Minstrel Boy” would make a fine track at a St. Patrick’s Day party (for you out there with a bit of green blood in your veins). "Greensleeves" is quite lovely, & brings out some of the harpsichord-like tone of the banjo.

Red McKenzie: Red McKenzie, Vol. 1 (Sensation Records)

1. Arkansa Blues
2. Blue Blues
3. San

4. Red Hot!

5. Barb Wire Blues

6. You Ain't Got Nothin' I Want

7. Tiger Rag

8. Deep Second Street Blues

9. When My Sugar Walks Down the Street

10. Panama
Best Black
12. Stretch It, Boy

13. Gettin' Told

14. Play Me Slow

15. Wigwam Blues
16. Blues in F
17. The Morning After Blues

18. Happy Children Blues

19. Hot Honey

20. If You Never Come Back

21. What Do I Care If Somebody Said

22. Nervous Puppies

OK, we brought up kazoos & tissue paper & comb briefly in discussing Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Now we have the king of tissue paper & comb (your basic homemade kazoo), Red McKenzie. Because McKenzie’s music has to be heard to be believed, I’ve included a YouTube video of “Arkansa Blues,” one of McKenzie’s earliest sides. This song showcases McKenzie’s Mound City Blowers at their most “basic”—McKenzie on tissue paper & comb, Dick Slevin on kazoo & Jack Bland on tenor banjo. It’s a glorious hot jazz tune, & I love the liner notes to this cd in which James Kidd compares the ensemble to a “garage band.” It’s got that kind of élan & vitality.

But the Mound City Blowers were more than a novelty act. They recorded with renowned saxophonist Frank Trumbauer & also with early jazz guitar legend Eddie Lang (both Trumbauer & Lang appear on this album—the latter actually plays on at least a dozen cuts). Famed jazz banjoist Harry Reser also sat in with the Mound City Blowers. The selection on this album ranges from obscure tunes to hot jazz standards like “Tiger Rag,” “San” & “Panama.” The interplay with Trumbauer’s sax on “San” is a real treat, & the Blowers also do a fine “Tiger Rag” with Lang on guitar.

I know it takes some convincing to get folks to believe that instruments such as the humble kazoo or even humbler tissue paper & comb are truly “musical,” but they are. Just as Hezzie Trietsch could make amazing music on the slide whistle with the Hoosier Hot Shots or Gus Cannon could provide unforgettable bass lines on the jug, so too could McKenzie & Slevin create swinging & inventive melodies on their instruments of choice. & because the kazoo is near to our heart, I’ll be providing some background on this instrument in a post on Sunday. I hope you take that as an intriguing invitation, but if not, at least you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

As always, hope these selections may direct some of you to some new sounds.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thanks, Jacqueline!

Many thanks to Jacqueline T Lynch, author of three excellent blogs: "Another Old Movie Blog," "New England Travels," & "Tragedy & Comedy in New England" was kind enough to present me with the Premio Dardos Award. According to the wording sent me by Jacqueline:

"The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

The rules:
“1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.”

I'm very flattered to receive this, especially from someone whose work I admire (& recommend). Now the tough part: picking just 5 blogs to pass this along to—I follow a number of blogs & all of them are deserving. As regular readers know, I spend my Thursday mornings-early afternoons wending thru the canyons & mountain passes in these parts, & I'll spend that time thinking over how to choose.

In the meantime, thanks to all you readers, & special thanks to Jacqueline T Lynch for her kind consideration.

UPDATE: OK, I'm back from the frigid & foggy wilds, & my picks follow, in alphabetical order (by blog name):

Ginger Ingenue of Asleep in New York: Ms Ingenue has a consistently unique, humorous & insightful take on classic films
— I always learn something & I'm always struck by her wit. Her post on "Hollywood Dolls" really hooked me on this blog, & I always look forward to her posts.

Citizen K. of Citizen K.: Citizen K's blog is a must-read in my opinion. Very insightful on political issues, & not afraid to tackle these subjects in depth
— this is way more than pointing to interesting stories: Citizen K is generating quality content. & it's not all politics, either. Citizen K. writes very insightfully about books, music & films— & he gives us the Sunday Funnies every week.

use (aka kimy) of mouse medicine: This blog is relatively new to me, but I'm impressed both by the quality of the photography posted here (& at mouse's other project, in which she's assisted by Minerva Mouse, Lakewood Daily Snap) & also by the quality of the commentary & by the pithy quotes that often accompany the striking photos. I was really taken by today's post at mouse medicine, "someone's in the kitchen." All the posts are great, but this one seems exceptional to me.

The End at Occupied Territory Funk: This is a blog that's gone thru some signficant transformations, & while I liked the original form I first encountered, I believe that all the changes have made it even better. What's not to like about a blog that gives you everything from "A Beginner's Guide to Afro-Beat"(& some fantastic Afro-Beat clips) to William Blake's poetry. Since the inauguration, The End has been making more political posts than I recall in the past, including today's about the Ledbetter Law, which President Obama signed today. There's also some very imaginative creative writing here as well.

Kat at Poetikat's Invisible Keepsakes: Kat is a talented & witty poet who presents her poems in a delightful format, complete with compelling & appropriate photos. Kat has a real gift for formal, often rhymed poetry; what I notice is that she's able to use form to serve the poem, not the other way around. It's the same way with a lot of good musicians: you should feel good about the song & not feel you need to focus on the technique used to put the song across. In addition, there's a warm & welcoming vibe at Poetikat's Invisible Keepsakes; generally speaking, the blogs I like best are about making a real (if also virtual) community.

I'll be dropping these five a note within the next few minutes. Thanks again to Jacqueline T Lynch.

“Macaroni & Cheese” (the poem)

A couple of the wonderful folks who stop by Robert Frost’s Banjo regularly have been asking about my own poetry recently—something I certainly appreciate; & we were visiting our good friends Judy & Galen this weekend (up in the wilds of Lake Fork, ID), & while they regaled us with sushi made from fresh caught & smoked salmon, along with butternut squash soup & yam rolls, Judy asked why I wasn’t posting any of the poems I wrote early last summer.

It’s true that after a lay-off of almost a dozen years, I wrote poetry with a burst of intensity last June (& a bit into July) that would have been rare even back when I was writing constantly during the roughly 20 years between the mid 70s & the mid 90s. This was more startling because I’d consciously walked away from poetry in 1996, deciding that my relationship to poetic consciousness was simply too problematic to continue; it had struck me as being intertwined with a self-destructive streak I’ve battled for years—so I “put down the pen” (or, more literally, walked away from the keyboard) & took up the guitar. Between August of ’96 & last summer, I’d written one poem, which had served as lyrics for an Alice in Wonder Band song—I’ll post it here somewhere down the line.

Then last June rolled around, & for a few weeks I just couldn’t stop writing; the poems came freely. In retrospect, this was a time of crisis, which ultimately led to some wonderful changes, not least of which is Robert Frost’s Banjo itself. The poetic tap shut down as abruptly as it had opened, but I do have hopes of turning it on again in the not-too-distant future; lately I’ve been compiling a manuscript I intend to publish thru later this year, & it has me thinking more positively about poetry again.

So here I’ve gone & broken my rule about not introducing my own poems, & of posting more than one in a month—but that’s ok. The poem that follows is one I wrote for my wife Eberle this past June. As an aside, if any of you are interested in the non-poetic version of this recipe, you can find it on the blog here. Hope you enjoy the poem.


A C augmented chord huffing autumn thru a 12-button accordion
the evenings are guinea hen gray
                                            we have seen so much & forever is so
short a time really the gusts coming down off Council Mountain full of
geese & swans & now it’s March & you said
“You’re making a white sauce,” incredulously because I didn’t know
          any better

Yellow marimba mallets bouncing down a chromatic bass line the
tree you showed me where to plant is grown into goldfinches chirping
          all May—
6 tablespoons of butter melting in a copper pot with
                                            flour black pepper paprkia
the willow’s leaves the china jade & honey agate rosary beads the
tree of life—time is moving chromatic & crisp & hollow
along the wooden keys—“Dreaming on clouds of butter fat” you said—

Something about our life & the recipes found in a 1933 Fannie Farmer
Cookbook is both the same & alien—whisking the roux & the white
sky in July the smoke from the Snake River valley fires
inexorable as a freight train crossing Oregon
                                            as things breaking down
inside & 3 cups of milk which can be 2% fat if you wish

& things breaking down inside the body that is—the milk & flour
thickening in the whisk—a syncopated flute solo starting on low
E recalling how Yellow-headed Blackbirds
                                            sing guttural & vanish
“Is it really 6 cups of grated cheese?” you asked, astonished.
Yes I said yes & I meant it everlasting i.e. a lifetime is how many years the chokecherries scarlet in autumn the frozen fog sculpting the
          willow in

December the juncos foraging for seeds across the deck a layer of
macaroni (cooked al denté 1st – a layer of cheese—a layer of macaroni topped with cheese & white sauce—repeat—the stoneware
          pot baked at 400 roughly
45 minutes—you know when it’s done when you see it—
                                            I’ve said everything I meant
to say to you—a bowed bass trembling against your body—I’ve really
          said nothing

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Here Begins the Book of the Nature of Beasts": Eberle Umbach

Here Begins the Book of the Nature of Beasts. Of Lions and Panthers and Tigers, Wolves and Foxes, Dogs and Apes.
Aberdeen Bestiary, ca. 1200

From drawings on cave walls to movie theatres everywhere, people have been making animal stories part of daily life on the planet. In the nineteenth century, animals in literature started talking up a storm, with classics including Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books. This was also the era of Toad of Toad Hall and the White Rabbit of Alice’s Wonderland. Now forgotten but extremely popular in its day, Sarah Trimmer’s The Story of the Robins was published in 1786 and remained in print for over 130 years. The Peacock at Home (1815) by Catherine Dorset held a favored place in the best-selling realm of illustrated children’s poems.

The popularity of animal books goes back to the Middle Ages, with illustrated books called bestiaries depicting animals, plants, and stones both real and fabulous. Bestiaries combined natural history with mythology in a freewheeling and often philosophical way. For instance, the ant-lion is described as being both ant and lion: ferocious as the lion to its relatively weak prey, yet easily destroyed by a small bird. The ant-lion’s dual identity is linked to the spiritual nature of humans which allows evil to become either completely powerful or powerless to each individual. Lavish and fanciful illustrations made up much of the long-lasting appeal of bestiaries. A drawing of “Barnacle Geese,” for example, shows the young geese hanging from the trees by their beaks as they are growing. When mature, they fall from the tree and are safe if they land in water, but die if they land on the ground. Bestiaries in England were based on a fourth century Greek version, but the animal lore they contain goes back much farther than that to ancient Indian, Hebrew, and Egyptian sources.

As an aside, alphabet books can be seen as a direct descendent of these bestiaries, using animals and captivating graphics to present the alphabet to children. Maria Edgeworth tells a curious tale in Early Lessons (1856) of a young girl who, when asked what a bee looks like, says that a bee looks something like a cow. The mystery is solved by remembering that in popular alphabet books, the letter B was often accompanied by a picture of a bull. A saying of that time about someone “who doesn’t know a B from a bull’s foot” comes from this commonplace of alphabet books.

Stories with talking animals had been around for a long time in Aesop’s Fables, which held a strong appeal to children in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The tales themselves precede the fourth century B.C. when written collections of them were put into manuscript form, and one of the earliest books to be printed contained these fables (a 1474 edition still exists.) Aesop’s fables, like Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, were probably not written by a single person but by many people through the telling and retelling of folk tales. Aesop’s invented persona was that of a freed slave—again, like Mother Goose’s identity as a woman, the imaginary folk author is someone set apart from the realm of sanctioned authority and privilege.

Eighteenth century publications of Aesop’s Fables enjoyed great popularity; animals at that time also played an important role in the kind of folklore th
at we might now call urban myths. For example, this excerpt from a letter whose author is only known as A.G., waiting-woman of Anne Donnellan in 1745, describes a supernatural fox:

We have terible cold weather; I have been half froze
. I realy think I shou'd not have lived last week if you had not sent me the good turkey to eate, it kept the frost out of my stomach. I honour Toby for killing so many ratts, and I am rejoyed to think the fox is killed…. But can you tell me how you catched him, for here is the greatest devil of a fox at present hanging about St. George's and Westminster that was ever known anywhere; he destroys every thing he comes near, beast and bird; some people think he has brought to his den the very king of beasts; he does not kill them all, for he could not eat so many, but he makes them destroy one another! He has a cunning way of drawing them all about him, and they say he has a kind of glittering dust in his brush that he shakes when they are near him, and the dust flies into all their eyes, and from that time they do nothing but devour and eate one another…

The morals contained in Aesop’s fables apparently helped eighteenth century adults consider them appropriate for children although they were not written specifically for children. The popularity of Aesop’s Fables began to wane when fairy tales and other children’s literature started appearing; they were still well known, but ceased to dominate the animal landscape of literature read by children. Today, although children might know some of the stories, such as the Tortoise and the Hare, or use phrases like “sour grapes” that originated in the fables, they do not learn the fables by heart as was common in the eighteenth century.

Part of the growing body of literature for childre
n included collections of stories from around the world; in England and the United States, people consumed exotic folklore with the same relish they had for the exotic pineapple and coconut. Animals figured largely in these mythologies and folk legends. On the home front in North America, literature began to reflect some of the African folklore and mythologies that men and women were reinventing and creating in conditions of slavery and oppression. The folklore and mythologies of Native Americans across the country were changing with the crisis of genocide and displacement, and also affecting the stories that the nation was telling itself. The well-known figure of Bugs Bunny has his roots in Brer Rabbit, just as Wile E. Coyote finds his source in the Coyote figure of Native American stories.

Trickster characters like Brer Rabbit and Coyote hold a fascinating place in folklore and literature. They are never figures of authorized power or status, but lawless, of ambiguous virtue, by no means heroic, and basically uncomfortable—they do not fit into any value system but undermine them all in turn. Tricksters make fools of everyone, including themselves at times—they play tricks, deceive, change their shap
es and morals at a whim. They are also often animals—Blue Jay, Coyote, Crow, Fox, Hare, Mink, Rabbit, Raven, Spider, Tortoise. Most traditional tricksters we know are male, but there are some female figures, including the murderous Nez Perce Butterfly Woman who entices men into sex and then crushes them.

Unlike the animal tales of Aesop, these trickster stories have no consistent moral twist, in fact they ar
e often rowdy and bawdy. However, when tricksters hit mainstream or mass culture, they undergo a transformation, they tend to get cleaned up and lose many of their more disturbing attributes. A notable exception to the rule of mainstream tricksters losing their down-to-the-bone bizarreness is found in the work of Beatrix Potter. Among all the talking rabbit relatives of Brer Rabbit, from Aesop’s hare to Watership Down, from Bugs Bunny to the White Rabbit of Wonderland, there is little as cheerily sinister as the opening words of Peter Rabbit’s mother: “…you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

Beatrix began writing the Peter Rabbit stories in London in the 1890s, but failed in her first attempts to publish them. Later they were published with great success and the income from her books allowed her to purchase a small farm and live independently from her parents. She continued to acquire land, where she bred prize-winning sheep as well as pigs and dogs. Land conservation in the Lake District was of passionate importance to her; at her death she bequeathed more than 4,000 acres of farmland to the National Trust. In addition to illustrating her books, Beatrix was a botanical artist, making drawings and paintings of lizards, newts, fungi, mosses, lichen and spiders. She intended these to be used as illustrations in scientific books on flora and fauna. Although she is now recognized as a gifted naturalist, her scholarly work met with little attention during her lifetime because of the discrimination against women in the realms of science.

Beatrix’s tricksters include a mouse who teases a cat and a squirrel who torments an owl with singing and riddles. Sometimes her characters are charitable, as when mice help a down-and-out tailor with some sewing (“…tippets for mice and ribbons for mobs, for mice!”) in The Tailor of Gloucester. Other times they are wanton destroyers of property, as in The Tale of Two Bad Mice when a couple of low-living rodents break into a fancy dollhouse and smash all they can when they discover that the delicious-looking dollhouse food is inedible. Hunca Munca, the wife of the mouse couple, then begins stealing dollhouse items to furnish her own house, beginning with the feather bed she lacks herself. Beatrix, in striking contrast with tradition, creates many female trickster characters like Hunca Munca in her works. The two mice end up paying for the damage they caused—with a crooked sixpence they found under the hearthrug. As is common in tales by Beatrix, there is no ultimate sense of safety. After the doll owners see the destruction in their home, they decide to solve the problem by getting a doll dressed as a policeman—but the nurse sets a mousetrap.

There is a nightmarish quality to Hunca Munca and her husband’s discovery that the beautiful banquet laid ready on the table is not real—the silverware crumples as they try to eat
the plaster food and then, equally unsuccessfully, try to destroy it in the crinkly red-hot paper fire that has no warmth. Hunca Munca ends up dressed in human clothes with a broom, and dustpan, and her baby mice in a cradle. Animal and human natures keep blurring in and out of each other as Beatrix’s characters move through their dilemmas of etiquette and survival: “I am dreadfully afraid it will be mouse!” said Duchess to herself—“I really couldn’t, couldn’t eat mouse pie. And I shall have to eat it, because it is a party.”
The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan

Beatrix’s illustrations of her animal characters highlight their ambiguous nature—she approaches the details of their dress and the interior decoration of their houses with exactly the same meticulous and scientific distance with which she renders the natural landscape around them. When it comes to illustrations of two rats putting a
kitten into a piece of pie dough and rolling it out with a rolling pin, this naturalist surrealism reaches quite a pitch of intensity, with the kitten’s head sticking out of one end of the dough and his tail out of the other.

Pies figure largely in Beatrix Potter’s stories, as they do in Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, and the history of pie in England does involve some details that are not for the squeamish. Whole birds, animals, or fish were used in traditional pies, sometimes with body parts protruding from the crust—the legs of chicken or other fowl, for example, serving as handles. In Star-Gazy Pie from Cornwall, whole herrings were baked standing on their tails with heads poking through the pastry. Mrs. Beeton’s pheasant pie is a breakfast dish, served topped with the stuffed head and tail of the pheasant itself.

The early art of pies had much to do with preservation-- the crust acted as a sealed container for the ingredients and was not meant to be eaten. These pies had a box-like shape and were called "coffins;” making strong and straight walls of pastry was a process referred to as “raising the coffin.” Pie ingredients typically included meat and fruit, using sugar as well as vinegar for a much-prized sweet and sour effect. Any meat qualified for pie—lambs’ tails, rooks, tripe, and eels. Recipes for old-time festive party pies included instructions for how to put live birds and frogs into a piecrust for the amusement of the guests when the lid was lifted off. Dwarves also emerged from pies to entertain guests. In 1626, Jeffrey Hudson in a miniature suit of armor came out of a pie at a banquet for King Charles I and the fifteen-year old Queen Henrietta Maria. Jeffrey became the Queen’s Dwarf and remained a court favorite for eighteen years.

Pies existed for rich and poor in different forms; an elaborate concoction of baked lamprey eels was a traditional pie for royalty; plain old eel pie, however, could be enjoyed by the general populace at cheap eating-houses. Pies became a popular street because they were portable, ready-made, and hot or cold in season. In a household with servants, when the family ate pies made from slaughtered animals, the entrails of the animal, called the “umbles”, would be made into separate pies for the servants—the origin of phrases about eating “humble pie.”

In winter, the glory of pie reached its yearly peak. Huge Christmas pies, sometimes several feet in circumference, were wheeled around the table to guests. These Christmas pies, reinforced by iron bands, were often sent as gifts because they traveled well on the road. In the mid-nineteenth century, a distinction was made between “mince” pies of chopped meat, and “mincemeat” pies which were mostly fruit, although still often containing beef suet. Eating small mincemeat pies for the twelve days of Christmas was considered to bring good luck.

Women in nineteenth century literature were often described as being “nice as pie” or “sweet as pie,” and women writers were not unaware of their pe
culiar connection to edibles in chapter and verse.

“You forget, my dear Constance, that to devour and in turn be devoured is an inexorable law of this world; and if my eccentricities furnish a ragout for omnivorous society, I should be philanthropically glad that tittle-tattledom owes me thanks." Caroline Kirkland, Fore
st Life (1850)

Beatrix Potter’s animal characters, especially when they were animals that human
s use for food and dressed as human women, underscored the connection between women and food in a rather vivid way. Take Jemima Puddle-Duck, for example, whose sole ambition was to raise a family. So she ran away from home and was taken up by a gentleman fox who encouraged her to make a nest in his woodshed. She was grateful for the offer and moved in, all unsuspicious of any danger. She didn’t have a clue as to the fox’s intentions, even when he asked her to go and gather sage and onions—essential ingredients in making stuffing for roast duck. During this outing, Jemima Puddle-Duck told an old collie all about her adventures and he sized up the situation at once. After she left, he rounded up some foxhound puppies who saved poor Jemima at the last possible moment—but the puppies ate up her eggs before escorting her home in tears over her loss.

INGREDIENTS.—3 large lemons, 3 large apples, 1 lb. of stoned raisins, 1 lb. of currants, 1 lb. of suet, 2 lbs. of moist sugar, 1 oz. of sliced candied citron, 1 oz. of sliced candied orange-peel, and the same quantity of lemon-peel, 1 teacupful of bran
dy, 2 tablespoonfuls of orange marmalade.

Mode.—Grate the rinds of the lemons; squeeze out the juice, strain it, and boil the remainder of the lemons until tender enough to pulp or chop very finely. Then add to this pulp the apples, which should be baked, and their skins and cores removed; put in the remaining ingredients one by one, and, as they are added, mix everything very thoroughly together. Put the mincemeat into a stone jar with a closely-fitting lid, and in a fortnight it will be ready for use.

Seasonable.—This should be made the first or
second week in December.

The Book of Household Management by Mrs. Isabella Beeton (1861)

As I mentioned yesterday, today's post was written by my wife & all-time favorite guest blogger, Eberle Umbachthe text is copyright Eberle Umbach, 2007-2008. It's an essay from a larger work she & our friend Audrey Bilger have been working on for some time, & it's the first installment in the Women's Work is Women's Art series. Please check back for more—& in the meantime enjoy your mincemeat pie & Beatrix Potter stories....

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

“Women’s Art is Women’s Work”

I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be posting some exciting essays on women writers of the 18th & 19th centuries, with particular attention to how the writing of these women—ranging from the very famous like Jane Austen to quite obscure—resonated with “women’s work” in the domestic sphere. The essays have been written over the past few years by my wife Eberle Umbach & our very good friend Audrey Bilger as part of a larger, ongoing project; Eberle & Audrey have been very kind & generous to allow these essays to appear on Robert Frost’s Banjo.

In addition to being very engaging essays both about the various writers, Eberle & Audrey paint a picture of home life that’s fascinating—both foreign & familiar; & to top it off, many of the essays end with a recipe for some dish that’s related to the topic at hand—so adventurous cooks out there, be on the watch!

Tomorrow’s essay by Eberle will deal with the topic of
“animal fiction” in general, & with the fasciating Beatrix Potter (or Peter Rabbit fame) in particular. Potter was a singular character herself, & a writer (even beyond her children’s lit reputation) who’s worthy of renewed consideration. Of course, I love children’s lit: Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, Margery Sharpe’s Rescuers, & of course Lewis Carroll are all among my favorite books. This essay most certainly has made me want to become reacquainted with Beatrix Potter; I hope it may do the same for some of you.

If you can’t wait to go to your library or bookseller, Beatrix Potter is available at Project Gutenberg. So read up on her strangely compelling creatures & be sure to tune in for our guest blogger tomorrow!

Things Seen Thru The Window This Winter

Winter’s an interior time—the inclement weather, the cold, the deep snow & icy paths rendering much of the property inaccessible—all these combine to make the outdoors a world best appreciated from the comfort of a warm living room or kitchen.

Yesterday evening Eberle & I sat at the kitchen table & made an inventory of things we’ve seen thru the windows of our home so far this winter. A number of these are things we see each winter; some we’ve seen for the first time recently….

  • The January full moon casting shadows on silvery snow.
  • Small bundles of spruce needles where the Christmas tree was dragged thru the snow toward the garden.
  • Quails & juncos eating cracked corn in this same path.
  • A cedar bench covered in snow except for one corner of the seat
  • Frozen apples on a wild apple tree
  • A porcupine high in a poplar tree during a snowstorm
  • The top of an artemesia plant sticking up thru a snowdrift
  • A sheet of ice & snow creating a snow cave blocking the view from the dormer window
  • A humungous sheet of ice & snow sliding off the porch roof onto a bird feeder—the metal pole on which the feeder hangs shook so much that the feeder was thrown almost onto the porch.
  • Several quails perched in a pear tree during a snowstorm
  • A bright red pepper, blown from a bundle of peppers drying on the porch, lying in the snow-covered driveway.
  • A large black & white feral tomcat skulking around the bird feeder
  • Our neighbors in the morning twilight hauling hay to their cattle with their four-wheeler,
  • A mound of plowed snow beside the driveway blackened by thistle seed falling from a feeder in the willow
  • Snowdrifts piling in white mounds up the metal spiral staircase outside our old house—these stairs lead to Eberle’s old studio.
  • Fog descending from the foothills in the evening & surrounding Sage Hill
  • A rainbow above Sage Hill—formed during a snow shower
  • A brass solar lamp shining out from a snow well near the shop,
  • Goldfinches & sparrows at the feeders; juncos gathering dropped seed on the snow below.
  • Potting soil strewn on the paths to melt ice & snow.
  • Quails standing on one of Eberle’s painted metal garden sculptures (a small corrugated metal culvert topped with a wheel spray-painted blue); from this spot they can reach one of the bird feeders.
  • Shreds of tamarisk fronds scattered across the snow after a windstorm.
  • The County road grader plowing Whiteman Lane & N. Gray’s Creek Rd
  • An old white pick-up taking the corner on to N. Gray’s Creek Rd too fast—skidding—then righting itself.
  • Two girls riding horses on N. Gray’s Creek Rd in the afternoon accompanied by three dogs.
  • Our black cat walking on the path from the woodshed
  • Our Manx tiger cat at the door in the morning
  • Frozen water in the blue plastic cat bowl.
  • Juncos eating thistle seed that’s spilled on the potting bench, apparently oblivious to the old black cat, who’s apparently oblivious to them.
  • Our solar powered “Northern Lights” on the porch turning red, green, blue, amber & white after dark.
  • A distant sodium light from a house on the ridge to the east.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Reading Poetry #3

I was gratified by the response to last week’s reading poetry installment; very much appreciated the comments & the direct link on Kat's Poetikat’s Invisible Keepsakes blog. This week’s installment will look at poems by Emily Dickinson & Elizabeth Bishop, two poets I admire a great deal, & will examine the idea of “symbolism” in poetic language.

A while back a friend was talking to me about my own poetic endeavors & asked me about the symbolism in my poems. She was quite surprised when I explained to her that I don’t write “symbolically” in the sense that I don’t name a thing intending it to “stand in” for something unnamed—certainly not in any direct one-to-one relationship. & unless we’re talking about mediaeval poetry, which is often explicitly allegorical, I just don’t read poems in this way myself. Some critics (e.g., Veena Rani Prasad) have found a consistent color symbolism in Wallace Stevens’ poetry—for instance, according to Prasad:

green=the physical
purple=delight in the imagination

I’d agree with critic Helen Vendler, however, who characterized such “decoding” of symbols as “banal.” The most basic question about this is: “Can we enjoy the poems, & even internalize imaginatively valid readings of the poems without any 'decoding' apparatus?” My answer would be an unqualified “yes.” It’s a poor poem (in my opinion) that relies on some structure completely external to its own language to give it meaning.

I do believe—even know from my own experience—that a poet may have some underlying structures in mind as he/she composes a poem. For example, a number of the poems I wrote in San Francisco contained narrative elements that spun off from events in my own life, either in the past or the present. Does this mean that these poems are “autobiographical?” Not in any sense that I understand the term, since no one could construct a timeline or chronological narrative of my life from these poems, nor were they intended to be read in that sense. I can even believe that a poet may have in mind some sort of underlying symbolic system, tho more as a spur to creation—more as a sort of shorthand for him/herself to work from. If that underlying symbology becomes necessary to an appreciation of the poem, then (again, unless the poem is explicitly allegorical, which these days frankly would make it anachronistic) then the poem is considerably weakened by that. One must be able to read the poem on its own terms. I believe this is one concept behind Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” You can read Ms Moore's wonderful poem "Poetry" (from which this line was tekn) here.

Let’s look at a well-known Emily Dickinson poem: “I taste a liquor never brewed.” One might be tempted to give this an allegorical reading: “the liquor never brewed”=x; the “Tankards scooped in Pearl”=y; the “Landlords” & “drunken bees”=z. To me, there’s no real internal evidence for such a reading; second, & most importantly, such a reading, even if one could construct it in a way that made some imaginative sense, would constrain the poem. The glory of this lyric would be the multiplicities it contains; it’s not that the “liquor never brewed” is only religion, or poetry, or love, or some more universal spiritual elation: it contains all these elements & invites the reader into a landscape where she/he can meditate on any or all of these questions. Here’s the poem in its entirety

I taste a liquor never brewed—
From Tankards scooped in Pearl—
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air—am I—
And Debauchee of Dew—
Reeling -- thro endless summer days—
From inns of Molten Blue—

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door—
When Butterflies— renounce their "drams"—
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats—
And Saints— to windows run—
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the— Sun—

Let’s look at another wonderful poem, this time by 20th century U.S. poet Elizabeth Bishop. Before proceeding, I probably should note that this poem is written in a specific form, called the sestina. Sestinas are (in my opinion) great fun to write: you take 6 words to use as “end words” & these words are repeated in each stanza in a specified pattern. Sometimes, as in this poem, the sestina ends with a three-line coda that again repeats the end words in a specific order, this time using two per line. That information isn’t entirely crucial to this discussion, but I enjoy questions of form & structure, & so I assume (not always correctly) that others do as well.

Here’s the poem:

A Miracle for Breakfast

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
—like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds—along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
—I saw it with one eye close to the crumb—

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

Elizabeth Bishop

The poem, which describes the poor & hungry waiting in a line to receive their “crumb” of bread & “drop” of coffee while an oblivious rich man eats on his balcony, could invite a strict religious reading: a sort of Dives & Lazarus morality tale, in which the imagined villa is “heaven” for the poor, while the rich Dives feasts on in a sinful lack of awareness. But I’d argue that this reading is limited. For instance, is the poem’s narrator also in some sort of oblivion, gazing on a dream world beyond the harsh reality of crumbs & cold? Is the “miracle” an “actual” event or a “fictive” one (even within the fictive framework of a poem)? Is the title “A Miracle for Breakfast” a sincere, straightforward statement or an ironic one (Bishop is certainly known for wry humor). These are all questions raised by the poem itself, & in my opinion any “key” in the form of “x=y” would do the poem a disservice.

In many ways, the argument her is similar to the arguments in the earlier posts in this series—again, it goes back to the “spreading of a fan of meanings”—poems raise questions, they point in various directions, they are kaleidoscopic. There is more “meaning” in a poem than allows for easy summary; the meaning of the poem is created in a circular fashion between the poet (poem) & the reader. Again, this is not to say a poem can “mean anything I want it to mean”—that’s the opposite of saying “the poem can only mean a very specific & concrete thing the poet intended”—to me, neither of these positions can be correct. The meanings develop along the circumference of this readerly/writerly circle, drawn from or by both.

Finally, does this sort of reading preclude external data? Is it important to know about a poet’s beliefs & social circumstances? A collection of folks called the New Critics tended to say, “no, we must read the poem as a text, isolated within itself.” Some people have said that more contemporary & ostensibly radical forms of criticism like Deconstruction also tended to view the text as a hermetically-sealed construct. Other schools of criticism, such as Marxist & Feminist & Historical criticism tend to contextualize a literary work in terms of outside forces & events; & ok, I’ll give you all the chance to say, “That Hayes is a wishy washy son-of-a-gun” by saying I can see value in both methods. As a poet, I tend to read poems based on the text itself; as a general reader, context is interesting & informative. I don't think context necessarily intrudes on the poem's imaginative world unless it's used to create meanings that fall completely beyond the poem's internal logic.

I hope this three-part series has given you some things to think about in terms of reading poetry—& be assured there’s plenty more poetry to come here on Robert Frost’s Banjo.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dad’s Photos #2

For those of you who’ve been reading Robert Frost’s Banjo regularly, you’ll recall that I started a new series earlier this month: posting photographs my father took in the late 1930s. You can read a somewhat more thorough introduction here. Otherwise, I’ll just note that all of today’s photos were taken in Boston in 1939—I suspect they were all taken on one day. The captions are the ones he supplied in the album I inherited.

& for the record, today is the 95th anniversary of my father’s birth. He passed away in November 2005
. The photo of him to the right was taken in the late 1930s or very early 1940s.

The Garden Looking Towards Boylston

Flying High – Peaceful Yet 1939

The Common

A Swell Day Out [I believe this is the Public Gardens]

Really Is An Island

Union Park – Home of Many Southie Bums

Across the Frog Pond

Do hope you enjoy these. I’ll be posting more sometime next month.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Musical Questions – Carrie Bradley

I’m really thrilled to present Carrie Bradley as this week’s Musical Questions interviewee— Carrie's someone I’ve long respected both as a musician & as a songwriter. I’ve been jazzed by her songwriting & playing at any number of Ed’s Redeeming Quality & 100 Watt smile shows, & continue to be amazed by The Great Auk, her collaboration with Bernie Jungle, which for my money is just about a perfect musical match-up; & I've been dazzled by her violin playing with the Buckets & the Breeders. Tho I’ve only had a couple of opportunities to play with Carrie at Spurs of the Moment shows (& a couple of very fun jam sessions chez Umbach-Hayes during our wedding celebration), I can say it’s a thrill: as with Lois Fry, her playing tends to lift everyone else up. But enough from me—I’ll just add that there are two videos at the end of the post: the first shows The Great Auk performing Carrie’s song “Love”; the second showcases Carrie with the Breeders performing the great Dom Leone-Ed’s Redeeming Qualities song, “Driving on Nine.” Enjoy! & thanks so much Carrie!

I grew up in Albany, New York, started playing violin at age 8, & studied privately through high school. Played in the community symphony while at college, then quit to play soccer and try to study more. Got lured down to the student pub one night and improvised by listening to a recording and a singer for the first time. Thereafter got called in by a few students writing their own songs and recording them on these things called “4-tracks.” Was pressed into composing for theater productions and finally into fiddling—mainly in the wrong key and with terrible double stopping skills and singing with a bad country accent—in a band called Timid Fiddle (yes, self-explanatory).

Went back to Minneapolis with a plan to quit music and prepare for entering graduate writing school (even though a poet friend of my father’s passionately urged me to switch to music. “Which is funner?” she said, eating me up with her eyes).

I promptly joined a punk rock band. Next, graduate writing school and another resolution to quit music. The first day of classes, met Dani Leone and within a few months started Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. That led to a role in the Breeders that carried me through much adventure and the end of the nineties. Simultaneously, I musiced and colleagued with a number of bands and artists in New Hampshire, Boston, and San Francisco. Including:

The Buckets
John Wesley Harding
Jonathan Richman
The Red House Painters
Love and Rockets
Granfaloon Bus
100 Watt Smile
The Great Auk

I still play with the Great Auk and the Breeders--in the studio and sometimes live
and have started playing in New York with Noah Chasin (formerly of Harm Farm), Jason Porter (of Captain Fatass), and the cutest drummer in the world (Marc Neves).

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

Plain old: my parents. Neither of them did any professional time; my father sang and did theater in college and has continued to sing and play in some homespun circumstance or other, lo, the fifty years since, and to this day—community barbershop quartet, singing and ukeing at family and neighborhood and work gatherings, etc. But both of them are and have always been avid listeners, concert goers, and record buyers. The record player was always spinning in our house, always. I am sure I heard my first Beatles—and Basie and Benny and Beethoven and Broadway and Dylan—in utero, and I have dog-eared Kodak-coded black-and-white pictures of my dad sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing the uke, his mouth open in a choral O, to a baby wiggling on a blanket next to him (moi!). My parents danced, even just by themselves in the living room—I mean, cut a rug!—and my dad moved through the house with a lot of whistling and clapping, and leading us in a kind of extemporaneous, joyful interplay with music: conducting cues, mugging, musical jokes. Since I left home, I have never had a birthday pass without them calling me and dueting over the phone. I was issued a ukelele (as is almost anyone who spends enough time in our household, including my husband-to-be at the rehearsal dinner) at the age of five. This all combined, I think, to remove much of the intimidation factors in picking up an instrument or impulsive warblings, and generated a very emotional connection to music, as a force for involvement, definition, identity—gave me a view of music as a calling, a way of life, an act of love.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?
When I started playing, my challenges were laziness and shyness on the one hand, and perfectionism and a need for instant gratification on the other—I had a natural aptitude, so the first phases came easily, but not easily enough thereafter, and a classic frustration would dog me; I hated the noise that came out of my squeaky violin from underneath my sore fingers! Luckily, my parents enforced practice and didn’t let me quit. I can’t tell you how many adults I meet who hear that and say, geez, I wish my parents had been meaner about it, I quit when I was eight years old…

When it came to writing my own songs, which for me didn’t begin until I was in graduate school, I found that in spite of my comfort level with playing music, I still thought of writing it as a highly rarefied gift, the kind for which one is ordained by gods; or as an exotic skill, that surely would have emerged on its own by the time I was three years old if I had it at all. Which was odd because I had already embarked in school on my pursuit of some kind of career involving fiction writing; I think I got stuck in a perception early on that I personally had to choose prose writing or playing music; to do both would be downright supernatural. Luckily, that was when I met my friends, right there in writing workshop, with whom I banded to make Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. You couldn’t ask for an airier, shinier portal into songwriting: short, simple, rhymey, narrative, and personal were that band's, well, qualities, along with a blithe attitude towards rule breaking.

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?

For shows, not really superstitions, but lots of ritual (though so often thwarted): Get plenty of sleep the night before and a nap, or at least a Zen moment, the day of, close to load-in. Find the right T-shirt and other accoutrements that create the perfect balance between (in my case extreme) need for comfort and identity and fun—or decide if it’s one of those shows where you should dress up or have an actual costume. Leave time to collect and arrange gear, paper and Sharpie, mailing list and merch, etc., all without hurry. Change strings a couple of days ahead and stretch and work in a touch of finger grease day of. Smoke enough cigarettes to put a psych on and get deep (that was the old days…ah…); have exactly one drink thirty to fifty minutes before taking the stage and one to put on your amp. I guess there was some superstition, too; I guess it felt ominous or cursed if there ended up being four other shows that overlapped “our” fan base around town on “our” date…or if a string broke during the first song…and I had a few “lucky” T-shirts.

As a composer, there seems to be an endlessly pulsating dense weave of ritual and superstition, involving a kind of manic dance with every object within reach of hand, eyeball, and powers of hallucination—a sorting and shuffling and rearranging of cigarettes (again, in the old days…ah…), coffee, wine, chair, bed, beach, car…if I was stuck, I often would get in the car and drive, preferably up and down hills, or walk, and watch, wait and listen, because every bird, bee, breeze, tilt of the earth, and/or crack in the sidewalk could be the potential key.

What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?
With very few exceptions, music first, which I’ve mused on a lot, since writing words is so much easier for me. Maybe that’s where I’m superstitious—or maybe just neurotic. While a missing rhyme or the perfect line are always elusive, like Bergman’s silver fish slipping through the weave of a net, coming to songs as a fiction writer makes me pretty confident that I can fill a page, or at least a verse structure, with prose, and sift and tighten as it goes…but as a composer, no matter how musical I may feel or call myself, I am exceedingly insecure. Every time I write a melody I am convinced it will be my last, every time I start a new song, I feel the task of producing a fresh melody is hopeless. Then I take a shot and begin, sometimes on piano but usually guitar, and start thumping at the same three chords it seems I always play. Then, if I’m lucky, out of a discouraging dullness, a bit of a melody will emerge; it only needs to make one move that excites me—a loop or slide or back-and-forth or leap I’ve never made before—to get my attention, and I will obsess over those two or three notes for days if I have to. Usually somewhere around the ten- to twenty-four-hour mark, I commit to some phonetics—not words yet, but just vowel sounds first, then consonants... the ones that seem preordained... Finally, then, a single word or maybe two built from those and I can move on from what has surely by then become an annoying gutteral rut akin to the sounds of gorilla romance. That word or those words steers the theme, and then I can sink into the word-smithing in earnest. In a twist, though, choruses—both words and melody—usually don’t come until I have the theme clear in my head and the music and words settled for some verses. Are choruses brutally hard for everyone?? Not for Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach, Barry Manilow, Jon Bon Jovi, or Black Francis…I find a good chorus almost impossible. A bridge, for some reason, comes pretty naturally, and boy, is that a pleasure.

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

A good bridge!

I guess I’d say I’m not readily attracted to highly experimental songs, unless they manage to thread in something inexplicably familiar…at the same time, an unmistakable element of originality always thrills me. I’m moved by a balance of timelessness and logical and soothing, shock-of-recognition intervals with surprises—odd textures, a personal vocabulary, a strange joke, dissonance, silence. I’m also very pig-headed about theme. Theme and vividness. I love songs that are metaphorical or even opaque, but with strong imagery, and I need a sense that the writer knows what it’s about, that there is a reason for each image and the order they stream in.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?

Oh boy, I don’t know where to begin. I could compare big and small: 70,000 people at Rock am Ring in 1994 (I think that festival draws more like 150,000 now), with the closest row of audience twenty-five feet away behind a barrier of wood and steel and muscle men—and when I played my homely violin part on a bittersweet acoustic ballad in the middle of a rock set [“Driving on 9,” with the Breeders], a sea of arms went up, waving back and forth slowly, like kelp in the tide, and I felt like everybody all the way to the horizon was feeling something very private, and also understood my loss—my friend who wrote that song had died some years before. Later that year, on tour with Ed’s, I remember for some reason in particular a show we played at a coffee shop in South Carolina, and there were about four people there, and I was so uncomfortable, I couldn’t really see past the rack of novelty mugs for sale or feel the audience, even though heads and mugs were both so close to the tip of my bow I kept dipping and bobbing to avoid them. The point being, I guess, you never can predict the winds of connection or intimacy that are stirred when you're playing...".

In another example, I remember an early ERQ show where a heckler went ballistic on me because she thought my song “The Boy I Worked With” was making tasteless jokes about animal abuse, when to me it was an extremely strong and poignant indictment of abuse. By contrast, I remember a 100 Watt Smile show—for which I wrote pretty complicated lyrics, maybe overly—where it felt like everything was working—every laugh, every tear, every joke, every moment of poetry…and then I got off stage and every single person I talked to said, “Dude, too bad, sucky sound system, you couldn’t hear a single word.” You just never know…

When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

Because I started out as a more-or-less clinically shy kid, it still amazes me every time I perform how comfortable I am on stage. And because I started my creative life as a fiction writer, it still amazes me every time how layered and complex the exchange between writer and listener is—I think I had assumed nothing could be as nuanced as a reader alone with their experience and the written word. So my focus is greatly upon the audience; I am totally nurtured by that communing, and have a lot of fun with it, the interaction and the immediacy. I would have predicted myself for a shoe gazer. Not that I don’t still get shy, and I can take it hard when an audience seems unimpressed.

At the same time, I am powerfully inspired by the connection I have felt playing with other people. Also because I started as a fiction writer, I think—and maybe because I started as a classical player and never played off the page until college—learning to collaborate was long and slow in coming for me. With each band, though, I felt more and more in an altered state while concerting, if you will. With Bernie, it’s distilled to a kind of telepathy unlike anything I felt before it, really. That’s a huge thrill, finding that in rehearsal and then being able to re-create it in the heat of a performance. It’s a dizzying combination of the private and the public.

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

When I retired my last rock band (and turned forty the same year), I decided it was high time, and probably the key to eternal youth, to play the trumpet—the first instrument I remember really fighting for when I was a kid (no go). I lasted about ten minutes—it hurts your mouth! My current burning desire—and never mind eternal youth, either, one’s forties are such a great lesson in the beauties of age—is the theremin. For obvious reasons, as a violinist, but I also love its early electronica element, a retro modernity, how it is both invisible and a dance—a fascination and appreciation for paradox is kind of my defining approach to life and writing and music.

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

M Ward, Bright Eyes, Unbunny, Andrew Bird, Architecture in Helsinki, Mirah, Papas Fritas, Rosa Ponsell, Sufjan Stevens, Dolly Parton, Duke Ellington. Also stream a lot of Anyone who doesn’t know it and works near a computer, check it out! Really great way to find new music.

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

I’m a little embarrassed to say it, but I think I’m working on a full circle. It emerged in my life as (paradoxically) a challenge, a siren song, and utterly, pleasantly incidental. Then it became a vortex within which I defined myself, both worrying and thriving, finding solace and staring into abysses (abyssi?). Then I got on the rock train and tried to write hits, I guess, to put it too simply but still. Then I tried to return to it as a labor of love with possible dividends—I mean the money kind. Now I think all that experience enriches my great sense of luck that music has been a friend and an adventure, and feel lucky once over that it continues to be a challenge, a siren song, and utterly pleasantly incidental. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t have a moment with it; other days will surely come where I play with Bernie again, or my new group of cohorts here in New York, or where I may write the best thing I ever have.

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

My influences were, in order, I think, first the pop artists. The Beatles generated so much joy and so much innovation. Then the purveyors of passion: Beethoven, Dvorak. So much articulation in dynamics and instrumentation! Then the poets, writers like Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson and Tom Waits, who helped me connect my writing goals to music. Punk and post-punk got me to dance, and that’s what helped me get to the stage, I think.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

As with anything, it’s a matter of falling forward. Remembering anything is possible and mystery can be ridden like a bronco. You will never know what you’re going to write before you write it. And keep it personal. The most gratifying thing is finding out new pieces of self, not worrying about scissor kicks or brilliant patter.

Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to ask? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to hear?
Put to Leonard Bernstein: Because I am a good dancer, does that mean I could be a good conductor? His answer: Take my hand and I’ll show you.