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Devotion: Why I Write/Book Review

shoppingDevotion: Why I Write
Patti Smith
Yale University Press 2017

A few pages into Devotion, Patti Smith’s recent meditation on writing (originally delivered as a lecture at Yale), I wondered, Is it really possible/desirable/commendable to live this sort of contemplative literary intellectual existence in America/the world in the 21st century? As I moved further into the book, however, I became enveloped in its calm and confident atmosphere, and such nagging prosaic questions disappeared.

In the past two decades Patti Smith has been highly prolific literarily; at 69, she is certainly aging well, and still inspiring generations of artists. An illuminating piece of Patti Smith trivia: after the phenomenal success of Horses, plus a few more albums, shopping-1.jpegSmith retired more or less from public life with her husband Fred, had two kids, and stayed home to raise them–getting up early each day to write. In a recent interview with Alec Baldwin she says that she loved her life at that time, and the continual writing served to hone her craft. She said she couldn’t have written the books she’s writing now were it not for those years of practice.

Certainly her books show a high level of skill, while leaving space for her dream states and moments of transcendence. In Devotion she outdoes herself, performing a feat of magic that I’ve never seen from any other writer: in a scant 93 pages she shows us her mental process.

This is how: In Part One Smith writes a journal of the hours leading up to a trip to Europe and the first few days of business with her French publisher; here she includes the minutiae of daily life: what she ate for breakfast, the book she read on the plane, the images on her television at night. Part Two, the centerpiece of Devotion, is a work of fiction–a short story, novella, whatever one wishes to call it–in which the reader gets to stare directly into the writer’s brain! Talk about “Show Don’t Tell!”  We get to see how characters and descriptions in a story reflect details written earlier, in Part One. We literally get to see life interwoven with art. And the story is so finely wrought that I completely forgot I was reading something by Patti Smith–something I, as a long-time admirer, am acutely aware of when reading her non-fiction. The final section of the book describes a visit to the home of Albert Camus’ daughter, where Smith reads his unfinished last manuscript, and eventually answers the question “Why Do I Write?”

The sum total of Devotion‘s parts is a glorious trip, an exploration of a writer’s mind. It should be assigned reading in every writing class from here on in.

POLAD518HIRES

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Editor Interview

Hi everybody. I apologize for neglecting my blog lately, but I’m just so busy with other writing—including an interview I did for another writer’s blog. Alex, who posts interviews with writers, editors and even characters out of  fiction, quizzed me on my editorial work. You can read it here at her website. And don’t forget to come back and comment on it. Thanks!

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Poetry

I’m always re-discovering and revising my poetry, then throwing them up on my blog and/or submitting them to poetry journals. Here are a few I was playing with today.

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Prose Poem: Zen Dream

Scene 1. I’m flying thru the sky, very high, super conscious, seeing blue, only blue, incredible blue, against a backdrop of  white clouds, and I’m ecstatic, so ecstatic I’m crying—not only in the dream but for real, crying in ecstacy. I’m holding onto my breasts, one in each hand. Suddenly I land with a thud on a city street. Two men approach and I offer each of them a breast.

Scene 2. I’m sitting on a street corner with Larry, eating a slab of rare London broil. A voice says to me: “You were pulled down by sex.” Pause. Another voice says: “You were pulled down by eating meat.” Pause. Then comes a third voice to say with dry finality, “You were pulled down by gravity!”

(That was literally a dream I had some time in the 1980s. Every time I read it I laugh harder; I think it’s hilarious.)

Cascades WA

The River’s Revenge

In Mississippi so I hear
the mighty river’s raging
swelling up to crazy heights
gathering power as she goes.

Goin’ down to Louisiana –
Sorry but I can’t take you.

Tossing aside the houses in her path
little boxes all abandoned
by their weeping owners.
Evacuations. Loss. Disbelief.

Haven’t seen nothin’ like this since 1937

A traitor to my species
I’m rooting for the river:
you go, Miss Issippi!
Show them who’s in charge!

Did we think we could go on
in greedy arrogance forever?
Now we can’t ignore the force
of the river’s stunning roar–

Sorry, but you wrote the book.
I just went with the flow.

Chuck Berry

Hail Hail Rock & Roll

Two a.m. in the 7-ll
The kid behind the counter
wearing 3 pounds of silver
and 18 tin buttons.
I think to myself:

Ain’t nothin in the world
this kid and I agree on.

“Up in the mornin’ and out to school”
booms Chuck from the speakers.
I start twitchin’
and the kid cracks a smile
and we both say in unison:
Best song ever written!

Costa Rica Part IV: Otto Apuy, Artista

In Which I Befriend Otto Apuy, one of Costa Rica’s Leading Artists.

During my week in San José, my dental appointments are almost always in the afternoon, so I spend the mornings by the pool talking to the other turisimas dental. One day everyone else happens to have early appointments, and I find myself on my own. I decide to visit the Museo de Arte Costariccense, which is just a short walk from the hotel, through La Sabana Parque. This park was previously  home to San José’s airport, and the building in which the museum is now located housed the gates to incoming and outgoing flights. Costa Rica’s flying needs outgrew the space, and the airport is now located several miles away. (In the photo of the park, below, you can see its previous incarnation as a runway.)

 

The small, two-story museum is currently exhibiting the work of just one artist, Otto Apuy, who works in a variety of media, primarily painting and multimedia installations. I’m delighted by the latter, most of which are whimsical. The museum even has a small permanent collection of miniatures, one of my favorite things in the world. Unfortunately, nothing is identified by name, only numbers, so I don’t have a clue what some of the more abstract pieces are about. After browsing through the whole exhibit, I ask someone in the office if they have a brochure to go with the show.

Nobody speaks English, but, much to my surprise, they lead me to a man standing with a group of people and introduce him as none other than the artist, Otto Apuy. Maybe it’s my dazzling new teeth, but Señor Apuy takes an immediate liking to me, and offers to guide me on a tour of his life’s work. I’m thrilled.

It turns out he’s also a writer, and when I tell him I am too, he gives me a signed copy of one of his books (in Spanish, though I confessed I only understand un pequito. When I tell him my name, his face lights up: his wife’s name is Marcy. We amble through the museum, stopping now and then when I ask a question about a piece of work or when he wants to tell me something about it.

Under the impression that I’m spending time with a modern-day Pollack or Dali (not for the substance of the work but their prominence as artists), I feel like I’ve hit some artistic jackpot. Back at the hotel I immediately go to the computer room and Google Otto Apuy, who’d told me his work has been exhibited in New York and Boston. Unfortunately, I find no evidence of this; as far as I can tell, Señor Apuy is well-known in Costa Rica – and only in Costa Rica.

Nonetheless, my compadres at the hotel are duly impressed when I tell them the story. Christian, the hotel’s receptionist and all-around troubleshooter, translates the inscription Apuy wrote in the book he gave me – not only can’t I understand the Spanish, but his handwriting is nearly inscrutable. It says something like “With affection and friendship…”

Unlike in North American museums, picture-taking is permitted.

The photo on bottom right is of a permanent outdoor sculpture titled Tres Mujeres. The rest are by Otto Apuy.

Burning Forest

Oakland Museum of California

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This weekend the Oakland Museum re-opened after a two year hiatus, during which the place underwent renovation. The weekend’s events – music, dancing, even a professional whistler – were free, including entrance to the exhibits.

I don’t remember every detail of the old museum; I have vague memories of a redwood tree stump and charts of the Pacific Ocean’s temperature and tidal behavior. It used to take an hour, tops, to go through the history of California, the museum’s primary focus – and it was a boring hour.

They’ve done such a fabulous turn-around you’d hardly recognize the old museum. Architecturally it’s a whole different creature, with three outdoor levels of balconies and patios partially overlooking Lake Merritt. Inside, there’s so much to look at, I didn’t get to even half of it. The History room is absolutely fantastic, with exhibits of the Gold Rush and other significant California events, and videos of early emigrés with their recorded stories.

To get to the 1960s section you walk down a long corridor with a light show playing on the wall. The corridor leads to a space with diorama-like arrangements of mementoes; apparently people from various segments of the population  contributed these. When we first entered the area, my son, who was six during the 60s and loved it, said longingly, “Can we stay in here?” Several other visitors laughed knowingly: the atmosphere of the space is so authentic, we all wanted to stay there.

Peering into each glass-encased exhibit was like looking at different kinds of dollhouses. Each illustrates some segment of 1960s California politics or culture: the Black Panthers, the Grateful Dead, the women’s movement, the CA Peace Council. I didn’t take notes, so I’m unable to provide more details that would do justice to these artful arrangements. You simply have to go yourself. Take my word: it’s worth seeing.

By the time we left the History section, I was too tired to hit the art gallery. I’m planning to go back again soon to see the art and re-visit California history. There’s a lot I didn’t catch, either at the time or in the museum.