Greetings from New York. It's been a while since I've last sent out an email from The Douglass Street Lab headquarters, which may have had a little to do with the fact that I taught 190 classes last semester! The Big Apple and its gorgeous surrounding locales is the is the perfect place to recharge the batteries and gather inspiration for next semester, including The Douglass Street Lab, which is scheduled to start in September. Sign up now!
Upon arriving in New York, I was lucky enough to snag two tickets to see one of the final performances of THIS WIDE NIGHT starring Edie Falco and Alison Pill. One ticket for me, and one for former-multiple-session-Labber Lorena, who has relocated to NYC and has started her training for Teach for America.
This play explores exactly the kind of territory we experiment with in The Lab, and it got me excited to imagine ways to incorporate the author's process into a session. Before seeing it, I was suspicious. I'd read that the writer wrote from interviews and research from her time "living among incarcerated women."
Projects like this one that I've read and seen over the years so often seem hell-bent on exposing the author's ideas of the "presumptions" "normal people" have of "the incarcerated" and the "surprising" ways in which they're "just like" you and me! <<Ugh.>>
Edie Falco is my favorite actor right now, and like I said to Lorena, I would've bought full-price tickets to see her in a musical about the rise and fall of the Cabbage Patch doll. My expectations were high, and she most definitely delivered, and Alison Pill blew my mind with her mesmerizing performance. Talk about actors having total commitment to a roles! This writer exercised an enormous amount of restraint, and was able to let the actors (and therefore the audience) grapple with the complexities in the story, which included how being incarcerated changes a person--how someone who has been locked up is decidedly different from those who have not.
Yesterday I saw, along with Mark, the host of The Douglass Street Lab, the new exhibition at The New Museum. Rivane Neuenschwander's show, A Day Like Any Other, left quite an impression. My mentor and friend Michelle Cartertaught me, when I was her writing student, to risk sentimentality without succumbing to it; to write into subject matter that scares and excites me; to mine the stuff that feels so important I fear I can only get it wrong.
Neuenschwander's show edged on sentimentality without succumbing to it. So often, for me, contemporary art, especially Conceptualism, requires at least a minimum amount of contextualization, and more often than not, it engages my intellect and curiosity more than the squishier parts of my humanity. Sure, I read the placards and was interested to see when in chronological order each of the pieces were made, but the show itself made its mark on me emotionally. One installation consisted of a wall of pencil sketches of faces drawn by an police sketch artist who listened to volunteers who described their first love.A couple of the many questions it left me grappling with: How can emotion be translated into language into image? (Think about it: usually a police or forensic sketch is something made to catch a criminal or to identify a corpse. How would the same sketch appear differently if the murderer or murdered been described by the person who claimed him as his first love?) How does memory filter and change an image over time?
Last night I went to the film "Io Sono Amore" or "I am Love" with Tilda Swinton. Her performance and the story was so layered I have to see it again. A couple of times. My friend John's shrink suggested it to him and he invited it to me. The shrink had been to see it three times. And not just for Swinton's performance. The film-maker and cinematographer made food scenes seem like sex and sex scenes seem like food. Everything lingered to the point of excruciating beauty. There's a scene where Swinton's charter hugs her daughter after a death in the family, and the camera lingers on their embrace for what seems like days before the emotion surfaces. The viewer gets to witness what's most intimate. Not the product of the emotion--but the trigger for it--and then it follows it up and out of the actors bodies. My expectations were constantly flipped.
If these things sound interesting to you, perhaps you're a good fit for The Lab. You don't need to be a writer or to have ambitions to be a writer to take The Lab. If you're a word nerd--and interested in writing into the kinds of questions I've described, maybe you should try something new and sign up!
I've been asked by everyone I've talked to "What's going on with the manuscript?" meaning, the one I finished the first draft of last summer. Well, long story short, I found out I need to find a new agent (the reasons why are everything but tragic, and contain no drama except I need to find a new agent). In the time that went by in getting the manuscript off to my former-agent and finding out I need to get a new one, I didn't look at the manuscript once. Then I was asked to do a reading in San Francisco, and while looking through it for a scene to perform, I thought, with five eight-hour days, I could really tighten this thing and take it to the next level. So I spent the first couple weeks doing that revision, and I feel great about it. Now it's out being considered at various agencies. The feedback that I've been getting is--knock wood--exceptionally positive, so I just have to practice patience.
I'm at a cafe in The West Village finishing up this blog entry, and I'm listening to my ipod. While writing that last paragraph a bonus track by Me'Shell Ndegeocello came on the shuffle. It's from "Cookie" The Anthropological Mixtape," and it features poets reading over Me'Shell's beats. Suddenly, June Jordan, one of my first writing teachers is reciting one of her pieces in my ears. Next, my dear friend and mentor's Michael Mullen's band, Pocket Shelly, comes on, from his album "Small Illuminations in a Darkened Sky." The song is Pismo Beach, and it's all about love and saying goodbye and being left and photographs of missing persons and salt water taffy and triggered memories and Highway 1. I must've listened to it a billion times while working on the manuscript. And I'm choosing to make those two things mean that it's all going to work out. That said, I'm open to suggestions. If you have a hardworking agent who might be able to sell a novel about a troubled lady named Janis, I'd love a referral.
Greg and Michael, my New York hosts, are so generous, and every day I have to restrain myself taking the stairs to the top of The Empire State building and screaming THANK YOU at the top of my lungs for an hour for the opportunity they've given me. To be surrounded by art (in their home/gallery), Greg's gorgeous art books, to be able to spend time recharging, to see my family--it's all such a gift. I never know, from one year to the next, what's going to happen with work. And I try to live each day of these New York summers as if it's the last one. They've been such so supportive of my creative and professional process. I used to pride myself on my idea of myself as stoic, lonely do-it-yourself hard-worker. Not any more. I need to give and receive as much support as possible. No product is every guaranteed in this business, no matter how hard one works, and because that's true, I've come to value the relationships and the process and the true connection born out of this nutty pursuit.