Sunday, April 28, 2013

French Symbolist Poetry

It's still National Poetry Month and Jim and I are planning a trip to Paris, so it seems appropriate to find an example of French poetry to post. I came across this piece on a website which had it labeled as symbolist poetry. Not sure if this is correct or not, but since I've been reading and posting about symbolism I figured that makes three connections! Plus, I love the vibe of this poem. The translation is by Alex Gross.

Dommange's poem was apparently set to jazz music at some point. Not sure if that was contemporary with the piece or later.

Jazz In The Night

The dance, on the flaming park casts its multi-
colored flowers, the trees are singed,
irradiated, and the sonorous roaring of
crazed and homesick blacks

Nervous tangos, harsh brass, choke the soft
rustling of satin that paws the grass.

What exhausted smiles, by the shadow
of complicit copses, beneath the
surprise of kisses
consent and swoon. a saxophone
weeping long and very tender
plaints, sooths with its breathless
rhythm the excitement of furtive

Passer-by, pick up this handkerchief, fallen
from a warm bosom this evening,
hidden under the ivy.

Two red lips signed it in the make-up
of their cool design, delivering up
its secrets for you , the perfume of
a naked throat and the mouth of
an unknown woman.
- Rene Dommange (1928)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Ego Tripping" - Nikki Giovanni

One of my favorite poems of all time is this one by Nikki Giovanni. I read it for the first time when I was just out of college, had come out relatively recently, discovered acid jazz and hip hop, was doing open mic readings, and moved into the city to live on my own for the first time (college doesn't really count). Nikki Giovanni was just one of many mind-opening ingredients in a potpourri of inputs that mentally made me over during that time. It was one of the most exciting times of my life, and every time I read this poem the images and feelings I had then come back to me.

While some might claim this is a poem for African Americans or women, I totally felt it was about me embracing life and enjoying it by stealing god's car and driving away while blasting music with the top down!

It's a good set of feelings to remember. Thanks Nikki!

Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why)

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
    the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
    that only glows every one hundred years falls
    into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
    drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
    to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
    the tears from my birth pains
    created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
    out the sahara desert
    with a packet of goat's meat
    and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
    so swift you can't catch me

    For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
    He gave me rome for mother's day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
    as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
    men intone my loving name
    All praises All praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
    the filings from my fingernails are
    semi-precious jewels
    On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
    the earth as I went
    The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
    across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean...I...can fly
    like a bird in the sky...

- Nikki Giovanni

Friday, April 19, 2013

More Poetry Inspired by Art

La branche de fleurs, 1906
Henri Matisse
Oil on canvas, 40 x 31.8 cm
Here's another poem I wrote back in 1999 that was inspired by a work or art. This time my muse was Henri Matisse and a much less well-known work of his: Branch of Flowers. There's no quality photos of this work, so I snapped this photo from a Matisse retrospective I own (so the quality is not the greatest).

Matisse is one of my favorite artists, largely due to his use of color, and it's pretty obvious my own approach to art references his style pretty heavily. I also admire how his work evolved over the course of his life, and that he tried new things. Also, his creativity was unstoppable. Late in his life (I believe he could no longer work at an easel), he switched to cutting out colored paper and creating collages. He had an innate need to visually express himself.

Branch of Flowers

Laughing vivacious
she pauses
eyes lowered
over a branch
of magnolia blossoms
as delicate
as her hand
as white
as her skin

Thoughts in her face
and magnolias
joined and freed
to fly forever
in my memory
like birds

- Peter Cholewinski

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"You can't be afraid to suck..."

Three Jonquils, 2013
Peter Cholewinski
Oil pastel on paper, 22.9 x 30.5 cm
For the first time in a while, I spent some time drawing. It was mainly to preserve some sense that I'm trying to keep at my work with oil pastels. I did a few contour drawings of some jonquils Jim had picked from the garden and put in a vase, and then I tried my hand at an oil pastel. The result is posted here, and I'm not at all happy with it.

So why am I posting it?

Mainly because it's less important that I did something good than that I did something. Drawing is like building your biceps; you gotta work at it. I'm quite 'out of shape' as an artist, and a crummy workout is always better than no workout at all. So I'm glad I pushed myself. Yay me!

The other reason comes from some advice I got from my friend Gretchen, who is a real artist (and a videographer to boot). Back in 1999, I enrolled in studio painting and began working with oils for the first time. I didn't have any idea what I was doing, and it was exciting. After my first dozen pieces, I remember being very frustrated and complaining to Gretchen that everything I was doing sucked. She told me: "Look, you can't be afraid to suck. If you are, then you'll never learn anything." Realizing she was right, I stopped whining and being precious and pushed on.  No pain; no gain. I continued to churn out crap, but I was getting critiques and being exposed to different techniques. Practice helped and I was building my oil painting muscles. A year or so later, I had a picture in a show - a good one - and sold it.

So here's the reason for the post. What I learned from acting on the 'you can't be afraid to suck' advice is that sucking or, to be more specific, failure is just fine as long as I learn from my failures. Posting this is a way for me to even more objectively react to my work. So, let's get to it.  What's wrong with Three Jonquils?

  • Composition is poor - There is no dynamism here. The forms have no energy and do not interact with each other. This gives the piece a flat feel, like it just sort of sits there and makes it impossible for the piece to 'grab' the viewer.
  • Background is too much - It overpowers the subject and, even worse, there is no relationship between the colors chosen and the subject. I tried to use complements (red behind the green stems and purple behind some of the yellow flowers) but the tones are somehow off. Too dark and rich. The background also lacks the variation in color and intensity needed for it to breathe. 
  • Flowers and stems lack finesse - There's not enough variation in color in the petals, and there's no suggestion of form aside from the outlines. The darker background should have been used to provide this outlining, but it was not. The lowest of the three flowers is best, and the one on top has some electric green along the petal edges that is the beginning of something interesting. But it doesn't go far enough. 
  • Trite colors - Not enough mixing and shades/hues to deliver something other than 'GREEN stems' and 'YELLOW flowers'. This is probably due to me using different pastels from the ones I used on Blue Vase. This is a big failure for me, since color is probably the best thing I bring to the table as an artist. If I miss there, then I have little chance of success.
Bottom line, a sense of looseness or play would have gone a long way to making this piece interesting and/or dynamic. As it is it's sterile and dull. So I need to play with the new oil pastels I have, get to know how they work and blend, decide if I like them as a tool, and also just draw more to redevelop that sense of confidence and looseness that comes with being an 'in-shape' artist.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud" - William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) was one of the poets who ushered in Romanticism. Very much inspired by nature, he was a big influence on Transcendentalism in the United States. He also avoided the elevated language of the poets of his day, believing plain-spoken language made the best poetry. To him, poetry was not an academic pursuit but "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings". As we approach spring, he seems like a good voice to share for National Poetry Month.

I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of the bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company;
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Marathon: Choose How You React

By now everyone has heard about the bombs detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. While information has been rather sketchy, it's pretty clear these bombs maimed, injured or even killed dozens of people. To have something like this occur at an event like the Marathon is terrible, and I sincerely hope we bring whoever was responsible to justice. For me, the thing I most noticed in the sketchy details of the incident: a lot of people (trained or otherwise) were very brave and dove in to help people in danger...even total strangers. This floors me in every way. How amazing!

Unfortunately, these acts of kindness, bravery, and heroism receive scant notice in the media, and few conversations I have overheard this morning mention them.  Instead, everyone is nervously talking about terrorism, watching looped clips of the bombs going off on every news outlet, consuming photographs of people's injuries and blood on the streets, and getting worked into overemotional responses or crowing how they want to torture whoever did this. This behavior appalls me.

It appalls me, but it doesn't surprise me. As a nation, we have been trained to fly into a self-indulgent emotional furor over everything shown to us in the media. I suppose I always hope that perhaps eventually people will get tired of being jerked like monkeys on a chain. Instead, all I can do is view the coverage, listen to the public reaction, and think: "Here we go again."

To begin with, everyone is calling this terrorism. Is it? Not every bad thing that happens is a terrorist attack. As yet, no group has taken responsibility for the bombs. To me this suggests it might be the work of a lone nut job. So, to begin with, let's not go running around screaming about terrorism before we knew the facts. That would be one piece of rationality I would like to see injected into all this.

More importantly, whether this is an act of terror or not, what earthly good does it do to focus with such pornographic intensity on the violence of what happened? Sure I want coverage, but I don't need a full spread of photos in the morning paper showing as much graphic detail as possible. It's neither informative nor helpful. What is it? It's a blatant appeal to the baser type of people that always surface during these kinds of tragedies: the people who want to see the violence and gore and anguish of those hurt or killed. In full color, if possible. The people who take the YouTube videos (or watch them) rather than help those in trouble. In other words, it's sick.

It's especially sick if this turns out to be a genuine act of terror. Terrorists get their name because they are trying to instill fear and terror in people, so as to to scare us into being controlled by them. The media - by acting like an unpaid PR firm promoting the violent acts of every lone nut job and political organization in the world - are giving terrorists exactly what they want.  And so are those who suck at the pig trough of such low level 'reporting'.

We have to acknowledge evil acts, report on them, and discuss them, but we have to do so in an objective, considered, and dignified manner. This is because acts of terrorism or violence are designed by severely deluded individuals to drag us down to an emotional level where we can be controlled, scared into submission, or silenced. If a person was at the Marathon or knew someone there, terror is a natural human reaction. For the rest of us, allowing ourselves to react in the way the terrorists want makes us accomplices in their deeds. Consider: How motivated would loonies and terrorists be to shoot up schools and detonate bombs if they didn't get months of constant coverage allowing them to and unsettle every man, woman, and child with a TV within a thousand miles of their display of hatred and ignorance?

We have no choice about the fact that there is evil in the world, but we do have a choice about how we react to it.  If we focus on evil and the worst in human nature, we make a world where it holds sway. What would it be like to report on or talk about this incident by focusing on the good and best examples of humanity? What kind of world do we embrace by doing that?  The real news story here is that - even in the midst of something this awful - there are people willing to step up and help, that regardless of how hideous the act, it doesn't make a dent in the genuine kindness and decency that lives in most of us.

To that point, here's my morning after coverage of the bombing of the Boston Marathon where - so far - three people have died and dozens have been injured, some very severely.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Last Summer in the Hamptons

This is the second Henry Jaglom film I have watched (Deja Vu was the first), and I enjoy the rough but immediate feel of both these films. Deja Vu seemed very cinema verite, while Last Summer seems less so. That could reflect that the approach works better in this film or that it was more scripted. Not sure which.

It is very talky, and that does tend to make the movie a bit slow in pacing. However, I like how his movies unfold. The standard plot devices and progression are tossed aside in favor of characterization and interplay between the characters. This makes the film far less predictable and truer to life. It also allows for the characters to be understood as you get to know them, and even for certain aspects of them to remain unresolved.

For me the key to the movie is the first scene - the one before the credits start. In this scene the eldest member of the family consuls her granddaughter about how to make sense of a part she is playing. I'm paraphrasing, but the essence of it was that acting is learning. It's about what happens to you from the moment the scene starts to when it ends. I drew this as a parallel to the entire movie. Each character (and really all of us) are going from scene to scene in life, and perhaps the trick is what happens between the start and end of each scene. The one thing I'd love to learn the meaning of the word the grandmother uses to describe the annual event at the house. No one in the family knows, but I bet Jaglom does and it probably is a big key to understanding his aim with this movie at a deeper level.

Jaglom has created a movie that is an atom smasher...with characters as the atoms. If you like the idea of seeing flawed, intelligent, creative people interacting, combusting, and arriving where they arrive, then you'll love this movie. If you need something a little bit more'd better pass.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Robert Herrick

Robert Herrick
Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674) is relatively minor 17th Century English poet. I was exposed to him during a wonderful course I took in 17th century English literature at college. While Herrick certainly isn't as critically lauded as the metaphysical poets like John Donne, I found his work refreshingly lyrical compared to the sometimes ponderous works of some of his contemporaries.  This one seems especially apropos for celebrating poetry during National Poetry Month.

His Poetry His Pillar

Only a little  more
I have to write;
Then I'll give o'er,
And bid the world good night.

'Tis but a flying minute
That I must stay,
Or linger in it;
And then I must away.

O Time, that cut'st down all,
And scarce leav'st here
Of any men that were!

How many lie forgot
In vaults beneath,
And piecemeal rot
Without a fame in death!

Behold this living stone
I rear for me,
Ne'er to be thrown
Down, envious Time, by thee.

Pillars let some set up,
If so they please;
Here is my hope,
And my pyramids.

- Robert Herrick

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Poetry Inspired by Art

Still Life Before an Open Window: Place Ravignan, 1915
Juan Gris
Oil on canvas, 166 x 89 cm
During National Poetry Month I post pieces from some of my favorite poets. I also dig into my journals for stuff from my past. In early 1999, I did something that I'd never done up to that point and which I have never done again: used great works of art as inspiration for poetry. 'Premonition' came very quickly (in only two drafts) as a result of my response to this painting by cubist Juan Gris, and it was published that year in a small press publication.

The photo here is big enough so that if you click on it you can see an enlarged version.


No more wine or bread
Headlines of insanity
Marguerite plays violin -
a sombre vibrato
falling from our balcony
with autumn leaves
to the crowded boulevard

For a moment
the boulevard
the town itself
this sunset and empty wine glass
the violin and newspaper
our crisp white tablecloth
pulse with a nausea
of some madman's creation

- Peter Cholewinski

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ben Ehrenreich - "Ether" (2011)

More literature by living people!  I first came into contact with Ehrenreich's writing in the pages of Bomb, which published his short story 'Boys' in its Fall 2012 issue. This story spoke to me in a way similar to Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles. There was no specific plot, but strong characters within interesting situations created what I call an emergent theme. An emergent theme happens when the scenes and/or plot of a story don't build in a direct manner to anything, but as a whole they convey something. Sort of like the joke about a Monet painting: up close (or in its integral parts) it's a big old mess, but when you view the painting as a whole it has meaning.

So I added Ehrenreich's novel Ether to my late winter/early spring reading list. Just finished it a week or so ago, and I was disappointed to find that the power of the short story was not to be found in this novel length work. The style and quality of writing is very much the same, but it feels as though Ehrenreich simply doesn't need a canvas as large as a novel despite the fact that, at 183 pages, Ether barely qualifies as a novel.

Too much of the book is spent introducing characters and jumping between their stories. This kaleidoscopic approach could be enthralling, except that Ehrenreich does not develop any of his characters at all for a good 100 pages. They remain two-dimensional vignettes without any sense of how they will fit together. Could this part of the point? I suppose, but it renders his novel uninteresting and directionless. If it is the point, he did not need 100 pages to convey it. In fact, the only reason I continued reading during the middle half of the novel was that I liked Ehrenreich's prose.

By the time the characters started coming together and I understood what the character of the stranger was, I have to admit I was reading to get to the end. While my attention was not as acute as it should have been as a reader, this ultimately is the author's fault because he failed to set the proper pace. More importantly, I did not find much substance in the last third of the novel in terms of what Ehrenreich did with his premise. There was simply no pay-off to merit the long set-up.

The novel is peppered with interesting devices, such as the omnipresent TV cameras that suggest something about what Ehrenreich is dealing with in Ether. I also liked how the author made himself one of the characters and placed himself in discussions with one of the characters he created. Again, this related to the emergent theme. However, none of this - or the novel itself - ever really went anywhere especially interesting or powerful, and so these devices came off as gimmicks and not the evocative elements they could have been.

I still came away thinking Ehrenreich's a talented writer, as his craftsmanship is plain. However, such skill must be placed behind subject matter and characters that have greater depth or meaning. Otherwise, an author runs the risk of writing a long greeting card: nicely worded but ultimately not deep, relevant, or memorable.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Another Poem With Zen Flavoring

April is National Poetry Month, so it's great that I seem to be on a roll. Surprisingly, I've written another piece that makes use of Zen learning. Sometimes poetry happens most easily when you just let it flow.

Away With Words

You share your revelations -
pearly wisdom divine -
but they run like rain on roofs
when the epiphanies are not mine

The light of answers given
is visions darkest curse,
and enlightenment only heard
leads to its reverse

The lotus of a patriarch
is nirvana of little use,
for we bloom within experience
and cannot receive the truth

- Peter Cholewinski