Well howdy, readers! This afternoon, Superstition Review is glad to announce that past contributor Darrin Doyle, who was featured in the Interviews section of our 8th issue (which can be read here) and the Fiction section of our 16th issue (which can be read here), has recently released the first album from his rock/folk/karate trio Daryl & the Beans, titled Burnin’ the Eagle, which can be purchased here. The album itself is $8, and all proceeds from the sale of this record go to funding a scholarship for students in the Creative Writing program at Central Michigan University. If you’re so inclined, feel free to up the proverbial ante and pitch a few extra bucks toward this wonderful cause when you purchase the album! Do yourself, and the students of Central Michigan University, a huge favor and purchase Burnin’ the Eagle.
Got Ekphrasis? Conversations Among Art Forms
Who doesn’t want to feel exhilaration, even transformation, during their creative writing process? Often when we are writing alone we get trapped in our own obsessions, verbal tics, repetitive images, “go-to” metaphors; and sometimes we just come up empty. Perhaps we can enhance our creative process by allowing another artist to speak into our imaginative space. Yes, it often feels risky but the rewards can be great.
I am speaking of the practice of ekphrasis, a conversation between and among two or more art forms. Working within an ekphrasis framework, some poets are using visual art, music, photography as well as mathematics, philosophy and physics to enhance their creative process and transform their finished work.
Ekphrasis can be viewed as an active, rapid interchange of the unexpected. It requires an attitude of openness and vulnerability. Ekphrasis courts the unanticipated.
My own experience with ekphrasis involves working with visual artists and musicians, some of whom I collaborated with for more than 10 years. When I first began working this way, my initial responses were nervousness and fear. I didn’t know how my collaborators would receive my work—or if they would understand my vision—or if they would try to impose something on my imaginative space that would feel false and intrusive. And I was also afraid that I would do the same thing to them! However, mid-way through my first collaborative project, what I discovered was that my fears were unfounded. In fact, my collaborators affirmed my poetic vision and enhanced my process by offering unexpected but thoughtful and useful suggestions about my work. Their reactions to my process and to poems allowed me to “think bigger” about my whole body of work. They saw things in me and my work that I could not otherwise see.
Significantly, I learned the approach to ekphrasis projects often centered upon these two dynamics:
- Focus on structure or form
- Focus on theme or content (essence)
I have worked with artists on numerous ekphrasis projects. However, I collaborated with two artists far more than any others.
With visual artist Beth Shadur, I have worked for more than 10 years on a multitude of artistic adventures. Beth founded and curates the Poetic Dialogue Project (for which I am the poetry curator), an ongoing project pairing visual artists with poets to make collaborative work. Its exhibitions have traveled nationally and internationally.
During our collaborations, Beth and I would often talk about how the “rhythms” and “structures” in a particular visual art piece matched the rhythms and structures of a particular poem. For example, here is Beth’s work “Witness,” which she created in response to my anti-war poem “Bougainvillea and TV.” If you look closely at this painting, you can see part of my poem and my name embedded on the palms, in the upper left hand corner of the picture. My poem is written in free verse with short lines followed by longer stanzas. Beth’s work has similar rhythms of color. My poem ends with the lines: “Now I know I will never understand a thing./The world talks only to itself./Rain to War. Child to dirt/Bougainvillea and TV.” Notice all Beth’s multi-cultural symbols of peace alongside the embedded image of the child lying in the dirt, which is a response to those lines. Both the poem and the visual art retain their own integrity but each is clearly “in conversation” with the other.
Beth explains the transformative power embedded in the ekphrasis framework that she heard from her many Poetic Dialogue Project collaborators:
“Poets mentioned experimenting and working outside their own comfort zone to create new ideas and forms for their work, while artists who had never considered text as part of their work found ways to integrate the poet’s voice. The ongoing dialogue offered each creator the opportunity to witness and effect the creation of ‘the other’, respond, communicate, argue, compromise, and sometimes, to change or overcome difficulties. In making collaborative work, each individual brought his or her strength to the paired collaboration, allowing each contribution to be weighed and valued, given critical consideration, as the pair moved to develop solutions to the creative process as a team. In some cases, the collaborative effort was exciting and inspirational, in others problematic. Some pairs mentioned difficult struggles in working with a person who was a stranger; and yet struggle, too, is part of the creative process. All pairs found that the collaborative process in creativity became a catalyst for new directions, new forms and new paradigms in their process and practice.” http://bethshadur.com/the-poetic-dialogue-project
The other artist I worked with was composer Christopher Scinto. He and I collaborated on the creation of a music drama, The Ballad of Downtown Jake. Christopher wrote the music and I wrote the book and lyrics. “Jake” is based on my collection of poems High Notes, the writing of which was a direct result of our collaboration.
When we first began working on our project, Christopher and I would talk about the way the structures of jazz pieces—“riffs”—can be mirrored in the structure of poems and a poetry collection. Christopher suggested we create five characters based on his anticipated musical considerations, which he would refer back to when writing his musical score. We decided the core conflict of our characters would be a differentiated struggle with addiction. A short while later, I named the characters and wrote a five-part poem titled “After the Jam Session.” The refrain in the sequence was a riff on the line “Give it to me,” which later became a kind of guiding principle for us. We decided each of our characters was addicted to something— whether it was fame, love, justice, power or hope. Ultimately, we realized we wanted to address the essence of those addictions in terms of the sacred and the profane and the role it plays in the creation of art.
Working with these artists transformed my poetic process and my poetry significantly. However, the most important gift I received from working with artists on these projects was joy: The pure delight of creating. The simple delight in discovery. The excitement of invention. The elation along the journey. The transport of another’s imagination. The experience of living art.
Every so often, I like to listen to Stephen Sondheim’s thoughts on writing. This isn’t because I want to write musicals. And while some people may herald Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize as the long overdue blurring of songwriting and literature, I’m not one of them. As much as I like Dylan, I don’t believe a songwriter is also a poet. In fact, one reason I seek out Sondheim’s thoughts on language is because lyric writing is different enough from what I do to make his observations feel fresh.
For example, in one interview, Sondheim said that “words that are spelled differently, but sound alike, such as rougher and suffer, engage the listener more than those spelled similarly, rougher and tougher.” It’s true! Rhyming differently spelled words adds extra interest to the lines. What does that suggest, other than we’re unconsciously spelling words while we’re listening to certain kinds of language? That makes me, a prose writer, wonder about my own work, and how the spelling of words can subvert a reader’s expectations.
Sondheim is an excellent wordsmith. His songs are full of intelligent, character-driven storytelling that illuminate larger issues, whether it’s female misogyny in Ladies Who Lunch, the creative process in Finishing the Hat, or the pre-wedding freak-out in Getting Married Today. His songs are sharp, funny, and self-contained. They just aren’t poetry.
Sondheim would agree with me on that. Unlike the Nobel Prize committee, he doesn’t consider poetry and lyrics to be the same. Because of the richness of music, he says, lyrics must be economical and spare. Complex ideas are pared down to simpler language so that the audience can follow along.
“That’s why poets generally make poor lyric writers,” he said. “Not always, but generally they do, because the language is too rich. … I firmly believe that lyrics have to breathe and give the audience’s ear a chance to understand what’s going on. Particularly in the theater, where you not only have the music, but you’ve got costume, story, acting, orchestra. There’s a lot to take in. The whole idea of poetry is denseness, is concision, is abutment of images, and that sort of thing. You can’t do that when you’ve got music going, and expect the audience to take it in.”
When people equate lyric writing with poetry, they’re often trying to express how meaningful they found a song. The word “poetry” is associated with depth, so to call something poetic is to say it’s beautiful, eloquent, or profound. Thus, songwriters who are adept at language are called poets despite the fact that they aren’t actually writing poetry.
But to say that lyrics and poetry are the same is to discount the role music plays in a song. Song lyrics, no matter how lovely, are meant to work with music. When you separate one from the other, you’re getting only part of a whole. On the other hand, a poem, as poet Paul Muldoon said, “brings its own music with it.”
Perhaps the solution isn’t to give songwriters prizes meant for writers, but to acknowledge the skill and eloquence that goes into writing a successful song. In one interview, Sondheim said it took him seven-and-a-half hours to come up with the line, If I must leave tomorrow / One thing before I go / You’ve made me see the passion of love / And I thought you should know. He added that he wouldn’t recommend lyric writing to anyone.
“It’s very difficult work,” he said in another interview. “And it’s not often rewarding work because I find that I almost make it, almost make it, if only there were a two-syllable work that began with a “B”, it would be a perfect line. And you can’t find it, and it’s very frustrating.”
Whether you’re a musician or a writer, if you’ve ever agonized to find the exact word, you know what he means.
Went to a cousin’s wedding a few weeks ago, it was nice, flowers, love, family, food, drinks, you know – nice. Well not all of it, that’s more of a cover, thing someone said in the cab on the way home because parts of it were, mmmm, not so nice. The vows, oh my god over the top and the dresses, I know the bride’s supposed to steal the show but come on, peach for your maids, looked like they all went shopping at the same week after junior prom yard sale. And then there was uncle Jean’s toast, roast, I mean toast. You know what I mean, you’ve been to a wedding with an open bar six months after someone got divorced before too right? Of course you have, well this is going to be a little like that, rough in places, but remember – free bar, so hang in there.
Gubul gubul, love that word, just the way it feels coming out of my mouth, try it … gubul gubul. Nice right? No you didn’t just say something naughty, but naughty of you to have thought you did. Means curly, in Korean. You had a feeling it did, didn’t you, just the way it sounds, I mean it sounds curly. Yes that’s a long winded way to introduce onomatopoeia, but that’s where we start this; the sound of a word mimicking its meaning – sound having meaning. However, words have other sounds in them too, we say them after all. They got their syllables, get them from their phonemes, morphemes and the like, those things we all stress through pretty much the same way. So yeah, sounds have meaning.
Almost ‘sounds’ like music, I mean, we’ve all heard this one right – music is a language, tickles some universal primitive reptilian leftover nub on our brain stems. Well it’s a can of worms I’ll keep my pinkie out of for now. No, well yes, but not all the way out, just let me dip in and get at the part about music being a sound that can express emotion. Express, convey, prompt – I can’t nail it down with one word. So you pick the one that works on you – just make it mean the way a particular piece of music can make you feel happy, or sad, or scared, or whatever, but pick a word that means that for you. Because the sounds of music can do that.
So here we are, a few premises deep, words are sounds that have meaning and the sounds of music can get at emotions. Sounds doing things, sending out information we can get things from. Okay, so far so good, and excuse the pedant in me but uncle Jean assumed he had us in the palm of his hand too and its right here that I need you with me. So let’s close up the bar for a few minutes and focus. Now, what if those strings of sound our words make are sending out the same kind of emotional meanings music does?
No, no, no, sit back down here, I’m serious. Okay, for sure the sounds that music produce are much more complex than those available to words. Music has tempo, mode, loudness, melody and rhythm, while words on the other hand only have access to tempo and rhythm. But don’t let that get you down, a lot can be done with tempo and rhythm. Let’s start with tempo or speed. Quick gets you happiness, excitement or anger, whereas if you slow it down it slips over to sadness or serenity. Mixed bag? I know, but all is not lost just yet because we still got rhythm. You get the rhythm smooth and consistent and it’ll spell happiness again. Easy enough way to double down on it, quick and smooth musics out happiness. However, if the rhythm was roughed up but you still kept the speed up then you’d get something closer to uneasiness.
Just think about this for a minute, the sounds of words being subvocalized in a reader’s head as they make their way through a paragraph, about say betrayal, wouldn’t it be something if the actual tempo and rhythm of their inner voice was producing a meaning synchronous to the combined lexical meaning of the words. Wow, you’re damn right wow, it would be devilish, the reader would have no idea it was happening, they’d just feel it, same way they feel emotions from music.
However, as with most things, the rub lives in the how. Tempo, speed, you can fiddle with that. Sure individual reading speeds will vary, enter a thousand variables you can’t control for and then throw them away. We’re looking big picture here and big picture tempo is in a writer’s hands. Lexical density, vocabulary sophistication and syntactic complexity, three puzzle pieces every single sentence or paragraph will have lurking inside of them. Ramp them up and the reader slows down and vice versa gets you on the flip-side. And its relative right, slow for me is fast for you, who cares, music’s playing in each individual head, this isn’t a concert after all. That’s the hard one, rhythm, or beat, is a much easier pulse to finger. Syllables, those things you used to count out on your digits when you were a kid, if that isn’t a rhythm I’ll never dance again. You want to get even finer, add in individual word stresses, that place where your voice rises inside a word. In between the words is another playground: punctuation, comma, slash, dash – a writer almost becomes a Lamaze coach for a reader’s respiration.
Now you might be thinking this is even worse than uncle Jean’s speech, but come on, I’m not saying the meaning being transmitting through subvocalized tempo and rhythm are primary. There’s no way they are going to make your love story come out horror show. Not at all, because if I’m right here, then this music is already inside everything you’ve ever written. What I’m thinking is, this ability of music to transmit emotional meaning can be used to supplement the lexical meaning of a sentence or paragraph. Or perhaps a passage could be written with opposite meanings, one where the lexical and the musical were polar to add a touch of doubt to the lexical, like an unreliable narrator.
There’s no need to work through all the different ways this can be kajiggered. If you think this is as bad as uncle Jean’s toast no worries, I’ll go sit in the back with him and watch the bride and groom dance to a love poem put to slow paced (serenity), smooth patterned (happiness) piece of music. But if you hear it too, you know where we are.
Being both a writer and an artist, I often get the question of how can you switch from one medium to the other? To be honest, I don’t consider that I’m switching. It’s all in your head (or mine, I suppose). There are so many elements that cross over from one medium to the other—metaphor, imagery, form, symbolism, etc. that I don’t think I need to belabor that point. And of course there are very narrative artists such as Magritte or Joseph Cornell. And there are many other artists who are also writers or actors or musicians (William Blake, Terry Allen, Tony Bennett, Patti Smith, to name a motley few). And when I lived in New York, it seemed that everyone was writing a screen play, sculpting and playing in a band or photographing, juggling and tap dancing or putting together dance, jazz, projected painting performances or some variation of any of the above. Doesn’t all creativity spring from the same source?
I suspect that I’m sounding a bit defensive, and I guess I am. I’ve sometimes felt the need to justify being a photographer who prints and hand colors her photos, a painter who works in almost every medium (I started to say except printmaking, and then I remembered that I did those mono-prints once) and a writer of both fiction and poetry. “When do you sleep?” I have translated in my own head into “What kind of freak are you?” or “Maybe you should just do one thing…” (“really well”, my ego defense system adds). And then there’s the “prolific” problem—the most commonly used adjective bounced around my studio by new visitors. I have grown to dislike the word, which I associate with weeds. And I hear myself sounding defensive when I answer that the studio contains years of shows with, yes, unsold works still lurking about, and let’s say you put up a show of thirty pieces and you sell two, and you have at least one show a year, well…you do the math. And of course there’s other work that you do that doesn’t go into a show. Other times I just say, “Yes, I’m productive” (a “p” word I can live with).
But I started out to write about the crossover, which I actually wasn’t that aware of until I had to do a presentation for the writing class of a colleague. I got together slides and poems and suddenly realized almost all of my poems and art pieces had some element that reverberated from one medium to the other. For example, I found paintings and photos with eggs and then discovered any number of poems also hatching eggs right and left. Which came first the painting or the egg, or the poem?
One of my most fun and challenging experiences involved a collaboration with a sound artist titled “Out of the Darkness”, inspired by Roethke’s poem of the same name, projecting double exposed slides of scraps of my paintings and other abstract images with a one to twenty second dissolve, triggered by a tape of new music composed on a (at the time) very sophisticated synthesizer. Part of the fun was setting small plastic figures on fire and photographing them and going on excursions to record the traffic or the wind. The final effect was very much like a film, with images overlapping and dissolving into each other at different speeds.
Maybe I should have gone into film, which combines all the elements: imagery, narrative, sound, metaphor, color. Instead, I’m on the board of Filmworks a local group that brings alternative, independent and foreign films to Fresno. Last year, as a fundraiser for our organization I dreamed up the idea of combining jazz (another love) and poetry and invited a local jazz saxophone artist, Ben Boone as part of a quartet to collaborate with Phil Levine and Peter Everwine. I called it THE JAZZ OF POETRY, THE POETRY OF JAZZ. Herding all the people and elements involved together was harder than herding cats, (even cool ones) but it all evolved as probably the best jazz or poetry does in a very casual, spontaneous, and improvisational way and was a huge success. In fact, Ben and Phil have gone on to other jazz/poetry collaborations.
I confess that sometimes when I’m dry in one medium, I just turn to another which maybe says more about my own obsessive/compulsive tendencies than I’d like. But I do think that dipping into another medium can really open up all kinds of possibilities for your primary medium. If you’re a poet, take up piano or painting or puppetry, not necessarily to start a new career, but to stir up the creative waters. Nothing is more exciting or scary or (scary exciting) than the new blank document. When will you find time to do all this? When will you sleep? I don’t know, but when you do, you might have some wild and crazy dreams.
For some people, “serious art” is a compound word. They say it with the most severe reverence that is usually reserved for funerals and graduation speeches. These are people who think that good art can’t be silly, or that silliness can’t be sincere or profound.
However, as any creator knows, art is entirely unpredictable and rule-breaking. Creating something good is like riding an endlessly bucking horse; if the artist wishes to ride any distance without falling off, they must learn to adapt to the horse’s movement.
Mediocre art is very easy to identify; it feels unnatural, restrained, sedated, in chains. A horse that doesn’t buck will never go anywhere interesting. It’s more like taking a pony in a circle at an amusement park.
For critics, there is little worse than making the wrong distinction between good and bad: mediocre art is sincere, however poorly executed; bad art is always insincere. While mediocre artists give us clichés and flat soda, they are not as dangerous as “serious art” snobs.
“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. Attend a wedding reception to see this in action; watch the bride and groom, hours after making “the most important decision of their lives,” get drunk. Watch their parents get drunk and start reminiscing about baby moments. Also, consider sex, one of the silliest acts. Intercourse is the only time when it is interesting and enjoyable to repeat the same motion hundreds of times, time and again. Yet this is what allows the human race to continue.
“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. When evaluating art, one must treat “silly” and “serious” as the primary colors of any good work. The mark of a brilliant artist is the ability to be both silly and serious.
This appears in all genres of art, and I’m going to take you through music, literature, and unframed art with such examples as Mozart, Lewis Carroll, YouTube, and Futurama.
I love Mozart. I love the calm-before-the-storm-iness of Mozart. I love the crystalline confidence of his scales. I love the catch of his melodies. I especially love how Mozart mixes silly and serious.
Mozart’s canon “Leck Mich Im Arsch” (literally, “lick me in the ass”), is one of my favorite examples of how silly and serious can work together to produce art that is unquestionably brilliant, even if it does make you giggle. Just think that without these lyrics, this would sound like a solemn ode to brotherhood.
Another of my favorite Mozart moments is from his final opera The Magic Flute. In one of Mozart’s most cheerful, upbeat, and memorable pieces, the Queen of Night asks her daughter to murder Sarastro, while exercising insane vocal techniques that singers have to dedicate their lives to attain. It’s a funny song, because the seriousness of the lyrics clash with the flowing lightness of the tune.
The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
It’s a scary song; listening to it, I get chills. And it’s a song that gets me through the day, one I love to sing over and over, under my breath, everywhere I go.
It’s not just the mixing of silly and sincere that makes these pieces great; it’s the undeniable humanity and sincerity of the music.
Now consider Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Its linguistic brilliance and inventiveness is first class, as the beauty isn’t in the meaning so much as in the way the plot is actually understandable, despite the strangeness of its language. The atmospheric brilliance of the first stanza is inimitable:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Its specific nonspecific language allows us to imagine and feel anything, depending on how we enter the poem. Many would write this poem off as silly. Yes, it is silly, but I find serious and sincere qualities in its retelling of the hero’s journey. It is a metaphor for triumph over any conflict in our lives.
There is also the problem of unframed art. Some people tend to think that art must present itself as art, and that only certain kinds of art exist. Music, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, etc… What about TV shows? What about YouTube videos?
This YouTube video by user wendyvainity seems at first to be nothing but nightmare fuel, with dogs. Here is a full synopsis of the video: two dogs sing an auto-tuned song about being dogs while the hairs on their coats grow incredibly long and then shrink back into their body; they jump over each other, and then they jump over what is probably the River Styx. Even on the other side of the river, they keep singing, and their hairs keep growing and shrinking back. Yes, I’d say nightmare fuel with dogs is a pretty accurate term, but—wendyvainity’s video also engages the absurd and the nonsensical to speak about (or at least prime in our unconscious minds) mortality, change, identity, fate, self-consciousness, and the possibility of real connection. Oddly enough, it reminds me a lot of Beckett.
The animated sci-fi comedy show Futurama has proven itself capable of genius, but what really makes some of the episodes “art” is the show’s commitment to sincerity. Take for example my favorite episode, “Jurassic Bark.” The episode is a perfect blend of silliness and seriousness.
For those who are not familiar with Futurama, the premise of the show is that Fry, a loser pizza delivery boy living at the turn of the 21st century, accidentally gets cryonized until the year 3000, and must adapt to his new life. A common theme is Fry’s attempting to reconcile his past life with his current existence, and the possibility of his own insignificance.
Why is “Jurassic Bark” such a brilliant episode? Because it confronts cynicism with sincerity.
Here is a brief summary of “Jurassic Bark”: A museum in New New York digs up the remnants of the pizza restaurant that employed Fry in the 20th century. In the exhibit, Fry finds the fossilized body of his old dog, Seymour. After making a show of protesting in front of the museum, Fry gets to keep his fossilized dog. Fry’s mad scientist boss, Professor Farnsworth, says that he can bring the dog back to life. However, Fry’s best friend, Bender, gets jealous and upset with Fry for spending so much time preparing for the dog’s revival.
The episode alternates between Fry’s preparation for Seymour’s arrival in the present, and flashbacks of the history of Fry’s experience with his dog. The flashbacks start with their first meeting, when Fry gets a prank pizza order and shares the unpaid-for pizza with the starved dog in an alley, who follows Fry home. The flashbacks culminate in Fry’s cryonization and the dog’s subsequent search for Fry.
Fry: “I have a pizza here for Seymour Asses.”
Man at Delivery Address: “There isn’t anybody by that name here. Or anywhere. I hope in time you realize how stupid you are.”
Fry: “I wouldn’t count on it.”
At the end of the episode, learning that the dog lived for twelve years after Fry got cryonized, Fry succumbs to the contagious cynicism of his coworkers, and decides, for the first time in his life, to be ‘emotionally mature’ and to let his dog stay dead. The last lines of the episode (as given by IMDB) are:
Fry: I had Seymour ‘till he was three. That’s when I knew him, and that’s when I loved him… I’ll never forget him…
[Picks up the fossil and looks into its apparent eyes]
Fry: But he forgot me a long, long time ago…
But the episode doesn’t end there. The episode ends with a montage of the twelve years Seymour spent waiting in front of the pizzeria for Fry’s return, accompanied by a beautifully sung rendition of “I Will Wait for You” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Good writers are deliberate, and every detail in “Jurassic Bark” is necessary to the episode and has some poetic value. I am going to offer a few of the most striking motifs, and some parts of the episode that I think embody them. As a warning to the reader, many of these examples are extremely specific and require a familiarity with the tropes and characters of Futurama:
The buried past is still alive in some form: fossilized Seymour, flashbacks… False emotional showiness: Bender the magician, Leela dramatically stripping and running to the lava, Bender emerging from the floor like a volcano, Bender’s robot dog… Cynicism as a destructive force: Bender’s throwing the fossil into the lava, Fry’s parents ignoring Seymour’s barking at Fry’s cryonized body, Fry’s ultimate decision not to recover Seymour… Cynicism as learned behavior: Fry is Bender’s apprentice, Fry’s ultimate decision… Sincerity as something frowned upon: the crew’s lighthearted scorn of Fry’s three-day dance-protest to get his dog from the museum, Bender beating up Zoidberg after Zoidberg explains Bender’s magic trick to the audience, Bender choosing to believe that Fry’s emotions are fake and that Fry is only acting that way to make Bender feel bad… Sincere connection as a rare and valuable ideal: Seymour is weak at first but grows healthy when fed and given love, Fry is only happy when with Seymour, Fry and Seymour are lonely and outcast but fill a void in each other’s lives, symbolized by their ability to sing together “Walking on Sunshine”…
Many viewers, angered by their own emotional responses to the episode, have complained that the ending of “Jurassic Bark” is manipulative, and rightly so; like all great stories, we are tricked into feeling emotion for people that don’t exist and the decisions they make. Where the objectors are wrong, however, is in denouncing this manipulation. Yes, we are tricked, as many great writers have tricked us in the past. We are tricked into first believing that Fry is making the right decision (a triumph for cynicism), and then shown that his dog never stopped believing and just kept waiting. In the end, moved to tears and anger as many viewers are, we ourselves are the triumph of sincerity.
So. What’s the takeaway? Why is any of this important?
Silliness is the most underrated aspect of art.
More than anything, sincerity is what counts.
Art doesn’t have to be serious to make you a better person.
If you can be a silly genius, more power to you.
Wild-eyed Tommy plays the dulcimer on the streets of the French Quarter. Actually, what he does is tune the rusted strings on his trapezoidal wooden box more than he plays them. On week-end nights, so late that few tourists remain at Jackson Square, he can be found tuning his dulcimer under a balcony of the Pontabla building. His scraggly mane will be bent over the instrument, ear cocked to the dissonant zing zing of the strings he strikes with stubby mallets. He seldom looks up, absorbed in a music nobody else can hear.
This evening, on my way home from the grocery, Tommy buttonholes me on Royal Street to tell me about the extraterrestrial origins of Chalmette. Located among the phantasmal lights of the oil refineries in nearby St. Bernard Parish, this is a blue-collar town that we New Orleans city slickers love to poke fun at.
“They’re hybrids, you know,” he tells me. “The extraterrestrials colonized Chalmette a long time ago, right after they landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1948. That’s when the first human abductions started. You can tell by the way those people talk. Why do you think they call them Chalmatians?”
“Oh, I see.” I shift my bag of groceries from one hand to another. Local wags say the last time understandable English was spoken in Chalmette was during the British invasion of 1814. “Chalmatians. Like Martians or Venusians.”
Tommy tells me that several years ago, before hurricane Katrina destroyed St. Bernard Parish, he was busted in Chalmette for just a liiittle bit—he holds up the tip of a pinkie finger—of marijuana. Then, after all the court dates and drug testing and community service there, he finally figured it out.
Chalmatians are hybrids.
“Just like the people in Zone 51,” he insists, crowding me up against the plate glass window of the fancy paper shop next door to my carriageway gate.
“Isn’t that across the lake?” I ask.
“No, silly.” He shoots me an indulgent smile. “Zone 51 is somewhere in Nevada, in between Las Vegas and Hollywood. It’s where the C.I.A. brought the extraterrestrials after they landed in Roswell, and where they started the hybrid experiments. But only one human is still alive who was involved in this.”
I’m all ears, even though a cut-up fryer is dripping through my plastic bag.
“George W. Bush’s daddy.”
This is starting to make some sense.
“He was one of the C.I.A. types who started the human-extraterrestrial hybrid experiments. Most of the hybrids were born between 1957 and 1986. But now it’s really gotten out of hand. The youngest are about twenty-five years old. You know Loose Marbles, those dreadlocked musicians with the dark, funky clothes who play on the corner down Royal Street?”
I nod. “Good musicians, and I love their look.”
He leans in and whispers. “Hybrids.”
“You can tell by all the stripes they wear. Striped socks, sweaters. That’s always a dead giveaway.”
Tommy’s pale, thin face is hard to read, hidden behind a bushy Wright-Brothers’ beard. He tells me that what tipped him off years ago was when he spotted a flying saucer sail out of the attic window of socialite Germaine Wells’ apartment. It was about as big as this, he says, pointing at the S.U.V. passing in front of us. Ever since then he’s been studying the hybrid situation, which is particularly severe in Louisiana, where they’re been experimenting on us.
“Just last month I was coming out of the Rawhide at dawn.” The Rawhide is a gay bar on Burgundy Street with a notorious back room. “Fog was rolling in from the river, and I looked up in the sky over the gate of Louis Armstrong Park at all these thick clouds crinkled like potato chips. And right in the middle was a perfect round hole big as the Super Dome. Looked like it was made by a cookie cutter. And right though the hole was the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.”
“Did you think the Chalmatians were landing?” I shift my grocery bag to the other hand and move closer to my gate.
“Seriously,” he says, clutching my arm, as if somebody finally understood. “The hybrids are at the bottom of everything. Reality itself is changing.”
Suddenly I’m staring at an enormous floating TV screen filled with air-borne basketball players. The screen is attached to the cab of a truck, and ear-splitting rap is blasting from inside. It dawns on me that this must be roving publicity for the National Basketball Association’s all-star play off being held in town this weekend. A good time to stay home, I decide. Drunken fans will take over the neighborhood.
“Do you see what I mean?” Tommy asks, pointing at the TV screen. “They’re everywhere.”
“It sure explains a lot.” I turn around, moving toward my door. “Where’s your dulcimer?” I call over my shoulder.
“It’s out of tune,” he shouts back. “Besides, I’m not playing on the street with this crowd. Are you crazy?”