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Friday, May 29, 2015

At the Build-Fix-Grow Festival, Hanford Mills

I'll be reading/signing/yacking at the Build-Fix-Grow Festival at Hanford Mills this Saturday... It's good that regional museums have begun to take an interest in their area writers. Before Christmas, there was a fun event at the Fenimore Museum--now that's convenient to me!--and I recently talked to and lunched with the staff of the Fenimore Museum and Farmers Museum bookstores.

excerpt from The Watershed Post:
This Saturday, the Hanford Mills Museum in East Meredith is launching a new festival, the Build-Fix-Grow Festival, to celebrate “the ingenuity and creativity of the past and the present."
There's a robust literary component to this festival, in keeping with its omnivorous "rural genius" sensibility. ("Rural Genius" is the title of an exhibition at the Hanford Mills Museum that explores the lives and inventions of three Catskills autodidact inventors.) 
Seven local Catskills authors will be present to read from their work and to take questions from noon to 3 p.m.:
  • Mermer Blakeslee (When You Live by a River, In Dark Water, A Conversation with Fear)
  • Chuck D’Imperio (A Taste of Upstate New York, Unknown Museums of Upstate New York, Monumental New York)
  • Cynthia G. Falk (Barns of New York: Rural Architecture of the Empire State)
  • April L. Ford (The Poor Children)
  • Ginnah Howard (Night Navigation, Doing Time Outside, and Rope and Bone)
  • Marty Podskoch (Fire Towers of the Catskills: Their History and Lore, Adirondack Stories)
  • Marly Youmans (Glimmerglass, Thaliad, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage)
Thanks to director Liz Callahan and publicist Peg Odell and the staff at Hanford Mills. Click on the article to see what else is happening!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Story power

Sovanna Soeung
I am very taken with the mother's storytelling at the beginning of this Washington Post article (reprinted by the Independent in the UK) by the accomplished Cambodian-born SreyRam Kuy. The real life salvation by story is like a piece of the Arabian Night, or a fairy story. If you don't believe that stories have power, this one just might convert you. (How a folk tale saved is one of those accounts Richard Dawkins, famous as a foe of fairy tales, would probably call "statistically improbable.") It's a wonderful proof that even death and hatred can be stayed by a nimble imagination. In this one case, story and wisdom overcame the desire to destroy all education and knowledge. The end result is what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, the turn in a story that yields escape from an only-too-likely doom.

The essay itself is also a powerful tale that suggests issues of citizenship, faith, and living a life that matters. Four stories are braided together inside it--the story of Sovanna Soeung, the story of her mother's sacrifice to educate her, and the stories of her two children.

Why do foreign-born children often do so well, striving in ways that seem inconceivable to many native-born people who don't do so well? This account suggests some answers, but I'll just say that in all times and in all places, such drive and persistence are rare, precious commodities. I've always been proud of my father for beginning life as a deprived Depression-era sharecropper's child, and yet having the inner firepower and motivation to join the Army Air Corps at 17 (World War II B-17 tail gunner, also serving during the Korean War) and afterward rise to become a professor of analytical chemistry. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I'm married to a man who started life in a family where no one had been to college but who had the steam to become a physician, chief resident, Fellow, and then an academic doc. A story with an upward, aspiring arc calls out to us and says we can become. It proclaims that any of us can be transformed.

Who can't love inspiring stories like these? SreyRam Kuy's story of her mother and and her mother's two children contains indomitable drive and imaginative quickness in the effort to survive and triumph. First, she achieved as a child and young woman in a setting where it was not approved. She lost all and fought to find a new place in the world. The idea that Sovanna Soeung then returns to help others in the land where she was born is a testament to goodness, strength, and boldness. And behind these, faith. World history will look back at our time as one when Christians in the Middle East were being murdered at an astonishing rate, when "social" Christianity died, and when toleration for Christians decreased radically in the West. But a story like this one gives courage and tells a better tale of a woman living out a life that plainly says, "Love one another." Hers is a life that matters. No doubt there are many such tales, lost and forgotten in the great river of lives.

I haven't been to all that many countries in this big world, but I have been to Cambodia and Thailand, so I felt even more drawn to these words about both, having talked with Cambodians in Siem Reap and elsewhere about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge and their problems today. A visitor sees very few elderly people in that country. And on meeting one, she probably can't help wondering about story--how she or he survived, whether blood or sacrifice or grief is in those hands. In the case of Sovanna Soeung, such questions have painful, beautiful answers.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The unguessable current

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Glimmerglass
Three days in Vermont for the graduation at The Center for Cartoon Studies, lots of long track meets in far-off places, deadlines, an Antioch Midwest independent study, a month jammed with events for a high school senior... I've been busy and off in the wilds. And I suppose that was good because I was a little weary of the online world. All that flogging of books coming up on the twitter feed! All those links to advice about getting at least 15 Amazon reviews for algorithm visibility, all those "Top Ten" things to do in order to sell, all those cries of hawkers! Somehow it can be disheartening to see so many people striving so hard to be what we call visible and commercial and successful. I'd rather not see what appears frantic. I'd rather know that those people were working and playing in joy, twisting words into beautiful shapes and sounds.

When I was younger, I felt conflict between what the world seemed to want and what I wanted, but now I feel clear on the odd times that are ours. The over-focus on commerce and unleashed torrent of new books are just facts of our era and our cracked culture, nothing to do with what happens when a writer sits at her table and lets the words stream forth.

In the end, I am a solitary maker who is dreaming something into being, spinning the straw of the world into what I hope will be gold, true and beautiful and doing justice to the marvelous, tragic, lovely Creation. And I am mad enough to think that the gold-spinner dreaming along in the room is what an artist should be.

Also Clive, a portrait of Thalia
for Thaliad
Many of my strongest relationships tend to be with artists in other fields, and I often find the words of a composer or a painter pertinent to what I do. This morning my favorite online words about making come from my longtime collaborator, painter Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
I begin with an underdrawing, sometimes faint like smoke, sometimes confident, usually a bit of both, mostly fluid at this early stage. Then the painting and the rendering begin. It feels as though I'm attempting to produce a mosaic from thousands of glittering tesserae, each one of them a different micro-thought flashing through my brain. When I'm working away I have to make the image one tiny tile-of-thought at a time, and it's as though this flood of thoughts and moods spreads across the board. The thoughts/voices/poetry at this point are a cacophony, and I have to try and catch at the most insistent ones to fathom their meanings, all while listening/watching for the next to emerge. Each takes me where it will. I get buffeted in one direction by playful zephyrs, carried smoothly for periods on the dazzling surface, or dragged down into deep currents where all is shadowy and cold. Sometimes everything slows and then halts. I trace the curved route for the stem of a tulip, graze a petal with the striations of its markings. Becalmed, I drift.

Then something pulls at me again, the insistent and unguessable current reasserting, the line of poetry that lightning-flashes in the head, the breeze though the open window that sends all the fragments of drawings and poetry flying, and in a moment I'm away again, off into the unknown.
Into the unknown, leaping off the edge of everything one has created before...

Coming up soon: events at Hanford Mills in central New York and at the Culture Care Summit at Cairn in Philly.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The argument for culture care--

© 2014 Makoto Fujimura
Mineral Pigments, Sumi ink, silver, and gold on Kumohada paper
60.25 x 45.25 x 1.25 in
Private Collection
Prints are available - click here.
Frontispiece to Culture Care.

Though I've been and am still awash in away track meets, graduation ceremonies, awards nights, prom, and other festivities that pop up toward the end of a school year, I'll leave a little sheaf of quotes from my current reading. I'll be reading some more from the book while I am hanging out at the Toyota shop later in the day--it'll be a good clash of sensibilities, or maybe a
reminder of the need for repair!

The book is Makoto Fujimura's Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life, which I am spending some time with in preparation for reading at and participating in the June Culture Care Summit, sponsored by International Arts Movement and Fujimura Institute, at Cairn University in Philadephia. Here are some quotes from the part of the book that is foundational and sets up the terms of his argument for change.
In the aftermath of two World Wars, artists began to articulate the culture's dramatic loss of humanity... artists recognized the gap left by the weakening witness of the church in culture and increasingly came to see themselves as secular prophets and priests with a call to "speak the truth" against the "establishment." They intentionally isolated themselves from society and produced work aimed at shocking people into recognizing and decrying the horrors of the age. As critic Robert Hughes has noted, "the shock of the new" became a way of life in the twentieth century modernist experiment.
Artists have been pressed--sometimes willingly and sometimes not--to speak not for their own work, vision, and principles but for (usually leftist) ideologies. The implicit and explicit cultural pressures for ideological uniformity are so high that one could say that in the culture wars artists are free to express anything other than beauty.
With the exception of ideological uses, today's art has been commoditized to such an extent that we often see commerce as the prevailing goal of art, and value the arts only as transactional tools to achieve fame and thus wealth.
Why is Culture Care needed? From the perspective of the arts, it is because today, an artist cannot simply paint; a novelist cannot simply write; a pianist cannot simply play. Utilitarian pragmatism and commercialism so thoroughly pervade culture that without some shift in worldview and expectation, what we do as artists--the activities of the arts--will be neither sustainable nor generative. We will not be able to resist their use as weapons in the culture wars. 
We need to recognize our time as a genesis moment.
Order here.

I recommend it--the book is suffused with Makoto Fujimura's bright vision of a world that is generative for artists and others, a world that flourishes and produces arts that our descendants will find worthy and beautiful. As a Christian, Mako tends toward the ideas of fruitfulness and wholeness that pervade the book. It is a book for anyone who cares about the vicissitudes of culture, and where our culture is headed after Modernism and its aftershocks.

Sunday, May 03, 2015


detail, jacket image for Maze of Blood. Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

I'm on my second round of the second pass galleys of Maze of Blood. Meanwhile, everything else in my life seems to be hopping up and down, demanding attention. Two children are heading toward graduation (one from high school, one from The Center for Cartoon Studies), with all the frenetic events and activity that precede such life markers, and a third is returning to New York for a new job. Wild times! I'll meet you back here in a few days. If you miss me, ramble around in the blog or read one of my books! I'll meet you there too. Maybe even more so...