Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Art and writing: box logic

This is my video blog for my teaching class on the use of visual art in teaching composition.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Thoughts on teaching: my first video blog

Ok, so I am in the MA program at Western Illinois University and this is my first video blog on teaching with some metacommentary on how the process is going. I will post some of these, as well as a little bit of my coursework here, which is being done on Tumblr, as you can see if you follow the link.

I am currently working at Scott Community College, Brown Mackie College, and also doing some test scoring for Pearson while I am taking this class at WIU. You would think I would be wealthy, but a) adjunct instructors don't make shit for money and b) money, like matter, expands to fill the space it occupies. As soon as you start making money, bill collectors appear from out of nowhere!

Enjoy. This and the next one are pretty funny.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review of Carole Maso's Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo

For the new year, let's revisit a great writer and a great painter:

Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo
by Carole Maso
2002, Counterpoint Press
170 pp.

Whenever I read Carole Maso, I start writing like her. And so it’s the words and impressions that linger, hovering above the page, insistent, repeating: Broken. Fragment. Meditation. Accident. Votive.

Composed in Maso’s unique poetic and fragmentary style, Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo is many different things at once: a highly condensed biography of Kahlo’s life, a voice for her words, and Maso’s artistic “conversation” with Kahlo.

Beauty is Convulsive samples freely from biographies of Kahlo among Maso’s own writing and impressions. We’ve become used to this style from filmmakers and rap artists, but it is still unusual in books, where we’re accustomed to more singularity of voice, clear quotes and citations with footnotes and page numbers. Maso’s rendering of Frida Kahlo requires a certain suspension of disbelief, a willingness to experience Kahlo’s life as we abandon our usual literary constraints.

The book focuses on three defining elements of Frida Kahlo’s life. The first is a serious bus accident in her adolescence which had repercussions throughout her entire life, including chronic pain in her back, legs and feet, and an inability to have children. Her subsequent miscarriages make up another recurring theme. And the third is her marriage to fellow painter Diego Rivera.

Maso’s sometimes halting, disjointed writing style suggests a life lived in fits and starts, as in Votive: Child:

“Its birth certificate filled out in elegant scroll His mother was
Frieda [sic] Kahlo

take this sorrow: child

I would give you fistfuls of color
if only

I would have given you.

Because I wanted you come to me

the cupped butterfly, painted black.” (19)

One of the hallmarks of Carole Maso’s writing is repetition of words and phrases, and Votive features in the title, as well as in the text, of many of the pieces in this book. Votive: Vision, Votive: Courage, and Votive: Sorrow, are among the pieces that lead the reader on a meditation, a wish, a prayer on elements of Frida Kahlo’s life, almost as if you are walking the stations of the cross. In between the Votives and other pieces are short epigrammatic quotes from Frida herself, each entitled “Accident”, which serve as interludes:

“I am not sick. I am broken.
But I am happy as long as I can paint.” (65)

“Nevertheless I have the will to do many things
and I have never felt “disappointed by life”
as in Russian novels. (75)

In her choice and placement of text from her journals, Maso not only gives voice to Frida Kahlo, but also highlights Kahlo the poet, particularly when writing about Diego:

“From you to my hands I go all over your body, and I am with you a minute and I am with you a moment, and my blood is the miracle that travels in the veins of the air from my heart to yours. . . Diego, nothing is comparable to your hands and nothing is equal to the gold-green of your eyes. . . .”(34-35)

Lest you start to believe that Maso is merely a collage artist, arranging the words that Frida has written and what others have written about her, Maso intertwines her own meditations on the artist’s life and her work:

“She remembers when her mouth -- pressed to the ear -- to the
hum of the paint the blood:
don’t kiss anyone else
magenta, dark green, yellow
And she watches him.” (91)

Add to this quotes from others who knew Frida Kahlo, including Diego himself, Alejandro, who was involved in the accident with Frida, and notes from her doctors, and gradually, contemplatively, you get a picture of the woman and the artist, and the effect she has on those who wish to enter her world.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Review of An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers

An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers
Franklin Rosemont

Chicago: Surrealist Editions

Just as misspelling is the least appreciated genre of creative writing, the Wrong Number is the most despised form of oral poetry and storytelling (75).

Surrealism is generally thought of as a thing of the past: Andre Breton holding court in pre-war Paris Cafes discussing Freud and Marx and writing poetry.

Franklin Rosemont, editor of Chicago’s Black Swan Press and (one of) the leading (contemporary) (American) Surrealists has taken his longstanding fascination with misdialed phone numbers as an occasion to write a contemporary surrealist manifesto of sorts, a reaffirmation of the presence of Surrealism as a force in our daily lives.

The wrong number: an exquisite corpse shared by strangers; a visit from the subconscious; a political opportunity; a symbol of sexual repression; an indicator of xenophobia. Rosemont’s often fanciful, sometimes exaggerated meanderings offer up the misdialed number as a seemingly comprehensive and insidious marker of our current social condition.

As an unconscious attempt to speak to . . . an Other, a stranger, every wrong number corresponds to the latent but unmistakable desire . . . for . . . radically non-alienated way of life (131).

The book begins as a treatise on modern society and on the Surrealist liberation of desire and imagination as the antidote to the “miserabilist world order.” Rosemont then lays out for us his “methodology” for researching wrong numbers. He shows how wrong numbers have been basically ignored, gone unstudied, despite their ubiquity in our culture. The wrong number soon moves from being the object of study itself to becoming the framework through which life can be explained.

In the second chapter Rosemont uses the conceit of wrong numbers to frame autobiographical anecdotes ranging from his family in Chicago and California to his meetings with Breton and several Surrealists in Paris in the 1960s. The stories in these chapters are charming and almost unbelievable in their chance encounters and fortuitous accidents.

From there, we move to a meandering mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, gnosticism, linguistics and politics, all understood vis-à-vis the experience and analysis of wrong numbers. The result in these later chapters can be somewhat uneven. Like Surrealism itself, the book is at its best when it forgets itself, gets lost, and stumbles onto fragments of unexpected poetry. Some of the best moments are when Rosemont veers off into the performative, invocational language of manifestos.

The text becomes weighted down in places when Rosemont begins protesting too much. What can be fanciful at first starts to feel forced. One notable example is the discussion of sexuality, which starts off as an interesting and amusing contemplation. Rosemont goes to great lengths to compare the wrong number to every possible Freudian permutation of sexual dysfunction, ultimately stretching credulity. Attempting to keep the metaphor of the wrong number on task, the book often retreads, repeating itself--a worthy poetic device in a shorter piece that here creates a sense of redundancy and sometimes impatience. And in his desire to undertake a kind of serious and comprehensive “study” of the wrong number, the text, particularly in the later chapters, becomes dry and begins to read more like an academic paper than a paean to Surrealism.

Wrong Numbers also features drawings by Artur de Cruzeiro Seixas. The artwork is classical or “old school” surrealist, the cover art featuring a human body rising out of a telephone with images and figures that immediately place the book within that artistic framework.

Ultimately, the work is not only a call to openness (to chance, to strangers, to joy) but also a worthy contemporary analysis of our culture that, in its more playful moments, offers surprise and insight. It serves as a reminder that Surrealism is a force that remains afoot in the universe. We come to appreciate the smallest irritant as an opportunity for delight.

The struggle for a ‘poetic politics’ takes place on many levels . . . outburst of hilarity, generous gestures, impossible chance encounters, creams that haunt one for weeks on end, fits of delirium . . . inspired slips of the tongue, stunning coincidences that irrevocably alter the whole course of one’s life. . . . Immune to the forces of repression, they are themselves forces of poetry and therefore of freedom (137).

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Presenting my research this February

Those of you who follow my posts know that I am passionate about writing of all kinds and in all genres. You might also know that I love teaching and that helping people to write better and to genuinely enjoy writing is a passion of mine and has been since long before I ever went to graduate school! I have always helped tutor people in their writing, both formally and informally, have taught continuing ed classes, and have been writing poetry, plays, book and theatre reviews, technical writing manuals, and academic papers for almost 35 years now professionally.

I am presenting ideas that I have been working with an implementing in the classroom at a conference in February in Albuquerque. This work was posted on my blog recently.

That said, I am only a lowly adjunct instructor, which means that I work myself to death for very little money. I love what I do, and I am in a much better financial place than I was this time last year, but going to this conference will still be somewhat of a hardship, but I am committed to going and networking with other people as well as presenting my own work.

Please consider donating to my campaign and please forward my request to anyone you think might be interested. Even a donation of $5 - $10 will help me out a lot with my campaign!

Did I mention that this will be good karma to start off the new year with?


Click on the picture below to go to the donation site.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Composition Experiments List

In the spirit of Charles Bernstein and Bernadette Mayer and their poetic experiments list, this is the beginning of my Composition Experiments List. Feel free to borrow from and add to this list and tell me about it!

*Do an exquisite corpse on the theme of “your experience with college” or another nonfiction topic. Since this is nonfiction, a topic should be chosen to direct the paper.

*If Conceptualist Artists could just write about the art object they intended to make without having to actually make it, what it would mean for them to "not write" a paper.

*Do a research/brainstorming exquisite corpse – write a topic on a piece of paper and pass it around the room, with everyone contributing an idea for that topic.

*Chance operations – bring in a previous paper they have written or a draft of one. Use a chance operation such as a roll of the dice, to determine the order of the paragraphs. How does that change the paper? Does it make a difference what order it is written in? (Encourages rewriting and revisiting a paper.)

*Write with your eyes closed. (Forces you to keep writing and not stop in brainstorming.)

*Spontaneous research: choose a book or an article. Close your eyes and point to a passage. Write that down. Do this repeatedly five or more additional times. String those together to see what you get.

*Pick a short passage from a book or research article and do a 3-5 minute freewrite about it.

*Do an example of the most pretentious writing you can

*Try writing a piece with as many clichés as you can.

*Try writing with predominantly figurative language.

*Try writing straightforward with no figurative language, metaphors, or similes.

*Try writing a thesis sentence or an opening paragraph using text language. (This is good for helping students to see that there are all kinds of grammars that are good in many different settings.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Surreal Eden: Edward James and Las Pozas

I have done book reviewing for Rain Taxi for over ten years. I have decided to repost some of my older reviews here. I am fortunate in that Rain Taxi gives me books that I request or in areas that I request, so these are all books that I have really liked. I hope you will check some out after reading these.

Surreal Eden: Edward James and Las Pozas
Margaret Hooks

Princeton Architectural Press

As a long time devotee and student of Surrealism, it came as something of a shock to be handed a book on an artist and patron central to the careers of several prominent surrealists that I had never heard of before, Edward James. How was it possible that I had never read his name in any other biography or group history of Surrealism, had seen him in no exhibitions, no bibliographies I had ever encountered? What kind of Surrealist “pedigree” could this person possibly have?

A writer and artist, James’ first novel, The Gardener Who Saw God, received critical acclaim and even went into multiple publications. Despite consistently solid reviews for his work, one negative review, accusing him of attempting to “also buy himself a reputation as a poet” caused James to become discouraged and cease publishing under his own name. “I could have had anything I wanted,” James laments, but because I was rich, no one accepted me or thought of me as a poet.” (36) James focused his energies for a time on other artists. Behind the scenes, he was one among many key players in the production and distribution of Surrealism, underwriting the Surrealist journal Minotaur as well as the Surrealist Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He supported Salvador Dali financially and by helping materially to coordinate exhibitions for Dali as well as for Rene Magritte (whose Le Reproduction Interdite is said to be one of two portraits that Magritte did of James, showing him from the back). Despite James’ involvement with many prominent Surrealists throughout his life, Hooks points out that James never claimed the label for himself, understandably so, given the legendary infighting over the purity of the name Surrealism, held tightly by Andre Breton, and his tendency to “excommunicate” artists, along with James’ own sense of exclusion from the literary world.

From his break with Dali, Hooks takes us briefly through what might be described literally and figuratively as James’ years “in the desert.” He travels through the American southwest, through Taos, New Mexico and Mabel Dodge’s artistic community therein, and ultimately landing in California, where he continued to circulate among artists and intellectuals including Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, who introduced James to the Vedantic movement, of which he became a follower. In this time, James also began to travel back and forth to Mexico, and it was during these travels that he found what would become not only his home, but the site of his greatest artistic creation of all, his legacy of a surrealist environment and estate, among the hills, waterfalls, and lush vegetation outside of the small town of Xilitla. From here, the book diverges from the standard artist biography to give us the blow-by-blow history of the creation of Las Pozas.

If Surrealism represents a way of looking at, thinking about, and moving through the world, Las Pozas, James’ Surreal Eden, is a surrealistic world in itself to be lived in. Hooks articulates in detail James’ vision as well as his challenges and triumphs in realizing his works of art. He finds a kindred spirit and lifelong friend in Plutarco Gastelem Esquer, a man who is able to translate James’ ideas and sometimes seemingly impractical sketches into actual objects. James employs many of the people of Xilitla in the building of Las Pozas, not only providing patronage to artists this time, but bringing an economic infusion to the entire town. It is in the project of Las Pozas itself, as well as his friendship with Plutarco, that James finds the society and artistic acceptance the eluded James in his younger days.

If there is one shortcoming to the book, it is possibly not even a problem of the text at all, but with the difficulty in capturing visual and visceral artistic experiences that are so central to this story. Hooks provides photos of and also describes in detail many elaborate and fascinating pieces created by James throughout his life, many of which would be considered installations or even performance art pieces today, from Monkton House in England, with its purple façade and self-designed wallpaper and carpeting to the structures, sculptures, and edifices of Las Pozas. It’s a daunting, if not impossible task, to fully appreciate these pieces without being able to experience them. And perhaps this daunting task also explains, in part, James’ low visibility in the narratives of contemporary art history.

The book’s extensive photographs helps a great deal in this regard, but cannot fully ameliorate the situation. The photos include detailed photos and close ups of many of the pieces from Las Pozas, which hint at the scope of the project. This scope includes not only the size of the pieces and structures themselves, such as the Bamboo Palace the Stairway to the Sky, which completely dwarfs the cabin it stands behind, but also includes the space occupied by Las Pozas itself. Hooks does provide a map that shows the layout and area of Las Pozas, but it is difficult to appreciate on a visual level without being able to see the pieces in relationship to each other or to the larger landscape. Likewise, the book opens with a description of the current city of Xilitla, but we see only one photo of the town, taken in 1940, just before James’ arrival. I found it difficult to not only hold in my mind the building of these amazing works of art, but also to visualize the context in which is was built and now stands, a context and often contrast, which Hooks tries very hard to describe for us.

That said, Surreal Eden does what many good art biographies and histories do: remind us of what gets forgotten and left out of “official” canons. Hers is not the first biography of James, but adds to a body of work that includes two previous biographies as well as James’ own writings. Through these, and through the potential to renew interest in Las Pozas, which still stands today outside of Xilitla, James has the chance he always desired to be taken seriously as an artist in his own right.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Teaching English Composition with Surrealism

This is a paper that I did while at the University of Minnesota. I have been using many of these techniques in my own composition classes with some success and I am also presenting some of this at the SW/TX PCA Conference in Albuquerque this February (2015).

Surrealist Applications for Composition-Related Activities

These are just a few potential applications of Surrealism to composition. These are some that I have produced and practiced myself and some that are classic Surrealist techniques. There are many more.

I. Exquisite Corpse, Group Processes and Brainstorming

The most famous of Surrealist writing techniques is the exquisite corpse, which got its name from a line of poetry. “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.” In the exquisite corpse, a sheet of paper is passed around. Every person contributes to it one line at a time and sees only the line written right before theirs. I have also seen artists contribute to an artistic exquisite corpse, adding to a drawing bit by bit. There are several ways that this could be put to work as a method for brainstorming.
As a brainstorming session or a free write, everyone passes around a sheet of paper, folded or unfolded, writing suggestions on it. Alternatively, each person can take turns putting his or her potential topic in the center of a group and everyone in the group writes down suggestions on that particular topic, and then move on to the next student’s idea. Group work in that case would take on the valence of shared knowledge. Often we tell students during a brainstorming session to write down everything they know about a topic. What if they could be inspired by what their classmates also know about a topic? In this way, brainstorming becomes not a solitary act, but an act of shared knowledge, in which student remind one another of what they already know or help to point one another in various fruitful directions for their research.

II. Chance Operations as a Form of Organization

Is there only one way to organize a paper? Chance operations, most notably rolling dice or drawing cards that relate to certain sections or paragraphs, have been used by a number of writers like William S. Burroughs, musicians like John Cage, and choreographers such as Merce Cunningham. This technique can also work for students of composition, in this case to determine paragraph topic order in their papers. In doing so, it can teach students that there are any number of ways to organize their texts that can produce different results for the reader. Sometimes students organize their papers in the way that is most obvious – such as chronological – but may not be the most effective or even the most interesting. At other times, students may be writing about a series of three subtopics (the most common number in composition) in such a way that it does not matter which one goes first. By playing with the order of their subtopics and paragraphs, they become accustomed to doing rewriting and see it as a form of experimenting with their texts. It also adds an element of play, and therefore of fun, that might encourage more rewriting from students.

III. The Many Uses of Collage Techniques in Writing

A. Collage as Brainstorming and Research

The technique of collage, which the Surrealists borrowed (stole) from the Dadaists, lends itself very well to “spontaneous research.” Having chosen a book or an article to cite, students can close their eyes and point to a passage. Have the student free write on what that passage may mean. Have them do that several times throughout the article or book. Then, to make it a true collage, students may string together what they have written to create a whole, spontaneous text from the day’s class, to see how it all of their writing fits together. This exercise will stimulate their thinking and may also make them more enthusiastic to go back and read the whole article. At the same time, it will help students to generate thoughts and ideas to react to small parts of the text before they respond to the text as a whole. It often helps students if they can jump into a text in the middle, where they might find something that catches their attention, and then go back and read it from the beginning. rather than seeing a book or article as something they have to get through from beginning to end, which may or may not hold any interest for them. In this age of Internet, Twitter, etc., in which most people have very divided attention, it also corresponds to the way that many people actually do read. At the same time, once they respond to a portion of the article, students are encouraged to go back through and see how their understanding of the excerpt that they wrote about corresponds to the overall text, which can also teach them about the pitfalls of quoting part of a text out of context.
B. A Variation on Collage Techniques as a Way to Respond to Texts

This technique can also be used during in-class writings as a way to respond to texts. When a text has been assigned, have everyone point to a passage quickly (don’t think about it) and write for five minutes about that passage. They can do a free association or write directly on the passage. Again the point is for the students to be engaging with what they have read, and also be able to engage with any part of a text.
C. Collage as a Form of Sentence Combining

Many instructors still advocate sentence combining to teach style or to eliminate wordiness. A different form of collage is one where the student/writer literally cuts up a passage and then puts different parts or different sheets of papers together. Beat writer William S. Burroughs is best known for developing this technique as a way to (re)generate texts, but it originated with the Surrealists. This exercise is fun and may give students some energy to do more “traditional” and straightforward sentence-combining to achieve sentence variety. It can also be done with a little more direction, taking a small section of the paper for example, or even cutting apart sentences and then combining them.
A more literal form of artistic collage can also be used, such as cutting apart sentences and then gluing them onto a sheet of paper either in a different order or with sentences overlapping. Theoretically students can do this with a computer, but takes on a different feel and function when it’s done using paper and glue and can shake students out of their usual way of writing and editing. As with a number of other exercises, these can be done as individual or group projects.

The Manifesto as a Form of Argumentation and Group Work

A. The Manifesto Form

In some of my class assignments, I have students work up to writing a research paper by writing a complaint letter, a letter to the editor of a paper, and writing to a the company. This scaffolds learning and teaches the students about writing they do in their everyday life. The manifesto is another form of persuasive writing, a bombastic form of expressing opinions and can be done as a group or individual activity. Mary Ann Caws, in the introduction to Manifesto: A Century of Isms, says that the manifesto “generally proclaims what it wants to oppose to leave, to defend, to change” (xxii). Many students have a strong sense of injustice or at least indignation for what they consider to be unfair. The manifesto, as a form, allows them to express their own opinions, with no need to defend that opinion with research. “Generally the manifesto stands alone, does not need to lean on anything else, demands no other text than itself. Its rules are self-contained, included in its own body” (Caws xxv). As both a text to respond to as well as a text to be produced, it is particularly fruitful in helping students to write their initial ideas out and present them to one another. In addition, the manifesto has a sense of flair unlike any other form of writing and is fun for students to write.

B. The Manifesto as a Step Toward Argumentation

Writing a manifesto can be a good intermediate step, where students think about and state explicitly what their position is on a given subject. Students can then start thinking about social context that this issue fits into. Was this situation merely a one-time slight or oversight, or does it point to a more general problem within society? Having written out their complaint with society or their idea on how things ought to work, students can begin to think about what kind of support they will need down the line for their arguments. Their peers will be able to comment upon their manifestos and argue with them, thereby showing the holes in their arguments through friendly discussion and debate.
C. The Manifesto and Group Work

Generally speaking, manifestos are the expression of a group, although examples can be found of individually-written manifestos, such as those written by the Unabomber or the Discovery Channel Gunman. This can work, then, as either an individual project or as a group project. As a group project, I would recommend small groups of three students, which is a little better than just a pair, but not so big and unwieldy as to create insurmountable problems or disagreements. Ask the students to present potential paper topics to their group and have the group decide on which project they will write a manifesto. If they are really fortunate (or crafty) it might be possible for students to combine their topics of concern into one manifesto. Other techniques described above, like an exquisite corpse or collage techniques, can be used to generate the initial text. D. The Manifesto and Critical Reading

For those who want to teach an aspect of critical reading in their classroom and to introduce alternative texts to students, the manifesto is an outstanding form. Whereas many people think of manifestos in terms of artistic movements, they were also employed extensively by AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s as well as those in the environmental movement, the women’s movement, etc. Allowing students to read such texts, to examine the claims made in the texts and the way those claims are embedded and expressed, and to agree or disagree with them encourages them to read critically. Because the manifesto’s style is so “in your face,” manifestos can be good beginning texts to help students begin to examine and test the claims made.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Review of I’m Your Man, a biography of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie Simmons

I picked up Sylvia Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen because, frankly, I didn’t really know much about Cohen, although many of my poet friends love him and I thought it was time that I learned something about him. So , being a junkie for artist biographies, I thought I would find out a little bit more about this poet, songwriter, and musician.

However, it seems that Simmons book is not for the casual reader. Rather, this ambitious books attempts to cover his entire life in great depth, sparing no detail. And that is the book’s problem as well: it tries to do too much.

I put the book down and picked it back up again several times, thinking that maybe I just had too much on my plate and was impatient to get through it. Try though I may, my impatience with the book did not ever fully vanish.

The book starts off with his upbringing in a Jewish part of Montreal where Cohen started writing and gained some early fame as a writer. This is difficult terrain for any biographer, as it is necessary to give some background into the artist to tell where he came from. It is the rare biographer who manages to make this material interesting. Simmon’s problem isn’t that this material isn’t interesting, but she lingers on it longer than she should. There is much in Cohen’s future that the reader is anxious to get to, and as with any biography, although that material is important, it is not the main event.

I think it might be because Sylvie Simmons has thrown every single detail she apparently came across into the bio, no matter how small and only tangentially related to the narrative. Also, she appears to have places where she has interviewed friends and associates and she loses sight of the focus of the interview. For example, Along with this comes a tendency to repeat details, such as her emphasis that Leonard was not the depressed kind of poet that repelled people, but rather was always funny and kept his depressions to himself (or poured them into his songs.)

All of these things seem like an interruption. So for a reader like me, who doesn’t know much about Cohen and so isn’t in to all of those kinds of details, it can become tedious. It seems like this is a biography more for the die-hard Leonard Cohen fans or for obsessive-compulsives who are into minutiae.

A lot of this information could have been put into appendices and footnotes so that it is there, but it doesn’t bog down the main narrative.

The switches in voice also take some getting used to. We are used to those kinds of abrupt switches in fiction, but we still are not accustomed to it in biographies and other works of non-fiction. This feels like Simmons’ attempts to play with narrative and in doing so, you risk turning off a certain number of readers. As I got more involved in the narrative, these became less bothersome to me, but they also were just less frequent as the book continues.
Along the same lines, there were some odd descriptive phrases. For example:
Although it might not have won an arm-wrestling contest with Greenwich Village, the Montreal folk music scene was thriving.

Again, these attempts to transform the genre of musical biographies are hit and miss. Sometimes they work and sometimes they are puzzling and inadequate and distract from the subject.

This brings us to another aspect of the biography. It is trying to do a little too much. At times it goes back and forth between an ethnography, a cultural history, a personal biography of the artist, and a work of literary criticism as well as of music criticism. To write any one or two of these successfully is hard enough. To try to do all of these at once, switching back and forth between the necessary voices and tones in this book makes it unwieldy to say the least.

Just as bad art is instructive, so is bad writing. This is not a bad biography, but it is distracting enough in the writing of it that it draws more attention to the wizard behind the (biographer’s) curtain that it does to the artist himself in places.

An example of really stellar writing is the chapter A Long time Shaving. This chapter is engaging because you can see Simmons’ own facility in talking about the novel Beatufiul Lovers and her own engagement with other biographers and critics in talking about the book. It is really in the literary/music criticism that Simmons shines.

This book probably speaks to the conditions of publishing today, too, with its greater emphasis in putting out more books with fewer editors. With some editing a paring down and some rearranging to put the less critical details into footnotes and appendices, this ambitious biography could really sing.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Review of The Voice Is All, a biography of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson

This review previously appeared in the Spring 2013 Edition of Rain Taxi.

Normally, when you break up with someone, you cut your losses and move on. If that someone is a writer, you might occasionally read a little bit of their work, usually hoping it’s not very good, reaffirming that you broke up with them because they lack depth, maturity, and talent. Only a few, exceptional, dedicated ex-lovers keep up with everything the other person goes on to do. Novelist and Kerouac biographer Joyce Johnson falls into the last category. Her love affair with Jack was over fifty years ago and he died in 1969, but apparently she is still haunted, or at least intrigued, by his ghostly presence in her life and as well as in American culture, as this is her third book about Kerouac.

Johnson has chosen to write about the beginning of Kerouac’s life, from his very early childhood to his writing of On the Road, roughly until the period when she dated Kerouac. What is immediately striking about the book is that while most biographies of artists are rather dull in the beginning—treating the artist’s early life as something you have to get through in order to get to the heart of the artist that can only be understood by dredging up the past—Johnson’s biography is immediately interesting, probably because so much of Kerouac’s work is autobiographical and begins with his own early childhood experiences. In its best moments, this is a true “literary biography.” It addresses many personal details about Kerouac’s life and relationships, ultimately tying almost everything back to Kerouac’s writing, from the death of his brother in his early childhood to the way people in his life became the characters of his novels and short stories, depicted both sympathetically and acrimoniously.

At worst, like all biographies, it is a collection of names and date that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the overall narrative, telling a tale of Jack that bounces from home to home to adventures—at sea, in New York, and ultimately, on the road—as well as relaying information about the people in his early life and the roles they ultimately ended up playing in his books: the boyhood friends, burgeoning writers, criminals and drug addicts, all powerful influences and characters. It is when Johnson gets into the story underneath the details, trying to get into his psyche, that the book really shines. Using his journals, novels, biographies of Kerouac, and her own personal experience, she attempts to explain some of Jack’s mental states and what motivated him in his life and in his writing. For example, talking about his marriage to Edie Parker, Johnson writes:

Here was another sobering ending in Jack’s life—one of the failures and mistakes he hoped his book would redeem . . . He was in a troubled mood one afternoon in late August after he had spent the previous night looking through a family album . . . in the city, he reflected gloomily, the people he knew felt threated by what a family album represented. (222)

In moments like this, it is easy to see the influence of Joyce Johnson the novelist on her nonfiction: I occasionally found myself stopping to ask, “how does she know what Jack was thinking?” For the most part, though, you don’t question that—you just enjoy the ride, the way you would read a novel without questioning the omniscient narrator. For the more skeptical reader, there is an acknowledgement of the role of Johnson’s assistant in helping her to wade through Jack’s extensive journals and papers, and at the end of the book, of course, there are extensive notes. She has, it would seem, a fairly firm footing into Kerouac’s psyche, both from memory and from research.

Johnson appears to have very genuine affection for Kerouac. She addresses Kerouac’s failings head-on, but does so in a generous and loving manner. Writing about Kerouac’s much-discussed relationship with his mother, Johnson says “his inability to make a commitment to any woman other than his mother took me a while to understand . . .” In this same section, she talks about one factor in the break-up of their relationship being Kerouac’s womanizing, which “went on very openly after he became famous, though he did try not to hurt me (186).” You can see the genuine affection that the two of them maintained for each other throughout their lives, “judging from what he wrote about our time together in Desolation Angels.”

Kerouac is famed for writing the quintessential road novel; On the Road played a large part in establishing the automobile and the road as part of the mythology of America. Yet Johnson talks about his affinity to his French roots throughout his life. He struggled with mastery of writing in English, as opposed to the joual, a primarily spoken form of French, that he grew up with in his early days and that he frequently returned to. Describing it as lacking “layers of subtlety and politeness,” this may in fact, explain some of Jack’s straightforward style of writing, as opposed to the more baroque style of the French writers that he had initially revered. Chapters like “Franco-American Ghosts,” “A Half-American Boyhood” and “White Ambitions” in particular discuss this continuing issue as something Jack struggled with throughout his life, rather than something that was “settled” for him early on.

Working between two languages can result in a split psyche for a writer, and ultimately, you get a sense of Jack’s ambivalence towards most things in his life: his family and personal relationships, as well as his need to be involved with groups, from his boyhood to the Beat Generation writers. Johnson also talks about the way that Jack wrestled with libertinism versus Catholic morality. This is something that Kerouac would struggle with his whole life, particularly towards the end when he had become fairly conservative and seemed to have turned his back on Allen Ginsberg, for example, in his infamous drunken rant on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. Reading Johnson’s biography, it is easier to see that this was actually a reflection of a lifetime of contradiction between two sides of himself, but also the reflection of a lifetime of feeling pulled in multiple directions.

Avoiding, for the most part, the incessant mythologizing about Kerouac that still pervades Beat studies today, The Voice Is All adds a great deal to our understanding of Kerouac, showing how the writer can be understood by knowing the man.