Thursday, February 24, 2005

One of our state's more prominent literary figures, Andrei Codrescu, was in Shreveport this week delivering the Mary Jane Malone Lecture at Caddo Magnet High School. In addition to teaching at LSU-Baton Rouge, he has published numerous books of poetry, several novels and books of essays and NPR commentaries, co-edits online literary journal Exquisite Corpse, and occasionally makes movies. As a fan and peripheral acquaintance (having benefited from his ebullient largesse in New Orleans the night he learned his film Road Scholar had received a glowing review from the New York Times) I looked forward to the evening, given the dearth of high-profile literary events in our fair city.
The first thing the Red River Red, in the company of my younger brother on the occasion of his birthday (I told him I got him a ticket to the reading as his present, don't let on that it was free), noticed was the sparcity of the crowd. There seemed to be a large contingent of Caddo Magnet students and faculty, but there were a lot of empty seats. According to my bro, there was a much larger crowd last year for Edward Abbey, and he's been dead for 15 years, so it seems like a actual living writer would be able to...what, what's that? Oh, Edward Albee? You mean Zoo Story, Virginia Woolf, that Edward Albee, not Desert Solitaire, George Washington Hayduke Edward Abbey? Oh, I guess that makes a little more sense then.
Anyway, I think the polite, less than half full auditorium set the tone for an evening that was rather restrained, frankly, given the life and work of the author. There was a welcome by Magnet Principal Mary Rounds, followed by an introduction by LSUS Chancellor Vincent Marsala, neither of whom seemed to have any affinity for Codrescu or his work. They both seemed like they would much rather be introducing, say, Philip Roth or Toni Morrison (or maybe Edward Albee, for that matter), rather than this Romanian libertine who cavorted with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan.
Andrei Codrescu is a very unique bird, for those of you not familiar with him. He recalled being brought before Communist party censors in his native Romania as a teenager for writing abstract poetry with potentially dissident metaphors. in 1966, at age 19, he and his mother were allowed to emigrate to the U.S. So he's propelled from one of the most austere of the Stalinist Disneylands to a country on the verge of cultural (and to a lesser degree political) revolution. Sure, he spends time in New York and California, but he also gets to know places like Detroit and Baltimore, gritty, blue-collar cities. Being an Old World, secular Jewish hedonist, he embraces the drugs, the sexual revolution, the creative ferment, all the while internalizing this classically American, Whitmanesque joyful nonconformity, and...having the discipline to write it all down, rather than overfetishizing the moment to the degree that there's nothing left to transmit. And he's been transmitting America back to us for almost 40 years now, the last few years from that most European, that most African, that most Caribbean of American cities, New Orleans. And through the NPR commentaries, he's achieved a level of fame almost seemingly impossible for a pure poet (differentiating from songwriters, rappers and the like) in this society.
It may be for these reasons that Codrescu's lecture seemed kind of restrained and anecdotal. He kind of meandered through his life and work, telling some very amusing stories about life under the Ceaucescu regime, including the overnight onslaught of Western decadence in 1965, when skirts got shorter and Kent cigarette packs were used as currency, events that Codrescu draws a direct line from to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
He sketched his own personal journey as a writer from autobiographical poetry and prose to storytelling (incidentally, after some erratic attempts, the Red dedfinitely recommends Codrescu's most recent novel, Wakefield). The story of his aunt's chickens, which may or may not have been real to his mother until their existence was finally verified by their presence in one of the author's books, drew the biggest laughs of the night.
Don't get me wrong, the talk was quite entertaining, and I envy the students who got to hear a writer of Codrescu's stature and spend time with him in classes earlier in the day. I just think the author of serious literary/sociological analysis like Hole in the Flag and Disappearance of the Outside could have challenged and provoked us more. You know, like Ted Berrigan did for him all those years ago (Now is he the radical priest who just died, or the one who's still alive? Wait a minute, that's Phil and Dan? Ted wasn't ever a priest?..........).

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Recent Reading

I'm going to put off collecting my thoughts about the death of Hunter S. Thompson for at least one more day. Suffice it to say that I doubt there is any other individual, except maybe Paul Krassner, who is more responsible for the small body of work that the Red River Red has produced over the last 20 years than Raoul Duke, and the lack of American flags flying at half-mast is an embarassment. Expected, of course, given the way that this country's institutions treat its truest patriots and prophets. Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman come to mind immediately. More to come.
Today, however, the Red wants to turn you on to some good books that he, as America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, has recently finished. Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History and Mark Kemp's Dixie Lullaby dissect two distinct subcultures and artistic genres in ways that are very moving, very compelling, and have a lot to say about this country's history and the subterranean currents that shape its ongoing humanistic experiment.
Lansky is the founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center, and his book is a memoir of over thirty years of finding and preserving the literature and culture of Yiddish, the polyglot language of Eastern European Jews, many of whom brought it with them when emigrating to the U.S. Often perceived as the ugly stepsister to more refined Hebrew, Yiddish was often considered an embarassment to both self-marginalized observant Jews and assimilation-obsessed secular Jews. However, it was also a source of comfort to shell-shocked immigrants, and Yiddish newspapers, novels and theater thrived in New York and other large East Coast cities.
After persistently learning the language in the mid-1970's, Lansky and his merry band set out to collect Yiddish volumes, after having been told that there were probably 70,000 left. Drawing on networks of collectors, many of them affiliated with socialist and Jewish labor organizations, Lansky relates story after story of saving books from dumpsters and warehouses, being plied with course after course of mouthwatering Jewish delicacies, and encountering a cast of colorful, cantankerous, vivid cast of characters who seem to have stepped out of one of Isaac Bashevis Singer's novels.
If for nothing else (and there's plenty), Lansky has done his readers a great service by sharing his portraits of these individuals, none more memorable than Sam and Leah Ostroff. Two of the last inhabitants of a Jewish, Yiddish-speaking, very creative community, this retired plumber/artist and retired seamstress are the prototypes of the working class, community-oriented, humanistic (yet very observant), engaged intellectuals. Incidentally, they also babysat Arlo Guthrie (whose maternal grandmother was a well-known Yiddish poet) after Woody Guthrie was incapacitated by Huntington's Disease. Try to keep your eyes dry as you read about this couple, joyfully doing their part to preserve a culture constantly threatened by pogroms, by Holocaust, by internal division, and by neglect.
Dixie Lullaby, which the Red was reading almost simultaneously, was a little easier to directly relate to, though not as powerful ultimately. Kemp's thesis is that the Southern Rock of the 1970's was a key element in the psychological transition of white Southerners from the racism and division of the post-Civil Rights era, marked particularly for him by the assassination of Martin Luther King and the rise to national prominence of Alabama Governor George Wallace. The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd are accorded the most space as the giants of the genre, but Charlie Daniels, the Marshall Tucker Band and Dr. John are given prominent space among the old-school musicians, while REM, Jason and the Scorchers the Kentucky Headhunters and the Drive-By Truckers merit the most analysis among the post-punk bands.
Kemp mines his own North Carolina-bred past, as well as that of family, friends and the musicians to support his thesis, while never glossing over some of the more problematic dynamics that still suffuse the New South (Ronnie Van Zandt's genuine affection for Wallace, Daniels' Fundamentalist Christian-influenced homophobia). Jimmy Carter's rise and fall are documented fascinatingly, given the Georgia governor's genuine friendship with the Allmans and their manager particularly.
Kemp interweaves his own story into this narrative quite well, until we get into more recent times. Though his analysis of the musicians still retains its power, the author's account of his battles with drugs and alcohol seems gratuitous. Still and all, a solid look at a subgenre of rock and roll that deserves more serious attention that it gets in the era of Clear Channel formatted rotation of "Free Bird" and "Ramblin' Man" ad nauseum.
Thanks again, Hunter, and give me a couple of more days to give you your due.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

As you may or may not know, folk blues legend Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was originally from this area. I won't go into the details of his colorful life, but I will let you know that he's one of the artists whose songs you know even if you didn't realize they were his. "Goodnight, Irene," "Midnight Special," and "Rock Island Line" among them.
There is a statue of Lead Belly in downtown Shreveport, right next to the main branch of the Shreve Memorial Library, a true gem of our city. It's a fitting tribute, but hardly enough, considering the international reputation and legacy of the man and his music.
That said, there was a celebration of Lead Belly's music at the Municipal Auditorium this past Saturday, February 12. An eclectic array of local musicians was represented, all organized by, among others Ron Hardy, local musician and promoter. I've recently met Ron and find him inspiring yet down-to-earth, an invaluable resource for a city which seems on the verge of breaking free from stifling provincialism. He and others put a lot of time and energy into the tribute, held in the architectural marvel that is Municipal Auditorium, and for what? Very little return, otherwise known as jack.
The Red River Red was there from the beginning, recognizing Lead Belly's legacy as a political artist (the peer of Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and other engaged musicians from roughly the Depression to the emergence of rock and roll) as well as pioneering guitarist and lyricist. But I'd be surprised if there were more than 30 people in the audience at any one time. It was an embarassing showing, especially considering that the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma convers four days around his birthday, July 14.
If Ron Hardy and the other organizers of the event could be faulted for anything, it would be in overestimating the commitment of Shreveporters to their own indigenous artistic legacies. Merle Kilgore, a longtime Shreveporter and co-writer of "Ring of Fire," for Christ's sake, just died, & I have not come across anything besides what the Times has printed regarding his legacy. The Red himself has to admit to having had to go away for some time (about 18 years) in order to gain the maturity and experience to appreciate the contributions of pioneers with Shreveport connections like Lead Belly, Kilgore, Hank Williams and Faron Young, so I have little room to sit in judgment.
That said, the Red River Red hereby takes a pledge to do all he can to both nurture the vast creative talents now calling our fair city home, and to keep alive the memories of those who have already contributed so much. No more in darkness, no more in night. Praise the Lord, I see the light.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Tell-Tale Art of Michael Moore

This is an essay I wrote for Michael Moore's show of paintings and drawings, currently at Prima Tazza. Go to nwlaartgallery.com for further details.

The Tell-Tale Art of Michael Moore
By Michael Parker

Before returning to Shreveport several months ago, I was serendipitously put in touch with Michael Moore, the hardest-working ambassador of the northwest Louisiana arts scene. I immediately felt a rapport, appreciating his talents for bringing together disparate creative individuals, curating shows, finding exhibit spaces, organizing media coverage. That said, it is a pleasure to finally experience a body of work by Michael Moore the artist, appreciating purer creativity that informs all the other activities.
Seeing these faces, knowing that they have been a part of Moore’s art for many years, seeing more recent canvases and how this figure continues to appear, one can tell it is an image of great significance. There is the calm, laconic expression, belied by the left eye, which retains its shockingly large size through different permutations of color. The eye, the most important tool in the visual artist’s repertoire, always… alert? Crazed? Deformed, perhaps by something it has seen? That eye, in that face.
I believe a key to understanding the eye, the face, and the art of Michael Moore lies in his mental condition, affected by bipolar disorder. I do not discuss it lightly, knowing full well that the mentally ill artist, like the alcoholic artist, is enough of a cliché that the condition can become an imprisoning prism for both artist and viewer. But Moore’s candid refusal to either fetishize or bury his condition allows for a deeper and, I feel, more mature discussion of its effect on his art. When asked in a recent interview about recurring themes in his art, Moore responds

…I’m very vocal about being bipolar and makes many people uncomfortable to
talk about it, but I think that different illnesses need to be talked about more….It’s
not different from being diabetic, for instance (Shreveport Times, 2/4/05).

I would speculate that the figure with the enlarged left eye is Moore’s representation of his bipolar disorder, constantly recurring through his artistic and everyday life. The figure also recalls the murder victim from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” an old man, one of whose eyes “resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it.”
The narrator bears no animosity to the old man, has no desire to rob him. He is merely a madman who has focused on the eye as the source of his trouble and has resolved in the first two paragraphs to kill the man. He succeeds, but is eventually undone by the beating of the dead man’s heart, which proves unbearable while speaking to the police dispatched to investigate the man’s disappearance.
Poe’s narrator goes to great lengths trying to convince us of the soundness of his faculties, describing the murder itself in meticulous, obsessive detail, convinced of the utter rationality of his actions in classic “he doth protest too much” fashion. Moore, of course, has found more productive ways to come to terms with his mental illness, with the vulture eye of his old man, and we, appreciating this exhibit, are richer for it. The figure still appears in some wonderful recent canvases, sharing the stage with other imagery, sometimes seeming to dissolve, but never completely gone. Some of these canvases will be exhibited later this year, and I think we are very fortunate to be able to see the narrative of a fine artist unfold in this fashion.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Red River Red and his wife like to kid each other about how old we're getting, like most couples do, I suppose. One of the symptoms we've stumbled on is our recent appreciation for that stalwart of public radio, Garrison Keillor and "Prairie Home Companion." I simply couldn't stand him for the longest time, finding his voice grating, those glasses on the end of his nose off-putting, the concept of the show a bit quaint, something middle-class liberals put on the radio on Sunday afternoon, relaxing with a glass of Chardonnay and the New York Times crossword puzzle after the Unitarian church service. Not for me, thanks.
I think the gradual revision in my thinking began after Paul Wellstone's death. This was in the buildup to the debacle in Iraq, when the lies were flying fast and furious, and Wellstone was the most public voice, given his presence in the Senate, against it. Sure, his anti-imperialist critique may have lacked the harder edge, intellectual rigor and historical sweep of Chomsky or Edward Said or Gore Vidal, but a fundamental core of decency and passion was evident at all times. And the Red River Red, America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, is not ashamed to say that there was some sobbing as the news came over, that's right, National Public Radio.
If you recall, Wellstone was in the midst of a pitched reelection battle against Democratic turncoat Norm Coleman, and warhorse Walter Mondale stepped in, eventually losing in a much closer race than his presidential defeat at the hands of Ronald (Ignorance is Strength, ketchup is a vegetable)Reagan in 1984. During the course of that race, I read somewhere a short piece by Garrison Keillor eulogizing Wellstone and castigating Coleman as a fraud and opportunist who shamelessly exploited 9/11 in a way that made him a "Republican first and American second." This was a revelation to someone who just didn't think they spoke that way in Lake Wobegon. As one who feels that future generations will judge us by the way we opposed the cryptofascism of this current Administration, who feels that the Good Americans of this era will be spoken of as disdainfully as the Good Germans of the 1930's and 40's, I was floored.
The next thing I noticed was the music. If you heard a promo during the week for "Prairie Home Companion," you would continually notice the cream of the roots music crop showing up: the best country, bluegrass, blues, Cajun, zydeco, rockabilly and just-folks music around. So I would leave the dial there to hear Beausoleil or BR5-49, hear a comedy sketch or commercial parody, smile here, chuckle there, occasionally guffaw or even chortle. Then came the big step: I read one his books...and it was pretty damn good.
The book is "Homegrown Democrat," published in 2004, one of the plethora of books that crowded the shelves this past election season. Told in a chatty, aphoristic manner, it reads like Henry David Thoreau, if the Walden hermit had been born a Midwestern Lutheran with an innate love of the common man and woman trying to shoehorn engaged citizenship into a life already full with work and family.
Like the Red, Mr. Keillor is fond of the run-on sentence, unable to contain himself when proclaiming his admiration for the innate democratic potential (and realization) of the neighborhood coffee shop, the public university, the walkable and livable city, all currently in battle with the forces of the evil empire our republic has become at the hands of the bridge underdwelling trolls like Cheney, Rove, Delay, Rice, Gonzalez, Sclalia, Thomas, Lott, Ashcroft, the whole gang of cheap thugs who shouldn't be administrating anything more ambitious than a sanitation company and strip club in Midland or Odessa. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, run-on sentences.
Keillor speaks fondly of the laconic Scandinavians who built the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party in his native Minnesota as an extension of their family, church and town values. His time at the University of Minnesota, and the opportunities the land-grant schools have historically offered for intellectual epiphany and social leveling, are described rapturously. If you can stand to read one more description of 9/11 and its aftermath (Keillor was in New York when it happened), it is sublime in its description of the immediate aftermath and appropriately critical of the cynical exploitation of the tragedy by the right wing, desperate to give tribute to their twin gods, Mars and Halliburton.
Being America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, the Red read the book from cover to cover, but it is not necessary for an appreciation of this 238-page gem. Like "Walden," individual chapters, and even paragraphs, stand alone as individual essays. Some comforting, passionate, inspiring and much-needed words from one of our friends on the other side of the Mississippi River. And, appropriately enough, a public library, at that. Stop griping, I'll get it back soon.


Sunday, February 06, 2005

Super Bowl musings in a divided land

Well, another Super Bowl has come and gone. Dynasties will be proclaimed, geniuses heralded, Sunday afternoons a occasions for tearful reunions between spouses. As the stalwarts among us look forward to March Madness and spring training, the next two holy festivals on the calendar, I can't help but take satisfaction in the unprecedented blue state winning streak among our greatest sports spectacles.
Even though the Red River Red resides in the maroon state of Louisiana, his politics are far to the left of the Texas Death Yuppie and the cabal that currently drives the federal handbasket straight to Hell. Of course, one of the implied arguments of the knuckle-dragging Right is that blue states are inhabited by limp-wristed, Volvo-driving, latte-sipping girlymen whose idea of a contact sport is skiing into trees. Despite this characterization, however, blue state sports teams have executed a clean sweep of the major sporting events since the 2003-2004 LSU Tigers won the national championship of college football (and even that was would have to include the asterisk of USC's victory in the coaches' poll).
Yes, sir, ever since the Red's own alma mater prevailed over Oklahoma in January of 2004, two successive Super Bowls have been won by the New England Patriots (Massachusetts); the college basketball championship by the University of Connecticut; the NBA championship by the Detroit Pistons; an undisputed college football championship by the University of Southern California; and, most improbably, after 86 years of close calls and Shakespearean futility (even worse than the Democrats), the World Series was won by the Boston Red Sox.
Does this seem insignificant in the overall scheme of things? Ask a diehard Dallas Cowboys or Auburn University or Kentucky Wildcats fan if they would prefer George Bush in office and no championship or Hillary Clinton in office and an unbroken eight-year string of athletic dominance, and see what they tell you.
Keep on fighting the good fight, brothers and sisters and shortstops and small forwards and split ends. Maybe the senator from Massachusetts didn't do as well as some of us may have liked, but if a member of the Super Bowl champions and a member of the World Series champs want to marry each other, they can damn well do it in their home state. Melissa Etheridge can sing the national anthem, wardrobe malfunctions can be the proud theme of the halftime show, and Patriots wide receiver/cornerback Troy Brown won't be the only two-way player in attendance. Play ball.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Unsung gems in River City

I recently brought my four-year-old Zora to one of my favorite Shreveport attractions, the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum. You know, the diorama museum. I know, if your parents were like the Red River Red's, then your father might have tried bringing you there during the dreaded pre-pubescent age when anything so quaint was nauseating to consider. But as an adult (not to mention as America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual), this relic of New Deal artistic optimism is politically stirring, as well as aesthetically and historically fascinating.
I must mention that I am indebted to the excerpts of Mary Zimmerman's "New Deal Public Art in Caddo Parish" that are given to visitors for any architectural insights, as well as the facts of the building's history. It is located on the east side of the Fair Grounds complex, behind a white fence. The first idiosyncracy is parking. There is no central parking lot, just seemingly random groupings of two or three spots all around the building. And you're not sure sometimes if you're driving on a sidewalk or not. But you'll find your way in.
The 22 dioramas are in the main rotunda of the museum, so one walks a circle viewing them, as well as various glass cases with historical and archaeological artifacts. Since there are various entrances to the rotunda, you can start pretty much anywhere, since there is no chronological order to them. The dioramas represent different aspects of the economy and the men and women and equipment and animals and landscapes that contribute to those aspects. They're like a less idealistic 3-D version of the Thomas Hart Benton-style WPA murals or Dorothea Lange/Walker Evans photos of the 30's, depicting the sugarcane harvest or sulphur mining or poultry farming. Two things really stand out to this Red River Red. What looks like the more backbreaking agricultural labor is shown performed by African-Americans, while the more skilled, even if just barely, agricultural or industrial work (oil extraction and refining, paper production, even lumberjacking) is done by whites (There is one African-American I could see in the pulp mill, pushing a broom). No whitewashing by the diorama artists, pun intended.
Second, the written descriptions of the importance of the industries point out that Louisiana was often a nation- or even worldwide leader in the 1940's in the production of some key products, such as oil and gas, sulphur and cotton. Yet, like many resource-rich nations in Africa, South America and elsewhere, much of the wealth accrued from the products themselves enriched, and enriches, others elsewhere while many Louisianans languish in poverty. Ah, the rich ironies of civic boosterism in public art.
There are also some exquisite archaeological exhibits in a side museum, where the traveling exhibits are also displayed. The current traveling exhibit is on Lewis and Clark, and the contrast with the dioramas couldn't be starker. The Lewis and Clark exhibit has a large video presentation on the vanishing salmon, pc's set up for interactive viewing, large color photos, and a room-length map that lets you follow the explorers on their journey. It's all very nice, takes advantage of all the technologies that historians think will keep the kids interested, but it just doesn't have the full, eccentric, sometimes random, sometimes cluttered soulful feel of the permanent exhibits. We're very lucky that they are obviously maintained well without being "updated" in a way that would smooth out some of the quirks. The Red River Red says check it out.
While you're in that part of town, it's not too far to the Wallette branch of the Shreve Memorial Library, which has an exhibit of Herman Leonard's jazz photographs, most from the 1940's and 1950's. While the photos are kind of jammed together, they are gorgeous large prints of many of the giants of one of our greatest indigenous art forms. Duke Ellington, Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and others are potrayed with strength and vitality (especially the singers), or in utterly relaxed poses, like the iconic portait of Dexter Gordon, a giant in his smoky, black-and-white realm. In either case, their strength and their ease defy the Jim Crow reality of the time as vividly as the music they produced. Try reading the anecdote about Dizzy Gillespie without getting a little choked up, not to mention rededicating your life to battling injustice, all the while chuckling at the Diz's brilliant, self-effacing humor in the face of personal adversity. Until next time.