Monday, April 25, 2005

South Louisiana Festivities

Ah, fellow Louisianans, it is spring, the oh-too-brief time when our state is the center of the musical universe, when every small community celebrates its pride in its rice or crabs or strawberries or poke salad, and our larger communities bring the world to Louisiana. The Red and his wife, even with a calendar full of work and social engagements, made time for a oh-too-brief trip to Lafayette on Sunday to experience my personal favorite festival, Festival International De Louisiane.
International Festival brings together musicians (as well as practitioners of the other arts and crafts) from all the French-speaking areas of the world: France and Belgium, Quebec and Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, North Africa, and other points worldwide, as well as plenty of homegrown Cajun and Zydeco. The Red River Red was fortunate enough to spend four very formative years in Lafayette just after the launch of the festival, and to see it come of age was very exciting. Besides the cultural variety, International Festival also benefits from taking place on several stages on the blocked-off streets of downtown Lafayette. Parking is spread over all of downtown, food and adult beverages can be brought in by responsible adults, most of the clubs have entertainment for those who want to continue the party past the closing of the festival on a given night (about 15 years ago, a much younger Red continued the party to the point of blacking out and [according to seemingly authoritative reports] dancing very lewdly with a female friend on stage with the Bluerunners, the band who later played the Red's wedding reception eight years ago tomorrow and also played the wrap-up party for this year's Festival. It's the cycle of life and shit).
Anyway, having lived away from Louisiana for ten years and not having attended International Festival since 1997, the Red and the were determined to make it, if for only one day, and introduce our little one to it. The three-hour drive put us into Lafayette around lunchtime, with the Red's always-erring sense of direction delaying us by a smidgen more. After paying some teenager $5 to park (I assume he was empowered to do that), we found food. The Red opted for boudin (which I believe translates from Cajun French as "God Sausage"), and then we wandered around for a bit. The spaciousness of the festival is very conducive to such wandering, although I seem to recall that the motivation for it back in the day had more to do with the likelihood of wandering into someone who might be holding a bag of weed. The other advantage of the openness of the festival is that it is easy to find a hidden alley or upper floor of a parking garage to indulge, for one's, uh... glaucoma, for instance.
Such indulgence belongs to another time for the Red, of course, so we soon settled into a shaded tent to listen to Marce Lacouture and the Nouveau String Band. Now, anyone who has their to the ground these days knows that this country is seeing a very exciting renaissance of old-time string band music, with bands like Louisiana's Red Stick Ramblers, Austin's The Gourds, Portland's Foghorn Stringband and Winnipeg's The Ducks mastering the old styles, but also taking on themselves the responsibilities of being the agents of the evolution of the music. The Nouveau String Band are doing that with the traditional music of South Louisiana, while also bringing in the diverse elements of melting-pot Americana: swing, hot dance tunes from the 40's and 50's, even a take on a Bob Marley song (that I can't remember to save my life, because War's "Why Can't We Be Friends?" won't get out of my head) as startling and pleasing as the Gourds' "Gin and Juice." Plus, the Nouveau String Band's fiddle and mandolin player Dave Trainer was the Red's wife's mandolin instructor back in Portland about five years ago. As I say, the whole world comes to Louisiana eventually, with the cycle of life and all.
The other band we saw for the whole set was the Mammals, some great young folkies from Woodstock, including Pete Seeger's grandson. Upbeat, earnest, and fascinated as everyone by the fact that we have drive-through daiquiri shops in our occasionally advanced civilization here in the piney woods and swampland, they had the crowd dancing, hacky-sacking and partying like it was 1969. Seriously, though, one of the Mammals announced from the stage at one point that this festival made him more proud to be an American than anything he'd experienced in five years. Hyperbole aside, I couldn't agree with him more, and I would just extend that comment to all of the Louisiana festivals this time of year, pardon by chest-thumping provincialism.
Well, the soft ice cream we'd plied our daughter with was starting to wear off, and it was about time to head back home to Shreveport (bring on Mudbug Madness!). Just before we headed out, we caught a couple of long songs by the band that proves that French funk is not an oxymoron, Ceux Qui Marchent Debout. With their lineup of banjo, trumpet, trombone, tuba, bass drum, percussion and female singer, you'd expect to see them in an old black-and-white Truffaut movie, providing the background to the planning of some caper. But the orange outfits serve notice that they will be no one's background, and the rollicking beats they were throwing down were straight outta Marseille, or Nice, or whatever the French equivalent of Louisiana is.
So that's a brief snapshot of Louisiana's best festival. Check it out next year. Vive la France. Vive la Louisiane. Peace and love, y'all.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Creeley memories

I must apologize for not keeping up better with this blog, but life has been getting in the way lately, mostly pleasantly. Even now, it's 11:45 at night, & I know I'll be up by 7:30 at the latest, and what business do I have doing this when I still need to finish Stranger in a Strange Land for the next discussion group, laundry's piling up, there's so much email correspondence to catch up on, ... Anyway, the recent death of poet Robert Creeley requires some attention, particularly given his significance at a really key point in my life.
Between probably 1988 and 1991 or so, early twenties for the old Red, I was part of an intimate circle of young men and women in Lafayette, all of us with writerly and artistic pretensions. We drank and smoke and wrote and painted with much more passion than discipline, as is probably normal for that age. Our heroes and role models were Bukowski, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. We read our poetry in the basement of Bisbano's bar and pizza joint, got drunk on cheap wine at art openings at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, took classes and dropped out of classes, got nude at parties. the boys kissed the boys and the girls kissed the girls, much marijuana was smoked, the exhibitionists danced and drank while the wallflowers just drank.
Despite all the activity, we managed to self-educate ourselves pretty well in American poetry, following Whitman and William Carlos Williams through to pre-Beats like Rexroth, Patchen and Duncan in the 1940's, and finally the explosion of the 1950's, as the Beats and the New York Poets and the San francisco Poetry Renaissance and the Black Mountain Poets (many overlapping from one "school" to another) took their place alongside the Abstract Expressionists, the Bebop musicians, the rebel comedians and the Method actors revolutionizing American culture in a deceptively moribund time.
Though most of the innovation was taking place in New York and on the West Coast, an experimental college in rural North Carolina was also playing a crucial role. Black Mountain College was home at one time to radical visionaries like architect/designer R. Buckminster Fuller, composer John Cage, dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, sculptor Mary Caroline Richards and painters Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombley. And under the leadership of the physically imposing and epically accomplished Charles Olson, author of The Maximus Poems, Black Mountain nurtured (as students and faculty) writers Fielding Dawson, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov..., and Robert Creeley.
Like Allen Ginsberg, Creeley was passionately committed to disseminating the work of his literary comrades, and was convinced by Olson to take over the editorship of the Black Mountain Review, making it a seminal journal of the 1950's. This aspect was quite appealing to me, as I was the one who organized and emceed our poetry readings, attracted to the idea of our individual expressions finding root in the South Louisiana soil. Although my own tastes moved more toward the Zen-inspired Western visions of Lew Welch, Gary Snyder and Kerouac's October in the Railroad Earth and Mexico City Blues, I appreciated, with some distance, the more cerebral and sparse Creeley, particularly given his obvious influence on my good friend Kevin Meaux, the most talented and disciplined of all of us.
Two particular incidents stand out in my Creeleyana experiences.
One night, four or five of us had piled into my friend John Hebert's car for a ride to Albertson's for more beer. It was one of those nights where we had bought what we assumed was going to be enough beer early in the evening (or maybe even late in the afternoon, or possibly early in the afternoon). However, we had finished it with enough time for one more trip to the grocery store (thank god we weren't doing cocaine), and John, who was kind of our cajun Philip Whalen figure, was sober enough to drive. Well, in the parking lot of Albertson's, purchases made, we somehow got the notion, egged on my John, to try to call Robert Creeley. We knew he was at the time the writer-in-residence at the State University of New York-Buffalo. So we called, on a pay phone, information in Buffalo, got the general campus info number at the university, and actually got the number for the house provided for the writer in residence. Alas, there was no answer, and no machine either.
Finally, anyone who knows of Robert Creeley knows that he lost an eye in Burma during World War II, and wore any eyepatch after. Well, one night, several of us had injested LSD, and were having a good time at the house that several of us shared. Our trips (and I'm talking six or seven of us) were nicely in sync, no one was having a hard time, and the subject of Robert Creeley. Honestly, I don't remember if anyone was reading poetry, or if someone expressed curiousity about a picture of Creeley, or what, but I had the brilliant notion of taking a journey through Robert Creeley's empty eye socket, sort of an ahead-of-its-time Being John Malkovich (if you were there, Charlie Kaufman, how about some royalties?) We pulled my friend Troy's bed out from the wall a bit, and six or seven of us, peaking on acid, squeezed into the portal we had stumbled upon that led directly into the empty eye socket of one of our greatest poets. Unfortunately, I do not remember the details of the journey, or perhaps it was too overwhelming to recall. Nevertheless, it will always be a highlight of a very intense and formative time in the life of the Red River Red. Peace, Bob.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Greetings, fellow cyber-revolutionaries. My sincere apologies for not being very active lately, but the Red River Red's wife was on Spring Break from work, and we were indulging in much relaxation, much of it strenuous enough to get the old Red to sleep at a unusually reasonable hour. I've also taken on a couple of part-time jobs that are keeping me hopping, so I readjusting to things.
But what I'd like to talk about right now is directly linked to one of the jobs. Among my duties at Artspace, one of the focal spots of downtown Shreveport's West Edge, is facilitating the science fiction book discussion group coinciding with the "Robots" exhibit. We're meeting on the third Thursday of each of the next three months, having had our first meeting last week. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was discussed for almost two hours by a small but spirited group, and I expect bigger and better things for the next three months.
When selecting the books to be read, I decided to try to review the history of the genre through the four selections, as well as choosing books that I thought transcended to genre. Frankenstein is a representative of the pioneers, though a work by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells could have sufficed, as well. With its status as a classic of both 19th-century Romantic literature and the Gothic novel, as well as a trailblazing work of science fiction (as well as its enduring power through sucessive generations and mediums), Frankenstein fit the bill.
On April 21, we will discuss Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, with the author included as a representative of the Golden Age of science fiction. Though some would find the novels 1961 publication date as being too late for Golden Age status, I thought Heinlein's stature justified the distinction. Stranger is also very much a pop culture icon of the 1960's, ironic given the ex-Navy officer's quite conservative politics and the McLuhanesque cliche' of the rejection of the printed word by that generation, except for more compatible exceptions like Ken Kesey and Tom Robbins.
May's offering will be Ubik, by Philip K. Dick, representing the New Wave of science fiction, essentially occurring in the 1960's andearly 70's and encompassing work by Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Norman Spinrad and others. Again, the chronology is less than exact, given that Dick's career began in the 1950's, but his legacy of spiritual and pharmaceutical exploration, skepticism about the inherent good of technological innovation, and paranoia about political and social institutions all continue to resonate.
Finally, William Gibson's Pattern Recognition integrates the events of September 11 with the cyberpunk pioneer's usual preoccupations with the assertion of humanity in a milieu of increasing virtual innovation.
Whew! I know that all sounds pretty daunting, but don't you worry. The Red River Red, America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual has a down home touch, as regular readers know, and much fun will had by all, especially when Artspace gets its liquor license squared away and we can share a few frosty beverages with our talk. See you there.