Archive for Arts

katsvox

KatByLincolnClarkes

I have been adding material to katsvox.com, the website devoted to the art, writing, and life of my magical friend kat kosiancic, who passed away last August. Vancouver photographer Lincoln Clarkes, who worked with kat in the late 1990s, captured the amazing image above. There’s a gallery of Lincoln’s portraits of kat on the site now.

There’s a collection of pictures from kat’s young adulthood, including three self-portraits. Also added are new chapters from her memoir Calling All Angels and a fairy tale called The Princess of Darkness.

Edna Gertrude Beasley

This post from five years ago has been a regular favourite on basil.CA in terms of “hits.” That means that my readers and I are in tune with the universe, perhaps.

GertrudeBeasley

“It is perfectly clear to me that life is not worth living, but it is also equally clear that life is worth talking about.” – EGB

I learned of the delightfully named Edna Gertrude Beasley while reading A Second Mencken Chrestomathy. Mencken reviews Beasley’s memoir, “My First Thirty Years,” in a chapter called “A Texas Schoolma’am,” written in 1926:

This book, I suspect, comes out with a Paris imprint because no American publisher would risk printing it. I offer the very first paragraph as a specimen of its manner:

‘Thirty years ago I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in an act of rape, being carried through the pre-natal period by an unwilling and rebellious mother, finally bursting forth only to be tormented in a family whose members I despised or pitied, and brought into association with people whom I should never have chosen. Sometimes I wish that, as I lay in the womb, a pink soft embryo, I had somehow thought, breathed or moved and wrought destruction to the woman who bore me, and her eight miserable children who preceded me, and the four round-faced mediocrities who came after me, and her husband, a monstrously cruel, Christ-like and handsome man with an animal’s appetite for begetting children.’

This is freely speaking, surely, but only a Comstock, reading it, would mistake it for an attempt at pornography. There is, in fact, not the slightest sign of conscious naughtiness in the book; it is the profoundly serious and even indignant story of a none too intelligent woman lifted out of the lowest levels of the Caucasian race by her own desperate efforts, and now moved to ease her fatigue by telling how she did it. …

La Beasley, it appears, came into the world on the Texas steppes, the ninth child of migratory and low-down parents. Her father was an unsuccessful farmer who practiced blacksmithing on the side. During her first half dozen years the family moved three or four times. Always prosperity was beckoning in the next township, the next county. Children were born at every stop, and as the household increased it gradually disintegrated. Finally, the mother heaved the father out, took her brood to Abilene, and there set up a boarding-house. The sons quickly drifted away; one of the daughters became a lady of joy; the others struggled pathetically with piddling jobs. Gertrude was the flower of the flock. She worked her way through a preposterous ‘Christian College,’ got a third-rate teacher’s certificate, and took a rural school. The county parents liked her; she kept their barbarous progeny in order, often by beating them. After a while she took other examinations, and was transferred to better schools. In the end, she went to Chicago, and there tackled pedagogy on a still higher level. For all I know, she may be teaching in that great city yet.

The tone of Mencken’s review is thoroughly, unusually admiring. He respects her unblurred, dyspeptic view: “The author has emancipated herself from her native wallow, but she does not view it with superior sniffs. Instead, she frankly takes us back to it, and tells us all she knows about its fauna, simply and honestly. There is frequent indignation in her chronicle, but never any derision. Her story interests her immensely, and she is obviously convinced that it should be interesting to others. I think she is right.”

One wishes, at any rate, that Mencken’s guess regarding Beasley’s then-current whereabouts had been the case. She did not end up teaching in Chicago.

In fact, as Mary Ellen Specht puts it in her excellent piece “The Disappearance of Gertrude Beasley, “‘My First Thirty Years’ ends with Beasley sailing off to Japan, where she writes for ‘National Geographic’ and travels to places like China and Russia before publishing her autobiography and disappearing for good,” it seemed, at the age of 35.

In 2008 the mystery of Beasley’s disappearance was solved. Specht writes:

Edna Gertrude Beasley … was institutionalized 10 days after her ship landed in New York. She lived out her last 27 years in gulag conditions, until her death from pancreatic cancer in 1955. She was 63.

The [author’s] grandniece and Beasley “friends” and family have since located her grave, marked only by a number, and erected a headstone there. While Beasley’s body may be at peace, her story isn’t. New York State will not release details of her commitment hearing, even to family.  The question remains: How did she end up there? The family has found a dictation from one of Gertrude’s brothers claiming she was committed by William Randolph Hearst, for whom she briefly worked as a journalist, though the brother claimed “she was no more crazy than you or I.” My mother found no mention of Beasley in the Hearst papers at the University of California at Berkeley.

Maybe she *was* crazy. The letter she sent to the U.S. State Department from the ship is full of grandiose suspicions regarding “a conspiracy against myself.” Beasley also claims to be “completing a work which I believe to be one of the most significant of its sort ever written.” She accuses British police and “certain people in Texas” of trying to stop her. She implies that once she disembarks from the steamer, her life will be in peril. She was never heard from again. My mother says, “Is it paranoia if they’re really out to get you?”

Gertrude Beasley wrote about the hardships of her first 30 years, but we can’t begin to imagine what her last 30 must have been like.

In 2011 Beasley’s memoir was re-issued as a paperback; you can download it onto your Kindle, too. (Amazon has a sizeable selection of the text available as a “preview.” Google Books has these excerpts.) The writing is utterly vivid and distilled. No noun seems not needed in this ardent narration of an American hell. The courage and the craft that our author had … inspires. She reminds me of very few writers of my generation – perhaps only Lydia Lunch and Robin Plan, who were not, thank god, thrown into the “gulag” midway through the journey of their lives.

Stanley Cavell

Visiting a couple of friends at Harvard back in 1982 or so, I was invited to attend a seminar on Shakespeare taught by Stanley Cavell. Holy moly – it was amazing! Graduate students piped up now and then, but the class was essentially a monologue – one of surpassing learning and agility – that felt wholly improvised.

He asked a question that has stayed with me all these years: Does an interpretive approach need to account for every word of a literary work, as it would, let’s say, of each note in a symphony or an opera, or is it enough that the approach makes sense of only certain passages? (It was not a rhetorical question.)

This short memoir of Cavell in the New York Review of Books is very good.

RIP.

Primary Progressive Aphasia

Harold Gulskin was an amazing acting coach who told his students “to emphasize the words of the script over any analysis of their characters’ motivation.” (His students included Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, and James Gandolfini.) That is, he did not believe in The Method. He believed in the script, and the actors reading that script. He passed away last week.

His wife, Sandra Jennings, said the cause [of his death] was probably a pulmonary embolism. He learned a decade ago that he had primary progressive aphasia, a rare form of dementia, she said, and had been living in a care facility in Park Ridge.

Primary Progressive Aphasia robs people of their linguistic abilities. Word by word, they can no longer understand names and terms; bit by bit, they can no longer find their own words in their minds; great big verbal parties become warehouses of nothing. Their other cognitive skills, and their memories, remain intact, for several years, until their brains and everything else fall apart.

This is what killed my Dad.

Reading Gulskin’s obituary moved me greatly.

As primary progressive aphasia gradually took away Mr. Guskin’s ability to speak and communicate, Ms. Jennings helped coach his students, filling in words he could no longer conjure and explaining his intentions.

Ms. Weisz said: “Even when he was down to about 20 words, I knew what he meant to say. We had a shorthand by then, and he would say, `No, no, no,’ when I wasn’t hitting the truth.”

My father was a stutterer well into adulthood. Learning how to speak out loud flawlessly and beautifully was I think to him his greatest achievement. That he was robbed of this toward and at his life’s end was utterly galling to him and our family. God bless Mr. Gulskin’s.

Farewell Tom Wolfe

He wrote some great books and coined new language. But I stopped liking him.

A blast from the past:

4 Nov. 04: A loyal basil.CA reader sent me a friendly election-day double-dinger: an email entitled “Is Bob Cranky Today?” that begins, “Your entry today [on Tom Wolfe, below*] was opaque and confusing.” I WAS cranky, and it  IS confusing.  Here is what I meant to say: 

Wolfe was my favourite writer for about a year in college, when I was an editor at the college newspaper:  He really opened up my view of nonfiction generally and journalism in particular.  He was very USEFUL to a young writer.  His later essays are often very funny, but they are infected with reverse snobbery, which I loathe a good deal more than regular snobbery. From college on, and especially from grad school on, I’ve run into countless snobs and reverse snobs.  I have always like snobs more:  They think they are better bred than you, and that’s fine with me, even on those occasions when they are clearly wrong.  Reverse snobs decry the whole idea of breeding and so not only renounce but DENY theirs — they become citizens of the working class, etc., or some other “authentic” class.  They are frauds, not to put too fine a point on it.

And here is what I meant when I said that Wolfe now parrots the Republican party:  He employs clichéd expressions like “the Eastern Media elite” to echo reactionary resentments the same way that party does. I don’t know if being a parrot makes you fraudulent, but it does make you mind-numbing.

The post to which my friend was responding:

At one time Tom Wolfe was my favourite writer.  (When I was at Stanford, I used to teach The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) He lost his charm when he started writing fiction.  He lost everything else when he started parrotting the Republican Party.  It’s not uncommon for writers to get resentful and ossified at the end of their careers, but it always dismays.

Bobbie Louise Hawkins

BobbiHawkins

Bobbie Louise Hawkins called poet Robert Creeley “the most interesting man I ever met.” Their marriage and divorce – “Bob and Bobbie” – were famous among his students at SUNY/Buffalo, where I studied under and befriended Creeley. I was told that Bobbie once tried to run over Bob with a car. I knew Creeley was angry and quarrelsome as a young man, but this scene was still hard to picture.

Ms. Hawkins passed away on May 4. I had been reading about her on that very day (she appears prominently and vividly in Joe Brainard’s “Bolinas Journal,” found in Brainard’s Collected Writings).

From the New York Times obituary:

“When Bob and I were first together, he had three things he would say,” Ms Hawkins said. “One of them was ‘I’ll never live in a house with a woman who writes.’ One of them was ‘Everybody’s wife wants to be a writer.’ And one of them was ‘If you had been going to be a writer, you would have been one by now.’ That pretty much put the cap on it. I was too married, too old and too late, but he was wrong.”

She added: “I think a part of what attracted Bob to me was competences I had within myself, but it was as if once I was within his purview, those competences were only to be used for his needs, in the space where we lived, and not as though they were my own.”

“What I was really fighting for wasn’t the right to be some kind of brilliant writer,” she said. “I was fighting for the right to write badly until it got better.”

It did, once she and Mr. Creeley separated around 1975 and she stopped writing surreptitiously.

I like how the obituary ends:

Ms. Hawkins could bluntly revert to her Texas frontier forthrightness, as she did once when Neal Cassady, the wheelman in the cross-country trips that Jack Kerouac chronicled in “On the Road,” came for a visit and commandeered her car. …

“Get in back, Neal,” she is said to have declared. “It’s my car and you’re a lousy driver.”

Here’s a video of Bobbie reading from one of her memoirs:

HawkinsReading

 

“Educated”

In honour of the start of my summer semester, I present this excellent interview with Tara Westover, whose book “Educated” is the best memoir I have read in a very long time. Westover was raised in a Mormon “survivalist” home and didn’t go to school until she was 17; she ended up receiving a Ph.D. after studying at Cambridge and Harvard; she also became estranged from her parents and some of her siblings. Her story almost overwhelmed me emotionally, particularly those parts in which her teachers became mentors. It reminded me why I live.