Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Altered Beast

I’ve been on hiatus as well, teaching and recovering from teaching. Went down to Los Angeles on Monday to see a read-through of the great Ruth McKee’s new play The Nightshade Family. She and the director are preparing for the Summer Play Festival in New York. I’ve been teaching with Ruth for the past year at Idyllwild Arts Academy. Working with her reminds me that my first urge to write was to create plays, the result of my grandmother, Pauline Ruppenthal, taking me to see plays in the 70s and 80s at Washington D.C.’s Arena Theater and the Kennedy Center. Wanting to write plays led me to act in plays in high school and college, a career I brought to a close when I realized the actors I knew were enormous bores. The drive to write plays, or any dramatic writing, dissipated at that time. I didn’t need plays. I’d found the theater of poems more complete, actor, writer, and audience all in one. More complete, and more private: the public side of me—the high school debater in a bow tie, the actor, the boaster—was an indulgence I didn’t want to keep buying all my life. Even now, when I read poems in public, some monster in me parts the curtains and asks if he’s missed his cue.

At one extreme, the privacy of Emily Dickinson. Somewhere before that, the privacy of the Pajamaist, the core poem of Matthew Zapruder’s recent book of poems, which I’ve been reading this week. It’s a sci-fi prose poem that reminds me of David Cronenberg and Cory Doctorow, yet as poem is hard to fully categorize. The last section tries to explain:

“Yet here I can imagine the Pajamist, suffering quietly and unobserved in his room, asleep in some ways, awake in so many others.”

My two oldest brothers started reading science fiction as teenagers in the 1960s and still do. Our house was aromatic with those mildewing paperbacks until my mother threw them out. I couldn’t ever get into them. I ran from their gigantic narratives and tendency toward the gimmick, but I’ve been coming around. J. Robert hipped me to China Mieville and Cory Doctorow last year and I’ve particularly been enjoying Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. I turn away from it, though, when it taps into the nerdy delight of Joe Tabbi, my college professor, in his “Hypertext” class circa 1992, and all the glee in his eyes at the destruction of my simple book-bound universe. Tabbi’s class was the first I heard of the internet machine, and I suspected it was an advanced form of the CB Radio. He suggested we drop out of college and move to Silicon Valley to continue our study of narrative and make a schmillion dollars. He should have been more insistent. Instead we took him pheasant hunting up in Nebraska (where the season opens a week earlier than in Kansas) and that was funny to watch. I mention him to add to Rhian’s discussion of the bicameral mind book, which he assigned as an introduction to the improbability of consciousness. Then we watched Altered States, which somehow is an interpretation of Jaynes’ ideas. Which brings me around to Altered Beast, the awesome video game they had at Showbiz Pizza on Gage Boulevard in Topeka, and the Matthew Sweet album of the same name.

Transformation is the central trope of Wayne Miller’s excellent book of poems Only The Senses Sleep. Wayne’s about the finest young poet around, with a special ability to write all the way through not only his poem, but your reading of that poem, and back to the poem, thrice around Saturn, and back to earth. “Sometimes the mouth of the world/ opens—though at the last minute,/ it always holds its tongue,” he writes at the end of “My Apartment as Diorama.”

Transformation, alteration…down in Los Angeles this weekend with my friend Cooper, who writes for the advertising trade, suggested that we all change our names to Pepsi Transformers in advance of having to do so at the command of our corporate overlords. I’m ready. Are you?

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