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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Thursday
Sep082011

In Which We Choose Our Proteges Ever So Wisely

The Perfect Driving Disposition

This is the third and final entry in a series about the letters of Denise Levertov and Williams Carlos Williams. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

The last letters of the poets Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams ("Bill") come at a time of incipient illness for the elder Williams. The aftereffects of several strokes were beginning to show in his memory, and he rarely left his Rutherford, New Jersey home. Yet he and the British-born Levertov shared an incandescent artistic communion, a mind melding that established solid pillars where flaky walls had once held all the confidence in their own art that could be spared. Williams' penultimate letter to Levertov before his death in 1963, included here, displays a shattered mind but an unflappable spirit.

Denise Levertov left her improvised home of Mexico in 1958. Before she moved herself and her husband Mitch to New York, Robert Creeley had visited the Levertov family in Oaxaca. WCW reacts to Levertov's description of Bob in the following letter.

January 23rd, 1957

Dear Denise:

What the hell did you have to get malaria for? Of course you were treated at once and properly with all the latest medical advice you could muster. If you had a severe case as you have indicated that you had it can take it out and may be hard to get rid of. I hope you took it seriously enough to get properly rid of it.

At that you probably had a swell time at the shore or bay or whatever you call it with Creeley. The people who take over your place for you must have been driven to distraction at sight of such a man. Lucky they didn't shoot him. He sent me a couple of poems recently, short lyrics on an enormous page which after all were very good . but so few on such a big page! Maybe that's the way to do it to give full dignity to the art. I hope so. Must be expensive.

I'm anxious to see your own book. Ferlinghetti is also I think printing my own, or reprinting them, Improvisations. Maybe they'll come out together or fail to come out together.

Thanks for your congratulations on the award, I can always use the cash.

I'm sending you under separate cover (if it ever gets there) a poem I translated from the Greek. I don't know any Greek but scouted around among my professor friends until I was satisfied that some of the classic translations I have seen were horrible then made my own transliteration. Hope you like it it may not be Sappho but I guarantee that it is in the spirit which moved her. Keep it, I'll have more copies later.

Take care of yourself.

Bill

Denise reacts to WCW's translation of Sappho and warily asks his opinion of Allen Ginsberg in this 1957 letter.

February 7th, 1957

Dear Bill

How lovely your poem, the Sappho. Thank you very very much. I tacked it up where it gives lustre to all around it & great joy to me. It came today.

In your last letter you mentioned an award I didn't know about it for we rarely see an American paper what was it? Our glad congratulations anyway.

Yes I think I got good treatment for the malaria, & I'm going to get a checkup (blood-count etc.) in a week or so, also.

Glad you liked Creeley's If You  I did too.

It seems Allen Ginsberg is conducting a regular propaganda campaign. I saw his picture, & Jack Kerouac's, in the Feb. issue of Mademoiselle. He has been rooting for me too, which is very kind but I don't feel happy about it. He will damage his work surely if he puts so much energy into advertising, however generously. Or don't you think so?

I discovered 2 books by a Southern woman writer, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, who wrote with a dense, packed, and evidently true-to-herself style. (The Time of Man and Black is My True Love's Hair) She died 10 years or so ago & I guess is quite well-known (perhaps to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons) but new to me.

Am sending you some poems separately. How I wish I could come see you & Floss.

With love,

from Denise

P.S. Did you know you wrapped the poem in a Law Degree? Was it a mistake or did you want to get rid of it?

Denise would end up reading the following letter at WCW's memorial service.

February 11th, 1957

Dear Denise:

I just mailed you a note about the certificate to be returned to me, thank you. But in the same mail with your letter telling me of my mistake in sending came Cid Corman's Origin with your poems — which you had sent me earlier in manuscript, at least the one called "Tomatlan."

Reading the poems it came over me how almost impossible it is to realize what it is that goes over from a writer into her poem. And how it gets there. Even the alertest reader can miss it. The poet herself might miss it and quit trying. And yet if it is important enough to her she will never quit trying to snare the "thing" among the words. Where does it lie among the words? That is the critic's business to discover and reveal that. You do not make it easy for.

I have never forgot how you came to me out of the formalism of English verse. At first as must have been inevitable, although I welcomed you I was not completely convinced, after all I wasn't completely convinced of my own position, I wanted you to convince ME.

Even recently I fight against accepting you unconditionally. It must always be so with a person we love and admire. It must be in the words themselves and what you find to do with them and what you have the spirit and trust to rely on the reader to find what you have put among them.

Where is it? In detail. Microscopically.

To take that poem apart or before that to view it as a whole, what do I see? But before that where else in this issue of that magazine is there something to challenge it. I'll have to pass that one up because I have not read those poems as carefully as I have yours.

Returning to that particular poem I have spoken of, to read it gives me a sensation of calm, of confidence. A countryside, a tropical jungle appears to me into which with my imagination I enter. It is done with the fewest possible words, with no straining after effect without the poet's apparent consciousness of making any effect at all.

The words used are copied direct from a vision seen, actually seen. The transition between the reader and what is being put down for him is direct, nothing extraneous has been allowed to creep in. This is a great preliminary virtue. It makes the final picture fresh as is anything seen for the first time, by a child, but let's not overemphasize that.

What, granted that, has the poet selected to use in her picture? She looking at the original picture must have selected significant details because after all she cannot see everything and what she seizes in her imagination reveals in the first place her intelligence and emotional range and depth. Her sight is keen, her mood relaxed.

I think the trick is done in the second stanza with the words "its silky fur brushes me". And later on "the palms shake their green breasts,"... Effortlessly, is the impression in the instantaneous exchange that takes place in the metaphor flares as a flash in our minds.

But a poet is not to be trapped so easily (it is all a flight and an escape) an internal battle of wits and the intelligence, a man and woman competing, wrestling for the crown of laurels, and some men and women write for cash. Denise Goodman has the ability to bundle the whole mess into one, balance calmly on her head, not giving herself away.

"New peace shades the mind here, the jungle shadows frayed by the sea winds." The test of how the poet is going to divide her lines is the test of what she or he is.

Bill

The praise included in the following WCW letter to Denise must have been overwhelming for her.

Spring 1957

Dear Denise:

" ...and all / who sit on benches in the morning" It's a beautiful book! and that doesn't begin to say it. It's a wise book and reveals a mind with which I am in love. What is love? a fellow feeling, something We can understand and acknowledge as part of one's own being.

I haven't even finished reading the book and shall not finish reading it soon (maybe) keeping it to enjoy slowly, stretching it out to make it go slow to enjoy as I would a delicious dish of food. It is really a beautiful book. The fine points! I am really amazed and a little in awe of you. I didn't realize you were so good though I had an intimation of it on that day in our front room when you were reading to me and I saw that you were really a poet.

Yours

Bill

This letter from Bill's wife Florence "Floss" Williams explains some of her husband's illness of the time, and precipitates the conversation between Denise and Bill's widow that would continue after his death. Here she does not seem to view Denise as a threat.

May 23rd, 1959

Dear Denise

It was good to see you on Thursday looking beautiful & cheery as usual You were a tonic to us. I hope you & Mitch will want to come again.

There is one thing I must tell you about Many Loves. You asked Bill about the opening he said it was not his idea. I didn't want to contradict him because it upsets him so. It was his idea and is in the published scripts as printed by New Directions Annual 1942. Get hold of it and read it. It's sad to see a man like Bill fail slowly gradually and know that there is nothing one can do.

You are a good poet we enjoyed so much hearing you read. and thank you for the pleasure.

Affectionately

Floss

WCW was very enthused about Denise's latest book.

December 31st, 1959

Dear Denise:

There is about your most recent book of poems, With Eyes at the Back of our Heads, a frightening quality which marks you as a serious poet and a woman to be contended with in any discussion that has matters of art as its topic. The words, the choice of words you use is disturbing to a man. It is linked to something unknown to the male wonderfully well used. As an independent artist you hold the key to the attack, and it is an attack as long as you shall live.

The first 5 or six poems of this book challenge me so that I am glad I am not younger. It's a strange thing to have the attack come from that quarter: pure poetic excellence, quality which men have almost always reserved for themselves.

You have not always written written so excellently, as always one thinks that there is something unrevealed in such writing by a man or a woman, something deeply buried. When it is a woman that is involved the mystery deepens, it is something cryptic which the world solves by calling her a whore. But the unresolved element of superlative artistic excellence, forces a reevaluation upon us.

I am going to read these first half dozen poemsmaybe more until as an old man I have penetrated to where your secret is hid. It may be a druidic or perhaps an hebraic recrudescence but it's impressive and good for the art of poetry. You have the head for it, an impressive head which I have been long conscious of but that's only an accessory phenomenon, that curious artistic ability that flares in the words themselves is the thing to be treasured. It may at any time be lost, see that it isn't, at any cost!

I'm quitting for now.

With love and respect,

Bill

in 1906 with a donkey

April 9th, 1960

Dear Denise:

Bravo! the last issue of Poetry shows you to be the most accomplished practitioner of the art that we have about us. "Come into the animal presence" is accomplished work but no finer than "Map of the western part etc" You have been going ahead every time you put ink to paper. You know yourself better than anyone else can ever know you. And you have the perfect driving disposition for a poet, and I think the depth of human experience on which to draw from. It's all a mystery where it comes from, as you know yourself, no one can instruct you but gratuitous advisors will for some reason attempt to. To hell with them when they attempt to lead you into one or another camp, because I see it coming.

I just wanted to say hello and to congratulate what you have already accomplished. I know you have recently lost your mother-in-law whom you really loved and respected. What can one say? We have been to Florida but a cold wind dominated most of our stay. Take care of yourself my dear and keep on with your writing. Because we love you. And don't bother to come out to the suburbs where you can do nothing to help us find ourselves in this mystifying dilemma in which we all find ourselves.

The poet is the only one who has not lost his way, and you are a poet. We must look to you. Keep on doing what you are already doing for us.

With love

Bill

WCW had some harsh words for Denise about the language in her poem "The Jacob's Ladder." She responded, explaining where she was coming from.

September 21st, 1960

Dear Bill & Floss,

I have been incredibly sloppy about all letters this summer please forgive my rudeness in not writing back sooner to thank you for The American Idiom & to answer your remarks on my recent poems.

By way of excuse, the truth is I was having such a good time out of doors in Maine, swimming & swimming and walking & just looking, that I hated to spend any time indoors in my rather stuffy little study there-also, at the last, we were in a state of paralyzing tension over the question of whether we should put every penny we have (& it's the first, fortuitous, & perhaps last time we had the extra money at all) on an old farmhouse. Well, we've done it at least I think so negotiations were to have been completed a couple of days ago, Mitch having remained up there for that purpose but I haven't heard yet.

Now, about The American Idiom. I agree that there are very many young writers (older ones aren't likely to change anyway) who need to have this said to them because they start out writing in a borrowed 'literary' style that doesn't have roots in their own life & doesn't correspond to how they feel and how they talk. Also I agree that there is marvellous poetry in common speech, painful heartbreaking human poetry only to be heard & cherished if the poet hears and frees it your life's work evidences that.

But-for me personally, I cannot put the idea of "American idiom" first. For you it has always been a focus, almost a mission. But each person must know their own needs. My need and desire is in each poem to find the tone and measure of what I feel, whether the language, word by word or measure by measure, strikes the reader as 'American' or not.

That poem you were distressed by, "The Jacob's Ladder," has to be the way it is because it sounds the way I think and feel about it, just as close as I can make it. My shaking up of its structure into something else would be a betrayal of what I know I must do. You must take into consideration that I grew up not in an American, and not in an English, but a European atmosphere; my father was naturalized in Eng. only around the time I was born his background was Jewish, Russian, Central European and my mother, herself proudly Welsh; had lived in Poland, Germany, & Denmark etc all the years between 1910 & 1923. And then, when I came to the U.S., I was already 24 years old so tho' I was very impressionable, good melting-pot material, the American idiom is an acquired language for me.

Certainly I am an American poet, if anything I know I am not an English one nevertheless I feel the great European poets "belong to me" as an inheritance too.

It may perhaps not be a good thing to be without deep local roots, to be at home everywhere & nowhere, but if one's life has made one be such a person, & one is a poet by natural aptitude & constitution, one surely must accept it: for instance, my daily speech is not purely American I'm adaptable & often modify it to fit with whoever I'm with, but in speaking to Mitch or to myself my vocabulary is a mixture of different elements-more American than anything else but still not standard American so to speak if such a thing existed, which of course it doesn't.

And I believe fervently that the poet's first obligation is to his own voice to find it and use it. And one's "voice" does not speak only in the often slipshod imprecise vocabulary with which one buys the groceries but with all the resources of one's life whatever they may be, no matter whether they are 'American' or of other cultures, so long as they are truly one's own & not faked.

Add to this the fact that 'The Jacob's Ladder' was written in a church in Mexico (begun there, at least, looking at a primitive painting). Also, it is most certainly not in iambics. When I come to see you (soon, I hope) I'll read it to you & if you are still interested we'll battle it out.

Glad you liked some of the other poems and hope you don't feel I am defecting from all you hold dear your own work remains as rich and necessary to me as it has since I first began to read it 13 years ago but I cannot simply go along with all you say about the American Language, even though I think it is healthy for those who grow up entirely in that language to realize it & use it.

And I think you have to grant that I'm a special case anyway I'm a later naturalized, second-class citizen, not an all-American girl, & I'm darned if I'm going to pretend to be anything else or throw out what other cultural influences I have in my system, whatever anyone says.

Much love always Denise

P.S. Gee, just realized as I dated this letter that your birthday was on Saturday. Please accept my wishes for a year of good health and of many poems and joys.

Please save me some copies of The American Idiom because I have some college reading dates & can give them away to students.

The Jacob's Ladder

by DENISE LEVERTOV

The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence
for angels' feet that only glance in their tread, and
need not touch the stone.

It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a doubtful,
a doubting night gray.

A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next, giving a little
lift of the wings:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
The poem ascends.

Denise Levertov

September 22nd, 1960

Dear Denise:

Thanks for your explicit letter about your family history and your life after coming to America as it applies to your language. It is very enlightening. So our language has been made up, there is one thing that draw us together: the spoken language.

Congratulations on your purchasing for yourselves a home. May you have much happiness from living in it. Come see when you have the time.

Love,

Bill

October 8th, 1960

Dear Bill & Floss,

I'm writing this in the bus on the way back from reading at Bard. Stayed with Ted Weiss & had a good time tho' I know I read too fast, darn it, & didn't space the poems out enough.

We're in the process of moving. Left the apartment yesterday with every drawer hanging open, boxes all over the place, packed and half-packed trunks with clothes lolloping out of their open mouths, etc. It is fatiguing but also exhilarating.

I found Mary Ellen Solt's approach (in her letter) a little Germanic & pedestrian, in other words academic-the prose about poetry of a non-practitioner. The point gets lost among so many words.

Here is a poem you may like I hope.

I want to see you both. This household removal I have to get that over first.

Bus is close to Rutherford now wish I cd jump off & come over but back to the boxes

With love

Denise

WCW seems to apologize for his first appraisal of "The Jacob's Ladder" in this dispatch.

November 6th, 1960

Dear Denise:

Our talk yesterday afternoon was very important and rewarding to me, it put me straight on a subject on which I was too lazy to have made up my mind, a subject of utmost importance to me.

It had directly to do with that second poem which I had slighted but which I now see is one of the best you have ever written, employing the very understanding I am most eager to see in a poet his relationship with the art itself rather than any topical matter which curses even our most promising artist.

The measured way in which you handled your material of the Jacob Ladder incident until the very scraping of the angels' wings upon the stone makes me cringe with embarrassment that I should have missed it in the first place.

The clean handling of the language is brilliantly deployed you are an artist who it does my heart good to have seen in action. That's not half of it. Your criticism of my own short comings is noted. I'll pay attention to what you say.

Love

Bill

On June 2nd, WCW suffered his final cerebral hemorrhage. His last letter to Denise records such pain.

June 21st, 1961

Dear Denise:

I have gone far back since we last corresponded. It is not possible for me to describe what exactly has happened to me. It has happened very fast. Bon voyage. 

Love,

Bill

The letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams were edited by Christopher MacGowan, and you can purchase them here. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

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"Blue Bird" - Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions (mp3)

Wednesday
Sep072011

In Which We Destroy The Myth Of Living Abroad

Live Tigers

by DAYNA EVANS

We were trying to find a place called Fairy Hill, but no one knew where it was. I bought six hangers from a man on the street, who was standing next to several other men also selling hangers in groups of six. I paid roughly 75 cents for six hangers and was acutely aware that I was being ripped off. After I had stuffed the hangers into my bag, we carried onward in the direction we thought would take us to Fairy Hill. Several hundred yards later, we held a meeting in the street.

"Are we sure we’re going the right way?" I asked my friend, keeper of the guidebook.

"I think so. I can’t tell if we were supposed to turn back there or not."

"That didn't look like it'd take us anywhere."

"We could keep walking."

I have a friend at the grocery store now. His name is Abloo (though this is questionable as I still have trouble with his accent). We have met three days in a row because on each of those days, I was bored enough with my own company to walk to the grocery store and buy more food. I bought a broom from Abloo and it was broken so I went back to ask for a new one. Instead, we talked about Sri Lanka.

"The people there, they are very fat."

"Is that so?” I asked. "You didn't like it there."

"No, the people are too fat. But you, you are very slim."

"Thanks," I said. I thought about the nine pounds of chicken biryani I had eaten the night before. I grabbed an operable broom from the shelf and he swung it like a light saber.

A man wearing a dark gray t-shirt, dress pants and leather slip-on sandals, and carrying a black leather briefcase came up to us and asked if we needed help.

"We're trying to find Fairy Hill. Do you know it?" my friend asked the man.

"The hill? Which hill? Near? Is it near?"

I gestured for her to show the man our map. He began reading about Fairy Hill. "Fairy Hill is said to be named for the fairies and genies that were believed to occupy it when the Sufi saint Badar Shah first came to Chittagong. Legend says that he made a number of requests . . .”

We found his desire to impress us with his English charming at first. But he continued.

". . . to the fairies before they would allow him to build a place of worship. It's behind the main post office and New Market — climb the path leading off Jubilee Road just north of the pedestrian bridge near New Market. Ask directions for the High Court, the building on top of the hill. Fairy Hill was the common name during the Raj era and is rapidly being forgotten."

When the man had reached the end of the Lonely Planet description, we’d amassed a crowd, a common occurrence for us in Chittagong. To my right was an elderly, toothless man with a threadbare cloth covering the bottom half of his body. He had his hand held out to me and was mumbling. Behind and beyond our group of five girls were rickshaw drivers pausing mid-pedal as they watched.

One adolescent boy stood near, but not too near, regarding us with an obvious genuine interest that betrayed his attempt to seem aloof. Our guide didn’t say anything when he finished reading. Instead, he intently studied the book’s tiny and poorly labeled map.

"So . . . do you know where that is?" my friend asked, slightly impatient now.

"Ah, it is near D.C. Hill. I live there. Near D.C. Hill." The man then began to read the section on D.C. Hill. The five of us exchanged tired glances. "I take you, I know where it is. It is near where I live." We followed.

When friends complain about my lack of blog posts, I send them photos. Here. This is me with a funny-looking sign. And look, a photo of a poorly translated menu item. Finally, some friends and I sitting on a roof at sunset.

My apartment has a large window at its south end and it looks out over a trash pit with wild dogs and one goat. There is also a cliff where several cows graze perilously. I went to the roof of my apartment building to see how close they get to the edge. I determined that they get really close, reminding me of the time my brother’s dog walked into our pool. Cows aren't very smart. Neither are dogs.

The walk ended up being much longer than we had anticipated, and several times my friends and I looked at one another with discontent. Should we be following a strange man to a strange hill in a strange city? Not to mention, the teenage boy from earlier who’d pretended to not care had been trailing us since our map conference, staring intently at each of our faces for prolonged portions of the walk. We tried to speak to him to garner information about where we were.

“How old are you?”

Coy smile.

“Do you know where we are going?”

“Fairy Hill.”

“Is that man your dad?”

Coy smile.

We were told by the man leading us that the hill to our right was D.C. Hill and that Fairy Hill was coming up.

"No, no, that’s okay, we’ll just check this out instead." We had all telepathically decided to get out now. Despite his pleas to allow him to take us farther, we were avoiding potentially getting ourselves into trouble by disembarking then. The man walked off, while the teenager lingered. All six of us stood in front of D.C. Hill, our second choice for hill visits in the city of Chittagong.

There was an ice cream seller, several homeless men, and an armed guard. There were some scattered leaves and a pile of garbage. We tried to walk to the top of the hill, but the armed guard turned us away. My head hurt.

"Can we go home?"

"Yeah." So much for hills.

None of the clothes fit me in Bangladesh. My friend said it was because "you have a large chest." I didn’t like hearing that very much, so I walked away, leaving her near the saris while I went to buy a mug.

The myth of living abroad, particularly in a developing country, is that you must show the impact the country is having on you and impact you are having on the country. Last night I watched four episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and made a cucumber salad.

From the moment I arrived in Chittagong, there was the notion among my loved ones that what I am doing at any given moment is far more interesting than what they are doing. They perceive that I am living the life of an intrepid traveler, that I sleep in my hiking boots and drink water out of a Camelbak or anorak or whatever the hell gallant adventurers drink water out of (a gourd?). The truth is that I don’t own hiking boots and I drink water from a glass. I don't like granola. I feel that I have little to report.

When we travel, we’re predisposed to feel unusual and to like it. We want to find the newness in everything because we know that our warm beds and close friends are waiting at home for us with cold beers and their undivided attentions. It is living that I am getting used to. That is what causes me to feel so empty-handed in my correspondence — living is an entirely different monster. Even in the things that are different and strange, I look for similarity and comfort. It would exhaust me to feel genuinely shocked by every new cultural element. I want the neighborhood Shwapno to be my new 7-11. I want to convince myself that rice is bread, rickshaws are taxis.

We saw the Bay of Bengal. We had taken a short trip down to Patenga Beach, where they sell puka shell necklaces at beachside stands, just like at the Jersey shore.

G.E.C. Circle is a roundabout in the center of Chittagong, where crossing the street is more dangerous than triple bypass heart surgery performed by a randomly selected attendee at a Hannah Montana concert. There are no traffic lights and the crosswalks are a joke played on any tourist who takes them seriously. CNGs and buses will barrel confidently ahead despite seeing a crowd of ten or more people about to be decimated at their hands. At night, a bizarre metal fountain structure is lit with green lights and sprays thin lines of water into the air while the madness carries on around it; billboards and signs are illuminated in neon colors, as well. I’ve taken to calling this area Times Square, but even that isn’t an accurate representation of its life-threatening insanity.

We found an ice cream parlor on G.E.C. Circle recently, which seems like a relatively benign discovery unless you’re in a group of twelve women with a dangerous need for satiation and shelter. Everything about the parlor felt familiar, from the selections (cookies 'n' cream, pistachio) to the highly decadent sundae options. There was even soft serve. It was disgusting how quickly we found indescribable joy in what was in front of us. We had, in so many ways, walked through a warped door to our old worlds where frozen yogurt and chocolate syrup were as available as Netflix and H&M. When we were inside, eating ice cream silently around a little table, we forgot what madness existed outside of the doors. We were working on raising our life expectancy rates by staying within the parlor.

At the table next to us were three late-20s men in business suits. It was nearing six o’clock — they must have come straight from work. They were socializing loudly and playing around on their smartphones. They had ordered multi-layer sundaes with syrups, nuts, the whole bit. Before I could even stop myself from thinking it, my brain was translating this activity from a casual post-work treat to Bangladeshi happy hour. Attempting to live in a new culture on my old culture’s terms was proving to be occasionally inadequate.

Tonight we gather together at a friend's apartment. We will walk home a few hours later with our heads covered and our wits about us. Tomorrow we will be visiting Jobra, the village birthplace of the Grameen Bank. Our Bangladeshi friend is taking us fabric shopping this weekend so that we might get our own shalwar kameezs tailored. This is happy news for my large chest. In the future there are plans for visiting Dhaka (the capital), the Sundarbans (where live tigers crush skulls), and the tea plantations of Sylhet. We have trips on the horizon to Nepal, India and Thailand, most of which are as yet unplanned and complicated. I have asked if I will have to drink out of a gourd while hiking in Nepal. The answer is no.

Dayna Evans is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Bangladesh. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.

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The new album from St. Vincent is titled Strange Mercy. It will be released on September 13th and you can preorder it here.


Tuesday
Sep062011

In Which John Cassavetes Keeps A Part Of Himself Alive

The Defenseless Thing

John Cassavetes' 1974 production of A Woman Under the Influence represented the pinnacle of his artistic collaboration with Gena Rowlands. He wrote her one of the most complex and dramatic female roles in cinematic history: Mabel Longhetti, a "mentally unstable" wife to a construction worker, mother of three, Los Angeles housewife. The echoes of time have ensured that her performance, ostensibly an alienating portrayal of a "crazy woman", possesses the characteristics of a far more nuanced individual. In his notes about the production of A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes muses at length about how his relationship with his wife informed the writing of the role, creating a shadow puppet theater of his own life. He begins by describing the differences between himself and Gena.

I know when I was not working, and Gena was working for me, I was a pretty good housewife and everything else. But I didn't really have the same reactions as a woman would have. Mainly because I didn't have to be a housewife the rest of my life. I didn't have to think into the future of when I'd get older or when my attractiveness would fade, or when the kids would grow up or when the baby would cease to cling to you, and you're not really a mother then, and you have to think, well, should I be the friend or should I be the mother?

Gena and I were speaking about the pictures we were going to make, how the roles are so thin and everything is made so a narrative can work. We were talking about how difficult love was and how tough it could be to make a love story about people who were totally different culturally, coming from two different family groups that were diametrically opposed and yet still regarded each other very highly. I kept thinking about that. Gena and I are absolutely dissimilar in everything we think, do and feel.

Beyond that, men and women are totally different. When I started writing the scripts, I kept these things in mind and didn't want the love story easy. I made a lot of discoveries about my own life.

I absolutely wrote A Woman Under the Influence to try to write a terrific part for my wife. Gena wanted to do a play. She was always complaining we're living in California, she loves the theater and everything. Gena really wanted to do a play on Broadway. And I had always fancied that I would write a play. She wanted something big. She said, "Now look, deal with it from a woman's point of view. I mean deal with it so that I have a part in this thing!" and I said, "OK," and I went off and had been thinking about it for a year anyway. And I had taken seven or eight tries at bad plays and came up with this play, which was not the play the movie was, but it was based on the same characters.

And Gena read it and said, no, she wouldn't do it. And I'm very stubborn so I didn't realize that she liked the part but that on the stage, to play that every night, would kill her. I had no concept of that because we're all obsessed, everyone's obsessed, that is, in this stupid thing. And so I wrote another play on the same subject with the same characters, deepening the characters and making it even more difficult to play. And I gave it to Gena and she said, "I like that tremendously. I like the first one too, but I don't think I could do that on Broadway." So I wrote another play, and now there were three plays! And I took them to New York and I got a producer to produce the plays on Broadway and I thought it was a terrific idea to do these three plays on consecutive nights with matinees, see?

Gena's not a particularly ambitious woman in the trade, as it goes. Although, if she sees a good part, she'll kill herself for it, but I mean kill herself performing it, but not getting it. I mean, it's either given to her, or she'll play with the kids or do something else or go out. When Gena read the plays she said, "No one could do this every night!" She feared they would take her to a sanitarium if she became that keyed up over a long period of time. So then I said, well, all right, let's try to make it a movie.

I can't just go out and make what I want. I have to go through a whole big process of crap, talking to people, proving to them that whatever we are going to do is going to make money. If I can prove to them that my intentions are to make money, then they will let me make any film I want. But it becomes increasingly more difficult to tell them that since I'm not concerned with making money.

You con people and you lie to them. You try to keep a little part of yourself when somebody says to you, "You figure it's the greatest picture ever made?" You try to keep a little part of yourself alive.

 

So I went through all the processes of calling people in Wisconsin and Idaho and, you know, big industrialists, and trying to find out how to raise the money. And we couldn't raise anything, not anything!

Gena tells everyone it's hard to live with me because there is nothing she can say that I don't write down. I see Gena around the house and with the kids and I tape record what I see. I do tape record things and exaggerate them and blow them up and the incidents are not the same. I mean, I'm not a writer at all! I just record what I hear. As prattle. What people are concerned with in a day's living. I have a good ear for prattle. Every line in your life is eaten up by the movies you do.

The preparations for the scripts I've written are really long, hard intense studies. I don't just enter into a film and say, "That's the film we're going to do." I think, "Why make it?" For a long time. I think, "Well, could the people be themselves, does this really happen to people, do they really dream this, do they think this?"

There were weeks of wrestling to get the script right. I knew hard-hat workers like Nick, and Gena knew women like Mabel, and although I wrote everything myself, we would discuss lines and situations with Peter Falk, to get his opinion, to see if he thought they were really true, really honest. The actors discussed the clothes, the characters would be wearing, the influence of money on their lives, the lives of the children, why they sleep on the ground floor, etc.

Everything was discussed, nothing came from me alone. We write a lot of things that aren't in the movie, as background. So that when we got to the scene, you might rewrite on the spot, but we might have already gone in three, four, five, seven, eight, nineteen different versions of the scene.

In replacing narrative, you need an idea. What you do is take an idea that you have about a situation that seems as normal as everyday life so the audience doesn't see the idea. So it doesn't show. Of course the idea itself has to be good. It really has to be first-rate. And the idea in A Woman Under the Influence was a concept of how much you have to pay for love. That's kind of pretentious but I was interested in it. And I didn't know how to do it, and none of the other people knew how either, so we had to work extremely hard.

I knew that love created at once great moments of beauty and that on the other hand it makes you a prisoner. It just seems to me that women are alone and they are made prisoner by their own love. If they commit to something then they have committed to it and it's a torture. And it's true. I mean, I see it in my relationship to Gena. Within such a system, men have always been in a more favorable position they are allowed to test themselves against the rest of the world since they are in contact with it. But I feel it too. A man feels that also. And nobody knows how to handle it. Nobody knows how to handle it.

There's a very small part of all of us that has any kind of value. I think there's a small part of us that says we'd like to say something better than what is usually said, on the purest level. And the rest of it is con-men and struggling people just like everyone else where you're constantly humiliated and go through life, even if you're not humiliated, thinking you are.

And then you get very lucky and you meet a group of creative people that are very much like you who are locked up in their own selves, trying to come out, trying in some way to express something that is very personal to them.

When Gena was committed by Peter and she went to an institution, and as the film says, six months later she comes out I would have thought that she would be so hostile against her husband. But she comes in the house and she never even acknowledges his presence. She's only considering her children.

And we did a take, and I thought, "Should I stop this? I mean, she never even looked at Peter." She walks in the house and everyone greets her and she never looks at her husband I mean, she looks at him, but she never sees him, yet she's not avoiding him. And I thought, well, that's the defenseless thing carrying itself too far here! What are we doing?

All through that homecoming scene I was astounded by what was underneath people, what these actors had gathered in the course of this movie. And I was way behind them. I was staggered because Gena was so quiet and mild. She wasn't hostile at all. I started yelling because I thought she was acting so the audience would like her, but I was wrong. She was expressing fear, which separated her from the people she loved.

When we looked at the dailies, Gena said, "What do you think? I'm at a loss, did we go too far?" And I said, "I didn't like it, I just didn't like it at all." I mean, I found it really embarrassing to watch.

It was just such a horrible thing to do to somebody, to take her into a household with all those people after she'd been in an institution, and their inability to speak to this woman could put her right back in an institution, and yet they were speaking to her, and Gena wanted to get rid of them and at the same time not insult them. But then I thought what Gena did was like poetry. It altered the narrative of the piece. The dialogue was the same, but it really made it different. I would grow to love those scenes very, very much, but the first time I didn't.

By the time you get him to the beach the beach scene, I think, is wonderful, and Peter is wonderful because he has absolutely no idea what he is doing there. I had the camera down there and they just started walking. I never went near them and they are walking and Peter has some lines and he says the lines and then they don't know what to do. Now I could tell them, but that would kill it. What different does it make what he does? He has to do it. I can't do it. The camera can move. It can follow, you know. So where they play that scene and what they do has to be in their own timing. And when Peter gets there at the end of the beach and he pushes the little girl down, there was a wonderful moment. I see him trying to communicate with his children. I see him trying to touch. I see him not caring.

I see so many things that developed that wouldn't have if you formalized a view of the character through your own mind and didn't allow room for interpretation. I wrote it and as soon as I wrote it I killed the writer. There is no writer because the writer can only make the actor feel insecure. I have been in a lot of movies and as soon as the writer would come on the set everyone died. Because the writer knows exactly how everyone should be played, exactly what the intentions are. But writing is one medium and film is another medium.

You can find Molly Lambert's review of John Cassavetes' Husbands here.

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"Always On" - ZAZA (mp3)