Musing on National Poetry Month

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April is National Poetry Month. I have enjoyed writing poems since I was a kid, but I tend to get lost in other ventures and don’t write as many as I should. Sometimes I will compose something on a car journey based on something I heard on the radio or in a song or from a conversation. I also composed paintings or work on play scenes. The mindlessness of a long drive frees my brain for other things, it seems.

The other great inspiration is a deadline. ISSUE, the monthly arts I put together, has a poetry submission page, “Thoughtcrime.” While I get quite a few submissions, I often find I need something for the page. Sometimes I have free rein, but the most fun is when I have a limitation — not just for time.

Sometimes I need a short piece (come on down, Haiku). Sometimes I need 20 lines to fill in a hole. Sometimes I need short lines or long lines to fit the space available. Then it’s finding a theme. I have written Dada poems, Surreal poems, poems that are plays on words, puns or history. Sometimes I will go for an acrostic. I wrote a piece inspired by a black and white French film, and another based on the concept of random fragments “found” on ancient pottery (which was a great chance to write a series of seemingly interconnected fragments which, with some imagination, could possibly have been related at some historical point). I even write a poem about Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the style of Samuel Taylor Coleridge while I was taking a Romantic literature graduate class.

So finding myself up against deadline for the May ISSUE, and it being the anniversary of William Shakespeare‘s death (and probably birthday), I was inspired to write a small piece to honor the great man — whomever he may be. Here’s what I came up with:

 

Bardolatry

The mind dwells  on the Bard of Avon, Will,
Who shuffled off this mortal coil, on this day of his death,
April 23, in certainty, yet there be conjecture still,
If on this date in Stratford, as well he first drew breath.
Or even if the poet was, Shakespeare only in name,
The quill held by some other hand, when it performed the feat,
Essex, Marlowe, Johnson, or some other eschewing fame,
No matter, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

 

And this blog was written and submitted on April 30 — right on deadline. #inspiration

To submit a poem for publication in ISSUE, email info@artstudio.org. 

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Review: ‘A Quiet Place’ is silent surprise

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May contain spoilers

Ssshhhh…

The horror movie genre is the source of some innovative film making lately and, following on the success of “Get Out,” which picked up an Oscar for Jordan Peele’s screenplay, “A Quiet Place” is a taut and clever entry into the field.

Directed, co-written (with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) and starring John Krasinski, the film opens with the Abbott family silently padding barefoot around an abandoned grocery store. A title simply states “89 days.” The youngest child, Beau, played by Cade Woodward, draws a rocket in chalk on the floor. He uses sign language to tell his father, Lee, that it will take them all away. On his way out he takes a toy rocket, complete with batteries, and the family head home.

It turns out toy rockets that make noise are a bad idea in this world. Moments later, boom! — we are all in.

Jump to just over a year later and we see the family in a farmhouse that is rigged to eliminate sound. Cloth dice knitted game pieces on a board game. The floorboards are marked to indicate which ones don’t creak.

quietposterLee has built a basement lab, complete with radio equipment, cameras that show grainy images of the surroundings, and news cuttings that scream “It’s Sound” and indicate that something has happened. On a white board there is a note that there are three of “them.” I love that we are not given a massive backstory. Something has happened. Some sort of threat is here. Our goal is to survive. Do we really care what came before? Does it even matter?

There is often a tendency for film makers to over-explain things, to bog the action down with backstory. We are given just enough info to establish that there are alien monsters who are blind but have super hearing. They are quick and lethal once they hear you. So shh….

The family, meanwhile, is trying to live as normal a life as they can. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee are affectionate, they eat family dinners, the teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is moody, and the son Marcus (Noah Jupe) is being a kid, albeit silently, and gives us a fantastic face that expresses fear with wide-eyed sincerity.

Regan is deaf, as is Simmonds herself, and her deafness is a strong component of the story. Presumably, the family being able to sign has helped their initial survival. Lee is constantly working to build a hearing aid for his daughter. Simmonds gives an excellent nuanced performance.

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Noah Jupe, left, Millicent Simmonds and John Krasinski in “A Quiet Place

 There is something inherently tense about the ongoing silence which draws us all into the Abbotts’ world, as we sit, mostly silent, in the darkened theater. Every footstep makes the heart skip a beat. Audiences have even taken to scolding people for eating popcorn to loudly. In order for a horror film to work, the audience must become part of the show and become immersed in the situation. “A Quiet Place” certainly brings us along for the ride.

Oh, by the way, Evelyn is heavily pregnant. What kind of people would bring a child into a world where the very thing that children do — make noise — could bring calamity on the whole family? And how is she expecting to give birth quietly? Children in a post-apocalyptic world are necessary if humanity is to survive, but they are always a huge problem in the survival stakes.

The subtle thread that runs through the film is the father-daughter relationship. It is not deafness that is the source of their inability to communicate, but rather how does a father show his love when his every effort is for survival? Ultimately, his love is expressed in a sound she cannot hear.

One could argue that the monsters are a little derivative, but this film is really not about them. They are simply something to overcome. The really scary thing is the silence. There is danger in everyday items, like a creaky floorboard, a rusty nail, a picture frame. When every sound can mean death, everything is a threat.

Krasinski’s direction wisely doesn’t overdo it. A less sure hand would have had kids running through wind chimes or some other contrived noise maker. By keeping it simple, he keeps it real. And that’s where the tension and fear lies.

“A Quiet Place” is a masterpiece of storytelling. There is no real on-screen violence. The monsters are mostly just glimpsed blurs until the end, yet the film cleverly builds the suspense. It is a story of a family and every parent’s fear — that they cannot really protect their kids. And that’s the scariest thing of all.

“A Quiet Place” is rated PG-13. For best effect, see it at the theater, or at least somewhere really quiet.

Lies, lies … and great fun

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Shelby Dryden, left, Sydney Haygood and Emily Buesing rehearse a scene from “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the Studio Theatre at Lamar University. Courtesy photo

Review: LU theatre’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is terrific entertainment

“The Importance of Being Earnest,” is a farce about deception and triviality, but there is nothing deceptive or trivial about Lamar University theatre’s latest production. The excellence is in plain view.

Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy gets a fresh showing with an ensemble that is fits seamlessly together, under the direction of husband and wife guest artists Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, from Houston’s 4th Wall Theatre.

The play gets off to a rollicking start in the apartment of Algernon Moncrief, played superbly by Chris Shroff, who is louche and bendy, and positively exudes entitled irresponsibility. He is visited by his friend “Ernest,” played Ed Seymour. The contrast between the characters is well balanced, with Seymour acting as a low-key foil to Shroff’s outlandishness. As events progress, we discover that both men have created fictional excuses to be one thing in the country and quite another in town.

“Ernest” is , in fact, Jack Worthing, who, in the country, is the responsible guardian of his ward, Cecily Cardew, played by Emily Buesing. “Ernest” is Jack’s invented, far less responsible brother. Algernon has invented an invalid friend, “Bunbury, whose ailments require frequent trips out of town.

earnestThese fictions afford each man to have his cake and eat it, too (in Algernon’s case, quite literally, as he spends most of the play snacking on whatever is available).

Jack is in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, played by Sydney Haygood, and is ready to kill his “brother” off and come clean so they can marry. The couple’s furtive looks and sly flirting are a delight.

This being Wilde, the course of true love is destined never to run smooth. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, will not agree to the marriage and Act 1 ends with Jack on his way to a business meeting, and Algernon secretly off to meet Cecily.

In Act 2, the action bristles as Gwendolyn and Cecily meet, both believing they are engaged to the same man — Ernest (whose name is signifies the “earnest” qualities they seek). Haygood and Buesing are quite a double act, shifting from sisters to rivals and back again as they exchange barely-veiled barbs. Haygood, as the sultry city girl, is hilarious, and Buesing’s almost cloying naïve sweetness is the perfect counterpart. Both women know what they want and will not be thwarted.

Dryden’s Lady Bracknell is domineering and overbearing. She almost barks her lines, leaving the others cowering before her, with a sense of absolute surety and entitlement that comes with her class. Wilde’s play is a commentary and indictment of the shallowness of high society. When Act 3 rolls around, we find she has family secrets of her own.

It would be unfair not recognize the other members of the ensemble, Austin Jones, Brianna Butler, Maddy Hightower and Josh Pendino. There was no weak link in the cast.

The direction is crisp and the three acts positively fly by. The staging, in the round, is wonderfully choreographed as the actors circle each other like predators going in for the kill.

Kudos also go to Cherie Acosta’s costume crew, who have come up with a wonderful color palette (the play is set in the 1950s).

Wilde’s play was first performed in 1895, but it is as funny today — and as biting a social commentary — as it was then. This production is a must-see.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” will continue tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre.

Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 LU/LIT faculty and staff, senior citizens and Non-LU students and $7 for LU/LIT student with a valid ID.

Review: Jackson triumphs in ‘Three Tall Women’

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Alison Pill, left, Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf in a publicity shot for “Three Tall Women.”

NEW YORK — I must begin with a disclaimer. Glenda Jackson is a personal hero of mine. Of course, she is a terrific actor, as her two Academy Awards and countless theatrical honors will testify, but she also spent 23 years in the British Parliament working tirelessly as a Labour MP for a London constituency. It was there she gave a magnificent fire-brand speech against Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.

So when I found out she was, at the age of 81, returning to Broadway, I had to try to see her. When I found out it was in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” I was even more excited. Then there was the little matter of her co-stars being Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill — I was all in.

How wonderful, then, to report that I was not disappointed. In fact, it was one of those occasions where expectations were not only met, but exceeded.

I like Albee’s plays but had not seen or read “Three Tall Women.” One thinks of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Zoo Story” or “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” and I knew this play won him the last of his three Pulitzer Prizes, but I was surprised by how wonderful the writing is. Amazingly, this is the first time the play has been mounted on Broadway.

threetallposterThe titular women are listed only as A., B. and C., a nonagenarian, her housekeeper and a young lawyer. When we meet them, A. is cantankerous and feisty, cooped up in her luxurious apartment, reliant on B. to help her. B. is used to the foibles of her charge and carries out her duties with a minimum of fuss and a weary seen-it-all demeanor. C. is there to talk about A.’s finances, matter-of-factly contradicting the old woman when A. claims to be 91, pointing out that she’s 92. Is that vanity or forgetfulness? A. seems to have her faculties intact even if her body betrays her age.

Jackson’s signature voice is strong and dominating, even as she carries herself with the frailty of age. This is not a contradiction, but rather a character that, as Dylan Thomas wrote, is raging against the dying of the light.

The nominal Act 1 (the play has no intermission) ends with A. incapacitated by a stroke, but that leads us to the switch. All three actors are now A. at different stages of her life. C. is young, single and hopeful. B. is 54, jaded and can see the choices her younger self has made, although she is not quite yet A. Theoretically, these women are all Albee’s mother, who adopted him as an infant, yet never really adapted to the subtleties of motherhood.

The three women argue, with a verbal thrust and parry. C. is incredulous at what she will become. B. is at that moment of her life when she can already see what she will become.

But this is A.’s, and Jackson’s, play. She is facing her death not with a whimper but with defiance, the same way she lived her life. The story about her husband and the necklace is darkly funny and offers a window into her psyche. Jackson is every bit as good as her reputation suggests. From the moment the play starts, she controls the proceedings, pushing and pulling her fellow actors, who play their parts to perfection.

In Act 2, when they get to share time as A., Metcalf and Pill are given more to play with and they are certainly up to the task. Pill’s lawyer is given the least to do, but as young A., not yet a bitter old woman, she sets up the scene for the other two to “educate” her as to what to expect from life.

Metcalf shows her chops with two different portrayals, with the downtrodden housekeeper contrasted with the steely middle-aged A., who, while embittered, is, as she says, at the top of the hill, able to look down on the others — and “What a view.”

The production, directed by Joe Mantello, makes use of some clever staging as the three women become one (at my first attempt to see the play in previews the show had to be canceled because the computer didn’t work), but in all honesty it would have been just as powerful with the three women sitting in a bare room.

Albee has given these actors a gift, with three parts for women that truly stand tall.

“Three Tall Women” is at the John Golden Theater through June 24.

 

So many books, so little time

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One section of the Beaumont Friends of the Library 10-cent book sale.

The Beaumont Friends of the Library held their annual 10-cent Book Sale this past weekend. The basement was crammed with 5,000 to 10,000 books (plus some records, DVDs and CDs) for the ridiculously low price of 10 cents each. For even the casual bibliophile, it is an opportunity too hard to pass up.

But what about those of us who have “too many” books (just kidding, there is no such thing as “too many” books). I already have two boxes of unread books from recent estate sales stashed in the corner of my office, so do I really need the 31 books I bought at the sale?

According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan,” yes I do.

In Jessica Stillman’s Dec. 5 story in Ink.com, she cites Taleb’s theory of the “antilibrary”:

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A few of the goodies picked up at the 10-cent sale.

A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

While I acknowledge that my insistence on owning and keeping the books I have read (preferably with whatever I used as a bookmark staying with it), is somewhat excessive (and the reason I don’t like libraries — one has to give the book back), the idea of unread books as a motivator is sound. One of my old editors once told me that the thought that she will never get to read everything is depressing, but it didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try. It is no coincidence that she has gone on to a pretty successful career.

I was studying Romantic literature in a graduate class one day when I came across a passing reference to William Wordsworth‘s poem “Tintern Abbey.” It was not part of the syllabus, and with the volume of reading for the course, I was unlikely to get to it. I was probably not going to have time for it once I started the next class either. It suddenly occurred to me that I was likely to get a master’s in English while never having read “Tintern Abbey.” How much more was I not going to have read? How much more was I not going to know?

Although it is a relatively short poem,  I resolved never to read “Tintern Abbey.” It is the symbol to remind me that I cannot do it all. No matter how much I think I know, I don’t know “Tintern Abbey.”

It probably sounds stupid, but I have all sorts of coping mechanisms to keep me sane-ish, so it’s just another on the list.

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A nice Henry Moore brick-sized book.

So my collection grows (it’s not hoarding if it’s books — and at least I am not like Umberto Eco who owned 30,000, although that sounds wonderful). I like to be surrounded by them. It makes me happy to sit back surrounded by past experiences. And many of them are art books, which don’t count because it’s not like reading when you are scouring the pictures for inspiration.

But honestly, I don’t need excuses. I just like knowing stuff (so teaching journalism is a good career choice, it’s all about wanting to know more stuff). When I was a child I reveled in being called a know-it-all, which people thought was supposed to be an insult. But I am not a know-it-all. I am a know-very-little. But it’s something to aim for.

“The wise man is one who knows what he does not know” — Lao Tsu

Review: ‘Black Panther’ great entertainment for all

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The latest entry is the Marvel Comic Universe is the highly anticipated “Black Panther.” While the character does not have the history of other high-powered entries such as Iron Man, Spiderman and Thor, its central hero is the first black superhero to take center stage. It is hard to imagine the pressure that director Ryan Coogler must have felt. Not only is this his first mega-budget project, but he also carried the weight of black expectations on his shoulders.

What a pleasure then that “Black Panther” is not only a box-office smash, but it is also really quite good — visually stunning with a well-written story (Coogler co-wrote it with Joe Robert Cole). While I am no comic book aficionado, I do enjoy being entertained, preferably with some interesting subtexts, and Black Panther certainly fits the bill.

BlackPantherPosterThe story centers on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the new ruler of the African kingdom of Wakanda, a country that to the outside world is poor and agrarian. In reality, it is far more advanced than any other country, both in terms of its technology and its utopian society, thanks to the reserves of vibranium, a mysterious substance that remains pretty much unexplained, but it’s a comic book story so who cares. Vibranium is a McGuffin, a device to allow the story to move forward.

T’Challa, his spy ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and General Okoye (Danai Gurira, Michonne from “The Walking Dead”), are on the hunt for Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who stole some vibranium in a violent attack that left many dead. Of course, it was an inside job.

That’s about as far as I need to go, there will be no spoilers here, suffice to say that Michael B. Jordan (who starred in the magnificent “Fruitvale Station,” Coogler’s directorial debut — if you haven’t seen it then you must), Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitacker, Angela Bassett and a host of other big names make up a wonderful ensemble. Special mention must be made of Letitia Wright who plays Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and a tech wiz, who is all sibling sass and self-confidence.

To say that “Black Panther” is simply a black film would be to do it a great injustice. There are multiple characters but they all get enough time for us to get to know them. Even the real big bad (no spoilers) is nuanced and sympathetic. The action is tight and well done, but it is the interplay of the characters that is the highlights of the movie.

Okoye-Nakia-and-Ayo-in-Dora-Milaje-outfits-Black-Panther“Black Panther” is also heavy on feminism. In Wakanda, it is the women who are the main warriors, fierce and loyal to the country. The leading spy — a woman — is also an activist for the oppressed.

The movie touches on the dangers of colonialism, as well as the plight of minorities outside of the Wakanda’s borders. It is a film that discusses the relative merits of isolationism, the virtues of foreign aid, the radicalizing of disenfranchised youth, and the power of teamwork.

Past black superheroes have been side characters — X-Men” had Storm, but that character did not have the heft of “Black Panther.” Falcon and War Machine were not main players in the Avengers. Wesley Snipes’ “Blade,” for all his bad-assery, was hardly the positive role model. By contrast, T’Challa is a king whose main struggle is how to do the right thing with the gifts he has. He is noble, kind and trusts his friends.

“Black Panther” is the perfect superhero movie for our time The fact that there has been a backlash by some Alt-right idiots about it being “too black or “too militant” just shows how needed it is.

There is one other thing “Black Panther” has going for it — it is excellent entertainment.

Rated PG-13