Tuesday, May 26, 2009

New York missive no 52 - The compost heap approach to poems; New York Women Social Entrepreneurs

In an interview in Poets and Writers magazine the poet Ann Lauterbach gives the following description of Obama, which seems to capture his qualities well – and by extension the qualities that make inspiring leaders: "I think that Obama has a certain nobility of character – and nobility is not a word one uses lightly. I’ve been reading his book Dreams From My Father, where he makes clear his struggles to become himself. But if you learn these hard lessons and don’t allow yourself to become self-pitying or bitter or paranoid, you can gain a kind of responsive detachment, clarity and courage. My advice to him is, ‘To thine own self be true’”.


Speaking of words of wisdom from poets, last week I went to one of the Writer’s Studio craft classes, with the poet RW. We were in classroom 3B at the Village Community School. High up along one wall were some big coloured paper birds nests with eggs and $ bills inside them – outside the classroom some pigeons were cooing loudly as if disgruntled to have been separated from their nests. The man sitting next to me was wearing red socks, and there was a tiny dot (a bit bright for blood) on his white shirtsleeve. About half-way through, a tiny sparrow-like lady with a makeup-caked face snuck in and crouched down in between us, trying to be quiet as she rummaged through her handbag for her notebook.

Despite these quirky distractions I caught most of the class. RW’s a small, gentle-looking woman in round glasses, which contrasted wonderfully with her feisty descriptions of her poetry-writing process. She talked about tackling a poem about a painting by “fighting” with the painting (to avoid slipping into the trap of simply describing or eulogizing it). She talked of “cannibalizing” others’ poems – in particular the ancient Greeks’, which she reads in the original Greek – of her “jacknife” poems that are “short, sharp and just a little dangerous”, and of how war emerged as a theme of her latest anthology, both war in the geopolitical sense and wars that get played out between bedroom walls.

Oh and she gave a great compost heap analogy. She’ll write a poem, or the first few drafts of a poem. Then she’ll leave it to compost for a while. Then she’ll go back, lift up the compost bin lid and see how it’s doing. If it’s not ready for a re-write, she’ll ruffle and rake the compost about, put the lid back on, and come back a few days later. No wonder it takes her on average nine years to complete an anthology. But from the poems she read at that class, it’s worth the wait. She has a refreshing disregard for the pressures of the publishing industry, which expects prominent authors to churn out a new book every few years. “All I care about is the poems,” she said with a grin.


JB and I found ourselves in the top floor of ABC Carpet and Home one evening last week, in a lushly furnished living room-type area brimming with well-turned out New York women. (They were not over-dressed but all looked like a certain amount of care and attention had gone into their smart-casual outfits). They sat on the stylishly-upholstered sofas and chairs clutching glasses of wine. Late arrivals, including us, sat on the floor on cushions. A scene from a modern-day Jane Austen novel.

The occasion was a meeting of the New York Women Social Entrepreneurs – the women speaking included Patti Carpenter, Founder of Carpenter + Co, Amy Chender, VP of Social Responsibility at ABC Home and Rebecca Kousky who at the age of 24 founded Nest, a microfinance non-profit that helps women create arts & crafts businesses. Patti described ways in which sourcing high-end textiles from indigenous women suppliers in Bolivia, Guatemala and elsewhere is a learning process on both sides. Not all of Bloomingdale’s doorstopper of a supplier's manual with questions like "location of fire escape?" applies to women working from their one-room homes, for example. Rebecca talked about the difference between a 'male', linear, business-plan oriented approach to establishing and running a business, and the 'female' approach she used when she set up her company, asking a wide group of friends and contacts for advice and support. The economic downturn, she suggested, was partly a product of too much male, not enough female, approach to doing business. How little things change...that was a point I made in an article I wrote back in 2002 on the World Conference for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New York missive no 51 - Jane Fonda, an arty stroll in Fort Greene

“We’ll see all the wrinkles from here,” said a woman sitting in the theatre’s 2nd row before 33 Variations begun, starring Jane Fonda. Mu and I had wangled affordable seats and were in the first row. We certainly did have a good view of the wrinkles. Fonda was striking on the stage but also vulnerable. Which was appropriate as she was acting a musicologist suffering from a debilitating disease which progressively worsened throughout the play, while she pursued her obsession with Beethoven’s obsession with Diabelli’s ostensibly unremarkable waltz (on which he wrote 33 variations) while his hearing and health progressively worsened too.

At the end of the play Fonda’s character comes to a conclusion, of sorts, on Beethoven's intentions with those 33 Variations. Through his persistent musical mining of that one piece he demonstrated the power of holding still. Of treasuring a single moment, or in this case a single snippet of music, and revealing the multitudes of meaning and beauty it contains. The message has resonated with moments from before and after seeing the play. When I walked through Central Park to hear Le Clézio talk, from the flank of the Museum of Natural History at West 81st across to East 86th, I’d thought about writing a full story about just that one 15-minute walk. Slowing right down. Its ingredients would include: the woman sitting with her dog beneath a tree on a hillock raised above the pathway, the evening sun spilling onto them through the leaves; the echo of my footsteps under the restored Winterdale arch (described at the bottom of this page along with lots of others); Trish Mayo and her silver tangled branches on the roof of the Met. Then on the SONYA (South of the Navy Yard Artists) studio stroll in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with W, A and SK yesterday afternoon we encountered artists who freeze moments in time, like W’s friend the potter Ragnar Naess, and Valerie Willams, who used an electron microscope to capture magnified images of sand grains and plants.

As the narrator says in Paul Auster's Ghosts (part of the New York Trilogy) that I re-read this weekend, “...the present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold.”

The SONYA stroll was as interesting for the intriguing glimpses into Fort Greene indoor spaces as it was for the art in them. There was Ragnar’s house on Hall Street. The whole of the downstairs is his studio, lit when we were there by white spring light that entered through a large window at one end of the room and that rubbed the edges of clay sculptures, paint tubes, wooden work-surfaces, a clock with a different bird for each number and a black cat who wove in and out of it all. The window opened onto a tangled garden that was almost fluorescent. There was 112 Washington Avenue, a rickety four-storey house crammed with artists’ studios where we encountered a slobbering Saint Bernard and where the artistic highlight was the fabulous Haitian-American painter Francks Décéus. Of course the studios with closed doors but chinks in them were more interesting than those we could wander freely into, offering up glimpses of a carpenter at work, or a dormant grey and green painted canvass. There was Brooklyn Masonic Temple. One of the stroll studios was on the third floor of this intimidating building. We were escorted up in a creaky wooden elevator. The half-moon dial marking where the elevator had reached wasn’t working on the ground floor, but was on the third where we disembarked. We were pointed left to Katie Elevitch's studio. She was sitting on a stool in the middle of a morass of chaotic paintings, guitar in hand, mane of red hair hanging over her face and accompanied on the piano by a skinny suited man with a handlebar moustache. We had little choice but to take up her offer to sit on a springy sofa and be entertained with a song involving a mattress, a catamaran, and, when the lyrics dwindled, a rendition of the yoga chant om mani padme hum.

We wound up in Bati, a new Ethiopian restaurant on Fulton Street. There we feasted on meat stews slopped up un-dextrously in springy bread, washed down with white wine.


Soon after I moved into 211 West 109th Street I emerged from the shower one morning to see my red wool dress spread out on the bed. I was convinced I hadn’t laid it out there. It was summer and there was no way I was planning to wear it. I was less disconcerted than I might have been. I hung it back up and told myself some female ghost had been checking out my wardrobe. There were no more surprises like that in the apartment though I did sometimes have a feeling I wasn’t alone.

After I moved back downtown, I got an email from the new occupant JA. He mentioned money I was owed back from Time Warner then added, “I found out about this grisly thing that took place here on the fifth floor of 211 W109th in 1992”, and provided this link to a news story about two murdered girls. There are only two apartments on the fifth floor that face onto the fire escape where the super climbed up and discovered the bodies, so there was a 50% chance the murders happened in my apartment and that therefore, of course, it was one of those two girls who had laid my red dress out on my bed.

A few weeks later, another email from JA: "After more internet searches I found out that the grisly murder took place in flat 5A [mine was 5B], so hopefully the ghosts will stay on that side of the wall”.

In a ridiculously privileged way I'm running the risk of cultural saturation (not that dangerous a risk). Last night went at the last minute to see David Hare performing his Berlin / Wall - wow, would whitter further were I not having to head into work. And a few weeks ago saw Jeremy Irons in Impressionism. Am I subconsciously hankering for British accents?