My 3 Things - June 2016

1. LISTENING: Camille O'Sullivan singing "Look, Mummy"
The doormat lay on the sidewalk. In a mix of fonts, it welcomed me to the Irish Arts Center. I got my ticket from a large woman squeezed into a small coat closet under the stairs. I squeezed myself into a sagging, crooked seat in the second-to-last row. Four songs in, Camille killed me with her raw, heart-wrenching performance of this raw, heart-wrenching song. When I stopped being dead, my only thought was "I wish I'd written that."

 

2. SEEING: Shakespeare's Henriad at Brooklyn Academy of Music in late April
I'm a Shakespeare freak. Though I'd dabbled with the Bard in high school, my habit got serious at Harvard thanks to Professor Marjorie Garber's fantastic class on his later works. Garber's swagger was infectious. She encouraged a deep, visceral engagement with the plays and with the phenomenon of "Shakespeare," in quotation marks, as he appears across the centuries. 

Ever since, I've seen as many of the plays as I can, wherever I can -- in theaters large and small, in warehouses, on movie screens, on people's porches. Notable productions include the six-hour immersive staging of three Roman tragedies in a row (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus) that Ivo van Hove did at BAM in Dutch with subtitles (!) and Julie Taymor's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream with an indelible performance by Kathryn Hunter as Puck. 

In late April, I courted deep-vein thrombosis once again by seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henriad at BAM in its final weekend -- Richard II on Friday night, Henry IV Part I & II on Saturday, and Henry V on Sunday. That's about 12 hours of theater.  

Re-reading the plays and seeing them performed over and over is not only an inexhaustible delight but also an opportunity to refresh and revivify my imagination and sense of the possibilities of language. My whole idea of Richard II changed after seeing David Tennant's arresting and spectral-like performance of the ineffectual and spoiled King in this production. Every time I engage with the plays, be it a highbrow production by the Royal Shakespeare Company or a lowbrow puppet show in an off-off-off-Broadway "theater," new aspects of character, language, and relationship are revealed, opened, explored, magnified.

This has everything to do with music and songwriting for me. The compulsion to experience Shakespeare is akin to listening over and over again to the gems of the Great American Songbook as done by different singers and instrumentalists. For example, what a wonder it is, what interesting thoughts and feelings are brought up by searching My Funny Valentine in Spotify or iTunes and listening to ten or twenty different renditions. The range, depth, and breadth of interpretations is stunning. I've heard hundreds of versions of My Funny Valentine. Is there a reason to stop listening to or singing this song? Do I know everything there is to know about My Funny Valentine? I hope not. I've seen four stagings of King Lear in the last twelve months. Do I know enough about King Lear now to stop seeing it performed? I hope not and I expect never to. I feel about Shakespeare and the Great American Songbook the way Robert Frost felt about reading poems in light of other poems, "Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do."

 

3. READING: The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
I'm so frickin' late to this bandwagon, it's a joke. At dinner with a handful of writer friends last month, Amy Hempel came up in conversation. My friends were smitten, almost panting, definitely tripping over each other to get a word in about their favorite Hempel story. There was no way not to put this book at the top of my reading list. Turns out, I've been living under a rock. It's not surprising, really. Short stories aren't my first stop at the buffet. I gravitate towards the heavy end of the spread -- the beefy novel, hearty, full, fleshy. Paradoxically, short stories make me feel impatient. I'm too hungry going in and so, in a rush, I don't savor or chew enough. I start eating and in a blink the plate is bald. Somewhere in there I've read a short story, but it's over before I've really tasted it. That is, unless they're really short, a la Lydia Davis. Then, it's like peanut M&Ms. I can't get enough. I think this is because those ultra-short stories are roughly the length of a well-written song, which is, of course, what I'm most interested in.

In case you live under a similar rock, allow me to lift the edge an inch. Hempel writes short stories marked by packed lines and suggestive, strange moments. She begins where another writer would leave off, or she writes the story behind the story behind the story. It is about voice and raising the stakes so high it's excruciating. She's also deeply, darkly funny. More than a few lines made me laugh out loud and at the same time wonder what exactly in the sentence made me laugh so hard. Her writing stays with you, bubble gum stuck to the shoe of your mind. I gather from my writer friends that it's redundant to recommend Hempel's story "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" because it's been so widely anthologized that if you're under the age of 30 and spent any time in the humanities department at an institution of higher education, you've probably been assigned to read it five times. Well, consider this your sixth assignment or your first. 

(Extra credit: Rick Moody's introductory essay to The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel is absolutely stunning and worth reading both before and after you read the book. His essay reads like the best liner notes ever written about your favorite band's greatest album.)

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