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Originals and Remnants

June 10, 2014 | by

The poet Susan Howe is seventy-seven today. A few years ago, she and the musician David Grubbs collaborated on “Frolic Architecture,” a series of multidisciplinary performances that sprang from a book of her collage poems by the same name. Harvard has posted a video of the performance, which is quietly, insistently disruptive. As it progresses, prerecorded shards of Howe’s voice seem to fall into her live voice, and Grubbs fills the space with incidental sounds: insect chirps, gravel and snow and leaves variously underfoot. The performance seems at once to take on weight and ascend into the ether.

Howe remarked on the collage, and the process of recording it, in her 2012 Art of Poetry interview:

HOWE

I am an Americanist. There’s something that we do, a Romantic, utopian ideal of poetry as revelation at the same instant it’s a fall into fracture and trespass. Frolic Architecture cuts itself to bits. It could be that because I am a woman, bullets are more like blanks. What fuels the poems in that collection is the sense of epic breaking into shards.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard the recording of your performance of Frolic, and you actually speak—sound out—its fragments and phonemes, those shards. You treat your work as a score.

HOWE

Collaborating with the musician-composer David Grubbs has brought vividly home to me how acoustic a seemingly collaged and visual work can be. Several years ago our first collaboration was for a performance at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, and was based around an early poem of mine called “Thorow.” We collaborated again to produce Souls of the Labadie Tract. The work I have done with David has influenced the course of my later poetry by showing me a range of contemporary music with which I was unfamiliar. It also restored my earlier interest in Charles Ives. I love the way Ives’s musical use of quotation throws connectives to the winds. His work is Romantic and iconoclastic at once.

And in the journal Lana Turner, Ben Lerner wrote with typical acuity about the performance:

I assumed Grubbs had digitally manipulated Howe’s voice in order to mimic the fragmentation of the collages. And Grubbs did often and artfully alter her voice, but it turns out that many of the sounds I thought were digital slivers weren’t. It simply did not occur to me that Howe would be capable of reading such diverse phonemes and even smaller linguistic particles in real time with such precision. But she is: I have never heard a person pronounce “nt” or “rl,” for instance, so exactly. Howe can render even the most distressed text acoustic … Howe’s recorded voice—sometimes digitally cut up, sometimes left alone—alternated or overlapped with the live performance, and Grubbs had made sure that there was little or no perceptible sonic difference between what was digital and what was happening before us; when I shut my eyes, I couldn’t tell. This blurring of the boundary between the live and the recorded was a deft way to indicate how Howe’s poems are at once originals and remnants.

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“The Swimmer” and The Swimmer

May 27, 2014 | by

It’s John Cheever’s birthday, and courtesy of 92Y, you can listen to a recording of the author reading his most famous story, “The Swimmer,” in December 1977. It’s easy to shrug off such a canonical piece of fiction, especially when its hero is named Neddy. But if you, like me, haven’t glanced at it since it appeared on one syllabus or another, “The Swimmer” is worth rereading; though its more surreal elements feel contrived to me, the prose still glitters and the dark humor survives:

It would storm. The stand of cumulus cloud—that city—had risen and darkened, and while he sat there he heard the percussiveness of thunder again. The de Haviland trainer was still circling overhead and it seemed to Ned that he could almost hear the pilot laugh with pleasure in the afternoon; but when there was another peal of thunder he took off for home. A train whistle blew and he wondered what time it had gotten to be. Four? Five? He thought of the provincial station at that hour, where a waiter, his tuxedo concealed by a raincoat, a dwarf with some flowers wrapped in newspaper, and a woman who had been crying would be waiting for the local.

I hadn’t known, though Google suggests it’s common knowledge, that “The Swimmer” was adapted into a feature-length film, released in 1968, starring Burt Lancaster as Neddy. According to a thorough assessment at Turner Classic Movies, The Swimmer succeeds in adapting the unadaptable:

It succeeds brilliantly as a fascinating, enigmatic drama that ponders middle-age disillusionment and failure. It’s one of those lucky accidents that occurred in the sixties when Hollywood was still open to experimentation because most studio executives were completely insecure in predicting commercial hits. After all, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) had blindsided the industry with their unexpected box-office grosses. So maybe audiences were ready for more challenging films like The Swimmer? Unfortunately, the film was a box-office flop, but part of its commercial failure was due to poor marketing by Columbia. 

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Watch: The Greta Garbo of American Letters

May 8, 2014 | by

Pynchon-simpsons

A still from Pynchon’s “appearance” on The Simpsons, for which he lent his voice.

Today is Thomas Pynchon’s birthday. His fans have also declared it Pynchon in Public Day, a social-media tribute with a modest concept: take to the streets with your camera and post photos of “horns, W.A.S.T.E. insignia, [and] the novels of Thomas Pynchon read unashamedly on trains, while still sub-rosa. It is simple, it is inevitable, it has begun.”

And so it has: Twitter teems with shadowy portraits of those Awaiting Silent Trystero’s Empire. If you’re not about to draw a muted post-horn in a public restroom, you can celebrate Pynchon in Public Day by revisiting this CNN report from 1997, when, upon the release of Mason & Dixon, the cable-news pooh-bahs determined to track him down—his privacy was simply too inscrutable to ignore. Being CNN, they found him, but he prevailed upon them to refrain from identifying him on camera; he appeared as one among the crowds of New York. Read More »

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Visualize It

February 6, 2014 | by

Screen shot 2014-02-06 at 6.01.42 PM

Many thanks to Ed Summers, who writes code for libraries—the Library of Congress among them—and who has generated this impressive visualization of authors, their Paris Review interviews, and their links to one another. More specifically, this charts the way our interviews interact with Wikipedia—that is, which Wikipedia articles cite our interviews. As you can see, it’s … complicated.

Ed has written about his methods here. Apparently all but forty of our interviews are linked to Wikipedia in some capacity. From this I can only infer that we’re headed inexorably toward a state of total Internet domination, and that anyone who stands in our way will be crushed under the weight of our burgeoning link-connection-web-computer-sphere-thing.

 

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Key West Karaoke

January 29, 2014 | by

While we’re on the subject of the Florida Keys, here’s Annie Dillard, Laurent de Brunhoff, Robert D. Richardson Jr., and Phyllis Rose singing the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” in Key West, circa 1995. If the sheer infectiousness of Dillard’s dancing doesn’t get you, maybe the nineties-era video effects will. This is Rising Star Video Karaoke, after all—not amateur hour.

 

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Darkling I Listen

December 23, 2013 | by

All this week, we are bringing you some of your favorite posts from 2013. Happy holidays!

Herewith, Benedict Cumberbatch reads John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”

 

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