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Posts Tagged ‘California’

Regarding Mystery: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

September 9, 2014 | by

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Photo: Timothy Archibald

In San Francisco earlier this spring, I’d hoped to meet the essayist Richard Rodriguez, the author of The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and, most recently, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, which has just been published in paperback. Though he’s largely associated with his early stances against affirmative action and bilingual education, not to mention his regular appearances on the PBS NewsHour, Rodriguez, who turned seventy in July, has had a wide-ranging career, and I wanted to discuss the shift of his work from cultural identity to religion. But our schedules were tricky to coordinate, and then I lost my wallet. “Pray to St. Anthony!” Rodriguez immediately wrote. (The wallet was recovered by one of the famous bellmen at Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “St. Anthony dressed as a beefeater,” as Rodriguez put it.) Instead, we corresponded for several weeks.

I was excited and surprised by Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. I had seen you referred to as a Mexican-American writer, a Californian writer, and a gay writer, but never, until recently, as a religious writer. Have you always considered yourself a religious writer? 

Of course, I haven’t, until lately, considered myself a “writer”—in the grand sense. For most of my writing life, I have stood truly, if uneasily, on American bookstore shelves as a sociological sample—shelved “Latino” between a gangbanger’s book of poetry and the biography of a Colombian drug lord. Only in recent years, as it has become clear to me that so few people I know read books, have I been struck by the fact that I am a writer.

My sense of being religious is older. From boyhood, particularly my lower-middle-class childhood in Sacramento, I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery. Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle. I later went with the cortege to the cemetery. There was a fresh pile of soil piled high at the edge of the grave site, discreetly, if unsuccessfully, covered by an AstroTurf rug that was as unconvincing a denial of the hardness of time as a cheap toupee. I wondered at the mourners’ faces—the melting grief, the hard stoicism. Thirty minutes from the grave, I was back within the soft green walls of Sacred Heart Parish School. It was almost lunchtime. I resumed my impersonation of an American kid. Read More »

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Jessoterica

August 6, 2014 | by

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Interior page from From Force of Habit, 1966, collage book, approx. 8" x 5 ¾ ". Courtesy of the Odyssia Gallery, New York, NY.

Jess Collins, better known as just Jess, was a painter and collagist born today in 1923. Jess spent most of his life in the Bay Area, where he lived with his longtime partner, the poet Robert Duncan. (The latter died in 1988; the former in 2004.) In our Fall 2012 issue, The Paris Review featured some of Jess’s work in collage, or “paste-ups”; as our own Nicole Rudick explains,

Jess and Duncan shared a lifelong interest in salvaging esoteric bits of culture past—in Jess’s case, Goodwill cast-offs, Dick Tracy and Krazy Kat comics, advertisements for Tabu, and Life magazine, but also tarot cards, Renaissance chapbooks, Greek mythology, Victorian engravings, and Arthurian legend. As he worked, he would choose from among thousands of carefully cut-out images, painstakingly organized by subject. His recollection of an abandoned prospector’s shack, which he discovered as child, aptly describes his own studio: “a little palace assembled from ... almost any type of found object you can imagine.”

If you want to explore more of Jess’s work, earlier this year the Times ran an excellent piece on him, Duncan, and their coterie:

Where Duncan’s art explodes, Jess’s only threatens to, which is much more interesting … Jess is best known for his collages, which he called paste-ups: staggeringly intricate symbolic narratives pieced together from bits of scientific treatises, muscle magazines, art history books, cartoons and popular periodicals like Life and Time. This work is not lost-in-the-clouds stuff. A 1968 collage in response to the war in Vietnam called “The Napoleonic Geometry of Art—Given: The Pentagon in the Square: Demonstrate: The Hyperbolic Swastika,” is about as pointedly angry as art can be.

And Hyperallergic published a great essay in February, wherein Christopher Lyon identifies Duncan and Jess’s

sustained faith in make-believe—that one can simultaneously be oneself and be many selves, past and future; that one can embrace the everyday and simultaneously experience in it an intensified poetic reality. Embedded in art or poetry, make-believe expresses a faith that someone in an unknowable future will engage with one’s work and re-experience that intensification of the moment—this is existentialism recast as myth.

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Ribbons, Lambs, and Strawberry Jam

June 17, 2014 | by

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Samuel S. Carr, Holding the Lamb, nineteenth century

When I was twelve and visiting my grandparents in California, we made weekly stops at the Naval Postgraduate School Thrift Shop, where the proprietress suggested that I enter a competition—she wanted me to submit my own concept for the theme of the next summer’s Monterey County Fair.

The fair was a highlight of our annual summer visits: the rides, the crop shows, the 4-H cake booth—all of it seemed magical to those of us from fair-deprived regions of the country. Raised on a steady diet of 1950s kids books, I fiercely envied the challenging but rewarding existences of those 4-H kids. I knew I could never raise my own livestock (let alone have the character to auction it), or work the cake booth, or display my crafts in the dedicated exhibition buildings. My talents, such as they were, lay in other directions. But each year, the posters and exhibits were organized around a central theme, and someone had to come up with that.

I dashed off page after page of increasingly hackish ideas. In the end, I submitted about twelve, in the spirit of playing the odds. And, come February, back in New York, I received a fat envelope from the Monterey County Chamber of Commerce: my concept of “Ribbons, Lambs, and Raspberry Jam” would be the theme of the summer’s fair. (Except that in deference to the region’s booming strawberry industry, the flavor of the jam would be altered accordingly.) It was the most exciting moment of my life. It was considerably more exciting than receiving similar envelopes from colleges six years later. For one thing, there were way more perks involved: in exchange for this top-notch ad work, I received a check for twenty-five dollars, a free family-pass to the fair, and a gift certificate to an establishment called Grandma’s Kitchen. Read More »

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Wizards of the Coast

May 29, 2014 | by

John Dee and the occult in California.

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Antonio de Pareda, The Knight’s Dream, 1655, Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid.

Working summers at a Northern California health food co-op brings you into a constellation of eccentrics. The one that stands out in my memory, at a remove of more than a decade, is the old man who dressed as a wizard. His was not some flimsy Halloween affectation—it was a lifestyle, with accessories to match: thick robes of purple velvet stitched with golden stars, a silvery beard, and a hefty wand topped with a crescent moon. In our sole interaction that summer, he entered the co-op around closing and cornered me as I struggled to replace a roll of receipt paper. Peering out from under his pointed hat, he hit me with an intense stare and asked, “You ever done DMT, kid?”

Dimethyltryptamine, you might recall, is a highly potent, short-acting psychedelic alkaloid. It’s the stuff in the bitter Amazonian brew known as ayahuasca, and it’s the reason people lick the backs of Mexican toads to get high. The question surprised me at the time, but it shouldn’t have. Wizards have been asking questions like this for about four hundred years now.

Merlin has long occupied point position in pop culture as our archetypal sorcerer. But John Dee of England, born in 1527, the astrologer to Queen Elizabeth and advisor to Sir Walter Raleigh, was the true founder of the wizardly iconography and mythos. A skilled mathematician, geographer, and inventor, Dee also delved into grimoires, kabbalah, alchemy, and Biblical prophecy. He believed he’d been chosen by God to receive a new divine revelation—angels were sending him a new set of Biblical texts from heaven. And he had a sidekick: Dee believed the ultimate conduit was not himself but his servant, a mysterious ex-con named Edward Kelley, who spoke with the angels through a glass orb that the two called a “shew-stone,” or crystal ball. Read More »

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See Me

March 17, 2014 | by

Adolescence, pen pals, and the Manson girls.

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The Manson girls. Photographer unknown.

When I was thirteen, I had a yearlong correspondence by mail and over the phone with Rodney Bingenheimer. A peculiar icon of the sixties and seventies, Bingenheimer had opened a famous club on the Sunset Strip; he was a live-in publicist to Sonny and Cher, he accompanied David Bowie to London, and through his adjacency, his fandom, and his prescient taste, he eventually achieved fame himself.

We had met briefly on the sidewalk of my small hometown when I walked past a café table where he sat with a group of friends. He was a lackluster presence, not even as tall as I was—red hair cut into a chunky bowl, wearing a blazer over a shirt printed with a Red Army star. He was fifty-five then, though to my thirteen-year-old self he looked much older. His voice had the tremulous, feminine quality I would later read about in memoirs of the golden days of Los Angeles, his eyes slightly out of focus.

“Tell her she looks like my first love,” he half whispered to the group surrounding him, a group casually dressed, but alert with the nervous air of support people. They repeated his words to me, obediently.

“Give us your information,” one of his group said, all brisk business. “He’s very famous,” someone else said. “He invented the Ramones.”

Rodney blinked at me like a tired cat. Read More »

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Crusoe in California

March 6, 2013 | by

1977anniehall3The September after I finished college, I moved to Orange County with my boyfriend. He was going to graduate school to study Shakespeare. I had decided to become a famous writer, though I had no idea how to go about it. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to be the kind of writer who gets shipwrecked on a South Sea island, and not the kind of writer who gets an M.F.A. in the Midwest. I belonged to the Melville school, I told myself. I was going to have a lot of adventures. Southern California didn’t seem particularly exciting, but it was closer to the South Sea than New York. At least, I thought so. I had a poor grasp of geography.

Unfortunately for me, I also belonged to the Alvy Singer school. (Would Melville and Alvy Singer get along?) I was a native Manhattanite who had rarely ventured west, and I soon found that Southern California didn’t suit me one bit. With no seasons, no job, and no driver’s license, I felt that I was going nowhere, both literally and metaphorically. Time seemed not to pass, and books were my only friends. Read More »

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