Photography is an exercise in disappointment. How many times has my sight been arrested—by a mountain, a vista, a strange street juxtaposition—only for the resulting photo to be flat, featureless, uncommunicative? I sometimes scroll through old photos I’ve taken and can’t remember what I wanted to capture. Yet it seems the most effortless, natural art. Little manual strength or dexterity is required—you look, you click, and light impresses itself everywhere simultaneously on the film. Camera pressed to face, the lens ceases to be an object, becomes a perceived appendage of the eye. The “eye” of a photographer is often praised in the same manner as a pitcher’s arm, a singer’s voice, a painter’s hand. Yet in those cases the body part celebrated is actually performing the action, while the photographer’s eye does nothing but select—the camera does the work, and the camera is not an eye. An eye is connected to a brain, and vision is inseparable from thinking, from the gestalt of perception, the interplay of the senses. Photographs we take are so often disappointing because they have been denuded of ourselves, floating free from the pressure of our senses and cognition. The great pictures are those that feel made. They induce synesthesia—we can feel them, smell them, hear them. This ethic is embraced by the photographer John Chiara, currently showing his collection of large color-negative New York photos “Pike Slip to Sugar Hill” at the Yossi Milo Gallery. Chiara imposes himself on the processes cloistered in the camera by building his own, so large that he mounted it on the back of a flatbed. As a result, most of the photos are looking up at buildings, gawking. Within the camera he exposes the giant photo paper directly, physically manipulating the exposure in real time. The colors are ghostly and garish, the solid, darker things made bright, giving the photos the spatial clarity of a blueprint. Texture, by virtue of the print size, the volume of the colors, and Chiara’s hand, is palpable. The pictures are quickened by oxymoron. Pointed skyward, they feel subterranean. Defiantly unreal, they are utterly faithful to embodied sight. —Matt Levin Read More
Many are likely to be surprised to learn that Yukio Mishima—yes, the writer who chose to die by dazzlingly public disembowelment and decapitation in 1970—wrote haiku. When you think of it, though, if you go to school in Japan, you will automatically be asked to compose haiku in grammar school or, at any rate, in junior high school. Also, sometimes, but not often, your parents will meticulously preserve every scrap of your school compositions or the school magazines printing your stuff. Both happened to Mishima. As a result, we have about a hundred eighty of his haiku collected among his complete works.
Mishima was a literary prodigy. With haiku, it also helped that his Japanese-language teacher in the Middle Division of the Peers School was Kurō Iwata. Iwata didn’t just encourage his students to write. After the war, he established his reputation as an authority on Edo haikai. He published, among other things, a large compilation of commentaries on all of Bashō’s hokku.
One of Mishima’s earliest haiku dates from when he was seven years old, and it reads:
Otōto ga o-tete hirogete momiji kana
My younger brother spreads his palms, maple leaves
The “younger brother” here is Chiyuki, two years old at the time. He went on to become a diplomat, serving as ambassador to Morocco and Portugal.
Now in English translations, Mishima may not be known too well as a playwright, despite Donald Keene’s translation of Madame de Sade and Ingmar Bergman’s famous staging of it, my translation of My Friend Hitler and Other Plays, and a few others. But he wrote more than seventy plays, beginning with the ones he wrote in his early teens, and most of them were staged in his lifetime. In fact, as Donald Richie observed, “life was but a stage” to Mishima, his staging of his own seppuku the most meticulous construct he pulled off. Read More
“When I was twenty-one,” wrote Zadie Smith at age twenty-five, “I wanted to write like Kafka. But, unfortunately for me, I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault.” What is a writer’s voice? Surely, as in life, we all have many voices, different ones for different occasions.
For the young Zadie Smith, Kafka’s voice established a norm: this is what literature sounds like. Different genres—fiction, academic articles, general nonfiction—conjure certain expectations. I write differently in all of them. But over the last couple of years, I’ve started to feel the strain of singing so many styles on the page, and I’ve started to wonder: What does my own voice sound like, freed from the mold? Do I even have one?
As any classically trained singer or actor can tell you, trying to make your voice sound like someone else’s can do all manner of damage to it. Voicing relies on friction between the breath and the folds of the vocal cords, but the cords can wither or be damaged from being struck too harshly. This can spill out into the body as well, and tension can build in the jaw, neck, shoulders. “Good voice work,” writes Cicely Berry, former RSC voice director, “should always aim to use the voice that is there and stretch it and open up its possibilities.”
Susan Orlean stood in a crowd facing the Los Angeles Central Library. We were supposed to meet in the rare books room, but as I was setting up and Orlean was arriving from her son’s dentist appointment, somebody pulled the fire alarm. At the LA Central branch, fire alarms trigger deep memory. On April 29, 1986, this dignified and eccentric building in the center of downtown burned for over seven hours. Four hundred thousand books were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands more were damaged, by the fire and by the water used to fight it. Orlean, the author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend and a New Yorker staff writer since 1992, learned about the fire when a librarian lifted a book to his nose, inhaled, and said, “You can still smell the smoke in some of them.” Then she found Harry Peak, the “ditzy” out-of-work actor who confessed to some friends that he had started the fire. His story, and that of the 1986 fire—the largest library fire in American history—makes up one of the central threads in Orlean’s newest work, The Library Book.
Orlean had already been interested in how modern libraries function, with their complex networks of departments and branches, but the 1986 fire gave her book a center. From that year, she moved forward into the present day, and back to the nineteenth-century origins of the LA Public Library, providing an alternative history of a city known more for movies than for books. The library also became a portal into Orlean’s personal history. The book is dedicated to her son—her future—and to her mother—her past—who first brought Orlean to the Bertram Woods branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library, outside Cleveland, when Orlean was a young girl, and who died during the writing of this book.
After a few minutes out in the sun, Orlean and I decided to cross West Fifth Street to a Starbucks. It was Yom Kippur, and Orlean was, as she later tweeted, “fasting except for coffee. I know that’s technically cheating but believe me you would not want me without coffee.” By the time we got our drinks and settled into a spot in the Starbucks courtyard, the fire department had arrived, and a PR person from the library texted that it was safe to reenter the building. This interview was conducted in the rare books room, with a brief follow-up over email.
A very eventful way to begin an interview.
If one knows you only through your writing, it seems like this kind of thing happens to you all the time.
It’s impossible to convey, to anyone who didn’t stumble across the stuff on their own, the evanescent but ferocious intensity to be found in the photocopied page of any zine or comic from the late eighties and early nineties. Self-publishing in those days showed you, the reader, a culture being ripped apart, at the seams and straight through the middle, while on fire, the raw guts of oppression and abuse and injustice exposed and left behind to rot while you watched with a beer from a spot near the stage. The French Canadian artist and comics creator Julie Doucet invented a character, named Julie Doucet, who let you tag along as she did exactly that, can in hand, enjoying the show. Starting in 1987 in the pages of the fanzine Dirty Plotte and then continuing on through a comic-book series of the same name as well as several graphic novels, Julie-the-character gallivanted semi-innocently about the club, the city, the country (any country), concerned primarily with her own pleasure as the Berlin Wall crumbled somewhere behind her, a sign that the cultural undoing you felt in your bones had tangible political effects.
The daring adventures of Julie Doucet’s smart, hot, disheveled, and sometimes rageful imaginary self just goofing off or engaging in semierotic play with an array of mammalian coconspirators have seared themselves into the minds of a generation of readers. These fanciful images from a world in flux pointed the way for creators seeking inspiration from nocturnal visions and creators with stories to share from their own experiences. Not to mention creators—women and nonbinary ones, in particular—who hadn’t had impetus to imagine themselves in the creative role before coming across Doucet’s work. Among other merits, Doucet’s strips gifted the field of comics with the hope that creators who are not male might eventually see mainstream acceptance. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Yet I admit that when I’m asked about important comics, or the importance of comics, the signature scenes from Doucet’s oeuvre—Julie the man, Julie at a club, Julie hopping into a tub to scrub her cooter, Julie in flagrante with her elephant lover—are not the images that immediately pop into my head.
The panel that springs to mind instead is a quiet, domestic scene. Julie-the-character plays a minor role while her various home goods—discarded beer bottles, half-used condiments, an iron, forks, lamps, et cetera—carry the action. The panel comes toward the end of one of her many dream comics, a plethora of narratives in which the renowned creator presumably lays bare the machinations of her subconscious mind. These are often transcribed in gruesome, delightful detail: Julie as a gunslinger dies alone in a saloon. Julie is upset that she can’t find a decent brassiere at a basement warehouse sale (clearly a dream; Julie-the-artist didn’t wear bras at the time). Julie turns into a man overnight and—lucky her—meets up with Micky Dolenz of the Monkees and makes a sex date with him. The very definition of dreamy! Read More
In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Kaveh Akbar is on the line.
My husband and I decided to be friends instead of married a week ago, and although I’m confident it’s the right decision, and am mostly cheerful, I am also having brief flashes of terror about, you know, Tinder, and having to decide on what to do with an entire Sunday on my own or what I really want for lunch, for just me.
Do you have any hopeful poems about the beginnings of things, or what makes a person and how to find it out? I would like to hear them if you did.