Sunday, November 28, 2010

25 Things I'm Thankful For

Ted made a list, inspiring me to do the same.

1) That I was wrong about thinking I shouldn't move in with my boyfriend.
2) A warm bed filled with my kitties.
3) Art on every wall, everywhere.
4) The complicated relationship to your writing that being published creates.
5) Good reviews.
6) New York City's utter, unflappable, inspiring awesomeness.
7) Kip.
8) Kip's patience with my everything.
9) Friends who live very close by.
10) Parents who get it.
11) Central Air.
12) The Greenmarket community.
13) My editor & my agent. Because everyone said that Yield wasn't publishable except for them, and turns out, it was.
14) That I have a desk job where I can iChat with Cory and Robert and Jeff.
15) That Howie made enough of the best maple syrup in the world to keep me employed another year.
16) Complicated questions that people ask and struggle to answer well.
17) The DVR.
18) Antibiotics.
19) The MoMA, The Met Museum, The Whitney, The Guggenheim, etc.
20) Jokes.
21) The Theater Development Fund.
22) The incredible bounty of local food.
23) Poets.
24) Homosexuals.
25) Having friends in so many lines of work: dentists, psychotherapists, drummers, photographers, teachers, graphic designers, fashion thinkers, singers, DOT workers, performers, artists, writers, journalists, bartenders, farmers, waiters, chefs, lawyers, zine-makers, dancers, yoga teachers, real estate agents, puppeteers, activists, old folks home managers, playwrights, actors, film editors, sound technicians, and circus performers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Joanna Newsom at Carnegie Hall

Few of us know anyone who plays the harp; basically none of us have been near enough to touch one. Part of the success of Joanna Newsom's show last night at Carnegie Hall has to do with the kind of magic that an instrument like that creates. The posture in the player--this kind of open, holding, wide elbowed stance--combined with the mystery of the dozens (and from the balcony it seemed there could be hundreds) of strings, and finally the strange fact that its difficult to determine when the player is actually touching the harp, and when the sound is simply vibrating out of it. Only in close up, does any of it make any sense.

Less successful, and ultimately what made the evening feel a bit like a deflated exercise, was Newsom's ambiguous relationship to her audience, and the awkward moments of harp-tuning, which left enough blank space that, upon Newsom's suggestion, the audience began shouting out "questions." "Brooklyn loves you," someone said. This is interesting to me, because I have a feeling that most of the people in the audience had traveled from Brooklyn. Was he sending a collective message? Sent from the "better" borough? (There is a feeling among young hip people that Brooklyn rocks and Manhattan is square.) Was this person unconsciously indicating a kind of sentimental otherness?

This went on twice for not long, three or four minutes perhaps, but the energy lagged, and I wished that the band, or Newsom herself, had prepared some kind of other business for this moment--comedy, a story, talking, banter, anything. If anyone has seen Alison Krauss and Union Station perform, you will know that they are always tuning, but they have created many "bits" to do during this boring, and stagnant tuning sections, which bring the audience back into the show. Sure, it feels casual when they do it, never calculated, but AKUS would never, ever, allow their audience to set, or shift, the mood of those moments. Maybe this comes with having performed on stage together for 20 years--a luxury Newsom and her band does not have--a kind of seasoned, professional ease.

"Can I play Ryan's banjo?" one audience member yelled, during this tuning/question section. "No," said, Neal Morgan, on percussion. He then asked the audience to have a kind of meta-moment where we imagine her playing while she actually didn't, and then he counted out 5 seconds of quiet, while we all listened. Ultimately, this is kind of asshole-ish, taking the, yes, stupid question "Can I play Ryan's banjo" and then making the extra large point of showing the audience how stupid the question is, by extrapolating its stupidity by making us all engage in a similarly stupid interaction. More stupid does not counteract stupid.

Early in the evening, Newsom spoke of her nervousness, how it wasn't until she got on stage for the sound check that she realized, okay, Carnegie Hall may be Carnegie Hall, but it's just a room with the most incredible acoustics. Joanna, hello, it's not just a room. Tell that to Sissieretta Jones, or Marian Anderson. Or Judy Garland. Or any of the thousands of amateur musicians who would kill to get on that stage. At the same time, however, her fans do not see her as the girl at the party: "What does it feel like to be a goddess?" screamed one fan from a few rows away from where I was sitting. Morgan responded: "Trick question, Joanna actually isn't a goddess." This was too clear.

I think she could be. Her music, as beautiful, ethereal, strange, unstructured, long, wandering, so different from anything else you hear--where was all that in the show? It was there in the songs, sure, but something else seemed missing. Even the long-winded biography printed in the playbill was reductionist, made to seem as if, ho hum, Joanna was playing harp in her basement and then, oh wow, people liked it, and thanks to a lot of illegal downloading and enough actual sales, now here she is.

Do young musicians in this new-folk scene refuse to take themselves that seriously? Does a kind of formal live presentation reduce your hipster street cred? These were the questions I wanted to ask.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Scattered Light

The other night, I took this video of Jim Campbell's new outdoor sculpture "Scattered Light." There are a few pieces in the park, but the only one you will care about seeing is this one, which is described as:
Scattered Light, will feature nearly 2,000 LEDs encased in standard light bulbs, suspended within a support structure spanning 80 feet in length and standing 20 feet high and 16 feet wide to create a vibrant light grid across the center of Madison Square Park’s Oval Lawn. The LED bulbs, programed to flicker scattered light, will create the illusion of figurative images that explore and reflect the human experience amidst the urban landscape, creating the appearance of giant human shadows crossing a floating 3-D matrix of light. As one travels around the piece, the vantage point alters and the light figures begin to abstract, blurring the boundaries between image and object.
Scattered Light is on view until February 2011. More about it by looking here.

Scattered Light by Jim Campbell from Lee Houck on Vimeo.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hansel & Gretel

My mother was digging through some old papers and books of photos and came across this. It's a story that I dictated to her and she wrote down. I was four. Embiggen to enjoy. (Also, my mother's handwriting hasn't changed one bit since then.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Women

I have been voraciously reading the Paris Review interviews. In particular, I am fond of the interviews with Annie Proulx, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Joan Didion. Joan Didion! (Joan also has a new book out next year, Blue Nights.) It occurred to me this week, after devouring these incredibly well-conducted and interesting interviews, just how much of my work is informed by the work of women writers.

It's surprising, in a way, to me, because my first novel is basically devoid of women--which was a conscious choice from the beginning, to have removed that kind of perspective from the narrative. I don't know why it was important that I do that. Perhaps in a few years I will have a better sense of it. No promises.

Other women I read, also voraciously: A.M. Homes, Jennifer Egan, Donna Tartt, Katherine Dunn, Janette Turner Hospital, Miranda July, Rosellen Brown, Octavia Butler, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Ruth Reichl, Kathryn Harrison, Sarah Schulman, Sharon Olds, Naomi Shihab Nye, Barbara Kingsolver, Caryl Churchill, Amy Bloom. I could go on.

Take this list and go get their books.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Morning Poem

You spread yourself across me,
breath like yesterday's wine,
telling stories of Vancouver and Australia,
far-flung places where your happiness broke open,
spilling out onto the bent dashboards of rental cars
and shiny bed frames like this one,
and said: Good morning.

I could smell the earth on you,
the soft red clay from your
long walk through the Utah desert,
which collected at the edges of your body,
places not covered in technological fabrics
that ripped just the same as any other.
Ankles, wrists, the neck.

The lesson I learned from you is:
Not every love is like another, and
Not every message gets returned.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Can You Move the Vortex? on The Nervous Breakdown

I have a new short essay up over at The Nervous Breakdown, which is, as they say, "An online literary publication type deal."

It's basically about this:
"...My entire 20s were spent living in a neighborhood which, either by default or by careful consideration, made me the writer that I am today, and I was afraid that if I moved away from it, I wouldn’t be able to write as well, as much, or at all."
and this
"If my identity was a product of the neighborhood, and my novel was a product of my identity, was it wrong to presume that the novel—extrapolated to my ability to write anything at all, forever and ever again—was contingent upon my living at the corner of 34th Street and 34th Avenue?"
Please click on over, share it, "like" it, etc.