Moe and I started sequencing the audio for the Story Chairs yesterday. Two hours of listening and thinking and guessing, turning to each other when we rediscovered something great and sitting quietly with a piece that didn’t quite fit with the other stories and poems, before we assigned it a home. We worked to keep too much sorrow and loss from clumping together and added sparks of joy and delicious voice as leavening to one or the other list. After the rough sort, and without the music, each of the two chairs has a little over an hour of audio. There are almost 60 pieces and they run the gamut of emotion and voice. I’m glad to have two young readers in the mix, some challenging poems and enough funny to knit it all together. Now I have to sit down and listen to all the audio again and make the play lists. This will likely happen after Christmas when I have some days off work. I look forward to those listening sessions.
I am especially grateful for the generosity of writers who recorded the work of others, those who couldn’t come to the studio because they lived out of town or couldn’t find time in their schedule. My friend Gwen Demombynes recorded a story by LK Gardner Griffie, who I know from Twitter and now her books, and gave it a life I hadn’t read on the page. Here she is reading her own story,
The Man on the Train.
Yesterday I joined about thirty other people for a walk through of Like a Valentine, Jeffry Mitchell’s remarkable survey exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery. Five of us, including Jeffry, talked for five minutes about one work each. The afternoon was relaxed and intimate and a fine excuse to return to the show. The work just keeps on giving.
Experiencing the show again before the walk through, I thought about Jeffry’s love of the alphabet and its recurrence in the work, and about the steady return to other iconic imagery: elephants, flowers, Asian and American ceramic conventions, even the color pink. To me, this beloved imagery is like an alphabet, holding every possibility for telling his story, whatever it may be, just as the alphabet holds every story within its construct. The exhibition gives that sense of richness, the abundance of life offering itself up in beauty and loss, light and shadow, a tale spun from nothing and everything. The exhibit remains up until January 27. Run, don’t walk.
For my Story Chairs I’ve been writing a series of stories about encounters with animals, bears among them. This story is about the first bear I had a direct experience with. Some details may be slightly off – was I in a car seat? Was it me next to the window and not my sister? No matter – memory is a storyteller in its own right.
I’ve been working on audio all summer, preparing to install my Story Chairs at Jack Straw. It’s been a pleasure and a reverie, to write and record these very short stories from my childhood and adult life, about my experience with animals.
As we prepare to elect our President I feel open and hopeful and also as if standing in the dark. I remember distinctly the day Reagan was elected for a second term, how the landslide shattered and disillusioned me. Then Bush 1 and Bush 2, their tenure a kaleidescope of error and obfuscation and a diminishing of what I thought America should be. This is partisan politics, I know.
Regardless of how we all felt at the time, we survived. I survived, hope intact. And so, as we step into the Great Dark of winter, as our northern days diminish and we hover in the twilight of the year, I want to share my favorite recording from the summer. In it I tried to express the hope that is springtime in the midst of winter, the unexpected beauty of the force of life as I slogged through the last days of this season we are moving into now. However the election turns out, we will endure. And good things will come.
When you make work for a lot of years – writing, artwork, anything creative – you come to know that there will be down time. Life happens and you have to deal with it, or you’ve had a period of intense activity and the creative well runs dry. You might be in the bottom of a pit and having a hard time getting out, or maybe someone you love is in trouble or gone. But sometimes you just have to have a life.
I have come to trust those times without a lot of production because they are always followed by fresh starts. It’s as if we are the garden and we need time to rest and absorb all that nourishes us before new seeds can successfully sprout and come to fruition. For me, this timing often works out in opposition to the seasons. I often complete a project or body of work in the spring, and start something new or return to works in progress in the fall. But sometimes it’s hard to pick up the threads and get back to full speed. I do best when I go into the winter fully engaged, one reason I love NaNoWriMo, for its insane November effort that provides grist for the winter months.
So I was excited to put together a few days of pure enjoyment, made up of good food, walks and bicycle rides in the cool sunshine of late September, time spent with my husband and writing pals and just the right amount of focused work. Riding through the landscape of small farms near Fall City along roads edged with blackberries, inhabiting my body, I was purely happy. The fields were turning, though still full of pumpkins ripening, purple and green cabbage and kale and late summer flowers for market. I knew I could begin again after a summer spent away from major projects, that I was looking forward to returning to the enamel panels waiting in the studio and that hard-to-finish novel on my laptop, instead of feeling guilty for my lack of progress over the summer.
This too is summer’s bounty, the turning to fall and its new beginnings.
One of the great moments in my summer was working with my Mom at Jack Straw to record her story about learning to sail. She was in the first group of storytellers to record their short pieces for the Story Chairs project. I’ve been working on the audio for the chairs since July and hope to be finished recording stories by the end of September. Then Moe Provencher and I will sequence, mix in songs and music and get the audio ready for the electronics. Hopefully the lobby at Jack Straw will be ready for the chairs before the end of the year. There will be a celebration for sure.
Mom read beautifully – a natural, as Moe said. She immediately got the knack of picking up a flubbed line and of listening to the recording and knowing what she wanted to re-do or tweak. It was a deep pleasure to share the studio with her, and to hear her read aloud again as she did every day, nap time and before bed, when we were children. Hers is the voice I often hear inside my head when I read a book, measured and nuanced and reassuring.
Recording sessions have been fun and revelatory throughout the project: matching a voice to a story by someone who can’t make it to the studio; hearing how each reader’s voice is their own, or how they sometimes read a piece differently than I might. The writing is always transformed into something else when read aloud. The experience has reminded me again of the origin of stories, in human kind and in my own life – the sure promise and music of the storyteller’s voice, and the readiness of the listener to be utterly changed by their story.
Janel Kolby submitted this poem for my Story Chairs project, very short fiction, non-fiction, poems and songs for recording. I am still actively looking for contributions.
The tapping of my foot fought the rhythm of the train.
I wasn’t in the mood to be lulled to sleep.
My boyfriend and I had just gotten in a fight, and I left.
I didn’t know where I was going, I had nowhere to go.
My anger was deafening.
And then the doors opened.
A shiny man came inside.
His suit was shiny shark skin, and his shoes were shiny polished.
He reeked of smoke and gin.
But he was a man.
His nail-bitten hands clasped the pole in front of me.
His tie had once been neat.
The train started up with a metallic squeak.
The man lurched, hanging on tight,
and hungrily tore at a bagel,
powdering crumbs onto his feet.
With his last, hard swallow,
he looked frantically about,
and wiped away cold sweat.
The lights flickered, and I caught my breath.
The train squealed around a corner,
and we held against its force.
I felt him lean against my knee,
to steady against my form.
He was warm, he was strong.
Minutes, no, seconds.
We breathed as one.
The doors re-opened,
and he was gone.
I was ravished by a museum experience yesterday inspired equally by patient handwork expressed through order, and wild improvisations of color, texture and pattern. The Bellevue Art Museum has two shows that, taken together, touch the heart and overwhelm the rest of the senses. Friend and artist Martha Worthley was in town and we went together. Martha is a painter, brilliant colorist and dedicated seamstress. She is one of my favorite people to share an exhibition with because she likes to look and look and talk about things as she goes, like me. She grew up in Rhode Island with a family of antique collectors and brought that knowledge and experience to Gather Up the Fragments: The Andrews Shaker Collection.
The exhibit takes up the second floor galleries and showcases over 200 objects from the Shaker sect, collected as its membership began to dwindle in the late 19th and early 20th century. Shaker furniture, simple in lines, lovingly crafted and designed for best use, is beautifully represented here as well as paintings of ecstatic visions, bentwood boxes and other daily objects. Context is given by exhibit design, labels and by the incremental effect of seeing the objects, photographs of their makers and such things as a loom for weaving the cotton tape that had many uses, or the tool used to tease apart flax fibers that would then be spun into thread and used to weave or knit clothing and other day to day textiles. It’s a lovely self-contained world on the second floor.
Bold Expressions: African American Quilts from the Collection of Corrine Riley is a cannily installed collection of over 50 quilts that come out of the vernacular tradition of improvisational quilt making. Even symmetrical, rigorously pieced quilts are full of invention. Martha and I walked from room to room repeatedly having our minds blown by American quilt traditions influenced by textile traditions, brought from Africa by slaves and internalized by their descendants. The sight lines within the galleries are terrific for framing a single quilt from afar so that in the overload of color and pattern the formal aspects and overall effect of its composition can be seen. Up close, that tended to fall apart for me, as I was drawn into the color, the idiosyncratic piecing and how placement and manipulation of familiar quilt pattern blocks created energy, emotion, tension and excitement.
Martha kept catching me out, seeing layers of interconnecting pattern, when I was focusing on a single layer of pattern within the work. “Spider Webs and Stars,” she said in front of the first quilt we spent time with. It took me a few moments to see the stars and I might not have, up close, if she hadn’t called my attention to it. I used to think that the way I saw the world was a little broken, but now I know that it is simply my way and is the very thing that sometimes lets me see things that no one else notices, or allows me to make unique connections visually or intellectually.
About halfway through the galleries Martha turned to me and said, “I kind of feel like crying,” something I’d been feeling myself, and within five minutes I was. This happens to me when surprised by beauty; it kind of catches hold and works on me.
I didn’t take photographs and my favorites are not featured on the website or that of the Mingei Museum, which originally put together the exhibit, but there is a terrific Flickr set taken by Megan Connor taken at that museum. You can see Spiders and Stars in all its pink glory, and many more. The exhibit is up at the Bellevue Art Museum into October. Don’t put off going, as you will want to have time to see this show more than once.
In the big book of poetry for children that lived on our bookshelf for years I often returned to a short and rather silly poem by Ogden Nash. I liked the idea that you could make a poem in two lines and that it could be both clever and naughty. As I read it, the author, in questioning nature, challenged a central tenet of my belief system: that nature might be mysterious but there is always a reason for its systematic organization and workings. This is the poem:
God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.
Today, I like this poem by Nash better – he is still stumped by nature’s manifestation, but puts himself in the picture.
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I’d call me Us.
One pair of legs bounced up and down, they belonged to a small girl upholstered in polka dots. The chair tried to bounce up and down too on his stubby legs. The chair wished he too had a festive upholstery to catch her attention. But the girl turned away as the bigger people said something, her name maybe, as they stomped out of the room.
The chair sighed and his stuffing un-fluffed. Then the girl turned back. She snuck a grin like she was sharing a secret with him.
“Want to hear a story?” She said.
The chair was flabbergasted. No one had ever talked to him before. He’d gotten used to the idea that the closest he could ever be to the people were those few times they chose to seek rest on his strong back.
“You can hear me?” The chair thought as hard as he could, trying to project it from every seam.
“Quietly, like mouses,” the girl muttered, her eyes darting to the doorway. The chair stopped his loud thoughts, pulling his fabric together closely. After a second she relaxed.
“This is our story, you’ll like it. Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who lived in a castle in the bluest part of the sky,” she began, her face dimpling. “She only ate jellybeans and was a doctor who cured brain cancers. A troll married her mom and his name was Hank and he ate a lot and laughed too much at things that weren’t funny. One day they flew down into the city that was made of whalebones and pine trees and the beautiful princess found a best friend. She loved him and named him Horatio. Hank said to leave Horatio because a best friend has to at least talk but he doesn’t know anything. The princess vowed to be with Horatio forever because she was brave and daring and everyone loved her. The end.”
The chair swelled, like he was a loveseat. No, a reclining sofa. This person loved him. She named him. Horatio. It was a beautiful name. The chair started crying, softly, choking it back into his springs so his seat wouldn’t get wet and become uncomfortable.
“Happily ever after, right Horatio?” The girl said, digging into her pocket and pulling out a turtle. She kissed it on its scaly head.
The chair felt like its seat had been kicked out. He had been such a fool. A turtle had legs that actually moved. Anyone would love that. He was only good for the junkyard, or kindling if he was lucky – at least kindling was useful for a few minutes.
His thoughts were interrupted by the unexpected weight of a small body melting into his.
“Now you tell one,” the girl demanded.
The chair wrapped her in his protective arms and told her everything.
Anne Cunningham is a writer of fiction and game content living in southern California. I cannot wait to record this story for my Story Chairs project.
I am going to use Poetry Monday to highlight one of my favorite blogs, Books Around The Table, co-hosted by four marvelous illustrators, Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Lario and Julie Paschkis. Their posts are always rich in visuals and inspiration and Julie’s Undersea Post this last week is a perfect example of why I like this blog. A reader shared this poem by Elizabeth Bishop in the commentary. Julie’s response is my own, “I love the mixture of beauty and ugliness in the language and imagery.”
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly–
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
–It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels–until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.