Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cleaning House (on Donizetti's Don Pasquale)


Giovanni Ruffini (libretto, based on a libretto by Angelo Anelli), Gaetano Donizetti (composer) Don Pasquale / The Metropolitan Opera, New York, November 13, 2010

A funny thing happened on my way to this opera. I had planned on my New York trip to attend the opera the day it was being broadcast live via high definition video so that Howard could see the same production back in Los Angeles as I sat in the theater. He might even spot me the audience as the camera scanned it. The irony is that he would have a much better view of the entire opera, plus backstage interviews that are often entertaining, while I sat in a high balcony seat squinting down at the small figures upon the stage. He would also hear it, sung into microphones at the edge of the stage, far better than I could from my vantage.

While I was in New York, I stayed with Sherry Bernstein, my poet friend Charles Bernstein's mother, whom I told of my plans. On Central Park West, her apartment is only a few blocks from the opera house. Oddly enough, Sherry also planned to attend, not at the Met but, just like Howard, at a live video showing in some movie theater.

Donizetti's comic opera is based very much on the stock figures of commedia dell'arte, so perhaps one need not be too serious about the ridiculous characters or the plot, which basically boils down to an attempt by two outsiders, Dr. Malesta (Mariusz Kwiecien) and his sister Norina (Anna Nerebko), to teach an old man, Don Pasquale (John Del Carlo), a lesson about life. Don Pasquale's young nephew Ernesto (Matthew Polenzani), in love with Norina, refuses to marry the woman his uncle feels is more appropriate. In reaction, Don Pasquale, on a suggestion from his doctor, Malesta, decides to marry Norina (pretending to be convent girl, Sofrina) instead, disinheriting Ernesto.

There is little else to the plot: the two are falsely married and Norina moves in, completely making over the house and her own wardrobe from top to bottom, as she prepares to head off to the theater without her new husband. Ultimately, the miserly Don Pasquale is so put-out—literally of his own life and house—that he is relieved upon discovering he has been duped, and is happy to hand over Norina to his nephew, while agreeing to restore his inheritance.

This silly story makes for many delightful moments, including Norina's truly comical "See, I am ready with love to surround him," and the servants' hilarious confusion in Act II and III, along with Norina's "Bring the jewels at once."

Yet I cannot help asking why this brother and sister team are so intent on teaching the old Don Pasquale a lesson, all for the sake of the rather meek and incompetent Ernesto? Norina is such a wicked flirt and liar that we can hardly understand her love for a boy so shocked by the announcement of Don Pasquale's marriage, he is ready to leave home and inheritance behind.Obviously, the two, brother and sister, do have something at stake. By pretending to marry Don Pasquale, the penniless Norina comes into great wealth, part of which most certainly will go, at the old man's death, to her lover.

But given her huge deceptions, even if they all turn out for the best, one has to wonder whether she will make such a poor boob a good wife. Certainly Ernesto is even more able to be hood-winked than his uncle.

By the time of the finale, "Heaven, what do you say?" there is actually little to be said. The heaven that has been invoked is one in which Norina has metaphorically cleaned the house of both men, who previously lived in a barren, cobweb-encrusted manor (at least in the Met production) existing, similarly, in lives basically empty and unused. I guess the question is, will Norina return the jewels or wear them to the theater each night?

New York, November 15, 2010

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Brussels--Into the Congo (on my 2010 visit to Belgium)


On the afternoon of June 3, 2010, the group of publishers with whom I was exploring Flemish literature were taken by bus to the small, but lovely town of Mechlin, where at the bookshop De Zondvloed we were fed wine, cheeses, sliced meats, and good bread. The bookstore was a large, two-storied place, with a reading occurring even as we dined, in another part of the building. One cannot imagine such a well-stocked busy bookstore in small town America, but Mechlin is midway between Antwerp and Brussels, and perhaps can depend on travelers scurrying between the two cities. It was certainly a perfect stop along our route.

After lunch, several authors, including Stefan Brjs, Rachida Lamrabet, Yves Petry, and Annelies Verbeke, spoke about their work, read short passages, and were interviewed (quite incapably, I felt) by the Flemish journalist Elke Vandersypen.
She sounded more like a provincial American journalist, without a clue of what a writer is and does.

We left Mechlin around 3:00 p.m. and continued to Brussels, where at the beautiful Grand Place we were given about an hour to simply tour alone or together. I chose the former, and quickly walked through the tourist-filled streets near the great square, indulging in some famed Belgium fries along the way, after clearly disappointing the chef by refusing any of the dozens of sauces provided in which to dip them. I've never like fries with sauces, but in Belgium it is almost a requirement, and clearly, etiquette demands it.

After finishing as many of the fries as I could, I sought out a bar, in this case a gay one, to get a drink and wash my hands. Although I personally liked all of the publishers, the fact that we had been compelled to be with each other for so many days, and that I was now completely surrounded by tourists who milled around the streets in large, laterally sliding gangs, made me seek out a place of silence where I might catch up on my daily diary and even, possibly, write. A gay bar at 3:30 in the afternoon would be as still as a tomb, I thought to myself. And, yes, it was quiet, perfectly delightful with only the bartender who might speak.

When I rejoined the group at a large restaurant nearby for coffee, Brussels waffles, and ice-cream, they asked me where I had been, and I told them. Some were confounded. How did you find a gay-bar? "Well," I paused, "it was called L'homo erectus! But I would have sniffed it out even if it had had a less ridiculous moniker. Gays know how to do that by habit." In truth, I hadn't been to a gay bar in decades and probably would never have discovered an appropriate place for such delicious silence in most cities, where gays and straights now drink together in what had formerly been exclusionary places.

Our guest at this high-caloric gala was the author David Van Reybrouck, whose Congo. Een geschiedenis (Congo: A History) some of us had perused at our publisher meetings a few days before. It was a hefty-looking, beautifully produced tome that had received raves in the Flemish press. David was a quite-charming and brilliant man, a philosopher and archeologist by training. He'd gone to the Congo to research this book, living there for a long period of time and befriending an ancient, but clearly entertaining man who had lived there as a child under Belgium rule. Van Reybrouck's history, beginning from a time before Stanley's arrival, brought his readers up-to-date with the country's current economic crises.

Van Reybrouck read a chapter, and discussed the book as a whole. But immediately after, I interrupted. "You know, David, this is clearly a marvelously brilliant work, but—and I say this with some hesitation—perhaps with the exception of Ascheoug and Luchterhand—you are trying to sell this book to the wrong people. I would love to publish such a book, but it would be a huge and very expensive undertaking, and we are all primarily literary publishers!"

Barbara Epler, from New Directions, agreed. "I was very honored, in fact, that the book was offered to us, but we are not your kind of publishers, and we could never do it properly. You need some university press, like Chicago or the University of California Press," she concluded.

"Or even a large commercial publisher," I added. "I don't see why a larger commercial publisher would not want to publish this book. It's looks to be wonderful!" Both of us and others suggested some publisher names and agents. And he seemed appreciative, if a little taken aback by our inabilities to take on such a title.

But the interchange made for a kind of momentarily intense relationship, and I couldn't help but to tell him about my childhood experiences at writing musicals in the basement. "When I was...I must of been 12 or 13...after I'd fallen in love with Broadway musicals, I attempted to write my own musicals in the basement of our house. We had a small piano there, and, although I couldn't really play it, I'd tap out tunes, and sing them and dance. Yes, it had to have been when I was 13 because it was 1960, the year of the Congo's independence from Belgium. I wrote a work entitled Rain on a Lonely Street, about a Midwestern family that had gone to the Congo as missionaries (I was big on missionaries as a child), and got caught up in the battles of February 1959. The father, a minister, was killed, and the mother and son had a difficult time in leaving Brazzaville, in part because they had no way to travel and also because they were committed to the people with whom they had so long lived. I still remember the major song, sung by the stranded son:

Rain on a lonely, lonely street
Will it never stop, this sleet.
The mud up to our knees, please
God, let it ease.

For me then, it was a great, romantic symphony. I now perceive it as a really ghastly piece. Why rain, and why was he so lonely? Perhaps because of the death of his father. But at the time, in my imagination, it represented a significant inter-cultural relationship.

Everybody laughed heartily. But Van Reybrouck was astounded. Had some young American Iowa boy really been so moved by the Congo and the events there that he had written of it way back then? "Yes, it seemed startlingly real to me, the news of the revolution and its aftermath. I must have read some place that missionaries had been stranded and murdered.

Soon after came the cakes and waffles and various ice creams and silence as we sat consuming them in delight.

I recently read that David's book has been accepted for publication by Ecco, a imprint of HarperCollins.

Again, we were given a bit of free time before we were to all meet up at the amazing Passa Porta bookshop. On the roof of the shop, we were served an excellent dinner, afterwards moving down into the large shop itself.

Passa Porta, much like its name, is a hub for international writing, serving not only as a seller of books but as a kind of literary center which provides grants, with the support of the Flemish government, to foreign artists to come and stay for periods of time near the bookstore, allowing them time to write and perform. Among the artists have been Richard Powers, Tod Wodicka, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, and Alan Cherchesov. It is, in short, the kind of bookstore that I would have had for Sun & Moon and my nonprofit Contemporary Arts Educational Project, accomplishing a mix of publishing, bookselling, and direct literary support. However, in the context of US funding, we could never achieve that.

On the evening of our attendance there were readings by four prose writers, Gie Bogaert, Elvis Peeters, Peter Terrin, and the intensely handsome Dimitri Verhoulst, and, also, two poets who I planned to publish in a Flemish poetry anthology I was preparing with help from the Flemish Literature Fund and their poet-expert, Tom Van de Voorde. Both of the poets, Paul Bogaert and Peter Holvoet-Hanssen, were wonderful writers. While Holvoet-Hanssen was more involved with a kind a loony narrative work, performing with puppets and objects, Bogaert was a more abstract maker of language, with hilariously funny tropes that were presented with a straight-face.

After the readings we drank quite late into the night, and I talked with enormous pleasure, primarily to the poets. We reached Antwerp long after midnight, all seeking out the rather low-life bar across the street from our hotel. After only two beers it became apparent that my now dear friend Barbara Epler was getting quite tipsy, and I offered to accompany her back to the hotel, the two of us staggering across the street, through the lobby. The clock in my room read 2:30 a.m.!

Los Angeles, March 25, 2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Antwerp--Walking (on my trip to the Netherlands and Belgium)

the publishers invited in June 2010

the famed entry to the Antwerp railroad station

Letterenhuis (The House of Literature)

Boerentoren (the farmers' tower)

Antwerp City Hall and Guild Houses


In June 2010 I was invited, along with publishers from several countries*, to Antwerp to explore Flemish literature and meet with publishers of Flemish writers. I have long enjoyed Flemish writing, and had already published Stijn Streuvels, Maurice Gilliams (on both Sun & Moon and Green Integer), Paul Snoek, and Hugo Claus, and had made commitments to publish Ivo Michelis and Paul van Ostaijen. Yet I had never been to Belgium or even to the more popular Amsterdam!

What I hadn't prepared for was that in the past couple of years I had begun to suffer from serious arthritis, and although I could walk for long periods, after a few hours my knees gave way and both legs ached from the knees down. Yet the busy schedule the Flemish Literature Fund had prepared involved, primarily, city walks.

I love walking, and in my younger days I walked European cities for hours at a time. I think I have walked the length and width of Paris several times, and I just been to Paris to visit Joe Ross, Laura Wilber and their children (for whom I represent a kind of uncle) the few days before I arrived in Antwerp. In Paris I had also done a great deal of walking with the kids, including a long walk through Jardin du Luxembourg (where the children played happily in an enclosed playground), to the Marché Saint Quentin from their apartment on Boulevard de Magenta, and, by myself, a walk from Blvd. Magenta to the Left Bank for an appointment with publishers at P.O.L, which unintentionally included a walk back. So by the time I reached Antwerp with my huge suitcase I described as being akin to traveling with a fat aunt, my legs were already in pain.

Yet the moment one reaches Antwerp by train, the architecture overwhelms everything else. Barbara Epler, head editor of New Directions, saw the station so wonderfully described in W. B. Sebald's The Emigrants. Having not yet read that Sebald book, I, moving up the dark swath of the escalator, was hit in the eyes by the visage of a gold insigniaed and glass wall of stunning beauty as if I'd suddenly arrived in a great cathedral instead of a mere place of passage. And for a few minutes, the aches I had been feeling disappeared.

I quickly taxied to our lovely hotel, a former convent, called Elzenveld. There was the original chapel and sculptures in the courtyard below our windows, one of Gilliams. I visited a bar across the street where I had good soup and a drink. That evening we were invited to a festive party at the offices of the Flemish Literature Fund. A representative from the Fund arrived at 6:00 to take us, via tram, to the offices, but the affair was primarily a cocktail event, which meant hours of standing. I simply had to sit, taking me somewhat away from the center of the conversation. I would stand for a while and sit again. Stand and sit.

The group decided that it would be preferable to walk back to the hotel, so I trudged along, knowing that I would suffer again the next day. I think it was then that I realized I was the eldest of the group, maybe only 5-6 years older than Asbjørn, but several years older than most of them. My seemingly decrepit condition truly angered me, for a few years before I'd have joyously walked from sunrise to sunset!

The next morning, after an early breakfast with Czech publisher Marek Seckar, there was a walking tour of the city, as we passed by the Grand Place and the Cathedral before arriving at and touring (standing even while the docent lectured) the Heritage Library Hendrik Conscience. The visit lasted longer than expected, so we did not get to see the Carolus Borromeus church on the way to the House of Literature.

The House of Literature (Letterenhuis) is an amazing place, a museum of literature, impossible to imagine in the US. There were books, informative panels of dozens of writers, films, letters, and other matter of all the great Flemish authors from the beginning of the breakup of Belgium from the Netherlands in 1830. The tour occasioned a crash history in Flemish politics, literature, and the language, Dutch with some French-sounding words and other colloquial differences. The lecture helped me to better understand the prickly forces which are now threatening to split Belgium apart, and by pointing up the self-consciousness of Flemish writers, it helped to explain why I had been so taken with almost all the authors from Flanders I had read. In part, it is this sense of difference, so potent in an otherwise French-speaking country, that somewhat isolates the Flemish authors from even their Dutch neighbors. And, at the same time, the dense and dark history of Flanders including, to varying degrees, some Flemish citizens capitulating to or, at least, associating with the Nazis, makes for a darker vision, so apparent in Hugo Claus's work, for the contemporary Flemish writers.

Our next walk was to the WPG Publishers Group offices, where we had lunch and met with three presses, all of which I had previously dealt with: De Arbeiderspers, De Bezige Bij, and Querido. In my meetings, perhaps the only time we were permitted to sit, I updated them about my projects and discussed missing contractual items.

Following those meetings, we walked to a bar near the bay where Jewish immigrants had once arrived. From there, author Joseph Pearce, having written a book on his Jewish background, took us on a tour across the city to the Jewish quarter, where we entered a bookstore where he read from passages of the memoir-fiction.

Another short walk brought us to a brasserie near the railroad station, where I ordered steak "bleau," as did Asbjørn, with my pommes frittes. I found the steak so rare that was difficult to cut.

Finally, we walked the long way back again to Elzenveld, late in the night. I ached all over.
The next morning we walked again, this time at 8:30 in the morning, to the Antwerp Museum of contemporary art, where we were lectured to by the distributors—a truly uninspired event, during which, for the first time in my life, I kept nodding off—followed by a round table discussion by Flemish critics Tom Van Imschoot, Jos Borré, and Matthijs de Ridder. In the afternoon the Fund had scheduled more publisher meetings with Amstel, Contact, Wereldbibliotheek, De Geus, and Podium. In short spaces where we were allowed free time between meetings, I walked down to the galleries of the museum, which were displaying a vast array of Flemish contemporary art, some pieces of which appeared like imitations of other European work, other pieces of which were quite fascinating.

After some soup and quiche at Patine's, we were taken to a beautiful house, now rented out for just such events, where we heard readings and saw films by writers Rodaan Al Galidi, Paul Bogaert, Rachida Lamrabet, Jeroen Olyslaegers, Koen Peeters, and Paul Verhaeghen, all published by one of the largest Flemish-Dutch publishers, Meulenhoff/Manteau. A lovely dinner followed with, once more, a long trek back to Elenveld.

On June 3, we were slated to travel by bus in Brussels, the trip I describe elsewhere. But beforehand, we were slated again for a walking tour of Antwerp, this one with the gay author and charming raconteur, Tom Lanoye. He took us first to the famed Theo eyeglass shop, sporting some of the most charming and outrageous eye glasses available, popular with celebrities throughout the world. I dared to ask for the prices, whereupon our group got a small sampling of the range of the glasses available, from relatively low prices to eyewear that cost thousands of dollars.

We then visited, across the street, Boerentoren (the farmers' tower), the tallest building in Antwerp and first skyscraper on the European continent, from whose glass-walled top we could witness the entire landscape of the city. There Tom talked about his own writing and read us some of his work.

Tom later took us to a fashion designer several blocks away, in the fashion district, for a short visit before we caught our bus to the town of Meclin and the city of Brussels.

By the end of these three Antwerp days, I had almost loss all feeling in my legs, while my feet were swollen and red. It seemed sad that a walking trip of a city like Antwerp was no longer a possibility for me. I was pleased, however, by what I had witnessed.

It was interesting to me that in the Elsschot novel I read upon my return to the US, the plot consisted mostly of scenes where the characters walked the streets of Antwerp, lost and searching for a woman they had previously met. Still, the train and its glorious station is the image you take with you as you leave.

*The other publishers were Asbjørn Øverås (from Aschehoug in Norway), Giovanna de Angelis (from Fazi in Italy) Seid and Sibila Serdarvić (from Fraktura in Croatia), Marek Seckar (from Host in the Czech Republic), Christine Popp (from Luchterhand in Germany), Babara Epler (from New Directions in the US), and Beata Stasińska (from W.A.B. in Poland).

Amsterdam, June 5, 2010
Los Angeles, June 10, 1010

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Between Who and What (on gay culture early in the 20th century and American gay artists in mid-century)

between who and what 

Willy The Third Sex (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007)

Michael S. Sherry Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

Among the many books published under the name Willy—the pseudonym of Henry Gauthier-Villars—was Troisieme Sexe, published originally in 1927 and now translated for the first time into English as The Third Sex by Lawrence R. Schehr. It is unlikely that Willy himself penned the work; Gauthier-Villars, a man one might describe as a true rake and a virulent anti-Semite, hired ghostwriters to compose most of the over 50 titles published under his name, including books of the early Claudine novels, written by his wife, Colette.

       Although this strange publication clearly reviles homosexuality—an interesting phenomenon given Colette’s later affairs with Nathalie Barney, the Marquise de Belbeuf, and other women—focusing on what the author and Willy clearly see as an “inversion” of human behavior and a threat to human morality, the book simultaneously is so utterly fascinated with its subject, with the perversities and titillating aberrations it describes, that what might have first seemed as a homophobic tract, by book’s end is perceived as an important document of homosexual behavior between the wars and an unintentional celebration of homosexuality, particularly given the sensationalist insistence of the extensiveness of the “vice” it documents.

    An author with a clearly French bias, the Willy stand-in of this book can hardly resist proclaiming the entire German nation as “putting up with it,” embracing homosexuality not only in the clubs, “kabatretten,” and dance halls, but in bars such as the Adonis, “where, after two A.M., ephebes dance completely naked on the tables and show revealing tattoos; there is the Three Stars and especially the Como, a colossal bazaar of inversion, where you can see, at the back of pea-green velvet boxes, the honorable Business Counsel Siegfried Müller, the honorable Rechtsanwalt Siegmund Schmidt, the honorable bank director Kahn-Gugenheim arouse a pink ephebe, with curls like a little lamb, while the orchestra plays Isolde’s Liebestod or the mystical prelude to Parsifal.”

     If those bacchanals, so temptingly laid out for a sympathetic reader, are not enough to titillate, the author of The Third Sex moves on to describe what he calls a “pederastophile movement” throughout the country, hidden behind organized clubs and societies such as the “Club of Noble Sociability,” the “Friendship League,” etc, seemingly upright organizations which gather on weekends for dramatic readings, theatrical performances, and “bad-boy” dances. Special gay casinos, trips for men only, and newspaper ads are catalogued as other German activities of the homosexual communities before the author moves on to briefly discuss such “perversions” in Italy, the US (Harvard and Yale and the American military are evidently particularly rich centers for the vice), and Asia.

     After what he describes as “A Bit of Psychology,” in which he uses Gide against himself and spends an inordinate amount of space on homosexuality in animals, the author moves boldly forward in outlining famous homosexuals of history (Alcibiades, Rousseau, Wilde, Lorrain, Proust, Rostand, Verlaine, Rimbaud) before moving on to a discussion of other locations common to “the third sex”: “Balls without Women Dancers,” “special” bars, art galleries, cocaine dens, and Turkish baths! 

     Before turning to the topic of homosexuality in literature, Willy briefly discusses “Varied Opinions,” including the theories of some doctors who claim to be able to “modify” the “disease” by grafting testicles and other strange non-scientific atrocities. But even here the author seems to satirize his book’s momentary “seriousness,” as he quips—after describing a possible cure of grafting a male with a monkey testicle—“It would seem, a priori, that a monkey graft should inspire us with the desires not for women, but for female monkeys.”

    After brief and rather meaningless discussions of the “inverted theater” (which may remind us, once again, of the attacks against American gay playwrights of the 1960s described below) and the effects of the music hall, the author comes to rest with a brief, but fascinating discussion of whether the brazenness of the “inverted” being is a purposeful publicity of homosexuality, asking, in short, should the third sex remain “mum” or publicize itself. Thus Willy ends this strange and fascinating text with the old question: is it better to stay in the closet or openly celebrate one’s sexuality.

     The questions of Willy’s book are those we seem to still be facing at the last quarter of the century as outlined in Michael S. Sherry’s intellectually engaged study of Gay Artists in American Culture, a book which centers on a perceived conspiracy of homosexuals in the early to mid-1960s: a conspiracy that resulted in questions of not only who is a gay or lesbian artist—what to make socially and morally of homosexual behavior—but what was the effect of sexuality upon one’s art?

     Sherry explores US attitudes toward homosexuality through an extended and often brilliant discussion of gay musicians, dramatists, dancers, and writers from the late 1940s through the 1960s, determining that, although American culture was perhaps consistently homophobic, there was a significant change from the early post-war—a period in which, while there were occasional police raids and other publicized “outings” of gay figures, there was no “outright” denial of queer talent” nor an “outright assault”—to the mid-1960s, when, he argues, there was a near-unified belief that homosexuality was not only a corruption of American values but a real threat to American power.

Aaron Copland

     Some of these changes had to do with the very success and openness of American gay figures: in music Virgil Thompson, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Gian-Carlo Menotti and others were increasingly seen as icons representing in their work not only American values, but the very substance of what it meant to be an American; similarly, in drama, playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Laurents, and later, Edward Albee, seemed in their works to get to the very heart of the American experience; writers James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and John Cheever equally seemed to signify Americanness. Accordingly, as the Cold War coalesced, and American political and military leaders—employing a wide range of American institutions and covert funding sources (see Frances Stonor Saunders’ revelatory book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters)—sought out these same individuals and others to represent American cultural dominance to the world at large. The coming together of these two forces—the very popularity of these gay artists’ work and the felt need to represent their contributions as emblems for the American cause—brought them under heightened attention, often revealing the “open secret” of their sexuality to a wider range of critics and audiences alike. 

     Sherry’s insistence of these shifts in thought from 1960-1964 accord with my observations of what I described of the “conservativeness” of that period in “The Death of the Mother” in My Year 2004 and in essays in others of my volumes. Sherry, moreover, produces a plethora of commentary by figures from both the right and the left, from both positions of high and popular culture ranging from Jess Stearn’s popular best-seller The Sixth Man, to articles in Life (the one I mention also in “The Death of the Mother”), Time, and other popular magazines, and homophobic comments by feminist Betty Friedan to support his contentions. Some of these numerous citations seem to be caught up in the same “frenzy” that he describes as being at work against the queer artists. While the major figure of The Manchurian Candidate may certainly be a “mamma’s boy,” one might remind Sherry that he is most emphatically heterosexual in the movie—hardly what one might describe as a “Tea and Sympathy”-like figure the author makes him out to be [see My Year 2002]. While Susan Sontag certainly has mixed feelings about the notion of “camp,” associated with gay culture, one might have noted that Sontag has mixed feelings about most of the issues of which she writes, including the French noveau roman writers; and, in a book where Sherry decries his own study’s absence of lesbian artists (most of the issues raised in this period were directed exclusively at male gay artists), it seems strange that he does not even mention the “open secret” of Sontag’s own sexuality.

     In general, however, Sherry’s copious research is revelatory and its examples of homophobic rage are quite terrifying. Yet his primary example of the effects of this American reaction to gays brings up as many questions as it attempts to explain the homophobic attacks of the period.

Samuel Barber

     Clearly more at home in the world of music than in the other arts, Sherry delineates the career of Samuel Barber and its culmination in the disastrous opera premier of Antony and Cleopatra at the Met upon its move to Lincoln Center. Nearly all of the participants in this work—which was perceived as a grand failure by critics of the time—were gay artists: conductor Thomas Schippers, director Franco Zeffirelli, choreographer Alvin Ailey, and the work’s composer Samuel Barber. Sherry brilliantly outlines the critical climate of the time, when the more popular and musically lyrical writing of artists such as Copeland, Bernstein, Menotti, and Barber where often set in opposition to the twelve-tone composers, most of whom were heterosexual. Accordingly, issues of melodiousness, prettiness, showiness, theatricality, preciosity, etc—all connected with the queer composers—were often pitted in homophobic discussions against the lean, spare, manly, difficult (and heterosexual) twelve-tone compositions. The lush, over-the-top dramatic endeavor of the Zeffirelli-Barber production, accordingly, was associated by many critics as failing precisely because it is was the product of gay men, men able only to express the surface of experience—a criticism often used as well against gay playwrights Williams, Inge, and Albee in their presentations of marriage and family life.

     Sherry quite brilliantly untangles numerous other issues involved: the pretensions of cultural organizations such as the Met, the Cold-War boasting of cultural superiority, and Barber’s own misgivings with both subject and the time-frame in which he was to have composed a “masterpiece.” And the author traces various reactions to the opera over the years since its premiere, a period in which some critics have been much kinder to the work. But the fact remains that the attack on Barber—with all of its links to gay-bashing—along with Barber’s own decisions due to the breakup of his relationship with Menotti and his own failing health meant an early end to the composer’s career. Along with Sherry’s sympathies with Barber’s fate, I have lamented a similar situation regarding Menotti’s career (see My Year 2007), and one can only wonder if Barber had lived as long a life as Albee, for example, (Albee is currently 80, having written two new plays in the past two years, Barber was age 71 at the time of his death) whether he might not have composed numerous other important works.

     One must face the fact, however, that in the context of the early 1960s, before the embracement of a postmodern sensibility, Barber’s work was old-fashioned in its European-based melodiousness. And the focus on Barber’s musical career obscures the fact that in other forms of art the same homophobic forces were very much on different sides. Despite the attacks on gay playwrights in Stanley Kauffmann’s 1961 piece for The Times, “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises”—an article I very much recall reading in shock—the vast differences between the more expressionist Williams, the realist Inge, and the absurdist Albee did not really allow for one notion of what gay art looked like. In poetry, moreover—an area Sherry barely discusses—linguistic complexity and abstraction was more linked to the gay poets such as Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery than the narrative-based and certainly more “old-fashioned” heterosexual favorites of the time, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. Allen Ginsberg’s work, which linked him to the bardic traditions of Blake and Whitman, found support with numerous other heterosexual “Beat” authors; similarly many of the New York School writers who followed O’Hara, Schuyler, and Ashbery were quite obviously heterosexual. In short, the kind of formal issues Sherry sites that created opposition in the musical world between gay and straight men, were very different in the other arts.

     Accordingly, while Sherry’s ability to point to a perceived gay conspiracy results in fascinating reading, I am uncertain what effect that hysteria had. Clearly it did not change lives in the same way as the McCarthy hearings of the previous decade. One might almost see this period, one in which I myself felt as a period of ineffectual restraints, as a kind of final swelling of prejudicial resentment by those hating homosexuality before their way of thinking collapsed.* It reminds me very much of the virulent attacks of many supposedly loving church-goers upon gays today who demand the same marital rights as heterosexuals. Their venom may be painful, but the changes they oppose are inevitable, country after country (even mythically macho-Spain) recognizing that homosexuality does not necessarily represent a who or a what, but simply another kind of love. 

*Obviously those kinds of hateful attacks have not entirely disappeared. Only the other day the media reported Oklahoma legislator Sally Kern’s remarks—echoing the statements by many 1960s homophobes—that homosexuality presages the fall of all cultures. Astonishingly, Stern proclaimed that she was without any prejudice against gays!

Los Angeles, March 13, 2008

Reprinted from Rain Taxi, XIII (Summer 2008).

Saturday, March 12, 2011

At the Edge of the Continent (a visit to LA by Ko Un and Lee Shang-Wha)

Ko Un and Lee Shang-Wha

Ko Un and me at UCLA

Ko Un at the home of Hyon Chough

In April of 2010 I had the opportunity to host the noted Korean poet Ko Un and his wife Lee Shang-Wha. After a reading at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, the couple flew to Los Angeles, where I picked them up on April 21st at the Los Angeles International Airport and drove them to the JJ Grand Hotel in the vast area of the city we call Koreatown. In part because Ko does not speak English, and the hotel contains a fine Korea restaurant, I thought it would be more comfortable for them to stay in that part of the city, which is also not terribly far from our house.

Clearly they were tired by the time we reached the hotel, so we didn't speak much that evening, and I quickly checked them in and departed. The next morning, however, would begin early and include great deal of speaking and socializing.

At 9:00 I met them at the hotel, where I had arranged a press reception in the hotel restaurant. Two different reporters from Korean newspapers were in attendance, and soon were interviewing Ko Un, snapping his photograph and sharing experiences. A woman from the Korean consulate also arrived and spoke to Ko Un and Lee Shang-Wha. My role consisted primarily of greeting the journalists and introducing them to the poet. Typical of their disinterest in international activities in their city, the Los Angeles Times sent no one, while even the event had beforehand been mentioned in the Korean papers. My cleaners told me they had read that Ko Un was in town for a reading when I mentioned his name the week before.

Meanwhile Lee Shang-Wha, always the manager of Ko's activities, selected the poems he would be reading later in the day, and handed me copies of them in English, I having previously told her that I would be reading the poems in translation.

Soon Howard joined me and, together, we drove them to the University of California, Los Angeles, where I had arranged a reading in the Korean Department. The faculty, in turn, had planned a pleasant lunch at the Faculty Club. The professors and staff, perhaps all in a little awe of Ko Un, were somewhat uncomfortably quiet, but Howard and I peppered Ko with questions, and finally the faculty began to speak up.

After a short tour of the Korean Department offices, they took us to a large classroom in Royce Hall where the reading was to be held. Seated at a table we faced a filled room, including my wonderful intern/now typesetter, Pablo, who I'd hired for a couple of days to sell books and take photographs.

Ko is a wonderful reader, a true spellbinder, and I tried to keep up with his obvious sense of drama and humor. We had both been given glasses of wine, so when reading one poem about a drunk, he began with a sip, so too did I, reading it in English a few minutes after. The room burst into spontaneous laughter, and Ko beamed with approval.

The reading ended with a few questions and a gift from one woman of a Korean-style painting. We sold a substantial amount of books.

We then drove on the Mulholland Drive to the beautiful home of businesswoman Hyon Chough, whose stunning glass house overlooks both sides of the city, south to the Stone Canyon Reservoir and, in the distance, the ocean and north to the San Fernando Valley. Before entering the house we walked the grounds, Ko standing at the very summit to looking south, so close to the edge that I, who suffer some vertigo, grew frightened. "Come back, further back," I begged him, but he remained at the very edge of the cliff, almost as if he were some pioneer standing at the edge of the continent looking off into the distance. I was terrified: what if he fell? Would I be the indirect cause of his death? Fortunately, he eventually turned back, joining us in the gloriously lit house.

Hyon and I had invited a large number of the art community, Korean friends, and several poets (including Dennis Phillips and Martin Nakell), who all dined splendidly on the dozens of different dishes of Japanese and California cuisine. We also did a reading in the vast living room, but my voice was beginning to give out, as I began to develop what would become laryngitis, so we cut it short.

As we left the place I asked Ko and Lee what they had thought of the house. He, a Buddhist monk, quietly said, "I prefer my simple house." We all laughed.

Having kept them very busy the day before, On Friday, I allowed them the entire morning alone, during which time Ko Un, so Lee later reported, had taken a long walk, seeing much of the Korean part of the city, an area that used to be somewhat devastated, but is now almost entirely rebuilt and quite stylish, with new high-rises, apartments, and stores.

About 4:00 we picked up the pair again, and this time took them to an excellent Japanese restaurant at the edge of Beverly Hills. The head of the Japanese Department at the Los Angeles County Museum, Rob Singer, had given me a card of the restaurant's owner and handwritten, in Japanese, a message to him. Accordingly, we were served a number of special dishes, in course after course.

We then drove to the Korean Cultural Center near our home where the fairly large theater was packed, new chairs having been placed in front of the permanent seating. The crowd was almost entirely Korean, save a few friends of ours, again the Dennis, Martin, and also Rebecca Goodman, Deborah Meadows and Thérèse Bachand. By this time I had nearly lost my voice, and it crackled when I spoke. Yet I valiantly carried on, explaining my problem to the audience, but still getting across the spirit of the poems as much as I could in English. Pablo sold hundreds of copies of both of our Ko Un titles. Others drove Ko and his wife home, and we returned tired but pleased.

The next morning we picked up the couple and took them, sad to see them go, to the airport. Throughout it all Ko (then 78) appeared full of energy and not in the least bit tired. By Saturday I had completely lost my voice and was coming down with a terrible cold. But what fun it had been.

Los Angeles, March 12, 2010