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Writing Craft, Vol. XIV: CORE Theatre Ensemble’s adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper


Cast members from the CORE Theatre Ensemble adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper rehearse at the Little Theatre of Norfolk earlier this month. The play opens on Friday. Photos by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — CORE Theatre Ensemble revives its excellent The Yellow Wallpaper adaptation at Little Theatre of Norfolk this weekend.

I’m excited to see it again, and excited to talk to some old friends about how they adapted the Charlotte Perkins Gilman work – and how the show has evolved. The short story, a late 19th Century exploration of an isolated woman’s deteriorating mental health, is a key work of feminist literature.

The story is structured as journal entries of Jane, who suffers from the control of her husband, expectations of society, etc., which effectively deny her the ability to think and control her own life. Core is well known for its physical performances, and some of the themes and suggested characters within the story are reflected in the embodiment by actors of the wallpaper.

The show has been performed locally before, as well as being taken on the road. It has involved casts of varying sizes, and the latest incarnation features all woman in portrayals of the isolated, thwarted heroine at its center and the wallpaper itself.

I talked with members of Core shortly before the first run of 40 Whacks. At the time, we discussed the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of their adaptations and originals. This talk is with my longtime friends Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; and Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor and artistic associate.

The show runs at 8 p.m., Friday through Sunday, Nov. 30 to  Dec. 9, at the Little Theater of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave. in Norfolk. General admission is $15 or, for season subscribers, $10. FMI click this link or call (757) 627-8551. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: As you guys know, I’ve seen [and earlier production of] it, and I loved it. I really thought it was – I’d seen a lot of bad local theater when I saw it so  –

Ertugrul: [Laughter.]

Castillo: Okay.

Q: And I’m like, “Oh, I just paid eight dollars.” [Laughter.] But I really enjoyed this. I thought a lot about it afterward, thought about what you did, why you did it, and I thought it was a lot of strengths you guys have in a really great package. One of the reasons I talked to you about [40 Whacks], which I didn’t know going in, is that I liked The Yellow Wallpaper so much. So what I hoped we could do is talk about how you found that short story, and why you thought that might be material.

Ertugrul: I believe – It was long ago. [Laughter.]

Castillo: It was so long ago.

Ertugrul: We were trying to look for things to adapt. We wanted to do more adaptations. We had done some before and thought, “Well, what else can we do?” I had read this story when I was taking English classes in college, and I believe someone else had read it as well. And we said, “You know, that story resonates with me.” So we all went back and read it, and it was amazing how concisely and beautifully that story is written. Everyone kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah, we can do that.” … There have been a lot of people who have done this as a show, but a lot of them do it as a one woman show. We did not want to do that. Just what we feel about –

Castillo: One woman, one man shows – [Laughter.]

Ertugrul: “A tour-de-force!” Of one person. [Laughter.]

Q: With that work, that isn’t really moving the ball that far.

Ertugrul: It isn’t.

Q: The short story is journal entries. It’s like journal entries for the stage.

Ertugrul: It’s like a giant monologue.

Castillo: That would be an easy way out with the story, that it’s one whole monologue, which technically it is. It’s a big monologue.

Castillo and Ertugrul

Ertugrul: We had seen another show’s [production stills] that had taken it very literally. … Someone was actually holding a roll of wallpaper behind the woman. … They were in period garb and things like that. I said, “The title of the story is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper;’ it’s not ‘Woman Loses Her Mind.’” It’s not anything like that, so we thought what if it’s this long piece of paper? And, if it’s this long piece of fabric that all these people manipulate, then they actually are all the people that she talks about. What if there really are women in the paper and we manipulate it as she deteriorates? If you give yourself four wall, or three in front of an audience, it kind of takes things to a – We opened up a door that meant we could put that door in the middle of a performance. It doesn’t just have to be the way that some set designer decided.

Castillo: Actually having people manipulate the same piece of cloth, you realize very quickly that if you’re moving one piece, then somewhere down the line [it affects another actor].

Ertugrul: Someone’s either got a lot or not enough.

Castillo: It’s a great physical dialogue between everybody holding the paper. They have to create this breathing entity, basically.

Ertugrul: We’re taught that everyone [in a cast] is actively crucial. The quickest way to make them even more crucial is to tether them together.

Q: How did you approach the journal entry structure of the short story when you determined what the text was going to be?

Ertugrul: We started as a monologue, because at the beginning she’s really trying to hold it together.

Castillo: There isn’t much cut from it.

Ertugrul: Yeah, we didn’t cut a whole lot.

Castillo: The story was natural to adapt for theater because its just first person. We made a compromise here and changed –

Ertugrul: A couple of things like tense or things to make it more conversational. Like we do have conversations between her and John [the husband of the main character and, effectively, her doctor]. We made that happen. Instead of her remembering a conversation with John, which is a very passive thing, we actually had the conversation happen. We just tried to have that conversation relived. It’s a little different in this production than it was in the one you saw.

Castillo: We’ve actually subtracted all the male [cast members].

Ertugrul: Someone would play John, but this time it doesn’t happen. It’s more of a choice. We came back to again and said, “You know, it really needs to be all women.”

Q: But why?

Ertugrul: What we’re going toward is that this really is inside her head. If there are no walls, if there’s nothing really tangible for her to hold on to, then we’ve got to start breaking down what’s real and what isn’t. From the very beginning, we’re in her perspective, so therefore these conversations really didn’t happen. Was she ever really in this situation? By not really nailing down our room, it opens up so many other interpretations. … With the original production, there was a person there in front of her that she could grab and pull and try to hug. … This is all head space.

Castillo: Really all you see on stage is the wallpaper.

Q: Was it a controversial decision to make the wallpaper plaid? [Laughter.]

Ertugrul: Yeah, the tartan. We had a problem last time when the MacCleods came. [Laughter.]

Q: Where did you get the idea to use fabric as the wallpaper?

Castillo: We were batting around a couple of ideas. I remember seeing this one production a few years ago and I thought it was really cool that they had pieces of spandex on one side of a room – a completely different play – but it was sliced up and down every, I think, six inches, and the actors would jump right through.

Ertugrul: [With fabric as the wallpaper], could be like cat’s cradle and you could be in it. [Moving her fingers.] So we found it in a remnant pile at one fabric store.

Q: Did you know the text at that point?

Ertugrul: We knew we weren’t going to change the text too terribly much. We said, “Read the story.” And then we met. We had the idea for the paper and we had two songs that we liked. We said, “This is the opening, and this is where things come. We’re in the middle of it.” And we said, “Do you want to do it?” And, as long as [cast members] bought into the idea that they we were going to choreograph this entire paper everywhere, and they were excited about it, they were the right people to have.

Q: The paper’s a character and plays characters. I’m not explaining very well, but it’s a setting but it’s also characters, individual characters. Am I explaining that right?

Ertugrul: Yeah, and then, how do you integrate that. As she starts deteriorating, the wallpaper starts talking back. … There’s a lot of choral work that goes on in it.

Castillo: It’s one character and then it becomes individual voices.

Ertugrul: [The actors in the wallpaper] have to speak as a chorus and also speak individually.

Q: But it’s not bat—-.

Ertugrul: [Laughter.] No.

Playing us out – because we are born of this land, and, like this land, immortal – is a tribute to Connor MacLeod that someone made on purpose.

 

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Norfolk poet Tim Seibles, author of Fast Animal, named finalist for National Book Award


NORFOLK, Va. — Poet Tim Seibles, a member of the Old Dominion University faculty, today was named a finalist for the National Book Award for his recently released book Fast Animal.

Seibles’ work has been recognized with an Open Voice Award and a NEA fellowship, and his work has been collected in Best American Poetry. He teaches in the ODU’s MFA Creative Writing Program in Norfolk and at the low-residency Stonecoast MFA in Writing program at the University of Southern Maine.

Seibles is one of five finalists in his genre. The others are David Ferry, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations; Cynthia Huntington, Heavenly Bodies; Alan Shapiro, Night of the Republic; and Susan Wheeler, Meme. The judges were Laura Kasischke, Dana Levin, Maurice Manning, Patrick Rosal, Tracy K. Smith. Winners will be announced on Nov. 14.

I had the chance to to speak with Seibles at length earlier this year about poetry, music, Fast Animal and its predecessor, the equally-amazing Buffalo Head Solos. It’s a long conversation, but people have been finding the posts again today, so I figured I’d leave another couple of links, and also link to some readings.

But first here’s one quote from Seibles, from our earlier conversation:

If people heard more poems, read more poems, I think they would be far less willing to live without it.

Click here to read the first part of the interview.

Click here to read part two (a link also appears at the end of the first part).

This is “Wound” from Fast Animal:

Additionally, this is a reading Seibles did this spring for the ODU MFA program; the poem is “Ode to Sleep,” also from Fast Animal:

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UPDATED: Allan Gurganus, Sheri Reynolds, Tim Seibles in lineup of the 35th annual ODU litfest


John McManus and Tim Seibles, co-directors of this year’s Old Dominion University Literary Festival.

NORFOLK, Va. – The 35th Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival kicks off today with a reception for two visual arts exhibits. Readings start Monday with author, poet and translator Yunte Huang, and the week goes full speed until Friday night, when Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, will write an entire novel while using only adjectives supplied by audience members.

That’s right, Hampton Roads — if you ever wanted to help a best-selling author modify his nouns and pronouns, this is your year.

So.

For legal reasons, I must now explain that Gurganus will not write a novel with your help, but he will be here in Norfolk. Probably to read something and talk about literature. His call, really.

Sorry that lede got away from me there, but LitFest! It is great. There are a host of talented artists who will read and talk and so forth.

The full schedule is at the bottom of the post, and please do click on this link to visit the festival site.

Novelist and short fiction writer John McManus and poet Tim Seibles are co-directing the festival this year. Both have been featured here at the blog, and, by way of full disclosure, they are my professors at ODU. Seibles, who recently published the collection Fast Animal, is reading on Friday, and one of my other profs, Sheri Reynolds, who has a new novel out called The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, reads on Tuesday. Times and places are lower in the post.

I traded emails with Seibles and McManus about the festival this past week. Through the miraculous cut-paste function of modern personal computing, it seems as though I interviewed them together, but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from this year’s festival?

Seibles: The main thing I want people to take away from this litfest is a clear sense that language is alive and that poetry, fiction, non-fiction, etc., do, IN FACT, have something to say to and about their lives.

McManus: I hope writers in the audience will go away eager to write in response to the festival guests or in argument with them, and I hope everyone will leave wanting to read these writers’ books and read more in general. That’s what happens to me during and after a good reading: I fill up with a sense of urgency at the sheer number of worthwhile books that I haven’t read yet, and a sense of urgency to sit down at my desk and write.

Q: Are there any specific artists you are looking forward to hearing or seeing?

McManus: I will admit to being particularly thrilled about M.T. Anderson, whose novel Feed I’ve read five times. He won the National Book Award for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, the first volume in a trilogy whose second book is partly set in Hampton Roads during the Revolutionary War. Two of my colleagues, Sheri Reynolds and Tim Seibles, are reading during the festival; it will be a delight to hear them both. I love both Dorianne Laux and Allan Gurganus. And I’m very excited about Alice Randall.

Seibles: I think all of the guests will be a good rush for the soul, but I am especially excited about Sean Thomas Dougherty, Jamal Mohamed, Robin Becker, and Yona Harvey.

Q: What was I too dumb to ask but should have asked? And will you please answer that question?

Seibles: The answer is ‘we swim in language – we drown or we stay alive in the language we think and speak.’

McManus: You’re a professional journalist and there’s nothing you’re too dumb to ask, but if you’d asked whom we’re bringing in 2013, I’d have answered that I intend to send invitations to famous recluses like Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon and Charles Portis so that I can frame copies of my invitation letters to them and also because why not, and if you’d asked where I find all the smart, modish clothes I wear to the festival, I’d have answered that Dillard’s has an amazing 75-percent-off sale every year in the last weekend of September, which is why the festival happens at the beginning of October.

A schedule follows. Please double check the litfest site. Garage parking is free for on-campus events. Events are free, except for the staged reading of 8, as noted below. Most events are in Norfolk, though one talk is in Virginia Beach. A campus map is at this link.

  • Woman, Image and Art & Photographs With Teeth: Visual arts reception. 3 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 30 @ The Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, 4509 Monarch Way, Norfolk, Va. Between W. 45th & W. 46th streets. Some paid street parking nearby. (Further details on both exhibits below.)
  • Dustin Lance Black’s 8: Staged reading. 8 p.m., Oct., 3-5; 12:30 p.m., Oct. 3-4 @ Old Dominion University Theatre, 4600 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk, Va. General admission $20; students $15. Proceeds benefit ODU Out & The American Foundation for Equal Rights.
  • Author, poet and translator Yunte Huange. 2:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Chandler Recital Hall, Diehn Fine and Performing Arts, 481o Elkhorn Ave., Norfolk. Near W. 49th St.
  • Poet Yona Harvey. 4 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Robin Becker. 7:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Batten Arts & Letters Building, 43rd Street & Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk.
  • Author Sheri Reynolds. 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 @ Batten Arts & Letters.
  • Poet Patrick Rosal. 2:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 @ Learning Commons, 1st Floor, Perry Library, 4427 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk, Va. Near W. 45th St.
  • Screenwriter and playwright Dustin Lance Black. 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 @ North Cafeteria, Webb Center, 49th Street & Bluestone Avenue, Norfolk, Va.
  • Photographer Karolina Karlic, 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 @ Gordon Art Galleries
  • Poet Sean Thomas Dougherty. 2:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Dorianne Laux. 4 p.m., Wednesday, Oct.3 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Author M.T. Anderson. 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Jan Freeman. 12:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 4 @ Virginia Beach Higher Education Center, 1881 University Dr., Virginia Beach. Surface parking nearby.
  • Percussionist Jamal Mohamed. 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 4 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet and playwright Merle Feld. 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 4 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Tim Seibles. 2:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Alice Randall. 4 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Author Allan Gurganus. 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Hall.

And these longer-term events:

  • Woman, Image and Art: Visual Arts. Runs through Feb. 10 @ The Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, 4509 Monarch Way, Norfolk, Va. Between W. 45th & W. 46th streets. Some street parking nearby. FMI click this link.
  • Photographs With Teeth: Photography by Yunghi Kim, Cori Pepelnjak, Karolina Karlic & Greta Pratt. Runs through Oct. 14 @ Gordon Art Galleries. FMI click this link.

Please keep your adjectives to yourself – unless they are superlative.

Look, that was just a half-hearted grammar joke. Please do not shout out adjectives at Allan Gurganus.

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Writing Craft, Vol. X: Poet Tim Seibles, author of Fast Animal (Part Two)


The poet Tim Seibles on Colley Avenue, Norfolk, Va., in May 2012. His most recent book is Fast Animal. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — This is the second part of a craft talk with the poet Tim Seibles. His latest book, Fast Animal, is now on sale via online and brick-and-mortar booksellers. Such as Prince Books – say, those guys are all right.

Seibles is a professor in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. As regular readers of the blog know, I’m a student on the fiction side.

As with the first part of the talk – click here to read it – this has been edited down quite a bit for length and, in a few spots, clarity. It contains adult language, but it’s nothing you didn’t hear that time in boot camp. No, not that time. Yeah, that one.

This section deals with how Seibles began writing, his love of Jimi Hendrix, and the kinds of societal changes that remain unfulfilled ideals.

We pick up after Seibles discussed how people can come to find poetry, something they may not have known they were missing. Seibles is a captivating, expressive reader, and I asked about that.

Q: Is that one reason you put so much effort into your performance of poetry?

You know, it’s funny that you ask that. Man, from the time I read poems, that’s how I read them. It’s always felt like a physical thing to me. … I’m not just reading some poems but I’m reading from my toes up, you know? So it’s not a conscious thing, exactly. I don’t remember ever thinking I should not be that way. And my favorite poets, the ones I’ve been lucky enough to see … the language was bursting through them.

Q: And people who haven’t seen you read [should know] this isn’t circus stuff.

No. I hope not.

Q: You have this real clarity in your reading. There’s emotion, but there’s clarity. When I read, I get real nervous. It’s letting the words land. Does that make sense?

Yes. And I hope that your sense of it is what most people have, because it isn’t something I’m trying to act. I don’t rehearse my poems. There’s a certain way I hear them in my head. There’s a certain way they come through me. I don’t make any conscious decisions about how I am with them. In part, that poem “Ode to My Hands’ is partly an examination of that, actually. Your hands do live in a certain way. I have no idea why my hands do what they do. Maybe people think I’m trying to do it, but I’m not.

Q: Maybe performance is the wrong word.

But it’s performance. It is performative. It certainly is not rehearsed or choreographed. So it’s different than a dance performance. … It’s not just the language. It’s rhythms. It’s sounds. They demand a physical response from me as a reader. The body just kind of goes with it. Not unlike watching a guitarist, a saxophone player, a pianist. The way they rock back or fall to the side or tilt. It’s a felt thing. The music demands a certain thing of them. Language is very similar to that. English is my instrument, my primary instrument.

Q: You and I have talked about this before, but when I was an undergraduate at Virginia Wesleyan, you came to our campus and did a reading.

It was a while back.

Q: I heard you read, and was like, “Ohhhh.” Not that writers have to read [aloud], but I think that’s something young writers don’t think about – how you read, what you choose to read does something to potential readers. It can either turn them on –

Or off. I agree. I mean, I love poetry anyway, and I loved reading lots of poets before I ever heard them read. Certainly, when you see somebody embody the work a certain way it gives you a clearer sense of the full range of feeling that accompanies the words. Poets and artists are bearing witness to forces within us that are largely not defined and not attended to in the larger society. So when you play the blues and you fall on your knees during the solo, you’re not just saying, ‘Look, I can play on my knees!’ [Laughter.] What you’re trying to say is there is something so much larger than my own thing that I can’t stand up and hold the music in me. … When you’re reading, you hope there’s something similar in the performative moment regarding the voice in poetry. The language is a marker of a certain level of emotion or feeling, but it’s not the whole of it.

I hope people are thinking: ‘Words are amazing. Words do things to people. … I see what they’re doing to him. I see how the words are living in his being and I want the words to live in me, too.’ When I first saw Hendrix on film … I already loved his music. I already was a total Hendrix freak. I was just riveted by what the music meant in him. The way his body bore witness to its power.

Q: I wanted to ask you about mortality. … I keep coming back to clocks, representations of clocks, someone mispronouncing thyme, the spice, and looking at the wall, and people not telling [a narrator] what time does. The poem “Later” – “Early, it used to be early all the time.” And then there’s this really striking photo of you as a young man.

I’m glad they included it, because this book is really about the transition from that young guy to the guy on the back cover. That’s really what this book is. It’s a portrait of sorts, a portrait over time of age sixteen to fifty-six. That’s what the book wants to be. Of course, it’s not an exhaustive portrait, but hopefully the quintessence of being basically a child-adult to being a middle-aged man.

Q: When you thought it was early all the time, what did you think you would do with your life?

I think what I’m trying to get at, in that line, is the idea that there was a certain kind of open-endedness to one’s life that was felt at a certain age that is no longer true. Of course, I hope to live until I’m eighty or something, but to me I’m twenty-four years from being eighty and that feels to me like a pretty clear finish line. A year is a long time. It doesn’t feel like a long time, but a lot can happen in a year. … But there’s a sense that there are certain decisions that I have made that have shaped my life. Thinking certain thoughts, imagining the world in certain terms … and it has made my life a particular thing. Earlier in life, I felt I could be almost anything. There are things I loved, football, music. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll be a guitarist, a football player. I’ll be a novelist. Maybe I’ll just travel the world and have a beautiful lover in each country on earth. [Laughter.]

Q: By the way, had my guidance counselor mentioned that one to me …

As one of the options? Amen.

Q: I didn’t do well on standardized testing.

Me neither. [Laughter.] But that’s what I’m trying to get at – there was an open-ended sense of things that I no longer have. That’s not to say I feel like I’m finished. I don’t. But there are certain choices I can’t make any longer. I have great faith in the possibilities of self-transformation at all stages, but there’s a certain level of anxiety I seem to live with now that I didn’t have as a young man.

Also, there was a certain abiding faith I had in human beings that I don’t have exactly any more. That’s not to say I think everyone is fucked up or anything. I’m not that kind of cynic. You just realize there are people who are a certain way, and that’s what they are. It’s not like they’re trying to be mean. It’s not like they’re trying not to be attentive. They find themselves in a life that has shaped them a certain way, and that’s what they are. I think realizing that as a man in my forties for the first time, I thought, ‘Wow, man, you can’t really fix the world exactly.’ …

Something it’s just people who do not know do not know that they do not know. … People who think, ‘Nah, fuck it. I’m going to buy the biggest car I can because there is no global warming.’ Because it’s inconvenient to think about global warming.

Q: Tim, we’re never going to run out of dead dinosaurs.

[Laughter.] Exactly. Why didn’t I see that?

Q: We’ll make some more dinosaurs. We’ll melt them down.

In many cases evil is not being perpetrated by people who are trying to be evil.

[A mild digression ensued.]

Q: Following this interview, we’re going to go over a list of things not to say while a tape recorder is running.

[Names deleted] – I will never punch them in the face.

Q: And, to my wife, I do not want a lover in every country.

I’m sure you have other questions.

Q: Actually, this part of my notes is “wander way off field.”

[Laughter.] Okay. We’re doing exactly what you want.

Q: When did you know you wanted to write?

Even as a little kid, I wanted to write. I still have some little notebooks filled with stories I wrote as a little boy. I was unaware that was not normal.

Q: Your dad was a scientist though. Did you think you were going to be a science guy?

No, I didn’t. He took me to the laboratory. He was a biochemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He took me to the laboratory a couple times and showed me stuff that was going on there. He showed me an early computer as big as this room. … He always wanted me to be my own boss, quote-unquote. ‘Be a lawyer. Be a doctor. Be an architect.’ … My passions as a kid were ultimately football and writing. I really discovered writing seriously in college. I took a workshop.

My mother read to me and my brother, and she was a great reader, very dramatic. She gave each character a different voice. I have no doubt that the way I read is wrapped up in her voice. I think my interest in literature in general came from her reading to us. She used to read the “Billy Goats Gruff” and do all the voices. And, you know, Little Black Sambo, The Three Little Pigs. I have no doubt that that was when my heart first opened to words.

I thought everyone loved stories. I found something in writing I couldn’t find anywhere else.’ The freedom of it was something I always loved. You could say whatever you felt like saying, you know? These were not stories I was assigned. I wasn’t turning them in. Mainly, no one saw them.

Q: What would be a story?

Science fiction. They were all science fiction. Robots from Venus. The grasshoppers that took over the earth. You know, the giant ants visiting Jupiter. I would come up with all these crazy things. Some of them were like six, seven pages long. Some were like 20 pages long. Handwritten, not typed.

Q: I still want to option one of them.

I was like all about, ‘The grasshoppers went there, and they ate all the people, and then they went there. They knocked over a building. …’ Man, I was into it.

Q: I like that grasshopper one. I think it’s got legs.

They were pretty fierce, man.

Q: When did you know, ‘I’m going to be a poet?’

The first workshop. The first part of the semester was fiction. The rest was poetry. I went into the workshop thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to write novels.’ I love novels and short stories. Then, ‘Poetry sounds cool. I’ll write poetry.’ I didn’t think one way or the other about it. So we were doing the stories, and it was cool, and then the other part of the semester was poetry and the guy teaching the class was a poet. He was Michael Ryan who won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. And he’s reading these poems, man, these wild-ass poems, these daring poems, sexy-ass poems, and I’m like, ‘You can do that shit? I think I want to write poems.’ And I couldn’t write worth a damn. I could speak English, but I couldn’t write poem worth a nickel. But man, it didn’t mean I didn’t have the fever. I had to make myself stop writing poems so I could do my other homework. I had the fever. I wasn’t doing much good, but it had me. I was about nineteen. That was all because of Ryan. I wanted to be that emotionally present.

Q: What did your folks think?

Well, they just kind of shrugged their shoulders. My mom was an English teacher, of course, so she said, ‘Well, that’s nice.’ But did they think, ‘You don’t really need to get a job; try poems?’ My father was saying stuff like, ‘Well even with a BA in English, you can still go to law school.’

But my parent’s dreams, especially my dad’s, died pretty hard. Being a black man of that era, they had many kinds of limitations. He, like many of the black folks of that particular age, killed themselves to make a fucking statement about their capacities and their worthiness. So I think he was thinking that the next step would be have sons that would be doctors, build buildings, you know, be great lawyers, famous all over the country. …

Ultimately, I think they find some satisfaction in my success as a poet. My father reads all of my books, cover to cover. Not my mom, who is an English teacher, mind you. My father, the biochemist, reads them cover to cover.

Q: He’s probably really proud.

I think so. I think they both are. But he’s the only one who is willing to read them cover to cover. My mom is afraid she’ll find something that is too erotic, too off. It gets her nervous. My father, he’s also the one who said, ‘Son, this is jazz. Check this out. Listen to this. This is Yusef Latif. This is Wes Montgomery. This is Les McCann … This is classical music. Peter and the Wolf, you know. This is the blues.’ He had artistic impulses, I think, but he … suppressed them for the sake of practicality. I think he wanted to be practical. Get a job he could depend on. …

You may have noticed in Fast Animal a number of references to consciousness. … Consciousness itself has been heavily infringed upon by the imperatives of the culture. What we might imagine ourselves to be has been sharply limited, shrunken by the imperatives of a business culture. You ultimately want just full human liberation. … Someone has to say yes to a larger idea of our lives. William Stafford said ‘I’m the one to hum until the world can sing.’ That may sound melodramatic, but in the context of the poem it is not at all.

Q: Do you feel at some point you’re just running out of time to express what needs to be expressed?

[Laughter.] Not yet. My parents are both still alive in their eighties, and unless I get hit by a car or shot or something I think I have some time to say other things that I’d like to say. But I imagine, unless I’m really lucky, that I will die with poems still left to write.

Q: I didn’t mean to say I think you’re getting old. It just seems like there’s so much to do.

Oh yeah. Do I feel squeezed all the time. Oh man, I’m battling tooth and nail for oxygen to write in. All the time. This four-hundred line poem I’ve been working on for the last four months. Maybe more. I mean, that jam took a lot of time. At first I’m thinking, ‘Just let it flow.’ Then the writer in you kicks in. ‘I’ll do a couple of revisions.’ The next thing you know and you’ve revised it over and over and over. It takes a long time to go through 400 lines. …

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to make room to write. For two reasons. One is I love to write. The second is, if I don’t write, I start to go crazy.

Here’s an encore of Seibles reading “Wound” from Fast Animal:

And thanks to rocking Virginian-Pilot scribe Mike Gruss, a friend of the blog, for turning me on to this reading, and for recommending the poem at 5:25 or so:

And, playing us out:

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Writing Craft, Vol. X: Poet Tim Seibles, author of Fast Animal (Part One)


NORFOLK, Va. — The poet Tim Seibles recently released his latest book, Fast Animal, a collection you should buy and read now.

Back already? Great. I first heard Seibles read about 15 years ago at Virginia Wesleyan College, and it was just amazing. I bought a couple of his books, and have been a fan ever since. Here’s a taste of Seibles’ voice, from a quick reading he did on his deck the evening we spoke. This is “Wound” from Fast Animal:

Seibles’ work has been recognized with an Open Voice Award and a NEA fellowship, among others, and collected in Best American Poetry. He is a professor in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. By way of full disclosure, I’m a student on the fiction side.

This was a long talk, and it has been edited down quite a bit for length and, in a few spots, clarity. In case Mom figures out that Interweb doohickey, I should note that the following conversation contains some potty-mouthery, which is totally a real hyphenated phraselet, which is, in and of itself, wordish. Maybe I’m not selling this. Point being: language.

Seibles was incredibly generous with his time, which I appreciate. He also may be the tallest interviewee yet. That’s an implied milestone right there. Wicked.

Before we get to the interview, here’s some quick housekeeping. I’ve been wrestling with my thesis the past few months, so the posts have been less frequent. However, I have some talks planned through the spring and into summer around my work schedule. Say, did you know that, if you subscribe, the posts come right to you? In the night, baby. When you really need them.

Additionally, the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest is underway. Why not come up with an entry of two and email them to jhdouc@verizon.net? That should help you fill that hole in either your schedule or the awesomeness generator you call your soul. And there are prizes, including signed editions of Fast Animal. What synchronicity.

See how this works? When you provide me with free (hopefully) amusing content, everybody wins. Not after third place, actually. The General Counsel to the Imaginary Board of Trustees want me to stress this. What I mean is almost everybody, but still.

Back to Tim Seibles. This portion of the talk deals, in part, with perceived limitations imposed upon art, writing compelling poetry through personas such as the title character of the comic book and film Blade, and connecting with readers.

Q: You opened the book prior to Fast Animal, Buffalo Head Solos (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2004), with a preface that talks about … your feelings on limitations. I hoped you could just talk about what you feel when people impose limitations on art.

There are the literal limitations of language. There are all kinds of places you probably can’t go with words. That’s why there’s guitar and saxophone and sculpture and painting. But in terms of the culture we live in … I don’t know that the fact that we’re not a wildly, intensely well-read society really changes how I write. It seems clear that you may not reach as wide an audience as you’d like to with poetry, so you’re limited in the kind of impact you might have in terms of sheer number of engagements with people. But I think about some of the great musicians over the years who played Woodstock and other gigantic festivals, and just having lots and lots and lots of people listening doesn’t really add significance to what you’ve done.

I think every writer wants to do his or her best work and offer it as generously and as often as possible, you know, without losing your mind, and let the resonance be what it is to whomever. You don’t know who you’re going to reach or how deeply. You don’t know what they will make of your work if they’re writers. They may write something they might never have otherwise written because of one poem you wrote. …

I guess all writers are, in some sense, composites. The people who influenced me – like W.S. Merwin, certainly Langston Hughes, the Black Arts poets, certainly Gil Scott-Heron, Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton … they had no idea what their work was going to do to me. Yet they did the best work they could and they let the impact be what it was. So here I am, just one of their progeny.

Q: You talk in that essay about poets saying some of these things, and that seems almost like a self-marginalization before you’ve even done the art. There are four concerns you talk about in the essay, and one is this idea that poetry shouldn’t be political or argumentative. I can’t think of any way poetry could be other than that.

I agree, but people I’ve had conversations with – some of them have been teachers of mine when I was a younger writer – who have felt that poetry should – capital S – should assume a certain position in relation to the larger society, a more contemplative, don’t-want-to-seem-too-upset kind of position in the culture. Fortunately, I’ve heard all kinds of poets with a huge range of perspectives. Certainly the Black Arts poets were heavily focused on political outrage, for better or worse. That can be a limiting thing, too.  It can really put a stranglehold on your subject matter. A writer of any genre has to have room to go anywhere.

Not only do I disagree that poetry has to stay in a particular place or play nice … but I think all of the arts have to have their way of peeing on the rug, as a friend of mine used to say, or demanding a certain kind of attention through rage or even just pure mystical astonishment, I just think poetry, like all the arts, shouldn’t be bound by any particular kind of etiquette. If a poem is rude, let it be rude. All I care about is if it feels like what has been written comes from an honest place. If someone is shocking me just for the hell of shocking me, if someone wants to write ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ 40 times, I wouldn’t care much about that.

Q: I was talking to a friend [who writes poetry] and he said one of the things he forgets to do is write in a way that remembers the word is spoken. I think one of things people who have experience you reading understand, there’s a wonderful ability for these poems to be spoken.

I sure hope so, man. I like to think that when I’m writing I’m hearing the poems. I’m not sure I can explain it exactly, but the lines come to me as spoken things.  I hope they have a life on the page, but I’m also thinking about how they might hit the ear, how they might live in someone’s ear.

Q: I wanted to ask about the third thing [in the essay] which is poems that are “too imaginative,” and that this is a complaint some might have. I think people pick up your book, they’ll see the form of the poem on the page. Some are lean and some our stout and some move and change … but also within the words sometimes you write the word not the way it appears in a list in a dictionary, but in a way that you want the reader to feel the word – or that the character would say the word. Could you talk about why you do that?

For the most part, I use the language in a relatively conventional way. Now, what I say may not be conventional, but in terms of syntax and meaning for the most part ‘green’ in a Seibles poem is that color of grass. When I’m bending things or trying to tilt the language a little, I’m hoping it will jar them just a little bit, enough to make them kind of snap out of the trance of normal thinking. I’m hoping that with a particular bend in the language that you can pull someone up short and make them attend in a different way.

It’s the same thing, for example, with the use of similes and metaphors. You’re hoping for a kind of heightened moment that really reestablishes their attentiveness to the text. I don’t think a poem can be a shock and a surprise every second. I don’t think any art does that. You want there to be enough unpredictability, surprise in a piece to keep a reader or a listener on edge. …

I know, for example in Buffalo Head Solos, no one is expecting to hear from [the persona of] a cow. … I want to invite people in with a tempting promise and then I want to sustain their interest by rewarding their attention with fresh ideas, word music, etc.

Q: Especially the ‘persona poems,’ it’s about you giving the voice to something that doesn’t have a voice and talking in a lot of ways – I keep coming back to marginalization, but you talk about creatures that are used, that are consumed, or consume so little, and are punished for doing it.

I hope to be giving voice to things that often have no voice, but also playing out my own strange sensibility. I would never work with a persona that had nothing to do with me. Whatever it is, whomever it is – cartoons, cow, virus, whatever – if I’m trying to develop a persona, that means I’m finding certain aspects of my own voice within that voice. Certain things just compel me. What would a cow say about its predicament? How is the predicament of a cow like the predicament of a person. … My inspirations are necessarily connected to my life as a human being.  I don’t have any reason to speak in the voice of, you know, a doily. I’m not moved to speak as a doily. A doily does not know pleasure or suffering.

Q: They’ve got it rough.

[Laughs.] We concede this, their struggle. In terms of persona, I’m drawn to certain characters – animate or inanimate – because they allow me to chew on a predicament that concerns me. I have that poem [“Ambition: Virus Confessional”], which is trying to get at a kind of insidious and secret consumption of life. Culture – it doesn’t matter what culture you’re in. All cultures want to use their members to propagate and promote the culture as it is. That’s why radicals are not welcome. That’s why people who don’t bow to the imperatives of the culture are often marginalized.

So when I’m writing in the voice of a particular persona, I’m often trying to get into territories in that, if I were to try to address them strictly in my ‘own’ voice it would seem maybe too – It wouldn’t be naval gazing exactly, but it would constantly wrestle with certain issues as though my predicament was the central issue. … No one cares about my alienation, you know? People who read poems are more interested in how my sense of alienation or marginalization or joy or erotic insanity speaks to their own fascinations.

Q: Let’s move to Fast Animal, where you have poems about Blade. You read recently at Prince Books in Norfolk, and talked a little bit about some things that were going on around 2007, 2008. What was going on with you then?

I thought 2000 to 2008 was the most disturbing era, socially and politically speaking, in my adult life. As a young man, of course, the 1960s would have been wildly volatile, but in the ‘60s you had people actively engaged in trying to overturn a repressive and generally fucked up society. There were heads butting and people yelling, challenging complacency in the face of what was considered a really well organized evil – racism, sexism, militarism are bad for humanity on a massive scale.

Q: And poetry was part of that.

Yes.

Q: Even from The Black Panther newspaper to –

Yes. Yeah. Absolutely.

Q: – to “revolutionary art.”

Yes. ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’ by Gil Scott-Heron.

Q: Which you reference.

Yes. ‘Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni. That stuff was all about ‘Hey, you can not hold us down, goddamn it.’ You know? What I found most difficult about the Bush era, was that the administration was clearly unethical but people just played along. It’s not that people didn’t care. I knew plenty of people who cared, but it felt as if all resistance was being overrun, carried in the current we hated.

I thought Bush and company were just bloodsuckers of a kind, a psychic kind. Blade, you know … When I saw the first movie, I thought he had a certain purity of intention, a recognition that there are certain evils that cannot be tolerated, that must be confronted directly. … I mean, there had to be some place I could go with the kind of anger in my gut. And with that first poem, ‘Blade, The Daywalker,’ I thought, ‘Yes, this is the mind I can step inside that will allow me to say what I mean with a kind of controlled fury.’ I mean, I am not going to kill anybody.

Q: At least, don’t put it on tape.

[Laughter.] Right. But Blade will, Blade has, and knows exactly why. I don’t want to promote violence. Violence doesn’t seem like a great help. At times, perhaps it’s necessary, but to be avoided if possible. … When I was using Blade as a persona, I wanted to get at a certain kind of anger that I couldn’t articulate otherwise.

Now there’s a poem in Buffalo Head Solos, that poem called ‘Really Breathing.’ That’s in a voice that people might consider my voice – that is certainly not a persona. That poem also is about a kind of rage. It’s got playfulness, as well, but it’s a really stormy voice that is complaining and pointing fingers and taking names. The Blade poems allow me a kind of purity of voice. He kills vampires. There are no literal vampires in the world, but we are consumed. We are fed upon in various ways by ideologies and institutions that are not especially humane.

Q: Blade is an outsider, as a character, but Blade is a very successful comic book that was turned into a very successful movie with, at the time, one of the biggest stars in the country. Made a lot of money, sold a lot of popcorn. And it is a piece of pop culture. It’s an entertainment. It’s to be consumed. But what you’ve done is taken that figure and used it to express something else, and I think that’s interesting.

I hope so. There was a kind of clarity of purpose in that character. I mean, even if I just wanted to run around and punch everyone I thought was evil, I’d either be dead or in jail in a few minutes. But Blade could develop a life around fighting evil. Does Blade have a job? No. Blade doesn’t have rent due or credit cards to deal with. Blade is someone who fights evil. That’s what he does. Blade doesn’t have vacations. He doesn’t say, ‘Boy this is getting old. I think I’ll go to Six Flags this weekend.’ [Laughter.]

Even if there’s no way to defeat an enemy, you still have to fight. That’s the way I feel about it as an artist. You have to sing your song, whether it’s to one person or a thousand. At times, I try to use poetry as a shield and as a blade.

Q: I was trying to think of things I see repeated in your poems, because I’m simple that way.

No. In this book, you may have noticed it, certain phrases recur in different poems, in different contexts. I’m consciously trying to knit the book together. It’s really built [the collection] to make certain patterns emerge, certain thoughts and arguments between the poems.

Q: I keep thinking about, you know, it’s meaningful what’s on TV and you come back to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” And then it strikes me, there’s this idea in your previous collection [Buffalo Head Solos] in “Visions.” It’s a poem about a man and a conversation with his cat, and then in the end he’s killed.

He’s killed intellectually, spiritually.

Q: And they find him. The TV’s on.

Basically he’s paralyzed staring at the television, and the nonsense that’s on.

Q: So what do you think of TV?

I think its purpose is distraction. I think people are invited to watch television so they will be less aware of the things that are chewing up our lives. It can also be a legitimate source of entertainment. We cannot attend to the difficulties of the world every waking second. Our heads would just blow up. I do think for most people it’s a substitute for actual thinking and feeling. …

This kind of idea that we can just consume the world, and we’ll always have more stuff to build and buy and sell to other people, there’s just a fundamental wrongheadedness about that approach to our lives. [TV] is constantly saying, ‘You will find meaning by consuming. In fact, the only real meaning is consumption.’ I think that’s a terrible way to subvert human beings and the impulse – the better impulse – of the human heart. …

You hope, because it seems that we have the potential for a certain kind of compassionate attentiveness that we have yet to find the institutions to support it, enact it. I like to think that poetry is a vehicle for compassionate attention. It matters that we feel grave despair and great delight and great longing and that we’re stunned by beauty, that we’re not just paychecks and car loans and mortgages. We’re these complex creatures that can do better, see more clearly, live more heartfully, and hurt each other less.

This is not a culture where people are beating themselves up to get to a gallery or read poetry or hear jazz or Bach. This isn’t a culture where people are killing themselves to get to a reading, you know? Most people don’t know that poetry can be something that triggers a larger grasp of the world they live in. …

If people heard more poems, read more poems, I think they would be far less willing to live without it.

The talk continues at this link.

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Writing Craft, Vol. IX: Writer and editor Tom Robotham (Part Two)


Writer and editor Tom Robotham, hard at work at the Taphouse in Norfolk, Va. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — This is the second half of a two-part craft talk with writer and editor Tom Robotham, a columnist in Veer and Hampton Roads Magazine. He was the longtime editor of the now-defunct PortFolio Weekly.

It comes up, you might say.

Part One of the talk ran last week, and it can be found at this link. It discussed, among other things, Robotham’s recent return to school as a student via the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. As regular readers know, I’m in that program. Robotham also teaches at ODU.

We’re friends, and I used to string for PortFolio, among other things. So, you know, those are my conflicts (this time) for those who believe in objectivity, angels, and compassionate land barons.

Why don’t you ever call me, Columbia Journalism Review? I’m waiting, sweet baby. Damn, girl.

Read more about Robotham at his personal website and be sure to check him out in Veer.

On with it.

Q: When I got here (in the early 1990s), the sense I always got was that PortFolio wasn’t like the vision you had for it of it being a mini-Village Voice. It was more of a what’s-going-on-at-the-Oceanfront kind of pub.

When I interviewed for the job I pitched them on turning it into a real alternative weekly with hard news, edgy humor, think pieces, and even to the extent that we had resources to manage it, investigative pieces, which I’m proud to say we did a fair number of. I think they regretted hiring me almost from day one. How I stayed for 10 years, I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. But I had the advantage of having a lot of – once I demonstrated that commitment and that vision … I got the attention of a lot of former Pilot people. I used to joke that people graduated from The Pilot to PortFolio because I got virtually ever great writer from that golden era of great writing – (Mike) D’Orso, Lynn Waltz, Bill Ruehlmann –

Q: Joe Jackson.

Joe Jackson did some really long, in depth pieces for me.

Q: He’s a guy that still intimidates me. And I’ve met him. He’s a wonderful guy, but he’s just done so much stuff.

He’s so humble and so soft-spoken and just tenacious as a reporter. …

Q: I think probably most people know you from your editor’s notes.

I had taken my inspiration from Lewis Lapham, who was editor of Harper’s magazine. He wrote a piece called ‘Notebook’ and I just admired that so much. He adamantly refused to dumb down his writing, even though there’s a lot of pressure to do that these days … I did try to write in a very philosophical way. I made reference to a number of writers, especially Emerson, who probably ended up in every third column of mine. I wanted it to be more than ‘Hey readers, welcome: here’s what’s in this issue!’ I wanted it to be an essay that used the contents of the issue as a jumping off point but went beyond that.

Q: And that’s the thing, I think, an opinion writer really should do. I get a little frustrated when I read columns or essays that basically regurgitate the facts of the news report and just give it some one liners. We’ve talked over the years. I didn’t always agree with everything you wrote, but you were writing it. Can you talk about how you started off with your “Editor’s Notebooks” (in PortFolio) and how they evolved?

They ended up growing, for one thing. The space I took up the first year was less than it was, you know, say midway through my tenure and beyond. I started out sharing reflections. I’m hesitant to say it, because it later became a slogan at Landmark [which owned PortFolio and The Pilot], but long before those fliers went around, internal rah-rah fliers, I like to think I was good at connecting the dots. (Laughs.) I would kind of meander in my essays. I probably got that from Emerson and more so from Thoreau, who celebrated wandering both physically and intellectually. I always tried to come back to the point where I began.

Q: I think what you always tried to do in your essays was to return to your original point, but the path you’ve taken gives you another way of looking at the original point.

I guess I would think of it as a helix, where it seems you’re circling around the point, and if you’re looking down on it you’re coming back to the same point but if you look at it from the side you’re hopefully on a new level of understanding. At least, I felt that I was. All my essays were personal essays. I always wrote in first person. I wrote about my own life experiences and how they related to the subject at hand. Really what I was trying to do was say to the reader, ‘I’ve been thinking about this lately; come with me and let’s explore this idea.’ Really, I was writing in a way to myself, trying to work through this idea, hopefully in a way that appealed to other people. A lot of people seemed to like it. … I would get people who would say, occasionally, they didn’t like the first person stuff. They thought it was egotistical. I used to quote Joyce Carol Oates. She said, ‘The individual voice is the communal voice.’ … I always felt we have so much in common … that my experiences would be universal in some sense.

Q: (Recently for Veer) you wrote about NPR and right-wingers, very specifically. The feeling I had was that was a column that would appeal to people such as me who feel public broadcasting is important, but I didn’t think it would appeal, or be persuasive, to people who disagreed. Is there a need for a column or essay to try to persuade? Or is preaching to the choir enough sometimes?

Well, no. I would like to think I’m not just preaching to the choir. I think that’s a waste of time. I always felt like I was being reasonable, and I would admit when I stumbled and fell into the same kinds of things I hate on the right, which, you know, just these easy shots at people or clichés, stereotypes. I tried to ground those kinds of essays in logic and evidence. I think the only reason – I think you’re right about that column, but I honestly don’t think it was a flaw in my column. I think it was a reflection of where we are in our society.

Q: We’re just so polarized.

We’re just so polarized. I remember watching, when I was a kid, William Buckley’s firing line. He had Allen Ginsberg on there. Obviously, they were never going to agree, but they had an exchange, a civil exchange, and I think Buckley did grow and change over time. I think he was open to listening to people with whom he disagreed, and thinking about those things because he was a true intellectual. I think any open-minded, anti-NPR person could conceivably come read some of the points I was making and said, ‘Okay, that’s a good point; I still philosophically disagree with NPR, but maybe I’ll give it another listen; maybe it’s not as liberal as I think.’

Q: But when it runs with a headline like “Why right-wingers hate NPR,” or whatever the headline was, isn’t that the kind of thing that turns you off when you see it?

The headline may not have been the best choice. Headlines, I think, have always been designed to grab people by the lapels. I guarantee you that got a lot of right-wingers reading it, just like I listen to Rush Limbaugh. I know that I had a huge number of right wing readers over the years at PortFolio.

Q: You’ve written extensively about music. I loved reading about that, about jazz, about what you thought jazz said (in columns). How has jazz influenced your writing? Or has music influenced your writing?

I think jazz has influenced my writing a great deal because I improvise when I’m writing. I don’t know where I’m going, particularly when I start an essay. Most writing, I guess, but particularly when I’m starting an essay. Like a jazz musician, I start with an idea. With a jazz musician that would be the chord changes, right? And the rhythm and so on. And then I play the melody, i.e., I lay out the idea. And then I start to riff on it. I start to improvise. … A good jazz solo can’t just suddenly jump right back to the melody. It has to organically find it’s way back to the melody. That’s what I do with my essays.

Q: Do you write to music?

No. I tend to like music so much that my mind is pulled apart. No, I always write in silence. … Now that may seem like a contradiction, as I often write here at the Taphouse (a restaurant and bar in Norfolk where the talk took place).

Q: Maybe not when a band’s playing.

Right. I do like writing with white noise. I like writing in coffee houses and bars and things like that. That’s background noise. I like the energy of people around me, but I can put myself in a bubble in that environment.

Q: I can’t.

We all have these different sensibilities. Every writer has a different kind of environment. I write a lot at home in silence. Sometimes I put on music to take a break.

We spoke for a while about when Robotham left PortFolio, laying out some details of his departure in his last Notebook. The publication was later shuttered.

Q: Without dwelling too much on PortFolio, I think we have missed having a vital weekly alternative publication. PortFolio had a vision and a voice, and that went away.

They wanted a commodity.

Q: And it died.

And it died. And I think – well, they killed it. It didn’t die. They murdered it. And I think that – put this in a pull quote – I think that was one of the stupidest decisions that I’ve ever seen in my 30 year career in publishing. …

For one thing, they missed it. They tried to keep it alive and started it up again as Pulse (an insert to The Pilot) or whatever. They didn’t realize the importance of PortFolio to the community, but the viability of PortFolio as a business – much more viable than The Pilot. Daily newspaper are dying because that kind of information is best delivered online. More thought – magazines with more thoughtful, in-depth pieces, not breaking news. You know, ‘Navy SEAL memorialized at vigil’ or something, which is fine. That stuff now belongs on the web. There’s an experience people still crave, and I think the success of Veer is a testament to that. That suggests to me that publications like PortFolio when I was editing it are still very viable. That’s demonstrated by the fact that the best ones like Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., which is one of the best in the country –

Q: News is the issue. No one is doing the kind of alternative reporting (here) that makes Willamette Week significant, that makes the Boston Phoenix significant, that makes The Village Voice significant. Even Style (in Richmond, Va.) –

And even the Voice, sad to say, is backing off of that.

Q: But that’s something important that I don’t think AltDaily and Veer have quite figured out how to – not ‘figured out how to do’ – can afford to do yet.

I think [Veer publisher] Jeff [Maisey] would love to do that. I also think he’s trying … to run a business. One of the problems of course is that when you’re doing hard-hitting news, let alone investigative pieces, you have to have enormous resources behind you. You have to have some good lawyers. One lawsuit could shut you down and then some. That’s one reason I lament the abdication of responsibility by a lot of daily newspapers with the exception of The New York Times and to some extent The Washington Post, and even they’re not what they once were. Apart from the fact that they’re probably terminal as papers, not necessarily as news organizations, it seems to me they have a responsibility to do that kind of thing. In part, because they’re able. They have lots of money behind them.

Q: You’ve got to think locally, is the thing.

The other thing aside from lawsuits is reporting. Good reporting takes time and very few seasoned reporters are going to do it for free. You have to pay them.

Q: So non profit? Public funding? Are these viable options?

Oh, I think so. Yeah. I agree with you, as I understand your position, that that’s the way to go. Non profit. … That’s why I’m such a big supporter of NPR. They do good news reporting. They do great opinion reporting. For the record, it’s not all left wing. … NPR makes an incredible effort to be – NPR is the fair and balanced station, not FOX News.

Q: But NPR, with all due respect for our local affiliates, is not out there covering city council.

No. I was looking at The Pilot yesterday and going back to my experiences at The Advance. You know, ‘Man killed on I-64.’ …

Q: But that’s only a partial look at what The Pilot does. Because The Pilot does the fly ash stuff, and they do the great stories that Meghan Hoyer –

They have done – I’m not dismissing what they still do, but they do very little of it.

Q: I guess I’m amazed that they’re still doing as much of it as they are, and that’s a testament to the reporters they have there and the editors. The concern I have is about newsgathering capability. I would love it if Veer or AltDaily got some sort of non-profit grant to establish a reporting team. I just think it’s a risk for a publication to do. News is really hard. People don’t like news, even when it’s important – especially when it’s important.

Maybe another way to go, as if I’m writing an essay right now – I don’t even know where I’m going with this – you could have an advertiser sponsor a reporter. Bear with me. I know that sounds like a –

Q: Yeah.

Like a blatant conflict of interest. But theoretically, it’s no more a conflict of interest than, you know, Scripps Howard sponsoring somebody. It would only be a conflict of interest if, say, Norfolk Southern sponsored that –

Q: And it was about Norfolk Southern.

Just like a judge has to recuse himself in some circumstances.

Q: We got far afield there. Let’s talk about TReehouse. You started TReehouse very shortly after you left Landmark. (I was a TReehouse contributor.)

I had a woman come to me, Shannon Bowman, who owns a local advertising agency, I think it might even have been the night I was fired. She said, ‘I think you need to start something else.’ We talked about starting up just a new alt weekly. It morphed into a website. She had the technical expertise I don’t have. I had the content and the name in the community. So I did that for a few years. She decided she had too many other things going on, so we parted ways. Now that is in hiatus because I can’t manage it myself. I’m not sure I want to be an editor anymore.

Q: So TReehouse is gone?

I don’t know. I recently renewed the domain name. I don’t know. I haven’t made that decision with any certainty. I am in a place in my life right now – I love teaching, second only to writing, and that’s really what I want to focus on, my teaching and my writing. Or my writing and my teaching.

Playing us out is Charlton Heston reading the Bible, which you will not get unless you read part one. Thanks to TR.

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Writing Craft, Vol. IX: Writer and editor Tom Robotham (Part One)


NORFOLK, Va. — This two-part craft talk with writer and editor Tom Robotham covers a lot of ground, including the state of journalism, local alternative media, and the art of writing a coffee table book with Charlton Heston.

Robotham, a columnist locally in Veer and Hampton Roads Magazine, may be best known as the longtime editor of the now-defunct PortFolio Weekly, where, among other honors, he earned the D. Lathan Mims Award for Editorial Leadership in the Community.

Almost just as impressively, he recently was featured in a Belligerent Q&A here. One of the reasons I wanted to do a longer talk was that Robotham recently went back to school in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. Which is awesome.

As regular readers know, I’m in that program. Additionally, Robotham and I are friends, dating back to the days he edited my sweet, sweet copy for PortFolio, no doubt drawing little stars and happy faces atop the print outs he absolutely and really then placed into a special folder marked “The Awesome File,” kept in his personal safe along with family heirlooms and an autographed publicity still of Kip Winger.

Absolutely and really, I say.

Robotham, while a student, is also an educator at ODU and the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.

Part two will be up in a couple days. You can read more about Robotham at his personal website and be sure to check him out in Veer.

Q: This is your first semester going back and you’re enrolled at ODU?

Correct. I’m only taking class at this point, a non-fiction workshop. I’m officially enrolled in the MFA program, but, because I’m teaching four classes, I decided I’d dip my toe in the water with just one since I haven’t been a student in more than two decades, let’s say.

Q: Why did you want to go back?

One, I wanted to get a terminal degree because I really love teaching and I’m hoping in this second half of my life I can – hopefully the second half and not the final eighth – I can get a terminal degree so I can get a full time gig someplace.

Q: Did you come here for PortFolio?

I came here six or seven years before PortFolio. My wife at the time and I were living in Manhattan and we had our first child, my daughter Sarah. That was in 1989. We moved to New Jersey for a year … I knew I didn’t want to do that commute. … I kind of wanted a stronger sense of community for myself and my kids. I was getting my master’s at the time in American studies at the Graduate Center of the City University, and I’d read this book called Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 1985). The subtitle is ‘Individualism and Commitment in American Life.’ It’s by Robert Bellah, a sociologist, and a whole team of people from other disciplines. It was a study of how our emphasis on individualism in this country has in recent decades fragmented communities, because people are so transient. And even when we’re not transient, we tend to hide behind our stockade fences with our huge garages in the front. So I’d started visiting here because this is where my (ex) grew up. She had this extended family, which appealed to me because I never did have that and it just seemed like the kind of place where you could really settle in and build a family and build a sense of community.

I freelanced for six years, traveled back and forth to New York City regularly. I had been working for Hearst Magazines in a division that produced books and videos related to the magazines. They kept me under contract, flew me up there on a regular basis, but finally that started to get old, getting on a plane once a week, pretty much. So I took a year off from any kind of job because I got a contract with this book publisher I knew who wanted to produce a book called Charlton Heston Presents The Bible. It was a companion to – don’t laugh.

Q: I’m laughing a little.

He did a TV series on A&E, a four-part series, and it was a really good series. It’s unfortunate that Charlton Heston became such a cartoon character because I got to know him and he was a really nice guy and really well read.

Q: And well armed.

(Laughs.) Well armed, too, but I didn’t see that side of him. He talked about Shakespeare and The Bible as literature. This was not a religious initiative on his part. He was interested in The Bible as literature and the historical aspects of The Bible. So each episode, he’d go to some site like Mt. Sinai, and talk about that, and then he would do these dramatic readings. So they wanted a coffee table book to go with this and they hired me to produce this whole thing. … That carried me for a year, and just as that money was running out I saw an ad for the PortFolio job. That was in 1998. I applied and I got it. I did that for 10 years.

Q: And that’s how most people in Hampton Roads know you.

Yeah. While I was doing my own thing, and especially since I was gone a whole lot, I always felt like I had just one foot in the community. Very quickly as I was editing PortFolio, a lot of people got to know me. I had a voice in the community. I became a very active public figure going to different functions and things like that, being a kind of spokesman for the magazine. I enjoyed that aspect of the job. That was kind of a culmination of my vision of wanting to be part of a community.

Back to your original question, of course, after 10 years and two months, I was fired. I’d always been at odds with management over editorial direction, but I managed to stay on my feet, to use a boxing analogy. A friend of mine once told me, ‘Use your jab.’ Which I did successfully for 10 years. But, you know, that was a function of (Landmark, owner of the PortFolio, The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, and others) wanting to sell off the properties and everything. As a result, more closely scrutinizing the editorial direction of the paper. So we just came to blows about that and they gave me the boot. I immediately called folks I knew at (ODU) and asked whether they had any adjunct work. Within about five minutes I had another job. Not a full time job, but something.

Q: You mentioned a second reason to go back to school.

The second reason was I had always done, I’d written a lot of essays, a lot of feature stories, quite a bit of hard news, though that was never my strong suit. … I wanted to develop my long form narrative writing, and I felt that would (A) impose discipline on me, because I have to write to get grades and (B) help me polish my craft in a dimension I hadn’t worked at before, i.e., writing literary nonfiction with the techniques of a novelist – scene-setting, dialogue, all of that. So those two reasons – the terminal degree and the desire to be more disciplined with my writing. I’m working on a memoir now.

Q: We’ve talked before about how when I went into the (MFA) program, how little I knew about writing. As a journalist, you tend to develop a lot of tricks, especially for deadline writing. … I think what I found was a lot of my tricks weren’t really serving me very well. Do you feel that way with any of the work you’ve done? Do you feel you’ve fallen into habits that you want to work around?

I do. I would say those tricks work really well for newspaper articles, but newspaper articles are very different from books. Obviously, in terms of length but also in terms of that narrative that reads like a novel. For instance, this past Literary Festival I worked with Claire Dederer, the author of a best-selling memoir, and I showed her a feature story I’d written on martial arts, which I got into in 2005, and she said, ‘Obviously you are a very strong feature writer, but I want to encourage you to write more in scenes.’ And she went through my piece and said this could be a scene, that could be a scene. So, yeah, absolutely. I feel like I find it very easy to turn out a feature story. Now I’m struggling with a whole new kind of writing which I’ve attempted before but never seriously.

Q: But you’ve written books.

I’ve written books but they’ve all been, by and large, history. It came out of my American studies discipline. … Not academic, because I hope I write in more general-interest prose, but they’re not creative nonfiction, as we use the term. It was more ideas. I wasn’t telling a lot of stories. They were almost more like book-length essays.

Q: You didn’t feel you were telling stories?

No. There were stories sprinkled throughout, but by and large what I was doing was writing, I guess, what they call in the newspaper business ‘think pieces.’

Q: You worked in New York as a reporter.

I started out at The Staten Island Advance.

Q: What were some of the beats you covered?

I started out, like a lot of people do, on the night shift, the police and fire beat. I liken that first year or so to boot camp for journalism. One of the stories that stands out most was at a bout 2 a.m. when I was getting ready to knock off, because I worked the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, a report came over the police scanner that there was a five-alarm fire up in this poor section of Staten Island. So I raced up there, and it was raining … bleak, a lot of puddles on the ground, cold … stood there for like three hours to people from the building, mostly Spanish speaking people … After they finally put the fire out, I went across the street, did two shots of tequila, and went back and wrote my story. … I think like five people died, and there were dozens of people who were homeless, all poor people. …

So then about a year later, I started covering education (as a substitute) and the education reporter left and that became my fulltime beat. They also gave me a music column. That was great. Those are two of my favorite subjects to write about.

Q: When you’re at a relatively smaller paper, you have a lot more opportunities.

Yeah. Just as The Pilot wants to focus mostly on South Hampton Roads, The Advance … wanted to focus primarily on Staten Island. But as a music columnist, I had complete freedom. I interviewed people like Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. You know, I could go to New York City jazz clubs for free. The perks of that gig.

Q: Music writing is the best scam in journalism. (Laughter.)

I loved education reporting, too. I used to get into a lot of the philosophical issues, too. The push for the so-called ‘gifted’ was really strong at the time, and I got into that conceptually, as far as interviewing people about whether that was really just a scam for affluent parents to get their kids into the best setting or whether that was legitimate. Stuff like that. I left there after about four and a half years. …

I still had to do general assignment pieces (sometimes) and the editor had subscribed to this widespread complaint that newspapers only report ‘bad news.’ So he started this daily front page column called ‘It’s Good News.’ It would be stories like somebody lost a wallet and somebody returned it with all the money in it. … It was just the goofiest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Q: Was it worse than doing a weather story?

Those I hated, too. I’d gag everytime I heard a reporter use the term ‘the white stuff. We’re going to have more of the white stuff this weekend.’ It was like, ‘Just say snow, for Christ’s sake.’ (Laughs.)

Q: At the time, they were probably referring to cocaine.

(Laughs.) I don’t think so, though it was the height of the cocaine boom. … Sure, there’s bad news, but most news in newspapers is either good or bad depending upon your point of view.

Q: I think that you had an opportunity with PortFolio, and continuing with the writing you’re doing now for Veer, to use writing to talk about thinks you care about. I wonder if it’s at that point you were already thinking, “Maybe I want to try another form of writing … where I can write about social issues.”

I was, and I wanted to get into magazines for that reason. … When I was still working for The Advance, I went back to a five-year college reunion and a friend said, ‘Where do you want to be five years from now?’ I said, ‘I want to be editing The Village Voice.’ I’ve always remembered that conversation, because I ended up doing that in a way. Not The Voice, but something like it here. Long before that, I got a temp job at Esquire … and then got a fulltime job as an assistant editor with Esquire Press, a book imprint. I really got sidetracked from my goal writing for magazines. I couldn’t break in. … Hearst bought Esquire. … It took me pretty far afield.

Two things got me back into writing. One thing, I had gotten pretty familiar with the magazine archives. Hearst owns all those (Varga) pinups from World War II. … Some book publisher came to us and wanted to license those images for a coffee table book, and asked, ‘Do you have anybody who can write this?’ … So I wrote that book, and I established this relationship with the publisher. I was getting my M.A. at the time, and had the opportunity over the next four or five years to do these other coffee table books. The other thing that got me back into writing is I was sitting there one day thinking how far afield I’d gotten and I’d let people convince me that if I wasn’t doing it by now, i.e., my late 20s, I’d probably never do it.

I remember reading Cosmopolitan one day, one of their magazines, and I’d gotten to know Helen Gurly Brown, one of their legendary editors of Cosmo, and I went, ‘I may not be Faulkner, but I can do this.’ (Laughter.) So I went over to Helen’s office and she referred me to their managing editor and he said, ‘Sure, give it a shot.’ So I wrote this feature article […] about job burnout. Young women, five years on the job, experiencing job burnout. … So that’s how I got back into writing after taking, it must have been, seven years without doing any writing other than promotional copy writing.

Q: Safe to say you didn’t want to write again so you could write about young women having job burnout.

No, though I must say getting $1,800 for an article that took me two days to write wasn’t too shabby. (Laughter.) And, furthermore, there’s a certain amount of ego – at least for me – involved in writing, especially back then, when you’re younger. Having my name for the first time in a national magazine was pretty cool. But, of course, I was far afield from my dream of being editor of The Village Voice or Paris editor for The New York Times. But that continued to eat at me. I didn’t think I was doing anything really important or meaningful. I kept that dream alive in the back of my head. When I got the PortFolio job, I felt the dream had been realized. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and I felt it was really important work.

I hope to have Part Two up in a few days … Part two is at this link.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XVI: Hairspray author and scholar Dana Heller


Hi John: Look, when you take out this placeholder text and put in the real cutline in don’t forget to make it extra funny. For Pete’s sake, Dana Heller is chair of the English Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., where you are a student. And she’s the author of a book about the John Waters film Hairspray, and Waters totally is coming to ODU on Thursday. Don’t phone this one in. Bring the funny. Your pal, John. PS: Courtesy photo.

NORFOLK, Va. — Dana Heller is chair of the Old Dominion University English department and a professor whose scholarly work has tackled a wide range of subjects. Her most recent book is Hairspray, which discusses the significance of the 1988 film by John Waters. She considers it his most subversive movie.

Also, she is awesome.

Waters, as you should know, is a noted filmmaker, writer, visual artist, and, according to the good people who put such things on Wikipedia, one of the “notable persons who have worn pencil mustaches.”

Additionally, Waters remains the longest-serving Secretary of the U.S. Department of Not Quirky or Cute Camp But the Awesome Kind that Scares You Way Deep Down Where Your Real Dreams Are, also known as HUD. Okay, that last bit is not true but someone please get on that.

Say, maybe you should run it by him yourself. Waters will give a lecture called “This Filthy World” as part of the ODU Presents series at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10, at Webb University Center, 1301 49th Street, Norfolk. Admission is free but there’s limited seating, so RSVP via (757) 683-3116 or visit the University Events page via this link.

I recently finished Heller’s book, which is terrific. Highly recommended. As always, I should disclose that I am a graduate student at ODU. In addition to being a beautiful, beautiful man.

Heller engaged in this Belligerent Q&A via email. There is some brief adult language below. Which probably is why you’re here.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Me? Well, if you must know, I am ODU’s resident champion of all things considered ‘bad taste.’ I’m not sure how it came to this, but I probably have only myself to blame for writing about cultural phenomena such as:

  1. Russian pop music
  2. Reality TV
  3. John Waters movies

There are worse ways to make a living.

Q: Your most recent book is an examination of Hairspray, the Waters film in which “the PG family movie meets the midnight cult film.” You note that Waters “made a PG-rated teenpic that encourages interracial dating and champions a family in which both parents are men.” Why did you omit the awesome part where Debby Harry pops Colleen Fitzpatrick’s zit? Does it blow apart your thesis?

No, in fact the zit-popping scene unequivocally proves my thesis that Hairspray is a teenpic posing as a civil rights comedy. I had an entire chapter on the zit scene but my editor cut it. Wait a minute. Were you making a pun?

Q: You’ve called John Waters a National Treasure. How will Nicholas Cage, reprising his role as Ben Gates, go about trying to rescue Waters from the clutches of the Illuminati while dispensing justice, thrills, and exposition?

By becoming a drag queen (code name: Bertha Venation), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Michaele Salahi, Cage will manage to penetrate into the darkest recesses of the Illuminati’s base station, located inside a Starbucks in a mall in East Baltimore.

Q: You edited the book Makeover Television: Realities Remodeled. It’s always fascinated me that people are willing to expose their insecurities and pain so publicly, however superficial the consumerist, conformist “solutions” offered by makeovers that, like Debby Harry snapping on a rubber glove to pop her daughter’s zit, seem to say, “Lie down. Mother is here.” I thought about that kind of superficial transformative process of such shows while I read Hairspray, because there are transformations represented in Waters’ films but also his films, generally speaking, seem to have transformed over his career from work that has a kind of mission to shock into work that, as in the film Hairspray, shows both communal and individual transformation toward acceptance and power. Indeed, his film creates its subversion by recreating and altering a television program and later adaptations seem to pander to “makeover” culture. What do I mean by the things I just typed?

It means the drugs are kicking in. Relax. Go with it.

Q: You write compellingly about how Hairspray “is the most subversive film that John Waters ever made, and possibly one of the most subversive popular comedy comedies ever made by an American filmmaker,” in part, because of Waters’ “representation of the unruly body.” And you mean subversive in the sense that it “transforms the cultural codes to which it ostensibly adheres.” When we think about the adaptation of the musical to film, does putting a straight actor (and one of a faith whose founder viewed being gay as a perversion) in a role created and recreated by gay men diminish some of force of the subversion Waters achieves in his film? A bit more widely, have the adaptations changed the legacy of the original film?

Every adaptation of an art work changes the meaning of the original in some way. But if I’m reading you right, you are referring here to John Travolta’s casting as Edna Turnblad and his affiliation with the Church of Scientology. That was a controversial decision, no doubt. And the director of the film, Adam Shankman (who is gay himself), got slammed in the LGBTQ press for casting Travolta, who persistently denied that Hairspray was a ‘gay’ film. What Travolta and Shankman failed to recognize is that LGBTQ audiences tend to feel and project a strong sense of ownership over certain cultural properties, and Hairspray is one of them, not simply because Waters is gay but because Edna had (until Travolta) always been played by openly gay performers (Divine and Harvey Fierstein). But I think that Travolta’s casting was a brilliant marketing strategy that helped rebrand Hairspray as a family-friendly film that could appeal to kids (Zack Effron) and their parents, who would have remembered Travolta from an earlier dance film, Saturday Night Fever.

Q: You note that Waters, as he said in a TV interview, makes comedies that “wink” at the audience. When art winks at us, how do you suggest consumers of such art – including those of us who want to make some of our own – return the favor and wink back?

By rewriting the comedies we love in our own creative idioms. We wink back by imitating (or stealing, if you will) from the artists who inspire us to make our own art.

Q: What is camp? If I was camp would I know it, or would I just want other people to know it with me?

Camp is ‘the lie that tells the truth’ (Philip Core). It ‘sees everything in quotation marks’ (Susan Sontag). And if ‘you’ were ‘camp,’ you really would not give a ‘crap’ what ‘other people’ ‘know’ or ‘don’t know.’

Q: Growing up, camp was where I learned exciting truths to hide from my parents. Am I on the right track?

If one of those truths has to do with popping zits so that they make a loud, splooshy sound, yes, you are on the right track.

Q: Does Nicholas Cage know what camp is?

Does the Pope?

Q: In your book Hairspray, you address racial representation as an area in which the film might rightfully be criticized. As in other Hollywood films, this is a Civil Rights movement story told through the eyes of and, in part, resolved through the agency of white characters. Did you ask him about that issue? What are your thoughts?

I did ask Waters about this, and he was quick to say that Hairspray is ‘a white man’s memory of civil rights.’ Waters admitted that he was worried about the racial politics of the film before it was released because he wasn’t sure if audiences were ready for it. But they were, they embraced it.  And I think that’s because the film creates a coalition of outsiders who band together to fight for a common freedom — to be part of the great television dance show that is American history.

There is no question that Hairspray romanticizes white people’s fantasies of blackness and racial otherness. But the film simultaneously pokes fun at those fantasies.  At one point, Tracy wishes that she and her boyfriend, Link, had dark skin.  They long to be part of a culture that they see as sexy and much cooler than white culture, and their wish is genuine yet at the same time satirical. The critic, bell hooks, sums this up nicely when she argues that ‘Hairspray is nearly unique in its attempt to construct a fictive universe where white working class ‘undesirables’ are in solidarity with black people. When Traci [sic] says she wants to be black, blackness becomes a metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries.’

Q: In one of the most compelling passages in the book, you assert: “(W)e live in a culture of powerlessness.” I want to disagree, but what gives me the right? Discuss.

You have the right, but you refuse to take it. In my book, I explain this through an anecdote: A teacher once asked his students to form a line, beginning with the most powerful student in the class and ending with the least powerful. The teacher was then surprised to see that rather than arguing over who would be first in line, the students all ran to the back of the line. None of them, apparently, either felt they had power or were willing to admit it. A struggle for power occurred over the question of who would get to occupy the position of least powerful.

The anecdote affirms something that is admittedly tough to prove or disprove. But it is something that I have long suspected, although I acknowledge the tentative nature of my suspicion: we live in a culture of powerlessness. We believe in our powerlessness, and we reiterate this belief in the countless ways that we submit ourselves to state agencies, religious institutions, medical experts, advice and lifestyle gurus, intellectual authorities, and consumer appeals. No matter what our personal politics, no matter what our profession, social class, race, religion, sexuality, ability, age, ethnicity, or gender, we live in a culture that thrives — economically and ideologically — on the sublime fantasy of righteous disenfranchisement.

In this fantasy, those who possess and exercise power are evil and corrupt. Those who stand outside of it are morally and spiritually superior. The conventional narrative form this fantasy takes, or variations of it can be found in all arenas of cultural production, but nowhere is it portioned out more generously and reliably than in the realm we know as popular culture.

Q: When Waters comes to Norfolk, will you take him to Harbor Park and say, “See, it’s like our own little Camden Yards,” and then sigh, look down at the ground, and become lost in a moment of reflection before so recovering: “And over there is the highway to the Beach, see?”

I don’t see this happening, although it’s a sweet scene in someone else’s movie.

Rather, I picture us at lunch, No Frill Grill, perhaps. He orders the Reuben, me the Spotswood Salad.

‘I’d like a Diet Coke,’ he tells the waiter.

There’s a moment as we both silently wonder whether or not the waiter recognizes him. But there’s something weightier on our minds, something we must talk about, although neither of us wants to be the first to bring it up.

‘I don’t know how to ask this,” I begin, tentatively.

‘Go ahead,’ he encourages.

‘Ok, do you think Rikki Lake stands a chance of beating JR on Dancing With the Stars?’

And then we talk, and talk, and talk for hours.

Q: Could you talk briefly about how this project came together? Would you have written this without the opportunity to interview Waters?

A few years back, Diane Negra launched a new series at Wiley-Blackwell on popular films and television series that don’t get taken very seriously by the academy. This was a book series custom-made for someone like me. She cornered me at a conference and asked me to write something. So I decided to test her by proposing a book on a film that most would consider wholly unsuitable for scholarly purposes. And she loved it. So then I had to write it. But the fact is that  I would have written it anyway, eventually, even if Mr. Waters had not responded to my interview request. Because as difficult as it is to believe, nobody has ever written a scholarly book on ANY of John Waters’ films. And somebody had to do it. Why not me?

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

One of my favorite Waters quotes: ‘We need to make books sexy again. If you go home with someone and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.’

Roger that.

Playing us out is Debby Harry. Poor lip-synching is a must for any respectable Blondie video, but this is some unusually poor drum-synching. But that’s okay. We are not here to judge, but to enjoy. Please put on your beret before viewing, and remember to arbitrarily remove it before the second verse.

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Writing Craft, Vol. VII: CORE Theatre Ensemble’s 40 Whacks


CORE Theatre Ensemble's 40 Whacks team: Edwin Castillo, Cayley Waldo, Steffani Dambruch, Paul Costen, Nancy Dickerson and Emel Ertugrul on the Little Theatre of Norfolk stage. Photos here and below by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — I caught up with members of CORE Theatre Ensemble this past week at Little Theatre of Norfolk while they readied their new play 40 Whacks, opening Friday.

Based on the Lizzie Borden murders, it runs for only three performances.

This talk discusses the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of CORE’s past shows, including an adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper and the original piece You Vs.

The members of CORE are Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor, artistic associate and actor; Laura Agudelo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training assistant, artistic associate and actor; and Nancy Dickerson, artistic associate and actor.

The primary subjects are Ertugrul and Castillo, both of Virginia Beach and — full disclosure — longtime friends of mine. Sitting in were Dickerson of Chesapeake, as well as 40 Whacks actors Cayley Waldo of Norfolk and Paul Costen and Steffani Dambruch of the Beach. All were nice enough to humor my attempts at photography.

Showtimes are at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 14, through Sunday, Oct. 16, at Little Theatre of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $12 for senior citizens, students, and active duty or retired military; and $8 17 and under. The play contains unsettling images and some sexual content. Reservations are via (757) 627-8551 or at the Little Theatre site.

My thanks to CORE for the time — and for keeping it pretty clean. It had been getting a little salty lately in these Q&As. I’ll try to do better from here on out, Imaginary Mom Who Can Work A Computer. And of course call more. Love you lots.

This has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you tell me how CORE started?

Castillo: I guess this started because … we wanted to do it, really. (Laughter.)

Ertugrul: Well, we wanted to do a show that we wanted to make our own rules for. We didn’t want to do someone else’s piece. That’s usually what starts you with your own art, is deciding “I don’t want to do your art, I want to do my art.” So we did our art, and started involving people that – It’s not about finding people who agree with your art, but are willing to go along this way with you. It’s good to have people that agree with you just enough to feel comfortable to disagree and to make something beautiful. So that’s sort of how it started. It started with a conversation. And we’re still –

Castillo: Still at it.

Ertugrul: We’re still at it. I mean, five years later, six years later, we’re still doing it. It’s not like we started like, “You know what we’re going to do? In six years we’re going to be over there.” We did have a goal but it was much more immediate. It was about answering that first question, or answering that first desire of wanting to make our own stuff.

Castillo: And I guess our desire to create our own art, it’s not a slight against the theater scene around her at all.

Ertugrul: No.

Castillo: It’s just that we wanted to see something different out there.

Ertugrul: We wanted to do something different.

Q: From the start, there was a real emphasis on the physical Suzuki method. Could you talk about your influences? I don’t know if it goes back to (1990s performances at Old Dominion University performances of) MacBeth or (Eugene O’Neill’s) The Hairy Ape.

Castillo: Actually, it started with Hairy Ape. I met a guest artist Leon Ingulsrud (an actor and director  from SITI Company in New York) back in Fall 1997.

Ertugrul: Had you worked with “Bondo” at that point?

Castillo: I’d met him at ODU.

Ertugrul: Before (Ingulsrud), (SITI actor) Will Bond used to come down and work as a guest artist at ODU. One year, Will wasn’t able to do it and Leon came down to fill in, and then Leon kept coming back. Not every year, but for a good number of years.

Castillo: And the two of them belonged to the company in New York called the SITI Company, which was founded by Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki, who developed the actor method of Suzuki training.

Ertugrul: And they got together because Anne had been working on Viewpoints, which is a way of breaking down physical performance, any physical performance. It does stem from dance, but then they decided not only does it apply to dance it applies to theater, any kind of physical performance. She teamed up with Tadashi. (His) own company in Toga, Japan, does Suzuki, so they wanted to make a company that was utilizing both of these thing. That’s what SITI is now, and still is doing amazing shows. … Most of it is just about “Are you physically capable to do these amazing feats onstage?” Well, you can’t just walk on stage and do amazing things if you haven’t appropriately conditioned your body to do so.

Castillo: And the training itself, I mean, for practicality’s sake, the actor – the Western actor – does not have the type of training skills like other artists do. That’s why we believe in the training and also the SITI company. A dancer can always do their position one, two and three, and jete and all of that. … Musicians can do scales, singers, people who play instruments. But an actor really didn’t have any of that, except for memorizing a monologue and looking in a mirror. But there’s nothing physical to it. So the Suzuki method of actor training actually gives you something physical to work with that is really breaking down basic movements and seeing how exact you can be.

Ertugrul: What this training brings up for discussion is how do you know how to carry this character across the stage if you don’t know how your body walks? … If you don’t know yourself, then how do you put a character on top of that?

Castillo: In a physical sense.

Steffani Dambruch, center frame, during a rehearsal this past Sunday for 40 Whacks, opening Friday at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.

Ertugrul: This isn’t how to act. This is literally how do you carry your body as this character you’ve decided to play.

Costen: It’s like a precognitive way of deconstruction. I mean, there’s nothing intellectual about it whatsoever, but it’s something like deconstruction in that you break down the pieces and parts of what’s going on within your body and the space as it relates to your body and everything, but it gives you a greater understanding.

Q: Let me ask you about The Yellow Wallpaper, which, as (Castillo and Ertugrul) know, I loved.  … I thought that really married words that could have led to a melodramatic play into something really physical and visceral and interesting. How did that project come about? And I wanted to ask you specifically about the adaptation process (from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story).

Ertugrul: We sat down and said, “We want to do a show and we want to do it on our own and we … don’t want to buy the rights to do something.” The show that we had done just before that was something we had bought the rights to do and that’s fun, but we really wanted to make something that was completely our own.

Q: Was that Duranged? (Two Christopher Durang one-acts “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe” and “Titanic.”)

Ertugrul: Yeah. … After we had done (Duranged) we decided we wanted to adapt something. We sat down as a group and said what do you remember? What is the one story you really remember? And we came up with this list, and then we went back and we read them all. Just to see, “Well, is it really just my ninth-grade memory of it being such an awesome story. Or was it really a good story?” The one that won was “The Yellow Wallpaper.” And it really was the way that story was written — how it is done in journal entries — it lent itself so well to staging. From there we just started taking the actual words that she does as journal entries and started cutting it and making it into (the same) number of segments (as there are entries in the story).

Castillo: The fun part of adapting that was figuring out who were the characters. Really the story is just her, from her point of view.

Ertugrul: But the name of the story is “The Yellow Wallpaper,” not “Woman in Room.” So we decided that the main character in that story was the yellow wallpaper. The main character was it living and breathing and being comprised of more than one person. It looks different. It can sound different. It needs to be people doing this.

Emel Ertugrul, center, with Steffani Dambruch and Paul Costen in a rehearsal of CORE Theatre Ensemble's 40 Whacks.

Q: Can you describe how you took something to illustrate and used the multiple bodies of the actors to tell that story?

Ertugrul: One of the first things that happened with this training was we taught them how to move together. That’s the first thing, and that’s what the physical training does.

Castillo: The company for the show, for those who aren’t familiar, is a woman, the main character, and a husband, the other main character, but then we had a chorus of other people, was it six or seven?

Dickerson: It started as seven and then became five (when the play was restaged as a traveling production).

Castillo: So we had the chorus of people as the wallpaper and the binder between the chorus was this 80-foot piece of cloth, which we learned very quickly how to manipulate around the stage using the physical space of the theater.

Ertugrul: And the people.

Castillo: It really was just playing with how many ways can we utilize this cloth? As the story progresses, she becomes sucked into to wallpaper, and it becomes her psychosis of sorts because she sees people and talks to people in the wallpaper. So as the story progressed, we had the wallpaper on the outskirts of the space and it started intertwining.

Ertugrul: Into her world.

Castillo: At one point we’re actually holding her up.

Q: Can you talk about how you make decisions like that? Do you find that in rehearsal or do you know that going in?

Castillo: I say almost 90 percent of that is finding it in the rehearsal process.

Ertugrul: I think with that one we did have a completed script going in.

Castillo: But as far as manipulating the cloth and seeing how it works in different scenes, it was really trial and error.

Ertugrul: I do think we knew when she was finally gone, when she was really part of it, and we worked from there. … Deciding which emotion would go there.

Q: What’s it like to play a role like that? Do you feel like you have a say in the process of writing it?

Waldo: I think they came in with the adaptation pretty much taken care of. We played around with who would say what when and when our voices would overlap. Creating the show physically, it had to be a group process because there was no director who could stand there and say, “Okay, now move the wallpaper downstage.” We had to figure out this labyrinth of cloth together. We were playing one character together.

Dickerson: I had kind of a unique experience because (when Dickerson joined the cast) they had already done the show and they were changing it because it was based upon who was available and could drop everything and go to Canada for a week. I was like, “Hey, I can do that.” (Laughter.) So I would up taking on parts other people already had done because we took (the chorus) from seven people down to five people. The patterns of the wallpaper had already been established and it was, “Well, we have to take this down to five people instead of seven, but we need you to be here.”

Ertugrul: There was a lot of modifications where it wasn’t you just filling another person’s shoes. It was combining two roles. It was a completely different configuration.

Q: Did you cut apart the text or move things?

Castillo: I don’t think we moved anything, but we definitely cut.

Ertugrul: We put a scene in there where it was full-on dialogue between the husband and the woman, which doesn’t happen (in the short story.) It’s actually told all from her perspective. We made that scene. I’m going to be frank: I have not read that story since we did our adaptation, and I don’t remember what we changed. (Laughter.)

Castillo: On the adaptation side, it really did start with: “Here’s this entry; let’s read it out loud.”

Ertugrul: And go: “Boring. No. Cut it.” Or: “That sounds good.”

Castillo: Or: “Who says that? Oh, she would say that.” It really was that process at the very beginning. Just read it aloud.

Ertugrul: We had much more of an issue with Poe, when we did (The Poe [n. proj-ekt]), because there’s a lot of things that sound great in your head when you’re reading but when you try to do it (aloud) it wreaks havoc on your mouth.

Castillo: And there a point of adaptation where it’s “well, should this be said or is it an image?”

Q: Do you give the text a couple of passes and then start to figure out the movement?

Castillo: Yeah.

Ertugrul: The short story’s job is to put those images into your brain. Watching something theatrically, we’re supposed to show you that image with our actors. So one of the key moments of adapting is going, “Okay, what are we showing and what are we talking about?”

Castillo: Normally the adaptation is not a pretty process.

Q: I don’t know that gothic is the right word, but there’s a kind of aesthetic to the stories you seem drawn to. Also, I had kind of assumed that this stuff is in the public domain so in adapting it you don’t have to pay somebody.

Ertugrul: That was another pull.

Castillo: Definitely.

Q: Is there a consensus about the kind of stories you do? You guys do a lot of dark material.

Castillo: Well, we definitely —

Ertugrul: Well, you can say that, but You Vs. was not dark.

Castillo: There are exceptions.

Ertugrul: And Three Penny Opera can be seen as dark because it’s Brecht, but it itself is hilarious. It’s a very funny show.

Q: You’re sometimes taking source material and you’re kind of assembling. Do you look at it as a group authorship or do people take the lead?

Ertugrul: It really depends upon the show.

Castillo: I feel like with every show we want to get the group involved in the writing. I know with this show, I asked the group to bring in text that’s related. We have text from the actual trial of Lizzie Borden. We also have text from —

Ertugrul: A 1960s novel that was about the women’s movement of getting out of the kitchen and into the workplace.

Castillo: We have text from a Mike Tyson interview. … And Antigone.

Dambruch: I brought in a lot of Richard III. We didn’t end up using it.

Q: Why did you bring that in?

Dambruch: Richard III is one of my favorite all time plays. It’s very dark. There’s something about him as a villain … that I thought would be interesting to put into the mind of a woman.

Castillo: The theme I wanted (the cast) to go off of was crime, and one of the central themes of the show is getting away with a crime and guilt.

Nancy Dickerson during a recent rehearsal for 40 Whacks.

Q: What was it about Borden? Was it just that this is gruesome and it might get people in?

Ertugrul: I had read about it once before and I thought about the brutality of what it takes to whack someone 19 times in the head. What that sounds like. Think about how long it would take if you had to sit her and listen to me whack something, hit something 19 times. Really at eight or nine, you’re going to go, “How many times are you going to do this, lady?” You know? And Abby got 19 — that’s the stepmother — and the father got 11. That’s originally what started it. It was me, Nancy and Edwin, and we were over at Doumar’s one day, and I was like “think about that” over our milkshake and fries. (Laughter.)

Dickerson: Eating ice cream.

Castillo: So where we really wanted to go with this was, she got away with it. She was acquitted of it. Now how do you live with it?

Ertugrul: If there’s any question of where we’re going with this, of: “Did she do it?” We’re going with: “Yeah.” (Laughter.) We’ve done a lot of digging. Don’t read the first Wikipedia entry that you come to.

Waldo: Even the transcripts of the trial, there’s a lot of discrepancies there, too. Either it’s people’s stories changing or people not documenting things correctly. It’s very hard to get a true handle on this story because of how poorly it was recorded at the time.

Castillo: How does Lizzie live with the guilt?

Ertugrul: If you don’t get punished, you may punish yourself. … And the way that we’re staging the show is as a recurring nightmare. This is the nightmare she has almost every night.

Q: Do you tie it into the act of punishing the people she’s killed?

Ertugrul: No. It’s all about punishing herself.

Q: Let’s talk about You Vs. There was a really unique way you found content for that play. Could you just talk about that process?

Ertugrul: It started with True Office Confessions. (Laughter.) Yeah. There is this website called True Office Confessions and it is a venting board where anonymous people can go on and complain about where they work and the people they work with. It is actually extremely funny and every now and then you get one that is heartbreaking. … It started with this notion of, it’s always you versus. The way you start out your entire life is you against something else, and then you against you. So that became the outline of the show.

Castillo: Then we branched off. The beginning lines and the end lines of dialogue, we started with what do you hear kids say? Why is the sky blue?

Ertugrul: And we came up with all this stuff that wasn’t on the internet. And then the end of it we decided, “Well, what are the actual answers?” And between that, what happens between you being a kid and being a parent? … What happened was we did this (the beginning and end) and we were still hashing out the middle portion of it, and went what are we trying to say to them? That was the question. And we all had to sit down and go what are we trying to say to them?

Dickerson: It was a whole rehearsal.

Ertugrul: It was a whole rehearsal talking about what are we trying to say? Why did I ask you to come in and sit down and watch what we just did?

Q: Were you concerned about tying it up in a big bow too much?

Ertugrul: Yes. … And then what we decided was: “Go for it.” And if you honestly believe what you’re saying it can’t be too sappy. If we were acting at the end of that and didn’t actually mean it, yes. But we meant it. And finding that poem.

Q: Can we spoil the poem (at the end of the play)?

Castillo: “Oh Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman.

Ertugrul: Using that reinforces what we showed about life being cyclical. … Using something older (than other “found” materials in the play) reinforces that.

Q: My favorite sequence is the balloons. I knew there was going to be some killer movement stuff because it’s you guys but it was like a play within a play. There was like a story. Can I ask you to describe that scene for people who haven’t seen the play?

Castillo: That actually came from something created by Laura (Agudelo).

Ertugrul: We had created short pieces for something that was done over at ODU … and we were taking Wallpaper to Canada. Brant (Powell) and Laura were still local and we were able to work with them where they were able to build two pieces. One of them was the balloon piece.

Castillo: We had taken personal ads from Craigslist and Portfolio Weekly, like, years ago, and The Village Voice … and reading these personal ads we were struck by the amount of hot air. … So we just turned that into a physical thing. We created a balloon factory, where a balloon started at one end, was handed over to another person, which was blown up (with) a little helium tank, handed to another person, tied with a string, and handed to another person to hang up. That was the sequence.

Q: And what happened along that assembly line at certain points, and these were little stories, was reflected in how well the balloon is made, whether it pops or lasts.

Ertugrul: And each one was placed in such a way that: “Okay, this one sounds very perfect. This one’s not so perfect. This one is too honest.” And then the color of the balloon would change. … It went on the scale of perfect to whoa.

Q: It’s not just the stories. It’s the actions, and there’s a range of motions that the stories have and the people handling — in a way handling the story as they pass it along — and there’s all these ranges of emotions as they pass it along.

Ertugrul: It’s funny to see someone reacting to a popping balloon.

Q: You have to do all this stage business and there’s so much movement. I think what I haven’t conveyed in describing this is it’s a very intricate process.

Dickerson: There was a lot of making sure I did or did not do things to certain balloons that I was working very hard to keep straight. … We talked about it as we went through it: “Wait, are we the people speaking? Or are we third parties putting the words into the balloons? Do we look at each other? We want to look at each other. Let’s not look at each other. Okay, we are not the people speaking. We’re the little magic men in the ATM who make the money pop out. So we’re the people in the factory who make these balloons. What are the balloons?” We ended up being objective third parties working in this personal ad factory …

Ertugrul: It would probably astonish people how much we talk about really specific moments. … That’s the precision. This show alone, that opening is very precise about where everyone is and where they’re looking and what’s going on.

Waldo: The precision you were just talking about, whether it is the minuteness of how do we blow up this balloon or the elaborateness of some big dance that’s happening, I think that’s what the training really helps you to prepare for. I think there’s a misconception with Suzuki training that … you’re going to get on stage and stomp all around the place.

Ertugrul: What does someone call it? “Stomping and shouting.” Do you guys stomp and shout on the stage?

Costen: Only in my mind. (Laughter.)

Emel Ertugrul and Edwin Castillo of CORE Theatre Ensemble at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.


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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XIV: CORE Theatre Ensemble


NORFOLK, Va. — CORE Theatre Ensemble, founded by alumni of Old Dominion University’s theater department, has a new show, 40 Whacks, opening this coming week at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.

It is, you might say, a family drama.

With axe murdering.

40 Whacks is based on the murders allegedly committed by Lizzie Borden of her stepmother and father in Fall River, Mass. Though she was acquitted, the case continues to remain a part of American folklore. There have been a series of adaptations (including a musical), a museum in Salem, Mass., and a bed and breakfast bearing the Borden family name at the site of the murders.

The B&B gift shop even sells a Lizzie Borden bobble head. So, you know, break out those credit cards.

40Whacks runs for only three performances. Showtimes are at 8 p.m., running from Friday, Oct. 14, to Sunday, Oct. 16, at Little Theatre of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $12 for senior citizens, students, and active duty or retired military; and $8 for kids 17 and under. The play contains unsettling images and some sexual content. Reservations are via (757) 627-8551 or at the Little Theatre site.

In an email, CORE offered:

It’s a lot darker than The Yellow Wallpaper and definitely not as light as our last production You Vs.

The company practices the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and the Viewpoints improvisation system. They’ve been involved in traveling shows, workshops and collaboration with college and non-college theater students around the world.

Past shows include The Poe (n. proj-ekt), Duranged (Christopher Durang one-acts), and their excellent adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper. Other productions include Frankenstein, The Threepenny Opera, and You Vs.

The members of CORE are Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor, artistic associate and actor; Laura Agudelo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training assistant, artistic associate and actor; and Nancy Dickerson, artistic associate and actor.

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the best plays I’ve seen around here, and I greatly enjoyed You Vs. earlier this year. We recently traded email for this Belligerent Q&A.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

We are:

  1. Students. In every production we create, we learn from each other as well as our casts as to what makes good theatre. Theatre that doesn’t bore us or make us wish we were somewhere else. We don’t pretend to know all the answers when we collaborate on new projects. We use our casts to help us understand how each production works. There is always so much to learn from another human being. It’s artistic conversation.
  2. Teachers. What we’ve learned over the years with our actor training and experiencing theatre outside of the U.S. Is that we strive to instill a sense of discipline and commitment in everyone involved with our shows, both onstage and backstage. Sometimes it’s easy to think that acting and theatre is ‘fun.’  Which it is and can be a lot of times — but it’s also hard work. It’s a craft. It’s something that needs to be developed and questioned.
  3. Harsh critics. Of our own works and others’.

Q: Is the Suzuki method the one in which you slap around some smart guy right out of the gate so the rest of the mugs in your crew lay off their damned shenanigans and focus on the one last job you got to do so the Big Man will let you out of the life once and for all and you can finally go straight with your best gal, Sheila, maybe somewhere warm like Costa Rica? Or is that the other Suzuki method with the violins?

Yes it is … the first one. In a weird way, yes, that’s exactly what it is.

The second one is also true, but we don’t know anything about violins.

Q: Castillo, you’re a love struck shoe salesman enamored with a walk-in customer seeking pumps. Agudelo, you’ve seen worse looking men, but you’re really just there for the pumps. Ertugrul, you’re the shoelace supervisor carrying a torch for Castillo, but he hardly seems to notice you – even when you try to lace up Agudelo’s non-lacing pumps. Action, CORE Theatre Ensemble. Action.

Black stage.

A blowtorch is lit by Ertugrul. Its light reveals Agudelo who is holding a broken bicycle pump.  Castillo is revealed, holding a sock and gently weeping.

Ensemble (whispered):  This is not a shoe store.

Blackout.

Q: A life in the theater – why? To very loosely paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, aren’t you really just trying to hurt your parents?

It’s easy to be boring and a lot of other things in life are just that.

Mom and dad didn’t raise boring.

Q: Your new production, 40 Whacks, is based upon the case of Lizzie Borden. After your research, writing and rehearsal, where did you come down on the hot-button issue of axe-murdering?

 Two pro, two con — so you’ve really got a 50/50 chance of knowing what we’re thinking about whilst in conversation.

Q: Often a new work is made by a key line that captures the essence of the greater work, and drives it, oh so fiercely, into the audience’s collective ribcage. Presumably someone in the play has a line such as, “It’s cleavin’ time!” or “I’m gonna axe murder you so fast you won’t know what hit you; at this point you should understand that it will be an axe that hit you.” or “Heeeeeeeere’s Lizzie!” Were there any other lines that didn’t make the cut?

‘You can’t ax in here! This is the sitting room!’

‘Can’t get the candles today, Brendonna.’

‘Poor girl looks as if she’s been raised on promises’

‘That’s gotta hurt.’

‘Are you there god? It’s me Lizzie.’

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

There’s always more.  No matter what, there’s always more.

In honor of Fall River, the New England setting of the Borden murders, I am proud to present the following video.

There are many things to say about this video.

  1. Due to a very unfortunate editing decision early in the video, it is not safe for work.
  2. It does actually exist.
  3. Somewhere in New England, a place I like to think of as the Greater Rhode Island Metropolitan Environment (GRIME), the people who made this video are probably planning sequels.
  4. The decision to mix social commentary, quasi-sexual patter, and warmed-over Chamber of Commerce messages was somehow brave.

Remember: The city, they’ve been fixing all the cracks in the pavement.

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