Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Art Appreciation

Monday, March 8, 2010

I did a reading yesterday at the Concord Free Library. As invariably happens, I found myself feeling grateful for the turnout of people who came to hear poetry. To really hear it, in the most profound sense. To open themselves to the experience and take in the sound and sense of someone else's words.

It was a fresh reminder of our human hunger for art at all levels, which runs so sadly counter to all the knee-jerk budget slashing that throws arts programs overboard first in any school budget cutbacks.

I was thinking of that on Saturday night when my friends Erica and Don and I watched a fascinating documentary film called “Herb and Dorothy.” It’s about Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who, on modest civil service incomes, amassed an art collection now housed at the National Art Gallery in Washington, with overflow pieces being parceled out throughout the 50 states. It is a story of people who simply loved art and who took the time to pay attention, to look carefully, and also to talk with artists about their work.

Although the experience begins in pleasure, it’s a hugely generous thing to open oneself fully to art. To try to understand what was behind the creation of a work involves the kind of deep connection between people that lets us bring the best of ourselves to each other. I often find it useful and fun--especially when confronted, say, with a painting or with music that feels challenging--to try to imagine what its creator might have felt in the process. What was he or she thinking about? Trying to do? Wanting us to notice?

I was in London recently and, on walking into the British Museum, was drawn to an exhibit of one of the museum’s oldest items, a pair of reindeer, apparently swimming. It was carved into the tip of a mammoth tusk, possibly 13,000 years ago. Why? There is no way to know. We may guess that it was some kind of totem. Or it might have been carved in tribute to the animals that provided sustenance. But there is also the possibility that the carver created it solely as an expression of the world around him or her. Art! Our earliest evidence of its centrality in our lives.

Maybe it’s art that, at the deepest level, makes us human. And, whether or not we recognize it, our willingness to experience art, as much as our ability to make it, is our most basic human connection.

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Hearing Jack McCarthy

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Jack McCarthy is back in town and last night I went to hear him. He lives out in Washington State now, so a local reading is a big deal for his friends and fans. This one was what a Jack McCarthy reading always is these days: a full house with the crowd enthusiastic to the point of worshipful and Jack, a little thinner but at the top of his game.

He’s a slam poet, but his poetry often has classical references. The poems often amble around in a deceptively chatty way before taking aim straight for the heart. I often find myself wanting to quote a line or idea of his, but the poems are so rambling that the set-up gets long when I try it. When Jack does it, you hang on every word.

He asked me to give him a word as a starting point--I was honored--and, just as I was about to say something like “street” I heard, in horror, the word “evanescent” coming out of my mouth. Not such a Jack McCarthy word, evanescent. But he went with it graciously and came up with a vaguely related poem that talked about watching television.

Jack’s reading was at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Cambridge. I hadn’t been there in a long time, but it’s the place I’ve considered my poetry home. I spent many a Wednesday night there, downstairs where they have poetry on Wednesdays--a two-hour open mic and then a feature and a slam, all while the ceiling is shaking from the music being played upstairs and the floor shivers periodically from the Red Line going by.

It’s the place where I first read my poetry in public and the place where I had my feature. It’s where I learned, by listening, how to read, and it’s the reason I always have a tender spot in my heart for the open mic. I know as well as anyone that an open is always unpredictable I’ve sat through my share of readers I was grateful were only going to be on for three minutes. And I’ve been there when reader after reader came up with such beautifully crafted and effectively delivered poems that I felt lucky to be in the room.

There’s wildly encouraging “first timer” applause at the Cantab, and often wildly encouraging applause and shouts and whistles after the poem, too. The Cantab, since its beginnings as a poetry venue, has been known for the quality of both the poetry and the audience enthusiasm. I was glad to see that those basics haven’t changed. It’s still the place where I learned to love reading. And it’s the place where I met Jack McCarthy.

Have you been there?

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