The Google Doodle today features the late Octavia E. Butler. She is one of my muses. Her bleak, imaginative speculative fiction thematically explored the trauma of oppression. She’s known as a Science Fiction writer, but she also wrote horror (Fledgling, and Clay’s Ark qualify).
I heard OEB speak twice. She didn’t read from her fiction. But her speech was as powerful as her fiction. You read my blog post about her speech here (The Parable of Octavia E. Butler).
The first show I went to at DC’s famed 9:30 Club, back when it was at 9th and F Street, was 10,000 Maniacs. They had just released their major label debut, TheWishingChair. The front woman, Natalie Merchant, was a triple-threat, as they say in show business lingo. She had a lilting, beautiful voice; wrote intelligent lyrics about serious subjects; and was visually arresting. And by “visually arresting,” I don’t mean she was a babe. I mean her gloriously oddball stage person. The performance I saw back in 1985 featured her trademark spinning, on-stage costume changes involving numerous shawls and scarves, and using her long hair as a prop. In-between song, instead of banter, she would sing a cappella fragments of old folk songs. And in souped up jam session, she ‘sang’ impromptu lyrics from Yamyatin’s We.
She became a star on the next album, In My Tribe, with a jaunty hit single about Seasonal Affective Disorder called “Like the Weather.” Her lyrics became less poetic and more preachy, something cemented in the follow-up album Blind Man’s Zoo. At her worst, she comes across as a sanctimonious scold. Sally Soapbox became her default setting. She rivals Morrissey in her ability to annoy me with her judgmental and often hypocritical pronouncements. (Case in point: “Candy Everybody Wants” portrays TV-viewers as morons and yet 10,000 Maniacs were often musical guests on numerous TV programs; in another article, she went on a mad bromide against the Lady Gaga/Beyonce campy video “Telephone,” failing to find humor in its homage to trashy women’s prison; yet her former band’s name at best, trivializes, people with mental disabilities).
But some of her songs can make me blub like a baby. “Cherry Tree,” about illiteracy, does it every time. And “These Are Days” practically defines nostalgic euphoria. That song kicks me out of any funk I’m in. She has a new album coming out, and it appears to draw from the Poetic side of her oeuvre. The haunting video and the lyrics to the song “Giving It Up” is very promising.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” was my first introduction to the work of Flannery O’Connor, and short fiction in general. It really packs a wallop. Black comedy, serial killers, social critique and, ultimately metaphysical transcendence are all in this brief story. Her fiction is dense and multi-layered. There is more going on in them than entire novels. Of all of the writers of the Southern Gothic school, her work is the one that endures the most with me.
It’s not just her acerbic wit or her finely drawn characters or her unmistakable sense-of-place. I think it’s because her fiction is tinged with a singular world-view that is just a wee bit over the edge. The subtext of her work is about Faith, particularly, the concept of the Lord’s Grace. But O’Connor’s Lord is not your grandmother’s Lord. In her cosmology, G-d dwells in the darkest corner of the soul, and that is where He does his work.
Many of O’Connor’s characters are terrible human beings. Openly racist, violence-prone, death obsessed, and narrow-minded. Though she was a devout Catholic, there is a streak of Gnostic theology in her work. Her characters worship the false God (the Demiurge), who created this flawed world (in her work, race relations simmer beneath the surface). The face (and Grace) of the true God is revealed to her grotesque characters in shocking ways.
I’m agnostic at best, but O’Connor’s fiction makes Christianity full of dark beauty and mystery.
Jean Cocteau is perhaps best known for his films, in particular, his elegant, candlelit classic take on Beauty and the Beast. He was a kind of renaissance man, with achievements in literature as well as film and art. He was not a Surrealist, though that movement did influence some of his work. His work is deeply informed by myth and fairy tale; the figure of Orpheus shadows much of his cinematic work. Like the musician Orpheus explored the shadowy underworld, the artist Cocteau explored the subconscious and its language of myth and symbol.
As much as I like his films, it’s his highly idiosyncratic artwork that entices me. The drawings have a child-like simplicity but are deeply mischievous, and, in some cases, openly homoerotic.
Fellow college alum Michael Dorfman pointed me to this fascinating 2010 article written by Joe Hagan about the mercurial Nina Simone. The article, entitled I Wish I Knew How To Be Free, uses Simone’s secret diary entries to cast light upon this talented but troubled woman.
Struggles with her identity, her marriage, her career and her sexuality are all revealed. It’s heart-breaking and illuminating.
Coalrose, one of my stories in my forthcoming collection is about a character loosely based on Simone. Zoe Coalrose is a kind of dark muse to the marginalized in magical realist/historical piece.
Rickie Lee Jones is, in her own, as bizarre an artist as Bjork. She is uncategorizable. Is she a jazz chanteuse, adding her own spin to the American Songbook? Is she a confessional singer-songwriter like Laura Nyro? She has been a neo-beat ingenue, the female answer to Tom Waits. Her music spans from jazzy, bluesy folk-rock to big band to R&B. Her albums have been all covers and at one point, trip-hop. She is an intrepid musical experimenter who willfully ignores genre classifications.
My favorite songs of her, though, are esoteric and hermetic. Her masterpiece, Pirates, closes with two weird songs, “Traces of the Western Slope” and “The Returns.” “Traces…” is a long, dark trip through an urban hell peopled with jailbait girls, gangs, junkies and the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe that seems to be a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. The music is spooky jazz-tinged funk and has no real formal song structure. “The Returns” is an icy ballad as terrifying as anything on Nico’s The Marble Index. On the next album,The Magazine, “Deep Space: An Equestrienne in the Circus of the Falling Star” is a Satie-esque piano ballad full of metaphysical imagery (“the Lord’s face is an all-night cafe”). That album ends with a triptych of songs collectively called Rorschachs. The songs include an instrumental (an Italian classical guitar piece called “Theme for the Pope”); a spoken word piece about childhood memories (“The Unsigned Painting”) and disturbing song about being haunted by an living Id/Demon—(“The Weird Beast”).
I discovered William Blake’s work when I was a child. At the time, Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet was very popular and my family had a copy of it. The words were poetic and philosophical; but it was Gibran’s black and white drawings that held my interest. The mystical opaque paintings that accompanied the inspirational, allegorical prose poetry held my imagination. I could stare at those pictures forever. At 10, I wrote and illustrated my own work of Inspirational Fiction, entitled Bird of Stars. It had a one print run, and it no longer survives.
Gibran was described as a “modern day William Blake.” I found that was only superficially true. Gibran is a talented visionary, but Blake is a genius. His symbolic paintings are portals to other worlds, and reflect a very personal version of Christian mythology. His work is febrile and opiated, full of colors that have no precise name. The luminous beings in his paintings seem more summoned than painted. Blake created a private mythology that overlapped and incorporated Christian myth. It’s said that he had visions, a kind of Gnostic awakening. Even his demonic images are imbued with this grace.
By day, Henry Darger was janitor. He’d had a hard life; he had been orphaned and raised in a Boy’s Home in Chicago. He spent his days doing menial work at a Catholic Hospital, and went home to a dank basement where he lived as a hermit. But in that basement, there existed another world, one that he created. Nights he created an imaginary world full of winged beings, child slaves and heroic princesses. He was writing a novel, an epic set on a magical world where good and evil clashed. This world was meticulously illustrated, with eerie murals created from paint and collage. He is considered to be the ultimate example of an Outsider Artist.
The intensity of his vision is admirable. It was a burning passion, almost a madness. Darger was compelled to write and illustrate thousands of pages of this story, with no intention to publish. His work was only discovered after his death. There are times when, as writer, you feel that you’re just writing for yourself. For Darger, that was enough.
My story “Conjuring Shadows” was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance writer and artist Richard Bruce Nugent. As a writer, Nugent’s work was strongly influenced by modernism. It was highly elliptical and poetic. His most famous piece, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is a stream of consciousness mediation on art, racial and sexual identity. “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is also a pioneering work of black gay writing. Nugent was also a painter and illustrator. His illustration work has the sinister eroticism of Cocteau’s scribbles, and the wicked decadence of Aubrey Beardsley, while his paintings are influenced by the Romantics. Like Oscar Wilde, Nugent also penned retold Biblical tales and myths. Nugent was also born in Washington, DC, like yours truly.
Black and white are the primary colors artist Kara Walker uses. Shadow and light. Negative and positive space. Her tableaux are made of black paper, and they are silhouetted against a gallery’s white walls The archetypical imagery she uses–sordid scenes from slavery. The wild-haired pickaninny, the scheming Southern Belle, the oblivious Good Master, the slave’s body in chains… Referents are classic children’s books, the mythology of the Antebellum South, and black memorabilia. It’s work that is never kitsch or twee; it’s dangerous and graceful at the same time.
Walker’s work dismantles the Master’s House with the master’s tool, to borrow a quote from Audre Lorde.