Frank O’Hara, Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney – O’Hara’s Presence in Contemporary British and Irish Fiction

Zadie Smith  Author Sally Rooney

Fiction writers from the UK and Ireland seem to be having a Frank O’Hara moment. I wrote about this trend a couple years ago, after noticing that the titles of two books by young British women — Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals and Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight — were drawn from works by O’Hara.

But wait, there’s more … I recently learned that the much buzzed-about Irish writer Sally Rooney also seems to have found some inspiration in O’Hara.  She used a line from his poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis” as the epigraph for her debut novel, Conversations with Friends: A Novel (2017): “In times of crisis we must all decide again and again whom we love.”

Now along comes Grand Union, the new collection of short stories by Zadie Smith, one of the most important fiction writers of our time, and it too has an epigraph from O’Hara — “How can anyone fail to be” (from “Yesterday Down at the Canal”).

It’s not the first time we’ve heard that Zadie Smith is a big O’Hara fan.  In 2008, in a talk she gave about Obama’s election and cultural multiplicity she celebrates O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings” and its central creed, “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.” There’s also a wonderful 2011 audio clip of Smith reading O’Hara poem “Animals” which is often shared on social media (and which may have had something to do with Unsworth hitting upon that poem for her own novel’s title).  Smith has also mentioned that O’Hara’s “Animals” is one of the only poems she knows by heart.

Update: In this interview with David Naimon for Tin House, Zadie Smith talks about her use of O’Hara’s line “how can anyone fail to be” and suggests that it speaks powerfully to her sense of how we (barely) live in today’s tech-saturated culture, and then does a lovely reading of O’Hara’s “Yesterday Down at the Canal” (which you can hear at the 50:30 mark).

The transatlantic nature of these O’Hara sightings suggests just how international O’Hara’s reach has been in recent years.  And if we add to these examples the recent short story by Don DeLillo (“Midnight in Dostoyevsky”) that borrowed its title from O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” and the short story by Andrew Sean Greer (“It’s a Summer’s Day,” later incorporated in his Pulitzer-winning novel Less) which borrowed its title from O’Hara’s “Homosexuality,” it seems as if O’Hara’s struck a chord lately with fiction writers in general.

It’s an intriguing, perhaps under-studied measure of a poet’s reputation or impact – how often their work pops up in works of fiction.  Surely it’s another sign that Frank O’Hara is everywhere these days, moving freely across genres and across the Atlantic.

Posted in Andrew Sean Greer, Don DeLillo, Fiction, Frank O'Hara, NY School Influence, Zadie Smith | Leave a comment

When Frank (O’Hara) Met Marlene (Dietrich)

 

Image result for frank o'hara                       Marlene Dietrich

As everyone knows, Frank O’Hara was an unabashed, passionate fan of the movies — and of movie stars.  He stanned James Dean and Greta Garbo and Lana Turner decades before stanning was a thing.

Although he usually gushed about such larger-than-life stars from afar, as flickering presences on the big screen, he did occasionally have the chance to meet a few celebrities in person.  I just came across some old notes of mine about a funny, unpublished letter O’Hara wrote to Larry Rivers about a particularly exciting brush with fame: the night in 1962 when he went to a party for Marlene Dietrich and got to spend half a minute in her presence.

It was the same night that O’Hara gave a poetry reading at the New School, which, he reports, “seems to have gone quite well, since Donny Windham said it was the best poetry reading he had ever heard and told Joe that the fact he knows perfectly well how limited my voice resources are should qualify this sufficiently for me to accept it; and Edwin [Denby] said I already knew you were a good poet, but I didn’t yet know you were a great one.”

O’Hara goes on to say:

Afterwards we went to a party for Marlene Dietrich at ‘Le Club’ …I did get about 30 seconds of the great woman’s unconcentrated attention.  Mostly she sat at a table discussing business with three tycoon-looking men…She asked me to join them, which gave me ample opportunity to observe her lovely chin, cheek, eyelashes, and back of head, after which I hied myself to the bar.  Since she gave George Plimpton even less of her time and most people none, I guess I came out all right.

This was not just an everyday sighting of a random movie star for O’Hara — he had been a huge fan of Dietrich’s for decades.  In Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Hara, his brother Philip recalls that as a teenager in the 1940s, O’Hara “had pictures of all the stars on the walls.  He was a very, very rabid fan of Marlene Dietrich.”  A friend remembers visiting the suite O’Hara shared at Harvard with his roommate, the artist Edward Gorey: “The idea was to lie down on a chaise longue, get mellow with a few drinks, and listen to Marlene Dietrich records.  They just loved her whisky voice.”  Gooch notes that while at Harvard, “O’Hara’s specialties were singalongs to an old recording of Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret performances, during which he sometimes applied blue lipstick to his full lips for effect.”

It must have been quite a thrill for O’Hara to spend a few moments with “the great woman” herself, and even better to get a bit more of her “unconcentrated attention” than George Plimpton, or anyone else at Le Club.

O’Hara was only being half-ironic when he said that actors like Marlene Dietrich were our modern-day divinities.  As he writes in his great ode to cinema, “To the Film Industry in Crisis“:

Long may you illumine space with your marvellous appearances, delays
and enunciations, and may the money of the world glitteringly cover you
as you rest after a long day under the kleig lights with your faces
in packs for our edification, the way the clouds come often at night
but the heavens operate on the star system. It is a divine precedent
you perpetuate! Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!

Posted in Edward Gorey, Edwin Denby, Film, Frank O'Hara, Larry Rivers, Letters / Correspondence | Leave a comment

Make your own Joe Brainard collage (out of fragments he chose but never used)

Make Your Own Brainard 1

Have you ever looked at a collage by an artist like Picasso or Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters or Joe Brainard, and felt a powerful urge to immediately go make a collage yourself?  Perhaps there’s something about the tactile, playful, anyone-can-do-it premise of collage (unlike, say, oil painting) that invites us to try it ourselves.

Fortunately now you can, thanks to a delightful new interactive website called “Make Your Own Brainard,” created by the scholar Rona Cran (an expert on, among other things, collage in twentieth-century literature and art).

Not only does the site enable you to design your own collage, but rather miraculously, you can create one using actual materials that Brainard himself selected, cut out, but never used.

In an introduction to the project, Brainard’s close friend Ron Padgett tells the story of how these little fragments and cut-outs came to be digitized and accessible online: “In the summer of 2011 Pat Padgett discovered, in an outbuilding on Kenward Elmslie’s property in Calais, Vermont, a large number of paper snippets. Selected and grouped by Joe Brainard, the snippets, grouped in business envelopes, large manila envelopes, and plastic sleeves, are in the form of unfinished collages and loose bits for future collages.”

As Cran explains, although Brainard “intended them for use in his own collages, but never got around to including them, so in keeping with the spirit of generosity and collaboration that underpinned all of his work, this project and the Brainard Estate has now made them available for collage enthusiasts all over the world to use as they see fit.”

This seems just right, and in keeping with Brainard’s renowned generosity and collaborative spirit.  As Padgett notes, Brainard often sent these kinds of snippets to friends and relatives. including his brother John who used them to make his own collages.  “Over the years Joe had sent John Ashbery snippets to use in his collages, which have been exhibited at Tibor de Nagy Gallery and elsewhere. It’s safe to say that Joe would have been pleased to know that now anyone in the world wishing to use his snippets can now pick up where he left off.”

As Padgett’s comments suggest, this project is particularly fitting for an artist like Joe Brainard, whose entire aesthetic is driven by a belief in art-making as collaborative, playful, and experimental.  Indeed, Yasmine Shamma argues that “Brainard encourages his peers, in practice, presence, and publication to collage with and without him, inventing a new form of collage: collaborative collage.”  The site goes on to note that “collage itself is always a form of collaboration, and certainly collaborative collage is at the heart of this project – in putting Brainard’s tactile, material texts into dialogue with digital media and digital media users, it facilitates the creation of original collages that are also, inevitably, collaborations with Joe himself.”

In some remarks included on the site, Mark Ford concurs: “How Joe Brainard would have loved the idea that all the bits and pieces that he collected as potential material for further collages, but never got around to using, would have this strange virtual afterlife! He was a connoisseur of bric-a-brac, a devotee of detritus, and as interested – although this may sound paradoxical – in the uselessness of art as in its power to change our lives. He developed collage, that quintessential twentieth-century art form based on mixing and matching, on snipping and gluing, to dazzling new heights.”

“Make Your Own Brainard” is filled with a rich array of materials, including some interesting background on the project itself and the discovery of these left-behind materials, information about Brainard’s life and work, about the history and practice of collage, and about the New York School of poetry‘s broader fascination with collaboration, exchange, error, and experimentation.  It also features a “series of reflections by people who knew [Brainard] or who have written about or been particularly moved by his work,” including Constance LewallenCedar SigoAnn LauterbachMark FordDaniel Kane and Nick Sturm.

This ingenious site embraces the spirit of fun and the DIY ethos of Brainard and his New York School circle and takes it into a new, digital realm.  As Cran notes, “For Brainard, the chance to be ‘unprofessional’, and to experiment,” was of the upmost importance, and this project gives you the opportunity to play along.

It’s easy and fun to use, even if the experience does remind you all over again just how wonderful Brainard’s own collages are (as can be seen below), and how difficult it is to actually make a good collage yourself (as can be seen by my own humble attempt above).

I encourage you to go check out the site, mess around with the materials, and make your own Brainard.  Once you’ve done so, you can post your work in their gallery, either with your name or anonymously, download, or share it.

Joe Brainard, Carte Postale (1978)

Posted in Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Joseph Cornell, Kenward Elmslie, Mark Ford, Ron Padgett, Tibor de Nagy Gallery | Leave a comment

David Berman, Poet Among Musicians (1967-2019)

David Berman Actual Air

Last week, tragic news hit the worlds of indie rock and contemporary poetry simultaneously.  The musician and poet David Berman, leader of the acclaimed indie band Silver Jews, had passed away at the age of 52, after a long struggle with depression and addiction.  The news carried an extra potent sting because after a decade of silence following the last Silver Jews album, Berman had recently emerged with a new band name (Purple Mountains) and an excellent new album.  He had also begun giving interviews and was about to head out on tour.  Twitter immediately lit up with stunned laments by fellow musicians, writers, and fans, and many obituaries, wonderful appreciations, and reminiscinces of Berman and his music and writing have quickly followed.

In the days since his death, Berman has been hailed for his vivid, off-kilter songs – studded with unforgettable aphorisms and sung in his not-for-everyone but deeply resonant baritone – but also for his strange and moving poetry.  This is fitting, because, unlike many rock musicians who perhaps dabble in writing poetry, Berman was the real deal: he was an English major at University of Virginia, where he studied poetry with Charles Wright, and then went to get his MFA in poetry from the University of Massachussets, where his mentor was the revered poet James Tate.

In 1999, after garnering fame and notoriety in indie circles with the first three, terrific Silver Jews albums, Berman published a book of poems called Actual Air, which arrived complete with blurbs by James Tate and Billy Collins.  The book quickly gained a cult following, pulling in many readers who were otherwise unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, and quietly influencing a whole range of younger poets.  The impact of Actual Air on a generation of poets reminds me a bit of Brian Eno’s famous comment about the first Velvet Underground album: the banana record may have “only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

So I just wanted to add this small footnote to the chorus of memorials for Berman. In addition to being a hugely important and beloved musician, Berman should be seen as one of the best of a handful of figures who manage to bring the sensibility of contemporary poetry – and, particularly poetry of the New York School – to the world of music.  As I’ve written about before, the connections between indie rock and the New York School of poets are real and extensive, but among musicians, Berman surely has one of the most direct connections to this lineage, whether through his link to Tate (widely seen as a key heir to Ashbery) or simply his own reading and stated influences.

As many reviews of Actual Air noted, Berman’s poetry clearly shows the impress of Ashbery’s work.  For instance, the New Yorker’s review noted that Berman “comes on like a prankster, restocking the imperial orations of Wallace Stevens and the byzantine monologues of John Ashbery with the pop-cultural bric-a-brac of a new generation.”  And Ashbery pops up in various places in Berman’s work, like the epigraph for a piece in the Baffler about his experience working as a guard at the Whitney Museum.  (Around the same time, Berman’s close friend and collaborator Stephen Malkmus, the founder of the iconic indie band Pavement, was giving interviews in which he too identified Ashbery as a source for his own strange lyrics).

But Berman’s debts to the New York School lineage extend beyond Ashbery: in interviews, Berman repeatedly mentioned Kenneth Koch as a major influence.  When the Poetry Society of America asked him “Are there poems, poets, or anthologies that have opened up or radically altered your ideas of what can be done in poetry?” Berman responded “I always thought that the corollary to ‘make it new’ should be ‘make it not boring.’ Stephen Crane and Kenneth Koch both inspired me. One with his clarity, the other with his obfuscation.”  Even as recently as last month, in an interview with Travis Nichols for the Poetry Foundation, Berman said “I would put amusical influences down to Tate, Russell EdsonKenneth Koch.”

Interestingly enough, this ongoing conversation seems to have run in both directions: as Berman himself noted last month in a discussion of James Tate, the title of his old teacher’s final, posthumously published book The Government Lake, seems to have been from one of Berman’s own poems.

The New York School ethos and aesthetic can be found all over the place in Berman’s poems and songs, which masterfully evoke the surrealism of everyday life, take a playful, ironic stance towards experience and the self, revel in the cracked weirdness of ordinary language and the absurdities of pop culture, and experiment with a collage aesthetic.

David Berman’s death is a heartbreaking, tremendous loss, and it’s hard to know what to say beyond that. “Do you believe in MGM endings?”  he once asked in “Like Like The The The Death,”  a song about mortality with a weird, stuttering title worthy of Gertrude Stein or Ashbery himself.  I must say it feels pretty tough to believe in happy movie endings at the moment.  Berman’s song also includes these lines, which seem as fitting a conclusion as any other: “Like like the the the death / Air crickets, air crickets, air crickets, air crickets, air.”

Posted in David Berman, In Memoriam, James Tate, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Music, NY School Influence | 1 Comment

“For Will”: A Short Documentary about Robert Creeley and His Son

Robert Creeley and son Will (photo by Bruce Jackson)

A few years ago, I introduced the work of the poet Robert Creeley to an undergraduate student of mine at Florida State University named Grayson Goga.  Like so many students, Grayson fell for Creeley’s work — but unlike many students, he decided to make a film about Creeley.  For the final project for a documentary film course at FSU, Grayson tracked down the poet’s son, Will Creeley, travelled to his home to conduct an interview and film Will and his own young son and, along with some fellow students in the film program at FSU, made this moving short documentary.

The film focuses on Will’s memories of his father and his lasting legacy, as he reminisces about growing up in a world where Allen Ginsberg and other literary figures were his dad’s close friends.  It features Will reading a tender poem his father wrote for him, “Time (For Willy),” as well as another Creeley poem, “‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer…,'” read first by Will and then by Creeley himself.

For Will” is a touching, intimate tribute to a wonderful and influential poet.

And I’m definitely going to file this one under “Things that Make Me Very Happy to Be a Teacher.”

 

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Film, Robert Creeley | 1 Comment

Frank O’Hara and Fashion (at the Wedding of Eugenia Kim and Christopher Lee)

eugenia-kim-and-christopher-lee-wedding

Frank O’Hara has recently been popping up in the world of high fashion and celebrity culture — for instance, he was named as one of the late designer Kate Spade’s muses and his work has inspired a luxury Lunch Poems handbag flaunted by Jennifer Lawrence.  The trend continues with a report in Vogue about the wedding of “Eugenia Kim, the CEO and creative director of her eponymous women’s accessories line—which creates hats worn by celebrities like Beyoncé—and designer Christopher Lee.”

The article traces the “meet-cute” of this high-profile couple (which had all “the makings of a Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks rom-com”) before describing the details of their carefully-planned wedding, which included a reading of Frank O’Hara’s beloved poem “Having a Coke With You.”

O’Hara’s 1960 poem — an ode to his lover Vincent Warren — has recently taken on a vibrant life of its own as a highly “relatable” social media favorite and, yes, poem read at weddings, both straight and same-sex.  For more on the poem’s complicated “relatability,” keep your eyes out for a terrific forthcoming essay in PMLA on this topic by poetry scholar Brian Glavey, titled “Having a Coke With You Is Even More Fun than Ideology Critique.” (And for more on this poem’s afterlife, see here, here, here, and here).

Here’s a bit more about the details of the wedding and the readings the couple included in their ceremony:

“The new weather development created a slightly dark mood that added to the setting and our aesthetic,” Eugenia says. “We both dislike traditional wedding music—if I have to hear ‘Pachelbel’s Canon in D’ at one more wedding!—however, we’re both very specific about our music. We were lucky to find the Joyce Hammann String Quartet, which specializes in nontraditional string music, and they wore all black including matching black leather Eugenia Kim ‘Carter’ berets—the same one I originally designed for Beyoncé to wear to the Grammys.” The bridal party processional was “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, and the bride walked down the aisle to “George’s Waltz II,” composed by Shigeru Umebayashi from Tom Ford’s A Single Man, a song that Christopher believes embodies his love for Eugenia. There was a reading from a love letter Zelda Fitzgerald wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, an excerpt from a letter written from him to her on the eve of their wedding, and a passage from The Beautiful and Damned, as well as Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.”

I have to think O’Hara would’ve been amused and pleased to have a poem of his read at the wedding of a woman known as “the milliner to the stars.”  At this point, maybe the real question is are there any fashion designers out there who don’t love Frank O’Hara?

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in fashion, Frank O'Hara, Vincent Warren | Leave a comment

Kevin Killian (1952-2019)

Killian Kevin by Daniel Nicoletta.jpeg

Kevin Killian, photo by Daniel Nicoletta 

Like so many others, I’m shocked and heartbroken to learn that the writer Kevin Killian passed away last night.  I first met Kevin in 1996, at the “Poetry of the 1950s” conference in Orono, Maine (where he gave a paper on a panel devoted to Jack Spicer and Frank O’Hara) and we soon began a lively conversation that carried on for over twenty years. Kevin’s kindness and generosity were legendary.  He had a knack for genuinely making you feel like you were the special recipient of his attention and care — that whatever you were doing, whatever you had written or said, was important and terrific.

In reading the outpouring of tributes to Kevin, it’s strange, but not surprising at all, to see how many other people felt the same way I do. Part of you can’t help but think: I thought it was just me! How could he have had so much energy and time and affection for everyone he knew? At Frank O’Hara’s funeral, one of his closest friends, the painter Larry Rivers, said “Frank O’Hara was my best friend. There are at least sixty people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend….At one time or another, he was everyone’s greatest and most loyal audience.” It feels like something very similar could, and should, be said of Kevin — like O’Hara (whose work he adored and over whom we initially bonded), Kevin was a charismatic center of multiple communities, a person who seemed to have known and supported everyone, and to have been universally loved in return.

At O’Hara’s funeral, the painter Philip Guston put his arm around another mourner and whispered “He was our Apollinaire,” referring to the great French poet who was a central figure of the French avant-garde, the key supporter and champion for a whole network of writers and painters.  It seems safe to say that for so many of us, “he was our Frank O’Hara.”

Kevin was an ardent, early supporter and defender of my own work, when he had no reason to be, and it meant the world to me. I was thrilled and grateful when he read my first book and actually gave it one of his legendary, hilarious, insightful Amazon reviews (which have been collected in a volume called Selected Amazon Reviews).

Kevin was a fount of knowledge about Frank O’Hara, the New York School of poets, Jack Spicer, and the wider New American poetry scene, along with so much else, and like many other scholars and poets, I benefited so much from knowing him, and having him as a sounding board, cheerleader, and source of wisdom.

Kevin was also a wonderful, path-breaking, influential poet, fiction writer, and playwright, one of the central figures of the New Narrative movement, a pioneering queer writer, and the unofficial laureate of San Francisco for many years.  With his wife and collaborator, the equally amazing writer Dodie Bellamy, he edited the small literary magazine Mirage #4 / Period(ical).  He was a gifted scholar, editor, and biographer (of Jack Spicer), a voracious reader, collector of autographs, and all-around mensch. (For more on his remarkable life and career, see here and here for a good place to start).  I just can’t believe he’s gone. He will be deeply missed by so many.
Posted in Frank O'Hara, Guillaume Apollinaire, In Memoriam, Jack Spicer, Kevin Killian, Larry Rivers, Philip Guston | Leave a comment