“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

“Ninth Street Women”: The New York School (of Painters, Mostly) Comes to TV

Left: Actress Rose Leslie (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images). Right: Elaine de Kooning.

Those of us who have been hoping for years for a Frank O’Hara biopic or Netflix mini-series devoted to the New York School poets will have to wait, but there is exciting news in this department: Amazon just announced that the studio has optioned Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, which was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award.  Gabriel’s book is a terrific group portrait of five remarkable women artists — Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler — who were at the heart of Abstract Expressionism, and who each had significant relationships with O’Hara and the other poets in his circle.

Better yet, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino — the Emmy-winning creators of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Gilmore Girls — have signed on to develop the book into a series for Amazon.

From the Hollywood Reporter:

Ninth Street Women is set amid the most turbulent social and political period of modern times and chronicles five women — Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler — who dared to enter the male-dominated world of 20th century abstract painting as artists (and not muses). These women changed American art and society, tearing up the prevailing social code and replacing it with a doctrine of liberation.

As ArtNet notes, “for Sherman-Palladino, it’s the chance to do another New York period piece, set in much the same era as Mrs. Maisel, as well as to write some more lightning-quick dialogue for women.”  

Gabriel’s book is “a fascinating, hyper-detailed portrait of the post-war avant-garde art scene in New York, the book paints vibrant portraits not only of its main characters, but also of such artistic greats as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, and many others.”

Of special note for my purposes: Frank O’Hara plays a significant, recurring role in Gabriel’s book, thanks to his very intimate connection to Hartigan and close relationships with Mitchell and de Kooning.  Presumably, he would feature in the television adaptation as well — a tantalizing prospect for O’Hara aficianodos.

The ArtNet piece wonders “who should play the pioneering artists” on this new show, and offers their “dream casting picks.”  They seem pretty good to me: Sarah Paulson as Lee Krasner, Christan Bale as Jackson Pollock, Rose Leslie (Ygritte!) as Elaine de Kooning, Peter Skaarsgard as Willem de Kooning (an inspired choice), Rachel Brosnahan as Joan Mitchell and so on.

So — summoning the New York School faithful and poetry fans — who should play Frank O’Hara?  What about John Ashbery?  And James Schuyler?  (They each make many appearances in Ninth Street Women).  Suggestions?

Mary Gabriel has, not surprisingly, signed on as a consulting producer for the series.  I just thought I would mention that if Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino happen to be looking for a Frank O’Hara/poetry consultant to help out with historical accuracy and whatnot, I think I might be able to find room in my schedule!

Left, Jackson Pollock (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images). Right, Christian Bale, courtesy of IMDB.

Left: Jackson Pollock. (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images). Right: Christian Bale (Courtesy of IMDB).

 

Posted in Abstract Expressionism, Elaine de Kooning, Frank O'Hara, Franz Kline, Grace Hartigan, Hans Hoffmann, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, James Schuyler, Joan Mitchell, John Ashbery, Lee Krasner, Television, Visual Art, Willem de Kooning | Leave a comment

Frank O’Hara as a Jeopardy! Clue

The list of poets who are well-known enough to appear in a question on a television trivia game show is relatively short.  Games like Jeopardy! frequently feature questions about old standbys like Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Pound, Yeats, Hughes, Ginsberg, or Plath, but it would be pretty rare to come across a question about a Mina Loy or a Robert Creeley.

So I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised to see that Frank O’Hara’s name popped up on Jeopardy! a few days ago.  O’Hara appeared in the category “American Poetry,” alongside clues about Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.”  If you’re someone like me, who takes an (obsessive?) interest in tracking O’Hara’s reputation and ever-increasing influence and ubiquity, this seems like a significant little moment in his journey to mainstream recognizability.

The clue read:

Not only was it surprising to see a question about O’Hara, but also to watch the current reigning champ — the much buzzed-about, seemingly unstoppable James Holzhauer — come up with the wrong name.  “Who is Ella Fitzgerald?” Holzhauer said.  Another contestant quickly buzzed in correctly with “Who is Billie Holiday?”  This was especially notable because Holzhauer — who already, after 12 victories, holds the record for the four highest-scoring games in the show’s history, and is in second place for all-time winnings after the famous Ken Jennings (whose run was 74 victories) — almost never buzzes in with the wrong answer (he is averaging just 1.2 wrong answers per game)  Holzhauer has quickly become one of the best players to ever play the game, so I definitely am not holding this little slip-up against him.

 

 

I was expecting to be able to declare that this was the very first time Frank O’Hara has appeared in a Jeopardy! clue.  But — thanks to this fan-created archive of previous games — I just learned this is actually the second time.  It is, however, his first appearance in 32 years.  Way back in 1987, the show featured O’Hara in a clue, about the same poem no less, and then not again since: “Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ is a tribute to this black singer.”

So do any other poets of the New York School qualify as Jeopardy!-famous, in the company of the usual suspects like Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, and Eliot?  Well, it turns out John Ashbery’s name has appeared in Jeopardy! too, also on only two occasions.  First, in 1998, with this clue: “This ‘X-Files’ star has expressed his admiration for the complex modern poetry of John Ashbery.”

(Answer? “Who is David Duchovny?,” who, by the way, studied literature in graduate school at Yale).

And second, in 2004, in the category “First Names the Same,” in the clue “Ashbery, Davidson, Cheever.”

According to the records, so far Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, and Ted Berrigan have yet to appear in a Jeopardy! clue, but I’m keeping an eye on it.

 

Posted in Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Television | Leave a comment

Frank O’Hara and Indie Punk (Having a Coke with Martha)

Longtime readers of this blog probably know I’m always on the lookout for moments when Frank O’Hara or other poets of the New York School pop up in the world of music.  O’Hara, especially, continues to haunt the history and present of popular music, leading one observer to ask: “When did Frank O’Hara become the poet of indie rock?”  O’Hara inspired the stage name of Frankie Cosmos, and songs by Rilo Kiley and Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore — Lou Reed even recited his work to Patti Smith while reclining in a bathtub!  Just the other day, Jeff Tweedy (of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco fame) cited O’Hara as one of his favorites, too.

An article in Rolling Stone this week on the British indie band Martha — which it calls “one of the most singular voices in indie punk” — mentioned the band’s “far-flung pop culture mentions (the Replacements, poet Frank O’Hara, the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty).”  This caught my eye — not least because I didn’t realize O’Hara counts as a “pop culture mention”! — and led me to Martha’s song “1967, I Miss You, I’m Lonely,” which was released in 2014.

After opening with a Belle and Sebastian nod, the song is chock-full of O’Hara references:

I spent a dirty weekend practicing my French
Rosy cheeked I saw my limitations there in evidence
When I invited Frank and you, back to mine for a mange tout
When I meant ménage à trois
You laughed so hard you cracked your chin against the bar

The song also nods to an O’Hara fan favorite, the closing of his poem “Steps” (“oh god it’s wonderful / to get out of bed / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much”):

Oh God how wonderful it is
Crossing bridges in the mist

And then pulls out the big guns — a direct riff on O’Hara’s beloved “Having a Coke With You” (“I look / at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world / 
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick / which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time”) — but instead of making an exception for Rembrandt’s Polish Rider, Martha makes one for a portrait of O’Hara himself by his dear friend Grace Hartigan.

I look at you
And I am confident that I’d rather look at you
Than all the portraits in existence in the world
Except possibly O’Hara by Grace Hartigan
Or something else
I’m not a connoisseur
I’m monolingual, and absurd
And I know this statement might sound phoney
But I miss you
And I’m lonely
I miss you
I’m lonely
Distance stretches on and on and on

It may be at the Smithsonian rather than the Frick, but here’s a portrait of O’Hara by Grace Hartigan.  Maybe the members of Martha can take someone they love to the museum who hasn’t been yet, so they can go there together for the first time…

Grace Hartigan, Frank O’Hara, 1926-1966, 1966, oil on linen, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Grace Hartigan, 1967.129

You definitely don’t see the painter Grace Hartigan name-checked in too many (or any?) indie punk songs, even if O’Hara continues to crop up with pleasing regularity in the some of the most interesting music of our time.

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Grace Hartigan, Lou Reed, Music, NY School Influence, Patti Smith, Thurston Moore, Visual Art | 1 Comment

The Power of Not Being Sure: John Ashbery, Jordan Ellenberg, and Math

JordanEllenberg How Not To Be Wrong

To my surprise, in the car the other day my math-obsessed 14-year-old son Dylan suddenly exclaimed “John Ashbery!” from the backseat.  It turns out he’d reached the last pages of Jordan Ellenberg’s 2014 book How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, which he’s been relishing the past couple of weeks and has now pronounced one of his favorite books.  Very aware that Ashbery’s name is hallowed in our house, he was excited to stumble upon a reference to a poet his dad has talked and written about so much, in a book about math of all things.

“Do you know a poem called ‘Soonest Mended’?” he asked.  Do I know “Soonest Mended”?  Do I ever!  “Yes! It’s one of my favorite Ashbery poems and one of his most famous.  Why?”

“Ellenberg talks about the poem in this really interesting section about math and uncertainty.”

“Really?  How does he do that?” Dylan went on to explain the point of the passage: although we usually think of math as “the realm of certainty and absolute truth,” Ellenberg wants us to recognize math is also “a means by which we can reason about the uncertain, taming if not altogether domesticating it.”

I began to recite some partially garbled lines from the poem about action and not being sure and how we’re always coming back to the mooring of starting out, and Dylan, mildly impressed at my recall, said “that’s the part he quotes!”

Indeed it is.  In the book, Ellenberg calls “Soonest Mended” “the greatest summation I know of the way uncertainty and revelation can mingle, without dissolving together, in the human mind.” After quoting the poem’s wonderful final passage, Ellenberg writes “For this is action, this not being sure!  It is a sentence I often repeat to myself like a mantra.”  Many people view uncertainty and ambivalence as markers of cowardice, moderation, or quietism, but for Ashbery “not being sure is the move of a strong person, not a weakling,” Ellenberg argues.  “It is, elsewhere in the poem, ‘a kind of fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.’  And math is part of it.”

Math?!  Part of an ethos that embraces ambiguity and skepticism? As a decidedly math-averse person — who sometimes views my son’s preternatural prowess with numbers as a bewildering, X-Men-like mutant power — I was very pleased to hear that our worldviews might be more aligned than one might think. “Math,” Ellenberg writes, “gives us a way of being unsure in a principled way; not just throwing up our hands and saying ‘huh,’ but rather making a firm assertion: ‘I’m not sure, this is why I’m not sure, and this is roughly how not-sure I am.’ Or even more: ‘I’m unsure, and you should be too.’”

In my book Beautiful Enemies, I talk about “Soonest Mended” too, reading it as a powerful example of Ashbery’s deep connection to American pragmatist philosophy and its skepticism of fixity and absolute truths.  I argue that the poem’s ending is “a potent statement of a particularly Ashberyean negative capability – the willingness to remain in doubt, uncommitted, unaligned with any and all communities.”  The “eloquent and complex turn towards action and change” at the end of the poem suggests that, for Ashbery, “continued movement and artistic and personal health” are associated “with uncertainty itself… This is action: not aggressive gestures or declarations, not screaming slogans from the barricades, but remaining unsure, forever loose and careless, which recalls Ashbery’s frequent equation of doubt with motion.”

I would never have associated the outlook I’ve just described with math, but I’m very glad Ellenberg did.  The idea also seemed to resonate with my son, this ninth-grader deeply fascinated by math, its applications in real life and its philosophical underpinnings.

What a pleasant surprise to find this great little discussion of poetry — and Ashbery’s masterpiece no less — in a book about mathematical thinking. Among other things, this passage, like Ellenberg’s book as a whole, is a great example of how writers and thinkers might bridge the pernicious STEM / humanities divide.  It certainly appealed to both my math-focused kid and to his poetry professor dad.

So thanks to Jordan Ellenberg, not only for writing such a cool book, but for providing this little moment of math vs. literature détente and unexpected father-son bonding.  And, of course, to Ashbery for writing “Soonest Mended,” one of the great hymns to uncertainty and the power to be found in not being sure.

 

Posted in John Ashbery | 3 Comments