Monday, February 8, 2016

“Of Dreams and Dogs and Jazz”: A Review of The Plays of Jon Lipsky, Volume Two

 edited by Bill Barclay and Jonah Lipsky (Hanover, NH: Smith and Kraus, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-57525-893-5

If the plays in Volume One of this collection are like a sprout bursting through the soil from a carefully cultivated seed, the four plays in Volume Two are the unfolding of a complex, beautiful patch of flowers, quite unlike each other, or any other, yet recognizable all the same.
I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to share my thoughts on what is now the third book containing the works and ideas of Jon Lipsky. His Dreaming Together: Explore Your Dreams by Acting Them Out (Larson Publications), has had a considerable impact on my theatre education and play-making career, and two of the four plays in Volume Two are directly related to Lipsky’s ground-breaking dreamwork.
The Introduction to this volume, written by Bill Barclay, provides answers to the questions of how Lipsky worked and why these four plays were chosen for this volume. I encourage you to read the introduction a few times before embarking on the journey of the first play, and to return to it before reading each of the others. The following quote sums up the editors’ intent and what this review will explore: “We hope through reading these plays and their introductions that Jon’s unique methods will inspire the artistically inclined reader to engage in similar voyages of their own. Whose story needs to be performed?” (24).
I have certainly been (re)inspired reading these two volumes of plays, and, in answer to the question posed, we ALL need our stories, if not performed, then told, which is the subject of my latest book in the field of theatre education and storytelling, and this is the lens through which I want to discuss the four plays in the volume, starting with Dreaming with an AIDS Patient, based on a book by Robert Bosnak, a world-renowned Jungian psychoanalyst and practitioner of dreamwork (I have had the pleasure to communicate with Dr. Bosnak on several occasions on the benefits of dreamwork in storytelling). Finding the universal in the ultra-personal has been a focus of my work for over a decade, and this play demonstrates its full effect. In the play, both Robert and his patient, Christopher, are played by the same actor, a decision that is out of the box and wholly apt, given the theory that all of our dream characters are aspects of ourselves. This play is full of unabashed truths about the depth of human feeling and having two actors play the main parts would have, I believe, created an unnatural boundary that would have prevented the seamless intertwining of doctor and patient that brings forth the vibrant resonance that the latent story holds. True to form, Lipsky creates a world where image and word are as seamless and re-enforcing in tandem as the play’s subjects. Humanity shines above all in this play; having developed and directed a play a few years ago with an HIV-positive actor, I have a personal sense of what is at work in Dreaming with an AIDS Patient, although any playwright, director, or actor will easily intuit the same after reading the script.
The next play in the collection is Call of the Wild (“A musical adaption of Jack London’s novels, Call of the Wild and White Fang”; written 1997; revised 2011). This is perhaps the most potent example of the derived work at which Lipsky excelled. According to the Foreword by Bill Barclay, the play began as a “class project at Boston University … devising a visceral adaptation.” Visceral, it is. Lipsky and his collaborators have captured the atmosphere, violence, and dark beauty of the lives of humans and dogs in London’s enduring novels. Like the plays in Volume One, Call of the Wild uses an ensemble of actors playing numerous roles, minimal props and costumes, and a tapestry of songs and sounds. The audience is “‘fresh meat’ just arrived to seek their fortunes.” The transformation of actors from dogs to humans is outlined in the ensemble notes and is very much a performance within the performance. If space allowed, I would examine the nuances of the language in the play (e.g., dog/God) and the way sound is used as a character, and the way repetition is used in the lyrics to build width and depth in the playing space that contains the actors, musicians, and audience, but I can only say, if you love theatre, read this play. And then read it again. It is, perhaps, the most purely powerful play in the collection.
Twice in my career I have had the opportunity to develop and direct the life stories of two individuals who portrayed themselves in the debut performances (and I am now writing a screenplay about a third). This is a unique form of storytelling with as many challenges as there are rewards. Coming Up for Air: An AutoJAZZography, conceived and performed by musician Stan Strickland and written by Jon Lipsky, is such a piece. In the introduction, Strickland notes that it was a three year process of conversation and note-taking on the beach on Martha’s Vineyard that brought the play to fruition. Anyone in the fields of storytelling and oral history will find a gold mine of technique and artistic choice-making awaiting them here. Strickland’s experiences and voice—as a person, as a musician—are so unique (the title refers to a near death experience he had in the waters off Hawaii), the ways that Lipsky worked with the text and structure to make them universal provide a roadmap for fellow travelers committed to bringing new stories (and perspectives!) to the world through theatre. Strickland and Lipsky collaborated to show us that everyone has their own rhythm and music—and finding and manifesting them for public performance holds a magic that the modern theatre often lacks.
The last play in this collection, The Wild Place, takes me back to the start of my journey through the processes and plays of Jon Lipsky. In Dreaming Together, he provided the roadmap for creating a work such as this one, which is based on a dream series by Susan Thompson (who was the co-author). Reinforcing a common theme among his collaborators, Thompson, in the Foreword, writes: “[Jon] encouraged performers to find stories within themselves” (301). Similar to the other dream plays in the collection, The Wild Place is deeply personal, taking as its source material dreams from a time when Thompson was “nursing her first child and pregnant with her second child” (Script Notes, 309). It is a moment in time, as the most moving stories are—constructed as a one-woman show with a supporting ensemble. Structurally similar while markedly different in their content and tone, Dreaming with an AIDS Patient and The Wild Place make a strong case for Lipsky’s methods of play creation. And his philosophy that the dreams are presented but not interpreted is one with which I agree. Especially when trying to make the uniquely personal wholly universal.
And that, to me, is what Jon Lipsky did best. Kudos to the editors of the two volumes for making his work available to storytellers throughout the world.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

“A More than Satisfying Sequel”: A Review of The Journal of Vincent du Maurier II, by K. P. Ambroziak

 (Published by the author, 2015). ISBN: 9781514788370

Sequels, as ubiquitous as they have become in novels, film, and in television (through spin-offs and multiple seasons), are difficult to do well. As evidenced by the critically panned second season of True Detective and the multitude of sophomore albums by bands who come out of the gates with a strong first album, much of the difficulty with a follow-up project has to do with the long gestation period that a first work undergoes. In some cases, it is the culmination of decades of thought and trial and error, which elicits a deep passion and commitment from the artist that translates to the audience. Another reason is the simple fact that sequels are often about the economics of a follow-up rather than the truth about whether or not the main character has sufficient untold story left for a sequel. Often times, the initial Act 3 change in the Hero’s Journey is so profound that further examination of the main character’s life is bound to be a letdown; to feel forced, leading to logic holes and absurd situations.
            I do not know the specifics of Ambroziak’s journey with the character of Vincent du Maurier—how long he gestated before being born into the first novel, or if the first and second books were developed concurrently—but it is no matter, because Ambroziak has made some very smart choices in her approach to the sequel. Although these choices bring to mind Anne Rice’s far-ranging vampire series, there is also a great deal that is unique.
            First and foremost, Ambroziak splits the narrative between Du Maurier and his most recent vampiric conversion, Evelina, whom he professes to love. Creating two such distinct voices is an impressive feat, and makes the sequel a very new experience. The narrative also begins near the end of the story, which adds mystery to the plot as it unfolds. Switching between the two narrators also gives us clues and insights from both perspectives, further richening the mix.
            This book is also different from its predecessor through its locales: while the first book took place as they traveled to different locations, book II takes place primarily on a ship. The use of a single, confined space creates an enhanced tension as Vincent and Evelina fight for survival and to unravel the mysteries before them.
            What remains amid all of the differences is a tight, well-paced narrative, an interesting array of characters (from a millennium-old Aztec warrior to a foul-talking human sea captain), and rich tapestries of history, language, and cultural reference. It is in this area that Ambroziak reminds me most of Anne Rice, although her characters are far less melancholy, while still being complex and emotional, struggling with their lost human form (and in many cases, humanity) and learning to make the most of the physiological and other improvements of their vampiric body.
Another area             where Ambroziak expands upon the tropes of the vampire genre is the characterization of the willing human donors who provide the blood supply for the vampires. Their motivations are examined to a greater degree than usual and I hope that in future installments of this series we get to hear the point of view of one of them.
Ambroziak also has a writing style that produces rich images such as these: “pull the frequencies into one lone buzz, like the synchronized hum of hornets in a hive, until the vampires’ growls and jeers, egging on the two warriors in the ring, faded, and all I heard was the drone of the sizzling air” (40).
At the very end of the book there is a reveal that opens new mysteries and cues for the reader the probability of another book in this engaging series. I for one was pleased to see that the adventures may very well continue.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Review of Savages: A Triptych, by Brendan Ball (Available from Amazon Kindle)

To begin, a definition: “Triptychs” are typically three-paneled paintings or a photograph series that explores a unified theme in different ways.
The triptych of this collection is three short stories: “Long Live the King,” “The Deposition,” and “Lunar Seas.” Thematically, there could be several broad-based connections between the three stories, as they each cover a range of human emotions and relationships. Other reviewers have put forth their own theories. To me, the triptych here is unified as Past, Present, and Future explorations of what is most “savage” (read primitive, archetypal, low-vibrational) in Humankind’s relationships to its dark secrets as they are expressed in both our codified, societal Myths and the ones we individually construct.
The cover design, by Keri Knutson, creates an initial unification of the stories by overlaying key elements from each on a macabre human skull. The chosen symbols could be used as a start, if the reader so chooses.
The first story, “Long Live the King,” opens with a quote from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a large volume of comparative religion published in 1890 that includes case studies on the world-wide phenomena of tribal kings being ritually killed when they began to show signs of weakness, physically or in the mind.  The story is written with a syntax that situates the reader firmly in the ancient world of ritual and myth, which makes for a challenging read (almost like trying to read the transcript of a dream-in-progress) but well worth the effort expended. 
Frazer’s book also examined rites of passage, which is another unifying element across this triptych.
My biggest takeaway from “Long Live the King” is the idea that the kings of old were all too human in their signing on, knowing the cost, and then resisting the contract to be killed as the time drew near. It’s all too rare that this aspect of these tribal conditions is explored; the only other instance that comes to mind is an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, from the mid-1970s, in an episode guest-starring Eric Estrada.
The second story, “The Deposition,” is a fun read in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, where Hell is situated as a bureaucratic nightmare where managers and case workers struggle to win souls of humans that are just clever enough to sometimes win. Ball’s story focuses on connection through the dream state, where various strategies are employed to keep the Dreamer from realizing it is a dream, or waking up. The story drips with the boredom and frustration of the average worker inherent in so much British writing and music, from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to The Police song “Synchronicity II.”
The third story, set in the Future, is a dystopian tale of an off-Earth colony where education, relationships, and even one’s inclinations toward free thought are carefully controlled by an oligarchy of corporate/government interests even more intertwined than they are today. A little bit 1984, the film Equilibrium, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and Rush’s 2112 concept album, this story evoked the clearest visual imagery for me. It is the stuff of which good film adaptations are made. It has elements of romance, rebellion, and a terrible aloneness made manifest in the main character. This is also the longest of the three stories, taking up half the book.
As I have processed the stories, and further thought about the idea of the triptych, I have come to realize that the stories function like Russian nesting dolls, which accounts for them getting larger as they progress, because the Future contains the Past and the Present and the Present contains the Past, while the Past itself sits alone and often disconnected, distanced from us through its archaic language and rituals.
Which is, of course, not the case at all, as this collection shows.
In Savages, Ball has accomplished a great deal in its forty or so pages, not the least of which is showcasing his ability to write in a wide range of voices, each particularly suited to the position of Past/Present/Future and the needed tonal weight of the tale being told.

If you consider each story carefully on its own, and then together as the triptych, you will find that, in all of the desperate darkness in which the characters of the stories reside, there is a speck of light, which, when followed deeply enough,   becomes Hope.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Review of non-zero-sum, by Jack Galmitz

 (Impress 2015)
By Joey Madia
As Founding Editor of, which hosts pages for seventy authors and artists from around the world, I have the opportunity to give the creators of innovative and thought-provoking poetry a forum for their work.
In cultivating the e-publisher/author relationship, I am sometimes asked to review additional work by an author. In the case of Jack Galmitz, in 2014 I reviewed three of his chapbooks—Objects, Yellow Light, and A Semblance. During the course of our correspondence, Galmitz wrote that his poetry is based on “the indeterminacy created by ambiguity—sometimes two words that are joined together when left alone on the page makes one realize there are many ways to take them and this leaves doubt and makes one look and be aware of what is there and this is the purpose I think of art.”
This philosophy brings to mind some of my current favorites in the poetry world—Heller Levinson and Eileen Tabios. They share Galmitz’s ability to create works that require the reader in relationship for them to reach full bloom. One cannot read their poems, nor review them, in a traditional way.
This is especially true after reading Galmitz’s recent chapbook, non-zero-sum, which consists of a few dozen poems, all three lines each, in a 33-page pdf, a total  that includes three blank pages at the end. The book can be “read” in 15 minutes or less—or you can spend hours with it, over time, mining the riches that the brevity and imagery provide. This is what I suggest. Making an interpretation of the title and the blank pages, one might say that non-zero-sum indicates a crucial dependence on outside factors, such as the contributions made by the reader to the process.
Following on from this interpretation, I have chosen half a dozen of the poems to reprint here. After each, I share what I took from them in the way of interpretation and, more importantly, personal inspiration. Like a Buddhist koan or a sutra—or our dreams—what we take from them is unique to the individual experiencing them.
“The room full
of cardboard boxes

I take this as the collection itself, the room being the book. The poems are the cardboard boxes, left empty to be filled with what the reader chooses to put in them.

“While they're in the air
listen to the leaves falling

Of all of the pieces in this collection, this one operates most like a Buddhist koan or a sutra, similar to, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There is no right or wrong answer—simply engage your senses on the imagery of the leaves… how do they look? How do they sound? You could spend a great deal of time with just this poem.

“A mushroom cloud
rising in the distance
iphones steady”

A commentary on the ubiquity of cameras in modern life, this poem, to me, also signifies that getting the “shot”—be it still or video—for your Instagram, Facebook, Vine, or Snapchat—is the motivating factor of the moment, not the larger historical/sociopolitical implications of what you are witnessing. The word “steady” is key to me. A major nuclear event happens right in front of modern Techno sapien, and our subject remains unpanicked. As I share in my interactive bullying education and prevention workshops, so much of what our teenagers see is through the frame of a computer, ipad, or phone… and that makes everything look like TV and film, which leads to a dangerous disengagement.

“A glass vase
holds a warped table
& a white rose”

I chose this poem for a few reasons, the first being that it requires the reader to place trust in the craftsmanship and specificity of the poet. Each word was chosen with intent, just as each seemingly random drip and splatter of a Jackson Pollock painting is intentional, or made to be so through further intention.

What is the visual image of a vase holding a table? A warped table, at that? What might it mean? The limitations of physics take us from the literal into the metaphorical. The symbolism of the white rose adds an additional dimension. This three-line, 10-words-and-an-ampersand poem holds limitless possibilities for contemplation, a story prompt, or the raw material for a visual expression through a painting or picture.

“Every Sunday
at the sea
there’s a sermon”

Having grown up at the Jersey shore and lived near the ocean in Maine and also currently in North Carolina, I have known many fishermen and have read more than my share of Conrad, Melville, and Hemingway, so this poem speaks to me of the sea and the hard, dangerous life of those that ply their trade on its treacherous waters, and the role of Faith, Belief, and Prayer in the lore of their lives. And I have also seen enough sunsets and storms upon the water to know that the sea itself  provides its own transcending sermon in the prayer of water and wind.

“At the rectory
under the bare bulb
two men shooting up”

This one resonates like a scene from film noir. It contains point/counterpoint, and could almost be considered what is now called “flash fiction,” an example of which is Hemingway’s “For sale, baby’s shoes, never worn.”

Galmitz’s poetry is provocative through its efficiency, reminding us all of the power of words. In an age of 140-character “tweets” he reminds us that a small number of words need not be mundane nor meaningless.

Monday, December 14, 2015

“Yesterday’s Voices Today”: A Review of The Plays of Jon Lipsky, Volume One, edited by Bill Barclay and Jonah Lipsky

 (Hanover, NH: Smith and Kraus, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-57525-892-8
I still remember the day, seven years ago, returning to my secluded three acres in West Virginia from a meeting with my theatre company in New Jersey, to find a package from Larson Publications. Inside was a note, and a copy of Jon Lipsky’s Dreaming Together: Explore Your Dreams by Acting Them Out, which I promptly read and reviewed. It has never remained on the shelf for any appreciable length of time. I go to it time and time again.
Jon Lipsky passed away some months later, before we could talk. It was not until many years later, in speaking with the publisher, that I found out that Professor Lipsky had specifically requested that I receive a copy of his book for review.
Perhaps it was the name of my theatre company at the time, New Mystics, or my work with a few theatre companies that used dreams to create plays, that led to my name being placed on the potential reviewers list. Like dreams themselves, how it came to be will, in some aspects, forever remain a mystery.
It was half a year ago that I received word that Jon’s son was co-editing a two-volume collection of his father’s plays. I promptly contacted him, including a copy of my review of Dreaming Together and waited in anticipation for the collection to be released.
This review covers Volume One. I Intend to read and review Volume Two this Winter.
It is clear that the editors have assembled this collection as both a labor of love and with a clear mission to promote Jon Lipsky’s work outside of the relatively small world in which he lived and created for most of his life—Boston and Martha’s Vineyard. Through the Preface and Acknowledgments, the Biography section, and the introductions that preface each of the four plays in the first volume, one can learn a great deal about Professor Lipsky’s life, training, his highly collaborative way of creating theatre, and why he wrote the plays he did. This is essential reading to fully appreciate all that went into these works. Each play is also prefaced by a production history.
The first play in the collection, Living in Exile: A Retelling of the Iliad (1981, revised 2011), includes an Author’s Preface, wherein Lipsky tells us that the “purpose [of this adaptation] is not to modernize Homer’s text, but to tell a war story.” Lipsky succeeds so well that every young man or woman thinking of enlisting in the Armed Forces should be required to experience this play right before sitting down with the recruiter. In several of my own books and plays I present the truths of war that lay beyond the myths of pageantry and stories of heroism that invite the unaware through the prism of Spectacle into a world of all too much Reality. Living in Exile denies Spectacle, and does so in a presentational way that calls to mind the tenets of Brecht, although without so much Alienation effect.
In fact, Living in Exile was designed to be performed intimately, in living rooms. The cast, like the other plays in this volume, play numerous parts and use props, costumes, sound, and music to produce a great deal of theatricality by marrying these familiar devices with the artistry of voice, tableau, and the powerful words of the playwright.
War is war. This becomes shockingly clear if one were to overlay the change in mindset of the soldiers from the Iliad to, say, the Vietnam War, or the very war in the Middle East that the world grapples with today (indeed, the play being written in 1981 and revised 10 years after the events of September 11, 2001, indicates that this is precisely Lipsky’s process). As the narrator tells us, by the eighth year of the war, “Fragging became a rite of passage. Self-mutilation became a source of glory. Suicide, though despised, was commonplace.”
Are you aware of The 22 Project? It is named for the fact that 22 American veterans commit suicide every day. I recently helped with an event they co-hosted, in conjunction with the VFW at which my father is Senior Vice Commander. Reading Living in Exile was often hard for me after that experience and I cannot help but think that productions of the play in conjunction with such events would open a dialogue too many Americans are unwilling to have.
Lipsky navigates honoring the classic with inserting the modern with a considerable amount of skill. He uses the universal ageless gem of sex to his advantage, and when he drops in a word like “dude” it does not feel out of place. He also dances rhythmically, flawlessly, between the macro of War and the micro of the deep personal wounds and self-reflections of those who wage it. History often sacrifices the second for the first, making plays like this essential.
In the end, it is the micro that prevails. The narrator reminds us that “This is the way the Iliad ends. Begun in anger, completed in compassion,” referring to Achilles giving King Priam the time he needs to properly bury his son Hector.
In the midst of the devastating terror attacks in France and in San Bernardino, CA and the mounting hatred of Muslims, regardless of their individual beliefs, I wonder if any such compassion will be at play when this long war finally ends.
The next play in the collection is called Walking the Volcano: A Short Play Progression (1991–2009). From the note on the script: “The eight ‘inventions’ … are variations on a theme. … we are looking in on a kind of relationship endemic to the generation that came of age in the sixties … from the moment of falling in love to the last goodbye” (p. 124). In an age where 10-minute plays are all the rage, Walking the Volcano serves as both a starter piece for theatre companies wanting to explore this aspect of theatre and a model for more deeply linking 10-minute pieces in more innovative ways than the broadly thematic one typically seen. The pieces that make up Walking the Volcano are edgy and hard-hitting—perfect for classroom use for advanced actors and directors.
My favorite play in the collection is Beginner’s Luck: A play based on the story of King Saul in the Bible (1977). As indicated by the title of this review, Lipsky had the ability to take the classical stories of antiquity and bring them to contemporary audiences with the lava of their core themes bubbling with intensity. Although not staged specifically for a living room, intimacy is as key here as in Living in Exile; the Act One opening notes suggest: “The audience should feel that a group of people have sat down with them on a hill to tell them a story.” Here we have the fundamental origins, purpose, and power of theatre, divorced from the spectacle that Peter Brook called the Deadly Theatre, which has all but destroyed the modern mainstream theatre experience. Beginner’s Luck uses its poetics and music to full effect, taking this biblical story of Saul, Samuel, Ruth, and David and situating it in the clanking machine of political intrigue and ever-shifting alliances. Beginner’s Luck at times has a Pippin-esque feel, with witty exchanges and an underlying current of the power–sexuality dyad. It is a play that requires actors who have trained their bodies, voices, and storytelling ability with equal dedication, for they truly are the fuel that makes this articulate, high-energy engine go.
The last play in the collection is Maggie’s Riff: A bebop turn on Jack Kerouac’s true life hometown teenage romance Maggie Cassidy (1994). Those who love the nexus of fact and legend that is Kerouac and his Beat comrades will enjoy Lipsky’s take on this dreamlike space. Bringing to mind other interpretative pieces that operate between myth and biography, such as Oliver Stone’s film The Doors, Maggie’s Riff gives us layers of interpretation: Kerouac’s, the playwright’s, and, ultimately, the reader/watcher’s. Benefiting from Lipsky’s masterful incorporation of sound and music, and the assigning of multiple roles to a single actor, Maggie’s Riff shows the heartache and darkness behind the sexy legends of the Duluoz/Lowell and big city years that all fans of this group of tortured geniuses ultimately arrive at sometime after their initial all-out love of drunken anarchy in On the Road.
The Plays of Jon Lipsky, Volume One is a master’s class in not only playwriting, but of making the classic contemporary and working with actors and directors and audiences to bring storytelling back to its central place in human communication and community. I look forward to reading and reviewing Volume Two.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Time Travel Made Easy: A Review of Smoky Zeidel’s The Cabin

(Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2015), ISBN: 13  978-0-9963884-3-6

As I have made the journey from reader, to writer, to student, to professional writer, to teacher of workshops and writing classes, and then to book reviewer, I have come to believe that there are three kinds of (proficient, “talented”) writers at work in the world.
First, there are the Storytellers. People like Hemingway, that come from the gut, who go fearlessly into the vortexing dream-space of human experience to capture something in the net of their creating, who can spin a captivating yarn without too much verbal or plot complexity but plenty of power and resonance. Then there are the Technicians—those who inherently and through 10,000 hours of practice, understand and apply structure, word choice, syntax, and suspense… who “do the task of writing” at a high level.
The third type of writer is the one who is smart enough, dedicated enough, and capable enough to know that, despite the fact that Storytellers and Technicians can both sell a lot of books and equally move an audience—that the true Golden Ring of what we do as writers is to meet at the stormy nexus of BOTH of these strengths.
These, to me, are the writers worth reading. The writers who, when they produce something new, lead us to drop everything, get a firm hold of their book or e-file, and carve out ample time to dive deeply beneath the waters of their words for as long as the capacity of our mental lungs to hold our breath allows.
Smoky Zeidel, over the past four years, has become one of these writers for me.
I was able to take a little more time than usual in the opening of this review because I cannot tell you much about the story told in The Cabin. Or, more accurately, I choose not to. Because almost anything I would tell beyond the broad strokes in the next paragraph would ruin your experience. Muddy the waters into which you have to dive. And it’s harder to hold your breath with the silt of story give-aways floating about.
I can tell you that The Cabin’s characters are primarily a family who has lived in the same geographical area—the Allegheny Mountains of (West) Virginia for many generations—who have seen the best and worst of humankind through the American Civil War, slavery, and the changes that came with the new century. I can tell you that the story involves fairy stones, and the Power of Belief to defy all temporal–spatial barriers. And I can tell you that it involves, as my title gives away, Time Travel.
What I should have named the review is “Time Travel Made (to Look) Easy,” although that does not exactly roll off the tongue, which would be a particular disservice to Zeidel, because she truly is a Technician: her sentences move like the rivers and winds she often writes about in her poetry and prose. And I say that it is Made (to Look) Easy because, true to her strengths as a Technician, the complex plot, moving as it does between time and space, never carries the thornier burdens of that trope, as it often does with the stories told by, for instance, J. J. Abrams or James Cameron (each of whom are masterful Storyteller-Technicians). I think that is because, in The Cabin, it is not science fiction; it not a clever device employed for jazzy storytelling. It is an inherent, crucial part of the tale Zeidel tells, and, like the audience who brings Tinkerbell back to life in stagings of Peter Pan through the Power of Belief,  we as readers must contribute to making the magic happen. Yes, of course, it ends how it ends, but how much we invest is up to us.
I invested deeply, which speaks to Zeidel’s ability as a Storyteller. She blends her thorough, far-ranging research (once again, the Technician) with exquisitely drawn characters, a beautiful way of describing geography, and a knack for bleeding things down to core emotional values that puts her writing on a mythological level. I felt it in The Storyteller’s Bracelet, in her recent book of poetry, and here in The Cabin. You cannot teach that. It begins as a natural gift, coupled with tens of thousands of hours with pen in hand or fingers on a keyboard.
In a world where jazzy tropes like CGI and gravity-defying fights are the new standard for what passes as storytelling, books like The Cabin and writers like Smoky Zeidel remind us that there is much, much more, if only we know where to look.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

“Introductions to Infinity”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’s Invent[st]ory: Selected Catalog Poems & New (1996–2015)

 (Loveland, OH: Dos Madres Press, 2015), ISBN: 978-1-939929-36-5

The arrival of a new Eileen Tabios book has become no less than an Event for me. Not only is it inspiring to see what new forms and source material this award-winning and prolific poet and editor is working with and drawing from, but it inevitably leads to my own experimentation with whatever creative works I am bringing to life at the time. Tabios is very much a writer’s writer, and one of the leading poet-practitioners in the realm of how to make the reader participatory with the experience. In essence, Tabios is such a writer’s writer that she wants everyone to be, if not a writer, than certainly an active author of their own experience and engagement. This is an aspiration that is beyond resonant with me as an artist, mentor, and storyteller.

When Invent[st]ory: Selected Catalog Poems & New (1996–2015) arrived I was particularly enthused, as I have not read/reviewed anything of Tabios’s prior to 2010.

For this reason, I will concentrate on works from Tabios’s early years, beginning with 1996, where, in the very first poem, I read the line “your finger trailing the ragged seam of my stretchmark.” Having read Tabios’s more political work, stemming from issues of Filipino nationalism and diaspora, the condition of the orphan, and gender transformation, among other elevated topics, I found this line a reminder that all art, no matter its purpose, must be personal and evocative. It must paint with words—words chosen with the utmost care and discernment.

An early experimentation of Tabios’s that defines her relationship to the reader that I found fascinating is from 2003, when she published There, Where the Pages Would End, which is a series of “footnote poems.”  The idea was to have one of the poems at the bottom of an otherwise blank page so that the reader could create the story that would generate the footnote. I encourage the reader to do so. For writing teachers, or writers looking for exercises to sharpen their skills, this is powerful practice. In general, there is a considerable portion of Invent[st]ory that could be used to structure a series of workshops or to engage a class of writers with the endless possibilities for our craft that are left beyond the margins when we teach a static poem on the page and ask them to merely imitate.

As I mentioned earlier, much (though not all) of Tabios’s work is closely tied to her Filipino identity and the experiences that have shaped her life through that lens. A piece of her 2005 collection Post Bling Bling is “Letters from the Balikbayan Box,” which evolved from a question that Tabios posted on a Filipino Listserv about the items that those living outside the Philippines put in care packages that they send back home to relatives and friends. The answers become “list poems,” demonstrating yet another way that raw material can be (re)constituted as poetry, while also driving/sustaining a rich discourse. As an Italian American away at college, the times of year when I received a box of goodies and necessary items from one of my grandmothers was quite the event, both for myself and my hall-mates—especially when one of the items was a tin of homemade cookies—and this section got me thinking about ways that I could use this exercise to further explore this family practice, especially given that my wife now does the same for our sons now that they’re living on their own.

Another collection that invited reader participation is 2006’s The Secret Lives of Punctuation, Vol. 1, which features a series of poems where each line is preceded by a semi-colon; an example: “; mistaking science for ‘bathroom graffiti.’” It occurred to me, as I was going through this section of the book, that what truly differentiates Tabios’s approach to poetics is that, while most modern poetry invites us only into the spaces in between the poem’s lines (because, as we know, some poets do not invite us into open spaces at all; they categorically deny them), in her work, the spaces are all around: above, as with the footnote poems, and to the left with the ones using a semi-colon.

One of my favorite sections in this volume is from a 2007 collection called SILENCES: The Autobiography of Loss. It deals with Garbage: lists of the contents of a pile of garbage! Here we see the whimsical and the very real married in a thought-provoking way. The list poems cover December 23 through January 1, when curbs and dumpsters fill to overflowing with the detritus of the Holiday season. What a commentary! And it builds, as so much of Tabios’s work does, from scholarship she’s read, her compulsion toward expression on her Blog or in a Listserv, the poems themselves, and feedback from commentators and readers through the process.

And, in this case, all stemming from garbage. Food for thought.

The last selection I’d like to mention, entitled “What Can a Daughter Say?” from a 2007 collection, could occupy the space of an entire review in and of itself. Combining sobering statistics and a heart-rending list of atrocities committed by the world’s most vicious dictators, this poem examines identity—broadly and the familial—through the lens of the legacy of Ferdinand Marcos. If I could recommend any of Tabios’s works to a newcomer, this would be it.

Invent[st]ory, in closing, is a time-capsule of innovation, passion, and skill. Whether for your personal collection or a writers’ group, the riches to be mined are as endless as the possibilities emerging from Tabios herself.