11 January 2010

Ekphrasis Report #2

There have been two meetings of Ekphrasis since I last reported; I’ll report on the earlier one here.

The December meeting of Ekphrasis was not as successful as others have been in the past, primarily because of the setting. I love Starbucks, but I hope that’s the last time I have to try to coordinate eight people listening to poetry and short stories over the sound of the latte whirling machines, canned Holiday music, and clamorous Christmas shoppers stopping in for something hot. We were crouched over two of those little round tables, leaning in, trying to hear one another, trying to remain polite over interruptions by random acquaintances dropping by for coffee and children of members dropping by for money, trying to maneuvre the inevitable generation gap created by the (at least) 40-year age span represented in our group. Furthermore, no one from the Master’s Academy was able to attend, due to a performance of Little Women in which most of them were involved—and MAFA people always add humour and quality work. However, there was still some good work shared, and I’ll talk about it a little here.

DM and ES did not bring physical work to share; instead, they spent time talking about a movie they are currently filming. DM is doing story-boarding for the film (for which his brother wrote the script); ES is playing the female lead. I asked as much as I could in the short time about what film acting is like compared to stage acting: you don’t go through the story in order, you do multiple takes of one scene, you’re not necessarily surrounded by the people and objects to which your character is responding. In other words, I suppose, it take much more acting! Stage actors have the opportunity to be immersed in the character. Except for the time spent backstage (which I suppose could be as disorienting as filming out of order), you are that character, and enact certain scenes in her life in real time. ES has done both, and said she really likes film acting. I asked about memorizing lines; for this particular film, the director said DON’T memorize; he wants them to get a general idea of what is to happen in each scene, then improvise in their own style of speech, for an impression of realism. So that’s one huge difference between this kind of film and, say, filming a Shakespeare play or a Jane Austen novel. There are some awful moments in making a movie, though. One night, it was below freezing, and they were filming an outdoor scene. ES’s character was, at that moment, lying on the pavement (wounded, I believe, by zombies?). So ES spent AGES lying on the freezing pavement while they did take after take. Her hands were freezing, so someone lent her his gloves in between takes. The only problem with that was that she had to wear makeup on her hand—the characters hands were filthy at that point. So every time she took the gloves off, off came the makeup inside the gloves, and the makeup artists had to swoop in again and redo her hands. Meanwhile, she’s still stretched out on the freezing pavement! Yikes. Ah, the pains we suffer for art.

If you have ever been in a film, maybe you can share some of your experiences here, and especially what makes it different from stage acting (and which you prefer).

MD attended for the first time, and she brought a new genre to our attention: children’s literature. She has begun writing children’s books on several levels. What she shared to us that evening was a selection from a book for a very young child, and she intends for it to be part of a series. This one was set on the sea shore, and she hopes to write ones responding to other geographical features: the desert, the forest. She dedicated and sent it to her first grandchild, so it had a personal motivation. That’s good: her audience was perfectly clear in her mind, and so was the narrative persona, because she intentionally wrote it in her own voice, rather than trying to take on some other tone. This book lead us into two discussions. The first was about how to teach information without being didactic. There were places in which she wrote, “These are called such-and-such” or “This is what we call the so-and-so.” We encouraged her to simply work the terms into the narrative, because since a little child is learning everything for the first time, no one term needs to be taught in a specific teaching context (in that kind of book). We suggested just working those words smoothly into the prose as a whole. The second discussion was based on the premise that a good children’s book can be enjoyed by any age, and a book that is for children only really isn’t good for anyone. On that basis, we encouraged her to seek ways of crafting and structuring the prose. She already had repetition; we suggested meter, or closer attention to consonance, and a keener eye to the prose itself. In other words, we didn’t want anything to be sloppy, cheesy, or inattentive just because it’s for a kid-reader.

If you are a writer of children’s literature, maybe you can add your thoughts here. Or just as a sensitive reader: what is it about a really great kid’s book that makes you want to reread it when you’re 10, 20, 40, 70?

JM shared a poem he’s working on that was a parody of the Lord’s Prayer. While moments of it (and the whole idea) put me in mind of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” this was not a rip-off of Eliot. It was distinctive. It was a much closer parody, too, very cleverly changing just a word or phrase here and there from the original Prayer—which actually had a more devastating effect than a whole new poem made to critique the Prayer would have had. It was a very honest poem about the author’s anger and struggles with faith, too. That of course ties in to what I always encourage: spiritual honesty. I don’t want sunshine and roses if you haven’t got any sunshine and roses. As a matter of fact, the sunshine and roses are probably better left for the greeting card industry, because it’s only on birthdays that we really get those in unstinting measure. The rest of the time mud and acid rain are more appropriate. At least, that’s my experience.

But I’m going to talk later about how far one can go and still be a creator of “Christian” art—or even a Christian making art. Surely there must be a line, beyond which too much profanity, or heresy, or pornography, disqualifies one from membership in the roll of “Christian artists”?

JL next shared the very beginning of a work of modern apologetics he wants to do. He felt troubled by the lack of belief in the world and wanted to do some kind of contemporary C. S. Lewis sort of thing. So he started writing a book—a play? a novel?—a kind of dialogue in which a young skeptic was dating a Christian girl, and the two were going to have serious debates about the guy’s objections to Christianity. A great premise. I suggested that JL read the works of Peter Kreeft, who has written several pieces that he calls “Socratic dialogues” in which characters, historical or fictional, meet and debate religious topics. Now, I warned JL against using Kreeft’s prose as a model; his prose is extremely clumsy and elementary. And then, come to think of it, so are his logic, characterization, and conclusions. He really takes the easy cheesy way out, by making his Christian characters smarter than his atheists, until the non-Christians are no more than straw men. And the prose is so bad that it makes me sick at my stomach. So, we really just wanted JL to take a look at these books to see what has been done recently. But there was a more fundamental discussion that went on. JL was planning to use, in his book, questions that we’re pretty sure are out of date: very Medieval, esoteric queries with no connection to “real life” or to today’s young people. JL is a teacher of both high school and college English. So first we suggested that he listen to the questions they are asking. We told him that today’s young person is not at all concerned with the types of questions he had in mind, and not really even with the classic, “If God exists, why is the world such a mess?” Really, we’re way beyond even that. Beyond good and evil, to use Nietzsche’s phrase. In order to know that the world is messed up, you have to have a standard of what it would mean to NOT be messed up. And perhaps the average Joe has that. But not the average academic, in which I include college students and the more informed and intelligent high school students. It’s not about that anymore. It’s not about right and wrong. It’s not about God’s existence or nonexistence. It’s not about binaries. We have absorbed Deconstruction, and moved on. JM suggested that JL might get more of an idea if he read some Eastern stuff, mysticism and so forth, perhaps starting with the poet Rumi.

But then JM had an even better idea. Don’t speculate what questions other might be asking. Don’t even poll them to find out what they’re asking. Instead (the old, tried-and-true adage), write what you know. Imagine what questions you’d be asking if you were a skeptic or an out-and-out atheist. Look deep inside and find your own personal demons. JL liked that. And he can do that, I know. He’s done a bit of that in his first novel. Whatever those problems are, the inability to really believe, the sense of isolation in the universe, the sick terror of eternity, or whatever else, they’ll be universal and timeless. Great suggestion.

Then CG shared a poem with us. She is planning to apply to an MFA program soon, and so brings a poem for good critique and workshopping each time. This poem was one of my favorites of all those she’s shared. It was “about” gardening and her grandmother, but it took a neat approach. It began with large language, using a larger, more important issue (orphans, needy children) as metaphor for something smaller (flowers, tomato plants). I liked that. I was very glad that it wasn’t the other way around (using the plants as metaphor for children), because that would have been cliché. This way was better. And there were some great descriptive moments, some powerful sounds and images. Very nice!

At the end, when we were whittled down to a smaller group (most of the “grown-ups” besides myself having left early for their family obligations), I shared my article about three modes of writing one’s theology. The group made some suggestions, most of which I was able to incorporate before it was published. I also shared a parody of one of my own poems, which I’d written for DM—about zombies. ;)

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