28 June 2010

Interview with Stan Badgett

This is the fourteenth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with Stan Badgett
via email
May 12, 2010

This interview is a nice break from the usual question-and-answer format. Instead, Stan took his answers to the questions and wove them into a smooth, reflective essay-style answer. Enjoy!

I’m a muralist working in alkyd enamels and have several murals in the Aspen area. I taught at a Christian school for a dozen years—everything from Bible to art, history, literature, and outdoor survival. Currently I teach English composition at Colorado Mountain College as well as a weekly art class for home school children. I have a BA in Fine Arts and an MA in Language and Communication from Regis University.

I’ve just completed a memoir about growing up in the West and working in the coal mines. My essays and poems have been published in various literary journals. I’m interested in forms and the breaking of forms—I take a playful attitude toward the creative process. At the moment prose poetry intrigues me—the accrual of lines without line breaks—creating a surreal narrative with its own rules and logic. Maybe I’ll spend the rest of my life writing a long prose poem and making prints to illustrate it. I’m fascinated by the interaction of visual images and text.

When it comes to influences, I’m not that picky. A Milky Way of poets, essayists, memoirists, artists, musicians, philosophers, and critics have saturated my psyche, and they’re now so blended that no one school predominates. If anything, I favor improvisation, which isn’t a school, but propels art forward from one horizon to the next. I really dig Gerry Mulligan’s saxophone playing, where every line is unpredictable, and the quirkiness of Marianne Moore’s poetry.

I’d characterize our culture by saying that it is loud, monotonous, and rude. Fornication is its chief cornerstone. It is deeply suspicious of reason. Everyone is expected to march in lockstep to its rhythm. For all our vaunted eclecticism, the cumulative effect of much of the arts is a dreary uniformity. We have no use for truth. We believe in the growl more than the veracity. Humdrum. Cursing for its own sake—as if it had intrinsic value. The movie theater experience is often clunky, grotesque, exaggerated, insipid. Howbeit, moments of loveliness emerge like lily pads on a scummy pond. When you least expect it, something beautiful floats to the surface, like a scintillating still life by Janet Fish, or a stunningly cerebral super-realist painting by Richard Estes. A real positive feature of current culture is the impulse toward democratization of communications media: people producing their own blogs, graphic art, books, and movies without the stifling interference of elite gatekeepers.

As to how we Christians fit in, I like what Jerzy Popieluszko said: “A Christian must be a sign of contradiction in the world.” On that note, Athanasius is one of my heroes, along with other stalwart resistors such as Martin Luther and Frederick Douglass. I’m partial to Ezra Pound who was at war with the world, and find myself becoming more and more absorbed by John Milton, who took the traditional forms of his day and turned them to radically different use, like Benaiah, the mighty man of David, who plucked the spear out of the Egyptian’s hand and slew him with it. My artistic heroes are those who, at great personal cost have resisted tyranny, such as Irina Ratushinskaya, a Christian poet who served time in a Soviet prison camp for the sake of her Savior and her art.

It’s hard to tell where we’re going. But human nature being what it is, it doesn’t seem likely that we will either transcend ourselves or become something less than human. Of course, we’re always dreaming of some kind of paradigmatic triumph—for example, sloughing off the need for war—but we’re doomed to disappointment. Just as a leopard cannot change its spots, we can’t shed our natural skin. On the other hand, since we are made in the image of God, something restless in us will impel us toward beauty, truth, and justice, and thus to artistic expressions that are worthwhile.

22 June 2010

C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" headed for the big screen

This should be one to watch for. Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for bringing it to my attention.

Producers wed for 'Divorce' fantasy

21 June 2010

Interview with Audell Shelburne

This is the thirteenth interview of the ”Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Please leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with
D. Audell Shelburne
via email
1 May 2010

IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student? Please talk about yourself as an “artist,” student of the arts, and teacher of the arts.

DAS: I am a professor of English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a small school in central Texas. My training and education positioned me to teach early modern British literature, particularly Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and so on, but I have been a generalist for most of my career, teaching rhetoric, early and late British literature, and some American literature. As the chair of the department for eight years, I usually taught courses that needed an instructor, whatever they happened to be. Then, about a decade ago, I inherited additional tasks, editing Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and directing the annual Writers’ Festival. At that point, I decided I needed to understand more about contemporary poetry, and I started attending festivals and workshops. I started focusing some of my energy on writing poetry and figuring out how to make a poem work. I guess I have succeeded to some extent because this April I was honored to be the judge of the Austin International Poetry Festival anthology, Di-verse-city.

I have also written many poems, but I am slow to send them out because I feel that I am still developing as a poet. Still, I have had some successes in the past five years. I have placed poems in some good journals, such as descant and Borderlands. I have placed others in smaller venues, and have done readings at various festivals and conferences. As a poet, I tend to start with a good line or a good image. I let that drive the poem wherever it should go. I like word play and intelligent language. I try to create poems that engage the reader in some conflict, perhaps a story, a character, an image, a paradox, or whatever. I once was working with a poet who rather arrogantly said something like “I’m not above having my poem mean nothing.” I want my poems to mean something. I want them to prompt thoughts and evoke feelings and stir up something in the reader.

Note by IA: Here is one of Audell's poems:

Ab Ovo
Easter 2009
He lived for Friday,
knew Saturday
might never come,
prayed it wouldn’t
but understood
the crux of the matter.
When darkness fell
and earth quivered
who knew finished
meant just beginning?

As a teacher of poetry, I often teach the introductory sections of literature. My students typically hate literature, but especially poetry, when they begin the course. They commonly talk about the dreaded high school teacher or class that turned them off the whole enterprise. They often speak with disdain about the waste of effort and time. Most of them regard it as an unnecessary evil in the world of education, and would readily deny it any standing in the so-called real world outside the university. In other words, they unwittingly parrot the major complaints of the Puritans in Sidney’s Defense of Poesy. And I try to counter those complaints and charges with experience, teaching them fun, challenging, difficult, exciting, dangerous, and wonderful poems. I show them clips of the Favorite Poem Project, helping them meet real people who value poetry and find meaning in it. I show them my poems and encourage them to write their own. I have them imitate poems that they like, parody them, expand or extend them in new ways. I have them analyze and explain them. Some gain an appreciation. A few fall in love. Most seem unchanged by the experience for now.

But I don’t blame my students. Their responses are reflections of our world and our society. Hard times of war, terror, and economic collapses have prompted legislators and administrators alike to fall back on their typical strategies, cutting classes, expanding class sizes, reducing budgets, finding “financial exigencies” to justify their disdainful policies in spite of all the studies and research that shows how essential arts and letters are for real education to occur. Even when their prized empirical data shows them people [who study humanities] become better at business, law, medicine, or whatever, they find it too easy to cut the costs in humanities and arts. Even when the income journals and spreadsheets can demonstrate that humanities and arts are self-sustaining in the university, the time-honored tradition of subsidizing the fancy science gadgets and pretending that football earns money (which it only does at a handful of institutions) continues. So it isn’t terribly surprising that a student wouldn’t find value in a poem. Our society rarely does so.

Still, some do. Still, we must do so. As a poet and as a teacher, I do my best to help people discover the joys and values and meanings that stem from poetry and the poetic experience.

And it isn’t entirely hopeless. I enjoyed participating in the Austin International Poetry Festival last week. Several hundred poets came to Austin to read from their work during a four-day period. The readings went through the day and late into the night at multiple venues across the city.

It was fun and exciting to see the interest.

IA: What topics tend to recur in your work?

DAS: I am a pretty typical poet: I tend to write a lot about death, love, and relationships. I suppose I’m a Romantic in most ways, using life experiences and transforming them into an aesthetic effort. Even the most autobiographical of my poems, however, undergo some radical transformation as they take shape on the page. I’m perfectly happy to change, for instance, the color of my child’s eyes in a poem if the poem needs me to do so. When I’m writing, I’m after a poem and some truth, not a photographic historical accuracy. I’ve been told that my poems are often witty or clever. People usually intend that as a compliment in spite of the potential for that trait to become a dismissive or pejorative. I really love paradox. I like characters and conflicts. Many of my poems tend to have a narrative structure, perhaps compressed and concentrated but still narrative. I find myself working within and against archetypal patterns. Although much of my work is Christian at heart, I try to keep overt elements at a minimum. Ideally, I’d love my most Christian poems to appear in the best journals without causing an editor any reason to second-guess her decision to accept the poem. I want the poem to be so good that the editor and reader don’t have to raise any alarms about some ideological or philosophical assault.

IA: What specific techniques do you use?

DAS: I typically work in free verse. I have never had the ear for strict meters or the patience for strict form. I can appreciate some of that still, even in contemporary work, and I know some formal poets that can dazzle me with their efforts. But it doesn’t work for me as a poet. I’m probably just too lazy or too busy or something. For me the fun comes from finding the right form to fit the right words, discovering the way to say something so that it works as a poem.

Here is another of Audell's poems:

People pretend
science and faith
are at odds
but even Newton, Einstein,
Wittgenstein, Vonnegut
and the Pope
knew the first law
was for Adam, Eve,
and the apple
to fall
at the same
to fall
until acted
by another.

IA: What theories inform your work?

DAS: I think I am influenced as much by Neoplatonic leanings, such as Castiglione’s The Courtier, as I am anything. But I admit that I find much value in the emerging democratic spirits in the Romantics. Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads and Shelley’s Defense of Poetry are central to my view of poets and poetry. Sidney’s Defense is too. In that sense, I’m seriously out of date. But I have also read Fussell and Strand and Boland and so on. I suppose it shows a lack of awareness or a lack of knowledge or both, but I honestly can’t name a particular theory that informs my work more than another.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

DAS: I don’t. I suppose I could claim to be part of the Metaphysical school or something, but that’s just me being silly. I admire the connections between body and soul that I find there, and I dream about finding ways to create poems with those layers of meanings. But I don’t count myself as part of that or any other group.

IA: What do you know about the current state of the arts?

DAS: In some ways, I am so isolated and insulated from the larger movements of arts that I cannot speak to this question. My artist friends seem to be relatively happy at the moment, if that means anything. I find that a little curious since I have heard of many budget cuts and reductions in funding for various art projects, but they do seem happy.

IA: If you have a religious point of view: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular arts?

DAS: This is a difficult and important question. As an editor of a journal that made the decision to include the subtitle (Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature), I struggle with this difference in every issue. My largest complaint as an editor of a Christian journal is that writers and poets seem to think that the label “Christian” is an excuse to submit mediocre work. Part of the difficulty is that so much religious poetry exists that much of it starts to sound (or be) cliché. I don’t think I can read another poem that declares “The grass is green, / the sky is blue, / so praise God.” While I am ready to affirm that they are and we should, that’s not poetry. Even poems that echo the Psalms or Hopkins have trouble because that’s not poetry for today. For me, the difference in the sacred arts has more to do with attitude and orientation. It starts with an assumption that holy and divine aren’t delusions. It resonates with the understanding that meaning and form, beauty and truth, goodness and justice, are part of something remarkable. It remarks on it. It finds ways to enlarge our awareness and understanding of it. I love Hopkins, Milton, and Donne, but they finished their work a while ago. I really don’t want to see pale imitations of it now. Still, I am encouraged by some exceptional poets who work with Christian themes, images, and perspectives. Angela O’Donnell, Larry Thomas, Alan Berecka, Walt McDonald, Sherry Craven, Anne McCrady, Barbara Crooker, Jacqueline Kolosov, Scott Cairns, Jeanne Murray Walker, and Kelly Cherry are some of the names of poets that come to mind. They are doing interesting and innovative things. They are avoiding the clichés and making some good poetry.

Many of my own poems don’t have any overt connection to my faith. On a deep level, however, they are works that reflect life, reflect living in this world. Living life here and now, as we all know, includes scrapes and falls. That in itself doesn’t separate the sacred and secular, though. Instead, I think the boundary rests somewhere along the line of those assumptions about the nature and significance of the experience. It has something to do with the view of bodies, souls, or both. The overwhelming utilitarian and materialistic bases of secular life insist on body alone. The overwhelming fundamentalist leanings of many religionists insist on soul alone. I say it’s both body and soul, together, and I want my poetry to try to put the two spheres of experience together.

IA: How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?

DAS: I don’t know that I’m right about where we are, but I suspect that we got here after decades of ultra-conservative Christian capitalism and laissez faire, trickle-down economics. Poetry is largely a luxury, and as long as nobody is threatened by it, it will remain an innocuous pastime. But poetry is not the NFL or the NBA. Poetry is not Wall Street. Nor should it be. But, the shrinking budgets and rising costs seem to be squeezing poets and humanities professors more than they are people in some other sectors.

I suspect it stems from the attitudes so aptly summarized by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address (January 31, 2006). He wanted to keep America competitive, so he instituted programs to encourage math and science because those are crucial. He wanted 70,000 more high school teachers of math and science. He wanted 30,000 more professionals in math and science to switch careers and become teachers. Oddly enough, he simultaneously wanted students placing out of college by getting them to take more Advanced Placement in math and science. And, then, odder still, three paragraphs later he notes that many Americans are troubled by the direction of our culture and have “deep concerns” and “worry” about a world that lacks love and virtue. In other words, he succinctly summarized the a common current through much of human history: it sure would be nice to make more stuff and more money, and I just don’t understand why nobody understands true values any more. I think Jesus noted this habit of thought. I’m pretty sure Dickens nails it in Hard Times. It seems to me that if we wanted people to understand love and values, we might teach them some poetry, rather than spending our energy trying to find ways to for them to avoid studying Algebra and English in college.

I’m really not opposed to science and math. I believe education is about learning as much as possible of the truth about everything, including Organic Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Psychology, History, and Calculus. The difference for me is that you don’t eliminate the philosophy and poetics, because that is where you form character and judgment, where you learn to discern meaning and significance, and where you develop the ability to assess value.

IA: Where are we going in the Humanities?

DAS: I’m not sure. The recent series in the Chronicle of Higher Education was mixed about the outlook, and I share the mixed opinions. I see much to be hopeful about, but my cynical side is winning at the moment. I think jobs in the Humanities are scarce, and even when they are available they have lost status and stature. I think people are lacking any real voice for change, not because they aren’t speaking out but because the audience has evaporated. People are too busy listening to manufactured arguments about non-stories in the media. Meanwhile, I listen to people upset at the lack of education, the lack of values, the failure of society to teach people values, and instead of really attending to the failures, they hear the politicians offering cheaper, faster, more efficient educations. And saving money and time, we all know, is what education is really about. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with learning who we are as individuals, who we are as a people, and how we fit into this world. I don’t see much hope for us in the twenty-first century if we don’t pursue the real questions about ourselves, and as long as budgets and assessment data drive the direction of the Humanities, we won’t likely get very far into the inquiry. Instead, we can learn to read an actuary table or a periodic table, and we’ll know all there is to know about life in these times. Meanwhile, I keep writing poetry, publishing poetry, teaching poetry, and hoping that someone will join in.

And here is a final poem written by our interviewee:

New Beginnings
“We die and rise the same…”
John Donne, The Canonization

The night before the fall,
they had no way to know
winter would freeze
the vines, wither the fruit.
In their joy they had no
idea their sin would prompt
birthdays and funerals,
holidays and weddings,
any excuse to jazz
water to wine, toast fresh starts.

18 June 2010

Voyage of the Dawn Treader trailer

Here is the new trailer for the third Narnia movie. I think this is a good time to make some predictions. Then after the film comes out, I'll come back and review it, rant, maybe rave, and see if I was right at all. So here's what I think.

1. I am optimistic that this movie will be better than the first two. Why?

First, because it has a different director. Andrew Adamson directed the first two very, very poorly; now Michael Apted is trying his hand. Apted knows how to direct a serious, non-cheesy, high-quality religious film: he directed Amazing Grace. He also knows how to do a special effects action blockbuster: he directed 007: The World is Not Enough. He's also done a bit with fantasy; he produced Fancis Ford Coppola's 1992 Dracula.

Second, because I think it's the kind of book Hollywood can handle. It's the most hodge-podge of the Chronicles, and it's kind of light compared to the others. Not really, of course, but it's not as heavy on theology, consistent mythology, and ideology as the others (but see my last prediction). It's bright, fun, adventuresome. The characters are delightful and various. However...

2. I predict that there will be a new plot line developed to hold the story together. I imagine that the director/producer/screenplay writer will not think that Lewis provided enough motivation for the Voyage. He provides two, as you remember: Caspian's reason for journeying is to recover or revenge the seven Narnian lords his usurping uncle Miraz sent out on wild goose chases. Reepicheep's motivation is to reach the end of the world and, beyond it, Aslan's country. While this is sufficient motivation for each character individually and is quite fine for the book, I think that Hollywood is going to devise some cheap, facile, end-of-the-world reason for the journey. Now, after having watched the trailer, I seem to be confirmed in this prediction already. There's some "We have to save Narnia from total destruction!" nonsense at the end.

3. There will be quite a few thrills of Sehnsucht, even with the inevitable, sicking cheapening process the people and their archetypal roles will go through. Amongst the poor jokes, juvenile humour, unnecessary risks and stunt suspense, there will be moments of high and lofty beauty: the Ship herself, the Magician's book, the white lilies in the Silver Sea, sometimes the music, sometimes a facial expression, sometimes a curve of the camera, sometimes the sky over the sea. Note: I didn't see any hint of dragons, which would be patently absurd and a bigger cop-out than the deletion of Bacchus and his Maenaeds in Prince Caspian. If there are no dragons (sea- or land-), I'll want my money back. And will weep. And another side note: What are Peter and Susan doing in the trailer?!?

4. I am certain that they will leave out the Christology with which the book closes: the broiled fish, the lamb becoming a lion, the final speech. Aslan tells Edmund and Lucy that they got to know Him in Narnia so that they would be able to know Him better by another name, i.e., Jesus, in their own world. I'll wager there won't be any of that. And other theologically important moments will be cut or watered down: Reepicheep's longing for heaven, the cross-like Albatross, the hellish nature of the Island Where Dreams Come True (oh, it will be bad enough, I'm sure, just not hellish), the punishment of the Star Coriakin, Aslan's comments about coming and going, the Biblical nature of the story in the Magician's book, and (most of all) every rich supernatural suggestive detail on Ramandu's Island. It's almost enough to keep me from going to see the movie. But I lived through the blasphemy of Prince Caspian, so I guess I'll make it. With more psychological damage.

...and, while we're on the topic of films, who can barely wait until Harry Potter 7 part I???!!!

The Arthuriad of Charles Williams

Last week I finally finished reading Charles Williams’s Arthurian poetry (well, those contained in the two volumes published during his lifetime). I had begun reading them in 2007 while researching for and writing my entry on Williams for the Encyclopedia of Christian Literature. You can reference my series of posts on that topic here. The Encyclopedia, by the way, is now available. I look forward to seeing it; it has had a long and painful gestation and delivery and I’m not sure won’t prove a rather deformed child after all that. But I digress.

Now, when one reads a poem, especially one as dense as Williams’s, one doesn’t just read them. They are not like a novel, nor even like an academic work of nonfiction. You’ve got to live with them, turn them over and over, examine them inside and out. I typed them up as I went along, read C. S. Lewis’s notes on them, and began reading what other people have to say about them. I have a long, long road ahead of me before I achieve “full” understanding (if that’s ever possible), but at least I have the poems in my bloodstream now.

And that’s where poetry like that lives. It becomes vital, pulsing, essential, visceral. It is no longer an historical tale, nor a musical experience. The woods of Broceliande, that liminal place of making, is now the locus of my poetic generation: that foggy place in the middle of the mind where poems are conceived. Lancelot’s lycanthropy (we would think of it as the condition of being a werewolf, only his lasts nine months and does not come and go with the moon) is all those times I am blind with confusion, the madness of sorrow, the myopia of self-pity or betrayal. It is how I felt last week when I found someone I loved dearly had been lying to me and was living a life of horror underneath a smooth moral veneer. I howled in the forests of Nimue, wild without understanding. Arthur’s pride is all of ours: my career for me, not me for a vocation; my talents to serve me, not me to serve with my talents.

I still think that these are among the greatest poems ever written. But I am a bit more doubtful about their vision. First, because they are unfinished—that is, Williams published two books of Arthurian verse in his lifetime, but did not live to complete the entire cycle that he envisioned. So the cycle is incomplete, and therefore the mythology is, too. Second, because I have learned more and more about Williams’s life, which was far less than admirable. This is all the more disturbing because he set himself up to be admired: he occupied the position of a religious master whom disciples were to imitate and emulate. All the while he had a double life—not exactly secret, but covered and rephrased in a language of sanctity to disguise its inherent lack of health and of godliness. But as one scholar friend reminded me: This keeps me from idol-worship. As a reader of Williams’s novels, I was almost ready to fall at his feet. The insight I now have into his life has prevent me from worshiping him through his poems: for they are, otherwise, that glorious. Please read them! It’s worth the very, very hard work.

14 June 2010

Interview with Nick Friday

This is the twelfth interview of the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with Nicholas Friday
over the phone 5 April 2010
and via email

IA: Why don’t you tell me about yourself and what you do. You have one album out?

NF: Yes. I have completed one “mix tape” when I was in college utilizing commercial tracks (like from Kanye West, P Diddy, Tupac, etc.) I rewrote my own song…but I’m currently working on an album which will of course feature all original songs and beats. Some of these beats/instrumentals will be produced by me, and others by very talented producers I’ve met along my journeys.

IA: So you write the beats and you write the lyrics?

NF: Yes, I produce the beats…because at times one goes for a specific sound or vibe (and they are possibly the only one’s able to capture this). At other times talented producers are able to, possibly through some artistic form of osmosis, grasp exactly what the artist is feeling at that moment…and deliver the track that will drive the theme of the song. Its then up to the artist to lay his/her lyrics overtop of this. And in my humble opinion, it is always up to the artist to write the lyrics. This is not always so, and I feel as though it takes away from the expression of the work.

IA: When do you think that might be out?

NF: That will hopefully be done, I want to say, by the end of this year. I’m really not rushing anything. I’ve been working on it kind of stop-and-go since 2007 when I finished the mixtape and graduated college, but I really just want to make sure that when it is released, when it is done, it is the very best effort that can be put forward. When I complete a work, I must have this thought, “I could die happily the next day.” So hopefully by the end of the year, but not rushing things. A bit over dramatic? Not by my standards…the bar is perpetually raised.

IA: And you’re putting it out on your own label, right?

NF: Yes, absolutely, which is “By The Sword Productions.” So I’m, of course, working on that as well. It is kind of the one-man-operation, so to speak, the first go-around, working on a little bit of everything. But yes: that will be under By The Sword Productions and in association with Conquer Entertainment whom I have ties with. Through Conquer I’m able to help musicians, producers, artists etc…get distribution deals and receive residuals that major labels would otherwise retain for themselves. We set them free.

IA: Now, I don’t know anything about making a music label and recording under your own label. How did you do that? How does that work?

NF: Well, it all starts with thought. It all starts with process and an idea. Just like anything else, just like wanting to write a book, just like wanting to write a script. It all starts with that first. When I had the idea for the whole music and just the whole (I guess) philosophy behind it, so to speak, I realized that all the labels out there, especially the major labels, there really is no way to retain creative control of your music and be associated with that label. They very much operate like franchises. All they do is they copy and paste this mold that they have for artists, that they have for the industry in general. I am no man or woman’s puppet, and am rebellious by nature…it’d never work. So I knew that I basically just had a thought, started with that, and basically just implemented my ideas and principles into the music. So it really isn’t as—well, it is difficult—but it really just starts with a thought and an idea: coming up with a logo, coming up with the whole premise behind the music.

IA: So what is the philosophy, then, of By the Sword Productions?

NF: To free the mind, and help sharpen the determination of oneself…to pay it forward.

IA: Can you describe your musical style for those who have not heard you? Now I’ve heard you once, so I’ve got an idea, but for those who have not heard you, can you describe your singing and your musical style?

NF: I don’t like talking too much on style, because I’ve spent years developing something original…and am still working on its effectiveness and changing things daily. I’m not sure what to call it, and everyday I am discovering new techniques to use vocally…for the purpose of delivery. All will soon know, it should be a secret for now haha.

IA: Maybe you can tell me this, maybe you can’t: What sets you apart, then? Is it a musical technique or is it a narrative technique, or is it your faith?

NF: Let me think about that, because I don’t know how much I can tell you.

IA: While you’re thinking, I’ll ask a couple more questions to help narrow it down a bit. I don’t know hip-hop, so I don’t know what goes into it as far as the musical techniques and the musical excellence, but is what sets you apart something different in your genre: something musical that makes you different?

NF: What sets me apart? I mean, everybody has passion for what they do. You have to have passion for what you do. But I feel like my passion will consume me sometimes. There are some days and nights that I can’t sleep. Last night tossing and turning for hours just thinking about different ideas and concepts. I feel like my passion is on a level that I can’t even really control it myself right now, which I’m just very grateful for, but now it’s like, well, we’ve got to implement this. We’ve got to take this whole idea and all these principles and make this manifest now into this process. As far as what sets me apart? There are a lot of things which once the album is done it’ll all make sense. It’ll all stand apart. Let me think of what I can say… Myamoto Mushashi (considered Japan’s finest swordsman) said, “Can this be the true way, if it has been made into a saleable item?” I’ll leave it at that…

IA: You’re talking about this passion that drives you and consumes you: passion for…what?

NF: Passion to complete tasks. To complete missions.

IA: Based on these ideas that are driving you?

NF: In life we’re all given a certain amount of missions to be completed and when something’s been placed in front of you to do, do it…period. You have passion to get that done. The music is one of those missions which is really the catalyst, I feel, before many others come. It’s this one right now. It’s finishing the music, it’s getting all this done. And so that’s why it’s really so consuming with time, with energy, mental and emotional states. It’s all something new as well. It’s a new experience for me also.

IA: Now this might be too far in the future for you to see yet, but let’s say after your album comes out and you are established as an individual artist yourself: Do you have a long-term goal of, well, this sounds too big, but establishing a movement or making a larger change, that other artists would then look to you as their leader and as their influence?

NF: Oh, yes, absolutely. I’m actually already doing that currently. Again as an UnLabel Owner with Conquer Entertainment. We let the artists retain the creative control, completely back them up, and pay them the residuals they deserve…end of discussion. (Well not really haha, we still have a bit to go!). Major labels don’t understand this whole paradigm shift with what’s going on, or they do, and they just don’t care. We’re taking all of the leverage that major record labels have: all their strengths, none of their weaknesses…a Blade (thank you Wesley Snipes), artists can pursue their passion: they can pursue their endeavors without contradicting the creative mindset, the creative idea, and the whole reason and point behind wanting to write music.

IA: You are a producer as well, yes?

NF: Yes.

IA: Who have you produced, or who are you producing?

NF: I’m the only artist under By The Sword currently, though I’ve worked with other artists on my first project. See, my friends are so talented and passionate that they have started their own organizations. And through our friendship, we’ve formed a sort of alliance. A good friend of mine: Jaquan Barnett and his brother Alshan, with their label Beautiful Noize Entertainment. A friend of mine, Jordan Kohler, and with Kohler Productions, Vinnie Laspina and Scotty Hoon with Transcend Entertainment. Ben Rader, who’s album I just received…a good friend from college. My friends are amazing, take Vinnie Laspina and Scotty Hoon for instance, this is Vincent’s business in his own words: “There has never been a better time for artists to take absolute control of their careers and make their dreams come true than now.” Transcend Entertainment was founded upon that belief and facilitates that actualization by exposing artists to the world via TV/Film placements, live shows and other means. A fan-base is built through those exposures and as a result Transcend garners positive momentum for its artists by continuously growing with and facilitating their successes. Their website will be live soon. Information on Jaquan and Alshan can be found here.For information on Jordan Kohler and to listen to his beats and instrumentals click here. To receive a copy of Ben Rader’s album please get in touch directly via his email: It’s a great dub rock/indie sound, very mellow and a great adjustment to my binge of heavy metal and hip hop. For information on me, keep your ears open haha. I have several other business endeavors, and haven’t had ample time to develop my website. I’m not keen on keeping music 3 years old posted on Myspace. My apologies you have nothing now to listen to…but would it be smart to unveil your technique without having the…”ducks in a row.” You can find info at: I’ll be certain to keep everyone in the loop… And honestly, when this drops…the music and EVERYTHING…you’ll know.

Music to me is a battle, everything in music is a battle. “Everything in life is a fight” is one of the philosophies that I look at. Everything is a fight. The fight to wanna get up, the fight to wanna do work, the fight to wanna be lazy, the fight to wanna take care of your health. You know, everything is. And I would rather align myself with individuals I know I can trust. The hip-hop industry is different in the sense that a lot of real-life scenarios spill over into the entertainment side. And it’s really sad. I think in all music, in all genres, in all entertainment, you do need to be careful with who you trust, but especially in hip-hop, you run into a lot of nonsense, a lot of incidents that really are just uncalled-for, whether they’re shootings or whatever the case may be, assaults going on, I’m careful with who I trust. I only trust a select few individuals. They’re all very close friends.

IA: It makes sense that you want to work with individuals who share your ideology as well. So you’re not producing them on your label, then; you’re not producing them on By the Sword?

NF: No ma’am, I travel lightly, quickly and often on my own haha. And they don’t need me to get things done…yet we need each other to feed off that positive energy and accomplish our dreams.

IA: Well, that’s pretty much everything I had planned to ask. Unless; unless you want to talk a bit more about your faith in the context of your music and in the whole hip-hop subculture as well.

NF: Sure. Absolutely. Faith. It’s what moves me every single day as far as with the music. I trust God will see me through…that He’ll see all of you through.

IA: And actually the more specific and honest you are to your situation, counter-intuitively, the more universal it’s going to be, because people are going to connect up to specific, honest accounts more than just sort of vague generalizations.

NF: Right.

IA: Anything else you want to share? Any other comments on the current state of the arts?

NF: Just, I mean, I think with the state of the arts and everything in general, it kind of follows where society is and I think it’s kind of sad that in society we’re kind of all in general, we’re in this whole loss, we’re all in despair, with the economy, even just a couple of years ago when we were more heavily in conflicts with other nations, even though we still are, I think you get a direct reflection of that in entertainment: in music, in film, in the arts in general, in print work, in books. You get this whole, I wanna say, dumbed-down effect, because of the state of what people are in. People are suffering, people are hurting, people don’t want to think too much, because the thinking kind of just exponentially affects the way they’re already feeling. They’re hopeless. They don’t want to be moved. We don’t want to be changed. We just kinda wanna exist. And that’s what you get. In Hollywood that’s what you get with a lot of films that are out; I feel like in music that’s what you get with a lot of albums that are out. In general, I think it takes a handful of individuals to really start changing themselves if we’re going to change society. And then also a handful of artists, a handful of individuals who are involved in the arts, to continue speaking their mind whether people want to listen or not. Because ultimately they’re going to wind up influencing and affecting a couple other individuals in our society and get us moving in the right direction. But until we make that happen, until we get individuals that will step outside the box, we’re stuck in the hamster wheel. And I feel like we’re runnin’ around, runnin’ around, runnin’ around, and nobody’s getting anything done.

IA: I would guess from what you said earlier that you would advise artists: Well, OK, if you’re feeling loss and despair, fine, write about it. Sing about it. Don’t just gloss over it and sit there in apathy. Despair and loss is OK if you do it well in the arts.

NF: Right. Exactly. And that’s exactly why you get involved in the arts. It’s a chance to be creative, it’s a chance to express yourself, which is of course very important as an artist.

IA: Do you see hope out of this phase of loss and despair?

NF: Hope for society, or hope for the arts?

IA: Well, I guess you said it starts in society, that there’s an American-wide sense of economic turmoil and military action and security problems, and then the arts come from that. So do you see a turn-around for our country?

NF: Oh, yeah. I hope for the best. I always hope for the best. There is a chance for it, but ultimately it’s not up to any one person. It’s up to everybody because collectively we are not one person. It does start with individuals. It certainly starts with individuals and grows from there. And so, yes, I do have hope, but at the same time, realizing that: “Hope for the best prepare for the worst” kind of scenario.

IA: So should artists be the spearhead of that hope, then? If just a handful of artists are doing really good work do you think that can find its way back into society?

NF: Well, certainly we can. It’s one of the jobs, it’s one of duties of artists, is to influence. I don’t know if I want to say influence more so than just deliver information. There certainly are different levels of this. You can influence, you can convince. Me, personally? I don’t waste time trying to convince anyone. I’ll just tell you how it is exactly and it’s up to you whether or not you want to accept it. But yes, artists absolutely play a huge role, have a huge duty as far as being the voice or being the eyes or being the ears of your community. Of society.

IA: And just make the best art we can, and let the influence follow as it will.

NF: Right.

IA: Great, well, that’s fantastic. Thank you very much. You’ve given me quite a bit to think about today.

NF: Oh, not a problem. I’m sorry I had to be so vague. It will make much, much more sense when the album is complete and when this whole snowball is really rolling. But I really hope and pray the best for everyone of course to continue pursuing what you do, and hopefully I will see you at the top, and not from the top.

IA: All right, well, I’m going to hold my breath until that album comes out!

12 June 2010

instead of a poem-of-the-month

I never posted a June Poem of the Month. I'm not writing lyric poetry these days; instead, I'm working on a play (some of which is in verse). That will NOT be posted here! So, just in case you missed having a poem (which I doubt), here's a link to three of mine that have appeared in the online journal Avatar. Enjoy.

~ Sørina

07 June 2010

Interview with Sophia Ahmad

This is the eleventh interview of the ”Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Please leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student? Please talk about yourself as an “artist,” student of the arts, and teacher of the arts.

SA: I'm the online entertainment reporter for The Des Moines Register and serve on the piano faculty at the Des Moines Symphony Academy. Here is a link to my blog. I would say I'm both a teacher and student of the arts. I teach music, write about music and the arts. I am a student because I'm always learning.

IA: As an entertainment reporter you write about music, film, theatre, food, and local events. Would you list for us the names of entertainers you have interviewed? I’ve been looking at your photos on facebook and on your blog; you get to meet a lot of really cool people!

SA: Yes, that’s one of the perks of the job. I think I was a little star-struck at first, but now—it’s hard to get to know those people, so the interviews are not as fascinating as those with local people who maybe aren’t as reserved. I can get to know the local people a little bit better. They’re more interesting and give more in-depth answers. So some of the people I’ve interviewed:
Terry Hatcher was probably the most recent. She’s an actress; “Desperate Housewives” is probably what she’s best known for.
This spring I did the Register’s first facebook interview with the pianist Christopher O’Reilly.
I also interviewed Kevin Costner,
Jonny Buckland (who’s the guitarist for Coldplay),
Dolly Parton;
I met Kelly Clarkson when I covered her concert;
Joy Behar (she’s the co-host of The View);
Jane Pauley;
I interviewed Helen Hunt,
Diane Keaton,
author Liz Gilbert (her book Eat, Pray, Loveis being made into a movie with Julia Roberts).

Note by IA: here are other people Sophia has met and/or interviewed: Maggie Grace, Luke Perry, Cloris Leachman, Victoria Rowell, Mark Ballas, Shawn Johnson, Mike Butterworth and Jason Walsmith of The Nadas, Shane Tallant, and Curtis Stone.

IA: So this is from all different fields: actors, musicians…

SA: Yes, people from all different walks of life: entertainers.

IA: When you interview them, are you asking them about specific movies and concerts and books, or are you asking them about their personal lives? What do you tend to ask them about?

SA: It’s a little of both. But all the people I’ve ever talked to have some kind of connection to Des Moines or they’re coming to Des Moines for an event because we cover things that are specific to our area. I mostly ask them things pertaining to Des Moines, and also if they have a new book or a new project or a new album coming out I’ll ask them about those things pertinent to their lives.

IA: So have you seen enough people in any one field yet that you think you can make a generalization? What are the kinds of music, what are the kinds of trends in film or in acting? What is going on in music today? What techniques, topics, methods, and moods are musicians using? In other words, can you describe the current era of music the way you could describe, say, the Baroque if I asked you to? Have you seen enough people yet in any one or two of those fields that you want to comment on that?

SA: Yes. Well, I think it’s hard to say. I’ve been at the Register for three years now, almost to the day, and even from the beginning the things that have most impressed me have been about how entertainers are forced to be more transparent because of the social media world that we live in. Whether it is by a camera phone or a voice recorder that someone could easily use to post audio or video online, these people seem more accessible. For example, I covered a Miley Cyrus concert and she had had a twitter following; she closed it a week before she came to Des Moines for a performance. I was getting a lot of material and information on her just by things she was saying about herself on that social networking site. She made a rap video about why she closed her twitter account. She made it in Des Moines and that will give insight into her character and it shows how new media, such as video—she can tell a lot about herself that way. There’s a lot of ways for people to express themselves now. And especially with the paparazzi; they have ways to combat it if they’re caught off guard doing something, they could post on their facebook page or twitter account something to defend themselves. Apart from the traditional publicist or that kind of model.

IA: So they’re much more directly connected to their audiences and their fan base? They have more connections to a larger number of fans.

SA: They’re able to be very personal with their fans. I covered a Taylor Swift show. She was kind of the same way. She was probably the best example of interacting with her fans. She is doing a 13 hour meet and greet which is something that’s kind of unheard of, a kind of interesting interaction.

IA: It seems that you’re describing that the technology is reflexive; not only does the technology change the way they interact, but then they can turn that technology around and use the technology as either a topic in their art or as a way of promoting or of a way of discussing it; the technology then goes back into their arts, as well.

SA: Yes, there are examples of that. I covered a Black-Eyed Peas show and Will.I.Am, who is a rapper, used text messages that people sent, live during the show, and he made them into a rap, he improvised it into a rap. I thought that was really kind of slick to do that! I was really impressed with it. The show was just too much; but that definitely was the highlight of the show.

IA: That’s a brilliant twist on the king giving Bach the theme to improvise a six-part fugue on!

SA: Yeah. And there’s a YouTube video of Lang-Lang, the pianist. He took his iPad on stage for an encore and there’s some sort of app, some sort of website or something that will play “Flight of the Bumblebee” for you. The tempo depends on how fast you touch the iPad with your fingers. So he did that, and he kind of stopped and started it, stopped and started it on stage during his encore. I think that is very relevant to show this hot item at a classical performance on stage.

IA: Is there anything else you can tell us about the current state of the arts?

SA: I read and recommend Greg Sandow's blog - he has a realistic view of classical music's place in society now. The bad news: It's not as popular as it used to be. The good news: There are musicians who know this and are finding new ways to get the music out there.

IA: Where do you think are we going in the future?

SA: I don't think promoting classical music is going to get any easier. I recently interviewed pianist/ "From the Top" host Christopher O'Riley, who wrote this:
"Much has been thought and written about the change of place in society occupied by Classical music. A civilization used to be judged by the pinnacles of culture which were celebrated and nurtured within society's confines. Now it seems that there's a more mercenary attitude: If skiing is Denver's #1 'cultural' asset, what would they want with a symphony orchestra? And why would a community ill-informed of the music be necessarily dunned by what appears to be an elitist and exclusivist art form? The answer is that people are inundated and enslaved by musical forms that pervade popular media, and no strides are made toward the pursuit of quality or excellence. Immediate gratification would never have brought forth Beethoven's 9th, but kids are constantly brow-beaten into believing that all good things come immediately for no effort.
Meanwhile, even kids who have no plan on continuing in music have been shown, in blessed circumstances, that a community of one's peers, in an orchestra, chorus, a string quartet, a marching band, can be a vehicle for maturation, for inspiration, for spiritual uplift, that transcends any discussion of elitism. One wouldn't call Roger Federer an elitist, but he does represent and perform for us in a way that makes us realize the power of the pursuit of excellence, the passion inherent in performance on a high level. this is where music performance should be headed, and luckily, From The Top is a perfect vehicle for the public at large to get to know performers as people just like us, only different, and his in turn gives the uninitiated audience the idea that music, most particularly Classical music, can be fun as well as inspirational."

IA: It is getting harder and harder to promote Classical music today? Why do you think that is? If it is such great music, what is it so hard to promote it?

SA: Well, that’s the million dollar question. I think if we can get all the information we need just by googling something, without even walking over to the bookshelf and pulling down an encyclopedia, or even going to the library and looking through a card catalog -- we’re taught with these new technologies that we don’t have to work to get complicated information. We can have everything at our fingertips. Whereas, if I had to type out every article I ever wrote on a typewriter, if I made a mistake I would have to start over: I would be more conscious as a speller and I would probably respect that process a lot more. I wouldn’t feel so bad if it took me a month or two to learn a Beethoven sonata. But if I think that everything should come quickly, then it’s hard to carry that over into other areas. I don’t think it’s necessarily recent. In the 20th century there were the minimalists in the visual arts whose works were simplified: big color blocks on the canvas as opposed to very detailed art works. I’m not saying it’s bad; a lot of the artists were trained in the classical way; they had to know the rules to break them. And I feel like it’s not expected that kids know these rules before they have to break them. I don’t think it’s just limited to classical music. For some of my young piano students, school is a shock to them because it’s six or seven hours of learning and it is probably harder for kids now than it ever has been.

IA: So it has to do with the amount of time it takes, number one to learn a classical piece, but also number two to sit and listen to it and to appreciate it and to develop the taste for it?

SA: I think so. Classical music is more complicated to listen to [than popular music.] Themes aren’t always simple: there’s not just a melody and a bass line, there’s counterpoint, there’s counter melodies, there’s tenor melodies. In how many pop concerts do you have a hundred plus musicians playing at once -- unless there’s an orchestra there playing with them? Just by its nature it’s more complicated. It’s not elitist to say that: it’s just the way it is. The harmonies are just more complicated, too. It takes more of yourself to listen to it and understand it.

IA: In addition to bringing one’s iPad on stage and playing it there, what other ways are musicians trying to increase the popularity of classical music? What methods are they using to try to integrate it with contemporary life?

SA: As a teacher, I think for me, if kids can experience the joy of working hard toward a goal, they can really appreciate classical music and the time that it takes. Someone isn’t just going to come out playing a big Prokofiev piece, but I think it starts with small steps and then they’re encouraged to keep working and working at things and if everything comes to be they’ll be more and more encouraged to play classical music and take on harder pieces. Teaching kids that things come to people who try and don’t give up. Even a week or two off, you can see the detriment of it weeks and weeks down the road, especially in the learning stages You just have to be consistent with practicing.

There are also a lot of crossover artists and alternative classical artists: Time For Three is a trio who plays bluegrass and classical. There are different ways to whet people’s appetite for more by programming these musicians into concert series so it’s not so much of a shock to the system for those in the audience who aren’t used to classical music. Programming is a big part of it.

To me the most powerful thing to do is to show that classical musicians are real people and the people who wrote these pieces were real people. It seems so abstract in a way because the composers were trying to write down sound on paper. It’s like trying to shove a pasta dish into a cookbook. You can’t really do it. I think once children and young adults are learning, they can tap into their imagination. You kind of can get to the point where they can get beyond the notes and get to the character and meaning of a piece; then it becomes so full of life and so full of meaning. And it’s beautiful.

IA: Very well said. That sounds like the same challenge I face in trying to teach poetry to children. Poetry is a complex language that takes time to appreciate, to listen to, to read, and to learn to write in all the forms. Do you want to say anything about your own performances? About yourself as a pianist and the techniques that you learned as a student?

SA: As a music teacher, I feel that performing is very vital to the way I teach. Not all piano teachers perform, but my most influential music mentors and teachers were always first-rate performers. Playing for other people is very necessary to being an effective teacher because it comes from the old adage: Practice what you preach. As a teacher I tap into that so much so that if a kid doesn’t understand a certain passage I know how to respond to it because I have played it before or I can play it or I can demonstrate for them. That’s not to say that my technique is going to work exactly for that kid, but there is a solution out there. Also, there’s a lot that goes into performance. Half the battle is just getting into the mindset of it. There’s no real way to teach other people how to do it unless you’ve done it yourself. There’s nothing else like it.

IA: I think it’s also just avoiding hypocrisy! I get so frustrated when I meet creative writing teachers who don’t write! How can you teach other people how to write short stories when you have never tried it? How can you tell them to get up at a poetry reading and read a poem if you’ve never written one yourself?

SA: It keeps you sharp. It sharpens your tools and makes you aware of things. It reminds you of things you’ve practiced and things you need to remind your students to practice.

IA: It keeps you as an artist or musician, too, and not “just” a teacher; you get the pleasure of the music as well. You’re not just channeling it along to the next generation, but you are training them to appreciate it and keep writing it and keep playing it.

04 June 2010

Screwtape Letters on Stage; or, How Much Sin is Too Much?

This past Sunday, G and I saw a dramatic performance of The Screwtape Letters in Philadelphia. It was at The Lantern Theatre, the same venue where I saw Henry IV a few months ago (and interviewed the director).

This was a one-man show; well, sort of. Anthony Lawton adapted the text for performance and played Screwtape. However, he took the tiny role of Toadpipe, Screwtape’s secretary, and developed it into an extensive non-speaking role (with one short speech directly from Lewis’s text). He chose to cast this as a woman (the super-sexy-secretary type) and turned her part into a major factor in the dramatic interpretation of Lewis's theology.

Lawton's performance was dazzlingly brilliant; his adaptation ingenious. I do not want anything that I say next to take away from the mind-blowing power of this performance. It was professional and just absolutely riveting. INTENSE is the word for it.

Here's how the adaptation worked. Screwtape would read one of his letters to Wormwood outloud. Then Toadpipe would enter in her capacity as secretary to deliver another letter from Wormwood. And Screwtape and Toadpipe would dance. And each dance was expressing something about the text of the letter that had gone before or (even more cleverly) that would come after. These dances grew in intensity in each interlude.

Lawton wrote an introductory piece to explain his interpretation/adaptation. As he reads it, C.S. Lewis is claiming that the motivating principle of Heaven is Love--the giving of oneself for another, the mutual cooperation without desire for gain--and that Hell cannot understand this principle. The motivating principle of Hell, on the other hand, is Competition in the worst sense. It is the overwhelming, consuming passion to get something out of the other person, to destroy and devour the other. And the dances showed this desire to defeat, in combination with sexual tension, admirably.

First of all, the acting was superb. Lawton and his so-star Kim Carson are both top notch. His reading inflections were perfect at all times, his body language a whole story of itself. The silent scenes, acted to well-chosen music, were jam packed with meaning. Every gesture was crisp and perfectly timed. Every facial muscle was controlled, burning with intensity of expression. Their faces, their bodies, their eyes and fingers, their feet to the music -- all were honed to a height of dramatic perfection.

Then the two actors showed remarkable athleticism. The fight scenes were among some of the best choreography I've seen. The dances were fast paced and powerful. Those two were in mad crazy good shape and used it, too. Whew!

There was a multi-media aspect, too. There was a huge flat screen behind Screwtape's desk, and on it would appear paintings (each horrifically appropriate to the sin or temptation in question), photographs (of the Patient and his mother, for example), and words (bullet points and notable phrases, as in a good powerpoint lecture). Admirably done!

So then what's the problem? Well, maybe it's not a problem, but it was awfully hard to take. These two actors did not shy away from a full-frontal exposure of sin. The idea is that only God can create from nothing: the devil can only twist and pervert what is good for his purposes. So Lawton decided to show perversion in its full perverseness, to (I suppose) sicken us and make us retch at the disgust of hell. The dances got progressively dirtier, until Toadpipe basically did a stripper dance, only she didn't remove any clothes (just kept on the extremely skimpy and tight suit she was wearing). She writhed and waggled, holding nothing back. They tapdanced, then fought through a Matrix-inspired number, then ate and drank fire (a human soul), then tangoed at the edge of anger, then stripped and whipped into a sexual and violent frenzy. Yikes! As one reviewer put it: "Fair warning: some of the imagery in the play can be a little unsettling. But that’s sin, baby."

Yes, that's sin. But I couldn't help wondering if it was all a cover-up for a chance to do some dirty dancing under the excuse of a Christian moral? Like: "Sin is really, really bad. It's unbelievably awful. Let me show you just how awful it is...." Now, to be fair, the point was that it all falls apart. That it is all shallow and meaningless -- and that Christianity offers real, deep, profound, full-bodied pleasure. OK. I get that. But I still had to see nude pictures, inappropriate dancing, and other things I'm not even going to describe here. So that does make me wonder.

I'm hoping to interview Mr. Lawton for the "Where Are We Now" series, so perhaps he can shed some light on this subject. Or pour fire on it, then eat the thing whole!!!