Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Compleat(ly) Original: Raul Gomez and Ruby Lou Smith

 When I sat down with Ruby Lou Smith and Raul Gomez, the founders of a new performing arts ensemble based out of New Orleans called "Compleat Stage," I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Raul is an accomplished violinist and conductor, as well as the founding artistic director of the Kids’ Orchestra in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ruby, a working actress based out of New Orleans, was fresh off her workshop of Confederacy of Dunces with Director David Esbjornson and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, and producers John Hardy and Bob Guza, and had just finished filming her role as The Glass Stripper in Ross Clarke’s latest movie, Dermaphoria. When I heard that the two talented performers were taking on the production aspect of performing art, I wanted to ask them a few questions.

What was your impetus for creating Compleat Stage?

Ruby: We are both at a stage in our artistic life where we’re hungry for opportunities and in our fields, the demand for work is higher than the supply. And we’re surrounded by all of these wonderful creative artists that don’t necessarily have as many outlets or platforms as they could use, and we strongly believe in making your own opportunities.

Raul: We wanted to create a platform for interdisciplinary artistic collaboration, and offer an outlet for creative artists who are branching out and exploring other disciplines as a way to expand or compliment their toolbox for communicating ideas through performance.
Ruby Lou Smith
Photo by Carlton Mickle
Ruby has an MFA in acting,  Raul has a doctorate in music. What kind of collaboration can we expect from the two of you?

Ruby: We hope to bring music and theatre and all other art forms under one roof to tell stories in dynamic, interesting, and full-fledged ways that sometimes you don’t get when you go to an art gallery or symphony. That’s primarily because those mediums are simply meant to be enjoyed on their own, and they are; but what happens when you can enjoy the lime with the basil, the sweet with the sharp? It becomes this new flavor, a new experience where one art brings out the brilliance of another. In both of our educational experiences, we were given opportunities to create liberally and with a great pool of different types of artists to collaborate with and we got kind of spoiled in that! But we’re going to continue spoiling ourselves, and hopefully our audiences too!

Raul:I feel extremely lucky that I get to collaborate daily with such a brilliant creative mind! From daily mundane tasks to abstract and philosophical concepts, I think we work great together. We have learned a lot about each other's artistic vocabulary, and hopefully, what comes out of our collaboration will be something that transcends disciplines and transmits ideas in a way that is engaging, genuine, entertaining and thought-provoking.
Raul Gomez
Photo by Eric Liffmann
You’re both working performers, so what is it like being on the other side of the production process?

Ruby: It’s very exciting because you get to pamper and treat artists in a way that helps you when you’re in that position. To be able to give that back to someone else is really invigorating!

Raul: Creative entrepreneurs must embrace "the other side!" In a way, as I heard recently from Hilda Ochoa, founder and chairman of the board at Youth Orchestra of the Americas, “Life is a non-stop performance and we must ALWAYS be on stage.” The moment we become passive or complacent, or become sleepy viewers and remote-control "critics," we lose our voice and potential. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the behind-the-scenes work that goes with any successful artistic production. We should all learn these skills, the same way we learn a new instrument or acting technique.

So, what next hot stuff? Or in this case, hot stuffs?

Ruby: We’re doing the tedious paper-and-ground work, the administrative stuff, but by October we hope to have our first production, which is both exciting and daunting because we’re still figuring out our format. That first season will, of course, be a lot of experimenting to see what the artists want and need and what the audience will enjoy and support.

We have a few original shows that we’re working on.The composition and story line of each production will be entirely dependent on the ensemble. Experimental shows will allow the ensemble to make it their own and relevant to their city and time.

A huge part of our process is going to be taking work from ensemble members and doing patchwork and by performance time we will have created this quilt, this collage of a story.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Jeff Parker and the Sandwich of Woe

I’d just seen writer Jeff Parker pal around with author, actress, and screenwriter Miranda July, seen him hold his own in witty extemporaneous discourse with National Book Award Winner Denis Johnson, and seen him receive three, count ‘em, three, separate standing ovations for his work, both his writing and his teaching.

Needless to say, he’s a pretty busy guy; however, I finally caught up with Parker at the airport right before he left to go to Portugal to teach at the Disquiet International Writer’s Conference. We talked basketball, poetry, and used the phrase “syphilitic chipmunks” more than it has ever been used before.
While eating a sandwich purchased at the airport, Parker said, "It's even more disappointing than I expected."

You wrote a poem, Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion, assembled entirely from quotes by basketball player Metta World Peace. Can you talk about your impetus for writing it?

Most sports personality interviews are boring and predictable and cliche, but not when Metta is involved, so I’d been collecting his quotes for some time. I had them arranged on sticky notes on my Mac, and there were some interesting rhythms accruing there. So mostly to entertain my friends on Facebook who only pay attention to my posts when it has to do with Metta World Peace, I began constructing a couple verses and I put a whole poem together.

Were you surprised at all the attention the poem received?

Yes. My sister sent me the most practical reaction, though. After I sent her the links to Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports and the Ball Don’t Lie Blog, my sister said, “Cool, but what do you get out of it?”

And? What do you get out of it?

Joy! What I’d hoped to get out of it was a correspondence from Metta in the form of a cease and desist order. Or better still, he’d say, “Hey, how about you ghost write my biography?” But nope. Nothin’.

And without looking it up, can you tell me the final score of the Heat-Spurs game?

I can’t tell you the score, no. I was too crushed by that point, I couldn’t remember anything. It wasn’t a wide margin though.

You watched that game after giving a terrific reading from your new work, which is a collaboration. Talk a little about that project.

This British photographer, Brendan Berry, contacted me saying he read my stories and enjoyed them and had just finished driving across the United States taking pictures of empty hotel rooms. He asked if I wanted to write a small piece for each of the photos and I was totally too busy at the time, but this plays into my strategy of structured procrastination.

So I looked at the photos and thought, “Man, this is something I really want to do!” I love hotel rooms, I love the blankness of them. I finished my novel [Ovenman] in a hotel room.

Actually, the story you heard last night might have started as part of the project, but that was a really long story and it wouldn't fit because these are supposed to be snapshots.

Seriously? But it was a story about a creepy hotel room!

So here’s how I work nowadays: I used to think that because I’m writing a short story about, say, syphilitic chipmunks, I’d say “okay, I have syphilitic chipmunks in my short story, so I can’t have syphilitic chipmunks in my novel.” Or I’d discover a sinkhole in Florida, write a short story about it, and think that I couldn’t write a novel about it too. I write everything in three different forms now. I’ve got that sinkhole in short story, novel, and in a nonfiction piece. I’m plagiarizing from myself in each work, and that’s okay.

You’re from Florida, where no one is really from even when we’re born here, but you’re about to move to Amherst, Massachusetts. Define the word “home.”

Well, I thought I was returning home when I came back to Florida after eighteen years. I found that I feel more at home now on the streets of Moscow than I do in Florida. It isn’t really surprising after eighteen years, and there are a couple cliches about it, among them that you can’t go home. The question becomes what is your home?

There’s a really nice Proust quote that says a writer is a foreigner unto himself, something like that,  and I think that’s probably true. You have to remove yourself to be able to write about something, but what is home once you’ve been removed? Maybe it doesn’t matter so much.

So what next, hot stuff?

Sigh. Airport security.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Arielle Greenberg: How to Buy a Bus Ticket, an Interpretive Dance

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in June, poet Arielle Greenberg and I sat on the porch of the H.B. Plant Museum in Tampa and had a long conversation about feminism, family, sex, writing, and what happens when all of them dovetail.

And I’m not going to tell you a single word we said, because the front porch of Plant Hall is like Vegas, and what happens there stays there.

I will tell you, however, that I wanted to know more, so we got together the following week and talked about collaboration in writing and the role ego plays in an artist’s life.

So, you recently moved from Chicago to an itty-bitty town in Maine. What gives?

I had a great job in Chicago teaching at Columbia! I had some wacky, arsty students which is always fantastic. It was a really vibrant poetry program, but my husband and I both worked full time with two little kids and it became unsustainable in terms of the kind of family life we wanted.

Food politics was part of the decision, too. It was important to us to buy local, good quality, organic and that wasn’t really possible in a big city. We couldn’t grow our own food. And how are you supposed to compost in a condo? So it was a lot about the values, the way we wanted to live as a family.

Why do you think so many people are unnerved by poetry?

I think poetry feels out of step with the ways in which we are used to language being used. We also use language for daily, mundane, utilitarian purposes. Using language towards fine-art ends is kind of disturbing and bizarre. We don’t do a modern interpretive dance to buy a bus ticket. We don’t paint bread to ask someone to pass the bread, we don’t sing an aria to argue with our partner. We could, and I bet it’d be a lot more interesting.

We don’t use the other fine arts mediums to go about our daily lives, but we do use language, so we have all these ideas about how language should be used, so when we see it used in a poem, we feel uncomfortable.

I heard someone once say that poetry is solitude. True or false?

False. I feel like there’s nothing to write poems about unless you live in the world, and I guess Emily Dickinson could argue with me. It’s difficult to write poems without being out there with other beings having ideas, caring about issues. All of those things make for interesting literature.

How do you collaborate as a poet?

I’ve edited an umber of anthologies, and they’re all collaborations. It’s hard to imagine taking on an anthology on my own. I’ve done collaborative creative projects less often, which is mostly a function of logistics, because everyone is so busy.

When I was at the MacDowell Colony, I collaborated with a composer and wrote a short poem to the music that he’d written. I love to collaborate. If I ever meet an artist who is willing to collaborate, I jump for it. Everything I do in my life is about trying to have authentic and meaningful connections with other beings. That is absolutely true for my art.

Maile Chapman and I did a collaboration in graduate school [at Syracuse University], a performance piece called “Performing Loss” about a Victorian-era woman who goes to visit a medium to talk to her dead daughter. Your employment options as a woman at the time were teacher, factory worker, sex worker, or medium. And if you wanted to work on your own terms, medium was the only job.

Spiritualism was kind of a precursor to feminism, because “women’s intuition” is what allowed them to act as mediums. The mother who comes to see the medium, she doesn’t know that her daughter died at birth because her husband got syphilis from a sex worker. A lot of babies died or were compromised because of venereal diseases that men brought home. And of course no one talked about it at the time.

And what was that collaboration like for you?

It was gothic, fun, scary, spooky! I wrote these lyric bookends for the more traditional play that Maile wrote. We read all the same texts and wrote our pieces without showing them to each other. It turns out that we had these crazy weird supernatural connections in our work. It was so much fun, and we both had a really good time. We had similar tastes and aesthetics.

I also have a book, Home/Birth that I wrote with my friend Rachel Zucker, it was our first creative collaboration We sent a manuscript back and forth and literally wrote between each others lines.

What role does ego play in your work, and how does it effect your collaborative process?

I’d say my work is pretty ego driven in the sense that I mostly write in first person and my work is post-confessional. I’m interested in my own life and own experiences, which is kind of ego driven. I’m so glad to challenge my ego and my sense of authorship in a collaboration, I really like that.

I think it’s a gendered choice or taste, being really interested in losing a sense of who is speaking and having a voice that feels collective. In Home/Birth, Rachel and I couldn't remember by the end who wrote what, who said what, and we really delighted in that. We thought it was a really feminist way to go about that project.

I’m so glad to give over what I do for the sake of a collaboration. It’s a pleasure to take myself away from my normal habits and voices and see what else could happen.

Your poem “Honey” is about being pregnant and eating cheesy goldfish crackers. Defend yourself, madam. Can anything be a poem?

Hah! That poem is about a lot of other things too.

No, I don’t think anything can be a poem. That one has a lot of craft, and I was thinking carefully about form. It was a dream poem, a prayer poem. The idea that anything can be a poem takes away how much work it is to think in a poetic space. I like poems that feel spontaneous, casual, and easy. I like reading them, writing them, but it’s not to say that there’s anything easy about a poem.

There’s a lot of boring language use out there, cliched, heavy-handed words. I’m not even thinking of the world of poetry but of media, conversation, everywhere that language is used, and none of that is poetry.

So what next, hot stuff?

I’m putting together this series of pornographic pastorals, which are about the idea of what it means to be wholesome or dirty. They’re poems about how being married and a mother doesn’t mean that you stop thinking about things that married mothers aren’t supposed to think about.

I have a solid reputation as a writer and a teacher, but there’s also this the image of me as someone who dropped out to move to the country, which brings a whole other set of connotations. And while pastoral poems are idyllic, one of the uses of the pastoral poem was basically to seduce milkmaids. I’m thinking about gender there too because I’m not speaking from the masculine roles. I’m trying to write poems that scare me to put out in the world. That’s my goal. I’ve written not quite enough of them to make a book, I’ll have to see how brave I feel to get them out in the world.

I’ve started publishing a few of the individual poems in journals, and that itself is scary. I’ve read them at readings and people want to know when the book is coming out, and they say, “Surely you’ll find a publisher for that, it’s hot, it’s provocative, it’s got a gimmick,” but my intention is that it be anything but a gimmicky project.

I’m trying to write about the deepest, scariest stuff for me, and to honor that in a project. I want to find a publisher who understands my aim, which is to not just be a provocateur, but to get at some deep stuff. Gender, sexuality, non-monogamy, kink, erotic power exchange, mothering, love, libido, ecological concerns, political principles.

So light topics, huh?

Oh yeah, real light!

Is there a way to read any of these before you get the book together?

Interim has a new issue on feminism and sex, and a number of mine are in there. Black Clock out of CalArts has a new erotica issue, and I have poems from this series in there as well.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Radical Inclusivity: Billy Mays III

Billy Mays III at Clearwater Beach, where he's staying until he goes on tour.
If you want to hear the third Billy Mays’ music, it’s not hard to do. He never stops making it. He’s beatboxing when he walks up to my car on a long, hot afternoon in Clearwater. His YouTube channel has over eighty videos, and he offers most of his albums for free on the Infinite Third website.

“The music comes so easy,” he says. “It feels almost silly to charge for it. The big stuff, the stuff that you’d pay for, that’s in the works.”

The ease is evident in the prolific nature of his work. There are eighteen albums available for download online, not counting the song-a-day project he did last year. His latest Infinite Third album, Ear Drops, is billed on the website as “80 Minutes of Soothing Music to Massage Your Brain While Bringing You to the Next Level.”

Infinite Third goes on tour this October, starting in Asheville, North Carolina at the 3 Days of Light Festival, and then?

“Who knows?” says Billy, who will be touring with his collaborator and girlfriend, Gen, across the country. “Asheville will open up a lot of possibilities. The tour is going to be kind of like the process of making music itself. I find it hard to force it.”

The tour will be ongoing, and Billy mentions Pennsylvania and Canada in the same breath, making it clear that the structure is currently undefined.

“There’s no finite goal to any of this. I find the music has to be channeled, not forced. If I trust that it’s going to come, then it’s infinite.”

There are times when talking to Billy seems like the conversation equivalent of a road trip. Part of that, I imagine, comes from the fact that he's currently unanchored. He'll be in Florida a little while longer, then he and Gen hit the road in their Nissan Pathfinder for points unknown.

"City, country, the beach, the mountains, it doesn't really matter much to me. Creativity can happen anywhere. I can be happy anywhere, and I hate feeling stuck. Gen and I are totally on the same page there. I don't think this would be nearly as much fun to do by myself."

Billy runs the website Where's Billy Mays? where he posts tributes and references to his father, the late pitchman Billy Mays II. He's giving thought to writing and directing a documentary about his father, although it's a long way off.

Just like I remembered, Billy is still all about team work. His solo music project, Infinite Third, provided the music for a documentary by Skull Babylon. His group, Bandpractice, has become a sort of open jam session that tours at festivals around the Southeast. His writing, Impersonal Verses, is actually deeply personal and about connecting to others. But Billy really gets excited when he talks about his improvisational music group Mouth Council, run with his girlfriend and fellow musician, Gen.

“It’s all about the breath and the voice,” he says. “Gen sings or raps, and I beatbox and have a looper. We have a microphone we pass around and try to get everyone in the room or in the audience involved in making the sound.”

Beatboxes? Sure enough, Billy was happy to show me his skills after we got some beer on the beach, and he got me to participate. Don’t worry, I've got video evidence.

When we finished, Billy says, "That's the basic idea of Mouth Council. Anyone can make music, make the rythym. We try to make it a truly collaborative experience for both ourselves and the audience. Nothing is forced, everything is improvisational. It's radical inclusivity."

When I ask what role fear plays in his improvisation, Billy gets a shifty little smile. "It's not so much fear, but an energy. You've got to have that performance energy to make it quality."

And so finally I have to ask, what next hot stuff?  The tour of course, and his YouTube channels. The videos Billy makes- with nothing fancier than some mics and a Cannon Rebel- often get over 10,000 hits. With Mouth Council, Band Practice, and Infinite Third all contained inside his creative sphere, Billy has no shortage of projects to keep the creativity flowing... infinitely? Infinitely. That sounds about right.