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Authors Read

March 18, 2010


Lillian and David Brummet are the gracious hosts of the blogtalkradio program, Authors Read, a weekly fifteen minute broadcast presenting live as well as prerecorded readings by storytellers, poets & writers.   Produced in Canada, the show is international and both the featured artists and the audience are diverse, representing many styles and approaches to writing.

This coming Monday the 22nd at 12:00 PM , I’ll be reading from
Primitive Mood.   Since the show is archived, it’s possible to listen to it any time after it appears, using the link here.

More Film Festivals

March 10, 2010

I recently received more good news concerning my film, “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields To Outer Space” which has now also been selected for screening at both the SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival in Pawtucket and Providence, Rhode Island (April 7-11, 2010), and the Imago Film Festival in Elgin, Illinois (April 5-9, 2010).

So based on this latest information, the film will actually premier at the SENE Festival’s Opening Night kickoff in Pawtucket on April 7th, rather than on the 10th in Delaware.

Hearts and Minds

March 5, 2010

I’m excited about the recent selection of my short film “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields To Outer Space” for inclusion in the Hearts and Minds Film Festival in Delaware next month. This will be the film’s premier screening at a festival, and is in fact the first film that I have submitted for consideration.

Here is a synopsis/director’s statement:

“In the U.S., immigration is both proud and tragic legacy. Except for the original people from whom a continent was stolen, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Yet each new wave that arrives with few possessions and many dreams find they survive, not because of, but in spite of, what they find: the least rewarding and most dangerous work, and the contempt of those already here.

As a child, Jose M. Hernandez trekked from Mexico to the fields of California where he picked strawberries with his family under the tense and squalid conditions migrant laborers still experience. In the summer of 2009, he traveled into space as an astronaut on the Discovery space shuttle.

His story honors both the desperate struggle of immigrants and the greatness of which they are capable.

As a filmmaker and a poet, and someone of Latino descent, I feel I must contribute in some way to the search for justice.  Because as an issue, immigration is so contentious and sensitive, I have also been striving to find a perspective that rises above the standard arguments, that is positive as well as principled, in the hopes that I might reach those on all sides. In making a film about the astronaut Jose Hernandez, I believe I have found this point of view.”

Here are some details about the Hearts and Minds Festival and its artistic mission:

“JOIN US!

5th Annual Hearts & Minds Film Festival

Friday, April 9th, 2010 – Delaware State University Campus

Saturday, April 10th, 2010 – Schwartz Center for the Arts

DOVER, DELAWARE

Our festival showcases “super-independent” films from around the world – things you won’t see screening at just any movie theater or on TV.

Each entry was selected not only for its excellence, but for its focus on social issues and the human condition: from faith to homelessness to race and identity to disability culture. In an era of increasing social and economic challenges, these films herald a timely call to awareness and service. There will be something for everyone who enjoys media that features remarkable characters from many walks of life, fiction and non-fiction films of all kinds.”

“If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, multiply that image by 24 or 30 frames per second and imagine the impact on an audience that a well crafted, issue-oriented film can have! In the best tradition of documentary film-making, independent artists today are lifting their “voices” by pointing their lenses at subjects critical to the health and sustainability of communities around the world. They draw attention. They celebrate. They rage. They entertain. And always, they create conversation.

People the world over love movies. Perhaps like no other art form, good films bring people from disparate backgrounds together, in one room, to share the entertainment experience. By selecting films that focus on topical subjects such as economics, crime, literacy, the environment, and themes that address the human condition like relationships, health, survival, legacy, Hearts and Minds Film seeks to acknowledge new works and to inform, inspire and empower diverse audiences in community-based settings.”

A Walk Through the Memory Palace

February 20, 2010

Pamela Johnson Parker is an adjunct professor of composition and creative writing and a medical language specialist in Western Kentucky.  Her poems, flash fiction and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Binnacle, The Other Journal, New Madrid, Pebble Lake Review, Holly Rose Review, Six Sentences, MiPOesias, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal and Anti-.  A Walk Through Memory Palace, published by Qarrtsiluni literary magazine as the winner of its 2009 poetry chapbook contest is Parker’s first chapbook or book-length publication, perfect bound with a glossy cover and surreal art by Carrie Ann Baade.

The chapbook title alludes to a mnemonic device developed in antiquity in which the user associates fragments of oratory or other text with physical locations in an effort to facilitate memorization.  The locations considered together form a “memory palace,” derived from Cicero’s story of Simonides, who escaped the gods’ destruction of a banquet hall, and used his recollection of the guests’ seating to identify the dead.

Consisting of ten poems, several of which are longer pieces, the book ranges far in its psychological and narrative geography, while keeping its temporal focus on the past.  In terms of mood, A Walk Through the Memory Palace relies on intimate rather than objective reporting.  So the title feels apt with respect to the poems, providing them a framework where their own interrelationship is less important than diverse connection with the poet as source.

This said, there is a strand of the bucolic, of the country house whose garden offers paths to a nearby pond, which threads a number of the pieces together.  In addition, the poems’ inhabitants and their surroundings tend to be viewed from portrait distance, and the language is well crafted and delicately informed.  Parker’s verse finds its power in gentle irony, quiet onomatopoeia and a lush though domestic lexicon.  The evident structure makes the most of a refined music, primarily brief stanzas and short lines consistent in syllable count, sometimes more formal with respect to meter or rhyme.

The first piece in the book, 78 RPM, demonstrates Parker’s skill at distilling felicity from nostalgia.  Here the second person perspective and a hint at the autobiographical, or at least directly witnessed, allow a sensuous return to the adrenaline and pheromones of adolescence.  The language is a filigree of the precisely observed, a snapshot packed with dynamic tension.

As the heavy arm angles

From left to right, as
The stylus traces
Its sapphire finger

Down the record’s groove,
As he skates a single
Finger along the sun-

Bleached down of your
Arm, and as you
Start to shake,

Heart rising and
Falling like Billie’s
Song, cool water poured

To the top, brimming,

Similarly, in Tattoos, a poem consisting of two parts, the language is a smorgasbord of the exotic, the colorful, and the intricate.  The first part focuses on the materials that compose tattoo ink—

Aisles of densities, textures:
dry dun-colored globes,

the testes of arctic
seals; cicada skins, fingers
of ginseng. Silver

Assam teas, great sacks
of rice, geese screeching from crates.

but ultimately furnishes a male protagonist to give the language an erotic gradient and intensity,

“Good for the kidneys,”

says the clerk — young, stripped
to the waist, a great dragon’s
body rippling across

his back, undulant
as he turns, wrapping spices,
plum wine, packages

in brown kraft

The second part zeroes in on the metaphor of the flesh as canvas for the indelible ink of experience, boosting the erotic mercury level even higher:

I want you
so much it hurts to
breathe, want your voice, telling
me about anchors, hearts, names
like Winona,

or Felecia
(either regional or
seductive); about
needles; about inks
of cinnabar, navy, that
almost piceous

black; about the tattoo
of skin against skin, that
most ephemeral
of canvases…

Breasts, the final poem in the collection, taps into Parker’s other textual expertise as a medical writer, effectively animating the sterile jargon of anatomy and frozen sections by juxtaposing it with a breast cancer patient’s living narrative.  What’s remarkable here is the poet’s emphasis on inspection—visual findings being a key part of diagnosis and medical management.  Parker presents multiple perspectives—that of the woman examining her normal breast, that of a clinically “objective” observer, that of the patient status post mastectomy, that of the pathologist, that of the poet, and that of the poet as affected witness, relative of the afflicted.  The effect, given Parker’s magnifying powers of observation, is striking.

Suturing, suturing,
Interrupted silk. The scar
Crosshatched, diagonal

From shoulder to her
Xiphisternum. Zipper, zipper.
Something’s wrong with this

White leather, this
Epidermis sliced and scraped
And stitched — no nipple,

No tissue, no muscle,
No lilt

Some Yellow Tulips, the one poem in the collection I found unsuccessful, suffered because its subject, the Holocaust, is less easily penetrated by Parker’s intimate tropes.  Genocide brutally resists understanding and even if the survivor-protagonist of the poem stoops to the familiar task of raising tulips, she is not of their world.  Parker relies on aesthetically satisfying comparisons to speak for themselves, and they cannot:

Today, her turban slants
Askew over her blue-rinsed hair; her plants,

Once straight as soldiers on her patio,
Are blitzkrieged out of order, the yellow

Tulips (three days blossoming in a vase
Atop her wrought-iron table) don’t erase

Her frown, her sloppy slippers, or the brown
Age spots (about the size of dimes around)

She often hides with gloves.

Parker also asks the stark rigidity of rhymed couplets to supplement the survivor’s concept of order as a source of security.  But this is more earnest than ironic, and misses the mark. The Holocaust is the ultimate corruption of order.  It is Nazi discipline.  It is dirt. It is bits of bone and ash, not the flowers that grow from them.   The poem does glance against a worthy truth: that the present has its own order against which survival can seem a disturbance, a scar, like the tattooed numbers on an old woman’s arm.  But this revelation appears only as a resolving coda.  Ultimately, it is Mrs. Sonnenkrantz herself who represents the terrible blossoming.  Perhaps she deserves a more harrowing exploration, which in the end must undermine beauty.

However, if Some Yellow Tulips misfires aesthetically, it does so like a dark bulb in a string of outdoor lights, letting the rest shine, their circuit still intact.   Parker has a wonderful palette of language, and good instincts for the memorable.  A Walk Through the Memory Palace richly demonstrates both.

Alexander and his Doctor

February 17, 2010

Alexander and his Doctor, about 1648-9, Eustache Le Sueur

According to classical anecdote, Alexander the Great suffered from mysterious maladies and from his own mystique. No one dared to treat him for fear that a bad outcome would doom the would-be healer to certain persecution by Alexander’s wildly solicitous minions. Finally, Phillip, Alexander’s physician, frustrated by the young king’s decline, offered care in the form of a salubrious potion. But a general had already impugned Philip in a letter to Alexander, which claimed Philip to be acting seditiously on behalf of Alexander’s Persian enemies, and not to be trusted. Despite this warning, Alexander boldly drank the medicine, as he did so, handing the letter to Philip to read.

In the painting, Philip stands above a recumbent Alexander, as the doctor-patient relationship would demand. But Alexander’s broad chest and raised eyes reveal his power, while Philip’s stooped posture and frown expose the frailty of his position. The painting reveals, perhaps unwittingly, the vital duality of the relationship, each risking himself, proffering his full commitment to the other. Here the physician assumes the role of servant rather than patriarch, though his experience and wisdom are evident.

Portrait of Dr. Felix Rey, January, 1889

January 29, 2010

The intern who cared for Vincent van Gogh after he severed his ear. The painting was a tributary gift. While Dr. Rey was quite fond of Van Gogh, who mentioned the physician favorably and intimately in his letters, Rey did not appreciate the painting, at least not at first. His parents used it to cover a hole in a chicken coop. Nevertheless, Dr. Rey clearly appreciated the essential role art played in his patient’s life, and recommended Van Gogh continue to pursue it. At this time, of course, Van Gogh’s painting was for the most part unknown and/or dismissed.

Haus LebensWert

January 27, 2010

Haus LebensWert is a philanthropically developed and supported facility in Cologne, Germany where patients may receive oncology services free of charge.  An integral part of Haus LebensWert’s vision and mission is to vigorously help cancer patients cope with life both during treatment and afterwards.  Another key component is the use of alternative and complimentary therapies.  These therapies are made available to patients in addition to traditional measures as part of a seamless whole.   Examples include psycho-oncology, art & music therapy, gymnastics and other exercise, voice instruction, Feldenkrais training, Nordic walking, dance therapy, massage and aroma massage, Tai-Qi, Qi-gong and acupuncture.   The Haus LebensWert, which complements a more traditional hospice, has been well received by both patients and practitioners, including those who refer their patients from outside (Hematology Am Soc Hematol Educ Program. 2009:320-5).

Critics of “complimentary and alternative medicine” (CAM) frequently complain of a double standard, and a lack of rigor in its evaluation.  Some feel this looseness encourages bloat and charlatanism, and risks distracting patients and practitioners from the path to “good outcome.”

“Academic medicine integrates three of the most honorable human activities: treating the ill, teaching, and research. The quality that all three share is persistent quest for truth. However, there is reluctance of academic medicine today to openly defend scientific truth by challenging the arguments and the very existence of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM). There is no sound proof of CAM effectiveness, no hypotheses on the mechanisms of their action, nor scientific reports testing them. The fact that patients are charged for these “healing” activities makes CAM a plain fraud. With these facts in mind, the name “complementary and alternative medicine” is undeserved and misleading. CAM advocates maintain that CAM should be recognized precisely because it is widely practiced and very promising, that it has a special holistic/human approach, and works at least as a placebo in situations where medicine can do nothing more. As it seems that the public interest in paramedicine will only grow stronger before it grows weaker, scientists must raise their voice and question the truthfulness of CAM more openly.”
Croat Med J. 2004 Dec;45(6):684-8.

While a truth-centered paradigm is difficult to dispute, there is more than scientific truth at stake in the quest for human understanding.  There is also existential truth.  While physician-scientists optimize therapeutic regimens by evaluating their effects on controlled trial populations, each individual patient attempts to grapple with his or her radically changed reality both in terms of life, and death.  Quantity—be it months of survival, tumor size, or fraction cured—can be measured with increasing accuracy and predictive value.  Quality can’t be so easily parameterized.  Moreover, even attempts made to evaluate “quality of life” tend to fall short because experience transcends subjective criteria when they are too rigidly circumscribed.  Patients exist within the larger communities of other patients, clinicians, family, and the omnibus of culture.  If society views the sick as mechanisms in need of repair, and devalues anything regarded as “touchy feely,” then those in charge will cut the funds that allow physicians to spend time talking with patients or considering the larger life outside the body, while adding to the already glutted ranks of surgi-centers and MRI scanners.  Certainly the possible advantages of reinvigorating the art of medicine, or even expanding it to include real art, such as expressive writing, or speaking, as therapy,will be viewed as unworthy of “serious” exploration.  This is what has happened so far.  The impersonal and alienating experience of illness is nearly a truism, at least in the U.S.

Hospitals, especially large referral centers, can be daunting and soulless places.  As we move necessarily towards more “cost-effective” healthcare it will be important not to lose sight of the fact that quality and quantity exist to a large degree as orthogonal axes.  Designing healthcare to have a more empirical and inclusive approach to alternative healing strategies assures a better chance at quality of life, and should be encouraged as long as these don’t induce patients to forego proven treatment.   A life of fear and despair may be nearly as much a lost life as for the patient who dies of his or her disease.

Haus LebensWert, by the way, means House for a Life Worth Living.

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