Traveling on Foot: Werner Herzog

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Guest post by Carol Keeley

Herzog 4.jpgI first saw Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe at the Music Box, a Chicago theater with faux stars overhead and a live organist between features. While Herzog stuffs garlic and herb bundles into the toe of each boot, he invokes a “real war against commercials, against talks shows” and television, then pauses to add hot sauce to the boot before lacing it. He brushes dirt from the sole with his sleeve, then drops it in a stock pot. Alice Waters later adds a bucket of duck fat and some rosemary. The result of a bet with Errol Morris, who was struggling to make Gates Of Heaven, Herzog hoped this act would encourage scared filmmakers. After the boots simmer for five hours, Herzog sits to carve one in front of an audience, deciding to skip the gummy rubber sole. When you eat a chicken, he reasons, you leave the bones.

I’m not a cineaste. I see films maybe once every four years. I know nothing about the genre and fear our increasing addiction to the visual, the eye-driven. But Herzog thrills me. He thrives in the crack between crude truth and the mind’s capaciousness. At the recent Conference on World Affairs, he dismissed cinema verité, “as if facts constituted truth,” and claimed it’s always been “very clear to me that I am a storyteller and not an accountant of history.” Hence Fitzcarraldo. Herzog lives and creates in liminal space.
werner-herzog-eat-his-shoe.jpgBeing Bavarian explains his “affinity for the fertility of the jungle,” how it represents “an intensified form of reality,” he says in Herzog on Herzog. He often stresses that he’s Bavarian, not German. They’re as different as Scots and Brits, he insists. Take Ludwig II, “vivacious, crude and roughly hewn,” also known as the Swan King. And the Mad King. He built Disneyesque castles “full of Bavarian dreaminess and exuberance,” says Herzog, whereas William II, “that idiot, spent all his money on wars.” He goes on to describe King Ludwig wandering the countryside, sleeping in huts, knocking on doors, then stripping off royal jewelry to give to the child who brings him water.

“The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.” This is Herzog’s dictum. For him, this means “traveling without a house on my back.” Just a toothbrush, compass, a change of underwear. If you travel without luggage, you must ask for shelter, forage for food. This is precisely what he did when told Lotte Eisner was dying. “She was the missing link, our collective conscience, a fugitive from Nazism” and an expert film historian. “German cinema could not do without her.” He knew if he traveled on foot to see her, “she will not die. I’m not superstitious at all,” he tells us. “I just knew this.” So he walked from Munich to Paris.

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How Tweet It Is: Electric Literature Goes Electronic


In June 2009, Electric Literature joined the literary magazine scene. So far, they have released three issues filled with the great writers you expect: Michael Cunningham, Colson Whitehead, Lydia Davis. Not to mention Jim Shepard, who guest edits the upcoming Fall 2010 Ploughshares, and Aimee Bender, whose fiction will appear in Shepard’s issue.
Their novelty? Take a look at Rick Moody, a Ploughshares veteran, who in November brought the serial to a new generation: a whole story in tweets. “Some Contemporary Characters” appeared on Twitter in 153 installments. As with any project in its infancy, some found the format cluttered with unrelated comments or retweets from co-publishers, though it certainly caused a firestorm online. Beyond Twitfic, Electric Literature comes to readers in almost every conceivable format from printed magazine to audiobook, e-book, and iPhone application.
Jim Shepard earned substantial buzz not just for his story “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” but for an animated trailer influenced by Asian painting, with some American detective noir for good measure:
Moody’s first six tweets and first paragraphs from all authors can be found at Electric Literature. Subscriptions are available in six formats, and soon they plan to add Android to the mix. While you’re waiting until August for Jim Shepard’s issue of Ploughshares, take a gander at Electric. Read their (very extensive) blog. Savor those days when lit mags make headlines.

The Acrostic: A Love Story

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Most of us wrote them in grade school, our names printed in large letters down the left margin and traced over with marker, our early views of ourselves summed up in a handful of lively adjectives. A few years ago, when leaving for graduate school, I received a particularly excellent one from a young person I’m close to, the “R” of my name yielding the memorable “rosy.” I was flattered by the poem–what a rare gift–and in addition, by how specific the poem was to me. I am rosy, I thought. This poem is about me.

The acrostic has a way of doing that to you–its flattery is complete and convincing. Because the acrostic (often) incorporates the name of its subject into the form, the poem essentially honors its recipient twice, in both form and content. More powerfully, the effect of seeing one’s own name written down appeals to our conflation of our name with our “self,” as if the written letters that make up our name are somehow a transliteration of our identity.

According to the always trusty Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the acrostic form didn’t originate in written texts but is speculated to be linked to early mnemonic devices developed to encourage oral transmission of sacred texts. In addition to such a utilitarian explanation, the entry also allows for a certain “mystical significance” to the form as well. However you interpret terms like sacred and mystical, one thing is certain–the acrostic form has been around for a very long time and has kept some very good company.

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A Writer’s Envy, Part III: Naked People in Pain

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So I don’t envy all artists, all the time. I wouldn’t, for example, have wanted to be the Israeli performance artist Sigalit Landau while she was making her piece Barbed Hula. Pronged metal puncturing my belly? (You’ve been warned.) I’ll pass.


Nor would I have wanted to be Marina Abramovic, dancing until she dropped or lying naked beneath a skeleton or brushing her hair until it fell out.

I don’t, in other words, relish using my body as a medium, pushing its limits, exploring its vulnerability, its endurance, its fragile resilience. But neither do I admire any artists more than those who do so.
Performance art, which has been at the forefront of the avant garde for decades, has finally broken into the mainstream–or at least the mainstream of the high art world–with that unmistakable stamp of cultural approval, the Major Retrospective. Landau’s piece was recently on display at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center as part of 100 Years, an exhibition surveying performance art’s relatively obscure history. At the same time, none other than the venerable–and not terribly edgy–Museum of Modern Art is showcasing Abramovic’s entire career in The Artist Is Present, from now until May 31.

My wife and I had a chance to see both of these shows on our recent New York trip, and afterward I tried to sum up the history of performance art in my own words. “One hundred years,” I wrote in my notebook. “Many naked people in pain.” My wife, though, who is far more articulate about art than I am, captured its essence with greater complexity and grace. At one point while taking in the Abramovic retrospective, she turned to me and said, “She doesn’t fuck around.”


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The Greensboro Five

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Among the iconic civil rights heroes in a recent Platon portfolio in The New Yorker were the Greensboro Four. The image of these young men at a whites-only counter in Woolworth’s ignited a movement and is part of our national conscience. But this shot includes a terrified young man who has too long gone unidentified.

greensboro.jpgBehind the counter is James Spencer Dungee. This photo, taken the second day of the sit-ins, includes only two of the actual Greensboro Four. Spencer was nineteen. He had worked at the store for five years and had advanced to working the grill. Though he knew two of the protesters from Dudley High School, he knew nothing about the planned sit-in. “I was more shocked than the managers,” he says today.

On February 1, 1960, four college freshmen sparked a revolution by waiting for Woolworth’s to open, then calmly sitting at the lunch counter. Blacks were expected to get food at the pick-up station and eat elsewhere. As they sat down, Spencer kept whispering, “What are you doing?” He knew the cost of such courage. His cousin, Josephine Ophelia Boyd, was the first black student at Greensboro Senior High School. While the Little Rock Nine, escorted by federal troops, was making national news, Spencer was organizing carloads of friends to patrol his cousin’s dangerous journey to and from school. While there, she endured students spitting in her food, splashing ink and ketchup, endless insults. At home, two family dogs were killed, death threats phoned; her mother was fired and her father’s sandwich shop incinerated. Spencer knew what quiet teenagers seeking justice suffered.

“Just be cool,” his friends whispered back to him. The Woolworth’s manager let the freshmen sit, without service, until closing the store early. He figured that would be the end of it. The next morning, they returned, joined by nearly thirty others. Within days, there were three hundred students at the Greensboro Woolworth’s, and protesters occupied lunch counters in fifty-four cities across the South. “That’s when I got scared,” Spencer says. “I was more afraid of somebody getting hurt, you know, someone losing his temper. That’s when you had to think about it.” Police started arresting protesters mid-week, as downtown businesses were impacted. Sit-ins spread to Walgreen’s and other five-and-dimes, Spencer recalls, but not to Kress, a department store that complained of bomb threats. “Their food wasn’t worth it,” he chuckles. “Hot dogs for ten cents, you know. And they tasted like ten-cent hot dogs.”

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Elizabeth Strout, the Subconscious Writer

Several times during her question-and-answer session at Emerson College on April 15, Elizabeth Strout admitted to making things up. No one would begrudge a fiction writer of doing that–fabrication is part of her job. But Strout “just knew” when her latest book Olive Kitteridge was ready. “Which isn’t very interesting,” she added.

Strout QA.jpgStrout shared with us how the collection came together, almost subconsciously. The character of Olive Kitteridge was born as an image: standing by the picnic table at her son’s wedding, deciding she had had enough festivities for one day. “That was the first visitation,” she said. From this snapshot, Strout created “A Little Burst,” the fourth story in her book, but the first full Olive story she wrote: “That was definitely Olive from beginning to end. I wrote that story in a couple of months, which for me was amazing.”

She struggled for ten years on “A Different Road,” in which Olive and her husband Henry are held hostage in a hospital. Originally starring an Evelyn, the story became clear to Strout only when she reconsidered the main character. “I bet this is an Olive story,” she told herself, “and it was.”

Other stories, newer and older, were rewritten once Olive arrived. “I don’t write any story in chronological order, so I don’t write a book that way,” Strout said. Upon writing “A Little Burst,” she immediately envisioned a book: The Olive Stories. With marketing what it is, the title changed, but the content remained the same. Random House acquired Olive Kitteridge when she was just one-third finished. Her editor of her previous work, Daniel Menaker, was on his way out as the manuscript came in. She recalled that he read “Incoming Tide” and made one useful suggestion. But beyond that, Strout said, “every word was what I wanted.”

She’s a constant reviser. “I write a sentence and rewrite it immediately,” she said. One reader would review her past work before she sent it out, so that the whole process remained “secretive and very compressed.” Nowadays, she has more readers, but that’s not her preference.

She does prefer mess–spreading out papers, piecing everything together at the last minute. Asked about the order of the stories, she offered to once again make up an answer. In reality, when she left the cottage in Provincetown, Rhode Island, where she finished revising Olive Kitteridge, the order she placed them in lasted through the final product.
Strout just knew, which seemed to be the theme of her talk.

During her days in law school, for example, she completed a lot of writing and would sneak novels like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin inside her textbooks during class. But she always considered herself a writer. “It’s just a compulsion,” she admitted.

While she said she finds her writing “hysterically funny”–and hoped we agreed with her–she also stressed its deep sincerity. “I think writing is very serious business. I’m not interested in showing off, or coyness, or tricks, or pyrotechnics.” For Elizabeth Strout, fiction is about sentence upon good sentence–combining into one cohesive whole. Likewise for editing Ploughshares: she felt her hand was in a box of shapes, which she maneuvered until somehow they came together. “These things do happen often,” she said, “with a degree of surprise.”

–Joshua Garstka

Videos of Elizabeth Strout’s Q&A and reading coming soon!

Ride, Sally, Ride

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As a child of the ’80s, I was keenly aware of that vast region of “somewhere else” called space, and the astronauts who donned special outfits to venture into it. This hyper-awareness was in part due to the famed Sally Ride, the youngest and first female astronaut to journey into space in 1983. In my memory I seemed to be getting the message from all sides that I could now, as a girl, be anything I wanted–as long as I wanted to fly into space. But all I knew about space was that it was off to the left or right of earth and that it was vast. And that it terrified me.

When I was younger I would often lie in my twin bed, my sister asleep in her bed across our small room, and imagine “the universe.” It is a practice others have told me they also engaged in, so I am certain the impulse to test the world’s boundaries in this imaginative way serves a particular need in young people. My test usually began as a black sky peppered with stars and milky swirls, and I would eventually push past that layer of stars into someplace behind the blackness, and then behind that blackness, until it was too much and I couldn’t conceive of it anymore.

Poems seemed then, and still do seem, a perfect solution to the terror of nothingness. They took the raw, floating material in my small head and ordered it a bit. Besides, I was in love with terms like “the Milky Way,” and even felt a certain bodily satisfaction at the name “Sally Ride,” which conjured a 1950s girl-gang leader mixed with the bonny lasses of yesteryear. The simple “Sally” paired with the command to “ride” suggested to me she was riding off into space on a horse.

I even remember all the renderings of her, drawings in books and on worksheets I completed in grade school, a great posed photo in her NASA jumpsuit with a model rocket beside her. But in my favorite image she looks totally unposed, her jumpsuit just a little unzipped, her hair wild and her nose crinkled. I could imagine this woman riding her horse into space for sure.

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A Writer’s Envy, Part II: The Artist’s Husband

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Of course I’m not the first writer to express envy of the visual artist. As Geoff Dyer notes in Out of Sheer Rage, his book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence (a book I can’t recommend highly enough; it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and if you look at the cover, you’ll see that Steve Martin agrees),

Writers always envy artists, would trade places with them in a moment if they could. The painter’s life seems less ascetic, less monkish, less hunched. Instead of the austere mess of the desk there is the chaos of the studio: dirty coffee cups, paint smudged cassette decks, drawings of the artist’s girlfriend, naked, on the walls… For the writer the artist’s studio is, essentially, a place where women undress. Van Gogh may have warned that ‘painting and fucking a lot don’t go together’ but the smell of white spirits and paint is suggestive of nothing else so much as afternoon sex. Personally, I would love to have been a painter.

Not long after, Dyer acknowledges that this notion of the artist may in fact be a romantic delusion, with little connection to reality. This is something to which I can attest firsthand, being married to an artist myself. I have long since been disabused of the idea that the artist’s studio is a place where only magic happens–or sex, for that matter–and therefore should have been, by now, cured of my envy. But I haven’t, for reasons to which I’ll return next week.

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First, though, to clarify: My wife isn’t a painter but a video installation artist, which may be the least romantic of all visual artists, since video installation studios aren’t filled with white spirits and paint smudged cassette decks and naked drawings, but instead with tangled RCA cables and extension cords and blinking external hard drives. And when my wife is working in hers, she’s usually as hunched as I am at my writing desk, bent over her video camera or over the keyboard of her editing station.
Unlike Pipilotti Rist and Leandro Erlich, both of whom, I have no doubt, are accompanied by a crew of assistants when installing a piece, my wife isn’t yet an international art sensation. As a result, her crew usually consists of one person. That’s right: her adoring husband.

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The Culture of Fire

Welcome to another fiction writer, Carol Keeley, who will post every Friday. As always, thanks for reading, and we welcome any and all comments these guest blogs provoke.

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Young women of a certain temperament tend to have a Frida Kahlo period. Mine bloomed post-Plath, pre-Rilke. I was bewitched by the fever of colors, her mythic suffering–skewered by a steel handrail, then thirty-two operations, mostly spinal, many botched, a crushed foot and leg, finally amputated–the eyebrows Diego Rivera described as “the wings of a blackbird,” and the unflinching self-portraits. But what gripped me most was the moment her body was fed to the furnace.

Kahlo.JPGSick of years spent in bed, often wearing plaster corsets, Frida dreaded burial more than death, so she planned to be cremated. Friends crowded the primitive crematorium as Rivera helped lift her body from the coffin and laid it on a cart. It rolled along iron tracks toward the crematory oven as mourners sang. Then the oven door roared open and heat blasted everyone against a back wall, shoved Frida into sitting, her hair a blazing halo. One witness said she seemed to wear a wry smile, framed in a crackling sunflower. The singing continued through the four hours she spent in the oven. Her ashes emerged as a delicate skeleton, which Rivera sketched just as a puff of wind erased it.

The last words in her diary were, “I hope the exit is joyful–and I hope I never come back–Frida.”

Long after I stopped observing any other remnant of Catholicism, I still found myself at Mass every Ash Wednesday. I believe in penitence–my favorite Jewish holiday is Yom Kippur–but that wasn’t what compelled me. It was the stark lyricism of kneeling as the priest wet his thumb, jammed it into a bowl of burnt palms, then intoned, “Remember that thou are dust and unto dust thou shalt return,” as the ashes chuffed against my forehead. Some particles so large, they scratched, others so fine, they powdered my cheeks as the smudged cross formed. It was very tactile, both coarse and tender.

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Winter 2009-10 Reviewed in New Pages

As we wrap four grwinter cover.JPGeat months with Tony Hoagland and company, we’ll leave you with this review in New Pages of the Winter 2009-10 issue of Ploughshares.

Angela Sweeney praises Hoagland for “choosing to pair works of transcendentalism and realism in such a way that brings out the best of both. Each piece varies in style from the previous one, serving to continually cleanse the palate and keep each work fresh.”

She pulls out three pieces that spoke to this effect: Christian Barter‘s “Heisenberg,” which she calls “one of the more thoughtful poems of the issue”; David Stuart MacLean‘s “The Answer to the Riddle is Me,” fusing memory with identity; and Adrian Blevins‘ “The Waning,” a “vivid” reflection on the aging process.

“Hoagland organizes the issue in a way that keeps the mind alive from cover to cover,” Sweeney concludes her review. Read the whole article here.