mimicking the masters

You know when you visit an art museum and you see an art student sitting down with her own easel and paintbrush, copying the brushstrokes of Degas or van Gogh or Michelangelo? Mimicking the masters. Imitating the greats. Practicing on others’ paintings before she finds her own voice, so to speak.

In January, my professor recommended that we journalists do this too. Take a great piece of narrative nonfiction. Copy it straight out of the book, magazine, newspaper. Pay attention to diction, syntax, how the writers connect words and use imagery.

When I have writer’s block, as I did last night and, well, still have today; when I’ve got the ideas but the language gets stuck in some cortex of my brain, that’s when I mimic my masters.

Except I copy poetry. Not journalism. Can’t escape my B.A.

It isn’t to be pretentious — I have a genuine, nerdy love for poetry. Some poems I read over and over again, and I cry the good kind of tears, the kind of tears that remind me that I am human and so were Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman and John Keats and e.e. cummings, and feeling defeated or paralyzed by emotions is so normal, so, so normal. Even on the shit days, you exist on this earth, a part of a large and beautiful ecosystem. It’s the type of crying that comforts.

Plus, writers of any sort (journalists included) can learn a whole lot from poets. Relying on their senses. Concise diction. Playing with language. It’s a comfort, sure. But it’s also inspiration.

Since it’s World Poetry Day, I thought I’d share a few poems that I’ve copied down to try and heal my writer’s block. I only took my Derek Walcott and Anne Sexton collections off of my bookshelf, so the poems come from those writers.

Here you are. Have a good cry.

Love after Love (Derek Walcott)

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bead. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Endings (Walcott again)

Things do not explode,
they fail, the fade,

as sunlight fades from the flesh,
as the foam drains quick in the sand,

even love’s lighting flash
has no thunderous end,

it dies with the sound
of flowers fading like the flesh

from sweating pumice stone,
everything shapes this

till we are left
with the silence that surrounds Beethoven’s head.

Anne Sexton’s re-writing of Cinderella (but just the end, as it’s very long)

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

 

 

 

 

kanye vs. kant

Today I’m going to write about Kanye West.

No, I’m not going to review his new album The Life of Pablo; I won’t talk about his problematic, sometimes misogynistic lyrics (something that I struggle to reconcile with enjoying his music); and I’m not gonna discuss that horrible “BILL COSBY IS INNOCENT” tweet. Again, problematic, and something that others can do a much better job expounding on than I can.

Instead, I’m going to write about Kanye West and taste.

Kanye’s return to Twitter has been one hell of a ride. He’s no longer going on about being responsible for empty water bottles left on planes, nor bemoaning the lack of cherub imagery on his Persian rugs, nor getting emotional over fonts.

But now he tweets about his music, clothing line and debt; creativity and inspiration; his reverence of Will Ferrell; and critiquing his critics.

At first glance, particularly for someone who doesn’t follow the man on Twitter, Kanye’s tweets about the Grammys seem to be the rants of a self-obsessed man with such a pathetic take on losing that he downs too much Hennessy and then, once properly hammered, takes to Twitter to enact a clumsy revenge.

But peek between the lines, Dear Reader, and you’ll see something else.

“Everybody with any form of taste.” The implication? Taste is something objectively good. You and I don’t get to decide what is tasteful on with our personal opinions.

And that’s when I thought, “Well, shit. Am I reading Kanye or Kant? It’s KANTYE.” (Please clap.)

See, the work of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher from the 1700s, has more in common with the Twitter account of Kanye West than one might expect. In his Critique of Judgment, he talks about something called sensus communis, or a common understanding of what constitutes “good” art.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Kant says we determine what is good art by using reason, the highest human faculty. Kanye … well, that’s not exactly his perspective. Or it doesn’t seem to be.

Again, taste. But this time Kanye implies something else: “cultural relevance.” Part of the reason the Grammys are not a valid awards show, Kanye insinuates, is because Grammy voters are out of touch with culture.

So here we wade into more complicated territory. Taste is something both objectively good and culturally relevant. That’s where Kanye and Kant diverge (feel free to argue; I haven’t studied Kant in depth for three years).

But if something that is Good is determined by a common consensus exclusively from those who are in touch with pop culture, then doesn’t that exclude or devalue the opinions of people who aren’t in touch? Why does Kanye assign different standards of taste depending on who listens to March Madness? And if only those people who are culturally relevant can have taste, then can taste truly be objective?

Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe Kanye’s understanding of art falls into what Kant would label the tier of art below the Good, which is the beautiful, or that which pleases. “In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion,” wrote Kant.

But I get the feeling that Kanye thinks that art occupies more of a transcendental plane than merely a pleasurable one.

Hell, maybe Kanye’s tweets have more to do with class, race and power instead of art and taste. I’ll get to that too (probably). But for now, I’m thinking out loud here (and trying to remember how to blog instead of write journalistically), which means that I’m going to leave this post open-ended. If you have thoughts, I’d love to read them.

(Here’s the A$AP Rocky music video, by the way. I’d say “You decide whether it’s any good,” but, you know, we just discussed that.)

i dropped the photography class

I did. I dropped it.

I’ve only ever dropped on other class in my life, which was my microeconomics class my freshman year of college. I dropped it because I was in a car accident in a freak blizzard, totaled my car, got severe whiplash and couldn’t keep up with my classes.

I dropped out of this one because it was eating up too much of my time. I’m still reporting for the Columbia Missourian on higher education, and this time, I’m taking on an investigative project about race at the University of Missouri. But I’ve made very little progress because, well, the photography class was taking up my time.

So no more blog posts on photography. In fact, I’ll delete those. Breathe a sigh of relief, everyone.

What should I write about now? Should I treat this thing like a diary again? Should I write about my 14-hour days reporting on the Mizzou protests and hunger strike, how I couldn’t sleep for a week? Should I write about the pain  of dating someone who, for reasons neither he nor I can control, can’t commit to a serious relationship?

Nah, that’s too private.

Should I brag? Should I write about my accomplishments?

No, I’m not an asshole.

Should I write more cultural analyses and critiques? Should I write about literature?

Maybe. I really miss that.

Stay tuned.

budapest

Budapest is better than Paris, I think.

It’s a city of two million people (Budapest, not Paris), which is about one-fifth of Hungary’s total population. It spreads out across the Danube, because it was originally two cities: the rolling hills of Buda, once belonging to the Romans, and the flat land of Pest, too sandy to be arable before the markets hit its shore.

You can see the layers of the city in its buildings, in its architecture. Many bits of the city were built in the nineteenth century, some older. You can see gothic, baroque, neo-classical buildings lining the streets, often right next to each other. Look closely, you can see bullet holes in walls.

A big part of Budapest was bombed during the Second World War (damn Americans!), and when the Communists rebuilt, their buildings were stale and ugly, big slabs of concrete with uniform windows. Every socialist building looks like a prison (damn Russians!). And those older buildings, the ones build in green and yellow stucco in the style of unique Hungarian architecture that you can’t find in ye-old-fancy-ass Paris or even central Europe, like ye-uber-trendy-Berlin, they sometimes go unwashed. You see the original color kept up on the bottom floor, but look up, and the greens and yellows and pinks and reds have turned into black, black, black, thanks to the smoky fumes of industry and lack of funds for upkeep.

But the parts that aren’t meticulously cleaned for tourists — well, that’s what makes Budapest the most interesting. It’s honest, organic. Layers of history right on top of each other. How many stories about Hungarian people do the buildings tell on their own, just standing there? Well over two million, I’m sure.

(This isn’t to say that I don’t like Paris, by the way. I like Paris very much. I just don’t like the center of Paris, which is mostly filled with tourists making the peace sign and stupid faces into selfie sticks (I assume, as the selfie stick was invented after I visited in 2012), and pickpockets, and French millionaires dressed in Chanel stepping over beggars, and people who incessantly follow you around as if you’re playing tag, trying to sell you a mini-Eiffel Tower as a souvenir for five euros a pop.)

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rambling from my journal in hungary: les jours tristes/szomorú nap/smutne dni

Art museums are some of my favorite places. I like staring at pieces of art that tell a story about a certain time and place in history, and I like filling in the blanks with my own ideas.

In Kansas City, I’m always within twenty minutes of  the Nelson-Atkins. That museum’s gallery of American paintings is something else. So much Thomas Hart Benton and George Caleb Bingham, those capturers of the middle-American spirit. They were Missourians, so it’s appropriate that those paintings of small-town Missouri politicians soliciting local shop owners in suspenders are gathered in the state’s museums. And it’s great! I love those paintings, I love those stories.

But I don’t identify with them. They tell me nothing about my own history or even my own culture. First-generation American, watching other museum-goers muse over their great-great-great grandparents. So what, I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life? I still don’t recognize Missouri as my Home-with-a-capital-“H.” Those paintings are foreign to me, to my place in time, to my history, to my family.

I prefer going to art museums in Eastern Europe, like the National Hungarian Art Gallery I visited in the Buda hills of Budapest. The photos of those peasants — tending to sheep and picking flowers in the fields — that’s my history. I come from some of world’s the poorest people. When my grandfather was a child, his parents were too destitute to care for him. So, he went to live with his uncle. His uncle gave him chores, and one of them was to let the cows out during freezing morning hours. Nagypapa (Grandfather) couldn’t afford shoes as a little kid. So he’d go out barefoot in the frosted fields. And he’d step in cow shit to keep his feet warm.

My dad told me this story on the car ride back to Izsak from Budapest, and I crinkled my nose in disgust. Visceral reaction: “ew, ew, ew.” But that’s where I come from. The child of immigrants. Poorest of the poor. Half-Hungarian, half-Polish. One hundred percent Eastern European. Adopted, engulfed, eaten up by the States. That’s temporary, I hope.

But the art I saw in that National Hungarian Gallery, of the peasants in the countryside from the turn of the century — sure, maybe that’s the first time I saw those paintings. But that’s my story. Those are my great-great-(great)-grandparents. And I felt a familiarity with those subjects, you know?

“Biro elott” (“Before the Judge”), Bihari Sandor. 1886.


I’ve always been conscious of class struggle, mainly because my family has been desperately poor for the better part of history. People say, “You’re so lucky!” when I tell them that I’m visiting Hungary. “How cool!”
How do I tell them that my savings account is more-or-less depleted? This is not a vacation. I came for my grandmother, because at 84 years old, she’s dying of cancer. The medication is dulling her brain. She thinks she’s 15 years old, and she’s convinced that my dad (her son) is her older brother. She’s helpless. I’m helpless. All I can do is watch her waste away as her brain slows down. The cancer sped up the process, but her anxiety has been killing her for years. It scares me like hell.

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Aside

sayonara, hair!

Photo on 3-28-15 at 6.05 PM #2 Photo on 5-1-15 at 8.25 PM

el gran mojado/arcangel

The myth of the first world is that
development is wealth and technology progress.
It is all rubbish.
It means  you are no longer human beings
but only labor.
It means that the land you live on is not earth
but only property.

This is not a benefit for UNESCO
We are not the world.
This is not a rock concert.

– Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange