Saturday, June 12, 2021

Process XXXI

Achievement always makes me feel like I am getting away with something. I was stressed out about my poetry assignment all week, turning it in after midnight Saturday (Sunday morning). And what do you know? Actually working hard on something can be rewarding, even if you don’t realize it at the time.

Started re-reading Still Life With Woodpecker a week ago, but I am finding it demoralizing. When I mentioned it online, a number of people over a certain age, many of them women, expressed their long-felt affection for the book, and for others by Robbins. But particularly this one.

And yet, while my twenty year-old self was tickled by his near abusive use of metaphor and his liberated approach to sexual desire, I feel that centering the narrative on a progessive young woman is a trick, and very dated. His fetishization of Leigh-Cheri (is it lee-sheree or lay-cherry, her name is a sexual pun) seems creepy and I know how the story goes, as she will be seduced and radicalized by a man.

What is interesting is that, like many books, this one was recommended to me by a woman I was infatuated with, the same woman who never wore a watch because she didn’t want to be bound by the arbitrary strictures of time and besides, asking people the time, when necessary, means not being afraid of others. Because of her, for a year I did not wear a watch and as a result I was late for everything. Robbins should write a book about that relationship.

Huh. Maybe I will write a play about it. Hmn. Notes.

Okay. So. This is my bye week in poetry, I need to keep up with my reading but no assignment due today. Well-timed, as we are throwing a party for the graduate tomorrow. Summer in full effect. I feel like it's all gonna happen now.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Process XXX

CHOICE
How can I be so active and yet feel like it’s all rushing past me. Last week we went out of town for a brief vacation at the out-laws. And yet, I felt like I had barely a moment to rest. There was rest, but my mind? My mind was active. And yet, I was not doing anything with it. No projects, no writing, no drawing, just trying to read, or rather re-read, a book.

What I wanted to do was sit on the porch (the newly painted porch, it’s beautiful) at my mother-in-law’s house, and just read. It’s not a thing that really happened. I mean, it was a bit too cool. But so what? I could have bundled up, it could have happened.

I had rushed out of town on Saturday, just as I had completed and turned in my poetry assignment for the week. I had spent all week planning and plotting a “declaim and exclaim” video, analyzing works by Philip Freneau and Phillis Wheatley. And then I spent the weekend fretting about my grade. Fretting about my grade? There’s a first.

The thing about a summer course (which I realized too late) is that it is sixteen weeks packed into six. So my work, on a weekly basis, must be more detailed, and there is less room for error. This is the end of week three.

Today, this day, a Saturday, I will spend luxuriating in romantic and sentimental poetry, which is just what I think I need right now. Don't we all?

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Prom 2021

Daughter (left) & Prom Date
Last year, as everything was shutting down, the first person to truly understand how long does all might take was my daughter. Class of 2021, she saw all the events of her senior year vanish from her imagination, even last spring. No concerts, no plays, all celebrations, canceled. She saw all this first.

The other night an audience gathered on the lawn in front of Cleveland Heights High School to watch the first live, public performance of the school year. Middle school and high school orchestras, Including both of my children. It was a beautiful evening, for so many reasons.

Last year I wrote a short play for the class of 2020, the year of the Lost Prom. Maria Guardino Schreiner made this great recording from it. Last night, my daughter got her Prom, a scrap of senior year, saved.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Process XXIX

And we’re back. That’s it! That was my summer break. Just kidding, I will get one later. For now, I am taking one, six-week course in early American poetry. Already I am dead chuffed, inspired by the works of Anne Bradstreet to compose a poem about selling my mother’s house.

Tuesday, my son turned sixteen, and I rose early to make him a special breakfast, to celebrate him. By eight I remembered I had not done my morning pages, and it was at that moment that I chose not to.

I chose not to. I wanted to exercise, and then to get right to my work, and not to sit and write. I chose to break a six hundred and eighteen day streak of writing, writing every morning. Because doing so had become a burden. I had to write. I was no longer choosing. It was about the record, not about the process.

Siri tells me that six hundred and eighteen days from now it will be late January, 2023. That is far into the future. Six hundred and eighteen days ago, my mother was still alive, and the pandemic was only just starting, on the other side of the world.

I have been working, I have been writing. I have been moving and I will be writing. We begin again, every day, as we all must begin again. And it is with this in mind, that I compose verse about my mother’s belongings.

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Negative Zone (comic strip)

From "The Negative Zone"

This is the foreword to "The Negative Zone", a sixteen-page comic created for my Comic Theory/Queer Studies course at Kent State, Spring 2021.

At the tender age of thirteen, I was frequenting coffee houses after dark with friends of friends, smoking cigarettes and consuming far too much caffeine, and listening as these strange cohorts discussed the philosophy of STAR TREK, made catty remarks about the entrances and exits of familiar faces, and whether or not “to pork” was an appropriate synonym for fucking. 

Pengo, age 14
No one described themselves as queer, but they weren’t exactly straight, either. A self-identified witch claimed she could never get pregnant because she could menstruate at will, a twenty-one year-old hipster had no issues getting my fifteen year-old girlfriend to tongue kiss him, sitting right there in front of me. The rules were not familiar, I did not know what was all right and what was not.

What does “all right” mean, anyway?

As found families go, this one was somewhat toxic and my takeaway included some bad wisdom. Around the same time I was introduced to NORTH STARR COMICS, which was first operated out of this guy’s basement, and later in the storefront of a motel. It was the kind of place dudes (pretty much entirely dudes) might hang out all day. It was a place of safety for nerds where we could eat crap and talk shit and read all the comics and crack jokes and watch movies and just be ourselves.

Pengo & Serena
Up to a point. Our sexuality, ourselves, this remained an awkward subject. This “Bronze Age” of comics, where even the mainstream producers like Marvel and DC were exploring issues of race and class through titles like Cloak & Dagger and the New Teen Titans and the explosively popular X-MEN (and its countless spin-offs) they still served a dominantly heteronormative, binary gender paradigm.

Alternative comics were actually worse. Unburdened by the COMICS CODE AUTHORITY these books could freely offer images of sex and sexual violence with impunity, and of course, even in such high-brow and critically acclaimed titles as V for Vendetta and Sandman, women were the subject of degrading abuse in a manner the men characters never were.

And so many of us (I include myself in this number) were homophobic and sexist by upbringing, if not by nature. A comic shop was a much an example of Foucault’s beloved PANOPTICON as anywhere else in the larger society where, by awareness of constant observation by others, we were still self-governing our behaviors and statements, for fear of judgement or punishment by the larger group -- even if the standards of that behavior in a comic shop was alternate to that which was found in school or on the streets.

Pengo, age 52
THE NEGATIVE ZONE is a fictional space, inspired by the comic stores I frequented: Kovacs, North Starr, Cosmic Comics, Mr. Fantasy’s. A place where teenagers mingled with adults who shared a common interest, and in many cases had a greater opportunity to be their true selves, even when they weren’t sure who that was yet, even as they were in the process of becoming. To quote my man Jean Paul SARTRE, “A person who claims that they fundamentally have a certain identity is in bad faith.”

Many genres and subcultures came together under such roofs, the superhero FANGIRLS AND BOYS and the science fiction geeks, the fantasy seekers and their Wiccan counterparts. And yes, there were online systems back then where computer aficionados from different communities could chat with complete anonymity and pretend to be whoever they wanted to be.

If this all sounds perhaps a little risky, the underage and the aged interacting so far from the watchful eyes of parents and guardians, it was that, too. As it is in our schools and churches, and halls of government. But for those who sought the freedom to explore and to discover brave new identities, it was a haven, a sanctuary, a laboratory. We were IN THE ZONE.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Frantic Four (comic strip)

Artwork: Tom Packis
When I was a kid, I would get on a city bus, by myself, and take it to Lakewood. This was when I was ten or eleven. I’d get off on Clifton, and walk a half-mile south to get to Kovacs Comics at 16108 Detroit Ave.

I have this strange memory of a man with these bizarre growths, hanging from his face. They were like spheres of flesh, hanging from stretched tethers of skin. I found it horrifying, and only glanced at him and looked away. His face was unreal, grotesque.

Years later, in a novelty shop, I saw a rubber mask featuring the exact same, bizarre deformity, and I wonder, was that man real? Did I conflate some memories? Or was the guy on the bus wearing that mask and I couldn’t tell?

Anyway there I was, a child, on the RTA, on my own. Freedom! I can’t imagine my kids wanting to do that. 

I had a flyer from Mister Fantasy’s (15015 Detroit) and it was just an ad for the store. All the comics shops did that, printed up flyers to put into each bag of comics you bought. 

Artwork: Philip L. Fried
This flyer featured an original comic. “Mr. Fantasy” was direct addressing the reader, talking about how the store was closing, and that this was the last comic. Mr. Fantasy was a big bearded guy, the stereotypical image of a guy who owned a comic book store.

Thing was, though the comic was cheeky and cheery, in the last panel the character had shot himself. It was just a blood-spattered wall.

In 1981 or 1982, I was introduced to North Starr Comics. Originally it was a mail order concern, operated out of this guy’s basement in Fairview Park. But he had fixed up his basement the way you would a store, and my friend Tom brought me there. It was so cool, like a comic book speakeasy. If you knew the password, you could browse and buy and hang out and shoot the shit.

By 1983 he’d rented a storefront on Lorain Avenue. A proper store, open for business. And there was a regular cast of characters who would hang out there and antagonize each other. Some of us would spend hours there, reading books, watching comings and goings. If you have been paying attention, North Starr Comics was the inspiration for The Negative Zone, my recent comic book project.

"Ghoul" reference
Dave, the proprietor, also had fliers. They were usually cheesecake pin-ups drawn by this guy named Phil. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we made a superhero parody featuring characters based on all the guys who hung out at the store?

Looking back, this turned out to be my first public foray into script writing. I wasn’t much of an artist then (am I now?) but Tom was, and so we created The Frantic Four which was full of inside jokes and references. 

It’s not for the ages, suffice to say I didn’t know what to write about, things just happened. Mostly it was a goof, inspired by Marvel Comics’ own self-parodies like Not Brand Echh, or the kind of riffing humor you would find in Cracked

One lesson I am glad I learned early was about unappreciated mockery. We were all in on the joke, but there was one guy who had been the butt of our jokes for some time, and I made him the villain of the story. In his first appearance he was an overweight, diet pop swilling creep who had a cadre of robot servants dressed like high school cheerleaders. We used his actual first name, and the drawing did look like him.

After that "issue" of the comic was produced and distributed, I received a very terse but measured phone call from him (he was in his mid-20s at the time, I was fourteen) explaining to me exactly what the meaning of the legal term "libel" was and recommending I put more thought into my work.

He wasn't wrong. He wasn't wrong at all. It freaked me out. So I had his character unceremoniously murdered by Dr. Doom and never mentioned him by name again.

It is remarkable to me, however, that for a couple years I was producing scripts, that another artist was turning them into pages, and that people actually received them to read (or throw away) in their monthly bag of comics.

My interest in the project waned at the same time my interest in superhero “floppy” comics did. By the time I was a junior in high school I was so engaged in other things, and that was around the time they ret-conned the Jean Grey/Phoenix Saga (if you know, you know) and I was moving on. North Starr closed shop while I was at college, which is as good a metaphor as anything else.

Creating The Negative Zone comic, taking the class, was  quite restorative. I felt like I had the opportunity to rewrite some history I had closed off in my memory, and to remember how enjoyable that period of my life was. It was so easy to dismiss the writing I did for this project as childish and silly. But that's what it was meant to be. And the really important thing to keep in mind is that we did it. 

Many thanks to "Frantic Four" co-creator Tom Packis for his amazing artwork!

North Starr Comics

Saturday, May 15, 2021

I Hate This: Recording

Westfield Insurance Studio Theatre
I have become my mother.

When I Hate This was first produced at Cleveland Public Theatre in 2003, my mother chose not to watch. If you are familiar with the Levin Theatre space at CPT, you know that the seating is on risers. Mom offered to hold month-old baby Zelda, so that Toni could watch the performance. Mom walked back and forth, behind that tall bank of seats, listening, keeping the baby lulled asleep.

She said later that she preferred it. She didn’t want to watch. At first, I thought it was because I had hurt her feelings with the production, but that wasn’t it. She did want to see me in pain.

This entire week, sitting in the dark recesses of the Westfield Insurance Studio Theatre, watching James tell my story, there were moments when I found myself not watching. Not merely looking at my phone, but closing my eyes. Looking down. I did not want to see myself, my wife, in pain.

Most of the time, however, I was enjoying myself a great deal. Just sitting there, watching these professionals do their work. Because what they’re making is a movie. Julie the stage manager, Angie the sound designer, Ananias the cinematographer, Chennelle the director, James the actor, the entire Playhouse Square surround team. Collaborating, creating video and sound.

One of the advantages of this process is that they can record scenes out of order, to save time. And to record several takes of each shot. In between, Chennelle may or may not give James notes. They have a secret language together, a code. I don’t know what they’re talking about, but it works.

Ananias & James
How old were these two in 2001? Eleven? Twelve?

The laughter in the house brings me joy. When discoveries are made, when mistakes are made. It appears to fuel James’s spirit in performance. This is not a play about feeling grief. I mean, it is, but it is more about dealing with grief, reacting to it. Trying to say the right thing, maybe getting it wrong. Human frailty.

This is also an opportunity to get it better than I have in the past. It’s a performance, not a documentary. This means that everything presented is a choice, my choice. Chennelle has helped me make better choices. Some of my original performance decisions make me cringe. A few were racially insenstive. A nurse. A child in a toy store.

And there were elements of casual cruelty, revenge. And she would ask, what purpose does this serve? If I had no answer, then out it went. She is nicer to my parents than I was.

The process of filming all of the scenes, out of sequence, took five evenings. My job in attendance, as I saw it, was to correct misstatements during performance -- but only when I felt it was absolutely necessary. James might drop a phrase in one take, and I would think ... does it matter? Usually not. I’d let it go.

Once, at the end of the rocking chair scene, he used the word baby once instead of child. That I corrected. But performance notes? No. Not my business. Chennelle and James had worked so carefully on a consistency of style, of mood, most of all of character, it didn’t make sense for me to interject.

Chennelle & James
Watching James perform the birthing scene, I was overcome with emotion. You might think, of course you were, why wouldn’t you be? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because of the words. I could recite the scene in my sleep. This version of that event, I have it memorized better than perhaps any passage of text that I know. And I have seen others perform the same piece and enjoyed witnessing it, but not been affected.

But in this peculiar situation, he’s so like me, but not me. He looks like me, only smaller. But he’s different enough that I saw the scene in a whole new way, and I thought I could truly see myself the way others might see me. And what happened. And how I felt. And that made me cry.

The biggest revelation was watching James perform the “Blame” scene, which was always the hardest scene for me to perform. People ask if it’s difficult for me to play this most tragic moment of my own life and I say no, because I enjoy telling the story. But this scene is hard, because I don’t like who I am in it.

However, James shows that in the proper hands it is a dynamite monologue. I’d even recommend it for people to use for auditions.

So. Now his work is, as they say, in the can. Next up … editing!

Playhouse Square will premiere "I Hate This (a play without the baby)" in Summer 2021. Details to come.