Saturday, January 18, 2014

Interview with Sherill Tippins author of “Inside the Dream Palace:The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel”

Lobby--Chelsea Hotel- In Better Days

I have often called my hometown Somerville, Mass., a burg just outside Boston and Cambridge, the "Paris of New England." And what I mean by this is not that it remotely resembles Paris physically, but that it harbors that same creative energy and that molten core of poets, writers, and artists, all in close proximity. And of course with encroaching gentrification of our town--the new developers, and the desire to attract the upscale folks--rents rise, and the artists will look to cheaper environs that are more inviting to a bohemian sensibility. This may or may not happen here in Somerville, but if we look at history, we will see that it is more or less inevitable. And in some ways the artistic community of the Chelsea Hotel and its fate reminds me of my hometown.

 The Chelsea Hotel in New York City has always been a source of fascination for me. This Victorian-era building, in the Chelsea section of New York City has housed some of the great names of music, literature and the arts since 1884. There was a great cross- fertilization going on here, musicians and poets and painters all influenced each other. Folks like the author Thomas Wolfe, composer Virgil Thomson, playwright Arthur Miller, rocker Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, poet Dylan Thomas, all have walked the dark, melancholy halls that were once peppered with artwork by many famous and not so famous denizens over the many decades.

The hotel is now a shell of its former self. With the gentrification of New York City, and the ousting of the benevolent Bard family who nurtured and protected the many artists who lived here over the years, the hotel is in rapid decline. Ed Hamilton, the author of "The Legends of the Chelsea Hotel" told me in a recent interview that many of the residents have been evicted, the artwork that graced the lobby and halls has been removed to places unknown, and many of the rooms in the hotel have been gutted. History is second to the bottom line.

Recently I had the pleasure to interview Sherill Tippins, author of the book: "Inside the Dream Palace..." The book is a comprehensive history of the hotel and a record of its influence with the arts in New York City and far beyond. The days of rooming houses and affordable housing in our major cities is a distant dream in our collective past. The artists who came to the Chelsea and the vicinity and other gone-to-seed backwaters in many other cities, often revitalized the areas and then ironically they were forced to move on. The Chelsea may well become another boutique hotel surrounded by trendy Thai restaurants, and the prerequisite Starbucks--but I think its legacy will live on because of all the creative tendrils it spread across New York, the country and the world.

Doug Holder: Sherill--you wrote a previous history about the communal Brooklyn home that poets and authors like W.H. Auden, Richard Wright, Carson McCullers and others shared. What is it about this shared space among creative people that attracts you?

Sherill Tippins: I’m interested in looking at artists and their work in the context of their environment – the relationships, working conditions, and activities that affect their work in all kinds of ways. I find it so helpful in terms of understanding, say, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, to know that as she began working on the book she was eating breakfast each morning with W. H. Auden, who informed her that she needed to work on developing her intellectual side (as opposed to her intuition), and whose love, Chester Kallman, had as a child actually experienced the central event that McCullers’ protagonist, Frankie, undergoes. Likewise, I gained  a new outlook on Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall, knowing that he wrote it while irritated by what he considered the irresponsible moral relativity of his pop-artist neighbors at the Chelsea Hotel.

I’m also fascinated by the delicate dynamics of these kinds of group creative life – that fact that even a slight shift in the balance between structure and spontaneity can poison the atmosphere so that the work fails to satisfy or the group disbands. What are the specific requirements for creative cohabitation? How can privacy be protected while also leaving room for others’ creative input? Who should do the housework? Should the household be run on a democratic or autocratic basis? How high can the rent be before earning it takes up too much of each resident’s time? These nuts-and-bolts issues are not only interesting as practical experiments from which others can benefit, but they can make for high comedy which makes learning about them enjoyable.

DH: Have you ever lived in an environment -- a bohemian retreat--like the Hotel Chelsea?

ST: Like many of us, I lived in a group house while in college, where I learned how possessive some people can be about their groceries, how important it is to specify who does which chores, how creatively stimulating it can be to stay up until the early morning hours discussing books and playing music together, and so on. Since college, though, I’ve lived a traditional life as part of nuclear family. Documenting bohemian retreats has become a secret fantasy life for me – my real life may be predictable and even dull at times, but in my head I’m dining with Virgil Thomson at the Chelsea or chasing fire engines through the streets of Brooklyn with Gypsy Rose Lee.

DH: A lot of the artists in the Chelsea lived under the benevolent hand of Stanley Bard--whose family owned the building for years. He in essence subsidized many artists--did you ever feel that there was a sense of entitlement among the residents there--that they should receive special treatment because they were "artists?"

ST:  Stanley Bard, and his father David Bard before him, served the residents of the Chelsea with such care and respect that, naturally, they tended to believe over time that they deserved that respect. (It helped, too, that a constant stream of tourists passing through the Chelsea were even more awed by the artists’ presence.) I don’t believe, however, that the artists felt entitled to “special” treatment if that means better treatment than non-artists should receive. What they felt grateful for, at the Chelsea, was the Bards’ understanding that as artists they required had certain needs (privacy, tolerance, connection) and lived under certain conditions (erratic income, erratic hours) that differed from others living in the mainstream. Stanley Bard might allow a filmmaker to go for months or years without paying rent, for example, but he did expect to be repaid eventually – because he understood that a director’s income may be enormous one year and completely nil the next. Any artist knows how difficult it is to manage this fact of life in a society that expects bills to be paid regularly each month. Naturally, once the Chelsea residents had found partial relief from this hardship they didn’t want to give it up – so I’d say their response to losing it was more a case of grief or even panic than a sense of entitlement.

DH:  In your research did you find any similar hotels, etc.. like the Chelsea.. that existed in this country?

ST: As far as I have been able to discern, the Chelsea Hotel is the largest and longest-live artists’ community in the world – and in history, in fact, it would seem. There are other bohemian hotels in the world, of course – such as the former Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles before it got its makeover. And there were other Fourier-influenced cooperatives in the United States – in Boston, for instance, not to mention the earlier Brook Farm and other rural communities. But I know of no other hotel that was intentionally designed as a creative community and that continued to function as one year after year. If one ever did exist, I would love to know about it!

DH: Why do you think Europe is much more receptive to these type of living situations?

ST: The idea of creative community is an integral part of Europe’s social history, and the idea got a huge boost with the advent of the nineteenth-century utopian philosophers. Philip Gengembre Hubert, the Chelsea’s creator and himself a Frenchman who came directly out of this proto-socialist climate and helped transfer its ideas to New York, wrote that Europeans were more comfortable with a communal, economically-mixed climate because they could rely on a rigid social structure to define their social status. Americans, on the other hand, lived in a supposedly classless society where money was the only measure by which they could define their social position. Maintaining one’s social status in America therefore almost requires one to set oneself apart from others of lower economic standing, hoard one’s financial assets, and focus on individual advancement rather than achieving synergy as a group.

DH: There were many eras to the Chelsea--which one do you think cemented its reputation, as an outpost of bohemia and the avant-garde?

ST: It was an outpost of bohemia and the avant-garde from the very beginning, as evidenced by the novelist William Dean Howells’ portrait of it in his 1893 novel The Coast ofBohemia. The American landscape artists who first occupied the Chelsea’s top-floor lofts were as poor, free-living, and artistically adventurous as the artists who live there now. Trying to pinpoint the moment that the building’s bohemian reputation for bohemianism cemented is exactly like trying to pinpoint the moment at which cement hardens – but I guess I would say that by the Depression era the hotel’s reputation was widely known. By this time, for instance, Thomas Wolfe’s editor Maxwell Perkins knew enough to send the author to the Chelsea when Wolfe needed an inexpensive, private, tolerant environment. There, Wolfe found a welcoming community of iconic but impoverished artists and writers, including Edgar Lee Masters and John Sloan (not to mention the slightly-less-impoverished Virgil Thomson). The W.P.A. subsidies greatly enhanced this atmosphere, allowing the residents to worry less about the rent and more about where art was going in America. The richness and excitement of this period carried forward into the 1950s and 1960s – which wouldn’t have been the same without the underlying layer created by the W.P.A. artists.

DH: Residents like the musicologist Harry Smith, Arthur C. Clarke believed that art can change the world. And they tried to do it from their rooms in the Chelsea. Now--looking at the Chelsea --it is a gutted shell of its former self. Is the dream dead? Do you see other bohemian enclaves coming around? Or is it just college graduates posturing in Williamsburg until they get real jobs?

ST: I’m afraid I do feel, personally, that that particular dream is dead for the time being – at least in New York. As I implied in my treatment of Harry Smith’s experience, I feel that in the battle between the bohemian vision of creative community and the capitalist ideals for a market-based society, capitalism won. Commodification kills truth in art; a high cost of living kills artistic productivity. However, there will always be artists and bohemians (just as there will also always be posturers). As Patti Smith herself suggested in a recent interview, the place to find creative communities is now more likely to be in smaller towns near big cities – say, in New Paltz, New York, now nicknamed “the new Brooklyn,” or in failed cities such as Detroit, where the most important element for creative life – a low cost of living – and the second-most-important one – stimulating neighbors -- still exist.

As for the Chelsea, I’m interested in following the current owner’s stated desire to recreate an “artistic climate” at the hotel. Can it be forced into existence, with free rooms for visiting artists, exhibition and performance space downstairs, and expensive rooms to subsidize cheaper ones? One would tend to say no, but on the other hand the original Chelsea was itself an artificial construct. It’s unlikely, but still remotely possible in my opinion, that the Chelsea will reassert its traditional purpose despite the hostile climate in the city surrounding it. And who knows – as New York mayors come and go and the economy continues on its erratic path, this city may hit the skids once again, allowing the bohemians to come rushing in to inhabit the places no one else wants, “like cockroaches,” as the artist and Chelsea Hotel denizen John Sloan once memorably said.

Pickled Dreams Naked poems by Norman Stock

Pickled Dreams Naked
poems by Norman Stock
NYQ Books
New York, New York
Copyright © 2010  by Norman Stock
105 pages, softbound, $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-935520-30-6
Vera Pavlova was born in Moscow. She graduated from the Gnessin Academy, specializing in the history of music, and is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, four opera librettos, and lyrics to two cantatas. Her works have been translated into eighteen languages
Review by Zvi A. Sesling

the smelly feet of poetry
the running nose the ripped trousers
the bleeding pimples the disfigured faces
of the sick is what poetry
is trying to get at, the sonnet about nothing at all that is beautiful
disorganized elbows and old people asleep
the covers covering them the comforts of infants
is what poetry must make itself out of, there isn’t anything else

This is the poem Prosaic from Norman Stock’s volume of poetry.  Poets may or may not agree with Stock’s definition, but it certainly is a thought provoking eight lines which may or may not help one evaluate their own or others poetry. In fact, it is possible the entire book will be liked or not liked, help or not help evaluation of poetry or one’s own lines.

Here is another poem entitled At a Boring Poetry Reading the reader may or may not find humorous or insulting:

They read the audience to death.
These poets use live ammunition, their words, to weaken us.
Are they trying to put us to sleep or are they trying to keep themselves up
by droning on and on? Instead of listening, all I’m doing is waiting for them to stop.
The applause will be like glass breaking, the glass they are enclosing us in.
It is as if they tied their shoes in front of us just to show us they could tie their shows
      in front of us!
O save me from this scatterbrain orderliness, this posture of beheading.
Will this reading never end? Will I have to listen forever
or can I find a chink in the wall of my own mind that I can crawl into, just to get
      away from this disaster, this dying, this voicelessness?

Now this makes me wonder what kind of reading Stock gives and how his audience reacts to his performance.  In fact, how does any audience react to poems read by poets other than those of higher stature, for example, Collins, Oliver, Ostriker, Ashbery, or others? 

Well if you think Stock complains too much, this book is really one of numerous complaints as in Money Song:

money money everywhere
in the sky and in the sea
everywhere, it’s just money
falling from the leaves and trees
all the different currencies
down they come and up they go
it’s a constant undertow
everywhere I look I see
every kind of currency
it’s too much to get and spend
will it ever have an end
only in the grave where you
will have spent all that you’re due

Stock’s view of women is not always, shall we say, politically correct.  In The Tall Woman of Dreams he writes a woman so tall she is invisible—does mean women should be seen and not heard?  Or, as the final line states “…the woman whose size was infinite and who was all over/everything and everywhere”   means they [women] are all pervasive and intruding?

Then again read the night about me restless where the poet completes his three couplets with “the distance and the slowness and veering/her up, so she will not be seen or noticed or known

Now let me say there has been some praise for Stock for being wry, wacky, humorous, and having sardonic wit—these quotes from the back of the book.  And if you like that kind of writing, you might enjoy his offerings.

Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street Press)
Author,  Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva Press)
Author, Fire Tongue (forthcoming, Cervena Barva Press)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review Online Poetry Journal
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7& 8

Publisher, Muddy River Books

Friday, January 17, 2014

All Time Acceptable Spring Berman

All Time Acceptable
Spring Berman
Grolier Poetry Press 2012
42 PP

Review by Myles Gordon

               The Grolier Poetry Book Shop provides the region with something few metropolitan areas have: a must visit, must peruse spot for anyone who takes their literature seriously. Since taking reins of the store, owner Ifeanyi Menkiti has added a new layer of relevance to the dusty box of a place: The Grolier Discovery Award, a publishing venture that brings deserving, unknown voices to the forefront. One of those voices is Spring Berman who won the prize with her quirky, witty collection, All Time Acceptable.
            Berman, Menkiti points out in the book’s forward, is that most rare breed: a poet who is also a scientist – and not just any scientist. No weekend dabbler with a chemistry set, she. Berman is an academic roboticist – whatever that is - at Arizona State University. She holds a B.S.E. in mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering from Princeton, a Ph.D. from UPenn, and has done post-doctoral work at Harvard. Her CV shows she’s penned articles called A Reachability Algorithm for Multi-Affine Systems with Applications to Biological Systems, and Navigation-Based Optimization of Stochastic Strategies for Allocating a Robot Swarm Among Multiple Sites. Writing poetry may not be rocket science, but Berman is a rocket scientist who writes poetry, delightfully weaving scientific concepts and lingo into her musings on life, love, the universe, and everything.
               In “Psychic, Physicist,” a poem focused in part on a mismatched relationship between science and superstition, she writes:

…I have meager appetite
for the rare convulsions of light spied in glass
or patterned cards, as though days are die-cast
well before the flare of groping palm reveals
their dreaded contours; or hoarsening, rudely
tugging barb from quill, I would have denied
that the limping of the spheres applied to him,
he whose mathematics strung a canopy
of tempting universes.

               Her credentials show here. Her subtle use of mathematical and scientific allusions impress, as well as entertain, the reader.

               Her poem with the delicious title “The professor emeritus of mathematics, leaning into the slow wheel of dawn until the sparrows stop,” leads the reader into musings of the eternal, again, through mathematical theory:

As for departure, I never fought it,
but rather named it, let it seize and spare
my exponentials and my oscillations,
watching from the chair. After such years,
it might not be too terrible to see
the undisputed flatness of this world
               from the top of the
                              Riemann sphere

Impressive, too, the mathematics of her rhymes: “spare,” “chair,” “years” and “sphere” surrounding the lovely cadence of “exponentials” and oscillations.” There is no glossary – but to be fair it would add another twenty pages to the volume – but it does help to keep Google handy. Even if, like this reviewer, the reader doesn’t know the meaning of “Riemann sphere,” one can guess it’s something big and dynamic, something that leads to resolution, perhaps a mystical one, adding a lovely intrigue to the ending.
               Certainly the Harvard/Princeton/advanced science vocabulary propels the book and can sometimes intimidate with its million dollar words. But this is a deep, brave collection that intimately portrays a strong woman’s maneuvering of this world. “The Offering” takes on female objectification, empowering women to take the reins of potential sensual encounters:

I am withdrawing, sir, but I have had
a fertile, frank discussion with my breasts
and they concede to see you, sir, today
and Friday, at the hours that suit you best.

               In a moving sonnet, “Adults $5. Children Under 12 Free,” she reminds humanity to humble itself, and points out an essential human folly: we think we know so much, when we are in reality just beginning to grasp the shadows:

For being first, we boast the truest speech,
as no one can deny the truest voice
to infants, wrenched from undreamt dreaming, each
permitted daylight by another’s choice;

What tribes will thank themselves to see the sun?
Which lands will they create, and which consume?
These distant clans unlearn their only tongue
and from our graves construct a second moon –

               Berman’s construct is wise, intelligent, well rendered and witty. It is a powerful book.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

How To Train A Rock Short Insights and Fiction Flights By Paul Steven Stone

How To Train A Rock
Short Insights and Fiction Flights
By Paul Steven Stone
Blind Elephant Press
Cambridge, MA
ISBN: 978-1442117214
189 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Today’s wordsmiths too often celebrate a paucity of sentiment in their writings, as if that sweet tasting, very human trait belies and obfuscates man’s anxious condition in this brutish world. Quite the contrary, the hopefulness and refined feelings associated with fresh-air altruism and the demanding activism, generated by a heart needled with sorrow, define civilization as we know it and, more importantly, desire it.

Paul Steven Stone in his book, How To Train A Rock, uses various emotional versions of informed sentiment in his short insightful essays and affecting mini fictions to great ends. He does this with diverting humor and an edge, albeit a gentle edge. There is nothing squishy or maudlin here. Stone’s pieces range from the absurdly jocular to the profoundly sad, to the upliftingly lyrical. His tone is consistent and wondrous. In short he knows what he’s doing.

One of Stone’s signature fictions he entitles Pretty White Gloves. It dramatizes the plight of the homeless in the person of the Major, a former Marine begging out on the street in 4 degree weather. The pretty white gloves are the memories of his young daughter’s dress up gloves on Easter Sunday and also his Marine dress gloves that he had worn at military funerals. You could say that they symbolize human aspirations and dignity.  They also are, ironically, what the Major’s frostbitten hands have unfortunately become.

Not far beneath the surface of these farcical fictions and essays a poet, by temperament, works his magic. The lyrics of Listen To The Wind soar lovingly off the page. The author alternates poetic stanzas with prosaic wisdom in an amazing symbiosis.  Here’s a bit of what this writer does,

Listen to the wind,
the playful wind.
Listen to it shake the trees
with laughter rustling in the breeze.
Listen to the wind
the playful wind

    Be like me the wind said, and never take your-
self too seriously. When I was a child, I would puff
myself up with my own importance, just like you,
boy. But now I know that every tree I bend down will
only straighten itself once I’m gone.
    Be like me, the wind said, and enjoy the game
while you can.

The Torturer’s Apprentice is a clear-eyed essay in which Stone cleverly places his reader in a hellhole of a cell with a tortured party, or perhaps the reader is the tortured party. I have a quibble with this piece, but let’s move on for the moment. The author comes to his subject from an idealistic perspective; he argues that the tortured victim deserves his natural rights and protections as opposed to, say, a mindless predator. Stone appeals to his readers’ better angels. Of course there are many humans who are mindless predators or worse, and whether they are born with any natural rights seems an open question.  Stone admits at least one exception that proves the rule, when he says,

This is not about one-in-a-million scenarios where terrorists have hidden a ticking nuclear bomb. This is about the humane treatment of everyone else on the planet.

Fair enough. But here lies my quibble. From time immemorial everyone else’s nation seems to use a degree of torture and they use it not only to extract information and punish, but also for amusement. The barbaric Iroquois, besides perpetrating genocide on their fellow Native Americans, also institutionalized and ritualized torture. Some northern Afghans during their war with the Russians were notorious for skinning their captives alive. Not that the so-called civilized nations are much better in that respect. Rome used crucifixions regularly. Consider Jesus. But even the churches are not immune. The Catholic Church concocted the Inquisition. The Puritan church in New England tortured accused witches. My point is that this problem might be a bit deeper and more ingrained than first appears. But you can’t rationalize torture. Therefore Stone’s instincts and outrage are well taken. In fact if things are ever going to change we’ll need many more Paul Steven Stones believing in the essential goodness of man.

In the author’s title essay, he admonishes us to be attentive and respectful as he details the secret life of rocks and the techniques we must use to safely conduct these sentient beings into a fruitful adulthood. Stone is quite funny in this piece but (as usual) in a gentle sort of way as he pushes the gag for all its worth. In the end he warns his perceived enemies thusly,

…And whoever
threw that rock through the Institute’s lab window
yesterday, I should warn you your rock has already
conveyed your vital information to the police who
are now on their way.

Another of Stone’s humorous pieces, It’s My Phone, I’ll Shout If I Want To, tries to save the world from its own idiocy. His protagonist intends to purchase a sweater at the GAP while at the same time juggling a series of phone calls from his mother, who has medical issues, from his editor, and from a telemarketer. The scene borders on the theater of the absurd but, as most of us know, nails some pretty common and very real incidents. And, for God’s sake, don’t miss the twists and turns in Stone’s irony that raise these pieces up into the rarified air of serious literature.

Underlying all his pieces, Stone’s penchant for didacticism powers everything. He’s a true believer, but not a preachy true believer. If you want to start tomorrow in a better frame of mind, read this now teary, now laugh-out -loud book tonight. Things will get better.