Saturday, August 9, 2008

J.T. Dutton's "Freaked"

Ezra Pound famously wrote that poetry should be as well-written as prose. Judging from the evidence, American novelists appear to believe that prose, at the same time, should aspire toward the poetic—or at the very least discuss poetry. If you keep a lookout, in fact, you'll find that few "literary" novels in the twentieth century fail to incorporate or mention poetry at some point along the way. Sometimes those references are obvious—the way that Leslie Marmon Silko weaves poems into the text of her novel Ceremony—and others are fleeting. In "Slaughterhouse Five," Vonnegut quotes from Roethke's "The Waking" and mentions William Blake. Saul Bellow's Herzog reads Blake, Dryden and Pope. When a tramp commits suicide by throwing himself into a thresher in Willa Cather's "My Antonia," he is found to have been carrying a pen knife, a wishbone, and a poem "cut out of a newspaper and nearly worn out." Heck, in Dashiell Hammett's "Maltese Falcon," Sam Spade calls Effie "the sister of the boy who stood on the burning deck"—a direct reference to the often-taught and often-memorized 1826 Felicia Hemans poem “Casabianca.”

Given the regularity with which American novels address or incorporate poetry, one such as yours truly could be easily forgiven if he argued that this tendency is more than just a tendency. Could it in fact be a constitutive discourse of the U.S. novel as a genre?

I recently showcased a poetry-related excerpt from Cheeni Rao's forthcoming memoir/novel "In Hanuman's Hands," and here—in an ongoing effort to track how novelists are dealing with the other genre—I want to introduce a section of J.T. Dutton's young adult novel "Freaked" which is due out in stores from HarperCollins imprint HarperTeen on March 17, 2009. "Freaked" is the story of a 15 year-old boarding school student named Scotty Douglas Loveletter. In addition to being the son of America's most famous sex self-help therapist, Scotty jams on drugs and the Grateful Dead. In "Freaked," he needs to get to Freedom to see Jerry, and the lack of a ticket, a ride, or money in his pocket isn't going to keep him from the promised land.

Note, as you read the following account of the show, the unattributed reference to Keats. Some gossip about the Dead, its lyrics, and permissions issues in "Freaked" will follow, so keep reading!

Here is Dutton:

The music was the only thing saving us. The notes were golden threads that wove themselves into the wild tapestry of images, smells, and the floor wobbling under my feet. The acoustic ran as as it always does, higher and lighter than the backup guitar; Jerry's voice danced another couple notes above that. I could hear him coming through the music. People in the crowd chose the line they were going to move to. There were girls fluttering through the backdrop of light, taking wing almost, and guys hunkering low to the ground, swinging their arms and stomping. The whirling-helicopter girl whipped past. I was just a step above an open riser overlooking the stage, and her hair and arms and skirt blew a breeze across my face. She made all kids of gestures with her hands, wrapping them around and under each other like snakes on Erasmus's pole as she talked to me in signs. She repeated every note just as Jerry played it and transformed it into a movement of her body. Everything about her was beautiful: the way the light moved in her ebony braids, the way her shadow reduced the glare from the spots on the ceiling, the way she became the moon eclipsing the sun, the symbol of yin and yang. She was love, all right. Pure, uncut, pay-with-your soul, put you in the hospital love.

"Truth, beauty—" I said into the microphone in an effort to catch the moment before it slipped.

By the time I had finished reporting, she was gone. All around me, the crowd surged, an ocean that rose and reared before dashing itself against a rocky shore of ecstasy. We were stirred by the girl's appearance and the music rippling from Jerry's harp unstrung. No music the Dead plays has quite the same intensity as Jerry's music—not Bobby's booze ballads or blues. I liked "One More Saturday Night" but I worshiped all of Jerry's songs, and the ones that really made me fall on my knees were the ones with women's names: "Bertha," "Althea," Scarlet Begonias," "Dear Prudence." My mother was just like Sugar Magnolia: "She can dance a Cajun rhythm / Jump like a Willys in four wheel drive." She wanted to be thrown to the wind, left to drift on the currents that moved her.

I got up and danced myself crazy in search of the whirling-helicopter girl, my pack flying out to the left and right of me, my tie and the tails of my jacket sucking up the air and making me fly. At first it was strange being on my feet again. I couldn't stand up, but I wasn't exactly falling down, either. I smacked some guy with the microphone of my tape recorder.

"Look out douche bag," he said.

"Sorry," I said into the tape, for posterity.


In her original manuscript, Dutton had opened every chapter with a quotation from a Dead song, titling each chapter with the title of the song being quoted from. When it came time to publish, though, Ice 9 Publishing—which somehow owns the rights to all of the Dead's songs—wouldn't grant permission to Dutton to use all of the lyrics she wanted to use. Ultimately, Dutton was allowed to quote from "Dire Wolf" and was given leave to use brief phrasings from the songs here and there within the text (as with "She can dance a Cajun rhythm..." in the preceding passage).

So in short, because of the exigencies of copyright law and the concerns of Ice 9, the "Freaked" that you'll see at the store is not the "Freaked" that Dutton had in mind. But never fear! Yours truly has managed to acquire what is now believed to be the list of quotations Dutton wanted to use as chapter epigraphs in the original book but was not allowed to use in the final version. Here they are. And remember, you heard it first here:

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung . . .
—Robert Hunter, "Ripple"

But I’ll still sing you love songs
Written in the letters of your name.
And brave the storm to come,
For it surely looks like rain.
—John Perry Barlow, "Looks Like Rain"

A box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through.
—Robert Hunter, "Box of Rain"

… the heart has its beaches,
Its homeland, and thoughts of its own.
—Robert Hunter, "Eyes of the World"

Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart.
You just gotta poke around.
—Robert Hunter, "Shakedown Street"

Trouble with you is
The trouble with me.
Got two good eyes
But we still don’t see.
—Robert Hunter, "Casey Jones"

You must really consider the circus
‘Cause it might be your kind of zoo.
I can’t think of a place that’s more perfect
For a person as perfect as you.
—John Perry Barlow, "Hell in a Bucket"

When I awoke, the Dire Wolf
Six hundred pounds of sin
Was grinnin at my window
All I said was “come on in.”
—Robert Hunter, "Dire Wolf"

There’s a dragon with matches loose on the town.
Take a whole pail of water just to cool him down.
—Robert Hunter, "Fire on the Mountain"

Given the vagaries of quoting with and without impunity from the Dead lyrics, you might like to know one final note on "Freaked." Dutton originally titled the book "Ripple," but her editor lobbied for "Dark Star" instead (both titles of Dead songs). Although the publisher is legally allowed to use the song title in this way, Ice 9 expressed its objection by withholding permission for the epigraphs quoted above. Shortly after the change to "Dark Star" and the conflict with Ice 9, Harper's marketing department decided that "Dark Star" sounded too much like a sci-fi novel title and wouldn't work for Dutton's book. Hence the change to "Freaked," which has no official connection to the Dead. One wonders if Harper had in fact gone forward with a title like "Freaked" from the beginning, whether Ice 9 wouldn't have gone into such a tizzy, whether it wouldn't have withheld permission for the epigraphs, and whether Dutton's book would have been published in a form much closer to the one she initially wanted. But hey, who ever said publishing is actually about the author and the work?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Projected Verse

Long before Charles Olsen wrote "Projective Verse" (1950), Americans were projecting their own poetry onto walls, sheets, movie screens, and other backdrops via magic lantern projectors and glass slides such as the one shown here. These lanterns and slides were precursors to the projectors that kept us hostage to family vacation shows in our childhoods or art history courses in undergraduate school; instead of hot-burning bulbs, they ran on kerosene lamp oil and an open flame, but the technology was otherwise fairly similar, offering an in-home or portable quasi-cinematic experience. In some cases, the slides were industrially manufactured, and in other cases people were encouraged to make them at home by sandwiching transparencies between two pieces of glass. "By carefully following the directions," an instruction manual from 1882 reads, "your Magic Lantern will give you much pleasure."

This pleasure included poetry as well. In an age where poetry was read aloud at home, recited in school, encountered on the lecture and Chautauqua circuits, and performed regularly as part of civic events, it's no surprise to learn that a technology enabling people to project it textually would be popular as well. The lyrics to popular songs were projected so people could follow along; cartoon verses preceded feature attractions in movie theaters; some magic lantern slide sets contained only the illustrations for poems—sometimes ballads, sometimes nursery rhymes—presuming the text itself would be read aloud. The 1882 manual I've referenced above ("Home Entertainments, or Evenings with the Magic Lantern") includes, for example, a poem called "The Lazy Ant," and another called "Crossing the Ferry." The instructions for "Crossing the Ferry" read: "Our next picture will show you a ferry scene, and while we are crossing we will relate to you the conversation between the little lovers before us. (Here let a little girl and boy take the part of the young lovers, and recite the poem.)" What would Walt Whitman say to that?!

That same brochure has a page titled "Five Popular Poets" and explains, "I will now show you the pictures of five of our most popular poets." The page no doubt served as a sort of script, containing biographical information on, and excerpts from, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Alfred Lord Tennyson—a core of Fireside Poets that drove American poetry in the 19th century and who were familiar faces in the American home. Indeed, when Jean Toomer in "Bona and Paul" from Cane (1923) writes "Art sat on the piano and simply tore it down. Jazz. The picture of Our Poets hung perilously," he is referring to the portraits of Fireside Poets that Americans hung on the walls at home.

The Magic Lantern slides remind us that poems are not just produced, but are always used for one thing or another—for family entertainment, advertising, preaching, etc.—as well. That is, the "life" of a poem doesn't stop when the author publishes it. In fact, a poem's social life may become more interesting once it leaves the author's desk and begins to socialize with other poems on magazines pages, in anthologies, on web sites, as it gets excerpted, quoted, reviewed, so on and so forth. Take, for example, the slide I've included here: a poem written in 1848 by one of "Our Poets," Oliver Wendell Holmes, who then published it in the December 1859 Atlantic Monthly as part of his "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" column—a role he'd reprise later as Professor at the Breakfast Table and Poet at the Breakfast Table. (Holmes was not only a physician who coined the term "anesthesia" and the popular author of "Old Ironsides" [1830], but he developed what would become the most popular design for the stereoscope as well—an interest in entertainment technology that must have made him pleased to have his verse become part of magic lantern culture.) This poem concluded Holmes's contribution for December 1859, and he introduced it with the following words:

"And so my year’s record is finished. Thanks to all those friends who from time to time have sent their messages of kindly recognition and fellow-feeling. Peace to all such as may have been vexed in spirit by any utterance the pages have repeated. They will doubtless forget for the moment the differences in the hues of truth we look at through our human prisms, and join in singing (inwardly) this hymn to the Source of the light we all need to lead us and the warmth which can make us all brothers."

No matter how much Holmes (1809-1894) wanted his readers to join him in "singing (inwardly)" this hymn, American audiences did just the opposite: they proceeded to put it to music and sing it outwardly! In so doing, they made it one of the most popular hymns of the 19th and 20th centuries. Says the Cambridge History of English and American Literature, the resulting hymn "belongs to the slender anthology of sacred songs that are indubitable poetry."

I purchased the slide shown here at Kensington's Portobello Market in London, pulling it from a collection once owned by a British church that had no doubt found it necessary to update its technology. Most of the slides were pictures—in fact, most magic lantern slides are pictures, with no more than a small percentage containing song lyrics and poems—but there were 6-8 hymns that were probably projected in front of the congretation in lieu of hymnals. (You can see cues in the margins directing certain parts of the congregation—men and women, women, chorus, pastor—when to sing.) I picked out "Lord of all being, throned afar" as a souvenir. It struck me as important, not just for the combination of poetry and singing there, but for the fact that I was finding it in England. Usually, when we think of the 19th century, we think of America importing British poetry (Tennyson especially) not the other way around, but the Holmes slide suggests how the literary trade routes ran both ways.

Magic lantern poetry seems important to me—and relevant to our current age—for another reason as well, as it helped to transition Americans' reading and entertainment practices away from from the human and domestic scene of the fireside and toward a piece of projection technology and its script. This transition heralds the age of the cinema, radio and tv, an age which would see the replacement of the 19th century hearth by projection and broadcast technologies on a colossal scale. Poetry—and especially the revered poetry of "Our Poets"—helped to provide a sense of continuity for readers encountering and no doubt struggling with the new ways of relating to each other that the new technologies required. With Our Poets at the helm, though, how could this transition be bad?