Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Deep Rhythm

Le Pompe (translation “The Pump”) is what gives gypsy jazz that urgent drive. Le Pompe refers to the strumming pattern that guitarists use in this style of music. Although strumming is a strange word for it as it’s more of a drumming. From what I’ve been told, a true Le Pompe takes years to learn. I believe it.

Yesterday I worked with Ryan Hoffman from Pearl Django on Le Pompe. In describing what he was doing and how the beats fit in the song, he told us that it was like a “rhythm beneath the rhythm”. Six or seven years ago I took some jazz piano classes and remember my piano teacher saying something similar.

The rhythm beneath the rhythm.

Isn’t this what separates great literature from good literature? Great literature takes a pattern, a truth, and then burrows beneath it, looking for the rhythm beneath the rhythm.

It’s intimidating think that this is something that can only be achieved after a decade or more of practice.

Last year at our residency Judith Barrington gave a talk on what she referred to as the “reptilian brain”, that sleeping ancient evolutionary ancestor within us that responds on a more visceral level. I wonder if these rhythms beneath the rhythms don’t also reside here.

Take a peek at Birelly Lagrene playing:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Not Just Playing the Fool

Foolish. That's how I felt for three hours last night. I was with five other people attempting to learn the most basic of all gypsy jazz tunes - "Minor Swing" from the virtuoso players of Pearl Django. Pearl Django is in town right now hosting a Django Camp for adults.

Out of the five students who showed up, one leads a band and has been playing for twenty plus years, one is a jazz fiddle player who apparently also plays jazz guitar, and then there were three of us yahoos. Guess who was the only person in the room who didn't know anything about bar chords. This girl! I'm also the only lady in the group. After the first half of the three hour session it was clear that two of us were drowning while the other three were suffering from our dead weight. Luckily there were two guitar instructors, so we split up into two groups. For the second half of the evening our group of two abandoned almost everything that we had been trying to do for the first half and instead focused on training our right hands (the strumming hand, aka "the most important part").

I picked Andrew up from the airport immediately after we got out. He asked me how it was going.

"I feel like a fool. But, I guess that's how it always feels to learn something new," I said.

I'm going back tonight for three more hours and tomorrow for the last three.

My plan is to think of it as learning a new language while attempting to speak with a native speaker. You're going to sound like an idiot, less educated than a child, but at least you're trying to communicate.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Debbie Downer on a Monday Morning

This morning on my way to work I noticed a man standing just off the sidewalk about fifty feet in front of me. I thought I recognized him, although his back was turned to me. I thought he was a kid I went to highschool with, a guy who, last I saw him, was working for Era Helicopters as a cruise ship dock representative. As I walked towards him I wondered whether he was still working for them. Did he go to college? I think he did. His clothes looked like an Era uniform and I wondered if he was satisfied with still working there.

As I got closer I realized that the way this man's clothes were dirty and rumpled, the way his bag was oversized and hunched his shoulders, the way his hair was greasy and unwashed, all indicated that he was homeless. This man wasn't standing outside his home waiting for a friend to come out, he was standing outside a building that didn't belong to him, staring at nothing, waiting for nothing.

It wasn't the highschool classmate I thought it was.

Next year I'll have my ten year high school reunion. I'm a nosy nosy person. Even though I rarely remember people from highschool, I still crave their stories. Who married whom? Who has kids? Who came out of the closet? Who has made it big? Who is still working at the local grocery store? Who now lives abroad? Who is happy? Who is dissatisfied?

But I've never asked myself who is now homeless.

Friday, July 23, 2010

On the Edge of the Park

Tim and I drove a cherry red Chevrolet HHR Panel Van, exactly like this one -->
up to Cantwell, AK. The whole way I couldn't stop thinking about what city douchebags we must've looked like. I'm extremely grateful for the loan of the car, but still.

"This really is an ugly shithole," Tim said as we rolled through Wasilla. Immediately after he said this I pulled over so that we could sift through piles of junk that people were selling along the side of the road. We found engine parts, old camping gear, and a lacquered picture of a unicorn rearing up on its hind legs in front of a rainbow. Tim almost bought the unicorn, but I convinced him that he would regret it when it sent his baggage over the weight limit for Alaska Airlines.

Once we passed through the rickety wooden strip malls of Wasilla we were fully in the thick of some gorgeous land. Jellyrolls of trees and shrubs fenced on either side by sloping treeless green mountains and a big broad sky of dramatically heavy clouds. Yesterday we took a walk along the Savage River in the front country of The Denali National Park. Our walk turned into the "cute tour" starting with a fluffy, frolicking, bouncing baby marmot; followed by two unconcerned snowshoe hare; and ending with a flock of Willow Ptarmigan.

I got overly excited about the Willow Ptarmigan. It's the Alaska State Bird and I had never seen one! They looked like short puffy chickens. At this time of year they were a mahogany color, but in the winter they turn snow white. I remember being really upset as a kid that the Willow Ptarmigan was the state bird, because: 1. They're really stupid. 2. You can kill one by throwing a rock at its head.

Are they stupid and easy to kill? I don't know. But that's what I was told, and I'm a sucker, so I believe it.

We have one more day in Weebee's cabin on the edge of The Denali National Park. On the docket: hot-tubbing, walking, bluegrassing.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I don't read many female writers. I discovered this when I sat down with my new mentor to talk about what books I'll read for the next year.* He asked me what I liked to read. The only woman on that list was Willa Cather.

I got a little upset about this. With further thought I dredged up Flannery O'Conner, Annie Proulx, Carson McCullers, and Jane Austin. Which all together, is a pretty miserable list when you consider how many books I read in a year. And out of those women, how many are still alive and producing material? One.

So I started asking other writers in our program to see if they could suggest anything. From those suggestions I decided on Toni Morrison's Beloved, Nicole Krauss' The History of Love, and Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assasin.

Does this mean something? It feels like it might, although I've got no clue what that is.

I like books with adventure, strong plots, clever language, and beauty. I know for a fact that women must write books like this, but why is it so hard for me to think of them? Why is it that the writers who pop into my head are Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Herman Melville?

* The way that UAA's MFA program is structured, each student is paired with one mentor for each of the three years of the program. The student and that mentor decide on a reading list of three books per month and the student sends the mentor between 25-35 pages of creative writing once a month as well as critical responses to the books read. The pairing of the mentors and mentees occurs in the midst of our two week residency. The day when the pairings are released is like a combination of:
  1. Christmas morning.
  2. The first day of school.
  3. A blind date.
This year I'm paired with David Stevenson, the director of the program.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blue Fox Literary Society

Nearly every night this last week has ended at the Blue Fox. I realized last night that I have not successfully gone to sleep before 1am for eight nights in a row.

When it's hot, it's hot.

The Blue Fox is everything I ever want from a hangout bar: it's dim, full of low tables with swivel captains' chairs; it's quiet, but still has a jukebox; you can purchase a wide variety of fried foods; it's within walking distance of the dorms; and their logo is a sexy fox, sitting with her bushy tail wrapped around, winking in a knowing way. When I told my Aunt Mimi where we were spending our nights, she was surprised.

"About twenty years ago people were getting stabbed there all the time," she said.

I'll admit that her comment did make my late night walks back to the dorms a bit spookier.

The last two nights they've had karaoke there. One man came for both nights. The first night he sat in one of the low captains' chairs and last night he sat on a low stool at the bar. Both nights he sang karaoke. The Blue Fox runs their karaoke on multiple screens around the bar, so people who are singing can sing from just about anywhere. Often this means that you can't see who the performer is, and if you really want to know, you have to get up and search. The man who sang both nights was the performer that most people searched for. He never stood up to sing, instead he stayed in his seat (clearly chosen for its good view of the screen), leaned back, and sang. Sometimes he closed his eyes. He was a big guy with a big head of gray hair. He had an all-right voice with a deep Sinatra edge. He chose songs like Van Morrison's Into the Mystic and the Rolling Stones' Wild Horses, good classics, songs he clearly knew inside and out. He looked like a man with an average story, except for this. This was what he did. He sang karaoke at the Blue Fox Cocktail Lounge in Midtown Anchorage Alaska.