Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mingus and the Deep Dark Woods

When I was younger I loved the year end shows about music, and the lists. In those days we'd have a cassette ready and tape the top 100 of the year from the local station. I can't remember if I questioned the authority behind the list, but I think I didn't. Then later on in my life I came to some great books by reading such lists.

Though I did go on to get some degrees, I began my reading life with no agenda, and I kind of miss that. I read Love in the Time of Cholera simply because I saw it on a list somewhere. I didn't maybe understand the significance of Marquez until I read Barth's essay on his work or maybe when I read 100 Years of Solitude again for a course in grad school, but the books did affect me. I was naively working in what I thought was isolation, but wasn't, of course. Anyway, in those days we loved lists. I remember when my best of lists included mainly heavy metal music, or when Sling Blade came out, or when Barney's Version was the book to read at our house over Christmas, when someone had received it as a gift.

Now I can't remember things as well, and I think I don't really have as strong opinions as I used to--or maybe I have less energy to remember the things I dislike.

This year started in Saskatoon, where I was working on a new novel in the basement of our rented townhouse. It was a long winter, and I knew our daughter would be born (yesterday was her first birthday, and tomorrow is my 47th, so this day seems important too, somehow, though of course it isn't--the ducks on the creek by our house are still ducks, and the snow is falling, but it's soft, and there is no ice on the creek. Abby the dog watches them float from her place on the bank and she's old too--it used to be she's jump in and chase them, but now she knows she has no hope of beating them while swimming and even her approach to getting the ducks who are not in the water has changed; she fancies herself as a cat, and tries to keep the brush, or a tree trunk, in between her and the sitting ducks until her final sprint. But she's slower, and older, and will never catch another bird, if she has ever.) so I had worked madly at my new novel (The Whole Show) and finished the first draft before she was born, though I did get back at it a couple of months after her birth, too.

But down in the basement I played Blues and Roots, by Charles Mingus, over and over as I wrote. It reminded me of years previous when there were 3 cassettes I listened to over and over during my first year at Carleton -- The Future, by Leonard Cohen; Fully Completely, by the Tragically Hip; and Automatic for the People, by REM. That was the first time I went back to school after a few years of working out in the cold, surveying. It was my own warm world in my little room in Ottawa, reading books, feeling warm and dry. It was magical, though some would see it as a squalid existence.

It was the same last year in my makeshift office, with my old thrift-store cd player with purple speakers, listening to Mingus and typing about a guy who's recently quit his job managing a few thrift stores to recapture his youth. The part I was writing about doesn't really related, but maybe. Anyway, this was also the winter when just before our daughter was born I went to see the Deep Dark Woods play at a club in Saskatoon with my brother and his son. It was one of the best shows I have seen in a long while.

I don't have a top-ten music list, but  two stand out, for sure. One is the Mingus record I mention above, the next is Jubilee, by the Deep Dark Woods, which I listen to now.

I read a lot of books but cannot remember many of them, as the years tend to blend together. There are some CanLit ones in there, for sure -- Bobcat and Other Stories, by Rebecca Lee; Cockroach, by Rawi Hage; Hell-Going, by Lynn Coady; children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections, by Renee Sarojini Saklikar; The Family China, by Ann Shin; Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain; Belinda's Rings by Corinna Chong; Underworld by Don Delillo; Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith; Other People, by Peter Campion.

I've also had a busy fall giving readings from my latest book, Listen All You Bullets, and my ambivalence toward such work has not changed. Maybe it has. Maybe it is tipping toward not wanting to do that kind of work, whereas I used to enjoy it a little more. I wrote a small piece about my difficulty with public readings here. The opposite of what Cohen speaks about is in public performance that does what Maggie Nelson describes in the following passage from her book The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning:

The desire to catch an audience unawares and ambush it is a fundamentally terrorizing, Messianic approach to art-making, on that underestimates the capacities and intelligence of most viewers, and overestimates that of most artists. (116)

I don't know what's worse. No, I do. It is worse to have the speaker try to include the whole small audience in a way that is often presented as a democratizing impulse but is really pure ego. I am tired of that, and you never know when it's going to crop up.

Anyway, it is harder to justify the borders between years every day, so this is just my nostalgic attempt to return to a time when I found the borders easily defined.