A reminder: Identitytheory

12 Dec
Two Stones [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Two Stones [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

An alienated (it goes without saying, young) white boy from Ohio started a literary (of sorts) web something or other, way, way back in the year 2000—Identitytheory. An itinerant dog lover, poker player, FSU football fan Matt Borondy has penned a powerful rebuke to literary golden girl of the moment Clair Watkins…take heed infidels, the panda man is on the march…

Borondy concludes with a call to bears:

Some Ideas

Let’s punch down.

The pain of our knuckles hitting the ground will remind us of the suffering we all endure: First-world white women with postgrad degrees, popular social-media accounts, and major book deals who still can’t say what they want to say because of that goddam Philip Roth; Syrian refugee kids who just got raped and can’t find a home because white American parents don’t want them eating free school lunches near their kids; and most importantly, white male online-lit-mag publishers who can’t put panda bears on everything.

Let’s burn this motherfucking system to the ground and put panda bears on motherfucking everything.

Right on?

Chatting with Ben Katchor 3.0

10 Dec

Ben Katchor [photot: Robert Birnbaum]

Ben Katchor [photot: Robert Birnbaum]

Before Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, I hadn’t looked at picture magazines since my MAD-magazine adolescence. When I caught up with Spiegelman around the time of Maus he was very admiring of a “cartoonist” named Ben Katchor, who produced a serialized picture story, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. A few years later, I caught up with Ben and had the first of a number of conversations.

For the chat that follows I met Ben in front of his hotel and we proceeded a short distance in my car to the Commonwealth Mall (think trees and statues, not commerce), parked in the shadow of a statue of Gustavo Sarmiento, and had a lengthy conversation in my ragtop, al fresco (meaning with the top down).

You will note quickly, as befits a MacArthur Fellow, Katchor has an original take on almost everything. In this discussion we talk about his most recent book, The Cardboard Valise; designing for e-books; comics; writing librettos; Menasha Skulnick; the benefits of receiving a MacArthur; writing biographies; writers who paint; and, as the preceding suggests, a wide swath of other subjects.

Ben Katchor: Is that really picking us up?

Robert Birnbaum: Sure is—it’s pretty good. OK, I am talking to Ben Katchor.


RB: Is this book coming out in a Kindle edition?

BK: No. It was supposed to be released with a simultaneous e-book.

RB: How could this be an e-book?

BK: It can. The thing is, the arrangement was that it has to be in a format that would work with every device—Kindle, iPad—

RB: Smartphone?

BK: Probably. That format is an .epub format, which is based on flowing text. And since this book is not a text file, you can position images in that program, but it’s very clunky. They tried to do it and it wasn’t good enough. That was the alternative of designing a specific application for that book. [Since we spoke, more complex formatting of text and image for .epub and now iBooks can be done, but The Cardboard Valise has still not been repurposed for electronic reading devices. —RB]

RB: You’re all right with an electronic iteration of The Cardboard Valise?

BK: Sure, at least you’d have to look at it panel by panel.

RB: You were just saying to me (as I was setting up my recorder) that part of the intent of this book was to reflect on the death of the culture.

BK: Well, I think it’s had its life. And it is probably changing into other things. A book is a book, and an electronic device can do things that books can’t do, and so these things can coexist. The thing is that the physicality of books makes them kind of a luxury—like driving a Cadillac.

RB: A luxury for what kind of person?

BK: To the whole ecosystem. It’s a luxury to sell paperback books that require 30 gallons of water to produce. And they are disposable now—paperbacks are not things you necessarily will keep.

RB: Geez, I have thousands of books—what am I going to do?

BK: So do I.

RB: And many are signed first editions—that is part of my legacy to my son. Am I burdening him with a ton of pulp? Or is he being left something valuable?

BK: Um, I don’t collect first editions—I never got into that particular fetish—

RB: (laughs)

BK: A literary fetish. But you know, I don’t know I think you can confuse the object for what makes a book a great thing.

From the Cardboard Valise

From the Cardboard Valise

RB: The most valuable books in the 19th century were books that were never opened—their pages were never cut open.

BK. Yeah. There’s that famous story that Rosenbach, that rare-book dealer—there was a rare, multiple-volume edition of Tom Jones, and it was passed through about six collectors for a lot of money at that time. And then finally someone, by chance, who was stuck in Rosebach’s home, wanted to actually use it—to write something about Tom Jones. And he realized it was a forgery. Forget about reading, it was never even [previously] opened.

RB: I thought you were going tell me it was blank.

BK: So anyway, if you want to collect objects, you can collect lots of things.

RB: In defense of my fetish, these are read and from authors that I have spoken with. And I don’t treat them like—some of them have coffee-cup circles on the dust jacket and such.

BK: So you use them.

RB: Yeah. So what would I do with them?

BK: Put them behind a sealed glass case. The thing is, it’s really odd to me that prose writers, that people that make mainly prose books, [are] working in a form that came into being because the Puritans drove playwrights off the stage, so they had to invent the novels. So they pushed all this physicality out of this art form—they reduced it to words, to conventions. And then they say, “But we miss the feel of paper.” Like that’s the last physical thing on earth that’s left to them in their art form, the smell of paper. What about the entire visual world? The book’s physicality is one small element of an entire physical world that they’ve already dispensed with.

RB: When you draw, what do you use?

BK: For many years I used pen and paper, but for the last year or so I am drawing on a Cintiq. And that’s because a lot of my work—even the print stuff—is all digitally processed. Except for small-press, antiquarian printing aficionados, all mass-market printing uses digital pre-press. My work online is digital, and my work in the theater is digital projection. So that’s a technology I have to use. And it’s more—

RB: You don’t have to use Wite-Out.

BK: If I go from a paper drawing to a digital image, I kind of lose things in the translation. It has to be scanned, and it degrades a generation. And it really looks better drawn directly in the digital medium. It’s a more subtle recording device—like the difference between listening to someone’s heart and using an EKG.

RB: Do you still draw on paper?

BK: Occasionally, but most of my work that is done for magazines, theater, or books is done digitally.

RB: What I am asking is, do you draw for pleasure?

BK: No. It’s all agony. I don’t draw for pleasure.

RB: (laughs) Did you ever?

BK: I think early on it became this agonizing thing, drawing, trying to make these images. No, it was always—I think people who have fun making drawings are hobbyists who are looking for a pleasurable alternative to their real work. If I want to have fun I take a walk, or sit in a park. What I do for fun—I go to a restaurant. I do other things than to try to make picture stories: That’s agony. Hopefully, the reader gets something out of it. But it’s even hard for the reader. I don’t think my books are easy reads.

My digital files could be output to fill the proscenium of a large theater—there’s that much information there.

RB: My recollection of comics was that they were rarely funny. Do you call your books “comics,” or “graphic novels?” They are funny.

BK: “Comics” connects you to an old and long tradition that I may be part of but I am also working in opposition to. So the form needs a new name. Some people call it a graphic novel, but all novels are graphic. Otherwise you couldn’t see them. They use typography. My idea is to call it “autographic writing.” I am a writer, but I am interested in my handwriting. Most writers don’t want to preserve their handwriting. They choose to set their words in mechanical type, so all traces of physicality are gone. In my writing, I want to preserve my handwriting, and my handwriting includes writing words and images. So that’s probably a better name. And are all “comics” comical? Well, in the ones that strive to be amusing the humor eventually becomes dated. Is Krazy Kat mainly of interest because it’s funny? It’s very amusing, but there’s a lot more than laughter going on while I’m reading it.

RB: I didn’t think Peanuts was funny—

BK: That’s more maudlin, I’d say. It has a sadness. I hard to think of a funny comic strip among my contemporaries—I think of them as pretty dark. Dark subjects or dark humor. You know, Bill Griffith can be very funny, but there’s so much more going on.

RB: Right. B. Kliban—do you remember him?

BK: Yeah. Those were single-panel.

RB: Glen Baxter?

BK: Same thing. Edward Gorey—he was a picture-story writer. It’s highly amusing, but it’s more moving than funny. I think I just want to read it and appreciate the world he’s created.

RB: Besides the connection with juvenile delinquency in the ’50s, why were they called “comics” or “funnies,” if not for some comic aspect?

BK: It was in the American newspaper strip tradition that they were called “comics” or “funnies,” because a lot of them were trying to be humorous. Mutt and Jeff, Our Boarding House, and Nancy—it’s a strange thing; they are more like deeply amusing when they are good. A good Nancy strip is like someone boiling down the idea of a gag to its essence. You just admire how it was done. Other strips were so troubling and dark that you just had to laugh.

RB: R. Crumb?

BK: Yeah, Crumb, sometimes at his best, can be really funny.

RB: And dark.

BK: Yeah, that stuff from his Arcade period is really funny. It’s funny and tragic and obsessive.

RB: Do these strips need to be preserved?

BK: Originally these strips were done for weekly newspapers on newsprint. It’s one of the most ephemeral forms of print, and a lot of them were thrown away immediately. And so the book collection is already a more durable entombment of these ephemeral things. And the digital file, which is now bouncing around and being replicated—that may survive the print thing. I don’t know which is more durable.

RB: Nicholson Baker would say the paper version.

BK: Well, his argument was against microfilm, which was another idea of how you could preserve printed matter. And that was a terrible recording medium, as the image quality was abysmal, if you could even see the image. And it was also on a fragile thing—film, acetate of some kind. And then people though they could throw away the original printed object. Digital file is potentially of a much higher image quality. My digital files could be output to fill the proscenium of a large theater—there’s that much information there. Whether the file itself survives—that piece of information on a digital medium—depends on how many copies there are, what happens to them.

RB: At the turn of the millennium, the Times magazine had a panel discussion of archivists and curators about this matter. The problem with the digital technology is that hardware and software is continually changing.

BK: A raw .tif file or .jpg that was made 10 years ago can still be opened today. You couldn’t necessarily open them in other programs that became obsolete, like early page-composition programs. Some of the raw data can be used and saved. On the other hand, I make prints of my work. I have backed it up on paper, too.

RB: That’s a lot of backing up.

BK: That’s backing up several times digitally, myself. And then my publisher probably has them somewhere backed up. And then every time it was printed in a newspaper, there was a file, and those may be floating around. Who knows how retrievable this will be 100 years from now? It’s an interesting thing. I know the internet is archived every day by some association that backs up the whole thing. And you can go back and look at your web page from eight years ago, and a lot of the internet from that period will be there. If you think about what’s survived in print—it may not be that much. There are lots of books that have dwindled down to a few collectors’ copies. Things get thrown out, things burn—especially in very volatile times. People think there is a whole body of very early Yiddish literature there is no record of anymore because—

RB: Isn’t there a Lithuanian library that has recovered some of it? And an archive in Western Massachusetts?

Anything that at this point makes a book look like an alien object or an unfamiliar object is probably a good thing. So people will not take it for granted that it’s a book.

BK: Yeah, that’s mainly 19th and early 20th century. I am talking about earlier printed books, and it got lost. Things get lost.

RB: Do you have every drawing you have ever done?

BK: I don’t think every one. I have given some away, lost some. I have a lot of them, but they are mainly on paper. It’s a big thing to get used to. Filmmakers live with this all the time. Their work is on this medium that can disappear—now they are all working digitally, and they are all having trouble keeping up, and backing up their movies. So this technology has definitely pushed books into the immaterial realm.

RB: That fascinates and is what is fascinating about classicists—they acknowledge and even savor the fact that they deal with fragments. They often don’t deal with complete texts.

BK: Yeah. You can tell a lot from one of my strips. The whole book is one thing. It existed in fragments—published serially.

RB: That’s what I am trying to understand. In the last few years you have published three books—

BK: I have been doing weekly strips and monthly strips all along. The books are a sideline thing.

RB: At what point do the strips become books?

BK: When I feel like packaging them in to this new thing.

RB: And in the case of The Cardboard Valise?

BK: This waited a long time.

RB: Do you have to change anything to ensure continuity when you make the book out of strips?

BK: No, because in this case I wanted to preserve that free-associative feeling of a weekly strip—how I invented it week by week. And I went back to flesh out the narrative at several points.

RB: So you did change it.

BK: I added to it. I rarely went back and made changes. It’s more or less as it originally appeared: a record of this weekly event. It’s a graphic novel in the form of a weekly comic-strip, if that makes sense.

RB: And The Jew of New York?

BK: That ran for a year as a weekly strip, and then it was expanded and rearranged as a book to become twice as long. That was different.

RB: There are foreign-language editions of it. Who writes the text?

BK: Sometimes people will try to copy my handwriting. Usually it’s done with a font of my handwriting. It’s not really necessary—you could put out an edition with subtitles at the bottom of the page and preserve my handwriting. That’s what I would prefer.

RB: Have you seen a book that does that?

BK: Yeah, the new English translation of Rodolphe Töpffer’s complete work. He was an early Swiss picture-story writer. You wouldn’t want to efface his handwriting—it’s part of the graphic quality. So it’s published with the original French handwritten text and typeset below in English. That’s done occasionally with historical material. There is a newsprint magazine in France, l’Episode, that presents the original version and subtitles, either English to French, French to English, German to English. Subtitles, as in movies, are really easy to do.

RB: I don’t see how the text in The Cardboard Valise could be effectively translated.

BK: I don’t think it can be. I don’t know than any prose can be.

RB: Some of the text is solecisms. I wonder if they exist anywhere else. They are understandable.

BK: I don’t know that certain writers translate very well. The Japanese edition of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories has a large section of notes in the back that explains everything. It’s as long as the book.

I think people who have fun making drawings are hobbyists who are looking for a pleasurable alternative to their real work.
RB: The explanations are in Japanese.

BK: All in Japanese.

RB: How do you know if the explanation is correct? (laughs)

BK: I don’t. I assume that someone who was interested enough to do that did their best. But I like to read things in their original language, if possible. In comics, at least the images, on some level, transcend the need for translation, and so you’re at least getting half of the original. In some European countries they’re consciously trying to keep their languages alive. Especially for things like comics, so kids can keep reading Flemish, keep reading Dutch.

RB: Holland does get a lot of books in English.

BK: Yeah. There is an organization there that promotes Dutch-language comics, and they give cartoonists grants to work in the Dutch language.

RB: It’s a difficult language to pronounce. In WWII the Dutch resistance used specific Dutch words as passwords that only a Dutch person could pronounce—this helped to guard against infiltrators.

BK: I didn’t know that. Some countries tend not to bother—Portugal tends to just import the English books.

RB: In Latin America books are fairly expensive, and book-buyers are a rarified group and, I suspect, facile in English.

BK: They have price controls in France that keep the prices up to what they should be. If the digital file that my book was printed from starts being passed around, that would cost nothing to replicate, and more people would end up looking at it somewhere.

RB: That being a democratic feature of the internet. How labor-intensive is assembling a book?

BK: Assembling it? Or making it?

RB: After a period of time you have a number of strips—

BK: If it was drawn on paper it has to be scanned, and then the image files are positioned in a page-composition program like InDesign. Whatever other element you want to invent—endpapers, contents page—and the cover has to be designed.

RB: And the endpapers?

BK: Well, the endpapers in this book are not just decorative—they are part of the story. The design and layout is the least of it.

RB: Whose idea was [it] to have a handle?

BK: Chip Kidd’s idea. He said, “Take a look at this, see what you think of it.” I saw and I liked it. I suggested it just be this neutral sky-blue color. It looked like some kind of take-out container, a strange food-carrying container. I said, “Anything that at this point makes a book look like an alien object or an unfamiliar object is probably a good thing.” So people will not take it for granted that it’s a book.

RB: Chip is a fun-loving guy. So, my guess is that you are always busy. Are you doing one strip a week?

BK: No, no, I do a monthly now [for Metropolis], which is a larger work, and so a lot of work’s involved. I am always working on some theater piece. And I teach. I am on the faculty at Parsons and The New School. That keeps me busy. I don’t have a lot of idle time. I’d love to have that kind of time where I could just take purposeless walks, but I don’t have that. I love to be in a position where I don’t have anything to do; I can just be somewhere, sit around and wait for someone to arrive. I try to take advantage of those situations.

RB: When you were in Porter Square [for a reading], did you walk around?

BK: Not too much, because I had to find the bookstore—

RB: It’s in a strip mall.

BK: It’s always sad to go into a bookstore in a shopping mall. It’s not my culture—I have rarely lived in a car culture. And that [Porter Square, Cambridge] doesn’t seem like it should be. It seems like a walking neighborhood.

RB: That mall/shopping center has a big grocery store.

BK: The rents must be cheap enough for a bookstore—not like on Newbury Street [Boston].

RB: I don’t think there are any bookstores left on Newbury Street.

BK: Last night I went to one that’s also a diner.

RB: Oh yeah—the Trident. It’s probably still around because it sells food.

BK: Yeah, it’s mainly an eating-place. What was that one that used to be across—

RB: Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore?

BK: No.

RB: Waterstones?

BK: Near Waterstones, on the other side of the street.

RB: Harvard Bookstore Café, owned by the same man who owned the bookstore in Cambridge. So, you seem to like writing librettos.

BK: Yeah, well—

RB: Can you sing?

BK: No, but I can speak. And the kind of music that these shows use is just human speech, ratcheted up, just a little bit, to music. That’s the kind of music Mark Mulcahy writes. They are sort of ballad operas.

RB: There is only one recording, as far as I know.

"The Board of Education," by Ben Katchor

“The Board of Education,” by Ben Katchor

BK: That’s The Carbon Copy Building, with music by the composers from Bang on a Can. My collaborations with Mark Mulcahy have not been put out as recordings, and that has to do with the question of who’s still buying CDs or physical records.

RB: You design the sets also?

BK: Yes, I design the projected sets—they are really central to the show. The shows would not make much sense without them.

RB: So a DVD would be more appropriate.

BK: Yeah, it has to be a visual thing. The Carbon Copy Building CD was an illustrated book—a scene from each scene of the opera. It should be more like an animated film, but that’s a lot more work.

RB: Have you done any animations?

BK: I’ve done some limited animation in those shows—it’s more of a sequencing of images that follows the music.

RB: Would you like to make an animated film?

BK: Yeah, I think all of our “operas” could be made into animated films.

RB: What would it take?

BK: A lot of work. Somebody to oversee it and a lot of production work. It’s very labor-intensive work.

RB: Which also translates to money.

BK: Unless you can do it yourself. So, anyway, that’s one of the problems with packaging these shows and then having to sell them. At the moment, they exist as live events. You have to go out of your house and sit in an audience and be there with these other people.

RB: Are there other productions of your “operettas”?

BK: As long as we’re around, we like to control them. If you gave them to somebody, it would be a disaster, out of control, and that doesn’t interest me. It would need my pictures. If you didn’t use my pictures you would have to invent a whole new scenic world, and it wouldn’t be the same. And as I said, some day if somebody wants to do it (chuckles), they could do it. At the moment we want to control how they are done. We don’t get to do them that often. Mark sings in them.

RB: Has anyone videotaped any of the performances?

BK: Yeah, yeah. But just to document them.

RB: One camera.

BK: Once somebody put together a more elaborate video, but filmed opera productions tend to feel too stagey and big. You’d have to redesign it for video, and make the performance more intimate for close-ups, etc.

RB: I have always preferred Shakespeare on film.

BK: It can be done. You must have seen good ones. Great films have been made.

RB: Orson Welles as Macbeth, John Hurt as Richard III, Paul Robeson as Othello, Olivier as Hamlet and King Lear and other protagonists.

BK: They are probably better than 99 percent of the live productions. But somebody has to do it. If I had the time —

RB: Have you seen Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice?
Everybody has this fantasy that “When my book comes out my life is going to change.” Or, “When I get the award, my life is going to change.” And in some cases it probably does­. In most cases it doesn’t.

BK: No.

RB: It’s a bit comical.

BK: I can imagine. I have nothing against filming plays, but I do like live performance.

RB: Do you go to much live theater?

BK: Not as much as I want to. It’s hard. There’s an obstacle—even in New York. I try to.

RB: Listen to live music?

BK: I try to. Like last night, somebody took me to a Jewish music festival—it looked like an old wedding hall in Brookline. There was a really good band—this guy from Montreal, Josh Dolgin. It was great, kind of hip-hop klezmer. He did covers of Menasha Skulnick, a Yiddish theater performer from the ’20s and ’30s. And I said, “Somebody is covering Menasha Skulnick, these incredibly obscure things that only exist on 78s.” Eventually everything will be covered (laughs). Everything will have another life. Nobody has performed these songs for probably 20, 30 years or something.

RB: You don’t know that. Maybe on some kibbutz in Israel—

BK: Well, I doubt it. I follow Yiddish music and would have heard about it. A lot of things have been covered and revived, but not that. (laughs) It’s very deep in the basement of this culture. So there it is, this 20-year-old guy.


RB: Howlin’ Wolf, a raw Chicago bluesman, is now the background music for Viagra commercials. Howlin’ Wolf (laughs).

BK: Pretty amazing. In the Coen brothers’ [A Serious Man] film they used a track of Sidor Belarsky, who was a very well-known Yiddish art-song singer.

RB: Art-song?

BK: Yeah, he sang Yiddish art songs.

RB: What’s that?

BK: Songs sung by a trained singer from classical repertoire. A short song—like Schubert.

RB: Like Lieder?

BK: Yeah. And they [Coen brothers] took one, and it was a repeated piece of background music. So these things come up again.

RB: Perhaps that’s just a mirror of human memory, in that we don’t really ever forget anything. You can’t always recall, but everything that you experience makes an impression of some kind. Sometimes they come back at the oddest times.

BK Triggered by something, some incredibly complicated chain. And then you’ll think of the thing, not the chain. The chain will just be there.

When I read a good biography I feel like it’s all being filtered through one voice. I’d actually rather hear those voices.
RB: The image, the smell.

BK: Yeah, so it will work like that.

RB: You had someone who actually invented a machine to broadcast smells (laughs).

BK: An Odorater. Would you buy such a machine? There isn’t a real art form around smell—maybe perfumes. It’s a completely unexploited sense. You have whole industry—

RB: I always wonder how smells stay in a place, and people can smell things much after the smell-producing thing is gone.

BK: Some people have an incredibly sensitive sense of smell. My wife, for instance—it’s almost frightening, her sense of smell. She’ll say, “That car over there smells bad,” and she’ll get it well before anybody else does. The molecules hit her first. Animals must have incredible senses of smell—

RB: And sight. Is there something that you haven’t done that you would like to do?

BK: Uh, let me think. (long pause) Yeah, of course. I would like to tour these shows more. It’s more of the same thing. I wish these shows had more of a life. We could do a big tour with every new show.

RB: Is that fun, or agony? (laughs)

BK: No, that’s fun. Collaboration, once it’s all worked out—the agony part of it. Since I’m not in them, it’s very nerve-wracking, making sure the technology is working—then they are fun. The agony is waiting for the technology to crash. I am so nervous sometimes I can’t even be present. It’s good to have other people involved—if all it’s on you, it’s pretty nerve-wracking.

RB: Did your life take a measurable turn when you received the MacArthur Fellowship?

BK: Not really.

RB: It must have made things easier?

BK: Yeah, it’s easier. I wouldn’t say an abrupt shift, but it’s made some things easier. I feel it helped getting a teaching job. It’s a certain kind of a certification, like Good Housekeeping. It gave me a lot of time to put a lot of money into developing these shows, to underwrite these things. There’s never enough money to do what we’d like to do.

RB: Did you buy yourself some toy that you really liked?

BK: Not a toy, but we bought a place in the country.

RB: That’s a nice toy.

BK: It’s not a toy, it’s more of a—

RB: Appliance?

BK: Everybody has this fantasy that “When my book comes out my life is going to change.” Or, “When I get the award, my life is going to change.” And in some cases it probably does­. In most cases it doesn’t (laughs). And those are the levels of celebrity in this culture—

RB: That’s a pretty creditable accolade. The people who get it are, by and large, worthy.

BK: “By and large”? (laughs) I try to pick out the ones that I think are really great artists—Paul Taylor, and Ornette Coleman—and I say, “They got a MacArthur, so it must meant something.” I can’t look at the grand scheme of that fellowship, as it involves many disciplines I know nothing about.

RB: Has anyone who does what you do received a MacArthur?

BK: I don’t know. I don’t even keep up with the yearly awards.

RB: I do—I have the unreasonable hope that the Fates will smile on me.

BK: Is literary interviewing recognized?

RB: Who knows?

BK: You could be the first.

RB: I am not sure that these are interviews.

BK: They are done at a level of relaxation that commercial journalism couldn’t deal with.

RB: (laughs)

BK: I mean, they are sort of interviews—I don’t know what they are.

RB: Right, what are they? It’s just talking, that’s what I say. That’s what I’ll call my memoir: Just Talking.



BK: There’s a radio show interviewing lot of comic book people called Ink Studs. They are really long, like four hours. He’s compiling books out of them.

RB: Richard Schickel did a book called Conversations With Scorcese. And the U of Mississippi Press has a series called “Conversations with…” My “interviews” appear in some of those.

BK: There’s a whole series with cartoonists. Hopefully this interview will be included in mine, if it ever exists. (chuckles)

RB: I like the oral biography, composed of conversations with people who have known and dealt with the subject. There’s one of Warren Zevon, and one of Robert Altman. And, I think, one of Edie Sedgwick.

BK: Oh, there are these things online, from some film institute somewhere on the West Coast that has these really long interviews with people in show business. [The Archive of American Television —ed.] Have you seen these?

RB: No.

BK: They are sitting in front of a camera telling their whole life story. And they are amazing. I remember one with Jonathan Winters—they are pretty amazing. The only danger is—

RB: The other way, you get these highly detailed biographies that tell what the person ate for breakfast as a seven-year-old—

BK: The only danger is you have things you may not want to talk about, and you highly edit it.

RB: That’s why in a book you have other people as sources and witnesses.

BK: You want everybody to talk about one subject?

RB: Yeah, the wives, the kids, partners, collaborators, high school teachers, cellmates, etc. You get a pretty interesting picture. Is it real? That’s for the reader to figure out.

BK: There must be a lot of obvious contradictions. Yeah, it could be fun.

RB: What is the point of reading about someone, anyway?

BK: You want to know the world they lived in. When I read a good biography I feel like it’s all being filtered through one voice. I’d actually rather hear those voices.

RB: I like those slim, 200-page biographical essays: Larry McMurty on Crazy Horse, Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson, Francine Prose on Caravaggio.

BK: That could be good. I’m trying to think if I know anyone’s life without having to do research.

RB: Whom do you admire?

BK: In my world, early cartoonists. And I think about it, and if I don’t do it nobody will. I could, probably. On the other hand—

RB: There was someone at The New School who had a poetry class/workshop, and in the ’60s, on a weekly basis, well-known poets were invited and the classes were taped. Within the past few years someone published the transcriptions of those classes—not lectures. More like colloquia.

BK: What did they talk about?

RB: I would suppose poetry.

BK: The only other thing about these transcriptions is you lose all the physicality of the voice.

RB: Right, but putting some extra-textual helps: “laughs,” “long pause,” “stares off into the distance.”

BK: Yeah, but since this technology exists you can just hear the thing—you can just edit it. You could be doing a radio show—

RB: There’s a big difference between hearing and reading words—

BK: So I’d like to hear that. Some people transcribe radio documentaries into books, but they are somewhat meaningless without the audio—without the particular human voice. It’s a complicated thing. Our opera, The Rosenbach Company, it’s a musical biography of the Rosebach brothers.

RB: Book-dealers?

BK: Yeah, [Abe] Rosenbach in Philadelphia, and his brother was an antique dealer. They worked together, financing one another’s obsessive hobby. There is a lot written about them. There is a long biography that’s written from the point of view of the antique book world, and lots of shorter things by employees of his. I read all of that and made it into a two-hour musical. So I have done a biography. It is really his life—from his childhood to his death. It was very hard to do. There was so much—this man’s life was completely archived. Nothing was thrown away. And what you have to do is say, “Am I putting too much of his philandering in? Or too much about his Judaism?” What’s the perfect balance? I took out stuff about his drinking. I don’t want to make it look like he’s just a drunk. (laughs)

RB: How is it that you think you can do this so well that you know what the response will be?

BK: In the case of theater, I don’t think you do know until it happens. It’s a very mysterious thing.

RB: Well, you know that people will like it or not like it.

BK: In theater it’s somewhat out of control. It’s a collaboration—until it happens in front of an audience, you don’t know. Absolutely, there are these surprise moments that you thought were throwaways, and they become the center of a scene. You never realize that.

RB: All your efforts to balance—

BK: Yeah, they get thrown out, because somebody will come and see it and say, “He wasn’t a collector of pornography. You overemphasized that.” And it was like two seconds of the play. But I try to make it the right balance. If you say, “I knew what his real motives were,” I say these were other, side motives that are pushing back.

RB: So that’s your intention. Most prose writers are using highly conventional language in a conventional way, and they are trying to make some big narrative point. But the writing itself doesn’t have this kind of a thing that leaps into the physical, where you almost shudder when you read it.

BK: I try. It could fail on different levels. Someone could look at the opera and have their own opinion—if they know the story themselves, they may say, “This is a distortion.” The effect on the audience that knows nothing about this man [Rosenbach]—

RB: Why would I want to see it if I knew nothing about him and his history?

BK: Well, they know there is this rare book library in Philadelphia, but they may not know who Rosenbach was. They know the institution named after him. In Philadelphia, up until the ’50s, it was a very well-known decorative arts shop, a household name, but the details of his life were unknown.

RB: Is the Rosenbach Museum well-endowed?

BK: I don’t know much about their finances. They raised some of the money through the Pew Foundation. But it’s an interesting place. Rosenbach collected a lot of illustrated books. Maurice Sendak gave them his archive. Our opera commemorated the 50th anniversary of the library.

RB: The museum was created posthumously?

BK: The Rosenbach Foundation was created by the surviving brother, Philip, an antique dealer. The book-collecting brother would never have done it—he would have just put the books back into circulation. Philip had more grandiose ideas about what to do with their home and collection. He wanted a museum, a foundation. That’s how these things happen.

RB: Is your teaching integrated into the way you work, or is it a separate compartment?

BK: Well, it’s all about the form of work I do, and it’s integrated in that way.

RB: There are students who want to do what you do?

BK: I wouldn’t say they want to do what I do, but they want to figure out how to combine texts and image. Some of them are writing students who want to add images. Some are art students who want to add words. And there are design and technology students working with games and interactive media who are interested in visual storytelling. And there’s a theater department that doesn’t have a strong visual component—it’s mainly playwriting and acting.

RB: No instruction in set design or lighting?

BK: Very little stagecraft. And these antique media of writing and drawing, they have been split into the disciplines of art and creative writing. I teach out of the illustration program, where writing and drawing come together—comics, children’s books, and illustrated texts. It could as logically be taught in the writing school, but it’s in the art school because it involves pictures. They have to put it somewhere and they don’t want to put it in media studies because it isn’t modern media. It’s ancient mixed media. That’s the distinction that’s made.

RB: Do you know Lawrence Weschler’s book Convergences?

BK: Yes.

RB: That book is a text that talks a lot about various images and their relationships, like comparing Che Guevara’s death photo to some Rembrandt.

BK: An Anatomy Lesson. Wait a minute, isn’t that from John Berger?

RB: He got the idea from Berger.

BK: That’s just prose annotation of images. And these pictures don’t mean anything unless you start saying—it needs both.

RB: Who else besides Berger and Wechsler sees these convergences and foreshadowings?

BK: Every good art history book has illustrations that say, “Look at this.”

RB: Right, but that’s usually taking pictures singly, or placing them within a milieu.

BK: Lots of books talk about the composition—

RB: How would I know? I never read one art history book. (laughs)

BK: Anything talking about the physical world is usually illustrated—archeology; history books need images. It’s only in this thing called “literary fiction” that Henry James said, “I don’t need pictures. I can’t make pictures. And I don’t want to compete with an illustrator.” He said at some point near the end of his life—this text doesn’t need illustration.

RB: Lewis Carroll used pictures.

BK: He did his own pictures for his own editions of his books.

RB: Have you seen Jonathan Safran Foer’s Bruno Schultz book, Tree of Codes?

BK: No, but I’ve seen photos of it.

RB: It’s pretty interesting. What’s striking about it is that as a physical object it’s very fragile. It doesn’t seem like it will hold up after repeated readings.

BK: You know, some books fall apart—paperbacks.

RB: Well, it’s an interesting idea to create a story by subtraction.

BK: Yeah, people have done things like that—annotated books, made books out of other books.

RB: Foer likes to play with type and images in his novels.

BK: Anybody who grows up with visual media—TV, movies, comics, less theater today—wants to think about it. The idea of purity of form, “I am just going to use words or just images,” is the exception. It’s the disciplines in schools that drive these things apart. “I’ve only studied writing and that is all I can teach you. If you want to go mix them up, go be in the gutter. Go be in Hollywood.”

RB: I just read a novel by Jonathan Evision called West of Here, and the author included hand-drawn maps—schematic, not highly detailed. But the way they changed the pace of the story and gave it a different way of thinking about the geography, which included the ocean, settlements, and raw, unsettled nature.

BK: Yeah, images can work to illuminate text.

It’s sad history, this urge to purify the arts. I don’t know what else to say about it. Whatever it did to literary fiction, it did the same thing to painting. It took the stories and thought out of the visual world.

RB: How about a book that is a geographical biography of George Washington? Just maps.

BK: That’s interesting, although maps are a kind of schematic—pull up a map into three dimensions, you get a place, and the place is a map on a rainy day and a map on a hot summer day—it’s the same map, but not the same place. I want to see it in all its dimensions. A map—maps are very interesting and useful, for the names. I love the names on maps.

RB: One of my favorite annuals is the Oxford Atlas of the World. It’s updated every edition and it has all sorts of images, including NASA satellite photographs.

BK: These things—it’s the full spectrum of meaning, from the convention of the word, to these concrete images and individual particular things. And if you can play off that—it’s the actor coming on the stage with a certain posture. He’s telling you the whole story with his posture and appearance, and then he opens his mouth and delivers the words. So words are part of the story, but it doesn’t have to be the whole story. I want the verbiage set in the world; I don’t want the verbiage on a blank page. I want it set in the world, and then it fascinates me.

RB: What happens when you read literary fiction?

BK: I feel most of it is incredibly boring, and those rare writers who, using the conventional symbols of language, give you a physical sensation, are the geniuses of writing. That’s a handful of people. Most prose writers are using highly conventional language in a conventional way, and they are trying to make some big narrative point. But the writing itself doesn’t have this kind of a thing that leaps into the physical, where you almost shudder when you read it. And that’s rare. I would say it’s an unfortunate history, that decision Henry James made a hundred years ago to throw pictures out of literary fiction. A lot of these writers could have made great picture books. Nabokov was a great draftsman; he could have. And there is a whole history of writers who painted and drew. There is this gigantic anthology I have, called The Painted Word, and it’s the history of writers who, on the side, painted or drew. The culture didn’t allow let them to work in mixed forms.

RB: How many tried to be taken seriously as painters?

BK: They were taught that these were separate disciplines, and there is the purity of art and the purity of prose, and that you don’t put them together. They did illustrations sometimes, but mainly they had two separate pursuits, and if you put them together, in the Western culture, it looked comics or movies. It didn’t look like this refined art form. I am sure these people could have produced amazing multimedia art.

RB: What prevents you from soliciting writers you think could do it?

BK: (chuckles) Most writers won’t because they don’t have the training in picture-making. They stopped drawing when they were 10 years old, and assume that the techniques of drawing are a magical gift that was denied to them.

RB: Let’s say today many can’t, but there must be at least a handful that can.

BK: The ones that can draw make comics. The ones that can’t draw make prose books. I am trying to think if I know a writer who is in that dilemma, who paints on the side. I don’t really know any among my acquaintances. And [if they could] they might not want to do publish the work. When the Rodolphe Töpffer created the first modern picture-story, he published anonymously. Local people may have known they were his, but he had career as teacher and writer, and didn’t want to situate himself as an amateur working across media. The other thing is that a lot of people are ashamed to produce drawings with the technical limitations of a 10-year-old when they are sophisticated 50-year-old writers—to admit that their graphic world is that of a 10-year-old.

RB: Jules Feiffer, are his drawings considered refined?

BK: He is an amazing artist.

RB: I know, but to me his visual stuff is childlike.

BK: He’s never slick, and avoids the surface conventions of commercial art, but he’s a very skilled draughtsman.

RB: He is an example of the kind of artist you are talking about—novels, plays, cartoons—

BK: Yes. He has done a strip for most of his life. He’s done picture books.

RB: What are the titles?

BK: Tantrum is one—he’s done many. But he has done a weekly for most of his life. He wrote a few novels without pictures and screenplays. He has integrated it perfectly.

RB: There’s a biography you could do.

BK: He just published an autobiography. I don’t know that I want to offer another version of his life. I tried biography once— The Rosenbach Company—and I felt terribly constricted by facts. And I’d rather work in the world of fiction. But anyway, that’s probably the big obstacle. If you went to a writer and said to them, “Would you consider adding images to your book?” They’d say, “No, this would undercut the skill that I am showing in this other thing I do.”

RB: There was an early argument against music videos—that they made concrete the things that songs usually left to the imagination.

BK: That’s adding a story. Usually done by some crummy director adding a story to a piece of music. When you see a band perform live, they are the visual. And most great pop musicians are great actors, and really great on a stage—you really want to watch what they are doing. The music is there, and then there is this whole physical act. Music videos are trying lay some narrative onto a piece of music. That can be done the musician. Tom Waits has done operas—

RB: With Robert Wilson.

BK: He did an earlier one. But it can be done. But that’s not a music video; that’s something more organic. It’s that simple. The resistance is due to the structure of the academy—people get taught one thing or the other. And by a certain age they say, “I don’t do that; I do this.” They don’t want to be perceived as amateurs.

RB: Does your work meet resistance? I see you being lauded.

BK: At this moment there is enough work in the picture-story form that has been critically well-received, and so people take it seriously. People can look at a picture-story and say that it should be considered seriously as any other form. But you know, for most of my life that was the worst thing you could say about a writer’s characters, that they were like comic-strip characters. That was devastating. That was the end. And now I have lived to see reviewers say, “This book could probably be done better as a comic strip.”

RB: You are like Moses, but have reached the Promised Land.

BK: It is a great time in the history of picture-stories. It’s had other high points, but this is a good moment. My students are being ripped apart by these disciplines, but they all know that can’t be right. If they are anthropologists, they say, “I want to show things.” They don’t just want to describe, they want to show and let you look. On the internet, a page without images feels like a form of laziness, or an easy solution.

RB: McSweeney’s does play at the intermingling of words and images.

BK: Yeah, that’s called illustration, and then there’s realization through images. One is decoration. There’s a lot of that decorative illustration in the print world. In order to break up a body of text you throw in a picture. It doesn’t need it. It could live without it. In Dickens’ case the illustration upstaged his writing. People would refer to the illustration and say, “This is what Fagin looked like.” And he [Dickens] had a lot of problems with that, a lot of conflicts with his illustrators because he felt either they weren’t up to what he imagined, or they were better.

RB: Illustrated because it was serialized?

BK: That’s not why. That was the form. You needed images because readers expected a fully fleshed out theater on paper.

RB: I understand, but were those illustrations carried over to the books?

BK: In the early editions. In the 20th century they were dropped. There is tons of Dickens without the pictures. He depended on those images. The history of illustrated text, works by writers who didn’t control the image, was an unhappy history because of the inevitable conflict of sensibilities. A great film director controls the story and the imagery—he avoids the assembly-line approach. And the assembly-line approach is kind of hopeless. It can work, but the potential for conflict of sensibilities or one person upstaging the other is there. It has to be a very carefully orchestrated and willing collaboration. So it’s sad history, this urge to purify the arts. I don’t know what else to say about it. Whatever it did to literary fiction, it did the same thing to painting. It took the stories and thought out of the visual world, the purified painting down to a mute gesture. Down to a zip.

RB: Well, let’s leave it at that. Thanks.


28 Nov


This is a brilliant if not optimistic observation by Michael Moore. Let it be tested by releasing those horrific photos…

After Newtown— I think this was the President’s finest moment, after the Newtown massacre of 26 children,

And now our President intones, “This is not normal. We can’t let it become normal,” he added. “Enough is enough.” Well, Jews,after WWII proclaimed, ‘Never again.” What they meant was, ‘Never again would Jews be herded into camps and liquidated in Europe in mid 20th century.”

You remember Columbine (these events are now known by one word). Here’s then President Clinton:

Clinton and his wife later visit Littleton Colorado (His speech begins at 31:21)

Don’t forget Michael Moore’s take Bowling for Columbine

Or Gus Van Zant’s Elephant

A few years ago I had a chat with Canadian writer/artist Doug Coupland about his novel Hey Nostradamus! set in 1988 about a high school cafeteria shooting that—as it must—profoundly alters a suburban community.

RB: You designed the icon that is on the cover of Hey Nostradamus! And on your website you have that photograph from the Columbine cafeteria that you entitle ‘Tropical Birds’ after the ATF agent’s observation about all the cell phones ringing. Why haven’t you put more visual elements into your books?

DC: What I am doing now is—I used to do a lot of non-fiction and short fiction and now it’s just long-form fiction, novels, and a lot of visual work. And it’s a conscious decision. The ‘Tropical Birds,’ that happened, I was in Harbor Front [literary festival] (I can’t wait to get to the telephone and find out what the hell is going on there) 400, 500 people and someone’s phone went off in the middle. And it just brought to mind that exact paragraph from the Rocky Mountain News…

RB: In which an ATF agent says the phones were going off and it sounded like tropical birds?

DC: Yeah. So without telling anyone in the audience why, I said ‘Okay, who’s got a phone’ and called them up. ‘Now go to your neighbor and find out their number and phone them and they’ll phone you back or whatever. House, could you dim down the lights?’ Everybody thought it was ‘hee hee, really funny.’ Or whatever, David Byrne-postmodern. And then it went on for a minute and it had its own texture. And then the lights came up and the phones turned off and I told them what I was basing this on. And there was this reaction like everyone had been kicked in the gut. Then in Paris, at the Parisian Literary Festival, I did the same thing except I told people in advance why I am doing it and they did it and then the lights came up and everybody was in tears. There was this gasp of astonishment. Like how often do you hear the singing voice of the human soul? That’s one of the few instances where visual stuff and written work have dovetailed so neatly….

Will this form of senseless killing ever end?

Turkey Day

23 Nov


In addition to Halloween and Columbus Day, I find Thanksgiving an abhorrent holiday, a celebration of the false notions that Europeans and Native Americans could and would live in harmony and comity ever after. We know better. Or some of us do.

Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars .

Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars .

So while the refugee population (330 million) of that exceptional nation its inhabitants like to call the United States of America (I prefer Gore Vidal and Emminem’s The United States of Amnesia) gobbles down the traditional high caloric deluge (one of such would probably would be sufficient to feed a village in Haiti or MesoAmerica) and watch young men and felons (check out the SEC football team rosters)beat out each others brains, all the while preparing for the hysteria and mania of the ineptly named Black Friday,let me offer a different path—perhaps one on the way to enlightenment.

I remain hopeful.

I am sending notice of three books that have found their way to me because of that hope

War is Beautiful by David Shields

War is Beautiful by David Shields

I have been following David Shields’s work* a good, long while now —his transmogrification from novelist to literary zealot**(see Reality Hunger and Fakes) has been an engaging development. His new opus is a riveting and unsettling look at one of the pillars of US main stream media,
War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict*** Shield’s explains

David Hickey introduces the book:

…Shields analyzed over a decade’s worth of front-page war photographs from the New York Times and came to a shocking conclusion: the photo-editing process of the “paper of record,” by way of pretty, heroic, and lavishly aesthetic image selection, pulls the wool over the eyes of we its readers; with this discovery Shields forces us to face not only the media’s complicity in dubious and catastrophic military campaigns but our own as well. This powerful media mouthpiece, the mighty Times, far from being a check on governmental power, is in reality a massive amplifier for its dark forces by virtue of the way it aestheticizes warfare. Anyone baffled by the willful American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t help but see in this book how eagerly and invariably the Times led the way in making the case for these wars through the manipulation of its visuals. Shields forces the reader to weigh the consequences of our own passivity in the face of these images’ opiatic numbing…

For decades, upon opening the New York Times every morning and contemplating the front page, I was entranced by the war photographs. My attraction to the photographs evolved into a mixture of rapture, bafflement, and repulsion. Over time I realized that these photos glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement. I didn’t completely trust my intuition, so over the last year I went back and reviewed New York Times front pages from the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 until the present. When I gathered together hundreds and hundreds of images, I found my original take corroborated: the governing ethos was unmistakably one that glamorized war and the sacrifices made in the service of war.

Juan Cole observes

After U.S. troops left Iraq, former Times Baghdad bureau chief John F. Burns wrote in a Times war blog: “America, for all its mistakes—- including, as so many believe, the decision to invade in the first place—- will at least have the comfort of knowing that it did pretty much all it could do, within the limits of popular acceptance in blood and treasure, to open the way for a better Iraqi future.” President Lyndon Johnson said about Viet Nam, “I can’t fight this war without the support of the New York Times.” A Times war photograph is worth a thousand mirrors.

Art is an ordering of nature and artifact. The Times uses its front-page war photographs to convey that a chaotic world is ultimately under control, encased within amber. In so doing, the paper of record promotes its institutional power as protector of death-dealing democracy and curator of Western civilization. Who is culpable? We all are; our collective psyche and memory are inscribed in these photographs. Behind these sublime, destructive, illuminated images are hundreds of thousands of unobserved, anonymous war deaths; this book is witness to a graveyard of horrendous beauty.


You may be unaware of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, a collection of more than 10,000 contemptible collectible. David Pilgrim’s Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice corrects that gap in our cultural literacy:

The items are offensive and they were meant to be offensive. The items in the Jim Crow Museum served to dehumanize Blacks and legitimized patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. Using racist objects as teaching tools seems counterintuitive—and, quite frankly, needlessly risky. Many Americans are already apprehensive discussing race relations, especially in settings where their ideas are challenged. The museum and this book exist to help overcome our collective trepidation and reluctance to talk about race


Historian Paul Buhle’s ouevre is impressive and he adds to it with his editing hand of Kate Evans’s Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg a revolutionary socialist theorist and activist was a German Jew who opposed the the First World War (as many others on the left did not) and thus was imprisoned and eventually murdered in 1919. There is not a lot of attention paid in our brave new free market, globalist world (there was a 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg by Margarethe von Trotta)

to dissident thinkers and activists which makes this wonderful tome all the more valuable. Here is a more complete sample from Red Rosa



Now if you are especially ambitious and concerned you might go to the fountain head of revisionist US History , Howard Zinn’s The People’s History.




* 2002 Identitytheory conversation with David Shields

**my most recent conversation with David at the LA Review of Books

***in which the author explains why he no longer reads The New York Times

Count Us Lucky : Loving Barry Crimmins

14 Nov
Barry Crimmins ,circa 2001 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Barry Crimmins ,circa 2001 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


..I’m of the country that feel like I do…and that’s why I don’t give a shit about American Dreams…I mean that’s who I am. I’m of the country of raped little kids. I’m of the country of the fucking heart-broken. And of the screwed over and the desperate with-no-chance to be heard. That’s what country I’m from.

From Call Me Lucky

I’d like to think (and certainly hope) that if you have not been rendered brain dead by the relentless onslaught of horrible news(terrorist attacks, plagues, homicidal natural disasters, homicidal man-made disasters[plane crashes, train wrecks]the ongoing traveling Know Nothing Circus & Gong Show, mass shooting sprees and the like) you would be aware of Bob Goldwaite’s bio documentary Call Me Lucky—his well crafted and loving paean to social activist, anti papist, comedic samurai/sensei Barry Crimmins* (now streaming on Netflix)

As a expatriated Chicagoan, there has not been much that has gladdened my heart about having lived in the Boston area( my sense of the Golden Corridor is that is a cosmic psyche experiment)—so I count myself fortunate to have met a number of special people here— Barry Crimmins being one (Howard Zinn being one if the others). In addition to occasionally seeing Barry do a stand up act, I have been present for him acting as master of ceremony at events (such as when Rosa Parks was honored). Or performed for benefits such as Baseballs for Nicaragua.I recall driving out to the Peace Abbey in Sherborn MA on a snowy winter day, joining an intimate group of well wishers to honor (as shown in the film ) Maya Angelou and Barry with Howard Zinn articulating the reasons for the awards

Sara Larson usefully synopsizes Call MeLucky and Crimmins admission to the comedians’s guild,The Friars Club:

The film introduces Crimmins in a succession of old clips—dark-haired and hollow-eyed, with a frown-shaped Meathead mustache—railing against ignorance and injustice while drinking, smoking, and whipping himself into a profane frenzy. These are interspersed with recent clips of comedians—David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Wright, Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, and others—talking about him.

“He was a guy who you heard about before you saw him,” Cross says.

“Barry Crimmins was this weird mythical force,” Maron says. “A judgmental sage of some kind that I didn’t quite get.” Cho says, “I feel like people should claim him more, because I think he has much more of an influence than anybody realizes.” Friends and peers describe him as looking like Ambrose Bierce, Charles Manson, Fidel Castro, “a cross between Noam Chomsky and Bluto.” …

I spoke to Barry in his upstate home a few years ago:

RB: My first thoughts about your move here from Cleveland was that you were using this as a place to recharge your batteries and make forays into the world at large. But this conversation suggests a greater intimacy with your locale. This is not a retreat, so much.

BC: I wouldn’t say it’s a retreat. But it serves that purpose because I feel like I belong here, so my personal rhythm is more in sync than it would be elsewhere. Therefore I think the batteries take a better charge here. Also, just being on this property, there’s a lot of stuff to take care of and that’s good. I have to do something other than just sit around and be a wise ass. I actually have to go out and mow the lawn and fix the gardens up and take care of things.

It’s interesting because you can go kind of snow blind just staring at a computer all day. You can do your work at the computer for a few hours and then you go out and do something worthwhile. Even if you don’t write anything worth a damn all day at least you get the lawn mowed. So, I like that.

There are things that are more jarring here, for me, than anywhere else. Particularly because I know the people and I know what goes on. Karen and I stopped at a yard sale. And this guy started telling us this story about selling his cows to this guy we know. “Jewed him down, a bit.” He just matter-of-factly said, “I Jewed him down.” And Karen was completely shocked, but I thought it was good for her because she romantically thinks everybody is wonderful, that they’re these rural pastoral figures come out of a Grandma Moses portrait. When in fact they are—vile.(laughs) Although this guy wasn’t completely hateful. That’s the complexity of it. That’s just a term he’s used his whole life. He’s a seventy-year-old man. But just matter-of-factly anti-Semitism rolled off his tongue. He’s completely fluent in it. Karen headed off and I stayed for a minute pretending I was looking at a tractor and then I told him afterwards, “Well, you know she’s Jewish.” (laughs)She’s a quarter Jewish, but that’s plenty Jewish. That’s enough to get you sent to a death camp, at one point. I figure that’s Jewish enough to refer to her as Jewish. And the guy felt badly, as if he had injured somebody. I could tell. So they are not all evil.

Barry’s website is chock-a-block of information about Barry including his Dec 29 appearance in Somerville MA

* As I have noted elsewhere, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel obliged to say that I am proud to consider Barry Crimmins, social satirist, political parodist & activist, universal commentator, a friend and brother-in-arms in the struggle to promote social justice here and around the world and in the battle against the tyranny of ignorance and economic exploitation.

** I am highly pleased that the photograph I took of Barry(see above) is seen in the film on Barry’s mother’s dresser

Mucho Chucho

14 Nov
Chucho Valdes [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Chucho Valdes [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

If you weren’t one of the mature and discerning audience (as my amiga Priscilla observed) at Berkelee’s excellent music venue on November 12, you missed an extraordinary musical happening, The Boston Celebrity Series’s presentation of Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40, featuring Chucho Valdés & the Afro-Cuban Messengers.

People who know me will be surprised tp earn that I ventured forth fro, the friendly confines of my Wet Newton zipcode to the belly of the Beast at the periphery of Boston’s Back Bay and Fenway. On the other hand, people who are familiar with me and my life long cubanophilia will understand that such is my admiration for the great Chucho Valdes that were I to inhabit a graveyard I would move (heaven and) earth to attend a Chucho Valdes gig.

Chucho  & Irakere 40 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Chucho & Irakere 40 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Suffice it to say, that I was in attendance at the above referenced concert. The short of it is, Chucho and his aggregation of young players (the natural progeny of the group Chucho formed with Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera and Carlos Emilio Morales forty years ago—even a cursory knowledge of contemporary jazz will reveal the great musical contributions these great Cuban players have made to the world of music) played for two wonderful hours— only the greediest of fans could have asked for more. Chucho’s pianistic virtuosity is well known( watching his humungous two octave hands dancing back and forth across the key board of the grand piano is a great display of why the rubric ‘grand’ is attached to that august instrument. And his band’s *(three trumpets, one tenor and one alto sax, one percussionist, one conguero one drummer and a base player )talents were exhibited on extended solo after extended solo and contributed to an extraordinary cohesion (as in tight). And it,goes without saying, that is the essence of this music to be propulsive marked by a great fluidity—the parts were every bt as fresh and engaging as the whole.

As I spied veteran music writers Jon Garelick and Bill Beuttler in attendance, I expect they will weigh in with their observations and insights and include more specificity (set list etc) about this great concert.

Should you be interested in expanding your acquaintance with Chucho Valdes highly engaging website is here

And the 74 year old Chucho contextualizes his musical journey and recounts his life story

And (lucky you) there is a performance film of Valdes and his very talented aggregation

Wait, there’s more. Earlier this year Valdes joined with Michel Camillo and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (with the impassioned vocal support of divas Ana Belen, Omara Portuondo and Esperanza Fernánde)to pay tribute to the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. The result is a film and a recording entitled Playing Lecuona

Playing Lecuona with Chucho Valdés, Gonzolo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo

Playing Lecuona with Chucho Valdés, Gonzolo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo

* Irakere 40 Lineup
Gaston Joya -bass
Rodnet Barreto -trap drums
Yaroldy Abreu -hand drums and percussion
Dreiser Durruthy- batas and vocals
Manuel Machado -trumpet
Rena;do Melian -Trumpet
Carlos Sarduy -trumpet
Ariel Bringuez – tenor saxophone
Rafael Aguila – alto saxophone

Chomsky’s 13th 

9 Nov
Noam Chomsky [photo: Oliver Abraham]

Noam Chomsky [photo: Oliver Abraham]

I recently made mention of the Haymarket Books Noam Chomsky collection (12 titles) and it makes sense to acknowledge a recent volume published in City Lights Open Media series, Because We Say So . Its the third in that series by Chomsky, collecting thirty short pieces written between 2011 and 2015 for the New York Times Syndicate and News Service, on such pressing subjects as climate change, Edward Snowden, nuclear politics, cyberwar, terrorism and the Obama Doctrine.Naturally no U.S. papers publish Chomsky’s reports.

Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky

Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky

The inestimable dissident scholar Henry Giroux introduce this volume

Chomsky incessantly exposes the gap between the reality and the promise of a radical democracy, particularly in the United States, though he often provides detailed analysis of how the deformation of democracy works in a number of countries that hide their diverse modes of oppression behind the false claims of democratization…
…Chomsky has been relentless in reminding society that power takes many forms and that the production of ignorance is not merely about the crisis of test scores or a natural state of affairs, but about how ignorance is often produced in the service of power… he points to the efforts of the financial elite and their marketing machines to atomize people so they will be complicit in the destruction of the commons. Drawing on his expansive understanding of history, Chomsky cites the political economist Thorstein Veblen’s emphasis on “fabricating wants” in order to not only manufacture ignorance but also define consumption as the major force in shaping their needs…. Chomsky has been telling us for over 50 years: Resistance demands a combination of hope, vision, courage and a will- ingness to make power accountable, all the while connecting with the desires, aspirations and dreams of those whose suf- fering is both structurally imposed and thus preventable…Throughout his commentaries, he demonstrates that it is not only democracy and human decency that are at risk, but survival itself. In do- ing so, Chomsky makes clear that the urgency of the times demands understanding and action, critique and hope. This is a book that should and must be read, given the dire times in which we live. For Chomsky, history is open and the time has come to reclaim the promise of a democracy in which justice, liberty, equality and the common good still matter.


Noam Chomsky will be a participant in Building Sustainable Security,A One-Day Conference on Saturday, November 21, 2015. This conference will explore three pillars of sustainable national and world security:

• A fairly-shared global prosperity based on economic, social, and racial justice
• Emergency action to address climate change and build a new, fossil-fuel-free energy system
• A Foreign Policy for All based on even-handed diplomacy, ending our disastrous military interventions, abolition of nuclear weapons, and reclaiming war resources for the urgent needs that face our world

Dis n Dat

9 Nov

Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope

Hide your head in the sand but some terrible shit is happening in Gaza

Palestinian youth set up barricades in Surda, the Ramallah-area hometown of Muhannad Halabi, who killed two Israelis in the Old City of Jerusalem, as Israeli forces surrounded his family’s house on 6 October. Halabi, 19, was shot dead by police during the 3 October attack. Muhannad Saleem APA images

Palestinian youth set up barricades in Surda, the Ramallah-area hometown of Muhannad Halabi, who killed two Israelis in the Old City of Jerusalem, as Israeli forces surrounded his family’s house on 6 October. Halabi, 19, was shot dead by police during the 3 October attack. Muhannad Saleem APA images

Jason Kottke revisits a great moment in Web history, recalling Suck.com. And bemoans the disappearance of that Web

Formerly disgraced, former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnacle writes about the heroin (overdose)epidemic in Nashua New Hampshire

Pete Dexter’s story about what working in a hospital is about doesn’t resemble those TV shows. Surprised?

Every October I await the announcement of the new gaggle of MacArthur Fellows, hoping against hope I will be anointed. To hear Thomas Frank tell it, I have a better shot at winning the state lottery

Baffler # 29

Baffler # 29

John Summers introduces the latest issue of the Baffler #29

..And in the lighter-fare department, we offer a more down-market patrimonial putsch. Close observers of the upcoming dynastic square-off for the presidency have noticed the word “cuckservative” bandied about throughout the endless season of GOP presidential primaries and caucus debates.

The “cuckservative” coinage, we learned, is an unholy blend of “conservative” with “cuckold,” intended to neutralize right-wing candidates believed to be lacking the cojones to stand up to the Man, or something like that. Demonstrating yet again the fatal incompatibility of conservatism with irony, “cuckservative” also derives from a Christian persecution complex rooted in the psychosexual racial perversions of the dwindling patriarchy.

Speaking of the Baffler, Kathleen Geier’s The Family Plot refreshes our understanding of a fundamentally rigged electoral process:

If there is anything salutary about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it is his occasional refreshing honesty about our pay-to-play political system. In the first Republican debate, Trump said, “I will tell you that our system is broken. I give to many people. I give to everybody, when they call I give, and you know what? When I need something from them, two years, three years later, I call, they are there for me.” He added that after he donated to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, he invited her to his wedding, “and she came to my wedding, she had no choice, because I gave.”

It was little remarked upon at the time, but that particular bon mot summed up just about everything amiss with the new millennium’s reversion to family-based patronage. There was, of course, the casual endorsement of campaign checks as the premier currency of elite influence-peddling: “When I need something from them . . . they are there for me.” The equally matter-of-fact invocation of Trump’s own wedding as another occasion for pressing flesh and granting political favors served to highlight the rampant mingling of moneyed prerogative and romantic rites of passage among America’s family-based power elite.

Who would have thunk it? Pappy finally spanks 41. Juan Cole observes:

In interviews given for a new biography, George H. W. Bush, 91 lets loose against Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, whom he clearly blames for many of the failures of the presidency his son, George W. Bush. But if you attend carefully to what he said, it is clear that he actually was slamming the Neoconservative cabal that Cheney and Rumsfeld brought to Washington with them. He said:

“I don’t know, he just became very hardline and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with . . . The reaction [to 9/11], what to do about the Middle East. Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.”

There is a lovely new recording of the music of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona by three masters of the piano. Entitled Playing Lecuona it features Chucho Valdés, Gonzolo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo with the impassioned vocal support of divas Ana Belen, Omara Portuondo and Esperanza Fernánde. Happily, there is a performance movie of this gifted aggregation.

Four Decades

8 Nov

After forty years of plowing and sowing, plowing and sowing, in the outlying fields of literary journalism and reportage,I dare say my recommendations should be sufficient to send you (else how did you arrive at this way station?)post haste to your nearest book purveyor, shekels in hand…or in an equally useful move, going to your local library (the existence of which is one small but powerful signal that our civilization may yet have life)

I have neither the time nor inclination to exegete on the fictions that follow. I can say I have been pleased to read previous works by the authors and, in fact, I (what loosely are called interviews* though I prefer conversations) spoken face to face with Bonnie Jo, Ron,and Louis—delightful experiences all.

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash


A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn


Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories
by Bonnie Jo Campbell


The Dust That Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernieres


* which can be found on the Internet.

The Noam Chomsky Dozen

6 Nov
The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

In some way, everyday is like that so-called Christian holiday which drives the consumer economy to new heights of frenzied greed and status-seeking and is marked by the ominous sounding Black Friday (which as a godless Jew, I don’t celebrate).Parcels arrive daily with rich fruits from domestic publishers and, occasionally, from far flung places. This long winded lead-in is for me to glory in the great pleasure and privilege of having received Haymarket Books’s “Noam Chomsky Collection,” updated editions of twelve of his classic books”:

Rogue States

The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism

On Power and Ideology

After the Cataclysm

The Fateful Triangle

Year 501

Turning the Tide

Pirates and Emperors, Old and New

Propaganda and the Public Mind

Rethinking Camelot

Culture of Terrorism

Powers and Prospects

NOAM CHOMSKY,MIT linguist and progressive critic of, among other things, US foreign policy, along with his compatriot Howard Zinn, has long been a whipping boy of US reactionaries. And they have labored to marginalize him, tarring him as a disloyal and wild-eyed radical. Clearly, a good number of Americans and the rest of the world do not agree. The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest (2009) observes:

For the past five decades, Chomsky has offered a searing critical indictment of US foreign policy and its many military interventions across the globe, pointing out that the US’s continued support for undemocratic regimes, and hostility to popular or democratic movements, is at odds with its professed claim to be spreading democracy and freedom and support for tendencies aiming toward that end. Indeed, as Chomsky argues, the current concern from Washington with so-called “Rogue States,” as much as the stated goal of aiding democratic movements in other countries, is not supported by successive administrations’ support (either direct or indirect) for political and military dictatorships across Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. As Chomsky stated: “As the most powerful state, the US makes its own laws, using force and conducting economic warfare at will.” It also threatens sanctions against countries that do not abide by its conveniently flexible notions of “free trade.”

Here’s an interview with C.J. Polychroniou a political economist/political scientist just published. From that interview:

Some have argued that Obama’s wars are quite different in both style and essence from those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Is there any validity behind these claims?

Bush relied on shock-and-awe military violence, which proved disastrous for the victims and led to serious defeats for the US. Obama is relying on different tactics, primarily the drone global assassination campaign, which breaks new records in international terrorism, and Special Forces operations, by now over much of the globe. Nick Turse, the leading researcher on the topic, recently reported that US elite forces are “deployed to a record-shattering 147 Countries in 2015.”

Destabilization and what I call the “creation of black holes” is the principal aim of the Empire of Chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, but it is also clear that the US is sailing in a turbulent sea with no sense of direction and is, in fact, quite clueless in terms of what needs to be done once the task of destruction has been completed. How much of this is due to the decline of the US as a global hegemon?

The chaos and destabilization are real, but I don’t think that’s the aim. Rather, it is a consequence of hitting fragile systems that one does not understand with the sledgehammer that is the main tool, as in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As for the continuing decline of US hegemonic power (actually, from 1945, with some ups and downs), there are consequences in the current world scene. Take, for example, the fate of Edward Snowden. Four Latin American countries are reported to have offered him asylum, no longer fearing the lash of Washington. Not a single European power is willing to face US anger. That is a consequence of very significant decline of US power in the Western hemisphere.

However, I doubt that the chaos in the Middle East traces substantially to this factor. One consequence of the US invasion of Iraq was to incite sectarian conflicts that are destroying Iraq and are now tearing the region to shreds. The Europe-initiated bombing of Libya created a disaster there, which has spread far beyond with weapons flow and stimulation of jihadi crimes. And there are many other effects of foreign violence. There are also many internal factors. I think that Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn is correct in his observation that the Wahhabization of Sunni Islam is one of the most dangerous developments of the modern era. By now many of the most horrible problems look virtually insoluble, like the Syrian catastrophe, where the only slim hopes lie in some kind of negotiated settlement towards which the powers involved seem to be slowly inching.

And if you prefer to watch here’s recent talk by Noam Chomsky at New School

Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, 1860-1960 on Chomsky’s work in linguistics


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