Trashion Refashion 2014

Or, How I Found Myself Designing Couture Clothes from Materials Found in Dumpsters ● by David Ebbinghouse

[The annual Trashion Refashion Show is a community fashion event that promotes sustainable design. Compulsively creative conceptual artist David Ebbinghouse is one such designer and he discusses his work in the essay that follows. Reading about sustainable fashion design is all well and good but attending the show is even better — April 27th at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

I didn’t start out to be a fashion designer. I have been involved in the use of discarded materials in my art projects since the early seventies. Most people would call me a conceptual artist or a performance artist. I don’t think in terms of categories, so I am open to problem solving of all different types. I don’t define art in the way most people would. In fact, I usually don’t define it at all. I just do things and usually you can call whatever comes of my explorations “art.”

I guess it all started with T-shirts. I have an artist friend who screens prints his own T-shirt designs as his way to support himself. Whenever I would visit his loft in New York City in the late seventies and early eighties, I would go through his box of test shirts. These were randomly printed tests, printed on the inside and out, and some of these were the best juxtapositions and accidental masterpieces I had ever seen; those were the ones I wanted. He would sell them to me for two bucks a shirt! In this way, I got some of the hippest shirts imaginable. They were William Burroughs “Cut Up” methodology in wearable form. I wore them and wore them and wore them out. I tried to save them by grafting them onto T-shirts found in the dumpsters. I would sew them together at the neck and arm openings and tack down some of the larger rips. The look was punk. It left me with an excess of dumpster T-shirts to work with. That’s when I started slashing them. By the nineties, the slashed punk look was long over. So the question was how to do it without it being cliché and passé. The answer lay in using the structural possibilities of the knit and being very precise in cutting.

So now I’m going to tell you some of my secrets. Here’s how you can duplicate the looks I put together for the 2012 Trashion Refashion Show, starting with “Foxy Lady.”

Ebbinghouse & Models

Designer David Ebbinghouse with Hayley Plageman (Foxy Lady) and Sarah Nadolski (Party Girl)

Photo/JoAnn Latvaitis

You need a piece of “peg board.” It is basically a piece of Masonite with a grid of holes drilled into it. Pull the T-shirt over it so the shirt is stretched tightly. Then take a piece of chalk and find each hole and push the chalk into it and rotate. Do this for every hole (back side as well) and you will have a very precise grid of dots laid out on the shirt. Now, with a very sharp knife ( I use Xacto), connect two of the dots with a slash. It you do a row of diagonals across the front and then do the next row with the diagonals going the opposite direction, you will get a herringbone pattern. This drapes nicely on the body. You do it all over and you have a very “body-con” nineties look. Different patterns produce different effects. You might start with a diamond in the middle of the front. All the cuts to the left go left and to the right go to the right and on up.. Below the center it is the same but the diagonals are reversed. You can leave some areas open and some closed for a peek a boo effect. You can both conceal and reveal. This does not look “Punk” if you do it carefully and precisely. I took the look one step further with my “The Dark Ryder” outfit in 2013, but we’ll get to that presently.

Another way I got a very nice tight fitted look out of cotton knits was by ruched slits. Here’s how you can get the effects I used in my “Party Girl” outfit: Make a series of horizontal slits that go down the length of the shirt about four inches wide. Pull the top band down and reach through it to get the next one– pull it through the loop and then do the same with the next band pulling it from behind through the loop you have pulled down. Go all the way down the front and sew down the last band. This makes an open crocheted band down the front and also pulls in the fabric making the shirt narrower. An XXL shirt can be made into a sexy little dress. You can make two more vertical bands that start just below the breasts and that will pull in the fabric even more at the waist. You can fit it in this way for whoever is going to be wearing it. The “look” isn’t just the dress, its shoes, accessories, jewelry; and for jewelry, I love using pop tops.

It was last year with my “The Dark Ryder” look that I elevated the slashed T shirt to the elegance and mystery of Haute Couture; it was the accessories that pushed it over the top. I started with a 50% cotton, 50% polyester black XL T-shirt that was printed with The Ryder logo. Since it was very thin with age and filmy and lent itself nicely to my herringbone pattern slashing, it made a flowing tunic. This was put on over pants that were made from black chiffon window drapes fabric. Here’s how they were made: Two rectangular pieces are laid down one on top of the other. In the middle of one long side, a “U” shaped piece is cut out of both overlaid pieces. The rounded part of the “U” extends towards the middle by the distance of the waist (the top edge) to the bottom of the crotch (the “U” part). These edges of the “U” are sewn together. When the piece is straddled with the legs on either sides of the “U”, then the two back pieces are wrapped around to the front and tied and the two front pieces are wrapped to the back and tied. These wrap pants are open legged but the two edges overlap around the outsides of the legs. Once again, there is a reveal/conceal aspect as the layers overlap in the sheer fabric, and the top is covered by the tunic. The effect is that of a sheer skirt. So far, so good, but the head piece/ hat is what totally made the outfit. I started with making a helmet of black leather (once again from a jacket from the dumpster) sort of like what the early aviators wore but minus the goggles. On the top I stitched a receiver piece of Velcro. Using black heavy duty cat-proof plastic window screening (left over from fixing the screens after my cat had fun with them), I cut a two foot circle. I attached this to a small “hula hoop” and sewed the other Velcro piece in the center. From the edges of the hoop I sewed skeins of human hair that I took from a wig found in the dumpster. This fringe hung down from the edge and when the disc was secured to the top of the helmet/hat (with the velcro), it gave the outfit a very Goth/Kabuki feel. Black over-the-elbow gloves completed “The Dark Ryder” outfit. “The Dark Ryder” definitely got the audience’s attention with Elizabeth Grooms modeling it with great sophistication.

Dark Ryder

Elizabeth Grooms as The Dark Ryder in the 2013 Trashion Refashion Show; Her Hat is Trimmed with Human Hair

Another outfit that used a simple wrap/ no-tailoring approach was made from two Indiana state flags also found in a dumpster. The two were sewn together one above the other with a yellow border around the outside edge of the whole piece. It could be hung on the wall as an art piece, as the two flags are the same but different in many small ways. One has faded to a different shade of blue, one is silk screened and one is appliquéd, the golden yellow colors are not the same shade, etc. To wear it as a dress, center the logo of the top flag on the model’s back and wrap the two sides around to the front overlapping them. The two corners go over the shoulders and tie to the top edge of the flag at the shoulder blades through grommets on the edge. The dress is longer than the model is tall, so it trails behind with a train. Sarah Nadolski (“Sarah, Queen of Indiana”) needed a crown. Fancy Feast Feline Food cans have anodized gold pop tops and lids. Starting with a metallic gold cone as a hat, a crown was built up by overlapping the gold lids and sewing them down in a kind of fish scale pattern. The booties (once again, from Plato’s) were given the same fish scale overlaps of gold lids which extended out past the heels like little wings. A stole was made by sewing together different sizes of small American flags that had been picked up out of the streets. Remember all the flags that were hung out of car windows after the gulf wars? I picked them up on my morning jogs after they came loose and ended up along side the roadways. I usually got a few after the 4th of July parades as well.

[Image at the top of this post: Sarah Nadolski (Sarah, Queen of Indiana) with her crown made of Fancy Feast cat food pop top lids.]

Now I am designing and building the pieces for this year’s show. I started thinking about it last year as soon as that show ended. The ideas started to accumulate. But like a leaky faucet you can’t quite get closed, I can’t just turn off the ideas when my requisite three outfits are done.  I actually have four complete outfits and now I am making accessories. I already have four hats and I’m working with some new ideas off in a new direction. Maybe you’ll see those next year. I’ve already started a pop tops mini skirt.

Ten Ideas About Designing Trashion Refashion

    1. All of my designs are based on responses to materials and objects. I don’t make sketches of “looks” and then interpret them. I am actually making sculptures out of materials and not so much designing from my imagination. I am being imaginative with my use of materials. “How can I use these two Indiana state flags I’ve found in the dumpsters?”
    2. I do have a muse in mind when I start working up a “look.” Then I have a direction to follow as I develop the materials into a concept. I want to amplify some quality I see in them, and I want them to feel that it is “them” so they can feel good wearing it. I also want to provide them with a fantasy of themselves that they can inhabit and embody on the runway. It can’t be faked.
    3. It has to be a real garment, not a stunt just for the show. It can’t be something glue-gunned together for one walk down the runway. It has to be more than just a costume. Fashion, not Halloween.
    4. It has to look good, and not just in the context of the reuse concept of the show. It has to be something that could be worn somewhere else and still is viable and attractive. It can’t just be shocking. It has to be convincing. It has to come from a definite point of view.
    5. I want it to be really wearable, maybe not totally comfortable (i.e. high heels), but manageable. If you can’t sit down in it, it has no business on the model. She will suffer standing in her high heels at rehearsals with no way to get off of her feet. She can’t even bend down to slip out of her shoes. Unless you provide her with a slant board to lean back on, you’re not a designer, you’re a sadist. I love the high heels, but I worry about them, too. They are dangerous.
    6. There should be some “statement.” Fashion is a communication system and it comments on both the past and the future. In that way, it references the culture at large. I hope I notice something in my designs that is also showing up in the fashion magazines. (This year it is the use of nylon mesh). I’m not trying to copy something I see, but noticing if I have tapped into something that other designer are seeing and doing. It should be synchronicity. I’m trying to “say something.” It is not random.
    7. About that glue gun in #3.  Nothing against glue guns. I’ll probably find myself using one at some point on a headpiece/hat. But there should be some craftsmanship involved. If you don’t know how to use a sewing machine, that’s a distinct disadvantage in making clothes. I’ve had to ask my wife Marilyn for help. Fortunately, she is patient with me. If I don’t like how it’s going, I seam rip it and re cut and repress and re pin. She knows how to use the sewing machine. I insist that details that won’t be seen when the model walks the runway are still important. (see #3).
    8. A fashion show is a theatrical event. Gestures and accessories have to be big enough to be read clear in the back of the theater. So there needs to be some drama. If the audience gasps when the model comes out, you’ve done it right.
    9. About the models: At first I wanted to use my wife, Marilyn. She said, “They only want young girls.” She meant the audience. So now I use young, beautiful girls, and I am lucky enough to get them and design specifically for them. Uh oh. I’m promoting and unrealistic view of women. I’m a sadist who wants to ruin their feet with those dangerous and unhealthy high heels. Can’t I see the beauty in ordinary women? No. That is not what you the audience wants to see. Fashion is fantasy. We have inherited a standard of beauty from the ancient Greek civilization in our Western culture. Statues of Greek gods and goddesses were depicted as being the ultimate of physical perfection as a metaphor for their divinity. Venus had to have the most perfect and physically beautiful body imaginable because she was a Goddess and Divine. I want my models to be goddesses and so do you. I want them to look and feel like goddesses and I want you to see them as such. This is the fantasy. It is art and artifice that create it.
    10. I want to have fun. I’m not designing a product line. I’m not trying to make a ton of money and become famous. I’m trying to be as creative as I can and make some kind of meaningful art. I’m trying to inspire you to have a different attitude towards all the material in our materialistic society. I want to have fun with it, respect its inherent possibilities and not just take it all for granted and needlessly waste it. I want to use my creativity in all aspects of my life and I want that to inspire you to do so as well. I hope you will enjoy what I do. I will enjoy it, that’s why I do it. I hope you will come and see what I and the other talented designers have for you to see at this year’s show!

The Ryder ● March 2014

Big Talk: Color Comics

Nate Powellʼs Drawings Bridge Divides ● by Michael G. Glab

[The Ryder and WFHB present Big Talk. This is the first in our new series of interviews with Bloomington people, conducted by Michael G. Glab. Hear Nate Powell speak with Glab on WFHBʼs Daily Local News. Send in your suggestions for future Big Talks to editor@theryder.com.]

Big Talk

How many people are celebrated cartoonists and big sellers in the graphic novel field? How many of them have created a DIY comic book publishing empire and then gone on to found a DIY record company? And how many of them toured two continents in a punk-hip-hop band?

Nate Powell, who fits all the above criteria, lives right here in Bloomington. And now Powell has become a spokesperson for the Civil Rights generation. Add to that the irony that heʼs white. Very white. He has pale skin and light hair. His features are sharp. He was born and raised in suburban Little Rock, Arkansas. Why him?

“People ask me why I am interested in civil rights or in human rights,” he says, after pondering the question a long moment. “Iʼm a person so naturally Iʼm interested in human rights.”

Civil rights are central to two of cartoonist Nate Powellʼs recent books; human rights to all his titles. His books, Any Empire and Swallow Me Whole launched him into the top ranks of the comix-memoir-biography-narrative-fiction field. And now, Powell has hit bookshelves again as the illustrator of March: Book One, the first in a trilogy recounting the life of civil rights pioneer and current Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

This on the heels of his 2012 release, The Silence of Our Friends, based on real events, about a black family and a white family in 1967 Houston who work together to win freedom for five black teenagers wrongly accused of killing a cop.

Book Cover

“Thereʼs been a strong social lean in my comics since Iʼve been an adult,” Powell says. “But Iʼd say it wasnʼt until five or six years ago that I felt Iʼd really had enough time and distance and perspective after leaving the south and seeing how more racist and backwards the northern midwest in a lot of ways is than the traditional south, to understand the different dimensions of American racism. I finally felt like a lot of my anxiety in terms of wanting to have something to say about race, power, and identity in our society, fell away. I wrote and drew some short stories about it. The authors of the Silence of Their Friends approached me about bringing their story to life. My work on that book got a nice big feature in The New York Times. John Lewis and his co-writer Andrew Ayden secured a publishing deal with my publisher, Top Shelf, for the book, March, but with no artist. They saw the New York Times review and were like, ʻOh, we should see whatʼs going on with this guy.ʼ But Iʼd already been speaking with my publisher who strongly suggested that I try out personally for the job. We all happened to find each other at the same time.”

Powell began his cartooning career as a high school freshman. “I started by drawing a lot of guns ʻnʼ boobs style superhero comics, as did many a 13-year-old,” he says. “My best friend and I had been drawing comics for a couple of years and we decided to take the jump into printing the books ourselves. At my dadʼs office there was, essentially, an unused copy machine and we decided we were just going to run off copies of our book until the thing broke down. Which is exactly what happened. We wound up with exactly a hundred copies of our first comic. We had exactly one comic book store in town at the time and the owner, who Iʼm still very much in touch with to this day, was gracious enough to give us a little bit of shelf space.”

The two teen publishers sank some of their own money into that first issue. “We wanted to have a full color cover. So, instead of bootlegging this whole thing for free, we paid a dollar for each cover.” It sold out, at $1.75 a copy. “We made five cents profit for each issue once the store took its cut. So with that nickel times a hundred copies, we had five dollars profit to split between us.”

They hadnʼt become publishing moguls but they were hooked. They put out five 32-page issues every two months. Each issue sold out. They learned tricks along the way, including how to cut galley pages and even how to work the old Kinkoʼs copy center counting card system to their advantage. Theyʼd become classic do-it-yourself entrepreneurs.

Around the same time, Powell and some friends decided to start making music. He performed live and on CD with a series of bands throughout his teens and into adulthood. He even started up his own indie, DIY label, Harlan Records.

“Publishing my own comic books irrevocably changed the way I look at life and the way I navigate the world,” Powell says. “A lot of steps along the way, whether it was drawing comics or publishing them, or being in a band or running a record label, a lot of it was just problem solving. It was realizing I didnʼt know how to do something and figuring out the little steps along the way, or making friends who all of a sudden had some insight.”

He ran off tens of thousands of comics in the ʻ90s. “My band, Soophie Nun Squad, started touring across the US and I would sell my comics and zines at shows. I also would writes columns and do illustrations for a punk magazine called Heart Attack out of California. But I was spending too much time photocopying and assembling these books — I was printing maybe 1400 of each issue —  and could not save the money to step up and go to a real printer. So, I went to art school in New York in the late 90s, the School of Visual Arts, and I got a grant for a self-publishing project. I used that money to offset-print my first comic.”

Powell then set up a pro distribution deal. “That opened the door for me to get my books in comic book shops. That started in 2000.”

Eventually, Powellʼs career as a music executive was eclipsed by his graphic novel success. He explains: “From the time I was 2, pretty much, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was draw comics. That was certain. Things definitely got very serious as far as creating music and recording and touring with my friends but in a lot of ways we took a personal and creative stance against trying to make a career out of it. And, really, our band was sort of too weird and full of too many people, full of too many conflicting ideas to ever be successful. Soophie Nun Squad was sort of a ten-piece punk, hip-hop,n Muppet Show band, with costumes and occasionally puppets.”

Music from Powellʼs bands as well as that of bands his label issued can be found online.

Now, Powell continues working on the March trilogy as well as some other big-time projects. Itʼs not all that easy as just dashing off pictures in the snap of a finger, especially when Powellʼs illustrating a book written by others. “There are a lot of different ways to write a comic book script,” Powell says. “When I write and draw my own books, I donʼt even use a script. Iʼll have the big idea that I want the book to be about. Then Iʼll have a series of events, little vignettes, that I spend a couple of years rearranging and building a relationship between characters and events. Then itʼs a longer process of waiting for characters to emerge, from inside, that you actually care about. I know how a storyʼs going to be paced. I know how long itʼs going to be, but in terms of dialogue and text, that really comes out while Iʼm pencilling.

Book Cover

“My own stories are much more fluid and intuitive. Andrew and Johnʼs script was a classic, finished, comic book movie script, divided into scenes, panels. Originally, March was going to be a single graphic novel about 160 pages long. Within a couple of pages I realized that we were dealing with a 500-page book, just based on wanting to take the reins with my own narrative sensibilities, pulling out different focuses.

“A lot of it had to do with John Lewisʼs internal landscape as a person, but also as a character within this book. A lot of it had to do with looking in between the lines of the script and seeing what wasnʼt evident in the text. In Book Two, we cover the Freedom Rides. When John Lewis and other Freedom Riders are pulling into the Montgomery, Alabama, Greyhound station, something appears very wrong because there are only two or three journalists standing around, itʼs very still and very quiet. They know things are about to go horribly wrong, but they donʼt know when, how, from what direction, or who these people will be. So there might be this five-second window where everyoneʼs quiet, everythingʼs still, and then everything goes to hell.

“From my narrative standpoint, that is the scene, that five seconds. So itʼs a matter of turning that from one panel into two and a half pages. A lot of the fun and power of comic book storytelling is this control of time.”

March: Book Two is due to hit bookshelves around Thanksgiving. March Book Three should come out in the summer of 2016. Meanwhile, Powellʼs also working on another, albeit different kind of book. Heʼs currently inking panels for a spin-off of the wildly popular Young Adult novelist Rick Riordanʼs Percy Jackson series, entitled Heroes of Olympus. That graphic novel is in production and will be released in 2014.

Powell squeezes in drawing during nap times for his and his wifeʼs two-year-old daughter. Heʼs lived here in South Central Indiana since 2004 after tiring of living along the East Coast. Heʼd fallen in love with Bloomington after visiting here several times while on tour with Soophie Nun Squad. Plus, a good friend had gone to school here and had settled in Bloomington. “Here I am,” he says. “I love this town a lot. I have no plans to go anywhere.”

The Ryder ● March 2014

Annelies

The Bloomington Chamber Singers’ production of Annelies is neither a simplistic swing through the musical genres nor a stylistic romp like the Beatles’ White Album, but rather a representation of the whole musical culture of Anne Frank’s Europe.

Our news abounds with examples of ways we humans harm each other: a contractor murdered in his isolated house, drive-by shootings, trivial religious conflicts that would seem just silly if people were not killing each other over them, political ambitions that become world-wide massacres. But as appalling as these seem, there is something bizarrely comforting in the pure irrationality of most of this mayhem. All of us have at one time or other been angry or fearful, then lashed out. Certainly, most of us stop well short of murder, but ultimately we’re on the same scale.

By contrast, consider the Third Reich. The expansionist desire to recover territory, wealth, and influence lost in the aftermath of World War I and the disasters of the Weimar Republic are understandable (and currently visible with Vladimir Putin, determined to re-establish the Great Russian Empire, Cossacks and all).

But the coldly deliberate and systematic madness of the Third Reich is an enterprise of a far more chilling sort. The motivating force may have been the paranoid and narcissistic schizophrenic called Adolf Hitler, but the final cause was the fertile German oil in which he and his collaborators planted their ideas. As John Cornwell shows in his splendid Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact (2004), the roots of Hitler’s racial “science” well precede Hitler’s rise to power. Yet this is the same culture that gave us Goethe and Kant, von Humboldt and Bethe, Bach and Brahms.

The mind—and more importantly, the heart–struggles to balance these wrenching contradictions and its obsessive thoroughness, detailed records included. Ghoulish or not, collecting gold-filled teeth is one thing, but seven tons of human hair?

It is this incomprehensible, contradictory world that swallowed Annelies Marie Frank. A fairly ordinary girl, turning into what may well have become a fairly ordinary woman, we are familiar with her in a casual way, but her ordinariness may keep us from confronting the conflicting horrors she and 11 million dead others suffered. If we have trouble getting our minds around the motivations leading to the vast expenditure of time and wealth dedicated so insanely to the Final Solution, how much more incomprehensible must it have been to those enduring it?

James Whitbourn’s Annelies is a profoundly moving meditation on the conundrum that Anne Frank’s final two years represents. The libretto by Melanie Challenger is based predominately on Anne’s famous diary entries, with a few appropriate additions from other sources, including the Psalms. Mostly they occur in their chronological order, so we see how Anne changes during her isolation as the war progresses. Whitbourn does not attempt to explicate these appalling circumstances; they may have to remain incomprehensible. Instead, his approach is phenomenological, as he lays them out much as young Anne experienced them, “in the blue sky, surrounded by black clouds.”

Annelies is a subtle and sophisticated work, yet it is marvelously accessible. A close analysis of Whitbourn’s compositional techniques would take many pages, yet those techniques never call attention to themselves. His musical approach is frankly comprehensive, showing us how deeply a part of European life Anne and the rest were. The material may be “Jewish,” but the emotional and moral force is deeply universal, presented in a variety of musical forms including folk song, chant (reflecting the traditions of both Christian plainsong and Jewish cantilation), popular entertainment, and militant marches. But this is neither a simplistic swing through the musical genres nor a stylistic romp like the Beatles’ White Album, but a representation of the whole musical culture of Anne’s Europe.

The work is fundamentally poetic, as he compresses time and concentrates emotion. A cheery music hall ditty relating how “one looks out of the window, and gazes at the endlessly amusing people” (29 September 1942) abruptly becomes “children … in thin shirts .. gnawing on a carrot to still their hunger” three months later, then in another three months, “One day … we’ll be people again, and not just Jews.”

His approach to the material is compassionate and thoughtful, but totally without rancor or stridency. In some true sense he does not take sides, since the enormity of the bare facts speak for themselves. Anne herself goes from telling her diary in the first entry “I hope that I can trust you … since memories mean more to me than dresses,” to the final, affirmative “when I look at the sky. I feel that everything will change for the better.”

The work is scored for chorus, soprano solo, clarinet, and piano trio. The Chamber Singers under Dr. Gerry Sousa need no introduction to Bloomington audiences, and they have never sounded better. The soprano soloist will be Elizabeth Toy, who also soloed with the BCS in Respighi’s Laud to the Nativity last December. Although still young, she has already amassed a impressive musical biography and is an ideal choice for the part, close enough in age to Anne herself to be comforting, yet with a mature and rich lyrical voice beautifully suited to the material.

[The performance will be given twice in Bloomington at The Warehouse, 1525 S. Rogers, on Saturday, April 12 (7:30) and Sunday, April 1 (3:00). Tickets are available at the Buskirk-Chumley box office and on line or from BCS members.]

The Ryder ● March2014

The Gadabout Film Festival

Instant Gratification and Goofing off for a Greater Good ● by Elisabeth Squires

A pair of young lovers are looking up at the sky. Their heads lean together and turn towards the sun. “See those stars?” the man says. “Well, I mean you can’t see the stars. But behind the clouds and far away there’s stars. I’m gonna name one of those stars after you.” She gazes at him adoringly, his words cutting to her very soul.

This is a scene from Eric Ayotte’s short film Crying Out Loud 4 — Official Trailer. Made for his monthly Instant Gratification Movie Challenge, it is a goof on self-serious indie films. Obligatory seriousness is a cardinal sin in Ayotte’s eyes. His two film projects, The Instant Gratification Movie Challenge and The Gadabout Film Festival, work to make the independent film world seem more inviting to would-be filmmakers.

The Instant Gratification Movie Challenge is open to anyone with Ayotte’s email address. Each month a theme is chosen, usually a cliched turn of phrase; Crying Out Loud 4 was made for the prompt “For Crying Out Loud.” People have one month to make a film, up to five minutes in length, based on the prompt. The goal is to get people making films regularly, without feeling pressured to make something exquisitely professional.

The Gadabout Film Festival is an annual program of short films curated by Ayotte. Anyone can submit to the festival. There is no submission fee, and no limit on the numbers of films submitted. Ayotte and his wife, Charlie Jones choose a program that will last 45 minutes to an hour; they tour the country with the films, bringing short films to people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a more traditional festival.

[Image at the top of this post: Charlie and Eric.]

“When people think of a short film program, maybe they have the expectation of the pretentious route of a bunch of art school sort of films, which have their own place and validity. But for some people that can be boring. Or maybe it’s not their thing. Or it is their thing, I don’t know. I don’t want to be too negative towards that.

This sort of sentiment is very typical of Ayotte. He is intensely focused on creating space for his style of short film, but at the same time leaving room for everyone else. Coming out of the punk and D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) music scene, Ayotte sought to create the same culture of support and encouragement around film.

The Gadabout Film Festival was founded in 2002, “mainly as an excuse to travel,” says Ayotte. With only 14 screenings in two months, “it mostly was camping and traveling, and being a tourist at the same time. And eating beans in a can.”

Booking that first tour involved cold calling venues across the country. Ayotte said it was more difficult back then “because the internet wasn’t the internet yet.” He would google (or AltaVista as the case might have been) a town and the words “art council” or “film theater,” hope the phone number was online, then plead his case directly whoever happened to pick up. “Not a lot of people were doing something like [a traveling short film festival], so a lot of people were interested in taking a chance.”

As the years went on, the tour became more organized. “Each year we have more and more venues, and more and more stops and fewer beans from a can.” This year the festival will tour sixty cities in America and Europe. But the festival has yet to lose the sense of irreverence, of silliness, that Ayotte injects into everything he does. He describes first forays into film in high school as “goofing off.” He never thought of film as a potential career. As time went on, however, he found himself spending more and more time goofing off. Eventually he and a friend were accepted to The New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, an experience that left such a bad taste in his mouth it prompted Ayotte to start his own festival.

Gadabout

Film-goers at the 2010 Gadabout Festival in Chicago

“We were actually kinda turned off by the whole pretentiousness of the film fest world…There was no sense of community, there was no sense of support or anything. It was the kind of festival where you pay to submit your film, and they keep asking you for more money. Like ‘Hey do you want an image from your film on the cover?’ ‘Do you want a table at the opening gala?’ All these things. I realized how much of a business it was.”

Ayotte says that, even though there were no awards or rankings at that festival, the whole affair felt very competitive. “It was just people passing out their cards. ‘Come see my movie! Come see my movie!'” says Ayotte. It stood in stark contrast to the music scene Ayotte was getting into at the same time. “The other part of my life was being into the D.I.Y. music scene, playing in bands and just seeing that world of inspiration and support and feeling like oh, anyone can play music and go on tour and do these things. And so with film I started thinking of it more like that, like you could make your own films, and you can share them with people, and you can try to support other people that are trying to do the same thing.”

The Gadabout Film Festival has shifted from playing in cinemas and traditional film venues to more unconventional spaces. “We’ve done people’s backyards, we’ve done local parks, we’ve done people’s garages, We’ve done people’s basements. In Hannover, Germany there was this attic of an apartment building that spanned the entire building and was just completely empty. We’ve done screenings in abandoned buildings where people have had access to power outlets somewhere close by, and we were like ‘yeah we’ll do it, see what happens.’ The outside of a school in California — that was technically trespassing.”

Ayotte sees these unique venues as integral to the success of the festival. When they’ve played in cinemas in the past, “people are going to a film venue and they’re seeing films. It’s what they expect. When we set up our own projector and screen in a music venue, or in a garage, or in a field, people leave and you can tell that they’ve experienced something.”

“Oddly enough my favorite compliment that we ever get is ‘I wasn’t expecting it to be good.’ I take that as a large compliment.”

[The 12th Annual Gadabout Film Festival begins on Sunday, April 6th at 8:00 pm at Rhino’s All Ages Club. The theme this year is “Speechless,” movies with little to no dialogue. Submissions are open for the festival until March 23. Submissions for the Instant Gratification Movie Challenge, also titled “Speechless,” are open until April 6th.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

So, The Body

● by Danielle McClelland

A few short takes….

Scene 1:

I’m driving my aunt back to the airport after we’ve both attended my father’s memorial service in Maple Hill, Kansas. It was at the old stone church on the hill. Cows walked over the rise as we filed out of the church to lay his ashes in a grave. It’s a long drive, to the airport from Maple Hill. We’re mostly silent, ‘cause we’re both from Kansas, and strangely enough, with all that distance all around you all the time, still, the biggest gift we seem to be able to give to one another is the wide open prairie of not saying anything when you’re riding in a car. Then, she suddenly starts talking, and she tells me about the phone call she got years before from her brother, my dad, the day after he received the letter in which I came out to him. How my father called her, wanting her to tell him what to do. I hadn’t known this. I didn’t have any idea he’d wondered, or worried, or questioned. He wrote right back to me. There were a lot of empty spaces on the page, but he said he loved me.

Dean & Danielle McClelland

Danielle, with the Personal Development Award at the 1986 Miss Teen Washington pageant, and her dad, Dean 

My aunt says he told her that he knew I was different from the first time he held me, he just hadn’t known how.

Then she’s quiet again, and I keep driving, but everything changes. My body gets heavier, looser, less… held. He’s been gone more than two weeks, but it isn’t until this moment that I feel his embrace, release. There is only me holding me up now.

Scene 2:

In the dim fuzzy light filtering through the hotel room curtains of a snowy Chicago getaway, I pull my too-old-to-be-doing-this body out of the warm cozy bed I’m sharing with my too-young-to-go-to-bed-at-a-decent-hour girlfriend and check my email. The news report tells me that someone back home in Bloomington is no longer someone, but now, simply, a body. Murdered.

Scene 3:

I’m sitting on the front porch on a sleepy Sunday evening in summer and I’m trying to explain my life to someone new. People always say it’s complicated, I say, but I don’t think so, I say. I think it’s simple. There’s cicadas droning on and on in the background. The old man across the street is mowing his lawn. The ice in her glass clinks. I say, it’s just that I don’t think anybody can own my body, and sharing it with whoever I want in whatever way I want is a fundamental right that the people I love don’t try to deny. She says, “that’s disgusting.” And she gathers up her things, leaves, never says goodbye. I still see her. We eat in the same restaurants. She knows most of the same people I do. I still want to yell at her. “It’s my body!”

Scene 4:

I’m standing in the balcony of the PRIDE Film Festival Dance Party, watching the crowd and talking to the DJ, who explains to me that being a DJ is like parenting a multi-armed and legged octopus-like creature, all the people on the dance floor become one body, inarticulate but immediately and ultimately demanding… you try one beat, and the creature falls listless and dull, another and it pulses with life, suddenly it changes and becomes distracted. It is us, she says, one organism, one body.

Scene 5:

In the film Switch, by Brooks Nelson, Brooks asks his butch lesbian friend if his transition from female to male has made her feel abandoned. She looks right at the camera and says yes. In that solemn, steady, butch way, she never ever backs away. She lets Brooks feel the space between them now, but she doesn’t leave.

As I’m walking home along the B-Line trail the night after screening that film, a huge silver moon lighting the way, a couple of young guys are walking towards me, trying to light a cigarette. They say, “Dude, you got a light?” And I light the cigarette for them, standing wide and keeping my voice gruff and my hands steady. “Dude, awesome. Great.” is all they say. My body is the same, but I wonder, who did I just betray?

[Image at the top of this post: Danielle in character for “the girl stories” performance, February 2008.]

So this is the thing. We think about the body ALL the time. My body, their body, that other body. Whose body is right, whose body is wrong? In my naked body, who will hold me? In my open body, am I safe? In my out body, am I visible? How is it that what I do with my body offends another? How can what someone did with his body against the body of another leaving us with nothing more than a body, not offend? And yet, it is through this body that we are linked.

I mean, okay, enough poetics: I slept with her, who slept with him, who tongue kissed that one, and then that one’s past lover who once dated my first lover from way back when and four other people had a play party and – get it? We are a small town.

My body is your body is our body. It sounds religious. I think it kind of is. We are a body politic. As lesbians and gays and bi-sexuals and trans people, we might think that we are a group unto ourselves, our little alphabet soup, but you better believe that everybody else is woven into this tapestry, too. They might not realize the connection, but that’s the advantage queer people have – of thinking about it a little more than average.

We’re a body convened in this place at this time, and one thing I think we know better than San Francisco or New York is that you just get the one body. You can rearrange some stuff and emphasize one thing over another, but in a small town, even a college town, you know that these are the ones we’ve got to work with. They’re not going away. You can’t just switch groups or decide these politics are not my politics and go across town to another kind of meeting. If we’re going to change anything, anything at all, it takes all of us. The whole screaming wiggling thousand toed multi-armed humanity of us. And every single one of those limbs makes up the embrace. The thing that holds us all up. To make that embrace, you have to stand on your own two feet. You have to claim your right to what you want. And you have to leave those wide open spaces between you and the next guy so that they have room to tell you their story. Because the body is just the connection. It’s our story which holds us together.

TEDxBloomington 2014

While bicyclists will be spinning around the track at Little 500 on Saturday, April 26, downtown Bloomington will be discussing “What Goes ‘Round” in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The third day-long TEDxBloomington conference will feature local and national speakers presenting ideas that are literally or metaphorically round, spherical, global, or cyclical. Designed to spark discussion and build larger, more diverse networks among participants, the event encourages attendees to be more active in their local and global communities.

Featuring live and video presentations, each lasting 4 to 18 minutes, TEDxBloomington will run from 10:30am-5:00pm on the 26th. Tickets are available now online through TEDxBloomington or the BCT box office, 812-323-3020).

[Danielle McClelland is a featured speakers at this year’s TEDxBloomington conference.]

PHOTO CAPS – try to use both images – let me know if you need more space
Danielle wins the “Personal Development” Award at the 1986 Miss Teen Washington pageant and is congratulated by her dad, Dean McClelland

 

The Ryder ● March 2014

Enrique’s Journey

Sonia Nazario’s Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother ● by Justin Chandler

[Sonia Nazario’s appearance April 16 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater is sponsored by the IU School of Journalism Speaker Series.]

In Honduras, and throughout Central America, the United States is referred to as El Norte. There is promise and hope in this simple title, fittingly so because every year adults and youths in Central America chase after that hope, trying their hand at reaching El Norte. They leave behind their families, sometimes even their children. They face down bandits, dishonest smugglers, corrupt police, and the trains themselves—the cause of countless deaths and disfigurements.

When he was five, Enrique’s mother left him and his sister in Honduras, recognizing that the only way she could provide for her family was by immigrating illegally into the States, finding work, and sending money back.

Sonia Nazario’s book, Enrique’s Journey, goes to great lengths to tell Enrique’s story. For more than twenty years Nazario has reported on social issues ranging from hunger, immigration, and drug addiction, but her work here is not merely a retelling but a reliving of Enrique’s journey; Nazario herself took the same journey as Enrique, retracing his steps in order to retell his story.

Book Cover

Nazario’s initial reporting on Enrique, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, won her the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 2002. The book’s accompanying photographs by Don Bartletti won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. She will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The talk is part of the IU School of Journalism’s Speaker Series and is free and open to the public.

In part, the book deals with Enrique’s journey to understand his mother’s decision, but the greater journey is the one Enrique makes when, at 17, he decides to leave behind his pregnant partner, travel to the States, and reunite with a mother he hasn’t seen in twelve years. This journey is 1,600 miles, and is accomplished predominately through Enrique riding the tops of trains along what is called called El Tren de la Muerte (The Train of Death.)

[Image at the top of this post: Sonia Nazario riding a train through Mexico.]

It’s only on his eighth attempt (and in his seventh pair of shoes) that Enrique finally crosses the border into the United States. But what is truly incredible about Enrique’s journey is that he wasn’t alone in attempting it, that hundreds of thousands of Central Americans attempt to reach—often unsuccessfully—El Norte. Enrique’s Journey manages to not only tell Enrique’s story, but also the stories of so many of Enrique’s fellow travelers and those along the way who hinder or help their progress. The book captures so many facets of these lives, and in its less than 300 pages deals so thoroughly with issues of immigration, worker rights, family values, and the creation of identity, that at times Enrique’s story threatens to be lost in the larger scope of history and politics that informs it.

It’s a big risk, leaving Enrique behind for pages at a time to tell the reader about Padre Leo, the incredible priest who has turned his church into a shelter for the refugees—despite the wishes of half his congregation—and who allows Enrique to make the phone call that changes his life forever.

Nazario

Nazario

By the end of the book the risk is worth it. Enrique’s journey doesn’t end when he hops off his last train, and it doesn’t end when he finally accumulates enough money to get ferried across the border, or when his mother pays the ransom and his smugglers send him to North Carolina and he finally reunites with her. In truth, his journey is one that never ends. It is a journey that only truly begins with the recognition that the past and its trauma cannot be forgotten, that it must be faced before healing can take place.

Called “the adventure story of the twenty-first century,” Enrique’s journey and the journey of thousands of other Central American refugees is an odyssey that never ends, an odyssey to bridge not just those gaps between us created by time and space but by abandonment and resentment, drug addiction and depression, inequality and injustice. It’s a journey to mend despite all that has torn one’s life apart.

And it is a journey not just for Enrique and not just for those who travel on El Tren de la Muerte. It is everyone’s journey: those who work toward reconciliation, those who perpetuate the failures of the past, and even those who ignore the fact that history is happening.

It is happening, and it is happening to all of us. As Padre Leo tells his congregation (which include many Mexicans who are resentful of Central Americans migrating into their country in search of a better life) “they, too, were once migrants. Saint Joseph was a migrant. The Bible was written by migrants. Running off a migrant…is like turning against yourself.”

The Ryder ● March 2014

Poetry & Technology

Poetpalooza 2014 ● by Richard Taylor

[Village Lights Bookstore in Madison, Indiana, will host Poetpalooza 2014: A Tri-State Poetry Summit, Friday and Saturday, April 11th and 12th, with hourly readings and signings by a score of nationally and regionally acclaimed poets. The poets laureate from Indiana and Kentucky are scheduled to appear. Featured independent publishers will be Dos Madres Press, of Ohio, and Broadstone Books, of Kentucky. Book launches by Ohio poet Michael Henson and Kentucky Poet Laureate emeritus Richard Taylor. Live music Friday evening and Saturday morning. Gallery exhibit of artworks by Richard Taylor. Community open mic poetry slam Saturday evening. 812-265-1800 or the Village Lights website for schedule and more information.]

Most poets have few illusions about what they do and don’t do. They are not, as Shelley once imagined, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” because even the poetry that is most moving does not mobilize us into collective social action. But the best poets are witnesses to the daily phenomena we all experience and often ignore. They provide us with insights — a first step toward wisdom — that we seldom get elsewhere. The level at which poetry functions best is individuals speaking to individuals about common interests, about the condition of the spirit, the mystery of our being, the unspoken dialogue that goes on between each of us and the world. T.S. Eliot raised provocative questions about the levels of communication that each of us encounter daily: “How much knowledge is lost in mere information? How much wisdom is lost in mere knowledge?” Most of us have neglected these higher regions of communication. Instead, we are bombarded with data, with often irrelevant facts, with news that is news only for moments. If we tuned in only to wisdom, there would be little on television and the world-wide web to hold our attention.

[Image at the top of this post: Calliope — Greek muse of epic poetry.]

We live in three worlds — the natural world, the man-made world, and the world of mind and imagination. The natural world we know is a landscape of rivers and valleys, farmland and mountain hollows with areas of mixed deciduous hardwood forests that are among the wonders of eastern North America. Increasingly, this primal world, the necessary condition of our existence, is being replaced by our man-made world of shopping malls, urban sprawl, and asphalt. These changes have been made possible by an unprecedented application of technology — through computers, through gigantic earthmovers, and through internal combustion engines that permit us to live farther and farther from the places where we work and more and more dissociated from the places where we live. In the process, we are rapidly erasing the old divisions between town and country, the natural and synthetic, the “developed” and the wild. Increasingly, the world we witness is a secondhand world presented to us over satellite dishes and the world-wide web.

The word “technology” derives from the Greek word techne, which means “skill” or “art.” The word “poet” derives from another Greek word, poeta, meaning “maker,” and by extension, creator. Technology demonstrates our skills, our mastery of techniques to alter the physical world for human purpose, but it provides little nourishment for the spirit. Art, as Lexington, Kentucky writer Guy Davenport has said, is “the replacement of indifference with attention.” Art, or artifice, provides us with the means to reshape the world in our minds and hearts, to reconnect ourselves with not just the surfaces of the natural world but the pulse, the mysteries of life itself. At its best, poetry reclaims the natural world for us. It focuses our attention from our distracted lives and, at its best, transforms our sight to vision. It offers a means of interpreting both worlds, and often it imparts a wisdom that we won’t pick up on CNN or the evening news. As the poet Ezra Pound memorably said, “Poetry is news that stays news.”

Poetry and other expressions of the imagination — fiction, the visual arts, drama, music, and dance — are one means by which we can re-connect ourselves with the natural world, the rhythms of the live around us. They are the means to reestablish linkages between the man-made world and the domain of wildlife and natural cycles that exists in precarious counterbalance with our own human destinies. The arts are one means to reunite us with our best selves in a more thoughtful relationship with the natural world. The third world of mind and imagination is in part the healthful connection all of us can make with the world of nature and the world we have made and are making, a world that is rapidly altering the balance between the human and the non-human, the subdivision and the ecosystems to which we are inextricably tied.

[Richard Taylor, Kentucky Poet Laureate (1999-2001) lives in Frankfort, Kentucky and owns Poor Richard’s Books. Author of eight collections of poetry, two novels, and several books relating to Kentucky history, he currently teaches creative writing at Transylvania University in Lexington. His latest book of poetry, Rain Shadow will have its launch on April 11th at Poetpalooza 2014.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

FILM REVIEW: The Lego Movie

by Adam Davis

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has been used at least since 1860. A hundred and fifty-four years later — and after being the moral of a great many works of literature and cinema, especially children’s and family cinema — the phrase might seem cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. For example, The Lego Movie seemed destined by its very nature to be a one-joke film; a feature-length toy commercial passing itself off as a low-quality comedy where all the jokes essentially amounted to “ha, these people are minifigures and their world is made of Lego, isn’t that silly?” (for those not in the know, “minifigure is the Lego Group’s term for the small plastic people that come with sets of Lego pieces). That’s not to say that such jokes aren’t present, that they aren’t funny, or that the Lego Group isn’t capitalizing of the film’s success, but the film has more to offer for 90 minutes than just a single joke and constant marketing.

[Image at the top of this post: Emmet — a minifigure character.]

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is one of the many generic construction worker minifigures who populate Bricksburg, a city made entirely of Lego bricks. Bricksburg is quickly established as a highly conformist dystopia (everyone buys the same overpriced coffee (over $30), watches the same dopey tv sitcom (“Where Are My Pants”) and listens to the same catchy pop song (“Everything Is Awesome”) where the general public never question their tyrannical leader President Business (Will Ferrell). Conformist even by Bricksburg’s standards and viewed by his co-workers as completely generic, Emmet is lonely and friendless until he discovers a mysterious Lego brick called the “Piece Of Resistance”

Suddenly, a woman named Wyldstyle comes into his life and mistakes him for a prophesized figure called “The Chosen.” The wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freemen) claims that whoever finds the Piece Of Resistance is The Chosen; the most talented, important, and interesting person in existence and the person who can help the “Master Builders” free the Lego universe from President Business, so Wyldstyle quickly recruits the bewildered Emmet into the resistance.

The Master Builders, it turns out, are minifigures capable of disassembling the Lego bricks of anything around them and reassembling them into everything else. Aside from Wyldstyle and Vitrivius, the other Master Builders all seem to be characters that the Lego Group really has made minifigures of (i.e. almost every family friendly character you can think of), including Gandalf, Dumbledore, Milhouse, Shakespeare, the 2002 NBA All-Stars, an Abraham Lincoln with a rocket-powered chair, and various assorted DC comics superheroes. These individuals prove much less pivotal to the film than trailers might have viewers believe, and our heroes are unable to count on them for help. Thus it’s up to Emmet, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, Batman (Will Arnett), a cheery unicorn named Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), a pirate with a robot body named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), and someone simply named “80s Space Guy” (Charlie Day) to travel other worlds made of Lego bricks on a quest to attach the Piece Of Resistance to Lord Business’ super weapon “the kragle” (a tube of crazy glue) before he uses it to glue everyone in place forever.

With the enormous success of Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, other major studios jumped back into animation in 1990s. Initially it was animation of the 2d hand-drawn variety – including all but one of the films created by the short-lived division Warner Brothers Feature Animation – whether it was drawn using pencil and paper or computer software. With the rise Pixar, many other studios quickly switched to over to 3d computer animation and found great success there, but WBFA’s one attempt at a film with 3d animated characters (Looney Tunes: Back In Action) bombed and forced the division’s closure.

Since then, WB’s animated output has consisted of tv shows (almost all about Looney Tunes or characters WB has acquired) and direct-to-video Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry films. Then, last year, they created an animation “think tank” to develop ideas for animated films to be written in-house and animated by outside studios. In the meantime, the Lego Group has produced films for the small screen (both the TV and direct-to-video markets) since 2001, generally based on licensed properties (such as Monty Python And The Holy Grail In Lego and Lego Marvel Superheroes: Maximum Overload) but sometimes on in-house creations instead (such as the Clutch Powers and Bionicle franchises). Lego Movie is a good return to theatrical animation for Warner Brothers and a good theatrical debut for Lego, and we should be grateful to both of those companies and co-producers Lin Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and Vertigo Entertaiment for bringing it to the screen.

The computer animation by Animal Logic (a company also responsible for the animation of other cg films like Legend Of The Guardians: Owls of Ga’Hoole and the visual effects for a diverse array of live-action titles including The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Great Gatsby) looks fantastic. The plastic texture of the characters and their world look much more believable than in cheaper Lego productions, and the cgi blends seamlessly with the stop-motion that’s purportedly in there at certain points (at all times, the characters are deliberately animated to move in the jerky fashion one would expect from a completely stop-motion animated Lego film). The voice work imbues life into these characters, particularly Chris Pratt’s likeably enthusiastic portrayal of Emmet, Will Arnett’s amusingly over-the-top grim voice for Batman, Morgan Freemen combining his authoritative voice with a dry delivery of blunt lines for a hilarious Vitruvius and Liam Nesson’s deep voice giving threatening dialogue delivery for President Business’ henchmen Bad Cop. The writing mixes parody of standard fantasy stories about a “chosen one” who will save the world with some genuinely sweet and moving character drama (such as Emmet’s sad desperation to feel special) that creates a more unique tone that a pure parody or drama would have (even if it does skew towards more comedy than drama because, well, it’s a Lego movie). The comedy is childlike without being childish, which is infectious and a big part of the fun of watching the film.

Is it possible the film is getting more praise than it otherwise would because critics and parents went in with understandably low expectations? Certainly. Is it a perfect story? Not quite. Characters like Wyldstyle and Vitruvius don’t leave as strong an impression as they should, and a plot twist near the end becomes a tad bit confusing if you think about it too hard. Nevertheless, there is a great deal more good than bad here, and anyone who is a child or hasn’t abandoned their inner child and can still enjoy goofy family films should have a blast watching this.

The Ryder ● March 2014

The Correspondence Club Of Bloomington

◆ by Hannah Waltz

Addison Rogers assumes his station beside an open briefcase stuffed to the brim with postcards, festive stationary, stamps, and writing utensils. A makeshift mailbox labeled “Correspondence Club of Bloomington” sits among the post supplies, announcing the Club’s business. Twice a week Rogers sets up shop in a downtown café—today he’s at Soma—encouraging customers to write a bit of snail mail. A man at a nearby table asks him what he’s doing. Rogers makes his pitch.

Picture 2

Addison Rogers

“This is a correspondence club,” he says. “I’m just trying to get people to write more.” Rogers’ motives are clear and simple, but to what end? Although it’s still getting its wheels turning, the Correspondence Club of Bloomington celebrates snail mail and the underappreciated tangibility of a handwritten letter. “There are people who have said that I’m trying to revive this dying thing, but I don’t think it’s dying. I think it continues. It’s still really cool having something in your hand that someone else had in theirs.”

The Club is held on Tuesdays at different locations where Rogers invites customers to pop a squat and write a postcard or two. In last meeting of 2013, the Club sent 35 pieces of mail into the postal current, reaching a new record for one session.

“I’ve got about 10 to 15 regulars. It’s been mostly friends so far but I’ve also managed to get a few strangers to sit down and write,” says Rogers. The Club has no regular attendance rules or membership requirements—it’s virtually obligation free. That being said, Rogers does encourage his “members” to make writing and sending snail mail a habitual activity. “I’ve been calling them members. There’s actually a debate as to what makes a member of the Club. I say you’re a member if you drop something in the box.” No hidden fees (except stamps). No cheesy t-shirts. Just written word, from one human to another.

The first “official” meeting in September of 2013 doubled as both a launch party and as a collective birthday gift. “I’d been wanting to do this for years,” says Rogers. “I just kept talking about it, and my friends said they would be into it. So this year I decided it was a good way to mark my birthday, September third. So I said ‘Don’t get me anything for my birthday, just come participate in the Club.’”

Jessika Griffin, friend of Rogers and frequenter of the Club, has never been in the habit of writing or sending things via snail mail, until now. “The only time I ever wrote to anyone was when I was at summer camp, and my mom sent me stationery.” says Griffin.

CCofB CCofB

But Rogers proffers the CCB as a more personalized option for reaching out than what has become the preferred way to communicate, i.e. email. Or Facebook message. Or even Skyping. Alternatively, the Correspondence Club takes the technology-free, time-consuming approach in an almost nostalgic fashion. No, it’s not the most efficient way to correspond; in fact, it’s fairly antiquated. While most participants have shown their fervent support for the Club, Rogers has also encountered those who see his efforts as fruitless. A man at Soma quips that “we already write more than we want to.” Given the age of technology and convenience in which we find ourselves, this less-than-enthusiastic attitude isn’t surprising. Yet it seems to yield more pleasure to both the writer and the recipient of a letter or postcard than, say, an email written in generic Times New Roman.

“I get a nice little zing and a smile when I open my mailbox and see my name handwritten by someone I know and that cares enough to write,” says Rogers. “I don’t disparage people who don’t write. It takes a moment and there are a few steps to the process. But I hope with the Correspondence Club I can show people that the reward far surpasses the effort.”

A mailman walks into Soma, just minutes after we begin the interview, and a chuckling Rogers waves off his arrival as coincidence, but he’s also sipping from a mug that sports the United States Postal Service emblem. They greet each other and Rogers updates him on the goings-on of the Club–two men of similar trades in a small town talking shop. “He’s even given me a couple of tricks to get people writing,” says Rogers. “He sends comics to his nephews in installments, and, if they want the second half to see what happens, they have to send him a letter back.”

Rogers’ own history with the U.S. Postal Service kicked off with his family’s monthly subscription to Radio AHHS, a music magazine for kids. During his childhood he always looked forward to the issue’s delivery straight to his mailbox, an excitement that inspired him to begin a correspondence of handwritten letters to a cousin. “She lived in Arizona and we kept in touch that way. Now she’s like, ‘We wrote each other?’ But it meant a lot to me.”

In a sense, the Club keeps alive Rogers’ childhood affinity for postcards—his briefcase threatens to overflow with them. Having eventually matured into a pretty hefty assemblage, Rogers estimates that about a third of his current stock was acquired in his younger years. “I always collected postcards, I don’t know why,” says Rogers. “They’re just everywhere, or at least they used to be. They aren’t as readily available as they once were.” These days Rogers is in the habit of buying postcards anywhere he can find them. Salvation Army and the Opportunity House are among his favorite places to scavenge. “In the two months before I started the Club, I decided I’d start collecting stationary. It gives me a good excuse to pick up stuff from [the Opportunity House],” says Rogers.

This past October, Rogers promoted the Chicago-based South Side Letter Writing Club’s initiative called “31 Postcards in 31 Days” to encourage Bloomingtonians to hang out and write postcards at his selected locales. “I found this collection with old photos of Indiana from the 1950s that I really wanted people to use. I think people like to write on postcards that are local.”

Other projects around the world feed into to this snail mail movement that Rogers is supporting. For example, an enterprise similar to the Correspondence Club called Postcrossing specifically facilitates postcard exchanges all around the world from one participant to another random participant. A Google search for “pen pals” provides hundreds of sites in which aspiring pen pals can exchange addresses, even internationally. Clearly Rogers is not alone in his efforts to encourage old-fashioned, handwritten correspondence, no matter how thwarting the Internet may be.

Another week, another CCB meeting, another venue. This week Rogers sets up shop at a booth in the Owlery. His briefcase and plastic red lunchbox advertise his stationery while he waits for people to come write, dressed to the nines in a corduroy blazer, even sporting a pocket square. The waiters come and go, allowing him to do his thing for a couple of hours. Friends and strangers alike pick out stationery from the briefcase or a postcard out of his lunchbox, then deposit them into his mailbox for Rogers to feed into the U.S. mail. The convenience and ease of this seemingly archaic process and Rogers’ jolly personality keep people interested and supportive of his project.

For members who cannot recall any addresses offhand, Rogers has compiled a list of addresses volunteered by willing recipients, to which members can choose to send something in hopes of starting a dialogue with a stranger. Why not send a card to an unknown addressee? “It’s been awesome getting addresses of random people,” says Griffin. “In fact, I just sent something to a stranger.” Rogers nods his head in agreement. “Even if you don’t know who you’re receiving it from, it’s just nice to receive something, that’s not junk mail or a bill.”

In 2011 Rogers signed up for a Redditgifts account and has since been sending and receiving small gifts and letters from other users around the world. “It started with a Secret Santa exchange as far as I can tell, and that’s how I got involved,” says Rogers of Redditgifts. “I technically am a Guinness World Record holder through that first exchange I participated in. They set a record that year for the biggest secret Santa exchange to have happened.”

Rogers continued participating in Redditgifts and developed a steady habit of sending packages and letters in the mail. He has also received some cool international knickknacks in his own mailbox. “So far I’ve gotten gifts from China, Singapore, and Canada,” says Rogers. “I got something called a chapthe from Singapore, which the person described as an Asian hackysack with feathers.”

Rogers’ involvement in Redditgifts prompted him to advertise the Club on the Reddit Penpals page, which wound up yielding several international mailing addresses that Club members can choose. The Club recently hit the one hundred mark: one hundred pieces of mail, both letters and postcards, have been sent from Bloomington to recipients all over the country and several internationally to countries including England and Lithuania.

When he’s not running the Correspondence Club or working at Plan Nine Film Emporium, Rogers is all about music. He and his brother Lewis form the Bloomington-based band Busman’s Holiday, Rogers on the drums, his brother on guitar. They tag-teamed the songwriting process and have played as a duo for the past three years, but in the past the band often performed with accompanying guests. The brothers celebrated ten years of playing together in 2013. Generally the band avoids playing at too many bars; instead they prefer the “DYI scene” at house shows and art spaces. “At one point we were selling the band’s merch out of a suitcase too,” says Rogers. “We would sell cassette tapes and trading cards from Salvation Army and say ‘Even if you don’t like our music, we’re still offering tapes and trading cards!’” Busman’s Holiday will release a new album, A Long Goodbye, in April through the Indianapolis record label Joyful Noise.

Quite the versatile musician, Rogers traveled overseas in 2011 on Jens Lekman’s tour, a Swedish musician signed on Secretly Canadian. During this time he drummed and sang with Lekman for two weeks in the U.S. followed by two more weeks in Europe. No surprise, Rogers collected many postcards in his time abroad, which are now up for grabs in his lunchbox.

While munching on a bowl of french fries and buffalo sauce, Rogers reflects on his personal goals for the Club. “I just want people to write more often and more consistently. Mail is a very personal way to communicate. You feel charmed when you find a piece of mail sent from someone you know. At the very least, your grandmother would love to hear from you. Club members have consistently given their best to their grandmas,” says Rogers. “Oh, and there’s half-price pitchers at the Runcible Spoon on Sunday nights, so don’t drunk-dial. Write a postcard instead. It’s a great way to show people that you’re thinking of them. We should hold on to a piece of this fantastic culture.”

When and Where?

The Club is held twice on Tuesday and Thursday: the afternoon session runs from 2 to 4 p.m., and the late session runs from 8 to 10 p.m., at a variety of locations. The CCB meets at the Rainbow Bakery on the first Tuesday of the month, Soma on the second Tuesday, the Runcible Spoon on the third; on the fourth Tuesday of the month the Correspondence Club could be almost anywhere. The first Sunday night of the month, meetings are held at the Runcible Spoon at 7 p.m. About that fourth Tuesday: the best way to keep current with the Club is on Facebook. The page is public; you can check it without having a fb profile.

Sidebar: Top 5 Pop Songs About Letters

  • The Boxtops The Letter
  • Fats Waller & BillyWilliams I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
  • The Marvelettes Please Mr. Postman
  • Stevie Wonder Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)
  • The Zombies Care of Cell 44
  • Honorable mention: Allan Sherman Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

The Ryder ◆ February 2014

 

 

 

 

 

The Man And Me

The Various Lives of Anthony Burgess ● by Brandon Cook

Back in October, David Bowie published his 100 Must Reads in what The Guardian referred to as “the next chapter… in the well-known David Bowie story.” Is it really that well known? The glam rocker-cum-Space Oddity, cum-Ziggy Stardust-cum neoclassicist-cum “best-dressed Briton in history isn’t exactly basic textbook material. No one thought to mention this, nor why anyone still cared about finding out about it, but the narrative was the same everywhere: rockers can read.

This is evidently surprise enough to merit Big News, although what exactly was read is little more than the stuff of middle-aged book club frequenters. Bowie’s list — although graciously deficient from the bourgeois literature touted from many journalistic and celebrity top reads — held a ranking that surprised no one. There are trending or trended novels by Junot Diaz and Ian McEwan, histories, and lots of books about music.

Reading through the list, I discovered two entries that startled me. These were A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers, both by Anthony Burgess. One of these is somewhat unknown in the Western canon while the other is relished today, although less for literary merit than for the fact that it was made into an explicit film in which Stanley Kubrick gets away with showing full nudity in the early 70s.

Book Cover

This inclusion of Burgess is not groundbreaking. It’s quite inevitable. Most of us have probably read A Clockwork Orange and reacted with similar blends of shock or praise or confusion. Fewer of us have returned to the novel and laughed out loud, or shaken out heads in silent disbelief that a writer can pack Russian and Beethoven and gang rape and quips paraphrased from James Joyce’s Ulysses into a novel less than three hundred pages long. Even fewer of us realize that Burgess needed only three weeks and thousands of cigarettes to pound out those less-than-three-hundred pages. None of us, having known or experienced any of the above, walk away from Clockwork without an opinion.

I like to pride myself as a cut away from the crowd when I confess to not only being the reader described above, but a reader so obsessed with the name Burgess that any mention of the former makes me go weak in the knees. Hence my being startled in seeing the name next to Bowie’s. I imagine that many readers experience a similar phenomenon when they have been married to a writer as long as I have been married to Burgess.

Burgess

Burgess

But I am not so coy that I cannot admit my love as the fan boy obsession it really is. The almost daily studies I’ve done for nearly a decade are as involved as reading critical approaches to Burgess’s modernism, to as light as briefing articles about his opinions on the Eurovision song contest. I confess a paranoid difficulty in making an opinion for which I have not first consulted the author. Nothing yielding in Burgess’s books or articles, I take an uncomfortable stab at originality and remain dissatisfied with the result for days. In the event of a successful find, I quote the writer feverishly — it was him who taught me useless words like “confabulation,” “concaptian,” “Manichean”—and revel in this brand of surrogate intellectualism.

Like the squirt of ketchup applied to a basket of fries, Burgess has become my necessary mental condiment.

Out of the context of his books or articles, Burgess’s name flashed on something as insignificant as a celebrity reading list guarantees me of the writer’s immortality. People do not take these things lightly. It also insures my own sanity as one of the few who still clings to a writer most other readers see as homely, elitist, pedantic, dry, old-fashioned, unforgivably British.

Burgess would have objected. He most certainly was not British. The British people were educated in Cambridge and Oxford and lived their lives in Burberry and London. He was from Manchester, and his people were salt-of-the-earth Mancunians. Their ancestors had scraped off a living in the cotton mills that pockmark the city; had drank their pints and smoked their cigarettes in its ugly pubs, and dammit but wouldn’t their children do the same. But Burgess was proud to call Manchester his home — so proud that after completing his military service in 1946 he turned tail and never returned.

On a stormy Friday night in October, I puddle-hopped from Dublin to Manchester airport for a weekend pilgrimage. My destination was the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, a impressive name that conjures visions of a collegiate estate where academics drink tumblers of Bombay Sapphire and discuss in Nadsat the merits of Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. The Foundation is relatively new but it boasts an impressive online blog and a superbly narrated podcast that can only be faulted for having produced only episodes. Having contacted the institute weeks before to arrange my visit at the private reading library, I considered myself something of a guest of honor.

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation is not a collegiate estate. If you walk down Manchester’s central Oxford Road, take the narrow side street advised to you by your hostel receptionist, pass beneath the overpass, hug the path next to the rusted fence, and continue straight ahead until you see the decommissioned smokestacks in the distance, you may pass a smallish building on your left whose squareness and eye-popping red resemble a Lego castle you engineered in your youth. You may wonder if this is really the place that boasts the scholarship of one of the twentieth century’s cleverest intellectuals and most celebrated man-of-letters and then you will see the inscription on the building’s glass façade:

Literature is not easy but without Literature we are lost.

Greetings do not get more ominous than this. Hell might as well have employed Burgess to write the “abandon all hope.” The words are filled with typical Burgessisms: ironic understatement — “not easy” must be how Burgess described his output of two thousand words, every day for thirty-three years; “lost” is probably shorthand for “royally fucked” — ; snappy brevity; a theme of intellect-as-hero.
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Like Dante, I paused only to admire the words before I stepped inside. Or tried to. Ten minutes past closing time and the door was still locked. I waited until someone on the inside opened the door for me, looking apologetic but confused. The Foundation didn’t usually get visitors so early, he told me.

It is a cliche to say that stepping into the building was like stepping into another world. Nevertheless, I pardon myself for having used it. This was Burgess’s world. Like a reminder of the city he abandoned, the grey, cold, Manchester morning seethed agains the windows—inside, the wallpaper was the burnt-orange color of an Asiatic sunset. There were books in five languages stacked in shelves on one wall, a bar on the other styling a beer called (what else?) “Earthly Powers,” and a Steinway I could just make out in the room adjacent.

It was all here — Burgess’s polylingual erudition, his career as an expatriate in the colorful Asian Pacific, his lifelong passion for music, his vice of good alcohol matched only by his vice for cigarettes (matched only by his vice for sex). And in the as-yet waking hours of the morning, despite the promises of the man who had let me inside that someone would be there to help me, it was utterly bare. “To be left alone is the most precious thing one can ask of the modern world,” I would have been reminded.

Seldom would the writer have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of his own advice. After his war career, Burgess took a job supervising youngsters at an English grammar school. Never the kind of teacher to hold a job, he held several: supervising sports, teaching literature, and organizing drama productions, as well as submitting occasional articles to a local newspaper. But England was weighing on him and he was growing depressed. His nights were spent getting drunk on cheap cider and filling out other teaching applications.

Once, he received a letter informing him that he had been accepted into the British Colonial Service as a teacher in Malaya. This confused Burgess. He could not recall applying for the British Colonial Service as a teacher in Malaya. He wired back: I did not apply for this position. The British Colonial Service replied: You are expected to fulfill the position. Burgess again: Oh no I won’t. The British Colonial Service: Oh yes you will.

Burgess concluded later that he was most certainly drunk when he submitted his application. As is so often the case in his life, the sheer chance of the incident, its humor and outrageousness seem to be scenes that only the writer could have written. Reality, it seems, is always the ultimate fiction. But that didn’t stop Burgess from trying to rival his reality by dramatizing the events of his life for his novels and later for his autobiography. Authenticity is a problem with the author only if you really do care about the truth, which more often than not you don’t. Burgess was a compulsive liar with a writing problem.

Still he must have simmered on the inside knowing that he would never produce a character as original as those that life threw at him. And life threw a lot at him: drinking companions in the form of William Burroughs; a cuckolder in the form of a whining Dylan Thomas; the transvestitic, Malayan servant Yusef — Mohammad in his novel Time For a Tiger — who fell desperately in love with Burgess and then tried to slip him a love potion when his advances weren’t returned.

Malaya also threw what is typically seen as the defining moment of Burgess’s carreer. 1958 saw the writer teaching in Brunei. He was dehydrated from the heat and from excessive drinking, stressed by problems with the wife, and generally irritable: a transvestitic Malayan servant, whose advances hadn’t been returned, was suing the author for libel, despite the fact that the servant was illiterate and couldn’t actually read the offending text. According to Burgess, this was all ample reason to lie down on the floor and close his eyes in frustration.

The authorities and the doctors said something different. They said  ‘collapse.’ They said ‘inoperable brain tumor.’ They said ‘one year to live.’ Burgess, who later revealed that he never really believed this sentence, was nevertheless spooked enough to do something with that one year. Teaching was out of the question — who would contract the dying professor? — as was travel. It was too expensive, and he was going to have a widow who needed providing. What he needed was not a gala or a send-off, but a means of support. Writing was hardly the natural answer yet it fit the criteria. Besides, Burgess had already had early success publishing novels. A stash of books could produce enough royalties to suit his wife, if he produced one, say, every month. Sixty-thousand words for a mid-sized novel was two thousand words a day, every day.
There wasn’t a moment to lose.

The Burgess reading room was like a bomb-proof miniature of the Library of Alexandria. More realistically, it was a basement garage stuffed with the kinds of odd crap people tend to amass over the years. Needless to say, the difference between the Burgess reading room and your garage was that this was not odd crap. This was a wall filled with hundreds of critics’ copies Burgess had reviewed to pay for his gin and to fill the pages of the Manchester Guardian and the Sunday Observer. There was a section containing James Joyce in most European languages and editions of Ulysses dating back to the 1930s; another wall crammed with hundreds of vinyl records of mostly classical music, but also the occasional Beatles record.

Miscellaneous pieces were in helpless abundance: in the corner a harpsichord which I attempted to play; on a table, a jar containing hundreds of old matchbooks. “There is a sense, however, in keeping a bowl of such trophies,” Kenneth Toomey muses in Earthly Powers, “there are addresses and telephone numbers there, as well as a palpable record of travel helpful to an old man’s memory.” Let it be known that Toomey was speaking about these matches.

I set my notebook down on one of the desks, and an inventory of memorabilia I had requested was delivered to me by the museum’s amateur curator — a lovely woman with quick eyes who had taken the position because she needed a job. Aside from A Clockwork Orange, she hadn’t known anything about Burgess before she started.

Perhaps she wouldn’t have taken the job had she known just how massive a sorting Burgess would prove. Those who explore Burgess in any depth are usually bowled over by the sheer amount of stuff  he managed to produce: thirty-three novels, two autobiographies, four biographies, several texts on linguistics, numerous translations, countless reviews (the majority of which remain untranslated from the Italian), and most impressive, a host of musical compositions including several symphonies, now lost.

Perhaps this is a surprise to some. Burgess always considered himself more composer than writer—his artistic career began not with a bang but with the sexy harmonics of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune which he first heard when he was a youngster and which reduced him to tears. He was a determined composer ever since.

A determined composer but, alas, not a very good one. On scratchy cassette reels, we listened to bizarre concertos for harmonica and recorder; fanfares that might have come out of the rubbish piles of Stravinsky or Schönberg’s worst; piano works that quickly got tired of and changed out of their themes the way a girl changes clothes. Some of it was vaguely impressionistic — and here I detected quotes of Debussy — but if it was the stuff of dreams those dreams were troubled and anxious, and filled with visions of lewd sex and violence.

And it was gorgeous. Gorgeous, from the skittish melodies and the atonal exercises and the squeaking repetitions of a recorder solo, because it couldn’t have come from anyone other than Burgess. At its most delightful, Burgess’s work makes no apologies for being bad.

Nor does it ever need to apologize for being rude, for this is what one gets himself into no matter what volume of Burgess he chooses. “I myself am a sort of high-class prostitute,” the author chirped. This would account for why he was never one to shy away from private details even when they weren’t, strictly speaking, necessary to scholarship. His biography of James Joyce, for example, is liable to carry on with an analysis of the language of Finnegan’s Wake and its use of polysyllables to mimic the currents of flowing water before reminding us that oh, and by the way, did you know that Nora Barnacle publicly masturbated Joyce on their first date? On the other hand, you probably won’t find a more bookish, unsexy analysis of Marilyn Monroe anywhere else.

No one ever told the scholar he had to play it safe.

Someone might have told him to at least play it legal, but we can be thankful that if they ever did, Burgess wasn’t listening.

Following the diagnosis of his ‘brain tumor,’ Burgess had managed to produce nearly seven novels. It was suggested to him that in the interests of not flooding the market he should take up a pen name. Joseph Kell was born. Years after the tumor was supposed to have killed him and Burgess, still alive to the disappointment of some, took up a book reviewing position with the Yorkshire Post, Joseph Kell remained a practicing author. A prodigious practicing author, actually, with a new book entitled Inside Mr. Enderby that was to be the first in a trilogy, later quartet.

In 1963, Enderby and a host of other books arrived on Burgess’s doorstep for their fortnightly reviews. The author picked up the Enderby volume from his doorstep, frowning in confusion, before it occurred to him that, ah yes, his publisher was playing a joke on him. Kell and Burgess and Enderby: all caricatures, to a degree, of the real man Anthony, all under the same review, all in the same paper. It was a joke that he wanted apart of.

And so Burgess wrote the review, and the Yorkshire Post published it. “This is, in many ways, a dirty book,” it read. “It is full of bowel blasts and flatulent borborygums, emetic meals… and halitosis. It may make some people sick, and those of my readers with tender stomachs are advised to let it alone.”

Hardly flattering stuff. Burgess was probably pleased with the rather ruthless self-critique. He was probably less pleased when someone at the Post got whiff of the fact that Burgess the reviewer and Kell the author were one and the same. Burgess might have contacted his editor: I was under the impression this was all in good fun.

His editor might have replied: No one was laughing. Burgess again: Oh yes they were. The editor: Oh no they weren’t.

A stuffy, self-important article about the incident confirmed the editor’s opinion. “Pluralistic reviewing is unfortunately also known in those papers and journals which cloak their reviewer’s names in anonymity. But writing revews of one’s own work is not common….” Burgess was promptly canned. The fuddy-duddies won the day.

Need it be said that it was Burgess who won the war? Later, he might have even looked upon his canning as a blessing in disguise meant to boost him out of the world of journalism and into the career of a professional writer.

I hesitate, however, to label Burgess as just the professional writer. “I am a writer, a critic, and a Shakespeare-lover,” he said. This is telling. One cannot forget that Burgess was a great writer on and, occasionally, of literature, but that he was better still at enjoying it and enabling others to enjoy it as well. I label myself as one of those others who came to literature by virtue of Burgess’s guiding hand. It was that hand that I held through Joyce’s Dublin, the same hand that pushed me confidently towards T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Marlowe. It is the guidance of that hand that I remember even now, having long since accepted Burgess’s tenet that art and learning are ends unto themselves, and having determined to uphold the preservation of art for art’s sake.

That hand was big — literally, as I witnessed from the cast replica held in the museum — and figuratively, for it had to hold all the small hands of his disciples. It was with joy that I met some of these flipping through the telegrams and fan-mail Burgess preserved throughout his life.

The range of these correspondences is breathtaking and an article even as rambling as this is too small a space to feature half of what I read: postcards from Angela Carter and Graham Greene; well wishes from Stanley Kubrick; an eerie one-liner from Thomas Pynchon; a veritable letter bomb from Hunter S. Thompson. These were fun.

The fan-mail was astonishing.

Next to the famous names of the Burgess’s contacts, these people were strikingly real. A German student, at odds with his professor over the interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, implored the author for aid: “my success in the English Subject and so my whole school career depends on your answer (I know this sounds very dramatic but unfortunately it is true).” Burgess cleared the confusion and responded heart-fully: “My time is not precious and I have not been wasting it in reading your kind letter.” A different kind of mail, an essay on the Orange from a thirteen-year-old girl, takes to Burgess’s language more readily than it does English: “Alex who is 15 goes around at night with his four droogs crasting and tolshocking (sic) lewdies who they might see there.”

How many of us figure into the days of those we worship? How many of us ever get to see our presence known in the eyes of those that mean the most to us? I imagine most of us, if we factor as presences at all, flash in and out of these lives like faulty light bulbs. I wonder sometimes if this is the paradox of showing devotion, that it interrupts attention but does not move or direct it.

In a lifelong battle against his lungs, Burgess finally won when he destroyed them completely on November 22, 1993. “Each man kills the thing he loves;” but there was nothing about his health that the writer loved. In his youth he was frail and colorblind; in middle-age he was frail and colorblind and probably dyspeptic: a fighting image, if not incarnation, of his poet Enderby.

Still, I cannot help but imagine how the writer would have got on today barring that he had failed to smoke himself out. He’d still be writing, not out of love but out of obsessive-compulsion. He’d dismiss modern music (shopgirl pop), modern film (civilization’s last death rattle) and modern politicians (utilitarian philistines). He’d praise sexual liberality but couldn’t the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show afford a passacaglia or a fantasy impromptu instead of the usual lump of electric muddle?

And I wonder what I would say to Burgess if given the chance. Why did you become a writer? What advice would you offer the younger generation of writers? How the hell did you manage two thousand words a day?

I don’t think so. I’ve read enough Burgess to know what answers the public writer can give me. Ten years ago these answers were my stimulants; now they bore me. The process of worshiping the writer is the process of dissolving the writer until he loses his unimpeachable wonder and becomes, by another miracle, just a man: a man you can love because you can see yourself becoming him later. I’d probably ask Burgess how he avoided paying income tax when he was living abroad.

We spent eight hours in the book vault before emerging for tea. By tea, I mean a pint of IPA and a brownie the size of a hand, or “rooker” in Nadsat. These were indulgences won by hard labor. I had excavated seventy years of art and articles that still hadn’t ever been green-lighted for publication. My fingers bore the smell old carbon copies and telegrams and, dare I say it, a whiff of the writer’s old cigarette smoke?

Taking out my book of notes and beginning to read at my table, I was interrupted by the soft intonation of an accent somewhere near the bar. I confess no good ear for detecting accents, but this was a voice that sounded familiar; I could detect its polish and articulation so very like Burgess’s own, and there was a seductively patrician quality to it: the sort of thing Americans love when they hear a British accent.

I walked to the bar and took a stab at guessing: are you the one I hear narrating the Anthony Burgess Podcast? Indeed, he was the one. I am not ashamed to admit that I gushed — did he know how good those podcasts were? How I listened to each episode twice, three times? How good it was, for the love of Burgess, to know there were other serious devotees out there in the great wide world?

My companion did not know; I probably embarrassed him by bringing it all so gushingly to his attention. I was thanked effusively for my support and told that, yes, it was rather a shame so few people knew about Burgess. The word, nevertheless, was getting out. Books were being published; experts were being consulted; lives would be changed. David Bowie had made a small endorsement. People would have no choice but to see in time.

But all that time could go to the devil for what I cared. For now, I relished the exclusivity. We, who saw this man for his invaluable, intellectual worth where others only deigned to see a dirty book, were but the chosen few. Burgess was ours; he belonged to the world, but it was we few who owned him. We few; we happy few; we band of Burgessians.

[Brandon Cook wishes to thank the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for its support in the writing of this article. He encourages anyone brave enough to holiday in Manchester to visit the Foundation.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

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