inlooking #004: From the lighthouse
20211127: Ives, essays, objects
That’s a bit of Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England, one of my favorite pieces of contemporary art music. I never know what to call this type of music—it isn’t “classical” music, and “contemporary” music is too broad, as is “concert” music. Contemporary art music isn’t quite right either, but it’ll do, for now. Anyway, what label could possibly do justice to a piece in which a marching band wanders into the listener’s dream, playing in a different meter from the main current of things (as you can see from the bar lines above) and in a different key?
From the lighthouse
Other bound objects
I’ve decided which book I’m going to teach next: it’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When I started drafting this edition of this newsletter, about a week had gone by since the end of my class on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It’s been over a month since then (I’ve been busy!), but teaching that class was such a pleasure that its memory has stayed with me. To the Lighthouse rewards re-reading, especially in community with a dozen other interested souls. It was nice to teach a class that was not just for writers but that also attracted people for the sheer pleasure of reading deeply. Everyone was engaged and engaging, and we had a fantastic variety of students, include one teenager, students in their 60s or 70s, Virginia Woolf experts (I do not count myself in that group, to be sure), and those who’d never read her before. I’m pretty sure everyone found something new in the book, even if some found it frustrating (it isn’t always an easy read) and not everyone loved it. I will probably teach this class again, later next year, so let me know if you’re interested.
In the meantime, I am hot to do another class like this (time permitting), but I’ve been having a hard time deciding on a book. Finally, though, I think I’ve got it: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. If you haven’t read this before, you’ve no doubt seen some version of how it’s come down to us in popular culture: the mad scientist, the murderous monster, etc. But this book isn’t what you think it is. It is the story of a scientist and his creation, yes, but it isn’t always clear which is the monster. In it can be found themes of what we now call body horror, of motherhood, of rebirth, guilt, the artist’s struggle, and of conflict with the natural world.
When we read To the Lighthouse, we got to talk about the emergence of modernism, and some of the art and ideas that were current in the early 1900s. With Frankenstein, we’ll get to explore a similarly rich context beyond the content of the text, one that includes all the following and more:
the book’s nested structure, like that of a musical fugue or Russian nesting dolls
Mary Shelley’s mother, the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
the many film adaptations the story has seen over the years (including a personal favorite)
Rebecca Solnit’s writing about the book
the poet Percy Shelley (Mary’s husband), and the Romantic poets of the early 19th century
why science fiction author Brian Aldiss has called Mary Shelley “science fiction’s mother figure”
the stunning 2016 ballet after the book, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, who committed suicide after being accused of sexual misconduct
This class probably won't go off til February or March of 2022, but I’ll keep you posted between now and then. Let me know if you’re particularly interested.
Back to the Grotto
I taught To the Lighthouse over Zoom, and I’ll probably teach Frankenstein the same way, but it’s nice to have options. I teach these classes through The Writers Grotto, where I serve as Executive Director, and the great news from the Grotto these days is that we’ve found a new space in San Francisco, after more than a year of operating as a virtual organization, a condition forced on us by the onset of the COVID pandemic. Our new home is 1663 Mission Street, a spot that houses a number of local nonprofits (and which was once home to Mother Jones magazine), and we’re right across the street from one of my favorite retail haunts: Discount Builders Supply.
We have two bright, big floors there, one where our members will work and one where we’ll hold classes and events. If you want to know about readings and events and aren’t on the Grotto’s newsletter yet, you can sign up here: http://bit.ly/grottoletter
The other important thing that’s going on at the Grotto is our annual giving campaign. We’re running it on GoFundMe this year, so if you’re at all interested in supporting what has long been one of the most important Bay Area literary institutions, as well as our work to support writers of color through programs like Rooted & Written and others, please do contribute if you can.
Reading / music
I feel like this edition of the newsletter is getting windy already, so I’ll try to be brief from here (if possible). I write occasionally about music, as my Twitter bio hints at, though I haven’t published anything music-related in some time. (Here’s the last time.) I’ve been looking at a few of my music-inflected essays-in-progress lately, and am reminded of how much I love musical scores, not just for their content (I studied as a composer at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for a time—yes, I wrote music, too), but simply as objects. Not only do they encode such a great deal of rich and often emotionally potent information, but they are brilliant pieces of abstract visual art in their own right, even separated from any performance.
This last is especially true of some of the more experimental scores of the twentieth century. One place to see a fantastic selection of these (and of scores from any era) is at the Twitter account Musical Notation is Beautiful, which has a great eye for the arresting score, whether new or old. Here’s a fascinating new one:
(That’s for solo flute, btw, if there are any flautists out there.)
Following from all that (more or less), some reading recommendations:
Wayne Koestenbaum’s extended meditation on being an “opera queen,” The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, is very good not just on all the things in its subtitle, but on the hard work of hammering out an identity and a voice, whether you’re in the closet with your Maria Callas records or not.
I absolutely loved Andrea Lawlor’s novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, in which a college student and punk rocker (it’s the early 90s) comes to grips with their fluid gender no less so than characters in books like Orlando or Middlesex (I may teach a class about these three books, at some point), but with even more energy and a lot dirtier dirty bits. Only read if you like graphic sex scenes of all combinations of genders and sexes and private parts. (Not at once, mind you.)
Rachel Cusks’s collection of essays, Coventry, is very worthwhile. I was taken mostly with her tone, and the way in which she is able to address deeply personal subjects with a certain distance. I am always looking for nonfiction that can be a model for things I want to write, and this book (like The Faraway Nearby, in which the above-mentioned Rebecca Solnit essay appears) goes on that shelf.
I want to write something about tools, at some point, tools as objects, no less than scores as objects, since we live in the country now and I am slowly amassing a collection of tools I’ve been using to build things like compost bins and a playhouse for my kids and a farm-style table and a small set of stairs I’m in the middle of (and which I think I’ve done wrong but which can still be salvaged), but that will have to wait. Tools, and wood, too. Wood is fascinating. Someday.
Til next time,