Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Late Summer Memorial for Leslie Scalapino, August 26, 2011

Bolinas Cemetery. Photo by Tom White.

The idea of having a small memorial for Leslie Scalapino at my house occurred to me when I was unable to participate in the memorial organized by Lyn Hejinian last November in the Maude Fife Room at UC Berkeley because I suddenly got sick. Having a somewhat touchy constitution, I am used to missing events on occasion, even important ones, but I found I was just not able to let go of this one. Leslie and her husband, Tom White, were at the memorial we had for my first husband Jerry Estrin at SPD when it was on San Pablo. In fact, they had accidentally gone to SPT, this is when it was on 24th and Guererro in San Francisco, and we delayed the beginning of the event to wait for them to arrive because Leslie was one of the readers. Not that that was why I wanted to be at the memorial for Leslie, of course, but it is emblematic of how some people gradually become part of a sort of extended poetry family and how it feels necessary to honor that connection.

My own experience with loss and Tom White’s mention in passing that he still enjoyed attending poetry events, especially ones connected with Leslie, made me know that a memorial reading where a few friends got together to read from her work would make sense. Mourning goes on for a long time. In a way, such events make it worse or, at least, more intense, but mostly they make it better, allowing all the various feelings to occur and be shared by others. Another similar event had taken place recently in Bolinas when Leslie’s ashes were interred, attended by poets there. I didn’t know about the Bolinas event when I planned the memorial on August 26th but when I did hear that it had happened I was pleased to know about it and to have been able to bring about another of what I intuit will be many ongoing celebrations of Leslie’s life and work that will occur over the years.

In the event, Tom offered to have this memorial reading at his house, in the garden, instead of at Nick’s and my house. This seemed appropriate to me because, even though we never spoke of it, I sensed that Leslie was particularly fond of this garden, which has the quality of seeming to be almost in the living room, and that perhaps that was why she had wanted to move to this new house which was only a few blocks from their old one. So Tom and I quickly agreed on this plan and I began sending out emails. At that point the date was only about a week away and I was surprised to find a very high rate of positive response. I was aware that I could have asked many more people than I did but that I was focusing on a particular group who I knew best and who I thought were close to Leslie. The idea had been to keep it small and intimate, and hopefully easy for Tom, and I was happy to see it coming together in that way.

Nick and I got there a little early and set out the refreshments we brought. The house was very open with many windows in the front and I watched as people arrived to be welcomed by Tom. Tom and Leslie’s dog Chaka, an incredibly white, smart, American Eskimo Dog, barked briefly at each one but then was mollified by Tom and others of us as people arrived and then walked out to welcome each other. Even though the house was a relatively new one for Tom and Leslie and some people hadn’t been there before, the presence of all of us together made for extremely familiar ground.

We talked and ate fruit and biscotti and drank wine and sparkling water and Chaka presented herself to be petted. There was a fair amount of hugging. Children and grandchildren came up. Soon everyone was there and we began. Not surprisingly for August in Oakland, it was actually too cool to have the reading in the garden so we were all assembled in the ample living room, surrounded by the lovely items collected by Tom and Leslie over the years of their travels and making a life together. I began by saying that I’d wanted to have this event because I’d missed the first memorial reading and because it just seemed like a good time to do it, even though it was soon, and also because I wanted be together with old friends. I said I found I was often with younger writers and liked them and being with them a lot but wanted to be with people of my own generation in a group like this. The two exceptions to this generational notion were Michael Cross and Brent Cunningham. We’d actually invited a number of other younger people but they hadn’t been able to come. There were a number of people Tom and I might have invited, or it was mostly me doing the inviting, but I was determined to keep it small and so simply stopped after a dozen or so had said yes, hoping not to worry anyone who might later feel they should have been invited.

We all sat finally and I asked if anyone wanted to start but no one did so we began with Norma Cole who was sitting next to me, to my left. Norma read from the O One Anthology. Noting that in Leslie’s introduction to the anthology she had said that the poems in it could be one poem, Norma read from all of the poems in the collection without indicating who they were by. This was very affecting and also a really effective way to begin the reading. I think maybe this is when I began to take pictures. I had brought my camera without the thought of taking one picture per each reader but then that is what I did. It seemed we would go around the circle clockwise and so Aaron Shurin was next. Aaron held a very old and familiar chapbook in his hands. He pointed out that Leslie had no real juvenilia, having sprung, as he said, fully formed like Athena directly from the head of Zeus. He read from his copy of one of the early chapbooks, This eating and walking at the same time is associated all right. In a way, Aaron’s reading style is as unique as Leslie’s was, very emphatic, and so it was good to hear him voice her work.

Nick Robinson was sitting next to Aaron on the couch but said that he had not brought anything to read. We had talked of him maybe reading from Gertrude Stein’s play Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights that the three of us performed years ago but it didn’t seem quite right so he chose not to read, at least not then. Tom White was next. He sat slightly back from the circle, reticent but watchfully present as he had always been in the decades we had all known and seen him happily and gracefully perform the role of Leslie’s consort. He read the first page of “the birds of the field” from Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows. It was quite moving to hear Tom reading Leslie’s work. I don’t believe I had heard him read her work before. I knew from my own experience of losing a poet from my life that, as the widow, at times you inherit the fact of reading the work that you and others have heard the lost one read so often. Leslie’s voice and her reading style were very distinctive, so hearing Tom, and the rest of us, read her work was interesting, particular and different from hearing her read it. Hearing Tom read her work created a kind of inner quiet and perception of too much sorrow in the context of there being enough love to deal with the difficulty. “no reason except love …”

Dodie Bellamy read from Sight, the book Leslie wrote with Lyn Hejinian. Dodie read parts written by Leslie, winding up with the image of a fainting Tippi Hedren assailed by birds. Tom later said it was interesting to hear the continuity of Leslie’s text separately. Kevin Killian read from Stone Marmalade, the play Kevin and Leslie wrote together. I was struck by the almost infinite number of plays Kevin represents in his person and how many performances of Leslie’s plays can be included in those memories. Lyn Hejinian read from Hearing, the book on which she and Leslie were collaborating once they completed Sight. They planned to do all five senses and hearing was next in the series. Lyn brought her voice up just slightly at the end of the parts she read by Leslie, subtly suggesting Leslie’s voice and style of reading. Lyn was the only one among us to make this aural gesture. I found I appreciated it very much. I wondered if they’re both being from California gave Lyn and Leslie something in common in their “accents.” There is a distinctive California twang you can hear if you are familiar with it.

Michael Cross spoke about encountering Leslie’s work when he was here in the Bay Area at Mills and about her very generous response to his interest. He read from "Pal Mal Comic” which is in the new edition of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold. He passed around a book with garish, monstrous poster images that Leslie had worked from in writing that text. Michael spoke of reading Leslie’s work while he was at school in Buffalo and he was driven to take time away from his work on his dissertation on Zukovsky to list and examine the various strategies and motifs in Leslie’s work. His pleasure in the intricacies in Leslie’s writing and the almost infinite satisfaction to be had in figuring them out was very evident.

It brought to mind that for me Leslie’s work has always been completely explicable, having much to do with attention and being and the inclusion and orchestration of a lot of disparate elements to form a desired surface (often relating to desire.) At times I’ve found myself explaining this, usually to younger writers, some of whom were also intimidated or perplexed my Leslie’s unique presence. My suggestion for how to deal with that was always to just go straight in there and say exactly what you mean, assuring them that she would get it and respond. Leslie’s legendary kindness to students and younger writers and her way of taking their work as seriously as she took her own suggests that I was right in my advice.

Susan Gevirtz read from The Front Matter, Dead Souls and I was struck by the addiction to writing mentioned in this selection thinking how many of us in the room shared it. “This is so simple. I can’t remember it. Saying inside is different from seeing. I’ve become addicted to writing. I simply can’t stop, since for me, it’s present-time and the addiction itself is sense of life.”

Steve Dickison read a section from “Murasaki Duncan” from How Phenomena Appear To Unfold. I had thought of reading from that section myself because I really like the personal and yet rigorous quality of Leslie’s critical writing and, of course, Murasaki always seemed like a sort of doppelgänger for Leslie with her interest in and travels throughout Asia and the charming way her clothes often reflected that interest. Muraskai means purple and Leslie had a predilection for wearing that color which was, if I might say so, particularly flattering to her. Leslie spoke about Muraski once at Langton Arts, I don't think it was this piece, and I wrote about it for the Langton catalog. I had to figure out my own personal approach to writing about contemporary writing and I remember it being quite a challenge. It’s one thing to understand a person’s work and another to get that across in a text of your own. Back then, it was the 80s, we had an hilarious falling out over some pictures I took of the event, but we soon got over it. Leslie used the word hilarious occasionally, often finding people and situations to be that way. She pronounced it with a long “i.”

Brent Cunningham read from Defoe. He mentioned first reading the book while at graduate school in Buffalo, or maybe it was before, and finding it difficult to comprehend but, persevering, felt, ultimately, that he did comprehend it and that among his realizations about the book was that Leslie was doing to narrative what Stein did to grammar.

Amy Trachtenberg spread photos of the sets she had designed for Goya's LA, directed by Carla Harryman, out on the carpet. I remembered seeing the event and loving the play and the sets. The photos were black and white, maybe 8 X 10, and were spread out on the rug in a way that was striking and also allowed Amy to move around a bit more than those who had simply read something. Amy spoke about the production and how it was to work with Leslie on it and how making the set was a challenge due to the complex requirements of the play but also how it had been excellent to work with Leslie not only because of her energy and dedication but because of her kindness.

I should mention the rug here because we were all happily staring at it the whole time as we listened and read and spoke to each other. It consisted of small squares of color mostly in the red to yellow range. I used to be a rug person (I sold them for a while at a gallery) and I must say this was a great rug. The yellow gold of the squares echoed the memorabilia scattered around the room, especially things that seemed to be from Tibet or Nepal, with their distinctive colors. That room was incredibly warm and comfortable, redolent of Leslie’s life with Tom and the tastes and interests they shared. It was scary in a way, as many of us have rooms that are nice and reflect ourselves and our loved ones. If you’ve ever had to dismantle such a room or if you think about doing that, you know what I mean. And yet death is part of life. It’s not illegal, politically terrible or inherently evil, though it somehow feels like it should be.

Jeff Miller then stood up and walked around and spoke of Leslie’s speaking and the intensity of the effect of hearing her read. He filled the space and was very active, walking around on the lovely rug, speaking of the physicality of Leslie and her voice and work. He remembered the party for Norma Cole’s birthday at his and Amy’s house in San Francisco and Leslie’s appearance at the party with Tom which was the last time many of us saw her in life, as an example of her endless generosity and desire to be part of things.

I became aware that Nick had located something he wanted to read in spiral bound book he had taken from an end table during the reading. It turned out to be a copy of a translation of the Shobogenzo by Dōgen. Leslie and Nick both read Dōgen very closely and had an ongoing conversation about him. Nick read from it from part of a chapter called “One Bright Pearl.”

“”The whole universe throughout all its ten directions is the One Bright Pearl.’ Its basic idea is that the whole universe throughout all its ten directions is not to be thought of as vast and grand or minute and insignificant, nor as made up of angles and curves, nor as the center or core of something else, nor does it act like some lively fish darting about in a sea of space or like dewdrops brightly whirling in the wind. Moreover, because it is not something that was born and will die, not something that is coming or going, it is being born and dying, coming and going all the time.”

After Nick read there was a moment of quiet and then Tom said that, needing a Dharma name for Leslie for her memorial at Green Gulch, Norman Fischer had chosen Sho Gen Rin Gyo, Illuminating Presence, Immediate Action, but then when they were going through the things in Leslie’s office Tom and Tracy Grinnell discovered a rakusu with a name on it in Japanese characters and realized she had, in fact, had a Dharma name and that it was “ Bright Pearl.” Nick, of course, had had no idea of this when he chose that piece to read from the Shobogenzo. We were all amazed and I had the sense that this was a sort of endorsement from Leslie for the event, but didn’t say that.

Aaron then asked to add something about Leslie’s generous spirit and told of how he had emailed Leslie when he heard she was ill, though they had been out of touch, to see if there was anything he could do to bring some enjoyment into her life, and that she had responded by asking if she could reprint his book A’s Dream. He pointed out her generosity in wanting that to be the “help” he could offer. I was struck by it then as I had been when that book and Norma’s translation of It Then by Danielle Collobert showed up at SPD. In fact, I don’t think I knew then that Leslie was sick and it made me worry, knowing, as I do, about what last things writers want to attend to when they know they don’t have much time.

I ended the reading with a piece from The Front Matter Dead Souls which is also in the new edition of How Phenomena Appear To Unfold. I told of the story of how Norma and I had talked earlier on the phone and she had asked what I was reading and I said a section from The Front Matter, Dead Souls, which is dedicated to Jerry Estrin. Norma then revealed that she was also planning to read that piece because it was in a selection of work she had curated for Avec magazine. We both saw the logic of the other’s claims and I suggested we could both read it but then we didn’t really like that and said we would search for another selection and hung up, promising to talk again shortly. I was pretty attached to the piece so didn’t try that hard to find something new but did manage to locate the O One Anthology among my disordered books, but then realized there were no pieces by Leslie in it. Finally Norma called back and had found the same anthology and discovered the same problem, but , as I mentioned above, she had devised a way of reading from everyone in it to create one version of the poem Leslie suggested was created by all of the works in the book. I thought it a brilliant solution and was happy to be able to read from the piece dedicated to Jerry. I read the version from a copy of Avec Norma had brought.

“Man who’s young so it seems the rest of us don’t die now oddly. There’s no effect to being alive. Why create needless pain by living. At all. Or by dying, for that matter. I mean why is there creating pain by living in the first place or dying, at all? We have to. ….

I love life so much I want only to live. That’s wrong as a goal. I don’t know why.”

I ended with a poem I had written right after Leslie died called ”Quiet Mourning” and thought the occasion was that, a quiet, convivial, unsentimental, affecting and affectionate memorial for Leslie Scalapino. It is understood that everyone dies, but Leslie is one of the ones who died much too soon.

We sat and talked and ate more fruit and biscotti and drank more wine and sparkling water for a little while and then people began to leave. Chaka was released from wherever she had been during the reading and was petted and attended to by everyone as they chatted and hugged and left. Nick and I gathered up the stuff we had brought, thanked Tom who thanked us, and it was quietly over.

Photos of the event are here. Kevin Killian took the ones of me.