Bloomsday is coming!

Bloomsday-On-BondiJune 10, 2016 – “How can you call yourself a writer if you’ve never read Ulysses?”

It’s a question my son asks me on occasion as if there is a law against putting pen to paper without first succumbing to the words of James Joyce.

The question is meant to inspire me to read the classic novel and push myself to achieve a similar feat. I’m certain I’ll never write another Ulysses, but I visited my local Barnes and Noble anyway to page through a copy. With a cup of tea in hand, I sat in the café and began to read.

Next week, we commemorate the 112th anniversary of Joyce’s first date with his wife-to-be Nora Barnacle. Their relationship was the inspiration for Ulysses, a story that takes place all in one day on June 16, a day that will be forever known as Bloomsday in literary circles, named for the character of Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses. It seems Joyce was not only a serious writer but also a serious romantic.

To honor James Joyce and his beloved Nora, Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library at 2008 Delancey Place will host their 24th annual Bloomsday celebration. Events will be scheduled at the museum, the Free Library of Philadelphia at 1901 Vine Street (on the Parkway), in Rittenhouse Square and other locations. Visit the website for dates and times.

To all the serious writers out there who have read Ulysses, I commend you. It may be considered a 265,000-word work of art written in a stream of consciousness style that was used by several writers in the early 20th century, but I wasn’t able to do it.

Fictional Intruder: How I’d like to spend my summer vacation

imagesJuly 18, 2014 – It’s the height of vacation season, and perhaps the best time to entertain the WordPress Daily Prompt that asks bloggers this question: If you could choose three fictional events or adventures to experience yourself, what would they be?

I enjoy reading fiction, but gravitate to mainstream, and not action, adventure, or fantasy, so this question used a few brain cells. Coming up with great novels is easy. Three of my favorites include “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb, “White Oleander” by Janet Fitch, and “The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood” by Rebecca Wells. However, I may not be strong enough to be a character in any of these stories, and endure what they did to entertain me, so I came up with a few lighter choices:

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
This Dickens’ novel is one of those perfect stories because it’s full holiday spirit, forgiveness, and second chances. The characters are richly developed, and although I can’t actually relate to any one in particular, I’d like to be a fly on the wall who tags along with Scrooge as he embarks on his Christmas Eve journey. I’d be  a better lurker than participant in 19th century London, anyway.

Still Life with Woodpecker – Tom Robbins
As the description on the book jacket states, “This is sort of a love story that takes place inside a pack of Camel cigarettes.” In reality, the story ponders the big question: “How do you make love stay?” I would love to be a character in the wacky world of any Robbins novel, but this one has my heart because it is how I discovered him, and because of characters like heroine Leigh-Cheri (her idol is Ralph Nader), and hero Bernard Mickey Wrangle (who isn’t a criminal, but rather an outlaw). What an entertaining way to spend a summer vacation.

Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery
The Anne Shirley series of stories by L.M. Montgomery is one of my favorites, and I have always wanted to visit Prince Edward Island in Canada, so the combination of the two would be perfect. Anne could show me around Avonlea and the rest of the Island, introduce me to her adoptive family, and allow me to take in what life was like at the turn of the 20th century on their quaint island town. I’d bet the weather would be perfect.

Pop art in Philly, part 2

MagicGarden_R.Kennedy_12-587July 7, 2014 — Last week, this blog highlighted Philadelphia’s pop art sculptures in the downtown area. Today, we’ll venture over to South Street, to visit Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.

In the 1960s, local artist Isaiah Zagar (pictured) began decorating South Street with mosaic tiles, producing more than 120 displays during the 50 year period. His amazing work is also featured at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, located at 1022-1024 South Street, a display that took 14 years to create. For the Magic Gardens, Zagar used mosaic tiles, along with folk art statues, bicycle wheels, colorful glass bottles, mirrors and china.

The display is definitely worth the trip to see in person!

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Pop art in Philly, part 1

June 30, 2014 – Pop art, or art based on modern popular culture and mass media, is alive and well in Philadelphia. In this two-part series, we’ll explore some of the pop art sculptures around the city in its downtown district.

The Clothespin; location: 15th & Market Streets
This odd sculpture, commissioned to commemorate Philadelphia’s Bicentennial celebration in 1776, is the brainchild of artist Claes Oldenburg. I’m not sure what a clothespin and the 200th anniversary of American independence have in common, but legend claims that if you look at it from the right angle, you can see a “76” in the steel springs of the pin. I can clearly see the 6, but the 7 escapes me.

clothespin


LOVE Statue;  location: 16th Street & JFK Blvd.
Robert Indiana’s LOVE statue, created in 1970, is showcased in a few American cities. In Philly, the statue sits in JFK Plaza, appropriately nicknamed “Love Park” in honor of the pop art sculpture.

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Your Move; location: Broad Street and JFK Blvd.

In the pop art world, even the most common items can be interesting.  Giant game pieces, including dominoes, Parcheesi pieces, Monopoly pieces and chessmen, can be found scattered about the Municipal Services Plaza, also known as “Game Piece Plaza”. “Your Move” is the work of artists Daniel Martinez, Renee Petropoulis, and Roger White. The group assembled the pieces in 1996.

parcheesi piece

chess pieces

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Franklin’s Kite and Lightning Bolt; location: 6th & Race Streets

This stainless steel sculpture of a kite and a key by artist Isamu Noguchi was created in the 1950s in honor of Philly’s own Benjamin Franklin and his electricity research. Supposedly it sits at the same site where Franklin actually conducted the experiment.

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Next Monday, we’ll highlight the wonderful works of art in Philadelphia’s South Street area, known as Philadelphia’s Magic Garden.

What is your creative outlet?

creativeJune 6, 2014 – The tasks we complete each day to maintain our living standard can become routine, and anything routine can suck the life out of us. To re-energize, it is important to find outlets that keep our creativity flowing.

Everyone is creative, even the most practical and analytical people. If you think you lack what it takes to take up a creative hobby, here is advice from some of the greats:

“Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dali

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.” – Dr. Seuss

My creative go to has always been writing. I work in corporate communications, so I found a job that incorporates my passion, which is both good and bad. I get to write for business every day. That is good. However, my real passion is writing fiction, and because I spend most of the day writing business communication, I spend less time writing fiction. While I love to write, the process drains me, and it can be the last thing I want to do with my free time.

tree2Therefore, I looked for another outlet to keep me balanced, and turned to photography. I’ve always enjoyed taking photos, and last fall, after upgrading my plain digital camera to a Cannon Powershot, I grew to enjoy it even more. I’m not a professional, I have no experience, and sometimes my photos are blurry. However, it’s not about how good or bad they are; it’s about the creative process. Occasionally, I get lucky with a shot like the one on the left.

I also enjoy painting, a newly discovered creative outlet for me. The revelation came as a shock because I had no prior experience, and limited artistic ability. About a year ago, I visited one of those chain studios that turns ordinary people into seasoned artists, and it changed my perspective. I learned about mixing colors, and various paint stroke styles, and thoroughly enjoyed watching a piece of artwork develop as I progressed.noname

I had a difficult time at first, but with the instructor breaking each step down systematically, my first painting turned out better than I had expected when I first sat down in front of that scary blank canvass. As I writer, I know the pressure of the blank page; for an artist, it must be the same. It was fun to glance around the room and see how different everyone’s outcome was considering we all followed the same instructions. That is the beauty of art.

To the right is something I painted last Saturday at the studio during my fifth visit. It’s a very loose interpretation of Monet’s Water Lilies, and it has many flaws, but I think it’s beautiful.

While writing will always make me happy, photography and painting is a close second and third. It’s interesting that since I’ve incorporated them into my free time, I have more desire to write.

 

A new painter’s journey

May 12, 2014 — When it comes to the arts, I can hold my own in a writing class, and perhaps a digital photography class. I’m not bad with graphic arts, but don’t ask me to sing or dance — we’ll both be disappointed. Although, I may be able to handle a bit of acting thanks to a few years of high school plays and drama classes.

If you told me a year ago that my creative interests would extend to painting, I would have said it was unlikely. I can’t draw and had no experience outside of “paint by numbers”, which always turned out badly. I never liked to color within the lines.

About 10 months ago, however, I discovered painting could be relaxing and fun. I went hesitantly to my first “Painting with a Twist” party last July, where I painted “Fireflies”. The first image is my attempt, and the second is the painting we copied:

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Sure, my moon looks like a bowling ball, and my jar of fireflies like a cocktail shaker with some alien beings inside, but it was my first attempt, looking at it doesn’t my skin crawl, and I enjoyed creating it. It’s OK that the painting instructor (and my friends) told me I looked a little tense. The experience did bring out the type A in my personality, but I had fun. I swear.

A few months later, I stayed with the dark blue and black theme, and painted “The Park at Midnight”.

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the park at midnight

It’s not quite the masterpiece I expected to create now that I had a little experience, but there is improvement, at least enough to keep me interested in learning more.

Next, I aimed for something more colorful:

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partner

This was supposed to be a partner painting; he/she would do one half, and their partner would do the other. Our group decided to go solo and paint the tree on a single canvas. Again, the word alien comes to mind when I look at my painting, but I still enjoyed the experience, and I believe I continued to improve. At least you can tell it’s a tree.

With three paintings to my credit, surely I am ready to tackle one of the masters. Yesterday, I participated in a Mother’s Day morning class where we attempted Monet’s Waterlilies.

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waterlilies

Watercolors may be best for this painting since it’s supposed to look soft and muted. I need to be lighter with my brush stroke. My version looks different again, and I honestly don’t think this is better than my former attempts, but it was another enjoyable experience. I simply have to figure out why all of my paintings look like they came from outer space. I must have lived there in a former life.

Good or bad, I’ve become an artist, and plan to continue on the journey. I’m reasonable, if you want to make me an offer. 🙂

 

The holy or the broken

music-notes3March 28, 2014 – Let’s play Name that Tune.

This song was…

  • Written in 1984
  • Not an initial hit for its Canadian singer-songwriter creator
  • Covered by over 300 artists including Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, k.d. Lang, Rufus Wainwright, Willie Nelson, and Il Divo
  • Widely used in film and television, and on elevators
  • Named the 10th greatest Canadian song of all time, and listed as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time by “Rolling Stone”
  • Named the greatest song of all time by U2’s Bono

Need another clue? This song was the topic of “The Holy or the Broken”, a book written by music journalist Alan Light.

If you guessed “Hallelujah”, give yourself a pat on the back. If you guessed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” you deserve much more; people may know the song, but it is rarely attributed to Cohen. And if you don’t think you’ve ever heard of the song, listen here, and I’m sure you’ll find you’re mistaken.

Light also writes for “The New York Times” and “Rolling Stone”, and is the founding editor of “Vibe Magazine”. He appeared last night at Kelly Writers House, a center for writers from Penn and the Philadelphia region on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus to discuss the book, the song, and the myth, and how it became an international anthem for human tragedy. Or triumph, depending on the performer and which verses of the song he or she chooses to sing.

Yes, “Hallelujah” can be that simple, or that complicated depending on your point of view. Even Cohen, who created the song, has been known to change and add lyrics to suit his mood. In all, he has written about 80 draft verses for it.

Light talked about and played portions from a few different versions of the song. He started off with Cohen’s version, and told the story that when he recorded it, the record company did not want to put it on the album. “We all know you are great,” the record company executive told Cohen after hearing ‘Hallelujah’, “we just don’t know if you are any good.”

According to Light, “Hallelujah” was a difficult song to write. Cohen struggled with the lyrics for years, and recalls being in a New York City hotel room in his underwear, banging his head on the floor saying, “I can’t finish this song.”

It’s also puzzling, he points out, that the song is used at many benefits to help victims of various disasters, yet no one, not even Cohen, knows what it actually means. The song even became popular with kids when it was used in the movie “Shrek”. Light explains that since “Shrek” was a DreamWorks film, a DreamWorks recording artist was needed to cover it. Rufus Wainwright sang an upbeat version for the film and it became planted in the minds of a whole new generation.

So, how did this song go from Cohen’s obscure album to Shrek? In the late 80s, Cohen and his music enjoyed a slight resurgence, and various artists put out a tribute album of his songs. Among them, John Cale of the Velvet Underground, who performed his version of “Hallelujah”. He recorded it much like Cohen did, as a solo piano piece, but he changed around the lyrics a bit. It was Cale’s version of the song that caught the attention of Jeff Buckley, who recorded it, and it became the most popular version of the song.  Buckley’s version is the one used widely in various films and television programs. However, it wasn’t a true hit for him, either. When he passed away a few years after he recorded it, people took a second look at his music, discovered “Hallelujah”, and made it what it is today.

Light also says that Cohen may “have penned it, but Jeff Buckley owned it.” He told the intimate crowd at Kelly Writer’s House that he didn’t think about dedicating a few years to writing a book about one song until he began to talk to people about “Hallelujah”, only to realize what a tremendous impact it had on them.

“Everyone had a story connected to the song, and that is very powerful to hear,” he said. “I wrote the book after hearing that a friend of a friend actually named her daughter Hallelujah after the song.”

Are there any bad versions out there?

“Very few,” says Light, “because it is a song that is forgiving. Among the bad, however, are versions by Susan Boyle and Bono.”

Boyle’s version, which appears on her Christmas album is too clean. Her voice is fine, but she barely brings any meaning to the lyrics, and concentrated more on the Hallelujah chorus. Bono’s version may be the worst ever, and Light explains that artist agreed as much when he interviewed him for “The Holy or the Broken”. Bono performs the song to a trip hop beat, whisper raps the lyrics, and belts out a soprano chorus that doesn’t please the ear.

My favorite is k.d. Lang’s sultry cover, which she performed when Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, and also at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

In addition to a compelling lecture, there were two moving performances of “Hallelujah” by Penn student musicians.

For more information about Kelly Writers House, and the programs available to area writers, visit  http://www.writing.upenn.edu/wh/.