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Charles Baxter@Grinnell

The same day I drove back to Iowa after the Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention, I went to a Writers@Grinnell event with Charles Baxter, another Minnesotan author who went to Macalester back in the day. It was billed as a roundtable, like with Danez Smith, but it actually turned out to be a craft lecture, a talk genre apparently well known to MFA students, but not to me.

The topic of the lecture was the request moment, which I guess is what it sounds like: a moment in a story when someone asks a character to do something. It makes sense to me that such a moment could be revealing. There’s the content of the request, the requestee’s reaction and response, what it means that the requester feels able/entitled/obliged to make the request, the meaning attached to the response (proof of loyalty, affection, etc.), and so on. Baxter said people often talk about the importance of what characters want, but he’s also interested in transferred desire, that is, when characters do things because other characters want them to.

Some memorable quotes from the lecture:

  • “I can’t go back to being the person I was–that’s what it means to be undone.” I believe this was just in reference to the power of stories to undo us.
  • “Don’t ever ask anybody how much that person loves you”–he pronounced this a terrible idea.
  • “Literature often doesn’t work through simple desires and fears because life doesn’t.”
  • “Often aftermaths are more interesting than violence that precedes them.” This was related to Alice Munro’s short story “Child’s Play.”

The part of the lecture that made the biggest impression on me, though, was a startling coincidence. Baxter incorporated musical examples into his talk. The first was Ralph Vaughn Williams’s orchestral setting of Poem 32 from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The second, he said, was a traditional ballad that exemplified how a request moment can also be a prohibition (i.e. don’t do this). He said it was called “The Silver Dagger” and asked if anyone knew it. I half raised my hand, but I think he saw me, because he said, “One person.” Maybe somebody else raised their hand too? I knew exactly why it exemplified a prohibition because it begins, “Don’t sing love songs.” Baxter proceeded to recite the entire text, which I knew, and then he played us a recording of the song. But the weirdest part is that a few hours earlier, I’d sung “The Silver Dagger” while driving on an Iowa highway, and it’s not a song I sing that often these days. I’ve talked about liking Solas’s version before, which is different from the version he played us. That was the one I was singing earlier that day.

The 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention

This past weekend I drove up to the Twin Cities for the 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention. I’ve managed to attend this convention a couple of times in grad school–last year with Isabelle, in 2014 when Sparkers came out–thanks to UCLA’s late start to the academic year, but it’s certainly easier to drive up from Iowa than to fly from California. I didn’t know it was the 30th annual singing until I arrived. Turns out the first Minnesota convention took place the year I was born!

The first day, we sang at Olivet Congregational Church in St. Paul, not far from St. Sahag’s, home of my local shape note singing the year I lived in the Summit-University neighborhood. I also vaguely recalled having gone to an English country dance at Olivet UCC that year, and Midge, a fellow singer and dancer and one of the convention’s co-chairs, confirmed that the Playford ball was held there. I led 203 Florida in the morning.

During the breaks, I caught up with Ivy, a fellow linguist now in the Twin Cities. We first met as prospective students at UCLA. I also met an ethnomusicologist who came to the convention from Winnipeg but who lived in Georgia for a year and a half studying the language and the music! Where else do you meet Georgian music singers than at the Sacred Harp convention, I guess. I also “networked” with other Iowa singers; there are a number of us scattered throughout the state. There aren’t any regular singings very close to me, but at least there’s an all-day in the spring to look forward to.

Local singer Claudia had put together a mini-exhibit of six old shape note tunebooks which were on display Saturday morning in the church library. The oldest was a copy of The Easy Instructor from 1816, I believe. There were also two books in German (or bilingual in English and German), printed in Fraktur! One of them was Die Franklin Harmonie. I didn’t know shape note tunebooks in other languages existed; these were apparently used by the Pennsylvania Dutch. As I was looking at the books, another singer noticed my name tag said Grinnell, and she told me she used to hitchhike to Grinnell, passing through Austin, MN, to visit her best friend, who studied at the college.

Shape notes and Fraktur! (Excuse the shadow…)

On Sunday, we sang at The Landing, on the Minnesota River. Last year, I was there with Isabelle. At the end of lunch and at the following break, the ethnomusicologist, Midge and her husband (both Georgian singing aficionados, who’ve visited the country multiple times and who brought Zedashe to the Twin Cities), one other singer, and I attempted to sing a Mravalzhamier we all knew. It was rocky, but it was still lovely to at least try some Georgian polyphony at the convention!

I led 296 Sardinia, in the afternoon. At the end of the day, the co-chairs, as is customary, invited out-of-town singers to invite everyone to major singings in their parts of the country. A singer from Kentucky, who I knew I’d seen before, made such an announcement, and in it he mentioned the opportunity to experience an Old Regular Baptists’ service with lined-out hymnody. Somebody else said that alone was worth the trip. I had never heard of such a thing and wasn’t even sure I’d heard right until I looked it up later. I’m still not totally clear what lined-out hymnody is, but Wikipedia tries to explain. Shape note seems positively mainstream compared to this.

After the convention was over, I wandered around The Landing a little bit, like we had last year. I walked past the schoolhouse and around behind the barn to see if the cows we’d seen last year were in the enclosure, but instead of cows I found three sheep!

Hello, Grinnell!

Last week, I announced I was leaving Los Angeles. Where am I now? Grinnell, Iowa! I’m a post-doctoral fellow at Grinnell College. I’ll be teaching linguistics, reacquainting myself with the Midwest, and discovering small town life in rural Iowa. Funnily enough, I visited Grinnell in high school, applied for college, and was admitted, but I chose to go somewhere else. Now here I am as a teacher!

All of my musical instruments made it with me!

Agave Baroque, Etc.

Summer is here! What have I been up to since spring break, besides defending my dissertation? Well, I can safely say I’ve finished my doctorate; I graduate tomorrow! I also went to the LA Times Festival of Books and YALLWEST, which were fun, but I wonder whether I’m starting to get author paneled out… I went on a couple of top secret trips to the Upper Midwest; sooner or later the outcome of those trips is likely to become clear.

In between said trips, Isabelle and I went to a wonderful concert at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, which is part of UCLA but is located in the West Adams neighborhood. The Clark houses a rare book and manuscript collection and hosts UCLA’s Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies’ chamber music concert series. We had actually been to the library before, for a performance combining piano pieces and personal storytelling. This time, the performers were Agave Baroque, a San Francisco-based ensemble, and the countertenor Reginald Mobley. Apparently it was the first time a singer had ever participated in this concert series.

The Clark Library (check out that theorbo!)

The program was devoted almost exclusively to the extended Bach family. I’m a big Baroque music fan, so I enjoyed the whole concert, but I was especially excited for the penultimate piece, the chaconne “Mein Freund ist mein” from the cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schön by Johann Christoph Bach. I had stumbled upon this piece on Youtube, searching for music by J. C. Bach, as one does, and I loved it. (Amusingly, for the title of the cantata Google Translate gives “my girlfriend you are beautiful.”) I should’ve realized sooner the text was from the Song of Songs. The organist told us the cantata had been composed for a Bach family wedding, but it was a Lutheran wedding, so the piece was in G minor. In any case, it was as wonderful as I’d hoped to hear the chaconne performed live. I was surprised to understand some German I had never caught before, just listening to a recording.

The title given in the program for the final piece, also by J. C. Bach, wasn’t familiar to me. It was “Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben” (Google Translate: “it’s over with my life now”). The organist said the song was about death, but it was happy (can anyone say shape note?). As soon as Reginald Mobley began to sing, though, I recognized the piece, which I knew as “Welt, gute Nacht.” It’s very beautiful and soothing, and I was delighted to hear it performed live too.

The next evening, I got to see Rachel Hartman (of whom I am unabashedly a fan) and Fran Wilde at Children’s Book World, the bookstores where I held my Los Angeles release parties. I’d enjoyed Fran Wilde’s Updraft, and she was touring for her newest book, an MG novel with a protagonist named Eleanor! She also had a stamp of a witch ball, which she was using in signing books. It was lovely to see Rachel in person for the second time and catch up a little. She was promoting her extraordinary Tess of the Road.

At the end of May, Isabelle and I went to the LA Zine Fest at the historic Helms Bakery in Culver City (the official baker of the 1932 Olympic Games). We discovered some new-to-us zinesters, saw artist Maggie Chiang in the flesh, ran into Jackie Lam, whom we knew from the West LA Burrito Project, and donated some zines to other branches of the LA Public Library.

Speaking of zines and the public library, last Sunday we went back to the zine workshop at the West Los Angeles Regional Library. I kept working on my latest zine, which I hope to finish and reveal soon, and we found that some of our previous zines were now on shelves in the library’s collection!

Borrego Palm Canyon and the Rest of Spring Break

On our second day in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we hiked the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. There were plenty of people, and the trail was awash in desert flowers. The clouds of blooms were mainly shades of yellow and purple (desert dandelion, Parrish’s poppies, phacelia), with greenery and smatterings of other colors thrown in. The trail was pretty easy for a long stretch. Mountainsides jutted up sharply on either side of us, but far away on one side. There were streams (or maybe just one stream) flowing with cold water, and we had to cross all of these, usually on stepping stones or a log bridge. Closer to the palm oasis that was the endpoint of the trail, the path grew steeper and rockier in places.

Two kinds of phacelia?

A pretty blue flower

The oasis itself was a circle of California fan palms, the only native California palm tree. It was deliciously cool in the shade. Nearby, a shallow stream was flowing, and it seemed you could wade up it to find a waterfall. This sounded lovely, but a bunch of people had just arrived, so we opted to start the hike back. We stumbled upon some more ghost flowers along the trail, but alas, we didn’t meet any bighorn sheep.

Apricot mallow, I think

Stream from the trail, with ocotillos on the far hillside

On the drive back from the state park, we saw along the freeway near Lake Elsinore (lately overwhelmed by superbloom seekers) the hillsides coated in orange California poppies that are the signature of this year’s superbloom. The flowers do make impressive patches of color.

Back in Los Angeles, we visited the Getty Museum, where the illuminated manuscripts exhibit was Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts. As usual, I tried to read the French texts. There was an amusing legend to an illustration in The Visions of the Knight Tondal: “The Good But Not Very Good Are Nourished by a Fountain”. Sounds like Not Very Good is good enough, then? This particular exhibit featured a lot of pages from books of music, which I’m a big fan of.

We also made our usual pilgrimage to The Huntington. In the Chinese garden, there was a performance underway in my eponymous pavilion: Gao Hejia was playing the guzheng.

The Chinese garden (notice the egret among the water lilies behind the rock)

Bird!

On the final day of our vacation, we visited the Getty Villa.

The Getty Villa, modeled on the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum

Inscription in what the exhibit called Palmyran Aramaic and what I think might be the Palmyrene alphabet–in any case, it’s beautiful!

Mobile Museums and Rare Books

Earlier this month Isabelle and I went to the Mobile Museum Fair at the Los Angeles Central Library downtown. The fair brought together a couple dozen exhibits and libraries, from the International Printing Museum‘s printing shop on wheels (which we’d once seen in front of our building on campus) to the Feminist Library on Wheels to a native plants pop-up seed museum. The trucks were lined up outside the library on 5th Street while other exhibits were scattered throughout the library’s halls and meeting rooms.

We’d heard there would be tours of the Rare Books Room, and we were lucky enough to snag the third and fourth spots out of twenty for the second and last tour. After signing up, we visited the Connecting Cultures Mobile Museum, which featured a large collection of masks and musical instruments from around the world. On a table in the middle of the room were a handful of instruments you could play, including a few thumb pianos, a guitar, and something Isabelle thought was a guzheng. She showed me how to pluck it. On the walls were many more instruments: balalaikas, an erhu, a kora, a hulusi, a banjo, a violin… There were also the masks, but I was more into the musical instruments.

Part of the instrument collection, including Scottish highland pipes and the violin-like hashtar from China

We checked out the museum trucks outside and visited the Department of Recreation and Parks’s eco trailer, with stuffed wildlife from the Santa Monica Mountains. Inside the library, we also saw the screen printing station in the courtyard, a couple of mobile libraries, a mastodon skull, and volunteers cuddling a tegu (a very big lizard) and a snake. Later on, after the Rare Books Room tour, we arrived in the rotunda just as the inflatable planetarium was toppled. We examined the seeds and seedpods at the seed museum and then took a quick look around the 21 Collections exhibit in the Getty Gallery.

Fox in the eco trailer

At four o’clock, those of us who had signed up for the tour were taken up in an elevator to the Rare Books Room, where we were welcomed by Xochitl Oliva, Senior Librarian of Digitization and Special Collections. Now, I received Susan Orlean’s The Library Book for Christmas, and I had finished reading it shortly before the Mobile Museum Fair. Orlean’s book is about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library and, in particular, the central library, the building that houses it, and the 1986 fire that destroyed hundreds of thousands of books there. She also writes about a number of current library staff, and Oliva is in her book! Reading it also gave me much more context for this visit to the library; the only time I’d been before was with Mike the Poet over two years ago.

Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Salvador Dalí

Oliva oriented us to the library and then spoke about each of the pieces from the collection that had been selected and set out for display on two wooden tables in the center of the reading room. There was a large-format edition of Alice in Wonderland with illustrations by Salvador Dalí. There was the oldest book in the collection, a 13th century Latin manuscript from the priory of Nostell in England. There was a Shakespeare Fourth Folio, a page from a Gutenberg Bible, a map depicting California as an island, a Sumerian temple dedication cone with a cuneiform inscription (the oldest item in the collection), and samples from the library’s collections of menus and fruit crate labels.

The oldest book in the special collections, a 13th century Latin manuscript from England

2018 in Review

2018 has been quite a year. Do I say that every year? (I actually don’t, but I probably could.) Between the am-I-finishing-grad-school-this-year-or-not uncertainty (answer: no), the politics, the traveling, and the wonderful times with friends, it’s been a full year. Here are some highlights, not in chronological order:

In 2019, I will be dissertating and, I hope, writing and perhaps beginning a brand new adventure!