Monday, 31 December 2018

Delany on Writing AND New Year's Eve Music Countdown

I finished Samuel R. Delany's On Writing, a compendium of essays, articles, and tipsheets by the science fiction writer and critic. In this collection, he sometimes comes across as a cranky old man, but he has important things to say, and his varied career makes him worth listening to.

The following excerpts are from "A Poetry Project Newsletter Interview: A Silent Interview."

A communal task that art accomplishes--particularly the verbal arts of fiction, poetry, and criticism--is to help with the all-important shifts in discourse that must occur for there to be meaningful historical change.

Because it is a communal task, because no single work of art can accomplish such a discursive shift by itself, the artist (responsible only for her or his own work) doesn't  have to worry abot preaching. It does no good; don't waste your time. It's far more effective to look at a situation and dramatize, in however complex allegorical terms you'd like, what it is you've seen. (300)
I like the way he insists that a single work in itself can't be burdened with the responsibility of "changing the world," but that a collective action can do that. Delany rephrases this idea in terms of censorship against an individual text:
For the same reasons that poets and artists don't have to worry about preaching, the general public doesn't need to worry about imposing censorship. "For poetry makes nothing happen," W.H. Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats. That priviledged lack of power of the single work of art--the single poem, say,--is precisely what, I feel, Auden was getting at.

Many works of art taken together, however, through the very process by which we learn to read them, establish discourses--discourses of the possible, discourses of the probable, discourses of desire.(301)
An attack on a single work is not enough to weaken the discourse from which the work arises.

Delany doesn't care for utopias,  he says, but he knows something about utopian and dystopian fiction. He mentions three utopian/dystopian pairings (he calls them "image clusters"): The New Jerusalem versus Brave New World, which he says is an urban love/hate pairing, Arcadia versus Land of the Flies, which is a rural pairing, and the Techno-Junk City versus the Empire of the Afternoon (302-03).

I have a good sense of the first five of these categories, but I don't know what Empire of the Afternoon might be. Perhaps someone can enlighten me? Post me something.

Finally is a statement that reflects on my series on light and shadows:

Since Wagner at least, silence has been considered the proper mode in which to appreciate the work of art: Wagner was the first major artist to forbid talking in the theater during his concerts and operas. He began the custom of not applauding between movements of a symphony, sonata, concerto, suite, or string quartet. Also, he was the first person, during performances of his operas at Bayreuth, to turn off the house lights in the theatre and have illumination only on the stage.
For better or worse, this aligns art more closely with death: it moves us formally toward a merger with the unknown. (309)
Artists must turn away from the known, the day, that which is immediately perceivable.Art, in its association with the unknown, the night, that which is not visible, frightens some people.


Here are my favourite songs of 2018:

BlocBoy JB feat. Drake, "Look Alive"
Leon Bridges, "Bad Bad News"
Florence + the Machine, "Hunger"
Parquet Courts, "Wide Awake"
Janelle Monáe, "Make Me Feel"
Rosie and the Riveters, "Ms. Behave"
Erin Costelo, "All in Your Head" 
Shad,"The Fool Pt. 1 (Get It Got It Good)" 
Melissa Laveaux, "Nan Fon Bwa"
Jeremy Dutcher, “Mehcinut"

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Prep for New Year's Eve Music Countdown

On New Year's Eve, I like to make a playlist of my favourite songs of the year. I'm not great at keeping on top of new music, however, and I usually have to scramble after renominating Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk" from 2014.

This year I will be different! I am going through Billboards's  "Top 50 of the Year (So Far)" from June using the family Spotify account.

Of the fifty, I like the following (I really like the ones with *):

48. SAINt JHN, "I Heard You Got Too Litt Last Night"
*46. BlocBoy JB feat. Drake, "Look Alive"
43. Arctic Monkeys, "Four Out of Five"
42. The Weeknd, "Call Out My Name" 
*39. Leon Bridges, "Bad Bad News"
*38. Florence + the Machine, "Hunger"
37. Jessie Reyez, "Body Count"
*33. Parquet Courts, "Wide Awake" 
*32. Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Future & James Blake, "King's Dead"
28. Cardi B, "Be Careful"
23. Nicky Jam & J Balvin, "X"
19. Camila Cabello, "Never Be the Same"
17. Kali Uchis feat. Tyler the Creator & Bootsy Collins, "After the Storm"
16. Migos, "Stir Fry"
9. King Princess, "1950"
*8. Janelle Monáe, "Make Me Feel"
6. Troye Sivan, "My My My!"
5. Kendrick Lamar & SZA, "All the Stars" 
*4. Childish Gambino, "This Is America" 
*1. Cardi B feat. Bad Bunny & J Balvin, "I Like It" 


Sunday, 11 November 2018

Drama Notes

I flipping through a printout of a short play I wrote and saw some notes I'd written on the back of a page. I should keep these notes in mind for myself, so why not share those notes with others?

I wrote the play as part of a play writing workshop held at the University of Alberta's drama department. One year the workshop was run by Colleen Murphy, and another year it was run by Meg Braem.

The comments likely come from  Colleen Murphy, but Meg Braem might also have said them. Below the notes are my elaborations.
  1. "Without foreshadowing, drama is melodrama."

    Three literary terms are in operation here. Foreshadowing is the hinting of details that will happen later in the plot chronology. Drama is the telling of a narrative in front of a live audience. Melodrama is a subset of drama that arose in the nineteenth century in which music played throughout the performance as a way to set mood and affect the audience's emotions. These days, soap operas continue in the tradition of melodrama by having nondiegetic music--music played unrelated to events in the story and unheard by the characters--play continuously. In melodrama, emotions are stark and strong. Good and evil are easily discernible, and though evil is powerful, ultimately good prevails.

    To me, the quotation is arguing that drama and melodrama can seem similar. A drama can have the same outcome as a melodrama--good vanquishes evil--and generate strong emotions. However, drama establishes a rationale for that outcome in some way. In melodrama, rationale is besides the point. The audience knows how things will end, and they want that ending, and they don't care how that ending comes about. Melodrama is weak on characterization and lacks sophisticated plots.

    Superhero films are melodramas. Even if some characters may, on first glance, seem complex, they really aren't. Deadpool is a good guy, in the end: he is an asshole to bad guys and is rude to good guys, but his actions operate on the side of goodness.

    A happy-ending drama has to work for its happy ending and its emotional effects. Its happy ending is deserved, rather than inevitable. If the happy ending arises out of the blue, with no explanation, it is melodrama. William Shakespeare himself edged his plays towards melodrama (keeping in mind that "melodrama" is an anachronistic term to use). In a plot that threatens murder and rape, Measure for Measure has a surprise happy ending.
  2. "Tragedy is when the past leaks into the present and changes the future."

    "Tragedy" here is the original dramatic idea that Greek playwrights represented a few hundred years before the Common Era. Sophocles's Oedipus Rex well demonstrates the principle. Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. In the present, Oedipus decides to find out what is the source of his kingdom's suffering, and he tracks down himself. He blinds himself and withdraws from the world.
  3. "Can a narcissist be humourous?"

    A good question. I would think not.
  4. "Negative action on stage is different from positive action. Negative action does not indicate agency."

    Negative action is action not taken. For example, a person may have the opportunity to steal a purse on a nearby park bench and decide not to steal it. Not-acting is an action: a decision related to action. Though in the lived world a person not stealing a purse is good. In drama, a character not acting is not a real action. Such a character is not an agent: that character does nothing. A lack of agency in a character makes that character passive. Passive characters are not much fun to watch, and they are counter what drama is: actions on a stage.
  5. "In drama, the meaning of life is more important than life itself, said Edward Bond."

    I couldn't find a source for this quotation, though Edward Bond is a playwright whose philosophy seems amenable to this idea. To me, this statement refers to plot and character. A character doesn't have to stay alive in a play. A character should, however, help to explain the meaning of life (what meaning life has). A character may need to die in order to communicate the meaning of life.
  6. "Earnestness is saying, 'This is important.' Preaching is telling the audience how to think."

    The difference is in quality. A preacher has an answer, whereas an earnest person, though he or she may have an answer, prefers to call attention to an issue without "solving" it.
  7. "Arthur Miller said 'right' versus 'right' = drama."

    I traced this idea to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (via Julia Peters's "A Theory of Tragic Experience According to Hegel" among other places). Hegel appears to be discussing Antigone by Sophocles. The "rightness" is from the opponent's point of view. Both opponents see themselves as operating on moral grounds; it's just that more than one moral ground is possible. (In melodrama, one opponent may takes an avowedly immoral position.)

Wednesday, 31 October 2018


Freed from the burden of the light and shadows series I completed in my last post, I have written some poetry. I have also been overcome by two new obsessions.

I have become obsessed with the villanelle, a six-stanza poem of five tercets (three lines) with a final quatrain (four lines). The villanelle has only two end-rhyme sounds, which alternate through the entire poem in an A-B-A pattern. The first tercet's first and third lines reappear, alternating, as the last lines of the tercets that follow it. The quatrain's last two lines are the two repeating lines (that is, the first and third lines of the first tercet).

The most famous English villanelle is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night."  I use this poem to help me remember the villanelle form.

"Villanelle" is a French word, and the form originated as a French-language form on the subject of country life. English writers have since taken the form up. I decided to write a villanelle about a hamlet northwest of my hometown. Villeneuve is a farming community settled by Métis and French Canadians in the late 1890s. That is, I am writing a Villeneuve villanelle.

While doing internet research, I found a villanelle generator. Below is the villanelle I/it generated:

Pere Lacombe's Torment - The Villanelle Of The Farm

A Villanelle by Anonymous

Pere Lacombe couldn't stop thinking about the farm
It was just so furrowed and flat
Never had he known anything so underarm

That morning, Pere Lacombe was shocked by the alarm
He had to calm himself with a rat
Pere Lacombe couldn't stop thinking about the farm

Later, Pere Lacombe was spooked by a charm
He tried to focus on a hat
Never had he known anything so underarm

Madame Boulanger tried to distract him with a smarm
Said it was time to start thinking about a chat
Pere Lacombe couldn't stop thinking about the farm

Pere Lacombe took action like an arm
The farm was like a toxic format
Never had he known anything so underarm

Pere Lacombe nosedived like a harvested disarm
His mind turned into a tat
Pere Lacombe couldn't stop thinking about the farm
Never had he known anything so underarm

(Note that "underarm" and "rat" were supplied by the generator. I supplied "Pere Lacombe," "Madame Boulanger," "farm," "flat," "harvested," and "furrowed."

The poem is quite terrible; yet it has a terrible beauty. So now I am also obsessed by generators.

Generators are computer programs that produce documents (a sentence, a paragraph, a poem, even an entire scholarly essay) using terminology and format rules from a genre of writing. Generators are a low-level form of artificial intelligence in that they are supposed to mimic documents that humans create.

The generators tend to be sarcastic. They operate on the assumption that some kinds of writing are not creative or can easily be mimicked by non-writers.

However—and the however is something that I wrote about in my dissertation—people need rules to understand things. Knowledge is based on previous knowledge. Along with this knowledge are patterns of construction, or rules.

One can think of these "rules" not as a limitation but as a context, a shared body of knowledge. Without a shared body of knowledge, people would not be able to understand each other. For example, a non-quilter would not be able to follow a conversation among a group of quilters. With a shared body of knowledge, including vocabulary, quilters can discuss complex quilt concepts without having to define their terms all the time.

If a genre has a simple formula, a computer programmer can easily create a generator; but as the above example of the generated villanelle shows, generators can do only so much. Some are better than others, of course.

Here are some of my favourite generators:
  • Plot Generator (avoid "naughty" words: the short story generator considered "drug" a naughty word)

    Example: "A teacher from Jacksonville is delighted when she gets the chance to take part in the final of Bake Off. However, her chances are scuppered when she finds out her arch rival is also going to compete. Unexpectedly, the teacher is bitten by a zombie and therefore is disqualified from competing."
Generators are fairly easy to write in Javascript. Inspired by the CanLit Premise Generator, I wrote my own generator for a class I took on web programming:

PS: Here is my own villanelle (not auto-generated and still in progress):


What honour do the living owe?
I walk Villeneuve’s roads in autumn light.
Crops and leaves fall and soon will the snow.

Farmers last century heaved earth so
a new town could bring day to wild night.
What honour do the living owe?

French and Metis ploughed field and dug row;
St. Peter’s Church loomed in black and white.
Crops and leaves fall and soon will the snow.

This time’s rural ebb and urban flow
swells city suburbs into its sight.
What honour do the living owe?

Circled by highways that blare and glow,
Five streets, rec hall, senior’s home sit tight.
Crops and leaves fall and soon will the snow.

I am foreign to this place, yet know
its dead’s made strange by the town’s fresh fight.
What honour do the living owe?
Crops and leaves fall and soon will the snow.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Shadows and Light Series Finale: Comedy to Tragedy

My final challenge is to recasting a short play so that the heroes become villains though with the same dialogue. My goal is to change a comedy into a tragedy.

I have recently read Anne-Marie MacDonald's Good Morning Desdemona (Good Night Juliet), which has a contemporary character dream her way into two Shakespeare plays such that she interacts with characters and plots of Othello and Romeo and Juliet. MacDonald wrote new lines for Shakespeare's characters and altered the personalities of Desdemona and Juliet so that they are not the sweet, gentle young ladies of the original.

I don't feel up to the task of pulling a MacDonald. Unveiling a multi-act play in a blog post doesn't seem practicable, either. I don't want to do elaborate alterations. I will stick with Shakespeare, though, since I know his work best, and his work is in the public domain and easily obtained. His plays aren't short, though. I will have to use one scene instead of one whole play. 

Yet how else can I turn a hero into a villain but through changes to dialogue? After all, the driver of a play is the dialogue. What a character says determines what kind of character it is.

I can, however, import dialogue from one play to another, such that the dialogue itself is unchanged, though the speaker and context are different.

A cheerful closing scene in a Shakespeare play is in The Tempest, whereby Prospero forgives everyone, and his daughter marries the King of Naples's noble son.

What, however, if Prospero were playing the long con like Iago and Richard III were? And he regrets some of what he has done (though it were done)? The epilogue delivered to the audience would have a different tone.

The Tempest, Act 5, SCENE I. Before PROSPERO'S cell.
Enter PROSPERO in his magic robes, and ARIEL
I have almost forgot the taste of fears;
The time has been, my senses would have cool'd
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't: I have supp'd full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me. (Macbeth 5.5.5-14)
Solemn music
Re-enter ARIEL before: then ALONSO, with a frantic gesture, attended by GONZALO; SEBASTIAN and ANTONIO in like manner, attended by ADRIAN and FRANCISCO they all enter the circle which PROSPERO had made, and there stand charmed; which PROSPERO observing, speaks:
Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits:
The flighty purpose never is o'ertook
Unless the deed go with it; from this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. (Macbeth 4.1.144-48)
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe'er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders' heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature's germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you. (Macbeth 4.1.50-61)
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now (Iago, Othello 2.3.351-53)
Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die: (Richard III 5.4.9-10)
Here PROSPERO discovers FERDINAND and MIRANDA playing at chess
Re-enter ARIEL, with the Master and Boatswain amazedly following
Zounds, hold your peace! (Iago, Othello 5.2.216)
Aside to ARIEL
Re-enter ARIEL, driving in CALIBAN, STEPHANO and TRINCULO, in their stolen apparel
Pointing to Caliban
Gentlemen, all, I do suspect this trash
To be a party in this injury. (Iago, Othello 5.1.85-86)

But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin:
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye. (Richard III 4.2.63-65)
Come, stand not amazed at it, but go along with
me; I will show you such a necessity in his death
that you shall think yourself bound to put it on
him.(Iago, Othello 4.2.239-43)
But yet I'll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (Macbeth 4.1)
Aside to ARIEL
The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!
Where got'st thou that goose look? (Macbeth 5.3.11-12)
No, he must die. (Iago, Othello 5.1.21)
Come, you are too severe a moraler: as the time,
the place, and the condition of this country
stands, I could heartily wish this had not befallen;
but, since it is as it is, mend it for your own good. (Iago, Othello 2.3.298-301)
I gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish the estate o' the world were now undone. (Macbeth 5.3)
Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word. (Iago, Othello 5.2.299-300)
[Draws a sword, stabs self, and dies]