At the MFA: Viewing Islamic Art Gallery

August 7, 2019

By Robert Israel

 

Lunette (about 1573), fritware with polychrome decoration under transparent glaze. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Conflicts raging in Iran, Iraq, and Syria pose major threats to ancient art and artifacts, which are housed within mosques and other historic sites. Pieces are being plundered and then sold on the black market — or, worse, destroyed.

“Islamic sites in northern Iraq, for example, continue to sustain incredible damage,” Michael D. Danti, an archeologist and academic director at the American School of Oriental Research at Boston University, warns. “These include sites of ethnic and religious importance. If they haven’t been plundered by looters, the bombs and mortar fire are obliterating them.”

This ongoing devastation should inspire concern and some urgency, such as a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston’s newly “reinstalled and reinterpreted” Arts of Islamic Cultures gallery, which recently opened. Here one can find a calming perspective  on the current cultural desconstruction, generated by a sense that at least some art has found safety. This is a space the encourages reflection and engagement — the artworks one gazes upon are far from the scorched earth of their origins. There must be a way to protect others.

There is another aspect of this gallery that is startling: its size. The MFA claims to have a vast collection of over 5,000 objects, yet only 69 of them are on display. Some of these acquisitions date to 1877, seven years after the museum was founded.

Minbar (pulpit) door (14th–15th centuries), with later additions. Wood (ebony, Aleppo pine, abura, boxwood) and ivory or bone. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The gallery is easy to miss, but that’s not because of poor signage. MFA visitors, after viewing works in larger galleries devoted to American and European art, walk past the space along a corridor that leads to the museum’s restaurant, bookstore, and auditorium, which is located just beyond it.

During my visit prior to the July 20 opening, Laura Weinstein — MFA’s Ananda Coomaraswarmy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art – served as my guide. She has devoted the last eight years consulting with the Islamic community and exploring the vast trove of Islamic objects, much of which is archived in the bowels of the MFA’s storerooms.

The Arts of Islamic Cultures gallery succeeds, in large part, because of Weinstein’s syncretic vision. Working in concert with curators, imams, scholars, ceramicists, and other artists and artisans, she has assembled an impressive visual representation of Islamic cultures, geographies, and histories. And she has flavored the gallery with a unique Bostonian accent: there are objects acquired by early MFA benefactors as well as pieces from contemporary Massachusetts artists.

One of those objects acquired in 1877 sits at the entranceway, a Minbar, or pulpit found at the entrance to a mosque, dating from the Mamluk Period, 14th to 15th century. Weinstein explains it was purchased by the first MFA director and later donated to the museum when the MFA was located in Copley Square. It was discovered, like many other pieces, in the MFA storeroom. Now it assumes a prominent place at the gallery’s entrance, offering a warm welcome to a world of faith and solemnity.

Bostonians traveled in droves to the Islamic world during the nineteenth century, Weinstein explains, and they brought back textiles, pottery, jewelry, and other objects, many of which found their way to the MFA. Not all represent the Islamic faith. Christian and Jewish objects are on display here, too, illustrating how these religions, which had their origins in the region, flourished. A silver Chanukah menorah from Algeria, for example, caught my eye because of its simplicity and elegance; I envisaged it fully illuminated, glowing with burning oil.

Opposite the menorah is a copy of the Qur’an, and outside the glass enclosure where the holy text is housed there’s a headset where one listens to an imam from the Islamic Center in Roxbury read a representative chapter. The sounds of the words, intoned with a lulling musical cadence, reminded me of  how Hebrew Torah scripture strikes the ear when it is chanted, calling to mind the interwoven threads that bind all Abrahamic faiths. Hanging nearby is a 2007 porcelain plate by Cambridge artist Wasma’a Khalid Chorbachi which draws on words of the bismillah (found at the opening of most chapters of the Qur’an). Curator Weinstein selection is about creating a dialog that — at least in this room — unites faiths, eras, artists, objects, and Holy Scripture.

Weinstein says that the light-sensitive paintings in the gallery will be rotated every six months; textiles will be rotated annually. Other objects will be brought from storage and displayed.

This plan, and the gallery itself, according to Syrian-born Nasser Rabbat, a professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, does not do justice to Islamic art.

“The Profession of Faith (Al Shahada),” Wasma’a Khalid Chorbachi (American, born in Egypt), 1994, Porcelain with matte glaze. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“Given the MFA’s collection,” charges Rabbat, “the museum needs to expand what the public views. Weinstein has done a wonderful job, but Islamic art shouldn’t be sandwiched into a corridor. It deserves a larger viewing space. The museum needs to show the influence of Islamic art and how it fits into the larger history of art.”

Rabbat’s criticism is not lost on Weinstein.

“All curators look to have more space for works of art to be displayed,” she responds, “myself included.”

**

A previous version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston) on July 30, 2019.

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Review: James Tate’s “Fakelore” Poems

July 18, 2019

By Robert Israel

James Tate, poet and University of Massachusetts professor of English, died at age 71 in 2015 at his home near Amherst. His book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion (Ecco/Harper Collins), which I reviewed for Arts Fuse, was accompanied by a statement from his editor, Daniel Halpern: “I’m grateful that Jim was able to see a copy of his new collection of poems before he died.”

Halpern’s farewell led me to assume that Pavilion was Tate’s last hurrah. I was not alone: in the many tributes that followed, readers and reviewers alike drew the same conclusion. His book reflected his patented insouciance, sustained throughout his seventeen books, a style that earned him numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

Turns out, my assumption was wrong. Tate, ever the prankster, had completed more than three-dozen additional prose poems, now collected in The Government Lake. No doubt Tate would be pleased with this posthumous collection: he gets to thumb his nose at the undertaker.

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James Tate

Most of the poems are written in a jocular vein. Several are laugh-out-loud hilarious. But while Tate — in both of his “last” books — may have believed he was creating a new poetic form, he was really contributing to an American literary genre that dates back to Colonial times: the tall tale.

To apply a phrase coined by historian Richard M. Dorson, who founded the Indiana University Folklore Institute, Tate dabbles in “fakelore,” or creating “urban legends which never happened told as true.”

Many of Tate’s pieces involve animals. It’s not a stretch to imagine Tate having been influenced by the tall tale of Babe, the gigantic Blue Ox (said to have been 10 feet tall and 8 feet across at his front hooves), and his owner, the humungous lumberjack Paul Bunyan (said to have been 18 feet tall and 5 feet across at his base).

In Tate’s world, we meet Elvis, not the human rock ‘n roller, but, a raccoon (who snuggles and smooches with the narrator after devouring bowls of cereal and milk). There’s a story about Mildred, part-woman, part-hen, who complains of a “stomachache, and after a few days she laid an egg,” Tate tells us. There’s another about a dog named Roscoe, still another with a title, “The Sky is Falling Like Bunnies.” In each poem, Tate invites us to join him on these and other outrageous leaps of fancy so phantasmagoric that you can almost hear him snickering, or, in some pieces, chortling.

Tate is not the only American poet to have flirted with writing “fakelore.” The late Charles Olson, who penned his Maximus Poems while living in Gloucester, Mass., enjoyed similar literary forays. In one of his poems (Olson was more ribald than Tate ever dares to be), Olson describes a nymphomaniac who fornicates with a snake and who later dies because she is unable to pass on the venom to the last of her five husbands (who, earlier in the poem witnesses her in flagrante delicto, and, although she implores him to bed down with her, he refuses her entreaties.) Olson wrote another “fakelore” piece about a man wandering in the wilderness who miraculously carries his house on his head, swaps the house with a passerby for the man’s raccoon skin (could it have been Tate’s Elvis?); when the new owner takes possession of the residence, he morphs into a bird that flutters with newfound wings up to the rafters.

Tate’s last poem in this collection is unfinished. “I sat at my desk and contemplated all I had accomplished,” it begins. The Government Lake reproduces the manuscript in a photograph in the frontispiece and, later, in print on the book’s last page. The photograph shows the poem just as Tate left it, curled up on a typing paper in his IBM Selectric, rife with typos. In this last poem, Tate boasts about all his bogus achievements while simultaneously debunking himself. “I had won the hot dog eating contest on Rhode Island. No, I hadn’t. I was just kidding. I was the arm wrestling champion in Portland, Maine. False,” he declares. He wants to see if we can catch him in the act of writing “fakelore.” He wants us to be co-conspirators. He succeeds.

Tate used his linguistic gifts like a mischievous child, giggling in the corner after having pulled pranks on the adults in the room – relishing in his insouciance. Tate didn’t invent the genre of “fakelore”: he expanded upon it. He succeeds in doing something else, too: his last collection leaves us laughing.

**

The Government Lake, Last Poems, by James Tate, Ecco/HarperCollins, New York, $24.99.

 

Montreal Jazz Festival: Harmony & Chaos

July 13, 2019

By Robert Israel

The 40th Montreal Jazz Festival this past week was, for the most part, a marvel. At both indoor and outdoor venues, I heard a cavalcade of top-notch performers who hailed from Canada, the States, Chile, Norway and beyond. Standing sardined amidst throngs on Ste. Catherine Street in the heart of city’s center, I grooved to tunes while basking in the late Quebec summer twilight that lingered high in the sky long past nine p.m.

The Festival would have been more successful had it not been for the bad timing of planning construction that are ripping apart the city. Montreal is repairing a crumbling infrastructure, in downtown, in Chinatown, in Old Montreal, and in the streets surrounding Marche Jean Talon, the city’s popular outdoor marketplace. Streets and sidewalks are pocked with open, fetid pits. Sandy pumice befouls the air. Pont Champlain – the main bridge that crosses the St. Lawrence — was closed: I moved about in dead-ended circles; poor signage heightened my sense of malaise.

How do Montrealers cope with chaos? Marc Lebrèche, a Montreal-based stage performer and television personality, in an interview in the Arts Fuse, explained it best:

“I come from a culture that has gone through so many hardships over so long a time and yet, like my fellow Quebecois, I am jovial, ebullient, cursed with an unquenchable joie de vivre,” Lebrèche said.

**

Celebrating this joy of life – with its inherent hardships and fleeting elations — that rule the day in Montreal, works out to be a splendid backdrop for jazz, a music born of struggle and repression. Jazz lifts our spirits, and, a moment later, sends those spirits on a downward spiral to despair.

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Melissa Aldana

The set performed by Melissa Aldana, a Berklee College graduate, tenor saxophone virtuoso, composer and bandleader, is a perfect example: she performed both upbeat and dark hued tunes.

When Boston-area concertgoers last heard Aldana, it was at a Celebrity Series event for Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour at the Berklee Performance Center that offered only a glimpse of her talents. Her late night June 27 Festival performance in Montreal let her strut her stuff. Chilean-born Aldana showcased her own band (now on a world tour) and featured selections from her new recording, Visions.

 From the stage at Le Gesu (a performance space carved out of the nave of a nineteenth century Montreal church), Aldana explained that her new album was inspired by the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She’s aligned with “Los Fridas,” a group of fans formed in the 1940s, defined by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts as an example of “Fridamania,” or “a fascination with all things Frieda.”

For Aldana, Kahlo is not just an idol: the late Mexican painter embodies the struggles many Latinas, past and present, have faced in a culture that celebrates the achievements of men at the expense of women. In her composition “La Madrina” (“The Godmother”) she takes us on a “vision” quest with a Latin beat that is reminiscent of street sounds and midnight wailings. A physical performer, she stoops her lanky frame low to bring forth the notes and then follows by rising up from bent knees so that her tenor sax can hit the higher octaves.

Frida Kahlo’s paintings took viewers on a similar trip, tapping into a world of the subconscious, drawing on folklore and family ties that explored her Mexican traditions. Aldana, the daughter of Chilean saxophonist Marco Aldana who tutored her as a youngster, honors her traditions while also setting herself on a new path. Her compositions echo the strains of Coltrane, Monk, and Getz, but her sound is her own. She is also a generous collaborationist. In one composition, she interfaced with drummer Tommy Crane who circled his cymbal with the wooden tip of his drumstick – the way one might wet one’s finger to produce a hum from the rim of a crystal glass goblet – producing a sound that Aldana carried forth, lifting that high, single note and, once grasping it, bringing it low, mesmerizing the audience.

**

Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana finds inspiration in Frieda Kahlo. Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen finds his in the works of J.S. Bach and Montreal-born songwriter Leonard Cohen.

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Tord Gustavsen

Returning to Montreal after an absence of 11 years, Gustavsen entered the Gesu auditorium on June 28 and proceeded to pay demonstrate why J.S.Bach lends himself to jazz interpretation.

He called Bach “a famous Buddhist” because the German composer excelled at mastering his internal life and emotions. Gustavsen admitted that “this is very dark music,” but added, “It is from the deepest sorrows that we appreciate life,” sounding a bit like Marc Lebrèche’s description of his fellow Quebecois.

Playing a Steinway grand, he produced darkly stirring notes, with warm complex tones punctuated by sudden rhapsodic light, lyrical bursts and well-timed pauses. He wove Norwegian folk tunes into his compositions, and freely interpreted Leonard Cohen’s verse from “Came So Far for Beauty” that includes this refrain: “I came so far for beauty/I left so much behind/My patience and my family/My masterpiece unsigned.”

**

Despite the noisy cacophony that comes with odious construction, music remains a part of Montreal. In Old Montreal, near St. Suplice cathedral, a line of several hundred people formed to hear an organ recital; across the square opposite the church, a flamenco guitarist with his own amp performed Spanish melodies, later passing the hat for change. Around the corner, on St. Francois Xavier St., Bonaparte restaurant manager Martin Bédard told me that construction for his venerable establishment – it is housed in a building that dates from the mid-1800s – took over three years to complete. The old streets around the building are cobblestoned and skinny; the traffic is abominable. And yet, despite all these hurdles and inconveniences, the work was completed. Today, the dining room shines.

And no doubt, Montreal will shine, too, when next year’s Montreal Jazz Festival comes around, whether the city postpones construction long enough to accommodate the thousands of international visitors who will return to the city in search of jazz. Music is intertwined in the Quebecois culture. Whatever force threatens to derail it, the music will most assuredly play on.

**

A previous version of this report appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston), on July 13, 2019.

Report: There Goes the Neighborhood

May 8, 2019

By Robert Israel

A strange thing happened on my way to see a show last week: I got lost.

I was en route to the latest Gold Dust Orphans show, The Ebonic Woman, at The Machine nightclub on Boylston Street in the Fenway when I became disoriented. I had not anticipated the stark changes in the neighborhood. For a while, I was adrift, there were no familiar landmarks in sight. Finally, thanks to a bouncer I met who was standing at the entrance to a bar, I was directed to my destination.

Turns out I wasn’t the only person dazed. I queried several people waiting in line to see the Gold Dust show, and, they, too, had a difficult time navigating the “new” Fenway neighborhood.

It’s only going to get more confusing. Developers will soon raze the block where The Machine, a long-standing gay nightclub, is nested in a homely building just a stone’s throw from the green and grassy Emerald Necklace.

Ryan Landry founded the Gold Dust Orphans over two decades ago. He and his rag-tag troupe of thespians have long called The Machine their home (except in the spring and summer, when they relocate to Provincetown). He’s always had a Boston performance space to return to.

Not anymore.

“I saw it coming three years ago, when there was a frenzy of development in the Fenway,” he told me in an interview this week. “Now the neighborhood looks like a corporate mall.”

The Fenway looks like a mall, but it is really being transformed into a lucrative adult playground, with an expansive food court. If you take a leisurely stroll from Kenmore Square on a weekend night toward Fenway Park — it doesn’t matter if the Red Sox are playing a home game or not — the local boutique-ish venues are raking in the greenbacks. Long lines of revelers wait to gain entry at the House of Blues, to play in Lucky Strike bowling tournaments at Jillian’s, or chug shots of bar whiskey and pints of draught beer at Oliver’s (just one of many watering holes in the area). Hoards of free-spending, freewheeling folks (overloaded with tourists) pack these places to their maximum legal capacities.

The Fenway is fragrant as well, now that recreational marijuana is legal. Walk down Landsdowne, or Haviland, or Kilmarock, or Jersey, or Van Ness streets: Mary Jane smoke blows and billows. You might just get a contact high.

The other night, when I finally made it past the cordoned off, open trenches of construction, I found a re-vamped version of Boylston Street populated with chain restaurants – Regina’s Pizza, Tasty Burger – open to please the tenants and ballpark fans who live in the new, expensive, glistening high-rise apartment complexes that line the street.

A scene from the Gold Dust Orphans latest show, “The Ebonic Woman.”

Does theater fit into this profit-oriented civic operation? “We were getting our new show ready, and I found out that the developer had plans to raze the block,” Landry recalled. “So, I called Joyce Linehan, policy director at Mayor Martin Walsh’s office, to ask her if she knew of any spaces for us to rent. To my surprise, she said that she had talked to the developers and they were open to discussing a project to build a theater space in the new building that could house us. I was shocked.”

(An email and telephone call I placed to Ms. Linehan requesting comment on this story went unanswered at the time of writing this report).

According to National Real Estate Investor, Scape, the British developer, expects to build a 15- story building to house approximately 500 private dorms for graduate students. Scape CEO Andrew Flynn told National Real Estate that “…we’re very pleased to have planted our flag here in Boston…we think that our brand is very well aligned with Boston and a lot of the core principles that Boston has really exhibited in recent years, including a real spirit of innovation and entrepreneurism and a deep knowledge economy.”

But what about housing an existing — and thriving — gay bar and a gay theater troupe?

“To my surprise, the Scape developers told Linehan that they were open to building a space for us to perform in,” Landry said. “So, we announced we’d have a meeting to discuss this with the community. Word got out, and various groups showed up to voice what turns to be more about their personal greedy designs to turn the proposed new space into a ‘gathering space’ for them. We couldn’t bring everyone together. It fell apart.”

Due to this community rancor, Landry fears that the developer will back out now with their proposed theater project.

“It’s because everyone wants a piece,” Landry concluded. “No one sees the bigger picture of working together.”

In the mean time, while audiences clamor to see the Gold Dust Orphans’ new production at The Machine, it looks as if the troupe will not have a future home in Boston. That might change — in a city known for fast-tracking changes. But, for now, the Gold Dust Orphans are truly orphans, thespian outcasts in a rapidly corporatizing city.

**

A previous version of this report appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine, on May 8, 2019.

Practicing Faith in a Dangerous Time

May 2, 2019
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Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., where a gunman opened fire in November, 2018, killing 11 worshippers and wounding 6 others.

By Robert Israel

When my fellow Jews were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018 I received messages and calls. Many of them were from strangers, like the man in New Bedford, Mass., a Christian., who wrote that he had read my newspaper articles and said he would pray for me and for “the Jewish victims I mourn like my own kin.”

When a gunman opened fire in Poway, California this year, killing a congregant and wounding others at a Jewish house of worship there, fewer messages arrived, proving once again we collectively become benumbed to repeated instances of gun violence, to horror, to senseless loss.

 

But I am not inured to these occurrences. My youth was spent with neighbors, grandparents and parents – many of them immigrants and Holocaust survivors who escaped from anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. I practiced Judaism casting a wary eye on the street while training my other eye on a prayer book. In my adult years, these exaggerated fears showed signs of breaking down. I attended a community event like the Black-Jewish Seder where African Americans and Jews shared the bread of affliction (matzoh) and celebrated our commonalities. We sang songs like, “Mary Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan,” an African American spiritual that exclaims the joys of being liberated from the chains of enslavement.

Recently, I stood in solidarity with my neighbors at Arlington Mass. Town Hall after an arsonist’s attempt to set fire to the home of my Jewish neighbor was foiled. A similar fire was set and extinguished the week before, in nearby Needham, Mass. Culprits in both instance have yet to be apprehended.

But while we may be freed from the chains of slavery, we remain enslaved by shackles of fear. We cast wary eyes, fearful our communities will face murderous violence as it did in Pittsburg, or in Poway. We practice our faith in a dangerous time. We wonder, aloud, in the words of Psalm 137:1-4: “How we can sing praise to the Lord while we live in a strange land?”

Yet I yearn to live unencumbered, to live in a nation as a neighbor who cares for his neighbors and is cared for by them. How do we achieve this? Do install metal detectors at the entrance to our mosques, churches, and synagogues? Do we turn these houses of worship into citadels with armed sentries like they do in cities throughout Europe?

Prof. Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University suggests Jews accept our status as “others” in society – the way African Americans and immigrants have come to accept their status — and that in so doing we learn to see how the homogeneous white majority views. This, he believes, is an effective exercise in becoming more prepared to react, to respond, and to rally.

I’ve known this “other” status all my life and insist on moving past it. Community gatherings where we sing in unison are well intentioned, but are often only one-offs. Let’s build on the grass-roots momentum created by these gatherings with campaigns to educate all citizens – not just schoolchildren. Let’s schedule forums throughout the year to keep this issue in the forefront where civic leaders and law enforcement personnel provide updates about potential threats and how to recognize them. Let’s confront those who endanger civil discourse with their vile hate speech by advocating for and passing legislation to further limit this incendiary speech. Let’s renew our efforts for gun control. Let’s practice effective surveillance at all houses of worship — not only during holy days and not only with electronic devices — by creating visible citizen patrols throughout the year. And while we’re at it, let’s liaise with international efforts so we’re all connected to protect our communities – at home and abroad — to prevent future calamities.

**

This article has been updated to reflect recent developments in Arlington and Needham, Mass., involving suspected incidents of Semitic arson.

 

Book Review: “Mr. Straight Arrow”

April 29, 2019

By Robert Israel

The title of this “study” of pioneering American journalist and novelist John Hersey (1914-1993) is a long one, obviously meant to draw in readers who are acquainted with his celebrated non-fiction volume Hiroshima, but never knew much about the man who wrote it.

It wasn’t always so. Hersey was once a household name. He was read by legions of men and women who subscribed to Life magazine, or who turned to his front page dispatches cabled during World War II to newspapers like the New York Herald Tribune.

Today, many of these readers — and the publications — are gone. The reason Hersey is important now, author Jeremy Treglown states, is that he labored “to establish positively, painstakingly, and sympathetically, what the facts of a case were.” In today’s Trumpy parlance, he wrote the opposite of “fake news.”

But there is another reason: Hersey, who enjoyed a lucrative 50-plus year writing career, and who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his novel A Bell for Adano, took the “straight arrow” approach: stories were never about him, they were always about his subjects. He granted only two interviews during his lifetime: one to Publisher’s Weekly, the other to The Paris Review. He insisted that no biography be written about him. His daughter, Brook, executor of his estate, consented to be interviewed for Treglown’s book; she did not authorize its publication.

I can attest to Hersey’s taciturnity. A few years before his death, we met at his home in Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard. I had entered a journalism competition earlier that year and returned stateside after spending nine weeks in Japan interviewing hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, for stories that appeared in several papers. Hersey was one of the judges. The editor at the Chuoku Shimbun, Hiroshima’s daily newspaper, mailed Hersey my pieces. When I returned home, he sent me a note inviting me to chat with him at his waterfront home.

“Follow the path from the Schamonchi and cut across the lawn until you see a boat with the name ‘Barbara’ on it,” Hersey said on the telephone. His voice was friendly. But once I arrived at his house, he was prickly. No, he said, he would not answer my questions. Instead, he would ask them. What had I discovered in Japan? How were the survivors at the Atomic Bomb Hospital? What did the doctors tell me about radiation sickness — keloid scars and worse — that plagued the survivors? We talked for a couple hours. After lunch, he sent me on my way.

Hersey’s reception was not totally unexpected. My father, a decorated officer in the U.S. Army during WWII, treated me like an enlisted man in his platoon. I received a brusque reception whenever we (infrequently) got together. Reading Treglown’s well-researched book — decades after meeting Hersey —  did more than generate empathic connections: it helped me understand why Hersey maintained such a similar steely demeanor. It was a projection of his journalistic ethos.

Hersey was born to missionary parents in China and attended a school where the teacher routinely beat boys who did not obey. His family returned stateside, he entered Yale, and became a private secretary (read: errand boy) to Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature (who was an unrepentant drunk). As a WWII foreign correspondent for Life, he survived four plane crashes, including being aboard a plane that fell into the ocean, capsized, and sank (he somehow swam to safety). He witnessed the American invasion of Sicily, writing for Time. He taught at Yale, but happily retreated to a home in Key West during the winter, insisting that it was the work that mattered above all.

Journalist and novelist John Hersey — just the facts.

Hersey returned to Japan to write an afterword for Hiroshima forty years after the book appeared in a single issue of The New Yorker magazine. When I was in Japan, one of the survivors had a framed photo of Hersey he had autographed for her. It occupied an honored place on her shelf. His inscription: “As if on August 6, 1946.”

I asked Hersey why he wrote that inscription when I visited him in Vineyard Haven. It was the only question he answered: “The stories the survivors told me touched me. They are always with me.”

In today’s media-glutted, branding-crazed world, when journalistic ethics (and lives) are endangered here around the world, Hersey emerges in this book as a disciplined writer who held steadfast to an admirably singular goal: to tell stories truthfully, at all costs.

**

A previous version of this book review appeared in the April 29, 2019 issue of The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston).

Interview: Playwright Paula Vogel

April 27, 2019
A scene from the Huntington Theatre Company production of “Indecent.” Photo: Carol Rosegg

By Robert Israel

My last interview with playwright Paula Vogel took place in 2009, when the Huntington Theatre Company staged her play A Civil War Christmas. This week, a decade later, we spoke about her new play Indecent — her retelling of the 1923 controversy that erupted when Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance was banned on Broadway, its cast arrested on charges of obscenity. Indecenthad its New York premiere in 2016; nominated for several Tony awards, it reaped a single Tony presented to the play’s director, Rebecca Taichman. A Center Theatre Group and Huntington Theatre Company co-production of Indecent (at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue) runs from April 26 through May 25.

First, the back-story: Vogel, 67, lives in Wellfleet with her wife, author Ann Fausto-Sterling. Vogel is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, an Obie, and the Robert Chesley award, among others. Now retired from full-time teaching at Brown and Yale (but not retired from what she calls “guest teaching”), she has, much like the early days of her career, been a champion for more resources being allocated to playwrights.

“I have a not-so secret strategy,” Vogel said, “and that is that I talk to my students as peers. When they leave my class, I tell them they leave as my colleagues. I treat the classroom as a workshop. I provoke students. I tell them that talent is not a survival of the fittest, it is a collaboration.”

Vogel’s former students include Pulitzer winners Nilo Cruz, Quiera Alegria Hudes, and Lynn Nottage, Gina Gionfriddo, a Pulitzer finalist, and HTC artistic director Peter DuBois. DuBois told Brown Alumni Magazine Vogel admonished him and his classmates “to never romanticize the theater….There’s a battle out there. Think of yourselves as generals.“ Indeed, Vogel uses the military term “boot camp” to describe a specific approach to teaching. Two years ago she offered a free course in playwriting in New York City to 30 students – they signed up on a first come, first served basis –- to learn how to write a short play.

“A ‘boot camp’ can be taught during the week, or during a weekend,” Vogel explained. “But I also teach what I call a ‘bake off’ – a short play that everyone writes on the same theme. During my last ‘bake off’ in North Carolina, I gathered around 60 people in the room and told them they were going to write a short play that had a ghost, a statue, a master, a servant, sword play, and a scene of coitus interruptus. They had 48 hours to write it. No editing. No criticism. What happened was a room full of students bursting with tremendous energy.”

Paula Vogel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

For Indecent, Vogel drew on her exposure to Yiddish as a youngster growing up in Washington, D.C., as well as on the experiences of director Rebecca Taichman, who encountered Yiddish through a relative in Canada.

“The Yiddish of Sholem Asch was not the High Yiddish of poet I.L. Pertez, or novelist Issac Bashevis Singer,” Vogel says. “It was the Yiddish spoken in the homes, in the factories, the Yiddish I heard at my grandmother’s knee when she told me words I wasn’t supposed to repeat in polite company.”

Indeed, this is the same Yiddish, or mama loshn(mother tongue), I heard spoken as a boy growing up among immigrant Jews who labored as “sweaters” in the schmatte (garment) shops in Providence, Rhode Island.

One of the first jobs playwright Asch had, Vogel recounted, was “writing letters for newly arrived immigrant Jews…he wanted to become a rabbi, but he ended up a playwright (and novelist) instead.”

One of the challenges that Vogel recalled she and Taichman faced with the play was finding a way to share their feeling about the Yiddish language with contemporary audiences. Yiddish was considered coarse by many, and it was considerably diminished when the Jews that spoke it were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

“As a youngster, I grew up among people who experienced the Shoah (Holocaust), and who knew that the world would never be same,” Vogel said. “Yiddish is above all a language of yearning, a language of anxiety. I believe we’ve worked hard to communicate that love to audiences. We’ve had productions in Omaha, Nebraska and in Boise, Idaho, where Yiddish has rarely been spoken. Audiences there have said they feel the emotion we are trying to convey.”

Soon after the Boston run of Indecent, Vogel will be “guest teaching” at UCLA. She expects to return to Wellfleet in time to see the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown offer its first Women’s Playwrights Series. This new “workshop” series grew out of a challenge she presented to the FAWC board when she accepted an award from them in 2017.

“There is new leadership there now, “ Vogel said of the Center. “One of the great joys of my life is to make sure theater and the studying of theater is more accessible. And now that’s happening right here in my own backyard.”

**

A previous version of this interview appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on April 22, 2019.

IRNE @23: Boisterous Irreverance

April 11, 2019
Victor Almanzar and Kyle Vincent Terry in the Huntington Theater production of “Man in the Ring.” One of the big winners in last night’s IRNE Awards. Photo: Courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company.

 

By Robert Israel

It is an annual rite of spring. Last night, from the dais at the Independent Reviewers of New England(IRNE) ceremony in Brookline, I joined fellow judges to hand out awards for excellence in local theater. I surveyed a boisterous crowd of revelers: thespians, directors, choreographers, lighting and set designers, publicists, and sundry well-wishers who represent the wide range of large, mid-size, and fringe theater companies in greater Boston and New England. Admission is free. All come to share their passion for the stage (and to guzzle spirits from two cash bars).

IRNE welcomes all comers, from the grand to the minuscule. The judges encourage dialogue, and we take action on issues. At the 22nd IRNE ceremony, a former IRNE critic was asked to resign amidst allegations he had sexually violated a young male actor. This year, bickering revolved around whether a jukebox musical — Moulin Rougewhich ushered in a new era for the lavishly renovated Emerson Colonial Theatre — should have been included among the nominees. Several attendees voiced opposition; others heralded the pick. (Broadway in Boston brings in a vigorous roster of national touring productions, and they have been among the nominees for many years.)  My take: among the 54 categories, IRNE can surely consider the merits of these shows, too, and view them as viable contenders.

The IRNE awards afford me the opportunity to greet many in the theater community I would not otherwise have a chance to talk to. As a reviewer, I see dozens of shows each year (Is there a “theater season”? More like a Mobius strip of productions asking to be reviewed). The ceremony is not only about celebrating achievement; it is also an opportunity to mourn losses (veteran IRNE critic Guy Giampapa died at age 91 last month).  And to welcome arrivals to the theater scene, such New Rep’s new artistic director, Michael J. Bobbit.

The usual rumblings (and pesky white noise from a faulty sound system) aside, the IRNE event did what it has done for decades: cast a warm glow on a vibrant local theater scene and those who are dedicated to entertain, astonish, and inspire.

**

A previous version of this report appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on April 9, 2019.

From Both Sides of the Desk: Content Marketing 101

March 20, 2019
rumpelstiltskin-2

Content marketing: it’s not spinning straw into gold.

By Robert Israel

“I can’t wait to get to Boston to teach you how to quickly develop content that will attract more customers!” an over-caffeinated man I’ll call Content Huckster proclaimed in a YouTube video.

Content Huckster is pushing his own form of content marketing (there are many versions out there).

Before we discuss Mr. Huckster, let’s first define content marketing.

Content marketing is a marketing tool that employs online materials to promote a specific brand, to tell the story about that brand’s services.

Back to Mr. Huckster: effective content marketing cannot be developed “quickly.” It draws on time-honored basics that apply to creating all content.

These basics are the skills applied to gathering information, editing messages, rewriting messages, applying these messages to an understanding your clients’ needs, and further testing those messages for resonance and relevance.

Without applying these basics, I suspect what Mr. Huckster is teaching are shortcuts. What’s ultimately frustrating about shortcuts is that they only get you part of the way there. If you want to be successful at content marketing, you need to get at the substance of the message. No quick sell artist promoting a quick sell approach is going to teach you to do that. It takes time. It requires an investment in your message.

Ask yourself: once you learn the shortcut, will you be able to apply it to other forms of written communications – white papers, web content, business proposals, communiqués with internal and external audiences?

All of these aforementioned types of communications vehicles – once again – do not happen without an investment of time, energy, ideas. If you think you can do it quickly – I once met a potential client who expected me to  “bang out content in twenty minutes” – you are mistaken.

It’s like expecting a content writer/marketer to be Rumplestiltskin, the gnome from the story by the Brothers Grimm, who could spin straw into gold. Alchemists have been looking for shortcut wizardry — a special sauce, a formula — for years without success. Content evangelists like Mr. Huckster would like to bask in that luster. But what they are promoting is fool’s gold.

Long before the word “content” was applied to writing and publishing and marketing, writers, editors and, yes, marketers were working in a methodical way to hone their messages. They discovered that the discipline they applied to their craft could have many uses. They found that it resonated with their clients and their clients’ audiences. Furthermore, it elevated their clients’ product and message so that it achieved respectability. Flash in the pan is fine for a quick nibble. But if you want a full-meal, it takes time to prepare it and when you serve it, it will leave you and your dinner guests more satisfied.

Content creation — whether it be for web content, marketing, or earmarked for other publication formats — is a disciplined process. When you use it and use it well, it is a proven method that will yields the proven results. (Remember the expression “best in class”?)

So, the next time you hear that the Content Huckster is trying to sell you an approach to content marketing that will employ quick shortcuts to save you time and money, look closely at what he’s hawking. If it sounds like he’s promoting an approach to content marketing that can spin straw into gold, it’s time to move on.

**

For an evaluation of your editorial project, contact Robert Israel at risrael_97@yahoo.com. 

“From Both Sides of the Desk” is a series on how to improve communications, marketing, public relations, and publishing as told from the point of view of an editor, who sits on one side of the desk, and those pitching ideas/stories/concerns, who sits on the other side of the desk.

Appreciation: W. S. Merwin, 1927-2019

March 18, 2019

The late W.S. Merwin.

By Robert Israel

Written 53 years before his death this past week, at the age 91 at his home in Peahi, Hawaii, American poet W.S. Merwin shared a revealing self-assessment:

It sounds unconvincing to say When I was young
Though I have long wondered what it would be like
To be me now
No older at all it seems from here
As far from myself as ever

— In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year

Merwin’s observation is not wholly self-deprecating: he insists that readers see that pitiless self-awareness brings with it the responsibility to go beyond our appetite for arrogant self-importance.  His prolific body of work dramatized this break from the self — he focused on ecological, mythological, and confessional themes. In the poem’s final lines, Merwin wrote:

There is nothing the matter with speech
Just because it lent itself
To my uses
Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars
It is my emptiness among them
While they drift farther away in the invisible morning

Exhibiting talent as a writer early in his life, Merwin was, from the get-go, driven to use poetry to achieve a higher moral purpose — his version of tikkun olam, the Hebrew expression meaning to repair the world. He remained politically as well as artistically motivated all his life, often proclaiming that activism was far more important than all the awards his writing garnered, including serving as U.S. Poet Laureate and winning two Pulitzer Prizes (1971, 2009).

I first heard Merwin read his work as a student in Providence in the ’70s at an event where he announced he had donated his Pulitzer Prize winnings to Alan Blanchard, a painter who was blinded during an anti-Vietnam protest rally in Berkeley, California, in 1969. Like his fellow poet and former Princeton roommate, the late poet Galway Kinnell, Merwin was a dedicated pacifist. In that period he stood alongside the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin and the late poet/activist Philip Berrigan, S.J., and many others, participating in public events and demonstrations that denounced the Vietnam War.

Born in New Jersey before the Great Depression and coming of age in the years preceding World War II, Merwin was initially influenced by American transcendentalists, particularly Emerson and Thoreau. Like the late Mary Oliver, Merwin turned to the natural world for solace and inspiration. He often quoted Thoreau’s line from his essay “Walking” — “in wildness is the preservation of the world”  — to suggest how we, as humans, best live our lives by preserving (rather than exploiting) the planet as a sacred trust for for future generations.  After Merwin’s passing, only a handful of American poets from his generation remain: the 88 year old Gary Snyder lives in the Pacific Northwest; Lawrence Ferlinghetti resides in San Francisco and turns 100 on March 24.

According to Lee Imada, editor of the Maui News, Merwin transformed his 18 acres of denuded land in Peahi, Maui into “a forest with 2,750 palms,” planting, pruning and nurturing the palms himself as part of a daily routine. Imada described Merwin’s home, which is surrounded by the verdant overgrowth, as a “post-and-pier and split-level built into the side of a hill with open beams.” That home and its acreage are protected from development in perpetuity by a “conservation easement with the Hawaiian Island Land Trust signed in 2014.” A foundation has also been established for writers to stay in Merwin’s home in the years to come.

Perhaps the best collection of Merwin’s work, which spans decades, is Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press). In that 2005 collection “For the Anniversary of my Death” serves as a fitting epigraph:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
**
A previous version of this piece first appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston), on March 18, 2019.