Thursday, November 5, 2015

Arlene Corwin responds

Arlene Corwin: Dear reader, let me present myself  'as we would at a cocktail party'. How do you do? My name is Arlene Corwin. Lovely to meet you. Having  just completed an interview in which I've tried to give the gist of my background, my creative mentality and where I'm 'at' nowadays - as kids say. Let me put it this way: 

I can write but I can’t speak. 
It’s as if God says, 
“You have a message. Write the words. 
I’ll give written words a glaze, 
But eloquence that can be heard’s 
Off limits, for I slow you down 
For honesty, integrity 
To kill the vanity you’ve sown. 
I’ll make you stumble, clumsy, dumb, 
Slow-thinking, witless, 
Sounding somewhat girlish. 
I’ve obscured your verbal self 
So that you can’t impress. 
I keep you in the house 
So you must guess 
What is and what is not success.

Left there to stammer, 
Lose my language; 
Syntax, grammar 
In a sandwich 
Of aphasic doublethink, 
The phrases weak, 
Technique oblique, 
My karma manifestly leaking, 
Left to do my dharmic seeking, 
(Swim or sink) 
Through scribbled, scratched and silent ink. 

DV: You've obviously been around the block a few times, with a lot of world experience. What got you started as a writer -- and especially as a poet? 

AC: "Been around the block a few times," huh? Sounds pretty risque to me. But then again, I probably was introduced to sex and falling in love at a pretty young age. Hmm. I started writing at about the age of 10 when I wrote dirty lyrics to a popular song of the day "Sunday, Monday or Always" - which started "Won't you tell me dear, the size of your brassiere? Sunday, Monday or Always... Does it fit you right, is it thin or tight, is it black or white, blah, blah blah..." Only God knows why. I certainly had no idea of sex or anything to do with it. But I was a Brooklyn girl after all. But 10, that's pretty young. Then I remember having written a little pamphlet of poetry which my 'mommy' threw away when she was cleaning my room. I remember feeling the loss deeply, but also feeling too powerless to complain articulately. I mourned the loss in silence. Obviously, the left side of my brain has always dominated. It may be relevant here to mention that I'm left-handed.

DV: That's a certainly tragi-comic beginning! How did you get back into the swing of things?

AC: After that, since I was often taken out of class to sing in the school plays, I was to give a chance solo, and for some reason said I would do a song called "Siboney."  I didn't even know the lyrics to this "Siboney," so at lunch time I went home and wrote some. The quick access to poetry showed up early, as I now understand. So as you can see, I had rhyme and meter in my, as the Swedes would say, "spine".

DV: Was it the Bing Crosby version of "Siboney" you were familiar with?

AC: I have no idea where I would have heard it or how I knew it. It was in a film with one of my favorite childhood stars Gloria Jean. Maybe I saw the film (Get Hep To Love) in one of those Saturday matinees that my mother used to send me to when she and my father were working. (They owned a beauty salon). Of course, it may have been Crosby since he was on the radio and kids snap up songs, sometimes even lyrics quickly. By the way, "Sunday, Monday Or Always" was written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen. I have a long, strong history with Johnny Burke! Who would have thought that in 1943 when I was being nine years old that Johnny would be a part of my life in 1958 or 9.

DV: Dolly Morse wrote the English lyrics to "Siboney," but they had no relation to the original ones in Spanish -- just like yours, I suppose. Since then, have you written other lyrics? In compositional terms, what's the primary difference between a song and a poem?

AC: I've just checked my lyrics collection and see that I've written 61 lyrics. In terms of the words themselves, there is no difference in my mind-set. As I read some of them - especially the ones that I don't remember at all, I see that they stand up by and for themselves as good, or quite good poetry. Also, the process is influenced by whether there is music beforehand or afterward. The music itself is a strong influence because, if written before, it has a set rhythm, if afterward, the rhythm will follow the lyric 

DV: Though I persist in the effort, usually I think it's pointless to try to get poets to talk about the writing process. It's like Leonard Cohen once said, "Talk about the language is the like the pointing finger and not the moon."

AC: I lived in Hydra, Greece in 1964-5. Leonard and his Marianne were my neighbors. My former husband and I had many a dinner there. He wasn't known then, but he had written his first novel which sold well in Canada. He was mostly stoned and used to pick up his guitar and sing. Nice, but who knew he would become world famous! In the early 70's Leonard came to Oxford with his troupe and show. By then he was a household name. I had not yet published. We met briefly at the Randolph Hotel where I asked him about writing. He said - and it had a huge impact on my writing - "If you write one page a day, at the end of a year you;'' have a book." I started to do just that and lo! I did have a book, rather manuscript after a year. What became of it I'll never know. When I left my Oxford and my marriage to come to Sweden, the manuscript was nowhere to be found. But no matter, the creative flow rushed out and I've been writing endlessly ever since. The next humongous push came from learning the computer. It made publishing a possibility. In 2010 I started to publish, and now, 2015, it's 14 books later. So, thank you Leonard Cohen, wherever you are.

DV: As I said, you've been around the block a few times! Do you have any other name-dropping anecdotes you'd like to share?

AC: I was singing at the Crystal Palace in St Louis (long story about that cult place. Probably the first theatre/nightclub/restaurant) and Lenny Bruce was heading the bill. We met then. Spent some non-sexual nights together (damn it) walking around, staying up until it got light. The relationship became platonic, very brotherly sisterly. (I guess I wasn't his type). At the time we were both taking amphetamines. They were new, legal, lovely. Anyway, one night before I was to go onstage, Lenny gave me some. It must have been like an atom bomb because when I got onstage and opened my mouth ---- nothing came out. My mouth was so dry, I simply could not sing. I asked for water. It didn't help. In the end, after somehow suffering embarrassingly through one song, I had to leave the stage. HE then came out to roaring applause, of course, being wildly famous. The year? About '61 - give or take a year. Weeks later, when the gig was over, Lenny insisted on taking me to the plane. He gave me a large white case for my cosmetics, kissed me on the cheek and said adieu. I still have it.

DV: That was a wonderful story. You're a genuine, and genuinely entertaining, truth teller.

AC: I'm candid but not rude or cruel. I think most people find it charming. They rather say, "Oh, she's from Brooklyn" and that seems to make everything ok. They love New Yorkers here in Sweden. I could probably commit a terrible crime and be excused. Been here for 32 years with my adorable, kind, creative, talented, humorous Kent Anderson. Jeremy Seligson once spent a week here with us due to my connection with Cid Corman with whom I had had too short but intensive and rewarding contact. I just love these chains. My friend in Israel told me about 'this gregarious, famous poet' in Japan who was very sociable and would gladly correspond with me. That turned into Cid which turned into Jeremy which now turns into you. Fun!

DV: I'm sure you must be familiar with C. G. Jung's notions about "synchronicity"?

AC: I surely am.I even wrote a poem about it, "Serendipity & Synchronicity."

My code, my motto,
Inlet into
Every earthly something.
Not concrete. Tricky,
Yet perceivable:
All encounter
One and/or the other.
First is synchronicity,
Indistinct, this braid, this overlapping.
Deep within the all down here,
Perhaps up there and up, up there?
If synchronicity is law,
They are fraternal twins
You don't deserve.
Can't wheedle, pay for.
Simply 'freebees', so it seems --
A seamless marvel.

DV: When you write something like this, for you is it more or less spontaneous? Or is it something you have to stew over first for a long time? 

AC: 'Stew' would not exactly describe what I do. I get an idea. It comes as a phrase which I usually write down as a title. Much of the time I file it away under Pending Work and let it sit there. Sometimes I don't get back to it for months. It sits there while I've written 20 new poems. Other times, especially in bed morning, night or middle of the night, I get an idea and write it down - again, as a phrase, a title. Then I start the thinking, expanding, getting involved in rhyme, getting leads from them or not. It's real one-pointedness, this looking for better verbs, accuracy, eventually economy. The first draft always has an abundance of articles and conjunctions. The next one begins to eliminate those. It's good when I put what I've written aside for a day because I forget what I've written, even what it's about. When at last I return, this poem amnesia works in my favor. I see it with fresh eyes and ideas, fresh approaches, fresh rhythms, fresh everything. Then the poem really starts to take shape. All that said, there are times when I just rip away and a poem comes out a perfect unit, boom: a poem forever. I'm also a tinkerer. I can stumble upon a poem written years ago. It feels like a pice of crap. I fix or even rewrite the whole. I've got so many versions of so many poems. A poem can be called version #1 #2 #3 etc. So, spontaneity or stewing, my writing process can include anything or everything. I think one of my thickest books is all about that. It's called "The Processes: Creative, Thinking, Meditative." I'm always writing about how ideas are formed and expressed. In a sense, all 14 books say the same thing in boundless multifarious combinations.

DV: Going back to Leonard Cohen for a moment -- he's one who's always worth going back to -- he was asked if he used the same technique for writing songs and poetry. His reply was "Yeah -- just one word at a time." So I'm wondering: In a musical sense, does your compositional pattern, or strategy, follow the same course as your poetry?

AC: First, let me say that Leonard has 10 times the IQ I have. Quick, witty - I'm none of those. I could never answer a question like that in seven words. Anyway, back to my technique. My technique is described in 13 out of the 14 books. I love to and need to share it. But, at the same time, unlike Leonard's glib answer, I would say that strategy has many faces, sometimes being the face on the street as well. When I write music, I must say I'm more critical and intellectual than when I write poetry, the reason being my early jazz life. Being married to a successful jazz musician at 20, and thrown into the thick of the New York 'scene', I picked up all the prejudices and unwritten rules - which, by definition, meant being picky and judgmental. I'm only learning to let go of that so-called high standard now - or at least in the last 20 or so years. Strategy, hmm. I like good harmonies, so when I write music I'm always conscious of creating them. It's not wasy for me to write music. Nowhere as easy as writing, thinking through a poem. Nowadays, when I want a song out of my poetry, I turn to Kent Anderson my dear and talented partner of 32 years. It's too much to do both. I just sit there and sit there and nothing original comes out. I once wrote a poem about Joseph Haydn. It was called "All Beginnings Have An End." Here it is: Pay attention to the first four lines. (Of course the rest is good too, so do read those.) The first four lines are how I feel about my writing music. Kent tells me that my poetry is musically demanding. "You can't simply write three chords to your poetry. They're a challenge both harmonically and rhythmically."

Haydn wrote his last, lived on for six more years.
'Papa' Haydn - prolific Haydn, productive Haydn
Never stopped.
A last quartet, then he was through.
Maybe Papa Haydn popped.
Cropped his life and turned into
A gardener!
Had he lost his 'papa' clout?
It seems he opted out.
Had he broken through illusion?
Found his still point? Lost his will?
More to the point,
When gift's become full-blown,
More feels like less and crown noblesse
Invites a pause and settling down -
Ambition's push a wish expired.
Time comes, if you've given all,
Inventiveness may pall.
The old exciting games a faulty
Use of time. You're tired!
Endless twists, flicks of the wrist;
Never tamed and open framed raw energy
All have an end.
Pretending otherwise is madness.

DV: What was the mid-50s jazz scene like in New York? I guess bebop was cresting, or was it already passé?

AC: Bebop was definitely in. It was 'in' starting in the late 40's, probably replacing the Swing Era. I don't really know my music history that well, but it seems to me the 50's were a very good time for jazz, East and West Coast. I know that it was formative for Arlene Corwin. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and lots and lots of other piano players. Oh, how I was influenced! Even my first husband, Bob Corwin (pianist) influenced me.

DV: Did you get at all involved with the folksingers on McDougall Street in Greenwich Village or Washington Square?

AC: I do believe that the folksinger movement and the hootenannies belong to the 60s. Am I wrong?

DV: I'm currently reading Dave Van Ronk's autobiography, and he definitely places the hootenannies in the '50s, as he was transitioning from being a Dixieland jazz player into a folksinger. (His takeaway from jazz was, "Never use two notes when one will do. Never use one note when silence will do. The essence of music is punctuated silence.")

AC: Was he implying that jazz uses too many notes? If so, he hadn't listened enough. There were and are as many jazz styles as there are stars in the heavens. Or maybe he was simply classifying all jazz under Dixieland's qualities. Anyway, it's an ambiguous declaration and not very interesting to me. That said, the 'never use one note when silence will do' statement could be called a truism, as is 'Silence is golden'. It is the space between the notes that is often the most telling, the most moving. We can talk about that sometime.  

DV: What were the highlights of your early career?

AC: Well, if we consider that the verb 'career' means to move quickly and in an uncontrolled way in a specific direction then I would have to say that my path doesn't exactly qualify. I did indeed have a specific direction. It was always music. That I wound up doing two and a half films (the half was one I wrote the score to), but practicing yoga and writing poetry were always a sideline - at least in my mind. However, since I was an unsure, unknowledgeable, you might say shy creature, I shied away from singing in the film (stupid of me, really) and didn’t know how to push myself and since I was studying acting at the time, it never occurred to me that I should tell anyone involved that I really was a singer.

DV: What was your biggest success at the time?

AC: Secretly ambitious, I was in Manhattan a great deal of the time, my mother taking care of my son. How I read about it or heard about it I don't remember, but somehow I heard that Jay Landesman was auditioning for a show he'd written called "The Nervous Set." I went down into a small studio where Jay was sitting, sat down at the piano and played and sang Frank Loesser's "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year." The job was mine. I suddenly had the lead in a musical to open in St Louis. How was I to know that the Crystal pa;ace, where it was to take place and the show itself would become cult places, cult events and would contain songs that would later become classics. So to answer your question about 'highlights', I would have to include the years that included starring in a film ("Juke Box Racket"). writing the score for another, getting a bit part in a film that later won the Venice Film Award (John Cassavete's "Shadows") -- these were important stepping stones, although where these 'stones' were leading I had no idea.

DV: Were you already writing seriously then?

AC: While doing "The Nervous Set" I wrote two of my best songs, "I'm In The Market For A Love Affair" and "April Is the Coolest Month". So I would say, Arlene Corwin the writer, at least the songwriter, was concretized then.

DV: A very busy, productive young life.

AC: Another period that I would have to classify as a highlight was the period in which I had my own trio, my own manager, toured, became a protégé of composer Johnny Burke, who took me to Hollywood: these were more 'stones'. All this took place while living in New York from about 1958-1962. In between there were music jobs, love affairs, marriage highlights too. Eventful years. The next series of so-called highlights take place outside the USA from Paris to Hydra, Greece to Beir Meri, Lebanon, Oxford, England and finally Harryda, Sweden where the writing and the yoga took full speed or, 'in full career'. Music still going on, of course, with the next concert-like performance in two weeks.

DV: How did you develop an interest in mysticism?

AC: Arresting question. The most primitive answer would be I was born with it. Then to trace it is another matter. I remember being about 7, 8. 9 and walking by a Catholic church and being tempted to go in, a real no, no for a Jewish girl. Somehow, I remember going and seeing the little votive lights. I was entranced. The next thing I recall is that my father had a picture bible in his bookcase, reading it and having my first spiritual dream - about David or something and being in an elevator and the elevator falling, then waking. I thought and thought about it but could not come to any conclusions. Again about 7,8. Then I remember believing in God, and then being aware that I was becoming dependent (very sophisticated for a little girl, I would think) I decided to stop believing. Years went by and I never thought about it. My friend George McClain took me to a Unitarian church in Manhattan. There I saw my first yoga demonstration - a yogin and his yogic wife. It was so exotic. He swallowed a long bit of white cloth (took it out again, of course), lectured about yoga. I was moved to go further, went to the Vedanta Center (also in Manhattan), was told to visit a certain woman who turned out to be the widow of the owner of the New York Times, living in luxury in a Manhattam hotel, was a mediator -- started to read the Gita, read "Cosmic Consciousness" by RH Bucke, the life of Ramakrishna. What can I say? The flower opened. I wish I could find my friend George McClain.

DV: Other than when you write an overtly mystical poem, how has your mysticism contributed to or informed your artistry?

AC: Short answer: It underlies everything I write.  It's what the Swedes would call 'the red thread'. This poem, for example:

My I Is Always You

I have no secrets.
Every here is revealed in each under-text
For you to find, identify
And see yourself in.
They are signals -- call them semaphores.
Your world may not be mine,
Yet all the same. my mine is you
Though your existence is your own.

DV: Well, to amplify a bit what I said at the outset, you have indeed been around several blocks a few times. On behalf of the readers of this blog, I want to thank you for all the scintillating conversation, all the poetry, and all the wonderful memories you've shared.

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