Interviews

Alex Robinson; Drawing from life


Eisner and Harvey award-winning graphic novelist Alex Robinson’s poignant, filmic, true-to-life work stands out from the hordes of others of its type due to the gentle grace inherent  in the stories. The dialogue possesses a sort of flat reality sandwiched with layers of profoundity reminiscent of the films of Hal Hartley, or the writing of John R. Powers (Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?). Robinson’s most notable books are Box Office Poison, Tricked, and Too Cool To be Forgotten,  all three released on Top Shelf, the latter in the beginning stages of possibly being made into a film. The stories are the straightforward stuff of life, relationships, self-image, love, failure, middle age and maturation, and he makes it all live in a way that draws the reader into the core of the experience. Robinson’s characters are characters that you will care about long after you have put the book down.

PH Alex, first of all, I have to say that Box Office Poison is my favorite “true to life” Graphic novel of all time, in a tie actually with Craig Thompson’s Blankets.  Sadly to say I lost my copy recently in a hotel room in Eureka, California. The Characters are extremely believable, and seem reminiscent, possibly of your real experiences, or combinations of experiences/people.  Is this the case?

AR I think a lot of writers, especially young ones, fall back on autobiography for their first book, intentionally or not. You just don’t have a huge amount of life experience to draw on so it’s natural. Some of the book was purposely drawn from my life at time, some of it was autobiographical without me even realizing it at the time and some of it was just made up.

A handy way for creating characters is to use real life people as templates. Ed, for instance, was originally inspired by my friend and fellow cartoonist Tony Consiglio. As the book went on, however, the character took on a life of his own to the point where he “outgrew” the real life person he was based on. Dorothy was a combination of a roommate I once had and the writer Dorothy Parker, but again, by the end she was her own character. I actually forgot that I had used some of the details of Dorothy Parker’s life in the book so it’s funny when I come across one of those details.

Other characters, like Jane and Stephen were just kind of created from whole cloth. They were kind of an idealized couple, having the kind of relationship I would’ve liked to have been in.

PH Is there a process you engage in to decide the degree to which your characters are echoing the reality of people in your life? What are the responses you get from friends, family and others who see themselves in the characters?

AR It’s more of an instinctual thing rather than any formal process. I think as I’ve done more work I use real people as models less and less, or at least I disguise them more. I really don’t want to repeat myself so I can’t keep basing characters on the same group of friends over and over.

I haven’t really gotten much reaction from people I know. This could be because they are either angry and don’t want to say anything or most likely they just haven’t read the books. I guess it’s also possible that they don’t recognize themselves since I’m such a clever writer!

PH I see that there is some possibility that Too Cool to be Forgotten may be made into a film. Good for you, but, is there any concern that the delicacy of the story might be castrated in that oh so Hollywood way? The story is a very sensitive portrayal of the impact of middle age, passages, regret, longing, remorse. These are not always subjects that translate gracefully from books to film. What are your thoughts on this?

 AR I was very pleased when the wheels started moving on it. The producer has been involved in some thoughtful, intelligent movies so I have high hopes. Of course, I’m not naïve and know that plenty of good books have been transformed into lousy movies through various means so we’ll see. I do think that out of all my books it would be the easiest to adapt.

 Ultimately, though, the thing is that it really doesn’t concern me. The book will continue to exist in the way I created it no matter what else happens and I would honestly be curious to see how someone else would handle the material. Even in very early preliminary meetings with the producer we would talk about possible changes and I would think “Shit! The way he’s describing it is a better way than the way I did it!” I’m fully prepared to let it go and let them see what they can do with it.

PH I love the Irving Flavor sub-plot in Box-office poison. You obviously take a very sharp jab at the industry using Irving as an example of an artist that had his ideas and creativity sucked out of him, turned into massive profit, and was then subsequently left with nothing. Can you talk a little bit about the business of comics/graphic novels today? How the hell do you make a living doing this man?

AR It isn’t easy. I’m fortunate enough that my books have been pretty successful, at least on the small scale by which graphic novels are judged. They’re all still in print and have been picked up by some foreign markets. But you really don’t go into comics thinking you’re going to make money, or at least not enough to live on. You do it because you love it or at least have to do it. Most cartoonists I know have some sort of day job, sometimes involving cartooning or at least graphic design, but also not—retail, whatever. You have to just look at it as a time consuming hobby which will, hopefully, someday supplement your income.

I was very lucky in that the goal I had in mind—doing self-contained graphic novels—really became possible just at the time I was entering the business. I read a sad story about Harvey Kurtzman where he was pitching a graphic novel to publishers in the sixties and no one went for it and it was just a case of him being ahead of his time.

I have a theory that WATCHMEN, DARK KNIGHT and MAUS all came out around the same time and it took twenty years for the kids who were influenced by that to grow up and get jobs in the media and really push the idea of graphic novels to a wider audience.

PH Your drawing style is extremely expressive and some might say “cartoony”, although I won’t throw that derisive brick at you.  I know that you have been (or have you?) influenced by people such as Will Eisner, and it comes through even in the expressive style. This is what makes it work for me. The combination of a kind of cartoon elasticity, with the fact that these characters look, physically and emotionally like people you know….is this your intent?

AR It’s odd because I don’t really think of “cartoony” as the insult you imply. I think superhero comics are kind of backward in that they seem to insist that cartoony is bad and “realistic” is good, which seems totally at odds with the rest of the culture. The most popular comics have always been “cartoony”—Mickey Mouse, THE SIMPSONS, the Pixar movies. Peanuts, Tintin. Manga has become hugely popular and realistic is not how I would describe most of the art styles.

I draw the way I do and I’m not the kind of artist who can switch styles depending on the story. I see someone like Chris Ware, who mostly draws in an inconic, cartoony style, and you look at his sketchbooks and see he could probably draw in any style he liked. I’m always amazed at people like that—people who can really draw, I guess!

PH As a psychotherapist, I’ll have to say that you did a masterful job of bringing the devastating depression of Sherman’s alcoholic, potentially bi-polar girlfriend into the story (in Box Office Poison). She is a good example of the way in which you are able to show all sides of the characters, without them (the characters) knowing…..this “god intervention” works well to show her as by turns selfish, inattentive and brooding, as well as well, utterly lost. The scenes with her alone in her apartment with just pictures and no dialogue are especially effective.  How did you come to adapt this process when presenting the more difficult characters?

AR Again, I don’t know how much of it was conscious or whether I did this any more with one character of another. I suppose showing private moments of otherwise less sympathetic characters pays off more than it would with a character people already like such as Jane or Stephen.

Dorothy seems to be one of those characters people loved to hate, but I never really saw her as a villain. One of the things I tried to avoid in the book was that kind of characterization. It’s almost a natural outcome of spending six years writing a book as I did. You spend so much time thinking about the characters, spending so much mental company with them that you really learn so much about them and kind of walk a mile in their shoes. Since you have to come up with their dialogue and actions you have to think about what they are thinking about when they say or do them. For Dorothy to be believable she has to think all of her actions are rational so in a way they also have to seem rational to me.

Someone told me that they were disappointed by the fact that the publisher of Zoom comics, the one who is fighting Irving Flavor over the rights to his character The Nightstalker, is really kind of a one dimensional bad guy. I think this person is right. I think it was a case of me not really being able to get in the head of someone like that, someone willing to screw the underdog, so he came across as flat. I think I could do a better job in that department now.

PH I’m curious to know, if you had ultimate power, who would direct the film version of Too Cool to be Forgotten and who would play the protagonist?

AR It’s strange since other people have asked me this and I never have a good answer. You’d think I would’ve come up with a pat answer but I never can. I think part of it is that, as I said, I feel like the book is my creation and any adaptations would be someone else’s job. I guess because I was so intimately involved with the characters it’s hard for me to step outside and try to look at the characters like that. This is getting pretty pretentious but what the heck: maybe since they came from my own head on some level they aren’t characters to me so much as ideas, so asking who would play Andy Wicks is like asking who would play nostalgia or regret. Whoa, I just blew my own mind!

PH Are you familiar with the filmmaker Hal Hartley? It would very interesting to see what he would do with one of your stories.

AR It’s funny because this has come up a number of times over the years, since I was working on BOX OFFICE POISON a decade ago and somehow I’ve never managed to see a Hal Hartley movie. I should put one of his movies on my Netflix queue as soon as we’re done with this.

PH It’s very clear that your work centers around great stories that cohere, and while they resonate as true, have elements that help us distance from pain, laugh at it, re-process that icky stuff of maturation and adolescence, and make us miss it all. You share the ability to do this with people like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, and Ross Campbell…..is this something you shoot for, or is it more naturalistic?

AR I think it’s just the way I’m wired. I think I’m one of those people who are constantly mulling over the past, obsessing about regrets, memories, nostalgia. When I did TOO COOL part of it was a definite conscious attempt to explore that, explore why high school loomed so large in my mental image. It made the book something of a frustrating experience. Having to spend that much time thinking about your own adolescence, ugh. It was like art therapy. I think it helped a little. I certainly wince at the idea of people judging me by the way I was in high school so it wouldn’t be fair to condemn the people I went to high school with who I haven’t seen in twenty-something years.

PH Can you give us some insight into the business life of a Graphic novelist? What is the hustle like?

AR I think I’m at a fortunate position where I don’t have to hustle all that much. It also helps that I’m probably not as ambitious as some people. I think more than money my biggest concern with doing comics is control and having as much of it as possible. I’ve never really made a serious effort to try and “move up” to a bigger publisher trying to capitalize on the graphic novel boom because I really don’t want to have to alter my material for the sake of some editor. My experience with Top Shelf has been great in this regard since they’ve given me a lot of leeway and freedom which I value. I generally write and draw the books in page order so Top Shelf usually doesn’t see the book until it’s complete. They’ll give me notes on typos—lots and lots of tpyos—and ask some questions about particular scenes or suggestions as to how things can be improved but that’s what they’ve been: suggestions.

I don’t think they work this way with everyone, and I consider myself lucky that my books have done well enough where they’ll give me a long leash.

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Interviews

Robert Wyatt and “The Merry Dance of Shared Creativity”


 

Robert Wyatt is that rare musician who has been making individualistic, quirky soulful music for years that has managed to resonate across a broad spectrum of listener, and engage some population of more youthful listeners with each successive generation. This is a good formula for making art live. Wyatt’s songs have been covered by artists such as Elvis Costello (Shipbuilding), and he can count Brian Eno, Bjork, and Fred Frith amongst his collaborators over the years. For me, Wyatt’s music has always hovered in the same beautiful universe  inhabited by Scott Walker’s muse. Always singular, by times poignant, wistful, infused with wonder, and delivered with the direct nature and good humor of a man who probably sleeps quite well at night.

Wyatt has long collaborated with his wife Afreda (Alfie) Benge, a noted artist, lyricist and poet, who has penned the words to many of Wyatt’s tunes over the years. Our mutual friend Rob Ayling, noted photographer and Voiceprint records owner (the wonderful patron of a label that releases my work…. buy all thier stuff!) put us in touch for the interview.  I was glad to have this discussion, if even only over e-mail, with one of the great singular talents of this or any age.

PH Robert, you have become known as an artist’s artist, in that there are many prominent artists in mainstream pop culture that like to state you as an influence, and who view your work as seminal and essential to their own development. What do you think about that?

RW Percy, my record collection is more like a dusty museum than a 21st century update. I’m embarrassed to say, I know little about what younger musicians are up to. But of course it’s reassuring to hear that some of them have heard what I’ve been trying to do…..and I’m especially grateful to those who’ve used my material. Most recently the Orchestre National De France, Mop Meu Machiine (also French) and the heavenly Unthank Sisters, not to mention Annie Whitehead’s band featuring Julie Tippetts and Jennifer Maidman,  Karen Mantler with John Greaves ( that last project not yet available on record), and several other kind hearted people.

PH I’ve been listening to your recording Comicopera, and with each listen, come away with another layer of emotional connection. The story telling is rich, filmic, poignant, lyrical, and comical at times. Can you tell me a little bit about the creative process concerning the writing and recording of this album?

RW  Comicopera has several geneses. From scraps of paper with momentary thoughts onto recorded equivalents, scattered around my room- sometimes for years! The coherence comes in the editing. More than with previous records, I assumed that the pieces would take on a life of their own, without my interfering with a plan. The eventual sequence to become apparent in the studio (mostly in the last few years with the engineer I met at Phil Manzanera’s studio, Jamie Johnson). And, perhaps from enjoying  so many very old records, this time I really asked a lot of the musicians, I wanted to make a record of total music, not just “vocal with instrumental accompaniment”, although the final order was  guided by the lyrics, by what is being said. For a long time I’ve felt right making records with two ‘sides’ like records used to be.  But for Comicopera, I found myself turning to the idea of music in three parts, like posh symphonies. But not very, eh?

 PH It seems to me that it is often a perfect storm of circumstances that creates an audience for “difficult” artists. Pop culture is a fickle mistress, who is difficult to serve. How do you see the “canon” of your work fitting into the overall universe of all things “pop”?

RW Pop(ular) music is to me a great resource, and even One Hit Wonders can make at least one terrific record-But I’m not in the market  competing for mass attention; I just have to shift enough records to earn a living. So a more apt comparison would be with a little local cafe, or baker’s shop. (i.e. not the kind of retail outlet that depends on media saturation.) So when I was told that the most powerful disc-jockeys might not like Fred Frith’s solo on I’m a believer my automatic reaction was, “who gives a fuck?”)

 PH Your particular musical gift always brings to mind our friend Fred Frith. Fred has a unique way of bending the strange around to the poignant when you least expect it. He does it through a sort of frenetic worrying torrent of sounds that break out at once into lyrical atmospherics and whimsy. You come to the poignant through seemingly indirect, observant, lyrical revelations. How do you conceive of a lyric like: Cuckoo Madame with your teddy bear eye, yellow fingers clinging to the chain link fence. Bombers above you. Bombers behind you.” (“Cuckoo Madame, from the album Cuckooland). I’m not sure what it means, but it makes me want to cry….

AB (This question was answered by Robert’s Wife and Collaborator, Alfreda (Alfie) Benge)

All I can do is explain how this poem happened. The line you quote from Cuckoo Madame was a totally accurate description of what my eyes saw. While watching from the window of a seaside chalet with no-one else around. She was, as described, grasping the wire on a fence with her yellow finger-like claws. Her eyes just like a teddy bear’s glass eyes. Exactly the same colours. The first time Isaw her there was a bomber exercise going on in the air. The lovely peace shattered by horrible noisy low-flying jets. She sat there with bombers swooping overhead. She came regularly twice a day for over a week. I was on my own, and she was my only visitor. My first instinct was antagonistic. I knew there was a meadow pipit nesting nearby, and I knew cuckoos often used meadow pipits nests to plant their eggs. She was the villain. Then, I started to think about her and her life. She never saw her chick, had never seen her parents. A really solitary madam. Soon she’d be off to Africa , and later her chick would make the same journey all alone. No-one to guide it. What a lonely life. And what had happened in cuckoo history to condemn her to such a life? So I imagined being her. And remembering my first reaction, was reminded of the way people are judged without any attempt to understand them. It had recently happened to me, (it was quite traumatic) and no doubt happened to all the outsiders, strangers, foreigners that become hate figures. People who often have tragedies in their lives that we’re oblivious to. Most of the stuff I do when words come first happen in a similar way. I try and look hard. That’s how it starts. I try to pay real attention to something in the physical world, and often that will spark off thoughts about other things. It’s like nature study with added daydreaming. But basically my eyes are OPEN. When the music comes first, I write with my eyes very SHUT, and my ears very OPEN. I Just dive into the music and try and drag out the words that are hiding in there. What film am I watching? ‘Old Europe’ for instance was definitely a black and white French film. The music absolutely dictates the subject matter. In Lullaby for Hamza, three notes just said ‘lullaby’ to me. So I wrote one for someone who needed one. 

 PH What has been the effect upon you of the almost total collapse of the music industry? Has your way of working, your audience, and the way your work reaches your audience helped you escape the carnage somewhat?

RW The record industry, like the leisure industry and the food industry, may boom, bust, do the hoochie-coochie, whatever, people still listen, play and eat. Been doing it for tens of thousands of years. Widespread ‘free’ downloading is a bit scary for us though, like all  theft, naturally)

 PH I am curious to know what young artists (if you listen to any) you think are creating significant work.

RW I’m well aware that there are lots of terrific musicians out there, young (and not so…) In all genres. Here and around the planet. And mass-market pop music seems as entertaining as ever- I’ve listened to Timbaland and Cheryl Cole, and think they’re really good at what they do.(I’m not interested in the various  snobberies around show-business.) It’s all just people trying to do their best. There’s room for all of us, I’d like to think.. 

 PH Much like Scott Walker, you are an artist that the pop culture is always in the process of “catching up to”…it’s a brilliant historical comment, but may mean that some potential benefits of the catching up will not be available until you are gone! What is your take on this phenomenon?

RW See 1 again! Plus, I know that I myself am still catching up on music from before MY time, from Plainchant (a liturgical chant form) to Paul Robeson. Even the ‘originators’ of British popular music as a global phenomenon based most of their original material on that of (mainly Black American) predecessors. Made it ‘New’, as every generation does. Or they simply spread the word, just with a different accent; it’s all part of the merry dance of shared creativity.

PH Your music is quite filmic and imagistic to me. Are you a film lover? How does the imagery of life as      found in film, affect your work if at all? Have you had much music placed in film?

RW Yes indeed, I admire lots of film makers, and have been particularly affected by John Cassavetes (Shadows), Eisenstein, Ozu, Eric Rohmer– and many of the more widely known film makers from early Hitchcock to Mike Leigh. And Alfie (a qualified film editor and Robert’s Wife) introduced me to the wonders of many films from around the world. Um…….where were we? Oh yes. Your actual question! I see my transition from live performance to making records as like the transition from live theatre to making films, Necessity being the mother of invention in my case.

 PH I’ve always wanted to hear a duet between you and Marianne Faithful, this may seem wacky to some, but I think it would be fantastic! What artists would you like to collaborate with that you have not thus far?

RW I choose collaborators that the piece I’m working on seems to want. There are still people I’d like to do music with though, but I don’t wish to embarrass  them by naming them in, as it were, public! Oh, alright then, Sinead O’Connor.

 

 

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Interviews

Frank Wilderson, Wallowing in the Contradictions, Part 2


The Second part of my recent interview with Frank B. Wilderson, University of California Professor and author of the Books Incognegro, and his most recent Red, White and Black, Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms took part after a live reading/discussion he did of both books at the University of California Davis in late May. It is important to call out the proverbial 10,000,000 pound elephant in the room regarding this interview without being apologetic. This discussion was punctuated by the idea and flavor of struggle, and for the reader to benefit completely from it (the conversation), they must be willing to engage in a process of struggle.

There is theorizing here concerning the role of Black flesh in human history that could be considered disturbing, or even evocative of widening a schism between black and white, but that is not the purpose or intent of the theorizing. The purpose and intent is to describe in unfettered terms, a very difficult truth concerning an historical and systemic, oppressive and negating dynamic regarding the very idea and reality of Blackness in the world.

Human beings often define themselves according to the quantity, quality, and dramatis of their suffering, but I don’t think this is what Frank and I were discussing here. This is about trying to make sense of it all. This is about posing the essential questions that could lead to…the end of the world as we know it……So please read and capture the discussion with the spirit in which it was intended. Join the discussion, post your comments, I’d really like to hear back from people speaking from their hearts concerning all that’s here.

Besides all this we also discuss Oprah, Public Enemy, Expectations of Black Comedians, PTSD, and the particular struggles Black and White Therapists have in engaging with their clients. Read On.

PH        Frank, your new book Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms is as much a philosophical foundation for a way of looking at the necessity of revolution of some sort as concerns relationships between Blacks and Whites in America as it is a study of the impact of the implicit coding of films concerned with race.  Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

FW       Um, the necessity of revolution?

PH        Of some sort…In your writing, in both books, you basically call people to a point of going beyond looking at race relations as simply figuring out how to get along, which is not enough.

FW       I see what you’re saying.

PH        What is the next step?  There must be some sort of revolutionary impetus involved, and I only use that term because I don’t really know another one.

FW       Yeah, I hear you.  And I’m often….not often but sometimes afraid of the political implications of what I say.

PH        That’s understandable.

FW       Yeah.  Orlando Patterson wrote a book called “Slavery and Social Death”, and I’m not sure Patterson would agree with where I’ve taken this but what I like about his book is he says that work is an experience of slavery but it doesn’t define slavery.  He says that slavery is general dishonor, that the being is dishonored regardless of what he or she does natal alienation of the being whose family ties or kinship structure in his or her mind is not respected by anyone else. (Slavery is also punctuated by) openness to gratuitous violence, which is a body that you can do anything with.  And what interests me is that if that becomes the definition of a slave, the slave can work, but the slave can also sit on a divan and eat bon-bons. 

PH        Absolutely.

FW       You know?  In my hometown of New Orleans in the days of physical slavery you could buy the slave to inject them with poisons to watch them die. So what’s interesting to me is that, as I was saying earlier today, there’s a way in which the Arabs and the Europeans came to a consensus (not sitting down at a table but over years), that Africa is a place where people are generally dishonored, where we do not respect their kinship structures and where their bodies are available to us to do to them whatever we would. This has been our (Black people’s) place ever since then. Once I got to that and started thinking that through it occurred to me that cinema was just another place in which the Black Body was possessed and deployed in the way that one would possess and deploy a slave in any other context.

PH        Right.

FW       And that there is no reformist program for ridding ourselves of that. I mean, it’s like if we’re gonna get out of that we’re gonna be in a whole new world order. 

PH        Right.  And it’s interesting because you look at film as just a context, a context for this process to occur. You know, one can I think Say the same thing about the NBA.

FW       Exactly, yeah.

PH        It brings back the scenario in which the slave can eat bon-bons and make $20-million a year.

FW       Exactly, exactly.

PH        But you’re still a slave, because to me, that really sort of encapsulates the whole conceptualization of fungibility.

FW       I mean, that came home years ago to me. And I don’t remember, I think it was Cleveland, where fans were so happy when the Blacks are performing on the court and when they were not, then when they threw garbage at the court.

PH        Steve McNair syndrome.

FW       Yeah.

PH        Steve McNair in Houston.  You know, he was the hero of the town but you know, when things weren’t going well you know…nigger, he’d hear it every day.

FW       Man.

PH        I think your book brings this point out in sort of stark relief, in an unemotional way, which I can certainly appreciate, and which is necessary. During your talk today (at U.C. Davis) you talked about the fact that we don’t have the cognitive mapping to discuss the issue correctly.

FW       Right, right.

PH        So I think books such as what you’ve just written are a good step in the direction of at least  of mapping out the issues. Whether people can respond unemotionally and thoughtfully to these hypotheses is another thing.

FW       Yes.

PH        I’ve got another question here, but I’m going to chop off the second part of it. 

FW       Okay.

PH        I’m actually going to skip right over it.  It seems to me that part of the ongoing entrenchment concerning the master slave dichotomy is self-imposed upon us.  Black people willingly accepting the role as allegorical slave for certain rewards, we’ve been speaking of a little bit.  I think this is an operational reality when it comes to Blacks in the entertainment industry in general. What are your thoughts about how and why this occurs?  What do you think attributes to this process? 

FW       I think it’s such a deep problem that it’s even hard to go ahead and think about, but we’ll try here. One of the things I didn’t get as deeply into in my book as I would have wanted to would be the work of a Black psychoanalytic scholar named David Marriott who’s down at UC Santa Cruz.  And I’m not sure I have the time to do the heavy lifting of reading all his work right now, but what I can say is that he has this theoretical intervention about the unconscious which suggests that the Black unconscious is always at war with itself because it shares something with the White unconscious which is a hatred for the Black imago, for the image of the Black. I hope I can do the theory justice because I use his work in my film book but I don’t use it in the breadth and the depth that he has written in his books.   He’s not trying to condemn Black people for an unconscious that has as a constituent element hatred of blackness, but he’s trying to suggest that there is violence in the world which is coordinated with Negrophobia. There’s the fantasy of a Black as a phobic object, an object that will destroy you and you don’t even know how it will destroy you, just an anxious threat, you know. And he says, okay, that’s a fantasy, but what’s important, what psychoanalysis hasn’t really figured out, is that what’s important about this fantasy is that it is supported and coordinated with all the guns in the world…

PH        Uh-huh.

FW       And I, the Black, can have a fantasy of white aggression, but it is not coordinated with any institutional power.

PH        Right.

FW       And he says if you go through generations, that it’s really not immediately possible for you to simply genocide that unconscious hatred of yourself because the hatred of Black, of the Black, is also fundamental to being accepted in society. So he’s saying that there is, that there’s two things happening in the Black unconscious, one is a hatred of the Black, of aggressivity towards the Black imago which is the same aggressivity that society has, so that Denzel Washington can say at the end of Training Day “I’m King Kong”, you know.  You know, my God.  You know? 

PH        I actually laughed out loud, it was just ironically bitter when he said that in the movie, yeah.

FW       Shut up!

PH        I know.

FW       My God.

PH        I’m King Kong!

FW       I’m King Kong! So that’s necessary to live in the world.  And it’s like damn, you’re faced with this, like I said today, every Black person in Africa was incorporated into the question of captivity.  That’s really intense.

PH        Yeah it is.

FW       To have a whole continent of people having to negotiate captivity.

PH        Uh-huh.

FW       That’s something no other people in the world have ever had happen to them.

PH        Right, right (Editorial comment: With the possible exception of the Jews during the time of Egyptian captivity and exile….another subject for a later discussion).

FW       So one of the ways that people tried to negotiate that is to find a way to the side of non-captivity which is “how can I be a good white negro?”  You know, I would be remiss if I said that I don’t have those thoughts…From time to time, everybody does, you don’t get promoted, I mean, your promotion at work is based on the degree to which you can embody that

PH        We have gotten to the point to where, in my opinion, there’s this weird thing that’s happened to where the dynamic has sort of flipped back on itself in the entertainment industry in the sense that, let’s just say you’re 50 Cent, you know, he embodies a caricature of blackness that he’s not allowed to go outside of in order to be successful.

FW       Yes, yes.

PH        The minute that 50 Cent wants to make an album of polkas…

FW       Exactly.

PH        He’s done.  Or he wants to do some strange avant-garde thing with Russian singers… can’t do it.

FW       Yeah.

PH        But he can be as Black as he wants within the narrow parameters of a blackness that’s defined from without.

FW       But that’s what’s most important, a blackness that’s defined from without, yeah.

PH        It’s stunning to me, you know, because the thing is that you know, artists (entertainers), I think knowingly capitulate to that, and it’s problematic because so much of our culture is informed by art (entertainment).

FW       Yeah, yeah.

PH        You know what I mean?  You know, even if its incidental, you know, but it’s interesting because people don’t seem to recognize that it’s occurring.

FW       Yeah, I mean, a guy I know is a Hollywood actor and I don’t know what he thinks about all this…

PH        Don’t talk about it?

FW       No, I don’t want to represent his views of anything.

PH        Sure.

FW       This guy has done TV shows and he’s done a lot of commercials and uh, small parts in movies and so, so he makes his money from this and it’s really good money. At the same time it seems to me that prison and Hollywood are one of the two places where everyone’s just really honest.  My friend’s agent sent him to an audition for a comedic part, and they were telling him ‘try it again, try it again’, the casting director said no, you know, and they said ‘look, your agent said you were funny, what’s this?’ And he goes well I’m doing my best’, and she goes, ‘this is not Black funny’, you know.  And he goes ‘what do you mean Black funny?’  I mean, because his humor is more I guess like Lenny Bruce you know, and she goes uh, ‘I think you know what I mean, Black funny. Let’s try it again’.  And he goes, well this is what I do…And she was like  I mean like Eddie Murphy.  So can we take it again’, you know.  He just didn’t get the part because he does narratives, it’s not Black… The funny thing I forgot, the punch line of this is he took me to Denzel Washington’s restaurant and there was a guy, behind the bar who was about the same height, 6-feet, and in his 30s, so they were both like 35, and he was tending bar, at Denzel Washington’s restaurant.  And as we walked in, the guy looked at my friend, and my friend looked at the guy, and they looked at each other and said Black funny, you know.  They had both gone to the same audition.

PH        But you know, that is part of, that’s sort of, it’s a plantation mentality that gets played out, I mean, I’ve been dealing with that for years because you know, I’m also a musician and I’ve been able to have a project called Meridiem and it’s always me and some very interesting people, and it’s been very avant-garde. I mean the project has included people like Fred Frith and Bill Laswell, Vernon Reid of Living Color, and Trey Gunn from King Crimson. But I’m always looked at as the weird Black artist who does this avant-garde thing; they don’t know what to do. I had a guy one time from Melody Maker magazine you know, very prominent British magazine, say to me ‘if you were White they would be branding you the next boy genius, you would be like Beck’.

FW       Wow.

PH        They would just think it was weird and amazing but you’re Black so they keep wondering where the R&B is gonna come from.

FW       Yeah, yeah.

PH        So it’s an interesting thing, and we haven’t moved very far from it, you know, at all artistically.

FW       I had so much, there was a lot of pushing back against this memoir (Incognegro) before I came to South End Press.  One agent really liked it, she was a wonderful Black female agent, and the firm was owned by two white women and when they read it they were like fire him! One major New York house just loved the writing, but gave it to the sales force and they said there’s no way in hell we’re walking into Barnes and Noble with this….. Every time it hit upon some institutional gate, it was a problem. It wasn’t until these two Black women at South End Press were like okay; we’ll take it as is with your vision. 

PH        Good for them.

FW       Yeah, but it was, but it was two years of moving from $30,000 on the table for the advance to $1,500 when it finally got done.

PH        You know, the thing that really gets me about this  concerning the business is that people are not even acting in their own best self-interest when they make these decisions in my opinion.  I mean, I look at Incognegro and I see above and beyond you know, the political orientation of it, the ANC, etc… it’s just a rollicking good yarn! I mean if I was Spike Lee, I’d be seeking the rights to the film.

FW       Wow, that’s so nice. One guy, one Hollywood producer, heard me do a reading of some new work in Los Angeles in April, and he came to me and said ‘I really want to do this,   let’s do it! You know how they talk…

PH        Get all excited in the moment.

FW       Yeah, exactly.  And I was like okay, okay, well I’ll, we can talk a little bit later. Then as I was going into the theater to my reading, he says, but you know, we’re gonna have to cut out all the white women stuff you know……

PH        That to me is a gross underestimation of the general public’s ability to deal with a great story.

FW       Yeah.

PH        There have been some films in the last four or five years that have been difficult stories that have caught on, but Hollywood shot callers have a short memory for that, they don’t see that, they wanna take a certain safe route to it.

FW       Wow, thank you.

PH        It’s a great story. In your book, in the recent book (Red White and Black, Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms), you speak about the prison industrial complex. We talk about the military industrial complex, etc.  But not the prison industrial complex, and to me that’s very resonant, especially living in California which is the capitol of this sort of engagement, California and Texas.

FW       Uh-huh.

PH        You talk about it as being basically sort of a logical extension of this dynamic of the master-slave dyad. Maybe you can just talk a little bit more about.

FW       Well, I think that the question of civil society, not all the questions but the truth of civil society, not the totality of it, but one of the concerns of civil society is how to contain “the Black”, and the  answer to that question is like a hundred different splices of light going out in all directions. The professor uh, Desmond, I can’t remember his last name(A UCD prof that attended the lecture that afternoon), the older Black man who was speaking in the middle you know, he used to teach Economics here….he, talked about Jamestown and one of the things that I came across in the research for this book was a dissertation, a pro-slavery dissertation written by a White intellectual in 19-something in Virginia, and he was writing about the grain of sand, the germ, that creates the modern police force.  And he locates this germ in the question of Black mobility. He charts how throughout the colonies all the way through the Civil War this thing that will become the modern police force, starts off as small collections of people just coming together to monitor the movement of Blacks. And that was really fascinating to me, you know. Obviously the police do a lot of other things today, they do the border patrol, and they do white collar crime…. but what his dissertation is saying is that the constituent element of policing is the maintenance of surveillance of Black bodies. I see the prison industrial complex as an extension of a kind of need, based upon what I would say is a fundamental anxiety concerning where is the Black and what is he or she doing.

PH        There’s, a high degree of sensitivity to that.  My father and I were just talking about this once, in the context of Rodney King, The LA riots, etc. My father made this beautiful analogy, he says you know, if you train a horse, if you train a horse, you know, and you tether him to a little peg and he gets used to it, then you can take it away, you can take the leash off of him and he’ll stand by the peg and he won’t run. 

FW       Yeah.

PH        He said that’s how Blacks have learned to function in Los Angeles, they would not cross the line.  They would come right up to the line, but not cross with violent intent, because we’re not supposed to be there and we know that deadly force will definitely ensue.

FW       Yeah, yeah. There is a guy named Loïc Wacquant who also talks about the Black life being a life from birth to death of existing in what he calls a carcereal continuum (Editorial notes: original attribution of the term is to Foucault) and that different Black people live different modes of incarceration, but that imprisoning Black bodies is a project of civil society and for some people from the ghetto, their bodies take in this project full force, and others like you and I, meet the project when our car is pulled over by the police for being in the wrong neighborhood.

PH        Speaking of Henry Louis Gates.

FW       Exactly, exactly. Now as a Marxist explanation that I think is also prevalent but which is, I think, secondary to the collective unconscious explanation of it that I just gave you… Black people enter humanity, which is part of the premise of both my books, and humanity was demeaning. You know, I’m not the first person to say it, Baldwin just said everything in these two books in one sentence. We exist solely for this purpose of letting everyone know that they’re alive.  You know, that’s my function. Because if someone loses their wife and their buddy and their job, and they are white, at the end of the day they can say at least I’m not a nigger. 

PH        That’s right.

FW       And if you don’t have that at least I’m not a nigger then what you have is the end of the epistemological framework of modern life.  We’d  find ourselves self in a whole new episteme,  and thought would have to be reorganized.

PH        Absolutely.  And I think that this is one of the primary mechanisms of resistance against something like reparations.  Because if you take a step in the direction of something like reparations then you are recognizing the fundamental flaw in your orientation towards Black people.

FW       Yes.

PH        You’re recognizing it.

FW       You’re recognizing it.

PH        And they will not be recognize it.

FW       No.

PH        And it’s funny because until I read Red, White, and Black I hadn’t really formulated an opinion about reparations. I’m all for it man, they need to give me about $2.5 million tomorrow, you know, and it’s not even the money, we could all go out in the middle of the field and burn it, in fact that’s probably what you should do with it, go out and burn it because that’s not what it’s about.  It ‘s processes, you know. And that’s another thing that your book helped me think through is what is the beginning of the discussion of processes for sort of, even just getting the ship up on its side because right now it’s upside down, so we don’t want to deal with these questions of truly ontological significance. That’s something that I’m kind of obsessed with right now is how do you actually have this discussion

FW       I think that, as I said today, it’s such a mind blowing question and sometimes Percy I get so depressed. I just feel the weight of it, I come to school and I know that no other professor has this like fundamental question about how, about how to be in the world, And  I’m really thankful for you and for a smattering of other people I’ve met out here because I haven’t really found this much on the West Coast. I like doing these interviews and these book talks mainly on the East Coast because…

PH        There is a difference.

FW       Yeah.  I just find the Black people out there are, it’s kind of like what I was saying today about why Sacramento shocked me (Frank was shocked at the ethnic and economic diversity in Sacramento). After being on the East Coast, you know, it was like, normally California crowds are just so touchy-feely and the Black people in them are so isolated that they’re just trying to get along with the multicultural groove.

PH        And you get that in San Francisco, in San Francisco you have this, what I call hyper real bohemianism amongst the Black left.

FW       Yes.

PH        So they really can’t talk about anything.

FW       They can’t talk about anything. But you know, I’ve had things in Washington and Boston and New York and it’s, it kind of throws me back being in California just how intense Black people are (on the East Coast), and uncompromising and just hungry to have these discussions and just don’t care.  You know, it’s like, I’ve had people ask me on the radio how to do guerilla warfare! (Mutual laughter). We were at WPFW in Washington, the FBI’s listening, they’re like how do you make a bomb? (Again, laughter). Metaphorically speaking—I’m mean they didn’t actually use those words, but they sounded ready for the get down.

PH        It changes, exponentially, you know, with the more status and money that they have.  California Blacks really get subsumed into this, especially if you’re upper middle class or above into this sort of disconnection that we seem to have on the West Coast.  Now people always think that the East Coast is cold and disconnected, no, there’s more disconnection here just because of land and space and all this kind of stuff so you can just, you can afford to believe that everything’s cool. Whereas in New York City, you know man, you got a melting pot yeah, but still to this day you know that you can’t go to Bensonhurst, you can’t.

FW       Yeah.

PH        And if you’re a Black person you don’t go to Bensonhurst and they don’t go into Bed-Sty, they don’t do that, there’s this thing that’s there and it’s ever present and it’s real.

FW       I did two radio shows with Black commentators who like you, just got to the heart of the matter.  And then I did a reading discussion at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn which was…

PH        I saw that.

FW       Oh okay.

PH        I actually watched that three nights ago.

FW       Oh, the C-SPAN thing, yeah, that was actually recent.

PH        That wasn’t at Medgar Evers?

FW       It was but I had done one before two years ago by myself and that was so intense and I did one the next day, it was 70 White people at NYU.  So I was like getting a real hit of this New York intensity and what really blew my mind was that the sophistication and the anger combined…. just ordinary people politically sophisticated and angry.

PH        When you did the talk at NYU you know, when it was predominately a White audience…I would presume to think that they might even be more transparent and ask difficult questions, or questions that might even expose their biases more so than you would think…

FW       Yes, yeah.

PH        Was that sort of your experience?

FW       Yes, I felt that a lot of people at NYU were, were, because New Yorkers like get in your face, I mean, they don’t have no California nice going on.

PH        No.

FW       And so, so, so foolish me not remembering when I used to live in New York what it’s all about you know, I had been at Medgar Evers the night before and,  then before that I think it was Harlem, the Brecht forum which was a mix of Black, White, and Asian, Marxists, etc, and then NYU.  So at Medgar Evers, what was happening was that, I would say out of 70 people, 50 were we’re actually going to vote for Obama but all 70 people were against the United States as a concept.  I mean, in other words they were all politically militant, some were nurses, some were lawyers that were trade unionists,  perhaps random students, and people that were unemployed. But no one tried to shut down what was happening in terms of this like ongoing spontaneous critique about how unethical America was as a place, which was what I had introduced. At NYU the young people there were demonstrably bored with me! They put their feet up on the back of chairs, it was like who is this fool? I mean they were getting up and leaving and so on, so it was quite, you know it was quite…

PH        Right.

FW       Everyone’s on the same page regardless of what they were gonna do in two days time when the election came.  Okay?  And at the book signing, I mean brothers and sisters like took up chairs next to me to tell me their horror stories about what’s happening in their profession, you know.  And I had said at one point when someone asked me my feelings, and I said I’m not a Democrat or Republican, nor an American, you know, and this nurse, this older woman nurse walked up to me and said ‘I want to talk to you about what you said’ and I thought oh no, here it comes.

PH        She’s gonna smack me.

FW       And she said “I have thought that all my life but I don’t say that at the hospital.  I am so glad you said it tonight.” I hate this country but I just can’t, I can’t say it at the hospital, I thank you so much for having said that’.

PH        And I think there’s a lot of interesting impetus for that. It’s a very complex set of emotions for Black people around this country, because one can say I hate this place and you mean that on a profoundly real level.

FW       Uh-huh.

PH        And on another level, it’s not your experience or what you mean…

FW       Yeah.

PH        Because you know, you have these contradictions that go on…. do you remember the Public Enemy song Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos?

FW       Yeah.

PH        Because what does he say in that one line, he says something about “because I’m a Black man and I can never be a citizen’. 

FW       Yeah.

PH        But I, mean Chuck D, his Dad was a dentist or something, he had this certain life but then he has this other experience, you know, that co-exists sort of side by side with that.

FW       Well my father, he rose to the Vice President of the University of Minnesota, very involved in the  Democratic Party, major lobbyist you know, for the University of Minnesota, and on boards of these corporations, same with my mother, and you know, the other day, he had this problem. He’s almost 80 and had a complicated issue with his shoulder and needed to go for surgery.  When he goes to the University Hospital they treat him like a king, I mean, there’s just, the University of Minnesota owns, has a hospital on campus where he’s treated like a king, but it also has a University hospital in Fairview in the suburbs where the doctors are not professors and out of convenience because he lived near there he just went there to the suburban version, And they treated him like a n-i-g-g-e-r for maybe the first time in 30 years and what he didn’t, I mean, if he had gone in and said uh, I’m Frank Wilderson, former Vice President of the University and da-da-da, then they would have treated him right. And they left him on a stretcher, on the gurney after the operation in the hallway for five hours and…

PH        It’s kind of funny you say that because that’s how my grandfather died.

FW       Well, he almost died, the blood clot went from his shoulder to his lungs, and my mother couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to him in the hallway of a major, major suburban hospital.

PH        Did they catch shit for it after…

FW       Well, I’m hoping my parents will sue.  And on top of that they tried to push him out of the hospital early, you know, and finally, my reading of the story is that someone from the main University hospital called them and said basically, this is not a Negro, this is our Negro.

PH        Yeah.

FW       You know, this is our prized Negro, what are you doing, you know….then it all changed.

PH        But that’s the unfortunate reality, like in a Black ghetto having to be subjected to a certain type of brutarian experience regarding race that we don’t have to suffer every day.

FW       Right.

PH        But when we do come into contact with it, the apparatus, it’s like that, and often the answer is you get a pass because of your context.

FW       Yeah.

PH        We’ll give you a momentary pass and we’ll give you a contextual pass.

FW       Right.

PH        And the fact that someone has to give you a pass…

FW       Yes.

PH        …is just as oppressive as if they didn’t. 

FW       Yeah.

PH        It’s hard for people to understand.  I went to university at a place called Harding University. Have you heard of it?

FW       Where is that?

PH        It’s in Arkansas.

FW       Okay.

PH        And it’s a small liberal arts Church of Christ university and I went there in 1979. When I was a freshman there were 180 Black students on campus and 155 of us were athletes.  Seriously. 

FW       That’s amazing.

PH        So those experiences, I mean, that whole process became very alive for me at that time you know, when you really could realize the whole contextual exemption from Blackness because you’re smart, and middle class.

 PH        On another note, regarding your contrast of the thought of Fanon and Lacan on these issues, I always thought Lacan was a Buddhist…..

FW       Yes, yes, yes.

PH        He’s a Buddhist. I never really sort of questioned his a priori assumptions.

FW       You know, someone accused me of being cavalier with that, and my point is that I’m not cavalier, I’ve been in psychoanalysis for over 10 years and I’ve just left it, not that I’m cured, but just because it’s so expensive and I’m not sure…

PH        Yeah, it’s expensive.

FW       But I’m saying that this doesn’t matter in an essential way; I’m not saying that I wanna be crazy walking around. When I first came back (from South Africa), I was going crazy….

PH        Well you might have had a touch of PTSD as well.

FW       Yeah I really did, I really did.  And I had physical ailments that were really psychosomatic; I used a cane for a while. It was just hard being back. My brother, lovely and wonderful (we grew up separately because he went to private schools in the suburb and he’s 10 years younger than me) he allowed me to live at his house. I was teaching at Compton Unified School District which, I didn’t know how it could be worse than Soweto, but it is. 

PH        Compton’s pretty bad.

FW       Yeah…. and so trying to find psychoanalysts you know, when I finally moved to Berkeley at the end of ’97, what struck me is that there were very few Black people in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis then.  And when I went to White Therapists to interview them, I found a tension there in that they were a little too anxious about bringing the whole racial component into the analyst room. And then when I went to some Blacks, maybe the wrong ones, they were a little too anxious about wanting to make me better now because seeing how crazy I was and crying uncontrollably and needing anti-depressants and so on, I knew that they were suffering my suffering right here in this room, but I felt that the help was coming too quickly because they wanted me to be safe. So I finally end up with this white guy which is very problematic for about two years only because he said the least of anybody that I had interviewed.  And what I kind of got through him was that  he could help me not go into psychosis and to manage neurosis but at the end of the day his other clients had contemporaries in the world and I did not, and that was  fundamental, it’s like my dad’s situation.  My dad thought he had contemporaries but when he went to the wrong hospital he realized that he was just Black you know, and that was the one thing that can’t be solved in the psychoanalytic encounter. 

PH        No, it can’t.

FW       So, I stayed with this guy for a while, a long while, because what I was able to do through him was hear myself talk over 10 years and work out a lot of the stuff in this book without him pushing back like it’s not about race, it’s not about race, it’s not about race which was what a lot of the Whites were doing that I interviewed. The Blacks were saying this is what you gotta do to stay alive, you know, that kind of thing.  Ultimately we parted and I’m not necessarily sane or anything like that, but I did get a book, you know, and uh, and he learned a lot, he learned a lot about the limits of his profession through me.

PH        Yeah, White psychotherapists often struggle profoundly with something that is jammed into the brain of every psychotherapist, and that is cultural formulation, cultural formulation, cultural formulation.

FW       Interesting.

PH        It’s essential to not deny you know, from whence a person comes, you must look at the universal breadth of their culture. But what happens is, you get taught, it’s an academic nail in the head, um, but what happens is it’s the way that being able to perform a useful cultural formulation gets stuck in very small parameters, i.e. the color of one’s skin, are you a male or a female, these sorts of things.  What gets negated is the sort of functional breadth of experience.  What I mean by that, and this happens to Blacks like you and I quite often, is that we share the fact that we were raised middle class people.

FW       Yeah.

PH        There is an element of the formulation of culture within us that is informed by that, inescapable. We did not grow up in Harlem or Compton. 

FW       Exactly.

PH        But see what happens is that the White psychotherapists are not prepared to deal with the Black person who is possessive of those types of nuances. 

FW       Yes, exactly.

PH        Or the Indian person or the Asian person or the White person for that matter because the training is not sufficient to the task of taking a more global view of certain human suffering.  So when you found this guy he was a guy that didn’t suffer from that particular malady, he didn’t have to perseverate on that issue.

FW       Yes, yeah.

PH        Good therapist, Black, White, or otherwise.

FW       Yeah.

PH        You deal with what presents and then you move on.  But that’s what you were encountering and many people encounter that in therapy and I see it as a flaw in the educational preparation and process.  In fact I’m involved in a project right now, and  one of the things we’re taking a look at is this flawed cultural formulation. 

             Your experience with the Black therapists was a very common experience. I think Black people in America have a tendency to have a profound fear and distrust of mental illness.

FW       Yeah, yeah.

PH        Because it’s been used as a weapon.  Black psychoanalysts man, they want to be the guardians of the gate, they want to help you get past it, you’re not crazy, I don’t care if you’ve been told you’re crazy, you’re not crazy and this is how we’re gonna show you you’re not crazy, we’re gonna do it and they have a tendency to be very functional, very outcome oriented…

FW       That’s the word, functional and outcome.

PH        Yes, very constructed you know, and the better they are the more they are that way.

FW       Yeah, yeah.

PH        You know, so actually I’ve been doing some writing about this very issue so I’m glad you brought that up.  But yeah, your experience just to let you know Frank, very typical.

FW       I appreciate that.  I was feeling guilty.  You know, I was like you know, I gotta use a Black person but this is, it’s not that simple that we, we can’t like make a life plan in four sessions you know.

PH        And that was extremely typical you know, so that’s not your issue.  Well, I just have a couple more questions here and I did send you some email questions so you can get to them…

FW       I’ll definitely get to them.

PH        How do you, how do you see it, what is the role, what can be a role of spirituality or religion you know, in this human drama, in this struggle, or is there a role?

FW       Um…

PH        How do you see it?

FW       Well I have two contradictory answers to that. 

PH        Okay.

FW       Uh, I’ll try to put them together. 

PH        Ok.

FW       What I’m trying to say is at the level of relations of power, what does it mean to be Black?  In the way that Marx said, at the level of the relations of power what does it mean to be a worker?  Well, what it means to be a worker is that one goes through one’s life captive to two questions; how long will I have to work and how much will I have to do?  And that the only things that change one’s life are the particulars of those questions when you change jobs, when you earn more money, etc., etc. But why he calls capitalism unethical is because those are paradigmatic questions for one class of people, and the other class of people doesn’t have those questions.

And so what I think is that there’s so much talk about hybridity, diversity, and possibility that what I want to contribute to the world is a text about impossibility, Blackness as a space of impossibility.  Now having said that, there are things I do to manage myself, to help me be okay, know what the world is saying or whatever, in a place where everyone sees me as their object, you know.  One of the things I said in psychoanalysis and another thing that I do is consult regularly with a teacher, Babalawo, who consults ancestors to help me. But I’m, I’m a little cautious and uh, uncomfortable with incorporating that into my political analysis and my political philosophy.  One, because I don’t write about, I don’t write the answer to Lenin’s question, what is to be done?  I think, I believe that the liberation of Black people is tantamount to moving into an epistemology that we cannot imagine. Once Blacks become incorporated and recognized I don’t think we have the language or the concepts to think of what that is.  It’s not like moving from Capitalism to Communism, it’s like the end of the world.

PH        It’s like moving to Mars.

FW       It’s like moving to Mars. 

PH        You know, it’s a contextual dilemma. You know, and that’s a good enough answer.  I think that’s great.  Um, what else, did I have anything else?  Actually I had another question but I don’t think I want to ask it now…

FW       Tell me what it was.

PH        I have a little Oprah problem. I don’t know, I just, I always ask, I always like to ask, especially Black artists what they think about the sort of sociological significance of Oprah and how she’s impacted, you know, the whole landscape of sort of aesthetic and artistic acceptance of Black output you know, because she’s monolithic. 

FW       Yeah.

PH        But we don’t have to get into that.

FW       Well, you know, um, uh, Charles Burnett, he was doing a screening of Killer of Sheep and some other movie at UC Berkeley, he was at the Pacific Film Archives giving a talk.  And someone in the audience asked him about a film that Oprah had produced and he said working for Oprah is worse than working for the Klan.  I was like what!? I kind of got whiplash.

PH        Did he go on or did he just stop?

FW       He didn’t go into great detail but he likened to a problem that he had spoken about a few minutes earlier but he said he made a movie called Night John about a slave who runs away and re-enslaves himself so that he can teach people to read and find his wife. 

PH        Right.

FW       And he said  Charles Lumbly, who lives in Berkeley played in Night Job, and he talked about how unsentimental and how raw and true he wanted that film to be….

PH        Right.  And they (Disney) killed it.

FW       And they just kept reaching their hands into, they gave him, there’s a little girl in the film, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it but it’s a really interesting film.  There’s a little girl and he had a little girl that he wanted as a slave girl and they got this other like, Disney slave girl and he was just fighting with them all the time, you know. And so his point was that, that working for Oprah was worse than that because she, her interventions are more in line with White civil society.

PH        Like I said I got a little problem…I remember walking out of the Color Purple. 

FW       Yes.

PH        To me one of the most profoundly disgusting horrendous pieces of tripe that I’ve ever had to deal with.  And there you got a combination of Oprah and Spielberg. Spielberg who is highly invested in this… people want to compare him to Frank Capra, I’m like don’t compare him to Frank Capra. 

FW       No, no.

PH        Capra had a sense of irony about this stuff, you know, I mean he really did.

FW       Yeah, yeah.

PH        I mean he knew that everything was so shiny and there was always some weird thing that sort of came in there with Capra.  But you know, that sort of Spielbergian vision, you know, coupled with her stuff has not been good for art.

FW       No, it hasn’t.

PH        And they both have like a monstrous amount of power, but.

FW       My acupuncturist, he’s a White guy and he means really well, wonderful guy but he keeps saying to me, this is such a great book, why doesn’t Oprah want you on?

PH        Oprah would never let you on her…

FW       I’m like Jay, Jay!, I got on NPR and the day after they had transcribed the entire thing on a right wing blog and someone was, people were writing in about why they need to close down NPR because of this interview….

PH        Oh yeah.

FW       And it was, it was just, and then I was supposed to be on another…

PH        To bad Moyers retired, he’d probably…

FW       He might have.  But I was supposed to be on another public radio station, NPR station in Minnesota and the day before the interview the producer called me and said we just need to know, did you kill anybody(in South Africa).  And I said the book is about the relations and structural violence and personal violence and I do not want to talk about violence at the level of personal guilt.  I want to talk about it in a different way.  She says ‘you gotta answer my question’.  And I said when, you’ve interviewed former members of the CIA, um, military officials…

PH        And plus that’s nuts because you know what?  If you killed somebody and and they knew about it, as soon as you came back to this country you’d be in jail.

FW       I’d be in jail. 

PH        You know.

FW       And I said to her um, do you say that to your son or daughter when they come back from Iraq?  You know, is that a prerequisite for them sitting down at Thanksgiving with you?  Is this a prerequisite for you having police officials on your show?

PH        It was a moral conundrum for that producer.

FW       Yeah.

PH        It didn’t have anything to do with them having to do a certain type of due diligence.

FW       And I said well, that would mean that I would have to in some way renunciate the idea of our struggle for people who are suffering and the book doesn’t do that you know, and I said why can’t we have a conversation about that question on the air tomorrow?  And she said ‘I’m sorry, you know, you either answer the question or we have to call the show off.’  So they called it off.

PH        And this is probably a show that had somewhat of a leftist image.

FW       Yeah, yeah.

PH        There you go.

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Interviews

The Very full life of Kristin Hersh


It’s a joy when a person whose  work you appreciate turns out, at least within the context of whatever exposure you have to them, to be congruent to the highest ideals and possibilities of that work. The following interview with Kristin Hersh has borne out the aforementioned expectation. The artist’s life in her instance turns out to be…. just life. Family, work, artistic pursuits, creating community, this has all become part of a somewhat seamless process of living a very full and “observed life”, truly the only kind worth living, in a mindful, creative and inclusive manner. Kristin candidly shares her views on performing, the music industry, and motherhood with me, as well as a bit of the story of “Throwing Muses”, and their very positive 20 year relationship with Ivo Watts Russell and 4AD. Kristin continues to juggle family life and music, with her ongoing solo career, Throwing Muses, and power pop trio 50 Foot Wave all going strong, not to mention spoken word performances in support of her “non-memoir” “Rat Girl”.

PH Kristin, first off, let’s talks about…motherhood. You seem to have
struck a balance in life that allows for you to exercise your need for
creative expression, while focusing the energy, time, love, and
relationship building with your children. How does this work?

KH Well…I don’t actually have a job. Which frees up a lot of time. If I were taking them to school and going to an office 9 to 5, my life would be very different, obviously. Being musician costs money, both being on the road and in the studio (a good rate at a recording studio is $1/minute). So I try to work as little as possible and still get the job done. I like giving music away; I think it’s important and I don’t like charging high ticket prices for shows, so I have to balance my budget carefully.

I also think a full life leads to 3 dimensional music that’s bigger than you rather than mere self-expression-y whining. When your life is empty, you can get pretty self-involved, but when you spend all your time caring for others, you tend to, I don’t know, *marvel* more, I guess.

PH You have always impressed me as an artist that has avoided a
bifurcated existence. You don’t seem to spend much time buried in a
persona. When I first heard Throwing muses, it was exhilarating, and
frightening, and shook my core a little bit, because of the sort of
crazed honesty in your voice. What are your thoughts on this? Do you
ever see yourself as a “performer”?

KH I’m not much of a performer, no. I lack the show-off gene that is so necessary in this business. I can, however, disappear and let music play itself. My only real talent, actually. Which is definitely honest, as you say, it just doesn’t always sound nice.

I have an unending appreciation for the listener which would not work well with a persona. It’s important for me to be small in this picture. The music is big and the listener plays an active role in it…I’m somewhere in the background.

PH You have managed to be a very transparent songwriter without dipping
into the endless well of stereotypical female confessional angst. I say
this without a trace of misogynist intent, believe me. Has your
avoidance of this process been a careful and purposeful one?

KH *I* can get a little misogynistic, to tell you the truth. Women bug me when they insist on being women to the exclusion of everything else they could be, while rejecting June Cleaver (who was actually a remarkable character: hardworking and funny) and calling Bimbo-ism pro-active sexuality. It’s selling themselves short.

I refuse to play Lillith Fair time and again for this reason. Gender segregation is not valuable to me and being female is not a plot, nor is it a problem or an excuse, it just is. Being *human* is interesting and kind. I truly believe that gender itself is just a spectrum anyway, nothing you could divide down the middle.

That said, I don’t do anything consciously ’cause I’m sort of vague; I just notice tendencies as they come up.

PH I recently interviewed an old acquaintance, Simon Raymonde of Cocteau
Twins, a former label mate of yours on 4AD. Simon indicated that Cocteau
Twin’s deal on 4AD was a fairly typical slave arrangement that mirrored
the industry standard. What was your experience on 4AD? Due to the
iconic status and strong aesthetic consistency of the label, my tendency
was to assume that the label worked from a more egalitarian ethical
construct concerning the way it treated its artists. What was your
experience like at 4AD?

KH We had the opposite experience. 4AD was amazing for us (for 20 years!) until they were absorbed by Beggar’s Banquet. Whereas all the American majors and indies offered us nothing but entrapment, 4AD did only one-record-at-a-time deals with us and they worked those records hard. Ivo cared so much that he would sit in my living room and write backing vocals with me. He was incredible.

President of 4AD, Chris Sharp, did his best to continue the 4AD aesthetic and work ethic after Ivo left, but with dwindling resources, there was only so much he could do. When he finally left, it was time for me to try the CASH model as an alternative to the recording industry, which I did with 4AD’s blessing.

PH I’m very interested in the progression of an artist or band from
being veritable unknowns to having some stature, to being able to make a
living playing music. Can you tell me the story of your journey?

KH We started playing live and recording when we were 14 years old, so we felt experienced when we made our first album at 19. We were technically supporting ourselves with music then, but really that just means that we were willing to be very poor in order to stay on the road and in the studio. It’s a difficult lifestyle if you aren’t willing to play the game (suck).

The individual members of Throwing Muses made paltry sums, but we were still able to work those records, which is what really matters. Any money we made went into touring, recording costs and equipment; it’s an expensive job. But we knew how lucky we were to be working at all.

My first solo record was in the black (recouped) the day it was released, so it made me money until I left Warner Brothers, when they declared it in the red again and I never made another penny.

PH How did throwing muses come to be?

KH No idea. Boredom?

PH What are your early memories concerning growing towards being a
songwriter, a singer, a storyteller?

KH My dad, “Dude,” taught me to play guitar when I was little, so I started writing songs when I was about 9 years old. I have no idea what it means for a 9 year old to be writing songs, but I can sort of imagine.

By the time I was 14, I was writing better songs and Throwing Muses was something kind of real, but I didn’t start *hearing* songs until I was hit by a car and sustained a double concussion at age 16.

PH I know it may sound a bit wacky, but I never related to you or
Throwing Muses as being “pop” musicians. There is always some crazy
element of the blues that latches on to my spleen and won’t let go. If
I were going to create the perfect duet partner for Kristin Hersh, it
would be Howlin Wolf. The comparison for me is not so much the direct
aesthetic and stylistic elements, but the directness, the lack of
filtering in the songwriting. I’d love to hear you do /Smokestack
Lightning/! What forms of music, in general and particular artists
specifically, do you see as influential in helping you create your voice?

KH I love that song! And I love Howlin’ Wolf! You’re so kind…

I wanted to be influenced more than I actually was. I wanted to sound more like the bands I loved, but I always ended up sounding like me instead.

PH Part of the discussion I am having with artists is their relation to
the business of their art, whatever it is. Please tell us about CASH
music and the reason you have gone to this system of commerce as
concerns your recorded work?

KH CASH is the solution to a problem I’ve been wrestling with since I first started recording. I knew I didn’t belong in the industry and yet I had to play music. I tried to quit many times, but the songs didn’t care; they would pile up on my 4 track and haunt me.

Throwing Muses the trio (from “Red Heaven” on) helped me be a musician who didn’t play the game and, ironically, those records were our most successful, but we knew it couldn’t last forever. Eventually we could no longer fund a recording session or a tour.

CASH put the listener in charge of the recording session for me, which is as it should be. Subscribers pay my recording costs and I give them the music I make. There is no middle man, no one holding the key to money or marketing or radio, just a lab for me to perform my experiments in and then people who want to hear the truth. Listeners have no interest in bullshit or looks or salability, they just want the lab results.

PH The music industry as business is in complete decline, and I feel
artists contribute to the decline, the panic, by pursuing musical
success as some sort of contest, some sort of adversarial process,
instead of seeing the decline as a way for musicians to build stronger,
more collaborative coalitions. How do you see the state of the industry
today and the artist’s position in it?

KH That panic has always been palpable, but it’s vivid right now. Musicians with more style than substance have always played the game with scary abandon. The “blind ambitious” as we called them are competitive when it comes to other musicians and grabby with their fans.

Real musicians love it when someone else is great because it helps us all fight the good fight. And real music makes us happy. It kills us that we have to charge fans *anything* because we’re so honored by their presence.

You can tell the fake kind of musician right off: they’re “performers,” “larger than life,” outfitted and gussied-up…”cool” is very important to them. If you look at someone and think “junior high!” it’s a good indication that they suck.

Real musicians are usually dorks.

This is one of the many reasons that this industry *should* nose dive the way it’s doing. It was an unhealthy place for art.

PH What are your literary or film interests? What was the last book
that you read that was truly resonant for you and why?

KH Honestly, I see most of my movies on airplanes, but, that said, “Team America” was one of the best things that ever happened to me. And I was lucky enough to be invited to play at Jonathan Couette’s screening of “Harold and Maude” in New York a couple weeks ago. That’s gotta be my favorite movie ever. I couldn’t stop watching it when Vic Chesnutt died. I think homemade, loose, unpretentious, big ideas in a small world are all key when it comes to beauty right now. To see a movie made in 1971 fill all these requirements was awfully moving.

I read mostly science books, but I enjoyed “The Soul’s Code” by James Hillman, whom I used to see lecture with my father when I was a kid.

PH I saw on your site that you have written a children’s book. What was
the impetus for this? Do you have plans to do more?

KH I wrote that for my youngest son, Bodhi, who was having trouble leaving on tour. He wasn’t much of an explorer and wanted to stay home and “be normal.” So I drew him as a scared bunny and made him a little more brave by the end of the book. It actually helped, too. He’s quite the little adventurer now.

I didn’t mean to publish it, really, we just had a few thousand made and fans with kids bought them. It was nice to hear people’s stories about their kids getting brave, too. Planet earth can be off-putting at times when you’re short and confused.

PH How do you and your husband make agreements concerning the intense
levels of collaboration it must take to maintain the infrastructure of
your life together, not to mention friendship, desire, and recreation?
You have to really be together in this thing, no?

KH Yeah. We’ve tried rules like, “No business in bed,” etc., but mostly we’re just best friends, so we’re nice to each other. Which isn’t hard. There is a lot to discuss and even more to get done, but none of it is bullshit; it’s all very exciting. Children and music are more important to us than our own lives; as far as taskmasters go, they’re pretty easy to work for. We feel exceedingly lucky.

We also play very different roles in our business, so we care about each other’s work day without stepping on toes.

PH What is your primary musical focus now? Is 50 Ft. Wave the priority,
or are things much more fluid concerning where you place your attention?

KH 50FootWave is often the priority. I think that band is so important. We just recorded in LA with Mudrock again and that EP will be released by the end of the summer, I believe. Again, though, a band is so expensive that it just can’t remain the focus for very long. Fewer people attend shows and no one buys CD’s, so we jump at every opportunity we get to work, but 50Foot can’t support its musicians.

My new solo record, “Crooked” which was just released as a book in the UK, and my memoir (“Rat Girl” in the U.S., “Paradoxical Undressing” everywhere else) are commanding most of my attention right now. I leave in a couple days to promote “Crooked” in the UK and do readings from “Rat Girl.” It’s not really a memoir, by the way (I hope I’m not old enough to write one of those yet), it’s just my teenage diary from 1985, so it reads more like a non-fiction novel.

Those spoken word shows have been great. I did a few weeks at the Edinburgh Festival and a few weeks at the Sydney Festival, I’ve done it in London and in the Netherlands. I get to play music that relates to the book and read passages that relate to the music which is very freeing. I’m used to trying to speak only music to people; a language very few people are fluent in, but speaking English is very different! I’m not used to people getting what I’m on about…this is something new.

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Interviews

Frank B. Wilderson, “Wallowing in the contradictions”, Part 1


The interview that follows is the first of a two-part discussion with Frank B. Wilderson, the author of Incognegro, and his latest work Red, White and Black, Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Part A is comprised of Frank’s thoughtful, provocative answers to some prepared questions offered via an e-mail exchange. Part B will consist of an actual conversation Frank and I had 6 weeks ago at the University of California Davis following a discussion that he gave concerning both books. Frank is a Professor of Drama and African American Studies at UC Irvine, and visiting Professor at UC Davis, and The University of California Berkeley.

Incognegro is Frank’s memoirs of an extremely fertile, lucid, and transformative period of his life, in which he was one of only two American members of the ANC (African National Congress) in South Africa in the years leading up to the abolition of Apartheid. Not just a tale of revolutionary experience( which it is), it is also a coming of age story, and much of the book sets the stage for his South African experience by detailing his understanding of the social, familial, academic and interactional forces that shaped his psyche, self-awareness, and self-understanding. Not unlike Richard Wright, Frank’s view of the experience and reality of Blackness in the context of this world is that the experiences of Black people have been comprehensively impacted by the imposition of the mechanisms of commodity. Black flesh has long been fungible, co-modified, externally controlled and subject to value or non-value as decided from without. To explain this dynamic, Wright came posited the formulation of Black man as being viewed as non-man.

Given this construction, it is by logical extension that Frank’s view of “race-relations” is formulated on the power principal of antagonism, rather than on that of a conflict between supposed equals. The systemic underpinnings and mechanisms/machinations of power which kicked the antagonism into motion are still running strong today, and the only solution in Frank’s view, would be something tantamount to bringing about the end of time and reality as we know it. Such is the mis-alignment of our separate realities.

This being said, Frank is no curmudgeon, no dour, bloodless theorist, but a warm personable man prone to laughter and gentle self-deprecation. He is aware of the limits of theory, and the gulf that can separate theory and revolutionary impetus, having lived and done both. The bulk of our discussion concerned the newest book, which is an examination of the concept of black fungibility and negation using the context and construct of cinema.

PH Your view of the experience of those possessing Black Flesh seems to be a decidedly material one, in that there is no analysis of the possibility of experience transcendent to the physical one, i.e. no salvation or retribution in an afterlife. That being said, you also do not express any empathy with humanist assumptions regarding the impetus or motivation for potential right action towards blacks, or anyone else for that matter. What are your a priori assumptions regarding Justice, conceptually?

FW Hmmm…that’s a good question. I might have feelings about justice, for example I feel that the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer was unjust; and that the verdict in the case (involuntary manslaughter) is also unjust. But justice is not a register that I trade in as a theorist. And perhaps not even as a politico. I am interested in ethics, which is to say that I am interested in explaining relations of power. You might say that both of my books are arguing that the existence of the world, meaning the existence of the modern era, is unjust. It would be hard to find a corner of justice within an unjust paradigm, unless you made a provisional move away from explaining the paradigm. As regards the first part of your question: I believe in the spirit world; that is to say I believe that the African ancestors are still with us and can be consulted from time to time. But I would not try to calibrate the gap between what I believe and what I can explain. I don’t think that would be useful.

PH I am deeply challenged by your hypothesis that the struggle between black and white is essentially an antagonism, grown out of a slave-master paradigm, and not essentially a conflict between combatant equals, ontologically speaking. It brings the entire question of reparations into stark relief for me. Reparations, based on your analysis, seem almost a necessary step in any possibility of creating a new power paradigm. Can you tell me why you think reparations to Blacks have never been given consideration in the U.S. while they seem to be a foregone conclusion with Native Americans?

FW Reparations suggests a conceptually coherent loss. The loss of land, the loss of labor power, etc. In other words, there has to be some form of articulation between the party that has lost and the party that has gained for reparations to make sense. No such articulation exists between Blacks and the world. This is, ironically, precisely why I support the Reparations Movement; but my emphasis, my energies, my points of attention are on the word “Movement” and not on the word “Reparation.” I support the movement because I know it is a movement toward the end of the world; a movement toward a catastrophe in epistemological coherence and institutional integrity—I support the movement aspect of it because I know that repair is impossible; and any struggle that can act as a stick up artist to the world, demanding all that it cannot give( which is everything ), is a movement toward something so blindingly new that it cannot be imagined. This is the only thing that will save us.

PH As a Psychotherapist, I was very interested to see your contrasting Frantz Fanon and Lacan concerning their conceptualizations of potential paths to “emancipation in the libidinal economy”, as you put it. I am ashamed to admit that I have never read Fanon, but have read Lacan. Please illuminate  your idea that the stark difference in their conceptualizations of conflict/antagonism differ are based on the fact that Lacan would  still see Blacks as fundamentally situated in personhood, but that Fannon (and yourself) see Blacks as “situated a priori in absolute dereliction”.

FW This is a big question, too big for a concise answer—I think I take about thirty to forty pages to try and get my head around this in the book. But the key to the answer lies in the concept of “contemporaries.” Fanon rather painfully and meticulously shows us how the human race is a community of “contemporaries.” In addition, this community vouchsafes its coherence (it knows its borders) through the presence of Blacks. If Blacks became part of the human community then the concept of “contemporaries” would have no outside; and if it had no outside it could have no inside. Lacan assumes the category and thus he imagines the analysand’s problem in terms of how to live without neurosis among ones contemporaries. Fanon interrogates the category itself. For Lacan the analysands suffer psychically due to problems  extant within the paradigm of contemporaries. For Fanon, the analysand   suffers due to the existence of the contemporaries themselves and the fact that s/he is a stimulus for anxiety for those who have contemporaries. Now, a contemporary’s struggles are conflictual—that is to say, they can be resolved because they are problems that are of- and in the world. But a Blacks problems are the stuff of antagonisms: struggles that cannot be resolved between parties but can only be resolved through the obliteration of one or both of the parties. We are faced—when dealing with the Black—with a set of psychic problems that cannot be resolved through any form of symbolic intervention such as psychoanalysis—though addressing them psychoanalytically we can begin to explain the antagonism (as I have done in my book, and as Fanon does), but it won’t lead us to a cure.

PH I am curious as to how you view contemporary Black filmmakers such as Spike Lee. I daresay that modern film critics would see his aesthetic as situated along a continuum of afrocentricity, but I’m guessing you would not see his method or Oeuvre in this manner? Is this so, and if so why?

FW Spike always has interesting, wonderful moments. Then he turns back on something arcane and rather staid. I’m not sure what it is, a sense of bourgeois can-do-ism I suppose. I always have the feeling that if I would have left the theatre ten minutes before the film ended the experience would have been wonderful. Can’t quite put my finger on it. I think, however, that School Daze might have been the film that didn’t sell out in the end. But I would have to see it again. Of course, his gender politics should be scrutinized closely.

PH What is your view of the impact and potential derailment of the Harlem renaissance? You mention James Baldwin in your latest book. What do you think became of the promise of Baldwin, Hughes and Wright’s work as a legitimate aesthetic base for Black literature, art, or even political impetus? How do we go from the powerful expression of the Harlem Renaissance to the overt cultural regurgitation of the slave aesthetic as expressed in so much of hip-hop and R&B culture?

FW This is a very good question, but it’s far too big for me to tackle. For one thing, I’m not an aficionado of popular culture. I live in a cultural time warp which, musically, spans from about 1955 to 1975. Now, with regards to literature, Baldwin has always been an inspiration for me. I’m not in love with love the way he is, but he has some truly remarkable prose and brilliant insights. He was also writing at a time when there was a Black Liberation Movement which fed him and which he fed in return. I am not writing in such a moment, but his work gives me the courage to pretend that I am and that liberates my imagination.

PH What would you say to an aspiring filmmaker that wanted to make “Black films”?

FW I would ask them to wallow in the contradictions and not try to tie the issues up in a bow at the end of their films. Deal with problems that are too big to be resolved—too big to be resolved on film and in real life. Let the people in the streets take it from there.

PH Have you ever considered translating your experiences in South Africa while a member of the ANC to film?

FW I’d be happy to sell the rights to someone whom I trusted—well, how can you trust an entire film company? I don’t think I’d want to get close to the film project once it was underway, however.

PH It has become very difficult to have conversations with conservatives or liberals that posit that there is a fundamental problem of a power differential between blacks and whites in America. They point to Barack Obama, they assert that until someone puts down the proverbial gun, i.e. stops talking about race as an issue of equality in America, things will never improve. How do you address the issue from your viewpoint and maintain the possibilities of alliances with liberals, humanists, radical Christians, Buddhists and others in a “revolutionary struggle”?

FW In my view the “alliance” is a ruse at worse, at best it is a provisional liaison until we reach a point where the alliance partners must make their own anti-Black play, in the way that the White Supremacist whom we’re all struggling against, did. It’s inevitable, because the alliance partners, so called, are always in the world and they are struggling for expanded access on a terrain that they already occupy. Theirs is a totally different relation than ours. We can pretend that that is not the case when struggling against immediate discrimination; but reality always comes back to haunt us.

PH You use “Monster’s Ball” analogously throughout your new book. The sex scene with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton was deeply disturbing to me, because it did seem “a racist pornotroping of Black female sexuality” to quote from your book. I remember being aghast when she received the Oscar for this role, and Denzel received in the same year I believe the Oscar for “Training Day”. What is, in your opinion, the overarching message imbedded in the rewarding of these two Black actors for those particular roles?

FW Great question, but again too big for me to answer concisely. I think there are some good quotes in the chapter “Make Me Feel Good.” Also, there’s a pithy paragraph somewhere in the book where I talk about Denzel and Halle and the Academy Awards.

PH Who are some Black filmmakers, actors, musicians, playwrights and authors whose work resonates with you?

FW I like much of what Charles Burnett has done, esp., Killer of Sheep. I also like aspects of his film Night John. I think Carl Lumley is a great actor and he’s got a good political head on his shoulders. I feel the same way about Alfre Woodard and Angela Bassett. Musicians: Gil Scott Heron, John Coltrane, Billy Holiday, Abe Lincoln, Nina Simone.

PH Have you seen David Mamet’s new play Race? I would be curious to hear your analysis of it.

FW No, I haven’t seen it, but now I’m curious.

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Interviews, Outliers

Cintra Wilson : The Voice of one crying in the WILDerness….


I love you, and because I love you, I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies.

Pietro Aretino

If an interesting monster can’t have an interesting hairdo I don’t know what this world is coming to.
Bugs Bunny

Both of the above quotes, Aretino’s cautionary and pointed, Bug’s filled with a bit more levity, but still just as pointed, can apply with equal vigor to my friend Cintra Wilson. Behold, Dagnabit, the voice of one crying in the mother******* WILDderness. Cintra truly is a child of Aretino, one of the first writers’s to put a definitive stamp upon the territory of satire. When there is something to say worth saying about some façade obstructing the flow of the clean water of truth, or some big freaking beam sticking out of an eye, hers or someone else’, the wall will come tumbling down, by her hand and at her command. Girlfriend has a truth-tellin style. But despite that she has a love of the weird, of spontaneously bold individualism, of little saccharine transcendent nuggets that make one  go…. really? For all her big brain and incisive wit, this is a woman that will admit to liking Tevin Campbell for God’s sake! How scary can she be? Pretty fucking scary according to some, but I find her to be well, just a little bit fabulous.

It would be easy to interpret Cintra’s tenacious, moralist need to point out the lurking truth as being the result of some sort of crusading propensity, but I see it as anything but. It’s really kind of simple I think. It’s just too damn difficult and counter-productive to choose to stumble around in the dark. That being said, I don’t think she is above or beyond the occasional and ill-aimed wack at immovable objects in the light either.

I came across Cintra’s work just recently, in March of this year actually, when a reader of my blog turned me on to her book  A Massive Swelling, Celebrity Reexamined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations. I promptly read it in an evening. Her examination of the fatuous nature of fame was timely for me, as it has been one of the areas that I am probing artists about in the interviews and profiles I have been doing for A Necessary Angel. I was intrigued as much by the plethora of anecdotes chronicling unimaginably putrid acts of  ego perpetrated by some of our brightest “stars” as I was by her lucid, and to my view, spiritually on-point assessment of what the entropic process of seeking fame does to a person, not to mention to society at large and the idea of culture. Wilson’s other books include  a work of fiction called Colors Insulting To Nature, that features a heroine aptly named Liza Normal, and her most recent work Caligula for President. All of her work is satirical and in a modernist way, prophetic. Cintra does not take on the mantle of self-obliteration and denial that is part of the mythos of the prophet, regardless of whether the seed of interpretation is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or otherwise. She reserves the right to stand in the middle of the culture, to sample its wares, feed on the edge of its excesses, carefully avoiding hypocrisy, always observing the right to call bullshit. She’s extremely effective at this. One attribute that enables her to build upon this effectiveness is that she seems to truly not give a shit about being judged, or if she does, is able to bear or ignore it.

It recently struck me that I had read her scathing denunciation of Sarah Palin in Salon in 2008 before I knew who she (Wilson) was. From her first paragraph:

I confess it was pretty riveting when John McCain trotted out Sarah Palin for the first time. Like many people I thought “Damn, a hyperconservative, fuckable, type A, antiabortion, Christian Stepford wife in a ‘sexy librarian’ costume—as a vice president? That’s a brilliant stroke of horrifyingly cynical pandering to the Christian Right. Karl Rove must be behind it.

Now this piece drew all kinds of ire from the right, and a little bit of stupidity from the left, in the form of  the opinion that there are “so few women in potential positions of power” that we should basically ignore galactic levels of incompetence on principal….but that’s another story altogether. What slapped me silly about the Palin piece was the fact that it was so utterly and completely true. Palin was obviously a completely insidious neo-con calculation. The perfect blending of the potentially prurient and the obviously wholesome. The fuckability  factor is undeniable, the sexy librarian thing painfully obvious. There is porn in them thar Alaskan hills. The cynicism of the packaging is such that the actual pornographic parody reads more like a conceptual tie-in than parody….and Wilson was keen to this dynamic and willing to point it out immediately. That’s not simply a satirical exercise for the sake of being clever. That’s prophetic energy aimed at the revelation of hypocrisy of a particularly repellent type.

So, after completing “A Massive Swelling” I decided that we must talk. I sent an e-mail through to her blog, and she responded rather quickly, stating that she was amenable to some discussion about art, politics, fame, whatever. I knew that this was a conversation that was going to best be had in person, and arranged for us to meet during a trip I took to NYC at the end of April.

We arranged to meet, Cintra, my wife Lisa and I, at a comfortable and semi-noisy Tribeca café that had amazing coffee, and a monstrously handsome barrista, the kind of person that possesses the type of beauty  that makes you understand in a moment that we are all potentially bisexual. I think he made me find my .0008%.

When Cintra arrived by car from Brooklyn, I was keenly aware of her considerable kinesis. Thin, fit, blond bright-eyed Kinesis…. The direction of the response is certainly not controlled by the direction or intensity of the stimulus. This is a person whose mind, body, eyes, and senses are on the move, keenly tied in to what is going on around them, taking in their surroundings in colossal gulps. Basically, Cintra is a sensorial multi-tasker, but you never feel ignored, cause well, you’re not being ignored. Dealing with both my and Cintra’s knee-jerk and barely controllable verbosity made me respect my lovely wife even more. Lisa has a great ability to morph herself to any situation she finds herself in. She just let us rock and roll.

We did not have to make small talk. There was no nervous banter or ill-timed starts and re-starts.  She is a physical talker, alternately leaning in to make a point, hands, eyebrows and fingers working as extensions of punctuation. I felt as if I was talking with someone I have known my whole life, which can be good or bad when you are doing an interview. Good because you can get to some good shit you never would have thought of in a constructed way, bad because you can go all over the map feeling you were brilliant, and come away with nothing. I think our conversation fit the former category. Wilson describes herself as “a maladjusted kid from Marin County” that exhibited in spades what would be seen today as ADHD. She heard over and over from the adults in her life that she was not “living up to her potential”. This, to no surprise came to be a self-fullfilling prophecy that lead to a series of legal misadventures ending with a stint in juvenile hall (Juvee is the name of one of her first plays). The artist in her was analyzing these experiences, creating a cautionary tale feedback loop that she could continue to use. And as always there was the critique. She would be as hard on herself as she could be on others. The internal maloika constantly working, working….

In talking about her formative years, and strange jobs that she has had, we spoke of her stint as a “Yagermeister Shot Nurse”:

“The weirdest gig I ever had was as a “Yagermeister shot nurse” where I dressed up in this bondage outfit, had a reclining dentist chair and a canister of yager which I would shotgun down the throats of people for ridiculously inflated prices..there is only so much a throat can handle” “This happened at a bar I worked at…”

 So there were not a bunch of “normal” gigs while she was at SF State, writing plays, and taking part in some “shamanistic explorations” in the Haight Ashbury… there was a type of falling into a life it seems, a process of following the muse and opportunity, carefully and shrewdly, yes, but most of all faithfully. This lead to some creative and subversive creations, like the character Winter Steele that she created and voiced for MTV’s Liquid Television. I don’t think to ask her how she came to capture these opportunities, the business side of things, because it was a time (late 80’s, early 90s) where there was still a little bandwidth for creating artistic business opportunities. Every potential pathway to artistic creativity and possible success was not blocked, like it is now, like a bloody rag in the bloated nose of every creative industry.

Our conversation morphs between the territories of interview and interested exchange. I ask Cintra about writing for Salon, and we discuss the writing business in general, she noting that the disintegration of the business of writing/publishing has mirrored that of the other arts. She notes that she get’s offered 1/10th the amount to write some articles or features than she would have received 10 years ago. It creates a situation where it is often impossible to take the gigs without losing money. I commiserate.

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic. It is an apt term to encapsulate the personal and professional Cintra. It is what she does, commercially and just moment by moment. That being said, we did have the inevitable discussion about Tiger Woods. I ask Cintra what she thought of the  Nike Ad, that in my opinion amounted to a public lynching for his errant behavior. A lynching with his complicity, yes, but a cyberlynching nonetheless. She says she has not seen it, but when I describe it to her she says:

That(seeing the ad) would have been deeply disturbing to me….I think that this came not just from Nike, but from Tiger….can I just be totally frank here? I have dated a number of black men, and I have always found that deep down, deep down , no matter how much school, no matter how much assimilation, no matter how much success, there is this gnawing kernel of guilt that comes from being fucking detested for hundreds of years.That has always pained me terribly…”Tiger’s situation is a bit more weird though, because of Obama. Suddenly he and Tiger are “the master race “suddenly the coolest guys in the world are these guys who are half-black mostly black identified….I do feel like he felt a disproportionate need to publically atone like a Japanese business man….

 When she said this my immediate response was to launch into a posture of denial (internally, because I did not engage her on this issue at the time), because I had always associated that kernel with anger, not guilt, guilt over what? But guilt can become a deep psychological wound that is experienced as effect and not as intention…you don’t feel guilty for, you feel guilty because. Because you have been told, verbally, and by the machinations of society that you are guilty…..of being black. So Tiger was not just guilty of errant and irresponsible dick swinging, it was errant and irresponsible black dick swinging. Another animal altogether.

 Cintra notes that Tiger went and found the synthesis of white femaledom to marry, the whitest woman possible. A tie-in to the guilt maybe?

 After Tiger, we discuss her take on the Tea-Party Movement:

 The  tea party movement is like when Brittney Spears shaves her head and defecates in a taxi-cab, and like vomits on Paris Hilton, then like, runs around and calls herself the anti-Christ…you know what I mean? It’s all just so disgraceful that it is hard to see it as anything other than: wow,  these people are the most filthy gnorant nazi’s in America… I feel like we only pay attention to them because they are so aggressively ass-out. I can’t take them seriously as a political movement.

“ It all comes down to what will attract them press. There is no such thing as positive attention anymore.” “If you kill and eat the orphans you get press. They have harnessed the ability to acquire fame, and fame is about quantities of attention, not quality.”

The disgust she has for the self-righteousness of entities like The Tea Party Movement is palpable. It’s the blatant dishonesty and need to control that disgusts her, even more than the moral inconsistency, for which in certain circumstances, she has a great deal of grace.  We had discussed Chogyam Trungpa earlier, the controversial guru who was the founder of both Naropa and Vajradhatu Universities. He was seemingly morally inconsistent, but it did not stretch outside the bounds of honesty, agreements he had made concerning his voracious sexual and sensory appetites. He did not hide his intentions behind psycho-emotional projectiles aimed with the intent to control others. The prophetess comes out with claws extended, fending off all attempts of control, especially by liars.

Wilson is working on a new book about what she calls “Fashion Determinism”, about how what we wear is so closely aligned with our political environments and destiny. The Critical Shopper columns she has been doing for the New York Times have served as a bit of a research pad for this project. While we are talking about this, a thin, flamboyantly dressed young black man comes in the café, dressed in an extremely individualistic manner, in a way that is impossible to ignore. Fashion is clearly art and communication with him. Cintra addresses the young man, saying that he will definitely be in the book, as he is a perfect example of fashion determinism. Wilson notes that “there is a really rich and unfinished language” regarding the geopolitical and sociological implications of fashion, and that “regional political economies dictate our fashion sense, which in turn dictates our future”. While she is saying this I can almost see the neurons glowing, the synapses firing off, steeling that big brain to spew forth another big glob of imminently original thought.  

We talk a little bit about the seeming contradiction of the culture critic/prophetess taking the occasional personal shopper job, which she does every blue moon, and she says “if some dude wants to pay me to take him shopping for shirts every now and then, I don’t mind”. This is a completely different thing than taking writing work that in no way shape or form resonates with her. I did not ask why. I can only venture a guess that the shirt buying experience is a potentially very human one…you never know what you will find with any given person, and Cintra, at the core of it, righteous prophetess aside, likes humans. Writing a shit article is simply indentured servitude in a moment. No humanity whatsoever involved.

We take our conversation to another café that actually has food and not just pastries, as Lisa and I are hungry, and we talk for another 25 minutes or so about the publishing industry, the music industry, and artistic inspiration. Our time is running out as she has to make a 2:00 Flamenco class. It keeps her dopamine receptors happy, body fit, mind in a pleasant state of tired when need be. We say our goodbyes with still so much to talk about. There are people  that you meet in this life that you are so bloody glad are here, drawing air, raging against the dying of the light, wearing the mantle of prophetess provocateur,  beautiful monsters with  interesting hairdos…. Cintra Wilson is one of those people, and I’m glad she is my friend.

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Outliers

Announcing a new blog series: Outliers


I just recently posted a story on ex-pornstar Abby Rode, which was the first in a series on Outliers. To put all suspicion of prurient intent aside, this will not be a pornstar series, although two of the interviewees will be Kay Taylor (Parker) of Taboo Fame, and Sasha Grey, fresh from starring in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. The series will be concerned with people that have lived lives considered beyond the pale, and have either turned back more towards “normalcy”, whatever that is, or to a higher calling. Due to the extremity, difficulty, piety, or threatening natures (good can threaten as well people) of their lives, or personal philosophies, These people inhabit,or have inhabited, terrain outside of the edges of polite experience.

The second interview of the series will be with Cintra Wilson, the culture critic, playwright, writer, and general prophetic curmudgeon, in my view. We are lucky to have her unfiltered analyses of fame, sexual politics and cultural misappropriation.

An interview with Incognegro writer Frank Wilderson will follow. Frank’s new book is called Red, White and Black: Cinema and the structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Frank’s view of the nature of the racial divide in America is well outside the established dogma of a leftist reading of history. Frank posits that racial conflict is due to a structural, ontological antagonism, a master-slave dynamic that is still in play, vs. a conflict between two entities considered equal in status.

An interview with influential Avant-Garde singer/songwriter Robert Wyatt will also be part of the series. Wyatt ‘s singular musical genius has been so far ahead of the curve that the idea of catching up verges on the inconcievable to me. His last CD Comicopera is a must listen to. The only other living auteur of such tortured, bittersweet and poignant pop music is Scott Walker. They are in very limited company.

San Francisco Cabaret Chanteuse Jill Tracy will also be profiled.  Even though I am biased because she is a dear friend, I can honestly say nobody does what she does.

I’m open to suggestions of other artists to pursue interviews with that fit my aforementioned definition of being an Outlier. Send me your suggestions, and stay tuned.

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