You who are getting obliterated in the dancing swarm of fireflies

I’ve been attending the Americans for the Arts’s Emerging Leader Council’s winter meeting in Phoenix for the past few days, convening in the amazing Phoenix Art Museum. Today we got a guided tour of the modern and contemporary art exhibits, with some background and explanation of several pieces.

My favorite is “You who are getting obliterated in the dancing swarm of fireflies” by Yayoi Kusama. You enter a dark space with what appears to be hundreds of small LED pendent lights hung on black cables from the ceiling, and must determine how to walk to the exit.

It is the closest thing to being removed from your body.

The lights glow and change color, then fade out intermittently. The space creates an almost nauseating vertigo because, despite your best efforts, you cannot perceive depth or distance. The walls are mirrors, multiplying the lights several times over so that it feels endless, formless. And the floor is black and polished, somewhat reflective as well. It was just so stunning.

There were many fantastic pieces we saw. One was made out of 7 tons of paper laid edge-out, color-graded from yellow to blue and pink to yellow (on opposite walls). Another featured charred beams and bits from a burned Baptist church threaded onto wires and then hung vertically from the ceiling.

I wish I had another day to go exploring. They have a significant fashion collection as well, and I heard today they were given several Halston pieces that I really would have liked to see. But, as it was, I did get to sneak through their Geoffrey Beene exhibit….

One of the best things about living in Phoenix is It’s a huge archive/calendar/list of arts events going on around town. At my reading on Friday (more later), someone came up to me and told me they saw an upcoming reading of mine there:

Hey! That’s so cool. It’s a great tool to use when you want to go out and do something but don’t know what–you can find out what’s going on on a specific night, for example, and then look for discount tickets.

A bunch of other cities have this, too, and you can see their links down at the bottom of the page:

Austin, Denver, Grand Forks, Greensboro, Houston, Riverside & San Bernardino, San Jose, South Bend.


I went to a little event at Phoenix’s Shemer Art Center last night. Five artists, working in a variety of media, discussed ideas of “revision” in their work—revised practices, revised forms, revised meanings, etc. I went because my friend and collaborator Kris Sanford was among the speakers. I’ve written about her work here before, so I want to focus on some of the envy I experienced while listening to the other artists talk.

First, Tawni Shuler and Brent Adrian, both painters, talked extensively about where their work comes from and how they complete it as a practice. Both of them mentioned that they work on a large piece (usually requiring a ladder or large studio space to complete) concurrently while completing several smaller pieces.

Here’s a photo of Brent’s work exhibited to give you an idea of scale.

I experienced an envy of scale! I thought, How amazing to be able to choose the size of your work that way, to work on physical planes instead of narrative/lyric/linguistic planes! (Because, yes, I’m a little nerdy.)

I wondered how I could incorporate ideas of scale into my work. Surely, poem length is one way, but I’ve worked in very large (30 page) and very short (six lines) formats already. I’ve also been really interested in working with things in miniature (Little Burning Edens and the work I did with Tracy Longley-Cook). I also thought about books like D. A. Powell’s Tea, where the lines are so expansive the book had to printed lengthwise—and, too, a book like Rebecca Loudon’s Radish King, which also involves notions of scale/white space in terms of layout.

So, now I’m thinking about scale.

Then, Becky Chader did a slide show on reliquaries, which are forms that contain sacred objects. Becky’s reliquaries exalt and preserve banal, everyday objects that are sacred to her, like dirt from her family’s vacation cabin. Three of her pieces were really striking to me for their ingenuity, their beauty, and their reverence for memory:

Lakefront Defense: a Reliquary for Mosquito Repellent

Moistutane: a Reliquary for Chap-Stik

Deadlines: a Reliquary for Vivarin

The mosquito repellent reliquary in particular is beautifully rendered. Around the base are carefully structred mosquito figures in the “bite position.” Above the red stained glass, Citronella candle bits are melted into the circular openings, and above them, a “blood chandelier” circles the base of the repellent (these are tiny hanging drops of red glass). And there, inside the reliquary, is a vintage bottle of Army surplus insect repellent—the kind Chader’s dad kept on hand for their summer vacations.

It made me want to write reliquaries over and over again. How can I keep sacred objects in a poem? I’m thinking about this.

Spread the Word: Phoenix is Hot (But You Already Knew That)

I’m pointing out interesting factoids to you in bold.

Phoenix arts economy is flourishing
Kyle Lawson
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 6, 2007

People may not realize it, but Phoenix maintains a thriving growth industry: the arts.

A national survey released today states that the city’s non-profit cultural institutions and their audiences contributed $361 million to the Valley’s economy during 2005.

That represents an increase of 38 percent in local arts spending since 2000, when the last survey was conducted. That survey was released in 2002. In terms of generated revenues and attendance, the total places Phoenix well ahead of most cities and regions with populations of 1 million or more. And it is more than the $311 million in economic impact generated by the 2007 Cactus League.

Indeed, one of the most surprising revelations in the study: Arts events attracted 6.1 million people in 2005, more than attended the 2007 FBR Open and Arizona Diamondbacks, Phoenix Suns and Arizona Cardinals games combined.

The survey also estimates that local arts groups directly or indirectly support 11,164 jobs, more than 10 times the national median for that category.

The figures are contained in “Arts & Economic Prosperity III,” compiled by Americans for the Arts, a cultural advocacy group based in New York and Washington, D.C. Across the nation, 156 communities participated in the project, the most extensive of its kind ever conducted, said Phil Jones, executive director of the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture.

Data was collected from 67 city arts institutions, including Ballet Arizona, Arizona Opera, Heard Museum, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix Symphony, Arizona Theatre Company and smaller troupes.

Although the first survey involved seven Valley communities, the 2005 report concentrated on Phoenix, with three East Valley communities compiling their own statistics.

“The first survey showed that, Valley-wide, arts institutions and patrons spent $344 million,” Jones said. In 2005, “that figure was $361 million for Phoenix alone. I think that is pretty significant in terms of just how fast the arts are growing here and their strong economic impact.”

The report also indicates that institutions and patrons of Chandler, Mesa and Tempe spent $82 million in 2005.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said he wasn’t surprised to learn that the arts were an economic power in the city.

“Years ago, Jim Ballinger of the Phoenix Art Museum taught me that, if the art museum itself were a business, it would be one of the largest businesses in Arizona,” Gordon said.

“What is surprising is the magnitude of the growth. I’ve always felt that you can’t have a great city without the arts. This is proof that we’re getting there. Phoenix is becoming one of the great cities of the 21st century.”

Kevin Myers, executive director of Ballet Arizona, appreciates the encouragement.

“We’ve known for some time that the ballet is doing well; we’ve seen a 20 to 40 percent growth in revenues every year for the past four years,” he said. “What pleasantly surprises me is to learn that the ballet is not alone in its success. The public appreciates that this is a city that enhances the lives of its residents.”

It’s about time the arts received some recognition, Cheryl Weiner of Scottsdale said. Weiner regularly attends symphony concerts, theater productions and events at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

“People don’t appreciate the arts and the quality of our artists,” she said. “I find that depressing. I’m a native of Boston and, when I came here, I was apprehensive about what I was going to find. Instead, I was impressed by the work. I hope this survey convinces more people to attend local events. If we don’t engage in what is here, it’s going to go away.”

The survey breaks the Phoenix figures down into $133 million spent by arts groups and $228 million by patrons. The latter figure does not include the price of admission but does include money spent on dining, transportation, souvenirs and other items connected with the arts experience.

Not everyone spending money on the arts is strictly local, not by a long shot.

“During the gathering of the data, we discovered that 60 percent of those attending city events came from outside Maricopa County,” Jones said. “They each spent an average of $45 beyond what they paid for tickets.”

Although the numbers are impressive, Jones noted that they’re also useful. The survey’s greatest benefit will be as “an invaluable advocacy tool,” he said.

“We now have something to take to the City Council and the state Legislature that shows in a quantifiable manner just how strong an impact the arts have on this community.”

Jones’ office receives in the neighborhood of $1 million in annual tax dollars to distribute among non-profit groups and artists.

“Thanks to this survey, we can show that the $1 million leverages $17 million in local tax revenues and $22.5 million in state tax revenues,” he said.

“That’s a pretty good return on an investment.”

Love, Janis

Last night I saw Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Love, Janis at the Herberger Theatre. The show dramatizes the last three-four years of Janis Joplin’s life, her meteoric rise to fame, and her untimely death at 27.

It was an interesting show. The narrative switches back and forth between monologues of Janis’s letters to her parents in Texas/interviews with an unseen interviewer and stage performances of her songs, complete with live rock band. Two actresses take on the role of Janis, sometimes even occupying the stage at the same time—one plays “speaking Janis,” who dramatizes the letters and interviews, and one who primarily sings the songs in a voice uncannily like Joplin’s.

The play opens with a youthful, exuberant Janis writing from her new home in San Francisco, where she has just hooked up with a band as the lead singer. This Janis, “speaking Janis,” is overwhelmed by the potential of living in the city. The actress who played her was perfectly cast—she was small, seemingly dwarfed by the stage, with wild hair she constantly tossed around her in excitement. Singing Janis was taller, seemed older and harsher than her counterpart. From time to time, they would be interviewed onstage together, each one offering a slightly different perspective on Being Janis Joplin. This is one of the things I enjoyed about the show, seeing how “experienced Janis” differed from “idealistic Janis,” although eventually the two personalities did merge and “youthful” Janis became overwhelmed by a sad kind of hubris and disillusionment.

Another enjoyable aspect was that the show didn’t focus just on performance—it gave you glimpses into why Joplin was drawn to blues music, what she thought it could accomplish, and what her goals were as an artist. These sections were almost a kind of metatext that expanded on the performances provided by Singing Janis.

It’s hard to believe that Joplin’s legacy was built on only about three years of work. The show provides a worthy retrospective of the singer’s catalog and a heartwrenching glimpse into her rise and ultimate self-destruction from drugs and alcohol.

Bearing Still

Last night I went to the opening reception for photographer Tracy Longley-Cook’s show “Bearing Still.” Tracy graciously provided me with the cover image for Living Things, her photo “Cedar Waxwing.” We first met several years ago when we worked on ASU’s Visual Text Project, a collaboration between ASU’s MFA programs in visual arts and creative writing. In our project, Tracy photographed doll furniture at a range that destroyed concepts of scale, and I provided the object’s inner monologue in poems. “Dollhouse Triptych,” featuring a chair, curtains, and a teapot, turned out beautifully.

It was amazing to see a collection of Tracy’s work. She works with an 8″ x 10″ camera, taking enormous negatives, and her primary concern in this show was explorations of the natural world and the subconscious world. In one room, Tracy blew up several photos featuring a character she calls “The Scientist” (herself) as she works mostly with trees and vegetation, living, dead, and dormant. For these images, Tracy printed the photographs on a translucent paper and then backlit them for presentation, giving everything an eerie, sepia or gray glow.

The other room of the show featured two projects: a series of codex-like boxes with actual plants and plant elements pressed into wax on one side and glass etchings of plant diagrams on the other. It took me a while to realize that the codeces had square cuts on one panel in the back, and with the light shining from above, you could view another plant element through this square hole. They were beautiful, strange, almost Victorian.

The last set of prints were mounted on wood and then coated in a wax and resin mixture that gave each photograph a kind of blurriness as well as what Tracy called a “skin.” These photos seemed to mainly explore shape, line, pattern. My favorite print of the show featured The Scientist holding up a forked branch into an overwhelming visual field of storm clouds.

It was a fantastic show!