Alas, it is our last evening here before an early trip home to Georgia tomorrow. I didn’t blog as much as I wanted this trip–my students put me to shame (probably because they receive grades for their posts :)) There was so much more I wanted to reflect on: how the South might just reside up in Harlem; how Coney Island always restores my soul; how I seem to always reconnect with old friends in this city; how I think I may have learned how to interact with New Yorkers on my very last evening here; how this Southern girl (unlike hometown girl Carson McCullers) ain’t ever leaving her region, not even for the cultural capital of the world. I’m going to use this excuse for my lack of posts: we’ve just stayed so busy, which means more experiences and less time to write about them. Instead, I’ll offer you some photos and let you see through my eyes what this trip has meant to me…(after all, this isn’t only a literature trip but a photography and arts trip, too).
Category Archives: Popular Culture
I should start this post by saying I’m not a religious person and that even my spirituality is rooted very much in the human world. When people ask me about my religious or spiritual beliefs, I always answer that I put my faith in people—and in the artistic creations of people. Literature. Music. Visual Art. All arts, really. While I normally avoid organized religion, that faith in literature is what drew me in to a real church on Sunday. When I saw that a sermon about Eudora Welty was offered at Judson Memorial Church just around the corner from our lodgings at NYU, I was intrigued. My friend Casey, a graduate school colleague who also studies southern literature and culture, visited, and we decided to brave the sermon together—along with two of my literature students. It just seemed too good, too serendipitous: how could we pass up a church service about a Southern writer in New York?
When we arrived, we were, perhaps, unpleasantly surprised to learn that it was children’s day, which meant that the Sunday school class would be performing all of the music, much of the reading, and even some theatrical skits. We double-checked the program to make sure that the Eudora Welty sermon was still part of the service before climbing the stairs to the church space. Once inside, we were warmly greeted by a chaotic scene of diverse peoples roaming around, including the Sunday school teacher who would deliver the sermon. (Just so you get a good picture of this place and its people, our speaker was a long-haired bespectacled hippie-type, wearing a Yankees jersey with “Grand Poobah” printed on the back). After looking again at the program, I noticed that the songs sung were not traditional hymns but instead Wilco, Patty Griffin, and Nick Lowe songs. I was a little astounded that this could be categorized as “church.” It seemed more like “fun,” which has never been my church experience (at Episcopal or Methodist churches, anyway).
When the service started, the children—age ranges 5 to 16 or so—took over. All of their performances were moving, from the piano preludes to the songs to the theatrical deliveries of significant first lines of literature (like Harry Potter, which apparently is not devil-worship material in this church!) and brief important scenes from the Bible (my favorite was Samson and Delilah: ask me about it when you see me). By far, the most meaningful was when several children of different ages spoke about what God meant to them. For instance, a boy in his tweens or early teens said that he didn’t really know how God fit into his life or if he believed at all, that he was still figuring it out. Another, a girl probably 10 or so, said something like this: “There are lots of stories out there about God and the Bible. Some of them I don’t believe. I don’t believe that God is a great big man looking out over all of us from the sky. I believe that God is love.” I was still astounded that a “church” would allow young people to express their beliefs so openly—mostly, to question their beliefs so openly. By the time our guest preacher stepped in, I was pretty much converted—converted to the idea that religion can reflect the best parts of my faith in humanity and the arts. Certainly, this place was challenging all of my previous beliefs about the nature of God.
But, going forward, the sermon absolutely opened my heart in ways I had not expected. It was more than a nod to Eudora; it was the life story of a southern ex-pat from Alabama who lived his life in New York. It was the life story of our guest preacher, who told us about his love for the city, but also his love for his birth place—who spoke to the discomfort of being asked to explain (and perhaps apologize for) a southern region characterized by ignorance, violence, and prejudice. He talked about college football as a sort of religion. He talked about sweet tea. He led us into Eudora Welty with pride in his home region, suggesting that, although the South may be a region historically associated with tragedy and trauma, it is also home to the best American writers of the past 100 years. He must have listed at least 50 writers (including all of the writers on my syllabus—our own Carson, too). We Southerners in the audience pretty much clapped—we pretty much clapped out loud, happy to hear our region being discussed in positive terms in this Northern city. In a church. Surrounded by people of all walks of life. I now knew I had been converted to thinking about religion in a different way.
But let me get to Eudora Welty’s significance in the sermon. First, he acknowledged that Welty might roll over in her grave, that it might be a stretch to include her in a Sunday sermon, and then he read bits from The Optimist’s Daughter. He kept discussing Welty’s use of the word “confluence”—of her descriptions of confluence. Of course, he related it to his own experiences in New York and to the congregation itself. And then, as so rarely happens to me in church (but often happens in a good class with a good teacher), I understood. Sitting in this peaceful space with my friend and students, surrounded by a diverse group of open-hearted folks, listening to a man tell me that the meaning of Welty’s confluence brought us close to something spiritual (what he referred to as God), I believed it. I was converted by his discussions of confluence, what I viewed as the confluences between North and South, literature and religion, the cultural confluences of the people in this great city. But really, I was simply affirmed: he affirmed that my faith in humanity and the arts does not (perhaps should not?) have to conflict with Christianity. It’s about embracing our confluences—not dwelling on our differences in hateful ways—which, not surprisingly to me, is something that we Southerners work hard at, despite our history.
Remember I said that thing about missing home and seeing it everywhere? Maybe it’s that I look for it everywhere. Even before I got here, I started looking for it. While I’m from South Carolina and I currently live in Georgia, I spent seven formative years in South Louisiana getting my Ph.D. at LSU. Sure, I left there, but somehow I didn’t really leave there—LA is in my heart, especially New Orleans. Part of the reason for that is because I love the music so much. So, when I saw that Kermit Ruffins was playing at the Brooklyn Bowl on the first Saturday after my arrival, it was a no-brainer—I bought my ticket straight away.
But, as should be expected, I didn’t just go dance the night away and lose myself in the music. I reflected (ah, the life of an academic—unable to NOT reflect). And what I reflected on this time was the exportation of southern culture, which seems to be in line with the trip theme of “Southern writers in New York.” Some might argue that Kermit Ruffins is the essence of popular New Orleans music these days, and some—like me—might argue that New Orleans music is the essence of southern music. So, when I got to the Brooklyn Bowl and saw lines outside the door, I was heartened. When I talked to some folks outside who were jazzed (excuse the punny phrasing) to see Kermit play, I was moved that so many others appreciated the music from my “heart” city of New Orleans.
And then someone asked me if I’d tried the fried chicken at Brooklyn Bowl because they are known for their fried chicken.
I don’t know why that simple question set me off thinking, but it did. I wanted to answer that just about everybody I know fries up his/her own chicken with a special recipe and that there are probably 20 or more restaurants that serve the “best” fried chicken in the town where I live. I started to feel like I was in a place where fried chicken and traditional jazz were exotic. I started to think that maybe these folks were fetishizing the South, coming to Brooklyn to eat fried chicken and dance and sing along to “Marie” as if they were in New Orleans or some other Southern locale. Somehow, it also felt a little unfair that they only experienced the best aspects of the culture without understanding how the centuries of violence and oppression came to inform these aspects. When you live in the South, it is much harder to ignore that history and its reverberations. In some ways, I could connect this experience to the Kara Walker installation—there was a strangely discomforting distance between art and audience.
But maybe that’s just the way—art cannot create authenticity for us; it is, after all, artifice. Maybe I should be happy that people are just searching for a hip Southern experience, that they want to eat southern food and see Kermit Ruffins (because there are plenty of Southerners who don’t want to celebrate our rich culture). Still, I left a little disappointed because seeing Kermit in Brooklyn is not anything like seeing New Orleans music in New Orleans. The place is intrinsic to the culture—the music and everything else—and there’s a spirit that is not transportable. As Tom Piazza (a native New Yorker) writes in his memoir, Why New Orleans Matters, “New Orleanians are attached to tradition, which is fused to a sense of place, to the ground itself…” (104). Much of this “tradition” is also born from the horrifying and complicated history of the region. So, if you’re seeking New Orleans culture or Southern culture of any kind, it’s best to just go there and dance in place, listen for the reverb, and maybe even fry your own chicken.
My professor partner-in-crime, Rylan Steele, makes sure we all see great art while we’re here, and man, am I glad. I had seen articles about the Kara E. Walker installation pop up on Facebook, but I hadn’t thought much about whether I’d go while visiting NYC. After a semi-grueling (but marvelous!) day spent touring Brooklyn Heights with Sherill Tippins and a trip to the Brooklyn Museum, Rylan and I hopped in a cab, made it to the Domino Sugar Factory, and waited in line with hundreds of others to see the Walker installation titled A Subtlety.
In short, it was amazing and not at all subtle. While the sugar mammy sphinx and her sugar baby helpers were a sight, the place itself was something to behold. The smell of sugar hits you instantly when you walk in—both sweet and sour. The walls of the space are muddied with molasses stains, and piles of dark brown sugar rest in every crevice. Beautiful but dirty. (Perhaps that sums up the exhibit itself—beautiful and dirty, sweet and sour?). But these descriptions have been given again and again, and Evette Dionne’s and Kirsten West Savali’s articles speak particularly well to some of the emotions that Walker’s installation brings to the surface. There are scores of well-written reviews out there, and I’m not sure that I can add more in terms of interpretation, but I do want to talk about Walker’s work in a southern context.
Walker has southern roots, having lived in Atlanta during her adolescent years and then remaining there for college, and her work often showcases the iconic image of the mammy figure that she incorporated into her installation at the sugar factory. Now, while I know that this piece is specific to the history of Brooklyn and the destruction of the factory, I also read that part of Walker’s inspiration in continually re-creating these stereotypical black icons came after seeing a giant mammy-shaped restaurant outside of Natchez, MS. And this is what I want to think about: why that restaurant remains—not in any ironic form—and then why an installation like Walker’s would probably not see a 45 minute line out the door in the Southeast. Certainly, across the mill towns of the South, there are historical spaces doomed to demolition and gentrification where Walker (or other artists) might create a similar installation. But I’m not sure that Southerners are ready to see this image outside of an offensively kitschy roadside attraction— this time so gigantic, so horrifically iconic (that the mammy stands in as our American “sphinx”). And I’m not sure we’re ready to deal with the emotions we confront when we see it. Because those are emotions about slavery, labor, oppression, and exploitation of people’s bodies and minds—specifically of African Americans and specifically of African American women.
But maybe I’m wrong: maybe lines would form, maybe the wait would be hours, just to be a part of something controversial. When I saw people snapping selfies with Walker’s sphinx looming in the background, it made me feel uncomfortable—as if I was part of a trend, some art installation fad—not a part of an intellectual artistic endeavor. This is not in any way a critique of Walker’s installation, but more a critique of the audience–of thinking about what it means to stand beneath an artistic rendering of American history with an audience that may not be fully aware of its meaning. For instance, many of my college students in Georgia get the Civil War and Civil Rights movement confused, and so many of us (Southerners or not) still consider Gone With the Wind to be an iconic American film, maybe even a substitution for actual history, when we need to be thinking about those iconic characters and settings in a critical way.
This is what I think Walker’s installation does…but I also wondered if her statement wasn’t lost a little. Like the rest of the spectators, I stood there gawking, almost as if the sugar mammy sphinx was a consumable roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere Mississippi.
When you’re trapped on a train for 30+ hours, you have plenty of time to think and reflect. When will my next hot shower be? Next hot meal? Will I ever see my dogs again? My friends and family? Who will panic first: me, one of my students, the four-year-old sitting five rows up? What did I forget? Who did I forget to buy a souvenir for? Did I lose any weight from all of that walking? Was this really the right time to quit smoking? (Turns out “no” on that last question, so don’t get too excited). But of course, as a writer, I was mostly thinking about what my last post would look like—how I would sum up this trip, how I would convey what I’ve learned and experienced overall. And this is how it turned out—a return to an old lesson again.
I was nervous about this trip when we started talking about it last August, but by May, when everyone had paid his/her money and it was absolutely official, I was physically ill with anxiety. There was the planning: excruciating for someone as disorganized as I can be. There was the fact that I had never spent more than three days in New York City, and now I was going to have to navigate it…with 21 other people. 21 other people that I didn’t know that well: 19 students, 2 faculty members. It turns out that this is the lesson. It’s never about the place; it’s always about the people. No matter where you are, people have the potential to ruin your experience or to enhance it. I’m not talking about the helpful (and sometimes rude) strangers I encountered. I’m talking about our group—our family of 22.
I was also privileged to catch up with two old friends while I was on this trip, one that I hadn’t seen in months and one that I hadn’t seen in several years. Sitting on a rooftop in Williamsburg, I confessed to one of these friends that I didn’t feel very open anymore—that maybe this inability to be “open” was dragging down my self-esteem a good bit. She calmed my fears by telling me that this was common with folks our age—she’d heard plenty of people in their mid-thirties and forties express this sort of anxiety. I was still thinking about that conversation, along with the rest of the trip, as I struggled to survive the long road home. I sort of knew that, once I got back to Georgia, I was going to realize that I now feel more open. And that this wasn’t only because of three weeks spent immersed in the arts in New York City, but that this was actually mainly because of three weeks spent with an open and endearing group of people.
Let me tell you about them. On our second day there, one student expressed that her favorite thing about the city was that she didn’t feel like a minority there, that no one asked her “what are you?,” that she felt accepted and a part of something. On the third day, one faculty member laughed the entire time we had to pay INDIVIDUALLY for 22 Metrocards, which saved me from a near-panic attack and taught me not to worry so much about the details. Another student—of legal age—remarked that he had been to only one bar in his life before this trip and now he was out with his peers every night. My other colleague researched and led us on a lovely tour of Greenwich Village and the East Village, reciting poetry to us at nearly every stop (my favorite was a recital of the Ramones at the old CBGB’s). More than once at a museum, I overheard an art student explaining the significance of a painting to an English student. On my own, I conversed with art and English students about the importance of Jack Kerouac, the real “story” of hip hop, the experience of eating Ethiopian food and soup dumplings. We talked about music, about writing, about reading, about art and photography, about shoes and shopping, and sometimes just plain old life B.S. I did plenty of eavesdropping, and on their own, this group talked about relationships, their families, their goals and pursuits, their adaptability to what was around them. The students seemed to fall in love with the city—or at least certain aspects of it. They seemed to fall in love with each other, mostly metaphorically, and treated each other with respect. Then one of them literally fell in love with a New Yorker, and I wondered if he’d get on the train with us. And then two of the students didn’t. They didn’t get on the train. They found an apartment in two days. They stayed in New York City to pursue life dreams (or just some summer fun), very Carson-esque, even if they don’t realize it right now. All of this—ALL of it—comes with openness, an openness to the place and an openness with other people.
It occurs to me that, in 1940s Brooklyn, this is what the February House was all about. A grouping of artists that lived together, discussed life, became inspired and reflective because of these discussions. Sure, there was competitiveness, disorder, arguing, even some loneliness and some lostness, but as author Sherill Tippins sums up, each of them had been inspired either to create or did create some of the greatest work of their lives. And they formed lasting friendships, lasting memories. So, now, left to look at the trinkets brought back with me from the great city of New York, I am most moved to consider the people that lived with me for three weeks and inspired me to cultivate their openness. To lose the anxiety and just adapt. To live fully with curiousity. Thanks, y’all.
In the class the other day, one of my students commented that she is learning a lot about herself on this trip. I find this to be true for me, too. (Who knew one could keep learning even at 35?:)) I also find myself re-learning old lessons that, by now, I should have remembered and held fast to. For instance, letting go of expectations. Living in the moment. All that Zen jazz. And tonight it worked.
I’ve been attempting to see music in this city since I got here, and so far, it’s been an epic fail. As a music lover in a city full of opportunities for listening, this is unacceptable. There were two shows I came here very excited about: The Felice Brothers at the Brooklyn Bowl and the Alabama Shakes at Central Park. I enjoyed the 45 minutes of the Felice Brothers that I saw. But they came on at 11 p.m., I hadn’t had any coffee since 10 a.m., and I admit that I might just be too old for late shows. I tried again with the Alabama Shakes, but for a 3 p.m. show, I found myself waiting, alone, in the heat, for nearly 2 hours before the first band (of three) came on. I now admit that I might be too impatient for trendy shows. So, today, when a free Gabriel Kahane/Suzanne Vega concert (in conjunction with a Poet’s House reading) popped up, I was interested but skeptical. My expectations were low, in fact so low that I thought about not going at all. But because Kahane and Vega have both written musicals starring Carson, I felt that it was my duty.
Thank goodness I let my job lead me in all the right directions. The setting was beautiful—at Rockefeller Park in Battery Park, right on the water as the sun went down. I got there a bit late for Gabriel Kahane’s set, but I enjoyed every minute that I saw. I appreciated his comment to the crowd that he was sharing a stage with another musician who had written about Carson. There’s something unassuming and seemingly honest about Kahane and his music, and I left with quite a crush. Then, two young poets read from their work, which I found comforting, maybe because I hadn’t seen a reading in a month or two. Because we host so many readings at the McCullers Center, it feels like a regular part of life. I didn’t realize that I missed it until this evening.
But here’s what I wasn’t expecting, here’s what I came unprepared for: Suzanne Vega was amazing, and her cult of fans was enthused, happily drinking wine on the lawn, dancing with their kids. It was some sort of New York music miracle. She sang mostly older songs, but she also threw in two songs from the musical Carson McCullers Talks About Love. I had seen her preview this musical in Columbus for the Carson McCullers Conference held there two years ago, and I didn’t know quite what to think. Tonight, I absolutely fell in love with the songs. There was something transcendent about hearing her give the intro to “New York is My Destination”—hearing Suzanne Vega mention Columbus, Georgia—a place that I am connected to almost as intimately as Carson—to a crowd at Battery Park, a crowd of which I was, at that moment, a part.
But it didn’t stop there: I was moved even beyond Carson and Columbus. After her nod to Carson, she sang “Left of Circle,” a sweet love song that brought back my childhood in the 1980s. “Left of Circle” is featured on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, which remains one of my favorite movies of all time. She closed with her hits, including “Luka.” Surprisingly, this brought me back to my youth again, even though I was never a big Suzanne Vega fan. (But she was on the radio and MTV, and I was a radio/MTV kid.) All of Vega’s songs held some certain nostalgia for the crowd. Even the songs I didn’t know recalled a freer time—dare I say it, a time with no expectations. Finally, after staring at the lights across the river and leaning into the railing that separated the park from the Hudson, I started my trek back to real life, with Vega’s live rendition of “Tom’s Diner” sounding in the background. I left not only with a renewed love for Suzanne Vega but also with a renewed remembrance to simply let things go and, as cliche as it may sound, be in the moment.
Often this trip is about making connections between my experiences. In that way, I feel like I’m writing about literature, analyzing the confluences of what I see. Last week, we visited the International Center of Photography, a small peaceful space that was hosting a show by Weegee. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Weegee before, but I was instantly taken by his journalistic detective-style photos of New York City crime in the 1930s and 1940s. Murder was his business, and in his black-and-white images of violently brutalized people, massive fires, and crime’s innocent by-standers, he beautifully portrayed the sometimes-isolated feeling in the city.
But Weegee had another favorite subject for his photography: Coney Island. In his Coney Island photographs—as the exhibit argued—Weegee captured a different side of New York: the playful spontaneous side of New Yorkers crowding on a beach for a day away from murder and crime. I was struck by the juxtaposition of these images: the crowds witnessing a murder and the crowds thronged together in play.
So when I visited Coney Island for the Mermaid Parade on Saturday, Weegee was foremost in my mind. Even though the beach community is more commercialized and consumerized today, if Weegee were around, he’d still capture a similar spirit in the people. Although the crowd was thick (I mean thick), somehow I didn’t feel crowded like I sometimes do in New York City. There was an air of revelry as mermaids and mermen made their way up the central street aside the undersea floats. On the beach, families lounged together while their children played in the water and built various sand statues. There were absolutely no pretenses there: it was carnivalesque without the dark side. I listened to the mermaid bands parading up the street; I shrieked atop the Wonder Wheel (swinging car!); I watched one of our students brave the cold ocean waters; I sat on a dirty curb and devoured a Nathan’s hotdog.
On the way home on the subway, our train was suddenly stopped and we were told to evacuate. As we pushed past the platform and up the stairs, six to eight police cars swarmed the station and rushed down to the train. Although we were quickly returned to a new train (without ever learning what exactly had caused the sudden evacuation), I thought of Weegee’s two photographic subjects. My day of revelry at Coney Island ended with a return to the city crimescape—perhaps a metaphor for the differences in attitude between the World’s Playground and the City that Never Sleeps, which Weegee captured so well.