National Poetry Month, April 2014

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Rapid technological development has led to a constant flood of visual and acoustic bits and bites – emails, text messages and Facebook updates. For most of us it has become a habit to react, one that often leaves us frazzled and detached. Single-tasking has become a luxury in the 21st century. To sit down and simply read a poem, so to only focus on one individual piece of work, can feel as if we’re not doing enough, or even wasting time. Besides, especially poetry can seem very inaccessible. It is not easily consumed; it does not offer clear-cut outlines, neat bullet points or answers to your most urgent questions in life. Poetry demands from both the writer and reader attentiveness and reflection, moreover, intellectual and emotional engagement.

I am writing this on April the 2nd, two days into National Poetry Month 2014. First launched in 1996 with the support of the Academy of American Poets, the month of April was declared National Poetry Month.[1] Some literati like to argue that the celebration of poetry should be a daily and not an annual event confined to a month. But this is not the discussion I want to engage in at this point. I am taking this event as an opportunity to reflect upon the role poetry can play in our lives.

Anyone who engages in poetry – or in any kind of art form – is most likely both curious and highly sensitive. Our attention is usually not drawn towards the general or the spectacular but towards the singular, with its nuances and notions, shadows and shades. Those of us who write poetry must often follow the invisible; we hunt after illusions, traces, and wisps of things. With the patience of field archaeologists we excavate vague impressions we are sometimes barely able to grasp, often agonizing over every word and phrase. Our reward is when this „tantalizing vagueness“, like Robert Frost called it, takes on forms and meanings that lie beyond our expectations, like hidden little gems waiting to be uncovered.[2] Aristotle wrote of poetry as, „a kind of thing that might be“, in contrast to history as something that was.[3]

Both reading and writing poetry demands of us opposing virtues; we have to be both intuitive and logical, heart and head strong, playful and disciplined. Poetry teaches us an awareness of the wonders of the world, of mankind and of language. Through poetry we take in others, their universe, their views, anxieties, beliefs and emotions – snapshots which can even mirror our own.

Poetry „cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint“[4]. Poetry facilitates reflection and compassion. It connects us not only with others but also to ourselves. My maternal grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. It was painful so see how every day she seemed to be vanishing a little bit more into this inescapable thick fog, like a ship with once billowing sails, now deflated and torn, lost at sea. But even when she couldn’t recognize most family members anymore, she could still recite poems from her youth. The poetry she loved and had mostly learned by heart still enabled contact with her own identity, with herself.

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[1] The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who with the help of W. H. Auden was living in American exile, had declaimed that poetry should be available everywhere. In 1993 together with the student Andrew Carroll he founded the non-profit organization American Poetry and Literacy (APL). Three years later the movement was flourishing and over 125,000 books of poetry had been distributed for free.

[2] See my blog post “The Pomegranate – On Finding Poetry“.

[3] “The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse… the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”  ~ Aristotle, On Poetics.

[4] Czeslaw Milosz, A Book Of Luminous Things. An International Anthology of Poetry, San Diego, New York, London 1996, p. XVI.

The Pomegranate ~ On Finding Poetry

 

Pomegranates open and still closed pomegranate seeds costume woman sitting old painting

Pomegranates are an ancient food, a globular-shaped fruit filled with juicy red seeds inside a hard shell, which appears in the mythologies and artifacts of several ancient Near Eastern cultures. Pomegranates are mentioned at least 25 times in the Old Testament. As a motif, it appears in embroidered form on the ephods of Israeli priests as well as in temple architecture, like in bronze on the pillars of Solomon’s temple. It is regarded as a sensuous fruit and appears in – amongst other poems – the flowery prose of the love poem, The Song of Solomon: “Let us get up early to the vineyard; let us see if the vines flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth. . .”  (Song of Solomon 7:12)

Studia Antiqua, The Pomegranate

 

In the quiet of a virgin morning, it feels right to sit with feet in warm slippers and a cup of hot steamy coffee in hand, and languidly let memories and fragments of ideas drift through the labyrinths of my brain. These are golden times, namely, when my monkey mind is still asleep – maybe simply exhausted from so much chattering, poking, and teasing. I can experience the same state of mind in the still of the night, when the dogs, like the day, are curled up to little furry donuts, quietly snoring away.

This is why I find that being in the flow of concentrated and productive writing is a lot like meditation.

As a musical poet and as a songwriter, I very much favour writing short pieces, like lyrics, poems, or short stories. They allow me to zoom in on very concise experiences or emotions. Anaïs Nin, the French-born novelist, passionate eroticist, and short story writer, who gained international fame with her journals stated:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect”.

Poetry as an Elevating Medium

A lot of the time this is true; no matter in which genre. A painter will experience a landscape by looking at it and re-experiencing it through his or her interpretation of it. I would like to add, however, that writing also enables me to experience things I didn’t know had impacted me – any Freudian-oriented analyst will like this statement because it illustrates how much slumbers in the sub-conscience.

The American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine uses poetry as an elevating medium:

I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.

Foreign Findings like Fallen Fruit…

Whenever I allow myself the quiet time of reflection, the results are sometimes unexpected: Foreign findings lying there like fallen fruit; ripened, unharvested pomegranates ready to be picked up, weighed in ones hand; their shape, colour, texture inspected, broken open and their inner jewels eventually coaxed into essays, songs or poems. The American poet Robert Frost described his process of writing poetry in a similar way: He said that a poem […] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” This process is what I would like to call finding poetry.

Golden-Pomegranate-by-Illumne-gleaming-Isla-candle-square
Pomegranate candle in brass vessel by Ilume for Anthropologie, 2014

In terms of its reception, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz claims that a poem not only demands this utmost focus from the writer but also from the reader – “reading a poem is, after all, always an exercise in attention” he writes. Alas, these moments are rare. Especially with the omnipresence of social media, the constant flood of mostly irrelevant emails, and endless to-do lists, it is often very difficult to achieve the amount of necessary focus. Without even leaving our workspace we become the distracted virtual flâneur, scrambling and scrolling through endless pages, filling our minds with digital clutter.

But secretly, we all know that often these emails, messages, pages, and social media sites offer a convenient escape from the tormenting, growing pains of a piece and to some extent, much-needed social contact. Because it is definitely not a myth that writing is a very lonely and sometimes frustrating process. Often, towards the afternoon my head often starts to resemble a scrap yard filled with piles of debris of the day – admittedly to some extent self-inflicted.

Most writers write because they have to write. But it takes courage to follow your own musings, to hope for the pomegranate in meditation. Discipline to sit through the editing process is another necessity. This is why the American writer Ernest Hemingway recommends bluntly: “Write drunk and edit sober”.

I have always written, but in the beginning, when I started dedicating more and more time and energy to my personal writing I would ask myself in dark moments, which purpose did it really serve? My education was in academic writing which always gave me something exterior to focus on and therefore to hold on to – whether it was a painting or a building. These were functional pieces of academic writing, which served exhibition catalogues or guided tours. But starring at a pomegranate doesn’t always feel like the most useful, economically wise, socially valuable, or practical thing to do. This is why dedicating oneself to these seemingly superfluous musings can be scary for multiple reasons.

What happens when we surrender to these doubts of “usefulness” and abandon these creative musings? The Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. writes in his foreword to Requiem for a Dream “Certainly not everyone will experience this torment but enough do and have no idea what is wrong.” Furthermore, he asks:

What happens if I turn my back on my Vision and spend my time and my energy getting the stuff of the American Dream? I become agitated, uncomfortable in my own skin, because the guilt of abandoning my Self/self, of deserting my Vision, forces me to apologize for my existence, to need to prove myself by approaching life as if it’s a competition. I have to keep getting stuff in an attempt to appease and satisfy that vague sense of discontent that worms its way through me.

It takes courage to be an artist. According to the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, artists, “are committed to a completely ‘unpractical’ activity.” Czeslaw Milosz writes: “Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still-life […] they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”

Art is mostly free of purpose when it comes directly from the heart. This is basically what the French expression ‘l’art pour l’art‘ means. It expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral, or utilitarian function. So to dedicate time and energy to my musical poetry or to a whole solo album with my own song material meant to dedicate time to myself. To see and describe my interior as the “painting” or a building and to deeply examine these constructions of thoughts and emotions – was to take myself seriously, my inner truth.

Frances Livings © 2013

How to Cut a Pomegranate by Imtiaz Dharker

I wanted to share this poem by another writer, Imtiaz Dharker, because it so beautifully illustrates why historically many cultures have been enamoured by this fruit. Pomegranates are texturally quite wondrous when broken open because of their contrasting insides and outside. They have juicy, jewel-like, and very vulnerable seeds inside a hard and protective husk. The piece also has many references to its long and lasting cultural history and symbolism, like fertility. Imtiaz Dharker is a Pakistan-born British poet, artist and documentary filmmaker. She has won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her English poetry. Dharker was born in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan to Pakistani parents.

‘Never,’ said my father,
‘Never cut a pomegranate
through the heart. It will weep blood.
Treat it delicately, with respect.

Just slit the upper skin across four quarters.
This is a magic fruit,
so when you split it open, be prepared
for the jewels of the world to tumble out,
more precious than garnets,
more lustrous than rubies,
lit as if from inside.
Each jewel contains a living seed.
Separate one crystal.
Hold it up to catch the light.
Inside is a whole universe.
No common jewel can give you this.’

Afterwards, I tried to make necklaces
of pomegranate seeds.
The juice spurted out, bright crimson,
and stained my fingers, then my mouth.

I didn’t mind. The juice tasted of gardens
I had never seen, voluptuous
with myrtle, lemon, jasmine,
and alive with parrots’ wings.

The pomegranate reminded me
that somewhere I had another home.

 

© Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009
Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009

 

© Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006
Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. ~ John F. Kennedy

 

Indulge in some of my poetry recordings here:

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@ Frances Livings
songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

When Love Falls Apart ~ The Beauty of Melancholy

Songwriting about something painful can be cathartic but it also means revisiting pain. After the initial spark for the song When Love Falls Apart, it felt odd, even paradoxical, to want to write something beautiful about something so sad. Which is, however, ultimately, what melancholy is all about and that was the core emotion I wanted to express. After all, When Love Falls apart is about a break-up, which was very difficult and painful at the time. To this date, the song is still very emotional for me to sing. It can be like being transported back in time. So writing the song became quite a process.

A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.  ― Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

How Co-writing Can Be A Way To Unburden Pain

I had almost completed the lyrics. I had a hook and was pleased with my melody for the chorus. But the verses were still incomplete. I was obviously procrastinating, trying to avoid getting in too deep. That’s exactly why I needed some support, some structure to build on. I needed to unburden myself from some of the pain. So I asked the classical guitarist and jazz composer Greg Porée for help.

Greg came up with some lovely additional chords. So using them as a base to lean upon, I wrote the rest of the melody. Rather, it then just wrote itself. Suddenly, the song was finished. Ironically, however, the song marked both an end and a beginning: “When Love Falls Apart” was the very first song Greg and I wrote together.

The next step was therefore to notate everything in a chart. Here’s a copy of the original:

songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

The Magic of Handwritten Charts

Handwritten charts are per se something very personal and are frequently of sentimental value for songwriters. I always keep an original, handwritten manuscript of all of my songs, whether it’s one by a co-writer or one of my own. It’s like keeping a baby picture of your child although it’s already grown up. For me, a song has “grown up” when it has been professionally recorded. Once the song is on Spotify or iTunes that kid has basically moved out and has started a life of its own.

 

Collections of Music Scores and Charts

If you’re interested in music notation, I found a lovely visual collection of other composers’ music scores. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York houses one of the finest collections of music manuscripts in the United States. In addition to a large collection of musicians’ letters and first editions of scores and librettos, its collection of manuscripts (by classical composers like Mahler, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, and Richard Strauss) spans six centuries and many countries.

There are many other archives and libraries with collections of original scores worldwide but also some that have been scanned digitally and are available online.

Hand-writing music has been a tradition in jazz for many, many years. With Finale, a powerful and involved music notation software, a handwritten look using special fonts can even be emulated! Have a look at this article, which explains the principle.

 

Recording When Love Falls Apart

But I digressed slightly. The next step was to record the track as a demo, with voice and guitar. That’s where I kind of left it. It wasn’t until playing an unplugged show at the famous singer-songwriter venue Genghis Cohen in Los Angeles, that I felt I needed to also release it. Maybe because that evening, accompanying me on classical guitar, was my co-writer. We performed the ballad for the first time live.

The way the song came to life and people connected to it, motivated me to record it as a single to just “get it out there”. Although I was already working on songs for my solo album it just felt right to release that version as a single – just with voice and classical guitar.songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

After recording it in the studio, I started designing the cover. I felt very much inspired by a very tender and touching quote by Virginia Woolf.

“The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight.” – Virginia Woolf

Melancholy is one theme that runs rampant through her writing. Her image of a singing bird amidst a moonscape depicts this pensive emotion so well. It is interwoven with both sorrow and joy, profoundness and beauty – which is exactly what I had attempted to create in the song.

My ballad “When Love Falls Apart” grew out of exactly these feelings of deep sadness, which via beauty, gave way to melancholy.

I am my heart’s undertaker. Daily I go and retrieve its tattered remains, place them delicately into its little coffin, and bury it in the depths of my memory, only to have to do it all again tomorrow.”
— Emilie Autumn (The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls)

Purchase an mp3 of When Love Falls Apart here:

Listen to the Song in this Playlist on Spotify:

Donating = Loving

You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, would you like to provide additional support? Please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. I will deeply appreciate it.

 

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Funeral Blues Gustav Klimt Death and Life 1908 painting

Funeral Blues ~ Songs and Poems about Death

 

The English poet, playwright, critic, and librettist W. H. Auden exerted a major influence on the poetry of the twentieth century. His piece Funeral Blues touched me a long time ago but it had slipped out of my mind.

But when another friend of mine recently died. I revisited the piece. Denis Kiu was far too young to leave life behind. We will always miss him. He was such a staple, the owner of the famous L.A. restaurant and singer-songwriter venue, Genghis Cohen.

Now, after a few weeks of grappling with this sad reality, I have started working on a new song. It’s called White Angel’s Café for my album The World I Am Livings In.

Writing about death is hard. Primarily, it hurts. But it’s also hard because it’s one of these topics that can easily slip into worn-out clichés, which end up meaning nothing. Especially since every person, every life, and, therefore every death is so individual. But psychologists agree that there are at least five stages of grief and mourning, which are universal. The picture that W. H. Auden paints so well in his poem is the initial shock, the first phase of grieving.

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

– W. H. Auden

 

Like so often in his pieces, Auden paints versatile and inventive but also somewhat “anti-romantic” images. In Funeral Blues they are not clichés but are everyday circumstances. Because it’s in these seemingly banal situations, in which we often miss loved ones the most, that have an impact on the reader. And so elegantly, he adds a pinch of comical absurdity – like putting “crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves”.

Another very touching short piece is by Henry Jackson van Dyke (1852–1933), an American author, educator, and clergyman. In his piece, Time is Eternity he explores the definition of time and how it depends on a person’s emotional state. But it is also a reflection on grief and the perception of ever-lasting sorrow.

 

Time is Eternity

Time is too slow for those who wait,
Too swift for those who fear,
Too long for those who grieve,
Too short for those who rejoice,
But for those who love,
Time is Eternity.

– Henry Van Dyke

 

Another piece, Because I could not stop for Death is by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). She’s truly the Queen of metaphors – metaphors as a figure of speech in which an expression is projected onto another expression by use of uncommon or unusual comparison. Here she has even personified death, with whom she explores both the inevitability of death and the uncertainties that surround what happens when people actually die.

 

Because I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves 
And Immortality.

We slowly droveHe knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recessin the Ring
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain
We passed the Setting Sun

Or ratherHe passed us
The Dews drew quivering and chill
For only Gossamer, my Gown
My Tippetonly Tulle

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground
The Roof was scarcely visible
The Cornicein the Ground

Since then’tis Centuriesand yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity

– Emily Dickinson

 

Reflecting on her own mortality, this is an excerpt from the poem Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath (1932–1963). In the New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates described Plath as “one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English.” Sylvia Plath was only 30 at the time she took her life. Plath already had a following in the literary community, attracted the attention of readers, who saw in her singular verse an attempt to catalogue despair, violent emotion, and obsession with death.

 

Lady Lazarus

…These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

 

I would like to close this blog post with the notion of “acceptance”. Peace, my Heart is a very soothing poem, stating “Let it not be death but completeness”: It was written by Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), a Bengali polymath, who worked as a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer, and painter. His poetry is regarded as “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful”. Peace, my Heart stems from his collection of poems, titled Gitanjali in Bengali (in English, ”Song offering”), for which Tagore received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 – largely for the English translation by the poet himself. He composed Song Offerings between 1904 and 1910 and published the collection in 1910.

 

Peace, my Heart

Peace, my heart, let the time for
the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain
into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the
nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be
gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a
moment, and say your last words in
silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

– Rabindranath Tagore

 

In its spirituality, his writing reminds me of Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder, of the Self Realization Center in Los Angeles. I had discovered his poem, Songs of the Soul after completing “my” poem Songs of the Soul. Yogananda’s poetry is frequently about his deep and religious experiences in nature. The piece I had written and later recorded – after feeling the necessary inspiration during a visit to the center – is, in a similar way, about encountering a form of deep spirituality – namely in music.

All of Tagore’s poems in Song Offerings are also of devotional nature – but to the supreme. The essence of the volume’s deep-rooted spirituality is also brought out in the following passage:

My debts are large,

my failures great,
my shame secret and heavy;
yet I come to ask for my good,

I quake in fear lest my prayer be granted.

The poet W. B. Yeats was similarly moved and thus, added an introduction to the second edition of Song Offerings. Yeats wrote that this volume had “stirred my blood as nothing has for years. . .” Moreover, he candidly informed the readers,

“I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics [are] …full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention—display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long.” – W. B. Yeats

 

Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1909

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Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

I was browsing through The New York Times when one article really grabbed my attention. It was on the American photographer, Francesca Woodman, whose work I had only recently discovered. Her oeuvre consists mainly of quite unusual self-portraits and one of her pictures, titled Vanishing Act had inspired me a while ago. It had actually helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness that I recorded for my first solo album. I learned that over 120 of her works were being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York, which felt really exciting – because, in a way, it was actually quite personal.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the Internet, searching for interesting pictures and inspiration. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists. A lot of them were in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach, and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures, whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

 

Collecting Inspiration From Other Artists

It was the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who stated, in the context of creating his video collage The Clock:

If you make something good and interesting and [are] not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.

Not only is Marclay a collector of images himself, but for his acclaimed installation, which is 24-hours long, he collected thousands of film and television images of clocks film clips depicting time. He created a montage of, edited together so they show the actual time.

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images often trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic – a topic that has most likely already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. Images act for me like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem, for instance, is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art – whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium.

 

Conveying Feelings in Song Lyrics

In this particular situation, images, thoughts, and feelings must have all run together: I was both deeply touched and inspired by that photograph of Woodman. It not only helped me to get unstuck emotionally but ended up delivering a line for my song, Eating the Darkness.

I had been playing around on the piano – which is what my usual songwriting process looks like – and working on the song Eating the Darkness (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair, staged in the isolation of an apartment or a room. These are the first verses of the song:

 

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. Some songs practically write themselves but with others its like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you finally summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, the idea dies.

 

How to Convey  Feeling Invisible?

I just felt that in the chorus there was still a strong image missing, which is why I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic. It had emerged very out of the depth of my guts like from a deep-sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in the isolation of a room. How could I convey that gnawing and devastating emotion of not feeling relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder.

The photograph, Vanishing Act from 1976, partially shows the torso of a nude standing on broken, wooden floorboards, in front of the wall of an obviously derelict building. The anonymous, faceless woman is half-covering her body with large sections of the peeling wallpaper – with which she seems to be almost merging. 

“Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

 

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

 

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course, her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed the song lyrics that I suddenly wondered, where and in which stage of her life would I find her? I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to thank her for the inspiration but I also wanted to share my work once the song was recorded…

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was staring at the ugly word – suicide.

Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

Suicide is usually the result of deep and dark depression, of being in a place of utter hopelessness. Maybe my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that very picture. Was that why ultimately, my writing had become fluent again? At the same time, questions started rolling in…

Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she able to channel these feelings so well, because she also suffered in such an intense way? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

No. I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close, almost intrusive upon her life, like a voyeur. So I refocused on my song and recorded it.

 

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture, and Sense of Composition

I didn’t go back to look at more of Woodman’s work until weeks later. A lot of it I still hadn’t seen and I was still very curious about it. What I really appreciate about her photographs is her self-expression, the use of textural elements, and her sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism may be “girlish” as some critics say, but it is also very self-exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. To think that, at 22, she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind is admirable.

For decades, photography was still thought to fall below painting in the hierarchy of mediums in art. It wasn’t accepted as fine art until the 1940s in the United States and the 1960s worldwide. But especially for women artists, it was an important medium because it granted a mode that was relatively free from the heavy, male-dominated history of the painted canvas.

There’s an anecdote that Woodman was asked by a friend, why she obsessively photographed herself. Her friend may have found it oddly narcissistic and simply still unusual. Because we mustn’t forget that Woodman created all of these self-portraits in the mid and late seventies – so long before the selfie developed as a medium of self-reflection and self-representation. Woodman replied, simply saying:

I am always available.

Woodman exclusively used herself as a model, which made me think of other female photographers, especially of another American photographer and filmmaker: Cindy Sherman. Sherman’s work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, in many different settings, with wigs, make-up, and props to create various imagined female characters. Another famous self-portraitist is Vivian Maier, considered the queen of street photography, who created many iconic pictures of her reflection in shop windows. There are many more of course, like Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) who focused on an exceptionally singular demographic – the marginalized. She captured the images of dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers, and many other surreal personas that captured her attention. She is often considered the Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) of photography because of her work as well as her early suicide.

 

© Diane Arbus, Untitled 1970-71
© Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1954
© Vivian Maier, Untitled, undated

The British art historian, Frances Borzello, who specializes in the social history of art, wrote a book on female self-portraits and female nudes. It is titled Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits. I found it most relevant, that she notes: The singular importance of this particular genre, the self-portrait is for women a “way to present a story about herself for public consumption,” a rare break from the typical objectification of the female form as depicted by the male artist.

 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

What strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. Frequently, the interiors are empty, decaying rooms, with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster, broken floorboards, and flaking paintwork. In their roughness, they are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. On the other hand, in many of her photographs, she seems to merge with her environment, which gives them a haunting quality.

The photographer, Victoria O’Rourke had similar thoughts about Woodman’s integration and depiction of wallpaper:

 

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall. ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

 

Wandering rooms like in quarantine

I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time

brain waves flickering, mercury mind

like a black’n white TV in 1969

 

Losing my mind, losing my mind…

“Losing my mind…” maybe we are all afraid of that sometimes, which is exactly why I had distanced myself from the artist after the initial encounter. I had peeped in but knew I had to protect myself and very quickly slam the book shut again. After learning about her suicide, it was painful to see her pale and vulnerable body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover, it was a fearless easiness and eagerness; revealing a form of self-exploration, that stood out against the derelict environment.

But another sensation that arose much later was gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture – and ultimately, with another creative force through my own art. The connection wasn’t formed through a biographical prism – or even the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. Because it can sometimes be difficult to push past layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice, a sense of sensationalism even… especially in an era of information overload, or fake news, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

 

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings. – Frances Livings

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work. She tried to expose herself and be literally, as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper. And I am fighting not to either…

 

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

 

Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:

 

If you found joy or inspiration in this post  

 

Watch The Documentary The Woodmans here:

"black and white photo" "gloves"

I Just Lost It

 

I couldn’t find it anywhere. “What? Is it this size?” my husband asks, holding his hands about two inches apart. “Nooooo – much bigger! It’s more like six, seven inches…, leather, it’s thick and heavy and worn, you’ve seen it – or not!!??”

I start searching, yes speed-searching through knicker-drawers, magazine-piles, food-stocks, bed-clothes; I look in the laundry pile, in the dryer, under the dog food, behind the fridge, in the freezer. In total frustration I ring up my girl-friend, who is very sympathetic about the whole situation and recommends staying calm. I cannot stay calm. Yes, I admit, I have hidden things before; things in quite unusual places; keys, money, jewellery, letters, gloves, anger, thoughts and feelings, even memories – mostly from others, sometimes from myself. But this is serious. Where is my diary?

I have lost my diary.

Mentally too overwhelmed to think clearly, I let myself sink into our thick velvety sofa, grabbing a cushion to hug, for comfort. I try to think back: Diary! Where are you? I almost feel guilty, like a bad parent whose child has been kidnapped: Have I neglected you that badly?  Is it all my fault? Oh, forgive me! Pleeeease! Where are you!

I slump back, my neck is killing me. I close my eyes and try to focus: I suppose, I have been overspending lately – to be honest, almost daily. Perhaps I just haven’t had enough verbal supplies left for you. Am I some kind of verbal traitor, spending my daily female allowance of forty thousand words whining away in the isolated scope of a therapist’s womb? What a fool I am! Who am I to think it would matter – just a slot in someone’s appointment book? I’ve spent far too much time blah-blahing, swirling thoughts through mid-air. Truthful, thoughtful and agitated words that have nevertheless been aimlessly drifting, only to be sucked up by the greedy grey vents of a rattling air-conditioner!

I should have known better! I should have known that only with you my thoughts can thrive! That with you, whiney and superfluous midget thoughts just shrivel away to make space for grand and thriving musings laid out in proper order, ready to become valuable memories. That one by one, in proper sentences, on clean and crisp white pages, row by row…. bound in soft leather, embossed with my name… my thoughts are something – just because of you! I am so sorry. I should have trusted you. Although, I do have to admit to myself, that lately, there haven’t been many neat rows of carefully composed words and symmetrically stacked paragraphs. I know, I should have confided in you.

There haven’t been that many neatly composed words lately because of my anger. Dear diary, I know… I have bruised your pages with this anger. My pen has been in rages, chicken feet scraping and scaring your delicate white skin, leaving blue tattoos with bleeding and blustering edges. Like those of criminals, rudimentary and raw, crude jail-house tattoos. I am sorry. I have hurt you; I have hurled you up and slammed you down. I have grabbed you, opening you up like the legs of a whore, bending your spine with a vicious crack.

Perhaps you have just had enough. Have you walked out on me? Diary, have you left me?

I cast the cushion aside and get up from my velvet enclave and start pacing again: What if it is just gone, I debate with myself – as in lost and someone finds it…?! A whole tsunami-worth of panic suddenly grips me, rides me and holds me hostage, stuffing my knickers into my gaping mouth. Then a deep feeling of shame rises from my crotch through my stomach, flushing my cheeks on the way. Shame ferociously spreads over my skull that has turned into a blowfish, only to perch like a goblin behind my ears, making them ring like bakelite telephones. The thought is so unbearable; similar to the memory of unexpectedly bumping into that guy you had really bad sex with. But now he is the one who doesn’t remember you; at all.

Where are you, diary?

My husband joins the action again. He is tired and has already shifted into twilight mode. He lifts a somewhat guided hand, half in limbo like a dangly puppet – or rather like a circus seal: “Perhaps in the dining room…”, right hand flap-flap signals. “Perhaps in the bookshelf…”, left hand flap-flap signals. Of course not! Books sit in bookshelves, ready to be read! Books have a cover, an index… As if, as if – it’s literature. “It’s my diary” I mumble, exhausted.

I realize; he really doesn’t have a clue – neither of what my diary looks like nor of the painstaking logistical manoeuvres I get involved in to hide these very private thoughts from anyone. And yet, I have been careless at times, have left you, diary vulnerable and exposed to the eyes of any intruder. But was I really worried that he had sneaked a peak or was I secretly disappointed that he hadn’t?

It hits me like a dump truck, that perhaps, my diary isn’t just gone as in absent or misplaced, but that it has actually left, as in never-coming-back-again. Suddenly, I feel as if I am walking with naked feet and wobbly knees through deep snow, so icy cold that my toes have turned from a deep beetroot red to corpse-blue and are going to drop off like plump raisins left for the ravens. In my mind the scene is playing in slow motion: I turn my head and look back and realize – after a brief moment of dizzying shock – that there are no imprints. I haven’t left a single footprint, no marks. Nothing. I am a nonentity. But like in a bad floaty-type drugged-out dream, I then stare down at my open hands, at the swirls of my fingertips which are blank and flat like molten wax.

© Frances Livings 2012. All Rights Reserved.

(c) The Morgan Library and Museum, 2011

Candy’s Caravan. A Song about a Prostitute

 

I released my single Candy’s Caravan in December 2010 on my jazz label Moontraxx Records. Stylistically the song is a blend of Nu-Jazz, electronica, and pop – reminiscent perhaps of artists like Portishead and Annie Lennox. It features two characters with different perspectives: myself as the narrator and the prostitute Candy who is the main character – like the title implies. Atmospherically it sounds slightly theatrical, like a short and dark Burlesque piece.

I had completed the lyrics for Candy’s Caravan long before I had even started on the music, which fell into place when I was experimenting on the piano along with a simple pre-recorded trip-hop loop. The structure and arrangement for the piece I then further developed on live gigs.

It marks one of my first pieces that evolve around another woman’s very specific fate. I focussed thereby on a very narrow window of her everyday life and struggle. I have since then explored an array of typical female topics from different socioeconomic statuses and cultural backgrounds. Some are in song form, others are spoken word or musical poetry pieces. The paths of women, their stories, and their dreams have always intrigued me. In a patriarchal society, we face completely different challenges than men. As a writer and a woman myself, I have experienced many traumatic events, unexpected changes, and terrible losses. So even if I haven’t made that exact experience personally, I try to deeply empathise. Often through images, I then research and reimagine what those struggles may be.

 

Listen to a full-length recording of the song here:

Although I have never worked as a prostitute, the lyrics of Candy’s Caravan actually mirror a combination of different experiences, made during my student years in Hamburg, Germany. Another influence is my theatre background, most obvious in the usage of dialogue. I worked for two small theatres on the famous Reeperbahn in St. Pauli, Hamburg and these experiences definitely coined the piece.

 

Slightly Unusual Student Jobs

Like most students getting themselves through college, I took on a vast variety of jobs and gigs. These jobs not only varied in certain skills I had to quickly learn and apply but also in their social environment. During the summer holidays, before I started junior college, I worked in a tile factory. I was intrigued and sometimes intimidated by the gritty working-class women. Many even had children to care for and households to run. But they stood there every morning at 6 am on the dot from Mondays to Fridays for a physically strenuous 8-hour shift. The parallel universe was later working in an office, a proper office with buzzing computers, a synthetic carpet, bad coffee, fashion magazines, and lots of gossip, where I helped translate technical terms.

Another interesting experience was being an extra on TV productions. During those years, in the nineties, Hamburg was a huge media metropolis before a lot of production companies moved to Boomtown Berlin after the wall came down. So there were lots of well-paid TV jobs. I did have a hard time sometimes, being the impatient and curious person I am. I found all of the waiting, the “hurry up and wait!” hard to endure, which is why I so loved the theatre and love performing live because it’s all about being in the moment. Anyway, for two episodes of a German evening TV series I played (or rather posed as) a prostitute which turned out to be a very interesting experience.

 

Livings as a Prostitute?

One of the gigs was quite well paid because it was not only in the middle of the night and absolutely freezing cold but we were also, naturally dressed in the most skimpy clothes you can imagine. In retrospect, it would be fun to have a few photos but that was before the selfie-era. My friend and I were hardly able to stand in the patent leather boots we were strapped into, the fishnet stocking was cutting into the flesh of my toes and the layers of thick make-up seemed to be the only form of insulation we had against the freezing cold. Although we flirted with the role, it did in a way feel uncomfortable that the mostly male technical crew changed the way they looked at us the moment we were clad in over-sexualized, skimpy mini-skirts and revealing lace-up tops.

It seems as if we stood under this dark and eerie railway bridge in a barren industrial area near the train station in Hamburg-Altona for hours, pretending to chat up the drivers cruising by, until finally, I suppose, the lead actors got their lines right. Daylight was already lingering on the horizon as we fled home with numb toes, chattering teeth, and blue lips. I realized what a terrible and humiliating profession this must be: exposed to the cold, to investigative stares, like being livestock on a meat market. Despite working on the Reeperbahn, I had never really seriously thought about these women before. But I needed to pay my rent too.

 

Fishnet Stockings and Lonely Tissues Boxes

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely mirror naked woman reflection dim light window blinds
© Jane Burton, The Other Side, 2002

It was a pure coincidence but the next gig I took on was playing a prostitute in a bar. But at least it was indoors and warm.  The most interesting part was the location: The scene was actually shot in a real bordello in Sankt Georg, a very seedy area of Hamburg like often districts in close proximity to central train stations tend to be.

After a wardrobe person handed us each a hanger with our skimpy costumes, the production assistant showed us our dressing rooms: They were the actual bordello “bedrooms” (for lack of a better term) and we were supplied with one each. Mine was a fair-sized room with red padded walls, sporting gigantic gold-framed, mirrors. It was dominated by a giant king-sized bed that was stripped bare of bedclothes, revealing a smooth red plastic sheet that covered the mattress. Even the tall standard lamp with a pleated silk shade was protected – against body fluids – by a fitted plastic cover. The humungous bed was flanked by two nightstands, each crowned with a singular, lonely tissue box.

It was extremely weird to get undressed and changed in that room. There was a bed – but nobody ever slept there. Was anyone watching? What was behind the mirrors? I panicked for a second thinking, any moment some John would be arriving. There was even a small extra room we had first entered before proceeding to the “bedroom”. It had a window and was sparsely furnished with two chairs and another tissue box – I think anyone’s imagination would have been triggered by this situation and it definitely delivered some interesting inspiration for my writing.

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely Window with lace curtains beaded red lamp female legs shoes dark
Image on the left © Jane Burton

The Famous Reeperbahn.

It was around this time I got a job at the St. Pauli Theatre, which is located on the famous Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn (also known as the “sinful mile”) is absolutely unique. To someone who has never visited, it could be described as a hybrid of the old strip in Las Vegas, London’s Soho on Fridays, the red light district in Amsterdam, and the sex tourist’s strip in Bangkok. Its atmosphere alone has certainly influenced some of my writing (and many others before me) and coined reflections on topics like prostitution.

The German crooner and actor Hans Albers is strongly associated with St. Pauli and wrote the neighbourhood’s unofficial anthem, Auf der Reeperbahn Nachts um Halb Eins in the 1940s. In the 1960s The Beatles had stints on the Reeperbahn early in their careers. And in the first lines of his song Down The Reeperbahn the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits captures an a-typical scene:

Around the curve of The Parrot Bar
a broken-down old movie star
Hustling and Easterner
Bringing out the beast in her

I love Tom Waits as a writer and enjoy reading most of his lyrics. A lot of people recognize him by his distinctive voice that the critic Daniel Durchholz described most accurately as sounding as though “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”.[1] Exactly like a soundtrack of the Reeperbahn…

Short Memories and Long Tales…

I have always been drawn to the Reeperbahn. It’s simply an extremely interesting and seductive place. Because indeed, like Waits writes, “the memories are short but the tales are long, down there in the Reeperbahn”. As a visitor, it is a fantasy world full of false promises and illusions – like a theatre. I’ve also been to some of the best parties at great clubs there (like the legendary Mojo Club) when the European Electronica movement first started. I sang regularly at a dive bar called very suitably, Die Rote Laterne, where my co-writer and I practically founded and musically developed our band  4UrbanArtists. I often partied and sometimes sang at Angie’s Nightclub, where my singing coach Roger Cicero, performed regularly, playing piano and singing jazz, soul, and pop songs before he had his big breakthrough as a German jazz singer and sadly died prematurely in 2016.Quote Tom Waits at piano smoking prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque

Often, after the curtain had fallen and we had wrapped up the show, I would step out onto the Reeperbahn, the air filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol and it would take me a while to adjust. Especially when you actually work there the contrasts can sometimes feel very strange. For the longest part of the evening, I had been enveloped in the safe and abstract world of a theatre. Then after the show, I would walk out onto the street and be confronted with crowds of testosterone-driven guys seeking sleazy sex and drugged twenty-somethings on their way to the next hip club, crazed to dance, drink and flirt.

So afterwards, my co-workers and I would often have drinks at the house bar. But on one of these slightly insane evenings, even the bar was so crowded that some of the crew members and I decided to go somewhere else.

 

My Encounter with “Candy”

We went around the corner into a dark alleyway to a small, unknown (well, unknown to the tourists) bar. I had my bike with me that I pushed alongside while we all chatted and then absent-mindedly decided to chain to a lamp post (yes, literally, Unter der Laterne…). Suddenly this raging fury shot out of the dark. Hobbling towards me on her neck-breaking high heels, violently swinging her handbag she yelled: “Du Schlampe…! Du…” (You bitch, you) I understood immediately. I fiddled with the lock as fast as I could, muttering, “‘Schuldigung! ‘Schuldigung!” (sorry, sorry) under my breath, and then humbly entered the bar with my bike. The image of that woman was forever burned into my brain and lastly coined Candy’s wig and the high heels. The owners of the bar, a lesbian couple were gracious and let me park my bike in their dingy backyard. It was a tight and dingy space, where once a week, boxes of liquor and large barrels of beer were delivered to. I have always been quite a street-wise person and am also respectful of people’s space but this one time I did almost get beaten up by a hooker, whose territory I – in her eyes – hadn’t respected.

 

The Rhythm of the Reeperbahn

Especially at the weekends, the energy on the Reeperbahn can almost be explosive. Depending on how much the crowds drink, which football team has lost or won, how warm and humid it is (the colder, the calmer) and, I suppose, how business, in general, is going for the street girls. There’s a strong feeling of hierarchy. As a “normal” working woman you stay out of their way, mind your own business. In the ecosystem of the Reeperbahn the street girls are at the bottom of the ladder: Not seldomly are they heartbreakingly young, runaways and drop-outs, barely the age of eighteen. In neon-coloured hot pants, snow boots and fur-trimmed jackets, and thick make-up they line the street, hustling the men and boys in front of Burger King. Street prostitution is only legal during certain times of the day on the Davidstraße. It’s the most curious sight at 8 pm to see them suddenly all pop out of their rabbit holes to then later suddenly vanish again. But it is also very absurd for most tourists to see them lined up exactly opposite the historical Davidwache, the district’s main police station located on the Southside of the Reeperbahn, on the Spielbudenplatz.

It was always downright fascinating to watch the gaudy but also desolate nocturnal activities of the crowds. But working almost daily at the theatre at night and sometimes in the daytime, is very different. Despite the chaos, there is a certain rhythm on the Reeperbahn. I sometimes had to go to the theatre during the day to hang up washing, repair costumes, or attend rehearsals. Often I could almost hear a big and long sigh, a feeling of general relief when the tourists and party animals had left during the daytime. This void is used to nurse hangovers and guilty consciences, stock up on cigarettes and alcohol for the night. The rhythm of the street then elapses into slow motion. What lingers in the air is the stale odor of beer, bad breath, sweat, fried onions, cigarettes, and vodka – like the trail of cheap perfume or cologne women or men, void of any style or taste, leave behind. The buffed and mean-looking doormen suddenly deflate, looking tired and tame. The sleazy, crooked-eyed drug dealers’ posture becomes slouchy and coffee-thirsty and run-down, catty prostitutes look cold and worn.

Yet the closer it gets to dawn the more the pace speeds up again: Having barely recovered, the cobbled streets and the musty bars are hastily swept. Synthetic wigs are brushed and plucked and laddered nylon tights are the subjects of emergency cosmetic surgery. Once the revealing daylight has vanished the illusions are born again – luring and seducing, like Candy…

© Frances Livings. All Rights Reserved.

 

Did you enjoy reading this post? If so, why not…

 

 

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely half naked woman topless dress smoking black and white photography art Bordello
© Vee Speers, Bordello series, 2001
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque bed satin heart shaped pillow
© Weegee, Bed with Heart
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely mirror naked woman sandals dim light window curtains half light
© Jane Burton, The Other Side #8 2002
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque 1920's 1930's art photography bordello naked woman black mask
© Vee Speers, Mask (from the Bordello series)
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque women mannequins bubble wrap art photography
© Richard Kalvar, Women in Bubble Wrap
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely woman dim light blonde
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely naked woman satin bedspread white face make-up
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008
prostitute song Candy's Caravan naked woman blonde curtain blue top
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008

 

Livings In Los Angeles. Public Parks and Gardens and their Impact on Mental Health and the Creative Mind

 

The title of my poem Evaporated may not suggest it, but I drew its imagery draws the different contrasting botanical areas at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino. It has been one of my favourite places to visit ever since I first came to Southern California in 2005. The 207 acres of space, of which 120 acres are landscaped parks and gardens, showcase a variety of botanical areas. One of the most fascinating ones – probably for any European or East-coaster – is the ten-acre large desert garden which features more than 5,000 species of succulents and desert plants.

Barrel cacti and Agave at The Huntington Desert Gardens, San Marino, CA

Succulents have always fascinated me, their shapes and characteristics and their ability to survive on so little and yet be able to bloom and flourish in the most extraordinary ways. As a teenager, I had a small collection of cacti: My room faced South so out of thin planks of wood I constructed swing-like benches for the large window for them to sit on and relish the sun rays. They were small and very common species but they sometimes even bloomed. But never did I expect to see such alien monstrosities or small insect-like clusters of cacti like I did at the Huntington gardens years later.

After having completed the poem I started to think about how, throughout my life, the experience of different landscapes and topographies has influenced my perception and awareness of my surroundings. Especially when living in a city, visits to gardens and urban parks have not only sometimes saved my sanity but also influenced my work as an artist and writer. The following piece for instance, which I recorded on my first solo album, I wrote after a visit to the beach in Santa Barbara. It’s short and melancholic, almost like a tone poem:

Listen to Pebbles in my Hand here:

My personal experience is that nature, even in contrived areas like in parks and gardens, can evoke emotions in us that are often not released otherwise. And it is a widespread and well-researched fact that nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development.

It was only after I had moved to Los Angeles that I became aware of how vastly different not only cityscapes but also landscapes can be, how much the climate can hinder or support certain activities. On the whole, I realized, I had been lucky to have spent the first three decades of my life in very green, fertile, and geographically non-threatening environments – no black widow spiders, earthquakes, mudslides, or mountain lions. But I can also see that not everyone in this city is able to make these choices and therefore experiences.

In most parts of the city of Los Angeles, there is no alternative to street culture. The city has paid little attention to small urban green spaces that should be available for all members of society, either within walking distance or at all times fully accessible by public transportation and an integral part of daily life. Some studies even show that “there is an obvious correlation between poverty, food access and lack of open space” like stated in a blog entry posing the question “Is the lack of recreational space making us fatter?”.

 

Parks and Gardens in Northern Europe

Having grown up in England as a child, the long history and culture of the English garden and park and my family’s interest in their natural surroundings influenced my relationship with and awareness for nature, whether in a natural or a contrived state. With my parents, we visited some of the most interesting estates, strange sculpture gardens, and vast parks, like the famous Hyde Park in London. My Nanna was a passionate gardener and cook, who made jam from her home-grown black currants and pies from her apples and even managed to grow some figs and tobacco on her large allotment in Suffolk.

After I was literally “deported” to Germany as a pre-teen, I felt that the flat and boring landscape, dotted with stoic, grass-munching cows, was a hard contrast to the hilly and lush countryside of East Anglia. I have tried to convey some of these emotions in a yet unfinished piece ‘Wasteland’, playing with these landscape features as synonyms for my interior landscapes. Nevertheless, nature was accessible and if it hadn’t been for the trauma of being moved away from my family, it would have been a theoretically non-threatening experience.

As a student, I then moved to the city of Hamburg. Perhaps it was a mere coincidence that Hamburg ranks as one of the top ten greenest cities in Germany and was awarded The by the European commission in 2011. But I truly enjoyed the fact that even though it rains a lot of the time (which can be depressing on another level and obviously helps the vegetation to flourish) there are so many green spaces, rivers, and canals accessible from all parts of town, mostly in walking distance.

 

Los Angeles’ National Parks

During my time here in Los Angeles I have therefore sought out many of the parks the County has to offer, like Griffith Park, situated in the Eastern Santa Monica Mountain range, in the northeastern part of the city.

Native Oak Trees in Griffith Park, CA, photo: Donna Grayson

With over 4,210 acres of both natural Chaparral-covered terrain and landscaped parkland and picnic areas, it is the largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the United States. Two famous landmarks are the recently restored observatory, opened to the public in 1935, and the Greek theatre, the famous music venue.

Represented in Griffith Park – in a similar way to Topanga State Park in Pacific Palisades – are California native plants and in small quantities, even some threatened species.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had already seen the health benefits of national parks and became an energetic supporter as president. He wrote:

There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle.

He obviously also had a strong nationalistic agenda: Even in the midst of the Depression, national parks were being dramatically improved by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and highly publicized and therefore politicized. I doubt whether the city of Los Angeles is currently really interested in designing and financing green urban spaces in low-income zones.

King’s Road Park in West Hollywood, CA, photo: Frances Livings

In middle-class neighbourhoods, like West Hollywood public parks, if existent, are tiny and still rare – like a small oasis nearby our home on King’s Road (very much the opposite of King’s Road in London…).

It features a beautiful small waterfall (I doubt whether from a natural water source), a Gingko tree, and tropical shrubbery, like banana plants and Bird of Paradise. It would, at the most, hold 50 people, tightly seated attending a one-woman flute concert. But on my almost daily dog walks it is a small oasis where I often sit down on one of the park benches, switch my iPod off, and can find tranquility.

 

Los Angeles’ Historic Parks and Gardens

Other communities that have long histories of parks surround Pasadena, a small college city about twenty miles north-west of Los Angeles that is famous for the annual Rose Parade, its craftsman houses, like the Gamble house by the architects Greene and Greene and the Millard house by Frank Lloyd Wright from 1923.

Nearby, in La Canada Flintridge are the Descanso Gardens which are well worth a visit throughout the year, but especially in January and February when the Camellias are in bloom.

The Arboretum in Arcadia, CA, photo: Frances Livings

Located in the city of Arcadia, the Arboretum is home to plant collections from all over the world, including many rare and endangered species. The Arboretum also houses some interesting outdoor historical landmarks, like a Victorian Queen Anne cottage, representative of the major phases of California history. And like mentioned above the Huntington in San Marino whose desert gardens I am so fascinated by.

But unless you live in San Marino, ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 63rd most expensive area to live in the United States and where the median list price of a single-family home is almost 2 million US dollars you will always require private transportation to these places (unless you can afford a taxi).

These national parks and historical gardens are exclusive and exclude suburban oases. There is no train and hardly any busses. The entrance fee per adult (without an annual membership) is at the Huntington’s a staggering $20. So especially with a family these trips involve a steep budget, planning well ahead, and/or making reservations for the one free day of the week.

 

“It Never Rains in California”

Most people tend to perceive the Southern Californian climate as extremely friendly. They think of the beaches, of blonde and bronzed surfer dudes, of a place where it never rains. How often do you see tourists in an open tour bus without sunscreen and a hat – we all know that they’ll be close to a sunstroke by the time they’ve passed the 28th villa in Beverly Hills in which Barbara Streisand is supposed to have lived.

‘Sun Screen’ (c) Mark Boster printed in the L.A. Times, Sep. 9, 2011

Being here all year round has made me realize that the sun can be very cruel and relentless. In August and September, I find it almost impossible to walk anywhere – it is the desert sun.

Unlike residential areas close to places like Griffith Park or the Huntington Gardens, the poorer parts of the city, like Compton or Torrance, offer hardly any escape from the desert-hot sun or relief from everyday problems and anxieties in a rejuvenating environment.

Not only green areas, like parks and gardens are missing but a large part of Los Angeles’ inner cityscape doesn’t even deliver much shade. Partly because a lot of areas lack trees with foliage (palm trees grow best) and, because of earthquake danger, the buildings are mainly low-rise complexes and strip malls. The wide streets are barren and dry, dusty and often excruciatingly un-embracing, uninspiring and insular.

 

The Problem with Urban Heat Islands

Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

When the sun most violently smacks down on the dark asphalt and heats up its environment up to four degrees Fahrenheit more than in green areas, so-called urban heat islands are created.

Urban heat islands not only decrease the air quality but have an impact on nearby water bodies. But not only does Los Angeles lack public green areas that could be integrated into our daily lives and routines, but sources of water.

The only canals I know of are in Venice beach, surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate. The L.A. River is less picturesque with its concrete beds which act as water basins for melting snow gushing down the mountains in the spring. In the hot summer months, they are mostly dry.

Unlike in places like London with the River Thames or Paris with the romantic Seine, these areas are also not offered as spaces of contemplation or restoration in the middle of the city, mainly because they completely lack natural vegetation or wildlife.

It is a known fact that enclosing shrubbery and the foliage of trees in parks can foster crime, which is why some city planners have argued against them. Central Park in New York has (perhaps falsely) become a synonym for heinous acts of crime – like those often depicted on TV. But studies have also proven the opposite: Next to the urban study departments of many Universities, the APA, the American Planning Association, an independent, educational non-profit organization has conducted research programmes that show:

Time spent in natural surroundings relieves mental fatigue, which in turn relieves inattentiveness, irritability, and impulsivity, recognized by psychologists as precursors to violence. Green spaces also support frequent, casual contact among neighbors. This leads to the formation of neighborhood social ties, the building blocks of strong, secure neighborhoods where people tend to support, care about, and protect one another.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

 

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