Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lola takes the mean girl out

Last night a good friend and I took in the 2nd annual Shimmy Showdown at Jumpin' Jupiter. A Lola Van Ella production, the Shimmy Showdown mashes up burlesque routines with solo improv comedy and the "death match" model of competitive live performance.

It goes like this. After lavish and hilarious introductions, twelve dancers compete in groups of two for the first round. The pairs are drawn one at a time from a bowler hat. For each pair of dancers, Lola goes back to the hat and pulls a prop and a musical genre (big puffy red stuffed heart pillow; "hip-hop classics").

The dancer whose name was pulled first takes the first pass at a solo routine, incorporating the prop and danced to an unexpected piece of music; then the second dancer is handed the same prop (often fresh from the clenched teeth, or some other hinge, of the first dancer) and faces a different, unexpected piece of music within the same genre.

After each pair of dancers is finished, there is no raw instant elimination. Rather, the girls ("girl" is the word when the stage lights are on) giggle their way backstage as the names of the next pair are picked. Only after the first round of twelves dances is completed does Lola move into elimination mode.

She does this with great tact and insight into morale. Half of the dancers sail right through the first round; the other six face a modified dance-off, where two winners advance to the next round while four girls are escorted off-stage. They are escorted (by impeccable-looking stars from the local burlesque scene) to a V.I.P. lounge replete with craft cupcakes, chicken satay and champagne. That's what "losing" is like in Lola's world.

It goes like that until the final dance-off -- the very final round -- which is the first time for any girl the dance is sudden death elimination, with a single winner and a single loser. So the only time the potential hurt is that raw, it's all over right away and the "loser" is being lauded with love and gifts as the second to last girl strutting.

Lola totally takes the mean girl out. That's one of her most sustaining gifts. The production team of wild women (and the odd stray man) that has evolved around her just pulses with love and compassion. She creates a safe space, a sanctuary. It's a major reason why dancers from other cities gravitate to St. Louis. I admire this in Lola dearly and have tried to learn from it as her friend and occasional production colleague.

Okay, so I totally get the more immediately amazing things about the St. Louis burlesque scene -- the pee-your-fishnets hilarity; the dangerously acrobatic dancing; the absurd and fabulous costuming; the incomparable beauty of all these differently sized, shaped, and toned women stripping down nearly to how God made her in the flesh. But if you watch how Lola (and Kyla and Katie and Michelle ...) operate, it starts by taking the mean girl out. I love these girls!


Photo by Alex Rimorin.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

When are we going to get together, John Ashbery?

I have been thinking about John Ashbery, because he was honored by President Obama yesterday, and I have been thinking about love poetry, since it's Valentine's Day. So, I pulled out Ashbery's book-length poem Flow Chart (1991), which has several sustained passages of straight-forward love poetry -- unusual for a poet who is seldom straightforward and seldom in the mood to sustain anything.

Reading my marginal notes over a Valentine's Day dinner with my daughter, I picked out this passage from part I of the VI-part Flow Chart. It takes awhile, in this bit I've typed in, before we get to the straightforward love poetry, but that's essential to give the flavor of Ashbery.


This mound of cold ashes that we call
for want of a better word the past wouldn't inflict the horizon
as it does here, calling attention to shapes
that resemble it and so liberating them into the bloodstream
of our collective memory: here a chicken coop, there a smokestack,
farther on an underground laboratory. These things then wouldn't
depress (or, as sometimes happens, exalt) one, and living would be just that:
a heavenly apothegm leading to a trance on earth. Yet one scolds
the horizon for having nothing better to offer. Did I order that?
And when the bill comes, tries to complain to the management
but at that point the jig, or whatever, is up. Yes I've seen many fine
young girls in my time take that path and wonder afterwards
what went wrong. I've seen children, taken from their homes
at too early an age, left to wander about like Little Nell,
not knowing that they were never obliged to do this thing. O
paradise, to lie in the hammock with one's book and drink,
not hearing the murmur of consternation as it moves progressively
up the decibel scale. Yet I see you are uncertain where to locate me:
here I am. And I've done more thinking about you than you perhaps realize,
yes, a sight more than you've done about me. Which reminds me:
when are we going to get together? I mean really -- not just for a
drink and a smoke, but really
invade each other's privacy in a significant way that will make sense
and later amends to both of us for having done so, for I am
short of the mark despite my bluster and my swaggering,
have no real home and no one to inhabit it except you
whom I am in danger of losing permanently as a bluefish slips off
the deck of a ship, as a tuna flounders, but say, you know all that.


Then he goes on like that for another 187 pages!

Flow Chart is dedicated "To David," that would be David Kermani, Ashbery's partner since 1970. It must be a central work in Ashbery's mind, as it certainly is in mind, since he apparently has named his legacy The Flow Chart Foundation.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A town without shade and a Cherry County corn man

I was happy to receive a package in the U.S. mail from a friend in northern Italy this week. It's the first solo record by Andrea Van Cleef, Sundog, a more quiet folksy statement from a leader of rock bands.

Andrea sent me the record because it has a co-write with me on it, "Town Without Shade." Here is that song.

Andrea.Van.Cleef.Town.without.shade by ChrisKingSTL

Andrea wrote the music, I sent him some lyrics, and then he rewrote the lyrics quite a bit.

The lyrics I sent him were drawn from my first visit to Lakota country, all those reservation towns without shade.

I'm most proud of these lines, which conclude his song:

I wish we could get the sun drunk and high
And watch it fall down, off the sky

That sums up the desperation I saw in Indian country. It wasn't all desperation, but that's what the desperate parts looked and felt like.

I took this trip a very long time ago, about twenty years ago, so it's odd that in the same month Andrea's record with this song was released, I also released a chapbook with a poem culled from that same journey across the Plains.



He tore each head open, see
it’s good, I done good, I can do something right,
I can make people happy.
I’ll give you a deal: fourteen head, two dollars;
here, you can take two for free.
He never wanted to see forests on fire.
Nobody ever explained

Communism to me. Not democracy
either. I went to study
trees in Missouri, but they sent me to die
in Vietnam. Now isn’t
that nice? He can’t pronounce the name for what went
wrong, but he can grow corn, so
sweet, fourteen head, two dollars; here, take two free.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On giving anarchism to the anarchists & Cherokee Street before superfluous hipsters

Today I went to Black Bear Bakery on Cherokee Street to drop off a few things.

Last year my friend Paul Reiter was shot dead interrupting the burglary of his neighbor. I helped Paul's sisters clean out the bachelor's house and sell some of his stuff. I held onto a book called Anarchism Today -- the "today" in question being 1972 -- thinking Paul would like it if I took it to our local anarchist bakery. More than eighth months after Paul was taken from us, I finally put that book into anarchist hands.

When I grabbed the book from my trunk, I also snagged a copy of my new chapbook, The Shape of a Man (Intagliata Imprints). A friend who is a successful businessman paid for this printing, so I am doing my very best to sell the little books rather than give them away, as is my wont. But my publisher is a far-left progressive and student of philosophy, and I just knew he'd like the thought that our first library copy was donated to the library at an anarchist bakery.

And then there is the example of Roque Dalton to think about. The great Salvadorean poet and revolutionary -- one of my most important models as a poet -- wrote, "Poetry, like bread, is for everyone." Roque Dalton approved of this donation.

The man at the bread counter accepted both donations. So, if you want to read up on anarchism ca. 1973 or read my new poems, Black Bear Bakery is the spot.

I also brought a copy of the CD Outstandingly Ignited: Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings Vol. 4. This 1995 compilation of bands making songs from a nursing home resident's poems features my band, Eleanor Roosevelt. I've kept in touch with the producer David Greenberger, who recently mailed me a box of these discs.

Some neat-looking young Asian woman at the Black Bear counter liked the looks of the CD, her eye drawn first by the cover art work, drawn by Daniel Clowes.

She has her own copy now.

Walking up and down Cherokee Street, which I no longer visit as much as I'd like, I was struck by the things one hears about "The Street" nowadays, namely, the influx of so-called hipsters. I have a soft spot for hipsters, having lived in St. Louis at a time when one would have killed to have thousands, hundreds, even dozens of strangers running around who liked weird music, tattoos and comic books.

When I see this new Cherokee Street in formation, in fact, I am reminded of the years that I lived in the neighborhood, when there was no such thing as superfluous hipsters on Cherokee Street, or any other place around here. I wrote a song one day after walking up and down Cherokee Street right about when Eleanor Roosevelt was appearing on this hip compilation in the mid-1990s.

It's pretty grim, but this is what "The Street" looked like then.
"Song from Home"
Chris King
Recorded by Roy Kasten

Song From Home by ChrisKingSTL