Thursday, February 12, 2009

Paris Day 35 - feedback lunch

Today I finally made it over to C.R.O.U.S. and collected my second of three bourse disbursements, after which I consulted my Paris Pratique, found a perfectly direct route to get me back across the river (in Paris, the way in is never the way out) and proceeded to ride my bicycle in a triangular loop describing the lower third of the 6th arrondissement, bringing me, twenty minutes later, exactly where I started at the Port Royal (this kind of thing never happens to me north of the river). That made me twenty minutes late to meet my inauguration buddy Irène at Jours de Fête back up in the 10th.

I have a swell time with Irène. She is patient with my French, which requires
patience in government surplus quantities, but her English is perfect so when push comes to shove I can make myself understood. We also have compatible musical tastes - when I walked into Jours de Fête, they were playing Komeda, the Swedish band I had recommended to her on our last date; she's now their biggest fan in France.

I was late also to our last meal at Jours de Fête, that time because I had to run back over the canal and up to the monastery to get the copy of my DVD I had promised her. Today she announced somewhat breathlessly that she and a friend had just watched the movie and she had so much to say about it.

As it happens, I love talking about
Apparition of the Eternal Church. In fact, I've done little else over the last year and a half and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. The distinction I failed to make in this instance is that whatever talking I was to do about my beloved movie was to follow a period of listening, and with the exception of hearing introductions to the film delivered by people who have just spent considerable sums to screen it at their institutions of art or higher learning, I have had comparatively little experience in the last two years with this kind of listening.

I didn't like it.

I blame myself! I went through this experience, writ larger, after screening the film on Halloween 2006 to my fellow residents at the MacDowell Colony. I was on my way down to the New York premiere at St. Bart's, and I wanted to be ready for anything the New York audience threw at me in Q&A, so I told my MacDowell colleagues to really give me the business after the show. And they did! There were one or two nice comments - Anthony Alofsin said it was the most psychedelic thing he'd seen in twenty years - but for fifteen of the worst minutes of my life as a filmmaker I faced a firing squad of dismissive, often condescending, ringing denunciations of the work. Then I called a friend at home to cry on his shoulder and he said he pretty much agreed with them.

I'm happy to say that the one thing I changed between Halloween and the New York premiere Nov. 9th was not one of the things the firing squad or the friend at home had objected to. The objections concerned one leg of the three that hold the movie up, and after watching everyone kick it and douse it with gasoline and set it on fire, I decided it was
indispensable for reasons both structural and aesthetic and that people who didn't like it could go to hell make their own experimental documentaries.

But more importantly, I made a decision after that scariest of Halloweens to never again solicit - or offer - feedback on finished work. I did the first, central interview for Apparition, with Albert Fuller, in March 2003. The world premiere was in the fall of 2005, and after substantial revisions it screened at half a dozen film festivals in 2006. By Halloween of that year the film was finished! It made no sense for me to start entertaining fundamental objections to the idea or the execution or to any of it. If what I really wanted was for everyone to fawn over the film and pat me on the back on my way to the New York show, then I got what I deserved. But I also learned the lesson, and started to shut down critical conversations about the film the moment they began.

"The idea you had, it's such a good one," said Irène. "But...may I be honest?"

That was my cue, and I missed it. I'm out of practice! It's been well over a year since anyone tried to engage me in this kind of a conversation, and I just forgot what a toxic experience it is for me. It is a truly hopeless and useless situation for the creator of finished work. If you understand the objection and have an answer to it, as I did today, you come off sounding defensive (guilty), thin-skinned (guilty) and unappreciative of your critic's honesty and insight (three strikes!). And what is the other option, silence?

I've had this conversation before. Someone sees Apparition, and what it triggers for them (beyond its nonprofessional sound and picture, which Irène felt compelled to mention) is what is missing. In Irène's case, this was a section getting away from everyone's subjective experience of the music and telling us with more authority and analytical precision what the music is and how it works and why it's important and when Messiaen wrote it and who he was, etc. In other words, educational television.

I am not knocking educational television. I love educational television! The idea of sitting in a room with Ken Burns's Jazz or Ric Burns's New York for a long weekend and doing nothing but eating and sleeping and watching educational television - it's Puerto Vallara,
Vegas and Valhalla all rolled into one. But what am I supposed to say to someone who watches Apparition of the Eternal Church and wishes it were PBS?

Today's feedback lunch reminded me of a well intentioned and lengthy email I got from a film industry professional in LA back in 2005, before the movie was finished but well after I had already decided that I was not making educational television. Here are some representative excerpts:
We are seeing a lot of faces here. When you watch a documentary (which is what this is. You are essentially documenting people's reaction to this piece.) they often tell you about who is speaking when they first appear.

I might do something like: After Albert appears for the first time and puts on the headphones and the first notes hit him. cut (don't fade, fade implies a transition between time or location) so CUT to black with this card.

Text: Albert Fuller has taught music at Jilliard (or some other idea of who he is) Classically trained. blah blah blah.

cut back to Albert listening and talking - What is this?

cut back to black cardtext: Albert is the first person to perform this piece in the US... 30 years ago. He has not played it since.


The black guy the appears frequently. Who is he. Why are did you pick him. What sort of appreciation of music does he have?

The drag queen card might say. So and So has been doing Drag for 12 years professionally. Her favorite artists are Moby and Cher.


In addition: You might find some stills of the original church organ this was performed on. Or Stained glass from the cathedral that the son was talking about having his father take him into. Give us some visuals when you can. I enjoyed watching the talking faces. But after about 15 minutes, a break to some other visual would be engaging. You might also try going to cathedrals in SF and just standing in the middle/back and panning your camera up.
Let me cut to something
less depressing. On Day 9 here I found a scrap of paper on which I had written the holy words of Paul Chan, quoted in The New Yorker:
I realized that what I had to do was impoverish the image. I had to give up all the things that I thought were my strengths – the vibrant color, the brutal clarity of line…the sort of depth I got by almost putting the foreground and the background together. If you’re willing to impoverish, you can go on to something else.

Can you free it from what it is, to become what it can be?

My mind was cleared for something else to happen, which I think is what art does. If you do it right, that’s what happens.
I'm mixing up three different issues now - one is the uselessness, to the artist, of criticizing finished work. Another is objecting to experiments because they don't - which they don't by definition - conform to clichés (introductions, stained glass). A third, related idea is of impoverishing the work of what comes immediately, most easily (experts, explanation, authority) in order to make room for the phantasmagoria, the riot, Squeaky Blonde. Nobody understood this better than Messiaen.

I have become long-winded and cranky on top of being constitutionally defensive and thin-skinned. And I still have plates and platters left to serve about feedback! But I'm not going to call this "feedback lunch Part I" - I'll just save the rest of it for "feedback dinner" or, possibly worse, "feedback cocktails." Today Irène explained why my Paris hangovers are so brutal - it's all the tannins in these cheap ass French table wines.

A blog is never finished, so your feedback is always welcome. So are your tax-deductible contributions.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Books 4 Barack

Ayelet does battle with chaos, and John McCain

Ayelet Waldman - Berkeley novelist and fellow MacDowell Colony fellow - has launched a really fun way to contribute to Obama. Donate $250 or more and get a grab bag of 10 signed books by illustrious authors from Judy Blume to Alice Waters to Stephen King to Jeffrey Eugenides to Steve Martin to Lemony Snicket.

Details at Ayelet's "Books 4 Barack" page and also the fundraising page she has with husband Michael Chabon (who's also contributed a volume or two).

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

diary: Wyoming bloodbath

Paul Festa
to linda
Jul 16

hi mamma--

I just arrived in Jentel after a traumatic trip. Last night at 10:30 coming over a mountain pass on 90 between Idaho and Montana I broadsided a deer. It was scary and then it was gruesome and then it was sad. At some point I'll post the details in a blog entry but for now I'm just too exhausted and talked out about it.

Jentel is surprisingly beautiful and deluxe. They emphasize the rustic and the rugged in their promotional materials but I'm reminded of the [...] summer digs. High style with a southwestern flair. the other 4 residents now here seem very nice--a fifth, also from San Francisco, is also late.

more soon--about Oregon etc--and [...]


Paul Festa
Tue, Jul 17, 2007 at 7:58 PM
To: James

Hello my dear,

I am in the little computer room/library on the second floor of this swank house where the residents all sleep and take their meals. This place is cush! I was expecting something on the rustic side but it more resembles a $500/night Santa Fe bed & breakfast. Only they don't feed you breakfast--we're on our own for all meals. It's a nice big kitchen overlooking a nice big dining area, living room (with conversation pit) and vast windows overlooking the paved back porch area and the green meadow beyond. They've been getting a lot of rain up here and the landscape is surprisingly green. Rocky hills are behind us, a creek (which visual artist Mike and painter Kristen and I inner-tubed down this afternoon before dinner) wends its way through the valley and right by the retreat, and a short bike ride away there's a lake good for swimming. I haven't been there yet. I've spent a lot of time sleeping so far, not surprising considering how I got here and the caffeine withdrawal and the version of Mendocino sleepies that's common to all artist residencies and lasts at least three days. I barely got any work done today.

Thanks for being there for me when I called the other night so distraught about the accident. In the bright light of day it's hard to even conjure the horror of that experience, and the sadness that overwhelmed me afterward. I really do have the heart of a vegetarian! Meanwhile I passed (and actually hit) the corpse of another deer some hours later, and after that saw a dead dog on the side of the road, and several other smaller roadkill. A couple of the artists here collect these specimins and paint them. I'm very glad Ziggy's not here! They all went for a walk this morning and saw a four-foot rattlesnake. So far all I've seen is a little garter snake and a bunny rabbit.


Paul Festa to Jim
Jul 17

Hi Jim--

I've been on the road almost continuously since I saw you last and have finally landed in a place where I will stay put for a month, the artist retreat in Wyoming. It's heavenly--landscape, campus, residents and staff. I had a somewhat traumatic drive here, via the Oregon Country Fair (a giant hippie outdoor mall)--the drive was endless, half again as long as Google Maps suggested, and crossing the stateline between Idaho and Montana on a mountain pass in the middle of the night I broadsided a deer. It was scary, gruesome, and sad, and having been on the road for the previous 12 hours I was not in a particularly stable frame of mind to begin with. I didn't manage to kill the deer, which was the very worst thing about it, and then there is the condition of my car, which I might have totaled though I did manage to drive it the rest of the way to Banner, Wyoming, going 60 miles an hour while everyone was passing me at 85.


New York, Israel and Paris were all overstimulating. How has your last month and a half been?


Paul Festa
Wed, Jul 18, 2007 at 2:11 PM
To: Holcombe

so great to get your message--it was on my list of things to do online to look you up on tribe and say hi and thanks for all the fun hours at OCF. I have an idea to be a vendor next year. No more of this tourist-without-a-wristband bullshit!

wyoming is amazing so far--this place, the jentel artist residency program, is really swank, a big surprise--I was expecting rustic. A river wends its way around our little campus (6 residents, 3 of us queer) and a lake is said to be a short bike ride away. rocky hills above us past the river and the Bighorn Mtns. in the distance. the weather has been pretty mild, with a few thunderstorms. lots of snakes and rabbits out here, and I'm keeping my eyes open for antelope, which are common as deer out here.

speaking of deer, I had a traumatic drive from OCF after broadsiding one on the mountain pass at the Idaho-Montana stateline, in the middle of the night, after 12 hours of driving. Unfortunately, I just wounded the animal--heartbreaking! I was running back up Highway 90 with a flare in my hand to warn other cars when I saw the flashing lights of a state trooper, and stopped running (and burst into tears) a minute later when his gun fired, twice. I have to get going now because I'm taking my car into Buffalo to a body shop. It's pretty smashed up--kind of a miracle that the airbags didn't inflate and that the car was drivable the rest of the way here (15 mph under the speed limit until the sun came up--boy was I spooked, esp. after the (cute) trooper warned me that elk were also on the roads...)

thank you for the portland invitation! i would love to visit and spend more time with you. I don't think this is going to be the time to do it, because I want to spend time in Yellowstone on my way out of here, and then visit friends in Nevada, and my next destination is Camp Kunst-Stoff in Willits if I can work the event, Aug 17-19. I'm anxious to hear your music! Thanks for the link--and for looking at my essays. Hopefully I'll have a novel to show you one of these, um, years.


Paul Festa to Cory
Jul 19

Hi Cory! The rest of my OCF experience was brief. I hung out with Holcombe and some of his buddies at the campground, ate some dinner, passed out, packed up, and drove to wyoming. I almost made it here safely, but crossing the Idaho-Montana stateline, in the middle of the night after driving 12 hours, I broadsided a deer. I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that I'm grateful not to have been injured,and sorry about what happened to that poor animal and my poor car.

I'm here at an artist retreat and like it very much--there are five other residents and we're all watching the sky wondering what the hell we're going to do if Mother Nature makes good on the tornado warning that was just broadcast on the radio. The area (near Banner) is spectacularly beautiful--surprisingly green, hilly, with the bighorn mountains in the distance to the southeast, antelope and deer, rabbits, bullsnakes, rattlers all spotted just in the first few days here. I have my work cut out for me--I'm aiming to write the third draft of a novel. My computer just arrived--Apple just replaced the optical drive for the second time.



Paul Festa
Sat, Jul 21, 2007
To: James


I'm doing OK about the novel. I've ramped up very quickly to my 6 hours/day routine, and they've been productive if painful hours. Yes, I'm excited about where the novel is going, but before you get excited you have to be demoralized about how bad the previous work is,especially work that was revised ad nauseum--you have to grieve the deaths of all those little darlings, which took so much time and effort, revision and residencies and reading aloud, to produce. I swore Wyoming would be a bloodbath--and this was before I knew I would hit a deer--and I'm going to make good on that. I'm just not going to enjoy very much of it.

It helped to finally start writing the third draft, this new document into which I've forbidden myself to cut and paste. So far it's a really good discipline, and a lot of things that would have seemed impossible to delete are, in fact, not getting typed in. I've radically rewritten the opening chapter--not revised, rewritten--so that will take a lot of tinkering and reading aloud, etc., before it's settled, but I think it's a better foundation. That thought does battle for my mood with the dread of how much similar rewriting remains, and that dread is a powerful motivator to produce a much shorter draft this time.

I'm just facing up to the hard lesson any writer has to face, which is that this is a necessarily destructive process, and you're not destroying some external object, you're destroying something that came out of you, something you flattered yourself at one point to not consider shit. I have to keep reminding myself of the blithe energy with which Picasso painted over his bulls and turned them into women and flowers, though it's worth noting that his objects rose and fell and were finally born in a matter of hours, while I (we novelists) have to endure this process over years.



Paul Festa
Sun, Jul 22, 2007 at 12:41 PM
To: linda

Hi Mamma--

Unless USAA throws me a curveball, it looks like Ed should just repair the car. I think he took pity on me and deliberately skewed the estimate low so that the car wouldn't get totaled out. If it were totaled out (for example if USAA quibbled with the pre-accident worth of the car), then USAA would offer me a check for that value and the company would own the car. I would have first right of purchasing it back from them for the salvage value. This is how both Ed and the USAA agent described the situation to me. Ed, meanwhile, said if I did buy it back, he would buy it from me in turn and for a few more hundred dollars--he seemed very interested in the car. So I think he overrode some personal interest in lowballing the estimate.

Things here are going very well after some brutal days staring at the novel and the harsh comments of my readers. I appreciate and ask for unvarnished honesty but it's still very painful to read, re-read, come to grips with, synthesize along with my own judgment. Plus I was still upset for much of the week about the nightmarish experience of hitting the deer and the consequences for it and for my car. But after two or three depressive days, the work is going really well. I'm rewriting the novel from the ground up, in a new Word document. This revision technique was recommended to me by a MacDowell writer and it's really proving its worth. The standard method is to delete things from the existing draft, perhaps write over them, but that is a destructive, painful process. Now it's just a passive matter of unworthy leaving things behind, with the option of adding them later, and so I'm anticipating a much leaner novel when I finish. That will certainly not be by the time I leave here--with three weeks left I'm only ten pages into the new draft.

There's one other San Franciscan here, a painter, and she and I are the stay-at-home workaholics. The others went to the movies last night; they just took off to go see show trials. [...] I like most of my fellow residents well enough and we have pleasant interactions but nobody likes a workaholic and that would describe me for the duration of this residency. I get out on my bike every evening for an hour at sunset, when it's cool, and the surrounding landscape is breathtaking, rocky hills on either side of our flat green valley, and the Bighorn mountains in the distance, the sky full of magnificent cloud formations and electrical storms throwing around distant, oddly silent lightning bolts. it feels like we're on a nature preserve--deer and antelope by the dozens, wild turkey, bull snakes and rattlers (I haven't seen one of these yet but the others have), rabbits and of course a menagerie of insects. I vacuum my studio for box elder bugs, living and dead, four or five times a day, and the day I read about the first West Nile cases in Wyoming I got three mosquito bites. In any case these bike rides and my three meals are my only leisure time. I carve out two hours a day for reading, and while I'm enjoying (fellow MacDowell fellow) Mary Gaitskill's Veronica a lot, I'm struggling with [...]. I have to look up two to four words on every page! And they're not big pages! In any case I will leave Jentel with a bigger vocabulary, but not a bigger circle of friends. Also, hopefully, the first half of a much smaller novel.



Paul Festa to Tom
Jul 24

Hiya Tom--

I just logged into friendster when I realized that I don't have your email address! how could that be? email me at

I picked up your message in the middle of a long and extremely difficult road trip, from Eugene OR (oregon country fair) to Wyoming where I'm at an artist retreat for another 3 weeks. the night you called I broadsided a deer on the Hwy. 90 mountain pass at the Idaho-Montana stateline. Horrible! middle of the night, no shoulder, no cell reception, car just about totaled (but operational), the animal not quite dead. truly one of the worst experiences and, if I may say so, a grand excuse to be late in getting back to you. I've been a little scatterbrained since then.

In Wyoming is this small artist's retreat in the micro town of Banner called Jentel ( I'm here with five others for a month and I'm beginning the third draft of my novel. I'm also trying to learn a hideously difficult violin part for a Messiaen quartet I'm supposed to play in the spring. It will take me exactly that long to learn it.

Meanwhile it's great to hear from you and do email me at gmail so we can be in touch more easily.


Paul Festa
Mon, Jul 30, 2007 at 1:51 PM
To: Greg

Dear Greg--

I write from Wyoming, where I've been rewriting my book at a residency here for the last two weeks. I had a fantasy about finishing the third draft here, but it's very slow going and with only two weeks left I'm going to have to content myself with getting through about a third of it. Still, this place is beautiful, in a green valley filled with wildlife--we see antelope and deer, porcupines, wild turkeys, bull snakes and rattlers. I'm the stay-at-home workaholic of the group but did join the 5 others to catch a production of The Laramie Project in town the other night. College and high school kids put it together and what they lacked in acting skill and experience they made up for in passion for the play.



Paul Festa
To: Suzan
July 28

Sorry you won't be able to join us--do wish john a happy birthday for me and break a leg performing! Yes, brunch on the deck was the last gathering, and I have your crepe-maker to prove it.

My summer has been a little nuts. Getting out of town was nuts, New York was nuts, Israel was nuts twice, first visiting my sister in Tsfat and then faeries in Tel Aviv who took me to a celebration of [...] in the Negev for the summer solstice; then Paris was really nuts especially after Air France lost my valise. It arrived in San Francisco just as James was leaving to pick me up at the airport.

I had a brief stay in SF and then drove to the Oregon Country Fair, a big outdoor hippie shopping mall and then drove to Wyoming, where, crossing from Idaho into Montana in the middle of teh night after driving all day, with no shoulder and no cell coverage, I struck a deer, didn't manage to kill it, and totaled my car.

So now I'm stranded in Wyoming. The plan is for James to pick me up and then we'll do the drive together, a few nights in Yellowstone. A woman at the Berkeley Rep school of theater wants me to play fiddle in her production of 12th night, along with a couple of tiny roles, and I'll have about five minutes to learn my lines and rehearse between getting back and the start of previews.

I'm very flattered and gratified you're looking at my blog and I look forward to looking at yours. Mine appears to be a complete ghost town. Write some comments goddamn it!

LOVE (and hi to Lizzi)

Paul Festa
Sat, Jul 28, 2007 at 2:38 PM
To: Robin

Hi Robin! I write from the Gentile Artist Residency Program ( which is very near Ucross but is smaller, just six of us here for a month in swank southwestern-style house in a lush valley that resembles an animal preserve. they do have bikes here but I brought my own and have been riding it every evening there isn't lightning in the sky.

I am rewriting the novel from the ground up, a method of revision suggested to me by someone (you?) at MacDowell. It is very slow going, but I'm pleased with early results.

congrats on the jaffe! I got a small grant recently, on my way here, in the form of a collision with a deer that (sickeningly) didn't quite kill the animal but totaled my car. I wasn't quite prepared to be carless but it will certainly save some moola and tide me over to some income-generating spring screenings of my movie.

Yes let's get together in September! Brunch on my north-facing deck, while there's still sun.


Paul Festa
To: Barry


How was Sea Ranch? I just farted thinking about Luca.

Wyoming is, in your phrase, spectacular nature. The real spectacles are off in the distance--the bighorn mountains. We have a small green valley and rolling rocky hills, but the profusion of wildlife is astonishing. I spend ten hours a day in my studio and most of the rest of it in the house preparing meals and sleeping, but just in my ritual sunset bike rides I've seen dozens of antelope and deer including lots of bucks and spotted fauns, two porcupines (the only two I've ever seen outside of a zoo), a rattlesnake, on the path five feet from the front door, two bull snakes on the road, and no end of cute little rabbits, everywhere. Adam, a Pittsburgh painter, saw a golden eagle a few mornings in a row, but everyone's jealous of me because of my porcupine sighting (there's a picture on a recent entry of my blog).

The other five artists are very friendly but I'm the workaholic recluse of the group. I don't take my meals with them because it just takes too long, and I decline invitations to town, to the county fair (that hurt), to hike in the hills, to tube down the river. I feel the cost of this trip, mostly to James who is chained to the house with full dog responsibilities, and I feel a tremendous impatience to get this draft finished. I had a fantasy about finishing by the time I left, but the pace of the rewrite is making December/January a more likely completion date. Your comments continue to goad me to clarity and directness in my prose--and I would like to have said brevity too but the new draft is shaping up (at p. 50) to be exactly as long as the last one. Still, I think it moves faster--and dirtier, as Daniel Handler put it in the prior crit.

Love to Dan!


Paul Festa to David
Aug 1

Hi David--

I'm still here--the Jentel sessions run for a month from the 15th to the 13th. I've been an incredible workaholic here, at it seven hours a day for 15 days straight now. The idea of taking a vacation day seems terrifying! The going is slow--I'm rewriting the book from the ground up, retyping it into a new document. Some parts from the second draft are going in almost verbatim, but not before going through the very fine-toothed comb of my having to type each word.

Forgive me if this is repeat from my Tribe email, but i inaugurated the trip with a car accident, broadsiding a deer on a mountain pass just over the Montana border on 90, middle of the night, no shoulder, no cell coverage, wounded animal, hysterical queen. Twenty minute later, gunshots from a state trooper, tears. Since then, autobody shop, insurance, parents, etc. None of this counts toward my seven hours.

How's by you?


Paul Festa to Mike
Aug 3


I've had a crazy summer since I last saw you. Israel was nuts, Paris, nuts, Oregon Country Fair and the drive to Wyoming, nuts (I totaled my car colliding with a deer, mountain pass, middle of the night, no shoulder, no cell coverage, dear not quite dead until a state trooper came along and put a few bullets in her). I've been a complete workaholic since I've been here, taking only one night off so far to catch a production of the Laramie Project in the nearest town. I've written about 60 pages of a ground-up rewrite, which incorporates a lot of the old draft but I'm writing it in a new document. On my evening bike rides I'm seeing a ton of wildlife--a couple of porcupines, wild turkeys, deer and antelope, rattlesnakes and bull snakes. the other 5 residents are more social, the eat together and hang out every evening, so I'm the oddball recluse, but I knows what I came here to do and it wasn't to spend 3 hours around the grill every night with wine! Today's my one day off from the novel and so am happy to catch up with you a bit.

Will I see you en route to or from BLC? I got a gig playing violin and some very tiny parts in a production of 12th night in the north bay every weekend in September, so I will be busy but daytimes will be good.


Paul Festa to Christopher
Aug 8 (4 days ago)


How are things with you? I'm in Wyoming where I have been working my brains out on the novel, preparing to play violin and a few small parts in 12th Night, and recovering (emotionally) from totaling my car on my way here. I struck a deer on 90 coming over the Montana state line, mountain pass, middle of the night, no shoulder, no cell coverage. Cute cop though. When he shot the poor wounded animal I burst into tears.


Paul Festa to Christopher
Aug 9 (3 days ago)

Yeah, the deer thing was pretty awful, made worse by the fact that I'd been on the road for 13 or 14 hours at that point jacked on caffeine. Fortunately the accident wasn't through my own error--I was driving under the speed limit--she was just right there when i came over the hill around a curve and when I honked and slammed on my brakes she just stood there and stared at me like a...well, you know the rest.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

MacDowell Colony: Landlines

When I was at MacDowell late last year, Oct-Dec, an artist by the name of Anna Schuleit was working on a big installation having to do with telephones for MacDowell's centenary celebration. A few days ago, I got email explaining that

one hundred telephones -- that taboo device at a colony meant for undisturbed creative work -- have been temporarily installed on one hundred trees across MacDowell’s grounds by Schuleit's team of more than 200 volunteers. On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, as the thousands of celebrants walk the grounds, the telephones — drawn from every decade of the 20th century and with 100 different sounds — will begin to ring.

But who will be calling?

Why, it will be YOU. Colony Fellows from across the country and across the decades. It is you, those who cannot be here, who will play the most important role of all: to call and lend your voice to the Colony’s 100th anniversary.


We ask, we plead, we implore, we beg, and we so hope that you, a friend of MacDowell, will dial your phone and tell a story, ask a question, pose a riddle, sing a song or otherwise reach out to meet one of the celebrants on the Colony property for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Your call will pass through an old fashioned switchboard operated by children from Peterborough. They will connect your incoming call, by hand, to one of the telephones mounted on 100 trees spread across the MacDowell property. There, the phones will ring, and the visitors physically present will answer.

I got all excited about this--it seemed propitious that I would be calling from another artist colony, and on my last days here, and I decided I would call and offer the person on the other end of the line a choice between music and fiction. When I called earlier tonight, the switchboard was overwhelmed. I called four times before an operator picked up, and by the time I reached him, he'd been brought down to a low frazzle. Some of the trees around the colony weren't accepting calls, and he wound up trying to connect callers to each other. He had a number of us connected on a party line, and one older fellow seemed very put off by the fact that he wasn't being connected to a tree. The rest of us tried to make the best of things--what part of the word party didn't this old fart understand?--but the experience was a bit like being at a very loud cocktail party at an art school reunion where you don't know any of the other people and you're all blind, a little hard of hearing, and possibly underwater.

Eventually I was put through to a tree, and that's when things really went downhill. I offered the woman on the other end of the line a choice of fiction or music, and when she chose fiction I got nervous. The thing I was prepared to read was the monologue by an eccentric and potty-mouthed black queen, a scene I'd read in high Ebonics with great success at the Jentel Presents presentation at the public library on Tuesday. I figured if I could pull off an African-American Radical Faerie rant at a public library in Wyoming, it would go overjust fine in the MacDowell woods. But not very far into my reading I felt very, very foolish--there was no way to perform this over the telephone. It required space and body language and an audience. "I think I got the gist of it," said my tree woman about halfway through, putting us both out of our misery.

No, that's not accurate--I still had the misery of embarrassment and disappointment to contend with. I'd wanted to contribute something fun and vital to what seemed like such a great project, and for twenty minutes I felt like I'd let Anna and MacDowell and myself down by simply trying too hard (the usual way). Twenty-one minutes after hanging up, though, I remembered that it's an *artist colony*, and that the occasional performative face-plant, while painful, is most definitely the price of learning how to make art.

Here's a story in the New York Sun about the Landlines Project.

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