December 10, 2009

O City (My Trip)

First, a poem by Jack Gilbert:


We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.


This is one of my favorites by Jack Gilbert, and I found myself thinking of it during this weekend in Pittsburgh. Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.


You know what bodes well? When you roll into town after five draining hours on the road, and the place that you stop in, a block away from your host's house--determined to regain your sanity through food, before meeting people--turns out to be vegan, tasty, and cheap. Meet Quiet Storm coffeehouse, where I feasted on ginger-lemonade, vegetable curry, and a poppyseed slaw that was so tasty I had it for breakfast with my bagel when we returned on Sunday morning.

Dave English, my host, is a formally trained artist/puppeteer and a creative force behind the Schmutz Company.  Knowing I was slated to take part in the Typewriter Girls show on Sunday, he invited me up a couple of days early to make a cameo appearance at his Burned! house party, which was part of the Penn Avenue Arts' unBlurred monthly first-Friday open-studio night. Frankly, I'd have driven up from DC just to see Dave's house. Top to bottom, it is curated in a way that shows Dave is an artist: hand-hewn and asymmetric woodwork, cork figures jumping out from the living room walls (the puppet in the above image has taken up new residence in a Christmas wreath), display nooks cut into the drywall, a paper mache skeleton on a stretcher hoisted high into the peaked ceiling.

The party kicked ass. It began quietly, with a few of us drawn to the craft table (raffia, glue guns, foam and glitter) like moths to the flame, amped up with a series of sets from The 4 Roses (a blend of country, rock and originals: "Music to drink, cry, and kill to and/or over"), progressed into "El Paso," a heartbreaking silhouette play from the brilliant Flora Shepherd and the tuneful Missy Rateman, and culminating in some fire juggling in the backyard by Dave Doyle.

Did I mention there was a fire pit in the backyard? A heart-shaped firepit? A place to stand, until 2 in the morning, ignoring that the fact that my whole coat was being infused with raw woodsmoke, sipping from my flask of scotch? Oh, and that somewhere in the middle of all that, we had an improvised one-act involving much kvetching and moaning over broken hearts, a trio of poems, and luring Dave out from the bathroom even after his head had transmogrified into an oversized skull-monster?

Just another Friday on the road.


I did nothing poetic on Saturday. Instead I went to Fallingwater... the snow. Not so much to make the drive truly treacherous, thank goodness, but enough so that they had a fire going on in the Frank-Lloyd-Wright-designed living room. Which maybe was a little poetic, now that I think about it. We slipped through narrow hallways. We stuck our heads out of windowed corners. We listened to the water falling. I can see why people becomes pilgrims for the great architects.

After trekking back to town, Dave and I went out for an early dinner to a neighborhood place (sports on TV, flannel-shirted men at the bar) that also happened to have 1) amazing Christmas microbrews on draft, 2) sweet potato fries, and 3) an electronic darts game (which we were lousy at...but lousy with great enthusiasm!).

We came back. We each tried to work on our respective projects. We each failed to work. We watched Fantasia as the buzz from beer and darts wore off, and then we were done. By midnight, I was dreaming of dancing hippos, invading brooms, and Toots, the resident evil cat.


Having been part of a previous Typewriter Girls show, I knew what to expect: funny skits (this time centering on a series of surreal and ill-advised schemes to raise the money needed to "save the libraries"); sideshow-style entertainment (this time involving a 83 oddly-shaped items, balanced on one chin, in the space of 10 minutes); fellow writers (once again, the wonderful Nancy Krygowski). And, of course, a round of Exquisite Corpse on an antique typewriter.

But there were also some big differences this time around. The setting was much for more formal (the auditorium of the main Carnegie library) with no whiskey on hand to warm us up. The audience was a bit scattered, folks drifting in mopey from a Steelers' game lost earlier in the day. I was nervous to be slated to perform at the front of the show--and after NAKA Entertainment, a hip-hop/dance group. What would their energy be like?

Um. How about devastatingly beautiful? The first few numbers were the bouncy step-clap routines I was expecting, but then they broke out an amazing solo set to "Hide and Seek," one of my favorite Imogen Heap songs (that has been shamelessly appropriated, as of late, in a sample for a Jason Derulo track). There's no posted video from Sunday, but I found this video of an earlier performance of the number:

If this is his version WITH A BUM KNEE, can you imagine Sunday's show? Tears came to my eyes. That was the upside.

The downside: then I had to follow this guy.

Probably not my best set ever. I changed my poem selection at the last minute--inspired by NAKA, I wanted to read some older, more personal poems--and one of the NAKA dancers had an asthma attack, which generated a heckuva distraction at the back of the hall. But between the silent auction (to which I contributed a book) and the door fees, they raised $900! A successful night in terms of what matters. & I was honored to be part of a line-up of otherwise local artists and to be granted, for just one evening, honorary residence in the Iron City.

It's such a great creative community. I've been to other places that exhibited a flagrant & quirky hometown pride: Austin comes to mind. But what I love about Pittsburgh is the fellowship across genres, the scrappy willingness to fight for better infrastructure, better funding, bigger dreams. Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.


Margaret Bashaar said...

I'm so very glad that you had a good time in Pittsburgh. Next time you're out here we'll really have to spend more time together, but it sounds like Sir Dave English was a wonderful host. It is always lovely to see you and I am very very very happy that you came out!! Can't wait for next time!

Jessie Carty said...

Wow! Sounds like a fantastic trip :) Thanks for sharing the video! I just saw Imogen Heap in concert down in Atlanta. She puts on such a wonderful and personable, small show.

Dave English said...

Y'know I wasn't fully appreciating the scope of that weekend until reading your recount of the creative chaos that it really was. It makes me very happy to know that you had such a great time. Thank you so much for the compliments. You are a fine person, Sandra and I'm looking forward to your next visit. You are always welcome here.

The Storialist said...

That Jack Gilbert poem--heartbreakingly lovely.

Picture of Fallingwater in the snow--also lovely (and yes, poetic!).

The Imogen Heap dance--wonderful.

It's official. I like your blog! :)

scheiny said...

wow, Falling Water in the snow. how lovely! the only time i've been there was high summer. the trees and the water made it a cool haven on an otherwise brutally hot day.

we were so happy to have you as part of our show again!