Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Short: Belly Dancing and Oral Narrative

Here are some insanely obvious observations: The above is a video. It is not a short story. But the content of this video is a man telling a story. A short story. Right, then. Moving on to less obvious observations...

While this isn't a short story in the traditional sense (a published piece of writing made available for the independent enjoyment of a reader), I have decided to consider it a short story for several reasons which I will now explain. Ahem. 

The act of reading a text is markedly different from the experience of hearing a story performed aloud: the former is a solitary act that requires the reader to consume and process content separated from external influences, while in the latter, an audience is expected to laugh or cry at the same junctures during a story’s oral performance. So how can I say that this oral narrative (the video above) can be considered the same as a short story if the impact on the audience is so different for textually and orally constructed stories? 

The critic, B.W. Ife, comments on the impacts of a story's medium on its audience in his book Reading and fiction in Golden-Age Spain (1985): 
What an orator is to an assembled audience, an author is to a dispersed one. ... It is likely that a reading public consuming literature in an atmosphere of contemplative solitude will be much more individualistic in its response than a hearing public moved perhaps more readily by mass emotion.

This has all kinds of important implications for critics, readers, writers, storytellers, and audiences everywhere-- especially as a new medium emerges: the Internet offers a hybrid medium that allows for both oral dissemination of a story as well as private consumption of that story. I listen to the storyteller and watch him perform, but I do so alone in my reader's studio. In a way, what we have here is the possibility for both oral and textual markers to coexist, and thus balance the semblance of a living, participatory dialogue (oral narrative) with an official, resolved permanence (texts). Do you see why I want to call Shlomo Bellydancer a short story now?

Socrates gives the stank eye
to the practice of writing.
A debate over the efficacy and reliability of either texts or oration began in antiquity with the advent of systems of writing (alphabets) and a particular philosopher (Socrates) who gave the stank eye to the practice of writing. Walter Ong has summarized Plato’s Socrates’ position on the debate (Socrates favored orality, viewing writing as an intrusive technology that dulled man’s mind) in his book Orality and Literacy (1982), emphasizing one of the main arguments offered in orality’s favor: the unresponsiveness of a text. "…Plato’s Socrates also holds it against writing that the written word cannot defend itself as the natural spoken word can."

But here again, the Internet has resolved the the conflict that Socrates points out-- once the video is posted, the audience consumes it privately and can begin to argue with it or praise it via the comments section... and the storyteller can respond there, too, speaking on behalf of his message or performance

So. We have just placed this short story squarely in the interstices of textuality and orality-- in a place called Internet. No one can stop me from calling it a short story because in many ways this video is like a text. By the same token, its distinctly participatory qualities and, well, oral presentation make it inseparable from its connection to oral narrative.

I've been thinking a lot about this intersection of writing and performing as made possible by modern technology. Expect to see more of it as I develop dissertation ideas!

Oh! And by the way, don't you just absolutely love this guy's story?!?!?!?

Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Head, The Hand, The Heart: Amund Dietzel

Tattoo flash by Amund Dietzel
During our 6-hour visit to Milwaukee last week, we made sure to go check out the Amund Dietzel tattoo flash art currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum. It was a phenomenal exhibit, showing the fine detailed work of a master's hand.

It is (sadly) unusual for tattoo flash to be displayed in art museums. There are several possible explanations for this: 1) the stigmatism of Western formalism prohibits self-taught artists from achieving their rightful place within the hallowed, white walls of fine art; 2) tattoo flash is portable and fragile and likely was not stored archivally by its creators, leading to a dearth of this kind of turn-of-the-century artwork surviving today; 3) the essence of flash itself is to be an inspiration, an opportunity for art, not a finished piece of work-- the finished piece is unique every time it is crafted onto a living, breathing canvas.

Amund Dietzel tattoos a customer
In honor of Harley-Davidson's 110-year anniversary, the Milwaukee Art Museum curated this special exhibit of an artist who, after serving as a sailor on transatlantic merchant ships during his adolescence, found himself shipwrecked in North America, where he eventually came to stay.

Amund Dietzel began developing his craft while aboard the merchant ships upon which he worked. Tattooing fellow crew members, he used a series of needles tied to a piece of wood with a strip of cotton cloth. I can only image what it must've been like to have to trust so completely in your own hand as you agonizingly stitched an image into a friend's arm, chest, or back. Sailor tattoos almost always commemorated an important event in their career, such as crossing an ocean, surviving a storm, and so forth, lending even more significance to the image that the tattooist was to create. In fact, the first tattoo that Amund himself received was to commemorate his first successful crossing of the Atlantic.


This traditional tattoo depicts the biblical Pharaoh's horses drowning in the Red Sea after Moses collapses the walls of water on the Egyptian's chariots. It symbolizes having successfully defeated one's enemy. 
As he became more and more immersed in the development of his craft, he met many tattooist mentors with whom he exchanged tattoos. Tattooing one another was a way for the artists to practice, try things out, and get free ink. Amund took several courses in painting at Yale (earning tuition money as a tattooist), but ultimately couldn't afford to continue going.

While in New Haven, however, he met one of his mentors: William Grimshaw. Grimshaw tattooed Amund from neck to ankles, covering his body in ink. Amund returned the favor, and the two travelled with circuses as tattooed men, a popular way of earning additional income at the time. Eventually, Amund's travels with the circus lead him to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is where he made a life and a name for himself, tattooing in his shop until the city outlawed tattooing in 1967. He died in 1974, at the age of 83.

The collection of flash on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum all comes from the private collection of a Milwaukee tattooist named Jon Reiter. After years of collecting Dietzel flash and other material related to Dietzel's tattooing career and life, Reiter published a two-volume biography of Amund Dietzel. These books are just gorgeous-- full of rich color plates of the flash and old photos of Amund and his friends tattooing or getting tattooed. Plus, Reiter has painstakingly researched old newspapers and other archives in order to piece together the story of Dietzel's adventurous life (including the legends and myths that Dietzel himself invented).


The exhibit of Dietzel's work reveals the art of tattooing to be a beautiful, old, americana folk art form that remains vibrantly alive today. You can see in each piece the control and steadiness of the artist's hand, a skill that was no doubt honed while tattooing aboard a moving ship. His images contain carefully shaded chiaroscuro contours on his ink-on-paper works, a testament to the way he must've been able to expertly manipulate his ink-on-skin works-- carefully drawing out the colors into soft yet dramatic gradients of light and dark.


The subject matter of this genre of art has a traditional repertoire, but that repertoire is continuously expanding. The semiotic language of tattoos can be universal-- once their meaning is established, these images become a pidgin that facilitates inter-linguistic and cross-cultural communication (which is what art is supposed to do). The fact that the collectors of this art must commit their very skin to each acquisition means that this art form is liberated of the "art stock exchange" that major art auction houses and galleries have come to represent in recent years. In other words, no one gets a tattoo so that they can later "flip it" and make millions of dollars on it-- rather, they acquire each piece out of a love for that piece.

Yeah, yeah. I know, there are drunken tattoos going on in basements all over the world. And there are celtic knots surrounding ambiguous Chinese characters, flanked by Tweety bird and Betty Boop. But there is bad art in galleries all over the world, too. Quality of technique, design, color and shading, content and concept factor as much into the critique and analysis of a tattoo as they do in a painting or sculpture. The tattooer also has to consider placement on a person's body, any blemishes or scars on the skin, and the way the ink is going to bleed into their "canvas" over time. It is an incredible artistic exchange that offers an intense and profound connection between artist, art, and collector.

It was fascinating to look at Amund Dietzel's flash art and begin to learn about his life in Rieter's biography of him (I still have some of the first volume and the whole second volume to get through!). But the exhibit seemed to be more a testament to the absence of an artist's oeuvre than to its presence.

Who were the people who came through his shop doors, pointed to one of those pieces of flash, handed over some dollar bills, and sat down to get tattooed? Where did they go? Where did they take their tattoos, Diezel's art?

At the end of the exhibit, one is left with the feeling that these small representations of a vast creative output are a floating piece of a larger artistic narrative that will never be linearly expressed or understood. The story of Amund Dietzel's art is dispersed in the world, in graves, in other countries, on wrinkled skin, in photographs, in flash.

This idea that the narrative of a tattooer's creative output will never be available to a viewer in one, comprehensive retrospective is beautifully demonstrated by author Shelley Jackson's short story, "Skin," published in tattoo form on the bodies of 2000-some volunteers. Each volunteer received a single word of the short story and got it tattooed on their bodies somewhere. The story will never be published in any other format... just like the story of Dietzel's art.

Please note, the Milwaukee Art Museum permitted photography in the Dietzel exhibit. All the photos in this post were taken by me.

Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Rust / River / Remembering

You know you're in the Midwest when...
I've missed you, dear petticoat rustlers! For the past week, I've been traveling through the Midwest with my husband and our dog, visiting family and friends and remembering the rusty, gritty beauty of that part of this country. I am delighted to share some highlights from that trip in the form of photos and musings... 

From the shores of the Mississippi in Iowa, we watched a decades-old battle take place. Since 1987, the town of Le Claire, Iowa has pit its finest tug-of-war competitors against competitors from Port Byron, Illinois. A giant rope, weighing nearly 700 pounds, is stretched across the Mississippi river where it divides these states. This Twain-esque tug-of-war sends river water splashing into the air as the rope emerges from the Mississippi and gets taut as the teams struggle to win more rope. Eleven teams comprised of twenty strong people battle for three-minutes at a time; the winning state is victorious in at least 6 of these eleven contests. It was thrilling-- I lost my voice from cheering so loudly...
Rope stretching between Iowa and Illinois, pulled taut over the Mississippi river.
In the photo, they look very serene... but I can assure you, they are pulling with all of their might. 
An Iowa tugger, feeling strong (and mysterious).
My husband grew up along the Mississippi, in Iowa, and so while we were there we visited landmarks around his hometown that he used to pass all the time as a kid. These landmarks included hand-painted signs, murals, hidden drives, and... the Mississippi itself. I think sometimes it is easy to take for granted the mystery and allure of a major body of water if you grew up next to it. So after touring neighborhoods in the car, we hopped onto a boat and toured a little bit of the mighty river itself...

I also grew up next to a major body of water: Lake Michigan. The lake is so big it can be seen from outer space-- I remember many times looking out over the waves and easily convincing myself it was my own little sea... The waters of Lake Michigan carved their way into the state of Wisconsin, and created some of the most beautiful freshwater beaches right next to my home city, Milwaukee.  

Milwaukee is where I grew up, went to college, met my husband, and got married. That city is full of memories and family, rust and bricks, beer and water. We only had about 6 hours to visit Milwaukee, but in that short amount of time, we tried to see as many of those things as possible. The lake, the art museum, the parks, the buildings, the people...


Details from inside Milwaukee Art Museum
From the Milwaukee Art Museum's exhibit on turn-of-the-century tattoo artist, Amund Dietzel

The unbeatable delights of my friend's new restaurant in Milwaukee, Café La Paloma
From Cafe La Paloma
The great big custard in the sky means you've arrived in heaven, otherwise known as Leon's. 
We went back to the Midwest with both the fresh eyes of forgetting and the wise eyes of remembering. Quotidian, casual details can be accidentally and easily forgotten when you go away; returning and finding those details, just as you'd left them, can unexpectedly remind you of their significance. Those things that you have etched into your memories, on the other hand, seem changed when you visit them after a long time, and you happily (and a bit melancholically) see evidence of the march of time, despite your absence. It is a relief to know things you love will change-- murals will fade, families will grow, water will recede and swell, buildings will burn, get repainted, tumble down, or get new occupants.

The Midwest is made of the wonderful (and crazy) people that live there, the rust-belt architecture of industry and hard work, and in some small way, the Midwest is made of the people that used to live there and who left behind a tiny mark of their presence. Like Amund Dietzel who, after arriving shipwrecked in Milwaukee's shores, pressed ink into pages and skin and history, forever affecting the legacy of the region and the style of its people.

It is a place in which I will always feel at home, a place I will always feel compelled to return to, a place I will constantly be remembering and forgetting.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

In Short: Augusto Monterroso

Guatemalan author, Augusto Monterroso
Several months ago, I sat in my office, loudly bemoaning what I perceived to be a complete lack of fable literature (of the likes I was reading from the Medieval period) in 20th century Latin America. Luckily, a friend and colleague standing nearby overheard my lament and informed me that there was no need to complain; I simply needed to look into the short stories of one Guatemalan author.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading the first of Augusto "Tito" Monterroso's collection of short stories, Obras completes (y otros cuentos) [Complete Works (and other stories)]. Published in 1959, these stories reflect, at times, a mood of both anger and resignation, possibly symptomatic of Guatemala's tumultuous socio-political situation (a transition from dictatorship to democracy and back to dictatorship within the period of 15 years).

Born in Honduras, raised in Guatemala, and lived the majority of his adult life in Santiago, Chile and Mexico City.
But while it is important to be cognizant of the historical context in which Monterroso wrote, it would be folly to imply that the sole objective of "Obras completas" (or any other collection of his stories) was to reflect the socio-historic disposition of Guatemalan politics. His political context is but one of many sources from which he sought inspiration; critiquing his work entirely based on his political context would fail to adequately address the richly layered literary accomplishments of his concise texts.

Indeed, Monterroso himself commented on this in a 1996 interview he gave with Mexican-American academic Ilan Stavans, telling the interviewer that he "never experienced a connection between politics and literature in which literature became an instrument aimed at promoting social upheaval. ... I think that, in general, my work demonstrates a concern with social dilemmas, but not with politics in any strict sense of the word." [See: Ilan Stavan's piece, "On Brevity: A Conversation with Augusto Monterroso" in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 37, No. 3. August, 1996; pages 393-405.]

Monterroso's writing is clever, almost self-depricating, and totally unique among the other 20th century Latin American authors I've read.

Augusto Monterroso's first published collection of short stories (the same collection I read). 
The first thing I noticed about the stories in "Obras completas" is the immense restraint with which these stories are crafted. Subtle gestures here and there casually signal the central themes of his stories; major character development is accomplished with merely a wink in the direction of the reader.

In no other of his stories is this fact more pronounced than in his most famous short story (though perhaps not his most important). "El dinosaurio" ("The Dinosaur") is a one-sentence story that is, all at once, a fable, a joke, a surreal image, and a poetic transformation of the entire short story genre:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. (When s/he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.)

The story begins in medias res with "When s/he awoke," immediately confronting the reader with the pace of the narrative and a perplexing, gender-ambiguous central character (in Spanish, the verb is conjugated for the singular third person without defining a male or female subject). This opening phrase also generates suspense for what we can expect to find after the comma, which announces the story's inevitable climax. When someone awoke, something must've been happening, otherwise there wouldn't be any story to tell, and suspense builds towards the resolution of that story as we approach--and read past--that comma.

At this point, the reader is thrust into a more surreal and fantastical realm with the introduction of the dinosaur, who is suddenly and inexplicably in the presence of the (main?) character. And yet there must be an explanation for the dinosaur's presence, because he was there before our gender-ambiguous character supposedly fell asleep. The end of the story forces the reader to re-evaluate his original assumption about the waking-up character being the main character--by the end of the story, the extraordinary importance of the dinosaur becomes clear. The dinosaur is, after all, the title character.

"The Dinosaur," on my kitchen table
I am certainly not the first to admire and analyze this brilliantly pithy story, nor shall I be the last. Monterroso almost did not include this short story in his collection, thinking that while it may have been relatively easy to write, it would not be the easiest thing to publish. He decided to publish it with Obras completas, at the urging of friends. The story became incredibly popular among the public (though not among critics, those nasty things), and in the interview with Ilan Stavans, he recalls the horror he felt as the little dinosaur began to eclipse the rest of his writing. Monterroso said:

... the story not only brought great recognition; it also generated great harm. ... People think that, since they've read 'The Dinosaur,' which obviously doesn't take that much effort, they know my entire work. I still have the very first reviews of the book [Obras completas]: critics hated it. Since that point on I began hearing complaints to the effect that it isn't a short-story. My answer: True, it isn't a short-story, it is actually a novel... 

Ha! I love that last line-- he succeeds in directly addressing the critics of his story at the same time he completely changes the discussion. He has "agreed" with their critique, but only after surreptitiously  teaching them how to elevate their critique to a new plane. Again, he manages to do this in one line...

Monterroso credited extensive study of and admiration for classic Greek writers (and the Spanish Golden-Age writer, Baltazar Gracián) with his penchant for brevity. He claimed that the straightforward and wildly inventive styles of Golden Age Spanish tales informed his short story writing by showing him how to pursue a structurally simple story, gilded with his own wonderfully strange voice: "Traditional stories are useful in that they broaden our scope by showing us what people enjoy most: simplicity." Drawing from traditional tales also uninhibited him from the notion of "originality."He said, "Originality isn't based on the construction of a certain argument, but in the style and twist a writer gives it. ... It's only possible to achieve originality through form."

Monterroso died at age 81 in 2003 in Mexico City.
My favorite tale in the Obras completas collection was called "Sinfonía conluida" ("Completed Symphony"). The story is two pages long and relates how a man discovered, while cataloguing old sheet music of La Merced church, the lost pages of a symphony. He eventually comes to realize that the sheets of music belonged to Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony."

As he excitedly shares his discovery all over his town, the people only respond by laughing at him and scorning the sheets of music. So he ends up selling his house and possessions (without bothering to tell his wife) and traveling to Vienna, to try to convince more "learned" men of his astonishing recovery of the lost Scherzo and allegro ma non tropo. But there, as in Guatemala, he meets with disbelief and disapproval.

Finally, a handful of Schubert scholars realize that this little old man is correct, and that he holds in his hands the lost parts of the symphony. In the end, however, they tell him that revealing these sheets of music would spoil the beloved narrative of the first two movements of Schubert's symphony-- how Schubert himself didn't think he could write anything beautiful enough to live up to the first two movements. Not only did they not wish to depose the old narrative, they did not want to have to figure out what the new one would be: how did Schubert's music end up in Guatemala? how had it languished in obscurity for so long?... (Remember the post I did about preferring a collectively constructed narrative to a "true" narrative?!)

I won't spoil the end of this tale for you. But you can already tell how wonderful a story it is (packed neatly into two pages like some elegant literary bento box)...

Augusto Monterroso seemed to be able to address enormous truths about humanity--our inclination to make assumptions in the face of suspense, our occasional foolhardiness, our occasional brilliance, our inferiority- and superiority-complexes. He was not afraid to let animals do the talking, he was not afraid of borrowing age-old tales that could be recreated entirely in their telling, he was not afraid to let each word he wrote turn around and say ten other things to his reader that he had no control over.

I am very inspired to read more of his work, and am very happy that, because of him, I am able to rescind my complaint about there being no fables in 20th century Latin American fiction.

On the "Centro Virtual Cervantes," (a Spanish-based online literature website) they chose to end his biography with a very sweet and personal line, and I'd like to conclude the post with this same line:
Pese a su intención de hacerse invisible, Monterroso refleja las huellas luminosas de un talento y una modestia excepcionales. Querido Tito, muchas gracias por tus maravillosos libros y por tu amistad.
(In spite of his attempts to make himself invisible, Monterroso left behind luminous traces of exceptional talent and modesty. Beloved Tito, thank you so much for your wonderful books and friendship.) 
<Please note, all translations in this post are my own.>

Have you read any ultra-short-stories that could actually be novels?? What is on your reading table?? Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!