Tag Archives: jean-michel basquiat

The Venus Flytrap: The Compulsive Creator

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In the age of the Twitter trending topic, nothing exalts the artist quite like death. When Dennis Hopper, Hollywood maverick and counterculture icon, died a few months ago, this happened in a more interesting way than usual: not only was Hopper remembered for his work in cinema, but a resurgence of curiosity in his photography was sparked. Lauded for half a century as an actor, director and screenwriter, his work with still film – although widely published – came as news to many.

Hopper taught himself photography at 25, and expertly chronicled Americana and the art(ists) of that generation. His subjects included his friends – Paul Newman, Andy Warhol, Tuesday Weld, Ed Rushcha – but mostly, a certain milieu and moment. A self-described “compulsive creator”, Hopper was not unlike many artists, who visibly succeed in one field, but whose body of work runs along several parallel tracks.

What the audience receives is distillation; in the artist’s life, these tracks converge. Back when I first began to develop an Internet presence, I perhaps injudiciously let my bios tip over in their exuberance, listing the various things I did: dance, painting, photography, theatre and (oh yeah) writing. This was meant without conceit, for truly, I was passionate about all of those things, and had yet to understand the benefits of streamlining. Writing was not the first love, only the most extant.

In the same way, it took years for me to think of myself as a poet (instead of as a fiction writer who sometimes wrote poems). When I stumbled into journalism at 16, I did so thinking it a lesser form, with not a shred of the admiration I have for non-fiction now! But now I’m a manquée novelist, a dabbler in many things, but mostly a writer of poetry and non-fiction. Art must necessarily be incidental in a life fully lived (the ash of a life that burns well, as Cohen – who himself was a bard turned balladeer – put it). Recognition is even more secondary, and what one becomes recognized for is almost arbitrary.

Then there’s the question of money. The starving artist is increasingly something of an anachronism: art requires money, be it to buy time, materials, or enough to eat so that the spiritual hunger supersedes the visceral one. So, knowing that both terms of recognition and market value are vagaries, at what point does one become a sellout? At the point of commercial success, or at the point of intention?

Still, the life of a piece of art cannot be charted at the outset. Even sincere intentions can be diverted. Tamra Davis, director of a new film about the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat, says that toward the end of his life Basquiat was saddened when friends would sell his gifts, if they contained his artwork. They valued it less than their buyers, or their giver.

In some ways nearly everything I do, creatively, is a vanity project. But some things are more likely to succeed than others (and what does success mean? Ah, perhaps another time…). I find the best way to balance ambition with humility is to go back to the naïveté with which I proclaimed all my many passions: to do all of it, love all of it, and then let it go, allowing it to become what it will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Mr. Cohen, I Hope You Live Forever

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Please don’t bother reading this if you are irritated by mad self-indulgence. Actually, you shouldn’t be at this blog at all in that case, so goodbye!

When I was 19, someone I was furious at played me Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man”, and said, “This song is for you.” That was how it began, this blessed affair with the man who was born like that, he had no choice, he was the man who was born with the gift of that golden voice.

Years later, all I remember of that first listen is of being in a room lit in yellow, suddenly aware of something profound lighting up within myself. And then I heard the Cohen Live version of “Hallelujah”. The rest — the poems, the other songs — I didn’t need anyone to introduce to me. I was already initiated. I would find them myself.

I was supposed to have a book published by the end of this month. Like Cohen, I think now, it would have been my first book, released when I was 22.

Some of you know that a crisis that I described as one to do with funding affected this intention. Well, it was funding. But it hit deeper, too. To have the carpet pulled from beneath my feet by a person who seemed to have more vision than I did hit my own vision, hard. A multitude of questions emerged, everything from my ambivalence about the project to its fate. Questions difficult to answer, questions I tried to mollify with statements like “I am just more interested in the process than the project, I suppose.”

I spent some weeks wandering in an existential angst I had never, ever known — a lack of passion. I’m still there, still finding my way out as I try to ascertain how I found my way in in the first place. I began to wonder if I even deserve a book (deserve with all the dramatics). I watched Schnabel’s Basquiat and Before Night Falls back to back, films about extraordinary men, their eternal art, and their short lives. The second one devastated me so much I haven’t been able to watch anything else properly since. Would I, like Reinaldo Arenas, go to prison for my writing, go into exile for it, die for it, I asked myself? Before anyone pipes up and invokes any political scandals I’ve found myself in in the past, let me just say my answer was NO. Then I read this. And realised that also NO — I have no pig in my panties. Not anymore. And then, I heard from the editor of an anthology an essay of mine had been accepted to five years ago, but had never seen the light of day. A new publisher had expressed interest. I re-read that piece, and knew immediately that I had to withdraw it from the collection. I could no longer stand by it. Is that how I will feel about Witchcraft, later? I wondered. Already, I can’t look at some of the poems anymore. Already, I know they are in there because other people love them, because I have a career because of them. But I am a million miles away.

I was no longer on speaking terms with the most passionate person I had ever met — myself.

There’s something I didn’t tell you — I am a very lucky girl.

The funding got sorted out. With the exception of one person, everyone who was behind me has stayed behind me. I have more creative freedom than most people have. I can have a book. A book. Something I’ve wanted, worked toward, assumed would always be mine, since I was seven years old. But only If I want it.

So the only reasons there is no book are purely internal circumstances.

As I write this now, I wonder if I should publish this post at all. Or if I will publish it, then delete it. If I should just email confidantes instead. I am so uncertain about a blog post — can you imagine how much trepidation I feel about my book?

But back to Cohen.

Inspired by recent discussions, I went looking up his poems again. This one I had first heard as a recording, in his own voice, that was inexplicably tacked on to a Tori Amos song I was downloading. I share it only because it is beautiful.

I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.

If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.
it is because I hear a man climb stairs and clear his throat outside the door.

I kept surfing links, looking over lyrics I already knew, reading anecdotes about the songs. Comparing two versions of “Hallelujah” made me realise, amazedly, that the writer behind the greatest English song in the world was never really happy with it.

If Leonard Cohen has second thoughts, I am perfectly, perfectly entitled to mine.

And then I read this. I’m sorry to look at this so materialistically, but if Leonard Cohen had an evil manager cheat him financially, well into the late stages of his universally-acclaimed career, then the fact that it had happened to me isn’t really that big a deal.

Thank you, Leo. You may not be God, but you are surely a member of the pantheon.

All this while I have been waiting for the voodoo, knowing very well by now that the voodoo is always there, it’s just that I’m not letting myself feel it. I’m not saying I own it yet. I’m just saying that, like the fog-basking Namibian beetle (look, I am not stoned, I’m just short on metaphors, and I had to edit something about this amazing creature at work recently), I’m going to start aligning to the wind.