Thursday, May 21, 2015

Being Ophelia (Video)

Ophelia is, like most Shakespeare characters and particularly the women, a complicated part to play. She is sweet, innocent but not unknowledgeable about what men get up to in their spare time, in love, heart-broken, fragile, uninhibited, and in the end a kind of mad prophet of impending doom.

For the final assignment of Coursera's "Shakespeare In Community" class, we students were asked to make a video of a piece of any Shakespeare play. This afforded an opportunity to showcase our acting skills and creativity. However, I am only beginning to learn the ins-and-outs of Windows Movie Maker, so I decided to keep it simple.

"Hamlet" is one of my favorite plays and Ophelia is a character I can relate to. She is an innocent victim of events, but strong and wise in her own way, even after she descends into madness. So I chose her soliloquy from Act 3 Scene 1. But to portray Ophelia requires more than emoting Shakespeare's poetry.

First, there was the consideration of what my Ophelia should look like. I rarely tease my hair or use hairspray because it damages my hair extensively, but Ophelia is the daughter of the King's counselor. As such, she would dress well. I chose to clothe her in black and red because I wanted to convey that there is more to Ophelia than meets the eye, but chose simple makeup due to her youth and sweetness. (Also, my corset is red and black; one must work with what costuming one has. *shrugs*) The heart-lock and key earrings symbolise her relationship with Prince Hamlet. The lace-like cover-over convey her modesty and proved to add a dramatic touch at the end. It was rainy out and that resulted in wonderful lighting that I could not have arranged.

Then I moved on to more abstract considerations. For instance, in our modern world, how might an equally fragile and complicated woman react to the tragedies that eventually drove Ophelia to madness? That question brought the song "Chandelier" by Sia to mind. One could even argue that the lines "I'm gonna fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry, I'm gonna swing from the chandelier" could be something Ophelia was feeling as she drowned at last. The scene where she hands out the flowers spouting her prophetic riddles could equate to this verse: "Help me, I'm holding on for dear life, won't look down, won't open my eyes, keep my glass full until morning light, cos I'm just holding on for the night." Therefore, I chose to sing them in my "Ophelia Descends into Madness" scene to add a touch of the modern to my Ophelia.

The red nose was added to the costume in that scene to emphasise that Ophelia has at this point and in some measure lost touch with reality. I didn't realize that it is the first ever Red Nose Day in the U.S. today, until after I had made that decision (but in the famous words of Gwendolyn Brooks: "I have no objection if it helps anybody").

Getting in the emotional place for Ophelia's soliloquy took some preparation. I drew from my own experience with doomed relationships and listened to Sia's "Chandelier" on repeat while I dressed. Ophelia would have felt her pain deeply and without restraint of any kind.

Here is the text of Ophelia's soliloquy:

"Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!—
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th' observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me,
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!"

Now I present to you the finished video to enjoy or criticise as you will:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Are the Arts and Humanities Relevant?

The Humanities are defined on as: "studies about human culture, such as literature, philosophy, and history". Debates on whether the Humanities are important are as old as time, but always heat up in times of economic instability since they are often among the first to be cut from a curriculum.

However, it is worth noting that the phenomena of cultures and all manifestations of art and philosophy are what separate humans from any other inhabitants of this planet. There is no other known earthly species that is in any way concerned with such matters. This unique set of interests is intrinsic to what it means to be human. We, as a species, seem to have an instinctual need for the arts and humanities. So why bother to debate their relevance at all? Are they, indeed, important?

The answer is as easy as asking yourself "How do I define myself? Who am I?" Believe it or not, your answer, whatever it is, is an example of the Humanities and the Arts in practical application. Are you a soccer mom, a steel worker, a punk rock/goth/emo type? Do you identify with where you were born, where you live, who raised you? Are you a fan of your local sports team? Do you pride yourself based on the music you listen to? Are you brand-oriented or bargain-oriented? Do you like to hike or to write? Do you believe in God (if so, which one?) or are you more of an Agnostic or Atheist? What do you want most out of life? What constitutes "power" to you and who are you willing or not willing to give it to? Are you an early-riser or a night owl? Are you heart-broken or the heart-breaker, or both?

When we study art and the humanities, we are studying ourselves. And the truly wise among us also study each other. finishes its definition of the humanities with a statement that undervalues them as "not practical". But what is knowing a skill without being able to answer, or at least ask and explore, these most fundamental questions about the human experience? That is what the Humanities and the Arts facilitate.

These are the very things that make us human. What could be more relevant than that?

Modern "Much Ado About Nothing"?

There is an internet-inspired trend in text analysis that involves computer tools, such as the above word cloud. The theory is that these various tools will help someone approach a text in a different way than one has before. This word cloud was produced by entering the text to Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing", which I love, into a word cloud-making website. I must admit that for me such tools would be more helpful when composing collage poetry (because it helps to disorient the text and break it up) than in formulating text analysis.

For instance, one would naturally eliminate the character names, since of course they would be the most frequently used words in the text, and then concentrate on what is left. From there, the poetry combinations are endless and exciting and almost write themselves. But those poems would only be text analysis to the point that any collage poem is, and most poets who employ that form are thinking of anything except what is traditionally considered analysis.

So I tried a different tool: Storify. In the end, I didn't so much write a story as use it to search hashtags and internet search engines for new perspectives on "Much Ado". And I found one.

 "These Paper Bullets!" is a modern take on "Much Ado" with the music written by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. Green Day started out in the '90s as a modern punk rock/alternative band. Since then it has become a little more pop in its aesthetics, but with a decided punk edge. Recently, Armstrong redefined what the Broadway musical could mean with his wildly successful "American Idiot" musical. "These Paper Bullets!" was his next theatrical project. The storyline revolves around a band called The Quartos, modeled after the early Beatles, and its members' search for true love in the midst of fame. Unfortunately, a recording of the full production doesn't seem to exist, which left plenty to my imagination.

Other than the curious aspects of "what would a punkish/Beatleseque version of 'Much Ado' be like?", there are also larger questions that could be explored. Much of Shakespeare's original play hinges on witty, sarcastic humor with a decided gender bias. Benedick is against marriage and very much a spouter of male virtues, almost to the point of chauvinism, and Beatrice is very much a hard-bitten feminist. Funny, then, that they should eventually fall in love with each other based on hearsay. How uncharacteristically suggestible of both of them! How would that work in a modern setting?

For instance, in this post-feminist world, why would a woman feel a need to despairingly rant out the "O to be a man" speech? The whole dynamic of the plot may have to be reworked, but what is "Much Ado" without the friction and the obvious social critique of his time that Shakespeare meant it to be? Also, it is no longer a life and death matter whether Hero really "tarnished" her honour or not. That too would have to be rewritten. What, therefore, would be left of the original play?

These are things which I was forced to consider and which caused me to view "Much Ado" as a masterpiece of wit that can continue to survive due to that wit only. No longer can it also be a painful mirror held up to society which is barely made palatable by that wit. How I wish I could have seen "These Paper Bullets!" in order to have at least one set of answers to these questions.

Do you think "Much Ado" still works as a social critique? If so, in what ways?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Breaking Things (Or How to Write Collage Poetry)

What is collage poetry? The idea is to take an existing text or texts and make it into something new.  The process is also called Unoriginality in studies of poetic movements and began in the 1990s almost as a direct consequence of the advent of the Internet and the growing uneasiness with Modern and Post-modern poetry tactics among the avant garde set. Most practicers of Unoriginality stumbled upon the concept independently, although some developed it within groups of writers. It seems like a simple enough concept to execute, leading many to disregard it as valid poetic practice - until such ones attempt it themselves. It is actually a complicated process that requires intense focus and a lot of trial and error to develop the skills of discernment needed to honour the original texts while reshaping the texts into something completely unfamiliar. It's also a wonderful way to explore the contested concept of authorship, because the words one is using belong to some one else and the final text of the collage poem cannot be guessed at by the poet assembling it until the reorganisation is complete. A collage poem is fun in the sense of wordplay and delving into the unknowable that the poet has only the most minimal control over, but it is hard work and slow-going.

To illustrate, I am going to use a simplified example of collage poetry work that I did as an assignment that the instructors called "Breaking Things" for a class I'm taking on Shakespeare. I started out with the text of the Bard's play "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and two blog posts I had previously written related to the course which can be found farther down this page ("On First Lines" and "Comparison: 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Layla and Majnun'"). First I selected a specific passage from the play to use, which is the conversation with Hermia about her father's selection of a husband for her. Instead of copying out the entire dialog, I left out her responses and chose specific lines that appealed to me due to their expression of a father's absolute authority over a daughter, possibly one of the most overtly serious moments in the comedy. Thus I copied this out on a sheet of paper:

"Be advised, fair maid.
To you, your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
For whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted, and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
In this kind, wanting your father's voice,
The other must be held worthier.
Your eyes must with his judgement look.
Look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father's will."

Lots of assonance in these lines to play with and it would be fun to dismantle this outdated notion of male dictatorship.

Then I proceeded to comb through the two blog posts for phrases which could be repurposed. Hence, on the same sheet of paper I copied this:

"virgin love
consummation (or lack thereof)
love cannot exist without sex, but sex can exist without love
attain to the status of a lesser god
roams the wilderness
spouting poetry for
first lines are the spine on which all hangs
security cameras and spying eyes
choking like flame without air
somewhat mantic
poetry cannot survive
meandering masterpiece
the most primal of human needs
worn out subject - elementary thing -
much glorification of the giving and the taking of the maidenhead
amourous rites
hood my unmanned blood
love grow bold
no love at all"

Now that I had broken things, I was ready to reassemble them. This is where trial and error comes in. You must expect that the first attempt will not result in a finished poem. Usually these things take many drafts and can sometimes take years to work out. A person who writes collage poetry must be one who thrives on challenge. The work involved is the point as much as the finished product. In this example, however, it took me about three hours. You will notice that in reorganising, sometimes I broke the phrases down further and rearranged them into new phrases as well as rearranging the actual lines. I began, crossing off phrases as I reused them. This is first draft:

"much glorification of
elementary thing - most
primal thing cannot survive
as a god somewhat mantic
arm yourself your fancies
the spine on which all hangs
choking flame without air
virgin love grow bold
wilderness spouting repetition
by him imprinted
meandering masterpiece
be advised to leave the figure
or disfigure it in this kind
consummation (or lack thereof)
first lines are security cameras
spying eyes, love without
sex without love amourous rites
that composed whom you are
a form in wax within his
power: the other must beheld poetry
look you to fit unmanned blood roams
no love at all
with his judgement look
the giving and the taking
status of a lesser god
poetry for maidenhood"

I largely avoided punctuation or consideration for line breaks, etc. because at this point it didn't matter. At this stage, the goal is just to see what surprising new combinations can be made of the phrases. Look for juxtaposition and delightfully new, unlooked for ideas. Phrases I liked here are: "First lines are security cameras" and "your fancies/ the spine on which all hangs". There is no clear formation of meaning in this new text yet, but the suggestion is that the meaning will be highly sexual. That is not a route I wanted to go. Although Shakespeare is very candid and even rude in such matters, I wanted to focus on poetry itself as a way to better honour the common perception of Shakespeare's work. On to the second draft:

"As a god somewhat mantic
Much glorification of elementary thing
Arm yourself your fancies cannot survive
Wilderness spouting repetition by
Him imprinted meandering
Masterpiece, be advised to
Leave the figure or disfigure it
In this kind consummation (or lack thereof)
Virgin love grow bold with his
Judgement look the giving and the taking
No love at all the spine on which all hangs
That composed whom you are - a form
In wax within his power, look you to fit
Unmanned blood roams: the other
Must be held poetry, security cameras
First lines are spying eyes
Love without sex without love
Poetry a lesser god for maidenhood
Amourous rites choking without air
No consummation at all"

As you can see, on the second draft, I paid a little more attention to poetic devises, such as line breaks and further fractured and rearranged some phrases. I also inserted some personal stylistic preferences, such as extending line length and capitalising the first letters of lines. Here, I began to sense clearer meaning and that it was closer to my intention of a metapoetic reading. Encouraged, I forged ahead to what would be the final draft:


As a god somewhat mantic,
Much glorification of elementary thing.
Arm yourself! Your fancies cannot survive
Wilderness spouting repetition, by him
Imprinted meandering masterpiece.
Be advised leave the figure or disfigure it
In this kind consummation
(Or lack thereof).
Virgin love grow bold with his judgement.
Look! The giving and the taking -
No love at all, the spine on which all hangs
That composed whom you are - a form
In wax within his power. Look you to fit.
Unmanned blood roams: the other must be held poetry.
Security cameras: first lines are spying eyes -
Love without sex without love.
Poetry a lesser god for maidenhood,
Amourous rites choking flame:
No consummation at all.

The title used here is a working title. It was good enough for the assignment for which it was written. This final result is both metapoetic and I believe a fitting tribute to Shakespeare while creating something entirely fresh from his (and my) words with a 21st century feel.