Monday, December 31, 2012

Tribute to Dottie Grossman: L.A. Poetry & Jazz Trip, by Elaine Terranova

I bet that skinny broken thing down there is a river. Everything looks like a petroglyph from the air, some signal to the universe. Traveling, I decide, is like living except that you are doing it in such a restricted space. Everything you need is in the case that's beside you or under the seat. Maybe it contains your ventriloquist dummy or your hoard of treasure. But probably only the equipment you require, comb, soap, floss, to remain who you are even under distressed circumstances.

            I wonder as we land, will I find the person who is meeting me, will they find me? And yes, at the end of the secure area, while I am scarcely awake, shoes still untied, just like in the movies there is someone holding a printed sign bearing my name. It's Fred Fitzgerald, a stage-managing intern at CalArts, nice man with a beard and pony tail and beautiful forearm tattoos, who drives me for the half hour freeway ride to Bonnie's house, Mexican music on the SUV radio. It's 100 degrees and I take off my sweater quickly, not wanting to miss the view, palm trees, treeless mountains, bald stone, gray-gold, oleander. I am here to read, not my poems but my friend Dottie's. Dorothea Grossman, writing for 50 years but just recently on the map of poetry, you could say, with a feature in Poetry magazine and their Wood prize for 2010. Her first commercially published book, The Fun of Speaking English, has come out from Coffeetown Press in June, a month after her sudden death. And in October this Call and Response gig with her poetry and jazz partner, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, at CalArts Redcat Theater in Disney Hall. They were scheduled on a joint bill with the avant garde singer, Bonnie Barnett. Now Dottie's part will be a tribute and I will be reading in her place.

            So many jumbled emotions in me, foremost sadness, but also excitement, fatigue. And not a little fear. Boy, they all drive so fast here, weaving in and out of lanes, but Fred is unflappable and we get to Van Nuys, a little community trimmed with flowering bushes, just fine. When I ask Bonnie later if that red stuff in front of the houses is bougainvillea, she says, That sounds like the start of a poem by Dottie. Bonnie's house is nestled in eucalyptus, why do different parts of the country smell so different? Little white house, big leather living room furniture, pretty calico maybe partly Siamese cat, Pooky. Bonnie greets me, shows me to the little guest room recently vacated by the guitarist, Anders Nilsson, who will accompany her at the gig. Nice firm single bed, books piled on books, fantasy and mystery mostly, maybe inspiration for the invented syllables of her musical pieces, boxes on boxes of cds, a lamp on a box. The bedroom door is festooned with teenage memorabilia of Richard's, her partner's, daughter who has left for college or somewhere.

            Bonnie and I sit and talk. Richard Wood arrives, a friendly guy with a mop of black hair. I'm a total stranger and a little nervous taking up residence here like this, but they are both welcoming. I have been admiring the various CDs out and around, mostly his, Bonnie tells me, Dylan, Joe Williams, Howling Wolf?, Kerouac reciting his poems to a jazz accompaniment by Steve Allen, also a DVD of Marshall McLuhan giving some talks. Richard is a sax and flute player and I find out how good he is from the CD I take home with me, but today he has been cooking. The Recession has hit pretty hard here, and he and Bonnie have lost their long-time day jobs, hers as a legal secretary and his, chef at a special-ed school. So he temps at the cafeteria of the Jet Propulsion Lab at Cal Tech, which sounds pretty interesting. He winds down with some wine and seems disappointed when I don't join him, but I'm so jet lagged I think I would pass out. Californians are so proud of their food and wine and for good reason. It's 4 by now. I see I'm not going to make it to dinner and when Richard says, are you hungry? I sit down to a delicious noodle dish already in their fridge, with tofu he has smoked and a spice mixture ground by him. Also, California avocadoes he takes out of his pocket, as if he is going to juggle them. He tells me they are creamier than Mexican and they are. Richard's a kind of autodidact genius, into all kinds of things. His cooking tips: scramble eggs very slowly for an hour or two, stirring constantly; massage kale to make it more edible.

            Bonnie apologizes for being a little withdrawn, says she always gets this way in the days before a gig. She is a big woman with curly hair and a wide smile. She reminds me of Dottie. She knew the pianist Richard Grossman, Dottie's husband, performs with some of the same musicians. He was, she tells me, a kind of legend in avant garde music in L.A. Bonnie is a jazz DJ and did a show on the Grossmans after Dottie's death, playing some of their CD's and reading Dottie's poems. She has sent me a CD of her own stuff and I'm pretty impressed with how inventive she is, creating almost a new language of disconnected syllables and electronic sounds. She says she loved Dottie's work and courted her friendship. It took a while, Dottie kept to herself after Richard died, but she and Bonnie got close. A year ago, they wrote the grant for this gig together.

            It's Richard's (Bonnie's partner's) 61st birthday and after dinner Bonnie and I go off to Whole Foods, which here is a sprawling hacienda. We buy some little cakes to celebrate. Then I crash and go to bed.

            I discover that Bonnie is a movie lover too and the next morning, we strike out to see the film of the book I read on the plane, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. We drive to the closest theatre, a 16-plex in Burbank. The screen is gigantic, the huge theater has stadium seating, but there are only a handful of people at the 11 a.m. show, all women, maybe unemployed actresses. Bonnie says the size of the screen and theater are not unusual, this is Hollywood. I bring a huge felafel back to her house from Lusy's, their local middle Eastern place in a strip mall, and sit with my really good sandwich and a Joe Williams CD while she goes off to have a lubricating shot in her knee. Richard has left for his temp job at 4 a.m. but I see him when he gets back.

            I am waiting for Lauren Pratt from CalArts to pick me up and take me to the hotel in downtown L.A. Lauren is probably in her 50s, bright, efficient woman with a beautiful tan, tennis player she tells me. She runs the performances at Redcat Theater. She has done work toward a Ph.D. in English and studied with Helen Vendler at Boston U., so we talk about poetry on the way, especially some ideas she has about Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I mention the movie, Margaret, derived from his "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child." She teaches in the music program at CalArts and has courses that prepare performers for their stage lives, like going for interviews and writing resumes. Also dealing with agents. At Redcat, named for Roy and Edna Disney, no doubt funded by them, she is a wonder. She works with stagehands and runs performers back and forth to the hotel, the Standard, a few blocks away, one of the sponsors of the theater, so everyone is booked there. Going to Disney Hall where Redcat is located from the hotel is straight up a giant hill, hence the need for car rides. When Lauren drops me off, she picks up a dapper Italian, Riccardo, to take back to the theater (are all musicians named Richard?--because the drummer at our performance also is, Rich West). She tells me I can come see him and his partner, Tiziana, the Duo Alterno, at Redcat that evening. She will even pick me up when she is picking up Tiziana.

            I am glad to go out again because the hotel room has aspects of a hospital room, mostly plastic and sterile. I practice getting in and out of the bed a few times, which is a mattress on a carpeted pedestal, and can't figure out how to negotiate it, put my slippers on the floor then on the pedestal, and realize I will fall getting down so put the little plastic chair against the bed and try leaning on that as I rise. Later I realize that the other side of the bed is where you are meant to get in and out because the mattress there is flush with the pedestal, and it is almost like getting out of a regular bed. Other questions are the sink faucet that squirts you in the eye, you have to turn it on to a trickle, the blinking pale light of the bathroom, I discover where the switch is, and that to shut the glass wall of the bathroom off from the bedroom and the open blinds, you use the room-width white shower curtain. I think the room should come with a set of instructions, but by the next day I figure it out and even like it.

            I ride back to the theater with Tiziana, a classical soprano, who is very beautiful in her stage makeup. I get to the theater in time to eat at the Disney Hall cafeteria where they make couscous with carob chips, not such a good idea. Then I walk around the Gehry building inside and out, so like a ship, space or sea. The Duo Alterno is fun. They perform Cage and Ives and avant garde Italian composers. That night, Riccardo begins with a Cage piece, "A Flower," that is played on a closed piano, the pitch different on key cover and the board behind it. He gives explanations between pieces in his careful, eccentric English. He is a scholar and critic as well as a pianist, funny too, and he reminds me of Victor Borge. He's wearing a dark, beautifully tailored polished cotton suit, which looks like leather. Tiziana has three changes of clothes. She sings a work called Ophelia from a poem by Heiner Muller that's odd and interesting, a little bloody, and some Ennio Maricone, who is known for soundtracks to spaghetti westerns. Once, she wraps herself in a feather boa and sits on the piano, showing off her legs . Behind them is a screen which for one piece displays the texts and still camera shots of Riccardo's fotosuoni, photos he took that inspire his own compositions. The Duo Alterno has performed everywhere, even Mongolia, and my favorite piece of his was composed in Beijing. It starts with recorded crickets, morphs into ancient Chinese instruments, and then school children at play, the sounds closely connected. Their finale is a concerto for Betty Boop that ends with Tiziana attaching a tail and a leash to Riccardo as he sits at the piano so he can play her dog, Boby, and he trails behind her on all fours as she leads him off the stage. I'm enthusiastic on the ride home from the theater and they are exhausted but grateful.

            When I wake up on Wednesday, I grab a blueberry muffin from the only place around that seems to know what a muffin is, Starbuck's, and head for the public library that hovers on a hill above the hotel. It's a great art deco building. I want to take a tour but can't find the guide, and just wander around on my own. There is even art in the elevator. I go look at the outside, white in brilliant sun. And just across the street, I walk up and up, sometimes taking an escalator, a steep incline where there are buildings at each level. Dottie used to send me e-mails about L.A. architecture, and we would spar about what was art deco, moderne, or beaux art. It's hard to be here without a dialogue with her running in my head. I've been looking for the Biltmore Hotel, which I know she mentioned, isn't that famous old Hollywood? The streets are so wide, I know it's only a block from the library, walk and walk and finally find it. There's a noodle house--something we don't have in Phila.--Sai Sai is the name--with a largely Asian clientele. I slurp udon, covering myself with napkins, having first read the sign in the lobby: The state of California would like to inform me that some of the ingredients in the dishes served may cause cancer and may be especially dangerous to pregnant women. I see signs like this again wherever I eat. You are always forewarned in California.

            I get back to the hotel as one of those famous L.A. car accidents is occurring just outside. Two rough guys in silver cars tap each other on Flower St. The one in front gets out and yells at the driver behind, Fag! The other opens his door but sits where he is. Faggot! he yells even louder. Then they drive off, but not before one of the uniformed parking attendants yells, Hey, Chrissake, I'm gay! It's 2:30. I'm exhausted but just in time for Lauren to pick me up, with Anders Nilsson, the guitarist who preceded me in Bonnie's single bed, and Ken Filiano, a bassist who played with Richard Grossman and reveres him. He has a cute white soul patch on his chin and talks really fast with his own brisk cadence and a Martin Scorcese N.Y. accent. Anders is young, good looking, and Swedish but speaks perfect English. He's wearing a Hawaiian shirt and throws back his head to get his dirty-blond hair out of his eyes. On the ride over he tells me how to pronounce Wallender, because I read those mysteries--with a V and an accent on the second syllable. We're all going to Redcat for sound and light checks. The theater hands there, at least half a dozen, wear shorts and black shirts with the theater logo on them. They are really nice and look in the semidarkness like forest creatures, you can see the whites of their eyes.

            I watch Bonnie's check. She does this deep, guttural scat singing, a chant, loud and with enormous power. She reminds me of an exotic singer from my childhood, Yma Sumac. They used to say she invented her name by spelling her real name backwards, Amy Camus, and that she was really from Queens. Bonnie reads passages from Gary Snyder, appropriately, "Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin," something by Lorca, and Gertrude Stein's "Love Story," all in the same strong, hypnotic voice, repeating words and phrases. I remember the wife and cow lines from Stein. Her performance is an opera where she is the cast and the orchestra at the same time. I can see how much effort it takes, like an opera singer, and how she might get tired just thinking about a performance. But she really meshes with the musicians. Anders is so animated, a sort of 21st century Jimi Hendrix, and Ken, a classy guy, inventive and busy on electric double bass and sound effects, both real pros and they, like the musicians in the Dottie set, are totally improvisational yet completely in synch with the reader/singer and one another. They play the way you do in jazz, but they don't start with a standard and improvise. They improvise from the beginning. Bonnie's back-up musicians accompany her, their music behind her as she sings, so it sounds like a trio, while Dottie in performance read first and then the music would come in, the way I'll do it tonight. Lauren has told me that Bonnie is famous locally for performances of group hums, having done 83 with an audience of as many as 500 people who join her and just hum for an hour or so.

            When it's our turn for the check, I sit on a stool and somebody adjusts the mike. I try to make some sense but kind of sputter as I introduce the first poem of Dottie's and say something about her. Michael Vlatkovich is a big, jovial, courtly guy with a long pigtail, which may be fairly new because I don't think he had it when I read with him and Dottie in a San Diego bookstore a few years ago. He's the reason I'm here. He knew how close Dottie and I were. Michael has a stand on the stage for his trombone, and mutes and plungers and some things I can't identify are on a table near him. Tom McNally is the electric guitarist in our set, a sweet young collegiate looking guy. He's made a kind of altar to Dottie on a stool beside him. There is a picture of her and Richard, in a psychedelic shirt, some incense, the silver flask of bourbon she always had with her when she read, and a perfumed candle. After the check, the musicians decide to go to L.A. Pizza for dinner and I try to tag along. Lauren has another suggestion. She takes me aside, I think you should go back to the hotel and rest, just get room service, decide what you're going to say.

            I see the wisdom of this and she drives me back to the hotel. Paul Rudd is coming out the door with a bunch of other guys and that makes me glad I came back too. I sit and check off poems to read. Dottie must have written a thousand. I know she was able to send 200 when Poetry magazine asked to see them. So many about N.Y. of course; that was the legendary place to us, growing up in Philadelphia. Like that cartoon, where it's just New York City and then the rest of the country. We went to N.Y. to see artists, poets, bands, also movies that never seemed to come to Philadelphia. There in the '60s we spotted and even spoke to Andy Warhol (he bummed a cigarette), Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, John Coltrane. But most of Dottie's poems are set in L.A., where she spent half her life, really, featuring West Coast lures like Cary Grant and sun at Christmas. Sometimes I think the Grossmans went to L.A. to find hummingbirds. But the car, the cross-country trip, inspired Dottie too, gave her material for "Dear Terre Haute," "The Two Times I Loved You Most in a Car," and later, "Mendocino Coast." I'll read these and decide what else, like how many little Henny Youngman poems at a time, what to say about Dottie young, Dottie and Richard in Philadelphia. Then try to figure out how to read. Not sad, I think, just jaunty, matter of fact, no drama, the way Dottie would read her poems.

            I will return with Lauren at 7 in the pickup of Riccardo and Tiziana who need to do an interview at the theater with the L.A. Times (they get a really good review), and they stay to our performance, maybe so they can be driven to a hotel in Valencia afterwards, near CalArts, where they will be performing the following day. But it's good for them to hear Bonnie and they really like her. Dottie's tribute is first on the bill. The drummer, Rich West, arrives. He's a book dealer in his day life, loved Dottie, had a lot to talk to her about. He's short and lively, with long brown hair. He spreads out behind me a drum set and tin cans and some odder things. I realize I will not be able to turn around to see him when we are on without falling off my stool. He tells me later he was sad about this because I did look over at the other two musicians on either side of me. I remember the half dozen e-mails about stage set up that I received but didn't understand or pay attention to. Anyhow, I'm in front, flanked by Michael's trombone and Tom's guitar, Rich behind us. What's a wonder to me, since there's no script and I don't even know for sure which poems I will read, is how tuned in the musicians are. They respond like voices in a conversation. I read the words from one poem, "quiet as elephants," and when I finish, Michael comes out with circus music and they riff on that. The poems are short, maybe 30 seconds sometimes, and the musical answer can be a minute or more. In the Henny Youngman poems, such as: At the bookstore,/ Henny Youngman tells the sales clerk,/ 'I'm in a hurry,/ so I'll just have some haiku', Dottie's imagined punch lines are repeated in the music. Sometimes the drum gets the last word, sometimes the guitar, growling or trailing off. Once or twice, I'm not sure the music's over, and there will be a last note lingering that I cut off without meaning to. Michael usually begins and then the others come in and take his theme someplace else. They are so inventive and cooperative, giving each other room for little solos. The single spotlight that covers us, just right for the pages I'm reading from, also makes it hard to see the audience. I know there are people out there from the coughs and laughter, but it's all black from here. I ask Michael, how full is the theater? as we come on, and he says some of the audience may be masquerading as empty seats.

            After the intermission and Bonnie's performance, Ellen Burr, Dottie's good friend, comes up to me. She has short black hair and wears glasses. She's trim and peppy and says my voice is so like Dottie's--the Phila. accent, I guess--that she can close her eyes and imagine it is Dottie reading. Her husband has been filming us. In the lobby there is Richard Wood with a Romney doll about the size of a big cigar. I don't recognize who it's meant to be at first, and he kids me, saying it's Karl Rove. He and some of the others have watched the first Presidential debate. I like to think the audience would have been bigger if we weren't competing with that. I don't find out how dispiriting the actual debate was until I read the papers the next day, am glad in a way to have missed it. With Richard is Chris Peditto, a writer from Philadelphia. He and I used to read our poetry at the London Pub. He remembers me and shakes my hand. His red-haired wife Barbara is a very well thought of blind artist. I have seen her bright abstracts that feature letters of the alphabet on Bonnie and Richard's walls. Barbara has a brother still in Philly, Elliott Levin, a saxophone player. I know him because we both once had pieces performed on something called New American Radio. Interesting how everything circles back to Philly, like Dottie's life did.

            Michael has suggested a "celebratory nightcap" at the Standard. I am surely the oldest woman at the Bavarian Garden rooftop bar, first time I've been to the top storey, approached by a narrow stairway after the elevator ends. It is only the 13th floor really, about waist high to the skyscrapers clustering around but a great view of them and a cutout moon. I look around for our party but not having any instruments to move, I'm the first here. A tall, muscular guy in some kind of uniform, a bouncer, I guess, comes up because I probably look lost and asks if he can help me. He tells me he's T.J. and wants to know my name, takes my hand to shake it. "Where you from? Philly? Me too!" And wants me to just say if I need anything. It's cooler out this evening, the heat spell has finally broken. I see a table being vacated and grab a stool next to a heat lamp. A waiter comes and brings the lamp even closer. Michael and a pretty woman with a cane, Lisa, arrive. She has a poetry performance group in Albuquerque Michael has played with. Ken and Rich West and Anders join us. Anders hasn't brought a jacket and gets even closer to the heat lamp than I have been, until the edges of his ears turn red. Ken has posted a great piece about Dottie on Mark Webber's website dedicated to her. He says now he's writing something longer. It's 12:30, I have to leave at 6:00 a.m. for the airport, so sort of fade out. Michael is somehow stuck with the tab, $8 for my ginger ale alone, but won't take money from anyone. He talks about working with poets--I can see that performing with Dottie has meant so much to him all these years--and how he likes it because it makes him think, and the others agree that it gives them musical ideas.





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