Tag Archives: McNally Jackson Books

Surrealist Film at Pravda: Thoughts on Breton’s Automatism and Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose

17 Feb

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Pravda ran a Surrealist and Experimental film night series over the summer, and although I’m terribly late in posting about it, my friend and I had such a great time that I figured better late than never. One night of Surrealism can lead to many more!

Pravda is a subterranean Russian speakeasy in Soho, near two of my favorite bookstores, Housing Works and McNally Jackson. They serve delicious food and have a fantastic vodka selection. I cannot recommend the horseradish-infused vodka enough.

Occasionally they host special events, such as Salon Dinners, Roaring Twenties Parties, and Surrealist & Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 30s. The film nights are such a treat! The films are actually silent, and they hire a musician to play live piano music!! I was enthralled. Inspired. They showed films by Man Ray, whom I’d studied at Scripps College, as well as other artists.

A little background::: Surrealism developed out of Dada during World War I in Paris. André Breton is the key player here. Using Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic methods on soldiers, the French poet worked at a neurological hospital. In 1924, he wrote the Surrealist Manifesto, a work that defined the cultural revolution:

“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

While Surrealism affected all the arts, I want to pause right here to focus on the connections between Surrealist literature and the Beat Generation. The idea of Surrealist automatism is key here. Automatism is the practice of writing without self-censorship. The Oxford University Press defines it as:

Term appropriated by the Surrealists from physiology and psychiatry and later applied to techniques of spontaneous writing, drawing and painting.

“Spontaneous writing.” Sound familiar? Jack Kerouac wrote a writing manifesto called “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” In it, Kerouac wrote, for example:

Not “selectivity” of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought….

I haven’t yet done any extensive research into this to see if the connections are accurate, but there is a cultural connection to Kerouac and automatism. On Wikipedia (obviously not a true source to go by, but one that can be a launching pad for actual informed research) I read:

The notion of Automatism is also rooted in the artistic movement of the same name founded by Montreal artist Paul-Emile Borduas in 1942; himself influenced by the Dadaist movement as well as André Breton. He, as well as a dozen other artists from Quebec’s artistic scene, very much under restrictive and authoritarian rule in that period, signed the Global Refusal manifesto, in which the artists called upon North American society (specifically in the culturally unique environment of Quebec), to take notice and act upon the societal evolution projected by these new cultural paradigms opened by the Automatist movement as well as other influences in the 1940s.

Remember that Kerouac’s parents were from Quebec, and he and his family used to travel back and forth to visit relatives. The Automatism of Quebec happened in 1942, when Kerouac was already an adult, having graduated from high school and moved to New York by that time. Still, it’s possible that the seeds were planted in both Kerouac and Borduas around the same time and place, in at least the small point that they spoke French, the language of Surrealism.

In “Earwitness Testimony: Sound and Sense, Word and Void in Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight” for Empty Mirror, Gregory Stephenson makes the claim:

Indeed, in method and intention, Old Angel Midnight could be said to be closer to the sound poetry of the dadaists, Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, and to the automatic writing practiced by the surrealists, André Breton and Philippe Soupault, in their book-length exercise in textual autogenesis, The Magnetic Fields, originally published in 1919.

There’s much more to be said about Surrealism, Automatic Writing, Spontaneous Prose, and Surrealist Film, and the evening at Pravda whet my appetite.

 

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Lucky Peach Launched Travel Issue Last Night in NYC

27 Jun

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Right after graduating from college, I embarked on a backpacking adventure across Europe. I made so many wonderful memories. My nerdy English-degree self sought out Oscar Wilde’s lipstick-stained tomb and visited the church where satirist Jonathan Swift was dean. And of course, I hit beaches from Nice to Greece.

What I didn’t make memories of was the regional foods. I had a meager budget, as did my travel companion, and we stayed in hostels and ate foods like trail mix and potato chips that we bought from the grocery store. We were hungry but it was worth it to see so many spectacular sights and meet fascinating people along our journey.

But that’s not how everyone travels. Lucky Peach has devoted an entire issue of their delicious food journal, founded by chef David Chang and Peter Meehan, to travel. And they do travel right.

The issue launched last night at McNally Jackson in New York City.

What country would you like to eat your way through?

The Light Holds Harvey Shapiro

8 Jan

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I have just learned that Harvey Shapiro passed away yesterday.

Shapiro, whose first language was the endangered language of Yiddish, is the person who suggested Martin Luther King, Jr., compose a letter while he was in jail. The result was “Letters From Birmingham Jail,” which Shapiro wasn’t able to get published at The Times Magazine, where he was editor, but which was published by The Christian Century, among others.

Shapiro was a poet in his own right, crafting poems both witty and profound and oftentimes reflecting on life in New York City. Born in 1924 and obtaining his master’s degree in American literature from Columbia University in 1948, he was a contemporary of the Beats. He served in World War II and edited the volume Poets of World War II.

I had the good fortunate of hearing him speak at McNally Jackson Books two years ago. One of the big takeaways I had was that one must persevere in writing. Here was someone who even in his eighties was still engaged in the literary community and encouraging writers.

Writing Wednesday: The Shrinks Are Away

10 Aug

If you ever get a chance to take a writing class with Susan Shapiro, do it.  I took a Saturday personal-essay workshop with her last semester, and even though it only met twice I got so much out of it.  Unlike most of my classes, which have focused on the Art and Craft of writing, Shapiro understands that as much as we enjoy writing for writing’s sake, we also want to get published.  She gives helpful tips on how to do so, and even provides editorial contacts for newspapers, magazines, and print publications.  Talk about generous!

The Lighting Up author also puts together a reading series every August called The Shrinks Are Away.  When Susan Shapiro mentioned it to me in an email, I knew it would be too good to miss.

The lineup was impressive: Molly Jong-Fast (The Social Climber’s Handbook), David Goodwillie (American Subversive), Lindsay Harrison (Missing), and poet Harvey Shapiro (The Sights Along the Harbor). This is what serious literature looks like.  It reinvigorated my hope for the current state of literature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After all the writers had given a speedy reading, there were a few minutes left for Q&A.  I always love hearing writers talk about their process because their honesty is so encouraging.  I feel like in other industries there’s this unspoken rule of putting on a façade of perfectionism, but writers openly talk about their failed manuscripts, their false starts, their grappling with the industry.  The writers in The Shrinks Are Away reading opened up on how their books came to be.  Harrison revealed that she wrote about her mother’s passing not long after it happened, and that writing was part of the cathartic process.  Goodwillie talked about being part of a generation that doesn’t find its career callings until late 20s or early 30s, and that it was only after trying on a number of jobs—and getting fired from them—that he took writing seriously, renting a maid’s room at the Chelsea Hotel to spend a year working on his manuscript.  Harvey Shapiro, who worked for years and years at the New York Times, confessed that he’s seen that it’s not always the most talented writers who succeed—rather, it’s the ones with the most persistence.

The Shrinks Are Away event took place at McNally Jackson Books, a wonderful bookstore in Soho (52 Prince Street), where the literature section is broken up by country.  For upcoming events at McNally Jackson, click here.  To sign up for a class with Susan Shapiro, click here.