March 25, 2008

Patrick Friesen: Calling the Dog Home

Plenty of reasons why this guy's my favorite poet: his imagery, precise word choices, the rhythm of each poem. But now something new gets added to the list.

I drove the family to Grand Forks for Easter weekend, to visit Oma and Opa and Uncle Mat--and of course to eat a turkey dinner. I'll travel many miles for turkey. Like most people, I created a road-trip collection of CD's. This time I had everything from Eddie Vedder's soundtrack for Into the Wild to the Red Hot Chili Pepper's Californication to Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A Changin'. I believe I had a mix of '80's hair metal ballads somewhere too. But we won't talk about that.

Baby Girl is not always appreciative of my driving skills (or the lack). Nor does she always express joy at my music choices. But when I popped in Patrick Friesen's Calling the Dog Home, a cycle of poems combined with improvised music (piano, cello, percussion), Simone grew very quiet--contemplative even. Patrick's voice, Marilyn Lerner's piano, Peggy Lee's cello, Niko Friesen's drums had her enraptured--more than her favorite Raffi CD which we accidentally left at home (that's right, accidentally). In fact, she grew so comfortable she actually fell asleep. And I thought I always added this CD for myself.

So, Mr. Friesen. I doff my hat to you, sir. Not just for your voice or the way your words burrow into my chest to cling there for days. But because you have done the unimaginable, tempered the wildness of an infant's gaze long enough for her to recuperate.

March 12, 2008

Memoirs Proven False

Seems like every week a publishing house distances itself from a memoir they've just released. We've all seen the silly Oprah episode with James Frey, so I won't belabor that old hat. Recently it was Margaret B. Jones' gangland memoir Love and Consequences about growing up in a foster family and being a drug runner for LA gangs. Jones, who's last name is actually Seltzer, hails from the affluent Sherman-Oaks neighborhoods, was never in the foster care program, and all Caucasian. Whoops. Apparently every once in awhile facts are important. Pure, unadulterated facts that glisten and shimmer with the purity of their very existence. Woe betide a world without them.

The publisher always issues a hasty statement of horror and shock, crying out the voracious violation of its good deeds. Poor, innocent publisher, grievously taken advantage of by a self-serving writer. One gets the picture of Little Red Riding Hood prancing in all her innocent glory through a forest, only to be attacked and savaged by a wolf. Give me a break.

Publishing houses have fact checkers, people that call around and ask questions like, "what high school did you daughter attend during the years 19**-19**" or "did this [insert obscure historical reference here] actually occur during this period"? These people exist so we don't get new memoirs written by an eighteen year old, claiming to have been Eva Braun's former lover, after Adolph. How far do we have to stretch our imaginations to assume these publishers know damn well about the questionable "truth" in the latest story of triumph over adversity? How great a leap of faith is required to know they get away with it most of the time?

Maybe we should give these writers some credit. When Frey was on Oprah for exaggerating some of the details in his book, I applauded his audacity. No, not because he managed to dupe the idiotic, pandering television icon. But because at the end of the day, in spite of fudging a few details, his book affected people, connected with them, and he was getting away with--almost. He exaggerated details to make the story better, to improve the narrative. I mean, that deserves credit doesn't it? Don't all writer's lie? Are we not great fabricators of story, no matter what the source? No, I suppose not. We are meek, subservient scribes who toil and labor under a stark realism. We must write our lives out in cold, merciless factual statements that shine truth from under a bushel basket.

There is something morally repugnant about an upper-class, white woman claiming the gritty street stories of the lesser-privileged as her own. How dare she, right? For shame and all that. I don't like it any more than the next person. But maybe the issue is more that she got caught? How many other memoirs out there are full of shit? Dare we ask such a question? Dare we find out that a book we've held so dear could prove to be a fallacy? Would the book then be less dear?

We are suckers for the human condition. We love to know someone has managed to escape their own hell to a world of greener pastures, flat-screen televisions, and the luxury of high-end prostitutes. Why? Because it confirms our own notions of struggle, however trivial. But in reality, the struggle in the story still exists, whether the facts are straight or not. It's not the fictitious nature of the writing that is at the core, but the compelling quality in which it is told.

For all you memoir writers: how to embellish without getting caught.
Also, a current list of memoir embellishers.

Now that we know the world is a terrible, corrupt place where people actually lie, that's right LIE, about certain details of their lives, what next? Movies that change historical facts to suit their own agenda? Televised news reports that manicure the details of a story to illicit a certain response? How about those silly political speeches that promise the world and deliver the greasy flap of a cardboard box? Or the television evangelist selling the wares of his man-made god?

No, that will never happen. Harry, you go too far. As long as memoirs are held accountable, the world can go on gasping at the shock of its own piety.

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