Song of the Broad-Axe Publications

The Future Fits a Loose Frame, an essay -- Russell Block

For the prices of tea and coffee, mostly - although I remember the carrot juices often set down beside them, Café Reggio could be turned into a reliable literary and artistic salon. We had months there, started in the late winter, going to August’s end, that were free of the petty squabbles, financial forces, and exhaustion, others and all mere facts of reality that went on to prove fractious. With the right parties in attendance, it was an institution bettered by the accidental arrival, an individual recognized in a sublime instant of deciding on a table, and quite unexpected. They would be waved over or called by name. Such evenings were the lifeblood of the major authors in attendance and their writings. Those carrot juices, overly immaculate to a collective conscious through rationalizations made on the topic of their medicinal qualities and vitamins, were claimed to be fresh pressed - to be processed from a series of unadulterated carrots until made to take up the volume of a glass (by some masticating contraption between) in the minutes after our order was taken. It was implied on the menu. In the first inklings of conversation, the borderline anemic, along with the definitely anemic and quite stubborn about their book at all costs to health and sanity, debated its merits and veracity, while certainly doing away with the propaganda pertaining to carrots and eyesight. That was done to convince the Russians we had better fighter pilots. They have far greater musicians, which says nothing about starving regardless but only speaks to merit. Yet, these juices were produced from the kitchen none of us ever saw into, an orange mote hovering toward in one contrast to the ridiculous dessert cabinet. Kinds of well lit poison cascade on the shelfs to attract the sweet tooth. Everything set before, the contrasts managed by painters of the aged low-quality Italians loomed over discussions as they progressed to more significant areas. 


It was not an education, but disillusionment with profound implications. It was storied perhaps with more nuance than with tales outright. In that sense, though there were tales outright, it might be the microcosm for my understanding of New York as a macrocosm: delightfully nuanced, yet non-epic. People slept with one another; people encouraged people to sleep with one another; people wrote. People wrote plays, poems. People played the piano; and there were actors whose practiced faces figured around our tables. Beautiful, ultimately damned, it has the same weight to hearts as books hold. The contents of books and scores were deeper for us while we naturally discovered the extents of devotion human form had in New York City’s crowded existence. While in the winter we quietly huddled, we moved, with the patio’s establishment, into the heat and effusive sweating, and there expressed unrestrained desperation to cling fast with days running longer than our passions could pace with.


The north shore of Chicago remains a fully under-appreciated dimension of life here. Returned, I was still under the impression the book I spent myself on in New York only paused for the time it would take the America’s and England’s literary agents to read my queries for representation. Still, because to realize the world continued on its axis indifferent to me would have been too great an understanding in a moment or months, my self reached for the environment around me to offer up anything stimulating and constant as my most recent time in New York had been, or else I would go sick. Ever my happy distraction, the piano was downstairs. The books were on the shelfs of my room. Sleep did not come easily, and so dreams were not of the proper depths, nor easy coming enough, to attempt respite from worsening conditions through those pre-historical means. A break-down was Inevitable. Yet the closest it seemed was in the natural dominion of the north shore. 


From late August to longer than expected in October, one can spend time on the beaches and swim. From the stint of my writing career I spent in Los Angeles, I had a wetsuit; so, with notebook, the days went frequently down the steps of my room, a few blocks, and down the steps to the beach. Those notebooks are scribbled with the pleasant ambition of the beach, attempts for unfractured lightness across the pages, a script that goes too far against my type. Cheap approximations of Ode to the Western Wind, and though not without happy instances of success, they are unprintable and minor endeavors to escape the muscularity and heaviness of my manner in art. Eventually changed, notebooks left under a weight by the chair, I would tread out, into the water, until liberation that is swimming was simple as a kick. While the water lags behind the air temperature, azimuthal time of the earth goes until the insulation of a wetsuit can be left at the house, and the perfect, brief days of direct contact with the jade immersion pass too, enjoyed.  


I think of this now briefly a year since moved into the city, and I think it through. My mind goes after all to the forces motivating a kind of bliss, or its pursuit, continuing, as life does, from all this infernal struggle, great and small those items of existence registered in my memory and sensations. A dreamer comes continually up with no significant reason that the day and age should leave a writer so out of joint with the success found in nature and the devoted individual of the past. As an American, I say “What stands in my way? I will purchase it if need be. I imagine their surprise, their vain concession, when they are bought out of the means they used to tax my fledgling ambition. No labor will loom too large over my great ambition. Out, pessimism. Let my vision not one instant fail, not me it, and it not me. God’s providence is this day on my side and on my side each day, for I am one born of this land agreed in the most sterling resolution anywhere among any peoples at any time in history. This land is the only for my strides. No burden will discourage me. Nothing will stand in the way of me if I remain the principled actor of this resolution, one among many.” Those twins the day and night I run by, star to stars, the responsibility utmost in each, and I believe in both. Let me not shy from any horror it wrought, nor fail to answer any demand in search for the American sublime, simple shorthand for the ethos our greatest artists have made permanent. 


For my purpose here, holding it forth as a chisel, most sights and understandings I have of this world demand it be driven. The firmament of American society cannot survive while the serpent has swallowed its own tail. It so must be exactly where the blow gets struck, at the head as at the tail. Now I see many serpents, intertwined, terribly writhing. They are linked to make the world better and more connected; but I say no. Mine is but one and limited. The head the major publishers of literature and their agents, the rattle the university, their small-minded professors in posts of pay turgid with endowment. They ask too much of their students, selling them lemon MFAs and questionable expertise. Without challenge, we become not products of the program, but victims of it. Few escape this consumption, to come out ahead of the price in the field they studied for, and around the jaw of this intimate relationship, this eating up, the venom seeps - list here the titles of delectations, our latest offerings from these programs, the tame enjoyments and polished sentiment so ineffectual it does not seem warranted to name their contented authors, Pioneers! O, pioneers! The disjoint serpent started as a symbol for federalism and now must return to shirk off new threats and tyranny. The placement of my spike is only one in a chain that runs in all directions, continuing to the top, where the beast who convinced the American public of draining a swamp was one born of the same American pestilence, only aware, for they are blithely unaware, that in a mouth devoid of substance, as such empty promises and weightless sentiments make a mouth devoid, it hungered merely for its own end. 


The promise of America is that this all be personal. Our charter, following an ideal interpretation, holds that I am as fit in my provincial dealings as any and each in the nation. I look around me where I have settled, not far from the place I grew up. I think it a good place for plays. I trust no institution of literature because I cannot afford to trust them. I trust only the potential of my own institution, one to be built by direct agreement with the entities around me who I can make a meaningful relationship with. The exchange of information happens too fast now, but the advantage comes in solidity that a coffee shop manager or cafe owner can provide in a meaningful accordance with the artist as artists help me raise this institution. The solidity can only come from these folk, no corporate system and no contrived digital infrastructure can provide what I intend to build up in this town. Let me be outpaced so long as my weighty and muscular stride can trust the ground beneath it, and thereby it will never falter. 


Long trips are in my upbringing; I suspect in my blood. It is well-known to me that fire, running in the cylinders of an engine are the meditative content surely and always to be believed in. That these same fires contribute to the single greatest existential threat man faces disturbs me not in the least. Done purposefully, it is the simple procedure and the scant fare. Around us, we have constructed too much edifice. In one’s daily course, there are too many trying implications. There are the downcast eyes, the posture inartfully sloped at the poor procedures of a laptop, the inattention mid-thought which ruins so many tables one over from the tacit observer, and there is the date conspired to shamefully from an array of the area’s faces as the process gerrymanders our hopes and expectations. Our capacity to be lovers if we can’t have the sham to excuse ourselves by rests on a cutting wire. Language must be purified, and fire does the cause. Then, in motion, not letting any one or aggregate states of the age settle into a staid observation, one can glimpse the philosophical state of man more eternal than any we fall into. These false items of being merely unsettle us if we keep moving, and the unsettled keep moving. Thereby let them run in the proper perspective. For that, I have the occasion. With the pieces done by one of those same individuals often at Café Reggio shown now in New Wave Coffee, an investment without hope for reward, it yet altered an environment of mine to such a pleasant extent it all makes sense. A car could take me and the pieces back to New York. In that way, the expense of shipping them here could simply be rationalized as a means for a return to New York two years since my arrival that day David Bowie died. These days of winter, frighteningly mild as they are, I begin in the morning with breakfast and a French press, going until the sun lowers itself from the roofline to break in across the grimy shades of my apartment. I then go where Lindsey’s paintings hang to sit in the same light should a table be open. If not, if I find a reason for delay, should no absolute necessity to avoid going sick arise once the latest schedules and designs have run their course, I will still imagine its significance as I plan to tour The Sally with my players in a warmer season going East.


I list this intention here to put down my motivation for a good idea before I must do so or choose not to. It helps, when one does make the habit of keeping it in mind, but not every character believes in these irrevocable dictations and quips made in the world, to pre-contract yourself in some meaningful way. My bordering schizoid patterning clutches these as any gold, fool’s, or high-carat. When we were all, everyone I kept in close association with at the time, I mean, undisciplined college kids, I remember talking aside somewhere in a crowded room of people to Rojo Mendo. It’s a nickname contracted from his actual names I will have to use in the fiction of another storyline because the name in full is a perfect jamble of Classical, Anglo-American, and Mexican elements. Anyhow, there’s a certain pageantry to the drop-out not without its own appeal as various parties inquire and test the actual conviction involved, doubting it, gearing up for their own departure, especially in Northern California, it felt, and especially among a group quite interested in the various intricacies of the guitar. This time, I said something wistfully, like: “I can’t quite say, Rojo. Who could, yeah? But I just can’t quite see the stakes here, only I get a sense, a real sense, of the stakes out there, where someone has to be waiting at the bus stops and train platforms. Now tell me again what you were saying about the blues scale. It skips how many pitches?” Without realizing it, and man to man, I ascribed myself to plans out in America without institution. The first affirmation is a joke anyways (a mere comical anti-statement to improve the latter); but still, these early agreements, if honored, are placed in soil quite strewn over with bullshit. Likely, we were drunk or high, or would be, perhaps both, within the next thirty minutes, as everyone else did the same in a crowded room at the front of a house with some ten people living there where I had rivals in my tendency for drunkenness but no clear better. If there were a few there with taste more in line to my own than there were the aficionados (more like devotees) to that electronic music of the time popular among a mundane and fraternity minded set deserving a brief note, the music, about its effects on sensibility, moral instruments of the human consciousness, future elegance, and indeed the negative consequences on a devotees capacity to enjoy human expressions from laughter to Mozart later in life, it may have been my ipod playing. Could I actually foresee the scene three or four years later when I’m in a room with a bed and a desk in New York cracking at the book until the same ipod stopped working, and I worked clear through months with no means for playing music, I probably would have kept drinking or eagerly watched a joint with my mouth shut. It ain’t quite Nietzsche’s depiction of pistol-shooting along the Rhine, but it’ll do for the girls we date reckon.


I relay this because there are hard decisions to be made and considerable implications. We have done everything in our power to rub this damn spot, but human existence has always been this way and always will remain this way. Living out electronics on the road liberates the spirit more-so due to innate criteria of the lifestyle than the actual evidence of their temporality. It’s the singularly most responsible way to live. A deep-seeded need to escape comes over me, not to suffer, and not to damn. It would be an escape not from decision and responsibility but from the blithe ignorance to it. The foremost critique of all New York writers I know is an aversion to gas tanks. Any midwesterner of talent and conviction will spend six months in New York and see it so clearly they wonder about all the fuss. It’s so bought up, so concerned with itself, that even the artistic existence outside of a kush gig at the New Yorker magazine or writing copy, even living that starry-eyed and false la bohéme in Brooklyn, you in essence challenge nothing, to be either pinched at the shirt-collar and placed in the same offices as the copywriters and broadway producers, or to forever question why you never had the knack nor audience, seeing around you and believing only in the evidence of your own subjugation. If one refuses this mutual condition with the Brooklyn la bohéme, the great benefit comes with the status of cast-out. Of course, my resemblance to Van Gogh, now perhaps only under the straw-hat and the asiatic self-portrait’s cropped hair, may be in our severe character much as it is in the strong color of our facial hair.


I’m home, and there’s a Rubicon between me and another life in New York. Looking for the memoirs of Arthur Rubinstein at a bookstore out near Norridge where my family’s plant was, now sold after a suit in arbitrage, I had to drive there to print our large poster at Staples. I also needed some few specific items for the play I knew could be found at American Science and Surplus. It might also have been the case that I had a fair ringer of a day writing the day before, one going through sheer ecstasy, to a strong counter statement on death that I wrote to conclude my first book now with the editor (found through one of them in the play), and I woke up that morning with the desire to do something and anything different. It all may have been an excuse. So, the Catholic came on the whole drive out there (Protestants are known for their ethic at work against God’s scrutiny, but Catholics, even lapsed Catholics, whose art has fundamental moral qualities get the guilt drive to keep out of hell as I’m sure no few French, Spanish, and Italian painters used to their own ends, and every Irish novelist knew intimately). Off the highway at stops where I had grown up, natural at the time, it has matured, at a time later now, and has a glimmer of consciousness. The American growth normalized so much space and so many of life’s needs that, with a life metered at these same intervals of the signage passing my drive in order to make me understand what implications of titles Little Caeser, Kohls, etc. mean to the money in my wallet, it almost has a distinct consciousness to be celebrated. If the actual life there was naturally serene as the eternal countryside I am sure it would be celebrated, but that is exactly the trade-off.


The employee in the Staples print center tells you it takes five hours to print, not sure, I did not check up continually, almost simply because it felt inhuman or dehumanizing under the circumstances and the baroque phone menu they have, albeit the employee there was certainly, certainly human and odd-seeming to me as I am sure I seemed odd-seeming to her. In almost any other setting odd-seeming over the course of a conversation the same time as is required to print something gives a human interest; here, transactional disinterest. I went first to a used bookstore in a strip-mall next to a sporting good’s store. It was anxiety inducing, deeply affecting, as I hunted out these memoirs direct out of the old European order, and around me were my same folks, browsing a few days before Christmas time in a part of the world they may never have left and perhaps never would leave for long. It wasn’t there, and they have no place to sit with the complimentary coffee and decaf. With another book I won’t give the title of unless a reader with me this far starts seeing the similarities, I went to the Barnes and Nobles, had a similarly uniform exchange with the barista of an adjunct Starbucks and sat with mint tea at one of the tables, other lives around me there. I remember Yorrick, like Hamlet did to Horatio, and the joke made by two start-up coders in one of the medical industry’s niches, one a long-time friend, when we drove from California. A few times we stopped at malls for an hour or two so they could get wi-fi, and I was happy to write at a table instead of scribbling in the car - at night by the light of a phone in my lap. No book, it was postulated, of literary merit before or after the one which occupied me to the extremes it did then will get written so frequently in adjunct Starbucks. It was a hopeful sentiment.


This second bookstore made me desire sainthood because, lapsed or not, I have to imagine a better life, especially because returning to that table was bizarrely comforting. The first only made me anxious because I don’t know how to avoid the tendency for sainthood. All of those second-hand books from the first store, with no other display or latest in fiction table, their spines outward, they are frightening because they cause as many interpretations of the time and life spent writing any title as there are to be made of the store itself. The store implies an unfashionable left-behindedness. Thoughts on the lives and time lending themselves to any given title, even those of the greatest works, pale. It causes a writer to doubt if there’s any purpose to looking deeply into one or a few lives when we live in a world with tools invented to organize everything and each life, the same tools that antiquate a bookstore that owns but a selection of books and doesn’t own everything and each book in some sense or to some degree.I didn’t write much or very well in the four hours I had to drink tea, but my thinking can just as well purpose here. Part of the problem was that these displays at the chain store did not make me think and rather inspired browsing. I don’t keep a smart phone for reasons I trust are obvious, but I assume the same veneer distinguishing my anxiety in one store and my Midsummer-Night’s-Dream, somnambulate browsing of the Barnes and Noble and its displays pervades through the design of the phone from the start of thirty seconds or an hour wasted to the end, a production for each and every pocket with all those ass’s heads of the silicon valley auditioning for the part of Robin Goodfellow. 


Books were once a moral order. They stood as accomplishments by a rank of individual the age endowed with a culture’s responsibilities. And they had gravity. It wasn’t kaisers that wrote books, but Nietzsche. Dickens wrote books. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a gambling addict, and Kafka wrote books. In America, just after the war, J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac wrote books. I will remind you Ellison wrote Invisible Man, because we need to be reminded lest it lapse like any telling irony. And, yes, Emily Dickinson was cruelly neglected, limited in in her lifetime to publication of but some handful of her poems, which poems were probably not the least nor the greatest she had done, only those begrudgingly appraised by publishers who thought her uncommercial. Browse but for a moment at a Barnes and Noble and the most prominent displays are of commodities, pages with value added in the marketing, to present people who have accidental interest, an escapee from a Mormon cult, child soldiers, substance abuse survivors, survivors of anything appropriately and marketably daunting, idle rock biographies, the first memoir of a USS Arizona survivor. All of those might have their place, but it is not up front.


It is the age, one for which an upstart trip looks increasingly desirable. For the thought of today and tomorrow, it demands that these means be thought of; for these means seem very bizarre to me indeed that this will not be printed but put on a rented platform for which I only own a URL. It wants of creative destruction. Just about every decent writer I have known, and young, millennial, as I am, I know they seem constantly on the verge of never putting another sentence into the world but those thrown on the wind so they can take up painting in earnest, or else they seem in such constant admiration and inferiority to painters that I assume. I actually draw rather decently and have no few mornings where I feel the same. Drawings is the practice I am most frequently complimented for, and the one I am least dedicated to. These are all off-handed drawings without due appreciation or study of the human figure. In coffeeshops, figures are not exactly invigorating the resigned way they sit, and faces lit so often. Like an infant, my drawings are fascinated by faces and mostly unaware of motor functions and the proportions of the body these get performed in. It’s attractive because I suppose I could spend six years at the daily task of drawing and painting to come out at about the same level of success gotten in writing for the same period. Only, along the way, working on the most attractive woman or girl at a coffeeshop in pastels, or depicting the most decrepit old man in chalk and ash, those allegorical constants that tear young men apart, hope and loss - it would garner me far more casual introductions and conversations, far more esteem qua la artiste. It could even be a rational decision to make. I have no proven plan-ahead to keep out of Starbucks thinking about the only real American religiosity I know. Ambitious and effective as plays are, there are problems for writing, and the writer, although I grow increasingly immune and stronger enemy to the problems today holds for writers and writing. The steady advance of technology can condense a drawing for an instantaneous act like a perverted farce of appreciation, a viewer today a commodity unlike what can be said of the reader, if any reader remains to agree or argue my point to themselves. Although I hardly doubt just as much gets lost about a painting if there’s more than air and space between the viewer and it. But then I remember ants, how nothing was more fascinating as a boy than watching ants, and think a painter has never once satisfyingly put those inept and many little discoveries in paint; and that way I can write in the morning, thinking about the time in life I had the Creepy Crawler set and glow in the dark t-shirts with dinosaur bones and things like that.


It’s demonstrative to worry about the covenant as it pertains to playwrights and actors. No longer are there individual agents without a platform of their own, and so you never have an actor whom the public can suspend their disbelief for. They will be encouraged to develop their digital persona by powerful forces and undercurrents, especially should my attempts prove successful; and that’s probably when they will have to be fired no matter their talent. Not just this, but so many of the ineffable threads and means that have done good for the continuity of man’s greatest thinking are in question. It’s part of the artist’s responsibility to wrangle these hydras to the artist’s purpose. It’s a very simple formula - if we do not freely and willingly, aware that human existence always entails decisions and profound repercussions, curtail the burgeoning paradigm of filtered and brief communication controlled by robber-barons, neo-nazis, fascists, bigots and nefarious elements of every type will have their say. It all robs the gravity of artists. Under the current paradigm, it doesn’t seem out fo the question fascism will win out. The state is the enemy and culture. The state is now building itself on the turgidity of our national dialogue, being built by Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Koch Industries alike, but they are all gaining in this rising tide. And all these means of our communication are part of the state now and enemy to culture. Simply put: perhaps the next time you feel the urge to, do not offer your opinion anywhere but face to face and read a book. Vacuous organs of speech, the empty-promise, and the idle opinion only seek their own ends. Everyone must have noticed these platforms operate on the free potential for idiot opinion. And it does give one pause to think, that if I sign up for their platform, what must they think of me? It’s $1.50 cocaine. 


Anyone who thinks an apparent trajectory is given and inevitable, that it is normal, so normal it is to progress under the same principles and dynamics in a regular fashion, has not given the first meaningful thought to history. Human beings come up with crazy ideas of immense scale. The Soviet Union collectivized over the great majority of the 20th century; it clearly wasn’t humane from the start; it also was not a good idea; and yet people believe their present modes of communication are set in stone, when a government was capable of eliminating private possession of any sort among the general population of its country and satellites. It was only because forces and dynamics of the previous age had run their course, and Karl Marx wrote a book. Our responsibility now is not to be “informed” - that’s cooked up. Your responsibility now, considering our present crisis, is to decide what it is to be American. The sublime wins out if we each accomplish this, and no media empire or political demagogue can hinder that progress. There is no need to postulate nor delve into visions of apocalypse so long as I answer my call and have faith in Americans. It may function as an aphorism, and my conclusion, to remark on the age of enlightenment. Even that had its inequity, revolutionizing science, ergo universities and other political institutions, and industry, and it favored those parties able to serve them - until the French Revolution delivered its identity crisis. And it might be most neatly concluded in Beethoven’s furious scratching out of his dedication to Napoleon - the man to organize the chaos inherent to the reign of terror - on the title page of his Eroica.


At those tables in Café Reggio, as in any and every collection of artists it has been my honor to attend with for shorter or longer periods of time, that there is inequity too in people’s capacity of seemingly inactive procedures like listening, viewing, and reading. It holds, and it is only there, in this current conglomeration of peoples around a play, and any future happenstance of a most ancient human sort, among other people dedicated in some way, that these realizations transpire and produce a deeper understanding, but perhaps better too a greater mystery, as to life.

Voice of the City and The Broad-Axe Publics Company present The Sally a new play by Russell Block January 19th, 21st, 26th, and 27th

Voice of the City and The Broad-Axe Publics Company present The Sally a new play by Russell Block January 19th, 21st, 26th, and 27th

Notes on Producing Plays -- Russell Block

Notes on Producing Plays -- Russell Block