AL Letson, Penumbra: Live at Henrietta’s at 9th & Main, Jacksonville, FL (2005)

Al Letson, photo by Billie Anderson

Al Letson is a poet, playwright, performer, and radio and podcast host. This article first appeared on Bill Ectric’s Place in June 2005. Since that time, Letson has hosted and produced the show State of the Re:Union for National Public Radio. He now hosts Reveal, a podcast from PRX and Center for Investigative Reporting.

Top photo by Billie Anderson. Text and other photos by Bill Ectric. Except for the one of Al and me. Does anyone out there know who took that one?

For dedication to his craft, innate talent, and hard work, Al Letson deserves the title of consummate professional, and I don’t use those words lightly. His delivery is precise, the emotion is fresh – Letson never seems to be on autopilot.

“Penumbra,” Letson explained to a full house, means basically “in between.” This night consisted of a mixture of poems and performance pieces that he has done in the past from different shows, as a kind of pause before he begins to put out new work, and to introduce himself to those who have not yet seen him.

Al Letson with Drummers

Al Letson with Drummers

Letson’s live performance, which began at 9:00 PM, was a diverse and exhilarating selection of poetry, acting, and monologue, sometimes accompanied by three percussionists near the stage. Interspersed among the live performances were two of Letson’s videos on a large screen backdrop. I believe we will see more poetry & spoken word videos and Al Letson is already helping to set the standard. Following an intermission, we all reconvened in the theater for a big screen viewing of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam – the 2nd episode of the season, featuring our man Al Letson as the first guest! He had recently taped the episode and this night was the first time he, or anyone had seen it.

My favorite piece of the evening was called “Eunice.” It’s about a young black girl, a child in 1943, playing her first piano recital after much practice. During the recital she is distracted by a disturbance in the audience. Her parents are being told to move to the back of the room to make room for a white couple. Through this debacle she must keep playing, as her father mouths the words to her, “you know what you suppose to do.” Near the end of the poem we find out that this is a true story and the young girl, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, later changed her name to become famous as the great Nina Simone.

When he wasn’t on stage, Letson was in great demand by fans, friends, reporters, and members of his crew, so I mostly had to ask him questions on the fly. “Who did your videos?” I asked him. “I do most of my own video work,” he said. “The two you saw tonight were filmed by Don Solomon from Jacksonville Beach, but I do all my own editing and effects. I know quite a lot about video production and I enjoy doing it.”

We watched a short film by Letson

Watching one of Al’s videos

I said that I could easily see him acting in films. Someone spoke up and said, “He writes good plays. One of his plays will be on Broadway someday!”

Al Letson and Bill Ectric

Al and me

I asked him, “If you could travel into the past, what historical figure would you like to meet?” As he thought about my question, a young woman approached us, saying, “Al, we need you backstage for a minute.” Turning to me, Letson said, “Excuse me, I need to see what they need,” but as he walked away with the lady, he looked back at me thoughtfully and said, “Kennedy.”

Watching an episode of Russell Simmons Def Poetry featuring Al Letson

Watching an episode of Russell Simmons Def Poetry featuring Al Letson

We got a special treat before watching Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry. Because of last minute complications, the local cable company refused to hook up HBO directly to the club (typical), so someone had to record the show and bring it to Henrietta’s for viewing. To fill in the time delay, Letson performed an electrifying, beat-filled theater piece from one of his plays, called Griot. He was joined onstage by Larry Knight and David Girard Pugh, two other performers from the play.

Larry Knight, Al Letson, David Girard Pugh performing a scene from Griot

Larry Knight, Al Letson, David Girard Pugh performing a scene from Griot

 

Letson was first up on Def Poetry. You can read more about this performance on Literary Kicks, which is reviewing each episode as they air.

Rod Serling Revisited

Rod Serling Twilight Zone

An article I wrote for Literary Kicks a few years ago:

It’s common among “Beat Generation” aficionados to scorn the popular media version of the Beats, especially the term “beatnik”, and the stereotypical goatee-sporting hipster. But to a youngster growing up in a small town, like me, sensing there was more out there than what they taught in middle school, even the cliche hints of downtown jazz and nightlife and hip lingo were welcome. I could tell right away that Rod Serling was cool, from the subdued bongo drums in the opening theme to his sly, out-of-this-world countenance. He almost seemed to wink knowingly when he shared his imagination and vision with me, the viewer.

I remember the episode about the trumpet player, down on his luck and questioning his very reason for living. In a kind of jazz version of It’s A Wonderful Life, the musician is hit by a car, killed, then finds himself hanging out with another, older, trumpet player whose chiseled features, goatee, and night club suit are a sharp contrast to the pudgy angel Clarence in the Frank Capra classic, though he is an angel, nonetheless. After giving the young musician a new lease on life, we learn the angel’s name as he makes his exit.

“I didn’t catch your name!”

“Just call me Gabe,” says the goateed veteran horn-blower. “Short for Gabriel.” He holds up his trumpet to illustrate his point. Gabriel is the trumpet blowing angel in the Bible. But this wasn’t my parents’ church, it was the concrete-neon jungle where the hipsters dwell and Doctor Sax blows jazz in a smoky bar room.

Serling created the Twilight Zone in 1959. He often battled with censors and sponsors to present themes and issues which he felt were important but which the sponsors feared were too controversial. He became known as “Television’s Angry Young Man.”

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Interview With Steve Aylett

AylettFlash-386x283

This interview first appeared on Literary Kicks, May 26, 2006

Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett’s work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: “The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV.”

Steve Aylett’s new Lint is to literature what Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music: a brilliant send-up of anecdotal, cult-of-personality biographies. The parody swings freely between the sci-fi genre, the Beats, and classic pulp magazines. We follow a comix legend named Jeff Lint, who lived in the age when “dozens of new magazines appeared, with titles like Astounding, Bewildering, Confusing, Baffling…Useless…Appalling, Made-Up … Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Swell Punch-Ups” and editors would order up “an octopus, a spaceman, and a screaming woman” for the cover of a typical issue.

Lint Cover Snowbooks     Slaughtermatic book cover

I like to call Aylett’s work a combination of science fiction, satire, and psychedelia. His sentences are not only sublimely expressive; they are beautiful in and of themselves. It’s like opening a pop-up book to see gemstones and charms strung together on bracelet chains, rising to display the black noir onyx, the blood-red ruby, the diamond center of the mind, the flaming gold-leaf giraffe trinket of surrealism.

Karloff’s Circus (book 4 of The Complete Accomplice) lights up the town of Accomplice with an anarchic assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders. The action seems absurd until one realizes that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, we have people kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature, connected to machines by tubes. We see self-mutilation in the form of extreme piercing and grotesquely overdone plastic surgery. Our children are sent to war by incompetent politicians. Well, you get the idea. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett is using surrealism to parody reality, or if he is writing a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe.

Aylett cites Voltaire as an influence, and the influence shows. “Organised religion added Jesus to the food groups,” he tells us, or “Pause any country and you’ll spot subliminal torture in the frame.”

Jacque Derrida maintained that all words have varying shades of meaning to each reader; therefore, every reader brings a certain amount of the story with them to a book. Maybe that is why I like Steve Aylett’s prose so much — he gives us plenty of raw material to process.

I asked the author some questions by email:

Bill Ectric: It seems like you establish patterns of phrasing that are independent of the plot but that the reader can “pick up” on while reading.

Steve Aylett: Yes, there are several threads of sense going through it at different depths. I think the mind picks up which bits link in to which other bits. Some’s almost a subliminal sort of thing going on, and then at the simplest level there’s the running gags or repetitions like the “Snail, Sarge” conversation, which is just so stupid I really like it. And if you don’t like all that there’s always the story to fall back on.

BE: Even though Lint is a parody, I find that you throw in some semi-profound ideas. Like, commands materializing from thin air where someone’s mouth happens to be. The opposite of cause and effect.

SA: The parody thing was secondary to the meanings I was putting in there. I enjoy parody and stupid stuff, but more often than not I’ll use it as a housing for old-time satire, politics and bitter axe-grinding. That thing about authority was about the fact that authority is actually quite arbitrary, and doesn’t manifest any inherent quality. Traced to its root it’s the result of luck, happenstance, crime and the sustaining of a set-up over many years as people hold on to power. It has no moral weight that stands up to a moment’s scrutiny, and is enforced by the threat of violence. Reduced to its constituent atoms authority doesn’t really mean anything. It’s all just people.

BE: When you refer to Karloff Velocet as the “Fall Marshall” is this a reference to the idea of the “fall of man?”

SA: As far as I can recall this was mainly from The Fall’s album The Marshall Suite — and he is marshaling the various falls and collapses in the circus. His circus is all about entropy.

Aylett Karloff
Click here for more Accomplice trading cards

 

BE: Which is better — for countries to worry continuously about other countries’ ability to build nuclear bombs, or the “stalemate effect” of each country already having nuclear bombs?

SA: As long as America has the ‘preemptive’ policy of attacking non-nuclear countries without provocation, it’s probably better that other countries have nuclear weapons also, as a deterrent to the U.S. (which doesn’t like an even fight) — but in any case there will be a nuclear catastrophe at some point, either through psychotic panic or a technical error. It’s inevitable.

BE: Did you ever hang out with the Krays?

SA: No, I never met the Krays, but I knew their lawyer, and Ronnie liked The Crime Studio.

BE: Now I’m sort of freaked out because I’m not sure if you are serious. The Crime Studio was published in 1994, Ronnie lived until 1996 … are you serious?

SA: Yeah. Actually, Ron liked it so much he wrote a story of his own, which he got to me via a mutual acquaintance. Unfortunately, it was crap. I think I’d got the book to him because the small publisher that did The Crime Studio originally wanted a quote from a ‘name’ of some kind, and I didn’t know anyone in the literary world back then. Unfortunate things used to happen to people when I sent them books for cover quotes. I sent the re-print of The Crime Studio to William Burroughs and he died a week later; I sent Bigot Hall to Stephen Fry and he went insane — temporarily.

Victims of the Aylett  CurseVictims of the Aylett Curse: The Krays, William S. Burroughs, and Stephen Fry

BE: Uncanny! Speaking of insane, did you do the artwork for The Caterer? It is so classic.

SA: It all started out as samples from a lot of 1970s comics — that blonde grinning jock appears throughout those comics. Then I flipped them, changed colors, changed expressions and body positions etc, blended them into different backgrounds and with different characters, muted the colors down again, then added dialogue. Often I was doing so much re-drawing I was virtually drawing the character from scratch, by the end.

The Caterer comic book    The Complete Accomplice book cover

BE: Near the end of Karloff’s Circus we read, “On the bluff behind them an angel landed, fragile as a feather made of bones. Under a sky deep as grief it closed its silent white wings.”
Is Mike Abblatia the angel? And, at the beginning of the book, when Mike Abblatia jumps off the bridge, is everything that happens in the rest of the book happening in the instant that Mike falls?

SA: No, the book doesn’t occur in Mike Abblatia’s mind/dreams or whatever — it happens, after he jumps. Regarding the mystery angel at the end, I wanted to make the suggestion that it might be Barney.

BE: On some level, Bigot Hall made me think of Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, even though they aren’t all that similar. Did you ever read Doctor Sax?

SA: Yes, I’ve read Doctor Sax. Used to be a big Kerouac fan. That one was different from his others of course, being sort of cinematic and constructed.

BE: You write a lot about other dimensions; did you ever read Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott?

SA: I have read Flatland, though I still believe he cribbed it from Charles H. Hinton, author of The Fourth Dimension (who I mention often in my books).

A Plane World by Charles H Hinton    Heart

BE: If they made a Lint movie, who should portray Lint as an old man — Patrick McGoohan or Christopher Lee?

SA: McGoohan is more grouchy, so I’d go for him.

BE: I knew it! That would be my pick as well. So, do the English really say variations of “isn’t it” all the time? For example, in reply to my last question, you might say, “Well, Lint is American, isn’t he?”

SA: English people say isn’t, aint, aren’t, innit, wot, and other things.

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The Aylett Project: Rachel Kendall Interviews Bill Ectric

AylettCoverMedium72

Rachel Kendall of Sein und Werden interviewed me about the new collection of essays on the work of Steve Aylett, edited by me and D. Harlan Wilson. Here’ an excerpt:

Rachel Kendall: A number of writers in the anthology refer to Aylett as a writers’ writer. What does that mean to you, and do you think it is significant?
Bill Ectric: Serious writers do a lot of reading. We pay attention to style, theme, and plot. We’ve seen just about every variation of theme and plot imaginable. We’ve seen detailed flowery prose and terse compact sentences; romanticism, realism, modernism, postmodernism, and all manner of genres and sub-genres. Steve Aylett, apparently bored with what’s gone before, moves past it all, often in a humorous way. Other writers get it. It’s not that he disdains what has come before him, he just doesn’t want to read what seems to him as the same books over and over again. Here’s one example: A few years ago I got interested in astronomer/alchemist John Dee and his working relationship with spirit medium/occultist Edward Kelley. I read books, articles, and essays on these men. Much later, in the Appendix to Aylett’s Shamanspace, I found a single sentence that cracked me up with laughter, because it summarized everything I’d read about Dee and Kelley with, “Elizabethan alchemist John Dee witnessed the scarab star of god blooming with a creak from the wooden table at Clerkenwell – a vision immediately waylaid by the arrival of unwitting holy man Edward Kelley who wasted years of Dee’s time with useless signs and wonders.” It was like, that’s all you need to know! You know?  If I call someone a “guitarist’s guitarist” it means that because I play the guitar, I can see just what they are doing, even though I can’t do it myself. Maybe I can learn to do it, but I would have never thought of it.

Notes on Notes on Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

From Literary Kicks, here’s a fascinating article written by Michelle Glauser about notes found in a book about Edgar Allan Poe.

Glauser begins:

Have you ever found something in an old book that took you by surprise? It’s not unusual to find a name or maybe even a phone number. Sometimes you’ll find evidence that the book once belonged to a library. But extensive notes and criticism of an author as well-known as Edgar Allan Poe and his biographer? Maybe in a textbook. I certainly wasn’t expecting what I recently found.

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The Persistence of J. G. Ballard

Ballard_Empire of the Sun Ballard_The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard_The Wind From Nowhere 

I was perusing the archives on one my favorite blogs, Literary Kicks, and found this article about J. G. Ballard from 2002.  It caught my attention when I read that, “Among his influences Ballard counts such artists as Dali, Magritte, and Ernst, and he considers William Burroughs to be one of the most important authors of the last century” and that “he reads mostly non-fiction when not working on his own fiction.” 

And at The Guardian, here’s a tribute to Ballard on the 5th anniversary of his passing, in which seven writers each discuss a Ballard book that is special to them.

JG Ballard

Remembering Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time

This article of mine first appeared on Literary Kicks on September 13, 2007:

I was approximately ten years old the first time I read Madeleine L’Engle, the award-winning author of over sixty books, including A Wrinkle In TimeA Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind In the Door, who died on September 6, 2007 in Goshen, Connecticut.

I’ll never forget those simple drawings of an insect crawling on the fabric of Mrs. Who’s white robe. It looked like an ant walking a string tightrope. In those days, my friends and I learned as much science from comic books as from textbooks. An arch-villain called “Mr. 103” could morph into any element on the periodic table (now we would call him “Mr. 117”). Superman’s x-ray vision couldn’t penetrate lead, same as real x-rays. If The Flash vibrated fast enough, he could slide his molecules around the particles of a solid wall and pass through to the other side without damaging the wall.

But, A Wrinkle In Time was not a comic book. This was a gripping science fiction novel written for kids like me. It drew me in with a classic “dark and stormy night” beginning and launched me, not only to another planet, but also to a new plane of reading.

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