P. Scott Cunningham is the founder of the University of Wynwood and the director of O, MIAMI, a contemporary poetry festival debuting in April 2011 thanks to funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Harvard Review, Court Green, Abe’s Penny, Pool, Pure Francis, PANK, Northville Review, Roanoke Review, and elsewhere. A satirical piece of his appears in The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes (Vintage, 2009). He lives in Miami and continues to work on a book-length collection of poems about the composer Morton Feldman. You can read “Intro to Morton Feldman” and “Feldman Dry-cleans Boulez’s Underwear” (below) in previous issues of the Roanoke Review. (Photo by Elliot and Erick Jimonez)
Feldman Dry-cleans Boulez’s Underwear
Extra bleach, extra starch, he said.
He was visiting from Paris, heard
my family’s business was the best.
“I’m leaving for Chicago on Monday to conduct
Mahler’s ninth, you know, the one
stuck half way between the past
and the future.” Yeah, I said,
like these stains we won’t be able to get out
unless you cough up an extra buck.
“Robbery!” he screamed, and I explained
in America you get what you pay for.
“Is that why no one plays your scores?”
he retorted and stormed through the door,
forgetting to take his ticket so
I stole his fancy European panties
and sold them to this Chinese guy
who likes that stuff. When an intern
came by, asking for Pierre’s laundry,
I gave him back some splattered
boxers instead, a note attached that read,
“Compliments of Jackson Pollock.”
Mary Crockett Hill speaks with P. Scott Cunningham:
MCH: Why Morton Feldman? How did it all begin?
PSC: Why Feldman? I first read about Feldman in the New Yorker in 2006. Their music critic Alex Ross wrote a short biographical piece on Feldman and his place in 20th Century music. To put it bluntly, I fell in love. I immediately ordered every book by him or about him that was available (I still don’t have “Morton Feldman Essays,” an out of print book that is largely absorbed by more recent volumes – though I did hold and flip through a copy once), and I started listening to his music, beginning with Rothko Chapel.
I’d be lying if I said I loved the music immediately. I didn’t. I didn’t even understand it. At that time, I knew pretty much nothing about classical music, so I had no way to situate what I was hearing. It sounded like nothing to me. The difficulty I had with the music only increased my fascination with Feldman the person however.
Feldman was a 300-pound giant from Queens who was nevertheless dwarfed by the size of his personality. Everyone who has ever met him has at least one outlandish anecdote about him. He was loud, gregarious, a bit of a womanizer, and undoubtedly one of the most talented PR men of the century. His friends were all famous artists (Cage, Guston, Pollack, O’Hara, Rothko, etc.) and he was at the center of that New York School scene that everyone wishes they had been a part of (even if they’re over the fascination now). And yet he made music that’s seemingly the exact opposite of himself: quiet, sparse, repetitive, and often quite lengthy. (String Quartet II can last almost six hours if conducted slowly.)
How did these two things–the brash New York artist and the quiet, serious composer–exist within the same person? That contrast is what has kept me interested in Feldman and what drives the poems. Originally, I was writing a fairly straightforward biographical portrait of Feldman but that project slowly expired in favor of a book of poems that responds to Feldman, often in highly tangential ways. I may not even title it after Feldman, or make an explanation of the connection between the two because I’ve gradually come to realize that the poems are more about the ideas that Feldman has bequeathed to me, not the man himself.
I’ve since come to really enjoy the music. It’s deeply serious and engaging if you’re willing to commit to listening to it for long stretches. It’s a very different experience from listening to pop music or even someone like Philip Glass or John Adams (both composers I love btw). Feldman isn’t going to charm you into listening. There’s barely a discernible thread to follow and harmony is only an occasional visitor. To critics frustrated by a lack of melody, Feldman used to say that he throws in one moment of beauty per piece, and what more could you really ask for?
MCH: Let’s pretend I see you wearing one of your awesome Lady Python t-shirts from the University of Wynwood, which causes me to say “Hey! I’ve never heard of the Lady Pythons. Maybe you could tell me something about them.” Then you say…
PSC: I’d say that the Lady Pythons are the mascot of the University of Wynwood and the nation’s premiere collegiate Division III Women’s Jai-Alai team. University of Wynwood is a faux-university I created in order to produce literary events in Miami. Our goal is to make Miami a destination for young writers and a city that can self-perpetuate its literary life. Because our public transit system has traditionally been neglected in favor of building highways and we’ve gone through multiple political upheavals that have drastically altered the city’s demographics, Miami can feel like a fractured place. Which is good for writers in some ways—there’s more material here I think than almost anywhere else—but it also makes life as a writer very difficult, especially for young people who hail from places like Portland or New York or Boston or San Francisco where the modes, hangouts, and styles of writerdom are all well-scripted. So we’re all blazing trails down here because there’s no other option. It’s occasionally exciting; often frustrating. Point being, I created UofW to make things happen in a literary sense because I didn’t see them happening already. Thankfully, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation took an interest early on, which has allowed us to host a visiting poet series and fly in great poets like Zachary Schomburg, Ed Skoog, Joanna Klink, and Roanoke’s own Melanie Almeder! They’ve also partnered with us to produce the city’s first poetry festival, called O, Miami which debuts next April.
Because I’d invented my own university, I had to give it a mascot and a sports team right? Hence the Lady Pythons women’s jai-alai team. And sports teams need logos, so I asked my friend Isaac Littlejohn Eddy (that is indeed his given name), who is a cartoonist for the New Yorker and the New York Times, to design their logo. And then I made t-shirts. [Editor’s note: you can get your own Lady Python t-shirt here.]
MCH: Of the potentially zillion things in life that can make poetry happen, what are some of the things that make poetry happen for you?
PSC: First and foremost, reading poetry and going to poetry readings. I look at poetry as one big conversation, so I can’t write without other voices in my ear. Without them, I just feel like I’m ranting. Music too makes me want to write poetry, but maybe that’s just an extension of my first answer? Sometimes I wake up with a poem in my head. And I contribute to a chain of haiku on Twitter with the Miami Poetry Collective and most of the stuff I write for that is Miami-generated: images I come across while walking or driving. The one thing that doesn’t make poetry for me, interestingly enough, is memory. Or rather, every memory-generated poem I’ve ever written is terrible. I’m not entirely sure why that is though.
MCH: What are you reading these days?
PSC: I’m definitely a hot mess reading-wise. I have to have several books going at once, to the point where I stress myself out about the unmanageability of it all. But I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which was great. I’m also moving slowly through C.K. Williams’ new book on Walt Whitman and Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense. (I also read anything poetry-related (and fiction too if the writer is especially lyrical) with a pencil and notebook, which slows me down.) Poetry-wise, I’m reading Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life after just finishing Timothy Donnelly’s Cloud Corporation via The Rumpus Poetry Book Club (totally worth joining). And this will sound kind of au courant and “aren’t you special?” but I’m making my way through everything Roberto Bolano wrote. I can’t help it. I really love him in the way I once fell in love with Denis Johnson.
MCH: What’s your favorite joke?
PSC: I don’t think I even know any jokes anymore! All my humor is YouTube-based! Just name a stupid video you’ve seen recently and I probably thought it was hilarious. Though, now that I think about it, last night D.A. Powell was posting #molluskmovies on Twitter and I thought it was the funniest thing that’s ever happened. Examples, “Clam 9 from Outerspace”, “Rebel Without a Conch”, “Some Limpet Hot” etc. Like I said, I’ll laugh at anything.
MCH: Anything else to add?
PSC: Read Roanoke Review!