Catherine Mary Stewart is coming to town
and you never watched Days of our Lives
or saw The Last Starfighter or Night of the Comet
but you know that face from before you knew the names of actresses.
She was everything you didn’t have in the ’80s:
skinny-belted, dark denim,
perky-collared, tucked blouse,
feathered waves of frosty highlights,
beach-ready bikini wax suntanned dignity,
insinuating blue eyes, nonchalant cinnamon lips and zeitgeist eyebrows
confident and strong with long aerobic dancer legs—
everything you couldn’t be
no matter how hard you tried.
The doctor said you were going to be 5’10.
He literally said, “You are going to be tall,”
when he looked at the x-rays
before your first bunionectomy in seventh grade,
but it was like a curse
and you never grew another inch.
In college you wore leotards and flowing skirts
with your hair twisted high in a knot,
but you didn’t dance unless you got drunk,
and you skipped dance class to sip bloody marys
mixed with Absolut peppar vodka by your friend Christopher,
the two of you passing Anais Nin’s diary back and forth
reading her descriptions of Antonin Artaud.
“To be kissed by Artaud was to be poisoned.”
This was after the acne faded,
and the braces came off and you got contacts
(Catherine Mary Stewart probably has perfect vision)
and you permed your hair like the other girls, now that it had grown out from when your mom clipped it short,
because you swam every day and the chlorine turned it to straw,
and she couldn’t comb through it anymore without making you cry.
Your mother wasn’t a professor like Catherine Mary Stewart’s
and you didn’t know your dad.
You don’t remember being encouraged,
not that they didn’t praise you, you just don’t remember that part.
You couldn’t hear their love under the roar of white trash doubt.
You weren’t Canadian and you missed your chance to go to London.
And now that you finally learned to love yourself after all these years,
you still aren’t photogenic—
you never had the right look at the right time,
you had child-bearing hips and peasant breasts even when you were skinny.
You didn’t get to take time off from work while you raised your kids,
and you still haven’t remarried.
You don’t understand how your daughter learned to be popular,
because she didn’t learn it from watching you.
Your social media accounts will not be verified.
You won’t go on tour or have a cult following.
You’d never look that good with short hair.
You’ll never be Catherine Mary Stewart.
—ali grega, may 2016
It’s time to take action.
Theatre is a communal beast by necessity. When the goal is to make something that matters universally and not only to an elite, the name of the creator should be easily grasped. The idea of superstruction – building positively on what already exists – is still key to the mission of what we are trying to accomplish, but it’s not the best name for a company for which accessibility is a such a huge priority.
And so the Scranton Superstruction Company will henceforth be known as the Common Play Factory of Scranton.
Creative Operatives are encouraged to join us. A series of formal founding meetings in which we will discuss project ideas and concepts and the possible means of accomplishing them will be held in the near future.
The future is what we make of it.
–alicia grega, creative operative
So just excerpting a poem doesn’t count as publishing it, right?
This is one stanza of a poem I wrote for today’s #CreativeSprint challenge to make something inspired by a children’s fable or fairy tale.
“They told us not to eat the poison, drink the poison, but we didn’t listen.
Given wings, how could we possibly resist the sun?
We didn’t see that we were the brave little children who would be forced to grow up too fast.
That the stories were instructions for survival
Maps to find our way to new homes we would make with new families that might love us for our honest humility,
Honor us for the royalty of our character, instead of taking advantage of our goodness.
That was all we really ever wanted.
It was never about a palace or a prince or golden eggs.”
I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself. Working in journalism you’re wise not to believe the hype. I had never heard anyone suggest Shawn Klush wasn’t a talented Elvis tribute artist. He’s won awards. He gets plenty of gigs and draws large crowds. But the press releases I’ve seen proclaiming “World’s Greatest Elvis” came from the man’s own PR team, and so you question it. And I had never bothered to personally see one of the many performances the Pittston native had given locally. So yeah sure, whatever, there’s no way he could have been that good on Vinyl (season 1, episode 7) this week.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate Elvis. True, I didn’t for a long time. At least, I didn’t respond to the cliches and symbols that came to characterize Elvis in popular memory. (Fun fact: my mom’s second wedding at the American Legion Hall in Moscow back in the ’80s was conducted by an Elvis impersonator/DJ and while the guy had a nice voice and a gentle spirit, he was good at his job, but I wasn’t a fan of that whole scene.) It wasn’t until a few summers ago when I developed a taste for The King’s feelgood films that I realized I was a fan. I had always liked the Christmas songs. I loved Dwight Yoakam’s covers. The gospel songs were groovy. I basically liked all of the music I hadn’t heard too many times growing up, tracks like “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears.”
It occurs to me now, that I may have actually interviewed the Klush for electric city at some point. I honestly don’t remember and our archives are maddeningly unsearchable. I talked to at least three Elvis tribute artists through the years, back before all the other tribute acts came out of the woodwork. It was literally all Elvis all the time for these guys. There was something obsessive of this degree of specialty that freaked me out. How does somebody make a living pretending to be someone else? And not lots of someone elses, as actors do, but just one person. For their whole life until they outlive the idol by a couple of decades and can’t conceivably pull it off anymore. The idea has perplexed me enough that I’m working on a play (Pepper Canyon Blues) centering around the members of a fictional tribute band. The fun of this is I get to make up the legendary band (The Playboy Riots) and the characters who take the stage in the guise of those unseen characters as Pepper Canyon.
Getting to the point, I’ve been watching HBO’s Vinyl since it debuted and was glad to be up-to-date on the episodes when it was announced in The Times-Tribune last week that Klush would be portraying Elvis on the show. My expectations were not high, and that’s partly because all of the other celebrity portrayals on the show so far (excepting John Cameron Mitchell’s Andy Warhol, which I liked even as some critics did not) have been the mildly-to-severely disappointing experience I imagine watching most tribute artists must be. But Klush blew me away. He was not only a believable Elvis, and more believable than any I remember seeing on film before, but he was also a good actor. There was stuff going on under the surface. He was thinking thoughts Elvis might have thought, because part of has brain has come to accept the dichotomy that he is as much Elvis as he is Klush. And he can sing. That is to say, he sang, a capella, a song that is not Elvis’s music, and it sounded how I imagine it would sound if Elvis sang it.
It wasn’t a pretty scene. This was a sad, sweat-shiny, puffy pill-popping Elvis only a few years before we know he would die. The cinematography was challenging, the set design was overwhelmingly Vegas, and the scene really was the climactic heart of the episode. It was just Klush and Cannavale – here playing a freshly sober Richie Finestra who’s unanchored and not comfortable in his own skin – and they’re talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Cannavale is an intense and powerful actor and it cannot be easy for even trained actors to hold their own against him. Klush did it.
The New York Times agrees that Klush’s performance was satisfying, writing: “Shawn Klush, a professional Elvis impersonator, gives one of the best acting performances by anyone portraying a celebrity on this show. He’s not the spitting image of Elvis, but he skillfully captures the singer’s bloated charisma and his insecurity. It’s the culmination of seven episodes’ worth of musical vignettes by 1950s rock stars: Here Elvis is drinking a Tab, showing off his martial-arts moves and spouting his philosophy of rock ’n’ roll.”
Klush’s Pittston roots are not the only NEPA connection in this episode. One of two girls Richie and Zak pick up in Vegas confesses that she is from … you guessed it, Scranton. It’s nice to see Klush fare so well because people in northeast PA derive a disproportionate amount of their pride from our local boys and girls done good. We’re still seeking that outside, “credible” affirmation before we’ll fully commit to patting ourselves on the back. We are so starved for attention, every time anyone with any status or celebrity says “Scranton” anywhere beyond our immediate forest, we get a molecule of our collective self-esteem back.
I also appreciated Klush’s performance because it helped me better understand this whole tribute phenomenon. Watching the scene, I was grateful we had this person who had given such serious study to Elvis and could respectably honor his legend. And that’s how music fans must feel when they see performers that can get the music right. There is an art to assuming another’s identity with such soulful respect and precision. I love music but I’m not that much a fan of any one artist that seeing a tribute act would do anything for me. I’d rather see an obscure, authentic original musician any day than a cover band. But that’s just me. I do plan to see more tribute bands perform as I get deeper into work on Pepper Canyon Blues. I’ll let you know how that goes.
I’m really struggling with this one. Not sure if it’s done yet. Every time I look at it I end up changing something. I started with a few lines salvaged from an intro piece I wrote for a performance at a Breaking Grounds Poetry fundraiser last year. I’ve had a lot of thoughts about identity in recent months and way too many to fit into this poem.
I’m afraid it’s too long. Believe it or not, I don’t particularly enjoy talking about myself. I’ll talk about my thoughts and feelings and experiences … no problem, but about my self? That’s just got to be a boring subject. I mean, who cares, really?
But ultimately, like any communication, it is about sharing the personal in order to discover the universal or at least identifiable. If I’ve written anything that matters, it’s because it’s about “you” as much as it is “me.”
See how I’m stalling. OK. Here’s the text. By the time you read this, I’ve probably already changed it. 😉
Last exit before 44: identity poem
“Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.” -Ranier Maria Rilke
We were making dinner —
well, he was cooking and I was watching —
when a fly came out of nowhere,
glided to the floor and quietly died,
presumably of natural causes,
as if it had just ran out of gas,
sputtering to a halt on the kitchen floor.
There’s no way to know how much time is left.
Six weeks before my 44th birthday —
my unlucky number when I was a kid —
and I’m begging you to tell me I still matter.
They say you’re only as good as your last story,
so when the by-line gets yanked out from under you
and you’re told to work for the big picture,
you feel yourself become irrelevant faster than you can remember how to spell irrelevant.
You’re now a very important nobody,
which makes your ego wonder if
you were ever anyone in the first place.
I’m sorry if I did not turn out to be who you thought I was.
I am so much more than the potential I failed to reach.
Expectations are a bitch.
The truth is I am not my job.
It is something I do —
like drink tea and make things from scratch
talk too loud, walk too fast, love too much
and daydream all the time.
“What’s lurking in the basement of your personality?” My email asks.
What the fuck kind of question is that?
Maybe I should ask my little sister.
She’s always been able to see
that itchy part of my back I can’t reach.
She knows all the weird faces I make
when I don’t think anyone is looking.
Reminds me about things I forget to remember.
The left hand to my oblivious right,
she helped me raise two precious girls —
the best things I’ll ever make —
when their daddy and I brought them into this world
before we knew how to take care of ourselves.
She might say for as much as I have changed,
I haven’t changed that much at all.
I’m no longer the Girl Scout
or the crossing guard I used to be,
but I still love strawberries and the stage,
cowboy boots and steel guitar.
I’d rather mountain air in my lungs
and lake water on my skin
than to fend too long in any one city.
And when reality gets to be a bore
I take refuge in books;
a more nutritive escape than drinking and drugs.
This lesson I learned too late (or maybe just in time?):
That life is richer and more thrilling when you can feel it,
and even the pain can be beautiful.
I’ll give you the shirt off these shrugging shoulders,
go ahead and take my last dime,
but don’t tell me what to do unless I ask you to decide.
I need room to breathe and time alone,
just don’t let me get lonely.
I’m still afraid to ask for what I want.
See, I’m hot and then I’m cold.
One moment, I promise loving-kindness,
then, I’ll tell you my heart is cold
because I don’t cry when I’m supposed to —
not when tragedy happens.
I cry when people are kind.
I weep to witness random acts of generosity;
when a man breaks down and finally confesses
what he has too long been afraid to say.
Why is it the most romantic stories do not live happily ever after?
But only when love has been starved
(because distance or circumstance or death)
do we really know what it means to love
beyond the limits of selfish desire?
I don’t mean to confuse you.
I am not some elusive hipster band too unique to be labeled.
It might be easier to say who we are not
than to figure out who we are.
(And aren’t we all connected and so there really is no self?
I mean, every day I pray to God to relieve me of that bondage.)
I cannot snap, wink or whistle.
I am not the mistakes I have made,
even though I would make them all over again
in order to get to right here, right now.
I am not the things I think about all day:
unpaid bills, grocery list, goals not reached,
all the broken shit I cannot fix.
That beautiful man I can’t get enough of.
I told him about Camille Claudel
and my fear of becoming the crazy old lady
in the corner nobody cares about,
scribbling pages that no one will read.
This nightmare is heavier than rational thought —
anxious stones weighing down the pockets of my joy.
But then an army of angels picked me up
a vision of all our lady heroes who kept mattering
And keep mattering —
Anais Nin Joan Didion Grace Paley
Mary Karr Simone deBeauvoir Jeanne Moreau
Yoko Ono Susan Sontag Aung San Suu Kyi
I can’t name them all.
Lucille Ball Phyllis Diller Lily Tomlin Joan Rivers
Lucinda Williams Dolly Parton Judy Chicago
Dorothy Dietrich Coco Chanel Eve Ensler
Holly Hughes Josephine Baker Louise Bourgeois
Jane Goodall Katharine Hepburn Georgia O’Keefe.
Do you think anyone has told Lucia Berlin in heaven —
“Sorry it took 11 years after your death,
but now they’re finally saying
you are one of the best writers in America”?
This identity impasse is not indecision or fear of commitment
— wait, don’t want to lie, maybe it is —
But it’s more about inclusion,
embracing the all and the unknown.
I will keep unfolding until the end,
expanding after death if that’s allowed.
I am a chameleonic sponge.
All senses a go.
There’s so much more to absorb.
I’m sorry for your loss
And I’m trying hard not to sound sarcastic
Because I get it
That rock star legend really meant a lot to you
That was the first album you got stoned with
– those songs understood you like no one you could touch
Because they scraped and licked clean
the cake batter bowl of who you wanted to be
and eased the sting of your sealed-lip fears.
And that I can see how that movie star changed your life.
How many times did you watch that film?
And when she put her life back together after that tragedy
and then spoke out about that cause,
it must have been a relief to have a role model.They don’t make them like that any more.
Go ahead and cry. No one is judging.
It’s just I’ve lost so many people who are still alive
that there aren’t enough tears left to mourn those I’ve never known.
So many times we never got to say goodbye;
Life pushing and pulling so hard so fast we didn’t know it might be the last time.
Waking up on a wet pillow, feeling like there’s no one else on earth,
I’m pretty sure I don’t want to sleep alone for the rest of my life
All curled up in an empty nest.
But ever since they took my ovaries out along with the cancer
I toss and sweat and turn and fart all night,
So maybe it’s better this way …
I’ve already started over so many times
because we had to leave California
And mom got a better job
And I did what I had to do to get out of that hick town
Then all of the sudden one day college was over
And I wanted to have the baby someplace warm
And they went back to England
And we crossed the country again
And brain drain is a very real threat –
So many moving on in search of … everything we couldn’t give them.
Tell me my girls aren’t next.
And their dad took off because he couldn’t get clean
And those friends traveled South because jobs
And that one moved to Connecticut because work
And even now I’ll be walking down the street thinking
What the hell am I doing in Scranton?
And when the distance is all in your head
Or all in her heart
does the mourning ever end?
We drifted apart
because she found God and I hadn’t yet
and she couldn’t be friends with someone who was going to hell.
Because he got married
And she had a kid
And when they split up, you didn’t mean to choose,
but you never really had that much in common.
Because when you stop going to the bar, you cease to exist.
Forgive me because I cannot sacrifice my spirit
To blackouts, hangovers, totaled cars and strange bedfellows.
There is divine in me. Namaste.
You let go finally because your hands got tired
When you realize you’ve had your fingers clenched up in a fist.
Because I couldn’t believe a word he said.
Because he loved alcohol more than me.
Because he loved me too much and I couldn’t breathe.
Because he wouldn’t let himself love anyone.
Because I couldn’t be what he wanted,
And I didn’t know that I love you meant only so long as we are having sex.
And I must have done something to offend you, to hurt you
Or else you just didn’t need me anymore.
It will always haunt me that I don’t know what …
Or why …
because you never said
and I don’t have the guts to ask
And I am ashamed for holding you closer than you held me.
Maybe if I could speak instead of having to write it down …
you would tell me not to give up,
that there’s just a lot of slack in the threads that connect us
And they haven’t broken so much as unraveled to these fatal limits.
There are more of you the older I get
So many now, we couldn’t possibly all love each other at the same time.
This stage isn’t big enough for all of us.
This room can’t hold all of you who still live in my heart.
-ag, Jan 2016