Monday, May 19, 2008

Two Views of a Weekend



When I reflect on this weekend, I see two events that bookend living in Los Angeles today. One is the picture of a writer in a library reading from his work and discussing literature, art, and culture as part of a school festival. The second is a school festival where people ran for their lives and the heroism of a couple of parents prevented further loss of life and destruction.

Aram Saroyan was everything I expected when he visited our campus Sunday. He is eccentric, insightful, thought-provoking, playful, all while suffering through a head cold. He read a number of his Minimal Poems, and they were as weird and obtuse as ever. Saroyan even admitted after reading one, “Crickets,” that the poem usually worked on people’s nerves. The poem consisted of the word, “crickets” repeated over and over again at one or two second intervals.

He discussed the 1960s, the Vietnam War, and the public perception of his work. He also addressed the strong connections between current events and art, how cubism and other post-modern movements played out in literature, and the impact artists such as Andy Warhol and the recently departed Robert Rauschenberg had on his own writing.

And yes, he did talk about his father, William Saroyan, saying that having such a famous writer as a father is, in some ways, a curse.

My students made me proud. Two sophomore girls asked questions, and both received what I thought were sharp answers, yet they persisted. I do not think Saroyan really answered the questions, but I was proud that my students were not intimidated by him. Other students from my tenth grade class participated in a choreographed introduction involving the reading of some of his poetry. Still others simply came to support the cause of literature. Two boys manned the book table, selling Saroyan’s books for participants to have signed. These boys missed the presentation entirely, as the table was outside the library. They did not complain and like my other sophomores, did their jobs in the heat.

We drew a good crowd of adults as well. Several of my fellow teachers attended and asked Saroyan for comments, and I appreciated their interest and support.

I did want Saroyan to be more specific about what defines art and what constitutes poetry? He mentioned John Cage’s 4’33”, the three movement composition Cage premiered in the 1950s where a pianist plays nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I ask Saroyan, does Cage’s piece mean that the absence of music is music? He did not really address the question per se, but basically said that a reader, a listener, a viewer of a work of art must decide what that work is about for himself. The author can explain his intentions, but the individual determines what the work means to him.

According to Saroyan, when someone reads one of his poems, he hopes to make the person see the world differently. Art should make us reconsider our world. So his poem, lighght, consisting of that one word, makes us reconsider what makes up light.

Art is responsible for questions, not answers. I like that. Too much of what passes for art these days, especially in cinema, answers all the questions, leaves nothing to imagination. We need to wonder. We need to be engaged. Telling us is never as effective as making us think for ourselves and arrive at our own conclusions.

In the end, that is the message of a book like Minimal Poems and an artist like Aram Saroyan. Even if a reader does not see this work as art, or poetry, it has still made the reader consider how she defines art and poetry.

I did not get much opportunity to wander around the school grounds to the other events of the festival because the heat was simply too much. From what I did see, I know that the community came together for food, culture, art, music and fun. So it was with great sadness that I heard on the news and read in the paper the accounts of a much more chilling incident that took place only a few miles from my school.

Saint John the Baptist de la Salle Catholic Church and school in Granada Hills narrowly avoided a tragedy this weekend. On Saturday, during the school festival, Fernando Diaz Jr., embroiled in a bitter custody fight with his ex-girlfriend, kissed his nine year-old son goodbye and then opened fire on his former lover, wounding her and two other men before parishioners Charles Sternberg and Jeff Sempelsz tackled him to the ground.

For Catholic schools, the annual festivals raise valuable funds to keep the schools going financially throughout the year. I remember attending my school’s festivals, or fiestas, every October from second to eighth grade. Of course, I remember them as safe, fun-filled days with family and friends. There were booths, raffles, food, games, rides—everything that makes the day fun for kids and adults. This was not the case at de la Salle on Saturday. Still, the festival went on as scheduled. Volunteer crisis counselors provided by the city and state, roamed the grounds offering their services to traumatized parents and children. Police officers increased patrols of the school grounds, adding increased security.

The shooter in this case is another example of a terrorist. For those seconds when he was firing into the crowds, he created terror. It is the goal of terrorists to make us alter our lives out of fear. Even if bloodshed does not occur, if events are cancelled out of fear of the possibility of violence, the terrorists have won. So it was good to hear that the Saint John the Baptist de la Salle School festival went on as planned Sunday.

It is, however, a sad state of affairs when organizers of a church carnival for children must be wary of bullets, bloodshed, and the unreasonable actions of one man bent on violence.

In a year of increased murders and gang violence on our streets, I guess this was just another hot weekend in Los Angeles. Two schools, two festivals, two very different perspectives, all just a few miles apart.