Tag Archives: Reed College

Blessing on thee, little man (and dog)

Ana Reiselman and Tim True in Lee Blessing's "Great Falls" at Profile Theatre. Photo: Jamie Bosworth

By Bob Hicks

Lee Blessing stopped by his old college stomping grounds Monday night, packing a big dog’s bark and a puppy’s eagerness to please.

Blessing, the author of such frequently produced plays as Independence, A Walk in the Woods, Eleemosynary and Fortinbras, sat alone on Reed College’s Mainstage, a couple of bottled waters propped on a stool next to him, as he read his 1999 one-actor comedy Chesapeake to a crowd of theater regulars, Reedies, and a few old friends.

Playwright Lee BlessingBesides being a homecoming of sorts — Blessing is a 1971 grad from Reed, where he directed and was directed by another high-profile theater alum, Eric Overmyer — the reading was one of the opening events of Wordstock, Portland’s annual orgy of bookiness. And it was a highlight of Profile Theatre‘s season-long look at Blessing’s plays, which has just kicked off with the West Coast premiere of Great Falls. All in all it was a convivial, low-key evening, capped by Mead Hunter‘s warm and smart onstage chat with Blessing after the show.

Chesapeake is the unlikely tale of a New York performance artist named Kerr (he’s best-known for a piece in which he recites The Song of Solomon as members of the audience strip him naked, one piece of clothing at a time) who becomes a pawn in the right-wing war against the National Endowment for the Arts (remember, the year is 1999).

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A.E. Doyle and tearing down Portland’s past

Over at the valuable Portland Architecture blog, which helps keep the city’s designers and planners on their toes, Brian Libby has started a fascinating conversation that’s well worth checking out. It’s about the flap in little upscale Dunthorpe over its school board’s desire to tear down the 1920 Riverdale Grade School and replace it with something fresh and contemporary. Libby and a long string of commenters have created a stimulating conversation on just what historic preservation means — on why it’s important, how old buildings can be transformed for new purposes, when it might be OK to replace a good old building, what a historical presence in architecture means to a community. So far, the consensus seems to be: Keep the building, remodel it for modern needs, make it green, add on if necessary. Well, that’s the consensus on the Portland Architecture blog. It still doesn’t seem to be the consensus on the school board.

Beyond the general interest that Art Scatter has in architecture and planning, I find this conversation interesting because the school was designed by A.E. Doyle, Portland’s most significant architect of the early 20th century, and the subject of a good new historical biography by Philip Niles, Beauty of the City, which I happen to have reviewed for The Oregonian: You can read the review, due for print publication this Sunday, here, on Oregon Live. Central Library, the Benson Hotel (and the Benson Bubblers), the Meier & Frank department store (now Macy’s), the Reed College campus, Multnomah Falls Lodge — Doyle’s stamp is all around the city and its environs, and Niles’ book helps explain both how that came to be and why it’s a good thing.

So, save the Riverdale School? My gut says yes, even though I’ve never been inside it, and, frankly, I don’t know in what ways the school board thinks it inadequate. Maybe its members know something none of the rest of us do. But from its pictures it looks like a classic old building, with great light and a simple layout that would seem easy to reconfigure — and even add on to, if necessary. Yes, it might need seismic upgrading, but hundreds of buildings have gone through that: Drive through the little Oregon wine country town of Dundee, on the way to McMinnville, and you’ll see a school that’s been successfully and sensitively earthquake-proofed in the recent past.

I’m aware that a community is a dynamic thing and that preservation, wrongly applied, can be romantic mummification. I can understand the frustration that Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe must have felt over the weight of history pressing down on design in Europe, shackling it to the past. But that’s hardly the case in the United States, and especially not in a region as young and still raw-boned as the Pacific Northwest. We’re building all sorts of new stuff (far too much of it, unfortunately, in the sprawling subdivision cookie-cutter style of the rest of the nation) and we don’t have a lot of history to give away.

So weigh in on this thing. Check out Libby’s link at Portland Architecture: It’s a lively example of what can happen at the intersection of design, politics, money and community involvement. And give Niles’ book about Doyle a spin. For anyone interested in how cities grow (and this city in particular), it’s a good read.

Hear the “Howl” — Ginsberg reading Ginsberg, 1956

ginsberg_thumb.jpgSo, Allen Ginsberg comes to Portland in 1956 with his friend Gary Snyder and they spend a couple of days at Reed College. He’s 29 and just about as full of desire as a human can be. He wants to touch the firmament and he wants to savor the most exotic pleasures of the flesh, he wants to be the greatest poet ever and he wants everyone to know it, he wants to drink with the gods and use the hangover to prove that he’s caroused with them. And what separates him from just about every other ambition-drenched artist out there is that in 1956 he is carrying “Howl” in his pocket, and all the contradictions, the spirit and the flesh, the yearning for desirelessness, the hunger to be both participant and observer at the same time, have been resolved, temporarily, on the page. After reading several shorter poems on the second night, he turns to “Howl.” And, well, you should check it out.

Reed College has now posted the audio tape of Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” at the college in 1956. It’s offering a range of options (from the master tape unedited including several other poems and Ginsberg’s intro to “Howl” to an edited version of “Howl”). For the most concentrated dose, go straight to the edited “Howl.” He starts out slowly, deliberately, in a youthful version of the nasal tones that only became nosier as he aged. It picks up. Faster. Higher pitched. More intense. This isn’t the final published version of “Howl” (which wasn’t finally reached until 1986): If you follow along with the printed page, he skips around, changes the order, drops some phrases and adds others. But, after rather lackadaisically making his way through the other poems that preceded “Howl” that night (and available at the site, too), he is fully engaged with the text. He KNOWS it’s good, and tries to live up to it with his reading, even though the crowd is small (though responsive, laughing at some of the more delightfully over-the-top moments in the poem). And I was laughing too.

Listening for Allen Ginsberg

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,/angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night… “

Man. Once you start quoting “Howl” it’s hard to break it off. You could read it every night for weeks, perfecting the flow of breath needed (inhale/exhale) to keep its phrases flying skyward, to the “starry dynamo.”

Ginsberg HowlSo, what are we to make of the news today that a tape has surfaced from 1956, a tape of Ginsberg reading Part One of “Howl” to a small gathering at Reed College, where his reading mate that night, Gary Snyder, had gone to school? My first reaction: Not much. We know Snyder and his connection with the Beats and Ginsberg. We know “Howl.” The priority of this reading over the one that was taped a few weeks later in Berkeley doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

But I haven’t heard the tape, either. And as I sit here scanning that first page (“who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall..”), I want to hear Ginsberg reading it. Young Ginsberg, hot on the trail, with Snyder, who’d been with him during its composition in San Francisco the previous year. Ginsberg digging into it at Reed, surrounded by 20… what? Students? Faculty? Early Portland Beats? I don’t know, but I want to hear them breathing in the background and try to imagine what they made of it all, huddled together against the Ice Age of mid-’50s Oregon.

Proximity matters. And some part of Portland still draws from the Beat past, maybe, the part that rejects the coercion that regulates us — whether it originates in the government or the economic system or our own minds. I want to listen to the freedom in “Howl” and the sorrow, too, and see if I can smell us in there somehow. Reed is going to deliver: We can listen to the tape on Friday at the Reed website.

Meantime, here’s Jeff Baker’s interview with Snyder from Oregonlive about the night of Feb. 13, 1956.