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A Provocative and Exasperating Movie.

Film Critic John Powers reviews the new movie Black and White.

04:24

Other segments from the episode on April 7, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 7, 2000: Interview with Robert Hass; Commentary on Elizabeth Bishop; Interview with Billy Collins; Review of the movie "Black and White."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 07, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 040701NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview With Robert Haas
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On this archive edition of FRESH AIR, we celebrate National Poetry Month with two great poets. Former poet laureate Robert Haas will read some of the haiku he has translated, and Billy Collins will read his poem "Forgetfulness," about all those names and memories that are slipping away from you.

Some great poems and discussions about language coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're celebrating Poetry Month on today's archive edition.

We begin with a great poet, teacher, and translator whose love of language is contagious, Robert Haas. He was the U.S. poet laureate from 1995 to '97. In '97, he won a second National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection "Sun Under Wood." He's a member of the editorial advisory board of the new two-volume collection, "American Poetry: The 20th Century."

I spoke with Haas in 1997 when he was poet laureate. His poetry has been influenced by Japanese haiku. He edited a collection of haiku by three Japanese masters. I asked him what makes a haiku a haiku.

ROBERT HAAS, FORMER U.S. POET LAUREATE: Well, that's a good question. Issa (ph), who was a 19th century haiku poet, moved back to his father's farm when he was in middle age, and the local lord, damyo (ph) in Japanese, wanted to honor his presence, so he sponsored a poetry context with some fairly large prize on the theme of new snow.

Each haiku has a seasonal word in it that's a reference to some time of year that usually has traditional symbolic associations. New snow has associations with freshness and cleanness and purity.

And so the poem that Basho wrote for this was -- went something like, "Writing crap about new snow for rich people, it's not haiku," in 17 syllables.

(LAUGHTER)

HAAS: On the theme of freshness and purity. (laughs) It's a perfectly correct haiku.

I think -- for most people, the definition of it involves plain language, an act of attention to the immediate moment. In Japanese, it was composed in 17 syllables in kind of rhythmic units of five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. And it was -- it tended to be mostly absolutely attentive to the present, and it had this element of seasonal reference always.

GROSS: Would you recite a favorite for us?

HAAS: Yes. Well, one of my -- every Japanese poet had to write a poem at one time or another about Mount Fuji, and the greatest of the haiku poets, Basho, wrote one that goes, "Misty fall. Can't see Fuji. Interesting." That was the first poem about not seeing Mount Fuji that got written.

So I like that one.

GROSS: You've translated a lot of haiku. What really appeals to you about the form?

HAAS: Well, what appealed to me about it in the first place, was just its clear-mindedness. You know, I just love the clarity and plainness of the seeing. I didn't understand why. Later I came to see that unlike most of Western poetry, it's not a theistic -- it's not trying to read God's hand in creation. It -- I mean, almost -- most -- what -- not that I don't like this tradition, I love this tradition.

But if you think about -- oh, think about two New England poems, one that I love that's appropriate this time of year is Robert Frost, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," "Nature's first grain is gold, her heart is (inaudible) to hold. It's only so an hour, then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, so dawn goes down today. Nothing gold can stay."

That poem, which begins with this, you know, very specific observation, that the first fuzz on the bare woods in early spring is a kind of sheen of gold, then goes on to moralize it in a specific way.

GROSS: Right.

HAAS: You know, I think another great example of this tradition -- it's really a tradition of New England Protestant inwardness, I think -- is one of the great poems in the American -- in American speech is Emily Dickinson's "Certain Slant of Light," you know that? "There's a certain slant of light winter afternoons that oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes, heavenly hurt it gives us. We can find no scar but internal difference, where the meanings are. None can touch it any. 'Tis the sealed despair, an imperial affliction sent us the air. When it comes, the landscape listens, shadows hold their breath. When it goes, it is like the distance on the look of death."

She starts with that shaft of afternoon light and immediately goes inside to this kind of, you know, shockingly modern, painful...

GROSS: Inner desolation.

HAAS: Yes, inner desolation. And the -- well, we could talk about Emily Dickinson all day. Desolation that's preferable to deadness of feeling. I mean, in that poem, that seems like the two choices.

GROSS: So, so in comparing this New England style that you're talking about with haiku, haiku is just more purely descriptive, more gazing outward than inward?

HAAS: Well, I think -- there's a famous story about Basho that one of his students, Kikaku, came to him and showed him a poem, and Basho looked at it and shrugged and said, "The trouble with most poetry is that it's either objective or subjective."

GROSS: (laughs)

HAAS: And Kikaku, the straight man, said, "You mean too objective or too subjective?" And Basho said, "No."

So in theory, of course, it's like (inaudible) -- you know, I think it's true of any great art, in a way, in some way, anyway, that there -- you know, that there's a kind of perfect fusion of that outer and inner in the best of it now, wherever it seems to be located.

Later he would write poems that would go -- this one has a little title, "At a Monastery," "Late fall, getting dinner, we peeled cucumbers, eggplants."

GROSS: Right. Now, that seems like in some way just such a factual recording.

HAAS: Yes. So many times, he -- his poems just say "is, is, is." Here's being, here's being, here's being. You don't have to be in torment for it to be real to you. You don't have to push it up against mortality for it to be real to you, because it's always pushed up against mortality.

GROSS: There's, there's a haiku of Basho's that I particularly love that you've included in your anthology of haiku. I'm going to ask you to read it for us. It's about the summer moon.

HAAS: Yes. "It's not like anything they compare it to, the summer moon." That's the whole poem.

GROSS: I just think that's so lovely. (laughs)

HAAS: Yes. The poem -- his -- one poem of his that does this inward turn that I know -- I mean, there are a few, actually -- but -- is one that I love, goes, "Deep autumn, my neighbor, how does he live, I wonder?"

I think he could be a powerful psychologist even in this tiny farm sometimes. He has another poem that goes -- the famous thing, like the cherry blossoms and watching (ph) the famous thing about spring in Japan was the cuckoo birds in Kyoto, and people would go to Kyoto to see the cuckoos.

So -- which were Himalayan cuckoos, migratory birds that only hit Japan in the early spring. And he has a poem that goes, "Even in Kyoto, hearing the cuckoos cry, I long for Kyoto."

GROSS: I like that one a lot (inaudible).

HAAS: I do too. (laughs)

GROSS: Yes, that the reality is never, never quite measures up to you.

HAAS: I don't know if it -- yes, it doesn't quite measure up -- I don't know if the reality doesn't quite measure up to, but or to defend ourselves against a reality, we rehabilitate desire instantly to put ourselves back in our real condition, which is permanent longing.

GROSS: Yes, right, the real condition of permanent longing, well put. (laughs)

In your anthology of haiku, you included Basho's "Death Poem." I'm going to ask you to recite that. And what does it mean, his death poem? Did he know he was dying?

HAAS: Yes. He did know he was dying. And in his last years, he was sort of troubled by -- He came to feel like he should really be involved in religious practice and stop this frivolous business of writing poetry. And he just couldn't stop writing poetry.

The seasonal phrase in this poem is "the withered fields." It means uncultivated fields. The English translations of this, British translations always say "moor" to distinguish it from crop fields, but it means -- "withered fields" has a peculiar sense of desolation for the Japanese in the 17th century.

And this poem goes, "Sick on a journey, my dreams wander the withered fields."

And I think he knew he was dying, and I think that though he was a religious poet and he wanted to come to a sense of peace, he saw himself dying at the end with this machine of longing in him still throwing up images, still trying to make poetry. "Sick on a journey, my dreams wander the withered fields."

GROSS: That's really beautiful.

Now, in your own writing, having read and translated so many Haiku, did you ever -- do you ever try to write haiku yourself, or have you just written things that are inspired by haiku, but don't take the form of haiku?

HAAS: Yes, I sometimes think what I write are very long haiku, you know? And every once in a while I try to write them. There's a poem of mine that goes, "Late summer, beach towels drying on a fence. No wind. The apricots have blossomed and been picked. The blackberries have blossomed and been picked."

In some way, I felt like that was the nearest I came, or in something later, there's a little poem that goes, "The child is looking in the mirror. His head falls to one side, his shoulders slump. He's practicing sadness."

Often for me they don't come out of nature at all. There's another one that goes, "`If you ever leave me,' she says, `and marry a younger woman and have another baby, I'll put a knife in your heart.' They're in bed, so she climbs directly on his chest and looks down into his eyes. `You understand? Your heart.'"

Sometimes I feel like I can just get -- do something like what the haiku does, which is have something like an immediacy of presentation that isn't just pictorial, you know?

I think I decided not to be a, quote, "nature poet," because I came to feel like if you -- if I wanted to have my world exist in poetry in that way, the best way to do it would not be able to go out and announce, I'm going to write a poem about Pierce Point (ph), or I'm going to write a poem about Point Reyes. It's to write about loss, grief, divorce, pain, failure, unexpected joy, good luck, and let the images of my world come up naturally as ways of expressing it.

GROSS: Now, all the poems that you've recited for us today, you've done from memory. So obviously there's a lot of poetry that you just carry around in your mind.

HAAS: Yes.

GROSS: Now, did you -- I know when I was in school and I was supposed to memorize a poem, it would be work to memorize it. I don't have a good memory. Are these poems that you have worked to commit to memory, or do they just stay with you?

HAAS: These -- I think probably they're all ones that just stay with me. There are poems, lots of poems, that I've committed to memory and worked at it, and I believe in -- even with college students, I never teach a poetry class in which I don't ask them to memorize at least three poems, partly on the theory that what I say to them is going to be like duck off -- water off a -- this is great metaphor, isn't it? -- water off a duck's back. Have you ever heard that one?

GROSS: No, never.

HAAS: OK. But that they go -- you know, if they go away with the poems, they'll have got what they came for, so I like doing that. And I think that it's how we -- you know, it's the ancient way that we made them at home in us.

GROSS: Right. You know, I figure in a way that -- here's a food analogy, if you are -- excuse the expression -- if you are what you eat, (laughs) but if kind of like absorb poems or songs into your body, that somehow they transform you in some small but swell way. (laughs)

HAAS: I think so, you know, I mean, one hopes so. Of course, we also incorporate all kinds of awful language in our heads, and then language that is -- who knows what purpose, "You'll wonder where the yellow went if you brush your teeth with Pepsodent."

GROSS: Right. (laughs)

HAAS: (laughs) (inaudible)

GROSS: I got a lot of that in my mind.

HAAS: But some poets, you know, it was Lou Welch, one of the early Beat poets, who wrote the famous haiku, "Raid kills bugs dead."

GROSS: Wait wait, who'd you say wrote that?

HAAS: Lou Welch. You know, he was a comrade of Gary Snyder and Alan Ginsburg and (inaudible)...

GROSS: No, I had no idea (inaudible).

HAAS: ... he worked briefly for an advertising agency in the -- in San Francisco in the '50s, and he is the author of that well-known haiku.

GROSS: Well, Poet Laureate of the United States, is that well written? If you're stuck in (inaudible).

HAAS: Yes, it's great, isn't it? It just says it, "Raid kills bugs dead." Now, that's my idea of poetry.

GROSS: Poet Robert Haas, recorded in 1997 when he was poet laureate. He's a member of the editorial advisory board of the new two-volume collection "American Poetry: The 20th Century."

More poetry after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: On this archive edition, we're celebrating National Poetry Month.

Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, has written extensively about the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who died in 1979. He's co-editor of a forthcoming volume of her collected poetry and prose. This is the story of how he got to know her and how he happened to have the only copy of one of her poems.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC: I first got to know Elizabeth Bishop when she moved to Cambridge in the early 1970s after living in Brazil for nearly 20 years. I admired her small output of poems, and I was thrilled to meet her. But she was very shy about discussing her work, and I didn't think I had anything else to talk to her about.

Eventually the barriers began to come down. I was floored by the new poems she was writing, and it got to be easier to tell her that.

We got to be friends under circumstances unfortunate for her but lucky for me. She'd had an accident during Christmas vacation. Her friends were away, but she remembered my complaining that I'd be stuck in town. For a week, I spent every day with her at the hospital, stopping off at her apartment to pick up her mail and any other odds and ends she requested.

Suddenly we found it easier to talk about movies and records. She loved Mozart and Billie Holiday. And some more personal things. I even got to see a new poem she was working on called "Breakfast Song." It was a short love poem, but more than that, it was a poem about facing her own mortality, or her reluctance to face her mortality. I thought it was amazing and courageously open about her feelings of love and fear of death.

I wanted to read it over and over. And when she was out of the room for some medical procedure, I copied the poem without telling her. I think maybe I was also worried that it was a poem she might decide was too personal to publish, that she might even destroy it. She never published it during her lifetime.

After she died, I hoped that someone would find it among her papers, but although numerous unfinished or unpublished poems have come to light since her death, "Breakfast Song" was not one of them.

A couple of years ago, when I heard that her publishers, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, were planning to publish a volume of her uncollected poems, I thought it was time to confess my guilty secret. I still feel slightly queasy about what I had done, but I couldn't bear not being able to read this poem.

"Breakfast Song."

My love, my saving grace,
Your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
Your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so.

How can I bear to go
As soon I must, I know,
To bed with ugly death
In that cold, filthy place
To sleep there without you,
Without the easy breath
And night-long, limb-long warmth
I've grown accustomed to?

Nobody wants to die.
Tell me it is a lie.
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case.
There's nothing one can do.

My love, my saving grace,
Your eyes are awfully blue,
Early and instant blue.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

One of Bishop's favorite singers, mine too, was born 85 years ago today, Billie Holiday. Here's her 1936 recording of "These Foolish Things" with Teddy Wilson at the piano.

This is FRESH AIR.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "THESE FOOLISH THINGS," BILLIE HOLIDAY WITH TEDDY WILSON)

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Robert Haas
High: Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass served as Laureate from 1995-1997. He won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for his book "Sun Under Wood." He's written several other books of poetry, including "Praise" and "Human Wishes." He also edited "The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa." Hass has also been involved in environmental activism and continues to teach in the English department of the University of California at Berkeley.
Spec: Entertainment; Robert Haas

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview With Robert Haas

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 07, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 040702NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: John Powers Reviews 'Black & White'
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: "Black and White" is a new film about race by director James Toback. His other films include "Fingers" and "Two Girls and a Guy." He wrote the screenplay for "Buggsy."

"Black and White"'s diverse ensemble cast includes Brooke Shields, Claudia Schiffer, Mike Tyson, and Power, the producer of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: When politicians talk about race, they speak in high-minded terms about helping African-Americans join the mainstream, that is, making them more like prosperous whites.

Meanwhile, over in the mainstream, white teenagers are putting on baggy trousers, listening to hip-hop, and trying to tap into some sort of African-American life force. They want to be what Norman Mailer famously called "the white Negro."

This white fascination with black culture lies at the heart of "Black and White," a provocative and exasperating new movie by wild man filmmaker James Toback.

The story centers on Rich, a young black guy who's trying to move from being a gang leader to a record producer. He's played by Power from Wu-Tang Clan. Rich spends his life surrounded by all sorts of people who make different claims upon him. He has sex with white Park Avenue school girls who see him as a form of rebellion. He gets favors from his white friend Will, a judge's son who dreams of being a black street tough. He's being followed by a socialite filmmaker played by Brooke Shields, who, along with her gay husband -- that's Robert Downey, Jr. -- is shooting a documentary about white kids who are into hip-hop.

There's also a college basketball star, played by the Knicks' Allan Houston, an insidious grad student played by supermodel Claudia Schiffer, and an undercover cop, played by Ben Stiller.

If this sounds complicated, it is and it isn't. The good news is that "Black and White" is bursting with ideas about America's racial swirl. This is a movie about how whites steal black culture and blacks aspire to white elegance, how young whites treat black life as a kind of lifestyle, and how blacks are forced into life-and-death moral choices, how black life plays as tragedy, while white life plays as farce.

Here, two students, the first white, the second black, talk to their high school class about how they see the world.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "BLACK AND WHITE")

ACTOR: (inaudible) little kid. You know, little kids go through phases. I mean, I like it now, and I'm going to, like, stand up (inaudible) and be, yeah, I'm into hip-hop. But, you know, when it comes down to it, I'll be over it soon. But for right now, while I'm in school, and while I've got comfort in it (ph), and I'm OK, you know, my friends are into it, I can go and hang out with them, and I can go and be a part of that. I can do whatever I want. I'm a kid in America.

ACTOR: Sherry?

ACTRESS: Well, first of all, not everybody in here is white. I'm from the 'hood, and I don't live there any more, and I don't want to go back there and live there. I go there sometimes to visit my friends, and they're trying to get out. They want to go (inaudible) education. They stay in school and get their grades so they can get out, and I ask them to (inaudible), and they rap about stuff so that they can get out of the 'hood, you know, trying to move up, you know, trying to go down.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

POWERS: Toback sees "Black and White" as a bulletin from the front lines of American racial consciousness, and as such it needs to be cut a bit of slack. Still, there's no excusing the film's many forms of shoddiness, the cheap, cruddy look in which nearly every shot is ineptly lit and composed, the dreadful performances by, among others, Houston and Schiffer, whose lines fall from their lips like lead sinkers, the repellent way Toback shoots the sexual encounter between Rich and the white girls, which says more about the filmmaker's leering middle-aged libido than anything else.

For all his interest in ideas, Toback is not a man who follows things through to the end. "Black and White" starts out as a portrait of race in the new millennium but winds up as little more than a scattershot collection of improvised scenes.

But a few of them are terrific, especially those with the gleefully reckless Robert Downey, Jr., who knows how to push his co-stars in unpredictable directions. In the movie's high point, Downey's character flutters suggestively around Mike Tyson, who's actually quite good at playing himself. Downey woos and goads Iron Mike, trying together get a rise from the muscular ex-champ. I won't tell you what happens, but it's a scene you'll remember long after you've forgotten the rest of the movie.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced by Phyllis Myers, Amy Salit, and Naomi Person, with Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing, research assistance from Brendan Noonam. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers reviews the new movie "Black & White."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; "Black & White"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers Reviews 'Black & White'
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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