Dec. 3, 2009


by Freya Manfred

What matters most? It's a foolish question because I'm hanging on,
just like you. No, I'm past hanging on. It's after midnight and I'm falling
toward four a.m., the best time for ghosts, terror, and lost hopes.

No one says anything of significance to me. I don't care if the President's
a two year old, and the Vice President's four. I don't care if you're
cashing in your stocks or building homes for the homeless.

I was a caring person. I would make soup and grow you many flowers.
I would enter your world, my hands open to catch your tears,
my lips on your lips in case we both went deaf and blind.

But I don't care about your birthday, or Christmas, or lover's lane,
or even you, not as much as I pretend. Ah, I was about to say,

"I don't care about the stars" -- but I had to stop my pen.
Sometimes, out in the silent black Wisconsin countryside
I glance up and see everything that's not on earth, glowing, pulsing,
each star so close to the next and yet so far away.

Oh, the stars. In lines and curves, with fainter, more mysterious
designs beyond, and again, beyond. The longer I look, the more I see,
and the more I see, the deeper the universe grows.

I have a long way to go, and I'm starting now --
out in the silent black Wisconsin countryside.

"Stars" by Freya Manfred, from Swimming with a Hundred Year Old Snapping Turtle. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who wrote: "It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence — that which makes its truth, its meaning — its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone." That's the Polish writer Joseph Conrad, (books by this author) born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857). By the time Joseph was 12, both his parents had died of tuberculosis.

So he went to live with an uncle, got a good education, and then went off to sea with the French merchant navy at age 17, and a few years later, joined the British marines. And it was his experiences at sea that inspired many of the events and characters he later wrote about: He was on a trip to Asia when the cargo caught fire and he had to navigate an open boat, which turned into the story "Youth"; he wrote a novel about his experience on the Narcissus; a spar on a ship fell and hit him, which also happened to Jim in Lord Jim; and in 1890, he went on a four-month trip up the Congo River, and was appalled by the colonial presence in the Belgian Congo, which he called "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of the human conscience." And that trip inspired his most famous novel, Heart of Darkness (1902).

It was on this day in 1947 that Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway. Williams (books by this author) wrote the play while he was living in an apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and he wrote and rewrote the script many times, and he kept changing the title. It was called The Moth, The Poker Night, and Blanche's Chair on the Moon. But finally he settled on A Streetcar Named Desire. Itis the story of Blanche DuBois, who goes to live with her sister Stella and Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski.

The Broadway play starred Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Marlon Brando as Stanley. Brando was only 23 years old — he had been acting on Broadway for a couple of years, but this role made him a star. The playwas shocking when it came out in 1947 — it was new to show sexuality and sexual violence onstage.

And the play went on to become a sensation. Tennessee Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for it, and Jessica Tandy won a Tony for her performance. It was made into a movie with almost all the original cast except Tandy, who was replaced by Vivien Leigh.

The Catholic Legion of Decency, though, was not a fan of A Streetcar Named Desire. They were especially opposed to the rape scene and the revelation that Blanche's ex-husband was bisexual, and they said that they would publicly denounce the film version if Williams didn't change it. So he made the parts about Blanche's husband's sexuality less explicit, and he refused to take out the rape scene, but he changed the film version so that Stella leaves Stanley, which she does not in the play.

Every spring in New Orleans, there is a Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, which next year will take place on March 24–28. The Festival features panels, readings, music, acting competitions, writing workshops, and the final and most famous event of this particular literary festival: the "Stella shouting contest," also known as the "Stell-off." In this competition, participants get a chance to imitate Marlon Brando in his famous scene where he passionately yells "Stelllllaaaaa!" from beneath his wife's window, begging her to return to him after he has beaten her. A few women participate in the shouting contest, some of them shouting "Stanley" instead of "Stella," but mostly the contestant are men. They have to bellow "Stella" (or "Stanley") three times, and there are points for how loud the shouting is but also for how angsty and passionate, how true to Marlon Brando. Many men outfit themselves in a white tank top like Brando wore in the play.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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