Monday, February 8, 2016

Lincoln Reloaded: Playwright Gary Moore Raps the Great Emancipator

Gary Moore in  Shanghai, 1988
     When the student is ready, the saying goes, the teacher will appear. 
     Surely this was the case when author Gary Moore took a teaching job he didn’t particularly want on a campus full of students who didn’t particularly want to be there themselves.
     The place was Shanghai. The year, 1988. 
     Moore, armed with 100 copies of the Gettysburg address, taught his students to rap. They showed him the drama of freedom in the streets. The rest, as they say as well, is history.
     Moore, an award-winning playwright, poet, novelist, and Dean Emeritus of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, has been enthralled with the life and work of Abraham Lincoln since his twenties. While he modestly refrains from calling himself a scholar or “conventional political historian,” more consumed with Lincoln’s character and philosophy than his policies, Moore’s insatiable research on the 16th president has informed much of his creative work, which has encompassed genres from rap opera to screenplays, from poetry to “naturalistic” fiction.
     Recently retired from academia, Moore, who earned an MA from Johns Hopkins, held faculty and administrative posts across Vermont, Maryland, and Pennsylvania; he spent two years teaching in Shanghai, and another two at Koc University in Istanbul, developing and teaching communications.  Relocated from Vermont to the west coast of sunny Puerto Rico, he now devotes his time to writing.
     That writing is about Lincoln.  But the man who emerges from Moore’s fertile imagination and empathetic interpretation isn’t simply the statesman carved in marble. Moore’s Lincoln raps and swaggers. He sleepwalks. He makes love high in the clouds above the White House. He espouses Buddhist philosophy.  In short, he has a heart huge as a giant’s.
     When asked what lessons we can learn from Lincoln today, Moore cites an early poem of the president’s, a funeral memorial, in which he asks God to “experience empathy” for the deceased; Lincoln goes so far as to ask God himself to live by the Golden Rule.  “Both are important needs of our time, “ says Moore, “unfortunately more tooted about than actualized, in affairs small and large.”
     Even more important to save today’s violent world, Moore says, is love. And it’s Lincoln’s love story the author richly envisions in his newly completed novel, Abe and Ann.

Tell us about “Burning in China,” your one-man play about your experiences in Shanghai during the turbulent year leading up to Tiananmen Square.

Burning in China now seems like a play about the human struggle toward the light that shines in darkness but when I first wrote it in a fever after fleeing a Chinese government crackdown following the Tiananmen revolt in 1989 it was popular with North American audiences for its authentic witnessing of passionate historical events.  I’d gone to China as an exchange professor from Johnson State College in August of 1988 but I went reluctantly because I was tired of teaching and deep into the writing of my first full-length verse drama, Beaver Falls, and I didn’t want to be distracted from it.  I had yet to become, as I am today, an addicted world traveler with frequent spells of wanderlust.

It turned out my students didn’t want to be at the university in Shanghai either.  They were adults, mid-career teachers, coming back to school to bolster their English as part of China’s ambitions in the global economy, but being an English teacher had no “face” at that time.  Their salaries were low, and the government forbade them to change jobs.  Their students who owned color televisions looked down on them.  Made for a damned slow classroom, I’m tellin ya.

Burning in China recounts my finally getting my repressed students to express themselves after I wrote and produced and performed with them in a bi-lingual rap opera called The Great Emancipator Meets The Monkey King.  In this musical drama, the first performance of rap music in the People’s Republic of China, a group of anonymous Victims of Fear cast off their masks of intimidation and dance in the music of freedom.  The rap opera got a standing ovation from an audience of 1700, I was interviewed for Shanghai radio and television, and our play was scheduled for another performance, on the national holiday of May 4, in a soccer stadium, for an audience of 50,000.

But.  In April the student movement started its pro-democracy rebellion against the government, in Shanghai and Beijing and a hundred other Chinese cities.  And by May there was no rap opera planned for a soccer stadium but a real opera in the streets where millions of victims of fear threw off their masks and danced and sang for the world they believed in.  Martial law was declared.  The tanks and soldiers fired in Tiananmen Square.  Foreigners were advised to leave the country and some of us resisted and stayed until we were afraid our Chinese friends might be punished for knowing us, and our friends sent us off saying, “You must tell the world what happened here!”

For several years audiences were eager for my account of what had happened, I think for its historic and journalistic value more than its art.  Twenty years later Caleb Deschanel, a five-time Academy Award nominee in Cinematography and a fine director as well, revived Burning… for the stage in New York with actor Jeff LeBeau standing in for me -- a younger, better-looking Gary Moore as my wife said.  We did some rewrites then to heighten the universal dimensions of the story and decrease its historical aspects for an audience most of whom were no longer people who had been glued to their televisions about all of that back in 1989. 

The play sold out at the New York International Fringe Festival and was recommended by the New York Times and the New Yorker, and the next year I left my wonderful job as Academic Dean at VCFA to go write full time on a sunny island.  

Rap Opera Cast and Crew

During that trip to China, you brought along 100 copies of the Gettysburg Address.
Ah, what a time!  I gave a lecture on Abraham Lincoln to my American Culture class of fifty students.  About a hundred fifty students came to see it in a theater-style lecture hall.  I closed by emphasizing Lincoln’s well-known formulation of democracy in the “Gettysburg Address” and then said that I had a hundred facsimile copies of that address in a box on the stage and they were welcome to take one on their way out. 

The stampede knocked me over and spilled my water pitcher and knocked the live microphone into the water spreading across the stage.  I yelled for help as I struggled up and ran to unplug the microphone before all of us on the watery stage got electrocuted for wanting democracy.  Students rushed out hiding the “Gettysburg Address” under their clothing as if it were dangerous.  A month later these words preceded a twenty-foot Goddess of Liberty in a demonstration of a million in downtown Shanghai: Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Early Campaign Portrait, Library of Congress

Why Lincoln?  

I hate to say it, but I had a vision.

I was 26 and just out of the Army and living with my macrobiotic astrologer girlfriend on the Lower East Side of New York.  Sound like the 60’s?  I’d taken my M.A. in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins before the army and now that I was out I wanted to get back to trying to be a poet but I had no idea what to write.  I was a lot better at seeming like a poet than being one.  One night the universe got even for my contradictory ambition and dithering.  It laid a vision on me. 

Now, I smoked my share of dope in those days, and read Tao Te Ching and the like, but at heart I’m a classical school kind of guy, not an Aquarian romantic.  I liked my astrologer girlfriend a lot, but I was skeptical of anything ever really happening because my Mercury was retrograde.  So I don’t say “vision” lightly.  And I say it with a sense of humor, and a sense of resignation because it’s the closest way I’ve been able to describe the strange thing that happened. 

While Jan was taking a bath at the back of the “railroad” apartment, I cleared the dinner dishes and sat down at the clean table with some paper and a pen.  Jan, the romantic God bless her, had lit candles for dinner, and for some reason I turned off the lamps in our living-dining room and sat down to write by candle-light.  I was playing at writing by candle-light and a thought came to me about the young Abraham Lincoln writing by candle-light and I described it in four or five simple sentences.  Another Lincoln scene came to me and I wrote it down.  Another.  In three pages of short scenes – splitting rails, giving speeches -- I worked my way through what I imagined of Lincoln’s growing up and being president and being shot.  I couldn’t remember ever taking a special interest in Lincoln, and I didn’t know anything about him except what we all read or heard in fourth grade or half-dozed through in American History class or whatever. 

Who is this guy? The next morning I went to the closest bookstore and bought my first Lincoln book and started it while I walked home and didn’t yet know that Lincoln too liked to read while he walked.  Luckily the book I found that first day of my fascination was one of those “his/her life in his/her own writings” books that gives you historical and biographical context for each letter or notebook entry or legislative bill or text of a speech, so I learned something about how the man lived and also how he thought as expressed in his own words.  Whoa! He writes like a poet, like a statesman, like a lawyer.  He’s funny and wise.  An oaf and an angel.  He told jokes about vomit and saved democracy.  His favorite story was about a bunch of wizards. 

What to read next?  I was gone.  In story hours at the Carnegie Library in my home town of Beaver Falls, I got hooked on the feeling of fairytale, legend, myth.  That’s how I saw this guy.  Right away.  Better than reality.  And I was gone into fifty years of reading about Lincoln, lecturing about Lincoln, writing about Lincoln.  My lectures have pretty much had their feet on the ground, but I never (OK, just about never) write about the naturalistic historical biographical Lincoln.  Always a Lincoln with an unexpected edge.  A 20-minute performance poem about Lincoln as a hundred foot giant appearing to a little boy to help him find his giant heart.  A play about Lincoln as the inheritor of a curse from his medieval ancestor Long Lankin.  A rap opera about Lincoln appearing in China to inspire the Victims of Fear. 

I’ve sometimes had to fight myself to write anything that’s not about Lincoln.  In the middle of writing my play Beaver Falls about a single mother in the 1960’s who saves herself and her child by shooting pool, this smooth-shooting black guy showed up to emancipate people from some prejudice, and he said his name was Lincoln.  OK.  I think you won’t be surprised if I tell you I don’t feel I do my Lincoln work because I choose to.  This Lincoln enchantment came to me, and still comes sometimes, and says, “Here it is, Gar, do it.” 

That’s how I came to write Abe and Ann after the success of my play Burning in China in New York had motivated me to find a literary form that’s not as evanescent as stage drama.  A novel?  A novel can be distributed to millions of people over ages of years, not just the ninety people you might get into the stiff little seats of your off-Broadway theater for a couple of weeks. What novel?  Well, there was this one Abraham Lincoln story that just needed told soooo bad.

Photo of Minnie Harms, said to closely resemble
Ann Rutledge.  Library of Congress.

Tell us about Abe and Ann.

I’ve said that sometimes the universe seems to send me my themes and characters and forms  -- poem, novel, play, verse drama, opera (Why couldn’t I be one of those writers who knew from the start he just wanted to write in one form and did it and did it and got good at it?), and I know many other writers agree with me that the best stuff is the stuff we don’t fully make up but seem to receive.  But there are times I’ve had to put my foot down.  Like when I was writing Abe and Ann. 

This novel tells the love story of the beardless and timid 20-something Abe Lincoln courting Ann Rutledge, the dazzling and literate red-haired daughter of the tavern keeper in an 1830 prairie village of “a hundred souls.”  This story, the outlines of which are historically authentic, didn’t need turned into a fairy tale because it’s magical in its unlikely nature.  My goal was to combine authenticity and lyricism to show the passion the couple must have shared for witnesses to tell us that Lincoln threw himself on her grave in a rainstorm when she was taken from him.  So while my inclination has always been to write in extremes and go beyond, I vowed to tell Abe and Ann in a naturalistic way while letting its legendary qualities speak for themselves.  It hurt me to revise out a wind that wanted to talk directly to Ann behind the barn or delete pages of dialogue between Abe and the Devil in a forsaken time.  But I did it. 

My real but legendary naturalistic novel is now in the hands of the real but legendary New York agent Marly Rusoff who’s looking for the one good editor it needs to need it.  Will it be a hard sell?  Historical and biographical novels have a big market.  One of my friends who writes vivid and deep human stories that just happen to be in the nineteenth century just got her third six-figure advance.  But Abe and Ann doesn’t have the feel of epic historical context.  It’s a close tale of two young people who love books and are looking for more and find each other in an illiterate frontier village in an Illinois oak grove.  It’s a ballad, not an epic.  Some of my early readers tell me that my novel Abe and Ann is actually a poem, and I like that response. 

You’ve said, “Historical characters and events are vessels we fill with meaning according to our changing needs.” Why do we need Lincoln today?

When I take questions after lecturing on Lincoln someone usually asks what Lincoln would do if he came back?  Or could do?  I’d counsel him to first get a college degree based on experiential learning.  For his thesis he should write a self-help book that will give him a platform for lucrative consulting contracts, international acclaim, and an opportunity to affect the fate of life of Earth.  Why mess around? 
Seriously, the thing I think we need most from Lincoln’s skill set is his compassion for those who opposed him.  We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,” he told the South.  He spoke of Southerners who wanted to kill him as errant brothers.  We are in a time of increasing intolerance.  Respect for the other is declining, empathy is scorned.  Lincoln said the Southerners in rebellion were but what we would be if we were in their place.  Compassion is not an easy message to spread when so many are so frightened, angry, violent, and cruel.  We need Lincoln’s patience and determination as well as his open heart.

I love the message of Lincoln’s favorite story, which primacy means a lot I think when you consider that the man knew a great great number of stories, he whom some suggest might have been an even better story teller than he was a statesman.  I won’t give the full telling here, but I can summarize by saying that when the king’s assembled wizards bring him the briefest statement of the greatest wisdom on Earth, it’s this:  This too shall pass.  “How cautioning,” Lincoln used to add, “in our hour of pride.  How comforting in our hour of affliction.” 

Everything vanishes.  The good, the bad, parents, children, money, love, flowers, jobs, the Earth and moon and stars, life.  And death?  If we can fully accept impermanence we can live happily in a world of joys and losses.  Buddhist wisdom.  From Abraham Lincoln?  Who knew?  Important for today?  Always.

Is poetry your first love? 

Yes.  And maybe my last.  It’s of course been an affair with joys and woes. I got disappointed with literary poetry in my thirties – all that scheming to create little Chinese puzzles of interlocked and ambiguous images about small moments of loss – all that art for art’s sake formalism.  I read some complex quiet poetry at the Barre Opera House one night and got a smattering of applause compared with the foot-stomping ovation the boys from Waterbury got with their cover of “Bungalo Bill.”  I vowed to write poetry that was immediately accessible and moving.  This led me to writing narrative poetry and calling for the return of the oral tradition.   

Rap and slams hadn’t yet popularized performance poetry, or maybe I should say “re-popularized” it, because oral tradition poetry of course preceded literary poetry by thousand of years and gave birth to it. In my own way I started recapitulating the history of literary form.  I wrote narrative poems for performance until I started hearing more than one voice and Lo! the play was invented.  Writing extended stories in dramatic form led to writing extended stories in novels.  Two novels in, I felt a combination of security and late-age abandon that let me to go back to writing poetry as well.  Or is it desperation?  I’m getting a book of poems called Sojourner ready for publication.  These poems celebrate the vanishing beauties of our time passing through life.  Many of them are about my erotic relationship with the stars.  Why mess around?  

You spend your days in Puerto Rico, looking out over the ocean, which you call muse and companion. In your poem, “The Lonely Ocean,” the narrator relates to the sea in this way: “As if it were your soul vast flat and gray / Willing but not able to hide all you’ve done." What is the ocean unearthing for you now?

I’m writing a new novel with no naturalism pledge and no chains of historical authenticity.  Hooray!  It’s got sex, drugs, global travel, art smuggling, and mysticism.  It’s called The Lost Venus.  As of page 70, it has no appearance by Abraham Lincoln.
As well, I have a hankering to produce a play in an ancient Greek theater a mile up in the cloud at Termessos in Turkey.  The play, Beaver Falls, will be a modern rust-belt single mother story set in the ancient theater’s atmosphere of tragic destiny.  The play is finished, it’s in verse, and it seems to me the best thing I’ve written.  It won the Artist Fellowship of the Vermont Arts Council and Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier did 13 performances of it for inspired and weeping audiences.  Investors are welcome.

I have to ask you about Joe Namath. 

I grew up with Joe in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.  I was too small for the high school football team but a pretty fair athlete who played plenty of pick-up baseball and basketball and football with Joe when we were all neighborhood kids at the school yard.  One night at 37th street where a tree marked the goal, Joey – who I think had picked me first to show his varsity buddies he could beat them even with skinny little wannabees – told me in the huddle to run straight down to the tree and cut left behind it and when I came out the other side the ball would be in my hands.  I did and it was.  You see the true dimensions.  But there is this fact: I caught a touchdown pass from Joe Namath.  

This interview appears, in abbreviated form, in the February 2016 issue of The North Star Monthly.  

See Gary Moore's website for more on "Burning in China" --