Aug 11, 2014

The Word Word

My first exposure to Dennis Miles' work was inauspicious: His one-act Rosa Mundy, about a strange young woman who alternately lusted for and killed visitors to her lonely home, was staged as part of a one-act festival at, if memory serves, Theatre Geo on Highland Ave. It was simpering and soapy, as I recall. But then I happened to see it again at the far edgier Theatre of NOTE on Cahuenga, in a production by director Diane Robinson that brought out the work's odd intensity and intense oddness; I remember in particular the sight of blowzy Elaina McBroom riding dementedly on a tricycle, a dangerous but weirdly endearing girl-child. It was like a work reborn, and I never took Miles--or my first impressions--for granted again.

His plays were not always so outre, but the full range of his work seemed to find an extremely sympathetic home at NOTE, where the actors and directors had (and still do, by most accounts) a shared interpretive nimbleness, and the space itself seems to encourage open-ended experimentation (I wrote roughly as much here). I regret that I didn't see more of Dennis' work, but I remember quite fondly the last play of his I saw, Destronelli, and not simply as an acting vehicle for the late, great Pamela Gordon in all her gritty-pixie glory. In a column for Back Stage West at the time, I called it Miles' "most accessible work yet," and said that its "combination of provocation, puzzlement, perversity, and unsentimental tenderness reminded me of Albee."

I only spoke with Dennis a few times, and he seemed a dear, sweet man. I believe he made his living working at an AIDS research project at UCLA. In the years since I left L.A., we corresponded by email, and he sent me some lovely homemade postcards from his travels. More significantly, he asked me to write music for songs in two of his shows. One was for a song called "Roosterfish" in a play called Sona Tera Roman Hess ("my unintentional version of Phaedra," as he put it to me). Here's my demo of the song, which I sent to the production with sheet music, though I never heard how it sounded sung by the cast:

The other tune was for a show, never produced as far as I know, called Tivoli Tsadik, for which Dennis had written a bitter, digressive song called "Ballad of the Squanderer." He was expressly looking for a Kurt Weill sound, and I was happy to oblige:

Dennis died from lung cancer on Sunday, and with his passing the world lost a truly original voice, a weird and dark and stubbornly lyrical poet/playwright whose work was known by all too few; such are the rewards of playwriting in a film capital. This quote from Dennis' interview at Adam Szymowicz's blog captures his independence, and his utterly unpretentious sense of artistic calling:
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: I don't have any. I don't listen to advice myself, so I do my best not to tell people what might work for them. Artistic writing is an organic endeavor, it is one's life, there's no advice for living out your life, artistic writing is a natural emanation of one's experiences and one's singular mind.
In one of our back-and-forths about his lyrics, in which I tried to steer him to imitate more standard meters and forms, he confessed, "I really don't think looking at/listening to songs will teach me to write you a good lyric...I don't think that's how I learn. What I do, for whatever it's worth, comes out of some unschooled, unlearned, automatic place, and if I set out to write a sonnet, let's say, I would bollocks it for sure."

And in this quote from a feature on his play Von Lutz, he said this of his work: "I am appalled by the plays I write...I like to blame Antonin Artaud, but no one forced me to read him. There is beauty at that edge between what's funny and what's horrendous." I'd like to celebrate Dennis and his vision with a poem he emailed me in January of 2006, with the subject line, "My version of a happy poem."

by Dennis Miles

To write just to write.
To write the word word. To write a few words.
To wr.. right a mistake, righten a mistake.
To engage in a rite of writing.
To turn from my right to my
right away.
Write away, swift over the page.
To wright a smith over the hearth of earth.
Wratten, wretten, written, wrotten, wrutten
A game hen and a wren.
To write a caged bird to liberate,
To deliberate over the written word.
To be the writer of a word. Of the word word.
To have a written word for supper any day.
Across the room, across the page.
You can’t tell anymore who among us talks alone to himself.
You have never been able to tell who among us writes alone to himself.
A written word spoken as it is said.
It. Word. The written word. It. They. Two words.
To write just to write, because I’m human and I can…
No more meaningless than…
Right now some one plots to obliterate
the innocence that, amidst the deviltry, lives naively in the West.
And don’t forget wrest, which does not rest. An action verb.
Writ of habeas corpus. Written on the wind which is this page.
Written for the future. Written on a carousel.
Who is the king of nothingness: obliterate, literate, liberate, deliberate.
I write the word I wrote. I wrote the word I’ve written. I’ve written the word wrote. I wrote it. I wrought it. I brought it forth like a birth---
Oh, celebrate, I celebrate the word word


Jennie Webb said...

Thanks so much for this, Rob.

Cathy Carlton said...

Thanks so much, Rob. Broken hearts coast to coast.