Aaron Belz

Aaron Belz’s most recent book of poems is Glitter Bomb (Persea, 2014). He lives in North Carolina, and his website is belz.net.  

PLAYA DE LOS COCOS

The problem with the tropics
is the problem with mankind:
there is no neat conclusion
to the analogy being presented.

In the same way, there is no
subsequent comparison that
makes more sense of what’s
been stated; the world’s

already as sensuous as it can be
and as huge with palm trees
and agave bushes along each
bright road and beach.

Too hot, too hot for white men,
even if they’re sandaled
and white-hatted, even if
they’re pale with protective cream

they melt into its breezes
and its nighttime, its music
of stray and wending walkways
and swaying wood-planked bridges.

They say last night, at a dead
bistro called Los Pirates,
where we’d stood last week
listening to rushes of rocks rolling

in and out with the surf,
a cop was shot to death,
and this the second such
in as many weeks at that place.

The problem with the tropics
is the problem of taking too long
to make an off-topic point
under an impossible sun.

 

 

kinderflauten

My feet, at the ends of my legs, do their job.
My face competently presents itself to others.

My hands do their job of grasping fruit
from my neighbor’s grove while my eyes

do their job of glancing back and forth.
My legs coordinate with my hips and feet to run

while my heart does its job of beating faster.
My teeth and jaws do their job of masticating,

and my tongue and throat do their jobs, too.
Men and women in town do their jobs.

Children don’t do their jobs. They’re lazy.
Horrible children who never work!

A child flautist approaches me slowly.
She is trying to trick me into falling asleep!

 

 

Untrending

Modernist poets had typewriters and smoke-filled coffee shops. Their observations, however quotidian, sparkled on the page. Their schools and movements existed in relative secrecy. Myths surrounded them.

Nowadays, coffee shops are smoke-free, and there are no secrets. Every whisper of a literary movement has its own Wikipedia page. Before a book is written, parts of it are posted online. Before it’s published, it’s promoted on social media. And, after it’s published, every review, every mincing spit in its direction, is shared globally. Pricewaterhouse Coopers has projected electronic book sales will overtake physical book sales by 2017.

Yet we continue to print warehouses full of new books. This could be due to the “power of a bookbook” as the viral Ikea video explains it. Could be digital natives’ apparent preference for print. Or it could be the result of nostalgia, that particularly nauseating, impossible nostalgia felt only by people who have access to everything. Maybe the more we leave the library and bookstore, the more keenly we feel the absence of those archaic delivery mechanisms. Libraries smell like reading.

In April, publisher and bookaholic Hugh McGuire published an essay that begins, “Last year, I read four books.” He goes on to confess that, upon opening a book, he discovers he needs “just a little something else. Something to tide me over. Something to scratch that little itch at the back of my mind— just a quick look at email on my iPhone; to write, and erase, a response to a funny Tweet from William Gibson.”

Poets of the new millennium face a compound dilemma. Not only are we distracted as readers, we’re flighty and prone to overshare as writers. Where once was a stable narrative center of desk, writing instrument, and ream of bond now proliferate laptop, tablet, smartphone, and flat panel display. Even cable and satellite programming are being supplanted by devices like Roku and Apple TV that offer streaming media subscriptions.

This isn’t a new world of too much going on; it’s a world of too much information and control. Too few accidents.

This used to be a world of a couple of strange coincidences a month. Sometimes a wild juxtaposition. One noticed them as one walked the neighborhood or sat in a public place. Now there are endless weird connections (wait, three people named Richard Clark have birthdays today?), countless micro-coincidences, and there’s nothing much to say about them but to turn them off. Close the browser window. Put the phone back in the pocket.

The same, shall we say, user experience affects poets—possibly even more acutely. It once was our job to weave symbolism into our texts. We were asked to make connections between fragile, temporary human life and transcendent realities. We were to discuss love—neither too enthusiastically nor too wearily, but in a way that summoned hope. We were advised not to turn sentimental or flowery. We were charged with being inventive and real. I’m recalling actual advice from Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, and other midcentury writers.

Now all of that seems as superfluous as a top hat and silk cravat, and not in a quaint way. Because where there is a proliferation of options, and options about options, there’s an absence of authentic experience. Where everything’s available, nothing’s necessary. Where there’s an overabundance of information, none of it is relevant, and nationally recognized poets teach courses titled “Wasting Time on the Internet.”

Imagine how valuable poetry would be if it were necessary, if its existence were tethered to purpose. If you were trapped in a burning building, and a book of poems explained how to escape, you’d read it. If you were serving a prison sentence, and poetry kept your soul alive, you’d read poetry. We also write from necessity. However surreal or froufrou poems might seem, if they’re rereadable, they were born of necessity. Part of their value is that they exist for a reason.

Maria Popova in her speech at last year’s Future of Storytelling conference argues that, in the new millennium, we have come to rely on “fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding. ‘Knowledge,’ Emerson wrote, ‘is the knowing that we can not know.’” Popova sees the role of storyteller (or as Plato and I would say, poet) as expanding, not diminishing, since people need guides to “information worth remembering and knowledge that matters—to understanding not only how the world works, but how it should work. And that requires a moral framework.”

I agree with Popova, but I think the role she’s identifying would require a kind of patience and discernment I once had but have lost due to immersion in interactive media. My first effort to regain it has included deleting Tumblr and Facebook, taking a step back from Twitter. These outlets, to me, feel like wraiths that suck out my secrets, my lies, my wit, and with all that my sense of what ought to be. Without those things, I can’t hope to produce authentic poems.

Maybe none of this is a big a deal. Honestly, I estimate only 3-5% of my poems to be “authentic”; and I don’t want to go back to libraries and bookmobiles. I do, however, want to be less sad about the way hyperconnectedness and ubiquitext have flattened form and all but deleted poetry—or at least poetry’s social value, since “poetry,” its advocates keep saying, has never been more abundant. My question for myself is, what practical steps can I take to be less sad?

I’ve discovered I can’t turn off the internet. Don’t even want to: Hyperconnectedness has an upside for writers, allowing book promotion, tour arrangement, and fundraising for various projects. But I can keep it in check, at least in terms of how I, personally, use it. Now, more than ever, I have to get hold of that old-fashioned Thoreauvian deliberateness. I need to mark out the hours of my day to reduce information-creep when information isn’t helpful. There should be space for lying on my back and looking at the ceiling, walking my dog, blowing the steam from a cup of coffee before taking a sip.

Speaking of Thoreau, I guess he felt a similar social and economic busyness, because he ended up at Walden Pond. So maybe none of this is even new. As humans we’re perennially challenged to live within limit, maintain moderate intake and modest output. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.”

A therapist in L.A. once said to me, “Aaron, you don’t have a psychological problem. You have a moral problem. Try reading Kierkegaard.”  Those words were an epiphany, suggesting I take ownership of my life rather than moving from diagnosis to diagnosis. They apply here just as well. Maybe it is my—or shall I say, our—failure to establish limits that is to blame for info-creep and flattened Netflix days. A power outage is always nice, but, speaking for myself, I won’t leave this to an act of God. And I won’t be threatened by the fact that “put down your phone” has become an annoying cliché.

I’ll put down my entire connection and resurface from time to time.

Photo Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

 

A Little Lightning

You think there’s more to this. Look:
When I look I see skeletons walking around.

I see ghosts of mammals gallivanting
with iPhones in and out of bookshops,

yesteryear’s biplanes spiraling
into mad cumulonimbus formations

where a little lightning lurks. You think
there’s more to this—money,

media, occasional bouts with true love,
but I tell you I see dust in the rafters

of it all, and the dust becomes us
just as your evening gown becomes you,

as your sparkly blue toenail polish turns
everybody on. You’re making choices

that aren’t helping me think through
things clearly. Your decisions aren’t

making my life any less haunted just as
your apparel and accessories appear

as winding sheets, a taper’s winding wax,
because you are no mean symbol of death;

you are death’s best friend forever.
How else might one explain your fingers,

long and jointed, gesturing in the dark?
How else might one explain your eyes,

amber and lit like nightlights, as if by
five watt bulbs, my Halloween beauty,

trick of perception and treat to the senses,
for we are just beginning to see. The scales

are falling from our eyes, and now
men are as trees walking around us.

#GrowCurator – A Word from Editor-in-Chief Aaron Belz

DONATE HERE

Natalie Race, now Natalie Whitaker, emailed me last August asking if I’d like to be “more involved” with The Curator, and I said, “I’m interested!” I had written two essays for The Curator and appreciated its ethos.

Two weeks later, after Natalie had clarified that she meant, “Would you like to be the editor?” I sent a fuller response that began, “One danger I see is that The Curator might be kind of boring. People of whatever faith creed finding good things in culture and talking about them just isn’t captivating to me, and I bet it isn’t captivating to others. I would probably take a kind of cantankerous editorial position.” After assuming the role I’m pretty sure I drove off several of the writers who’d been contributing. Anything but laid-back, not the best communicator, I felt like an ass and tried to resign. The Curator staff resisted; a couple months later, I tried again. Still, nothing.

The problem I’ve had and continue to have is that we (upper-middle-class, educated Westerners, for the most part) are a self-celebrating lot. We click “like” on each other, whether by private flattery or public review, and expect to be “liked” back. As a result we churn out culture that’s less threatening, less offensive and cutting, producing about one Allen Ginsberg for every 99 Anne Lamotts—one Nick Cave for every multitude of Mumfords. We’re less inclined to walk away from bullshit than we are to rationalize it, frame it in acceptable terms. We dismiss criticism as negativism. Faced with failure, we specialize. We love to admire beauty but don’t get around to discussing death. We don’t traffic in horror, the gnarly terror of the grave.

As far as I can tell, such conservatism is the opposite of what a Christian arts journal, or a Christian anything at all, should be about in this world. Because this is a world of deviltry and silliness, closer to Bunyan’s Vanity Fair and Lewis’s Narnia—one in which only bourgeois comfortableness can give rise to hundreds of best-selling memoirs. It’s a world of distorted values, too: We’re all Cake Boss when we ought to be The Wire. We’re Game of Thrones when we should be Gulag Archipelago. Thankfully we begin at a point of grace so radical it can say, “Forgive them, for they known not what they do.” Thankfully our lives are shot through with blessing so rich we can hardly begin to understand it.

So The Curator has had me, unfortunately and fortunately, as its graceless and often overly attentive editor for the past ten months. Yet I’m incredibly drawn to the core mission as stated by our founding editor Alissa Wilkinson, “to help create the world that ought to be.” I want to do this, want to find this place street by street, house by house, song by song. It’s not possible to create that place, though, if we can’t face this place. I’ve been thrilled, to that end, to have published new essays by Adam Joyce (“The Physics of Worship w/r/t DFW; “Wither Trickster”), Nathan Chang (“We Need To Talk About Mumford”), Brendan O’Donnell (“Dispatch from Idaho”), Josh Stevenson (“Fed with the Burger of Tears”), Lindsey Bright (“Life Without Water in Lumberton, NM”), Kristen Gaylord (“Stuff Christian College Kids Don’t Like”), Lyla Lindquist (“Forensics”), and Stef Russell (“The Legendary Sound”) and creative nonfiction writers like Luke Irwin (“Starbucks Lifestyle: A Poetic Reflection”) and L.L. Barkat (“Writing the Number of Meaning”). The common threads in these essays are that they’re unafraid to deal with difficult topics and that they’re obsessed with particulars. I’d love to keep pushing in this direction—creating the world that ought to be while fearlessly calling into question the one we currently inhabit.

If this is a worthy goal to you, would you consider contributing to our effort? It’s not a mission just to make The Curator better but to challenge our own assumptions about what’s appropriate for Christian journals in general. Can we be as cutting and playful as The Rumpus? Can we be as intelligent and unabashedly ironic as The Believer? I hope so, but even more than that I hope we can continue to create our own space with the terrific staff writers and contributors we already have. I’d like to keep embracing a sense of kingdom that is both divine and imaginative. I’d like us to grow, to flourish, in this direction, to give our particular sensibilities to the mission stated by Alissa Wilkinson in 2008. As far as I can tell, the only way to do that is to grow.

Aaron Belz,
Editor-in-chief

DONATE HERE

Life of an Animator

Aaron Belz: Hi, Tony.

Tony Bancroft: Hey Aaron. How are you doing this morning? It’s pretty early for me, I don’t know about you.

AB: It is a gorgeous day here, and I’m happy to be talking to you.

TB: Thanks.

AB:  Okay, so, first of all, if you want to tell me how you got started in animation, I’m looking for that moment—I had a moment when I felt called to be a writer—that moment in high school or earlier when you first began to earnestly pursue animation.

TB: Well, I think you know, it starts with my brother, Tom Bancroft, too, and we both grew up artists, and it was what we were competitive about, I guess. You know, a lot of brothers who are close in age tend to be competitive, it’s usually pushing each other, but for us it was drawing. At first it was with comic strips. We drew comic strips all throughout high school. And we loved creating characters and telling stories, and with comic strips it was just kind of a one-day gag, but we wanted to explore making a bigger, fuller story. It wasn’t until I went to City College—my brother and I both went to City College—when we met a guy who was doing these cool clay animated little shorts, and we did one with him, and then somehow we made a movie. We thought, if we could do this, we could bring these characters to life in clay, or particularly in sculpture, we could do it with the characters we loved to draw. So we looked into in the college, and they brought us from California to New York and then to Disney, and that was the thing that ignited the passion that I have for telling stories through animation, making them move, making them free, you know, dealing with performances and characters that come to life off the page. That’s what started it for me.

AB: That’s great. And so it was competition with your brother. That’s wonderful. When you were going through this process did you begin to see a connection between your Christian faith and your passion for animation? Was there a sense that you felt that one could inform the other?

TB: Well, yeah. In the first part of my journey, as a young Christian, I didn’t see that much of a connection. I thought, well, this is my art side that I do, I make these animated movies, and then I have my church/spiritual side that I share with friends and family. But as I developed, and as God developed me spiritually, I found that with true animation and storytelling I could present bigger concepts to the world at large. And through the Disney stuff I did that, but it also spurred me to leave Disney in the year 2000 and pursue my vision and to pursue my own animation studio where we did do family values, Christian value-based entertainment. And we had a series that we called Lenny and Sid that was in the Christian market that had good moral values themes that taught kids the Word of God. And so that’s kind of how I developed in my maturity was understanding that I could use my talents and abilities in animation more for Kingdom purposes.

AB: And that was that, that was with Toonacious, right?

TB: Yeah, correct.

AB: I read about that a little bit.

TB: So while I was doing my own company Toonacious, I think that inspired Tom to leave Disney also and start working with Big Idea on this stuff.

AB: I know you don’t work at Disney now, but what was your most satisfying project there? You don’t have to say Mulan. I know you’ve brought a number of characters to life,  so which was the most satisfying on the most levels for you?

TB: Well, you know, it sounds kind of hokey, I guess, but I do think of these characters that I help create as children of mine, it’s kind of hard to pick your favorite, but my two all-time favorite films to have worked on were Lion King and Mulan. And for two different reasons. Lion King was my first time supervising a character—Poomba, the warthog. And I brought him from day one almost wholly through the end of production. I brought him to life and was even involved in drawing him for merchandising elements and toys, things like that, after the movie, which was awesome. It was a great experience. But I was still just one character, that one cog in the greater wheel of creating the movie. And the reason I loved Mulan is that I was a part of the whole thing. Not just one character, but the whole story from the script all the way through final dailies, color output and post-production. I got to be part of making that whole movie, and I worked with some of the best artists in the world, and I got to see day-in and day-out into their creative process, and to me that was just a phenomenal experience, one that I’ll never be able to get again. But with the release of Mulan on Blu-ray on March 12, it’s a great anniversary for me to be able to reminisce about that movie experience.

AB: It’s—it may be hard to believe it’s already been fifteen years.

TB: Yeah. Yeah, it’s aging me for sure, but you know it’s great to look back. I enjoy it.

AB: Yeah. Well, speaking of aging you, you started quite early in your life in the business, and as I recall, I’m not looking at those notes right now, but I think you were one of the youngest directors in Disney’s history. Is that right?

TB: Yeah, that’s true. When I first started, when they offered me the job of directing Mulan I think I was 24 or 25? Something like that—

AB: Wow.

TB: But yeah, I was pretty young at the time. And I had a big goal, I had big plans. I think my brother and I, our mom instilled in us that feeling of ambition and shooting for very high goals, so when I first started working at Disney, I had this ten-year plan. I’m going to work through the system, and in ten years I’m going to be directing a feature. That was huge. That was a bold, bold plan. And somehow, through God’s grace or gift and blessing to me, I did it in five years, and that was unheard of at the time.

AB: Right. That’s crazy, actually, as you probably know now.

TB: [Laughs] I do. I look back and I think, oh gosh. How did I—how did God prepare me for that? And how did I do that? I don’t—I still don’t get it.

AB: Well, it’s a great movie. We’ve enjoyed watching it. I mean, my kids and I. But it’s not just for kids. You mentioned showing values or people that have values—Mulan is girl that saves her country, and she’s an unlikely hero. It’s just sort of the day of small things. She’s small, she’s a female in a male-dominated society. This seems like a message that has a Christian faith element to it, which is that salvation comes from the unexpected place. Were you conscious of that while you were making it? It’s not exactly like projecting Christian values, but it certainly does have a connection.

TB: Yeah. Yeah, there are a lot of connections on a spiritual level with Mulan’s journey and story. The fortunate thing for me was that it was another one of the God-blessing-things that I just did not expect, was that I found out when I came on the film that my co-director, Barry Cook, was also a believer. And I had known Barry for years and didn’t know that about him. I didn’t know that he—he was kind of a quiet believer at the time. When we first joined together and started talking about working together, we quickly discovered that we were both believers in Christ, and then we agreed early on that we would work together to try and make sure that Mulan had good core values and we didn’t overstep the bounds in our own belief system of, of elements of a story that could have gone dramatically different. We still had to be true to the culture and the era that we were presenting in the story of Mulan, which was generally Buddhist, and they worshiped their ancestors, things like that. They weren’t walking around as Christians in that day and environment Mulan would have been in. So, we couldn’t go to that level, but within that element and that structure of the story, it being historically accurate, we felt that those things that we could do we could stay with. It was those kinds of choices that Barry and I working together that we made we played with the element of ancestor worship. Glorifying in some kind of way because otherwise it made it more like a family reunion when the folks come up, and they’re hilarious, you know, they’re like this fighting family at a reunion, you know this dysfunctional family that we wanted to kind of have fun with.

AB: Right.

TB: So those were some of the choices where our spiritual side helped to steer the direction of the story and the choices that we made. But then above that, you know, I wanted to present a character who loved her family, who respected her family. That’s the motivation for she does what she does in her journey. And Mulan loves her father so much that she’s willing to sacrifice herself, because she doesn’t want to see him die, and she knows that he will if he goes off to war, so she takes his place and dresses as a man in a man-centered world and journeys as a girl to fight in the war. For me that was a great value to be able communicate to Western culture, this story and this character that did not change who she was. She did not need a prince to come in, she didn’t need a man to come in and tell her “I’m going to save you from your plight” and pull her up. It was all about her being true to who she was, who she was in her belief system, and doing it out of love for her father and her parents and her ancestors. That’s what I was passionate about getting across and sharing with my girls, a Disney girl that my girls could look up to. That’s what I felt passionate about.

AB: Good. That’s very helpful. Thank you so much, TB. I have couple more que—we only have a couple more minutes—but the fun quest—

TB: You’re my last interview. It’s okay if it goes over a little bit.

AB: Okay, good. Well, then, you could fill these questions up as much as you want. I would if I were you. [Both laugh] What animated movies do you love most that you’ve had no part in making or directing? I mean, what are your core texts?

TB: Well, we love, well, animation? I guess I’m a huge fan of Lady and the Tramp. The classic Disney film Lady and the Tramp is one of  my favorites, because I love what those animators did in creating unique personalities that are animals—they’re dogs—but they also speak to people that you would see in the mall or at church. They feel like human personalities within these dog characteristics. So I love how they anthropomorphized those dogs and created personalities for them from an animation standpoint. Now from the comic book geek and adventure fan in me, I just love Pixar’s The Incredibles. And I love that too because it’s such a family story. You know, not only is it superheroes, it’s about action. But I love that the core-based theme of it is about family and unity and always sticking together and you know those core values that are just so important to me and my kids, too. So those are a couple that I can think of off the top of my head, yeah.

AB: Okay, great. I’d like you to send us off with some advice for young people. You’ve been through this and you had an unusual experience in getting in so early in your life, but a couple of years ago my daughter Natalie and I visited Buddy Systems, which makes Robot Chicken, among other things.

TB: Oh, yeah.

AB: So we got to see stop motion in process, and we got to see their craftmaking studios and so forth and how it all works. She left those stages with a strong desire to get into animation. She’s already an artist, but she specifically wanted to get into stop motion. But in a general sense, if you have a gifted kid who isn’t rushed into the system the way you were, what advice would you give her? How would you tell her to continue to pursue her passion?

TB: Well one is, never give up. Never give up on that passion, because I believe strongly that God puts passion into our hearts and into our souls. It drives us for a reason and if we have a passion for art, we have a passion for entertainment or storytelling or whatever that is, that passion is there to be a fire to keep us going, and God wants us to pursue that. So there’s a definite reason that she has that passion. That comes from somewhere and it comes from God above. I believe that. And use it and to never give up on that. Now another thing that I tell kids all the time, kids that I talk to about animation and about art in general—is that it’s a skillset that needs to be fostered just like and practiced just like a sport. So a football player doesn’t get to be a better football player or throw the ball farther or more accurately by just doing it in the game. He has to practice and practice and practice the art of throwing that ball and the skillset that’s involved with that every single day, every single, just all the time, continually. And it’s the same with drawing, it’s the same with animation, it’s something that you have to do continually and perfect yourself and be critical about. How can I do this better? I want to do this better, so what do I need to learn? How do I do it better, better, better every single time? And that takes practice. So, practice makes perfect.

AB: That’s great. That’s a great word to end on, I appreciate your time, Tony, and I wish you the best. I look forward to speaking to your brother this afternoon.

TB: Yeah! Tell him I said hi, okay?

AB: I sure will. Thank you so much.

TB: You bet, man. Take care.

 
[The Curator thanks Marissa Branson for her help in preparing this interview.]

 

The Maker of Mulan’s Mushu Speaks

Aaron Belz:  Tom, nice to meet you. As the 15th-anniversary Blu-ray release of Mulan and Mulan 2 is about to come out, and you led the team that invented one of its most memorable characters, Mushu, you’re a person we’d like to hear from. Would you begin by telling me how you got started at Disney?

Tom Bancroft:  Haha, thanks. Nice to meet you too, Aaron. It was through a nine-week internship. Disney was going to all the major art schools in the country, and Cal Arts, where my brother Tony and I were enrolled, was always sort of their feeder for new artists. They were reaching out even wider for that internship because they wanted to see other art schools and see if they were up to par. So they ended up getting all these interns—there were about twenty of us that were chosen from different art schools across the country. Tony and I were in that group. It was during the time that they were making The Little Mermaid, so it was an exciting time to be at Disney. And then we both did get accepted—or given the jobs once the internship was over—so then we flew to Florida. I lived there for the next twelve years of my life. Most of my Disney career was there.

AB:   Great. As you know, many writers and readers of The Curator are Christians,  so I’m coming at this discussion with that in mind. When did you first become aware of a connection between your faith and your work as an animator? And, if you can elaborate, what’s the connection?

TB:  I’ve been a believer and a Christian since I was about fifteen. So for most of my artistic career, or all of it, really—especially professionally—I have been a Christian. But I guess because I worked on n family-friendly stuff for Disney for so many years I never really thought there would be a sort of a moral dilemma to what I was doing. Every job that anybody can have is going to have some kind of a—you know, a thing in it where at times you’re going to go. “You know, I don’t know if I agree with this,” or, “I’m not sure this is something I should work on.”  In my case I started realizing that while I loved the films I was working on at Disney— I loved the time and the people—towards the end I was just so focused on my career and my love of the films that I ended up climbing the corporate ladder. But I was putting in too many hours. I got so exhausted after Mulan, and then I was working on Tarzan and then a short film at night. I was basically saying yes to everything because I was so enamored with moving up and all those things that professionals get into…you know. But then I got sick.  I got viral meningitis and I really feel like this was something directly from God. I was in the hospital for a week and could’ve died. When I came out of that experience and was healthy again I went back to Disney. I went back to work.I didn’t have quite the same passion anymore. Going back, I looked at everything differently and it was an awakening that I needed. Because I realized, you know what? My relationship with God and with my family need to be the two most important things. Everything else is second and third to that. Within a month of that experience and being back at Disney,  out of a fluke kind of a situation, someone told me, “Oh yeah, there’s this little company called Big Idea Productions that makes VeggieTales, and they’re looking for people because they want to make their very first feature film.” The job that they were looking for was a programmer. It didn’t apply to me at all but I just got obsessed with it. I looked them up online—I wanted to know more about this company—I wanted to be a part of this company and was even willing to leave the company that I loved and this dream job that I had to do it. So I quit my job with Disney. I went a new direction. That was a huge,  huge life change for me. Now I do all kinds of quiet work in Nashville, still with Big Idea, and still with Disney and other clients, too. I’ve even illustrated a children’s Bible and things like that through these last ten to twelve years.

AB:  I wish—I would love to talk to you again at some point where we can really get into the VeggieTales side of things. But I want to come back to Mulan, since its Blu-ray release is the occasion for this discussion. So let’s talk for a second, about,particularly, your contribution to the making of Mushu. I understand there was a lot of flux in that process and the character kept morphing until you finally arrived at the tiny dragon. Want to tell that story?

TB: Yeah, you know when I came onto the film they said that I’d be the supervising animator for the character Mushu, but even then they hadn’t quite decided what Mushu was going to be, because it was so early in the process. So what that meant was that while other people were working on another film, I  was put on Mulan very early, almost a year before production. During that time the script was changing almost daily and Mushu at one point was going to be two characters—like two different dragons called Yin and Yang—and they would maybe meld together at the end and become a whole character. At one point it was going to be a phoenix and a dragon, so again two characters. But then as the film developed they started realizing—and this was well before Eddie Murphy was the voice — they didn’t know who the voice was going to be, so as they were trying to decide who that character was going to be I was doing character designs of an Asian dragon, you know, a Chinese dragon. I was doing my research on what kind of things the Chinese dragons had about them that was different than, say, a European dragon. To me it was very different. The Chinese dragons were very thin and snake-like while the European dragons were more heavy, thicker like a lizard or an alligator. And Disney had donethose kinds of dragons. They’d done the one in Sleeping Beauty and a few shorts and things. This was going to be the first time Disney had done a Chinese dragon so that was a part of my research and beyond even before we knew his personality. Once we started realizing his personality then I started nailing myself on what facial expressions and poses were going to make up his personality. We were looking at Joe Pesci and Richard Dreyfuss, and Michael Eisner made the final choice, Eddie Murphy, so that kind of set everything in place. We had a direction, and we knew what his personality was going to be—a smart aleck, a more urban kind of a character. So that was kind of the adventure that went on for Mushu.

AB:  It just struck me—this isn’t in my questions—did that character of Mushu eventually help DreamWorks come up with the donkey in Shrek? I mean, Eddie Murphy really knocked it out of the park with Mushu, I think. What do you think?

TB:  Well, I mean, would they have thought of Eddie Murphy doing the voice for Donkey without him having already done Mushu? I doubt it. We were the first ever to use Eddie as an animated voice for anything. He wasn’t somebody you normally would have thought for that, especially at that time.

AB:  Right. He’s the small sidekick in both films.

TB:  You can really look at the personality and the acting and everything in both characters. They are very similar. It’s just their outward appearance that isn’t. And you know, I did hear from some of my friends over at Dreamworks that they did look at the Mushu animations when they were making Donkey—probably just to see what facial expressions and actions we did. They definitely didn’t copy it—it wouldn’t translate at all. But you know, I think that’s an honor. I’ll take that as compliment.

AB: Did you get a chance to work with Eddie Murphy directly?

TB:  I got to see him do the voice—I went to two different voice recordings and watched him you know. That was good for me to see him act full on in character. I would be at my desk and have an audio tape, listening to Murphy over and over again, trying to figure figure out how Mushu was going to act this out, that out. I could actually see Murphy say those lines and see how he acted them out. That was a great learning experience. He was shown the character designs—he didn’t really have an opinion on what the character looked like, though. I mean I’m sure he just trusted Disney to that. He wasn’t a huge part of the process, I guess you could say. He just came in and did the voice recordings. But he certainly influenced me more than he’ll ever know. I had watched all of his SNL stuff and Trading Places and all his other movies and really tried to put a lot of him into the character.

AB:  One final question. Since your experience at Disney—and you’ve already started to talk about this—you worked with Big Idea. You’ve also written art instruction books. Would you care to tell our younger artists who are interested in animation how to pursue a professional calling because it probably seems like such a dream to many of them?

TB: Well, I mean, it is. For those who get the opportunity, it’s a dream come true. I think that’s still true today because so few get that opportunity. It’s such a hard thing to get into, so the thing that I suggest to people who are wanting to get into it is to treat it like—Tony and I, when we were young, we asked ourselves, “How do I compare to people doing it?” Not to our peers, other high school students. We compared ourselves to the pros. At the time, we wanted to be comic book strip artists, so we would look at Peanuts and Garfield and all the strips that were out at the time and say, “How does my comic strip look next to theirs?” And you need to do that even at a young age, and it can be devastating when you’re first starting out and still learning how to draw. But if you’re not really being honest with yourself and accepting how far you really have to go, or hopefully even celebrating how close you are, then you’re really not on that track. So I tell people, if you’re not drawing every day, yet you want to be an artist, then you’re not going to be a professional artist. Because that’s what it takes, a daily dedication to the work you want to do. And they say writers write, and I couldn’t be an Olympic swimmer unless I got into the pool every day, and those are kind of equivalents.

You know you hear the odd story of this actor, this famous actor, who was in his first play and discovered and made it, but that is super rare, and I would say that doesn’t happen in the art world. You don’t become a good artist accidentally, you really work at it. So even for computer animators it’s the same thing—even today. They need to be animating, and I think even computer animators still need to draw well. They need to communicate. You learn from drawing what you can apply to each computer animation.

AB:  Sage words. I hope my kids read this. Thanks for your time, Tom.

TB:  Thanks for the opportunity. It’s been a pleasure.

 

To learn more about Tom Bancroft, visit charactermentorstudio.com or his weekly webcomic, “Outnumbered.”

 

To His Bunny

 

You’re slightly odd-looking:
neither as pretty as you imagine
nor even as normal-featured.

Your permanent eyebrows arch
significantly when you lol
followed by snort and nasal flare,

your ears sloping unevenly
down the sides of your head—
your eyes red, snapshotted.

You’ve been told you’re
an absolute beaut—indeed,
a sweet and popular breed,

but they’re clicking like on all
the dwarf lop-ears nowadays.
Believe them, my bunny,

believe them as though
credulity were a form of piety.
Because it is. And you are,

if not glamorous, at least a star,
hopping from garden to garden
and famous in every warren.

New Values and a New Quest

On Sunday, Pixar’s Brave won a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film. We recently had a chance to talk with its producer, Katherine Serafian. Here’s what she had to say.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Aaron Belz: I have two daughters who have thick, wavy, red hair, so we really enjoyed watching Brave.

Katherine Sarafian: Ah… are they teenagers?

AB: One is thirteen, one is ten.

KS: Wow. You have redheaded ten- and thirteen-year-old daughters. You win. That’s great—I’m glad you liked it.

AB: I felt like it was a can’t-miss.

KS: Yeah, you’re our target audience!

AB: I think so! That leads nicely to my first couple of questions. Is this really just a story about amazing red hair?

KS: Ha ha. It’s about so much more. I think our initial character was based on a very spirited child, a real child. Brenda Chapman, one of the directors, had a daughter who was six years old and was very spirited and opinionated and feisty. Brenda and her daughter were butting heads even when her daughter was six, and she thought, “What kind of teenager will she be?” And out of that relationship came this story about a contentious relationship. The idea of making Merida a child of nature—“spirited, wild, untamed”—was built into the character design we had to get that mass of red hair in order to get it right.

AB: Good. So there is the symbolism of fieriness? Feistiness?

KS: Yeah. Plus that red just pops against that lush Scottish backdrop. She’s the center of the movie, so no matter what’s going on in the film or how much is happening, your eye can go right to Merida and that hair. In any moment, in any lighting situation you’ll know that this is the person you’re reckoning with. And yeah, definitely that spirited, untamed, wildness is meant to represent her teenageness as well.

AB: I see looking through your biography that you were involved with Toy Story, The Incredibles, and A Bug’s Life—movies that were meaningful to me as an adult. How much would you say Brave is targeted to adults, and what is it about these movies that speaks so well to adults?

KS: It’s interesting you mention The Incredibles, because that was another that’s a family story, and it was also rated PG. It’s a bit more intense, it goes to a darker place. I think that we definitely wanted to be able to reach all age ranges, from child through adult to older age, because we make these films for everyone. As filmmakers we tend to make movies that we would want to see, and the directors and I don’t just want to go to a kids’ movie, or just an adult movie. We want something we can enjoy with our families. We’re family people. So this parent-child relationship is really universally relatable, whether it’s mother-daughter, father-son, mother-son, whatever. This idea that a parent and a child maybe have different ideas about who each should be is something that I think people from all cultures can relate to. And I think that’s maybe why Brave had that appeal to older folks as well as to younger folks.

AB: Okay, because it’s really about family.

KS: It is, it’s a family love story, I mean she doesn’t run off with a Prince Charming at the end. Brave is not a romantic love story. It’s a story of family love and family connecting.

AB: I can’t help, and I’m sure a lot of viewers can’t help but compare Pixar’s first heroine to all the Disney princesses we’ve seen over the years. But in this movie there’s no prince, she doesn’t save the kingdom, there are no big battles, so it’s not Disney values. How would you describe the values of Brave?

KS: I think you set me up beautifully there by saying it’s not Disney. Merida’s not a Disney princess, she’s a Pixar heroine. This is a character cut from a very different cloth. We have great respect for the tradition of great princess films and fairy tales from Disney that we grew up watching. But we wanted to create a character that would be very Pixar which means very original, different, and more believable, like the kids we know or the kids we were in our teenage years. There was so much more going on in our lives than just who we were going to marry. Another interesting thing is that there’s no villain in this story. We didn’t put in a villain. We have a big scary bear, but Mordu is not really the villain. Merida is her own obstacle, and she makes her own mistakes and has to solve her own problems. That was important to us. It’s not magic that transforms the relationships—though there is some magic in the story—it’s Merida asking forgiveness, admitting she was wrong, facing up to who she is and what she did. Her growth is what changes the dynamic and is responsible for the final transformation. So these are all things that were appropriate for us in telling Pixar’s first folk tale, in a sincere way hearkening back to old fairy tales but doing something new with new values and a new quest for our heroine.

AB: I see you worked with John Lasseter on this movie, and I know him as the person who introduced me and my kids to Hayao Miyazaki, at the beginning of the Spirited Away DVD, the many, many, many times we’ve watched that.

KS: Great movie!

AB: Is there any influence of Miyazaki in either Brave or any of the other Pixar movies?

KS: Well I think we’re all huge fans of Miyazaki, and we as filmmakers are inspired by everything around us, everything we’ve seen in our lives. So in an indirect way, yes, of course there’s inspiration. But in a direct way, no, we were really trying to create something very, very original and different. It has whispers of elements you might see in other fairy tales, where there’s a bit of magic, and there’s a witch in the woods. But all these things are done in a completely new way. This is like no witch you’ve ever encountered. The wisps are built from a Scottish scientific phenomenon, these bog gases, so we created these little blue lights. Even in the story’s magic, everything is different. A human transforming into an animal has been done quite a bit in legend and folklore, and in Celtic mythology, but never exactly this way. So we wanted to take loose inspiration but nothing direct and do something very, very new.

AB: I make the Miyazaki connection partly because Miyazaki’s worlds morph so easily and are so full of spirits. Brave has a spiritual dimension which you mention, the Will o’ the Wisps, the little blue lights, footsteps directed. I remember one scene late in the movie where Merida’s headed in one direction and then the Will o’ the Wisps direct her in another. Can you comment on the influence of the supernatural in real life?

KS: It is a naturalistic, almost believable setting with human characters. And although they’re like humans you’ve never seen before—if you look at the proportions, they’re stylized, they’re Pixar-ized. We created a world in a naturalistic environment like The Incredibles. Bob, Mr. Incredible, would never survive in real life with those proportions—his legs are too small and his torso’s too big. We stylize the look of these characters so we can give viewers a meaningful and fresh and different experience with these appealing character designs. But the magic in the story is introduced on top of this naturalistic and more believable environment. We really didn’t want magic to overtake the story. It was meant to be just a little whisper of magic, because it’s true to the time period and the legends we found in Scotland. We went to Scotland, we did research. And you know they believed there was magic in everything, every little thing, every little story people told. Like, what’s that mountain over there? Oh, that’s the cursed mountain of such-and-such! It’s said that the witch comes down from that mountain every year. There are all these sort of folk tales and fairy tales and magical tales that they tell, that are part of their culture. So we wanted to weave a bit of that spirit into the movie, but we definitely did not want to use it as our major plot point, because we wanted to keep the core, driving factor the motivation for the character really her own flaws. So it’s really human mistakes, human error, and human emotion that gets us in and out of our problems in Brave, with the magic peppered throughout more to support the story and give it authenticity and originality.

AB: I read an interview recently, I think it was with you, about creative process, where you talk about the importance of letting go of stuff in revision, which can be tumultuous, being ready to revise and revise again, and that that was key to creative success. And I just wanted to ask, on a personal note, for you, Katherine: What is the play that keeps you childlike and creative?

KS: I’ve got to say, I would have had a different answer three or four years ago before I had kids. But I have two boys now, both born over the course of making Brave. If anything keeps you in touch with that childlike spirit and your sense of play, it’s that. I mean, I enjoy sports and swimming and exercise, and I breathe clean air whenever I can, get out of the office. But it’s really being with the kids and seeing the world through their eyes as they absorb and soak up every bit around them that’s fascinating. I’m still a new mom, I’ve only been at it three years, and every day I’m like wow. Just wow. The questions they ask! They keep me so delighted every day.

AB: Great answer, thank you so much. And thanks for your time.

KS: Thank you so much, Aaron. Nice to meet you.

At Least I Author My Own Disaster

“The past is a grotesque animal,” begins the eponymously titled Of Montreal song; “and in its eyes you see / how completely wrong you can be.” What follows is a beautiful, rich, long composition, one that’s as mesmerizing lyrically as it is musically.  Its lyrics might qualify for great poetry on their own, they so precisely describe the human condition.

The older I get the more I see that my own past is not merely a mistake or series of lapses in judgment but more of a whole cloth, a fabric of mistakenness. Having done wrong becomes having been wrong, there’s so much wrongness woven throughout my memory—throughout my self. And if I’m in the midst of a dark, bourbon-enhanced night of the soul, my past comes to life, bares its teeth at me. If it gets close enough to bite, I risk becoming the mistakes I’ve made, losing hope, and “like a dog returning to its vomit” (Proverbs 26) going back to them. It’s a vicious cycle that can remove the promise, the meaning from life, as the next lines of the song indicate:

The sun is out, it melts the snow that fell yesterday—

makes you wonder why it bothered.

The poetic beauty of this Of Montreal song—and the genius of Kevin Barnes, the band’s founder, lyricist and lead singer (basically the whole band)—lies in the way one very specific memory has come to symbolize “the past.” At a Swedish festival, he says, “I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / who could appreciate Georges Bataille.” Blame his impulsive neediness, his imaginative tendency to see more in the woman than was there, and maybe on both of their parts a tendency towards eroticism (hence the Bataille reference): he had allowed himself to develop a quick, deep attachment. And when he realizes they don’t quite see eye to eye on Bataille’s Story of the Eye, he understands that what he had taken for love was really only half a thing. What comes next is almost a gag reflex:

It’s so embarrassing to need someone like I do you—

How can I explain? I need you here—and not here, too.

Evidence of “how completely wrong you can be”: In no legitimate “fell in love” scenario is the loved one inexplicably both needed and not needed—nor is true love a source of shame. But you know, these connections tend to strike swiftly and with deadly accuracy. Barnes’ imagination becomes his rationalization, too:

I’m flunking out, I’m flunking out, I’m gone, I’m just gone;

but at least I author my own disaster.

Performance breakdown, and I don’t want to hear it.

I’m just not available. Things could be different, but they’re not.

This pattern of attachment and regret-filled detachment, like the “cruelty” in Bataille’s Story of the Eye, is “so predictable,” says Barnes. He recognizes he’s become a “perihelion” to her—a point of closest orbit—and muses, “sometimes I wonder if you’re mythologizing me like I do you.” Then he adds a damning confession: “We want our film to be beautiful, not realistic.”

Yet still—still—he swoons, “You’ve lived so brightly, you’ve altered everything” and in the end turns back to indulgence, profound and seemingly indefatigable:

I’m so touched by your goodness,

You make me feel so criminal—

How do you keep it together?

I’m all, all unraveled.

But you know, no matter where we are,

we’re always touching by underground wires.

Herein lies the immense appeal of this song, as if twelve minutes of glam rock/electronic pop perfection weren’t enough. We want to believe in a connection that always holds, no matter where we go, no matter what we do. It’s not just sexual or erotic, though it might begin that way. It’s a desire for spiritual presence, a need to be “touched by … goodness.” It’s a need for blessing. This is why wallowing in a lost past or reveling in the pain of an abortive romantic attachment makes us feel good. It’s like candy for the soul. “None of our secrets are physical now,” concludes Barnes, further emphasizing the transformation of random “cute girl” to goddess, object of worship.

My theory is that Barnes’ desire is a desire for God. Compare the song’s conclusion to Psalm 139: “You discern my thoughts from afar” writes David; “Where shall I go from your Spirit? / Or where shall I flee from your presence?” David wanted the same thing, to be loved in an inescapable way, always touching by underground wires. David knew this desire in a Godward sense, but earlier in his life he also had known it in its shadow sense. He, too, had fallen in love with a cute girl that he saw bathing on a nearby rooftop (2 Samuel 11) and chose beauty over the reality that she was married to one of his most faithful warriors. I’m sure that when her husband was sleeping on his doorstep, David felt the “need you here / and not here too” anxiety Barnes expresses in “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal.” David was looking for the same thing, discovered destructively in Bathsheba’s beauty and eventually known more dependably in God’s love.

We all want to be known, loved—given. Especially in a culture of ephemeral electronic communications and multiplying forms of social networking, we’re desperate for permanence. Instead we’re finding replicated versions of ourselves, mini-myths constructed around our own avatars, shrines of self-indulgence that look like other people. What we tend to forget is that the people we’re mythologizing actually are other people, children of parents, members of communities. Remember that although Barnes’ song spins into a kind of self-flagellating love-candy even the Cure never dreamed of, the whole song is submitted in evidence of “how completely wrong you can be.”

I’d revise that, come to think of it. “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” demonstrates how partly wrong you can be. It’s right to desire deep connection, to be loved by someone who’s “lived so brightly [they’ve] altered everything.” Everything needs to be altered in my own dark, memory-filled heart. Still, I’m not sure how to soldier through without a splash of bourbon now and then.

 

The Baddest Girl Around

Maybe Canadian-born rapper Drake has never read Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet: “Do not write love poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity.” Or maybe he has chosen to ignore it.

Drake was ranked #2 on MTV's Hottest MCs In The Game VII list in 2012.

In “Shut It Down” Drake writes, “Baby, you finer than your fine cousin / And your cousin fine, but she don’t have my heart beating in double time” and later asks, “Why do I feel like I found the One?” Drake was 24 when he composed these lines. He was by any definition, even T.S. Eliot’s in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a young poet. Yet his rhymes flow so easily.

In fact, according to a report at SOHH.com, Drake did not write “Shut It Down” with pen and paper, but rather composed it orally to lay over a beat in a studio. He created it out of the ether, as pure music, perhaps without Rilke or Eliot in mind at all.

Whatever their creator’s process or posture towards German Romanticism and Modernist criticism, the lyrics in “Shut It Down” are, arguably, rather dope. But are they among the dopest? A quick survey of love poetry written by male poets will help us find the answer. Let us journey backwards in time, beginning with Rilke himself, whose themes of blindness, shadow, nature, and the soul position him poorly to address a young woman in a nightclub:

It was a girl, really—there is a double joy

of poetry and music that she came from—

and I could see her glowing through her spring clothes:

he writes in “Sonnets to Orpheus.” But then: “she made a place to sleep inside my ear.” Should the young woman in the club decide to give this sonnet sequence a chance, she would discover that she has “no desire to be awake”; “When will she die?” asks the poet. “Do not be afraid to suffer,” he later writes. Scratch.

French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote poems often in prose and loaded with symbols, among them one particularly memorable love poem that begins, “Long, long let me breathe the fragrance of your hair. Let me plunge my face into it like a thirsty man into the water of a spring, and let me wave it like a scented handkerchief to stir memories in the air. If you only knew all that I see! all that I feel! all that I hear in your hair!”

The poem goes on and on about hair. By love-poetry standards, Baudelaire gets carried away and kills his subject. He’s enthralled, it would seem, not with the woman herself but with the memories and sentiments she evokes. By symbolizing her he objectifies her. The young woman in the club has heard this before and desires not to hear it again.

A century earlier Alexander Pope sat at his desk in a small, dingy attic room, “gnaw’d his pen, then dash’d it on the ground, / Sinking from thought to thought” (his own self-caricature from “The Dunciad”) while writing mostly satiric verse and, just occasionally, a love poem. “On a Certain Lady at Court” begins with a backhanded compliment:

I know a thing that ‘s most uncommon;

(Envy, be silent and attend!)

I know a reasonable Woman,

Handsome and witty, yet a Friend.

Not warped by Passion, awed by Rumour…

Then concludes by saying that this woman has one “fault”: “When all the World conspires to praise her, / The Woman’s deaf, and does not hear.” This form of compliment, though it presages Rodgers’ and Hart’s popular “The Lady Is A Tramp,” is just too witty for the woman in the club. Not to say she doesn’t get the wit, but to say it’s just too witty, too circumlocutory, whereas Drake gets straight to business: “These girls ain’t got nothin’ on you. / Say, baby, I had to mention / that if you were a star you’d be the one I’m searching for.”

Also in the 18th century, we find Robert Burns who lit up Scotland with not only sexy verse (sometimes downright pornographic) but scandal, and ultimately collapsed under the weight of his own continually multiplying passions. He gave the world

Oh my Luve’s like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June.

Oh my Luve’s like the melodie

That’s sweetly played in tune.

He promises to love her “Till a’ the seas gang dry … and the rocks melt wi’ the sun” and finally refers to her as “my only Luve,” but Burns loved love itself more than the woman to whom this poem is addressed, as Robert Crawford’s astute biography, The Bard, amply illustrates, should the woman in the club take time to check it out from a library and read it. Burns had numerous short affairs throughout his life, frequently paid for sex, and died in despair. A true gangsta.

A century before Pope and Burns (now we’re in the 1600s), the Metaphysical and Cavalier schools produced poems even more wit-driven—clever constructions that, like origami boats, are fun to unfold. They’re also provocative and extremely sexual. John Donne’s “The Flea,” which includes in its first stanza the memorable line “It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee” (hey now!) proceeds to craft an argument that the woman addressed should also be the woman undressed—an argument based in clever logic.

While many readers revel in Donne’s wit, and cherish his later religious verse, too, there’s no way his love poetry is not overconceived for today’s audience. The woman in the club won’t entertain a contrived, if humorous, argument. She’s busy laughing with her girlfriends and checking her iPhone.

So what about Robert Herrick? Same century, a bit more direct, he liked to describe clothes and appearances, attempted to define beauty, but wrote nary a poem directed toward a singular maid. There’s no sense of uniqueness of one person, one beloved, in either Herrick or Donne. They were mesmerized by their own inescapable logic.

It’s tempting to spend some time discussing the medieval Italian poets Petrarch and Dante who, a few centuries earlier, had written of their loves Laura and Beatrice. But these were women who served as muses only. The great Italian poets’ love, about which they sang and sang and sang, was unrequited. So they, like others mentioned here, wrote about love only, love’s effect, love’s halo, its glow—not about a singular other, a beloved, the way Drake does.

Get dressed, says Drake, speaking with authority to the woman he desires:

Put those [cussword] heels on and work it girl.

Let that mirror show you what you’re doing.

Put that [cussword] dress on and work it kind of vicious

like somebody’s taking pictures.

Shut it down, down, down,

you would shut it down, down, down

you be the baddest girl around, round, round,

and they notice, they notice.

You would shut it down, down, down.

Shut what down, though? This complex idiom connotes both taking complete control—as of a social situation, perhaps in a club or at a party—and giving complete satisfaction in a physical sense. Drake is saying that this amazing woman, should she get dressed and go out on the town, would not only silence her would-be competition (to borrow a rap-world idiom, “all them other hoes”) but deliver, to her mate, in this case Drake himself, the most compelling sort of physical intimacy possible between two humans. Drake is positing authentic spiritual and physical epiphany.

The romantic poets imagined this sort of experience in very different terms, alone in nature or in the darkling plains of their own souls. The 17th and 18th century poets, so full of ahems and asides, so blessed with their own rhetoric, threw darts in love’s outer rings. Maybe Burns nailed it, but he also badly failed it. Drake, though, hits the bulls-eye, and his song is precisely what the young woman at the club wants to—needs to, according to the design of her imago dei—hear. Conclusion: Drake’s poetry is indeed among the dopest.

It is not the dopest, however. There is one poet in history whose conception of love and ability to authoritatively address his lover exceed Drake’s—King Solomon. “The Song of Solomon” proceeds in much the same way as “Shut It Down,” almost point for point, but adds even more energy to the mix. Solomon compares his beloved to other hoes: “as a lily among brambles, / So is my love among the young women.” She, he imagines (the poem is structured as a dialog), sees him in a crowd “as an apple tree among the trees of the forest … distinguished among ten thousand.”

Solomon admires his beloved’s clothes, jewelry, perfume—her hair, eyes, lips, neck, torso, everything. She, too, desires him physically: “While the king was on his couch, / my nard gave forth its fragrance. / My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh / that lies between my breasts.” Loving him exhausts her to the point that she requests, “Sustain me with raisins; / refresh me with apples, / for I am sick with love” (so many double meanings here). She sees him as food, and she’s hungry for him. “His mouth is most sweet” she says. She “goes down to the nut orchard / to look at the blossoms of the valley” and becomes disoriented with desire. This language is both sexual and symbolic, plainspoken and complex.

From Solomon’s point of view, his beloved is “My dove, my perfect one, the only one … The young women saw her and called her blessed.” In short, she shuts it down. As a result, he wants to get with her. She responds in the affirmative, suggesting they “break out of this fake-[cussword] party” (to borrow a line from another rapper, Kanye West) and “go out early to the vineyards / and see whether the vines have budded, / whether the grape blossoms have opened / and the pomegranates are in bloom. / There I will give you my love.” Drake concludes his song along similar lines: “Take those [cussword] heels off, it’s worth it girl; / nothing is what I can picture you in, / so take that [cussword] dress off, I swear you won’t forget me. / You’ll be happy that you let me lay you down, down, down … / you still the baddest girl around, round, round.”

Solomon and Drake are not unique in their descriptions of how attraction becomes desire, desire becomes love, and love blossoms into euphoria. But they are doper than most in their positioning of the beloved as the one who, in both her finery and beauty, outshines all the others and shuts down the party. From now on, imply both poets, it’s just me and you. You are the one. It’s a message of hope and, as the rest of the Bible teaches, ultimate healing. The image of God in us needs total love and total satisfaction and will settle for no less. If we seek other loves, stopgaps, placeholders, we rain down destruction on ourselves.

For those of us of the Christian faith, what makes God’s love unique is that we believe he regards the Church as his bride, the exclusive, despite our earthly whoring. Drake reflects this in another song, “Practice,” in which he says “I taste pain and regret, / In your sweat /
You’ve been waiting for me, / I can tell that you been practicing
/…
All those other men were practice, they were practice / for me, for me, for me, for me.”

As full of sorrow as these lyrics are, they suggest the message of Hosea, in which God summons his beloved Israel from its worship of idols—false gods in place of the real one. “I will make you lie down in safety,” he says, forgiving them and assuming his position as only lover once again. This, too, might be a message the young woman at the club needs to hear, even as does the rest of humanity. Despite our falling so far short of the perfect lover for whom we were created, by His mercy, we’re still “the baddest girl around.”

I suspect English majors will quibble with the preceding argument as follows: “Drake is a rapper. His ‘poems,’ if you want to call them that, are verbally thin and embarrassingly direct. They lack artfulness. Maybe they’re entertaining, even somewhat moving, when accompanied by music, but Drake is no Rilke. And Drake is no Pope or Burns, crikey!” To which I will reply, you are correct. Drake might not find a place in a future edition of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, but he still has something that many English and American poets lack: cojones.

A second objection might be: “Drake, forreal? He’s not a one-woman man in real life!” And again, perhaps that’s right, but he has something else poets lack: charm. He writes, he says in a recent MTV interview, “just to make women feel special”—necessary, affirmed, wanted. He tells them, it’s okay to dress up and try to be noticed. Drake is as charming as Solomon, whose wives, it is said, numbered in the hundreds. We can appreciate that Drake, like Solomon and—fine, whatever—Burns before him, writes poems that celebrate “the one”—the perfect beloved whose love, requited, outshines all else. We should still be allowed to believe in that.