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Love, Cinema, Writing, Race, & Death

By Prageeta Sharma


It was my birthday this past weekend and I’m recovering from a busy trip to Butte, Montana where I was hosted by poet and scholar Isabel Sobral Campos, at Montana Tech, and was invited to talk about writing in the West, particularly to talk about race and creative writing. I handed out poems I knew from the Poetry Foundation website by Sherwin Bitsui, Bhanu Kapil, M.L. Smoker, and Claudia Rankine. And told the group about a conference that Joanna Klink and I hosted on race, creative writing, and literary studies. It has since turned into an association—with an incredible board of writers, scholars, artists, and thinkers—and I will talk more about that in another blog. Upon arrival back to Missoula, I had a party on Friday and was surrounded by an astonishingly kind and spirited group of friends. I feel blessed by it. And given last year’s birthday was the worst of my life, I’m shocked by how different one year can be. I feel some lightness that I never thought I could feel, followed (naturally) by the painful awareness that it could not be shared with Dale, but I’m trying to understand that grieving creates this thought process and a set of feelings that work this way.

During the first several months of grieving I would have despised and loathed anybody who wrote about feeling lightness after death, but I am doing it now because I think it’s important to document the truth of what death and widowhood does. It takes you down a hole of hell. It changes you and it might change you to see or endure in ways that feel raw and complicated, and maybe you never get out of the hole, that happens for sure. But you can also feel its deep pain—feel humiliated by how your feelings about the world shift, change, obstruct, and teach you about how you learn to measure time.

Also, sometimes a very quick illness followed by death reminds you how precious time is (I know this sounds like a cliché and a blog doesn’t give me enough time to get more graceful with my wording. Please forgive me). After Dale received his diagnosis he spent much of the time worried about his family, but also wishing he had five more years to make art and complete projects. This end-of-life wish resonated with me and taught me to process and prioritize differently. This is why lightness, when felt, is illuminating—it teaches me that it can exist. And mind you, I think Dale had a premonition of his death because he left me with a nearly-completed memoir (he started writing it about a year and a half prior to his diagnosis, about the time he had entered stage four of his cancer without knowing it), numerous compositions and art videos, and witty, scrupulously-drawn and sketched self-portraits of him as a cow (he was also a gifted draughtsman and visual artist). His memoir has a great title: When you Could Smoke on Airplanes. He always valorized now-banned activities of yesteryears; he did so with such gusto.

Without gusto but a desire to muster it, I’ve started teaching again. I am teaching my class on Film, Poetry and the Avant-Garde for the second time. Dale and I taught this course together—he would be my guest visitor on several occasions—and it’s the first time I’m teaching it without him. I feel the loss deeply—even in putting the syllabus together.

He was overjoyed teaching our students the cut-up form originating with Brion Gysin & William Burroughs and its influence on so many writers, artists, composers, and filmmakers. I can see these influences in his work. He taught me to love so many artists, painters, and musicians. His admiration for Laurie Anderson, The Monkees, Spalding Gray, Hal Hartley, and David Lynch felt primary and the transferred enthusiasm of them to me was infectious. And I could see how they all informed his work.

I will celebrate Dale’s work in this blog. I think it’s an endless task to describe feelings of loneliness you have when you lose someone, but there’s great joy in honoring what they left behind. This is an obvious point to make, but when you are left to archive and collect and examine your beloved’s works without them you feel all of the intensity of who they are in such concentrated way. You need to share it and keep it alive.

There are three pieces I adore of his (among many others). This one is my favorite because it forces you to engage with literary and aesthetic theory. It’s also hilarious.


In this one, he records his friend Jeffrey Anderson lecturing on the concept of Freud’s uncanny and then edits the conversation into a jumpy, “faux-lecture” (as Dale would call it) piece that actually engages with deep, mysterious tonal registers and summons a wonderful abstract and poignant sense of the concept.

We discussed his wish to extend this sort of project, for example, to interview all the scholars (my colleagues) in the UM English department and create pieces that could condense like this one and synthesize the “essence” and creativity inherent in academic scholarship, which we felt goes unnoticed sometimes because of the way in which academic output/discourse must appear dry and sometimes “uncreative,” even when it’s so illuminatingly abstract. Ultimately, we wanted to liberate the “faux-lecture” and transform it to its creative iteration.


Dale’s work processed the esoteric and what gave him both pause and wonder. In “Red State” (link below) he explores the pauses and ambient noises of lone speakers on conservative radio. Here’s his statement so you have a full sense of what he was doing here. I add it because we are still heading (of course) in this disturbing direction and Dale would be both shocked and mystified (equally) by the offensive, disturbing (and NOISY) rhetoric of Trump, and no doubt he would be following Tina Fey in making work about that incomprehensible set of utterances spewed by Sarah Palin. And as he points out, we continue to fail at unity, and it’s continuing to be scary.

On June 28, 2012 The SCOTUS upheld The Affordable Healthcare Act (referred to as “Obamacare” in populist discourse) as constitutional. That day I was driving around and surfing conservative radio stations using my iPhone. One particularly somber voice was lamenting the decision in tones ranging from dismissive disregard to a kind of apocalyptic resignation regarding “the end of America as we know it.” I was able to record a 20-minute sample of his missive.

The vox was then resampled and de/re-constructed into a collection of his most recurrent pontifications, editing out most of the critical rhetoric. Additional tracks were developed using the ubiquitous white noise of the low-end broadcast, tonal composition, and an improvisational performance by myself and percussionist GRAHAM WOOLEY. The resulting sonics formed the basework for REDSTATE.

I was unable to determine the name of the broadcaster or his location. The station itself was identified only as “Redstate.”

The piece is undeniably political at its core, but is not meant to be satirical. The loneliness and implied distance of a single voice in the dark warm American airwaves suggest more to me than simple politic. I prefer instead to see cut-up technique and sonic sculpture as a method to expose the humanity inside of this found object, and to re-introduce it to the public as a nodal point in the continuing polarization of a failing unity.

Dale Sherrard,

September 28, 2012


Speaking of the “dark warm American airwaves,” and the Avant-Garde from which Dale spoke and created work, tomorrow, I am teaching out of these airwaves the brooding and dynamic Cassevetes, in particular his extraordinary masterpiece Shadows. I will end with a poem I wrote several years ago. Dale liked this poem and liked its historical reach into Missoula’s eccentric scholars and their academic work (not faux-lecturing!) (not only did we have Richard Hugo but we did have Leslie Fiedler). I wrote this before Dale and I ended this class (a class on Cassavetes and Polanski) with a screening and discussion of Cassevetes Husbands, which we always likened to Mad Men and felt the influence (grit, reality, sharp masculine masks to hide vulnerability and pain). After Dale died I found his notes on Husbands—not realizing they were notes (I thought it was a confession!) on the film with a cursory list of self-destructive attributes. I was at first shocked then overcome with amusement (anyone who has seen the film can join me in the laugh). Cassevetes has always been a genius with whom Dale and I admired and I see the strength and darkness and art of men like Dale and Cassevetes (and, of course, Spalding Gray) whose work exemplifies their plight to be authentic and delve into everything of interest with the force of a mad man.

Shadows affects me with its deep exploration of racial hierarchies and I’m thinking of all the diverse figures that enriched Missoula’s institutions. Leslie Fiedler, a great, radical scholar makes me think of Dale—in his radicalness—departing the world now, but he’s in some alternate universe of Mad Men and is still somewhere smoking on airplanes. And there’s always love, death, Adorno, and some turntable somewhere plus Charles Mingus and a gin & tonic.


Love, Death, and Shadows (1959) in Missoula

All errant glances looking off-frame or directly at you audience in
        unresolved fury.
I teach in our concave classroom, with its ascending wooden,
       hard-backed chairs,

and our flimsy broken shade with a stuck pull-cord. Crimson-light
       glares the room
so we squint to watch. I stand at a too-large podium in a haunted

I’ve been told some ghost stories and I’ve been known to share radical
       ideas that were experienced as uncomfortable. Leslie Fiedler
       may have been in the same room,

reconstructing the Eros and Thanatos, the interracial love, he too
in essays. The antimarriage: freeing the protagonists of classic
       American fiction from

the adult entanglements of heterosexual passion, marriage, and
       domestic obligations…

And he is writing in the 1950s and Shadows shot in New York
       where Fiedler’s

publisher lives, but Fiedler is here for some of the decade, in his English
       department understanding the racial conflicts and homoeroticism
       before he writes

No! in Thunder. After Shadows we talk about the racial hierarchy of
       the characters and the theme of passing; what about
       hypodescent and, here, what do we make

of blood-quantum, too. And we haven’t gotten to the heteronormative
       white culture of the literary scene at the high-brow party. And
       Leila Goldoni feels she can

be Leila and we are not certain if she can or not. What kind of
can she really have, or is it character immersion? Who among us in this
       classroom is

African American? Nobody. We finish the conversation about
       improvisation acting and “natural feelings.” We agree
       how much we like Charles Mingus and Shifi Hadi.

We talk about poetics and code switching and there is an elated sense of
       connection I start to feel. I want them to know that
       the heap of film on Cassavetes

floor was the poem representing his unknowable reach and he was
       going to have to
take on its contradictions without knowing 21st century critical race
       theory and let

his characters talk through their ideas, assertions, and pain. The
       interruptions on
screen: characters’ eyebrows, their compositional faces studied, their
       acting & finish

of a film that, in its early disappearance, its second version, screened
       with Pull My
still gave its transitions their moving edges and let Benny and
       Leila and Hugh,

as Caylin said in class, give us a cohesive family; their tenderness
       anchors so much

integration during segregation. And it was here with Fiedler coming
       back to his raft
and leaving the buffaloes of Montana for Buffalo, New York. A place
       where poets

found poetics in the future somehow; why are the themes of
haunting us here? or befuddling? We have poets too. Are we still
       resisting remote

adorations & narrativity’s formula for what couldn’t be said about
       love and death
in 1959 and what still can’t be said now? Must it be through the
       improvisation that

we find the substance and look at its ghost-sightings and who wrote or
       shot film of whom? and why? And why do I stand here
       feeling like it’s all so hard to hold onto?

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Thursday, February 11th, 2016 by Prageeta Sharma.