Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Behind the Scenes: Janet Coleman

There are many incredible artists involved in our seven hour radio broadcast, actors, singers, producers, writers, journalists and historians. All that we ask is that you devote your life to creating art. A small thing really. Radio Bloomsday: Artists interpret Ulysses.

The amazing Janet Coleman is our artistic director. Her weekly radio broadcasts, Cat Radio Cafe and The Next Hour are a one of a kind wellspring of inspiring information about what it takes to live an artist's life and to create work that influences and inspires the world.

Janet is responsible for bringing Radio Bloomsday to air on WBAI as well as
making the broadcast available throughout the Pacifica Network. She also is involved with the artistic content of the program and the casting of the show, inviting extraordinary artists such as Kate Valk, Jim Fletcher, Richard Maxwell, Bob Dishy and Judy Graubart to be part of our broadcast. This year, she has coordinated the addition of Los Angeles actors Paul Dooley and Bob Odenkirk to our ever growing (inter)national broadcast.

Janet is an author and actor. Her publications include The Compass the definitive history of improvisational theatre in America; and (with Al Young) Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs. She is a founding producer of the seminal off-off Broadway's Loft Theatre Workshop. She appeared as Evelyn Lincoln in the film 13 Days, as one of the Believers in Richard Maxwell’s ADS, and as Emily Ann Andrews in David Dozer's long-running radio comedy series, Poisoned Arts. Her articles, stories and reviews have appeared in such publications as Vanity Fair, New York, the Village Voice, Elle, Esquire, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Ploughshares, Fence and Global City Review. She is a Contributing Editor to The Bloomsbury Review .

I interview Janet below:

How did you first get involved in doing cultural programming at WBAI?

I started at WBAI as an actress on my husband (pictured at left with Janet) David Dozer's production comedy series, Poisoned Arts, which began in the late Sixties under the direction of Otis MacClay, his college friend who also still works with Pacifica. When Poisoned Arts returned to the air in the early Nineties, I also got involved in live radio and actually producing radio programs myself. David and I now co-host an arts program called Cat Radio Cafe and since early in the Bush years have produced a program of political satire called CCCP: The Monthly Laughing Nightmare.

When I became WBAI Arts Director in 2004, I needed to fill a 55 minute cultural programming slot and invited artists I admired to host -- people who I knew who could talk eloquently -- alone or with others -- for 55 minutes. Gore Vidal did a number of shows (called The Next Hour) as have Malachy McCourt, Reno, Wally Shawn, Karen Finley, Kate Valk and many others. Kate Valk brought Real People Theater, a high school theater group from Brooklyn who performed a play by Lawrence Fishburne. (These shows are archived and available on the web at

What are you most excited about this year?

We are recording actors in Los Angeles, Paul Dooley (above), Bob Odenkirk and others for the first time this year with the help and good graces of Allen Minsky of KPFK and Brian de Shazor and Mark Torres of The Pacifica Radio Archives -- an extraordinary part of the Pacifica Network. The Pacifica archivers are extremely literate and concerned with preserving Pacifica’s cultural as well as its political tradition. They have a huge archive of reel to reel tape, and decades of recordings yet to retrieve. Among their finds was an unmarked but momentous recording of Tolstoy’s War in Peace made at WBAI in the 1970’s. They restored it and rereleased it on the 30th anniversary of the broadcast. The original recording was made as a cultural protest to the Vietnam War. Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, actors, intellectuals and public figures all took part. (We were at war again –in Iraq -- during the restoration and people like Ed Asner and Cindy Sheehan were invited to re-record missing passages.) This was one of many literary programs done at WBAI, the crown jewel of which was probably Bloomsday. WBAI started broadcasting readings from the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and then later the readings at Symphony Space. For several years, the Symphony Space production moved to WNYC. Mark Laiosa was responsible for bringing Bloomsday back to WBAI in 2003, again by broadcasting the Symphony Space show. We continued the remote broadcast until 2008 when we decided to do a broadcast designed specifically for radio as opposed to broadcasting a theatrical performance.

Why Ulysses?

Ulysses is the novel that ushers in the modern age of literary experiment and an authentic literary revolution, turning the notion of the language of the novel upside down while exploring sex, consciousness, imperialism, alienation and art. These days modernism is a religion that seems to have disappeared in the blur of post-modernism. Yet in extending the possibilities of the artistic act, Joyce’s words, ideas and construction in Ulysses still have never been matched.

What other cultural programming have you done?

We put together an online broadcast of HOWL with discussions of its cultural significance for its 50th anniversary in 2007. Because of the draconian FCC fines for language violations (you can’t broadcast the Seven Dirty Words and more), we were unable to broadcast the show on air, but made it available through our website. We played one of the earliest recordings of Allen Ginsburg reading HOWL. Also, a panel including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the brave and stalwart publisher of HOWL, discussed its amazing publication history, its sudden and enormous fame, its impounding, the impact of the Beat Generation, and the groundbreaking censorship restrictions that were overcome in the courts. Ginsburg reading Howl. You can listen to it at

Soon after his death, we did a show about Norman Mailer and his work. We had recordings of his voice as well as interviews with his wife Norris, his son John Buffalo, his editor Jason Epstein, the filmmaker D.H. Pennebaker, and authors Frank McCourt and Joyce Carol Oates. Rip Torn, Mailer’s dear friend and co-star in Mailer’s film, Maidstone, showed up a day late, and we played his hilarious and sometimes tearful homage to his pal the following week.

Your literary programming seems to have a political component?

Of course. All great literature is political, even if not intentionally. If an artist is capturing the realities of the world, he/she pays attention to the politics and injustices and imbalances in it. We’ve had a lot of literary figures on our show highly sensitive to politics and First Amendment issues like the satirist Paul Krassner. And poets like Lawrence Joseph, Hugh Seidman and D. Nurkse whose work has been very responsive to issues of war and peace – the fundamental concern of the Pacifica Mission. Cat Radio CafĂ©, broadcast every Monday at 2pm, is a radio arts salon that supposedly explores the creative bounty of New York, but we had Marilyn Hacker reading her poetry from Paris; and Maxine Kumin, X.J. Kennedy and April Bernard read from New England. Elizabeth Macklin performed her translations of poetry from the Basque language. I am really interested in “disappeared” languages like Basque, Irish, Yiddish which of course in having survived underground, are political by definition. Harold Bloom did a long interview with me on the 125th anniversary of Leaves of Grass. Bloom is a fan of the jazz artist Charles Mingus (a mighty expansive and Whitmanesque figure himself) and I used Mingus music as a musical coda to Bloom’s brilliant talk. It was an amazing show.

What is the connection between Pacifica radio and the arts?

Pacifica was founded to create a path to resolving conflicts peacefully and what better way to do that than through art and literature. Bringing literature, drama and music to its listeners is written into the Pacifica Mission. It’s startling that Ulysses was declared not obscene in a landmark decision by Judge Woolsey in 1933 and yet on the radio, the most easily accessed public medium, freedom of language is a battle we are still fighting today. To broadcast this indisputable artistic masterpiece in this period of cultural regression, is extremely important.

What was your first experience with Ulysses?

My father first read hunks of it aloud to me from a book about Gertrude Stein and other “obscure” modernist writers. We were living in Brooklyn and guess I was in junior high because I can picture the room we were in while he read. He kept saying of Joyce, “Isn’t this a little too much? This is too obscure, isn’t it?” And I said “No, keep reading, keep reading.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The language was so fanciful, so full of fun. My father was amazing really. He introduced me to Wihelm Reich and biogenetics when I was fifteen.

So the first time you heard you Ulysses it was read aloud to you?


Later, when I was 16, I went to school as an undergrad at the University of Michigan. The first year was English composition. Then Shakespeare. And then I took a class on Joyce, Yeats, Eliot and Edwin Muir with the poet Donald Hall. He’d been published and an editor of The Paris Review, but it was his first time teaching. He was an extraordinary teacher. He opened up the book for me. And he was in awe of it too. His TA gave me a C- on my Ulysses paper – explicating one page of the book (my page was 372 from Nausicaa) and I was outraged, because I thought I’d made crucial connections to other themes in the book with practically every word. I brought the paper to Hall, something I never did and he read it and gave me an A. I knew I connected with the book in a way the TA obviously did not. Faugh a ballagh to him.

What is your favorite part of Ulysses?

Whatever I am reading at the moment. I guess Penelope. I really love your Molly Bloom. It is still exciting to hear how completely she owns her own sexuality. Joyce understands that sexuality isn’t only sex it’s personality. Is there another writer who so thoroughly hears the opposite sex?

Who do you hope is listening to the broadcast?

While dropping Radio Bloomsday flyers around NYU, it occurred to me that I hoped that other young peop le would hear, the way I did, this transformative use of language on the radio and, thanks to the luxury of being read to, have a mind-altering aesthetic experience too. Teenagers and people in their early twenties are very open to what’s spectacularly different. They’re tastemakers for a reason: they connect to what’s visceral in art. And so does Joyce.

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