LA Times Festival 2011

LATimesfest 2011


1. The ever-broadening comedian/actor/writer/super-fan Patton Oswalt reads from his first solo publication, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, and curses before an audience of adults and children. 2. Velvet voiced Irish poet and fictioner Nuala Ni Chonchuir, with a narrative closeness that reminded me of Carson McCullers, reads from her new novel, You. It’s a character study about a 10-year-old girl growing up with her fragmented family in semi-urban ’80s Ireland. 3. Irish fictioner Kevin Power reading from his first novel, Bad Day in Blackrock, a tense study of how the violent accidental murder of a teen effects the adolescence of his fellow boys school peers in suburban Dublin. “We made fifty cups of tea a day. We never drank any of it, it was just something to do.”

With the summer heat mounting as quick as resentment, the promise of a free, positive, weekend ‘outing’ designed to relieve the cycling insanity of parenthood and LA civilian life drew large crowds surging restlessly with the hope of enlightenment and/or swag. However, among the frenzy of shoulder to shoulder stroller traffic shaded by yellow ‘Hoy’ umbrellas and clutching rolled-up, unloved posters for Tron, among the sunburns, the constantly passing airplanes, the sweet aroma of horchata, and the life-size, stone faced, movie promotion Smurfs posing for photos, there were five stages of non-stop literature.

1. The huge crowd around comedian/writer/actor Demetri Martin’s reading. He read a few lines from his first publication, This is a Book, but I found myself more curious about the girl listening alone in the black striped dress on the right, and the single red rose she was holding… 2. The quiet audience at the Poetry Stage – the most hidden, beautiful, and (after the ADD friendly schedule of the immorally named Target Children’s Stage) most lit loaded stage of the day. This is the way to hear poetry – stretched out on a mild decline, light moving around the branches, cute dogs & cuter strangers leaning in to hear & laughing, leaves and flakes of bark drifting off their bones and springing off the reaching grass.

On my way to the Los Angeles Times Stage I passed the Cooking Stage. Perhaps you didn’t know that cookbooks are hard-driven keystones of survival in the literary world. This is so we learn to appreciate the difference between bland, pedestrian conflicts and juicy, farm raised trout.

Being a stand-up comedy fanatic since middle school, I jumped at the chance to see Patton Oswalt read, whom I had so loved in his Comedians of Comedy tour, in his appearances on Reno 911 and Bored to Death, and his voice acting in Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Ratatoullie. Looking over his satire piece, “Wines By the Glass,” and the audience dotted with children, (“There’s literally a child on a parent’s shoulders in the back,” he remarked), he announced he was about to read a section containing two swear words, but would edit out the one that’s not essential to a joke.

“I’m just gonna say Elmo instead, so the child enjoys it, and so you enjoy the ironic distance.”

His mock bottle list includes “The Sensitive Teen” Chardonnay, flavored “with hints of butterflies, honeysuckle, and tears,” Precious Object Villa’s “Unattainable” Riesling, which is “Angel sweat strained through diamond mesh into a platinum taureen hammered smooth by three former presidents and the current pope,” and a German dessert ice wine, fermented after, “The whitest, purest grapes are separated from the darker, weaker ones…”

1. Irish born LA attorney and poet John Fitztgerald reading from his collection, The Mind, riding the line between poetics & exercises in existential understanding. “Anytime a person takes too wide of a stance for good, he’s likely to end up the bad guy.” 2. Closing the fest with the audacious, high energy, experimental sound poets of Les Figues Press – Mathew Timmons, Christine Wertheim (right), and Vanessa Place (left). Their performance was the most fun I had all day, as there’s nothing quite like watching a complacent audience’s skin crawl.

Continuing into non-fiction territory, he read from a section detailing the wonderfully thoughtless gifts given to him by his Grandma Runfola when he was a child, including a ‘Best of Steppenwolf’ tape enclosed in case for AC/DC’s ‘For Those About to Rock,’ because, as she explains, “What’s more rock & roll than a wolf and a cannon about to shoot?”

After the reading, he fielded questions from an audience full of them. About comedy: “There are no topics off limits if you approach it the right way.” When a teenager with ambitions to become a stand-up asked him about how to catch a break, Patton suggested he start putting his jokes up on Twitter and/or start a Podcast, saying how exposure is no longer a problem nowadays.  In the comic tradition of ‘The Aristocrats’ joke, he went on to tell us ‘The Worlds Dirtiest Limerick’ joke, the punchline of which thankfully obliterated his earlier regard for four letter words.

The tone of his book, so heartfelt and exploratory, is much different than the tone of his stand-up, and stand-up in general, which I feel is, at times, too wrapped up in aimless ridicule. It made me think of my days reading Pure Drivel by Steve Martin- the exacting, yet, easily understood diction flowing with a performer’s sense of rhythm, rounding out a sarcastic slant into emotionally complex 3D.

To close with one of the many gorgeous lines I heard in the rest of my day, here’s a great one by poet John Fitzgerald: “Write what the mind provides / The punishment for not doing so / Is silence.”

–David Ohlsen, an LA Native, received his degree in Creative Writing at UC Riverside, and is a regular contributor to Electric Dish.

An excerpt from The Mind as read at the Festival

(parts 60-68)



Rule one is dreams, like everything, grow.

What? Did you think the rules never changed?

Well, I might bend them before your eyes.


Rules are something that I can get into.

Collections of words are my forte.

Some might come up again a little later.


But for now, by choice, I still abide.

Choice is also easily numbered.

The two choices here are delete or revise.









Then again, there is a third choice,

which is to leave things as they are. The status quo,

adoring words, and other tricks it may remember.


I listen in, and keep going over

my earlier suggestions of freckles on the Mona Lisa,

or Blue Boy in maroon.


And maybe Shakespeare should have cursed more,

mentioned it if he rented a room,

got caught with his hands full, waxing the wounds.









We could wonder if it were true.

After, he added punctuation,

recounted the number of lines per verse.


And that beginning which couldn’t be found

because it hadn’t yet occurred

wouldn’t appear until line thirty-five,


determining all before could be deleted.

Truth only lives for an instant, there’s no point in going back over it –

another idea I’ll just throw out.












Not all rules are man-made.

Many exist in nature.

In degrees of either on or off, with nothing in between.


Any time a person takes too strong a stance for good,

he’s bound to end up being the bad guy –

That’s rule two.


I mean, things either fall or they don’t,

depending upon the jurisdiction.

Who knew about the moon, for instance?









Rules of one place are broken in another.

You might do what you never could, like float.

Or take an old beginning and replace it.


Apples fell, and Jesus drank,

but what if it were so much he missed his calling?

And were rendered, say, a poet.


The poems would all be miracles, sure.

Lips to red from cyanotic blue,

water to wine, then back again, before anybody noticed.









So much for sacred too.

Rule three is write what the mind provides.

Not to do so is violation, the punishment for which is silence.


I strive to remember what is normal, or in other words, the errors. 

And if there weren’t any I would have to make them up.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer that perfection is attainable.


It’s just that it only lasts a moment,

because rule four is all things change, and then a lot of time

is wasted trying to put things back the way they were. 












The mind travels in waves.

It moves in frequencies detected by the brain.

But here is the difference between thinking and thought:


Scientists know the brain contains memories.

They’ve already probed into just the right places,

made electric currents arise to the level of moronic.


Picture wind as it blows through a tree,

or a river dipped into a cup. A river, by every other sense,

a blind man can’t confuse with the gutter. 









Oh, the mind comes in waves, believe me.

Perfection disguises itself as surrender,

and the funny thing is, it’s flawed.


Plainness makes perfection seem peculiar.

But the universe runs on tiny laws that anyone can break.

Rule five is contradiction – change always remains the same.


Once, I received a compliment.

It was, after hearing you, I don’t feel so screwed up.

And I said thanks. 









A step into emptiness proves the point.

I bear enough weight to crush myself,

But it takes two puffs to blow an ant away.


Did you know if you drop an ant from the Empire State Building,

within sixty seconds it learns about wings?

Feathers without birds nonetheless know how to float.


Those with minds of their own, I know, could take this the wrong way.

But with gravity as rules six through nine,

a minute’s a fucking long time to fly.