Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps

Making Art in the Face of Disaster


December 2013

As I write, images and sounds from the Philippines after last month’s typhoon overwhelm my radar screen.  Countless dead, unburied bodies.  More than five thousand corpses.  An unfathomable number.  People covering their faces in a futile attempt to block out the stench. Buildings devastated.  No food.  Kids and the elderly drinking filthy, disease-filled water.  Pregnant women having babies in the squalor.  How, I wonder, dare we even think of making art in the face of such indescribable disaster?  And, if we, who no matter how poor, still have shelter, full bellies, electric power, heat, AC, smart phones and tablets, begin to create in the midst of tragedy; how can our art be anything other than despairing, dark – powered by Thantos?

Hearing the Xmas ads with their jingly holiday cheer barely two weeks after Halloween, I want to donate to the typhoon relief fund, pull the covers over my artistic bed and send my muse packing.  What good is Santa with his reindeer, decking the house with your family and friends, drinking a toast to the New Year or even peace and goodwill in a time like this?  Sure, my poetry deals with death, dying, being queer and blindness among other dark topics.  But my pesky muse insists on adding love, romance, marriage, birth and other non-dark topics.  I’m never going to make it on Team Walt.  And, what use is Walt, the Prince of Darkness – the Chef of Meth – or the art from which he was born – in the midst of an unprecedented tragedy?

Yet, our muses are persistent.  The work of creative artists is a conduit for our feelings about disaster, they say, Poets, painters, musicians, writers and dramatists transform the chaos of trauma into the love, beauty, sadness -- even the sentimentality of art.

Looking at my DVDs of cheery, funny, comforting, witty, sad, touching Christmas movies, I want to give the finger to my muse.  Will watching, for the zillionth time, the angel Clarence get his wings in “It’s a Wonderful Life” feed even one hungry typhoon survivor? Will viewing the beautiful movie of “The Dead” – the Joyce short story that takes place on Christmas in Dublin provide consolation to anyone parched with thirst?

The other night, I ate dinner with some poets.  A poet at the gathering echoed my concern.  “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is too sentimental!” he said, “How does it help anyone?”

I was tempted to agree – to toss out my DVDs and to advise my fellow bards to stop making art.  Until, I remembered that Frank Capra, the director of the movie, and the film’s star Jimmy Stewart, made “It’s a Wonderful Life” (released in 1946) in the aftermath of World War II.  Stewart, a decorated hero, flew many missions in the War and Capra was among the group of Hollywood directors who filmed the liberation of the concentration camps.  Far from being trite or sentimental, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” reflecting their wartime experience, has many dark moments – from the nightmare of Potterville to George Bailey contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve.  The movie is art made from the dark.

A few years ago, at an artist community, I met a filmmaker from Haiti. He was making a film about the earthquake there which had devastated his nation, his family, friends and colleagues. He begged me for copies of my poetry, saying to me, “It doesn’t matter if it’s good!  Any poetry is such a pleasure – a light in the darkness {from the earthquake} of my country.”

I think of my partner Anne and I laughing and crying, when she was ill, as we watched the “I Love Lucy” Christmas show and of how the mindlessness of “A Christmas Story” helped me to make it through the first Christmas after she died.  I remember one sad holiday season, laughing as I read James Thurber’s parody of Hemingway in his piece titled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas in the Ernest Hemingway Manner.” “Art–the one achievement of Man which has made the long trip up from all fours seem well-advised,” Thurber, the renowned American humorist who lived from 1894 to 1961, wrote in 1939 in “Forum and Century.”

It would be obscene to say that these recollections have resolved the questions hovering in my solar plexus about being a creative artist in the midst of tragedy.  Yet, I do feel like answering the siren call of my muse.  But before picking up my pen to write a poem, I’ll see the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” which opens this month.  The film, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, is of Thurber’s story about a milquetoast – lovable, goofy hero.  Mitty orbits into space, saves lives and solves unsolvable crimes – in his daydreams.  His wife, traffic cops and sales clerks  – the denizens of everyday life – bring him back from his techno color, heroic feats to humdrum reality.  Who isn’t Walter Mitty?  We’re all on Team Walter.  If you’re talented like Thurber, you make art while sitting on Team Walter’s bench.

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Scene4 Magazine - Kathi Wolfe |
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4. Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications. Her most recent Book of Poems, The Green Light, has just been published by Finishing Line Press.
For more of her commentary, articles and poetry check the

©2013 Kathi Wolfe
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media


December 2013

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