Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reloading Abraham Lincoln

In honor of President’s Day, I’m talking today with Gary Moore, playwright, novelist, poet, academic dean and Abraham Lincoln scholar. Gary just launched a new website called Lincoln Reloaded and is traveling to San Diego for the premiere of his play, Burning in China. This and many of his creative work is about Lincoln and I wanted to see what he could share with us about his extensive body of work and his interesting in the 16th President.

Gary, why Lincoln “Reloaded?”

Every time tells the stories of the past from its point of view. Points of view. Historical characters and events are vessels we fill with meaning according to our changing needs. In light of this observation, all history can be seen to actually be myth. The conventional Lincoln observances leave me flat. He who drinks the old wine, has no place for the new. I’m reloading the Lincoln myth.

It’s an interesting time for this reimagining given we have the first President of Color and Lincoln was the President who ended slavery. So what meaning do you think the reloaded Lincoln holds for this generation?

If I continue the thread from my last answer, I’ll have to say it’s something to get drunk on. Intoxicated with possibility. As my performance poem, “Abraham Lincoln Was The King Of The Jews,” says: Abraham Lincoln is you and me. My new visions of Abraham Lincoln – the works I describe and excerpt on my website – although filled with exciting Lincoln lore, aren’t really about Abraham Lincoln at all. They’re about us. Ordinary and profound us.

When and how did you become so interested in Abraham Lincoln?

I’m afraid this will sound more soft-in-the-head than in truth I am, but the only way I can explain it is to say that I had a vision. It was 1969 and I was just out of the Army and living on the lower East side in New York and I lit a candle one night and wrote in my journal. I found myself writing about Abraham Lincoln writing by candle light, and then these other Lincoln scenes came pouring out from – where? I hadn’t thought of Abraham Lincoln since I was in eighth grade like everybody else. I didn’t know much about him. I went to the bookstore the next morning and found the Signet paperback edition of Don Fehrenbacher’s wonderful brief collection of Lincoln’s writings and started to get the complex feel of the man, oaf and angel. I was hooked. I was on the infinite Lincoln Highway. Never could stop reading, learning, writing about him. Or about us, using him.

Tell us about this new play you’re mounting in San Diego next week…

Burning in China tells the story of an American professor who goes to China in 1988 with a hundred parchment copies of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in his luggage and finds himself drawn into the passions of the Chinese democracy movement. Caleb Deschanel directs. He’s a five-time Oscar nominee in Cinematography, and he’s incorporating video of China and Chinese rock music into his production. The story has some features people are bound to think fictional, but it’s all true. Except maybe when the actor Jeff LeBeau steps onstage and says his name is Gary Moore and he went to China in 1988. But Jeff is so good – I’ve seen him do this role before, at the John Drew Theater in Easthampton – that when he says he’s Gary Moore, I believe him! Really. It’s amazing. I talked with him on the phone last night and I thought he was me! It was frightening but wonderful. What’s the line of Rilke? “Beauty is the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear.” Burning in China has some of that, I hope. So much joy and hope in the Chinese people turning to tragedy, but the knowledge too that they will never give up. “We have failed,” one student demonstrator told me, “but our story will go on. We were a light in the darkness to show others the way.” When I was leaving China after the Tiananmen massacre, my Chinese friends asked me to tell their story, and so I have. May their story go on, and the light grow.

Tell us something we won’t likely know about Abraham Lincoln…

He was a sleepwalker. I use this in my novel Abe Ascending that my agent hasn’t been able to sell to anyone. It’s still available, folks, amazing stuff – Lincoln ascending in a balloon and making love a thousand feet above the White House. You can read an excerpt at my website, And he loved gingerbread and never got enough of it.

What's next for Gary Moore the writer?

I'm totally blaming Abby Frucht for this. I'm the Dean at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a year ago I was drinking scotch with the writing faculty there, and Abby reminded me that given that we don't know if we can publish what we write, there's not a good percentage in doing it for that, but if we write for the intrinsic love of the project, we can count on at least that reward. I was at a turning point at that moment because I was beginning to see that my novel Abe Ascending, though it got a very good agent, was not going to get any kind of a publisher. Foo on them, I thought -- the next one's for me. So I wrote the love story of Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, all in dialogue. I didn't want another voice. Just them. I love what I created. It lives. It thrills me. But apparently much of what I feel in the story I'm projecting from the deep reserves of Lincoln knowledge and love I have inside me. Because while the readers I've shown it to all find it remarkable in some way, none of them get swept in and can't put it down. So, next for Gary Moore the writer is to figure out whether to change the novel to better draw the reader in, or to strip the novel down to trim out its exposition and backstory and make it race forward as a play and then let the director and actors draw the audience in.

Now tell us something about Gary Moore that’s not on the official bio…

I caught a touchdown pass from Joe Namath. It was a pickup game in 37th Street Park in Beaver Falls. Joe was captain and picked me first for his team, which was an honor because there were lots of his buddies from the high school football team there. I guess he was saying, “I can beat the rest of you guys even with Gary on my side.” The first play from scrimmage we huddle and Joe says, “Gary, you go down to the tree, pass it on the right, cut left and come out from behind the tree.” The tree was the goal line, right in the middle, maybe thirty yards away. I did what he said and when I came out from behind the tree the ball was in my hands. I was, and am, a lucky guy. Even if I can’t get that damn novel published.

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