Monday, May 14, 2012

George Birimisa, 21 February 1924 -- 10 May 2012

 It will take a while to assimilate that George Birimisa is dead.  He is not the kind of person who just dies in your life; he’s one of the ones who may pass into your personnel pantheon, that “eternal” place that poets imagine as a repository for all that seems “best” to them:  In other words, he may move into my Blue Hotel, the place name for my eternal space, a name borrowed from the short story by Stephen Crane about a blue hotel set on the wide plains.  The Crane in the name of the author of “The Blue Hotel” evokes the presence of some great white crane, from a myth, hovering over the Blue Hotel like Montana skies.  A gathering number of the many people we have known, and been touched by, and reprimanded by linger on after their deaths, but only a few take up residence in your blue hotel, or  whatever the name of the place you imagine as a residence for those who remain present and real in spite of being dead.

 I have taken countless photographs of George, and have written descriptions of George – a request George made of various people more than once – and, because George’s Primal Rule for all writers was “Be honest,” I presented a candid “Portrait of George,” when he requested it, among others, for the published book of his plays, and I think I cannot add much to that portrait.  As someone in his writing group for many years, I remember that while each member was undoubtedly changed by personal growth and by our interpersonal experience as a longstanding group, we also watched George’s changes, as he moved from darker to lighter inner spaces.  While a good writing class is not intended for psychological therapy, George’s nature reminds me of Jung’s rule for therapists, that unless the therapist is going through a personal change at the same time as the client, therapy is not happening.   George’s primary writing precepts, repeated over and over, were (1) Write with total honesty (without that, there is no “life” in a piece; (2) Writing needs conflict, conflict, conflict – internal, external, whatever.  The importance of the two simple sentences were demonstrated more and more clearly over time.

The writing group could be wildly changeable in temper but we were also a group physically on the move from one eccentric location to another until we found haven in the new LGBTQ Center.  All the while, George was the shepherd who guided and found refuges for his flock of sensitive writers.  George proved the notion of positive reinforcement, and we all learned from him how to provide feedback as questioning and suggesting, not criticism.  Of course, there were a few times when the group was less inspiring, but, more often, we felt its exuberance as we inspired each other.  George’s group also represented my return to a gay community after some years of alienation, and it was a gentle re-entry so that self-acceptance as a gay coincided with progress as a writer.  The awful edge you may feel as a man among other men in a group, ever prepared for competition, is too sharp for you to sink into the state where creativity exists, and George encouraged a non-threatening brotherhood (although I admit that I think the presence of one heterosexual woman was a modifying element).  And there were a few emotional explosions (I lift my hand as one of the guilty), but I will remember the quiet moments of recognition that pass between creative people as we see our way through, even when our creative efforts take us through a dark place.

Selfless with other people, George could also appear to be a self-absorbed egotist, his clothing always in some sense also a costume in which the actor could perform offstage as well as on, but his sister Easter reminded me that, being totally neglected during his childhood, he had an unabashed hunger for recognition and attention – oh, but I suppose that IS theater.  And theater, that social collaboration, was his most precious gift to this lonely poet.  The selfless leader fed a bit of social confidence to this student. 

George liked a scene I wrote, and asked me to expand it for an afternoon where writers contributed work on a theme of intergenerational communication within the gay community.   Then George kept asking me to add more to the scene, then, logically, revealed how that required more scenes, and soon it was a one-act play, Turning, with me learning from George what had been missing and why each new element was needed to make it a play – learning to write a play while it is being prepared for performance (but I guess there is a lot of that in the theater also).

And then George was there, selflessly serving the play through the whole process, from the auditions and selection of actors, and then in the many nights of rehearsals where I watched George refrain from “directing” until the actors were becoming comfortable with their parts.  Then he directed the play as someone with a lifetime’s experience of theater. 

The play was one thing, but the process of doing it was a rich personal experience for me, although it was painful to be wrenched out of my solitude and the habit of withdrawal, so that it was a sort of awakening, starting with a sense of “miracle” on the day when the flat characters  on the page stood up from the page and entered the room, thanks to the actors, and I was no longer the solitary writer but part of that group process that is theater:  creativity as a group experience, not something you may pursue only in solitude and loneliness.

I could go on at much greater length about my “virginal” experience of the theater, surprised as I witnessed what professional actors do to prepare, etc., but that exposition is for those with a great deal more experience – I only hope to write another play (that is, wrestle with another I have written), and come close again to the religious rites of theater.

Thank you, George – and I am tempted to add, “Damn you, George,” which George would understand.

George on Wikipedia:

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