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Where Is Stephen (Steve) Poleskie Now?


Stephen Poleskie is a former pilot and Abstract Expressionist painter who combined the two in a practice called “aerial theatre,” for which he became known throughout Europe. Poleskie grounded his planes in 1998 and turned to writing fiction. His artwork has long found homes in the collections of museums including the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Hermitage, but his novels have hardly found easy success.

The first one, The Balloonist, which details the life of T. S. C. Lowe – a balloonist who brought what was then the newest technology into the Civil War for aerial surveillance – is quite good, and currently my copy is making the rounds of bibliophile friends. It’s got everything, you could say: an eccentric but heroic central character, loads of historic detail (they used municipal gas suppliers to fill the balloons), and a compelling love story. What it lacks is marketing, and in a way, marketability. Like Poleskie himself, it doesn’t fit into any one category. It’s sort of a biography of Lowe. It’s sort of a novel, with dialogue and drama; it’s sort of an exposition of the cast of oddballs who were that era’s geeks: the balloonists and aerialists intent on conquering what was then the bold frontier of the sky. If you’re the type who can’t eat your peas if they’ve touched the mash potatoes, this may not be the book for you, because part of the delight of it is Poleskie’s use of any tool that comes to hand when he needs to tell the next part of the story. It’s all mishmashed together, with satisfying results.

The latest Poleskie book, and I admit I haven’t read the three intervening (I don’t read much fiction) jumps with one foot into the noir genre. Sconto Walaa tells the story of the 98-lb. weakling who has plotted revenge for 13 years on the man he believes raped his wife. Ignoring plenty of evidence that his intended victim may not, in fact, be the rapist, Walaa tortures the guy to death. The suspense turns on nothing so simple as ‘did he do it,’ but on two questions - the real rapist’s identity, and how far apart will Walaa fall in the process of becoming a murderer. He’s not stitched together too tightly anyway, being both a vet who participated in torture during a Middle Eastern tour, and an unlovable and unloving specimen of humanity to begin with. To himself he portrays the murder as the settling of scores, but it’s more of a protest against his own repulsiveness, more an act of revenge against someone he sees as being more loved than himself, than anything to do with revenging his wife’s pain; in daily life, he treats her very badly.

The masters of the noir genre, from Dostoevsky to Jim Thompson, accomplish their unsettling art by getting you into not only the mind but the heart of the criminal, drawing the reader inexorably over the line between good and bad to the point where you’re uncomfortably cognizant that there-but-for-God’s-grace-go-I. Somewhere in Elmore Leonard’s oeuvre there’s a serial killer character who, because he dislikes and is disliked by other humans, manages his loneliness by calling the listings in the classified ads. He may be a psychopath, but he needs to hear a friendly human voice once in a while, so he calls to see if the couch is still for sale and if it is, he says it’s the wrong color and hangs up, and if it isn’t he says, “Thanks” and hangs up.

Sconto Walaa manages to bring the killer’s humanity to you in occasional flashes: Walaa blows his cover because he can’t abandon his victim’s housecat after the murder, and when someone else is apprehended for the crime, Poleskie writes, “he was feeling a little upstaged.”

However, a certain awkwardness of style gets in the story’s way. Two major characters are named after famous people – Walt Whitman and George Orwell – which may be a perfectly acceptable coincidence in real life, but in fiction, in order to “keep it real”, you can’t do that. If every character had been thus famously named, the device would have faded into the background of the story. With only two, every time the names came up I wondered why, which is deadly to the momentum of a novel. Another involves the use of expletives; although in life certain people use the word “fucking” three times in every sentence, if you write dialogue like that, it sounds artificial. Poleskie’s device for naming Walaa as a member of a despised group (Simoleans) with its own language and history works better because the reader can see what he’s aiming at with it.

Meanwhile, the plot is good, and despite the novel turning on a few gruesome scenes, Poleskie sidesteps the gory parts. I have to disagree with his agent; rape and murder and vets with PTSD are not the selling points of this book. However, if you’re fond of crime fiction and enjoy seeing someone new try his hand at it, and even experiment a little with the genre, put this one on your list.

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BEING HUMAN, Call of the Wild, an anthology

TWELVE AUTHORS and fifteen stories on the nature of being human and the human character in both the natural environment and human-made world constitute this stimulating book. The stories are engaging, memorable, contemplative, and even humorous. While we have constructed, over thousands of years, a vast cathedral of scintillating, rational humanity, we can be primal and shadowy with visceral emotions – and so this collection admirably demonstrates. There are many difficult questions posed in the book. Why do we kill certain creatures while nurturing others? When do we draw the line between protecting our property and letting other creatures live and thrive? What drives people to kill others to protect their land? Many of these stories explore the lines cast under the surface of creation, characters looking for a nibble of understanding to make better sense of their place in an evolving world.

CONTRIBUTORS: Stephen Poleskie, Arthur Powers, Lisa M. Sita, Andrea Vojtko, Jeff Vande Zande, James K. Zimmerman, Anne Whitehouse, Janyce Stefan-Cole, Patty Somlo, Rivka Keren, Kelly Wantuch, Larry Eby

FOREWORD: Ian S. Maloney, Ph.D.

Published by: Editions Bibliotekos

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A 1966 VILLAGE VOICE listing describes Stephen Poleskie’s The Bird Film as “allegorical slapstick.” That’s half right. While the comical chaos of the film certainly is slapstick, it’s hard to find much in the way of allegory, and this is to the film’s credit.

The Bird Film opens with an American flag, then a figure in binoculars and a funny hat (the “birdwatcher”) rises into the shot. The political viewer, aware that this film was made in a famously turbulent era, might be tempted to begin reading allegorically at this point, but would find that reading stunted, probably less than a minute later when the birdwatcher is attacked by an actor in a bear mask, who is in turn attacked by the Indian, who wears a box on his head that is painted in the “exotic” colors you might expect one of any number of cartoon Indians to wear. Instead of allegory, The Bird Film gives us something much more valuable: a short work made by young artists who are clearly enjoying experimentation with the form

The Bird Film is an 18 minute chase scene. Troublesome narrative components such as plot and character are left out, though to say that the chase simply serves to move the film forward wouldn’t be true. There is a certain order being followed here. After all, the film begins with a birdwatcher, who chases after the bird (played by Warhol superstar Deborah Lee). A bear chases the birdwatcher. An Indian chases the bear. As it turns out, the birdwatcher, the bear, and the Indian, all end up chasing the bird.

Scenes range from an imaginary environment constructed in a Manhattan loft to a creek, where the bird lady performs interpretive dance in the water, to a pretty pasture that was the farm of Elaine de Kooning (the film’s associate producer).

Deborah Lee plays the bird with the aloof grace of a dancer performing for no one but herself. She pauses from time to time to pose and reflect. As a director, Poleskie indulges himself by letting Lee poetically extend her arms, bend her legs, and arch her back, imbuing the short with a dream-like quality to break up the slapstick of the chase.

Watching The Bird Film once through, you enjoy it for its levity, strangeness, and photographic beauty. A second time through, you begin to notice things you didn’t notice the first time around. A man in a wheelbarrow reads a Daily News with the headline, “Gangs Raid 2 Subway Trains.” The next time we see him, about 20 seconds later, he is reading a New York Post with the headline, “Break In Miss.” Go ahead and watch it a third time. Your enjoyment is likely to increase with each viewing, but if you want to find out what it all means, you may want to take your business elsewhere. The Bird Film is a celebration more than it is a statement.

My favorite scene in The Bird Film occurs at about the 13 minute mark. After dodging the birdwatcher, the bear, and the Indian, the bird pauses on a rock to pose before a spring. The soundtrack at this point turns from hectic chase scene instrumentation to ethereal vocals. Deborah Lee turns to the camera, smiles, and lifts her arms in a gesture that says “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” In the same way the newspaper headlines hint at a world somewhere on the outside, Lee’s gesture, a shot that would have been edited out of a more “serious” film, speaks to the youthful chaos and joy that beats at this work’s center.

Stephen Poleskie, director and writer of The Bird Film (1966), is an Ithaca based artist, writer, and photographer. His artwork is in the collections of numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery in London. His writing has appeared in journals such as American Writing and Essays & Fictions, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Poleskie wrote and directed The Bird Film. The Bird Film will be showing this Friday, May 6, at Arcades Project. The film will be looped continually throughout the night.

posted by David Nelson Pollock, founder of Arcades Project and a co-founding editor of Essays & Fictions.

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We recently found this interview with Jeffery Mishlove while searching the web. It is part of a larger piece.

Jeffrey Mishlove: When I got back to San Francisco, I pursued the question with Owens, of his demonstration, and he set it up with me in November of 1976 as follows: he said, "I will cause a UFO to appear. It will happen within 90 days, it will happen within a 100-mile radius of San Francisco." In fact, he said, "I'll cause multiple UFO appearances, and one in particular will be seen by very reliable witnesses. The photograph will be published on the front page of the local newspaper, and that's how you'll know, it'll be my signature."

And other things happened as well. He said, "There will be power blackouts," (that's also one of his signatures).

In December. 1976, it occured pretty much on schedule, December 12th as I recall, in Sonoma State College, a small college campus about 50 miles north of San Francisco. The Art Department, on a clear December day, was sponsoring a live demonstration of an unusual art form -- aerial artwork. A pilot who is an artist was flying his aircraft over the campus, he had smoke trailing out the back of his plane, and he was creating loop-de-loops and other designs in the air.

And this was the demonstration hundreds of students were outside looking up at the sky. Some of them had video-cameras. (This was in the days before camcorders but they were recording it, and there were photographs being taken). Many faculty members were out there.

The pilot of this airplane was named Steve Poleskie, and he was a visiting Professor of Art from Syracuse [Cornell] University. He was visiting Berkeley, and he was performing.

I actually have the videotape of this event.

As he was doing his loop-de-loops about 3,000 feet above the Sonoma State College campus, a UFO appeared right in his airspace. He witnessed it from the air. He said it was about 15-20 feet wide, and it just came out of nowhere. It was right there in his airspace, and it stayed there a few minutes and suddenly disappeared.

It was seen from the ground, and it was photographed. The photograph was published on the front page of one of our local papers, The Berkeley Gazette. And the videotape was actually shown on the Channel 9 Evening News, KQED-TV in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ted Owens had scored pretty much a direct hit.

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