Rumpus Blog

Notable NYC: 5/23–5/29

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Saturday 5/23: Shiv Kotecha, Diana Hamilton, Mark Francis Johnson, and Danny Snelson celebrate the release of Kotecha’s collection EXTRIGUE. B.H.Q.F.U, 7 p.m., free.

Elana Dykewomon and Irena Klepfisz celebrate the release of What Can I Ask, new and selected poems from Dykewomon. Blue Stockings, 7 p.m., free.

George-Thérèse Dickenson and Fanny Howe join the Segue series. Zinc Bar, 4:30 p.m., $5.

Sunday 5/24: A. H. Jerriod Avant, Catherine Pikula, Alexis Pope, Chase Berggrun, and Dillon J. Welch join the God Hates You reading series. Mellow Pages Library, 7:30 p.m., free.

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One Thousand Things

One Thousand Things Worth Knowing by Paul Muldoon

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Who are you, Paul Muldoon, and what is it you want to tell us?

To be fair, I was forewarned; we all were. “Anyone already wary of opaque contemporary poetry may want to tread carefully here,” a fellow reviewer said about your new book. And why would One Thousand Things Worth Knowing be any different from your other recent poetry collections, anyway? None of us expected you to compromise your prolix style.

Paul Muldoon, I have spent days and weeks with your book, trying to understand. I have, at times, torn out my hair. I have resented your accomplishments, called you the male oppressor—for writing about the masculinities of war and power, women hardly at all.   

But I think I know you better now. And I find myself beginning to empathize. To start, one thing you’d like for us to know: that, as a child, your favorite book was the encyclopedia. I can relate; it was the dictionary that kept me company. Intellectual childhoods are lonely; and reading is bread, as Cynthia Ozick says. Yes, yes, I’m with you.

Another thing you’d like for us to know, this one more guttural: the loss of Seamus Heaney has been treacherous for you. Thank you, Paul Muldoon, for placing your dedication to Heaney, your dear friend, your mentor, at the start of Cuthbert and the Otters. Without your dedication placed here, I could not have been sure that Cuthbert and the Otters was about your poet laureate. Remember how deceptively far afield from Seamus Heaney your opening poem begins?

Notwithstanding the fact that one of them has gnawed a strip of flesh
from the shoulder of the salmon,
relieving it of a little darne,
the fish these six otters would fain
carry over the sandstone limen
and into Cuthbert’s cell, a fish garlanded with bay leaves
and laid out on a linden-flitch 

It will be nine pages into the piece before you mention Heaney’s name again. Then, you help us to understand what Heaney’s death has felt like.  A pallbearer at his funeral, the yearning is for Heaney’s “coffin to cut a notch” in your clavicle.” You are physically transformed by this loss: neither your voice, which Heaney nurtured, nor any amount of scholarship has an answer for your visceral sorrow. Yes, yes, I’m with you.

The untranslatable inscription on a sword that has been buried with an ancient warrior offers a parallel to the experience of this loss:

I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to grips with the bane

of so many scholars–––the word SINIMIAINIAIS

inscribed on a Viking sword.  As for actually learning to grieve,

it seems to be a nonstarter…

In your mind, Heaney has become a saint. Like Cuthbert, Heaney is buried on blessed Irish turf, moved from the place he died to the town where he was from. And although neither Cuthbert nor Heaney nor you have been advocates of bloodshed, your trinity has clearly advocated for the right to home rule on the Emerald Isle. For his part, Saint Cuthbert spent a frigid night of prayer partially submerged in water. Prayer was Cuthbert’s resistance to tyranny: God’s power had been misappropriated by the queen. It is said that on this particular night of prayer, otters followed Cuthbert to the shore and warmed his legs.  It is no wonder you imagine an otter at Heaney’s funeral:

        …Halfway through what’s dissolved into

    the village

    of Bellaghy, this otter steps out from under the bier

    and offers me his spot.  It seems even an otter may subordinate

    himself whilst being the first in line to revolt.

    He may be at once complete insider and odd man out.

Paul Muldoon, your heartbeat is strong in this poem that eulogizes your late mentor. As for meaning, have you become the otter to Seamus Heaney’s saint? Did your departure from Ireland anoint you “first in line to revolt” and “at once complete insider and odd man out”? Are the myriad obscure references to Irish history your way of claiming citizenship? Are you declaring your credentials as a precocious, loyal son of Ireland—as one who knows Celtic and the mysterious nuances of the land?

In these poems, we are destined not to know for sure.

72980287CJ017_The_TS_Eliot_We do know that Seamus Heaney was your homeland’s most beloved poet since William Butler Yeats. We know that Heaney chose you as his own successor. And in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, we know that you are loyal to your mentor—despite having left Ireland to live—and flourish—for more than half your life in the United States. Although your poems leave most readers in obscurity, your Irish pride is palpable, even here, in America.

In your poem for Seamus Heaney, you admit there is a void between scholarship and understanding. In the last poem of the book, “Dirty Data,” are you doing the same? While it coheres in the soft lilt of language and its interspersed rhyme, its title suggests corruption in the data you transmit. Just as with the title of the book, I’m intrigued by the double entendre of “knowing” as in having sexual intercourse, and “knowing” as in possessing information. Can the compulsion to collect information—at the expense of communication—be interpreted as a sin? You’re onto something here! There is a difference between knowledge and understanding, between data and meaning. Yes, yes, I’m with you.

In all of the poems in this book, you play with us and with our knowledge. You play with epigenetics: references to Ireland are parsed with things and people you have seen in the United States and texts you’ve read. In every phrase of yours we see a thousand synapses firing.

If I look at these enigmas as etymology, one thing leads to another. Your connections yield synthesis, then parturition that wears the vernix of your progenitors.

In other words, Northern Ireland comes through with the labor of your poems in this collection.

Paul Muldoon, I wish that you would tell me even more, that you would share more of yourself as Irish storyteller, tell me how you feel—as you did in the early days.    Meanwhile, I will continue to research your arcane references so that I may say of every Muldoon line, “Yes, yes, I am with you.”  

Next Letter in the Mail: Ben Dolnick

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We’re getting ready to send out our next Letter in the Mail, and it’s from Ben Dolnick! Ben writes a very funny letter about the “strangeness of traveling alone” while his plane is delayed for hours at the Sea-Tac airport.

Ben Dolnick is the author of three novels: Zoology, You Know Who You Are, and At the Bottom of Everything. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and dog.

Don’t miss out! Subscribe to Letters in the Mail today!

Next Letter for Kids: Gail Nall

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We’re sending our next Letter for Kids from Gail Nall! Gail writes about her childhood pen pals and about one of her most embarrassing moments. She says she’s not good at drawing, but has drawn really cool doodles all over the letter!

Gail Nall lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her family and more cats than necessary. She once drove a Zamboni, has camped in the snow in June, and almost got trampled in Paris. She is the author of the middle grade novel Breaking The Ice and the co-author of You’re Invited. Her YA debut, Exit Stage Left, will be published in Summer 2015.

Don’t miss out on this awesome letter—subscribe today! For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. And, Letters for Kids is now on Twitter and Pinterest, so visit us there, too.

River House by Sally Keith

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The back cover of Sally Keith’s River House tells us upfront that this is a book which reckons with the writer’s grief after the death of her mother. In this same spirit of disclosure, I want to note that Keith was one my MFA teachers seven years ago when I was writing a thesis that largely dealt with the death of my mother. Does this affect my ability to read and respond to Keith’s work? I’d argue it does not, but it is part of what I bring to the page as a reader. My connections to River House’s subject matter, more so than my connections to the poet herself, definitely shaped what I found myself focusing on as I read.   

River House contains sixty-three single paged and numbered, but otherwise untitled, poems. Before you reach the poems there is a page with two lines: Ann Elmore Keith / (1947-2010). Do the math and that is sixty-three years. The poems do not linearly chronicle those sixty-three years, but the choice of sixty-three poems feels considered. Considered is a good way to describe this collection in general. As I went back over my notes and tried to decide which poems to discuss I found it difficult to pick out individual passages because the poems are so tightly woven and relevant to each other.  

The first poem in River House describes the red sky, “the boats in the small harbor, docked,” and the “house [that] sits high up on stilts.” I can see this house. I mentally compare it to the house on stilts where I lived as a child, but even without that connection I think other readers will sense the tangibility of the house. This very real sense of structure and place is then contrasted with an idea. The very first line of the poem asks: How do you picture the shape of a year in your head.

The poem will circle back to this question as it notes, “a year is a circle,” but it also complicates that circle by saying, “it all depends on where you start.” We are a very straight-lined culture: always looking forward and back so this desire to take a different shape as a way to examine life is compelling.

The notion of circles, circularity, is repeated in this collection. There are other repeated ideas and images, but I am often drawn to examining the literal and metaphoric shape of things, especially the circle. A circle makes me think of the moon and then water in its constant cycle. These circular things that connote a touch of the feminine and at the center of them all is the hearth – the house.

The house versus the river. The house as this static thing versus the constantly moving river. There are many instances where the river and house work for and against each other, but perhaps my favorite is in the thirteenth poem where the speaker and her father sit and watch from the deck of the river house, “an eagle / fly at another, grab it by its talons. The two turn wild circles / . . . and fly off just before hitting the water.”

This natural, primal scene is circular yet also feels somewhat incomplete, and that is also how grief progresses. Grief is not a line. Keith also uses the image of a lyre to further explore the mutability of grief. The lyre, Keith writes, in a commedia can take one “plucked note / to move from the depths of despair to the fullness of joy.” Grief isn’t, therefore, the solidity of a foundation. It has more of the fluidity of water.

So in this poem, and others in the collection, there is the safety, the familiarity of the house, and yet the moment with the eagles exemplifies for the speaker and her father that a moment like that (as with all moments) is most likely one instance you never see again. The cliche I would use here is fleeting.

As I try to discuss Keith’s work I find myself hoping I can do it justice. I feel on an edge. Like I almost have a handle on what I want to say, but not quite.

sally keithIn this collection Keith often refers to her habit (one which I share) of taking notes while reading. I think that is the best compliment I can give to an author: that they said something I had to circle or underline. And there is one tercet in poem twenty-three that, for me, said it all: To cry in a movie you know your mother would have loved / is not one of the moments you expect / and yet.

Yes, and yet. That’s what we have to reconcile ourselves with after loss. We will have yet, and all the connotations that come with moving on while looking back.

An Unlikely Event

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That morning, Blume, in a pink baseball cap and sneakers, was taking her daily two-mile walk on a path that snakes along the beach. At 8 a.m., the sun was already strong, but the more Blume talked, the faster she walked, and everything sped up whenever the conversation turned to her new book, “In the Unlikely Event,” which will be published next month. It is set mainly in 1952, when Blume was 14.

Over at the New York Times, Susan Dominus profiles Judy Blume a few weeks ahead of the release of her first adult novel in 16 years.

FYF 2015 Looks Like It Might Be Worth the Sunburn You’ll Get

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The lineup for this year’s FYF Fest was released earlier this month, and the more we look at it, the more we have to admit it might be worth bearing the heat of an August weekend in Los Angeles. The festival’s headliners are Frank Ocean and Morrissey, and the lineup ranges from Deerhunter to FKA Twigs, Solange to Spiritualized. Oh yeah, and The Jesus and Mary Chain are going to be there! With Dinosaur Jr.! See what we mean? Check out the full lineup and other details on the FYF Fest site.

Delivering Whisky After An Earthquake

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As I worked, filing reports every night from a hotel room, the details nagged at me. Her mother, Japa Tamang, was living in an open-sided shed once used to store grain, in hills still shuddering from aftershocks. My husband had the idea of giving her a ride back to Kathmandu and a plane ticket to Delhi, and this idea cheered me up greatly. But when this offer was conveyed to her, she said no, thank you. She did make one request: Could I bring her a bottle of whiskey?

An essay on whiskey, earthquakes and tragedy by Ellen Barry.

Song of the Day: “John My Beloved”

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After the heartbreakingly gentle song, “John My Beloved,” ends, Sufjan Stevens takes a single audible breath. The breath, like many of Stevens’s choices on his revelatory new album, Carrie & Lowell, beckons the listener in by virtue of its strangeness. The record is a complete work of art no matter how it is viewed, but the breath suggests something unfinished. Though “John My Beloved” is a remarkable love song, Stevens leaves us wondering for whom it was written, man or deity, and if they will ever reply.

Notable Portland: 5/21–5/27

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Thursday 5/21: Oregon Humanities presents poet, activist, and professor Walidah Imarisha to lead a discussion for their Think & Drink series. Alberta Rose Theatre, 6:30 p.m., tickets start at $10.

Tin House and Portland State University’s Creative Writing Department welcome Mary Reufle for a public reading to top off their Spring semester seminar on her writing. Reservations required. The Little Church, 6:30 p.m., free.

To celebrate the release of his memoirs, Deal, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann will discuss not only the stories in the book, but also the insane three-year process behind writing it. A moderated Q&A segment will be followed by a book signing. Kreutzmann will be joined in conversation with Benjy Eisen. Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing, 7 p.m., free.

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13th Floor Elevators Reunited for First Show in 47 Years

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The 13th Floor Elevators are one of those groups that seem to perfectly articulate their genre; a psychedelic band that disbanded in 1969 but whose records have a place in the core catalog of any kid trying to get to know that decade today. If you haven’t happened upon them yet yourself, suffice it to say, the Elevators are one of those bands that keep coming up (like here and here), and rightfully so. Roky Erickson, Tommy Hall, John Ike Walton, and Ronnie Leatherman performed together for the first time in forty-seven years at Austin’s Levitation Festival last weekend, playing songs spanning the band’s discography, and making just about everyone cross their fingers and wish the reunion wasn’t only a one-time thing. Watch the full performance after the jump, and you’ll see what we mean. (more…)

Hold Still

Hold Still by Sally Mann

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Driving down River Road an hour outside of New Orleans, a byway named for the manner in which the pavement follows the curves of the Mississippi, the passengers in our car were silent. Under a hush, we took in the Spanish moss-draped oaks and looming plantation homes, the timeless fields that stretched for miles. It is a landscape for which words are often faulty, inept. They can only attempt to get at certain indescribable qualities. Which is why photographs can be so effective in construing the essence of the Great American South. Sally Mann’s, in particular, get at that etheric environment: the way the pervasive humidity blankets a patch of cypress knees that arch out of a swamp; how the knots on a certain tree are wrought deep into the bark, as the south’s own ragged history is worn into its face; the way a civil war battlefield is caught in some forever fog. In her photographs and her memoir, Hold Still, Mann presents a captivating version of that southern body in all its twisted beauty.

Hold Still is a portrait of Mann and of the south—of an individual who identifies inextricably with her southern birthplace. “We southerners,” Mann writes, “like Proust, have come to believe that the only true perfection is a lost perfection, buying into our own myth of loss by creating a flimflam romance out of resounding historical defeat.” Mann’s words are often sumptuous, and her writing mirrors the visual and philosophical nature of her photographs. “The early poetic language and my later elegiac landscapes each served as primary, repeating threads running through my life, the warp and woof of memory and desire.” She even calls her images her “(poem-) photographs.” Mann was a poet first, before discovering photography during her time in a Vermont boarding school.

At times her sentences brim over with rich language, becoming a bit saccharine, overindulgent. But these sins are easily forgiven; after all, overindulgence is a southern tendency. Think: pralines, pies, anything conceived in the kitchen of Paula Deen. Sweet sentences are apt for a southern story. Mann’s nearly five hundred-page memoir lacks a dull moment—partially due to the beauty of her language, and partially because of her striking photographs, and the ones she dug up from the family attic.

Capturing this complex history of the south is not a straightforward endeavor, as Mann—a white, female artist—notes. Discussing her latest project, she describes how she is seeking to “find out who these black men were that I encountered in my childhood.” She writes: “At the most base level, making these images is exploitative, reductive, and fraught. But at a higher level, which portraiture at its best can achieve, the results can also be transformative expressions of love, affirmation, and hope. If transgression is at the very heart of photographic portraiture, then the ideal outcome—beauty, communion, honesty, and empathy—mitigates the offense.”

Sally Mann

Sally Mann

If you’re looking for a gilded portrait of southern privilege complete with sweet tea and white columned mansions, then this is not the book for you. It is not necessarily a southern gothic either—not some dark twisted fantasy of life below the Mason-Dixon. Rather, Mann tries to portray the complexity of her world, the beautiful and the haunting, as it actually exists. There is the murder suicide of her parents-in-law, the stalker who tormented her kin after “The Family Pictures” made her (in)famous, and a struggle to come to terms with her own part in “the fundamental paradox of the South”—how in a society based on public segregation, a black caretaker, Gee-Gee, intimately, adoringly raised a white girl whose own parents kept her at a distance. Having also spent my formative years in Virginia, I appreciate that Mann can simultaneously worship the state’s undeniable natural beauty and residual charm while also confronting the hypocrisy of a culture that often sweeps its dirty history under the rug.

In addition to contemplating the south, Mann discusses her art-making, giving us a window into her evolution as a photographer: “In general, I am past taking pictures for the sake of seeing how things look in a photograph, although sometimes for fun, I still do that. But these days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept.”

Which means that she’s also revisiting old photographic experiments. To those interested in what she calls “the family pictures”—the photographs Mann took of her children, often naked, at her and her husband’s farm in Rockbridge County—Mann provides a satisfying account of her thought processes regarding how a private artistic act became a public ordeal. She writes:

Unwittingly, ignorantly, I made pictures I thought I could control, pictures made within the prelapsarian protection of the farm, those cliffs, the impassable road, the embracing river. That’s the critical thing about the family pictures: they were only possible because of the farm, the place. America now hardly has such a thing as privacy… For miles in all directions, there was not a breathing soul… we were isolated not just by geography but by the primitive living conditions: no electricity, no running water, and, of course, no computer, no phone. How natural was it then, in that situation, to allow our children to run naked?… They spent their summers in the embrace of those cliffs, protected by distance, time, and our belief that the world was a safe place.

Throughout Hold Still, Mann makes herself accessible to the reader, though you may not find her to be entirely relatable. (Who else can say they dined regularly with Cy Twombly, could call William Eggleston “Bill,” deposited a fresh specimen at The Body Farm, and lives with their devoted husband on an isolated Virginia farm where their children run nude, free?) It’s as if she were holding a photo album between your laps and saying, ‘take a look at this photograph of my father,’ ‘see this picture I took right outside my back door one morning?’ Don’t hesitate to take a closer look; it is Sally Mann’s family album, after all.

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Vivian Gornick Does Not Like Your MFA

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Jessica Gross interviewed Vivian Gornick for Longreads and they talked money, death, sex, MFAs, and other things that bore Gornick:

It’s meaningless to me. I found, as the years went on, I was very lucky not to have a bourgeois bone in my body. I don’t want anything, and that has really stood me in good stead. If you’re a writer and you’re living on the margin and you hunger for the so-called good things in life, for material stuff, you’re really in trouble. And I discovered I don’t. All I ever wanted was to just make enough to stay alive. So yeah, sex, money—and age and death, to my amazement, don’t hold my attention either.

Emma Sulkowicz: A Rumpus Roundup

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Emma Sulkowicz graduated from Columbia University yesterday. She might have gone unnoticed had she not also been carrying around a mattress.

In her sophomore year at Columbia, Sulkowicz was raped. Like many rape victims, Sulkowicz considered her attacker a friend, and he was someone she had slept with twice before. On the night of the assault, Sulkowicz says she had not been drinking. She and her attacker were in her room having sex. Then Sulkowicz says that she was slapped, pinned down, and penetrated anally. She screamed for it to stop, but it didn’t.

Sulkowicz hesitated in reporting the assault until two other women who had been victims of her attacker encouraged her to speak up. Sulkowicz first filed a complaint with Columbia University. (more…)

The Feminine Mystique of Miss Marple

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Miss Marple’s strength as a mystery novel heroin was inseparable from her character: that of a nosy, small town spinster. Far from taking those identity markers as pejorative, Alice Bolin has written a stirring defense of Miss Marple (and her creator, Agatha Christie) as a champion of a particularly feminine brand of sleuthing: one that requires intimate knowledge of relationships and the domestic habits of her British village. Bolin breaks down the underlying misogyny of popular mystery critics, and celebrates Christie’s accomplishments, noting that “Miss Marple nudges blustering, blowhard cops in the right direction demonstrates how the Queen of Crime inherited just as much from Jane Austen as Arthur Conan Doyle.”

The Rise of the Mega-Novel

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Serial novels are nothing new, especially in genre fiction designed to keep readers shelling out money for the next phase of a story. But the sudden, rapid success of fantasy genre series like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and the adaptation of Tolkien’s hobbit epics to the big screen has meant publishers want to cash in on the double-XL titles. The Guardian looks at how these mega-novels are hurting the genre and need to be reigned in before readers tire of them:

A deluge of multi-volume epics has been published over recent years, each one in turn hailed as the next Game of Thrones, only to disappear within a few months as disappointed readers found reality didn’t match the hype. Some were by excellent writers who don’t quite have the breadth to tackle a full mega-novel, telling stories that would have been better told in a single volume. Most were by debut novelists, often interesting writers with some good short stories under their belt, pushed far beyond their technical abilities by an industry hungry for instant commercial success.

Word of the Day: Nesh

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(n.); soft, delicate, tender; from the Old English hnesce (“soft in texture”) or Gothic hnasqus (“tender; soft”)

“Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth over the merits of print versus digital books so many times, it’s as if I were in an abusive relationship with myself. But my mother’s passing and the sentimental value of her library have finally put an end to that debate in my head.”

–Nick Bilton, “In a Mother’s Spirit”

We’re all more than familiar with the raging debate over the “digital revolution” allegedly rocking the publishing world. There are many compelling arguments for why print books provide a superior reading experience; likewise, there are just as many eloquent rebuttals in defense of the new reading mediums. Last week in the New York Times, self-professed e-book convert Nick Bilton offered a delicate and touching introspection on the balance between digital and print, and on living a life “filled with beautiful words,” be they in print or digital.

Prince Returns to the Internet

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Since recording “Baltimore,” written in response to the deaths of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray, Prince has returned to the Internet. We at The Rumpus were captivated by Prince’s last Twitter experiment, only to be disappointed when he shut the account down within its first month. But it looks like the artist is coming back to us: on the same day he released “Baltimore,” Prince launched a new Twitter account (verified, of course). And now the entirety of Prince’s Dance Rally 4 Peace is available to stream on his new SoundCloud. Also: the performance is gorgeous, peppered with the big hits, tracks off the new record, a performance of “Baltimore,” and some thoroughly touching messages from Prince to the crowd. “It don’t matter the color,” Prince said in his sign-off, “we are all family.”