Producer talks profanity, poetry

“Ask me anything,” David Milch ’66, award-winning screenwriter and television producer, said at the opening of a Davenport College Master’s Tea on Thursday.

In front of an audience of about 70 people, Milch discussed a variety of topics — such as surfers, Gottfried Leibniz and profanity — related to his overall message: “All things coexist simultaneously, and if you simply stay present to them, you realize they are all part of the same dream, which as an artist I’m trying to find the logic of.”

The dream Milch spoke of came from a poem by his mentor, Robert Penn Warren, called “I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision.” The poem depicts a dream in which a young boy sees presents under a Christmas tree, yet cannot open them because he is traveling through space and time. Milch analyzed the entire poem but emphasized its closing lines several times throughout his talk.

“This / is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness / may be converted to the future tense of joy,” he recited.

Through his writing, Milch explained, he attempts to find a cohesive logic for this dream, a combination of experiences, fantasies and random associations.

With his words, Milch said he has been able to come to terms with painful events of the past. When the HBO series “Deadwood” — which he created, wrote and produced — was canceled, Milch said he decided to write a new show about surfers, which became “John from Cincinnati.” The main character’s name, John Monad, is a nod to Leibniz’s idea of monads, which Milch explained as “places in the universe from which all of experience was accessible.”

“You could get 20 monkeys, and every one of them would be more articulate than the most articulate surfer you ever met,” Milch quipped. “But they understand something, and they can’t express it, because their neural connections are so saturated by the experience of oneness.”

The surfer’s idea of the wave, Milch continued, is a manifestation of the unifying energy of the universe.

“Our seeming separateness is an illusion, a misperception,” he said. “So many of our experiences transcend that sense of separateness. A plane flies overhead at the World Series, and everyone is similarly moved … the Star Spangled Banner, the first time blood is drawn at a prizefight, and the sound emanates from the crowd as if it were one creature.”

Much of the discussion about “Deadwood” centered on the show’s profane language and provocative content. For Milch, profanity can be eloquent. He likened the complexity of Ellsworth’s swearing to the ability to express oneself in Shakespearean terms.

Five people interviewed at the tea expressed enthusiasm about the ideas Milch raised during the talk.

Jeremy Kessler ’06 LAW ’11 said he thinks Milch “offers something people don’t get very often,” referring to his ability to combine the intellectual and the spiritual.

Another attendee, Sam Haller, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a “John from Cincinnati” fan, said Milch was as “fascinating” as he expected.

“From watching his interviews, I know that when he writes he sits on a pillow and dictates,” Haller said. “This Master’s Tea was like that, just his thought process, the way he words his sentences, it seems like the first draft of an in-depth thought.”

Milch, who graduated summa cum laude from Yale and taught in the English Department, has won Emmy Awards for his shows “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.”

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