So I’m driving back last night from a poetry reading in Lancaster, PA with my dear friend and poet/former childhood actress Barbara Decesare in the middle of a full blown downpour–a summer style thunderstorm best experienced from a front porch in August, not in early April on Rte. 30. The reading in honor of local poet/publisher/scene builder Le Hinton and what made it such a solid event was for once we were celebrating a poet while that poet was still very much alive and could appreciate the love his community was giving back to him. Le’s a selfless promoter of the writing community and the poets he publishes in his magazine Fledgling Rag as well as his publishing imprint Iris G Press. It’s hard not to like someone who is so dedicated to the work of others. Of course, none of it would matter if Le’s work wasn’t also fantastic–which was demonstrated by the poems I heard and the fact his latest publication was killing it in the new Baltimore Review.
Like I said, we are driving home from this reading and it gave me pause to think about how a night like this could’ve gone the other way and been so horribly wrong pending on the poet being honored. It’s a fine line between celebrating a person’s work and it being a pretentious bit of glad handing and sycophants. I think if it were a poet who was a little too “precious” in process or art, an event like this could very easily devolve into something less inclusive and more dismissive. Barb and I talked a little bit about that word “precious” when it comes to certain artists and what a truly withering label to be saddled with–”precious.” It’s like a step beyond pretense, moving beyond something overconfident but yet almost aloof to how ridiculous your actions truly are beyond the tip of your nose–all quirky socks and funky colored glasses.
You do enough readings in enough places and see enough poets and faces, you become familiar with the “precious” poets. Spend ten minutes with one and let them tell you about all the work they are doing which makes them interconnected with the grand invisible web which binds all of humanity together with its environment, and animals, and ancestors. The precious poet is so consumed by life’s diverse and empowering multicultural, multi-faceted stone setting that they seek to celebrate existence even at its most mundane level–not for the art, not for the subject, but for the world so blind to its beauty, because without the artist’s struggle to empower their journaling to provide a clear and persistent “vision,” their ability to see what no one else sees or moreover just ignores, the world would be a far less enriching of a place.
Holy fuck, did Bono just walk into the room? It’s one thing to have someone say that about your work–a wholly different experience when you convey this thought to someone over a crudite platter.
Next, pepper in some selfless act you are involved in–bonus points if it can include one or all of the following: third world country, terminally ill, the physically disabled. Talk about how being this close to humanity helps you with your art–NOT LIKE HELPING FUCKING PEOPLE HAS AN INTRINSIC VALUE MIND YOU.
Perhaps you are considering creating a chapbook or memoir based upon your time and experience and will give all the proceeds to charity X–like your time wasn’t enough, or that the real value you hope society will see is the art and not aid. It’s one thing to build a career in such a field and then take your experiences to art in order to figure yourself out, maybe offer some solace to a reader or two, but when you’re endpoint is the book and not the act–at what point does charity become self-service? Ultimately, this pretension comes down to an idea of special access–that the poet is able to connect to the world in a way that is exclusive to the writer. It’s as if their capacity to translate the world for the laymen gives them a power of privilege based upon exclusivity–because “I” can show “you” the world in a way “you” can’t see it, “I’m” special (and subsequently better than you. Feel free to get an Altoid since I know you threw up in your mouth, just a little.)
I think my own angst and ranty-ness over the “precious” poet lies in my own inherent fear that I can be as guilty as the next poet of taking my act too seriously. As a result, I tend to swing hard and far the other way–I don’t give enough importance to writing. I celebrate irreverence. I may have said it in this space before, it’s hard to sell the idea of dark, brooding, and tortured when you’re driving a late period Buick Century. Generally speaking, I’m not a troubled guy–I get along with my parents and have a great network of friends (who have really demonstrated what friendship means over the bulk of this best worst year–Hell yes I’m going to plug my own column within the column I’m writing–as if it were a stuffed crust Pizza Hut pizza.) And if those two aspects of my life don’t ground me (or call me on my shit), my sense of humour has been my pressure valve, my shield, and my self-check.
I sometimes worry if what I write about here gets too insular, too deep down the foxhole with room for myself and, more importantly, The Replacements back catalog on vinyl. You hope–actually I hope that I don’t come off as being too precious with my work or “my art.” There’s no special access to this writing life–you just read and write and read and write and read and never go out and write and read and eat a lot of meals in front of a blank page and write and spend weekends in front of a book or a laptop and read and don’t go on dates and write and be a shut in and read and leave the house for poetry gigs, records, or books, or pizza, and write and read and… yeah…. What gives us access is giving yourself permission to open the door into this life. How far you open that door or go into that room or leave that room is up to you. No magic. No secret handshake. Not even a goddamn key.
In the same light, I’ve busted my ass to get where I’m at. Publication, traveling, guest speaker gigs, deli trays, sexy librarians–they’ve all happened because I’ve committed myself to that life. For me, there’s no muse, there’s no metaphysical being granting me grace and insight to create from divine inspiration. It’s my job–I’m brown bagging it when I come to the page (sometimes what’s in the brown bag varies…) and I make no bones about how I got what I got when someone asks me about what I do. On top of that, because I’ve been working steadily, when opportunities present themselves, I am prepared to take the chance and run with it. It’s not luck which makes you lucky, it’s being prepared which makes you ready for luck happen. Furthermore, I’d be doing what I’m doing right now regardless because this is what I love. If I’m lucky at all it’s in the fact that you are still reading this piece. Thank you, I’m here all week. Please tip your waitress well.
Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. Mr. Warner is also founder and CEO of misterjim International, a holding company for his many artistic and media endeavours including a production company, a music label, and a chain of upscale big and tall clothing stores. Follow and obey on Twitter: @whoismisterjim.