Art On the Periphery
As a poet, I am intimately familiar with how people in the United States of America treat my artistic pursuit. Most Americans do not read books, let alone partake in the art of reading, writing, or listening to poetry. Upon being introduced as a poet, the conversation has gone something like this, "But how do you earn money?"
Actually, I earned my living as a computer specialist, analyst, programmer before I retired from a decades long career in the U.S. government. As a French literature and language major who did not want to teach bored high school students, I was coached early on that literary pursuits would not pay for a roof over head or food on the table. I was also not an ivory tower kind of writer.
I hooked up with other poets who took poetry to the streets. My fellow poets imagined organizing outdoor poetry readings where rotten tomatoes would be thrown if the poetry was not communicating with the audience. Although putrid fruit and vegetables have not been thrown, I was responsible for starting and developing an outdoor poetry series in a national park and so it is that the Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series in Washington, DC's Rock Creek Park has been running annually every summer on donated funds since the late 1970s.
I documented some of the things that happened in this fight to keep poetry alive in Whose Woods These Are: a Journal of the Word Works residence at the Joaquin Miller Cabin, Rock Creek Park Washington, D.C. from 1976 to 1983. For example, in my anecdote (Whose Woods contains poetry, essays, and short anecdotes) entitled "Sometimes It's What You Don't Say," I described how the National Park Police showed up for the performance of Kirby Malone and Marshall Reese, a pair calling themselves Co-Accident, a nonverbal poetry troupe dressed in Robin Hood tunics with nylon stockings pulled over their heads. The nonverbal poets who were making electronic noises were spotted by ordinary and fearful citizens who called the police.
Some of the crowd I ran with believed in guerrilla tactics. If we could not get bookstores to buy our newly published books of poetry, we would surreptitiously put them on a bookstore's shelves. We said we would do what it took to get poetry to the people and yes, we did have poetry readings on street corners.
Others of the crowd I hung with were scientists. A physicist and poet is the one who negotiated with the National Park Service for the initial permission to use the Joaquin Miller Cabin for our poetry activities. The NPS told Jim Beall we would have to submit our poems and no profanity would be allowed. We submitted poems that addressed trees and birds. Did someone at NPS know poets are revolutionaries like Allen Ginsberg who will do anything to keep poetry vital? Probably not.
Although I cannot call myself political, I was involved in such activities as the 1981 Library of Congress conference on Science and Literature that was spearheaded by the then Consultant in Poetry (now called the U.S. Poet Laureate) William Meridith and the poet physicist Dr. James Howard Beall. Attending this conference were such scientists as George Wald, Higgins Professor of Biology, emeritus, Harvard University as well as prominent literary figures such as fiction writer John Gardner, science fiction writer Gene Roddenberry, poets Maxine Kumin and Linda Pastan.
In 1982, I was selected under a National Endowment for Arts grant to teach a poetry workshop in the Pittsburgh Penitentiary. I told the convicted murderers and rapists attending my workshop that we would use what I learned in the conference on Science and Literature as our base for writing new poems. Oh, no, said the inside leader of the prison poets, that's what caused me to murder my girlfriend! Well, I kept my back to the concrete wall but I steered the group back to my original plan and we did use the themes of science and technology for the poems written. Later, with help from the Pittsburgh community, an anthology of poems from the inmates was published with some of those poems.
So who ever said it was easy to be poet in this age where science, mathematics, and computer technology dominate the conversation about how to make it in this world? By making it, I mean all levels— money and health are two categories that immediately come to mind. After 27 years of working for the United States government for a handsome annual salary, I took a government buyout in 1996 so I could pursue my art fulltime. Over the years, I had translated what I learned about computers and business to my passion for poetry. Since 1986, I have been leading The Word Works, a nonprofit literary organization that helps establish other writers in the field of poetry and also develop on a continuing basis an audience for that poetry. Annually every spring since 2000, I have gone into the Arlington, Virginia primary schools to teach children the joy of poetry.
While I cannot say everyone I know has my array of skills, most of my colleagues stay immersed in activities to promote poetry and tend the human condition. It is just part of the baggage of being a poet. I just returned from a 22-day trip to China. While I was there I had the occasion twice to recite my signature poem "Leo on Seesaw." The first time was aboard a Yangzee River boat where I thought only the Americans on the tour were listening. After my performance the next day, I ran into a Chinese porter working on the boat. He said his English was not so good but he loved my poem and then proceeded to repeat back my words "the Kuchen in the kitchen." The second time I recited my poem to a class of Chinese fifth graders who ceased moving around in their unheated classroom and turned their full attention to my performance, which is exactly what happens when I present this poem to the kids in the Arlington, Virginia school system.
And, by the way, these kids were learning such English phrases as "I sweep the floor. I take out trash." The work ethic definitely comes before the arts in China too. Nonetheless, I believe poetry should be able to transcend language barriers and the experience in China made my belief reality.
During those 22 days in China, I heard from many people about their experience with the Cultural Revolution. Imagine ten years where no academic educational activities take place, books and artwork are destroyed, and artists are beaten and sent to pig farms for re-education. While the artist, and specifically the poet, is not fully respected in the United States, there is still plenty of opportunity to pursue artistic disciplines and to influence the masses. My continuing philosophy remains as ever, carpe diem. I say live life to the fullest no matter what fat cat gets in your way.
Here's a poem from my 1975 collection Wandering on the Outside, which puts into perspective what I have said about pursuing poetry in the face of all obstacles.
like a stone wall
could the Chinese perpetuate
those stone miles
my eyelids close
like the hillside
no woman now
textured and impassible:
I can keep the enemies out
in the stones
like a faith