Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps

Love—the Artist's 'Sleight of Hand'

"Hunger allows no choice/To the citizen or the police;/ we must love one another or die," W. H. Auden wrote in his renowned poem "September 1, 1939."

Years after writing it, Auden deleted the line "we must love one another or die" from collections of his work.  Usually, as a poet and writer, I side with the author in such matters.  But I'm glad that contrary to Auden's wishes, the original wording remains embedded in the craws, minds and brains of countless poets and readers.  Including me.

The more I hear the news (nuclear plant problems after the  earthquake in Japan--film director Lars von Trier joking "OK, I'm a Nazi" at the Cannes Film Festival last month), the more I'm convinced of the truth of Auden's dictum.  We must love one another or die.

If we don't work together to solve problems stemming from radiation, poverty, bigotry and disease, many of us will die.

But if we don't love one another, we'll die on other, less literal, but equally important levels.  Our imaginations will wither, our spirits will sink and we'll lose our collective heart.  This is where we artists come in the picture.  While we can give food to the hungry or work to cure diseases, our most important role is to create art.  It's still true: the political is personal, and art, whether political, surrealistic, post-modern–in whatever form nourishes our imagination, hearts and spirits.

Yet, in this ironic, multitasking, competitive, narcissistic age, seeking love (of "one another" rather than of one's self) seems like a harebrained, sentimental tic.  Who among us in our personal or artistic lives has the time or the ego for this?  In the artistic dog-eat-dog life of the "po biz" or "art world," what poet or artist would embrace love of anyone or anything other than his or her "career?"

I'm as ambitious as my poet peers.  Making money and becoming famous through poetry is an oxymoron unless you're one of this world's, maybe 10, living, famous poets.  But we still dream of glory — of pleasing our muse and of reading and publishing to and for the faithful few.

Even so love insists on rearing its besotted head. Not just for me, but for other creative artists from poets to painters.

To begin with, I love that feckless, insatiable creature–my muse.  I respond to her every whim, as I rush to the door where the dog scratches demanding to be let out.

I bet you're running to the door now–servicing your muse.

Then there are my characters.  Once I begin writing, I become not only their creator, but their undying lover.  Whether they're the wittiest, kindest creations ever to populate a poem or vicious vixens, I'm eating out of their hands forever.  Maybe the character in your poems, novels or plays or paintings are "9 to 5" folk, who let you peacefully have drinks, eat dinner, put kids to bed, entertain guests, and stream movies on your computer from dusk to dawn.  I should be so lucky.  My narrators, personas and literary alter egos, think nothing of intruding at the most intimate or engaging moment (usually when I'm watching a terrific, suspenseful Hitchcock movie such as "Strangers on a Train").  I wager Dicken's villains bugged him when he was downing a pint at his pub.

Perhaps, most important for us artists is our audience. "What?," you're saying, "audience? Why, I don't need an audience.  I never think of anyone else while I'm {writing, painting...fill in the blank).  I live only for my art!"

Puhleeze!  Self-respecting artists think about their audience when writing what they want for lunch. "Hmm," they'll ponder as they tweet their order to their fav deli, "should I write 'no mayo,' 'mayo on the side,' or 'hold the mayo?"

I doubt that there would be much art–or much good art–if we didn't love our audiences and if they didn't love us back. I don't mean that audiences are (always or often) reading, hearing or seeing who we are in our private lives when they experience our work.  Often, we're disappointed when we meet the writer, poet, painter or actor whose work we've so fervently admired.  Years ago, a friend of mine was dismayed when the late James Dickey, a writer who he'd greatly admired, was too drunk to speak when he came to his college to give a lecture.

I adore James Thurber's writing.  His fables "The Scottie Who Knew Too Much" and "The Unicorn in the Garden" make me laugh out loud.  But I've glad I never met the late, renowned humorist whose fab cartoons graced the pages of "The New Yorker" for decades.  Off the page, he could be a cantankerous, lecherous drunkard.

Yet, despite their personal flaws, the best artists often display respect for their audiences.  Great writers, like Virginia Woolf, for instance, create work that is unconventional.  Yet, they're not disrespectful of their readers.  I find John Ashberry's poetry to be playful, though challenging.  But, I don't feel that he's contemptuous of myself or other readers.

I thought of this last month when I heard writer and humorist Fran Leibowitz speak at a screening of "Public Speaking"-the Martin Scorsese documentary about her that's just out this month.  The doc is engaging.  Featuring clips and interviews of James Baldwin, William Buckley, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Leibowitz herself, the film takes us back to a time (the 1960's and 1970's) when talking was an art form.  Listening to this spot-on, rapid-fire, diamond-brilliant talk, provides the rush of downing a dozen cappuccinos or having fast, good sex.

Not only that.  If you're a creative artist who's muse is proving troublesome, you can take heart from Leibowitz.  She has had a writer's block of more than 20 years after writing two best sellers "Metropolitan Life" and "Social Studies" in the 1980's.

Yet, this high was short-lived for me. Especially, as I heard Liebowitz speak after seeing the documentary.  What ruined the high?

The contempt that Liebowitz projects (both in the doc and when she speaks in person) toward her audience.  Her talk is peppered with statements such as "there are too many bad books being written," "your life story will not make a good book" and "I am always right" along with commands such as "I will answer your questions in an entertaining fashion. You will not ask them in an entertaining fashion."

Some of this is her persona, there are too many bad books and most people's bios won't make good art.  This being said, her disrespect for her audience (and humanity in general) made her humor fall flat.  Re-reading her books was like eating Chinese food or engaging in anonymous (briefly enjoyable) sex.  I was left hungry and hating myself in the morning.

I'm no shrink.  But maybe Leibowitz's writing block stems in part from her dissing of her audience.  Does an audience who's been dissed want to keep engaging with an artist's work?  Who knows?  It makes me think: we who are artists need our audiences to love us back. I don't mean that we need our audience to like our work or to love us in a sentimental way.  I'm just saying that whether we want to admit it or not, in order to keep creating we may need our audience to respect us as artists.

Let's keep this in mind as we make art in an often loveless world.  Art is our love.  We must love one another or die.       

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©2011 Kathi Wolfe
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine-inSight

June 2011

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Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

June 2011

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