Saturday, August 23, 2008

Intimations of Regionalism

Before you go any further read this story at Night Train: The Tree That Girdles Itself by Donna D. Vitucci. It has nothing to do with this blog post, but it might have something to do with a future blog post. Stay tuned and expect a test.

me in the workshop preparing my mobile housing unit

As people, as writers, when we present our faces to the world we often feel a need to fashion neat little simplified boxes in which to portray ourselves as something less than the complexity that we are… otherwise folks just feel a need to jump up running and screaming?

A fellow writer that I have been paying attention to recently opened a blog where he expresses that his growing up is from Northern Appalachia to which he assigns Tioga County, PA. Fried Chicken and Coffee.

So, often, particularly online in an e-zine, when you read a story there will be somewhere attached a small biographical snippet about the writer. These can either be literal and nearly true, or as false and misleading as anything Mark Twain would pretend in a lie. In my case, with my writer’s persona I pretend to be from Northern Appalachia… in fact I am from Tompkins County, NY which is the northernmost county in Appalachia (I checked with my geographer friend on this). I claim this origination despite my having fled that scene more than thirty years ago for the adventure of first Washington, DC and then NYC and now these past nearly 20 years commuting across Long Island from pseudo-rural south shore along the Atlantic to mega-urban workzone of the 5 Boroughs.

That said, Tompkins County is a schizoid place in comparison to 99.99% of the remainder of what is known as Appalachia, either Southern or Northern, and up until my friend placed his blog FLAG squarely in the Northern Appalachian geography I had sort of imagined to myself that nobody knows what Northern Appalachia is about as a culture and therefore it was, at least for me, fresh meat to barbie. But hold on here…

The reason Tompkins County is schizoid is that it has Cornell, an Ivy League University, as a sort of oasis in the midst of rolling hills with Cayuga Lake as an added bonus. Not to mention Ithaca College and the media studies or the amazing proliferation of music in the zone. So you have Ithaca as the predominant city of the county, and you have Cornell where there is this mass of buildings, but also a mass of human brain matter refined to a very high scale. Some of it is yearning to escape planet earth, some of it is yearning to get lost in the woods and some of it goes sailing on Sunday. The place has poetry, it has literature, and it had Nabokov, AR Ammons (the man needs an enema) etc. Ginsberg liked to read there and Kerouac shopped at the Brahman Bookstore. Madame Blavatsky even made visits to the town, and there have been many many writers brought up, exaggerated and spit out by the region. So to describe Northern Appalachia as a shed with a wood stove, sour mash and dueling banjoes just does not quite work for me, alone, I mean, there needs to be this radical contrast between the culture of totally geeked out brains and cabbage farmers or UFO nuts or rabbit hunting or the big yearly drug bust.

So I remember in the 70s you could go to town and watch Gary Snyder give a reading. You could meet other local poets and have arguments about who lost the post office box key. There was not hardly any book a poet would want to buy that you could not find in the local new or used bookstores. Get in the truck and drive up to Buffalo to wonder why Gary Snyder was drunk on his ass in midafternoon. Wander down to Binghamton to hob nob with Gil Williams at an open reading he sponsored. Drive through a blizzard to sit in a sweaty room with Robert Bly banging a drum. Or a quick cut up to Syracuse for a bit of Samizdat on the Syracuse University student radio station at 3 am. And it was called, proudly we called it, regionalism.

At the time Regionalism was like it was this new thing that we pushed around to claim our identity. A lot of good that it did. The most prolific example of product that I remember was a young woman that wrote a chapbook of poems about raccoons that centered on her emotional attachment to how cute their little black masked faces looked.

When I moved down to Maryland outside of DC I took advantage to spend days off at the Library of Congress. What I found out was that I could ask to see old books there and I went a bit wild asking for all of the books I could find from Central New York writers as far back as they would go with it. I found a lot more of them than I ever found at home (Brooktondale and/or Besemer to be exact, not all that far from Bullamanka).

There is a whole lot that happened in the Central NY region in the 19th century as far as writing went, and religion, and a whole lot of poetry. It was not only the basket birthing of the Women’s Movement that went on there. Catching on to this wealth of historic poetry, and picking up a bit on the rhythms of those agrarian tendencies toward empyrean heights of cornseed epiphany I approached my friend John Gill (then in Trumansburg with Crossing Press) and suggested to him an anthology of this older poetry. His comment was that it was bad poetry then, it is bad poetry now. At the time I took him at his word.

It is pretty bad poetry, but in lingering on the topic of regionalism I think there is some importance to our claim of a place as attached to our identity as either a human, or as a writer, or as any sort of artist that we have an historical consciousness of what that place has meant to be to the larger remaining portion of the world in the past. If that historic literature/art, despite it being bad, is inaccessible to us then we have no clue as to what the larger whole is of what we claim as our regional identity.

All this when brought together I suspect that I need to claim a different piece of outer space as it is that I see all those people from south of my spiritual center are so outlandishly staid in their back country hill and holler ways. I would almost rather be from Ohio.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Career of Work or Art?

This picture is of Rudy and Gabe. Check out more photos at Pamela Follett photography.

In a recent discussion with JB came up the topic if we had only spent more time at our art than at our business life would we be further along with our art?

What struck me mostly about the conversation was that we were both fairly serious about the topic, for each of us individually from the vantage of our own experience and perspective. We did not so much argue to convince each other as to compare notes. It is a question that I have to admit, has plagued me for many decades.

At a time in my life when I wanted nothing more than to write I made a deliberate choice NOT to go to college in order to study literature or creative writing. The sentiment then was, and continues to be, that a writer gains most from engagement with life and that the learning to write part comes of the persistence of desire to write.

I have always felt that what I really need to know in life is out and about to be shared by people that we meet, encounter, eat with, live and work with, if only we remember to pay attention. Which brings up that for me writing, art is mainly about paying attention, to be as fully conscious in life as we are able.

Too many years back a Snap-On tool salesman that we were building a fireplace for told me that when we need to know something we will figure out a way to know it. To me this is education by enlightenment, to seek the light of understanding and clarity. I want to know, therefore I will know.

Then another friend of mine, Jeff, who had gone on to college on to an MFA and eventually gained a position to teach art at a college, in a manner to recycle what they had learned, along their path told me that if I had gone to college I would be, as they said, 10 years further along in my writing. That was interesting, it caused me to stumble along for a while trying to parse it out. Ten years ahead of what?

They pointed at a particular Yale Younger Poet that was popular that year. “See, like her.” I followed Sylvia’s career that flamed down to Nicaragua or wherever the theme drove her passion then within like three years she vanished. I have never heard nor seen of her since. Ten years ahead of total obscurity? I am already quite comfortable in obscurity and see no reason for the expense of special training.

“Everyone puts their history into their work.” Erik Spiekermann, type designer quoted from the movie Helvetica.

This quote brings in a fold to my logic and I trust that you will make the leap to follow me. JB and I also share in that in our lives we do business, each to our own and at times we do business together, and for the most part what a majority of our network of friends and associates see us as is ‘in business’ and not necessarily first as artists and second as carpenters or stonemasons. Granted there are a few friends that know us only as artists and that we do ‘other stuff’ but for the most part people know us for our business.

When we are at a party, a social gathering, we do not say, “I am a painter.” Or “I am a poet.” In my case I fumble out, “I fix old buildings.” For the most part I cannot explain what I do in one or two sentences and I tend to give up quickly. Follow me and you will see what I do. If you cannot see it then I cannot particularly help you to see it.

The other night a charming young lady told me that I come across as lame, as if I had just fallen off a truck.

Regardless, there are folks who will come to a party and when you first up ask them what do they DO… they will tell you that they are a singer, or an actress, or a sculptor, whatever and when you hang with them long enough you find out what they do is laundry, or carpentry to ‘fill in’ until the big break, or their family owns a chain of cardboard box factories in Minnesota. I have always found this phenomena in part a ‘wanna be’ and I am delighted most when the person who introduces themselves as an auto mechanic when one day you discover, best if by accident, that they are making these fantastic off-the-wall sculptures out of dead bumpers in the alley behind the station. At heart I am an iconoclast.

So it comes to this, that though I share and admire the desire to be further along in our art, I do not quite understand what it means to be further along in life, short of acceleration along the route toward eventual termination and that it is the totality of our life experience that when we sit down to write, or paint or make a little movie, informs our craft, leastways if we are awake, paying attention, and conscious of our being alive.

So I cannot at heart separate out the hours, days, and months of busting stone with a sledge hammer as being some ‘other’ diversionary route to getting to here, where I am as I write this. I was very happy busting stone and it was in the moment of each strike of the sledge that I was conscious. As with some folks that like to freshen up their golf swing, I enjoy the occasion to go out and refresh my stone busting, if only for the reminiscence of ‘in the day’.

Shyness aside even the question as to what mask, poet or stonemason or foolish clown, that we will wear becomes folded into the work.