Archive for December, 2016

The Joys of a Poet

December 14, 2016

(And His Arrival at this Most Minuscule of Positions)

carl-nelson4

I cross the Ohio everyday.

Of the many experiences I remember of my theater years, the most compelling occurred on stage.  They were small moments, mini-scenes, in which the characters seemed so autonomous that the actors no longer needed to please the audience.  They were little sections of life that didn’t need to sell their plight to the audience; didn’t need the audience’s approval.  No great injustice needed be fought.  Rather, the tables were turned and it was the audience which could either watch or not.

These scenes from my work which have so stuck with me were quiet areas in the midst of the plays’ turbulences where this balance had been achieved… if only to be enjoyed for a short time, the world and theater being what they are.  Looking back, it’s occurred to me that the theater was not my calling as it is not rising conflict which energizes me but balance.  I love playfulness.

Amount and quality of audience are the two measures of a playwright.  If you cannot attract an audience and/or critical stalwarts, then you are not a playwright.  Those are the realities.  But like most practitioners I fudged.  I could attract a smidgeon of an audience, and some of them liked it – so I rationalized and called myself a playwright.  For I did write several plays, and they were produced, and, as unsuccessful people are apt to say, (with each career change), “I learned a lot!”

I would guess one of the reasons artists would yearn for great success – aside from the money and fame and beautiful lovers – is that it gives them a forceful argument when dealing with the complaints of people they have known privately.   For a very successful playwright, the easy reply is that, “Well, you are just a small minority of the many, many who loved it.”  A small time playwright cannot use this defense.  The troublesome person lives right next door.  The hope for audience is partly a defense mechanism.

Also a large audience will grant a artist the opportunity to command better and better opportunities.  For a playwright this would mean access to the best actors, directors, set designers, venues and… even audience.  But it also means restrictions.  The more money, the more pressures to reduce risk and to frequent travelled ground.  The better and more powerful your collaborators, the better they are at stealing the audience for themselves.  A popular actor might want the scene re-written to better showcase them.  A powerful director might insist upon their vision.  A powerful financial source might prefer the politics slanted a bit differently – or removed.  And the venue has a very worried view of what their regulars will endure.  With the acquisition of a large audience, there is always the risk of losing it.  The second guessing becomes as bothersome as pushing a huge rig down the road, squinting ahead, all the while glancing in the mirror at a wandering trailer.

I’d guess the first audience for most of us would be our parents.  And perhaps many of us found theirs as frustrating as I found mine.  Mom and dad would pay attention, but only in their terms; not unlike strangers.  This was a bone of contention between us for many years.  Finally, I gave up.  I no longer shared how I felt or my hopes, and oddly enough, our relationship improved markedly.  Mom and dad were intelligent, generous, caring people once I got over the fact that they didn’t want to know me very well.

Segue to the audience…

Since that time, I have employed this tactic often.  The solution to many an insoluble problem is to ignore it; proceed as if the world were created without that problem.   If acquiring audience seemed an insoluble problem for me, why not eliminate the audience?  For all these reasons – and the fact that I’d pretty much played out my hand as a playwright – poetry looked pretty good to me.

So after I had moved from Seattle to this Appalachian area, I looked around and found a poetry group which looked compatible.  They were close by, met frequently, weren’t attached to any college or university, and most importantly had sympathy for the spirits – albeit pagan, (in their case).  When I first read my poems to the group for their reaction, one of the first individuals to respond asked skeptically:  “Who do you imagine your audience to be?”

They all looked to me.

“I didn’t think poetry had an audience!” I responded.

“You may leave now,” the next laughed.

 

In truth, I had had my fill of trying to acquire and please an audience.  A writer gets tired of playing the whiskey drummer.  Some of my misgivings are revealed in a previous piece I’ve written.

the-audience-is-a-mob

Poets have little audience, generally make no money, and, unless they misbehave, command little attention.  We wander about in the artistic world a little like derelicts or the homeless.  All of which allows us great freedom.  And we catch our audience as we can… perhaps spouting off in a bar – or wherever we find ourselves for that matter, like the local hardware.  People don’t believe they are listening to poetry in so much as they believe they are arguing with a drunk or indulging an eccentric – which is a time honored practice in small, out of the way spots like here in Appalachia – or hope of hope, enjoying a laugh with a clever fellow!

Poets talk among themselves swapping words and a cleverly turned phrase in a verbal one-ups-man-ship.  And now and then when the urge to flock comes upon the poet community, they hold readings.  The grudges are dropped, the qualms muffled and a general comity of fellow feeling along the lines of “We are all in this together” and “I will listen to you if you will listen to me,” contains the aggregate of assembled oddballs.  Aside from this, poets send out their little missives to journals and odd sorts of publications as if spreading sparks in hopes of starting a fire.  This is the off-the-main-road-poet’s life, aesthetic nobodies chipping flints over damp wood and hoping for a conflagration.

As far as rewards, there is the quiet joy – something like that of a stamp collector – of having trapped a bit of life in verbal amber.  I’m reminded of the New Yorker joke showing the painter in his studio sitting to admire his painting on a Friday’s night with a coke and a theater pail heaped with popcorn.  Only the artist fully grasps the ins and outs and the subtleties of life captured in a well done work.  His lack of audience allows him unfettered freedom.  And his inability to market successfully frees up his schedule.  Find a bit of work or arrangement to pay the rent, add a few understanding spirits to voice admiration from time to time, and you have a satisfied fellow.  Or, at least someone satisfied enough to continue working…

A good poem doesn’t need an audience to be alive.  It’s alive all by itself.  It’s the audience which needs the poem to feel alive.  And that is because a good poem has balance.  And we rest in its achievement.  Not everybody of course, but there are people out there who delight in a little heaven here on earth.

So, to the number of audience an artist needs?  Just enough to keep him working, I’d say, and find him a little rent.

No more than fifty to a room at any time.  Anymore and it’s just the sound of hands clapping from somewhere out beyond the circle of light; the circle of trust…  but quixotically, always with the possibility of many more, if only to make the writing of the poem like purchasing a lottery ticket.  We keep talking and writing, hoping for that conflagration.

If you would like to read more of Carl Nelson, visit:  http://www.magicbeanbooks.co/home.html

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My Son Doesn’t Like to Read

December 7, 2016

books

My Son Doesn’t Like to Read

 My son doesn’t like to read.  Reading for enjoyment is a mystery to him.  Actually, sitting still for enjoyment is a mystery to him.  About the only thing he will sit still to watch are sports on TV and social media videos.

He is not ADHD.  He can spend large amounts of time working at the computer on photographs and design problems, and he can concentrate and finish his homework.  He is quite organized.  But the only times he will read is when he needs information.  And if he can obtain that information by listening, or asking a teacher or watching a YouTube video, he would prefer it.  He does not read to understand.  Gaining a deeper understanding of the life around him through reading would seem to be an oxymoron to him.  What he most prefers is being out doing activities with friends.

I’m not much worried about my son’s prospects in life.  He already runs his own business.  He makes money.  He is very active socially.  He’s well liked and well behaved.  Life doesn’t demand that he read that well.  His biggest problem is that school demands he reads that well.  And colleges demand that he read that well.

And speaking as someone who enjoys reading and does quite a lot of it, I wonder if society is best served by the emphasis our educational institutions place on reading.  I realize this is heresy and in a large part probably wrong-headed.  But, as I’ve aged and butted my head up against the world, it has occurred to me that many of the people I know, who have done quite well in life, do not like to read.  And conversely, many of the people I know, who like to read, have not done as well as might be supposed, given their abilities.

I was first struck by this while trying to create a producer for my play.  The fellow was a quite successful graduate from Stanford.  He was somewhat intrigued by the idea of play production.  But he admitted to me candidly that he didn’t like to read, and couldn’t imagine having to make it through “all those scripts”.  Another fellow I met was admitted to Stanford almost entirely on his test scores – not his high school attainments, as I think he might have dropped out.  But he had spent most of his teen years assiduously reading his way through the public library, and so seemed to have wowed the admissions people.   He, however, did quite modestly in life, and much less than I might have expected.  Then, there are others I have run across.  For example, a quite successful CFO, a sought after mechanic who had never learned to read, and the Lord knows how many quite successful salespeople.  In fact, the more successful the salesperson, the less it seemed they enjoyed reading.  It wasn’t the product understanding so much as the numbers of people you met.

On the other hand, I like to read, and find myself among many friends and acquaintances who enjoy reading also, many with advanced degrees.  But, many of these well-read friends have only had modest success in life, if that.  I’ve many well-read friends who have lived on the fringes of poverty most their lives.  And of the ones who have done better, most have achieved some success within a profession.  But, of those within a profession, it still seems that those who prefer to read have still not done as well as those who don’t, or at least as well as their gifts would have appeared to take them.  Of the doctors I know, the most successful does not particular enjoy reading.

So why doesn’t reading help us that much?  This is the question which has occurred to me – especially since I like to read.

The most obvious reason I suppose is that reading is like golf; it takes a lot of time and takes us away from the business at hand, which is applying ourselves to life.  “Always with your nose in a book,” as they say.

There are probably a multitude of reasons, actually.  But the one most dire, that has occurred to me, is that the pursuit of reading is fueled by the belief that a better understanding of the world will naturally make us more successful.  And I wonder if this is necessarily true.  What age has taught me is as Shakespeare noted:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  This idea of getting a step up on life through greater understanding seems to be of limited use!  Life, as I’ve come to know it, seems to be like the weather or the stock market and confound even the most learned.  And those who do best are those who place their bets and get into the game – just as those who do best at investing are those who start.  It’s simple enough, really.

A more troubling aspect is that the notion that we can understand life more successfully through reading – gets extended by the ego of the intellectual among us into the belief than they can fully understand life, at least to the extent that they owe it to the general betterment to legislate how the rest of the less acquainted with the ‘facts’ should live.  Our educational institutions would seem to inculcate this view, if only implicitly.  At one point this was the view of the educated nobility.  Presently, it seems to be the view of everyone.

To read more of Carl Nelson, visit: http://www.magicbeanbooks.co/essays.html

 


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