Posts Tagged ‘life’

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

Advertisements

April 7, 2016

Ducks

Our Illusory Fears and My Case for Optimism

 

Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine is a huge book of 2016 pages plus an index of 78 pages and some additional ‘plates’ of illustrative photos.  (Which you wouldn’t want placed by your evening meal.)  A joke has it that a medical student fell asleep while reading this thing in bed and broke her nose.  And it would be a nasty thing, heavy as some chunk of earthen conglomerate, to break your nose on, as it is chockfull of infections, afflictions and diseases … many too awful to describe.   On late evenings, studying this huge work myself, I often wondered how it was I stayed alive?  Every sort of organism both large and infinitesimal is out there bent on doing us in, or at least sucking our vital energies and/or gumming up the works – assuming that our own genes and inherent lunacy doesn’t sink us.

Often, I’ve imagined how fortunate it is that I’ve managed to travel the miles and do the plethora of tasks I do every day – meeting with the unforeseen, the unpredictable, dealing with the marginally employed and the intensely volatile – and stay alive.

I still marvel that I’ve been able to stay out of jail, as virtually nobody – even lawyers – fully or often partly understand the reams of city, county, state and federal laws and regulations we labor under.  In Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by Harvard lawyer Harvey Silverglate – “The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day.”  Imagine that.  Our over-reaching laws and regulations seem vast as an ocean and as hazardous nowadays as going to sea ever was.

It’s a wonder I’ve been able to maintain some standing in a society which doesn’t allow much margin for error.  Say the wrong thing, or even burp or laugh at the wrong time and you lose that sale, that career opportunity, that sexual opportunity, that social opportunity…  I remember an article in the Seattle Times some years ago which was advising single women on handling home repairs.  A general contractor advised that they could find a plentiful supply of cheap handyman labor, by utilizing those whose personalities had proved too volatile for steady employment.

I’ve wondered how the average person avoids bankruptcy.  Monthly bills and direct withdrawals attach themselves like leeches.  Insistent invitations to buy fill the media.  Credit card prospects flood the mail.  Contracts and guarantees are a minefield of fine print.  The wife and kids always maneuver for another purchase.  And when you go broke, as my brother advised me:  “You don’t just run out of money.  They gut you like a fish.”

I’ve wondered – in places beyond my grasp – how in the world the technology we depend upon doesn’t fail us?  Each day I fear the Y2K equivalent of cyber crime, or cyber terrorism, or a simple identity theft.  Or will some preteen hacker take control of my ‘smart’ car and run me into a tree?

As the years pass the devices we use pass beyond our ability to comprehend.  I no longer fiddle with the car.  My computer does things…  I can’t say what they are.  I can’t figure out the Apple TV buffering.  Even the remote baffles.  And the thermostat has become like Hal in 2001.  If you happen to stumble and brace your hand against it in the night on the way to pee, the Lord knows when your next heating cycle will occur.

I worry about how us average Joes will stay employed.   Statistically, we’re expected to retrain ourselves several times throughout our careers, while surviving to land that next job.  We’re expected to rope up through networking, maintaining contacts, and staying on top of our fields through continual re-schooling by controlling our mindset and maintaining a positive outlook.  What is going to happen to me when I get tired?!  (Author’s note: I’m tired.)

I’m puzzled how the average person raises ‘survives’ more than one child.  There is barely time to listen to all their demands!  They have activities, destinations.  They have medical, dental, and therapies.  They either want lots of your complete attention and right now – or they can’t hear you!  Their school work is a haystack of handouts, online links, and hop scotching through a textbook of printed and written assignments whose directions are far harder to understand than the assignment itself – and written as if for a fellow PhD in Educational Theory.  They don’t attend every school day, nor always for a full day, nor do they always begin or end consistently.  They need shots and permission forms and fees for anything detachable, plus lunch monies.  And lately a community activity has been added to the required electives, plus a dollop of “zero tolerance” up to and including felony time, for an ala carte of adolescent transgressions.  And, they’re up for anything their ‘in’ crowd peers might want to do, including jumping off a cliff, I would hazard.

How do we survive?

Well, in my optimism, I think of that weekend in my youth when my brother organized a trip down the Deschutes River in Western Oregon.   Being the youngest member of the entourage and in a straggler position, I got the small two person life raft with these cute little oars.  The river rushed past as I stood on the bank.  I had to use the outhouse twice before embarking.  But once I pushed off and gained river speed the travelling was quite pleasant.  There were emerging rocks and downed trees and whirlpools and rapids with tall standing waves.  There were lots of dangers to thwart by wiggling my two cute little oars.  And looking back, this looks a bit like the situation of our lives.

I did well enough until I drifted into a whirlpool and started sinking.  The raft filled.  I went down, down… until the river was just under my arms.  What a perspective.  Again, just about as our lives as I’ve described.   When, with a big whoosh! the inflatable sprung to the surface and further down the river we glided.

In retrospect we’re forced to say – in face of the evidence – that many of our fears and dangers are illusory.  Though it certainly doesn’t seem so.  But the evidence is – that we’re still here!

Which forms the wellspring of some real optimism.

And as long as we are alive, this evasion of all of these certain dangers keeps happening!  There is no doubt about any of this!  And surely this is the cause from some credible optimism.

Now I haven’t suffered the misfortunes of many, many people.  Disease, tragic death, terrible accidents, war, famine, poverty and strife have stayed their distance.  But even those for whom it hasn’t… as long as we are alive, it is hard not to make the case for optimism.  Our lifeboat is still working.

So let’s have a smile, people, and thank our Creator, or as the atheists would have it,  Mindless Happenstance.  After we’re dead, it might be easier to build that case for pessimism.

Or, we might just be dead.

Ad1

From the Editor’s Perch

March 18, 2011
Ur Editor

“Over thirty years ago I worked for a local moving outfit where most of the endless days were spent loading or unloading vans at one of the many loading docks.  One of my fellow workers, Dale, was a huge Italian, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen.  He would skip on his toes across the warehouse floor – like one of those dancing hippos in Disney’s Fantasia – flicking jabs, to amuse himself on slow days, while he went from here to there collecting bits of stray string or torn sections of cardboard in order to appear busy.  He was tall and powerfully built with olive-skin, oily black hair, large fleshy features, liver lips and an enormous beer belly – so enormous in fact, that in order to stay upright he had to lean backwards while skipping forward.  He was a former ‘deep-water sailor’ who harbored in Belltown and drank with his cronies at the Two Bells.  He was a binge drinker who now and then just wouldn’t show up for a while.

But when Dale was there, if he were in a talkative mood, he share with us the ‘adventures of the sea’: about sailors who’d strap bras to their back while out at sea to make a little extra money, and about visiting his retired pals who spent their days keeping track of the whores on First Avenue with red pins stuck in a large map of downtown Seattle – as if conducting military maneuvers.  Dale generally stayed above any argument that would break out from time to time in the coffee room.  But when he did voice an opinion, it was always the same one:  “The question is,” he would say with a chuckle as he lifted his meaty forefinger to make his point: “are you da Fucker, orderda da Fuckee?”  And I had to admit, Dale’s comment almost always hit upon the crux of whatever was bothering those guys.  His gnome-like silence notwithstanding, this ‘one-thought’ intelligence-of-his was downright uncanny, in fact.

One boring winter afternoon I asked Dale how his Christmas had gone.  He had been looking forward to spending the holiday with a woman and her young son in a cheap motel room along Aurora Avenue North.  I assumed she was probably a hooker who came with the room.  “Not so good,” he said.  “We got in an argument and I ended up throwing the tree and the turkey out the back door.”  In retrospect, the dark humor of it seemed to be its saving grace.  I had the feeling Dale was perplexed, and more profoundly depressed than he could admit. There was something in the nuance of a relationship which seemed to trip him up.  Nevertheless, he seemed to admire the dark humor of it – of those fragile Christmas tree ornaments hitting the asphalt with a pop!.  It was the kind of world he might have designed, himself.

Over the years, I’ve encountered numerous bright people who’ve tried to explain to me again and again the reality of the same situations Dale could have summarized with greater and more accurate ease, in a phrase.  I guess they repeat themselves again and again because they think I don’t get it; I can’t face it; I’m poorly read; I can’t understand it; I’m ignorant; I’m weak; I’m a waffler…    I miss Dale.  I think the reason we sort of liked each other was because we both grasp that their  ‘reality’ – just doesn’t work.  I could look at him and realize that he got the joke.

Photo by Scot Bastian

 


%d bloggers like this: