From the series: Splatting Shit Against the Wall – Old or Rejected Writing Otherwise Collecting Dust
So I just got back from a week in NYC yesterday and it’s been my first day settling back into this midwestern groove. My regular late-morning coffee had been good as I’d laid back in the dingleberry pilling of my maltreated couch and jumped face first into Facebook and its feed and articles of old-school pro wrestling and monster collectibles sprinkled with some bullshit from the lit mags with it all being the same as before I’d left.
So there I was scrolling through friends’ and family’s political and inspirational postings, both religious and secular, trying to ignore most of it, when I stumbled across some article posted by an upper-echelon lit journal about an award winning essayist. I clicked it to see what she had to say and started reading it and her shit was good. I clicked around and gave more of her stuff an hour or two of attention, enough for an extra cup of White Castle that really got my head buzzing.
Then I got bored. So I drove down to the local biker bar, figuring it wouldn’t be too crowded or dangerous on a Tuesday afternoon. I’ve heard about the fights down there. At 46, I’m too old for that shit and was probably never brave enough for it but something still says in a town of this size, I need to know something about the place.
The girl behind the bar was fat, wearing a Muddy Girl tank top with tiny, twisted strings holding it up. She explained Muddy Girl is camo wear for girls. Sorta like Ryka, just camo and not shoes, right? That’s my analogy, not hers. When she turned away, I examined the top more closely. It wasn’t really camo. It had like an outdoor scene, with pine trees or something, printed around the bottom half. At least that’s what I made of it in the half-light of The Borderline.
The guy next to me was smoking a cigar in the bar cause, technically, it’s Indiana, where you’re still allowed to do that. I stepped into the smoke, which I hadn’t inhaled in years, and, in a way, it felt good. I squinted at the tap handles like somebody examining brush strokes in a museum, then finally ordered an IPA that Smokey said he’d had and is pretty good. He was in dark slacks, sockless loafers and a striped yellow polo. He could be a teacher if not for the rotten teeth I’d noticed.
The bartender had a dreamcatcher tattooed in green ink on her arm. She served me tacos with chopped lettuce inside that I noticed was turning brown around the edges. Not that fresh, in other words. She had asked if lettuce and cheese would be okay. I said yes and asked about tomatoes, which she replied, no. They didn’t have tomatoes.
I told myself that when I got home from The Big Apple, no more drinking. Gotta remain focused. But there I was, 1:30 pm on a Tuesday on my first full day back and already drinking and it was hitting hard, in spite of the Tuesday Special $1 tacos. And I was looking at the jars of moonshine lined up on the bottom shelf with golf tees stuck in their pourers and with various fruits settled inside them, seriously considering a shot, wondering what goes best with moonshine – cherries, peaches, or strawberries.
The tacos dribbled an orange, almost fluorescent, grease down my fingers all the way past my wrists. I held my hands up to the barmaid to show her.
“You need another one?” she asked, meaning a beer.
“No. I need some paper towels or something,” meaning about the grease. I’d tried to come up with napkins instead of paper towels, but that word never came.
She barked she already gave me some, which I then found hidden in the shadow behind the plate.
I sat there with the tacos and cigar smoke and the suds forming lines on the inside of the glass, marking time like the annual rings in a stump. And a mild anger began to well inside me. These are the majority, I thought, as I had many times before. Me and the rotten toothed, sockless cigar smoker sucking Heineken on a Tuesday afternoon, pretending to be something he’s probably not. And that’s no knock on him. Shoot, there I was too, pretending to be a writer then as I am right now. And there was the gal, roughly my age, permed hair tinted a strange plum color and her not giving a shit about it as she drank and watched funny videos of people getting accidently knocked out. And the barmaid with the dreamcatcher tattoo and bedazzled jeans, her fleshy abundance spilling out all over the place. These are the folks whose comfort zones are these bars where buckets of Bud Light are $12 on weekends and pool, not billiards, is free on Wednesdays. These are the folks who don’t need warnings for Sunday NFL games where you can get piss drunk and shout “fuck you” to the opposing team without much of anybody batting an eye.
The beer was cold and bitter and the taco meat hot but I couldn’t get off my mind the essays I’d read just an hour or so earlier and even listened to the author on a podcast. Her essays were really good. Kept me engaged for an hour or more, which is rare. But the lady seemed thoroughly entrenched in the writing establishment now. Traded in the crummy living detailed in her writing for the comfort of a faculty spot in a university and editorship of her own or somebody else’s journal, much like the other folks I come across in her game. A writer with some pizazz who hasn’t been published in a while, accepted some position as artist in residence in a prep school for kids whose parents pay more in tuition than a plumber makes in six months or more. Then poof, the writing mostly stops. And it all somehow made me a little sick and maybe even a bit more angry, how those who’re grading MFA theses might be expected to still relate to the day-to-day struggles of the lower-middle class. And how many of them had something once, for me and potentially all of us, before it got watered down or evaporated by the comforts for success, whatever that is. And sure, some grew up in crummy situations, like most of us. But that street cred only lasts so long. The dish towel only soaks up so much, then there’s nothing left to wring out unless you dip it again.
Then I wondered if they really even care. Maybe they don’t give a fuck about Smokey or Dreamcatcher or Plum Hair. They don’t care about us. But if that’s the case, let’s drop the pretense, I thought. Just say it. “Our art isn’t about you and it’s not for you. We just don’t care. You don’t attend our universities. You won’t subscribe to our shitty journals or buy our students’ future chapbooks. So fuck you.” And maybe they’re right. It’s probably money better spent on that bucket of beer when you’re worried or you don’t have that much to spare, monetarily or emotionally, on poetry. And that karate guy getting kicked in the face instead of the board he was holding might even be a better option than Keates or some grad student’s weepy recollection of grandma. And Plum Hair probably don’t know what the fuck a chapbook is anyway, so who knows.
But still, these profs and editors and publishers and prize judges – helping define culture like the corporate media everybody bemoans – they’re the ones who know what’s worth writing about and how to write it . Otherwise, they’d still be out on the streets or sitting in redneck bars looking for who knows what. But they’ve figured it out. No need to be out there mingling with the riff-raff. And with professional class spouses (or ex-spouses) and tenure, they’re somehow supposed to relate to the body shop owner or his wife and kids if and when something is written for or about them. Relate to them better than us, that is. The pros will still see what’s real in the writing. Not the plebeians. They can’t know. They haven’t been sufficiently schooled and groomed. Jesus, how the arts have failed us.
We learn how to read and write in grade school. All of us. And if writing is an art, why are there institutions for it? MFA programs and writer’s retreats and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, all meant to instruct people in how to create. What nonsense, right? Doesn’t art come from the heart or soul or divine inspiration or some bullshit like that? Well, mine seems to drop like a deuce sometimes and maybe that’s all it’s worth. But it doesn’t come from some goddamn textbook or syllabus or failed poet who’s gonna tell you how to do it. Failed, I say, cause nobody outside the cabal of literary butthole ticklers gives two shits about it. Not the guy on his Harley trying to make a child support payment. Not the gal at Walmart or the Amazon warehouse making jack shit an hour or even the kid studying to be an engineer. Nor the welder next to me on the flight back home who thought Vintage might be Raymond Carver’s first name because of the confusing cover art. Who’s writing for them? Who cares about them? Somebody at the New Yorker or Paris Review? Somebody attending the Rocky Mountain Writer’s Retreat? For fuck’s sake. We’re no more than lemurs in the zoo to this crowd so no wonder the arts exist in such a vacuum of the pompous and pretentious.
By then Smokey had put out his cigar. The barmaid had given him another round while on Purple Hair’s TV some scrawny pro wrestler did a flip off the top rope onto his head, narrowly and miraculously escaping a broken neck. We looked at each other and both ooooooh’d and crinkled our faces. Then she went back to the TV while I went back to thinking on a stomach that was just starting to fill with more than just coffee and beer.
Rock and roll is music and, as music, an artform. Do Joan Jett or Keith Richards give seminars or accept faculty positions to teach people how to create rock and roll? What the fuck. Would they try to teach you what rock and roll is by picking it apart, quarter after quarter or semester after semester (however they’re teaching things these days), through four years of bachelor’s studies and another two of master’s level instruction in blues deconstruction or the British Invasion? They’d tell you to just do it. Live it. Experience it. Then create it. But then, Joan and Keith already got their money. They don’t need to teach. They’re not dependent on our inclusion. They have no interest in us depending on their guidance.
But I had to admit, all music isn’t the same. There’s garage rock and there’s the New York Philharmonic which probably requires training from Juilliard or somewhere like that. So maybe it’s the same for literature. There’s genre fiction. Tough guy novels and romance. Nearly anybody can do that, probably. It’s the real stuff – the serious stuff that requires all the education. After all, you can’t just live and write and become an author like Dostoyevsky did and became.
Then I got to thinking, don’t our schools teach us all we really need to know in how to spell and the basics of semantics and syntax and shouldn’t life do the rest? Life, in part some alchemic reaction between inner temperament and worldly experience, probably synthesizes us into artists or not. The creative byproduct of this entire mess that we feel and are curious enough or despondent or pissed-off over it enough to want to understand it through our own words or images or reasoning. To give ourselves a clearer picture. Create our own picture with the freedom from parents and siblings and classmates whining that our words and thoughts are naughty or uncouth and we shouldn’t have them. That our vision should be more like theirs. While the others that just don’t feel the sting enough to create much or well but they want to so they turn to others to guide them, needing that reassuring helping hand to tell them they’re doing it right. But it’s experience and our individuality that get us there. Not some university’s ordained clergy whose success rate is so utterly miserable at producing artistes that anybody outside the sect cares about. And it’s not some artist’s retreat that’s going to be the ether in the engine that gets it running again, if it ever did turn over in the first place. Grade school gives us the basic tools and it’s up to us to figure the rest out. But somebody’s hijacked things, monopolized it just like the energy company does our utilities. Says, “we’re the ones who know what this thing is. We know what real writing is and we are the ones to show you. Play along with us and we may show you the way too.” And heck, they might even throw the proles a table scrap every now and then to let them think they’ve got a voice too.
Maybe it’s true. Writers need to be educated and they need lots of it at a significant expense. How else will they learn about structure and form and whatnot. And symbolism. And what’s worth writing about and what’s not. And what the fuck’s up with Proust and James Joyce. And what is fretting over publication and acceptance of theses if nothing but initiation into the cult, one might wonder. A form of hazing perhaps, like what’s done to a resident physician to prove he belongs.
And all those MFA programs pumping out naive and unwitting writers and visual artist like Nikes at a Chinese sweatshop. And just cause some are made for basketball and another one for soccer or running, and because they’re of various colors and designs, don’t make them unique. The kids don’t wanna be seen that way, so the institutions do their best to insulate them from it with petty gallery showings and publication here and there and a teaching assistantship that makes it seem like they’re really getting somewhere, with plenty of pats on the head for their eccentricities and a better understanding of their own confusion through the guidance and instruction and care of their masters. All the while the puppies never look ahead at their predecessors, slaving away as editors of cookbooks or as high school teachers or worse. But they will be sufficiently inoculated to fight as loyal infantry on the front lines of the culture wars when dumped back into the unwashed masses, doing their duty in preserving the fortified institutions at the peak while their trainers watch on the hill, as officers and generals. And for the infantry, it was mostly a matter of brainwashing against the instinct to save your own ass. To not think. To just fight when flight might be the better option, even when the cause might be lost or was never worth fighting for in the first place.
I thought of these gatekeepers on faculty at universities, instructing kids how to write. And the gatekeepers of the lit mags who must figure they know what’s worth publishing and not, even though nobody in the real world buys their stuff quarter after quarter, year after year or decade after decade, if they last that long. Bad marketing, maybe. They need to get in league with the business majors, who they probably scorn. Sort of a Hatfields and McCoys thing there, right?
And what about those who were published but now teach in the universities and prep schools or beg for grants and endowments. Are they out here with the poorly scrubbed, barely treading above water? Or are they mostly safe and comfortable in some suburb with a couple of dogs or cats or kids and grassy and perfectly manicured campus quads and beautifully manicured students too? Traded in the mouse infested apartments and their words for the honing of other skills, like the politics of massaging the egos of the pretentiously and obnoxiously eccentric or incompetent colleague? Or, without conflict, taking up residence at some writer’s workshop where suckers pay up to two grand a head. The boys on the street might say somebody’s getting paid while another’s getting played at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. At least it’s not them.
Smokey watched golf on his TV while I took another sip and wondered if the students and profs and editors and publishers and prize judges are anywhere close to the real struggles of the everyday laborer these days. Well, sure, everybody’s got problems. But there’s first and third world problems and they’re not the same. Maybe they see it through a brother or sister. Or has the enticement and enchantment of being part of the “arts class” seduced them away from it? It reminded me of Veblen, who was hard to read and understand. Something about Conspicuous Leisure came to mind. My thoughts ached that if the St. Peter’s of the arts don’t care, there’s some folks out here still living it. Breathing and tasting it every day. And they’re trying to comment on it. They might not be of the programs and conferences and workshops that tell the bureaucracy they should have much to say. Maybe their words are crass. Maybe their syntax and semantics and symbolisms a little off or trite, not quite pufferied or polished or pedigreed enough to speak where the rest do. Maybe they’re too much like the crude cousin that gets invited to the party and farts or tells an off-color joke, thinking it’s a delightful break from the decorum. Can’t have too many peasants in the art house, lest one spoils it for everybody by announcing it’s mostly a bunch of horseshit, which everybody already knows, just never wants to hear.
I don’t know, really. Obviously. This is just the stuff I think about when I start to drink sometimes. I’m no spokesperson for the downtrodden. No Karl Marx and sure as hell no Robin Hood. But I know them. A lot of them. The guy from Craigslist installing vinyl flooring in the basement, admittedly scamming welfare cause you gotta do what you gotta do. His repossessed F250 was proof of that. And friends and family and co-workers who fight like cats and dogs with alcoholic partners or spouses. Or whose kids are on heroin, hoping they don’t get “that call.” Folks who don’t care that much about transgenderism or fat shaming or minority voices cause it doesn’t affect their day to day living nearly as much as the threat of losing their house or if a daughter’s next fix into the neck is going to be her last. And that’s not being dismissive or political, it’s just being real.
Could be it’s just romanticism for those a bit closer to a different sort of struggle. The struggle not so much for identity or inclusion, but just to keep your house in your possession and your sanity intact and your kids out of jail or the morgue. And there’s a bit of their own struggle, like everybody has, to keep their own identities intact through guns and patriotism and religion and the rest. Like a guy wearing a vintage heavy metal t-shirt in his forties as a reminder of what he once was. Or girly camo wear that purposefully sets her apart from the Cosmos. Not saying any of it’s right. Just saying it’s there. And there are similarities to be observed and maybe even understood if we choose to.
And maybe this is why art has such little power to speak to or influence these masses. Because it’s been hijacked by those joyous to no longer be part of that mass.
I’d sat in that joint earlier today, assuring myself that less than 1 percent, if anybody at all, in The Borderline or Gano Tavern or Cafe 75 the past Saturday night had heard of or gives two shits about anybody published in The New Yorker or Paris Review in the last decade. And maybe that’s where our writing has failed us. Maybe that’s where you have failed us. Because you’ve defined what it is and who gets to play and it falls flat as a thawed out bottle of beer on the common person, who you’ve given up on anyway.
If you don’t know about Muddy Girl or Moonshine Camo and don’t care, you’re too fucking detached. And it’s not just the average midwesterner you’ve failed. You’ve also failed the folks standing in line for fried or steamed seafood at Sea & Sea Fish Market in Harlem. And the Hispanic or Latino cooks and roofers and crop pickers everywhere. And the owner of the Oriental Wok in every city and town that has an Oriental Wok. You’ve failed them. The art you help produce fails them. The art you promote has failed them. And not just the words, but our sculptures of giant, golden spread ass-cheeks fail them too. And our performance art and meat suits. It’s just gimmickry, you see. Because we see. Your art speaks to us no more genuinely than our politicians, who are equally detached. And we know that about all of you. You can see that in them, but not in yourselves. Them in the state capitol or Washington seeking a Senate seat or cabinet post just as you, in your lecture halls and publishing houses and galleries, seeking or coveting tenure or senior editorship or a sweet-breath puff on the bunghole from some groveling writer or painter. You, like Scrooge McDuck teetering on his mound of gold, flippantly tossing his coins into the air. It’s about yourselves and your ability to work your system and mold others into it, following your example, thereby preserving your sanctuaries. It’s no longer about governing for the people or producing art for the people. It’s about producing it for yourselves, cranking the gears of your own self-interest. You, defining what’s important in the arts, what needs to be said, because it serves the safety and sanctity of your institutions, all under the guise of progress and justice and inclusion instead of vulgar, naked patriotism. We get it.
I’m no spokesperson. But I see how your art has failed us. How, like our politics, it has grown beyond the control and interest of the masses, which we accept with apathy, like limbs severed from the control of the mind. The mind replaced by the controlling interest of the few, from king to pawns, who rig it for themselves. And when our governing institutions fail us, our art shouldn’t. But it has. So shame on you.
What makes me so wise to all this? First, there’s no certainty, just judgment. But I’ve seen it up close. Close enough to stay away. Considering what number of lashes might be a better option than another 3 hour studio of drawing the same fucking still life while studying the laments of the instructor, like the cloth and balls and vases, who had been in my shoes just a few years before. The number of lashes compared to another lecture by some preening prick whose self-love in his knowledge of Kant outweighed his desire to instruct us a thousandfold. While the best instructor had to beg around town every quarter for a class to teach cause his pedigree came from Cincinnati, not Chicago.
The unconcern. The politics. The egos. I was there and could see where it all led. See it in them just like the worn out and dogeared loser with his fresh Friday night paycheck, laying down fifty bucks a bottle for champagne at the Venus Lounge. The strippers flocked and hung on him like vultures around a freshly squished possum, sucking at the bubbly and the carrion of his billfold with some hope from him that all the sucking might, in order, lead to his cock before sunrise. Maybe the cocksuckng did or didn’t follow. I was never around for that. But I was around to see him there when I’d stumble in a few weeks later, on his next payday, when it all seemed to be happening again. Him looking no better for wear, but giddy and drunk again on the $5 bottles that were costing him fifty. Drunk again on the lure and attention of the Sirens. That was a long time ago and I wasn’t him. But I saw him from across the room. And I wasn’t quite the fool he was, at least not in that regard. I could see his mistakes and tried to learn, without making the same myself, inside that dank club or elsewhere. Yeah, my poor man Sisyphus at the Venus Lounge, rolling that boulder uphill all week, hitting the peak on Friday with the girls and the booze, for it all to come tumbling back down. Monday comes and it’s just him and his stone at rock bottom all over again. I’d sat in that strip club observing, just like those painting and drawing studios and lectures on Kant and Philosophy of Race. Learning one thing while another at the same time. All this crude? Certainly. True? Yes. And unapologetically true just like this smirk that sees those strippers nipping at Sisy’s wallet and ego like the Bread Loafers sucking on someone else’s unfulfilled dreams and desires. Or the pyramid schemers and palm readers who have to believe enough of their own bullshit before selling it to their marks.
Heck. Maybe all this theorizing and proselytizing is just anger for being back in this midwest town, realizing I have to just deal with being here. It’s the bed I’ve made. Or anger at my myself for wasting time with these thoughts and words, not wanting to admit they’re a waste. Needing a scapegoat for my own lack of judgement or craft. The source of misplaced or displaced anger can be a confusing and difficult thing to decipher.
Then again, maybe all your art’s not a waste. I wouldn’t have gone down this road without having read and listened to that essayist this morning. So, thanks. It’s been an interesting departure. They say the essay is an artform and some argue the purpose of art is to illicit a response. I think I read that last part in an aesthetics class a long time ago. Anyway, with some spit and tape, maybe this essay has done a little of that. And even if it hasn’t, I’ll try to keep on trying. To hopefully improve this craft and tweek my prudence amid the beers and cigar smoke and temptations of fruity moonshine.