All poetry is local

Last summer I had a poem featured in KC Studio magazine. I’d met the editor, Alice Thorson, during a studio visit, and she encouraged me to send her some poems after seeing the concrete/zigzag poems I had taped up on the wall.

It took me a few weeks to send anything, since I hadn’t written any actual poetry in years. The poem-ish things I had written were more design than language-based, funnel-shaped clouds of text that took the reader (if there was a reader) in several directions at once. I spent several nights cranking out pages on the refurbished Lettera 32 I keep on the work table in the garage, with the door cracked open to let the rain in a little bit. Jenn found most of them disorienting, but liked this one, and so did Alice. I called it “To Alfonso, Gardener of Moon-Dried Tomatoes.”

I didn’t know the magazine had come out until my friend, poet Jason Preu, sent me a message. The only other people I heard from were a senior editor and my managing editor at work, and some friends of my parents. One of my parents’ friends, intrigued by the title and confused by the byline, apparently thought it had been written by my father. “It’s so neat that your husband writes love poetry,” she told my mom. “But who is Alfonso?”

All of which drove home the mildly unsettling reality that publishing poetry in your home town is not necessarily the most comfortable experience. In Ben Lerner’s book-length essay, “The Hatred of Poetry,” he frequently quotes the Marianne Moore line about poetry (“I too, dislike it…”), musing about how admitting that you write poetry as an adult is a dangerous thing to say, in that you invoke not only resentment of the writer (“can’t you find a real profession?”) as well as resentment of self (“I used to appreciate/write poetry, but somehow lost the capacity to do so”). Lerner’s analysis of the leisure vs. industry conflict surrounding poetry from Whitman through his own career is an interesting one that certainly holds true to my experience.

At the time, I felt a bit awkward about how something I wrote in a moment of inspiration and honesty was being interpreted by my elders as something curious, secretive and homoerotic. But I’m over that now. Any embarrassment I might have felt is canceled out by the knowledge that I did my best to write a good poem, beginning with a line that came out of nowhere and provided the central motif of flight (“there are only so many sounds…”) and sustained throughout the work itself, which is addressed to someone who has suffered loss but come out resilient, closing with a passage that is an almost direct homage to Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.”

(Lone quibble: I’m still not sure why exactly I wrote never as “ne’er,” except perhaps to double down on my sense of poetic entitlement to do whatever I want. It certainly helps one’s confidence to write from commission rather than as a submission, perhaps to a fault.)

But here (yes, finally) is where it gets interesting. At the time I wrote the poem I had no idea who Alfonso was exactly. I did have a recipient for the poem in mind, but I had no clear reasons for choosing that name. Until just last month, when re-reading my favorite anthology of Latin-American poets in search of a Nicaraguan poet whose cosmic verse I remembered liking. And there it was, “Space Song,” by none other than Alfonso Cortes.

Cortes wrote his best poetry in lucid intervals between schizophrenia, and his Hölderlin-like struggles with sanity combined with his extraordinary vision and lyrical gifts were exactly what I was addressing in my poem — to Alfonso, to myself, and to the reader. The moon-dried tomatoes are of course the poems themselves, the lines we store up and hold closely, the songs we compose in the quiet moments, while flying true if not exactly straight. If you write poems (or make works of art) and release them to the world, you’re going to confront a lot in yourself that is naive, clouded, embarrassing. But sometimes they work, or stick, or soothe — providing a postcard of somewhere you might have forgotten but can now return to.

In the end there’s nothing like waking up to find out your dream was real. Heirloom moon-dried tomato-poems. The inner treasures we inherit from ourselves.

(note: you can actually subscribe to print editions of KC Studio for free. It’s an excellent publication that makes it much easier to keep a pulse on what is happening in the Kansas City arts scene)

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musique, 12/12/16

Let’s talk about music for a little bit. As I recall in my early days of blogging there wasn’t much point in having a blog if you didn’t use it to share or talk about music you’ve been listening to lately. Especially when it arrives in thematically specific waves, as it has for me lately. If a bit darkly so this time around.

Last night I video-conferenced with some family members about planning a summer retreat, which we decided to hold in Albuquerque, a town I have been to once before and can now spell with ease. After the booking went through I wanted to send a celebratory confirmation song their way, but after listening to Neil Young’s “Albuquerque,” I remembered just what a downer it is. Not surprising, as it’s from “Tonight’s The Night,” the 1975 album written around the same time two good friends of the band died.

I remember Andrew strumming this song in the dorms, and how the lyrics about “fried eggs and country ham” sounded so unexpectedly serious. I guess maybe you’d remember it too if it was someone’s final meal, which is possibly what Neil’s singing about here, or just a breakfast from simpler times recalled after someone has passed away.

It’s a good song, and it gets stuck in my head, and it’s not the first serious or dirge-like number to lodge there lately. Last night I also watched Patti Smith’s performance of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” at the Nobel Prize ceremony, performed on behalf of Bob Dylan. What a brilliant and beautiful way to accept the award by proxy, with Smith’s singular ability to inhabit the song’s gravity, lyricism, starkness and urgency through her voice and presence. I was crying from the opening minute until she unexpectedly stopped, which took me out of the moment completely, especially after my attention strayed to the comparatively boring article surrounding it. When I read the part about how Dylan wrote it in a 17th-century ballad style, I got distracted thinking of another, even more heartbreaking ballad in a similar vein, Abner Jay’s “Lord Randall.”

This, to me, is as heavy and soulful as it gets. The thickness, resonance and bounce of the upright bass keeps it lively, while Jay’s voice and the song itself ache with loss and memory. These things have been on my mind lately, and I didn’t realize how much so until I heard this song.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the death, at age 16, of one of my grade school friends. A group of us are gathering to mark the occasion, but I won’t be in town and have been trying to organize my thoughts about the occasion, bringing language to it in a way I could not have then, looking at it from a parent’s perspective as well as a peer’s, retroactively applying all of our cliches about mourning to see if they fit. “He lives on in all of us,” is a cliche yet true statement, in all of its varied individual permutations. But it’s also murky, mysterious. Lives on how exactly? Easier for me to define are ways in which someone influenced you. What did they have that you admired, that you wanted to incorporate into your own character? In what ways did you consciously hope to be different? In a more general sense, how much of us is us and how much is other people?

I don’t know, but I do appreciate being able to inhabit and explore these feelings even so far removed from the occasion — and the person — that inspired them. I thought about all this while walking around in the stillness of a 27 degree near-full-moon night amid the glimmering Xmas LEDs. One block away from me was a tree wrapped in tiny silver lights, the stuff of near-Narnian/Biblical visions. Another few blocks away a neighbor’s tree was decorated with a bunch of those blue and white lights in which the color seems to drip down the light strands, willow-like, so that the branches look like they are melting, or weeping. It felt a bit like I was tripping, so supreme was the emotional-visual transformation of my everynight suburban surroundings. Making it even better was this soundtrack, the entire 2015 album “Odyssey” by Rival Consoles. The sound textures, light twinkles and winter temperature all intermingled perfectly.

So I’ll end on that shimmering note. Or I would, if I didn’t have one last song in my head this past 24 hours. The Kinks’ “I’m On An Island,” is the ideal ditty for anyone currently wishing for a bit of isolationism (physical, mental or otherwise) from our current national climate.

It’s also just a fun song.

I’ll be back with more another time soon. Maybe next time it will be a mini-collection of songs that touch on death but in a more uplifting and ethereal way. I can already think of a few…

Unsubmitted proposals, pt. 1

I finally saw Lawrence/KC artist Judith Levy’s 2013 film “NV in KC,” in which conceptual artist Lee. J. Ross (played by Levy) undertakes a quixotic quest to rank every visual artist and museum/gallery in Kansas City by order of importance, upsetting almost everyone she knows along the way. Even if “NV in KC’s” appeal is necessarily limited, it’s a delightful, professionally made little film that gently skewers the tempest-in-a-teapot that is the local arts scene (Kansas City, in this case, though it could just as easily be any mid-level metropolis).

Lee J.’s preoccupation with envy, jealousy and hierarchy in the arts feels a little misguided — even unhealthy — but Levy pokes fun at her protagonist through the comments of the other characters. The fact that there seems to be genuine curiosity behind the satire (both in the character and the writer/director) gives the film some depth and purpose. My favorite sequence is the support group that convenes by saying the serenity prayer as an actual prayer, then speaks exclusively in inspirational quotes (except for Lee J., who responds to their robotic platitudes as if it’s a totally normal conversation). I also enjoyed the interviews with the principals of the city’s arts organizations, which work in a scripted line or two while allowing them the chance to speak from their actual (and considerable) experiences, offering thoughtful insights and nuanced perspectives.

I also saw echoes of my slightly younger self in the spurned twin, Patricia, who only makes an appearance in the film’s final scene. Patricia, a middling ceramicist, is upset that she’s excluded from the list, and she lashes out with language in spite of her otherwise soft-spoken demeanor. I remember getting turned down from a handful of awards and grants for Kawsmouth and working through that frustration and disappointment through sarcasm and satire. One such expression came in the form of my list of fake award winners for Rocket Grants, a thinly veiled spoof of some of the past/perennial winners of awards in Kansas City (the title refers to my friend’s comment that local arts orgs support stuff that’s “weird, as long as it’s their kind of weird.”). I don’t know that it’s aged that well, but here it is. (Incidentally, Levy was a panelist the year my proposal got turned out, which kind of of brings this full circle).

In 2014, after unsuccessfully applying for a different grant for Kawsmouth (albeit with a helpful exchange with the administrator), I channeled it with a fake proposal of a different kind. This one was a response less to my own disappointment or envy as much as a sensation of burnout from reading “artspeak” in exhibition previews, the statements of peers, calls-for-entries, etc. I’m sure most everyone who has had any involvement with the arts feels this way at some point or another. I’ve cut and pasted a scan of this at the bottom of this post, as it was written by typewriter — an ideal medium for writing proposals you’ll never, ever turn in.

Fortunately, much like Patricia, who excitedly (and hilariously) remarks that she just got accepted to a group show, which “changes everything,” I’ve also had a few acceptances come through in the past few years, including a residency, several publications, readings, exhibits and a few more things I’ll share more about in early 2017. If I had to summarize my own experience with envy and the arts, I’d echo Sherry Leedy’s comments in the film about identifying and focusing on who you are as an individual rather than worrying about why others got something you didn’t. Sometimes your stuff just isn’t that good, but in other cases it’s just not the right fit for the project, or not the best expression of yourself and what you have to offer.

Anyway, here’s that “proposal.” As usual, thanks for reading and turn in for a follow-up in this 2-part series next week.

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Kidspeak, 12/7/16

Last night while buckling Emil into the car I asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” realizing as I said the words that this was a ridiculous question to ask a 2-year-old. Still, he tried to answer. “I’m going to the hospital and be born,” he said, pronouncing it “bone,” so that his sister had to clarify to me what he meant. She then told him: “You silly, you already are born.” “Oh,” he said, and reconsidered. “I’m gonna be Simba from the Lion King.”

back…?

In 2010, after moving away from Kansas City for a year, I said goodbye to my old blogspot page — a hodgepodge of local color, music links, commentary, photos and creative writing, some of which has gone viral in or after its time — in favor of what I hoped would be a more “professional” portfolio-ish site. That hasn’t really happened, though. I already had a job and several steady side gigs, so there wasn’t too much incentive to market myself. Add to that a 4-year stint running a lit site, a two-year writing residency from 2014-2016, and co-raising two little kids (now 2 and 4), and I didn’t do a lot of “brand management.” In fact, as Instagram took off and posting on Facebook became more and more a proxy for interacting with the world / other human beings, the whole notion of self-promotion seemed more and more absurd. Why post about my own interests and thoughts when everyone else is already doing the same? What makes me so special? I can hardly even decide on what my first name is  (Lucas? Luke? Luc? Lukas?), much less try and get it out there.

Still… I miss writing about random bullshit. Not least because what I choose to write about isn’t really all that random, and also because even the most trivial subjects can be interesting and worth reading or writing about (i.e. the trivial within the essential). The remaining local reporters do their best, but there are often things of local (or universal) interest that no one seems to be writing about. So here we go … another flurry of activity, probably a site revamp of some kind, and probably a lot of links and screeds and questions and updates on actual real-world published/exhibited work. If you know me, live in Kansas City, or are interested in odd or experimental writing, there might be something for you here. There’s probably some link or button you can click to follow and get updates, or you can just bookmark the page and check back in whenever you feel like it. Either way, I’m looking forward to it.

Thanks for reading + see you around. – LW