The best art school I ever attended was my childhood friend, Marco Munoz’ studio above a Florist shop on Elizabeth Avenue, Elizabeth, New Jersey, circa 1977 to 1980. We were kids, the sons of factory workers, and immigrants/exiles from Cuba and Peru and, by all the usual expectations and social indicators, we were not supposed to exist. I was the token white American Irish Catholic guy. Marco had known me from grade school at St. Mary’s, but had left to attend what was then Jefferson High school. I didn’t see him from 8th grade until the end of my senior year. By then, he had taken classes with a charismatic high school art teacher called “Tags” (an Italian name shortened with affection). Tags hipped his students into Jazz as well as Jasper Johns, Pollack, Mondrian, Braque, etc. So Marco had this crew of artsy kids who smoked pipes, talked poetry, music, and painting non-stop, and occasionally wore fedoras. The main hang was Fernando Gonzalez, Arthur George, and this guy from Cuba, Alejandro Anreus, a self proclaimed Catholic leftist and hypochondriac. Marco told them about me, so they walked down Dewey Place one June evening, with the intention of ringing my door bell. At the same time they were coming down my street to meet me, I was being carried by a group of friends from a party at which I had downed a bottle of Vodka, a bottle of Gin, and a pint of Jack Daniels. They had me on their shoulders–more or less comatose. This was only a few months after my mother died, and I was in love with a girl named Mary Ientile, and I drank in order to obliterate all boundaries standing between me and my grief which was epic, extroverted, and a great trial to my friends.
According to Marco, they reached my front stoop just as I was being deposited there by my pall bearers. Marco turned to Alejandro and Fernando and Arthur and said: “that’s Joe Weil.” Somehow, I woke from my stupor and replied: “yes it is.”
So began my tenure in the greatest art school I ever attended. What happened there? We hung out. This is the one thing art schools do not teach. It is not constructive. It wastes a lot of time. Inappropriate behavior is likely to transpire. This is how a typical hang would go: we’d get into Marco’s black pick up truck, and drive around Elizabeth, playing Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and Monk, or Wagner–at top volume, the way street kids play hip-hop now-a-days. We’d buy a whole bunch of cheap cigars and put them in the mouths of stone lions–any stone lion we saw. We once covered fifty miles, looking for stone lions. We’d go back to Marco’s studio which had been given to him by a florist shop owner named Ted, who also taught art, and we’d scat, argue about Nietzsche, and Alejandro would complain about both his various stomach ailments, and the latest existential crisis with his girlfriend. Mostly, we’d scat and look at Mondrian, Johns, Pollack, Braque. I had never heard of these guys in school. I learned quick and faked what I didn’t know. The studio was full of stolen or discarded art books and reproductions of great paintings as well as the group’s paintings which were flung everywhere. We used the head of Socrates as an ash tray (we drilled a hole in his skull). The conversations, and scatting would go on for hours, accompanied by cheap wine–gallons of Gallo. We’d paint and my new friends would laugh at my paintings, but I could scat way better than them so I got even. We were pretentious, and arrogant, and naive, and that’s good because, before you are significant, you must be stupid enough to believe you are already significant. I am treating this lightly, but some of the conversations on art were the best, most extensive symposiums I ever attended. Alejandro is now the chair of the art department at William Paterson University. Marco continues to exhibit his work. Aurthur George actually makes a living in commercial art. Fernando married the beautiful daughter of a Spanish general and has a steady gig as a history professor at some college in the Berkshires. I went to work in a factory for twenty years, but I came out a lecturer at Binghamton University somehow. Go figure. This is all miraculous because Elizabeth is not an artsy town. The mayor at the time tried to ban Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” from local cable TV. He said no one could speak Spanish at city hall in a city that was already 40 percent Hispanic. He was an old machine Democrat. He’d say something dumb like that to please his bigoted cronies, then wink at the leaders of the Cuban community and get their kids jobs. Mayor Dunn had heeded the call to take in Cuban exiles after the Bay of Pigs invasion and had received major money from the government for doing so. He was also no doubt heeding the request of DeCalvacante family members (their head quarters were in Elizabeth, and they are the rather loose model for The Sopranos). A lot of former chums of the mob down in Cuba were given refuge, and with them, a lot of Cuban intellectuals who had fallen foul of the system (I met Herberto Padilla later and he published my first poem–in Linden Lane magazine).
It was through Fernando that I became familiar with philosophy. Alejandro introduced me to the Spanish poets, Hernandez, Machado, Paz, Otero, Neruda, and Vallejo. Marco was the one with the great collection of Jazz. So I learned far more than I bargained for. I had to drop out of college because of my family disasters. I lost my parents, the house I grew up in, all within a couple years, then spent 20 years in a mold making plant, but I survived just as these Cuban exiles and immigrants survived: because I had the rope memory of something greater, and this made all those years in the factory not only bearable, but useful. I was an emotional train wreck, and these guys gave me some sense of sanity and a political/philosophical context for what I suffered–albeit in a way any “normal” American consumer would consider crazy. They gave me the notion that it didn’t matter if you were in college, or worked in a factory–that all this culture belonged to me as well as the elite, and without me having to betray my neighborhood and become a snob. If I had gone to grad school, I would have had to abandon my own mixed registers of speech. I would have had to embrace “professionalism”–that merciless neighborhood in which, all too often and all too sadly, only the semiotics of excellence seem to matter–not excellence itself.
I guess this brings me to my point: my pedagogical approach to creative writing is digress, digress, follow the nose of your longing. Be 100 percent present to all possibility. Learn to hang out and waste time with anyone of like mind or of unlike mind who intrigues. Don’t be too picky. Read lots of books, see lots of pictures, listen to music, and be suspicious of all “official” channels of knowledge. More is learned by being among artists than by attending their craft talks. I hate well-structured craft talks. I didn’t attend a single work shop until I was near forty. I now see there is some merit in it. It seems to me the best thing about work shops is the opportunity to be among other writers, which leads me to this idea:
A young artist needs to hang out and be a little arrogant and cocky, and re-invent the wheel. Most of my best students know they will learn far more from me by hanging out than by official structures. When I taught at arts high, I brought Arthur and Fernando, and Marco, and Alejandro with me. I took the energy of that brief three year period and incited its return among my own students. I worry about an art world given over to seminars, and work shops, and official lessons from the “masters,” but I don’t worry too much because I am smart enough to know that most of the valuable stuff students learn has nothing to do with me. A good teacher does what Tags did: he or she exposes and points out, incites and shares his or her passion, and then gets out of the way. As much as possible, the teacher plants the explosives in just the right place, then watches things blow up. Professionalism is a lie. I am often taking some former students with me on a Dodge gig. I don’t need to, but I want to. We will be going to Newark, and we’ll be winging most of what we do. They will learn more about the art scene and about poetry by actually performing with me than they ever will through my classes. These are former undergrads. Grad students are too busy and they are forced to be professionals. They are underpaid, and they have been taught not to show too much enthusiasm because, I guess, enthusiasm might be deemed the way of the bumpkin, and no one wants to be seen as an bumpkin.They probably think me a fool. They’re absolutely right, but I like being a bumpkin.
When I go to Newark, I will keep the late night scats, and joy of hanging out in mind, and I will try to present some small sense of that–of communion. An artist must show up and be present in every sense of the word. All else is secondary. A teacher must know that what he or she thinks he or she is teaching may not be the real lesson at all. I have no idea what my real lesson is. I am in the back of a black pickup truck, with tears in my eyes because I’ve just heard Beethoven’s Last Quartets for the first time, or I am laughing and scatting to Salt Peanuts. This is my being. It would be nice if I could convey some of that to my students–if a little of me could travel with them in years to come. That might suffice. The rest is official lesson plans. Those things scare the shit out of me.
Photo by Marco Munoz