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Baron Arts Center

I remember the 90s much better than the 80s because the 90s pissed me off. First, everyone started going grunge, but hell, I had worn flannels and work boots, and funky ski caps back in the friggin 70s and no one gave me credit for it. They told me I was a sloppy dresser. I was surly and moody, too, and took a dim view of humankind, and then along comes Generation X acting as if they had invented flannels and boots and baggy-assed jeans with holes in them, and the Fugs, and did they give me any credit? Well, Do you know Generation X to ever give anyone credit? They just bitch and moan about how greedy the baby boomers are, and then they bitch and moan about the human condition, and then they go gentrify some urban neighborhood, jacking up the rents, and filling it with health food stores and everyone looks very thin and very ungrateful. The 90s actually began in the late 80s. In Hoboken, they had already burned the poor out of their shit boxes and renovated the shit boxes. Then the artists started complaining it was too expensive to live in Hoboken anymore (They were right). They were replaced by surly Wall Street brokers disguised as artists. So the artists either moved to Jersey City or to Alphabet City (this was before Brooklyn) and I had a brief business with my friend Marco, helping artists move out of Hoboken. We had a pickup truck and a willingness to suffer. Lion claw bath tubs were all the rage, and, it being Hoboken in the late 80s/very early 90s, there was a whole field of old lion claw bathtubs. We moved that field of bath tubs. We moved it hither and yonder, but mostly to Alphabet City where the police were starting to beat up homeless folks in Tompkins Square Park because white people wanted to replace Puerto Ricans and turn Alphabet city into a safe, hip, organic, faux bohemian version of Disneyland Manhattan. White people are scared of homeless people. Did we do that? The white folks say. Of course not, we know everything there is to know, and we have read all of Howard Zinn and Chomsky. We also ride antique bicycles and act circumspect, skinny and beautiful in countless indie movies. Lets get these eye sores who will molest our cute children out of here! And that meant we got to move a whole field of antique bathtubs at the same time they were beating up homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. By the 90s I had been in the factory for years but had gotten more involved in poetry. I started running the Baron Arts Center poetry readings, and, for a while, the demographic included a lot of good looking 20 something and early 30 something people from New Brunswick (this is because slam and the brat pack had made poetry cool for a brief period). I finally had lovers in the 90s–just as my good body was going to seed and becoming a bad body. As I recall people thought muffins were good for you at the beginning of the 90s, and bad for you by the end of the 90s. I lived in the North End of Elizabeth on the border of Newark, and it was a good neighborhood for espresso, for Portuguese food, for Cuban food, for slightly burned on the top custards, for baseball games played by kids at night under lights, for Portuguese grandmothers all dressed in black with ankles the size of pit bulls going to mass, and going to the laundry mats, and scrubbing their section of sidewalks on their hands and knees. Allen Ginsberg was later buried in that neighborhood. The grandmothers grew to like me and suggested I give up baggy flannels and jeans for nice shirts with alligators on them and chinos. Then, they said, a good woman might like me. Somewhere around 1989 to 1991 yuppies tried to move into Elizabeth, but it was old world, with real bodegas and botanicas, and no brownstones. Elizabeth had the wisdom to replace most of its brownstones with fast food joints in the 1970s. Affluent bohemians need tin ceilings. All my friends and me had ripped off most of the tin decades ago. So we didn’t get gentrified. Plus, people actually had jobs in Elizabeth and could not be beaten by the cops who were their nieces and nephews and sons and daughters. Affluent bohemians who read Zinn and Chomsky can only take over your neighborhood if you’re broke and look dangerous. We didn’t look dangerous. We just looked like we ate too many custards. I liked the 90s. My cousin Ed had come to live with me in 1989/90 and had left me some good furniture (at a cost above what he had paid for it I later found out). Ed was gay and very good looking and had a bum of the month club. Ed was a player. These guys were very sweet and some would call me crying after Ed dumped them, and I’d have them over for coffee while Ed worked as a limo driver. I’d pray with them. I’d tell Gene, my favorite of Ed’s victims, that Ed suffered a traumatic childhood, and he was not ready for true intimacy. I did their Tarot cards. They said the same thing the grandmothers did: why don’t you dress better? Ed and the one ex he was still friends with took me out to a mall and forced me to buy stone washed jeans and a whole bunch of other stuff I probably ruined in the laundry. This was years before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out. When Ed left, he gave me a true compliment: “Joe, you’re the only person I didn’t pick a fight with in order to move out. I love you.” “Same here, Ed.” We parted on good terms, and it was only a couple years later that I realized what a deal he’d made on the furniture. By then, he had entered the seminary (Ed had flare). He later left the seminary and became a good teacher in Jersey City. (He had put my ratty furniture in storage in a wet cellar when he moved in. It could not be redeemed). I remember that I looked forward to hearing music again in the early 90s because it was just like music in the late 60′s and early 70s only slower and muddier and full of the surly nihilism that later became real and cheerful sociopathy in the 2000′s. I liked it. I also liked the Salsa music I started listening to: Ruben Blades especially. There was a salsa club just up the block from me and sometimes I’d go there with Cuban church members and get my groove on (which was not much of a groove considering I was a grunge white boy usually in flannels). My stone washed jeans and dress shirts made me sort of acceptable, and so I remember the 90s as a time of bridging many worlds and of steady work. I worked the night shift at National tool. We had a temporary bubble of prosperity in the 90s so the foremen stayed off my ass and I made my rate, made bonus, got overtime, and threw parties for my poetry friends. I also started taking people in–temporarily–when they needed it. I took in a guy named Jim who was slightly OCD, spoke six languages, and who, I found out later, liked pain. A woman I sometimes saw, sort of, had laid eyes on Jim, spoke French with him, and fell immediately in love. He left that day, taking his garbage bag full of clothes to move in with her, and then a month later, she called me up one night and said, “Why didn’t you tell me Jim was a masochist?” I said, “I didn’t know.” She said, “I don’t mind” but I really would like to do more than beat him up.” It turned out his ex roommate who lived down the block, this older man, had been his abusive lover and had broken Jim’s ribs a few times. This man later turned up dead, and Jim disappeared from the scene. I don’t know if he murdered the guy. So that was one person I took in. I took in homeless folks for a night, especially if they could cook, and I took in friends who were temporarily on the skids. I took in my sister and niece, and then they split to Florida. That’s when it occurred to me I was terribly lonely. My best friend, Joe Salerno died in 1995. That ended the 90s for me, the way Kurt Cobain’s suicide ended the 90s for others. The New Brunswick people became part of the exodus to Manhattan, and then Brooklyn (when Alphabet City became too expensive). The Democratic party, my own Democratic party sold me down the sewer with NAFTA. I remember the 90s as the decade in which the lifestyle blue state Democrats screwed over working class guys like me as badly as the Reagan folks did in the 80s. These new dems were people who saw themselves as “creative” and artistic and outside the box. They were entrepreneurs. They honestly thought they were all going to be Steve Fuckin Jobs–Zen masters of geek and slave masters of outsourced labor. They were the true grandchildren of the beats and saw pudgy white factory workers as so “post.” They completely ignored the fact that, by then, most of the factory workers were the very black and brown and yellow folks they pretended to champion. This was the decade of “post.” Everything was post. The music went bad again, and Madonna became a children’s book author. It never occurred to the white bobos, for all their reading of Chomsky and Zinn, and their “poor” bohemian lifestyles, and their tuva singer concert tickets that they had totally killed what little chance was left for unions, for worker’s rights, or for the real poor–not the “I’m a grad student and can always move back with my parents on Long Island” poor. Well, now, about 20 years down the line, those parents are old and there is no place to move back to, and being white is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember the 90s as being the decade where white liberals had one last fling. It is easy to live on salad with two room mates when you’re 25. It gets tired at 35. And tragic at 45. So it goes. Many married and are now eating salads on Long Island, or in some southern city like Nashville, so I don’t feel that sorry for them. I call these people knowers. They know everything. They don’t know half of what the old grandmothers knew in the North End: scrub your side walk. Love your family. Have nice times. Take care of the sick. Even with the coolest bicycles on earth and a basket full of veggies, you are going to die.

Christopher Phelps said something interesting about Buber and the cult of personality. He tied it into the poetry scene, which makes it especially interesting to me (You could also tie it into a certain extent with why indie bands muted the role of the singer in the grunge era, still do to a certain extent by making the lyrics purposely subsumed into the overall mix, but this, to me leads only to fake humility–and inaudible lyrics–which is the height of arrogance).

Still, I had to go back to my Buber (which anyone who had me at Arts High knows I talked of incessantly): I equate his take on the cult of personality with insistence on a self as personage rather than as person–the self as set off apart from the dynamic of communion between I and thou, I and you, and I and it–the self as commodity, as product, as a sort of ongoing “value: the personality that says there is only I, me. This is in keeping with Kierkegaard’s despair which insists on the self, on “me, myself and I” (in Kierkegaard there are three despairs: the despair of being one’s self, the despair of not being one’s self, and the sickness unto death which is a despair so deep the person is not even aware of it as despair. This last was the despair particular to the Christian burgomasters of Denmark and, by extension, to all middle calls and proper materialists hiding under the sign of Christ).

When I read Buber speaking against the cult of personality, I immediately heard the voice of James from the Epistles, and understandably, because Buber is a great teacher, a rabbi in the truest sense, and the traditions of the reb is exactly the style James is written in–most especially the Rabbi as instructor on the relationship between shema and mitzvah–exactly the I/Thou relationship.

In Shema/mitzvah one is to love the Lord with all one’s heart, and mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self–a love based not on personality, not on a cult of personages, a love based not even on family ties, but on an extension of the Shema to all sentient life as embodying the Torah–Isaiah’s dictum of “God does not require burnt offerings, but a contrite and loving heart, a broken spirit, (broken meaning as bread) and good deeds done for the poor, the widow and the orphan”.
Within this context, Buber joins a rich tradition of Jewish rabbinical teaching against the idol worship of personages, Buber and Soren and Simone Weil, and just about all mystics and deeply moral spiritual leaders teach against the cult of personality in this respect (the irony is how the rabbinical tradition often became in the diaspora exactly that: a cult of personality). Buber and James sound very much alike in this respect, qouting James:

My brothers, show no respect for personages as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and fine clothes comes into your assembly and a poor person n shabby clothes also comes in and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say: “Sit here, please, while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my feet”have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

It was with this epistle in my heart, that I ran a poetry reading for 16 years. I always saw a poetry reading as a place where the field was evened, and personages would be dissolved into a communal act–a bread breaking, as what the slammers now call a third round, but which I called the open. A feature was not superior, but a presider with the host of the reading in a meaningful ceremony of honoring the “guest” among us, and that guest was, for that moment, a distillation of all we were enacting: a ceremony of presence, The guest should be one who could be present among us–a word among us, but he or she should not be above or better than or superior to us, although, while they were our guest, we should treat them with respect and dignity and attention. This guest should ideally rise up from among us, or be the “other” come to visit the community. The laws of Xenia applied to my idea of the poetry reading and both feature (guest presbyter with the MC of the reading) and the community who came out for the reading at obligations of hospitality that vanquished the cult of personality:

The reader was to be “present” among us–to preside as it were with the host in the meaningful enactment of this ceremony known as a reading.

The reader was never to over read, but to read just enough to establish a presence and to honor the dynamic between presbyter and community. The host was to make everyone feel welcomed, to show no partiality, to honor the guest by being generous. And so the guest received a gift (there should always be an honorarium, a giving from the community) and the guest in return gave his or her presence–not only by featuring, but by staying for the open and hearing the others, being among the others.

The community should be responsive to the guest. In the open, no one should be long winded or selfish or take the spot of the other. The host should be responsive to the poems as in an almost call and response. There should be either a break between the feature and open, or after the reading in which people are invited to break bread. There should be no respect for persons (the cult of personality), but there should be deep respect for self and other through communion and creation of a meaningful ceremony.

What I liked about poetry readings in the 70s and 80s was that it was the only place in the whole of my society where I saw rich and poor, old and young, ugly and sexy, mentally ill and normatives dissolved into an act of community–and without family or a wedding or a church being at the center of it. It was exactly the absence of the cult of personality that I admired and recognized a dimension of shema/mitzvah through. Features arose from the opens. Features stayed to hear the other poets. This is how I was heard and approached by Ruth Stone, Maxine Kumin, Charles Simic. These “personages” would stay and listen. They came over to me and gave me a kind word–for no other reason than that they recognized something in my poetry. I was treated with kindness, as it should be…

This has disappeared. In academia, opens are frowned upon and the featured poet becomes an act of conspicuous display–a temporary “idol” and in regular series, asshole features leave before the open as if they were too good to hear the others. Meanwhile people in the open over read (this was always a problem) or show up only after the feature has read (or leave after the open if the open comes first). Work shops are far more enmeshed in the cult of personality because everyone is there to have their work “seen” and to say they took a work shop “with.” Seen and with are deadly to community. Buber is right about that.

I have a vision for readings in which everyone is welcome–in which 80 year olds and teenagers, good poets and bad poets, normatives and crazies meet on equal footing because, in the ceremony of bread, in James and Buber, your “personage” is what you leave behind when you enter the temple. Slams blaspheme against this spirit with their own terrible enforcement of hierarchy. Slam grew out of the spoken word scene I came out of–bar readings, readings where anyone from a prof to a wino could sign up on the list and read. The “third round” is a pale ghost of this era. Slam is utterly caught up in the cult of personality, even with team poems. In this respect, Buber is apt.

When I ran the Baron Arts Center with Deborah Laveglia and Edie Eustace, we took money out of our own pockets to supplement readings. The same people showed up as regulars year after year. And sometimes there were thirty or more people going back to the diner after the reading. I came to love some of them, to be friends, and some died and I mourned. The features were both outside the regulars and from the regulars. Everyone who came each month eventually featured.

It was community in the way Buber intended it–beyond the cult of personality. Of course we knew certain poets were more talented than others, and, without snobbery, we appreciated them as such. We all loved Joe Salerno who came every month, but Joe loved people back, and could remember lines of people’s poems. I knew I was part of a meaningful ceremony, every time I put the key in the lock and hit the code to disable the alarm at the center. I knew it was the early May reading because the Lilacs would be in bloom outside the door.

After the reading, we often went to the diner, and sometimes we didn’t go home until almost dawn. I miss this. This made life a little more tolerable. It was what church was supposed to be and never was. Perhaps I am old and stupid, but without this, work shops and features and awards just seem maniacal, and sociopathic. I feel I am in some stupid brag factory where snobbery and “professionalism” are mass manufactured. Everyone is an award winning poet. Everyone is so and so at so and so. In our series, I used to make the bios up on the spot–in order to disrespect the gravitas of personality.

I once told the people at Baron the poet Adele Kenny was my ex wife (just for fun) and that we were working out our grudges and coming to an understanding. I responded to poems in the call and response tradition of my youth. I did not get involved in this to become famous. I got involved to have somewhere I could go where I felt welcomed and where I could practice my art. I find no place like this anymore.

I know a great deal about many aspects of poetry, but that’s not the point. I hate grade A student thinking which is always, always, always, about being a personality. I want to manifest the shema/mitzvah–the I/thou. That’s hard to do when everything is lost in “Studied with” “went to” and won such and such. Joe Weil–not the personality but the host who brought disparate things and people together, who believed in the motley is dead–replaced by who?

Christopher Phelps really got me thinking. It would be nice to feel that way again. I live with a wonderful poet, but this is not about intimacy (that’s based on personal affinity). I need communitas. Maybe because I’m extraverted? Who the hell knows.