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Dodge Poetry Festival

One of the first readings I ever did was in 1982 at the Baron Art center in Woodbridge. This was a good seven years before I became a host there, and Edie Eustace, one of the best friends poets ever had, booked me as “Poetic whimsy at the piano.” I did my own small version of a vaudeville show–what I had been doing all my life when my family was still alive: some funny songs, some straight free verse poems, a couple of raunchy rhymed poems, and a couple of neo-classical bits on the piano, instrumentals that I’d composed–everything but ballet and a dog show. In between numbers I spoke some anecdotes, talked to the crowd. It was my natural way of performing. This approach considered the presence of the audience and myself as an entertainer as sacred–not the individual poems, not the piano pieces that ranged from classical to blues, to novelty songs–but the experience of being present in a room in which I got to do what I do. I was able to use all the talents I had: storytelling, witness, music, and I did it as a thirty minute act.

It went over well. I had a packed house. Edie was a smart lady. She knew how to use me. I also played guitar and harmonica, and as I recall, I did dance around a bit with my harmonica–a funny sort of caper. I sang a selection from a musical comedy version of Sartre’s “No Exit,” which I pretended to be writing. The song named the situation of the three characters in hell. It was called “I’m in love with the girl who’s in love with the girl who’s in love with me.” It went like this (first couple verses):

I’m in love with the girl who’s in love
with the girl who’s in love with me!
This triangle’s perverse and perhaps even worse
as the sides of it don’t agree!
When we go out on the town and about
we are all three in great despair
for I care for the one who cares for
the one for whom I don’t care.
Menage A Tois! Might be what hits the spot!
But I’m only hot for the one who is hot
for the one who is hot for me
and for whom I am not!

Doing Sartre as a musical comedy was fun. I capered about the stage. I raised my arms in a mock waltz. I did what I was born to do: make a fool of myself. This week in my 380, I had occasion to perform the song again, and almost thirty years after that Baron reading, my students were laughing hard, and applauding when I’d finished. It’s good shtick and a good comic travesty on the existentialists. I love to do things like this as much as I love to write free verse poems. Unfortunately, there is no time or place or venue to do this anymore. First, poets want to be taken seriously–one of the things I hate them for. This includes slammers with their endless issue oriented verse. Ok. Be taken seriously, but it is much more of an art to flow through the different registers of emotion than to be forever stuck on the sharp prongs of one’s self- piety. It is much more refreshing to not always be the hero/ ego of your own fucking “art.”

Over the years, I have had a few chances to do what I really love–very few. I sneak a song in here or there. I once got through to a high school audience by doing Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not Stop for Death” as a slow, grinding blues song. All you need to do is repeat the first line. Sure, there are interdisciplinary art events, but even the name gives me pause and makes me cringe. Couldn’t they call it “mutt art?” That’s what it is! A little of this and a little of that. People call it cross or multi- genre performance. I call it vaudeville. I love vaudeville. I was raised before the death of variety shows, and I have never forgotten how much more alive I feel when I am not trapped in one form of art or another, but get to see how they all blend or clash. Long before the postmodernists declared the death of high and low art, vaudeville had already done so. On the Vaudeville circuit, a celebrity might tell anecdotes, a classical violinist might play a wonderful impromptu, a comic act might do a skit, followed by an aria from Mozart. It was divine madness, and these acts were honed and perfected over many years. This was long before we made academic careers out of analyzing pop culture through the rigorous jargon of critical theory.

This is what I knew about myself: I could write songs, and compose decent melodies. I was not a concert pianist by any stretch of the imagination, but I can put a song or a musical bit over fairly well. I am not a trained comic, or stand up, but I can be human in front of an audience, and I learned from my family how to tell a decent story. I am not an MFA trained poet, but I have read thousands of poems, have taught myself all the forms, have memorized at least a couple hundred poems, have learned the history of poetry, know prosody, and I can hold my own in the different styles. I am not a specialist in any one field of art. God knows I cannot dance, but I can do fairly good travesties of dancing. I have an expressive, though limited singing voice (actually I have a two and a half octave range when I’m not smoking, but I am not a trained singer) It is called being human. We think of hams as conceited, but a man who goes into the world trying to make something come alive is not a ham. A ham is someone who does not notice anyone else’s talent. I have never over read. I have never taken up more than my time on stage. And I have never cared if someone put me first or last.

I am a “mutt,” a cut up, a clown. Clowns are trained to run the emotional registers from funny to sad, from sublime to raunchy. Clowns believe that these mixed registers provide the ontological truth of existing. Clowns are morally adverse to the pure-bred. They are the only thing standing between people and purges, between the human and the human tendency to seek perfection to the point of slaughter. Clowns are the only true challenge to authority–not the revolutionaries, not the anti-this or that who, most of the time, are saying “I want the power,” but to authority. They tweak the nose of power itself, they show it for what it is: pathetic, evil, inhuman, the worst stain on our hearts. Clowns are not comic, but something more frightening and deeper. Clowns are the sacrifice of the high Mass, which is a solemn travesty, which is mutt, which is broken, which is vaudeville show in which very proper people come to watch a God be improperly slaughtered and then eat him (or her if you want me to be politically correct). The best clowns were the first and will be last to expose the lie of high or low art. They come to kill you and then raise you from the dead. To me, the motley is sacred, and it was always grounded in a sacred ritual of being, but it is not truly encouraged or allowed on the poetry scene. There are too many purists in poetry–and not just the academics. I saw it on the slam scene, too. It’s even worse in slam because they are all pretending to be communal and lowly while they take themselves way too seriously. It made me want to punch the mother fuckers out–all that fake love.

I stopped doing my shtick for the most part because I almost always feature with another poet, and some of them felt upstaged. I learned to muzzle my instincts, and stick to the program, but it cost me my joy. I would not sing during a reading because I knew I’d get clobbered for it. I would not joke, or cut up, or do a light verse ditty because, chances are, if it went over with the audience, some smug asshole would give me a left-handed compliment like: “You should do stand up.”

My “Art,” if it exists at all, exists as a belief in presence. Presence differs from entertainment in so far as it does not rule out the possibility of a deeper ontology. Judy Garland was present. Frank Sinatra was present. Lady Gaga has presence. There is something in presence that goes beyond mere entertainment, but also beyond perfection. Blake said “exuberance is beauty.” That’s the best quote I know on what I am trying to get at. You work hard at your act, but that work should not get in the way of presence–ever.

I am 53 years old and live in a time of reality television and Huxley’s Brave New World coming true. Camp and kitsch, and schlock, and self-help have lost their punch because there is no straight or normative culture to vamp or deconstruct anymore. This corporate culture deconstructs itself and, thereby, retains its power. It flies up its own asshole, and comes out the other end the same. When us triumphs over them, then us is them, and it needs to be attacked. Camp, kitsch, and the aesthetics of insignificance are the prevailing cultural norms. They are the norms which mean sincerity and ontology are the counter-statements: a seriousness that challenges the postmodern cliché of everything being leveled. Here, I seem to be contradicting myself since postmodernism prides itself on deconstructing levels, and being mixed register, but it has become authoritarian in its debunkings, in its fundamentalist “uncertainties.” It lacks kindness, and the generosity of true scorn. True scorn feigns disengagement. It uses numbness as a weapon to attack lies. It does not believe its own myth of snide. It does not make non-presence its chief aim. I find that I am bored for the first time in my life–bored with poetry, bored with art, bored with music. There are too many “knowing” people. No one is stupid with awe or pleasure, and any artist worth a damn knows that “stupidity” is as much a virtue as intelligence–as in instinct, as in intuition, as in being willing to fall on one’s ass, as in being unconscious of one’s effects, as in being unaware of one’s self.

I wish I could do what I really do: sing a song, recite a poem, tell a story, recite another poem, break out into dance or silliness, get serious, kill as many people as Hamlet, offer myself up in the high mass of my being–truly enact a ritual of presence, but I am limited by the expected forms. Edie gave me life when she let me be poetic whimsy at the piano. But even then, a couple poet friends of mine who thought they were looking out for my best interests said: “Joe, you’re a talented if raw poet… why make a fool of yourself?” I was in my early twenties. I figured they knew better than me. I was wrong. I should have answered: “I don’t have to make a fool of myself; I’m already a fool!” They could not understand what Edie understood, perhaps because she was older and could remember the golden age of American entertainment when vaudeville was kept alive in night club acts, and Marx brothers movies, and on variety shows. She knew what my real art was: a little of this and a little of that, and always aimed at the folks in Peoria–whatever in the human being truly goes beyond categorical pigeon holing. When I made someone laugh with a song, and then came back at them with a serious elegy, I was enacting their full emotional register as well as my own. It was a ceremony–an act. I should not have been made to feel ashamed of it. In later years, Deborah LaVeglia and Adele Kenny have often let me do my act, and much thanks to them, but it becomes harder because the professional surge in workshops and MFA programs, the continued bias towards the specialized, and the reduction of poetry to the either/or of performance or page has made vaudeville and presence a dubious value. I often dreamed of doing a sort of one or two hour act in which I would invite others up to do a bit, and run the full registers. But there is little market for this–and no memory of how enjoyable it could be. I would love to do something with Sweet Sue Terry, but I don’t have the money or the backing. I’d love to have a really good Jazz solo, and then combine a poem with a dance, and then tell some stories in between the acts, and truly create a ritual of being, but I’m getting old and there are people in power who don’t want to be shown up, or who have very lofty ideas of taste (taste can be a real drag). Non-feeing is the prevailing norm, and emotions are seen as questionable. Meaning is questionable. Fellow feeling is questionable. I’m not a sociopath. German decadence and French ennui, and American hipsters always bored me–for the most part. Their fascination with cruelty seemed redundant. Life is cruel enough without having to stylize it (though I understand the artistic need to stylize). I’m not into intellectual or aesthetic styles of S &M. It makes me sleepy. I mean I liked German decadence if it came with good legs, and French ennui had nice cheek bones, and knew how to smoke a cigarette, and American hipsters perfected the cues of be-bop and culturally savvy stand ups who assured us we were the knowing ones, and the culture was stupid, but, after a while, I grow weary of Bogart and pine for Cagney–the song and dance man. I don’t feel interested enough in poetry anymore to write it. I was never interested in poetry proper anyway. I was interested in poetry improper. As for songs, I can lose myself in song for hours in my living room, play to my ghosts, do Beethoven and follow it with Carole King, and I don’t need to enter the indie world of artistic blah. I was born in the wrong era. I spend my free time these days Googling dolphins, or old fast food franchises, or baseball, or songs. I am doing time. It is hard to believe in something that doesn’t believe in you.

Yesterday, I did a high school festival for the Dodge. Dodge is great in that it doesn’t force you to do the usual workshops. I talked to the students. We laughed and joked, and some people told me I had moved them but I couldn’t even remember what I had said because I was in the moment. I got paid 350 bucks, and spent two hundred of that in gas and hotels, but it was worth it. I didn’t read one poem in the classes. When the time came to read, I did two poems, and sat down. I feel exhausted by possibilities that will never come to fruition. I never wanted to read from a book and sit down. Whatever I thought I could do was often hemmed in and limited by gate keepers. All I ever wanted was to be devoured in some sense–to offer myself up on some imagined altar of being “in the moment.” Perhaps when the grid collapses, I’ll get my chance. I just hope they let me play the piano first.

Whatever people might say in the world about Newark is wrong. Newark, like Queens and Jersey City, is ethnic, race, and class diverse beyond anywhere else I know on the planet, with a wider variety of socio-economic classes freely intermingling, especially among its artists. This latter fact cheers me. As a working class white guy from Elizabeth, I often feel uncomfortable on art scenes. The food is in the not-much-spice, brown rice, wok, pita wrap, veggie, hummus spectrum where I do not flourish. Food is not made important among the white artistic class, no matter how much they insist they know about food. It all tastes too bland to me. I know they are right. I know their food is healthier and allows them to be thin and to have smaller, more shapely asses, but it makes me sad. It makes me think of psychotic men and women milling about with a passable knowledge of Jean Genet, and thinking they are feasting when they are in the middle of a famine. My girlfriend had the brown rice chicken stir fry for lunch—very healthy, but very bland: no real oil, no spice.

I had two truck dogs from a cart: one with mustard and kraut, and the other with red onions in sauce plus a grape soda for five bucks. In Newark, they fit the dog to the roll, and since the roll is steamed, it’s a wonderful press fit, and things do not fall on your shirt. Years ago, back when I was a student at Rutgers Newark, I could get this same lunch for about a dollar and thirty cents (Hot dog cost 50 cents in 1978), but five bucks ain’t bad, and I gladly skipped the free lunch provided to me as a Dodge Poet (they didn’t have grape soda, and I have always believed that truck dogs should be washed down with grape soda. They also didn’t have truck dogs). By the way, Newark is filled with great Spanish and Southern soul food restaurants—if you know where to look. It also has some of the best fish joints—fried hard or any way you like it— this side of the south.

NJPAC eats like a neighborhood. I have never known an art organization that was so generous (to my working class way of thinking) with the grub. At the dinner provided for poets, I had the best catfish I’ve ever ate, with an amazing breading: firm, cooked just right, as well as roast beef, two kinds of chicken, and greens cooked in what I call pot liquor. Pot liquor is the liquid you get with collards, and spinach, and any green when you are trying to make it stretch. It gives greens their glory. It is a beautiful thing, and I have never seen it at any other art venue. And yes, there was the pita, carrot, healthy stuff, too—if you wanted it. My point is generosity and going overboard. There was too much food, and most of it was politically incorrect, and with it, my tears of gratitude overflowed. I was greatly moved by dinner, and I am not easily moved.

So what does any of this have to do with poetry? A lot. People getting nostalgic for Waterloo village where the festival—with one exception—has been held every two years since 1986, are crazy. I wasn’t blasted by overheard and unwanted poetry while I walked around. I wasn’t caked with mud. I wasn’t made to feel that I was lost amid a bunch of poetry addicts and I learned something: Newark, like Manhattan, is a historic lasagna, with this Baptist church (Michael Peddie Baptist) as ornate with its stained glass windows, and as beautiful with its wood carvings and marble altar as any cathedral I have seen it is right near the welfare and YMCA, and this seems right to me. Americans should not be allowed to cloister their goodies away from the poor. I was told the pipe organ cannot be renovated. A shame, since it is a mechanical wonder.

The church doesn’t look like much from outside, but when you enter it, Oh my God! And not one, but two grand pianos in perfect tune! The one I played was a 150 year old Steinway—with an amazingly delicate upper range, perfect bel canto bass, and not much volume. It was an intimate Steinway, made specifically for just such a classy church. Michael Peddie Baptist is a must see if you are in Newark. I was there to introduce the young poet Michael Cirrillo. I got there early and they let me play the Steinway. Michael asked me to play behind his first poem. The students and teachers who had gathered early (it was so jammed, they had to fill the choir loft with kids), appreciated the music, and they loved Michael. Not bad…

But nothing, at least for me, compared to hearing Marie Ponsot talk about poetry in this church. She is old. Due to a recent stroke, she speaks slowly, carefully, with long pauses. She does not try to entertain the kids, or “relate” to them. She does not speak down to anyone. She is what we would call in my old neighborhood a “true dame” (It means dignified. It means intelligent. It means singular, and lofty without malice). I sat in the back in the church, to get away from the crowds (I never consult the events schedule) and was enchanted by her slow, lilting cadence. She made me shy. I know I am in the presence of something good when I am made shy. She was just like the intimate Steinway ten feet away from where she sat. On Friday, in the year of our Lord, 2010, at this huge festival where poets are supposed to “wow” the crowds, Marie Ponsot was an intimate Steinway—a small, reflective Schumann rather than a pounding virtuoso Liszt, and this is what I like best about the Dodge festival— not the big readings (I skip ‘em), not the crowds (makes me feel like Christmas at the friggin’ mall), but this intimacy, this smell of old wood, and the voice of an old woman speaking on what she loves and what she knows. The fact that it was a couple giant steps form the YMCA made it better. Beautiful things seen in their incongruity are magnified. Beautiful things seen where everything is made to look pretty become the lies of snobs.

On the way back to my car, my girlfriend and I ran into Amiri Baraka, walking over, passed Military park, to read in the big event. It was almost dark. It was just him, no entourage. He said: “Where you been? I haven’t seen you around in while.” I told him I was working up at Binghamton, and he handed me an invite to an after-reading reading and jam. Baraka was going to show off the city he loves, and have the kind of poetry reading you can’t get in the official way. The late evening dusk was almost liquid. I took the flyers he gave me: four different bars in Newark, and each with great things happening. I found out Kamiko’s Blues people is no longer going on. He still lives on Clinton Street. It was beautiful night. I was tired, and my girlfriend was tired. If I had the strength to go, I would have—but poetry is not an event for me. I know this part of the earth—this urban dusk. It is where I lived all my life. It was good to see him to see him here, or anywhere on the earth. I went back to my hotel and fell asleep. It’s nice to be asked to parties. Going to them is another matter. Marie Ponsot was still on my mind. I wanted to rest next to that Steinway. I wanted to play it all night.