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elizabeth

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.

New Year’s in Corfu

Above the village of Gastouri, during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign, Corfu’s Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, summered at the Achillion Palace. A recreation of a Phaeacian Palace, it was used as a hospital during World War II. It was later transformed into a casino.

I would have kept us as we were
above the village of Gastouri
in winter, pensiones closed,
vineyards ripe with kumquats, fennel,
stray cats crouching under rain pipes,
olive nets damped down with mud.

Even though it was not our island,
not our goats to unchain from the hills’
Phaeacian ruins’ stiff-jawed rockrose,
each tree scraping starfish from the sea,
each beach a frieze of Odysseus’s shipwreck.

Even though the road to Perithia
was brocaded shut with ferns,
the stone fields fevered with poppies,
and Mount Pantokrator sloped with crocuses
where we walked to that high monastery,
gold-headed thistles igniting the apse.

Even though we lost our way
in the island’s windy basilica halls
where goat bells clanged for its Old World Empress
whose daughters, dogged in winter pelts,
sprawled on marble by the icon kiosks,
and priests, swinging their rust-gold lanterns,
darkened the storefronts of lingerie
on the cold slate sun-bleached promenades
of gold-foiled chocolates and baklava bakeries,
dim bulbs half-lighting skinned lambs on hooks.

Even with the shepherds sinking beer cans into fog
to measure the tide of their clambering sheep,
their bleating and beclouded Ionian Sea—

even at that bottom of January,
the Sirocco blowing through Judas trees,
Santas noosed from loose shutter hinges,
a freezing rain hoofing over roofs,
and the two of us, embers in an emptying tavern
with an out-of-tune bouzouki band,
spinach pie and gritty wine—

I would have kept us as we were
knowing that the spring would bring
its umber clouds above the sea,
the casino re-colonized by black moss
and tulips, and Calypso’s spellbound
mirage of an island, shingled with egrets,
would fade in the tradewinds
as the fishing boats flashed off
their last-catch starboard lights,
and the Virgin of Kassiopi, the Saint of Sailors,
would throw her crossbones overboard,
blow our votive out.

______________________________________________
Jennifer Elise Foerster received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (July 2007) and her BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico (2003). She has received fellowships to attend Soul Mountain Retreat, Naropa Summer Writing Program, Idyllwild Summer Poetry Program, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and the Vermont Studio Center. From 2008-2010, Jennifer was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Of German, Dutch, and Muscogee descent, she is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, and grew up living internationally. Jennifer lives in San Francisco.

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

I received a very important lesson from my father. We were driving around in the part of New Jersey he grew up in–a once rural area called Chester that was now suburban. He was sad because the street he had lived on so many years before was much smaller in reality than in memory and he mistook it for a driveway. We stopped by a field of sunflowers. He was staring at the nodding heads of these enormous flowers, and I was throwing pebbles at a stop sign. Two people joined us. One had a camera. Out of the head of the sunflower, exploding from the head, came a bird that had the same color scheme as the sun flower: bright yellow, with black markings. It made an undulating flight over the road into a thicket of trees. “Sun sparrow.” My dad said. “You mean Eastern gold finch” the lady with the camera interjected. “No lady, I mean sun sparrow. That’s what we called them.” My dad then provided the scientific name for the bird, and said: “Come on kid let’s get out of here. The smell of experts makes me sick.”

I had three names now for a bird I didn’t know. I don’t remember the scientific name, but I remembered sun sparrow, and Eastern Gold finch. I found out it was the state bird of New Jersey. You would think the state bird would be all over the place, but we lived in the urban area of Jersey–what some have called the armpit of the universe: Elizabeth. In Elizabeth, starlings and Eurasian tree sparrows comprise the niche Eastern Gold finches or sun sparrows might otherwise fill.

It was ten years before I saw another–the day after my father died. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be away from my family, so I took a walk along deserted railroad tracks, where there were thickets and weeds. I looked up from my shoes, and there was my dad’s “Sun sparrow” perched on a slender stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It made me cry. I got down on me knees, and held my stomach. It was as if I had been shot–the arrow of love, of memory, of how this accident could shake me to my core. I said “sun sparrow” out loud, and the bird undulated away from me into a dense tangle of brush. I thought about the smell of experts making him sick. As a teenager I had often thought my father an idiot. I now understood how much of an idiot I was.

Names have power, especially when they are linked to memory and emotion, when they act as a part for some vital whole. They stand in for existence. All names are misnomers. Exactitude is the myth we concoct all too often to exclude, to prove we are experts, to prove we own something that can never truly be owned. Used well, names allow us to enter, to understand, to raise our sense of wonder and awe ever higher. Used badly, they become the stink of experts, the rank odor of snobbery and exclusion.

I tell my students that education can do the work of evil: it can make a bunch of aleatory systems with PHDs think they have a right to be superior to the Rocky Weils of this world. They can make a son misunderstand the wisdom of his own father. They stink of torture and snobbery, they are rank with the odor of exclusion and bias, and we call this “truth” or “Dogma” or “terminology.” If we are not careful, the knowing of names can be substituted for wisdom. They become a false wisdom. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….” sure. Names kill. Names distance us from the stupidity of our actions. When we can call people collateral damage, we no longer have to confront them as a child with a soccer ball, who like your child, wanted to play, who, unlike your child, stepped on a mine and was blown into a thousand pieces.

As a teacher, I worry about power more than anything else. If I arm a student with names and terms, and so called knowledge, and forget that wisdom is not a slave to any of these tricks, I may be doing great harm. I may be perpetuating the very snobbery that allows professors at cocktail parties to call my father, who I loved, “White trash.” I may be allowing the student to think he or she is better than someone else when the truth is, at ground zero, we are all the bitter comedy of aleatory systems: we eat, we shit, we die. Some of us, because of our names, our use of names, our semiotics can eat and shit and die in the better places. My dad had a saying that summed up our human lust for status very nicely: “If life were nothing but a bowl of shit, there would be a whole group of people feeling superior because they lived in the corn section, and a whole other group doing whatever they could to get to the corn section, and then there’d be a group of people feeling lousy because they lived near the peppers.” It’s disgusting, but true.

The beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of ground zero: What is the ground of my being? If I think it is all aleatory, then it is hard for me to feel better or worse than others. If I think it is God and that I am saved, then I can circumvent the equality of the aleatory, and make distinctions. If I don’t believe in God, this does not save me from distinction because I will believe in things: having certain things, a certain reputation, a certain status will become my God. I will serve it–often bitterly. I will obey my lust to mean, even when, at my core, I feel meaningless. If I feel meaningless, I will find a group who feels the same way, and look with scorn at those who believe they are meaningful.

Equality does not flourish except in theory. In the day to day and the minute to minute, we are reading signs, and being read by signs and making distinctions between signs, unaware that, we, ourselves, are a sign. We are signs reading signs, and almost all of it is inexact–a measure, not a truth. Read a sign wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Be read wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Call an Eastern Gold finch a sun sparrow, and you are likely to get corrected by some lady with a camera. The lady was correct, but she showed little wisdom correcting a father who was sharing a moment and memory with his son. Some forms of incorrectness have greater depth than the correct. Science can use the exact, but poetry, especially great poetry can make of imperfections the kingdom and mercy of heaven. It can also get people killed. To die for an idea, or because you are an idea, or because you get caught in a certain cluster of ideas is the meaning of both war and of a university education. Ideas and names kill. We should never forget this. They also help us to live. We should not forget this, either.

So with this in mind, arm yourself with literary terms. Used well, used in order to enter or understand a text, these terms may provide you with some deeper sense of joy or wonder, or knowledge. Used badly, they might allow you to look smart and superior at some boring party. It’s up to you.