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New Jersey

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.

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.