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story teller

I grew up in a neighborhood where most of the parents worked in factories or trades. The closest anyone came to a professional occupation was Ann Boyle next door who worked as an executive secretary for Bell telephone and, through the great benefits of that monopoly, was able to retire at age 55. Anne never married, but she had companions and an ample glass of scotch at the ready on the front porch. She lived with her mother and brother, did not have to pay rent, and became rich through stocks. She was my first “student” in so far as I helped her write papers when she decided to return to school and procure a college degree. I can still remember getting slowly sloshed on scotch while helping her structure a ten page paper on Martin Luther King.

Anyway, professionalism which I see as a way of life, almost a religion, never laid a glove on me. Neighborhood aesthetics, especially in that industrial/post-industrial world, were very different. Springsteen, writing of Jungle land, sang: “and the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all/they just stand back and let it all be.” This ain’t exactly true. It is true they don’t write it down, but the poets in “jungle land” are like signifying monkey, or the Irish barroom philosopher, or the folk story teller. They talk shit. They keep things lively on the corner. They are known for being “characters.” They often survived the factories and , earlier, the chain gangs, by being the tricksters–the comics, and poets, and, occasionally, the scapegoats, of the neighborhood. I was one of these people. I was the guy who told whacky stories on the front porches, or on car hoods, or in back yards on my block. I was known for being crazy. I was known for being smart. One of my many knick names was “Wild man Weil.” Another was “Mr. Encyclopedia” A third, due to my always mildly disheveled appearance, was “Scurvy Joe.” I was known as someone who could talk shit. I also played songs and wrote my own. When I was 18, on my birthday cake they wrote: “future songwriter.” This is how art is expressed where I came from:

1. You are one among others, and you assume the role of poet only by their general proclamation–not by awards, not by standards, not by credentials, but by popular acclamation from the people around you.
2. This does not give you special privileges. You serve a valuable role, but, sometimes, you are the big mouth who gets clobbered, or the nut job who is singled out and mocked. This is the double face of the trickster–half god, half animal, and very rarely allowed to be fully human. You are coyote, signifying monkey, the prophets who says the truth, even at the wrong time, the one who does not “fit” perfectly.

You are rewarded in the following ways:

1. People will keep you around even when you are not very good at your job, or very strong, or even when you are a bit of a scoundrel. They will keep you around because you provide a cathartic safety valve to blow off the steam for their frustrations, their sufferings, and their sense of drudgery. You make life a little more than it is in opposition to those forces which make life far less than what it should be.
2. You are holy. You are marked with a sign. You are holy in the sense that you are ground set apart–again, not by “achievements” (the way of the professional and the middle class) but by your role in the life of your community. The hero leaves the village to bring back fire. Unlike the hero, the neighborhood poet never leaves. You are the trespass that stays behind, that affirms but also confronts the community by being an “affront,” a difference within it, an aporia within it. To an industrial and post-industrial rust belt city, this character is on every loading dock, in every barroom, on the street corner. He or she keeps things lively and also keeps things real, and this bears absolutely no relationship to the tenets of professional art or poetry–and that includes slam. Slam will never take the place of the trickster because it has already become too coded, too fixed, and too much a part of the professional commodity machine. It is as immured in the slick and the packaged as academic work. It will never speak for those who have no real voice. It will never be the barbaric yawp. It has destroyed spoken word which had such promise, but all that has promise is constantly destroyed that it might be born again.

And so, my final, and truest distinction between the aesthetics of neighborhood and those of the professional: the professional is incapable of sacrifice in the sense of dying and rising from the dead. He does not share in mythos. His sense of success is not about glory after death; it is also not about being “present” to his community. It is about prosperity and achievement now. All is meant to be measured towards a sort of prosperity. The “Event” of death, and, more so, the event of resurrection are to be avoided at all costs. These are tacky to the professional. The professional is post-mythos, post-seasonal. It can never die and it can never be re-born. It is established. It has a process. That process recognizes “excellence” and achievement in an utterly different way. There are gatekeepers and they decide who is and who is not “good enough.” They act as a priesthood. They are the intermediaries between the professional poet and his
professional audience–most of whom, if not all of whom are fellow practitioners. There is no life here, but there is process. Occasionally, this process takes on the intimacy of the neighborhood and a certain true communitas is possible. This is rare. It is even frowned upon. To “profess” in the ancient sense was to be one who was paid for his rhetoric–his professing. He evolved from the neighborhood poet and rhetorician, but, with the rise of printing, rhetoric and form were downplayed and speechifying became frowned upon.

I am a speechifying, rhetorical, neighborhood poet. I am not a professional. Professionalism seems morally wrong to me–spiritually sinful, not because I think professionals are wrong, or sinful, but because I believe I was called to bear witness to something other than professionalism. This witness may now be only to some extinct community of factory workers and the children of factory workers, but I don’t think so. I believe I served this function for my students. I also served it for my factory workers. I cannot serve this function in the realm of professional poetry because it is exactly this function they detest. Professionalism is based on a standard, on a decorum, on a series of measures. It is based on “Schools” and patterns of networking and schmoozing. It is Ivan Ilyich over and over again. It is making me sick. It is killing my soul. I am very grateful for a job. I am grateful to support myself, but I wish it did not come at the price of being who I am. It is very different than the raucous form of being that made me love poetry. I never confined poetry to poems. Poesis exists in how you talk, how you move, what you say when you teach. My whole being was poesis, but in both the professional academic realm, and the faux- populist realm of slam, I am not allowed to exist. In these realms, the
poets have no season, no earth, no wind, no element. When these things appear, and threaten to make a perhaps event (in the sense Derrida used “perhaps” and “event”) this perhaps and this event are immediately framed in such a way as to convert them to the purpose and use of the very professionalism to which they attempted to act as exception.

Post-industrial poesis, neighborhood aesthetics

Poetry is real value labor. It does not see itself as set apart from the life and work of the community from which it arises. The poet has other jobs, most of which he usually performs indifferently because his or her true job is to express and bear witness to the community in which he or she suffers and lives.

This real value labor does not accept perceived value aesthetics. There are no gate keepers deciding who and who is not worthwhile. The poet of the neighborhood rises from the open reading. If he or she is singled out, he or she is singled out not by experts, but by those among whom they have lived. It is a word of mouth kind of thing.. It is what is sought in the midst of seasons and in the weather and the truly local–not by national presses, or awards, or credentials, but by a local sense of that poet’s inner necessity. That poet was created by his or her community. He or she can only be destroyed by that community, and he or she can only live if he or she remains in contact with the principle of that locality, that membrane of being.. This locality is rooted in purpose–in, as I said, real value labor. As such it is far more malleable, complex, and shifting than the typical definitions of poetry. It may be the right word at the right time in a crisis. It may be the perfectly apt joke, the comeback, the story told at the right time to the right person. Unlike poetry proper, it is far more situational. It fits the occasion of its utterance, but remains pure in a sense by “talking shit”–talking and speechifying, and inventing verbal worlds for the sheer hell of it, beyond the immediate purpose. It is born of purpose, but deviant from purpose in so far as it seeks life, joy, energy beyond the merely functional. It tends to be flamboyant and hyperbolic rather than understated. It tends to be rhetorical and mythic rather than factually informative and understated. It tends toward the ecstatic, the brutal, the ferocious, the beautiful, the sentimental. It is more invested in brio than in nuance. It does not trust the flawless because its chief moral purpose is to expose the falsely perfect.

This is the closest I can come to explaining the world I grew up in. I do not flourish on the professional poetry scene.. I can’t get by on my “talk” because only Irishmen from Ireland are allowed by professionals to get away with that, and even then, the Irish poets they admire are most often somber. What can I say? I feel lost. To exist in the kudos section of the universe is, for me, a construct of hell. There are no street corners, no barber shops, no factories, no true places to bear witness. The professional has triumphed. God fucking help us.

Slam comes out of spoken word, hip-hop, bar poetry, speechifying, the mongrel mix of the jazz cutting contest and the old gong show (as it has become more a commodity of the universities it has lost the gong show aspect and is beginning to effect a gravitas that disrespects its own origins and plays to the same snobbery as academic poetry). Slam replaced spoken word. Spoken word was never a commodity. It was a true alternative to academic poetry–albeit, with no possibility of making cash or meeting the target market for media (ages 18 to 34, and then you don’t exist). it was done for the sheer hell of doing something different, good, bad, or otherwise, and had a true communal meaning. Slam mimics that communal meaning while being largely pro-clique and power driven. This is the difference between folk art, any kind of true grass roots art and what I’ll call commodity.

Because folk art never strays far from the pub, the fire place, the kitchen, the porch, its forms evolve organically: the packaging is loose at best and allows all sorts of influences to enter and exit in a more natural unpremeditated way. It is based not on expertise, but on a daily life line to the experiences of its locality. Where group expertise is involved (little children exposed to polytonal and microtonal harmonies and rhythms will very easily assimilate them) amazing and complex musical and literary structures can grow from very humble and poor soil. Where individual genius is forged in this same environment, the local legend, the great fiddle player or story teller or bard (or black top hoops player) remains within the community and speaks for it, not above it. Such performers are often packaged by outside forces based on commodity and then we have a merge point between folk art and commodity art. The natural, the root, the raw artists rising from the “primal” is always an artist spoken of in the language of commodity art. He or she is being packaged, limited to a sellable category–a niche. In this respect, the “genuine” is always false. If an artist is truly genuine, no one has to say it, and, if someone says it, commodity is always the background of this utterance. Gatekeepers decide what is “genuine.” They decide that folk music can only be played on acoustic instruments, or it can only use a certain number of chords, or it must deal with certain themes and in certain language. They do this to “identify” and sell. This is never the way of folk. If I had to define true folk instruments it would be: Anything that makes a sound, electric or acoustic, that gives expression, pleasure, and duration to the dirt you stand on, and that you can warp to the needs of the moment.

This definition, then includes the original record player scratchings, and boom boxes as well as beat makings of rap and hip hop culture. Folk is, by necessity, always impure. it steals whatever it needs to steal, and leaves the package loose. If you could still go to a back mountain somewhere, and you brought some classical records with you, the resident musician would be all ears. His eyes would light up. he’d say: that sure is pretty, and, if he could, he’d take something from it–whatever riff was available under his limits, wherever riffs made contact with his dirt. This is how jazz and folk and all music evolved–someone took a little something from wherever they could find it and made it his or her own–with no apologies. Only scholars and businessmen believe in purity and property. Land is not the same as property. Property can be owned from a distance; land has to be worked and stood on.

Spoken word was a folk culture. If you read in a bar and were a cut better than most, you got recognized by your fellow readers–no scores necessary. The feature at a bar was based almost always on local reputation. I consider myself a spoken word poet–not by the definitions of commodity art which would dress spoken word in the drag of its obnoxious gatekeepers (who always get it wrong on purpose) but by how I did my poems: I went to open readings. I waited my turn. I read in the open–one or two poems. People liked it. They asked me to feature. My pay was either a pat on the back or, sometimes, a collection from the hat, or, on rare occasions, 50 bucks. Being a folk artist, I didn’t think it unnecessary to read Wallace Stevens or Neruda or Whitman or any of those guys. No folk artist has to try to be a folk artist by keeping his influences pure. In point of fact, I read such poets almost exclusively, and skipped Bukowski and the so called recognized “heroes” of the spoken word–not because I was a snob, but because that was the ground I stood on. You don’t read what you’re standing on (you’ll bump your head into a tree staring at your shoes). You look toward the horizon. I didn’t think of these poets as sacred cows. They were making pretty music, and where I could, I copped some of their chord changes.

My poems were often stories–sad and funny, very different from what I read, but I’d flavor them up with what I’d seen on the horizon. I was listening to the poets at the bars, too, and learning from them. I had no “standards” except pleasure, and transport, and the motley accident of being curious and an avid reader (with no given assignments). I read Williams the same way I read vampire comics: for pleasure and for the purposes of theft. This is the folk art way, and it survives commodity art even when it is packaged and sold–if it knows what’s good for it. Artists who become “pure” become gatekeepers and jailors, and shit asses. You don’t steal what you have; you steal what you don’t have. I stole the Spanish surrealists, and the modernists, and the contemporary academic poets I liked because I didn’t have those boys and girls. People in bars would try to compliment me by telling me I was like Bukowski (Meaning I was narrative. I have no other relation to Bukowski) or that I was raw (meaning I cursed, but everyone curses in Elizabeth–it’s an art) or meaning I was self taught ( everyone, for your information is self taught. Otherwise, you’re just brain washed).

So this is why I say Spoken word is folk art, and why I say academic and slam poetry is commodity art. Now before you go off thinking I’m saying one is better than the other, let me explain myself: great commodity art is made. It’s whole point is to be good, or, at least, competent, and it often succeeds (though the definitions of what is good or bad are often inaccurate). Great folk art is made, and if it is great, it is bound to be commodified or, at least, commemorated in the minds and hearts and memories of those who knew the local legend–the great man or woman who stood on their dirt and sang for it, but the purpose of folk art is not necessarily to be good. Folk art does not truck much in standards. It is more about doing the thing, and learning it so you can enter. The purpose of folk art is to express what is necessary, and true and particular to that locality and time, and to infect that locality with something different when it needs something different. No one gate keeps there–at least not as official critics or keepers of value. In the folk way, you do what you do, and good or bad, you keep doing it, and no one stops you because no one owns the porch, the kitchen, the field, or the bar except those you’ve known and lived among all your life.

When greatness rises from a place where the point is not to be good, but to do what you do, it is recognized in a different way:

1. Everyone sees that great player or story teller as reflecting their own experience–not as a special commodity to be envied, but as an extension of who they are, and they take pride in him or her, and allow them to get away with less labor or certain eccentricities because they know talent needs some leisure and time to waste.

2. No one cares if that person is on a national stage. This is not star fucking time. It’s like inner city basketball: a local street legend gets talked about as much as an NBA all star in his or her own neighborhood.

Commodity art’s first action then is to define what is “good” and standardize it. It’s chief activity is to narrow by defining and packaging the product. When slam first started out, any kind of spoken word artist could win–short poem, long poem, comedy routine disguised as poem–it didn’t matter. There were rules, but these were basic, and evolved from the typical open: three minutes, don’t hog anyone’s time. Hal Sirowitz could not win a single slam today, but he could win major slams in 1992. Patricia Smith has been so copied and ripped off, and by young slammers who don’t know their history, and don’t even know who Patricia Smith is, and, while they know 100 slammers, they often don’t know a single fucking poet except what they were forced to read in high school. Patricia would still place well, but she wouldn’t win, not because she isn’t great but because she’s not in the mix–the gatekeepers box. She helped make the box, but she ain’t in it.

Slam is a reduction, a commodification of spoken word–a limiting of it for the purpose of commodity. Gone are the hecklers and the different kinds of styles. It has dumped many of the traits of spoken word poets, including the fact that most spoken word poets I knew were very well read, and didn’t just know each other’s work. Like me, they were reading all kinds of literature and using it in their poems. Some were L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (Boni Joi), others performance artists (Dave Lancet), still others lyrical types, or nature poets, or heavily political (Elliot Katz). It didn’t come down to a formula. Spoken word is a folk art that slam refined, defined, commodified, and killed. There are no bar readings the way there once were–regular readings you can count on every month where the feature and the open readers are in the same ball park, and no official contest is taking place. Features are important. I don’t agree with opens only. That’s soccer mom, everybody is equal falsehood. Poets that put their time in ought to get some propers once in awhile–especially from their local scene. Pretending everyone is on the same level is a lie, but, in folk tradition, the poet rises by public and invisible assent. In true folk tradition, those who excelled were honored–not forced to be just part of the background. They weren’t idolized, but they were loved and given ample room for expressing the best their community had to offer.

Now Slam pays lip service to these traits, but doesn’t really honor them. A slam voice, even a slam body, a def jam mentality now owns this sector that once belonged to spoken word, and there is money and even tenure to be had in slam. For this very reason it must be defined, packaged, and sold as a product.

The universities know slam puts seats in their colleges, and slam is the new academia–the commodified ghost of a folk culture. Great poems come out of slam, but only under the defined limits. You know something is commodified when it is not allowed to flourish outside its own boundaries. Slam is the new academic poetry. it has workshops, coaches, and experts. It confers power and withholds it beyond the secret engines of the folk. This makes me sad. I never became an academic even though I was given a lectureship at a major university. I don’t know how to be an academic. I am not a folk artist by definition, but by accident. Academics refuse to hear any pretty music that isn’t defined by them, and the slammers are fucking just like them. I have no place for any group that refuses to hear music other than their own. They kill art and make it far less dynamic than it could be.

Signs of slams commodity: the agist demographic of 18 to 34 (just like most media) and the emphasis on a look, a style. When this is recognized, there will be senior slam leagues, and everyone will have their fucking niche after they are forced to retire from the 18 to 34 demographic. The money made is not in slamming so much as in touring, and giving workshops–just like academia. There will be slam courses and professors at universities. Spare me the horse shit of slam not being academic. I never had any problem with its unfair judging, or its competition. This was honest dishonesty, and I accept that. What isn’t honest is its pretending to be an alternative to academia. Rigidity and forms of right way and wrong way to slam ARE academic. That’s the very soul of the academic: rules of thumb and theory. That is the very definition of academic.

I think much slam is more competent than the spoken word scene I knew–but it is also more limited and limiting, and the greatness that rises from it won’t stand up because the whole point of commodity art is to make sure only the “standards” stand out. Anyone who does something truly different in slam will get low scores until they can somehow “same” their changes and make the gatekeepers think it was their idea all along. With all this said: I am going to write a full primer for my classes on slam. And it will be a good primer because me and the spoken word artists I knew are the origins of this shit.

I can never hate the Susquehanna, not if it took my last dollar, not if it made me look like a grade z version of some extra who got lost on his lunch break from a remake of The Grapes of Wrath and ended up standing poised against the wrong unforgiving sky. I spent my whole summer fishing, swimming, or mostly just watching the Susquehanna flow by, learned all its browns, and blacks, and greens, and those rare days when it was teal. I took the biggest brown bullhead I’ve ever laid eyes on out of this river, and a blue gill over a pound, and carp over 30. I watched the latterns of John boats pass in the dark and smelled the ghost of my father standing next to me, his old pack of chesterfield kings rolled up in his t shirt, smoke rising from his fresh lit cig, boxer’s muscles flexing as he casted into a long ago river. I cryed out to him through the dark to forgive me for not knowing what it meant to be a father. I told him I failed at everything, and the answer that came back to me on the river was his hand rubbing my red hair for good luck, and his raspy voice saying: “kid, we all fail at everything.”

I have become my father in every way: generous, paranoid, argumentative, quick to get angry, quick to forgive, at ease with children, at war with most of my contemporaries, a story teller, a bull shit artist,in love with the moon and the hours of dusk and dawn, unhappy yet joyous, full of life without ever forgetting or living beyond the sense of death. More hardened by labor, I would look like my dad except his voice box was cut out by my age, and I remember his stoma, and how I had nightmares that someone poured water down his throat and drowned him. When he was younger, and I was a little boy, he had a beautiful voice and he would sing to me Kevin Barry or You’ll Never Walk Alone. He told me stories about snagging suckers at the bottoms of the falls as a kid. it was the dperession and suckers weren’t too bad to eat if you stewed them until their many bones disolved. I guess I think of him whenever I look at a river. The first time he took me fishing, he woke me at 4:30 in the morning. It was also my first full cup of coffee, and we went down to a diner where all the working men ate– steel workers, long shoremen, some guys who worked at GM, my uncle pete from the chem plant. My father was on strike, and it was not his day to picket so he took me fishing. Strikes caused families to go belly up: no money coming in, the men restless and sometimes, if the strike went on too long, listeless, the women rising to take up the slack, my mom suddenly all dressed up to work a department store, or as a secretary. I couldn’t eat my pan cakes and sausage: too excited. First cast I got my line tangled in a big Maple tree, and my dad spent the next half hour untangling the snarl in the reel. I caught a bull head that day–ugly, beautiful slimey fish, its fin cutting me in my thumb and drawing blood. My dad had warned me: “watch his fin kid…he’ll get you good.” My dad rubbed the slime of the fish on my wound, and some cool mud. it took the slight poison out of it and it stopped itching. “The cure for the cat is the cat” he said. Later, he put peroxide and a band aid on the wound, and told me I did good. “You did good, kid.” If my mother had been there, she’d have said: “WELL Rocky, he did well.” And my father would have winked at her and said: ” You did good and well kid.”

All summer I was remembering and forgiving and asking forgiveness of my father. He was on my mind daily. The more I went to the river, the more I thought of him– all those little catfish and carp we caught in the poluted Rahway river of the late 60′s and early 70′s… then the white cats and small stripers on the Hudson river when we visited grandmom Weil, and, finally, after my mother’s death, how my father no longer wanted to go fishing. Fishing made him remember my mother. There was no wife to come home to, to have his grammar and cursing corrected by, no one to admire our fish. I did not know then that mothers are also girlfriends, and lovers, and companions, and my father had been abandoned as a child, raised by his aunt and uncle. My mom was his only real family. When he lost her, we must have reminded him of his loss–how she was gone. Having grown passed my 50 th year, I can forgive him for wanting to die after my mother went into the ground because a part of every one in my family died with my mother. She was what held us together, and although we still loved each other, we stopped being family after the cancer took her.

What can a river take? Everything. Everything will be swept away. The river is an ongoing reclamation and demolition project. It remains by efacing itself every second of every hour. It abraids, erodes, washes, absolves, dooms, drowns, destroys, and gives life to all that surrounds it. it is in us–the memory of our cells. It tells us the loss is in– not of– the loss in things. It is in us, or we are not truly alive. Those who can ignore a river can’t possibly live in the sense I mean. To be truly alive, is to keep one hand on the wheel of death, to see that there is a fall to all to this, a fall we must endure, and before you go over that, you may as well take note of the heron, and the kingfisher, and you ought to love the child wounding his thumb on the bullhead’s fin, and you ought to love the father who takes the cig out of his mouth, and blows one perfect circle of smoke into the night’s air, and says: ” Hey kid, nice fish.”