Yesterday St. Louis Public Radio posted a story called “Politics and Poetry? St. Louis’ next laureate waits in the wings while process is delayed.” Michael Castro, Jane Ellen Ibur, MK Stallings, and Shirley LeFlore are all fine poets hailing from St. Louis. I’ve been on the radio hosting with, or interviewing, all of them on 88.1 KDHX’s “Literature for the Halibut.” I’d consider all of them my friends. You’ll have to check with them how they feel about that though.
While reading this story I couldn’t help be reminded of the old saying “academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” By the way here’s a great blog post by the Quote Investigator about the origin of that one. The story about St. Louis’ literati is both nearly laughable and sad in a lot of ways. It’s almost like an Onion article in that it is written so seriously, so pedantically, when few people at large know or care.
Arguments like these, and readings where a poet who hasn’t spent time on the craft or the delivery talks at the audience for a half an hour, push me away from an art I’ve worked in, and on, for over a decade.
Yet it is National Poetry Month and that still stirs something in me. Early this month I went to Adrian Matejka’s reading for his new book Map to the Stars at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. This reading, through the preparation he took with his text and with his presentation, reminded me why I have spent so much of my life with this art. You can listen to him read the title poem here.
Here are three poems that always remind me why poetry matters:
Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”
Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”
Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”
Each of these poems captures a moment in time in a few words on a single page, and they all fuse images with music. Maybe this is worth arguing about after all.
John Keats had a Grecian urn, the Beats had Charlie Parker’s horn, and Run DMC had their Adidas. All of these poets were using a time-tested approach to writing the kind of thing that people want to read. They were not caught up in the self-importance or preciousness that sometimes distracts the well-meaning poet. They were doing ekphrasis, or responding to art.
This technique allows a poet to get outside themselves, using ekphrasis as a vehicle to write something that transcends their own personal experience. By pointing to a piece of sculpture, a jazz album, or a pair of shell toes and beginning the discussion there a reader has context. Frequently this is missing in poetry. Often times a poet, when reading aloud has to do a lot of “banter” to try and give context for a poem. That stuff should be in the poem.
When a poem has no context outside the poet’s own head, when they haven’t crafted it considering the fact that others will be listening to it or reading it, one is left with an experience of someone telling you their dreams. Few people really want to hear about your dreams. Good friends and significant others might be, or might be willing to suffer through it. But there’s a reason psychiatrists can charge over a hundred dollars an hour to listen to this crap. Don’t subject people to this kind of thing unless you’re going to help them move, you’re sleeping with them, or you’re handing out Benjamins.
However people love stories. People love to hear how you tried to climb a mountain and failed. People love to hear how you talked your way into a gig you were not ready for and what you did to stay one step ahead of your boss. People love to hear how you convinced someone clearly out of your league to go home with you. People love to hear about how you got diarrhea in while on an all day Pablo Escobar themed bus tour of Medellin, Columbia. People love to hear you write about something they already love. That’s why fanfiction is so popular. People love to hear someone get up in front of people and say some cool shit. Ekphrasis is a way to do that.
One of the best examples of a book length work of ekphrasis is Natasha Tretheway’s Belloq’s Ophelia. Tretheway’s work imagines the life of a prostitute who was photographed by E.J. Bellocq in New Orleans during the early 1900s. The poems are full of brilliant images, syncopation, and frequently push at the edges of what’s expected of a sonnet. I was lucky enough to meet Tretheway in DC a few years ago. She had already won a Pulitzer Prize by that point but she wasn’t yet the Poet Laureate of the country. Here’s a photo of that meeting taken by Megan Hudgins.
And just to show I that I walk the walk, here is a link to a poem I wrote responding to The Walking Dead, it’s called “Almost the Last Man on Earth.”
Part One: Beats as Dirtbags
When I first read the Beats I was drawn to the centrifugal force of the writers themselves, their nonstop train hopping, tea smoking, apple pie eating, and stream of consciousness talk.
The books and writing they did were almost secondary in terms of why I was drawn to them. The world Jack Kerouac described in On the Road, while exotic to a kid in southern Illinois, was one I could approximate on a Saturday night. I couldn’t do that with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. You can’t find a good harpoon in the bi state area. This is the naiveté of trying to live out the literature. But, I was a college freshman after all.
The Beats were clearly on our minds when one summer two friends and I took off from St. Louis to New York and all the way up into Canada. We didn’t even need passports back then. We had little money, and mostly slept in tents or the car. The next summer even more of us took off in a old Buick for San Francisco. We stopped in front of City Lights Books for this photo taken by Parker Schmitt.
Much of what I learned from the Beats I have since cast aside. For years I called myself a writer and wrote very little. I spent most of my time talking about writing, or drinking. I read a lot of books. I wore a lot of black clothes. It was the pose of a writer that I learned from that iconic cover and the text itself of On the Road. The photo of Neal Cassady on the left and Kerouac on the right was taken by Carolyn Cassady. Somehow the myth that artists and writers can get away with being lousy human beings is all wrapped up with the Beats in my mind. But maybe their greatest legacy is about being a different kind of dirtbag.
I’m no monk. But I have written three pages or more everyday for more than ten years now. I can notice now that there’s nothing so compelling in Neal Cassidy’s stories about being married to one woman on the east coast and another on the west coast. Or at least there’s nothing more compelling in this than what you would find on any daytime TV show. This is not all the Beats fault. If I didn’t learn it from them, I could have learned it from Charles Baudelaire or Jackson Pollack.
However, the Beats were right about some things. There is a nuanced understanding of past-present tense issues, and other improvisational things to be learned from the writing, the sentences, and the lines themselves. There’s more going on there than meets the eye. They were also right about jazz and Buddhism.
The Beats were, according to some literary critics, the first literary movement to name themselves. This was a genius move. And as William Burroughs said: “Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levis to both sexes. Woodstock rises from his pages.” The hipster aesthetic they created is still being used today. They weren’t selling books. They were selling a lifestyle.
Most of all, the Beats were right about getting outside, going on the road, and working whatever job it takes to get there. In the community of outdoor enthusiast (hikers, mountaineers, snowboarders, and so on) the word dirtbag is a term of endearment. A dirtbag is a person who owns little, works just enough to have the gear, and nourishment to get to the next adventure.
Kerouac calls them “rucksack wanderers” in The Dharma Bums. He may have been thinking about various wandering monks from Japan when he wrote that. But this is as good a definition of dirtbag as I’ve seen anywhere, and it comes from Dharma Bums:
“See the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures.”
Recently Outside published an article about how hikers and hunters need to stick together if we are to protect our federal lands.
The article cites Mark Kenyon, a hunter who writes about what hunters and hikers can learn from each other on his blog, puts it this way: “Whether you tote a gun or a snowboard, these places matter to all of us.” Check out Kenyon’s post “3 Lessons Hunters Can Learn From John Muir.”
Today the American government in a perilous state. Our national parks and public lands are in jeopardy. The politics at play have divided people who have much more in common with each than they do with the politicians and lobbyist. In the spirit of that article, we could do well to read Aldo Leopold.
I grew up in southern Illinois on the prairie and in the hills of reclaimed strip mines. The picture above is from the front porch of my childhood home. While I’m not a hunter now, I’m not opposed to it. From the time I was eight until I was fourteen I went fishing nearly every clear, warm day. The outdoorsmen I knew growing up had a reverence for the woods that I had a hard time understanding as a kid. The nintendo entertainment system might part of the problem. I might not have appreciated all that those hunters, fishermen, and scoutmasters had to say back then, but I heard them. And those seeds grew. They would have felt at ease with old Leopold.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold channels outdoorsmen of lore as he hikes, hunts, fishes, cultivates crops, and plants trees on his farm in Wisconsin. Though the blurb pulled from the San Francisco Chronicle places Aldo Leopold along side with the likes of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, Leopold’s writing might be more necessary today than those other two. Leopold, unlike Muir, and Thoreau, considered himself to be a hunter.
I’m a big fan of John Muir’s writing and a member of the Sierra Club which he founded. Muir’s ability to find the macro in the micro is always compelling to me: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” However I know that there are some folks who won’t relate to him as well as they would to Leopold.
Thoreau, I feel more mixed emotions about. He was a lifelong virgin, and that’s something I just don’t trust. However Thoreau’s central question of “how many hours of your life do you want to trade for a necktie” is more important now than ever. I hesitate to think of how much of my life I’ve traded for all the hiking gear I’ve bought in the last year.
Leopold like Muir can imbue the micro with the macro: “Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example one need be neither god or nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say; Let there be a tree–and there will be one.” This is an emphatic way to look at the world. And more gets done this way than by sitting around singing kumbaya.
Leopold is even more honest when he acknowledges that we are animals who eat animals and that going out into the woods was not originally done as a recreational activity. He also appreciates the skill and chance involved in hunting down one’s own dinner: “It was a swinging shot of the sort the partridge-hunter dreams about, and the bird tumbled dead in a shower of feathers and golden leaves.”
So I haven’t been at my desk much lately. I’ve been writing, but it’s been in on yellow legal pad and not on a computer. I’ve been outside in the woods, deserts, and mountains for a while. I’ve hiked many miles in far flung places from Alaska to the Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande at the edge of Texas. I’ve lost over 50lbs since I last put up a blog post. Just weeks ago I was out in Arches National Park. I’m back with many stories.
But today I want to champion stories that others have written. Maybe they’ll inspire you to get outside as well. Outside Magazine has a pretty damn good reading list here for anyone looking to learn more about the wilderness. My favorites listed here are Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods, and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.
Much of Bryson’s humor comes from the foil of his buddy Katz as Bryson himself plays the straight man. Katz gets lost and when he makes his way back to Bryson, he says: “To tell you the truth, I’ve never been so glad to see another person in my whole life, and that includes some naked women.”
Krakauer’s book is one I just finished yesterday, and I’ll be writing more about that book shortly. But the Christopher McCandless as described in the book was less annoying and more human than the film version led me to believe. And though I’m not positive I’d get along with McCandless if I’d have met him in person, I can relate to the wanderlust he was filled with, according to Krakauer: “The trip was to be an odyssey in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything.”
Two books not listed that inform my thinking about hiking and spending time in the wilderness are Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Strayed’s book wasn’t published when that list came out. And McCarthy’s is a post apocalyptic novel about a boy and his dad walking and scavenging the wasted gray landscape with all their meager positions in tow, but it still sounds like hiking to me.
So my office hours passed without a student in site. That’s how it goes. But I wasn’t doing as well as usual at Tetris. That got me down. More than it should have. Good thing my former WIU colleague, Jennifer McGaha, just published this about fighting the February blues.
You don’t need a black belt to do it, but any exercise helps. McGaha also suggests cutting back on negative news. She doesn’t suggest burying your head in the sand, but I know I’ve made things worse by reading too much Chompsky from time to time. Other tips: Call, text and hang out with the funnest people you know and the yeasayers.
From the library’s press release:
WIU’s own Jason Braun will bring monsters to the library this October. On Wednesday, October 28th, Braun will read from original poems featuring Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster, Faust, The Walking Dead, The Reanimator’s cadre of corpses, and other beasts. The reading will take place in Room 180 of Malpass Library and is free and open to the public.
Jason Braun teaches English at Western Illinois University. He has published fiction, poetry, essays, reported or been featured in Prime Number, ESPN, Squalorly, The Nashville City Paper, The Evergreen Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Riverfront Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many more.
Some examples of the kinds of things I’ll be reading:
Here’s a poem set in the beginning of season two of The Walking Dead. It’s about love, loneliness, and well living during a zombie apocalypse.
Here’s another love poem, written from the perspective of the Swamp Thing. I’m sure you’ve seen hundreds of those, so don’t bother clicking this link.
Before there was Dr. Frankenstein there was another doctor selling his soul for science. His name was Dr. Faust or the more German, Dr. Faustus. Here’s a song I wrote about him with a little help from my friends. https://jasonandthebeast.bandcamp.com/track/faust