Monday, September 20, 2010

What I Mean By "B-Grade Poet": Reinvent the Ruler and Sit Your Ass Down to Write

1. Shadow on the Things We Know

Bill Mallonee is a singer/songwriter/guitarist who travels the United States performing in churches, art galleries, living rooms--any small venue where he is invited. I signed up on his email list a couple of years ago after seeing him and his pianist wife Muriah Rose put on a terrific show in Pittsburgh. He's a musician who puts his whole heart into his song lyrics and his show. And like a lot of artists, who have stuck with their deepest calling all these years, he has hit a wall. About a month ago, Mallonee sent his mailing list a very dejected note. I am excerpting some of his email here, because I want to talk about the hazards of measuring an artist's life by the measuring rulers of the rest of society. Here's some of what Bill had to say:

... to tell the truth, I'm having a massive crisis of confidence; It's gone on for over 10 years now. I have relied FAR TOO MUCH on the goodwill and graciousness of you all here on this list;

But it's deeper than a lack of shows. It's about feeling ignored for years now, and kinda feeling cast off. I haven't been able to get inside the "real world" of the industry for quite awhile... I can't seem to make a bare bones living by writing, singing and performing the kinda songs I write. I'm sad and tired.

I knew the risks" involved with the life of being a songwriter. But even when records didn't go that well in the marketplace (I've always gotten "good ink" with 4 and 5 star reviews on my work) I always figured:

"Hey, I'll make a new album, a new set of songs, a new tour...surely SOMETHING will "hit." It was a sort of a "rinse & repeat" formula. But, after 25 albums, 8 EPs and countless songs, I see it's all appearing to be a "fool's errand." The light does seem to shine on other's careers...I can't figure out why it's been so hard for me. 

I never wanted fame or fortune. Just the ability to pay some of my bills... It's all i've done and given my heart to for a long time. I'm proud of all the work and the legacy, especially since the resources have been so meager as of late.

So, today...I awoke feeling stupid for ever having played music in the first place. Self-loathing and feeling irrelevant have always dogged me. So, I'm thinking of just selling almost everything...
~Bill Mallonee

Most artists can relate to this sense of crashing against their own private wall of expectations for where their work should be at any given moment. By middle-age, I think the internalized Greek chorus (Zeus! It's so noisy!) of "why aren't you further along, more well known, have more books (or even a book)/more albums/paintings/fame??" can become deafening. In fact, as you can read in Mallonee's email, it can shut an artist down. Break your spirit. (Mallonee ends this dispiriting email with a list and description of many of his guitars and equipment all up for sale. Nothing worse than an artist selling their "tools.")

Poet on the Lip of the Ledge
I have long been fascinated with the artists who plug away at their craft without much recognition or "reward" (by society's standards and sometimes by their own standards.) I would imagine that being a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, or simply a poet with a few books to her name would be ample "support" from the larger world to keep on going, to push on past the "noisy world" that pays little attention to such labor. It is the poets, who continue writing and writing well--even when they've not yet published a book, even when they can't even think to compete for teaching jobs with the "real"(as in those with two books or more) poets, even when the larger society that pays any attention to poetry at all (and that is a small slice of the population) wouldn't bat an eye if they decided to never write a word again--it is these artists who most fascinate me. And it is not simply because I am one of them ;-) though that does help me to understand some things.

It is something about the tenacity of spirit. The depth of the "calling" (a word I've carried over from my Catholic education, though they only applied this word to those "called" to be nuns or priests...), which demands that they keep on putting words to the page. There is something about this need to narrate the world or construct the inner life with carefully chosen words that is intrinsically beautiful to me, whether it is recognized or not. Something satisfying about being able to "make order" to the chaotic world that is intrinsically beautiful. These poets are, in a way, the "working class" layer of poets (or you could transfer this into painters, musicians, etc.), who get up every day and give themselves reasons to labor at it, despite the drawers full of literary magazine rejections, the readings that keep being booked without you, and on and on...

But, it ain't all romance here: Bills pile up on the dining room table. You watch some amazing people get published (and cheer) and some mediocre people get published because their old teacher at so and so college selected their manuscript in a national contest. (you still cheer after first grumbling. After all, there's room in the world for a million voices, right?) The jobs that have to be taken to make the money often drain a soul of any decent images in her head. the readings you used to constantly do in graduate school have all dried up. You're a writer who wants to be read AND a performer who loves to read her work out loud to the audience, but the 22 year old editors at the magazines can't relate to your style of writing anymore and the 18 year old fresh faces running the readings are asking all their friends to come do their unedited spoken word tomes at the cofffeehouses. But, this is just whining, right? These are the manageable concerns in the bigger picture.

But the thoughts that haunt you in the dead of night, in the hot hazy swampiness of a summer day are what can paralyze you. It's the unspoken , ominpresent fear muttering: You're simply not good enough, otherwise you'd have a book by now. No one wants to read your silly poems--your life is simply not interesting enough/marginal enough/ dysfunctional enough to rate anyone's attention. OR aren't you getting a bit old for this silly dream of book publication? OR the poetry scene has passed you by...or any variation on this theme. Then FEAR takes your computer and puts up your Facebook page so you can wallow in silly status updates and hours of looking at stranger's photographs. FEAR drives you from that chair that Mary Oliver swears you have to sit in each day to "be there" when inspiration strikes. It seduces you, promising that washing dishes or buying a bike rack at Target or throwing the tennis ball for your dog is really a profoundly more important use of time than writing a poem that no one will read anyway.

About the title: Confessions of a B-Grade PoetSo, here's the complicated part: I still DO believe I am a good writer, even better than good when I work at it, even downright inspiring at times, when I really focus and apply myself. I think my work should be in a book and that (as an excellent reader and performer), I should be getting invited to read all over the place. This is not grandiose thinking. Or an over-romanticized view of my poetry life. I think some of my work could have impact if it could get out there. I have been told this at the readings I give: "that poem really made me think/feel/laugh/cry." I have been told this about my chapbook. I have been told by a poet who's won the National Book award and a poet who's won the Pulitizer Prize, and by the wonderful poet Tim Siebles, who I had the pleasure of reading with once in Pittsburgh that I "should have a book. It's crazy you don't have a book yet." And I'm still pursuing this dream. And still have no guarantees that I will get there, wherever "there" may be.

I call this blog "Confessions of a B-Grade Poet," to call attention to this notion of "rulers," those rigid and unforgiving wooden sticks that dictate there is a "here" you should get to (see the solid black line of it?) and shows you how far off you are and continue to be from that designated mark. I named the blog this to call attention to our grading systems and hierarchies, which seem to define this gnawing need of humans to feel "better than" or "superior to" or "one up" from one another. (And how, worst of all, I bought into it--thus feel "one down" when I have not reached the mark.)

I am aware that dear writer friends have written me, with affection and concern, about my "self-deprecating" blog title, some saying lovely supportive things like "You are just an A-grade poet waiting to be discovered" --which of course is lovely to hear, but it doesn't change the reality of it-- or, on the other hand, some viewing the title as a "need to get attention by denigrating my writing."

What I was thinking of with the title was actually the "B-Grade" movies of the 40's, when the movie studios ruled Hollywood and the film industry. And about the film stars we love and will ALWAYS remember because they reached that STAR level-- Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn--both because they WERE talented and compelling at their art and because they were lucky, in the right place at the right time, stars aligned to make them stars.

More importantly, I'm thinking of all the thousands of actors and actresses, who were also talented and good looking and tenacious and hard working, and despite trying their hardest (see Bill Mallonee's message again, above) who never became household names. Yet they acted their whole lives, as character actors or the bit players who were integral to the "reality" being constructed on the screen--secretaries to the lawyers, cab drivers with a few lines to say, detectives who had to populate the scenes but whose names we would never remember even if we were on a game show and big money was riding on our answer. In essence, the supporting players who worked at their art/craft all of their lives and made the STARS able to be stars.

And I love those artists, all the artists who, historically, immersed themselves in this act of creating something new from whatever chosen materials and who did not become names that we will remember. I love them for their passion and energy charging into the world, for their dark nights of yearning for the "big break" that never quite comes. I love them for how they teach the rest of us, as generations proceed to LOVE that part of ourselves which is creative and vital and pays close attention to this crazy world.

The B-Grade Poets don't really need to grade themselves at all. Perhaps they need to make their poetry its own "measure"--a measure as one in music--with its ordered rhythm and timing and notes that beg to sing out into the dark fields. A section of the larger theme, the larger composition. The so-called "B-Grade" poets who, like me, are going to keep on writing no matter what happens because, frankly, my life is fuller and richer and more deeply vital when I write. I am so lucky. So damn rich. I get to approach the world as a poet. I get to make myself crazy with paying such close attention to the deer's dark eye in my winter yard or the icicles lined up in such a lyrical way that I want to strum them like the steel strings on my guitar. This is a lucky thing. I get to love the messy world with all of my heart, even when I get hung up on wanting to "get there," even when I am lost in the thicket of my discouragement.

And for Bill Mallonee, I am sending you love, too, and hoping that your email was just a "dark night of the soul" and that you are right now chugging down a lit highway, heading to a packed art gallery in Spokane, Washington or toward someone's living room full of folding chairs in Madison, Wisconsin, your guitars secure and tuned taut in their dark cases, your fingers itching to be upon the strings again.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Nostalgia Thursday: When all is Upheaval and Change, Still the Natural World and its Ground

The last week I was in Pittsburgh, I had the visceral sensation of ripping myself up by the roots--it felt that rough at times, all the goodbyes to my family of friends--these loved ones--Karen and Steve and their beautiful family, Barbara, Ellen, Raymond, Joy and Rob and Chance, Jeff, Lynn, Bea, Connie, Blake, Casey and Dan, Ellen and Scott, Keely and Amadeo, Rob, Stacey, Jason, Bill, Samantha, Jonathon, Amanda-- the list goes on and on--who had been there for me through everything, who inspired my poetry, who laughed at my silliness and hugged me on the darker days--and I grew frightened over the prospect of "transplanting" myself. As a gardener, I'm very aware that though many flowers will transplant and flourish, no matter what the conditions, there are those plants that go into shock and never quite rally after losing their homeground. (I know that sounds dramatic. If you haven't figured it out from my blog yet, I have a streak of the dramatic in me. ;-) )

As my life has never been what one might call a traditionally "secure" one--not financially, not in terms of the traditional marriage root (route!), not job-wise--I have learned what keeps me sane, rooted, held to this earth. Two things: my art-making and teaching about art and the earth itself, the natural world that reaches out during all of my times of change and upheaval, which breathes deeply in its humid air and blows out stabilizing winds and shows me in countless ways: there are cycles in the world, there are resurrections in nature, there are instincts that override and outlive logic, there is a time, as the bible says, "to sow and a time to reap."

The life of my countless small gardens in Pittsburgh (each one left behind as I moved to new apartments) that continue to live in me. The feathery purple cosmos that outgrew the hedges in my first Northumberland Street apartment, where my son, a 4 year old boy, would play hide and seek with Peter and Zack. The hollyhocks and rose bush growing against the fence in my Ridgeville Street apartment I shared with my son, with R., a man I deeply loved and his huge German Shepherd, Samson. (And there is a mum plant that my son gave me when he was about 10 that still grows and blooms out front of that Ridgeville Street apartment. I walked by it the last week I was in town.) The daisies and butterfly bush in my Friendship apartment that hid my friend Jeff and I as we talked in shaken tones about the horror of planes crashing into and taking down the World Trade Centers that terrible September 11 day. And my colorful sidewalk garden that cheered me every time I walked around the corner of the house I've lived in for the last 4 years.

Each garden continued to teach me in quiet ways: to keep paying attention, to not lose sight of the beauty always offered if one looks, to dig deep, to view roots as sacred things and tend them carefully, to nurture and take care of all the living things (people, animal, plant) that you have taken responsibility for. On some days, the garden was the only slice of world that had any coherence and clarity to it.

During my latest upheaval, two small garden anecdotes: The first was the explosion of monarch and swallowtail butterflies that rode the brutally hot air and delicately walked the orange cones of my coneflowers this past summer. I had nurtured this garden, as I said, for four years. During that time, I was puzzled by the lack of bees and butterflies in my small garden. I had one butterfly in the entire four years. But this summer, all I had to do was walk into the yard and butterflies flitted everywhere. I'm not sure where the sudden burst of butterflies came from this year, whether they thrived in the drought conditions, or were drawn to my yard because of the daily-filled cool water in the birdbath, but they were everywhere: orange monarchs, the swallowtails that looked like shards of sun edged in black, the black butterflies with their royal blue markings.

It does not take a poet to know the symbolism of butterflies as I prepared to leave Pittsburgh: the joyful succession of changes the caterpillar labors through to become the tissue-thin bits of controlled light, who feed for their short lives on the giddy reds, corals and yellows of blossoms. Transformation. The embodiment of turning the low crawler to a soarer in wind. Change. Beauty revealed from a process of labor and isolation (cocooning.)

My friend, Ellen said, "Trust your instincts about this. I think the natural world is sending you a message. And it looks pretty hopeful." Again, nature provided a map of meaning on the days where I wondered, for the thousandth time: "why am I moving, again?"

The last two weeks of living in Pittsburgh, I stole free minutes here and there (away from the packing) and deadheaded the daisies, watered daily the spread of 4 o'clocks, cosmos, coneflowers and balloon flowers on those never-ending 90-degree days. I had my usual visitors--the 4 pairs of cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers and yellow finches still combing the ground for the bags of seed I'd dumped there as a "farewell." I'd already given the feeders and birdbath to dear friends Ellen and Scott by then (and my friends have made me so happy, reporting that their own garden, which pinwheels in dahlias, every subtle shade and nuance of scarlet, orange and violet--is now a continual source of joy to them as they sit outside and watch the "flurry of movement" from the squirrels, birds and chipmunks visiting the new local bird bistro.)

There was something in the act of keeping the garden blooming and flourishing in those last days that never failed to cheer me and steady me. The ground WAS literally my grounding! The slumping new guinea impatiens visibly perked up and stretched striped foliage toward the rose petunias. The 4'oclocks, fainting under the noon sun, suddenly were active climbers on the trellis, keeping the secrets of their yellow and pink blooms until it was time. The yard was, as always, full of wild rabbits, who under the cloak of night, would venture toward the bird seed and eat their fill. The only thing missing was "my" herd of deer, the five that spent winter days, their legs buried in the snow (last winter was a very snowy one) jostling one another to lick the seed out of the feeders.

Until moving day: Sunday, August 29, my former co-worker, Jonathon and his friend Dave came over to move my houseful of boxes and furniture into the back of the U-Haul truck. How lucky I was to have their help--good workers, cheerful and steady, smart and funny--under their strength, the rooms emptied out swiftly. The most strategic "movers" I've ever met, they carefully planned the space each piece would fit into--especially thoughtful about my huge paintings (all the glass, glass, glass) to make sure none would be broken enroute. As we chatted, the guys commented on the "hidden refuge" type feel of my apartment--tucked away on a lovely (dead-end) red-bricked road, a sprawling side lawn, up on a hilltop from Frick Park. I told them about my wildlife visitors, including the deer. And expressed a regret that I wouldn't get to see them again.

Not 20 minutes later, dusk falling and the apartment echoing with lamp light and its own emptiness, Jonathon ran into the space:

"Come outside NOW! You won't believe this."

I followed him out to the UHaul, half afraid that a favorite painting had fallen and shattered on the gravel.

"Look up there." Jonathon pointed toward the hilly backyard. Dave was staring upwards from the truck's interior.

I turned and followed his gaze. Lined up, their white tails visible in the waning sun, were five deer staring down at us. It was growing steadily dark enough that their muzzles were starting to mute into the shadows. We stood gazing at each other--humans and animals-- quietly. I had not seen the herd of deer since March, when the snows finally melted and spring seemed a foregone conclusion-- and there they were all in a row, the two fawns, a step or two behind the older deer, standing still as the crescent moon that began to appear in the sky. I felt so grateful that they'd come to say goodbye. I felt that sense of how solid this orbiting earth felt at that moment, Venus polishing off and swinging under the moon like a woman's pendant, the deer lifting their heads to catch our scent. I was so grateful for their appearance. And then the buck took a leap away, tail flashing and the others followed swiftly into the dark trees beyond.