For New York, it’s an intimate-but-not-in-an-unpleasant-way venue. Bar, a few tables, a stage, good but not overly-imposing-or-meaning-to-impress atmosphere. The amps weren’t too loud. I was as close as possible – close – and the sound was right, and I could hear all the words.
After a day shuttling between medicine, public health, and poetry contexts, with many, many subways and miles of walking in-between, I re-learned what it means to be an artist.
If I have a favorite musician – a singular one, one who is alive and performing and now, and who is not so very well-known or widely-played to be obvious – it’s her.
And it’s been her for the past decade – little more than. A friend gave me Smashing the Serene in the fall of 2001. It’s technically Rachael’s second CD, but it was my first. As I told her tonight (crazy, idolizing fan like I’m the crazy, idolizing fan with some of my poets): “I realized that I’ve had a relationship with your music for over a decade, now. That’s longer than with most of the people I know.”
It’s true. That’s formative years (aren’t they all?) Music, good music, can be both background and foreground. One of the four options (she gave) for her last/encore song was the first Rachael Sage song I ever heard. (“Sistersong,” Smashing the Serene). I know the words to that one and to many others. And the ones she sang that I’ve heard – but not memorized – brought the same knowing smile of familiarity, triggering memory and attachment.
That’s what it means to be an artist.
That’s what you want it to mean, to be an artist… to mean something. To get to be part of someone else’s story, in a way, to have given and shared that gift.
It’s the same with poets. Cyrus Console read a section from a book I love. I hadn’t memorized, not by a long-shot, but I was familiar enough with the words that they were little triggers. Anytime I go to a reading and someone reads a piece I love. Poets publish CDs, sometimes, of themselves reading. (see: Li-Young Lee, Behind My Eyes). There’s an art to that, to reading – and learning how to read (out-loud) poetry was an important part of my poetic education.
For any show, musicians have to include songs that are “known” with the new ones. Would we be…disgruntled otherwise? Maybe. But you can best, I suppose, develop a relationship with the new pieces through segue with the old ones. The nostalgia (and the triumph!) for older ones, knowing-the-words-ones, isn’t just for the piece itself but for whatever particularity it evokes.
Whatever life it has taken on, now, for the listener. Everyone owns a little piece, and each piece is now different. Poets often read from both published books and new, unpublished poems. (fiction writers – same. etc, etc). For the artist, it’s part of trying out the piece – does it work with an audience, what does it sound like in that context, etc, etc.
One of the best things about poets is that when you tell them you’re skipping out on a social event to go write – they not only understand but are excited for you. If it’s urgent, too, that means the Martians/muses/whatever are visiting, now, and something might be happening or about to happen. This happens to all of us, planned or unplanned. Poet-in-tandem, poet-interlocutor days. And poets-need-to-be-alone days. After a friend’s reading, one night, I told her she’d inspired me to write, and that I had to go home and do so. It was true – and I knew, too, that it was a gift to tell her that. The best response to a reading you can have, she said.
More recently, I sent a poem(s) to my workshop, for them to read before we met. One poet/friend replied to my email, saying the poems made her want to write again.
That’s an incredible thing to say to a writer, and from a writer who knows what it means.
I had written most of a piece about art school versus grad school, and what it’s like to be in art school, and … I’ll finish that soon. Later. Also. I’d been thinking about the process – and all of it is a process. More like a continuum. Like a day of medicine-public health-poetry.
At a health policy colloquium at a medical school, today, a Distinguished Professor introduced the speaker with the biography she’d given him and a little ad-libbing. “...where she majored in English. . .which is extremely related to medicine…” I would have been annoyed, had the colloquium coordinator not already told me that the D.P. supported and was very interested in people doing medicine and humanities. (He was less eloquent, later, “My son-in-law is a poet!”)
At Poets House, later today. As the library was closing, and I was leaving, one of the staff (whom I’ve met before) came over to chat. He’s also a poet. I had the Collected of Wallace Stevens on the table, as well as Nerve Squall, by Sylvia Legris. He asked about the latter. “Oh…she writes using a lot of science, often botany, here fish and birds…a friend recommended her because I write a lot using medicine.” He nodded. Picking up the Stevens, he commented on how part of what he really likes about Stevens is that. . . poetry is one of the things he does, he’s not an academic poet, not trying to participate in the academic discourse of what poetry is, who, etc…(It’s funny to note that people often refer to Stevens as “an insurance salesman.” He was a lawyer who worked for an insurance company. Odd). I don’t know a lot about Stevens, but he did write about poetics, as well, some critical essays – but not much compared to his contemporaries.
He went on to talk about poets who aren’t also English PhDs and who just. . .write…and do something else, too. How he likes/appreciates them. We talked about a few other writers. Then – “what’s your background? undergrad? did you major in…medicine?”
And thus I reveal myself as aspiring to be, perhaps, a poet like one he admires – not-academic-but-that’s-okay.
Another poet/friend, today. We were discussing (“interlocuting”) what it’s like to write, for each of us, where poems come from, how they do, what we’re doing with them, what we’re reading and how that influences things…etc.
He said, “Being a poet sometimes feels like being a homeless person, when you never know where you’re going to sleep next/next meal is going to come from…”
It’s a curious analogy, but I think it’s okay because it’s not actually referencing or alluding to starving artists. Also not comparing the difficulty of either situation; more, I think, speaking to the unpredictability/ seeming lack of agency. I think. You don’t know where the next poem (or other artistic inspiration) is coming from, or when, or if. (With time, the anxiety of the “if” has lessened. A lot).
The “if,” though, has little remedies. Read poetry. Go to readings. It will come. For the ones giving the readings, then, it’s a gift they’re offering. Hoping, in fact, that will take, that anyone will take. If it’s a good reading, an amazing reading, I’m either writing lines down, madly scribbling ideas for my own new pieces, completely stunned and entranced by the reading, or I can’t find my pen and notebook. Any of the four are possible. (also – it’s not just the good readings that give ideas. In truth).
With another poet-friend of mine, after a reading we attended last week: he said he’d liked the second-to-last poet best. “The ones about high school.” (that writer is a high school teacher). “Oh...I don’t remember those very well…then again, that’s when I was writing the most, so I guess that means they were good?”
To a writer.
If someone is writing, they are thanking you.
If someone will remember your words next week and not be quite sure where they came from, they are thanking you.
If someone will put your line in a poem in a year and have no idea they didn’t write the line, they are thanking you.
If someone will need to read your book, they are thanking you.
If someone will pass that book on to another person, they are thanking you.
If someone will write now, tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, in a year or in ten, they are thanking you.
Being an artist isn’t all about the art. The art comes from somewhere. It goes to somewhere. And you get to be the tenuous hands that have a part in that connection.
Why do you care about publishing, I’ve been asked. (“Why have a blog” is a similar/same question – or, actually, these days, I suppose we could debate the relative differences with other forms of publishing…) It’s sure as hell not altruistic to be an artist and to want to exhibit/publish your work. But even paintings should live off museum walls, and there’s a difference between printed impressions and the physical object. It’s what you see, how it makes you feel then and later.
If one person reads and wants to write, if one person uses a line of mine, if one person uses a line of mine, many years from now, because it’s been stuck inside them that long and they have no idea where it came from.
If one person thinks I must have written about exactly what happened to them, because it is what it means. If one person connects to a poem, thinks about it later, keeps it, somehow, is reminded about it by an experience that happens later.
If one person remembers reading my book and what happened at that time. If they reread the book (!!) and different things are more and less poignant, more and less meaningful.
(it’s poetry, it was never going to be about the money. Though the publications and the prizes and the fame and the money and the bookstores and the…would be nice…)
…red’s the only honest color, after all, we’re flesh and blood…”
- Rachael Sage, “Crack of Dawn” Smashing the Serene