I moved back to New York City nearly 20 years ago. I packed all of my belongings into a small rented moving truck and drove north from the sprawl of suburban Atlanta to the sprawl of New York City. It was early November when I arrived at my mother’s house in suburban Briarcliff. The trees rained yellow leaves like gold vermillion onto the damp, black streets.
I came to New York to find literary fame and fortune and I’m still fighting the good fight. My enemies are my own laziness and self-doubt and the regular pressures of needing to make a living and feed a family. I have friends who no longer write and are comfortable in their day jobs. I have friends who have found great success as writers and published books. They make me green with envy sometimes but I can’t scream that things are unfair: they worked hard and have been more on the ball than I’ve been when it comes to managing a career.
I sometimes doubt my abilities to put words to the ideas coursing through our lives that will move people and help them see themselves in greater things. I sometimes doubt my odds in gaining success in the creative field and rising to the esteemed literary heights so widely celebrated.
What I do not doubt is my love of creativity and burning need to produce good work. I am confident in my connection to the orgiastic madness that powers the human animal and makes our Gotham such a powerful crucible. I will never question my love of truth and the embrace of human kind’s true carnal nature. I will never surrender my ability to be a black flame helping fellow travelers navigate the cold dark realities of an indifferent world.
Art and creativity make life worth living; it’s how we express the truth of human existence as we struggle to understand it and find our place in the world. I have been very fortunate to have friends who have helped me indulge in reading James Dickey on whiskey-soaked nights in the sultry summer night of Georgia, friends who have written poems that have been turned into songs and that can still bring tears to my eyes to this day, and friends who held Burns Night parties complete with haggis where the party would come to a dead stop to read from the Bard of Scotland.
As I struggled to get a handle on writing fiction, I continued to write and publish poems, and my earliest successes have been with publishing poetry. I have come to the realization that I may be better at writing poems than writing fiction or non-fiction and that I at least owe the form more time and attention than I have been giving it. Poems can be written quickly and can express an idea in its rawest form. It can inspire by telling a narrative story or not. Either way it echoes in the hearts of the reader who feels inspired to do great things. I lapsed in recent years in writing them but I have recently redoubled my efforts to write poetry every night. Last year I also starting finishing and publishing one poem per week through Impolite Literature’s Web site.
This national poetry month, join me in reading poetry, in understanding that poetry is the testament of our civilization. The future will judge the worthiness of our times by our art and literature as much as by our wars and monuments.
I hope to raise an army of warrior poets, to make poetry part of the life of blood and iron that defines our existence on Earth. Join me in making our world great by insisting poetry be a part of it. I stand with sword-pen in hand.
This past Friday I had a work meeting to go to even though I was officially off from work. I had no one to blame but myself. I set up the meeting and I hadn’t realized that our office was closed that day. But it was an important lunch and it fit everyone’s schedule, so it was less of a hassle to see the thing through.
It was a work lunch at the Algonquin Round Table Restaurant, site of the famous Algonquin Round Table group that rose to prominence in the 1920s around a nucleus of writers and editors that included Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wolcott, The New Yorker editor Harold Ross and others.
If the event went well it was all good and fine but if it didn’t go well it was trouble at work for me. I put on a suit and tie and rode the subway into Manhattan with nervous apprehension.
I was early in getting to Grand Central Terminal on the 7 train. Whenever I’m at Grand Central Terminal I rarely need to go through the large central hall but I can’t resist doing it. Even when it is crowded with travelers and teeming with tourists, it’s a crime to be so close to such a beautiful room and not go in it. So I walked into the room and took up a spot along an unused portion of counter at an unused ticket window, where soldiers stood at patrol and tourists stood with cameras or huddled over cluttered luggage.
To look at me in my dapper suit, raincoat and hat, one would think that I had some important financial reports or lucrative financial plans in my carrying case. But since I was due to go to a Blackout Shoppers rehearsal after the lunch, my briefcase contained an instrument cable for a guitar (in my case bass guitar) and a tuner. It also had a notebook for poetry.
I fished out my notebook and scribbled a messy draft of a poem, “Impostor” there in the main hall of Grand Central. I felt like I was some secret poetry agent making some kind of illicit blueprint. My outfit screamed that I was a self-important financial person or lawyer but really I was a scatterbrained poet longing for leisure and rest.
But not to let anyone be the wiser, I quickly concluded my sweet soul arson, packed up and moved along.
I got to the Algonquin Hotel early and found our round table waiting for us. I stood waiting in the lobby of the Algonquin, under the watchful eye of s caricature of Dorothy Parker, and met people for the lunch.
The lunch went very well and I sat through it all politely, in some small way hoping no one caught on that I book-ended my lunch meeting with poetry and punk rock. Then again, I had no way of knowing the secret artistic endeavors of all of my lunch mates. No doubt some of them were heading on to sneak in some good works that will ignite great imaginations and destroy the corrupt worlds of succubae. That’s part of the beauty of living in the world and keeping a professional bearing at all appropriate times: you may be daydreaming about sex with supermodels, time traveling or what would happen if you mated Michael Phelps with an orangutan, but everyone around you is having similarly inventive dreams. Count on it.
When Walt Whitman wrote “I contain multitudes,” in his poem “Song of Myself” he was speaking for all of us in a way. We’re all the impostor in one instance or another, we all have different selves that we find most comforting and most appropriate at different times.
The trick is not to hate any one element of yourself but to embrace them all. Be that guy at the fancy lunch and act like you belong there. Play that ruckus music until you make someone’s ears bleed. Live you live by the spitfire lines of mad, mad poetry, cavort with all manner of hearty souls and don’t look back.
In New York, no one is really any more of an impostor than anyone else.
Years ago, before I returned to New York, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I had no real plan and to be honest my ambitions have languished at various times. But it’s long overdue that I stepped up my efforts to make waves in the world of fiction as I have long planned, and my effort comes at a time when more writers than ever are fighting to reclaim literature for the real world.
Like other parts of the art world, what is considered literature is often the judgment of a well-heeled clique of self-dealing academics. They feed on the dreams of earnest young writers and take them to the cleaners after convincing them that they need a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) to be considered a serious writer.
The MFA programs churn out many hopeful and aspiring writers, and many of them are excellent. But when I look back on the great writers that I admire, none of them made their bones in an academic program, but by scrapping out a living in the real world. The academic journals and programs have a choke-hold on what gets considered literature at the moment, though history will offer a different opinion.
Either way, the current system of academic literature has never been in greater need of a hard kick in its well-powdered derriere. And getting books published at all often requires knowing the right people and getting the right agent.
The Internet has helped writers working outside of this established universe to be heard and even make some money off of their writing. I am honored to know people like Darren Pillsbury, who has more courage than just about anyone I know and moved to California to pursue his dreams as a screenwriter. He wound up excelling in online publishing and is best known for his ‘Peter and the Vampire’ series. He gave me some great advice on how to publish things online. I probably violated plenty of his advice when I put a short story on Amazon and charged too much money for it, but I did it to figure out how to do it.
I’ve been too long avoiding pursuing literary ambitions in earnest because I’ve busied myself with other creative things. In some way they’ve all made me a better writer and a better person. Being in a punk rock band demonstrated that a key to any success is finding good creative people to join you. No one wants to listen to me play bass lines on my own, but I was lucky enough to have excellent collaborators in Blackout Shoppers. Doing comedy showed how not all audiences will respond the same way to the same material. A joke that kills at one gig bombs at another. The key is remembering you have the microphone and pressing on.
The right niche for success likely lies in the more comic short stories that I write. I love writing them and people enjoy reading them. I don’t know how marketable that is. Short fiction doesn’t make much money these days, but so what? I’ve mastered the art of excelling at art forms that are money losers at their core. As one of my excellent musician friends said, “We are middle-aged men with an expensive hobby.”
For a long time I attempted to write what I thought would be what literary types wanted to read, but in reality even moody literary types want to read something interesting. My stories feature people shitting themselves to death, loaning a family member’s corpse out to necrophiliacs, and taking part in operations to kill Islamic militants with Ebola on their toast. I have not done any of these things, but they are more compelling subject matter than most of what passes for literature today. I think I manage to make these stories into literature that will stand the test of time, but even if you don’t think it is art, at least it’s damn interesting.
Too many people, in art and in life, do what they think they are supposed to be doing instead of what is right for them to do. It’s not right for me to try to write weepy sensitive stories about people coming to terms with their emotions. I’d rather write about people saving White Castle from terrorists or punk rock bands doing battle with crack head zombies.
So Monday, Feb. 16 I will be reading a short story at the debut Short Story Open Mic at The Cobra Club in Brooklyn. It is hosted by my good friend Phill Lentz, who lives the mad literary life of music art, blood, sweat and tears. I am honored to be the featured reader.
The reading is a competition. Writers pay $5 and the winner gets the whole pot. The crowd gets to vote on their favorite writer, with drink tickets being used for votes. You could rig the whole thing if you bring enough hard-drinking friends, but it’s still a more fair literary competition than what the academic journals are offering.
So if you have a short story that you can read aloud in five minutes or less, join us at The Cobra Club and put your work out there on the line. You will be living a truly literary life. Be bold.